I am a person of strange affinities and predilections. There are certain things that I remain ceaselessly fascinated by despite their apparent peculiarity. Some are more acceptable than others: sea creatures, insects, mythology, folklore and fable. Others decidedly less so. Like ghouls.
I’ve always been fascinated by these graveyard lurkers, particularly in their transformation from Arabic myth as demons that haunt the desert and other lonely places, to their current otherworldly incarnation seen in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Brian McNaughton and Caitlin R. Kiernan.
I wonder what it is about these “loping,” “gibbering” monsters that raises them beyond the obscurity of a million other bogeymen and nursery demons? What has granted them relative immortality in the human imagination, much like the werewolf or vampire?
As a dabbler in the works of C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, I like to think that these monsters say something to our inner psyches. They’re archetypes, embodiments of ugly truths that haunt our worst, sleepless nights. Ghouls are a walking Memento Mori, avatars of the Conquerer Worm, reminders of the ultimate corruptibility of the flesh. We look at these things – the relish they take in consuming our bodies – and are reminded that no matter how long or how hard we fight, we are all ultimately food for the worms. Ghouls are the universe: unknowable, immutably hostile – or at best indifferent – and only waiting for us to stop moving so that it can devour us and go on to the next meal.
Most of us are able to live our lives with only the occasional intimation of our mortality, and this is for the best. Too much rumination on our common destiny can lead to great despair and handicap our ability to enjoy life for the fleeting, beautiful experience it is. However, too little thought – or arrogant denial – of death can lead to us taking our lives for granted and wasting the time that we have. I think that this is what we have our bogeymen for: to inoculate us against despair by gradual exposure to death, yet to also caper and growl within the shadows, nipping at our heels and urging us onward by reminding us that we don’t have forever, and that time will eventually run out.
If you – like me – enjoy poking and prying a little deeper into the shadows, you might enjoy this article about the origin of H. P. Lovecraft’s ghouls.
Why not stop for a moment and get to know your bogeymen now? You’re bound to meet them sooner or later.