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.


Unknown Magazine

Cover to the first issue of Unknown Magazine (March 1939), art by H W Scott

The fantasy, SF and horror pulps remembered most fondly are those that made a name for publishing a particular type of story — often a specific sub-genre, rather than a broad genre. Weird Tales, for instance, is most remembered for Lovecraftian-style “weird” horror, even though it published a lot more besides, including the more traditional type of ghost story, and sword & sorcery. Unknown, which was for a brief time Weird Tales’ only serious rival in the world of fantasy pulps, was better known for a much lighter type of tale, one so characteristic to the magazine that it became known as the “Unknown school” (though it had had its precedents in the likes of humorous fantasists F Anstey, Thorne Smith, and Richard Garnett). As Weird Tales came first, Unknown defined itself against the older pulp: “No more houses of dripping blood, grinning harridans with butcher knives, bodies dangling from razor-bladed rafters”, as Ray Bradbury wrote in a letter to Unknown. Isaac Asimov characterised WT as “grim” as opposed to Unknown’s “impudent” — “with the accent on the imp”.

There are a few factors which gave Unknown its specific character, but chief among them was its editor, John W Campbell Jr, who supposedly started the magazine as a means to publish stories which had been submitted to Astounding, but which didn’t fit that magazine’s hard-SF style. As a result, a lot of the writers published in Unknown were SF writers with ideas for fantasy stories, and they approached fantasy in a more science-fictional manner. For them, fantasy was something to be confronted with a modern, logical and analytical approach. The most characteristic tales of the “Unknown school” feature an Average Joe confronted by a single instance of the supernatural or magical (rather than being transported to an entire other world, for instance), usually with humorous results.

The Unknown, edited by D R Bensen, Pyramid Books 1963

There are a good few examples in The Unknown, a 1963 anthology of stories that appeared in the magazine during its brief life (39 issues in total, from March 1939 to October 1943, when the company’s limited wartime paper allocation was given over entirely to Astounding). Henry Kuttner’s “The Misguided Halo”, for instance, has a young advertising executive mistakenly given a halo by a novice angel, because of a confusion between him (Kenneth Young of Tibbett, North America), and a momentarily-lapsed holy man (Kai Yung of Tibet). Comic shenanigans ensue as Young tries to maintain a normal life despite this holy glow. Similarly, in H L Gold’s “Trouble With Water”, the Average Joe is Herman Greenberg, proprietor of a beachside hotdog & drinks stand, who insults a Water Gnome and is cursed so that “water and those who live in it will keep away from you” — with the result that he cannot wash, or shave, or drink anything but beer, and also (in a momentary boost for his business) cannot be rained upon.

A theme begins to develop, as these average Kenneths and Hermans inevitably go to doctors and psychiatrists for an answer to their problems, only to be dismissed with sedatives, or looked upon as an interesting case for further study, but never actually helped. (The one psychiatrist to star in his own story in The Unknown, in Nelson S Bond’s “Prescience”, actually pursues such an odd case, despite his disinterest, but with disastrous results.) But there is always a solution to be found, and usually it’s by the hero accepting the fantastic situation and working with its own peculiar logic, rather than by trying to attempt any kind of rationalisation. In fact, there are whole subgenres of fantasy which deal with this sort of approach — deal-with-the-devil stories, for instance, one example of which is here, Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug”, in which the devil dealt with is a very minor imp with limited powers. Boucher’s hero, Bill Hitchens, is notable for not being an Average Joe, but a scientist, who summons the imp Snulbug to try and make some money to fund his research. Bill’s idea — for the devil to bring him a newspaper from tomorrow, so he can make a profit from its information — has, the imp points out, been tried before, and is limited in its usefulness, but Bill pursues his own (logical) approach to the magical situation, and comes through in the end.

Edd Cartier illustration for Anthony Boucher’s “Snulbug”

Unknown featured other types of story, of course. Some — such straight horror tales as Manly Wade Wellman’s Poe-versues-Vampire tale “When It Was Moonlight” — are no doubt here because Unknown paid better rates than Weird Tales, and so got the chance to accept or reject them first. Another far more WT-style writer, who got his first professional sale in Unknown, was Fritz Leiber. Unknown published the first five Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories, as well as some of Leiber’s Lovecraftian/M R James-inspired ghost and horror stories, including “Smoke Ghost”, which Ramsey Campbell cites as being important for making its ghost a thoroughly integrated part of a modern urban environment. (It’s his Fafhrd & Gray Mouser tale, “The Bleak Shore”, that gets included in The Unknown.)

Even when Unknown folded, the effect of its take on the fantastic lingered. Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (first published in 1953, in F&SF), for instance, has its hero (from our world) defeating giants and dragons by working out the scientific rationale behind their fantastic nature, and his contribution to the first Thieves’ World anthology, “The Gate of the Flying Knives” (in 1979) is resolved by the hero’s use of an abstruse snippet of mathematical knowledge, which Anderson can’t quite hold back from naming, entirely anachronistically. A piece of parchment holds a gateway to another dimension, and to prevent its denizens from chasing through to our world after a heroic escape, the hero gives the parchment a “half twist and brought the edges back together”, meaning it now has only one side:

Air rushed in where the gate had been, crack and hiss. Cappen heard that sound as it were an alien word of incantation: “Möbius-s-s.”