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Red snow. It stains the virgin purity of sterile Antarctica: a pinprick of the peculiar in the howling fastness. Red spots, like blood drip-dripping from a blank-faced statue of the Virgin to speckle the freshly laundered crispness of an altar cloth. An alien redness in the whitest world — something that doesn't belong.
For a while, when the first explorers reached the fringes of the southern polar regions, the patches of red snow they found along the edges of the continent remained a minor mystery. Then the mystery was solved. The Antarctic whiteness had been stained by penguin droppings, coloured red by the shellfish that the birds had eaten. Nothing strange about the redness now.
Except that it appeared elsewhere. In the province of Macerata, Italy, at the end of the last century, a myriad small, blood-coloured clouds blew over, covering the sky. When the storm broke, those clouds dumped a hundred-thousand seeds upon the ground — seeds that came from a tree found only in central Africa and the Caribbean. In dusty Baghdad, on the night of 20 May 1857, a heavy darkness fell, succeeded after midnight by a red and lurid gloom. As panic seized the inhabitants, a dense shower of sand began to rain upon the city. More redness fell upon the little town of Stroud in Gloucestershire on 24 October 1987, this time in the shape of hundreds of thumbnail-sized, rose-coloured frogs, which tumbled from the sky, bouncing off umbrellas and pavements amid townspeople going about their business.
Threered things, all coming from the sky. Such patterns may be found wherever unexplained phenomena occur, combining, piece by piece, to form the fragmentary portrait of a truly colourful world, haunted by aliens and fairies, miracles and wonders, monsters and ghosts, all the way from Alaska to Argentina and from Britain to Japan.
We can explore this strange planet in many ways: by continent, listing the phenomena of each country, dating and placing them, and feeding the information into a computer that might confirm that ghosts appear near running water, and that odd things tend to happen on Wednesdays; by category, concentrating first on monsters, then on ghosts and, finally, on possible connections between the two; or by colour, in the hope that this unorthodox approach may yield unexpected insights.
Choose another colour. Yellow: a yellow rain fell in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Some feared it was a Russian chemical warfare agent, but it was later positively identified as a blizzard of dung from a million bees. Green: a disc-shaped UFO glowed green as it hovered over a weapons depot near Astrakhan on the night of 28 July 1989, watched by servicemen from two army units in the area. Blue: thirteen-year-old Jean Bernard saw the Virgin Mary in the village of Vallensanges, near St Etienne in France, on 19 July 1888. She wore a white dress and a blue cloak spangled with stars, and encouraged him to kill a lizard. Silver: the colour of the Big Muddy Monster, an eight-foot-tall ape-creature that haunted Murphysboro, Illinois, between 1972 and 1988. Two men saw it at about one-thirty a.m. one night, moving through the rustling treeline at the edge of a salvage yard full of decaying cars and angled shadows. It had glowing red eyes and yellow teeth, and smelled of sewers and skunk.
Choose another continent — it makes no difference. From a vision of the Virgin in a Patagonian bedroom to an encounter with the devil in an Irish pub; from the great sea serpent of the North Atlantic to giant wheels of phosphorescent light spinning slowly beneath the tranquil waters of the Persian Gulf; from the ghost riders of the Mesopotamian desert to Christ's grave — in Japan; from the planetary barcode stretching hundreds of miles across the Australian wilderness to the poltergeist-haunted toilet of a German dentist, Dr Bachseitz ... this earth is uniformly rich in wonders.
A world away from Antarctica, far in the frozen north, a phantom township appears in the sky over the Muir Glacier, Alaska. This is the bewitching `Silent City', one of the strangest and most spell-binding sights to be seen at the top of the world: a chaos of weird architectural forms, from clusters of glittering spires to gables, obelisks, monoliths and castles, all shimmering over the 700-foot-deep crystal waters of Glacier Bay, all beautiful beyond description. Some say it is a vision of a real and ancient city, now covered by the icy waters of the inlet; others that it is a mirage, either of Bristol or perhaps of the capital of an undiscovered civilisation situated near the pole. It is certainly not the only ghostly settlement to be seen in the far north. During the Cold War, when the Americans built bases in Greenland to study ways of fighting in Arctic conditions, soldiers from the baking dustbowls of the Great Plains sometimes saw `medium-sized mid-western cities' on the white horizon, in such detail on at they could identify individual buildings and churches.
It was in the skies over Alaska, on 17 November 1986, that a Japanese Airlines Boeing 747 cargo plane on a flight from Paris to Tokyo had an alarming close encounter with a gigantic UFO. It was dark and the aircraft's experienced pilot, Captain Kenju Terauchi, first noticed some unusual lights as he passed over the north-eastern part of the state, flying at about 35,000 feet. The lights were to his left and about 2000 feet below him; he assumed they might be military aircraft. However, the visitors seemed to keep pace with him, and as the aircraft turned left they appeared directly in front of it. They seemed closer now, and Terauchi and his crew could see they formed two pairs, each made up of about 120 rectangular lights arranged in rows. The glowing shapes appeared to be as little as 400 yards from the plane, each pair somewhat smaller than his 747.
Worried now, the Japanese crew contacted air traffic control at Anchorage to ask if the objects were appearing on radar. They were not, but did seem to be interfering with radio transmissions between the plane and the ground, which became increasingly garbled. Shortly afterwards, the light arrays moved off to the left and Terauchi was able to discern what seemed to be a third UFO some seven or eight miles away. This object appeared on the 747's instruments and was also detected on two ground radars. Slowly it fell astern; then, as the crew craned to see if it was still behind them, they realised to their alarm that it had placed itself right on their tail, where it flew, dimly illuminated by the reflections of lights on the ground. To Terauchi, this UFO seemed huge — perhaps the size of two aircraft carriers is how he put it — and was shaped like the planet Saturn. Suddenly frightened, the aircrew sought their controller's permission to take evasive action. It was granted, but the giant object kept its station behind them despite all their attempts to shake it off. Finally, as air traffic control directed another jet into the area to see if it could confirm the sighting, this monster among UFOs disappeared, leaving, in Terauchi's words, `nothing left but the light of the moon'.
South now, to Canada, where strange aerial detonations, or `skyquakes', were afflicting the residents of Burlington, Ontario, in the mid-1970s, despite the absence of supersonic aircraft in the area and of blasting operations on the ground; where a sea monster nicknamed `Caddy' haunts the waters around Victoria, British Columbia, and, on the other side of the country, where three burning, ghostly ships sail the Northumberland Strait between Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, travelling at impossible speeds, sometimes attracting crowds that watch them hurtling towards inevitable disaster on the rocks. In the Saskatchewan town of Gravelbourg, in 1910, a line of human footprints was found in granite that was formed millions of years before man appeared on earth, while in Clarendon, Quebec, in December 1889, an investigator named Percy Woodcock held a conversation lasting several hours with an invisible entity which the daughter of a family named Dagg had discovered in their wood shed. Speaking in gruff tones, from a spot that appeared to be in the middle of an empty floor, this being first claimed to be the Devil and to have set various mysterious fires which had plagued the family. After a while its tone changed, and, as the phenomenon continued into a second week, the voice became kinder, although still prone to embarrass its questioners by recounting details of their private lives or spitting out volleys of blasphemy. Finally, on the day it had promised to leave, it claimed to be an angel, and sang along with hymns in such a `beautiful, flute-like voice' that it was begged to stay — which it did not.
South again, to the United States, where apelike monsters prowl, where the modern age of flying saucers began in 1947 and where, during the Second World War, the little Illinois town of Mattoon fell victim to the `Mad Gasser', a phantom anaesthetist who sprayed a mysterious paralysing gas into people's homes at night, leaving them nauseous and unable to move for up to forty minutes. The Gasser, whom one witness described as a man, `tall, dressed in dark clothing and wearing a tight-fitting cap', and another as `a woman dressed in man's clothing' who left the imprints of high-heeled shoes on the ground outside a bedroom window, evaded capture and neither robbed nor molested anyone. The paralysing gas, the witnesses reported, smelled of flowers.
To Houston, Texas, where in I983 a curious panic spread among children in the city. A vicious gang of Smurfs were said to be marauding through the city's schools, massacring pupils and slaughtering headmasters. The murderous cartoon characters, armed with knives and machine guns, were thought by some to be killing anybody wearing sky blue; others insisted only those who put on blue clothes were safe. In the Aldine school district, mental torment was supplemented by acute physical discomfort when a rumour spread that the Smurfs were lying in wait in the school toilets. Investigation suggested that the panic began after a television news report on the arrest of several youths from a street-gang named `The Smurfs', became embroidered with fantasy; the police insisted they had no reports of massacres in any schools, though they did arrest nearly fifty people for `Smurf-related goings-on', mostly petty theft and burglary.
Further south, to Central America. Here there remains a tradition that races of pointy-heeled dwarves, called Dwendis (a corruption of the Spanish duende, or goblin), live in the rainforests. Standing up to four-and-a-half feet tall, and with yellow, flattened faces, they dwell close to human settlements and steal the children. Here, in Mexico City in the autumn of 1593, a soldier who had been standing guard in Manila a moment or two earlier, materialised in the Plaza Mayor, having presumably teleported (or, as some of his contemporaries preferred, been carried by Satan) over the intervening expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Naturally, he was thrown into prison and interrogated as a possible devil-worshipper. Here too, on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, a devilish man-beast named chupacabras, Goatsucker, which `sucked dead' five goats and twenty parakeets on Hallowe'en 1995, climbed into a house in the town of Caguas, where it destroyed a stuffed teddy bear and left a puddle of slime on the windowsill. Artists' impressions showed it as a biped, with red eyes, claws, and a line of spikes or spines running down its back. Some said Goatsucker also had a forked tail and cloven hoofs; within a few months chupacabras attacks were being reported along the shores of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, from Venezuela in the south, through Vera Cruz in Mexico and as far north as Florida.
Giant snakes are said to dwell in the great wildernesses of South America; in April 1949, an apparently dead specimen reckoned to be 150 feet long was photographed floating down the Abuna River. This animal is known as the sucuriju gigante, or giant boa, and there are also reports of a 98-foot specimen being killed around 1933 on the Rio Negro, and one 115 feet long being despatched in the ruins of Fort Tabatinga on the River Oiapoc, both by machine-gun fire. Also in Brazil, shortly after midnight on 16 October 1957, a 23-year-old farmer's son named Antonio Villas Boas watched as a large red `star' fell from the sky onto the field he was ploughing by lamp light. An egg-shaped object landed no more than fifty feet away from him; his tractor engine died, he was seized by three small entities and dragged on board their craft. After a medical examination of sorts, and a failed attempt to communicate with barks and yelps, his captors left him in a room equipped with a couch. A short while later, a door opened to reveal a naked female about four feet five inches tall. She was apparently human and exceptionally beautiful, although the hair on her head was almost white while her pubic hair was the colour of blood. She would not kiss Antonio but nibbled his chin; they made love, twice, after which the woman patted her belly and pointed at the sky, as if to indicate that their child would be born on another planet. Villas Boas was returned to his field and the UFO took off, listing to one side as it did so. It was nearly dawn.
South, south to Patagonia and the uttermost part of the earth. Here, in 1897, a Chilean farmer who lived on the shores of White Lake told Dr Clementi Onelli, of the zoo at Buenos Aires, that strange noises could be heard at night — a sound like a heavy cart being dragged along the shingle shores. When the moon was full, the farmer added, a huge, long-necked monster could be glimpsed in the half-light, swimming across the still and ink-black waters of the lake. This was not the only sighting Onelli recorded of the so-called Patagonian plesiosaur; in 1922, an American prospector friend named Martin Sheffield was searching for gold in the Chubut territory when he came across a lake so isolated it had no name. Here he found strange tracks in the scrub along the shore, and deep marks, which he thought had been made by a heavy animal, leading down to the water. Then, said Sheffield, `I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like a swan, and the movements made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile.' Onelli, who by now had been made director of his zoo, led an expedition to the lake. His party watched from the shore for weeks, until the onset of the southern winter; then they exploded eleven dynamite charges in its depths in the hope of forcing the monster to the surface. The waters boiled, but no prehistoric monsters emerged and the party returned empty-handed to Buenos Aires.
There is no further to go. South of Patagonia there is only Tierra del Fuego, the icy Land of Fire, and then the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. And there is little in the Southern Ocean but a dozen `doubtful islands', lumps of windswept rock in the numbing sea, sometimes reported and surveyed by the most competent of mariners, which nevertheless elude rediscovery by later explorers. Many, no doubt, never existed, and were the result of misidentification and poor navigation; but even today, some may still await rediscovery and perhaps harbour their own strange and unknown forms of life. At Kerguelen, an undoubtedly real island just north of the Antarctic Circle, the hoofmarks of some large and unidentifiable animal, that apparently came from the sea, were discovered by a naval surveying party in May 1840.
Another continent? Africa. In the time of Idi Amin, Uganda was home to a talking tortoise which roamed the country, prophesying trouble for the dictator. On one occasion, it was reported, it entered a local police station and demanded to be taken to the town of Jinja, near Kampala, where it held a meeting with the provincial governor and the police commissioner. These worthies were quick to deny that any such thing had happened; Amin issued a statement denouncing his people for being `drunk with rumours' and threatened to put anyone trafficking in tortoise tales before a firing squad. Fourteen years later, when the country was in the grip of an AIDS epidemic, a talking goat arrived in the village of Kyabagala to announce, `in a loud, terrifying voice', that the disease was a divine punishment for failure to observe the Ten Commandments. In Burundi, the people believe that Lake Tanganyika and the Lukuga River are infested by vampiric mermaids known as mambu mutu, which kill people to eat their brains and suck their blood; there are also tales of land-locked, though less deadly, merfolk from Nigeria and Zambia. In Zanzibar, the men live in occasional terror of the attacks of a bat-winged flying dwarf — a bedroom invader of sorts — which in 1972 and again in 1995 appeared inside homes at night. Popobawa — the name is derived from the Swahili for `bat' and `wing' — pins its victims down, sodomises them, then warns that it will be back if they fail to tell their friends what has happened, a tactic that led to bizarre scenes on the island's streets as violated men accosted total strangers to tell of how they had been buggered by the bat-man. The scare even influenced the local elections: Zanzibar's chief minister blamed the opposition for the popobawa's depredations, while his opponents responded by suggesting that he was really the dwarfish sodomite himself.
To the east, in Kenya, on 23 December 1982, showers of stones, which seemed to materialise from thin air, began to strike the home of Peter Kavoi and his family in the town of Machakos. The bombardment persisted for weeks, despite the continual presence of investigators at the home. `My life has become an unbelievable nightmare,' Kavoi told one of the investigators trying to help him. `I have been struck by them and my face cut. My son and his children were so frightened they fled, and our neighbours are saying we are bewitched. I can tell you honestly that we are being driven mad by what is happening.' One odd feature of the case was that the stones came from many different directions — some were flung horizontally, others fell, some landed gently, and some with such force that they shattered. Several samples were gathered: they were no different to the other pebbles and rocks that littered the area.
But we are back to falling things again. Another country? Indonesia, where on the island of Seram in the Moluccas orang bati, or `flying men'—devilish creatures human in form, with red skin, black wings and long, thin tails — swoop from their lairs in the mountains to carry off the unwary children of the coast. Russia, where in 1987 an expedition set out for the Kamchatka peninsula, in the furthest reaches of Siberia, to search for the monstrous irkuiem, an unidentified mammal which looks like a polar bear but moves like a caterpillar. Spain, where two years earlier, farmers working on the land around Pulpi, on the south-east coast, experienced a protracted drought, which they blamed on the activities of mysterious light planes; every time black thunderheads rolled over the horizon, bringing with them the promise of a break in the dry spell, the planes would take off from their secret airfields, and appeared overhead spewing chemicals to disperse the rainclouds. Their sponsors were rumoured to be local tomato barons, or possibly astronomers fanatically clearing the atmosphere to ensure optimum observational conditions. In Iceland, belief in nature spirits is so strong that a succession of bulldozer accidents prompted the national road authority to negotiate with the malevolent elves whom they believed were causing the problems; with the help of psychic mediators, the problem was solved. In Mauritius, in the 1770s, a wizard beacon-keeper named Bottineau accurately predicted the arrival of sailing ships at the island up to four days before they were visible to watchers on shore; his discovery, nauscopie — the art of discerning the movements of vessels by interpreting changes in cloud patterns and other subtle atmospheric effects — was demonstrated successfully for years, but lost shortly after his death, never to be rediscovered. In Germany, a man named Orffyreus once built a machine that persuaded many learned observers that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion, and the above-mentioned and unfortunate dentist Karl Bachseitz had his experience with the talking toilet ...
Let's halt for a moment to consider the Bachseitz case in more detail; it is rather more complex than it first appears, and typical in its reluctance to offer easy solutions. Dr Bachseitz, an eminently respectable sixty-year-old, operated a dental surgery in the small German town of Neutraubling with the help of his seventeen-year-old secretary, Claudia Judenmann. One day in the spring of 1982 a female patient leant over to make use of the dental spittoon. `Shut your mouth,' said the spittoon. A few days later, a male patient, prostrate in the dentist's chair, heard the wash basin command: `Open your mouth wider, stupid.' The next victim was a woman using the surgery toilet; no sooner had she sat down than voice from beneath her commanded: `Move your behind, I can't see a thing.'
For the next eleven months Dr Bachseitz was a tormented man. The voice broke in on his work up to ninety times a day, taking over phone calls, abusing him and his patients in a guttural Bavarian accent, and hinting that it was planning terrible fates for his wife. It gave itself a name, Chopper, and hurled a rich stream of obscenities around the surgery, but at the same time talked sweetly to Claudia, enquiring if she had enjoyed her weekend and seeming to know a lot about how she had spent it.
By February 1982, the desperate Dr Bachseitz had had enough. He filed a suit against persons unknown for harassment and injury, and called in Germany's most distinguished poltergeist hunter, Hans Bender, as well as the police, the Post Office, and a television crew. Bender held a conversation with the voice, which begged him: `Help me. Release me.' The Post Office men disconnected the telephone — not that that stopped its ghostly—ringing — and the television people filmed the voice as it spoke to Claudia from a plughole and over the phone. But it was the police who made the greatest progress. Early in March, the public prosecutor at nearby Regensburg, Elmar Fischer, announced that his men had solved the case: it was a hoax, perpetrated by Bachseitz and Claudia, using `voice projection'.
Eventually Claudia appeared on a television show to agree that this had indeed been pretty much the case; she and Dr Bachseitz had been playing along with an unknown man who used to phone the surgery several times a day, adopting Chopper's distinctive voice. Naturally this explanation satisfied most people, and the police case against the dentist and his assistant was dropped, though both were nominally liable to up to three years in prison for 'feigning a crime'. It is of course entirely possible that the whole episode was an elaborate practical joke. Yet the official explanation left many questions unanswered. It did not explain why the respectable Dr Bachseitz should endure a year's worth of obscene phone calls and draw attention to himself in so bizarre a fashion, simply to humour a dangerously eccentric third party whom he did not even know. It did not explain how the peculiar voice appeared to emanate from sinks and toilets, light fittings and spittoons, nor how it knew so much about Claudia's activities at the weekends. And there was no good reason for the dentist to risk exposure by calling in the police, unless he was so vain that it amused him to test his wits against those of the authorities. So there may be more to the Bachseitz case than German television audiences were told.
At the very least, Dr Bachseitz's story offers an intriguing contrast between the mundane and the remarkable — the clinical familiarity of the dental surgery and the outlandish reality of the events that occurred within it — and a reminder that there is nowhere so mundane it cannot also be bizarre, nowhere so comprehensively explored that it cannot produce the unexpected. Still more importantly, it recalls a dozen other cases — such as the peculiar phenomena that occurred in a woodshed at Clarendon, Quebec. Links and patterns begin to emerge from such eddies in the unknown.
For example: flying pigs, surely the most ridiculous and improbable of strange phenomena. One was seen over Llangollen one night during the great Welsh religious revival of 1904-5; it had short wings, four legs and seemed to be moving at about twenty miles per hour. A misinterpretation, perhaps, despite the use of 'powerful field glasses' by observers, since the object was estimated to be two miles up in the atmosphere; but if there are no flying porkers, what left the gigantic pig's droppings that appeared on the first floor balcony of 325b Sparkler Drive, Huntingdon Beach, California, on three occasions in January and February 1982? And if giant domestic animals do not exist, what made the impression of a chicken's foot, eight feet long and sixteen feet across, in Gianpiero Baizi's maize field outside Milan in the summer of 1985?
Such bizarre stories strain the outer limits of credibility, even by the dubious standards of the borderlands. Yet we cannot entirely laugh them off or ignore them, for there are also tales, perhaps a little better evidenced, of phenomena that are nearly as outlandish. One Maryland monster, Goatman, who has roamed the back lanes of Prince George's County since 1957, certainly seemed to be a creature of folklore. Local people could not agree on whether he was an ancient hermit with a long white beard, a mad scientist from the Beltsville Agricultural Farm, or a were-creature of some sort, though his principal purpose seemed to be to scare courting couples from Prince George's Community College in the local lovers' lane. Persistent research into the origins of the story, however, eventually revealed that they appeared to have their source in an August 1957 sighting of a hairy ape, seen in the Upper Marlboro area by Mr and Mrs Reverty Garner of Brown Station Road. A similar man-beast was seen twice in the autumn of 1976, and again in March 1977, by three different witnesses. It was described as gorilla-like, six feet tall, round-shouldered, and covered with grey-brown hair. The Goatman legend, then, may be based on real sightings of an ape-creature: Bigfoot in Maryland.
Repetition makes any phenomenon more interesting. In the summer of 1970, a silver thread, or wire, appeared in the sky over the home of Mr and Mrs A.P. Smith of 85 Forest Avenue, Caldwell, New Jersey. It hung there, as though suspended from some invisible supports, throughout the month of August, to the bafflement of the Smiths, their neighbours, and the local police. A few days after the thread's first appearance, the local newspaper reported:
It looks rigid, as if it were a wire, not a string. It appears silver when the sunlight strikes it. On Monday it hung about 150 feet above the houses on Forest Avenue and Hillside Avenue. By Tuesday, it seemed limper to Mrs Smith and other observers, as if one of its ends — wherever that is — had loosened. It also seemed lower in the sky.
The Caldwell police tried to trace it on Monday, found signs of it up Hillside and down towards West Caldwell, but lost it in the clouds before tracking down the origins. They looked again on Tuesday with the same nebulous results.
The silver thread's provenance remained a mystery; the best explanation the locals could proffer was that it was a line that had fallen from the Goodyear blimp as it passed over the town. But the thread just hung there, day after day, long enough for the noted investigator Berthold Schwarz to visit the Smiths and confirm its presence. On the afternoon of 31 August, the family heard a loud explosion, or sonic boom, and shortly afterwards noticed that the line had fallen to earth and was now lying on the ground outside their home. Mrs Smith phoned the police, who arrived and took the thread away. It proved to be a stiff, translucent nylon fishing line.
Whatever its significance, however, this eccentric story is not unique. In September 1978 a car worker named John Wright saw something snagging a bush behind his home in Greensburg, Ohio. It was fishing line, trailing off into the sky, and he hauled in a single length of about 1000 feet of it, enough to fill eight reels. At that point the line snapped and the remainder floated off into the sky until it was lost to view.
Parallels and echoes of many other phenomena can be found in the annals of the unexplained. Some come from countries and peoples that share a culture or a history. The Black Dog, a gigantic, shaggy, ghostly dog with blazing red eyes, is primarily reported from the north of England, East Anglia and the west country, but such creatures are also encountered in northern Europe, Nova Scotia and parts of the United States. Descriptions of these beasts are remarkably similar wherever they are encountered, though there is some dispute as to whether they are benevolent ghosts or are indifferent or hostile to man. In County Londonderry, in 1928, a student from Trinity College, Dublin, who had never even heard of the Black Dog (or pooka, as it is generally known in Ireland) was fishing on a riverbank, when a huge dog came padding along the shallow stream. Feeling an intense sense of menace, the student dropped his rod and bolted up the nearest tree, from where he observed the animal as it went past. It looked up at him, a friend later recorded, with eyes like blazing coals and `almost human intelligence, and bared its teeth with a mixture of snarl and jeering grin.' Similarly, the people of rural Mississippi, in the 1930s, told of encounters with gigantic black dogs `with big red eyes glowing like chunks of fire', and in France the author Pierre van Paassen tried to set his own fierce dogs on a large black specimen that appeared in his home. This, he wrote,
led to a horrible scene ... they retreated growling back into my room, baring their fangs and snarling. Presently they howled as if they were in excruciating pain, and were snapping and biting in all directions, as if they were fighting some fierce enemy. I have never seen them in such mortal panic. I could not come to their aid, for I saw nothing to strike ... The battle with the invisible foe lasted less than two minutes. Then one of my dogs yelled as if he were in his death throes, fell on the floor and died.
Such accounts, as well as exhibiting striking similarities, also parallel (and may have been influenced by) the Black Dogs that appear in folk tales and literature, from the tales of Hans Christian Andersen to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Alternatively, of course, the ghost dogs of folklore may record real encounters with phantom canines in the past.
Apparently related cases become still more interesting when the reports come from different countries and different periods. Reports of giant ape-creatures have come from cultures as distinct as aboriginal Australia and twentieth-century California. Most lake creatures resemble the Loch Ness Monster. But there are many lesser-known examples of intriguing similarities, too. In the Swiss, Bavarian and Austrian Alps, mountaineers and travellers sometimes encounter an aggressive, hole-dwelling lizard known as the tatzelwurm, or `worm-with-feet'. In some areas it is known as the `spring-worm' because of its alarming leaping ability — it can jump, witnesses say, up to nine feet, and attacks and wounds cattle. Descriptions of this miniature monster vary, but witnesses generally agree that it is between eighteen inches and three feet long and cylindrical in shape, with two or four short, stubby legs and a blunt and heavy head. Although it is well enough known in its homeland, few outsiders have heard of the tatzelwurm, despite a considerable tradition of sightings and a discussion of the evidence for its existence in the cryptozoologists' bible, Bernard Heuvelmans' On the Track of Unknown Animals. Yet descriptions of it resemble those of an equally mysterious Japanese snake, known as the tzuchinoko, which has been reported from the mountainous areas of all the main Japanese islands, and also from Korea, since the thirteenth century. Like the tatzelwurm, the tzuchinoko is credited with large eyes, large scales and a prodigious leaping ability; there are also some differences in the description, particularly an absence of legs in the case of the Japanese monster. These parallel traditions could indicate the existence of a single type of unknown animal on opposite sides of the world, the evolution of two similar creatures — one a skink, perhaps, and the other a species of snake — or an intriguing independent development of an equivalent folklore among two very different peoples.
Cryptozoology is not the only borderland discipline in which such thought-provoking parallels may be discovered. Welsh historians of the Tudor period record the extremely peculiar tale of the cochion, or `red ones', a people who lived in Coed y Dugoed Mawr, the Great Dark Wood. They built no houses, but used their considerable skills with the bow and arrow to terrorise the local people, some of whom set scythes into the brickwork of their chimneys to prevent the cochion from climbing down them to murder the inhabitants in their beds. In some Welsh stories the cochion are given the attributes of fairies, though in others they are real enough; they are, for instance, supposed to have set an ambush for the local landowner, Baron Owen, in the 1530s, and slain him. In consequence, it has recently been suggested that they may have been a tribe of Red Indians who had somehow contrived to cross the Atlantic. It seems appropriate, therefore, that the Piute Indians of Nevada have a mirror tradition concerning a tribe of red-haired cannibals, the Siwash, who had lighter skin than any of the native people and preyed on the Piute until they were defeated in a three-year war. The few remaining cannibals hid themselves in a cave; when they were found, the Piute piled wood across the entrance and burned or asphyxiated the survivors. Little or no evidence now remains to prove the existence of the Siwash, whom some present-day Piutes suspect of being a band of misplaced Europeans or Egyptians.
Another Native American tribe, the Navajo, have a traditional belief in a society of evil-doers called `skin-walkers'. Skin-walkers have something in common with the European werewolf; they are humans who have the ability to change into animals, though they possess other strange powers in addition, such as the ability to move much faster than a car. But the notion that they band together in a group, and wear the skins of animals, is reminiscent of European traditions of witches' sabbats, as well as of the most terrible of secret societies, the Brujeria, a brotherhood of warlocks who dwell in a labyrinth of caves beneath the impenetrable forests of Chiloe, a large island off the coast of Chile.
Members of the Brujeria wear waistcoats of human flesh flayed from the torsos of Christian corpses, which give off a gentle phosphorescence that guides them as they pick their way along their secret forest paths by night. The society owns a ghost ship, the Caleuche, which is officered by witches and crewed by shipwrecked mariners. This frigate, which is often portrayed as a burning ghost-ship, of the sort that haunts the Northumberland Strait, can sail into the wind and even submerge, useful attributes for a vessel chiefly used to smuggle cargoes up river for the Brujeria's merchant allies. When the strange vessel suffers engine trouble, she puts into a cove for repairs; should her crew be disturbed at their work, she is transformed instantly from a ship into a gigantic log.
The Brujeria's principal occupation, however, is plotting the downfall of mankind. The brotherhood is guarded during its deliberations by two monsters, the chivato and the invunche, both gradually moulded from human children. The chivato is part goat, part man, the invunche an even stranger creation: over many months a young boy's head is twisted with a tourniquet until it has been turned through 180 degrees and looks directly back; his right arm is then sewn into an incision under the shoulder blade. The new invunche sprouts bristles and is fed on human flesh. He is kept naked in the Brujeria's headquarters cave, where he acts as both a guardsman and a talisman in certain of the society's rituals.
The Brujeria are not simply part of the rich folklore of Spanish Chile. On at least two occasions — in 1743 and again in 1880 — alleged members of the society were captured and tried as witches. In the great trial of 1880, one of the main witnesses was an old man named Mateo Conuecar. He named one Jose Merriman as king of the witches and explained that he had entered the sacred caves of the Brujeria through a passageway that led from a camouflaged door in Merriman's cellar. There are also interesting similarities between the monster-manufacturing practices of the Brujeria and those of the Dacianos, a particular caste of European gypsies who specialised in the manufacture of freaks. These Dacianos had their headquarters in the Gorge de Pancorbo, near Victoria in Spain, though they also met near Diekirsch, Germany, Bourbonne-les-Bains in France, and at an old square tower near Cleveland in Yorkshire. They were nicknamed `the child-buyers' and specialised in kidnapping children, three or four years old, whom they lamed and disfigured before selling to vagabonds and blind men to be used as beggars. Chile, of course, was, for centuries, the colonial possession of Spain. Perhaps a few Dacianos emigrated there from their gorge near Victoria, and founded the society; perhaps it was only traditional stories of the gypsies' methods that reached South America, to be elaborated over the years in Chilean memories.
Naturally there are significant differences between the phenomena reported in foreign lands, as well as significant parallels. The vampire of the Philippines, for example, is a different creature from the blood-sipper of western Europe. The Filipino manananggal is a woman who can cut her own body in two, sending the top half flying through the night in search of babies to devour. The manananggal does not seem to be bothered by garlic, but it can be repulsed by the touch of a dried stingray's tail and, like a western vampire, it is vulnerable to daylight; the two halves must rejoin before dawn if the vampire is to survive. There was a manananggal scare in Manila during the local election campaign of May 1992; a woman named Martina Santa Rosa came forward to say that she had been savaged by just such a creature. `She attacked me — I was lucky I was able to get free,' Santa Rosa said. `I saw half of her body. It was naked. She had long, scraggly hair, long arms, nails and sharp fangs.' A neighbour, Alfonso Bernardo, backed up the account, coming forward to assert that he had seen the manananggal's top half flying away from Santa Rosa's house. Similarly, the feminine mermaid of Scottish tradition is very different to Burundi's vampiric mambu mutu, and accounts of `little people', which abound all over the world, vary subtly from country to country. The western elf is related to, but distinct from, Far Eastern equivalents such as the Javanese tuyul, an entity that looks like a bald and naked child with big eyes and red skin. Like most oriental spirits, the tuyul moves without touching the ground, but it resembles its European counterparts in defying all attempts to relegate it to the realm of folklore, and continues to be seen occasionally in the modern world. In 1985 a Japanese tuyul-hunting expedition visited the Indonesian island and interviewed a clothing designer in Jakarta. `I saw a tuyul about three years ago,' the man told his interviewer. `It was real; it looked like a little naked boy and tried to steal my money.'
Finally, there are phenomena that remain specific to a particular people, though they may travel with them throughout the world. Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome, a mysterious but real and very deadly illness that has defied attempts to isolate and identify it, is a good example of this kind. The disease, if that is what it is, is almost wholly confined to men from south-east Asia — Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos — but it strikes both at home and among migrant communities, such as those in the Middle East. The symptoms of the illness are rather remarkable; the victims, who are generally young and apparently fit, die abruptly and inexplicably in their sleep, sometimes frothing at the mouth in a manner that suggests they have been killed by sheer terror.
Although SUNDS has claimed hundreds of victims, doctors do not understand it, nor can they explain why it strikes within this particular community; the syndrome's very name is little more than an elaborate confession of ignorance on the part of the medical community. In Thailand, though, complex explanations have evolved to explain the peculiarities of the illness. There, the deaths are sometimes interpreted as the work of evil female spirits, out hunting for suitable husbands; once dead, the victims are forcibly married in the spirit world to their murderers. In order to avoid this unpleasant fate, some Thai males have taken to going to bed wearing women's clothing and make-up in the hope of fooling any prowling female spirits.
Another example of an alarmingly specific phenomenon was the American killer kangaroo scare of 1934, which involved the appearance of a creature like a giant kangaroo in the farming community of South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. The monster killed and partially devoured several police dogs, some geese and a few ducks; it was tracked up a mountainside to a large cave, where it appeared to vanish, and it was never identified or caught. But when it hopped into oblivion, it left this strange planet just a little stranger.
|List of Illustrations|
|2||Lands of Gods and Angels||41|
|3||World of Spirits||73|
|5||Where the Wild Things Are||176|
|6||The Good Earth||217|
|7||Reign of Frogs||244|
|10||Answers from Inner Space||355|
|12||A Sense of Wonder||438|