Category Archives: horror

#20 The Undead Come Courting



Vampire mythology first appears in the West in works as early Romantic authors meld themes from folk ballads of resurrected lovers with Balkan folklore of the undead.

Valentine’s Day seemed a fitting occasion for this show’s look at the vampire’s tragically romantic tendency to prey upon those they love.

We begin with  a (very seasonal) snippet of one of Ophelia’s “mad songs” from Hamlet, “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day.”  The song speaks of a lover’s clandestine nocturnal visit to a partner’s bedchamber.  It represents a class of folk song called “night visit ballads.” A  more ghoulish subset of these deals with lovers who happen to be dead, or undead actually.

From The Book of British Ballads (1842)
From The Book of British Ballads (1842)

We hear two sample songs of revenant lovers from the 16th-17th century: “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” (referencing “cold corpsey lips”) and “The Suffolk Miracle,” which bears comparison to the German poem “Lenore,” much beloved by the Romantics and Gothics, and mentioned in Dracula as discussed in Episode One.

Next we discuss the “Vampire Panic” that took place in Serbia in the 1720s-30s.  We hear of Petar Blagojević, who was said to have been exhumed and found incorrupt with fresh blood at his mouth and flowing from his heart once properly staked.  We hear of a similar case involving the foot soldier Arnold Paole, whose staking produced more disturbing results and whose alleged vampiric deeds led to two distinct waves of panic.

Illustration (colorized) from 18th century vampire panics in Balkans.
Illustration (colorized) from 18th century vampire panics in Balkans.

We learn how these reports were assimilated by the literary world, with an early example  being German poet Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s  1734 poem “Der Vampir.”  Then we look at a more nuanced suggestion of vampirism in Goethe’s  “The Bride of Corinth,” a poem based on a classical account of revenant lovemaking, the story of Machates and the undead Philinnion.

Next we have a look at two other important early uses of the vampire motif in literature — two Orientalist poems — Thalaba by Robert Southey and Lord Byron’s The Giaour.  Both reference Balkan folklore and superstition, and footnotes to Southey’s work include a lengthy narrative of an absurd and gruesome vampire panic on the Greek island of Mykonos in 1701.  Wilkinson reads prettily from this account. Along the way, we have a look at Greek vampires in Val Lewton’s moody 1945 film Isle of the Dead starring Boris Karloff.

Byron’s contribution to Gothic literature (as host to Mary Shelley during her early writing of Frankenstein) is illustrated with another snippet from Ken Russel’s cinematic work, his 1986 film Gothic.  More central to our theme, however, is The Vamyre by John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician who also shared in the evenings of ghost stories that inspired Shelley.

We learn how The Vampyre grew out of Byron’s The Giaour, of the influence its vampiric character exerted on Stoker’s Dracula, and of the unlikely spin-offs the story generated.

Polidori's "Vampyre" misattributed to Byron in first printing.
Polidori’s “Vampyre” misattributed to Byron in first printing.

Then we have a look at Tolstoy’s lesset known 1839 vampire novella The Family of the Vourdalak and its treatment in Mario Bava’s 1963 horror anthology Black Sabbath, also featuring Boris Karloff.

Tolstoy’s story also happens to be set in Serbia, bringing us back to the country’s long history of vampirism, the famous Serbian Vampire Sava Savanović, and the bizaare 1973 Yugoslavian film featuring Savanović, Leptirica.

We close with a strange story of the the Serbian undead from the year 2012.  A musical setting is provided.


#19 Worm Songs and Beastly Sucklers



This episode examines the Lambton Worm, a dragon legend that inspired works by Bram Stoker and Ken Russel as well as well as the curious role of milk plays that story and in superstitions surrounding witchcraft.

The show begins with Wilkinson and Ridenour reviewing a phone message from Blake Smith of the Monster Talk podcast, then proceed to briefly examine the 1989 Ken Russel Film The Lair of the White Worm, mentioning along the way his other film Gothic, which would be of interest to listeners.

Publicity image from the film
Publicity image from the film

Bram Stoker’s final novel The Lair of the White Worm, upon which the Russel film is loosely based, is sadly far from his best work, written late in his life during a time of ill health. The story revolves around an aristocrat, Lady Arabella March, suspected of harboring an ancient, monstrous creature within a well hidden on her estate.  While the novel is a bit of a muddle, it does contain some intriguing descriptive passages that Wilkinson reads for us.

A snippet of a song from Russel’s film, presented as a folk song telling the story of the local worm legend is played and revealed to be a slightly revised version of an actual 1867 ballad about the Lambton Worm of Northeast England.  The legend tells how John Lambton of Lambton Hall hooked a weird and highly inedible creature while fishing, discards the beast, and lives to regret it. Without giving too much away, the story also involves a bloody battle with a dragon, a witch, a curse, and a lot of milk.

From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell
From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell

The legend and song (which is written in the local Sunderland dialect) have become part of the identity of residents of County Durham and towns along the river Wear. In 2014, an entertaining symphonic retelling of the legend was presented in Durham Cathedral by The Durham University Brass Band, and we use a clip or two in the show. Most other clips are from one of two folk-play-style pub performances of the story by The Jeffreys and Hexham Morris.

We also look at a connection between the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man and the Lambton Worm legend.

The peculiar fondness of dragons for milk is next examined, beginning with a number of other dragon legends from England, some medieval tales briefly mentioned, and even an American newspaper from the 1930s.

Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft

We then turn our attention to the “beastly sucklers” of the title.  These include various animals into which witches transformed themselves or created in order to steal milk (sucking it from livestock by night).  They are mlk-hares, the troll-cat, the troll-ball, and the Icelandic tilberi.

The show ends with a quick look at a couple other dragon ballads that also include witches, including the particularly strange “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” in which a king’s daughter is transformed into a mackerel then obstinately refuses to be transformed back.

 

 

 

 


#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers



This time round we look at the medieval myth of the Wild Man, its connection to seasonal folk traditions, peculiar influence on Church teachings, and a macabre historical incident featuring dancers costumed as Wild Men.

We begin with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe filtered through Roger Corman, namely a clip from the director’s 1964 production The Masque of the Red Death.  In the film, Corman incorporates a grisly scene borrowed from Poe’s short story “Hop Frog,” an accident revolving around highly inflammable ape costumes.

We then turn to Poe’s historical inspiration for this scene, namely a 1393 celebration held in the Parisian court of Charles VI, a masque which has come to be known as Bal des Sauvages (Ball of the Wild Men) or more commonly the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).  As you may guess, the Wild Man suits donned for this event also proved quite flammable, leaving four courtiers dead.  Graphic details are provided. While Charles also wore one of these less than safe costumes, he was not injured in the event but went on to suffer from troubles of a different sort, as we later explore.

Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483
Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483

Other costume customs associated with the Wild Man are next examined — a strange case from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (involving a blood bladder), and mention is made of Wild Man costumes of straw or vegetation often identified as “straw bears,” as in the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, in the UK, or other vegetation clad Wild Men who appear in Carnival processions in Basel, Switzerland, Telfs, Austria, and the Wild Man Dance held every five years in Oberstdorf, Bavaria.  Audio clips from the events in Whittlesea, and Telfs are heard in the background.

Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.
Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.

Classical figures that blended into the Wild Man mythos are discussed: the satyrs, fauns, and particularly Silvanus, as are other pagan figures that tended to overlap with the Wild Man —  the Dusios of the Celts of Gaul, the schrat of German-speaking lands, and the ogre, a figure seemed particularly influential in French and Italian traditions.

While pagan versions of Wild Men were regarded by the Church as demonic, the image of the Wild Man was in some occasions adopted into saint iconography.  We see a number of examples drawn from the era of the Desert Fathers, when solitary hermitage in the wild was commonly understood to be a path to God.  Medieval artists, we learn, tended to take the “wild” aspect of these figures, rather literally, and certain church legends seem to support this.

St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.
St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.

Real world figures equated with the Wild Man are also examined.  We meet the first historical example via a painting of the 16th-century figure, Petrus Gonsalvus, an object in the famous Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.  Other items in the collection, including a disturbing portraits of a deformed court jester and of a Hungarian nobleman living with lance embedded in his head are mentioned, as is an odd pop song related to one of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow personalities, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.  A clip from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” is heard.

Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.
Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.

Oh, I also promised to post this picture of Barbara van Beck…

Barbara van Beck by William Richardson
Barbara van Beck by William Richardson

We conclude the show returning our attention to France’s Charles VI, hearing the story of his mental breakdown and behaviors and delusions that earned him the epitaph, “Charles the Mad.”

Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.
Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.

 

 


#17 Christmas Ghosts



Traditionally Christmas was a time for ghost stories, and tonight we’re doing our part to bring back the custom.  A bit of history on supernatural stories of the season and then something a bit different for the holiday — a bit of storytelling for your fireside enjoyment — a ghost story from the Victorian master of the genre, M.R. James.  An unfortunate holiday incident experienced by Wilkinson and your narrator is also discussed. Merry Christmas to you all!  (This episode also provides an example of one of our Patreon rewards: audio texts from classic old books of horror and folklore delivered over a brooding soundscape.)


Episode 11: The Dead Speak



The 19th-century Spiritualist movement was rife with fraud and misplaced hopes, but what made people so eager to believe in the possibility of talking to the dead?  This episode looks at some early mediumistic pioneers, attractions beyond the metaphysical that drew sitters to take part in seances, and the growing pressure within the movement to produce ever more vivid phenomena passing for proof of supernatural contact.  This episode also kicks off our Fall-Winter season and a (3-episode!) October dedicated to the theme of “talking to the dead.”

As communication with the dead is necessarily a two-way process, we begin with a story illustrating, not why we may wish to speak to the departed, but why the departed may wish to speak to us.  A typical folkloric reason for a spirit’s return is the desire for resolution regarding the circumstances of death and proper burial.  Our first story illustrates this with the story of William Corder’s murder of Maria Marten in 1827 —  what came to be known as “The Red Barn Murder” — in which a ghost appears in dreams of Maria’s stepmother in an effort to identify the perpetrator and the body’s whereabouts.  I include a 1932 recording of a popular Victorian melodrama enacting the story and a description of the widespread fascination which this case held and some particularly morbid consequences.  I also include a snippet from a popular period ballad recounting the tale.

Digging up the grave. A Victorian Penny Dreadful.
Digging up the grave. A Victorian Penny Dreadful.

Vincent Price’s 1979 series of radio shorts, “Hall of Horrors,” gives us a audio introduction to the de facto founders of the Spiritualist movement, the Fox Sisters, Margaret, Kate, and Leah, of Hydesville, New York.  Like the unfortunate Maria Marten, a murdered peddler and his attempt to communicate in 1848 with the siblings through a knocking code is the purported initiator of this historical movement.  Even as the sisters are developing a following in the 1850s, other small groups of friend and relatives are gathering in “home circles” to emulate the Fox’s supernatural communications, and other “public mediums” are gathering their own followers and offering performing on an evolving circuit of Spiritualist hotspots. We return to the Foxes in Episode 12 next week for the unexpected end to their tale.

The Fox Sisters
The Fox Sisters

One of these “public mediums” was Jonathan Koons of Mt. Nebo, Ohio, who in the early 1850s, claimed to have been directed by the spirits to build his “Spirit Room,” a log cabin, in which bizarre musical seances were held around a mysterious “spirit machine” handmade by Koons. We hear some strange firsthand accounts of the goings-on from newspaper accounts of the period.

As things progressed, greater proof of the spirits’ presence was demanded, and mediums complied with all sorts of gimmicks including physical tokens supposedly manifested from the spirit world (“apports”), spirit photography, and even impressions of ghostly body parts made in plates of warm paraffin left out during seances.  We hear a couple cases of apports and spirit prints going terribly, terribly wrong.

We visit William and Horatio Eddy of Chittenden, Vermont, whose showman-like seances upped the ante with a cast of dozens of costumed spirits including costumed Native Americans, elderly Yankees, Russians, Asians, Africans, and pirates.  A bizarre incident with a rat (or is it a flying squirrel?) and a dancing spirit is recounted.

William Crookes & "Katie King"
William Crookes & “Katie King”

Next, we hear the more well-known case the teenage medium Florence Cook investigated by Sir William Crookes, known for his pioneering work with vacuum tubes and radiography.  Crookes’ fanatical investigation of of Cook’s spirit guide “Katie King” did not meet with the same success as his mainstream work.  Listen for the rather embarrassing conclusions drawn by his colleagues in the scientific community.

Annie Fairlamb Mellon with her alleged materialization Cissie.
Annie Fairlamb Mellon with her alleged materialization Cissie.

The show concludes with some tricks of the trade, a look at the a super-secret catalog used by fraudulent mediums and an exploration of ectoplasm, how it might be simluted, what exactly it feels and looks like, and what it should be capable of doing.

Ectoplasm produced by Stanislawa P. 1913. Photo Albert von Schrenk-Notzing.
Stanislawa P. during séance of 25 January 1913. Photo Albert von Schrenk-Notzing.

 


Episode 10: Victorian Mummies



This time round we explore the way in which the death-obsessed Victorians fetishized the equally death-obsessed Egyptians, creating a number of gothic mummy tales, which often veer into storylines that are almost necrophilic.

To begin we have a look at how the Victorians interacted with mummies as artifacts.  We hear an 1899 story from Philadelphia’s The Times making clear that the demand for mummies as displays for educational institutions and even as curios for private homes of the well-to-do, was so great that entrepreneurial types in Egypt came up with  rather unsavory ways of meeting the needs of the market.

Examination of a Mummy by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891
Examination of a Mummy by Paul Dominique Philippoteaux c 1891

We discuss Thomas Pettigrew and his promotion, not only of “mummy unwrapping” parties in the 1830s and ’40s, but also of the “miracle” of germinating seeds or “mummy wheat” allegedly found in ancient tombs.  A peculiar story of a Scottish duke and his morbid preoccupation with Pettigrew’s mummy ballyhoo should also be of interest to listeners.

Wilkinson narrates a first-person experience of a mummy unwrapping during a thunderstorm penned by French RomanticThéophile Gautier, author of a number of mummy stories himself.  His short, supernatural story, “The Mummy’s Foot,” is the first of several included in this episode that connect grotesque mummified remains (a foot in this case) with a rather comely, female love interest.  One likely explanation for this tendency is offered via a short side-trip to French Orientalist art and Victorian pornography.

Jean Ingres' Grande Odalisque, 1814
Jean Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, 1814

Next we explore The Jewel of Seven Stars, written in 1903 by Bram Stoker.  This one also centers upon a regal Egyptian female (a queen and “sorceress”) who is missing an appendage — a hand in this case, which is wearing a ring with the valuable, titular “jewel.”  The “seven stars,” we learn, wre lamps from the mummy’s tomb, which are to be used in an occult experiment to raise the spirit of the ancient queen.  A mummified cat — much like the one recently gifted to the Bone & Sickle Library by Paul Koudounaris — also plays an interesting role in the story.  Wilkinson narrates another strangely eroticized unwrapping scene from the novel, and there are snippets from the surprising number of films adapted from this previously neglected work.

Hammer Studios' 1972 adaptation of Stokers "Jewel"
Hammer Studios’ 1972 adaptation of Stokers “Jewel”

Then we’re off to the manly adventure-world of H. Rider Haggard who once delighted British audiences with tales of stiff-lipped men taming the Empire — and occasionally venturing into lost subterranean worlds, as in the novel She, which we discuss as another case related to the “seductive mummy” trope.  Haggard’s stories generally, have more in common, perhaps, with the Indiana Jones model, but She crosses some paths with horror and science fiction, and was adapted for film by both Merian C. Cooper (director of the original King Kong) and British Lion (with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee).

A fair bit of the show is devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle’s  interest in mummies, both as fictional devices and in real life.  Doyle believed both in the much disputed curse upon Howard Carter’s King Tut outing and another case, the “Ingram mummy,” which happens to also have wound its way into the folklore of The Titanic.

Doyle never signed on as a member, but did attend some meetings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult organization popular in Edwardian literary circles and named for Hermes, more or less a Greek version of the Egyptian Thoth. We have a look at how this occult body, and many others, were influenced by Egyptian mythology and how a French novel from 1731 purporting to be the text of a newly translated papyrus shaped their ritual structure.  Connections between Egypt, the Tarot, Crowley, and his religion of Thelema are also briefly discussed.

Crowley in Golden Dawn garb, 1910
Crowley in Golden Dawn garb, 1910

Lots of missing mummy appendages in this episode!  The self-described “seer” and palmist going by the name “Cheiro” brings us another tale of a cursed mummy’s hand he supposedly kept in a wall safe for decades.  He, like Doyle, also had some things to say about the Tut curse, lessons learned supposedly from a dramatic incident with this mummy’s hand.

 

Rising to fame in turn-of-the-century Britain, Cheiro migrated to Hollywood, where his later years were spent telling fortunes of the film stars of the 1920s and 30s, and where the idea of the cinematic mummy tale was first developed.

Having provided some background in the curse legends and literary mummy tales of Victorian and Edwardian era, we look at ways in which Doyle’s stories, particularly “Lot 249” might have been an influence on the Boris Karloff  film The Mummy from 1932 as well as mummy films of the 1940s through 1960s. A few stray examples from later years are also included.

Karloff as Ardeth Bey in The Mummy, 1932
Karloff as Ardeth Bey in The Mummy, 1932

Snippets of two old, Egyptian themed recordings were used in the episode Esther Walker’s “Sahara” from 1919 and “Old King Tut” by Billy Jones and Ernest Hare from 1923.


LISTENER NOTE: Episode Ten is an extra-long deluxe episode wrapping up our Spring-Summer season.  Wilkinson and I will be taking off September and returning in October with the folklore of the Fall-Winter season, Halloween, the Krampus, and more.  We suggest you check back here, or even better, subscribe, so you know when we’re back.

 

 


Episode Seven: It is One Hundred Years Since Our Children Left



In this episode, we explore the story of the Pied Piper, a folk tale uniquely anchored in grim historical realities. We begin with evidence of an actual historical mystery, including text inscribed on a gable of one of Hamelin’s medieval buildings as well as the initial 1384 entry in the Hamelin town chronicle, announcing, “It is 100 years since our children left.”

"The Pied Piper Of Hamelin" by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes
“The Pied Piper Of Hamelin” by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes

The Piper’s extermination of rats by drowning in them in the nearby river raises a question about rats swimming — which they do quite well — and how swimming rats figure into another German legend, one about the wicked Bishop Hatto and the famous “Mice Tower” located on an island in the Rhine near the city of Bingen. Wilkinson provides a fine reading of an early Romantic poem based on this horrific legend.

Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Bishop Hatto illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Certain elements of this Hatto story bring to mind the sub-subgenre of rat horror films and its prime exemplars, 1972’s Willard and its 1973 sequel Ben.  The 2006 remake of Willard starring Crispin Glover is featured in a special musical confection specially created for this episode.

Movie poster for Willard, 1972
Movie poster for Willard, 1972

We then take a side trip to Sweden where we learn of similarly macabre story featuring a mysterious musician leading  village youth away to the top of the fabled Hårga mountain.  Wilkinson’s reading of the tale is accompanied by the rather well known and rather spooky Swedish folk song by which the tale is known. The Hårgalåten song is popular enough in Sweden to have been covered by everything from metal bands to classical choirs.  Our favorite version (heard in this episode) is by Viktoria Tocca.

Next we discuss several of the theories that have been put forward to explain the disappearance of Hamelin’s children in 1284.  The Black Death, emigration, and participation in the ill-fated Children’s Crusades of the 13th century are all explored, as well as a recently advance, and more exotic notion about pagan rites and executions around the town of Coppenbrügge, in a swampy area known as the “Devil’s Kitchen, about 30 miles north of Hamelin.

"Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers" Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564
“Pilgrimage of the St. Vitus Dancers” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564

A final theory — if not the best at least one of the more entertaining —  explains the disappearance of the Hamelin youth via the medieval phenomenon known as Dancing Plague or Dancing Mania, sometimes also called the St Vitus Dance.  We review a bit of its history and symptoms with dramatically rendered passages from Wilkinson, taking particular note of certain ludicrous and destructive extremes as well as incidents like that in the town of Erfurt, Germany, where in 1257 groups of children dancing their out the city gates call to mind the youth in the Piper’s tale.

Similar to the northern European Dancing Plagues is the slightly later phenomenon of tarantism in southern Italy.  Named for the “tarantula,” a local spider somewhat different from our own idea of the species, tarantism is a superstitious belief that the bite of this pest can cause bouts of mad dancing and other aberrant behaviors.   We recount a few historical examples of these outbursts, including incidents of the tradition all the way up into the early 1960s explored by the Italian scholar of religion Ernesto de Martino in his book and documentary film, La Terra Del Rimorso.

The show concludes with a visit to the delightfully named “Chapel of the Tarantula” in Galatino, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Episode Six: Lost Heads



As June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist approaches, the folklore of decapitation suggested itself as an appropriate theme for this episode.  We begin by way of an old English children’s rhyme and game, “Oranges and Lemons” based on melody played by the bells of St. Clemens church in London.  The rhyme ends with the couplet:

Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop of your head
Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead

… which should explain our inclusion here.  We hear this melody (played by local bagpipers) during a procession in the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man.  In the film,the tune accompanies a mock beheading game that the director borrowed from a traditional sword dance, one particularly well preserved in the south Yorkshire town of Grenoside.

Grenoside Sword Dancers
Grenoside Sword Dancers

We then review the John the Baptist story, how Salome offers a very pleasing “Dance of the Seven Veils” to King Herod, receiving in gratitude for the performance, a reward of her choosing,  Thanks to Salome’s mother, Herodias, the reward chosen is the head of John the Baptist’s. We learn a bit more Herodias, and hear a delightful tale (or tales) of divine punishment she received as well as her late medieval association with the folklore of witchcraft.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Carlo Dolci, 1670.

Next we move on the to the discussion of cephalaphores, or saints who suffer decapitation but stubbornly refuse to die, instead traipsing about holding their severed heads.  We discuss the cephalaphores St. Denis, St. Edmund (who’s head was guarded by a remarkably tame wolf) and St. Winifred, better known for her holy well.

Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 - 1498
Detail: Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer (showing Denis), Jean Bourdichon 1468 – 1498

As it turns out, holy wells, which are particularly prominent in Wales, are also associated with severed human heads — more often than one might expect.  Some examples and a likely a explanation are offered, and we learn which holy well until recently afforded the visitor the opportunity to employ a saintly skull as a dipper.

Wouldn’t you know it but the topic of magic wells and heads somehow brings us back to The Wicker Man as we learn about a connection between a song in the film and a fairly obscure Elizabethan drama rich in songs, spells, and fairy stories.

We then return to head-chopping games, and one suggested by a mysterious green stranger who appears at King Arthur’s Christmas feast in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Also mentioned is a cinematic treatment of the tale, 1984’s Sword of the Valiant, featuring Sean Connery in an outlandish costume that almost gives his wardrobe in Zardoz a run for its money.

14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant
14th-century illustration with image from Sword of the Valiant

Even though it’s already well known, it seemed wrong to omit Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and its headless horseman. Wilkinson seemed particularly eager to discuss it, so we leave that to him (with more than a little help in the sound effects department.)

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichibod Crane, John Quidor, 1858.

Scotland offers our next two stories, one which tells of a sort of headless horseman of the Highlands (and some fortune-telling butter) and the other of Mary Queen of Scots badly botched beheading.

Death Mask of Mary Stuart.
Death Mask of Mary Stuart.

Then it’s back to Wales for the story of Bran the Blessed, a mythological king, whose (not quite dead) head was quite the entertainer and ended up buried under the Tower of London once it shut up.  The execution of Anne Boleyn also gets a nod with macabre ditty from 1934 about her headless ghost.

If you find yourself horrified by the obsession with heads and head-chopping in these Celtic nations, you are not alone.  Classical writers also were appalled by decapitation fixations of the northern tribes. We hear some choice words on the subject, read by Wilkinson.  We also learn about a bizarre super-weapon employed by Celtic warriors — “brain balls” —  and how they figure into a story of a newly converted Celtic chieftain.

The Germanic tribes too had a loose head or two in their mythology.  Hear the story of Mimir, whose decapitated head Odin preserved and relied upon for counsel.

We close the show with some talk of magicians (an alchemist and a supposedly wicked pope) who created their own “brazen heads” intended to likewise offer advice or prognostication.

From "Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay." 1630
From “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.” 1630

Episode 3: Loudly Sing Cuckoo!



After two episodes meandering about in the nocturnal folklore of Walpurgisnacht witches sabbaths, we’re inviting our Bone and Sickle friends out in the daylight for a celebrate the arrival of Spring.  Not to worry, there’s still human sacrifice in the air, as we begin the show looking at that pre-emininent example of the folk-horor genre, and what’s been called “cinema’s greatest pagan horror musical,” Robin Hardy’s 1973 film, The Wicker Man.

In a curious counterpoint to the ghastly deed unfolding in the film’s final scene, the villagers of Summerisle sing a rather cheery song associated with Beltane, or the coming of summer, for which Beltane, in the Celtic calendar, is the first day.

The 13th-century song, “Sumer is a-cumin in” in modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
The cow is lowing after her calf;
The bullock is prancing,
The billy-goat farting.

Again with the farting goats!  Listeners to our Walpurgisnacht episode will remember, the farting goats and witches from Goethe’s description of the witches’ sabbath on the Brocken in Faust.  Perhaps farting goats will become a theme for this show.  Please forgive the short, stinky side trip into this digression where we note the real world dangers associated with the issue as well as a popular YouTube video on the theme.

Also, speaking of things for which we might apologize, listeners should be warned that there is some unpleasantness regarding Wilkinson the Butler and his new spring suit at the beginning of this episode.  You may want to skip past all that if such things offend.

Finally we do come round to our actual topic, the cuckoo in folklore, and Wilkinson is kind enough to read us some quite interesting superstitions associated with the bird’s arrival in spring from an edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine published in London in 1852.

And then a lovely folk song about the cuckoo with some some tragic themes and variations.

A curious line in the song about the cuckoo “sucking eggs,” is explained in epic detail as Wilkinson narrates an an extremely grotesque episode from the bird’s natural life cycle, reading from On Nature’s Trail: A Wonder-book of the Wild written in 1912.

Then the odd association between cuckoos and certain themes in Science Fiction is briefly addressed.

"Village of the Damned" poster, based on "The Midwich Cuckoos"
“Village of the Damned” poster, based on “The Midwich Cuckoos”

We follow the cuckoo into an even stranger and mostly forgotten associations between cuckoos and cuckoldry, losing ourselves further in the notion of the cuckold as one “wearing the horns,”  and at long last arriving at a truly ghastly farmyard rationale behind the “horns” expression.

The painting below illustrates the “horns” symbolism rudely applied within a group of Italian commedia dell’arte performers.  Further illustrations below (17th-century England and 19th-century France respectively) rerpresent other satiric commentary.

Francois Bunel, “Actors of the Commedia dell'Arte" (1580)
Francois Bunel, “Actors of the Commedia dell’Arte” (1580)
Illustration of cuckold from 17th-century satiric broadside.
Illustration of cuckold from 17th-century satiric broadside.
A French satirical print depicting an "order" of cuckolds wearing horns.
A French satirical print depicting an “order” of cuckolds wearing horns.

Naturally, the subject of cuckoo clocks must also receive brief mention, but we find our way to our native “horror” habitat back through the notion of the cuckoo clock as a species of “automata clocks,” and thereby other more morbid examples, such as this stellar piece used in Werner Herzog’s 1973 film, Nosferatu.

A few grisly tales associated with public “death clocks” receive dramatic treatment including this fellow from the Czech town of Havličkův Brod and the grim folklore surrounding him.

We close the show out with the warning, “Carpe Diem” as expressed (with a nod to the cuckoo) by the avant-folk band, The Fugs in 1966.Become a Patron!