Introduction by Rebekah King
A young woman, demurely dressed, is looking wistfully away from the viewer at a sinister figure who holds out his hand. His face is shadowed but his eyes are round and empty, like the eyes of the cat at his feet. The rugged landscape merges with a moonlit sky and he is calling her to come with him. She seems inclined to follow.
This is the picture that accompanies Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Laura Silver Bell,’ the first story in Damnable Tales: A Folk Horror Anthology, selected and illustrated by Richard Wells. First published in 1872, the tale contains many of the themes that have come to define the ‘folk horror’ genre: social isolation, an untamed landscape, belief in the supernatural, and the threat of violence.
Le Fanu himself is not typically associated with folk horror. Those who know him tend to be more familiar with his lesbian vampire novella Carmilla, or his many ghost stories. ‘Laura Silver Bell’ is neither strictly gothic nor strictly ghostly, though it borrows from both modes. It has the cold and brutal logic of a fairytale where cruel punishment is rained down upon a sympathetic but unwise protagonist.
Le Fanu’s approximation of the Northumbrian dialect makes the story tricky to read aloud but it’s worth a go to hear the solemn music of his prose which, like a folksong played in a minor key, tells us exactly where we’re heading from the start.
An often-overlooked aspect of folk horror is a particular form of sadism, the joy of sacrifice or the glee of a witch hunt. It was the laughter of the tale’s antagonist that stuck with me, a conclusion ‘both disturbing and satisfying’ as Benjamin Myers puts it. ‘Laura Silver Bell’ is as fitting an opening to Damnable Tales as it is an introduction to the folk horror genre itself.
Laura Silver Bell
In the five Northumbrian counties you will scarcely find so bleak, ugly, and yet, in a savage way, so picturesque a moor as Dardale Moss. The moor itself spreads north, south, east, and west, a great undulating sea of black peat and heath.
What we may term its shores are wooded wildly with birch, hazel, and dwarf-oak. No towering mountains surround it, but here and there you have a rocky knoll rising among the trees, and many a wooded promontory of the same pretty, because utterly wild, forest, running out into its dark level.
Habitations are thinly scattered in this barren territory, and a full mile away from the meanest was the stone cottage of Mother Carke.
Let not my southern reader who associates ideas of comfort with the term "cottage" mistake. This thing is built of shingle, with low walls. Its thatch is hollow; the peat-smoke curls stingily from its stunted chimney. It is worthy of its savage surroundings.
The primitive neighbours remark that no rowan-tree grows near, nor holly, nor bracken, and no horseshoe is nailed on the door.
Not far from the birches and hazels that straggle about the rude wall of the little enclosure, on the contrary, they say, you may discover the broom and the rag-wort, in which witches mysteriously delight. But this is perhaps a scandal.
Mall Carke was for many a year the sage femme of this wild domain. She has renounced practice, however, for some years; and now, under the rose, she dabbles, it is thought, in the black art, in which she has always been secretly skilled, tells fortunes, practises charms, and in popular esteem is little better than a witch.
Mother Carke has been away to the town of Willarden, to sell knit stockings, and is returning to her rude dwelling by Dardale Moss. To her right, as far away as the eye can reach, the moor stretches. The narrow track she has followed here tops a gentle upland, and at her left a sort of jungle of dwarf-oak and brushwood approaches its edge. The sun is sinking blood-red in the west. His disk has touched the broad black level of the moor, and his parting beams glare athwart the gaunt figure of the old beldame, as she strides homeward stick in hand, and bring into relief the folds of her mantle, which gleam like the draperies of a bronze image in the light of a fire. For a few moments this light floods the air--tree, gorse, rock, and bracken glare; and then it is out, and gray twilight over everything.
All is still and sombre. At this hour the simple traffic of the thinly-peopled country is over, and nothing can be more solitary.
From this jungle, nevertheless, through which the mists of evening are already creeping, she sees a gigantic man approaching her.
In that poor and primitive country robbery is a crime unknown. She, therefore, has no fears for her pound of tea, and pint of gin, and sixteen shillings in silver which she is bringing home in her pocket. But there is something that would have frighted another woman about this man.
He is gaunt, sombre, bony, dirty, and dressed in a black suit which a beggar would hardly care to pick out of the dust.
This ill-looking man nodded to her as he stepped on the road.
"I don't know you," she said.
He nodded again.
"I never sid ye neyawheere," she exclaimed sternly.
"Fine evening, Mother Carke," he says, and holds his snuff-box toward her.
She widened the distance between them by a step or so, and said again sternly and pale,
"I hev nowt to say to thee, whoe'er thou beest."
"You know Laura Silver Bell?"
"That's a byneyam; the lass's neyam is Laura Lew," she answered, looking straight before her.
"One name's as good as another for one that was never christened, mother."
"How know ye that?" she asked grimly; for it is a received opinion in that part of the world that the fairies have power over those who have never been baptised.
The stranger turned on her a malignant smile.
"There is a young lord in love with her," the stranger says, "and I'm that lord. Have her at your house to-morrow night at eight o'clock, and you must stick cross pins through the candle, as you have done for many a one before, to bring her lover thither by ten, and her fortune's made. And take this for your trouble."
He extended his long finger and thumb toward her, with a guinea temptingly displayed.
"I have nowt to do wi' thee. I nivver sid thee afoore. Git thee awa'! I earned nea goold o' thee, and I'll tak' nane. Awa' wi' thee, or I'll find ane that will mak' thee!"
The old woman had stopped, and was quivering in every limb as she thus spoke.
He looked very angry. Sulkily he turned away at her words, and strode slowly toward the wood from which he had come; and as he approached it, he seemed to her to grow taller and taller, and stalked into it as high as a tree.
"I conceited there would come something o't", she said to herself. "Farmer Lew must git it done nesht Sunda'. The a'ad awpy!"
Old Farmer Lew was one of that sect who insist that baptism shall be but once administered, and not until the Christian candidate had attained to adult years. The girl had indeed for some time been of an age not only, according to this theory, to be baptised, but if need be to be married.
Her story was a sad little romance. A lady some seventeen years before had come down and paid Farmer Lew for two rooms in his house. She told him that her husband would follow her in a fortnight, and that he was in the mean time delayed by business in Liverpool.
In ten days after her arrival her baby was born, Mall Carke acting as sage femme on the occasion; and on the evening of that day the poor young mother died. No husband came; no wedding-ring, they said, was on her finger. About fifty pounds was found in her desk, which Farmer Lew, who was a kind old fellow and had lost his two children, put in bank for the little girl, and resolved to keep her until a rightful owner should step forward to claim her.
They found half-a-dozen love-letters signed "Francis," and calling the dead woman "Laura."
So Farmer Lew called the little girl Laura; and her sobriquet of "Silver Bell" was derived from a tiny silver bell, once gilt, which was found among her poor mother's little treasures after her death, and which the child wore on a ribbon round her neck.
Thus, being very pretty and merry, she grew up as a North-country farmer's daughter; and the old man, as she needed more looking after, grew older and less able to take care of her; so she was, in fact, very nearly her own mistress, and did pretty much in all things as she liked.
Old Mall Carke, by some caprice for which no one could account, cherished an affection for the girl, who saw her often, and paid her many a small fee in exchange for the secret indications of the future.
It was too late when Mother Carke reached her home to look for a visit from Laura Silver Bell that day.
About three o'clock next afternoon, Mother Carke was sitting knitting, with her glasses on, outside her door on the stone bench, when she saw the pretty girl mount lightly to the top of the stile at her left under the birch, against the silver stem of which she leaned her slender hand, and called,
"Mall, Mall! Mother Carke, are ye alane all by yersel'?"
"Ay, Laura lass, we can be clooas enoo, if ye want a word wi' me," says the old woman, rising, with a mysterious nod, and beckoning her stiffly with her long fingers.
The girl was, assuredly, pretty enough for a "lord" to fall in love with. Only look at her. A profusion of brown rippling hair, parted low in the middle of her forehead, almost touched her eyebrows, and made the pretty oval of her face, by the breadth of that rich line, more marked. What a pretty little nose! what scarlet lips, and large, dark, long-fringed eyes!
Her face is transparently tinged with those clear Murillo tints which appear in deeper dyes on her wrists and the backs of her hands. These are the beautiful gipsy-tints with which the sun dyes young skins so richly.
The old woman eyes all this, and her pretty figure, so round and slender, and her shapely little feet, cased in the thick shoes that can't hide their comely proportions, as she stands on the top of the stile. But it is with a dark and saturnine aspect.
"Come, lass, what stand ye for atoppa t' wall, whar folk may chance to see thee? I hev a thing to tell thee, lass."
She beckoned her again.
"An' I hev a thing to tell thee, Mall."
"Come hidder," said the old woman peremptorily.
"But ye munna gie me the creepin's" (make me tremble). "I winna look again into the glass o' water, mind ye."
The old woman smiled grimly, and changed her tone.
"Now, hunny, git tha down, and let ma see thy canny feyace," and she beckoned her again.
Laura Silver Bell did get down, and stepped lightly toward the door of the old woman's dwelling.
"Tak this," said the girl, unfolding a piece of bacon from her apron, "and I hev a silver sixpence to gie thee, when I'm gaen away heyam."
They entered the dark kitchen of the cottage, and the old woman stood by the door, lest their conference should be lighted on by surprise.
"Afoore ye begin," said Mother Carke (I soften her patois), "I mun tell ye there's ill folk watchin' ye. What's auld Farmer Lew about, he doesna get t' sir" (the clergyman) "to baptise thee? If he lets Sunda' next pass, I'm afeared ye'll never be sprinkled nor signed wi' cross, while there's a sky aboon us."
"Agoy!" exclaims the girl, "who's lookin' after me?"
"A big black fella, as high as the kipples, came out o' the wood near Deadman's Grike, just after the sun gaed down yester e'en; I knew weel what he was, for his feet ne'er touched the road while he made as if he walked beside me. And he wanted to gie me snuff first, and I wouldna hev that; and then he offered me a gowden guinea, but I was no sic awpy, and to bring you here to-night, and cross the candle wi' pins, to call your lover in. And he said he's a great lord, and in luve wi' thee."
"And you refused him?"
"Well for thee I did, lass," says Mother Carke.
"Why, it's every word true!" cries the girl vehemently, starting to her feet, for she had seated herself on the great oak chest.
"True, lass? Come, say what ye mean," demanded Mall Carke, with a dark and searching gaze.
"Last night I was coming heyam from the wake, wi' auld farmer Dykes and his wife and his daughter Nell, and when we came to the stile, I bid them good-night, and we parted."
"And ye came by the path alone in the night-time, did ye?" exclaimed old Mall Carke sternly.
"I wasna afeared, I don't know why; the path heyam leads down by the wa'as o' auld Hawarth Castle."
"I knaa it weel, and a dowly path it is; ye'll keep indoors o' nights for a while, or ye'll rue it. What saw ye?"
"No freetin, mother; nowt I was feared on."
"Ye heard a voice callin' yer neyame?"
"I heard nowt that was dow, but the hullyhoo in the auld castle wa's," answered the pretty girl. "I heard nor sid nowt that's dow, but mickle that's conny and gladsome. I heard singin' and laughin' a long way off, I consaited; and I stopped a bit to listen. Then I walked on a step or two, and there, sure enough in the Pie-Mag field, under the castle wa's, not twenty steps away, I sid a grand company; silks and satins, and men wi' velvet coats, wi' gowd-lace striped over them, and ladies wi' necklaces that would dazzle ye, and fans as big as griddles; and powdered footmen, like what the shirra hed behind his coach, only these was ten times as grand."
"It was full moon last night," said the old woman.
"Sa bright 'twould blind ye to look at it," said the girl.
"Never an ill sight but the deaul finds a light," quoth the old woman. "There's a rinnin brook thar--you were at this side, and they at that; did they try to mak ye cross over?"
"Agoy! didn't they? Nowt but civility and kindness, though. But ye mun let me tell it my own way. They was talkin' and laughin', and eatin', and drinkin' out o' long glasses and goud cups, seated on the grass, and music was playin'; and I keekin' behind a bush at all the grand doin's; and up they gits to dance; and says a tall fella I didna see afoore, 'Ye mun step across, and dance wi' a young lord that's faan in luv wi' thee, and that's mysel',' and sure enow I keeked at him under my lashes and a conny lad he is, to my teyaste, though he be dressed in black, wi' sword and sash, velvet twice as fine as they sells in the shop at Gouden Friars; and keekin' at me again fra the corners o' his een. And the same fella telt me he was mad in luv wi' me, and his fadder was there, and his sister, and they came all the way from Catstean Castle to see me that night; and that's t' other side o' Gouden Friars."
"Come, lass, yer no mafflin; tell me true. What was he like? Was his feyace grimed wi' sut? a tall fella wi' wide shouthers, and lukt like an ill-thing, wi' black clothes amaist in rags?"
"His feyace was long, but weel-faured, and darker nor a gipsy; and his clothes were black and grand, and made o' velvet, and he said he was the young lord himsel'; and he lukt like it."
"That will be the same fella I sid at Deadman's Grike," said Mall Carke, with an anxious frown.
"Hoot, mudder! how cud that be?" cried the lass, with a toss of her pretty head and a smile of scorn. But the fortune-teller made no answer, and the girl went on with her story.
"When they began to dance," continued Laura Silver Bell, "he urged me again, but I wudna step o'er; 'twas partly pride, coz I wasna dressed fine enough, and partly contrairiness, or something, but gaa I wudna, not a fut. No but I more nor half wished it a' the time."
"Weel for thee thou dudstna cross the brook."
"Hoity-toity, why not?"
"Keep at heyame after nightfall, and don't ye be walking by yersel' by daylight or any light lang lonesome ways, till after ye're baptised," said Mall Carke.
"I'm like to be married first."
"Tak care that marriage won't hang i' the bell-ropes," said Mother Carke.
"Leave me alane for that. The young lord said he was maist daft wi' luv o' me. He wanted to gie me a conny ring wi' a beautiful stone in it. But, drat it, I was sic an awpy I wudna tak it, and he a young lord!"
"Lord, indeed! are ye daft or dreamin'? Those fine folk, what were they? I'll tell ye. Dobies and fairies; and if ye don't du as yer bid, they'll tak ye, and ye'll never git out o' their hands again while grass grows," said the old woman grimly.
"Od wite it!" replies the girl impatiently, "who's daft or dreamin' noo? I'd a bin dead wi' fear, if 'twas any such thing. It cudna be; all was sa luvesome, and bonny, and shaply."
"Weel, and what do ye want o' me, lass?" asked the old woman sharply.
"I want to know--here's t' sixpence--what I sud du," said the young lass. "'Twud be a pity to lose such a marrow, hey?"
"Say yer prayers, lass; I can't help ye," says the old woman darkly. "If ye gaa wi' the people, ye'll never come back. Ye munna talk wi' them, nor eat wi' them, nor drink wi' them, nor tak a pin's-worth by way o' gift fra them--mark weel what I say--or ye're lost!"
The girl looked down, plainly much vexed.
The old woman stared at her with a mysterious frown steadily, for a few seconds.
"Tell me, lass, and tell me true, are ye in luve wi' that lad?"
"What for sud I?" said the girl with a careless toss of her head, and blushing up to her very temples.
"I see how it is," said the old woman, with a groan, and repeated the words, sadly thinking; and walked out of the door a step or two, and looked jealously round. "The lass is witched, the lass is witched!"
"Did ye see him since?" asked Mother Carke, returning.
The girl was still embarrassed; and now she spoke in a lower tone, and seemed subdued.
"I thought I sid him as I came here, walkin' beside me among the trees; but I consait it was only the trees themsels that lukt like rinnin' one behind another, as I walked on."
"I can tell thee nowt, lass, but what I telt ye afoore," answered the old woman peremptorily. "Get ye heyame, and don't delay on the way; and say yer prayers as ye gaa; and let none but good thoughts come nigh ye; and put nayer foot autside the door-steyan again till ye gaa to be christened; and get that done a Sunda' next."
And with this charge, given with grizzly earnestness, she saw her over the stile, and stood upon it watching her retreat, until the trees quite hid her and her path from view.
The sky grew cloudy and thunderous, and the air darkened rapidly, as the girl, a little frightened by Mall Carke's view of the case, walked homeward by the lonely path among the trees.
A black cat, which had walked close by her--for these creatures sometimes take a ramble in search of their prey among the woods and thickets--crept from under the hollow of an oak, and was again with her. It seemed to her to grow bigger and bigger as the darkness deepened, and its green eyes glared as large as halfpennies in her affrighted vision as the thunder came booming along the heights from the Willarden-road.
She tried to drive it away; but it growled and hissed awfully, and set up its back as if it would spring at her, and finally it skipped up into a tree, where they grew thickest at each side of her path, and accompanied her, high over head, hopping from bough to bough as if meditating a pounce upon her shoulders. Her fancy being full of strange thoughts, she was frightened, and she fancied that it was haunting her steps, and destined to undergo some hideous transformation, the moment she ceased to guard her path with prayers.
She was frightened for a while after she got home. The dark looks of Mother Carke were always before her eyes, and a secret dread prevented her passing the threshold of her home again that night.
Next day it was different. She had got rid of the awe with which Mother Carke had inspired her. She could not get the tall dark-featured lord, in the black velvet dress, out of her head. He had "taken her fancy"; she was growing to love him. She could think of nothing else.
Bessie Hennock, a neighbour's daughter, came to see her that day, and proposed a walk toward the ruins of Hawarth Castle, to gather "blaebirries." So off the two girls went together.
In the thicket, along the slopes near the ivied walls of Hawarth Castle, the companions began to fill their baskets. Hours passed. The sun was sinking near the west, and Laura Silver Bell had not come home.
Over the hatch of the farm-house door the maids leant ever and anon with outstretched necks, watching for a sign of the girl's return, and wondering, as the shadows lengthened, what had become of her.
At last, just as the rosy sunset gilding began to overspread the landscape, Bessie Hennock, weeping into her apron, made her appearance without her companion.
Her account of their adventures was curious.
I will relate the substance of it more connectedly than her agitation would allow her to give it, and without the disguise of the rude Northumbrian dialect.
The girl said, that, as they got along together among the brambles that grow beside the brook that bounds the Pie-Mag field, she on a sudden saw a very tall big-boned man, with an ill-favoured smirched face, and dressed in worn and rusty black, standing at the other side of a little stream. She was frightened; and while looking at this dirty, wicked, starved figure, Laura Silver Bell touched her, gazing at the same tall scarecrow, but with a countenance full of confusion and even rapture. She was peeping through the bush behind which she stood, and with a sigh she said:
"Is na that a conny lad? Agoy! See his bonny velvet clothes, his sword and sash; that's a lord, I can tell ye; and weel I know who he follows, who he luves, and who he'll wed."
Bessie Hennock thought her companion daft.
"See how luvesome he luks!" whispered Laura.
Bessie looked again, and saw him gazing at her companion with a malignant smile, and at the same time he beckoned her to approach.
"Darrat ta! gaa not near him! he'll wring thy neck!" gasped Bessie in great fear, as she saw Laura step forward with a look of beautiful bashfulness and joy.
She took the hand he stretched across the stream, more for love of the hand than any need of help, and in a moment was across and by his side, and his long arm about her waist.
"Fares te weel, Bessie, I'm gain my ways," she called, leaning her head to his shoulder; "and tell gud Fadder Lew I'm gain my ways to be happy, and may be, at lang last, I'll see him again."
And with a farewell wave of her hand, she went away with her dismal partner; and Laura Silver Bell was never more seen at home, or among the "coppies" and "wickwoods," the bonny fields and bosky hollows, by Dardale Moss.
Bessie Hennock followed them for a time.
She crossed the brook, and though they seemed to move slowly enough, she was obliged to run to keep them in view; and she all the time cried to her continually, "Come back, come back, bonnie Laurie!" until, getting over a bank, she was met by a white-faced old man, and so frightened was she, that she thought she fainted outright. At all events, she did not come to herself until the birds were singing their vespers in the amber light of sunset, and the day was over.
No trace of the direction of the girl's flight was ever discovered. Weeks and months passed, and more than a year.
At the end of that time, one of Mall Carke's goats died, as she suspected, by the envious practices of a rival witch who lived at the far end of Dardale Moss.
All alone in her stone cabin the old woman had prepared her charm to ascertain the author of her misfortune.
The heart of the dead animal, stuck all over with pins, was burnt in the fire; the windows, doors, and every other aperture of the house being first carefully stopped. After the heart, thus prepared with suitable incantations, is consumed in the fire, the first person who comes to the door or passes by it is the offending magician.
Mother Carke completed these lonely rites at dead of night. It was a dark night, with the glimmer of the stars only, and a melancholy night-wind was soughing through the scattered woods that spread around.
After a long and dead silence, there came a heavy thump at the door, and a deep voice called her by name.
She was startled, for she expected no man's voice; and peeping from the window, she saw, in the dim light, a coach and four horses, with gold-laced footmen, and coachman in wig and cocked hat, turned out as if for a state occasion.
She unbarred the door; and a tall gentleman, dressed in black, waiting at the threshold, entreated her, as the only sage femme within reach, to come in the coach and attend Lady Lairdale, who was about to give birth to a baby, promising her handsome payment.
Lady Lairdale! She had never heard of her.
"How far away is it?"
"Twelve miles on the old road to Golden Friars."
Her avarice is roused, and she steps into the coach. The footman claps-to the door; the glass jingles with the sound of a laugh. The tall dark-faced gentleman in black is seated opposite; they are driving at a furious pace; they have turned out of the road into a narrower one, dark with thicker and loftier forest than she was accustomed to. She grows anxious; for she knows every road and by-path in the country round, and she has never seen this one.
He encourages her. The moon has risen above the edge of the horizon, and she sees a noble old castle. Its summit of tower, watchtower and battlement, glimmers faintly in the moonlight. This is their destination.
She feels on a sudden all but overpowered by sleep; but although she nods, she is quite conscious of the continued motion, which has become even rougher.
She makes an effort, and rouses herself. What has become of the coach, the castle, the servants? Nothing but the strange forest remains the same.
She is jolting along on a rude hurdle, seated on rushes, and a tall, big-boned man, in rags, sits in front, kicking with his heel the ill-favoured beast that pulls them along, every bone of which sticks out, and holding the halter which serves for reins. They stop at the door of a miserable building of loose stone, with a thatch so sunk and rotten, that the roof-tree and couples protrude in crooked corners, like the bones of the wretched horse, with enormous head and ears, that dragged them to the door.
The long gaunt man gets down, his sinister face grimed like his hands.
It was the same grimy giant who had accosted her on the lonely road near Deadman's Grike. But she feels that she "must go through with it" now, and she follows him into the house.
Two rushlights were burning in the large and miserable room, and on a coarse ragged bed lay a woman groaning piteously.
"That's Lady Lairdale," says the gaunt dark man, who then began to stride up and down the room rolling his head, stamping furiously, and thumping one hand on the palm of the other, and talking and laughing in the corners, where there was no one visible to hear or to answer.
Old Mall Carke recognized in the faded half-starved creature who lay on the bed, as dark now and grimy as the man, and looking as if she had never in her life washed hands or face, the once blithe and pretty Laura Lew.
The hideous being who was her mate continued in the same odd fluctuations of fury, grief, and merriment; and whenever she uttered a groan, he parodied it with another, as Mother Carke thought, in saturnine derision.
At length he strode into another room, and banged the door after him.
In due time the poor woman's pains were over, and a daughter was born.
Such an imp! with long pointed ears, flat nose, and enormous restless eyes and mouth. It instantly began to yell and talk in some unknown language, at the noise of which the father looked into the room, and told the sage femme that she should not go unrewarded.
The sick woman seized the moment of his absence to say in the ear of Mall Carke:
"If ye had not been at ill work tonight, he could not hev fetched ye. Tak no more now than your rightful fee, or he'll keep ye here."
At this moment he returned with a bag of gold and silver coins, which he emptied on the table, and told her to help herself.
She took four shillings, which was her primitive fee, neither more nor less; and all his urgency could not prevail with her to take a farthing more. He looked so terrible at her refusal, that she rushed out of the house.
He ran after her.
"You'll take your money with you," he roared, snatching up the bag, still half full, and flung it after her.
It lighted on her shoulder; and partly from the blow, partly from terror, she fell to the ground; and when she came to herself, it was morning, and she was lying across her own door-stone.
It is said that she never more told fortune or practised spell. And though all that happened sixty years ago and more, Laura Silver Bell, wise folk think, is still living, and will so continue till the day of doom among the fairies.
Rebekah King is a multi-award-winning playwright whose play Moderation, based on real accounts of the trauma faced by social media moderators, recently won a fully-funded slot at the Edinburgh Fringe. She is currently finishing a PhD at the University of Cambridge studying the depiction of dangerous magic on the early modern stage.