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.
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:
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.
3: Skewed moral beliefs
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?
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!
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.