Hood, Head, and Hag by John Billingsley, Editor of Northern Earth

European folk tales made the journey across the Atlantic early on and were well planted into American soil by their determined keepers. Many of the stories in Billingsley’s book therefore have a comforting familiarity while invoking startling reunions with characters far older than my years. And much like the ancient songs lost in the “hollers” of Appalachia centuries ago, these old stories compress time and distance so profoundly I find myself face to face with my ancestors as though they and I are again one and the same.

The threads of those stories remained alive and well into my own childhood with their characteristic adaptation to local events and the inevitable evolution of history. But the detail in Hood, Head and Hag is delicious! Billingsley makes it possible to catch a whiff of the moors and feel the blast of cold air that prompts the skeletal remains of plants to shudder in its wake. I can hear the voices of the storytellers as though I was sitting with them listening, spellbound, while hearing the fire crackle and the wind howl against the shutters. I found myself enthralled reading The Virgin’s Tale and Mary’s Tree. I was reminded that Frank and Jesse James were often likened to Robin Hood, believed to have left alone the poor and hard-working but forever reluctant to actually share the booty with them.

But decidedly different thoughts came to mind with Shape Shifting and Familiars, widespread still among the Navajo and neighboring tribes with their skin walkers, owls, and cats. At this very moment there are uncountable rituals taking place, doctoring sickness and bad luck, resulting in the death of a suspected witch and the recovery of the victim. And the distinction drawn between witches and cunning folk cannot be dismissed either. Daily I see the same distinction drawn between witches, and spirit handlers, singers, hand tremblers, crystal gazers and the like. I can’t help but wonder if such themes are universally human or they illustrate a persistent awareness of the worlds that perpetually overlap the only one we are inclined to acknowledge. I have listened to traditional storytellers for decades. The eloquent, protracted cadence has always been consuming and anticipatory. Billingsley’s work invokes that same smoky mysticism I find so captivating in the words of those old timers. Hood, Head and Hag, like all of his books, is a must-have for both British and American readers.

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