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:

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.

Carnacki the Ghost-Finder ~ William Hope Hodgson (The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult ~ Volume 5 (Sphere, 1974))

And so we’re onto number five of the Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult series, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder.

william hope hodgson, carnacki the ghost finder

If anyone had asked me, not that anyone ever has, if I liked the Carnacki tales I would most definitely have replied in the affirmative. I picked up one of the Sphere copies with a Terry Oakes illustration when I was in my early-teens and very much enjoyed it. Now, thirty five years or so later, I’ve re-read it for the purposes of this blog and, I have to say, I’m really not as enamoured with it as I expected.william hope hodgson, carnacki the ghost finder

I love the idea of the enigmatic occult detective as much as the next weirdo person; if you’re reading this blog then you probably have an interest in old horror fiction so you’ve probably, at some point in your impressionable youth, harboured a secret fantasy about being an occult detective ~ whether it’s Blackwood’s mystical cipher, John Silence; Quinn’s  Jules de Grandin; Wellman’s Appallachian folklorist, Silver John; Crowley’s slightly creepy Simon Iff; Moore’s/Delano’s more modern take, John Constantine; or any of the myriad of others who inhabit the genre; we all have a favourite.

Hodgson wrote nine Carnacki tales, all of which are included in this collection. They have a somewhat formulaic approach to them; each having the rather basic framing device of the Edwardian gent, Carnacki, inviting his four friends to his London address at 472 Cheyne Walk so that he can regale them with the story of his latest adventure. The four friends are Dodgson (!), Arkright, Jessop and Taylor. We know nothing of these four guests as Carnacki refuses to engage in any conversation other than the telling of the story at hand. And this is where the main problem lies with these tales, the refusal of any conversation means that we get no sense of characterisation from the four visitors which renders them superfluous; they only exist as a clumsy ‘in’ to the story. Once in a while they do get to speak, but only as a Q&A session at the conclusion so that Carnacki can explain the things that Hodgson missed out of the story.

Lovecraft included Hodgson in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ and infers that, although Hodgson’s imagining of unknown horrors cannot be faulted, his prose style often lets him down. And I cannot help but agree with this.

But, for all its faults, the Carnacki collection does have a few points of interest.

Amongst a handful of other fictional works mentioned, we have an early example of a fictional grimoire in the Sigsand Manuscript. Carnacki constantly refers to this 14th century work in his investigations and we have various excerpts included. Here’s a complete run of those excerpts:

On the marking of the Pentagram:

“Thee mounts wych are thee Five Hills of safetie. To lack is to gyve pow’r to thee daemon; and surlie to fayvor the Evill Thynge.”

“Theyre must noe light come from within the barryier.”

“Thyr be noe sayfetie to be gained bye gayrds of holieness when the monyster hath pow’r to speak throe woode and stoene.”

This type of being can:

“forme wythine the pentycle,”

Although the unknown last line of the Saaamaaa Ritual will protect for no  more than:

“maybe five beats of the harte.”

 

A still-born child is:

“snayched bacyk bye thee Haggs.”

 

On the use of colour in psychic defense:

“Avoid diversities of colour; nor stand ye within the barrier of the colour lights; for in colour hath Satan a delight. Nor can he abide in the Deep if ye adventure against him armed with red purple. So be warned. Neither forget that in blue, which is God’s colour in the Heavens. ye have safety.”

 

“In blood there is the Voice which calleth through all space. Ye Monsters in ye Deep hear, and hearing, they lust. Likewise hath it a greater power to reclaim backward ye soul that doth wander foolish adrift from ye body in which it doth have natural abiding. But woe unto him that doth spill ye blood in ye deadly hour; for there will be surely Monsters that shall hear ye blood cry.”

 

“Ye Hogg which ye almighty alone hath power upon. If in sleep or in ye hour of danger ye hear the voice of ye Hogg, cease ye to meddle. For ye Hogg doth be of ye outer Monstrous Ones, nor shall any human come nigh him nor continue meddling when ye hear his voice, for in ye earlier life upon the world did the Hogge have power, and shall again in ye end. And in that ye Hogge had once a power upon ye earth, so doth he crave sore to come again. And dreadful shall be ye harm to ye soul if ye continue to meddle, and let ye beast come nigh. And I say unto all, if ye have brought this dire danger upon ye, have memory of ye cross, for all sign hath ye Hogge a horror.”

 

We can recognise amongst this cod Middle English text several similarities to the Lovecraftian mythos with its references to ancient and malignant beings just a hair’s breadth away from our own world. We could be forgiven for thinking that Lovecraft was indeed influenced by Hodgson’s work, but it seems that he did not discover his work until quite late on in his own career. As Lovecraft put it himself:

“Few can equal him (Hodgson) in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities . . .”

 

Continuing into Hodgson’s Carnacki mythos, the Sigsand Manuscript also describes beings known as Saiitii and, what appears to be a lesser form, Aeiirii; no other information is given about these beings other than the names and the fact that they can manifest in our world. These, along with the protective ritual Carnacki usually employs, the Saaamaaa Ritual, may seem familiar to readers of Dennis Wheatley.

We know that Wheatley was a huge fan of Hodgson’s work and he owned a complete set of the author’s first editions. As he states in his introduction to this volume, he intended to include all of Hodgson’s novels and short story collections in the Library of The Occult series. However, as the series only ran to forty five volumes, we only have two of Hodgson’s; this Carnacki collection and his 1909 novel, The Ghost Pirates.

Wheatley also payed homage to Hodgson in his novel The Devil Rides Out. We all know the famous scene where de Richleau and his companions have protected themselves from psychic attack within the chalked Pentagram and the demonic presences manifest around them. Here is a line from Wheatley:

“De Richleau knew that it was a Saiitii manifestation of the most powerful and dangerous kind.”

. . . and from Hodgson:

“Yes, unless it should prove to be one of the cases of the more terrible Saiitii Manifestations, we were almost certain of safety, so long as we kept to our order within the Pentacle.”

There are many articles on the internet which state that Wheatley has de Richleau use Hodgson’s Saamaaa ritual during this scene in The Devil Rides Out. However, this is not the case (and the perils of copy and paste essay writing!). Although obviously influenced by Hodgson, Wheatley changes the name slightly and has de Richleau use the Sussamma Ritual. Here’s Wheatley:

“The Duke used his final resources, and did a thing which shall never be done except in the direst emergency when the soul is in peril of destruction. In a clear sharp voice he pronounced the last two lines of the dread Sussamma Ritual.”

. . . and Hodgson:

“There is, of course, the possibility of the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual being uttered but it is too uncertain to count upon and the danger is too hideous and even then it has no power to protect for more than “maybe five beats of the harte” as the Sigsand has it.”

~

So there we have it, William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories; a series of formulaic tales with a writing style which can be described, at best, as adequate; zero characterisation; plots that gnaw away at the ropes which suspend your disbelief; and a mild obsession for equating esotericism with an over-use of vowels.

Having said that, the Carnacki tales have proved to be massively influential . . . somehow.

If you haven’t read them yet then should you read them?

Of course you should! They are a hugely important part of 20th Century occult fiction.