The Blasted Heath

The blasted heath

All kinds of entities can be haunted or possessed. People. Animals. Houses. Cities. But what about places? Dark woods. Dank caves. Swamps and deserts. And finally, there is that classic of gothic literature – the blasted heath! 

The Blasted Heath in Scotland 

I don’t know about you but when I hear that phrase, I immediately think of Macbeth, the Shakespeare play I studied in High School. Macbeth is technically a tragedy but there are horror and supernatural elements too. Perhaps the main one of these is the three witches or ‘weird sisters’ who appear and disappear at will. 

In Act 1, Scene 3 of the play, the witches meet Macbeth and give him a prediction that he will be a king although his descends will not. As they begin to vanish, Macbeth calls out to them. 

Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more: 

… Say from whence 

You owe this strange intelligence? or why 

Upon this blasted heath you stop our way 

With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. 

The phrase also appears in the tragic play of King Lear. In Act 3, Scene 2, the storm scene is located on a ‘blasted heath’. But apparently this is not Shakespeare’s phrase. It comes from a stage direction in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition. 

The Blasted Heath in Arkham 

HP Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space is about a surveyor who tries to uncover the mystery behind an area in the hills west of Arkham known by locals as the “blasted health”. 

When I went into the hills and vales to survey for the new reservoir, they told me the place was evil. They told me this in Arkham, and because that is a very old town full of witch legends, I thought the evil must be something which grandams had whispered to children through centuries. The name “blasted heath” seemed to me very odd and theatrical, and I wondered how it had come into the folklore of a Puritan people. Then I saw that dark westward tangle of glens and slopes for myself, and ceased to wonder at anything besides its own elder mystery… 

But even all this was not so bad as the blasted heath. I knew it the moment I came upon it at the bottom of a spacious valley; for no other name could fit such a thing, or any other thing fit such a name. It was as if the poet had coined the phrase from having seen this one particular region. It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields? 

He found the answer to this question in a meteorite that crashed into this land about fifty years before this. There was something in this fallen heavenly object that slowly poisoned the soil, made the water undrinkable, altered the animals, and brought madness to the humans. 

What Blasts a Blasted Health? 

The Scottish heath was blasted because of the presence of malignant witches. The Arkham heath was blasted because of the presence of a malignant alien life-form. Is this what gives these heaths these blasted nature? Is it the presence of a moral evil that negatively impacts the environment around it? 

An answer to this question comes from the film version of a great gothic short story. Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher was brought to our screens in a 1960 American horror film of the same name by Roger Gorman. In it, Roderick Usher – played to perfection by Vincent Price – explains the reason behind his house’s fall in dialogue that is not in the original text. 

Forgive me quoting it at length, but it explains so much in such elegant language. 

Last night you asked me about the singular aridity of the land around this house. Once this land was fertile, farms abounded. Earth yielded her riches at harvest time. There were trees and plant life, flowers. Fields of grain. There was great beauty here. At that time this water was clear and fresh. Swans glided upon its crystal surface. Animals came to its bank, trustingly, to drink. But this was long before my time. 

And then something crept across the land and blacked it. The trees lost their foliage. The flowers languished and died. Shrubs grew brown and shrivelled. The grain fields perished. And the lakes and ponds became black and stagnant. And the land withered as before a plague. A plague of evil. 

Anthony Usher, thief, usurer, merchant of flesh. Bernard Usher. Swindler, forger. Jewel thief. Drug addict. Francis Usher, professional assassin. Vivian Usher. Blackmailer, harlot, murderess. She died in a madhouse. Captain David Usher, smuggler, slave trader, mass murderer. 

This house is centuries old. It was brought here from England. And with it every evil rooted in its stones. Evil is not just a word. It is reality. Like any living thing. It can be created and was created by these people. 

The history of the Ushers is a history of savage degradations. First in England, and then in New England. And always in this house. Always in this house. Born of evil which feels, it is no illusion. For hundreds of years, foul thoughts and foul deeds have been committed within its walls. The house itself is evil now. 

The blackening of the landscape flowed out from the black hearts and black deeds of the Ushers who lived in it. This moral blasting spread at first to the house, and then out from the house, like poison or a plague, corrupting all around it with decay and death. 

Other Blasted Heaths 

I’m sure there are many examples in stories of places where the malignant environments match their malignant inhabitants. But there are at least three that come to my mind. 

Wuthering Heights 

The 1847 novel by Emily Brontë is a classic of gothic fiction, with controversial depictions of physical and mental cruelty, revenge, curses and ghosts. But the West Yorkshire moors – barren and uncultivated, with its storms, stunted firs and gaunt thorns – is a distinct character all by itself. It matches perfectly the nature of the novel’s antihero: Heathcliff. The word ‘wuthering’ means to blow strongly with a roaring sound, but it’s no accident that it sounds like ‘withering’! 

The Lord of the Rings 

The land of Mordor, where the shadows lie, is the land of evil in Tolkien’s legendarium. It has an active volcano that makes much of it ashen, riddled with dust, and toxic. The landscape of Mordor is described by Tolkien as largely grassless, bare, jagged and barren. Any pools of water are dark and surrounded by mire. Apparently, Tolkien based it on the industrially blighted Black Country of Birmingham, the First World War’s Western front, and the volcano Stromboli off the north coast of Sicily.  

The Waste Land 

T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land takes its title from the Arthurian story of the Fisher King. He’s a king who is wounded, and whose wound has made him infertile. The land over which he reigns becomes sterile as a result, reflecting the condition of its monarch. Both land and liege are baron, just like the plague of infertility on Thebes – affecting its crops, cattle and citizens – due to the actions of Oedipus the King. 

Blasted Heaths in the Bible 

The story of humanity starts with a garden (Eden) and ends with a garden-city (heaven). But, in between, due to our fall into sin, the entire world has become a sort of blasted heath to us. 

“Cursed is the ground for your sake; 

In toil you shall eat of it 

All the days of your life. 

Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, 

And you shall eat the herb of the field. 

In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread 

Till you return to the ground, 

For out of it you were taken; 

For dust you are, 

And to dust you shall return.” 

Genesis 3:17-19

There are also particular places that are under a particular curse by God due to the actions of its inhabitants.  For instance, Edom, the land of the descendants of Esau, suffers such a blight and a divine blasting. Multiple prophets predict its doom. 

  • Malachi – The hill country of Edom was turned into a wasteland and a desert, a place of devastation that is only fit for demolition (1:3-4) 
  • Jeremiah – Edom will become an object of horror, impossible to live in, with desolate pastures and earthquakes (49:17-18, 20-21) 
  • Isaiah – The streams of will be turned to tar, its soil to sulphur, and the land will become a blazing pitch, unquenchable and smoke ridden forever (34:9-10), full of thrones, briers, and creatures of the night (13-14) 

All of which makes me ask the question: If a health is blasted, then what – or Who – has done the blasting?

Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash

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