Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sneaky Werewolves

Douchan Gersi (1947-2015), explorer, adventurer, actor, and producer/director of the TV series Explore (shown on PBS and the Discovery Channel), had quite a bit to say about werewolves in his book Faces in the Smoke.

In a small village somewhere in Haiti, Gersi came upon a group of men carrying a coffin with a “werewolf” in it.  The coffin contained only a little man in his fifties, wearing pajama bottoms and a shirt.  The man had a crucifix driven into his chest, another driven into his forehead, and his hands and feet had been nailed to the coffin.  A couple of villagers claimed to have seen the man, named Sophocle, change from werewolf to human, so he was slain in this weird fashion.

A week or so later, in the town of Saint-Marc, Gersi struck up a friendship with the mayor, the chief of police, and the local army commander.  The mayor had been educated in Paris, and the other two in the USA, so they were not backward villagers.  Gersi told them of Sophocle the unfortunate werewolf, “concluding with a remark to the effect that I was amazed at what people living in the back country could believe in.  The mayor looked at the men sitting at our table and then at me and said, very seriously, ‘You shouldn't laugh about that.  Werewolves really do exist!’”

Whereupon the three important men of Saint-Marc told Gersi the following:  One night, the same trio was driving through the town, the commander at the wheel and the mayor and the police chief with him in the front seat.  They were looking for a street vendor, hoping to buy a late dinner.  At an intersection they spotted a glow shining several feet above the macadam of a side street.  Food peddlers in Haiti carried a pan of burning coals on the top of their heads, so they assumed that was what they saw.

When they turned down the cross-street, however, the car’s headlights lit up something that was not only not a peddler, but not even human:  “it was completely covered with long, black hair and had a long, hairy tail.  Its head was the head of a huge dog, with red, luminescent eyes, and a glow emanating from it.” [Gersi p. 192]

The creature ran off on two legs.  The commander gave chase, and the police chief pulled out his pistol and shot at the thing.  “It stopped, turned to face the car for a few seconds, and then crossed the street, running on all fours, and vanished between two houses.  Despite their search, they could not find the beast again.”

Even before this eye-witness sighting, the officials knew such beast-men existed, because they had been called out to local villages to examine their mutilated victims.  The manner of these violent deaths convinced them that werewolves were not the product of imagination or superstition.

"I began reading the local newspapers more carefully,” finishes Gersi, “and found that, indeed, more often than I would have thought, there were many official reports of people who had seen werewolves, as well as reports of murders supposedly committed by werewolves."


Gersi’s story is a rare example of modern werewolfery.  For some reason I found myself mulling over it and over legends of lycanthropy from medieval and early modern Europe.  I had the curious image in my head of old “Sophocle” puttering around innocuously in his cottage when suddenly an angry mob of villagers broke in and killed him.

I had a vague memory of several old werewolf stories where witnesses chased after a horrible predatory monster, lost it momentarily in the trees or shrubbery – then found some bedraggled fellow who was obviously the bloodthirsty shapeshifter in human form.

Ye Olde Wer-Wolfe

It is said that he was hunted down with mastiffs, and that at the moment they were closing in on him he metamorphosed before their eyes from the shape of a wolf into that of a man . . . What probably happened was that the men and the dogs pursued what they thought was a wolf into a woods or thicket.  More likely they never saw a wolf at all.

So Bernhardt J. Hurwood describes the capture of Peter Stubbe (or Stump, Stumpf, Stube, among other variants), an infamous lycanthrope of 16th century Germany.  There is no doubt Stubbe was a serial killer and cannibal, and he was so practiced at necromancy and sorcery that, as described in his trial manuscript (1590):

“The Devil gave him a girdle which, being put around him, he was transformed into the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like brands of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body and mighty paws.” [Otten, p. 69]

It was fortunate for his pursuers that he turned into a mortal man when they caught him, but poor timing on Stubbe’s part.  Did they really see a wolf – or something like one – when searching for the local monster?

Another famous lycanthrope was Gilles Garnier, of Dole, France, who was put on trial for murder, sorcery, and werewolfery in 1573.  Witnesses claimed to have seen something “in the form of a wolf” attack several young children, and once the beast was “hindered” from eating a girl by three brave locals.  They must have been close enough to see whether the monster was human or animal.  However, during his last attack, upon a boy of the village of Perrouze, “the said Gilles Garnier was then and at that time in the form of a man and not a wolf.” [Summers, p. 227]

Again a lupine beast was seen, but when captured, the perpetrator was conveniently human.

Then there’s the 1584 case of Perrenette Gandillon, a female of the species:

“Benoist Bidel of Naizan [France], a lad some sixteen years old, and his younger sister were attacked, whilst plucking wild fruit, by a huge wolf without a tail.”  Several peasants ran up and fought off the beast; too late for Benoist, who died from his wounds.  The shaggy killer, however, was mortally injured as well:  “the animal . . . in its last throes crawled behind a thicket, where when it was followed they discovered no wolf but the dead body of Perrenette Gandillon.”  [Summers, p. 229.]

Jacques Roulet, 1598:  “some countrymen came one day upon the corpse of a boy of fifteen, horribly mutilated and bespattered with blood.  As the men approached, two wolves, which had been rending the body, bounded away into the thicket.  The men gave chase immediately, following their bloody tracks till they lost them; when suddenly crouching among the bushes, his teeth chattering with fear, they found a man half naked, with long hair and beard.” [Baring-Gould, p. 81]

I’m starting to see a pattern.

As mentioned elsewhere in this book and in I Heard of That Somewhere, reports of “dogmen” have been increasing over the past 20 years.  Researchers use the word dogman instead of werewolf because, although the creatures are bipedal and very wolflike, there is no evidence they are people who transform into lupine monsters.  And yet –

Dogmen appear to have no fear of human beings whatsoever.  They are often seen lurking around houses and mobile homes and peering into windows.  Perhaps they watch us as we watch television.  They may know quite a bit about certain individuals.

Let’s say a dogman, usually Ninja-like when skulking about human habitations, is less careful one night and gets seen by the locals, who gather quickly to chase the monster.  It lopes toward a house or cottage it has watched before, where some poor Schmoe lives alone.  It trots up to the house then vanishes into the darkness in whatever fashion dogmen use to elude humans.  To the approaching mob, however, the beast has run back home to hide.  So they kick in the door and find the owner, who has obviously just changed back into human form.  Then the poor guy is dragged out of bed and killed in some painful fashion.  That would be a dirty trick.  Those sneaky werewolves!

Heck, a werewolf or dogman doesn’t even have to be involved in a case of mistaken identity.  The Land Beyond the Forest by Emily Gerard was the book about Transylvania and its folklore that inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.  Ms. Gerard reports that the Romanian word for werewolf is prikolitsch.  Apparently it didn't take much to get those Transylvanian peasants stirred up:

"This superstition once proved nearly fatal to a harmless botanist, who . . . was observed by some peasants, and, in consequence of his crouching attitude, mistaken for a wolf.  Before they had time to reach him, however, he had risen to his feet and disclosed himself in the form of a man; but this in the minds of the Roumanians, who now regarded him as an aggravated case of wolf, was but additional motive for attacking him.  They were quite sure that he must be a prikolitsch, for only such could change his shape in this unaccountable manner, and in another minute they were all in full cry after the wretched victim of science." [Gerard, p. 322]

The botanist, fortunately, gained his carriage and fled before the peasants caught him.  One wonders if pitchforks and torches were involved.

Baring-Gould, Sabine.  Book of Were-Wolves (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1865).

Gerard, Emily.  Land Beyond the Forest:  Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania, Vol. 1 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [1888]).

Gersi, Douchan.  Faces in the Smoke:  An Eyewitness Experience of Voodoo, Shamanism, Psychic Healing, and Other Amazing Human Powers (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc, 1991).

Hurwood, Bernhardt J.  Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghouls (New York: Ace Books, 1968).

Otten, Charlotte F. (editor).  Lycanthropy Reader:  Werewolves in Western Culture (New York: Dorset Press, 1986).

Summers, Montague.  Werewolf (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1973 [1933]).

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

A Few Random Book Reviews

The Lady in the Lake

Raymond Chandler

(Mystery novel; Philip Marlowe series)

This is less a review of this specific novel than an attempt to recapture the feelings I had upon first encountering Raymond Chandler. Some years ago I bought an anthology of mystery tales called 3X3, which contained three entire novels as well as numerous short stories. On the verge of dumping it again, I happened to open it to the first page of one of the novels, The Lady in the Lake.

I read the first paragraph, about the sidewalk made of rubber blocks. For some reason this made me read the first page. Then I read the first chapter, and the idea of dumping the book vanished.
I know I'm coming pretty late in the game to Chandler, his poetry in prose and the contrasting dark, sleezy world of Philip Marlowe, but I didn't read many mysteries in my youth. More's the pity. Marlowe's world, Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, is a palpable reality in Chandler's novels. You can see every lash on a gorgeous woman's eyelid, smell the sweat and cigarette butts in the police station, feel a muscular goon's knuckles smack your chin. It is a land corrupt and decaying, yet beautiful and alive, full of the good, the bad, the tired, and the sad.

I've heard that reading Chandler means you're something of a snob, in that Chandler detested most detective fiction and consciously tried to improve on it. I don't know how to answer that but to say I was pretty much a blank slate in the mystery field; few of the mysteries I did read held my attention. But The Lady of the Lake reached right out of the book, grabbed me by the lapels, and pulled me in with a splash. Read it, read more Marlowe, read the short story prototypes Chandler wrote before he came up with his archetypal detective. *****

The Kinsey Millhone Series: A Is for Alibi through K Is for Killer

Susan A. Grafton

(Mystery novels)

I have probably never read a series as fast as I've been reading the Kinsey Millhone mysteries of Sue Grafton. About two years ago, in the depths of the worst depression I ever felt, the "alphabet" mysteries were literally the only things I could bring myself to read, not because they were easy or light but because they were so engaging. A true disciple of the Raymond Chandler school of writing, Sue Grafton's eye for detail is thorough without dragging on too long -- a detective's eye view, Kinsey taking in everything around her. However, though a case can become dark and grim, even deadly, Kinsey is a definite spirit of life, bouncing back in the next volume to solve another case.

The small city of Santa Teresa, California, comes to life through Kinsey's POV, the grittier, darker side as much as the pretty tourist side. Background characters appear and reappear in each volume, populating Grafton's world, and sometimes staging their own little soap operas: Lieutenant Dolan, who (naturally) hates private eyes but who respects Ms. Millhone; Rosie, the bossy Hungarian restaurant owner who varies Kinsey's diet beyond her usual McDonald's fare; and especially Henry Pitts, the old retired baker who rents Kinsey her tiny apartment, who might really have been the man of her dreams had he been a few -- just a few -- years younger.

I won't even try to rate all the Millhone books individually; the first three were the best in my opinion, yet the letters I'm reaching now ("J" and "K") are climbing in quality and entertainment value to equal the earliest books. Altogether : ****

The Night Land V. 1

William H. Hodgson

(Horror/SF novel)

I ought to read both volumes first, but. . . One of the greatest and strangest fantasies ever produced, with the inhabitants of the last structure on earth, the Great Redoubt, faced with monsters and horrors that roam the land beneath a burnt-out sun. The hero learns of a second Redoubt, where lives a woman he loved in a previous life, and he ventures across the Night Land to find her. Slows a little halfway. If it had been cut in three parts, with a slight pause between each volume, I think there would have been no "slowing". The only bad part is the long first chapter, written as if by a 17th century English dandy (the previous incarnation of the hero). Actually, the archaic language trying to explain SF ideas kind of grows on you. ****½

The Night Land V. 2

William Hope Hodgson

(Horror/SF novel)

And now the second half. (I didn't mention above that this is the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition I own, printed as two paperbacks.) Night Land's second half has our hero reach the Lesser Redoubt to escort the maid Naani back to the Great Redoubt. Here adventure mixes with the couple's growing romance, which many have found cloying, but unnameable horrors pop up often enough to interrupt the saccarin-sweet bits. Hodgson again drops many give-away ideas in this apocalyptic work, such as Naani's mention of a previous incarnation when entire cities on railway tracks rolled along endless plains (perhaps the inspiration for Christopher Priest's The Inverted World). The Night Land truly is a world/universe unto itself; wading through the whole epic takes a bit of time and effort, an ever-more-unlikely occurrence in these days of instant gratification. Still, I say it's worth it to know this weird, frightening, yet strangely beautiful world created by William H. Hodgson. **** 

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmas Approaches

Last year I re-read Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to cheer myself up. This year I read the yule-time essays from Washington Irving's "The Sketch Book." I found the last few lines of the last essay, "The Christmas Dinner," to be inspiring for writers:
"But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in this garrulity. Methinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers, “To what purpose is all this? how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?” Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens laboring for its improvement? It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct—to play the companion rather than the preceptor.
"What, after all, is the mite of wisdom that I could throw into the mass of knowledge! or how am I sure that my sagest deductions may be safe guides for the opinions of others? But in writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil is in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself—surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain."

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Difference Between Myself and Other Writers

I have revived a novel I call A Kingdom of Children, a fantasy about the Children's Crusade of the Thirteenth Century, and I hope to work on it this winter.

An author named Evan H. Rhodes published a novel about the Children's Crusade, An Army of Children, in 1978.  How do I compare myself to this previous scribe and his work?

Him:  "In researching this book the author traveled the complete route indicated on the accompanying map; by ship, plane, boat, train, automobile, and some 571 miles on foot; only the small stretch of territory between Alexandria and Kantara was not covered.  The Israeli war department was extremely helpful in supplying the author with an armed escort and transportation from Jerusalem deep into the far western reaches of the occupied Sinai desert." (Author's note, 1978)

Me:  "I wonder if I'll be able to pay my rent in January?" "Do I have enough gas to get to work tomorrow?" "Don't I own one pair of pants without ragged cuffs?"

Eh, ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer. :)

Monday, October 28, 2019

"Gate Duty"

Opposing events seem to hit me at the same time.  For instance, a good blogger ought to post something at least once a week, and I rarely come here even once a month.  So I decided to try to punch out something weekly.

Then I took on this job based in another city.  I severely underestimated how much time it takes to travel there and back; I'm lucky to get home three hours before I (ought to) go to bed.  So I have little time now to write.  Eh, I'll slog on anyway.

One of the main species inhabiting my fantasy world Aanuu is the gryphon, half-lion, half-eagle.  I incorporated most of my gryphonian short fiction in The Eyrie: A Book of Gryphons, which can be found on Amazon Kindle, along with Dragonfly Woman, a novel devoted to the bird-beasts (along with early female aviator Amelia Earhart).  I suppose it's time to write more gryphon stories.  Let's try for a beginning right here:

            Inkara of the Bear Clan paced the length of a high, arid cliff-top.  Her acquiline talons clicked against the beige-gray granite; she created a second clicking with tongue in beak.  It seemed criminal to waste a muscular Adolescents’ talents on Gate Duty.
            Gryphons of Clan Bear tended to stoutness of body and leg like their ursine totems, but Inkara more resembled the long, low panthers of the hot lands – particularly one in a cage, because she marched in the same precise fashion.
            All Folk knew of the Gates.  The Gates opened – somehow – onto other worlds entirely.  It was through such portals that the humans and One-Eyes had arrived in Sakria to begin with.  Thousands of years ago, however, a series of Catastrophes both natural and man-made swept over the land:  The Germination, the Rending of the Veils, the Fire and Flood, the Wars of Purity.  After those dangerous times the Gates no longer functioned properly.  Most had stood dormant for centuries. The gryphons, the humans and other species patrolled them more from habit than from worry.
            An utter waste of time, Inkara thought again.


There we go!  And I have the sneaking suspicion a Gate will open . . .

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Hands-On Writing

I spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing a poem for a poetry contest, filling out entry forms in long-hand (including a long author bio) legibly, hunting down large and small envelopes, finding various white labels and putting addresses on them (I think it makes the addresses more visible to the post office scanners against a manila envelope), looking for stamps (and don't forget one for the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), remembering that they use cheap glue nowadays so taping the labels on the envelopes and taping them shut . . .
It was fun! At least it gave me a sense of accomplishment. Hardly any magazine or publisher accepts snail mail anymore, so writing consists of sitting in front of the computer for hours, and preparing it to go out consists of sitting in front of the computer some more. And when I'm done I sit in front of the screen looking at FaceBook or watching YouTube. And my hoped-for future job will be mostly scanning things onto a computer and uploading things on a computer. No wonder I can't seem to get excited about writing a new book, no matter how great I think it will be. It means more endless hours sitting in front of the computer . . .
I need to make writing more physical. Since I printed 2 copies of my poem, the first thing I'll do is get a manila folder, and get a label, and write the title on the label, then stick it on the folder (then tape it on, &^%* cheap glue), then put the folder in the filing cabinet. Maybe I'll go back to my enthusiastic college years, when I drew maps, pictures of various monsters and characters, drawings of scenes from stories (they were gawdawful but inspiring). Anything to get things going!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Mead Notebook of Fantasy

Something I noticed about the way the fantasy world of "Aanuu" developed has itself developed into a rather quixotic task.  When I first entered the hallowed halls of Oklahoma State University, more specifically when I started wandering along the endless shelves of the Edmond Low Library, I began picking historical, legendary, mythological and fortean/paranormal tid-bits from its many books and journals that seemed almost predisposed to gather together in a milieu of strange lands, peoples and creatures.

I spent most of my spare time winnowing out stories of cryptozoological beasts like the Mokele-mbembe, the Chemosit, and the Agogwe, or mythical countries like Norumbega, Tolopan, and Hyperborea, and magical characters like Aristeas the Wanderer and the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Eventually I cobbled them together (more-or-less) to create the backdrop for what I hoped would be many novels and stories of fantasy.

How well I accomplished that remains to be seen, but I remembered something a few weeks ago:  I wrote down endless notes in longhand during my four years at OSU, on legends, fairy tales, mysterious disappearances of people and objects, new monsters to roam the land, story fragments, you name it.  Also, in all that time, all my notes went into a single, spiral-bound, college notebook.

The notebook was a Mead college-ruled, 9 1/2-by-6 inch, 5 subject notebook with two hundred sheets.  Unlike modern notebooks, it had a rather rough cardboard cover.  I bought a pack of three to start my freshman year.  One had a bright yellow cover, one bright red, and one a very dark blue.  The blue one contained my notes on the "Fantasy World Project."  As you might imagine, entries appeared as I came across interesting folklore or legends (or simply made something up), so there should have been no rhyme or reason to Aanuu's development.  Yet, in retrospect, there did seem to be a kind of progression . . .

Now the quixotic part:  I'm going to re-create the notebook.  Ideally, I'd use a Mead of the exact same kind I used in college -- and the same color.  They don't make those anymore, and I'm not sure they go up to 200 sheets now.  Biggest I've found are 180.  That original book of notes disappeared with most of my other college papers years ago.  But I still have its somewhat beat-up yellow package-mate.

The yellow book was mostly full of its own old notes -- but there were some blank pages, and I could say the same about various other Mead books -- and all the 9 1/2 x 6 ones used the same kind of spiral notepaper.  So I Frankenstein-ishly uncoiled the yellow book's spiral, gathered 200 blank pages in 5 sets of 40 (with dividers), and threaded them together.  Now I have a notebook identical to my old Fantasy World book.  It isn't the navy blue cover, but it literally possesses the cover of one of its sisters.

And now I'm trying to re-create the notes I wrote back in college.  I vaguely recall which books I came upon at OSU, and in what order (each one seemed to make a great impression on me).  I even remember when two different subjects would collide, seemingly pulled together by some outside magnetism (The Pied Piper, the Children's Crusade, and the Black death).  Heck, I may try to publish this facsimile notebook someday -- I think it will be almost 80% accurate.  Perhaps a curiosity, a study on how one author thought.

If nothing else, it's a fun romp down memory lane!