Obscure Monster of the Month: The Owlman of Mawnan Smith

Imagine this: you’re on holiday down in Cornwall. Sun, surf, pasties, fish and chips, ice-cream that could send you into a bliss-coma. So far your fortnight of freedom has been great fun, the odd grey and drizzly day aside. Yet today you’ve eschewed the beaches and the tacky souvenir shops, and paid a visit to the little town of Mawnan Smith.

It’s a pretty little town, with thatched houses and a small church. Not much to see, or to do. But it’s pleasant just to wander around, have a mug of tea and a scone with clotted cream (Cornish cream, of course). You finish your day with a stroll out to the small church. Your eyes fix on its resolutely square tower – square shape, square bricks, square battlements. You’re just about to lose interest when a shadow flits across the very edge of your vision.

You glance upwards without much interest. You might have moved on, except that what is hovering there is looking back at you.

You have no idea what it is. It’s huge – at least the size of an average man, if the comparison with the church tower is anything to go by. It’s got wings, dark and ragged and were it not for the feathers you’d think they were the wings of some monstrous bat. Its eyes are huge and glow red even in the golden light of late afternoon. Its beak is cruelly curved, as are the claws that adorn its human-shaped feet. Its legs and trunk are human, but nothing else is.

For an iota that seems endless you stare at one another. Then it beats its wings and in two or three swift strokes, is gone from view, flying off over the trees. You stand there, stunned, incapable of rational thought or any kind of movement. And despite the warmth of the summer evening, your skin, your muscles, your very bones are as cold as snow.

You’ve just seen what is only spoken of in whispers, with the doors locked tight and the windows firmly shut. What lurks in the chiaroscuro shadows cast by the fierce Cornwall sun and the blackness of an unlit night. You have just seen the Owlman of Mawnan Smith.

You were lucky. He wasn’t hungry… this time.

                                                                                                                                               

By monstrous standards, the Owlman is a baby. Sources differ on the date it was first spotted: one website gives the date as 1926, when two boys were attacked by a large, vicious bird. The encounter was dramatic enough to be reported in the Cornish Echo.[i] The report doesn’t describe an Owlman, however. The article describes a 6 foot 3 inch wingspan, a powerful beak, ‘its short legs ended with full webbed feet, which were striped with green and yellow, and it had a duck-shaped body.’[ii] The mysterious corpse has apparently been lost in the mists of time (that happens a lot with cryptids… just saying).

The next recorded sighting of him/it was in 1976, when two young girls on holiday for Easter spotted a strange figure hovering over the church tower. They were so frightened the family apparently cut their holiday short. A drawing made by one of the girls shows a vaguely man-shaped creature with pointy toes and bat-like ears. Subsequent sightings occurred over the years, with details such as a silvery-grey colouring being added. The Owlman has been quiet for most of the twenty-first century, but who knows? Perhaps he’s preparing a grand return for this very summer, ready to terrorise some hapless tourists.

So where did the Owlman originate from? Unlike the previous monsters on this blog, rather than solely inhabiting literature and song, the Owlman dwells in the murky realms of the Urban Legend. The dictionary definition of ‘Urban Legend’ is: ‘an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true.’[iii] The Owlman fits this definition well, although it is unusual in that its origin story can be easily identified. The vast majority of urban legends (at least in my experience) are so tangled and convoluted that finding where they originated is unachievable. But why should an Owlman be the subject of such a cool urban legend?

There are precedents for animal-human hybrids in Urban Legend. Several people have pointed out the similarities between the Owlman and the more famous Mothman, who was spotted around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, from 1966 to 1967. Intriguingly, both the Mothman and the Owlman are both described as having glowing red eyes. But unlike the insect-human hybrid from North America, the monster from Cornwall is a bird-human hybrid. This is unsurprising on one level. Owls feature in any number of myths and legends connected with the British Isles. There’s the Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd, turned into an owl for betraying her husband to death. Barn Owls in particular were commonly associated with death and darkness due to their habit of haunting graveyards – though the perfectly rational explanation behind this is that Barn Owls prefer short grass for hunting and graveyards were well tended! Also in Wales, if an owl was heard hooting among houses, a girl had just lost her virginity!

Owls, then, are strongly associated with myth and magic, and an owl-like monster does have some basis in British folklore. But why should an Owlman suddenly appear in Cornwall – and why does he appear to have exerted such a hold on the imaginations of writers and other creatives? (More on this in a later paragraph…)

There have been various theories put forward as to the Owlman’s origins, some practical; such as the suggestion the Owlman was actually an escaped eagle owl. The eagle owl is a massive bird, and not native to Cornwall – it’s easy to imagine an escapee from an aviary or a foreign visitor getting transformed into something progressively more monstrous with each retelling of the girls’ story.

Image result for eagle owl copyright free

The Eagle Owl in flight.

Other, more outlandish theories speculate that Mawnan Smith is built upon a series of ley lines. Ley lines are alignments of landforms, both artificial and natural, that run in a straight line and are thought to have spiritual significance. The energy emanating from these is thought to have possibly brought the Owlman into being. Other theories include his being summoned in some bizarre occult ritual or even that the whole was a hoax designed to emulate the mysterious Mothman.

Regardless of where he came from or why he appeared suddenly, the Owlman has caught the imaginations of quite a few people – including yours truly. There’s plenty of artwork available on the internet. And one of my earliest published pieces of short fiction is entitled ‘The Owlman of Mawnan Smith’ and was published in A Face in the Mirror, a Hook on the Door (ed. Kate Garrett and Charlotte Aspin) by Three Drops Press (what can I say? I love to boast, despite the normal self-effacement that proceeds such bragging).

The Owlman has also been the subject of the 2013 horror film Lord of Tears (dir. Lawrie Brewster). The film differs from the original Owlman legend in that it is set in Scotland and takes inspiration from Scottish folklore. I’ve got to admit, I haven’t come across any Owlman legends based in Scotland, but if anyone knows of them, give me a shout. Regardless, the film got good reviews and produced a truly terrifying Owlman:

Isn’t he brilliant?

The Owlman legend altogether is brilliant in my humble opinion, regardless of whether there actually is a monster out there. Given that the Owlman has never actually hurt anyone, beyond scaring a few people witless, his monstrosity lies in his grotesque appearance and power to frighten. He’s a hybrid, like a great many other monsters out there, disrupting the boundaries between human and animal and making us question what’s out there that we have yet to discover.

Till next time, dear readers.

Don’t go out alone.

                                                                                                                                               

[i] Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, ‘This Spectred Isle – The Owlman of Mawnan Wood,’ 24th March 2009, Countryfile, [online] http://www.countryfile.com/countryside/spectred-isle-owlman-mawnan-wood

[ii] Neil Arnold, Shadows in the Sky: The Haunted Airways of Britain (Stroud: The History Press, 2012) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=p3c7AwAAQBAJ&pg=PT165&lpg=PT165&dq=cornish+echo+owlman&source=bl&ots=QgybL3CuxN&sig=mL87d7yrygV06IAw1iUPGTAywPw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi-zdjWqsjUAhXLblAKHUkUBJAQ6AEITjAH#v=onepage&q=cornish%20echo%20owlman&f=false

[iii] ‘Urban Legend’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [online] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/urban%20legend

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Fantastic and definitely not forgettable…

I recognize that I’m neglecting my duties towards obscure monsters, but rest assured, I’ll begin posting about little-known, scary creatures again soon. But I just wanted to write about an event I attended at the fabulous Nottingham Writer’s Studio on the 18th of March (the Nottingham Writer’s Studio by the way, is a brilliant organisation that provides a place for members to write, share ideas and take writing courses, and loads more. Why doesn’t every town have one?!?)

But I digress… I was there for the launch of The Forgotten and the Fantastical 3, the latest volume in a series being published by Mother’s Milk Books. It was a big deal for yours truly, as my first ever published work of fiction was accepted and is appearing in this collection, together a truly stunning original piece of artwork by Emma Howitt. If I ever get my act together, I’ll post a picture of it on this blog. The theme is fairy tales for grown-ups, and people took that idea and ran with it.

I donned my best writerly outfit and went not having a clue what to expect. Cue autographing books and having a minor meltdown over the fact that I have a really boring signature, meeting lots of lovely writers and the founder of Mother’s Milk Books, Dr Teika Bellamy, and getting a chance to do a reading of my story and listen to other people read from their work. And there were fairy cakes.

In short, I had a great time and it was a wonderful introduction into the world of literary endeavour (much better than all those rejections I got last year!) My story is called ‘Bearskin and Bare-skin’ and is the story of a girl who has a bear for a sister. In one of those weird moments when the collective unconscious sends out the same idea to multiple people, there’s another story in there by Ronne Randall called ‘Melissa’s Bearskin!’ It’s very sad and beautiful. I also loved ‘Girl on a Pied Horse’ by Sarah Hindmarsh (a retelling of a very famous legend), ‘Midnight Riders’ by Dan Micklethwaite (which takes a look at Cinderella from a very different angle), ‘The Lost Children of Lorenwald’ by Elizabeth Hopkinson (an original story about a middle-aged wandering musician) and ‘The Web and the Wildwood’ by Lynden Wade (a retelling of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ which has magic and a mischievous monkey).

There are lots of brilliant stories in the collection, so go and take a look at the website. I’m very proud mine is in there, though truthfully my protagonists can’t be described as monsters, so they probably won’t appear on my blog. I’ll just have to go and write something that can be included…

Till then, dear readers.

Don’t go out alone.

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Obscure Monster of the Month: Sredni Vashtar

Imagine this: you’re out for a walk in the woods one fine evening, just as the sun is sinking low through the trees and ensuring everything is striped golden and black, like a tiger’s hide. Its late spring, so the trees are dusted with verdant green and the sun shines brightly, but there’s still a layer of coolness in the air that settles over your skin as you walk.

You’re picking your way along a little dirt path that thankfully is more dirt than mud due to the recent sunny spell. It’s a pleasant evening, but for no particular reason you quicken your pace, suddenly a little – just a touch – nervous.

You don’t see the clearing in the woods until you’re standing in it, hidden as it was by a thicket of brambles, fallen branches and the detritus of previous autumns. You pause for a moment, struck by the sudden stillness of the woods. No birdsong, no insects buzzing, not even a little breeze stirring the leaves on the trees.

And then: it slinks out of the undergrowth just in front of you.

What it is you are not certain. It looks like a monstrously overgrown ferret or weasel – long lean lithe body, sharp pointed muzzle, and cruel jagged teeth. And it is covered, mouth to tail, in blood. Not old blood – fresh, scarlet, coppery-smelling blood.

For a long moment, you stare at each other. Its eyes are small, black and very knowing. There is an intelligence, an awareness behind them that is exceptionally disconcerting. And somehow, you know that this animal is not an innocent, unknowing denizen of the natural world, descendent of Eden. This animal knows evil and does evil.

And has done evil.

Then the moment shatters and it fades into the undergrowth like a ghost. You stand there shivering, jittery, appalled.

You have been recipient of a most dubious privilege. You have witnessed the passing of Sredni Vashtar.

                                                                                                                                               

‘Sredni Vashtar’ was written between 1910 and 1911 by Saki, which was the penname of Hector Hugh Monro. It first appeared in his collection of short stories The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), and focuses on a young boy named Conradin… and of course, Sredni Vashtar. Conradin is doomed to die at a young age according to a pompous doctor, his guardian Miss De Ropp genteelly despises him (the feeling is more than mutual) and his one source of pleasure in life are his pets, kept in the garden shed. One is a raggedy hen, and the other is Sredni Vashtar, a name bestowed by Conradin.

It is never clarified what sort of animal Sredni Vashtar actually is within the story. He is described as a ‘great ferret-polecat,’ bought off a butcher’s boy, but Saki tells us little else. Despite this dearth of detail, Conradin, who is possessed of a feverish imagination, has built his own religion around the creature. He both admires and fears Sredni Vashtar, believing the polecat-ferret to possess supernatural power. For instance, when his loathed guardian Miss De Ropp is suffering from an appalling toothache, Conradin half-believes Sredni Vashtar is responsible for causing it.

Matters come to a head when Miss De Ropp spitefully sells Conradin’s raggedy hen. Conradin goes to Sredni Vashtar and asks him to ‘do one thing for me.’ The nature of Conradin’s request is never specified. But when Miss De Ropp unwisely heads down to the garden shed one afternoon, Sredni Vashtar is given the chance to fulfil it. Miss De Ropp never appears again, Sredni Vashtar slinks out of the shed coated in blood and vanishes, and when a servant goes looking for Miss De Ropp they come back screaming.

Conradin eats his toast.

                                                                                                                                               

‘Sredni Vashtar’ is one of Saki’s better known tales, though that isn’t saying much. Saki’s numerous short stories are witty, funny and absolutely merciless when it comes to exposing and ridiculing humanity’s pretensions and vanities. In my humble opinion, he deserves to be much better known than he currently is. Although by no means the only early-twentieth century author to write comedies of manners, he is more reminiscent of Oscar Wilde for his razor-sharp observations and his rich humour.

Hector Hugh Monro was born in British Burma in 1870, where his father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. After his mother died when he was only two, he was given over to aunts and grandmothers for a strict puritanical upbringing in Barnstaple, Devon. Perhaps not coincidentally, the theme of children revenging themselves on severe guardians (as in ‘Sredni Vashtar’) was a recurring one in his fiction. He was joined the Burma police as an adult, but was sent home after a bout of malaria. He then turned his attention to writing, first non-fiction and then his short stories. The penname Saki was borrowed from a character in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – or possibly a South American monkey species.

Saki loved contrasting wild beasts and animals with the stultifying conventions of English life, another recurring theme in his work. Perhaps to enhance this tendency, some of Saki’s stories have a distinct supernatural element and there is always an undercurrent of genuine eeriness to these tales. Arguably some of his work can be categorized as ‘magical realism,’ if the term wasn’t so strongly associated with South American literature. The influence of his monkey-ish pseudonym? The thought is a delightful one! By the way, Saki’s ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ and ‘Laura’ are two of my own personal favourite short stories of all time, both of them notably featuring animals, or at the very least beasts.

Image result for sredni vashtar

But the focus here is Sredni Vashtar… and also Conradin, and Miss De Ropp. Despite the opening of my post focusing on the passing of Sredni Vashtar himself, who and what in this strange tale is truly monstrous?

At first glance, it’s obvious – the titular Sredni Vashtar. A monstrous, overgrown animal that rips out the throats of women? (Okay, it’s not specified precisely how Miss De Ropp meets her end, but somehow I always imagine Sredni Vashtar going for the carotid artery). His name is deeply evocative, despite being mumbo-jumbo made up by Conradin. Vaguely suggestive of some form of mysticism, perhaps influenced by Saki’s own experiences in Burma, it sounds exotic and inexplicable. Rather like Sredni Vashtar himself.

But Conradin’s no wronged little innocent. He’s certainly a pitiable figure in many ways. He’s condemned to die young, has no friends or companions save his hen and Sredni Vashtar (who is not exactly cuddly) and is treated meanly, if not cruelly, by Miss De Ropp. Yet there’s a streak of true viciousness in Conradin. Whilst wishing an ill-fate on Miss De Ropp is understandable, the strength of Conradin’s hate and his single-minded focus on causing his guardian harm is quite unnerving.

The story makes use of both the absurdity and the savagery of childhood. Conradin’s peculiar little religious rituals in honour of Sredni Vashtar, his decision that his hen is an Anabaptist and his vivid imagination all add the humour of the story. Yet his unadulterated loathing of Miss De Ropp and all she stands for is the driving impetus of the story. Yes, Sredni Vashtar may do the killing, but Saki heavily implies that he is asked to kill, urged to kill, given permission to kill by Conradin.

And then there’s Miss De Ropp. How she came to be his guardian is never explained – but it’s not important. Like many of Saki’s characters she is skilled in self-deception, refusing to admit to herself that she dislikes her ward. She maintains an outward veneer of respectability and believes that anything that causes inconvenience is the ultimate sin. She takes a lot of pleasure in spoiling Conradin’s fun, ostensibly for his own good, does a lot of nagging and imposes all kinds of regulations. Miss De Ropp is a cold, joyless, domestic tyrant. And fatally, she fails to recognise that life isn’t as neat and tidy and regulated as she believes it to be, only learning this lesson when it’s too late for her.

So… where does the monstrosity lie in this clever little tale? Saki refuses to confirm anything, letting his audience make up their own minds, so I’ll do the same. Decide who or what is the obscure monster, but if you do happen to meet Sredni Vashtar, don’t make Miss De Ropp’s mistake. Treat him with respect, don’t get in his way and remember: ‘his enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.’

Till next time, dear readers.

Don’t go out alone.

 

Further Reading

A brief biography of Saki: http://www.online-literature.com/hh-munro/

The text of ‘Sredni Vashtar’: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/vashtar.html

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Obscure Monster of the Month: Reynardine

Imagine this: you are on the moors, or maybe somewhere in the hills, and the sun is inching its way towards the horizon. You are making your way homeward along a rough trail, nothing more than a dirt track worn down by the feet of travellers. It is cool, and the wind is fierce, clutching at your hair and your clothes, but what few clouds are in the sky are scudding rapidly away and there is no threat of rain.

You pause for a moment to take in the sunset, which is tinting the sky pink and orange, and the sun itself, which is turning reddish as it bobs lower, almost touching the mountains in the distance. Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, you remember, and shiver a little. The sun is so red tonight; you cannot help but think of blood.

Then you hear voices.

You glance round, and soon spy a young couple standing under a raggedy tree, twisted by the gales. There is a pretty young girl with dark hair and red lips, and a man, leaning towards her, eyes bright and teeth very white. You can only make out their murmurs, not words, and are just getting ready to continue when the man glances over at you.

You shudder. Something cold and empty begins gnawing at your stomach, and you stumble back a pace. Those eyes catch hold of you, pierce you and you have a sudden sympathy for that mouse your cat caught a week ago. They are dark, penetrating, and glow eerily in the red light of the sunset. They do not look human – and neither does his smile, which is white and sharp and curls itself over the man’s face like a claw.

Then he looks away, and puts an arm around the girl, and they begin walking down another trail, one barely visible in the tough moorland grass. And you scurry off, your heart beating furiously, anxious for home, but with a fraction of your fuddled mind still with that girl. No one will ever see her again, you feel sure of it.

You have seen what few humans have ever seen. You have seen Reynardine in pursuit of his prey.

                                                                                                                                               

Reynardine, depending on which source you are reading is either a very human outlaw, or a were-fox with a penchant for seducing beautiful young maidens. Needless to say, it is the latter this blog is preoccupied with. The stories and songs that feature Reynardine usually follow the same pattern; Reynardine seduces a beautiful young girl who has gone for an ill-advised walk in the woods or across the moors, and she is so entranced that she follows him anywhere he goes. The maiden’s ultimate fate is left to the imagination, but we can assume she either dies or – oh, horror! – gets seduced and loses her virtue, assuming said virtue resides between her legs. (I personally agree with the girl in an entirely different story, that anything that resides so close to your arsehole is something you’re well rid of.)

To the best of my knowledge, Reynardine is an entirely separate figure from the more famous Reynard, who is a shape-shifting red fox and trickster. He is the central character in a number of English, Dutch, French and German fables, the earliest of which dates from somewhere in France and was written during the twelfth century.

Reynardine, on the other hand, appears to date from the 19th century, or the 18th century at the earliest. He is the central figure in an old English ballad, only one version of which was collected before 1800. In 1814 he appeared in a broadside ballad titled ‘The Mountains High,’ and since then has been the subject of folksongs sung by no less than Fairport Convention and Martin Carthy (they’re folk/folk rock musicians, for the uninitiated. They’re a bit good.) Reynardine has also appeared in American folksongs, with no less a personage than Washington Irving confirming that the ballad had crossed the Atlantic by the 1830s.My own personal favourite is the re-imagining Blood Red Sky, written and performed by Seth Lakeman.

Reynardine’s name has obvious associations, being so similar to Reynard. It suggests foxiness – not the sort of foxiness associated with women with red lipstick and suggestive walks, but characteristics that are ascribed, fairly or unfairly, to foxes. It suggests cunning, cleverness, a penchant for mischief, perhaps a tendency towards roguish good looks… and more negatively, it suggests slyness, dishonesty, a life lived outside the law, and even viciousness.

Reynardine is perhaps threatening, but so far his actions are not truly monstrous. Nonetheless, his penchant for beautiful young maidens has eerie overtones of the Bluebeard fairy tale, especially given that while most versions of the song depict Reynardine leading the woman away, none of them ever depict her returning. There is also a disturbing suggestion of murder in some versions of the story. Seth Lakeman’s song invokes imagery of blood and sharp teeth repeatedly. The English fairy tale ‘Mr Fox’ (not a ballad, but following a similar plot) focuses on a young woman courted by the man of the title, who is rich and handsome, but never invites her back to his home. One day, driven by curiosity, she drops by unannounced, to be greeted by the sight of skeletons in blood-stained wedding dresses. Needless to say, the sight dampens her enthusiasm for the idea of Mr Fox as a husband and for once, he gets his comeuppance.

Although he does not have a long personal history (at least by folklore standards, having existed for a little over two hundred years), Reynardine is an inheritor of a much longer tradition of shape-shifters and demonic bridegrooms. Werewolves have been around for literally thousands of years, having first appeared in written fiction in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from sometime in the 2nd century BC. Were-foxes have an equally long history in some non-Western cultures, with the kitsune having existed in Japanese literature since the 11th century.

Wicked bridegrooms abound in fairy tales too. There’s ‘The Robber Bridegroom,’ by the Brothers Grimm, Perrault’s Bluebeard, and in more recent times Angela Carter’s seminal ‘The Bloody Chamber.’ These are only a few examples of a story that has dozens, if not hundreds of variations. Of course, Reynardine doesn’t even make honest women out of his lady loves before they meet their fate. The bounder.

Short history or not, I find Reynardine an intriguing figure. Because we know so little about him, he shares the characteristics traditionally ascribed to the fox in legend – adaptability, elusiveness, mysteriousness and danger. And there’s plenty of potential for more. Folk musicians are still singing about him, still adding their own spin to the story. Perhaps you’ll be the next one to meet Reynardine, when the setting sun hangs blood-red in the sky.

Till next time, everyone.

Don’t go out alone.

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Obscure Monster of the Month: The Groke…

Imagine this: you are alone, and it’s night. There are no lights to be seen in the distance anywhere, because you’re nowhere near a town or a city or even a friendly homestead of sorts. No, you are somewhere wild – a forest, perhaps somewhere in the hills or crossing some moorland. It’s very dark, but there are a few stars out and you’ve remembered to bring a torch. You’re not too worried, because it’s a mild night and you can hear the sounds of wildlife scurrying around. Perhaps there’s an owl hooting, or some little creature rustling in the undergrowth or the sharp bark of a fox.

So you continue on your way. And after a little while, you suddenly realize that you haven’t heard anything for a while. It’s gone very quiet, all the animals and birds have fallen silent. The wind has picked up and whistles eerily. It’s gone cool suddenly, and you shiver. You quicken your pace.

Then… then, you hear it. A rattling breath, almost like a growl from somewhere behind you. And it’s turned cold, freezing, and the cold settles on you and wraps tentacles around you like a living thing. There’s ice forming underfoot and fear scrabbling at your throat like fingers. There’s something behind you.

You turn around.

There she is. Colder than winter, colder than death.

You’ve just encountered the Groke. And if you’ve got any sense at all, you’re going to get the hell of there and never, never return.


The Groke is the creation of Tove Jansson. Jansson was a Swedish-speaking Finn, who was a novelist, painter and illustrator. Her best-known creations are the Moomins, a merry little bunch of creatures who live in Moomin Valley and occasionally have adventures. Aimed primarily at children, like all good children’s literature the books had a dark, serious side and the most obvious example of this is Jansson’s creation of The Groke.

In the original Swedish she was known as Mårran; in Finnish as Mörkö. One of the downsides of the English translation is that it is not obvious the Groke is female. Mårran has an –an suffix, which often (but not always) indicates feminine gender in Swedish. Nonetheless, the Groke is a she, and it is still quite a cool name. It’s almost onomatopoeic, suggesting words such groan, growl, grunt and croak.

The Groke is an intimidating creature even before you learn what she can do. She is described as having large round staring eyes, a row of gleaming teeth and a large nose, and her body is hill-shaped, like a mound. She rarely speaks and has a habit of turning up uninvited and spoiling the party. She has no permanent home and wanders from place to place at will. The Groke seems to be a classic misanthrope, having no liking for anyone or anything.

So far, she’s unpleasant, but not truly scary. But the true horror of the Groke is that she is the personification of winter darkness, depression, and despair. She is so cold, so frozen, that she brings winter with her wherever she goes. If she sits or stands on a particular piece of ground for more than an hour, nothing will ever grow there again – yes, the Groke can be fatal. If she touches a light or a fire, it will instantly be extinguished. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of Moomin Valley hold her in absolute dread, and on one occasion chase her off with a shotgun.

The Groke makes her first appearance in Jansson’s book Finn Family Moomintroll, originally published in 1948, translated into English in 1950. She’s portrayed as a frightening villain in that book and most of the subsequent ones; she’s even accused of eating people in The Exploits of Moominpappa, though she’s never actually shown hurting anyone and it’s quite possible this is a scandalous rumour designed to make people even more afraid of her. But her coldness and sinister aspect means she is unwelcome wherever she goes. In fact, in an animated adaptation of a Moomin story, The Trial of the Groke, a legal ruling in favour of the Groke is protested on the grounds that ‘no-one likes the Groke!’

 

Yet, from her very earliest appearances, Jansson offers her readers a different way of viewing the Groke. Despite the terror she inspires, some characters express sympathy for her. The Groke, you see, is the loneliest creature in the world. No-one likes her, or will even linger near her. Even those who feel sorry for her are anxious not to encounter her.

But, as the character of Moominmamma acknowledges in one story, the Groke has never actually done anyone any harm. In fact, as one critic radically suggests, the Groke has the right not to like anyone else, so long as she doesn’t hurt them: ‘and in no way should we be afraid or intolerant of her even if she dislikes us. After all, it is the deeds that count, not what we think we know’ (AbdelRahim, 2015: 123). Rather intense philosophy for a children’s book… but that is Jansson’s genius at work. An unconventional woman in life, her Moomin books also contain the advice ‘you can’t ever be really free if you admire somebody too much.’ Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from the Groke here.

Despite the horror of the Groke, the series ends with the suggestion that she can find redemption. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moomintroll, the closest thing the books have to a central character, attempts to make friends with the Groke. Every night, he seeks her out, taking a hurricane lantern with him for light and spends a little time with her. His company becomes important to the Groke, and finally she expresses pleasure at seeing him by dancing, after which her presence becomes – not welcome, exactly, but people learn to live with her and she with them. She, unlike a lot of fictional monsters, is permitted to survive and potentially thrive.

The Groke is a very unusual monster altogether, come to that, and hence her place on this blog. That, and I am consumed with envy and admiration of Jansson for creating her. To conclude, the literary world is a better place for the Groke’s presence, and she deserves to be far better known than she currently is.

Till next time, everyone.

Don’t go out alone.

 

Reference

 

Layla AbdelRahim, Children’s Literature, Domestication and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2015.

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Dispatches From the Edge of the World

Yes, the title is overly dramatic, I concede. But monsters belong on the margins. They lurk at the edges of maps, in dank caves, up mountains, in deserts, in gloomy forests, isolated mansions… you get the idea. A monster cannot simply stroll into a supermarket and do a little shopping (except maybe in the world of Monsters Inc.)  They must lurk in the shadows, or risk encountering a mob with the traditional torches and pitchforks (probably more likely to be hedge trimmers these days, but you never know). As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of the seminal essay Monster Theory: Seven Theses observes, ‘the monster polices the borders of the possible’ (Cohen, 1995: 12).

Monsters, in short, belong on the margins, the borders, in the shadows. So much so, that many of them have been unjustly forgotten – which, as the ‘About’ page on this blog observes, goes against the monster’s entire raison d’etre. Hence my writing this blog – to bring them to your attention, and to convince you that they are indeed worthy of such. Be aware, though – my intent is not to tame, or domesticate the monster. I vastly prefer monsters who stay monstrous. Or, in the words of one of the greatest fictional vampires ever created, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Edward Weyland (who emphatically does NOT sparkle) ‘I am not the monster who falls in love and is destroyed by his human feelings. I am the monster who stays true.’

So, on this blog we’ll be taking trips out to the margins, the borders, we’ll observe the monsters from a safe distance, and then come home again. Sound good? Read on. And in the worlds of another excellent author, Mira Grant… don’t go out alone.

Reference

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses)’, in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp. 3-25

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