Review – Wendigo Lore: Monsters, Myths, and Madness

I’m jumping back to my horror roots quickly to return to one of my favorite topics: the wendigo, the anthropophagous monster of Cree and Ojibwa myth. Back as an undergraduate, I did considerable reading on this topic, and I even wrote an article on windigo psychosis for The Unspeakable Oath many, many years ago. My college-age self would have loved my review copy of Chad Lewis and Kevin Lee Nelson’s Wendigo Lore: Monsters, Myths, and Madness, and I can enjoy it as well, with a few reservations.

Wendigo Lore Book Cover

The windigo phenomena is a complex one that has seen much transformation over time, beginning with the monsters’ appearances in Native American legend and history and leading to the present-day media landscape with its inexplicably horned monstrosities. What Lewis and Nelson have set themselves out to do is to be comprehensive about the topic, bringing together First Nations legends, pioneer diaries, newspaper accounts, anthropological analyses, and today’s folk traditions.

I’m not a windigo expert, but I did so some poking around in the literature about the legend a while ago, and I did come into this book with a list of sources that I considered crucial for inclusion. To their credit, Lewis and Nelson managed to find all of them. The only sources I think they missed were Brian Lumley’s Ithaqua novels, but that doesn’t affect their argument much.

Wendigo Lore begins with an introduction to the geography of windigo myths and an exploration of the windigo myth. It then dips into particular places and events, dealing with trials of windigo killers and locales where windigo folklore has been particularly strong. The authors devote a chapter to windigo psychosis, curing the windigo, and destroying windigo, before moving on to the fictional depictions of the creature. The book conlcudes with a discussion of other ferocious beasts of legend that bear some similarity to the windigo. All of this is most satisfying for those interested in exploring the topic, and serves as a comprehensive guide to the topic.

Sadly, a comprehensive guide needs a structure that makes it usable, and this book doesn’t quite come up to that standard. The lack of an index makes tracking down particular people and places difficult. A lesser concern is the lack of endnotes, although a list of references pertaining to each chapter is a nice concession. None of these are necessary for an entertaining read, but those who want to be able to use the book in a more intensive way will find this problematic.

There’s only one other major omission from the book, which requires me to discuss the following quote from the introduction:

The only remaining stumbling block was the poignant question of whether two Caucasian men from the Midwest had the right to tackle such a profound First Nation legend. Would this be just another failed attempt at cultural appropriation?… Yes, unquestioningly, the wendigo is, and always will be, a First Nation legend, much like vampires are forever tied to Transylvania, werewolves to Europe, leprechauns to Ireland and so on and so on. Yet all these monsters are not simply bound by a specific culture, geographical borders, period of time, religion, gender, or belief system. They exist in the deepest recesses of the human brain; they transcend man-made labels and harken back to something darker and more sinister that dwells deep within the human mind.

I think it’s a good question to ask – but it’s not the only one that should have been asked, and the universalist answer gets in the way of that questioning. All sorts of people tell narratives with vastly different content for a variety of motivations in many different contexts. As anyone who has watched a lot of bad movies knows, appeal to the collective unconscious and shared human experience only gets you so far. Whether a story becomes compelling or popular can be due to storytelling ability, language, marketing, or larger political, economic, or cultural trends.

When it comes to a culture’s stories about monsters or supernatural beings, it’s common for outsiders to adopt those stories for their own ends, which often run counter to the intentions or interest of people in that culture. Yet there’s a difference between the appropriation of a story to make a group look backward and superstitious (e.g. those of vampires and leprechauns), and the same to make a group look like backward, superstitious, murderous cannibals. Although the windigo story has taken on a wide variety of meanings as it has been retold, one of the major reasons that European Americans told it was as a tool in service of a broader agenda that led to illness, incarceration, poverty, and death for many people. This usage is likely a major reason that the windigo became as popular as it is today.

Just to be clear, this is not the entire story about the windigo, and I do not think people should stop enjoying windigo media because of its history – although I respect anyone’s choice to disengage with it. That history is a key part of the story that the book barely addresses, however – maybe a quick mention in connection with one of the cases. The rest of the book shows that the authors would have been up to the task – but they didn’t really ask the question, and I feel it is a drawback to what is otherwise a good and enjoyable work.

What can I recommend? If the last few paragraphs resonate with you as a reader, I’d suggest reading Shawn Smallman’s Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History first, as that’s a scholarly work that deals in more depth with the uses of windigo stories. I would still recommend Wendigo Lore, however, as a handy, easy-to-read reference on these fascinating mythologocial creatures.

Published in: on June 20, 2020 at 10:01 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting & informative review. I confess I have not thought much about Wendigo, other than Derleth’s and Blackwood’s tales. I’m sure the original sources have much more interesting things to say than what one finds in popular fiction.
    I don’t know if you are old enough to remember the days of Live TV, but Walter Mathau once starred in a rather chilling and scary version of Blackwood’s tale. I can still hear in my mind Mathau, in his gravelly voice, “My feet of fire…” .
    Stay well,

  2. How would you compare it to Colombo’s “Windigo”?

    • To interpret the question literally, I missed it during my undergrad days, so I’d either have to spend $120+ or try to get it from pickup service from the local research library. Either way, I don’t think I’ll get to it soon.

  3. Werewolves are forever tied to Europe?

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