Since my brother Lee moved away from home the bookcase in his old room has become a depository for books and films that my folks don’t want on their shelves downstairs, but aren’t ready to throw out yet. A lot of Lee’s old VHS tapes and books are still on those shelves too.
I was staying at my parents’ house one weekend, maybe 10-15 years ago, and, as is often the case when the entire Childs family are in one place at once, I was waiting for the bathroom to become free. While I waited I went into Lee’s room and started perusing the bookcase to see if there was anything worth reading. There was a Star Trek: Voyager novel I had bought him for Christmas one year, James Clavell’s Shōgun, some Frank Herbert paperbacks, a few Stephen King ones too and a bunch of VHS tapes including Jean-Michel Jarre Live in China, all three original Karate Kid movies and Stephen Seagal’s magnum opus, Hard To Kill.
But the title that caught my eye as I was scanning the shelves was the ominously titled Village of Satan by Margaret Bingley. I’d never heard of it before, nor her, but it sounded like it could be interesting. Having recently watched The Wicker Man for the first time I had just started to become interested in Folk Horror and the title alone sounded right up my street. So I pulled the book out to have a look. I was not prepared for what would meet my gaze…
Oh, my goodness, those eyes! Just look at them, burrowing deep into your soul.
I turned the light on pretty quickly which, in retrospect, was a mistake because it was then that I noticed the bear.
What on earth! As if a creepy possessed red-eyed child wasn’t bad enough, they had to do that to me too?
The book went back on the shelf pretty quickly and I decided to use my parents’ en-suite facilities in their bedroom downstairs rather than spend another minute in that room with that book and those eyes!
I slept uneasily that night in my old room across the hall, knowing that there were just two flimsy wooden (unlocked) doors between me and Evil Ted.
That was over a decade ago but just the knowledge of that book’s existence in the house has been enough to creep me out whenever I’ve been there, upstairs, alone.
Skipping forward to a few weeks ago, I was browsing my Twitter feed when one of the writers I follow, Peter Laws, posted a photo of an old book he was about to read for the first time – The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. The creepy cover made me instantly think of Village of Satan but instead of frantically burying thoughts of that book back down into my already fragile psyche, this time I found myself curious about its contents. I wanted to read it.
Initially, my plan was to wait until I next went to my parents’ house to ask if I could borrow it, but that was going to be several weeks off. I thought about asking for it to be posted up to me but that would just be creating work for them so I looked online and found a hardback copy in a second-hand store for the princely sum of 1p (plus postage). A few days later the book came, and in great condition, I have to add. And that cover had lost none of its creepy power. The first thing I did was remove its dust-jacket and put it somewhere safe (where a certain boy-and-bear-combo wouldn’t be looking at me all night). So before I get into any more detail about the contents I just want to congratulate the cover artist Ken Leeder for scaring the absolute living daylights out of me!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Would it be some kind of folk horror or would it be more of a full on supernatural scare-fest like The Exorcist or Audrey Rose?
The basic synopsis is full of familiar horror tropes: When recently divorced Kathryn moves to the small, unfriendly Lincolnshire village of South Willoughby to look after her sick mother she falls for Owen, the handsome widower who lives next door. Kathryn’s five-year-old daughter Jasmine befriends Owen’s son Luke, who has a penchant for playing in the church graveyard and holding very adult sounding conversations with his teddy bear. Before long Kathryn begins to notice a change for the worst in Jasmine’s behaviour. Can she escape back to her comfortable city life before Jasmine is lost to the village forever?
Already sounds like about twenty horror films, doesn’t it? In fact, I found this whole book to be incredibly derivative. On several occasions I was reminded of The Wicker Man, The Midwych Cuckoos, Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, Children of the Stones, The Woman In Black, The Witches (the Hammer film, not the Roald Dahl book) and Blood on Satan’s Claw. At times it also felt like a Mills & Boon book which just happened to have a supernatural element to it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have any originality – there are some interesting ideas hidden in amongst the mishmash of heavy handed references to other, far better stories, and they’re good ‘uns!
Spoilers below – continue at your peril!
A lot of the characters felt like they were taken straight out of The Big Book of Stock Horror Dramatis Personae:
- Creepy children
- A city dwelling yuppie out of her depth in a rural setting
- A rugged, handsome but slightly dim love interest who has little idea of what is actually going on (despite living there)
- A sexy occultist who dresses in black
- The wise old lady who conveniently seems to have an awful lot of answers as to what’s going on
- An older sinister yet charming gentleman
- A ghost who pops up out of nowhere saying the equivalent of “Whooooaah. Turn back! Here be danger!” like it’s the start of an episode of Scooby-Doo
- The villagers who all stop gossiping and start staring in silence when the protagonist walks by
But for me, the biggest crime of this book is the title. It spends about three-quarters of its 200 pages building up a fairly engaging mystery. Why are all the folk in this village so unfriendly? Why is Kathryn’s knowledgeable old aunt so afraid of the village’s influential clique? What did Owen’s wife get up to in her private workshop? What does Luke mean when he says Jasmine can have a new father any time she likes? Why does Luke think his bear talks to him?
It’s a wild stab in the dark but could it all be because this is the Village Of SATAN!!?? I’d have preferred the book to have been called The Village of Mysteriousness with the Satanism being slowly revealed. However, I went into the book with a fairly good idea what the cause of all the trouble might be.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some good, scary moments. Oh no. The first three or four chapters were a masterclass in slow burning creepiness. I found myself, on more than one night after reading in bed, sleeping with my back to the door or climbing under the safe, protective duvet despite the hot July nights. Each time I woke up in the night I thought the various items around my room, shrouded in darkness, were a little boy standing at the end of the bed. If only Margaret Bingley had been able to maintain the intense feeling of unease she managed to capture so well in the opening act then this would easily make my list of Top Ten Scariest Things Ever.
Sadly, that disquiet crumbles when Bingley stops being coy about the mysteries of South Willoughby and goes all Michael Bay, deciding that more is indeed more. Instead of having Luke continue to drip feed the reader with subtle, but no less disturbing hints, the story suddenly shifts into a higher gear where ghosts are not even attempting to hide around every corner, astral projection is a skill that just about everyone seems to be able to perform at will as if it were cycling, and Satanists freely wander the village openly discussing, and carrying out their dastardly plans. The method in which one poor unfortunate victim of the coven was dispatched was so unbelievably over-the-top that I had to read that passage twice just to make sure I hadn’t imagined it!
And then there is the ending. The story just seems to fall apart as it rushes headlong to its diabolical conclusion. Massive coincidences and conveniences happen with alarming regularity, while dangling story threads are dropped like litter. With just a few minutes of reading to go, an entirely new direction is taken, but that’s okay because the Satanists go “Aha – that was our plan all along and we were manipulating you the whole time to reach this point!”
I’m sure I’ve heard that done much better somewhere else…
The little old beetle goes ’round and ’round. Always the same way, you see, until it ends up right up tight to the nail. Poor old thing!
I’m surprised Ira Levin or Roman Polanski’s lawyers weren’t on the phone to Ms Bingley’s publisher because to say the ending is “a bit like Rosemary’s Baby” would be a massive understatement. Village of Satan tries to cram the entirety of that story into the last four or five pages.
Aside from my concerns about the rushed ending, a number of other things really bothered me: Luke is supposed to be four years old but he was using words and phrases that only an adult would. I thought this was going to be addressed but it wasn’t.
Kathryn’s aunt felt awfully like she was created purely to help Bingley to get out of the narrative corner she had written herself into. She was the embodiment of that character who gives the hero all the answers they seek and then says “I can’t say anything else. I’ve already said too much”. I think she may have actually used that line!
And Luke’s omniscient stuffed toy – what was the deal with that? Was the bear’s toxic chatter all in Luke’s head? How did it know other characters’ secrets? Was it just an outlet for Luke’s grief over the death of his mother or was there something genuinely supernatural about it? Was it Satan’s chosen vessel until he could become a real boy? We’ll never know because after spending most of the first half of the book describing some truly unsettling one sided conversations between boy and bear, whose words are only ever relayed to Luke in a whisper (like an evil episode of Sooty & Sweep), the whole thing is just dropped with no further explanation.
Also, why are the police not stretching their Crime Scene tape all over that village? There are more suspicious and nasty deaths in the course of a few weeks than in an entire series of Midsomer Murders!
Perhaps most importantly of all, I found Kathryn to be a difficult protagonist to empathise with. She seemed cold, uptight and occasionally cruel. She used unusually archaic speech patterns for a supposedly modern twenty-something in the early Nineties. As a result of all this, I found her blossoming romance with the only decent villager forced and unbelievable. But then, if we’re to believe that she was just following a pre-preordained path, I suppose that can be forgiven.
Gripes aside, I am glad I’ve read this book. Despite its pulp-fiction appearance and content, it did succeed in genuinely scaring me, albeit for a short while. Despite the sagging middle section, finally, the very last page of the book delivers again, sweetening the slightly bitter taste that had been growing in this frustrated reader’s mouth.
And no matter how much I look at that cover image, it always gives me the willies!