My version of Lychford was called Ballabeg, on the Isle of Man, It’s a pair of housing developments and a handful of cottages scattered around a church, a shop or two and a primary school. I was part of the primary school for a while, and did all the things you do when you grow up in an area like that; harvest festivals, falling off bikes, discovering I liked colouring more than maths and seeing a ghost.
Well, I remember it as a ghost.
The playing field that my school used was a colossal, sloped area that backed onto a wood and, half a mile away, the path that led around the back of the church and graveyard. It was huge and had plenty of space for you to carve out your own little worlds. For a while, my friends and I hung out by the trees at the top of the field and had a nice little Ghostbusters franchise working, covering an entire square mile of the Isle of Man.
And then one day, we actually saw…something. We were in the middle of spinning ourselves the sort of yarn kids do to pass the time and suddenly realized we were being watched. There was a man standing at the gate at the back of the church a good quarter mile away. He was wearing a puritan hat, had blonde hair, a white baggy shirt and he didn’t exist from the knees downwards. He watched us for a few seconds, then turned, and as he did so, the wind changed direction and blew from where he was standing. It blew hot.
Now, there are a dozen different ways this could be absolutely normal, not the least of which being I had crap eyesight and he was a quarter mile away. But the image of a not quite human figure walking back into the woods has stayed with me, and it was the first thing I thought of when I read Witches of Lychford.
Because Lychford borders those same woods. As does Midwich, just before the whole thing is absorbed by the Hundred Acre Wood/Mythago conglomeration. Everywhere has unique, dark spaces where myths are born and for me, and the people of Lychford, it’s the woods.
For Judith though, the woods are just part of her job. Judith’s the local witch, not that she needs to say that out loud. Old, antisocial and yet painfully connected to the people around her she’s the first person to sense what’s really going on. The town is split down the middle over whether to allow a supermarket to open there and Judith, who knows just what the town borders, knows what construction will mean. The other realities trapped behind the dry stone walls that surround Lychford will be breached and a dozen kinds of Hell will fall upon first the village, then the world.
Right away Cornell explores the conflict between modern and rural, as well as young and old. Judith is absolutely in the right but after years of being the local grumpy old, probably magical, lady no one but her son bothers talking to her. So, she has no choice but to turn to others for help, and she hates that almost as much as the thought of the outside world.
That outside world is embodied by Lizzie, the new pastor, a former resident of Lychford and a ball of grief, horror and anger. Lizzie is walking wounded, still carrying an appalling accidental tragedy that has almost broken her faith in two. Being faced by miniscule congregations in her old home town only distracts her with a different kind of pain. Where Judith is steeped in the supernatural past of the town, Lizzie is caught between that and it’s present. She wants to help heal the town’s wounds but can’t look her own in the eyes. Kind, gentle and traumatised her difficult relationship with her faith is one of the novella’s strongest elements. Faith of any sort is a conversation with ebb and flow and Lizzie’s realization of that is both pragmatic and deeply moving. There’s no magic wand here, for anyone, but for Lizzie at least there’s a measure of peace and a remarkably grounded reaction to the truth about the town.
That grounding is also embodied, in a different way, in Autumn. Lizzie’s estranged best friend, Autumn is a rationalist and atheist who has had something impossible happen to her. If Lizzie has one foot in Lychford and one in the outside world, Autumn has one in Lychford and one in the woods. Neither woman is quite prepared to look the truth in the eye until Judith takes them in hand. Grumpily.
The friendship between these three women is at the heart of the book. Cornell uses it to explore the failings of small villages as well as the impact of modernism and the effect it has on the bonds that form in communities like this.
But here and throughout he, like Lychford’s residents, refuses to take the easy way out. The supermarket wanting to come into town, and the executive leading the charge, could be nothing more than moustache twirling villains. Instead they’re understandable, decent people who have good ideas that, like all good ideas, can be corrupted. There are no easy answers, no moral certainty, for anyone and that makes the book all the more nuanced.
That’s reflected in the characters own struggles too. Judith is painfully aware of how little she’s regarded by her neighbours, Autumn is barely able to look what happed to her in the face and Lizzie is a priest with almost no faith left. None of them, have it easy but all of them show up to defend the village anyway. Like Lychford itself, they’re all balanced on a knife’s edge and, like Lychford, all make a choice that may not be right but is right enough. The ending in particular is remarkable in its compassion, pragmatism and scope. A village meeting has never seemed so dramatic.
Witches of Lychford is a vastly different book from Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, as it should be. However, both are defined by their fascination with boundaries and the consequences of crossing them, both are remarkable pieces of work and both are first visits to worlds I hope we’ll be let back into. Confident, dark, funny and painfully human.
Join me on Wednesday for an interview with Paul Cornell, author of Witches of Lychford