Ghost Man’s Trail — Part Two

Between 900 and 1150 CE, Chaco Canyon was home to an accomplished and highly organized people. It lies in north-western New Mexico, not far south of Farmington. In our day it’s a national historical park because of the archaeological remains to be found there. Jared Diamond gives a chapter of his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, to the Chaco Canyon culture.

Now Diamond is an impressive bloke, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and twice winner of the Science Book Prize. He might not think much of my mining his work for tie-ins to a pulp writer’s fantasy story, but just the same, Chaco Canyon is part of REH’s fabulous southwest and its history. It’s also hard to resist as a place of origin for that mysterious person Ghost Man (“Old Garfield’s Heart”). Whether alive or dead as normal people understand the terms, Ghost Man was around the southwest for hundreds of years. He knew the conquistador Francisco Coronado in the mid-sixteenth century, and made an appearance in the Texas oil boom days of the twentieth, to take back the borrowed heart of an ancient god. He may have been far older than that.

Suppose that while he was mortal flesh and blood, he belonged to what we call the Anasazi culture. To quote Diamond, “The Anasazi did manage to construct in stone the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America until the Chicago steel girder skyscrapers of the 1880s.”  Their heyday began around 600 CE and lasted – perhaps – until 1200. They passed at about the time Genghis Khan was conquering Asia.

The first farmers to inhabit Chaco Canyon lived in underground pit houses. After a hundred years they were – independently – developing architecture in stone. They had the numbers, the social organization and the techniques finally to create stone buildings five or six stories high, with hundreds of rooms. The roof supports were made of logs five yards long and weighing as much as seven hundred pounds. The living apartments were built around open plazas and large underground chambers called kivas, which seem to have developed from the primitive pit houses and to have been used for worship and magical ceremonies. They may be circular or square. Usual features are a bench around the wall, a central fireplace, a vent in the wall, and a small hole (“shipap”) in the floor. The shipap to the Pueblo peoples is a symbol of the passage through which the first human beings left the Underworld and reached the upper earth.

The greater kivas in Chaco Canyon were built between 1000 and 1100 CE – the latter date roughly the time of the First Crusade in Europe.  Besides having considerable accomplishments in architecture, the people of Chaco Canyon observed the movements of celestial bodies and kept records of them. In the center of the canyon, on Fajada Butte, they carved a “Sun Dagger” on which a band of sunlight passing between two slabs fell precisely at the time of the Winter Solstice. The Summer Solstice is marked by a groove in the wall of the Great Kiva. The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon also recorded the unique occurrence of a supernova in the year 1054 CE. The light of that colossal conflagration had been travelling through space for four thousand years before it reached the Earth. It first became visible on July 10th, 1054, and its radiance was so bright – even after dispersing so widely — that it could be seen with the naked eye at midday, six times brighter than Venus. It stayed visible for 23 days. The remains of that exploding star are known to us today as the Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus. If it had been a hundred light-years away from us instead of four thousand, earthly life would have been devastated. Probably no human beings would have survived.

Below the West Mesa of Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi left what appears a definite record of the supernova, a panel containing three large symbols – a large star, a crescent moon, and a handprint. Just below these symbols, in a separate panel, is a depiction of what appears to be a comet – three concentric circles, with great red flames trailing from it. That very probably records an appearance of Halley’s Comet, since there was one, only a few years after the supernova.

I’m assuming that Ghost Man lived then and was the foremost priest-magician of his people. His supernatural and natural knowledge would have included movements of the heavenly bodies. Perhaps it was even Ghost Man who painted the depictions of the supernova and comet on the rocks below West Mesa. Perhaps he even performed the ceremonies that allowed him to evade the ordinary human limitations of life, death and time while the supernova blazed in the sky. He doesn’t seem unlike the Pictish wizard Gonar, the white-bearded ancient who aided Bran Mak Morn against the Romans. Bran says with only partial irony to the Gaelic prince Cormac of Connacht (“Kings of the Night”) “He claims direct descent from that Gonar who was a wizard in the days of Brule the Spear-slayer who was the first of my line. No man knows how old he is–sometimes I think he is the original Gonar himself!”

If he really was, then he’d have survived tens of thousands of years and two world-wide cataclysms, the one that destroyed Atlantis and Lemuria, and the one that ended the Hyborian Age. Ghost man’s eight or nine hundred years would have been picayune compared with that. His powers and knowledge might have been comparable with Gonar’s, though – and he certainly was sufficiently close to the red man’s ancient gods to have been able to borrow the heart of one on request.

If Ghost Man was originally a priest of the Anasazi, in Chaco Canyon, then his culture passed away circa 1200 CE. What caused its decline is a bit outside the topic of these posts, but it appears to have suffered from environmental problems combined with the usual unfair distribution that always arises when a society turns into an empire. Chaco Canyon became the centre of a mini-empire, not a huge one like Rome’s, but its problems of transport and communication were comparable after a while. Warfare, rivalry over water sources, even cannibalism, occurred before the end. Ghost Man presumably left before then, seeing the writing on the wall, and took his wisdom to less advanced peoples.

He might have travelled far across the southwest. It’s likely that he would have moved from Chaco Canyon to the central Rio Grande as the Pueblo IV Culture (1300 to 1600 CE) developed. It was also called the Rio Grande Classic Culture by Wendorff and Reed in 1955; I’m not sure if that designation is still in use. Whatever the archaeologists call it these days, while Ghost Man was probably associated with it, he was neither of it, nor completely of this world.

He would have been aware of supernatural events like those which took place in the “The Valley of the Lost” – REH’s story of Texas feuds, ancient quasi-human peoples and the walking dead. Among other things it describes a prehistoric city of dully gleaming stone which existed in Texas before even the first ancestral “Indians” crossed the Bering Straits. Its people worshipped a “Feathered Serpent”, but unlike the mighty Feathered Serpent of the Aztecs, the lord of the wind and rain and bringer of enlightenment, this one was malign and horrific. The people who worshipped it were driven into caverns by the early immigrants from Siberia, the proto-Native-Americans, and there adapted to a completely inhuman race. Ghost Man undoubtedly knew about the time when Texas had been one vast plateau stretching from the Rockies to the sea, also, as described in “Marchers of Valhalla,” before a cataclysmic inundation altered the land. A weird prehistoric city of strange, decadent people appears in that story too, with a drifting band of Aesir attacking it. One of the much-reincarnated James Allison’s avatars is with the Nordic savages.

Ghost Man would certainly have seen the menace the early Spanish explorers brought with them. “Ghost Man knew Coronado,” says Jim Garfield in “Old Garfield’s Heart.” I speculated in the previous post that Ghost Man was the Indian guide Coronado’s men nicknamed “El Turco” – the Turk – who tried to lead the expedition to disaster in northern Texas. Possibly he meant to bring them into the dreadful “The Valley of the Lost,” to suffer the madness, attacks by resurrected corpses, and awful death, that was the usual lot of strangers there. But Coronado, dissatisfied with his services, had him strangled first.

To Ghost Man that would have been a minor inconvenience.

Some of REH’s horror stories have overt links with Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos.” “Old Garfield’s Heart” is not actually a Mythos story. However, it does link Ghost Man with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and Lovecraft ghost-wrote a story for Zealia Bishop – “The Mound” – set in Caddo County, western Oklahoma, which is close to REH’s Texas and takes a large part of its background from “the persistent legends of rich hidden cities and buried races which abound among the Pueblo and plains Indians, and which lured Coronado centuries ago on his vain search for the fabled Quivira.”

Part of the story turns on the grotesque fate of one of Coronado’s men who explores the realms below the mound. One character, driven mad by what he has seen near the haunted structure, raves, “They’re half-man, half-ghost – crossed the line – melt and take shape again –” Also, like the quasi-humans of the ancient city in “The Valley of the Lost” they worship a serpent. In “The Mound” he is given a name and called “Yig, the great father of serpents.”  The subterranean dwellers below the mound in Oklahoma have two other similarities with the troglodyte horrors of REH’s “The Valley of the Lost.” They have abandoned vocal speech and communicate by a form of telepathy, and they can animate the dead to be their slave automatons. There is also a passage in “The Mound” which refers to a time when “the Old Ones below had had colonies on the surface, and had traded with men everywhere, even in the lands that had sunk under the big waters. It was when those lands had sunk that the Old Ones closed themselves up below and refused to deal with surface people.”  That seems reminiscent of the way prehistoric Texas is overwhelmed by the sea at the climax of “Marchers of Valhalla.”

There are differences. The passages in Lovecraft’s Oklahoma mound lead down to an entire subterranean world called K’n-yan, suffused with a bluish light, and its half-spectral denizens control powers more scientific – though incredibly advanced – than supernatural. Yet they are decadent to the point of being only casually interested in survival, and their lives are governed by superstition and ritual. REH’s degenerate dwellers underground in Lost Valley cannot stand any light, even starlight, and they have a repulsive, serpentine appearance, like the subterranean monsters of ancient Britain in “The People of the Dark.” They might have been related to the ancestors of K’n-yan’s people in the beginning, but been separated from them and degenerated far more drastically.

Ghost Man “crossed the line” between the fleshly and spectral himself. But unlike the beings beneath the mound in HPL’s story, and the necromantic horrors of “The Valley of the Lost,” he maintained links with humanity and remained capable of emotion, as when he aided Garfield to survive a mortal wound. The southwest setting and other correspondences make “Old Garfield’s Heart,” “The Valley of the Lost” and “The Mound” worth reading together.

Jim Garfield calls Ghost Man “the Lipan priest of the gods of night.” Apparently Ghost Man dwelt among the Lipans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He probably knew the warrior chief Tres Manos (“Three Hands”), Jim Bowie’s enemy. According to REH, in a letter to Lovecraft of April 23rd, 1933, James Bowie “was a Lipan by adoption. He had seen the red men trading silver and gold armlets to the merchants near the Presidio.”  Stories of fabulous wealth in gold and silver, whether in the Seven Cities of Cibola or the San Saba mine, die hard. But if REH is right, then Ghost Man may have been acquainted with Jim Bowie as well as Coronado, and even Bigfoot Wallace, who is mentioned in “The Valley of the Lost.” “Old Garfield’s Heart” makes it clear that Ghost Man was still around in Texas during the oil boom and Prohibition.

The reference to “the gods of night” calls to mind the demon’s words to Conan in “Beyond the Black River.” “But a bat has flown over the mountains of the dead and drawn your image in blood on the white tiger’s hide which hangs before the long hut where sleep the Four Brothers of the Night. The great serpents coil about their feet and the stars gleam like fireflies in their hair.”  For good measure it adds, “Soon your ghost will talk with the ghosts of the Dark Land, and they will tell you of the old gods which are not dead, but which sleep in the outer abysses, and from time to time awake.”

I’d guess that a Native American wizard who could survive centuries, and save a man whose heart had been split with a lance, knew enough about those matters to reckon the conquistadors as idiot babies next to his wisdom.

Art Credits: Gonar from “Kings of the Night” by Michael L. Peters and “The Valley of the Lost” by Greg Staples.

Read Part One