Uhygge

dark forest - After Dark Photo (24759747) - Fanpop

Photo: fanpop.com

Personally, I like the idea of hygge, the Danish word that doesn’t quite translate into English but roughly means “cosy, with candles, and beers, and warm fires and stuff, for when it’s cold outside, which it is in Denmark a lot”.

This Christmas in the UK, hygge has become the latest thing the marketing men say we should all be into, and books on the subject are selling like hot brunkage.

But I’m rather pleased to discover that there is an anti-hygge, an opposite of hygge, called uhygge (and please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I’ve only just mastered hygge). Apparently it’s to do with that disturbing feeling you get in, say, a wood at night – that something is watching you, that you’re trespassing somehow, that you ought to leave, quick, and get home for some reassuring hygge.

Anyway, this article from the Guardian has more on the subject of uhygge. Don’t have nightmares…

Advertisements

“Stranger Things”: the power of nostalgia

Warning: contains spoilers.

“Nostalgia,” reckons the journalist Alexis Petridis, “is a type of curation: you edit out the bad stuff.”

Seeing as “the bad stuff” is pretty integral to Netflix’s fantasy horror “Stranger Things”, which became an instant hit when it debuted back in July, it may seem odd that so many of the comment pieces about it have used the term “nostalgia” to identify a key ingredient of its appeal.

But like the blues being a sad music that makes you feel good, the best horror – and in my opinion “Stranger Things” ranks among the very best – is a paradox: scary, yet also comforting. John Carpenter – one of several directors whose work is knowingly referenced in the wonderfully named Duffer Brothers’ creation – says that audiences feel good after watching a horror movie because they survived it: they’ve experienced all the symptoms of dread and imminent death without any of the fatal consequences. The thrills are all vicarious, but they leave the cinema feeling more alive all the same – an echo of the strange elation we often experience after a genuine near-death experience, like a car crash.

The choice of setting for “Stranger Things” is revealing – the story unfolds in the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, when local lad Will Byers disappears one evening when cycling home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. On the outskirts of town lies a mysterious government laboratory (is there any other kind?), and it’s quickly obvious that Will’s disappearance – and the simultaneous appearance of an otherworldly young girl named Eleven – is connected to it. But it’s the time in which the story is set – November 1983 – that is the reason its many fans have come over all nostalgic (even though many of its viewers – and indeed even its creators – weren’t even born in 1983).

The Eighties have been having a bit of a “moment”for a while now, and usually I find the recycling of fashion / music / politics that I have already lived through (I was born in 1974) pretty tedious. However, I’m willing to make an exception for “Stranger Things”, not just because of the way it smartly corrals a certain kind of pop culture of the period – from the blocky lettering of the opening titles, to the Tangerine Dream and Vangelis-inspired soundtrack, to the obvious debt to the work of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Stephen King – but also because it’s a genuinely unsettling reminder that, though the Eighties can sometimes seem like a simpler time, at least for those of us who grew up in the West (no mobile phones, no Internet, no Islamist terrorism), this is in fact a seductive myth.

I remember my childhood being haunted by the very real threat of nuclear Armageddon, which found its cultural outlet here in the UK with work such as Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel “When the Wind Blows“, and TV dramas like “Edge of Darkness” and “Threads” (which I was too young to watch but was nevertheless aware of). And even in quiet, rural Somerset, it was impossible to ignore the enormous political upheavals of the Eighties, with whole communities left floored by the effects of Monetarism, privatisation, and rapid de-industrialisation.

“Stranger Things” certainly isn’t a political show as such – though, as with so many American dramas of this type, the government – at state and federal level – are definitely Up To No Good, its representatives invariably nefarious and prepared to use violence to protect their interests. Their interests being, in this case, pursuing experiments on vulnerable adults – and their offspring – in order to try and get inside the heads of the pesky Soviets. Unfortunately, they bite off more than they can chew when they open a portal into a parallel universe – and something very nasty indeed comes crawling out…

The idea of the “Upside Down” – as Mike and his friends come to call it – and the way it (quite literally) tends to burst through into our own world is hardly original, but brilliantly and convincingly realised, and the performances of the young cast – from whose point of view the story is mostly told – superb, especially Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, and Finn Wolfhard (another great name) as Mike. David Harbour is well cast as the decent-but-troubled Chief Jim Hopper, and, in a neat piece of casting, two actors who first made their name back in the Eighties appear in prominent roles – Matthew Modine as Dr Martin Brenner, the man in charge of Hawkins Laboratory, and of course Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce Byers, mother of the missing Will. I wasn’t totally won over by her performance myself, but then she does have to play a character who’s pitched somewhere between wired and hysterical for the entire series – not an easy ask for any actor – as well as contending with the frumpiest wig of any TV drama in recent memory. And it’s good to see her back in a starring role.

The way the Duffer Brothers bring together the three main plotlines – Mike and his friends befriending Eleven; the shifting relationship between Nancy, Mike’s older sister, her witless boyfriend Steve Harrington, and Will’s brother Jonathan; and Joyce and Jim’s determination to get to the truth – is cleverly done, and moves towards something all too rare in dramas these days – a Proper Ending (as opposed to those open endings where all the plot strands are just left dangling so there can be another series). A well-crafted plot, where the various stories are actually resolved – God how refreshing! And with just enough of a hint of what a second season might hold (which the Duffer Brothers have insisted will be a “sequel” rather than a continuation), and “Stranger Things” seems to have hit the mother lode. It’s reassuring to know that, along with all the other Eighties influences they have picked up, its creators have also remembered something that was common back then but now seems to have been forgotten: how to tell a good story.

 

The stuff of nightmares – “Tale of Tales” review

 

I’d been looking forward to seeing Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales for quite a while, since I first read about its appearance at last year’s Cannes film festival.

It is, as the opening titles make clear, “loosely” based on the fairy tales of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, originally published in the 1630’s.

Basile may not be well known to many readers these days, yet the Brothers Grimm greatly admired him, and he was a big influence also on Hans Christian Andersen. His versions of famous stories like Rapunzel and Cinderella are the earliest known.

This is Garrone’s first English language film (his previous movies include Gomorrah), and in one interview I read he expressed some misgivings about this, whilst acknowledging how its Hollywood cast (Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel) made funding and distribution easier to obtain (the film apparently cost over $14 million to make). But anyone expecting a Hollywood movie will be disappointed – this is very much a continental European – and specifically Italian – film, and watching it I felt the shades of Antonioni, Pasolini & Fellini hovering in the background.

The plot is a portmanteau of three different stories, set in three different, fantastical kingdoms, and the film moves between them rather than telling them each in turn:

In The Queen, the titular monarch is played by Salma Hayek, who so longs for a child that she invokes the help of a necromancer (played with ingratiating creepiness by Franco Pistoni, who, like many of the supporting cast, looks like he has stepped straight out of an Arthur Rackham or Brian Froud illustration – or perhaps, more savagely, something by Goya, whose Los Caprichos prints  were apparently a big influence on the look of the film). “Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied by violence” he tells her, and, though she acquires a son and heir, the price is indeed bloody.

In The Flea, Toby Jones is the muddle-headed king of Altomonte, more interested in looking after his pet flea (which ends up growing to monstrous proportions) than his teenage daughter, Violet, whose Mills & Boon fantasies about a handsome, courageous husband are seriously dashed (along with quite a few skulls).

And in The Two Old Women, a lustful king, played by – who else? – Vincent Cassel (whom we first encounter enjoying the company of a couple of naked lesbians) is entranced by the singing of a washerwoman below his castle walls, not realising that she and her sister are old and ugly – though this doesn’t stop one of them from tricking her way into his bed, in a scene that is both cringe-making and horribly funny. Then she actually does become young – through the intervention of a witch (played with much otherworldly chuckling by the wonderful Kathryn Hunter) – and then things get really nasty…

The film looks beautiful – much of it was made on location in Italy, in such places as Castel del Monte, and Roccascalegna, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky makes the blue skies and white walls blaze out of the screen. Likewise, the costumes are ravishing, and some of the scenes – Salma Hayek eating a heart, or an undersea battle with an albino sea monster – unforgettable. But you probably can’t weave together three strange stories like this, and tell them with such ambition, without a few strands coming loose – and there were moments when I felt Garrone’s reach exceeded his grasp. The impact of Basile’s dark morality tales is lessened by some longueurs, and, though God knows I’m not advocating Michael Bay-levels of frantic editing, perhaps a bit of judicious cutting here and there might have helped focus the story(ies)?

I’m sure many will argue that such slow pacing is precisely the point of this kind of film-making, and Garrone himself says, ‘Don’t try to understand it, just feel it’. And despite my niggles I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend you see it if you can – it may well divide opinion, but at its best it’s both sumptuous and spellbinding, and, like the most vivid of dreams, will linger long in your memory.

It’s elemental… Water

Andy Scott's magnificent Kelpies at Grangemouth

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland (perphotography.co.uk). Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.

Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.

We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:

…many wondrous creatures

Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents

with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…

Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.

Danish Lake

Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)

Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.

In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.

Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:

“‘I saw no face,’ I said.

‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”

At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:

“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.

Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”

Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!

Watchet (St. Decuman)

St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo: westcountrychurches.co.uk)

Sources:

The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)

A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)

Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4

The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)

The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)

The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)

 

Buried skulls & mummified cats

horse-skull

Photo: irisharchaeology.ie

Hello again.

Thought I’d share with you this article from the Irish Archaeology website, about the horse skulls found beneath the excavated remains of houses built in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries.

I was aware of the practice of placing such items in buildings to ward off evil spirits, though I hadn’t known before that these horses’ heads were also used to improve the acoustics! Reading this piece reminded me of the mummified cat – known by locals as “the extremely dead cat” – kept at Keswick Museum & Art Gallery in Cumbria. It was found in the rafters of St Cuthbert’s church near Penrith in 1842.

Cats often get a bad rap in folklore terms – and I have a somewhat jaundiced view myself, being allergic to the little critters – and their association with witches hasn’t helped. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, in 1677 on Queen Elizabeth’s Day (an old festival that used to be held every November 17th to commemorate Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558) the effigy of “a most costly pope” was burned on a bonfire, “his belly filled with live cats which squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”.

Still, black cats are often seen as lucky, though not always for the cat itself, as various bits of it – head, tail, ears – used to be removed, and used in cures for eye-ache, styes, and shingles.

For more on the Keswick cat, and related apotropaic magic such as witch bottles, have a look at this excellent post from Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History & Folklore.

Dessicated cat from Keswick Museum

The Keswick cat

The Wild Beast of Exmoor (and other places)

When I was a kid in primary school, way back in the early Eighties, in a town on the edge of Exmoor, stories started to appear in local and national media about a so-called “wild beast” that was savaging sheep and frightening people in some of the more isolated communities of the area. I even wrote a story, complete with my own gory illustrations, about some huntsmen who manage to track and kill it.

The beast itself was thought to be a large black cat, like a panther, and soon there were reports of its appearance – or something like it – in other moorland regions of the West Country, like Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. Rewards were offered for killing or capturing the animal, and there was an official investigation into the attacks.

These stories eventually petered out, and nowadays you rarely hear about it, though I’m sure you can still find people who claim to have seen something strange one night while they were out walking their dog. Scientists investigating the phenomenon ultimately concluded that any sightings must have been of indigenous cats or large dogs turned into something more sinister by the imaginations of the onlookers.

What is undisputed is that sheep and other livestock were attacked, at one point in great number, and that a few years before the reports began the government passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, requiring owners of exotic or dangerous pets to be properly licensed and insured. There has been speculation that, prior to the act coming into force, some owners may have surreptitiously released their animals into the British countryside, but I don’t suppose anyone is going to own up to it!

The Wild Beast of Exmoor (allegedly)

Black Dogs & the Yeth Hounds

The village of Selworthy in Somerset, pictured above, is the kind of place usually described as “chocolate box”, and with its thatched cottages and whitewashed medieval church, it certainly looks the part.

But it was here, in the Nineteenth Century, that a traveller saw a ghostly black dog on Budleigh Hill, and was told later by the local sexton that a while before they had been carrying a coffin that way, and a handle worked itself loose; banging it in again with a stone, the nail pierced the corpse’s skull, and the spirit escaped to roam in the form of a dog, with “great fiery eyes as big as saucers”…

Tales of Black Dogs are common throughout England, and are often seen as harbingers of death or ill-fortune, or otherwise as the Devil in disguise.

One of the most celebrated sightings was in 1577, in the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk, when a terrible storm broke one Sunday morning, and a Black Dog or “Shuck” (derived from the Old English for “devil” or “fiend”, and also from a local dialect word meaning “shaggy” – a reference to the appearance of its coat) broke into the local churches, killing and maiming several people, and leaving the marks of its claws in the doors and stonework.

There have been several different accounts of this incident over the years (always a sign, according to Jacqueline Simpson, that a story has become folklore), and in Bungay especially the creature is now part of the village’s identity (its coat of arms features a picture of the Dog standing on forked lightning). One of the more recent versions is the song Black Shuck by rock band The Darkness…

Black Dogs are solitary, unlike those of the Wild Hunt – known as Yeth Hounds in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.

They ride as part of the Hunt, with ghostly horsemen, and like Black Dogs they are an ill omen, charging across the sky. Those who hunt on a Sunday, or are cruel and quick-tempered, may end up riding with them…

This was said to be the fate of a butcher’s boy from Rodhuish in Somerset.

A local bully, he tried to scare a young ploughboy who was at the blacksmith’s to mend the coulter on his plough.

He told him that the Devil would appear to him as he walked home over Croydon Hill, but this failed to frighten the lad, who set off regardless, carrying his mended coulter.

A while later he came running back, crying, “I’ve a-killed the Devil!”

The Devil, apparently, had appeared to him on Croydon Hill, and he thought he had struck him dead with his coulter. But it turned out that the butcher’s boy had dressed himself in the carcass of a dead bullock, and had leapt out at the ploughboy as he made his way home. And when the blacksmith and other men from the village went to see what had happened, they found only the bullock’s remains, its skull smashed, and no sign of the butcher’s boy.

Ever since it has been said that the Devil claimed him, and he rides over Croydon Hill with the Wild Hunt on stormy nights. A nice warning about what can happen to bullies!