By Peter Curtis
Published by Arrow Books, 2011
With Hammer films making something of a comeback (Let Me In, Wakes Wood, etc) the Hammer brand is once again relevant in the horror scene. Now Arrow have published the first in a planned series of books under their new Hammer imprint. This series will include new stories as well as novelisations of hammer films and others, like this one, which inspired some of those classic movies.
The Witches was a 1966 film starring Joan Fontaine and directed by Cyril Frankel (who writes an introduction to this version). The film was adapted by Nigel Kneale from a book called The Devil’s Own by Norah Lofts (written under the pseudonym of Peter Curtis). That book was then re-published as The Witches in 1966 to coincide with the film’s release. Although reasonably enjoyable the film was not regarded as one of Hammer’s high points and the final few scenes were arguably among the worst hammer produced, but don’t let that put you off what is an excellent novel.
The story follows Mrs Mayfield as she returns from a difficult African trip which led to a nervous breakdown. She seeks solace in the picture perfect village of Walwyck as the headmistress of the local school. At first everything is going well, but it soon becomes clear that behind the scenes this town holds a secret, “something dark and sinister and shivery”.
As much a tale of paranoia as black magic this story excellently portrays the strangeness of Walwyck, a town that’s “not the road to anywhere”. It’s clear, pretty early on, that this town has maintained some old and rather unsavoury practices and that, like the town “the people are still a bit cut off in their minds”. The rather puritanical, Miss Jean Brodie figure, of Mrs Mayfield swims against the tide trying to investigate these ingrained attitudes but her paranoia and instability, as well as the locals, conspire against her.
In 1967 David Pinner wrote a novel called Ritual that would eventually find it’s way to the big screen as The Wicker Man and the similarities between the two films cannot be ignored. That same themes of pagan rites carried into the modern world, internal religious struggle and insular local mentality are invoked in both films, but arguably this book does it better. In particular the final scenes are full of strong, unsettling images of rites which are excellently portrayed and much, much better than the film’s laughable final section, which looks like a badly choreographed Adam Ant video.
Of course the book was written in 1959 and therefore stylistically could appear a little dated and certainly has little in common with the sexy cover image, but for me this actually adds to it’s power, the old fashioned style helps give weight to the rather straight laced character of Mrs Mayfield, giving the book an extra dose of reality in the process. A great start to an imprint from a company with a rich and important history, here’s hoping for more of the same in the future. Not just recommended for fans of Hammer but for all fans of well written horror stories.
Rating 4 out of 5