London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.
Haddon Hall, perhaps the most simple and understated of English stately homes, is also one of the finest medieval manor houses in Britain. Nestled in the heart of the Peak District National Park, it certainly enjoys a picturesque setting, two miles south of Bakewell (known for its eponymous tarts) on the banks of the River Wye. In the mid-twelfth century the hall passed from its Norman founders to the Vernon family, who owned it for four hundred years until the most famous event in its history occurred. In 1558 the sole remaining Vernon heir, Dorothy, married John Manners, scion of another powerful family who later became Dukes of Rutland. Their union is commemorated in their joint tomb in Bakewell church, but the romantic story of their elopement may be apochryphal. Dorothy Vernon was 18 at the time and it is said that the couple eloped during the wedding of one of her sisters. There must have been some sort of reconciliation, as Dorothy and John later became owners of Haddon Hall. The hall has been owned by the Manners ever since then, but curiously enough has never been sold. The mansion fell into two hundred years of neglect from the start of the eighteenth century until the 9th Duke began restoring Haddon Hall when he moved there in 1912. No one quite knows the reason for the building’s neglect and seeming lack of interest to buyers – although this may have something to do with the fact that the ghost of Dorothy Vernon is said to appear there on a regular basis, usually seen on the steps leading up to Haddon Hall, as if being chased.
The House of Plantagenet was an Anglo-French royal dynasty that came to prominence in the Middle Ages. Although the Plantagenets transformed England from what was essentially a realm ruled from abroad under the earlier Norman kings into a powerful and independent kingdom in its own right, they came from dark and uncertain origins. The roots of House Plantagenet can be traced back to the House of Anjou, usually referred to simply as the Angevins, a family of Frankish origin descended from a ninth-century noble named Ingelger, who were Counts of Anjou since 870. The chronicler Gerald of Wales, however, borrowed elements of the Melusine legend to give a demonic origin to the Angevins. Melusine was a figure of European legend and folklore, a feminine spirit of fresh waters in sacred springs and rivers. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down, and is said to possess eternal life as the result of a curse. Over the centuries tales of Melusine have been told by chroniclers as diverse as Sir Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, Felix Mendelssohn and A S Byatt. Melusine’s demon blood partly explains the commonly held belief that Lady Elizabeth Woodville – wife of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower – was a witch. At any rate the Angevin monarchs never shied away from their supposedly supernatural origins. The famous English king Richard the Lionheart was reputedly fond of saying that his whole family “came from the devil and would return to the devil” as a result of their descent from the demon countess of Anjou.
The ‘green flash’ or the ‘green ray’ is a term applied to rare optical phenomena that sometimes occur either right after sunset or right before sunrise. The latter term was made famous in the 19th century by the publication of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi/romance novel of the same name. Basically, when the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The green appearance usually lasts for no more than a second or two. Sometimes (rarely) the green flash can resemble a green ray shooting up from the sunset (or sunrise) point. This spooky optical phenomenon has played on people’s imaginations over the centuries, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the visionary Verne appropriated it for his famous tale. In Le Rayon Vert (to give the book its original French title) Verne’s heroes are trying to observe the green ray in Scotland. After numerous attempts prove unsuccessful due to clouds, flocks of birds or distant boat sails hiding the sun, the phenomenon eventually becomes visible but the hero and heroine, finding love in each other’s eyes, end up not paying any attention to the horizon. Whilst the plot sounds fairly risible, the idea of the green ray itself has proved to be an intriguing one to this day, even inspiring a recent film which has in many ways become as famous as Verne’s novel.
There are few places in the British Isles that are more grim, isolated and ill-omened than the barren isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides. Located 12 miles south of Barra, it is known for its important seabird populations, including puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and razorbills, which nest in the sea-cliffs. Today, iron age remains on the island offer mute testimony to the two thousand years or more of continuous habitation that Mingulay once knew. The culture of the island was influenced by both Vikings and early Christians and between the 15th and 19th centuries Mingulay was part of the lands of Clan MacNeil of Barra. These are merely footnotes in history, however, for the island has now been more or less deserted for more than a century. The island was abandoned by its residents in 1912 and has remained virtually uninhabited ever since – today it is no longer used even for grazing sheep. Whatever happened to the lost souls of Mingulay?
Fans of M R James probably know author Denis MacEoin better as Jonathan Aycliffe, writer of The Matrix. This novel features strong themes of black magic and necromancy, and is centred around an indestructible occult tome, known as the Matrix Aeternitatas (which, rather like the cursed talisman in M R James’ Casting the Runes cannot be given back once one has taken possession of it). Like James, Aycliffe is a master of mood and atmosphere, creating an increasing sense of creeping dread in the minds of his readers the longer they read his stories. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Aycliffe shares James’ background as an accomplished scholar: he studied English, Persian, Arabic and Islamic studies at the universities of Dublin, Edinburgh and Cambridge, and lectured at the universities of Fez in Morocco and Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. He even carried out his doctoral research at King’s College, Cambridge, which was James’ alma mater. Probably Aycliffe’s most famous work of fiction is Naomi’s Room, a novel of psychological horror, which shot him to fame in the 1990s. With the recent re-publication of Naomi’s Room, coinciding with the release of Aycliffe’s latest novel, The Silence of Ghosts, now is perhaps the perfect time to take a look back at this spine chilling classic.
I’ve often considered the Fens, a vast tract of land stretching north from Cambridge right up to Boston in Lincolnshire, to be one of the strangest and most compelling of all English landscapes. They are not beautiful in the conventional picturesque sense but, with their huge skyscapes and curious translucency of atmosphere, they are quite unlike any other part of England. For centuries they were an inhospitable wilderness of quaking bogs and marshland, punctuated by clay islands on which small communities eked out a living cutting peat for fuel, using reeds for thatching and living on a diet of fish and wildfowl. Although systematic draining in the seventeenth century transformed the Fens, reclaiming the land and making it extremely fertile, its towns and villages remained scattered and isolated. Even today, much of the land is either water-logged or under water altogether, making it extremely treacherous. The few remaining areas of undrained fenland, in particular, are notorious for the tales told there of drownings, disappearances and all manner of other strange sights and sounds. There has even long been a theory – not mine I hasten to add – that paranormal activity might be conducted through water vapour, making damp areas like the Fens a fertile breeding ground for all manner of supernatural phenomena. Perhaps it should be no surprise, therefore, that ghost stories are one thing that this dark corner of East Anglia is not short of.
There is something about the festive season that irresistibly brings ghosts to mind. Who can tell whether it is the wintery chill, the creeping mist or the inscrutable blanket of snow, but the period approaching Christmas seems inextricably bound with the supernatural. A traditional time for tales of unquiet spirits and the restless dead, the Yuletide season has inspired writers from Charles Dickens to M R James to write ghost stories either during or expressly set at Christmas. But is there perhaps more to this? Are these fictional ghostly tales actually based on real-life paranormal occurrences? There is no shortage of material to support such a conclusion – in Britain alone, there are spooky stories of things that go bump in the night each Christmas that span the length and breadth of the country. From spirits that roam the bleak North York Moors, to haunted houses in the garden of England, from ghastly deeds in the cobbled streets of old London town to dark legends of the highlands of Scotland, almost every region has its own chilling seasonal tales to recount. So, whilst everyone else is buying presents and preparing for Christmas parties, spare a thought for the more sinister side of the festive period and its very own Midwinter ghosts.
Walt Disney – animator, business magnate, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse et al – was and remains an international icon. During his lifetime he earned more Academy awards and nominations than anyone else in history and today the company that he left behind is one of the richest and most powerful in the world. When he died in 1966, as everyone knows, he was cryogenically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Except that it wasn’t – Disney’s remains were actually cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryogenic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death. As Disney’s daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” So what is the source of this bizarre frozen head urban legend? Well, according to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumour was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humour” who were playing a final prank on their late boss. As we shall see, however, this is not the only fact relating to the life of Walt Disney that is a matter of some dispute.
In the period between Halloween and Christmas, with the country in the icy grip of winter and the nights long and cold, there is nothing like a good scary ghost story to bring family and friends together around the hearth. One of my favourites in this particular film genre is 2001’s The Others, the sort of suspenseful chiller which doesn’t seem to come around too often, given the modern preference for out-and-out shocks and gore in horror movies. Probably the best recent example of a film in the mould of The Others is 2011’s The Awakening, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. In post-World War I England, an author and paranormal sceptic (Hall) is invited to a countryside boarding school by one of the teachers (West) to investigate rumours of an apparent haunting. But just when she thinks she has debunked the ghost theory, she has a chilling encounter which makes her question all her rational beliefs. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that there’s something very clever about a film that is subtle enough to scare and unsettle its audience by placing suspense, atmosphere, a gripping plot and a quality script and actors at its heart. As an added bonus, The Awakening also has one of those jaw-dropping twists at the end that make you question everything that you’ve just witnessed. If you enjoy films like The Sixth Sense, An American Haunting and The Woman in Black, you’ll probably need to make room on your DVD shelf for The Awakening.