‘Most people chose to sleep when daylight faded.’
I seem to recall owning a mass of these Time-Life books as a child, but where they’ve disappeared to is sadly another story. The book I am writing about here was a gift a couple of years back, and came from one of the finest bookshops in the land – Bookcase in Carlisle, a place you could easily wander for a week. Anyway, Night Creatures is, like it’s twenty siblings; absolutely stunning, with the highest quality illustrations, durable paper and strong, hardback covers.
Chapter One – Perilous Paths Through The Dark features an edited version of Beowulf, followed by a more general discussion of creatures of the dark from around the globe. The writing is elaborate but not to the point of excess. It’s beautifully dark and alluring, drawing you in so you hold the book tighter, closer to yourself and get lost for a few hours or so.
‘These beings were vestiges of chaos, remnants of a formless time older than human reckoning.’
Doesn’t that sentence taste so devilishly delicious on your tongue? The (multiple) editors of this book have crafted each sentence with precision, creativity and a strong, heady dash of darkness. What I absolutely love about this book is the fact that every page or so, I’m introduced to something new, or my knowledge about some dark force is enhanced.
‘In Greece, the night goddess – first child of Chaos – was called Nyx. Darkly fecund, she gave birth to a host of terrors. Doom and disease, pain and strife, sorrow and age were her children, and she was the mother of those same-seeming twins, death and sleep.’
When the talk comes to that of how the night has influenced the human race over the centuries, I find myself making myself that bit more comfortable in my seat and allowing a grin to snake its way across my face.
‘By day, the world presented an orderly picture: in the shadow of bristling castle towers, linen smocked farmers, attended by flocks of greedy cows, ploughed and sowed and harvested; white-wimpled goodwives tended their hearth plots; blacksmiths worked their forges; children played in the fields. But that cheerful order began to dissolve each afternoon when the shadows lengthened. In the twilight, all made for shelter. The crows gave their last, harsh calls and took wing for their woods. Lowing cattle , their bells clanking dully, were driven into their byres. Grandmothers herded flocks of geese to the haven of pens. Then the curfew sounded, tolled by a bell or called by a horn, and lords and ladies retreated to their fortresses and dropped the gates…the darkness that blanketed the turning world in those days is hard to envision now.’
Within chapter one, there is also talk of those who choose to stay out when the moon is heavy, and I’m reminded once more of exactly why I love these books and admire the researchers behind the contents.
‘If he was wise, his walking staff was made of rowan – mountain ash. The rowan was the Northmen’s ancient World Tree, the source of life and guardian of humankind. Travellers also clung to certain objects that recalled the light of day, hoping that these might cast day’s grace on them and shield them from the dark. Among such charms was the field-grown daisy – the cherished “day’s eye” of the British, which opened its petals to the sun each morning and closed them again at nightfall.’
It’s always exciting to come across a creature in British folklore who I haven’t already encountered. On this occasion it was Black Annis.
‘Said to be a descendant of an ancient, bloodthirsty goddess, Black Annis was one-eyed, livid-faced and long clawed. She haunted the Dane Hilld and, at twilight, crouched in an oak tree. This tree, the last vestige of a forest that had covered the land before history began, evidently gave her special shelter. She waited patiently for passerby, but her special victims were children. These she flayed alive with her curving claws, but the pathetic little skins she took to a cave in the hills…’
Chapter Two – Visitations From The Realm Of Shadow is another chapter laden with dark tales from all sorts of places, of creatures, spirits and demons I’ve never heard of. I particularly like the tale of the Nocnitsa – or night hag – of Polish folklore, who was said to torment children whose mothers had failed to bless them at bedtime. She would tickle their bellies and feet and suck blood from their veins, all for the pleasure of hearing the babes cry. The night hag would disappear if a parent entered the room, but would leave behind a mark – as they were a bringer of fever and disease. Chapter two also explores the realms of sleep, and talks about how it was ‘an intimidating mystery.’
‘Every man and woman who looked upon a sleeping companion knew the fleeting loneliness of seeing the beloved and familiar face become remote and expressionless, locked away in the solitude that is the human lot. Everyone knew the pang of tenderness at seeing the sleeper, alert by day, sink into an unwatchfulness as vulnerable as a child’s. The sleeper’s stillness seemed a little death, and indeed, people named sleep death’s brother.’
There is also talk of staying safe whilst asleep.
‘Some never slept with their heads to the north, where lay the land of death and darkness. Some placed their shoes by their beds with the pointed toes facing outwards…’
Chapter Three – Blood Feasts Of The Damned naturally contains some generously gory vampire tales, but there are others who steal through the shadows too, such as The Child-Eater Of The Black Forest, otherwise known as the witch, or flesh eating ghoul from the tale of Hansel and Gretel. There’s a particularly interesting section which lingers on the subject of blood magic.
‘Humankind from earliest times, revered blood’s magic vivifying power and cherished it as the most precious of substances, the river of the life force. The highest sacrifice that could be made was that of the blood of living creatures…Among the Norse, even sailing vessels were consecrated with blood: The Vikings ran their longships over the bodies of prisoners before sailing, so that the keels might be reddened to honour the sea gods.’
The fourth and final chapter The Way Of The Werebeast is a succulent, fulfilling chapter, where I learnt that ‘a werewolf’s howl was more mournful that that of a wild wolf because it was a lamentation.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about the less sombre version of Little Red Riding Hood, ‘when hollow-bellied wolves prowled near human paths.’
‘Terrified she whirled to run, but the wolf was quick, and his teeth met in the red cloak in an instant. Then he feasted slowly and pleasurably on the rosy flesh and sweet young blood of Red Riding Hood. What he could not eat he carried away in chunks and buried for a later meal.’
Night Creatures was first published in 1985 a year before I was born, and I can tell you that it could have been penned yesterday. The tales and illustrations within this wonderfully eerie and insightful publication are timeless, and will continue to hold a place in time no matter how many lights are ignited in an attempt to brighten the night sky.
Publication Details: Time-Life Books/1985/USA