It seems that there is scarcely a patch of earth in rural England that does not bear some trace of the lives of its former occupants, and one cannot help, at times, but feel that something of them lingers, lending the landscape a sense of the uncanny. Dotted about here and there are the remains of the monuments of prehistory and distant antiquity, their original names and functions lost with the passing of the people who built and used them, but beneath the soil, unseen to the eye, lies so much more. Some of those things that lie below were put there for a reason, whereas others were lost by their owners and, for one reason or another, never retrieved.
In the finding of such artefacts, the finder kindles a physical and tangible bond with the past, although the original owners can never be known, at least directly. These crafted pieces of metal, stone, and pottery may speak to us through their form of their past function, significance, and role, but of the specific personalities of the men and women who held them in their hands, they say but little. It is into this void of the unknowable that supernatural fiction dares to tread, with M.R. James providing many fine examples, with two of my favourites being Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and A Warning to the Curious.
In both instances, an object is found and taken by the finder, who soon discovers that retribution is not long in coming. In the first tale, it is a bone whistle protruding from a former graveyard upon a crumbling cliff edge that summons up the guardian spirit, whereas in the second it is the theft of an ancient Saxon crown from a burial mound that does the same. However, the nature of the spirit in A Warning to the Curious is somewhat unusual, for it is not connected, directly, to the former wearer of the crown that lies buried in the mound, but rather to a now extinct family of guardians, entrusted to watch over and protect the place of burial. The message of these tales is clear: do not take that which was placed in the ground for a purpose.
For some reason, which I cannot explain, I find this inadvertent release of the forces of psychic chaos somehow satisfying, and it is a device that I have employed in my latest tale Epona, a blend of Victorian gothic ghost story and folk horror, the title of which derives from the Romano-Celtic goddess of that name. If the reader should be curious to see what enfolds, then please click here, or on the picture above. Eponais also available, alongside three other tales, as part of my anthology Uncanny Tales, either as a paperback, or on Kindle.
The above novelette has been released just in time for Halloween, the one day of the year when adults are forced to cower and hide indoors with the lights switched off to avoid the unwanted attentions of marauding hordes of youngsters. The horror of The Ghost of Scarside Beck, however, is of a rather different nature, and will probably persuade you to keep the lights on, rather than turn them off.
Set in the Lake District, it starts on a light enough note, but the mood gradually descends into a darkness that cannot be escaped. Inspired by a strange incident in a Cumbrian village, which thankfully for the author lacked the element of terror that characterises the latter part of this tale, it also drew upon the curious carving shown on its cover. It is now available wherever Amazon has a presence, being priced at 99 in the UK, or 99c in the US or the EU. Kindle Unlimited subscribers may read it for ‘free’. To purchase or preview The Ghost of Scarside Beck, please click on the image above or here. The Amazon ‘Look Inside’ function doesn’t seem to be working yet, but if you would like to read a sample, simply click on the ‘send a free sample’ button on the relevant Amazon page.
There are places where the past and the present walk in tandem, where people and events seem to echo those who have been, but are no longer. There is something in the fabric of the buildings, in the feel of the earth, that evokes the timelessness of an eternal present, where a crossing over may occur at any moment. Scarside Beck is one such place; a Cumbrian hamlet in which the gossamer film that separates all of our yesterdays from what is now is apt to tear. Is it from the stone, or the sodden soil that this remembrance seeps, to be sensed, and felt, and yet not acknowledged by the conscious mind? There was something here, and it lingers still. I feel it. A strange sequence of events and a curious carving seem somehow to be linked, but how?
Anthology: Wry Out West, is now available in paperback from Amazon. To preview and purchase a copy, simply click on the image below. For those of you who prefer ebooks, it is also available in Kindle format. If you live in the US rather than the UK, you can order by clicking here.
Previously published as standalone pieces in my West Country Tales series, this anthology gathers together five twisted tales of the uncanny that venture beyond the mere ‘funny peculiar’, into the realms of black comedy and satire. From the acid-fried occult oddity of Gwydion’s Dawn, to the bizarre rites of a seventeenth-century cunning man in The Cleft Owl; the psychological horror of 3:05 am, to the vengeful fury of a woman of more than 300 years of age in Old Crotchet, nothing will unsettle the reader more than the playful malignancy of the guide in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell. It would seem that in this much-loved and familiar region of rural England, it is not difficult to unwittingly unleash unseen forces which render it both hostile, and dangerous (and in writing this I am not referring to the effects of imbibing excessive quantities of scrumpy, although that can, of course, have the self-same effect).
The ‘horror’ that you will encounter within is of the understated English variety; it is often implied and psychological, rather than being of the type favoured by the exponents of the ‘slasher’ genre. There is also – with the exception of The Cleft Owl – as much humour as there is terror.
Whereas these tales are unconstrained by the bounds of any single genre, amongst their number you will find plenty to engage your attention should you possess a taste for mysteries, the paranormal, ghost stories, the occult, psychological horror and historical fiction, as well as, of course, satire.
To view a sample, or to purchase, please click on the image above. Free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
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, or to purchase for 99p, click the image above.
Yesterday, I finished the final edit of ‘Agnes of Grimstone Peverell’ – a wry-humoured ghost story for Christmas – and submitted it to Amazon, which, for some unfathomable reason, has listed H.E. Bulstrode as the author twice over: perhaps the company has seen it fit to gift me with a doppelganger. To celebrate its publication I treated myself to a viewing of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit,’ which in its light and witty tone treats the subject of the supernatural very much in the same vein as my own humble offering. The blurb follows below. I hope that you enjoy it.
Agnes of Grimstone Peverell
On a bitterly cold day in December 2009, the Smallwoods find themselves enjoying the Victorian Christmas market in the little-known Dorset town of Grimstone Peverell. Chilled to the marrow, they retire to the town’s minster where they are accosted by an enthusiastic guide, who knows a great deal about some things, yet next to nothing about that which would, to most people, seem obvious; she seems keen not to let them go, but return to London they must – Lionel has a play to review. That, at least, is his intention.
For a preview (or to purchase, for the very modest price of 99p, or to read free of charge if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), please click on one of the following links:
At last, ‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’ is live on Amazon and free to read for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. The blurb for this satirical novella with a supernatural thread finds itself very much in keeping with the season, although readers may be relieved to learn that it does not contain anything as tedious as people dressed in clown masks or other such Halloween tat imported from the US of A. This is a distinctly English tale, albeit one still accessible to those possessed of an English sensibility who might find themselves living in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, or even . . . the US? The blurb follows below:
‘The Rude Woman of Cerne’
The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but Beatrice Clemens is determined to make this adage more ‘relevant’ to today’s society by blithely driving an eight-lane superhighway straight through the heart of rural England. Dubbed the ‘Conscience of Dorset’ by a newly launched progressive broadsheet, one could be forgiven for forgetting that this doughty campaigner for social justice in its multifarious forms is actually a B&B hostess (although she would much prefer the non-gender specific term ‘host’). Alas for her guests, her values and preoccupations are never far from her lips, and her inclusive zeal is something in which she enjoins all to share, even if they are only trying to order a full English breakfast, and enjoy a country break far from the clamour of the madding crowd.
Just as Beatrice stands upon the brink of receiving the acclamation that she believes her work with ‘Diversity from the City’ deserves, something, or someone, is glimpsed amidst the hedgerows and within the banks of the Trendle; shadowy, furtive – the embodiment of old Dorset? Whoever it may be, he does not, it would seem, share her enthusiasms.
‘Write what you know’ is one of the cardinal commandments that hangs over the heads of aspirant authors, and if taken too literally, could be fatally crippling to the imagination, particularly with respect to the venture of writing historical fiction, for what do you, I, or anyone else living today, know of, for example, the nineteenth century? Nothing, in terms of direct experience of course. That said, there is still a great deal that we can ‘know’, should we care to take the trouble to find out, and it is this process of investigation, this uncovering and reconstruction of worlds long since lost, that makes the writing of this particular type of fiction doubly rewarding, if your interests happen to incline in this direction.
We can never fully immerse ourselves in first-century Rome, fifth-century Gaul, the Russia of Peter the Great, or seventeenth-century England, but neither can we truly know what it is like to have grown up in a country, or culture, of which we have no direct first-hand experience; the nature of the author’s abstraction from a particular context – whether it be geographical, cultural, temporal, or a combination of all three – is only a matter of degree. The interposition of time serves to make this exercise of ‘retrieving’ or ‘recreating’ human experience more difficult, but not impossible, and it is important to recall at this point that the author is creating a work of fiction, rather than a history. The author of historical fiction seeks to create characters, scenarios and behaviours that are historically plausible, rather than necessarily entirely accurate. The primary challenge could be said to be that of producing a work that is both authentic to its period, yet engaging for the contemporary reader, given the transformations in attitudes and beliefs that have occurred over the centuries and millennia that might render the reader unsympathetic to the characters depicted. One thing, however, appears to remain constant across the ages: the foibles of human character.
There are many ways in which we can access past experience and the worldviews that bounded the horizons of our ancestors, the most obvious of these being the use of contemporaneous written sources in the form of books, letters, official documents and archives. These do, however, possess their limitations, particularly as we travel further back in time, for within a couple of centuries we already arrive at a point when only a minority of the population was literate, resulting in a narrowing of perspective that becomes increasingly filtered through the attitudes and preoccupations of elites. Thus, although seventeenth-century England was a relatively literate society by historical standards, the level of literacy varied greatly between class, gender and region, and whereas we are at this point able to directly access the written reflections of the upper classes and many of the middling sort of folk – particularly of men – the voices of the lower orders of society and women are largely lost to us.
There are also the material remains of the past, some of which survive in something approximating their original form, and others which have been updated or repurposed. Architecture, monuments, the visual arts, furniture, personal effects and costume, even the landscape itself, all provide sources of information and inspiration relating to different periods and aspects of our past. The more places that you visit and the more attention that you pay to what you see, the more finely attuned you become to the flow of time and changes in architectural forms, interior decoration, style and the attitudes and beliefs that fashioned them. In the UK for example, visiting properties and sites owned by the National Trust or English Heritage will provide an insight into the lives of the wealthy elite in particular, although a glimpse into the everyday world of the lower orders can be had in the kitchens, stables and working buildings such as watermills, windmills and forges. If you are lucky, your visit will coincide with a day during which corn may be milled, metal worked or re-enactments of different aspects of everyday life staged. Should you have children, the latter will soften the ‘ordeal’ of being dragged around a historic property on a day out, and, hopefully, stimulate their imaginations.
There are also museums of course, which house invaluable collections of artefacts from the past, and a number of which are classed as ‘living museums’, meaning that they attempt to demonstrate a number of crafts, industries and agricultural practices that have now passed away. To witness a defunct or rare craft being demonstrated provides the author with an invaluable aid to the imagination, even should that craft itself not be described in writing. Knowledge of a character having engaged in a particular line of work will have an impact upon how he or she carries and expresses themselves, as well as, potentially, upon the types of aches and ailments that they may suffer from.
London’s Geffrye Museum, whose focus is the domestic sphere, contains a series of reconstructed interiors spanning the period from 1630 to 1998, and is well worth a visit if you are on a trip to London (who knows, a visit may even provide you with the inspiration to remodel your own domestic surrounds). Many living museums tend to focus upon one particular time period, although often also possess exhibits relating to other periods, thus Butser Farm spans a vast expanse of time from the Stone Age to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, whereas Morwhellam Quay focuses upon the Victorian era. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, and St Fagan’s National History Museum in Wales both feature collections of vernacular architecture reassembled onsite. Londoners are spoilt for choice, home as their city is to the great national art collections in the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, but there are also many provincial art galleries that are worth visiting. One quirky establishment worth visiting if you should be in the vicinity is Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, which caused quite a furore when it initially opened in the village in 1960. However, it should be borne in mind that much of its content focuses upon the distinctly modern English invention that is Wicca (or it did when I last visited many years ago. I shall give an update on my impressions following a forthcoming visit early in 2017).
One of the most important concerns for the author writing about the past is avoiding anachronism, which can be difficult. A good rule of thumb with respect to diet is to remember that all of those foodstuffs originating in the New World would not have been available to the inhabitants of Europe, Asia and Africa before 1492. There should thus be no mention of potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, chocolate or chillies, to name but a few, in any work set before the European discovery of the Americas, nor indeed of that noxious stinking weed named tobacco, unless that is your piece should be set in the Americas. Diets around the world have changed greatly since the golden age of European exploration.
Technology is another sphere in which we encounter much potential for anachronism. It is particularly important to note that people’s sense of time has changed greatly since the introduction of the clock, for thinking in the sense of seconds, minutes and even hours, would have been alien to our forebears for the greater part of history. One’s sense of space, time and the wider world has changed greatly, with unified national time not coming into existence until the spread of the railways, communications being far slower during the era of poorly maintained roads than during that of steam and the telegraph.
Our forebears were attuned to the rhythms of the seasons, from which we have, to a greater or lesser degree, been largely insulated since the introduction of gas and then electric light and heating. Our bond with the natural world and sense of place within it has become increasingly attenuated on a practical day-to-day level.
The warp and weft of everyday life, which usually escaped specific thematic documentation and treatment in days gone by, is particularly challenging to reconstruct. What rituals of personal hygiene did people observe? How often did they bathe? How did they look after their teeth? How many changes of clothes did they possess, and how frequently were they laundered? If you are naturally inclined to writer’s block, writing historical fiction, throwing up so many questions as it does, may engender complete and protracted paralysis. Beware.
Once we have done our research and are satisfied that we have gleaned sufficient knowledge to commence writing our tale, the next task is how to create a text that is both ‘authentic’ and yet engaging and comprehensible. It is something of a conundrum, to which I shall return in a later post when I reflect upon creating the characters and voices that inhabit my forthcoming novel set in seventeenth-century Cornwall. Before closing, it may be worth mentioning that I find it helpful to track down and listen to music from the period about which I am writing. Even should it not be successful in eliciting an appropriate mood, it is at least enjoyable.
Glastonbury – the town rather than the festival – is a unique place both geographically and socially. Although there are other kindred locations across England which act as magnets for folk of a countercultural mystical metaphysical bent, such as Totnes and Hebden Bridge, none of them quite match Glastonbury’s mystique. Neither do they equal its quotient of hemp, crystal nor fairy based business acumen, as is plainly evident from the host of independent businesses that line its High Street. If you pop into a bookshop, you will discover more volumes devoted to aligning your chakras than to fixing your plumbing, although water has played as much a role in the town’s history as has mysticism.
The profile of the Tor, topped by the ruined tower of St Michael’s Church, arrests the eye of the first-time visitor to the Somerset Levels, its drama and aesthetic appeal self-evident, even when shorn of the myths and legends that have attached themselves to this spot over the centuries. Set amidst the low-lying swamps and marshes that remained hereabouts until being drained by the efforts of mediaeval monks, its former status as a peninsula would initially have attracted settlers, being both defensible, and possessed of a reliable source of good drinking water from Chalice Well. It would likely also have appealed to any aesthetic or ‘spiritual’ sensibilities possessed by those who set up home in this supposed Avalon.
Historically, Glastonbury has been a place of Christian pilgrimage, but it would seem that the publicity of canny monks, eager to raise funds to assist in the reconstruction of Glastonbury Abbey following the fire of 1184, unintentionally gave birth, many centuries later, to the town’s association with myth and all manner of New Age beliefs. Their alleged discovery of the graves of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191 put the town firmly on the map as a place of pilgrimage, even going so far as to attract royalty, but the lead cross said to have been found along with the grave vanished during the turbulence of the English Reformation. Furthermore, the first mention of another key element of Glastonbury’s myth – the ‘Holy Thorn’ – appears later than many might suppose, for the first reference to it did not come to light, in print, until the early sixteenth century, not long before the Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution.
‘And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green’?
I would hazard a guess that they did not. Still, it is not Christianity that dominates the town’s ‘spiritual’ life today, but an unclassifiable melange of eastern mysticism, magic and Neopaganism, most of those subscribing to these beliefs possessing a generally benign intent, whilst being innocuously ineffectual. If you should care to walk its streets today, you may not find Gwydion Turner himself, but you might well find someone with views not a million miles from those held by the character, and expressed in equally pretentious and portentous tones. His creation arose from my own personal observations of people immersed in the ‘alternative’ hippie subculture as it then stood some thirty years or so ago, of their attitudes, beliefs and mannerisms. He is representative of a type that seems intent to impose unnecessary complexity upon life, whilst pretending to some closely-guarded esoteric knowledge that transpires to amount to nothing more than a combination of solemn verbiage and a self-professed belief in some ‘deeper reality hidden behind the veil’. Such attitudes are ripe for satire, although they are so theatrical and outlandish, that those who possess them frequently lapse into self-parody without being conscious of the fact.
Many years ago, I recall happening upon a building in one of the back streets of Weston-Super-Mare that had once served as a temple for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but whether it remains there now, I cannot say. Given the absence of any pictures of the Osiris Temple on the internet, perhaps it was demolished some time ago. Still, the former presence of this occult network in Somerset suggested that it could provide fertile material with which to work in creating a Glastonbury mystery: an occult mystery at that, so doubly mysterious.
I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’is primarily a mystery or a comedy, but it was written with the intent of being both. You may, perhaps, detect a nod or two to Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Magician’ (which I read so long ago that I cannot honestly say I recall a great deal), with a touch of ‘Spinal Tap’ in Gwydion’s musical recollections, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ in the nature of local policing. Wells, after all, almost shares equal billing with Glastonbury in terms of where the action unfolds, and if you should ever find South Pennard, do let me know. I have heard it said that the peat has long since swallowed up the ‘Royal Oak’.
The heading of this blog post relates not to the launch time of the book, but to its title: ‘3:05 am’. As previous visitors to this blog may be aware, I had next planned to release ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’, which I have been working on for some time, but on occasion my plans are disrupted by the course of events. This time, however, it just so happened that this proved to be an entirely positive disruption, which occurred in the form of a dream (or, more accurately, nightmare), from which I awoke during the early hours of last Monday morning. So vivid was it, and such an impression did the scenario make upon me, that I immediately set to work jotting down the details of the story in my bedside notebook, and by the time that the alarm went off, ‘3:05 am’ was fully plotted.
The final form taken by the tale has been that of a wry mystery novelette, a little over 7,500 words in length, set – like ‘Old Crotchet’ and ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’ – in the West Country. The village of Horrabridge is real enough, although the address referred to is fictitious, and readers familiar with Plymouth will recognise a number of the city centre locations in which much of the action unfolds, although the events referred to are entirely of my own invention.
Its protagonist – Mark Hillier – stands upon the brink of realising two major life goals in terms of fatherhood and career progression, but then there is a third change in his circumstances that is as unanticipated as it is inexplicable: his portable television set goes and develops a nocturnal mind of its own. There are consequences, and although one person with whom he is acquainted seems to have some knowledge of what these might be, he does not.
The past week has thus been spent putting flesh upon the bones of the plot, with the initial draft going through two substantial revisions. I therefore hope that the reader should find it to his or her taste, and that some amusement, as well as some intrigue, is derived from it. ‘Gwydion’s Dawn’, to which the final amendments are being made, will be published within the coming week.