Okay, I can’t wait. I usually don’t start writing about horror movies, novels, short stories, etc, until October, but I’ve been on a horror kick lately and I’m going to jump in early this year.
So from today until November 1, this blog is going to be all about unquiet coffins, gloom, ghosts, etc.
What has gotten me so antsy that I can’t wait? Well, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I’ve been studying up on a nasty demon from Algonquin monster lore. Today we’re going to kick things off with a cursory examination of a legend that has been freaking me out since I was seven years old: The Wendigo.
If you want a big (if outdated) collection of stories and poems featuring this cannibalistic beasty, a great starting point is John Robert Colombo’s anthology Windigo: An Anthology of Fact and Fantastic Fiction.
If you want the crash course in the background of the myth, the wikipedia entry is decent.
As a kid, I came home from the library one day with a book called Monsters You Never Heard Of. This book also contained the unforgettable (for me, it’s been nearly 30 years) story The Burr Woman, which we talked about one previous October.
I don’t remember much about the wendigo story in that book, except for a vague image of a man huddled in some sort of lean-to, waiting to be eaten by someone else in his party. But I might be confusing it with a scene from the movie Ravenous, in which a guy wakes up in the night (was it Guy Pearce?) and finds his lean-to mate nibbling at him. I think.
The wendigo, in nearly every mention I’ve seen, is associated with cannibalism. You could become possessed by a wendigo if you ate human flesh because you were starving. And then, depending on what you’re reading, you either became a wendigo, or you just behaved like one.
Nasty business. Many descriptions I’ve read of the wendigo mention their gaunt appearance, sometimes bleeding eyes, sometimes burned feet, and their hearts, which are sometimes literally made of ice.
In Margaret Atwood’s brilliant book Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, she (I’m paraphrasing, I can’t find my copy of the book) says that the wendigo often acts as a personification of the effects that expansive wilderness and profound solitude can have on the human mind. Think of the research outpost in The Thing, or the woods in any movie where someone gets cabin fever.
Okay, on to some stories where I’ve spotted the wendigo.
The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman
1663, New Amsterdam. Everyone’s cranky, dirty, and on edge, because children keep vanishing. Warning–this book contained some unflinching scenes of violence towards children that surprised me. But who’s grabbing them? There are reports of a weird, 8 foot tall creature with bleeding eyes and spindly legs that always seems to be lurking on the periphery.
Complicating matters is a villager who actually has succumbed to “wendigo psychosis,” although that certainly wasn’t the name for it back then.
An enjoyable, unsettling mystery, with a bunch of wendigo lore.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King
This book really rattled me as a kid. I read it in fourth grade, which was not smart, but I read it again a year ago and it holds up. I think this is one of King’s best-paced stories. It unfolds slowly, but when it all goes bad, wow.
If you decide to go strolling by a Micmac burial ground in the dead of night, you just might see a giant wendigo leering at you through the trees, stomping about and making you second-guess your nocturnal errands.
The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood
Can I just say that Algernon Blackwood is a hellaciously good name for a writer of spooky stories? And if I told you that he was a member of a secret group called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, wouldn’t you expect him to look just like this? And it might not surprise you at that point to realize that he was friends with Arthur Machen, who also wrote weird tales, but without wendigos.
The Wendigo (full text) is not my favorite story by Blackwood (see The Willows), but it’s a good one. It starts with a small hunting party out in the middle of nowhere, trundling around on a giant sheet of snow with nowhere to go and not much to look forward to.
It isn’t long before one of the hapless adventurers is yelling:
“Oh! oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! oh! This height and fiery speed!”
You will not envy him. I declare it.
My Little Pony: The Hearth’s Warming Eve Pageant
Okay, I confess to never having seen this episode of My Little Pony, but while researching this post, I found this:
However, when they hear the distant wail of a windigo, Rainbow Dash volunteers to close the window
What do you know? I never knew that the ponies ever faced such dark foes. When my sister used to watch the show, it seemed like they were usually just wishing it would stop raining. I do remember a pony named Wind Whistler saying, “It’s easy to be courageous when helping others!” My mind is garbage. It holds onto crap like that but I can’t remember how to divide fractions to save my life.
Okay, the race is on. Avoiding wikipedia, I challenge one and all to find more mentions of the Wendigo and list them in the comments.
Halloween is coming. Time to work.