:: Article

Under the Sign of the Black Raven

By Timothy J. Jarvis.

I have, for some time, been collecting strange texts, in particular those unsettling artefacts which describe fantastic events in such a way as to seem more account than story. I thrill to the shock of the uncanny they give rise to, though I’m aware most are, in all likelihood, mere fictions designed to evoke precisely that shudder. Occasionally, though, I happen across one which cannot easily be dismissed as fabrication. This is the tale of one such text and the terrible events it gave rise to.

In 2004, a friend of mine, Martin Camblin, a scholar of Early Modern English drama, was sent to examine some annotations a private collector had discovered in a copy of the third quarto of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which, or so the collector thought, provided new information pertaining to the authorship of the 1602 additions to the play. In fact, the marginalia were clearly a much later forgery and of little interest. However, Martin did find, tucked into the book, folded into quarters, something that intrigued him: a handbill advertising what sounded a bizarre spectacle:


Handbills advertising similar freakish attractions at sixteenth and seventeenth century London fairs being commonplace, the collector had considered the flyer of little interest, an insignificant document used as a bookmark, had not even opened it out. Martin, though, was fascinated by the genre and unfolded the handbill to examine it more closely. In doing so, he discovered, on the back, a short text:


The collector merely shrugged when Martin pointed out the odd note, dismissed it as ‘doggerel’. Martin, horribly fascinated, asked the collector if he would be prepared to part with the handbill, and he agreed to do so, for a modest sum.

Intrigued by his find, Martin, for a few months, spent much of his spare time in research, hoping to discover something to cast light on the dark enigma. At some point during this period, knowing my interest in such things, he showed me the handbill, asked my opinion of it. I told him that, though the handbill itself was certainly real, I thought the note faked. He enquired why; I pointed out how neat the hand was. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘But you’ve no imagination. I find that utterly chilling.’

Martin’s investigations into the strange handbill turned up nothing. But then, in late 2006, entirely by chance, while researching witch trials in early Jacobean London, he found the following account in a handwritten newssheet of September 1608:

Today ſaw the Triall of a young Woman for Witchery and Black Murder. The defendant, Rachael Camlet, of Highgate, pleaded Innocence at her Arraignement, but the Opinione of the Court was of her Guilt, and ſhe was Convicted and Sentenced to be Burnt.
   Witnesses related to the Court that Rachael was founde, in Januarie this Year, by a Neighboure, who, hearing a Deviliſh Tumulte, entered the Houſe of Rachael’s Husbande, Walter Camlet, a Mercere. The Neighboure found Rachael in the Library of that Houſe, inſenſible, weltering in the bloode of her Husbande, Walter, and of their three Servantes. The Neighboure, ſtricken with horror at what he ſaw, called for aſsiſtance. Others were alſo diſtreſsed. There weere cleare Signs of Witchery and foulneſs and the Murders were moſt vile.
   Rachael was taken to the Village Lock-up, for her Incarceration. When ſhe came againe to herſelf, ſhe raved about murderous Goode Folke. The manie who ſaw her in her cell ſpoke of Diabolic Poſseſsion.
   At the Triall the Court was told, by Walter’s Mother, Marjorie Camlet, how Rachael had committed Adulterie with a fallen Prieſt, during one of her Husbande’s long trade voyages, and got with child. Walter, a compaſsionate Man, returning to finde his Wife ſwolt, did not caſt her out, but let her ſtay on with him, at his Houſe. After the birth, during Rachael’s Confinemente, the Child was given to an Orphanage, and Walter, a goode man, ſuffered his wife to ſtaye on with him.
   Theere was one who ſpoke in defenſe of Rachael, a Mary Pepperhill, friend of the accuſed, a looſe woman certainly, and mayhap another Witch. She ſtated ſhe had been at the Froſt Faire on the Thames with Rachael the weeke before the murders, and that they had ſeene a Faerie Child theere, and that Rachael had become excited, certaine the Changeling was in ſooth the Child her Husband had taken from her, and ſworn to get it back. She thought Rachael had acted on this Oathe, and that the Charlatans ſhewing the Changeling might be behinde the Murders. Mary’s teſtimony was diſcredited though, by her railing againſt the virtuous Walter and Marjorie, whom ſhe called Inceſtuous.
   The Court did not pauſe before declaring Rachael’s Guilte.
   A curiouſe Appendix was provided by Locals of Highgate. It was tolde how Something was Wrong with the Houſe of Camlet after theſe Happenings, Something moſt Dreadful and Weirde, with the Proportions or the Shadowes, and no man could abide the place. Hence, in March, it was burn’d to the grounde by diſtract Villagers.

For some time after discovering the newssheet, Martin continued his enquiries. He learnt nothing further, as far as I’m aware.

In the summer of 2007, I lost contact with Martin. I learnt, during the winter of that year, from mutual friends, that no one had seen or heard from him for some months, not even his family or long-term girlfriend, Ruth. Then, on the 13th March, 2008, during a hailstorm, I happened to look out the window and saw him, outside my building, huddled beneath an old oak. I went to the front door of the block, called him over, took him up to my flat. He told me he’d been waiting for me, then began raving about ‘the Folk’ and eldritch terrors, said he was going to destroy ‘the cursed handbill’. I asked him if, instead, he would be prepared to sell it to me. A look of cunning fleeted across his face and he agreed, naming a small sum.

He went away, returning about an hour later with the flyer and a sheet of feint-ruled paper on which he had copied out the account from the newssheet. I paid him, and he left again. The next day, he rang me and, frantic, snivelling, begged me to burn the handbill. When I asked him why I should, he abruptly hung up.

Three weeks after that desperate ’phone call, Ruth and her parents were found, in her flat, brutally slain. Martin could not be located, was the main suspect in the killings. After his research field became known, the press troped the scene of the killings as the bloody climax of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. I don’t, therefore, know how many of the reported details were exaggerated or partially invented – the eyes scooped from their sockets, the breasts hacked off, the genitals mutilated, the tongues torn out at the root – but certainly the victims died gruesomely.

Two days later, Martin came to my building again. This time he pressed the buzzer for my flat. Wary, I did not let him in, but spoke to him on the intercom. He pleaded with me. I was the only one, he said, who knew the truth, that he wasn’t a killer, that it was the Fair Folk who’d turned Ruth’s flat into a gory shambles. He bitterly cursed the day he discovered the handbill; it was his investigations, he claimed, that had drawn the Folk’s notice.

‘They meant no particular malice, though,’ he whined, then stifled a frenzied laugh. ‘They were just revelling, were encouraged by our screams.’

The police had frozen his bank account; he asked if he could borrow some money.

I went downstairs, opened the front door to my apartment block. Seeing him huddled, cowering, in the porch, I was shocked: he looked ravaged, feral. I took him to a cash machine, got out some money for him. Baring his teeth in thanks, he took it from me, then turned, loped away. I never saw him again.

There are two brief epilogues to this tale. In the summer of 2009, I was involved in a project studying the earliest ‘corantos’, or printed newssheets, circulated in Britain. In one, from May 1621, I found the following brief item:

Two Men were beaten to Death in Februarie this Year, by the vexed folk of the Citie of Norwich for Charlatanrie. The Offenſe was the diſplaying of a Changeling, which was but an ordinary Human Infant thieved from an Orphanage that they made to appear to ſpeak by a kind of caſting of the voice, perhaps related to the Gaſtromancie or Ventriloquie of Witches. This Deception they had been practiſing for manie years.

Then, about four months later, ascending the escalator at Southwark underground station, I found a folded piece of paper in the pocket of my overcoat, put there, I suppose, by someone under the cover of the press of the crowd on the tube. On it was scrawled the following verse:

We rend your flesh, we are the Fay,
We break your bones, we are the Fay,
We spill your blood, we are the Fay,
You are the Fey, you are our prey.


Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and academic who currently lives and works in London. He has had short fiction published in New Writing 13, a British Council anthology, American speculative fiction collection, Leviathan 4: Cities, and in Prospect Magazine. He maintains a blog of antic found texts at treatisesondust.wordpress.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 15th, 2012.