Publication: 18 February 1978-13 May 1978
Artist: Douglas Perry
Writer: Unknown (but see thoughts)
Reprint: Girl Picture Library #25 as “The Witchfinder”
Linden James and her family have just moved to the village of Wychley Green, but things aren’t off to a good start for her. She misses her old home and isn’t making friends because they think she’s standoffish. At the Wishing Tree she wishes for a friend, without much hope of getting one.
But then a girl from the 17th century appears. Her name is Rebecca Neville and her evil cousin, Matthew Hobley “The Witchfinder”, has accused her of witchcraft. Part of it is Rebecca having her grandmother’s ‘healing hands’ and treating sick people and animals with them. But the real reason is that Hobley is after her inheritance. Hobley was leading a witch-hunting mob against her all the way up to the Wishing Tree, and she suddenly found herself in Linden’s time. Linden draws the conclusion that it was the Wishing Tree. She tells Rebecca that she is quite safe here because people here don’t believe in witches anymore. Rebecca is upset to find her home in ruins and her grandmother’s grave (which does not give the date of her death). However, she moves in with Linden, swapping her 17th century clothes for modern ones and school uniform happily enough.
But soon there are warning signs that Hobley has followed Rebecca into the 20th century. During a thunderstorm, they are terrified when a frightening silhouette that looks like a Puritan appears in a mirror. Soon the same shadow is following them about. And Linden, who is confident that Hobley can’t stir up people against Rebecca in this period because people no longer believe in witches, is soon to learn otherwise.
It begins when the school visits an archaeological dig, which Rebecca realises is unearthing an apothecary’s shop. The Witchfinder attacks with a pile of bricks, which narrowly misses Rebecca and the Professor in charge of the dig. The classmates blame Rebecca and start to whisper she is a witch. She gets particular trouble from the wayward Smith boys. Meanwhile, the dig uncovers a ring on a trap door that could lead to something.
Linden buys a witchball (an old charm against witches) for her mother’s birthday. On the way back from the shop the shadow of the Witchfinder appears. Linden threatens him with the witchball and he retreats. They now have a protection against the Witchfinder, but odd attacks start at Linden’s home and seem to be targeting the witchball.
The whispering against Rebecca gets worse when she offers to help Mrs Perks look for her cat while the Smith boys tease Mrs Perks over it. Mrs Perks is also rumoured to be a witch because she is psychic. They help Mrs Perks find her cat and in return Mrs Perks reads Rebecca’s palms. She says Rebecca has healing hands and warns her that there is an evil shadow pursuing her.
The dig uncovers a box that contains items from the apothecary. Among them is a gold locket belonging to the apothecary’s granddaughter Catherine. Catherine was a friend of Rebecca’s, and she and the apothecary stood up to Hobley for her. Then the Professor uncovers a document listing the names of people brought to trial for witchcraft – and Rebecca’s name is on the list! This renews the rumours that Rebecca is a witch. Linden covers up by saying the other Rebecca must be an ancestress, which calms things down. But they wonder how the list got there.
That question is answered when the Witchfinder turns up in person at school, posing as Professor Hopkin who has joined the dig. Linden and Rebecca learn that Catherine searched Hobley’s room for false evidence against Rebecca and stole the list. But she was discovered, so she, the apothecary and their cat were hanged as friends of a witch. However, Catherine is not quite finished – her ghost appears when the Witchfinder traps them at the fen and gets help for them.
They now realise the Witchfinder must be a wizard in his own right and turn to Mrs Perks for help. The Witchfinder tries to scare them with ghosts, but the ghosts fade when they approach Grandmother Neville’s grave, and they figure it must offer protection against the Witchfinder. Mrs Perks helps them figure out the secret of the Witchfinder’s power – a box containing a black wand, a black book and a book bound in black leather. If they destroy those items, they destroy the Witchfinder.
They discover that the Witchfinder/Hopkin has gone into hiding. Mrs Perks suggests he may be at Deepdene Cottage and gives Rebecca a cross and rowan flowers for protection. She says the cross was carved by an ancestor, whose wife became one of Hobley victim’s – so she has her own score to settle with Hobley.
They find the box at the cottage but are attacked by the Witchfinder’s minions – ravens and vicious dogs. They manage to retrieve the wand and destroy it. But the Witchfinder still has the book and knife.
Mrs Perks tracks down the box again, but the Witchfinder attacks in person – and right in front of the Smith boys. Linden repels him with the cross, and they destroy his book. But he gets away with the knife.
Mrs Perks ends up in hospital. The Witchfinder gave the Smith boys such a fright that they have reformed and are looking after Mrs Perks’ garden. Mrs Perks warns the girls that the Witchfinder will be even more dangerous now because he is frightened, and they still have to destroy the knife. Their search for him goes nowhere, and now he sends a mist that cuts off the village from the rest of the world.
Rebecca heads back to the Wishing Tree on her own, figuring that is where she will find Hobley and the knife. She finds the knife, but has forgotten her cross. So she is unprotected when he emerges, ready to drag her back to their own time and burn her at the stake.
However, Linden discovers the oversight, heads to the Wishing Tree with the cross, and arrives in the nick of time. As she flourishes the cross, lightning strikes. The Wishing Tree is destroyed and Hobley is reduced to bones, which crumble within the hour, leaving only his hat. But there is no sign of Rebecca.
Then Linden finds a book Rebecca left for her. It contains a reference to a statue in the churchyard that is a tribute to Rebecca. It reveals she survived Hobley’s persecution, became Rebecca Bartlett, and died a noble old lady at 77. Linden is relieved to know Rebecca got back safely and goes to put flowers on her grave. She finds the epitaph reflects their whole adventure: “Time and Death are illusions – but Friendship survives forever”.
This story is certainly a cut above the formula about evil sorcerers/witches who use their evil magic to wreak havoc while the protagonists try to stop them, and it almost invariably ends with the sorcerer/witch being destroyed. But there is always a lot of dark, spooky, scary stuff along the way, and this can leave panels that resonate with the reader years after she reads the story.
Shadow on the Fen is using the formula to make a serious statement about witch-hunting and where the evil really lies – with the accused or the accuser? Its strongest underscoring in this regard is in the hypocrisy of it all – the Witchfinder accusing people of being evil witches while he is the one who is an evil wizard. There is humour in the irony in that the Witchfinder is the one who is allergic to the things that are supposed to repel witches – witchballs, rowan and crucifixes. It further underlines the hypocrisy. While real witch-finders could hardly have been evil wizards, they were certainly evil people who would go to any lengths, such as heinous torture, to make a bounty and a fortune.
The story also touches on human psychology and how much we have actually outgrown the thinking that sent people to the stake for witches in olden times. And how far has Wychley Green itself outgrown it? For example, are the rumours against Mrs Perks the product of stupid, ignorant people, or could there still be traces of witch-beliefs in Wychley Green? Lingering witch-beliefs in modern villages have formed the basis of several ‘persecution’ serials such as Wenna the Witch and Mark of the Witch!
The story should be appreciated for taking a few moments to depict witches as they really were – wise women who helped people with charms, folk magic and herbal remedies. They were not agents of the Devil – a myth invented by the Inquisition – but their healing practices made them ready targets for accusations of witchcraft. When Rebecca first meets Linden, she recounts how several people in her time went this way, and her own healing abilities have made her vulnerable to the same accusation.
The name of Matthew Hobley and his alias, Professor Hopkin, are clearly references to Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. The fact that Hobley turned out to really be a dark wizard may be a reference to the (probably apocryphal) legend that Hopkins was declared a wizard by his own witch-hunting methods and executed.
Several years later the theme of the Witchfinder General resurfaced in Tammy, with Spell of Fog, 29 October 1983 – 17 December 1983. This time, though, it is Hopkins himself. A film crew want to make a film about one of his victims, Alice Compton. Sally Groves, who has been deeply affected by the Compton case, protests when the director announces he is making a sensationalised version that depicts Alice as an actual agent of the Devil, not a hapless victim of superstition and hysteria.
Then a strange fog appears where Alice’s remains have been scattered. Its power cuts the village off from the outside world and has the village progressively reverting to a 17th century pattern in technology, dress and people’s thinking. Hysteria erupts in the village as the fog takes hold and people think it’s Alice’s revenge. Sally is the obvious scapegoat because she alone has remained unaffected, so she becomes a target of mob attacks and people calling her a witch. Eventually the fog takes over completely and the persecution of Alice Compton is re-enacted, with Sally as Alice and the film director as Hopkins.
But it turns out the power behind the fog is neither Alice nor Hopkins – it’s the villagers who burned Alice at the stake. They acted out shame and guilt over what they did, but also to remind the modern villagers that witch-hunting is not something that belongs in the past. It can erupt in any day and age because the psychology behind it (unreason, prejudice and fear of what you do not understand) is in every human. (Yes, you only have to look at things like the Red Scares and Satanic Ritual Abuse Scares to know what they mean.) They leave the villagers with a warning not to let a modern witchfinder take advantage of their fears.
There are similarities between Fen and Fog – witchfinders, evils of witch-hunting and mass hysteria, and supernatural forces and mists that cut off villages from the outside world and turn modern people into witch-hunting idiots of olden times – that have me wondering if it is the same writer. The mist in Fog sounds like a step up from the fog in Fen – going from what seems a belated last-ditch effort on the part of the Witchfinder to becoming the driving force of the entire plot. The credits for Fog list Jake Adams as the writer and George Anthony (actually, Tony Coleman) as the artist.