#HalloweenFrights Day 6: James Brogden uncovers the history of the hag

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It’s day six of #HalloweenFrights, and today I’m handing over the reins to author James Brogden, whose books Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree both deal in frightening folklore. His new book, The Plague Stones (Titan, May 2019), delves into the history of the traditional hag. Here, he gives us a little history lesson and paints a very creepy picture. Prepare to shudder…

She shuffles along the empty country lane in her rough-spun cloak and her red skirt. From the cottages in the valley behind her rises smoke and the weeping of grief-stricken villagers. In the windows of the houses in the valley ahead of her gleam warm lights as their inhabitants rest comfortably, unaware of who approaches their homes. She is bent, tired beyond measure, because she’s killed so many and her work is nowhere near done.

Her name is Pesta, and she is the Plague Hag.

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‘She Covers the Whole Country’ by Theodor Kittelsen

The British landscape abounds with her sisters. Stray too close to one of those dark, weed-carpeted pools in the lonely northern countryside and you might get caught by Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Longarms or Peg Powler. Don’t let your children stray in the neighbourhood of Dane Hills in Leicester, because even though it’s been developed into suburbia there used to be a cave which was the home of Black Annis, the blue-faced crone with iron talons for hands who would drain her victims’ blood, eat their flesh and flay their skins for her clothes – and she might still be there.

Even at home you’re not safe. You might awaken from a nightmare, breathless and paralysed – that’s because a hag has been sitting on your chest, squeezing the life out of you. Even the word nightmare itself comes from her, because the Old English word for a hag is mæra.

The misogynistic connotations of the word in its modern usage cannot be ignored, however, and the historical treatment of women accused of withcraft is nothing short of the worst kind of persecution, torture, and murder. But hags, properly speaking, are not witches. They’re more ancient than that, encompassing something wider and deeper. It may be that they’ve simply evolved from cautionary tales told to stop children from straying into dangerous places – caves, rivers, forests. Or the hag might be a folk-memory of the worship of more ancient pagan goddesses – the merciless and destructive side of nature which goes hand in hand with the life-giving and nurturing. Like most folk tales, a hag’s origin is difficult to pin down.

What is interesting about Pesta is that she is neither a cautionary tale nor a diminished goddess, and her origin is very specific. She came into existence in Norway as merchant ships from England spread the Black Death, wreaking a destruction so terrible that it couldn’t be attributed to anything as ‘normal’ as the Devil, and so a new evil was created. It is a rare and sobering insight into the process of mythogenesis, by which humans populate the world with figures of legend sprung from our hopes and fears.

When Pesta arrives at that village she will be carrying either a rake or a broom, and the villagers had better pray that it’s the rake, since some of them might then escape through its teeth. If it’s the broom, then whole communities will be swept away, and nobody will survive.

Thanks James! Make sure you follow James on Twitter here, and if you want more sleepless nights, you can pre-order his new book The Plague Stones here. Tomorrow’s guest post is a bit of a doozy as I welcome one of the year’s bestselling authors, who’ll be revealing just why she loves horror so much

#HalloweenFrights Day 2: Part Two – Fran Dorricott asks, Where are all the queer witches?

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Let the magic continue! After Elizabeth and Katharine Corr’s rules for writing a witch story, today’s #HalloweenFrights continues with more wicca wonder from Fran Dorricott. Fran is the author of upcoming queer witch novel After The Eclipse (March 2019, Titan), which I can’t wait to read. Here, she discusses the idea of ‘otherness’ and asks, Where are all the queer witches?

Witches have always been my favourite ‘spooky’ creature. While my friends would dress up on Halloween with their false fangs and fake blood, I’d always be the one in the back smeared in green paint, a black cape and robes and a broomstick in my hand.

It’s no surprise that I’ve been consuming every witchy story I can get my hands on for as long as I can remember. My heart still jumps when I see a new book or TV show about them. What do I like about witches? Well, I’ve been puzzling about this for years, but I think it has something to do with the intersection of power and otherness.

Witches in popular culture do not generally suffer from the same level of persecution as the real women who are hurt and killed for their otherness, but their otherness still defines their lives. My favourite witches often worry about being exposed to others, their powers being abused or their lives changed by their magic.

And yet they are some of the most powerful role models in popular culture. Witches own their magic, use it boldly (whether that is for good or evil), and that has always made me feel strong. They are powerful because of their otherness, as well as despite it.

So where are all the queer and POC witches? Of course they exist, but while I was compiling a list of the witches I remembered from my childhood, the names on it were generally limited to white, straight, cis witches. Despite their otherness because of their magic, somehow the list looks remarkably like every other popular culture list.

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So I dug deeper. Of course we have a few exceptions to the rule. There’s Willow Rosenberg, whose same-sex relationship in Buffy heralds her as a queer icon for ever. And there’s Marie Laveau (I’m feeling special love for Angela Bassett’s portrayal in American Horror Story: Coven), the Voodoo Queen inspired by a real-life New Orleans figure. But otherwise my list of favourite witches is remarkably white and straight.

But things, I hope, are starting to change. I’m seeing a surge of queer witchy projects cropping up in young adult fiction. Anthologies like Toil And Trouble, and books like Labyrinth Lost, giving voice to LGBT and POC witches. The Charmed reboot has a lesbian main character (the middle sister, Mel), and I am so psyched to start seeing myself and my friends in more of the popular culture.

Just for fun, here is a rundown of my top ten witches in popular culture. These are the women who made me feel powerful – because of my differences as well as despite them – and I can’t wait to see more diverse witches in the future.

hida10. Hilda Spellman (Sabrina The Teenage Witch)
Hilda always reminded me of myself. Scrappy, a bit dippy, and very loving at heart. Of course Sabrina and Zelda are awesome too, but Hilda is just so much fun!

9. The Grand High Witch (Roald Dahl’s The Witches)
She was the cause of the very first nightmares I remember after watching a film. Anjelica Huston without her mask on was absolutely terrifying! I later had a dream where the Hocus Pocus Sanderson sisters came to save me.

8. Winifred Sanderson (Hocus Pocus)
Another glorious morning. Makes me sick! Same, Winnie. Saaaaame. Winnie’s brand of humour appeals to me in an ‘I work in customer service, too’ sort of way, and I love her even more as an adult.

7. Sally Owens (Practical Magic)
Book Sally and film Sally are a little different, but her gentle witchcraft always made me feel very safe and calm. Plus Sandra Bullock in braids is just adorable, honestly.

6. Piper Halliwell (Charmed)
My favourite of the Halliwell sisters, Piper’s freezing time powers always made me think I’d never be late to class if I could do it. Piper is the woman I always wanted to be: warm, patient, and kickass to boot!

Marie5. Marie Laveau (AHS: Coven)
Talking about badass women, Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau is top of the list. Somehow her scenes in the show were always the most arresting.

4. Mel Vera (Charmed 2018)
I haven’t seen much in the way of the Charmed reboot but I’ve very excited for the potential here! Charmed was my all-time favourite TV show growing up, so more powerful young ladies being badass is what I’m all about.

3. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
Look, who didn’t have a crush on Willow ok? A generation of queer girls everywhere owe a LOT to Alyson Hannigan. Just saying.

2. Manon Blackbeak (Sarah J Maas’ Throne Of Glass series)
Manon is one of my greatest adult-life loves. The perfect amount of cut-throat combined with a love for gross animals and I’m 100% down. Plus, who doesn’t love a cracking redemption arc?

1. Elphaba aka The Wicked Witch of the West (Wicked/The Wizard of Oz)
As a kid The Wizard Of Oz was my favourite movie. And when I found out that there was a musical about the witch telling us HER story I about died (I love Gregory Maguire’s book, too). In my opinion all good story-telling is about point of view, so I love hearing about characters whose story was originally very 2D. And I’m not going to lie and say I don’t support the Galinda/Elphaba ship, because I do. And Gregory Maguire does too.

This is a direct plea to the universe: more queer and POC witches please! With the world in the state it’s currently in, we need all the diverse badassery we can get.

Thanks Fran, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know about you, but after all this witch talk, I’m feeling pretty green. Things are switching up tomorrow as we delve in to one of the most pervading myths in horror with one of my favourite new authors. See you on the other side!

#HalloweenFrights Day 2: Part One – Elizabeth & Katharine Corr’s rules for writing a wicked witch story

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Congratulations! You survived the first day of #HalloweenFrights! To celebrate, here’s a spook-tacular treat – today I have not one but TWO guest posts about witches.

First up, I’m handing over to author sisters Elizabeth and Katharine Corr, who recently cast a wicked spell with their Witches Kiss trilogy (which I loved). Because they’ve written three whole books about spellcasters, I asked them to reveal their six secrets for how to write an awesome witch story. Over to you, ladies…

When writing The Witch’s Kiss trilogy, we spent a lot of time researching all things witchy. Luckily, witches – like vampires – seem to have an enduring appeal, both in literature and on screen, so there was plenty of good source material. Here’s what we learnt…

1. Do your homework. In more recent history, witchcraft has been associated with the occult, satanic worship, cursing your neighbour’s cows and other generally bad stuff. In a modern context – and, funnily enough, if you go further back in history – it’s been associated more with healing and harnessing the power of nature. In our trilogy we’ve mixed elements of both, trying to pay homage to both versions of witchcraft.

hermione2. Make your witch believable – as a person first, as a witch second. A good witch story needs a believable protagonist. Think Hermione, Mildred, Granny WeatherWax. Each of these witches has vulnerabilities and strengths that we can relate to. Modern witches, even the wicked ones, tend to be more well-rounded than in fairytales (the Angelina Jolie version of Maleficent, for example). Have your witch be malicious and evil by all means, but also show us why.

3. Dress them right. Actually, dress them any way you want to as long as it fits with your setting. Personally, we love a pointy black hat. But witches, like everyone else, come in all different shapes and sizes. Some witches have wands, brooms and all the traditional witchy paraphernalia. Some have the latest technology and do power dressing. Our hero, Merry, lives in modern day Surrey and looks like a regular teenager. Her gran – the head of the coven – has a smart bob and pearl earrings; not a wart in sight. There are no rules regarding witch fashion.

3. Think outside the box: witches don’t have to be women or belong to a coven. There are modern male witches that would be very unhappy to be called warlocks (if you don’t believe us, Google it). We have a powerful male witch in our trilogy, who, unlike the wizards in our books, inherited his powers straight from his mum. Again, some witches enjoy being part of a group, whilst others are solo artists. Your witch doesn’t have to be part of a coven. Merry definitely didn’t want to be part of hers.

5. Know your powers. Magical powers vary. Some witches use cauldrons, wands and spell books. Granny Weatherwax prefers ‘headology’ (basically outsmarting your opponent by getting inside their headspace). Some witches make human/animal sacrifices, whilst others use the power of the land and, where possible, fresh herbs. If your witch casts spells, try to make them sound convincing. We spent a lot of time researching stuff in Latin and other languages.

6. Have a good antagonist. Harry Potter wouldn’t have been quite the same without Lord Voldemort, and a witch is always at her best when she’s in mortal danger. Either through clever spells or pure courage, facing down the Big Bad is when she comes into her own.

Big thanks to Elizabeth and Katharine for this. You can follow them on Twitter by clicking their names (ooo, magic), and make sure you check out their books if you’re a fan of all things witch-y. Want more spellbinding stuff? Check out part two of the #HalloweenFright witch special later today.

Hubble bubble…

Briefly: the lovely people over at Total Film have caught up with Guillermo del Toro about the 1.57 million (approx) films that he’s currently got in production. One of those is a fresh adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic The Witches. Being a huge fan of 1) the original book, 2) the gloriously creepy ’90s movie adap starring Anjelica Huston and 3) del Toro, this fresh chatter has filled my stomach with a million little sharp-toothed butterflies that just won’t stop nippin’!

Here’s what Guillermo had to say about his vision of a new Witches adap:

“We got the highest compliment from Lucy Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow. She said to us it was ‘the most beautiful adaptation of my husband’s work’. I tried to be very faithful to the book to the point that I was literally having a page-by-page reading as I was writing the screenplay and marking the pages…

“It was very different from other adaptations I have done. It was such an important book for me growing up that I wanted people to not only recognise but be almost flabbergasted at how faithful the movie was to the book. And that includes a very touching, tender relationship between the boy and his grandma and some of the most Roald Dahl-esque shocking moments with the witches. The rhyming and singing of the witches, talking about broiling and boiling the boys – the more disturbing aspects.

“I want to preserve the pathos and the darkness of the piece and that’s why it’s taking so long because it’s very hard sometimes for Hollywood to wrap around their head, ‘oh, it’s a classical children’s tale that includes dark aspects.’”