Sunday, May 28, 2023

Book cover: "The Witchfinder"

  • Title: The Witchfinder
  • Author and illustrator: Mary Rayner (1933-2023). Unknown to me before I started working on this post, Rayner died just two months ago, in late March, at age 89. There are obituaries for her in The Guardian and The Telegraph. She was best known for the children's books she wrote and illustrated about a family of pigs. Rayner also illustrated Dick King-Smith's 1983 children's book The Sheep-Pig, which was adapted in the delightful 1995 film Babe. In 2020, Rayner published her memoir, No More Tigers, which includes an introduction by her daughter, Sarah Rayner. It's described as "a beautifully written and deeply moving account of a family who for several generations lived in Colonial Burma, and of what happened to them when World War 2 shattered their lives." Sarah Rayner has also written a number of books.
  • Publication date of this edition: 1976. (The book was originally published in the United Kingdom in 1975, with the hyphenated title The Witch-Finder.)
  • Publisher: William Morrow and Company, New York
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Pages: 160
  • Dust jacket price: Not sure, because it's been clipped
  • Dust jacket excerpt: "From England comes a story of witchcraft and possession guaranteed to hold readers spellbound. The setting is a country village near an ancient circle of standing stones known as Wansbury Ring."
  • Dedication: "In memory of A.H.G. and for Sarah, whose idea it was." 
  • About this book: In Rayner's obituary, The Guardian wrote: "Although she began by writing a novel, The Witch-Finder (1975), a tautly written family story infused with a sinister creepiness very unlike her subsequent warm and benign picture books, she had always been as interested in illustration as writing." And The Telegraph similarly stated, "Her first book, The Witch-Finder (1975), featured a young girl whose mother has fallen under the spell of strange standing stones near their home. It conveyed an unsettling atmosphere very different from the comforting happy family theme of her pig books."
  • First two sentences: "Only a few yards to go. Louisa struggled through the water, her heart pumping, taking great gulps, now of air, now of water."
  • Last sentence: I'm going to skip that, as it's a possible spoiler.
  • Random excerpt from the middle #1: "Her mother's mocking words seemed suddenly to carry an air of menace."
  • Random excerpt from the middle #2: "The shelves behind the librarian's head blurred over suddenly in thick mist, and the line of books began to rock up and down."
  • Reviews: There's not much to be found online about this short novel, with its themes of UK folklore and folk horror aimed at juvenile readers. Kirkus published a short review at the time. I learned about the book through an article in issue No. 5 of the zine Weird Walk. The relevant passage: "If ancient customs were rich pickings for the burgeoning market in eerie children's tales, so too were ancient monuments. Avebury was famously used as the setting for the 1977 TV serial Children of the Stones, fictionalised as 'Milbury.' Two years earlier, Mary Rayner's The Witch-Finder had made Avebury 'Wansbury' and used the stones as a plot device to transform the central character's unfortunate mother into a witch." The Weird Walk article serves as a great jumping-off point for discovering similar books aimed at teenagers in the second half of the 20th century. 
Here's one of Rayner's interior illustrations... 

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