Vanderdeken's Tobacco Pouch
Items acquired by the Collector in 1902 after hearing about a
Origin: Cape Town, South Africa, 1900 (various materials)
An old tea tin containing a half-empty tobacco pouch, a piece of
eight, two chess pawns and a pocket-sized Bible from
an English soldier who served in the Boer War.
Legend, account and experiment by the Storyteller:
Captain Vanderdeken yet again refused to grant his crew shore
Their becalmed ship was making absolutely no progress.
Although they had sailed out of London several months before, the
sailors aboard the Flying Dutchman were not expecting to
reach Australia before the end of the year 1666. This was long
before the Suez Canal, which meant that the voyage to Australia took
what seemed like an
But they should have made it past the Cape of Good Hope
before the start of the storm season.
They had followed the coastline of Europe, passed through the
Strait of Gibraltar and continued down the coast of Africa at an
unbearably slow pace. Not only were the crew being slowly poisoned
by putrid food and stagnant
water, but they were also starting to come down with scurvy.
Despite the sailors' pleas, the captain - a tough, uncompromising,
narrow-minded Protestant - had refused to put in at port. They had to make up for lost time at all costs.
His sole raison d'être was profit - at any price.
However, by the time they found themselves off the coast of Cape Town, Vanderdeken
had reached his breaking point, spiralling out of control into a
vicious rage. In a moment of sheer madness, he cursed heaven
and earth, challenging God and the Devil to send just a bit of wind
No sooner had he uttered these words, when a light puff of wind
appeared out of nowhere in response. A breeze developed
and the Flying Dutchman started to glide across the waves,
gathering speed as it approached the Cape of Good Hope, where the
Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
The wind continued to gather force ... and soon a storm broke out.
The storm grew into the most ferocious hurricane seen in those
parts in living memory. The sky darkened into a seething, inky
swirl, as if Hell itself had opened up its maw. Monstrous
waves broke over the deck of the ship, sweeping men and cargo into
the roiling sea.
The men cried out: the ship was about to lose its mast.
At that very moment a gigantic spectre appeared, calling on Vanderdeken
to repent. The captain pointed his pistol at the apparition and
pulled the trigger - but the firearm exploded in his hands.
Ever since then, the Flying Dutchman has roamed the seas
and oceans, especially the waters around the Cape of Good Hope. Aboard
the ship, all alone
and attached to the helm,
the cursed captain guides his ghostly vessel. Very few have ever
survived an encounter with him.
According to legends whispered in Cape Town bars by superstitious
Africans, the old sailor is sometimes seen when a storm is brewing and
the country is in conflict.
The cursed man comes in to buy supplies of rum, gin, pipes
and strong African tobacco. Obsessed by his lonely wanderings, he
tries to recruit a crew for his phantom ship. He always pays for
his purchases with an old silver piece of eight which - according to
the legend - was taken
from the treasure of a sunken galleon.
If he offers to play a game of chess, watch out, for he is a
formidable opponent. Win, and you will become rich and famous.
In fact, it is said that the only man who ever beat him was a
certain Richard Wagner sometime in the first half of the 19th century.
But if you lose, you will have to accompany him on his wanderings until
the end of time...
The captain always plays black.
The tobacco pouch and earthenware pipe you see here were found in
Cape Town in 1900 after an English soldier - spending his leave in some of the
city's less salubrious leisure establishments - lost a game against the cursed captain and disappeared
that very same evening. In addition to tobacco, the pouch also
contains two chess pawns fashioned out of old ivory, one white and
the other coloured, along with an earthenware pipe and a piece of
eight from the sunken galleon.
I won't suggest that we play a game of chess, but if, without
looking, you reach into the pouch and pull out the white pawn, then
you will win the pawn, the tobacco pouch and all of the objects in
the story. and you will become the new Storyteller, because that is
how the story is passed on.
I'll even buy a round of fine brown ale.
But if you lose, then you'll buy the drinks and will have to wait
here until Captain Vanderdeken comes to find you.
My opponent reached in and removed the black pawn…
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The Dream Jar
Account by the Collector
In memory of Eric
Once upon a time...there was a teenaged boy who dreamed of magic in a world of
A young magician who dreamed of colours in a dull, grey world; a collector of the strange who longed to save the dreams and myths
of mankind before the folly of man destroyed them forever.
The first adult who shared his belief in these dreams was his friend Eric.
Ten years his senior, Eric encouraged him in his quest, pushing him
to reject the dreary illusion of this universe of plastic
nightmares, and to escape the trap of the consumer society into
which he himself had fallen. But his high-stress job as a foreign
exchange broker destroyed his health and he fell gravely ill -
stricken by an incurable disease .
As the end drew near and not knowing what to do, the magician
decided to give him one of his dreams.
In an ancient earthenware jar, I keep a small collection of
ancient coins linked to fantastical places and events. Coins from
China representing the 55 Days of Peking (Boxer Rebellion), Greek
coins evoking the gods of Olympus, casino tokens, dreams of palaces,
Medieval méreaux, pieces of eight from sunken galleons
and more. Each of these coins had a dream that went with it.
He chose the piece of eight and put it into a small box next to
him on his hospital tray.
I put the remaining coins back in the earthenware Dream Jar.
When I said goodbye to Eric that day, I knew it was the last time
I would see him in this world.
Three nights later, I had a strange dream. A 10-year-old child
appeared before me. I assumed that it was Eric, or at least his double; his soul,
radiated a supernatural light. Smiling, he asked me to
follow him. We moved through a bleak moonscape in total silence. He
began talking about my gift. He had lived adventures as a pirate and
buccaneer, sailed with Surcouf, visited Treasure Island, come face
to face with Blackbeard and more. Our walk ended by a river where a
boatman stood waiting.
"Before crossing the Acheron", he said, "I want to
return your dream to you, for nobody has the right to take someone else's
dream. Thanks again for the unique gift you gave me. I want you to
know that I will be with you forever, wherever you go, until you
come and join me on the other side of the river." Eric tossed
me the piece of eight, which landed in the Dream Jar. "The
waters of the river Acheron will never be an obstacle between us!"
were his last words.
When I woke up the next morning, the missing coin was back with
the others. But what I don't understand is the water
that regularly fills the jar: Where does it come from?
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The Bad Place
Tribute to Jean Ray and dedicated to André Verbrugghen
Item acquired in Brussels in 2000
Origin: Naples, Italy, 1906; Ghent, Belgium
An odd gilded box surmounted by a fox and containing various
Roman amulets and old photos, detailed descriptions of which are given in the story.
Report: Story by a Storyteller and a keen admirer of Jean
As I entered a shop specialising in old books located
in Brussels' bustling Chaussée de Charleroi, I was most surprised to
find that I immediately recognised the proprietor.
We often crossed paths at flea markets in our efforts to unearth
an unlikely rare manuscript, the kind of thing that the tormented minds
of collectors find so thrilling. On the day in question, I was on
the lookout for rare editions of books by Jean Ray, my favourite
To my mind, finding out that this acquaintance was a bookseller
was a good omen indeed.
"I have some interesting items in that showcase over there,"
he said. "I picked them up from a celebrated collector who was
selling off part of his extensive collection. A second edition of
la Mer, an Averbode edition of Geheimen van het Noorden,
some Presto-films, a first edition of Le livre
des Fantômes and a first edition of Malpertuis.
He even had a copy of the magazine Audace, bearing a dedication
in Jean Ray's own hand. I'm sure you would agree that this is a collector's item.
And if you're interested, there is also this curious box filled with
strange little odds and ends that look quite old. The previous
owner of this item told me that it had once belonged to Jean Ray
himself. Of course, that is hard to prove, but I'll give you a good price if you take
all of it off my hands."
(Upon reading some of the dedications, I easily guessed the
identity of the collector in question, a successful octogenarian
author of adventure stories for young people. It was as if he wanted
to rid himself of the burden of a disturbing shadow.)
The box was made of gilded metal embellished with a diamond-shaped
patterning in false mother-of-pearl, typical of the 1870s. It was an
inexpensive jewellery box, surmounted by a fox who seemed to be
hiding in some bushes. Four Mamelukes stood guard at each corner of
the box. The box, which could no longer be locked, contained an
assortment of knick-knacks: a small pair of glasses worn by a blind
man, a glass tube containing samples of lava ash labelled Vesuvius: April 1906,
a photograph of an individual of Mediterranean complexion with a
wooden leg, a small metal hand painted in a flesh tone, a 17th century
alchemist's coin, a variety of small Roman amulets representing
fallen gods (I recognised Venus, an eagle, an owl, a bearded giant
and a Gorgon), a bottle of dried out gilded ink,
a wooden angel, three needles dating from the time of Hannibal, a
rosary and several other small items that seemed of little interest
- nothing to make a fuss about!
A visiting card from the 1920s-1930s mentioned a Mrs Bergmans,
PhD in Art History and Archaeology,
Lecturer at the Secondary School for Girls and an address in Ghent.
There were also two pieces of finger in stone, probably from a broken
All in all, nothing very exciting, but still the object intrigued
me. For form's sake, we haggled over the price and I returned home
with my new purchase and a determination to explore this mystery
Since then, I've done a great deal of research, met the Collector, met
the descendants of some of the characters in the story, compared
vague accounts with historical facts and questioned experts on Jean Ray.
In my opinion, the truth is simply unbelievable.
I am in the habit of coming face to face with the strange and with
eerie situations; it's what I do. But here, the story took a
worrying turn. And sometimes adventure takes you by surprise just
outside your own door.
It all began in Naples, in April 1906.
Vesuvius had been making threatening noises for days. The
column of black smoke rising from the crater was clearly from
visible Naples. The locals were feeling the tension, even
though they were used to the angry rumblings of their volcano.
Fernand W., a young engineer and vulcanologist from Ghent, had no
trouble finding an inexpensive room to let in the Vesuvius hotel.
Most of the tourists had already left town. The only ones left were
the thrill-seekers and those who were keen to see an actual eruption. He
himself had been born the same year as the great eruption of
Krakatoa, east of Java, and he had ended up studying volcanoes at
a well-known Belgian university.
While finding a place to stay had not been a problem, finding a
guide and a carriage to take him to the foot of Vesuvius was
virtually impossible. But a fellow lecturer from the University of Naples, Paolo P.,
had agreed to help him out. After endless talks and a hefty tip, he was able to hire a vehicle from the local
Thomas Cook &
Animals can sense imminent natural disasters, and the rented horse
was showing signs of unrest.
The earth trembled and the ash began to fall.
It was simply out of the question to go all the way to the slopes
of Mount Somma. Taking shelter had become a matter of urgency.
They found themselves near the San Gennaro church, not far from
the catacombs of Naples.
That was when Fernand heard the crying. The voice of a little girl
calling out "Padre, padre " between sobs that seemed to be issuing
from a house whose facade had just collapsed. The scientists rushed inside, trying to protect themselves from falling debris and
headed down to the cellar. There, sitting on the stairs was a young
girl of about 9 years of age. She was covered in dust and as skinny
as a rake. She was crying and looking towards the basement. Paolo
picked up the girl while Fernand rushed headlong into the shadowy
At that moment he saw something unbelievable. The
enormous cellar, which adjoined the catacombs, contained several stone statues
in frozen positions, strangely reminiscent of the moulds of bodies
from Pompeii. One of them had toppled onto an old man, a vicar,
breaking his neck. There was nothing that could be done for him.
Suddenly feeling that he was being watched, he spun round. In the darkest part of the catacombs, two
icy green flames burnt with an evil brilliance. His blood ran cold
and he was instantaneously paralysed with terror. A
hideous pain gnawed at his heart. And then, as quickly as it had
appeared, the gleaming look vanished into the darkness and Fernand
awoke from his torpor.
He ran out of the house and found Paolo comforting the
girl. Only then did he realise that she was blind. She
was clutching several little objects in her clenched fists (the same
objects that are now in the box).
Her name was Delphina.
In a city swirling in chaos, they took the little
girl to the hotel, where a nanny gave her a bath, found clean
clothes for her and fed her a hearty meal.
They asked her if she had parents or anybody they could contact,
but she was an orphan and the priest who had adopted her five years
before was her only family. She did the housekeeping and spent time in
the cellar 'communicating' - but not speaking - with the Chilling
Voice. The Voice had prophesied that the rain of ash - its 'wrath' as
she called it - would last 10 days and would cost 2,000 souls.
When they asked her what was in the cellar, what the voice came
from, she did not know how to answer.
Paolo served as an interpreter.
"All she knows," he said, "is that the voice has been there
fore a very long time."
"Father Emilio Volpi and others before him have served the
voice for hundreds of years. Its wrath can make the earth shudder.
The priest explained that it had been captured in a faraway land and
brought back as a captive during the time of Christ. Its most
appalling fit of anger had come in the year 79 AD, destroying Herculanum and Pompeii.
The volcano obeyed the voice -
literally petrifying the local residents."
"Only blind young girls can serve it, appease it and question
it, because any men who look at it die on the spot.
It does not speak in words, but colours appear in our heads. At
least I think that's what people who see normally call 'colours'.
Then the priest asks me what I see and I tell him about the images.
Sometimes a monsignore uses it to get rid of troublemakers.
The priest called the creature Euryale. I don't think she can tell
us anything else."
Exhausted, the little girl closed her eyes and slept.
Sure enough, the rain of ash lasted ten days and the volcano's wrath claimed
nearly 2,000 victims.
When the vulcanologist returned to the ruined house, somebody had
done the 'housekeeping'. There was nothing left in the cellar: no
body, no statue. A mass of earth filled in most of the empty space.
However, from amongst the debris he picked up two pieces of statue,
bits of stone fingers and a pair of glasses worn by a blind person.
A few years later, a certain Simone Bergmans,
a friend of Fernand, told this story to an old bootlegger who loved to collect strange stories, and gave him a box
containing the evidence proving the story was true.
Was the whole thing a hoax she put together to fool him? I have no
idea. But I don't see how she could have found a tube containing
bits of ash that fell on Naples during the eruption.
I have no idea what happened to Delphina, or to the creature from
the catacombs. All I can say is that I examined the stone fingers
and they have fingerprints. And when placed in the presence of a
Gorgon, one of them begins to tremble!
The box takes pride of place in the centre of a modest collection
devoted to my favourite author.
The more I gaze at it, the more I find the relics of fallen and
forgotten gods: the needles of spinners, the severed hand of a
marmoset, the photo of a lame god
(Vulcan?), Zeus' eagle, a forgotten Titan, Bets' wooden rosary, a
peeling Venus, Hera's owl, the gorgon, an alchemist's coin and a
bottle of gilded ink. Was it uncle Cassave who wanted so much to
cross man with the gods, or one of the treasures from the haunted
house? What effect would the gorgon's look have on the gilded ink?
With a bit of imagination a rusty old crucifix ends up evoking
Prometheus wounded in the flank; the wound caused by the Spear and
the wound caused by the Divine Eagle. And isn't the box itself the house of the
Fox, Malpertuis, the bad place...
That night, I dreamed of the old pirate, seated amongst the gods.
He was getting drunk on an aged rum that tends to make one forget
He smoked a pipe stuffed with good strong Dutch tobacco and he told
them stories of men.
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The shrill tinkling of the bell brought an immediate end to the
hubbub in the room and redirected everyone's attention to the
"This gilded cage was brought back from Asia more than 100
The friend who gave it to me said that it contained a kamikaze,
a wind god.
Invisible and silent, but formidable indeed."
The Storyteller tinkled the bell.
"Towards the end of the 13th century, the Mongols, under the
leadership of Kublai Khan,
ruled a vast empire stretching from present-day Hungary to the
borders of China and Korea. Despite this, they still felt a bit
hemmed in, and so they prepared to take to the sea to invade the
rich island of Zippangu, an ancient name for Japan."
The Storyteller tinkled the bell.
"Nothing and nobody had ever been able to stop the barbarian
hordes, not even the Great Wall of China. Japan was unable to mount
a defence against the might of the Mongol dynasty. The country was
going to be wiped out - and the invaders were absolutely merciless."
The Storyteller tinkled the bell.
"The Mongol fleet, a vast armada, set sail on a course for Kyushu.
Would the prophecies of the Buddhist monk Nichiren come true?
The Storyteller tinkled the bell.
All around the Japanese island, the sound of gongs warned the
people of the imminent danger. The country prepared its defensive
measures under the command of Regent
The fighting would be ruthless. A crucial turning point in the
history of Japan had been reached in that autumn of 1281."
The Storyteller tinkled the bell.
"It was then that one of the Shinto priests in the city of
Ise found, in a hidden recess of his temple, a small, finely carved
cage and a bell.
He prayed to the god of the wind, the kamikaze, to leave
its home and to protect the country from the imminent threat."
The magician tinkled the bell to pray for the kamikaze to take
action and indicated that I should open the cage.
As soon as I did, a great calm settled on everything. The birds
stopped singing, the trees stopped rustling and even the bells and
gongs fell silent as if all of the winds had left Japan at the
The Storyteller shook the bell, but no sound was heard.
"On that very day, the most horrifying typhoon crashed down
up the China Sea, destroying - in the space of just a few hours -
the entire Mongol fleet and saving Japan.
The legend of the kamikaze, the divine wind, was born.
But it would not always save the Land of the Rising Sun."
The Storyteller closed the cage and the little bell started
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Conspiracy at Vilokan
The Basic Story of the Surnateum
A very long time ago, in a forgotten place at the end of the
known world, seven conspirators were having an animated discussion at the Vilokan Tavern - a name far too grand for that dusty little
the village of Guinen, known for serving robust, full-flavoured rums from Cuba, the Antilles and Haiti. In the
main room, it was just possible to make out the shadows of the Marassa twins, Damb’
the snake charmer and a few foreign customers who were listening
intently to the confab at the central table. Old
Papa Legba, the owner, was treating his friends to a fort
kleren and in
the shadows the stories blended and merged: stories of
uncontrollable orishas and greedy humans, tales of voodoo, saucy
songs and more. Various faces were just visible around the table,
including the pale visage of the
Bawon, the ageing graveyard-keeper who smoked cigars that gave off a
demonically foul stench and who drank his firewater with a fistful
of chillis, "to give it body" he said. Next to him sat the pretty
young mulatto woman who went by the melodious name of Ezili, lending
the group a touch of charm . Her 'tropical Madonna' face concealed a
heart longing for love, and her passion was easily aroused by any
man who crossed her path. She had countless amorous conquests to her
name. Ogou, the scrap merchant, and Shango, the local cop, were
conversing in their usual animated fashion under the indifferent eye
of Maman Yemoya, who was absent-mindedly chewing morsels of spicy
barbecued pork. The last one to arrive was Cousin Zaka, who had set
his gunnysack and straw hat on an empty stool and was swigging a
freshly squeezed pineapple juice. The road to the Tavern had been
too long and too hot for his old legs.
Papa Legba placed two items on the table: an old, crudely carved
wooden tray and a small stick - souvenirs from a previous life in
Black Africa. He then picked up the stick, the iroke, and
begin to rhythmically beat the tray while muttering secret
incantations; the assembly soon hushed.
"Ifa has opened his
eyes," he said, setting the tray down. He covered the tray with a
chalky powder and manipulated some shells that he had removed from
his pocket. Using his nimble fingers he traced out a series of
single and double lines on the tray. "The odus have spoken! In the
future, the people will forget us, condemning us to disappear unless
we take action. No more rum for us, no more perfume for Ezili and Yemoya,
no more cigarettes,
sacrifices or meetings like the one we are holding right now. These
are simple things, but they are dear to our hearts. The threat comes
from civilisations which have no gods, which fear neither man nor
loa, which have no consideration for others and which distract
mankind from real values. Civilisations which do not even respect
their ancestors. The elderly are placed in old people's homes so
that young people do not have to contemplate the ravages of age.
Those poor madmen!
But we can still take action. Let's throw a spanner in the works by
giving them back the magic they nearly managed to get rid of. I
propose that we initiate one of them into our practices and that we
make this initiate the Guardian of the Traditions. Let us each give
him a tool he can use to create a sanctuary, a hotbed of resistance.
In this way, we can ensure that the different magics haunting this
world will not die out. What do you have to give?"
"I will send him my hat!", said the Bawon. "With it, he will
command wandering souls and the creatures of the night will be his
allies. I shall grant him access to all the magics he will need in
his work. Let it be so!"
"I shall give him a companion who will stand by him loyally, for
nothing is worse than fighting alone," Ezili added. "When the time
comes, I shall teach him the seductive power of charms and the
spellbinding power of enchantments."
"Shango shall give him the power of thunder and the magic of
lighting; a magic so subtle that it will upset the illusory reality
of his those around him. My friend Ogou shall train him to be a
warrior, for he will have many enemies. In addition, he shall have -
thanks to our friend - the power to create new magical objects as
well as the ability to awaken old instruments from their sleep."
Cousin Zaka looked perplexed! "You know that I am merely a modest
farmer, but from me he will receive a degree of affability to temper
your warlike teachings. He shall sow knowledge that is taken up by
others. I was the one who raised the tree from which this opon
was carved. I suggest we give it to him so that we can invite him to
our Tavern, when he feels the time is right."
"Let's not forget the children," interrupted Maman Yemoya. She
stubbed out her filterless Camel in a bit of coconut shell. "They
are the future of all civilisations. I shall give him the key to
them all. And you, Papa Legba, you mischievous old man,
what will you give him?"
"Firstly, my protection and your gifts. Then a bit of roguishness
that will stop him from taking himself too seriously,
for his is an arduous task. And as Zaka suggested, this tray will
allow us to talk face to face. I shall give him the ability to
confront chaos and return unharmed, armed with the most power magic
Next it was the turn of Ganesh, the fat little Pakistani
letter-writer lounging in the corner of the Tavern: "I think he will
need a storyteller's gift to bring the relics to life, for only the
music of the voice can empower inanimate objects. I shall release
his mastery of the spoken word. That will be a strange, but personal
contribution to your conspiracy." Other shadows who had been
following the conversation closely, added amulets, magic rings, talismans
and a huge variety of items whose immediate usefulness was not
"Do you want him to be a Collector?", said Papa Legba, looking at
the pile of objects. "Don't forgot that I'm the one who has to carry
all this stuff!"
The Collector called me into the secret room in the Museum.
He and I were the only ones who had access to this private room, but
I had not yet plumbed its mysterious depths.
"The time has come for you to gain access to the most precious relic
in the entire collection," he told me in a tone of voice I had never
heard from him before.
He was both light-hearted, yet more serious than usual, with a look
reminiscent of the expression on old Lampernisse's face as he had
handed me the Magic Box. It had been a few years, but apparently the
time had come to start a new phase in the
He slid aside a wooden panel concealing a hiding place and carefully
removed an object wrapped in a piece of white linen. After removing
the material, I feasted my eyes on a very old opon, a round
Yoruban divinatory tray. This was not the only object like this in
the museum, but I assumed that the story that accompanied it must be
very special indeed.
"This is the Tray of the Seven Powers. Of course, you recognise this
type of object, but it is because of this object that you are at the
Surnateum today. It is handed down from one Collector to the next
when the time is right."
His eternally enigmatic smile returned.
"But let's start at the beginning! A very long time ago, in a
forgotten place at the end of the known world…"
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