Mythical Monday: The Pukwudgie, by Mae Clair

Before I lope off into Mythical Monday land, I wanted to mention that Dane Carlisle and Ellie Sullivan of my romantic mystery, ECLIPSE LAKE, are doing a character interview today at Jennifer Lowery’s blog. If you’d like to stop by and say hello, you can check the interview out here.

Now, about the strange creature in the title…

Interesting name, Pukwudgie. For some reason it makes me think of gremlins, or gnarled forest imps. Actually, those descriptions aren’t too far off base.

The Pukwudgie can be found in the folklore and myths of the Wampanoag people, Native Americans who occupied southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island beginning in the 17th Century. Legends describe the Pukwudgie as human in appearance but with a large nose, fingers and ears. They stand about two to three feet high, and have bodies covered in thick hair. Their skin is ashen or bluish-gray, and they favor natural materials which lend to camouflage for clothing—items like grasses, moss, tree bark, and reeds.

Despite its diminutive size, the Pukwudgie is a powerful being able to conjure the forces of magic. It can vanish at will, summon fire, and shoot flashes of light from its body. It also has the ability to shapeshift, its most common form that of a porcupine which walks upright. It delights in mischief and will often snatch children from unsuspecting parents. It also favors arrows tipped with poison that quickly cause a victim to sicken and die. Worse, those who perish at its hands remain trapped in its control for eternity.

3d Digitally rendered illustration of a Will O' the Wisp carrying a lantern through a misty swamp with dead treesThe Wampanoag call these departed spirits “Tei-Pai-Wankas.” Spheres of light, they are similar to the will-o-wisp and are used by the Pukwudgie to lure unsuspecting humans to their deaths. Those who follow a Tei-Pai-Wanka are mesmerized by its glowing form, unable to turn away. Easily enticed into swamps riddled with quicksand or compelled to walk off sheer cliffs, they suffer a grisly fate. If all else fails, a Pukwudgie is also able to inflict harm on a person simply by staring at them.

So how do you protect yourself against these nasty troll-like beings? (Supposedly, there are still Pukwudgie sightings today).

The best defense is to ignore creature and pray it won’t trouble you further. If that doesn’t work, you can recite the Lord’s Prayer, spread salt, or arm yourself with iron. Much like European Faeries, the Pukwudgie is repelled by all three defenses. You’re most likely to encounter one in New England or the Great Lakes Region, so be wary when travelling.

And at the very least, you might want to think twice before following any spheres of glowing light!  ;-)

Mythical Monday: The Ghosts of the Drish House by Mae Clair

A federal style edifice located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Drish House was constructed in 1839 for Dr. John Drish. An affluent physician, Drish moved there with his second wife and his daughter, Katherine, from a previous marriage. Like many old homes, the Drish House is not without its share of legends, a few on the spookier side.  One of the home’s most striking features is a large central tower added in the early 1860s—a tower many claim becomes engulfed by flame in the middle of the night.

An image of the John Drish House By Alabama Department of Education (Alabama Department of Archives and History) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An image of the John Drish House By Alabama Department of Education (Alabama Department of Archives and History) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

According to legend, a runaway slave once hid in the tower. Eventually forced to reveal himself when thirst and starvation took their toll, he was turned over to his master. A viciously cruel man, the slave owner had him burned to death. To this day, fire plagues the tower as a reminder of his grisly execution. Perhaps it is his ghost sending a message to those who deemed his life of so little value.

Yet another tale involves a set of mysterious candles. Before Mrs. Drish died, she requested the same candles that had been burned at her husband’s funeral service be used at hers. Though many looked for them, they were not discovered until months later. Some believe it is Mrs. Drish’s spirit who lights the missing candles at night in order to illuminate the central tower.

Indeed, Drish family history is not without its share of bizarre and tragic incidents. The first involves Drish’s niece, Helen Whiting, who was a frequent visitor to her uncle’s home. Helen married a man named Fitch, a reportedly jealous sort with a fondness for drink. Employed as a carpenter, he was hired by her uncle to help build the massive staircase in Dr. Drish’s mansion. It was undoubtedly there that Helen first set eyes on the man who would become her husband–and eventually take her life. One day in a fit of rage, Fitch slit Helen’s throat, nearly severing her head from her body. He was later convicted, deemed insane, and locked in an asylum. Some tales say he remained there for the rest of his life, others that he was eventually deemed cured and released.

Around the same time, Katherine’s husband divorced her and sent her back to her family along with their two sons. He feared she, too, was going insane. As a young girl, Katherine had been subject to cruel treatment by her father. She made the mistake of falling for a man who did not meet Drish’s approval. In an effort to discourage the relationship, the doctor locked his daughter in her room for several weeks, allowing her only bread and water. Katherine’s love interest eventually left Tuscaloosa, coerced by her father, and she married a man named W.W. King. The marriage, however, was doomed from the start and with Katherine’s mental state rapidly deteriorating, King dumped her back on her father, and freed himself from the union.

With his niece dead, his daughter disgraced, and his fortune claimed by the hardships of the Civil War, Drish wasted away. He refused to eat and was kept alive through force feeding. He must have regretted his treatment of Katherine, for he made his wife promise she would never send his daughter to an asylum. Mrs. Drish kept the vow, but shuttered Katherine away in her bedroom, sealing the windows and ensuring the door was securely bolted at night. One afternoon, supposedly drunk, Drish leapt from his bed and ran for the staircase. In his stupor, he tripped and plummeted to his death.

His wife lived her remaining years in poverty, eventually perishing in 1884. Shortly before Mrs. Drish died, Katherine’s grown sons returned to the house and removed their mother. Her mental state had grown increasingly fragile over time. I can’t help wondering if her fate might have been different had she been allowed to marry the man of her choice.

Such a sad history. Especially when you consider Dr. Drish and his family weren’t characters in a book, but people who experienced these grim realities. There is no question he left a signature behind. The Drish House has inspired all manner of paranormal research and articles, and was even featured in the first of a series of books by Kathryn Tucker Windham called “13 Alabama Ghosts.”

Worth a shiver, wouldn’t you say?

Mythical Monday: The Burnt Swamp Monster by Mae Clair

Swamps just naturally seem to attract legends of monsters, and the Great Cypress Swamp of the Delmarva Peninsula is no exception. Locals tell countless tales of bizarre events associated with the swamp, dating as far back as the 1920s. According to folklore, two coon hunters were out with their dogs when they heard a horrible inhuman scream. The sound terrified them so much, they ran rather than fire, and were pursued by a large, lumbering creature. They never actually saw the beast, but heard its heavy tread as it gave pursuit, snapping off tree branches behind them.

Fog over a night time swamp

The tale grew over time, with the monster blamed for everything from mutilated chickens (they always get eaten, don’t they?), to missing pets, and even odd blood splatters found in the swamp. Most people avoided venturing into the dank area, but Prohibition was still going strong, making the site a favored hideaway for bootleggers.

In the early 1930s, Delmarva was plagued by extreme draught, the temperature climbing to a sweltering 110 degrees by July. It was during that exceptionally hot, dry summer that a massive fire took place. Most believe it started when a moonshiner’s still exploded. Fed by underground peat deposits, and the dried out “knees” of cypress trees that had been exposed by the draught, the blaze burned for eight months. Eight! Firefighters simply couldn’t combat it, and eventually it burnt itself out. From that time forward, the Great Cypress Swamp became known locally as the Burnt Swamp.

It’s rumored that a shingle-maker who lost his life in the fire still haunts the edges of the swamp. There are also references to the mysterious phantom of a young girl. Reportedly, a motorist who was driving across State Line Route 54 between Maryland and Delaware (a drive I have made many times) claimed to see a girl dressed in a flowing white gown. The girl ran across the road and vanished into the woods on the opposite side. The motorist was understandably shaken. Not only was the hour after midnight, but the girl carried her head in her hands.

As for the swamp monster, its preferred hunting time is thought to be late night or just after midnight. Descriptions from those who claim to have glimpsed the monster, range from a ghostly figure, to a hairy creature, to a two-legged, half-man animal. Is it possible this dark, perilous area is home to more than one supernatural being?

Others have reported hearing strange sounds and moans coming from the swamp and surrounding woods. On April 23, 1964, the Delmarva News ran a story on the swamp monster. Their reporter had spent nights in the swamp, tirelessly searching for the creature until he was finally able to capture it on film. A photo of the beast ran along with the story, and swamp fever was born. As it turns out, the story and photo were a hoax, a clever ruse and a bit of fun, undertaken by a local resident and the paper’s editor at the time. But it didn’t stop tales of the Swamp Monster from flourishing.

For years, teens flocked to the area, especially on Halloween night, daring each other to brave the haunted swamp as a rite of passage. Riddled with sinkholes and dangerous wildlife, it isn’t just the Burnt Swamp Monster those brave enough to try had to fear.

Swamps and bogeyman-like creatures are always entertaining tales for a late night campfire. Although I have visited Delmarva many times, and have never encountered the Burnt Swamp Monster, it’s interesting to note the legend lingers today. As a proper legend should.

Have you ever ventured into a swamp? Would you?

Mythical Monday: Corpse Roads by Mae Clair

Imagine a craggy footpath etched into a rugged landscape which ultimately ends at a lonely cemetery or church with ancient burial grounds. In medieval times such “corpse roads” were commonplace—established routes used to transport the dead to their final resting place. Because bodies could only be buried at designated mother churches or minsters, mourners were often forced to transport their loved ones across long distances, usually by foot.

These paths, rugged and uninhabited, became known as corpse roads, church-ways, burial roads, and bier roads. Their topography was frequently dotted with crosses and coffin stones—large, flat stones where a procession set a casket when pausing to rest—and usually crossed a bridge or marsh. Most of our ancestors believed the spirits of the departed could not cross water, hence corpse roads incorporated a path that spanned a ford or lake, preventing the deceased from returning to haunt the living. Bodies were carried with their feet facing away from home, another superstition to keep restless ghosts from returning.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road. This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale. Photo courtey Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spirits, wraiths, and even nature beings such as faeries, were believed to move along special routes like burial roads, flying close to the ground on a straight line. For this reason, any direct path connecting two places was kept clear of obstructing fences, walls, and buildings, so as not to impede the flight of the phantoms. As a result, locals knew to avoid such byways after dark. Labyrinths and mazes had the opposite effect, hindering the movement of spirits.

Flickers of flame called “corpse candles” were often seen traveling just above the ground on the path between a dying person’s house, the cemetery and back again. A phenomenon reported mostly in Wales, it’s also believed corpse candles materialized in churchyards preceding someone’s death.

In some parts of the UK and Europe those endowed with supernatural abilities would watch coffin paths on auspicious dates. These “lych watches” were conducted to receive premonitions of who might perish in the coming year.

There are numerous beliefs and legends tied to corpse roads. Some country folk believe that if a body is carried across a field the ground will thereafter fail to produce a good harvest. Others, that coffin stones were sanctified and placed on church-ways to allow the body a place to rest on its journey without defiling the ground beneath it.

Coffin Stone at Town End This stone is beside a 'corpse road' along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald's Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.

Coffin Stone at Town End. This stone is beside a ‘corpse road’ along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Legend tells of a funeral procession which bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. The procession paused to rest, setting the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket is struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determines God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent it.

Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken back to a time when superstition ruled both day and night and simple folk placed their faith in good over evil. The echo of those beliefs and quiet voices still linger today, buried in the dusty remnants of legend. As long as we keep memory alive, old traditions will always find a place at the campfire. Do you find these old stories as interesting as I do?

Mythical Monday: The Van Meter Visitor by Mae Clair

During autumn of 1903, the sleepy village of Van Meter, Iowa experienced three nights of strange visitations from a creature they believed had crept from an abandoned mine shaft. The bizarre occurrences began on September 29th when Ulysses Griffith, a traveling salesman was heading home after a business trip. Around 1AM, Mr. Griffith spied an odd light that appeared to “hop” from rooftop to rooftop. Intrigued, he was nonetheless tired after a long day of travel, and promptly headed home to bed.

The next night, September 30th at approximately the same hour, Dr. Alcott, the town physician, was drawn awake by a shaft of bright light streaming into his bedroom. Thinking a burglar lurked outside, he grabbed a firearm and headed outdoors to investigate. What he found was a gargoyle-like creature endowed with large bat wings and a blunt horn on its forehead from which light poured. Horrified, Dr. Alcott shot the beast five times, but the bullets had no effect.

The third resident to spot the creature was local banker, Clarence Dunn. On the night of October 1st at approximately 1AM, Mr. Dunn was camped out at his bank when a bright light suddenly flowed through the front window. He heard a strange wheezing and spied a shadowy figure skulking outside. Like Dr. Alcott, he shot the creature, firing directly through the window. But when he went outside to investigate, the beast had vanished, leaving a three-toed print behind in the dirt. Mr. Dunn later made a cast from the footprint as proof of the visitation.

On the same night, O.V. White spied the creature perched on a telephone pole. He fired, but the beast merely shone its light on him, then used its large hooked beak to clamber down the pole. There it encountered another resident, who estimated its height near eight feet. The creature hopped off like a kangaroo, flapping its wings as if attempting to take flight.

Finally, that same night, a group of men working a late-night shift heard strange sounds coming from an old mine shaft. When they investigated, two of the creatures abruptly appeared, one smaller than the other, and promptly winged off into the night. Determined to destroy the beasts and remove the threat to Van Meter, the men returned to town and organized a posse. Armed with rifles, the group trekked back to the mine and waited for the gargoyles to return.

The pair flew back to their lair just before sunrise where they were greeted by a deadly hail of bullets. The barrage “would have sunk the Spanish fleet” but it had no effect on them. The men found themselves engulfed by a putrid odor—perhaps the creature’s only defense?—before the winged beasts vanished into the mine shaft, never to be seen again.

There are plenty of tales about cryptids, but what gives this legend particular credence is the reputation of the men who reported seeing the monster. Most were prominent professionals and businessmen who couldn’t afford to be viewed as crackpots, yet they willingly attached their names to reports of sightings.  It has prompted many to believe this particular legend carries merit.

the-van-meter-visitor-bookAuthors Chad Lewis, Noah Voss, and Kevin Nelson have penned their own account of those three days in autumn of 1903, thoroughly investigating the circumstances surrounding the sightings. Their book, The Van Meter Visitor is available for purchase from Amazon or direct (autographed copy) from the authors’ website. This one has been on my reading list for some time and I hope to indulge in it shortly.

I find it curious that although the creature was no doubt terrifying in appearance, not once did it act in a threatening manner. Repeatedly shot at, chased, and generally sought for slaughter, it never defended itself. Only when the smaller creature was with it at the mine—perhaps a mate or offspring?—did it respond defensively. Even then it was only to release a “putrid odor” rather than attack. Surely a beast of that size with a long hooked beak, horn, and enormous wings could have inflicted damage if it chose.

It makes me think that the Van Meter Visitor may have been a peaceful creature. What’s your take?

Mythical Monday: The Brown Mountain Lights by Mae Clair

Brown Mountain is a low lying ridge tucked into the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For hundreds of years (some say longer) a phenomenon known as the Brown Mountain Lights has been observed by countless witnesses. The illumination, which appears as multi-colored balls floating above the mountain, has even resulted in two surveys conducted by the U.S. Geological Society–one in 1913, the other in 1922. Many believe the Cherokee Indians observed the lights as far back as the 13th Century.

According to eye witnesses, the lights usually begin as a red ball which transitions to white before vanishing altogether. Sometimes a single orb will divide into several before reforming. Witnesses have also reported seeing blue, green, yellow and orange orbs, most lasting only a handful of seconds before fading or winking from sight.

A stony overlook extending into a treed gorge in

Overlook at Wiseman’s View in Linville Gorge, NC, one of the best vantage points for viewing the Brown Mountain Lights.
Photo of Wisemen’s View by Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The phenomenon is so consistent there are specific mile markers within the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook designating from where they are best viewed.

Usually “spooklights” of this sort occur in swampy areas where decaying plant matter produces methane gas. This in turn spontaneously ignites, causing mysterious light manifestations. There are, however, no swampy areas where the Brown Mountain lights materialize, and unlike gaseous orbs, those of Brown Mountain appear concentrated with the ability to maneuver about the mountain.

Naturally, theories have developed. Many involve ghosts, energy beings, UFOs and even aliens. Older folklore relies on stories passed through generations. One tale dates back to the year 1200, when a bloody clash took place on the ridge. According to that legend, a fierce battle between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians claimed the lives of many braves. That night, grieving for their fallen warriors, Indian maidens scoured the mountain by torchlight, searching for bodies. To this day, that eerie torchlight can still be seen flickering on the ridge as they continue their endless hunt for the fallen.

Another tale speaks of a cruel man who butchered his wife and child then buried the bodies on Brown Mountain where he thought no one would find them. Not long after he completed the grisly deed, lights began to appear and hover over the graves. The mysterious illumination drew others to the site, enabling them to discover the murder victims. The killer fled before he could be punished for his crime, and was never seen again. Perhaps the forest enacted its own fatal justice.

Whatever the source of the Brown Mountain Lights, they have been captured on film and video and witnessed from miles away.  As for the surveys conducted by the US Geological Society, investigators concluded witnesses mistakenly reported the oncoming headlights from trains and autos as something more mystifying.

In direct counterpoint, locals reported seeing the lights before autos and trains descended on the area. Additionally, in 1916, a flood wiped out area transportation routes for a full week. During that time the lights were still active and observed.

Fast forward to 1982, when a man named Tommy Hunter claimed to have touched one of the lights. Supposedly it bobbed up to the ridge where he was standing and hovered several feet off the ground. A few times larger than a basketball, it appeared yellowish in color, and gave him an electrical shock when he extended his hand. The light dimmed slightly at the contact, then floated off into the woods.

If you would like to know more about this puzzling phenomenon, check out Joshua P. Warren’s free booklet, The Brown Mountain Lights:Viewing Guide available for download in PDF.  As someone who has always been fascinated by spooklights, I found it mesmerizing reading!

Mythical Monday: The Snow Maiden by Mae Clair

I’m cheating today by reblogging a Mythical Monday post I ran in December of 2012, although I think this will be new to most of my readers. Given the craziness of the holidays and the writing projects I’ve been juggling (final edits for my publisher on MYTH AND MAGIC (releasing June of 2015) and trying to wrap up my Mothman mystery so I can submit it), I neglected to come up with a Mythical Monday post today. I hope you don’t mind this trip down memory lane . . .

~ooOOoo~

As much as I love warm weather (and wouldn’t mind living somewhere tropical year round), I’ve always held a fascination for stories set in cold climates. A few of my all-time favorite novels have earned that distinction because the author employed a winter backdrop. Snow settings can be beautiful and magical, but also claustrophobic. THE RINGED CASTLE by Dorothy Dunnett (book 5 of the Lymond Chronicles) is an amazing read set in 16th Century Russia that conjures all three of those feelings.

Beautiful young woman in dressed in old fashioned winter furs and pearlsRussian folklore is also where I found the legend of The Snow Maiden, a short poignant fairy tale.  There are several variations but all agree on the basics—a woodcutter and his wife, lonely and childless, decide to amuse themselves one day by fashioning a snegurochka, a maiden from snow. Taken with their creation, they fervently wish her to be a daughter they can love and cherish. Their desire is so strong it weaves an enchantment that brings the snow maiden to life. She appears in a robe and cap of pale ivory that is embellished by pearls and trimmed in white fur. Overjoyed, they take her into their home as their own child.

All is well until the first sign of spring when the snow maiden tells them she must head north to lands where winter still reigns. Upset at the thought of losing her, the woodcutter barricades the door as his wife wraps the girl in her arms to prevent her from fleeing. As she holds her, the snow maiden slowly melts into nothingness. Overcome by grief, the couple mourns throughout the year. The next winter their daughter returns and their sadness becomes joy. The snow maiden promises to stay the season and return each year after that.

Young women standing in forest as sun breaks through the treesIn another version of the tale, the snow maiden falls in love with a young man from the village. One day they wander into a birch wood where the last vestiges of winter are fading and green shoots struggle to push up from the ground. The snow maiden turns her face to the sun, and with its touch, dwindles into an icy mist that is whisked away by the wind. And so winter must always yield to light and life as winter yields to spring.

I love these old fairy tales. What about you? Are there any special ones that come to mind? Any favorites from childhood that still resonate with you the way snow and winter resonate with magic?