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Or as it should be called ‘Toxic Masculinity Never Dies’. This ghastly tale by Le Fanu, first published in the Dublin University Magazine in 1839 is set in the the 17th century studio of Dutch painter Gerard Dou(w), who was the real master of the real Godfrey Schal(c)ken, who had in his turn been pupil to Rembrandt. In Le Fanu’s story, Schalken is in love with Douw’s niece and ward Rose but knows as an impoverished student he is unlikely to be seen as a suitable suitor. One evening, Schalken works into the night on a painting depicting St Anthony tormented by devils. It’s not going his way. He curses the painting and its holy subject whilst rubbing charcoal into his face like the tormented artist he is. We’ve all been there, though an iPencil doesn’t quite have the same effect. As if by this dark summoning, a stranger, Minheer Vanderhausen of Rotterdam appears with a proposition for his master Douw and commands the younger man to arrange for his master to meet with him the following evening. The upshot is he returns and offers Douw a load of cash in return for his niece’s hand in marriage, who he glimpsed in a church when Douw and Rose visited Rotterdam some weeks previously. Putting aside both his slight misgivings about the weirdness of the suitor, and that Rose might have an opinion on this, and her own ideas about who she might want to marry, Douw signs a contract, effectively selling her to the sinister Vanderhausen, who he has spoken to for a couple of minutes and who’s face he has not even seen. When we do eventually see Vanderhausen’s face for the first time, along with Douw, Schalken and the unfortunate Rose who is still unaware of what her uncle has arranged, it’s obvious he is not like other men. His skin is tinged blue, doesn’t appear to breath and moves like an animated statue. Yes, that’s right folks, he’s dead. Lucky old Rose.

That the story does not end well is not entirely surprising. I’m not sure what’s more horrifying, that Rose was married off to a revenant to set up home in his tomb or the very ease at which she was bartered in this way entirely against her will. And Godfrey Schalken did nothing, an apparently impassive witness of his supposed true love’s ruinous end. The 1979 Omnibus adaptation of the story is more censorious of Schalcken (the film, available on YouTube, restores the c to his name) and pretty much makes it clear that his ambition is stronger than his love for Rose, and his predilection for prostitutes reveals his own transactional view of sexuality and relationships, though to be fair this was pretty much de rigeur at the time. Not that that’s an excuse, especially not for selling your ward to a corpse or standing by while it happens to your sweetheart. This adaptation, stretched to a running time of 68 minutes if anything improves on the story by fleshing it out. It looks beautiful, it’s exquisitely lit and most of the scenes look like paintings themselves. It also features many of the real Schalcken’s paintings, largely of young women lit by candlelight which were the inspiration for the original story. The pace is slow and the atmosphere is unsettling, which is in no way diminished by Charles Gray’s chilling narration as Le Fanu. Did Charles Gray ever do anything except sinister and chilling? Can you imagine him playing Buckaroo? Or even eating a sandwich? No me neither.

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Ghostly lights in the Cambridgeshire Fens are carried by evil spirits drawn to the sound of jolly whistling passers by, a method which only makes their intentions even more dastardly. The Lantern Men lure their victims to a horrid death by drowning in the marshes and inlets of this most flat and damp of counties, and the only way you can evade their clutches once they have you in their sights is by lying on the ground and sucking the mud. Great.

A local variety of a Will o’ the Wisp, nowadays these mysterious lights are explained rationally by marsh gas, which apparently they have by the bucket load in the Fens. I don’t know this area of the country at all, but have been to Lincolnshire salt marshes a few times which I believe it rivals in both its lack of contours and its dampness of underfootness. There’s something fantastically eerie about the apparently endless reclaimed landscape, especially wreathed in the mists of an early morning. Just the idea of reclaimed land is slightly uncanny... it’s not even supposed to be there, and nature does it damnedest to try and haul it back. In the days when superstition and the supernatural were a serious part of the daily lives of most people, it’s easy to understand how these then unexplained lights were put down to evil spirits, especially when combined with such a potentially treacherous landscape. The term lantern men is so evocative too, it conjures the idea of a troop of occupational faerie folk, eerie land miners grafting for souls.

Which is why I’ve given them bowler hats in my picture (not that you can really see them). I wasn’t sure to keep both lantern men in, as I quite liked the version with just the smaller one to the right. But thought it looked a bit empty. But maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t know. Which is why I’ve posted both. #cheat

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Updated: Aug 15, 2020

“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.” Garner’s story, set in the 1960s, weaves folklore, class and adolescent angst and burgeoning sexuality into a slightly bewildering almost hallucinatory retelling of the Welsh legend of Bloduewedd, a woman made of flowers but transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the murder, along with her lover Gronw, of the husband for whom she was created. Posh Alison is spending the Summer with her mother, stepfather and stepbrother Roger, in the house in the Valleys she has inherited from a relative of her dead father. Alison, nouveau riche Roger and the housekeeper’s bright as a button but common as muck son Gwyn sort of replay this love triangle, unaware that they are under a curse which compels the inhabitants of the valley to reenact the tragedy of Bloduewedd in perpetuity, which Gwyn will discover has had a direct impact on his very existence. It’s a claustrophobic, weird read, that crackles with ancient, sometimes malevolent energy. The strange goings on in the house are triggered by a stash of plates with an ambiguous pattern (owls? Flowers? Both?) that Gwyn finds in an attic, much to the inexplicable rage of his terrifying mum. Almost immediately Alison becomes obsessed with them, almost possessed by them, and things just get odder from there on in, the teenagers carried along on an inexorable mystical current of fate they have almost no chance of resisting.

The injustices of the still rigid class saturated attitudes are startling: grammar school boy Gwyn is constantly threatened with the prospect of a shop job in town by his bitter, harried mother and is mocked by Roger for saving up to buy elocution records, which he can’t even play because he can’t afford a record player. He has no options, and the prospect of escaping his mother’s world of perpetual servitude seems all but impossible. Less sympathetically, Alison and Roger’s choices are limited by their upbringings too. Alison is forbidden by her snooty mother from seeing Gwyn (pretty difficult when they live in the same house) because he’s, to use Roger’s woefully inaccurate epithet, a ‘yobbo’. Buttoned up Roger expects to follow his father into the family business even though Alison thinks he really wants to be a photographer. But there’s no money in that…

I’m mildly obsessed with the Owl Service, on just about every level. Before I even knew what it meant I loved the baffling nature of the title, and when I found out it referred to a stack of dusty magical plates, that just seemed to make it even better. It reminds me a lot of another favourite book, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, which is another coming of age fantasy based on folklore (in this case the Scottish ballads Tam Lin and Tom the Rhymer) with an even more incomprehensible ending. Both novels are moving, gripping and so humane in their otherworldliness, that I still completely love them despite the head scratching and can only revel in their occasional utter bonkersness, to mangle a Mallettism.

My copy of the book has about 20 pages missing in the middle, so I listened to a really good audiobook of it to fill in the gaps. Finally I watched the 1968 TV series, adapted by Garner himself, and very of its time which is entirely as it should be. Alison, played by Gillian Hills, looks to have trotted in straight from swinging London probably because she has (discovered in 1959, aged 14, by Roger ‘Barbarella’ Vadim, she had already starred in Antonioni’s Blow Up and went on to be one of the teenagers Alex picks up in a record shop in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), the filming style is experimental, and the three main characters were dressed consistently in shades of red (Alison), brown (Gwyn) and green (Roger) to imitate the colours of electrical wiring as a reflection of the volatile nature of their intertwined relationships. It’s not really a children’s series at all, especially as the characters are aged by a few years making them pretty much adults. It’s such a vivid retelling and it’s almost shocking to think that some of the young actors are now in their seventies, though not as shocking as the fact that one of them, Michael Holden (Gwyn), died in 1978 following an unprovoked attack in a Mayfair pub at the age of just 31.

As far as the drawing is concerned, I waver with this one from thinking it’s a right old pig’s breakfast to quite liking its hazy confusion of images, which I think suits the nature of the book. Fun fact: The trees espied through the Stone of Gronw (in the story, the hole through the stone is made by the spear thrown by Gronw that killed Bloduewedd’s husband Lleu) are a digital manipulation of a linocut I did of Kirkcarrion, a plantation of pines on an elevated Bronze Age burial site in Teesdale.

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