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Author Archives: Kai Roberts

Twenty Classic British Folk-Horror Stories

Ever since Mark Gatiss popularised the term in his 2010 BBC documentary series, A History of Horror, the folk-horror idiom has experienced a singular renaissance of interest. An academic conference, titled The Fiend in the Furrows, was devoted to the sub-genre in 2013, whilst its expressions are debated daily online by the highly active and passionate Folk Horror Revival group on Facebook. Even more importantly, new artistic instantiations of the form are once more visible in popular media; from Ben Wheatley’s visionary film, A Field In England, to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s comedic take, The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge. At last, this overlooked yet integral strand of the macabre imagination is receiving the attention it deserves.

Gatiss himself originally used the term “folk-horror” only to refer to a triumvirate of British films which are rightly regarded as cornerstones of the genre: Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. However, as critical interest has grown, the field has expanded to encompass further films including The Witches and Cry of the Banshee, TV dramas such as Penda’s Fen and Children of the Stones, even musical acts like Comus and the Third Ear Band. Nor should it be considered an exclusively British phenomenon: the United States gave us Harvest Home and Children of the Corn; whilst Europe produced Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Examples can even be found from Japan and Russia.

This mission-creep has led to much discussion attempting to delineate the boundaries of the genre. Like many such taxonomic definitions, it is probably best to regard the term as describing what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein dubbed a “family resemblance”; i.e. works which are connected by a set of overlapping characteristics, but have no one feature common to all. Nonetheless, it is fruitful to consider exactly what these overlapping characteristics might be. The film-maker and critic Adam Scovell has suggested four distinguishing components which he calls the “folk-horror chain”: namely, landscape; isolation; skewed moral beliefs; and happening/summoning. Further exploration of these concepts can be read on Scovell’s blog here.

It has certainly become clear that folk-horror did not suddenly emerge in the late-1960s as a cinematic genre; rather, its resurgence then was a symptom of the wider folk revival which took place in that period, the form having existed as an underground tradition in popular culture for several centuries. As such, its earliest and most original expressions were primarily literary; anybody trying to identify the genre’s antecedents need look no further than William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth, completed in 1606. The gothic novel of the late 18th and early 19th Century also functioned as a vehicle for its development, and it is arguable that William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1848 gothic romance, The Lancashire Witches, represents the first fully-fledged example.

However, the genre seems to have reached maturity during the fin-de-siècle, when both horror stories and folklore studies were at the height of their respectability in educated circles. The following list represents an attempt to trace the folk-horror thread through British short fiction from this period till its first and most visible revival in the 1960s and ’70s. As discussed above, folk-horror is not an exclusively British idiom, but British examples nonetheless possess their own particular flavour, and are worth considering as a single tradition. Hence, there will be conspicuous omissions such as Viy by Nikolai Gogol, The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. These may, however, appear on a different list at another time.

I have chosen to focus exclusively on the short form as this is generally agreed to be the best, and certainly most ubiquitous medium for literary horror—although a couple of novellas are also included. As a consequence, classic texts such as John Buchan’s 1927 novel, Witch Wood, have been neglected—but again, such works might appear on a future list. Finally, although a number of tales by figures such as M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen may be legitimately described as folk-horror, I have limited the list to one story per author to allow greater breadth of focus. In these cases, I’ve attempted to select the most representative example of their oeuvre, but your mileage may vary. I would certainly be glad to hear of any additions or revisions people might suggest.

1. “Thrawn Janet” by Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

Mostly written in a phonetically-rendered, archaic Scots dialect, this story may prove challenging to the casual reader. However, those who persevere will be rewarded with one of the author’s most striking and macabre narratives. Rooted in native traditions of witchcraft and devilry, Stevenson evokes a rustic atmosphere thick with dread—something which the vernacular prose only augments.

2. “The Withered Arm” by Thomas Hardy (1888)

Hardy is perhaps not a name that immediately springs to mind when discussing seminal horror writers—and indeed, this tale is not so much a horror story an exploration of country superstition, working inexorably towards tragedy. Hardy is oft-praised for the vivid sense of place he conjures and here one can almost smell the peat fires and furze drifting across the Wessex heath.

3. “Pallinghurst Barrow” by Grant Allen (1892)

The association between horror and the inscrutable megalithic remains of our prehistoric ancestors is now so firmly entrenched that it has almost become a cliché. However, this tale—in which an antiquarian witnesses a grisly re-enactment of the pagan rites of antiquity at a Neolithic burial mound—is surely one of the earliest, and perhaps best, treatments of this familiar motif.

4. “Witch-In-Grain” by R. Murray Gilchrist (1894)

A Decadent writer of the “Yellow Nineties”, Gilchrist’s work can be too “utterly, utterly” for many readers. This short piece, more of a prose-poem than a story, is unlikely to convince anyone who finds such writing overly mannered, but to those who enjoy a bit of well-turned purple prose, it’s a rich and evocative vignette, with a particularly striking final image.

5. “The Sin Eater” by Fiona MacLeod (1895)

A leading figure of the “Celtic Twilight” movement which flourished in artistic circles during the fin-de-siècle, few writers evoked the mystery and romance of Goidelic culture as powerfully as Fiona MacLeod (pen-name of the Scottish author, William Sharp). Based on authentic folklore and beautifully written, this fatalistic tale is a human tragedy as compelling as The Withered Arm.

6. “The White People” by Arthur Machen (1899)

Rightly lauded, not only as the author’s masterpiece, but as one of the finest horror tales in the English language, Machen’s account of the induction of an innocent teenage girl into a witch-cult who traffic with sinister denizens of the Otherworld is an insidiously disturbing classic. Told allusively by the naïf narrator in exquisite cadences, it has an almost incantatory power.

7. “The Black Reaper” by Bernard Capes (1899)

A writer of considerable range, Capes’ contribution to weird fiction during the late-Victorian and Edwardian period is often overlooked—and this is one of his finest tales. During the Great Plague, a mysterious preacher appears in a godless village, calling down divine wrath upon it. The inhabitants’ efforts to silence this stranger unleashes a great evil in the cornfields and a black harvest ensues.

8. “No Man’s Land” by John Buchan (1902)

When this story was written, the “Pygmy-Pict” hypothesis of the antiquarian David MacRitchie had been circulating amongst the intelligentsia for the last decade. Buchan employs it here to visceral effect: his tale of the present-day survival of “fairies” in the wild places—actually descendants of our Neolithic ancestors—is more naturalistic than Machen’s, but still a potent variation on the theme.

9. “The Temple of Death” by A.C. Benson (1903)

As the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, it is perhaps unsurprising that Benson’s weird fiction is marred by a tiresome Christian piety. However, if you’re able to overlook this tendency, this story concerning a Roman priest’s encounter with a pagan temple in Gaul during Late Antiquity is a vivid slice of folk-horror, heavily influenced by Sir James Frazer’s “king-in-the-wood” theories.

10. “The Ash Tree” by M.R. James (1904)

One of the Monty’s finest efforts, this tale of witchcraft, familiar spirits and an ancestral curse is steeped in atmosphere and culminates in a truly unnerving manifestation; which, whilst having no root in folkloric witchcraft, invokes a unique maleficium that feels entirely consistent with tradition. The 1975 BBC television adaptation by David Rudkin is also an essential entry in the folk-horror canon.

11. “The Hole of the Pit” by Adrian Ross (1914)

Published around the outbreak of the Great War—and all but forgotten until 1992, when it was anthologised by Ramsey Campbell—this novella remains one of the buried treasures of supernatural literature. Written in a convincingly archaic style, the tale of fenland Royalists besieged by supernatural forces during the English Civil Wars, positively oozes with primordial atmosphere.

12. “The Tarn of Sacrifice” by Algernon Blackwood (1921)

Few writers have evoked the immanence and numinosity of the past as powerfully as Algernon Blackwood and here the legacy of native resistance to the Roman conquest in Britain echoes in the wild landscape of the Cumbrian fells. Although this is not one of Blackwood’s better known stories, like much of his work, it is a lyrical invocation of the vasty presence of Nature.

13. “The Temple” by E.F. Benson (1925)

Although his work lacks the philosophical weight of some of his contemporaries, Benson produced a substantial oeuvre of well-crafted, unpretentious tales which provide archetypal treatments of many classic horror tropes. Here, a couple of antiquarians rent a Cornish cottage built on the site of a prehistoric stone-circle, and soon find themselves haunted by its sinister heritage.

14. “Morag-of-the-Cave” by Margery Lawrence (1925)

A highlight of one of the most underrated interbellum collections of weird fiction, this tale savours of the Celtic Twilight, but ultimately treads a more uncanny path than that essentially nostalgic movement. Set in a remote and isolated Irish fishing village, the narrative charts the fascination of a local girl with a nearby sea cave, and the eldritch things she finds lurking there.

15. “Randalls Round” by Eleanor Scott (1929)

An antiquarian holidaying in a rural village stumbles upon a local calendar-custom associated with a prehistoric barrow—and soon discovers that it is far more sinister than the neutered revivals with which he is familiar. This story may represent the first occurrence of one of folk horror’s most enduring and characteristic tropes, and arguably remains its purest expression.

16. “The First Sheaf” by H.R. Wakefield (1940)

Wakefield was one of the most reliable British writers of weird fiction during the interbellum period; his stories are distinguished not merely by their robust handling of a wide array of tropes, but a cynicism and misanthropy which emphasises the bleakness of the narratives. This seminal tale of clandestine harvest rites in an isolated rural community is particularly downbeat.

17. “Lisheen” by Frederick Cowles (1948)

Frederick Cowles is often cited as a writer in the Jamesian tradition, but his oeuvre was actually far broader and pulpier (albeit pleasingly so), and whilst this tale didn’t see the light of day until after his death, it’s one of his finest works. It is also replete with folk horror tropes: a witch-child, pagan rites at an ancient stone-circle and an appearance by the horned god himself.

18. “Cwm Garon” by L.T.C. Rolt (1948)

An industrial historian as well as a writer of weird fiction, Rolt’s most characteristic work imports the supernatural into the factory; however, he was also adept at invoking the genius loci in more pastoral contexts, as this lyrical tale of strange ceremonies and demonic presences in a remote Welsh valley (clearly based on the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains) demonstrates.

19. “Ringstones” by Sarban (1951)

Like much of Sarban’s work, this novella possesses “a curiously-imparted quality of strangeness; the feeling of having strayed over the border of experience into a world where other dimensions operate”. The tale of a young governess’s experiences on a remote Northumbrian moor bristling with prehistoric monuments, it is also laced with a dark eroticism, which proves uniquely disturbing.

20. “Bind Your Hair” by Robert Aickman (1964)

Aickman’s work is so idiosyncratic—and frankly enigmatic—that it is often impossible to pigeon-hole within any idiom, yet this tale with its hostile countryside and disturbing rites feels like a surreal subversion or deconstruction of certain folk horror tropes. However, the symbolism remains inscrutable and ambiguous throughout, contributing to the story’s unsettling mystery.

 

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My Folkloric Influences

So to satisfy my insatiable craving to make lists, I decided to compile ten non-fiction books which have most influenced my work in the realm of folklore and what I like to call cryptotopography. It’s a very personal list: many of these tomes do not represent the most important work in their field, but the one which has had the greatest impact on my imagination and intellectual development; it also means that I will list books which have been superseded by updated editions or which have fallen out of academic fashion. A work’s success at invoking the genius loci may be considered more important than sound reasoning. It was also impossible to rank the entries in anything resembling order of preference—quantifying qualitative impact is a futile endeavour—so I have iterated them in order of publication instead, which has inadvertently demonstrated what a bounteous year 1976 must have been for folklore junkies!

1. “Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England & the Borders” (2nd Edition; 1879) by William Henderson

19th Century county folklore collections represent an invaluable source of primary material and Henderson’s seminal work was one of the very first to devote itself to the various shires which form the unified territory of northern England. Many famous traditions associated with these areas were originally recorded here and despite the hundred-and-fifty years since its publication, it remains a compelling read—unblemished by the literary embellishment or philological theorising which compromise so many texts of a similar vintage.

2. “The Minor Traditions of British Mythology” (1948) by Lewis Spence

Lewis Spence has something of a reputation as a romanticist whose work is hidebound by the discredited “myth-ritual” school of folkloristics which dominated in the early-20th Century; however, whilst his theories are indeed somewhat dated, the sheer volume of primary data he marshals ensures that it remains relevant. And the romantic spirit which shines through Spence’s work should not too readily be sneered at; although some such assertions may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, their capacity to inspire the imagination is vast.

3. “The Fairies in Tradition & Literature” (1967) by Katharine Briggs

Arguably the greatest British folklorist of the 20th Century, Briggs’ work strikes the perfect balance between the speculative meta-myths of her predecessors and the more positivist approach adopted by later scholars. Although she wrote numerous books on fairy-lore (including the comprehensive Dictionary of Fairies), this remains her best introduction to the subject, covering its manifold facets in a lively, accessible style. It’s a shame that folklorists of her talent (other than perhaps Jacqueline Simpson) are so rare in British academia today.

4. “Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography & Tradition” (1967) by Anne Ross

Dr. Anne Ross was surely one of the foremost “Celtic” scholars of the 20th Century, yet as an avowed believer in the “otherworld” she perhaps found herself more accepted by counter-cultural visionaries than fellow academics, despite her formidable talents as both an archaeologist and folklorist. This exhaustive tome is her magnum opus; the first major study of the “Celtic” religion in Britain and although so much more has been discovered since its composition, it remains definitive—the vagaries of academic fashion be damned.

5. “The Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain” (1976) by Leslie Grinsell

The author of this book was a veteran field archaeologist and a noted authority on prehistoric barrows and his seminal study shines with a passion for prehistoric monuments as cultural loci onto which countless generations have projected their cosmogonies. Grinsell offers both a taxonomy and gazetteer of legends connected with such locations, and whilst it represents his life’s work, the survey is far from comprehensive—a fact which merely contributes to its appeal, inspiring readers to continue the project themselves.

6. “North Country Folklore” (1976) by Jessica Lofthouse

Although they flourished in the mid-20th Century, topographic writers of the sort exemplified by Jessica Lofthouse do not seem to exist anymore. This is a great shame, for in her travels around the northern counties of England, she collected a wealth of folklore, much of which came first-hand from oral sources and preserved variant traditions which are to be found nowhere else. The material is all lovingly recorded in a conversational style, which made it the perfect introduction to the subject when I was a mere ten years old.

7. “Brigantia: A Mysteriography” (1976) by Guy Ragland Phillips

Written by a regular contributor to that topographic institution, The Dalesman, this is a visionary survey of the archaeology, history, toponymy and folklore of the northern counties of England, once a unified Celtic kingdom inhabited by a tribe known as the Brigantes, after their tutelary deity, Brigantia. Philips’ mission is to uncover traces of the region’s pre-Christian heritage. Although modern folkloric scholarship may question its guiding principle of “pagan survivals”, Philips’ mythopoeia ably invokes the potent genius loci of the territory.

8. “Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain” (1977) by Readers’ Digest

My passion for this volume is not unique and it is almost a standard text in many folklore libraries. Perhaps that is because it feels like a folkloric artefact in its own right, with its spooky map keys, atmospheric illustrations and iconic cover depicting the Dorset Ooser, debossed in gold on a black background. It is also that rare thing: a masterpiece created by committee—and despite its comparative age, no publisher has succeeded in publishing a general guide to British folklore which can compare to its breadth and beauty.

9. “The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature & Legacy” (1993) by Ronald Hutton

An academic historian who’d formerly confined his work to the early-modern period, Hutton was regarded as something of an enfant terrible when he first burst onto the pagan scene with this demolition of the romantic ideas which had previously defined prehistoric religion in the popular imagination. Now that the dust has settled, and the counter-culture has had chance to assimilate his influence, this tome stands undiminished as a seminal statement on the mysteries of our pagan ancestors, despite having been recently revised itself.

10. “Twilight of the Celtic Gods: An Exploration of Britain’s Hidden Pagan Traditions” (1994) by David Clarke & Andy Roberts

Whilst the “Celtic” component of the title is an unwelcome modifier insisted upon by the publisher, this is a compelling and convincing study of various animistic beliefs which survived in Britain, especially the Pennine regions of northern England, well into the 20th Century. My dad co-authored the book and I spent much of my childhood visiting many of the sites to which it refers and hearing their stories; as such there is no more powerful influence on my imagination and it is a work whose spirit I proudly endeavour to continue.

11. “Stony Gaze: Investigating Celtic and Other Heads” (1998) by John Billingsley

When Sidney Jackson first drew attention to the abundance of Celtic-style carved stone-heads found across northern England, Anne Ross declared them evidence of an indigenous Celtic tradition which had survived over two thousand years. Billingsley takes a more cautious approach, arguing that whilst they represent a significant and persistent theme in local folk-art, they cannot be declared “Celtic” in the truest sense. Nonetheless, he is not blind to their mythic aspect and this is a comprehensive study of a curious phenomenon.

12. “Aliens, Ghosts & Cults: Legends We Live” (2001) by Bill Ellis

I confess to a preference for folklore as social history, as opposed to cultural anthropology, but when I turn to study contemporary legend, this is the first book for which I reach. Ellis offers one of the most sustained scholarly discussions of the symbiotic processes known as “ostension” and “legend-tripping”, which drive so much folkloric transmission today. He also has a wealth of valuable tips concerning the methodology and ethics of oral collecting which are essential reading for any would-be folklorist in the modern field.

13. “Explore Folklore” (2002) by Bob Trubshaw

Written in a laudable attempt to introduce concepts current in scholarly folkloristics to a wider audience and rescue the subject from its academic decline in Britain, this is the book which revived my formative love of folklore in adulthood and inspired me to write on the topic. It emphasises the discipline’s relevance and its value as social history and contemporary ethnography, offering countless avenues for research, whilst tackling some of the misleading shibboleths which have for too long infested popular understanding of the subject.

14. “The Old Stones of Elmet” (2003) by Paul Bennett

The area known today as West Yorkshire positively bristles with prehistoric monuments and there are few people who know them better than Paul Bennett. His guide to standing-stones, stone-circles and cup-and-rings in the county is not merely an exhaustive gazetteer of regional archaeology; it is full of snippets of local folklore and antiquarian fancy, alongside informed speculation concerning the geomantic significance of these rocks and their place in the wider ritual landscape.

15. “The Gaelic Otherworld: Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland” (2003) by John Gregorson Campbell

An omnibus edition which contains several volumes of folklore collected by the 19th Century Gaelic scholar, John Gregorson Campbell, across the western highlands and islands of Scotland. Unlike his friend and namesake, J.F. Campbell, Gregorson Campbell was more interested in sagen than märchen—which nicely corresponds with my own concerns. This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive collection of such material from Scotland and offers an inexhaustible source of interest for the folklore scholar.

 

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The Folklore of Shipley Glen & Baildon Moor

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a hunting
For fear of little men.

When I was a child, Shipley Glen was one of my favourite places in which to pass a summer afternoon: many happy hours were spent in the woods, clambering over rocks and splashing through the stream; or else browsing in Brackenhall Countryside Centre, before taking the funicular tramway down to Saltaire and back. This much I had in common with generations of Bradfordians, for whom Shipley Glen had been a popular local recreation spot since the late 19th Century, when its attractions also numbered a wooden toboggan run and Japanese-styled pleasure-gardens. A fairground was still there when I was young and I recall I often haunted the dodgems—much to my grandmother’s discomfort! Sadly, the attractions were shut down about a decade ago and left to decay; as a result, to visit Shipley Glen today is a strangely dismal experience.

However, my interest in Shipley Glen now is rooted in more than childhood nostalgia. The enchanting wooded valley carved out by Loadpit Beck fringes Baildon Moor—a spur of the much larger Rombalds Moor massif. This great tract of upland heath was extensively tenanted during British prehistory—especially the late-Neolithic and early-Bronze Age—when the valleys were too poorly drained to be fruitfully occupied. As such, material remnants of their culture litter than moors hereabouts; especially their religious and funerary relics. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that Rombalds Moor was a vast ritual landscape, in which the eschatological concerns of our earliest settled ancestors were made manifest. Doubtless far more has been lost than survives, but even on Baildon Moor—amidst the thronging tourists—an array of antiquarian interest bristles beneath your feet.

PREHISTORIC MONUMENTS

The most celebrated monument in the area is the Brackenhall stone-circle, which lies almost hidden amongst tussocks of moor-grass, barely a hundred yards from the eponymous visitor centre. In 1891, the Yorkshire antiquary, Harry Speight, described it as “a portion of earthwork raised between two concentric circles, whose greater circumference is 137 yards; and diameter 50 yards north-to-south and 39 yards east-to-west”. The circle was once known as Soldier’s Trench in local tradition, supposedly because soldiers once camped there before battle many centuries ago. It was also connected with May Day festivities in the folk memory and Speight observed evidence of “immense fires” having once taken place within the circle. Another tradition claims there was a third stone-circle known as Cat Stones Ring a short distance to the south, which has sadly fallen victim to depredation by stonemasons over the years.

Various other lost circles scatter the vicinity, including examples at Windy Hill and Pennythorn Hill—along with cairn-circles and various tumuli. Somewhat more spectacularly, the Shipley Glen edge of Baildon Moor is also known for several fine examples of that inscrutable prehistoric rock-art dubbed “cup-and-ring markings”. Some have been protected at Brackenhall Countryside Centre, but others remain in situ on farmland or the golf-course nearby. The Dobrudden Stone is a particularly impressive example of the form, and unlike many such rocks, it is relatively easy to find—propped up against the north side of the wall encircling Dobrudden Farm, which is now a conspicuous caravan and camp site. Dobrudden is the highest point on Baildon Moor and this prominent spot in the landscape was almost certainly once a prehistoric burial ground, as the denuded remains of cairns are everywhere visible.

HOUSEHOLD AND ANCESTRAL SPIRITS

The purpose of cup-and-rings stones—which mostly date to the late-Neolithic period—is hotly contested and no single interpretation is satisfactory. One theory is that where only one or two cup-marks exist on a rock, without the accompanying rings, they may have served as a receptacle for libations to the spirits which inhabit each site. Certainly as late as the early-modern period, many Yorkshire farmers’ wives used to leave milk in the hollow of a stone beside the kitchen door to be consumed by the household spirit overnight. These household spirits had a variety of names across the north of England—including boggarts, brownies, bogles, hobthrusts and dobbies—whilst such stones were sometimes called “dobby-stones”, and were said to have been worn smooth by such spirits as the sat awaiting an opportunity to re-enter the house.

Perhaps the first component of the toponym “Dobrudden” refers to these hobgoblins and they were once considered to be ubiquitous in the area. This would be consistent with existence of the Dobrudden “necropolis” or “cairn-field”, as household spirits—such as dobbies—may represent a corrupted remembrance of pre-Christian ancestor worship and were often associated with the remains of our prehistoric ancestors in early-modern folklore. As such, perhaps the more elaborate cup-and-ring markings—for instance, the Dobrudden Stone itself—were not merely hollows in which to place libations for the spirits, but represent the lineage of ancestors. The similarity of many cup-and-ring markings to the layout of a family tree has often been observed and whilst this may not be their only function it would certainly make sense of those incorporated in a funerary landscape such as Dobrudden.

THE HILL OF BAAL?

However, such tidy explanations are often deceiving and the unreliability of such toponymic analysis has led astray many antiquarian over the years. Too often linguistic roots of separate origins are conflated in order to satisfy some romantic fancy: for example, the name of the village of Baildon was once thought to mean “Hill of Baal” by Victorian topographers. Baal was not a native word, but a Semitic title used as an honorific for the pre-Abrahamic deities of the Levant. It was later used as a derogatory term to demonise the “heathen” and “pagan” gods which were superseded by the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition. The root “Baal” is preserved in the term “Beelzebub”—from “Ba’al Zebûb”, literally meaning “Lord of the Flies”—a name cited in Scripture as a synonym for the Devil, which became a common slur used to associate non-Judeo-Christian deities with the Great Deceiver.

As such, in 19th Century, many pious historians believed our pagan ancestors to have worshipped Baal; and when the name “Baildon” was combined with conspicuous evidence of prehistoric ritual in the vicinity, it became obvious to such scholars that this hill must have been a centre of idolatrous worship. Even the usually reliable Harry Speight wrote, “The very name of Baildon would seem to denote a scriptural origin in the place being chosen by the High Priests for propitiating sacrifices to their god Baal, when in honour of the all-giving Sun, baal fires were kindled on the hill tops, just as the festal fires are in Ireland”. Fortunately, standards of scholarship are more rigorous today and we now know that “Baildon” means something more prosaic—perhaps “hill of the berries”—in Old English. If fires were ever lit on the hills hereabouts, they were probably beacon-fires rather than evidence of some “Druidical” hearth-cult.

THE DEVIL IN BAILDON

Although Baildon may not have been the centre of primitive idol worship that Victorian scholars believed it to have been, local folklore has populated it with demons nonetheless. In “Baildon and the Baildons: History of a Yorkshire Manor and Family”—a mammoth work compiled between 1913 and 1926—W. Paley-Baildon refers to an outcrop known as the Cloven Stone, one of the shattered gritstone crags which fringe Baildon Bank. The name may have arisen simply because it is split down the middle—i.e. literally cloven; or it may have arisen from a local tradition which claims the Devil once leapt across the Aire valley from this rock, leaving a cloven-hoof print in his wake. This is a very common migratory motif and can be found attached to numerous rocks in the vicinity: including the Cloven Stone on Rivock Edge; Almscliffe Crag in Wharfedale; Nursery Knott above Appletreewick; and once perhaps many others.

In many instance, stories of the Devil’s impact on the landscape have been transposed onto earlier legends concerning giants. For instance, Almscliffe Crag was variously said to have been thrown from Ilkley Moor by the Devil, or by the wife of the giant, Rombald. Rombald himself was supposed to have left his footprint on the Cow and Calf Rocks, and one wonders if the Cloven Stone at Rivock Edge—the south-western margin of Rombalds Moor overlooking Keighley—may also originally have been associated with the giant. Similarly, as Baildon Moor is an extension of Rombalds Moor, could the Cloven Stone on Baildon Bank also have been connected with the giant—with the Devil a later syncretic addition imposed by some hellfire preachers on an older folk-tradition to provide recognisable exempla demonstrating the Old Enemy’s reality on earth?

ROBIN HOOD

Two sites in the vicinity of Baildon and Shipley Glen are associated with the legendary outlaw. The first is located on Baildon Bank and is known as Robin Hood’s House, the name of which suggests a vague local tradition that Robin once hid here, although no more explicit legend survives. In the 18th Century, a local writer noted, “The country people here attribute everything of the marvellous kind to Robin Hood”. The site was described by William Paley-Baildon as “unquestionably a cromlech… formed of a huge mass of stone, lying apparently just as it fell from the cliff above; the other stones, some of considerable size, have evidently been placed in position by man”. However, the assertion that it was “unquestionably a cromlech” is contentious; early antiquarians often misinterpreted natural features for artificial ones and there is no other evidence to suggest it was once a burial chamber besides its apparent structural similarities.

The second site connected with the folk-hero is Robin Hood’s Chair or Seat, which stands in Trench Wood about halfway down Shipley Glen. It is an earthfast boulder in which water has worn a natural cavity resembling a seat and where Victorian antiquarians suggested some local shaman or chief once sat. Again, this is probably as fanciful as the notion that Robin Hood sat in the chair and there is no reason to believe that humans were remotely concerned with the stone until the late Middle Ages, which is the period when Robin Hood toponyms proliferated as a consequence of the legend’s popularity. Although recent research has shown that the Robin Hood legend probably originated in the West Riding of Yorkshire—namely an area between Pontefract and Doncaster known as Barnsdale—there is no direct connection to Airedale in the earliest ballads.

MURDER MOST FOUL

Not all the folklore connected with Shipley Glen is antiquarian or supernatural. In 2012, the Dalesman Magazine published a letter in which the writer recalls his grandfather telling him that sometime during the 19th Century, a man, his wife and their two children suddenly disappeared from their cottage in Bradford. They were an impoverished family and the police eventually traced the man to Liverpool, where he intended to sail for the New World to look for work. However, there was no sign of his wife or children. One constable considered this suspicious and went to the trouble of following the man across the ocean to keep him under surveillance. Finally, on New Year’s Eve—in a bar full of English immigrants—the man raised a toast “to the ewe and lambs who sleep this night in Shipley Glen”. The constable subsequently arrested his quarry and took him back to Bradford for trial and execution.

Although this story deals with natural facts, it is a folkloric narrative nonetheless and it is doubtful that any such murder ever occurred. The detail that the constable followed his game all the way to the United States should give it away—whenever did the police have sufficient resources to squander in such a fashion?—but even more damningly, an identical story is told about Sawley near Ripon in North Yorkshire. It is said that the body of the Sawley murderer was later hung from a gibbet overlooking the scene of his crime; however, the stone pointed out as the base of the gibbet is actually Lacon Cross—a medieval boundary-stone and way-marker erected by the monks of Fountains Abbey. According to local folklore, “when the moon is full in the winter months a ewe and two lambs may be seen on or near the bridge down Sawley Lane”. One wonders if a similarly spectral tradition was ever attached to Shipley Glen?

Bibliography
Baildon, William Paley (1913-26) “Baildon and the Baildons”
Bennett, Paul (2001) “The Old Stones of Elmet”
Cudworth, William (1900) “Baildon Moor & Its Antiquities” in “Bradford Antiquary” Vol. 3
Glossop, William (1882) “Ancient British Remains on Baildon Moor” in “Bradford Antiquary” Vol. 1
Jackson, Sidney (1954) “Soldiers’ Trench Circle” in “Cartwright Hall Archaeology Group Bulletin” Vol. 1.1
Lambert, Cliff (2012) “Truth or Fiction?” in “Dalesman Magazine: May 2012”
Ross, Ray (2012) “A Gruesome Tale” in “Dalesman Magazine: September 2012”
Smith, A.H. (1961-63) “Place Names of the West Riding”
Speight, Harry (1898) “Chronicles & Stories of Bingley & District”
Turner, Joseph Horsfall (1888) “Yorkshire Notes & Queries” Vol. 1
Turner, Joseph Horsfall (1897) “Ancient Bingley”

 

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The Hallas Bridge Witch & the Psychogeography of the West Bradford Moors

The triangle of upland between the mill-towns of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley has no particular name of its own and is often overlooked in topographies of the area; yet this tract of the Pennines possesses a distinct identity, a palpable sense of place that over the centuries has bred a glut of remarkable lore and legend. The region is not excessively remote: it is criss-crossed by arterial roads and farmers have reclaimed much of the desolate moorland for pasture. These hills are also home to small towns such as Denholme and Queensbury—two of the highest municipalities in England—whilst the sprawl of the West Yorkshire conurbation is often visible in the valleys below.

The district borders Brontë Country and there is certainly no doubt that the literary sisters were familiar with this territory: they were born in the village of Thornton on its eastern edge and lived there for the earliest years of their childhood before moving to Haworth—itself barely a few miles away. Nonetheless, it feels discrete from the more characteristically “wuthering” landscape of the Worth Valley—which must be considered the Brontë heartland—and for the sake of convenience, I have come to refer to this area as the West Bradford Moors, although it is a shame that a more poetic and evocative name cannot be found.

One of the many hidden treasures of the West Bradford Moors is the wooded dell carved out by the Harden Beck as it flows from the watershed on Thornton Moor towards Bingley where it joins the River Aire. In the upper reaches of this valley, the stream tumbles down a series of charming cascades on its course through Goitstock Wood creating a veritable fairy glen. We know that Charlotte Brontë herself once strolled through this valley in the company of an old Chartist from whom she hoped to extract raw material for the literary endeavour that was ultimately published as “Shirley” in 1849 (although by all accounts he advised her against reopening old wounds).

The Harden Valley is so picturesque that it is difficult to conceive it might once have been a source of dread; yet so it was. Discussing the area at the end of the 19th Century, that indefatigable Yorkshire antiquary, Harry Speight, refers to a “sorceress or witch, who is believed to haunt the lane which descends to Hallas Bridge on the Cullingworth side of the beck. She is traditionally said to be coming down the hill at the cautious pace of seven straw breadths in the year, and when at last she reaches the bridge, woe betide any person or house that may then be upon the hill, for by one magic wave of her hand the hill will vanish, and of course everything upon it”.

The legend is corroborated in 1923 by Elizabeth Southwart, in her excellent book, “Brontë Moors from Haworth to Thornton”. As if to demonstrate the unique quality of the West Bradford Moors, she also notes the persistence of supernatural traditions in the area: “The ghost tale left Thornton, Wilsden and Cullingworth very reluctantly, whilst at Oxenhope and Haworth the only trace is to be found in books; the oldest inhabitants not only deny that they ever believed in ghosts, but that their forefathers ever did. On the other hand, the Thornton, Cullingworth and Wilsden folk, though obviously incredulous, half wish that the tales were true: in fact there are people still left who believe they are”.

The most curious facet of the tale of the Hallas Bridge witch is that whilst the legend is apparently unique in Yorkshire, the motif is more familiar in the extreme south-west of the country—albeit attached to ghosts rather than witches. Such apparitions are known as “cockstride ghosts”: spirits that have been only partially laid at some remote location and now advance homewards at no more than a “cockstride” every year (“cockstride” being an archaic term synonymous with any tiny increment). Examples of cockstride ghosts are familiar in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall but there are no obvious northern analogues and it is unclear how an isolated example the motif has migrated so far.

Similarly opaque are the means by which the “cockstride” motif has become syncretised with the figure of a witch and how the tradition became quite so apocalyptic. The threat that if the witch ever reached Hallas Bridge she would make the whole hillside disappear—Cullingworth included—is considerably more dire than the consequences should a cockstride ghost make it back to the house it used to haunt. However, as the surrounding hills are replete with toponyms such as Egypt, World’s End and the Walls of Jericho, we can surmise that the folk of the West Bradford Moors took their apocalypses very seriously indeed.

Perhaps they needed to in such a stark and windswept landscape; it is often remarked that pitiless places breed pitiless eschatology. Like most of the South Pennines, austere Non-Conformist denominations such as Primitive Methodism flourished on these moors—as did abstinence societies such as Independent Order of Rechabites. Meanwhile, in the late-18th and early-19th Century the area was a fertile breeding for millenarian sects who envisaged that the spiritual transformation of society foretold in the Book of Revelation was close at hand. Followers of self-proclaimed prophets such as Joanna Southcott, George Turner and John Wroe were drawn extensively from these townships.

There is also something about the West Bradford Moors that seems fundamentally liminal; i.e. pertaining to boundaries, borders and thresholds. As mentioned earlier, settlements such as Queensbury and Denholme are amongst the highest towns in Britain and hilltops have long been perceived as a threshold between the earth and the heavens. Liminality is expressed too in the area’s relationship with the surrounding centres of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. It partakes in the character of all three, but is not wholly identifiable with any one and functions as an effective frontier between them.

Liminal locations are boundaries spiritually as much as geographically; places at which the veil between this world and the other is worn thin. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that the West Bradford Moors were once home to so many uncanny entities: phantom black hounds stalked every lane and rumours of a shadowy horned figure once gripped the neighbourhood. There was also a rich tradition cunning-folk, who were rarely wholly benign: one raised the Devil to recover a client’s lost property; others set out on a disastrous quest to recover a hoard of demon-guarded treasure—after getting lost in the fog, they were reported to ecclesiastic authorities and excommunicated.

The Witch of Hallas Bridge is just one panel in the region’s rich tapestry of curious lore, and the apocalyptic tone of the legend is easy to understand in the context of this environment. Survival here was tenuous; the end always near. Disaster and hardship hove over the horizon like the witch slowly advancing towards that ill-fated crossing whereupon she would whisk the hill away. In such elemental landscapes it is easy to conceive of these malign entities and we must face the prospect that our anthropological interpretations are merely rationalist fancies to sooth our eschatological angst. If I lived in Cullingworth, I’d certainly be worried: after all, the witch must have almost reached that bridge by now.

 

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Robin Hood – The Best Books

My first and most personal book was “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” for CFZ Press in 2011, and although that work is a study of how certain locations breed legends as much as a study of the medieval outlaw, I read extensively on the history and evolution of the Robin Hood canon whilst I was writing it. With so many books available on the subject it can be difficult to decide exactly which ones are worth your time, so I’ve come up with a list of the sources I found the most comprehensive and reliable. A couple of entries are out-of-date and discredited, but they remain important in understanding the historiography of the legend. I also found a number of journal articles equally useful, but that list will have to wait for another time. Clicking on the hyperlinks in each title will direct you to purchasing information (which I’ve added from shamelessly mercenary motives).

1. “Robin Hood: 3rd Edition” by J.C. Holt (Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Undoubtedly the definitive survey of historical evidence concerning the figure known as Robin Hood and the evolution of his legend. It was first published in the 1970s and has now reached its third edition; each revised version adds new material crucial to our understand of the mythos.

2. “Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography” by Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2009)

A more recent work than Holt’s study but now tied for the title of best book on the subject. Knight is a Professor of English Literature and he views the Robin Hood legend as a literary canon rather than a historical or folkloric topic. His background also ensures that the book is highly readable.

3. “Robin Hood & Other Outlaw Tales” by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Eds.) (Medieval Institute Publications, 2000)

A comprehensive and up-to-date collection of all the medieval and post-medieval ballads and plays with line analysis of each by two of the most respected scholars working on the academic study of Robin Hood. As such, it is an essential reference resource for all students of the legend.

4. “Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw” by R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Eds.) (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1989)

An earlier critical edition of the ballads—now out-of-print—but as essential as Knight & Ohlgren’s volume. It is particularly notable for the linguistic analysis which firmly placed the origin of the ballads (and therefore the legend) in Barnsdale—a former region of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

5. “Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context” by A.J. Pollard (Routledge, 2007)

As both literary works and historical artefacts, the Robin Hood ballads and plays that circulated in the late Middle Ages form a fascinating record of the concerns of medieval England. Pollard’s study explores what the legend has to say about issues such as yeomanry, forest law and popular religion.

6. “The Outlaws of Medieval Legend” by Maurice Keen (Routledge, 2000)

Although Robin Hood is the only medieval outlaw whose legend has survived into the present day, he was not unique and the likes of Eustace the Monk or Fulk FitzWaryn were equally popular folk heroes in the Middle Ages. Keen’s study examines Robin Hood in the context of this wider corpus.

7. “Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-medieval” by Helen Phillips (Ed.) (Four Courts Press Ltd, 2005)

An excellent collection of essays relating to historical aspects of the Robin Hood myth. It is particularly interesting for those studying the legend of his death as it contains a number of papers on this subject, including the first academic scrutiny of the history of Robin Hood’s Grave at Kirklees.

8. “Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism” by Stephen Knight (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 1999)

Published by an academic press, this mammoth anthology is almost prohibitively expensive; which is a shame because it is a rigorous and diverse resource, including studies of everything from Robin Hood’s role in the May Games to a study of the character’s role in the Romantic poetry of John Keats.

9. “Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression & Justice” by Thomas Hahn (Ed.) (D.S. Brewer, 2000)

Another absurdly expensive critical anthology, but once again its contents are multifarious and compelling. The book includes essays on Robin Hood and the Nottingham tourist industry; Robin Hood musicals in the 18th Century; Robin Hood and swashbuckling cinema; and many more just as diverting.

10. “Robin Hood: Outlaw or Greenwood Myth” by Fran and Geoff Doel (DPI Media Group, 2000)

Although the mythological interpretation of the legends of Robin Hood has fallen out of fashion in academia, it was highly influential from around 1850 – 1950 and survives in the popular imagination thanks to the 1980s TV series, Robin of Sherwood. This is a good overview of the evidence.

11. “Robin Hood: The Green Lord of the Wildwood” by John Matthews (Gothic Press, 1993)

The mythological interpretation of Robin Hood survives most strongly in Neo-Pagan and other New Age circles, where it is almost an article of faith. Matthews is a veteran writer on such topics and whilst his book lacks academic rigour it nicely shows how the legend influences the Neo-Pagan imagination.

12. “The Haunts of Robin Hood” by Jill Armitage (The History Press, 2008)

In late medieval and early modern England, the ballads of Robin Hood were so popular that nearly every region claimed the outlaw for their own and sites bearing his name proliferated—from Robin Hood’s Arbour to Robin Hood’s Well. This book provides a useful gazetteer of the most famous.

13. “Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads” by Joseph Ritson (James Clarke & Co, 1826)

Long out-of-date, of course, but this was the seminal study of the Robin Hood legend: the first attempt to collect together all material relating to the outlaw and place it in a historical context. As a radical, Ritson’s work strongly influenced the image of Robin “robbing from the rich to give to the poor”.

14. “The True History of Robin Hood” by John William Walker (E.P. Publishing, 1952)

The theory that Robin Hood was based on a 14th Century resident of Wakefield has been conclusively disproved by new evidence found by J.C. Holt. However, the argument was once very convincing and this is its definitive expression, based on preliminary work by Rev. Joseph Hunter in the 19th Century.

 

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On the Respective Worldviews of M.R. James and S.T. Joshi

The reputation of S.T. Joshi as the preeminent scholar in the study of weird fiction has always puzzled me. Although the man’s work ethic cannot be disputed, his tendency to view every weird author through the prism of H.P. Lovecraft taints his writing with a frustrating bias, whilst his doctrinaire atheism and positivism renders him incapable of fully engaging with some of the most important authors in the field. One might argue that his philosophical stance is scarcely worse than Arthur Machen’s militant anti-materialism, but their two projects are entirely different. Machen was a mystic and Neo-Romantic polemicist whilst Joshi aspires to sober academic criticism, hence it is rather hypocritical for him to condemn somebody like Machen for an obdurate ideology when Joshi is guilty of similar intransigence.

Nowhere are Joshi’s faults more manifest than in his interpretation of the work of M.R. James. His failure to fully appreciate James’s achievement has been extensively rebutted in the collection of essays, Warnings to the Curious (which Joshi himself graciously edited), but despite the instructive title of that volume, none deal with what I perceive as a dominant theme in James’s stories, one that is problematic for Joshi’s analysis on two fronts.

Joshi’s criteria for what makes successful weird fiction proceeds from the contention that “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions… All the authors… evolved distinctive world views, and it was those world views that led them to write the sort of literature they did…each writer’s entire output is a philosophical unity.” I think this assertion at least is uncontroversial. The force of the work of masters such as Blackwood, Machen, Aickman, Lovecraft and Ligotti undoubtedly derives from the fact that their fiction is not merely an exercise in form or a collection of signifiers, but the expression of irreducible philosophical convictions. It is essentially propaganda, a vehicle by which to communicate their own unique metaphysical systems.

However, Joshi pointedly excludes M.R. James from this select group on the grounds that “It is simply not possible to derive a general philosophy out of James’s stories. They are simply stories; they never add up to a world view. The tales are all technique, a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposely avoids drawing broader implications.” Nor is Joshi alone in this assessment. In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, Jack Sullivan writes “James’s fiction is self-enclosed in that it rarely refers to any system of ideas or values outside the confines of the plot… If there is any theological ‘premise’ in James, it is never developed and it is certainly not clear”; whilst Julia Briggs, in her unsurpassed study Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story, opines “James maintained an attitude of critical detachment which seems to have been the exception rather than the rule… It is as if the implications of what he wrote never disturbed him, and he enjoyed writing them purely as a literary exercise”.

However, in these judgements I believe that Joshi and the others are mistaken, for whilst James might be less didactic than some of the other names mentioned here, even a cursory study of his canon reveals a distinct philosophy which profoundly influences the thrust of his narratives. Of course, my argument is not helped by James himself, whose own rare pronouncements on the significance of his ghost stories are distinctly deflationary. In the preface to Ghosts and Marvels, he writes “Often I have been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories… Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated”, a stance later reiterated in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories where he remarks, “Questioners ask if I have any theories as to the writing of ghost stories. None that are worthy of the name or need be repeated here”.

Yet given James’s acclaimed restraint in his fiction, it is hardly surprising that he should exhibit similar reticence in his public statements. Such coyness suggests an admirable desire to conceal the mechanics of his creative process from his audience lest the impact be diminished (if only more artists were familiar with such discretion today). Moreover, it is not the case that James even needed to be consciously aware of the philosophical underpinnings of his work. It is impossible to imagine that the world view of an artist will not always reveal itself in their output. Having said this, I do believe that James was fully cognisant of the attitudes which informed his tales and his refusal to engage with any questions regarding their foundation primarily represents an ongoing effort to avoid didacticism and allow the stories to speak for themselves.

It is therefore my contention that James’s fiction, much like that of Machen and Blackwood, embodies an assault against materialist and positivist philosophies and especially their insidious creep into the realm of academic scholarship. In this regard the title of his story “A Warning to the Curious” might be regarded as an epigram for his entire corpus. This is not to say that James was opposed to the spirit of academic inquiry – quite the opposite, he was after all a devoted antiquarian himself – but that such study must maintain a healthy respect for the sanctity of its objects. He seeks to portray the sort of doctrinaire scepticism characteristic of positivism as an irrational impulse, which in ignoring any fact that does not agree with its aggressively reductive outlook is in serious danger of ignoring, maybe even destroying, the things that make a symbol significant in the first place.

Time and time again in James’s stories we see intellectually arrogant protagonists, over-confident in their own superior rationality, blunder into an act of desecration which brings dire consequences down upon them. This is often despite receiving warnings as to the potential consequences of their actions which they proceed to blithely ignore. Professor Parkins in Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad is the archetypal character in this respect, declaring “I freely own that I do not like careless talk about what you call ghosts. A man in my position… cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects… I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all the I hold most sacred.” This is not scientific scepticism, the suspension of judgement awaiting further evidence, exemplified by James’s own attitude towards the possibility of the supernatural (“I am prepared to consider the evidence and accept it if it satisfies me”). Rather, Parkins exhibits that rigid certainty in the tenets of materialism which is ultimately as much a matter of faith as any theological conviction.

The motif of protagonists punished for their intellectual vanity recurs in several of James’s most characteristic stories including Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester and of course, A Warning to the Curious. As Simon MacCulloch recognises in his essay The Toad In the Study, “James’s protagonists tend to be cultivated, intelligent representatives of an ordered, fatally limited world view, a brittle civilisation based on rationalism and distinctive human value.” The source of terror in James’s stories comes not only from the implacable malignance of the revenants, but often the impact they have on the belief systems of the characters and it is implied that the irruption of these embodiments of chaos is the inevitable consequence of an inflexible, mechanistic understanding of the universe which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of the unknown. It is very telling that S.T. Joshi prefers to believe that “these hints are vague and, in the end, harmlessly jocular”, for reasons we will come to later.

It is clear that James was especially troubled by the implications of unyielding rationalism for concepts of sanctity and faith, the very kernel of which is a healthy appreciation of Mystery. The idea that faith is synonymous with certainty is a fallacy, erected as a straw man by the New Atheists and sustained by debased models of religious thought such as fundamentalism and evangelism. Rather, uncertainty and an apprehension of the unknown are fundamental conditions of faith and the areas it designates as “sacred” or “holy” are symbols of this acceptance of all that is beyond our comprehension and provide us with an ongoing connection to this awareness. To deny the significance of such symbols, or to undermine them by regarding them purely in terms of their material components, is to deny an essential aspect of the human condition. When the blinkered rationalism of James’s protagonists causes them to violate some sacred object or place, it represents a transgression against the human community which invested them with meaning in the first place. As a result they must be chastised by a confrontation with the full weight of the unknown forces which they so glibly refused to acknowledge and which other, wiser men recognised the irreducibility of.

In his essay A Warning to the Curious: Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M.R. James’s Ghosts Stories, Brian Cowlishaw argues, “James indicates that digging into the past/unconscious is a mistake… To dig into the past is to transport oneself back in time to a more superstitious, savage state of humanity and to uncover terrible things better left buried. If James’s antiquarians would only let sleeping ruins lie, they would remain safe.” However, I think this is rather disingenuous and would be a strange attitude for James to exhibit. He was after all an antiquarian himself and certainly had no intention of “letting sleeping ruins lie”. His concern was more to show that the past was not merely a dead thing, the remains of which could be trampled over in a rush to loot its secrets. It’s wisdom and remembrances should be treated with appropriate respect or else we will be suddenly and forcefully reacquainted with knowledge the modern world cannot integrate.

You also have to wonder if James might have been taking aim at his own impulses, the ghost stories serving as a necessary counterweight to his own scholarly activities, maybe even an exorcism so to speak. His protagonists invariably echo his own passions as a medievalist, and James was no doubt conscious of the dangers of such pursuits if followed to extremes. As Julia Briggs observes, “Curiosity has its academic and obsessive aspects; perhaps James’s experience of the former gave him some insight into the latter.” Such obsession threatens to turn innocent scholarship into an endeavour to assimilate all knowledge of a subject so thoroughly that the integrity of the object of study itself is forgotten or ignored.

In his quest to document the religious sentiment of the medievals, James must often have found himself, like his characters, disturbing papers, artefacts and sites which were once treated with reverence. It has often been said that it is impossible to reconstruct fully the cosmology of the pre-modern mind and perhaps as he picked through their relics with that critical detachment integral to the academic project, James wondered just to what extent they might have perceived his actions as sacrilege or blasphemy. His stories certainly suggest that he was troubled by the question of whether an antiquarian is really all that much better than a grave-robber. After all, the notion that intellectual enrichment is somehow a nobler motive than financial reward is largely an arbitrary judgement.

From his published writings, it’s hard to imagine that S.T. Joshi would have any such qualms and this is primarily why he cannot perceive any worldview in James’s work. That worldview is so entirely beyond anything Joshi can empathise with that he simply cannot hope to grasp it, and as James does not spell it out like Machen and Blackwood are wont to do means that it eludes him entirely (which is a damning indictment of his skill as a literary critic as much as a philosopher). As can be observed in his critique of Arthur Machen, whilst Joshi may insist that the work of the most successful writers of weird fiction forms “a philosophical unity”, wherever that philosophy diverges substantially for his own, he displays egregious blind spots.

Anybody unsure of the exact composition of Joshi’s own belief system need only read the first lines of his book God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, where he boldly states “Either there is one god, multiple gods or none. Either there is such a thing called the human soul or there isn’t… That the essential doctrines of many of the world’s major religions are matters of truth or falsity is itself a fact around which no amount of sophistry or special pleading can get away from.”

It is clear from this expression of simplistic binary thinking that Joshi is not somebody comfortable with concepts such as ambiguity and uncertainty. To such a mentality, everything in the world can, and indeed must, be broken down into its atomistic components, dissected and catalogued, forced into artificial taxonomies of our own creation until it makes sense to whatever ontology is currently in fashion. The notion that some things should be regarded as sacred and inviolable because they might, just might, embody all that transcends human understanding, must be entirely alien to him.

Nor would it be much use to appeal to Joshi’s respect for the sentiments of the community who originally invested these symbols with meaning, because it is sadly obvious that he has no such respect. His work is shot through with an uncomfortable misanthropy, doubtless informed by his heroes such as H.P. Lovecraft and H.L. Mencken. Just witness a further extract from the introduction to God’s Defenders, in which he asserts “People are stupid. The fundamental fact of human history is that people in the mass are irredeemably ignorant.”

Perhaps if this attitude was confined to his contributions to the self-congratulatory constituency of the New Atheism we could overlook it as a regrettable but trifling self-indulgence. However, when it starts infecting works of criticism that are frequently regarded as definitive – largely because there is little room in the publishing industry for contenders – then it must be exposed as the root of a systematic bias.

In Supernatural Horror In Literature, H.P. Lovecraft states as a self-evident truth that “occult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness and impressiveness than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order.” However, this is nothing more than dogma on Lovecraft’s part, for there is no evidence to support such a claim. In the classic period of weird fiction, Lovecraft’s materialism was the exception rather than the rule. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sheridan Le Fanu, Edith Nesbit, Walter de la Mare, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson, May Sinclair, Gustav Meyrink and others were all to some extent believers in what might loosely be termed the supernatural.

If Joshi is correct in saying “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions”, it follows that any constructive critical study of the fiction of such writers must make an effort to engage with those philosophical predispositions, on an imaginative level at least. From the dubious conclusions of his criticism in volumes such as The Weird Tale (with the exception of his chapter on Algernon Blackwood) and the evidence of screeds like God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, I submit that Joshi’s attempts in this direction are negligible.

As his biographer Michael Cox comments, M.R. James “tended to distrust intellectual inquiry that was not rooted in a sensitive respect for tradition and orthodoxy.” This was, of course, partly an expression of James’s instinctive conservatism. However, the evidence of his literary output suggests that it was also the product of a profound awareness of the limitations of human knowledge in the face of higher mysteries, and the sacraments by which past societies assimilated this understanding. The intellectual vanity epitomised by doctrinaire rationalism is accordingly a trespass against both the unknown and the human community. It is an act of hubris which, as every Classicist knows, will surely be followed by nemesis.

This philosophy recurs throughout James’s weird tales and gives lie to S.T. Joshi’s assertion that “they never add up to a world view”. That he fails to recognise James’s philosophical manifesto is scarcely surprising when you consider that the man is a fine example of precisely the attitude James was warning against. You cannot help but think that if Joshi were a character in one of James’s stories he would be Parkins blowing the whistle, Paxton digging up the crown, Wraxall perversely repeating that dread phrase for the third time. And we all know what happened to them.

Bibliography:
Briggs, Julia (1977) “Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Ghost Story”
Cox, Michael (1986) “M.R. James: An Informal Portrait”
James, M.R. (Ed.) (1927) “Ghosts & Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales”
James, M.R. (1931) “The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James”
Joshi, S.T. (2003) “The Weird Tale”
Joshi, S.T. (2003) “God’s Defenders: What They Believe & Why They Are Wrong”
Joshi, S.T. (Ed.) (2007) “Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R. James”
Sullivan, Jack (1981) “Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood”

 

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Top 10: M.R. James

I believe there is no such thing as a substandard M.R. James ghost story and I even enjoy maligned tales such as “Two Doctors” or “An Evening’s Entertainment”. Indeed, the only story I’m not keen on is “Lost Hearts”, which Monty disparaged himself as one of his earliest efforts; both less developed and more graphic than his later work. My own list of favourites includes a couple of idiosyncratic choices such as “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” and “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, but by and large, it does not substantially diverge from popular opinion and many of these stories were rated highly in a poll conducted by “Ghosts & Scholars: The M.R. James Newsletter”.

1. A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS
A late but archetypal example of the M.R. James ghost story, in which an amateur archaeologist must pay for his blinkered rationalism, scholarly arrogance and personal greed when he disturbs ancient relics better left alone. The antiquarian Saxon milieu and coastal East Anglican landscape are richly evoked, whilst James draws on certain folkloric motifs and traditions which resonate throughout the British Isles.

2. COUNT MAGNUS
Lauded by H.P. Lovecraft as a “veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion,” this is also one of James’s bleakest tales in which his favourite trope of the supernatural pursuit is explored to a chilling extent. Whilst the protagonist Mr. Wraxall is guilty of “over-inquisitiveness”, the relentless persecution he is subsequently subjected to far outweighs his initial calumny. He becomes the most abject victim in the canon.

3. OH WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU MY LAD
A masterful subversion of the traditional image of the ghost as an incorporeal, shrouded thing bestowed with even greater effect by its manifestation in that place of refuge, the bedroom, ensuring it’s never possible to hide beneath the sheets again. Meanwhile, James is clearly in his antiquarian element and ready with lessons on the consequences of doctrinaire scepticism and overweening curiosity.

4. THE ASH TREE
Witches are a familiar motif in British folklore and whilst James piles on the authentic detail, he imbues his own creation, Mrs. Mothersole, with a quite unique and maleficent quality which is sure to send a shudder of revulsion through the reader. It’s also once of his most carefully constructed pieces, elliptical without being too obscure, expertly building towards the “nicely managed climax” which he so valued.

5. THE MEZZOTINT
Embodying another favourite Jamesian narrative, in which terrible historical events are re-enacted before a powerless and horrified protagonist, The Mezzotint portrays the supernatural on two levels; firstly in the titular print, whose mysterious and unique animation is without explanation or logic; and secondly in the vile, crawling revenant who plays a starring role in the tragedy that unfolds.

6. THE DIARY OF MR. POYNTER
This is the story that disturbed me most when I was young and led to several sleepless nights. It features a perfect exemplar of H.P. Lovecraft’s observation that “The average James ghost is lean, dwarfish and hairy – a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man – and usually touched before it is seen”. There is something about the dead man’s hair motif which is particularly grisly indeed.

7. CASTING THE RUNES
The sole example of an M.R. James story in which the victim of supernatural persecution decides to fight back and is actually successful. Meanwhile, the character of Karswell is a formidable antagonist. Like Count Magnus, he is the embodiment of scholarship perverted by desire for a hidden knowledge (an impulse James maybe felt himself and feared) but unlike Magnus, ultimately hoisted by his own petard.

8. THE STORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE AND AN APPEARANCE
A much underrated story which has sometimes been criticised for being too oblique for its own good. However, this opacity makes it a story which actually improves with successive readings, forever revealing more of its horrible implications. You also suspect this was a very personal story for James, invoking the sinister image of the Punch and Judy show which he confessed so terrified him as a young child.

9. A VIEW FROM A HILL
Unlike Machen or Blackwood, James was not primarily a landscape writer and whilst he never lacked skill in its description, A View From a Hill is the only instance where he explores what might now be dubbed the “psychogeographical” aspect. In a nice synchronicity, he uses the landscape of Herefordshire, which similarly inspired Alfred Watkins to write The Old Straight Track.

10. A SCHOOL STORY
Reggie Oliver, a talented writer of antiquarian ghost stories in his own right, has claimed that A School Story is underdeveloped, but I disagree. The fact that so much remains obscure renders the evocative Latin phrase “remember the well amongst the four yews” and the ultimate fate of Mr. Sampson even more ominous. As the writer Sacheverell Sitwell so rightly noted, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”.

 

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