Image from Andy Paciorek’s Strange Lands project's website at: http://www.batcow.co.uk/strangelands
I regret to say that punctuality has never been one of my virtues (numerous though these may be!) - which is why now, at the very end of December, I am presenting here a Halloween-related zoomythological folktale, noting, as my only (feeble) excuse, that the telling of spooky stories is a tradition associated with Christmas too.
As a child, I was lucky enough to receive as gifts from my family a series of large-format hardback books of world myths, legends, and folktales vividly retold by eminent folklorist Roger Lancelyn Green, beautifully illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, and published by Purnell. One of these volumes, Myths From Many Lands (1965), included Green’s retelling of a traditional French folktale, which he entitled ‘The Goblin Pony’. Years later, I discovered that in both appearance and behaviour this story’s eponymous supernatural entity was identical to the Irish pooka, and so fascinated me that a few years ago I penned my own, greatly-expanded version of it, which I reset in Ireland. Since writing it, I have variously thought of including it in some future book of mine retelling legends of mythical beasts or in my planned book collaboration with graphic artist Andy Paciorek re supernatural night creatures. If it is used in the latter, however, it may well need to be trimmed in length, so here, perhaps for the one and only time, and hence another ShukerNature exclusive, is the full-length, unedited version of my pooka tale of terror! Happy New Year!
Commonly associated with lonely pools and other stretches of water, the pooka is one of the most feared of Ireland's solitary Faerie folk, because although it has occasionally been known to assist humans, more often than not the pooka delights in bringing ill-fortune, and sometimes far worse, to those unfortunate mortals who encounter it. In its real but rarely-seen form, this sinister entity resembles a withered old man dressed in rags, but is much more frequently met with in the guise of any one of a number of different animal forms - often a large black-plumaged bird, or a goat, or a huge black dog, or, most innocuous yet deadliest of all, a dark shaggy-coated colt or pony of deceptively playful, harmless demeanour. On first sight, it is easy to mistake a pooka for a genuine animal - until you see its eyes, which betray its true identity by blazing with a scorching, unholy fire. Consequently, it is always best to avoid anything that might be a pooka; otherwise, as I reveal in the following age-old Irish folktale, you may not live to regret your mistake:
It was Halloween, so although she was a weaver of cloth by trade, tonight Molly was spinning tales of wonder and magic instead, regaling her three grandchildren with stories of the pooka, the master otter, the horse-eel, and many other mythical Irish entities - but their attention was beginning to waver. Sean, aged 15, was the eldest of the trio, and had thoughts only for Maire - the fair-haired daughter of their village's new school teacher. Sean's sister, Eileen, just a year younger, was mentally designing the new dress that she planned to wear at the forthcoming autumn fete. Only Patrick, their six-year-old brother, was still listening to Molly's words, although the log fire was gently lulling him to sleep.
Molly smiled, pausing in her story-telling; and, as she did so, Sean stood up. The night outside was warm, and he had decided to take a walk, secretly hoping that Maire might be doing so too, and that they may then happen to meet. His plans were swiftly dashed, however, because Eileen and Patrick wanted to accompany him - so instead of walking into the village, they wandered through the outlying meadows and forests.
Encouraged by the evening's pleasant ambience, the three youngsters strolled further than originally intended, eventually approaching an extremely large, deep pool, which they had never visited before - and with good reason. Traditionally, the villagers kept away from this area, because they believed it to be an accursed place - haunted by sinister shadowy forms.
The pool lay still and dark, a mirror of liquid obsidian beneath a cloudy sky - but when the three youngsters stared into its sable depths a flurry of ripples raced across its surface, and a cold wind began to harry the clouds above. Eileen shuddered, and they were about to turn back for home when, to their great surprise, a frisky pony-like colt suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere, and began frolicking in front of them, at the pool's edge.
It was an uncommonly hairy colt, and as black as the waters of the pool. For a few moments, it refused to let the children draw near, playfully gambolling out of reach as soon as they stretched out their hands to pat it, but it soon quietened, allowing them to stand beside it and stroke its rough, unkempt coat.
Where had this colt come from? It had neither bridle nor saddle, and even its hooves were unshod. Whatever its origin, however, it must certainly have been splashing in the pool, because its coat was very wet - but the evening was warm, so who could be surprised?
Nevertheless, for some indefinable reason Sean felt strangely ill at ease concerning their new-found friend. It was obviously just a trick of the light, but sometimes the colt's long mane appeared to him to be almost alive, dancing even when the breeze had stilled. And occasionally, when its eyes met his own unexpectedly, just for an instant it seemed to Sean as if they were infused with fire - as if bolts of lightning flickered in their fathomless depths.
I've been listening to too many of Granny Molly's fairy stories, he thought to himself, smiling wryly as the colt rubbed itself against his legs, whinnying with pleasure as his fingers rubbed its ears. Suddenly, hardly knowing what he was doing, Sean leapt onto its back, his strong legs gripping its damp flanks, and his hands securing a firm hold around its powerful neck.
Without further ado, Eileen mounted behind him, and there was just enough room for Patrick to sit behind her. When all three were seated, Sean gently tapped the colt's flanks with his heels, and it began to walk slowly across the meadow.
Laughing, they urged it to go faster, and, obligingly, the colt quickened its pace, from a canter into a trot - and then from a trot into a gallop. Alarmed, Sean tried to slow the animal down, pulling at its mane, and calling out, but to no avail. On and on it ran, too fast for them to risk jumping from its back. All they could do was hold on and hope that it would eventually tire. Instead of tiring, however, it seemed to grow ever stronger.
Suddenly, the colt changed direction - to their horror, it was now heading directly for the pool! Frantically, they tried to stop it, but it was too late. Even as they opened their mouths to scream, the creature had reached the water's edge - and as it plunged into its depths, the great pool seemed to rise up on all sides, welcoming the return of its demonic denizen, and engulfing the hapless victims that it had abducted.
The hours had seemed like a lifetime to Molly, as she searched the village and surrounding countryside for her missing grandchildren. No-one had seen them, and no-one knew where they may be. Now, much to her apprehension, she was nearing the dismal pool that everybody had shunned for as long as anyone could remember. Old legends die hard, thought Molly, and some are more than just legends - especially on the night of Halloween.
At that same moment, a shadow moved just ahead, but as she turned to look at it Molly realised that it was not a shadow. It was an old, shrivelled-up man, whose clothes were no more than rags hanging from his wizened body. He gazed briefly at Molly, an evil toothless grin stretching almost from ear to ear, but far worse were his eyes, for as they stared into hers they seemed to glow red, like cauldrons of scarlet flame. Molly shied away in terror, but when she looked back again the apparition was gone, as if it had never been.
Only the cold silver moonlight remained, lighting up the desolate landscape ahead, where now, at the pool's edge, Molly could see three long boulders - or so she thought, until she walked closer. Her heart seemed to explode as she looked down at them - the 'boulders' were her grandchildren, lying cold and grey and still. They had drowned - all three of her grandchildren were dead.
Numb with shock, for a time she was unable to tear her gaze away from this terrible scene, but when she finally looked up she realised that something was moving close by. Out of the night's shadowy darkness, something even darker was emerging. It looked like a pony, a black shaggy-coated colt, throwing its head upwards and neighing as it ran towards her.
Such a merry creature was an incongruous contrast to the tragedy that she had just witnessed, but then, with flaring nostrils and dancing mane, the colt stared up at her - and Molly gasped in horror. Its exultant eyes were suffused with evil, and blazed like glowing coals, aflame with the very fires of Hell! This was no harmless colt - it was a pooka!
Molly staggered back, almost stumbling to the ground, and the pooka reared up triumphantly, its forelegs lashing out at her with razor-sharp hooves. As she fell, however, she dropped her bag, whose contents tumbled out onto the grass. Among them was her Bible, which she instantly grasped, thrusting it up towards the malign beast's face. As she did so, the moon's rays illuminated the bright golden Cross emblazoned upon its cover - and the pooka disappeared.
Please note: Andy Paciorek's spectacular, long-awaited book Strange Lands will be available via mail-order in early 2011, and includes a foreword by yours truly!
STOP PRESS: 1 February 2011 - Strange Lands is now in print! It is available for purchase at: