The Hunters and the Haunted: Blackwood’s Transformation of the Wendigo
by Kirk R. Swenson
Abstract: [page 33] A comparison of the wendigo described in ethnographic literature to the entity of Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Wendigo” reveals how the author adapted the monster of Algonquin lore for readers of popular fiction at the turn of the twentieth century. Aboriginal stories of the wendigo functioned within tribal societies where social cohesion and deference to community needs were preeminent; the monster embodied the horrors of privation where scarcity was the rule. Blackwood’s wendigo, in contrast, is a seductive entity that takes a victim’s life even as it offers consummation with primal beauty. This shift is integral to the story’s dialectic between a conventional masculinity characterized by scientific objectivity and a feminizing susceptibility to the allure of the aesthetic. Defago’s rendezvous with the wendigo is driven by an emotional vulnerability as emasculating as it is fatal. The result is a story that dramatizes key conflicts in early twentieth-century masculinity.
Keywords: apotheosis, phallic, Romantic, sacred, sublime, transgression
A baleful, emaciated beast with a heart of ice, the wendigo1 originates in the folklore of several Native American tribes of the Algonquian language family, particularly the Cree and Ojibway, who have traditionally lived in the Great Lakes region.2 Although it feeds on humans, the creature is feared not only for its anthropophagy but for its power to compel ill-fated victims to adopt its unsavory diet. Those who succumb to the spirit of the wendigo are afflicted with a voracious hunger assuaged only by eating human flesh, a practice which in turn transforms them into wendigos (Brightman 364; DeSanti 188). The British writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) claims that he wrote “The Wendigo,” first published in 1910, after hearing about the creature from a friend “just back from Labrador” (“Introduction” xvii). [page 34] Blackwood’s monster, however, is a distinctive creation, bearing only a faint resemblance to its namesake. By re-imagining the wendigo to comport with his own vision, Blackwood crafted a story riven by the fault lines in early twentieth-century Western masculinity and fraught with what Eve Sedgwick has termed “homosexual panic” (162).
The most far-reaching change Blackwood brings to the beast is also, for a writer of supernatural horror, the most surprising: he frees it of all association with cannibalism. Blackwood’s wendigo eats only moss and compels its victims to do the same (Blackwood 196). The original wendigo’s cannibalism constituted an infraction of a fundamental taboo, as essential to the basis of Ojibway and Cree society as the proscriptions against incest or filicide. It was a taboo, moreover, that reflected considerable fear and anxiety in northern aboriginal communities, where the threat of famine and starvation was very real. Famine cannibalism was resorted to rarely among both indigenous and pioneer communities in the Great Lakes region, and Robert A. Brightman provides a sense of the complex relationship in Native American communities between wendigo beliefs and this rare practice: “While Algonquian windigo ideology posits that cannibalism (among other factors) produces windigos, the thesis outlined here suggests that windigo ideology created cannibalism by convincing some individuals that they were predestined to it” (374). As a cultural construct, then, wendigo beliefs form a site of contested theories and interpretations. But regardless of one’s perspective, it is clear that what Brightman terms the “windigo complex” formed a nexus of beliefs, practices, and attitudes that pertained to threats of famine and privation faced by entire communities. So when Blackwood makes his monster a moss eater, the alteration is profound: the wendigo ceases to be an invasive agent of mayhem and murder; it is no longer the beast that profanes the most basic of communal activities, the partaking of food. By stripping the wendigo of its sanguinary horrors, Blackwood deprives it of much of its original cultural and social potency.
Fundamentally, Blackwood reconstitutes the wendigo as an agent of psychological, rather than social, devastation; his entity ravages individuals, not communities. This is not, of course, a wholesale transformation: a well-known controversial theory holds [page 35] that traditional wendigo victims succumb to a “windigo psychosis,” entailing not only cannibalistic ideation but “an array of maladies, such as melancholy, agitation, social isolation, and aloofness” (DeSanti 188). Brady DeSanti also explores the psychological dysfunction of wendigos in terms of traditional Ojibway beliefs, focusing on the metaphorical resonance of the wendigo’s “icy heart”: “The icy heart demonstrates self-absorption and an estrangement from the human community to which that person belongs…. [I]n most accounts, the windigo travels alone, far away from human beings and even animals” (197). What modern society might diagnose as mental illness, then, has always been integral to the wendigo complex. Blackwood, in his transformation of the creature, achieves a distillation and concentration of this psychological aspect of its power.
Accordingly, Blackwood’s story focuses on the gradual capitulation of a single, vulnerable individual to the wendigo. In keeping with this theme of lonely vulnerability, the characters—four white males and a Native American cook—are on a hunting expedition that has taken them deep into the Canadian wilderness. The Native American, nicknamed Punk, is an instinctive outdoorsman with an ability to sense danger shared only by Joseph Defago, the French Canadian guide, who has a direct connection to Native American sensibilities through an affinity with the old French Canadian voyageurs (Blackwood 158). This connection is concretely illustrated by his ability to detect the approach of the wendigo the same way that Punk does, through the sense of smell; thus, both characters partake of the long-standing Western association between people deemed “primitive” or “savage” and the lower animals. In regard to Punk, the story’s representation of this savagery is ambivalent. On the one hand, he is the object of demeaning racism: in addition to his pejorative name, he sleeps in “odorous blankets” and is given to “superstition” (163, 159). He is also not a member of the hunting party proper; shut out of the hunters’ councils and forays, he stays behind and maintains the base camp. On the other hand, he is the only character aside from Defago who understands from the start the threat that the hunting party faces. The story’s opening episode concludes with him stealing down to the lakeshore, after all his companions have fallen [page 36] asleep, and scenting the air, divining the approach of the wendigo “in a way that only wild men and animals understand” (164). After he returns to sleep, the imminence of the wendigo is registered one last time that night: “The French Canadian and the man of Indian blood each stirred uneasily in his sleep” (164).
While the Native American will have the circumspection to avoid the approaching menace, the hapless French Canadian is targeted for a fall; moreover, the reasons for the fate of each can be found in the same ideological construct—race or ethnic identity. Defago, we are told, was “true to … Latin type, … imaginative and melancholy” (159). He was “susceptible … to that singular spell which the wilderness lays upon certain lonely natures, and loved the wild solitudes with a kind of romantic passion that amounted almost to an obsession” (158). Thus, the same preternatural awareness that functions as a survival mechanism in Punk manifests itself differently in the French Canadian. Being “Latin,” Defago suffers from a fundamentally Western affliction—“romantic passion.” It is this that will render him vulnerable to the wendigo even as he shares Punk’s uncanny sensitivity. And here, of course, we see the strategic reason for Blackwood’s re-envisioning of the wendigo: he has taken a Native American cannibal monster and refashioned it to address a malady endemic to the West since at least the Romantic period: a sense of alienation from quotidian society and a drive to recover in nature something to compensate for this spiritual homelessness.
As a strategy, this adaptation of traditional material is unremarkable. Nothing was more common among popular writers in the early twentieth century than the appropriation of Native American lore to convey the familiar Romantic theme of the alienated outsider in lonely pursuit of a spiritual or aesthetic ideal. Blackwood’s adaptation is distinctive, however, for the way that it implicates Defago’s downfall within the social construction of masculinity. Defago’s “romantic passion” is only one facet of a powerful ideology of adventure that drives the entire expedition. The story dramatizes the inability of three blinkered white males to accommodate a figure who embodies their own fears and desires.
The hunters of Blackwood’s tale have forsaken the comforts of home to test their mettle in the wilderness and hope to return with a moose as a testament to their hardihood. For them, hunting has [page 37] nothing to do with securing one’s livelihood in a subsistence economy. A rite of transgression and violence, it is predicated on a breach of the boundary between civilization and wilderness and functions as an affirmation of masculinity. As a journey of exile and return, such an expedition would also have been marked with the prestige of empire in an age when Europe’s upper classes routinely went forth to all corners of the earth in pursuit of exotic game (Green 67ff.). Suspending normative proscriptions against violence, hunting celebrated physical prowess, savagery, and the “primitive,” and thus legitimized behavior generally regarded as retrograde. “The love of the hunt,” observes Martin Green, “is always backward-looking … [and] such atavism is always an important feature of the cult of adventure and of empire” (68).
A brief profile of Defago’s companions indicates how well they fit into this formulaic enterprise. The party is headed by Dr. Cathcart of Aberdeen, Scotland, a psychologist who has recently published a “book on Collective Hallucination” (158). The doctor is accompanied by his nephew, a Scottish “divinity student destined for the ‘Wee Kirk’” (158). These two figures not only represent Edwardian gentility but are twin custodians of normative discourse: the medical and clerical, respectively. Hank, hired as the lead guide, fits the stereotype of the experienced, resourceful woodsman of frontier stock. Voluble and profane, he enjoys the covert prestige often granted to crude working class figures indispensable to the genteel classes for their practical skills. Defago is Hank’s boon companion, and while the guide admires his trusted assistant’s woodcraft, he regards his occasional melancholy as “the output of a cursed and dismal mind” (159).
By embodying the vestiges of voyageur culture, Defago occupies a pivotal role in the hunting party. For his fellow hunters, Defago’s mastery of voyageur lore offers a vision of a vanishing world, related to Punk’s “dying race” (159), that appeals to their nostalgia for a more adventurous time. Simpson demonstrates this when, alone with Defago on their journey to Fifty Island Water, he invites Defago to sing one of his songs by the campfire at night. He finds “an appealing and romantic flavour about [Defago’s song], something that recalled the atmosphere of the old pioneer days when Indians and wilderness were leagued together, battles [page 38] frequent, and the Old Country farther off than it is today” (170). For Simpson, Defago’s performance accentuates the atavistic transgression into dangerous and violent territory that is essential to the hunting experience.
But this same distinction that makes Defago entertaining also stigmatizes him as superstitious and preoccupied with a realm of childish make-believe. The story establishes this in the first episode, with the silencing of Defago by the practical Hank. As Punk cleans up after dinner, the four hunters are gathered around the campfire on a clear, cold night after a week of failure to sight evidence of a single moose. In the venerable role of the bard, Defago has sung an old voyageur song and has started telling one of his tales when Hank shuts him down on grounds of his infidelity to “the fac’s” (159). When Hank then announces his ill-advised plan for Defago and Simpson to “portage over into Fifty Island Water” in pursuit of moose (160), he appeals to this same glib dichotomy of fact versus fancy to quash Defago’s unspoken objection. Defago responds to Hank’s plan with a pregnant silence and an expression that, to the doctor, indicates “a man scared in his very soul” (161), whereupon Hank explains that Defago is “skeered stiff about some old feery tale” (161).
The tension between the two guides here is more than just a clash of personalities, for Blackwood is demonstrating competing sensibilities that constitute alternative ways of apprehending reality. For Defago, the powers of the imagination harnessed by oral tradition are not just a means of diversion; they are part of the cultural equipment through which he perceives the world. In this, Blackwood is reflecting historical reality: Carolyn Podruchny notes, “The longer voyageurs lived among Aboriginal peoples, the more they recognized Aboriginal peoples’ ‘human-ness’ and came to be influenced by the Aboriginal cultural beliefs” (685). Thus, unlike his three white male counterparts, Defago experiences the wilderness as something more than a proving ground for the masculine drive to adventure. Habitually subject to fits of “melancholy” back in civilization, he has been “invariably cured” by “a few days of the wilderness” (159). If for the others the wilderness is a place of exile, for Defago it represents a kind of spiritual home, a place where the sense of alienation experienced in everyday society is vanquished and a feeling of connectedness [page 39] prevails. Part of that intimacy with the wilderness entails a native’s insight regarding places that are safe and those that are not, and Defago knows intuitively, just as Punk does, that the region known as Fifty Island Water is haunted by the wendigo.
The episode also reveals that Defago’s ethnic difference and imaginative disposition make him vulnerable to attacks on his masculinity, and that Hank is aware of this and takes advantage of it. Hank’s charge that Defago is afraid of a “feery tale” is nothing short of emasculating, as Defago’s impassioned response indicates. “Skeered – nuthin’!” he responds, and asserts that “There’s nuthin’ in the Bush that can skeer Joseph Defago, and don’t you forget it!” (161-62). Defago’s reference to himself in the third person reveals just how much his public reputation is at stake. In sum, Hank has put Defago in a position where the only way he can validate his manhood is to go up to Fifty Island Water, regardless of his fears.
At the outset of the story, then, Defago’s otherness is clearly marked. A “Latin” of romantic temperament, he finds nature imbued with a transcendence and mystery informed by his heritage as a descendent of French-Canadian voyageurs. His companions, oblivious to all of this except as a source of exotic amusement or distracting annoyance, exhibit a conventional masculinity predicated on modern science and its “objective” appraisal of a material world. Anything that does not fit into this common sense reality is dismissed as effeminate, childish, or primitive. So when Simpson and Defago travel east by canoe to Fifty Island Water and an encounter with the wendigo, this ideological divide informs their reactions to everything that occurs. Simpson, a “canny Scot grounded in common sense and established in logic” (185), is awed by the vastness of the wild country, but he is blind to all signs of the encroaching wendigo. As with Punk down by the lake, the key is the primal sense of smell. On their first night alone in camp, a frightened Defago asks Simpson if he smells anything. “Nothing but this burning wood,” responds the Scot decisively (174), demonstrating an insularity that will be his best protection—for Blackwood’s wendigo feeds not on human flesh but the human spirit, and Simpson’s spirit is safely enfolded within the confines of conventional belief.
Defago, however, is not so protected. In a sense, he is exposed [page 40] by his liminality. While his otherness grants him the same preternatural awareness as Punk, he is not a member Punk’s scorned and “dying race” and thus does not share the safety of the cook’s relegation to the base camp (159). In fact, Defago is now marked by guilt. He is the only member of the expedition other than Punk who knew that going to Fifty Island Water meant transgressing onto hallowed ground—land sacred to numinous powers inimical to human welfare. But Defago, burdened by the need to reclaim his status as a man equal to his companions, defied his better judgment and exercised the adventurer’s prerogative to push beyond boundaries. He now realizes that he is marked for retribution: the wendigo, agent of sublime terror, is coming for him.
Faced with this knowledge, Defago reacts with a sense of sacred dread. In Elegant Nightmares, Jack Sullivan observes that “communion with nature in [D. H.] Lawrence and Blackwood shows us that nature is a distinctly ‘other’ form of life to which humanity is profoundly irrelevant” (123). Indeed, even while the wilderness ministers to Defago’s need for a sense of mystery and grandeur, and can thereby cure him of “melancholy,” it also possesses an enigmatic power that is ultimately incomprehensible and indifferent to humans. This is illustrated in a tense moment around the campfire when Simpson reacts with laughter as he compares his “little toy woods at home” with the endless reaches of the Canadian bush. “I wouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Defago advises, and adds, “There’s places in there nobody won’t never see into—nobody knows what lives in there either” (173-74). The sense of awe that Defago demonstrates here recalls the old adage that the sacred is what cannot be laughed at.
The dimensions of Defago’s premonitory terror are conveyed in an episode that takes place after the two hunters retire for the night in their tent. After some hours of sleep, Simpson awakens in the darkness to the sound of Defago weeping: “Defago upon his bed of branches was sobbing in the darkness as though his heart would break, the blankets evidently stuffed against his mouth to stifle it” (176). The sound has a profound effect on Simpson: “This intimate, human sound, heard amid the desolation about them, woke pity. It was ... so pitifully incongruous—and so vain! Tears—in this vast and cruel wilderness: of what avail? He thought of a [page 41] little child crying in mid-Atlantic....” (176, concluding ellipsis in original). Feeling “the rush of a poignant and searching tenderness,” Simpson asks Defago what is wrong while trying to “make his voice very gentle,” and the sound stops (177). He decides that Defago has been “crying in his sleep” (177), and thus Blackwood ensures that, whatever horrors beset Defago, they are, like the mysteries of the wilderness itself, in a place “nobody won’t never see into.” They remain beyond the reach of articulation, and we are left with Simpson’s image of a child “crying in mid-Atlantic.”
The image is striking for the way it establishes grief and loneliness as the signature emotions heralding the wendigo. In fact, the image of the child in the midst of the ocean conveys isolation and helplessness in a way that resonates with countless analyses of alienation in the Modernist period. In a sense, then, on the eve of his abduction by the wendigo, Defago is reduced to a figure of the human spirit left unmoored in an indifferent universe—a tableau that resonates not only with Defago’s circumstances but with the modern, scientific views of his white male companions as well. At the same time, however, the image of the ocean, the “Atlantic,” is a stock figure of what Thomas Weiskel terms the “Romantic sublime” (3-33) and recalls the contradictions of Defago’s predicament: even as he is faced with sacred dread, his otherness has marked him with a fascination for the otherness of nature: its immensity, its indifference to the merely human, its mystery. Defago feels all this more intensely than his companions, and to be susceptible to these feelings is also to be susceptible to the call of the wendigo, which does, when it finally comes for him in the cold light of dawn, call Defago by name.
This direct address not only offers an ironic counterpoint to the loneliness of the isolated child, but also conveys an intimacy that partakes of the wendigo’s eroticism, a quality that becomes evident once Defago has been spirited away. The third-person narrator, who assumes the role of an interlocutor who has gleaned the story via interviews with the surviving members of the hunting party, relates that Simpson describes the wendigo’s voice as “A sort of windy, crying voice … as of something lonely and untamed, wild and of abominable power” (179). At dawn, that power compels [page 42] Defago to dart from the tent “so astonishingly fast that [his] voice could actually be heard dying in the distance” (179). The words Defago calls will become his signature utterance throughout his time with the wendigo: “Oh! Oh! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire! Oh! oh! This height and fiery speed!” (179). In short, the creature bears Defago aloft, in the process transforming his feet into appendages so misshapen that, during a brief interlude when he is dropped back to earth among his companions, they present a spectacle too disconcerting for words. Among the few statements he makes during this respite, Defago says he is having “a reg’lar hell-fire kind of a trip” (199) and claims, “I seen that great Wendigo thing, … I been with it too” (202), before being swept back up into the night sky and shouting again about his “feet of fire.” Simpson, who becomes the story’s focal character after Defago’s abduction, initially searches for his companion in a frenzy characterized as “the Panic of the Wilderness [that] had called to him [Simpson] in that far voice—the Power of untamed distance—the Enticement of the Desolation that destroys. He knew in that moment all the pains of someone hopelessly and irretrievably lost, suffering the lust and travail of a soul in the final Loneliness” (187). Later, Dr. Cathcart, assuming his clinical role as expert on hallucinations, will explain that the wendigo’s victim’s “most vulnerable points … are said to be the feet and the eyes; the feet … for the lust of wandering, and the eyes for the lust of beauty” (196).
These passages and others like them –with their references to “enticement,” “lust,” and “burning” appendages; evocations of exhilaration, rapturous speed, and pain confounded with delight; even the allusion to the pagan deity of carnal desire in the phrase “Panic of the wilderness”—endow the wendigo with a libidinous quality. Thus, while Podruchny discusses the original wendigo’s affinities with the werewolf (681ff.), Blackwood’s monster has more in common with the modern vampire—a creature with powerful erotic associations. Like the vampire, Blackwood’s wendigo operates within a dialectic of fear and desire3: it targets those deeply sensitive not only to the terrifying indifference of nature but to its sublime beauties as well. Also like the vampire, the wendigo subjects its victim to a disturbing mix of euphoria and violence that drains the victim of life. At the story’s end, a physically normal Defago (his feet are restored) wanders in a daze [page 43] back to the hunter’s base camp, but he dies within weeks—“bereft of mind, memory and soul” (207). Thus, while his companions’ lack of sensitivity and awareness insulates them from the contaminating power of the beast, for Defago, the experience of penetrating the wilderness entails being ravaged in turn, pulled into a vortex at once fatal to his integrity as an individual and yet thrillingly transgressive. In sum, Blackwood has transformed the wendigo from a cannibal monster into a seductive creature that annihilates one’s identity even as it offers consummation with primal beauty.
That beauty, however, belongs to the Canadian wilderness, not the wendigo. Indeed, Defago tells Simpson the night before his abduction that the monster “ain’t supposed to be very good to look at” (175). But Blackwood, a master of the uncanny, knew better than to describe its appearance. Indeed, none of the characters, besides Defago, ever actually sees it. Nonetheless, in the end, the surviving hunters are left to make sense of Defago’s fate as best they can, including the bizarre interlude at the campsite at night when he drops from the sky and exposes his misshapen feet to Hank and the doctor. “Only once, years later,” says the narrator, Simpson asks the doctor about what he saw. “It is far better,” replies Cathcart, “you should try not to know, or to find out,” and he refuses to say more (205). Cathcart’s silence here recalls Defago’s inarticulate weeping in the tent the night before he is spirited away, as well as the silencing of Simpson’s laughter by the campfire that same night. It suggests that, by the end of the ordeal, even Dr. Cathcart’s confident grasp of reality has slipped a bit. His scientific mind has come up against something about which it is “far better” not to speak. “To this day, perhaps,” the narrator remarks, “he is not quite sure of certain things” (205).
If the doctor has been so affected, it is because the alienation that divides Defago’s consciousness is ultimately not Defago’s alone. Blackwood’s monster, after all, is conjured from ideological conflicts constitutive of modern, and particularly masculine, consciousness. By the time of the Modernist period in which Blackwood wrote, the male-dominated, Western drive to subdue and control the forces of nature had been central to Western consciousness for centuries. Moreover, no generation of [page 44] intellectuals was more eloquent or incisive regarding the losses incurred by this ideology than that of the Modernist period. Max Weber, for example, famously wrote of the “disenchantment of the world” (155), while the German philosopher Karl Jaspers argued that the relentless empiricism of the “natural sciences” accelerated a “despiritualization” of the world that had begun with Christianity’s project of banishing the pagan spirits and locating the sacred in a transcendent God who stands above and apart from creation (20). As William Patrick Day observes, “[S]cience banished the marvelous and fantastic from reality, and the immeasurable became the unreal” (9).
Nonetheless, as many artists and intellectuals have noted, the bourgeois male’s penchant for rendering nature transparent to the penetrating gaze of instrumental reason and reducing wilderness to the raw material of industry and commerce did not end nature’s power to humble human consciousness or inspire fear and awe. On the contrary, a persistent need to acknowledge the mystery that exceeds the compass of empirical order spawned a benighted realm of unreason, a reservoir of repression that fired the imaginations of writers and readers alike. But accessibility to reason had become the sine qua non of all things safely human, and thus the denizens of this dark realm were cloaked in fear and anxiety; they were not only unknown but in some sense unknowable. Moreover, as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White remind us, such objects of fear also become objects of loathing and disgust, and “disgust always bears the imprint of desire” (191). Mapping the familiar split between enlightened reason and the benighted unconscious onto a dichotomy of “high” and “low” discursive sites, they write, “These low domains, apparently expelled as ‘Other,’ return as the object of nostalgia, longing, and fascination. The forest, the fair, the theatre, the slum, the circus, the seaside-resort, the ‘savage’: all these, placed at the outer limit of civil life, become symbolic contents of bourgeois desire” (191). Out of such “symbolic contents” Blackwood conjured both his wendigo and Defago’s “burning feet of fire.”
Given this analysis, it is not surprising that Dr. Cathcart’s refusal to speak of Defago’s “burning feet” seems motivated in part by disgust: “[Y]ou should try not to know, or to find out” what they looked like, he says, implying that the knowledge is [page 45] somehow taboo. His repulsion recalls Hank’s outburst when the guide first catches sight of the appendages at night beside the campfire: “His feet! Oh, Gawd, his feet! Look at his great changed—feet!” (203). Hank, like Cathcart, never describes what he sees, and Simpson catches only a “passing glimpse of something dark and oddly massed” (203). But we also know that Simpson, by tracking the abducted Defago through the forest before he becomes airborne, has learned that the deformed feet replicate those of the wendigo, whose tracks in the snow are described as “big, round, ample, and with no pointed outline as of sharp hoofs” (183); in addition, they exude a “sweet yet pungent odour” (183) and exhibit a “mysterious, reddish tinge,” also described as “fiery” (185). When all this is considered in light of the erotic nature of Defago’s experience—in particular the refrain about his “burning feet of fire”—the suggestion that there is something phallic about these feet, both the wendigo’s and Defago’s, seems inescapable. If, then, the wendigo in some sense seduces Defago, it is a seduction in which a man is possessed by a beast that may be regarded, in part, as an agent of male rapacity.
The homoeroticism here reflects inevitable gender anxieties inscribed in a story about men on a hunt—a ritual affirmation of manhood—at a time when many forces were challenging traditional norms of bourgeois masculinity.4 Defago, moreover, may be regarded as a signifier of several of these disruptive forces, making him a focal point for the gender anxieties of his companions. We have noted, for example, his vulnerability to Hank’s disparagement of his manhood as a way of provoking him to go to Fifty Island Water. In addition, as a source of voyageur lore, Defago is preoccupied with what his companions regard as superstition, fantasy, and stories long disparaged as “old wives’ tales.” At a time when bourgeois men defined themselves by their assumed mastery of a “real world” that could be measured, exploited, and reduced to matters of “fact,” nothing was more emasculating and feminizing than association with such “fanciful” material—and to be effeminate in the early Modernist period, as Eve Sedgwick and others have made clear, was to evoke popular stereotypes of homosexuality (93-94, 217).5
In addition to effeminacy, Defago’s imputed childishness and [page 46] identification as “Latin” also connect him to these stereotypes. By the Victorian period, Sedgwick notes, “[A] gentleman will associate the erotic end of the homosocial spectrum not with dissipation, not with viciousness or violence, but with childishness, … a mark of powerlessness” (177). We have only to recall Defago’s helpless weeping in the tent at night with Simpson, eliciting from the latter the image of a “little child crying in mid-Atlantic,” to see the extent to which Defago fits this typology. There is also, of course, Hank’s withering accusation that Defago is afraid of a “feery tale.” Dr. Cathcart, as well, is implicated in these attitudes: early in the story he speculates, paternalistically, that Defago “might cause trouble somehow” (163), as though the guide were an unruly child. Finally, as a “Latin,” his ancestral origins place him within the “Sotadic Zone,” famously posited by Sir Richard Burton in the 1880’s in the “Terminal Essay” appended to his Thousand Nights and a Night (Sedgwick 182). This work popularized for the English the notion that an area including “the Mediterranean and the economically exploitable Third World” was particularly permissive in regard to homosexual behavior (Sedgwick 183).
Susan Johnston Graf observes, “The underlying sexual energy that threads its way through Blackwood’s narratives is always embraced as part of the all-encompassing, supreme energy of nature” (92).6 In “The Wendigo,” however, that “sexual energy” is inscribed within a discourse that Sedgwick has termed “homosexual panic,” defined as “the modern, intrapsychic, potentially almost universal extension of the secularization of homosexual anathema” (162). This discourse charts the fate of Defago and shapes Blackwood’s conception of the wendigo itself, summoning a vision of the “supreme energy of nature” as phallic nightmare.
One might see Blackwood’s wendigo as the apotheosis of a male principle driven to ravish “the virgin land” even as it decimates the assailant himself. Western literature, after all, is part of a tradition in which the wilderness is gendered female and ravaged by agents of “civilization” who are invariably men. Annette Kolodny, for example, writes that “the American landscape has … been experienced as … the female principle of gratification itself, comprising all the qualities that Mother, Mistress, and Virgin traditionally represent for men” (150). This has resulted, she argues, [page 47] in a discursive tradition in which experience of the land as female “is variously expressed through an entire range of images, including eroticism, penetration, raping, embrace, enclosure, and nurture” (150). Along similar lines, Arthur Brittan writes in Masculinity and Power: “[M]en-as-scientists … not only compete with each other, but they do this in the context of objectifying and mastering the world. Nature is there to be tamed. […] The hypostatization of nature as female is exemplified in the imagery of sexual penetration” (176).
While Blackwood’s monster reflects Modernism’s concern with subjectivity, alienation, and the “return of the repressed,” it is noteworthy that culture critics of the late twentieth century put the wendigo to polemical use by invoking its cannibalistic roots. In 1992, for example, historian Jack D. Forbes published Columbus and other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism.7 Forbes explains that “Wétiko is a Cree term” translated as “windigo in Ojibway” (24). For him, the creature provides an apt metaphor for the exploitation that the West has unleashed upon the world. “Cannibalism, as I define it,” he states, “is the consuming of another’s life for one’s own private purpose or profit” (24). In a subsequent work, Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil, Paul Levy has written in the same vein, further developing Forbes’ critique. “Those afflicted with wetiko,” he writes, “consume, like a cannibal, the life force of others—human and nonhuman—for private purpose or profit, and do so without giving back something from their own lives” (13). One wonders if, by stripping the wendigo of the nuanced otherness of Blackwood’s vision, these writers have exposed the real specter haunting his story of 1910.
1. While windigo is the standard spelling, I have used Blackwood’s variant except when quoting other authors.
2. According to Robert A. Brightman, “The windigo complex is the consequence of a unique historical and cultural trajectory, and although its constitutive meanings and practices … may resemble those of other societies … , the mode of integration is distinctly Algonquian and … limited to the cultures of people now identified [page 48] as Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi, and Ojibwa-Saulteaux” (362).
3. In positing this dialectic I am indebted to William Patrick Day’s In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy.
4. Peter Schwenger, for example, notes that “the goal of manhood is less directly attainable in the twentieth century than ever. […] No longer is there an assumed understanding about manhood; no longer do comfortable generalities suffice. […] Manhood is asserted as always, but never so easily as before” (8-9).
5. According to Elaine Showalter, by the 1890’s one common stereotype held that “[h]omosexual men were people born with a high percentage of essential femininity” (172).
6. Along the same lines, S. T. Joshi quotes from Blackwood’s “The Regeneration of Lord Ernie”: “For all energy, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual, is fundamentally one: it is primarily sexual” (qtd. in Joshi 110).
7. This is a revision of an earlier work originally published in 1979 under the title A World Ruled by Cannibals.
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---. “The Wendigo.” Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, edited by E. F. Bleiler, Dover Publications, 1973, pp. 158-207.
Brightman, Robert A. “The Windigo in the Material World.” Ethnohistory, vol. 35, no. 4, 1988, pp. 337-379. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/482140.
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Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. U of Chicago P, 1985.
DeSanti, Brady. “The Cannibal Talking Head: The Portrayal of the Windigo ‘Monster’ in Popular Culture and Ojibwe Traditions.” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 27, no. 3, 2015, pp. 186-201. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/617446.
Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press, 1992.
Graf, Susan Johnston. Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune. SUNY Press, 2015.
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Levy, Paul. Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil. North Atlantic Books, 2013.
Podruchny, Carolyn. “Werewolves and Windigos: Narratives of Cannibal Monsters in French-Canadian Voyageur Oral Tradition.” Ethnohistory, vol. 51, no 4, 2004, pp. 677-700. Project Muse. muse.jhu.edu/article/174393.
Schwenger, Peter. Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and Twentieth-Century Literature. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
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MLA citation (print):
Swenson, Kirk R. "The Hunters and the Haunted: Blackwood’s Transformation of the Wendigo." Supernatural Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 33-49.