Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Wendigo


Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” is not what I expected. Before going into the story, I knew the Wendigo was a werewolfesque creature of Native American mythology and expected that to be what the story was about. Having read Blackwood before, I should have known better. Instead, this is a deeply psychological journey into the dark recesses of the mind.

The tale begins with a group of four men going on a hunting trip in northern Canada. Simpson, the young protagonist, and his uncle, the wise psychologist, Dr. Cathcart, team up with Hank and Dfago as their guides into the backwoods. The trouble begins when they split up into two groups (the doctor and Hank in one, and Dfago and Simpson in the other) to cover more ground. After behaving strangely, Dfago disappears into the night, leaving Simpson to fend for himself.

No story better encompasses the dread of nature felt by the late Victorians than this novella. The ever rational, modern men of science are confronted with the unimaginable power of nature and, although Dr. Cathcart is able to explain away some of the events, even he is still left baffled by the end. It doesn’t take long for the Canadian wilderness to transform into a primordial realm where man is prey to shadowy undreamt of creatures. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” comes to mind as a similar example.

When Simpson is alone, paranoia sets in. He begins imagining that he is being stalked by something in the woods, that it is peering from behind boulders as he passes, waiting for the right moment to strike. Perhaps it is just imagination, but who can say? It is easy to write off those feelings while safely surrounded by the city, but alone in the deep woods, the sun setting, those lines that separate the possible from the supernatural can become very blurry.

The Wendigo of Algonquian mythology was basically vampiric in nature. They appeared emaciated and always starving; no matter how much they consumed they wanted more. They were also closely associated with cannibalism; they fed on other people. The Wendigo gave off a distinct odor of decomposition, death, and corruption. Blackwood incorporated the odor as a key element in the story. One turned into a Wendigo by engaging in cannibalism, but you could also become possessed by a Wendigo spirit in a dream. Once turned, the victim would have an insatiable desire to eat human flesh.

It is easy to think that the Wendigo was simply a boogeyman to the Algonquian; however it was much more real to them than you may think. Wendigo Psychosis is a “culture-bound disorder formerly of the Algonquian tribes of North America which involves an intense craving for human flesh—even when other food sources are readily available—and the fear that one will turn into a cannibal. The condition has waned with urbanisation.”1 There have been a number of documented instances where a tribesman contracts this neurosis, usually resulting in the murder of his family.

One example is the case of Swift Runner. In 1879 he was hung at Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Canada, after killing and eating a total of nine people. These included his wife, mother, brother, and six children over the course of  the winter of 1878.

According to accounts, he wandered alone into the Catholic Mission in St. Albert in the spring of 1879, claiming to be the only member of his family who didn't starve to death over a particularly cold, bitter winter.
The priests became suspicious when they realized that Swift Runner, who weighed around 200 pounds, didn't seem malnourished at all and was plagued with screaming fits and nightmares as he slept. He told them he was being tormented by an evil spirit, called Windigo, but said little else about it.
They reported their misgivings to police, who took Swift Runner to his family campground in the woods northeast of Edmonton, where they made a horrific discovery - the site was littered with bones, bits of flesh and hair. Some accounts claim that the larger bones had even been snapped and the marrow sucked out.
He eventually confessed that he shot some of his family, bludgeoned others with an axe and even strangled one girl with a cord. In some accounts, Swift Runner said he fed one boy human flesh before he too was killed.2
Swift Runner, Taken Prior to His Execution

The Wendigo of Blackwood, however, preferred to consume men’s minds over their flesh. After seeing the Wendigo, the victim was left essentially brain dead, his mind completely gone; nothing but a shell of a person remained.

It is imperative to note that when reading literature from another era, it is important to remember not to judge it by modern standards and sensibilities. Blackwood presented the characters as they were, uncouth language and all. The character Hank does use the “N” word and the Native American cook has a derogatory sounding name, “Punk,” which was likely meant to be comic. This would, rightly so, be deemed offensive today, but in 1910 things were quite different. This story would not have raised any eyebrows and Blackwood was no racist for he merely used the language of his time.

The next time you go camping, be sure to bring a copy and read it with everyone gathered around a campfire.


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1. Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.

2. http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/WeirdNews/2008/07/20/6213011-sun.html

~ The entire novella can be read for free online here: The Wendigo

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