FROM MURDER BY TYPE: A Post By Yrsa Sigurdardottir

The real writers who post on Murder Is Everywhere provide something interesting, thought-provoking, and often funny each day of the week.  Yrsa Sigurdardottir writes about the culture and history of her native Iceland.  This post is about the differences between ghost stories and mysteries.

Writing a ghost story is different from writing a crime novel. Other rules apply and although there is more freedom where reality is concerned there is less in other aspects such as conventional investigating. The plot takes second place for the bulk of the novel as atmosphere must be in first place to activate the goose bumps.
A lot of the ghost or horror stories in traditional Icelandic folklore are creatures. They are not very frightening to modern day man although they must have evoked terror in people a long time ago. Many of these monsters lived in lakes or the sea, which is understandable as such waters were such a huge part of life in Iceland and still are.
In 1874 an animal called Katanesdýrið – the Katanes animal – was seen lurking around a lake in Hvalfjörður on the west coast of Iceland. The animal was described as the size of a dog and was noted to disappear into the lake or appear out of it. Not many took these stories seriously as the only people who reported seeing the animal were teenagers and no drawing based on these original descriptions exist. A year later grown-ups began to catch sight of the monster which had used the winter to grow a bit and had reached the proportions of a calf. No sightings occurred during the following winter but lo and behold, in the summer of 1876 a good number of them took place, and the monster  was reported yet again to have grown. It was now the size of a bull, a bit longer and equipped with a tail similar as one sees on dinosaurs. The monster’s body was white, the head reddish, each short foot had six powerful claws, the strong jaws had four large and sharp fangs and funnily enough it had drooping ears like those on a beagle. The animal had no fur or scales.
Being aquatic the Katanes animal was a good swimmer, moving extremely quickly under the lake’s surface. It was not as swift on land but enough to catch unsuspecting sheep and eat them. It never approached cattle or horses but was seen looking at men and licking its chops, sometimes trying to catch them – never successfully. It was noticed becoming more and more malevolent and ferocious. Understandably people began to worry, a furless monster with killer claws, growing larger by the minute, is not something you appreciate lounging around your neighborhood. Shepherds refused to herd sheep unless provided a horse and in daylight. People also began to worry that the main road from to the north would shut down as it passed by the Katanes lake. Travelers no longer took the road unless in armed groups as they feared attack by the monster. The worst case scenario was that the whole of Katanes would be deserted, as would neighboring farms and towns.
The locals became increasingly upset and a delegation was sent to Reykjavík to request a grant from the then governor of Iceland to pay for the cost of ridding the countryside of the monster. The governor (Danish) was obviously a very smart man because he said that they would get their very substantial grant when they brought him the head and the tail of the monster, or if possible the whole monster alive. The delegation returned home, estatic with this proposal. They set about finding the best marksman available in the county and offered an exceptional salary for these services. Once convinced they had their man they arranged a constant watch around the lake. The watchmen were to immediately notify the awaiting sharpshooter if they saw the beast appear from the lake.
News of this got out and people flocked from all over to witness the capture of the infamous Katanes monster. Some of the spectators came armed with guns, knifes, clubs or other weapons that could be used in case they met it face to face. But while the crowd and the sharpshooter were at Katanes lake the monster never appeared. There was one incident it was believed to have attacked two men on a road in the middle of the night but they were unable to give an account of what happened as it was too dark. They could not see their attacker, it was even too dark for one man to see the other. But the attack was chalked down to the Katanes animal nonetheless. One of the men looked as if he had been rolled around in the mud while the other was in a bad way, had a broken jaw and a couple of his teeth knocked out. They had been walking along the road from seperate directions, i.e. they had not been walking together, when ambushed at the exact point on the road where their paths crossed. OK – are you are thinking what I am thinking? Probably.
Soon after this “attack” the locals were not able to afford to keep the sharpshooter on duty and he went back home, a lot richer than when he arrived. The onlookers also left and only the locals remained, now a lot more worried. It was apparent that the monster was not only ferocious but also smart. It had realized the danger posed by the sharpshooter and the crowd, and had kept a low profile. To make things worse the sightings began again.
Now a decision was made to empty the lake by digging a huge ditch to the sea. Catching or killing the animal on dry land was much easier than underwater. This plan did not work. The lake is still there, no less deep than in 1876.
But luckily enough the monster simply disappeared on its own. The same locals that were so adapt at negotiating and planning set forth two theories as to what happened to it. One was that the animal was actually sea monster and that had accessed the lake through an underwater tunnel through which it had now made its exit. The other theory was also tunnel based, but this tunnel lead to a lake in the neighboring county. This lake, Skorradalsvatn, had long been known for a monster living within it so this seemed like a likely scenario.
Skeptics believe the whole thing was made up by shepherds in order to be provided horses by their employers. If so the monster was Iceland’s first attempt at a labour union.
There will be no Katanes monster in my ghost story. It would just mess up the atmosphere.
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