Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

The H Word: Kiss the Goat

Goats in Horror

And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

— Matthew 25:33

After the serpent, the goat is widely considered the most evil animal in mythology, literature, film, and music. From biblical verse to Baphomet, Black Phillip and beyond, the cloven-hoofed mammal has long been maligned. But the majority of these allusions are surface-level references to a beast that is broadly misunderstood.

Having grown up on a farm in rural Oregon, goats have long been a part of my life, as much a part of the environment as the forested hills, dark rainclouds, mold, moss, and fungus. In some ways, I became numb to their energy, because what could be more banal than another livestock auction, or being paid a few dollars an hour to shuffle alfalfa hay bales from field to truck to barn? Still, there are mysteries to these highly intelligent creatures that have rarely if ever been plumbed by the vast number of artists inspired by long looks into those inhuman horizontal pupils.

As far back as the Bible, goats are unfairly pitted against their wooly kin. Sheep are given eternal life, but goats are cast into the Lake of Fire. The psychology behind this derives from the fact that a sheep will stand in mud and rain with little on its mind, while a goat is always poking its head through the fence seeking some prize of sustenance, or standing on hind legs to reach for higher fruit. Perhaps Eve was a role model, or vice versa.

Even Aesop immortalized certain character flaws in his fable The Goat and The Vine, in which a goat hides from hunters in a cluster of vines, and then when danger has passed, begins to eat those same vines. The short-sighted feast causes a rustling and alerts the hunters to his presence for the last time. R.I.P. Mr. The Goat.

So effective is the distant reference of goat villainy that urban legends abound. The Chupacabra (the infamous Mexican “goat sucker”) is not far behind Bigfoot and Nessie in cryptozoology circles, thanks in part to a profile boost on an episode of X-Files. The United States owns a few of its own modern myths, including Louisville’s Goat Man of Pope Lick, and The Black Goat of New Orleans. And let none of us forget the goatific aspect of pagan holiday favorite Krampus.

In horror films, goats appear hither and yon. One was employed for a scene in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009), but the actor was so problematic, a puppet was created to perform many of the scenes. The most famous onscreen goat of our time is the exquisitely delicious Black Phillip from The VVitch (2016). Many scenes had to be cut or changed due to the surly nature of the 210-pound buck named Charlie who played Black Phillip. There’s an excellent article on Hollywoodreporter.com (bit.ly/2qmZouf) all about the difficulties of shooting Charlie’s scenes, including an anecdote about him sending his co-star Ralph Ineson to the hospital after ramming his horns into Ineson’s ribs, resulting in a dislodged tendon, and a film shoot that was completed over the next several weeks with the poor man on a heavy dosage of painkillers.

On the written page, one of the best-remembered Norwegian fairy tales is “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Unusual for folklore, the goats are the heroes in this popular story, which introduced the horror of the bridge troll to a world of children, nearly all of whom are forced to cross a bridge at some point in their young lives. In fact, the very earliest nightmare I can recall was related to a bridge troll, so this myth carries extra weight with me. Apparently it was potent for Stephen King as well, considering this same tale was the inspiration for IT.

King cites a collection of HP Lovecraft tales as his reason for writing horror fiction, and one of Lovecraft’s most infamous creations was the Outer God Shub-Niggurath, aka “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.” Though HPL invoked her name in several story-embedded incantations, he did not describe her physical form. She became a symbol of a perverse kind of fertility and sexuality in his work.

There is no shortage of horror-oriented books to be found with goat themes or titles. Among the better known are Goat Dance by Douglas Clegg, Goats from Lambs by Paul P.K. Kingston, Goat Mother by Pierre V. Comtois, The Goat by Bill Kieffer, and the forthcoming second book in his Death Metal Epic series: Goat Song Sacrifice by Dean Swinford. Likewise, goat references rear their heads in Ramsey Campbell’s The Night of the Claw and Stephen King’s The Reach.

The Goat’s Head by Lex Sinclair and They Had Goat Heads by D. Harlan Wilson both show publishers’ proclivities for conjuring the image of Baphomet. French occult author Eliphas Levi drew his famous “Sabbatic Goat” image back in 1856, thus forever wedding the concept of goats and demonic evil. In the early twentieth century, this figure became an important element in Crowley’s cosmology. According to Thelemic lore, Baphomet was a divine androgyne and “the hieroglyph of arcane perfection.” These are hardly good character references for the poor beasts, but goat-headed Baphomet has become a damned popular image.

I will not pretend to have read all of the aforementioned books, but so far as I can ascertain, none of these stories deal deeply with the actual concerns of goats or goat breeders, nor do any of these authors seem to have profound firsthand dealings with goats (and if you did, I’d love to hear from you. We should collaborate on the ultimate goat horror project.) Per usual, it’s an easy and evocative beast to employ in a story for readers who are even less familiar with the subject, yet not immune to the implications that such a hoary creature conjures on a primal level.

As mentioned, I grew up with goats. And when I think about some of the things I’ve seen in person, or stories I heard while growing up with a mother who enjoyed cult fame as a goat breeder and, eventually, a goat judge, I find plenty of occasions to squirm. As a gift to writers, filmmakers, and artists who want to conjure a deeper darkness from the vast possibilities offered by our favorite barnyard beast, I offer here a series of reminiscences and ruminations that are ripe for creative exploration.

Goats begin to grow horns within the first few weeks. By maturity, these are vicious curved protuberances; sharp, hard, and deadly. Because goats can often injure one another with their horns, it is a common practice for goat breeders and domesticators to “de-horn” them within the first few days. This is accomplished by holding a hot brand to the nerves on the head from which horns grow—without anesthesia, of course. Now before you cry “animal cruelty,” I think it’s fair to liken this practice to male circumcision, which is performed on millions of humans and generally accepted by western society as something that the child will never remember. (Actually, I dislike both practices, but what you gonna do?)

Not much later in life, show goats are tattooed. The tattoo implement resembles a ghoulish set of salad tongs. Alphanumerical symbols are set inside the device, much like in an old-fashioned printing press. Ink is smeared on the skin of the ear (traditionally the right ear, though the Lamancha breed has such small ears that they are usually tattooed on the tail). Then the pliers are clamped down and the ear is pierced simultaneously with enough tiny needles to create a legible five-digit string of letters and numbers that will be recognizable for the duration of the animal’s life. According to my mother, chips are beginning to replace this outdated procedure.

The scent of male goats is strong. The buck’s odor operates as musk to the doe. Bucks will commonly urinate on their own faces to increase the scent, which absolutely drives the does wild. At times, it is advantageous to induce heat in a doe, in order to bring her into a breedable state. This is sometimes accomplished by holding “buck rags” in the face of the doe. These rags are soaked with the product of male goat musk glands. The malodorous material is kept in an airtight container (I’ve most often seen yogurt and butter tubs) for use at that very special time. Even more determined are those fearless breeders who milk goat semen by hand in order to inseminate a prize doe at a later time. You think I’m joking. I’m not.

Of course, there’s more to life on the farm than jerking off goats. (When I sent this article to Ma Carson for fact-checking, she corroborated my story and sent several helpful notes, then made it crystal clear: “Trust me—I have never jerked off a goat.”)

Sometimes young are turned sideways in the womb, and the industrious breeder must physically reach inside the straining mother in order to twist the baby by hand until it can come out on its own. Other goats make their way through the birth canal, but die instantly because of birth defects. One of our animals was born with some of its vital organs on the outside of its body. A visiting friend of mine found it first, running breathlessly into the house to tell my mother that he’d found an “alien” in the pasture. There were also cases in which goats accidentally bred with neighboring sheep, which can sometimes lead to offspring. But because sheep have fifty-four chromosomes and goats have sixty, most of these are stillborn. (And for the record, only sheep baa. Goats bleat.)

I’ve also seen a nursing mother try and fail to leap a barbed wire fence, the resulting injury being a nipple torn most of the way off, hanging by a bloody thread like J.K. Rowling’s Nearly Headless Nick. It was hideous, and I felt so bad for the poor gal. Another time, I was coaxed into the barnyard to hold the head of a screaming goat while medicine was spread directly onto its bleary eye due to a weeping infection. We once had a bad experience with a driver losing control on an icy winter road; he hit a telephone pole, which dropped its live wires onto our fence-line, resulting in the electrocution death of several animals. It was quite a process to convince the insurance company of the value of those pedigreed, prize-winning show animals.

Countless jokes abound about lonely shepherds. One popular theory in my middle school class was that the best way to have sex with a goat is to put on hip-wader boots and slide the animal’s hind legs inside so that it can’t get away. Children are disgusting. Sadly, there were true stories of goats that were harmed by humans—luckily, never on our property. But we heard a dark tale about some goats in a terribly nervous state of distress around humans. In this case it was found that a nearby farm worker was sneaking into the barn at night and having his way with the animals. Humans truly are more abhorrent than snakes, bugs, or . . . goats.

When death came, my mother would carry the carcass into the nearby woods. Rather than burying them, she simply cast them onto something she affectionately called The Goat Pile. Over time, this grew into a heaping mound of skeletons, with the least desiccated bodies slowly decomposing on top. To my dismay, no photos exist of this amazing and very real phenomenon. One year, our creek flooded, and the entire Goat Pile was washed away in a single night. I have often wondered what lucky individual far downstream found generations of goat bones and bodies washed up on their shore when the clouds parted and the waters receded . . .

If you’re still reading this, congratulations! You are probably a horror author or connoisseur. Hopefully you have learned something. And the next time you want to insert goats into one of your projects, you can imagine something far more gruesome, titillating, evocative, and reverent than a simple horned skull, hooved shadow, or bleating in the night.

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Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson is a musician and writer from Portland, OR. He is widely known as co-founder and drummer of the internationally touring doom metal band Witch Mountain, host of the XRAY FM radio show The Heavy Metal Sewïng Cïrcle, and owner of the boutique music booking agency Nanotear. He has published articles in Rue Morgue, The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Orbitz, SF Weekly, Terrorizer, Noisey (Vice), and countless other music magazines and blogs. More recently, he has turned his sights to weird fiction, publishing short stories and novelettes in critically acclaimed horror anthologies. His first standalone novella, Starr Creek, was recently released by Lazy Fascist Press and currently sits at #1 on the Goodreads list of “Books Like Stranger Things.”