The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Witch In-Grain" (1894)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Witch In-Grain” was written by R. Murray Gilchrist and first appeared in The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances (1894). Gilchrist (1868-1917) was a British journalist and writer. He is most remembered for The Stone Dragon, a collection of critically well-regarded Decadent horror stories. “Witch In-Grain” is a memorable story about a medieval witch.
The narrator, a nameless English lord, has a problem. His lover Michal has recently become obsessed with some French “black-letter books,” and when the narrator visits her one day he finds her changed. She has become haggard, her eyes have sunk into her face, and she generally seems to have aged many years, although the change only adds to her beauty. But the narrator also sees a huge golden bird sitting on her lap and pecking at the flesh of her breast. He is concerned at this, but she only expresses irritation at being interrupted by him. When he inquires about the bird, she asks him odd questions and smiles cryptically. The narrator is troubled, and when his men capture Mother Benmusk, an old woman everyone is certain is a witch, she cries out to Michal, “Save me, mistress!”1 The narrator and his men become convinced that Mother Benmusk has bewitched Michal, who refuses to prick her arm and demonstrate that she is innocent. Under torture Mother Benmusk claims that she is innocent and has “none but pawtry secrets,” and tells the narrator to “go at midnight to the heath and watch Baldus’s tomb. There thou shalt find all.”2 The narrator does so, although he is frightened, since King Baldus’ grave is not a place he would ordinarily have visited after dark. The narrator passes through a horde of animals fleeing from the area around the grave. When he reaches the grave he sees Michal, “triumphing, invested with flames,” and an unholy Shape wrapping her “in his blackness.”3
“Witch In-Grain” is, like most of Gilchrist’s work, part of the English Decadent movement, although Gilchrist was more profoundly influenced by the French variety. Too, like most of Gilchrist’s work “Witch In-Grain” has a feminist element to it, emphasizing feminine power and agency and reversed gender roles. Finally, despite being in the Decadent mode, “Witch In-Grain”–again, like most of Gilchrist’s short fiction–has significant Gothic elements.4
“Witch In-Grain” is an odd, intense, and in its way powerful story. It has the in media res feel of a vignette, with no introduction of characters or explanation of who they are. But Gilchrist quickly and vividly conjures up a medieval and eldritch atmosphere. This atmosphere, and the story’s unexplained but genuine-seeming folklore, leaves “Witch In-Grain” to linger long in the reader’s memory. (“In-grain” means “downright, by nature, pure and simple, genuine, thorough”).
Print: R. Murray Gilchrist, A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread. New York: Wordworth Editions, 2006.
1 Murray Gilchrist, “Witch In-Grain,” in The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances (London: Methuen, 1894), 102.
2 Gilchrist, “Witch In-Grain,” 104.
3 Gilchrist, “Witch In-Grain,” 105.
4 Laurence Bush covers this at length in “R. Murray Gilchrist’s Short Fiction: A Missing Link Between English Decadence and Feminism,” Thesis, California State University, Long Beach, 2010.