I love graveyards. They are heightened places where where you feel both the weight of the past and future: full of history, and a reminder of what’s to come. Of course, they are also ripe for monsters. My favorites are ones like the Weeping Woman of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where you have a personality that embodies the graveyard itself, and all the memories therein.
Parkersburg is an old town, settled just after the revolutionary war. Its motto is “Where West Virginia began.” Its history is rich. Riverview cemetery–a 2.5 acre plot of land filled with a wonderful variety of monuments and headstones–boasts governors, congressman, and Civil War senators among its collected dead. It also houses the relatives of the famed Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.
Looking over the Jackson plot sits a statue of a woman half collapsed over a large, deep headstone. A veil stretches out behind her, covering her body and feet. One arm covers the bottom of her face; the other reaches out over the stone to clutch an unfurling scroll that reads “In the silence and to thee,” and then, in large letters, “JACKSON.” Protected by the curve of the paper, the center of the scroll still shines white after a hundred years of vigil, but rest of it–and the rest of the statue–is stained with streaks of gray, green, and black. The woman looks out over the plot from under the curve of her brow. She grimaces with grief.
The Weeping Woman statue has gained some notoriety among paranormal circles, but in my research, few mention where it came from or who it is supposed to depict. From what I can tell, the woman is of Lily Irene Jackson, an artist and arts organizer who may have designed the statue herself. She lived a long, full life, but thought of death and eternity often. In the end, she did not shy away from it. She died a spinster in 1928, and passed into the Riverview Cemetery with the rest of her family, leaving behind works entitled things like Watching and Waiting and Anticipation.
So, too, the statue waits. Like any good statue, every so often she decides to move. Some say that happens on a full moon, when she’ll stalk through the graveyard and wail over the conflict between the North and South. Others claim that the movements are more subtle, that she’ll change the position of her hands or head.
The Weeping Woman is famous enough that people come from miles around to see her, to film giggling, frightened Youtube videos or to reverently ask her to grant a wish. If you are pure of heart and intention, she might give you what you need. She’s known especially for granting pregnancies within a year of touching her, for whatever reason.
But beware if you’re not. As you turn to walk away, you might feel a stone hand twist itself in your shirt. The Weeping Woman rips clothes, pulls hair, and, most troublingly, unzips the pants of those who displease her.
Due to a large number of trespassers and vandals, the Riverview Cemetery gates have been closed to the public at night. Perhaps that is for the best–the Weeping Woman should not be disturbed during her moonlight walks. But the city has ensured that the grounds remain well-kept. Just last year, they installed a wrought-iron fence to restore the look the cemetery had had closer to its inception. More projects and fundraising are underway, to make sure that we in the present do not lose that link to our past, to our future.
As one visitor noted, “History can never be erased. History is history. It won’t go away. It is still here.” The Weeping Woman embodies that history. And she still bites.
Have you ever seen unexpected movement while visiting a graveyard? Share your story in the comments below.
Hey monster lovers! This month features a guest post by the esteemed Paul Karle, who is covering for me while I am away at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. In it, he covers a bit of a different kind of monster–a man who was depressingly real. I hope you enjoy; I’ll see you on the next full moon.
The year is 1645.
You’ve been arrested and locked inside a stinking cell. You aren’t allowed to eat or sleep for hours. You are stripped naked and your body is closely examined. All hair is violently shaved from your body and your head so that nothing can be hidden. There seems to be no concern for your privacy–in fact half the town is watching.
The man leading the investigation isn’t a member of local law enforcement. He’s an out-of-towner. Mild-mannered, perhaps a bit bookish, but obviously smart and perceptive. He points out a blemish on your arm. It’s the devil’s mark, he says. A clear sign you’ve made an unholy covenant with Satan.
You try to argue that it’s just a mole, a mark you’ve had all your life. There’s nothing sinister about it, but you’ve been kept awake for hours, your mind is muddled and your words incoherent.
The investigator orders you restrained. You feel the prick of a needle being stuck in your arm. There is a gasp from the crowd. He finds another mark, this one on your thigh. He jams the needle in. You gasp in pain.
Finally, he examines the bottom of your foot and finds another mark on your heel. He slips the needle into your callused flesh. To your relief you feel almost nothing.
The investigator seems pleased. He explains that a ‘devil’s mark’ doesn’t feel pain like the rest of your body. This is all the evidence he needs to prove that the mark truly is supernatural.
This is a very common sign of witches, you know. It’s how they feed their familiar. Their magical animal companion. The creature sucks blood from the mark as a child would feed from its mother.
A signed confession would seal your fate but you still refuse to provide one. You’re returned to your cell and kept awake for days. You can feel your mind breaking as you sink deeper into exhaustion.
Eventually you will do anything just for a little sleep. Sign anything. Confess to anything. Even if it means your death.
Your shaking hand scrawls out your barely legible confession. The witchfinder watches you with a satisfied expression. He’s the cat who caught the canary. He’ll be collecting his pay shortly; twenty shillings plus expenses. Not a bad price to rid your town of evil.
You’d spit in his face and curse him if you could, but that’s hard to do from the end of a rope.
The spark that launched Matthew Hopkin’s career was struck by King James VI of Scotland–a monarch uniquely obsessed with the study of witchcraft. This guy was seriously into witches. When he became king Shakespeare wrote MacBeth in his honor. He was sure to include three nasty witches right in the first act. That’s some next level fanservice right there.
James even wrote a book on the topic: Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince. Despite it’s long-winded title, it managed to create a public fascination with the topic, inadvertently creating the perfect market for Hopkins.
He seized the limelight when he published his unofficial sequel, The Discovery of Witches. He one-upped James’s text by filling it with his ‘personal’ experiences in the finding of witches. It was filled with tall tales that would make a modern day reader roll their eyes.
In one anecdote Hopkins told how he’d spied on some witches in a wood near his house and heard them mention the name of one of his neighbors. He’d tattled to the local authorities and had her arrested. After four days of interrogation she not only admitted to being a witch, but also provided the names of her familiars.
These familiars, it turned out, had some pretty silly names and descriptions. One was Vinegar Tom, a greyhound with the head of an ox. Another was a chubby, legless, spaniel-like creature named Jarmara. After four days without sleep, she was probably just thinking of the family cat.
Hopkins took his show on the road. He journeyed from town to town, investigating any suspected witchcraft through highly questionable methods.
He was at first very fond of the swimming test in which the suspected party was tied to a chair before being thrown into water to see if they would float. Anyone who failed to sink like a stone was clearly guilty. Hopkins explained that witches rejected their Baptism, which meant that all bodies of water would reject them.
Fortunately, even the impressionable public of this time had problems with the swimming of witches. There were obvious risks in being tied to a chair and thrown in the water. It was something that anyone, witch or not, might be concerned about. The practice was eventually abandoned.
Sleep deprivation and ‘witch-pricking’ became the Witchfinder General’s bread and butter instead. He would often stab a needle into a suspect’s ‘devil’s mark’ to see if it bled or caused pain. These days, experts speculate that Hopkins and his ilk may have even used retractable trick needles to sell the illusion. What fun!
Usually the needle was simply inserted into any blemish that looked suspicious in search of one that showed no sensitivity. That’s right–they’d go around sticking needles all over your body to see what kind of reaction they could get. It’s also worth noting that torture had supposedly been outlawed in England at this point. Ahem.
These supposed devil’s marks were a particularly damning piece of evidence. According to Hopkins ‘research’ these marks weren’t just to show your Satanic allegiance. They were also a kind of infernal nipple from which your familiar could suck blood for nourishment. Apparently a legless spaniel can’t survive on Purina alone.
Hopkins blazed a bloody trail across England, his investigations leading to the deaths of an estimated 300 women in just two years. He became a minor celebrity from his witch hunts, but he also amassed a huge amount of criticism. Even Parliament was reticent to give him full recognition, refusing to bestow his self-chosen title of Witchfinder General officially upon him.
As the public fervor surrounding witchcraft faded, Hopkins faded into history. His reputation diminished, and in the eyes of many he became known a ‘fingerman’, an old-timey word for someone who lies and slanders on behalf of the authorities.
Legend says that Hopkins was eventually accused of witchcraft himself and drowned after being subjected to the ingenious ‘swimming’ test. Sadly, this story is nothing more than a hopeful bit of legend. Hopkins succumbed to tuberculosis in his own home, which probably sucked almost as much as drowning.
His legacy lived on across the pond where his book helped inspire the abortion of justice that was the Salem witch trials. Fans of pulp fiction will no doubt recognize him as the inspiration for Robert E. Howard’s puritan witch finder Solomon Kane, though he was truly closer to a Jacobian Joseph McCarthy.
It’s no coincidence that the modern term of witch hunt describes a trumped-up, unjust investigation against an innocent party.
If this sparked your interest in Matthew Hopkins, I recommend you check out the 1968 Vincent Price film: Witchfinder General. This sensationalized account of Hopkins career is cult movie gold. You really can’t go wrong if you’re looking for something morbid to watch.
ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. Photo of Witch-Pricker by By Heinrichkramer.
When I was about 5 years old, my family squeezed into a minivan and took a trip through the English countryside. I have a lot of scattered memories from that vacation, among them mist, cobblestones, and seeing this picture on the back of some tourism brochure and being scared sh*tless by it.
I never knew the story behind the photo–to be honest, had forgotten about it entirely–I until this week, when happened upon it again by chance. I knew then that I was fated to write this blog post.
The photo’s subject is a spirit called the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, so named for her customary 18th-century brown brocade dress. It’s not surprising that I stumbled across her (I’m embarrassed I haven’t covered her already); her photo is among the most famous paranormal images in the world.
Let’s start at the beginning. Our most fearsome lady is reported to be Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), sister of the first Prime Minister of England and 13th child of a Whig member of Parliament. Dorothy fell madly love with one Lord Charles Townshend, who loved her in return. But when Dorothy asked her father for permission to wed, he refused, fearing that people would assume he had arranged the marriage for his own monetary gain. So Lord Townshend went off to marry someone else, leaving Dorothy alone.
Enter Lord Thomas Wharton, a politician and rake “void of moral or religious principles.” It’s unclear if Dorothy actually had an affair with Wharton, or if their relationship was nothing more than a mild flirtation. It’s possible that she went for it–after all, she’d lost the man she loved and Wharton was a smart, charming dude willing to comfort her. But Wharton was married and kind of a douchebag, and theirs could not have been a long-term thing.
Then Lord Townshend’s wife died, and suddenly he was available again. He hadn’t heard about the business with Wharton, and asked Dorothy to marry him anew. Dorothy’s father was no longer around to get in the way, and she gladly accepted.
Now, I feel obligated to mention that contemporary sources–as well as recent documents uncovered by the descendents of the Townshends–indicate that the two’s 13 years of marriage were happy and normal. But if crime television has taught us anything, it’s that a cheerful facades can hide terrible secrets. According to legend, the Townshends had terrible secrets.
Lord Townshend, love of Dorothy’s life, was none too happy when he finally discovered that she’d hooked up with Wharty-poo (never mind that he himself had abandoned her to bang another woman). Some versions of the story go that she was still hooking up after she and Townshend had married, which would have been a bold move, considering her husband’s violent temper. However it went, Townshend took his revenge by locking Dorothy away, refusing to let her even see her children.
Eventually, she died. Officially, the cause was smallpox. Unofficially, people wondered if Townshend hadn’t pushed her down the stairs, or worse, if the funeral was a sham and he wanted her to die alone, shut up in Raynham Hall. Either way, no one would ever see Dorothy alive again.
About a century later, one of Townshend’s descendants held a Christmas party at Dorothy’s old estate. As they headed to bed, two guests were surprised to see a woman standing at the end of the hall, wearing a very dated brown brocade dress. Before they could approach her, she faded out of sight.
They might have assumed that they had been seeing things. But then, the next day, one of them ran into the woman again, this time face-to-face. Her pale skin all but glowed in the dark, and her eyes had been replaced by dark, gaping holes.
When this story came out, several servants quit and abandoned the premises. The legend of the Brown Lady had begun.
…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was. As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” he said, laughing. When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” they repeated, laughing also. The three gentlemen therefore returned in company.
The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father. Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses. My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.
I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham.”
And so it went. King George himself visited the property at one point, and woke up to find the lady standing over his bed, hair disheveled, eyes wild. He fled immediately, swearing to “not spend another hour in the accursed house, for tonight I have seen that which I hope to god I never see again.”
Now we come to the famous photograph.In September 1936, London-based photographer Captain Hubert A. Provand visited Raynham Hall along with his assistant Indre Shira with the aim of capturing property photos for Country Life magazine. According to their account, they were setting up a photo of the stairway, Provand with his head under the camera’s fabric, when Shira spotted a vapoury form coming at them down the stairs. He cried at Provand to take the shot. The photo that resulted is the one that the world wonders at today.
Since then, the Lady has not been seen much. Doubt is back in style. People maintain that the Country Life photograph could be easily faked–that there is damning evidence of double exposure and maybe even prop placement with a Madonna statue. I could also point out that Marryat’s story was doubtless exaggerated–not only did Marryat write fiction himself, but his daughter (who wrote the passage I quoted above, which is often quoted by people telling the story of the Lady) also wrote sensational novels, in addition to being an ardent Spiritualist. Between the two of them, it would be hard not to embellish.
Still, Dorothy Walpole’s legend has a nice ring to it, and has survived the better part of 300 years. The current owner of Raynham does not believe the photo was a fake. When asked about his infamous relative, he simply replied: “She isn’t there to haunt the house but she is still there, I know she’s there and I’m glad she’s around.”
What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve ever taken a photo of? Share your story in the comments below.
All images–except that the candle–were pulled from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. The candle photo is by Paolo Costa Baldi [CC BY-SA 3.0], also from Wikimedia Commons
Ah, World War I: an especially large-scale example of humanity getting itself into way deeper water than it was prepared for. 18-year-olds marched bravely with bayonets, just as their fathers and father’s fathers had done before them, to face enemies with mustard gas and machine guns. Add to that a dash of corpse-clogged trenches, a pinch of aggressive rats, and a heavy dose of feet-rotting mud, and you start to run out of adjectives that would adequately describe the experience. When I think of that war and what it did to people psychologically, I think of this photo:
So that’s pretty much the baseline for this post. When your world is that inside out, what sort of supernatural monster could keep you up at night?
Let’s situate ourselves in the Belgian city of Mons. Mons was the place where the British entered the war, and the place where its last shot was fired. The official Battle of Mons is nigh legendary, where a group of British soldiers defied the odds and held off a large number of Germans for two weeks before being forced back. During that battle, men reported visions of angelic archers coming to the Allies’ aid. But we’re not here to talk about inspiring things. We’re here for what happened after.
According to Canadian Captain F.J. Newhouse, on November 14, 1914, a man named Captain Yeskes took four men out to patrol no man’s land. They never came back. This in itself was not unusual–”no man’s land” was not so named for its hospitality. But when another team went to recover their corpses, they found them not riddled with bullets as expected, but punctured with teeth marks, throats torn out.
That was bad enough. Then, a few nights later, as the Allies shivered in the mud of the trenches, an animal howl ripped through the camp. The link between the sound and the bodies was easy to make. They gave a simple name to this new, unknown terror: the Hound of Mons.
Over the next two years, many more soldiers would be found ripped apart among the blackened tree stumps and strings of barbed wire. Cries of pain and that long, terrible howl would echo through dark, either uncomfortably close or at a distance, near the trenches of the Germans. Some reported a grey shadow flitting through no man’s land, fast and low to the ground. It seemed that something had come up from hell itself to frighten the men to death.
And then, without warning, it all stopped. The beast was never seen again.
Civilians looked down on these stories as hysteric fantasy–British propaganda–but Newhouse claimed there was proof that the creature that been real. Secret papers had been recovered from the residence of the late German doctor Hochmuller–notes from an experiment as terrible than the war itself.
According to the papers, Dr. Hochmuller had hunted down and then cut the brain out of a man driven insane by his hatred of the Allies. Hochmuller transferred said brain to the body of a giant siberian wolfhound, abandoning the man to die. After a few months of training, he let the wolfhound loose on the battlefront. Sure, there might have been some friendly casualties, but by and large, this experiment had been a success. The hound had been the ultimate German weapon.
Now, many have noted that there are issues with Newhouse’s story–his dates don’t line up with historical events, for one. There is no record of Hochmuller ever existing, and Yeskes almost certainly didn’t. Even with today’s scientific advances, a transplant of that caliber is not possible. Yet I don’t doubt that the terror in the trenches was real.
Even if it wasn’t dogs, the hound could have been a desperate effort to rationalize what was happening with the rats. That is where my money would be. There are accounts of rats as big as cats, fat with human flesh; rats gnawing through up people’s eyes before they burrowed into their corpses; rats attacking and eating injured men who couldn’t defend themselves. Seeing something like that could easily leave a soldier spinning tales about hell hounds as a method of comfort.
In the end, demons might have been preferable to reality.
What’s your favorite type of puppy? Any adorable Youtube recommendations? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
I recently read one of the best nonfiction books I’ve come across in years: The Witch of Lime Street, by David Jaher. Jaher relates his slice of history in such a compelling way that instead of just using it as fodder for my fiction (as I’d intended), I wanted to share a piece of it here.
To orient ourselves: we’re going back to the 1920’s, when, after a horrific numbers of deaths from World War I and the Spanish Influenza, the world experienced a surge of interest in contact with the afterlife. With this surge came a number of scammers seeking to make money off of people’s grief, as well as a counter-force of people–scientists, mostly, and stage magicians, who knew too well some of the tricks the scammers pulled–to expose them.
Early in the March of 1923, a charming, pretty upper-class Bostonite named Mina Crandon went to her first seance. She did it on a whim, almost as a joke, deciding to go while still out on her customary horse ride with her friend Kitty. Thus Mina found herself in a Spiritualist minister’s study in the middle of the afternoon, still wearing her riding clothes and trying not to laugh.
Then the medium started to speak. He channeled a strapping blonde man Mina was shocked to recognize: her brother Walter Stinson, dead some dozen years. The medium knew things about him that he shouldn’t have. He had a message for her from Walter: far from making fun of clairvoyants, she was about to become one herself, and one of the most powerful of the age.
Mina resisted the idea–she was a ruthlessly clever woman who had never had much of an interest in ghosts before–but in the end, she found herself in the dark of her parlor, holding hands with her friends and channeling a spirit that would earn her international fame: that of her own brother.
Walter was the centerpiece of his sister’s performances. He was the spirit that came most often, and was fiercely protective of his baby sister–or, as he called her, “the kid.” He was every bit as witty as Mina was, but bolder, ruder, and more temperamental. In an age where sham mediums forced their sitters to endure supernatural “miracles” in complete darkness, Mina (by Walter’s grace) held her seances in the light of a red lamp. Apparently, she and her brother had nothing to hide.
A typical seance went like this: the sitters would sit in a circle in the Crandon’s parlor and hold hands (oftentimes, volunteers or later psychic investigators would also hold down Mina’s feet, in an attempt to prevent fraud). Sometimes Mina would go quiet and nod off into a trance; others she would sit still, waiting like the others. Then a hair-raising whistle would cut through the silence, announcing Walter’s arrival. (Mina herself had never been able to whistle.) His voice–husky and very different from Mina’s own–would sound from different parts of the room: over the table, in the corner, next to someone’s ear. He would curse, crack jokes, and sing along to hit tunes that played suddenly on the Victrola in the other room, voice always coming in loud and clear, even when everyone at the table had their mouths full of water, including the medium herself.
But vocal productions were by no means the only way Walter impressed Mina’s guests. Under increasingly rigorous scientific tests (for Mina and Walter were beginning to draw attention), he not only did typical ghost things like rap on walls or levitate the table, but also:
Made said table lurch toward people, rear up on its hind legs like a dog, or chase people out the room and into the hallway
Stopped clocks, on command, to whatever time the sitters asked for
Rang gongs even as investigators held them in their hands
Made bells encased in a “fool-proof” plastic case ring on command
Pinched and poked people, and removed delicate pins from sitters’ hair
Blasted people with cold air in closed rooms
Made Mina’s spirit cabinet variously shoot across the room, splinter apart, and explode
Many Spiritualists were convinced that Mina–who now called herself Margery–was not only legitimate, but, as Walter had predicted, one of the most powerful mediums of her age. Some scientists became convinced also, when all their restraints and checks did nothing to hamper her. Mina was nothing but accommodating to these tests–showing them around house, and with mock seriousness explaining how various pieces of her furniture might be used in what her enemies called sham productions. She was funny and pretty and fashionable, and most everyone who met her ended up laughing and having as much fun as she did.
Most everyone, but not all. Mina made friends in high places–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being a major one–but she also made famous enemies, including the implacable Harry Houdini.
In the end, things did start to unravel–I would recommend reading Jaher’s book to find out how, because a) I don’t want to steal his thunder too much and b) there is not nearly enough room to cover it here. The more Mina tried to impress people–the more wild the stunts the public demanded–the less real her performances became. But the veracity of Walter’s personality remained.
Toward the end of Mina’s career Walter spoke through another medium–Eileen Garret, an Irish psychic that channelled messages and information. Without knowing who Mina was, Eileen identified her as a powerful medium, and spoke with the voice of a young man who addressed Mina as “kid” and correctly identified the name of their childhood dog. Mina’s heart must have stopped in her throat when she heard his message: “Kid you certainly are an old fraud, but I am in on it.”
Mina’s son–who had the dubious honor of growing up around all of this supernatural hullabaloo–said of his mother that some of it had been real, especially in beginning. The full knowledge of just how much of it was died with Mina herself.
And so far as I know, nobody’s been able to call her up and ask.
Have you ever exploded pieces of furniture during a seance? Leave your story in the comments below.
Happy new year, everyone! On this, the arbitrary day which the Western world has deemed the day we turn the page, I wanted to bring you a monster appropriate for the occasion: one centered around beginnings, creation, and life, with all its attendant horror.
This post has been brought to you by Aztec mythology.
15th and 16th century Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) had different religious views than what the average American is probably used to. They were polytheistic and carried out a huge number of important, complicated rituals throughout the year. Many of these placed a high value in sacrifice–not just the human sacrifices that they are (in)famous for, but sacrifices in general: self-sacrifice with bloodletting, sacrificing of animals, food, flowers, etc. Sacrifice and death were bound to life: you could not get one without the other. So it’s not super surprising that in (at least one of) their creation myths, sacrifice plays an essential role.
The story goes like this:
In the beginning, a dual god created itself out of nothing, and then from itself created four sons, each of which claimed a cardinal direction. The gods then went about trying to create the earth, but the task was difficult, and on their first attempt managed only to create a vast, endless ocean and Cipactli, the subject of our tale.
Cipactli was something like a crocodile, if a crocodile were the size of Pangea and had some characteristics that were less crocodilian and more like a fish or a toad. Cipactli was extra special in that they (I’m using a general pronoun because Cipactli had, at least according to Wikipedia, “indefinite gender”) had a mouth on every single joint of their body.
If we want to stop to do some math here: (insanely large carnivorous monster) + (mouths multi-jointed nightmares) = a hideous number of teeth and an insatiable hunger for blood. A regular crocodile is, frankly, bad enough, but this Cipactli was something else. The gods discovered the extent of their problem quickly, since whenever they tried to create something else, Cipactli’s mouths would swallow it whole. This made progress difficult, and the gods decided that they needed to kill the monster so that everything could move forward. But when Cipactli had teeth at every angle, how could the gods even hope to make an approach?
Enter Tezcatlipoca, “the Smoking Mirror,” lord of the night sky, the north, discord, divination, beauty, and sorcery, among other things. He was soon to become one of the gods the Aztec people feared and revered the most. They would call him by many names: “Enemy of Both Sides,” “Lord of the Near and Nigh,” “He By Whom We Live,” and, most tellingly, “We Are His Slaves.” He was often depicted with a black and yellow stripe across his face, an obsidian mirror on his chest, and another mirror, bone or a snake taking place of his right foot. But his foot was not always missing.
Here, at the dawn of time, Tezcatlipoca approached Cipactli first, sacrificing himself so that the other gods could make their move. One of Cipactli’s mouths snapped shut around Tezcatlipoca’s foot, and as the blood spurted, the gods all grabbed the monster and tore them apart. Cipactli’s body became mountains, valleys, forests, and plains, all floating in the primordial soup of the sea. Thus the gods were able to begin their attempts at creating life–though they would go through four cycles of birth and violent destruction before arriving at the world we know today.
But the story doesn’t end there. Cipactli may have been defeated, but their hunger never stopped. Still the hills and ravines and all the odd corners of the earth are covered with mouths that crave the blood and hearts of men. And still humanity has not–perhaps cannot–repay its blood debt to Tezcatlipoca for the sacrifice of his foot.
But by Jove, the Aztecs tried.
Obviously we do not understand Aztec culture the same way they did–Spanish conquistador accounts were biased (to put it mildly), and have colored our view of things unfairly. What might seem horrific to us might have been moving or even beautiful to them. Our own culture is not without its appreciation for sacrifice–take Jesus, for example–but nowadays, we tend to shy away when things get visceral.
It’s interesting to see how similar monsters crop up again and again across different cultures. Everyone seems to have their version of a bigfoot, of a loch ness monster, of a boogeyman, etc. It’s touching that we all have so much to share. This month’s monster has a familiar function, but overachieves in appearance and personality and pretty much everything else.
Remember my post on the Finfolk a year and a half ago? If you’ll recall, they hailed from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago situated up in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands have few trees, powerful winds, and a lot of prehistoric monuments. They are far enough north to experience those near-endless summer days and crushingly long, dark winter nights. The climate is temperate, the land fertile, and occasionally you can see the Aurora Borealis. It’s the type of place where some truly magical monsters can be born. Such were the Finfolk. And such is the Nuckelavee.
At first blush, the Nuckelavee looks like a just another demi-god scapegoat for bad weather or ill fortune. He was a evil, hate-filled fairy from the Atlantic that would breathe pestilence into crops and epidemics into livestock. Also familiar is his seasonality: the Nuckelavee terrorized humans primarily during winter, when the only entity that could control him–the powerful Mither o’ the Sea–tired from her long summer of keeping things in check. In short, he was the type of thing that folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison (19th century) might have appreciated, but not been terribly surprised by. But the more Dennison dug, the more he realized that there was something more to the story.
Few dared mention the Nuckelavee by name. When they did, no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Dennison got bits and pieces of description–the Nuckelavee had a protruding mouth like a pig; it had one red, glowing eye–but could not pull together the full picture. He needed a first-hand encounter. What he found was Tammas.
Tammas was considered foolhardy, but was not so foolhardy as go blabbing about his experience willy nilly. It took much “higgling and persuasion” to get him to tell his story, but when he did, the Nuckelavee solidified in the nightmares of generations to come. Tammas described his experience thus:
One moonless, starry night, Tammas was walking home along the beach when a hulking figure came out of the darkness ahead. Frightened but determined, Tammas said a prayer and vowed that he would not show the figure his back.
As the they drew closer to one another, it became harder and harder to stick to that vow. At first Tammas thought the figure might be a rider on a horse, but it very soon became apparent that the horse and rider were fused together in one terrible, fleshy mass. It was a giant thing, entirely skinless, with red glistening muscles and veins that shuddered with black blood. Its mouth was mad and wide, its single eye glowing red. The “rider”’s arms were long enough to drag almost down to the ground, and his enormous, bulging head lolled heavily backwards as his horse parts trotted forward.
Tammas knew immediately that it was the Nuckelavee, and that he would probably not make it back alive. But, foolhardy as he was, he kept walking forward, hoping perhaps the thing wouldn’t notice him. He kept on the left side of the road, close to the fresh water of an adjacent loch. He knew the Nuckelavee hated fresh water. One step closer, and then another, and then the Nuckelavee noticed him.
The Nuckelavee roared with hate. Tammas shrieked and splashed into the water of the loch –afraid to wade too deep (for fear of yet more monsters), but trying to stay out of the Nuckelavee’s reach. His frantic movements splashed water up on the Nuckelavee’s forelegs. The monster bellowed in pain, and Tammas abandoned his wading and made a run for it.
There was a rivulet of water crossing the road up ahead, where the loch emptied out toward the sea. If Tammas could cross it, he knew he would be safe. But though he ran with every ounce of his strength–lungs raw, muscles screaming, chest about to burst–the Nuckelavee caught up fast. Tammas could feel its breath sear the back of his neck, and then felt its long, unnatural fingers brush the top of his hat. With one last effort, he threw himself across the tiny stream of freshwater, just as the Nuckelavee made its snatch.
Tammas landed roughly on the opposite side, knees giving out beneath him, consciousness not far behind. The Nuckelavee drew up before the water, his hat clutched in its terrible, glistening fingers, and roared as Tammas blacked out.
Yes, Dennison found that the Nuckelavee was a special kind of terror, and not only in appearance. It was an unusual creature in that it had no use for humans whatsoever–not as food, not as playthings, not even as macabre decoration. It operated out of pure hatred, and wanted everyone dead. As Dennison wrote: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”
But perhaps the Nuckelavee can’t be blamed for his animosity. Some said his ire stemmed from the 18th and 18th century Orcadian habit of burning seaweed. The resulting kelp could be used for a variety of commercial purposes, but the process stank so bad that some said it drove away even the fish. If that was indeed the Nuckevalee’s complaint, I say: fair enough. Indeed, once the burning fell out of practice in the early 1900’s, Nuckelavee visits subsided.
Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to speak his name like they used to be. Why should we be? With all our modern lights and cellphones and near-ubiquitous wifi connectivity, who needs to be worried about a skinless horse-man hybrid with long arms and longer grudges?
Happy holidays to all! Did not do a themed post this year, unless you want me to relate skinless monsters to your skinless holiday turkey breast. Share your thoughts on parallels between the Nuckelavee and this festive time of year in the comments below.