Imagine for a moment if you will, being in a place from which there is no escape. A place where no daylight enters. No sweet smelling breeze stirs your hair. No birdsong lightens your heart as it falls upon your ear. You will not be fed, nor given water, though perhaps you find a trickle of water running down one of the rough, cold unseen stone walls of your prison and lap up the liquid. But that only prolongs your torture, because now you will live until you starve to death. And that takes weeks.
You are in the place of forgetting. A place from which there is no leaving. Your bones will lie here long after you breathe your last. You know this because you have tripped over the rattling bones of others who have languished here before you. Yes, and you’ve smelled the stench of the rotting flesh of those who are not yet reduced to bones. Smelled them, and dear God, even felt them, as you’ve circumvented this place, trembling hands outstretched before you in the dark.
You are in an oubliette. So called because those who are thrown down here are not thought of again. They are forgotten.
In medieval times this was a fairly common way for someone who displeased a powerful noble to meet his end. So of course I had to have an oubliette in Sword of Mordrey. And of course someone (I’m not saying who) winds up there.
One of the most famous oubliettes from the medieval era is in the castle of Godfrey of Bouillon. Duke Godfrey was one of the principle leaders of the First Crusade. He eventually became the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem after it fell to the crusaders in 1099. He must have really wanted to fight in this war, because he pawned his castle in Bouillon to get the funds to do so. Castle Bouillon was one of the most desirable strongholds of its time. Nearly impregnable, with its triple barbican and crafty moat.
It has a perfectly wretched oubliette. It’s a windowless underground chamber, accessed through a hatch in the ceiling. No provision was made for getting back out.
In modern literature and movies two of my favorite oubliettes are the one in the novel, Hannibal Rising, and the one in the movie First Knight. In Hannibal Rising the oubliette is a long well in the floor of a castle dungeon. Thomas Harris makes it especially haunting though, by the mention of a single word, scratched onto the wall at the bottom: Pourquoi? (Why?)
The oubliette in First Knight is a deep cavernous room…with a high, narrow pinnacle that is reached by a removable drawbridge. Guinevere is deposited there, the drawbridge is removed, and there she languishes, on a platform from which there is no escape—unless you consider jumping to your death an escape.
And you might. You just might, after thinking about it for long enough.
Okay…back to you.
I know I’ve left you down in the cold dark. So imagine now:
A metal hatch creaks open in the high ceiling above you. It’s me. I poke my head down into the hole and thrust a knotted rope down into the darkness for you to climb up. (I do hope you’re in good shape.) You tip your face up to me and shield your light-deprived eyes from the sputtering torch clutched in my fist. A skittering of tiny nails in the lurching shadows at the very edges of the pit makes you jump and grope for the rope.
Yours are not the only eyes grown unused to the light, you see.
No. Don’t look around. You don’t want to know who…what, shares the pit with you. Just climb. Climb fast.
Writers: Have you come across strange settings/places in your research that made their way into your novel?
Readers: What settings most fascinate you in the novels you like best?