[The Hunter’s Manual] The Risen Dead, Ghouls

The idea of the The Hunter’s Manual is to act as a fictional guide to hunting various monsters. There have been a number of times that I’ve mentioned a monster to a friend, and then had to explain what obscure thing I’m talking about. They then often tell me I should write a guide to obscure monsters. So here’s that project.

The idea is for each monster to have an illustration and about two pages of text. I have 63 or so monsters planned, grouped into categories, and the list includes well known monsters such as vampires and werewolves, and lesser known monsters such as the grootslang and kelpie.

I will be primarily drawing on folk lore, but at this point, it’s going to be occasionally difficult to sort the original folk lore out from more recent fiction additions to the legends, so some gaming/modern fiction stuff might get brought along too.

This is the first excerpt from the project, the beginning of the section on undead monsters, starting with ghouls (which might more typically be called Zombies, but I’m saving that for the voudou sort).

The Risen Dead

There are many places in the world where the dead are not content to stay within their graves.

Whether as the punishment for mortal crimes, or at the beck of some fell sorcerer, the dead may rise to hunt and haunt the living.

Broadly, there are two types of risen dead- those who hunger for the flesh or blood of mortals, known here as the Hungry Dead, and those who are immaterial spectres, come to terrify the living for unfinished business or perceived slights, some able to manipulate the world, but all just out of reach of those who bear their torment.

While many monsters in this tome will be dispatch-able through fairly typical forms of violence, the Risen Dead often present a more enigmatic problem. It is an interesting riddle to address how to kill something which has already died once, and often the means is more ritual than combat–Consider the typical method for slaying a vampire. It calls for a stake to nail the offending monster to the earth, which must be ash or hawthorne, a grave-digger’s shovel to drive the stake in with a single blow, garlic or communion wafers to fill the mouth, decapitation, and finally immolation.

This is less a way to kill something, and more an exacting ritual to remove an evil presence. Note that even impaled, decapitated and choking on anathematic material, the vampire can still escape the blaze under the noses of the unwary monster hunter, in the form of a small insect or lizard.

It is much the same for these other risen dead, and sometimes the best you can do is to remind them that they are in fact dead, as in the case of of voudoun zombies.

Common Traits of the Risen Dead

The Risen Dead are more given to similarities than many other groups of monster, primarily because they share an origin in their prior mortal nature and subsequent rise from the grave.

What follows are the traits one can generally expect a given walking corpse to exhibit, so as to take into account when formulating a plan of attack.

  • Lack of Biological Necessities: The dead do not eat, sleep, or breath as we do. True, there are those which do consume matter, but this consumption is more symbolic than biological necessity. If a vampire goes without blood, they become ravenous and crazed, and may fall into a state of torpor, but they will not “die” for lack of the elixir of life. So too will a ghoul deprived of flesh only become hungrier, never ceasing to walk until it goes into a stasis-like state to await new prey.
  • No or Diminished Reaction to Pain and Other Negative Stimuli: With vampires as a general exception, shooting a member of the risen dead seldom accomplishes anything on it’s own. Reaction to stimuli is a trait of life, and those who are neither dead nor alive are often selective on the type of stimuli they respond to. The more “alive” the undead, the more likely they will feel and react to pain, but pain never weakens them as a mortal may be weakened through shock.
  • Death begets Death, and Undeath begets Undeath: Many of the risen dead promulgate more of their number. The vampire who exsanguinates a victim is not just feeding themselves, but also creating an ally—often under their control. The Wendigo “unlives” to bring more men to the depths of desperation that created it.
  • The Mind of Shadows: Some monster hunters will testify to the utility of reasoning and bargaining with monsters when one cannot be bested, or is more an unfocused savagery than an inherent evil. Some undead can be reasoned with, but all display a distinctly alien outlook—when they have any outlook at all—with desires and goals that no mortal truly can understand. At best, and worst, some undead are able to fake a mortal outlook well enough to lead a hunter to believe they’ve made headway, only to find that it was part of the creature’s schemes.

The Hungry Dead

Ghouls

Ghouls are undead which are characterized by their foul odor–often likened to the scent of decaying flesh—and their hunger for the flesh of the newly dead. Ghouls themselves are true walking corpses. They come rise from the grave as intact as they died, and often start their unlives appearing fairly “fresh.” As they persist, however, they almost inevitably decay or fall apart, especially when they have withstood many attempts at eradication. Some particularly enduring ghouls appear to be little more than gory skeletons, but those hunters who mistake the ravenous ghoul for the servile skeleton are making perhaps the gravest mistake of their lives.

The ghoul seems to have originated in the middle east, where it is said to be a type of jinn, created by the devilish Iblis. In my own categorization, I find them more similar to undead than djinn—hence their inclusion in this section. It may be that ghouls are created through a demon’s manipulation of a corpse, which would put it into the categories of both undead and demons.

Ghouls typically dwell in cemeteries and other resting places of the deceased. Whether this is due to a disinclination to roam far from the grave which they emerged from, or a desire to remain near their preferred food source is unknown. A ghoul’s lair, however, is a fairly distinctive affair. Some rare, modern-thinking ghouls, however, take up residence in or near morgues, feasting on fresh remains as soon as they are no longer part of a living being. Tracking a ghoul for this reason is fairly easy, especially in an age when bodies are typically buried deep enough to discourage casual scavengers such as dogs.

One of the first signs of ghoul activity will be disturbed and gnawed remains. The creatures are neither delicate nor fastidious, and will usually leave cracked and mauled bones and ripped shrouds and burial clothes wherever they may fall.

The exact lair of a ghoul can be found by following these remains—as they grow more common, you draw near to the crypt or burrow the ghoul calls home. You will begin to smell the stench of rot and decay. For this, I recommend pursuing ghouls with a scent-infused balaclava, bandana or other cloth in one’s kit. Once the foul odor of a ghoul has been found, you can rely on other senses to lead you to the creature, and preserve your nose and most recent meal by covering the scent with something more preferable.

Ghouls prefer prey which is already dead, and had time to “ferment.” This does not, however, mean that they are unwilling to fend off intruders or afraid of them. Indeed, ghouls exhibit great strength, and occasionally a nearly peerless dexterity, and not-uncommonly retain the tool-using abilities of their former lives, meaning that one should not be surprised to see crude tools and weapons in use, or even sophisticated ones, in the case of a ghoul having been buried with a weapon, such as a service revolver.

It is important to remember that while the ghoul retains the abilities of their former lives, nothing, or nearly nothing, of the original personality remains. A ghoul is just as likely to consume the flesh of a former close relative as a complete stranger, and will betray the causes they stood for in life with no hesitation or consideration. The destruction of a ghoul is a fairly straightforward affair. Complete destruction of the body is a popular tactic, but destruction of the brain seems to be just as effective, suggesting that the source of the body’s motive force can be found within.

A special note should be made of the feral ghouls which often travel in packs. These ghouls are colloquially known as zombies, but that term more properly refers to a sort of servant. Feral ghouls have been known to travel far from the cemetery of their creation and pour through city streets attempting to catch live prey to consume. The bite of such a ghoul often creates another when the victim dies.

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