Tag Archives: Old Crotchet’s Return

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

The Twelve Apostles on Ilkley Moor

As we enter another festive season here in the UK, typically characterised by darkness, rain, drizzle and a general sogginess that extends beyond the obligatory serving of overcooked sprouts, our thoughts often turn to visions of a land mantled in crisp snow held in the grip of a harsh frost. Sprouts, for some reason, seldom feature in this wintry idyll, possibly because Dickens thought it too cruel to inflict the windy pleasures of this diminutive brassica upon even so poor a family as the Cratchets. It is therefore to fiction that we habitually turn to seek the ‘true’ atmosphere of Christmas that the British climate so obdurately denies us. More often than not, the sought-after shivers are thus supplied not by the weather, but by means of the ghost story which, unlike in America, is more closely associated with yuletide than with Halloween. It would seem to be Dickens himself who is to a considerable extent responsible for this association, for A Christmas Carol is by far the most well-known and popular Christmas story if we discount the Nativity itself, and perhaps manages to encapsulate the essence of the Christian message more effectively than the four Gospels combined.  

The BBC has over the years helped to popularise the association of the ghost story with Christmas, adapting a number of the masterful works of M.R. James for the small screen, as well as Dickens’s The Signalman which remains one of my favourite adaptations to this day. As for the James stories, the two screen versions that I find most satisfying would probably be A Warning to the Curious and The Stalls of Barchester. When I first saw these, at rather a tender age, they made quite an impression on me, and have remained lodged in the darkened recesses of my imagination ever since. There they lurked for the span of four decades, quietly fermenting and bubbling away, providing part of that creative mulch that would prompt me to try my hand at penning a few ghost stories of my own which, so it happened, have often clustered around this darkest time of the year.

Lionel Smallwood, the snobbish and dismissive theatre critic who encounters his nemesis in the Minster of Grimstone Peverell, would not have been out of place amongst the members of the Critics’ Circle who meet their cruel and bloody fates at the hands of a vengeful Edward Lionheart, played by Vincent Price in his magnificently over-the-top comedy horror Theatre of Blood released in 1973. That said, it is not some aggrieved actor who proves to be Smallwood’s nemesis, but a mysterious guide named Agnes, who seems to be something of a fixture whenever the Christmas market returns to her small Dorset town, and the scent of mulled wine wafts about the market square.

A pair of Gothic tales, that in part seek to channel the spirit of Wilkie Collins, also possess key scenes that unfold over the Christmas period. The first of these linked stories – At Fall of Night – happens to open at the close of 1843, the same year in which A Christmas Carol was published, but unlike Dickens’s tale fails to provide any message of hopeful redemption. It will have the ladies gasping for breath, unfastening their corsets, and reaching for the smelling salts. Its follow-up – Epona – possesses a climactic scene involving the wild riot of the chase in a Boxing Day hunt, at which the eponymous spirit makes a dramatic appearance in a moment of vengeful triumph.

The next brace of related stories – Old Crotchet and its sequel Old Crotchet’s Return – possesses as its supernatural setting a venerable and yet modest country pile in the county of Somerset during the 1920s. The focus of the events that unfold is the now largely forgotten highpoint of the Christmas season: Twelfth Night, or more specifically Old Twelfth Night. Although the tone here encountered is much lighter than that found in some of my other pieces, there are chills to be had courtesy of a couple of spirits, both residents of Hinton St Cuthbert Manor these last few centuries past. At least two female guests have found a certain bedchamber more rewarding than they could possibly have expected, whereas the other spirit, who views the house very much as her own, takes a distinct dislike to any young lady who might cross the threshold of her domain.

I shall now close by wishing you the most merry of Christmases, and a happy New Year. If you should be in the mood to read a tale or two from amongst those mentioned above, I hope that they should afford you a few shivers, as well as a few laughs along the way in many cases.

Cheers!

H.E. Bulstrode

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell and Old Crotchet are included in the collection Anthology: Wry Out West, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

At Fall of Night and Epona are included in the collection Uncanny Tales from the English Shires, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

Old Crotchet’s Return is available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.

Review of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

Ghost stories are conventionally supposed to elicit at least a frisson of fear, but just occasionally, one will come along that breaks this rule and does so with aplomb. One such story is Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, initially written for the stage in a single creative burst one week in 1941, and adapted for the big screen in 1947. One of the bleakest moments of the war seems, in this case, to have brought forth a ghost story of a contrastingly light mood. The audience does not so much shudder with terror, as with barely suppressed laughter, if it bothers to suppress it at all. It is a creation imbued with an abundant acid wit, nowhere more manifest than in the lively repartee between the eponymous spirit, Elvira, and her remarried husband, the author, Charles Condomine. In the film version, Kay Hammond, all ghastly greenish white set off against a lurid red lipstick, and Rex Harrison, the very model of an impeccably turned out English gent, play their roles with a decided verve. And then there is Margaret Rutherford, as the inept medium Madam Arcati, who provides an energetically eccentric performance that steals more than a scene or two.

The rivalry between Condomine’s murderously devoted former spouse and his new wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), is brought crashing into the present quite unwittingly by the efforts of Madam Arcati. The latter has been invited to the author’s abode purely so that he might make notes on the tricks of the trade employed by mediums, for his forthcoming mystery – The Unseen. However, what neither he, nor Ruth, expect, is that anything will come of it, for both of them view mediumship as the purest bunkum. Madam Arcati on the other hand, is not amused to learn of their attitude towards her inexpertly mastered craft. The sceptics soon learn to rue their disregard for her powers.

You may find this rather strange, but the film for me brought to mind something that I have previously mused upon whilst regarding those late-mediaeval and early-modern tombs that feature effigies of a deceased husband flanked by his first and second wives: just how were they all supposed to get along in the afterlife? Blithe Spirit, perhaps, provides the answer: they squabble a great deal.

Coward’s film was one of those influences that fed into the penning of my first ghost story, and its recent follow-up, Old Crotchet’s Return, which has just been released on Amazon in Kindle, and in paperback. Its blurb follows below:

Old Crotchet’s Return: a high-spirited romp of a ghost story set in 1920s England.
George Simpkins is in a state, and it’s not just because of the gin. His wife remains missing, his son a curious and callous enigma, and, most worryingly of all, his spouse’s erstwhile schoolmate, the witheringly waspish Cynthia, has plans afoot for his future. An invitation to a festive break in the country brings London society into collision with half-cracked Somerset locals steeped in cider and superstition, as well as a far from festively inclined spirit. Welcome to the world of Hinton St Cuthbert, the parish with a past, but seemingly no future.

Amazon UK
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07K7X33MD

Amazon US
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07K7X33MD

Amazon Australia
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07K7X33MD

Amazon Canada
Old Crotchet’s Return Paperback: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1730996191
Old Crotchet’s Return Kindle: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07K7X33MD

Review of Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

A light appetiser of a tale to be read in a single sitting, that will produce neither upset, nor any great sense of satisfaction in the reader. Although the writing is competent and not without atmosphere, and its Mary Shelleyesque theme diverting enough, Printer’s Devil Court possesses all the hallmarks of a story that should either have been shorter, or longer, but not the length that it is. It reads like a first draft for something meant to be more substantial, but which, for whatever reason, was left in its embryonic form and served up to the public. Either the author lacked the requisite motivation and energy to work it up into anything longer, or the demands of the publisher led to its seeing the light of day, semi-formed, in the autumn run-up to the Christmas book-buying extravaganza. A number of obvious typographic errors, as well as a certain peculiarity relating to its illustration, suggest that it was the latter. If this story had been written by anyone with a lesser public profile than Susan Hill, it strikes me that it would not have found a publisher.  

The illustrator, it would seem, had read no further than the first sentence, and given it a cursory glance at that, before setting about producing the engravings for this sumptuously bound little volume. Why would I say this? Well, the opening lines make reference to ‘the days of Dickens’, although if we set these four words within the context of a slightly longer sentence fragment we learn that the tale was set quite some time later, for it refers to ‘an area which could not at the time have changed greatly since the days of Dickens.’ The illustrator has therefore diligently produced a set of charming illustrations from the age of Cruikshank, that punctuate the text here and there with figures sporting the fashions of the 1840s/1850s, and a paddle steamer alongside a fully rigged man-o’-war at rest on the Thames at Greenwich. All very Dickensian, which is something of a problem, for the story itself is not, despite its vague and murky setting amidst London’s fog and frost. The sole concrete temporal reference is a mention of the protagonist’s visit to London at the bidding of his stepson, which takes place after the Blitz had wrought its destruction. This is said to have been approximately forty years after he, then in his mid-twenties, had left London for a life in the country. This would suggest that the setting for the pivotal scene was most likely Edwardian London, or possibly at a push, the capital during the fin de siècle. The illustrations therefore, constitute a most peculiar, and glaring, anachronism.  

The story, in many respects, is as vague and ephemeral as an ectoplasmic materialisation, its form and setting lightly sketched in an impressionistic manner, its characters written with suggestive strokes that impress themselves upon the reader’s imagination no more than the phantom, that lends the tale its spectral element, imposed its form upon the air that it occupied.  

To preview or purchase Printer’s Devil Court, either click here, or upon the picture above.  

H.E. Bulstrode’s comic ghostly novella Old Crotchet’s Return – a sequel to Old Crotchet – will be published shortly. To find out when, please sign up to his mailing list by clicking here.