The Wendigo – a tale of terror by Algernon Blackwood

wendigoSomewhere in the family of the Sasquatch, Grendel, the Yeti and the Jabberwocky there exists the Wendigo. A mythical and supernatural creature in Native American folklore, the Wendigo is said to inhabit the wilderness areas of the land of the Algonquian people, from the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. and Canada through the Great Lakes region to Hudson’s Bay in the north and the Rockies on the west.

As with most of these creatures, the specifics about them are somewhat fluid, but it is generally agreed that the Wendigo is best described as a ravenously cannibalistic humanoid supernatural creature. Visibly suffering the effects of starvation – emaciated with gaunt features and stretched and pale skin – the Wendigo has a voracious appetite for human flesh. Fans of Marvel Comics who know their stuff will know that Wolverine’s very first appearance was in The Incredible Hulk #180, battling the Wendigo. This, however, is not that Wendigo.

This story of The Wendigo was written in 1910 by English author and ghost-story master Algernon Blackwood. Considered an inspiration to a host of authors including horror master H.P. Lovecraft, Blackwood is known as the father of “weird fiction”.

Algernon Blackwood loved Canada. More specifically, he loved Canada’s wilderness and he enjoyed experiencing it with many camping and hunting trips. He also farmed for years in canada before moving back to his native England. He drew on his own experience to write this thriller. Blackwood has a way of setting the scene in his writing. He had an impressive vocabulary and was not afraid to use it. Words were like colours in his painter’s pallette, and he carefully selected just the right words to make sure the scenery was properly illustrated. For example, in “The silence of the vast listening forest stole forward and enveloped them.” the word “stole” is the perfect one to make silence menacing, to give the silence some action without breaking that silence.

A Scotsman and his nephew have hired three experienced woodsmen to go moose hunting in Northern Canada. They decide to increase their chances of bagging a moose by splitting up into two groups. Défago, one of the guides, feels nervous about going into Wendigo territory but after some cajoling, splits from the party with the nephew, Simpson.

After a terrifying night, Défago’s fears get the better of him. He loses his courage and abandons Simpson, who gives chase, but loses the trail and gets lost. Through the cunning use of luck over skill, Simpson returns to the other group without Défago.

Défago does return later, but visibly manic and utterly exhausted by his experience, and of little use to the hunting expedition. At the encouragement of the others, Défago relates the harrowing tale of his encounter with the Wendigo. He never finishes the story, however, as the other guide deduces that Défago is not himself and accuses him of being possessed by the Wendigo.

At this revelation, the exhausted Défago bursts off into the woods again, exhibiting some of the characteristics of the Wendigo.

As it becomes evident that Défago is not returning, the party agrees to call it a trip and begins their lengthy exodus back to civilization. As they leave the wilderness, they happen across Défago again. Does Défago survive the encounter? Does the party? Read the story to find out!

The group’s dynamic is interesting. The two Europeans – the Scot and his nephew – seem to respect only their two guides’ woodsman’s skills, and not much else. The crew’s cook, a Native American named Punk, takes varying degrees of abuse from all four of the others. in the end, of course, Punk is the only one of the group who comes to his senses, guided by the stories of his ancestors.

Wendigo_Algernon_Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

The only thing I found difficult about this read was that the guides speak in a strange “backwoods hick” vernacular that I could not identify, and that made it awkward to read. It disrupted the reading tempo, but only temporarily.

Check the copyright in your country, as The Wendigo is in the Public Domain in countries where copyright is Life+50 or in the USA (since it was published before 1923).

You can hear the story read aloud at Librivox by Amy Gramour.

The story is also available for free download at Project Gutenberg  and at Feedbooks.

As a total aside to this story of Blackwood’s, but something I discovered while reading up on the Wendigo mythology and I think worthy of note, is one thing that never ceases to impress me about Native North American mythologies and spirituality. Psychologists identified something called “Wendigo Psychosis” – a cultural phenomenon where people fear being possessed by the supernatural Wendigo spirit, driving them to all sorts of mischief and anti-sociality (including cannibalism), which they then blamed on this possession. Alternatively, Natives see the spirit of the Wendigo – that its survival is dependent on the consumption of its own. To them, the Wendigo is a manifestation of pure greed and gluttony. To them the Wendigo represents an unbalanced equation, with the only way to satisfy the Wendigo being the eventual extinction of both the Wendigo itself and its victims. Much of native mythology and spirituality is about establishing and maintaining equilibrium with just about everything: personal relationsips; the environment; trade; justice; agriculture; etc. The Wendigo chaotically disturbs that equilibrium with only negative effect. Mohawk environmental activists have accused North American oil companies as having this “Wendigo Psychosis“. I can’t think of a better and simpler way to describe that relationship.

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