Friday, April 16, 2021

A Novel of Dorset Witchcraft

 
Bachelor’s Knap (1935) by Eric Benfield is a novel with supernatural elements that seems to have evaded much notice so far. It was published by Peter Davies, who had a distinct taste for the macabre. An artist goes to a remote Dorset village to paint, staying at the local inn. There is a rambling old thatched cottage standing apart down a hollow way, but something keeps spoiling his attempts to paint it.

It proves to be the home of a witch. Her practice is a mixture of practical, down-to-earth folk wisdom and a psychic attunement to certain spiritual currents. Warily, he gets to know her and they become lovers.

And then in one remarkable necromantic scene she visits her previous, dead lover in the churchyard, raises his decaying body and releases him from her influence, since she is now committed to another. We are all set for a novel of dark occult deeds.

This is not exactly how it develops, though there are other glimpses of the supernatural: there are suggestions of thought-reading, precognition and an awareness of vital forces at play on individual fates. However, the novel also concerns itself with the economic and political realities of rural life. 

One plot strand concerns a farmer’s eviction of an agricultural worker because of his socialist views: the witch and the artist give him shelter. Another describes the secretive world of the Purbeck marble workers, a trade carried on in the same families for centuries. We see their difficult, risky work.

In another scene, a friend of the artist, a Communist organiser, incites the village men to take over the pub for a night, ejecting the landlord, and enjoying free beer. His hope that this will lead to a broader insurrection does not materialise and he has to go into hiding to evade the local constable. There is a strange, visionary denouement as he flees over the cliffs.

Benfield’s writing has a certain plain, rugged integrity to it, though dialogue is not a strong point: conversations are often a bit staged, and not natural-sounding. The novel seems to be aiming to reveal the secret, sinister life of a seemingly pleasant, secluded village, in the manner of T F Powys. The protagonist artist is a bit too passive to hold centre stage, though, and the structure often feels diffuse, as if the author wasn’t sure if he wanted to focus on rural hardship or uncanny folklore.

However, the novel ends with a raw and intense folk magic ritual at an ancient earthwork, the Cuckoo Pound, where the witch draws to her a dark stranger who exudes a black light. This being becomes her supernatural lover. The artist knows he is no longer needed, and departs the village: “He had been allowed to see something of the power of the countryside.” Beyond all the mortal machinations of village life there is a primeval force remorselessly at work.

A 2003 feature on Benfield by Patrick Wright at the Open Democracy website noted that “Benfield had actually started out as a quarrier and stone-worker at Worth Matravers, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. By the late 1920s, the stone trade was dying, squeezed by the war-sped advance of concrete, and Benfield, like other Purbeck quarriers, was reduced to hacking out birdbaths or stone squirrels and owls for suburban gardens and the tourist trade.”

However, as Wright describes, Benfield also turned his hand to modernist sculpture and to writing. He was the creator of an anti-war monument at Woodford Green commissioned by Sylvia Pankhurst, which was controversial in its time. 

His other books include a guide to Dorset; a booklet about the Dorset hill fort Maiden Castle (the subject of a novel by John Cowper Powys); Purbeck Shop (1948), about the stoneworkers, and at least one other novel drawing on the Dorset quarrying culture, Saul’s Sons (1938); and some crime fiction. He also wrote an autobiography, Southern English (1942).

(Mark Valentine)
 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Through a Looking Glass Darkly

Through a Looking Glass Darkly is a re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's work by rare book dealer Jake Fior, who specialises in 'Alice' material, which draws on the supernatural and mystical elements in Carroll's imagination. The Victorian author's library, Fior notes, included shelves of books on magic and speculative thought. 

This variation on the book takes an older version of Alice through an occult landscape involving elements from the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. 

The new volume also explores the strange synchronicities and discoveries encountered during the re-creation of the book. 

The book includes unpublished illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, whose previously unknown 'Alice' chess-board Jake Fior found, and new coloured versions by Kate Hepburn of the classic Alice artwork.

It is available in a special signed edition limited to 125 copies, bound in midnight-blue silk cloth with the top edge hand decorated in silver and with certain pages perfumed by Roja Dove. There is also a trade edition. 

(Mark Valentine)

Monday, April 12, 2021

Sphinxes & Obelisks

Sphinxes & Obelisks is a new volume of essays on rare books and recondite subjects. All the pieces are previously uncollected and many are new or revised.
 
The books discussed include an interplanetary fantasy by a Welsh squire, a timeslip novel by the priest-poet once thought to be the original of Dorian Gray, an occult thriller about the rivalry to possess an ancient grimoire, and an overlooked work about the revival of Roman paganism in a quiet English village.
 
Other essays discuss Tarot in the 1950s, fashionable wear for ghosts, the rich history and mythology behind the Saracen’s Head inn sign, and a book-collecting expedition to the West Country.

You will also discover why Queen Victoria demanded to see the disembodied head of a Sphinx, the slight flaw with the idea of racing cheetahs at the White City, how Apocalypse was announced at a Somerset railway station book-stall, and how to play the game of Cat-at-a-Window.

The hardback first edition, available from Tartarus Press, is limited to 300 copies. 

(Mark Valentine)

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Warminster

I took seven books to the counter of the bookshop. Outside the day was damp and overcast, the clouds all iron, indigo and grey. The hills across the bay were dimmed, full of shadow. The proprietor looked at the paperback on top of the pile. “The Warminster Mystery,” he read, and jerked his bearded head in dismissal, “no mystery there. Warminster’s right by some big army camps, that’s all it was.”

I felt as if I were being reproached for buying the book, but put this down to the often unusual sales techniques of second-hand booksellers. I murmured something about it looking interesting. “I thought Warminster was quite an unusual little town,” I added, rather insipidly. “Maybe,” he grudgingly conceded, “perhaps I was too young to appreciate it.” This sounded like a cue for me to ask about his childhood, but it wasn’t one I intended to pick up. I let the remark drop into the silence, handed over the money and went out.

I had visited the Wiltshire town on one of my journeys some years ago in quest of mystical places: the same quest that took me to Glastonbury, Avebury, Maiden Castle, the Rollright Stones, the Malverns and other, obscurer, places. I knew that Warminster had been in the early sixties the focal point for a flying saucer “flap”, as they are called: a sudden surge of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects. But that wasn’t its only link to the strange and uncanny. It was also said to be a fulcrum for a network of ley lines, and at the heart of an unpublished landscape zodiac, known only to a few zealous researchers. What more inducement could be needed to find out more? 

So I am delighted to see that the excellent Castles in Space record label have announced pre-orders for Warminster UFO Club, an LP by hauntological musician Drew Mulholland offering filmic compositions inspired by the Wiltshire town’s noted UFO flap. 

That bookseller’s dismissal of the mystery sounded as if it were common sense. When there is a cluster of sightings of strange lights, an explanation in some military dimension seems plausible. Even the very name of the town seems to offer a clue. But when I began to read the book, I soon found there were two reasons why this explanation was not quite so convincing as it seemed. For one thing, some of the sightings had been reported by military personnel, and they were of all sorts of ranks and posts. If the lights had indeed been caused by manouevres, or experiments, or some secret activity at the nearby bases, they might have been expected to know about these: and they might also have been expected to be told to keep quiet.

Secondly, the range and variation of the experiences and encounters reported in Warminster went much further than the strange lights, dramatic though they were. In fact, a common report was of strange noises on the town roofs, like giant hailstones or falling masonry, or the flapping of the wings of a vast flock of crows. There were also other peculiar noises, of whistling, buzzing, grinding, droning. Other phenomena included animals and birds behaving strangely, odd telephone calls, and that indefinable sense of a presence which we should not too easily dismiss simply because it is less specific. The locals, indeed, simply called all these phenomena ‘the Thing’, showing that to them it was more than simply flying saucer sightings.

The book was by Arthur Shuttlewood, a local journalist: it was probably the most popular of quite a number by him on the same theme. The Warminster Mystery was published in Tandem paperback in 1973; it was followed by The Flying Saucerers (Sphere, 1976), UFO Magic in Motion (Sphere, 1979) and the unimaginatively-titled More UFOs Over Warminster (A Barker, 1979). He had also published Warnings From Flying Friends from Portway Press in 1968, a library publisher and UFOs: Key to the New Age in 1971 from the Regency Press, usually a subsidy publisher.

His style is often vivid and exclamatory, and may not inspire confidence. We must also acknowledge that as a newsman the author could not help but have an interest in heightening and sustaining the idea of a strange and special crisis going on in and around the town. But in fact once the hyperbole is cleared away, he is quite precise about giving dates, locations and the names of witnesses. One thing is clear from his book: in the early 1960s, a significant number of “ordinary” Warminster people said they had seen or heard something well outside the common run of natural experience.

Interest in UFOs, ley lines and similar Aquarian Age motifs has waned in the sixty years since their peak, and they are now regarded mostly as cultural phenomena with a certain retro charm, symbols of a particular time, evoked with a bemused affection. There is a well-informed discussion of the matter on the BBC News website (“The mystery of Warminster’s ‘UFO’”, 20 May 2010) by Kevin Goodman, described as a ‘UFO expert’: he also runs the UFO Warminster website (www.ufo-warminster.co.uk). 

He describes how at one point the town had its own UFO newsletter, The Fountain, published from Star House, a privately-funded research centre, and a separate volunteer network, called Info. Goodman reports that “Arthur Shuttlewood died in Warminster in 1996. With his death, the last lingering memories slowly faded away,” but he adds, “all I can say is this: something strange did happen there. I know. For a time, I was part of it.”

By the time I visited, in the 1980s, the town was quiet again. There was no obvious sign of its dramatic past. It seemed a slow, steady, subdued sort of place. I was looking then, not for the afterglow of the UFOs or the doings of the Thing, but for clues to the secret zodiac that, so far as I knew then, had never been documented or described. 

The Wiltshire Zodiac, with Warminster at its centre, was one of a number of such landscape mysteries that had begun to be identified, or imagined (depending on your point of view), under the influence of the Glastonbury Zodiac, originally described by the sculptor and mystic Katharine Maltwood in 1935: I am working on an informal bibliography of them. So if you should happen to notice any astrological symbols while poring over maps of Wiltshire or exploring its mystic terrain, do let me know.

(Mark Valentine)