March 15, 2023

HP Lovecraft and the Witch's Familiar

In 1648, the healer Margaret Jones became the first person executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts. She was accused of various things, like making her clients sick just so they would buy her medicine, but also of having a small demonic spirit that did her bidding. This demon, or familiar spirit, took the form of a small child. Her accusers said they saw it around her Charlestown home, and in her jail cell after she had been arrested. The familiar spirit supposedly suckled on Jones's blood for nourishment, a grotesque parody of the mother/child relationship. 

The Devil also allegedly gave many other New Englanders accused of witchcraft familiar spirits (or familiars, for short). John Godfrey, who was accused of witchcraft four times between 1658 and 1669, was said to have a mysterious teat under his tongue, which he used to suckle his familiar spirit, which appeared large black bird. The testimony from the 1692 Salem witch trials is full of accounts of familiars in a bewildering variety of shapes: wolves, yellow birds, cats. Some were more monstrous, like the creature with a monkey's body, rooster's feet and human face that crept into John Louder's bedroom while he slept, or the three-foot tall humanoid ("all over hairy, all the face hairy") that supposedly did Sarah Osborn's bidding. Even in the late 19th century, people in Truro, Massachusetts told stories of a dune-dwelling witch who cursed local sailors and was attended to by a small black goat. 

Brown Jenkin, from Dreams in the Witch House (2005)

There's something particularly nightmarish about the idea of the familiar spirit. Local witchcraft accounts and legends are full of horrific imagery, but to me there's something extra spooky about these small demons. In animal form, they possess a demonic intelligence and malevolence at odds with their mundane, or even cute, appearance. As monstrous hybrids, they're the type of thing that makes you wake up screaming. Familiars are like something from a horror movie or story. 

At least one local horror writer wrote about witches' familiars. Rhode Island native H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) often drew on New England folklore for his weird tales. Witches make appearances in several of his stories, and a very nasty familiar spirit appears in his 1932 story "The Dreams in the Witch House." The story describes what happens to hapless graduate student Walter Gilman when he moves into a house once inhabited by Keziah Mason, a 17th century witch. Keziah supposedly was served by a familiar named Brown Jenkin: 

Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch’s blood—which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages. Of all the bizarre monstrosities in Gilman’s dreams, nothing filled him with greater panic and nausea than this blasphemous and diminutive hybrid...

Brown Jenkin is a weird and ambiguous creature. Lovecraft is clearly using the classic image of the familiar from the 17th century witch trials, but he takes the concept much further. In the story, witchcraft is a form of advanced science. Keziah can travel through space and time via a hyperspace wormhole, and she wants to bring Walter Gilman with her to the center of the universe to meet Azathoth, the daemonic ruler of the world. The story is strange and unsettling mix of science fiction and folk horror. Sure, you can use the wormhole to visit alien planets, but there are also witches and books signed in human blood. So what is Brown Jenkin - an emissary from an alien world, or a servant of evil? Or maybe both? Even though Gilman manages to escape Keziah's clutches, Brown Jenkin manages to get the last laugh (or loathsome titter, to be more accurate). 

In addition to horror stories, Lovecraft also wrote poetry, much of it as scary as his fiction. Some if might even be scarier, like this poem simply called "The Familiars," from his sonnet collection Fungi from Yuggoth

XXVI. The Familiars

John Whateley lived about a mile from town,
Up where the hills began to huddle thick;
We never thought his wits were very quick,
Seeing the way he let his farm run down.
He used to waste his time on some queer books
He’d found around the attic of his place,
Till funny lines got creased into his face,
And folks all said they didn’t like his looks.

When he began those night-howls we declared
He’d better be locked up away from harm,
So three men from the Aylesbury town farm
Went for him—but came back alone and scared.
They’d found him talking to two crouching things
That at their step flew off on great black wings.

That's a pretty creepy poem, and the ending packs quite a wallop. Everyone thought John Whateley was insane, but (surprise!) he wasn't. In that poem and "The Dreams in the Witch House," Lovecraft imagines the witch's familiar in the modern world, where they're even more anomalous and frightening. Winged demons and human-faced rats belong in the semi-mythical past, not in industrialized New England.

A 16th century illustration of a witch and her familiars

If you believe in familiar spirits, you might wonder what happens to them after their witch dies. Do they go back to some infernal realm, or do they linger here in the physical realm? Here's another Lovecraft poem from Fungi which might be about that very topic:

XII. The Howler

They told me not to take the Briggs’ Hill path
That used to be the highroad through to Zoar,
For Goody Watkins, hanged in seventeen-four,
Had left a certain monstrous aftermath.
Yet when I disobeyed, and had in view
The vine-hung cottage by the great rock slope,
I could not think of elms or hempen rope,
But wondered why the house still seemed so new.

Stopping a while to watch the fading day,
I heard faint howls, as from a room upstairs,
When through the ivied panes one sunset ray
Struck in, and caught the howler unawares.
I glimpsed—and ran in frenzy from the place,
And from a four-pawed thing with human face.

So what's scarier, Lovecraft's familiars or the familiars from local folklore and trial documents? It's hard for me to decide. I suppose the scariest thing is that people once took this all very literally and executed people for supposedly working with familiar spirits. I enjoy reading Lovecraft and learning about local witch legends, but am happy to be living in an era where familiar spirits remain fictional. 

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