Sunday, 18 February 2018

Vampires, ghouls and mad, cursed clowns

We’ve been up in the Lake District this week, purely for a holiday, you understand, but perhaps unavoidably it ended up turning into a whistle-stop tour of Cumbria’s spookiest and most mysterious places. Anyway, that’s going to be the theme of today’s chit-chat, and more about it shortly.

Also on the subject of folk-themed horror, I thought I’d take the opportunity this week to review and discuss – in my usual forensic detail – Thomas Tryon’s time-honoured rural chiller, HARVEST HOME. As always with my book reviews, you’ll find that at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Head on down there if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’ve got a bit more time, let’s talk first about the Lake District’s spookiest places.

Tales of Lake District terror

Readers of my regional TERROR TALES series, which I’ve been editing since 2011, will most likely be aware that it all started in the Lake District, and was inspired by my childhood memories of the Tales of Terror series (as edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes) which I read during family holidays up there in the 1970s.

As I intend to try and get another volume of the series out this year, I reckon it was probably inevitable that my recent trip to the Lakes with my wife, Cathy, would turn into a retrospective on the region’s scariest localities.

We found ourselves rattling around as many of these as we could, visiting numerous places originally immortalised – either in fictionalised form or as factual anecdotes – six years ago in TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT.

Here are a just few of them.

The village of Croglin is a bleak and rather isolated place in northeast Cumbria, and quite difficult to get to (unless you’ve got a four-by-four). We visited it anyway but were unable to gain access go Croglin Low Hall (formerly Croglin Grange), as it is now privately owned. This, of course, was the venue for the famous legend of the Croglin Vampire.

In short, three siblings, two brothers and their sister, rented remote Croglin Grange for an extended holiday, but it turned into a nightmare as, for night after night, they were forced to fend off the attentions of a ghastly revenant, which approached the building from a nearby derelict chapel and continually attacked the young woman in her bedroom.

Even today, the origins of this curious story are shrouded in mystery. Some say it dates from the late 19th century, which was when Victorian journalist Augustus Hare first wrote about it (very colourfully), though that possibly owes to a reawakening of interest in the concept of vampirism after the first publication of Dracula. As the chapel in the story did not exist in the 19th century, I put more credit in an earlier version I read, which dated it to ‘30 years after the Great Rebellion’. This could refer to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, but more likely means the Civil War, thus locating the Croglin Vampire in the 1680s (check out the 17th century lithograph, illustrating a classic vampire hunt of that era, at the top of this page).

If you want to know the full story of the Croglin terror, you can easily find it online (or you can buy TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT).

Also locked up for the off-season was Muncaster Castle, once home to the legendary Mad Clown of Muncaster. This completely true story refers to Tom Skelton, better known as Tom Fool (left), a jester in the service of Ferdinand Pennington, the ruthless lord of the manor during the late 1500s. Whether or not Fool’s comical antics genuinely amused his employers is not recorded by history, but his crimes are, because Lord Ferdinand also used him as an assassin. Fool is known to have murdered at least a couple of his master’s enemies, including one whom he decapitated, and to have accounted for several foes of his own in various gruesome ways (including his personal favourite, drowning). His damned soul is still said to haunt the castle (one of many, apparently), where it allegedly creates a malignant atmosphere. Ghost story officianados will probably recognise Tom Fool as the inspiration for Geoffrey Warburton’s rather excellent and very scary short story, Merry Roderick (which I should add, does NOT appear in TTOTLD).

Once again, you won’t have to look hard online to get the full details on Fool.

As I mentioned before, we couldn’t get into Muncaster Castle, but  the grounds were at our full disposal, and they are pretty spectacular, overlooking the amazing Esk Valley, which on a fine wintry day resembles a vista from Middle Earth. While perusing the otherwise deserted woods, we encountered some rather astounding and unearthly vegetation – imported from the Himalayas, or so I’m told – but sadly, at no stage felt the presence of an undead jester capering clumsily through the trees behind us.

One of the most famous esoteric attractions in the Cumbrian fells, of course, is the Neolithic stone circle, Long Meg and Her Daughters. An oval of 59 ancient stones, some 27 of which have now fallen over and lie half-buried in the lush turf (as Cathy here illustrates, taking a breather on one of them), it runs to 360 feet in diameter at its widest point, encompassing a local farm road, though the largest stone, Long Meg herself, stands aloof from the others, as though watching over them, and still bears semi-decipherable Bronze Age inscriptions.

All kinds of legends are attached to this enigmatic site, the most famous being that a female druid and her acolytes were engaged in a pagan ceremony, which the Christian God found so repulsive that he retaliated to it by turning them all to stone. It was certainly regarded as a place of evil by local God-fearing communities in the Middle Ages, and even now – on the day we visited – there is evidence that arcane rituals are still practised there, which is impressive, because yet again, it isn’t an easy place to get to, or even find (just out of interest, try following some of these unmarked, unmapped roads that lead into the great frozen emptiness of Northern England at this time of year; it really is a wild moorland wilderness).

I have to say that Long Meg doesn’t feel like a sinister place to me, but then I’m a veteran visitor to Britain’s most ancient and mysterious sites. The atmosphere is more of timelessness and grandeur than anything else, but in TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, author Anna Taborska went at it full-throttle with her wonderfully chilling Night of the Crone.

Eerier by far, and not too distant from Long Meg is the much-avoided Cross Fell, a geological formation of such ill repute that even today no road leads to it, and almost no one ever attempts to hike over it. To put things into clearer perpective, I should explain that Cross Fell has only been called Cross Fell since 1608, when a large stone crucifix (now long lost) was erected on the summit to thwart the activities of evil spirits. Prior to that, throughout the entire history of local folk naming hills and mountains, it was known as Fiend’s Fell.

As you can probably guess from this aeriel picture (thanks to Simon Ledingham), we didn’t get up to it, but we did come within sight of it, and it rightly earns its reputation for being a gloomy spot, standing covered in snow and fog throughout the winter, and looking as ominous as any land-form I’ve ever seen.

In medieval times, it was said to be home to Peg Sneddle, a witch who rode the very wind in order to bring destruction on local villages, while in later centuries, various exorcisms were held on its upper slopes, all of which failed because they were either bombarded with heavy stones from the mists high above, or the ministers were disturbed to the point of flight by the sound of shrieking voices and hysterical laughter.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Fiend’s Fell story is that no one knows (nor apparently ever did), why it has such an evil reputation. Nothing dreadful is known to have happened there in history, though it has been conjectured that goblins, sprites and other pre-Christian beings might have fled to the fell during the gradual conversion of Northern England in the Dark Ages, and now hold it as a last redoubt. Whatever the truth, it has the aura of a genuinely ‘bad place’.        

Another allegedly evil spot we didn’t quite get to – we only had so much time – but which I’ve visited before, are the Fairy Steps near the village of Beetham, in the South Lakes. Accessible in the limestone cliffs on the border between Cumbria and Lancashire, this is a natural staircase which has formed inside a crevice in a rock face overlooking Arnside Knott. The mythology attached to it is at first glance charming, but it becomes eerier the more you delve into it.

According to the legend, if someone is able to descend the Fairy Steps without touching either of the sides, a door to the faerie realm will open before them, and all the treasures and learning of the ‘other world’ will be available. Needless to say, the passage becomes narrower and more crooked the further down you descend, until eventually it’s impossible to go on without touching the rock. But if that isn’t difficult enough, folklore also tells how, sometimes when you are halfway down, a so-called ‘shade’ will commence to ascend from the other end, a horrific being who, not only will cause you to forfeit your prize by stepping aside to allow it to pass, but may also seize you and drag you down into the faerie realm as a hostage. You might only be kept there for a few days, but on release, you will inevitably find that hundreds of years have passed in the upper world.  

Can you blame us, perhaps, for not bothering with this one?

(In TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, that fine writer Steve Savile tackles this chilling bit of local lore with his very disturbing story, Walk the Last Mile).

Finally, though, as far as I’m aware, it figures on no official spook map of Cumbria, here are a few shots of St. Brigitte’s at Parton, near Whitehaven, which is easily one of the most ‘Jamesian’ places of worship I’ve ever seen.

It stands on a spit of land, on a crumbling clifftop, overlooking the roaring Irish Sea – the wind from which on the February day when we visited added new meaning the phrase ‘bitterly cold’. The church itself – I’m not entirely sure what denomination it is – is stark and austere, and though it may be wonderful on the inside (again, we couldn’t get in to check), looks more than a little bit ominous from the outside.

The Victorian graveyard encircling it, which also contains fragments of earlier chapels, comes virtually to the cliff edge, and is filled with wonderfully old and eroded carvings on the headstones and sepulchres.

The overriding atmosphere was one of bleakness and isolation, which, while I’m more than happy to admit may be completely absent on a fine summer day with lots of parishioners around, reminded me on the day we were present of almost every MR James tale I’ve ever read.

Most of these uncanny places, and many others – not to mention other terrifying mysteries of the region, such as the Claife Crier, the Tawny Boy, Little Mag’s Barrow and the Cockatrice of Renwick – are fully covered in TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT. Sorry, to keep plugging this, but I have to mention it because as I say, this was a very atmospheric trip which has strongly inspired me to make room in my busy schedule for 2018 to get the next book in the series out as soon as possible.

Because we took a shed-load of pictures, here - totally gratuitously, I will concede - are a few more. In order of descent they are:

The 'Jamesian' edifice of St Brigitte's, at Parton.

Arrival at Muncaster, Buck and Buddy eager to get looking for that cursed clown.

The eerie woods, into which Tom Fool lured so many of his victims.

We made it out again, but the castle doors remained closed.

The valley of the River Esk - as I say, Middle Earth.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Thomas Tryon (1973)

When budding artist, Ned Constantine, his wife, Beth, and young teenage daughter, Kate, leave the hustle and bustle of New York for a quieter, healthier life in the remote Connecticut village of Cornwall Coombe, they believe that they’ve embarked on a new and more positive phase of their marriage.

The Coombe, a farming community where the emphasis is on raising corn, is literally idyllic, especially when the Constantines first set eyes on it one gorgeous summer. However, they have some reservations. To start with, the villagers, though friendly, are stuck in their ways, resisting mechanisation out in the fields and showing little interest in events beyond their borders.

They also have more than their fair share of eccentrics:

Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune is a dominant force. Something of a grand dame in Cornwall Coombe and hugely knowledgeable about local tradition and the ways of the woods, especially the supposedly haunted Soakes’s Lonesome, she is dour-looking and permanently black-clad, but is initially welcoming to the Constantines and proves a life-saver when, using her prodigious knowledge of herbal remedies, she succeeds in pulling Kate out of a potential fatal asthma attack.

More troublesome is Tamar Penrose, the lusty village post-mistress, who takes a shine to Ned Constantine at an early stage, though she is already the (single) mother of young Missy Penrose, a distant and seemingly disturbed child, who many of the locals regard as a seer. Then there is the Soakes clan, a bunch of hillbilly-type moonshiners who live just beyond the Lonesome, and yet who, though they appear to pose a threat to the picturesque lifestyle of the Coombe, are not especially feared.

For all this, the Constantines are soon comfortable in their newly-acquired 200-year-old cottage, becoming good friends with the blind scholar, Robert Dodd, and his homely wife, Maggie, who live next door, with chirpy local pedlar, Jack Stump, who only comes around occasionally, with a hunky young farmer, Justin Hooke, and his beautiful wife, Sophie, and with young handyman, Worthy Pettinger, who finds himself stifled living here and wants to get out and see the world.

And it is this latter character who, in due course, spells trouble for Ned Constantine.

To begin with, the pageantry of village life – which is filled with fêtes and festivals, all built around rituals designed to keep the crops healthy (the village has terrible memories of barren periods called ‘wastes’) – seems quaint and charming, and the most important of these, Harvest Home, is coming up shortly. Justin Hooke, it seems, is Cornwall Coombe’s incumbent ‘Harvest Lord’, a ceremonial role, which for seven years carries both advantages and responsibilities, while Sophie is his ‘Corn Maiden’. Both will have prominent roles in the upcoming ‘Corn Play’, though these are not openly discussed. As this year’s event will mark the end of Justin’s tenure, Worthy Pettinger is being groomed to take over, though this is an honour he doesn’t seek – in fact, he seems alarmed by the prospect, and when Ned takes the youngster’s side in the argument, he is surprised by the degree of hostility it causes.

Other weird events also distract him. For example, when he finds a curious homemade doll on Justin’s land, he is advised not to speak of it. Likewise, when one evening, both he and Beth are entranced by elfin music out on the fields, and the sight of two curiously clad figures performing a sensual moonlit rite, no one will admit to knowing who they were or what they were doing. More sinister by far, Ned then locates a human skeleton in the Lonesome, and when he goes to look for it again, it has been removed; he can’t help but associate this with the mysterious story of Gracie Everdeen, a former village beauty who, some 14 years earlier, was expected to be the Corn Maiden, only to inexplicably do away with herself (Ned increasingly wonders if she actually did commit suicide, or maybe was murdered). Most shocking of all though is an unexplained attack on Jack Stump, which leaves him with his tongue cut out and his lips sewn together, though what really amazes Ned about this latter atrocity is the way everyone in town – including the constable – casually assume that the Soakeses are responsible, and yet take no further action.

All this time, while Ned finds himself growing apart from the villagers, Beth and Kate are drawn closer to them. Ned’s relationship with his wife isn’t helped when the wanton Tamar makes a move on him and he almost succumbs, Beth becoming mistrustful of him afterwards, seemingly certain that he was the instigator. But things only really come to a head when Worthy, tacitly encouraged in his rebellious behavior by Ned, disrupts a church meeting to loudly damn both the corn and ‘the Mother’, an abstract entity which, up to now, Ned has assumed is nothing more than a nod towards the old pagan concept of the Earth Goddess. However, there is deep consternation at this, and even though Worthy flees the village, he is later brought back by a posse and imprisoned in a room at the back of the post office.

Ned doesn’t actually know what will occur on the upcoming night of Harvest Home – all he’s ever told is that ‘no man may see, nor woman tell’ – but it now becomes apparent that it will be something terrible (as indeed it was with Gracie Everdeen). All alone now, abandoned by his wife and daughter, the ostracized but determined outsider continues his investigation, steadily (and ill-advisedly) drawing closer to the utter horror at the heart of Cornwall Coombe …

Harvest Home is an old book now, and yet still widely regarded as one of the best and most literary horror novels ever written. I wouldn’t completely fall in with that. It’s excellent in many ways, but it’s also a novel of its time.

If the basic concept seems dated, that’s because it is. Nowadays, though folk-horror is making a most welcome comeback, the notion that murderous matriarchal cults may lurk behind the polite façades of scenic British villages or quaint little New England towns is more likely to get you in trouble for being politically incorrect than to win you plaudits.

And in some ways, Harvest Home goes even further than that.

In the genre of the present, we are painfully aware that witchcraft fiction of the late-20th century was often more interested in heaving bosoms and devilish beauty than in examining the awful injustice and cruelty of the witch-hunting era, and was more than ready to believe that village folklore was a sign of Lucifer’s influence rather than a harmless tradition from bygone times. For all these reasons, horror authors of today would likely avoid penning a novel built around the premise of Harvest Home, but they’d also look to avoid some of the less obvious patriarchal attitudes here depicted.

Ned Constantine, for example, is not just handsome, intelligent and talented, he’s really the only moral person present. In contrast, his wife and daughter, Beth and Kate, surrender to their darker impulses far more easily.

Worthy Pettinger is another of the good guys, a kid with common sense, a straightforward all-American boy who yearns to be part of the modern world, which of course he should. And even the rest of the male villagers, while adding muscle to the villainy when it’s needed, are for the most part mulishly indifferent to the wiles of their women, happy to work the fields, drink in the tavern and chat amicably outside the church on Sundays. By comparison, their wives comprise a range of predators, from the happy home-maker, Maggie Dodds, whose everyday exterior conceals a cold-blooded schemer, to village temptress, Tamar Penrose, who is sinfully sexy (Ned Constantine certainly doesn’t hold himself responsible when he finally gives in to her charms – and brutalizes her in the process!), to the Coombe’s crowning evil: Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune, who embodies all that ancient, forbidden knowledge that witch-hunters were so convinced lay in the grasp of women, and though maintaining a jovial, generous exterior, in actual fact controls and manipulates everyone, particularly the hapless men, who, in truth, she only thinks are good for ‘making the corn’.

Okay … as I pointed out, the novel is over forty years old, and comes to us from an age when sexism was the norm, particularly in the horror and thriller genres. So, while that doesn’t exactly give Thomas Tryon a pass in 2018, unless we are prepared to disown half the books ever written and half the screenplays ever filmed, it’s probably best not to get too upset about it.

The book has also dated a little in terms of its style – though this is less of a brickbat.

Harvest Home is a big novel, and even then, some might argue it takes a long time getting anywhere. But that isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable read.

Thomas Tryon has gone out of his way to create a living, breathing, fully functioning farming community, accounting for almost every aspect of its life in completely authentic detail. Unsurprisingly, this takes pages and pages and pages. He’s also fascinated by the folklore he’s investigating, so we get a lot of lectures woven into the dialogue as Ned has things explained to him, which does become a bit tiresome after a while. I’d say you are roughly half way through before Harvest Home finally begins to pick up the pace, and it’s only in the final third when it fully adopts the mantle of horror novel.

But in truth, none of this is unpleasant. Tryon was a classical actor before he became an author, and clearly harks back to a literary tradition. As such, he produces beautifully-crafted prose, which he allows to flow and flow. It’s sumptuous stuff, particularly his descriptive work, which really transports you to rural New England during the early autumn. Though as I say, it goes on a little longer than it needs to. 

But if the quality of the writing is one real positive, another is the narrative itself, which though suffering a little from those old-fashioned issues, is deeply intriguing. Though he drops in the clues slowly and irregularly, Tryon gradually builds a compelling mystery here, which, especially in the second half of the book, rises to some brief but spectacularly horrific climaxes: the deranged child, Missy, guzzling raw chicken guts, for example; Ned’s discovery of the horribly wounded Jack Stump; the appearance in Soakes’s Lonesome of an apparition, which terrifies both him and us; and then the ending of the book, which is without doubt one of the most bone-chilling scenes ever committed to paper.

But it isn’t just the horror. There’s also a freewheeling sensuality in this novel. Justin Hooke and Tamar Penrose portray the extreme ends of the gender spectrum quite fulsomely, he tall, handsome, muscular and, or so we are told, well endowed, she breathless, busty, red-lipped, with dark, lustruous ‘Medusa locks’. The antiquated concept of the virile Harvest Lord and his fertile Corn Maiden doubtless go back to the earliest days of pre-Christian fertility rites, and Tryon successfully re-evokes them in a 20th century setting.

Which brings me to the villain-in-chief, the Widow Fortune.

Everything I said before notwithstanding, the Widow makes for an outstanding antagonist, not least because for so much of the novel she is genuinely genial and wise (when Beth thinks she’s fallen pregnant, she naturally seeks the Widow’s counsel rather than going to see her doctor). It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Hollywood’s own high priestess, Bette Davis, was cast in this role when Harvest Home was successfully made as a TV mini-series in 1978. To be honest, I can’t think of another powerhouse personality who would have been better suited.

Anyway, that’s Harvest Home; to many a folk-horror masterpiece, to others a well-intentioned but dated curiosity. Personally, I found it a little long-winded, but the quality of the workmanship is immense, and the story, though an old one now, in due course becomes deeply involving (and still boasts that most terrifying ending ever). I think it probably does deserve the epithet ‘classic’. 

As you may know, I always like to end these book reviews with some fantasy casting, picking the actors that I myself would like to see portraying the key characters in any film or TV adaptation. However, Harvest Home will have to be another one of those occasional exceptions to the rule, because, as previously stated, it was filmed in 1978 as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, starring Bette Davis (left). Given that it was quite faithful to the novel, I don’t see any point in having a go at it myself (and again, I can’t imagine anyone taking the role of the Widow who’d do a better job of it than the late, great Ms. Davis).

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