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:

Jerusalem, Alan Moore, 2016 (Knockabout) or; the best presents are book-shaped: 2

As I’ve said before, I rarely purchase new books and, when I do, they tend to be old. How can I even make a start on the 21st Century publications when there are still books from the 19th and 20th Centuries which I still haven’t read? I have no idea how anyone manages to keep up to date with the new stuff so my very brief forays into modern literature usually come to me in the form of presents.

This Christmas I received Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem (a signed copy, no less!). Here’s the cover:

Alan Moore, Jerusalem, 2016, Knockabout

Obviously, having only had it for a couple of days and what with it being rather epic in scale (by the looks of it, coming in at around 3/4 million words?!), I haven’t read it yet, so this blog post is merely to serve as an introduction.

It seems that this novel is an experimental hymn to Alan Moore’s hometown of Northampton, so it’s a fascinating one for me. Like Moore, I was born, raised, and still live in the peculiar town of Northampton. Like Moore, I was born in a poor part of the town to a working class family. Like Moore, I’ve had a long-standing interest in the occult, folklore and local history. I even met Moore several times back in the early 1990s, we moved in the same circles and had mutual acquaintances.

So, this book should be right up my particular Northampton side-street.

As we open the cover to the front endpapers, we’re treated to a map of the area where the novel is set (and where Alan Moore was born).

Alan Moore, Jerusalem, 2016, Knockabout

As I’m sitting here writing this in my house I am just outside of this map, to the west, in an area of town called St. James End. Locally, it’s known as Jimmy’s End and, interestingly, Alan Moore wrote a short film called Jimmy’s End which was filmed at the local Working Man’s Club a stone’s throw from my house. A dark and Lynchian piece, you can see the trailer here:

Back to the novel, I’ve dipped into the first few pages and it is a strange thing indeed to follow the characters around streets that I know intimately and to hear them speaking in a broad Northamptonian dialect. With Moore being such a widely read author it’s odd to think that our small corner has been given an international audience.

So, when will I write a full post about this novel? That’s a difficult one. I really am very much looking forward to reading it but I have pile of other books I currently have on the go which I’m promising myself to finish first, leaving me clear to enjoy this one. I find that I have less time to read than I would like these days (self-employed bookbinder, it takes up the majority of my time) and, when I do get the time, I tend to be quite a slow reader. I take notes as I go; if there’s a particular passage I like I will read it several times (sometimes out loud); I indulge myself and luxuriate over the words. It purportedly took Moore ten years to write this novel and it might take me just as long to read it and write the blog post about it.

I’m considering a running, chapter by chapter commentary sort of thing, when I do get around to it.

In the meantime, I’m trying to avoid reading anything written about Jerusalem by others as I want to come to it completely fresh.

And, Alan, in the unlikely event that you happen to stumble across this blog, I doubt very much that you’d remember me from all those years ago but thanks for writing this novel, I have a feeling it’s going to be important.

Moonchild ~ Aleister Crowley (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 3 (Sphere, 1974))

And so we move onto the next book in the series with Crowley’s occult novel, here called Moonchild but also known as The Butterfly Net and, of course, Liber LXXXI.

In his brief foreword Crowley states that he wrote this book in 1917. It wasn’t published until the short-lived Mandrake Press put it into print in 1929 and, even then, it was only given a relatively short run. I can’t help wondering whether the book published in 1929 was the actual final draft from 1917 or whether there were additions made; it’s just that certain parts do seem quite prophetic (but then I suppose that was the author’s stock-in-trade). It wasn’t until 1970 that it was picked up and put into paperback by the famed New York occult bookshop-cum-publisher, Samuel Weiser. With the occult counter-culture boom of the 1970s Sphere reprinted it several times and included it as the third entry in our Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series.

Aleister Crowley, Moonchild, Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, Volume 3

How do we talk about this novel? It’s such a curate’s egg of a thing that it’s difficult to know where to start. On the one hand we have an occult thriller yet, on the other hand, we have a primer on magical thinking. On yet another hand we have a biting satire on the major occult figures of the day and, on another hand still, we have an alternate(?) history of the early 20th Century.

Let’s start off by stating where I’m reading this book from. Obviously, I have a love of 20th century horror/occult fiction; that goes without saying. I would say that I have a grounding in what can be broadly categorised as Western Esotericism, including Crowley and Thelema, but I’m certainly no expert on the subject. I’ve read and studied the major Taoist texts, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and the I Ching but, again, I would not call myself an expert. I say this because, with a book such as this, any discussion is going to be coloured by the reader’s own preconceptions; a casual reader expecting a thriller about battling wizards is going to get a very different reading than, say, a dyed in the wool Thelemite.

So, what’s it about? The central plot concerns two factions of warring magicians. On one side, we have the ‘white’ magicians attempting to bring about a new age to humanity by bringing into being by magical means a homunculus. This homunculus would be the vehicle for a spirit possessing the astrological qualities of the moon and would become a Messianic figure, the Moonchild of the title. Of course, the ‘black’ magicians do all within their powers to bring an end to this working and there we have the premise of the novel, the interaction between the black and the white.

The world Crowley creates for Moonchild is not too distant from the one in which he inhabited, as such, it could be classed as a Roman à clef. All those we encounter in Moonchild are thinly veiled characterisations of Crowley’s own friends, acquaintances and enemies . . . and he certainly goes to town on them. Let’s have a look at some of the major players in the novel and their real-life counterparts:

1: Cyril Grey

young aleister crowley, cyril grey

A feisty young adventurer/magician, brave, handsome, connected, witty, charming, devastatingly intelligent and a powerful occultist. Yes . . . this is Aleister Crowley’s very own alter-ego (with the emphasis on ‘ego’). This being a character that is practically perfect in every way we cannot help but think there is an element of wish-fulfilment going on. Most people grow out of this sort of writing by their late-teens but old ‘Mary-Sue’ Crowley was a chap in his early forties when he wrote this.

2: Simon Iff

old aleister crowley, simon iff

A close friend, mentor and associate of Cyril Grey. A mysterious and exceptionally wise old Taoist and another powerful magician. Yes . . . this is another of Crowley’s alter-egos, himself as an older man – the man Grey wants to be.

3: Lisa la Giuffria

Aleister Crowley, Moonchild, Mary 'd'Este Sturges, Lisa la Giuffria

Lover of Cyril Grey (Crowley) and intended mother of the Moonchild. She is based on Mary d’Este Sturges, one of Crowley’s ‘Scarlet Women’. The real Sturges was the wildly bohemian mother of film director Preston Sturges, she met Crowley through their mutual friend Isadora Duncan (who also briefly appears in Moonchild as ‘Lavinia King’) and went on to co-write some of Crowley’s most important work.

4: Douglas

samuel liddell macgregor mathers, Douglas, Aleister Crowley, Moonchild

The chief antagonist of the piece, the head of The Black Lodge, is none other than the real life co-founder and head of the The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Douglas, also known as S.R.M.D., hates our young hero Cyril Grey with a passion and will stop at nothing to destroy his work. Being enemies in real life, Crowley writes a truly repulsive character for his one time associate, a vile and debauched magician who thinks nothing of pimping out his devoted wife to fund his own addictions.

5: Edwin Arthwait

A E Waite, Arthwait, Aleister Crowley, Moonchild

The Black Lodge Magician who Douglas puts in charge of the mission to destroy the Moonchild project. Crowley barely even bothers to disguise the name of this one; it is, of course, the famed occultist, co-creator of the Rider-Waite tarot deck and real life enemy of Crowley, Edward Arthur Waite. Crowley paints him as a tedious, pedantic, prolix buffoon whose bungled attempts at destroying the Moonchild project form a broad comedic relief in the middle of the book.

6: Gates

w b yeats, Gates, Aleister Crowley, Moonchild

Arthwait’s second-in-command in the mission to destroy the Moonchild project. This is the poet W. B. Yeats and he doesn’t come across quite as badly as the others. Crowley portrays Yeats as a skilled magician with a keen intellect who only joined The Black Lodge as a romantic fantasy.

7: A.B.

annie besant, A.B., Aleister Crowley, Moonchild

This character doesn’t actually appear in the novel, they are only briefly mentioned as the mysterious ‘silent partner’ head of The Black Lodge; a woman of such evil depravity that even Douglas answers to her. Bizarrely, this is Crowley’s interpretation of the Victorian social reformer and leading light in Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, Annie Besant. Interestingly, the real Besant was famously involved with her own ‘Messiah’ project several years before Crowley wrote Moonchild.

These are just a handful of the main players in the novel. There are, of course, countless other important personages from the late 19th/early 20th centuries portrayed and if you don’t recognise them yourself then don’t worry, most editions have Crowley’s friend and secretary, Kenneth Grant, to guide us through with his copious footnotes.

So, that’s the background, we have an occult Roman à clef based around the characters revolving around the famed split, and ensuing fallout, of The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn. But how does it read as a novel? What if the reader has no prior knowledge of, or couldn’t care less about, the background of the novel?

Pretty poorly, I would imagine.

Crowley’s prose is flat and unimaginative for the most part with the occasional flourish of purple prose which only serves to highlight both failings. Even though the characters are mostly two dimensional Crowley has trouble controlling them, if there are ever more than three characters in a room Crowley completely loses control of them, thankfully larger group scenes are kept to a minimum. As a satire, Crowley’s venting of past grievances, although fascinating to those interested in the subject, can come across as back-bitingly juvenile. In fairness, the central plot does move along quite nicely, and we do encounter some genuine surprises within it, but the casual reader may find it an annoyance that the plot is being continuously derailed by the philosophical discourses which Crowley has Cyril Grey and Simon Iff expound upon.

Of course, these discourses are a major part of the novel which give it a second life as a primer on magical thinking. With Lisa la Giuffria being a newcomer to the group and an eager student it gives Crowley the opportunity, under the guise of Cyril Grey and Simon Iff, to guide the reader through the basics of his Thelemic tenets. This Crowley does exceptionally well, explaining in layman’s terms his philosophies in a Socratic dialogue sort of a way. Along with these magical dialogues we also have detailed descriptions of various magical rites, especially those within the realm of sympathetic magic, but there is one branch of mysticism that overrides all others in this novel.

Essentially, if we strip back Crowley’s book, if we silence the bells and whistles, it is a novel about Taoism. Crowley had a fascination for Taoism and wrote his own interpretation of the most important Taoist text, Lao Tsu’s ‘Tao Te Ching’. The appearance of Simon Iff as a Taoist mystic reinforces this theme. Within Taoism lies the concept of Dialectical Monism, understanding that the dualistic nature of reality only exists as part of a monistic whole; therefore, for example, good cannot exist without evil, and vice versa. Nothing actually exists, all is a result of the interaction between what we see as opposites. The entire plotline exemplifies this; imagine the Tai Chi Tu (more commonly known as the Yin/Yang symbol) and think of the interaction between those two forces, the Yin and the Yang, the black and the white, at once opposite and complementary; the novel dances along the invisible line that connects and divides them. Our hero, Cyril Grey (the young Crowley), is a man seeking The Way of The Tao and his friend, Simon Iff (the old Crowley), is a man who has attained it.

It’s difficult to say who Crowley was aiming this novel at. He wrote it at a particularly impecunious period of his life so, was it an attempt to make a bit of quick cash by writing a pot-boiler? Was it an attempt to give his philosophy a wider audience by disguising it as a mainstream thriller novel? Was it just a bit of a jape to annoy his detractors?

Who knows?

(Incidentally, if anyone does know then please feel free to comment!)

So, there we have it. Moonchild is at once a poorly written pot-boiler of an occult thriller and a possibly quite brilliant treatise on magical thinking with an emphasis on Taoist tenets. Either way, it’s a fascinating piece, synthesising the thoughts of one of the most important figures in 20th century occultism.

Gods’ Man, 1929, Lynd Ward (pub. Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith)

This goes under my ‘best presents are book shaped’ posts as my wife really does buy the best presents and, more often than not, they are book shaped.

I’m happy to display my ignorance here, I was only vaguely aware of the name Lynd Ward; one of those names that hover around in the edgelands of your consciousness, one of those names that you’ve read somewhere but you’re not sure what it’s connected with. Yes, I was ignorant of Lynd Ward’s work and glad of it because it’s wonderful when, in the middle of middle-agedness, you can still find things to surprise, delight and excite you.

Along with my passion for books, particularly mid-20th century horror books, I also have an interest in early 20th century German Expressionist woodcuts (of which I own a small collection). Not surprising really, I suppose, as the Expressionist movement had such a massive influence on the development of the horror genre through the 20th century.

So, imagine how thrilled I was to unwrap this beautiful 1st edition / 4th printing. That gorgeous cover design, comfortably straddling the fine line between Expressionist and Deco. That enigmatically placed apostrophe. And that subtitle . . . ‘A Novel in Woodcuts’!

gods' man lynd ward cover

A Novel in Woodcuts – for those of you who are, as I was a few weeks back, unaware of this book, it is just that. There are no words other than the title and chapter headings, the story is purely, and very lucidly, driven by Ward’s prints. As such, it is considered to be the first American graphic novel (Ward was very much influenced by the slightly earlier works of the German, Otto Nückel and the Belgian, Frans Masereel, both of whom produced wordless woodcut novels).

The story itself is a Faustian tale concerning a down at heels artist who signs a contract with a sinister masked figure in return for a mysterious paintbrush which will guarantee him fame and fortune. We follow the artist’s misadventures through a magnificently decadent high-rise deco cityscape, where his new life of success spins wildly out of control. This harsh, rectilineal world is contrasted with the gentle curves of the pastoral landscape he finds happiness in during the latter part of the novel.

It’s very much a tale of duality, hence that apostrophe in the title.

This was Ward’s first novel and proved an instant success, despite the unfortunate timing of the launch coinciding with the Great Stockmarket Crash of 1929, and he went on to produce five more Novels in Woodcuts over the following few years.

Perhaps I will need to drop a few hints to my wife for my birthday next year.

The Venomous Serpent, 1974, N.E.L. (Brian Ball)

I thought I’d delve into the nether regions of the New English Library shelves today. I picked out this title quite by random; I think it was one of my wife’s childhood books and it’s been languishing unread for as long as I can remember.

the venomous serpent

I decided to flick through the first few pages this morning and ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. It’s not great literature by any means (of course it isn’t, it’s from N.E.L.), but my interest was piqued as it follows on nicely from my last post about folk horror.

Let’s have a brief synopsis and see just how this book fits into the folk horror genre.

It’s set in the mid-1970s and centred around a young couple, a pair of art school drop-outs. Deciding that art-school is the last place an artist should practise they leave college, rent a barn from a farmer and set up a craft workshop/retail outlet to cash in on the folk art boom of that time. So, we have our innocent outsiders.

Of course, they need a steady supply of customers so a tourist trap would be the best bet, where best to set this business up? They decide on the Dark Peak, specifically between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Hathersage. The surrounding landscape is painted quite well by the author and becomes very much a character in itself. We have our isolated and isolating landscape.

The female half of the couple is adventurous and enjoys exploring abandoned buildings, ruined churches and ancient monuments. The plot revolves around one ruined church where she finds an old brass, which she takes a rubbing from, depicting the Lord and Lady of the area (strangely, the names on the back cover blurb do not match the names in the text). The Lady on the brass has a strange dog-like creature by her legs and her face has been obliterated. We have our hints of folklore and ancient evils.

The tiny village near to the ruined church is an empty and sombre place, the few locals we meet are surly and unwelcoming; the pub is named The Black Nigget. So, the isolation of the outsiders and the folklore element is reinforced.

I won’t go into too many details about the plot as I don’t like to spoil these things for those intending to read it, suffice to say the action takes place through the month of April and ends on May 1st!

Ball writes with a confident swagger (he even references and advertises two of his other novels within the storyline of this one, which shows magnificent temerity), his characterisations are solid and he builds the plot nicely. He even introduces a comic relief in the middle of the book as a liminal breathing space, this takes the form of a wonderfully eccentric vicar. What lets Ball down slightly as an author is that his descriptive passages can be a little on the flabby side and he has a tendency to verge towards cliché.

But, all in all, this is a very enjoyable romp through a ‘70s folk horror landscape. I may well even seek out some of those another novels which the author told me about in such a blatant manner!

The Giant Dwarfs, 1967, Panther (Gisela Elsner)

I thought we’d go for a more literary bent with today’s post so here’s Gisela Elsner’s Formentor Prize winning novel, The Giant Dwarfs. Mine is a rather grubby 1967 Panther edition with cover art credited to David Bellamy and Jill Taylor.

giant dwarfs

This is a German novel (translated by Joel Carmichael) written in 1965 and is very much a part of the literary heritage of that country’s post-war period. Out of that time of immense emotional upheaval the literary association Gruppe 47 formed, a group of authors who wanted to bring their country out from the shadows of Nazism and promote democracy to the German people. Freed from the constraints of traditionalist propaganda, these authors introduced a second wave of literary modernism. Gisela Elsner was one of their number. Here she is, looking suitably bohemian:

gisela elsner

Although not strictly speaking a ‘horror’ novel, I’ve never been one to compartmentalise things and it does contain enough grotesque, Kafkaesque imagery to warrant an inclusion on the blog.

Written in the first person, our narrator is Lothar Leinlein; a young boy describing the world he lives in. He describes it in great detail. Elsner has Lothar narrate the tale with a cold detachment. He does not take part in the absurd actions which surround him, he merely observes. We rarely witness any emotional responses from Lothar, even when he learns of the tapeworm living inside him.

This novel deals with the minutiae of life in much the same way as, say, Proust. But if Proust has the memory of his narrator involuntarily  brought to life by the smell of delicate Madeleines and Lime blossom tea, then Elsner would have poor Lothar Leinlein having to suffice with the smell of great slabs of meat and “heaps of food” mashed flat onto the plate. Elsner writes every tiny detail with a clinical precision which sets into contrast the grotesquery and chaos of the subject matter. She uses repetition to hypnotic effect, particularly in the opening paragraph of each chapter.

The first chapter is entitled ‘Dinnertime’ and we’re immediately plunged into watching, through Lothar’s eyes, the ritual of the hulking figure of his father gorging himself on these “heaps” of food. The father is a gourmand rather than a gourmet, it’s all about the excess. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel, being a satire on the excesses of mindless consumerism among the bourgeoisie.

This mindless consumerism brings to light the petty monotony of the adult world as seen through the eyes of a child. It throws into stark contrast the grotesque absurdity of the adult’s actions.

This is a world where people go through the motions. Elsner reduces humanity to its bestial nature, people gorge themselves on food without pleasure and have sex without passion. She creates a world where there is no room for the individual; in a chapter where Lothar and his father lose his mother in the busy streets they realise the only way they could identify her is by the clothes she always wears, a light coloured blouse and a dark coloured skirt; an outfit which all of the other women of the town wear; neither are aware of the physical characteristics or the personality of the mother. Later in the same chapter Lothar become separated from his father and finds himself alone. A woman in a light coloured blouse and a dark coloured skirt calls him in for dinner; as he sits at the dinner table we have an exact repeat of the opening pages of the novel where Lothar eats with his own family. Lothar is just an anonymous boy, the adults are just anonymous parents. People are interchangeable.

Elsner even reduces language to a base level. Lothar describes a framed quotation on his grandmother’s wall but, as he cannot read, Elsner has him describe the shapes the letters make in great detail; some authors would skim over this but not so Elsner, she devotes six pages to this. Here’s a very short excerpt to give you an idea:

“At its upper half and actually at the right of the stroke hangs a half-circle that opens to the left but is closed off by the half-stroke, and that is just as big as the two half-circles of the fifth letter that’s just been described. The seventh letter following after the gap as big as a letter consists, like the sixth one just described, of this vertical stroke as well as of this half-circle that hangs to the right of the stroke and opens to the left but is closed off by the half-stroke.”

And verbal communication becomes equally base in this novel. People fill the void of silence with stock phrases which, en masse, become nothing more than the braying of livestock.

I keep referring to this book as a novel, but can it really be classified as such? There is really no linear narrative running through the 239 pages; it’s a series of vignettes taken from Lothar Leinlein’s life. Each of these vignettes is equally absurd and unrelentingly bleak. There may be the faintest glimmer of hope that young Lothar will find a way to escape this nightmarish world but probably not, as the world Elsner portrays is the world we all live in, just viewed through a microscope.