Warning and for future reference: My blog posts may contain spoilers for the works I am discussing. I apologize for this, but there’s no way around it. To discuss it, I will have to discuss all of it.
Snow falls all around you—alone, so alone. Trees tower, reaching straight to heaven everywhere you turn. The vast emptiness of the land holds you trapped in your spot. Sound can’t even escape. Nature—there’s nothing but nature. You hear deep in your gut something calling to you, something primordial. The wild wants to take you, reclaim you. You fight for your sanity, for your humanity.
I love to research all types of occult and mystical phenomena. Rarely, do I come across something I’ve never heard of before, especially something so many people seem to know about. Never before had I heard of a wendigo. I had no idea what it was. Every friend I asked knew, or knew some version of the myth. How I didn’t know about the wendigo, I have no idea. If you are like me, when you get caught not knowing something that seems so obvious you should, you get angry and irritable. Well, I did. Bent on being in the know, I did the only thing I could do…researched it.
The wendigo was created by the Algonquin people. The wendigo is closely related to cannibalism. The Algonquians believed people who ate human flesh could be transformed into this creature or that the spirit possessed the consumer. Just the thought of cannibalism makes most people’s neck hair stand on end. I am no exception. The psychology community has also coopted the term for a type of psychosis—yeah, cannibals—flesh craving humans.
I know you are probably thinking this is all well and good, but I thought we were going to talk about dark classic literature. Well, we are, so buckle your seatbelt or in this case pick up your hunting rifle and hunker down.
While versions of the wendigo can be found on TV shows like Haven or Marvel Comics, I am doing a study on creepy classics. The work of fiction I kept being pointed to in all my research was Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo. Well, look at that, a work with the name of the creature I was studying. The Wendigo is a story written in 1910 by Mr. Blackwood. As I read the first paragraph, I kept asking myself why this isn’t a part of curriculum in most schools. Then the next thing that occurred to me is a story about something so very American was written by a Brit and quite well at that.
Here’s an excerpt to give you a glimpse into the smooth and beautiful writing of Mr. Blackwood: “Deep silence fell about the little camp, planted there so audaciously in the jaws of the wilderness. The lake gleamed like a sheet of black glass beneath the stars. The cold air pricked. In the draughts of night that poured their silent tide from the depths of the forest, with messages from distant ridges and from lakes just beginning to freeze, there lay already the faint, bleak odors of coming winter. White men, with their dull scent, might never have divined them; the fragrance of the wood fire would have concealed from them these almost electrical hints of moss and bark and hardening swamp a hundred miles away. Even Hank and Défago, subtly in league with the soul of the woods as they were, would probably have spread their delicate nostrils in vain…” (Blackwood 83-88).
Mr. Blackwood’s prose made this a quick and enjoyable read. The best part about the story was I found it for free on the Kindle reader which is also free at Amazon. No, I am not an agent of theirs, but I find free always to be a good quality.
Now, let’s talk about the wendigo in this story. We never actually see it. That’s the beauty. The story builds and builds. We hear about rumors and tall tales. We get a sense of the wendigo, but never actually see it. A man named Simpson is on a hunting trip out in the wilds and desolate regions of the Americas. His guide is a man named Defago. Defago first scents the beast on the crisp winter air. More and more Defago breaks down. There is slow build. We know what’s coming, but Blackwood keeps us guessing when it will happen. Suddenly, Defago is taken by the wendigo, pulled out of the warm, safe tent and into the pressing jaws of the wilderness. All Simpson hears is this: “Oh! oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! oh! This height and fiery speed!”(Blackwood 311-312). Simpson, of course, looks for his companion, but finds him not. He returns to base camp to find others for help. There is an encounter with the beast in Defago’s body and later Defago, not the same, is returned to them mysteriously. Blackwood builds and builds and builds, causing one to sit on the edge of their seat, imagination running wild. The story grips and sets a reader on edge.
Now, my question to you, dear reader, is why does the wendigo frighten us?
I think we are all afraid of that animalistic, uncontrollable side of humanity—the what that once was. We fear losing what makes us human, and that is the ability to reason and be civilized. The taboo of eating one’s own kind is explored and tested with this myth. Perhaps, the Algonquin people used it to impose a fear law. Who would want to turn into such a beast? That story and legend would be enough to keep even the hungriest individual from consuming human flesh…or would it?
I want you to keep this one question in mind as we study each dark classic: What part of ourselves are we afraid of in this piece?
Blackwood, Algernon (2004-01-01). The Wendigo. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.