The Witches has become the default title of Peter Curtis’s 1960 occult novel, due to the 1966 Hammer adaptation. It was originally The Devil’s Own, however, and later became The Little Wax Doll, published under the author’s real name of Norah Lofts. This latest edition comes from Hammer itself, as one of a number of reprints and new novelizations designed to cash in on the rebirth of the famous horror studio.
The Witches is an old-fashioned potboiler, written at a time when seemingly normal English people everywhere were abandoning themselves to the Devil, casting off their clothes to indulge in all manner of naughtiness. In Curtis’s story, Miss Mayfield arrives in Walwyk to take up the post of village schoolteacher, but soon finds herself playing the amateur detective, investigating a series of suspicious deaths and illnesses, and the apparent abuse of 14-year-old Ethel by her elderly granny. Not long after she reveals her concerns to Canon Thorby, Walwyk’s kindly figurehead, an accident puts her safely out of the way — but the determined Miss Mayfield returns incognito to save Ethel and expose the village’s underground cult.
The book is repackaged with a sexy cover that bears little relation to the plot, and no wonder, for there is little sexy about the original story. At the height of a satanic orgy, we read of the “fat round haunches” of the village postmistress, and an elderly woman’s breasts are described as “pendulous … like empty paper bags” — it’s hardly 50 Shades of Grey, and we view it all through the eyes of a virtually asexual spinster who must look away just when it gets interesting (the afore-mentioned pensioner does something so vile with a communion chalice, even we aren’t given the details).
The plot has the making of a thriller, but the pace is too slow to generate any real tension. It also seems Miss Mayfield is the only character explored in any depth. Canon Thorby and his sister, Isabel, are disappointingly bland characters compared to their versions in Nigel Kneale’s later adaptation for Hammer (played by Alec McCowen and Kay Walsh, respectively).
The Witches is a curio that can’t compete with the best horror fiction, despite being quite charmingly well-written in places. It appears designed to have entertained the Miss Mayfields of the day — reserved ladies who politely look away at the first sign of debauchery — but it will probably not excite modern readers much.