11th November 2020
The Beast of Lockdown
Hello. I am here to moan.
- Three day headache has now progressed into migraine.
- The drugs don’t work, they just make things worse. Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown.
- I am still in bed.
- Have spent most of the day updating the website, about three hours work.
- The house is trying to work out who’s turn it is to clean via walls of silence, and it’s becoming Game of Thrones, with mops. I’d literally just fucking do it myself but that would entail another round of secreted politicking not in my name.
- Body clock is up the spout – sleeping at 1am, waking at 5, sleeping again at 7, awake again by 9. And repeat.
- I have bags under my eyes, skin looks crap. Positively ageing in the mirror.
- It’s cold, all the time. They need to invent heated socks. J likes things at a toasty 15C or he’ll melt apparently.
- Had a weird dream, in which I was my sister/ mother and burying their brother/ son, the former me. Which was a pile of my clothes. I think in the world of magical Freudianism it’s some premonition I’ll lose my job.
- Another weird dream in which a nasty as fuck woman drowned my sister and I tried to drown her in revenge. So much rage.
- Cannot find Bad Moon, B-movie of the day to watch anywhere on the net, that I promised myself as a treat.
- I’m barely talking to anyone in the household, and the one person who does want to talk I’m monosyllabic and unwarrantedly pissed off all the time, for no good reason. Watching the box in silence while he occasionally man-screams (sneezing/ laughing/ surprise), which is something to get used to, bless him.
- I’m not reading any more.
- The Great Orange Dolphin plugging the White House won’t give up his post, and is blitzing every institution he can take down before he submits.
- There’s a pandemic on.
So, Bad Moon. An escape.
There’s something to be said about ‘exoticism’. When hearing the word, it tends to bring up visions of the tropics, non-Western, ahistoric. Think a jungle tribe, beaches, waterfalls, orchids, bright colours and clinking beads. Possibly an emerald encrusted totem with dancing girls on a pyramid worshipping a volcano.
Yet there is only so much you can get from the one viewpoint so far afield. Being constantly an outsider in my own country, there is a modicum of detachment one can employ, wherein you look at the world around with new eyes. I’m not gonna say the bleak carparks of Asda or the typeface of the platform read suddenly take on a Westeros aspect, but one can look at the cold northern climes as just as exotic. Think spires of snow-clad conifers, mountain vistas, furs, fires, cabins and medievalism. The blanched, angular features of the Sami tribe, firelit, over legends of the great forest. Just ignore the beer cans.
But yes, werewolves. That’s pretty much what I woulda got from that. Lovely. Fuck Santa.
The Great European Forest was an Amazon-sized blanketing of thick woodland that once covered the continent -in the UK it was as high as 97% of our land, now dwindled into nothing. Only 17% of new growth has returned in patches (and mostly in regimented, monocultured rows with little biodiversity), that make us one of the least wooded non desert /ice countries in the world -even Greece and Spain double our count, and only Ireland is less.
This great blanket was a forest of the mind as well as body. It was dangerous. The last remnants of it lie on the Polish-Belarus border, notably the Białowieża National Park, that demands a guide at all times. Here, it is -unlike most wooded cover across the continent -unmanaged by man. The trees stand perilously close, liable to fall and break limbs off at any time, creating a humid, strangely warm atmosphere. It’s haunted by outcasts both human and animal: hunters, loners, bison, lynx, bear, boar, wolverine …and wolves.
Now wild wolves have only ever documented one human kill in modern times -that of a female jogger, mauled to death and partially eaten in 2010 Alaska. Other deaths were due to rabies, and another incurred through liver damage when an unfortunate was pushed to the ground. But back before the 1920s they were blamed for thousands of deaths, in France up to a hundred were killed a year, and India up to 700 annually in the 19th Century.
This was a forest that gave rise to much of the European psyche for centuries to come. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t go out at night. Don’t be curious, don’t be fooled. And don’t talk to strangers (maybe try and kill them, as per your duty to the community).
Along with this mindset came the legends and tales, notably collected by Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm Brothers in their respective Mitteleuropean locales -think adversely dark chapters like Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, the Snow Queen (our sanitised retelling being Frozen), the Three Little Pigs -each entailing familial betrayal, shadowy monsters and gruesome death.
This I find utterly enthralling. And exotic.
Werewolf legends in Europe appear to have sprung up sometime in the 1400s, and may have been a reaction of Christianisation repackaging older pagan myths into tales of woe, savagery and evil. Echoing the mass persecution of witchhunts, that took out 100,000 lives at a time when women began to demand more equality, the curse of the werewolf outlined outcasts and loners as ones to watch, alongside blame for genuine serial killers. It’s said the insanity caused by a fungal infection of wheat and rye -Ergot, stemming from cool, wet springtimes -can be blamed for some of the documented instances of lycanthropy. Causing the sufferer to hallucinate persecution: from ‘dark and horrible beasts’ to feelings of one’s body not being their own. The sensation of burning, aka St Anthony’s Fire, with tingling limbs and extremities leading to the idea of a shapeshifting form.
Other explanations throw in the intensely sweet, black cherries of the nightshade/ belladonna plant that resulted in similar poisoning, plus the usual gamut of rabies and schizophrenia. Not to mention the seasonal hormone changes a full moon emanates (plus a light for psychopaths to hunt by). It’s said murder rates rise on a full moon, A&E wards get overrun, and that arson doubles in New York.
Anyhoo, back to un-reality. Many myths in England correlated with the accounts of those caught and tried as Werewolves. That they were wandering the woods when the king of the forest, or the Green Man (aka the Devil through Christian lenses) gave them an ointment, their soul in exchange for everlasting life. When rubbed onto skin it sprouted thick hair and feelings of magnificence, invincibility, and bloodlust. To this day the old pagan god of the Green Man/ Herne the Hunter lives on in one of the most popular pub names across the country.
Although by 1670, when lycanthropy had finally been relegated as a ‘disease of the brain’, there still remained instances of predation by spectacular, wolf-like monsters. Most infamously, the Beast of Gévaudan killing dozens of men, women and children in a 50 mile vicinity between 1764-67, where many witnesses described a wolf-dog hybrid. A 1987 study estimated there were 210 attacks, resulting in 113 deaths and 49 injuries; with 98 of the victims partly eaten.
The first attack was reported in 1764 when Marie Jeanne Vallet was tending cattle in the forest of Mercoire. She saw the beast come at her but the bulls charged, keeping it at bay. They then drove it off after it attacked a second time. Shortly afterwards the first official victim of the beast was recorded: 14-year-old Janne Boulet killed near the village of Les Hubacs.
Throughout the remainder of 1764, more attacks were reported across the region, noting that the Beast seemed only to target the victim’s head or neck.
By late December 1764, rumours began circulating there might be a pair behind the killings. This was because there had been such a high number of attacks in such a short space of time, and many appeared almost simultaneously. Some accounts suggested the creature was seen with another such animal, while others that the beast was accompanied by its young.
When it finally came to the attention of the king, bounty hunters were employed to hunt the local wolves. It took till September 1765 for François Antoine to shoot one measuring 80 cm (31 in) high, 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) long and weighing 60 kg (130 lb). The animal was identified as the culprit by survivors who recognised the scars on its body inflicted by victims defending themselves. The wolf was stuffed and sent to Versailles.
Antoine stayed in the Auvergne woods to chase down the partner of the beast and her two grown pups. He succeeded in killing the female and a pup, which seemed already larger than its mother. At the examination of the pup, it appeared to have a double set of dewclaws, a hereditary malformation found in the local Bas-Rouge or Beauceron dog breed.
However, on December 2nd, two boys were attacked suggesting that the beast was still alive. It tried to capture the 6 year old, but was fought off by the 12 year old. Soon after, successful attacks followed and some of the shepherds witnessed that this time, or this beast, showed no fear around cattle at all.
The killing of the creature that eventually marked the end of the attacks is credited to local hunter Jean Chastel, who shot it at the slopes of la Sogne d’Auvers on June 19, 1767. He used a home made bullet combined with silver. The post-mortem report showed the belly contained the remains of its last victim.
In 2013 an Animal Planet documentary concluded it was probably a long haired hyena, based on illustrations of its bones and the accounts of it being able to eat through bone (hyenas have the strongest bites among terrestial predators), bred to kill by a disgruntled owner.
Other theories suggest Chastel the culprit, if not a liar after the prize money. Or a wolf-dog hybrid made larger by the phenomenon of dysplasia, when genomic imprinting from both parents creates abnormal cell growth (hence why lion-tiger hybrids, or ligers, are the biggest cats in the world). Also that these were just isolated incidents by several animals, possibly the same pack that switched merely to hunting humans. It ends of course on a question mark, but inspiring legends for centuries after.
And thus here, now, un-embodied and morphing into the wilds of history I lose myself in detail and myth. It is a welcome respite.
I think I’m going to settle for Silver Bullet with Corey Haim in one of the most Eighties style films out there. Based on Stephen King’s novella/ graphic novel, Cycle of the Werewolf, which scared me silly as a kid. Even if it is set firmly in a modern world, a bombastic pop culture offering, it still has that added dimension of everything the cold forest can instill, into atavistic waters.
The original book has intensely creepy imagery, that draws everything on that, even into a modern East Coast setting.
All thanks to Bernie Wrightson, master illustrator of the macabre. Literally just bought his Frankenstein tome to cheer myself up, that accompanies Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.
Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, aka the ‘Mother of feminism’ finally received a statue today. Born in London in 1759, the author and radical promoted equality of her gender, and wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. -But whose career was cut short: she died in childbirth.
Her daughter, aged 15 was spied by celebrated poet and enfant terrible, Percy Bysshe Shelley, praying at her mother’s grave, whom he immediately fell swooningly for. Abandoning his own pregnant wife (who would go on to drown herself) he took his new lover to the shores of Lake Geneva, where locked down by bad weather they held a competition for scariest horror story. At the age of sixteen she then jawdropped the establishment with her tale of the undead, a corpse cobbled from stolen parts and executed criminals, and murderously innocent to the horrors of the coming world: science, society, modernity.
I will save this for another dark day.
The statue however. A decade in the making and at a cost of £143,000
It’s come under fire for the need of a naked body, depicting the activist in flagrante amidst 90% of the other statues in the city, male and almost always clothed. She’s also laughingly tiny, atop a silver, undulating form meant to inspire the movement of female bodies beneath. Rather than inspiring the struggle it is unintentionally a reminder, that plays into the rules of the established order it seems.
Anyhoo, enough about forests, werewolves and social justice. And thanks for listening -I’m trying to say rabbit holes can save us. That there’s more to it out there than the usual navel-gazing perspective all the time, which only ever throws up a darkened existence in the world.
Getting a life, just with wolves involved. Onward.