Witchfinder General – Ronald Bassett

Witchfinder General - Ronald Bassett
I don't normally read horror novels to "celebrate" Halloween. (I don't normally read horror novels, period.) So we'll just let Witchfinder General – which I find to my surprise was originally published in 1966, and inspired a film starring Vincent Price(!) – stand as my token horror for October, and for all the Octobers I have lived through up to now. It may just do for all the Octobers to come, as well.

From Wiki: "Upon its theatrical release throughout the spring and summer of 1968, the movie's gruesome content was met with disgust by several film critics in the UK, despite having been extensively censored by the British Board of Film Censors." Hollywood Citizen News referred to the film's "orgiastic sadism". From a poster for the American release, verbatim: "LEAVE THE CHILDREN HOME! … and if YOU are SQUEAMISH STAY HOME WITH THEM!!!!!!!" (< that's seven exclamation points. I didn't add or subtract any.)

I think the production might have emphasized parts of the story and downplayed (or probably excised) others, but this story doesn't need the "Hollywood treatment" to make it horrific. Constantly confronted by ignorance and stupidity, lately I haven't been able to stop wondering how on earth the human race made it to the 21st century. It just doesn't make sense that a species capable of this much idiocy managed to even make it bipedal, much less to the moon (though the fact that the last time we were on the moon was forty years ago is relevant). This book … This just underlines what I've been saying. And highlights it. Puts it in italics. And 72 point font. With Word Art added. A line from The Mikado comes to mind: "Nobody's safe, for we care for none" – literally anyone could be accused of witchcraft, for any reason from genuine belief to jealousy or simple dislike to a desire on the accuser's part to curry favor… and once accused they would pretty much be on an irreversible course to torture and death. And literally anything the accused might say in her own defense was … worthless. The "evidence" in these witch trials is hair-raising. It would actually be funny if it hadn't been part and parcel of the torture, rape, and murder of hundreds of people, mostly women, mostly elderly or physically or mentally disabled. And if this book wasn't based on truth. Matthew Hopkins, Stearne, and the named victims in the book? Real. God help us (but not his God).

It's as if we decided today to seek out vampires, and began pulling from their homes anyone who was allergic to garlic. Or who was pale. Or around whose house someone once thought they saw a bat fly (though it was dark and they couldn't be sure, but they felt funny the next day, and the pint of Jack Daniels had nothing to do with that). I wish I was exaggerating.

I will always remember reading L.M. Montgomery's Anne books, viewed as the epitome of wholesomeness, and being shocked that the folk of Avonlea would have regarded ten-year-old me as an object of contempt, if not outright loathing, because I was Roman Catholic. Weirdly, this was my first experience of religious intolerance. I find this book, set toward the beginning of the strongest anti-Catholic sentiment, kind of remarkable in that we (the dread papists) aren't even remotely the evil-doers – we are the prey. I'd forgotten how brutal it all was. Gosh, we were capable of just anything – Heaven forbid part of the dossier against someone included Catholic leanings. I mean, I know full well that hideous things have been done by Catholics and in the name of Catholicism - just as hideous things have been done in the name of every other religion there is … but I'm really, really happy that the witch trials can't be pinned on Catholics. Just sayin'. Sir Andrew Aguecheek – "born" not so long before Hopkins – is not exactly a font of wisdom, but I begin to really understand the line: "O, if I thought [he was a Puritan], I’d beat him like a dog!"

This novel is well-written. It's very readable – except for the parts that are almost impossible to read. But if I had been more aware of what I was getting into I never would have requested it on Netgalley in the first place, or having requested it would have shirked it without a qualm. To follow this I am going to need something filled with sweetness and light and hope and … puppies … definitely puppies.