A Cabinet of Curiosities
Wherein shall be found occasional observations upon various and sundry 
relics of ancient, bygone, and not-so-bygone Ages of the World

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A Queen in Ivory


Walrus ivory pieces of a 12th century chess set were found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. One of the several local stories of their discovery says that when their finder looked into the small dark hole in the sandbank where they had been concealed for centuries, he at first thought the little figures to be faeries. This is a fanciful story, but whether it's true or not, the moment he got them out into the light, he knew what they were. Just people. Portraits of people in their battle array. Waiting. All of them waiting to play...except for the queen, who yawned and looked sad to be brought back out into the light of day.

Some might find it ironic that the queen, the mightiest of weapons in the chess piece arsenal, would appear utterly dismayed at the sight of a battlefield. But look at her face. She is appalled. And perhaps a little disappointed. She knows the other pieces will never learn. Of course they won't. King follows king, knight follows knight down and down into the waiting ground. Was there nothing better to do with the day? she asks the boys, most of them now lying wounded and indolent about the board. Must you go on like this? she says, shaking her head from side to side. And what in God's name is the Bishop doing out there? 

As she and the rest of the court are put into a sack and carried back to the village, the queen wonders if the elaborate moves and endless stratagems arise from love of sport, or merely ennui? Her face suggests she's not sure she can tell the difference anymore. 

* * * 


Memento Mori Pocket Watch


This watch was made in the 17th century, part of a genre of image, often seen in paintings, sculpture and adornment, called memento mori, which means "remember you shall die." Such tokens may remind us that we ought to be making better use of our time. After all, how many minutes, hours, or days slip past us, unnoticed, into oblivion? An inscription reads Incerta Mortis Hora, or "The Hour of Death Is Uncertain," and so we watch the hours pass and wonder: When? 

When I first saw this watch in the Ashmolean Museum, I was spell-stopped. I forgot where I was and that someone was waiting for me outside. My eyes moved over the watch's every detail, mind turning, imagining the watch's possible fictional history and arcane uses. I immediately wanted to create a mythos around it, and began to consider a place, perhaps a town, where such a thing would be more than just a timepiece, where this death watch might be venerated and feared. Who would treasure such a thing, and for what secret purposes might it be used? I called it a "Hadean Clock" and pondered what might happen if the hand were stopped from making its endless, prescribed journey about the dial. The answer came immediately: If you stop the watch's hand, you will see the dead. In the world of the death watch, the dead linger about the living constantly, but time draws a veil between them. The symbolic stopping of time would reveal the ever-present spectral realm, the shadowlands. That was how my book Death Watch began, in that moment when, ironically, I forgot the hour in the act of imagining. I never thought I'd write a novel (let alone such a big one), but over the next three years, many more details—characters, scenes, plots, family histories, shards of eldritch lore—poured into my notebooks. So, I learned, sometimes all you need to begin work on something big is one little image to inspire you and set the gears in motion: A small silver skull. A pocketwatch. A reminder that time is always running out.

* * * 

Fossil Ivory Bear From The Far North

Perhaps a thousand years old, maybe older. Objects like this, from the myth-time, are revealed by melting snows and earth-heave during the thaw, pushed up from their resting places. Its soft curves and subtle dotted decoration belies the power of the animal it depicts. 

Is it a hunter's good luck charm? A shaman's amulet? A child's toy? The bear has no mouth to tell its tale. But if it did, would it sing to you of snow, of long dark nights without end? Or of hunger, of meat and blood that move below the ice? Or of the little stars tattooed upon its side who are, you know, the bear's sisters?

Once, long ago, Winter overstayed its welcome. It sunk its long teeth into the land like a bear and would not budge. The wind growled and everything once green or brown or blue was pushed below a thick pelt of snow. The people gathered close about the fire and talked in low voices. Winter must sleep, they said. It must be still, they said. Let the ice bear rest, for a time, they said. And so from an ancient tusk, a carving was made. A small bear. A white bear with a belt of winter stars. And a hole was dug below the snow, through ice, down to the frozen sod, and the small bear was buried. And then Winter put down its head, for a time, and dreamed. Spring came.


* * * 
The Mirror of Dr. John Dee

This object has fascinated me for a long time. Dr. Dee was a renowned scholar of the Elizabethan world. He had the largest private library in England (over 4,000 books) and once asked Queen Mary for permission to travel around the country "asking" the owners of ancient houses to turn over their books to him which he would then use to found a national archive, to which (I suspect) he alone would hold the key.

He also spoke to spirits.

There is a note affixed to the mirror's case written by Sir Horace Walpole that reads: The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits...

Dee had several "shew stones" that he used for conjuring. The curious thing is that the mirror, which is fashioned of obsidian, comes from Mexico, likely brought to Spain in the 1520's or 1530's and obtained by Dee during his time at the Spanish court. It is a distinctly foreign object, and hence, invokes fascination. There was nothing like it in England. In Mexico, such mirrors were sacred to Tezcatlipoca, god of the "Smoking Mirror," a deity associated with sorcery and visions and kingship.

So, did Dee know about how obsidian mirrors were originally used in Mexico, and did such accounts inspire him to do a little scrying of his own? Or did the mirror speak to him? I love to think of Dee in his study, surrounded by his four thousand books and his Mercatur globes, gazing into his black stone. What did he see? His accounts speak of mighty angels and resplendent spirits descending in clouds and wreathed in fire. But was he privy to even more foreign sights? Temple-pyramids? Feathered priests? And then, in those quiet moments when the visions faded, did he take notice of his own reflected face within the stone, framed in shadow? And who did he think he was, just then, caught within the mirror's gaze, within the staring eye of an ancient god of a faraway land?