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Zoë Somerville on folklore and superstition in The Marsh House

Zoë Somerville on folklore and superstition in The Marsh House

When I was at infants school I vividly remember listening to an oral storyteller tell us the story of Beowulf. It was mesmerising. A lot of the books I read as a child were weird stories of witchcraft and magic, such as Roald Dahl, Joan Aiken, and one of the key sources of inspiration for The Marsh HouseWhen Marnie Was There – is a ghost story.

When I started thinking about The Marsh House, I knew I wanted to write a story of a haunting and it made sense to delve into other sources of superstition and belief in magic and the supernatural.

I’m from Norfolk and the novel is inspired by the eerie and bleak coastal landscape of North Norfolk. Like all regions of the British Isles, East Anglia has its own tradition of folklore that has persisted into the present day. The most famous of these is Black Shuck, an enormous black dog with devilish red eyes first told in the Middle Ages. It may even have been the model for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Then there are the tales that sprang up from the marsh itself: supernatural creatures with vivid names such as the will o’ the wisps, hyter sprites and boggarts.

The novel is set next to a saltmarsh in a real village called Stiffkey. I chose Stiffkey itself for lots of reasons – but one of them was that the area has its own chilling little tale which I include, The Screaming Cockler, the story of a poor girl cockling for the famous Stewkey Blues, who was cut off by the tide and fog. Her disembodied voice was heard by the villagers but she couldn’t be found. By including these strange folkloric elements in an otherwise familiar setting of a coastal English village you can unsettle the reader and take them to a place where the past and present merge.

This wasn’t the only tale I borrowed. One of the inspirations for the book was a true story from the 1830s which involved a cunning woman and two murder cases. The cunning folk were men and women who carried on an ancient tradition acted as herbalists, and offered protection against witchcraft, although they were sometimes confused with witches. In an age before modern medicine and in times of poverty and hardship, cunning folk provided much needed reassurance and help. In my novel, Janey, the cunning woman is a midwife, a creator of potions and repository of herbal knowledge. Such people would often have lived on the margins of society, both revered and feared, bridges between the ancient and the modern.

I’m also interested in how many rituals, festivals and beliefs were tied into the seasons and times of the year in the past, something that seems to be disappearing in our global, digital and hyper-connected world. The rhythms and cadences were different; we used to have many more rites around times like the coming of spring, the harvest and midwinter. I found a rich source of inspiration for many of the rituals I include in The Marsh House from a quirky book called The Norfolk Garland. Published in 1872, it’s a treasure trove of insight into rural traditions surrounding fertility rites, birth and baptism, death and burial and reminding us that beneath the veneer of Christian civilisation another, older system of belief endures. As Rosemary says in the novel, ‘There are ways older than motor cars and electricity and telephones that persist, like the black layer of mud on the marsh.’

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