Ianto Jones trades alien menaces for folk horror in a superior ghost story for Christmas as the Mari Lwyd comes knocking in Torchwood: The Grey Mare
Ghost stories and Christmas go together like plum pudding and custard and in the past few years Big Finish’s Torchwood range has made sure to make a particularly spooky offering each December. But the association between the Happiest Time of the Year® and the horrors of the dark go back much further than the traditional M.R. James Ghost Story for Christmas. It’s a history 2021’s entry Torchwood: The Grey Mare pays tribute to, as Ianto Jones finds himself targeted by the Mari Lwyd, a spectre which has haunted Welsh Christmas Eves for time out of mind.
One of the most consistent motifs of the Torchwood range has been than Ianto just can’t catch a break. Mystery and death follow him everywhere he goes and there’s a certain inevitability that, heading off into the depths of rural Wales to spend a quiet Christmas away from all the horrors of working at Torchwood, he immediately winds up neck deep in a battle for survival.
The story delves deep into the Welsh Mari Lwyd tradition for inspiration in this genuinely unsettling story of the living besieged by the dead
Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari
A sacred thing through the night they carry.
Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead
All are confused by a horse’s head.
Before long he and his temporary landlady Mrs. Watkins have the Mari Lwyd a knock-knock-knocking on their door. She explains for the unfamiliar Ianto (and the audience) the centuries old tradition of several of the men from the village carrying forth a life size puppet of an apparition in a wedding dress with a horse’s skull for a head, seeking shelter and aid at every house. But it’s a grotesque caller that must never, ever be let in. Except what follows is not the pwnco game Watkins expects. Instead of the ancient form of rap battle with rhymes used to demand entry, or give excuses why they can’t let them in, until one side falters, this Mari Lwyd wants in at any cost. And the traditional ‘pale men’ supporting her seem paler than usual. Almost like corpses…
The Grey Mare is a study in eerie atmosphere and a worthy addition to the genre
Like the best Yuletide creepfests, The Grey Mare grounds itself in its atmosphere. The small group of survivors Ianto assembles as the Mari makes her way around the village, taking the locals for her own one household at a time, have little to do but sit tight and hope to live until dawn. But the sense of being under siege is palpable and the Mari Lwyd herself, all guttural threats and neighing shrieks, is a wonderfully unsettling piece of sound work. Just as unsettling are the periods of the play where the grey mare prowls around the edges of the play, leaving the characters to despairingly wonder why this is happening to them. And by the halfway point, every rustle of a tree and gust of wind has the listener on high alert for the resumption of the banging horse hooves on the door.
Great use is also made of Vernon Watkins’ Ballad of the Mari Lwyd, with quotes from the 1941 poem expertly deployed to send a shiver up the spine. With its masterful use of atmosphere reminiscent of classics like The Haunting and certain scenes of The Devil Rides Out, Torchwood: The Grey Mare is a fine addition not just to the Torchwood range but the Christmas folk horror tradition. Even for those that aren’t particular Torchwood fans, or even Doctor Who fans, this is the perfect stocking filler for anyone you know who like a fright before bedtime. Because it may be a New Year already, but it’s never too late to start planning your excuses for next Christmas Eve. Because the Mari Lwyd will surely be waiting for them…
Torchwood: The Grey Mare
The Mari Lwyd is a fine Welsh Christmas Tradition – the skeleton of a horse roams the streets, begging to be let in for food and warmth. Once she knocks, only the most cunning can send her away.
Ianto has come to a remote village for a quiet Christmas. But the Mari Lwyd has come knocking. And she’s real.
Torchwood: The Grey Mare is available now as a collector’s edition CD at £10.99 or on download from the Big Finish website at £8.99. Listeners of the Big Finish Torchwood range can save money by ordering a bundle of stories. A six-release bundle is £60 on CD or £50 on download – or save even more money by ordering all twelve of the latest Torchwood releases together at £110 on CD or £94 on download.