I never was that satisfied with the crude original artwork that I cobbled together for ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’, but as it is a humorous tale of the supernatural, the original’s daft imagery served well enough as an interim measure. Now, however, having snapped a suitably unusual and fitting image, I have redesigned the cover – as shown here – and have submitted it to Amazon in the perhaps vain hope that they will update my publication in a timely fashion. After all, it is now about ten days since I attempted to update the cover for ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’, but something has gone awry. Touch wood, this cover will not suffer the same fate, and will instead be live and online before the week is out.
All being well, an anthology of my tales entitled ‘Wry Out West’ should be published and available for purchase by the end of next week – Friday 28th April. All that remains to be done is for me to tweak the cover artwork a little, and to finish formatting the text. Unlike the novelettes and novellas that I have thus far published in Kindle ebook format, this collection will also be available as a paperback.
It will contain the following five tales:
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‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ is omitted from this collection merely on grounds of length, and will eventually become available in hard copy as part of a future anthology, but that may be a year to eighteen months away, owing to my next priority being the completion of a novel that I have been working on this past two years. It will likely be bundled with the forthcoming tales: ‘Upon Barden Moor’ (currently scheduled for publication in October) and ‘With These Hands’, with the latter being intended for a pre-Christmas release this year. Whereas the last of these tales will unfold on Dartmoor, ‘Upon Barden Moor’ is set in the Yorkshire Dales, marking a geographical departure from the West Country.
I will post a cover preview for the anthology here early next week. The Kindle version will be priced at £2.99, but the price of the paperback has yet to be set. Once I am fully apprised of the printing costs, I will update readers here.
Having lately been given a wonderful present in the form of a new and much better camera, and not being altogether happy with the original image for the cover art of Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, I decided to revisit this luminous stained-glass window with a view to acquiring a better picture, and what you see above is the result. Unlike on the preceding occasion, this time there were no obstructions blocking my view, which meant that I did not have to take the picture at an angle. The lighting too proved to be much more favourable. All that therefore remained was a little image manipulation to remove perspectival distortion from its uppermost portions. The result is much crisper, and richer in colour. As there is always a lag between uploading imagery and it going live on Amazon, I should imagine that the new cover will not be displaying on the site until Tuesday, or thereabouts.
For readers unfamiliar with the tale, most of the action unfolds on a single bitterly cold day in December 2009, during which a theatre critic and his wife – Lionel and Frances Smallwood – find themselves enjoying the Victorian Christmas market in the little-known Dorset town of Grimstone Peverell. Chilled to the marrow, they retire to the town’s minster where they are accosted by an enthusiastic guide, who knows a great deal about some things, yet next to nothing about that which would, to most people, seem obvious; she seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention.
The story is heavily larded with black humour, and like others in the series, possesses a wry twist.
Agnes of Grimstone Peverell is available via Amazon worldwide, free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers, otherwise 99p or 99c. To preview and/or purchase, please click on the image above.
Superstition, credulity and deception in a seventeenth-century Devon village: the perfect ingredients for a tale of the occult, fleshed out from the bare bones of the facts of a certain case that have survived to this day. Involving, as it did, personages with names as evocative as the Worshipful Sir William Bastard, and the Reverend Tickle, the desire to work this up into a piece of fiction became irresistible, although the honour of fulfilling the role of protagonist was to fall to neither of these gentlemen, but rather to Robert Tooley, the local cunning man. In such a way, was a novella born: The Cleft Owl.
I stumbled upon this case and the person of Robert Tooley whilst re-reading Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic as background for my forthcoming novel Pendrummel: Gwen Gwinnel’s Return. The sheer oddity of the events outlined, and of the singular nature of the charms and rites employed by Tooley, was striking, as was the ease with which a number of the villagers willingly acquiesced with his instructions, at least for a time. This, moreover, all took place in an area of Devon – Dartmoor – which is steeped in folklore and legends of a sinister hue, with packs of demonic Wisht Hounds baying in frantic pursuit of their mortal quarry across the bog-strewn moors. The temptation to supplement this lore with another tale proved too great for me to resist.
Widecombe-in-the-Moor – the parish in which the story unfolds – possesses its own infernal folklore, being associated with a visitation of Old Nick himself during the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1638. On this particular Sunday, the parishioners were gathered in the church, which proved to afford them but ill shelter, for a bolt of lightning sent a pinnacle toppling through its roof, and was shortly followed by a sphere of dancing light – ball lightning – which bounced and scorched its path about the interior, leaving four dead and more than sixty injured. The public appetite for reports of such events meant that two pamphlets were published in London shortly afterwards, both invoking supernatural causes by way of explanation. Although not integral to this tale, for the case is said to have unfolded at some point during the latter part of the seventeenth century, it is something that I have allowed to influence the character of the protagonist.
There is also a distinct whiff of brimstone about the figure of Tooley. Little is known of him, other than that he was a cunning man and self-styled doctor, to whom the locals would turn for supernatural assistance in combating illness and other problems in their small community. He is believed to have lived on the periphery of the parish – in a building named Tooley’s Cott – although this identification cannot be ascertained with any certainty. However, what we can say is that the sequence of events that unfolded subsequent to him being called in to assist a family following the self-murder of a neighbour, led to him becoming an unpopular and reviled figure. His involvement, it seems, proved to generate more problems than it solved. More than that, I cannot divulge for fear of spoiling the story, but if your curiosity has been piqued, dear reader, I bid you peruse the pages of The Cleft Owl. It is free to read for Kindle Unlimited subscribers, but otherwise costs 99p, or the equivalent in your own currency should you reside outside of the UK. To preview or download, please click on the image below.
The Cerne Giant, often known as the Rude Man of Cerne, is the most priapically preeminent figure in the country. Singularly commanding, and seemingly holding his club in ireful threat over the tranquil Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, he has stood upon the hillside since time immemorial. His origins are obscure, with a handful of theories relating to his genesis having vied for the public’s attention down the years. The most colourful and, indeed, popular of these, now an integral part of local lore, relate to his supposed status as a fertility figure, with his manly appendage having hitherto become the focus of much attention from childless couples. As, however, his manhood is now protected from public trespass, few are likely to repeat the visit that the Marquis of Bath and his wife Virginia made to lie with him one night in 1958, in the hope that their five barren years would be brought to an end. A daughter – Silvy – was duly born to them within ten months.
Who, or what, is he? An Iron Age fertility figure? A Roman depiction of Hercules dating from the reign of Commodus? A memorialisation of a real giant who was beheaded upon the hill for his violent predations upon the village? Or, is it that he is a lewd seventeenth-century satire of Oliver Cromwell?
His form is certainly crude, and those who favour an Iron Age provenance point to a certain stylistic congruence between it and the artwork found on some of the coinage of that era from this part of England. Those, on the other hand, who favour a Roman dating of the figure, point to the discovery within the last twenty years or so of evidence for the Giant once having held a cloak over its left arm, which they interpret as representing the skin of the Nemean lion, as was the convention in Roman depictions of the hero. Both explanations seem plausible, until, that is, one takes into account some highly salient factors relating to the parish, one of which should be obvious from its name, for it was once home to a Benedictine Monastery – Cerne Abbey – which was integral to the life of the local community from its foundation in 987, until its dissolution in 1539. It seems peculiar both that its records make no mention of the Giant, and that the monks should have permitted the regular scouring of the hill figure’s lines necessary for its survival. Secondly, the first reference to the Giant dates only from 1694 – a repair bill amounting to three shillings in the churchwarden’s accounts – and an earlier survey of the parish from 1617 makes no mention of any chalk figure. These facts would seem to militate against the figure’s survival from antiquity.
Thus we are left with the alternative theory that the carving of the Giant dates from the seventeenth century, and represents a fanciful joke at the expense of our then Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. What better way to rile the Protector and his godly supporters, than to create a massive and libidinous depiction of this ‘English Hercules’ (as Cromwell was often termed, as depicted in this satirical Dutch cartoon dated 1653) waving his club and his manhood at onlookers and passers-by?
Whereas it would seem that the Cerne Giant is modern in origin, the feature lying above his head atop the hill – the Trendle, or the ‘frying pan’ – would seem to date from genuine antiquity or prehistory.
The Giant is, of course, without a consort: he has neither wife nor lover. However, if we take him to be a representation of the humourless, self-righteous spirit of seventeenth-century puritan religiosity, he now has a spiritual heir in the form of Beatrice Clemens – the Rude Woman of Cerne. Although a Christian, of sorts, her fundamental beliefs are held within the cage of a rigid, highly dogmatic interpretation of a certain type of politically correct socialism, that result in her being without doubt as to the righteousness of her cause, and conduct. Her heart may be in the right place, but her head is a zone of confusion, stuffed with contradictory beliefs thanks to her ideological blinkers, that transform her into an egregious canting hypocrite. Despite her steadfast profession of belief in the principle of equality, she thus ends up treating her guests and others around her, in a very unequal fashion; her inclusive zeal is expressed through an active discrimination.
Beatrice Clemens, like Cromwell, proves to be very much out of step with the spirit of the place, and it is to this spirit that she must ultimately answer. And so, I bid you: come! It is time for you to keep your appointment with the Rude Woman of Cerne.
Free to download on Kindle from Thursday 16th to Friday 17th March (otherwise 99p/99c, or free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers), a wry supernatural comedy – Old Crotchet.
Old Crotchet – her manor, her rules. Cross her at your peril. There’s little that will rile a woman more than 300 years of age than the arrival of some flighty young upstart intent upon displacing her. It is Twelfth Night by the old reckoning, and festivities are about to commence as something sinister stirs from its protracted dormancy, awakened, it seems, by the arrival of two young guests. The old ways, they find, should not be treated lightly.
The first in a cycle of wry standalone tales, many with a supernatural or occult theme, set in the West Country. To preview or download this novelette, please click on the image above.
Professor Hutton is, perhaps, one of the most affable and publicly recognisable academics in Britain today and, arguably, its greatest authority on this country’s pagan history and heritage. In this volume, he sets himself the task of surveying the rise and fall of paganism in our island story, from the distant Palaeolithic to the early modern period. However, whereas the matter of the pagan revivalism of the past century is touched upon, it is not treated in any depth in itself, although it is considered in connection with the retro-projection of its beliefs, and practices, into the distant past. He has previously dealt with the subject matter of the history of Wicca in his book, ‘The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,’ a work that, apparently, caused umbrage amongst certain elements of the contemporary pagan community.
The primary message that came through in this thorough and engaging treatment of the subject was this: there is much that remains in terms of the material legacy of the pagan past, yet next to nothing with respect to our knowledge of the concrete beliefs and rituals conducted by pagans at various points in the pre-Christian era of our island. Much of what is commonly supposed about the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants of Britain is little more than that: supposition, based upon the most tenuous of textual evidence, and erroneous conjecture arising from the once widespread belief that the uneducated mediaeval populace adhered to a basically pagan set of beliefs beneath a superficial veneer of Christian piety. None the less, it is this very absence of certainty with respect to the beliefs and practices of our pagan past, in which much of this subject’s charm and appeal inheres; it is cloaked in an aura of mysticism.
Hutton marshals and interprets an impressive array of evidence to provide an outline of developments in ritual practice. From prehistory we by definition have access only to archaeological remains, but this period has bequeathed to us such a rich legacy of different types of ceremonial monument – henges, stone avenues, barrows cursuses, dolmens, etc. – that it is evident, thanks to the development of carbon dating, that beliefs were far from static. From the Mesolithic onwards, there were significant shifts in monumental form, with many sites – the most famous of all being Stonehenge – being refashioned over the centuries and millennia, presumably to keep pace with changing ritual practice and belief. As to the detail of the actual substance of these beliefs – the names of any gods, goddesses and spirits called upon and propitiated, and the mythologies attendant upon them – they will forever remain beyond our grasp. Only with the entry of the island of Britain into the orbit of the ancient literary cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, do we find any indications as to what these beliefs and deities were, and even then, what we are left with is fragmentary and, perhaps, rather tendentious in nature; it does not present us with an objective ethnographic commentary on the beliefs and practices of the ancient Britons. We remain in the historical twilight.
Rather more is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman conquerors, and cult precincts and associated dedicatory inscriptions reveal that many of their gods and goddesses were revered here, often, as elsewhere in the Empire, in syncretistic form with native deities, with the most famous case being that of Sulis-Minerva at Bath. To what extent the coming of these new deities supplanted those already resident in the imaginations and devotional practices of the island’s inhabitants is unknown, but it could be argued that an eclectic form of fusion and co-existence took place, before Christianity asserted its grip.
One question that will also forever go unanswered will be the extent to which late-Roman Britain was Christianised. Evidence exists – such as from the Romano-British pagan temple at Brean Down – that non-Christian beliefs were still adhered to in the second part of the fourth century, which would be consonant with Julian the Apostate’s (361-363) attempt to revive Hellenistic paganism. However, by the time that Theodosius – the last Emperor to rule over both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire – began to vigorously enforce Christianity as the sole state religion from the 380s onwards, Roman Britannia was already in a position of significant material decline and marginalisation, and would be lost to the Empire in 409 or 410.
The pagans of post-Roman Britain left us no written record of their beliefs and practices, and all we have to go on are a handful of hostile references produced by Christian scholars such as Gildas and Bede. As Hutton emphasises here, we possess only the most tenuous of knowledge relating to the newly arrived deities beyond their names: Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frigg. Indeed, he calls into question the commonly believed assumption that there was an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre. This appears to possess but the flimsiest of foundations, with Bede’s supposition that Eosturmonuth was named after such a goddess likely to have been a misunderstanding, with the name of the month (equivalent to April), simply meaning ‘the opening month,’ which Hutton suggests could well refer to the unfurling of leaves.
The material evidence for pagan belief during the fifth to seventh centuries is even more scant than that of earlier eras, for no single pagan temple from this period has been conclusively identified in Britain. What we are presented with, however, are changes in burial practice, that are clearly not Christian, and often include the interment of grave goods alongside the Saxon dead. It seems, however, that once the Anglo-Saxon, British and Pictish elites had adopted Christianity, the new religion readily established itself amongst the mass of the population. What greatly eased this transition, argues Hutton, was Christianity’s ability to present its new followers with an array of saints who functioned in a manner analogous to that of the old gods and goddesses who looked after a particular sphere of life, or a particular place.
There is much more that Hutton discusses in this book with respect to possible pagan survivals, including mediaeval Welsh and Irish textual sources, as well as folk traditions relating to a parallel supernatural realm populated by fairies, hobgoblins and so on. However, once the pagan Danish settlers had converted to Christianity, it is Hutton’s opinion that paganism ceased to operate as a coherent system of operational belief within the island of Britain. He also dismantles the widely cherished belief in a prehistoric ‘Great Goddess,’ tracing the emergence and development of this concept in modern times, and uses the concept of human sacrifice to show how remains – particularly decapitated ones – can be used both in favour of this theory, and against it. His treatment of these issues, and the subject as a whole, is even-handed, pluralistic and non-prescriptive. He encourages the reader to reflect, and to draw his or her own conclusions with respect to the evidence presented. For anyone interested in this area of our history, this book makes for a rewarding, and essential, read.
A cunning man, a sick man and a dead man, united by charm and rite. Seventeenth-century Devon was never stranger.
‘The Cleft Owl’ – a tender discomfort and a gory crown.
We find ourselves in Widecombe, Dartmoor, in the late autumn of 1683. Dr Robert Tooley – wise man, conjuror and confidence trickster – takes in hand the fortunes of a vulnerable family, as the harshest winter of the century is about to take the parish in its grip. Through his bizarre rites, paid for with their money, he has promised to deliver them from the reach of their tormenter, but the man in question happens to be dead. The gullible villagers, however, entrust their faith to his occult practices, at least for a time.
Based upon a little-known and strange case, a number of the characters here portrayed – Tooley, the Reverend Tickle and the Worshipful Sir William Bastard – all lived and played a role in the life of this late seventeenth-century community, although it should be noted that the words written here are a loose work of fiction. Inspired by an incident related in Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic.’ To read a sample, or to purchase for 99p, click the image above.
Over his long career, Keith Thomas has written a trio of books that are essential reading for anyone interested in the social history of early modern England, with this being his most recent. The theme that it tackles is a perennial one: how to live a good, as in a fulfilled, life. Whereas the reader will encounter goals and attitudes that are not so distant from our own today, there are many beliefs and practices – unsurprisingly found more towards the beginning of the period in question (the book spans the three hundred years from 1500 to 1800) – that are quite unlike those to which all but a fringe few now subscribe. These changes in outlook run in tandem with shifts in the accompanying social and economic order, with the most pronounced transitions during the period in question being associated with a growing commercialism, individualism and secularisation.
Thus, whereas the mediaeval conception of military glory as virtuous and noble carried over into this period, with martial skills and prowess being seen as an integral part of masculine identity, it gradually ceded its status to the pursuit of wealth, with the military becoming increasingly specialised and professional as feudalism became eclipsed by mercantile, and then industrial, capitalism. The old belligerent ethos was unsuited to the majority in the new commercial age, many of whom now looked down upon the murderous trade plied by those who clung to the ideals of chivalric nobility, or served in the common soldiery.
One of Thomas’s key observations is that routes to individual fulfilment were vastly more circumscribed at the beginning of this period than towards its end, and alas, many still find that their personal choices are greatly limited by their social and economic status today. Self-realisation is not quite as new a concept as we may often think, and the different ‘roads to fulfilment’ that he sketches – vocational, material, reputational, personal and posthumous – are all at play, to a greater or lesser degree, in our own lives now.
Thomas’s prose is always a joy to read, being both commendably objective and laced with wit, with contemporary voices from many different stations of life being given the opportunity to address the reader directly, in the form of the many quotations that pepper this text. For those interested in this period of English history, and particularly for those who aspire to write fiction and wish to gain an insight into the varied social milieux of this time, it is an indispensable resource.
Thomas ends the volume with a quote from a far earlier age – that of Augustan Rome – translated by John Dryden from Horace’s twenty-ninth ode, which is as salutary and joyous now, as it was to its readers in late seventeenth-century England:
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call today his own;
He, who secure within, can say
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have liv’d today.
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.
Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r;
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
Whilst writing Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, a festive ghost story with ecclesiastical connections, I was searching around for an authentic late-nineteenth-century stained glass artist whom I could cite as being the creator of a particular window featured in the story. Having carried out a Google image search, I happened upon a picture of window that greatly appealed to me, and so clicked on the link to discover more about it (the image can be accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/47859152@N05/5187150203). Before doing so, I had already decided that providing the name of the artist in question could been ascertained, then he or she would be the one that I chose as the creator of my fictional window. The name was provided – Christopher Whall.
The window, situated in St Oswald’s Parish Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, was – like the one in my story – a commemorative piece, but what struck me, given that I had already fixed upon the name of my fictitious minster as ‘Grimstone Peverell,’ was the double-barrelled surname of the family which had donated the window to the church: Peveril Turnbull. A far from common surname. It commemorates the death of their two daughters who died in a fire in 1901.
I then moved on to reading a little more about Christopher Whall and his works, and discovered that only one commission was listed as having been carried out by him in the county of Dorset. This was a window that he created for the new church in the parish of Bothenhampton, a building constructed in accordance with the principles of the English Arts and Crafts Movement in 1890, although the date of the window itself was 1895. What struck me about the year was that this was the same one that I had designated for the commissioning and installation of my fictitious ‘Beke Window.’ How convenient that my chosen artist should actually have been active in Dorset in that very year!
It seemed rather appropriate that my research for a ghost story should result in such unusual coincidences. As for the identity of the windows portrayed on the cover of Agnes of Grimstone Peverell, and their artist, I shall leave that for readers to puzzle over.