Monday, March 2, 2015

2. The Hazards of Frog Gigging

“Khongabassi is not terrible, he is only Khongabassi.”
—from Frogfather (1943), by Manly Wade Wellman

In the previous post, Clark Ashton Smith’s Mother of Toads (1938) was discussed, as well as the importance of wetlands to horror ecology.  Frogs and toads—batrachians—have been the subject of mythology and fables for millennia.  River frogs appeared in sufficient numbers to be considered the second of ten plagues to befall Egypt in Exodus 8: 1-15.

So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land.  But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt.   

Gnats, flies, boils, locusts and much worse followed, as the consequences of injustice and oppression were expressed in a series of ecological disasters.

In some Native American cultures, frogs may be associated with healing, spiritual transformation, the arrival of spring, and the ability to bring rain.  In others they may represent evil entities responsible for bringing illness or bad luck.  In Wabanaki legend there is an enormous lake monster named Aglebemu who dams up a great river, inflicting drought on those downstream.  The hero of the legend defeats Aglebemu and turns him into a bullfrog.   

There is of course the well-known Brothers Grimm fable, The Frog Prince, in which a princess initially does not keep her part of a bargain with a frog who rescues her ball from a spring.  He persists, annoying her to no end.  With her father, the king’s insistence, she allows the frog to eat from her plate and sleep in her bed for three nights in a row.  This is weird on many levels, but was a part of the original deal. 

In some versions of the story, the princess merely kisses the frog to break a spell and transform him back into a prince.  Or she merely sleeps with him for a few nights to accomplish the same result.  (In real life the opposite often occurs.)  However, in the original Brothers Grimm tale, the princess hurls the frog against a wall in disgust—this does the trick.  So much more seems to be going on here.  As with many fairy tales, the original versions are quite a bit darker, and perhaps more archetypal and disturbing than the sanitized versions that have come down to us.

H.P. Lovecraft’s venture into batrachian horror, The Moon-Bog (1926), employs the fairy tale device of humans being transformed into frogs, though the mechanism and purpose is unclear.  In the story, a wealthy landowner contrives to drain a swamp on some ancestral land he has inherited.  This provokes the local genius loci with disastrous results.  The Moon-Bog is a fascinating story on many levels, and worth reading in the context of Lovecraft’s later “Yog-Sothothery”—his term for work that was later categorized as part of the Cthulhu Mythos.  The Moon-Bog was discussed at length in a previous post.  (See also A Horror of the Amphibious.)

Native American lore about frogs and swampland forms the basis for an entertaining story by Manly Wade Wellman called Frogfather (1943).   A young man and an old Indian assist a local capitalist on a frog gigging expedition in a remote southern swamp.  Fans of Wellman’s work know that the arrogance and self-centeredness of such moneyed individuals will lead them inexorably to an awful doom.  This will come at the hands of some monstrosity that locals know well enough to leave alone. 

In this particular marshland, it may be a cousin of Aglebemu.  In vain the old Indian warns the rich man not to trespass in an especially dreary part of the swamp:  “That’s no place to stick frogs…It’s the home of Khongabassi.”  Though not set in a tropical rainforest, one can easily see Frogfather as one of the inspirations for Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), which also involves a monstrous amphibian defending its territory. 

It is interesting to compare Clark Ashton Smith’s Mother of Toads, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Moon-Bog and Manly Wade Wellman’s Frogfather.  All three were published in Weird Tales at various times, separated from each other by an interval of about a decade.  There is no thematic continuity linking the three, other than batrachian ecology and some shared horror elements. 

For Smith, the amphibians seemed to symbolize fear of nature as ruled by a devouring Earth Mother.  Lovecraft uses them as an expression of the power of place and forgotten history.  Wellman is preoccupied with rough social justice and the consequences of arrogance and greed.  Of the three, Wellman has a sense of humor about these matters, and is most down to earth, or in this case, water.

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