Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Little People: A Fantastic Thread [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

History has a strange way of inspiring horror writers. In the records of the Romans there is mention of a strange race that lived in the British Isles before the Celts. Their name was simply the Picts, meaning "picture," for they were heavily tattooed. "The Picts of Galloway" supposedly intermingled with the Gaels, but to a writer of terror tales the idea that these people, and others like them, should go underground and become the inspiration for "The Little People" of legend is too tempting.

The first to grab onto the idea of this primitive and secret survival was Welsh writer, Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Machen liked to imagine that under the bucolic green hills of Wales, terrible and evil things lurked. Amongst these were savage creatures that once ruled the world. He wrote three stories about them that appeared in the same year. The first, "The Red Hand" (Chapman’s Magazine, Christmas 1895) has Dyson, Machen's occult detective of sorts, exploring a grisly murder committed with a primitive, prehistoric axe that hints at the creatures who wield it:
‘My dear fellow, I am sorry to say I have completely failed. I have tried every known device in vain. I have even been so officious as to submit it to a friend at the Museum, but he, though a man of prime authority on the subject, tells me he is quite at fault. It must be some wreckage of a vanished race, almost, I think — a fragment of another world than ours. I am not a superstitious man, Dyson, and you know that I have no truck with even the noble delusions, but I confess I yearn to be rid of this small square of blackish stone. Frankly, it has given me an ill week; it seems to me troglodytic and abhorred.’
"The Novel of the Black Seal" (The Three Imposters, 1895) provides another artifact, a black rock with weird writing:
We had dined without candles; the room had slowly grown from twilight to gloom, and the walls and corners were indistinct in the shadow. But from where I sat I looked out into the street; and as I thought of what I would say to Francis, the sky began to flush and shine, as it had done on a well-remembered evening, and in the gap between two dark masses that were houses an awful pageantry of flame appeared—lurid whorls of writhed cloud, and utter depths burning, grey masses like the fume blown from a smoking city, and an evil glory blazing far above shot with tongues of more ardent fire, and below as if there were a deep pool of blood. I looked down to where my brother sat facing me, and the words were shaped on my lips, when I saw his hand resting on the table. Between the thumb and forefinger of the closed hand there was a mark, a small patch about the size of a sixpence, and somewhat of the colour of a bad bruise. Yet, by some sense I cannot define, I knew that what I saw was no bruise at all; oh! if human flesh could burn with flame, and if flame could be black as pitch, such was that before me. Without thought or fashioning of words grey horror shaped within me at the sight, and in an inner cell it was known to be a brand. For the moment the stained sky became dark as midnight, and when the light returned to me I was alone in the silent room, and soon after I heard my brother go out.
In "The Shining Pyramid" (The Unknown World, May 15, 1895), Machen finally gives us a vivid description of the humanoids that worship the Pyramid:
It did, in truth, stir and seethe like an infernal cauldron. The whole of the sides and bottom tossed and writhed with vague and restless forms that passed to and fro without the sound of feet, and gathered thick here and there and seemed to speak to one another in those tones of horrible sibilance, like the hissing of snakes, that he had heard. It was as if the sweet turf and the cleanly earth had suddenly become quickened with some foul writhing growth. Vaughan could not draw back his face, though he felt Dyson's finger touch him, but he peered into the quaking mass and saw faintly that there were things like faces and human limbs, and yet he felt his inmost soul chill with the sure belief that no fellow soul or human thing stirred in all that tossing and hissing host. He looked aghast, choking back sobs of horror, and at length the loathsome forms gathered thickest about some vague object in the middle of the hollow, and the hissing of their speech grew more venomous, and he saw in the uncertain light the abominable limbs, vague and yet too plainly seen, writhe and intertwine, and he thought he heard, very faint, a low human moan striking through the noise of speech that was not of man. At his heart something seemed to whisper ever "the worm of corruption, the worm that dieth not," and grotesquely the image was pictured to his imagination of a piece of putrid offal stirring through and through with bloated and horrible creeping things. The writhing of the dusky limbs continued, they seemed clustered round the dark form in the middle of the hollow, and the sweat dripped and poured off Vaughan's forehead, and fell cold on his hand beneath his face.
HG Wells (1866-1946) needs mention here. He did not use this idea of ancient creatures for he had little interest in the past. He was a futurist. Despite this, one of his stories seems to have influenced later writers in conjunction with the Little People idea. The story in question was "The Time Machine" (National Observer serial, 1894) and his underground dwelling Morlocks.

In Wells' story these white-skinned cannibals are the future of the suppressed proletariat, living in their machine-run depths. Wells is careful to describe the Morlocks only in snatches, making them more mysterious. “A pair of eyes, luminous by reflection against the daylight without, was watching me out of the darkness... I put out my hand and touched something soft. At once the eyes darted sideways, and something white ran past me. I turned with my heart in my mouth, and saw a queer little ape-like figure, its head held down in a peculiar manner, running across the sunlit space...” The man from the present plumbs their dark tunnels and just barely escapes their cold, wicked plans. This image of the man trapped in the dark, armed only with a light and a solid metal bar has fused with Machen's vision of evil survivals.

Robert E Howard (1906-1936) was the writer who really brought these two together, though he was not the last. Howard's first venture into the world of the Little People was an open pastiche of Machen called "The Little People" (Coven 13, January 1970). This early tale, written in the 1920s, suffers from poor mechanics. The hero, tells his sister the lengthy history of the Little People, after perusing a copy of "The Shining People" by Machen. Later these very creatures invade their home where the narrator gives this description:
"Now I was almost upon those who barred my way. I saw plainly the stunted bodies, the gnarled limbs, the beady reptilian eyes that stared unwinkingly, the grotesque, square faces with their inhuman features, and the shimmer of flint daggers in their crooked hands..."
The narrator dives in for a Howard-sized fight, but the creatures find and attack his sister. Only the sudden appearance of a white-bearded druid saves them from the Little People. This tale contains many of the elements that will later appear in the much better constructed tales of Bran Mak Morn and Conan.

"The Children of the Night" (Weird Tales, April/May 1931) sets up several of Howard's themes for his Little People stories, the first being degeneration and the second: reincarnation. One of Conrad and Kirowan's friends, John O'Donnell, has a strange vision while visiting the occult investigators. He sees himself in the past as Aryara of the Sword People, an ancient Celt, who encounters the Little People and falls fighting them. Upon waking, O'Donnell attacks Ketrick, one of the guests, for he has Serpent blood:
But Ketrick: to me the man always seemed strangely alien. It was in his eyes that this difference showed externally. They were a sort of amber, almost yellow, and slightly oblique. At times, when one looked at his face from certain angles, they seemed to slant like a Chinaman’s. Others than I had noticed this feature, so unusual in a man of pure Anglo-Saxon descent. The usual myths ascribing his slanted eyes to some pre-natal influence had been mooted about, and I remember Professor Hendrik Brooler once remarked that Ketrick was undoubtedly an atavism, representing a reversion of type to some dim and distant ancestor of Mongolian blood–a sort of freak reversion, since none of his family showed such traces.
Howard's dated racism can be offensive today, but within the context of the story O'Donnell would prefer any human of any color or creed over the few humans who still carry the taint of the Little People.

Howard would return to his version of the degraded half-breed creatures in several stories, the best of which was "The Worms of the Earth" (Weird Tales, November 1932). To make things even more interesting, Howard has the Picts, dark warriors living under the Roman radar as well as these even earlier creatures that the Picts displaced. Howard's Worms are half-human hybrids with the evil Serpent Men of ancient times, another lost race that once ruled the world. Bran Mak Morn, the king of the Picts, enters the Worms' tunnels (shades of Wells) to steal their sacred relic and force them to do his bidding:
And he came at last into a vast space where he could stand upright. He could not see the roof of the place, but he got an impression of dizzying vastness. The blackness pressed in on all sides and behind him he could see the entrance to the shaft from which he had just emerged--a black well in the darkness. But in front of him a strange grisly radiance glowed about a grim altar built of human skulls. The source of that light he could not determine, but on the altar lay a sullen night-black object--the Black Stone!
Howard wrote of the Worms again in "Valley of the Lost" (Magazine of Horror, Summer 1966), a tale set during the Texas feuds of the 19th Century. Little John Reynolds is fleeing the McCrills when he takes refuge in the valley where the Little People hide. He spies the strange inhabitants:
It was not their dwarfish figures which caused his shudder, nor even the unnaturally made hands and feet–it was their heads. He knew, now, of what race was the skull found by the prospector. Like it, these heads were peaked and malformed, curiously flattened at the sides. There was no sign of ears, as if their organs of hearing, like a serpent’s, were beneath the skin. The noses were like a python’s snout, the mouth and jaws much less human in appearance than his recollection of the skull would have led him to suppose. The eyes were small, glittering and reptilian. The squamous lips writhed back, showing pointed fangs, and John Reynolds felt that their bite would be as deadly as a rattlesnake’s. Garments they wore none, nor did they bear any weapons.
Reynolds flees the weird caverns, blowing up the door that leads to the outer world, then takes his chances against human enemies, his hair now stark white.

"The People of the Dark" (Strange Tales, June 1932) is a rewrite of sorts of "The Little People" with the narrator, John O'Brien, coming to Dagon's Cave to kill Richard Brent, his rival for Eleanor Bland. Howard has the characters thrust back in time using reincarnation as a method to change O'Brien into a Gaelic warrior, Conan of the reavers. Brent becomes Vertorix, a Briton, and Eleanor a Briton girl named Tamera. All three face the Worms, but only Conan survives; Vertorix and Tamera plunging to their deaths rather than succumb. O'Brien wanders the caves, finally making his way out. He encounters one last denizen of the deep, the snaky remains of the Worms in our time:
Before the Children had vanished, the race must have lost all human semblance, living as they did the life of the reptile. This thing was more like a giant serpent than anything else, but it had aborted legs and snaky arms with hooked talons. It crawled on its belly, writhing back mottled lips to bare needlelike fangs, which I felt must drip with venom. It hissed as it reared up its ghastly head on a horribly long neck, while its yellow slanted eyes glittered with all the horror that is spawned in the black lairs under the earth.
O'Brien shoots it with the revolver he had brought to kill Brent. Brent and Eleanor know they are eternal soul mates and O'Brien lets them go for he too now understands.

Karl Edward Wagner would write further of Howard's Worms in Legion From the Shadows (1975). He added little to Howard's vision, but did combine elements from several different stories, having Serpent Men, Worms, and even the Crawler from the Conan stories. His Serpent leader looks thus:
The figure was as tall as Bran, and of skeletal leanness—although little else could be discerned through the voluminous folds of his robes. The arms that protruded from the flaring sleeves were covered with the pallid scales of some ancient serpent, taloned with long, black nails. The skull above the narrow shoulders was curiously flattened at the temples, and rose to a high peak. That peaked, hairless skull was encircled in a golden band, set with sullen gems of murky hue. His ears were pointed, the nose flared and pitted as a viper’s snout, the face little more than a pallid mask of scales tight across an inhuman skull. Bright and pointed fangs made a double row along the grinning jaw. Those yellow ophidian eyes mirrored a soul of elder evil that had looked unblinking across the expanse of centuries.
Thus the Worms once looked before the long road to degeneration. Wagner would create his own race of subterranean dwellers in his story ".220 Swift" (New Terrors, 1980), borrowing the idea partly from Manly Wade Wellman and his Guardians of the Ancients from “Shiver in the Pines” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1955).

Gerald Kersh (1911-68) was a sophisticated writer of weird tales and mainstream novels, but even he ventured into the world of the Little People in "Voices in the Dust" (1950, for Judith Merrill's Shot in the Dark). An adventurer in a future world (after World War III) goes to the dead city of Annan in an area of ash and stones. Here he discovers a race of white-skinned, large eyed people:
...The light paralyzed it: the thing was glued in the shining, white puddle—it had enormous eyes. I fired at it—I mean, I aimed at it and pressed my trigger, but had forgotten to lift my safety-catch. Holding the thing in the flashlight beam, I struck at it with the barrel of the pistol. I was cruel because I was afraid. It squealed, and something cracked. Then I had it by the neck. If it was not a rat it smelled like a rat. Oh-oooo, oh-oooo, oh-oooo! it wailed, and I heard something scuffle outside. Another voice wailed oh-oooo, oh-oooo, oh-oooo! A third voice picked it up. In five seconds, the hot, dark night was full of a most woebegone crying. Five seconds later there was silence, except for the gasping of the cold little creature under my hand.
Kersh gives a long explanation -- we've heard it before -- about how the Picts had been the source of the fairies in places like Wales. The explorer follows the Little People into their subterranean tunnels, like Wells' Time Traveler, but falls and breaks his leg. The people of the dark do not threaten the man but feed him. Unfortunately, their medical skills are so primitive that the man can do nothing but sit in the darkness and wait for death. Kersh takes his inspiration from Machen and Wells, (though probably not Howard) and adds his tale to the history of the Little People. Who will be next?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

1 comment:

Richard Freeman said...

No-Man's Land by John Bucan, penned in 1899 also deals with a race of prehistoric hominins dwelling deep under mountains and hostile to modern man but this time in Scotland.


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