The Black Pilgrimage to Chorazin

This blog is indebted to an article called The Black Pilgrimage by Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls, originally published in Ghosts & Scholars 26 and available to read online here.

I’ve always been a great fan of the ghost story writer Montague Rhodes James,  known as M.R. James, who was Provost of King’s College Cambridge many years before I was a student there. His portrait hung, and may still hang, in the Hall, looking down on the diners with a quizzical eye.

From my teens, I was thrilled and terrified by his short stories, in which sudden death and retribution are dealt out with equal harshness to the guilty and the unlucky. It was some years before I detected the dry humour in his writing.

One of my favourite stories is Count Magnus, in which unfortunate scholar, Mr Wraxall, manages to waken the long-dead Count and his terrible servant from their slumbers. Once the deed is done, he is doomed, and he knows it. His fate is so horrible that at the inquest seven of the jurors who view his body faint, and the verdict is “visitation of God”. (James says that Wraxall was “near being a Fellow of his college at Oxford — Brasenose” which leaves one suspecting a subtle jibe from someone who was definitely a fellow of a Cambridge college).

It is a story about overweening curiosity. Wraxall visits the Count’s mausoleum and utters aloud a wish to see the Count. Three times he feels compelled to return, and each time one of the padlocks on the Count’s sarcophagus opens. (That the sarcophagus is padlocked is a telling detail).

It is a terrifying story for anyone with OCD because after his first visit, Wraxall finds that he can’t help himself; he is compelled to call up the Count’s malign spirit.

Earlier in the story, when Wraxall is conducting his research into the archives at the Count’s manor at Råbäck in Sweden, he comes across a paper written by the Count himself, describing how to obtain the services of a demon – or something more nameless:

‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince…’ Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr Wraxall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aëris (‘of the air’).

Part of the pleasure of these narratives derives from the blend of scholarly detail with extreme terror. Mr Wraxall is in some ways an innocent victim. The reader learns that the extract comes from a book called Liber nigrae peregrinationis, which means “Book of the Black Pilgrimage”.

From my point of view, the name Chorazin stuck in my mind, and when I came to write Children of the Shaman, I used it as the name of the Wanderer city attacked by the Doyen of Ademar, an intemperate local noble, and transported to the underworld by miraculous means. (In my parallel world, the Wanderers are cognate with the Jews).

When the book was published, a friend and fellow Jamesian argued with me, saying  the name Chorazin was misleading, because if you follow the implication of Count Magnus, the city itself must be a place of evil. I disagreed, conscious that I knew nothing about the derivation of the name. Later on, I thought it must refer to the city of Khorasan or Khurasan, one of the sources of the Babylonian Talmud. (The Jews of Afghanistan) As a Talmudic scholar, James would have known of Khorasan, and I assumed Chorazin was a version of that name.

However, when I read the article by Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls on the Black Pilgrimage, I discovered that Chorazin was one of three cities rebuked by Jesus, together with Bethsaida and Capernaum. Here is part of the relevant passage from Matthew xi, 21-24, quoted in Pardoe and Nicholls:

“Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you…”

According to later tradition, the Anti-Christ was to be born in Chorazin.Hence the reference to “The Prince of the Air” in James.

Pardoe and Nicholls go on to discuss whether James was thinking of a physical or spiritual pilgrimage. The implication of the story, sadly for the hapless Mr Wraxall, is that not only did the Count go on the Black Pilgrimage but obtained a servant to wreak his revenge on those who offended him. And though dead, he was not at peace, as Wraxall learned when talking to the landlord of the inn where he was staying. The landlord told him how ninety-two years ago, two men trespassed on the Count’s lands, long after the Count himself was dead. They were warned against it in chilling terms:

“No, do not go; we are sure you will meet with persons walking who should not be walking. They should be resting, not walking.”

The two men ignore the warnings, and meet a horrible fate.

I’m not as well acquainted with the New Testament as James would have been, and I did not know about the cursed cities when I was writing Children of the Shaman. In my novel the Wanderers, some of whom inhabit Chorazin, are a cursed people; the Mother-Goddess, Megalmayar, has cursed them to wander the earth since the death of her Son, even though they were not to blame.

(This refers to the fact that the Jews were held responsible for the death of Christ, until the Second Vatican Council repudiated the belief in collective Jewish guilt: Wikipedia)

In Children of the Shaman, Chorazin gets stuck in the underworld. In my most recent novel, Winterbloom, it has become a haunt for ghosts and spirits of all kinds after nightfall. Several of the characters, some of whom are spirits, end up staying at an inn designed for ghostly or demonic clientele, where they are summoned into the presence of Magus Kaschai the Deathless, who is holding court in one of the private rooms, like a Mafia godfather.

Though the city is called Chorazin, it is not meant to be demonic in itself. The reference started out as a joke, and later seemed appropriate because of the place’s chthonic associations (rather than its “Tartarean origin” to quote James).

I’ll end with a short extract from Winterbloom, in which two of the characters unwisely decide to leave the inn where they are staying in Chorazin in the middle of the night…

The stone staircase descended between two plain plaster walls. Though the inn showed traces of former opulence, this narrow stair came from an older, more modest building. Dakker felt a lingering curiosity as he crept down the steps, following his friend. He wondered about the city whose name was Chorazin, and how it would appear in daylight. And he wondered what this inn had been and what its history was, before it had become an abode of the dead – and other creatures.

There was a soft sound, like a bundle of clothes falling to the ground. Dakker cried out as a dark mass dropped from the stairwell above and engulfed El Shur. His head and shoulders were hidden under a black pall. It looked as if someone had emptied a bucket of darkness over him.

Without looking up, Dakker sensed rather than heard slithering as another prepared to drop on him. He made a desperate lunge towards El Shur and shoved him hard so his friend fell down the last few steps, rolled up in his cloak and the black mass that had covered the upper part of his body.

Dakker sprang after him, and felt the whoosh of air as the thing that fell from the ceiling above missed him. Its passage knocked off his helm, and he felt slimy palps, like the mouth parts of an octopus, slither over the back of his neck and his scalp.