In this week’s episode of ‘The Cutty Wren’, the third instalment, we finally get to the Ceremony of the Cutty Wren itself. It really happens in the village of Middleton in Suffolk, under the auspices of the Old Glory Molly Dancers, though not this year for understandable reasons, but much of what happens in the story is my own invention. As far as I know, there isn’t a pub there commemorating the decapitation of a local magistrate with a plough share or anything like that in real life, though I suppose anything’s possible.
As well as the Old Glory revival of this ancient ritual, the other inspiration for this part of the story is ‘The Exorcism’, (1972) from the BBC’s Dead of Night anthology series, where two insufferably smug middle class couples (Sylvia Kay and British tele-folk horror favourites Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge and Anna Cropper) decide to slum it for Christmas, chomping their turkey in a converted former agricultural labourer’s cottage, while pontificating about socialism and other subjects. But while this arrangement might meet 2020’s guidelines for Christmas household mixing, the house’s previous occupants don’t approve and make their displeasure felt in various ways…
But it was the terrible fate of those former inhabitants that influenced this part of my own story, ‘The Cutty Wren’. Before listening to Part Three below, those just joining us might want to catch Part One and Part Two.
And don’t forget to tune in on Christmas day for the spine-chilling conclusion to my tale of the cutty wren!
It’s James Everington’s birthday, so here’s a nasty, brutish and short story from him. It’s the 17th entry on the Sinister Horror Company’s virtual advent calendar and it’s about a man opening the 17th door on a real one. Repeatedly.
Just to make it even more self-reflexive, I’m posting it here as a bonus entry on my Blogvent Calendar on the 17th. Happy birthday, James!
Still on the subject of ghost stories for Christmas, a few words about the show of that name, a wonderful theatrical anthology of spectral monologues that until this year has been an annual Brighton fixture during the season for the last eight. I saw one of these two years ago, with three excellent tales by Joan Aiken, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell. The highlight was Craig Johnson, bringing Campbell’s 1977 World Fantasy Award-winning and genuinely terrifying seasonal ghost story ‘The Chimney’ brilliantly to life. Using an oxblood wing-backed armchair as his centre-piece, surrounded by the props of a Seventies childhood, as well as the audience, he portrayed the traumas of a painfully socially awkward schoolboy approaching adolescence with humour, compassion and of course terror. One scene he nailed particularly well was the excruciatingly embarrassing moment, mentioned in this review of the original story, where at a funfair the gauche narrator recalls confessing his belief in Father Christmas in front of two girls and his more worldly friend, who has more carnal matters on his mind.
Campbell is of course an admirer of M.R. James, but the story also reminds me of Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ in its trajectory. Sadly due to personal health issues, there is no show this year, but I certainly hope we will see more Ghost Stories for Christmas plays in years to come…
It’s not quite the Midwinter Solstice yet — that’s on the 21st. But it’s half-way through the week, and past the half-way point through the month, three quarters of the way to Christmas…
So now seems like a good time to think about rebirth and renewal, as embodied in the tragi-comic figure of John Barleycorn, whose story is told in this ballad:
There’s more about him in Part Two of ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’, a story that first appeared in my collection Last Stop Wellsbourne, which you can purchase here. For a recap, in Part One of the story, Wellsbourne Council gardener Sam Jordan has just found out that his colleague Simon Rugby is in intensive care after a mishap with an aerating machine…
Jim Bloom’s Van, Part Two.
How the hell had he managed to do that?
Simon had somehow become trapped underneath the aerating machine. It reminded Sam of those news stories where someone runs themselves over with their own car. He’d never understood how that happened either, but it did.
He was no stranger to the perils of using horticultural machinery himself, after almost losing a thumb when his hand became caught between a hefty Ferris mower and a wall when he’d got too close and been unable to find the cut-out switch in time to stop it. Then there were minor eye injuries sustained while hedge cutting, from flying debris. Finally, actual mishaps aside, there was the general wear and tear on the muscles from prolonged machine usage that gradually took its toll on your body. Rheumatism, arthritis, hand-arm vibration.
But this was a new one on him. Aerators have a system of rotating plates, each with nine pointed spikes for making air-holes in the turf. Picking one up once, when removing it for cleaning, Sam had been unnerved by how sharp they were.
Imagining his colleague perforated like a Tetley tea-bag, he nodded, unsurprised though shaken, when Bone told him at lunch time the lad hadn’t made it.
“Jim Bloom?” said Maz. “Knew him? I went to his wake. But everyone was there—well, all the freaks anyway. What a party! People dancing in the woods up near the recreation ground. Naked…”
Sam’s dealer broke off to take the spliff his customer had handed him. It was mid-afternoon. Bone had gone home early out of respect for the dead, saying he was taking compassionate leave until further notice. Confused because the same hadn’t happened when news of Bloom’s death had reached them, Sam had asked what he and Paul should do. “Do what you want, mate,” the foreman had said indifferently and left. His two subordinates followed suit not long after, Sam deciding there was nothing for it but to go and get stoned. The dealer had greeted him, responding to his comment about what a shit month January was by saying something about “the time of Janus, the two-faced one.” Thinking of the way he’d treated his late colleague in the past, Sam had begun to wonder if this was a dig on Maz’s part. Probably just paranoia.
“Fuck! In December?” he replied to the dealer’s description of the wake, blowing out a mouthful of smoke. “Must have been off their tits on something, yeah?”
Maz nodded, passing the joint back, his eyes watery and bloodshot. The sweet, heavy aroma laced the dealer’s small flat.
“At one point, I went for a piss and found a couple doing it in the mud.”
“Yin and yang style, if you catch my drift…”
Sam thought about the image.
“Noshing each other off?”
“Funny way to mourn somebody,” Sam remarked.
“If I knew Jim, he’d have wanted his mates to enjoy the Saturnalia, to keep his memory alive like.”
“Right,” said Sam, staring at the ash tray.
The whole idea of “mates” and Jim Bloom in the same sentence was a new concept for him, let alone the thought they might join together to celebrate his life with bawdy revelry. No, he thought, allowing his cynical everyday self to over-ride any starry-eyed notions the substance he was smoking might encourage: more likely they were the types of wasters who’d use any excuse to get off their faces.
Not like him, he reminded himself, sitting here toking away with one of those same wasters! And all because one of his colleagues had managed to get himself killed on the job. He wondered how many people would turn up to Simple Simon’s funeral. Apart from Fred Bone. His befuddled brain suddenly became aware of the background music.
“What’s this playing?” he asked his host.
“Traffic,” Maz replied.
“Yeah, but what’s the name of the track?”
“‘John Barleycorn.’ An old, old song. Goes waaaayyyy back…”
Maz’s bloodshot eyes stared at him, his yellow teeth grinning, stubbing out the spliff husk in the ash tray.
“Why?” the dealer asked.
“Nothing,” said Sam, remembering the whistling in the dark. It was the same tune, wasn’t it? Or maybe he was just feeling suggestible because of the dope, whose miasma shrouded the dingy room. “So what else did they get up to in the woods?”
“Oh, just a lot of mumbo jumbo mainly, the kind of stuff he was into. I’m not a believer myself. But I respect what they were doing, laying him to rest out there. It’s the natural way.”
“What? Scattering his ashes in the woods and that?”
“His ashes? Oh no! They buried him out there whole, man. No ‘scattering’ about it. But there was a whole load of chanting, people going all Glasto and smearing themselves in mud and stuff. Your turn to skin up…?”
Things had become a little hazy after that, understandably. He vaguely recalled Maz spouting something about the legends of the place and what other, more ancient inhabitants had buried up there, long before Bloom’s dippy, hippy mates had planted him there. The dealer, his eyes wild and red-rimmed, had ranted on about it for a while—how it was once the boneyard for the denizens of the Iron Age hillfort nearby, how there was a reason why it had earned the name “Wakeman Recreation Ground.” Sam couldn’t remember much more than that, apart from some drivel about “eyes in the trees” and “whispers from the soil.” That must have been the wacky baccy talking, but it seemed pretty way out even considering that, especially coming from someone who claimed he didn’t buy into all the occult bullshit. Whoever had made the funeral punchbowl must have spiked it with LSD or something.
All the same, he couldn’t resist googling “John Barleycorn” when he got back home.
“There were three men came out of the west, their fortune for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, cast clods upon his head,
Till these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.”
Something about the words unnerved him. Maybe it was the number of John Barleycorn’s persecutors, though he told himself to put that thought right out of his head, like right now. Don’t even go there.
Then there was the way, after his ordeal—the burial in the ground, the binding to a cart, the pricking with pitchforks, the hacking up with scythes and so on—the song’s hero kept coming out on top:
“Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl and the brandy in the glass,
Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl proved the strongest man at last.”
But that was the trouble with looking at stuff like this when he was stoned. It made him anxious, paranoid. And the problem with that was he needed to get more stoned to take his mind off it.
Obviously not enough, because when he went back to work a couple of days later, he found himself whistling that damned tune. He didn’t even know he was doing it until Bone said, “Give it a rest—you sound like Whistling fucking Jim!”
“Sorry, Boney,” he said.
“You fucking will be if I hear you doing that again.”
The foreman stormed out, leaving him to exchange meaningful looks with Paul.
“Don’t mind him,” his colleague said. “He’s still cut up about Si. It’s made him a bit edgy. Thinks someone’s been playing silly buggers with the machines to get at him. Reckons that’s why the accident happened.”
Sam glanced out of the mess hut to see the foreman fuelling up a chipping machine, a lighted roll-up hanging from his mouth.
“Fucking hell,” he muttered, wondering if sabotage was any more of a factor in Simon’s death than the generally sloppy safety standards here. He ought to say something, but he didn’t dare, the mood his foreman was in.
By some miracle, Bone finished refuelling the machine without turning into a human fireball in the process. Sam began loading the van with Christmas trees from the pile near the yard, which had grown to gigantic proportions while the three of them had been on “compassionate leave.” As he did so, Fred and Paul moved the chipper so that Flock could start feeding smaller trees directly into it, pointing it at a nearby border so its chippings could land straight on the bare soil around the shrubs. Tying the trees down on the flatbed, Sam drove away, glad to escape the tense atmosphere of the yard.
They broke off late that morning to attend Simon’s funeral. Closed coffin of course. Simon’s mother thanked them for attending. Sam could see why. They’d doubled the numbers.
The next day was Thursday, two days after Simon’s accident. The dumped trees were piling up in the yard. Sam went for a piss before setting off in the van.
“Off to shake hands with the unemployed, mate?” Bone called after him, drawing crude laughter from Flock.
He seems to have cheered up, thought Sam as he relieved himself. Amazing how quickly things get back to normal after a tragedy.
He could hear Bone congratulating himself.
“Good one, eh, Flocky?”
Remembering Tuesday afternoon spent in bed with Rosie, smoking weed and literally fucking about, he knew there was no substance to Bone’s jibe.
“Where d’you think you’re going?” the foreman demanded as he made for the van.
“To take some more Christmas trees up the tip.”
“No, not today. I want you on marking out up Wakey. I’ll get Flocky to feed the trees into the chipper like yesterday.”
“But it’s still dark,” he objected.
“It’ll be light by the time you get there.
“Not scared are you?” The foreman sneered.
“No,” protested Sam, wiping all traces of alarm from his face.
It was far from light by the time he got there.
Maybe that was why he took the risk of driving onto the field to get as close as possible to the football pitch he needed to mark out. He averted his eyes from the woods that held Bloom’s remains if he was to believe Maz. But the dealer had said some pretty mad things. “Haven’t you ever heard the stories about why it’s called Wake-man Re-creation Ground, Sam?” he’d said, eyes pink as an albino rabbit’s, pronouncing every syllable of the name to give it a sinister meaning. “Of course I don’t believe all that mumbo jumbo,” he’d added, the words coming back to mock Sam, who didn’t either, except when he was in a field daylight still stubbornly refused to touch, within spitting distance of his dead colleague’s improperly buried cadaver.
Best not to think about it. Best to get on with his work. But as he began mixing up the whitener, his work mobile phone rang with Bone’s number.
The foreman’s voice was quiet, unusually so.
“He’s after us,” he said.
“What d’you mean?” Sam asked. “Who’s after us?”
“He’s got Flocky now.”
“Flocky?” Sam repeated dully. “What’s happened to him?”
“The wood chipper happened to him. Remember how that dickhead Bloom was always saying how we should use organic fertiliser rather than chemicals….”
Bone’s voice sounded tinny, cavernous and on the verge of hysterical laughter.
“Well, he’s got his wish now. Flocky’s all over that shrub border now! All over it…”
“What the fuck are you on about, Boney?” he shouted, over his foreman’s peels of twisted merriment.
The line went dead.
He let out a sigh. Bone hadn’t been making sense. He couldn’t have meant Bloom was after them. He was dead for fuck’s sake! But what had happened to Flock? The foreman hadn’t made that clear, though Sam had some nasty suspicions. If they were correct, he might as well start heading back. The marking out would have to wait. There was no way he was staying here, even if it was almost light now.
Yet that very illumination now showed him his mistake. Despite the murky fog that lingered, leaching away the daylight, he could now see how waterlogged and muddy it was in the part of the field where he’d pulled to a stop. It was likely the van was stuck and would need towing free. He started punching in the foreman’s number, then stopped, dreading his reaction when he told him what had happened.
He tried moving the van. The wheels just spun round, digging deeper and deeper grooves in the mud.
But he mustn’t panic. If the worst came to the worst, he might just have to sit tight here for a bit.
Nothing for it but to ring the foreman and get him to arrange a tow.
No answer. It went straight to answerphone. In any case, Bone might well be too preoccupied with whatever had befallen Flock to answer it, let alone deal with Sam’s predicament. He would just have to try again in a few minutes.
It was so quiet here.
But not totally silent. There was that whistling for a start.
Very faint, in the distance, too quiet to make out the tune yet, but unmistakeably whistling. And coming closer. He looked out to see who was there, thinking to ask them for help. Maybe all the van needed was a push. Unlikely, unless the whistler had enormous strength, but from what he could see of the faintly-outlined figure, he was extremely thin and moving laboriously, as if each step were a painful effort.
He couldn’t see the face, shrouded in fog and shaded by a battered straw hat with some kind of garland around its wide brim, but he could hear the whistling more distinctly now. It had a hissing, distorted quality, as if the whistler were struggling to force air through a misshapen mouth full of broken teeth.
This one’s a little adjacent to the theme of Christmas ghost stories and folk horror. ‘A Photograph’ is a chilling 1977 addition to the long-running Play for Todayseries, not a Ghost Story for Christmas, but it was written by John Bowen, who wrote two of them, the M.R. James-derived ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ and his own original but less well-regarded piece ‘The Ice House’. However, one of his other Play for Today contributions, ‘Robin Redbreast’, is a legendary piece of TV folk horror, and ‘A Photograph’, now finding a new audience thanks to a BFI release of a box-set of the plays, has more in common with this sub-genre than at first appears, both structurally and thematically.
Not only that, but the philandering Michael Otway, played with consummate smugness by John Stride, is an M.R. James protagonist for a more permissive age. As a TV and radio intellectual who regards the working classes as ‘Morlocks’, he bears more than a passing resemblance in his complacent arrogance to the Reverend Justin Somerton in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’. Despite the lack of any supernatural element, the mysterious photograph provides the haunting element in a ghost story without a ghost but full of dread and unease.
Here’s the trailer for the first volume of this series:
The Innocents (1961) has definite seasonal associations for me as I remember the first time I saw it was when it was shown as part of the BBC’s Christmas fortnight schedule. Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, from which it derives, is framed as yuletide fireside ghost story, a device since redeployed to great effect in recent years by Susan Hill in The Woman in Black. James gave the convention of competitive Christmas Eve supernatural yarn-spinning a twist along the lines suggested by the discussion that gives the story its title. All James’ trademark pompous verbosity can’t prevent this being one of the great psychological ghost stories.
Here for your enjoyment is the trailer to the Jack Clayton film with Deborah Kerr:
“My fingers are blackened beneath these gloves. My feet are no longer my own. Why, in this world of whiteness, does flesh turn to the reverse?”
–From ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ by John Shire
It’s been a few years since we had much in the way of snow down here in the South East of England, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing when you look at the role it plays in horror fiction. From Frankenstein to The Shining, Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, some of the greatest authors in the genre have turned to winter landscapes for the sense of isolation and dread inspired by cold wastes. Three out of these four examples, it should be noted, use polar exploration as the pretext for this. In the case of Mary Shelley’s founding text of science fiction and horror, this is part of a grand, over-arching framing device, which nevertheless builds to a climax taking its two antagonists to this liminal place of ultimate extremity, a somewhat more epic place of confrontation than the windmill or laboratory acid bath of the scaled-down Universal (1931) and Hammer (1957) versions. But a more recent example of this type of gothic narrative, combining supernatural and survival horror, is Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (2010).
Thana Niveau’s ‘And May All Your Christmases…’, originally available in The Thirteen Ghosts of Christmas (Spectral Press, 2012), and currently available to read in her 2018 collection Octoberland (PS Publishing), has more in common with ‘Snow Cancellations’, an eerie exploration of the malevolence or merely cold indifference of nature as represented by endless snowfall.
As such tales show, the snow can provide not just a back-drop for cosmic terror but its locus, a meteorological equivalent of Algernon Blackwood’s eponymous willows, cutting us off from the rest of humanity without reason or mercy. As John Shire’s above-cited story suggests, the frozen wastes of Antarctica can supply both setting for and source of horror and awe. ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’ is one of what might be a trilogy of stories revisiting Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, the other two being ‘What Danforth Saw (Or “A Final Plunge”)’ and ‘Irrevelations’, from his 2013 Invocations Press collection of ‘stories after Lovecraft’ Their Hand Is At Your Throats.
If ‘Iceberg’ is a kind of prequel to Lovecraft’s novella, with Victorian explorers encountering the five-lobed heads and barrel-shaped bodies of the creatures from it and discovering the true nature of the earth. ‘What Danforth Saw’ takes up the story after the disastrous expedition recounted by Lovecraft in what Shire’s tale suggests is a factual account in one of a pair of writings that cleverly blur the line between fiction and creative non-fiction, the other being ‘Lovecraft, Lacan and the Lurking Fear’. In ‘Irrevelations’, Shire returns to out-and-out fiction, with a futuristic tale of occult espionage, psy-ops and remote viewing, set in an almost James Bond-esque underground base beneath the Mountains of Madness. If you like your horror both cosmic and cerebral, you would do well to seek out this intriguing collection. I bought mine direct from the author, who runs The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton. You can either get a copy that way, or through Amazon.
As a fellow Brightonian, I’ve written some frozen fear of my own of course, though the snow in my two novelettes ‘How I Learned the Truth About Krampus‘ and ‘In the Hold, It Waits’ (anthologised in A Book of the Sea from Egaeus Press) is more in the way of setting than subject-matter.
It’s the time of year when annoying Christmas pop musics burrows into our heads and lodges there as unwanted ear-worms. We horror fans have our own ones of course — our fear-worms, if you will: ‘Shockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’, ‘All I Want for Christmas is Grue’, ‘Last Christmas, You Cut Out My Heart’, ‘Mistletoe and Slime’…
But enough of such foolishness! If intrusive yuletide pop leaves you feeling like THIS…
…Here’s a vaccine whose only side effect is terror! It’s something of an ear-worm too of course, a tune I just cannot get out of my head this Christmas, and I’m leaving it here in honour of the passing of Daria Nicolodi.
Oh, and for the record Deep Red IS a Christmas movie!
In the second part of my reading of ‘The Cutty Wren’, my folk horror story based on the lore around Saint Stephen’s Day, our heroes Ian and Jenny discuss the story of how the wren was crowned king of the birds on false pretences. I suppose in the back of my mind was also the three crowns in M.R. James’ ‘A Warning to the Curious’, which now I come to think of it has its counterpart in the three farthings mentioned in my tale. But devotees of M.R. James’s ghost stories will be all too aware that archaeological treasure hunting is a far from risk-free activity.
Most of James’s protagonists would probably be aghast at anyone thinking their antiquarian pursuits were for material gain, and yet anyone who has watched Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1972 adaptation of the above story closely will have observed the way the innkeeper clocks the state of disrepair Paxton’s shoes are in, and the shame-faced way Peter Vaughan as Paxton catches him looking from the newspaper, announcing “Three Million Unemployed”, to the aforementioned footwear. Vaughan’s jobless bank clerk has come to the end of the line, quite literally, the steam train dumping him and his suitcase, complete with strapped-on spade, onto the platform at Seaburgh. Making the hapless Paxton working class was a deliberate choice on Clark’s part, departing from the Oxbridge ivory tower occupied by the typical Jamesian figure and giving the character a motivation for his desperate search for the last remaining crown, as a means of rescuing his fortunes.
Another of Clark’s Ghost Story for Christmas films, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, also derived from one of James’s tales, has an apparently more well-connected duo of ill-fated ecclesiastical gold-prospectors, Michael Bryant’s “rational clergyman”, the Reverend Justin Somerton, and his aristocratic young protege, Lord Peter Dattering, played by Paul Lavers. But while Somerton may be happy to use his superior cultural capital to expose both the fraudulence of working class chancers posing as spiritualists and the folly of their upper class benefactress, Lady Dattering, holy orders were the refuge of disinherited younger sons of the upper middle classes.
When Lord Dattering teases him for “treasure hunting”, Somerton denies it vehemently and unconvincingly, hinting that if the Church authorities accommodating him thought his motive for cracking the Abbot’s code was filthy lucre, he could be thrown out on the street as unceremoniously as the fake mediums whose eviction he has brought about. But the expression on his face, unseen by Dattering as the younger man idly speculates upon the value of the haul, as well as Somerton’s subsequent eagerness to brave the indignities and horrors required to acquire it, tell a different story. And when his lordship discovers him trapped in his rooms by his terror of what he’s unleashed, it seems he is still in denial. This scene gives us a stark sense of the contrast between Dattering’s gilded life and Somerton’s cramped existence and the material gulf between the two men, with the young lord’s expression one of almost disgusted pity for the reduced stature of a man to whom he used to look up, now huddled in a poky room, starting at shadows.
Anyway, let’s hope our two intrepid seekers of ‘The Cutty Wren’ don’t end up in similar bother…
But do not fear! Help is at hand. Horror writer, Alison Littlewood, has written a novel named after the stuff, which also doubles up as a substitute cover for any yuletide lip-on-lip action.
However, far be it from me to suggest anyone pursue such non-socially distanced activities in these times, unless it’s within a household or bubble and masks are worn by the participants. So on second thoughts perhaps it’s better just to use the book as intended, and read it. Though I’ve yet to peruse this particular novel, Alison Littlewood is after all a first-rate writer of horror fiction, so I’ve no reason to expect anything less than excellence. Her books are often set in bleak, wintery landscapes, so make for perfect reading at this time of year, on long, cold nights by the fire.
“She took a deep breath and prodded at the snowman’s head. It rocked a little on the body, but it didn’t fall. Then she spread her fingers and prised away the snow, and chunks fell away, revealing what lay beneath, and Cass’ mouth opened, silent but screaming. Her lungs continued to seize the air, dragged it in and pushed it out, but she could not move —
“Then her hand reached out, but stopped short of touching the thing that lay beneath the snow: pink, peeling flesh, ragged and torn.”