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Re-issue of an eerie little story
on 26 September 2011
This book was written in 1960 and is set in 1959, so right from the start, think along the lines of 'Rosemary's Baby' rather than 'Stephen King' when it comes to horror explicitness.
An 'old-maid' schoolteacher (all of 44 years old, but this is the sixties, girls), is sent home from her missionary school in Africa because of illness accompanied by a breakdown, and after an unhappy time at a horrid comp, lands a job as a headmistress at Walwyk village, a beautiful English community kept in rather feudal manner by a Canon Thorby.
Miss Mayfield soon begins to suspect that some of the villagers are practicing witchcraft and have a young girl, Ethel Rigby, in mind for a mysterious but ominous purpose. What can she do to protect the girl? Who will help her? Can she trust anyone?
When one of her potential allies is killed and the other frightened off, she realises how nasty things can get in lovely, secluded Walwyk, but sets out to save Ethel from a fate worse than death.
This is a subtle, eerie piece of storytelling (Peter Curtis is the pseudonym of Norah Lofts, who wrote the equally elegant, subtle and eerie 'Gad's Hall' and 'The Haunting of Gad's Hall'. This is horror from another time, where the nastiness doesn't splatter in your face or grab you in a headlock (not that there's anything wrong with more upfront horror, I love with a passion SK and all his rabid dogs and undead children), rather, it's like a hand touching you on the ankle and just when you thought you'd imagined it, grasping like a vice.
There's some annoying dialect-writing (all the natives of Walwyk say 'hev' instead of 'have', for instance), but aside from that, Curtis/Lofts hardly puts a foot wrong. It's nice to see such conscientious writing, considering some of the horrible grammar and syntax and even spelling I've seen from modern writers. There's a bit of head-hopping (going from one person's point of view to the other without separation of scene), which some people might find irritating, but it isn't intrusive and doesn't happen often.
When I first read this, horror had already moved on to the era of SK, but this story stayed with me for months. I still have my sadly abused original copy, with Joan Fontaine on the cover, as Miss Mayfield in the Hammer Film. I must say, I hate the new cover. It has nothing of the period ethos of the story; instead the illustrator has come up with that tiresomely ubiquitous 'back view of a girl with long hair in long dress' so beloved of the new girl-friendly fantasy genre.
Anyway - subtle, eerie, well-written, all good, but again, this is from a previous era of horror, and as such is pretty much a period piece, and is not likely to give anyone nightmares these days. If you like your horror resolutely modern, this may not be for you. If you can still read 'The Haunting of Hill House', 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'The Other' without going, 'Is that it?', then you may love 'The Witches'.