The Cult of Seryia in east Thessaly

I recently wrote a folk horror short story for a local literary magazine. The plot changed quite a lot during writing and some of the changes were due to my thinking of how the material could be also used as the basis for a small-scale RPG setting. Here are most of the salvageable aspects:

Amidst the tree-nurtured shadows of west Pelion mountain (or any other seaside wilderness) survives a centuries-spanning cult. This cult worships Seryia, a woman chained at the bottom of the Pagasetic bay (/in the bottom of the nearest sea). A thousand years ago she was a great artisan who sculpted stones into people – such was her skill, such the life-likeness of the forms she created out of rock, that the sculpted stones were convinced that they were humans and so they walked, breathed and talked. They even built a small village, promptly forgetting that they ever were stones.

A lawful goddess (Holy Mary in the story) was enraged with Seryia; she could not abide the chaos and fluidity of forms that the latter’s art expressed and realised. She descended to the unnamed village one day and whispered to the ear of every villager, reminding them that they never stopped being rocks. As soon as the words were said, each villager turned back into plain, formless stone. The village was lost and angels scattered the stones all over the sea and mountain.

Seryia was imprisoned beneath the waves, bound with chains made of constellations and sunlight. Her needles, the tools of her trade, were hidden by the goddess/Mary. Seryia has since been in an unbreakable underwater slumber. Only when the night sky is covered with clouds does the bonds’ strength lessen somewhat, and Seryia’s dreams start looking for her needles. Their shadow can be seen in sea caves, beneath the waves and in silent beaches.

The cult appeared almost immediately after Seryia’s imprisonment and has been searching ever since. Their uttermost goal is of course to liberate their artisan/saint. This involves not only finding the exact location of Seryia’s prison, but also finding her two needles, the only items supposedly able to shatter her bonds.

Being unable to locate either, the members of the cult wander the countryside and the sea all year round, looking for the stones that the goddess/Mary scattered in earth and sea. The ones they find they place on the  cliffs above the sea. One night per year, on the anniversary of Seryia’s imprisonment, they visit those standing stones and carve faces and bodies on them with their nails and burned sticks, and then they proceed to question them in a ritualized way, for directions about the needles’ location. Sometimes the faces answer, albeit in cryptic fashion.

Some facts about the cultists:

  • They wear thick long dresses drenched in sea salt and dark mud. They are difficult to visually spot in the night, though the salty smell can betray them if far from the sea.
  • Their figures are horrible to behold; even faeries and goblins (the latter like to dance with their gold coins) run in terror when they appear.
  • When searching, their figures are short, gnarly and resemble ruined wells. Salt water always trickles from their right sleeve. When standing still they can be mistaken for an abandoned well – any who tries to look down the well hole may fall in their enormous pockets.
  • They wear metal fingernails which plow the ground, tracing strange patterns throughout the countryside. Some of these trails are magical; if crossed by a non-cultist they may create various effects (cause a very localised rain of frogs, sound a hollow bell-like alarm, turn back the clock by half an hour, etc)
  • When on land they mostly wander through wind-lashed coasts and low trees.
  • They search in natural holes of the earth and in any abandoned chimneys they can find (sometimes in working chimneys, too).
  • They open graves so as to shake the longer bones, to listen if the goddess/Mary hid the needles inside.
  • They take the oars from any grounded boat, and break them upon rocks to reveal their insides.

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)

In most social circles, profession is what most characterizes a person, in a far larger degree than the name or any other individual characteristic. “What’s your job/occupation?” is usually a default question when coming into more-than-trivial conversational contact with someone, and profession tends to extensively colour our thought-form of most persons. It could be said that name and surname are necessary evils only in situations where the same occupations is shared by more than one person.

Enter the Annihilation’s 4-person expedition into Area X. A quartet of women, each with a different professional specialisation, inside an area empty of people. Suddenly names become unimportant; we are left with the surveyor, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and our protagonist, the biologist. Though it is implied later in the book that there might be yet another cause for this abandonment of names, it is also true that in a situation like this (where the only humans in the vicinity each have a different occupation) names are superfluous. Thing is, this equation of one’s being with one’s profession is a bit contradictory in a society where work and personal life are (ideally – for society at least) two completely separated spheres of one’s life.

Enough with this detour. Annihilation, the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is a rather short horror/sci-fi novel, which tracks the aforementioned expedition’s trek into Area X, an uninhabited area, demarcated from the rest of the world by a Border of unknown properties. Our expedition is the eleventh to brave Area X’s depths according to the Southern Reach, the vague organization behind the Area’s exploration. Written from the biologist’s first person view, the book reads like a journal of sorts, which mixes the present-day exploration’s narration with flashback fragments of the heroine’s past life.

Annihilation is laconic both in its cast of characters (four main ones, along with two or three more orbiting around them) and its spatial diversity. The whole novel takes place in Area X (though flashbacks connect us with the outside world); or, to be more specific, it unfolds in three landmarks inside the Area: the Camp, the Tower, and the Lighthouse.

«Scientific expedition» + «dangerous, uninhabited, and maybe infected zone.» This aggregate, evident from the book’s first pages, screams of science fiction and has a touch of apocalypse (could it be zombies that I see?) on the horizon. Not exactly my cup of tea as far as horror fiction is concerned. Thankfully, the story grows quickly towards the uncanny and weird side of horror, with a fairy-tale-esque touch towards the end. This is quite a feat, all things setting-wise considered. The unfolding of the story borders on the Lovecraftian, the ghost story, the post-structuralist linguistics, never quite letting any of these dominate. Allusion, implication, and the absence of graphic violence and gore are pillars of the book. The whole idea of the Crawler/Tower complex is pleasantly disturbing and archaic, almost mythological in hue. The despairing uselessness of written-speech-sans-reader is a theme resonating throughout parts of the narrative.

On the negative part of the spectrum I would put the somewhat anti-climactic resolution at the end, though I understand that it is the first part of a trilogy (and yet quite able to stand on its own, though many things are left unexplained). One other thing that bothered me (though not terribly) is the over-abundance of the protagonist’s personal and emotional details in the flashbacks. I understand that there really is one character, so she should be expanded upon, yet I think we could do with slightly less such material, since it tends to weigh down the narrative (this is obviously a matter of personal taste – I like my horror rather de-personized).

Annihilation is a great read, graced with several ideas and images that tend to stick in one’s mind. An excellent genre crossover, it emits an air of vagueness which satisfyingly rewards active imagining initiatives.