Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
JOHN BUCHAN – Witch Wood. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1927. Houghton Mifflin, US, hardcover, 1927. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the virtues of John Buchan as storyteller. thriller writer, scholar, man, and political figure, but as memorable and loved as his ‘shockers’, as he called them, are, his greatest talent perhaps was his gift as a historical novelist, books like Blanket of the Dark, Salute to Adventurers, The Free Fishers, and The Path of the King are among his finest works, and among them lies his foremost achievement, a novel that transcends genre and rises to a rare power, Witch Wood.
Being a Scot, and with a Scot’s sense of the uncanny, Buchan was a natural to deal with the darker side. He was a favorite of Lovecraft and Howard, and his shorter works like “Watcher by the Threshold” and “The Grove of Ashtoreth,” are often anthologized among the best of their kind. Witch Wood is his only novel length flirtation with the uncanny. (Gap in the Curtain is science fictional and largely a parable though uncanny on its own).
Those familiar with Buchan will not be surprised to find Witch Wood was chosen one of 100 Best Supernatural novels ever written, and with good reason, because in it are echoes of Scott and Stevenson as well as Machen, James, and Blackwood. It is no wonder it appealed to Lovecraft and Howard, for something ancient and malevolent lurks in the shadows of the witch wood.
The place is Scotland, the time the late seventeenth century towards the end of the Montrose rebellion when the country side is torn by civil war, and at a time when Scotland was haunted by the iron hand of the Kirk, and the the scent of Satan’s breath as witch hunts, black mass, and hypocrisy walked hand in hand. As Buchan’s minister hero admits: “If the Kirk confines human nature too strictly, it will break out in secret ways, for men and women are born into a terrestrial world, though they have hopes of Heaven.”
This is the way of things in the village of Woodilee where young David Sempil has come to minister the local kirk, a place of superstition, complacency, and distrust of outsiders in a time of violence and cruelty, and Witch Wood is the tale of the young minister and how he came to depart that Kirk: “…right in the heart of Reiverslaw’s best field of turnips was a spring…which the old folk called the Minister’s Well, and mentioned always with a shake of the head or a sigh, for it was there, they said, that the Minister of Woodilee had left the earth for Fairyland.”
Woodilee’s shame is hidden though, hidden in a place where brave men fear to tread and locals avoid, the Black Wood, once called, Melanudrigill.
The place was hateful, but it could not daunt him. It was the battleground to which he was called… On the edge of trees was a great mass of dark foxgloves, the colour of blood, and they seemed to make a blood-trail from the sunlight into the gloom.
Almost from the beginning the young minister clashes with the elders of the Kirk. They have narrow interpretations of Scripture and pick and choose what suits them. They are cruel in their piety, proud of their record for burning witches, yet among their number, among the most pious and cruel, lies the agent of the great deceiver himself.
It’s the dacent body that sits and granes aneath the pu’pit and the fosy professor that wags his pow and deplores the wickedness o’ the land.—Yon’s the true warlocks. There’s saunts in Scotland, the Lord kens and I ken mysel’, but there’s some that hae the name o’ saunts that wad make the Devil spew.”
That’s not far off the message of Buchan’s shockers and that moment in The Power House when the “thin veneer of civilization” falls away in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.
It is in the Wood that David first witnesses the devil’s mass when he dares to venture into it on “ … the day they ca’ the Rood-Mass and the morn is the Beltane, and it behoves a’ decent bodies to be indoors at the darkenin’ on Beltane’s Eve.”
And sure enough David stumbles on a black mass and in his rage attacks and is badly beaten. He survives, and now he knows his mission. “I have had my eyes opened and I will not rest till I have rooted this evil thing from Woodilee. I will search out and denounce every malefactor, though he were in my own Kirk Session. I will bring against them the terror of God and the arm of the human law. I will lay bare the evil mysteries of the Wood, though I have to hew down every tree with my own hand. In the strength of the Lord I will thresh this parish as corn is threshed, till I have separated the grain from the chaff and given the chaff to the burning.”
Despite the wrath of an Old Testament prophet, David is, as his name implies, a simple good man. Witch Wood is not the story of a towering figure arraigned against the powers of evil, but of a fallible good man battling for the soul of his Kirk, not against towering Luciferian powers, but ordinary men, corrupt and corrupted, weak and foolish, and afraid: “…you think you can tamper with devilry and yet keep your interest in Christ…I tell you that your covenant is with Death and Hell.”
Yet he is also a simple man who falls in love with Katrine Yester of Calidan, a great lady, and an almost elfin figure he spots by a pool. Their love will change him from a boy raging against evil to a man determined to save as many souls as he can.
Aside from Katrine, one of his few allies is Mark Kerr, cavalier and soldier of Montrose, who David agrees to hide and nurse to health after he is wounded when Montrose is defeated and on the run for the Highlands.
Kerr, who takes the name of Mark Riddel, is a handsome adventurer with a quick blade and little patience with the good folk of Woodilee, but he knows a man when he meets one. He’s a figure right out of Stevenson, and breathes great life into the proceedings by dint of his jaundiced eye and dark humor. Leaving David with a small army of a handful of villagers, an outlaw, and a beautiful almost enchanted woman to fight the powers of darkness, the Kirk Session, and the highest court in the Kirk Aller that all oppose him when he dares to call out wealthy Ephraim Caird of Castlemore, the leader of the coven.
When the village is swept by plague, David, Katrine, and Mark fight to save them, but David is blamed for bringing the plague, and when Katrine dies, he is left more alone than ever, yet from her death he gains a determination to fight. He witnesses a second mass, this time with a more empathic eye for the people mislead by superstition and narrow minds into this blasphemy, and things come to a head when Caird convinces a woman from the coven to confess to witchcraft and be tortured to death to cover himself. “What devil’s prank have you been at?” he cried.—”Answer me, Ephraim Caird.” David is ready to kill to try to save the foolish woman and violence is only averted by the presence of Mark Kerr, and only because she is too far gone to save.
Still, that is the last straw and David summoned before the Kirk Aller, to be tried for daring to defy his own Kirk Session and denying the wealthy Caird. By this point he no longer cares about his ministry, only to save Woodilee from itself and try to save Caird’s soul: “Hell is waiting for some, and maybe this very night,” building to a powerful and dramatic ending when David drives a terrified cowering Caird into the Wood, to the profane altar, to try and save him.
“Renounce your master here in his temple… I will give you words if you have none of your own.
“Say after me, ‘I abhor and reject the Devil and all his works, and I fling myself upon the mercy of God.’ Man, man, it is your immortal soul that trembles above the Pit.”
But a maddened Caird, driven by the baying of the hounds of hell on his heels, breaks away and runs in blind flight. It’s a memorable moment, and you may hear the hounds yourself reading it.
With David and Caird missing, it is Mark Kerr who holds the Kirk Session at sword point to chastise them. Caird is dead: “Go and look for him. You will find him in a bog-hole or a pool in the burn. Bury his body decently, but bury it face downward, so that you speed him on his road,”and Mark has words of his own to preach to the hypocritical ‘Pharisees’ of the Kirk: “A prophet came among you and you knew him not. For the sake of that witless thing that is now going four-foot among the braes you have condemned the innocent blood. He spent his strength for you and you rejected him, he yearned for you and you repelled him, he would have laid down his life for you and you scorned him. He is now beyond the reach of your ingratitude.”
The ironic epilogue reveals how history sided with the Kirk Session and condemns David as the cause of all the problems and a failure in his ministry, though at the very end we are shown two men, one Mark Kerr, buying passage out of Scotland to find a war to fight in.
“All roads are the same for us that lead forth of this waesome land …” and the two men stand on deck as they watch the “hills of Lothian dwindle in the bleak April dawn.” While in Woodilee they still tell tales of how the minister of Woodilee was abducted to Fairyland…
Witch Wood is one of those books that I would pack for that mythical desert island where book lovers hope to be stranded with their most beloved tomes. It is not an easy book, in fact even if you read it in hardcovers or paperback I suggest you download the annotated version available in e-book form at Roy Glashan’s Books, but it is more than worth the effort.
It is a fine novel, a moving love story, an adventure of the first water, and though there is not one actual supernatural event you can point to in the novel, one of the finest novels of the supernatural ever written. Here the Devil only appears in flawed human form, there are no angels, no miracles occur, all the terrors and darkest fears arise from the human mind and no Dracula, Hyde, sorcerer, demon, or real witch darkens its pages, but the scares here are genuine, the confrontation between good and evil palpable, and you may never look at a dark wood the same again.
Unlike most of today’s writers in the field, Buchan is not a twelve year old boy leaping out to say boo or trying to gross you out in blood and gore. Witch Wood goes to more deeply seated fears. It reminds us of our fragile humanity, our capacity for blinding ourselves, and that a simple good man can be enough to stand against the most powerful of evils even where once “the great wood of Melanudrigill had descended from the heights and flowed in black waves to the village brink.”
Some of the language in Witch Wood will inevitably remind you of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I think that is no accident. Aside from the ‘hills of Lothien’ and other similar passages, one of the Kirk Session who sins most grievously against David is named Mr. Proudfoot.
I strongly suspect it is no accident, and that David Sempil and Mark Kerr may well be models in some ways for Frodo and Aragorn and Woodilee for the Shire, as much as David Balfour and Alan Breck served as models for them. But read it yourself and see if you agree.