Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Night Lights...some back ground

Now available through Aspen Mountain Press

Night Lights

Bright lights, cold nights, dark frights …Margaret Thawley's watery nightmares hold the keys to unlocking her past and her future. On the Philippine Island of Cagayan, she places her trust in the enigmatic warrior Rizal Malihim and his night lights, to keep her safe despite the tales. For in Cagayan, the natives warn, fireflies mask the dreaded berbalangs - ghoulish vampires swarming for victims to kill.


Set in Cagayan, Malaysia in 1899, Miss Margaret Thawley has been sent away from home in shame following an illicit affair. However, arriving in Malayasia she finds things aren't what they seem. The expedition turns into a witch hunt with her as the bait, and if that weren't enough, the perilous sea journey awakens long dormant nightmares of drowning from her childhood. But are they nightmares or memories? Just what dark secret lies in her past, hidden by dreams of dark waters and burning lights in the forest?

For the curious reader, the tale of the berbalangs is a very real one indeed. In 1896 Mr. Ethelbert Forbes Skertcherley filed a report of his time spent on the island of Cagayan in the Sulu Sea. The report made to the Asiatic Society of Bengal was shared and published through the "unseen university" system. What began as a rather boring recitation on the anthropological facts and findings ended in an unorthodix recounting of meeting the feared boogey-man of the native villagers. This documented event later appeared in the book "Oddities" by Rupert T. Gould.

What was most unusual was the lack of effect the fantastical account raised within the close-knit group of scholars and academics that created the brotherhood of shared information and papers creating the loose "unseen university." In the days before accredited colleges and universities sprung up seemingly in every city, the only way to obtain an education was to travel across Europe and Asia in search of different schools and teachers. As more and more men of means came to accumulate knowledge they began sharing their findings in a series of letters that evolved into newspapers, periodicals and magazines. In order to be a member you had to have something of merit to contribute - either by education or active exploration with documentation. And with this, the "unseen university" system was born.

In the 1800s, fantastical tales were either deeply investigated or shouted down as delusional ramblings. Skertcherley's account, however, passed by in relative silence. Was it because his hysterical account of astral insectoid-humans with vampire teeth and claws feasting on the stomachs of the dead was too bizarre to credit - or was there something else, something unseen that smoothed over the account? Even more compelling, the Royal Society of London within months of having the account published in their own periodical ignored the report and instead launched a multi-year investigation into the vampire of High Gate Cemetery.

Why was one vampire so sought after and the other neglected? Or was it?

That was the inspiration that led to the creation of Night Lights.

Now, from my research notes, some observances on berbalangs:

Skertchley's native informants told him that when the berbalang were not flying around in search of human victims in their astral bodies in the form of reddish firefly swarms, they lived in a small village in a jungle clearing in the interior of the island. Against his informants' earnest warnings, he decided to visit the village and see for himself, and accordingly set out one day with his local guide Matali. When they got to the village, the terrified Matali stayed behind in the jungle, but Skertchley boldly went in--and found the village completely deserted.

Night fell as they made their way back to the village where Forbes stayed and Matali lived. As they were crossing a grassy valley on their way back, they saw and heard a huge swarm of dancing reddish fireflies passing overhead and making a ghoulish moaning or howling noise, while Skertchley and Matali hid in the grass. Matali told Skertchley these were the berbalang, in search of human prey. Just before returning to their own village, Skertchley and Matali passed the outlying house of Hassan, a villager whom Skertchley knew. Matali told Skertchley the berbalang had probably tried to attack Hassan--but that he was safe because he kept a coconut-pearl, locally believed to keep the berbalang away. Visiting Hassan the next morning to inquire what if anything he had observed the night before, Skertchley found Hassan dead, a look of extreme terror on his face.

"Cagayan Sulu, its Customs, Legends, and Superstitions," in the _Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal_, Vol. LXV, Part III, Np. 1, 1896.

Still curious? There is always more...

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