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Ghouls in Horror Literature

Ghouls – they just don’t get any respect. They are the scavengers of the dead, vultures of the graveyard, and consumers of the flesh. Zombies are getting all the attention these days, but ghouls are the real deal.

Ghouls can connive and scheme to trick their prey. They are the underbelly of the graveyard and the lowest of the low. In literature, they exist as spirits and mutated humans and horrify the reader by robbing graves and feeding off flesh.

The history of the ghoul comes to us from the Arabic word ghul. In the Arabic legends, ghouls are demonic creatures living in graveyards or deserted places. They were said to be the spawn of the Muslim prince of darkness, Iblis, otherwise known as the Devil. Ghouls from the Arabian days were spirits and shape-shifters, often that of a hyena. They were the undead of the Arabian world. One way to tell a ghoul back then was by its feet. They had the hooves of a donkey no matter what shape or form the demon chose to take.

The first literary reference to a ghoul is from One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. The often fantastic tales from the Arabian Nights cross all genres of literature to include some well-known favorites – such as Aladdin and Sinbad. Early stories in the collection date back to at least the 8th century. The first English language publication of One Thousand and One Nights was in 1706. The origin of the collection comes from cultures across the Middle East to also include India, Egypt, and Mesopotamian folktales.

Many stories in the Arabian Nights reference ghouls, in particular The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib. In this first written story of ghouls, an outcast prince battles the hungry creatures. He captures them and converts them to Islam. Zombies and ghouls cannot possibly lend themselves well to religious indoctrination and The History of Gherib should be an interesting read just to see how that works out for the prince.

In popular culture, ghouls have become all sorts of freakish creatures. They still tend to prefer graveyards or deserts and they still mostly like the taste of human flesh. In the Harry Potter series, the Weasley family keeps one as a pet. At least one literary character has found a ghoul to be useful such as inThe Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft. In this story the hero finds some friendly ghouls. Against all odds, one happens to be an old friend. The ghouls help him along on his quest.

Ghouls are in general grotesque. In today’s gaming world, they are often warped and mutated humans with large, sharp teeth and eyes. When they aren’t digging up the graveyard, they run in packs like hyenas to find themselves a tasty meal. Ghouls, as such lively guests in the realm of monsters, deserve a special place of respect for their gruesome appearance and frightening behavior.

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