Support Indie Authors Spring Weekend Giveaway

The ‘Support Indie Authors’ group is running a spring giveaway event over the weekend Friday 31st March to Sunday 2nd April. Over these three days, you will be able to download more than a hundred books for free, or at a discount. A couple of my tales will be amongst them, so do visit the website on the flyer below. The associated twitter hashtag is #SIAFBB

Old Crotchet – Free Promotion

Free download on Kindle from Thursday 16th to Friday 17th March, a wry supernatural comedy – Old Crotchet. 

Old Crotchet – her manor, her rules. Cross her at your peril. There’s little that will rile a woman more than 300 years of age than the arrival of some flighty young upstart intent upon displacing her. It is Twelfth Night by the old reckoning, and festivities are about to commence as something sinister stirs from its protracted dormancy, awakened, it seems, by the arrival of two young guests. The old ways, they find, should not be treated lightly.  

The first in a cycle of wry standalone tales, many with a supernatural or occult theme, set in the West Country.

‘Pagan Britain,’ Ronald Hutton, Yale University Press, 2013.

Professor Hutton is, perhaps, one of the most affable and publicly recognisable academics in Britain today and, arguably, its greatest authority on this country’s pagan history and heritage. In this volume, he sets himself the task of surveying the rise and fall of paganism in our island story, from the distant Palaeolithic to the early modern period. However, whereas the matter of the pagan revivalism of the past century is touched upon, it is not treated in any depth in itself, although it is considered in connection with the retro-projection of its beliefs, and practices, into the distant past. He has previously dealt with the subject matter of the history of Wicca in his book, ‘The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,’ a work that, apparently, caused umbrage amongst certain elements of the contemporary pagan community.  

The primary message that came through in this thorough and engaging treatment of the subject was this: there is much that remains in terms of the material legacy of the pagan past, yet next to nothing with respect to our knowledge of the concrete beliefs and rituals conducted by pagans at various points in the pre-Christian era of our island. Much of what is commonly supposed about the pagan beliefs of the inhabitants of Britain is little more than that: supposition, based upon the most tenuous of textual evidence, and erroneous conjecture arising from the once widespread belief that the uneducated mediaeval populace adhered to a basically pagan set of beliefs beneath a superficial veneer of Christian piety. None the less, it is this very absence of certainty with respect to the beliefs and practices of our pagan past, in which much of this subject’s charm and appeal inheres; it is cloaked in an aura of mysticism.    

Hutton marshals and interprets an impressive array of evidence to provide an outline of developments in ritual practice. From prehistory we by definition have access only to archaeological remains, but this period has bequeathed to us such a rich legacy of different types of ceremonial monument – henges, stone avenues, barrows cursuses, dolmens, etc. – that it is evident, thanks to the development of carbon dating, that beliefs were far from static. From the Mesolithic onwards, there were significant shifts in monumental form, with many sites – the most famous of all being Stonehenge – being refashioned over the centuries and millennia, presumably to keep pace with changing ritual practice and belief. As to the detail of the actual substance of these beliefs – the names of any gods, goddesses and spirits called upon and propitiated, and the mythologies attendant upon them – they will forever remain beyond our grasp. Only with the entry of the island of Britain into the orbit of the ancient literary cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, do we find any indications as to what these beliefs and deities were, and even then, what we are left with is fragmentary and, perhaps, rather tendentious in nature; it does not present us with an objective ethnographic commentary on the beliefs and practices of the ancient Britons. We remain in the historical twilight. 

Rather more is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Roman conquerors, and cult precincts and associated dedicatory inscriptions reveal that many of their gods and goddesses were revered here, often, as elsewhere in the Empire, in syncretistic form with native deities, with the most famous case being that of Sulis-Minerva at Bath. To what extent the coming of these new deities supplanted those already resident in the imaginations and devotional practices of the island’s inhabitants is unknown, but it could be argued that an eclectic form of fusion and co-existence took place, before Christianity asserted its grip.  

One question that will also forever go unanswered will be the extent to which late-Roman Britain was Christianised. Evidence exists – such as from the Romano-British pagan temple at Brean Down – that non-Christian beliefs were still adhered to in the second part of the fourth century, which would be consonant with Julian the Apostate’s (361-363) attempt to revive Hellenistic paganism. However, by the time that Theodosius – the last Emperor to rule over both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire – began to vigorously enforce Christianity as the sole state religion from the 380s onwards, Roman Britannia was already in a position of significant material decline and marginalisation, and would be lost to the Empire in 409 or 410.  

The pagans of post-Roman Britain left us no written record of their beliefs and practices, and all we have to go on are a handful of hostile references produced by Christian scholars such as Gildas and Bede. As Hutton emphasises here, we possess only the most tenuous of knowledge relating to the newly arrived deities beyond their names: Woden, Thunor, Tiw and Frigg. Indeed, he calls into question the commonly believed assumption that there was an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre. This appears to possess but the flimsiest of foundations, with Bede’s supposition that Eosturmonuth was named after such a goddess likely to have been a misunderstanding, with the name of the month (equivalent to April), simply meaning ‘the opening month,’ which Hutton suggests could well refer to the unfurling of leaves.  

The material evidence for pagan belief during the fifth to seventh centuries is even more scant than that of earlier eras, for no single pagan temple from this period has been conclusively identified in Britain. What we are presented with, however, are changes in burial practice, that are clearly not Christian, and often include the interment of grave goods alongside the Saxon dead. It seems, however, that once the Anglo-Saxon, British and Pictish elites had adopted Christianity, the new religion readily established itself amongst the mass of the population. What greatly eased this transition, argues Hutton, was Christianity’s ability to present its new followers with an array of saints who functioned in a manner analogous to that of the old gods and goddesses who looked after a particular sphere of life, or a particular place.  

There is much more that Hutton discusses in this book with respect to possible pagan survivals, including mediaeval Welsh and Irish textual sources, as well as folk traditions relating to a parallel supernatural realm populated by fairies, hobgoblins and so on. However, once the pagan Danish settlers had converted to Christianity, it is Hutton’s opinion that paganism ceased to operate as a coherent system of operational belief within the island of Britain. He also dismantles the widely cherished belief in a prehistoric ‘Great Goddess,’ tracing the emergence and development of this concept in modern times, and uses the concept of human sacrifice to show how remains – particularly decapitated ones – can be used both in favour of this theory, and against it. His treatment of these issues, and the subject as a whole, is even-handed, pluralistic and non-prescriptive. He encourages the reader to reflect, and to draw his or her own conclusions with respect to the evidence presented. For anyone interested in this area of our history, this book makes for a rewarding, and essential, read.

 

New Publication: The Cleft Owl

A cunning man, a sick man and a dead man, united by charm and rite. Seventeenth-century Devon was never stranger.  

‘The Cleft Owl’ – a tender discomfort and a gory crown. 

We find ourselves in Widecombe, Dartmoor, in the late autumn of 1683. Dr Robert Tooley – wise man, conjuror and confidence trickster – takes in hand the fortunes of a vulnerable family, as the harshest winter of the century is about to take the parish in its grip. Through his bizarre rites, paid for with their money, he has promised to deliver them from the reach of their tormenter, but the man in question happens to be dead. The gullible villagers, however, entrust their faith to his occult practices, at least for a time. 

Based upon a little-known and strange case, a number of the characters here portrayed – Tooley, the Reverend Tickle and the Worshipful Sir William Bastard – all lived and played a role in the life of this late seventeenth-century community, although it should be noted that the words written here are a loose work of fiction. Inspired by an incident related in Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic.’ To read a sample, click the image above. 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England,’ Keith Thomas, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Thomas Braithwaite makes his will (1607)

Over his long career, Keith Thomas has written a trio of books that are essential reading for anyone interested in the social history of early modern England, with this being his most recent. The theme that it tackles is a perennial one: how to live a good, as in a fulfilled, life. Whereas the reader will encounter goals and attitudes that are not so distant from our own today, there are many beliefs and practices – unsurprisingly found more towards the beginning of the period in question (the book spans the three hundred years from 1500 to 1800) – that are quite unlike those to which all but a fringe few now subscribe. These changes in outlook run in tandem with shifts in the accompanying social and economic order, with the most pronounced transitions during the period in question being associated with a growing commercialism, individualism and secularisation.  

Thus, whereas the mediaeval conception of military glory as virtuous and noble carried over into this period, with martial skills and prowess being seen as an integral part of masculine identity, it gradually ceded its status to the pursuit of wealth, with the military becoming increasingly specialised and professional as feudalism became eclipsed by mercantile, and then industrial, capitalism. The old belligerent ethos was unsuited to the majority in the new commercial age, many of whom now looked down upon the murderous trade plied by those who clung to the ideals of chivalric nobility, or served in the common soldiery. 

One of Thomas’s key observations is that routes to individual fulfilment were vastly more circumscribed at the beginning of this period than towards its end, and alas, many still find that their personal choices are greatly limited by their social and economic status today. Self-realisation is not quite as new a concept as we may often think, and the different ‘roads to fulfilment’ that he sketches – vocational, material, reputational, personal and posthumous – are all at play, to a greater or lesser degree, in our own lives now. 

Thomas’s prose is always a joy to read, being both commendably objective and laced with wit, with contemporary voices from many different stations of life being given the opportunity to address the reader directly, in the form of the many quotations that pepper this text. For those interested in this period of English history, and particularly for those who aspire to write fiction and wish to gain an insight into the varied social milieux of this time, it is an indispensable resource.  

Thomas ends the volume with a quote from a far earlier age – that of Augustan Rome – translated by John Dryden from Horace’s twenty-ninth ode, which is as salutary and joyous now, as it was to its readers in late seventeenth-century England:  

Happy the man, and happy he alone,

He, who can call today his own;

He, who secure within, can say

Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have liv’d today.

Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,

The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate are mine.

Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r;

But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

A Stained Glass Mystery

Whilst writing ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell,’ a festive ghost story with ecclesiastical connections, I was searching around for an authentic late-nineteenth-century stained glass artist whom I could cite as being the creator of a particular window featured in the story. Having carried out a Google image search, I happened upon a picture of window that greatly appealed to me, and so clicked on the link to discover more about it (the image can be accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/47859152@N05/5187150203). Before doing so, I had already decided that providing the name of the artist in question could been ascertained, then he or she would be the one that I chose as the creator of my fictional window. The name was provided – Christopher Whall.  

The window, situated in St Oswald’s Parish Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, was – like the one in my story – a commemorative piece, but what struck me, given that I had already fixed upon the name of my fictitious minster as ‘Grimstone Peverell,’  was the double-barrelled surname of the family which had donated the window to the church: Peveril Turnbull. A far from common surname. It commemorates the death of their two daughters who died in a fire in 1901.  

I then moved on to reading a little more about Christopher Whall and his works, and discovered that only one commission was listed as having been carried out by him in the county of Dorset. This was a window that he created for the new church in the parish of Bothenhampton, a building constructed in accordance with the principles of the English Arts and Crafts Movement in 1890, although the date of the window itself was 1895. What struck me about the year was that this was the same one that I had designated for the commissioning and installation of my fictitious ‘Beke Window.’ How convenient that my chosen artist should actually have been active in Dorset in that very year!  

It seemed rather appropriate that my research for a ghost story should result in such unusual coincidences. As for the identity of the windows portrayed on the cover of ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell,’ and their artist, I shall leave that for readers to puzzle over.

Review: ‘To Walk Invisible,’ BBC1, 29 December 2016

Being otherwise engaged on the evening of 29 December, I finally got around to watching this BBC drama about the Brontës last night. It made for two hours of engaging viewing, with nineteenth-century Haworth brought to life with the assistance of a little CGI and ample additional muck strewn across its cobbled main street. It was a handsome production that paid a great deal of attention to period detail, so what we saw certainly looked as authentic as is practicable in such pieces. For the greater part of the time, the village and surrounding landscape were enveloped in a characteristic Pennine gloom that appeared to have penetrated to the very heart of the parsonage and the individuals who lived within it.

Although the programme opened with the three Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell as children, it dealt, in the main, with their lives as adults, with Branwell’s failures and mental and physical disintegration providing much of the meat of the drama. The story was strong, as was the cast, and the script was, to the greater part, solid, and yet for me this production seemed not to quite realise its full potential. It seemed to suffer from a phenomenon that has crept into much television drama in recent years: ‘soapification.’

‘“Soapification”? What in the blazes does he mean?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is nothing more than the process of making drama fit increasingly into the mould of soap opera, more specifically, making it conform to those exemplars of the genre that revel in misery, shouting and perpetual ill-temper; it was an approach pioneered and popularised by Brookside, and taken up and further exaggerated by Eastenders. Thus it was that the only laughter that we witnessed during the two hours was in one of Branwell’s nightmares, where his family, acquaintances and former lover were laughing at him in a scene of painful humiliation. Amongst the sisters themselves, there was a veritable surfeit of scowling and furrowed brows, a simmering anger unleavened by lighter moments, an atmosphere and mood so unremittingly gloom laden that it was a wonder that the entire family did not lapse into alcoholism and opiate addiction. Their preferred mode of speaking, even whilst out in the wilds of the moors out of earshot of any sheep, let alone any other human being, was whispering, their grumbling and accusatory susurrations at times beyond the range of the viewer’s ear. These observations tempted me to entertain other potential titles for the drama, such as ‘To Speak Inaudible,’ or ‘To Smile Imperceptible.’

Branwell was portrayed as an unruly and disruptive irritant, which I’m sure he was in real life, but the rages that the character in this production displayed seemed to be more appropriate to an adolescent than to a man who was 31 at the time of his death. I had envisioned him as a more subdued depressive, drinking and doping (speaking of which, there appeared to be no reference to his frequent abuse of opiates in this drama) himself to death, whilst his family helplessly looked on. The way in which his manners and conduct, as well as those of his sisters, were portrayed in this programme, did not seem to ring true for the offspring of a nineteenth-century clergyman; the twenty-first century appeared to have rudely intruded into the world of the 1840s.

There must have been some laughter in the lives of Anne, Charlotte and Emily, besides all of the Sturm und Drang which we encountered in this vision of their lives, or at least some brief moments (other than learning of their commercial literary success) during which they experienced at least a little levity. This drama would have benefitted from injecting a little colour into the all-pervading darkness with which it was enveloped; no set of lives is quite so monochrome.

Book Review: ‘Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural,’ ed. Henry Mazzeo, 1968

An entertaining collection of supernatural tales, some by authors that I have previously read, and others that I have not. What united them for me personally was the fact that I came to them all as a fresh reader, for I had not thumbed my way through any of the stories in this volume before. Although a number of the authors included will doubtless be familiar to horror aficionados, some of them were new to me, even a figure so apparently well known as August Derleth.  

Personal tastes differ, so it is just as well that I persevered reading beyond the first story in the collection – Derleth’s ‘The Lonesome Place’ – which I found particularly grating, owing to the extreme repetition of the term ‘lonesome place’ which seemed to pop up in every other sentence throughout the text. I would suggest, therefore, that a more befitting title would be ‘The Tiresome Place.’ Perhaps it would be unfair to judge Derleth too harshly upon the basis of having read only one of his tales, but if this is stylistically in keeping with his oeuvre, then I shall be steering well clear of anything else that he penned. There was one other story in the collection that I thought to be dire, once again owing to its exceptional repetitiveness – far too many ‘whistlings’ and ‘hoonings’ for my taste – entitled ‘The Whistling Room,’ by William Hope Hodgson. It was thus with something of a sardonic chuckle, having compelled myself to read the story, that I learned that Derleth had been something of an admirer of Hodgson.  

Having gone on, at some length, about what I did not enjoy in this collection, please do not let this deter you from picking up and enjoying this volume, for it contains much that will reward the reader with an interest in the supernatural with many hours of satisfactory reading. Some of the highlights, for me, included ‘Lot No. 249,’ (the original mummy story, set at Cambridge University during the 1880s) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; ‘The Open Door,’ by Margaret Oliphant; ‘The Ghostly Rental,’ by Henry James; ‘The Face,’ by E.F. Benson, and ‘The Grey Ones,’ by J.B. Priestley. The last of these contained a considerable amount of humour, which raised many a smile during its modest number of pages. I shall be looking out for more by Oliphant, Benson and Priestley, as well as by other familiar names in the traditional horror genre who contributed some enjoyable stories to this book, who include M.R. James, Robert Aickman, and H.P. Lovecraft. If I’d have been in Mazzeo’s seat as editor, I would have dispensed with the contributions by Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan and Hodgson, substituting the following ghostly tale instead: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01HSDYE2Q 

That, however, would have been rather difficult in 1968, for the author of the latter tale had yet to learn to speak at the time.

Tomb of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset

The Duke and Duchess of Somerset lie in peaceful repose at Wimborne Minster; he died in 1444, and she in 1482, but here they rest, hand clasped in hand, reunited in death. The tomb has managed to survive the ages, but their effigies have not escaped the attentions of those who have etched their marks into the alabaster, and broken the Duke’s sword. It reminds me a little of the tomb of a certain Mortimer de Peverell, the fallen knight in ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’ – beware the old lady!

Book Review: ‘The Stations of the Sun,’ Ronald Hutton, 1996.

Dim and ill-remembered shades of blood-soaked pagan fertility rites suppressed by the Church, sanitised and repackaged for a Christian age; attenuated echoes of a timeless, agrarian traditionalism surviving into the urban and rapidly industrialising present. This was the vision of the folk customs and festivals of the British Isles as refracted through the prism of late Victorian and early twentieth-century folklore and anthropology, disseminated and popularised by writers such as J.G. Frazer and Margaret Murray. It reached its popular apogee in the 1960s and 1970s, finding its ultimate cinematic expression in ‘The Wicker Man’, a film which, rather appropriately, held that Lord Summerisle’s Victorian grandfather – an educated, enlightened, yet somewhat cynical man – had reinstituted a reconstructed ‘lost’ paganism amongst the islanders as a matter of expediency in encouraging them to grow cultivars of crops otherwise unsuited to the Scottish island. He seems a character who would have been very much at home with the theories propounded by Frazer and Murray, but enough of this digression into pagan romanticism and cinematic trivia.  

Professor Hutton’s investigation into the traditions of the ritual year in Britain is carried out with commendable objectivity. Claims of survivals from the pagan past are placed under rigorous scrutiny, and in almost every instance are found wanting, with the very notion of the ‘Celtic’ year and its structure being called into question. What emerges instead is not some dim survival of a lost paganism, but of the lost world of pre-Reformation Britain; it is mediaeval Catholicism, rather than paganism, that would appear to give form to much of our ritual year and its associated customs, although not to all of them. Furthermore, the evidence that he unearths suggests that a number of folk customs that were once taken to be traditions drawn from a timeless agrarian society prove to be nothing of the sort, with many – such as some aspects of mumming – being of a much more recent provenance. Some practices, it would seem, were spontaneous creations of popular culture in a largely pre-literate age, in which a socially licensed breaking of social norms was accepted on the part of the younger members of the community. Halloween and ‘Mischief Night’ are the two notable contemporary manifestations of this tradition of youthful social transgression. 

The most detailed studies into the history of Morris dancing suggest that its first appearance was not in some Arcadian English setting, but in fifteenth-century London. This entertainment was popular at the early Tudor court, but by the mid-1520s Henry VIII had already grown tired of the dance, and had it dropped from his Christmas courtly revels. From London and high society, it disseminated outwards geographically, and downwards socially, so that by the early seventeenth century it had spread to many regions of England as a popular pastime. It is not the survival of a prehistoric pagan fertility dance. 

Hutton’s book thus reveals as much about the preoccupations of late-Victorian and early twentieth-century British society – an obsession with sex, fertility and paganism born, perhaps, of the disintegration of traditional Christian norms of sexual repression thanks to the challenges of Darwinism and the findings of anthropology in colonial cultures – as it does about the origins of our ritual year and its associated customs. Any reader interested in these themes will take much from this book, although dogmatic neopagans may not warm to it greatly.  

The only minor gripe that I have with the publication is that its font size is rather small.

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