Tag Archives: Seventeenth Century

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.

Novel Progress

More than two years into its writing, and I’m making good headway with the penultimate draft of my novel. It would have been finished sooner, but I got sidetracked into writing, and publishing, half a dozen shorter pieces in the interim. I hope to have it finished and published before the year is out, but this should be seen as an aspiration, rather than as a definite plan, for I have a terrible habit of revising, and then revising the revisions. The first chapters have been reworked so many times that few of the words remain from the original, although the structure has altered little as I had the plot clearly mapped out from the outset. Despite this fact, the first five words that open the story remain unchanged. As to what they are, you’ll have to wait and see.

What is this book about? There is, as in most of what I have written thus far, a liberal dose of humour, much of it black, but as for its primary themes, they are rather different: superstition, greed, jealousy, slavery, piracy and religious fanaticism; nothing that wouldn’t have been familiar to an ordinary resident of a seventeenth-century Cornish fishing village, but much which would, perhaps, be a surprise to the reader today, for the slavery and piracy outlined in these pages was real enough, but is now largely forgotten. The case could even be made for saying that the form of slavery dealt with in this tale has been airbrushed out of history, because it jars with the simplistic, and simplified, ‘Black’ victim/ ‘White’ oppressor narrative that dominates historical and popular discourse today. The evil of slavery, in its many forms, has never been a simple matter of black and white, irrespective of what some may claim in support of manufactured racial ‘grievances’ and political agendas in the present.

If we are to take the dictum that it is the victors who write history, what does it tell us about the state of the world that we live in today, when the enslavement of somewhere in the region of 1 to 1.25 million Europeans by North Africans, between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, goes unmentioned? Moreover, when considering that this form of raiding and slavery was justified, and legitimised, through reference to religious texts and traditions – specifically Islamic ones, citing the example of the ‘Prophet’ himself – does this form and practise of human bondage not have something to tell us about the worldview of a certain religious tradition? I have omitted from these figures the even greater number of men, women and children taken by Islamic slavers in the territories that now comprise Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans.

There is, quite rightly, much written about the evils of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this should not be forgotten, but at the same time, we should not let this skew our historical perspective so that we fall into the error of forgetting ‘inconvenient’ facts because their existence happens to upset some people. We should not let the old racist hierarchy of White = good/superior and Black = bad/inferior simply be replaced by an inverted racism where Whites are seen as innately bad and evil, and Blacks as essentially good and virtuous. Human stupidity, vice and cruelty are the monopoly of no portion of humanity, and neither are its virtues. The novel does not position itself as some crude anti-Islamic tirade, but as a critique of the stupidity of dogmatism and superstition in its many forms, both religious, and political: there are bigots of many stripes, and they can exist on the Left, just as readily as on the Right.

I’d better shut up now, and add that the book’s primary aim is to entertain. Those who delight in finger-wagging will be disappointed.

A devilish Devonshire Mystery

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.

 

 

New Publication: The Cleft Owl

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. 

 

 

 

 

Capturing Voices from the Past

One thorny challenge for the writer of historical fiction is how to capture and convey the language of a particular time and place in history, or indeed, whether to bother at all. To what extent should an author seek to reproduce past patterns and modes of speech, bearing in mind that they should be comprehensible and engaging for the modern reader? 

This has prompted much discussion over the years, particularly with respect to the language of Shakespearian English, for it is striking to any speaker of English today that many of his sonnets do not rhyme, and his comedy is often desperately short on laughs. Why should this be so? It would seem that this is largely down to shifts in the spoken form of the language, and the following discussion of how it has changed – featuring examples of lines from Shakespeare rendered in both Received Pronunciation and ‘Original Pronunciation’ – is both illuminating and entertaining. There is an earthy rusticity to Shakespeare’s language in its originally accented form that is missing from its contemporary delivery which greatly enhances its comprehensibility, restoring missing rhymes and puns. It’s well worth listening to: http://www.realmofhistory.com/2016/10/31/listen-shakespeare-sounded-original-pronunciation/