The Wicker Man

I spent most of my first viewing of The Wicker Man (the 1973 film, not the remake) in a state of bewildered readjustment. Before watching it, I’d heard only enough about it to know it was generally regarded as one of the great British horror films, and this had of course primed me with a number of preconceptions, all of which were thoroughly dashed the moment the folk of Summerisle started singing their cheery, bawdy ditty, “The Landlord’s Daughter”. By the end, I really wasn’t sure what sort of film I’d been watching. I knew it had a powerful ending, but as to the film that preceded it, I didn’t know if I liked it.

The Wicker Man: The Summerislanders sing "The Landlord's Daughter"

But I kept thinking about it. Perhaps this is true of all the best works of art; they’re like problems you’re compelled to solve, sometimes long after they’re over. They haunt you, and require you to watch or read or listen to them again, and again, and perhaps again, always learning something new, but never all there is. So I found myself watching The Wicker Man again (and again, and again), trying to work out what it was, what had drawn me back to it, and why I was coming round to thinking of it as a truly great film.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I was wrong-footed from the start because I can’t quite think of The Wicker Man as horror. It doesn’t fit my own (no doubt rather quirky, and never put into words) internal definition, though it certainly has one of the most shocking endings of any film I’ve seen. (Though not the usual horror-film version of shocking, in the way that, say, the hand shooting out of the ground at the end of Carrie is shocking. That’s shocking because it’s unexpected. If anything, the ending of The Wicker Man is shocking despite being so very expected, which is all the more a feat.) Anyway, I watched it again a few days ago, and I think I might have finally worked out why I don’t think of it as a horror film. It all comes down to a bit of a confession.

Police Sergeant Howie, in the world he's comfortable with

Throughout, I find myself identifying with both sides of the story — both Police Sergeant Howie and the Summerislanders — but in different ways. Howie, you can’t help identifying with because he’s your point of view; you start from his position of knowing nothing about Summerisle, and learn about Summerisle as he does. The only thing is, you don’t get to like him, however much time you spend with him. In fact, you get to like the Summerislanders a lot more. They’re such a down-to-earth, happy bunch. They’re so refreshingly uninhibited. They sing, they dance, they have a good time. What’s more, they work as a community (whereas Howie isn’t even liked by his fellow policemen). And they have the wild-haired but dashing Lord Summerisle as their leader, who, as he’s played by Christopher Lee at his most charming, can only be a plus point.

This does tend to blind you to just how nasty what they do to poor Sergeant Howie is. It was only when I stopped and thought about it, after watching the film for a fourth or fifth time, that I realised how wrong it is to accept what the islanders do to Sergeant Howie, and even to feel he deserves it. (And I don’t even have the islanders’ excuse that they think it’ll improve their crops. I’ve no doubt that, as Sergeant Howie says, doing the wicked wicker thing to him won’t make the slightest difference, and next year it’ll be Lord Summerisle’s turn. So in a way, I’m even worse than the islanders. I’m happy to see Howie die simply because he’s a prig.)

Lord Summerisle and the Wicker Man

Perhaps this is because, rather like Lord Summerisle himself, The Wicker Man has such an open sort of charm. It’s not as suave as Christopher Lee, but it has the same earthy honesty and pagan vitality. The central conflict of the film is repression (in the form of uptight Sergeant Howie) versus folky-bawdy disinhibition. Howie, in his starch-stiff uniform and starch-stiff face, his clipped, disapproving accent, his devotion to the law, hasn’t the flexibility of mind to even comprehend that there might be other ways of life than his own, and is horrified to find there are. (And then is so affronted by the forms they take, he’s incapable of appreciating how many underlying similarities there are; for instance — as Lord Summerisle points out — the belief in parthenogenesis, and the redeeming power of sacrifice.) Howie is identified with modern civilisation, through his constricting uniform, his aeroplane, his robotic-voiced loudhailer. The Summerislanders on the other hand wear loose clothes, sway their hips, speak in a free folky lilt, sing, drink, frolic in graveyards, jump naked through fires, and generally enjoy themselves. They’re not hung up on sex and death, but have quite come to terms with them, and with their own bodies; Howie, on the other hand, has holy-fied sex and death into something remote, codified and unliving — into something quite literally disembodied. Compared to Sergeant Howie — even though we spend almost the entire film in his company — the Summerislanders are just so likeable.

The Wicker Man: Howie concentrates on disembodied death; the Summerislanders celebrate embodied new life.

If only they weren’t a bunch of murderers!

That’s the thing. By the end of the film, I’m so much on the islanders’ side, it takes an effort to appreciate what an awful thing it is they do. And, when it comes down to it, I guess I don’t think of The Wicker Man as a horror film simply because I’m too much on the side of what I really ought to be calling the monsters.

Witch Wood by John Buchan

I bought James Cawthorn & Michael Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books in a sale back in 1992, and have carried on a sort of book-by-book conversation with it ever since. I don’t know if I intend to read every one of its suggested hundred — I’ve just ticked off my 59th with John Buchan’s Witch Wood — but I’m often referring to it, wondering if this or that title has made the Cawthorn & Moorcock grade, or browsing it for reading suggestions. One thing I have come to learn is that their definition of fantasy is not necessarily mine (Moby Dick, for instance), nor is their definition of best (L Sprague de Camp’s Tritonian Ring, for instance), but that’s the fun of such lists. They’re only annoying if you forget they’re just one (or in this case two) person’s opinion and expect them to be in some way definitive.

Witch Wood (published in 1927) was Buchan’s favourite of his own novels (The Thirty-Nine Steps being everyone else’s). It’s set in the mid-seventeenth century, in rural Scotland, where a young minister, David Sempill, has just taken up a post in the kirk of Woodilee. There’s plenty of thick Scots dialogue (“Haste ye, sir, and help me off wi’ thae Babylonish garments, and that weskit o’ airn — what for sud folk gang to the smith for cleading and no to a wabster?”), and plenty of Scots Jacobean religio-politics. The edition I read had a three-page glossary at the back to help with some of the dialect, but as often as not it didn’t have the words I was looking up. (The second part of the above line, by the way, translates as: “why should folk go to a smith for their clothing, and not to a weaver?”) The politics, which I tried to skim past at first, eventually required a brief trip to Wikipedia to get through — Buchan was, after all, of that educated class that expected its readers to understand Latin, and have a far more detailed knowledge of the country’s history than modern readers (and I’m shamefully ignorant of everything Blue Peter never taught me). But the story itself was compelling, though it wasn’t till the penultimate chapter that it really clicked what type of story it was. And knowing what type of story is being told is key, really, to enjoying a book.

So, what type of story is Witch Wood? It earned its place in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s list because of the new minister’s discovery that, as well as attending kirk every Sabbath, a good portion of his parishioners disappear into the wood (the wonderfully named Melanudrigill, or just “the Wud” to the locals, who fear to name it) to take part in Devil-worshipping rites around an old pagan altar. The new minister learns of this practice when, having got lost one night in an attempt to overcome his fear of a place that a man with God on his side ought not to fear, witnesses his flock, masked as animals, dancing round the altar and, in Buchan’s own delicate phrasing, kissing “some part of the leader’s body, nozzling him like dogs on the roadside”. Yes, we all know where witches are supposed to kiss the Devil, thank you very much.

Sempill sets about trying to uncover and denounce the coven, but soon finds himself set against both the superstitious fear of his parishioners, and the bigotry of his kirk elders. This may make it sound like a sort of proto-Wicker Man or historical Devil Rides Out, but although Witch Wood is definitely in the ancestry of both those stories, its emphasis is different. It’s not really a horror novel (though it contains some wonderfully atmospheric description of the Wud at night: “The clouds had thinned and the struggling moon showed Melanudrigill before them, rising and falling like an ocean of darkness.”), nor is it a fantasy novel (part of its denouement could be taken as an act of God, but it might just as well be the effect of conscience, or superstition, and there are no really fantastic occurrences). As well as the Devil-worship plot, there’s a pretty much separable love story, and a subplot involving David Sempill’s agonising over his political allegiances — all of which, for the bulk of the novel, are kept separate, meaning the Devil-worship subplot lies fallow for whole chapters at a time. It was only in the penultimate chapter, when the effect of these three strands come crashing down on the young David Sempill that the book clicked for me and I realised it was really the story of an idealistic young man learning to see the world’s hypocrisy, superstition, and sheer human pig-headedness in all its disillusioning glory. Not a vicar-versus-witches adventure story, then, but something more psychological.

And at this point, it became quite powerful. The previously ingenuous, and often slightly soft-spined Sempill gained a new, dark hardness, which allowed him at last to face up to his foes and deal with them in his own way. (But not, as in another devil-worship-in-rural-Britain story — Blood On Satan’s Claw — by wielding a huge sword. Sempill uses words alone.)

So, not a fantasy book, though certainly one that may appeal to fantasy or horror readers. I’m certainly glad I read it. One more to tick off my Cawthorn & Moorcock list.