Book Review, Gothic Fiction

#AmReading: Wales, Land of the Living Dead II: Zombies and Zombification (1940s-1997)

Introduction

This post looks at the novels that Aaron discusses in Chapter 4 of Welsh Gothic which features zombies, and the themes that the novels use. In the next post, I’ll look at the vampire stories of the Welsh borders that Aaron picks out. Again, this is not meant to be exhaustive, and there are probably many more!

Aaron also talks about the [metaphorical] resurrection of the repressed in the form of retaliation – what happens when the contemporary Welsh of the post-war Gothic fictions turn on their English masters (violently) and take over their position in the community. I’m going to skip these in this post, but this is worth a read too.

Not discussed in Chapter 4 are the psychological horror stories set in Wales which definitely do fit the Welsh Gothic genre – Sheep (1994) by Simon Maginn fits this description, ‘adapted’ for the film The Dark to the point of being entirely rewritten in 2005. I’ve reviewed Sheep as an example of the Isolated Protagonist trope in my previous Goth is [Not] Dead post, Isolation.


When the Past Attacks

The main themes of a lot of these stories revolve around the dismissal of the Welsh past by the contemporary inhabitants of Wales. This frequently leads to possession, insanity, horror and death. The attitudes can be ambiguous: the protagonists may feel they deserve this treatment by the ancestors, but at the same time their present state of impotence prevents them from doing anything constructive. Equally, the protagonists may not wish to be dragged back into the bogs and lakes of prehistory, but their exacting forebears won’t let them live their lives in the present or allow them to take their place in the future.

Chwedlau’r Meini (Legends of the Stones, 1946) by Meuryn, the pen-name of Robert John Rowlands, (1880-1967), is one such tale. Because the main character has not defended his family’s inheritance as he ought to have done, the prehistoric (un)dead come back to haunt him in a spine-chilling supernatural encounter.

Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night, 1961) is an iconic novel of the 1960s by Caradog Pritchard (1904-1980), translated into English by Phillip Mitchell. The novel is pervaded by a sense of hopelessness, night, and death. The protagonist is a haunted boy who grows into a haunted man; his mother is committed to an asylum, and his frustration and growing impotence to change his situation result in tragedy when he kills a girl to end her own suffering. After imprisonment he returns to the same village, where he is still plagued by the conquered Queen of the Black Lake, a supernatural figure who has haunted him throughout the story. She lives in the depths of the lake and her woes echo the woes of his mother, the dead girl, his community and his country, yearning for someone to avenge her.

Vengeance of the conquered as a key theme in fiction was fuelled by real-life pessimism. The leader of Plaid Cymru, Saunders Lewis, expressed the belief that nothing short of revolution would halt the decline of the Welsh language in his radio broadcast of 1962. This fear was also expressed in Welsh-language fiction, which continued to be published despite its ever-shrinking audience.

Y Gromlech yn y Haidd, (The Cromlech in the Barley, 1970) by Islwyn Ffowc Elis (1924-2004) features an English [and English-speaking] farmer, Bill Henderson, who is angered by the presence of three Celtic standing stones on his property and is determined to get rid of them. In pulling them down, holes are left in the ground from which primeval forces rise to possess him. Here, things conquered 700 years before return to castigate the present inhabitants of the land for disturbing their rest, in some ways taking vengeance by occupying said inhabitants after being rejected from their own place in the world by their conquerors and by Henderson himself.

Henderson addresses the ‘hairy, knotted, satanic things’ rising from the ground:

O’r gorau. Mi’ch codais chi o’ch bedd. Ond fe gawsoch ddigon o amser i farw. Tair mil a hanner o flynyddoedd. Ydy hynny ddim yn ddigon ichi? . . . Sut roeddwn i i wybod ych bod chi yma o hyd? . . . ‘Dydych chi ddim i fod yma, Mae’ch amser chi wedi hen fynd heibio. Does dim lle ichi yn y byd ‘ma heddiw. Dydyn ni ddim yn credu mewn pethau fel chi . . . Na, peidiwch . . . peidiwch â dod i mewn imi . . . gadewch lonydd i ‘mhen i, beth bynnag! F’ymennydd i, Henderson, ydy hwn!

All right, I disturbed you in your graves. But you had plenty of time to die. Three and a half thousand years. Is that not enough for you? . . . How was I to know you were here still? . . . You’re not supposed to be here. Your time has long gone by. There’s no place for you in this world today. We don’t believe in things like you . . . No, don’t, don’t come inside me, leave me alone, my head, at least! This is my brain, Henderson’s!

Y Gromlech yn yr Haidd, Islwyn Ffowc Elis, pp. 90-2.

The zombie as it appears in film, arising from Haitian Voodoo culture and associated closely with the revolt of the colonised against their oppressors, first appeared in Welsh-language fiction in Rev. David Griffith Jones’s 1966 novel, Ofnadwy Ddydd (Day of Horror/Fearful Day).

Ofnadwy Ddydd features the dead rising from their graves all over Britain in response to a pious man’s prayer, who appeals to God to raise the dead and prove the atheists wrong. We are back to the Gothicization of chapel culture here, since the dead prove a bit of a liability and start eating living people. Eventually, he is persuaded to ‘undo’ or rescind the prayer, and lay the dead to rest again.

Jones’ second novel, Y Clychau (The Bells, 1972) has the preservative powers of a local bog as the reason why prehistoric zombies have clung to a half-life for two thousand years. In this novel, the English protagonist is a sympathetic character, a scientist passionate about preserving the bog where 2000-year-old plants have survived as well as the inhabitants of a drowned settlement whose bells can still be heard, according to local legend. The discovery of the undead inhabitants of the bog only makes this mystery fluid more intriguing, and he becomes even more determined to save it… FOR SCIENCE!

In this novel, it is the English government who are the antagonists, and the order to drain the bog is given. The bog is duly drained despite the best efforts of the scientists and their team, destroying the ancient figures who drag their rotting corpses into town, too decomposed to do any real harm. Aaron argues that, ‘[t]he centralized state is the enemy of both the zombies and the modern-day Welsh, whose religion and Celticity the zombies represent’, (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 122).

In Roy Lewis’s short story, ‘Y Bwystfil’ (‘The Beast’), published in his collection Dawns Angau (Dance of Death, 1981), is about a loving family pet Doberman called Rolo who is killed by the supernatural forces he attacks, and returns as a possessed zombie dog to attack his family. [Cujo was published in 1983 and Pet Sematary in 1989, so Stephen King had no influence on the plot in this short story]. Rolo’s owners disturbed the ancient powers of Caer Arthur, and, as in other tales, the witnesses of the old world will not forgive the modern Welsh for ignoring or discounting their responsibilities towards their heritage and culture.

Zombies are also metaphors, and do not always literally appear.

This is echoed in one of the the influential women’s prison novel, Yma o Hyd (Still Here, 1985), by Angharad Tomos. Tomos is an author of many Welsh-language children’s books and a tireless campaigner for the Welsh language, and her novels (for adults) reflect challenging and painful views of her own experiences and the tensions of the 1970s and ’80s. In this novel, the narrator, Blodeuwedd, imprisoned for her actions in defence of the Welsh language, describes herself as a zombie and the Welsh as a masochist nation unwilling to fight for themselves. The title echoes Dafydd Iwan’s far more optimistic Welsh Nationalist song, Yma o Hyd, which features the refrain,

We’re still here,
Ry’n ni yma o hyd,

Despite everyone and everything,
Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth,

We’re still here.
Ry’n ni yma o hyd.

A version of this song with an English translation is available on YouTube.

In another of her novels, Hen Fyd Hurt (Mad Old World, 1982), a disillusioned young woman named Heulwen struggles with unemployment after college, and is inspired to do something proactive for Wales. Llewellyn the Last appears to her in dreams, demanding action: when Prince Charles makes a royal visit to Caernarfon to display his new bride, Princess Diana, in 1982, Heulwen feels a protest should be made and looks to Llewellyn for further guidance, but he doesn’t appear again. No protest occurs, and Heulwen is frustrated and depressed at her own impotence and the state of her society. Struggling to live with her guilt and shame, Heulwen hears a repeat of the Saunders Lewis speech on the radio about the state of the Welsh language and its decline, and in utter despair throws herself out of a plate glass window. Committed to the local psychiatric hospital, Heulwen at last feels as one with the other self-confessed ‘zombies’ in this ‘mad old world’. (Aaron, Welsh Gothic, p. 128).

For an English-language author, Mary Jones, the Welsh language was no zombie language but a living reality, encountered by her English-speaking protagonist who decides to walk around Wales when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Her novel, Resistance, is a good note to end on. Although her protagonist has been disinherited from the language, she reconnects to it and to Wales more strongly through the characters she meets at a hotel. For her, Wales is not a land of the living dead, but a land of the living.

After all: it is a base instinct, the need to survive.


Next time: Land of the Living Dead III (1940s-1997)

Since the vampire section of this chapter is the shortest, in the next post (coming on Monday!) I not only look at Aaron’s discussion of vampires in Welsh Gothic border fiction, but also at actual Welsh vampire folklore! I promise, it’s less depressing!

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