“Fleet is a ‘weltersong’ of desire and otherness. An epic saga of shapeshifting enchantment and an all too familiar drama of longing, banishment, abuse, survival and love. Jane Burn brings her unique vision, wild wordplay and stunning image-making to the evocation of the folklore of the Witch-Hare, and the voices of Motherdoe, Fleet and Daughterhare with the full force of mythic tragedy and Ovidian metamorphosis.” – Bob Beagrie, poet
A number of years ago, I ran away with the Show Folk. Literally I did, getting a taster initially in North Wales I then joined a traveling carnival as it traversed across Asia. It was a strange time that influenced and inspired a fair portion of my later art and writing. But it was not the first time my mind turned to dark carnivalia. I never liked rollercoasters or other rides, never found clowns funny (or frightening) but something about circuses and carnivals especially the sideshows enchanted me.
When I was very young, I received as a present the book Horrors: A History of Horror Movies by Tom Hutchinson and Roy Pickard. Along with Monsters and Vampires by Alan Frank and Usborne’s Mysteries of the Unknown: Monsters, Ghosts and UFOs these books were my childhood bibles. On page 111 of Horrors though was a photograph that beguiled me. It was a still from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic movie Freaks. Upon reading underneath it, I was informed that the people in the photograph looked in reality as they appeared. I then visited a sideshow tent at I cannot remember where on some childhood daytrip, but although for the money only saw some photographs, some flea-bitten anomalous taxidermy and a few indistinct things floating in dirty jam-jars, I felt a weird sense of homecoming or something.. Upon getting my first ever book token as a gift I then purchased The World’s Most Fantastic Freaks by Mike Parker.My curiosity was stirred further but so also was my compassion – these were not monsters but people, intriguing exceptional people.
In years to come I read more books, watched documentaries and movies that featured real life people with teratological features or other profound physical differences. Films such as the afore-mentioned Freaks, but also The Mutations, The Sentinel, Chained For Life, The Other, even the Time Bandits. No matter how brief the appearance was, it intrigued me. Some of the films and books displayed compassion whilst others were perhaps more exploitative. Freaks and geeks captivated me. One night in a student bar, The Enigma, a man tattooed head to foot like a jigsaw puzzle, who was a former member of The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow whom I’d seen perform at a theatre the night before and who also starred in the X Files carnivalia episode Humbug, asked whether he could sit at our table. I was thrilled at that happen-chance
Later in life after my own days on the midway and having viewed the great Channel 4 tv show Cast Offs and the amazing HBO serial Carnivale, my mind turned again to something I had mulled over for years – writing and illustrating my own book about these very special people. With the encouragement of actor Mat Fraser, author Karl Shuker, artist Madame Talbot and John Robinson the ringleader of Sideshow World, all my years of admittedly voyeuristic curiosity took form in the pages of The Human Chimaera: Sideshow Prodigies and Other Exceptional People. It to date was my most difficult book to create, I wanted to show empathy and compassion but no condescension in my words, yet I wanted to render their portrait with regard to the fantastic nature of their stage names or curious features of their lives. In my own, apparently ‘dark’ style I wanted to pay tribute to the sideshow banners that intrigue and captivate but yet stay true to the subjects’ actual likenesses. I think / hope I got the balance right.
Containing over 100 original pen & ink portraits alongside biographic text, The Human Chimaera is an indispensable guide to the greatest stars of the circus sideshows and dime museums.
Includes a foreword by John Robinson of Sideshow World.
Foawr Also known as: Stone-Throwing Giants, Fooar. Upheavals in and on the earth that led to the creation of many immense and intriguing land formations and features were often accredited to the actions of Giants.
Many Giants in Britain and Ireland displayed a propensity for throwing stones, yet the Manx Foawr were absolutely notorious for heaving boulders around. They would throw rocks at humans, at ships, at each other and they would throw rocks just for the sake of throwing rocks. It seems however that the males of the species were more inclined towards trouble-making and stone-lobbing than the females. The masculine Foawr were despised by human farmers, not only for their rock-hurling but also for their other habit of ravishing cattle. It has been considered that the Foawr may be of the same lineage as the Celtic demonic race the Fomorii and some at least were said to be the children of the haggard storm-goddess, the Cailleach Bheur.
Horse-Whisperers were far more common in the times when horses were more widely utilised for transportation, agriculture and industry. Some horses more than others are loath to be ridden and strongly resist being tamed. It is in these circumstances that Horse-Whisperers would come into their own. They were so named because they were believed able to calm and train wild horses by whispering into their ears (the Horseman’s Word). There have been suggestions that concoctions of certain aromatic herbs may have also been utilised in the soothing of equine temper and nervousness. Whatever their true methods, it could not be disputed that the Horse-Whisperers generally had an excellent and impressive record of breaking beasts. Onlookers and clients would often conclude that supernatural powers were afoot, a supposition that Horse Whisperers did little to dispel and may even have encouraged. Not just anyone could become a Horse-Whisperer however, for they guarded their prowess with the utmost secrecy. Elaborate Masonic-style initiation was the only way into the ranks in Scotland, and women were never made privy to the Horseman’s Word. Rumours spread that the introductory rites and the deliverance of knowledge involved the presence of the Devil himself. The form of Horse-Whisperers known as Toad-Men heightened this sinister notion further. Their name was derived from their habit of carrying the skeleton of a Toad around in a pouch, apparently as a magical device.
The Dark Masters Trilogy comprise of a trio of novellas from acclaimed horror writer Stephen Volk, a member of the select group of Welsh writers alongside Arthur Machen, whose work is held in the highest esteem within horror circles. Volk is most famous for his scriptwriting work on Ken Russell’s Gothic, and above all else the BBC drama Ghostwatch.
The Dark Masters Trilogy brings together three novellas, Whitstable, Leytonstone and Netherwood as a trio of dark tales of fiction constructed around a quartet of celebrated horror and occult figures from the 20th Century’s cultural past. Hammer legend Peter Cushing takes the lead role in Whitstable, a juvenile Alfred Hitchcock in Leytonstone and we get a twofer in Netherwood with both horror novelist Dennis Wheatley and Occultist Aleister Crowley squaring up to one another.
Whitstable is up first. This is a story about the darker side of the 1970s that takes place in Peter Cushing’s beloved Whitstable in the period directly after the death of his much cherished wife, Helen. The story itself features some wonderfully written characters, and an interesting and well developed plot, however the real genius here is Volk’s touching portrayal of Cushing at this most difficult time in his life. The whole novella revolves around his incredible portrait of the horror legend as a broken man, the loss of his soul mate had rendered him a physical and mental wreck until a chance encounter with a young boy who mistakes him for the character he portrays on screen, the vampire hunter Dr Van Helsing. This leads to Cushing undertaking the role of investigator, delving into a crime that has been committed against the young boy, and saving himself at the same time.
Leytonstone is a story based on the childhood of Alfred Hitchcock that examines the roots of his fascination with crime and punishment, the two factors that form the basis for much of his cinematic output. The story begins with the young Hitchcock incarcerated in a police cell for a crime he did not commit. His Father had him locked up for a night to teach him a lesson. This inspires the young Fred as he was known to further investigate these ideas of crime and punishment with severe repercussions for those involved. Once again this is beautifully written, Volk once again highlighting his incredible turn of phrase and attention to detail, as well as his incredible knack for writing wholly believable characters. Despite much of this story being fictional you feel as though you are delving into the mind of the real Hitchcock, such is Stephen Volk’s incredible talent for writing character.
Netherwood is the final entry in the trilogy. Volk imagines a meeting between two of the most important figures in the Twentieth Century occult world, Dennis Wheatley and Aleister Crowley. Once again Stephen Volk has created a truly believable work of fiction by rooting it in facts. An aging Crowley requests the presence of Wheatley at Netherwood, the guest house in Hastings that was to be Crowley’s last resort. A visibly sick and dying Crowley requests Wheatleys assistance to complete one one final magickal working before his death. The interplay between the two men who never actually met in real life is excellent and you really do get the sense that this is exactly how these events would have played out had they actually happened. This is of course Stephen Volk’s greatest achievement, his characters are so well researched and developed that he almost instinctively knows how they would behave in almost any scenario. A rare commodity indeed and one that should be cherished.
The Dark Masters Trilogy is a triumph, a beautifully written volume that takes the Twentieth Century’s most infamous practitioners of horror and the dark arts and places them into new scenarios. Stephen Volk has written three fictional tales, that are so believable as to be future urban legends, such is the power of his writing, the great attention to detail, and his knowledge of the history of horror and the occult. You simply can’t imagine these stories having the same impact in anyone else’s hands. Each tale having its roots in fact provides a strong base for Volk’s writing, whether this is Cushing’s sad loss, Hitchcock’s incarceration, or Crowley’s final days at Netherwood.
As many of you will already be aware, Stephen Volk is a visionary writer in the field of horror and these novellas are a very strong addition to an already richly acclaimed career. I simply cannot recommend these tales highly enough.
The Dark Masters Trilogy is published by PS Publishing and is available to order from their website now at the link below.
The rather wonderful Folk Horror short, The Sermon from director Dean Puckett is now available to view online. This fabulous short film deals with issues that arise from the question of a young woman’s sexuality in a small rural English village. The film is both thought provoking and beautifully shot on 35mm film in deepest darkest Dartmoor. Puckett uses the British landscape to great effect in this near 12 minute masterpiece. Don’t just take my word for it, view the film yourself from the link below.
Director Dean Puckett cut his teeth making documentary films, the most recent of which was released in 2013, Grasp the Nettle highlights the exploits of a group of land rights activists who battle to set up alternative communities in Britain. The Sermon is his second fiction short to have been supported by Creative England and the BFI after the comedy, horror, sci-fi short Circles in 2015. Circles, which was also set in Devon involved paranormal investigators taking their revenge on a group of crop circle hoaxers. The Sermon premiered at the BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival on March 24th, 2018 to critical acclaim.
One of the most popular characters of Russian folk characters is a heroine named Vasilisa (or Vasilissa) who appears in several Russian fairy tales collected by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev. Known variously as Vasilisa the Wise, Vasilisa the Brave and Vasilisa the Beautiful, her virtues are held in esteem.
In a trope familiar to fairytales the world over, Vasilisa’s mother died whilst Vasilisa was still a child and her father remarries another woman who proves to be an unkindly stepmother to her. Furthermore her stepsisters were none too kindly either. When her father had reason to travel away for a while, the family moved into a cabin deep within a huge forest.
Vasilisa was given a heavy workload of chores by her new family, but she had in her possession a magic doll that was her mother’s final gift to her and which assisted her with her work. Also the stepmother would send Vasilisa out into the forest to collect sticks or mushrooms, but really in the hope that the girl would become fatally lost.
Whilst living in that remote cabin within the woods, the girls were instructed always to have a single candle kept alight from which other fires could be lit. It so happened one day that one of the elder stepsisters let the candle go out, so the young Vasilisa was ordered to gather fire from their nearest neighbour, who was none other than the witch Baba Yaga. So Vasilisa made the considerable trek beneath the darkness of trees to the macabre chicken-legged hut of Baba Yaga. On the way she is passed in turn by three horsemen. Each of which is clad in a single colour which also corresponds to their mount; first a white rider, then a red then finally a black rider whom nightfall followed soon after. Reaching the abode of the old witch, Vasilisa is petrified by the skulls on the fenceposts, whose eye-sockets burn with an eerie glow. Upon finding the girl, Baba Yaga instructs her that in order to retrieve fire Vasilisa must undertake certain tasks.
However should she fail in these chores or attempt to leave without performing them, then she was informed that she would be cooked and eaten.
The duties allocated to her were to clean Baba Yaga’s hut, to separate bad kernels of grain from the good and to separate poppy seeds from soil. Baba Yaga left the girl to her business but Vasilisa was distraught and already exhausted from her long walk through the woods. However the magic doll again assisted her in her tasks and the girl slept.
In the morning, Vasilisa looked out and saw the white rider pass by, later on the red rider passed and finally the black rider, followed both by darkness and the return of Baba Yaga. Seeing the chores beset Vasilisa completed, the witch proceeded to invoke several pairs of invisible hands to wring juice from the separated grains. She asked Vasilisa if she had any questions. The girl enquired about the horsemen and was informed that the white rider was the break of dawn, the red rider was the midday sun and the black one was the fall of night. Vasilisa was then about to enquire about the disembodied hands that worked for the old woman, but sensing this the magic doll in her apron pocket shook as if to warn her to hold her tongue. Vasilisa understood this and asked not of the mysterious hands.
Instead Baba Yaga asked How Vasilisa had managed to complete the difficult chores she had beset her. Vasilisa replied not too revealingly but not untruthfully that she had managed through her mother’s blessing.
The old witch wanted to hear of no blessing in her abode so cast Vasilisa out into the dark, but did not renege her promise and gave the girl a skull upon a stick. The fire in the dead eyes would both illuminate her path home and relight the fires within the cabin.
Upon returning there however, her stepmother and stepsisters became transfixed by the smoldering eyes of the skull and were reduced to nought but ashes. Vasilisa buried the skull.
Different tales follow the further life of Vasilisa, in one she is seen to weave threads of flax into gold or the finest silk. So impressed is the Tsar himself upon seeing the cloth, that he bids Vasilisa to meet him. Upon seeing her he is smitten with her beauty and takes her for his wife. In another variation Vasilisa is named as the girl whose kiss transformed a frog into a prince, who was then to become her husband. Whatever the tale of Vasilisa’s later life, there seems to be a common agreement that she and her father spent it in greater wealth and happiness than before.
In Ireland, the Failte na Marbh (Festival of the Dead) was held annually on the 31st October. (also known as Samhain. All Souls and most commonly Halloween). At this time, the dead would pay a short visit to their living relatives and, after a year in the grave, they were obviously thirsty and famished. It was then the duty of the living kin to provide them with food and drink. If sufficient victuals were not offered, the dead would then feed from the veins of the living. These creatures were known as Marbh Bheo – the Night-walking Dead. On the Scottish Isle of Skye pure vengeance was often thought to be the prime mover for the Biasd Bheulach. These Vampire-like creatures would not only spare their revenge for the specific individuals who had done them wrong in life, or had sent them to the grave, but would exact grim penance upon any living soul that fell within their grasp. In England the dead thought most likely to rise again were suicides & executed criminals, and Northumbria in particular was said to have suffered several Vampire plagues. Prevalent also in both Irish and Scottish lore were Vampires that had no discernible human heritage, and instead seemed to be of a malevolent Fay stock. Such a shadowy creature was the Irish Dearg-Due or Dearg-Diulai – the Red Bloodsucker. Frequently the Dearg-Diulai appeared as beautiful, pale females cloaked in a sanguine-red capes. Attracting warm-blooded males with their feminine charm, seduction soon turned to slaughter.
The Baobhan Sith, or Spirit Women, are a strange breed of Scottish Vampiric entities. They most frequently manifest as small groups of beguiling women, dressed in flowing green cloaks that almost conceal the fact that their legs are of a form more befitting Deer. They may also at times take the forms of Hooded Crows. Highland tales relate how they may entrance men with their dancing before sinking their fangs into them. The Baobhan Sith display a fear of cold iron.
Night Hags: Also known as: Night-Mares, Mara, Mera, Mares, Crushers, Drudes, Mare-Demons, Hagges, Haints, Entities, Mallt y Nos, Night-Fiends, Cauchemar, Night-Elves. Sometimes people who suffered from wasting diseases such as Tuberculosis Consumption were said to look ‘Haggard’ or ‘Hag-Ridden’. This refers to the belief that, as they slept, a Night-Hag had entered their bedchambers and either sat upon their chests crushing them (but not to the point of fatality) and perhaps sucked away at their breath, or their vitality, or alternatively had actually ridden their victims entirely into the air and sometimes over distance. Either way, their human victims were left exhausted and often diseased. The alternative name of Mara and its similar derivatives is said to have meant Crusher in Old-English, and it is from this word that the term Night-Mare originated – initially meaning not a bad dream but an actual external terror. The term Hag-Riding has also been applied when horses who had been left resting have been found to be exhausted and covered in sweat in the morning. Again it was considered that the Night-Hags had been riding the horses around in circles to the point of collapse during the hours of darkness. In some locations it was thought that these fiends on horseback delivered bad dreams to households, thus giving an additional meaning to Night-Mare. An alternatively used term to Hag-Riding is to be Owl-Blasted, which refers to the belief that Night-hags would sometimes take the form of these nocturnal birds.
Demon Lovers: An Incubus is a male spirit that seeks to indulge a mortal woman in carnal activity, whilst a Succubus is a female spirit that likewise preys on the passions of mortal men. However it has been suggested that both spirits are one and the same, and that the Incubi / Succubi adopts only a specific gender in relationship to its particular victim. The nature of these nocturnal paramours preyed heavily upon the minds of the Medieval Church, possibly because many of the alleged victims were members of their own ministry who had prescribed to a life of chastity. (Merlin, the great sage of Arthurian legend was thought to be the offspring of an Incubus and a Nun). The Church scholars deliberated on whether the phenomenon was mere hallucination borne out of celibate frustration, or sinful fantasies made flesh, but this held their own people to blame almost as much as the other considered option that such claims were in fact a cover-up for actual corporeal liaisons with human partners. Frequently, though, those who claimed an encounter with an Incubus / Succubus seemed not to have been pleasured by such a visit but to have been genuinely shocked and frightened. Therefore further attention was concentrated on seeking out an external, supernatural culprit. They questioned whether these night-visitors were perhaps a salacious breed of Faerie, or maybe vengeful Ghosts, but as all were considered agents of the Devil anyway then it was simple enough to label them Demon-Lovers.
The following review is for Charles Doran’s fascinating new short film Soirée.
Soirée tells the story of Bill, a young academic who we learn lives in the beautiful house at the top of the hill with the Bougainvillea – a thorny ornamental plant that grows in his garden. Bill is incredibly proud of his garden and loves nothing more than spending time sitting outside and enjoying the peace and tranquillity it provides. When we are first introduced to him this is where he is. His girlfriend Soledad (Surely a reference to Jess Franco muse Soledad Miranda) joins him, she hands him a gift to celebrate their one month anniversary. Bill looks unimpressed by the cufflinks and admits that he has not bought a gift for Soledad. Bill comes across as being very self-centred, claiming that his very presence is present enough for Soledad, who then mentions that they have been invited to a party by a Professor friend of hers that evening. Bill doesn’t seem too keen to attend but he begrudgingly accepts the invitation to the party.
The soirée, which is being held at the Institute for the Scientific Study of Human and Non-Human Phenomena is hosted by a gentleman named Wilhelm, played by Doran’s brother and co-writer Timothy. As he and Bill become acquainted over a few drinks, we are treated first hand, to what a scene stealer Doran is. His role as the Aleister Crowley type occult leader figure of Wilhelm is a perfect bit of casting, he exudes a genial menace of the sort made famous by Charles Grey’s Mocata in The Devil Rides Out or Niall MacGinnis as Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon. He is also attired most appropriately in a 1930s style suit, and even his home décor seems appropriate for an occult leader. As the two drink and become further acquainted we begin to see just how thoroughly unpleasant Bill really is. He tells Wilhelm and Soledad of the despicable way in which he was able to cheat the former owner of the house out of her home, and when they are joined by Wilhelm’s friend Jason, he is dismissive and rude about the occult figurine that Jason has brought to the party for the ritual that is due to take place. A very drunk Bill then agrees to be silent during the upcoming ritual in order that he may stay and watch.
Warning! The following two paragraphs may contain some slight spoilers. The camerawork and direction are spot on, particularly during the ritual scenes, which are just oddball enough to be truly menacing. The use of drums and a ritual dance performed seductively by a female cast member help to create a suitable atmosphere, whilst the use of animal masks draw influence from Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man. Wilhelm’s mask, on the other hand, harks back to something very Lovecraftian in nature, but even more terrifying.
As an interesting side note I would like to draw attention to the film’s use of the ancient Roman religion of Mithraism, which was practiced throughout the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the common era. This is particularly of interest to me as I live in the North East of England, near to the site of the Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh, on Hadrian’s Wall, which was built around 200 CE. Legend would have us believe that the God Mithras captured and killed the primeval bull in a cave. This apparently led to Mithraic temples being small, gloomy places as they try to replicate the atmosphere of the cave.
Overall, this is a beautifully made short film with a straight forward but well executed plot. The production values are great, and the main cast are all excellent, Matthew Nelson as Bill, Catie Smith as Soledad, Timothy Doran as Wilhelm, and Patrick Peterson as Jason. All ably buoyed by a fine supporting cast. In fact, the whole film looks and feels a lot more expensive than it is, which is real credit to the director who has created something that looks good on a budget. All credit to him for his hard work because it really does pay off here. I look forward to seeing where Charles and his brother go from here…
Charles Doran is an Administrative Professional for a major university in Southern California. His previous short films, Westsider, and Ennui, played at film festivals all over the world. Soirée is his first attempt at an “urban wyrd “ type of film. Soirée was co-written by his brother Timothy, an Assistant Professor of History at Cal State Los Angeles, who runs the very real Institute for the Study of Human and Non-Human Phenomena, the primary setting for the film.