Here be Dragons

In celebration of St. George’s Day, I thought I’d share a story I started some time ago, that like many others, is now on the perpetual back burner as other projects take priority. It’s titled “Here be Dragons”. It is set in the Mediterranean, just after the time of the Buccaneers, and as its name suggests, it hints of when sea maps were marked with ominous warnings of maritime monsters.

When I write my creatures, I always try to fit biology and behaviour to the mythology. For instance, we all know dragons love their gold. But why? It’s not like they spend it. However, we also know that dragons breathe fire, and presuming they are reptiles, are likely to be egg layers. Gold is one of the greatest heat-retaining metals there is – so what better to line the nest of an iron-hided reptile?!

There is a small chance that the clash between St. George and the dragon took place – but actually may have been an out-of-place crocodilian of some kind. However, if it did happen, the legend leads to what is modern Libya, or Central Eastern Turkey rather than dear old England.

There will be two dragons in the story, Firefang and Swordtail. The prologue introduces you to the former.

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Here be Dragons

The cave was dark. The rocks were hot to the touch and the air was dry, creating a strange and eerie atmosphere given they could still hear the crash of waves at the entrance. But there was no moisture here. The cave was arid and scorched. Its inner sanctum was hotter than the baking Mediterranean sun on a still day at sea, or at least it seemed so.

As they crept closer, the rasping sound of venting steam echoed in the darkness. The rocky path was narrow and steep, and they chose their footing carefully. Only a few of them carried torches, in an effort to keep their insurgence secret from what they feared and hoped lurked within the cave’s depths.

A foul stench reached them, stinging their nostrils in warning before their eyes found the graveyard of carcasses in the dim light. A fresh, fleshy island pony was strewn upon the heap close to them. Blazing embers still glowed in the few patches that remained of its hide. They passed in silence, most holding their breath. None uttered their contempt or distress of the stink.

The sound of thunder echoed around them. The youngest amongst them thought it the noise of the sea. Only the oldest knew better, and the sound shook them to their very bones. Perhaps it was the venting steam they had seen above the hill, a few questioned in silence.

Steam vented indeed, from two nostrils billowing carbon from lungs larger than the holds of their ship. Wrapped in wings greater than their grandest sails, she watched them approach. She cared not if it was the gold, her eggs, or she herself they came for, they would not leave. She began to uncoil, slithering towards them and emitting only a barely audible hiss. As her clawed feet found purchase and her entirety was unveiled, she sent loose stones clacking down the slope. She let a guttural snarl echo and reverb around the cave. It had the desired effect, stopping the men in their tracks.

The least conditioned of them turned tail and ran, but with one almighty clap of her wings, she knocked them to the ground with the hurricane that followed. She laughed at their foolishness, or so it seemed from the thunderous, mocking snarls she sent in their direction. The men let a volley of arrows loose towards her. She snapped her tail across her body, letting the steel-headed projectiles clatter harmlessly from her iron-like hide. She hissed as she straightened out, letting out one final damning roar of threat. The message was clear: leave or die. The sailors knew it wasn’t a warning, but a choice they were being left with.

The men who had already tried to leave picked themselves up off the floor and ran for their lives. One of the older members of the crew heard the hiss of an intake of breath and the clack of jaws. He turned and slipped away, knowing what came next.

The men that remained crept forward and a torch caught the hint of gold. The rumours had been true, and they found new courage in their greed. It was short-lived, as were they themselves. The darkness of the cavern was illuminated in a dazzling lick of fire. It seemed to hunt them out as if it were a living thing. The strike came from above, the dragon landing behind them on silent wings of black and crimson. They were now cut off from the only way out of the cave. Her talons reached for them, crushing a number of them into mangled clumps of flesh and bone. Another lick of fire roasted several more in their boots. Her eyes found the last, cowering against the stock of gold that gave and held heat for her eggs. She lowered her head, her forked tongue tasting his fear. Blue flame filled her jaws and flickered over her protruding front teeth. Her meal screamed, then was silenced forever with a single bite. She roared with triumph.

As the roar echoed out of the cave and rippled across the water to the small rowboat, the old man looked back towards the small island.

“What was that?” one of the young crew asked.

“Firefang. A she dragon. Count your lucky stars you saw fit to turn back lads.”

As another roar echoed out, none in the boat doubted the fate of those who had stayed back in the cave.

 

Fearlaith Mor – The Big Grey Man

Sorry ladies, there’s a man out there called Grey who’s even bigger and badder than that Christian fella. He’s definitely tall, dark, and probably the strong silent type at a guess and he seems to also have a bit of a mean streak, but that’s probably where the analogies end. Unfortunately, you also won’t find him in a Manhattan penthouse or driving sports cars. In fact there’s only one place in the world you may encounter him, and that’s on the lonely and desolate landscape surrounding the mountain of Ben Macdhui, in the Cairngorms of Scotland.

The legend of the Big Grey Man, or Fearlaith Mor as the entity is referred to locally, has been known in the area for centuries, but entered popular folklore when a Professor Norman Collie told a blood-chilling tale in 1889 of his experience on the mountain. Although a professional scientist and chemist, his true vocation was mountaineering and climbing. He climbed the Canadian Rockies, naming 30 of their peaks in the process and was involved in an ill-fated Himalayan expedition to break the yet unclaimed 8,000 metre high Nanga Parbat. With a keen analytical mind, a thirst for adventure and being a pipe smoker and confirmed bachelor, it isn’t surprising that it has been suggested that Collie was the likely inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The point of all this is simply to say Collie was an experienced climber and not prone to superstition or ghost stories. Which makes his tale all the stranger.

“I was taking a short rest on a familiar path, safe and secure in the knowledge that I would soon be back to my comfortable lodgings and in front of a roaring fire, when I thought I heard something else, distant and away in the mist. It caused me no undue concern, and having caught my breath I began to move on.

I was returning from a cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to again think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. Every few steps I took would be followed by a crunch of snow from behind, as if someone was walking behind me, but taking steps three or four times the size of my own. 

I told myself this was nonsense, and stopped several times to peer behind me into the mist but saw nothing. As I walked on, the eerie crunch would sound again soon after. At the third occurrence I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly for four or five miles nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it I do not know, but there is something very queer about that place, and I will not go back there again by myself.

Ever since, there have been reports and tales of strange occurrences in the area. Most witnesses describe being gripped with a sense of sheer terror, or of being chased and followed by something with evil intent. Another key component to encounters is the sound of unseen thudding footsteps coming up from behind. One writer fled from the aforementioned Rothiemurchus Forest, chased not only by her perplexed husband, but also by something she could only sense as evil and intent on doing her harm. She describes crossing some kind of invisible boundary within the forest and knowing she was safe, whereas seconds before she knew she had been in considerable danger. The Corrour Bothy, a remote hut that offers shelter to climbers and hikers is another place where the slamming of doors and a sense of dread and terror has sent many an occupier back out into the weather.

The Big Grey Man though is rarely, if ever seen. There are many reports of a shadowy figure obscured by the mist or fog, but very few come face to face with it. That said, one group of climbers described getting a glimpse of an immense humanoid that had sent an entire deer herd and other denizens of the mountain running down a slope at them in terror, a hint at which they were only too happy to take up on. Another described a horrible, giant face grinning at him from the cover of some rocks. He fled in terror as seems the precedent, but when he eventually returned to the place and measured the outcrop, he realised the figure must have been standing behind a particular rock, making it nearly 10 metres tall, which had been his original estimate!

Many have suggested that the Big Grey Man is actually a rare atmospheric phenomena known as a broken spectre. This is where the low winter sun can distort your own shadow through gaps in the clouds, projecting it onto layers of mist below, and there are a few places within the Big Grey Man’s territory that this strange spectacle can be seen, most notably Lurcher’s Crag. The effect is often accompanied by a ‘glorie’, or rainbow halo. The only issue with this explanation is that it occurs below you, not above as seems to be the case for most encounters of Fearlaith Mor.

Broken Spectre with Glorie

It seems that given the sense of dread, the need to flee from a place in terror and the unseen presence of the entity, the Big Grey Man is more likely something supernatural than a physical beast. A powerful and malevolent guardian spirit of the land, in this case the mountain of Ben Macdhui.

What the Big Grey Man most certainly isn’t though, is Britain’s version of Bigfoot, despite what the show Finding Bigfoot tried to suggest in it’s recent UK special. We do seem to have genuine sightings of hairy hominids, with intriguing recent cases in North Yorkshire for instance, but they have nothing to do with this seemingly tulpa-like entity. Please take note, as I have come across far too many blogs and articles suggesting otherwise! After all, it sounds like the last thing we need to do is piss this thing off further!

I have always been drawn to the legend of Fearlaith Mor, and do one day plan to scale Ben Macdhui to investigate the place for myself. I could be one of the many who encounter nothing but breathtaking Scottish scenery and a beautiful natural wilderness. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a spiritual sentry of unnatural wildness…

Cover image produced with kind permission from Monstrum Athenaeum. http://monstrumathenaeum.org/

fearliath

Shadowy Beasts

Scary stories are an integral part of every culture in the world. But our myths and monsters have more of a purpose than generating nervous laughter around a camp fire, or making your date squeeze that little bit closer.

When I was choosing the name for this blog, I was thinking about the tales and stories I knew of and had researched, and for the most part, they fell into two categories – black beasts and bogeymen.

When I was choosing the colour of my creature for my book Shadow Beast, there was one obvious choice. Black. It’s the colour of choice for getting your creep on. Just think about it: the bit that makes everybody shudder in the 80’s fantasy film The Never Ending Story, is the mural that reveals Gmork, the big black wolf-like creature to Atreyu. Think of a monster and most of the time, it will be black in colour. Dracula, the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and even Death himself all go for the ‘any colour as long as its obsidian’ motto.

This dark coloured continuity goes well beyond Hollywood and literature though. One of the UK’s most prominent tale-types is of large, spectral black dogs. Depending on who sees them and in what part of the country, they can be viewed as anything from an omen of death to a guiding spirit for a lost traveller. The oldest of these tales can be traced back to 1127, where a Dr. Simon Sherwood writes of a very curious incident of a dog in the night time.

“Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after [Abbot Henry of Poitou’s arrival at Peterborough Abbey] – it was the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare – many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and their hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.”

After that, what became known in East Anglia as Black Shuck decided to go it alone, making a very grand entrance in 1577 at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh. As the congregation at Holy Trinity Church offered their collective praise on the 4th of August, a monstrous black dog burst through the doors to a clap of thunder. It ran up the nave and turned its attention to a man and boy, both of whom it killed. Its thunderous bark then caused the church steeple to collapse through the roof, at which point the phantom dog decided to get the shuck out of there, but not before leaving scorch marks on the north door of the church, which are still there to this day.

What’s interesting to me is the possible truth behind the tale. Other old English legends speak of the Church Grim, an attendant spirit and guardian. They may appear as rams, horses, roosters or ravens, but black dogs were the preference. It used to be a commonly held belief that the first man buried in a new churchyard had to guard it against the devil. Apparently, there was rarely a rush of applicants, so alternative arrangements were made. A completely black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the churchyard, creating a Church Grim to protect the church. The RSPCA wasn’t founded until 1824, so old shuck was out of luck in 1577.

To back this up, the bones of a 7-ft dog that could have weighed up to 14-stone were discovered in a shallow grave in the grounds of Leiston Abbey, Suffolk, in May 2014. Given the size and age of the remains, dating from the 1500’s, it’s probably safe to assume the dog was in fact a type of mastiff and that the general practice of burying dogs was still fairly commonplace in 1577. It also doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to realise that any dog escaping from such an ordeal would be mightily pissed off and somewhat set against church-goers!

These tales have always inspired literature. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is a prime example. The story of a hellish hound and a cursed country squire almost certainly stem from Devonshire folklore surrounding Squire Richard Cabell, who was described as monstrously evil, was suspected of murdering his wife and was best known for bad behaviour all round. On the night of his death, it’s said a monstrous pack of hounds came baying across the moor to howl at his tomb, and since then, he has led the pack on their phantom prowling. Devonshire also boasts the Yeth Hound, so Doyle had no lack of inspiration for his tale of a devil dog.

The same was for me. I couldn’t resist the allure of the often reported mysterious big black cats seen up and down the UK. In the end, many historical events such as the capture of Felicity the puma in Cannich, where the book is set, made their way into the narrative. Lara the lynx was another example, captured in Cricklewood North London in 2001. Truth really can be stranger than fiction!

So, a quick look at the other category – bogeymen, boogeymen, or bogiemen, depending on where you hail from. Although Hollywood and popular culture has made them into something else, their purpose has always been fairly uniform and universal the world over. They are there to scare naughty children into being good! And there are literally hundreds of them!

My favourite, and possibly surprising choice to feature here is Bigfoot. Not so much the gentle forest giant, picking flowers and protecting his animal kin, more picking up and running off with the children of Native Americans and eating them, as well as those kin’ animals. In the southern states, Sasquatch is referred to as a booger, and Cherokee braves would often take part in the booger dance, chasing young children and women just like their hairy neighbours. Many different tribes tell their children to stay close, or they are likely to be taken up by; Choanito (the night people – Wenatchee), Skookum (evil God of the woods – Chinook), Windago (wicked cannibal – Athabascan), Tso apittse (cannibal giant – Shoshone), Atahsaisa (the cannibal demon – Zuni), Yayaya-ash (the frightener – Klamath), Skukum (devil of the forest – Quinault), and so on. In fact there are over a hundred different names, none of which mean giver of sloppy kisses.

So, the stage for this blog is set. Expect some interesting tales of the weird stuff in the woods, the odd fictionalised account and news and items about my writing. It’s all meant to be fun, as well as a little frightening sometimes. Hope to see you around here again!

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