A new mini-excerpt from the new book

As some of you will know, I’m in the very final (promise) stages of editing the sequel to my novel The Witch of Glenaster, so here is another little excerpt to whet your appetite.

“In my dream there was a hunter’s moon, large and red, and the woods around me were flushed in scarlet.
I was on the edge of a clearing, and at its centre was a hawthorn tree, made broken and crooked by the wind.
I gazed for some time at its branches, tipped by thorns which could tear a hole in a man’s flesh. And as I gazed, a figure stepped into my path. In size and height he was like to a man, but his face seemed strangely narrow, and his eyebrows met in the middle, and when he smiled he showed a set of very sharp teeth.”

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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.

Hallowtide

Traditionally, Hallowe’en is part of a three-day festival called Hallowtide, which lasts beyond October 31st and on through All Saints’ & All Souls’ Days, on November 1st & 2nd respectively.

I have grumbled on occasion – including on this blog – about the increasing commercialization of Hallowe’en, but as an amateur folklorist I remain fascinated with the origins of the feast, in the pagan festival of Samhain, that celebrates the end of the harvest, and the beginning of winter and the new year. Many Hallowe’en traditions derive from these old beliefs, including (shudders) trick or treating.

I remember back in 1983, when I was nine, one of my friends at school, who had lived in the States, telling us about this custom he had encountered there, and we listened, thrilled and horrified, to tales (possibly exaggerated) of people who had refused to hand out treats, and had their doors smeared with excrement in response. Good grief, we thought, such things couldn’t happen here, where Hallowe’en consisted of a bit of dressing up, a few party games, and perhaps a spot of apple bobbing! The folklorist Christina Hole, writing in 1976, observes:

“In many parts of the country Hallowe’en is almost entirely neglected as a festival night…”

(Christina Hole, British Folk Customs)

But, sure enough, trick or treating became more and more popular in the UK in subsequent years, and the fact is, it does have its origins in British and Irish traditions. Christina Hole relates that:

“Hallowe’en was, and still is in some places, a time when mischievous pranks of many kinds are played and tolerated… young men, and sometimes young women as well… went about the parish in disguise, fantastically dressed, or wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, with their faces blackened by soot or covered by grotesque masks. They went… from house to house, collecting money or gifts of food…”

In parts of the North and Midlands of England, this is known as Mischief Night, which can be a pretty anarchic affair, according to Hole:

“Fireworks are let off in the streets; paint or whitewash is slapped on to doors or windows; door-knobs are smeared with treacle, and drainpipes are stuffed with smouldering paper…”

In my own county of Somerset, we have Punkie Night, after the lanterns, or “punkies”, carved out of turnips or swedes (not pumpkins), which are then put on posts, to ward off the evil spirits that are supposed to be abroad at Hallowe’en – though another story, connected with the villages of Hinton St George and Lopen, tells of local men who had visited Chiselborough fair, which was held every October 29th, and drank so much cider they couldn’t find their way back, so that their wives “…scooped out mangolds which were growing in the fields and, placing candles inside them, went out to guide their recalcitrant husbands home” (Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset).

This led to the tradition of local children, at the end of October, going around the streets after nightfall singing:

It’s Punkie Night tonight

It’s Punkie Night tonight

Give us a candle, give us a light

It’s Punkie Night tonight.

They ask for some money, and threaten a “fright” if no gift is given!

The old Hallowe’en fires are now lit on the 5th November – Bonfire Night – to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, but until the late 1800’s it was at dusk on All Hallows’ Eve that they burned, to bless the land and people of the district, and to keep away witches, which the purifying flames were supposed to destroy (in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, boys would beg for fuel for these fires with the words, “Gie’s a peat t’burn the witches!”).

Divination is also traditionally practised at Hallowe’en, and again this is often connected with the fear of evil – in Wales and Scotland, one ceremony involved marking a white stone and throwing it into the fire. If it was still there, and in one piece, the next day, then all would be well – but if it was cracked, or damaged, then its owner would die before the next Hallow Fire. In northern Lancashire, folk used to (and perhaps still do) perform a custom called Lating the Witches, where large candles are carried over the local hills between eleven o’clock and midnight. If your candle burns all the way, then you will be protected against witchcraft for the coming year – but if it goes out, bad luck will find you…

Other divination rites are somewhat less macabre, and involve searching out a future mate. For example, two nuts – one for a young man, the other for a young woman – are placed on the bars or in the embers of a fire, and if they burn quietly, then the couple will marry – but if they explode, or flare up, then the relationship will not last. Likewise, if you peel an apple, and throw the peel over your left shoulder at midnight on Hallowe’en, it will form the first letter of your future partner’s name as it lands.

I love all these stories, and I wish some of these customs, where they have died out, could be revived – but new ones, I suppose, will always emerge. But I think we should resist those who use Hallowe’en as just another excuse to wring cash out of people. It should be so much more than that.

Punky Night | Punkie Night, (aka Punky Night) Hinton St Geor ...

Punkie Night, Hinton St George

“Macbeth” – review

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

 – Macbeth, Act V, Sc. 5

William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around the time that James VI of Scotland acceded to the throne of England (as James I) in 1603, and its bloody and supernatural tale of ruthless ambition is thought to have been influenced by the events of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Many of the plotters came from the Midlands, and the ringleader, Robert Catesby, grew up in the Forest of Arden, in Warwickshire, which gave its name to the Arden family, of whom Shakespeare’s mother, Mary, was a member. There were many recusants in that part of England at the time – including, some have claimed, Shakespeare himself – and one wonders how far he may have known any of the plotters, or their families, or felt guilt by association?

That is a question for the scholars – but I can cheerfully report in my non-scholarly way that the latest film adaptation of perhaps his most famous and popular play is a powerful and atmospheric version, filmed in England and Scotland, and though it doesn’t always give us a sense of the title character’s internal battles, it is nevertheless ambitious in its scope and visual flair (with some superb cinematography from Adam Arkapaw).

Any cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, David Hayman and Sean Harris is one I’m happy to watch any day of the week, and though only one of these actors is actually Scottish, there are no embarrassing Groundskeeper Willie-type accents (Cotillard speaks in a clipped RP that is more English than Scottish, but it doesn’t detract from her performance).

Directed by the Australian Justin Kurzel, there is a link between this film and Slow West, which I reviewed back in July. Same star (Fassbender); Scotland, both real and imagined (one of the main characters in Slow West, Jay, is Scottish, as is the film’s director, John Maclean); and same composer, Jed Kurzel (brother of Justin), who also scored The Babadook. His haunting music is subtly and beautifully paced, and the two films could almost be companion pieces.

The film opens as Macbeth and his wife bury their young child, and, later on, when Lady Macbeth is overcome by remorse for all that she has done, she addresses her “Out, damned spot!” soliloquy to the shade of her dead son, and Kurzel uses a similar device for other characters – Macbeth himself keeps seeing the ghost of a young soldier killed in the battle against Macdonwald, and when Banquo admits his fears of what Macbeth has done to gain the throne, he does so to his young son, Fleance, who escapes the murderers who kill his father with the aid of the Three Witches.

The Witches are a constant presence in the film, often witnesses to events even when they are not active participants, and though spoken of in supernatural terms (“they made themselves air”), they appear as unsettling but very much corporeal beings, weighed down by the horror of their foresight, but unable to prevent what they know is coming. As Macbeth descends into paranoia and madness, he becomes both hyperactive (at one point we see Fassbender running up and down his chamber) and oddly detached, seemingly unmoved by his own wife’s death (“She should have died hereafter”). As he oversees the execution of Macduff’s wife and children – they are burned at the stake outside the castle walls, in one of the film’s most memorably disturbing scenes – we know that this is a man hollowed out by murder and ambition.

The film is bookended by two terrific battle sequences – first, when Macbeth defeats the forces of Macdonwald, and then, at the end, the final showdown with Macduff, when Birnan Wood comes to Dunsinane in a sea of fire.

Shakespeare’s words are delivered simply and naturalistically, and though there was the odd bit of mumbling – par for the course in a lot of dramas these days – it wasn’t a major problem, and I would think that if you wanted to introduce someone to this play, or to Shakespeare more generally, this film would be an excellent place to start. It’s rousing and well told, and preserves the mystery at the heart of the story, which keeps drawing audiences back, time after time, into its dark embrace.

“The Worm Ouroboros” by E.R. Eddison – review

I was introduced to this book by the writer Clive S. Johnson, and as new editions of this and the other novels in Eddison’s Zimiamvia series were published in the UK last summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to investigate one of the key writers of Twentieth Century fantasy.

E.R. Eddison was a civil servant at the British Board of Trade when he published what Ursula Le Guin calls his “eccentric masterpiece” in 1922. Inspired by the Icelandic sagas, Homer, and Jacobean drama, The Worm Ouroboros tells the story of the epic battle between two fantastical realms, Witchland and Demonland, for lordship of the earth. It is dark, violent, and many of its characters are essentially two-dimensional – traits often found in fantasy fiction – yet it is written in a florid, over-the-top style which carries the reader along, and seems to delight in its own ridiculousness:

Five nights and five days the Demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies beside their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he went forth to make question of the night.

Tolkien greatly admired Eddison’s prose, though he was put off by his politics – there is more than a whiff of the übermensch about the Demonlords, Juss, Spitfire, Brandoch Daha, and Goldry Bluszco – and they’re meant to be the heroes. The villains – the Witches – are arguably more interesting and complex, especially Lord Gro, who betrays his own people, the Goblins, and serves the sorcerer King Gorice XII:

Now the King poured forth wine, speaking a charm over the cup, and when the bright wine had revived Lord Gro, the King spake saying, ‘It is well, O Gro, that thou hast shown thyself a philosopher indeed, and of heart intrepid. Yet even as no blade is utterly tried until one try it in very battle, where if it snap woe and doom wait on the hand that wields it, so must thou in this midnight suffer a yet fiercer furnace-heat of terror…’

In his foreword, Douglas E. Winter writes that, “like a vintage wine a taste for Eddison’s prose is expensively acquired”, but it’s nevertheless well worth imbibing, and when the story is this exciting – heroic feats, mighty battles, hidden kingdoms, beautiful, unearthly women – any qualms the reader may have about the structure of the narrative (especially Eddison’s awkward device of introducing his tale through the time-traveller Edward Lessingham, who may or may not be out of his mind on opium) can be put aside. It is, above all, enormous fun.

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 legend of Mother Leakey

Every town, I think, should have its own ghost. The town of Minehead in Somerset has at least one – her name is Mother Leakey, and this is her story. She died in 1634, and soon afterwards was seen whistling up storms that destroyed her son’s shipping business, strangling her grandson in the cradle for good measure. Then she appeared to the local doctor while he was out walking – she sat on a stile and refused to move, and when he pushed past her, she gave him a hefty kick up the backside. Such was her infamy that, long after her death, Sir Walter Scott wrote about her, and the cartoonist George Cruickshank drew her.

In 1637, a Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate the appearances, chaired by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It eventually concluded that there was no substance in the story, and it was dismissed. Even so, tales of Mother Leakey have persisted, and within living memory the old woman was still blamed if there was bad weather in Minehead. Quite what might have made her so vengeful is unclear, however…!