“Put silver in your pockets, walk with dirt in your shoes, or he’ll poke your eyeballs from their sockets, and boil your bones in stew.” 

Ick, and also, that’s new to me. Where’s it from?

Our upcoming psychological thriller, The Woods are Waiting begins with a morbid nursery rhyme that highlights a very specific set of superstitions that are followed by an isolated community in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. … The silver and dirt in The Woods Are Waiting is directly tied to a belief in the fictional Hickory Man, a malevolent spirit in the woods. In the same way that superstitions are passed on, so are urban legends and folklore, like the Moth Man in West Virginia and the Jersey Devil. These spooky stories can provide an undercurrent of darkness and tension that lends itself well to the unpredictable twists and turns of a thriller novel. 

So I think the authors made that one up. For me, it doesn’t have the spooky coolness of the thing from T Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones. What was that? Oh, right:

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

That is thoroughly creepy. Here’s my post about The Twisted Ones, which I liked quite a bit, and yes, that line above was sooooo effective in establishing and maintaining the atmosphere of the story.

What does the opening line of this post lack that T Kingfisher’s line captures? The first two lines, prescriptive advice, are good. The latter two clauses are too mundane, I think. Poking out your eyeballs is bad, but not particularly creepy. “Shoes” and “stew” rhyme (pretty much), but the line lacks the beautiful cadence of the one about the faces on the rocks and the twisted ones.

But the overall idea of the post, that working superstitions into your creepy psychological thriller adds depth, is certainly true. I would probably like supernatural elements compared to mundane elements in a thriller. Not always, but I lean that way. The linked post continues by looking into the background of a few common superstitions, which is interesting:

1. It’s bad luck to walk under a leaning ladder.

This originated over 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. A ladder leaning against a wall creates a triangle, and Egyptians regarded triangles as sacred–as exhibited by their pyramids. To them, triangles represented the trinity of Gods, and to pass through a triangle was to desecrate them. Another exciting fact is that in England in the 1600’s, criminals were forced to walk under ladders on their way to the gallows!

I wonder if all that, or any of that, is true? What trinity of gods could this mean? The ancient Egyptians had a lot more than three gods. To me, this sounds like somebody just made that up. But I guess if you wanted to, you could take this as true and work the detail into a story that uses it somehow. That reminds me that I’ve been reading MG fiction lately and I’ve been wanting to try The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. I have it on my Kindle, buried way down there somewhere in the depths … let me pull it up to the top … there we go. Hopefully I will read it soon! I doubt I will encounter a trinity of Egyptian gods in the story, and probably not a superstition about ladders, but who knows.

Okay, just for fun, here: 55 of the Strangest Superstitions From Around the World.

Bored with superstitions about knocking on wood or black cats crossing your path? Click through and pick your favorite of these less familiar superstitions. I will say, some seem pretty familiar to me! I do like the one about placing two mirrors facing each other creating a way for the devil to get into the world — lots of story potential there. I also like the one about wearing red attracts lightning.

Also, definitely do not make faces like the faces on the rocks. Really, just don’t do that.

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4 thoughts on “Superstitions”

  1. I’m also pretty sure the ladder/sacred triangle thing is made up. Triangles aren’t sacred to them. Pyramids are, insofar as they represent the benben.
    For some actual wild Egyptian stuff, read the Egyptian Dream Book (from Papyrus Chester Beatty, I think). Of course, the extent to which dream interpretations match real-world beliefs will vary a good bit.
    “If a man sees himself in a dream eating the flesh of a crocodile, good. He will live off the property of an official. … If a man sees himself in a dream chewing a cucumber, bad. It means people will quarrel with him when they meet him.”

  2. I believe that individual Egyptian cities sometimes had three patron gods, husband-wife-son, so it’s marginally possible they had that in mind. But I wouldn’t risk any money on it.

    I’m also dubious about some of the other superstitions (existence, I mean; I’m more than dubious about any of them working). But I can confirm the Spanish belief in eating 12 grapes for good luck in a new year — you have to finish them before the hour finishes ringing, or the luck is bad. An actual Spaniard introduced us to that one at a New Years party years ago.

    Oh, and I certainly felt like shouting at the protagonist of The Twisted Ones, “Why are you making faces like the faces on the rocks?!”

  3. I assumed that there was some sort of compulsion radiating from the rocks or the world that caused the protagonist to do that. But, aaaaagh! do not do that!

  4. In a work in progress, a hero stayed up all night. I wanted him to keep on going all day, as is best, and sleep that night.

    Knowledge would be anachronistic, so I had him remember how all the old folks warned you could turn into an owl if you stayed up all night and slept all day.

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