Raven

First broadcast in six parts from 19th September to 24th October 1976, Raven was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the duo who also brought us Children of the Stones. And Trevor Ray has another connection to 70s kids’ telefantasy, in that he acted in an episode of Sky, playing the sinisterly avian Rex. Perhaps that gave him the seed of the idea of creating a series called Raven.

The series is named after its main character, Raven (played by Phil Daniels, best known now for Quadrophenia two years later, and Blur’s “Parklife” 17 years later), a 15 or 16 year-old orphan (found as a baby in an earthworks maze, watched over by a raven) on trial release from a borstal. He is to spend time with archeologist Professor James Young (played by Michael Aldridge, later Professor Diggory in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and his ornithologist wife (Patsy Rowlands, of Carry On fame). The Professor is currently investigating a subterranean cave system he believes to have been an ancient sacred site associated with King Arthur. (It also has a circle of standing stones above it, which he claims to be the origin of the idea of the Round Table.)

The Professor, professing

The Professor, though, only has a month to finish his work, because the government is putting plans in motion to turn the caves into a containment site for nuclear waste, and to build a reprocessing plant above it. Raven, on first hearing this from the project’s manager, Bill Telford, is all for it: “No good living in the past. Got to look after the future, right?” But the Professor is horrified. “Why are you talking like the establishment?” he demands (knowing how best to win over this rebellious young man), and gives him a pile of reading about the site, saying he should be better informed.

Raven has already had some visionary moments in which he’s seen the old professor as a bird — a merlin, in fact. Now he goes down into the caves and has a vision of himself as King Arthur, who presses his thumb to Raven’s forehead, leaving him with the astrological mark of Pluto between his eyes. From that point on, Raven is committed to saving the caves.

Phil Daniels as Raven

He falls in with local cub reporter Naomi Grant, who as well as junior reporting jobs (where she always has to follow the editorial line, however much she’s personally against it, and at the moment the paper is for the nuclear waste dump), does the paper’s horoscopes. When the professor gets her to recognise the symbols carved outside each cave as ancient versions of our modern astrological symbols (Gemini once being a giant, and Cancer a ship, apparently), she realises Bill Telford’s men are trying to tunnel between two caves whose astrological energies are in direct opposition. She’s convinced it will lead to disaster. Bill doesn’t listen — who would? — and so gets trapped in a cave when the new tunnel’s roof collapses. Naomi and Raven pick a more astrologically-harmonious route into the now-sealed cave, and though the surveyor doesn’t think it will work, it does. The rescued Bill emerges with the sign of Pluto on his forehead, converted to the anti-nuclear-waste point of view…

There’s a way of looking at Raven as a sort of reverse folk-horror. The cave site is sacred, and must be protected, and to ensure people protect it they’re forcibly initiated into its cult, usually by being trapped in the caves, leading to a vision of King Arthur pressing the mark of Pluto onto their foreheads. After this, they change their minds about the nuclear waste site. Professor Young is the head of this coven, and it seems even more folk-horror-coven-like when we learn the local vicar is one of his main allies. There’s even a night-time gathering of all the main players at the sacred stones, and a hint of ancient ritual sacrifice when a skull (of a young male of Raven’s height and age) is found in one of the inner caves.

Key to the Professor’s efforts is convincing young Raven he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur — or, at least, the latest incarnation, as “Some people believe that Arthur was the name of the office, rather than the man himself.” Raven is, at first, resistant:

[Professor Young]: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

[Raven]: “Yeah, and some thrust it right back again.”

But he comes round, not because he believes he’s King Arthur, but because he believes in the cause, and finds that other people are listening to him: “First time in my life I’ve ever felt useful.” This is the only one of these 70s’ kids’ telefantasy shows I can think of to so heavily feature the media as a necessary part of its story. Raven not only has to recruit the local newspaper to get his message across, but, through TV man Clive Castle, the general public:

[Raven]: “They’re destroying the countryside to make way for a lot of industrial garbage. They’re starting a dangerous game with no idea how it’s going to finish. And they’re dumping a lot of poisonous waste which might top us all one day…”

[Clive Castle]: “So you see yourself as the guardian of the future, as the representative of a younger generation who’s battling against the shortsightedness of your elders?”

[Raven]: “Listen, mate. We’re responsible for the kids who ain’t even born yet.”

This echoing of ancient mythic patterns in the modern world recalls The Owl Service, but in this case in mostly a benevolent way (Raven does get its replaying of the Guinevere story, though). I did find people seemed all too eager to see Raven as a new King Arthur, but for me it was the astrological stuff that was the least convincing. Perhaps if a little more effort had been made to tie modern astrology with ancient Earth-mysteries and ley line energies it might have seemed a little less ridiculous that knowing the incompatibility of two birth signs could lead to predicting a rock fall and saving someone trapped by it. Perhaps that’s just because I find one sort of nonsense (ley lines) a little less nonsensical than another (astrology), but to me it seemed Raven took the Earth-mysteries-type mysticism of Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes just a little bit too far into the ridiculous — not because it is unbelievable, but because it was too convenient, story-wise.

It’s the acting that makes Raven work. Phil Daniels is properly both annoying and charismatic as a spiky, street-wise rebel, a ne’er-do-well with his head on straight, and you never doubt he might actually become the sort of public leader he does become. It can almost make you ignore the fact that the story culminates not in the sort of exciting confrontation with dark mystical forces you find in Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes, but in a public hearing in a local government hall — and that the tactics our heroes use basically involve the sort of mind-control most often associated with the villains in this kind of story.

Was Raven starting to show the limits of this brief cycle of Earth-mystery-inspired kids’ telefantasy? I think The Moon Stallion, which came two years later, showed there was more to be mined from this particular subterranean strata, though perhaps that show’s being set in the past helped. Still, Raven’s an interesting entry in this little sub-genre.

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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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Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts

First UK edition

Written between 1918 and 1919 (or perhaps started as early as 1916, according to her biographer Nathalie Blondel), Mary Butts’ first novel, Ashe of Rings, went on to have a somewhat drawn-out publication history. The American modernist journal The Little Review (which serialised Ulysses between 1918 and 1921), began serialising it in 1921, but stopped after 5 chapters. It was published in full in 1925 in Paris by Three Mountains Press (for which, as with The Little Review, Ezra Pound was an editor), and then in New York in 1926. It was only in 1933 that Butts’ novel — by this time slightly revised, and with an author’s afterword — was published in the UK, by which time she had other books published, including a second novel.

Ashe of Rings is in three parts. In the first, set in 1892, we follow Anthony Ashe’s return to his family home of Rings, a country house named after a three-tiered earth-mound topped with sacred stones in its grounds. (Butts based this on Badbury Rings in Dorset, of which she later wrote that “a great part of [my] imaginative life was elicited by it and rests there”, in “Ghosties and Ghoulies”, an essay on the supernatural in fiction first published in The Bookman in 1933.) Ashe knows he must provide an heir, someone to be guardian to Rings when he dies, and sets about choosing himself a wife on entirely utilitarian grounds. (His lack of emotional regard for the woman he marries, a local called Muriel Butler, is signified by the fact that he requires her to change her first name to Melitta once she’s married.) Melitta provides him with a daughter, Vanna Elizabeth Ashe, but by the time she follows that with a son, she’s in the midst of an affair with another local landowner, Morice Amburton, and it’s unclear if the boy is an Ashe or an Amburton. (To make matters worse, she slept with her lover on the sacred mound of Rings, making it a double slap in the face to Ashe.) Ashe dies soon after; Melitta marries Amburton, and Vanna, the girl who ought to be the new guardian of Rings, is sent off to a boarding school, and after that is given a small annuity, to keep her away from Rings.

Badbury Rings

In the second part, Vanna — known to her friends as Van — is grown up and living in moderate squalor in a London wracked by the First World War, making what money she can by various means including working in the nascent film industry. She occasionally comes to stay with a friend, Judy Marston, who’s having an on-off affair with a Russian painter, Serge Fyodorovitch. Judy, it turns out, is a rather cold and selfish woman who leaves Serge as soon as a more profitable partner turns up (the son of Morice Amburton, Peter, who has returned somewhat shellshocked from the war). Van nurses Serge through a post-breakup fever, then decides to take him on her first return to Rings in her adult life.

It’s only in the third part that things perked up, for me. Van begins to assert her guardianship of Rings, while Judy, using the wounded Peter, tries to oust her. Van now sees her former friend as embodying the sort of dark forces that are behind the war now raging throughout Europe:

“Have you known anyone who loves the war as Judy loves it?”

The Little Review, Jan-Mar 1921, where the first instalment of Ashe of Rings appeared

Rings itself, with its three-tiered mound and sacred stones, its mythic history tying it to Morgan Le Fay, druid priests, a witch called Ursula who wrote a strange book, and Florian Ashe who was crucified on the grounds by angry locals, has the air of a sacred place. Anthony Ashe called it “a priestly house, like the Eumolpidae” (these being the people who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece), while Van says it’s “a place of evocation… where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body”. So, the battle for control over it has to be a magical one — or, rather, a Magickal one, because Mary Butts was a onetime disciple of Aleister Crowley, being named Soror Rhodon in his Argenteum Astrum order, and staying for a while at the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu. (Which she came to hate, because of the lousy living conditions and poor sanitation, and which left her with a heroin habit — while Crowley hated her back, calling her “a large white red-haired maggot” in his autobiography, but nevertheless saying how grateful he was for her help in the writing of his Magick (Book 4)). There’s no summoning of demons or flinging bolts of magical lightning; rather, the confrontation between Van and Judy is through a symbolic (but still fraught) power-play on top of Rings late one night.

The Little Review, Sep 1921, with the second instalment of Ashe of Rings

Prior to this third part, I found the style of Ashe of Rings a bit too impressionistic and flighty, driven forward by a sort of impatience with words and almost no attribution of dialogue. The characters seemed distant, their outbursts of passionate speech more like a pose than human passion. But this element is very much of its time. Ashe of Rings is a World War I novel, set during a time when, for that generation, life probably seemed both incandescent and fleeting, full of brief bright moments amidst a welter of turmoil and darkness. Butts calls it “the world of the next event” — a world sustained by nothing but a chain of sensations — but nevertheless it was hard to really feel that any of the characters had any depth to them, let alone believe them when they say they love one another (and the next moment say they hate one another).

On a deeper level — on the Magickal level of its plot — this is a novel about a new generation — or part of one, a tribe, perhaps — trying to find its place in a world caught between old, outdated traditions, and industrial levels of darkness and death. How to define this tribe? In its own words it is chic, exotic, damned, wearing “scandalous, bright clothes”. Like Valentine Ashe (Van’s younger brother), it’s “an attenuated exquisite” who:

“Won’t play games. Acts in Greek plays. Keeps Persian cats. All he can do is ride and sail a boat. Worships your ghastly old manor. Goes in for science. Reads German…”

But also it’s a group that understands the sacredness of Rings — perhaps, understands sacredness at all — and though it has to redefine that sacredness in new terms, as those of its forefathers no longer work, it knows it must do so, because of the forces ranged against it: those who have sided with power, with greed, and with the War. As Peter Amburton, allied to those dark forces, says:

“I went out to the war. There I saw what life is. When I come back, I find you people still here… We’re going to clean you out of the world. That’s what the war’s been for.”

I was intrigued into reading Ashe of Rings because of Mary Butts’ being part of the neo-romantic movement of the interwar years, who sought to find new meaning in a rootedness in the English landscape, its folklore, and its magic. This made me think of both the new rise of Folk Horror, and of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor, which belongs to the same time. Ashe of Rings has some interesting resonances with Lindsay. It was written in 1918 to 1919 in Cornwall and London — so, in the same place and time as Lindsay was writing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there’s one snippet of Rings lore Van mentions that hints at another Lindsay novel, The Haunted Woman:

“…there is a tower in Rings. In the tower there is a lost room… In Ursula’s day the room disappeared. No one has found it again. Only once in a while we walk straight into it.”

Mary Butts in 1919

Ashe of Rings has a few autobiographical touches. Like Van Ashe, Mary Butts’ father died while she was still young, after which her mother sent her off to boarding school and remarried. Mary was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a government clerk best known for being William Blake’s main patron, and in the house where she grew up there were a number of Blake’s paintings. Mary’s mother, though, sold these soon after the father’s death, and all this must surely have coloured Van Ashe’s relationship with her mother in the novel, who at one point she characterises as being “an almost infernal power”, drawing her “back again into the formulas of childhood”.

In her 1933 afterword, Butts calls the novel “a fairy story, a War-fairy-tale occasioned by the way life was presented to the imaginative children of my generation”, and one which was written under the “overwhelming influence of Dostoevsky”.

It was only in the third section that it really caught fire for me, but enough so that I now want to read her next novel, Armed with Madness (1928), which apparently mixes interwar bohemianism with the Grail myth.

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