Tag Archives: Witch Hunting

Shadow on the Fen (1978)

Sample images

Fen 1

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Fen 2

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Fen 3

Publication: 18 February 1978-13 May 1978

Artist: Douglas Perry

Writer: Unknown (but see thoughts)

Reprint: Girl Picture Library #25 as “The Witchfinder”

Plot

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”.

Thoughts

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.

Fog 1Fog 2Fog 3

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Mark of the Witch! (1977)

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Publication: 8 January 1977-30 April 1977

Artist: Phil Townsend

Writer: Unknown

Summary

In the village of Kettleby Yorkshire, Emma Fielding is branded “Black Emma” – a witch, a bad sort, and an outcast because of the black streak in her hair. The black streak runs in the Fielding family and the stigma began with the first Fielding to have the streak, Simon Fielding. He was an evil 18th aristocrat who tyrannised and terrorised the countryside, and his black streak struck fear into anyone who saw it. Since then, the Fielding black streak has been associated with evil and the Fieldings have been persecuted as bad people. The persecution is made easier by the fact that the Fieldings no longer have the wealth and power that Simon Fielding had; they are the poorest people in the village and “the lowest of the low”. Their ancestral home, Fielding Castle, built by Simon Fielding, is now nothing but a ruin. But like the Fieldings themselves, Fielding Castle is avoided and feared by the villagers. Everywhere Emma goes, she is taunted by children and shunned by adults. She has become wild because she reacts aggressively against the abuse, which brands her even further as a bad lot. Emma herself has come to believe she has a bad streak, which shows when she lashes out or hates people, and thinks she must fight it.

There are only two bright spots in Emma’s life. The first is her loving mother, a gentle contrast to her frightening and sometimes violent father. Like Emma, Mr Fielding is aggressive and bitter because he has led a terrible life due to his own black streak. The second is riding, the only thing Emma does well. But there is another girl at Emma’s riding lessons who she hates more than any other – Alice Durrant. Emma is jealous of Alice because she has everything Emma does not, and her family is the most respected in the village. Emma thinks the hand of friendship Alice offers her is phony. But it is genuine; Alice alone sympathises with Emma, does not despise the black streak, and desperately wants to be her friend. But Emma keeps spurning her and does not believe Alice is trying to help her.

As the story progresses, Emma discovers another with a black streak – a horse with a black streak in its mane. The horse’s owner deems him a bad lot because he acts wildly. Eventually, of course, Emma and the horse will team up.

Things get worse for Emma when she discovers a fire at the Durrants’ farm. She tries to put it out, but the villagers, ever ready to make her a scapegoat, accuse her of starting it. Mr Durrant discovers the fire was accidental, but the damage is done – the rumour mill has culminated in an angry mob that attacks the Fielding house. Alice tries to stop them, but gets get hurt by one of their stones. Unfortunately Emma does not see this. If she had, it would have proved to her that Alice is genuine.

Emma’s embittered father blames her for the attack and throws her right out of the house – and to the stone-throwing wolves. Emma flees for her life and manages to throw off the mob. But now she has had enough and decides there will be no more fighting her black streak (as she believes). From now on, she will embrace it and become the bad person the villagers say she is. “If that’s what they expect from me, that’s what they’ll get!” She sets up camp at Fielding Castle to start her own campaign against the villagers. As part of her revenge, she decides to enter the equestrian cross country race, The Hudson Trophy. She means to take the trophy away from Alice Durrant. Doing so would really humiliate the villagers because Alice is the darling of the village.

But there is one problem – she has no horse. This problem is solved when she finally acquires the horse with the black streak from its owner, who had lost patience and was on the verge of shooting the animal. Naming the horse Midnight, she starts breaking him in herself before training him up for the trophy.

Emma’s campaign of revenge intensifies when some boys dig a trap for her to fall into. Her beloved mother falls into it instead and narrowly avoids a serious accident. Furious, Emma dresses herself up as a witch in her grandmother’s clothes and falls upon the villagers. “If you say I’m a witch, I’ll be a witch, in every way! And you’ll regret it!” She curses one John Pike for throwing a stone at her and then confronts Dave Young, the leader of the gang who set the trap. She tells him that she has his name in her Book of Vengeance, which she has just started for listing the names of people who have aggrieved her, and she is now off to settle the score with him. She does so by destroying Mr Young’s wheat field. Other things happen which seem to reinforce the witch persona: a storm blows up as Emma accosts the villagers; John Pike has a road accident soon after receiving the curse; and Emma is adopted by a black cat.

Later, Emma announces her intention to enter the Hudson trophy and take it away from Alice Durrant. This is greeted with intense scorn by the villagers, who say she is hopelessly outmatched by Alice. They all eagerly anticipate watching the event to see Black Emma make a fool of herself and see (as they believe) good triumph over evil in what will be a needle race. Alice is reluctant to go against Emma in the race because she wants to be her friend. But she is persuaded to do so.

In the meantime, Emma’s campaign of vandalism and thievery against Kettleby continues, and names get ticked off in the Book of Vengeance. The local council takes drastic action by sealing up Fielding Castle to drive Emma out. Eventually this fails, but not because Emma nearly gets herself killed trying to get into the castle. Midnight saves her, but the near-accident has Emma all the more determined to have revenge at the Hudson Trophy.

But when the race starts, Alice takes a strong lead against Emma. Eventually Emma realises that the villagers were right – Alice is better than her and she faces defeat. This drives her into taking reckless and dangerous chances to pull ahead, which are cruel to her horse and horrify the onlookers. However, this does enable Emma to take the lead.

Then, when the girls cross a river, Alice falls off her horse and is in danger of drowning. Emma now faces a choice – the trophy or Alice’s life? Eventually, Emma decides to sacrifice the trophy and go in after Alice. This puts Emma in danger too, but she is surprised to find herself feeling happy at fighting with Alice against the current instead of against her.

Meanwhile, the villagers are surprised to see it is not Alice at the finishing line and go to investigate. By the time they arrive, Alice is in danger of going under and only Emma is keeping her afloat. This time, the villagers realise Emma is trying to do good instead of assuming she was being bad, and save them both.

Following this, the black streak stops being a mark of stigma for the Fieldings and everything is different for them. Now Emma is a heroine, and the villagers treat her with love, friendship, remorse, and gifts of flowers (presented by John Pike). Emma returns home and is reconciled with her father. Mr Durrant offers Mr Fielding a good job, which enables the Fieldings to climb out of poverty. Emma and Alice are now friends and share their rides together.

Thoughts

In some parts of the English countryside people still believe in witches. This has been the inspiration for several serials where girls fall victim to lingering witch-beliefs. “Mark of the Witch!” was the second – and last – Jinty serial to explore this theme; the first was the 1974 story “Wenna the Witch”. The endings of the two stories are similar; the girls prove their goodness with an act of heroism that has the witch-believing villagers changing their attitudes towards them and presenting them with love, apologies and flowers. It could be that the serials had the same writer, or that Wenna had an influence on this story.

Other stories with the theme included “The Cat with 7 Toes” and “Bad-Luck Barbara” (Mandy), and “Witch!” (Bunty). In some variants on the theme, the girl is branded a witch because she has a genuine power or is in the grip of a malevolent one, such as in “The Revenge of Roxanne” (Suzy).

In general, the theme did not appear much and serials to feature it were infrequent. Where it did appear, it often featured strange things happening, such as bad things happening to people who taunt the girl, the girl having strange visions, or other weird things that seem to happen whenever she is around. Readers are challenged to make up their own minds about what is going on. Is she really a witch? Is there some genuine supernatural force at work? Or are these things just coincidences and the products of ordinary explanations such as hysteria? Whatever it is, it proves to a brainwashing effect that is so powerful that the girl herself can succumb to it. She may start to doubt herself and wonder if there is something to what her accusers are saying. It even has Alice’s parents going although they are not like the backward, superstitious villagers. When John Pike has the accident, Mrs Durrant wonders if it really was due to the curse Emma put on him. Alice rebukes her mother outright: “It’s all just silly superstition!”

In the case of Emma Fielding, one thing is certain. She is sad proof of the words of Socrates: if people keep telling a man he is five cubits high, he will end up believing he is five cubits high, even if he is only three cubits high. People have been calling her a bad lot for so long that she has come to believe it. She thinks there is a bad streak in her, personified in the black streak in her hair, which she must fight. But eventually she comes to believe it does no good to fight it. Instead, she becomes what the villagers say she always was, saying that if that is what they expect, that is what they will get, and it is their own fault for the way they treated her. Indeed it is, but the villagers do not see it that way. Instead, it reinforces the views about Emma that they have always had. It is a vicious cycle. A vicious cycle that Alice is so desperate to break, but she cannot convince Emma of this. Her frustrated efforts to get through to Emma are reminiscent of the persistent efforts of Ruth Graham to get through to stony Stefa in Phil Townsend’s previous story, “Stefa’s Heart of Stone”. But like Ruth, Alice’s efforts go nowhere until the very end, when a surprise turn of events turns things around. And they turn around because Emma found that she was not a bad person at heart. Faced with the choice, she realised that she could not leave Alice to drown, even though trying to save Alice meant sacrificing the lead she had gained and winning the trophy.

After the villagers see Emma try to rescue Alice, they automatically stop their hatred and treat her with respect and acceptance. This seems a little too pat, the villagers giving up hatred that has lasted for generations in only one day. And it does not ring true with people who believe in witches either. Witch believers simply do not act in the way the villagers do in suddenly accepting Emma as good and presenting her with flowers and apologies. The ending of “Wenna the Witch” followed the same pattern, which is very neat and happy, but it is not convincing. In real life, once people with this type of thinking brand someone a witch, the label sticks, even generations later. And the past has proven that even if the person branded a witch is cleared, the label casts a long shadow that can come back to bite. This is why the endings of “Witch!” and “Bad-Luck Barbara” are more realistic. The girls end up being taken away from the village, with the villagers still hurling hatred and abuse at them as they go. Yes, Emma (and Wenna) did perform a good deed that saved lives, but it is unlikely that even that would shift the label of “witch”. An ending where the villagers are compelled to keep their hatred to themselves and leave Emma alone once she has won the respect and protection of the Durrants might have worked better.

But on the whole, this is a powerful, disturbing and compelling story that is a stark warning against labelling and mistreating people and using them as scapegoats. Life would be so much better if these people were treated as human beings – the message that Alice represents in her persistent efforts to befriend Emma. Gays, Jews, coloured people, minorities, victims of caste systems and class distinction, exploited workers and other types of oppressed people – we see them all in Emma. What Emma becomes is exactly what her persecutors made her out to be – a warning to persecutors everywhere and the stuff of revolution that oppressed masses would love. The revolt of Emma Fielding against her oppressors ultimately leads to the end of her oppression. In real life that would not come so readily, but girls’ comics prefer a happy ending.