Tag Archives: Ghost Stories

Twelfth Night Old and New

Today we find ourselves enter the last day of Christmastide, traditionally marked by Twelfth Night celebrations that have in recent years dwindled to near extinction. Whereas it once served as a highlight of the festive celebratory calendar, a night of feasting and revelry, it is now little more than a footnote, with only the tradition of wassailing keeping its name alive in some parts of the country. Even so, although the wassail itself has undergone something of a modest revival in recent decades, it remains strongest in its West Country heartland where it frequently takes place on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on 17 January. If you should happen to be wondering why there is such a marked divergence in dates, this is all down to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in Britain which took place in September 1752, which caused an instant ‘leap forward’ in time from Wednesday 2 September to Thursday 14 September, bringing the calendar back into line with the Earth’s annual progress around the Sun. Somehow, this seemed neither right nor proper to a number of rustic celebrants, so they continued to mark Old Twelfth Night long after the reform. 

The wassail ostensibly takes place with a view to propitiating the spirit of the orchard by singing and drinking to the health of the trees, but as this bare outline of this practice illustrates, it is rather more likely that it is the participants who derive any enjoyment and benefit from its conduct (providing that they don’t overdo it on the cider of course). Perhaps it is because of this focus upon the future and the fruit of the year to come that Twelfth Night, unlike the immediate lead-up to Christmas, is not traditionally associated with ghost stories in Britain; it is focused not upon death, but rebirth. Moreover, the days are now beginning to perceptibly lengthen, and the inward focus of Christmas itself, which generally centres upon the family and stirs memories of those no longer with us with whom we celebrated Christmases past, is gone, as we turn once again to the wider world of work and society.  

Such a focus would, therefore, seem to be uncongenial to the ghost story, although I do know of one that specifically focuses upon Twelfth Night. It opens with a disorientating scene amidst a Somerset apple orchard on Old Twelfth Night shortly after the local menfolk have returned from the trenches, and despite the ritual’s traditional future focus, its reinstitution has been undertaken with a view to restoring a past order that has been permanently ruptured by the Great War. This is but one aspect of the collision between encroaching modernity and tradition dealt with in the story, in which the former unleashes darker and older forces. There is, however, also a marked humorous streak to this tale.  

Returning to the present, the picture of the tree seen at the beginning of this post was taken recently in Cotehele’s Old Orchard in Cornwall, which can be found next to its ‘Mother Orchard’ planted in 2007 to preserve and propagate traditional varieties of West Country apple. A noble undertaking, so let us raise a cup to the endeavours of Mary Martin and James Evans, the apple specialists who conceived this noble undertaking. Wassail!  

Time Travel in 2017

It had been intended to spend the better part of this year in the 1670s and 1680s, before skipping a couple of centuries to find myself in the 1920s by November, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Whereas the year began amidst the magic, superstition and suspicion of the 1680s, in the company of Devon cunning man Robert Tooley (resulting in the publication of The Cleft Owl), and it did then proceed, as intended, to the Cornwall of the preceding decade, my imagination insisted that I turn my attention elsewhere. What led to this change of plan? The discovery of a sinister, bizarre, and unexplained crime that took place in 1530s Yorkshire, but if you should think that this prompted me to focus upon that decade, then you would be wrong, at least in the first instance, for it hurtled me forward to the 1940s, and then back to the Edwardian period. ‘But, where then is the resultant tale?’ I hear you protest. I have not finished it yet, but I will. Why not? Well, all was progressing well, until something happened. 

This autumn I took a break in an out of the way part of the Lake District, and there experienced something the like of which I have never experienced before, and for which neither I, nor my wife (who shared this experience), can find any satisfactory rational explanation. Thus did The Ghost of Scarside Beck force itself upon me, finding its way to publication before October was out. Although the spirit may have stood without the confines of time, the characters of this tale were firmly located in the 1990s. Time to return to Edwardian Yorkshire, I thought to myself, but no, my imagination had resolved otherwise, having decided that it wished to spend some time amidst the world of ghostly Victorian gothic, sending me hurtling back to 1843, and then forward to 1899. Where? In Wiltshire. Involving whom? A talented, and superstitious, Breton artist, and his subject – the alluring Lady Helena Brocklington. December was thus ushered in with At Fall of Night, which has already garnered enthusiastic reviews in the UK. 

As to where I find myself with my writing at this moment, another supernatural tale set in 1840s England is being penned (yes, that verb is appropriate, as its initial draft is being written in longhand), with the hope being that it will see the light of day before winter is out. What comes next? Well, according to my plans – and you have seen how they have panned out this year – 2018 will see me returning to 1906, before heading back to 1676, and then ending the year in early 1920s Devon. All being well, the coming year will see the publication of my first novel, which by then will have been more than three years in the writing, owing to the odd interruption, or ten.

Review: ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James

Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.   

Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.  

So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.   

As for my own offerings within this genre, well, they naturally pale in comparison, but his understated approach is something that I have sought to adhere to in the likes of At Fall of Night, The Ghost of Scarside Beck, and Old Crotchet.

Review of ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ by Oliver Onions

Detail from Wilhelm List’s ‘Transfiguration of St Elizabeth’

This is the most famous and highly rated of Onions’s stories, as well the first one that I have read in a weighty 657-page anthology of his ghostly tales. When any story, book, or film is spoken of so highly, I harbour a fear that I will be disappointed in what I find when I come to encounter that work, but in this instance, my apprehension proved to be misplaced. Then again, I must own that my misgivings of this type are generally attached to contemporary works, where marketing budgets are apt to skew the judgement of critics and public alike. As The Beckoning Fair One was first introduced to a general readership before the First World War, and continues to be recognised as a classic of its genre, it can be fairly assumed that it possesses merit, and that the passing of time has winnowed out those productions of lesser talents that have proved unworthy of a lengthy posterity. 

Although this may be a tale of a haunted house, it is of a subtle and understated kind, in which the building itself takes on as much of a personality as any of the human characters written into the story. The reader knows from the outset that it has remained long uninhabited before its protagonist – the author Paul Oleron – takes up residence there, and is thus curious, as is Oleron, as to why this should have been so. At first, he finds it a perfectly charming abode, although it has an immediate stultifying impact upon his creativity. He finds himself doubting the worth of the novel that he is working upon, particularly the merits of its central character, Romilly, who happens to be based upon a close female friend of his. Alas, it is not long before these doubts extend to his regard for the character of this friend – Elsie Bengough – whom he eventually comes to shun, despite her love for him. It would seem that it is the house, or something within it, that drives the two apart, causing him to despise her, and from the first moment that she sets foot in it, she voices the opinion that he will find it impossible to work whilst he lives there. This concern he dismisses out of hand, but that there is a latent antipathy within its structure towards his friend soon becomes apparent, owing to a couple of freakish accidents that she experiences during her visit.  

For anyone who has ever written a novel, or attempted to, Oleron’s doubts concerning the worth of his literary creation, as well as his resultant creative paralysis, will strike many a chord. Hopefully, however, that is where any element of self-recognition and identification with the character and his situation should end, as it is one that proves to be deeply disturbing, and unsettling. The novella builds slowly to a nausea-inducing denouement, in which the protagonist descends into squalor and disintegration, but as to whether the horror that is encountered in these pages derives from some presence within the building, or within the psyche of Oleron himself, is left for the reader to adjudge.

Review: ‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’ by M.R. James

Rocky Valley Labyrinth, Cornwall

This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.  

Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:  

‘The rich man in his castle,

the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

and ordered their estate’ 

I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader. 

This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.

New Release: ‘The Ghost of Scarside Beck’

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.  

Blurb

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? 

Five uncanny tales for the price of one – Anthology: Wry Out West

Download Anthology: Wry Out West, five twisted tales of the uncanny for the promotional price of only 99p/99c (normal price £2.49/$3.21) until 4pm Wednesday 5 July (price increases to £1.99/$1.99, then returns to full on Friday 7 July). Also available in paperback (273 pages). For the UK please visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B072P1VMM3 and for and the https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B072P1VMM3

From the acid-fried occult satire of Gwydion’s Dawn, to the dark deception of seventeenth-century Devon in The Cleft Owl; a trip into disorientation in 3:05 am, to the vengeful malignance of Old Crotchet, each tale is as distinctly odd, and unsettling, as the seemingly innocuous guide in Agnes of Grimstone Peverell.

The humour is dark, and the protagonists all too unawares of the sinister forces that lurk beneath the fragile veneer of the everyday world; shifting and malevolent, they are there to be seen, and sensed, if the characters should care to look, yet more often than not, they do not. The forces of the irrational, the supernatural and the paranormal bide their time, waiting to irrupt through the divide and come crashing into the present, with a vividness as unwelcome as it is unexpected.

Book Review: ‘The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories’, Wilkie Collins.

Although the named novella takes up almost half the length of this volume, a further eight tales can be found between its covers, a number of which I found more satisfying than The Haunted Hotel itself. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the latter, for I did, but it struck me as being less polished than some of the shorter works.

Whereas Collins is best known for his mystery novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone, with the second title being widely hailed as the first detective novel written in English, he was also rated highly as a writer of ghost stories, and The Haunted Hotel is, unsurprisingly, just such a story. However, the reader has to wait a long time before any form of ghostly manifestation materialises, with much of the novella reading more as a conventional mystery. Although I may be mistaken in taking this view, it struck me that Collins had, perhaps, originally intended his novella to be a full-length novel, but had grown tired of it, and thus decided to abridge it. Thus, the author appears to have employed the device of allowing one of his leading characters to divulge the hidden course of events by passing off his own unrealised notes in the form of notes for an as yet unwritten play. It left me feeling that it could have become something greater than it was.

It was, therefore, the short stories that I found most to my taste in this collection, particularly The Dream Woman, A Terribly Strange Bed, Nine O’ Clock!, and The Devil’s Spectacles. Only the first of these four can be described as a true ghost story, although Nine O’Clock! does feature a doppelganger and deathly prophecy.

The Dream Woman centres upon a premonitory haunting, in which the tale of an unfortunate ostler is recounted by his current employer – the landlord of an inn – to the narrator. It is an atmospheric classic, in which Collins builds an eerie tension that is sure to hook the attention of any lover of a good ghostly yarn. The concluding story in this collection – The Devil’s Spectacles – is a supernatural oddity, and all the better for it. In this, the protagonist is gifted a pair of spectacles by the most unsavoury of characters, and the powers that they bestow upon the wearer prove to be of a suitably Mephistophelian nature; they are not what could be termed ‘rose tinted’. Still, this engaging morality tale possesses a somewhat mythic quality, as well as a devilish dose of humour, and is my joint favourite in this collection.

Overall, although I found some of the tales a little overly melodramatic for my taste, I’d recommend this volume to the thrifty reader who is interested in classic mysteries with a dash of the supernatural.

Wry Out West in Paperback

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.

 

Anthology: Wry Out West

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.