Saturday, 18 August 2012


So, four hundred years since the infamous Pendle Witch Trials. I read a book on witchcraft (a scholarly, historical volume, I should add) that described the whole sorry, shocking chapter as the Pendle Swindle. Reading of it now the obvious conclusion is that it was stage-managed like a modern 'reality' show. The difference is that the losers in this particular Big Brother House were not voted out, but executed.

The BBC has an interesting little piece about modern witches in Lancashire. Not surprisingly, modern witches tend to keep their activities and beliefs secret from colleagues, friends and family. I suppose ridicule is more likely than persecution nowadays, but you never know. Some Christian fundamentalists are crazy enough to try anything.

In supernatural fiction witches, dead or alive, are reasonably well represented, if you stretch the definition a lot. Karswell in 'Casting the Runes' is a black magician, but he could hardly be more removed from Mrs Mothersole in 'The Ash-Tree'. In both stories M.R. James rang his own changes on folk ideas about the scope of sorcery, giving both characters 'familiars' of a rather unique kind.

By contrast, in Blackwood's 'Ancient Sorceries', the feline witch-folk are straight out of a 16th century handbook for the credulous magistrate. His French witches use ointment to change into cats, and go to the woods to dance at the Sabbat. Another of the John Silence tales, 'Secret Worship', involves the appearance of a fallen angel that I've always found very compelling. But in both cases Blackwood doesn't show the Devil worshippers doing anything harmful. Indeed, the overwhelmingly sensuous and erotic nature of the innkeeper's daughter in 'Ancient Sorceries' suggests that Blackwood (like the original fabricators of Sabbat stories) found the whole thing a bit of a turn-on.

One of my all-time favourite witchcraft stories is by Sheila Hodgson. Called 'The Lodestone', it was first produced as a BBC play featuring M.R. James as a sort of John Silence figure, called in to solve an apparent case of reincarnation. The story centres on the mysterious appearance of a witch's gravestone, which returns to herald the destruction, by flooding, of a village where the witch-hunt took place. It has a very clever - and historically sound - twist.

Sheila Hodgson (who's best known for the TV series Stranger on the Shore, with its famous Acker Bilk theme) wrote a series of excellent ghost plays featuring James. She made him a slightly fusty, fussy character, which may not be entirely accurate, but the plays are wonderfully entertaining. The stories based on the plays are collected in The Fellow Travellers, an excellent read if you can get hold of it. The e-book is available here.

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