The Exmoor Beast
by Aliya Whiteley
I grew up in North Devon. We regularly went to Exmoor, a vast expanse of ever-damp moorland stretching across to Somerset, for walks. I was small and always in hand-me-down wellies; the clumps of earth and gorse were determined to trip me up, I thought, and we must have walked for hundreds of miles. But then, I was one of those imaginative children.
The things you grow up with are sometimes hard to appreciate. I saw the sea every day, and knew it was dangerous. I knew the same thing about Exmoor. We came across white bones amongst the moss, and the carcasses of sheep. Living out on the moor would have been an exceptionally hard life, but some people did it; people who weren’t afraid of anything but towns and cities and other people.
I heard stories about these people, but I didn’t understand them. Weren’t they afraid of the Exmoor Beast?
The Exmoor Beast isn’t exactly a monster. It was first spotted in the 1970s, and then was sighted regularly – a large black or grey cat, possibly a black leopard. Sheep were found with slashed throats. Had a big cat escaped from a private collection, or a circus? I was, as I say, an imaginative child. It didn’t take much for this idea to grow, combine with other stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles (although that is set on Dartmoor, but hey, close enough) and create a monster. I was terrified of the Beast of Exmoor. To me, it hadn’t escaped from a zoo. It had escaped from a nightmare.
But we all grow up, and things that seemed scary are no longer quite so scary as long as we have our clever grown-up heads on, and I stopped thinking of the Beast as anything other than a big cat that was managing to have quite a good life out there on the moors, away from concepts of ownership, lucky thing. In 2006 the British Big Cats Society reported that the skull of a puma had been found on the moor, and it seemed the Beast was dead.
Then Fox Spirit said to me, “Write about a European Monster”. And it turned out the Exmoor Beast wasn’t dead at all. It still existed in my head, and then on the page, and it had become a proper monster. It had grown up.
I like the idea that monsters start out in reality, and then suck up our feelings and fears to live in a different plane. That’s what my story, ‘A Very Modern Monster’ is all about. We feed monsters and make them enormous with our own emotions and energies. Give the Exmoor Beast a few hundred years in the right conditions and it will own that moor. Everyone who sets foot upon it will shiver.