May of the Dead: A Victim’s Revenge

 By way of explanation…

This post is one of two entries the Casting Shadows blog will be contributing to the May of the Dead blog carnival. This entry encourages a more implacable yet more personal approach to motivating and envisioning the risen dead. The next, due on May 21, will travel in the other direction, daring a look behind the curtains of deceit which form the foundations of undead cults.

From Cool to Ghoul: On Changing Perspectives on the Risen Dead

Across all the cultures and ages of the world the tongues of storytellers have found ways to voice the fear of the dark and the hungers it holds for our very flesh and our living blood. As we press forward through time from huddled ages of fearful ignorance to our own gilded information age of willful ignorance, a certain truth has been used to terrify and entertain those newly through the gates of life side by side with those ready to pass through them for the second, and ostensibly final, time: everyone dies – but not everyone rests.

So many images arise before us now of the powerful and contemptuous dead that is hard to remember that before they got that way most fell prey to violence and denigration of the natural life through which they entered the world. Violence at the hands of murderous men and treacherous women. Violence at the hands of strangers and loved ones alike. Violence to their bodies, violence to their souls, violence to their memories. The sleek, ultra-cool predator is a victim in vengeful clothes, as much obsessed with erasing its past as with forgetting it. We’d best not forget that. First their lives stolen, then their very identities, stripped away by the winds of time, consumed by the wrackings of hunger, and eroded by unending tides of blood. Victims; not noble creatures of the night stalking prey and taking private boxes to spectate on the world’s inexorable slide into the end times.

Our beloved tales of grim visions of gothic elegance are nothing more than our dreams and desires for deathlessness made manifest to cover the meat aisle stench of bleach on the hidden death of store-bought blood, wrapped in sanitized plastic. They are not death’s true face when it crawls from the ground. The dead have no need to cloak themselves in awe; just wrath…and sometimes, remorse.

Ask yourself, what if the surest sign of Heaven’s grace is that usually the dead choose not to rise? What if when slain, a choice is made to travel on or stay? Think on the idea that the surest sign that Hell’s encroachment is but a trap of our own devising is that sometimes the dead do rise; wrapped in the numbing trauma of abuse and personal abnegation, or cloaked in wrath like Judgement incarnate. If we recognized these truths, what tales would we spin then?

Would we be so quick to place the horrors in life out in the ineffable darkness?

Would we be so quick to deny that the greatest horrors of life are those we perpetrate ourselves?

Enter now the dead, not dead. The revenant. The vampire. Enter now the wretched wraith bemoaning a life lost, and a vengeance cold and perhaps out of reach – a vengeance with a price. For if the dead do rise, if the dead do choose to turn their backs on what comes after for the sake of righting wrongs left behind, what crushing chain of action and reaction does this set upon them? Where in the end does vengeance lead? How strong a thirst does it invoke? Will justice sate its call for blood, or must violence beget violence until the very end of days? Is there no rest for the victim any more than for the wicked?

Once upon a time, it was believed that for sins seen as slights through modern eyes, the dead might rise to remind the living of how perilous is the perching place between the twin gates of life. A return or even rise might be precipitated by a secretive burial in unconsecrated ground, for allowing a cat to leap over a loved one’s corpse, the failure to administer the rites of the dying and the dead, a dearth of remorse, or cruel lies and carnal secrets left unrevealed and unrepented. These and many other peculiar sins might compel the dead to leave their rest in the earth until these imbalances could be addressed. Greater sins too could force the dead to rise: blasphemy, witchcraft, and of course the ages-old sin we love more than any other, murder.

The dead might be sent back as a pawn by unearthly powers to punish and coerce the living into righting their misguided ways. They might choose to return of their own accord to adjust a scale turned against them; making wrongs right. They might return to learn the truths denied them in life; denying them rest. They might return to wreak a little vengeance of their own, before the final horns trumpet the crumbling of all the walls of space and time, life and death.

How literally these beliefs were taken comes down to us in the simple acts of eviscerating the dead, placing them in locked coffins, burying them deep, and driving back the darkness with frenetic, fearful lightshows in every part of town. In the old days, we nailed them to the ground and cut off their heads, to give them something else to be concerned about. We like to think it helped them rest, but if you listened on a moonless night you knew our horrors merely made of their tombs, prisons. They lie there still, still. Staked in place with fear cast as love on a stage of self-preservation, billed as mercy and dressed in the charitable but ill-fitting clothes of relief; release.

Imagine then a story where the slick and glittering predators of popular lore are nowhere to be found, but sometimes -just sometimes- a girl, raped and strangled by the side of the road, buried shamefully in a cold nest of leaves chooses to stand before her killer and demand reparations. Or imagine one where a man, working two jobs to keep his family in stale bread and souring milk, beaten to death by thugs who don’t like his colour or his ancestry, chooses to appear to them with a warning of repentance before it is too late. Imagine a tale where the motives of the dead are not as clear to the living as they are to storytellers and tale spinners. On whose side will the characters begin, and on whose will they end? Will they lay the walking dead to rest, behead her and stake her tight to a solid coffin? Will they do it out of fear, or out of mercy? Will they exorcise the ghost of the man bent on saving those so far gone they live only for hate? Will they, in the belief that they are putting a spirit to rest, deny this shade the voice he never had in life?

A dead man once said, “It can’t rain all the time,” and I guess that is true. Hope can be found in the most unusual of places, hiding out with magic and mystery. The reverse however, shows us that it can and should rain some of the time. Vampires and the risen dead have become shrink-wrapped ads for longevity treatments, moisturizers, and glitter make-up. Trauma has been replaced by sex, and piss-legged fear with envy. Sometimes, even if it is only just sometimes, perhaps we could remember the lost and the taken by remembering it’s not all ankhs and black leather. The ground is cold, hard, and wet. It tears out your fingernails as you claw your way to the surface, giving you no comfort or guidance, no support or relief. The mud chokes your cries, obscures your eyes, and slides you back down two inches for every one claw upward. The road to vengeance is the road away from final rest, and you may not know what to do when you reach its end. For the dead to kill the living is the stuff of nightmare. It is child’s play and fever dream. In the hands of the dead it may be the choice between redemption and ultimate damnation, much as it is for those they seek. When sin is fought with sin, only sin results. Is vengeance worth damnation? In your heart of hearts you know it sometimes… it sometimes is.

Strip the veneer of fashion and foppery from the dead, and let them walk the moonlit road of vengeance and redemption unfettered by the sentimental romanticism of a jaded age. Let their cold and muddy fingers, shredded raw from rising, reach out to a malevolent world in search of…. something…. something they may never find, and in so doing provide characters with a touch of mystery the spotlights and films have denied us in our well-lit and scented darkness for too long.

Give us the defiled.

Give us the victims.

Give us our Dead.

In closing

Regular readers of this blog know that this is a blog mainly about ideas, motivations, atmosphere, and technique, all geared toward immersive roleplay. For this entry, however, it seems appropriate to include a purely practical element to take away as well. With that in mind, I have included stats for two of my favorite games to back up the roleplaying elements of the Risen Dead described above. Enjoy!

Risen Dead for Ubiquity

Risen Dead for Call of Cthulhu

Don’t forget to check out the other entries in the carnival as May of the Dead continues.

With thanks to so many, but most of all for added dimensions to ideas and words: James O’Barr, and the wildly unconventional Oblivion Seekers.

3 Responses to “May of the Dead: A Victim’s Revenge”
  1. Ian says:

    This is fantastic. It’s unfortunate that the horrifying truth of being one of the walking dead isn’t in vogue.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Yes, I suppose if Dracula were a modern tale, VanHelsing would let Lucy live because “it wasn’t her fault.”

      Glad you liked the post~

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  1. […] of undead cults through mundane not mystical means. The previous entry from this blog can be read here, and focuses on the Risen […]

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