Wunderkammer: Heinous and Unnatural

the-witch-poster-e1440010251515If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’ve been excited about The Witch for weeks, and finally got to see it on Saturday. I loved it – loved it in a slightly manic, unreserved way, grinning in the dark for two hours despite the man behind me getting vocally upset because a film marketed as being disturbing turned out to disturb him.

In summary: Puritans are awful, New England is awful, children are awful, that man sitting behind me who thought he’d come to see a Pixar film is awful… but goats just want to have fun.

witchesbabiesAmid all the jolly goat-related devastation, some scenes reminded me of certain folk tales and cases of bizarre phenomenon I’ve taken to my heart over the years. In the spirit of Folklore Thursday, gather round and clutch your protective sprig of rosemary…

I Saw Sister Procter Canoodling With The Devil

There have been cases of mass hysteria throughout history in all sorts of cultures and scenarios. Especially potent in close-knit communities like boarding schools, mild cases of mass hysteria can lead multiple individuals to laugh unstoppably, faint, contract an imaginary virus, or become convinced of a conspiracy. When the paranormal becomes involved, as the Salem witch trials show, things get rather more interesting.

One case in 1491 saw a nunnery in the Spanish Netherlands overrun with ‘possessed’ nuns. The sisters ran around like dogs, jumped out of trees pretending to be birds, and clawed tree trunks, miaowing. (Did the cat-nuns chase the bird-nuns, I wonder?) Devilish familiars were blamed, and over the following centuries, dozens of similar mass hysterias cropped up in convents all over Europe. Screaming, convulsing, foaming at the mouth, nuns would confess to carnal relations with devils and attempt to seduce those sent to exorcise them. For a bored nun who fancied her priest, succumbing to hysterics probably looked quite appealing. Or perhaps demons, like poltergeists, work best amongst stifled young women.

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Your Honour, I Put It To You That Donkey Is Evil

As every good churchgoing medieval serf knew, Jesus drove a pack of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. The pigs subsequently hurled themselves into a river to drown. So it’s understandable, then, that animals were sometimes suspected by early modern humans of being up to something wicked. A Swiss cockerel in 1474 was burned at the stake for committing the “heinous and unnatural crime” of laying an egg. Such a disruption to the natural order had to mean Lucifer was playing tricks through the medium of breakfast food.

Animal trials sometimes involved actual courts, judges, and juries. In 1750, a donkey caught in the act of copulation with her human master was found innocent by the townspeople because she was “in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature”. The man was executed. In the French town of Savigny in 1457, a sow was put on trial for trampling a child to death. The sow was hanged from the same gallows tree as the town’s human criminals, but her piglets were exonerated due to lack of evidence.

Questions of free will clashed with theology in these animal trials – were animals empty vessels capable of being controlled by devils, or were they creatures with as much  character and virtue as a man?

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They Came From The Forest

Woolpit (meaning ‘the pit of wolves’) is a nice little village in Suffolk where I used to spend weekends with my aunt. She had a twelfth century house there with witch marks on the ceilings – long ladders and ave marias traced in tallow smoke. If you’ve driven through Woolpit, you’ll have noticed the peculiar village sign depicting one of the wolves the village is named for alongside two children, hand in hand, painted green.

Around the time my aunt’s house was built, a boy and a girl emerged from the woods. They spoke an unknown language, and both had green skin. The children would only eat beans, and the boy soon died. When the girl was taught enough English to communicate, she claimed to be from a world of eternal twilight called The Land of Saint Martin. They were wandering through a cave, she said, when they blundered into horrid daylight and were discovered by a gang of Woolpit reapers. They did not know how to get home.

The girl took the name Agnes, married, and lived a relatively normal life, eventually losing her green colouring. Various theories abound – that the children’s greenness was caused by Hypochromic Anemia, that aliens had landed, or that they were indeed faerie children from a sunless world.

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Bugganes and Breeches

While faeries have it in them to be friendly on occasion, goblins err on the side of goatish bloody-mindedness. The Buggane, in particular, embodies this attitude. These pre-Christian goblins were known to set up camp in old chapels to prevent parishioners preparing leaky roofs and dangerous staircases. Able to change shape at will, Bugganes favoured the form of monstrously large black rams; the horns enabled them to actively rip down roofs so congregations were rained on during services.

One Buggane did just that when monks failed to ask permission of the faeries before building their church at the foot of Greeba Mountain on the Isle of Man. No matter how many times the roof was repaired, something gigantic would tear it off again, and soon no one dared worship there.

The destruction prompted a local tailor to make a bet that he could stay in the goblin-infested chapel long enough to make a pair of breeches. At midnight, the Buggane tired of the tailor’s company and appeared in its horned form, ready to give him its customary gigantic demonic ram welcome. The tailor was quick, however, and when the Buggane realised it couldn’t catch him, it ripped off its own head and flung it at him. As you do.

The chapel – St Trinian’s – remains a roofless ruin to this day. And horned farmyard animals remain peaceable and cuddly and only casually acquainted with Lucifer.

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New anthology – Winter Tales

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My nasty little story of fenland isolation, The Frost of Heaven, is out now in Winter Tales from Fox Spirit Books, winner of the 2015 British Fantasy Society Best Independent Press Award.

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I dared to touch him, once. His skin was dry and just a little pliant. And cold.

Eerie? I suppose. I grew to rather love them. Nothing here is quite so… pardon?

Fleshly.

That is the very word.

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“A beautiful and inoffensive rouge”

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale - The Blush

Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale – The Blush

When I think of historical makeup, the usual image to spring to mind is a florid Rococo beauty smothered in powder and false hair. Victorian heroines had better things to do, like passing out on the moors and rejecting marriage proposals from clergymen.

Victorian women did wear makeup. It wasn’t proper to talk about wearing makeup, and it certainly wasn’t proper to look like you wore makeup. That was for actresses and other ladies of questionable virtue. Beauty, wrote nineteenth century agony aunts, came from clean living and inner purity.

That’s rubbish, obviously. So women turned to cosmetics. As well as unwholesome, makeup was considered rather old-fashioned, carrying connotations of old maids cack-handedly tarting themselves up. The desirable look was that of the fictional milkmaid, who rose merrily at dawn with bright eyes, spent the day out in the fresh air (remaining untanned, importantly), and never read unsavoury novels. Her cheerful disposition gave her eyes sparkle and her cheeks a natural bloom.

To achieve the milkbabe look, talcum powder, cold cream, and fragrances were normal and acceptable on any lady’s dressing table. They might be joined by eyebrow darkeners of coal or crushed cloves… and the dreaded rouge, so easy to apply too thickly.

IMG_5484 Men, too, had their cosmetics. Mascara, or moustache wax, was applied with a fingertip to give definition to moustaches and eyebrows. Many Victorian women fell for the popular myth that regularly trimming one’s eyelashes would make them grow longer and fuller. It’s easy to see how such disasters would lead a woman to borrow from her husband’s mascara stash.

Ruth Goodman’s How To Be A Victorian quotes one disapproving Victorian lady as saying rouge was “not only bad taste, but it is a positive breach of sincerity. It is bad taste because the means we have sought are contrary to the laws of nature.” With this quote in mind, it’s easy to see how Dante Gabriel Rossetti was accused of painting indecent women…

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Helen of Troy. 1863.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Helen of Troy. 1863.

The vivid red lips typical of his later work give his models a savage, vampiric look, setting them apart from the dainty, delicately blushing ideal ladies of the day. They know they’re gorgeous, and they’ll probably bury you. Bear in mind, two dots of pink on a face as pale as that was a telltale sign of tuberculosis, too.

There’s a whole mountain of Victorian psycho-sexual neurosis when it comes to women’s faces and what they chose to put on them, which is partly why I was so excited when, trawling Etsy, I came across LBCC Historical Apothecary. There you’ll find authentic reproductions of cosmetics from all kinds of historical eras, from jazz age scented face powder to jasmine hair oil from 1772.

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LBBC have plenty of rouges to choose from. I went for the Turkish variety. It’s a reproduction of an 1810 recipe that was used since at least 1740 and later on, too. It takes five months to make from repurposed violin shavings, and was said to be “beautiful and inoffensive”. In the bottle, it’s almost indistinguishable from blood, and smells like tasty floral vinegar.

victorianrougeSo here I am, pretending to be a Victorian pretending to be makeup-free.

On the lips, the rouge is a tad drying, but the colour lasts all day and sits happily under a layer of Vaseline. It doesn’t bleed. The only other lip tints I’ve tried are from Bourjois and Benefit, and both of them stain a heavy colour at first and fade quickly. This rouge acted differently from the start – I definitely prefer it to modern tints. It’s easy to imagine a Victorian woman using this clandestinely while her mother-in-law bleated on about ‘paint’.

On the cheeks, I stippled on a tiny amount with a soft sponge and blended it quickly before it had a chance to stain. Despite having no prior experience with any blusher whatsoever (pasty goth for life) I managed not to make any disasters, but I would say go easy. You can always add more.

Several hours and only one touch-up later…

victorianrouge3That really dark bit’s a shadow. But now I want to try a more lurid eighteenth century look at a later date. And definitely the 1772 rose tinted lip balm for when I’m out and about, beheading nobles, etc.

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For The Love of Letters

I’ve just sent a real, honest-to-God, actual paper letter. It’s got ink on it, and a stamp, and I had to lick the seal.

Since moving house, I’ve been trawling through boxes of assorted flotsam. I know I’ll end up like one of those hermits you hear of, trapped under an avalanche of Screwfix catalogues and dog food tins. Since childhood, I’ve hoarded floppy discs full of Livejournal icons, Star Wars stickers, glitzy plastic bangles I can’t believe I ever wore – and letters.

So many letters.

I was a terrible teenage pen pal. I wrote bundles of pages in indecipherable spider writing; song lyrics, fan fiction, art I’d just discovered (four hundred years late, usually), books I loved, books I hated. Despatches on school (disastrous), air cadets (disastrous), the state of my kidneys (double disastrous). You can hurl yourself into a letter in a way you somehow can’t with email. They’re artefacts.

I put ads out in sci-fi magazines. I did those chain pen pal schemes where a notebook full of address and lists of interests slowly went around the country and you could pick out anyone who sounded interesting. For a while, pre-Internet, I’d order stifling incense from mail order witchcraft catalogues. Do these still exist?

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SAFE banishment & exorcism!

I love reading old letters. Some surprise you all over again with gifts and puffs of glitter.

Some leave you feeling old.

IMG_5383Others remind you you’ve got miles to go.

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There are treasures I’ll never give up, and things I can’t remember acquiring. I have letters from people I knew so briefly, I can barely recall their names or how we met.

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Others are from people still in my life, people I see online every day, as real as a neighbour at the window.

Some are anonymous scraps found in the street. Someone discarded the nine muses in a cloakroom.

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These days I’m an Internet person. Many of my dearest friends are people I’ll probably never meet. The web allows us pallid hermits to talk at any time of the day or night without having to venture into The Dreaded Outside and interact with postal workers. But looking through boxes of old correspondence, I do get that slightly embarrassing nostalgic pang for handwritten letters. Though I rarely send them any more, and seldom receive any, I wouldn’t get rid of my old letters any more than I’d give up my jewellery.

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Gliding into 2016

American--Ghoul
Happy new year, everyone. I hope it brings you happiness.

Helen Barrell, author of the upcoming Victorian arsenic tome Poison Panic, has interviewed me about Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs, and my 2016 non-fiction book, The Mighty Healer.

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Free books? Free books.

A giveaway for Saturnalia!

Saturnalia was the Ancient Roman mid-December festival of feasting, gift-giving, and wild partying, when ordinary Romans turned social norms upside down and revelled in pandemonium.

Saturnalia features in Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs, my novella of magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish. I have three signed copies to give away this December, to lend a little pandemonium to your mid-winter festivities.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs by Verity Holloway

Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs

by Verity Holloway

Giveaway ends December 30, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

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An 1870s Christmas

IMG_5042It’s the weekend before the first Sunday of advent, traditionally the time to whip up your Christmas cakes and puddings so they have time to mature (i.e. get sufficiently saturated in alcohol you’ll be comatose until Twelfth Night). In Britain, we make heavy fruitcakes with chopped almonds and candied citrus fruit peel, as well as puddings with a tarry consistency that we like to set on fire. The recipes haven’t changed hugely since the nineteenth century, though we no longer put pennies or tiny dolls in our puddings because, well, death.

In my research for The Mighty Healer, I got my hands on a gorgeous little household almanac from 1870s Philadelphia. These flimsy books were printed to advertise patent medicines, with calendars, joke pages, and bits of first aid advice inside, so you’d keep it handy and suck up the advertising by osmosis.

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They also contained recipes. Some…more appealing than others. Here are some of the Christmas ones. Try them at your discretion/peril.

IMG_5059I’m not sure I can applaud the juxtaposition of beef suet with vermifuge purgative, but the Victorians did invent Christmas, so who am I to judge…

Next up is a more American dish, pumpkin pudding. Just the thing for the pangs of neuralgia.

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And finally we have Nun’s Butter and Wine Sauce preceded by Hoofland’s German Bitters, which were good for the appetite, apparently, what with being 25% alcohol.

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ADD AS MUCH WINE AS IT CAN TAKE. Nun’s Butter sounds like the brandy butter we put on mince pies to make them palatable. It can also be used as an icing to rescue dry cakes. Trying to dig up the origin of the name, I came across French puff pastries called Nun’s Farts. So there you go. Butter up a Nun’s Fart.

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Death & The Maiden

I’m on DeadMaidens.com today, talking about Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs and the first time I met an incorrupt saint.
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I was fifteen when I stood over the incorrupt body of Saint Spyridon. It was my first visit to Corfu, a summer holiday with my parents. Peeking out onto a narrow street of lace-makers, icon sellers, and jewellers’ shops, the modest exterior of Spyridon’s shrine made its entrance easy to miss. There was certainly no fanfare for the miracle within as I stepped down into the perfumed candlelight. The Greek Orthodox Jesus possessed a strange allure; stern and penetrating, totally removed from the acoustic-guitar-and-custard-creams Sundays I spent in church at home. It’s heretical to say it, but the shrine had magic. [Read more…]

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#PRBday: Visions of hope in Pre-Raphaelite art.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 23.54.42Baudelaire. I posted this quote on Twitter this morning in response to last night’s terrible violence in Paris.

In times of darkness, art reminds us that humans have always been capable of wonderful things, regardless of war, oppression, or sickness. Sometimes more so for the suffering, if you look at the poems and paintings of the early twentieth century. Art, like heroism, shows its colours more brightly when the world is bleak.

And art can bring people together in strange, synchronistic ways. Now there’s the Internet, people who might never encounter each other in the flesh can link up and enthuse together – something unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The 15th of November is #PRBday, when Pre-Raphaelite devotees raise the group’s profile, shine a light on their legacy, and welcome new friends into the online circle. I’ve met so many fabulous people thanks to these mid-Victorian “boys who couldn’t draw”, as Rossetti called himself and the other PR Brothers.

I was going to write something else today, but none of it seems appropriate. I think what I instinctively want to do is share some hopeful Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Joan of Arc

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Joan of Arc

Edward Burne-Jones - Love Among The Ruins

Edward Burne-Jones – Love Among The Ruins

Ford Madox Brown - The Last of England

Ford Madox Brown – The Last of England

Frank Cadogan Cowper - St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’

Frank Cadogan Cowper – St Agnes in Prison Receiving from Heaven the ‘Shining White Garment’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Found

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Found

William Holman Hunt - The Light of The World

William Holman Hunt – The Light of The World

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Evelyn De Morgan – Field of The Slain

We’ve got art, and we can make more. We’ve got friends, and we can make more of those, too. There’s inspiration in that. There always has been. And where there’s inspiration, life prevails.

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Cover Reveal

I love this part.

themightyhealercover The Mighty Healer: Thomas Holloway’s Victorian Patent Medicine Empire will be published in winter 2016 by Pen & Sword.

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