Do you remember the '70s? Strange decade wasn't it? Post apocalyptic dramas, weird crime fighters, spooky SF shows, and some genuinely terrifying ghost stories... And that was just the children's television! Come take a trip back to that very disturbing decade where terror and horror lurked everywhere from TV to comics to board games and even snack foods! Relive those golden days with Mr Jim Moon as we take an in-depth look at Scarred For Life Volume 1 by Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence, a marvellous tome that both catalogues and celebrate that was weird and unsettling in the 1970s! Get your own copy of Scarred For Life Volume 1 here!
Last week we told the eerie and tragic tale of the Black Lady of Bradley Woods. However there is another story attached to this particular ghost which also delves into her origins to a lesser degree. And while the legend we recounted last week bears all the hallmarks of a traditional ghost story from local folklore, this supplement to the main legend, I suspect, is of far more modern vintage.
If you look up the legend of the Black Lady, you will soon find an oft-repeated assertion that the Black Lady was a nun. Now at first glance this appears to make a lot of sense, for British folklore is chock full of phantom nuns and spectral monks. However, quite clearly her origin tale make no mention of her being a nun at all. Now in the realm of folklore, it is not uncommon to find a ghost or spirit to have several different origin stories, and this is very true in cases such as this one where the entity has no definite name.
However there are some factors here that raise some suspicions. Firstly, so far as I can tell, no one has ever described her as sporting the usual nun's wimple and habit. And secondly, the nearest convent, and indeed the nearest sites of former convents even, are actually several miles away. Now having done a fair bit of digging into the assorted accounts of the legend, I am beginning to suspect that what we will call "the nun theory" isn't so much folklore but something I have started to think of as weblore. And what is weblore? Well, as any reader in any field will tell you, the major problem with researching virtually anything online is discovering endless pages featuring the same information copied either in whole or in part from one single source. The most common example of this are the hundreds of pages that simply copy and paste entries from somewhere like Wikipedia. Additionally there are an equal number of sites that don't copy and paste wholesale, but simply paraphrase the text, allowing further inaccuracies and distortions to creep in. Hence any errors from an original source are very quickly reproduced, and the rogue factoid becomes part of the popular wisdom on the subject.
Of course there is a similarity here with the traditional way folklore is transmitted, with folks repeating the same stories time and time and again, and sometimes adding or omitting various details, either deliberately embellishing the tale or just by making mistakes. However the line I would draw between actual folklore and it's modern relation weblore, is that the former is done through an oral tradition or by literature, and the process is slow and gradual. Whereas weblore evolves rapidly from the mechanical means of copying and pasting, with variations creeping in from repeated mistakes or poor copy editing, rather than the tale organically changing through being retold through different tellers.
Now then, if you look up the legend of the Black Lady, you can find many sites that simply repeat or rephrase the Wikipedia entry on this ghost. And the text on the original page states that "One theory that has been put forward is that the Black Lady is the ghost of a nun", and unsurprisingly this factoid has become part of the weblore of the Black Lady. However if you look up the reference Wikipedia gives for the nun theory in the page's footnotes, it points to a report in the Grimsby Telegraph, and this newspaper article actually says something a little bit different.
To begin with, the newspaper report isdetailing an eerie photograph that allegedly may show the famous local phantom. Apparently while taking pictures of her cousin at night in Bradley Woods, photographer Kirsty Richie discovered strange shapes appearing in the shots. Naturally this was enough for the local paper to happily recounts the legend, and the piece remarks -
One theory is that she is the ghost of a nun, and was also said to appear in Nunsthorpe before moving to Bradley.
So then, I decided to dig a little deeper, and began looking for tales of ghostly nuns in the nearby Nunsthorpe. Now this western area of Grimsby is only a few miles away from Bradley Woods, and was once the site of the Priory of St Leonard. And yes, this religious institution was once home to nuns - and for more information on it I would direct the interested reader to local historian Rod Collins's page on it.
However the priory was closed down by Henry VIII in 1539, and it then became Nuns Farm. In 1935, this was demolished and eventually in the 1920s, the land was acquired by the local council and new houses were built on the site. Unsurprisingly given the area's long and rich history, I did find some reports of ghosts roaming this new housing estate, but I couldn't find any tales of a spectral nun being spotted. However I did find several mentions of a hooded man being seen, and in fact the case was featured in the popular TV series Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers. In episode 5, entitled "Ghosts, Apparitions and Haunted Houses", which first aired on 1st May 1985, we got the following report of the hooded man -
Now I rather suspect that these eerie tales of a hooded figure are the real origin of the alleged nun ghost. I would guess that these reports of a hooded ghost, and in fact most likely this 1980s TV report on the sightings, were misremembered, and hence the hooded spectre ended up changing sex and becoming a nun. With that muddle in place, it is a short step for someone to theorise that these two ghosts dressed in black and appearing relatively close together were one and the same. And so a hooded figure becoming conflated with the Black Lady.
Furthermore from my research it is quite clear that the stories of the Black Lady haunting Bradley Woods date back well before the reports of a hooded figure in Nunsthorpe. To turn once more to local historian Rod Collins, in the lively comment section on his article on the Black Lady there is no shortage of folks recounting their own tales of the Black Lady, with several locals recalling hearing the stories as children in decades before the era of ZX Spectrums and Rubik's Cubes. Quite clearly Bradley Woods has had a spooky reputation for a considerable amount of time...
As for the photograph in the report (which is archived here), I have reproduced it above alongside a version where I adjusted the brightness levels to better see what is going on. To my eyes, I would guess the strange shapes are possibly the result of some kind of reflection, but given the low quality of the picture I was working with it is hard to be certain what is causing the spooky looking shapes. However, given the nebulous nature of the shapes, I am strongly inclined to rule out a deliberate fraud, as I suspect that a deliberate hoax would produce something resembling a typical pop culture ghost rather than some mysterious patterns.
But the photograph does actually prove something about the Black Lady of Bradley Woods. For while the above snap may well fall short of providing concrete evidence for the existence of ghosts, it is absolutely rock solid proof that the story of the Black Lady is alive and well in the 20th century. And next week we will look at how the tale of this spectre is very much still a living legend.
Welcome once again dear fiends to the 'Orribe 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! That's it, step inside! The Geiger counter by the door is purely a precautionary measure I assure you! We don't want any of the Brotherhood or Slay Riders sneaking in do we now? Anyhow, today we are heading out once again into the irritated badlands of late 20th century tat, to continue the strange saga that is the history of the Landmaster.
So then, to briefly recap, in the late '60s SF scribe Roger Zelazny wrote a tale of a violent anti-hero, Hell Tanner, who must pilot an armoured vehicle on a desperate mission to ferry a plague vaccine from California to Boston through a now familiar radioactive wasteland. That story was Damnation Alley, and around a decade later in 1977, it was turned into a rather cheesy SF movie of the same name. But while the film ended up being something of a mess, one positive to emerge from its own creative irradiated wasteland was that they did design a very cool screen version of Hell Tanner's "car", and this iconic vehicle was dubbed the Landmaster.
Now Damnation Alley, if you'll pardon the pun, tanked at the box office, so back in the day there was never any official toy version of the Landmaster. However as we saw last week, in the same year Matchbox released a range of three futuristic vehicles called Adventure 2000, and two of them, the Crusader and the Raider Command, seemed to owe for than a little to the Landmaster. Spooky eh? But the following year, 1978, something even stranger happened.
In the spring of 1977, IPC magazines launched a new weekly SF comic called 2000 AD. While initially the lead strip was a revamped version of legendary British comics hero Dan Dare, the veteran spacer was soon usurped by a new breakaway star who appeared in Prog #002 - Judge Dredd. Now as a future cop in a post nuclear war world, policing the mean streets of Mega City 1, Dredd quickly became the new comic's most popular strip, and would heavily influence both Mad Max and Robocop. At first, each week saw Dredd tackling some different bizarre future crime, but as the strip's popularity rose, longer stories started to appear, with the first major Dredd serial being a seven episode tale detailing a rebellion by the cities' droids, an event in Mega City history now known as the Robot Wars.
However roughly a year and a half into the 2000 AD's life, the comic's alien editor, known to us Earthlets as the Mighty Tharg, decided on an even bolder step - a Dredd mega-epic, a serial tale that would run for a whopping 24 weeks! Of course such a big story needed an equally big plot, and hence legendary writer Pat Mills devised a tale that would take us beyond Mega City 1; a story that would not only explore the wider world of Dredd's universe, but also detail some of its previously unrevealed history. And what was the epic plot line to accomplish these lofty aims? Well, stop me if you've heard this one before...
A lethal plague has broken out in Mega City 2, the giant metropolis on the West Coast of America. Mega City 1, which is occupies the Eastern seaboard of the former USA, has come up with a vaccine to send over to its beleaguered sister city. However between the two cities is the Cursed Earth, a huge irradiated wasteland full of monsters and mutants. Thanks to extreme weather flying over the Cursed Earth is impossible, and hence a land mission is set up. Naturally the man to undertake this dangerous mercy mission is Judge Dredd. However to accompany him, Dredd enlists a criminal biker called Spikes Harvey Rotten, with the offer of a free pardon. And so they set off to deliver the vaccine in a specially armoured vehicle, the Land Raider...
Quite why Zelazny never sued them, I really don't know. However in fairness, although the central concepts are very similar, the actual events of in the stories are far different. Dredd's epic, known as The Cursed Earth, sees the judge encountering psychics, mutants, robot vampires, aliens, and war droids. As an aside, there's even a sequence where Dredd tangles with some dinosaurs that were scientifically resurrected by a process similar to cloning for a future theme park! Yes, Pat Mills also ripped of Jurassic Park, but very cleverly avoided being sued by doing it a whole 12 years before Michael Crichton wrote the original novel. Anyhow...
The Cursed Earth ranfrom May to October in 1978 (2000 AD progs #61 to #85 fact fans) and quickly became a classic of British comics. And if you want to hear more about it, I guested on this episode of the Mega City Book Club Podcast to discuss it.
However, if there weren't already enough weird links clustering around this mega epic, there was another exciting twist to this saga. For excited readers soon spotted instantly that the Land Raider, seen below being put through its paces, was in fact identical to Matchbox's Raider Command. And if you look at the dialogue in the pages reproduced below, you'll notice that they even have the same serial number - K-2001.
Now here is where it gets interesting, for as yet no one is quite knows exactly how this particular toy ended up in the pages of 2000 AD. Matchbox itself made no particular fuss about it, and there was no official announcement in the comic at the time either, which could suggest the Raider Command was unofficially borrowed at first. Not that us kids cared of course - we were just too excited about either a) being able to own a Judge Dredd related vehicle, or b) suddenly seeing a favourite toy appearing in 2000 AD. Plus we learned that the armoured rear module was called the Killdozer!
But however the deal came about - for surely there must have been a deal - a few weeks into The Cursed Earth running in 2000 AD, in Progs #80 and #81 to be exact, our beloved alien editor, Tharg the Mighty acknowledged that a very cool Matchbox toy was appearing in the strip. And what was more, the Mighty One was launching a competition that could win you the entire Adventure 2000 range! Running over two weeks, and involving a bit of code breaking, this competition saw 60, yes 60 complete sets of the Adventure 2000 range up for grabs!
So then, given that most kids were likely to be either too lazy to enter, or too dense to crack the code (and the answer was... work it out for yourself grennix!), a huge 60 sets meant you had better odds than usual at winning something! As it was, I didn't enter this competition myself as I already had the Raider Command and the Flight Hunter. Ironically though, in the end I never did manage to get the Crusader and complete the set. But still, I had many happy hours recreating scenes from The Cursed Earth with the two I did have.
However even if you had snagged one of the 60 sets offered by Tharg, the fact was your new collection of die-cast future vehicles wasn't going to stay compete for long. For as you can imagine Adventure 2000 was a highly popular range, and therefore it wasn't long before Matchbox brought out some new additions to it. But that dear friends is a tale for next time...
As some of you are aware, around this time every year I start making a little drink to enjoy over Christmas - ginger whisky. Now every year I do get asked how to make this marvellous drink, and so this week I thought I'd share the recipe for this traditional winter warmer with you all. It is very simple to make, and the trickiest bit is having a little patience! So then, I shall don my chef's hat and let's get going!
First of all let's gather everything we will need together -
1 litre of whisky (any cheap whisky will do)
2 jars of stem ginger in syrup (about 600g to 700g in total)
Fresh ginger (approx 1 to 2 inches of root)
A cinnamon stick or powdered cinnamon
2 teaspoons of brown sugar
A 1.5 litre Kilner jar or similar sealable air tight container
A sharp knife (careful now!)
Sheet of muslin and/or coffee filter paper
1) Firstly - and this is very important, scald your jar with boiling hot water and make sure it is thoroughly clean. And if you are using an old jar, do remember to check the seal is still in good working order, for we need the container to be airtight.
2) Next, using a little sieve, strain off the syrup from the stem ginger into your jar. Handy hint - once you have taken the ginger out ready for step 3), screw the lids back on the jar and leave them upside down for a while. This will allow the syrup coating the insides of the jars to collect in the lids. You can often get another couple of tablespoons-worth of syrup by doing this!
3) Chop up the stem ginger into small pieces of roughly 1 cm square, and add to the jar. Now you can skip this bit, but I have found over the years, chopping the ginger into small pieces makes for more flavour in the finished drink. Do take care when doing this, as the syrup coating the ginger does make it slippery!
4) Peel your fresh ginger, and again slice into small chunks of about 1 cm square. Then add them to the jar too.
5) Sprinkle in two teaspoons of brown sugar
6) Then pour in your whisky. And I will stress again here, that the most bargain basement whisky will work fine for this recipe. For heaven's sakes, don't use a proper malt for this!
7) Break up a small cinnamon stick into the jar. Or alternatively add a dash of powdered cinnamon - be warned, however it does make the later straining of the drink trickier!
8) Seal the jar, and give the mixture a good shake to mix everything together.
9) Finally - and this is the tricky bit - leave it for at least six weeks! Occasionally give it a shake, but otherwise leave it alone! Generally I make my ginger whisky around the Autumn Equinox and only open it around the Winter Solstice, just in time for Christmas!
10) When you do open it, place a piece of muslin or a paper coffee filter (or both) into a sieve and drain the ginger whisky into bottles. If after straining and filtering it remains slightly cloudy, this is perfectly normal.
11) Finally drink and enjoy! Ginger whisky may be drunk neat. Or it's very nice on the rocks too. Alternatively it may be added to coffee or hot chocolate to add an extra warming glow to your drink!
Last week we were looking at the local legend of Peg Powler, and this week we're delving into regional lore once more to encounter another fearsome female apparition. As I remarked in my little series Species of Spectres, one of the common features we can categorise folkloric ghosts by is their colour. And indeed the British Isles abound with assorted phantoms that are named after the hues they appear in. Among these sorts of ghost, White Ladies are quite common, however in Lincolnshire we have a rare example of an opposite type of haunting - the Black Lady of Bradley Woods.
Roughly three or so miles from Grimsby, lies the little village of Bradley. It is a quaint little place, and although the village is undoubtedly ancient - for example, its church, St. George's, dates back to Norman times, it has always been a small place, and even today its population still numbers just around only 200 souls. Just south of the village, lies the Dixon Nature Reserve and Bradley Woods. However Bradley Woods has long been home to something other than the usual wildlife. For local tradition holds that the woods are haunted by a mysterious figure known as the Black Lady of Bradley Woods.
According to eyewitnesses down the years, this spectre appears in the form of a young woman, all dressed in a long black cloak, with a tear-stained face. Mostly she is seen walking in the woods, however there are several tales of folks just seeing a pair of eyes watching them, or simply having a sense of being followed. While there are no stories of her ever attacking or harming anyone, the Black Lady has been used by parents as a scary cautionary figure for generations, with the classic line being "If you don't behave, the Black Lady will come and get you!"
So who is the mysterious Black Lady? Well, while local lore has never provided a name for her, there is a most commonly reproduced tale of the origin of the Black Lady. As you might expect, there are several variant versions. For example, one version holds that these events occurred in the Barons' War - two civil wars that occurred in the reign of King John in 1215, and a second uprising against Henry III in 1264 - while another states the tale happened during the time of the Crusades. But regardless of the dating, the story itself stays more or less the same, with the most common version actually placing the events in the War of the Roses (1455 to 1487).
According to the tale, deep in Bradley Woods was a cottage, where lived a woodcutter, his wife and young baby child. However these times of strife saw the woodcutter enter the military, with most versions claiming he was forcibly pressed into service. So then, the woodcutter had to leave his home, and left his wife and child with no idea when he would be back. And every day, his forlorn wife would pick up their child and wander to the edge of the woods and look out for her much missed husband returning home.
However, one day while making her daily walk through the woods, according to some versions of the tale, on New Year's Day, the young wife encountered a band of mounted men. These fellows were soldiers, usually alleged to be from an enemy force that have entered the county. But wherever they came from, villains they certainly were. They demanded money and drink from the woman, and then beat her, raped her, and rode off taking her child with them. Naturally our lady was devastated and never truly recovered from this terrible ordeal. She dressed in black for the rest of her life, and continually wandered the woods looking for her child. Even after her husband returned, she continued her heart-breaking search until the day she died. Of course, not even death could stop her search and she wanders the woods to this very day, still looking for her lost child...
However that isn't the only tale told of the Black Lady of Bradley Woods, and next week we shall delving further into the legends and lore surrounding this particular haunting!
Welcome once again guys and ghouls to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Well then, dear fiends last week we were poking about the spider-infested garages of the 'Orrible Old 'Ouse and uncovering the history of a curious vehicle - the Landmaster! Now this 12 wheeled armoured behemoth was the star of 1977's ill-fated movie adaptation of Roger Zelazny's seminal SF tale Damnation Alley. And as we recounted last time, although 20th Century Fools, I mean Fox, had this production aimed at bustin' the proverbial blocks, the movie instead ran straight into a wall, and Star Wars (rightly) cleaned up at the box office.
Now this meant that the only real merchandise - as far as I can tell - was a re-release of the original novel with the movie poster on the cover. And despite being a very cool future vehicle, there was never any Landmaster toys made. Which was a real shame, as it looked like a cross between Captain Scarlet's Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (S.I.G!) and the SHADO 2 Mobile from UFO. I'm sure that a Dinky Landmaster would have sold by the ton, and much like the toy versions of Gerry Anderson vehicles, would have continued to sell for years after the movie had vanished from our screens. Anyhow, remembrances of Dinky toys past is a subject for another day...
Top - Shado 2 Mobile, Bottom - Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (but you knew that already right?)
However there was actually a Landmaster toy of sorts, and therein lies a strange tale! Now the origins of this now much prized plaything are somewhat obscure, possibly for a variety of legal reasons. For in 1977, Matchbox, the famed maker of metal cars, released a new line of toys entitled Adventure 2000. Branded as SF vehicles, this range consisted of three vehicles that came with little plastic figures shaped like soldiers or lawmen from the future. The catalogue blurb gives us a tantalizing sketch of a backstory for these exciting vehicles -
The year is 2000 – The planets prepare for battle. Re-enact the excitement of inter-planetary conflict with the action-packed vehicles from Adventure 2000
Now the trio consisted of the Flight Hunter (K-2002 for collectors) which was a snazzy little space-age sports car that had the added bonus of pop-out wings. Yes, a flying car! Pretty nifty right!
OK so far, so cool. But the next vehicle was highly intriguing - the Crusader (K-2003). While fast cars might be very swish, and the additional power of flight was a suitably SF extra, for the eternal wars waged by small children, you can't beat a good tank! And so, enter the Crusader, which just happened to be an eight wheeled armoured truck... Sounds a bit familiar, no? Just look at that snub nosed front. And the rear-roof mounted rotating gun turret... Yes, now you come to mention it, it does have a certain Landmaster-y quality to it. Funny that...
However where things get very interesting indeed is with the flagship vehicle in the range, the mighty K-2001 Raider Command. Now this toy was the mutie's meatballs, and I have to say, one of the most exciting die-cast toy vehicles you could own back in the day. This beast of a fighting machine actually split up into two vehicles, with a fast front section for speedy pursuits, while the armoured rear section was equipped with tank tracks and a rocket launcher. Plus with the press of a button, the Raider Command didn't just separate, but the front module actually fired off, sending it zipping over carpets and floors at high speed. The rocket launcher actually worked too - not real rockets obviously, it was just the usual spring powered launcher. But it was very pretty deadly, or at least hazardous to younger siblings and pets.
However, once again, the nose of the front module is somewhat familiar, while the armoured rear's red rocket array and triangular wheel arrangement should be ringing so bells too. Now as I said, this range of toys was launched in 1977 the same year as the movie of Damnation Alley was released, and as we remarked last week, the pre-publicity for the movie did put the Landmaster front and centre. But interestingly, the copyright date for the Adventure 2000 range is listed as 1976 which rather suggests that visual echoes of Damnation Alley in the designs might be just a coincidence.
Furthermore while no one really predicted before the fact that Star Wars was going to be a mega-block buster and start a whole boom for science fiction and fantasy flicks, there was a general feeling in the air that SF was going to be the Next Big Thing. For example, consider Britain's top SF comic 2000 AD which was also launched in 1977. Now, as we all have 1977 imprinted into our brains as the year that Star Wars was born, we assume that the Mighty Tharg's thrill-powered comic was created to cash in on the Star Wars boom. But the fact is George Lucas's opus didn't hit British cinemas until the end of the December (the 15th to be precise fact fans), and that was just the London opening, with most folks in the UK actually seeing it in early 1978. Now 2000 AD was launched on the 26th February 1977, a good eleven months before anyone in the UK knew what a wookie was, and even three months before the movie's US premiere on the 25th of May!
So then clearly as early as 1976, there was a general sense that SF was going to be the proverbial next big thing. Obviously both Matchbox and IPC Comics were angling to get in on the ground floor, and somehow both settled on using the then reeking of the future date 2000 in the titles of their products.
But all that said, in 1978 something happened that would link the novel Damnation Alley, the Landmaster from the movie, Adventure 2000, and 2000 AD too, in one exciting package! And Provided the Slay Riders don't get you, next week meet me back here in the radlands of pop culture to discover what happened next! (But here's a drokking large clue...)
In this episode, we mark the passing of another great talent, comics legend Len Wein, a man who penned classics runs on Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, the Phantom Stranger, the Justice League and Batman, and also created Swamp Thing and Wolverine!
Last week I was writing about a little piece of childhood lore concerning puddles - namely that where I was growing up in the North East of England, puddles rippling with rainbow hues from spilt oil or petrol were referred to as "witches' washing" (see here for the full tale). Now from various responses to that article, it seems that this little piece of puddle lore appears to have been somewhat confined to the North East. However while digging around assorted old tomes on local legends and the like, I discovered a possible origin.
Now I grew up in the Darlington area, a former mill town built on the River Skerne, a tributary of the mighty River Tees. And as you might expect, these waterways have a rich folklore of their own - for example, previously I have written of the Headless Hob that haunted the Tees near Hurworth, and of the Sockburn Worm whose slaying is commemorated with a ritual on Croft Bridge. However on the subject of hags and witches, the stretch of the Tees around Darlington is also home to another horror - Peg Powler. According to legend she lived in the valley that is now the Cow Green reservoir, and haunted the Tees around Mickleton and Middleton-in-Teesdale as the High Green Ghost.
However further down the river's run around Darlington, she is better known as Peg Powler. Boasting trailing green hair, long arms, and sharp claws, Peg was very similar to another folkloric hag Jenny Greenteeth. Indeed in their celebrated tome Faeries (1978), Alan Lee and Brian Froud portrayed these two aquatic monsters together on the same double page spread.
Peg Powler as depicted in Froud and Lee's Faeries
She is mentioned in several early texts on folklore and legends. In 1886, Mr William Brockie, in his tome Legends & Superstitions of the County of Durham describes her thus -
The river Tees has its sprite, called Peg Powler, whose delight it is to lure too venturesome bathers into her subaqueous haunts, and then drag them to the bottom and drown them. Children are still warned from playing on the banks of the river, especially on Sundays, by threats that Peg Powler will catch hold of them and carry them off. Peg has long green tresses, hanging down over her shoulders, but what her costume is we are not told.
And aside from preying upon children and others unfortunate enough to stray too near the water's edge, Peg Powler had another distinct feature associated with her, as Mr Brockie continues to relate -
The foam or froth, which is often seen floating in huge masses, on the surface of deep eddying pools in the higher portion of the river, is called "Peg Powler's suds"; the finer less sponge-like froth is called "Peg Powler's cream."
And this association with foam or froth on the river with the water hag Peg, immediately made me think of the witches' washing puddles. Might there be a connection between my childhood lore and this older legend? As it happens, Mr Brockie mentions a possible link -
"A goblin or sprite of the same evil character is said to haunt the river Skerne."
So who was this other watery monster? Some further digging unearthed a footnote the Denham Tracts(1892), a compendium of legends and lore gathered by Michael Aislabie Denham, in the mid 1800s. Early on in this tome, there is a list of folkloric beings, and this includes "Peg Powlers". And what is more, there is a most illuminating footnote-
This oulde ladye is the evil goddess of the Tees. I also meet with a Nanny Powler, at Darlington, who from the identity of their sirnames, is, I judge, a sister, or it may be a daughter of Peg’s. Nanny Powler, aforesaid, haunts the Skerne, a tributary of the Tees.
Given the close connection of the two rivers in the town, it is perhaps not surprising that another hag called Powler had colonised the waterway that ran through Darlington itself.
Now up until the 1980s, the River Skerne was sadly very polluted, a legacy of the days when Darlington was an industrial mill town. Indeed when I was growing up, locals used to joke that the Skerne was now so polluted that even traditional waterway wildlife such as abandoned shopping trolleys could no longer live in it. Thankfully now the river has recovered, but back in the 1970s foam, scum, and bright rainbows of chemical hues were not an uncommon sight on the Skerne.
And I can't help wondering if this pollution was also identified as Peg Powler's suds and cream. Given that folklorists see the likes of Peg and Nanny as warning tales to caution children to keep away from hazardous rivers and ponds, the talk of her cream and suds may well have an origin in a story to stop kids from playing in waters that were dirty and poisonous as well as dangerous. Therefore in the local area, it is not a huge leap to suppose that this lore may have led to the oily spectrums in puddles being dubbed witches' washing too.
Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. And on balance, we should note that the strange rainbows of oil on water quite naturally suggest a magical or eldritch origin in the minds of imaginative children. Indeed when asking if anyone else had heard of witches' washing, several folks responded that they had been told it was created by fairies, while many more were delighted to learn of this bit of North-eastern lore as it chimed with their own childhood feelings that these weird rainbows in puddles were somehow magical and strange.
However on the other hand, while a great many places in the United Kingdom have some sort of monster, ghost or witch to ward off the unwary from dangerous waters, it is unusual that stories of Peg Powler incorporate floating foam and froth as part of the legend. Other well-known aquatic predators such as Jenny Greenteeth, grindylows or kelpies don't share this feature. And given that foam and suds in the tales told of Powler and her brood centre around the old mill town of Darlington, possibly there is a connection to the idea of witches doing their washing in puddles. Certainly it would explain why this piece of rainy day folklore seems so confined to a small area of the North East.
Hello again dear fiends! Welcome once again to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now as listeners to my podcasts and other scribbling will be aware, I am very interested in the origins and roots of things, in particular seeing how different concepts or tropes evolve over time in the steaming jungles of pop culture. And this week dear friends we have a very interesting family tree to trace, with some branches bearing prized fruits and others... Well, others not so much. Anyhow, in accordance with the wise words of Maria Von Trapp, let us start at the very beginning...
In 1967, the star feature of the October issue of the famed Galaxy Magazine was a novella by SF legend Roger Zelazny. Now back then old Rog was still a young gun in the world of fantastic fiction, only a few years into his remarkable career, and his now classic novel Lords of Light had only just been published earlier that year. Now that novel would scooped him several awards, however the novella published in October would also bag him a Hugo too. This short work was Damnation Alley, a thrilling post apocalyptic tale set in a world ravaged by nuclear wars. Indeed the story went down so well, Zelazny later expanded into a novel that was published in 1969.
The plot line of both versions is the same - in the post-nuke America, there is no more United States, just some separate enclaves holed up against extreme weather and deadly radiation. However the Boston area has fallen victim to a deadly plague and while a cure has been found, unfortunately the vaccine is in California. Constant hurricanes and freak weather make air travel impossible, and hence the job of taking the vital vaccine over land through the wasteland of America, now dubbed Damnation Alley, is given to former biker and convicted killer Hell Tanner (and yes, that is his real name) on the condition that if he makes it, he will receive a full pardon.
Zelazny's novel became one of the great influences on post-apocalypse fiction. Countless books, comics and films drew inspiration from his vision of a nuked out world filled with radioactive hazards and marauding mutants. And it is still a huge influence to this very day - for example, the video game series Fallout owes a great deal to Zelanzy's book, with the Lonesome Road add-on being very much a homage to it. In fact, much like Day of the Triffids, it has been pillaged so much over the intervening decades that new readers approaching the book now sometimes find it somewhat cliched, as it has been so thoroughly mined by other works. Indeed between Zelazny and Wyndham, they pretty much wrote the entire playbook for post-apocalyptic worlds.
However one element that has become something of an influence in itself is Tanner's mode of transport. For to traverse a country full of extreme storms, mutated animals, and feral savages, Tanner is given a special vehicle, whose description I will now quote -
There were no windows in the vehicle, only screens which reflected views in every direction, including straight up and the ground beneath the car. Tanner sat within an illuminated box which shielded him against radiation. The “car” that he drove had eight heavily treaded tires and was thirty-two feet in length. It mounted eight fifty-calibre automatic guns and four grenade-throwers. It carried thirty armour-piercing rockets which could be discharged straight ahead or at any elevation up to forty degrees from the plane. Each of the four sides, as well as the roof of the vehicle, housed a flamethrower. Razor-sharp “wings” of tempered steel – eighteen inches wide at their bases and tapering to points, an inch and a quarter thick where they ridged – could be moved through a complete hundred-eighty-degree arc along the sides of the car and parallel to the ground, at a height of two feet and eight inches. When standing at a right angle to the body of the vehicle – eight feet to the rear of the front bumper – they extended out to a distance of six feet on either side of the car. They could be couched like lances for a charge. They could be held but slightly out from the sides for purposes of slashing whatever was sideswiped. The car was bullet-proof, air conditioned, and had its own food locker and sanitation facilities. A long barrelled .357 Magnum was held by a clip on the door near the driver’s left hand. A 30.06, a .45-caliber automatic, and six hand grenades occupied the rack immediately above the front seat.
Nice ride or what? And of course, Tanner's "car" would go on become the usual cover star of any cover art for the novel, as you can see above. Plus it would go on to inspire whole generations of post-apocalypse vehicles too. But more about that next week...
Anyhow, perhaps inevitably, around a decade later it was decided to make a movie of this seminal SF tale. Featuring a bleak vision of the future coupled with lots of action and a tough anti-hero, Damnation Alley seemed to fit right in with the cinematic SF of the time, the era that gave us flicks like Soylent Green (1973) and The Omega Man (1971), plus the franchise that dominated the early '70s Planet of the Apes (1968) and its sequels and spin-offs. Indeed initially allocating the film a massive $17 million budget and putting Jack Smight, the man who helmed the seminal disaster movie Airport '75 in charge, showed that 20th Century Fox was looking to make a quality production to follow in the footsteps of the movies mentioned above.
But things didn't quite work out that way. The production was troubled, with the budget being cut, the shooting script - that was fairly faithful to the novel - being pared down and then changed, poor Jack Smight pretty much being chucked out of the director's chair, and the movie ending up being radically recut. Hence the plot line of travelling from coast to coast to deliver a serum vanishes, and instead they are just heading out to find other survivors. The novel's anti hero Hell Tanner pretty much vanishes too. Instead we have a Jake Tanner, played by Jan-Michael Vincent in his pre-Airwolf days, who is a far more respectable former USAF lieutenant, and is reduced to something of a sidekick for George Peppard's Major Denton. But most damaging of all, Zelazny's visions of a tortuous journey through a radiation wasteland end up being some dodgily coloured in skies, a few badly matted scorpions, and a lot of driving about in the same bit of desert.
Let's make no bones about this, the movie Damnation Alley (1977) is pretty bad, and if you want to hear a full autopsy on the movie, tune into this episode of the Black Dog Podcast. OK, I know some of have fond memories of this flick having seen as little kids, and I'll not begrudge you your nostalgia - I'm immensely fond of loads of tatty old movies. I like Zoltan Hound of Dracula for Pete's sakes! But all the same, it is still a shame the movie isn't better, for Zelazny's book is just crying out for a faithful big screen adaptation.
However in fairness, the film does get one thing right - the realisation of Tanner's "car". Indeed, the movie actually brings something new to the table here - for Zelazny somewhat missed a trick in not giving Tanner's ride a cool name, whereas the movie makes the genius move of actually dubbing the super duper armoured vehicle, the Landmaster! And you got to agree that is the perfect name. And while one wonders where all the money went when looking at dull bits of desert shot through coloured filters, when the Landmasters are rolling out you can see the dollars up there on screen. Now the design does diverge from Zelazny's description: this Landmaster does have windows, and sadly lacks most of the weaponry, but in fairness, all the cover art versions take similar liberties too. But the important thing is the Landmaster as a vehicle still looked very very cool indeed.
And indeed, I think it's fair to say that just as the Damnation Alley movie has a cult following, the actually Landmaster itself has a cult all of its own. Despite fumbling nearly all other aspects of the production, 20th Century Fox did get the Landmaster right. And they recognised that this iconic vehicle was the real star of the movie, with it appearing a lot in the promos and press for the movie's launch. For example, the magazine Popular Science even did a piece on it in the March 1977 issue - which you can read here. Mind you, as the Landmaster was custom-built by top custom-car creator Dean Jeffries for the film at a cost of $350,000 - or according to my calculations, $1,522,544.14 in today's money - you can understand why it was at the forefront of the publicity!
Now oddly enough 20th Century Fox had another little SF film on the go at the same time as Damnation Alley was being made, but they had little faith in it. In fact they were banking so much on Damnation Alley being a huge blockbuster, they let that other little movie's director keep all the merchandising rights. Fast forward to a year later however and that other little movie - called Star Wars, you might have heard of it - was still packing them in and the shops were awash with merch. Damnation Alley on the other hand... Well, put it this way, there was never a toy version of the Landmaster to buy...
...Or was there?!? I'll meet you back next week to discovery the strange truth!
The end of the summer is upon us, the days are beginning to shorten, and hence it's the perfect time for an autumnal tale of terror. Mr Jim Moon once again invites you to the cosy fireside of the Great Library of Dreams to hear a classic chiller from the man considered by the great MR James to be the best writer of ghost stories, Sheridan Le Fanu.
Just the other day, while out and about, I happened to notice some children on their way to school. They were happily bouncing in the little puddles left after a recent shower, naturally much to the disapproval of their parents.
And thus it ever was! I was instantly reminded of my own childhood, and those simpler days when there was no greater joy than coming out after the rain had stopped and playing in puddles. However besides happy memories of splashing about on pavements and gutters, and of course, less happy remembrances of being scolded later for being dripping wet and covered in muddy water, I did also recall a curious little fragment of folklore from those now distant times.
For when I was growing in in the North-east of England, there was a little bit of lore associated with puddles. Now back then, it was not uncommon to find puddles brimming with strange rainbows, born of little spills and drips of oil and petrol from cars. But even though as little kids we soon found out how these colourful puddles were formed, I remember vividly also hearing that they were the result of witches doing their washing in the puddles. Whether they are doing their laundry or personal ablutions was never made entirely clear to me. But either way, it was firmly embedded in the lore of my playground at least, that these puddles were the result of "witches' washing", and it was considered remarkable to find some on your path.
Quite in what way it was remarkable was never quite clear either, and was a matter of some debate. Some claimed it was good luck to find a puddle of witches' washing, but others held that it was a bad sign, for it showed wicked hags were abroad nearby. But the practical upshot of this little piece of modern folklore was that something ordinary and mundane was transformed into a little splash of magic on the pavements.
However despite trawling assorted books on folklore and consulting the ever-expanding hive-mind that is the internet, this little tradition appears to have been somewhat localised, with only a single report of it being alternatively called "fairies' washing" coming from a fellow North-easterner. But of course, if any of this rings a bell with you, please do share your lore in the comments below.
However, I suspect there might be a good reason why this bit of puddle lore is perhaps found only in one area of the North East of England, but that's a story for another day...