Let's give Robert Davies of Book Mongrel a warm welcome today, as he is here to chat about the horror of South Wales!
|Credit: Abigail Larson|
The horror fiction, non-fiction and folklore of South Wales
by Robert Davies of Book Mongrel
Wales has an enormous wealth of literature which stretches back as far as the 11th century in the form of praise poetry and saga/epic poetry, but today I’ll be focusing mainly on the theme of horror within Welsh writing. Welsh horror can be found in Welsh poetry, prose, non-fiction and folklore, and I’ve outlined some of the major themes in the list below. I’m certainly no authority on Welsh literature, but within this post I will mostly write about the literature which primarily concerns my native area of Wales, the south Welsh valleys. I hope you enjoy!
George Borrow (b. d.)
“Merthyr can show several remarkable edifices, though of a gloomy horrid Satanic character. There is the hall of the Iron [...] from whence proceeds incessantly a thundering noise of hammers. Then there is an edifice at the foot of a mountain, half way up the side of which is a blasted forest and on the top an enormous crag. A truly wonderful edifice it is, such as Bos would have imagined had he wanted to paint the palace of Satan. [...] I stood staring at the diabolical structure with my mouth open.”
George Borrow travelled through Wales in the 1850s, documenting his journey which eventually was published in 1862 as Wild Wales. The book is lighthearted in tone, but the later section of the book, as he travels to the increasingly industrial south, contains the dramatic and demonic imagery of hellish Welsh industry. The quotation above is taken from Borrow’s first experience of my home town, Merthyr Tydfil. The satanic imagery and Borrow’s descriptions of such things completely solidifies the backbone of true Welsh horror: Wales being an uncanny country with a wondrous landscape beauty, as well as potentially being a place of extreme, diabolical terror.
Later in his journey, Borrow encounters a “bedevilled” woman, “with grizzled hair hanging in elf locks”. The woman tells a story of her past which involves her meeting with “a monstrous woman, half-naked, and with a long staff in her hand” who places a curses upon her with the words:
“May the Mass never comfort ye, you dirty queen!”
The “bedevilled” woman scurries off to Merthyr Tydfil, but Borrow has again managed to encapsulate another important aspect of Welsh horror: folklore, legend and witchcraft. Wales in particular has a wealth of historic folklore, and here Borrow developed Welsh horror even further by including in his book not only his descriptions of the devilish iron forges of the towns, but also by highlighting the contemporary folk customs and beliefs of witchcraft, curses and devilry that extend far back into ancient Welsh legend.
As a quick aside, this satanic imagery penetrated not only local legend and literature, it also appeared in academic writing, as the following except from a 1921 edition of medical journal The Lancet shows: [Merthyr] has become the centre of a great manufacturing district where many thousands have been brought prematurely to the grave - martyrs to the Moloch of modern industrialism. From the centre [of the town] terrible volcanic eruptions constantly occur that suggest an invasion from the lower regions.”
Arthur Machen (b. 1863, d.1947)
“They said afterwards that men of the hills, twenty miles away, heard that cry and that singing, roaring upon them on the wind, and they fell down on their faces, and cried, "The offering is accomplished," knowing nothing of what they said.”
Machen is probably one of the most famous writers of Welsh horror. His novels influenced many horror writers and filmmakers of the 19th and 20th centuries - H.P Lovecraft and Guillermo Del Toro, to name just two. I recommend his novel The Great God Pan as a precursor to what would later be called “weird fiction”, but the quotation above is taken from his 1915 story The Great Return. This story concerns a small coastal Welsh village in the throes of some strange visitation or mass hallucination. Ultimately the visions turn out to be for the good of the people, as a benevolent “fiery rose” encompasses the community and rids it of its ills, but the suggestion of horror permeates this story nonetheless, especially regarding the appearance of the three mysterious spirits cloaked in red (the “three saints” of Llantrisant?) at the end of the tale:
“There were a few who saw three come out of the door of the sanctuary, and stand for a moment on the pace before the door. These three were in dyed vesture, red as blood […] And the third heaved up high over the altar a cup that was red with burning and the blood of the offering.”
Elsewhere in this tale is the suggestion of the “strangeness” of the Welsh countryside. Machen writes that the narrator of this tale experiences a weird otherness when travelling from London to the glorious Welsh coastline, again reinforcing the mixture of mysterious horror with sublime beauty.
Community or “Home” Horror
Glyn Jones (b. 1905, d. 1995)
“His face was hideous. The flesh of it looked as though it had been torn apart into ribbons and shoved together again anyhow back on to the bones. Long white scars ran glistening through the purple skin like ridges of gristle.”
Glyn Jones was a prolific poet and translator, but he also wrote wonderfully unsettling short fiction from the 1930s to the 1970s. There is no outright terror in his stories, but the palpable dread, depression and violence in his fiction does well to represent Welsh horror in the valleys - his style is more Shirley Jackson than Stephen King. His short fiction includes events like suicide attempts, pit explosions, catastrophic mudslides and dark mysterious men with strange motives (outlined in the quotation above, from his short story Jordan), but I’d like to highlight his story The Saviour from his 1944 collection The Water Music. This story is a very good example of the mingling of the rural tranquility of the Welsh countryside with the darker, foreboding behaviours of men and women of the community. A farmhand decides to rescue a crazed woman from the clutches of her ogreish mother.
“The girl screamed at workman’s blow and the sight of her mother’s falling figure, she heard the thunder crash over the stone roof of the house like the waves smashed open upon the rocks. In the light of the scribbled lightning the blood spouted out of her mother’s divided face in a loop of heavy drops.”
The story is a mixture of “home” horror, religion fervour and urbanity versus rurality, but the image of the sickly daughter kept captive by her monstrous parent, only to be saved through violent means is one of pure Welsh horror.
Horror in Folklore
The Gwrach y Rhibyn
“The spectre [of the Gwrach y Rhibyn] is a hideous being with dishevelled hair, long black teeth, long, lank, withered arms, leathern wings, and a cadaverous appearance. In the stillness of night it comes and flaps its wings against the window, uttering at the same time a blood-curdling howl, and calling by name on the person who is to die, in a lengthened dying tone”
Wales has a great wealth of legend and folklore, and within this mythology can be found numerous references to demonic beasts that terrorise the country and the people of Wales. Above, a quotation taken from Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins mentions the figure of the banshee in Welsh folklore, in particular the Gwrach y Rhibyn (The Witch of Rhibyn). This monster is described as a powerfully ugly creature, forever screaming for her husband or her child much to the distress of the townspeople. A more complete picture of the Gwrach is found in Cambrian Superstitions by W. Howells:
“Its shriek is described as having such an effect, as literally to freeze the blood in the veins of those who heard it, and was never uttered except when the ghost came to a cross road, or went by some water, which (if a female) she splashed with her hands, making at the same time the most doleful sounds…”
The image of this “ghost” is, to me at least, much more terrifying than the cartoon image of witches of old with their green hair, comedy cackle, broomstick and so on. This witch, based on the descriptions above, is completely repulsive, threatening and violent. It’s interesting to note that the image of the dishevelled hair and lank withered arms seems to now be the image of the “classic” witch in most new horror fiction and film.
I’ll wrap this post up here, as I’ve already written far more than I expected I would. You can take this list and this post as something of a “brief guide to a brief guide of Welsh horror” - I’ve merely scratched the surface. However, I hope some of the recommendations above are enough to pique your interest in Welsh horror, as there really is so much incredible dark literature from Wales that just deserves to be read.
I’m hoping to cover more Welsh literature and Welsh horror in the coming months on my blog, Book Mongrel. Thanks for reading!
P.S. For more information on Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) Reads, check out the challenge here.