Wandering with the Wendigo: North American Mythology in Genre Fiction

by Chantal Boudreau

Have you noticed the prevalence of the wendigo or the sasquatch in fantasy or horror stories lately? How about Raven or Coyote? The chenoo? Glooscap? Okay, the last ones are little obscure if you’re not local, but North American natives have a vibrant assortment of creatures and gods in their legends and lore, a treasure trove of tales to be tapped for source material to serve as the basis for genre fiction when you tire of zombies, werewolves and vampires, or have had enough of elves, dwarves and dragons. Some of the more resourceful writers have discovered a means of offering recognizable monsters or heroes which are not the same-old-same-old fare that has been appearing ad nauseum in typical paranormal stories.

Look up wendigo at Amazon and you’ll find dozens of examples listed as science fiction, fantasy or horror, some of them referring to the Marvel comic book character, but many of them associated with the creature of lore. While the ideas are not exclusive to one or two writers, they do not flood the market like the thousands of comparable vampire or zombie books. It’s a horrific concept, a creature that likes to feed off of human spirits or flesh – one that lurks in the wilderness looking for potential prey. There’s also a psychosis associated with the monster, where people could become possessed by the same evil drive to devour the flesh of others. It can make for a very chilling story, in any of its various forms.

You’ll also find examples of the sasquatch or “big foot” in anthologies and novels, sometimes stand alone, sometimes mashed with more common horror creatures like zombies, as in Eric Brown’s Bigfoot War series. Most people are familiar with the legendary beast, thanks to sightings, hoaxes and tabloid features, so why not work them into your story? They might not be as romantic or sensual as some of the other monsters out there, but they certainly can be frightening and interesting, considering the mystery that surrounds them.

Monsters are not the only part of North American legend that has made an appearance in genre fiction. Some of the gods of the mythos have been fodder for speculation as well. Raven and Coyote seem to be the most popular, perhaps because of the appeal of the trickster aspect (something touched on in Neil Gaiman’s popular American Gods), but they are also viewed as creators and are associated with wisdom and humility. I guess this gives them dual appeal.

The mythical elements that carry over into genre fiction aren’t limited to monsters and gods alone. Shamanism and natural mysticism can be found there as well, especially in urban fantasy (Phillip Pullman and Charles de Lint come to mind). I think the notion lends itself more readily to modern sensibilities than the typical witches and wizards of fantasy.

I would have to say it is these influences and a desire to incorporate something esoteric and tribal into my dark fantasy novels, The Snowy Barrens Trilogy, that led to elements of North American mythology making up a significant part of my story, morphed in some ways for an even more extreme fantasy component. It gave the story a distinct flavour and added mystique to the plot.

So the next time you decide you want to read some genre fiction that is both different and yet somehow familiar, consider delving into a novel or short stories based on North American mythology. Take a little walk on the wild side – wander off with a wendigo.

Expect to see the next in The Snowy Barrens Trilogy, The Blood Runs Deep, released in February 2013.

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6 comments on “Wandering with the Wendigo: North American Mythology in Genre Fiction

  1. I was born in Nova Scotia and spent 10 years living in or around your fair province. Some of my very fond memories of being young include camping at Kejimkujik and learning about some of the legends of the Mi’kmaq, including Glooscap. I vaguely remember one legend about how black flies were created.
    In Canada (and in the US), we have a far richer history–and far more fodder for fantasy–than many of us know.

  2. I could not agree more that it’s time to expand the fantasy genre. Dwarves, elves and trolls, vampires and werewolves and zombies make for great stories, and there’s always room for a great story, but I’m getting tired of all the re-hashing of the same old concepts (even though I regularly re-read Tolkein and was thrilled by The Hobbit movie). Let’s look to as many different cultures and sources as we can find for inspiration: North American Aboriginal, Asian, African and more.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Scott! I find Asian mythology (especially Japanese) to be full of intriguing characters. The problem with Asian mythology is that modern Asian horror has gone way over the top and given a lot of people a bad taste in their mouth.

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