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
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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!

The Witches, 1966, Pan (Peter Curtis)

We all love a film tie-in in the world of tawdry horror paperbacks, don’t we? Whether it’s a novelisation of the film or a re-issue of a novel with the artwork (and often the new name of) the film adaptation.

I have a fair few of these tie-ins on the shelves so I thought I’d perhaps share them here. I will be discussing both the film and the novel in these articles and they will contain spoilers.

The Witches, Peter Curtis, 1966, Pan X591, whenchurchyardsyawn.com

First up, we have The Witches by Peter Curtis, first published in 1960. Now, The Witches was the name given to the novel on the release of the film in 1966, it had the original title of The Devil’s Own. In 1970, Corgi published it with the title of The Little Wax Doll. Various online sources also state that it was published under the title of Catch as Catch Can but I can find no evidence of this at all and it just goes to show the dangers of people writing articles rehashed from Wikipedia entries. Having said that, if anyone out there can refute this and has a copy of the novel with the title Catch as Catch Can, then please do get in touch.

Just to muddy the waters further, the stated author, Peter Curtis, is not Peter Curtis at all, but the nom-de-plume of the historical fiction author, Norah Lofts.

That’s a long-winded way of saying the source novel is The Devil’s Own by Norah Lofts and it was adapted into the film The Witches by Hammer Film Productions in 1966.

THE WITCHES, HAMMER,1966, POSTER

The plot revolves around Deborah Mayfield, a teacher recently returned to Britain after a twenty year stint working at an African mission where, after several bouts of fever, she suffered some sort of mental breakdown and was forced to return home. On her return to Blighty she became a schoolteacher at a town school which she found unsatisfactory and decided to move on. We join Miss Mayfield at the very beginning of her new life as headmistress of a small private school in the tiny village of Walwyk. Within this small village Miss Mayfield begins to suspect the locals of practising witchcraft; but, is this really happening or is it a resurgence of her mental illness?

The film adequately follows the basic plot of the novel and casting the wonderful Joan Fontaine as Miss Mayfield was a clever move, she manages to convey the quiet hysteria of the character very well. I say ‘quiet hysteria’ because Miss Mayfield is a genteel woman who has spent her life moving from one cloistered existence to another; from her distant father’s house to college; from college to the African mission; from the mission to sharing an attic room with another teacher from the school she was teaching at; and finally to the rural isolation of Walwyk. She is alone in the world with no family and her only friend, Rose, still 7000 miles away in the African mission.

We then move on to the secondary character of Canon Thorby. Thorby is the head man in Walwyk, he owns the school in which he employs Miss Mayfield, in fact he owns most of Walwyk. He holds service in the church and he oversees the running of the village. He is a strong minded character; he has to be, his sister leads a coven consisting of, what seems to be, half the people in the village and it’s down to the good Canon to keep things on an even keel to avoid the scandal of discovery and the ultimate destruction of the village.

Thorby is given a peculiar twist in the film; renamed Alan Bax, he wanders around in the guise of a priest but this is only a pretence. Not a pretence in a sinister way, as we may expect, merely that he failed at becoming one. So now Thorby/Bax is a tragically weak character under the domineering thumb of his all-powerful occultist sister. Thorby/Bax doesn’t even have a church in the film, Walwyk church is a crumbling ruin. The keen eyed amongst you may recognise the ruined church from The Blood on Satan’s Claw, both films used the remains of St. James’ church at Bix Bottom as a location. Of course, Michelle Dotrice seemed to be a regular at Bix Bottom, appearing in both films. Here’s a still from the film followed by a photo from my own visit:

 

Bix Bottom, The Witches, 1966, Hammer, whenchurchyardsyawn.comBix Bottom, 2012, whenchurchyardsyawn.com

 

So, how does the novel and the film differ in the handling of the story? Nigel Kneale adapted the novel for the screen and, thematically, this should have been a perfect vehicle for him but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s not a bad treatment of the source material but with Kneale on writing duty this should have been a classic of the first water. As we know from works such as The Quatermass Cycle, The Stone Tapes, Murrain and Beasts, Kneale likes to lift the slab of folklore and superstition and have a root around underneath, whatever crawls out he usually juxtaposes with a psychological reasoning and manages to offer both the instinctive and the scientific, the ancient and the modern, on a perfectly balanced and equal footing. Dealing with themes of isolation, landscape and ancient belief systems, The Witches should really have been a film mentioned in the same hallowed, folk-horror tainted breath as The Wicker Man, Robin Redbreast, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, et al; whereas, unfortunately, it just doesn’t reach that standard.

The film never reaches the levels of claustrophobia and paranoia that Lofts achieves in the novel. A large part of this is the decision to give Miss Mayfield a car in the film. The novel relies on her being isolated, she is a stranger trapped in a village surrounded by miles of East Anglian flatlands. At the beginning of the novel the taxi driver taking her to her new home in Walwyk offers a potted history of the village and the surrounding landscape; how Walwyk was an island until the marshes were drained; how there were wolves in the woods long after they had been killed off in the rest of the country; how the villagers are “…still kind of cut off – in their minds, I mean”. To enter Walwyk there is just one road and this road crosses a bridge. This bridge makes two appearances in the novel, once near the beginning and once near the end; it acts as a liminal hinge, a threshold between one reality and another, in much the same way as the bridge in Murnau’s Nosferatu which Hutter crosses with the intertitle, loved by Andre Breton:

And when he crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.

And, as with Nosferatu’s Hutter, the phantoms come to meet Miss Mayfield. Not only the phantoms of the village but her own phantoms too.

Of course, with Miss Mayfield having her own vehicle in the film, all this is lost. She becomes a modern woman and has the ability to simply drive away. And it’s touches like this that detract from the novel’s underlying theme of the loss of tradition in the face of modernity. This theme is seeded throughout the novel and, more explicitly, at the very beginning of the film where we are shown the final experiences of Miss Mayfield’s time in Africa, working at the mission during a violent insurgency. Lofts was, of course, referencing the Mau Mau uprising which occurred during the 1950s where there was a revolt against the colonial forces by the Kenyan people. Although the revolution was primarily concerned with the unfair land expropriation committed by the colonials the British propagandists played on the perceived primitiveness of the Kenyan people and claimed they were:

…an irrational force of evil, dominated by bestial impulses…

Of course, this can be seen to be mirrored on a much smaller scale in the people of Walwyk. A small isolated community with its own ways, terrified of a steadily encroaching modern world which is ready to sweep them away in the name of progress. The post-war economic boom caused a massive expansion of the urban landscape and many villages were swallowed, and still are being swallowed, by this spread. Around Walwyk we have the local towns extending their reach and attracting the young Walwykians to their bright lights and wicked ways. Of course, anyone who attempts to flee the village or reveal any of the village’s secrets comes to untimely end at the hands of the head witch, Granny Rigby. During the course of the novel we have the Baines family’s run-in with the local coven; Emily Baines is forced into hiding with her son in London after the ritualistic slaying of her husband by the locals. Emily, on learning that Miss Mayfield is attempting to expose the activities of Walwyk sends her a letter which Lofts uses to neatly tie together the analogous nature of the Kenyan and the Walwykian:

“Emily Baines, a somewhat unwilling convert to the dark creed in the first place, had relapsed and deserted, but she had taken with her what she had learned. ‘I should know and it’d be the worse for you.’

Holding the neatly written sheet, she pursued the analogy. It was the letter of a Kikuyu forced to take the Mau Mau oath and aware of its potency, who yet felt that he owed a little allegiance to some European who had been kind. She said it. ‘You were kind when I was in trouble.’”

Being a folk-horror, imperiled outsider novel we know that the story is building towards the grand ceremonial climax. And it doesn’t disappoint. The coven gathers in the local church for their orgiastic finale on All Hallows Eve and it’s a race against time for Miss Mayfield to defeat them. Crucially, she intends to do this by using the very thing that the insular community are most afraid of, technology and modernity. She intends to hide herself away, film their “bestial impulses” on a recently purchased cine-camera and expose them to the outside world. This leads to a strangely ambiguous ending which I will not spoil for you.

Now then, I suppose we should discuss the end of the film. As I said before, it’s really not that bad a film, but it has unfortunately become somewhat infamous for the risible nature of the climactic ceremony. It really is quite a bizarre thing which, as most people agree, resembles more of an oddly choreographed interpretive dance sequence than a terrifying occult ceremony. The soundtrack to this is created by braying horns, pounding drums and the assorted grunts and groans of the amassed congregation. However, to highlight the interpretive dance aspect of the scene I removed the original soundtrack and overlaid a suitable piece of modern jazz from the period to see how it worked, in this case Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance. Personally, I think it works quite well.

I shall leave you with this:

Prevenge (2017)

I don’t usually talk about films here in The Churchyard but I thought I’d make an exception for Alice Lowe’s directorial debut feature, Prevenge. I’ve just got back from seeing it at my local cinema so I thought I’d write a quick, off-the-cuff piece about it while the excitement of it still has me in its clammy grasp.

prevenge-quad-poster

It’s an everyday tale of a heavily pregnant woman being encouraged, by the foetus residing inside her, to take bloody revenge on those who caused the death of her partner; written, directed and starring Alice Lowe.

Of course, we know Lowe from, among other things, the Ben Wheatley directed film, Sightseers, which she also starred in and co-wrote. Like Sightseers, Prevenge is a darkly comic and violent film, but where Sightseers had a certain Mike Leigh style homely warmth to it, Prevenge has a far bleaker feel. The sumptuous rural colours of the Sightseers cinematography have been replaced by a grainy urban austerity interspersed with splashes of vivid colour and the overt humour has been replaced by an extraordinarily brilliant sense of discomfort and awkwardness.

I think Mark Kermode has already commented on the possible influence of Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession, particularly with the underpass scene and the weird tentacular nature of Zulawski’s creature being taken in Prevenge by the close-up of a writhing Giant Millipede.

I’m sure I can also detect an influence of ‘70s Giallo with the bold use of colour in certain scenes (windows and doorways lit up in blue in an otherwise grey street) and also in the synthesised score.

I don’t know whether these are intentional influences or not. If they are then they’re used with a very light hand and are in no way over-powering to the point of pastiche, as is the case with many films. Prevenge remains a unique piece.

A very unique piece!

Lowe’s strong central performance has that uncomfortable awkwardness that we all know and love her for and then come these occasional blasts of growling intensity which take your breath away for a moment. Of course, you would expect a film with a pregnant protagonist to be heavy on the prosthetics but, in this case, that bump was all real as Alice Lowe was pregnant during the filming. Terrific performances too from the always brilliant Jo Hartley and from an actor I’m not that familiar with, Mike Wozniak. It’s also good to see Tom Meeten making an appearance, albeit in a very brief role (I’m biased here though as Meeten is an old school and college friend of my wife and it’s always fun to see him on the screen).

British independent films tend to get treated poorly by the big chain cinemas so I can’t imagine that Prevenge is getting widely screened, I’m lucky enough to have a brilliant independent cinema near me, but if you do get a chance to see it then see it. I want it to be a huge success as I’m really looking forward to see what oddities come scuttling out Lowe’s mind next.

The Sorcery Club ~ Elliott O’Donnell (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 6 (Sphere, 1974))

Next up in The Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult is volume six, The Sorcery Club by Elliott O’Donnell.

I’m sure that many of us have one or two O’Donnell books kicking about on our shelves, he was relatively prolific and his books were immensely popular in their day. Of course, he garnered his fame mainly through his non-fiction books concerning ‘real’ cases of supernatural occurrences, including his own experiences. Note the inverted commas around my use of the word ‘real’; this is not necessarily to dispute the authenticity of the cases O’Donnell researched, merely to highlight his propensity for heavily embroidering the truth.

THE SORCERY CLUB, ELLIOTT O'DONNELL, DENNIS WHEATLEY LIBRARY OF THE OCCULT 6

The Sorcery Club is not one of O’Donnell’s non-fiction works but one of his early novels. First published in 1912, it is a Faustian piece relating the story of three down at heel chaps in San Fancisco who, quite by chance, come into possession of a 17th century occult tome by one Thomas Henry Maitland which gives directions for reviving an ancient Atlantean magic which would ultimately grant the user mastery over all things.

Note the name of the supposed author of that tome, Maitland. That may ring a few bells with some of you. Excuse me while I leave The Sorcery Club to one side for a moment and take this post on a bit of a diversion to the . . .

M A I T L A N D   E N I G M A

In 1945 Weird Tales magazine published a short story by Robert Bloch called The Skull of The Marquis de Sade; this featured a protagonist named Christopher Maitland.

In 1965 Milton Subotsky adapted the Robert Bloch story for a film, produced by Subotsky and Rosenberg and released by their famed film company, Amicus. Peter Cushing played the role of Christopher Maitland.

In 1972 we have another Subotsky/Rosenberg film from Amicus, Tales From the Crypt, in which Ian Hendry plays Carl Maitland

In 1973, another Subotsky/Rosenberg film from Amicus, The Vault of Horror, has Michael Craig playing a Maitland.

In the same year, the same team have Guy Rolfe playing a Maitland in And Now the Screaming Starts.

And then in 1977 Subotsky gives us another Amicus style film, this time released by Rank, with The Uncanny. This one has a Mrs. Maitland played by Renée Girard.

So, why so many Maitlands? Although it’s not a particularly uncommon name, it is surely rare enough to suggest that this is not just mere coincidence. As we see on this list, the supposed Subotsky obsession with the name began with Blochs 1945 tale which Subotsky adapted in 1965. However, it gets a little more peculiar when we look at Subotsky’s 1960 Amicus film Horror Hotel, in which we have Tom Naylor playing a Bill Maitland!

Interestingly, going back to the 1977 film, The Uncanny, we see that the screenplay was written by Michel Parry. Parry, as we know, edited many horror anthologies and one of these was Christopher Lee’s Omnibus of Evil, which reprinted Bloch’s The Skull of The Marquis de Sade.

And of course, coming a little more up to date, we know that the film director Tim Burton is a huge fan of classic horror films, including British horror of the 1960s and 70s. We cannot help but wonder if this had some influence on the name of the dead husband and wife in his 1988 film Beetlejuice, Adam and Barbara Maitland. Although, Beetlejuice wasn’t written by Burton, it was written by Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson who also wrote several episodes of the 1990s US television show, Tale From the Crypt; this was obviously based on the old EC comic Tales From the Crypt which the 1972 Amicus film Tales From the Crypt was also based on! It all seems to get rather incestuous, doesn’t it?

Becoming aware of all these Maitlands does make a reader notice when a Maitland appears in a horror story and with O’Donnell’s tale being from 1912, this is the earliest appearance of a Maitland in a horror story I can recollect. O’Donnell’s has the 17th century author of the fictional tome of Atlantean magic as Thomas Henry Maitland. We do not know a great deal about him other than he was a Professor of English at a Swiss University and possibly somewhat of a seafaring adventurer; it was whilst being shipwrecked on an island that he discovered the original Atlantean documents.

So, did O’Donnell borrow the Maitland name, just like others seem to have done, or was he the progenitor of it? Well, of course, there was a relatively famous 19th Century occultist named Edward Maitland who we may consider as a source for O’Donnell’s seafaring sorcerer.

Like the fictional Maitland, the real Maitland was a well-travelled man. In the 1840s and 1850s he travelled from England to the Americas and was one of the ‘49ers in the California Gold Rush; following this he sailed around the Pacific and lived in Australia for a few years, before returning to England.

Like the fictional Maitland, the real Maitland was a man of letters; on his return to England he became an author and wrote several works of fiction and non-fiction.

Like the fictional Maitland, the real Maitland developed a fascination for occult knowledge. The fictional, as we stated earlier, discovered and translated an ancient Atlantean work of magic. The real Edward Maitland, along with his friend and collaborator Dr. Anna Kingsford, translated and published their own work of esoterica called The Virgin of the World; this was supposedly a translation of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus.

Of course, this is all purely conjecture on my part. If O’Donnell did base his Maitland on Edward Maitland then it was very loosely; the fictional having lived 200 years prior to the real. But, it is nonetheless interesting . . . or is that just me?

E N D   O F   D I V E R S I O N

Anyway, getting back to the novel in question, what can we say about it? It’s a rather workmanlike, potboiler sort of affair. As I said, it opens with three men living in poverty in turn of the century San Francisco. Wheatley states in his introduction that the action takes placed during the “…great slump of the 1930s”. As the novel was first published in 1912 this would have been particularly prescient of the author, perhaps Wheatley was over-estimating O’Donnell’s abilities.

These three men come into possession of an ancient magical tome and their desperate circumstances lead them into carrying out the practices contained therein, despite being non-believers. Of course they summon a being, which they call ‘The Unknown’, who grants them various magical abilities for trial periods with certain applicable terms and conditions tucked away in the small print. Well, we all know what sticklers for bureaucratic procedure these lesser demons can be.

So, these three ne’er-do-wells soon become extraordinarily wealthy through their nefarious magical acts and decide to hotfoot it to England, where they set up in business as The Modern Sorcery Company.

The rest of the story is then taken up with The Modern Sorcery Company’s attempt to ruin the career of the most successful stage magician in the country (which is an interesting twist on the fashion at the time of stage magicians debunking people claiming real magical powers) and a rather ridiculous love triangle; although, thinking about it, there are more than three sides to the love triangle so perhaps a ‘love pentagram’ would be more fitting.

I won’t go into the plot any further, I really dislike spoilers, but I will say that this novel has one of the most abrupt endings I’ve ever come across. It’s like O’Donnell was boring himself with it, didn’t really know where to take the plot and just thought “Sod it, that’ll do” . . .

. . . and it ends.

~~~

As an afterword, I’ve read articles accusing O’Donnell of racism and sexism in his fiction, as was the case with many of his contemporary authors; such things were considered acceptable at the time. However, can this be the case with this novel? It is true that it has disparaging remarks about “all those born with back and red skins” and Hamar, the main villain of the piece, being Jewish, is described with all the grotesquery of a Nazi propaganda poster. It is also true that women are ill-treated in this novel, particularly those who are Suffragettes, who are invariably described as furious, hatchet-faced harridans. But, even taking these instances into consideration, can we consider O’Donnell’s writing to be racist or sexist when the whole novel is misanthropic? No one is considered worthy here; with the acceptance of the reality of magical acts making anything possible, all of humanity is revealed as stupid, greedy and selfish. The rich and the poor; male and female; the young and the old; scientists and spiritualists; politicians and the proletariat; O’Donnell treats them all with equal contempt. No matter what sort of philanthropic mask we wear to fool society, it is just that, a mask. As such, it does read as a misanthropic satire on Victorian/Edwardian society; an extremely clumsily handled one, but a satire nonetheless.

This be the verse: 14 ~ Nine Poems for a God – John Sibley

Today’s poem, or series of poems, comes from a book I picked up from a junk shop a few months back;  a collection of poems by John Sibley, called The Death of William Rufus. This was published in 1946 by the notorious small press, The Fortune Press.

The Fortune Press was founded in 1924 by Reginald Caton. It seems that Caton had no qualms about publishing copyrighted works through his own press, which led to Francis Meynell of Nonesuch Press calling Caton a “Thief and a pirate”.

Caton courted further controversy by using The Fortune Press to publish homoerotic fiction, which led to him being prosecuted on obscenity charges in 1934. After this he concentrated more on publishing poetry and went on to publish Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin (in 1966 Larkin is said to have described Caton as “…a bum-hunting relic of the 1920s”).

As we can see from this series of poems, which contain some rather choice and fruity passages, Caton may have been continuing to publish works on his favoured theme by masking them in metaphors.

And if you would like to have your own poetry featured here in The Churchyard then feel free to get in touch. Details can be found . . . HERE.

 

john sibley poemsjohn sibley poemsjohn sibley poemsjohn sibley poemsjohn sibley poems

The Compleat Amicus Portmanteau Cravatalogue, part 5

(The Amicus Cravatalogue was a short, five part article I wrote for another blog a few years ago. As the other blog will disappear shortly I thought I’d include them here. This is Part 5)

Well, here we are. We’ve arrived at the last post of the Amicus Cravatalogue, wherein we’ve looked at every single cravat in the series of portmanteau horror films produced by Amicus in the 1960s and 1970s.

For those Johnny- come-latelies amongst you, here are some links to the earlier episodes:

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

PART 4

We’ve reached 1974 now and the final film in the series, the magnificent From Beyond the Grave. Sadly, 1974 was a grim year of political uncertainties in Britain. The first post-war recession hit, the three day week was introduced, there was an escalation of the Irish ‘Troubles’. There just didn’t seem to be any room for the humble yet extravagant fashion accessory in this world, the cravat was finally being sidelined.

Still, keep a stiff upper lip, on we go.

The linking story here is that of an antique shop called Temptations Limited run by who else but Peter Cushing (quite fitting that he should be the linking pyschopomp character in the first and last films of the series). People visit and procure certain objets d’art from the shop and once taken home these items hold a supernatural sway over their new owners. Interestingly, they up the morality tale odds in this final film as those with good intentions fare better than those with bad.

The first tale has a cravatted David Warner purchasing a mirror for his swanky apartment:

david warner 2

Whilst hosting a party his guests suggest holding that most ’70s of party pass-times, a seance. We just know this isn’t going to end well, don’t we? And indeed it doesn’t, after the seance a mysterious figure materialises to Warner in the mirror and begins to take control of him with murderous intent – the bizarre form of Marcel Steiner in 19th century attire, complete with a black silk cravat:

marcel steiner 2

The second tale concerns a frustrated middle-management chap (Ian Bannen) with a complete lack of control over his life who poses as a war hero to a down-at-heels ex-soldier scratching a living as a match seller (Donald Pleasence). No cravats here I’m afraid, but it does boast a wonderfully pyschotic performance from Donald’s real-life daughter, Angela Pleasence. The film is worth the entrance fee to experience Ms. Pleasance’s singing alone.

The third story gives us Ian Carmichael unwittingly taking an elemental spirit home with him after purchasing a silver snuff box. I know what you’re all thinking…”Ian Carmichael, surely he’ll be wearing a cravat?”…but, alas, no. He’s merely a sensibly dressed businessman in a suit and tie in this one.

In the final story Ian Ogilvy purchases an elaborately carved wooden door which he thinks will look splendid on his stationery cupboard. Unfortunately, Ogilvy is unaware that the door once belonged to a  17th century occultist (played by Jack Watson), which gives us the only glimpse in the Amicus series of an early lace cravat, as was the style in the Restoration period:

jack watson

In between the stories Cushing’s antique shop is being cased by an open-collared ruffian with felonious intent. But what of Cushing himself? Unfortunately no cravat, he opts for a bow tie and scarf combination in this one. But it’s Peter Cushing, he still cuts a dash whatever his choice of neckwear. I leave you with the final scene of the final film in the cravat rich series of Amicus portmanteau horror films:

peter cushing

 . . . A f t e r w o r d

Of course, although Amicus were arguably most famous for their portmanteau horror films they made other films, and not just horror, before, during and after the series.

I feel I should give a very brief mention to their two post-portmanteau horror films here.

The first is Madhouse which features the splendid pairing of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, both renowned gentlemen of the cravat, although only Cushing can be seen in one here:

peter cushing

And the other, released in the same year, was The Beast Must Die. This was the funkiest werewolf tale ever told with its Shaft style electric wah-wah guitar soundtrack. Truth be told, I watched it again recently fully expecting there to be a glut of cravats but unfortunately it’s all flouncy shirts unbuttoned to the navel and hairy chests. The only cravat we get is one sneaked onto set by Peter Cushing (…of course), and then we only see the briefest glimpse of it peeping out from the neck of his extravagantly patterned pullover:

peter cushing

And that’s the end of our sojourn into the the world of horror portmanteau cravats. Let us put Amicus to bed now, tuck it up in its ’70s candlewick bedspread and say ” Goodnight, sleep well……..if you can!

The Compleat Amicus Portmanteau Cravatalogue, part 4

(The Amicus Cravatalogue was a short, five part article I wrote for another blog a few years ago. As the other blog will disappear shortly I thought I’d include them here. This is Part 4)

Ok, so we’re at the penultimate film in the series of portmanteau horror films produced by Amicus in the 1960s and 1970s.

If you’ve missed the others they can be found at these links:

PART 1 (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors & Torture Garden)

PART 2 (The House That Dripped Blood)

PART 3 (Asylum & Tales From the Crypt)

We all thought that the fashion for the cravat was sliding into a decline in Part 3, didn’t we? There were slim pickings indeed in Asylum and Tales From The Crypt, but let’s move on from the bleakness of 1972 and into the bright future of 1973, let’s move into The Vault of Horror!

The framing story here involves a group of strangers who find that the lift they are all in unexpectedly takes them down to a sub-basement. This sub-basement is done up to the nines with a plush, gentlemen’s club decor and a table for five set with brandy and soda. Of course, this being an Amicus film, the five strangers sit down and tell each other their recurring nightmares.

In the first story Daniel Massey hires a private detective to track down his sister for him. Now then, something quite portentous happens here. The detective shows up at Massey’s apartment, a big bearded chap in a leather jacket, possibly a bit of a thug, but he’s wearing a delicate peach coloured chiffon cravat with silver edging.

Here he is:

unknown private detective 2

Daniel Massey has nefarious deeds afoot so he decides to kill the detective. This is where it gets interesting for the cravat-conscious, Massey in an open necked shirt strangles the cravat wearing detective with a necktie.

unknown private detective

unknown private detective 3

As we’re nearing the end of the heyday of the cravat, it’s all rather prophetic. Open necked shirt, tie and cravat all in a battle to the death like a perverse game of stone, paper, scissors. No? Perhaps it’s just me then.

*ahem* …anyway, in this tale we also have Roy Evans in a sort of cravat, although he may just be sneaking off with someone’s pillowcase:

roy evans

On with tale number two, Terry Thomas is the star so of course there’s going to be cravats. Here he plays an obsessively tidy husband whose wife doesn’t meet up to his demanding expectations. Terry Thomas often wears cravats in his films, doesn’t he? Exactly the sort you would expect to wear one? Sadly though, he never really suited the damn things. Why he couldn’t pull it off, I don’t know. Demeanor? Neck proportions?  Who knows? But, as much as I love him, Terry Thomas wears a cravat with all the elegance of a neck-brace.

terry thomas 3

terry thomas 2

Note also, the silver edging on that green cravat. I wonder if he’s been shopping in the same place as Daniel Massey’s detective?

The third story gives us the great Curd Jürgens as a stage magician looking for new tricks in India. Curd looks every bit the 1970’s westerner on his travels in the Orient with the standard uniform of linen suit and cravat. A classic look.

curt jurgens 1

Tale number four, a story of fraudulent deaths and exhumations, would be cravat free if it wasn’t for the appearance of Arthur Mullard, of all people, as a surly gravedigger.

arthur mullard

Which brings us to the final segment of this film, a tale of high art, voodoo and Tom Baker. There’s not a great deal of cravat action in this one. We get an extremely brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, view of Maurice Kauffman doing his best to copy Curd Jürgens styling of linen suit and cravat combo.

maurice kaufmann

And we have John Witty with his nasty encounter with a guillotine (one should never wear loose fitting neck attire when operating dangerous machinery).

john witty 2

I know it goes against the grain a little and we don’t usually talk about the cravat’s anorexic cousin, the necktie, but a special mention and possibly even a round of applause should really go to Tom Baker’s tie in this one. Just look at it and take in its breathtaking magnificence! I don’t think even the great man himself can quite believe it.

tom baker tie

And that bring us to the end of another post. We’re nearing the finale now, just one more Amicus portmanteau film to go. See you next time From Beyond The Grave.