I don’t see much winter here on the Gulf coast. This year has been particularly hot and humid, nearly reaching our record highest temperature for December at 82 F and utterly confusing my poor blanket flowers, which continue to bloom sporadically. (Someone send me a snow cone or something.)
Winter has become, in itself, this fantastical thing to me—the unicorn of weather phenomenon, something seen once a decade by those bold and brazen enough to wake in the wee hours of morning to catch a glimpse of this intangible snowy substance that melts before it can even settle upon the ground. It’s no incredible feat for me to imagine entwined amid this fleeting climatological magic there could be something mysterious and mystical. Ethereal creatures floating about in a swirl of snow, ghostly apparitions howling in the cold dark, demons with frozen hearts—is it so strange that such stories surround such a solemn time of year, both beautiful and deathly in its pallid cold?
Winter folklore piqued my interest some months ago when I fell into the rabbit hole of building lore for a northern kingdom in my book series. In particular, I was researching fantasy monsters that frequent wintry escapes. Having a smattering of warriors sitting around a campfire amid the snow-covered, forested hillsides and recounting stories of flame-wielding heroes fighting ice giants or some such adds a nice flourish to a fantasy setting, after all. How convenient that I left my tabs open to be plucked from the browser pile, dusted off, and reinvestigated as the perfect topic for a December blog post.
Here are three fantasy monsters to incorporate into your wintry mix:
You’ve finished running your errands in the village, and while it took you longer than expected, you think you did well to secure the loan for your farm. It’s what you need to make it through to next year’s harvest, and your wife will be pleased. It’s late, and you trudge up the hillside, desperate to make it home before it gets too dark. Winter is already upon the land, and as dusk approaches, the full moon peeks out from behind a roll of clouds that recently dusted the world in fresh snow. You pull your cloak tighter and hurry along the road, eager for the warmth of your home and your wife’s cooking, but the road becomes further and further buried beneath the recent snow. You pause a moment and question your path.
“Hello, traveler,” says a voice, the voice of a woman.
You turn and find a strange lady standing beneath a tree along the roadside—or what you assume to be the roadside. She is as stark white as the kimono she wears, hair as black as the darkening sky behind her—a beauty of contrasts. She appears some delicate thing, her gentle smile waiting for your reply, but your tongue seems lost. You notice at last how thin her clothes are for such a cold night.
“A-are you lost?” you ask. “What are you doing out here? It’s freezing.”
The woman smiles graciously. “I live nearby. Are you sure you aren’t the one lost?” Her eyes round with concern.
You frown with some confusion. “Live here? I don’t ever remember passing any house on this road.”
She giggles. “Oh, you are lost then! There’s no road for some ways. I doubt you’ll find it again in all this snow.” She looks at you bashfully. “Come. I have a place for you.” And she beckons with a pale, perfect hand for you to follow.
You glance once more in the direction you were walking, trying to discern the road, but to no avail. The snow has piled high over the ground, and though you hate to admit it, she’s right. There is no finding the road in so much snow. With a guilty ache in your chest, you turn and follow this strangely enchanting woman up the hill and into the nearby woods. She glides slightly ahead. Yet as you follow her deeper into the forest, you see no lights, no fences, no indication of a warm house in the distance, only the deep snow and the trees and the back of this quietly gliding woman.
The snow crunches beneath your boot, and you pause, suddenly realizing how quiet it truly is. Your steps were the only crunch in the snow, and as you look back over your shoulder, there is only one trail of footprints behind you. That is when you feel it—a hand so cold it could be the hand of Death itself.
When you wrench back around, the woman is smiling, eyes flashing a strange shade of violet. “Welcome home,” she whispers as ice encases your body in the frozen motion of panic. She leans in gently and presses her blue lips to yours, and you feel the life draining from your body, leaving you as cold as the ice and as cold as the woman who lured you astray. Having her fill, the snow woman disappears into a thin mist and floats away on the cold breeze.
The yuki-onna of Japan has a myriad of tales associated with it, all dependent on which region of Japan the tales originate out of. Whether a wife or a vampire, whether benevolent or malicious, the yuki-onna or “snow woman” is the spirit of a woman that’s encountered by travelers in the snow. She may have herself died in a snowstorm. Sometimes she leads travelers astray; sometimes she helps them find their way. Some more popularized tales even involve her marrying a man she saves from a snowstorm, only for it to end tragically later. She’s known for being remarkably beautiful and ageless though her appearance can vary from tale to tale. In one she may have long black hair or blue hair or hair as white as the rest of her, but in almost every rendition she wears a white kimono and bears a name associated with snow. In some more modern tellings, when the yuki-onna is discovered, her beauty melts away to reveal a disgusting and often mummified creature beneath.
The kimono of the yuki-onna itself is interesting in that it’s wrapped right over left, which is generally reserved for the deceased. Normally, kimonos are closed left over right in Japan. Seeing this reversed on a person could be a telling sign that you’re dealing with something from beyond the grave.
As an avid hiker, you’ve an appetite for tackling the formidable with a perseverance some would call reckless. Your latest obsession finds you at the bottom of Mount Katahdin, the tallest mountain in the state of Maine. You’ve heard the weather can be fickle atop the mountain; but today the air breathes in the warmth of first spring, and the sky is a brilliant blue without a single cloud in sight. The locals had mused over your appearance about town, offering bits of advice and sharing folklore about the mountain with overeager grins.
“The mountain doesn’t always like strangers,” one had warned. “Sure you don’t want a guide?”
“Never needed one before,” you had replied.
You never follow anyone’s path but your own. You grin eagerly at the challenge before you and, adjusting the pack on your back, head up the forested mountainside.
The locals had some interesting stories, to say the least. “There’s a snowbird spirit there, so reckons the Penobscot. The spirit of the mountain. Sometimes it takes travelers. Abducts ’em right up into the sky.” Apparently, the stories were as old as the Penobscot people who had long lived around the mountain before the first English colonists had settled in the region. Traveling up the mountain was taboo to the Penobscot, and you feel a twinge of uncertainty as you trespass farther up the mountain. Or perhaps it’s a twinge of guilt for disrespecting their stories.
But you brush aside the feeling and press onward. You don’t know what it’s like to give up, to give in. This is just another challenge to overcome. The ground grows steeper beneath your feet, the air thinner. You glance at your wristwatch. It should be midday, yet the sun seems strangely obscured and the forest canopy oddly dark. It’s growing colder the further you climb, the nip of winter intruding into the promise of spring that the valley had offered. You pull your jacket close, snapping close the top few buttons to protect your bare neck from the encroaching chill.
As you climb around a rocky protrusion and come to rest on its flat top, you look down at the progress you’ve made. Overhead, a rumble of thunder startles you, and a sudden wind whips your hair. It brings with it an unexpected blast of snow that sticks to your face. You wipe the snow away with confusion and glance up at the ever-darkening sky.
“A snowstorm? In spring?” you mutter in awe.
The snow begins to fall harder, forcing you to retreat into a small crevice you find in the mountainside. You huddle shivering, rubbing your bare hands for warmth. You had worn thick boots and jeans and a sturdy jacket but nothing that might prepare you for a snowstorm like this. The wind whips in an icy blast, shaking the trees and scattering their freshly budding leaves. Your watch ticks by the minutes, the hours, until finally the storm subsides, leaving great snow drifts and a sickly fog in its wake.
Dumbfounded, you emerge, and there he sits waiting: the snowbird. His talons sink in the thick snow as he approaches. His brown wings fold elegantly behind his back, and he straightens his manlike body and snorts. The face that glares fiercely down at you is no man’s face though, nor anything so lovely as one might imagine on a snowbird. Its a face with a long snout covered in brown fur and crowned with broad antlers. You could do nothing but collapse on your knees before it, all bravado and zeal outweighed by the magnanimity of such an unbelievable sight.
“You disturb me,” he growls.
“I’m sorry,” you manage to squeak. “I’m so sorry, oh mighty…” but your words choke off in horror. His name—what was his name?
The creature grimaces. “How disrespectful. You do not even know to whom you speak.” With a mighty snap of its enormous wings, it rises in the air with a thunderclap, yanking you up into the air with its talons. So much for bold independence. Now you would be just another intrepid hiker lost to the mountain, another warning tale to be told by grim locals.
Pamola is the name of the snowbird spirit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, and its name literally means “he curses the mountain.” Pamola may be similar in some ways to the thunderbirds found throughout Native American lore, but he’s also distinct in that he’s considered the harbinger of winter, often bringing snowstorms and inclement weather to deter travelers from climbing his mountain. The Penobscot legends describe the creature as a temperamental spirit that demands respect, a respect that correlates well with the respect that should be shown to the fury of winter itself. There are various tales throughout the 1800’s of Pamola abducting people who attempt to climb his mountain, and usually its’ for being disrespectful or disobeying some promise made to him. Even today, if the weather seems foreboding, people are warned not to climb the mountain and incur Pamola’s wrath. He’s said to have the wings and feet of an eagle, the body of a man, and the head of a moose.
David Thoreau himself was once thwarted by Pamola in his attempts to climb Mount Katahdin. When he undertook the climb in 1846, his guides refused to accompany him, citing the poor weather conditions as a sign of Pamola’s potential retribution. Undaunted, Thoreau continued on without them, only to be forced back by dangerously thick fog. He later wrote in his book The Maine Woods, “Pamola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of K’taadn.”
For a student of wildlife conservation, this was to be a dream come true: the opportunity to travel to Baffin Island in the Nunavut territory of Canada and study the endangered Baffin Island wolf. The reality is a bit less fantastical. Research is mostly slaving over spreadsheets to catalogue data and reviewing hours worth of footage from the outdoor cameras set up around the wildlife preserve. The field work is little better as it’s mostly hunting for tracks, scat, and potential feeding sites. You’ve yet to actually lay eyes on a real Baffin Island wolf.
You pull into the driveway of your cabin after another day of endless slogging and shut off the engine. You didn’t think anything could be worse than a dorm room, but this dusty, rundown cabin makes you long for your old cramped space. There’s no one for miles around, very little heat save for an old space heater, and a leaky faucet that keeps you up all night. At least the tundra is breathtaking with its frigid sylvan charm.
Your eye lands on the snow-covered yard. Something has knocked over your garbage can again and strewn trash all over the yard. “Damn raccoons,” you mutter as you step out of the truck and slam the door behind you. As you pick up the toppled garbage can and lean over to pick a scrap of paper from the ground, you notice what seems to be a single track in the snow, one far too large to be a raccoon’s.
You squat down to examine the track. “Canine. Too large for a Baffin Island wolf.” You sigh. “Maybe a gray wolf. A very large gray wolf.” After all, gray wolves are known to inhabit the area, but the track is big even for that species, which can clock in as much as 180 pounds for a mature male. It’s odd though that there’s only one track. As you move around the yard picking up the rest of the trash, you look for more tracks but find nothing.
For now, you put it out of mind and head inside, shrugging out of your winter gear and pulling off your boots. You heat a meal in the microwave and settle on the small, worn sofa with a blanket and your laptop. You pour through more scientific journals on the Baffin Island wolf, gathering as much information as you can for your project.
There’s a bump outside, and you look up, going quiet as a rabbit, listening. Another bump.
Leaping to your feet, you grab your jacket in one hand and your flashlight with the other, trying to tug one on and flip the flashlight’s switch at the same time. Only one arm in your jacket, you pause to throw open the front door and switch on your flashlight. The garbage can is on its side again. With a gasp, you throw the light around the snow-covered yard, and it catches briefly on something moving along the periphery, something large and pale. It shuffles out of the light.
A polar bear, you wonder, fearing the worst. Your breath is floating away in the cold night air, coming in quick short bursts. You inch your flashlight’s beam in the direction of the animal.
It looks up and snarls, and before you even have a chance to balk at its massive hairless form, you feel the first wave come over you. Your body goes rigid, the flashlight falling with a clatter to the floor. It spins, casting a disorienting flicker of shadows over the porch. Your body tremors violently. You feel yourself falling, and you can’t stop it. Your body hits the wooden floor of the porch, and again you feel yourself writhe uncontrollably.
Everything goes black for a while. When you wake, you’re still lying on the porch, shivering from the cold. You sit up, disoriented. The flashlight is lying next to you where it fell, its beam pointing off into the night. Nothing stirs. Somehow you gather yourself, pull on your jacket and a pair of boots from just within the open doorway, and pick up the flashlight. You walk to where the trash can is lying on its side and cast the light across the ground, looking for evidence of what you had seen.
There are no tracks. You point the light toward where you saw that creature, but there’s no evidence it was ever there. Was it really there?
The qiqirin is a dog spirit originating from Inuit mythology, particularly around Baffin Island. It’s said to be enormous and hairless but for tufts around its feet, tail, mouth, and ear tips. Like some giant terrifying version of a Chinese Crested. The hair around its feet sweeps away any tracks it leaves in the snow, making it elusive. Preferring the solitude of the most northern and isolated regions, the qiqirin is normally terrified of humans but has been known to occasionally ambush travelers in the snow. Those that come too close will be sent into violent convulsions, allowing it to escape. You can scare a qiqirin off by calling its name aloud.
Interestingly, Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story about two young Inuit hunters encountering a rather benevolent qiqirin. The story “Quiquern” is included in his collection of short stories The Second Jungle Book.
Alas, the one lament of the holidays is that I have much less time to write on my book between all the decorating and present-wrapping and family gatherings, so apologies for using this blog post to delve a little into the creative vein. I mean, the holidays are more a time for whimsy than seriousness anyway. I hope this variation from my usual posts provides at the very least some briefly entertaining escape from the hustle and perhaps inspires a little whimsy and interest in the cold-loving creatures of fantasy and lore. Nature has always provided us writers with an interesting duality of beauty and danger, and winter is no less fierce and fearsome a muse than other forces of nature. Often romanticized, often terrifying, winter can provide a unique setting for both the magical and morose, and the lore and creatures that come from it will likely be equally magical and morose.
So how does your world handle the perils and practices of winter? Do they celebrate its magnificence? Do they fear its cruelty? Do they have legends of overcoming the hardships of winter, or dire fables to scare children into the safety of their homes? Let me know in the comments!
And if you’re hellbent on more ghoulish creatures, then pop over to The Compendium of Arcane Beasts and Critters and check out Traci Shepard’s Monster Map
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