Hookland County Chronicle
Of course no-one can agree on why The Red Ladies standing stones are so called. With no evidence, because evidence has little value to the sort of person who demands a belief must be accepted due to the fact they proclaim it, some say it was the due to the stones being painted red at a point in antiquity. There are even those who will swear that the paint was the blood of sacrificial victims. Bless their need for numpty narrative! Amateur etymologists – who like a good argument where verification is impossible to disprove them – will hold forth for hours on the red originally being rude. The etymologists will then split into two camps. The first will spout nonsense about imagined druidic licentiousness provoking the rude label. The second camp will stamp feet and harrumph loudly: “The Latin rudus – broken stone. Didn’t they teach you anything in school?” The mystery is not solved. The mystery is not meant to be solved. It is meant to be danced with, to be an engine of the imagination and folklore swapped across pints. When we travel to the circle of stones we are meant to wonder on their naming, to form questions in our mind and wait for the place itself to suggest answers that we can never trust to be certain, but which may be good enough for us alone. – C.L. Nolan, On Standing Stones, BBC National Programme, 1934
Hello. Welcome to the fifth issue of the Hookland County Chronicle and the last issue of 2022. While it would be easy to dwell on negativity, in this moment I’d rather wish you all blessings for this season and for the coming year. Your support by reading this manifestation of the county is deeply appreciated. Thank you all. This issue is dedicated to the late Chris Boucher who died days after I’d written Notes From the Wyrd Lab and to two of my friends – Owen Booth and Paul Watson – without whom they would be no continuation of Hookland and who I expect to get why Boucher’s death feels like a gut punch to me.
You Beast You! The Widren
Widren also known as Wyderen – from the Middle English ‘to dry up, shrivel’ – can be spotted in the marginalia of many mediaeval manuscripts. You can recognise them from having the shrunken body of a newborn child unable to support the monstrous head of a much-aged man. Some depictions show them suckling from a breast or being fed drops of blood in reference to their alleged feeding habits. The Weychester Book of Beasts claims it as: ‘Among the most malign of sprites of the Hollow Realms. Its unearthing is always a curse and many times the lifting of a large stone or the ploughing of field will reveal one.’ Our old friend, Gervase of Dedwick chronicled that upon its discovery, it will ‘speak with fine words and offer a bargain that if it is nursed or provided with sustenance of blood it will provide prophecy or such secrets as the knowing of where treasure lies within the earth.’ He also tells of a widren being unearthed by a maiden in the vicinity of Long Lench who succumbed to its entreaties to feed it. Refusing the milk of cows and sheep, it demanded regular suckling and the taking of her blood. Although the widren guided her to the finding of a few silver coins, there came a point where her own health was so deteriorated by its feeding, that she attempted to rebury it. Gervase reported: ‘Many were attracted to its screaming for release, but seeing how close to death it had brought the maiden and the shrivelling of her youth, none was foolish enough to pull away the large stone holding it below.’ Hideous stone representations of widren can be found among the grotesques of Weychester Cathedral at St. Michael’s in Wyreweg. At both places, there is a body of folklore built up across several centuries to justify their placement. Given their gifts for prophecy and treasure finding, alongside a noted fondness for suckling and blood, it should come as no surprise that in the witch frenzies of the 16th and 17th centuries, widren were reclassified as imps. The infamous woodcut of Young Mother Markham and her alleged servants from the Devil from 1587 shows her nursing a widren. Unfortunately, she was not the only Hookland witch accused of having one as a familiar. Later scholars consigned the widren to category of homunculi, entwining them with alchemy and preformationism. Unlike many other unlikely creatures, Widren continued to be reported long after the wave Enlightenment erasure of cryptids. In 1809, during the sinking of a well near Blaxwich, one was brought to light that gave accurate prophecies regarding the Napoleonic Wars. In 1815, one was unearthed in a field at Ickham that spoke of the coming of ‘the morbid Empress and her thievery from many lands’. It is believed the alleged widren death mask that was formerly in the possession of the Crowhythe Museum of Curiosities came from this particular beast after its staking by villagers. In 1893, copies of a photograph claiming to show a recently uncovered widren were known to be in circulation – as were rumours that it had been to the Royal Louise Military Hospital in Ashcourt for study.
Midwinter is the dying of the year, a nexus of change. It has always been one of our dangerous cultural thresholds. Transition and time have always haunted humanity, provoked a collective psychic reaction. The Christmas ghost story is a recognition of the deep dark at the heart of the season. An immune response of swapped stories in the snug or among the companions of the hearth. Long before Dickens, Gaskell and others made ink claim to the territory, there were local fireside cycles. An oral tradition where tales warded against spirits given their traditional license to roam ahead of a high holy day.
The ghost of Morton’s Yard is most often described as murder remembrance. A repetition of blood and savagery, it had long been part of the Ashcourt cycle of Christmas ghost stories. It moved from tavern-telling and folksongs to tepid type-telling in Dicken’s All Year Round and shoddy plays – and even these indignities did not stop it. Quite why the ghost of Sarah Salter is obliged to reappear each year given that it already played a key role in the discovery of her murderer in 1823 is never fully explained in her Christmas outings. Yet each year a manifestation retold at Christmas. Sarah slashed again for threatening to tell her lover’s wife he gave her the pox, Sarah’s spirit invading the dreams of those around Moreton’s Yard till the noose tightens around the neck of Reg Card. Told every yuletide for 125 years and still never enough to prevent her return. It is almost as if we need her and her fellow phantoms to help us across the shortest days of the year. Almost as if the dark demands some brutality and cruor for our crossing. – C. Josiffe, The Restive Dead, Ward, Warner & Wilson 1938
Is It Worth It? The Mezzotint (2021)
Our community’s annual HookWatches have always included at least one BBC Ghost Story at Christmas adaptation of a M.R. Jame tale. From The Stalls of Barchester to A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbott Thomas to The Ash Tree, each one has been worth watching at a distance of several decades. Each has transcended changing tastes and production values. They have journeyed through time with no loss of love because they offer nuance action, atmosphere and an exceptional sense of place.
While some might argue it is hard to produce a poor version of a M.R. James story – though many have succeeded in the past – those 16mm colour film are more than genre gems. For many, they’ve been a gateway for many discovering James’ work while I know several filmmakers who attest to them as a creative benchmark. If you want to learn suggestive economy, how to evoke eerie or avoid clunky exposition, they are go to educators.
In recent years, the BBC have somewhat erratically revived the slot. The last four M.R. adaptations have been directed by Mark Gatiss. Ahead of this year’s Count Magnus, I thought I would revisit 2021’s version of The Mezzotint.
A terrifying tale of an old monochrome print that changes every time it is looked at and the return from the grave of a poacher named Gawd, The Mezzotint was the first M.R. James I was exposed to. It remains one of my favourite of his stories.
I cannot say the same for the adaptation. The new subplots Gatiss has added are interesting enough, but seem only to serve to contextualise the prejudice and pisspuffinry of 1922 rather than add anything worthwhile to James’ original tale. Too many scenes suffer from a sense of stodgy exposition, fail to build a coherent sense of tragedy by effective layering of dread. However, the biggest flaw in Gatiss’s The Mezzotint’s is it lacks a sense of place. The original story has a strong whiff of Oxford, all we are offered in this telling is generic golf courses, stuffy drawing rooms. Instead of turning setting into character as James was want to do, we get a paint-by-numbers exercise in period drama.
What holds this version together is an exquisite performance by Rory Kinnear as Williams. Supported by fantastics turns by Frances Barber and Nikesh Patel, he offers us an intimate glimpse of a lonely man trying to fill the emotional void that lives in his ‘idle hours’. With each alteration of the picture we feel his attempts to restrain panic failing. His ability to portray the rising, inner scream of Williams generates much of the show’s atmosphere. Kinnear is abetted Kieran McGuigan’s cinematography. It is full of little flourishes – a reflection in a magnifying glass, a pooling of light around the print – that all serve to make the mezzotint itself a dramatic presence, refusing to let what could have easily been a visually static element to ever become boring.
The ending is pure Marmite and I’ve no attention of spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t already watched. However, in an adaptation that carefully directs you to think of the word tragedy, the biggest misfortune in Gatiss’s The Mezzotint that it is hard imagine anyone coming together for communal watching 50 years from now. It is a solid, functional version of the tale, but I doubt it would send anyone running off to the discover the wonders of M.R. James. What a good ghost classic story adaptation lacks in blood, it should always make up for in an amplified intensity of psychic weather, a freezing of the flesh. All any meteorologist could say about this production is: “Decidedly average for this time of year, a bit drizzly.”
5./10 Worth it for Rory Kinnear’s nuanced performance, but not much else.
Have you heard of the ghost of Morton’s Yard?
How it did for that vilest murderer Reg Card?
Have you heard of the ghost of Morton’s Yard?
Why Sarah Salter’s spirit isn’t in the boneyard?
Give me a measure of apple brandy, buy me ale
I’ll tell you her whole horrid tale till you’re pale
Give me a bite of plum pudding or hot gravy pie
I’ll tell you every bit of blood in how she did die
– Trad. Hookland song The Ballad of Sarah Salter
Notes From the Wyrd Lab
How Landscape Projection, Blake’s 7 and the Woolwich Foot Tunnel Play a Part in Hookland
Scattered throughout Hookland are several sly nods to the formative media of my childhood and teenage years. I don’t think of them as Easter eggs, because they have not been put there to be hunted. They certainly are not in-jokes, because in my experience in-jokes are far too often weaponised for exclusion, snobbery and hierarchical pisspuffinry.
So, why make them if they are not designed for giggles or to be quested after? Why include several obscure Blake’s 7 references if the only person you know who might get them is Paul Watson? The vague answer is because I and many writers like to acknowledge their wider influences in their work. The more peculiar, honest answer and intimate answer in relation to Blake’s 7 is because it always remind me of a particular mode of childhood play – landscape projection.
Beyond a child’s imaginative ability to alchemise any twig into a wand, ray gun or knife in the crucible of playground, children have the ready superpower to turn aspects of their environment to the fantastic. When young, I didn’t just populate the wood with sprites and stuffed toys lost in the woods who had become animated and feral, I turned it in a corner of Elfland itself.
It was no different when living in a London of urine-sigilised subways and concrete-cancered flats. Enough brutal architecture and dystopian science fiction narratives had already seeped into my little head to allow me to recast bits of South London as future police state with pervasive security cameras to hide from, brutal law enforcement officers to evade.*
The cicatrix of World War Two – concrete bunkers on field edge, bombsite in a bit the capital too unfashionable in the 1970s to reclaim – was transformed into a Pat Mills/2000AD inspired post-World War Three landscape. School boiler building, all metallic chimneys, mazing of pipes and unwindowed heavy doors, was strictly out of bounds. Ben Knowles and I thereby felt we had good reason to turn it into a secret Zygon base. An educational trip to the local Magnox nuclear power station was cover for exploration of the Thal Dome on Skaro. All the hospital corridors, oxygen tents and X-ray tables of a childhood constrained by asthma were transfigured into dubious experimental institutes of what-if tomorrows.
I remember the first broadcast of Blake’s 7 on January 2nd, 1978 partly because running home for it required navigating Cardboard City in the pedestrian underpasses of the Bullring Roundabout at Waterloo. While the South Bank could be remade as a Dalek-controlled city in the 23rd century, the internal fear engines demanded a more severe reworking for Cardboard City. The harsh smell of piss and burning rubbish, methylated spirit fuelled screams and concrete tunnels became a Charlton Heston the future hell somewhere between Soylent Green and The Omega Man.
During the next three months, Blake’s 7 inspired a lot of landscape projection. If the BBC could use quarries as half-dozen planets, I could certainly let my imagination reorder a nearby gravel pit**as Telgra orbiting the doomed star Arided. The Woolwich foot tunnel under the Thames metamorphised from claustrophobic territory traveled in constant fear of catastrophic leak into an underground alien bunker to be escape from. Hadleigh Great Wood with its mysterious microwave relay tower and misfiring civil defence sirens became a Federation outpost to be infiltrated – probably much to annoyance of the local wood sprites.
Writers are often adults who have never abandoned their playground magics. The imagination’s power to look at place as playful possibility for transmutation has never quite left me. Remaking the real is a continual part of my personal praxis of Hookland. Most acts of landscape projection in the county are inspired by the ghost soil, but sometimes there is still a lens of dystopian science fiction at work. If you find a River Stannis or Restal flowing through the county it isn’t me trying to be clever – we all know there is no hope of that – it is just an affectionate gesture to a training in landscape projection partly gifted by Terry Nation and Chris Boucher. A little wave to childhood and continuing import of play.
*This is among the more accurate manifestations of the what-if science fictions of my youth.
**Yes, we really did sneak into and play in gravel pits. I was one of those children that all those public information films were aimed at.
Spring-heeled Jack came to Hookland riding clouds of steam, toxic coughings of soot. It was a throughly modern demon. The first of many pollution phantoms, the ‘Leaping Devil’ was a fume fiend. It slashed out from behind the veils of murk spreading from Ashcourt’s new factories. As much as Jack was a chapbook creature that thrived on yellow pages, he was also a folklore that bred best in the tainted air of rookeries. In his leapings from London to Liverpool, Aldershot to Ashcourt, Jack was most often seen in the crammed, gloomy filth of cities. Even in the 1840s, it was noted that he was rarely a plague on rural rooftops. Spring-heeled Jack stayed close to places which seemed already ceded to hell with sulphurous smokes, screaming din, criminality and degradations. At times he seemed to be a manifestation of the slums’ gin-crazed collective dreaming. As author C.L. Nolan said: ‘In the rookeries, hope is a half-born thing, often dead before morning. Good dreams do not dwell in its houses.’ If there ever was a supernatural personification of the industrial blackening of Ashcourt, it was Jack. We shouldn’t be surprised that this metropolitan monster, this first titan of urban lore, led to a novel form of warding – the mass produced Jumping Demon charm. – Dr. Michael Benn, The Mystery Maze, BBC Two, 1978
December comes with the certainty of frost. Cloudless night skies gift hoar beards to woodland. Stoats takes to ermine, weasels wear white. The year is on its knees and waiting for the blade of ice.
Leafless trees shiver as rooks come to roost in them. Greenfinches and skylarks hold to flock as warmth against shredding wind. Redwings congregate to gossip at orchard’s edge as fieldfares form their hopping armies. Marsh tit, blackbird and missel thrush are choir of the land.
This is the holy month, this is holly month. The dance of death and rebirth felt in every candle lit, every midwinter blaze set. Ancient calendars, long ago made tattoo on our bones, tell us that the dying days of the year will bring the return of hope.
Spurge laurel berries blacken as the days turn to their darkest. Sweet briar hips, blood- ripe against snow, are taken for tea, cloudberries for liquor. Firecrests dart in hedges as dabsters harvest spindletree seeds or buckthorn berry. Coastal cunning cousins pluck sallow-thorn fruit for skin-prickle and heart-ease. Death collects those unable to resist the tempting poison lurking in honeysuckle and yew berry.
Torpid toads dream and the dabsters who put them to earth wake and brush soil from their eyes. The last cloud of bats takes to cave, ruin or hollow tree to form a sleeping coven till Winter is done. Moles keep to their work
Coalfish are caught. Young garfish appear in tight nets taking sprats and whiting. Sea hags sell charms against eider and scaup to mussel farmers. All along the shivering coast, children make nests to float on ebb tide as thanks for the halycon days.
Mistletoe comes to berry. Children climb for it to sell to those who need to excuse their kisses or who would make bough barrier against malign magic. Those who are country wise hang it to keep faery and witch from the larder. Few call it All-Heal anymore, none now are brave enough to wear it as opener to underworld except the Black Lane Walkers.
St. Thomas Eve arrives and ghosts have permission to roam. Poor women go door-to-door Corning for charity. Wild youths go A-Thomassing in hope of pepper cake and cheese, clutch broad seed in pockets to throw at windows of refusing cottages or as phantom protection. Corpse lanes are clogged with shades, bargees pray to Egyptian Mary when the floating dead knock against their boats.
The Bone Horse is summoned by solstice fire and guise drum. Begged by gifts of roasted ale to dances the streets, ward the border between worlds opened on this night. A militia in uniform of mask and ribbon follow in its wake. Owls fly for their Queen and on the morning, any dropped feather is seized in hope of a quill that will draw a map to her wisdom.
Boars’ heads are paraded. Any excuse for feast and ale is taken. The year has turned from darkness to light again and all is thrown on its head. Boy Bishop is enthroned, Mock Men hold the council of Ashcourt. In misrule, the ache for balancing justice is achieved.
Bees sleep in their hive as keepers sing carols to them on Christmas Eve. Yule logs are lit. Children put their ears to barn doors at midnight to see if there’s truth in tales that this is when animals speak. The pagan past laughs loudly while wearing its Christian clothes.
C.L. Nolan, The Turning of the Year (Back in print next year after more than 80 years and after after much delay by me).
Red-Hob, Red-Hob you bone and rags beast
Red-Hob, Red-Hob please come to our feast
Here’s a twist of brandy, here’s a mug of beer
Here’s coin for you, bless us with some cheer
Red-Hob, Red-Hob come this haunted night
Red-Hob, Red-Hob keep us from evil wight
Here’s a twist of brandy, here’s a mug of beer
Here’s coin for you, please keep away all fear
– Trad. Hobbing Horse song at midwinter and Christmas in Hexfield and nearby villages
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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