Over a half-century of waiting but finally that brooding member of the classic Folk Horror unhallowed triumvirate of British films, The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) has its own tie-in novel accompanying on the shelves the book partners of Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973).
Only in the case of Witchfinder General did the book precede the film (written by Ronald Bassett and published in 1966). The novelisations of The Wicker Man (which was initially inspired by David Pirner’s 1967 novel Ritual) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw followed the films after some years and were both penned by the screenwriters of said films – Anthony Shaffer (alongside the director of the film, Robin Hardy) in The Wicker Man’s case and Robert Wynne-Simmons with regard to The Blood on Satan’s Claw. With time passed this allowed the writers to return to their creations with a fresher mind and to alter or elaborate upon the stories – with greater success in the case of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, (The Wicker Man novel is a decent enough read and works well to flesh out Sergeant Howie’s character but the addition of the characters Beech and Sorrel and their narratives I find somewhat superfluous and distracting).
Wynne-Simmons is more successful in fleshing out the bones of the characters (or rather furring up their flesh) without veering too far from the soul of the film.
Blood On Satan’s Claw or The Devil’s Skin as the book is titled, follows events that unfurled in the early 18th Century in a pastoral British village named Chapel Folding following the discovery of grisly remains by farmhand Ralph Gower when turning the soil of Tarrant’s Field – a patch of land that generally was left un-ploughed. Remnants of the unearthed mysterious body parts fall into the hands of some local children and things in the sleepy village begin to turn decidedly fiendish. It was not simply bodily relics brought to the surface by Ralph’s toils but a malign presence that endeavored to make itself felt through the bidding and worship of many of the locals – particularly the children.
It is this utter corruption of innocence that I feel is the heart of Blood on Satan’s Claw and which gives both the film and book power. It is also however the source of controversy that casts a shadow upon the movie. Without giving away Spoilers to either film or book, there is one scene in particular that regards the fate of one of the village girls. In hindsight the director Piers Haggard says that if he were to have done it now, he would have filmed the scene differently. I personally feel that the events of this scene are pivotal in showing the savage possession that the children have fallen under but do understand the criticisms of its cinematic depiction. Perhaps this was of consideration to Wynne-Simmons in his novelisation as on paper the events unfold thematically the same but stylistically different.
I am categorically a fan of the film, though utterly conscious of any issues levelled against it; but there is something I find eerily spell-binding in it. The book also captivated me. I wonder though if this would differ much had I not watched the film so many times. Dialogue I heard spoken in the specific actors’ voices and I pictured them likewise, which I think speaks well of the casting in the film. The book is a page-turner, though, written in a flowing, inviting manner so I think that for readers with no prior exposure to the film, it would still prove an engaging and interesting read.
The film though also to an extent does seem to have influenced the artist Richard Wells whose chapbook-reminiscent prints illustrate the book. Depicted characters such as the beguiling Angel Blake (one of my all-time favourite movie villains) look very much like their onscreen counterparts (Linda Hayden in Angel’s case).
I am a huge devotee to illustrated books so the imagery contained within is appreciated and a nice-touch. Wells being a prominent figure in the revival of Folk Horror being an apt choice for the job.
One bugbear I have with the film is the visual reveal of the Fiend – I do not think the effects do the malignant entity justice (same bone of contention I have with the otherwise great 1957 film Night of the Demon). I would have preferred both to have been more unseen and would have found that more ominous and disturbing. However within the book the depiction of the devil of the fields in all his glory is reminiscent of the medieval texts and does suit the purpose better.
The red bookmark ribbon is another small but pleasing touch – these visual attentions make the book more of a pleasure to behold and make for a nice ghoulish gift for someone.
It’s been a long time in coming but well worth the wait I feel, as I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for its narrative and writing and for its visual appeal.
Linda Hayden as Angel Blake in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
Blood on Satan’s Claw or The Devil’s Skin
Written by Robert-Wynne Simmons, illustrated by Richard Wells
Available now HERE and at other book stores
Review by Andy Paciorek