Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: 'Witchfinder General' by Ronald Bassett

4 / 5 Stars
This paperback edition of ‘Witchfinder General’ was published by Pan Books (UK) in 1968, two years after the hardbound version was issued.

Ronald Bassett (b. 1924) served in the British Navy in WW2 and in the Korean War, after which he took positions with several pharmaceutical corporations as a publicist.

In the 1960s and 1970s he wrote a number of historical novels, some of these built upon his wartime experiences. His ‘Dando’ series, about English army officers in the India of the Raj, was written under the pseudonym of William Clive.

‘Witchfinder General’ is of course best known as the inspiration for the 1968 film from British producer Tigon, starring Vincent Price. In the US, AIP released an uncut, uncensored version under the title ‘The Conqueror Worm’.

By the standards of the time the film was explicit in its depiction of nudity and violence, particularly the torture scenes, and this, combined with its downbeat tenor, turned it into a ‘cult classic’.

Despite its very low budget (at least once, Price covered the cost of providing meals for the cast and crew) the film, directed by 24 year-old Michael Reeves, had a genuine visual sense of the 17th century period used as its setting.

In general, the film adheres to the novel, save for some differences that I won’t elaborate on for fear of disclosing spoilers.

Bassett starts his story in 1643, with William Hopkins and John Stearne meeting while serving as conscripts in the Parliamentary army. In due course they join with female accomplice Goody Phillips, and embark on a sustained campaign of witch-finding across the landscape of the English Civil War.

Bassett’s description of the torture and execution of elderly women, the insane, and the mentally disabled as ‘witches’ remains unsettling, even by the more graphic standards of this modern age.

When compared to contemporary historical fiction, and the advent of 500-page tomes crammed with highly descriptive prose, Bassett is economical and to the point, yet still he manages to give his readers a believable sense of time and place:

A spiral of dirty, broken stairs climbed to his landing, the playground of hordes of ragged children who screeched and shuffled, raced streetwards to float paper boats in the puddles, or gathered to listen as a disabled and drunken veteran beat his wife with his crutch each noon-time. The small room boasted a tiny, filthy window, walls patched with damp and mildew, and the barest items of rickety furniture. He was in poorer straits now than he had ever been.

It is depressing to realize that not too long ago, Europe spent sizeable portions of several consecutive centuries in the grip of hysteria, subjecting innocent people to horrible deaths based on ignorance and superstition, deeds more often than not fueled by religious zealotry. This realization explains to some degree how modern groups like the Taliban continue to be embraced and supported by their fellow Muslims, and even illuminates the egregious ‘daycare molestation' trials that the swept the US in the 1980s.

'Witchfinder' has long been out of print, and while even marginal paperback copies are offered for  high prices, if you can find a copy for $10 (or even more), it's still worth picking up.

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