When you’re five years old, you don’t question the existence of monsters. You know, on some primal level, that there are things in the dark waiting to grab you. You might not be able to put a name or a face to such dangers, but you’re certain they’re out there all the same. Your parents will come into your room and show you that there’s nothing under the bed, or in the closet, or outside the window. They’ll put on the night-light and insist there’s no such thing as monsters. While you’re reassured, as you drift off into sleep you still harbor doubts. It’s at the edge of such thoughts that Rawhead and Bloody Bones lives.
Britain has produced a lot of fantastic bogeymen (a class of monster I’ll elaborate on in future articles), but Rawhead is unquestionably one of their champion contributions. He’s also known as “Rawhead Bloody Bones”, “Old Bloody Bones”, “Tommy Rawhead”, “Tommy Rawbones”, or just plain “Bloody Bones.” Stories about him seem to have originated somewhere around Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, or Lancashire, and he dates back to at least the seventeenth century.
He takes his name from his appearance, which is suitably ghastly. He’s a lean, naked giant, with pale skin and great, grasping hands. His head is a mangled nightmare, all pulped flesh and wide, staring eyes, rivulets of blood running down his face and dripping on his chest. He has a den, hidden somewhere, piled high with the gnawed bones of children, where he sits and waits, his long arms clasped about his long legs, which he keeps tucked under his chin. When he senses prey, he unfolds his limbs like a waking spider.
Every bogeyman has some gimmick. Perhaps they stuff you in a bag and carry you off to god knows where, or lurk in dangerous places your parents told you to stay away from, or maybe they punish certain bad behaviors. Old Bloody Bones has all of these traits, but he has a certain directness and simplicity the others lack. He comes for children who lie or say bad words. He can lurk anywhere, from the basement to the attic, from the stagnant pond to the crumbling old well. Most of all he favors dark cupboards, especially if they’re located under the stairs. Nothing can keep him away. You never know where he’ll appear, and once he does those long, pale hands can slip through any crack or keyhole, and their grip is as hard and cold as iron.
For such a simple monster, Rawhead is particularly enduring. During the English Civil War, there was a folk song that compared the murderous Colonel Thomas Lunsford to the monster with the line: “Made children with your tones to run for’t/As bad as Bloody Bones of Lunsford.” John Locke wrote about him, warning parents not to tell stories of him to children. In more recent years, he inspired the titular monster of Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex movie, and the band Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote a song about him:
His most notable influence, though, is on his cousin, the Rawhead and Bloody Bones of the United States. This Rawhead is very different, and his stories are told mostly in the southern U.S., especially in places like the Ozarks and the Appalachians, regions settled generations about by largely British immigrants. In these stories, Rawhead starts out as a big, ferocious boar, who is kept as a pet by a strange old woman, often reputed to be a witch. Usually Rawhead is caught by a butcher or hunter and gets slaughtered, but his bloody bones and skinned head are left behind. Either through the powers of the old woman (who is in fact a witch in this take) or through his own terrible will, Rawhead comes back to life. His bones rearrange themselves into a standing position, and place the skinned head on top, and then he takes off into the woods, where he acquires the teeth of a mountain lion, the claws of a bear, and the tail of a raccoon from various corpses and attaches them to himself. Rawhead Bloodybones then hunts down the men or men who killed him, murders them, and then collapses into a pile of bones and meat or escapes into the wilderness to kill again.
The influence of the British Rawhead is obvious in the American version, as both are sinister monsters lurking in the darkness, each with a mangled head and the same name. The pig element is strange, though. It’s nowhere in any of the British folk traditions. It might be the result of Rawhead getting conflated with the Black Sow, a Welsh bogeyman who takes the form of an anthropomorphic, murderous pig, during his transition from Britain to the colonies. The Black Sow is a pretty good monster in her own right, inspiring an old episode from Tales from the Darkside, though it makes her Scottish for some reason.
As you can see from all of this, Rawhead’s reach is long. I think his great strength as a monster is his simplicity. It’s basic enough that you can easily spin him into new variations, and he embodies very powerful, basic fears. The distorted human form, danger lurking in dark places, the threat to children, and most of all an implacable nature that you can’t hide from or escape. You can pick him up, adjust a few basic traits, and plop him down in any culture, place, or time, and he works just as well as ever. I’ve been longing to work him into a story for ages. For now, he lurks at the corners of my mind, and hopefully now he’s lurking in yours as well.