The Story That Inspired The Blind Dead
Longtime readers know all about my love for the Blind Zombies. But even a hardcore mark such as I can still learn new things. I only recently became aware that a short story, written by Spanish writer Gustavo Becquer (the most read Spanish writer after Cervantes, I also learned) in 1861, entitled “El Monte de las Ánimas”, or “The Mountain of Souls,” served as the inspiration for writer/director Amando de Ossorio to create the Blind Zombies. (Ossorio also gave credit to George Romero and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as an inspiration.) Naturally I had to check out this story for myself. There are some translations into English available online, some better than others, but I decided to provide my OWN version of the story for all of you. I am indebted to those translators, as I do not myself read or write Spanish. But I wanted to add a little of my own flavoring into the mix, as opposed to providing a straight translation that might at times risk stodginess. Maybe it’s just the former editor in me; I simply can’t help myself. Anyway, the story is fantastic. I trust that I have not, by putting my own stamp on it, inadvertently robbed Senor Becquer’s tale of any of its power.
Without any further ado, then, here it is.
THE MOUNT OF SOULS
Originally written by Gustavo Becquer
Revised by Wayne Miller
I awoke at an unknown hour on La Noche de Difuntos, the Night of the Dead, disturbed by the tolling of the bells. Their chiming, monotonous, unending, brought to mind the legend I had heard not so long ago in Soria. I tried to fall back asleep but found it impossible. Once roused, the imagination is like a horse running wild, and any attempt to rein it in is hopeless. To pass the time, then, I rose from bed, deciding to write down the story, as best as I can remember it. A feeling of dread settled upon me, refusing to dissipate; I jumped at every little sound, spun around each time the window rattled, disturbed by the chilly night breeze. Yet to exorcize the pall from my mind I pressed on. Perhaps by passing the story on to fresh eyes and ears, fresh minds and imaginations, I may free myself from it. Whatever you make of the tale, it runs wild, like that maddened horse, refusing to settle. Here it is, just as I heard it recounted in its region of origin:
“Leash the hounds! Sound the horns to call back the hunters! Let us return to the city. The night is approaching, it is All Saints, and we are on The Mount of Souls!”
“Any other day I wouldn’t hesitate to finish off this pack of wolves driven from their lairs by the snows, but today is different. Soon the Angelus prayer will sound in the monastery of the Knights Templar, and the spirits of the dead will commence the ringing of their bell in the mountain’s chapel!”
“In that ruined chapel? Ha! You are trying to frighten me.”
“No, dear cousin. You are still ignorant of the happenings in this country, for it is not yet a year since you came to stay with us. Come on, and I will tell you the story once we are on the road!”
The pageboys gathered in merry, rambunctious groups; the Count of Alcúdia and his friends mounted their magnificent steeds, and the whole parade followed behind the Count’s son and his niece, cousins Alonso de Alcúdia and Beatrice Artois, who led from quite a distance in front. As they walked their horses, Alonso told the story he had promised.
“The mountain, which today they call El Monte de las Ánimas, the Mount of Souls, once belonged to the Knights Templar, who were both warriors and monks. Their monastery stands in ruins there on the river bank. After the Castilians retook Soria from the Moors, the king bid the Templars come to defend the city from further invasions. This offended the nobles of Castilla, who saw themselves as the only worthy defenders of the city they had reclaimed.
“Between the knights of this new and powerful order and the city’s nobles there developed a deep and profound hatred. The Templars laid claim to this mountain as their private territory, but the nobles decided to organize a great hunt in the area despite the severe restrictions which the “clerics with spurs,” as they called the Templars, had put in place. Word soon spread, and every attempt managed to neither cease the bloodlust of the nobles for the hunt nor the determination of the Templars to prevent it. In time the hunt took place, to the great sorrow of many.”
“What happened, cousin?”
“The beasts of this mountain have long since forgotten what happened here, but the many mothers left to mourn the loss of their sons will never forget it. What the nobles had intended for a hunt instead became a terrible, bloody battle. The bodies of the slain littered the mountain, and the wolves the noblemen would have hunted instead feasted on the men’s corpses. The king declared this mountain, the damned cause of such misfortune, abandoned and forbidden. The monks’ chapel, in the courtyard of which lie buried together so many friends and foes, began to fall into ruin.
“Ever since, it is said that on the night following All Saints, the chapel bell rings out, and the spirits of the dead, wrapped in tattered shrouds, run on a frenzied hunt amongst the bushes and brambles! The deer bay in terror, the wolves howl, the snakes and beasts flee away, and the next day in the snow are visible the footprints of bony skeletons. It is for this reason that the mountain is named El Monte de las Ánimas, the Mountain of Souls, and for this reason that I am determined to leave it before nightfall!”
Alonso’s story ended just as the young pair reached the bridge leading into the city. There they waited for the remaining company and, once these had joined them, disappeared into the dark, winding streets of Soria.
As the servants cleared the dishes, the dancing flames of the numerous fireplaces, the burning wicks of the several chandeliers dangling from the vaulted ceiling, bathed the men and women who sat at the tables, talking, in a warm, pulsating glow. The wind beat against the leaded windows of the dining hall, unnoticed. The magnificent edifice belonging to the Count of Alcúdia had withstood far worse storms.
Beatriz and Alonso, though seated with the others, nevertheless remained apart from the general conversation. Beatriz, lost in her thoughts, stared at the flames of the nearest hearth, not seeing them. Alonso watched the reflection of the flames in her blue eyes. Neither spoke for a time.
As befit the Night of the Dead, numerous stories were shared across the tabletops, tales of ghosts and unholy acts, as the tolling of the bells of Soria’s churches, a melancholy tune, reached them through the castle walls.
“Cousin,” Alonso said at length, breaking the silence between the pair, “soon we must part company, and who can say if we will ever meet again? I know that you are not satisfied here in Castilla. Perhaps there is someone, a lover, waiting for you at home?”
Beatriz did not respond, fixing him with an indifferent stare.
“Or perhaps you are merely homesick for your fair France,” Alonso added with haste. “Either way, I fear it will not be long before we are separated. I would like, before that happens, to give to you a small something to remember me by.”
“Oh?” she replied.
“Do you remember when we traveled to the cathedral to give our thanks to God for having healed you, as was your intention when you came here to this land? The jewel affixed to the plume of my hat caught your attention. How beautiful it would look, pinning a veil over your dark hair! It has already been used as a bridal clasp; my father gave it to my mother and she wore it to the altar. Would you like to have it?”
“I don’t know the ways of your land,” protested the young beauty, “but in mine a gift given becomes a debt. Only on a holy day could one receive a present from the hands of a kinsman, even if he were to walk to Rome to avoid returning empty-handed.”
The chilly tone with which Beatriz spoke these words disheartened the youth for a moment, but he collected himself and dejectedly added: “I know cousin, but today we celebrate all of the saints, and your patron is among them. Today is indeed a day of ceremony and gift-giving. Would you please accept my gift?”
Beatriz bit her lip slightly and extended her hand to take the jewel, without another word.
The two fell silent once more, and listened again to the babbling voices of the old ladies who talked of witches and goblins, the moans of the wind shaking the leaden windows, and the monotonous, mournful tolling of church bells in the distance.
After a few minutes, the interrupted dialogue picked up again: “Before the Day of All Saints comes to an end, my patron saint will have been celebrated as much as yours, yes?” Alonso said. “And so it is that you could, without a compromise of your morals, give me too a keepsake, I think. Would you do so?” he asked, locking his gaze onto his cousin’s eyes, which flashed like thunderbolts, glowing with a devilish thought.
“Why not?” She exclaimed, raising her hand to her right shoulder, as if searching for something between the folds of her velvet, gold-embroidered sleeve. Then, with a childish, disappointed tone, she added: “You remember the blue scarf that I wore today on the hunt, the scarf which, for some reason relating to its color, you claimed was the emblem of your soul?”
“Well, it has gone missing! It has gone missing, and I would have loved to leave it to you as a keepsake of your own.”
“Gone missing! But where?”
“I don’t know. On the mountain perhaps.”
“On El Monte de las Ánimas?!” Alonso leapt from his seat with an expression of dread and fear. “On the Mount of Souls!” he sputtered, paling, sinking back onto his seat.
He continued in a hollow, broken voice: “You know, because you’ve heard it a thousand times, that in this city, in the whole of Castilla, they call me the monarch of the hunters! Not yet having been able to try my strength in combat, like my ancestors, I have occupied my time with this hobby, this illusion of war, with all the vigor of my youth and of my race. The rugs on which your feet are treading are the trophies of the beasts that have been slain by my hand! I have fought them day and night, on foot and on horseback, alone and with beaters, and no-one can say that I have ever shied away from danger. Another night I would fly for that scarf, fly as if to a carnival, but, however, on this night…this night…Do you hear it? The bells toll, the Angelus prayer has sounded, and the spirits of the mountain, the Templars, begin now to raise their yellowing skulls from the undergrowth that cover their graves! The mere sight of them could freeze the blood in fear of valiant men, turn their hair white, or sweep them away in the gusts of air from their frenzied chase, like a leaf that rides the wind to god-knows-where!”
As the young man spoke, an imperceptible smile crept across Beatriz’s lips, and once he had finished she exclaimed with an indifferent tone, as she stoked the fire in the hearth, where the wood cracked and snapped, launching sparks of a thousand colors: “Oh, of course not! What silliness! To go to the mountain now, on a night so dark, the Night of the Dead? Of course you would not dare!”
Saying this final sentence, she charged it with such a special emphasis that Alonso couldn’t fail to hear her mockery. He leapt to his feet, beat against his chest with a closed fist, so to dislodge the fear that had gathered therein, and with a firm voice announced, addressing his cousin, who still stood bent over the fireplace, amusing herself by stirring the flames: “As it pleases you, cousin. I will return with your scarf directly!”
“Alonso! Alonso!” she cried, turning. But as she showed, or appeared to show, her wish for him to stay, her cousin had already disappeared. Within minutes she heard the sounds of a rider galloping into the night. The beautiful Beatriz, with an expression of satisfaction flushing her cheeks, listened to the sound as it weakened, that faded, and at last disappeared.
The old ladies, meanwhile, continued their gruesome tales of ghostly apparitions, the wind moaned against the walls of the castle, and the church bells tolled in the distance.
An hour passed. Two. Three. Midnight approached and so Beatriz retired to her quarters. Alonso didn’t return. He didn’t return, when he should have done so within an hour. “He must have been too scared!” the girl said to herself, shutting her prayer book and going to her bed. For a while she had been pointlessly murmuring a few of the prayers for la Noche de Difuntos her church had taught her to offer to these non-existent spirits. After turning off the light and closing her silken curtains, she fell asleep.
Her sleep was restless, tense, uneasy. The clock on the city clock tower struck midnight. In her dreams, Beatriz heard the clanging of the bells. Slow, muffled, melancholy. She opened her eyes. She thought she had just heard someone say her name. Someone distant, very distant, in an anguished, strangled voice. The wind groaned against the glass of the window.
“Only the wind,” she said, and pressed her hand down on her heart, trying to calm its beating.
The heavy doors of the entryway below ground on their hinges, shrill and grating. Then followed the sound of other doors opening, first those farther away, then those closer, all of the doors that led to her room, one after another, some with a heavy, groaning sound, others with a long and chilling dirge. One by one, they opened. Then, silence. A silence filled with strange whispers. The silence of midnight. A monotonous murmur of far-off water, the distant barking of dogs, blurred voices, unintelligible phrases, echoes of footsteps, rustles of trailing clothes, sighs swiftly stifled, labored breathing, involuntary shivers that announce the presence of something unseen, yet something that one knows is approaching.
Beatriz, petrified, trembling, peeked her head out of the bed’s canopy and listened for a moment. She heard a thousand different sounds. She brushed her hair away from her forehead, and listened again. Nothing. Silence.
She watched, eyes ablaze, gripped by terror, as dim shapes shifted and moved around the room. If her eyes focused on any one point, she could see nothing. Darkness. Impenetrable shadows.
“Bah!” she exclaimed, resting her beautiful head back on her blue satin pillow. “Am I so cowardly as these people, whose hearts leap with terror whenever they hear a tale of the undead?”
Closing her eyes, she tried to sleep, but it seemed as if an unknown power kept her awake. Before long she grew more tense and more terrified. This time it was no illusion. The brocade door hangings rustled as they parted and slow footsteps were heard on the carpet. The sound of each footstep was hushed, almost imperceptible, but continuous, and she heard their steady beats like slow crunches of dry wood or bone. They came closer, even closer; the prayer-stool by her bedside was pushed aside. Beatriz uttered a sudden shriek, and burying herself in her bedclothes, she hid her head and tried not to breathe.
The wind battered against the glass on the balcony, the water in the distant fountain dropped, dropped, with a monotonous, unending sound; the barks of the hounds in the kennels were magnified by the gusts of wind, and the bells of the city of Soria, some close, some far away, rang out mournfully for the spirits of the dead.
An hour went by. Two hours. A century. For Beatriz the night seemed eternal. At last her terror exhausted her and she slept.
At length her fear ebbed away with returning consciousness. She opened her eyes to the first beams of morning sunlight spilling in through the window. After a sleepless night of such terrors, how beautiful to see the bright, clear light of the dawn!
She pulled apart the bed-curtains and was on the verge of laughing from relief, when a sudden cold chill gripped her body. Her eyes almost burst from their sockets and a mortal pallor crept across her cheeks. Draped over the prayer stool, bloody and torn, lay the blue scarf she had lost on the mountain—the blue scarf Alonso had gone to find!
When the servants ran into the room to announce the death of Alonso de Alcúdia, whose corpse had been found that morning, hacked almost to pieces amongst the brambles of the Mount of Souls, they found Beatriz petrified, contorted, clenching, with both hands, one of the ebony bed-posts, her eyes bulging, mouth agape, lips white, her limbs rigid. Dead—dead of fright!
They say that, long after this event occurred, a hunter found himself lost on the Mount of Souls, unable to leave before the Night of the Dead. They say that on the day he died, many years later, he recounted what he had never before spoken, revealing what he had seen that terrible night.
He claimed to have seen the skeletons of the ancient Knights Templar, buried in the chapel’s courtyard, rise at the tolling of the Angelus with a horrible rattle, ragged knights mounting skeletal steeds, and lead a frenzied hunt for a beautiful, pale and disheveled woman, who with bare and bloody feet and shrieks of terror fled from the tomb of Alonso de Alcudia.
WAYNE MILLER is the owner and creative director of EVIL CHEEZ PRODUCTIONS (www.evilcheezproductions.blogspot.com, www.facebook.com/evilcheezproductions), specializing in theatrical performances and haunted attractions. He has written, produced and directed (and occasionally acted in) over a dozen plays, most of them in the Horror and Crime genres. His first novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT CHRISTOPHER: WEREWOLF, is available for purchase here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/734763
MORTUI VELOCES SUNT!