MEDDLING WITH FORCES
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It was January and the summer had been mild. As was my habit at the time, I awoke early, and began to imagine myself gainfully employed upon a new literary adventure—my first compilation of public domain material. I’d seen many other self-published collections of older stories, and often wondered if I could make a go of it. That year, I decided it was time to find out. The research was easy and pleasant; in only a few hours I had cribbed a couple of likely stories from the internet—Project Gutenberg, Wikisource, and other places. I could see that it wouldn’t take too long before I had a volume fit for publication.
I discussed the proposition with my wife after dinner that evening. “I thought I’d start with ghost stories,” I said as I served the Eton Mess. “You know, the usual suspects, British and American stuff, Edgar Allen Poe, M. R. James, all that spooky old lot. Could be a bit of money in it…”
“Damnit, McKenzie”, said my wife, a sensible woman of some fifty-three summers. “You’re meddling with forces you cannot possibly comprehend. You know what these Victorian-era ghost stories are like. Once you start down that path, there’ll be no turning back. You’ll be ruined, man. Best to steer clear of the whole goddamned mess. Have another port, and forget the whole idea.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “There’s nothing to fear in the supernatural. Ghosts? Pshaw. That’s all just harum scarum. I’ll be perfectly all right.” I drained the port, and another, and looked out the window at the old manor house up on Tapley’s Hill. I decided to take a walk up there, that very evening. What sort of peculiar curiosity had overtaken me that night?
The Wolf Clan of Langavat
I’ve had an interest in the story about a family of werewolves at Loch Langavat in Lewis for years now. They appear mentioned on Wikipedia under Hebridean Mythology and Folklore, and in other places on Wikipedia too, and from there have found their way to any number of sites on the Hebrides or on lists of mythological creatures. It’s a classic case of internet-itis. The entry is always much the same:
“A family of werewolves were said to occupy an island on Loch Langavat. Although long deceased, they promised to rise if their graves were disturbed.”
The source given on Wikipedia is Darren Mann’s paranormal database. I contacted Darren to ask about the source he’d used to construct the entry, and he very kindly sent me a scan of the document in question, which turns out to be a two-page anecdote in Terence Whitaker’s book, Scottish Ghosts and Apparitions. It tells the story of how Andrew Warren went to visit his grandfather on Lewis and the old man had dug up a werewolf’s body, claiming that the “island used to be overrun with them”. Andrew then sees the ghost of the werewolf through the window that night before fleeing in terror. The bones are reburied the following day and the creature is laid to rest.
In the meantime, however, I’d come across another source mentioning werewolf bones in the Hebrides – the story in Elliot O’Donnel’s book on Werewolves. As soon as I got hold of the scan from Whitaker I realised it was the same story. O’Donnell does not mention Langavat – that was probably an insertion by Whitaker – and some other details have been added but nonetheless it is clear that the two are the same tale.
Whitaker was not the only person to borrow the tale from O’Donnell. Much earlier, in 1926, Christopher Marlowe (not the poet) wrote a book called The Fen Lands, including exactly the same tale, but placing it in Linciolnshire. That version appears here and also on BBC Lincolnshire. I can’t find much about Marlowe’s book online and it looks fairly obscure, so really I’m just guessing when I say that the tale – which is too specific to be a ‘traveling tale’ or a widespread archetype – has simply been borrowed by Marlowe from O’Donnell’s book of fifteen years earlier, and relocated closer to home.
So anyway, that’s how we got a widespread internet meme about there being a clan of werewolves in Lewis that would rise if their bodies were disturbed.
I find it interesting the way that as such tales are deconstructed into their basic elements in order to be put on the internet, new ideas are created. For example, the notion that “the island used to be overrun with werewolves” has become a ‘clan of werewolves.’ The ‘island’ itself was probably intended to be Lewis, but has been scaled down to be “an island on Loch Langavat,” which is a totally new concept. And the fact that one apparition was seen has been viewed as evidence that the whole clan would rise again if their bodies were disturbed.
So we go from a single episode to the archetypal Wikipedian / Hebridean wolf-clan, who are all over the internet now and will probably refuse to die quietly.
I’ve decided to run with the ‘wolf-clan’ idea in a story, and I’m playing with the notion that many more of them could have risen up from the dead if it had not been for the quick thinking of Mr Warren’s grandfather. There’s archaeology, exorcisms, and the whole works added in. Apart from the beginning, it’s a whole new story.
Here’s an extract:
‘Charlie! Charlie! Come look what I found, boy. Here, in the kitchen!’
I ran through the back door, in from where I had been helping Kenneth cut the peat, and saw the old man, white haired, red-faced and muddy from the trail, just finished laying down a leather bag of bones upon the big table, with poor Elsie looking on in horror, for they were as mucky as he, and crumbs of drying peat and bone were already scattering across her newly-swept floor.
‘What is it, seanair?’ I asked, for I knew he liked it when I used that word, ‘grandfather’, although I knew no other words of the old language.
‘A werewolf!’ said he with a note of triumph, and out of the bag came the head, rolling onto the table and falling upright to look at me, so theatrical it seemed the old man must have practiced the move for a while before he came in. The eyes were empty and the teeth fallen away, but it was a wolf’s skull clear enough, although it seemed to me that the rest of the pile was nothing but the skeleton of a normal man.
‘Oh, Lord preserve us, and get the dirty beast from here!’ said Elsie, frowning at him as best she could, but I do not recall him ever having flinched at her scolding before, and this was not to be the first time. She spluttered and fussed for a moment before walking out the way I had come in, taking her morning tea beside the outhouses, instead of in her chair by the kitchen fire.
Now my grandfather got to sorting the bones, with me watching on in silence, and within half an hour the creature’s form lay stretched out complete on the table; he was a rangy fellow who would have stood almost as tall as the Reverend himself, with the angular canine head now in position on top of the spine and looking very natural there, made of the same sort of bone, and about the same age.
But of course, I thought that it must be impossible, and I still recalled that on my first summer my grandfather had fooled me with a wild story about magic eggs. Ever since, I had been on the receiving end of many long lectures about the dangers of superstition – and the butt of many jokes about bad eggs for my troubles.
‘Grandfather, this joke is a very good one,’ I said, smiling. ‘But what are we going to do, now it is done?’
‘This is no joke, Charlie Warren. It’s a werewolf’s body. This part of Lewis used to be overrun with them, and satyrs and other animal-men, although no-one now cares to admit it.’
‘Grandfather, I’m not twelve any more. I’m nearly a man now. You’ve found a wolf’s skull and buried together with a body in the cemetery, then dug it up again. That’s all.’
‘Well, you can tell that to the two girls up at Dibadale, who saw a live one just yesterday. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to know that the young boy – the man, I beg your pardon – from Glasgow is calling them a pair of liars.’
‘Grandfather…what are you saying? They saw a wolf-man?’
‘Quite so. From their window, and it was running in the fields behind the house, just as the sun was setting. But of course, obviously they were mistaken, and you would know better, because of all the schooling you have had, and the books that you have read. Is that it?’
‘I’m sorry, seanair,’ I said, for I knew that he would never have kept up the pretence so long, and that he must be serious. ‘I thought it was a joke, like the time you made those empty eggs move about, with the magnet beneath the table.’
‘There is no joke about it, this time,’ he said. ‘And I would never use the body of a dead man in jest, so do not make that suggestion again. Now, come and take a look…’
‘Seanair?’ I interrupted him, a thing he would not normally allow. ‘Where were you yesterday, when the beast was seen?
‘Coming through Dibadale from the Loch at Langavat, as it happens,’ said he. ‘Some peat-cutters found the body, when they were digging in the mouth of the Tairbh. I was called out there to dig him out and bury him properly. Now, enough of your interruptions, and look carefully at his right arm. Don’t be squeamish, he is as dead as can be, and will not harm you.’
I wrinkled up my nose as I approached, although there was no smell but that of the peat. It had preserved the body well, and in some places some of the skin on his arms remained, and lines were visible in the flesh on his right hand, a tattoo or marking of a dirty dark blue, some design of the ancient people. I peered closer – it was a beast, four-footed, looking not very much like a wolf, and very much more like a very dirty hound with an elongated body, whose head had been badly smudged.
‘Is it a wolf?’ said I.
‘Obviously,’ said the venerable bone-digger. ‘Hah! This will fox old Professor Bugge! This could be Leodwulf, himself!’
He often spoke this way, making allusions that were far beyond my ability to comprehend, for I knew he considered me a sponge that would soak up his knowledge like water, without effort or discernment. But on that day I was preoccupied with the frightening appearance of the creature, and also by the notion that one of its living relatives had been seen only a few miles to the north.
‘Seanair?’ I asked. ‘Who is Leodwulf?’
‘Leodwulf, the ugly wolf, young Charlie. The founder of the MacLeod clan, seven hundred years ago! And here’s proof. Well, at least it could be proof. I wonder if there are more bodies in that bog, eh? It would be quite marvellous to see if they all had the same mark.’
‘You mean…we are descended from…him?’
‘Oh…perhaps not him directly, Charlie.’ He must have seen the worried look of a frightened boy creep back upon my face, and he became placatory, after his own fashion. ‘As I said, the history of this island is not what people would have you believe nowadays. The Vikings claimed to accept the true God, but in truth they had Him confused with all sorts of demons from their old country, and they continued to worship the wolf, and the raven too. But to a Christian, the wolf is a symbol of lust and deceit! A man wearing such as symbol on his arm should never have been allowed in a house of God!’
‘So…does this mean you are right?’ I asked. ‘And that Professor Buggy is wrong?’ I found myself often in this situation with my grandfather; he would come at things from so many directions at once that I ended the conversation with no memory of how it had begun, and no idea what he wanted me to say. Then all of a sudden he would realise how his ranting must appear to my boyish eye, and he would relent of his strange questions and theories. He turned very quickly away from the creature’s body, and said:
‘Well, never mind that ignorant old Dane! There was a wolf-clan here, and I can prove it. I’ll keep his arm, and get the rest of him back in the ground tomorrow morning. We’ll bury him outside the old graveyard, and then go fishing. And let’s let that be the end of it, and there will be no breathing a word to your mother, either. Now, it is time for your lunch.’
Incidentally there are two Loch Langavats on Lewis (it does just mean Long Lake, after all). I’ve picked the northern one, as it is more remote, and set the action at Tolstadh, the cloest town with a Free Church. The other one is partly in Harris, further south, and is a famous salmon-fishing spot.
MEDDLING WITH FORCES
An idea has emerged for a compendium project next year. I need a series of short stories in the public domain that deal with people who "meddle with forces they cannot possibly comprehend" and summon dark and ancient magics.
The quote itself is from Indiana Jones, but the idea is much older. I so far have the following material:
1 - O Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad (M R James)
2 - One of the 'John Silence' stories by Algernon Blackwood
3 - Something by Robert Chambers (most of his stories about about meddling)
4 - The Merewigs by Sabine Baring-Gould
I'm hoping to get recommendations for this enterprise.