In 1980, Daniel Cohen, prolific author of eerie lore for children published Monsters You Never Heard Of. Years later, I would come across this book in my elementary school's library in 2nd grade and it's still probably one of the most formatively influential books I've ever read. When I think of the books that cemented and influenced my inescapable love of the horror genre at a very young age, I think of Stephen King's Night Shift, I think of the anthology Shudders, the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, and two books by Daniel Cohen, Ghostly Terrors and the aforementioned Monsters You Never Heard Of.
It was in this last book that I found out about things that, these days, might not be so unheard of. Time and the internet have cooperated to shed light on more cryptids and creatures that used to be known largely just to people of a certain location or culture. The Jersey Devil, for instance, the winged, demon-baby of Mother Leeds. Even though it directly inspired the name of an NHL team I don't think most people outside of the New Jersey area--or at least the Tri-State--would have known much if anything about this local legend back around the time Cohen's book was written, or back when I first read it. Since then, however, the Jersey Devil has made several appearances in various works of pop culture, featuring in things ranging from an X-Files episode to an episode of Aaron Mahnke's well-known podcast, Lore.
Another subject of the book was covered in a different podcast recently: Dark Histories dedicated an episode to the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor, which nowadays, like the Jersey Devil, has its own Wikipedia page and no shortage of other pages and videos online devoted to the legend. When I read Cohen's book, however, your chances of being aware of the phantom hands that steered motorists into accidents grew exponentially slimmer the farther away you got from the English county of Devonshire. Unless you came upon a book specifically devoted to little-known local lore that happened to capture that story, it would indeed be something you'd never heard of.
Fearing the unknown can come in many forms and cross over with other fears. Fearing the dark, as I covered in an earlier episode, can be directly tied to the fear of the unknown--fear of what we can't see. You can be afraid of the uncertainty of the future, not knowing what will happen next. In the previous episode I covered fear of trusting someone, and that can be rooted in not knowing exactly what's on their mind and in their heart.
And then there's a somewhat more direct level of the unknown: the monsters, demons, ghouls, ghosts and even gods that, according to lore, tradition and religion of various regions, have been around for a very long time, but escaped our attention.
It may seem silly to be scared of the idea of something existing without our knowledge, but of course, what we don't know can hurt us. We're dealing with that presently: had we known about the potential of the current strand of coronavirus years in advance--and in particular known when and where it would first spread into human beings--we could have had treatments or a vaccine on deck so far ahead of time that current failures to react in a timely and effective manner wouldn't have even been possible. But here we are, yes, in large part due to said failures, but also partly because we didn't know this specific monster was out there.
On the lighter side of things, at least compared to real world pandemics, are the unusual beasts, oddities and evils of lore and other forms of fiction. Beyond the Jersey Devil and the phantom hands of the B3212, Cohen's book introduced me to other creatures Spring-Heeled Jack and The Dover Demon. The former was a very strange, high-jumping, demonic humanoid that terrorized Victorian-Era Brits. The latter was more of a grey alien sort spotted in Dover, Massachusetts in the 1970's. And while I'd read about phantom dogs before, another subject that gets its own chapter in the book, the book was my introduction the mysterious, phantom wildcats--also known as ABC's, or Alien Big Cats--that have been sighted in various parts of the world, but are a significant part of British cryptid folklore.
The unexplained, unknown and unknowable aspects of these creatures captivated me. I had and still have a lot of love for more familiar monsters, vampires and werewolves and zombies, for instance, but even they became more interesting and frightening to me the more I learned about how much I didn't know about them. How much of their history is actually quite recent. Vampires, for instance, are famously susceptible to sunlight, but a growing number of people over the years have become aware that this was a relatively recent invention in the long history of vampire lore. Until the silent film Nosferatu, the idea of vampires bursting into flames in the daylight was not part of classically European vampire mythology. And then of course there are the assorted vampiric creatures from other parts of the world--or within specific cultures of the Western world--who also aren't combustible when exposed to sunlight, and in fact even the European ones also aren't always terribly vulnerable to wooden stakes or garlic.
I have a few different books on old vampire lore and in reading them, one of the things that stands out to me is how much uncertainty and conflicting information there was about them among people who absolutely believed in them. In America alone, during the New England vampire panics, many different solutions were proposed for killing a vampire, or stopping the dead from rising again to afflict others. In Europe as well there was a variety of methods employed to kill a vampire.
Often these methods were combined. A corpse might be exhumed to be turned face down in its grave, and a metal stake was driven through it to pin it down. A body might be decapitated and have its heart removed and have the heart burned, and in at least one case even turned into an elixir meant to ward off future vampire attacks. You couldn get the impression reading through some of these accounts that people weren't trying all of these things because they believed every single one of them was the right thing to do, but because they hoped any single one of them might be the right thing to do.
Another thing that jumped out at me was how much overlap their seemed to be between vampires, shapeshifters and witches. Even the process of becoming a vampire often wasn't as direct as being bitten by another vampire and having the curse transferred into you. There were rituals involved. You needed to drink blood from a specific type and number of innocents, and you had to drink it at a specific time and place, such as just before the commencement of Mass. So much of it sounds very deliberate and thorough, and also like a bunch of hearsay. Almost as if you're dealing with monsters that, if they were real, would be very efficient killers and very protective of their secrets, thus making it very hard to get any reliable firsthand information from survivors or from vampires themselves.
This is all tied to another element of the unknown, linking it back to the topic of real world diseases again. Vampirism, in certain parts of the world, was a way to explain the spread of certain illnesses that people otherwise had no real information on. They didn't know--and in many cases had no real way of knowing at the time--how these diseases spread so they conjured convoluted and inconsistent mythology to pass as an explanation.
Similarly, werewolf mythology often acted as an explanation for certain murderous, monstrous behavior, as well as animal attacks. And like vampires, they have a relatively recently created weakness; their vulnerability to silver bullets are a largely a more recent invention compared to how long the legend of werewolves has existed. An episode of the Monster Talk podcast titled "A Wolf in the Fold" breaks down the origin of the silver bullet as a weapon against evil rather exhaustively. Ultimately, it's a helpful story device that provided a weakness to an enemy that is otherwise much more difficult to kill. It seems to be a way of lessening the horror of these monsters, making them a little bit more palatable. Establish concrete "rules" for them ranging from how you become one to how you kill one, pick specific pieces of all the rumors and conjectures as the facts--as knowns--because to leave it as an uncertainty or an unknown, even in such small doses, is sometimes thought to be a bit more than the average audience can handle.
But even with these classic creatures with seemingly simple "weaknesses," there are atypical accounts of them that can make them even more menacing than they appear to be in more formulaic stories. Just outside of my current home of San Antonio is a town that houses the high school that I went to. Converse, Texas. It's effectively part of the San Antonio area nowadays and has been for as long as I've lived in the area. But in the mid-19th century or so, San Antonio itself wasn't nearly as populous as it is today, to say nothing of a town like Converse. And that's supposedly the era we'd have to go back to to see the Converse werewolf, an eight-foot tall, muscular, bipedal monster that, according to very little known legend, killed a rancher's son.
I first heard about this werewolf when I was much younger, way back in the tail end of the 90's, right around the time that the Blair Witch Project had come out. I remember this because my very very young, very naïve and very eager self thought, you know, if I just had a camera then me and a few my friends could go find a more remote part of Converse, pretend to get ourselves lost in the woods and make our own mega-hit movie with an astronomic return on investment. Who wouldn't want to see our little movie about the legend of the Converse werewolf. Sure its obscure origin story dated back to 1800's, but that didn't mean it couldn't still be alive. Go ahead and do an internet search of whether or not werewolves die of old age, and have fun reading a lot of uncited, inexpert-yet-confident opinions about a folkloric beast. When you look at some older tales from the time when people believed in such things, it appears that the lifespan of a werewolf wasn't thoroughly explored for a couple of reasons.
werewolves in some parts of the world weren't entirely their own
entity--lycanthropy was either an offshoot of witchcraft or vampirism, and as I
mentioned earlier, vampirism itself was sometimes linked to witchcraft.
Secondly, werewolves often met an abrupt and violent end, or kept their distance and remained a mystery. Either way, their longevity wasn't contemplated nearly as much as the objectives of either killing them or avoiding them.
So maybe I or some other young, intrepid, decidedly amateur filmmaker could have sold audiences on the idea of the Converse werewolf still being out there. And if not, my city has other monsters most people outside its limits have never heard of. The donkey lady, for instance, who has a bridge named after her. Legitimately named after her, if you type Donkey Lady Bridge into your map service you will get a precise location that you can come to. She is, in some grimmer cases figuratively and some lighter cases literally, what her name suggests, a legendary woman who, through very unfortunate circumstances, came to partially resemble a donkey.
In what I think is the more unpleasant version of the tale this "resemblance" is a result of horrific burn injuries she suffered because of a housefire. In a different version of the tale, she was a woman crossing the bridge on her donkey who, for one reason or another, fell over the bridge and died along with the animal, and her spirit came back as a creature that is a fusion of her and her donkey. At least that's how I've heard it. I'm sure others have heard other variations of the tale.
We could probably all agree, however, that the donkey lady is said to occasionally attack cars and people who cross her bridge. She's a familiar type of monster in that way. Monsters that lurk near bridges and attack travelers who cross them seem to have been around for as long as stories have been around. Yet imagine being alone, driving through the city, maybe new in town or a tourist, driving over a short bridge that doesn't look any different from other. And then, out of nowhere, you are under attack. Your vehicle is beaten by a hooved, half-human monster, making noises you can't even begin to place. It pounds and dents your doors, it cracks the windows, it seems like it's trying to get inside and like it's going to get inside. Get to you.
You mash the gas and get the hell off that bridge. And not until you feel certain you're a safe distance from it, minutes later, do you stop to truly try to comprehend what was that thing?
Well, it's just one of countless local, largely unknown monsters said to inhabit Texas, and the country, and this hemisphere, and the whole world. Things that represent our fears associated with new discoveries and exploration, or with simply trying to survive the night in a time when the light of a torch only extended so far, and you couldn't be sure of what might be out there in the dark, just a few feet beyond the dim glow. The planet is full of monsters we've never heard of whose origins range from times long passed to much more recent years.
The internet has become a font of fresh creatures who, one or two hundred years from, presuming humanity isn't mostly myth itself by then, might have their own origins and characteristics muddled and blurred.
Many of these creatures--old favorites or brand new inventions--have largely unknown qualities. Among the devils we think we know but really don't, are previously unheard of or obscure dangers waiting to be awakened or unearthed one way or another. Sometimes simply because the time has come again for them to wake and roam and rampage again. Other times, because someone somewhere opened a door that should have stayed shut, or picked a lock that was there for a long time and for a very good reason, or dug too deep in the wrong place.
Now, every once in a while I like to detour a little farther from the beaten path, down roads less traveled, and what better time to do it than when talking about the unknown and in particular lesser known monsters?
After last week, where my primary subjects were a very recent and popular Netflix series, and then a movie that's underseen, yes, but not significantly unknown, I'm feeling antsy to talk about something that may be a little more off the radar for most people; possibly even most horror fans. And I get to spread the podcast's subject matter beyond the types of media I've already delved into, to boot.
In the summer of 1948, televisions were still very uncommon in the average household, so if you were gathering with the family in the living room to enjoy some external broadcast entertainment, you were listening to the radio. If you wanted to hear something scary, one of your most reliable purveyors of audio horror was Quiet, Please, and in August of that year they released one of their best and most enduring episodes, "The Thing on the Fourble Board."
The first question you might have is not, "What could this thing on the Fourble Board be?" but "What the hell is a Fourble Board?" Well they tell you right there in the story, but in case you haven't heard it is a platform on an oil drilling derrick that is four lengths up from the derrick floor, at least according to the man telling the story. One length is just one length, two lengths is a double, three is a treble, four is a fourble. Hence Fourble Board. One length is twenty feet, so that puts the platform at eighty feet high, which is high enough, thank you kindly, if you're someone like me who doesn't care for unenclosed heights, but it's nothing at all compared to the depths being reached beneath the derrick.
You can likely see where the story is headed based on its title, the oil derrick setup and the explanation of what a Fourble Board is. Early in the story the narrator briefly describes the purpose of a hollow coring drill and paints a picture of the thousands of feet of earth being driven through and brought up through the coring drill, and from there the story sort of heads where you think it's headed, save for a compound swerve saved for the very end of the episode, and the utterly bizarre characteristics of the thing that gets brought up from underground.
Many golden age radio horror stories follow a more traditional and familiar path, and will go out of their way to stick to the path, if that makes sense, even if they have to defy plot or character logic to stay on course, and that's part of what I enjoy about them. Need a couple of old ladies to board a doomed, phantom cruise liner with no other passengers present? Just have them barely question the oddness of it and board anyway. Need a group of friends to be left alone with a man who fits the exact description of an escaped murderer they heard about on an emergency broadcast earlier? Have everyone except one woman out of the group completely forget about the emergency broadcast and said description. In fact, many old time radio horror stories force progression by just having a husband or boyfriend be obstinate, oblivious or stupidly fearless until it's too late, while the wife or girlfriend is observant and cautious but largely ignored until it's too late.
Likewise, many old time radio stories revolve around standard horror villains and plotlines. Ghosts seeking revenge. Vampires or werewolves looking to feed and/or spread their curse. Murderers, criminals or petty nuisances who find themselves victims of karmic comeuppance. Some stories are so predictable that the title tells you everything you need to know, from the personality of the main character to the plot developments to the final twist. "The Jokester" for example might as well be called " The Man Who Cried Wolf." This is not a criticism, per se. Many old time horror radio shows appeal to me because of that throwback simplicity. They're fun little reminders of my entry points into the horror genre.
It can also make for an interesting way to experience an adaptation. I love the radio adaptation of "Three Duma Key" featuring Vincent Price in part because you're still largely forced to imagine much of it, just as it is when the story is on the page, as opposed to getting visuals for it as you would with a television or film adaptation. This is particularly effective for a story about a lighthouse being overrun by a massive legion of ravenous rats that have come to the rock island by way of a ship they had infested. A massive rat infestation is one of those things that's proven too difficult for either practical effects or CGI to properly capture.
As fun as it can be to listen to these stories, it can be even more fun to hear one that is more unconventional, which I suppose could be said of a horror story in just about any medium, although many of my favorite horror stories aren't all that unconventional when you get to the nuts and bolts of them. Halloween, for instance, is a pretty straightforward story about a spree killer, just executed extremely well. And Salem's Lot is a story about vampires overrunning a town. I really enjoy it, but nothing about it is particularly off the wall.
But, on the other hand, now that I've said the word "wall", you have something like the Lights Out story "Come to the Bank," which is about a woman who finds out a man is stuck inside the wall of a bank. Very unusual, quite memorable. The famous--for its genre and medium--story "The Dark" features an inexplicable creeping, living shadow / fog that turns you inside out. And while the original recording of it has been lost to time, a re-recorded version can still be found and is genuinely unsettling despite--or maybe because of--the spare yet bizarre and absurd premise.
And that brings me back, finally, to "The Thing on the Fourble Board." Again, the setup and title are giveaways to a certain degree, but they don't give away the most memorable parts of the story. And yes, I'll be giving away those things here, so last chance to listen to it for yourself before I get into it. And if I may make an unsponsored, sincere recommendation, Relic Radio has put out a very efficient and reliable Old Time Radio horror podcast for years now, simply titled The Horror (exclamation mark), and you can find it there.
So, what is the thing on the fourble board? Well, for much of the episode we don't know, in part because the thing is invisible unless covered in mud or something else that makes it visible. And that's just one of it's many peculiar qualities. The first glimpse we get of it is not of the entire creature, but of a lost body part. A finger, which seems to be made of stone. This thing that has been cored out of the depths of the earth by mistake is made of living rock that can't be seen once it's cleaned off. And we're still just barely getting started.
After the thing is seemingly responsible for some "accidents" that lead to two gruesome deaths our narrator, a roughneck named Porky who is speaking directly to the audience, as many narrators do in radio horror stories, he finds himself alone with the creature on the fourble board one day. At first he can't see it, he can only hear it's cries, which are shrill and almost baby-like--but not quite--and whining. It's almost comical when you hear it on the episode except it's a little too strange to be that, in my opinion. Or a lot too strange, it's a weirdly inspired choice for an imaginary dangerous animal. And the weirdly inspired choices just pile up from here.
Porky throws a bucket of red paint over the creature so he can see it, and oh what a sight it is. It has the hands and face of a human being, but the face is childlike and girlish, and again, made of stone. And its body is like a spider's. So let's add up all of these separate parts to get a sum that is out of a fevered nightmare. A creature made of stone that is invisible unless painted over in some way, it has the face of young girl and a voice like a screeching bird is doing an impersonation of a human infant, and the body of a monstrously overgrown spider. And the final, vital piece of information we receive about it--the thing that cements its status as a threat--is fairly normal compared to everything else. It is carnivorous.
This chimeric combination of features is worthy of something from ancient mythologies. It's like whatever Greek or Mesopotamian god cooked it up did so by accident after several ingredients that didn't belong spilled into the pot. It is as if someone slipped evolution some LSD. It is senseless madness. It is shocking. It is, after all this time since the episode was first produced, almost laughable, except if you had to truly imagine yourself alone with such an abomination you'd have to admit that your brain might short circuit at the sight of something so blatantly wrong. And it is definitely something unknown. A monster no one had ever heard of until someone was inspired to create it.
And if your mind tracks along the same path that mine does then what you learn of the thing just introduces additional questions spotlighting more unknowns about its existence. Are its face and infantile cries used to lure in prey? Garner sympathy, as it shockingly does to Porky, which we find out at the very end of the episode? What of its stone skin and invisibility? These could be useful for attacking purposes, but seem even more beneficial as defense mechanisms. Could this mean that it isn't the apex predator of its environment? Is there something else down there that it has to look out for deep in the subterrane? What other and potentially worse unknown horrors we've never heard of live with it a mile or more under our feet?
At this point I might have thought more and longer about the actual thing that was found on the fourble board than its creator ever did. Perhaps not. Either way, he did his job well, imagining a creature whose knowns and unknowns spur further imagining, wonder and dread.