Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Saturday, 8 May 2021

LEAST WEASELS, CANE WEASELS, WHITNICKS, AND DANDY DOGS - DEMYSTIFYING MUSTELIDS IS THE NAME OF THE GAME!

 
Exquisite 19th-Century colour-tinted engraving depicting a pair of Mustela nivalis, the common weasel, or – to avoid being labelled by pedants as nomenclaturally negligent – the least weasel (public domain)

Back in the mid-1960s, when I was just a small child, I was bought an alphabetically-arranged weekly partwork entitled Purnell's Encyclopaedia of Animal Life that ran for 96 weeks and which when complete yielded six hefty and exceedingly comprehensive full-colour volumes. Edited by famous British zoologists Drs Maurice and Robert Burton, these red-bound fact-filled, photo-brimming tomes totally enthralled me, and I read them over and over again. Moreover, I still own them today and they remain an extremely useful, informative source of reference. Indeed, it is perfectly true to say that this wonderful publication quite simply transformed my life as a budding zoologist, unveiling a vast array of extraordinary animals that were totally new to me. Crucially, it was also the very first zoological publication owned by me that included the taxonomic binomial names of the animals documented in its countless pages. (These binomial names, which trace their origin back to Linnaeus's revolutionary system of wildlife classification back in the 1700s, are commonly referred to colloquially as 'Latin names', even though many are derived from Greek rather than Latin.) As a result, I have been fascinated with zoological nomenclature and taxonomy ever since.

And so it was that while others of my age were memorizing football teams and car makes/models, I was enthusiastically learning the binomial names of as many animals as my besieged brain cells could accommodate, and then some, and I have continued to do so ever since. However, just like every other aspect of science, zoological nomenclature and taxonomy are ever changing, ever expanding, ever modifying as new information concerning the evolutionary origins and relationships of species and other taxa continues to emerge. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that many of the binomials and classifications of animals that I diligently learned six decades ago have since changed or transformed dramatically – but also sometimes confusingly – meaning that I am perpetually engaged in taxonomic catch-up, often having to abandon binomials that I've fondly recollected for countless years in favour of new, unfamiliar ones.

Sadly, these include the very first binomial that I ever learned, from my trusty Purnell's Encyclopaedia.  It was Alopex lagopus, the Arctic fox, which has stayed with me ever since, never forgotten, a faithful reminder of where my enduring passion for such nomenclature began. And then, to my horror, some wretched wrecker of childhood memories in taxonomist form came along (albeit a fair few years ago now), and decided that the Arctic fox did not warrant its own genus, Alopex, distinct from Vulpes, which houses the true foxes, and should therefore be subsumed into their genus. Consequently, to my horror, the first binomial that I had ever leant was no more! Suddenly, "Alopex lagopus the Arctic fox" – the much-loved taxonomic mantra that had chanted happily away to itself in the backrooms of my memory for decades – had been rendered obsolete, jettisoned to nomenclatural obscurity as nothing more from now on than a synonym of Vulpes lagopus. The dread deed was done, and it is now this latter binomial that is recognized as the Arctic fox's official one – but although I outwardly accept it and grudgingly use it when writing about this species, inside my mind the Arctic fox is and always will be Alopex lagopus. So be it, forever and ever, amen.

 
Resplendent in its all-white winter coat, the Arctic fox – forever Alopex lagopus to me! (public domain)

I mentioned earlier here that sometimes the changing of taxonomic names and classifications can be a source of confusion, which is where this ShukerNature blog article's mustelid theme now kicks in and is the reason for my prefacing it with an explanation of how and why binomials have always interested me.

Back when I was a child, most of the wildlife books that I owned readily differentiated three very small species within the genus Mustela. These were referred to as the common weasel (or simply as the weasel) M. nivalis (with a head-and-body length of 5-10 in and a tail length of 0.5-3.5 in, native to much of continental Europe as well as Great Britain but not Ireland), the pygmy weasel M. pygmaea (given as being smaller than M. nivalis, and native to Fareastern Russia, Siberia, and Mongolia), and the least weasel M. rixosa (given as being even smaller than M. pygmaea, native to Canada and parts of the northern USA, and listed back then in the Guinness Book of Records as not only the world's smallest species of mustelid but also its smallest species of any type of carnivoran, i.e. belonging to the taxonomic order Carnivora). So far, so simple – but then it all changed…

 
Size comparison of Mustela nivalis with the European hare Lepus europaeus and a human hand (public domain)

Many years later, I started noticing in books and articles that M. nivalis was now being referred to as the least weasel and being claimed to be the world's smallest mustelid and carnivoran. So what had happened to M. rixosa (and also M. pygmaea, for that matter)? This name-change was especially curious, given that the least weasel M. rixosa that I had grown up reading about was a wholly New World species whereas M. nivalis was a wholly Old World one. To quote the website NatureServe Explorer's 'Mustela nivalis Least Weasel' page as of today, 8 May 2021 (click here to access the full page):

The North American population sometimes is treated as a separate species, Mustela rixosa. Confusion has existed for a long time regarding the taxonomic status of this species [M. nivalis] and its subspecies, particularly in Europe (see Sheffield and King 1994; Wozencraft, in Wilson and Reeder 2005).

How very true! Further research has revealed to me that generally, but by no means universally, taxonomists nowadays deem what used to be called the least weasel (i.e. the New World species M. rixosa) to be merely a subspecies of what used to be called the common weasel (or weasel) M. nivalis, thus renaming it M. n. rixosa, which is fair enough. However, they have also elected (for reasons that entirely escape me) to utilise the latter subspecies' original common name as the name for the entire species.

In other words, no longer is M. nivalis called the common weasel or weasel. Instead, it is now called the least weasel – which to my mind is a totally unnecessary and highly confusing name-change, especially for those like myself who have long known the least weasel to be the name of the New World's tiniest of tiny mustelids, but which is nowadays called Bangs' least weasel instead.

 
In summer and (white) winter coat, North America's least weasel M. (n.) rixosa (public domain)

Moreover, the pygmy weasel M. pygmaea has been demoted to a subspecies of M. nivalis too. As a result, it has been renamed M. n. pygmaea, and is now called the Siberian least weasel instead of the pygmy weasel.

So instead of having a naming system for this trio of mustelids that was not only readily memorable by being succinct but also instantly conveyed useful information concerning them – 'common weasel', 'pygmy weasel', and 'least weasel' clearly revealing the sizes of these three forms relative to each other, self-evidently reducing in size from 'common' through 'pygmy' to 'least' – we now have one that is harder to remember and conveys no information whatsoever concerning their relative sizes. After all, how can we tell which is the biggest, the medium-sized, and the smallest from the names 'least weasel', 'Siberian least weasel', and 'Bangs' least weasel'? And there was I, thinking that the purpose of zoological nomenclature and taxonomy is to simplify animal classification and recognition!

[To make matters even more bewildering: by the 1970s, some authors had begun lumping together what until then had still been M. pygmaea from the Old World and M. rixosa from the New World, thereby creating what was now a circumpolar species. Very confusingly, however, instead of being given a new common name and a new taxonomic name (which would have made much more sense), this composite circumpolar species became referred by its New World component's names, i.e. as the least weasel M. rixosa. Also claimed as a separate species back then was the dwarf weasel M. minuta, smaller than the common weasel and native to parts of continental Europe but not the British Isles… but enough of taxonomic turmoil, time to move on, I think!]

Anyway, if even the scientific naming of creatures is far from immune to introducing confusion where only clarity should reign, how much more so when we turn our attention to local, non-scientific names, as exemplified once again by some ostensibly mystifying monikers of the mustelid variety.

 
Mustela nivalis at the British Wildlife Centre, Surrey, England (© Kevin Law/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Take, for instance, the so-called cane weasel. Also known variously as the miniver, mouse hound, or mousehunt, this cryptic carnivoran was once firmly believed in by many rural folk from southern England, who claimed that it was a discrete, second species of native weasel, one that was even smaller than M. nivalis. Gamekeepers vehemently attested to the reality of this minuscule mustelid, yet no specimens were ever submitted to museums or other scientific establishments for formal examination, and eventually this curious notion of a second British weasel species simply faded away. In a short but succinct 'Nature Note' article in London's Daily Telegraph newspaper for 6 January 1996, previously-mentioned British zoologist Dr Robert Burton offered three suggestions for the erstwhile belief in the cane weasel.

Firstly: M. nivalis is a noticeably variable species in terms of size, which is what had influenced the former taxonomic delineation of M. pygmaea and M. rixosa as separate species in the first place. Moreover, adult female specimens of M. nivalis can often be considerably smaller than adult males. Consequently, it would be easy for zoologically-untrained observers to spy smaller than average female specimens and wrongly assume that they must constitute a very diminutive separate species in their own right.

Secondly: M. nivalis produces two litters in a year. Consequently, it is possible that the so-called cane weasels are actually the tiny offspring of the first litter, which breed before they are full grown in size.

Thirdly: alternatively, it may be that the offspring of late-produced second litters of M. nivalis pass the winter at less than adult size and it is these overwintering under-sized specimens that have given rise to the cane weasel notion among rural observers.

 
Painting of a stoat Mustela erminea in its white ermine winter coat with two least weasels close by, readily revealing how much larger is the stoat – in Gerald Edwin Hamilton Barrett-Hamilton's book A History of British Mammals, Vol 5, 1910 (public domain)

Another English belief in a distinct, smaller than normal weasel species originates in the southwestern county of Cornwall, and concerns the so-called whitnick. According to Cornish language and dialect sources that I have consulted, generally speaking 'whitnick' is simply a local name for M. nivalis. However, on 31 March 1964, a short letter written by Cornish reader S.M. Lanyon that was published in the then-weekly, now long-defunct British magazine Animals enquired whether the whitnick may be something much more interesting and special.

In his letter, Lanyon, based in St Ives, Cornwall, stated that the whitnick is claimed locally to be a cross between a weasel and a stoat, to be plentiful around there, and to have always been so. But was such a creature real, or just a Cornish story, Lanyon wondered. Back then, the editor of Animals was none other than the highly-acclaimed naturalist and pioneering wildlife film maker Armand Denis, who responded personally to Lanyon's letter, Denis's reply being published directly underneath it.

Like Burton would mention many years later in his own above-noted Daily Telegraph article, Denis referred first of all to the noticeable size disparity between the two sexes in M. nivalis (i.e. females being smaller than males). He then speculated that whereas 'cane weasel' appeared to be a special name given to the smaller, female sex of M. nivalis in Kent and Sussex, in Cornwall it was the larger, male sex of this same species that had been given a special name – whitnick – because the possibility that this cryptic creature was genuinely a hybrid of M. nivalis and the much bigger M. erminea seemed highly unlikely. And indeed, I have never uncovered any information concerning verified crossbreeds of these two species, despite having searched diligently during the many years that have passed since I first read Lanyon's letter and Denis's reply to it.

 
Atmospheric colour-tinted 19th-Century engraving of Herne the Hunter with two of his hounds (public domain)

Finally: many years ago once again, I discovered this last snippet of unexpected information relating to weasels and weasel nomenclature in an equally unexpected source. Namely, Africa-based naturalist Peter Turnbull-Kemp's book The Leopard (1967), which I consulted when researching my own, very first book, Mystery Cats of the World (1989) – now republished in expanded, updated form as Mystery Cats of the World Revisited (2020). Here is the snippet in question, in which Turnbull-Kemp recalled an interesting memory from his childhood spent in England:

I myself can remember being warned as a boy against the risks in meeting supposed troops or packs of "bloodthirsty" weasels – known in my part of England by the rather attractive name of Dandy-hounds. Such "dangerous packs were only in evidence in times of extremely hard weather, and rare parties of weasels did in fact appear on rare occasions under such conditions. Needless to say, they were sometimes bold from hunger and possibly with curiosity, but utterly harmless.

I had previously been familiar with the longer term 'devil's dandy hounds', which is one of several referring to the supernatural, spectral hell hounds that according to various stories of British folklore accompany either the devil or the horned hunter Herne during the Wild Hunt. However, I had not previously encountered it in relation to weasels – nor indeed for that matter had I hitherto known about the notion of weasels forming hunting packs during harsh conditions.

Despite Turnbull-Kemp's reassurance that these musteline dandy hounds were totally harmless to humans, however, I subsequently read elsewhere a lurid account of a farm labourer that had allegedly been set upon one snowy, winter's evening by a savage swarm of these mini-mustelids, which he frantically warded off using his cart whip. Also of note is a supposed true-life story graphically entitled 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh!', published in the September 1956 issue of Man's Life (a long-since-defunct American men's action/adventure magazine), and the subject of that issue's eye-popping full-colour front cover painting by Wil Hulsey. However, although presented as the first-hand account of a man who had been attacked by a ferocious weasel pack after lying in wait to discover what had killed 90 ducks in just two nights at his Connecticut farm, and credited to a Mike Kamens, this was actually pulp fiction written under a pseudonym.

 
The fantastic front cover illustration by Wil Hulsey of the story 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh!' by Mike Kamens, from Man's Life, September 1956 (© Wil Hulsey/Mike Kamens/Man's Life/Crestwood Publishing Co – reproduced on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Happily, investigations of mine into the reality or otherwise of dandy hound packs duly revealed that such claims are baseless, nothing more than yet another example of weasel-inspired whimsy. In fact, M. nivalis is a very active but solitary hunter, although sometimes an adult female will be encountered chaperoning her offspring on training forays (the adult male playing no part in their rearing or training). Sadly, Turnbull-Kemp offered no sources or additional information to substantiate his claim that rare parties of weasels do occur occasionally during times of extremely hard weather.

Incidentally, the fact that weasels apparently do not hunt in packs at any time has not stopped the creation of several totally superfluous – and very silly-sounding – collective terms for this species (what is it with the bizarre compulsion to create inane collective terms for animals, even ones that by nature are solitary – other than to bamboozle ardent quizzers??). These include not only a pack but also a gang, a boogie, and even a confusion of weasels, the last-mentioned example being particularly apt, or ironic, given the circumstances!

In summary: intriguing and memorable though they may be, the multi-named Kentish cane weasel (aka miniver aka mouse hound aka mousehunt), the crossbred Cornish whitnick, and the dread droves of dandy hounds must all be relegated to the intangible realms of England's fascinating but entirely folkloric fauna.

 
Weasels Ripped My Flesh! – edited by Robert Deis with Josh Alan Friedman and Wyatt Doyle (© Robert Deis, Josh Alan Friedman & Wyatt Doyle/New Texture – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

If you would like to learn more about the legendary 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh!' story and its fascinating link to equally celebrated music megastar Frank Zappa, please click here to read an article by my longstanding Facebook friend Bob Deis, present on his Menspulpmags website. Bob has also included a reproduction of the original published version of it in his wonderful compilation of 22 classic stories from American men's pulp magazines, entitled – what else? – Weasels Ripped My Flesh!

Also, make sure that you check out Bob's fascinating compilation of cryptozoology-themed stories and reports from American men's pulp magazines – Cryptozoology Anthology: Strange and Mysterious Creatures in Men's Adventure Magazines.

 
Cryptozoology Anthology – edited by Robert Deis, David Coleman, and Wyatt Doyle (© Robert Deis, David Coleman & Wyatt Doyle/New Texture – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

Monday, 3 May 2021

THE MONSTER OF DREAD END - REDISCOVERING A CHILLING CHILDHOOD PRECURSOR TO MY CAREER IN CRYPTOZOOLOGY

 
The dramatic, climactic panel from the legendary comic-strip horror story 'The Monster of Dread End' written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins that first appeared in Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© John Stanley/Ed Robbins/Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

As today has been yet another Bank Holiday Monday of the traditional wet'n'windy, stay-at-home type here in the UK, by way of light(?) relief I'll share with you tonight on ShukerNature a notable cryptozoology-relevant rediscovery made by me during the early hours of this morning. True, its subject certainly may not be notable to everyone, nor may it be what everyone would instantly or at least initially deem to be of cryptozoological relevance. However, my finding of it today almost by chance after having purposefully and diligently searched so many times before yet always in vain swiftly reminded me of how, in spite of its overtly bizarre nature, this very specific, never-forgotten item may well have played a subtle role in cultivating my curiosity about monsters and mystery beasts as a child, inputting only too memorably into the formative mind of a fledgling cryptozoologist the excitement as well as even sometimes the terror associated with such creatures. And the name of this unconventional yet indelibly imprinted source of proto-cryptozoological intrigue? The Monster of Dread End. But to begin at the beginning…

Sometime during the late 1960s or early 1970s, I was bought a very unusual hardback comic book. In outward appearance, it greatly resembled the familiar comic annuals that used to be produced for sale just before Christmas each year by all of the major British children's comics, a fair selection of which I would buy or have bought for me at one time or another down through my younger years. These included such fondly-remembered but long-since vanished titles as The Beezer, The Dandy, The Topper, The Beano (sole survivor today), Sparky, Buster, Cor!, Whizzer & Chips, The Eagle, Valiant, Lion, Tiger, and Jag. However, the contents of the annual-type comic book under consideration here were very different from the innocuous cartoon humour and 'boys-own' adventure serials present in those above-named titles. Indeed, to the impressionable, highly imaginative youngster that I was back then, they were for the most part quite nightmarish, even horrific, and I freely confess that unbidden thoughts about them gave me a fair few sleepless nights as time went on. This no doubt explains why I eventually discarded the book, about 2-3 years after having received it, but even today I can still vividly recall a fair amount of its contents, although I can neither remember its title nor its front-cover illustration.

About 64 pages long and A4-sized, this annual-lookalike comic book contained a series of self-contained stories (somewhere around 10-12, if I remember correctly), each one presented in the traditional panel-type illustration format of comic strips. Some were in full colour, others in monochrome, although red/white was favoured over b/w, as far as I can recall. However, their one common attribute was that the theme of their stories was the supernatural and the unknown, presenting a diversity of fictitious but terrifying tales featuring the likes of malevolent phantoms and other malign presences, fatal premonitions, and monsters – including the afore-mentioned denizen of Dread End, which irresistibly captured in its hideous clawed grasp the near-mesmerized attention and tenacious, abiding remembrance of this youngster just as surely and unrelentingly as it did physically to the numerous children who were its doomed victims in the story.

(Incidentally, I should note here that until this morning's rediscovery I'd completely forgotten that this story's title was 'The Monster of Dread End', having readily remembered its plot and pictures down through the decades but not what it was actually called, which is why I'd experienced such problems in the past when seeking it out. Consequently, I'd concentrated my efforts instead upon trying to recall the title of the book containing it, entering all manner of word combinations into Google's search engine and image search in the hope of assembling a phrase close enough to the book's title for details to appear concerning it and/or a picture of its cover that might elicit some recollections, but nothing ever did. This morning, however, I tried a different tactic, but one that worked immediately. I simply entered 'giant hand sewers comic book' into Google Image's search engine, and up popped several panels from that still very familiar story, together with its hitherto-forgotten title and plenty of other details too, which will be revealed later.) Anyway, back to the story.

 
The very atmospheric opening panel from the legendary comic-strip horror story 'The Monster of Dread End' written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins that first appeared in Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© John Stanley/Ed Robbins/Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Set in an unnamed American town or city suburb, 'The Monster of Dread End' begins with the above-reproduced panel depicting and describing the dismal, derelict tenement blocks of Dread End, long since deserted and cordoned off with an official Keep Out sign attached to the chains encircling this accursed street and its immediate environs. The next few panels provide harrowing flashbacks that reveal how the horrors now inextricably associated with it began. Back then, Dread End was a bustling, happy street called Hawthorn Place – until that fateful early morning when a dead "balled-up thing" was found there, lying on the pavement "like an empty wrapper thrown carelessly aside but somehow still recognizable as having once been human". (Mercifully, no actual image of this object was presented, only the above-quoted description of it, so exactly what it looked like was left to the reader's imagination.) At the same time that horrified observers were gathering around it to stare in shock and revulsion, a panic-stricken young boy came running out of his family's apartment, yelling to everyone that his kid sister had gone missing, her bed empty…

Within a relatively short space of time, several other children from families living in Hawthorn Place also went missing from their beds. On each occasion, their absence was soon followed that same morning by the discovery close by of another of those horrific dead objects, lying on the street in silent, abject testimony to the fully-formed, living, loving child that had formerly existed in its stead. Even when frightened parents boarded up the windows in their children's bedrooms, the anomalous abductions continued, the boards being discovered broken and torn aside, the children gone, and the "balled-up things" found on the pavement nearby. Consequently, it was not long before the street's residents had all moved out, even those with nowhere else to go, content to live on the streets elsewhere if need be rather than remain in their homes and face the unexplained horror of Hawthorn Place. For despite all of their efforts, not only the local police but also the best criminological brains in the business called in from elsewhere were completely unable to discover who – or what – was responsible for this trail of terror and death.

Years went by, and Hawthorn Place, now redubbed Dread End due to its infamy, became encircled by other empty streets, yielding a veritable domain of the damned, a no-man's land of the lost, because no-one wanted to live even close to, let alone within, this sinister street. Nor did anyone ever set foot near it – until one particular night. That was when teenager Jimmy White ventured alone into the grim, dark shadows of Dread End in search of an answer to its foul mystery, seeking the cryptic Monster of Dread End itself, whatever or whoever it may be – because seven years earlier, he had been that panic-stricken young boy who had run outside shouting that his kid sister was missing, her bed empty. She had been the Monster's first victim, her remains being the first of those horrific "balled-up things". Jimmy had vowed vengeance ever since, and now he was here to take that vengeance, although, armed with nothing more than a police whistle with which he hoped to alert any cops who may be patrolling other streets in the vicinity if he should actually encounter his quarry, he was by no means clear about how to do so. Nevertheless, he intended to try, somehow, for his sister.

Hours later, however, with nothing seen or heard, Jimmy conceded to himself that he was probably years too late, that the culprit had no doubt moved on long ago. Yawning and stretching in the first light of dawn, he was just about to do the same, when suddenly, causing him to freeze in mid-stretch, a nearby manhole cover began to rise, then slipped to one side – as a huge five-fingered long-clawed hand covered in livid-green reptilian skin slowly emerged, followed by an unimaginably lengthy, similarly-scaly arm. Were it not for it terminating in that grotesque taloned hand instead of a head, the arm would have resembled an anaconda-like snake, as more and more of its immensely flexible, serpentine form continued to emerge. While an unbelieving Jimmy watched in absolute horror, standing stock-still for fear of alerting this obscene, repellent entity to his presence, the hand and arm rose up against the wall of a building close by, stretching ever upwards, feeling, searching, blind but evidently sentient, and quite obviously seeking prey.

 
Seeking prey – a panel from the legendary comic-strip horror story 'The Monster of Dread End' written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins that first appeared in Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© John Stanley/Ed Robbins/Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Jimmy had no idea what it was or where it had originated, but in that moment he knew with absolute certainty that he had solved the mystery of all of those missing children's gruesome fates, including that of his sister. They had been seized in their beds by this vile abomination, which had been lurking in the sewers of Dread End, and was still living there today, emerging at daybreak in the hope of abducting further victims to sustain its foul existence.

In his shock at what he had just seen, Jimmy lost his grip on his whistle, which fell to the ground, clattering on the pavement. Instantly, the hand and arm shot back down inside the manhole with lightning speed. So although it couldn’t see, this eerie entity could certainly sense the vibration of Jimmy's whistle hitting the floor. That must have been how it had traced its young victims, sensing the subtle vibrations that they had made while lying asleep in their beds all those years ago.

Alone once more amid the foreboding, unnatural silence of Dread End, Jimmy started debating with himself whether he'd be able to escape if he fled, or whether the monster would re-emerge  and grab him straight away if it sensed his movements. Yet even before he had chance to come to a decision, that terrible clawed hand and snake-like arm did indeed emerge – and this time it was moving directly towards him! Again, Jimmy froze, not moving a muscle as the hand groped ever closer, ever nearer to his shadow-concealed form squatting in a dead-end alley. But then it paused, and moved instead towards an open, lidless dustbin (or garbage can to my US readers), lying on the ground right next to Jimmy. Its taloned fingers reached inside, but found nothing there, so as if in impotent rage the hand grasped the bin, and closed its fingers around it, crushing it as if it were made of tissue.

Nevertheless, the bin had apparently distracted the monster's attention from Jimmy, because instead of turning back towards him, the hand and arm, still emerging in seemingly limitless length from the manhole, moved off, groping blindly along a street leading away from the petrified teenager. What to do now? Jimmy stayed squatting in the dead-end alley, figuring that the more of this monster that emerged and moved on down the street, the further away from him its deadly hand would be – until a sixth-sense survival instinct suddenly kicked in. Jimmy looked behind him – and looming directly above him was the hand! Unbeknownst to Jimmy, it had entered a window in a tenement block further down the street, and by a series of sinuous, silent loops of its immensely lengthy, flexible arm in and out of other windows the hand had cunningly doubled back towards Jimmy and had finally emerged from a window overlooking the very alley in which he was crouching!

 
It's behind you! A panel from the legendary comic-strip horror story 'The Monster of Dread End' written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins that first appeared in Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© John Stanley/Ed Robbins/Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

The hand lunged down at Jimmy, but the youth was able to dodge its terrible clawed fingers, yet found himself trapped inside the alley, pressed against its dead-end wall. The hand lunged again, and again, Jimmy desperately striving to avoid its lethal grasp, but then, tiring and flustered, he stumbled, losing his balance. And as the terrified teenager crouched, knowing all too well that he could not escape, the hand triumphantly hovered over him, in an almost exultant stance, like a hooded venomous cobra of death about to wield its fatal strike at last (see the panel opening the present ShukerNature article that illustrates this dramatic, climactic scene).

Then, without warning, a deafening hail of bullets shattered the stillness of the street, round after round after round, from all manner of firearms, and all aimed directly at different portions of the monster's gigantic serpentine length. Its murderous fingers stiffened, and then its entire hand collapsed near to where Jimmy was slumped, prone with fear. Whatever it had been, the Monster of Dread End was no more. Its hand lay palm-upwards on the ground inside the alley, and crimson rivers of blood gushed forth from its arm, which had been blown apart, broken up into several discrete portions by the intensity of the barrage of artillery brought to bear against it.

A number of figures now stepped out of the shadows and deserted buildings where they had previously been in hiding, including uniformed policemen, bazooka-toting soldiers, and plainclothes officials. One went over to the hand and began examining its palm, noting that it contained pores through which the creature had evidently absorbed the blood and other body fluids obtained from its victims after its hand had crushed them.

The police apologized to Jimmy for not having appeared on the scene earlier, explaining that they had always been here and knew all about the monster, hoping that somehow, some day, they would destroy it, but needing to wait until enough of the arm had emerged to ensure their success in killing it when firing upon it, as opposed to merely wounding it. However, it had always retreated back inside the manhole cover at the slightest indication of danger. So when they spotted it pursuing Jimmy, they had poised themselves in readiness, and once a considerable length of its arm had emerged, they saw and took their best-ever chance of ending for all time the monster's reign of terror, and which now, at last, was indeed over.

 
The victorious concluding panel from the legendary comic-strip horror story 'The Monster of Dread End' written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins that first appeared in Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© John Stanley/Ed Robbins/Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Although I hope that you've enjoyed my verbal retelling of 'The Monster of Dread End', nothing can compare to the original illustrated, scripted comic-strip version. So please click here to view (and also, if you so choose, download) this entire 10-page, 44-panel comic-strip story.

As I noted when introducing the present ShukerNature blog article, this comic-strip story may well have helped to incite my cryptozoological curiosity, because even though its own monster was so outrageously bizarre and grotesque, it probably played its part alongside a host of other influencing factors in encouraging my mind to consider whether remarkable creatures still unknown to science might actually exist. True, they were highly unlikely to be anything even remotely as incongruous as this macabre entity, but with Nessie frequently hitting the news headlines at that time, not to mention the Patterson-Gimlin bigfoot film and yeti reports, I was becoming increasingly aware that mystery animals may indeed exist. As a result, and despite knowing full well that it was entirely fictitious, even as a youngster I enjoyed hypothesizing how such a creature as the Monster of Dread End could arise.

Needless to say, I swiftly dismissed any conjecture that the hand and arm may constitute just one limb of a truly colossal sewer-dwelling mega-monster sporting other limbs as well as a head, neck, torso, and possibly even a tail too, because such a veritable mountain of living flesh existing inside the region's sewers would readily block them for miles around in every direction, rapidly causing floods, road upheavals, and all manner of other dramatic indications of its subterranean presence. In addition, unless it had countless arms with body fluid-absorbing hands emerging from manholes the length and breadth of the region concealing this underground horror (a phenomenon that in itself couldn’t help but be noticed pretty darn quickly, let alone the huge body count of victims soon arising from such widespread predation), it assuredly could not sustain such a vast bulk if it relied entirely upon just one single hand to obtain all of its necessary nutrients.

Therefore, I reasoned, the ultra-flexible arm must itself be the monster's body, an immensely long one, but a body nevertheless – not so much a sewer alligator, therefore, as a sewer super-snake or snake-like reptilian entity. But what about the hand? Either  the creature kept its head hidden deep in the bowels of the sewers and hunted by means of a highly-modified tail whose terminal portion had evolved into a grasping, absorbing analogue of a pentadactyl hand, which seemed totally ludicrous; or, admittedly only slightly less so, the hand was actually the creature's highly-modified head instead, again having evolved into a grasping, absorbing analogue of a pentadactyl hand.

Speculative evolution is an engrossing subject in its own right. So even though it would struggle, I feel, to tender a plausible scenario for the morphological development of anything recalling Dread End's dreadful devourer, once again this latter comic-strip cereation assisted in directing my attention and cogitations towards that field of analysis too. In short, 'The Monster of Dread End' story was influential in nurturing my early interests in both cryptozoology and speculative evolution.

 
Front cover of Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

But what is the story of this story? That is to say, who created it, where did it originate, and what else, if anything, is known about it? This is what I was investigating early this morning, and I succeeded in uncovering some fascinating facts. It turns out that 'The Monster of Dread End' was the brainchild of a famous American comic book writer and cartoonist named John Stanley (1914-1993), whose foremost claim to fame was that he scripted (and also drew many of) the much-loved, exceedingly popular Little Lulu children's comic books from 1945 to 1959. However, in 1962 (not 1968, as sometimes incorrectly claimed), Stanley's creativity was channeled down a very different, much darker direction when he wrote all four comic-strip stories in the very first issue (September/October 1962) of a brand-new comic book published by Dell Comics and entitled Ghost Stories (which ran for 37 issues, folding in 1973). As this comic book's specific genre was horror/suspense, Stanley's quartet of stories were aimed at a much more mature readership than his previous work, their subjects all directly linked to the supernatural or unexplained mysteries, and one of these stories was none other than 'The Monster of Dread End', which was vibrantly illustrated by Ed Robbins. The other three were 'The Black Stallion' (no relation whatsoever to the same-named series of children's novels by Walter Farley; click here to view it), 'The Werewolf Wasp' (click here  to view it), and 'The Door' (click here to view it).

Prior to this morning, I had always assumed that 'The Monster of Dread End' was merely some obscure, historically unimportant comic-strip story that had been created specifically for some equally insignificant late 1960s/early 1970s annual-type comic book (i.e. the one that I had owned a copy of as a child). Hence I was very startled to discover when researching this selfsame story today not only that it had actually first appeared in the Sept/Oct 1962 debut issue of of Ghost Stories, but also that almost 60 years after its original publication, this latter issue is still popularly claimed (and has even been voted) by comic book devotees to be the scariest single comic-book issue ever published, and 'The Monster of Dread End' the scariest single comic-strip story ever published (little wonder why I found it so unnerving, albeit fascinating, as a child!).

Indeed, both this issue and this particular story within it have attained legendary status in such circles, to the extent that there is even a Spanish stop-motion mini-movie based upon the Dread End monster (which I'd love to see but haven't been able to locate anywhere online so far – suggestions?), as well as Horror Show Mickey's expanded, 15.5-minute retelling of its story currently on YouTube (click here to view this, which features much of the original comic-strip visuals, although some of its panels have been re-ordered in order to fit the story's reworking by HSM). In 2017, a Kickstarter project was launched by Emmy-award-winning visual effects artist and publisher Ernest Farino whose aim was to fund the production of a professional trailer that could then be utilised in pitching for the production of a stop-motion feature-length movie based upon this iconic story, but sadly it did not reach its targeted goal (click here for further information). Given the sensational CGI capabilities now available to film producers, however, perhaps this latter technology may offer a more viable alternative way forward in creating what could be a truly spectacular full-length Monster of Dread End movie. Additionally, in February 2004, artist Peter Von Sholly created an updated, photo-montage version of the classic original Stanley/Robbins comic-strip story. Simply entitled 'Dread End', it contains several notable changes made by Sholly for instance, Jimmy is now named Stanley (in homage to John Stanley), the "balled-up things" are depicted (not for the squeamish!), and Jimmy's/Stanley's police whistle has been replaced by a mobile phone (click here and here for more details concerning Sholly's adaptation).

I have also ascertained that the still-unidentified annual-type comic book that I owned as a child in which 'The Monster of Dread End' appeared was evidently a compilation of comic-strip stories from a number of different issues of Ghost Stories, because when I checked down lists, titles, plot details, and images from those original issues I found other stories that I can remember from that annual. These latter include 'Blood, Sweat and Fear' and 'When Would Death Come For Daniel DuPrey?' (both of which originally appeared in Ghost Stories #3), written by Carl Memling and illustrated by Gerald McCann.

All that I need to do now, therefore, is discover the identity of this elusive volume. And so until/if ever I do, I shall continue to search for it online and anywhere else that I can, as and when the mood takes me. Call it a work in progress. Obviously, however, if anyone reading this article can offer me any suggestions, information, or assistance relating to my ongoing quest, I would be truly grateful. Who knows – if I do find out what it is, I might even then seek out a copy to purchase and reacquaint myself with its spine-chilling contents. Then again, in view of how they haunted my nights, albeit so very long ago now, might it be best to let sleeping dogs, and absent annuals, lie?

 
Revealed at last! A panel from the legendary comic-strip horror story 'The Monster of Dread End' written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins that first appeared in Ghost Stories, #1, September/October 1962, published by Dell Comics (© John Stanley/Ed Robbins/Ghost Stories/Dell Comics – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
 
 
UPDATE: 4 May 2021
It looks as though I've finally identified the mysterious annual-type comic book that I owned as a child and which included among its creepy, chilling comic-strip stories 'The Monster of Dread End'. From what I've been able to uncover, it was a one-off publication entitled Ghost Stories: Television Picture Story Book, which was published in (or around) 1970 by World Distributors, a leading publisher of annuals in the UK. Not only does its main title directly tie in with that of the original Ghost Stories comic book issues, which were still being published at that time, but in addition its front cover illustration is actually identical to that of Ghost Stories #3. Moreover, its 1970-ish date of publication matches the time when I owned the book. Obviously I need to examine a copy of this publication directly, or at least see a complete listing of its contents, in order to be absolutely certain, but I think it very likely that this is indeed the book that I've been searching for.

 
Ghost Stories: Television Picture Story BookGhost Stories/Dell Comics/World Distributors – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
 
 

UPDATES: 5 & 6 May 2021

My recent success at identifying the above annual-type comic book as the book that I'd once owned as a child around 50 years ago, containing John Stanley's seminal 'The Monster of Dread End' cryptozoology-themed comic-strip story, has in turn inspired me to make renewed attempts (the latest of many) at seeking out two other longstandingly elusive comic-strip stories that I remember so well reading as a child but have never been able to identify or trace since then. So during these past two days this is precisely what I have done, and, amazingly, both searches have again been successful, at long last. Consequently, although neither of these latter two comic-strip story's subject is of cryptozoological relevance, it feels fitting to include details of them here, as their own reappearances in my life are due directly to my having been inspired to uncover them by having rediscovered 'The Monster of Dread End'. So here they are:

 

THE 10,000 DISASTERS OF DORT

Another success duly chalked up in my ongoing "All My Yesterdays" rediscovered memories. This one concerned a comic-strip story that I'd read in some UK boys' comic back in the early 1970s. It was all about the planned invasion of Earth by an advanced alien civilisation due to the impending death of their own planet or sun. But first they had to clear Earth of humanity, so chose to do this by inflicting a massive number of calamities upon us, and which looked as if they were going to succeed until, unexpectedly, the aliens discovered that they had a fatal weakness – our planet's microbes proved lethal to them (H.G. Wells's classic novel The War of the Worlds comes readily to mind here!). I knew that this comic-strip story's title referred to the number of calamities, and that the number was high, but that's all that I could remember re that aspect. As for the comic in which this story appeared: I had in mind Thunder, which I used to have each week, but which finally merged with another boys' comic. Yet when I checked online, I could not find any indication of this story within any of Thunder's issues. Ditto when I tried various other comics that I used to have at that time, including Lion, the boys' comic that Thunder had merged with.

But tonight, 5 May 2021, I finally achieved success, when I discovered that in May 1974, what was then Lion and Thunder merged with yet another UK boys' comic, Valiant, to become Valiant and Lion - and it was in the last few issues of Lion and Thunder before merging with Valiant that the sought-after comic-strip story had appeared. And its title? 'The 10,000 Disasters of Dort' (Dort being the aliens' home planet). It was written by Mike Butterworth and illustrated by Studio Bermejo. I've now found a few sample pages featuring panels from that story, and even an issue of Lion and Thunder in which it appears in full colour on the front page. Moreover, I've learnt that this story had actually appeared previously, in Lion, this original run spanning 18 May to 23 November 1968, in which it had a different ending. However, the Wellsian one had replaced it when reprinted in Lion and Thunder, from 22 December 1973 to 4 May 1974, in order to bring the story to an end in time for the comic's merger with Valiant. It would be interesting to know what its original ending had been.

 
Select pages from instalments of 'The 10,000 Disasters of Dort' in Lion and Thunder, including (far right) the concluding panels depicting its Wellsian ending there (© Lion and Thunder/IPC/Freeway Publications – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

PROPHET OF DOOM

I'm on a roll with my "All My Yesterdays" project - yet another longstanding mystery comic-strip story duly rediscovered. During the late 1960s/early 1970s, I read a comic-strip story in some UK comic annual about a villainous man from the distant future who arrives in our time with a plan to take over the world as its absolute ruler by holding over each major power the threat of destruction via his superior technological knowledge unless a huge sum is paid. But when he jauntily arrives at the office of some major international governmental figure to present his demands, he is shocked to discover that this figure is also from the distant future, and is in fact one of many from there who are here specifically to trap future villains like him. The one odd thing about it that I can particularly remember is that the two future men both had antennae! I also remember another comic-strip story from the same comic annual, all about a space villain named Disastro.

This unusual name provided me me a distinctive clue that I was able to use in tracing the mystery annual, which, as I discovered today, 6 May 2021, turned out to be the 1969 annual for the UK boys' comic Fantastic, containing a comic-strip story featuring the UK super-hero Johnny Future battling the villainous Disastro. But that was not all. It also contained another comic-strip story called 'Prophet of Doom', written by the celebrated Stan Lee and illustrated by Steve Ditko, which had been reprinted from issue #40 of the Marvel comic book Tales of Suspense, which had been published in 1963. And when I checked up the plot of that story, it was a perfect match to my memory of the antenna-sporting villain from the future and his similarly-sporting and originating nemesis. The final clincher was a series of illustrations from this story, which I'm presenting here. So I must have owned Fantastic Annual 1969 at some point (I know that I owned its annual from the following year, because I still do), yet its front cover picture rings no bells in my memory. Never mind, at least I've solved yet another riddle from my comic-reading childhood.

 
Front cover of Fantastic Annual 1969 and a selection of panels depicting the villainous future man from 'Prophet of Doom' (© Fantastic/Odhams Press/Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/Tales of Suspense/Marvel Comics/ – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)