When I read the Kult core book, I am again and again struck by the same feeling: The Kult universe is dark, and it is expansive. Every possible avenue is left open for you, nothing is absolute nor set in stone. While we know about the cairath and nachtschreck and azghouls, there are a million other horrors the book never explores. We learn about the Swap Dealer and Death Angel Incarnates, but there are thousands other gods and manifestations of them we might as well be dealing with.
What lies beyond the Illusion, and how it affects those that gaze through it, is entirely up to us. We can tie it to the book’s presented beings and conflicts as much or as little as we want. If we accept that, then Kult is so much more than a game about discovering lictors and zeloths and the Demiurge. Kult becomes a game where nearly any horror story can be told, and thanks to the game world’s malleability, we can seamlessly integrate it to any desired level we want for our story.
For this (hopefully frequently) recurring segment of Beyond Elysium, I will step away from the nepharites and have a Kult-inspired look at other horror media. Welcome to The Kult Take.
In preparation for the movie reboot of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, I decided to finally read the original book. It was very good! It’s a seriously intense story, dealing bluntly and unflinchingly with the fear of death and the trauma of losing a loved one. It questions how comfortable we should be with death. Should we take it for granted? Should we defy it, or hide from it? I recommend you read it, but I will try to summarize some of the important elements of the book as we go along.
For this first segment of The Kult Take, I’ll have a look at the supernatural powers that fuel the horrors in the book. But, before we go on, I feel obligated to state in as explicit a way I can:
The Micmac Burial Grounds, cursed by a monster the book names a Wendigo, is not part of Elysium. This is a place said to exist deep in the forest outside of Ludlow, where those buried come back to life. Changed. Animals raised act differently, and nothing can clean the stench of death from them. Those few humans taken to this place come back with knowledge they should not have, and seem filled with spite and hate towards the living. They can die again after this, and perhaps that is for the best.
This place with the power to bring back the dead exists deep in Gaia, and its influence stretches out into the rural Ludlow community and sometimes even farther. The power that dwells there is ancient, and its goals are largely unknown. We will get back to the Wendigo and its influence over the story. To begin, we will see how going to the burial grounds requires exploring Gaia, the original wilds beyond the Illusion.
Especially during Louis Creed’s trip alone, I noticed repeatedly the emphasis King places on how different the forest is beyond the deadfall, that heap of old trees which mark the border of the Pet Sematary. Mists which never go away, unrecognizable plantlife (and just by the bye, have you ever seen plants like these in Maine before? In Maine or anywhere else?), the Wendigo and what Jud called St. Elmo’s fires, and a starry sky with constallations Louis has never seen before. The forest seems alien, not part at all of the world Louis and Jud come from.
This shows us that the deadfall, which demands a ritual to pass over, lives in the borderlands between Elysium and Gaia. The Illusion is weak here, and while crossing over into the wild lands of Gaia is possible, it is risky business. The people of Ludlow have learned, by passing down knowledge learned from the Native Americans, how to perform the ritual. Walk steady and confidently, look forward. If you do this, you will pass safely. As always, the magic lies within ourselves, but we are fettered and the well understood ritual helps us cross over.
This also explains why it is necessary to go through the deadwood in order to find the burial grounds beyond. Rationally, we might realize that anything could be walked around, and Little God Swamp must necessarily be approachable from other directions. The book never addresses this, but it is a notable absence – Jud simply knows that to get to the burial grounds, you must pass through the deadfall.
The eponymous Pet Sematary, at the base of the deadfall, reveals something to us as well. This place is where the children of Ludlow, for a long time, have buried their dead pets in an odd tradition with no clear beginning. It exists on the border to Gaia, and the burial grounds’ influence stretches past this border. The children are subconsciously drawn to this place, and without having visited the true burial ground they still mimic its shape, concentric circles imitiating a spiral. It is a form of worship to whatever power lies beyond, whether they understand it or not.
Jud explains to Louis on their first trip to the burial grounds that the Micmacs created the place, and later abandoned it after it had been cursed by a Wendigo. I have very little knowledge of how low-technology tribal communities should be treated in the Kult mythos – the Micmac people were historically a hunting and fishing culture, so my intuition tells me that they must have lived close to Gaia’s influence. As such, I have a theory for the events that lead up to the burial grounds as they exist when the book takes place.
The Micmacs, when they first arrived to the forests around Ludlow, would have been drawn into Gaia in a similar way to how it affects Jud, Louis and the children burying their pets at the deadfall. A subtle, inexplicable force which guided them to the mesa where they constructed their burial grounds. The Wendigo, whatever entity that is, tricked them bit by bit into constructing a sacred place from which it could grow its power. The burials served as sacrifices to the being, the Micmacs unwittingly giving worship to it as it slowly manifested at the burial grounds.
Eventually, the Wendigo would be powerful enough to manifest through the resurrection of the dead. The soil became sour, as is explained in the book, and the Micmacs left the place. Whether this event actually ties into the traditional Wendigo stories of cannibalism (as Louis rationalizes), we cannot know for certain. There are some hints towards cannibalism in the book, but I will leave you to decide for yourself what the truth is here. The Wendigo was set loose, with the spiral burial grounds as its center, and it would from that moment continue to reach out, convincing the people of Ludlow and its surroundings to come bring back their lost loved ones.
What are the Wendigo’s goals? It is an ancient being of Gaia, but it seems invested in the humans trapped in Elysium. It’s impossible to reason with, an intellect that is one with the primal forest beyond the deadfall, and humans are unable to resist both its pull and its push. At the end of the novel, Rachel is stopped from coming to Ludlow until Gage has already been resurrected. There is a cunning here, an interest in seeing the tragedy play out.
The Wendigo has immense power. We see it influence events far beyond Ludlow, hinting at its control over Time and Space. Its most recognizable trait, however, is its ability to heal corpses and control them. My view is that those souls are trapped, controlled by the Wendigo as it dictates the actions of their body. I do not believe the person buried is ever in control once they are raised, but they still exist in there, looking on horrified out of eyes that were once theirs. Using its knowledge of hidden things, the Wendigo can use its corpse puppets to manipulate those that once loved the soul it contained.
I believe that the setting and themes of Pet Sematary could make for an incredibly powerful Kult story. A character losing their loved ones and, overcome with grief, deciding that the resurrection promised by the burial grounds is a good idea, can be an engaging story to go through. Preferably the burial grounds would be built up in advance, similar to how King does in the book. The players learn about the childrens’ odd tradition, perhaps hear a local story or two, always on the periphery. The burial grounds act as a background set piece for a different story until the time has come for the Wendigo’s power to wax. The character feels that deep, instinctual pull, and nothing will stop them from making the same mistake as Louis Creed, Bill Baterman and many others made.