Horror writers have many options when it comes to “scaring” our readers. We can take the real, the surreal, and the totally impossible and (if we’re lucky) use any or all of it to make a reader feel mild discomfort or outright never-turning-the-lights-off-again terror. I think the combination of physical and psychological horror can be pretty effective in keeping a reader off-kilter, which is why I love monsters. They give a “face” to the unknown. The difficulty is in making that face scary. It’s not real, and we all know it, so how do we get the reader to believe in it enough to scare them?
For me, the first hurdle is to use a monster that suits the story. In doing so, I make its existence possible within the world I’ve created. In STRANDED, for example, the players of a reality show game are carried off to an uncharted, unexplored region of the Arctic, where something sinister hunts them down, one by one. The location is mysterious, the weather is unpredictable and the predators are unknown. For some, it’s not even the mysterious creature or the harsh environment that they should be afraid of; the real monster is inside them.
Of course, that’s not quite enough, so I needed a monster that intensified the horrific elements of the story (isolation, hunger and extreme cold). The wendigo (a modified version) was perfect. Why? Let’s imagine you’re alone. You’re in a new place or you’re lost, or maybe you’ve just wandered off the beaten path for some quality alone time. Could be you’re camping or just out for a run or a drive along a quiet road somewhere. The point is, you’ve left your “community” where you feel safe.
Imagine that you’re hungry, maybe it’s a little cold out there by yourself, and it’s quiet. There’s nothing to stop your mind from wandering. Maybe you start to think about all the things you wish you did or didn’t do, or don’t have but really want. We all do this now and then. It’s human to wish things were different or to imagine that grass on the other side. For example, if we had more money, we’d take time off work. See the world or just spend time with our families and friends. Or maybe we’d buy all the dogs, cats, or whatever it is you wish you could afford to buy. If it wasn’t for that asshole so-and-so or if not for this event or that, something you had zero control over, you might be in a different place. You might be happy with what you have, or at least rich enough to fake it.
You know you can’t do much about it, and it’s wrong to care about such things, but when it’s just you like this, alone with your thoughts, it’s okay to be angry about the unfairness of these things and to wish your life was different, if only for a little while. It’s okay to be jealous of what your friends have. It’s even okay to think they don’t deserve it as much as you do. As I said, we all do it.
What if you let your thoughts linger in that negative space too long? Darkness invites darkness. I read that somewhere, but at the moment, that source eludes me. The point is you are not alone anymore. You feel a cold breeze and you know something is there somewhere, waiting… watching… Its foul breath fills the air with the stench of rot. Its stiff bones creak as it circles you, waiting for its chance to feed.
It’s in quiet moments, when you feel the most desperate and alone, that a wendigo attacks. It’s too late to do anything about it once you invite it in. By the time you’re aware of its presence, this monster has already invaded your body and devoured your soul. What’s left is a creature that will look like you, although you’re probably long gone by then, and that feeds off of the greed and isolation of those around you until it has devoured every ounce of happiness inside you, and then it finds another host to carry it to its next meal.
So, you see, I chose a wendigo as inspiration for my monster, because it is terrifying on more than just a “oh my god it’s gonna eat me” level. It is a reflection of our worst selves and a reminder that self-indulgent feelings like envy, greed and lust can ruin our lives if we’re not careful. Since my characters are isolated and alone on their island, and because reality game shows are all about winning the big prize, and usually get pretty ugly in the process, the greed-hungry wendigo was the ideal monster for a story like Stranded.
For those unfamiliar with this creature, wendigo legends are often cautionary tales that are usually about loneliness, self-interest, and the importance of community. The physical description of the monster varies with each version of the legend. In some stories, a wendigo is a giant man-beast that grows larger as it feeds, and in others, it’s painfully thin, with ashen skin that literally hangs from its bones. Some describe it as having horns or antlers, with sunken and/or glowing eyes and sharp teeth. Like a wolf, it has exceptional hearing and smell, and can easily move over deep snow or open water, making it almost impossible for its victim to escape.
In some legends, wendigos get stronger with age, and can eventually control weather and other predators. They can bring on early sunset, for example, or summon an animal to attack at will.
In the real world, greed, envy and all of those negative things that this monster craves are commonplace. None of us can say we’ve never felt such things, so if Wendigos were real, then no one would be safe.
“But they’re not real,” you might say. “So we have nothing to fear.”
No? Well, some might argue that the wendigo isn’t a myth designed to scare small children at all. It is real in that it’s a reflection of our ugly bits. It’s a magnifying glass that brings the parts we hide from others into focus. So, the most disturbing thing about the wendigo’s legend is that the wendigo isn’t just a myth. It is us.
About Renee Miller
I’d like to say I hate talking about myself, but that would be a lie. I don’t mind in the least. Will it be interesting? Meh.
I grew up in Tweed, Ontario, a small town north of Toronto for all of you wondering where the heck that is. Once the home of Elvis’s ghost and not much else. Last we counted, we’ve got three dogs, two cats, and a couple of kids.
I write speculative fiction (mostly horror), comedy and erotica, sometimes all at once. HWA member, published independently and traditionally with publications such as UnnervingMagazine, Broadswords and Blasters, DarkFuse Magazine, Deadman’s Tome, Cwtch Press and Hindered Souls Press.