Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Truth About RAWHEAD REX Part I - Excavations

Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals naughty children from their homes,
Takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again.
- Northern British Nursery Rhyme

Much like many of my literary heroes, such as as the late great R Chetwynd-Hayes, the arcane field of monsterology as long been a fascination of mine. For monsters are born of our primal fears, and as such taxonomies may be constructed placing these horrors of the imagination in families according to the root terrors they are spawned from. Indeed we should note that the very word 'monster' reflects this symbolic nature in its etymology, being as it is derived from the Latin 'monstrum' which, as well as being a term for a hideous beast that evokes fear and wonder, also means 'omen'. Hence the sighting of a monster in the ancient world was not just fodder for a hair-raising tale, but a sign with a hidden meaning to be to be deciphered from the creature's chimeric make-up. 

However it is often claimed that much like jokes and plots, there are only so many monsters that can be made. And to certain degree this is true, given the same archetypal loins they are birthed from. However as cultures change, different beasts and bogeymen come haunt the shadows of our minds, with old fears gaining new faces. And while some, such has the Dragon and the Ghost never fade away, others disappear into the mists of history.  But as every student of all things monstreal knows, sometimes they come back. Take for example the strange case of Raw-head...

Now then, many of you will be familiar with Rawhead Rex, the tale of an ancient pagan man-beast released to wreak havoc in the modern word, penned by the legendary Clive Barker, and brought to the screen in a less than legendary fashion by George Pavlou. Equally I'm sure many of you too, will be thinking that the titular Rex is one of those unique products of Barker's celebrated imagination. 

Well that's not strictly the case, for until his appearance in The Books of Blood Volume III (Sphere 1984), Rawhead was a long lost English monster, surviving only in fragments collected by folklorists. For example, the great MR James remarked in the opening of this tale An Evening's Entertainment -

Nothing is more common form in old-fashioned books than the description of the winter fireside, where the aged grandam narrates to the circle of children that hangs on her lips story after story of ghosts and fairies, and inspires her audience with a pleasing terror. But we are never allowed to know what the stories were. We hear, indeed, of sheeted spectres with saucer eyes, and — still more intriguing — of ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ (an expression which the Oxford Dictionary traces back to 1550), but the context of these striking images eludes us.

As we may infer from the above passage, unfortunately none of the tales circulated about Rawhead and Bloody Bones survived into the modern ages. However the fact that stories featuring these night-terrors must have been commonplace is evidenced by the number of references to them alongside the usual monstrous suspects. For example, in John Jeffere's drama Buggbears (1564), we have a monster shopping list that includes - 

Hob Goblin, Raw-Head, & bloudie bones and ouglie hagges Bugbeares, & helhoundes, and hecat the nyght mare

And a few years later in 1566, one  John Rastell notes in Booke III of his A Treatise Intitled, Beware of M. Lewel - 

There is not that Discretion or Consideration, by which they may put a difference betwene their Grandmothers tale of Bloudy bone, Raw head, Bloudelesse and Ware woulf, and the Churches Doctrine of Hell and the Deuill.

And aside from the tales relating to this particular bogey being lost and leaving us with tantalizing reference to ponder, there seems to be some confusion over whether Rawhead and Bloody Bones are one monster or two: sometimes they are listed separately and sometimes together as Rawhead-&-Bloody Bones.

Certainly after the 16th century, the terms appear separated in regional folklore. For example, there a references to local bogey named 'Tommy Rawhead' in East Anglia, Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, whereas in Somerset and other parts of the South, tales were told of Bloody Bones.

In some places, these figures haunted caves, cliffs and stretches of water, preying on the the unwary and serving as a convenient warning to keep the young and foolish away from naturally hazardous locales. In others, they were evoked as a warning against bad behaviour, being said to come to carry off and devour those who did not heed their teachers, parents or masters.

But what was this beast actually like? Well the Oxford English Dictionary provides a hint in its definition of the term -

A bugbear or bogeyman, typically imagined as having a head in the form of a skull, or one whose flesh has been stripped of its skin, invoked to frighten children. Also occas.: a skull. Freq. used in conjunction with bloody-bones (see bloody-bones n.)

Further more detail is provide by folklorist Katharine Briggs in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (Routledge 1967) who quotes Ruth Tongue's Somerset Folklore which relates that Bloody-Bones  -

 ...lived in a dark cupboard, usually under the stairs. If you were heroic enough to peep through a crack you would get a glimpse of the dreadful, crouching creature, with blood running down his face, seated waiting on a pile of raw bones that had belonged to children who told lies or said bad words.

However scholars subsequent to Dr James have not unearthed any specific tales; we still have no trace of any actually stories detailing this being's exploits. At least not in his native land, for evidently the presence of Rawhead & Bloody Bones was so widespread in the English oral tradition, that this mysterious yet rather busy beast, crossed the Atlantic with the early American settlers.

However in the New World, he was somewhat redefined. Although his name was still frequently used as a by-word for bogeyman, over time he changed shape and formed some new stories. Instead of a gore dripping spectre, Rawhead became a demonic razorback, but still retaining his appetite for violence and human flesh. A typical version of the story, as told in Missouri can be found here.

But what of the British Rawhead? Well he appeared to slowly fade away, along with many other traditional supernatural predators like Jenny Greenteeth and the Redcap, largely forgotten except by the afore-mentioned collectors of folklore and students of monsterology. However the need for monsters is ever present and it was only a matter of time before a certain Mr Barker was to reawaken him...

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