LA MALROCHE (1833) – By Louisa Stuart Costello. Halloween month continues here at Balladeer’s Blog with yet another look at a neglected work of Gothic Horror, this one dealing with witchcraft, a monstrous child and supernatural beasts. Louisa Costello, the female author of this eerie tale, deserves to be much better known.
La Malroche refers to a mountain in a dreaded and generally avoided area of 1830s France. At the foot of that mountain is the town of Escures, where only people too poor to have fled the area still live. Also near the foot of La Malroche is the home of the witch called La Bonne Femme (“The Good Woman”) by the local citizenry, a title bestowed on her out of fear rather than merit.
With no doctors willing to run a practice near the sinister area, La Bonne Femme, despite being feared, was relied upon by the villagers for medical aid as well as for the supernatural spells and curses she would provide for a heavy price. Cyprien, a craftsman of musical instruments and the story’s hero, is the latest citizen to call upon the witch for her services as a midwife for his wife Ursule, who has gone into labor.
La Bonne Femme delivered Ursule long ago, and secretly caused the death of her mother in childbirth as revenge for the mother trying to shun the services of “that old witch”. Still carrying a grudge the witch delivers Cyprien and Ursule’s son but surreptitiously casts a spell upon him.
The bewitched infant throws a fit and struggles to leave the house when La Bonne Femme leaves a few days later, and only settles down when the witch returns and whispers something into the child’s ear. Cyprien’s son (who, oddly, is never named in the story) then settles down and the sinister woman returns to her home.
Nine days later the baby begins throwing another loud tantrum and struggling to leave and is so strong it takes the mother, father and the new nurse to subdue the child. Eventually a gust of wind blows the door open, and, obviously through another spell cast by La Bonne Femme, the little boy is calmed and goes to sleep.
This time the infant would not wake for nine days, but when he did he was much bigger than he should have been for his tender age. By six months the sinister-looking child could walk and run like much older children and was supernaturally strong. The child no longer needed sleep and so, night and day it would do nothing but play one of the instruments his father crafted – the cabretta, a combination wind, string and percussion instrument that French people in that region used to play their raucous folk music. La Mal-Rock’N’Roll?
At any rate the child played the bizarre music it composed itself for days on end, frightening and aggravating everyone within hearing range of the boy’s macabre little pieces of music. Cyprien seeks out the help of a clergyman in the nearest city, who prepares his crucifixes and Holy Water and sets forth with Cyprien to exorcise the cursed child.
La Malroche features all this plus the bewitched son transforming into a creature with a wolf’s body but still with his human head (think of The Mephisto Waltz). La Bonne Femme is able to transform herself into such a creature, too, and leads an entire pack of these monsters to prey on the cattle and people of the countryside.
There’s also a confrontation between Cyprien, the clergyman and the pack of were-beasts, a lengthy exorcism ordeal, chilling descriptions of the interior of the witch’s home and more! * SPOILERS AHEAD * –
The child is eventually saved, returned to human form and cleansed of the witch’s spell but must join a monastery for life to prevent a relapse. La Bonne Femme is slain in a fire that consumes her macabre house but she continues to haunt the area as a ghost in her wolf-woman form.
Also, the superstitious villagers thenceforth shun playing the cabretta plus the folk music and wild dances that accompanied the music. They blame the music and dancing for inviting evil on them all, making this story a sort of “reverse- Footloose“.
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