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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The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray

Like Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) is an academic book in part inspired by Frazer’s Golden Bough, and more notable today for its cultural influence than its now-dismissed scholarship. Weston’s book is largely remembered for being mentioned by T S Eliot in connection with The Waste Land, but Murray’s has had a more pervasive and widespread influence (among other things, feeding into the formation of Wicca, but also, I think, providing a key ingredient for a lot of 1960s and 1970s folk horror). I first came across it thanks to H P Lovecraft, who refers to it in “The Horror of Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulhu”, and whose key idea — that the witches persecuted in the 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century trials in Europe and New England weren’t Satan-worshippers, madwomen, or victims of a mass delusion, but members of an ancient, if decadent, fertility cult, misinterpreted and demonised by their Christian persecutors — is referred to in “The Dreams in the Witch House”, “The Haunter of the Dark”, and his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, where he associates it with Machen’s “The White People”. (Murray subscribed to the idea, which informs a lot of Machen’s weird fiction, that a “dwarf race” once inhabited Europe and “has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves”.)

Margaret Murray

Born in 1863 (and dying 100 years later), Margaret Murray made her initial academic reputation as an Egyptologist, working alongside Flinders Petrie. When the First World War made archeological fieldwork in Egypt impossible, Murray branched out. She at first strayed into Jessie Weston territory, writing a paper on “Egyptian Elements in the Grail Romance” (which Weston criticised), before settling on witchcraft in 1917. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe was her definitive statement, and because of it she was asked to write the entry on the subject for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (which was still there in the 1968 edition). As Jacqueline Simpson, in an essay entitled “Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her, and Why?” (published in Folklore in 1994, and readable online here), says, in the encyclopedia entry Murray “set out her own interpretation of the topic as if it were the universally accepted one”. Her book had been read by academics, and some accepted it, but others — largely those whose specialities she touched on, it seems — dismissed it; but the encyclopedia article lent authority to her theories and reached a much wider, non-specialist public. Murray wrote a more populist take on the book, The God of the Witches (1931), playing down some elements (the sexual and baby-eating ones) and introducing others, such as the phrases “the Old Religion” and “the Horned God”, which would go on to become folk horror staples. By the 1950s and 1960s, her books had become bestsellers.

Much to the horror, it has to be said, of some of those working in the same field. Jacqueline Simpson says that:

“Precisely because [Murray’s] material is so diverse, the links so tenuous and the tone so dogmatic, untrained readers are naturally mystified, and assume that their own limited knowledge is at fault; overawed, they feel themselves to be in the presence of great scholarship…”

Compounding this, most academics in the same field:

“…deliberately ignored her… Normally this is an effective technique for ensuring the oblivion of bad books, but in this case it backfired, since it left her theory free to spread, seemingly unchallenged, among an eager public.”

Part of this is down to Murray’s approach, which is obvious from a statement she makes early in her book:

“The evidence which I now bring forward is taken entirely from contemporary sources, i.e. the legal records of the trials, pamphlets giving accounts of individual witches, and the works of Inquisitors and other writers. I have omitted the opinions of the authors, and have examined only the recorded facts, without however including the stories of ghosts and other ‘occult’ phenomena with which all the commentators confuse the subject. I have also, for the reason given below, omitted all reference to charms and spells when performed by one witch alone, and have confined myself to those statements only which show the beliefs, organization, and ritual of a hitherto unrecognized cult.”

Which even to me, an untrained reader, sounded like she was ignoring what didn’t support her theory (“the opinions of the authors”), and quoting only what did (“the recorded facts”). (Apparently what she left out, even by the use of a brief “…”, could, at times, turn out to completely undermine what she was using a quote to prove.)

But what’s interesting is the effect her book had. People — particularly novelists, film-makers, poets and 20th century witches — took to it not because it was academically convincing, but because there was a need for the idea it was putting across. There was, as Jacqueline Simpson says above, an “eager public”.

Part of this is down to the ideas held about witches at the start of the 20th century. Murray wasn’t the first to suggest witches were part of a single pre-Christian cult — that idea had been around in Germany and France a hundred years before — but coming at the time it did, her book seemed to provide a third way into a subject otherwise split between two increasingly unrealistic alternatives. As Jacqueline Simpson puts it, on the one hand there was the likes of Montague Summers, “maintaining that [witches] really had worshipped Satan, and that by his help they really had been able to fly, change shape, do magic and so forth.” On the other, there was a more widespread but frankly less interesting idea held by “sceptics who said that all so-called witches were totally innocent victims of hysterical panics whipped up by the Churches for devious political or financial reasons”.

Murray asserted that the witch-cult was a real thing, but explained away the supernatural elements. The Devil, she said, was present before the witches because he was a man (or sometimes a woman) in a mask and costume. This also explained why so many witches claimed the Devil was cold to the touch. (And, Murray says, “when the woman admitted having had sexual intercourse with the Devil, in a large proportion of cases she added, ‘The Devil was cold and his seed likewise’”, which Murray explains in part through use of an “artificial phallus”, a necessary requirement, she adds, because a mortal man playing the part of the Devil couldn’t be expected to perform without one for a whole coven of witches.)

(…And a note on covens: Margaret Murray is, apparently, the sole source of the idea that a coven of witches must have thirteen members, something she admitted getting from a single quotation from one Scottish witch trial.)

Another aspect of the witch-cult were witches’ marks which, she says, were of two types, either an artificial mark given to the witch when she or he was initiated (and which Murray suggests was most likely a tattoo, as it was caused by pricking of the skin and was often coloured), the other type being a “little teat”, which Murray says was probably a pre-existing supernumerary nipple, something she takes pains to prove occurs more commonly than is generally thought.

Meanwhile, of a witch’s ability to transform herself into an animal, she says:

“In many cases it is very certain that the transformation was ritual and not actual; that is to say the witches did not attempt to change their actual forms but called themselves cats, hares, or other animals.”

What struck me, on reading the book, and considering the way it aggravated some academics (the Wikipedia article on “the Witch-cult hypothesis” is full of quotes from reviewers pouring scorn on just about every aspect of Murray’s scholarship) yet was accepted by artists and writers, was that Murray’s ideas may not have been historically true, but they certainly met an imaginative need. The way witches were presented, through Murray’s extracts from the trials, seems to me to be painting a picture that’s very much the shadow image of the more intolerant side of Christianity that would have prevailed at the time. All the key characteristics of the “witch-cult” as Murray presents it — a mostly female priesthood, folk-style magic and fertility rituals, close ties with natural cycles and the natural world, plus lots of dancing, eating, and general carnality — were things repressed by Christianity but a vital part of humanity.

(This isn’t to say it was all about fun. In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe — though not in The God of the Witches — Murray does go into the witches’ practice of baby-eating which, she says, being only ever of un-baptised babies, was at least probably only practised on the cult’s own children.)

Whatever Murray’s academic reputation, the idea that witches are part of a single belief, rather than being a scattering of lone-wolf wise-women lumped together simply because they didn’t fit anywhere else, is certainly the one you’ll meet with in horror films to this day, so much so it’s become part of the accepted lore of fictional witches. In a way, Murray’s Witch-Cult is as important to witches in their fictional incarnations as, say, Dracula is to vampires — an essential cultural foundation, but not to be taken as factually accurate. In this way, then, it fits perfectly with the other (mostly fictional) books H P Lovecraft grouped it with when he mentions it in his stories — a book that straddles the shady boundary between weird fact and dark fantasy, and so becomes a perfect gateway to that realm of the real-seeming weird he was trying to conjure.

You can read Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe at Project Gutenberg.

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