Richmal Crompton’s adventurous, scruffy and rumbustious schoolboy William Brown remains a celebrated and immortal creation in children’s literature after almost a century, widely recognised as one of the most popular fictional characters of all time. The author’s many adult novels and short story collections have always been relatively overshadowed, although they once achieved a wide and appreciative readership. Several of these stories have a macabre and ‘secret world’ quality, and richly deserve to be rediscovered. Crompton’s only supernatural novel is The House (1926), which achieved a much more suitable title – Dread Dwelling – in the US edition. This features a fine old Tudor mansion which is the setting of a long succession of suicides and great unhappiness over the centuries. Presaging later classics like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the mansion proves to be the chief monstrous occult creation itself, detailing the almost total destruction of the newest inhabitants, the Crofton family. Crompton even brought ‘ghostly’ situations into her Just William stories, inevitably resulting from William’s skulduggery and crazy schemes. He is even mistaken on one occasion for an evil spirit, and becomes the subject of an improvised exorcism!
The Dunwich Horror was written by H P Lovecraft in August 1928 and is considered one of the core tales in his Cthulhu mythos. There are several significant literary influences on the tale. The central premise – the sexual union of a ‘god’ or monster with a human woman – is taken directly from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan; Lovecraft actually alludes to the story at one point in his narrative. The use of bizarre footsteps to indicate the presence of an otherwise undetectable entity is borrowed from Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo. There are several other celebrated weird tales featuring invisible monsters Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It?; Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla (certain features of which had already been adapted for The Call of Cthulhu); Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing – but they do not appear to have influenced the tale substantially. A less well-known story, Anthony M Rud’s Ooze, also deals with an invisible monster that eventually bursts forth from the house in which it is trapped; Lovecraft expressed great enthusiasm for the tale when he read it in the spring of 1923. The Dunwich Horror also stands out as being one of the few tales Lovecraft wrote wherein the heroes successfully defeat the antagonistic entity or monster of the story.
Early Pennsylvania was a melting pot of various religious persuasions, as William Penn’s promise of religious freedom opened the doors for many Christian sects: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, German Reformed Catholics, and all manner of religious mystics and free-thinkers. It is from this blending that the Pennsylvania German Pow-wow tradition was born. Despite the appropriation of “pow-wow”, taken from an Algonquian word for a gathering of medicine men, the tradition is actually a collection of European magic spells, recipes, and folk remedies of a type familiar to students of folklore. Although the name was taken from the Algonquian term for shamans, Pow-wow relates directly to the European culture from which the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants came. While immigrants from the Netherlands did make their homes in Philadelphia, the term Pennsylvania Dutch actually refers to immigrants from the Rhine region in Germany (the name being a corruption of the word ‘Deutsch’). These peoples fled religious persecution at home and settled in and around Philadelphia in the late 17th and early 18th century. The moniker has expanded in modern times to include a broader variety of immigrants from the Germanic region in Europe, especially those who cling tightly to their traditional religious perspectives, as it is a magical tradition that combines Catholic prayers with intonations or inscriptions of mystical words, folk rituals, and recipes to create cures for various ailments and illnesses. While modern Pennsylvania Dutch most often profess little to no belief or practice of the culture’s ancient magic, the traditions have not been entirely lost, and it is still possible to find devotees of the old ways in the city to this day.
The rolling agricultural landscapes of Herefordshire have an easy-going charm, but the finest scenery hereabouts is along the banks of the River Wye, which wriggles and worms its way across the county linking most of the places of interest. Plonked in the middle of the county on the Wye is Hereford, a sleepy, rather old-fashioned sort of place whose proudest possession, the remarkable Mappa Mundi map, was almost flogged off in a round of ecclesiastical budget cuts back in the 1980s. To the west of Hereford, hard by the Welsh border, the key attraction is Hay-on-Wye, which – thanks to the purposeful industry of its very own self-proclaimed ‘King’ Richard Booth – has become the world’s largest repository of secondhand books, on sale in a score of secondhand bookshops. The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held there for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’. But Hay-on-Wye was already well known for its many bookshops before the festival was launched. Booth opened his first shop there in 1961, and by the 1970s Hay had gained the nickname ‘The Town of Books’. On 1 April 1977 Booth proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as king – styled Richard Cœur de Livre – and his horse as Prime Minister. He lives there still, ruling the kingdom of Hay from his very own castle in the hills.
Here’s a real festive treat. In 2000 the BBC produced a series called Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee in which Lee played M R James reading four of his own stories. Lee, who actually once met James, obviously enjoyed making this series and A Warning to the Curious is a real highlight – enjoy!
Sinterklaas is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins based on Saint Nicholas and is the primary source of the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus. Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and sometimes red stola, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top, and traditionally he rides a white horse. Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas, usually portrayed by a man in blackface with black curly hair, dressed up like a 17th-century page in colourful attire, often sporting a lace collar and a feathered cap. Parallels have been drawn between the legend of Sinterklaas and the figure of Odin, who as King of the Norse Aesir was a major god among the Germanic peoples, and was worshipped throughout Northern and Western Europe prior to Christianization. Since some elements of the Sinterklaas celebration are unrelated to Christianity, there are theories regarding the pagan origins of various customs of the holiday stemming from areas where the Germanic peoples were Christianized and retained elements of their indigenous traditions, surviving in various forms into modern depictions of Sinterklaas. Non-Christian elements in Sinterklaas that arguably could have been of pagan origin include the fact that Sinterklaas rides the rooftops on his white horse (Odin rides the sky with his grey horse Sleipnir); Sinterklaas gives chocolate letters to children (like Odin gave the rune letters to mankind); Sinterklaas carries a staff and has mischievous helpers with black faces, who listen at chimneys to find out whether children are bad or good and report to Sinterklaas (Odin has a spear and his black ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who report what happens in the world to Odin).
One of England’s most venerable cities, Canterbury offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle, and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. The city began as a Belgic settlement that was overrun by the Romans and renamed Durovernum, from where they proceeded to establish a garrison, supply base and system of roads that was to reach as far as the Scottish borders. With the Roman empire’s collapse came the Saxons, who renamed the town Cantwarabyrig; it was a Saxon king, Ethelbert, who in 597 welcomed Augustine, dispatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity. By the time of his death, Augustine had founded two Benedictine monasteries, one of which – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become the first cathedral in England. Canterbury, like any other city with such rich history, has its fair share of spooky ghost stories, including the Girl in Grey in St Margaret’s Street, the mysterious figure in white at the Marlowe Theatre, and the Robed Man of Sudbury Tower.
The BBC’s Crooked House – by Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss – is a ghost story about a cursed house, Geap Manor, which weaves together three spine-chilling tales set during Georgian times, the 1920s and the present day. The perfect spooky viewing for a Halloween night – enjoy!
Robert Westall (1929-1993) was best known as a writer of books for children and young adults, often involving cats and themes surrounding his experiences growing up during World War II. He was twice honoured with the Carnegie Medal, the foremost British award for children’s literature. He was only the second author ever to win the medal twice, and no one has ever won a third. Westall’s most famous work is probably The Machine Gunners – for which he won the Carnegie Medal in 1975 – but he also produced a substantial body of ‘ghostly’ tales throughout his life, starting with his third novel The Watch House. It was the infinite strangeness of the supernatural that fascinated Robert Westall, not the horror, and in the opinion of some he remains one of the best and most undersung practitioners of the genre, and an obvious successor to that godfather of the English ghost story, M R James. Westall’s 1989 collection of supernatural short fiction Antique Dust was dedicated “To M R James, most economical of writers, who could coax horror out of a ragged blanket.”
I have been haunted by the writings of M R James since childhood but when asked what is my favourite of all his ghostly tales I’ve never fully been able to answer. Lost Hearts, an early tale which apparently James didn’t much care for, and which only appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to fill up the collection at the request of his publisher, does however retain a special corner in my affections. This was my first introduction to James and ever since I have always been surprised at the author’s seeming negative attitude to this particular story, which remains one of the classic short chillers in whatever guise it has assumed, on the page or on the screen. The plot is well known. Abney, an elderly scholar, reclusive and of independent means, invites his young cousin Stephen, recently orphaned, to live with him. His secret intention is to kill the boy in order to obtain his heart, which he believes will give him magical powers and, possibly, immortality. Two murders have already been committed for this purpose, and the young victims’ corpses carefully concealed, but their whereabouts are frighteningly disclosed to the intended next victim, and their intrusion back into the world of the living occurs in a series of disturbing incidents that culminate in the story’s horrifying denouement.