Monster Mash: Weird Fiction Review’s Beast Party, J.M. McDermott’s newest, a Kornwolf, & a Hairy Man
Monsters! Everyone loves'em, or at least everyone I care to know. Weird Fiction Review has been holding a 12 Days of Monsters event, which I've taken part of in a couple of ways, but before I get to that I want to mention that this week I also had a review of J.M. McDermott's new novel When We Were Executioners over at Strange Horizons. The follow-up to Never Knew Another, this one is likewise brilliant and beautiful, and since it has an especially balling spin on lycanthropy it fits in perfectly with the other novel I reviewed this week: Tristan Egolf's Kornwolf, maybe the weirdest werewolf novel ever, which I wrote up for Weird Fiction Review.
In addition to those two reviews, I play the part of a furry grape in Weird Fiction Review's " Cornucopia of Author Responses" to the question of "what is your favorite monster?" My own response ended up going longer than I wanted for such a large multi-participant feature, so I trimmed it down to capsule size before submitting--you can find my bite-size entry here, along with everybody else's. It's a super cool question with obviously as many different answers as there are authors and monsters, but I'm digging making my way through and either nodding approvingly or making excited entries to the internal bestiary.
What about you--what's your favorite monster? As for my love of the hairy man, here's my full ode to that nasty:
For me, it’s hand’s down the hairy man, the sinister, shape-changing villain of the African-American folktale “Wiley and the Hairy Man.” Specifically, the version of the hairy man found in Jack Stokes’ retelling of the story in a children’s book of the same name, with illustrations by Robert Byrd. My favorite tome as a young child, the power of that book and its titular monster have exerted a profound influence on my own work.
Stokes’s version preserves the dialect (“What’s that I see, a comin’ through the trees, a comin’ through the trees?”) as well as the darkness of the original folklore, with the hairy man having “gotten” the father of our protagonist Wiley prior to the events of the narrative, thus elevating the level of Wiley’s danger from the vaguely perilous to the directly fatal. Byrd’s artwork is somewhat reminiscent to that of Ian Miller, which adds a layer of visceral repulsion via illustrations of the hairy man transforming into imperfect replicas of mules, rabbits, and, if memory serves, an especially hoary opossum.
For those unfamiliar with the folklore, the hairy man is a creature of the dank swamps and murky forests of the rural south, a sort-of New World Amazimu. As with any monster worth his weirdness, he preys on whomever he can catch, but not as a slavering, bestial predator. What makes the hairy man so goddamn creepy is that he’s a very human monster, attempting to talk Wiley into accepting his doom rather than silently stalking the boy. This element boosts the hairy man from a simple predator that hunts children because such behavior is in its nature to the sort of monster that knows better but obviously chooses to, and takes great pleasure in the pursuit.
The hairy man seems to enjoy sadistically prolonging the chase, which makes it even more intense—when Wiley scales a tree to avoid his pursuer, the hairy man sets to chopping the tree down with Wiley’s own ax, rather than simply changing into an animal capable of climbing up in pursuit. That Wiley’s father fell victim to the hairy man strips the young reader of the usual parental safety net, and even when Wiley dodges the hairy man long enough to escape the dark wood and reach those twin sanctuaries of mother and house, the hairy man is unwilling to abandon his quarry. After laying siege to the house and disposing of their watchdogs, he breaks inside to get both Wiley and his widowed mother.
Such behavior was such a clear violation of the universal childhood boogieman rules constituting legal menacing that I, naturally, loved the hairy man like I had loved no monster before him. The dude was bad, even before you factored in his predilection toward turning into obscenely hairy animals that maintained his facial features—a manticore or a werecreature is bad enough, but combine them and you’re talking serious nightmare fuel. Wiley is able to finally thwart the hairy man, thanks to his wits, some conjure tricks, and his mother’s help, but as with all the best monsters, that’s hardly the point, is it?