A Gothic Abc


There is a great deal more to Alchemists than simply saying they are people who live in stone houses and blow glass. The practice of Alchemy presupposes a laboratory full of precisely manufactured vessels and instruments, few of which can be purchased even for ready money, supplies of exotic as well as everyday nature, privacy, and a good floor drain. Since Alchemists seldom have cash, their laboratories and adjacent dwellings are commonly located in the basements of narrow stone houses at the end of obscure streets. There rents are low, ceilings high, visitors infrequent.

Turning base metal not only into gold but into the finest gold, measured by quarters of wheat grains, is only the first step, albeit the Magnum Opus, of Alchemists. When they have achieved this, they are entitled to call themselves Adepts, take new names, and put their Apprentices in pointed hats. If their Alchemy surmounts this plateau, which it must if it is truly Alchemy, it is concerned with achieving perfect knowledge of everything. It is best sought under the baleful glare of stuffed crocodiles, surrounded by pentacles, herbs, crucibles, athanors, salamanders, copper-bound tomes, elemental elixirs, alembics, for in all aspects of earth, fire, water, and air Alchemists seek facts, if not wisdom. Adjoining their laboratories will be found a modest chapel, for use when all else fails.

Alchemists write, in a crabbed cypher, tomes and tractates but do not publish them. They speak well only of sages dead 300 years or more and have few friends, for they are secret men, men little involved in the affairs of the outside world. From their solitary habits, from the telltale gleams of light behind shuttered grilles, from the vapors and sounds issuing from the deep regions of their houses at the end of culs-de-sac, gossiping neighbors construct tales of atrocities, witchcraft, black magic, but these are little true.

Alchemists cherish secret passions for enthralled maidens who spin straw into gold, but if they marry, it is with a thrifty, patient housewife who does not interfere and is content with a silver wedding ring.


Tales are told that this word once meant “where camels kneel,” a campsite, then the climate of that place, then the weather; and finally came to describe yearbooks foretelling the weather. These publications were expanded to include information about tides, eclipses, visitations of comets, tax payments due, sittings of court, holidays, the most propitious times to plant crops, and when to expect them to freeze.

Almanacs are printed in many different and very small typefaces quite close together, making it very hard for the camel to read.

by Barbara Byfield author and illustrator of the forthcoming Macmillan book THE GLASS HARMONICA, a glossary of terms heretofore held to be the preserve of scholars, spell-casters, and crossword puzzle buffs.

Alms, the Dole, and Vails

Alms are anything given to the poor, especially coins or food, to relieve the sufferings of the unfortunate and/or to make the giver feel better.

Alms boxes are placed in or just outside churches for parishioners to slip coins into for the poor. These boxes are frequently robbed by desperate men of essentially good heart.

Alms bowls and Alms dishes should never be confused. The Alms dish is a large dented (if pewter) or cracked (if wood) basin passed around prosperous dinner tables for gifts of food and leftovers for the poor waiting in the cold or rain outside the kitchen door. Alms bowls are small brass or tin bowls which, when held out by the beggar and accompanied by “Alms for the love of Allah” or “Alms in the Name of God,”depending on whether the beggar is sitting on the steps of a mosque or of a church, are intended to receive coins from the hands of the pious. Any metal bowl of more value than brass is considered unstrategic to use.

When crops fail, mines close, and famine stalks the land, Alms become regularized in the Dole, which is not given but must be collected by the starving, who wait for it in long lines.

Vails too involve long lines, but their members are the sleek and glossy servants of large houses in which you have been a guest for more than a night. Having informed each other of the moment of your departure, these servants will be found wishing you Godspeed with open palms. The Vails they expect to have pressed upon them may take the form of money, trinkets, and small articles of reasonable value. In return, it is reasonable to expect them to burn the incriminating blotting paper you inadvertently left on the desk of your room.


Ambassadors, adept in games of skill and chance, are to be found in lofty salons hung with silks and lit with lusters. Able to drink anyone under the table in any liquor, they can also eavesdrop in any language, including their own.

Ambassadors sleep lightly, wear nightcaps, chin straps, mustache nets. They are perennially in the Prime of Life, and travel in coaches designed not only for elegance but for hasty departures and speedy journeys. These conveyances are fitted with every known aid to ease and comfort and for the secretion therein of their papers, gems, friends, and collections of rare miniatures, snuffboxes, chess sets, stamps, or seals.

Ambassadors like their private life to be public and their professional pursuits to be private.


APOSTATE: One who forsakes his former beliefs; for instance, one who no longer believes the world is round.

HERETIC : An Apostate who not only doesn’t believe the world is round but doesn’t think it revolves around the sun. He acts accordingly, refusing to serve on space expeditions or waste his time and imperil his life trying to sail around the world. RELAPSED HERETIC: A Heretic who has been persuaded back into thinking the earth is round but nevertheless wears a parachute as well as a life jacket on all ocean voyages.


An Arras should be hung far enough out from the wall not only to keep contained behind it much of the chill from damp and cold walls but to provide a hiding place for an eavesdropper, murderer, or escapee. It is the site of clammy work, sometimes hazardous, sometimes fruitful.


Barons are numerous, active, and frequently troublesome, for their star is the star of war.

Their baronies can be very large and thus yield to the Baron many vassals, much strength in arms, and wealth in gold, food for armies, and horses to mount his men. Barons are full of themselves, their dignity, privileges, perquisites, and powers. When seen at Court it is usually to ensure the continuance of their mode of life by keeping the King in hand or to seek some cause for grievance in order to betray their lord to their own advantage.

Thick of limb, dour of mien, great of girth, well housed and horsed, Barons are to be discouraged from assembling too often, for such meetings lead more often than not to envy or treason. Even when pledged in service and loyalty to the King in battle, they may hold back for their own purposes a few troops which must be prized from them.

Barons are given troublesome Marks and Marches to rule, in which uprisings must be put down. Barons tend to drink heavily, use bad language, and seldom wipe their feet. Like Dragons, they may be spoken of in a whisper by the countryside.

During wars appoint them




During peace, watch them closely.


Confusion and uncertainty surround what knowledge there is of Basilisks, not for lack of the beasts, but because, of those who have come upon them, few have lived to tell the tale. The only way to survive meeting a Basilisk is by having a mirror. His look and breath are fatal; it is thought that even the direct sight of him will kill. There are less numerous reports — and they are not reliable — that if you can sneak up on a Basilisk and look at him first without his seeing you, he will die. Taking your mirror, back up to the Basilisk. Do not forget the touch of his body splits rocks asunder; there is sure to be uncertain footing in his vicinity. Show him his own face in the glass. His glance is so malignant it will kill him immediately.


Have scaled body of serpent

Loud hiss

Feet and claws of fowl

Ponderously long tail

Hatched from cock’s egg matured on dunghill


Face of a cock

Spotted and regal crest

Wings of fowl

Cannot fly

Hatching accomplished by Serpent instead of Toad

There is never seen more than one Basilisk at a time.


Proper Berserkers are mighty of stature, hirsute of face and body, generously thewed and sinewed; their interest is not in War but in Battle. In time of peace, therefore, they are dour and melancholy, with little occupation save sharpening their weapons and mending their scanty battle harness. They are thus inclined to drink.

In battle they will be seen to froth and foam at the mouth; their cry will be that of a wolf or bear; and as they close in on their foe, it will be noted they become lower of brow, hairier of face and limb, longer armed and shorter legged, and more powerful withal. Experienced Berserkers are able to transform themselves entirely at this time, bears and wolves being the most favored animal forms.

Wise Berserkers will provide themselves with wooden shields covered in leather, for it is their custom to chew upon the rims as they wait for battle. Metal shields do great damage to teeth and gums, as may be imagined, and Berserkers’ spittle is thought to be more corrosive than most.

If times are not propitious for battle, Berserkers tend to sink into lethargy, untidiness, and show interest in little save becoming Werewolves.


Where there is an excess of blood or where the veins and heart are enfeebled, Bleeding is indicated. Overly florid complexions may be rendered fashionably pale by Bleeding.

Leeches may be employed, or Cupping, or Opening a Vein.

If Leeching, up to a dozen leeches may be used at a time and the amount of blood withdrawn controlled by remembering that up to two drachms of blood will be drawn by each leech. Place the leeches over bony spots in order that pressure may be easily applied afterward to stop the bleeding. The leech should be permitted to fall off, sated, of his own accord in order to prevent unseemly scarring, but if he refuses to do so, apply a strong salt solution to him. If leeches are reluctant to bite, prick the skin first and allow a droplet of blood to form thereon, thus whetting the appetite of the most reluctant leech. Leeches may be rented from apothecaries and applied safely by Barbers.

A Cupping vessel should be of glass strong enough to resist heat; the classic size is four ounces. Wet cupping is accomplished by scratching the skin, heating the air inside the cupping vessel with a bit of burning paper or alcohol-soaked cotton, and inverting the vessel quickly over the area. The resulting vacuum will draw out blood and the operation may be repeated, or several cups applied simultaneously, until the necessary amount has been removed from the body. Dry cupping is indicated where highly inflamed areas exist. It is carried out in the above manner without, however, breaking the skin. Cupping may be safely practiced by women.

The swiftest manner of removing excesses of blood, and the most obviously efficient if more than small quantities must be drawn, is opening a vein. This should be done only by a skilled practitioner of medicine or a trustworthy Barber. These men may collect the blood in a brass or copper basin and take it away with them, for leftover blood is useful for bathing lepers and epileptics.

If documents are to be signed and/or written in blood, however, or if blood brotherhood is contemplated, medicinal blood is totally unacceptable. A fresh supply intended solely for such a purpose must be provided from one’s own veins.

The mortal wounds of the murdered are said to open and bleed afresh in the presence of their murderer.

Body Snatchers

Leeches, Physicians, Chirurgeons, and Anatomists employ Body Snatchers. Sorcerers and Wizards use Ghouls. All may find one day, if they continue to use the services of such persons, the body of their best-loved friend before them on the dissecting table one foggy morning.

Burial Alive

Burial Alive is an occupational hazard of pyramid designers, architects of royal treasuries and harems, drinkers of amontillado, monks, nuns, wives of Crusaders, and black-hearted nobility of evil ways.

Intentional Burial Alive is almost always a somewhat secret punishment of those who are otherwise unpunishable either because of their high position or the unprovability of their crimes. If they possess a castle, they may very well be enclosed in it after all apertures are bricked up. Perhaps one stone will be left out for mercy and food passed in for many years, until at last it is observed that it is no longer collected from within. Other burials for more modest folk may be within a cell, a portion of cellar, or an unused or secret staircase or room. Masonry skills are called for in most cases of intentional Burial Alive.

Inadvertent burial may be fatal or not; it is usually the result of being someplace where you are not expected to be at an unlikely time. Bank and cemetery vaults, abandoned mine shafts, being in the path of an avalanche, playing hide and seek in a clothes chest are all hazardous.

Priest holes and secret rooms are also treacherous, since they are rarely provided with handles on the inside of the door. Skeletons found therein centuries later are seldom chained; forced by the need for secrecy to be there in the first place, those so hidden dare not call for help, beat upon the door, or otherwise make signal until they are at last too weak to do so.

Techniques of survival:

For air, lie as still as possible close to the floor where the air will be freshest.

For food, candles and leather articles (jerkins, baldrics, buskins) may be chewed. Spiders, lizards, rats, and other livestock may be present as well.

Water may be present in dangerous excess or not at all. If the latter, damp walls may be licked for moisture.

When the point of death approaches, it is well to recall that one’s skeleton will in all likelihood be found in later years. Assume, therefore, a significant and pleasing attitude for your bones to be found in. It is well to control your hunger and let the last spider survive you, for its webs will add pathos to your remains when they are discovered.

Wizards and Toads seem to survive Burial Alive for as long as centuries; other people expire much sooner.

Cardinals and Prince Bishops

Cardinals belong to a College and have hats which they seldom wear. Those appointed to the Curia in Rome pass their time in intrigue and the composition of elegant Latin. Those outside the City are Prince Bishops, occasionally cadets of princely houses, and are found slightly behind and to the left of the Throne.

Prince Bishops are dangerous men, the most puissant of all Lords Spiritual, and are adept in using the advantages of their Churchly sanctions in addition to their temporal powers. It is considered naïve, if not dangerous, to remind such a prelate of his calling. They are most active during an Interregnum, Regency, or the Reigns of Idiots and Dotards. A career in the service of a Prince Bishop is recommended for those with a scholarly bent or a poor sword arm.

Caves and Caverns

If you find a Cave, keep it a secret.


They are oneor two-room dwellings; their approach and entrance give no indication of occupancy other than, possibly, roars, groans, howls, moans, smackings, and crunchings.

The furnishings of simple caves are the result of years of untidiness rather than of purposeful collecting. In them you will find


Rough and broken objects of utility: scraps of fur, leather, chain, earthenware, last year’s molt of scales or skin, pieces of flint

Remains of cooking fires

Remnants of meals from time immemorial All will be concealed in a unique patina of grease, fat, soot, ashes, earth, blood, and the vital juices of unnameable but apparently edible creatures.

Also found will be Bats, Spiders and their Webs, Owls, Mushrooms, Scorpions, and the evidence of Others having been there before.

Beach Caves have a sandy floor, tidemark, smuggler’s marks on the walls, and a gold coin or two, carelessly indicating that the cave is used for something other than fun and games. If you are trapped in a beach cave by the tide or an enemy, there will be a vertical shaft to crawl up and out of. The enemy will not know of this shaft or will not remember it in time to block the exit. It will not be an easy climb, but you will finally exit in a peaceful spot such as the garden of a monastery or nunnery on the top of a cliff. The good people thereof will take you in and bandage your cuts and bruises.

Caverns are seldom the residences of men, but Caves often are. On entering a Cave, one simply steps inside. Entering a Cavern is not that simple; it is necessary to proceed through a series of simple Caves which lead into each other and are connected by corridors going increasingly down into the bowels of the earth. The Cavern will be found at the end of a dangerous, dark, and doubt-ridden journey. As you proceed through the Caves they will be progressively emptier of all save cobwebs and the normal strew of sheltering beasts. It is not always clear which of the connecting corridors to take; it is prudent to make some attempt to mark your path against the return journey.

The Cavern itself when reached will be immense, soaring to heights and depths which befuddle senses accustomed to the close and dark descent. If the Cavern houses Treasure and it is guarded by a skeleton, fear it not.

If forced to escape by underground river, you will find the distance to the outside only as long as you can hold your breath underwater or your raft will stay afloat.

The nature of Treasure found in Caverns is most often gold, gems, and magic articles.

There is always another way out.

Charms, Amulets, Talismans

CHARMS: Combinations of words which when spoken, chanted, or sung summon supernatural power to open doors, ward off ills and disasters, effect transformations. Passwords change, charms do not.

AMULETS: Ornaments, gems, scrolls, relies, or remains worn to prevent evil or mischief befalling the wearer. Amulets are ofttimes inscribed with Charms. TALISMANS: Carvings or writings of a heavenly body or sign on a stone or metal of an astrologically sympathetic substance. Talismans will evoke influences and powers the possessor desires and may be carried in the pocket and not worn. Talismans in good working order are more powerful than Amulets because they grant extra strengths rather than simply warding off illness or misfortune.

Crones and Hags

CRONE: An old woman, wrinkled, bent, with gnarled hands, few teeth, and a high-pitched cackle. She is generally found in a chimney corner and may be helpful to you in a way that you least expect. HAG: Beware. A Hag, who if she resembles a Crone otherwise will still have kept a few more teeth, is of an unpleasant and evil intent. A Hag is sometimes fond of the company of one or two other Hags.