Micah S. Harris is a writer in the New Pulp movement community who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of many disparate subjects. Ranging from world literature, mythology, the history of motion pictures and television, Western philosophy and theology to being an expert on King Kong, the man has some interesting insights in all of these areas. In addition to guest starring on several genre fiction podcasts, Harris is also a regular contributor to the anthology, Tales of the Shadowmen, published by Black Coat Press. This yearly anthology, produced by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier, focuses on modern writers creating new stories with French popular fiction characters. Just to give you an idea of the scope of characters utilized in this series, The Phantom of the Opera, Doctor Omega, The Count of Monte Cristo, Arsene Lupin, Irma Vep, Fantomas, Maigret and Judex have all made appearances. This series also features characters outside of French fiction as well, albeit, the vast majority of those are in the public domain. Even fantasy grandmaster Michael Moorcock has contributed two stories to this anthology utilizing his characters of Una Persson, Jerry Cornelius and Monsieur Zenith. Harris has written several stories for this series over the years that include both French and Anglo characters. One of these tales from the former category is entitled “The Goat of St. Elster”, that originally appeared in Tales of the Shadowmen volume thirteen, Sang Froid. This is a tale written in a style reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures. The main reason for this comparison is due to the fact that “The Goat of St. Elster” is a period piece, taking place during the time of the French Revolution, across the Channel in a rural English hamlet. Fans of sword and sorcery fiction fear not; Harris mixes into his story a heavy dose of the supernatural, including a sorcerer, the reanimated dead and the resurrection of pagan gods from antiquity. The hero of the piece is a broadsword wielding warrior monk intent on stopping these creatures. “The Goat of St. Elster” is a quick, entertaining hack and slash story with a (surprising) touch of philosophical discourse thrown in for good measure. This philosophical aspect is none too common in sword and sorcery fiction (especially with regards to short stories), thereby Harris adds something fresh and nuanced to a genre that is close to a century old.
The story begins one evening in a tavern in Caerleon, Wales when a disheveled monk barges in proclaiming that doom has come to England. This being the time of The Terror across the Channel, the patrons don’t take kindly to this kind of talk, the tavern freezes at these words, and many eyes glower at the newcomer. Two strangers have a different reaction to the monk and they both go to the haggard figure in the doorway and bid him to sit down and calm himself. The distraught monk introduces himself as Frater John, late of the monastery of St. Elster. John relates that a contagion has overtaken his home and that the remaining brothers of the Order have been infected. “Understand me: they dance to the piping on the heath.” Both men leaned into the monk. “Who’s piping?” Cassave asked. “Could it be Pan’s perhaps?” As John details the unholy events that have overtaken his cohorts, the reader comes to find out that indeed, the monastery, adjacent to the old Roman road, was built atop an ancient temple dedicated to Pan. The Order of St. Elster is commissioned with a special mandate; they act as warders to the god that is imprisoned within the monastery. The prisoner, currently known as Old Lady Natty Gat, hermaphroditic in nature, is; “kept pinned so that heshee has little room for exercise. Heshee is fed the poorest of grains, for heshee must be kept in a weakened state…Heshee is our sacred charge since Saint Elster delivered him’er to us.” The weakened and diminished deity (assuming the form of a goat) was freed by a young monk, Charles Wiseman, who influenced by Enlightenment thinking, did not believe in the superstitious dogma set down by the Church. His lack of faith unleashed this pagan entity into the world once more. Harris was riffing on (and paying homage to) that old Twilight Zone episode, “The Howling Man”, in which an unsuspecting traveler shelters in a secluded monastery for the night, who beleaguered by cries for help from an incarcerated man, inadvertently unleashes Satan upon the world that triggers the outbreak of the Second World War.
At the conclusion of Frater John’s account, the two strangers volunteer to accompany him back to the monastery to observe what has befallen there. These two men are both interested in the site for their own diametrically opposed reasons. One of the men accompanying Frater John is Brom Cromwell. Cromwell it turns out is also a monk, of the Barbusquin Order of the Cistercians. Harris describes the monk as; “A sheathed broadsword hung at his hip. His forehead was high, accented by a receding hairline. He was tall and gaunt with sunken cheeks, but his eyes when not contemplating troubles, were no strangers to glints of mirth.” Cromwell states that he has perfect recall, a mind like a steel trap, and it becomes apparent that he utilizes the method of loci (memory palaces) to store vast amounts of information. And why exactly is a man of the cloth lugging around a broadsword? The monk’s business, it turns out, is putting down supernatural threats in the name of the Church; at one point in the story, we learn that Cromwell flushed out a pack of ravenous Jiangshi, blind hopping vampires, back in 1699. Pretty spry for a man his age. The character of Cromwell is a synthesis; part Sherlock Holmes, part Ancient Mariner and part Solomon Kane (albeit with a friendlier disposition).
The other man accompanying Frater John is Quentin Moretus Cassave. But more about him in a moment; while the three travelers are journeying on the road to St. Elster’s, Cromwell and Cassave begin a lively debate on the nature of man and his role in the cosmos. Cassave states; “And as with the stars, so shall good deeds and their effect be ultimately be snuffed out by darkness….Do you think yourself-aye, your entire world-the center of the universe?” To which Cromwell shoots back: “In Aristotle and Ptolemy’s system, the center is understood as bottom. Earth’s place is far from exalted. We are a sunk hole for the universe’s lower elements, my friend.” The two men continue on in this fashion, verbally jousting, while switching topics, moving on to the nature of the pagan gods versus the nature of Judeo-Christian deity. To me, this philosophical discourse on the nature of divinity and what is humanity’s role in that system is breath of fresh air. Two learned men are hashing out their fundamentally different worldviews; Cassave, with his view that all things are transitory, including divinity, while Cromwell defends the point that certain systems are eternal; “When all things began, the Word already was.” This scene of give and take between the two characters adds a sense of depth and some charm to the story; just because something is an entertainment, in this case, a historical sword and sorcery tale, doesn’t mean that it’s intellectually vacant. We get the best of both worlds; philosophical depth coupled with monsters getting hacked to bits by a fighting monk. As they are approaching the monastery, the party splits up (uh-oh!); Cassave remains on the road, while Cromwell and Frater John take to the woods. It is at this point in the story when the protagonist makes first contact with the supernatural; Cromwell is attacked and subdued by ghoulish assailants, while acting upon instructions from the fighting monk, Frater John makes a break for it.
Quentin Moretus Cassave, this self proclaimed man of science, is the villain from the 1943 novel Malpertuis, by Belgian writer Jean Ray. The 1971 film adaptation cast Orson Welles as Cassave. The character of Cassave is a man of sorcerous (or perhaps alchemical) means who, if not exactly an immortal, is very long lived as well. In Malpertuis, Cassave is the orchestrator of a plan to infuse the withered essences of the Greek gods into the shells of human beings. The Cassave featured in “The Goat of St. Elster” is a much younger version of that man who is still in the process of refining his craft of deity resurrection. Harris posits in this story that prior to the events of Malpertuis, Cassave successfully infused the essence of the Phoenician goddess Tanit-Astarte into a human shell and is now looking to appropriate Pan as well. Cassave has some pretty serious resources at his disposal. Because Old Lady Natty Gat is free of its shackles, it has reanimated a group of eyeless Templar Knights to do its (and Cassave’s) bidding. These blind revenants are taken from 1972 Spanish-Portuguese horror film, Tombs of the Blind Dead. These creatures hunt their prey by echolocation and the only way to stop them is through decapitation.
As for Old Lady Natty Gat, Harris deftly ties it into a long lineage of pagan gods throughout history and horror fiction as well. This entity has gone by other names throughout the ages. Pan is linked to the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons, but is also connected to the Arthur Machen novella, The Great God Pan. Nodens was a Celtic deity of healing and the sea, but was also an Elder God of Lovecraft’s that featured in “The Strange High House in the Mist” as well as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. At other times, this entity took on porcine forms as Moccus, the Celtic boar god and as the Outer Monstrosity from William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki story “The Hog”. Then Harris goes way back into deep time, at the formation of the planet and links this entity to Clark Ashton Smith’s primordial Ubbo-Sathla. I don’t necessarily agree with this theory of a singular entity going by different names and forms throughout history, especially in the case of these weird fiction monsters. I’m of the opinion that due to the abundance of these fictional worlds, as presented by their authors, there is room enough to contain a multitude of distinct weird creatures; the price of real estate in the realm of the imagination is nil. Opinion aside however, you can tell that Harris did some solid research in connecting real world pagan deities with their fictional counterparts. And as for Brom Cromwell, Harris associates his Barbusquin Order with Sigsand, the author of Thomas Carnacki’s grimoire, the “Sigsand Manuscript” as well as with the angelic Eldila, who act as a counter force against malevolent cosmic beings, from the C.S. Lewis novel Out of the Silent Planet.
In an April 2017 interview, Harris states; “When I wrote Brom Cromwell I thought of Peter Cushing in his younger Van Helsing days…picture Peter Cushing playing against Orson Welles in a Hammer movie directed by Terence Fisher in glorious Technicolor.” If only this were an actual film. While reading “The Goat of St. Elster”, my mind kept wandering back to that description. Harris has crafted a classic Hammer movie (that never was) on paper. When I was a kid decades ago, growing up in New Jersey, I would rush home on Saturday afternoons to watch the Drive–In Movie on channel 5, WNEW (New York). The Drive-In Movie was a grind house goldmine; on a weekly basis, you could watch films like The Five Deadly Venoms, Dracula A.D. 1972, Duel of the Iron Fist, Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter, Master of the Flying Guillotine and (the go for broke, pedal to the metal, Hammer/Shaw Brothers mash up) The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. This was my first exposure to kung fu and Hammer horror films; once I got that first taste, it was all over for me. I’ve been a lifelong fan ever since and have never looked back. Many a Saturday afternoon, I’d thrill to Peter Cushing squaring off against Christopher Lee in their various encounters across several films; even to this day, that classic image of Lee’s Dracula, red eyed, mouth dripping blood with bared fangs still gives me the creeps. In the “The Goat of St. Elster”, Harris has captured the essence of those classic Hammer horror films, blended it with elements of philosophy, cosmic horror and sword and sorcery fiction to create a fast paced, engaging and for me, a nostalgic historical adventure tale. In addition to this story being featured in Tales of the Shadowmen, Micah Harris has also made it available as a free PDF. The PDF version sports an atmospheric black and white Gary Lee cover (that is a throwback to those old pulp magazine interior illustrations) of Brom Cromwell, sword in hand about to engage with a blind revenant Templar. Go pop some corn and grab your favorite frosty beverage. The Black Coat Press and PDF links are included below.
STORY LINKS/ NOTES
Tales of the Shadowmen, Volume 13: Sang Froid. Black Coat Press. http://www.blackcoatpress.com/fiction-tales-of-the-shadowmen-13-sang-froid.html
Story is available from Harris as a free PDF: https://www.soundsalive.info/The%20Goat%20of%20St.%20Elster.pdf
Sippo, Arthur. Art’s Reviews. ART’S REVIEWS: Micah Harris Discusses “The Goat of St. Elster”. (2017, April, 1). 3:42. Retrieved from https://www.firstcomicsnews.com/arts-reviews-micah-harris-discusses-the-goat-of-st-elster/