Posts Tagged 'Horror'

MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Rawhead & Bloody Bones

Rawhead

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.

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Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The quote above is from the three witches, the Weird Sisters, in MacBeth. It reflects a genuine belief in folklore and tradition that magic sometimes required the use of obscene, gruesome ingredients. We have accounts of this from second hand sources, and also from sources written or even used by magic practitioners. However, there’s one particular page of papyrus written in Greek, dating from the 4th century AD that sort of pulls the pants down on this whole notion.

In a column on the left it lists assorted strange or gruesome spell components supposedly used in witchcraft and magic. In a column on the right it lists what each one actually represents. You see, according to the anonymous authors, their local magicians were filthy liars.

It was theatrics. If you made things seem more weird and gruesome and mystical, more people were likely to think you were legit. Given that many magicians in the ancient world were in it to make a buck, bullshitting of this nature was a valuable talent. It also meant your rivals weren’t sure what sort of stuff you were using, and if you did use weird and exotic ingredients, it meant you had some more mundane stuff to fall back on when supplies were low.

Here’s the twin lists, translated from Greek* (the headers are mine): Continue reading ‘Yo, Melanthios, I ain’t sure this dead-eyed witch sellin’ phallus curses is on the level’

LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy

Profanation de l'hostie lors d'une messe noire

The idea of a fantastical school where people are taught magic is an old cliché in fantasy literature, and with good reason. A writer could hardly ask for a better setting. You can humorously juxtapose the mundanity of schoolwork with the wonders of magic, or write a parable about the responsibilities of power, or just tell a rollicking adventure story as people learn (or fail) to tame the supernatural. These days the most famous example is the Harry Potter series, but the concept goes back a long way—a very long way, in fact.

The earliest example I know of is from medieval Spain, in the city of Salamanca. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134. According to legend, though, there was another school nearby, of a considerably different nature, that certain students sought out. This school was inside of the Church of Saint Cyprian, or rather in a cave beneath the church. This cave, the Cueva de Salamanca, was a school of dark sorcery, taught by a mysterious headmaster who would answer any question imaginable regarding witchcraft, necromancy, summoning demons, or any other black arts. Only seven students could attend his dark academy at a time, for a period of seven years. At the end of this period all the students could leave save one; his soul was a sacrifice to the headmaster, who was truly Satan. Continue reading ‘LEGENDARY LOCATIONS: The Dark Academy’

VAMPIRES, PART VII: The Bones of the Vampire (The End Already, Goddamn)

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PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

PART V: Buckets of Blood

PART VI: Wolves and Witches

Over the course of this series, I’ve tried to showcase the great variety of Slavic vampire beliefs and traditions, despite the many competing or contradictory ideas therein. We’ve had vampires that are walking corpses and vampires that are more like ghosts. We’ve had vampires that drink blood, vampires who eat flesh, and vampires who steal your breath. We’ve even had owl-monsters and vampire watermelons. At this point a reasonable person might well be wondering, well, just what is a vampire?

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, PART VII: The Bones of the Vampire (The End Already, Goddamn)’

VAMPIRES, PART VI: Wolves and Witches

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PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

PART V: Buckets of Blood

Before the word “vampire” became more popular, the most common word in 19th century literature for a dead man who preyed upon the living to prolong his un-life was initially the Romanian word “strigoi.” Now, strigoi is a bit of a vague word. It can mean a vampire and a witch. It’s related to the Italian word “strega” which means a witch as well.

They all come from “Strix.” The Strix is actually a completely different mythical creature from Roman folklore, a vaguely described sort of anthropomorphic screech owl.  The Strix was alive and wasn’t human, but it drank the blood of babies and disemboweled people to eat their livers and other internal organs. This might explain why the Romanian strigoi also tends to eat the heart of its victim as well as drinking the blood. It also might explain why one of the animals vampires are supposed to frequently transform into is the owl, as opposed to the bat. There’s actually no Slavic tradition of vampires turning into bats. That was made up by Bram Stoker. In his time, the “vampire bat” had recently been discovered in South America, and so it seemed a natural addition for “Dracula.”

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, PART VI: Wolves and Witches’

VAMPIRES, PART V: Buckets of Blood

Varneythevampire

PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

Now, one interesting thing you might have wondered about. In Part I of this series, I mentioned that in traditional lore vampires don’t have fangs. So you might be wondering how they drank blood.

The truth is that they often didn’t. When they did, though, it was often unexplained. When it was, it was gruesome. The Romanian strigoi bit into the chest just above the heart to drink blood, and then sometimes chewing his way down and eating the heart itself. In Croatia, they did something similar, but instead of eating your heart they just gnawed on your innards a little. The Russian/Polish/Ukranian vampire, the upir, ate flesh, but also drank blood.

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, PART V: Buckets of Blood’

VAMPIRES, Part IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

Vampiro_atacando_cristão_-_Século_XV

PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

What’s the personality that animates a vampire? In traditional vampire fiction, it’s the same personality that animated it in life. That’s where much of the angst and drama comes from, as the person who has been transformed into a vampire grapples with his or her compulsion to kill other people and drink their blood. Some more modern takes have instead depicted them as little more than ravening, mindless monsters. Neither approach quite reflects the folklore

Continue reading ‘VAMPIRES, Part IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?’