Hookland County Chronicle
We humans are a species born with inherent night terror. Our collective consciousness haunted by all manner of darklings and monstrous things that exist in the black hours. Our nocturnal shiverings have bread archetypes that have roamed our imaginations from shadowed limit of our first fires. The night is home to predators beyond the mechanism of tooth and claw. The night is where spectres and revenants of the restless dead live. In the dark we may touch the supernatural and it may certainly touch us. The sun falls, our frights rises. We may lock our doors and try to lock our dreams with a variety of wards and charms, but the dread still comes. While we may rationalise this as persistence of genetic memory, an internal coding of those times when predators were held at bay in the dark beyond our flames, it feels so much more than that. – Dr. Michael Benn, ‘The Mystery Maze’ BBC Two, 1978
You Beast You! The Horned Wyrm
While the bestiary of Hookland contains nothing directly labelled dragon, its surfeit of wyrms, worms, sea wyrms and wyverns crowds the folkloric eco-system niche of the great beast of mythology. The precise definition of what constitutes constitutes a wyrm or worm and what is merely a freakishly large snake has been argued about since the days Gervase of Dedwick feuding with John of Coreham about the mediaeval monsters of the county. However, most place the Horned Wyrm firnly in the camp of dragon-kin. Cryptid contrarians of course point out its alternative names – the Antlered Adder or Antlered Asp – as evidence of it being a mere snake, but as Gervase of Dedwick said: ‘The fool without costume oft displays himself in the refusal of common wisdom’. It is described in most accounts as being at least 15-foot long, as thick as a tree trunk, black-scaled with a dark brown or red streak beginning at its eyes which becomes a series of spots running along its flanks. Of course, the wyrm’s horns are its most distinguishing feature. The female of the species is said to have two large curved horns, while the male is depicted as sporting antlers. Both sexes are said to have hypnotic powers which they use to immobilise their prey whether cattle or human. The Weychester Book of Beasts claims it as burrower and haunter of caverns except on certain days of high summer when it ‘flaunts its belly in the meadow’. It also suggests that the young have the ability to squirt blood from their eyes as a way of poisoning any predators they may face. The Woodville Psalter makes reference to the Horned Wyrm being greatly feared and villages close to cave systems were noted to leave it offerings of food in hopes of appeasing its need for cattle. The Borland brothers, Hookland’s famous 17th century monster hunters/two-man extinguishers of natural diversity, claimed to have killed two young Antlered Adders they found in a nest at St. Mary’s Swallet before using a barrel of gunpowder to kill an adult Horned Wyrm. The alleged antlers of the beast were recovered by the Borlands and were sold to a local tavern which held them until the 1870s when they were purchased by the Crowhythe Museum of Curiosities. When the contents of the museum were offered at auction in 1972, the antlers were bought by a private collector and have not been offered up for scientific testing despite several requests. The Borland brothers usual claims of having rid an area of a malignity may once again been hollow boast as little more than a decade later in 1645, the great diarist of the strange Dr. Bron wrote: ‘They say a wingless worm lives in St. Mary’s Swallet which has such power of speech that it may translate the whispers of the land itself.’ In recent years, several scholars have interpreted tales of the Horned Wyrm as echoes of the cult of Cernunnos who can be seen depicted in a bronze image at Étang-sur-Arroux and a stone sculpture at Sommerécourt encircled by horned snakes feeding from bowls of fruit. Whether as the academics claim, the horned serpents are manifestations of the god’s psychopomp and chthonic associations, is open to debate. Encounters with large serpents that propelled blood from their eyes were reported three times in Hookland during the 18th century and twice in the 19th century. The only 20th century report of a possible Horned Wyrm was a sighting of a giant black snake with curled horns seen swimming in the River Stannis. Made by Mrs. Edith Bowman in 1936, it was dismissed at the time by her own doctor as ‘the fanciful seeing of hysteria’, though Mrs. Bowman stuck to her claims for the rest of her life and made a point of changing her physician.
We are creatures of folklore. In our Green Ridings, in our Bone Horse parades and midwinter mummery – we are folklore. In our sticking to sympathetic magics and calendar turning rituals, in our rude music made with pots, pan and anything that can be made temporary drum – we are folklore. Our culture is soaked with need for seasonal ceremonies. Apples are howled at, bounds are beaten, thumbs pricked for blood to be dropped in corn fields at harvest. Winter brings its swelling of the dark and we ache for ghost stories, bonefires and ale-fueled romping. Summer rises the tides of the blood and we twist flowers into crowns, hold pageant and procession, walk Empress Eel or Marsh Ape along the way. We clamour for manifestations of psychic shrapnel told in masks and wild dancing. Children shout and shriek for toffee apples, pennies to throw into the well at wishing; they beg for yet another telling of ‘The Secret King’. Let us pretend many things, but let us never pretend we are not creatures of folklore. – C.L. Nolan, from his 1933 BBC National Programme talk ‘On Folklore’
Is It Worth It? Dark Was The Night
In my head there is a genre of horror films I call halfway-decent. Movies rich in atmosphere, ideas and performance that throughly engage you for their first two-thirds before suddenly disappointing. Movies that hold the eye with beautiful cinematography, turn your ears with believable dialogue, before bundling you into the boot of the car and screaming towards an inglorious sinking of Ford Cortina in the lake. Movies that cause you to be grumpy only because they had so much promise before they let you down like a parent not coming to collect you on the weekend as arranged.
We rarely return to such works as the harrumph they cause us to feel often lingers longer than the elements which we actually liked. This pursuit of the perfect above the good can hurt us, so this year I’ve made a conscious effort to give second watchings to things that I felt were in the halfway-decent category. Dark Was The Night is one of them.
Released in 2014, Dark Was The Night is an American film telling the story of a creature provoked into attacking the community of Maidens Wood by the activity of loggers and the response to those actions by Sheriff Paul Shields (Keven Durand) and his deputy Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas). While the unfolding mystery has its many moments of blood, for the most part, the methodic investigation by Shields and Saunders is as much as exploration of atmosphere and sustained tension as it is of outright terror.
The film focusses on actualities – grief, our cultural fears of the wild dark, the implications of disregarding the environment for greed – rather than riffing on self-referencing tropes of the genre. Tyler Hisel’s script has emotional weight, an ability to reveal in timely fashion. Hisel also offers credible characters who mainly refuse the moronity that most horror films insist on their cast displaying. One of the hardest tricks for a writer in any format or genre to pull of is to make the audience believe that its Dramatis Personae lead lives beyond the current story, to make us actually care. Tisel delivers this.
If you accept the Southwell rule-of-thumb that folk horror is anything that treats folklore as vital psychic infrastructure to the story rather than tinsel, Dark Was the Night is a nice stab of American folk horror. Yes, its Wendigo exposition is clunky, but then again it’s never a good idea to try and dramatise Google searches. Yes, its attempt to utilise the 1855 Devil’s Footprints incident at Topsham, Devon (an event that inspires more than one entry in the Guide itself) doesn’t really work. However, the film is flecked with a genuine sense of lore bleeding from the forests into the town, leaping between stores and bars, shared among hunters. Lore as lived, lore as living current.
Ryan Samul’s cinematography is occasionally exquisite. He paints with from a palette made up from greyed snow, blue-collar denims and the tired colours of a dying year which means when the blood is shown, it packs a vibrant punch. Samul’s work also allows weather as well as place is allowed to become a character. These may seem like small things, but combined with Durand’s astounding work in the central role, they make Dark Was The Night half-decent despite a fair bit of galumphing.
After being a masterclass in implication and restrained monster-wrangling for an hour and a bit, the final act turns its backs on these strengths for an over-the-top, formulaic ending. All atmosphere evaporated, all the work put into creating a credible sense of threat extinguished by a ridiculous level of amplification. All those moments where the camera held Durand’s face on the edge of tear till we got grief osmosis, all the moments where a plastic dinosaur gave us a silent, graceful info-dump are exploded by trying to give an audience what it is used to instead of what the film needs and the viewer deserves.
5.5/10 Worth it for the first 69-minutes, the deeply imbedded sense of place and season as well a poignant performance by Kevin Durand. Folk and eco-horror done well till it becomes a monster-fest that its budget for CGI simply cannot support.
For the Queen of the Winter Court of Faery has many names that most are too fearful to ever use lest their mention calls her attention. Most will only talk of her in subtle reference, all hints and murmurings. Some are brave enough to use the titles such as Lady Frost-lace, She-of-the-Silvering-of-Bones or Mistress Long Ice. At Quinwood, where there is strong memory of the Great Frost of 1709, they gently call her Lady of the Frozen Bells and carve ornaments of her for their Christmas trees as an act warding. Of course, in Sabford where folk have a reputation for not giving a tuppeny toss about giving offence or inviting trouble, they not only give the Queen of the Winter Court her title, but each midwinter they select a woman to lead a parade under her guise. Even here where bravery and foolishness are publicly entwined, her procession is partially masked from onlookers by attendants who hold up mirrors to obscure her likeness. No such precaution is employed for Sabford’s marching manifestation of her train who wear costumes tied with ivy or black-dyed sackcloth onto which all manner of animal bones are fastened. Whether this goes well for all involved is something I admit need to be investigated further. – C.L. Nolan
Notes From the Wyrd Lab
It’s Not A Bloody Mari Lwyd! Reductionist Pisspuffinry In Folklore
I am a grumpy old man. I am a fully paid up member of the Curmudgeon Club. Despite the kind words of Richard Kadrey, the world really doesn’t need more rants from me. That said, strap yourself in for a minor one.
Almost every time I tweet about the Bone Horse from Hookland, someone feels the need to be the person in replies shouting: “It’s a Mari Lwyd!” Usually, I try patiently to explain that not every bone horse is a grey mare of winter, the picture they are looking at is almost certainly a white horse of summer and there are many bone horses/folk ritual horses that have nothing to do with wassailing. However, I’ve begun to find this wearing.
It isn’t just the sense that with some people, the Mari Lwyd mislabelling feels as if they are shouting “Gotcha!’ A work of fiction often based on folklore doesn’t somehow implode if you point out its sources. Far from it. In my experience, a lot of writers partly use folklore in the hopes of signposting their readership to the incredible source material they adore. When we use corpse roads, shucks or puncles creatively, nothing make us happier than if a reader loses a day exploring the cultural rabbit hole it came from.
Partly I find the “It’s a Mari Lwyd!” comments tiresome because they can feel a little like publicly pointing out spelling mistakes on social media. As a dyslexic, I can tell you that doing that always feels like an attempted shaming. In private, correction can feel constructive, in public it comes across as status-gaming pisspuffinry where you place your need to point out your cleverness ahead of the ridiculing of others. Mislabeling every bone horse you see online as Mari Lwyd isn’t the folkloric flex many seem to think it is.
However, my main grump comes down to how the need to turn every creative use of folklore or sharing of folklore into a proclamation of It’s-The-One-Thing-I-Know is incredibly reductionist. Folklore is hyper-local. Folklore is diverse. Folklore walks and mutates. The Mari Lwyd of Nantgarw is different to the Mari Lwyd of Llangynwyd. They are both hobby horses, but they aren’t the Poor Old Horse of Richmond in the way that its not the Salisbury Hob-nob*. There’s a spectrum of folkloric horses and bone horses, it is not too much to ask to let each individual one have their own unique place upon it.
Of course, even as a card-holding curmudgeon, I will keep on patiently explaining it isn’t actually a Mari Lwyd, because I know some of those replies come from a place of exhileration at misrecognition. Anything dealing in folklore should be about glee and delight as much academic autopsy or psychic cicatrix. If all the It’s a Mari Lwyd!” replies were a squee of bliss, I’d be happy too. However, too many of them are merely reply guy reductionism.
One of the true joys of exploring folklore is its ridiculous level of diversity. You walk to the next village and its changed its jacket, move down the lane and its changed its name and living under a different identity. Expecting complexity be erased because you have encountered one iteration of a cultural force is damned dull. We all have our own internal Dewey Decimal system of classification, our own intimate Stith Thompson Motif-Index, but the need to publicly try and place every use of folklore within it rarely adds to the community of delight. Give folklore the space to be more than you know and we can all wander and discover its constant unfolding. Try to coral it to meet your granular expectations and I’ll be leaping the fences on the back of the first bone horse willing to take my weight. Lore lives in its telling, not in its grinding down.
For it is in metal that those who will only allow for phantoms as the spirits of the dead reach the limit of their logic. They cannot explain a haunting where there never was human life nor a transmutation by the ending of it. Those of us who entertain such possibilities as temporal shades, disintegrating memories of the land itself or even entanglements across time engined by raw animism have no such issues with steel spectres. We can read reports of the ghost bells of Spellbrook, Cresswell and Widbury without need to dismiss them because they do not fit our stiff spiritual system. We can even travel out to Spellbrook in December, escape the teeth of winter in the snug of The Three Nails, enjoy a lock-in until spilling out into the night in hope of hearing the bells. For many will swear to experiencing the sound of long-erased mediaeval monastery ringing out for Nocturns. The spooks of a universe beyond the constraints of a belief in post-life survival have no trouble in temporal tintinnabulation. Whether the ghost bells toll as a telling of tomorrow or yesterday echoing forward may not be known. However, if we hear them, they are a death knell for those that demand that ghost can only ever mean the presence of after-lifers. – C. Josiffe, Ghostlines, Ward & Wilson 1959
Hookland Oral History Project – A Memory of Puddles and Parental Scarelore
My mother had parental scarelore for every occasion. Folklore weaponised to prevent us from doing dangerous things, to frighten the naughty out of us. I think it’s the same in most families. Authority amplified through gods, devils and the possibility of monsters. Psychic lines on the landscape you wouldn’t cross for worry of what might be triggered by trespass. There was a seemingly never-ending list of taboos enforced through folkloric fear. Parental policing sub-contracted to an invisible force of faeries and geni locorum. I don’t think this was a rural thing. I don’t think it was a working class thing. It’s just the way Hookland is. Superstition seeps into everyone’s life here. Some of it was clearly sensible and useful. Making your children so scared they won’t play Knock Down Ginger or steal eggs from the local cunning folk is a solid survival strategy. Same goes with making us petrified of Stay Belows. Whoever came up with them was a genius. It’s the best water safety campaign of all time. Most parental scarelore was quickly disproved as nonsense. Like Father Christmas, it only lives in the imagination until some older child tells you the truth. No-one is coming down the chimney, the Bone Horse doesn’t come after you if you scrump apples from Old Haw Farm. You won’t be cursed if you walk across a grave – well not most graves anyway. One bit of parental scarelore stuck when all the rest fell away. As a child I was a puddle-jumper, a puddle-stomper. I came home soggy and mud-caked most walk homes from nursery school. To save herself laundry, mother tried to terrify me into mud avoidance and dryness with tales of the Puddle Punckle. I was just a toddler when she started telling tales of malicious sprite that used puddles to peer into our world from their corner of Faery. It has to be said it wasn’t effective at keeping me from puddles till one day I looked down into a water-filled hollow in Stocking Lane. Even after the distance of two decades, I swear I saw a long-faced creature with ears like a horned-owl and eyes like a fox looking back at me. The parental scarelore completely kicked in and I never bothered another puddle – not even with a stick or stone. Even now I’d class myself as somewhat puddle phobic. – Mollie Farr
One for misery
Two for mirth
Three for a union
Four for a birth
Five for new danger
Six for someone bold
Seven for a secret
Never to be told
Eight for a wish
Nine for a stolen kiss
Ten for Old Clip
Who you cannot miss
– Trad. Hookland version of the magpie omen rhyme
Hookland Roll of Kindness
Lee Ann Day
In kindness there is connectivity, an impulse for good and a better world that is not denied. Kindness is a refusal of darkness. In its graceful light friendships have been found, lives saved and hope restored. – C.L. Nolan
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“Lore lives in its telling, not in its grinding down.” Exactly this! Folklore shouldn’t be train spotting - black shuck ✔️, Mari Lwyd ✔️, but a joyful discovery of sprets, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, Wet Jemmies, no-faces, cry-no-mores & all new, old and differently remembered tales of the land.
It's curious to recognise yourself in the negative image of a description. The culture I grew up in shared no folklore, in celebration or threat, and I can only surmise that was a colonial rejection of the land's historic lore paired with the inapplicability of the colonist's stories to our area. Maypoles were gone, no strangers came knocking and wassailing, Guy Fawkes had too many complications to be imported, and Halloween was just plastic masks, turnips with candles and sheets of 'fireworks' that spewed worms of ash 'cos real fireworks were illegal.
I feel the loss.