The Devil’s Mistress ~ J. W. Brodie-Innes (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 11 (Sphere, 1974))

“Horse and hattock, horse and go,
‘Horse and pellatis, ho! ho!”

Isobel Gowdie ~ Flying Incantation

Volume 11 of The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult offers us this tale of 17th Century witchcraft set in the Scottish Highlands. Originally published in 1915, this is a fictionalised tale of the true account of the testimonials of Isobel Gowdie, of course these testimonials may indeed have been fictionalised by Gowdie herself in the first place; so we have multiple layers of fiction and truth to pick through.

THE DEVILS MISTRESS - BRODIE INNES - DENNIS WHEATLEY LIBRARY OF THE OCCULT 11 - WHENCHURCHYARDSYAWN

To tell the tale of Isobel Gowdie and how this novel came about I’m going to have to peel back some of the drier layers so that we can feast on the juicier bits at the end. So, here we go… let’s introduce J. W Brodie-Innes first of all.

J. W. Brodie Innes (1848 -1923)

Brodie-Innes was a well-known occultist in his day, being a member of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and, later, a high-ranking member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. A lawyer by profession; he also wrote a handful of novels (all historical romances with folklore/occult themes) and various articles on the occult which appeared in journals such as ‘Lucifer’ and ‘The Occult Review’.

As I mentioned, The Devil’s Mistress was first published in 1915, but let us first go back a couple of decades. Along with being a member of the occult societies already mentioned, Brodie-Innes was also a member of a rather eccentric society of bibliophiles called The Sette of Odd Volumes. The members of this peculiar group published their own limited print volumes on a variety of subjects from collecting Blue and White China to the work of the 16th Century physician, Gilbert of Colchester. Amongst these volumes we can find one by our J. W. Brodie-Innes which has the title of ‘Scottish Witchcraft Trials’.

This small volume was published in 1890 (25 years before The Devil’s Mistress) and is a brief discourse on, as the title suggests, the various witch trials which occurred in Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this book, Brodie-Innes gives us a brief mention of the remarkable confessions of Isobel Gowdie. Should you be interested, you can read the whole of Brodie-Innes’ volume here:

https://archive.org/details/b24866453/mode/2up

So, where did Brodie-Innes get all this information about the Scottish witch trials? Well, we’ll have to go back a little further in time for that and meet Robert Pitcairn.

Robert Pitcairn (1793-1855)

Pitcairn was a Scottish antiquary. Like Brodie-Innes, he was a lawyer by profession and, like Brodie-Innes, he was a member of a literary society; whereas Brodie-Innes was a member of The Sette of Odd Volumes, Pitcairn was a member of a society led by Sir Walter Scott called The Bannatyne Club. In 1833 Pitcairn published a three volume set for The Bannatyne Club with the title of ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’. In this publication Pitcairn diligently compiled the transcriptions of a number of Scottish trials from the 16th and 17th centuries; amongst these trials were, of course, a number of trials for witchcraft. If we flick through the pages of ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ and get towards the end of the third volume, in the appendices, on page 602, we will find the first of four confessions of Isobel Gowdie.

Gowdie’s confessions are considered to be one of the most remarkable confessions to arise from a witch-trial and, perhaps more remarkable, they are said to have been offered without torture. You can read the whole of the four testimonials beginning on page 602 here:

https://digital.nls.uk/publications-by-scottish-clubs/archive/78739514

Although Pitcairn was the first to publish the testimonials he wasn’t the first to mention Isobel Gowdie in print. This honour goes to none other than Sir Walter Scott himself, this was in his 1830 publication with the title of ‘Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft’. In this volume Scott references the Gowdie trial a number of times and we can imagine that Pitcairn perhaps helped him with this.

So, what of Isobel Gowdie herself?

Much has been written about Isobel Gowdie over the last 200 years; her story has spawned a handful of novels, various musical interpretations and inspired countless books on witchcraft; yet we know very little about her. All the details we know of her come solely from her trial. We know she was a woman of indeterminate age who lived at Lochloy with her husband John Gilbert, a farm worker.

However, we also know that she gave such an extraordinary and detailed testimonial that she, perhaps inadvertently, changed the occult landscape of the 20th century. As one small example, we all know that a group of witches is called a coven and, in most traditions, a coven consists of thirteen members… this information comes directly from Gowdie’s trial, it just doesn’t seem to exist prior to that. How did this information spread so quickly? Well we’ve have to introduce Margaret Murray for this.

Margaret Murray (1863-1963)

As you probably know, Margaret Murray was a folklorist and archaeologist and in 1921 published her influential book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. This book was an expansion of her earlier article published in The Folklore Society journal in 1917. In this, Murray suggested that ‘witches’ were followers of an organised, pre-Christian religion which survived until the 17th century. Within this religion the practitioners were divided into covens, each coven having thirteen members, and they worshipped a pre-Christian horned god which, in a Christianised world, became the devil. Much of Murray’s research for this theory seems to have been derived from Pitcairn’s publication and she pays particular attention to the Isobel Gowdie case.

Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe can be read here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20411/20411-h/20411-h.htm

Perhaps we should return to the novel in question for a bit now.

The Devil’s Mistress

I believe Brodie-Innes was the first to fictionalise the accounts of Isobel Gowdie. As we would perhaps expect from a Victorian occultist, Brodie-Innes presents the novel as though Gowdie’s testimonials were a true account of her activities. The story picks up on most of the details of Gowdie’s claims, beginning with her first meeting with the ‘Dark Master’, her induction into the coven and subsequent magical acts. Of course, as the original transcript has so little detail about Gowdie’s life outside of her magical acts, Brodie-Innes fleshes it out for us. Isobel Gowdie is not just a poor farmer’s wife, she becomes the well-educated daughter of a country lawyer who was sold into a marriage to the dour and gloomy farmer to pay off a debt. And in true romantic heroine style she is a flame-haired beauty too:

“she was strangely unlike the women of the farmer class in the province of Moray, being tall and slight, with a mass of flaming red hair, deep brown eyes that seemed as though brooding over hidden fires, dark eyebrows almost straight in a face that seemed unnaturally pale, a slightly arched nose, and full red lips.”

Brodie-Innes has a tendency to slip into these awful, sentimental, romantic-fiction stylings on occasion but, thankfully, they do tend to peter out a bit as the book progresses. As we would expect, the novel explores Gowdie’s relationship with ‘The Dark Master’ and the rest of the coven, with characters taken directly from the testimonials; it also takes other real life characters from the locality and the period and fits them in with the narrative. One of these characters is Sir Robert Gordon, or The Wizard of Gordonstoun, who was reputed to be an alchemist/occultist who had sold his soul to the devil. Although Brodie-Innes has got his time-lines a little awry with the inclusion Gordon as a friend to Gowdie, I’m happy to forgive him this as it makes for an exciting storyline.

Although this novel is a much romanticised version of events, I think it is an important work of occult fiction. Brodie-Innes deals with the various magical acts in a sensitive and subtle way, leaving a little ambiguity about them; often, Gowdie herself is not sure whether she was actually away performing magical rites with the coven or whether she was safely in her bed and dreaming that she was doing this. Yet still the results of those magical rites come about. This is perhaps exemplified best when Isobel asks her fellow coven member, Margaret Brodie, about whether she is dreaming these things or whether they are real, and she answers:

‘I’ve often wondered,’ Margaret answered after a pause while she seemed to be thinking what to say. ‘We do queer things sometimes. For instance, ye know Maggie Wilson in Aulderne. Well, she has her old man to consider. But she comes with us when we are out for revelling. She just puts a besom in the bed, and the old man thinks it is herself, and never misses her. But whether it is her that’s at home, or her that’s with us, none knows, or whether she is two women on that night. And she doesn’t know. She swears she is with us, and the old man says she is at home. Well, ye ken whiles I have thought it may be the same with the Dark Master. Perhaps he is just a man who has learned many things, and makes us think he is the Devil, as Maggie makes her man think that the besom is her. Or he may indeed be the Devil and makes us think whiles that he is just a man. Or perhaps he isn’t there at all, but we just fancy he is. But there, dearie, it’s no good wondering. Life is fine, and we are the queens of the country; while he helps us we can do what we will, and the country doesn’t know it. So we’ve only got to hold our tongues, lest they burn us some day, and just enjoy our time while we have it.’

In the novel, as in the original testimonials, Isobel Gowdie’s coven has thirteen members and is led by ‘The Dark Master’. Hers is just one coven amongst many and they often convene with each other, the covens not separate entities but they appear to be part of a larger whole. Which brings us back to Margaret Murray and her Witch-Cult ideas.

The Witch-Cult Hypothesis

Two years after the publication of The Devil’s Mistress, Brodie Innes had an article on witchcraft published in the May 1917 edition of The Occult Review. In this article he references Isobel Gowdie several times and, as we can see in the excerpt below, he includes the term ‘cult of the witch’.

“If we will but for a moment lay aside prejudice, and look at the subject dispassionately, we shall become convinced that the cult of the witch is as old as humanity, it is as old as the world, and as flourishing today as it was in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, and as firmly believed.”

Interestingly, Margaret Murray’s article ‘Organisation of Witches in Great Britain’ appeared in the April 1917 edition of the Folklore Society Journal, this is the article in which she first formulates her Witch Cult theory.

“Witch cult and ritual have not, as far as I am aware, been subject to a searching and scientific investigation from the anthropological side. The whole thing has generally been put down to hypnotism, hysteria and hallucination on the part of the witches, to prejudice and cruelty on the part of the judges. I shall try to prove that the hysteria-cum-prejudice theory, including that “blessed word” auto-suggestion is untenable, and that among the witches we have the remains of a fully organised religious cult, which at one time spread over Central and Western Europe, and of which traces are found in the present day.”

It seems that the ‘Witch-Cult’ hypothesis was really gathering pace at this time and would soon give rise to the resurgence of the pagan based occult traditions of the 20th century. It is a rather beautiful, though now widely considered flawed, theory and I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that it became the basis of a large part of mid to late 20th century occult thought and the resurgence of Pagan based practices. Gowdie’s reach really was quite far reaching!.

Isobel Gowdie

We know nothing about Isobel Gowdie’s life before the confessions and we know nothing of her life after the confessions. We do not know whether she was burnt following her confessions or whether she was freed.

We do not know whether she was a witch or not, but I will say this – if spells are words spoken with intent which are intended to cause a magical change or effect, then these words spoken by Isobel Gowdie during the Spring of 1662 wove a very complex pattern, the threads of which some people are still following to this day, 360 years after they were first uttered.

Let’s leave the final words to Isobel herself:

“And the Witches yet that are untaken, have their own powers and our powers which we had before we were taken. But now I have no power at all.”

Isobel Gowdie

Echoes of Terror, 1980, Chartwell Books (ed. Mike Jarvis & John Spencer)

We’re putting the paperbacks aside for a moment and delving in to the ‘oversize’ shelf. Those big old hardbacks, the non-fiction ones on the history of horror films and suchlike, the ones with the tattered and torn dust jackets from being man-handled and pored over for the last 40 years or so. The book we’re looking at today, although tattered and torn, is not one of the non-fiction ones; no, we’re on the safe ground of a horror anthology. But, this is an anthology with a difference!

My parents bought me this for, I think, my tenth birthday… and that cover terrified me. I mean, really, I couldn’t look at that cover. If I wanted to read the book I had to close my eyes until it was safely open and that girl’s blind gaze was firmly flat on the table. I’ve no idea why I had that reaction to it, it all seems rather innocuous now, but there you have it. Before we go any further, let’s have a little talk about fear.

What scares you? What gives you that cold tingle that creeps up the back of your neck? It’s always fascinated me, the concept of fear. It may be because, with certain exceptions, I’ve never been the type to feel fear. It may be why I’ve always been interested in the horror genre since I was a young child. I hear about people being scared by certain novels or being terrified by films, but I very rarely experience that. This is not a boast, don’t get me wrong, I think fear is healthy; it’s an instinctive, self-preservation mechanism. There’s only a handful of times I’ve felt what I think is fear:

  1. The cover of Echoes of Terror, just could not look at it!
  2. The window scene in Salem’s Lot, couldn’t have the curtains open at night for a long time.
  3. Walking home alone at night after watching a David Cronenberg film (Rabid) at the local youth club. I walked past a house and saw a black dog-like ‘thing’ with glowing white eyes down a dark pathway, it was hunched over and ready to pounce. I ran the rest of the way home, convinced I’d seen a Hound of Tindalos. I plucked up the courage to go back and investigate the following morning and it turned out to be a black bin bag full of rubbish, the eyes were two small pools of rainwater which had collected in the creases and caught the streetlight.

These three events all happened when I was around 10 or 11 years old, but they are rarities. I was always that boy who would accept the dare to walk through the graveyard alone at night. I was the boy who dared to lay down on Matilda’s Grave while another boy walked around it three times widdershins to see if I really would be pulled down by the icy hands of Matilda’s corpse (a local legend where I grew up). I was the boy who, had he been a character in a horror film, would most certainly have been the one to die first!

So, where does this courage stupidity come from? Who knows? Is it due to being desensitised to horror as a child? I did watch a lot of horror films at a very young age, everything from the early Universals, through the Hammers, right up to the modern horrors of the Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most of Cronenberg’s output (and talking of Cronenberg, why did our local youth club think it was a good idea to show a bunch of 10 year old children films like Rabid, Dawn of the Dead and Shogun Assassin? Never really understood that, but I’m not complaining!). Or is it due to me being raised in a strictly atheist household, which is something that never really felt quite right to me, but perhaps the constant reminder of there being no such thing as the ‘other’ instilled some sort of logical mindset which overwrote any impulsive settings?

Just to be clear, when I am talking about fear I am talking about the sharp, electric shock sensation of fear, that bright blue flash of terror which makes us want to run away; or that sense of stomach-churning revulsion we get when we’re exposed to gore; or that cold chill that sends a creeping feeling up our backs and makes the hairs on our necks stand on end. Those are the things I classify as fear. I’m not talking about dread, that deep, black sense of existential despair when we realise that everything in life is completely pointless (I’m no stranger to that one, unfortunately).

Anyway, excuse my ramblings, on with the book.

As I said, this is an anthology with a difference. True, it does have rather a classy contents list but, as good as they may be, it’s not the stories that make the difference:

  • A Madman’s Manuscript by Charles Dickens
  • Three in a Bed by Lord Halifax
  • Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
  • Dracula (an extract) by Bram Stoker
  • The Furnished Room by O Henry
  • The Forsaken of God by William Mudford
  • The Werewolf by Frederick Marryat
  • The Midnight Embrace by Matthew Lewis
  • The Devil’s Wager by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
  • The Seventh Pullet by Saki

No, what makes this volume special is the illustrations; it’s really a vehicle to showcase those wonderful British horror and fantasy artists of the 1970s. And not just small poorly reproduced pictures; we’re talking glossy, full page plates. The bulk of the work is given to the great Les Edwards but we also have work by Jim Burns, Gordon Crabb, Bob Fowke, Peter Goodfellow, Stuart Hughes, Terry Oakes and George Smith.

All of these artists were represented by the Young Artists Agency, an organisation setup in 1970 by the musician and author, John B. Spencer. Spencer was involved in the pub-rock/folk-rock scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s and had a few novels of his own published; he was also the co-editor of this very volume, Echoes of Terror.

If you’d like to know more about the various artists then here are some links to their websites (where available):

Les Edwards

Jim Burns

Gordon Crabb

Bob Fowke

Peter Goodfellow

Stuart Hughes

Terry Oakes

George Smith

Anyone with a passing interest in the genre will no doubt recognise at least a few of the magnificent pieces in this book, many of them were widely used in books and magazines at the time. Just imagine the sheer delight of my youthful mind when I flicked through the pages and realised that I already knew some of these pictures from the covers of paperbacks in my very own burgeoning collection!

Obviously, I wish I had taken better care of it and that the dust jacket wasn’t in such a mess; but that’s life, isn’t it? This book followed me through my childhood; through my teenage years; through a few disreputable bedsits… often not even leaving the gradually disintegrating cardboard boxes my possessions were kept in. The oversized hardbacks just weren’t as easy to look after as the neat and compact paperbacks. But, the important thing is that I still have it after all these years, safely stored on my grown-up shelves. Let’s call it “well loved”… despite that picture on the front cover (by Gordon Crabb, by the way).

And here’s a big thank you to all those artists who took those childhood fears from the dark ginnels of our minds and dragged them out into the light so we could see them all the better. Actually…

…was that such a good thing???

The Unspeakable People, 1975, Everest Books (ed. Peter Haining)

Shall we treat ourselves to another Peter Haining anthology? Why not, there are plenty to get through after all!

I think there are many of us out there, of a certain age, who grew up on Peter Haining anthologies. They served, along with the BBC2 Friday night horror double bills, as a childhood introduction to the horror genre (at least, here in the UK they did). If anyone has a favourite Haining anthology, then do feel free to leave a comment below.

So, we’ve already discussed Haining’s ‘The Evil People’ (click HERE if you missed it) and, if the evilness of that wasn’t enough, just imagine what horrors lurk behind The Unspeakable People! Let’s find out shall we?

the unspeakable people - peter haining

Introduction

As we can see, this book boasts “20 of the most horrible horror stories”. As well as a preface by Peter Haining we have also a brief forward by none other than August Derleth! This collection was first published in 1969 (mine is the later 1975 edition from Everest), just two years before Derleth’s death in 1971… but if we look at the sign off on Derleth’s foreword… is that a typo, or…

the unspeakable people - august derleth - peter haining

First things first, let’s have a look at the contents and then we’ll look at each story in closer detail.

Contents

  • The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis
  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Bird Woman by Henry Spicer
  • My Own Tale by R H Benson
  • Williamson by Henry S Whitehead
  • A Thing of Beauty by Wallace West
  • The Outsider by H P Lovecraft
  • The Loved Dead by C M Eddy
  • The Copper Bowl by Captain George Eliot
  • The Feast in the Abbey by Robert Bloch
  • The Cathedral Crypt by John Wyndham
  • The Graveyard Rats by Henry Kuttner
  • Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Head and the Feet by C S Forester
  • The Idol of the Flies by Jane Rice
  • A Night at a Cottage by Richard Hughes
  • The Shape of Things by Ray Bradbury
  • Desire and the Black Masseur by Tennessee Williams
  • The Coffin by Dennis Wheatley
  • Mercy by Laurence James

The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

I find it a strange (and slightly annoying) quirk of some of these old anthologies that, along with the short stories, they include an extract from a novel. I mean, to me, that’s just a spoiler. Of course, this is what Haining has done here with the classic Gothic tale. As we will be dealing with the whole novel at some point, it’s included in the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, we’ll forego it here.

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I wondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore – “

Now there’s an opening couplet to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. We all know Poe’s classic poem of loss; with its hypnotic metre, internal rhyme and refrain; all with that black symbol of despair hovering above it. It was first put into print in 1845 under a pseudonym but was published the following year in a New York newspaper under Poe’s own name. If, by some chance, you’re not familiar with it then I’ve included the whole poem here: THE RAVEN

The Bird Woman by Henry Spicer

Here’s an author we don’t see anthologised very much. This comes from Spicer’s 1864 collection, ‘Strange Things Among Us’. I say ‘collection’ but Spicer’s book is more a series of anecdotal tales written in a journalistic style, rather than short stories as we know them today. This brief story, only a couple of pages long, concerns a young woman, a “girl of the servant class, but of rather superior education and manners”, who arrives at a deserted looking mansion to be employed as a charge for an “invalid, infirm or lunatic person”. Of course, we get a hint of who… or what!… she finds from the title. This is a peculiar little tale, but one that gets under your skin.

My Own Tale by R. H. Benson

Next we have R. H. Benson… yes, one of those Bensons. You remember the Bensons, of course? Charming family, a little peculiar perhaps, but charming nonetheless. We spoke about them here: E F BENSON

This tale gives us Benson reluctantly offering an after dinner story to a table of churchmen. Pleasing enough, but perhaps strangely placed in this anthology; being a jauntily written haunted house story without a ghost there’s nothing in the way of ‘unspeakable horror’ about it.

Williamson by Henry S. Whitehead

There’s something delightful about this one. Written in 1910, this story gives us a narrator over-wintering at his holiday home in The Virgin Islands who goes on to invite an old school friend to stay with him; this friend is the Williamson of the title. It seems that this Williamson was a hugely popular fellow amongst his school friends, being a supreme athlete and the best-dressed amongst his contemporaries… but there was something strange about him. The narrator takes us through his thoughts as he tries to put his finger on just what it is that some people find odd about his friend. But I won’t spoil it for you.

Yes, the story is ridiculous. Yes, you can see the denouement coming from a mile off. But, like I said, there is something delightful about it and I’m sure Whitehead wrote it with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

A Thing of Beauty by Wallace West

As Haining tells us in his introduction to this piece, it was originally excluded from publication by Weird Tales as it was considered too strong for their readership! Yes, the Weird Tales, publisher of all manner of horrors, thought this was a little too much. That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it? Written in 1920, it remained unpublished until Robert A. W. Lowndes picked it up for his Magazine of Horror in 1963; Haining then anthologised it for the first time here in The Unspeakable People.

It concerns an old hunchbacked chap who works at the local Medical College; he has two jobs there, he maintains the boiler and he looks after the corpses which are kept fresh by floating them in an enormous tank of brine. West gives us some pleasingly grotesque imagery in this tale of, shall we say, forbidden love… but it is probably considered quite tame by today’s standards, unfortunately.

The Outsider by H. P. Lovecraft

Perhaps a bit of an obvious choice for inclusion, we do tend to see this particular tale of Lovecraft’s anthologised, don’t we? But, why not? It is one of his best. Written in 1921, it’s one of Lovecraft’s earlier works, so it’s stripped back from the immensities of the cosmic horror he became known for. This simple Poe-esque tale has us following the thought processes of someone who lives a strange and solitary existence as they escape into the outside world. It’s been analysed to death in numerous articles over the last 100 years but, you know, just read it and enjoy it as a beautifully told Gothic story.

The Loved Dead by C. M. Eddy

This notorious tale was first published in Weird Tales during the Spring of 1924. The magazine was struggling financially at the time and this story caused such a furore, with the shocked public calling for it to be withdrawn from publication, that it actually increased sales and saved the magazine. However, it’s generally thought today that this train of thought originated from Eddy himself and is complete nonsense; yes, the magazine was struggling under the editorship of Edwin Baird, so the publishers fired Baird and replaced him with Farnsworth Wright… this story just happened to be there at the time of change.

So, what of the story itself, this is the second visit to necrophilia in this volume. This time we have a young man who gains employment in a mortuary so that he can have his way with the bodies; he soon takes to murdering those who take his fancy so that he can have his choice of bodies! It really is a tawdry and juvenile piece. The writing style is poor… think Lovecraft on a very bad day… bloated out with adjectives and an over-reliance on alliteration, so it’s all:

“sepulchral sentinels… morbid moroseness… abhorrent abnormality…”

…and that’s just on the first page, it does continue like this. He really goes to town on the next page with:

“…that funeral scene, silently strengthening its grip with subtle insidiousness”

Short story or an exercise in tongue-twisters? You decide.

The Copper Bowl by Captain George Eliot

This one’s quite a well known tale, perhaps all the more-so because our Captain George Fielding Eliot wasn’t exactly a prolific author in the genre, as a professional soldier he wrote mainly on military and political matters. The Copper Bowl was first published in Weird Tales in 1928 and also holds the honour of being included in the very first Pan Book of Horror Stories.

Set in French Indo-China, it concerns a French Legionnaire who has been captured by a rebel group led by the Mandarin, Yuan Li. As the tale unfolds, we’re presented with a brief episode of torture porn with colonial racist overtones. You know the sort of thing – brave and noble white chap with tousled blond hair doing battle with inscrutable oriental types. Not the sort of thing to go down well with a modern audience, I imagine.

The Feast in the Abbey by Robert Bloch

I think this was Bloch’s first story to appear in Weird Tales, published when he’d just left high school at the age of seventeen. The young Bloch was a huge fan of Lovecraft and the pair famously corresponded with each other, with Lovecraft becoming a mentor to the burgeoning author. We can see that this tale of a traveller stumbling upon a strange abbey in the woods is certainly a juvenile piece, mimicking that archaic style of Lovecraft mimicking Poe, but unlike some authors (I’m looking at you C. M. Eddy!), there is something quite charming about it.

The Cathedral Crypt by John Wyndham

I’ve always been a fan of John Wyndham. I remember we had his novel The Chrysalids on the school curriculum when I was a child and it made a big impression on me. There’s something about his clean, sparse style of prose that really appeals; there’s never a word wasted with Wyndham. Better known for his science fiction work, Wyndham’s horror tales are few and far between, so it’s a delight to find one in this anthology. This is a tale of a young married couple holidaying in an unnamed city where they visit a cathedral; after accidentally getting locked in for the night they witness a strangely medieval ceremony.

The Graveyard Rats by Henry Kuttner

Kuttner was another member of the Weird Tales set in the 30s and 40s and one of the younger members of the “Lovecraft Circle”. Incredibly influential, he is cited as an inspiration to many later greats, including Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson (Matheson even dedicated I Am Legend to him).

The Graveyard Rats was his first published story, I believe, appearing in Weird Tales in 1936. Quite a brilliantly gruesome tale concerning the caretaker of a neglected cemetery in Salem, this disreputable chap has a profitable side-line in graverobbing; the only problem is… the rats! And these particular rodents are huge and have burrowed all across the cemetery. As the caretaker, Old Masson, digs down and breaks into a coffin he’s just in time to see the corpse disappearing through a gnawed hole in the wood; the rats have beaten him to the corpse again! This time he’s going down after it. We follow Old Masson on his subterranean journey, all the way to the macabre denouement.

Bianca’s Hands by Theodore Sturgeon

This is one of two stories in this collection which stand head and shoulders above the rest. Although enjoyable in their ways, the others just cannot compete… which sort of goes to prove Sturgeon’s Law which states that 90% of everything is crap.

If you’re not familiar with Sturgeon’s Law, he came up with it in defence of the science fiction genre. Literary critics were wont to deride science fiction by citing examples from poor quality works and coming to the conclusion that 90% of science fiction literature was crap. Sturgeon hit back by saying that everything contains poor quality examples and “90% of everything is crap”, therefore science fiction was just as valid as ‘serious’ literature.

Anyway, Bianca’s Hands. It’s a remarkable story which, once read, is difficult to forget. Sturgeon is known for going to some dark places in his work, and this is no different. It concerns a young man, large, handsome, not too bright who falls in love with the hands of a young “imbecile” girl.

According to Haining, Sturgeon wrote this when he was quite young and just could not get it published; apparently, some editors rejected it outright, saying that it was so unpleasant that they would not publish it or anything else written by an author who could come up with such a thing. It was published much later, in 1947, in the British magazine Argosy winning him a huge cash prize and the honour of beating none other than Graham Greene to the top spot!

This piece goes a long way to prove Sturgeon’s Law, I think it stands its ground against some of the finest short stories ever written.

The Head and the Feet by C. S. Forester

Forester was most famous for his ‘Hornblower’ novels, set during the Napoleonic War. This tale comes from his 1954 collection, ‘The Nightmare’, which is a series of stories based in Nazi Germany during WW2. The Head and the Feet concentrates on an aging medical officer who works at a concentration camp and the brutality he experiences there. There are shades of Poe’s Tell Tale Heart as the officer, an unwilling participant trapped by the SS, slowly unravels as the horrors haunt him.

The Idol of the Flies by Jane Rice

Now this is a remarkable tale. It’s about an obnoxious small boy named Pruitt who lives with his Aunt, a pleasant but very naïve woman. We also have Pruitt’s partially deaf teacher living in the house, Miss Bittner; and then there’s the cook and her hunchbacked husband. It all starts off a bit Roald Dahl, with the unpleasant child playing nasty tricks on the adults, pulling the wings off of flies and killing small animals. Then, mid-way through, it all gets a lot darker when we find that young Pruitt has made a fly effigy from coal tar soap which he uses as a focus to cast curses on those around him. And after the ritual, Pruitt has his ‘not-thinking time’ in which:

“…queer, half-formed dream things would float through his mind. Like dark polliwogs, propelling themselves along with their tales, hinting at secrets that nobody knew, not even grown-ups. Some day he would be able to catch one, quickly, before it wriggled off into the inner hidden chamber where They had a nest and, then, he would know. He would catch it in a net of thought, like Harry’s net caught fishes, and no matter how it squirmed and threshed about he would pin it flat against his skull until he knew.”

Isn’t that a lovely bit of oddness? And to top it off Rice gives us a wonderfully ambiguous ending to ignite the reader’s imagination.

A Night at a Cottage by Richard Hughes

A very simple and short two-paged ghost story, this one; yet, very effective. It’s the story of a vagrant who breaks into an abandoned cottage for a night’s rest and finds he’s not alone. Very well written, Hughes builds a tremendous atmosphere over such a short space.

The Shape of Things by Ray Bradbury

In the introduction to this piece Haining tells us that, even in an anthology of horror stories, he draws the line upon tales of deformed children. He goes on to say that it’s a subject which should “never be treated lightly or carelessly”, and this is why he chose to include this one from Ray Bradbury. It’s a strange tale of a young couple who after the birth of their first child are faced with, rather than the expected human baby, a small blue pyramid. The doctor explains to the parents that there was some sort of dimensional cross-over during the birth and that their baby is in fact a completely normal and healthy human baby, it’s just that no one can see it in it’s true form and can only see it as a small, blue pyramid.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, perception. How we perceive things due to our own circumstances and conditioning. The baby is a perfectly healthy human child but how do we treat it if it looks different.

Interestingly, Haining dedicated this volume to his autistic son, Sean:

the unspeakable people dedication - peter haining

Desire and the Black Masseur by Tennessee Williams

Now then, we’ve arrived at the stand out piece in this anthology. The extraordinary story which makes all the other extraordinary stories herein seem a little run-of-the-mill. This is what Haining, in his introduction, has to say about it:

“I have read and reread this story and the effect is always the same – it leaves me shaking. Perhaps a psychiatrist might have something to say about that – and maybe you might like to see him after me?”

I’m not going to say any more about this. If you haven’t read it before then find a copy and read it. Deep, dark, disturbing and rich in symbolism. I think I know how I interpret it but you might interpret it differently to me, I don’t know. Do give it a go though, it’ll be a long time before you read anything else quite like it.

The Coffin by Dennis Wheatley

This is an extract from the Wheatley novel, The Ka of Gifford Hillary. It’s Wheatley, so we know we’re going to be in for a lot of old tosh, don’t we? It’s a sequence where the titular character has been buried alive, but Wheatley completely fails to instil any sense of fear, desperation or panic into the character… he’s been buried alive but Wheatley tells it with no more horror than if the character had accidentally locked himself in the toilet. Why Haining included it in this anthology I have no idea, it rather lets the whole thing down. According to his introduction, it was recommended to him by Laurence James… and talking of Laurence James, we move on to the final story…

Mercy by Laurence James

Here we have a very short piece concerning a very badly injured man trapped in the wreckage of his car after crashing into a tree on a very lonely road. He’s slowly bleeding to death. Like the previous Wheatley tale, we have a man who is trapped, in pain and destined to die if he does not escape very soon; the difference is that James deals with the subject in a far more visceral way.

I have a sneaky suspicion that James recommended the Wheatley story to Haining because he knew it would make his own story look good in comparison!

~~~

And there we have it, The Unspeakable People – “20 of the most horrible horror stories”. All in all, quite a strong anthology with a few surprise entries and a minimum of filler. I know which ones are my favourites, how about you?

The Mighty Atom ~ Marie Corelli (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 27 (Sphere, 1975))

We’re moving on a bit in The Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult collection today. I was publishing these posts in strict numerical order but let us throw caution to the wind, let anarchy in through the back door and let do what thou wilt be the whole of the law. Yes, we’re skipping ahead to Volume 27 and paying a visit to Marie Corelli’s The Mighty Atom.

Before I go any further… it’s been four years since I last updated When Churchyards Yawn but, you know, time is an illusion so let’s agree that we’ve all just imagined that it’s been a long time and get on with things shall we?

Marie Corelli is one of those authors who I was aware of but hadn’t actually read; one of those vague names in the peripheries who you might or might not get around to reading one day. Perhaps this was because I was dimly aware of the critical reviews she garnered throughout her career; she was savagely treated by the press who generally considered her work to be sentimental melodramas full of overwrought and flowery prose. However, despite this treatment by the press and the literary establishment, the public adored her. You can’t really overstate just how big a celebrity Corelli was during the late Victorian/Edwardian period, her novels outsold some of the biggest names of the day, but today she is mostly forgotten.

I’m not going to go into a detailed biography about Corelli here, she’s such a complex and fascinating personality that volumes could be, and have been, written about her. There are far better places to read about her life and works, here’s a couple of good place to begin:

http://mariecorelli.org.uk/

https://victorianweb.org/authors/corelli/salmonson1.html

So, The Mighty Atom, let’s start at the beginning.

Corelli gives us quite an opening page. We’re on the North Devon coast at the tail end of a raging storm. We follow a bird, a Robin, as it flits from the shelter of a bush and flies across the battered landscape before landing on the windowsill of a large house. Inside, a small, pale boy is hard at work, studying at his desk; he notices the Robin singing but it doesn’t distract him enough to leave his work and he goes on studying. This sets the theme of the novel perfectly; outside is the world, wild nature and god; inside is books, study and intellect; the small boy is trapped in one and longs for the other.

This is the home of John Valliscourt, a Victorian gent; brash, domineering and an uncompromising atheist; a petty tyrant bringing up his son, Lionel, to be a mirror of his own beliefs. Through a series of tutors young Lionel is put through a rigid regime of education, concentrating on the scientific and the intellect at the expense of the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. Thus, the 10 year old boy is intelligent beyond his years but weak, sickly and craving spiritual nourishment; craving love. Lionel sees the existence of god as giving a point to life; if the universe, as he has been taught, began by chance from a mere atom then that universe can only ever be cold and uncaring. Lionel is a boy going through an existential crisis.

So, is this an existential novel? Of course, the heyday of the existential novel came a good 40 or 50 years after The Mighty Atom and whereas those later existential authors tended to write from an atheistic/agnostic viewpoint, Corelli seems to follow the earlier Kierkegaardian existentialism which comes from a Christian perspective. Whereas the later existentialists looked at an individual’s choices in a godless universe, Kierkegaard looked at the individual’s choices in relation to a deity and the matter of the soul.

Lionel wants a soul but he’s worried that he doesn’t have one as he has not been raised as a Christian. He desperately wants love to exist, something he does not receive from his strict father and rarely gets from his mother (look out for the harrowing ‘re-birth’ scene!). If, as Kierkegaard says, “God is love”, when God is removed from the universe then so is love. The 10 year old Lionel, with all his education, can see no point in living in a universe without god and without love.

So, we have a novel about a young boy going through an existential crisis. It doesn’t exactly sound like a contender for Wheatley to include in his Library of The Occult collection. He explains his decision in his introduction:

“The spirit, or soul, of a person is non-material, and so a factor ‘beyond the range of ordinary knowledge’; which quotation comes from the definition of the word ‘occult’ as given in the Oxford Dictionary. Upon these grounds I feel justified in including this book by Marie Corelli in our Library; for it is the story of a young boy grappling with the problem of whether he has, or has not, a soul.”

But I think there’s more to it than that. Not only was Corelli an important author in the genre, many of her novels contained mystical/occult themes, but if we take The Mighty Atom on its own merit then it gives us a fascinating take on the horror genre. I think we can agree that many (if not most) horror stories are based on a fear of the ‘other’, a fear of the supernatural; whereas Corelli’s The Mighty Atom is based on a fear of the non-existence of the supernatural!

The fear that this is all there is. The fear that we are completely alone in an absurd, accidental universe and we all have to confront the complete and utter pointlessness of our individual and collective existence.

What can be more terrifying than that?

The Ghoul, 2017 (dir. Gareth Tunley)

It’s not often I write about modern films here at The Churchyard, the only other time I’ve done this was a quick off-the-cuff piece when I got back from seeing Alice Lowe’s directorial debut, Prevenge.

Having just got back from seeing The Ghoul it’s time for another equally off-the-cuff piece.

The Ghoul, Gareth Tunley, Tom Meeten

The Ghoul, written and directed by Gareth Tunley and starring Tom Meeten, is a remarkable thing. On the surface it is an occult thriller; Meeten plays Chris, a detective investigating a bizarre double murder and, as part of the investigation, goes undercover as a patient with the suspect’s psychotherapist to glean information. However, this plot, through its exploration of Jungian theories, possible demonic forces and Austin Osman Spare based Sigil Magic, exists solely as a framework for the underlying exploration of mental illness.

As the film progresses we find that Chris’ story is not as simple as it at first seems as Tunley takes us on a journey along a Moebius Strip of despair and paranoia, disorientating the viewer by turning the tale on its head as we delve deeper into the protagonist’s psyche. Like the Moebius Strip itself, which is constantly referenced within the story, this film is unorientable.

If you like your films to have a linear plotline with a simple resolution to tie things up then this film may not be for you. If, like me, you relish films which reflect the ambiguity and unresolvedness of real life then you will probably enjoy this film. I say ‘enjoy’, but is this the correct word to use? The film is relentlessly bleak and disturbing, this is not cinema as a mere entertainment, it is cinema as an experience. Think David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead. In one scene of The Ghoul we have a prolonged, lingering view of a completely bare section of shabby, woodchip-paper covered wall with the only feature being the join separating two strips; add to this the oppressive soundtrack and theme of the protagonist being cast adrift within his own troubled mind and it’s not difficult to imagine that Tunley may have been influenced by that first feature of Lynch’s.

It’s a pleasure to see this burgeoning new wave of British film-makers. Ben Wheatley seems to be at the forefront of, and giving credence to, these experimental films with limited budgets (Wheatley acts as Executive Producer on The Ghoul) and several of the cast members are connected with him in some way. Tunley himself appeared in Down Terrace and Kill List; Tom Meeten appeared in Sightseers and Alice Lowe’s Prevenge; Alice Lowe co-wrote and starred in Sightseers; Dan Skinner was also in Prevenge and also appeared in High Rise.

While talking about the supporting cast we should also mention the brilliantly disturbing Paul Kaye who punctuates the film midway with a bizarrely captivating storytelling sequence.

Even with this strong supporting cast the film really belongs to Tom Meeten. He gives an extraordinarily hypnotic performance as someone dealing with serious mental health issues, at once menacingly brooding and vulnerable.

I understand it was a long struggle to get this film released, but I’m glad it has been; we have a real talent in both Tunley and Meeten and hopefully, with The Ghoul, they will have their feet firmly in the door of the industry.

Films like this will always have a limited cinema release but, if you’re not lucky enough to get to see it on the big screen, the brilliant Arrow Films are releasing it on Blu-Ray and DVD on the 4th of September.

http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/the-ghoul/

Buy it.

The Folk Horror of H. Russell Wakefield in Two Stories.

H. Russell Wakefield is an author who is perhaps not as well recognised as he deserves. When mentioned at all, it’s often in the same breath as M. R. James, with readers declaring him a marginally sub-standard version of that author in the classic English ghost story vein.

h russell wakefield - the clock strikes twelve - whenchurchyardsyawn

However, with the current trend towards putting the folk back into horror it’s time to take another look at Wakefield as, if not exactly a progenitor, then certainly a pioneer in the weird rurality of what was to become the Folk Horror genre. With this in mind, we’re going to look at two of his stories, both first published in his 1940 collection, The Clock Strikes Twelve. The first is Lucky’s Grove and the second, which could be considered the absolute classic folk horror tale (as the title suggests), The First Sheaf.

If you’re not familiar with the term Folk Horror then I’ve written a little about it in these links:

Folk Horror Revival – Field Studies

The Venomous Serpent

This page will contain spoilers for both stories so I’ll leave it up to you whether you would like to continue or not.

L u c k y ’ s   G r o v e

Wakefield opens this tale with an epigraph:

And Loki begat Hel, Goddess of the Grave, Fenris, the Great Wolf, and the Serpent, Nidnogg, who lives beneath the tree.

I can only imagine that this is his own take on an excerpt from the Edda, the 13th century Icelandic text relating to the Norse pantheon. As you will have noticed, the three children of Loki in the epigraph is not quite correct. Loki’s third child was Jormungand, the great sea serpent. Nidnogg, or Nidhogg (as it is more commonly anglicised) was the serpent gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. However, as we will see, Wakefield was probably aware of this and transposed them to fit the plot.

As the story opens it’s approaching Christmas at Langdale Hall, a great sprawling stately home with extensive grounds. The Hall is owned by Braxton, a crass, self-made and semi-retired businessman. Braxton spent his childhood growing up in the grounds of The Hall, his father working there as a farm labourer. However, the lowly life wasn’t for Braxton and as he grew to adulthood, he found he had an innate aptitude for business. After making his first several million he purchased Langdale Hall to become the Lord of the Manor.

On the grounds is the titular Lucky’s Grove. This is a perfectly circular copse of trees in the middle of a large fallow field; a place of awe and reverence among the locals; a place rich in superstition and folklore. This copse has an outer ring of Holm Oaks, these give way to an inner ring of Larch, within these are the dark and twisted Yews. At the very centre, towering above the rest is an ancient Scots Pine. Braxton himself would often visit this Grove as a child and face the mighty Pine:

And when he stood before it, he’d always known an odd longing to fling himself down and – well, worship – it was the only word – the towering tree. His father had told him his forebears had done that very thing, but always when alone and at certain seasons of the year.

It is generally thought that the pre-Christian Germanic people considered certain natural places to be sacred and this, of course, included groves. Often these places would be dedicated to certain deities of their pantheon. Let’s look at Lucky’s Grove, the name has obviously changed slightly through the shifting folk etymology of successive generations and would have originally been Loki’s Grove. A place dedicated to the trickster god of Norse mythology, a place dedicated to the deity that begat Hel, Fenris and, in this tale, Nidnogg.

So, what happens when Braxton’s new estate manager is charged with cutting an enormous Christmas tree for the upcoming festivities in the The Hall and, being new to the area and unaware of local superstition, decides to cut one from Lucky’s Grove? Obviously, it doesn’t turn out well.

As soon as the labourers bring the massive Larch from the grove into the house (yes, I thought a Larch was a surprising choice for a Christmas tree too, what with it being deciduous!) the trouble begins. When a grove is dedicated to a deity, or deities, then each tree in that grove is sacred. When a tree is taken from that grove then the gods come with it.

It begins innocently enough, with two workmen being injured by the branches, but soon the guests are seeing figures in the shadows, a wolf, a witch and a serpent. These otherworldly visions could of course be mere hallucinations but things soon take a turn for the worse on Christmas Day.

With the assembled worthies (who Wakefield in his customary satirical manner refers to as ‘The Cream of North Berkshire society’) enjoying the festivities, the weather turns. A blizzard, complete with thunder and lightning, engulfs The Hall as Loki’s children bring about a new Ragnarok and we witness a Twilight of these petty gods of polite society.

So, how does Lucky’s Grove fit into the Folk Horror genre? As I’ve said before, the boundaries to the genre are often nebulous and intuitive, rather than concrete; however Adam Scovell of https://celluloidwickerman.com/ devised a set of four rules which are usually found in the genre.

1: Landscape

2: Isolation

3: Skewed moral beliefs

4: Happening/Summoning.

As we can see in Lucky’s Grove, it certainly is well grounded in the Landscape and there is certainly a Happening/Summoning at the end, but there is no sense of Isolation and, although most of the characters are abhorrently pompous, we cannot really equate this with the sort of skewed moral beliefs we would expect from Folk Horror.

Now, with the Scovell Scale in mind, let’s take a look at:

T h e   F i r s t   S h e a f

Anyone with an interest in Folk Horror browsing through the contents page of an anthology couldn’t help having this intriguing title catch their eye. Perhaps they would flip straight to that story and be greeted, and sucked in, by this opening:

“If only they realised what they were doing!” laughed old Porteous, leaning over the side of the car. ‘They’ were a clutter of rustics, cuddling vegetable marrows, cauliflowers, apples and other stuffs, passing into a village church some miles south of Birmingham. “Humanity has been doing that, performing that rite, since thousands of years before the first syllable of recorded time, I suppose; though not always in such a refined manner. And then there are maypoles, of all indecorous symbols, and beating the bounds, a particularly interesting survival with, originally, a dual function; first they beat the bounds to scare the devils out, and then they beat the small boys that their tears might propitiate the Rain Goddess. Such propitiation having been found to be superfluous in this climate, they have ceased to beat the urchins; a great pity, but an admirable example of myth adaptation. Great Britain swarms with such survivals, some as innocuous and bland as this harvest festival, others for more formidable and guarded secrets; at least that was so when I was a boy. Did I ever tell you how I lost my arm?”

Does that not whet your appetite? This preamble serves as an introduction to the main body of the story, which has Porteous recounting the story of how he lost his arm when he was a boy.

At the age of 13 Porteous moved to the small Essex village of Reedley End, after his father, a vicar, was granted the curacy there. Reedley End was a remote village in the bottom of a narrow valley and the only way in or out was a rough cart-track, the people were:

…a strange tribe, aloof, dour, bitter, and revealing copious signs of intensive interbreeding.

The residents soon broke the new vicar’s evangelical zeal, with him declaring that:

“They seem to worship other gods than mine!”

This local dourness could have stemmed from the fact that Reedley End is situated in perhaps the most arid spot in Britain; prone to dry weather in the best of times and, at the time we join them in the story, having experienced three years of extreme drought which caused crops to fail and livestock to die.

Porteous and his father are not the only new inhabitants in Reedley End. A ‘foreign’ farm-labourer (all the way from Sussex) also lives there with his wife and thirteen year old daughter. The young Porteous takes a shine to this girl as she is different to the other girls of the village; being blonde, she was:

…like a golden oriole in a crew of crows.

However, it’s the disappearance of this girl, and the suspiciously subsequent and much needed rainfall a couple of days later, that creates a sinister turn in the story.

On exploring the local area Porteous discovers a perfectly circular field enclosed within a ring of evergreen trees, Holm Oaks and Yew (note the similarity to Lucky’s Grove!). Within this field is a single 8’ tall standing stone. The children of the village call this field the Good Field which, if we follow the same rule of shifting etymology as Lucky’s Grove, we may assume was originally called God’s Field. The adults of the village give it a different name, Odiues Field, which, with a stretch, could perhaps come from Odin’s Field?

harvest - holinshed chronicles - whenchurchyardsyawn
Harvest – from the Holinshed Chronicles

As the summer passes, the harvest time arrives and we see the local labourers swathing through the crops; all equidistant from the Good Field and all cutting their way towards it. Porteous becomes aware that something is going to happen in that field at the end of the harvest and hides in the treeline in the early hours of the morning to wait and see what the day brings.

What he sees is the villagers ceremoniously approach the stone in the centre of the field, each with a wreath of corn around their neck and singing a ‘primitive’ song…

I won’t spoil the ending for you. I think we have enough there to fulfil the four points on the Scovell Scale.

We have the reliance on the landscape as a major part of the narrative.

We have the sense of isolation both physically, with the remoteness of the village, and psychologically, with the way the locals refuse to accept the new-comers.

We have the skewed moral beliefs of the villagers; being drawn to older ways to survive when the newer ways have failed them.

And we certainly have the Happening, with the climactic finale of the ritual complete with, what has become, some classic folk horror imagery.

Perhaps we should now look at the protagonist of the piece, Porteous, and what, if any, is the relevance of him having one arm?

It’s difficult not to be drawn to the fact that the main character has a missing arm in a story dealing with mythic themes as, of course, there are many deities and heroes who have lost an arm.

If we run with the links through the two stories here we should look to the Norse pantheon where the one-handed god is Tyr. Let’s return to Lucky’s Grove and look at the mythology concerning Fenris, the great wolf sired by Loki. The Edda tells us that, when the Gods decided to trap and bind Fenris, the wolf would only consent to being bound if one of the Gods dared to place their hand in his jaws. Tyr volunteered for this task and duly had his right hand bitten off, thus ensuring due compensation had been paid. The comparative mythologist, Georges Dumézil, suggested that this act raised Tyr from the status of a God of War to a God of Law; Tyr brings order and regulation to a chaotic situation. In The First Sheaf, the young Porteous, after the young girl’s disappearance and the subsequent ineptitude of the local policeman, attempts to take the law into his own hand … and goes on to lose that hand in the bargain … and teeth are involved here too!

tyr and fenrir - john bauer - whenchurchyardsyawn
Tyr and Fenris – John Bauer

If we turn to a different tradition, we will find the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann as the one-handed deity, Nuada Airgetlám. As king, Nuada took his army into battle against the Fir Bolg, but not before allowing both side to inspect the others troops and weaponry to ensure a fair battle (there’s that legendary regulatory fairness as we saw with Tyr). Although Nuada led his people to victory, he lost an arm in the process. However, his physician made him a fully working replacement made of silver, and this is where he gets the epithet after his name, Nuada Airgetlám means Nuada of The Silver Arm. It may be fanciful but perhaps, we can see a faint echo of this ‘silver-handedness’ with our Porteous:

He had started his career with fifty pounds, and turned this into seven figures by sheer speculative genius; he seemed to touch nothing which did not appreciate.

And finally, we must turn to the film considered by most as the ultimate in Folk Horror, The Wicker Man. The First Sheaf shares similar themes to The Wicker Man; both have an outsider arriving in a remote village where weather conditions have brought about a poor harvest; both have the villagers turning to ancient nature based religions; both have a missing girl and a resurgence of ritual human sacrifice to ensure a good crop.

There are two deities explicitly mentioned as being worshipped by the residents of Summerisle in the film:

… a holy sacrifice will be offered up jointly to Nuada, our most sacred god of the Sun, and to Avellenau, the beloved goddess of our orchards …

We must assume that the goddess Avellenau was created for the film, obviously a corruption of Avalon, the legendary island from the Arthurian cycle which translates as The Isle of Apple Trees. But, if we look at that Sun God we find our old friend Nuada making an appearance.

The Wicker Man was a loose adaptation of David Pinner’s novel Ritual which, although sharing some similarities to the film, does not really share the themes mutual to The Wicker Man and The First Sheaf. It seems that The Wicker Man was very much a joint project between the writer Anthony Shaffer, the director Robin Hardy and the actor Christopher Lee. We know that Christopher Lee co-edited several anthologies of horror short stories and reputedly held a large library of horror and fantasy fiction. If we look at the anthology he co-edited with Mary Danby, Realms of Darkness, we see in the contents list a story called Lucky’s Grove by H. Russell Wakefield.

So, it is possible that Christopher Lee possibly owned the 1940 Wakefield collection The Clock Strikes Twelve. If he did own that collection then it is possible that he read The First Sheaf. If he did read The First Sheaf then perhaps it is possible, just possible, that this story filtered into Lee’s subconscious and influenced the most important film in the Folk Horror genre.

nuada - the wicker man - whenchurchyardsyawn
Nuada – The Wicker Man

More horror handbills and ephemeral oddities.

You may remember that I recently wrote about a small package my wife gave me for my birthday containing a fine selection of Spanish cinema handbills, the flyers that were given away to advertise the latest films. You can read it here:

El horror de los folletos!!

I mentioned in the previous piece that this might be the beginning of a new obsession for me so, of course, I’ve been online and purchased a few more.

First up, we have this rather magnificent piece of artwork for Polanski’s 1968 occult masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. The design here is by the renowned illustrator  Francisco Fernández Zarza-Perez, who signed his work as Jano.

rosemary's baby - spanish handbill - whenchurchyardsyawn

Regular visitors to The Churchyard will know that I have a particular passion for the series of portmanteau films released in the 1960s and 1970s by Amicus Productions. Of course, it is highly unlikely that these films would have existed without their forebear, the 1945 Ealing horror, Dead of Night. So, I am particularly delighted to have these two beauties; both with the theatre details printed on the backs.

dead of night - spanish handbill 1 - whenchurchyardsyawndead of night - spanish handbill 1 back - whenchurchyardsyawndead of night - spanish handbill 2 - whenchurchyardsyawndead of night - spanish handbill 2 back - whenchurchyardsyawn

Naturally, to follow on from Dead of Night we shall travel forward 20 years to the first of Amicus’ foray into the horror portmanteau film, 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. Note the signature in this one, it’s another by Jano.

dr terror's house of horrors - spanish handbill - whenchurchyardsyawn

dr terror's house of horrors - spanish handbill back - whenchurchyardsyawn

For the next and final Amicus horror handbill we’re skipping forward a few films to 1972’s Asylum:

asylum - spanish handbill- whenchurchyardsyawn

And that’s it for the handbills for the moment but, all is not lost. At the same time as purchasing this selection I also discovered pressbooks!

For those who don’t know, a film’s production company would produce a pressbook to market their films. The pressbook, usually an A4(ish) size 4 page booklet, would contain all sorts of marketing information, including a synopsis of the plot, cast and crew, poster and advertising art, etc. etc.

Obviously, I couldn’t resist nabbing a few of these too and, sticking with the Amicus portmanteau theme, first up is their 1971 series entry, The House That Dripped Blood. The artist here is MONTALBAN.

the house that dripped blood - spanish pressbook - whenchurchyardsyawn

And to follow on from this we will go to yet another of the Amicus films, 1972’s Tales From the Crypt. This time, the signature is Mac, the sign-off of someone usually considered to be one of the greatest of the Spanish poster artists, Macario Gómez Quibus.

tales from the crypt - spanish pressbook - whenchurchyardsyawn

tales from the crypt - spanish pressbook back - whenchurchyardsyawn

We shall leave Amicus now and, for the final two pressbooks, turn to one of their contemporaries, the equally wonderful Tigon British Film Productions. Not only do we have a Tigon double-bill, we also have a Boris Karloff double-bill!

First, 1967’s The Sorcerers. A particular favourite of mine:

the sorcerers - spanish pressbook - whenchurchyardsyawn

the sorcerers - spanish pressbook back - whenchurchyardsyawn.jpg

And finally, we go to 1968 with The Curse of The Crimson Altar.

curse of the crimson altar - spanish pressbook - whenchurchyardsyawncurse of the crimson altar - spanish pressbook back - whenchurchyardsyawn

No doubt you will have noticed the wonderful black and white artwork in these pressbooks; this was intended for use as newspaper and magazine advertising. In the pre-digital age, these images would have been reproduced by means of small printing block stamps, exactly like the ones I pictured in the first post I published on handbills, which brings us nicely round in a circle.

So, where do we go from here? There are, of course, countless items of film ephemera I could add to this small but growing collection of handbills and pressbooks. The rest of the Amicus and Tigon films to begin with. Then perhaps a delve to see what’s available from Hammer.

The list is endless …

El horror de los folletos!!

The term “The best presents are book shaped” has become something of a refrain here at When Churchyards Yawn. My wife, Samantha, always manages to seek out the best presents for my birthday and, more often than not, they are indeed book shaped. However, despite having a mild obsession with books, I’m not all about the books. I do have other interests you know.

Yes, when I’m not obsessing about books I love a bit of ephemera! And I particularly like it when Samantha buys me something that I’d never dreamed existed before. As an example, if you’re of a certain age you may recall those little black and white adverts you used to get in periodicals to advertise films; tiny little things, you used get several of them bunched together. Obviously, in the pre-digital age, these had to be printed from a printers block. It had never occurred to me before that these printing blocks may still be in existence and, as it turns out, they are! They’re extremely rare but my wife managed to find me these three for my birthday a couple of years ago:

Horror film advertising printing blocks - when churchyards yawn

Of course, on my birthday this year, there were plenty of remarkable book shaped presents to be opened, books which I will no doubt write about on future posts; but there was also a small box containing these wonderful little gems.

Spanish Horror Film Handbills - When Churchyards Yawn

These are Spanish cinema hand-bills. Like many countries, Spain had a tradition of handing out flyers, or hand-bills, to the public to advertise attractions and events such as the circus, stage productions and bullfights. With the advent of cinema in the early 20th century, Spain naturally continued this tradition. Tiny versions of film posters were produced and distributed to the public, the back of each was left blank for the theatre to print its own details. This system of advertising continued from the 1920s up to the early 1970s, so just imagine the vast range of 20th century classic films we have the possibility of finding in this format.

However, being true ephemera, these were not made to last. Just like modern flyers, thousands upon thousand of them would have been screwed up and discarded. Luckily for us though, some managed to survive.

These are the ones my wife purchased for me:

while the city sleeps - lipstick murders - when churchyards yawn
While the City Sleeps – 1956 – Fritz Lang

the body snatchers - when churchyards yawn
The Body Snatcher – 1945 – Robert Wise

planet of the vampires - when churchyards yawn
Planet of The Vampires – 1965 – Mario Bava

fanatic - hammer films - when churchyards yawn
Fanatic – 1965 – Silvio Narizanno

dracula has risen from the grave - when churchyards yawn
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave – 1968 – Freddie Francis

quatermass experiment - when churchyards yawn
The Quatermass Experiment – 1955 – Val Guest

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Reverse of The Quatermass Experiment hand-bill

These are all in a remarkably fine condition considering their age and the use they were put to. The seller my wife purchased them from kindly added an additional one to the package to illustrate the usual condition they are found in:

the unvanquished - when churchyards yawn
The Unvanquished

Wonderful little things, as I’m sure you’ll agree. This could be the start of a new obsession.

Harry Price Ghost Hunter ~ Paul Tabori (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 7 (Sphere, 1974))

Number 7 of The Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult is Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghost Hunter by Paul Tabori. As you would expect, this is indeed a biography of the psychical researcher and investigator, Harry Price.

harry price gost hunter, paul tabori, dennis wheatley library of the occult 7, whenchurchyardsyawn

The quality of a biography obviously rests upon the biographer. In this case we have Paul Tabori, author, psychic researcher and third choice literary executor of Price’s estate. I must admit to having certain preconceived ideas about this book and they were met within the first few pages when I read this paragraph:

“It must be admitted that while he was alive Harry Price was far more appreciated outside these isles than at home. But is this not the fate of practically every prophet whatever his mission and message?”

So, right from the start, Price is raised to the level of prophet but, thankfully, the style settles down after the first chapter and becomes a little less adulatory. What we are left with is a rather mediocre series of tales which serve as a synopsis of Price’s work, the reader learns nothing of the man behind the work.

I’m left with the question of how to write a post about a rather mediocre biography. The answer, of course, is to go off on a tangent and talk about something far more interesting.  Let us talk about one of Price’s most fascinating cases, which Tabori does briefly include in his biography, and expand upon it. And so we have:

Nigel Kneale, Familiar Spirits and Gef the Talking Mongoose

We’re going back to the Autumn of 1931, to a remote, hilltop farmhouse in an area called Doarlish Cashen on the Isle of Man. This is the home of Mr. James T. Irving, his wife Margaret and his teenage daughter, Voirrey. It seems that Mr. Irving was a European representative for a Canadian piano manufacturer but, after hitting hard times, the family decided to move to the Isle of Man which was Mrs. Irving’s birthplace.

james irving, voirrey irving, doarlish cashen, whenchurchyardsyawn

One evening, Mr. Irving and Voirrey encountered a creature at their home. It was described as the size of a large rat but with a yellow face and a flat snout. This creature took up residence behind the hollow matchboard walls of their home and began to keep the family awake with its skittering and growling. Voirrey tried to lull the creature by singing nursery rhymes to it but, to her surprise, it repeated them to her in a high pitched human voice. And once the creature had discovered the power of speech it wouldn’t stop; and not just mimicking either, it would engage in conversations with the family, calling Mr. and Mrs. Irving by their first names, Jim and Maggie. Soon after this the creature took to travelling the island to eavesdrop on the locals and bring back news to the Irvings, it would also regularly hunt rabbits for them.

News of this strange occurrence soon spread around the island and the story was picked up by the local press. By January 1932 the story had reached mainland Britain and the newspapers of the day were all running the story of, what had become known as, The Talking Weasel.

The Irving’s initially called their strange interloper Jack, but he soon put them right and told them he preferred the name Gef, claiming to have been born near Delhi, India in 1852 and that he was a Mongoose.

Of course, Mongooses (Mongeese?) are not native to The Isle of Man but there is a story which suggests that a local farmer introduced Mongooses to the island in 1914 to control the rabbit population and it appears they bred and went feral. It was reported that a Mongoose was shot and killed on the island in 1947 and it’s alleged that locals still see them occasionally to the present day. However, on discussing this with a friend who was born and bred on the Isle of Man and lives just five miles from the site of the Irving’s house, it appears that although there are feral ferret/polecat hybrids at large in the countryside, the feral Mongoose theory may be a rather fanciful concoction.

Gef’s activity continued and developed in the Irving household. As well as talking to the family he became a mischievous presence, throwing stones at people, stealing items from neighbours and shouting abuse at the family; always unseen by everyone except the three members of the Irving family.

In 1932, Harry Price received a letter from a Miss Florence Milburn of Peel, Isle of Man. Miss Milburn wrote to Price to inform him of the activities of the strange creature, ‘somewhat like a weasel’, at the Irving’s farm. Price sent his friend and colleague, Captain MacDonald to investigate. MacDonald witnessed the voice of Gef but his report was inconclusive. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1935, that Harry Price paid his own visit; again, his findings were inconclusive, which may strike us as odd. As we know, Price was not averse to debunking psychic fraudsters so, if this was a hoax perpetrated by one or more of the Irvings we may think that such a simple case would be easily seen through by Price. And it wasn’t that Price simply dismissed it as unworthy, he found it sufficiently interesting to write a book on the case, ‘The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap’.

Gef’s activities continued over the years until, in 1945, James Irving died. The family moved away from the house and a new tenant took possession who poured scorn upon the idea of Gef the Talking Mongoose.

In 1970 a magazine caught up with Voirrey in an interview and she still claimed the story was true. Voirrey died in 2005.

The Irving’s house at Doarlish Cashen has since been demolished, so it is unlikely that any more evidence will come to light.

I have given a very brief overview of the full story here to whet your appetite; there is no shortage of information about the case online and, if you haven’t already, I can recommend diving in.

Now, what are we to think of this strange case?

There are perhaps three prominent theories we can put forward.

1: Hoax

2: Poltergeist

3: Familiar

And with all three of these theories we need to consider whether it was a single member of the Irving family responsible, or whether it was a combination of two or three members.

HOAX

If it was an out and out hoax, and by hoax I mean a conscious deception, then for what reason would it have been conducted? Monetary gain seems unlikely, although Mr. Irving told Harry Price that he intended to write a book about his experiences this never came about and would have been unlikely to sell in sufficient quantities to make Irving his fortune. Perhaps boredom and a sense of mischief could be an explanation, Mr. and Mrs. Irving were used to travelling the world before settling down to life in the lonely farmhouse. Voirrey had known little else other than the farmhouse, she was an isolated child living with her aging parents. We must assume that it would be highly unlikely that a single member of the household would have been able to dupe the other two for the fifteen or so years that Gef was with them so, if it was a hoax perpetuated by a single person, then it is likely that the other two would have become willing participants.

POLTERGEIST

The story certainly bears all the hallmarks of a classic poltergeist haunting. Harry Price himself had a particular fascination for poltergeist activity and investigated countless cases. In his introduction to his 1945 publication Poltergeist Over England, Price states that poltergeist are:

“mischievous, destructive, noisy, cruel, erratic, thievish, demonstrative, purposeless, cunning, unhelpful, malicious, audacious, teasing, ill-disposed, spiteful, ruthless, resourceful and vampiric”

He also suggests that poltergeist differ from ghosts in that they infest a location rather than haunt; they prefer company to solitude. This all fits in with Gef’s modus operandi; however, Price continues by suggesting poltergeist are ‘invisible, intangible and inarticulate’ – none of which Gef are.

But Harry Price wasn’t the only one to investigate the Irving’s visitor. Famed psychologist / parapsychologist Nandor Fodor also investigated the case and, despite some reservations, he could find no evidence to suggest that Gef was not a mischievous animal with the power of human speech. However, he later revised his conclusion in favour of the idea that, rather than an independent creature/spirit, Gef was an external manifestation of the inner turmoil within the mind of one of the family members. This theory for poltergeist activity, the unconscious telekinetic activity of a troubled mind, garnered strength over the following decades to become the prominent explanation for the phenomenon in the post-Freudian 20th century. We may think that Voirrey would be the main suspect for this, poltergeist are most commonly thought to attach themselves / emanate from a teenage girl; but Fodor thought that James Irving was the cause.

Hoax or poltergeist? The former suggests a conscious decision, by one or more of the family, to deceive; the latter suggests and unconscious deception by a single member of the family. But let us consider another alternative.

FAMILIAR

A familiar spirit is said to be a demon or, in some cases, a fairy which has taken corporeal form to do the bidding of a witch. More often than not, this spirit takes the form of a domestic animal; we’re all aware of the archetypal witch’s cat but, historically, they have supposedly taken the forms of all manner of beasts – toads, cockerels, pigs, goats, ferrets, dogs, lambs, etc.

The familiar assists the witch / sorcerer / cunning-man / wise-woman (choose your terminological favourite) in his or her magical practises. In animal form they can travel undetected, sometimes even invisibly, to eavesdrop on neighbours, steal items and cause sickness and death to people and livestock. In return, the witch will allow the familiar to suckle from her, usually the offering is a drop of blood.

It doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to think about Gef in these terms. The Isle of Man has a strong history of folklore relating to witchcraft and fairies so perhaps we can consider Gef to be a fairy in animal form, if not in reality then in the mind of one of the Irving family.

Most of the information we have today on traditional witchcraft and animal familiars is handed down to us through the witch trials of the 16th and 17th century and, considering the persecution which occurred at this time, we may consider these records as somewhat unreliable source material. But what if there is some truth in the psycho-spiritual concept of familiars? After all, the witches of Western Europe were not the only ones to utilise animal spirits; we can see a strong similarity in Siberian shamanism. The Russian folklorist G. V. Ksenofontov conducted research among the Tungus people of Siberia where he observed:

“Every shaman must have an animal-mother or origin-animal. It is usually pictured in the form of an elk, less often as a bear. This animal lives independently, separated from the shaman. Perhaps it can be best imagined as the fiery force of the shaman that flies over the earth. It is the embodiment of the prophetic gift of the shaman, it is the shaman’s visionary power, which is able to penetrate both the past and the future.”

“The shamans tell us that they have two dogs who are their invisible assistants. In the séance they call them by their names, ‘Chardas’ and ‘Botos’. The dogs of a blood-thirsty shaman possessed by evil spirits will kill cattle and people.”

Compare this with excerpts from British witch trials, in this case from the St. Osyth trial of 1582:

“This examinate, beeing asked howe shee knewe the names of mother Bennets spirites, sayth, that Tyffin her spirite did tell this examinate that shee had two spirites, the one of them like a blacke Dogge, and the other redde like a Lyon, and that their names were Suckin and Lyerd , and sayeth that Suckin did plague Byettes wife unto death, and the other plagued three of his Beastes whereof two of them dyed.”

“The saide Ursley bursting out with weeping, fel upon her knees, and confessed that shee had foure spirites, whereof two of them were hees, and the other two were shees: the two hee spirites were to punishe and kill unto death, and the other two shees were to punishe with lamenes, and other diseases of bodyly harm: and also to destroy cattell.

And she this examinate, being asked by what name or names shee called the sayde spirits, and what maner of thinges, or colour they were of: confesseth and saith, that the one is called Tittey, being a hee, and is like a gray Cat, the seconde called Jacke, also a hee, and is like a blacke Cat, the thirde is called Piggin, being a she, and is like a blacke Toade, the fourth is called Tyffin, being a shee, and is like a white lambe.

This examinate being further asked, which of the saide spirites shee sent to punishe Thorlowes wife and Letherdalls childe, confessed and sayed, that shee sent Tyttey to punishe Thorlowes wife, and Pigen Letherdalls Childe.

And this examinate, without any asking of her owne free will at that present, confessed and saide, that shee was the death of her brother Kemps wife, and that she sent the spirite Jacke to plague her, for that her sister had called her whore and witche.”

“And casting her eyes aside, shee saw a spirit lift up a clothe lying over a pot, looking much lik a Ferret. And it beeing asked of this examinate why the spirite did looke upon her, shee said it was hungrie.”

Note the ferret familiar being kept in a pot. Another ferret familiar appeared in the 1589 Chelmsford witch trial when Joan Prentice was accused of killing a child by witchcraft. Joan was reported to have described how a ferret appeared to her and said “Joan Prentice, give me thy soul.” Joan refused as she believed her soul was not hers to give, so they reached a compromise when the Ferret, who was named Bid, replied:

“I must then have some of they blood”, which she willingly granted, offering him the foreginger of her left hand; the which the ferret took into his mouth and, setting his former feed upon that hand, sucked blood thereout…

~

In 1932, at the height of Gef the Talking Mongoose’s fame, there was a 10 year old boy living on the Isle of Man. He was the son of the owner/editor of one of the local newspapers and his name was Thomas Nigel Kneale. In later life he became better known as Nigel Kneale, author and screenwriter.

We spoke about Kneale in my last post when we discussed his adaptation of the Norah Lofts novel The Devil’s Own for the 1966 Hammer film, The Witches. You can read it HERE.

As I mentioned, Kneale had a remarkable knack, which can be seen in much of his work, in juxtaposing the mythic and the folkloric with the scientific and the psychological. We all know Kneale from his work on, among many others, the Quatermass cycle, his BBC adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 and the magnificent 1972 supernatural drama The Stone Tape. But when we are discussing Gef the Talking Mongoose we must talk about his 1976 drama series, Beasts.

Beasts was a series of six supernatural tales exploring the relationship between humanity and animals and we must wonder whether, as a 10 year old boy living on the Isle of Man, Kneale picked up some influences from the stories he must have heard concerning Gef and the Irving family.

In the second episode of the series, During Barty’s Party, we have a middle-aged couple trapped in their own home by a horde of rats. It may be fanciful, but perhaps echoes of Gef can quite literally be heard with the unseen rats scratching and skittering behind the woodwork.

Nigel Kneale, Beast, Baby - whenchurchyardsyawnIn the fourth episode, Baby, a young couple move into an old farmhouse and during renovation they discover a large urn bricked into a cavity in the wall. When they crack open the seal they discover inside the dry remains of an unidentifiable creature. This sets into motion a tale of ancient witchcraft and a familiar spirit. Interestingly, W. Walter Gill published a book concerning the history and folklore of the Isle of Man called A Manx Scrapbook; this was published in 1929, two years before Gef appeared, and in it Gill relates a tale which occurred at Doarlish Cashen:

“Some men digging here many years ago unearthed a flat stone covering a funerary urn which contained black ashes. They buried it in the hedge-bank. A long time afterwards, and not extremely long ago, a young man hunting rabbits with his dog (” Paddy,” whose name, in the interests of historic accuracy, shall be placed on record), thought he saw a rabbit bolt into the hedge. He began pulling away. the stones and soil, and while doing so he felt something invisible pushing him back. When this happened a second time a sudden fear took him and he ran down the hill-side till he reached his home. A white stone in the hedge still marks the spot where the urn was buried.”

Nigel Kneale, Beast, Special Offer - whenchurchyardsyawn

The first episode, Special Offer, concerns a girl called Noreen who works in Briteway, one branch of a small supermarket chain. Noreen doesn’t fit in with anyone, she is an outsider; her boss and the rest of the staff dislike her. Briteway has a cartoon mascot, an indeterminate yellow rodent name Briteway Billy which, strangely enough, fits the Irvings’ original description of Gef – about the size of large rat with a yellow face and a flat snout. When Noreen’s latent telekinetic abilities come to the fore in a fit of pique they take the form of, what appears to be, poltergeist-like activity; cans flying off the shelves, bags of flour bursting, bottles exploding, etc. Crucially, Noreen does not appear to realise that it is her that is causing the disturbances, instead she blames the seemingly invisible rodent when she declares the perpetrator to be Briteway Billy.

If we take a look at this excerpt from Kneale’s script of Special Offer we will see a resemblance to the Nandor Fodor poltergeist theory we were discussing earlier. In this, we have the boss of Briteway, Liversedge discussing the matter with the general manager, Grimley:

Grimley: A poltergeist?

Liversedge: I’m sure of it.

Grimley: You mean a spook?

Liversedge: Oh, I don’t mean like that, it’s a lot more complicated. I remember a case, it was donkeys years ago, there was a house and there were noises, there were thumps and knockings. And then furniture moving and flying about.

Grimley: Yes, I remember something about that.

Liversedge: There are thousands, but this was one I knew; and the cause of it all was a young kid, a boy this time.

Grimley: How?

Liversedge: Things happened when he was there and when he wasn’t, they didn’t.

Grimley: He knew he was doing it?

Liversedge: They sort of do and they don’t.

Grimley: She does?

Liversedge: She does now.

Grimley: But what about the animal? You heard it, scratching anf breathing.

Liversedge: That’s all part of it.

 

We may consider the similarities between Kneale’s screenplays for Beasts and the story of Gef the Talking Mongoose perhaps a little vague to truly ascertain whether there was any influence there or not. However, long before Beasts Kneale wrote a collection of short stories, Tomato Cain and Other Stories. This was published in 1949 and Elizabeth Bowen wrote the introduction to the volume. This is an excerpt from Bowen’s introduction:

“This writer is a young Manxman. He has grown up in, and infuses into his stories, an atmosphere which one can cut with a knife. He is not dependant on regionalism – not all of his work has an Isle of Man setting – but it would appear that he draws strength from it: his work at its best had the flavour, raciness, “body” that one associates with the best of the output from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and the more remote, untouched and primitive of the States of America. He turns for his inspiration to creeks in which life runs deep, to pockets in which life accumulates, deeply queer. Is the Talking Mongoose a sore subject with the Isle of Man? That interesting animal – of which the investigations of the late Harry Price never entirely disposed – might well be the denizen of a Nigel Kneale story.”

 

~

So, was Gef genuinely a talking mongoose? Was he a spirit in the form of an animal? Was he a poltergeist? Was he the externalised manifestation of a disturbed mind? Was he merely a hoax? Whatever he was, he possibly served as an influence on the work of Nigel Kneale, which we can be thankful for.

And talking of fictional accounts of the case of Gef the Talking Mongoose, I very much like the (purely fictional) possibility that it was Mrs. Margaret Irving who conducted the whole affair. She takes a bit of a back seat in the story to her husband and daughter. It was James and Voirrey who received the most attention from the press; they were the ones to first see the creature that became Gef; they were the ones that seemed to be the most vocal about it; they were the ones who were the main suspects. But Margaret Irving? She was the one originally from the Isle of Man, that land steeped in witchcraft and folklore. As Mr. Irving stated,

“Gef obeys my wife only, and that just within certain limits.”

And what are we to think of the incident where Gef drew blood from Margaret Irving?  Where she:

“…had her fingers in his mouth and could feel his teeth.”

Perhaps we could consider this the act of a witch ‘suckling’ her familiar.

And when the reporter for the Manchester Daily Dispatch visited the farmhouse, who was it in the adjoining room conversing with Gef? Of course, it was Margaret Irving.

There’s no doubt about it, Margaret Irving was from a long line of Manx witches and, on returning to the island, regained her powers after encountering the spirit of Gef who was released after the unearthing of the funerary urn in Doarlish Cashen some years before. To divert attention away from her magical activities, she and Gef concocted this unlikely story to suggest a poltergeist hoax on the parts of her husband and daughter; that way, making sure the focus is on James and Voirrey and so leaving Margaret to dabble in her devilish deeds without persecution.

I reiterate, this is of course a purely fanciful notion…

…perhaps!