“I smell a whiff of what I need to make my broomstick fly at speed…”
Smelly Chantelly isn’t the most famous of witchy books. My dad bought it for me at my kindergarten book fair, way back in 1996; even then, I was intrigued (and frightened) by the witch on the cover. However, more than twenty years later, Smelly Chantelly remains one of the weirdest picture books I have ever read. The illustrations are hideous. The main character is a slob.
And, to avoid burying the lead any longer: the book literally stinks. Smelly Chantelly is a scratch-and-sniff adventure, and Smelly’s foraged ingredients are pungently apparent on every page.
The plot of the story goes thus. On the night before the witches’ fancy-dress ball, Smelly’s broomstick runs out of power, sending her tumbling through the roof of an old barn. As she makes her way home on foot, Smelly must find all of the ingredients required to brew a broomstick-restoring spell. (She’d also quite like to win the prize for Best-Dressed Witch, but that’s a secondary concern to getting her broom back in the air.) The child reader is implicitly invited to quest along with her, trying to identify which ingredient Smelly will add to her belt next.
It’s quite fun, really. All of the ingredients Smelly needs can be scratched and sniffed, and if you don’t spot the ingredient straight away, you can try scratching anywhere on the page. My copy from kindergarten has optimistic scratch marks on just about everything.
The only problem is that some of the ingredients smell truly, genuinely awful.
On the fourth page of the book, the reader is told that Smelly’s breath reeks of mildew; the reader is invited to scratch and sniff. Later, Smelly trades her cat for a clove of garlic; the reader is again invited to scratch and sniff. At the end of the book, Smelly realises that the final ingredient she needs is her own smelly sock; the reader is again invited to scratch and sniff. All of these invitations should absolutely be turned down.
My biggest regret about Smelly Chantelly is that my favourite smell in the book (the bubblegum) was immediately preceded by my least favourite smell (the garlic). The bubblegum smelled great, but the order of scratching meant that the bubblegum very quickly became contaminated with the awful stink that came before. I don’t know who edited that aspect of the book, but my five-year-old self would like to give them a very stern talking to.
And yet I still have really fond memories of Smelly Chantelly. Unpleasant as it could be, the concept of a stench-filled picture book remains delightfully transgressive, and the nightmarish proportions of the character designs further elevate that weirdness. (Smelly’s nose really has to be seen to be believed.) Furthermore, it’s a book from Melbourne, so chalk up another Australian witch in the records!
For the sake of completion, I’m going to finish this report by scratching the garlic again, which I haven’t done in approximately twenty years. I don’t want to do it. I’m really, really hoping the scent has faded.
Nope. Still there. Still terrible. Huge regrets.
— What? You’re saying it’s been two and a half years since my last witch post? Stop yanking my chain. I’m quite certain that this website is regularly maintained and updated.
— A begrudging thanks to author Joan Van Loon and illustrator Chantal Stewart for the fun times spent reading this book, but no thanks to them at all for the times spent frantically scrubbing my garlic-stained fingertips before bed.
— This is a tenuous connection, but The Witching Hours 6 is Anna and Max’s smelliest adventure of all. I’m sorry that book six hasn’t been released yet, but the way this year is flying by, I’m sure it’ll be out before we know it!
“I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs.”
There are many book genres that I love, but high fantasy has probably always been my favourite. The love affair started in primary school, when my gang of nerdy friends and I would devour all the fantasy content we could get our hands on: Dungeons & Dragons rule books, Warhammer magazines, and, yes, an ancient computer game set in medieval Germany. It was during this period that a friend first introduced me to a choose your own adventure book, titled The Citadel of Chaos. I thought it was marvellous. I started my own collection, gathering together a whole shelf of books with delightfully lurid titles. City of Thieves. Crypt of the Sorcerer. House of Hell.
And, inevitably, Caverns of the Snow Witch.
Depending on which edition you have, Caverns of the Snow Witch is either the ninth or tenth entry in the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, which was created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Each book in the series is like a personal Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with the reader assigned a clichéd fantasy objective: most of the time it’s simply “kill the evil wizard.” Readers navigate the book by making a decision at the end of each reference, flipping through the book to find out what happens next – “If you wish to turn left, turn to61” – and are regularly tasked with rolling dice to fight a monster. The books are definitely a bit nerdy, but they’re also good, honest fun.
But enough about that – let’s get to the witch! Caverns of the Snow Witch opens with the hero trekking up the snowy Icefinger Mountains, on a mission to slay a rampaging yeti. The yeti is swiftly defeated, but a dying fur trapper offers a new call to adventure: he has recently discovered an entrance to the legendary Crystal Caves, carved into a glacier by the followers of the evil Snow Witch. The witch is plotting to use her dark powers to bring on a new ice age, and so must be slain as soon as possible. So, what are you waiting for? Get questing!
Like most Fighting Fantasy books, Caverns of the Snow Witch takes place in the high fantasy world of Allansia, a world seemingly populated by every fantasy monster ever invented. As such, the denizens of the Crystal Caves are an eclectic bunch: you can fight snow wolves and Neanderthals and a frost giant, which are all pleasantly on-theme, but you’ll also need to defeat an illusionist, a “brain slayer,” and a rather flamboyant minstrel. When you do catch up with the titular Snow Witch, it turns out she’s secretly been a vampire all along, and can only be killed by a stake through the heart. What a twist!
Hilariously, there’s so little narrative logic in this fantasy world that the Snow Witch doesn’t even cast any cold-based spells; even when you fight one of the witch’s Crystal Warriors, the text is quick to point out that the warrior is made of quartz crystals, not ice. It’s all rather ridiculous, but things just go from bad to worse in the climactic exchange between hero and villain, when the player convinces the witch to take part in a battle of wits. Here’s a sample of the dramatic dialogue:
“The Snow Witch looks surprised and displeased at the defeat of her Zombies. Suddenly she says, ‘The game we are going to play is called Discs. You will not win, of course. But in the unlikely event that you do, I will give you the chance to escape. I hope you have remembered to bring along your discs. Without them you lose!’ She laughs sadistically at the thought of making up the rules on the spur of the moment.”
“Discs,” it turns out, is just an off-brand version of “rock-paper-scissors.” The reader chooses a shape, and the witch calls out another shape. If the reader’s shape beats the witch’s shape, the witch is immediately vanquished.
It is quite possibly the worst climactic battle I’ve ever read.
Even so, Caverns of the Snow Witch is still a lot of fun, so long as you know what you’re getting into. When I read the book again this week I died almost immediately at the hands of the witch herself (I didn’t manage to find a wooden stake), but I did make it through to the end on my second attempt, with only a little bit of flip-ahead cheating. For a choose your own adventure book, the narrative path is surprisingly linear; mapping out the choices with pen and paper reveals a pretty simple route to the end.
My pro tip? Don’t pay the first ferry man you meet. You’ll thank me later.
— To be clear, Caverns of the Snow Witch is not my favourite Fighting Fantasy book. Ian Livingstone’s stories generally require the reader to find the “one true path” to make it even slightly close to the end, and I find it discouraging to have an adventure cut short just because I didn’t find a certain mystical doodad. You’ll get a much better role playing experience out of Creature of Havoc, House of Hell, and especially the Sorcery! quartet, all of which were written by Steve Jackson.
— I should also mention that Caverns of the Snow Witch doesn’t actually end with that thrilling game of Discs. Early in the book the hero tries to read some strange symbols on a piece of parchment; it later transpires that the symbols were a Death Spell, and so even though the witch has been defeated, the hero is still doomed to die. Finding the cure is a complicated affair involving a banshee and a pegasus, which is business as usual for Allansia.
— Honestly, the scariest thing about the Snow Witch is the terrifying set of skeleton-filled icicles on the front cover. Credit goes to Les Edwards for that inspired background detail, and also to Gary Ward and Edward Crosby, for their excellent woodcut-style illustrations throughout. The book is actually worth a read just for those amazing monster pictures alone.
— There’s also a witch named Alianna in The Shamutanti Hills, which is the first entry in that brilliant Sorcery! miniseries I mentioned. She doesn’t hang around for long, but she does turn a chair into a wood golem, which is pretty cool.
— Would I ever write a choose your own adventure book? Yes, I absolutely would. In fact, if you Google hard enough, you can still find a piece of writing I entered in a Fighting Fantasy short story competition, back when I was a teenager. Or you could just click here.
— Okay, okay – I only completed Caverns of the Snow Witch with a lot of flip-ahead cheating. But believe me, flipping ahead to sneak a look at an outcome is an essential part of the choose your own adventure experience. Just pretend your hero is a psychic, and you’re good to go!
As an Australian writer fascinated by all things witchy, I’m always on the lookout for witches with a distinctly Australian flair. Unfortunately, throughout my reading life so far, such witches have been virtually non-existent – with one notable exception. Daisy O’Grady is a terrifying Australian sorceress, her face gaunt, her hair wild, with a literal skeleton tucked away in her closet. She wears a macabre fox stole around her neck, and proudly mixes potions containing rats’ tails, toe-nails and dead lizards’ scales.
Oh – and she also happens to be the main character in a picture book for children.
Guess What? is a 1988 picture book written by Mem Fox and illustrated by Vivienne Goodman. It’s a book that sets you up to feel uneasy from the very beginning, establishing a fleeting sense of distance (“Far away from here lives a crazy lady called Daisy O’Grady”) before slowly drawing the reader closer to its mysterious protagonist. Each of the simple, sinister questions asked by Fox (“Is she tall?” “Is she thin?”) gives a further clue to Daisy O’Grady’s identity, building and building until the conclusion of the story seems terrifyingly, unsettlingly inevitable. You hope that Daisy won’t be a witch. You hope there’s going to be a twist. You hope the book won’t give you nightmares.
And, well, there is a twist – but I’m certainly not going to ruin that here!
Fox’s prose is a masterclass in creating a sense of looming dread, but it’s Vivienne Goodman’s illustrations that give the book its distinctly Australian flavour. Through a series of vivid, almost photorealistic pictures, Goodman provides a detailed insight into Daisy O’Grady’s world, documenting everything from her modest scrubland shack (complete with corrugated iron roof and brick outhouse) to the native animals that live both inside and outside her abode. Every illustration is cluttered with incredible, recognisable detail: The Weekend Australian lying crumpled on the floor; a reconciliation badge pinned to Daisy’s black hat; an ordinary tin of Keen’s Mustard sitting beside a jar of blowfly eyes. It’s a perfect snapshot of Australian farm life, filtered through a weird, witchy gauze. I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my love for witch products in The Jolly Postman, and Goodman’s own creations – “Lifeless Lizards Scale Powder,” “Heinz Big Red Blood Sauce” – form a lovely complement to that text.
I’ve always thought of Guess What? as being an edgy, enthralling picture book, and so I was recently fascinated (if not surprised) to learn that, in American libraries, the book was the 66th most challenged book of the 1990s. According to one library website I found, the book was most likely challenged because of its “age-appropriateness and offensive language” – and while age-appropriateness is too subjective to easily refute, I am truly baffled by the second accusation. Does the charge relate to Daisy O’Grady’s wicked collection of 1970s pin badges, which includes buttons that say Sex Pistols and ABBA is Dead? Possibly – but it’s hard to shake the feeling that certain parents were looking for any excuse to object to the book once they found out there was a witch lurking inside.
But don’t let those “offensive” badges put you off – Guess What? is a magnificent picture book, perfectly designed to spook a child even as it delights them. The world needs more witches like Daisy O’Grady: cursing, cackling and cranky while remaining entirely, wonderfully Australian.
— I first had Guess What? read to me when I was one year old. I know this because my copy of the book is signed to me by Mem Fox, with an inscription dated 1992. My witch lit credentials are super legit.
— Mem Fox is notable for having written many, many famous picture books, but my other favourite book of hers is Possum Magic, from 1983. There isn’t a lot of magic in Australian literature, but with these two picture books Fox sets out a vision of a mythic Australia that was hugely influential on me as a young reader. (I even had a pet brush-tailed possum called Hush, rescued from the forest beside our house.)
— From all reports, the best reading of Guess What? you’ll ever hear is by Mem Fox herself. I can’t find a video of her performance anywhere on the web, but my mum recalls that a great, urgent emphasis must be placed on the constant refrain of “Guess? Yes!” In lieu of a video, you can read about how Fox developed the book on her website.
Yep, that’s right – we’re doing a Studio Ghibli double feature!
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a lovely film, but Hayao Miyazaki’s later work Spirited Away (2001) is an absolute masterpiece. The film tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl whose curious parents accidentally lead her into a magical world. When her parents are transformed into pigs, Chihiro seeks refuge beside a bizarre bathhouse that caters to spirits and monsters: a haven for the strange creatures to replenish their energies. Chihiro makes a friend, Haku, who tells her that she must take a job at the bathhouse to ensure her safety in the spirit world. To receive her work contract, Chihiro must face Yubaba, ruler of the bathhouse: a grand old witch of considerable power.
Hayao Miyazaki has featured witches in quite a few of his films, but Yubaba is by far his most menacing creation. More than anything else, Yubaba is big; her mouth looks wide enough to swallow a child whole, and her bright red fingernails are as long and sharp as daggers. Her work at the bathhouse has also made her rich. Enormous jewelled rings glitter beside her knuckles, and her penthouse apartment is filled with gold and precious stones.
Is Yubaba wicked? Yes, she is – but it’s truer to say that she’s just a very shrewd businesswoman. She takes Chihiro’s name from her as payment (rechristening her as Sen) and sets her to work washing floors and scrubbing tubs, hoping that the girl might forget her name and remain a servant forever.
I know this is a post about witches, but it should also be said that the other spirits and monsters in Spirited Away are an absolute pleasure to behold. The most memorable is probably No-Face, a mute phantom who lures victims in with promises of gold and trinkets, but all of the creatures are dazzling in their own right. There’s Kamaji, the spider-limbed man who works in the boiler room; the River Spirit, a heavily polluted nature being with the head of a golden skull; and even Chihiro’s friend Haku, who can take the form of a coiling sky dragon. Yubaba also has three monstrous henchmen of her own: a giant baby (apparently her son), a trio of bouncing green heads, and a jet black raven with Yubaba’s own face. The film radiates with inventive visuals; every single frame is a work of art.
Yubaba ends up getting distracted by No-Face’s ravenous rampage, and so Chihiro is able to free Haku from his servitude and force the witch to allow her to bargain for her freedom. Yubaba then reveals her final test: to return home with her parents, Chihiro must inspect a line of pigs and correctly choose which of the swine are her mother and father. It’s a wonderful little puzzle, but the wise and brave Chihiro solves it almost at once, leaving Yubaba fuming. Chihiro thanks Yubaba for everything, and then leaves the spirit world once and for all.
And so ends one of the best and most beautiful films ever made.
— Really, no other filmmaker gets me empathising like Miyazaki. When Chihiro faces a challenging situation, I genuinely fear for her; when she displays kindness, she genuinely moves me. Spirited Away gets me bad, but the empathy hits me even worse in My Neighbour Totoro; the character Mei reduces me to a blubbering wreck almost as soon as the film starts.
— But I do really love Chihiro. She starts the film with less courage than Mei or Kiki, but she still faces obstacles with the same compassion and determination found in all of Miyazaki’s young heroines. I’d love to see all three characters share a scene together!
— The Japanese spirit world of Spirited Away shares quite a few similarities with the worlds of European fairy tales. In both cases, food is shown to be of high importance: in traditional fairy lore, eating fairy food will entrap a human in the fairy realm forever, and in Spirited Away, eating the feast outside the bathhouse is what turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. A human character having to remember their true name is another theme common to both sets of stories.
— I’ve glossed over a lot of plot strands in my summary above, but it’s worth mentioning that Yubaba has a twin sister who is also a witch. The twin’s name is Zeniba, and she gives Chihiro a special hair tie when Chihiro returns the witch’s magical golden seal. This is a very normal scene by Miyazaki’s standards.
— Another unexplored aspect of Yubaba’s backstory is her casual remark that she never should have taken that oath to “give a job to anyone who asks.” Why did she do that?
— Now that I think about it, the two antagonists of Spirited Away really are consistently fascinating characters. Throughout the story, both No-Face and Yubaba seem to help Chihiro just as much as they hinder her, and she ends the film on good terms with both. Like most Studio Ghibli films, Spirited Away defies narrative conventions!
— Spirited Away has the best spirits and monsters of any Miyazaki film, but there are also some very good creatures in My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and Ponyo (2008). Ponyo was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw, and it completely hooked me on his unique brand of storytelling and visual creativity. If you don’t know where to start, you might as well start there!
— Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle also have witch characters in them, but I think we’ve delved into enough Studio Ghibli films for now. Next time, we’ll be looking at an Australian witch – which I think is the only Australian witch I’ve ever managed to find. Come back soon and read all about it!
“Flying used to be fun, until I started doing it for a living.”
How does a girl become a witch? This, for me, is a key question in unpacking the spookiness of witchcraft – although in some cases, the answer isn’t spooky at all. In Hayao Miyazaki’s delightful 1989 film Kiki’s Delivery Service, the solution is simple: at the age of thirteen, each young witch must leave their home (and the witch community) for one whole year, using magic to make their way in the world. Only then will their training be complete.
And so it is that Kiki, a plucky thirteen-year-old girl with a black cat and a broomstick, sets out at midnight on her first great adventure.
In a first for this blog, Kiki is not a wicked witch. Despite wearing a purple-black robe and flying on a broom, Kiki is defined by her kindness and her work ethic – a strange reversal of the usual witchy tropes. Weirdly, and perhaps even disappointingly, she only ever exhibits two specific powers: the ability to fly a broomstick, and the ability to talk to her cat familiar, Jiji. Upon landing in her new seaside town, the resourceful Kiki thus starts a broomstick delivery service, using the income to pay for room and board.
There may not be a lot of magic on display, but like all of Miyazaki’s best films, Kiki’s Delivery Service is primarily a story about girlhood. The swooping broomstick chases are exciting, but it’s Kiki’s small moments of insecurity that stayed with me when the film was over. I cringed in fear at the scene where Kiki walks past a trio of chatty, popular girls, scared that they might comment on her “ugly” witch dress. My heart sank as she flew home in the rain, already knowing that she wouldn’t be able to meet her one new friend because her clothes were now soaking wet. Kiki is so good, so noble, that I’m genuinely tormented by the setbacks she faces, however small. How can bad things happen to such a nice witch?
Bizarrely, Kiki’s Delivery Service ends long before the set period of one year has passed, and so we never see Kiki complete her witchy training. Most of Miyazaki’s films knowingly defy narrative conventions (often to wondrous effect), but more than any of his other movies, the lack of closure here feels jarring. Did Kiki learn any new spells? Did she return home safely? Did she become a real witch? These questions seem so important that it took me a while to appreciate Kiki’s Delivery Service as much as the rest of Miyazaki’s filmography. In the end though (with some effort), I managed to accept that the magic in this story simply isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is Kiki: a girl who always strives to do the right thing, and who eventually succeeds in being proud of who she is. She just so happens to be a witch – a good witch, with a good heart. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
— Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a 1985 book of the same name, written by Eiko Kadona. She also wrote five sequels. I guess if I really wanted closure, I could learn Japanese and read the whole series. Hm…
— Although Kiki’s training is supposed to occur in isolation, we do briefly meet two other witches in the film: Kiki’s mother, who specialises in potions, and a haughty fellow trainee witch, whom Kiki meets mid-flight on her journey to the sea. The haughty witch tells Kiki that her speciality is fortune telling, although she can clearly fly a broomstick as well. So what other spells can Kiki learn?
— Broomstick riding is also something of a mystery. Kiki’s mother insists that Kiki uses her old broom on the night Kiki leaves, because she can “rely on it time after time, in any kind of weather.” Later, when her mother’s broom snaps, Kiki is seen crafting a witch’s broom of her own. But then, at the climax of the film, Kiki commandeers a normal broom from a street sweeper, and is able to fly on that broom as well. So where is the magic coming from? I know I’m not going to get any answers to these questions, but I want them just the same!
— If you watch the English dub of the film (which I did), that’s Kirsten Dunst voicing Kiki. Also, Phil Hartman voices the cat Jiji, and Tress MacNeille voices the baker Osono, which sometimes makes the film feel oddly like an episode of The Simpsons.
— I consider myself a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, but I must admit I’m yet to see his three earliest feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), and Castle in the Sky (1986). Of the films I have seen, my favourite is My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – which I loved so much that I now declare it one of my (three) favourite films of all time.
— Hayao Miyazaki is a co-founder of Studio Ghibli, but not all Studio Ghibli films are Hayao Miyazaki films. At present, I’ve only seen the Miyazaki-directed movies, but I really need to get around to watching Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which is supposed to be equally fantastic (but also quite harrowing).
— Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in Japan, and decided to buy myself a Totoro plush toy as a souvenir. Every toy store I went into had a big Studio Ghibli section, and Totoro was always the most popular toy there – but Jiji the black cat was always running a very close second!
“Oh, what an evil power love has in people’s lives!”
And we’re back! This week, we’re taking another deep dive into Ancient Greek mythology, to examine a witch so powerful, so wicked, that even her own family were subject to her evil wrath. This is the story of Medea, granddaughter of the sun itself, and the spells she cast to steal the Golden Fleece.
Some backstory: long before Medea enters this tale, trouble was brewing in the kingdom of Thessaly. Aeson, the rightful king, was overthrown by his half-brother, the villainous Pelias; Pelias assumed the throne, and killed as many of Aeson’s children as he could find. But, one of those children – Jason – escaped, and was trained as a hero by a centaur named Chiron. Some years later, Jason returned to Thessaly, and Pelias agreed to give up the throne if Jason could bring him the Golden Fleece. Jason agreed, bringing together a crew of famous heroes (including Orpheus and Heracles) to join him in his boat the Argo. Thus, Jason and the Argonauts sailed forth.
Eventually, after a number of incidental adventures, the Argonauts reached the kingdom of Colchis, where King Aeetes held the Golden Fleece. Upon hearing of Jason’s quest, Aeetes agreed to hand over the treasure – on one condition. First, Jason had to succeed in harnessing the Khalkotauroi: two fire-breathing bronze bulls which grazed in the king’s field. Jason immediately realised that the task was impossible, and hung his head in despair.
Now, here’s a difficult truth: in the pantheon of Greek heroes, Jason isn’t really that heroic. If he hadn’t had 50-60 Argonauts by his side (who are, remember, a crew of heroes and demigods), he probably wouldn’t have made it to Colchis in the first place. But, Jason’s one saving grace at this point in the story is that he once helped an old lady cross a river. That woman was the goddess Hera in disguise – and now Hera wants to help Jason succeed. So Hera speaks to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who in turn speaks to her baby son Eros (ie Cupid), god of desire, and promises him a magic golden ball if he’ll go and shoot a love arrow at Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes. Eros agrees – and so Medea is overcome with an absolute, burning desire to help out the new hero in town.
This is where the story gets really good. King Aeetes is the son of the sun-titan Helios, making Medea part-titan as well, and it turns out she’s channelled those innate powers into some particularly potent witchcraft. As described by the ancient poet Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica, Medea has succeeded in harvesting an extraordinarily rare plant: a purple flower on twin stalks, which only sprouts in blood spilled from the titan Prometheus. The root of the plant looks like newly-cut flesh; to harvest it, Medea had to travel deep into the underworld, gathering the dark sap in a seashell that she wears around her neck. Luckily for Jason, the so-called “charm of Prometheus” bestows two specific powers upon the user: immunity to cuts from bronze, and immunity to fire. With Medea’s magical assistance, the bronze Colchis Bulls don’t stand a chance.
So: Jason performs a sacrifice to Hecate, goddess of magic (which includes “pouring from a goblet the hive-stored labour of bees” – a beautiful line), and smears his body with the dark juice of the flower, after which he is able to yoke the bronze bulls and plough the king’s field. Understandably, King Aeetes is furious, and begins plotting a new scheme to ensure Jason’s downfall. Medea, fearing for Jason’s safety, flees the city, promising Jason that she will help him steal the fleece. She leads him to the grove of trees where the fleece is guarded by an enormous serpent, subsequently performing her biggest spell yet:
“But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful rise … and as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster … but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song … and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down.”
The serpent sleeps; the fleece is stolen; Jason, Medea and the Argonauts sail away; King Aeetes furiously gives chase. Infamously, Aeetes has a son, Apsyrtus, who leads the charge to recover the fleece: Medea, out of love for Jason, captures her brother, kills her brother, and then sprinkles the pieces of his body in the ocean so that her father has to stop and pick them up. That scene isn’t included in the version of the Argonautica I read, because in the 3rd century BC poets were already censoring Medea’s awful deeds. What a witch!
There are some more good stories from the long journey home (including one scene where Medea kills an enormous bronze warrior named Talos by summoning a pack of hellhounds), but the story is best concluded in the play Medea by Euripides, produced in the year 431 BC. Set some years after their quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the play sees Jason abandoning Medea to marry the princess of Corinth, thus exiling Medea and their two sons. Suffice to say, Medea is not impressed. She takes an enchanted dress and a golden coronet (left to her by her grandfather, the sun-titan) and sends them to the princess as a wedding gift; the coronet bursts into flames around the princess’s head, sending blood and fire dripping down her face, whilst the dress begins devouring her flesh, tearing at her skin with poisonous fangs. Afterwards, the king runs in and picks up his dying daughter, and the dress attacks him as well, melting the flesh directly from his bones.
And then things get even worse.
You see, at this stage Medea will do anything to hurt Jason, even if it means hurting herself. And so – and be warned, because this is pretty terrible – she enters her house, locks the door, and murders their two sons. Grandfather Helios sends Medea a chariot pulled by dragons to aide her escape, and so the witch is able to taunt Jason as she flies away with the bodies, gleefully denying him the chance to bury his children. And that’s the play. Medea gets away. There isn’t any punishment.
So… can we all agree that Medea is the wickedest witch of all time?
— Whoa, this was a big one! Hopefully it was worth the wait. The Year of the Witch is back with a vengeance! (Although it’s still nowhere near as vengeful as Medea.)
— Art credits: the first painting featured in this post is Medea (1868) by Frederick Sandys. The second painting is Jason and Medea (1907) by John William Waterhouse.
— Here’s a good question: what is the Golden Fleece, anyway? Well, one time the sea god Poseidon had a child with a nymph who was also a granddaughter of Helios, and that child was called Nephele. Nephele grew up and had kids of her own, and later helped them escape their wicked stepmother by turning herself into a golden ram with wings and carrying the children away on his / her back (the pronouns get confusing here, because rams are male). Nephele’s son later sacrificed the ram, which sent him / her back to Poseidon, and the son then left the fleece with his new family in Colchis, where it remained until Jason came to find it. Fun!
— An exciting detail: Circe makes a cameo in the Argonautica! I was a bit confused about Circe’s ancestry when I first wrote my post about her, but apparently she’s also a daughter of Helios, which makes her Aeetes’ sister, and Medea’s aunt. Anyway, Jason and Medea visit Circe after killing Apsyrtus, so that she can perform a ritual that absolves them of the murder. It should be really exciting to see these two great witches meeting each other, but Circe isn’t happy about the murder and Medea is completely overcome with shame, so unfortunately they don’t get to bond in any meaningful way.
— There are some cracking descriptions of Medea’s magic in the Argonautica. Here’s the paragraph where she takes down Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete:
“And with songs did she propitiate and invoke the Death-spirits, devourers of life, the swift hounds of Hades, who, hovering through all the air, swoop down on the living. Kneeling in supplication, thrice she called on them with songs, and thrice with prayers; and, shaping her soul to mischief, with her hostile glance she bewitched the eyes of Talos, the man of bronze; and her teeth gnashed bitter wrath against him, and she sent forth baneful phantoms in the frenzy of her rage.”
— The flower of Prometheus is just one of the magic herbs that Medea has collected; the Argonautica states that in her room she has “a casket wherein lay many drugs, some for healing, others for killing.” The punishment of Prometheus, by the way, is one of my absolute favourite Greek legends. It sees the great titan chained to a rock, with an eagle visiting him each day to eat his liver; because he’s a titan, the liver grows back each night, ready for the eagle to eat it again. This ties in neatly to the Medea story, because as the eagle flies home after each meal, blood drips from its beak onto the earth, allowing the magic flower to grow. Cool!
— That picture above is of a faux-Greek urn I made in a Year 8 art class. Seriously, I have always loved these stories.
— You might recall that when Odysseus and his crew came upon the Sirens, they were able to resist the alluring songs by stopping their ears with wax. The Argonauts found a different solution: Orpheus just played his lyre really, really loudly. One of the Argonauts still jumped overboard and died, but for the most part the plan was a success.
— I highly recommend the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey. It’s a hugely entertaining film, complete with iconic stop-motion monsters animated by Ray Harryhausen, but unfortunately Medea’s role in the story has been greatly reduced, to the point where she no longer even performs magic. Still, it’s marvellous fun, and this famous sequence with the skeleton warriors is really top notch:
— The play Medea is really gruesome, but it’s also remarkable for its progressive portrayal of the female protagonist: Medea is villainous, yes, but she’s also given the agency to pursue her own narrative, despite the machinations of Jason and the king. Best of all, Euripides clearly knew what he was doing. I’ll leave you now with this wonderful musing on gender equality, as first spoken by a “chorus of Corinthian women” more than 2000 years ago:
“Calling all evil trees! Come in! This is your gorgeous leader!”
As a kid, I was a big fan of the television show H.R. Pufnstuf. The show first aired in 1969, long before I was born, but in the early 1990s I owned a VHS cassette with two whole episodes on it. I remember watching those two episodes over and over again, marvelling at the technicolour world of Living Island: the talking trees, and the walking clocks, and the boy with his magic golden flute.
But none of that compared to Witchiepoo.
Of all the witches I’ve ever encountered, Witchiepoo was almost certainly the most formative. She’s a pantomime villain of the highest order, cackling her way through every scene, her tattered black cape flapping perfectly behind her. Most alarmingly, she can also teleport herself at will, and so can appear suddenly in any scene, her wicked wand pointed directly at “the good guys.” There were Witchiepoo moments that terrified me as a kid: particularly the moments when she would freeze Jimmy and his friends, laughing maniacally as her spell took hold.
But… Witchiepoo is also kind of funny. Her witchy servants, Orson Vulture and Seymour Spider, are always getting in her way, and so the scenes in the witch’s castle are always rife with slapstick hijinks. During the day the witch wears a pointy black hat and a ragged red dress, but during the night she wears a frilly pink nightgown and sets her hair in curlers. Plus, her evil plans are foiled so often that on occasion you even feel sorry for Witchiepoo.
Did I have my fear of witches before I met Witchiepoo? I’m not entirely sure. But because Witchiepoo made me laugh, she was the first witch I was able to keep on watching – no matter how nervous she sometimes made me feel.
Each episode of Pufnstuf unfolds in much the same way. Jimmy (an eleven-year-old boy) and Freddie (a magic talking flute) are trapped on Living Island; Pufnstuf (a plump yellow dragon) and his friends are looking for ways to help Jimmy and Freddie escape. But Witchiepoo covets Freddie, and so will always attempt to foil any escape attempts, so that she might steal Freddie for herself. Because everything on Living Island is alive, almost every character on the show is a puppet, or an actor in an extravagant costume; only Jimmy (played by Jack Wild) and Witchiepoo (played by Billie Hayes) are discernibly human.
But Witchiepoo is also a master of disguise. My favourite joke in the whole series starts in the episode “Show Biz Witch,” which sees Jimmy and Pufnstuf organising a concert for the residents of Living Island. Witchiepoo, Orson and Seymour decide to join the show, and so disguise themselves as “The 3 Oranges,” a groovy musical trio who only speak in cool 1960s lingo. They’re eventually found out, of course, which is all wryly amusing – but four episodes later, in “The Birthday Party,” Witchiepoo, Orson and Seymour again decide to disguise themselves as a band, so that they can infiltrate Jimmy’s birthday celebration. What do they call themselves? The 3 Lemons!
The relative success of the television series led to a 1970 film, simply titled Pufnstuf, which I watched for the first time just last week. The film turns the famous opening credits of the Pufnstuf television show into the entire first act, which was really quite interesting to watch, but it’s not much of a movie after that – more like a couple of episodes of the show stitched awkwardly together. There are also many more witches in the film, including a Boss Witch with a double-pointed hat, but the presence of a coven doesn’t really add much; Witchiepoo is far scarier when she’s the boss witch, rather than a simpering underling. The witches do get to sing a catchy song, but I’d only recommend the film to the show’s biggest fans.
Still, nothing can tarnish my memories of watching H.R. Pufnstuf on VHS: a show from the 1960s that reminds me of being a kid in the 1990s. Witchiepoo’s ridiculous schemes still make me giggle, just as her sudden appearances still make me flinch. She’s everything a witch should be, and – although I don’t want to call it early – she may just be my favourite witch of all time.
Now, how about that theme song!
— When I was little, my parents told me to eat my broccoli because it was Witchiepoo’s favourite vegetable. To this day, broccoli is still the vegetable that I like best.
— Billie Hayes played Witchiepoo a couple of times after Pufnstuf, including a guest spot on the show Lidsville, which was also made by Pufnstuf creators Sid and Marty Krofft. Lidsville is a show about a human boy trying to escape from a land of living hats; these escape attempts are often foiled by the evil magician who lives nearby. So… yeah.
— Witchiepoo has a couple of other henchmen that are well worth mentioning. Stupid Bat has his moments, but I love the evil trees (particularly the one who speaks like Bela Lugosi). Also brilliant are the two skeleton guards, who drop their shields and helmets and flee at the slightest sign of danger.
— The two episodes on my VHS cassette were “The Box Kite Caper” and “The Birthday Party.”
— I’m not sure who designed Witchiepoo’s costume, but I think they did some wonderful things with colour. The obligatory black hat and black cape are still present, but the outfit also introduces red and white (and even green) through the witch’s hair, dress, vest, face, and socks. It’s a striking design that works perfectly as a whole, and it’s probably done a lot for Witchiepoo’s memorability.
— A weird piece of Pufnstuf film trivia: Witchiepoo’s friend Witch Hazel is played by Cass Elliot, or Mama Cass, who is best known as a member of the band The Mamas & The Papas. This is doubly weird for me, because at the same age I was watching H.R. Pufnstuf, “California Dreamin’” was one of my favourite songs.
— Oh, I didn’t even mention the Vroom Broom! Quick, I’ll mention it now. Has there ever been a more souped-up broomstick? I think not.
— A boy named Jesse said he’d be looking out for this post. Hi, Jesse!
— Need a disguise? No worries; I’ll leave you with one of Witchiepoo’s very best spells:
“Squash and cabbage, turnips and peas, make three lemons out of us please!”
“Open now – don’t delay – this could be your lucky day!”
When it comes to writing and illustrating picture books, Janet and Allan Ahlberg are truly in a class of their own. Each Peach Pear Plum (1978), a whimsical wander through a nursery-rhyme wood, might just be the quintessential “I spy” book for children; perhaps it’s equalled only by Peepo! (1981), a book for babies that is somehow also about wartime Britain. It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1993) is a less-recognised masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless: the tale of Antonio and the brigands is so wildly inventive that I rank it as my favourite book of all time.
And, of course, there’s The Jolly Postman.
The Jolly Postman (or Other People’s Letters) is an idea so good, so wonderful, that it fills me with joy just to remember that the book exists. Published in 1986, the book is a collection of letters and envelopes, as found in the mailbag of the eponymous postman – but these are no ordinary letters. You see, this postman serves the fairy-tale community, and as such his postal route is unusually perilous. On this particular day, he’s carrying an apology note to the Three Bears, a postcard addressed to a giant, and even a cease-and-desist notice for the Big Bad Wolf.
But best of all is the letter he delivers to the Wicked Witch.
I read this book countless times as a kid, but no letter excited me more than this piece of witchy junk mail. The very idea – that a witch might receive junk mail – is so ridiculous, so inspired, that it thrills me to open the letter even now. And that’s before I’ve even started reading about the products! There are the Halloween Boots, available in “five lovely colours” – but all the colours are black! There’s the Little Boy Pie Mix – made proudly with the “finest natural ingredients!” And, as a special bonus, you can even get a free “Witch Watch” with every order!
Seriously, this letter blows my mind. Even the envelope is great: it’s addressed only to “The Occupant,” and includes a return address of “Hobgoblin Supplies Ltd., Warlock Mountain.” Who are these hobgoblins targeting witches with anonymous supply catalogues? What is the Magic Traders Circle? And how can you turn some powder into a frog by just adding water?
Suffice to say, I find this book very inspiring. It fostered within me a love of found texts: a passion for documents that look as if they’re just for adults, but which are actually filled with secret, arcane knowledge. I love reading the classified ads in the paper, just to marvel at the weird things people are buying and selling. Community notice boards are even better, with a whole collage of battered posters advertising strange goods and services. Wouldn’t it be easy for a witch to slip in a notice as well, so that she might gather a bucket of snails or some other ingredient for her latest potion? In the age of Gumtree, I doubt anyone would even bat an eyelid.
The witch from the book, by the way, is something of a fairy-tale pastiche: she lives in a gingerbread bungalow, carries a broomstick, and has even trained her black cat to do the washing up. Her generic nature perfectly suits her generically-addressed letter. Actually, it’s a bit sad to see how happy she is to receive a piece of unsolicited mail. Is she lonely, out there in the woods?
Regardless: I love the Ahlbergs, and I’m truly grateful for all their books. Thanks, Ahlbergs. You two were the best.
— There are two more books in the Jolly Postman series: The Jolly Christmas Postman (1991) and The Jolly Pocket Postman (1995), the latter of which was published after Janet’s death. Both sequels are just as good as the original. Really, are there any other picture book trilogies as strong as this?
— Allan and Janet have a daughter, Jessica Ahlberg, who has also become an illustrator. She’s pretty darn good. The Goldilocks Variations (2012), a collaboration between Jessica and Allan, is probably the best Ahlberg book since Pocket Postman – which leaves me hoping that father and daughter might one day revisit the famous postman franchise once more. Allan is mostly retired now though, so it’s very unlikely, and I would also completely respect the decision to leave the postman legacy alone. (But also, what if it was great?)
— The circular from Hobgoblin Supplies Ltd. is my equal favourite illustration of all time. It’s tied with the cross-section of the haunted castle from It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, and probably also the feast scene from that same book. Equal second place is held by every other illustration Janet ever did.
— The Wicked Witch from The Jolly Postman looks quite similar to the Wicked Witch from Each Peach Pear Plum. I wonder if they’re related?
— Janet is a two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for excellence in children’s illustration: once for Each Peach Pear Plum, and again for The Jolly Christmas Postman.
— I’ve been working on a “found text” project of my own, but it’s so big and crazy that I doubt I’ll ever finish it. How did the Ahlbergs possibly manage three of them?
— I’d also love to write some picture books eventually. I think a big part of it is meeting the right collaborator, though, so I’m happy to wait until I know a few more artists. It would be nice if my girlfriend could step up to the plate, but the only thing she knows how to draw is a cartoon chicken.
The 2006 remake of The Wicker Man is not a great film. In fact, it’s notoriously a pretty bad one. The flashback sequences are tacky, the jump scares are cheap, and Nicholas Cage’s performance as policeman Edward Malus is genuinely weird. Funnier writers than I have already catalogued the abundance of cinematic sins found within this movie.
But here’s the thing: this horror movie really is unsettling. The core premise, which sees a policeman investigating the disappearance of a young girl in an isolated island community, is inherently strong, and the shoddiness of the film often makes things feel even stranger. Did the filmmakers do any of this deliberately? Probably not – but that’s how cult films are born!
So, Nicholas Cage arrives on a creepy island and begins looking for the missing girl, who he suspects may be his daughter. His ex-fiancée, Willow, seems incapable of giving him any direct answers about what might have happened, and the rest of the townsfolk actively refuse to cooperate with his investigation. It’s as if the townsfolk are operating under some sort of hive mind – an obvious metaphor, as the island is covered with beehives.
The witch here is Sister Summersisle, matriarch of the neo-pagan society. She claims to be the earthly representative of “the great mother goddess who rules [the] island,” serving as the spiritual leader (or queen bee) of the community. The movie never calls her a witch, but she tells Cage that her ancestors hailed from Salem, fleeing persecution before settling on their island home. As played by Ellen Burstyn, Sister Summersisle is calm, confident and calculating, utterly unflinching in the face of Cage’s increasing frustration. Does she really believe in magic? At the midway point of the film, it’s difficult to know for sure.
Well, if you know just one scene from The Wicker Man, it’ll be this one: Nicholas Cage screaming “not the bees!” while animal-masked cultists break his legs and pour bees onto his face. Yes, it was a trap all along – the girl wasn’t missing at all! Last year’s harvest was a failure, and only the sacrifice of an outsider will restore honey to the hives. Nicholas Cage is hoisted to the top of the wicker man (its wooden limbs acting as cages for other sacrificial animals – very cool) while Sister Summersisle makes her appeal to the gods and goddesses of nature. The wicker man is set alight, and Cage is burnt to death.
And for all its ridiculousness, the nonchalance of the townsfolk as they watch the policeman die is actually pretty chilling.
Of course, it’s all a remake of the superior 1973 film of the same name, directed by Robin Hardy. The original film still isn’t particularly scary – there’s far too much folk music in it for that – but the clash of faiths between Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) and the pagan Lord Summersisle (Christopher Lee) makes for a far more compelling story, as the devout Christian policeman is forced to confront increasingly bizarre customs and ceremonies as his stay on the island continues. (One of these ceremonies actually generates some genuine tension, when Howie, disguised as part of a carnival procession, must place his head into a deadly ring of swords.) It all ends in the same way, with the townsfolk merrily singing another folk song as Howie slowly roasts.
I really like Lord Summersisle. He’s a weirdly unorthodox antagonist: a charismatic English lord who talks casually of appeasing old, wild gods. Can he also be called a witch? I’m not entirely sure – which is why Sister Summersisle’s connection to Salem made her the main focus of this post. I do think men can be witches though, as long as they’re identified as such, and as long as they display certain witchy tropes. Organising a blood sacrifice to heal your failing orchards? That’s witchy enough for me!
So, if you’re in the mood for a good story and some slow-burn scares, I recommend The Wicker Man from 1973. If you’re in the mood for some ridiculous jump scares and some unintentional hilarity, I recommend The Wicker Man from 2006. At this stage they’re both cult films, so you’ll get some decent talking points from either one.
Or you could just watch this helpful montage of Nicholas Cage’s truly outrageous performance. Enjoy!
— Horror films fascinate me, because they challenge the viewer to suffer, and also because there are so many subgenres for the daring viewer to conquer. I adore the old Universal horror films – especially Dracula (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – but by modern standards, those films are hardly scary at all. Modern classics like Psycho (1960), The Shining (1980), and The Exorcist (1973) are all good movies, but they too failed to scare me, which in turn failed to make me feel brave for watching them. Slasher films, however, are my weakness. I’ve already suffered through Friday the 13th (1980), and I’m building up to watching Halloween (1978), which is apparently the scariest slasher film of all. Wish me luck.
— The Wicker Man (2006) doesn’t fit in with any of those films, though. I’d say its subgenre is “cash-grab remake,” which puts it alongside movies like House of Wax (2005) and The Amityville Horror (2005). I watched those last two films as a teenager, and even then I thought they were pretty bad – but still fun to watch with friends!
— I’ve deliberately omitted a few films from the paragraphs above – the witchy ones, of course! We’ll be hearing about all those movies as the Year of the Witch rolls on. But be warned: one of them is my pick for the scariest horror film of all time.
— Last year, the band Radiohead released a single called “Burn the Witch,” with a stop-motion music video inspired by the original Wicker Man. I love the song (I love most Radiohead songs), and the video aptly captures the creepy inevitability of the film – even though it’s being acted out with cute wooden dolls. It’s The Wicker Man, but for kids!
— A pro tip: the infamous “not the bees!” scene is an alternative ending only available on the DVD release. I missed out on it when I first watched the film, and I’d hate for you to face that same disappointment.
— Do you remember when I said that Jessica Lange was one of only 23 people to have won the Triple Crown of Acting? Well, Ellen Burstyn has also earnt that achievement. She was also in The Exorcist, so her horror credentials are a lot stronger than her appearance here would indicate.
— And let’s not even start on what a horror icon Christopher Lee is. Suffice to say, the man was one of the greats.
— Sister Summersisle is an important witch for me because she makes explicit a certain element of witchcraft that I’ve been pursuing in my own writing. I don’t want to say what it is just yet – it might ruin a surprise later in my series – but for all the schlockiness of the remake, I do think it gets certain things right.
— Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube link to the last shot of the original film, which really is pretty spectacular. Haunting, even. Highly recommended – seek it out if you can.
For our next witch, things are going to get a little more obscure. This post is about a video game: a video game from 1992, set in medieval Germany. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, even though very few other people have heard of it.
Because Darklands is a game about witches.
I first played Darklands when I was in Grade 5, after a classmate of mine installed it on our school computer. Playing as a group, my friends and I designed four adventurers to send out into the medieval world, giving them strange occupations (“Novice Monk,” “Vagabond”) and even stranger skills (“Religious Training,” “Artifice”). A few clicks later and we were sneaking around a Germanic city in the middle of the night. To our dismay, we were accosted almost immediately by the night watch, who demanded we pay a hefty fine for breaking curfew.
What were we to do?
So, we attacked the night watch. And, as far as I can remember, they beat us pretty handily. We got taken to prison, where we attempted to tunnel out with a spoon; unfortunately, the turnkey found our “embryo tunnel,” and so we were moved to an even worse cell. Eventually we were taken before the magistrate, and quickly sentenced to death; unable to break free of our bonds, each of our four adventurers was beheaded, one by one.
Suffice to say, our first attempt at playing the game was not a success.
We got better, though. Darklands is largely a text-based game, and as we learnt to make smarter decisions, our party of adventurers began to find more success. We fought brigands in the woodlands, selling their clothing to buy lock picks, weapons and armour. We sought out robber knights (or raubritters) in their castles, sneaking into their bedchambers at night to duel them one-on-one. We survived attacks from wild boars, roasting their meat and slicing off their tusks for good luck charms.
But as the game went on, stranger things began to happen. You see, Darklands is a game set in medieval Germany – as imagined by the medieval Germans. It’s a world where a priest can routinely perform miracles by praying to the saints, and where seemingly innocent hamlet towns can be found cavorting with genuine demons. It’s a world where a secret witch-cult is plotting to bring about the end of all things, protecting their evil work with a series of magic seals. It can take hours for the player to discover any of this, but once they do, it becomes clear that the witches must be stopped.
And so we come to my favourite encounter in the entire game.
The witch in the sod hut is one of the earliest witchy antagonists a Darklands player can encounter. As soon as you approach, she bursts out of the hut, screeching; wolves appear on either side of you, howling out blood-curdling shrieks. Combat begins at once: the wolves attack as expected, but the witch begins throwing potions, which are extraordinarily rare in this game. Sometimes she’ll slow you down with a stone-tar potion, which turns the ground to mud; other times she’ll stun you with a vial of sunburst, or try to blind you with Solomon’s Eyeburn. When your adventurers finally reach her she draws a knife for the close-quarters combat, slicing and slashing with unbridled fury.
Alright, I admit it – I’m embellishing things a bit. It’s an exciting fight, but the graphics aren’t that great. It actually looks like this:
If you can win the combat, you’ll get to loot the battlefield, claiming the witch’s dagger and maybe even some of those super valuable potions. The blonde witch is left cowering before you, trembling with fear as she begs for her life. The player is given five options to decide the witch’s fate. Two options progress the main storyline, two give the player a boon, and one option is a deadly trap. Which one would you choose?
Have you made a choice? Alright, here are the spoilers. The alchemical formulas are a rather useful boon, as they’ll allow a skilled character to brew potions of their own; getting three of these formulas at once is a significant windfall. Asking the witch to do penance for her sins is also good, as it will sometimes increase the virtue of the party; this is essential for calling on saints, which becomes increasingly necessary as the difficulty of the game increases. If you picked either of these options, you’ve chosen very well indeed.
Asking for unnatural strength is the trap. In fact, it’s one of the nastiest traps in the entire game.
So getting a boon is better than dying – but perhaps better still is learning the time and place of the High Sabbat. To break the first of the great seals, your adventurers will have to infiltrate a meeting of the witch-cult, disrupting the wicked ceremony from within. By asking about the secret calendar, or about the High Sabbat directly, the player can learn where to direct their heroes next, and so continue their virtuous quest.
I’d love to tell you all about the High Sabbat (it’s one of the most thrilling encounters in the entire game), but I think this post has already done enough to introduce you to Darklands. The game is very old, and very difficult, but if your interest has been piqued, I encourage you to seek it out. I’ll leave you with just a taste of the meeting with the witch-cult, as the party first enters the site of the ceremony. Spooky!
— One of my favourite things about Darklands is the sheer amount of content packed into the game – and how long you can play for without stumbling across any of the good stuff. Dragons in particular are so darn rare that you can go an entire game without ever seeing one, even though the developers must have spent a significant amount of effort programming them in. There are numerous other secret monsters hidden across the map as well, and discovering them is always an absolute thrill.
— The Darklands manual (which I never had as a kid) cites the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1486) as a key influence on the game’s folklore. I skimmed the Malleus Maleficarum a couple of years ago, but I must admit that I’m yet to read the book in its entirety. If I get it read anytime soon, my review may turn up as a witch post later in the year.
— No joke: this is a hard game. I first played it in 2002, but I completed it for the first time in about 2012. I certainly wasn’t playing the game non-stop for that ten year period, but it took me a very long time to build up enough tips and tricks to make it to the end. It’s a fun game no matter how you’re playing it, but if you want to beat the final evils, you’ll have to put in quite a bit of practice. (Or maybe I’m just really bad at it.)
— So, here’s a pro tip, based on years of Darklands experience: to get far in this game, your party will need to consist of a charismatic leader, two warriors, and an alchemist. For this play through, my leader was called Jeff Winger, my warriors were called Indiana Jones and James Bond, and my alchemist was called Walter White. All of these names please me greatly.
— The game also features my favourite ever description of broomstick flight. Here’s another snippet from the High Sabbat:
— The unsung hero of the game really is the artwork. Sure, it’s dated by modern standards, but I really love those pixel art backgrounds, and it’s such a thrill when I find one I’ve never seen before – which is still happening in 2017, 15 years after I first played the game. Huge credit goes to art director Michael Haire and the rest of the team at MicroProse.
— I eventually bought my own copy of Darklands for $2, in a toy store in Horsham. You can now buy it for slightly more than that on Steam.
— Special thanks to Matt K, who first installed Darklands on our class computer, and to my good friend Jarryd, who has similarly been playing this game for far too many years. Thanks for the memories!