Picnic at Hanging Rock

I remember seeing Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock on TV, probably when I was about 11 or 12. It must have been my first experience of a film that didn’t provide a proper solution to its mysteries, and my response was to be quietly devastated. Those beautiful, evanescent girls, all golden-lit and white-gowned, climbing into the penetralia of Hanging Rock like a reverse version of Edward Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs (of which he wrote, “I have drawn so many toes lately that when I shut my eyes I see a perfect shower of them”) — never to return. Nor to have their disappearance even explained. But that’s the thing I most love about the film now, its refusal to explain what happened, its keeping faith with the mystery. Because, Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t so much about the disappearance of the girls and their teacher into a million-year-old maze of volcanic rock, but the devastating effect this has on those who remain.

Picnic At Hanging Rock

The film starts with a vision of intensely Romantic adolescence: the girls of Appleyard College swapping poetic Valentines, then setting out, white-gloved and straw-hatted, for Hanging Rock. (They’re told that, as the day is hot, they may remove their gloves, but only after they’ve passed through the nearby town, as though the sight of so many nubile female fingers might set the working classes into a frenzy.) There, in the midst of a mid-day swooze, four girls set out to explore the rock. Everything assumes an unreal, almost ritual air. Moany Edith cries, “Where in the world are they going? Without their shoes?”, and the answer is, of course, that they aren’t going anywhere in the world, they’re going out of it, and the fact they’re not wearing shoes is like one of those odd bits of folklore about the dead, such as that their heads are on back to front, or they cast no shadows. The girls engage in a bit of dreamy philosophising:

“A surprising number of human beings are without purpose, though it is probable that they are performing some function unknown to themselves.”


“Everything begins and ends at the exactly right time and place.”

Then… they disappear. There are some odd, UFO-like details that emerge, such as the fact that their teacher, Miss McCraw, was last seen without her skirt, and that the recovered girl Irma was without her corset. (The doctor who examines both Irma and moany Edith is always sure to point out that the girls, apart from a few scratches and sunstroke, are “quite intact”.) This loss of garments seems to be more about shocking the proprieties of the ultra-conventional upper-middle classes than providing any clue to what really happened to the girls.

Picnic At Hanging Rock... Without their shoes

There are three levels of reality in Picnic at Hanging Rock — or, two of reality, one of unreality. There’s the “reality” of those upper-middle classes, which mostly consists of an education in deportment and senior needlework, the attendance of overdressed garden parties, and sitting dully under the shadow of Hanging Rock, looking at nothing, feeling nothing. Faced with the incomprehensibility of mystery, this level of “reality” shakes its head and retreats behind the wings of an overstuffed chair, to read about it in a newspaper. (Squeaky Miss Lumley, who teaches at the girls’ college, finds it almost frightening that someone should do such a strange thing as sit on the stairs in the dark, so it’s no wonder she can’t face the idea that some of her charges might have disappeared altogether.) Then there’s the grounded reality of the working classes, the servants and local townspeople. Theirs is a much more human reality, all about the simple pleasures, and the simple un-romantic love of two servants in Appleyard College catching a spare moment to jump into bed together. Faced with mystery, they resort to lurid theories and melodrama — kidnappings and Jack the Ripper style murders. (Only the old gardener knows the right way to face this kind of situation: “There’s some questions got answers, and some haven’t.”) Finally, there’s the unreality of the evanescent — the adolescent girls wrapped up in their poetry and idle philosophising, evaporating in the heat of the Australian sun before they have to face the reality of their looming adult lives. (The exception to this, of course, is the scientific-minded Miss McCraw, with her “masculine intellect”. Why she disappears is a mystery about this particular mystery.)

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Fithurbert

Michael Fitzhubert (played by Dominic Guard, who also voiced Pippin in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings), though part of the self-blinded upper classes, finds one of the girls — Irma — but only after searching obsessively enough in the outback heat that he falls into a fever. It’s as if he has to pass from reality into unreality to fetch her. (“I’d give my head to really know what happened up there,” the doctor says, after examining the concussed Irma, and it’s probably the price he’d have to pay — though it would be the loss of his rational, sane mind, not his actual head.)

The original theatrical release featured a brief, failed romance between Fitzhubert and the rescued Irma, later excised in Weir’s director’s cut. It’s a pity, because Fitzhubert’s inability to fall in love with Irma, and his continued obsession with the absent “Botticelli angel” Miranda, is all part of the devastating effect the mystery has — you get the feeling that this young man will never get over the disappearance of a girl he only ever glimpsed once, crossing a stream in a beam of sunlight, and will in fact be unable to love any real woman. She didn’t just take herself from this world, she took his soul, too.

Picnic At Hanging Rock - Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those rare films that sustains a ghostly, fantastical air without any resort to the supernatural. For me, it fits perfectly alongside films such as The Spirit of the Beehive, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as being set in the liminal zone between outright fantasy and interior psychology — “a Dream within a Dream”, as it says (quoting Poe) at the start of the film.

(The film Picnic at Hanging Rock was based on a novel of the same name by Joan Lindsay, who was married to the artist Daryl Lindsay, who was brother to the artist & writer Norman Lindsay, who featured in the 1994 film Sirens.)


The Cold Flame by James Reeves

Brothers Grimm - The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)For some months, now, I’ve been reading a tale a day from Jack Zipes’ translation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, only having known the more famous ones till now. And they’re a mixed bunch. As well as the very fairy-tale-like stories of princes transformed into foxes or frogs, brothers turned into swans, princesses setting three impossible tasks for their suitors, or that overlooked third brother winning through despite everyone thinking he’s a clod, there are plenty of duds: shaggy-dog jokes about stupid people (“Clever Hans”, “Clever Else”, “The Brave Little Tailor”) or the (once, no doubt very funny, not-so now) misadventures of odd collections of companions (“The Straw, the Coal and the Bean”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”), as well as some of the more traditional kind of tale that don’t quite satisfy as much as the well-known ones do.

Reading these lesser tales, where the shortcomings of the story are often made up for by an appeal to the listeners’ baser nature, you get a sense of their pulpy, lowest-common-denominator approach: silly jokes about talking sausages and stupid people on the one hand, lashings of revenge on the other. It’s not saying anything new to note how gleeful fairy tales can be in not just righting wrongs, but in getting a downright over-the-top bloody revenge into the bargain:

“The evil mother was brought before the court and put into a barrel that was filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes. Indeed, she died a horrible death.”


“‘The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel studded with nails on the inside,’ said the old woman. ‘And then he should be rolled down the hill into the water.’”


“‘She deserves nothing better… than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.’”

…being just three examples. Cinderella may win your sympathy by being forced to drudge for her nasty step-sisters, but some fairy tale heroes and heroines have very little going for them, morally or empathetically, yet the stories only work if you’re rooting for them to lord it over everyone by the end — and not just their oppressors, but often their oppressor’s entirely innocent children, too.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame, published in 1967, is James Reeves’ retelling of “The Blue Light” from the Grimms’ book of fairy tales — certainly not one of the more famous ones, but not entirely a dud, either. The protagonist is (unusually, for these mostly coming-of-age tales) a long-serving soldier, dismissed after twenty-five years in the King’s service (“Five-and-twenty years, five-and-twenty wounds”) with only a silver dollar in pay. He falls into the hands of a witch, who makes him drudge for a couple of days, then sends him down a well to fetch a cold, blue, obviously magical light she dropped there. He refuses to hand it over till she’s helped him from the well, so she lets him fall back down to the bottom. Deciding to smoke one final time before he dies of starvation, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and thereby summons a little demon, who offers to do anything he demands. And so the soldier gets out of the well, is provided with riches, returns to the city where he was dismissed so off-handedly, and sets about getting his revenge by summoning the King’s daughter each night to clean up his room. He’s caught (on the third night, of course) and arrested, but thanks to his little demon turns the situation round, and by the end is not only king himself but getting inviting looks from the princess.

Perhaps it’s because the main character isn’t such an innocent as Cinderella or Snow White, but although the wrong to him is genuine (dismissed after twenty-five years with only enough pay to buy a single meal), having the tale expanded from short story to short novel only seems to emphasise how unfair it is that the king’s daughter — entirely innocent, as far as I can see — should be dragged into her father’s punishment. It seems even stranger in Reeves’ retelling, because he makes it clear that, for some reason, after being forced to drudge for him, she’s fallen in love with this raddled old soldier, whose only redeeming feature (as in so many fairy tales) is the fact he’s had the good luck to gain magical aid. But perhaps it’s just that, by being faithful to the rather uncompromising spirit of the Grimms’ version, Reeves has retained the essential character of the original, without pandering to any sensitive morals on my part. Anyway, it’s very well-written, if a bit distant from its rather bleak-souled characters. (The soldier is described as having an “almost habitual sardonic self-control”, and a “dedication to the virtue of despair.”)

One of the things that attracted me to the book wasn’t the story, but the illustrations. I think I must have come across Charles Keeping’s work first in Alan Garner’s Elidor. He mixes a sparse, telling line with a sort of random, squiggly-blotchy wildness that somehow works, and somehow fits these late 1960s/early 1970s books with their rather modernistic bleakness and understated, though deeply-felt, deeply-tried humanity — Reeves’, and Garner’s, and, I think, they’d suit the two William Mayne books I’ve reviewed recently, too.

Here are some examples of his work on The Cold Flame:




IT by William Mayne

IT by William Mayne (HB)I was intrigued to find that, aside from Stephen King’s, there’s another book called IT, this one by William Mayne, published in 1977. I was even more intrigued by the plot: Eleven-year-old Alice Dyson, looking at her home town from a distance, spies a hill she didn’t know existed, and resolves to explore it. At the top she finds an ancient, faintly-carved stone, similar in shape and design to three crosses that mark the boundaries of the town (and of which her grandfather, a vicar who has written a local history, believes there to have once been a fourth). Digging idly in the mud beneath it, Alice finds a dark hole. She puts her hand in — and feels another hand grasp it. When she withdraws her hand, she still feels the presence of that other hand; hers is “still haunted by what had held it”.

Alice gets on with her everyday life. She’s a bit of a trial to her family, the sort of child who’s always doing the wrong thing. Her grandfather, a bit of an authority-figure in the family, in particular finds her wanting (“she was always a miserable milk-and-water miss, with the milk curdled and the water tepid,” he says). But this is not as bleak a book as the Mayne novel I reviewed last time, A Game of Dark — Alice herself has a lightness and humour that prevent these family tensions from building up to anything like the awful alienation that exists between Donald and his parents in that book.

Alice learns of a possible explanation for the ghostly hand:

“…a witch, or sorceress… had taken refuge in the town and then come into the Market Place and made terrible frightening threats against the town. Before she had finished them a retribution had come upon her and she had fallen down dead, some said struck by God, and others by the Devil, stabbed with an invisible knife in full daylight in front of a crowd of people.”

Returning to the hill, Alice pokes about in the darkness with a piece of rusty metal she finds nearby. Suddenly, she feels she has stabbed something, and the ghostly hand leaves hers. She, then, is the cause of that “invisible knife”. But her troubles are not over. She has attracted another presence. This is not the witch, but the witch’s familiar, a poltergeist-like spirit keen to attach itself to Alice as it once did to the witch. It starts providing Alice with rings that are meant to bind them together — often as not lifted from other people. Alice, quite sensibly, hands them into the police. The spirit starts trying to follow what it assumes are Alice’s wishes — she wins a game of monopoly with every dice roll landing in her favour; a friend who throws a snowball at her gets showered in the snow from a nearby window ledge; when Alice gets angry, the spirit starts to break things.

What stops William Mayne’s IT from being a horror novel is that Alice isn’t isolated by her strange experiences. In fact, several adults, including her grandfather, a local bishop, and her mother, all accept what’s going on. As her mother says:

“Don’t forget that I was… in New Guinea… I was your age at the time, and I was older, and we’re both quite familiar with wandering spirits that attach themselves to people for a time, so at least we knew what was going on. Believe me, we met far worse ones than yours. But of course out there it was much easier to talk about things like that.”

IT by William Mayne (Puffin PB)Perhaps it was because I was expecting IT to be more of a horror novel that I found it slightly unsatisfying at the end. Although the effects of the ghostly hand and the later familiar spirit can be quite spooky (whenever Alice approaches a church, she’s enveloped in her own little storm, as “IT” tries to prevent her from entering the holy place, which it can’t follow her into), Alice herself isn’t overly spooked, and instead, feeling sorry for this childlike spirit that’s attached itself to her, tries to find a way to free it, and her, from an unwanted bondage. She realises a ritual has to be carried out involving the four crosses that once surrounded the town. Usefully, there’s an annual parade that, if Alice can persuade the committee, could have its route changed so as to provide the sort of magical act required. She does this in a series of quick-cut brief scenes that bring a comic feel to the story. But Mayne’s skill at characterisation, and Alice’s constant little difficulties with people, particularly her family, prevent it from being the sort of E Nesbit lark-with-magic that might make it sound like.

IT passes through spooky territory, then, but never becomes a horror novel. Nowhere near as bleak as A Game of Dark, neither is it as powerful, though it has its moments. What lingers, rather than the sort of trials Donald Jackson went through in that earlier book, is the light touch and resilience of Alice’s character, and the way her determination to see this strange experience through, in her own way, finally wins round her previously disapproving grandfather, and the town as a whole.