I’ve been thinking a lot about witchcraft lately. That’s what happens when you spend your days wandering around Havoc Wood with the Witch Ways. You read up and read around and your head is full of spells and incantations and mugwort. Turns out I’m not alone in this passion. The recent tv viewing in our house has included Salem and A Discovery of Witches and now, we’ve got Sabrina. It seems it is indeed the Season of the Witch.
I’ve always loved witchcraft and the supernatural. I say that in a measured tone. I’m from Lancashire and therefore have seen the historical sharp end of what witchcraft has meant to people. I don’t look at it with rose tinted glasses, at all. I use a scrying dish and try to look at all the layers, the darkness and the light. Forewarned as they say.
Initially my source material was bedtime stories. I was always interested more in the fairy godmother than in Cinderella, because she was practical and had skill. Aside from the rich illustrations of the Ladybird story books, pumpkins did not feature too heavily in my childhood. They were not on the menu in 70s Britain. When, in my mid twenties, I travelled to the east coast of America and it happened to be October, the place was rolling in pumpkins. Big. Small. Some roughly the size of a stagecoach. It was as if someone had cast a spell. I never got over the goosebumps. It was, in the literal, old sense of the word, wonderful.
I visited Salem too. The east coast is my favourite, erm, haunt.
So I’m a sucker for anything that is supernatural and witchcraft based. I will draw my chalk lines here, so that you know which side of the pentagram I’m standing on; I don’t like horror per se and I don’t like zombies at all. Vampires and werewolves; lovely thank you, full moon and garlic. Witches; Yes please. But, there’s a coda. I am very particular about my witchcraft. I like things to be dark. I’ll use the word ‘Gothic’ I think. Penny Dreadful is my Star Wars shall we say.
Bewitched was good fun back in the day and I can actually wiggle my nose, but by far my favourite Bewitched character was Samantha’s deliciously wicked mother, Endora. Elegant, classy, clever, skilled. And dark.
Then of course I stumbled into Discworld and Nanny and Granny set the bench mark higher. It’s a measure of Terry Pratchett that he, a MAN, wrote two of the finest women characters in the history of literature. That’s not my humble opinion, it is a factual fact. What I love about Nanny and Granny is that they get on with it. They take no prisoners. They appreciate the idea of power and they have access to magic but the real skill is understanding how dangerous it is and how best not to use it until absolutely necessary.
In the dim and distant past, when my children were school age and I was supposed to be cooking the tea or encouraging them to learn their times tables, I watched Sabrina; the Teenage Witch with them. I liked Salem the talking cat, the feline equivalent of Endora with his wit and sass. So, it is with some interest that I started watching Sabrina, the netflix reboot. Sabrina, for all her blonde, All American styling, seems to embrace the Granny and Nanny ethos of ‘this is dangerous, be careful’ and in refusing her Dark Baptism simultaneously strikes a blow for feminism and free speech. I am only a few episodes in but already I love the American Gothic style of the show, the deep jewel colours and the darkness. Greendale, haunted by its own past, has that edge of danger that is missing from more brightly lit dramas. I like the fact that the witches themselves hid the tragic past in order to continue with their future. There are no patchouli scented witch shops for the citizens of Greendale. This is what I crave from my witches. I don’t really like sparkle, I want shadows. I like my witchy dramas to be old and battered and Bohemian. I like the idea of the magic butting up against the edge of the everyday, that notion of danger or the ‘Other’ being just behind you. When I’m writing The Witch Ways series I like the idea of life going on in Woodcastle as if nothing is happening in Havoc Wood. You are on the edge Woodcastle and you don’t know it. Look behind you!
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much care for wand type magic. I prefer the sort of supernatural shenanigans that are reflected in a crow’s eye. I love the fact that Sabrina is tied into the wood, that the place she takes Harvey to show him her special talents (?!*) is the wood. There are woods in all of my books, not just the supernatural ones. From my home you could wander to the wilds of Healey Dell, a sylvan spot in a post industrial area. It hinted at the past, at another space and time existing alongside everyday life. There are hints of the wild and the Other in these places, that reach out for you, its easy to get lost amongst the trees with no landmarks and the sky broken up above you. Of course, there was the long shadow of Pendle Hill.
Aunts featured in my other fave bit of witchery, Practical Magic. What I love about these characters is the sense of knowledge and wisdom and don’t give a damn what people think. These women are really powerful and on their own terms. They are, who they are. In the netflix Sabrina, the Aunts pull me in again. I love the banter ‘She was annoying me, so I killed her and buried her in the yard.’ Yep. That’s sisters for you. For me there’s a freedom in witchcraft stories.
I’m currently typing up my first draft of the third Witch Ways book. The sisters, Anna, Charlie and Emz have been brought up by their grandmother to think of their Strength as similar to breathing. It’s a part of them. Over the years, growing up, they’ve been out in the ordinary world and life has shifted away from this part of themselves. Only since inheriting the wood have they begun to rediscover this aspect of their lives. The world outside Havoc Wood, the town of Woodcastle and modern life, doesn’t make much room for something as ancient as witchcraft.
When the Witch Ways walked into my head, they walked in through a path in the wood. Mentally, I was looking at Pike Lake and wondering, where is this? I could see the castle just above the trees. You have to have a wood for a witch story, not the built up, bricked in places that we construct but the wild spaces, some of which might not have changed for hundreds of years. I read recently that there is such a thing as a screaming wood, one where the timber was clear felled in WWII and then the site was replanted. There are many across Britain, including the one nearest to me. These woods are considered to have a different sense to them, the old wood has become a ghost, lingering. They are unsettled places, wrenched from their past. If you’re willing to walk through a wood with your senses turned to 11, you might feel this edge. Who hasn’t walked through a regimented conifer plantation and felt the dark, quiet energy of it? A wood is the edge of somewhere, a movement from open to sheltered, from exposed to hidden. Tree lore tells of the different powers inherent in different trees. Did you know that blackthorns are bad tempered? Next time you walk in a wood, take a step off the path. It will be a different wood, I promise.
I think the current thirst for all things witchy; Sabrina, Salem, a Discovery of Witches, shows us all that we’re all looking for something other, something more, something, connected. We need magic. We need, more importantly, the Divine Feminine, an acknowledgement of the place of women in the world, the balance has been skewed. Witch hunts, through history, were as much about destroying feminine power as religious fervour. But that, probably, is for another blog.
So. I’m here, typing, in my Gothic green workroom at the back of the house. It looks out onto the rambling wilderness of my garden. My reading light casts a golden circle of light but as I look up, I notice that beyond the pool of the lamp, the room has gone very dark. I’m hoping that it’s because the clocks went back, but you never can tell. I mean, should that shadow be just there? Aunt Zelda? Is that you?
I thought I’d write a word or two about trolls. The subject came up as the government or some other authoritarian body talked of putting legislation in place to catch the ‘trolls’ who plague social media. I’m not sure how they’re planning to do this. It might require some sort of vast inter-net possibly? (sorry, I couldn’t resist). It might require a stick and then another bigger stick. Obviously no carrots. Trolls don’t eat them.
I have a problem with internet trolls. It’s not just their idiotic, childish and bullying behaviour; I mean that I object to them being called ‘trolls’. I think it gets the mythical beasts a bad name, or at least a worse name than previously. An internet troll, it seems to me, is a bit of a sad sack with a limited vocabulary and an inflated sense of their own self-importance. They’re small minded and nasty.
Trolls aren’t. Well, ok, the limited vocabulary might come into play although the one sitting under the bridge that was the major trans-Alpine highway for the Three Billy Goats Gruff seems to have been quite the poet. ‘Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?’ he demanded with some theatrical gusto. This troll, it seems, had a sense of his own place in mythology and folklore and wished to make a good show of it. He was fair and logical when offered the choice of ‘eat my brother, he’s bigger and fatter than me’ although he did then fall foul of the superior fighting skills of the eldest Billy Goat Gruff.
Trolls, in Scandinavian folklore, have considerable skills with stone and wide ranging geological knowledge. They are excellent pot holers for instance, making their chief residences in cave systems. Admittedly this genus of troll, the Jotnar, are also a bit keen on a slice of long pork, or ‘human’ as it is also known but can we really despise them for that? I mean, a lion likes a nibble on a bit of leg especially if it is wrapped in safari suit. We don’t call lions ‘evil’ do we? Although I think that’s largely to do with the fact that lions have that elusive thing called ‘beauty’. A lion is majestic and therefore appealing whereas, poor stony-faced trolls, they can best be described as ‘craggy’ or possibly ‘rugged’.
The troll just happens to be a predator, albeit a giant one. If you’re tramping through fjord country, or possibly paddling through it since most of a fjord is underwater, then the Trip Advisor advice might be to not take shelter in any caves after dark. It is only polite to respect the indigenous residents of a country. If you don’t bother a troll they, most likely, won’t bother you. You are unlikely to see a troll in the daylight as, unfortunately, they are rumoured to turn into stone in sunlight. See, it isn’t easy being a troll, constant night shifts make people grumpy.
Not all trolls are giants. Some are Moomins. Others of course are the more football hooligan end of the social spectrum, the cave troll from Tolkein’s meisterwork is not a happy chappy. Consider his lot, he’s a henchman and heavy labourer. Perhaps, given the chance for some social mobility he could pursue his heart’s desire of being a stonemason or open his own showcave system, taking people on tours underground. If a cave troll fancied owning his own bridge he could do worse than start out at the Second Severn Crossing of course but the little booths might have to be enlarged. No Mr Troll, not smashed to pieces. Put that toll worker down!
There are trolls with gravitas and dignity, if slightly dodgy business practices. In Discworld there is Chrysoprase, him diamond, for a start. For me the internet namesakes with their limited intelligence and playground bully mentality are more like a goblin. But there, that carries its problems. What’s wrong with goblins then? I’m being Goblinist about this.
The point of this ramble is that this is how the monsters and beasts are woven into our culture. My only problem is that sometimes the epic creature is diminished by its association with us. To call these anonymous and vindictive people ‘trolls’ lends them a cachet that they don’t deserve. They have not earned the title.
Gits. I think we can settle and call them Gits. It is the politest term I can conjure before the watershed. I’d like to hear John Humphries announce on ‘Today’ the new law to slap down ‘Internet Gits’. Where do I sign that digi-petition?
We put up our Christmas tree this weekend. Time was when our children could not wait to get out the box of decorations. One year all the baubles and gewgaws were at five year olds’ height and had to be ‘adjusted’ overnight by a slightly taller fairy. Only slightly taller mind. That Christmas fairy has now been overshot by the offspring who tower above her as she wields the tinsel.
Of course now that the kids are in their 20s it is left to us to decorate the tree. We always have a real tree for the beauty and scent, plastic is not my go-to resource when it comes to festivity although I admit that tinsel is not exactly born of Mother Earth.
For many years now I have wanted to buy several trees and make a forest in our front room. I envisage us resting amongst the branches like a family of lowland gorillas, with a mince pie in one hand and a book in the other. No one else at Slavin Castle has ever shared any enthusiasm for this idea.
I liked candles until the internet informed me of the toxic terrors billowing out of the softly flickering light. I also love fairy lights. I need a twinkle or two to pretty up the dark at this time of year and frighten off the monsters.
Back in the 70s (boom) we used to go to Bury Market to purchase new or replacement baubles. My mum had a romantic heart and was struck by such small treasures as porcelain angels and, most memorably for me, a box of sugar houses.
They were in a cardboard box divided up to make a little square haven for each miniature cottage which nestled in rustly tissue paper. They were made from that flimsy blown and silvered glass. Picture postcard in style, these were not post modern fairytale buildings. Each tiny dwelling had the requisite chimney and glittered snow sparkling on a pitched roof. The windows were symmetrically placed beside the welcoming door. They looked like genoise fancies drenched in glitter.
People talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’. This sort of person tends to be a militant Christian who holds that the ‘true’ Christmas is all about Jesus being the light of the world and shepherds gathered round a manger, in their way, they’d be right. Christ-mas is about that. If we’re seeking truth however, then we have to remember that this was a festival hijacked from ancient times and beliefs. Pagans were and are, more elementally inclined. Before wise men and Herod there was Yule and Saturnalia.
Yule and the winter solstice are all about lighting the darkness. To hunters and gatherers the outside world of the sun and the seasons was paramount. The sun lit the world. That’s not simply a belief system, that’s a scientific fact. We revolve around the sun. The Celts believed the sun rested for twelve days in Winter and lit Yule logs to keep away the dark and banish bad spirits. In certain quarters it is now thought that the winter solstice at Stonehenge was more significant than that at midsummer. The winter solstice marks the the turning towards the new sun and after the shortest day the light inches back.
‘True’ meaning depends on your perspective. Some may look into the manger. Others might look out through Odin’s eye, for a connection to the natural world, to mistletoe still hanging in the tree, to the pink light of a frosty dawn, to the whipping wind and the wild rain, to the hedgerows red and orange with berries, to the grey sky cloaked with cloud, and on, further, to the stars.
If you’d like the gift of a free book to read by your Christmas tree, just tell me where to send it?