SYNOPSIS: Huxley Auspex a notable Victorian Spiritualist created his auspicmoriscope with the hopes of pulling the veil away and allowing light onto the shadows of the supernatural. He never thought one of these ghost viewers, the Asphodel, would hold so much more for the most unlikely of victims. The first story in occult authority Etta Diem’s penny dreadful of strange machinery and Lovecraft influences.
The first entry in Etta Diem’s Encyclopedia of Harmful Sensations
As recorded from second hand accounts from Phineas Luft and Gertrude Vermooth
In the late 1900’s at the height of the Spiritualist movement, Huxley Auspex took his place among the movement’s elite by creating and ushering into the world the auspicmoriscope. The fantastic claims of this invention were simple: The user looked into the eyepiece and turned the handle and the spirit realm became visible within the instrument’s view finder.
The instrument caused a stir among even the most hardened in the community and Auspex became a quick celebrity, embraced by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
He followed this rise to celebrity by creating a variety of variations on his original device, each offering claims more brilliant and fabled than the next.
The final version of the auspicmoriscope was a heavy contraption that came complete with a strange scrying board and typewriter like letter box that was meant to allow the user to type in messages or relay the names of those they wished to contact. Auspex claimed the additions to the device allowed for better locating and displaying of those the viewer desired to see.
Though Auspex was a darling of the spiritualist movement and the auspicmoriscope one of its most valued tools, these things only served to make him a vocal point for the debunkers of the movement’s claims. Auspex even came under the wrath and dedicated attention of the infamous Harry Houdini, the renowned skeptic and revealer of spiritualist trickery.
Houdini was one of the first to step up and proclaim Auspex’s invention nothing more than a charlatan’s tool and he sought every method and means to prove this theory. The problem was that the auspicmoriscope was not so easy to debunk and expose for the hoax it was seen to be.
When most any viewer put their eyes to the eye piece, the simple fact was they did see a vision of this world as it was not seen through normal eyes. The darker shades of the shadows were highlighted and brought into deeper detail. The bright blue skies no longer looked as simple as they did on a spring day. And all too often thick vaporous forms seemed to dominate the viewfinder with no reasonable explanation as to why. What was more disturbing was how these vaporous forms seemed to show more definition the longer one viewed them. Faces emerged and bodies slowly became outlined. Even those who were dead set on not seeing anything within these forms came away from the auspicmoriscope with the unsettling feeling that they had indeed viewed something other worldly.
The minor details of Auspex’s invention and its various forms are details better left to the history books showcasing the history of Spiritualism, except that few mentions are ever made about Auspex and his place within that history. He was not removed from these histories simply because the auspicmoriscope was one of those strange instruments that lay in that iffy ground of being proven a fraud and proven real. He was removed because of the strange legend of one particular auspicmoriscope that came to haunt Auspex and cause him to be wiped from most spiritualist pages by the believer and naysayer alike.
Auspex lovingly hand crafted each of his auspicmoriscopes and was given to the desire to personally name each. The Asphodel auspicmoriscope was christened such after the name of an individual and not the flower; an individual he would never actually identify or speak of.
The Asphodel began its life in the typical fashion of Auspex’s auspicmoriscopes. It was unveiled at one of Willum Spiderwort’s (a noted spiritualist and alchemist) private parties and invitees were given first chance to take a turn and peer into the viewfinder and witness the spiritual realm. By all accounts there were no recorded moments of unrest or moments of the unexpected fantastic with this unveiling. Viewers looked into the viewfinder and saw, well, by all accounts most queried later on said they saw very little in this particular auspicmoriscope as compared to the others they’d had benefit to look into. It was suggested that perhaps Auspex was finally losing his magical touch. This was later dispelled when his Bramble auspicmoriscope debuted to great reviews among the spiritualist community.
The Asphodel was soon sold into the realm of traveling curiosities and left to the life of either amazing or boring the average man. It found a home in a traveling tent of curiosities belonging to Clotbur Clover, the owner of a small seasonal carnival. Most individuals who offered up a penny to five cents (depending on the wealth of the town the carnival was visiting) saw nothing that struck them as fantastic.
On a whole this auspicmoriscope, though one of the heralded inventions of the infamous Huxley Auspex, was little more than a fancy looking contraption to view the regular world with a few shadows brightened; but very little was said to be lurking within those brightened shadows. Though it was mentioned it was one of the more beautiful designs of the inventor’s. These facts would, after time, come to change.
It has never been fully substantiated where the legend of the Asphodel came into being. There was of course an individual given the honor of being claimed the first to experience the Asphodel’s strange properties, but as any writer of history knows there could have been many others who experienced similar events and simply kept those events to themselves for fear of harming their reputation or being accused of mental fragility.
Lottie Dittany was the first documented case of the Asphodel auspicmoriscope and its strange behavior. It was documented that when Ms. Dittany first looked into the scope she was greeted with the same variety of highlighted shadows as others had claimed. However, the longer she looked the more the shadows vibrated and seemed to turn. Then she was presented with the apparition of a young woman who did not seem dead at all. In fact, she seemed to be struggling against death with all her might. The peril of her predicament came through the viewfinder and infected the hapless witness.
Lottie was overwhelmed with the site of the young woman fighting against her death, which, as best Lottie could surmise, was an incident of drowning. The fear that the woman felt, Lottie felt. The pain of her struggle and the slow loss of life to her body was also felt. Lottie stood at the Asphodel and looked upon the last moments of life as it led into death and felt every agonizing moment without her own body having to do anything more than empathize with the experience.
Ms. Dittany was said to immediately fall into a panicked state of shock. She fell to the floor of the tent and jumped around as though convulsions had gripped her. She cried out to let her out from under the water, to let her breath, to take the hand from her throat that was holding her beneath the water and let her please come up for air! Ms. Dittany had to be placed under a deep sleep to calm her. She had to be sedated in this fashion for many weeks to be kept from further outbursts of hysterics.
After the incident with the auspicmoriscope, Lottie Dittany never really recovered or was able to explain what she had seen. It was a suicide letter she left three years later that offered the only insight into her experience. She wrote:
Dear world, forgive me for my lack of strength, but the haunting has become too much for me to bear. From the moment I looked into that cursed contraption of the charlatan Auspex I knew exactly how my life would end.
I witnessed the death of a young woman who was forcefully held under water till her life was no more. I felt first her disbelief that this event was happening to her. I felt her panic that came with the inability to draw breath. And when it became apparent that she would not escape this awful fate. I felt her fear and rage. I carried these things with me for a time greater than I can endure, somehow saturated with this knowledge that I would come to the same fate as this woman. Every night I dreamed about the killing hand holding me under that water. Sometimes it was the water of my bathing tub. Sometimes it was the cold water of the river creek near my mother’s house. Yet always the water.
As I know this is my fate, I have decided that I will meet it and put an end to these savage dreams. Please do not think me weak. My decision is quite sound. I have had to live with the knowledge that I can meet my fate once and be done with it, or I can be tormented by the impending knowledge of it and rehearse it night after agonizing night. So I go to my death knowing it is by my own hand, but I leave this life with a warning as well…
That vile inventor Huxley Auspex knows not what he tampers with as he creates these damned machines of his. He thinks he makes a device for us to spy on the ghosts that are around us day by day, but truly he makes machinery that allows the mortal’s eyes to bare witness to those things they are not meant to see. My death is on his hands and if there is a murderer of my life to be named, make it his name that finds your lips. My only hope is that his dreaded machines either be destroyed or deeply lost within the earth where they belong. I hope my death haunts him as his machine has haunted me.
The spiritualist community was ready to attribute this to fluke or the ravings of a mad woman who choose a piece of their movement to attribute her insanity to. Time would prove this a false idea though. Other stories of a similar nature would come to life, each attributed to the once believed inferior Asphodel auspicmoriscope. Most would see nothing, but one viewer among the many would claim to witness the demise of another. Much like Lottie’s suicide note account, they would claim to see the death, to feel it and forever be haunted by it and the knowledge that they too would die this way. And one after the other the afflicted would indeed either die in the manner they witnessed, or bring upon this death themselves to end the constant night after night reliving of this prophesied fate.
The Asphodel was lost for a time but was soon found at another dime tent of curiosities. It had been renamed the Hemlock and her legend was openly flaunted for the public at large. The price of admission to view this instrument was tripled and even then the crowd eager for a chance to view it continually increased. It was as though the possibility of death was the golden ticket needed to make this once thought faulty contraption worthwhile. Its legend grew and no one among the debunking community was able to stall the phenomenon.
When the Asphodel (editor’s note: the name Hemlock was never accepted or used among the Spiritualist community, it was solely associated with the crude carnival crowd) could not be debunked or taken from the dreary public eye, many members of the Spiritualist community who felt some responsibility to the foolish and naive community that flocked to its wonders, took a different approach. Their intent was to raise enough funds to purchase the contraption and lock it away in the same manner many possessed items had been before it.
When the community could not succeed in procuring the purchase of the machine, they took the more unscrupulous route and attempted to steal it. This too ended in failure as it came to their knowledge that the real Asphodel had already been stolen several weeks earlier. The fake version they found was a laughable contraption made of a broken down Victrola, a pair of shoddy binoculars and the guts of an old grandfather clock. The members of the Spiritualist community accepted the fake Hemlock as a necessary evil and while each quietly intended to continue looking for the real Asphodel for their own private reasons, publicly they acknowledged the fake contraption held no danger to the community and they would leave it in the world in hopes that eventually someone would come along to debunk it again and perhaps succeed, finally ending the public’s fascination with it.
The path the Asphodel took from the traveling tent of curiosities, later learned, actually brought the device full circle. After six years of the legend of this auspicmoriscope, (and the weight of that first suicide on his conscious) the good inventor Huxley Auspex finally sought out his former invention and is said to have peered into it with his own eyes. What he saw he never shared with anyone, not on his deathbed or the days leading up to his tragic death.
Soon after tracking down his beloved creation under the different name he witnessed first hand the crowds of people bidding for a chance to look into his auspicmoriscope. The site disturbed him greatly. The rich stood among the poor and anyone with enough money was allowed access to it.
Most eyes looked into the eyepiece excitedly and came away moments later with a look of let down. After all, the Asphodel had once been considered a failure as a true spirit looking glass and to look into it and see its innocent visions was to see very little except the shadow world. Yet every so often Auspex would note a pair of eyes that came away from the eyepiece haunted, forever changed by whatever they witnessed within the device. It was this haunted look that got to him. It had bothered him that so many would come to witness a legend born of suffering and death, but he knew this to be apart of the human condition. It was that look in the eyes of those who the Asphodel worked her true vision on… those eyes bore into his soul.
No one knows exactly how or when he stole back the auspicmoriscope. There were a few days when the curiosity tent was closed. However, there were late night private viewings of the Hemlock. It is mostly an accepted fact that this is when the theft took place. When the owners returned and found their device gone they closed shop and scrambled to make a facsimile of the original device as best their memories and materials would allow.
The owners had occasion to move their carnival a great distance away where the crowds might not be familiar with the device beyond published drawings of it, which could be claimed to be inaccurate. This strange move is considered further proof for the timing of the believed theft.
Regardless if the owners ruse was successful or not, there was no way for them to disguise the fact that this was not a true auspicmoriscope (the cheap materials alone gave this way) and that it was not worth the price of admission. Slowly the crowds began to dwindle as word of mouth spread around. The Asphodel, later promoted as the Hemlock, seemed to have been lost to the shadows one night and this cheap impostor was fooling no one. The wishes of the Spiritualist were finally realized.
As the reputation of the Asphodel, under the title the Hemlock, slowly faded back into the fringe, stories of the looking glass that might show a person their ultimate death became more urban legend allotted to some dusty past many items of the spiritualist movement fell prey to. It became a popular tale among children to frighten, but for the world at large it was just another small thing that seemed very real at the time, but now that it was gone it held little to no importance or intrigue.
Privately, the spiritualist community never reached this carefree place. Those within the movement who were not terrified by Auspex’s invention, were individuals foolishly too intrigued by the item. Many of these individuals sought out Huxley Auspex when it became known that his most famous auspicmoriscope had been stolen. What they found was a man gripped by mania. He admitted to having stolen the Asphodel and was maniacal about wishing to seek out and steal back all the other auspicmoriscopes he’d created, regardless of what they did or what they showed. However, he never personally confessed what became of the machine.
Willum Spiderwort was the last person to seek out Auspex and the only one to ever publicly quote anything that his friend said to him. It is rumored that that Spiderwort wrote at length about not only his final interactions with his long time friend, but also made a point of taking detailed notes and sketches of all the auspicmoriscopes, including the ones that Auspex had successfully stolen back and claimed to have eventually destroyed. There is no knowledge to be gained from Spiderwort, however, as his devoted students, who later formed the Willum Society, took all of the books, journals and anything of worth of their teacher’s and kept it all well hidden. All that is known of Spiderwort’s time with Auspex is this quote taken from a letter to a friend:
“I have little to say about Huxley and his madness, except to say that it was a well founded madness which grips him, and a madness all of our kind is subject to given the forces we pretend to understand and interact with. The last thing my old friend said to me was ‘If I can’t destroy them I shall hide them. I will hide them at the bottom of the oceans with the old gods if I have to, but never will they see the light of day again or will I permit eyes other than my own to look into them. I was a fool to think I understood. I was griped by ego and pride to think I had the right to create a medium between the light and the shadows. Some things need to be kept well hidden from prying, foolish, mortal eyes. I knew this. Why couldn’t I accept it?'”
Huxley Auspex took his own life shortly after the last visit of his friend Spiderwort. What few accounts exist suggest that he took a great deal of Laudanum and then quickly slit his own throat. None of the thirteen auspicmoriscopes he had created were found in his home.
Spiderwort had always suggested that some of the devices were indeed destroyed, but others dispute this. Many in the realm of auspicmoriscope authority believe none of the devices were actually destroyed beyond some petty vandalism that was easily repairable.
It is believed Auspex simply spent his last days finding ways to hide away the devices or place them in the care of the few people he trusted, which leads many to think Spiderwort (and now his students) actually have one or more of the devices. There are many accounts that strongly suggest that two of these devices found a home in the safe archives of the fabled House of Obediah, namely Octavius Obediah the Second, a noted keeper of extraordinary but potentially dangerous things. However, Obediah the younger will never speak on such matters out of what he calls respect to the memory of Auspex.
There are some who still seek out the various auspicmoriscopes, but it is the Asphodel that has come to be legend, a thing of harmful sensation. As the story suggests, one need only look into the eyepiece of this device and be subject to the whim of the device. Will you see the world around you, perhaps a little brighter than normal? Or will the scene around you fade away until you are looking through the eyes of another? Someone who is in the agonizing last moments of their life? Will you see what they see, feel what they feel? Will you be cursed to take this away with you and experience it night after night until you find the same fate or take fate into your own hands? Or are all of these things simply rumors? And the last and biggest of those rumors?
This rumor is very specific: The Asphodel survived its creator and exists out in the world somewhere today.
Whoever was meant to hide it away, whether temptation got them or death kept them from their appointment of protection, this eighth auspicmoriscope of the lesser known genius of Huxley Auspex found its way back into the world so that its story continues to today. Scholars of the device wonder a great many things about it. They wonder if you see the vision because the device senses in you your future? Or does the vision inspire a new fate for the viewer? Does it pick its victims randomly or is there something within the individual that draws out the preternatural visions? One may not know. Even if one were to find the machine and tear it apart for its secrets, one would only be holding a handful of gears and mechanisms that Auspex barely understood himself. The material value of this device cannot explain what possesses it and gives life to its visions.
My question, as it is with any tale like this, is what motivates the individual to look into the eyepiece of a cursed thing? Knowing that this invention could not only show you, but allow you to feel death, why does one put their eyes to its viewer? Is curiosity such a beast or the desire for a dark thrill so intense to justify such a risk? Personally, I think not. However, I am not you and if such things appeal to you might I suggest you take a hard look around the next shop of curiosities you visit or even that old antique store? You might just stumble upon that strange and ancient looking invention that begs you to take a look, assuring you it is nothing more than a typical penny dreadful.
Motifs of Harmful Sensation
Reprinted here with permission from the author.