Every Sunday during October, Sci-Fi & Scary will be bringing you a fresh article from a horror author. They’ll be talking about everything from why they love horror, to their favorite parts, and everything in between. Our third guest post comes from Bill Schweigart. You can find more information about Bill at the end of this article.
’Tis the Season
by Bill Schweigart
The first time I realized I was a horror writer was when my agent urged her Twitter followers “to welcome horror writer @billschweigart to the team.” I was shocked. Until that moment, I honestly hadn’t realized I was one. The Beast of Barcroft was my second novel—my first was a thriller about the Coast Guard—so at that point, only half of my output was horror. What did this new designation mean? I immediately thought of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry explains to George why he can’t go through with a ménage à trois: “Don’t you know what it means to become an orgy guy? It changes everything. I have to dress different, I have to act different. I’d have to grow a mustache and get all kinds of robes and lotions…. I’d have to get orgy friends….” Substitute horror for orgy and you’ll begin to understand the mini-existential crisis this Tweet had provoked.
What did it mean to be a “horror writer?”
Turns out it means the same as being any other kind of writer: you simply write the stories you would like to read. And when I wrote The Beast of Barcroft, Northwoods, and Untitled Schweigart #3 (more on that later), I wanted to read about monsters, myths, and legends. And that’s still the case, especially this time of the year, when the encroaching darkness and the new chill in the air conspire to make everything feel just a bit more sinister. So when Lilyn invited me to contribute to Sci-Fi and Scary during October, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to be a horror writer and share some of the cryptids that captivated me. ’Tis the season to huddle round a campfire and tell stories of the folklore lurking just beyond the tree line….
The Beast of Gévaudan
First, what’s a cryptid? A cryptid can be an animal that is exceptionally large (think Jaws) or an animal outside of its natural range (think Jaws in a river). Or, as I like to portray cryptids, creatures out of legend (think Scottish Jaws, a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster).
One creature that transcended real life to become a mythic cryptid was La Bête du Gévaudan, which I reference in The Beast of Barcroft. From 1764 to 1767, this beast—or beasts—reportedly racked up over two hundred attacks, with over one hundred kills, in the mountains of south-central France. The precise death count is disputed; however, this was no fairy tale. Victims were often killed by having their throats torn out, and many victims were partially eaten. The creature or creatures in question caused so much hysteria in the Gévaudan province that it drew the attention of King Louis XV, who dispatched professional wolf hunters to kill the beast. A large wolf was killed, and victory was declared! (Think Jaws again, this time when they catch the smaller shark and reopen the beaches for the Fourth of July.)
The Beast of Gévaudan’s rampage continued for another year and a half. Finally, a local hunter, Jean Chastel, killed a second wolf. And legend has it Chastel shot it with a silver bullet. Personally, I’m inclined to believe the kill wasn’t due so much to the bullet’s composition as its velocity, but that’s just me. Regardless, the wolf died, but a legend was born.
The Horror of the Hodag
Though likely a wolf, or wolves, we can’t be absolutely certain of the Beast of Gévaudan’s true identity, but the identity of the hodag was never in doubt. The hodag was a sturdy four-legged creature, long and low to the ground, and its back was lined down the center with sharp, white spikes that ended in a long tail. It had two large, curved horns on a massive head filled with long, sharp teeth, including two especially long tusks. It was described as “the fiercest, strangest, most frightening monster ever to set razor-sharp claws on the earth.”
The hodag originated in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, a logging town that was in crisis during the late 1800s, as its supplies of pine and hemlock became depleted. A land surveyor—and noted prankster—named Eugene Shepard “discovered” the hodag, claiming to have killed it with the help of some friends…and some dynamite. Then they captured a “live” specimen and displayed it at the Oneida County Fair. Thousands came to see the creature. The story of the hodag gained enough traction in the national media that a group of scientists from the Smithsonian announced they would travel to Wisconsin to inspect it. Shepard had to admit it was a fake; however, the hoax actually boosted the community’s fortunes and Rhinelander willingly adopted the hodag as its beloved mascot. Drive through Rhinelander today and you’ll be greeted with a giant statue of the beast and locally-owned stores named after it. Most impressively, the beast reached the absolute pinnacle of monsterdom: it has its very own episode of Scooby Doo, “The Horror of the Hodag.”
The Underwater Panther
What I find fascinating about the hodag, whether it was intentional or not on the part of the Eugene Shephard, is its similarity to another legend: the Ojibwe’s Mishipeshu, or the Underwater Panther. The Underwater Panther is one of the Ojibwe people’s most powerful deities. It dwells in lakes, rivers, and caves. It represents the power and mystery of the deep. Some tribes call it the Great Water Lynx. Others, just the Underwater Monster. The legends vary, of course, but the most popular renderings feature it with the body of a dragon or a sea serpent, with spikes along its back, and mighty horns on its head….
The Jersey Devil
No two descriptions of the Jersey Devil are perfectly alike, but some features are common. Two legs. Cloven hooves. Forked tail. Small arms with claws. The head of a horse, sometimes a dog or a goat, but usually with horns. And giant wings like a bat’s. It’s a cryptid with an identity crisis. Legend has it the Devil was the 13th child of Mother Leeds, a woman from the hardscrabble New Jersey Pine Barrens. Mother Leeds was so distraught at the prospect of yet another mouth to feed that she cursed the baby: “Let it be a devil!”
But its origins don’t interest me. What fascinates me about the Jersey Devil is 1909.
First, full disclosure: I’m a Jersey Boy at heart. But as much as I’d like to claim our Devil should be counted among folkloric greats like Bigfoot, even I have to admit the Jersey Devil is less Loch Ness Monster and more chupacabra. He’s a second-stringer at best…except for one week at the dawn of the last century. During the third week of January 1909, my beloved second-stringer took a shot at the title and crisscrossed no fewer than 30 different towns in the Delaware Valley—from Delaware, through southern New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania—causing mass hysteria.
Women swooned. Posses of men plunged into the woods to trap it. People locked their doors. In Mount Ephraim, NJ, many people would not leave their homes and the school in town closed for a day for lack of students. Mills in Gloucester and Hainesport were forced to shut down for a day due to a high rate of absenteeism. The mayor of Burlington ordered his police to “shoot the creature on sight.” A Camden theater cancelled a performance. Trolley drivers began arming themselves. Major urban newspapers treated the appearances as front page news.
I repeat: schools and factories closed—during the 20th Century—because of the Jersey Devil. Obviously, there were some hoaxers out there, attention-seekers, some cases of mistaken identity, and maybe some lunatics. Still, there were plenty of honest citizens—police, county officials, and more—who saw something. A sort of mass hysteria spread throughout the area and, just as quickly, the spell broke. My beloved Jersey Devil faded back into the obscurity. That is, until he decides to take flight once more from the Pine Barrens to raise a little hell.
I Want to Believe
Despite my horror take on cryptids, all cryptozoology really means is the study of hidden animals. Literally. From the Greek kryptos, meaning “hidden,” and zoology, the “study of animals.” Just as UFO means unidentified flying object and not necessarily alien spacecraft, cryptids are not always mermaids or yetis. Cryptids can simply be amazing animals that haven’t been discovered yet, like the Philippines’ golden spotted monitor, a six-foot lizard, already well known to locals, but just discovered by scientists in 2004. Cryptids can be animals that have reappeared, like the coelacanth, a living fossil thought to be extinct but was rediscovered when a fisherman caught one on a rod and reel in 1938. Cryptids can also be animals found far outside of their normal range, like the unfortunate mountain lion from the Black Hills of North Dakota who went on a 1,500-mile walkabout in 2010, only to get struck and killed by a car in Connecticut.
But what’s the truth behind cryptids like the Beast of Gévaudan or the Jersey Devil or the Loch Ness Monster? The truth is, I don’t care.
In 2006, an adult giant squid was caught by researchers from the National Science Museum of Japan…and caught on camera. This was the first-ever live video footage of a giant squid, a small female about 11 feet long. She was pulled aboard the research vessel, but died in the process. And after the initial thrill of seeing the footage for the first time wore off, I was left with one thought: “One less sea monster. How sad.”
If I may paraphrase Richard Severance, the wealthy cryptozoologist in my books, cryptids live where the real meets the unreal. Where science shines a light into the dark corners of legend, and folklore becomes fact. For the month of October, I propose switching off that light, breathing in the dark, and letting the animals stay hidden. A few shadowy corners and a little room for the mind to breathe are necessary. A little romance, a little wonder, even a little danger, are good things. And I can think of no better time for those good things than October, and no better place to discover them than in scary books. And blogs about scary books. So thank you, Lilyn, for giving us this not-so-safe space.
Untitled Schweigart #3
So, what’s next? I’m hard at work editing my next novel, where my characters will face their next cryptozoological challenge. I want to thank Lilyn for the opportunity to take a break from my manuscript and have a little fun here. That book, the final installment of my trilogy, should be out mid-next year. In the meantime, I’ve learned that The Beast of Barcroft and Northwoods will be available in audiobook format in November and December respectively. In those books, my characters Ben and Lindsay have been on the defensive, reacting to otherworldly threats. But in Untitled Schweigart #3, they’re going to take the fight to its source: New Jersey’s dark heart, the Pine Barrens. I had an idea for a title, but my wife, my agent, my mother, and Lilyn all vetoed it with a vengeance. So stay tuned…
Bill Schweigart is one of the few people that I genuinely enjoy interacting with. Given how much of a reclusive anti-social hermit I am by nature, that’s quite the praise. You can find the reviews I’ve written for Beast of Barcroft and Northwoods by clicking on their titles. (And yes, there’s a reason several of us told him to nix the title for #3.)
Ben McKelvie believes he’s moving up in the world when he and his fiancée buy a house in the cushy Washington, D.C., suburb of Barcroft. Instead, he’s moving down—way down—thanks to Madeleine Roux, the crazy neighbor whose vermin-infested property is a permanent eyesore and looming hazard to public health.
First, Ben’s fiancée leaves him; then, his dog dies, apparently killed by a predator drawn into Barcroft by Madeleine’s noxious menagerie. But the worst is yet to come for Ben, for he’s not dealing with any ordinary wild animal. This killer is something much, much worse. Something that couldn’t possibly exist—in this world.
Now, as a devilish creature stalks the locals, Ben resolves to take action. With some grudging assistance from a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the crackpot theories of a self-styled cryptozoologist, he discovers the sinister truth behind the attacks, but knowing the Beast of Barcroft and stopping it are two different animals. – Goodreads
Buy on Amazon.