Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Wicker Man and the Lambton Worm

One of the first tales of weird fiction I learned wasn't from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe or M.R. James, but from English medieval history. Where I grew up in Sunderland one of the few local legends - perhaps the only one of note - is that of full-on monster v. hero action.

The Lambton Worm is a ballad that tells a familiar tale. A foolish person makes a blunder that unleashes a dangerous entity upon an unsuspecting world. Well, County Durham, anyway. The worm in question starts of small, gets bigger, and eventually becomes a major nuisance that can't be killed by regular warriors. So a hero arises and - thanks to advice from a witch, no less - kills the monster. Unfortunately, the witch's bargain brings a curse upon the hero's line...

If you want to read the story, the traditional ballad is here. There are some interesting twists, not least the fact that young John Lambton, the hero, is also the twit who unleashes the worm in the first place. But what's all this got to do with The Wicker Man? Well...

In this article you can read about the way in which Peter Schaffer wanted to follow The Wicker Man with a story involving the Lambton Worm. It's bizarre stuff, to say the least. I mean, who would really buy into this as a starting point?
Laden with heavy use of special effects, the story would open with a group of officers from the mainland arriving at the eleventh hour, just in time to rescue Neil Howie from being roasted within the belly of the wicker man. Upon his rescue, Howie sets about pursuing Lord Summerisle, who must be brought to justice for his horrific actions.
Well, okay, maybe they could make that work. (But why would officers from the mainland assume anything was wrong?) Anyway, what follows is weird indeed:
This ending, of course, would have seen Sergeant Howie engaged in a Saint George-style battle with the Lambton Worm itself, to be followed by a clash between spiritual world views: Howie’s faith in the Christian God set against the old gods of Summerisle’s pagan belief.
Crikey. Probably just as well it wasn't made. Especially since Ken Russell had, by that stage, already based a film on the same story, albeit filtered through Bram Stoker's novel Lair of the White Worm. And that's a good excuse to show Hugh Grant symbolically slaying the not-so-legendary 'D'Ampton Worm'.


Aonghus Fallon said...

One thing I always liked about that story was the anachronistic use of the word 'worm' rather than 'dragon' as it made the creature less easy to categorise. I read a book a while back by William Mayne called 'A Game of Dark'(maybe inspired by the Lambton Worm story) in which the creature in question really is like a giant worm! Worth checking out.

valdemar said...

Sounds interesting! It's also worth noting that Stephen King did a very good riff on Stoker's original novel in his novella 'Jerusalem's Lot'.