Dogs of war: the Hound of Mons

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:

Shell Shock 1916
A Canadian Soldier in 1916 who is pretty damn far from okay.

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.

Corpse in Trench
I think this post has the best ambience images yet. (Courtesy of Anders on Flickr)

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.

World War I was the first time dogs were used in a large scale, organized manner; one website postulates that the Hound of Mons might be an exaggerated, politicized account of the breeding of the German Shepherd.  It could be that soldiers saw stray dogs eating the corpses of their friends, and lost it.

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.

 

WANT MORE HORRIFIC WWI PHOTOS? Check out Anders on Flickr here.

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Whistle while you work: the ghost of Walter Stinson

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.

Mina Crandon
Rather creepy photo of Mina Crandon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

mina_crandon_ectoplasm_face
Mina Crandon emitting ectoplasm during a seance, also courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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
mina_crandon_with_harry_houdini
One of said rigorous tests, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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.

alter_franklin_prince_with_mina_crandon_and_houdini
Mina with Houdini and other investigators.

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.

I do believe in monsters; I do!: “Night-mares” and SUNDS

I love sleep. I love learning about sleep cycles, the sleeping habits of famous artists, my own bedtimes, and, of course, dreams. My obsession has leaked out a little in this blog: last year we talked a little about the Shadow People, dark figures who show up in people’s bedrooms (among other places) when they’re not quite asleep, yet not quite awake. This year we took on the Popobawa, a Zanzibarian incubus that was real enough to his community that he caused real damage. Really, I figured I probably hold off on the sleep-related terrors for a while. But then I happened upon this article entitled “Can You Really Die in Your Nightmares?”, and…well, this is the result.

First, let’s look closely at the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, sleep paralysis is something that is, arguably, even worse than your worst normal nightmare (“nightmare” meaning frightening dream). The scientific explanation for how sleep paralysis happens goes like this:

  1. There are a number of different sleep cycles we go through each night, from tiny wakening periods to light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep. In REM—that most famous of sleep cycles–our heartbeat increases, our breathing becomes more shallow, our eyes dart back and forth behind closed lids, and we start to dream.
  2. To avoid us acting our dreams of being chased, stabbing zombies, or doing the polka with Captain Hook, our bodies shut down during REM sleep, essentially putting us in a state of temporary paralysis. As we exit REM, the paralysis releases, and we get up, rub our eyes, and try in vain to recall what in the hell just happened. At least, that’s how it normally goes.
  3. But sometimes things go wrong. The body gets out of sync, and we wake up (or think we’re awake), but the paralysis is still gripping us tight and we can’t move or cry out. Right around then is when we start to see things. Hear things. Feel things.
johann_heinrich_fc3bcssli_-_the_nightmare_-_wga08333
A famous depiction of sleep paralysis/night-mare/terrible time, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Remnants of dreams, surely. That’s what Western science would have us believe. But if those are remnants of dreams, they are scary as f***. Because the thing with sleep paralysis—and the things we see therein—is that it feels very much like we are awake. We perceive our room as it really is, we’re aware that we’re in bed and have just woken up, so it can be very disconcerting to know all this and then realize that there’s something standing your bedroom corner.

I’ve talked before about how I woke up one night to see a tall figure lurch at me from out of my closet—such a vivid experience that I remember it perfectly almost two decades later. But other people with sleep paralysis have had it worse. It’s common to not only see and/or sense a figure, but to have it on top of you, too feel its weight, and have the air crushed out of your chest. All this, and you can’t scream—can’t even move. The experience can last for several minutes, and can be so horrific that language can’t express it.

A lot of my research for this post came from looking through reviews (and reading sections of) a book called Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection by Dr. Shelley Adler, director of the Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. In what I’ve read of her book,* Adler points out that while 25-30% of people will experience an episode of sleep paralysis (what she calls a “night-mare”, hearkening back to the original meaning of the word) sometime in their life, in the U.S. the phenomenon is “simultaneously very common and little known.” This might be because, as she explains, our culture enforces a strict dichotomy between what we consider “real” (“visible, measurable, evidence-based”) and “unreal” (“supernatural, religious, unprovable”). We take that “real” and “unreal” things are non-compatible for granted, but that’s something our culture has created for us—the rest of humanity doesn’t necessarily agree.

Nor should they, according to Adler. It is foolhardy to assume that just because we do not currently have the tools to “prove” that something exists must mean that that something does not exist. Also, things that are “not real” can have very real effects.

Sleep paralysis by Gerard Van Der Leun on Flickr
A more modern depiction of the joys of sleep paralysis, courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun on Flickr.

Across the U.S. in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, almost 200 people—mostly young, healthy men at an average of 33 years of age—abruptly died in their sleep. Some were said to cry out in the night. Others just went cold. Their spouses and families were stricken; their communities terrified. All of the men were Laotian-Hmong refugees who had recently come to the U.S., but besides that shared little in common. In whispers, they named the phenomenon the Night Terror; people became afraid to go to bed.

The refugees’ families often refused autopsies for religious reasons, but the few that did found no pathological evidence to explain why they died. A few showed slightly enlarged hearts, as if they had just…“shorted out.”

It’s easy to fill in the blanks with your imagination, knowing what we do about how intense little sleep-visitations can be. Adler claims that Laotian beliefs about demons, combined with the stress of being a refugee, might have exacerbated whatever genetic heart problems these men might have had and made their night-mares not just frightening, but deadly. That alone is bananas. But it’s not just Laotians that have died.

Check out this article from the American Journey of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, wherein data collected between 2001 and 2006 in Southern China revealed a whopping 975 cases of SUNDS—Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, what scientists call this mystery death in your sleep. It, too, explores the idea that SUNDS might be associated with funky stuff going on in REM sleep, and the breathing and heart abnormalities that might result. Funky stuff like things being out of sync. Like what happens in sleep paralysis—Adler’s night-mares.

Genetics, again, could play a part, as could stress, socioeconomic background, and being overworked. But that doesn’t change the fact that these SUNDS victims might have faced down something terrible in the dead of night, and that thing could have been the last thing they saw.

We humans face a lot of stressful, frightening things in ordinary life. Their pedestrian nature can be exactly what makes them so scary. So let me offer you the comfort of this supernatural horror, to help you keep things in perspective: in the end, it may not matter whether that monster in your closet is “real” or a leftover dream. He can still kill you.

fritz_schwimbeck_-_my_dream2c_my_bad_dream-_1915
A nice closing image to leave you with, courtesy of Fritz Schwimbeck at Wikimedia Commons.

 

Have you ever had an unfriendly night time visitor? One time, while camping, I woke up to find a raccoon standing on my sleeping bag. Share your thoughts on that in the comments below.

 

 

 

* Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to read though all of it yet thanks to moving last weekend and an exceptionally heavy workload at my day job. Apologies to Dr. Adler and everyone else.

 

WANT TO SEE MORE OF GERARD VAN DER LEUN? FIND HIM HERE.

Pour one out for Mr. Brawny: the Hidebehind

Let’s talk about lumberjacks. Even with the advent of modern technology, logging is one of the most dangerous professions out there. In 2008, the rate of on-the-job deaths was at about 108 per 100,000 workers, 30 times higher than any other industry overall. The risks are plenty: you’re exposed to the elements, working with sharp things that can slice you and heavy things that can crush you, often far from help. But nowadays things are much easier than they used to be. Less than a 100 years ago, the difficulty of the  industry required not only that you adopt a profession, but a way of life.

Lumberjacks cerca 1900
The casual lumberjack, cerca 1900. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Traditional lumberjacks were the epitome of manliness. They brought down massive trees using only saws, axes, and their own muscle, enduring cold and hardship that would send the rest of us running away screaming. Paid little, lumberjacks lived in primitive conditions. They rarely washed their clothes, and generally did every stereotypical thing that manly men are supposed to do: roughhouse, try to out-eat each other, tell tall tails, etc. Their heroes were people like Jigger Johnson, a man who kicked knots of frozen trees with his bare feet, drank so much he hallucinated, and bit off a man’s ear when he was 12 years old.

In short, lumberjacks were a stalwart bunch. They lived with danger every day, and so were fearless (and fearsome) men.

So what scared the lumberjacks?

The Hidebehind is a monster born from a simple but universal concept. You know how sometimes you’re walking alone and then you worry you’re not actually alone? When.you feel like something’s watching you, but when you whip around to check, nothing seems to be there?

The lumberjacks felt that in the woods. They were capable men who knew the forests well, and so when the trees stood more still and more quiet than usual, they would, too. At a whisper of underbrush any man would whip around, breath in his throat, hands tight on his axe, but he was always unable to locate his pursuer. Occasionally someone would go missing. These men were normally never seen again. If they were, it was when someone stumbled upon their bodies some time later, mouths wide, intestines strewn across the forest floor.

The Hidebehind
A Hidebehind illustration so innocuous as to almost be adorable, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Hidebehind” is a simple name to describe a primordial fear: a man-hunter that cannot be seen until it’s too late; a clever, quick monster that tucks itself behind trees, rocks, or whatever else is available as it closes the distance between itself and its prey. Word had it that the creature could make itself thin enough to hide behind trees only 10 inches across. Its appearance (which must have been either conjecture or a tale passed down from a rare survivor) was said to be something like a bear on hind legs, 6 feet tall, covered in black fur, with heavy claws and no discernible face.

The Hidebehind dined chiefly on human intestine, and was picky about the quality of what it ate. After scaring its victim half to death by stalking him through the forest, it would fall on him with a “demoniacal laugh,” either dragging him off to its lair or clawing open his torso then and there to get at the goodies within. One story had it that it would then run the intestines under its nose to smell them before it ate. If it detected any trace of alcohol inside, it would throws the viscera back in the victim’s face and bound away with a laugh.

The details about the exact intensity of the Hidebehind’s aversion to alcohol are a bit hazy. Some stories had it that no matter how much you drank, the Hidebehind would slice you open to get a sniff (as described above). Others said that as little as one beer (a bottle of Uno, according to the source) would keep a man safe “even in thickly infested country.” It seems that many lumberjacks shrugged and drank like fishes just in case. The monster’s odd Achilles’ heel makes you wonder if the whole thing wasn’t invented just to pressure younger lumberjacks to drink.

Regardless, tales of the Hidebehind had an impact. One story tells of a lumberjack travelling alone through the winter woods. The man became nervous when a branch cracked behind him and he could find no natural explanation for the sound. Then he came across the remains of a fellow lumberjack, intestines staining the snow. Instead of being more frightened–or horrified–the man relaxed with relief. He’d heard that the Hidebehind could go for 7 years without eating, and since it had just dined on someone else, he himself was probably safe.

How powerless were these manly men that they only thing they could do in the face of the Hidebehind’s horror was to be grateful that its latest victim wasn’t them?

forest-2000030_1920
Spot the Hidebehind!

The traditional lumberjack has faded into history, but the Hidebehind has yet to go out of style. Versions of the monster have appeared in a number of different mediums, including books, games, television, and, most recently, on the Harry Potter themed news site Pottermore. Plaid flannel shirts may come and go, but much like a little black dress or darkwash jeans, the Hidebehind is truly timeless.

 

What is the smallest diameter tree you can hide behind? Hawk your skills in the comments below.

Seasick: The empty deck of the Mary Celeste

We’re going to do something a little different this month. Instead of looking at a specific haunting or mythological figure, let’s talk about a mystery that has scared seafarers for over 100 years.

Painting of the Mary Celeste
Painting of the actual Mary Celeste, back when she was named The Amazon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Mary Celeste is pretty famous, though I myself had never heard of her. Built in Nova Scotia around 1890, she was a ship some 100 feet long, rigged as a brigantine (for those of you [like me] who know less than nothing about boats, that means her sails were arranged so that she looked something like her picture to the left here). She set sail first with the name Amazon.

The ship proved herself unlucky almost as soon as she hit the water. Her first captain fell ill and died shortly after supervising the cargo load for her maiden voyage. Then her second captain collided her with a fishing boat. Then she ran into and sank a brig outside of London. Then a storm drove her to shore and damaged her so badly that her owners abandoned her as a wreck. Coming out of that, the Amazon was bought, repaired, upgraded, and christened with a new name: the Mary Celeste.

Another pro tip for us landlubbers: renaming a ship is supposed to bring terrible luck. Considering her already sketchy history, I’m not sure what drove the restorers of the Mary Celeste to tempt fate. But the stigma didn’t stop a flock of new investors, one of which who would become her new captain. His name was Benjamin Briggs.

Captain Benjamin Briggs
Photo of Briggs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Briggs was a devout Christian and father of two children: one son, age 7 at the time, and a daughter, age 2. Briggs had considered retiring from seafaring and starting a business with his brother, but the call of the Mary Celeste was too seductive to ignore. With his wife, daughter, a cargo of industrial alcohol, and a crew of men described as “peaceable and first-class sailors,” Briggs set sail on his new ship for Genoa, Italy on November 7, 1872.

“Our vessel is in beautiful trim,” Briggs wrote to his mother before they left. “I hope we shall have a fine passage.”

Genoa was a popular destination; by coincidence, an acquaintance of Briggs named David Morehouse would set sail for it 8 days after the Mary Celeste left port. Like Briggs, Morehouse was an experienced and respected captain. So when, in the middle of his journey across the Atlantic, he spotted a ship with oddly set sails jerking through the water, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

Morehouse hailed the ship. No one replied. He drew closer, and saw that it was none other than the Mary Celeste. The deck lay empty. Morehouse signaled the ship again, and the only response was its irregular bobbing in the waves. Worried for his friend–there were pirates active in these waters, and the weather had been terrible–Morehouse sent his first mate Oliver Deveau over with another man to investigate. What they found still puzzles people today.

The Mary Celeste
An engraving of how the Mary Celeste might have looked upon discovery, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There were no obvious signs of attack or fire. The sails were partly set but in poor condition; a few were missing altogether. The rigging was damaged, with ropes hanging loosely over the sides. Something had smashed the glass over the compass, and a makeshift sounding rod (a tool for measuring how much water is in a hold) sat abandoned in the middle of the deck.

Deveau called out. The hull of the Marie Celeste groaned; her sails flapped wetly in the wind. Far away, the crew of his own ship watched expectantly. But there was no response.  

Below, everything seemed to be in order, save for some water that had come in through the open windows to splatter the beds and the floor. Valuable personal items–including the captain’s sword–were all still there, as was a 6-month supply of food. According to some legends, half-eaten breakfasts still lay on the table, untouched by rot or flies.*

But no one was there. No bodies. No signs of violence. Deveau and his companion sloshed through 3 and a half feet of water accumulated in the hold–a significant amount, but by no means fatal for a ship of the Celeste’s size–and searched desperately for the missing crew. But the ship remained quiet. At last they could not escape the awful conclusion: they were on the Mary Celeste alone.

Sarah Briggs with child
A photo of Sarah Briggs, Captain Brigg’s wife, with one of their children. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They found the ship’s log in the first mate’s cabin. The last entry was dated the morning of November 25, a little over a week previous. According to the coordinates provided there, the Celeste had moved an incredible 400 nautical miles since. The men were flabbergasted. They went back to the deck and noticed that the lifeboat was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and navigational instruments. They supposed the crew–Briggs and his men, as well as his wife and toddler daughter–must have abandoned the ship in an awful hurry. But why? The Celeste was still sound. What had caused the seasoned, level-headed captain to panic?

The men returned to their own vessel to report their findings. Captain Morehouse, disturbed, decided at length to bring the Mary Celeste in to Gibraltar for salvage. With his crew divided between two ships, it was hard going. I can only imagine what it was like for those unlucky enough to have to man the silent Mary Celeste. When they finally arrived, Morehouse wrote to his wife: “I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe.”

The team’s arrival ignited a firestorm of speculation about the fate of the Mary Celeste, one that has not really died down since. Select theories include:

      • Pirate attack. Unlikely, as (as I mentioned) many food and valuables were still on board.
      • Someone going insane and killing everyone. The person people point a finger at ranges from Briggs to Morehouse to some other member of the crew. Some said that whoever-it-was was fueled by an alcoholic rage (though the alcohol in the Celeste’s hold wasn’t drinkable, and Briggs ran a dry ship).  Fiction writers (the fiends!) helped spread rumors with stories of “survivors” from the Celeste, but, as I mentioned, the evidence aboard the ship did not indicate violent attack. There were some stains on board that looked like blood but turned out (upon testing) not to be; some breaks in the wood initally thought to be ax marks that were more likely natural wear from the sea. Given also that Briggs, Morehouse, and the crew of the Mary Celeste were all known to be calm, even-tempered men, most people eventually dropped violence from the list of plausible explanations.
      • Sea monsters. Giant sea squid! Other horrific things! But if that were the case, how would they have gotten everyone so neatly? And what about the lifeboat and navigational instruments?
      • Water spouts. Apparently there is such a thing as a water tornado. That could work as an explanation, given the battered sails and how everything was soaked in the hold. But again, why jump ship? Did Briggs think it was sinking? Why abandon the relative safety of the larger ship for a rinky-dinky lifeboat?
      • Miscellaneous supernatural occurrences. Ghosts. UFOs. Time warps. Bermuda-triangle-like hotspots hundreds of miles away from the actual bermuda triangle. Other things that cannot–must not--be named. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
      • Exploding cargo. Now we start to get into more sane explanations. Recent experiments have shown that if one of the industrial alcohol barrels leaked and exploded thanks to a large wave (or someone lighting a pipe a little too close by), it would create a big burst of flame but not necessarily burn or harm the ship in any discernible way. If such an explosion happened, Briggs would have been alarmed and gotten everyone off the ship, only to see the Celeste drift away and be lost in the lifeboat at sea. Investigators, not finding any burn marks, wouldn’t have been the wiser.
      • Faulty equipment. Another more sane (but boring) theory where the Captain panics when he shouldn’t: if his compass was off and his water-measuring equipment was also off, leading him to believe that he was closer to land than he thought and that the Celeste was starting to sink when it wasn’t. In this theory, the banality of evil rules all: Briggs could have lost his life and the lives of his family and crew due to simple technical error.

     

  • Whatever the cause, the result was the same: the souls aboard the Mary Celeste vanished for good.
    Ship in a storm
    Dramatic ship painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

    So what happened to the ship itself? After an official inquiry, the Mary Celeste  was sold in a hurry and continued to bring her rapidly changing captains ill fortune. She lost one full cargo of lumber in an accident, and then when she was used to try to ship livestock, almost every animal in her hold wasted away. When yet another captain died prematurely on her watch, her cursed reputation was sealed.

    Finally, a man named Gilman C. Parker bought and ran her across a reef in an attempt at insurance fraud. Unfortunately for him, he and his associates were found out and vilified for it. Parker died in poverty less than a year later. One of his accomplices went to an insane asylum; the other committed suicide. And that was the last of the Mary Celeste, though certainly not the last of the curiosity over her.

    There is an abundance of material to read about this stuff, for those of you who are interested. The Smithsonian has an interesting theory, as do several videos on Youtube. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, I’d start on the Wikipedia page and then go on from there. I myself am deep in it, and will probably never get out.

    What do you think could have clear out the Mary Celeste without a trace? Extra points for fart jokes. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    *This is probably not true, but it does add a nice dramatic flair.

You’re as Cold as Ice: The Ijirait

Hello, 2017! It was exceptionally chilly earlier this week, which got me thinking about icicles, snowstorms, hypothermia, and all the other fun winter-themed things that can kill you. Monster Meet has yet to feature an honest-to-goodness snow monster, so I figured now was a great time to visit one. Let’s put bad weather in perspective:

horns
Some ambiance-building bones for your viewing pleasure.

Way up above Canada, in the highest part of the world, where the sun moves strangely and a single mistake might cost you your life, the Inuit test the bounds of human awesomeness. These badass people face things that most of us would find unimaginable, and on a day to day basis. What sort of thing might scare them? Answer: the Ijirait (Ijiraq being the singular form), beings with one foot in this world and the other in the spirit realm. Watching, robbing, and daring any human to cross them, these shape-shifting monsters wander the most desolate parts of the arctic.

Inuit elders in the South Baffin region whisper that long ago, a group of hunters went too far north and got trapped in the expanse between the living and the dead. Thus the Ijirait were born. Now when other hunters enter that region, they see strange, moving mirages; hear eerily human whistling; and catch glimpses of shadows standing the corner of their eye. No matter how fast they turn, or how far they look, they’ll almost never see what haunts them. They usually never see their families again, either…once a human steps into the territory of an Ijiraq, even if said human is an excellent navigator with great survival skills, even if the human’s camp is within sight of where they stand, the spirit (for lack of a better world) will confound and confuse them so that they will wander, terrified, until they collapse and die in the cold.

bird
Any number of arctic animals, including birds like this one!

Shaman visions have indicated that in their natural form, the Ijirait might look almost human, but with mouths and eyes that open sideways. Other stories have them appear–when they do appear–as hideous human-caribou hybrids, or simply as caribou with slightly unusual antlers (note: woe to the hunter who mistakes an Ijiraq for her prey). Most agree, however, that the spirits can shape-shift into any number of arctic animals, possibly with the one unifying feature of red eyes.

The Ijirait might even disguise themselves as humans, hunting caribou and passing through markets terribly, horribly close to people’s homes. This might be because beyond confusing travelers and generally making people feel uneasy, the spirits delight in kidnapping and then abandoning human children. The only youngsters not doomed to die in the snow are the ones with whom the Ijiraq happens to pass by a certain type of cairn–an inuksuqaq. Upon seeing an inuksuqaq, the monster will change its mind and return the child…but if it doesn’t see one, well. That kid’s pretty much screwed.

landscape
Fig 3: territory to bypass.

From what I can tell, the Ijirait can’t be fought, and they can’t be hidden from. The only way to avoid an altercation with them is to a) have a woman giving childbirth near you at all times (it’s said that the Ijirait fear said women intensely, though to be fair anyone should probably be afraid of someone pushing a miniature version of herself out of her body) or b) to simply bypass their territory altogether.*

Ijirait survivors are encouraged to record their stories immediately, because amnesia hits hard not long after an encounter. People who aren’t monster enthusiasts suggest that this might be because the pockets of sour gas present in the arctic ground–which could cause victims to see things and get disoriented in the first place–might have lasting cognitive effect. Who knows. Me, I like to think that the amnesia is just the human brain protecting itself after a harrowing, awe-inspiring encounter.

Some things we just weren’t meant to see.

What sort of bone-chilling things do you see on the winter sidewalk? Do you think you can draw an effective caribou-human minotaur? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Some Inuit elders argue that the Ijirait are not so much evil as they are misunderstood, and that much of their animosity comes from resentment of people encroaching on their land. In this version of the legend, the spirits are sometimes even helpful, bringing travelers messages in a way that is sure to get their attention.

ALL PHOTO CREDIT GOES TO: The Bone Collector II via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND. Thank you very kindly.