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Friday 4 November 2022

Friday Faction: The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain

There are plenty of good guides to the weird and wonderful past of Great Britain. The country is rich in folklore, the occult, magic and mysteries, horrors and hauntings, and much, much more, and so has been subject to numerous books and guides. The Readers Digest Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain and The Lore of The Land, backed up with Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, will give anyone with an interest in the myths and legends of the United Kingdom a good grounding in the subject, but both are hefty books. So they are not easily carried on the go, and in the case of both The Readers Digest Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, several decades old. The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain does a similar job and covers much of the same material, but differs in two important ways. First, it is a more recent treatment of the subject and second, it is smaller and thus infinitely portable. In fact, The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain is actually designed to be portable for it actually includes the post codes for each of the numerous locations and sites described in its pages—though it is unlikely that all of these sites actually receive anything via Royal Mail (other delivery services may deliver). What this means is that the sites of the various standing stones, ghost sightings, occult personages, and more, are all easy to find. The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain may not be pocket-sized, but digest-sized, it is easy to carry around.

The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain is published by Hellebore, which collates various essays and pieces devoted to British folk horror—including folklore, myth, history, archaeology, psychogeography, witches, and the occult—into a series of fanzines. It covers the United Kingdom, region by region and country by country, so Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, as well as England—with London as a separate location. It starts in the southwest in Cornwall, and moves steadily east and north. The maps are marked with clear icons, including ‘Witches and Cunning Folk’, ‘The Old Gods’, ‘Magic, Rituals, and the Occult’, ‘Ancient Megaliths’, ‘Ports to the Otherworld’, and more. So in Dorset, Bradbury Rings and Cerne Abbas are the site of ‘The Old Gods’; Avebury and Stonehenge sites of ‘Ancient Megaliths’ in Wiltshire; ‘Witches and Cunning Folk’ of Pendle in Lancashire; and the ‘Curses and Portents’ of Cleopatra’s Needle and the ‘Magic, Rituals, and the Occult’ at both the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert, all in London. This barely touches upon the hundreds and hundreds of entries in The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain.

The various regions across The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain are colour coded, each region’s entries combining a mixture of short descriptions with slightly longer pieces. For example, Worcestershire has short entries on the Fleece Inn with its three white circles inn front of its fireplace to prevent the entry of witches via the chimney and Penda’s Fen, the children’s television series from the seventies, but longer entries on Bredon Hill and Wychbury Hill, the latter the site of an iron age hillfort, several follies, and the mystery of Bella in the Wych Elm. London is an exception to this with numerous entries under several different banners, such as Bloomsbury with the British Museum, Freemason’s Hall, and amusingly, both Treadwell’s Bookshop and The Atlantic Bookshop, and Hawksmoor’s London and Doctor John Dee’s London (Dee will also have entries for Manchester and Oxford).

Where The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain differs from other books of legend and folklore is its inclusion of sites particular to film, television, and literature. As with the other categories used in the book, these are clearly marked on the maps. For example, Aldeburgh in Suffolk is listed under ‘Film and Television Locations’ for the Martello Tower there, as it was the basis for M.R. James’ ‘A Warning to the Curious’, whilst several locations across southwest Scotland are listed as locations for the classic British folkloric horror film, The Wicker Man. There are not too many of the film, television, and literature locations throughout the volume, but in the case of the film and television entries, they add visual cues in particular for the imagination.

Physically, The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain is cleanly, if tightly laid out, primarily in black and white with the occasional use of spot colour. If there is an issue with the book it is that the liberal illustrations are not as crisply produced as they could be. The book does include an index and a list of references as well.

For roleplaying purposes, The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain is a useful book to have to hand. It is a veritable fount of ideas and hooks that the Game Master could turn into roleplaying encounters, scenarios, or mysteries for her gaming group. No more than that though, for the entries are thumbnail-sized and should be considered to be pointers or starters for the Game Master who will then need to conduct a little more research to flesh out the scenario or mystery. Nevertheless, much of the content would work in a wide range of horror roleplaying games, including They came from Beyond the Grave! from Onyx Path Publishing or Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition from Chaosium, Inc., as well as specifically United Kingdom-based roleplaying games, like Liminal from Wordplay Games, The Dee Sanction: Adventures in Covert Enochian Intelligence from Just Crunch Games, Vaesen – Mythic Britain & Ireland for Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying from Free League Publishing, or Fearful Symmetries for Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press.

The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain is an indispensable travel guide to the legends and folklore of Britain. It is not so much a definite reference guide, but more a reference starter, a point from where the reader (or gamer) can have her interest piqued and from there conduct her own further reading and investigations. Compact, but full of interesting content, The Hellebore Guide to Occult Britain is an excellent little tome to take off the shelf and flip through or even have handy in the bag when you want to find something really interesting to visit nearby.

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