Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Monday, 22 September 2014

Franklin's Curse

(With apologies to Farley Mowatt [5])

It is now three weeks since we became trapped in the ice, he wrote, hand trembling and knuckles aching.

He paused to warm his fingers over the lamp before continuing, breath misting in the flickering light.  When he took up his pen, a film of ice had already begun to form on the ink.

The natives, who at first we found quite friendly and hospitable, have long since become inexplicably hostile so that we can no longer rely on them for help of any kind – much less for help in supplementing our supplies with fish and hunted meat.  Stores are dwindling, even fuel must be ruthlessly rationed in this treeless land.  The men are growing weak in both body and spirit, and I pray God that –

There came a knock, and when the door was opened Simmons – once a bluff veteran boatswain, but now gaunt and nervous – stood clutching his hat.

“Cap’n,” he started, then trailed off uncertainly.  He was a shadow of the man who had set sail from Plymouth so long ago.  When at last the tension seemed unbearable he spoke again, eyes fixed on his frost-bitten feet and voice a hollow whisper.  “We’ve lost another one sir, Jennings.”

With a soft oath he stood up from his desk and reached for the ship’s Bible.  Though, given recent events, he was no longer sure it would do any good.


In 1845, two brand new steam ships left Greenhithe, England under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin and set sail for Greenland and the islands of Canada’s north in search of the fabled Northwest Passage.  They were never heard from again. [1]

What could possibly have happened to erase the lives of 134 brave men so completely from the annals of exploration?

Perhaps the answer lies in the shadows of the North.  Imagine…

Imagine a time nearly 1000 years prior to the doomed Franklin expedition. Imagine the Americas lush with life, rich with cultures growing, rising and falling again without ever imagining the strange civilizations of the Romans, the Chinese, the Egyptians far across the Atlantic.  Until the coming of the Norse.

Imagine how startled the people of the Americas must have been to see those hulking men and their hard-bitten women wade out of the surf and onto the shores of what they called Vinland. Imagine the wonder to see people with bright yellow hair, blue eyes, and full beards.  Imagine the curiosity when they noticed that these strange people used tools – and weapons – fashioned from some shiny, hard material unlike any to have been seen in the Americas before.

And imagine the horror when some of the men chose to import not only their technologies, but their habits:

Drinking, fighting, raiding.

Oh yes, the Norse did well trading with the peoples who lived in the far north – furs, narwhal ivory, perhaps even soapstone jewels.  And what did they give in return?  A few trinkets. [3]

Disputes over the value of trade items were certain.  Tempers were sure to flare.  What if:

What if the Dorset people were not as helpless in the face of Norse invasion as they seemed?

What if they brought to bear forces the Norsemen couldn’t possibly understand?

Imagine the Dorset equivalent of the Inuit Angaqok, or shaman.  Imagine him (or her) singing softly in his tent, the rhythm of the drum, the scent of strange incenses smouldering in the whale fat lamp.

Imagine his body smeared with arcane sigils, with paint compounded from unwholesome things.

Imagine his journey to some shadowy region of the Dream, to bring back a nightmare. [2]

Perhaps at first those brash young Norsemen laughed in the faces of the Dorset traders when they demanded something more for their goods.  Perhaps they spat at their feet, took their goods by force, killed those who objected.

At first.

But then the nightmare came, perhaps entering the first of them like a miasma.  Perhaps it waited, hunger growing.  Until at last, on some dark night, the young man’s eyes went blank and he turned on his neighbour with a snarl – teeth snapping and claws grabbing, until his beard was wet and red, the hunger subsided, and mortal consciousness returned.

He fled of course, terrified of the price his victim’s family might exact, but not before the thing had stepped across the chasm and into another of the band.

And so it continued: gruesome death after gruesome death.  Madness in the barrow-lands of the frozen North, until at last there remained only one.

The nightmare could not be sent back, not now that it had entered the world.  But the Dorset Angaqok could trap the thing and seal it up: his fellows hunted the last remaining Norseman like a beast, and like a beast he fled across the tundra, howling.

But they caught him, and killed him, and with great ceremony they sealed him – and the nightmare beast – into a cairn of stones.

Time passed, and the Dorset people changed, moved: no longer the brave arctic travellers, they settled into more comfortable lives as the Algonquin of the pine forests of the South and East.  And the secret of the wendigo left the tundra with them.

In time, the Inuit came to take their place among the islands of the Arctic.  But they knew nothing of the danger that lurked. 

Until Franklin came, with his men, and eager for the secrets of the North they opened the cairn.

They opened the cairn, and the thing emerged into the world once more.  And they were never heard from again.

Decades later: the ships are found, the dead uncovered.

It’s big news, but what if…

What if it wasn’t just brass and papers they brought back?

What if they brought back something…darker?

And this time without the Arctic wastelands to keep it safe.

References and notes

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