The scariest stories are true…
— Aaron Mahnke, Lore
Lore is one of the finest words in the English language. Lore is something more profound than mere knowledge; it bespeaks a grasp of truth deeper and wilder than mere fact, a plumbing of the mythic depths.
Aaron Mahnke has turned his podcast Lore into a wonderful compendium of weird tales — and it’s now been picked up by Amazon as a streaming video TV series. Because we all crave the lore of the dark edges of our world…
What Mahnke knows is that nothing is as creepy or as scary as a weird tale that happens to be true. Earlier this month, Lore explored my favorite true tale of terror — the story of The Beast of Gévaudan. Take a half-hour and listen to it here.
Once upon a time long ago in rural France, in a land known as the Gévaudan, a young shepherdess was found dead, slaughtered by a mysterious bete féroce, a ferocious beast. This bloodthirsty monster then attacked and killed others — children, women, and men — bringing about a never-ending night of dread that lasted for three long years… *
The Beast of Gévaudan conducted its bloody reign of terror from 1764 to 1767 in a remote, isolated region of the highlands of southern France, a dark corner of Europe that had changed little from medieval times, a roadless, rugged frontier.
Three-hundred-and-fifty miles south of the glittering palace of Versailles…
France was a primeval world of water and brimstone, where aqua pure ran its own course through yawning gorges thousands of feet beneath otherworldly volcanic peaks. Tangled forests were home to fearsome creatures, real and imaginary. Peasants resided in isolated villages, making their livings as weavers, lacemakers, farmers and charcoal burners. Here children as young as five years old… were put to work, often as caregivers of livestock. Herd girls and boys, sometimes with siblings or children of neighbors, would guide cattle and sheep to highland pastures and bring them home at day’s end. Some might overnight in huts near their animals. Predators took livestock all too often, but youthful guardians learned they might fend off attackers with staffs or homemade pikes they made themselves by lashing knives to poles or branches.*
In the three terrible years of the Beast’s reign, some 200 people were attacked in a region of about 60-by-50 miles across this internal frontier of Old France. Perhaps more than one hundred were killed. Most of the attacks were on women or children. The Beast eschewed livestock to go directly for human prey. Most of the victims were partially devoured. Some were decapitated.
Not all attacks were successful. A young livestock tender named Jacques Portefaix defended his friends and fought off the beast with a handmade pike, earning royal accolades, an all-expenses paid education and a military position as an adult. Marie-Jeanne Valet battled the Beast with a pike and won, leaving it wounded, in an epic struggle in August 1765, which has been commemorated in a famous statue.
The spate of killings caught the attention of the burgeoning print media of the era, and thus the attention of King Louis XV, who was not much of a monarch, but who was a keen hunter. He offered a massive reward for the killing of the Beast, and commissioned several professional hunters to accomplish the mission. Massive hunts brought no success.
Then, in 1766, the King’s Gunbearer, the Royal Lieutenant of the Hunt, one François Antoine, killed a huge wolf, which was stuffed and sent off to Versailles. Antoine was acclaimed the slayer of the Beast. But the killings didn’t stop.
On June 19, 1767, a Gévaudan innkeeper and noted woodsman named Jean Chastel encountered the Beast — another wolf — during a hunt organized by the Marquis d’Apcher. Chastel, in his 50s, was a pious Catholic (which in rural France meant that he was also attuned to the older, pagan spirit of the land). He was armed with a long double-barreled shotgun. His ammunition — purportedly silver balls — had been blessed in advance of the hunt. Chastel’s fire broke the Beast’s shoulder and ripped out its throat. The hunter watched the gleaming eyes dim and pronounced the doom of the dread Beast of Gévaudan:
“Beast, you shall hunt no more.”
Were either of the wolves actually the Beast? What was this terrible bete féroce?
While the safe bet is on a wolf or wolves, there’s plenty of mystery surrounding the case.
The people of the Gévaudan knew wolves, and this was something of a different order — “like a wolf, but not a wolf” as several survivors described it. Theories abound. Some believe the Beast was an African lion, escaped from a nobleman’s menagerie. Or perhaps a hyena. Some believe the Beast was a trained wolf-dog hybrid, armored in boar skin and turned loose on the population by a sadistic killer.
Biologist Karl-Hans Taake, in a piece for the National Geographic Society, insists that the evidence — behavioral and descriptive — points to a sub-adult male lion.
About 95 percent of the carnivore attacks on humans in Gévaudan during the years 1764 to 1767 can be attributed to that single animal that was referred to as la bête: The Beast. There is no doubt that the remaining attacks were executed by rabid and non-rabid wolves. Wolves were a common species at that time and therefore easily recognized by the rural population…
…There can be no reasonable doubt that the Beast was a lion, namely a subadult male. The description of size, appearance, behaviour, strength – it all fits together: the comparison of size with a bovine animal; flat head; reddish fur; a dark line along the spine occasionally occurring in lions; spots on the sides of the body that appear especially in younger lions; a body that becomes conspicuously sturdier from the rear towards the front; a tail which appears to be strangely thin (since shorthaired); a tassel on the tail; enormous strength that allowed the animal to carry off adult humans and to split human skulls as well as to jump nine meters [30 feet]; the use of a rough tongue to scrape tissue from skulls so that these appeared as if they were polished; roaring calls described as terrible barking; a paw print of 16 centimeters [6 inches] length; using claws during an attack; attacking big ungulates by jumping on their backs; throttling victims, that is: killing by interrupting the air flow; a preference for the open country.
Cryptozoologists have their approach to Beastlore; perhaps the bete férouce was a relic species — a cave lion or cave hyena, a holdover from primordial Europe. And one can’t simply dismiss werewolves and shape-shifting warlocks…
Le Pacte des Loups — Brotherhood of the Wolf has its own take, which I won’t spoil for you in case — for some reason — you haven’t seen that wild, delicious, lurid cult classic.
As for us Frontier Partisans — we’ll be content with the mystery. And we’ll keep our shotguns loaded with silver buckshot this Halloween. I thought I saw something slinking through the trees…
* Beast: Werewolves, Serial Killers & Man-Eaters — The Mystery of the Monsters of the Gévaudan, by Gustavo Sanchez Romero & S.R. Schwalb