Obscure Monster of the Month: Jenny Greenteeth

Imagine this: its early evening and you’re heading home from a long day at work. You’re drained, and craving an hour on the sofa watching some bad telly. Your feet are heavy and every step hits the pavement with a resounding smack! Your eyes burn with tiredness. The sky is grey and lowering; there’s no rain dripping down onto your head yet, but it’s pending. On an impulse your feet find a dirt path that leads to a short cut that runs alongside the river.

It’s narrow, overhung with brambles and nettles and dotted with beer cans and takeaway wrappings, but it takes a good five minutes off your journey. The river pulses along sluggishly beside its banks, grey and leaden apart from the weeds drifting greenly at intervals and the debris suburban rivers collect: cans, polystyrene containers, abandoned bikes.

You’ve only gone a short way when a particular clump of weed catches your eye. Maybe it’s your overtired eyes misreading the waters, but you fancy that a particularly large, dense clump of green strands is following you. That’s all it is, of course, a fancy. Your over-active imagination. It’s just some water plant drifting in the current.

Then it occurs to you that the weed is moving against the current.

You pause, staring at the weed, and remarkably, it pauses too. Against your better judgement, you step off the path, down the weed and rubbish strewn bank, attempting to discern what exactly is down there in the water.

The water erupts. Droplets fly in all directions and you catch a panicked glimpse of something lunging at you. It’s all shades of green mingled together like the trees in a forest, it has long hair dripping down over its skull and it’s got two long arms reaching up for you. And you espy teeth – slimy, sharp gnashing teeth…

You throw yourself backwards and scramble up the bank on all fours, adrenaline lending you speed. You scurry back up the path, and lie there, gasping, terror-stricken, arms and legs trembling. You see the green thing, lurking down there, snarling with frustration, before it slowly, sullenly slips beneath the surface and is lost to view.

You’ve been lucky. You’ve just met Jenny Greenteeth, and there aren’t many who live to tell the tale.

*****

            Jenny Greenteeth is a figure from English folklore. She’s also a type of pondweed. The name ‘Jenny Greenteeth’ is used sometimes to describe duckweed, which is regarded as a nuisance plant in the UK because it grows so fast. It can cover an entire pond within a matter of days, choking off other growth. It’s a pain to remove, too.

But the Jenny Greenteeth this blog is concerned with is even more dangerous that her vegetal namesake. She’s a river being, similar to a grindylow or the Japanese kappa. She lurks in lakes and rivers, ready to snatch at unsuspecting people and drag them under the water. She was probably created in order to frighten children away from treacherous waters. It’s uncertain how the duckweed came to be associated with Jenny, but duckweed can be hazardous as a thick coating prevents you from judging how deep a body of water is.

However she came into being, one thing that is very interesting about Jenny is the number of regional variations she has. Around Liverpool and South Lancashire she’s known as Jenny Greenteeth, but my Mum, who was born and bred a stone’s throw from this area, knew her as Jinny Greenteeth (thanks Mum!) She’s also referred to as Ginny Greenteeth, Wicked Jenny and Jeannie Greenteeth. There are other versions of a river hag, called Peg Powler and Nelly Longarms, in different areas of the country. The former inhabits the River Tees in Yorkshire, the latter doesn’t appear to be tied to any geographical region but is recorded by folklorists such as Katharine Briggs.

Regardless of where she originated, Jenny Greenteeth has inspired plenty of popular culture. One of the most prominent examples is the lake monster, Meg Mucklebones, in the 1985 dark fantasy film Legend. Meg is a fabulously grotesque creation, and looks very like I imagine Jenny Greenteeth. Just look at her – an ugly hag, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West. (Unfortunately for Meg, she’s easily disarmed by flattery…)

Meg

            There’s also a very intriguing legend about Jenny Greenteeth, which is linked to St James Cemetery in Liverpool. Previously known as St James Mount, it was used as a quarry until 1825. Subsequently, it was turned into a cemetery and was used for this purpose until 1936. It’s alleged to be haunted by the ghost of a witch named Jenna Green, who existed prior to the cemetery’s construction. The connection with Jenny Greenteeth is obvious, especially since this ghost is rumoured to drown stragglers who lurk in the cemetery. A vampire-like entity has been rumoured to haunt the graveyard since the 1960s, which may or may not be connected to Jenny Greenteeth…

Even more spookily, a tourist recently photographed a strange spectre in the cemetery, which she believes to be the ghost of Jenny Greenteeth herself… It’s tall, dark and apparently wearing a hooded cloak.[i] What do you think?

Despite her close links to the North-West of England and the numerous regional variations dotted around the UK, Jenny Greenteeth is also an inheritor of a much longer tradition of water spirits, particularly female ones. There are legends about female water spirits and demons in virtually every country in the world, from the Lorelei in the river Rhine in Germany, the Naiads of Greek mythology and the Rusalka of Russian folklore. Even, arguably, the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend. They are nearly always malicious towards human beings, perhaps reflecting the danger large bodies of water posed to a population (most of whom probably couldn’t swim). Jenny herself is remarkably similar to many of these creations – a reflection of Jung’s collective unconscious perhaps?

Despite the photographs, there’s no concrete proof of Jenny Greenteeth’s existence and the legend, sadly, seems to be fading. I had no idea of Jenny’s connection to my local area until my Mum told me. Nonetheless, she’s a strong presence in St James Cemetery. Unlike her unhappy victims, Jenny is a survivor. As Sylvia Plath commented in her stunning poem Lorelai, ‘it is no night to drown in…’

Till next time, dear readers.

Don’t go out alone.

References

[i] https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/ghost-witch-jenny-greenteeth-st-14288058

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The Female Gaze – A Play…

That I am a writer is obvious. That I have several publications might be less so. These range from several book chapters, a journal article and several book reviews, all of which can be categorized as ‘academic’ (horror, the Gothic and monsters are my specialist subjects, hence this blog). Last year I branched out into fiction, having several short stories published (and a couple more this year).

But even more recently, I responded to a call for monologues to be featured in a play about female filmmakers. It’s being put together by Sarah Gonnet of The Female Gaze online magazine, and she’s also writing the narrative that links the monologues together. My offering was about the fiercely independent Scottish filmmaker Margaret Tait. It was my first ever bit of writing for the stage – so imagine my delight when it was chosen! And now there’s more good news: the play has received funding for an R and D week in July!

Here’s the link:

https://thefemalegazemagazine.wordpress.com/2018/05/11/we-got-funding/

Needless to say, I’m a bit chuffed! More on this as it happens…

Till next time, dear readers.

Don’t go out alone.

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Obscure Monster of the Month: The Brocken Spectre

Imagine this: you’re hiking in the Scottish Highlands. It’s been cold, cloudy and has been raining near-constantly since you set foot out of doors. Big fat raindrops that land on you with a satisfying plop, a lighter drizzle, rain so ferocious it could flay the skin from your face, even that annoying misty rain that floats up underneath umbrellas, you’ve weathered it all (no pun intended).

But you keep slogging away, higher and higher, until the green of the hills falls away beneath you and your feet are pushing against grey rock and scree. The higher you go, the thicker and icier the mist becomes, hanging rather than swirling in the air. It muffles all sound, until you can barely hear your footfalls thumping against bare rock.

You begin to shiver, not entirely with cold. It’s a strange, eerie place and you can’t recall why you wanted to come up here in the first place. Even the hardy Scottish sheep have scarpered downhill to wait out the rain.

You decide to follow their example and turn to trudge back down, hopefully towards shelter and a nice hot cup of tea.

And then… it looms out of the fog.

It’s huge. Massive. Twice your height, if not more. It’s bipedal, but you can distinguish nothing else. It’s featureless, the outline of a human. For a brief, wildly optimistic moment you think it’s merely your shadow, thrown into distorted relief against the mist… But it’s too dark and too solid to be a shadow.

It makes no movement, merely standing there and observing. For an endless moment, you stand frozen in tableau. Then the spell breaks, it lurches towards you and you flee. Scrabbling across scree, scurrying across rocks and moss and dirt, gravity’s momentum carrying you down towards safety. Only once your lungs ache with the strain of sucking in air and your legs are screaming at you do you dare look round… and catch a glimpse of a tall, dark figure slowly moving away through the fog.

You’ve just encountered the Brocken Spectre, the Grey Man of the mountains. Luckily for you, he appeared to be in peaceful mood. But not all travellers have been so fortunate.

                                                                                                                                               

The Brocken Spectre, the Grey Man of the mountains, or to give him his Gaelic title, Am Fear Liath Mòr, is an indisputably Scottish monster. Actually, a little elucidation is required here. The Brocken Spectre is the name given to an optical phenomenon, in which a person on a ridge or cliff stands with the sun behind them. Their shadow is cast across the mist or fog below them, often appearing to be huge because there are no points of reference. It may also appear to move because of the mist or fog shifting around.[1] The rather romantic, spooky name Brocken Spectre is actually German in origin, according to a BBC news article about the phenomenon.[2]

Am Fear Liath Mòr by contrast is connected to one mountain in particular – Ben Macdui, the highest mountain in the Cairgorns and the second highest peak in the United Kingdom. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about climbers feeling nervous or uneasy as they near the summit. The first encounter with Am Fear Liath Mòr occurred in 1891 but was not made public until 1925, according to Ben Redfern.[3] An experienced climber reported hearing footsteps following behind him when he was ascending towards the peak, until his nerve broke and he fled.

Numerous other experiences have since been reported, although there is no verifiable evidence of which I’m aware. People have described hearing strange footsteps, seeing a huge figure looming out of the mist, or feelings of dread and terror as they make their way up the mountain. Various explanations have been proposed, such as the Broken Spectre being mistaken for the monster. It’s also been speculated by psychologists that the isolation of the peak and the exhaustion brought on by the climb may prompt visual and auditory hallucinations, causing people to believe they have encountered the monster.

Despite these perfectly rational explanations, legends and superstition cling to the Brocken Spectre and Am Fear Liath Mòr. The Brocken, the mountain in the Harz range in Germany that gave the creature its name, has a particularly dark myth attached to the spectre. It is said that if you espy the Brocken Spectre upon the mountain, it is an omen of death… possibly your own. At least one unfortunate climber is said to have fallen to his death on the mountain some two hundred years ago after glimpsing the phenomenon and being frightened out of his wits.

The Brocken Spectre exerts a powerful hold on the human imagination, and has appeared in numerous works of literature. The mountain, the Brocken, features in Goethe’s Faust (1808) where it’s portrayed as a gathering place for witches. The spectre has appeared in numerous works, but perhaps to greatest effect in James Hogg’s The Private Confessions and Memoirs of a Justified Sinner (1824). Hogg describes a man’s encounter with the Brocken Spectre: ‘he saw, delineated in the cloud, the shoulders, arms, and features of a human being of the most dreadful aspect. The face was the face of his brother, but dilated to twenty times the natural size…’ Justified Sinner is a Gothic novel that features numerous doppelgangers, and the Brocken Spectre is one of the most memorable. (Interestingly, Hogg himself is supposed to have encountered the Grey Man out on the mountainside when tending his sheep).

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The Brocken Spectre against the cloud

 

Authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Pynchon have referred to the Brocken Spectre in their work. There are many others, keep your eyes open for them when you’re devouring your latest novel.

The Brocken Spectre is in many ways an insubstantial monster, given that there is no hard evidence of its existence and there are a number of plausible explanations as to where and how it originated. But its striking influence on popular culture and continued reports of something strange lurking on Ben Macdui are a testament to its power and longevity. If nothing else, the Brocken Spectre/Am Fear Liath Mòr is representative of the strength and mercilessness of the mountains that gave birth to its legend.

Till next time, dear readers.

Don’t go out alone.

References

[1] ‘Brocken Spectre,’ Anon., Atoptics [online], retrieved on 08/05/18 https://www.atoptics.co.uk/droplets/globrock.htm

[2] ‘Shades of Grey: What is the Brocken Spectre?’ Steven McKenzie, BBC News, 17/02/15 [Online] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-31447148

[3] Nick Redfern, Three Men Seeking Monsters: Six Weeks in Pursuit of Werewolves, Lake Monsters, Giant Cats, Ghostly Devil Dogs, and Ape-Men (London: Simon and Schuster, 2004) pp. 218–20.

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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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