Talk about one thing leading to another!
When my brother and I were kids, we delighted in the scary stories our dad used to tell, especially the one about a fellow called “Raw Head and Bloody Bones,” apparently a revenant seeking revenge for being skinned alive.
My wife and I spent Christmas at my mother’s house in snowy Christiansburg, Virginia (the small town where I grew up, and which the town of “Hansburg” is based on in my novel, Tamper). My brother, Jeff, and his family joined us for dinner at Mom’s house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t long before Jeff and I were imitating Dad’s deep, ominous intonation, “I’m Raw Head and Bloody Bones and I’m coming to get you . . . I’m on the first step . . . I’m on the second step . . .”
I always associated Raw Head and Bloody Bones with the human anatomy illustrations in The Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that my parents bought in the late fifties. I started out tracing the pictures with thin tracing paper and eventually made my own little comic books. To my mother’s consternation, I drew skeletons, hung with gruesome veins and muscles, chasing terrified victims. This can’t be good, she probably thought.
I don’t know where my father first heard of Raw Head & Bloody Bones, but thanks to Wikipedia, I recently discovered that the legend goes back to 16th Century Great Britain and eventually spread to the United States. It can be found in the 1550 edition of the Oxford Dictionary and in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Cambridge University Press, 1902 edition, pg 117). Wikipedia doesn’t tell us if Locke was for or against using the tale for educational purposes.
In some stories, Raw Head is a pet hog owned by a witch. Someone steals the hog and butchers it. Outraged, the witch brings the hog back to life and sends it to seek revenge on the man who killed it. A version of that story, by S. E. Schlosser, appears on the American Folklore web site. At some point, it went from being a hog to a man, kind of an old-time Freddie Kruger.
Most fascinating of all, to me, is the Rhys Hughes book, Rawhead and Bloody Bones & Elusive Plato (Tanjen Ltd, 1998), because Rhys Hughes writes the kind of refreshingly weird fiction that I am greatly interested in. Jeff VanderMeer describes Rhys Hughes as “a prolific Welsh writer of absurdist fiction who most closely resembles Italo Calvino and John Barth.”