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.
The Troll Heart is the first sequel to The Vampire Knife, and is the second book in The Witching Hours series. It’s an extra special book for me because I based it on the first fairy tale I ever wrote – or at least, the first fairy tale I wrote that I thought was any good. The story came about in 2013, when I took a trip to England with my grandfather, Kenny, who had suddenly decided (at the age of 81) that he’d quite like to see the British countryside. We visited London and Brighton and Kings Lynn, and even met the Queen’s horses at Sandringham, which meant by the time we got to the city of Bath, poor old Kenny was feeling rather worn out. So I went for a walk on my own – and on this walk, I crossed a bridge.
It costs one shilling to cross the Batheaston Toll Bridge. Or rather, that’s how much it costs if you’re travelling in a motor lorry. If you’re travelling in a carriage drawn by two horses, it costs four pennies, and if you’re crossing with any sheep or pigs, it’ll cost you an additional six pennies per score. (And yes, I know what you’re thinking: how much does it cost to cross in a wheelchair drawn by a donkey? Answer: three pennies.) All of these archaic tolls are specified on a old sign at the start of the bridge – an old sign that left me utterly enthralled.
The concept of the different tolls sat in my head for the rest of our trip, and when I returned home I quickly wrote the outline of a fairy tale, about a wicked troll who controls the bridges surrounding a woe-begotten village. I didn’t end up using any of those wonderful tolls, but I still liked the story. It was the first thing I had written in a long time that I was really proud of.
Two years later, in 2015, I created the characters of Anna and Max, and after their initial tousle with the vampire, I knew just the adventure I wanted to send them on next.
And so that’s why I’m finally breaking my blogging dry spell: to announce the birth of my beautiful new book (and thanks again go to Ryan Andrews for the amazing cover). I’m sorry I was away for so long! Here’s the behind-the-scenes take: in the first half of 2017, I wrote more than 10,000 words for this blog, when what I should have been doing is writing 10,000 words for the third book in the series. Now book three has almost reached its final copyedit, and the temptation is to go blog-crazy once again… but the deadline for book four is also just around the corner. Hopefully I’ll be able to strike more of a balance between the two mediums going forward!
Either way – thanks a bunch for stopping by and reading all about The Troll Heart. If you like scary stories about mists and monsters and weird old magics, this might be the book for you. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it!
Today, on August 1, 2017, my first ever novel officially enters the world. It’s really, really, ridiculously exciting. You can find The Vampire Knife in bookshops, and in department stores, and on heaps of websites, too. It’s everywhere!
I wrote The Vampire Knife in the winter of 2015: the longest, coldest winter that Melbourne has experienced in my lifetime. I spun the novel out of a horror story I’d made up to scare my cousin Gypsy the year before, about a girl at a sleepover who hears a strange calling in the middle of the night. As I expanded on that initial idea, I filled the book with as many spooky and terrible things as I could think of: wolves and bears, castles and dungeons, knives and storms and prisoners and blood. Each night I sat at my desk and wrote another thousand words, trying not to feel scared as the wind and rain beat against my bedroom window, typing away until the sun rose once more.
When I was done, I sent the story away to Hardie Grant Egmont (a publishing house in Melbourne that specialises in children’s literature) and they agreed to turn my story into a real book. They found a brilliant artist called Ryan Andrews to illustrate the cover (and to draw some incredible internal pictures too), and they decided to publish the rest of The Witching Hours series as well. Now I get to write five more adventures starring Anna and Max, which is simply the best job I ever could have hoped for.
You can buy The Vampire Knife at bookshops all through Australia; it’s recommend for all brave children aged 8-12. If you have a local bookshop, you should try and buy it there, but otherwise you can order it online from The Little Bookroom, or Booktopia, or Angus & Robertson, or anywhere else you’d care to Google. I really hope you enjoy reading it.
Got any questions? I’d love to hear them! Comment on this post and I’ll do my best to answer you. I’m currently hard at work finishing off book 3 in the series, but I’ll be back posting more blogs as soon as I’m done. The Year of the Witch must go on!
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:
Hello, readers! Sorry for the lack of posts this month; I was lost in an enchanted forest on the island of Yakushima. I’m back now though, and I promise we’ll get back to our usual witchy programming really soon – but first, I’ve got some updates to share about my upcoming book!
Firstly – My debut children’s novel, The Vampire Knife, is now coming out on August 1, 2017. That’s only 77 days away, and is a month earlier than was first expected. If you enjoy reading about vampires, wolves, and very bad weather, August 1 is the date to mark on your calendar!
Secondly – To help chronicle my adventures as an author, I’ve started an Instagram account! It’s still early days, but the account will ultimately be a creative companion piece to the blog – although I’ve recently been a tad preoccupied with the creepy things people have been leaving outside my house. You can follow that story here: @jack.henseleit
Thirdly – Now that my book launch is less than three months away, the good witches of Hardie Grant Egmont have kicked off the marketing campaign! You can now read about my book on their website, or even look them up on Facebook or Instagram to see the special VIP packages that were sent out last week. If you really dig around, you can even find some exclusive marketing documents that feature early sketches of my heroes, Anna and Max!
(There’s no final cover design yet, but I’m told that it won’t be far away…)
So: that’s everything that happened while I was lost in the woods. The Vampire Knife is coming out sooner than expected, and I’m really excited about it. I’m also back at my writing desk this week, so if you’ve been enjoying the blog so far, be assured that the Year of the Witch is ready to continue!
“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.