A selection of works from a forthcoming book of local myths and legends from the English countryside
The Skull of Broome
At Higher Farm, opposite the church, is a “Screaming Skull” which according to a tradition current in the 18th century belonged to Theophilus Broome, who died in 1670 and “…requested that his head might be taken off before his burial, and be preserved at the farm-house near the church ….The tenants of the house have often endeavored to commit [the skull] to the bowels of the earth, but have been as often deterred by horrid noises, portentive of sad displeasure.”
It’s said that Broome was a Royalist during the English Civil War, but defected to the Parliamentarians after witnessing horrors perpetrated on civilians in the name of the king. In particular, he despised the Royalist habit of severing the heads of victims and spiking them on rails as trophies. On his deathbed, Broome made a plea to his sister that his head should be separated from his body and secreted away in the farmhouse, so that even if his body were exhumed, no head could be taken or presumably violated as a trophy.
A manuscript account from the Farm dating from 1829 contains statements from various parishioners confirming the tradition. It is “…remembered when the Scull was brought down stairs, and put in the Cupboard.” A farm tenant “…bought a new Spade, and went to his Relation … who said ‘Now Uncle Doctor, let us go and bury the Scull, when we have had a crust of bread and cheese,’ he said no he would not; but after some time he went, but with an ill will, to bury it in the Churchyard. The Spade broke off at the first spit, and so they took it back again, he thought it presumptuous to attempt it, as the Man had begged that some part might be buried there and the rest in some other places.” This tenant, an Ann Dunman, had also heard that “Brome was a great Warrior, and begged that his body might be laid in three Counties” - a theme also found in the lives of saints, and undoubtedly arising from the fact that their corpses were frequently dismembered for relics.
Long Meg and Her Daughters
9x12 - watercolor/digital
Here, at one of the largest prehistoric stone circles, the legend tells that a local witch and her coven were turned to stone. Long Meg herself is a single twelve-foot narrow slip of sandstone, standing just outside the ring of her 59 daughters - though reports indicate there may have originally been as many as 77 stones.
Though some say “Long Meg” was Meg of Meldon - an early seventeenth century witch - she is more likely to have got her name from the saying “As long as Meg of Westminster,” which applied to any particularly tall person. The biographical tract of this particular Meg tells that she was a giantess, and of her similarly large gravestone, but the author, who is of the opinion that no woman would be put to rest among the monks of Westminster, suggests that the gravestone actually marks a mass grave of monks who died in a year of plague.
However that suggestion might be, several legends sprang up accounting for Long Meg as a victim of petrifaction. Another historian wrote in 1698 that the “sisters” of “Great Mag” solicited her to an unlawful love by enchantment, and were turned with her to stone. Further texts from the eighteenth century add little else to the story apart from the association with witches.
Besides the petrifaction legend, there was a tradition that these were “countless stones,” much like Stonehenge. It was also dangerous to interfere with the stones - if a piece were broken off Meg, she was said to bleed. When crews tried to blast the circle away in 1790, such a tempest arose that workmen fled in fear. Similar dangers are said to spring up at the desecration of barrows.
A story comes from a document from the early 1600s from Berkeley Castle of a Sir Maurice, “beinge a man of great strength and courage,” who armed himself and overcame a menacing dragon that had settled near the village of Bisterne despite the efforts of the residents to repel it. The document makes clear that the slaying of the dragon was a “charter myth” - one that sets out to explain how a certain family came to own a particular piece of land, or to account for the imagery of its coat-of-arms, or some local custom. In this case the story serves as an explanation of the Berkeley badge, perhaps kept alive by an image of a dragon’s head over the main entrance to a local park.
In a later version of the tale, the hero set out equipped with a sword, a glass case, and a jug of milk. He poured the milk into cans and hid inside the case, then while the dragon was lapping killed it. The source of this version, printed in the 1920s, says that the place where the dragon was slain was still called Dragon Field. According to the version now current, Sir Maurice de Berkeley was accompanied by his two dogs, who both perished in the battle. In another version, Berkeley only succeeds by covering his armor with bird lime and shards of glass, and a popular telling of the story has it that the fight raged throughout the forest, and when the dragon died, its body turned into a hill. Though the he had defeated the dragon, he had been mentally broken by the battle or poisoned, and after thirty days and thirty nights he went back to the hill to die alone atop it, his body turning into a yew tree which can still be seen today.
The glass case may have entered the tale through confusion with medieval lore concerning cockatrices, which could only be killed by reflecting its deadly glare back upon itself. The idea may indeed have come from a story in the same county, where a cockatrice that lived under a priory was slain with a mirror. The dragon’s liking for milk is a common motif attributed to many other local dragons. The two dogs in the modern story may have been suggested by dogs who assist the dragon-slaying in the French medieval romance The Dragon of Rhodes. Dogs often accompany supposed dragons layers on their tombs.
The Mistletoe Bride
Marwell Hall, near Winchester, is the scene of a tragic tale of a lost bride. The tradition is that, on her wedding night, a beautiful bride challenged her husband and wedding guests to a game of hide-and-seek. She hid herself in an old oak chest, but the heavy lid shut her in, and though she was sought high and ow, she was never found. Not, that is, til years later, when “…An oak chest that had long laid hid / Was found in the castle, they raised the lid / And a skeleton form lay mouldering there / In the bridal wreath of the lady fair.” So says a once-popular ballad, “The Mistletoe Bough” by Thomas Haynes Bayley in 1884, which sets the story on Christmas Eve, when the house is decked with holly and mistletoe. The story of the tragic bride has been attributed to several other locations, but Marwell Hall’s claim to be the setting was supported by “proof” - the very chest in which the bride had perished. Once preserved at a nearby rectory, the supposed chest has now vanished, but the bride is still said to haunt the hall, wearing her bridal clothes.
The Slaying of the Dun Cow
9x12, pencil and digital
Guy of Warwick was a celebrated hero who, along with king Arthur, numbered among the Nine Worthies and was said to have lived in the reign of the Saxon king, Athelstan. Already by the 1600s, the line between the historical Guy and the legendary traditions that had sprung up around him were thoroughly confused. A saying, “ He is the black Bear of Arden,” referred to him, and connotes someone who was an object of terror. The allusion was partly to the Warwick crest - a bear and a ragged staff - and partly to his character, said to be “Grim of Person and Surly of resolution.” He was a poor boy, the son of a steward who made good, and embarked on chivalric adventures to win the hand of a woman far above his station. In his travels, he battled many monsters, the most celebrated of which was the Dun Cow.
The fable holds that the Dun Cow of Dunsmore belonged to a giant or a fairy, and freely produced milk that would supply exactly the pail that was brought to it. One day, an old woman or a witch sought to fill a sieve with milk, and thus was able to milk the magical cow dry. Now cursed, it rampaged across the countryside until Guy dispatched it. Isaac Taylor, in his Words and Places (1864), claims that the Dun Cow is a corruption of “Dena Gau” meaning “Danish Settlement” which was erected outside Warwick. If this explanation is correct, the defeat of the cursed beast was an allegorical victory over the Danish and their removal from the area.
Various bones, including elephant tusks and whale ribs, have been attributed to multiple dun cows.
Now swallowed up by the suburban sprawl of Leicester is a series of low hills known as the Dane Hills, which long had remained a wasteland. On the side of one of these mounds there was once a cave cut out of sandstone, about ten or twelve feet across, which was known as Black Annis’ Bower. Black Annis herself was said to have been a savage hag with great teeth and long nails who devoured human victims - particularly children. She hangs skins in the trees, and has fashioned a skirt for herself of the skins of childrens’ hands.
According to verses from 1804, Black Annis’ features were a livid blue, and the blood of children and lambs stained the floor of her cavern, which she had scooped from the rock with her claws. A later contributor wrote: “Little children who went to run on the Dane Hills, were assured that she lay in wait there, to snatch them away to her ‘bower’; and that many like themselves she had ‘scratched to death with her claws, sucked their blood, and hung their skins up to dry’.
Black Annis was also believed to be in the habit of crouching in an old oak that grew from the cleft of her cave, ready to spring out on passers-by. At the end of the nineteenth century, her name appears as “Cat Anna” and she is said to be a witch who lived in the cellars under Leicester Castle. An underground passage was supposed to lead from the castle to the Dane Hills, along which Cat Anna ran.
As to her identity, Rev. John Dudley in 1846 collected her name with the goddess Anu, an Irish tradition often confused with Danu, mother of the Tuatha de Danann. Her devouring of children, Dudley suggested, was an echo of cannibalistic rites conducted in the hills by ancient Britons, but any connection is likely to be indirect and to be part of the development of goddess into ogress. The mother goddesses - Anu, Danu, Morrigan, and even quasi-historical figures like Medhbh (Mabh) - often appear as figures of both sexuality and war. Ann’s terrifying aspect seems to have predicated her later lore as multiple hag traditions - another notable example being the Blue Hag of the highlands - Cailleach Bheur. That the mother goddesses were once worshiped in the area is attested by a carving of a fertility goddess outside Braunstone church.
Support for Dudley’s idea may also come from a custom that used to be practiced in the Dane Hills - the Easter Monday Drag hunt. A dead cat, soaked in aniseed would be dragged from Annis’ Bower through the city to the house of the mayor, where a reception followed. Great numbers used to gather for the event, until it dwindled out in 1767 - although an Easter Monday fair continued for some years to come.
But before we embrace the idea of continuity with the Celtic past, we should perhaps look again at a suggestion from another line of folkloric thinking - that Annis was Agnes Scott, for whom a memorial was fashioned at Swithand church, as described by the folklorist Nichols: ‘This Agnes Scott, as I guess, was an Anchoress [female hermit]; and the word Antrix in this epitaph coined from antrum, a cave, wherein she lived; and certainly (as I have been credibly informed) there is a cave near Leicester .. at this day called Black Agnes’ Bower’
If we are prepared to take seriously the notion of a connection between Anu and Annis, and that of Cat Anna and the Drag Hunt, Annis and aniseed, we cannot neglect the fact that among the mayors of Leicester mentioned by Nichols is one named Annis. We can assume coincidence, but it is more likely that anchoress, cat hunt, mayor have all played their part in the evolution of the legend. It is notable that such a genteel, if gruesome, sport, which are often wrapped in the trappings of ancient tradition, may have pre-dated the legends that grew up around them.
The Black Dog of Bungay
Black dogs are a common tradition attached to many locations, most often appearing black and shaggy, of enormous size, with eyes like saucers that glow in the dark, but sometimes invisible, with their presence only detected from the blast of their hot breath and padding footsteps.
By the time these traditions were recorded, some confusion between originally distinct sorts of manifestations may have set in, for in some tales, Black Shuck (or Shock) seems more like a shape-changing bogey. Now and then he takes the form of a calf, and on one occasion appeared with “a donkey’s head and a smooth velvet hide.” Black Dogs commonly haunted lanes, footpaths, bridges, crossroads and gateways - all points of transition, from ancient times held to be weak spots in the fabric dividing the mortal world from the supernatural. Shuck often appears as a phantom, and Black Dogs are generally thought to be connected with the pack of spectral hounds that accompany the Wild Hunt. Perhaps they were originally psychopomps - escorts of the dead on their journey to the underworld. Certainly they sometimes act as “fetches,” appearing as portents of death and disaster.
This would explain a certain ambivalence in attitude towards Black Dogs, which in some places are disposed to be friendly, acting as guardians and guides to lonely travelers. While in Suffolk Shuck is usually harmless if let alone, in Norfolk none can set eyes on him and live, again a characteristic of the Wild hunt. It is in this demonic character that he first appears in print, in an old tract by Abraham Fleming (d.1607), entitled “A Strange and Terrible Wunder Wrought very late in the Parish Church of Bongay” which details that on Sunday, August 4th 1577, between nine and ten in the morning when most people were at church, there broke over Bungay “a great tempest the like whereof hath been seldome seene” with cracks of thunder that made the church “quake and stagger.” Hard upon this there appeared what to the congregation a great black dog (“an horrible shaped thing”). “This black dog… running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people.. passed between two persons, as they wee kneeling uppon their knees, and wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clean backward.” Passing another man in the congregation, the dog gave him a frightful burn, “that therewith he was presently drawn together and shrunk up, as it were a peece of lether scorched in hot fire; or as the mouth of a purse or bag, drawen togither with string.” This man survived, as did the church clerk, who was outside cleaning the gutter when a violent clap of thunder knocked him off his perch. In proof that the dog was not a hallucination, says Fleming, “there are remaining in the stones of the church, and likewise in the church door which are marvelously rented and torn, ye marks as it were of his claws or talans.”
The Black Dog visited the nearby town of Blythburgh on the same day, appearing upon an overhead beam in the church, then leaping down and killing two men and a boy, and burning someone’s hand. Both here and at Bungay his activities sound suspiciously like the effects of ball lightning, which is told entered a church during a tempest in about 1649, “killing many.” And indeed if we look in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) we find the events of Bungay narrated without mention of the Dog. Fleming’s timing is slightly different than Holinshed’s, as is his list of casualties, while the way he describes the man shrunk up “like a peece of lether” as believed to be “yet alive” suggests that he had a local informant. To this informant we could owe the Black Dog: in other words, Fleming might be telling us what the people of Bungay thought of the event which to Holinshed and the outside world was simply a “strange and terrible tempest.”
But, it has to be said, Bungay’s apparition is not unique. A pamphlet entitled “The Wonders of this Windie Winter” had already appeared in 1613, telling of a Sunday in a Kent church during a tempest, when people were at evening prayer, there “broke into the Church a most ugly shape or the air like unto a broadened bull.” This apparition struck the minister’s left arm, leaving it blackened and paralyzed, and in the stampede that ensued, a miller was killed. After that, the bull vanished, taking with it part of the wall. All this, it is implied, came about because people would talk in church. Even setting aside bulls and Black Dogs, was there simply a good tale making the rounds within these communities?
Whatever the truth, a standard erected in 1933 concludes with its inscription:
All down the church in midst of fire The hellish monster flew; And passing onwards to the quire He many people slew.
We tend to associate witches with black cats that operate as their familiar spirits, but more traditionally, the witch transforms herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the neighbors’ cows.
Belief in witches lingered in Devon, especially in country districts, long after 1736 when witchcraft ceased to be a capital offense. Tales about witches were common, and 18th century novelist Anna Bray, in a letter to Southey dated 1833, tells one current in her day about a witch at Tavistock whose little grandson used to get money from the local hunt by snaring hares for them. He never failed to find one, but somehow it always got away, and eventually they became suspicious. They arranged to get the hunt off to a quicker start than usual and the hounds were hard on the heel of the hare when they heard the boy cry: “Run, Granny! Run, run for your life!” The hare dashed into the old woman’s cottage and got in through a hole in the door, which the huntsmen forced open, but were unable to break down until the parson arrived to take off the witch’s spell. They found no hare in the house, but only the old lady herself, scratched and bleeding, and still panting and out of breath as if she had run a long distance.
The Provincial Glossary, written in 1787, relates: ‘Witches often transform themselves into hares, and lead the hounds and huntsmen a long fruitless chase.’ It goes on to describe that the witnesses at the trial of Julian Cox, at Taunton in 1633, said that one day when out hunting he started a hare near the accused’s house and chased it until it hid under a bush. He managed to get hold of it, whereupon it turned into Julian Cox. Though he was terrified, he spoke to her and asked her what she was doing there, but she was too out of breath to answer.
That wounds inflicted on a were-animal would be reproduced on the shape-changer’s body was an old tradition, it is mentioned by Gervase of Tilbury in the twelfth century.
A mythic king from the twelfth century, fabled to be the father of King Leir (Lear) and the founder of the city of Bath. Geoffrey of Monmouth records him as a “…very ingenious Man, taught Necromancy in his Kingdom, … til he attempted to fly to the upper Region of the Air with Wings he had prepared, and fell down upon the Temple of Apollo in the city of Trinovantum (London), where he was dashed to pieces.”
Geoffrey seems to not know another tradition concerning Bladud, that he was a leper who was cured of his disease by the medicinal mud in the hot springs at Bath. A tale no curiouser than his magical flight, but it draws a neat line from the Greco-Romantic fable of another great artificer, Daedalus. It sounds as if the Roman spa of Bath was so astonishing, the British tradition accounted for it as the work of a wizard, much like Stonehenge. It is worth noting, as well, that the Old English poem The Ruin, thought to be about Bath, describes it as “enta geweorc” - “the work of giants.”
Hell lies below, an abyss that intersects with the corporeal world and must be traversed - a long, low corridor full of dark apertures. God-like beings have arrived on the planet and are inhabiting an unassuming camper - I gaze a moment out the window at it. A shuffle, a harried jump-cut, and I am reading on the ledge of a pool that is a sea, full of lights. The god-beings are coming, and the only place to hide is here, breathing the water. I punt over the seafloor, growing accustomed to breathing the new medium - as a pod of dolphins leads me to safety.
Growing up in landlocked Texas, the sea was always a fascination to me - I didn’t see it firsthand until my late teens. Before that point, however, I would dream of the sea - but there were always limits, walls. My dream-realities are also full of apocalypses - invasions by aliens, good-old-fashioned hellscapes, diseases, tornadoes. I felt that this dream in particular, muddled though it was, best represented the cross-section of the stories my mind plays at - a beautiful, almost calm apocalypse.
Wrinkle In Time
based on the Madeleine L'Engle novel
The Unseely Congress
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
based on the Norwegian fairytale
based on the Daniel Polansky novella
submissions for the Lovecraft Society Show, 2015
Dinosaurs Before Bedtime
a personal children's book project, in which three siblings travel through prehistoric time to see the diversity of life that came before the Mesozoic era
Arrival in the Late Devonian
A Quick Rest with Dimetrodon
Journey of the Noble Gnarble
a picture book by Daniel Errico, published by SkyPony Press, 2011
Escape With Friends
The Sleeping Plink
Gnarble in the Sun
Journey of the Marmabill
a picture book by Daniel Errico, published by SkyPony Press, 2013