Sunday, 24 July 2016

TOMEGORIA 18 - Summer of Night

While the days are at their longest, the nights the shortest, and the weather hottest, Odile and Jim take a look back away at Dan Simmons' classic novel of childhood, summer vacations, and monsters Summer of Night (1991)



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Friday, 22 July 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Chime of the Harebells

Over the past few instalments of Folklore on Friday, we have been tracing the folklore of the bluebell, and last time we discovered that it would appear that much of what has been quoted as bluebell lore is in fact folk beliefs centred around another flower, the harebell. Now the Campanula Rotundifolia, to give it its proper Latin name, is often referred to as "the Bluebell of Scotland", however actually grows all over England too. Now just to make matters utterly confusing, the "proper" English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is often called a harebell too, so then it is perhaps unsurprising the legends and lore of these two common woodland flowers have become entangled over the years. 

For example, both have been claimed to be the flower of St. George. But as DC Watts points out in his excellent volume Dictionary of Plant-lore (2007), harebells bloom around August, months after St. George's Day (23rd April), whereas the bluebell begins to flower around the end of April. Mr Watts therefore theorises that it is the bluebell that is properly St. George's flower, but thanks to their names being used interchangeably at many times and in many regions, the tradition has been recorded in harebell lore too. 

And looking into the various traditional and country names the harebell has had over the years, we find clear evidence that its folk traditions have overlapped and intermingled with that of the bluebell. For harebells are also known as witch thimbles, witch's bells, the Devils bell, dead men's bells and the fairies thimbles - names that it shares with, or at least are very similar to, the assorted folk names for the bluebell. And in the light of what we already know, one has to ask which flower actually had the lore originally - for as we have seen in our previous strolls through the bluebells, actually folkloric sources are somewhat thin on the ground. 

However looking into the literature of the harebell, we find an abundance of references and links to much of the folklore that is usually attributed to the bluebell. For example, in Notes on the Folk-lore of the North East of Scotland (1881) by Walter Gregor, we are told -

The bluebell  (Campanula rotundifolia) regarded with a sort of dread, and commonly left unpulled

While in The Folk-lore of Plants (1889), TF Thiselton-Dyer expands on this -
Among further plants of ill omen may be mentioned the bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia), which in certain parts of Scotland was called "The aul' man's bell," and was regarded with a sort of dread, and commonly left unpulled.
Now the Scottish man name for the harebell mentioned here "aul' man's bell" (meaning old man's bell) is very illuminating. For in Scotland, "the Aul' Man" was a nickname for the Devil himself, and therefore one did not wish to incur the wrath of the Dark Lord by picking his chosen flowers. And while in modern times we do not associate fairies with the Devil, in ages past there was a close connection between Hell and the world of faery. As we have mentioned in the past, the elves and sprites of folklore are dangerous beings, often cruel and malicious, and furthermore there was a belief that the faeries owed Hell an annual tithe of souls. Therefore it was thought that they snatched away travellers and children (sometimes leaving leaving changelings in their place) in order to spare their own kind being sent to the inferno.

Also closely allied to the elven folk were the witches. To begin with, witches in old European folklore were thought to be in league with the Devil, but in many witch trials in the United Kingdom, in particular those in Scotland, we have many testimonies from alleged witches that they not only consorted with evil spirits and attended sabbats with the Devil and his imps, but also had dealings with the faeries; learning spells from them, and even visiting Fairyland. With such an ominous triumvirate of associations occurring in their alternative names, it is no wonder folks were wary of picking harebells.

from The Lost Crown by Jonathan Boakes

And there is a further association with old magic contained within their proper name too. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name comes from their tendency to grow where hares were seen, and the hare has had a long association with magic and witches. Without falling down this particular rabbit hole - for hares in folklore is a vast subject in itself - let us just quickly note that witches were often said to be able to turn themselves into hares -
It was into a hare the witch turned herself when she was going forth to perform any of her evil deeds, such as to steal the milk from a neighbour's cow. Against such a hare, when running about a farm-steading, or making her way from the cow-house after accomplishing her deed of taking the cow's milk to herself, a leaden bullet from a gun had no effect.
from  Notes on the Folk-lore of the North East of Scotland (1881) by Walter Gregor

Now harebells coincidentally produce a white milky sap, and consequently were sometimes called milk-ort - meaning "milk herb". And given that they grow where hares were often seen, one can understand why in some places it was said that witches used the sap of the harebell to effect their transformations into hares. I have seen it claimed that that harebells were one of the ingredients in the flying ointments cooked up by witches, however as I have yet to discover a recipe which mentions them, I suspect that this alleged magical use of harebells is a distortion or misunderstanding of the belief they were used in transformations into hares. 

But showing a lighter side to the flower, but retaining the old connection with hares, there is a superstition that they rang to warn rabbits of foxes, a belief referenced by John B Tabb in this poem from his collection Child Verse: Poems Grave and Gay, first published in 1900 - 


Ring! The little Rabbits' eyes,
In the morning clear,
Moisten to the melodies
They alone can hear.

Ring! The little Rabbits' feet,
Shod with racing rhyme,
If the breezes they would beat,
Must be beating time.

Ring! When summer days are o'er,
And the snowfalls come,
Rabbits count the hours no more,
For the bells are dumb.

There are numerous other references to harebells actually ringing too. We find this old belief mentioned in many places, for example in a song from 1911,  An Autumn Song with lyrics by Fred G Bowles and music by Bertram Luard-Selby, we have these  lines -

How soon the Autumn day is done,
The briefer light, the lower sun
Pale hare-bells ringing in the wood,

Somewhat melancholy I'm sure you'll agree, and possibly a faint echo of an older, more sinister belief about harebells ringing. For as we have heard previously, another of their country names was "dead men's bells" referring to the idea that to hear the harebells ringing was an extremely ill omen. And once again when we follow the references to harebells ringing, it is not long before we find the faeries once more. In The Romance of Nature; or, The Flower-Seasons Illustrated published in 1836, Louisa Anne Twamley (later Louisa Anne Meredith after her marriage in 1839) has the following verses in the Autumn section of her book of poems and pictures - 

Have ye ever heard, in the twilight dim,
A low soft strain,
That ye fancied a distant vesper hymn,
Borne o'er the plain
By the Zephyrs that rise on perfumed wing
When the sun's last glances are glimmering?

Have ye heard that music with cadence sweet,
And merry peal,
Ring out like the echoes of fairy-feet
O'er flowers that steal?
And did ye deem that each trembling tone
Was the distant vesper-chime alone?
The source of that whispering strain I'll tell,
For I've listened oft
To the music faint of the Blue Harebell,
In the gloaming soft.
'Tis the gay fairy-folk that peal who ring
At even-time for their banquetting.

And gaily the trembling bells peal out
With gentle tongue,
While elves and fairies career about
'Mid dance and song.
Oh! roses and lilies are fair to see,
But the wild Blue Bell is the flower for me!

Now while the verses are certainly taking a somewhat quaint a view - a very early example of the fairies of folklore being transmuted into the cute versions of modern pop culture, they are clearly linked to the older and darker associations the flower has with supernatural beings. And as this poem hails from the 1830s, it predates much of the earliest studies into folklore, and so we have the harebell providing a historic source for what are often touted as bluebell beliefs. One can also see from the wording used in this poem how the confusion has arisen over the years, with bluebell and harebell being used interchangeably. 

And harebells have continued to have magical associations even in the modern age, with a fine example being found in the poem The Lane by Edward Thomas. In this verse we have an allusions to hearing the supernatural peals of the little flowers, resulting in a moment on mysterious transcendence, being taken out of time for a moment...


Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed ...
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

MICROGORIA 30 - Race With the Devil

Many years ago, on the 18th of July 1981, as part of their fabled summer seasons of horror double bills, BBC 2 screened Race With the Devil - a mid '70s road movie/action flick/horror pic hybrid starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates. And a young Mr Jim Moon was staying up late to watch it... Thirty five year later he's going back on the road again, and this time, he's doing a commentary!


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Friday, 15 July 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Bluebells and the Fairies

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been exploring the legends and lore surrounding the humble bluebell. We first uncovered a wealth of superstitions surrounding this well-loved woodland flower (see here), but then we discovered that there was a suspicious lack of historical sources for all this oft-quoted folklore (see here). However not being one to give up easily, I dug deeper and despite consulting all manner of books on folklore, old histories, and numerous compendiums of herb and plant lore. But despite all this searching, I only managed to discover only a couple of sources. In the Devonshire Association Transactions Volume 65 from 1933, there was mention that in parts of Devon it was considered unlucky to bring bluebells indoors, however the reasons why weren't made clear.

More illuminating however was the mention of bluebells in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967) by Katherine Briggs -
In Somerset they say you should never venture into a wood to pick bluebells. If you were a child you may never come out again, and if you are a grown-up you will be pixy-led until someone meets you and takes you out. 
And there I think we may have finally hit the jackpot. For Katherine Briggs was a hugely influential folklorist, penning many volumes that are now recognised as classics in the field, and hence many subsequent tomes on folklore have been assembled from old lore collected and recorded by this eminent scholar. And it is my guess that a good many of the standard write-ups of bluebell folklore one finds in modern books and webpages are built on the slim foundations of this reference. Over the years it would seem that Briggs's reference to this piece of Somerset superstition has been  (mis)represented as a common belief, with an isolated local belief being careless transmuted into a national superstition. However as the book it appears in was only published in the 1960s, and in turning up so many blanks in so many other major reference works, I began to wonder if the roots of all this bluebell folklore was actually lay elsewhere entirely.

Now there was a huge craze for all thing faery in Victorian and Edwardian England, and this ran so deep that our modern view of faeries owes far more to the romanticised whimsy of the Victorians than it does the actual legends concerning elves and the like. And in this period old folk tales were dressed up, indeed often sanitised, and repackaged as literature for children. Now in addition to trimming away all the rough and nasty edges of the old tales, we also had a pantheon of very talented authors and artists creating whole new worlds of imagination. Sometimes they drew on existing stories but more often than not they were inventing entirely new creations. Hence our modern conception of fairies as cute little Tinkerbells faffing about with flowers is very much a product of Victorian and Edwardian art and literature, creatures of what we might term faux-lore rather than authentic folklore. However in the old classics of children's literature from these times, there is sometimes a mixture of both real folklore and modern whimsy; something Katherine Briggs herself went on to note in her fleeting mention of bluebells. She speculates there may have been a similar Northern tradition of bluebell woods being places to become pixy-led, citing an incident  a story book by Beatrice Potter.

For in 1929, Potter published a book entitled The Fairy Caravan which tells the tale of a guinea pig called Tuppenny and is set in the countryside around Graythwaite Hall in the Lake District, Cumbria. During his adventures, Tuppenny and his chums are riding in a horse-drawn caravan and attempt to pass through a little wood of oak trees which "was covered in bluebells - as blue as the sea - as blue as a bit of sky come down". However despite the wood being small, it takes the animal pals a good four hours to get through it, as they seem to be just going around in circles, while unseen hands pelt the travellers with little oak apples. And although Potter never has the elvish inhabitants of Pringle Wood make a direct appearance in the text, her illustration accompanying this portion of the tale clearly shows the Little Folk amid the flowers.

Now clearly this incident in The Fairy Caravan recalls the bluebell lore mentioned by Briggs. However this is never explicitly stated in the text, and hence I'm not sure we cannot draw any firm connections here. Many varieties of faeries where said to enjoy confusing travellers in this way, and to visit certain places where they were said to dwell was to risk becoming pixy-led. And so, without specific references, Potter could well be drawing on Cumbrian faery lore attached to oak trees, or woodlands in general, rather than bluebell superstitions - for example there are similar (although admittedly more sinister) shenanigans when entering fairy-haunted woods in Algernon Blackwood's Ancient Light (which you can hear here), but there are no bluebells flowering there.

On the other hand, given the popularity of Beatrix Potter, that evocative picture of the blue pixies in the woodland flowers may well have made a connection with these flowers and fairies in the popular imagination. However once again, there is a twist in the tale, for while this story was first published in 1929, the book wasn't released in the United Kingdom until the 1950s. So then, much like the Briggs volume, we have another rather relatively recent reference... Was there anything a bit older?

And so I delved a little deeper, with my next port of call being the Flower Fairy books - a hugely popular series of seven books written and illustrated by Cicely Mary Barker. The first book was published in 1923, establishing the format of a full page picture of a particular fairy and the flower it inhabits alongside a short verse telling of its character and nature. Over the years six books more would follow, along with a posthumous volume and numerous anthologies collecting the volumes together in whole or in part. And I think it's fair to say that when people generally think of fairies these days, they are picturing little floral folks like Barker's creations.  

Now the actual verse for the fairy of the Bluebell (which you can see here), appears in the first volume Flower Fairies of the Spring (Blackie 1923). Unfortunately for our purposes, it isn't terribly enlightening, however it does come with an interesting note that reads "This is the Wild Hyacinth. The Bluebell of Scotland is the Harebell". Now Ms. Barker would cover the Harebell in her second book, Flower Fairies of Summer (1925), and here I think we have the key to our puzzle, for the verse reads thus -

The Song of the Harebell Fairy

O bells, on stems so thin and fine!
No human ear
Your sound can hear,
O lightly chiming bells of mine!

When dim and dewy twilight falls,
Then comes the time
When harebells chime
For fairy feasts and fairy balls.

They tinkle while the fairies play,
With dance and song,
The whole night long,
Till daybreak wakens, cold and grey,
And elfin music fades away.

Now we did we not read in the first part of this series how it was said that bluebells tolled for faery gatherings? And while 'harebell' is an alternative name for the English Bluebell (the Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but there is another flower that bears this name, the Campanula rotundifolia. Now this flower has similar delicate bell-shaped blooms, but is of an entirely different species. And despite its title "the bluebell of Scotland", harebells are actually common throughout England. They tend to flower later in the year, around August and hence they are sometimes also known as harvest bells. And following this lead, we find the following entry in The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightley (Thames and Hudson 1987) - a compendium of lore compiled from various sources, some dating back to Tudor times - 
Harvest Bells are better known as "Harebells", "the Bluebells of Scotland". This is the flower of the magical hare, called Fairy Caps and Fairy Ringers, has supernatural protectors, so it is very unlucky to pick it.
Again we are seeing a large overlap with the bluebell lore here, and I rather suspect that there has been a good deal of confusion over the years, with most of what is commonly reported as bluebell folklore actually being the lore of the harebell. Certainly it may explain why proper historical sources for bluebell lore are so thin on the ground: the actual lore is hiding under the harebells. And we shall be following this lead through the harebells next time! 

Sunday, 10 July 2016

FROM THE GREAT LIBRARY OF DREAMS 21 - A Walk in the Blackwoods

This week Mr Jim Moon delves into the works of one of the all-time great writers of weird tales Mr Algernon Blackwood. As an introduction to this classic author, we sample two of his shorter tales - we stay for the weekend in a very curious room in The Goblin's Collection, and then take an ill-advised stroll in the woods in Ancient Lights...

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Thursday, 7 July 2016


After the success of Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies book last year, the Folk Horror Revivalists have been at it again, and now Folk Horror Revival: Corpse Roads is here. An epic collection of spellbinding poetry, focusing on folk horror, life, death and the eeriness of the landscape, accompanied throughout with atmospheric imagery by an impressive collection of contemporary photographers. And it features classics works by the likes of William Wordsworth, Charles Baudelaire, Charlotte Bronte, WB Yeats, HP Lovecraft, John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, to name but a few, and a whole slew of modern works exploring folk horror themes. 

Paperback: 564 pages. photographically illustrated throughout.
£15 UK
$19.80 ( + tax) USA
(for local currencies change little flag to own area on top of sales page)

Google for Lulu discount code before ordering to make great savings
100% of book sales profits are donated to The Wildlife Trusts

And you can grab a copy here - 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

MICROGORIA 29 - Bubble, Bubble, Toads and Trouble

Once again we are exploring the weird world of toad-lore! In this episode we are learning the secret of the toad bone and looking at the uses of toads in witchcraft and sorcery!

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