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The Witches 1 - The Prisoner

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Sphere, London, 1983
(price: £1.25; 152 pages)

dedication: This is for the memory of Mike Dempsey. In a world that grows increasingly grey and dull a bright and reckles light has ben extinguished

The blurb on the back:

It was a time of fear. The great Civil War which has split the country from top to bottom still raged. The King was rumoured to have fled but robber bands of his troops still lurked in the mist, marauding gangs of deadly spectres waiting for the innocent. In the absence of King and Parliament, terror ruled with mistrust and murder close behind. But there was no greater terror than the Witchfinders.
Living on torture, bribery and lust they took rich pickings as they scoured each parish and hamlet for victims. John Ferris has sworn to fight their rule of bloody atrocities – to take revenge for his father’s death and his lover’s abduction – to fight the storm of darkness with the sword.

opening lines:
A thread of bright blood trickled across the woman’s naked body.

James Darke was yet another pseudonym adopted by Laurence James, who turns up elsewhere on this site as biker novelist Mick Norman, and worked extensively in the paperback mines during the 1970s. As a pulp writer, he was not only prolific and versatile – these are, after all, the basic requirements of the job – but also surprisingly literary and creative. Having said which, this one isn’t anything to be proud of.

At least in retrospect, 1970s British exploitation fiction was a cosy little world – sex and violence were promised on a regular basis, but little of either was ever delivered. Despite the liberalisation that came in the wake of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, most of the running was done by the high-brow boys: those who depended on the likes of WH Smith’s to sell large quantities of paperbacks were much more circumspect. By the mid-80s, however, the ante had been upped by the video nasties and even mainstream publishers like Sphere were pushing a little at the boundaries.

The Witches was characteristic. A series that ran to six volumes, this was the first and frankly it’s unpleasant. The come-on cover (which doesn’t have much of the 1640s about it) and the tag-line about ‘devilry and lust’ may mislead you into thinking you’re going to get some titillation. You’re not. Or if you are, then you should perhaps worry about yourself. We start with the prolonged rape and torture to death of a 47-year-old woman… Well, look, this is what it’s like:

’Lift up your fuckin’ arse, witch!’ ordered Goody Phillips, snatching a handful of Bathsheba’s pubic hair and tugging her back off the splintered wood of the table. Blood had congealed and she cried out with the pain of the skin being ripped. (p.18)

It’s not that it’s badly written (though who does that ‘she’ refer to in the final sentence quoted?), and it’s not that I doubt the authenticity of the historical depiction, but really who wants to read this?

Do I sound prudish? Sorry if I do. I like a bit of S&M, probably more than most people do, but I can’t be doing with snuff porn. And that’s pretty much what we’ve got here.

Mind you, it was a successful enough series, from what I can tell.


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