Raw Head and Bloody Bones!

Photo of Rhys Hughes book taken from Jeff VanderMeer's blog, Ecstatic Days. Images of human anatomy from a late 1950s edition of The Book of Knowledge, published by Grolier.

Talk about one thing leading to another!

When my brother and I were kids, we delighted in the scary stories our dad used to tell, especially the one about a fellow called “Raw Head and Bloody Bones,” apparently a revenant seeking revenge for being skinned alive.

Above: The house where I grew up. Around back is the door to our basement, where my brother and I were fairly certain several sinister creatures dwelled, including Dero mutants left behind by ancient alien astronauts, as well as the grisly Rawhead & Bloody Bones.

My wife and I spent Christmas at my mother’s house in snowy Christiansburg, Virginia (the small town where I grew up, and which the town of “Hansburg” is based on in my novel, Tamper). My brother, Jeff, and his family joined us for dinner at Mom’s house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t long before Jeff and I were imitating Dad’s deep, ominous intonation, “I’m Raw Head and Bloody Bones and I’m coming to get you . . . I’m on the first step . . . I’m on the second step . . .”

 I always associated Raw Head and Bloody Bones with the human anatomy illustrations in The Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that my parents bought in the late fifties. I started out tracing the pictures with thin tracing paper and eventually made my own little comic books. To my mother’s consternation, I drew skeletons, hung with gruesome veins and muscles, chasing terrified victims. This can’t be good, she probably thought.

I don’t know where my father first heard of Raw Head & Bloody Bones, but thanks to Wikipedia, I recently discovered that the legend goes back to 16th Century Great Britain and eventually spread to the United States. It can be found in the 1550 edition of the Oxford Dictionary and in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Cambridge University Press, 1902 edition, pg 117). Wikipedia doesn’t tell us if Locke was for or against using the tale for educational purposes.

In some stories, Raw Head is a pet hog owned by a witch. Someone steals the hog and butchers it. Outraged, the witch brings the hog back to life and sends it to seek revenge on the man who killed it. A version of that story, by S. E. Schlosser, appears on the American Folklore web site. At some point, it went from being a hog to a man, kind of an old-time Freddie Kruger.

Laurell K. Hamilton makes reference to the legend in one of her Anita Blake novels, Bloody Bones.

There is a book by Mary E. Lyons called Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural (Aladdin Fiction, 1995).

Most fascinating of all, to me, is the Rhys Hughes book, Rawhead and Bloody Bones & Elusive Plato (Tanjen Ltd, 1998), because Rhys Hughes writes the kind of refreshingly weird fiction that I am greatly interested in. Jeff VanderMeer describes Rhys Hughes as “a prolific Welsh writer of absurdist fiction who most closely resembles Italo Calvino and John Barth.”

Here, via The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic, is a good interview with Rhys Hughes by Jeff VanderMeer, in which Hughes says a lot of things I agree with.

5 responses to “Raw Head and Bloody Bones!”

  1. […] while back, I wrote about the legend of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, including the fact that it can be found in the 1550 edition of the Oxford Dictionary. More […]

  2. This is a strange find for me. I was never scared by this story by anyone yet I brought this up to my parents when I was about 3 years old. I remember I was in my play pen in Mom and Dads room by myself and I felt something strange in the room. I turned around and saw this sight of a actually bloody mass of bones slowly floating across the room in the air. Like I said, I never was told of this before or scared with this legend, but I still had this experience. When I decided to look this up I found all the info of its origin about it. A 3 year old will not make this kind of stuff up…

  3. Yeah, I didn’t know the story was so well known!


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