For anyone just joining us, over the course of the month of April, I’ll be looking at several of the most intriguing monsters outlined in Katharine Briggs’ excellent book An Encyclopedia of Fairies. I’ll also take a moment or two to explain what about them I find compelling (or not), and what we can learn about creating monsters of our own for use in our fiction.
And so, without further ado…Nuckelavee!
Nuckelavee is a monster of Scottish extraction, and, as Briggs observed, “the Scots are experts in horrors.” She goes on in more detail:
He was an Orcadian sea-monster, a kind of hideous centaur, for like a centaur he rose out of a horse’s back and had no human legs. He came out of the sea and spread evil wherever he went, blighting crops, destroying livestock, and killing every man whom he could encounter.*
Those who claim to have seen Nuckelavee recount a true horror. The “horse” part of the Nuckelavee had a giant, gaping mouth that could swallow a man whole. Strange fins hung about his four legs, testimony to his aquatic origin. Out of his back rose the distorted, legless torso of a huge man. Sitting atop the massive shoulders was an equally huge head (about a yard in diameter) on a neck that apparently couldn’t support its weight. According to the witness Briggs quotes, it lolled back and forth unpredictably, “as if it meant to tumble off.” The “man’s” arms were abnormally long and hung down almost to the ground. Horrible as all this was, worse was Nuckelavee’s complete lack of skin. According the the witness, Tammie,
the whole surface of it show[ed] only red raw flesh, in which Tammie saw blood, black as tar, running through yellow veins, and great white sinews, thick as horse tethers, twisting, stretching and contracting as the monster moved.
A monster among monsters, it would seem. A number of artists on the internet have tried to capture Nuckelavee and so far I haven’t seen the definitive treatment that really imparts what seeing Nuckelavee directly must be like.** Nuckelavee is an abstract study in human terror.
And that is why, for me personally, Nuckelavee has never been that frightening–it is a compilation and desecration of specific “normal” elements that I would guess someone creatively constructed because they think that all of those things must be more terrifying together than they are apart. The result lacks, for me, believability.*** I am frightened most by monsters that I worry might exist outside the imagination. In Nuckelavee, I see someone’s attempt–albeit an able one–to manipulate me with fear by combining the elements they expect will frighten me the most, and I therefore find that I am more likely to resent it more than I am to be afraid of it. No one likes it when he realizes that someone is trying to fool him.
Still, there are a few points of instruction that I take from Nuckelavee:
- The corruption of the familiar: Things that are truly and completely alien frighten us on one level. The familiar frightens us on quite a different one. Nuckelavee is constructed of several basic elements that would have been very well known to the Scots who first heard about him–horse, man, and fish. Their unnatural combination and their explicit corruption are part of what makes this abomination seem so evil.
- Disproportionate bodies: It is interesting to me that while the basic size and description of the “horse” part of Nuckelavee is generally proportional to normal horeses, when we look at the “human” parts of him, we see that the various body parts are grossly exaggerated, particularly the head and the arms. That feeling of complete disproportion is something that makes almost everyone uncomfortable.
- Inverted biology: The most frightening part of Nuckelavee is his skin–or complete lack thereof. By inverting his insides and his outsides (while being completely impractical for any living being) Nuckelavee is playing on the human race’s almost universal fear of blood. Many people are terrified by the mere sight of it, and especially at the prospect of seeing internal organs or other squishy parts. Nuckelavee is simply the walking, trotting, embodiment of that basic hemophobia.
- Subtlety: Finally, I learn the most from how Nuckelavee fails to scare me. Everything that should frighten me is there, all piled into a convenient package sent down from central casting. Where he fails is in subtlety. There comes, I think, a point of diminishing returns with monsters, and Nuckelavee has galloped past it. His creators took the approach that more is better, but they piled it on so thick that they undid themselves.
One has to wonder exactly how hammered the Scots had to get in order to dream up this particular brand o’ beastie. It is, without doubt, one of a kind.
Next week: The Wild Hunt and my own encounter with it!
*I find myself echoing Captain Jack Sparrow: “I wonder where the stories come from then?”
**For instance, neither of the pictures I used for this article come close to getting the sense of that huge, lolling head.
***If, God forbid, I meet Nuckelavee in person, I’ll be glad retract that last bit.
Other posts in the Briggs’ Beasties series: