Monday, November 27, 2017

The Long Walk

Once a decade or so, I try to purge a few magazines.  I have thousands of books already; I don’t need magazines stacking up too.  So I looked over my oldest science magazines, figuring that their articles would be the most dated and most easily culled.

One of the oldest issues I have is Scientific American from November 1992.  There are actually several items here that are interesting, enough to make this issue a “keeper”, such as an article on the “Cambrian explosion” of life-forms about 600 million years ago, and another examining the relationships between Native American languages.

But I want to look at one tiny sidebar story that, again, is a randomly found item that curves toward the “Missing 411” series.

Actually, the subject is sort of peripheral to the 411 stories, but many discussions of the subject mention it:  the shoes, with severed human feet in them, washing ashore in British Columbia and Washington state:

The article in Scientific American is not quite so grotesque:  It appears that, on May 27, 1990, a freighter was caught in a powerful gale in the northeastern Pacific, and five shipping containers of Nike shoes, containing 80,000 tennis shoes altogether, were lost overboard.

And in early 1991, a decade and a half before the severed feet phenomenon began, the sneakers started washing ashore in British Columbia and Washington state.

Curtis B. Ebbesmeyer, who worked at a marine instruments company, and W. James Ingraham, Jr., of the National Maritime Fisheries Service, thought this made a great opportunity to study currents.  However, said Ebbesmeyer, “I tried to find the scientists who were tracking down the shoes, but nobody was.”  So Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham, with the help of a “network of beachcombers,” did it themselves.

About 1300 of the waterlogged shoes were recovered.  Using computers to backtrack the drift, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham found out something interesting:  That the shoes washed ashore in British Columbia and Washington was itself something of an anomaly.

It seems that in most years the waters of the tropical Pacific would have been warmer, and the currents flowing north through the Salish Sea (the waterways around British Columbia) would have been faster and more powerful.  Under normal circumstances the shoes should have drifted to Alaska before coming ashore.

Perhaps, being weighed down with flesh and bone, the mystery shoes of recent years were heavy enough to beach farther south.  Or perhaps beachcombers in Alaska should be on the lookout for the grisly artifacts.

Powell, Corey S., “Flotsam Footwear,” Scientific American Vol.267 no. 5 (Nov. 1992), p. 26.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


Loren Coleman's Mothman: Evil Incarnate, which includes a sizable Appendix by Michael D. Winkle, "The Mothman Annotations," is to be released on December 15, 2017.  There's still time to pre-order:

Mothman: Evil Incarnate

AUTOGRAPHED - Mothman, Evil Incarnate: The Unauthorized Companion to The Mothman Prophecies by Loren Coleman (2017)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tales to Make Your Skin Crawl

Folklorist Henry W. Shoemaker, in an article called "Central Pennsylvania Legends," passes on a strange story he heard from an old man named Henry Rau, in Penn's Creek, Snyder County. It seems that in April of 1864 a farmer named Jake Sansom shot a male panther (mountain lion) as it raided his chicken coop. "He took the hide, which was a very fine one and very dark in color, and stuffed it with straw and leaves. We did not know of taxidermists or glass eyes in those days, so the completed job looked rather uncanny with the great empty eye sockets."

Mr. Sansom set the stuffed hide on the ridgepole of his woodshed. The cougar's mate lurked in the area for months thereafter.

That August there was a revival meeting held near New Berlin. Jake and his sons rode off in their wagon, leaving Mrs. Sansom and the crippled Sansom daughter to mind the house.

As if awaiting this opportunity, the female cougar invaded the farm, killed half a dozen hunting dogs, and hauled the stuffed skin of its mate down from the woodshed. She dragged the hide into the forest as the women watched.

Henry Rau emerged from his house to investigate the commotion. Mrs. Sansom told him what happened, and Rau gathered several men to chase the mountain lion. The Sansom men, on their way home, joined them. The panther's trail led to a pine forest on the slopes of Jack's Mountains. The hunters reached a spring and found, not one, but two cougars.

"When the larger brute wheeled, we noticed it had very imperfect eyes. We recognized it as the animated form of the stuffed carcass that for six months had been fastened to the ridgepole of old Jake's woodshed . . . I who had faced death at Malvern Hill and Chancellorsville allowed the two brutes to get away from me, without turning a finger to prevent it."

The men retreated. The whole neighborhood talked about the cougar dragging off its stuffed mate, "but our part of the adventure we kept dark." [1] A wise move.

In an article entitled "The Werwolf in Pennsylvania," Mr. Shoemaker briefly notes a similar story he heard in 1927, "of 'spook wolves' (stuffed wolves which went out at night and hunted)." Despite the title of his article, Shoemaker remarks that "These revived wolves could hardly be werwolves." [2] Still, there might be a connection.

Whoever heard of animal furs coming to life? Well, the Inuits of Greenland speak of artificial creatures called tupilaksTupilaks are often simply animal hides into which human and animal bones have been thrown. An angakok (shaman) brings the Frankensteinish thing to life with sorcery.

 A tupilak doesn't even have to be made from the hide of a single animal, or from skins of a single species. The Smithsonian publication Greenland Mummies displays a native drawing of a tupilak as a dog with a human head. On the same page is a photo of an Inuit carving; this tupilak has the head and upper body of a bear and the lower torso and legs of a man. [3]

Lawrence Millman's A Kayak Full of Ghosts carries the legend of a woman becoming a tupilak for revenge. There were once two hunters, Papik and Ailaq. Ailaq would harvest many seals, while Papik often came home with nothing. Jealous, Papik murdered Ailaq during a hunt. Ailaq's mother swore revenge. "The woman went down to the sea. She took along her bearskin rug and draped it over her entire body and let the incoming tide sweep her away." Later a group of hunters out on the ice saw "a she-bear twice the size of a house, with burning coals for eyes and sharp knives for claws." The bear invaded Papik's village, mangled the killer in his hut, and dragged him away "by his own intestines."
The bear lay down. When the people approached it, they found only a bear skin and human bones. [4]

* * * *

Suppose no one thinks to stuff a living animal skin to resemble a cougar, wolf, or bear? What would we have then? An animated fur rug? Strangely enough, there are stories of such things.

Manly Wade Wellman, the American fantasy writer famous for his tales of John the minstrel, created a pantheon of bizarre creatures for his Appalachian story-cycle, including "the Flat":

It lay on the ground like a broad, black, short-furred carpet rug. It humped and then flattened, the way a measuring worm moves. [5]

The Wellman book Worse Things Waiting contains an account called "Up Under the Roof," which he says "is as close to autobiography as I have ever come." If so, it would appear that Wellman's boyhood was haunted by a creature similar to the Flat.

Wellman was the only child in a large, crowded household, and his relatives seemed to resent his youthfulness. He was forced to sleep in a high, dusty, uncomfortable garret. In the summer of his twelfth year he started hearing something between the ceiling and the peak of the roof.

Years afterward, I was to see through a microscope the plodding of an amoeba. The thing up under the roof sounded as an amoeba looks, a mass that stretches out a thin, loose portion of itself, then rolls and flows all of its substance into that portion, and so creeps along.

The humping, flowing noise returned every night, to Wellman's dismay: "I was certain that it crouched there, almost within reach of me, that it gloated and hungered, and that it turned over in its dark sub-personal awareness the problem of when and how to come and take hold of me." [6] The one time he explored the area up under the roof he found nothing, but it appears another young boy had a run-in with an entity like the Flat, in Ireland, as described in Diarmuid MacManus' book Between Two Worlds (1977).

"Mr. George Hallet, a prominent professional man in the old city of Limerick, had a very queer experience when he was a youngster," during a summer holiday at Mount Temple House, several miles outside that city. Twelve-year-old Hallet slept in a bedroom on the second floor, next to a room full of old furniture and junk. He had no rug in his room.

Hallet had developed a habit of sleepwalking, but he always woke after taking only a few steps, whereupon he would scramble back into bed. One night he found himself at the opposite end of the narrow room. It was so dark he had to feel his way back.

However, he had not gone half way when one bare foot, put gingerly down as he felt his way, just touched something that was very soft and furry but by the feel of it flat like a rug. He stopped at once in alarm with his foot still poised, just touching the hairs of the "rug" . . . The next moment, in spite of himself, he lost his balance and his bare foot came down solidly on the thing he was so anxious to avoid, whereupon it let out a deafening, reverberating and blood-curdling scream and the fur, though still flat, seemed to come to life under his foot.

Hallet jumped into bed and pulled his blanket over his head, waiting through long, agonizing hours until the sun rose. Adult members of the household searched the room but found nothing. [7]

(I wonder if it is significant that both accounts of "Flats" concern boys aged twelve, and that they take place during the summer, in old houses where the layout of the building is important [to show how the boys were isolated near old junk]. The stories are even close chronologically: Wellman would have been twelve in 1915, and MacManus' 1977 book claims that Hallet's encounter occurred "fifty-five to sixty years ago," or between 1917 and 1922.)

* * * *

There is, in the folklore of North America, a bizarre critter called the Rumtifusel, an entity that resembles nothing so much as a flat, furry skin with a fine, rich texture like a mink coat. Sometimes an unsuspecting person investigates the Rumtifusel: "With a lightning-fast flick of its blanket-like body the Rumtifusel completely envelops its victim." [8] Off the coast of Chile, according to Jorge Luis Borges, fishermen must beware of "the Hide." The Hide resembles a stretched-out cow hide. "Its edges are furnished with numberless eyes, and . . . whenever persons or animals enter the water, the Hide rises to the surface and engulfs them with an irresistible force." [9]

Many legends of shape-shifters mention belts or hides of fur used to incite the change. The Norse warriors called "Berserks", for example, were thought to become wolves or bears in battle; the name "Berserk" means "bear shirt," referring to the furred skin believed to become an actual pelt when they transformed.

Some legends are a little blurry as to whether characters actually transform or simply wear quasi-living suits. The Selkies of Ireland, for instance, are described as people who slip on sealskins to become water-dwellers. Many stories speak of a man hiding the sealskin and taking a Selkie as a wife -- until she finds the skin again. The Navajos of the American West speak of "Skinwalkers." William Morgan's famous anthropological paper "Human-Wolves among the Navaho" lists many tales of Skinwalkers. A Navajo named Kejoji claimed to have seen one in his hogan one night as a young man. "The witch was after my mother. He was looking at her. He was in a mountain lion skin." [10] Another Navajo, Hajogo, told Morgan:

[S]ome older men put on skins at night, a wolf skin or a lion skin . . . I have always looked for tracks but I haven't ever found a wolf track or a lion track. (What kind of tracks would one of those men make?) They would be big, like a big paw. . . How do you think they work the tail? (I guess they just let it hang down.) No. They stuff clothes in it and then it stands out. [11]

These excerpts make it sound like the Skinwalkers are merely evil men dressed as animals. Other Navajo stories indicate that they take on wholly animal form.

* * * *

Perhaps certain costumes made of animal skins are "alive", conferring upon their wearers the senses and powers of the original beasts. Perhaps there is a spectrum of were-ness here: A would-be werewolf might start out with a costume that mimics an animal -- eventually he or she absorbs its power, or vice-versa. A new stage might be transforming with the aid of the skin. Finally, a full lycanthrope might appear, able to change without the pelt.

But what if a living skin is cast aside, or its master is killed? Such an entity might not accept life as a groping rug, humping and sliding like a hairy amoeba. More likely it would seek another human host. Perhaps Messrs. Wellman and Hallet just missed becoming Skinwalkers. Perhaps victims of the Hide and the Rumptifusel are not so much devoured as hijacked.

So if you ever hike down a forest trail and see an expensive-looking fur coat, all by itself, draped over a stump -- well, you shouldn't take what isn't yours. It just might take you, instead.


1. Shoemaker, Henry W. "Central Pennsylvania Legends," in George Korson, ed., Pennsylvania Songs and Legends. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949), pp. 195-202.

2. --. "Neighbors: The Werwolf in Pennsylvania," in New York Folklore Quarterly 7:2 (Summer, 1951), p. 155.

3. Hansen, Jens Peder, et alGreenland Mummies. (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p. 63.

4. Millman, Lawrence. Kayak Full of Ghosts. (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1987), pp. 161-162.

5. Wellman, Manly Wade. Who Fears the Devil? (London: Star Books, 1975 [1963]), p. 98.

6. --. Worse Things Waiting. (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Carcosa, 1973), pp. 4-8.

7. MacManus, Diarmuid A. Between Two Worlds. (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1977), pp. 16-18.

8. Tryon, Henry H. Fearsome Critters. (Cornwall, NY: Idlewild Press, 1939), p. 35.

9. Borges, Jorge Luis, and Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Book of Imaginary Beings. (New York: Avon, 1969 [1967]), p. 100.

10. Morgan, William. "Human-Wolves among the Navaho." Yale University Publications in Anthropology No. 11 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1936), p. 29.

11. Ibid., pp. 12-13.