Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Woodwitch by Stephen Gregory (1988): There's Fever in the Funkhouse Now

Well, there's nothing for it: another vintage horror novel read in 2017 that promised much but delivered little. Despite the endless reservoir of talent that Stephen Gregory shows with his ability to craft a tasty line of prose or pinpoint an indelicate bit of human psychology, The Woodwitch (St Martin's Press paperback/Nov 1989) is a frustratingly narrow story, insular to the point of absolute zero, and disagreeably disgusting. Gregory's first novel, 1986's The Cormorant, was a doom-laden, penetrating work of deep obsession. Woodwitch is that too, but less as well. Sure, there are lots of quoted encomiums printed front and back, accurate, sure, but what they leave out is that the book is mostly a grimy slog of a read. 

Our protagonist is uber-clueless buffoon Andrew Pinkney, guilty of the worst kind of turd-human behavior: smacking his date in the head for laughing at his limp penis. And that's it: that's the impetus for this shortish novel about a man's spiraling descent into madness (and where it stops, nobody know—er I mean you can probably guess). I suppose for many men that would be plenty enough reason, penile humiliation is the worst thing ever of course, but reading a whole book about it? Whew. I mean there's no room to breathe, and every breath one can draw is poisoned by enough rot and maggoty decay as to test any reader's tolerance.

The tale begins in a Welsh forest with Andrew traipsing about with his dog, a small collie called Phoebe. Phoebe is his only companion, an eager, bright, sometimes willful dog (but I just described a dog, didn't I, any dog); together they discover a badger corpse in the woods. Of course Andrew picks it up and takes it back to the cottage they're staying in and hangs it in the work shed. "You're perfect," he says to it as it drips maggots. Of course. Next, a jog back to the beginning so we can get a full dose of the square courtship between Andrew and his solicitor colleague Jennifer, a severe older woman, an amateur artist and naturalist who, on their romantic walks together, likes to point out various flora and fauna in their Latin scientific names. Hot stuff! No, it's rather charming.

Finally they get down to it, miserably, and Andrew fails at being a man, because that's what a man is of course ("Was that it?" the woman asked. That was it. "Heavens! What a lot of fuss about nothing!") and she sees his failure and begins to laugh. And Andrew simply punches her right in the mouth. Horrified at what he's done, Andrew calls cops and an ambulance; Jennifer is whisked away (no damage which a little dentistry could not repair), while their boss vouches for Andrew's good name and behavior so he is not charged. Boss suggests time off for both, which angers Jennifer, but Andrew takes him up on the offer of using the boss's holiday cottage so "then he could come back whenever he liked, refreshed and wholly recovered from the shock he had had." Well I am certainly glad of that, imagine how awful and oppressive and traumatizing it must be to have to punch a woman in the mouth, you totally need a vacay after that shit.

1989 UK paperback

As for Jennifer, who knows, she disappears from this madness. She will only continue to exist as a fantasy in Andrew's mind... because he's got this great idea about how to win her back. Her fascination with flora and fauna has subtly influenced his own behavior. How about a little joke at his expense, to show her he's not such a bad guy? He'll give her the gift of fungus! He'll grow it himself out of a blooming animal carcass. And not just any fungus, but the stinkhorn, or Phallus impudicus, a wretched-smelling thing sticking six inches up out of the earth, oozing oil-green and viscous black... the forest's unashamed caricature of the human phallus, at which the ancient peoples of the mountains had marveled for century after century... the object of their wonder and witchcraft, a totem, a thing to be prized and loathed and feared... What a great idea! Send her one of those, ha-ha, see I'm a fella can laugh at himself!

You won't believe how much mileage Gregory gets from describing the lewd, dripping stinkhorn fungus, the busy little maggots burrowing inside the badger and (later, after a trip to the grim seaside) the swan corpses, the damp, suffocating weather. It's overwhelming, it's disgusting (not in any moral sense, but literally so) and ultimately: boring. As. Hell. Even when Gregory turns an apt phrase about one of these aspects, the reaction is "Oh, well done," not "Holy shit, the implications of this for the character's mental state is now clearer and scarier!" Just page after page of this obsession, All there was in the world, in the entire universe, was the man and his dog, enveloped by the night. Sure, there are creepy sheep about, staring at them through the dense overgrowth, sheep that haunt Andrew's dreams like marauding women...

1989 US hardcover

Things get more interesting when Andrews meets a teenage brother and sister who live on a nearby farm caring for the sheep and kennel with hounds for fox-hunting. They mock him to his face in Welsh, but the girl, Shan, calls him "Pinkie" and seems amenable to conversation. They have a few pints in a woodsy lodge bar, something seems off. The novel's best sequence takes place on Halloween night, a party at this hotel bar, and the drunken, hallucinatory chaos which ensues. Told prior by Shan that folks would be in costume, Andrew bedecks himself in the weakest, lamest excuse for a vampire outfit ever, then with Phoebe at his side he trods in his wellies through the woods to the bar. Shan is flirty, her brother moody, the crowd oddly desultory. Phoebe becomes pathetically sick, distressing and angering the other drinkers and the barkeep asks them to leave. This leads to a bizarre attempt at a tryst with young Shan back at Pinkie's cabin, encrusted in dirt and soot, enticing Andrew on; there's wine, drunkeness, mockery, humiliation, even animal cruelty, I mean really. You can imagine the outcome of this seduction.

In the firelight, it looked as though some disgusting torture had been practised on the girl and was about to be resumed, for her body, skeletal and black, appeared to have been burned, branded and charred by the naked man who once again loomed over her

2015 Valancourt Books trade paperback

This whole sequence is very unsettling, I mean even the fungus gets a voice: In its effortlessness, its arrogance, its brazen lewdness, the stinkhorn sneered at him and said, "Look at me, Andrew Pinkney, and compare your flaccid maggot of a cock with mine!" The story continues on, I put the book down for weeks, ugh, same thing, then when it all wraps up there's hardly a surprise. Sure, with novels of obsession (Campbell's Face That Must Die, Tessier's Rapture, McDowell's Toplin, Koja's Cipher) that's often the case. I guess this time I was just exhausted by the literalness.

Once I read a rock critic who said something like the double-entendre lyrics of AC/DC were so obvious they were single entendres. That's the issue here too: Gregory is so on-the-nose with the symbolism of the fungus it's not even symbolism any longer; his conceit takes away any work on the reader's part: In Wales, Andrew Pinkney, having failed dismally in his last attempt to rear a home-grown erection, could sit back and enjoy these surrogates as he relaxed beside the fire. The sexual psychology here is all too obvious. This book isn't truly terrible, it has its moments like many horror novels I've overall disliked, but wow is it a bleak, dismal, dreary read with little payoff. I still recommend The Cormorant, but The Woodwitch left me unsatisfied. Traipse this dank darkness at your own peril.

Somewhere in the gloom, it seemed that something had crawled away to die and now was being dismantled by the silently working teeth of the maggots. The smell arose like a vapour exhaled by the earth itself, and then it was gone again, as if Andrew had imagined it, as though the stink were conjured in the darkest recesses of his own mind, to appear and disappear like a memory.


John said...

I had a hard time getting through this myself. Lured by the promise of "literate" horror, I purchased yet another reprint of this "classic" novel. Yes, it is very well written and there are some interesting things going on here, but not enough to sustain the threadbare story. When I read too many books like this, they inevitably drive me back to the classics where there is usually much more meat on the bone.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this review as it pretty much captured my own feelings about this book in words I couldn't come up with myself. I think I fell a little harder for the quality of Gregory's prose and was sort of hypnotized by the awful atmosphere, but at the same time kept looking up from the page and thinking how ludicrous it all was. Yet kept reading.