I thought I’d do a “Spotlight” post on the eldritch clan at the heart of my first 3 novels (THE CROWS – main point of view from an outsider, THIRTEENTH and THE DAY WE ATE GRANDAD duology both from internal perspective) and look at the grisly things that influenced their creation.
The concept is a very respectable middle class clan in South East England who are all hiding the fact they are eldritch abominations (think Lovecraft’s SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH and THE DUNWICH HORROR). They are also a clan of cannibals, in that they eat people but also eat each other.
They use their abilities for nefarious but petty things, have no interest in the big picture or world domination on the whole, and are doomed to stunning mediocrity while perpetuating toxic cycles of inbreeding, abuse and emotional neglect through the generations.
They originated with one family, the Pendles, and the three Pendle sisters, Beverley, Olive and Eileen. When these sisters spawned their batches of eldritch horror children, they took on fake married names to be seen as respectable, and pretended they had married sailors who then were lost at sea.
Beverley became “Mrs Wend” and her branch were allowed to marry outside the family, creating the Wend-McVeys and the Porters.
Olive became “Mrs Shaw”, and Eileen became “Mrs Foreman”. Their branches never married outside the family.
To this day there are five branches – the Wends, the Wend-McVeys, the Porters, the Shaws and the Foremans – all descended from the Pendle sisters and all worryingly intertwined.
The story is centred on the younger generation of this clan attempting to extricate themselves from this while coming to terms with their own mutations, and trying to live modern-day lives.
The clan were mainly based on the Scottish tale of Sawney Bean, but instead of being anti-Scottish propaganda post-Jacobite rebellion, I moved them to SE England and elevated their class status and then added Lovecraftian elements and we got what we got.
Here are a few other tales and influences!
The Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire
In a book written by Thowe of Reading, and quoted by Lipscomb in Lipscomb, Hist. and Antiq. of Bucks. iv, (London: 1632) p. 431, there is a description of the murder of 13 people by the landlord of the Ostrich Inn and his associates and the circumstances which led to their apprehension. There is an extract from Lipscombe in History of the parish of Wraysbury, Ankerwycke Priory and Magna Charta Island ; with the history of Horton and the town of Colnbrook, Bucks / by Gordon Willoughby James Gyll. (1862).
Gyll says that the murders took place in the 13thC in the reign of Edward I, where the innkeeper murdered his guests (presumably to rob them). The pictured inn above is the Tudor-fronted version, as opposed to the 13thC original front.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the penny dreadful serial The String of Pearls (1846–47). The serial was so popular that a play based on it was written and performed at the Britannia Theatre, London, before the serial even came to a close. The original story is set during the youth of George III, so the mid-1700s, but many adaptations tend to put it in the reign of Queen Victoria.
The serial was so popular that some people really believed that it must be based on a real person or real events, but this is unlikely.
The 2005 BBC drama starring Ray Winstone placed the action back in the 1760s and make it less of a melodrama and more realistic, as if telling the “real story” behind the melodrama, even though it’s the “real story” of a man who never existed.
This was a choice to move away from the popular Sondheim musical (first opened on Broadway in 1979 with a 2006 film adaptation dir. Tim Burton) that merged the concept of Sweeney Todd cutting throats of his customers for Mrs Lovett’s meat pies with the basic plot of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (Dumas) and THE REVENGER’S TRAGEDY (Middleton), which is the version of the story most people are now familiar with.
Alexander “Sawney” Bean and his clan is one of the most famous and influential of the Scottish Cannibal tales.
Versions of this story were printed and disseminated as anti-Scottish, anti-Jacobite propaganda used to denigrate the Scots after the Jacobite rebellions, and debates rage about whether he was a real person. He was head of a clan of cannibals who allegedly killed thousands of people over a 25 year period, and was married to “Black Agnes” Douglas, allegedly a witch. The clan operated in East Lothian in the 16thC.
Allegations of cannibalism clung to the Douglas clan too: in the 18thC, James Douglas, (1697-1715), 3rd Marquis of Queensbury, known until 1711 as Earl of Drumlanrig, apparently killed and roasted a kitchen boy when he was 10 years old (1707) and was discovered eating him.
It’s worth noting that “Sawney” was a popular colloquial term for a Scotsman, like “Jock” in modern slang and “Taffy” for Welshmen, and was itself a Lowland Scots diminutive of Alexander (a popular name).
There are a couple of versions of the Sawney Bean tale but they all end with the capture and execution of Bean and his clan at the hands of King James VI of Scotland (also King James I of England). James [Stuart] ruled both countries in personal union. The Act of Union that formally united Scotland with England and Wales (Wales’s Act of Union had been under Henry VIII) was in 1707, and was supported by James Douglas’s father. The tale of the young Douglas spit-roasting another lad and eating him is set at the celebrations for the 1707 Act of Union, and was used by the opposition to say that the Douglases got what they deserved for supporting it (namely, a child with severe mental instability and cannibal tendencies).
The tale is also related to at least two other tales from the Middle Ages, including Andrew Christie “Christie-Cleek”, a mid-14thC butcher from Perth, who turned to cannibalism during a famine (probably the 1340s). He and his gang were located in the Grampians, and his tale is recorded in a few collections of folklore including John Mackay Wilson, Tales Of The Borders, And Of Scotland (Edinburgh: James Gemmell, 1883) – you can jump straight to ‘Christie of the Cleek”s tale here.
In 1696, Nathanial Crouch, an English printer and bookseller who wrote/compiled history books under the name Richard Burton, included a Scottish tale from 1459, in which an infant of one year old was the surviving child of a cannibal brigand and raised by godly adopted parents, but at age 12 went back to cannibalism and was executed for it.
Crouch/Burton probably got this tale from Hector Boyce (or Hector Boethius, Boice, Boece), 1465–1536, a Scottish philosopher and historian, and rewrote/embellished it.
Sometimes, the tales of the cannibal child are tacked onto Sawney Bean versions and merged with that.
The Cannibal Witch of Llanberis
There are very few stories of cannibals in Wales and the most recent thing you’ll get if you search is the real-life (and recent) case from 2014, which went to trial in 2017, which is seriously upsetting, so only look that up if you really want to. The killer in that case did not eat his victim, though onlookers thought that’s what he was doing and that’s how it was reported in the media. It was refuted in 2017 reports after the autopsy details were made known, but he is still known as “the cannibal killer”.
While witches are ambiguous figures in Welsh folklore and fiction, which I’ve written about in a previous post (linked), there is a story of a cannibal witch in North Wales.
Canrig Bwt lived under a stone and ate the brains of children. Her story is collected in Wirt Sykes, British Goblins, 1881.
The relevant portion of the tale is short and reads:
A famous Welsh witch, who used to sleep under stone at Llanberis, in North Wales, was called Canrig Bwt, and her favourite dish at dinner- was children’s brains. A certain criminal who had received a death-sentence was given the alternative of attacking this frightful creature, his life to be spared should he succeed in destroying her. Arming himself with a sharp sword, the doomed man got upon the stone and called on Canrig to come out. “Wait till I have finished eating the brains in this sweet little skull”, was her horrible answer. However, forth she came presently, when the valiant man cut off her head at a blow. To this day they scare children thereabout with the name of Canrig Bwt.
The tale does not seem to appear in Marie Trevelyan’s Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales (1909). This is an interesting omission as Trevelyan includes a number of stories about witches in Wales, with a range of outcomes and involvement in events.
“Canrig” looks like an Anglicised corruption of “canwraig”, meaning “songstress”, while “bwt” is most likely the soft mutation of “pwt”, meaning a short thing/anything short, and is used colloquially in the sense of a soundbite or in place of the “wouldn’t give a penny for…” idiom and its variations.
I love the really creepy idea of a singing woman living under a rock surrounded by skulls, eating the brains of little children. In some versions of the tale she is green-skinned which would link her to the fairy-lore, where the Gwyllion haunt mountain roads and often appear as hags. Exorcism by knife is a Welsh tradition (according to Sikes) as they are afraid of cold iron and it can banish them.
These are just a few, and I may do some other posts later for specifically creepy Welsh folklore. In the meantime check out my series of posts based around Jane Aaron’s Welsh Gothic (2013).