Although it is far from the best known of his ghost stories, The Ash-Tree is perhaps the most explicitly grisly of all M R James’ tales of the supernatural. This particular short story is also very personal, for it is the one that most powerfully reflects his near-pathological fear of spiders, hints of which also appear in The Tractate Middoth. In European folklore the ash tree does have occult significance, but it is generally positive: there is Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology; the Christmas log was of ash and was thought to bring prosperity to the family that burned it; tools made of ash were thought to allow the persons using them to do more and better work etc. Conversely, witches were believed to ride through the air on ash branches – a point of relevance in that witchcraft plays a critical role in the story.
A rich body of geographical lore, much of it related to real or imaginary hazards, characterises perceptions of bog landscapes. Bog bursts, will-o’-the-wisps, carnivorous plants, weird creatures, and perceptions of the ‘bottomless’ bog all play a part in the folklore of the landscapes. For example, there is Lindow Man, the preserved body of a man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire, North West England on 1 August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters. The find, which is regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 1980s, caused a media sensation and helped invigorate study of ‘bog men’ in Britain. Ambiguity about the features of bog landscapes is further heightened by the descriptive terminology employed by tale tellers, who present to us a world inhabited by meanings that go beyond the physical environment and touch on the primordial inner landscape. Not long after its discovery, Lindow Man inspired Phil Rickman’s horror novel The Man in the Moss, in which a man’s body is found perfectly preserved in peat, despite the fact that it has been there for over two millennia. For the isolated Pennine community of Bridelow in the novel, his removal is a sinister sign. In the weeks approaching Samhain – the Celtic feast of the dead – tragedy strikes in Bridelow. Soon, firm believers of both the Christian and pagan persuasion are at each other’s throats, while the village prepares to face a natural disaster unknown since the time of King Henry VIII.
With its atmospheric setting on the ancient, wild moorland and its eponymous savage apparition, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the greatest crime novels ever written. Rationalism is pitted against the supernatural, good against evil, as the great detective Sherlock Holmes seeks to defeat a foe almost his equal. The hound of the title is a symbol of the mystery that unleashes the plot, the dark secrets of the moor, and of the ancestral curse that must be explained away. But what is the origin of the hound? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend, the crime writer Max Pemberton, reckoned that the inspiration for the hound came from the Black Shuck of East Anglian lore, while one editor of the Strand magazine likened the creature to the phantom boar-hound of Hergest Ridge on the Welsh Borders. Others have opted for a whole pack of spectral hounds – the wisht hounds that hunted the evil 17th century squire Richard Cabell to his doom at Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor each Midsummer ‘s Eve. Certainly there is no shortage of tales of ghostly black dogs and demonic hounds in the folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles that might have led Doyle to write this novel.
Although chalk figures appear in many places throughout the world, there is one region in particular that has a wealth of them. Mighty figures of men with clubs, ogres and rampant steeds, acres in extent, and visible across great counties, decorate the hillsides in Southern England. Horses are especially abundant, with the finest of them to be found in Berkshire. This is the Uffington White Horse, located just two miles south of the tiny village of Uffington in the Berkshire Downs. It lies at the centre of a cluster of well-known landmarks thick with folkloric and literary associations, including the Neolithic barrow Wayland’s Smithy, of which much is told in Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, the pre-Roman Ridgeway, a hill fort called Uffington Castle, and the naturally flat-topped Dragon Hill, where Saint George is said to have slain the dragon. While the Uffington White Horse is a majestic creature measuring approximately 360 by 130 feet, it is not just size that makes it unique. It possesses two other traits that none of the other existing white horses have – antiquity and unique artistry. Indeed, this particular chalk figure may have served as the inspiration for all those that followed it.
If you’re looking for a ghost story to elicit a pleasurable shudder this Christmas, then you could do far worse than read the work of that oft-overlooked Edwardian scribe of the supernatural, Richard Henry Malden. His book of short stories Nine Ghosts (1942) was compiled over many years and issued as a tribute to his long friendship with the writer M R James, who had of course been one of the most celebrated authors in this particular genre. One of the most appealing features of R H Malden’s ghost stories is that we are always conscious of the presence of Malden the narrator. We may be sure that it is Malden and not some fictional persona because of the brief and entertaining, if not always actually necessary, fragments of his own experience that are mentioned in his ghostly tales. This is also most likely a natural result of the fact that the tales were written to be read aloud – Malden was among those present at the auspicious first readings of the ghost stories of M R James at the celebrated meetings of the Chitchat Society at King’s College, Cambridge and remained forever affected by the experience. As Malden notes in his introduction to Nine Ghosts, “It was my good fortune to know Dr James for more than thirty years”.
This has been a huge year for Scotland, with a referendum on independence and a Commonwealth Games hosted in Glasgow in addition to the usual annual highlights of Hogmanay, Up Helly Aa and the Edinburgh Festival. Somewhat lost among all these events is the significance of the Stone of Scone, perhaps the single most important, mysterious and widely travelled object in Scottish history. This holy relic, also known as the Stone of Destiny, has been fought over by England and Scotland for centuries. According to one Celtic legend, the stone was once the pillow upon which the patriarch Jacob rested at Bethel when he beheld the visions of angels, hence its other famous moniker, Jacob’s Pillow. Thereafter, it was for centuries associated with the crowning of Scottish kings and then, in 1296, was taken to England and later placed under the Coronation Chair. It was finally returned to Scotland seven centuries later – the supreme symbol of Scottish independence for some and the ultimate symbol of the union with England for others. However, the Stone of Destiny has other, more mystical associations, which are known to few.
If you’re at a loose end this Halloween and in the mood to be scared silly, here are some suggestions courtesy of Ghost Cities:
1 Thing to watch – the Babadook will scare you silly…
1 Thing to visit – the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum: just about the scariest place to visit this Halloween!
1 Thing to eat – here’s a ghoulishly good recipe for that old favourite: pumpkin pie!
1 Thing to listen to – what else but Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre?
Enjoy – Happy Halloween!
With Halloween almost upon us, I thought that a post on the late Ray Bradbury – that October Dreamer extraordinaire – was timely. After all, the season of thrills and chills never had a greater fan, or finer exponent of the Halloween-themed short story, than the great man. Bradbury only passed away fairly recently (he lived from 1920-2012) but he left behind him a vast, influential body of work ranging from science fiction to horror novels, short stories, plays and TV scripts. Best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury was one of the most celebrated 20th-century American writers, inspiring the likes of Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Robert Bloch to follow in his footsteps. Bradbury is credited with writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories – more than eight million copies of his works, published in over 36 languages, have been sold around the world. His honours include Emmy and Nebula awards, as well as the National Medal of Arts. However, leaving all these achievements aside, his work is particularly celebrated at this time of year – and he appears on this website mainly because of – his enduring love of the Halloween season. If you’re looking for something to put you in the mood this year, you could do much worse than seek out Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or the stories of The October Country, which are nothing less than a series of passionate love-letters written about Halloween and all of its associated thrills and dread.
Although Daphne du Maurier is remembered as one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, she is in many ways an unlikely success story. Daughter of the famous actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, Daphne was educated at home in London, and then in Paris, before writing her first novel in 1931. Three others followed before Rebecca, in 1938, made her one of the most popular authors of the day (much to her own surprise). Nearly all her fifteen novels have been bestsellers, and several of her works became successful films, notably the version of Rebecca starring Laurence Olivier, and the chilling adaptations of her short stories The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Daphne herself was made a dame in 1969, in recognition of her unique achievement of writing novels that were both popular and literary classics. What merits her mention on this website is that she has been credited with shifting the Gothic mode towards romantic fiction with her novels, which were built on the work of the Bronte sisters and inspired a genre that has flourished ever since.
Shrouded in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, the town of Glastonbury was once one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England. Now thousands flock here for the annual music festival and for the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day. Over the years history and legend have become intertwined, and the monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey, around 700 AD, found it profitable to encourage the association between Glastonbury and the mythical ‘Blessed Isle’ known as Avalon. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Once Glastonbury and its conical hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from a vast inland lake that covered much of present day Somerset, had been a sacred site of the Old Religion of the British Isles. Even today, it is a place where the very air is alive with the stuff of myth and legend. In Arthurian legend it was ruled by the enchantress Morgan le Fay and her eight sisters, every one of them skilled in the magical arts. Before that, it was said to be ruled by the dark Celtic deity Aballach. It has variously been called the ‘Isle of apples’ and the ‘Isle of glass’. In the Christian era, it was said to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea came carrying the Holy Grail in order to found Britain’s first church. All of these myths, legends and historical associations have inspired numerous fiction writers over the years, among them Phil Rickman, whose novel The Bones of Avalon, takes full advantage of this rich body of lore.