Hey, everyone! Did I tell you I’m doing a podcast? Well, I AM, and it’s been a HOOT. Follow the link above to listen to Episode 3, which is a sordid tale of monsters, clashing cultures, and cannibalism. Go! Hurry!
When I was fifteen, my parents decided that it was time to sell our old house and move to a new one. The constant effort of maintaining an old, draughty beach cottage was growing tiresome, and I suppose it was a bit of a money pit, always demanding upkeep and renovations. We began visiting houses, touring them with real estate agents, testing the market to see what we could find.
I liked visiting other people’s houses; it appealed to the writer in me. I liked seeing how people chose to decorate, what they determined was important, what bits of bric-a-brac they took pride in. There was something delightful in visiting private spaces of strangers and examining their lives from the inside out.
One day, we visited a house on a sloping property near a river, a tidy black-and-white Tudor-style building hidden from the road by a cedar hedge – not a mansion, mind you. It was very middle-class in design, two stories high, small and neat. We parked on the road and walked down the driveway, which was quite steep and brought us to a pleasant entranceway flanked by flower pots.
Most of the interior was modest, modern and comfortable. The kitchen was sunny and had a cosy nook in which there sat a round wooden table. The fridge, the counters, the stove, the oven — all exactly as one would expect. But here, in the kitchen, we were shown the first surprise: the home owner (a pleasant woman, mid-thirties, blonde ponytail) gave us a sly smile and pushed aside a panel on the wall, and hey presto! A secret passage opened. A narrow staircase curved down, and we followed it into a comfortable rumpus room with a yellow shag carpet and a little wood stove. The hidden room was narrow and filled with a television and children’s toys, and along one wall, large windows looked out over the front yard. The house was, of course, built on the side of a hill, and this secret passage led to this tiny rumpus room on the lowest level.
Yes, a secret passage! A real one! But, we soon discovered, not the only one! We went back up the stairs and toured the living room, which was fairly small, dark, and cramped. The home owner stood in the corner, and raised her hand to touch the low ceiling – she gave a little push, and hey presto again! A portion of the ceiling lowered down on hinges to reveal a hidden ladder, and when we climbed it, we found another room, with a desk and cushions and only a small window to let in a bit of light. It was a secluded place, where none should fit: a writing area tucked above the main floor, with a small exit into a bedroom on the second floor. If you didn’t know the house intimately, you might never know the room was there.
I felt like the house wanted us to buy it; we were being shown its mysteries because we had been found worthy of living within it. I was heartbroken when Mom and Dad did not purchase it, but of course, I was fifteen, and in no position to dictate which house my parents would buy. Certainly not for some romantic whim of secret passages and hidden rooms.
I have dreamed about this house often. Of all the houses we looked at, and of all the houses I’ve seen in the twenty-five years since, this is the house I dream of most. And to be totally honest, I question whether or not I remember it accurately, and if these secret passages and hidden rooms actually existed. I used to drive slowly by the hedge and the half-visible house and wonder if everything I saw within those walls was true, or if my dreams had superimposed themselves over reality. Perhaps there was never any curving passage down, or hidden ladder in the ceiling. I don’t know why I would cling to these ideas if they were figments of my imagination — why these, and not some other dream of some other place? — yet I have no evidence that my memories of this house are true. While I would love to knock upon the door and ask the current occupant if I could visit the enigmatic passages again, I’m also afraid of what they might say to the strange woman on their doorstep, especially if such passages don’t actually exist in the real world.
“I’m looking for the Ogo-pogo, the funny little Ogo-pogo.
His mother was an earwig and his father was a whale.
I’m going to put a little bit of salt on his tail.”
In the course of researching turn-of-the-century music for Bucket of Blood, I stumbled across the lyrics to a British Music Hall hit called ‘The Ogo-Pogo: The Funny Fox Trot”, written in 1924 by Cumberland Clark and Mark Strong, and made famous by the entertainer Davy Burnaby.
This made me laugh, because it wasn’t exactly the Ogopogo with which I’m familiar… we used to camp on the shores of Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, and everyone was well-acquainted with the tales of the lake monster that lives in the lake and in caves under Rattlesnake Island. Images of Ogopogo were everywhere: tourist souvenirs, statues, t-shirts, etc etc. But the last place I’d expect to see it was in a vaudeville piece.
Long ago, the monster was originally called n’ha-a-itk, which is Salish for “lake demon”, or the naitaka, which was the name given it by the Okanakane people. Perfect – that’s much more frightening! Witnesses describe it as a long, dark serpent with a head like a sheep and a fondness for fresh meat; when crossing the lake by canoe, travellers would sacrifice a dog to the monster, to keep it fed and content until they reached the other side.
But at a luncheon held in August 1926 in Vernon, at the north end of Okanagan Lake, the gloriously-named W.H. Brimblecombe sang a parody of the song, changing the Ogo-pogo’s parentage to a ewe and whale. The lunch guests were members of the Vancouver Board of Trade, the Vernon Board of Trade, and the Vernon Rotary Club – they thought the performance to be perfectly delightful, and the next day, a reporter in the Province newspaper wrote about the event.
It’s quite a silly, jaunty little song, but as a child, I was utterly terrified by Ogopogo, the monster who lurked in the depths of the lake. I wonder if I would’ve been half as scared if I’d envisioned an earwig/whale hybrid with a horrible aversion to salt?
In my last post, I mentioned the shunka warakin, a canine-like animal described by the Ioway people of Iowa and Minnesota. While this may be an oral history reference to long-ago memories of the dire wolf, which went extinct in North America around 10,000 years ago, a man claimed to have shot a shunka warakin, only 100 years ago. Now, this could easily be dismissed as a tall tale, told and retold and embellished as all good hunting stories are… except that he had the creature stuffed, and tourists can still see it today.
Curious? Me, too!
The Madison Valley of Montana was a frightening place for white settlers, who were quite unaccustomed to the carnivores that prowled its dark haunts. Screams and howls terrified the farmers, and livestock became a favoured target of the beast. One man, a Mormon by the name of Israel Ammon Hutchins, was tired of losing his animals to the ravenous creature, and when it visited his farm a second time, he shot it dead. Because he was an enterprising man, Hutchins saw the value of the freakish, hyena-like carcass, and traded it to taxidermist Joseph Sherwood for a cow.
Sherwood stuffed the creature and set it on display in his store in Henry Lake, Idaho. He named it ‘Ringdocus’ but, after his death, no one knew quite what happened to the mount. The only evidence of its existence was a grainy, black-and-white photo, causing lots of speculation about the animal’s true identity.
But in 2007, the grandson of Hutchins, Jack Kirby, tracked down the stuffed creature: it was being kept in storage at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. Upon retrieving the mount, the first thing Kirby did was take the stuffed animal to the grave of Hutchins, to show the old man that Ringdocus had returned to Madison Valley. When the Madison Valley History Museum opened in 2008, Ringdocus was placed on display.
So what was it? You can find a photo of it here, and it’s pretty clear, it doesn’t look much like a wolf… narrow snout, sloping back, skinny haunches. I don’t know much about taxidermy, but could there have been a bit of creative license taken by Mr. Sherwood? Or did an ancient monster prowl the valleys of Montana, and has – at last – come home?
Perhaps you have already picked up on the subtle clues that I am a fan of werewolf mythology? If not, let me admit that yes, I do have a fondness for fuzzy beasts that howl when the moon is full. My attention is highly attuned to any whisper of such creature in popular myth and legends, so when I first heard about The Beast of Bray Road, I was intrigued. I went straight for Wikipedia, typed it in, and gave a shrill shriek of surprise to read,
“… the Bray Road Beast is a creature first reported in 1936 on a rural road outside of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. The same label has been applied well beyond the initial location, to any unknown creature from southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois and all the way to Vancouver Island, Canada, that is described as having similar characteristics to those reported in the initial set of sightings.”
What what?! I live on Vancouver Island, I’ve never heard of such a creature. And what possible cryptozoological connection could there be between this island in the Pacific and that far-away magical land called Wisconsin?
Well, I figured the best person to ask would be my friend Michael, who comes from Wisconsin. But he’d never heard of the Beast of Bray Road either. Also, seeing one of my eyebrows slowly raise in quizzical curiosity, he also assured me that he is NOT the Beast of Bray Road in human form.*
Here’s the story: Bray Road is a quiet country lane near the community of Elkhorn in southern Wisconsin. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of witnesses claimed to have had a run-in with a frightening creature around this area, mirroring a series of earlier sightings in 1936, 1964, and 1972.
On Oct. 31, 1999, a young woman named Doris Gipson was driving along Bray Road when, after leaning down to change the radio station, she felt a thump and feared she’d hit something. Stopping to check her car, she saw a massive, hairy animal surge towards her out of the darkness. Terrified, she leapt back into her vehicle and raced away, but not before the creature pounced onto her trunk, then slipped and fell off. Thinking it might’ve been a bear, she came back later that evening and saw a large form on the side of the road; when she saw the creature move, she fled the scene again. The next day, she told a neighbour what had happened and showed her the scratches on the car.
And, as in every small town, word quickly spread.
But instead of laughing or dismissing the story, people began to share their own creepy experiences, some of which dated back ten years. Descriptions of the beast followed a similar pattern, bringing to mind the traditional images of werewolves. The creature was fast, muscular, and frightening. One witness said, “His face was … long and snouty, like a wolf”, while another claimed that she’d seen an animal which she’d assumed was a large dog… until it stood up. A group of children were chased by the monster, yet another man had his chickens taken, and a dairy farmer saw a powerfully-built, bear-like animal wandering through his field, only to disappear behind a pile of stones.
To add to the story, rumours of satanic rituals, stolen dogs, and sacrificed, dismembered livestock began to surface. Occult graffiti was reportedly found in an abandoned house and at the local cemetery, close to Bray Road, which sparked the possibility of a connection between the werewolf and dark magic.
The sightings continued right up to 2006, but no one has yet figured out what the Beast might have been. The descriptions given by eyewitnesses match neither coyotes nor dogs, nor the red wolf native to the area. The animal didn’t quite fit the description of a bear, either. Some have suggested that the beast was the last of the shunka warakin, a hyena-like animal from Ioway cosmology that may have been the (supposedly extinct) dire wolf.
Personally, I’m intrigued by the connection to Vancouver Island — there’s a lot of miles between here and rural Wisconsin, and I’m curious why the Beast of Bray Road has made an appearance in this neck of the woods. You can look at it two ways:
(a) if such a creature exists, then how would one travel so far? (Of course, if it is a werewolf and not a shunka warakin, then taking the Greyhound is not impossible.)
(b) if such a creature does not exist, then how does the concept of the Beast of Bray Road migrate across a continent? Did a lone traveller from Wisconsin, vacationing on Vancouver Island, see something unexplainable and immediately grab the first word in their vocabulary for a large, hairy dog man? That seems unlikely to me, not only that they’d jump to such a conclusion, but that people who live here would so readily accept the claim. To flip it around, would I immediately scream ‘SASQUATCH!’ if ran into a monster while walking the streets of, say, Bristol? And would someone then make a note in Wikipedia that sasquatches are frequently seen in the Pacific Northwest and South West England? No, of course not. If I yelled ‘SASQUATCH’ **, I’m sure a kindly old woman would pat my arm and tell me, “No, dear. We don’t have sasquatches here. That must’ve been a Alien Big Cat.”
I want to know more about the distribution of sightings of the Bray Road Beast, but I can’t find a single reference to any Vancouver Island encounter, except for that lone sentence on Wikipedia (which, I might add, has been cut’n’paste’d to a ton of websites… come on, people! Can’t you even edit the sentence to remove the phrase ‘all the way’?) Who claims to have seen it? When? Why here? All the references to Vancouver Island link back to the Wikipedia article, but it offers no clue where it came from, or who left it. How frustrating! I may just have to take the Greyhound to Wisconsin, and start asking questions….
*but of course, that’s precisely what a werewolf in hiding would say, right?
Psst! Hey you!
I’m going to be launching my next novel, Mark of the Magpie, on Wednesday Oct. 22 at 7 pm, and you’re invited. In this sequel to Bucket of Blood, you’ll find British Columbian history, a little bit of murder, Victorian theatre, sassy ladies and clandestine affairs… the launch party should be fun! All welcome to join us at the Stan Hagen Theatre, North Island College in Courtenay, BC for this free event. Woot woot!
I’m a vegetarian who is fascinated by taxidermy. Some might call me hypocritical or paradoxical, and I wouldn’t disagree. Morally, I’m not so keen on killing things, but as someone who used to work with human remains, it’s not like I feel queasy easily*. I love museum cabinets filled with stuffed animals and preserved fleshy things. They have a particular beauty all their own.
So when I saw THIS today, my eyes grew a little wider, my heart went pitter-pat, and I clapped my hands together with glee!
They go up for auction on March 8. If any of you have too much money to know what to do with, might I suggest you purchase them for me? They would look absolutely perfect, hanging in my office next to my Juan Cabana mermaid** and my antique portrait of Queen Victoria.
*Say THAT ten times fast!
** Yeah, I’m bragging. I love my mermaid. She is one of the most potent conversation-starters I have ever seen, and perfect for any decor. Thanks, Juan!