III: The Call of Cugulhou

Tales from the Zone, by Richard Stanley. Episode 3.

“Sous-titres français, that’s what we need.”

“Pourquoi?” JC followed at a pace as we crested the rise, the road snaking away behind us, the valley of the Salz almost lost in the mist below. A brand new razor wire fence ran along the right hand side of the trail, glinting in the winter sunlight. Judging by the intermittent adapters the barrier was probably electrified.

“We need to find a copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘STALKER’ with French subtitles.”, I muttered, silently counting the posts at the far end of the field. “Then I wouldn’t have to explain everything in franglais.”

“Maybe I’ve seen it.” JC frowned, the young drifter turned occult apprentice scrunching up his face as he tried to figure out what I was looking for.

“You’d remember if you’d seen it. I saw it first in Berlin back in the mid-eighties. Russian with German subs. Sous-titres Allemands. I didn’t know what the hell it was but I knew it was important.”

JC looked at me blankly. I paused listening out for the growl of pursuing quad bikes but there was nothing, only the distant cawing of a crow.

“Should be easy enough to find on the net. Now just do as I do.” I indicated the way forward. “That row of haystacks is going to make it easier. Our target is the fourth post sur la droite. Tu le vois?”

JC nodded as I stepped off the road, using the fork in my staff to pin open a gap in the razor wire so I could slip effortlessly through. Then, keeping my head down I started in a loping run across the field, using the haystacks for cover. JC took the same route, his movements displaying a little less urgency. This was understandable given he understood the terrain’s hazards even less than I did.

“I mean, c’est fictional?” JC smiled, catching up to where I crouched behind the last bale in the row. “This ‘Zone’. It exists only in a movie.”

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t active,” I cautioned. “And hence potentially dangerous. Capricious you could say.”

I made for the third post at the end of the field where the wire was more loosely strung. This section of the fence had been erected in a hurry by old Coudié during last season’s war with the Trogladistes and the Zadistes. Tensions on the plateau had boiled over after the former mayor allegedly ran down and killed a dog belonging to a group of refugees from Lyons who had taken refuge in the troglodyte caves during the first Covid lockdown. The dogs had admittedly been a problem with one couple owning no less than seventeen, all of them running wild and foraging on Coudié’s land but the events that followed had been unpleasantly apocalyptic, impacting on my ability to gain access to what amounted to one of the Zone’s most important geo-telluric chakras.

When the cave dwellers joined forces with the Zadistes to confront their nemesis at the property line, old Coudié had coolly informed the mob they had 24 hours to disperse and leave the Zone, otherwise no-one would ever hear from any of them again. The old goat was good to his word too. A day later the caves were hit by masked vigilantes on quad bikes who cleared out the refugees and doused their offending dogs in gasoline. At least four of the ‘hippie vehicles’ were torched on the main road and each time the attendant CCTV cameras were conveniently switched off. I later heard several ‘marginals’ rounded up during the attack on the caves had been forcibly incarcerated in the local mental hospital where they had been routinely shot up with Aldol and other mind altering substances.

“La caprice de la Zone,” murmured JC, relishing the phrase. Following through the gap into the relative safety of the fallow field beyond, he paused to take in his surroundings. The Zone’s self styled defenders (ZAD – Zone à défendre) never bothered coming this way. They were just punks on speed looking for a fight. I seriously doubt a single dog man one of them knew what was really hidden in these backwoods. The wall of the forest rose before us, wild, original growth, still dense enough even at this time of year to mask us from marauding eyes. We were below the sky-line now and no longer visible from Coudié’s compound at la Tête d’Hercule. Coudié’s goons kept pretty tight watch and were usually quick to respond if they caught sight of unauthorised movement on these trails.

“Is all this private property?” JC scanned the shadows between the trunks, searching for mushrooms.

“Coudié’s land ends at the fence,” I started down the incline, following a deer path. “He just doesn’t like anyone coming down here. You’d better be grateful I didn’t make you wear a blindfold.”

“Blind fold?”

“Bandeau,” I placed one hand over my eyes to demonstrate. “A treasure hunter named Remy took me here first. Remy from Esperaza. He insisted on blindfolding everyone in the group. He was super-paranoid. Said he’d be killed if folk found out he’d shown us the way through the woods. I mean, technically this place doesn’t exist.”

This was true. The co-ordinates we were making for weren’t marked on any modern survey maps, nor could they be pinpointed on Google Earth. The only chart to accurately reflect the topography above la Tête was hand drawn by Edmond Boudet in 1886. It was Edmond’s brother Henri who recorded the place’s true name, a curious, glottal appellation whose origin and meaning is now lost to us.

“Cugulhou.” I smiled, still puzzling out the pronunciation. It sounded more like I was trying to clear my throat than an actual word.

JC slowed, noticing worked stones, leprous with age protruding from the loam of the forest floor. I took a deep breath, adjusting to the unearthly ambience of the glade, beech, hazel, ash and yew curving above us like the vault of a vast, dark church. There were more stones everywhere about us and I indicated the extent of the nemeton with my staff. Beneath our feet was a mulch of ancient rubble, the remains of a sizeable settlement in pre-Christian times.

“Sounds like Cthulhu. Je connais. That’s the beauty of this place. It occupies a kind of slide area between fact and fiction. I mean if you want to be really pedantic the ‘Zone’ was invented by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky in their 1972 novel ‘Roadside Picnic’ but that doesn’t stop it from existing. At least it seems to apply to this place.”

“What is ‘slide area’?” JC frowned, taken aback by the sheer scale of the place. Now there were fewer leaves on the trees it was easier to get a sense of the geo-features. The natural spine of rock facing out across the valley towards Pech Cardou had been shaped in ancient times, adding steps and funnels to collect rain water. At the centre of the nemeton was an altar bearing a human shaped depression and a great seat hewn out of the solid stone – le Trône des Grands Anciens.

“Just a figure of speech. An area where the normal rules don’t apply. Where the properties of space time have been altered, quite possibly by ultra-dmensional interference at the dawn of time. Its like this whole landscape has been shaped by some form of intelligence but not necessarily human intelligence.”

Below the throne was a man-made pool, clogged with black silt and fallen leaves, its margin rank with nettles. There were more structures hidden beneath the soil but we’d need ground penetrating radar to get a picture of just how many more.

“Ultra-dimensional? You mean like John Keel’s ‘ultraterrestrials’?”

“Call it a ‘window area’. Call it a ‘portal area’. Call it what you will. Boudet called it ‘Cugulhou’. In fact there’s two of ’em on his map. Everything on the ‘Devil’s Chessboard’ comes in twos. The other one’s above les Cloutet.”

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” JC shivered, nodding towards a cleft in the central rock. Set into the interior of the cleft was an oddly regular natural archway. The stone within the arch seemed made of a smoother, darker substance than the surrounding composite.

“And that, I think, is a door…”

Tales from the Zone by Richard Stanley. The Zone. Image 1
Tales from the Zone by Richard Stanley. The Zone.
Tales from the Zone by Richard Stanley. The Zone. Image 2
Tales from the Zone by Richard Stanley. The Zone.

A note from the editor.
Thank you for reading the Richard Stanley blog, Tales from the Zone, a journal that will give outsiders some small insight into our day to day lives in the valleys of French Occitania. Please NOTE these entries are meant to be experienced in order. If you only just found this blog, you can begin reading from the start:
Halloween. You can also find Richard Stanley on Twitter, and Facebook. However, Tales from the Zone are only published here.

3 thoughts on “III: The Call of Cugulhou”

  1. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” It was dangerous and mysterious times in The Zone.

    I remember vividly back when Stephen King tried his hand at a serial novel, The Green Mile. And how I anxiously waited for each installment. This is just like that and just as involving. You can’t wait to read what happens next!!

  2. Mark Czwerenczuk

    Hah perfect timing ? I have just been researching Cugulhol. There are several locations around Rennes-Les-Bains. We plan to explore them all on our next adventures back to the Zone in 2023
    It would be great to catch up with you Richard

  3. Mark Czwerenczuk

    Oops that was a typo, should of read Rennes-Les-Bains

    *note from the editor; this typo has been corrected.

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