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.