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.
The wild and windy Western Isles off the northwest shore of Scotland - also known as the Outer Hebrides - boast some of the country’s most alluring scenery, from windswept golden sands to harsh, heather-backed mountains and peat bogs. An elemental beauty pervades each one of the more than two hundred islands that make up the archipelago, only a handful of which are actually inhabited. The Hebridean islands were first settled by Neolithic farming peoples in around 4,500 BC. They lived along the coast, where they are remembered by scores of incidental remains, from passage graves through to stone circles – most famously at Callanish on Lewis. The standing stones at Callanish rival even those at Stonehenge in their inscrutability and the majesty of their setting. The dozens of stones and the chambered cairn in their midst were quarried locally and raised into their present position some 4,000 years ago, but for what purpose is likely to remain forever an enigma. The stones, which are planted roughly in the shape of a Celtic cross, seem to align with other circles and standing stones in the area, but it is possible to read almost any meaning into them. Theories abound as to their purpose and it has been suggested that the stone circle may have been a king’s mausoleum, an observatory – or even a UFO beacon.
October 31st, known as Halloween to most, is also called a variety of other names in different parts of the world, including Samhain, Mischief Night and the Day of the Dead. In the Gaelic diaspora, the holiday is also traditionally known as Nutcrack Night. As the chill of autumn pervaded their homes, people would sit around their fires, eating newly harvested hazelnuts or chestnuts. Several fortune-telling customs grew up that involved throwing nuts into the fire, hence giving rise to the name ‘Nutcrack Night’ or ‘The Oracle of the Nuts’. It was a time, for example, when young people put nuts on the hearth to see if their sweethearts were true to them. If the nut burned normally, all was well, but if it burst or rolled away the sweetheart was, alas, untrue. In ancient times nuts were also an early divination tool, in the absence of more modern accoutrements such as crystal balls, tarot cards, runes and other arcana. The reason for this was simple – around the end of the harvest season, often there was not much left in the fields. However, nuts were often plentiful, making them the perfect medium for divination in the dying embers of autumn.
It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.
Porth Oer, an attractive if unobtrusive beach hidden on the north Wales coast is an unusual location for one of the UK’s strangest unsolved mysteries. This small, picturesque National Trust beach, backed by steep grassy cliffs, is famously known as ‘Whistling Sands’, a nickname based on the sound the granules make underfoot when you walk over its gleaming sand. The sound is created due to the stress of weight that is put upon the sand, and interestingly Porth Oer is unique among the beaches of Europe for this unusual effect. ‘Singing sands’ do exist in other places in the world, but usually these take the form of vast desert landscapes – the singing dunes of Almaty in Kazakhstan for example, or the Kelso dunes in California’s Mojave Desert – rather than a cute little beach on the Llyn Heritage Coast. Although there is a general consensus among scientists as to the best conditions for the ‘singing sand’ effect, why places like Port Oer exist at all remains something of a mystery.
Perceval Landon (1868-1927) was an English writer and journalist, now best remembered for his classic and much reprinted ghost story Thurnley Abbey. Well known to ghost story connoisseurs, Thurnley Abbey is a true classic of the genre, as well as being one of the most anthologised tales of the supernatural ever written. I’m not joking, Thurnley Abbey appears in virtually every other ghost story collection ever published! The tale was printed originally in Landon’s only short story collection, Raw Edges (1908), which in fact contains no other ghostly tales, although a few of the pieces have other fantastical elements. Raw Edges generally, as well as Thurnley Abbey in particular, display both Landon’s intelligence and his versatility as a writer. He was well-travelled, educated and discerning in his tastes (as well as being related to Spencer Perceval, who holds the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated). Despite all of this, and despite the fact that he was also a barrister, a good friend of Rudyard Kipling, a journalist, a war correspondent and an expert on heraldry, Landon is best remembered today as a ghost story writer and the perpetrator of one of the oddest hoaxes in publishing history.