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The Face of Evil

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Arrow, London, 1972
price: 30p; 256 pages
(first published by Hutchinson & Co, 1971)

The blurb on the back:

'...you must know that pain is nothing more than a part of pleasure. Pain and humility, and surrender, are as important as pride, and brutality, and mastership, in the experience of the ultimate fulfilment. In time you will be permitted to practice all of these upon us. But at the moment... your mind is too young, too inexperienced... We must deal with your mind first.'
And the way to her mind was through her body.

opening lines:
'Stand back! Stand back, there!' The policemen formed two lines, arms outstretched, restraining the onlookers, mostly women, who crowded the steps of the Old Bailey.

Even before The Exorcist there were a lot of demons hanging around the world of popular culture, as seen in Rosemary's Baby and in the drift of Hammer movies away from the classic horror canon into acounts of modern witchcraft. And then there was the odd little novel like this one that clearly would very much have liked to been filmed but wasn't.

In many ways it's a typical tale of a Home Counties Coven and of the outsider who gets drawn in, but there are some unusual features to which I would like to draw your attention.

Firstly, the guy who gets drawn in is an A-Level history teacher and we get long digressions off into his lessons on medieval history - the effect of the Black Death on the labour market, for example - which are accurate, interesting and completely unexpected in this context. Then there is the sado-masochistic theme promised by the sleeve-notes:

Gradually her screams and her movements subsided. The six people moved slowly round the table, each in turn delivering one blow upon the upturned buttocks whenever they came level. Andrea collapsed into tears and gasps, and her muscular spasms became only winces. But yet her total subjection was only beginning. The caning finished, she was released and then reclamped on her back to be shaved... (p.123)

And, finally, because this is the early-Seventies, there's no respect shown for age. Within a few pages we see a 15-year-old girl caning a 10-year-old boy, who retaliates by tugging as hard as he can on her public hair. You wouldn't get this nowadays - they'd both be on the Sex Offenders Register quicker than you could say 'Brass Eye'.

I'm making this all sound a lot more salacious than it really is. Actually the narrative averts its gaze when anything too extreme is going to happen, and the core of the book is a variant on the locked-room murder story, with some witchcraft and S&M thrown in as dressing. And it's a perfectly fine and entertaining story.


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