‘It keeps coming back’: Horror in the Gothic novels and plays of David Pinner.

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on October 24, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , ,




There was another screech of lightning. As its electrical bolt detonated in the chest of Jimmy’s corpse, there was a shattering bang. Seconds later, the farmer’s hanging body was enveloped in flames, and his fire-envenomed flesh began to crackle like duck’s fat.
Then the supporting rope snapped, and Jimmy’s flaming body crashed down onto the oak’s roots. Within moments, the cadaver was transformed into a human bonfire, while from the oak-tree, more falling leaves winnowed down into the rising flames created by the lightning. Momentarily the leaves glowed like tigers’ eyes.

There is something of a 21st century Matthew Lewis about the sadistic-seeming delectation, with which this devastating natural or supernatural violence is wreaked upon a suspended body, and the way the narrative follows each stage in the corpse’s immolation. There is also an ornate synaesthesia (and onomatopoeia) in ‘fire-envenomed flesh’ and leaves glowing ‘like tiger’s eyes’, and a touch of the Gothic exoticism in the language, which reminds of the richest tales of Vernon Lee.
The passage is taken from David Pinner’s The Wicca Woman (2014) where, as part of a rich tale of possession and witchcraft, Paul Hopkins, an ardent Christian, who is chasing the mysteries of a succubus’s nocturnal visitations, stumbles on the macabre sight of a body hanging in an oak grove near his village. Jimmy’s ending, horrific though it seems, is not the worst evil evoked in the book, and Hopkins is wrong to think that the biggest threat lies outside his own consciousness and all that it suppresses.
The author of four novels and twenty performed plays, Pinner has exhibited a strong and long-term fascination with the dark Gothic in his work; most famously in Ritual (1967), Fanghorn (1967), Lucifer’s Fair (1977), All Hallows’ Eve (2002), Edred, the Vampyre (2010), Succubus (2011) and The Wicca Woman. From the outset, he has recognised the ways in which his writing involves and plays with Gothic themes of horror and humour and themes and imagery, which are both quixotic and mercurial.

For example, in Ritual, his first novel of murders in a pagan Cornish village, when a character comes across a macabre tableau, its Gothic pedigree is immediately emphasised:

About four feet from the roots, a monkey’s head was hat-pinned to the bark, and flanked by two bats. A sprig of garlic crowned this three-dimensional mural. Someone was obviously trying to impress someone with the basics of Gothicism.
The reference is all the more remarkable because it precedes David Pirie’s association of Hammer film themes with the Gothic by many years.  Additionally, as Pinner recalls: ‘There wasn’t much Gothic fiction around at the time, except Dennis Wheatley, and I only read him when I was very young.’ The blurring ambiguity and open-ness of ‘Someone’ ‘trying to impress someone’ is characteristic of Pinner’s writings, leaving his readers wrong-footed and guessing. Also characteristic is that unexpected ‘monkey’s head’, a detail which again turns our minds to macabre exoticism and, perhaps, to a character’s deranged sense of humour.
The perceptive reviewer for The Guardian referred to the way in which this writer ‘deliberately dislocates his images’. There is often an hallucinatory quality to his writing, which keeps one in the dark, and then repeatedly has one re-guessing as shock follows shock, with the notional narrative floor shifting under the reader’s feet. The language of his plays and novels mirrors this complexity, and his works can be wild and complex, funny and fleshly, coarse and exuberant by turns. At some times, his style is unashamedly literary and punning, and at others disarmingly direct.
His novel, Ritual, was famously filmed as Robin Hardy’s celebrated The Wicker Man (1973). The cult status of the film means that its celebrity is assured, and it retains the attention to pagan cults, the rituals and confrontation between Puritanism and exuberant sexuality of Pinner’s source novel. Yet, it is also true that some of the most transgressive and interesting elements of the novel have been omitted from the movie, perhaps because they would be difficult to realise in cinematic form. Shocking though the enigma surrounding Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is in the film, David Hanlin in the novel is an altogether different and more haunting proposition. (It is an irony of the first order that Pinner himself played the Detective in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in 1967 , while he was writing Ritual.)
The cataclysm at the end of Ritual (its formative twist) is entirely different from that of the film and it is totally unexpected. In conversation, the author has said that he has not met any reader yet, who has been able to anticipate the ending. This, in itself, is an obvious tribute to the skilful re-adjustment and focalisation of the late chapters, which gives as little away about the struggle between David and Anna on the seashore as the village children strive to interpret their actions. The shifts in focus: ‘The children were very excited … They couldn’t see what David’s left hand was doing. Only the sea observed that.’ This reveals a shrewd directorial eye and an ability to sustain suspense. The novel’s denouement is well-worth visiting and re-visiting. In retrospect, it is also interesting to note how many other works, including Ted Hughes’s Gaudete (1977), seem to have borrowed from Ritual’s pagan processions, animal masks and villagers involved in sexual intrigue.
When I first met Pinner in Ravello on the Amalfi coast 25 years ago, we soon began talking about Ritual, and I discovered that this novel had been written in interesting circumstances: during long journeys on trains and while he was in his Mousetrap dressing room . He completed the book in seven weeks. In fact, he was so intent on writing it, during what he thought were lulls in the play, that he was surprised by an actress, who charged into his dressing room, shouting; ‘You forgot to come on and murder me!’ The remembered humour is indicative of Pinner’s alternation of seriousness and wit in his writings.
Also I discovered that, in the early 1970s, he had met Christopher Lee, who wanted to buy the film rights for Ritual. This meeting was complicated for the novelist by the fact that, as a boy, he had been utterly terrified by Lee in the lead role in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958). It had in fact been this experience that had galvanised him into writing plays and novels, which as well as embodying the power of the vampires, he also mocked and made fun of their impact, in order to exorcise them and leach them of their strength..
In relation to this interplay of horror and comedy, Pinner recalls Stalin’s potent phrase: ‘Communism is a frenzied Paradox’ – and Pinner believes that ‘Life’ is like that because he says that
Life moves quickly between comedy and loss. You’re never ahead of the changes, and the changes will change you. In writing novels and plays, I relish exploring hidden personalities because all of us are frenzied bits and pieces. And as we really don’t know what’s around the next corner, how can we find ways of dealing with it? These paradoxes and mixtures of torment and pleasant experiences are with us as long as we live.
Pinner, as artist, wanted then to have creative power over the fear, which such gothic imagery evoked. And Christopher Lee could be forgiven for being oblivious to the fact that, when he acted in The Wicker Man, he was starring in a film inspired by a novel, which Pinner had written to offset the horror of Lee’s performance as a vampire in the earlier Hammer films. But in fact, Pinner found the distinguished actor very personable.

He recalls the encounter nearly fifty years later:
‘You can imagine the strangeness, the ambiguity, of my feelings on meeting Christopher Lee. Yet he was very charming. Then you can imagine my mixed feelings on seeing him in The Wicker Man derived from my novel, Ritual. This man who had terrified me so much as Dracula.’ (A fine awareness of ambiguity and the paradoxical vicissitudes of life run through this writer’s work, and especially in relation to horror.)
‘I use humour to take away the horror’ he says, ‘but the horror keeps coming back.’

The horror in Ritual and the sources of dread are drawn from inner and outer realities. They are revealed in Pinner’s vivid portraits of the villagers: Diane Spark and her mother Gwynne, Pastor White, Fat Billy and his gang, Hanlin himself and Gypo the bowman. (In terms of these portraits, it is useful to know that the author has also been a painter all his life). The evocation of the small Cornish village and its natural surroundings is drawn from the author’s childhood in the Peterborough area and his intimate knowledge of the local woods.
Pinner comments:
In my childhood, my three brother and I used to play games and hunt each other in the woods and in the open Fenlands;. In those days, children were much freer and we could virtually roam wherever we wanted at will.
After writing Ritual, he had another creative foray into frenzy, suppressed anger and darkness, and he wrote Fanghorn (1967). This ‘lesbian vampire play’ starred Glenda Jackson as Tamara Fanghorn, the eponymous blood-sucker, and it is a comedy, which the writer calls ‘more purple than black’ in its ambiguous complexity. The play was also a savage satire on the Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, and Joseph King, who may or may not be the First Secretary to the Minister of Defence, is ensconced in his anarchic household, with his daughter, Jackie, his wife, Jane, and her friend, Tamara and a permanently famished Grandpa. It is a social milieu thriving on the characters’ barely-concealed aggression to one another, plainly visible in Jane’s ramblings to her non-existent-pet cat:
And no one would ever know that she accidentally tripped over you on the beach and she smashed her head on a rock. Then she was swept out to sea. Accidental death from drowning would be the verdict. Then only you and I would remember her cruelty – which is like a wisdom tooth screaming through the meshes of my gums.
That last phrase again evokes Pinner’s almost surreally-distorted sense of pain. As the play develops, the seductive , vampiric Tamara devises a malefic rite, in which she dominates Jane and she forces her to intone the words:
Man is unnecessary. That is why we’ve been planning this endurance test for him. And them. All of them. Long before you ever met him. Because we women are the pain bearers and we suffer for them continuous humiliation. We’re the ones who sweat, honour and obey under the bucking eiderdowns, on our backs or our faces
At the close of the First Act, the vampire Fanghorn raises a cut-throat-razor over the prone, trussed-up-body of First Secretary Joseph, and she shouts: ‘RIGHT OFF!’ raising terrors of imminent, graphic emasculation.
And although familial murders and shape-shifting identities lurk in the background, the alternation of male and female power and perceptions in the Second Act are by no means as polarised or desperate as this crisis might seem to imply. Rituals, often linked to sexual and gender conflict, recur in Pinner’s work. When I asked him about his fascination with rituals, he replied: ‘People need rituals to keep themselves together’, (a reply which is consonant with humans being ‘bits and pieces.’) He developed the point with regard to any belief in the supernatural:
I gave up believing in God when I was fifteen. I was kneeling at the altar and I thought: ‘This doesn’t mean anything anymore’. So I see myself as a pantheist. And if there is anything of a deity, it is more likely to be female. I love nature, so being close to nature elates me. Women seem to have a greater understanding of living with nature. They are, of course, social, intellectual and political beings, just as men are, but women also have more insight into nature. My friend, the playwright Leo Lehmann, once said to me: ‘If you give a woman as many lines as a man, she will always be more fascinating.’ So I believe there would be far less destruction in the world if more women were in power.
Of course, the giving up praying at the altar as one form of devotion, does not mean that there is a lack of the need for the shapeliness of ritual, anything but. One senses, in reading and viewing Pinner’s novels and plays, that the fervid male and female dialogues, which he makes occur in ritual spaces, have taken the place of any established liturgy in Pinner’s imagination. Many of his Gothic works explore female myths and male fears, and he continues to question various beliefs, including the occult, paganism, pantheism and Christianity.
Being born into a mostly male family, the author is keen to state his early admiration of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948) and the notion of discovering light in darkness. Regarding ritual, he also remembered some extraordinary and tantalising lines which came to him very early in his writing life:
So much to do and so few days.
The dying out of rituals and marriages,
While all the world grows younger every hour.


In Lucifer’s Fair (1977), a play he wrote for 11-15 year olds, a young girl and boy, Honor and Clive, are shown on their way to take up their grievances with the fair’s owner. Again the playwright subverts gender stereotypes in the way that the girl easily outplays the boy at football, belying the slogan: ‘footy’s the only game for men’. The pair encounter a series of strange figures on their quest: a flying Hag, who is at times ‘terrifyingly malevolent’, Fangs, a bovver boy motorcyclist (another intrusive vampire), a policeman, ‘Blyton’, and the landlord, Lucifer himself, and they are all involved in an unpredictable series of transformations. And although the action and changes of identities in Lucifer’s Fair are worthy of the most frenetic of pantomimes at times, some of the songs remind one of the more macabre verse of Thomas Lovell Beddoes:

Tonight is the night when the Dead awake;
when the Spirits and Goblins and Cats;
when the Lizards and Toads and Blood-sucking Bats
take over the Earth, and bite, and break
the hearts of the Children,
hearts of the Children,
hearts of the Children – who lie awake!

At the opening of Scene One, Part Two, we see that the ‘Fair’s Carousel’ is set in a sinister Graveyard’, a masterly juxtaposition which subverts many traditional elements of children’s literature and TV, (for example in P.L. Travers’s novels or
Serge Danot’s Le Manège enchanté,/ The Magic Roundabout (1965-77)). Of course, as James Strong and Jonathan Entwhistle’s recent TV series of Vanity Fair (2018) reminds us in its opening carousel sequence, W.M. Thackeray’s source in his title and meta-narrative, is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, where the eponymous fair is indeed a locus of illusions leading to perdition. Yet Pinner’s graphic thematic juxtaposition of play and pleasure with death is much more dauntingly abrupt. One can imagine the sudden turn of the fair’s carousel, when it reveals Lucifer ‘in all his satanic glory’, bringing forth shouts of ‘All Hail, Great Lucifer! King Satan!’, ‘All Hail, Lord of the Flies!’ and ‘All Hail, Master of the World!’ to be truly chilling, as is the transformation of the children into mere sideshow-puppets. In the final scene, the children’s imprisonment in static, powerless identities, creates great pathos, and it takes all of Pinner’s verbal dexterity: ‘Old Nick is in the nick!’, to convince us that the threat, including a vampire impotent to slake his thirst for young blood, is overcome.
Pinner comments on the play’s transformations, volte-faces and reversals:
I like twisting perspectives. What’s happening is not necessarily how you’re seeing it. Things are rarely what they seem. Changes in language reflect changes in identity. I aim to be a magician where you don’t see all the tricks that are up my sleeves. I always want to reveal the reverse of everything – to turn things on their head and convey split personalities. Everything is about a different journey.

In his play, Edred, The Vampyre, there is a thousand-year-old-bi-sexual vampire who cannot die. Edred lives in St Lawrence’s church, where he encounters two 18-year olds ,Elizabeth and Jacques, and the surface action serves almost totally to occlude the true realities of the dramatic situation. To adapt Pinner’s phrase: ‘Things are rarely what they seem’, and here nothing is. Early on, Edred consciously complicates the postmodern couple’s sense of what is happening: ‘Yes, that’s just another of the countless misconceptions about vampires that you’ll find peppered all over the Internet’ and, later: ‘I’m the antithesis of everything you’ve ever Googled, or gleaned from Wikipedia.’ The vampire here is an unforgettable presence, by turns archly-mocking, deft and sarcastic, and quoting his confidantes:, Milton and Shakespeare: ‘Yes, and old Sweet Willy Shakebag did say that – after I slept with him, when I didn’t bite him.’ Pinner shows his admiration of Shakespeare: ‘He evoked images and spectacles that disturb and excite people., and he always got under the skin of things’, so the Bard continues to surface in Edred’s words as the vampire’s mind roves backwards and forwards in history.
The vampire’s comment to Elizabeth; ‘Especially as you are haunted’, is a clue that instead of just being a repetitive cipher for blood-sucking horror, Edred is in fact a timeless and vivid catalyst, and he is an agent of self-confrontation and self-transformation. The church’s altar in this play is set for a different kind of ritual. To adapt the writer’s words: whatever characters think they are, they are actually ‘never ahead of the changes, and the changes will change them.’
Inside the character of the initially mild-mannered Jacques is concealed another kind of Jack altogether. Yet finally, all the negative, violent forces in this hidden Jack will turn on themselves in self-destruction. Or will they? One never quite knows in Pinner’s hauntingly ambiguous writing.
In contrast to the despairing eternity, which is hinted at in the ending of Edred, in his play, Succubus, he establishes that Lili’s psychic sway over Mark is both powerful and benign (despite Mark’s anger that she has invaded his religious sanctum). In the play, Pinner reveals a way out of the traditional impasse of Judaeo-Christian religion. At one point Lili says :
There was – and always is -another Way.
Love, not desire, Mark. Love is the only certain way that you will ever find salvation.
The ending of Succubus is a tour-de-force of dramatic intensity and wondering disbelief as Mark is left alone with his destiny. It is an uplifting finale, a silence brimming with promise and release after all the conflict.
The Wicca Woman returns us to the Cornish landscape of Pinner’s first novel. The action is set thirty years later, and we re-encounter many of the characters who were involved in the earlier murders. Yet this time, the climax of the rituals and sacrifices come to fruition on Millennium Eve, and they assumes a different shape when the women villagers seem to take against Lulu, who is a new wise woman, in the community:
‘Lulu Crescent already thinks she’s the frigging Queen of the frigging May, doesn’t she’
Even the words: ‘frigging May’ are full of a rough pagan sexual energy. As the men (all with their minds on ‘frigging’) vie for Lulu’s attention which is determinedly centred elsewhere, the witch, Gwynne Sparkes, builds a corn dolly effigy for the newcomer’s ceremonial destruction. Yet Lulu has a fate and concerns far beyond the well-worn-village-curses and the annual rituals of the beach:
Although the winter waves were buffeting and numbing her weary limbs, Lulu peered up at the implacable moon, and instantly she knew that she had no choice. And now she must swim back to the shore, and go on…going on…
They are themselves supremely haunting words: ‘go on…going on…’ Pinner’s fine contribution to Gothic literature post-1960 is very considerable. Indeed it could be said that in the way he transmuted trauma and fear in his writing, he helped keep this hybrid genre alive in times less conducive to its dark appeal.  In doing so, he risked censure, criticism and, at one point for Fanghorn, a public ban. In Gothic narratives, that which is repressed returns, time after time, and inescapably – with a vengeance. In the wonderful alembic of Pinner’s imagination, horror keeps coming back but not just to scare or haunt us with the prospect of pain or oblivion. It comes back to force us to face those hidden aspects of our personalities which comprise our nightmares, and it does so, to transform and bring forwards the challenge of continuing renewal.

David Annwn

I wish to thank David Pinner very much for his time, his generous answers to my questions, and for the exclusive interview which, in part, shapes this study.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/yd9ye8we