The Earth Witch by Louise Lawrence

UK HB, art by Ronald Himler

Having recently read Lawrence’s 1978 YA novel Star Lord, how could I resist following it up with 1981’s The Earth Witch, sounding as it does so much like a companion piece? And there are a few similarities between the two. Both, for instance, are set in rural Welsh valleys, and in both the teen characters find themselves dealing with the archetypal/mythic entity of their book’s title, both of which sound like one of the major arcana from an alternative Tarot deck laid down by the post-60s imagination.

In The Earth Witch, the main characters are a trio that recalls Alan Garner’s The Owl Service: we have an English brother and sister, John and Kate Henderson, whose parents have recently bought Tregarron Farm in Wales, and Owen Jones, Welsh working class to the English pair’s middle class, adopted son of Ifor and Gladys, who have worked on the farm and lived in its tenant cottage all their lives. Owen is Ifor and Gladys’s nephew, abandoned by his mother when she had him out of wedlock — “born on the wrong side of the sheets”, as Aunty Glad puts it — after which she left for America, where she’s now married and has all but forgotten her son. Though his aunt and uncle look after him like a mother and father, there’s nevertheless a mother-shaped hole in his life, just from the knowledge that she’s out there but not in his life.

Lions UK HB, art by Jeff Cummins

The book opens in February, as the first signs that winter may be on the way bring a new sense of life to the valley. The three teens learn that a new tenant has moved into the dilapidated cottage of Mynydd Blaena, formerly the home of the eccentric (perhaps outright mad) Megan Davis, who was somehow involved in the death of a local man a little while back, and was then found dead herself in her isolated home. The new woman, Bronwen, claims to be a relative of hers. In fact, to Owen, she claims to be something more:

“I am her… I am her blood. The white roots woke me and I rose from the grave of her bones and her dust. I know all that she knew.”

Owen is the only person to offer Bronwen help with the cottage, though she seems more to resent than welcome it, while at the same time feeling it’s exactly what she’s due. She has her distinctly witchy aspects: control of a crow and a sometimes-vicious black dog, as well as a thorough knowledge of the magical uses of plants. And as winter turns to spring, her personality thaws. She starts to act like the mother Owen never had. She becomes a teacher in the local school, and her relationship with Owen shifts from the motherly to that of a lover. In the fullness of spring, she’s the May Queen at the village celebrations, though some locals still mutter darkly about what happened with Megan Davis and the ill-fated Gareth Llewellyn, and how they expect it all to happen again.

Ace PB, art by Winslow Pinney Pels

To Owen, Bronwen speaks openly about what she believes herself to be: not just the valley’s May Queen but a Goddess, at once Rhiannon of the Underworld, Blodeuwedd of the Owls, Angharad of the Lake, Cerridwen the Shape Changer, and the embodiment of Nature itself, who “gives life and destroys it, like the earth, like the seasons”. (In many ways, she’s a human version of the unforgiving Mawrrhyn mountain in Star Lord, a force that encapsulates all that nature gives in bounteous spring and summer, and the harsh price it demands in winter.)

She has moments of bitterness directed against the male-dominated modern world:

“Goddess I was once but they are despising me. They are setting up the male God in their own image and casting me down… You [men] are all one to me. All answerable for the crimes you have committed.”

She seems to come round when Owen reminds her she has “no right… to blame a single person for the sins of all”, but the cycle is started and just as she — and nature in the valley — gives of her great bounty in the year’s harvest, so she’ll demand her price. One life for all that she has given. And whose life but the boy she lavishes her greatest attention on?

Kate is the other character to feel something of Bronwen’s archetypal nature:

“Kate could feel her. She was cold in the river voices, hard in the heart of stones and black as hell. She was cruel as the peak of Pen-y-Craig and the look in the crow’s beady eyes. She was bats and moths and crane flies, everything Kate hated and feared…”

Yet:

“She seemed to embody the spring within herself; the song of the river over its stones, the wind through the sedge and the drift of willow leaves. She was the essence of flowers, the soul of the sunlit land, old as the maypole dance and eternally young…”

But in her case it’s what the sight of this powerful woman awakens in her own depths:

“Below the surface of herself Kate could feel something so hideous she could not bear to think of it… an instinct of blood sacrifices and fertility rites, ancient rituals of birth and death…”

“She doesn’t want love,” she tells Jonathan. “She wants worship.”

There’s so much in this novel that ties in with the strand of living-myth-meets-kitchen-sink-drama I love in 1970s YA (here lasting into the 80s). There’s rural Wales as a place on the border between myth and gritty reality, where folk beliefs sit unexamined alongside a fading Christianity, while both are being replaced by a scientific rationality that denies they exist — which simply means that those who encounter these mythic forces must do so without help. Modern and traditional ways rub together to produce a weird, magical, and often tragic friction. Like so many of these books, it’s about that 1970s balance point where the modern, technological, and rational meet the ancient, imaginative, and sacred: something’s that fading away, or perhaps only temporarily sleeping, and prone to rise up in all its dangerous, harsh, timeless and often inhuman power. As Kate says — talking simultaneously about Bronwen, the Goddess, and Nature all at once:

“The earth… That land out there… We’ve forgotten what she means. We’re not connected anymore. We just live on the surface and nothing touches us. We don’t think deeply of the soil and the stones and the hearts of the hills. We’re not part of the land… [We] just use her.”

The theme is just as relevant today, but I can’t imagine it being put in similar terms, framed as a sacred thing. Now, the landscape is a thing to manage, to care for, like a sick patient, not the wounded Goddess she may in fact be. The difference being that a sick patient may die, but a wounded Goddess is likely to hit back…

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Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell

The protagonist of Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989) is Sandy Allan, a film editor at Metropolitan TV (which also appears in Campbell’s Incarnate, though here, at the other end of the 1980s, it’s no longer referred to as MTV). Her friend, Graham Nolan, hunts out rare old films to screen on the channel, and after a two-year search has managed to locate a print of a never-released British horror from 1938, Tower of Fear, which starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. He invites Sandy to his flat for an initial showing, but she gets there only to witness his death and to find the film gone. When a critic at the Daily Friend newspaper expresses doubt the film had ever been found, Sandy decides to track it down herself, to defend Graham’s reputation.

The film’s director, Giles Spence, died the week shooting finished, and many of the few surviving cast and crew won’t talk about it — some can’t, through infirmity, some won’t, though fear, some are prevented, though whether by accident or design it’s difficult for Sandy to tell, though she increasingly feels that something is dogging her efforts to track the film down. Her quest eventually takes her to the cosy village of Redfield, seat of Lord Redfield, who runs the Staff O’Life bread-making company, and who, it turns out, also owns the Daily Friend. Lord Redfield freely admits his family’s animosity towards the film, which he (and his grandfather, who spoke out against it at the time in the House of Lords) believed to be mocking their family and, through them, the values and traditions of England. But when Sandy learns there’s a legend about Redfield, of a mass-slaughter centuries ago which infused the soil with human blood, giving the village its name and the fields their power to grow an oddly vitalising strain of wheat, she also finds there seems to have been a regular history of human sacrifice, intentional or not, in the village, a fifty-year repeated ritual which last occurred (of course) fifty years ago.

As well as being a horror novel, Ancient Images is a novel about horror, about censorship, repression, and the role horror has in bringing out what ought not to stay hidden. It’s set (and was written) in the late 80s, when horror had come under a new bout of disapproval thanks to the Video Nasties brouhaha — and we get a glimpse of the subculture of people watching illicit films purely for their nasty moments when Sandy visits the editors of Gorehound fanzine — while the film Sandy’s searching for came out shortly after a similar scare in the 1930s, which saw the introduction of the H for Horrific film certificate. Throughout the book, Sandy hears disparaging comments about horror. Her father wonders why she’d bothering to seek out “some trash with two old hams in it”, and asks, “What can be right about a horror film?” Someone else says, “I wish you people would let this wretched film stay buried. Isn’t there already enough horror in the world?” Visiting a Manchester library, she sees “a bookshop from which police were bearing armfuls of confiscated horror magazines” — presumably Savoy Books, which was constantly harassed by James Anderton, the prurient Manchester Chief of Police whose “direct line to God” (as he put it) gave him, he believed, the role of moral arbiter, along with the power to enforce it. As Campbell puts it in his afterword to the book:

“This was the decade when Britain found a new scapegoat for its ills — uncensored films, particularly horror.”

Samhain edition. Art by Kanaxa.

Confronted about his grandfather’s role in suppressing Tower of Fear, the urbane Lord Redfield says, “It’s a curious notion of history that wants to preserve a film which tells so many lies about England and the English.” But the point is that Tower of Fear (in its very oblique way — it was hardly an exposé) wasn’t telling lies, it was unearthing truths. And this is the role horror fiction has, in Ancient Images. Scapegoats are loaded with a society’s sins to rid society of those sins — but before it’s sacrificed, a scapegoat is a bearer of the truth, because the sins are real. Lord Redfield seeks to promote an ultra-traditional vision of England, through the Hovis-like adverts for his Staff O’Life bread with their Vaughan-Williams soundtrack, as well as through the village of Redfield itself, a place where, he assures Sandy, everyone is happy with their place in life — a situation that is obviously too good to be true:

“Tudor cottages gleamed at one another across streets, brown houses sunned their smooth thatched scalps. As Sandy strolled, glancing in shop windows at glass-topped jars of striped sweets sticky as bees, hats like mauve and pink and emerald trophies on poles, elaborately braided loaves, knitting patterns and empty rompers, she heard children chanting answers in a classroom.”

Art by Don Brautigan

Nowadays we’d recognise the second half of this novel as pure folk horror, with its lord so beloved by his forelock-tugging people, the innkeeper who’s suspicious of strangers, the children’s games and “snatches of folksong” Sandy hears as she wanders the streets, as well as the difficulty she has in leaving the village, when she decides to. But in Ancient Images, the folk horror isn’t of an isolated community. As in John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, a village, here, is used to stand in for England as a whole. Redfield, perhaps, is England, presenting its nostalgia-laden image of cosy traditions to the world, while behind the scenes — or under the soil — there’s blood and violence waiting to erupt.

Lord Redfield bears it in his very name, as well as his position. As a member of the aristocracy, he sees himself as a paternalistic figure, preserving things as they are because that’s best for everyone, but this is to ignore the history of violence that put him there in the first place, and the now-hidden, but once very explicit, violence that keeps him there. Just because he doesn’t have thugs keeping the peace doesn’t mean there’s no threat, it’s just that the threat his power represents has become so much a part of the English class system it no longer needs to be referred to.

Tor 1993 edition, art by Gary Smith

To see it in action, you don’t look at cosy Redfield, where nobody is unhappy with their lot and there are no “For Sale” signs; you look at what happens when a stranger comes along — Sandy Allan, perhaps, or, on a larger scale, Enoch’s Army, a troupe of what would later be called New Age Travellers, wandering the roads of Britain, seeking a place where they can live by their own more peaceful (if equally reactionary, in its own way) philosophy. But they find themselves ousted everywhere they go, and having to be surrounded by police for their own protection. Enoch’s Army feels like the 1980’s remnants of the late-60s counterculture, now thoroughly out of place in a land whose temporary prosperity has caused it to cease to question its values.

It’s rich metaphoric territory — particularly as Campbell, who often refers to horror as “the field”, is here writing about a literal field, and a red one at that — with many resonances with later Campbell works, such as the film-research theme of The Grin of the Dark, and the sense of something hungry lurking under the soil in The Searching Dead. Plus an air of The Wicker Man, and of Theodore Roszack’s Flicker (though, as Campbell points out, this novel was written before Flicker).

For a bit of fun based on the novel, the A Very British Horror podcast did an episode on Giles Spence’s Tower of Fear, on (of course) April 1st 2016.

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Hammer House of Horror

One of the great British film industry successes of the 1950s and 60s, Hammer Films pretty much died after the Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil a Daughter in 1976. (The final nail in the coffin was a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which put them fatally in the red.) Hammer Films Ltd was shut down, but its hastily-conjured doppelgänger Hammer Film Productions remained (backed, at first, by chemical company ICI), though largely to collect royalties. In an effort to regain some liquidity, they resurrected an idea first mooted in the early 70s, of having a Hammer television series, and this time it sparked to life, funded by Lew Grade’s ITC. (Who also financed Jim Henson’s Muppet movies and The Dark Crystal, before Grade was bought out and a more hard-headed businessman took over.) The thirteen (of course) episodes of Hammer House of Horror were broadcast between 13th September and 6th December 1980.

I came to the series knowing nothing about it other than that it was from Hammer, so I was expecting something in the same vein as their more well-known output, with takes on Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, most probably set in 18th Century rural Europe or 19th Century London (similar, perhaps, to the Mystery and Imagination series of classic horror adaptations on ITV in the late 60s). And the opening titles, with a big old spooky house at night, accompanied by some 60s-style theme music, didn’t do anything to disabuse me of the idea.

From “Guardian of the Abyss”

But the episodes that followed were quite different. At an hour minus ad-breaks each, they were mostly written by the TV writers of the day rather than Hammer’s own writers (the notable exception being John Elder, who’d written a slew of classic Hammers, from The Brides of Dracula to The Ghoul, and had been responsible for suggesting the studio buy the rights to the first Quatermass TV series). The script editor was Anthony Read (who’d written The Invasion of Time and Horns of the Nimon for Doctor Who, as well as episodes of The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel). He also wrote the opener, “Witching Hour”, about a modern-day couple menaced by a 17th century witch (who is at first convinced electric lights are the work of the Devil). Also writing for the series was Jeremy Burnham (co-writer of Children of the Stones and Raven, who had one Hammer film to his credit, The Horror of Frankenstein), Gerald Savory (writer of my favourite Dracula adaptation, the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula), Murray Smith (who hadn’t written a Hammer film, but scripted the 1971 British horror Die Screaming, Marianne), David Fisher (who’d written two Doctor Who’s with Hammer-like titles, The Stones of Blood and The Creature from the Pit, as well as the less-lurid Leisure Hive). The author of perhaps the most memorable episode, “The House that Bled to Death” — memorable because its scene in which a kids’ birthday party is showered in gallons of blood turned up on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments — is David Lloyd, and the strange thing is, it seems to be his only TV or film writing credit. (Prior to that, he was a tennis pro, and afterwards went on to found a chain of gyms and health clubs.)

The infamous children’s birthday party from “The House that Bled to Death”

It seems to me Hammer House of Horror offered something of a unique opportunity to its writers. On the one hand, with the name of Hammer behind it, audiences were primed for lurid Gothic horror with plenty of blood and pulpy shocks. (The publicity claimed they got through five gallons of fake blood a week.) And it’s true, there were werewolves (“Children of the Full Moon”), devil-worshippers (“Guardian of the Abyss”), witches (“Witching Hour”), cannibals (“The Thirteenth Reunion”), and so on. But the writers set everything in modern times, thus bringing in a more realistic feel, and often a more convincing depth of character than you’d find in a Gothic Hammer outing. (Hammer had, of course, done psychological horror, such as the excellent The Nanny, but that’s not what the studio’s name usually brings to mind.) The writers, then, seemed free to experiment with stories set in a world that mixed something very (1980s) modern and realistic with moments of lurid horror, and the results were often stranger than you’d expect from a TV horror anthology show.

In “Rude Awakening”, for instance, Denholm Elliot is an estate agent fed up with a wife who won’t divorce him, and he finds himself waking up in an apparently endless series of nightmare versions of his life in which he has murdered his wife and some supernatural retribution arrives because of it. Once he realises it’s all a series of dreams, though, he decides he might as well go ahead and get some satisfaction by murdering her — only, it turns out, this time he has actually woken up.

Ahhh, it’s Peter Cushing with a puppy.

Something more traditional was “The Silent Scream”, notable for featuring an actual Hammer star, Peter Cushing. Recently-released-from-prison Brian Cox tries to begin a new life on the outside. He goes to see the pet-shop owner (Cushing) who visited him during his time in prison, who said his own experiences in the Nazi Death Camps taught him what it was like to be in prison. But it turns out Cushing’s character wasn’t on the Jewish side of that equation, and is now working, behind the scenes, on a new system of incarceration without bars. He has been testing it on his collection of dangerous animals, but now he’s ready to move on to a human subject…

The show is full of recognisable actors from the British film and TV world of the time, including two stars of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow), as well as Warren Clarke, Barbara Kellerman (who’d play the White Witch in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Suzanne Danielle (a Movellan in Destiny of the Daleks, and the lead role in Carry on Emmanuelle), and Anthony Valentine (Baron de Belleme in Robin of Sherwood).

The series’ two most disturbing episodes, in my opinion, were the last two. In “The Two Faces of Evil” a family pick up a hitchhiker in the pouring rain, a man whose face they never see, because he starts fighting the husband at the wheel, causing a crash. When the wife (played by Anna Calder-Marshall, who has an excellent face for sustained terror) wakes in hospital, she’s relived to find her son and husband also survived, though her husband received an injury to his throat which means he can’t speak. She and her son go to the cottage they’d booked for their holiday, and it isn’t too long before they’re joined by her husband. She soon starts to suspect, though, that he isn’t her husband at all, but the hitchhiker whose face she never saw.

Anna Calder-Marshall — an excellent face for sustained terror

With a title like “The Mark of Satan”, I was expecting the final episode to go out in a blaze of Gothic glory, but it turns out to be more like a male version of Rosemary’s Baby. Its main character is a worker in a hospital morgue who has become convinced the recurrence of the number 9 in his life is a message that he’s been infected by “the Evil virus”, which killed his father. He’s obviously paranoid and on the verge of a breakdown, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also being pushed into selling his soul to Satan by a conspiracy of devil-worshippers.

Both of these episodes spend a lot time in the blurry territory halfway between mental illness and supernatural horror, which makes me think of the work of Ramsey Campbell — either story might have been an adaptation of his work.

“Witching Time”

Hammer House of Horror didn’t make it to a second series because of Lew Grade’s ITC being bought out, (though it was eventually followed by Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984), but it’s an unusual slice of British tele-horror, certainly more lurid than you’d normally find on the small screen in those days. It was also more experimental, and though not all the episodes were entirely successful, it was at least an interesting watch.

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