Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Of Demon Dogs and Golems
My protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a dark and brooding fellow, and no wonder. He’s an ex-knight turned detective, of the hard-boiled variety, but in a medieval London setting. And each story in the series always involves some sort of mysterious religious relic with mystical powers, either something everyone is trying to get their hands on or something they can’t wait to get rid of.
So in my search for the next good relic, I’ve come across some quite interesting characters as well as fascinating creatures.
There is the legend of Thomas Vaughan or “Black Vaughan” as he is known, who had as a companion the Black Hound of Hergest Court near Kington in Herefordshire in the mid-fifteenth century. He was supposed to be an evil fellow who died for the Yorkist cause at the Battle of Banbury in 1469. Ever since his death, the Black Hound was supposed to appear to herald the imminent death of another Vaughan, but Black Vaughan himself was supposed to have wreaked havoc on the living after his own death, appearing in the form of a fly, a bull, or a black dog. It took twelve clergymen to contain his spirit, shrink it, and stuff it in a silver snuff box, which they buried in the drained moat of Hergest Court and laid a heavy stone over it. It’s still there!
The legend of Thomas Vaughan was one of a few demon dog tales that were said to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.
And then there is this one—not exactly medieval; it’s 17th century—but it has inspired its own familiar literature. This is another Demon Dog, or as it’s more famously known, the Beast of Gévaudan.
This is a wolf-like creature that prefers to attack humans, even over sheep and cattle, surely an easier quarry. It is supposed to be unusually large with strange coloration and a strangely-shaped head (indeed, sightings continue to this day, with a photograph of one of these beasts struck down by a car, not looking like any known canine).
The killings—over one hundred of them—occurred first (or were at least first reported) in 1693 in Benais, France. But it is in the mountains of Gévaudan, France, in 1765, that the creature gets its moniker. A fellow named Francois Antoine heard of the killings of women and children and hunted down the beast. He killed a very large wolf, had it stuffed, and sent it to the court of Louis XV, but in December in a different locale, the wolf killings started anew. Was it a wolf? A dog/wolf hybrid? A loup-garou (werewolf)?
The fearful image of men transformed into beasts have terrified mankind as long as man himself has existed while sharing stories around a campfire. But other tales of manmade creatures have terrified, too, long before Mary Shelly penned Frankenstein.
In the third installment of my medieval mystery series, The Demon's Parchment, a golem makes an appearance. A golem is that fantastical creature from Jewish folklore, born of man’s desire to create life from the simplest of forms (clay) and his need for supernatural protection.
A golem is a mindless being, only given life when a Hebrew glyph, created by Jews to protect their community, is inscribed on its chest, forehead, or placed in its mouth. The words of creation derive from the Kabbalah, a religious document that combines scripture, numerology, and philosophy. But it is only through extreme desperation that the power of the golem is invoked at all. So perhaps it is only natural that the story of the golem as we know it arose during the Middle Ages. This was the time when Jews were being kicked out of many European countries: from England in 1290, from Spain in 1492, from France...numerous times. Crusaders made no differentiation between the Saracen infidel (Muslims) and Jews they met along the way and so whole communities of Jews were wiped out by crusading knights. Every strange death in towns and in villages in Europe was blamed on Jews, and fearing for their lives, Jews found their hope in the defensive powers of the golem, a large, silent and plodding creature stalking the dark streets.
The most famous is the Golem of Prague, a sixteenth century tale. But golems go further back than that. The biblical Adam is essentially a golem (meaning unshaped form) before God breathes life into him.
But is it a golem that appears in The Demon's Parchment, or something even more sinister?
Faced with such strange creatures and daunting relics, one needs a strong man, an avid detective. And so my ex-knight Crispin Guest prowls those dark streets as well, searching out the bad guys with his intellect, his fists, and sometimes through the beds of beautiful femme fatales.
Demon dog, indeed.
You can find out more about Crispin at his very own blog at www.CrispinGuest.com or read the first chapter of The Demon's Parchment at Jeri’s website www.JeriWesterson.com.