Why witches? Part Four

OK, I believe I said aaaaaages ago (Why witches? Part Three) that I would take a look at more positive representations of witches, and so – at last – here is a brief review of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel, Lolly Willowes. I also want to look at one of the great characters of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga – but I’ll save that for a later post.

Lolly Willowes is set in the early Twentieth Century – it was originally published in 1926 – and tells the story of Laura Willowes – the Lolly of the title – who, after growing up in an upper middle class family in rural Somerset, moves to London after her father dies to help look after her brother, Henry, and his wife and children.

She seems destined for an unremarkable life of dutiful spinsterhood – but when her brother’s children have grown up, she shocks her family by deciding to go and live in the countryside, where – in the wonderfully named village of Great Mop – she encounters a world more liberating and more enticing than any she has known before. In fact, she becomes a witch.

Warner describes the conservative instincts of Laura’s family – “They slept in beds and sat upon chairs whose comfort insensibly persuaded them into respect for the good sense of their forbears.” And it is clear that Laura does not fit in with their expectations – she has no wish to marry, and is “not in any way religious… not even enough to speculate towards irreligion”. And she starts to brew “washes and decoctions” from herbs: “Laura felt positive that mugwort tea would not have made her sick” (mugwort is a herb that traditionally has magical properties).

When she arrives in Great Mop, she stays with a Mrs Leak, who like Laura does not seem especially interested in conventional religion (“when Laura asked for the loan of a Bible Mrs Leak took a little time to produce it, and blew on the cover before she handed it over”). She soon encounters other characters, like Mrs Trumpet, who keeps the village shop, and Mr Gurdon, the parish clerk (“red and burly and to be feared”), and she acquires a familiar – a kitten whom she names Vinegar. Sex, too, appears in her life. When she meets Mr Saunter, the young poultry farmer, she finds herself “petitioned by an unladylike curiosity”, and, later, she attends a Witches’ Sabbath, and joins in the dancing with her fellow villagers, meeting Satan himself on the way home. She says to him: “I seem to see all over England… women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded… That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”

It is a strange, beautiful, and funny novel, which has inspired writers like John Updike (it influenced his own The Witches of Eastwick) and Sarah Waters (she writes a wonderful introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition). Warner once wrote, echoing the sentiments of her protagonist: “It is so natural to be hunted, and intuitive. Feeling safe and respectable is much more of a strain.”

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Gallybeggar questionnaire – Clive S. Johnson

Many thanks to the wonderful Manchester-based writer Clive S. Johnson for taking time out of his hectic schedule to reply to my pesky questions!

Hello! Where are you right now?

Hi. I’m sitting at our old Lancashire pine kitchen dining table, looking out through an open window into the garden, the sun already baking the washing I hung out earlier. Kit, my better half, and myself live on the edge of Manchester in the UK, about a mile from the Cheshire border.

What’s the first book you remember reading (or having read to you)?

I honestly don’t remember. I do, though, have fond memories of the small library I frequented near my infants school in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Its bright and gay colours are still vivid in my mind even now, fifty years on. You’ve got to remember, this was back in the days when everything was in monochrome so I suppose such extravagance of hue and bold design made its mark.

Perhaps, when I think about it, the first ‘proper’ books I remember reading – where the text outweighed the illustrations – were the ‘Just William’ series by Richmal Crompton. I didn’t realise back then how well written they were, being no more than seven or eight, but I loved the way they sucked me in. The sure sign of a good writer I suppose. It was only much later that I recognised the many subtle adult themes and nuances they contained.

What are you reading at the moment?

Nothing currently. I read in phases, more so these days, since so many other editing and writing projects vie for my time. We’re going away on holiday in a few weeks’ time, so I have a solid fortnight of reading ahead of me in Cornwall – hopefully much of it on an empty beach under a clear blue sky, the gentle shush of waves clawing back and forth over nearby rocks.

Oh, sorry. Where was I?

Ah, yes, well, the last book I read recently was ‘Road to London’ by Adriano Bulla, a fascinating and hugely rewarding read. It opened up a world I have only limited knowledge of, that of a gay boy growing up in Italy. It’s a very personal and honest account, beautifully written and refreshingly literary in the very best sense. It’s good to see there’s still excellent experimental work being written. I highly recommend it.

Are you writing at present? And if so, what are you working on?

I’m always writing; short stories, poetry, novels. At the moment, my time’s principally taken up with my next novel, the sixth in the Dica Series – ‘Starmaker Stella’. For those who don’t know, the series is speculative fiction largely laced with mystery, but also with a little light romance. I hesitate to call it fantasy, but that’s how it does comes over in feel and setting, although at heart, strictly speaking, it’s a work of science fiction.

Why do I baulk at calling it fantasy I hear you ask. Well, firstly, there’s none of the usual formulaic ingredients associated with contemporary fantasy; there are no dragons, wizards, elves, warlocks and the like, nor are there vast battles between orcs and men. Mind you, there aren’t any spaceships, lasers or AI you’d expect from me saying it’s built upon a science fiction premise. For those of you who are familiar with Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy, Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Star Maker’ and ‘First and Last Men in London’, and maybe Lewis Caroll, Stanislaw Lem, Bronte, Dickens and the like, you might begin to see what I mean. On the other hand, you might now be well and truly confused.

As a writer, do you have any kind of regular routine? And are you superstitious about it?

I neither have a routine nor am I superstitious. I write when it feels right to write, and as much or as little as the muse graciously allows. The important thing for me is quality not quantity, and so I heavily edit as I’m writing. You can find an example of the draft first chapter of ‘Starmaker Stella’ on my blog if you interested: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6577744-first-chapter-of-my-next-book

Summer or winter?

Either. They both have their advantages.

Where on the webosphere can people find you?

You can get information about me and my books, see my artwork, poetry, short stories and find out where I am on the various social media, plus see what editing and formatting services I offer, through my website at http://www.flyingferrets.com

Thank you!

No, thank you for wanting asking.

St Swithin’s Day

Tomorrow, July 15th, is St Swithin’s Day.

I first heard about it through the Billy Bragg song of the same name. I later discovered that St Swithin – or Swithun – was Bishop of Winchester in the Ninth Century, and, being a modest man, asked at his death, in 862, that he be buried outside his cathedral, where the rain and the people’s feet could fall upon his grave.

Folk soon ascribed miraculous healing powers to him, and he became honoured as a saint, and on the 15th July 971, his body was moved to a new shrine inside the cathedral. But this led to a terrible rainstorm, and ever since, it has been said that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day, it will continue to do so for the next forty days…

Redcap

I’d long known that the amanita family of mushrooms were to be handled with care, and could be very poisonous, but this short story by Susan Cartwright-Smith gives us a more supernatural reason for wanting to avoid them, and is a very personal and sad tale of the associations they have for her and her family.

Redcap by Susan Cartwright-Smith

The boys ran on ahead, shouting with delight at finding a carpet of fly agaric toadstools.

They were still young enough to believe that they were magical – pixie houses.

I had always found them slightly malevolent, after my dad told me about the murderous goblins called Redcaps.

Their caps, not unlike the domes of the fly agaric, would be dipped in the blood of their victims, and glisten. Their hats were their life. They needed them bloodied, or they would die.

“The most notorious Redcap,” my father had said, “was a familiar of a Laird who conspired against Robert the Bruce. He was dragged into the centre of a stone circle and boiled to death. Redcaps live along the Border. You often get demons along borders – it’s all about edges, uncertainties, things going one way or another. That’s where all the legends about full moons and new moons come from. Balance. You know?”

I had nodded, absorbing the information but not really engaging. My father told me stories all the time, and sometimes my attention was caught by them. I tried, unsuccessfully, to put the Redcap out of my mind, as, like the Doff-Off Goblin, it sounded like a creature that would haunt my nightmares if I let it.

“The Redcaps,” he went on, “would track a traveller. You would hear the heavy tread of their iron boots, but when you turned around, they would be concealed, hidden. On you would go, the fear and uncertainty building in you. You would hear their sharp talons scratching along the stone wall, and you would stop, spin round to catch a glimpse of who was following you, but again… nothing. Imagine,” he said, “imagine your terror. Imagine this invisible assailant; you know it is there, you know it means you harm, you know it is going to end in your demise, but it is keeping you waiting, waiting, until your blood is rushing with fear, your heart is pounding, your breath is catching…and then, slash!”

I jumped.

“Slash! Stab! The Redcap’s talons slice you open! The blood is pouring out. The Redcap waits until you sink to the ground, lost and alone along the border, and he kneels on your chest, drinks deep from the wound he has caused, and dips his cap in your blood. The last your dying eyes see is his red cap contrasting with the green grass. Like those fly agarics.” He pointed, and I followed the gesture. The group of fungi looked like a gang of ghastly gnomes, bowed over, plotting together, watching… I shuddered, and scowled at Dad, who was grinning at my discomfort.

We had continued our walk through the forest, but my imagination was supplying the rhythmic thud of iron boots, and evil, tracking goblins. Each toadstool became more malevolent than just a toxic fungus, and I was glad to break out into the clearing. Of course my nightmares were riddled with long fingers, with talons reaching out from the darkness, and blood dripping from sharp-toothed maws. But the true nightmare was still to come.

Years later, when our walks had started to become slower, but still taking in forests and stories, I noticed a clump of fly agarics and pointed them out. Dad nodded, then was overtaken by another coughing fit, which were becoming more frequent. He looked distressed, and spat his phlegm out on the ground. A gobbet of blood-tainted froth stood proud against the deep green of the grass, sitting beside the hoods of agarics. I looked in horror, and asked the wordless question with my tear-brimming eyes. Dad took his handkerchief out, wiped his mouth, and answered my question, without words.

The goblin stalked him relentlessly for a few years. In and out of hospitals. In and out of our hopes, and our fears. And although it caught up with him, my dad never had to travel alone in his last days, never had to be afraid. When he crossed the border, the demons did not claim their victim.

 

“Don’t touch those toadstools!” I yelled at the boys.

“It’s alright, Mummy,” said the eldest one. “We won’t knock his hat off.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The goblin. We won’t knock his hat off. He needs it or he won’t live.”

The boys looked slightly past me, with that unnerving way that children have, of something or someone being just behind you. I refused to look round, but uncharacteristically kicked the tops off the toadstools, then took the boys quickly away.

Gallybeggar questionnaire – Susan Cartwright-Smith

This is the first in an occasional series of short questions for fellow writers & bloggers. First up, Cumbrian writer Susan Cartwright-Smith –

Hello! Where are you right now?

I am in my living room watching my boys watching Star Trek 4.

What’s the first book you remember reading (or having read to you)?

The first book I remember reading was an alphabet type book. Q was for quagga.

What are you reading at the moment?

 I find little time for reading as I end up reading bedtime stories to the boys. I am reading “Wintersmith” to my 10 year old at the moment. I also have to read a terribly dry book about WW1 recruitments for research.

Are you writing at present? And if so, what are you working on?

I am writing a story about a Pals Battalion in WW1. Its a slow go.

As a writer, do you have any kind of regular routine? And are you superstitious about it?

I have no routine. I try to write in the evenings, but am usually exhausted. I write terrible fanfic as a kind of diary, but no-one will ever see it. I have flurries of activity, and periods of muse deprivation.

Summer or winter?

I don’t understand. I PREFER winter, as long as it’s cold. I like things about summer – berries, elderflower, long days for going on bike rides – but I get burned and tired from the heat. And we live in a rain soup-bowl. I like wearing more pairs of gloves than I have hands. I like snow.

Where on the webosphere can people find you?

I don’t have a blog or website as I find it self-indulgent and I’m too British. I wouldn’t know what to write about and I would forget. I’ve forgotten my Myspace login, and I’m sure I set up a blog page and have forgotten it. I’m on Facebook and Twitter: @circlecross73. And Mr Mills posts some of my stuff on his blog. Which is jolly kind of him.

Thank you!