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Friday 25 March 2011

A Trip to the Witches' Sabbath

The cover picture on the left is from the Summer 1948 issue of Detective Mystery magazine. At first glance, with its dancing witches and leering devil, it appears to be typical of the lowbrow "shudder pulps" of the time. But in fact the cover depicts John Dickson Carr's novel The Crooked Hinge (originally published in book form ten years earlier)... and although this does indeed touch on the subject of witchcraft, it's not in the way you might expect if you're not familiar with Carr's work.

John Dickson Carr (1906–1977) was a prolific author of mystery novels, specializing in the sub-genre known as the "locked room mystery" (not necessarily involving a literal "locked room", but always a seemingly impossible crime). Carr's novels (whether written under his own name or the pseudonym of Carter Dickson) are always full of misdirection and obfuscation, and to this end he frequently used Fortean sub-themes -- for example an Egyptian curse (Lord of the Sorcerers), a vampire (He Who Whispers), a ghost (The Case of the Constant Suicides), a mind-reader (The Reader is Warned), spiritualism (The Plague Court Murders), palmistry (Till Death Do Us Part), the Tarot (Eight of Swords)... and witchcraft (The Crooked Hinge). These apparently supernatural elements are always shown to have non-supernatural explanations -- and they usually turn out to be irrelevant to the eventual solution of the mystery!

The sub-theme of witchcraft is just one of several obfuscating elements that Carr throws into Crooked Hinge. A year before the murder, a young local woman was found dead in her own home, her naked body smeared all over with a strange ointment. The explanation for this, when it is eventually given, is fascinating: "For six hundred years there's been a vast mass of testimony from those who claim to have gone to witches' Sabbaths and seen the presence of Satan... What would make a person believe them to be facts? It's been argued that in a great number of cases the 'witch' never left her own house or even her own room. She thought she had attended the Sabbath in the grove. She thought she had been conveyed by magic to the defiled altar and found a demon lover there. She thought so because the two chief ingredients of the ointment were aconite and belladonna. Belladonna, absorbed through the pores of the skin would rapidly produce excitement, then violent hallucinations and delirium, and finally unconsciousness. Add to this the symptoms produced by aconite: mental confusion, dizziness, impaired movement ... a mind steeped in descriptions of Satanist revels would do the rest."

This isn't just Carr's imagination, by the way -- exactly the same theory was put forward by David Hambling in issue 173 of Fortean Times (August 2003). Hambling added the interesting snippet that witches would sometimes smear the end of a broomstick with the ointment before putting it between their legs... interpret that however you want!

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