A Black Beast and a Bigfoot

I don’t usually do local sightings, unless they happen to be on my doorstep such as last year’s Knole Park panther. There are some dedicated researchers out there such as Neil Arnold who have been doing it for longer, and do it far better than I. What I usually try to tap into is what draws us to such stories in the first place, preferring to fictionalise the fun rather than poke it, which seems to be how the vast majority of news outlets treat them.

But in a week that has seen both a black cat and a bigfoot reported through the Kent and now wider press, it would seem almost negligent of a blog named black beasts and boogeymen to ignore completely. So with that in mind, I dusted off the old investigator kit, strapped on the walking boots and made my way…to the phone.

On Wednesday 11th November, Paul Turk was making his rounds as a delivery driver in the small village of Ryarsh in Kent when he came across a large black cat, apparently crossing the road. The animal stopped and watched him approach. Mr Turk was able to pull up and observe the cat until it moved away and disappeared into the brush. Before continuing to his next stop, Mr Turk spoke to another driver at the scene about what he had just witnessed. When he did arrive at his next delivery, Offham County Primary School, he spoke to members of staff and contacted Kent Police whilst they reached out to the other nearby schools of Ryarsh Primary and Trottiscliffe Primary. Both chose to text parents to report the sighting.

I have deliberately chosen not to quote Mr Turk, police or school representatives as it is hard to gauge if the witnesses have been misquoted or misrepresented, which is all too often the norm. I have reached out to all parties and may update this post if I am able to. But these are essentially the facts of the case. No looming of the beast, no panic stricken witness. No picture of a yawning melanistic leopard or jaguar, essentially baring its fangs. I have to say it brought back memories of the panic that gripped Penge when another alleged big cat hit the streets of Sydenham, my home back then, in 2005.

When I was writing the blurb to my book Shadow Beast, I deliberately set the scene with a similar encounter of a lorry driver on a remote road. There is something classic about it that echoes what we expect from an urban myth, which is possibly why the story has been picked up with such glee in true tabloid style.

What is unfortunate about such treatment is that despite there being some 2,000 such reported sightings a year, it has the potential to not only dismiss them completely but to also discourage witnesses coming forward. This may seem strange coming from a novelist, but why not embrace the excitement we feel when drawn to these stories and explore the truth. Imagine what we might discover. I have spoken to many conservative, professional people who have experienced something they cannot explain, or even scared and unsettled them. In some cases, a little education goes a long way. In the absence of physical evidence, we often only have witness testimony. And whilst it isn’t wrong to question and query, unless it is obvious it is a hoax or publicity stunt, I think it’s best to offer appropriate forum and analysis rather than judgement. Even in cases of mistaken identity, people often need to talk about what they have experienced and to investigate what they have seen. Discovering they are not alone can be a great source of comfort and affirmation.

At the same time, some stories do need to be treated with a shovel full of salt. Take the other creature to hit the news this week, a bigfoot supposedly spotted in the Angmering Park Estate near Arundel in West Sussex. Whereas undoubtedly the witness did see something large, hunched over and generally black in the undergrowth that scared her dog, it has been quickly dismissed as a father playing hide and seek with his daughter. The picture taken by the witness is typically ‘blobsquatch’ and unidentifiable. At first glance, I thought I saw traits of what is a widely available fancy dress gorilla suit, but I’m just as happy to accept the parental explanation. What’s worse is that I suspect that it wasn’t the witness who approached news outlets, but the local interest group who she reported it to, who no doubt saw an opportunity for some publicity to mention their own spate of recent big cat sightings.

It may be hard to say with certainty what we expect from our press and authorities when people do report such sightings. If it takes the BBC Natural History unit two years to find snow leopards, then Kent Police have little chance by turning up on a whim for instance. And before we suggest launching helicopters and thermal image cams, bear in mind that they have to share a chopper with their neighbour Essex, and running costs are around £2 million a year.

bigfoot-542546_1920

And I don’t say this to ridicule the witness. Only a few weeks ago whilst walking round Groombridge, I decided to entertain my friend and her sons with some Bigfoot calls. The one thing we weren’t expecting was a response. Now it was without a doubt another human being larking about like I was, but it still made us look over our shoulders whilst we made a sharp exit. Sometimes the monster in the woods is more about perspective and the person in front of it!

*UPDATE*

It has now been revealed that the Sussex Bigfoot sighting was in fact a PR stunt, carried out by Bigfoot Communications, a PR firm based in Rustington, and was indeed a man in a widely available fancy dress gorilla suit!

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

Not Finding Bigfoot

I have a confession to make. I watch Finding Bigfoot, and I enjoy it. Though when I say I enjoy it, I mean it makes me laugh and I find it amusing, as any actual investigation and research is as absent as the hairy hominid itself.

Picture the scene if you will. Sir David Attenborough quietly and stealthily approaches a large male silverback gorilla in the forests of Rwanda. The entire crew and the game rangers accompanying them hold their breath at this cautious and historic attempt at first contact. Fingers reach out, an unsure grunt and warning is issued. Everyone freezes, and relaxes as the alpha bruises over and gently begins to groom Sir David’s flaxen hair. Suddenly, the gorillas look up collectively, startled by the arrival of a drum line trooping through their feeding ground to a particularly good rendition of the Radetzky March. Dave has his arms ripped off in the ensuing panic and the gorillas charge, using the pulped bodies of the little drummer boys to beat the now silent percussion skins. The game rangers look to the crew in horror, who shrug and explain they had it on good authority this was a standard way to look for big monkeys.

And that good authority comes in the form of the presenters of Finding Bigfoot, Matt Moneymaker (clue in the name folks), James ‘Bobo’ Fay, Cliff Barackman and Ranae Holland. Other ways of stealthily approaching primates include organising fireworks displays, performing rock concerts, shouting as loud as you can into the woods, and if you’re Bobo, falling down a lot and generally crashing through the timber like a wrecking ball. It will come to you as no surprise, that despite the show’s title, Bigfoot is yet to be found.

That said, what really draws me in to the show are the witness encounters. These often come across as very genuine, although the dodgy reconstructions less so it has to be said. Cliff and Ranae are definitely my preferred half of the team, Cliff being an experienced field researcher who seems to put up with the shenanigans because he gets to do his thing on TV, and Ranae being a research biologist who thinks they’re all nuts, but amusing.

Matt in particular makes some amazing claims biologically for an animal yet to actually be discovered, and its behaviour observed officially. I have growled at the TV more than once as he has casually explained Sasquatch’s ability to make its eyes glow red – something not just biologically unheard of, but frankly impossible. We’re not talking about eye-shine or reflection here; he means the full on, self-igniting superman-style laser vision, apparently available at will and not catalogued in any other primate, scratch vertebrate, ever discovered. They should use the bats they keep handy for tree knocking on him every time he says something unquantified, but that would mean he’d get hit in the head a lot, which some suspect may already be the case anyway.

Bigfoot is one of my favourite cryptid creatures, and I think of all the things that might be out there, it’s one of the more likely. Even famed primate expert Jane Goodall has gone on record to say she is fascinated by the accounts and won’t deny they exist and hopes very much they do. There are good examples of evidence and some very good research being done, but you won’t find it on Finding Bigfoot most of the time.

A great source for material on all things Bigfoot can be found at the relatively new Sasquatch Chronicles website, where you can also listen to their podcasts and read their blogs. Be warned though, just like me, they don’t think the big fella is all that cute and cuddly!

http://www.sasquatchchronicles.com

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!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0956298729