Review of ‘The Witch’ by Robert Eggers

At last, some two years after it made its debut at the cinema, I have watched Robert Eggers’s The Witch, and was relieved to find that it did not disappoint. From the polarised reviews that it had received, it seemed probable that it would be to my taste, as those which were critical tended to focus upon its slow pace. Such a criticism, presumably, derives from the expectations of a particular type of cinemagoer reared upon formulaic fare consisting of gore and splatter aplenty, and precious little by way of atmosphere, plot, or characterisation. A similar divide appears to exist in the virtual world of Amazon, where books, physical or electronic, are funnelled into rather rigidly defined genres which quite often do not permit the degree of subtle differentiation that the author might prefer.  

Returning to The Witch, it is a handsome film endowed with an authentic period feel, much attention evidently having been lavished upon ensuring that costume, architecture and the accoutrements of everyday life were appropriate to its 1630 New England setting. This matched the careful scripting of the dialogue, which although a little muffled at times (admittedly, one of my ears does need syringing) was convincing. The cinematography was beguiling, with the use of chiaroscuro in certain shots, where the light of the fire in the darkness accentuated the features of the faces and bodies that surrounded it, bringing to mind the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. The concluding scene, with its fantastical witches’ sabbat, was particularly striking in this regard, and succeeded in creating a colourful depiction of witches borne aloft, which is more familiar to our imaginations from the monochrome world of sixteenth and seventeenth-century woodcuts. A number of scenes and images seemed to quote the prints of Albrecht Dürer, particularly the recurring presence of the hare, as well as the glimpses of wizened hags that populated some of its nightmarish moments. The forest was appropriately bleak and forbidding, with one scene, where Caleb encounters and falls prey to his own Eve, bringing to mind the dangers that lurk in the tales of Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga. His price for this encounter is to cough up a bloodied apple whilst gripped in a fit of religious frenzy. 

The acting too is commendable, with all members of the cast, including the youngest, providing worthy performances. They successfully manage to convey the liminality of a dissenting family cast out from a colony of dissenters who themselves in turn were outcasts from their own homeland; a group of individuals on the edge of a wilderness both physical, and spiritual. What we watch is filtered through the popular beliefs of the time: we witness evil as an all too real and tangible reality, that although external to, and independent of, the fallen sinners that comprise the body of humanity, acts in and through these bodies to bring about its own nefarious ends. Its horror, when compared to many films that are bracketed within that genre today, is comparatively understated, but it is none the less horrific for that: abduction, murder, hysteria, possession and unnatural death, claim all seven members of this family in one way or another. Comfortable viewing, it is not, but cinema would be in a far better state, creatively speaking, if more such films were to be produced. Its relatively modest budget of $4 million, and subsequent box office success, demonstrates that solid pieces of engaging cinematography can be produced without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Review of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions

Detail from Wilhelm List’s ‘Transfiguration of St Elizabeth’

This is the most famous and highly rated of Onions’s stories, as well the first one that I have read in a weighty 657-page anthology of his ghostly tales. When any story, book, or film is spoken of so highly, I harbour a fear that I will be disappointed in what I find when I come to encounter that work, but in this instance, my apprehension proved to be misplaced. Then again, I must own that my misgivings of this type are generally attached to contemporary works, where marketing budgets are apt to skew the judgement of critics and public alike. As The Beckoning Fair One was first introduced to a general readership before the First World War, and continues to be recognised as a classic of its genre, it can be fairly assumed that it possesses merit, and that the passing of time has winnowed out those productions of lesser talents that have proved unworthy of a lengthy posterity. 

Although this may be a tale of a haunted house, it is of a subtle and understated kind, in which the building itself takes on as much of a personality as any of the human characters written into the story. The reader knows from the outset that it has remained long uninhabited before its protagonist – the author Paul Oleron – takes up residence there, and is thus curious, as is Oleron, as to why this should have been so. At first, he finds it a perfectly charming abode, although it has an immediate stultifying impact upon his creativity. He finds himself doubting the worth of the novel that he is working upon, particularly the merits of its central character, Romilly, who happens to be based upon a close female friend of his. Alas, it is not long before these doubts extend to his regard for the character of this friend – Elsie Bengough – whom he eventually comes to shun, despite her love for him. It would seem that it is the house, or something within it, that drives the two apart, causing him to despise her, and from the first moment that she sets foot in it, she voices the opinion that he will find it impossible to work whilst he lives there. This concern he dismisses out of hand, but that there is a latent antipathy within its structure towards his friend soon becomes apparent, owing to a couple of freakish accidents that she experiences during her visit.  

For anyone who has ever written a novel, or attempted to, Oleron’s doubts concerning the worth of his literary creation, as well as his resultant creative paralysis, will strike many a chord. Hopefully, however, that is where any element of self-recognition and identification with the character and his situation should end, as it is one that proves to be deeply disturbing, and unsettling. The novella builds slowly to a nausea-inducing denouement, in which the protagonist descends into squalor and disintegration, but as to whether the horror that is encountered in these pages derives from some presence within the building, or within the psyche of Oleron himself, is left for the reader to adjudge.

Review: ‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’ by M.R. James

Rocky Valley Labyrinth, Cornwall

This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.  

Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:  

‘The rich man in his castle,

the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

and ordered their estate’ 

I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader. 

This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.

‘The Essex Serpent’: a Case of ‘Colonitis’

This book is beautifully packaged. Its cover is adorned with sumptuous bucolic imagery through which wends the form of a green serpent, which together with its intriguing title proves sufficient to lure many a reader into making a purchase. Time and time again it has been said that both a book’s title and its cover are pivotal to its success, and given the enviable sales that the author has enjoyed with ‘The Essex Serpent’, these observations would appear, in this case, to have been borne out. But what of the book itself? What of its content? Does this prove to be equally beguiling? 

It cannot be denied that Sarah Perry has a talent for description: much of it, especially where she is describing the landscape, possessing a beautiful and evocative quality that makes Nature itself a character. It also cannot be denied that she has a passion for colons bordering upon an obsession, which lends much of her prose a distinctly idiosyncratic quality. Now, before proceeding I must make it clear that I do not number amongst those who would relegate the colon, or its much maligned sibling the semi-colon, to the dustbin; but I am of the opinion that the author should know when, and where, they should be used. Ms Perry, irrespective of her doctorate ‘in creative writing from Royal Holloway’, appears not to know how to judiciously employ these helpful pieces of punctuation, and ought to, to borrow one of her own favoured words, use them more ‘parsimoniously’ in her prose. Moreover, both her proofreader and publisher should receive a severe dressing down for the nonsensical sentence that appears at the end of the penultimate paragraph on page 49.  

Mud, cakes, macaroons and dresses are all described in minute and loving detail –repeatedly – so much so that ‘Mud, Cakes and Macaroons’ might make an equally apposite title for this volume, for they feature far more frequently in this meandering tale than the eponymous serpent that is notable throughout for its absence. Its presence slithers unseen through the undergrowth of dense prose, as elusive as any semblance of plot.  

Her protagonist – Cora Seaborne – proved unsympathetic, as well as possessed of a certain self-important petulance that rankled. From the book’s description, I had been anticipating an intriguing novel of ideas, in which Seaborne’s scientific worldview parried with that of the Aldwinter vicar William Ransome, as well as a tale in which folklore featured rather more prominently than it did. Instead, it struck me as being a sluggish piece of chick lit crafted for a more educated readership than is usually the case with this genre, that whilst often beautifully written, possessed an underdeveloped plot that seemed to peter out. If its length had been trimmed by a third, its sense of drift might have been supplanted by some semblance of momentum.   

The opening passages of this novel promised much, but upon finishing the book I felt as if I had been struggling through the oft-described mud only to find that the ill-defined form that I had pursued throughout had faded into the mist; vanished into nothingness. In place of a sense of satisfaction, its ending brought a feeling of a certain emptiness, and no desire to read anything further that this author may publish. A pity.

Another historical tale drawing upon local folklore – this time from Wharfedale in Yorkshire – that might be to your taste, is the occult mystery Upon Barden Moor, in which an Edwardian summer’s day swiftly yields to something altogether darker.

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