top of page

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

“It’s no use, dear boy. The shadmocks aren’t going away. We have to learn to live with them.” My impression of how the fictional world of R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s The Monster Club may have come about. (Stock image, dated 1884, titled “Moonshine” and edited by the author’s talented wife.)

In a hot moment of confrontation between members of the club, one monster questions another’s pedigree and we can see a brawl threatening. Just then a “dignified ghoul” condemns the insult and recalls the members to their creed: “Gentlemen, please...I would request everyone to remember the club’s irrevocable rule: ‘All monsters are equal’.” And as in a melodramatic light opera they sing a rousing round of the Monster’s Anthem, dampening the eyes of more than one.

It is in scenes like this from R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s clever omnibus novel,

The Monster Club, that it is hard for me not to imagine an entire history, running parallel with that of Great Britain, in which all of the odd categories and subcategories of monsters, after generations of mutual animosity, had to agree to accept one another in uneasy fraternity in order to thrive in the world hunted by humans. The British class system and multitude of cultural backgrounds and ancient animosities find themselves humorously at home in this collection of short horror stories set at the end of the twentieth century in a club where the both the old and new elite monsters of the British Isles rub shoulders.

In The Monster Club Chetwynd-Hayes has written a mischievous love letter to British society and English humor. The stories often play on class differences, and that loveable flaw in the English character: its impulse toward civility and good-fellowship. It begins when the protagonist of the frame story, unable to risk insult, is pressured into an invitation to a vampire’s private club. This is after the vampire takes advantage of his kindness and steals a drink from him. It seems a very English thing to do, like the Saxon Earl Byrhtnoth, who, in 991 CE, was goaded out of his strategic military advantage by a Viking warchief because it was not very sporting. Byrhtnoth and his men were, of course, all slaughtered in the Battle of Maldon. The problem with wily Viking chiefs and these monsters, it seems, is that they are so jolly polite.

The question of social rules and proper etiquette is often the point upon which the tales pivot. In one tale a freshly-bitten werewolf must learn to behave properly in the home of the parents of the young vampire who loves him. In another, a young man comes into his monstrous inheritance and “parboils” the heartless beauty who tormented him when he believed he was only an ugly human. I may go too far in thinking that Chetwynd-Hayes had Dickens’s Pip and Estella in mind with this pairing, but in another tale when the son of a country estate’s former cowherd returns as the cold, millionaire lord of “Withering Grange,” and his trophy wife is stolen by son of the monstrous servants, it is clear that Chetwynd-Hayes was considering the class-oriented literature of his land.

I was compelled to give a chance to this forty-seven-year-old text—by an author I had not heard of—because of a foggy memory of a creature from a film I had seen in the early 1980s: a ghoul that whistles. It turned out to be an adaptation, of the same title, of Chetwynd-Hayes’s book, starring Vincent Price and John Carradine, late in their careers. (I read that Christopher Lee turned down a role upon hearing the title!) I had remembered moments from that marvelously dated and deliciously horrible film for years and, given the free time over the holidays, was finally able to research whether there was, in fact, a creature from traditional folklore, that met that description. I discovered that the shadmock was Chetwynd-Hayes’s creation and that it didn't stop there.

1981 Film Adaptation

Price and Carradine and one of the better-looking makeup effects in a werewolf. The film is fun to watch if one has a sense of humor, as it is in parts both moving and ridiculous, but Chetwynd-Hayes’s book is better.

Chetwynd-Hayes seems to have known that readers like me would be skeptical of his silly-sounding hybrid monster coinages: werevamp, vamgoo, maddy, shaddy, raddy. He built a few ingenious defenses of the creatures. A vampire complains that horror films have taught humans how to thwart them, and this is true of the werewolf as well. But no one is ready for a shaddy. Not even a vampire is equipped to take one on, as seen in one tale. The Monster Club’s central rule, that all monsters are equal, seems to anticipate a newcomer’s objection to Chetwynd-Hayes’s new creations, as well as teach us that the monsters we’ve grown up with have decided that it’s better to accept the newcomers into the fold. Chetwynd-Hayes seems to tell us that it is important we learn about his creatures if we know what is best for us. As the ill-fated Rev. John Barker puts it: “Monstrumology. A much neglected line of research which is unfortunately often treated with derision by the uninformed.” Barker is immediately mocked as insane by a character who is soon killed by the creatures he doubts. But they kill Barker first, so knowledge is not always an aegis against the monsters.

A Monster Family Tree

A poster made for the 1981 film to help explain the new monsters of British horror author R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s The Monster Club.

A new creature is like catnip for me and creature categorizations—fantasy beasts collected into any format suggesting empirical knowledge—is irresistible. I was a little let down to discover that shadmocks weren’t “real” folklore. But I kept finding new reasons to continue reading. For instance, Chetwynd-Hayes’s rule of monsterdom: “Vampires—sup; Werewolves—hunt; Ghouls—tear; Shaddies—lick; Maddies—yawn; Mocks—blow; Shadmocks—only whistle.” With this piece of fictional gnomic wisdom, my curiosity was piqued and I am grateful for the clever read it provided me over the dark nights between the solstice and Christmas.

If I appreciate Chetwynd-Hayes’s cleverness and storytelling, it was the polite, period voice of the text that disarmed and continually delighted me. Consider his opening apology: “I would like to stress that the Monstereal Table which can be found on page 54 is only intended as a rough guide to the breeding habits of modern monsters…Doubtless if the serious student of Monstrumology keeps his eyes open, he will discover many strange mixtures walking about in our public places or strap-hanging in the underground.” Chetwynd-Hayes’s sense of humor also won me: “Donald McCloud, despite his Scottish name, had a heart as big as the world.” And perhaps, just as the various cultures and classes of Britain have had to learn to appreciate one another and create a modern society in the twentieth century, its monsters too have found it necessary to take in their upstart cousins. Chetwynd-Hayes inherited vampires, werewolves and ghouls and bequeathed us the ridiculously-named werevamps and vamgoos, but it is worth it to read about Chetwynd-Hayes’s most original and terrifying creations, including that whistling ghoul, the shadmock.

73 views0 comments

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Hild, unable to bear the deaths of her lover and father, raises their bodies with the bodies of their warriors, leading to an endless cycle of slaughter.

It has the makings of a great gothic romance. Unwilling to accept the loss of her slain love, she reanimates him night after night until the twilight of the gods. But it gets better. She also reanimates his enemies so he can defeat them in battle. And every day they will slaughter each other again.

This is the story of Hild, usually known as the story of her father, Hagen and her lover Heoden, or by the war they endlessly fight, the Hjaðningavíg, in English, the Battle of the Heodenings. And if Gothic Viking zombie mayhem is your jam, you’ll be surprised to hear that this is a very old tale that seems almost lost to time. Sure, it’s referred to in two Old English poems, a few Scandinavian image stones, the Gesta Danorum and several Norse and German sources, but why did Shakespeare miss it? Surely a Brontë could have done a bang-up treatment of it. Or Wagner: what opera has a story of tragic love and vengeance and reanimated Viking armies? It would serve as a great backstory for a graphic novel or Marvel movie.

Hild and the Never-Ending Battle

An earlier, less plastic, version of Hild and the Hjaðningavíg in a detail from the 7th Century Stora Hammars Stone in Gotland, Sweden. (Image by Berig from Wikipedia)

There are several versions of the story, but in all of them, Heoden runs off with Hild and is sought after by her father Hagen, who corners them on an island. Both men are backed by armies. Hild tries to reconcile her father to the man she sees as her husband, but something in her manner leads to Hagen’s refusal. There is a battle the next day and then Hild begins to revive the dead, who rise the following day to fight again. The extant details are priceless storytelling, and the fogginess allows us to guess at what must have gone wrong to end in such a circle of violence. The Hjaðningavíg, the never-ending battle, including Hild, strikes me as an excellent metaphor for the generational cycles of blood feud between families in Old English poems like Beowulf, and the typical tragic failure of a peace bride, called a peaceweaver, who is meant to knit the feuding families together. One can read about generations of Beowulf’s family or Hrothgar’s family fighting with a traditional enemy, or one can read about the same two men dying and returning to life and making the same mistake over and over forever.

The Endless Battle

Hild’s father and lover are doomed to fight and kill each other for all time.

There are several versions of the tale, which was known in England, Scandinavia and Germany. Snorri tells us that the never-ending battle became a kenning, or metaphor, “the storm of the Hiadnings (Heodenings),” for battles in general. Weapons were called the “Hiadnings’ fires” or “Hiadnings’ rods.” It must have been an immensely popular tale throughout the middle ages. The later medieval German version from Kudrun weaves in the sea giant Wade, a tantalizing figure, born of a mermaid, and the singer known in Old English as Heorrenda, who was famous enough to be mentioned in the poem “Deor.” In this version, Heoden wins Hild’s love and elopes with her with the help of these extraordinary figures from a jealous Hagen unwilling to part with his daughter. This version of the story ends happily and omits the never-ending battle. While the Kudrun version represents a late telling of the story (c. 1250), Raymond Wilson Chambers points out the close proximity between Heoden, Hagen and Wade in “Widsith,” on lines 21 and 22 respectively. “Widsith” would be the earliest literary reference to the tale and the “Widsith” poet clearly placed character names from well-known tales in proximity of one another. Chambers argues that this suggests that Wade and Heorrenda were part of the story in its earliest known traditions.

Wade the Boatman

The tantalizing figure Wade, the boatman, was always associated with the sea. The Saga of Didrik of Bern says that he was born of a king and a mermaid and that he was a giant. Chaucer refers to his magic boat, which was called Guingelot. Wade is the father of the more famous Weland, the legendary smith, and grandfather to the hero Wideke (Wudga in Old English).

Snorri’s version of Hild makes her a sort of antagonist in the story, a bloodthirsty, vengeful figure who seems to want to punish her father. In Snorri’s Edda, she becomes “the woman full of evil” who “purposed to bring…the bow-storm to her father.” It is not clear at all why she is angry, but that can be fun to imagine. The “Sörla þáttr,” a short story version from the Flateyjarbók, introduces a second female figure of evil intention, who bewitches Heoden into killing Hagen’s queen and looting his kingdom, in addition to kidnapping his daughter, whom Hagen would have freely given to Heoden to wed. Hild knows that Heoden is under a spell and still tries to reconcile him to her father. In this version, the never-ending battle continues until a Christian warrior of King Olaf kills every combatant, exorcising the evil for good.

Whatever version of the never-ending battle one chooses as their favorite, they will find magic and romance and in most versions, tragedy. They will usually find a cinematic battle fought by men continually raised from the dead by a woman stuck in the middle of a cycle of violence and wrath. But currently, this story needs to be sought out in fragments from many old sources. It has not been brought into the modern era. And clearly, it should be. I can only hope that my efforts to hand off the tale to modern readers may find some success in inspiring a creator to pick it up and bring it to more people.

Reading My Sources

The most useful source, to me, in studying the different versions of Hild and the never-ending battle is Chambers’s Widsith, a Study in Old English Heroic Legend. Of course, this is an in-depth study of the Old English poem, but I haven’t seen another source that investigates the different versions of this story and comments on them as intelligently—and Chambers does this for every story referred to in “Widsith.” Chambers is also my source for the Kudrun version of the tale, though that can be read in synopsis online. Snorri’s version (scroll to page 188 in link or search “Hjadnings”) from the Edda can be found in many places online. I did not find an English translation of “Sörla þáttr” online, but Olivia E. Coolidge’s 1951 Legends of the North (out of print, but available) has a version of the tale that seems most in line with it, including the bewitching woman. If you are interested in reading about the sea giant Wade, and his family, (and many other Germanic heroes) in a more romantic, Arthurian style, I would recommend Ian Cumpstey’s The Saga of Didrik of Bern.

The Widsith Project

My years-long effort to share the excellent stories known to the author of the Old English poem, “Widsith.”

I am, of course, engaged in the tale because it is referred to in the Old English poem “Widsith,” a compendium of the great old stories of the north that I have been studying and sharing for almost a decade. “Widsith” is a poor poem to seek out an understanding of the tale of Hild and the never-ending battle. It refers to stories by referring to names, and Hagen and Heoden are mentioned, along with the sea giant Wade. That said, without “Widsith,” I wouldn’t have encountered this story and many others that were so popular and well known in the middle ages that just hearing the names of characters from them would conjure the tales for the listener. These tales were frequently tragic and violent and forced the main characters into positions where they had to choose allegiances when no answer was correct. This is also not the only tale referred to in “Widsith” that involves raising the dead. I plan next to tell the story of the shieldmaiden Hervor, who raises her father from his barrow to claim his cursed sword, from The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek.

225 views0 comments

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

Traditional Native lands of the Northeast, including the Wabanaki Confederacy. Wabanaki likely comes from the Passamaquoddy word ckuwaponahkiyik, meaning, the people of the land of the coming of the light.(Image from the Musée des Abénaki, by cartographer Luc Normandin.)

[This is the third of a series of articles I've written this fall on studying Wabanaki folklore. The first was about a new translation of Gluskabe tales, In Search of the Dawnland, and the second, Teaching Gluskabe, about my experiences teaching some of the Gluskabe tales in my high school American literature class.]

Earnest researchers will run into various hurdles to researching the folk tales of the Indigenous peoples of New England, but the most challenging for me is that Native people don’t necessarily want non-Natives to do that. The most demoralizing response I’ve gotten from a year of trying to learn more about tales of the Wabanaki peoples of northern New England was from a Penobscot man who told me that Non-Wabanaki people shouldn’t teach or share Gluskabe stories. He complained that writers like Joseph Bruchac had “sold out” their heritage by sharing the tales and other people had pretended to be Native to collect the stories. I thanked him for his response and apologized for disturbing him. It’s hard to know where the line is between celebrating a people’s culture and offending them: I’d gotten his contact information from a museum website where he displayed his skill as a Native artisan.

I felt ashamed and foolish, as if I’d trodden into a sacred space. And I obviously had. I felt defensive. I wanted to tell this man that the Penobscot Gluskabe stories had been in the public domain for at least a hundred years, shared by Newell Lion to the white anthropologist Frank Speck; that a white man’s work had helped preserve the tales; that I was reviewing a new translation of Speck’s transcripts just published by a Penobscot woman for the purpose of sharing and reviving the Penobscot language. But that seemed to add insult to injury. So I simply apologized.

I had already begun laying out plans to teach Gluskabe tales to my high school students and I questioned whether I should. I decided the benefits outweighed the harm, if indeed, there was any harm. If land acknowledgements help us white people think about the Indigenous lands we live on, Indigenous stories can only add to our respect for the Indigenous people who still live here, who still strive for greater control over the lands of their ancestors. My students enjoyed and learned much from the Gluskabe stories. Perhaps some of them will be in positions to support Indigenous peoples one day.

There must be money and status to be gained by posing as Native peoples and selling their culture. I thought that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s apology for claiming Native heritage was an overblown kerfuffle, but a scholar like Lisa Brooks (or the Bruchacs) does advertise her Native heritage and people like me see that as a sign of authenticity and are more likely to buy their books. I specified the heritage of Carol A. Dana as Penobscot when I wrote about the new text of Penobscot transformer tales, “Still They Remember Me”. It clearly mattered to me that she was one of the authors, even though the two other co-authors were scholars employed at universities.

There is also anger and skepticism directed at those who would claim Native heritage. I found one man online who has made it a mission to prove, through genealogical research, that the Bruchacs and others who claimed to be Abenaki, are not. I’m not a genealogist and I’ve taken authors at their word that they are who they claim to be. At the Abbe Museum in Maine, I learned that native peoples need to petition the U.S. government for federal recognition and that this is an involved process that doesn’t always end in success. For instance, the federal government doesn’t currently recognize the Abenaki people. I can only assume that like any group of people organizing such a challenging effort, there are internal politics. That is only human.

Speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People read my first article about Wabanaki folklore (written in November, 2020) and suggested that while the tales I reviewed may have been written by Indigenous peoples, they were not necessarily as ancient as the authors had suggested, and that Old World elements may have crept into them. Anthropologist Frank Speck said as much in his introduction to the Penobscot Transformer Tales recounted by Newell Lion. Having studied the Gluskabe tales, there are striking similarities to Indo European tales, such as the hero needing to make his canoe three times before getting it just right. I could be wrong, but repetitions of numbers like three and seven, common in European tales and Biblical tales, seem a notable coincidence from an ancient tale that had never been affected by “western” storytelling motifs. But what of it? We know what we know of much of the Pre-Christian European folklore from Christian monks. The Irish and Welsh tales, the Anglo-Saxon tales, the tales of the Norse gods, were all filtered through Christian tellers and recorders. It would be lovely to have tales in their rawest, most genuine form, but then, aren’t tales, like languages themselves, ever evolving to meet the needs of the audience?

Of Pucks and Pukwudgies and Pukedji’nskwesu

Variant spellings of Wabanaki languages are likely to thwart nonlinguists. The early attestations of Abenaki-Penobscot dialects by European settlers has led to a multitude of spellings of words in languages that have few living speakers and little cause for people outside of the culture to learn them. According to Native Languages, there are no longer any remaining native speakers of the eastern, Penobscot language, and only a handful of Canadian Abenakis speak the western Abenaki branch. Enter an amateur linguist like me and problems may ensue. For instance, it was hard for me to find the words pukwudgie and the wild and witchy “Squatty Lady” Pukedji’nskwesu, who lives in the forest (like the imp-like pukwudgie) while I was also directing a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and not wonder how these words could look so much like the English hobgoblin, Puck, and also carry such a related meaning. At times like those it was good to have access to a linguist who has studied the languages. Laura Reddish of explained it better than I could so I include her response (with her permission):

“Unfortunately, as is often the case, the apparent similarities between two words are actually the fault of the people who are writing them down not knowing the languages very well. The root of ‘Pukwudgie’ is the Ojibwe/Algonquin word for ‘wild,’ i.e. they are wild people. In Ojibwe that is spelled Bagwaji and pronounced buh-gwuh-jee. ‘Pukadji’nskwesu’ actually comes from the Abenaki/Wabanaki word for a jug or pitcher plant, and the root of that is the word for ‘short,’ Pokwi (pronounced poke-wee.) So, though both of them may sound like Puck to an English speaker, especially a folklorist with a fondness for Shakespeare, they actually come from two different sources. If you say an animal is Bagwaji you mean it is a wild animal of the forest, but if you say an animal is Pokwi you mean it is a short and small creature.”

It is worth noting that English is not a phonetic language, so English speakers are not used to representing the actual sounds of language when we spell. Names in particular were spelled in a variety of ways in the 17th Century, meaning that two brothers may have spelled their family name differently, leading modern genealogists to discover a branch of the family seemingly with a different name. The Abenaki languages were attested by English and French speakers, who would have heard and represented sounds differently. Jesuit missionaries even introduced the number eight (8) to represent the nasal, unrounded ‘o’, for instance in the original name for the Abenaki language Aln8bak (Alnôbak), for which Native Languages presents fifteen spellings ranging from spellings that sound like Alnobak to spellings that look like Abenaki. Most of the Abenaki names in this article have fifteen different spellings attested on Native Languages. The different dialects of the tribes also contributed to the spelling variety as they pronounced words differently. Some of the tribes pronounced the first syllable of the figure Gluskabe’s name as we say the word glue, others as we say clue, with other variables.

Of Ice Cannibals and Thunder Birds

Of the tales of the monstrous that I wrote about last year, those of the ice cannibal chenoo and the giant winged Pamu’le are stories I have not yet found attested beyond the tales written by fairly contemporary indigenous writers. However, I believe it is more likely that I simply haven’t come across them yet because Speck recorded evidence of the Penobscot passing on knowledge of these figures through an ancient musical instrument and a children’s game. Speck recorded Penobscot children playing a game about a man-eating ogre called Kiwa’kwe. In the game one child would play Kiwa’kwe, another the protector against Kiwa’kwe. The child playing Kiwa’kwe would growl and chase the other children, pretending to eat anyone they caught, which sounds delightful. This name, spelled Giwakwa on Native Languages, corresponds to the better known wendigo, a creature associated with starvation and freezing. Arnold Neptune’s “The Chenoo’s Icy Heart,” a tale that gave me goosebumps, uses the Micmac word for the creature. I don’t know if the tale itself has ancient roots or is based on some traditional telling, but it seems like this creature’s memory has been preserved by more tribes, so the Abenaki must have had stories about it at some point. The great bird-like creature that could make storms was preserved in the instrument name 'Pamu’le’s paddle,' which was an ancient instrument known in English as the bullroarer. The bullroarer is a slat of wood, about six inches long, attached to a cord. They are unassuming to look at, but they produce an impressive sound. Wikipedia’s demonstration video is of British luthier and musician, Corwen Broch, who works with ancient European instruments.

Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

I suspect that after three articles about Wabanaki folk tales, I will move on to other topics, but if I find cause to revisit or revise this article for accuracy, I will gladly do so. I will continue to look for new resources for Wabanaki folktales and expect that this year I will want to start to look into the tales of the Native peoples of Massachusetts. If you are a Native person, I would love to speak to you to make my reporting better. To Indigenous peoples of New England and beyond, Happy Indigenous People’s Day.

108 views0 comments


Benjamin Hellman's Blog

bottom of page