T G Jackson – Architect of the Gothic

16 May

Around a hundred years ago, two celebrated Gothic architects each began writing ghost stories. One was the young American, Ralph Adams Cram, whose first book Black Spirits and White appeared in 1895, but was sadly never followed by any further similar tales during his remaining forty-eight years—whereas, unlike the much younger Cram, the veteran English architect Sir Thomas Graham Jackson waited until his eighty-fourth year to publish his own sole collection, Six Ghost Stories, in 1919. Although not really a ‘Jamesian’ writer, Jackson is clearly a genuine antiquarian, scholar, and classicist, and his personal love of arcane lore, objets d’art, historic buildings, and Italian antiquities is clearly evident in these traditional post-Victorian ghost stories. During his own lifetime, very few readers knew Jackson as a writer of ghost stories (or any other kind of fiction). He was celebrated as a great ‘New Gothic’ architect, with a special devotion to the Romanesque style. In retrospect he is seen as one of those pioneers who strove to loosen the bonds of rigid medievalism in the belief that by doing so a living Gothic style, capable of gradual development, would take the place of one that was bound by archaeology, and for which they felt there could be no future. An inveterate traveller, and pursuer of antiquities, he virtually rediscovered Dalmatia as far as its art and history were concerned. A brief résumé of his incredibly busy life and achievements will reveal the unique personality behind the long-neglected collection of Six Ghost Stories.

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The Hollow Earth Theory

18 Apr

The Hollow Earth is a concept proposing that the planet Earth is entirely hollow or contains a substantial interior space. In recent decades, the idea has become a staple of the science fiction and adventure genres across films, most recently in Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse movies. Godzilla vs King Kong for example is loosely based on a real-life idea that dates back hundreds of years. Ancient civilizations had myths about an entire world that exists underground, hidden from the eyes of humans. In the 18th century, there were scientists who firmly believed in a ‘Hollow Earth’ theory, which postulated that the planet was actually hollow, and that there’s a massive, empty space under the surface. In most versions of the legend there are people or creatures living within it. This can vary depending on the theory or story, but Hollow Earth tales generally feature an entirely subterranean culture and community miles underneath the surface of our home planet. It’s not just fictional, though. There are people who claim our true Earth is hollow too. Some of those proponents even claim that there is a secondary sun within our planet, fueling those who live within the Hollow Earth. While it might seem utterly wild, it has as a theory at times been supported by famed scientists like Edmund Halley – who potentially came up with the idea – while also becoming a staple of science fiction storytelling as well as a popular conspiracy theory.

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The Black Reaper

14 Mar

Literary fame seems almost like a lottery; ghost story writers in particular seem to pick losing tickets more than any other kind of author. It is an interesting exercise to ponder why certain authors and their works in this vein, just as well equipped to stand the test of time as their contemporaries, fall into speedy obscurity, while others stay in the public eye. The Victorian era is a fine example of this – for every tale of terror that has survived in print today, there are a hundred languishing in undeserved obscurity. Bernard Capes is a case in point. During his writing career, he published forty-one books, contributed to all the leading Victorian magazines, and left behind some of the most imaginative tales of terror of his era – yet within ten years of his death, he had slipped down the familiar slope into total neglect. Until the early 1980s, Capes seldom appeared in reference works in this (or any other) field of literature, and even histories of Victorian writers published in his lifetime give him scant mention. He was overlooked by every anthologist in this genre from his death in 1918 right up until 1978: sixty years of lingering in the dark while many of his contemporaries were brought back to light. I would place Capes among the most imaginative writers of his day. He turned out plot after plot worthy of the recognition accorded to such contemporaries as Stevenson, Haggard, and Conan Doyle, all of whom are still in print today. This selection of his stories help put Capes in his deserved position with the leading talents of Victorian fantasy.

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Kraken, Demon of the Abyss

14 Feb

According to Scandinavian mythology, the Kraken is a horrifying giant sea creature said to be one mile long. Stories generally describe it as a terrifyingly enormous octopus or squid like creature that attacks ships. According to some tales, the Kraken was so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island. But is there any chance that a real animal exists behind these scary legends? The Kraken is first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga involving two sea monsters , the Hafgufa (sea mist) and the Lyngbakr (heather-back). The Hafgufa is believed to be a reference to the Kraken. In 1857, the kraken began to move from myth to reality, thanks to the Danish naturalist Japetus Steenstrup. He examined a large squid beak, about 8 cm (3 in) across, that had washed up on Denmark’s shores several years earlier. Originally he could only guess at the overall size of the animal, but soon he was sent parts of another specimen from the Bahamas. When Steenstrup finally published his findings, he concluded that the kraken was real, and it was a species of giant squid. He named it Architeuthis dux, meaning “ruling squid” in Latin. Only after Steenstrup had described the creature could scientists begin to unravel whether there was any truth to the old myths. Was this huge squid really as dangerous as the legends had led people to believe? Where did it come from, and what was it up to in the dark depths of the sea?

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In Ghostly Company

17 Jan

The writing of ghost stories has attracted more talented amateurs than any other form of literature. By the term ‘amateur’, I mean those individuals whose main occupation in life is not writing, but those who take up their pen or sit at their typewriters in their idle hours between the demands of their normal profession. The list of candidates in the ghost story genre includes M. R. James, Sir Andrew Caldecott and A. C. and R. H. Benson. Another name to add to the list, one which is forgotten today by all but the most knowledgeable aficionado of supernatural fiction, is Amyas Northcote. Northcote remains a shadowy figure, and not a great deal is known about him or what prompted him to create this delicious collection of ghost stories. He was born on 25 October 1864 into a privileged background. He was the seventh child of a successful politician, Sir Stafford Northcote who was lord of the manor at Pynes, situated a few miles from Exeter. During his childhood years, all the great Tory politicians, including Disraeli, Lord Salisbury and Randolph Churchill, were guests at the house. Sir Stafford was a great devotee of the theatre and literature. He had an especial fascination for ghost stories and the tales of the Arabian Nights and needed little encouragement to spin yarns of magic, wizardry and the fantastic to his children. No doubt this influenced the young Amyas Northcote in his reading tastes and sowed seeds of inspiration which were not to flower until many years later. Amyas attended Eton and was there at the same time as that doyen of ghost story writers M. R. James. It is not known if the two young men knew each other at this time, but the ancient and academic atmosphere that they breathed in together finds its way into both of their writings when, it would seem, out of the blue he brought out a collection of ghost stories in 1921.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

20 Dec

‘There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas,’ wrote Jerome K. Jerome in the introduction to his darkly comic collection Told After Supper (1891), ‘something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails’. Dickens would no doubt agree, as well as anyone who grew up in the 1970s and was scarred for life by the BBC’s annual Ghost Story for Christmas. It is often assumed that this is a tradition inaugurated by the publication of A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843. But Dickens had been channelling something much more ancient, something, in fact, much older than Christmas itself. These are the fireside tales of the Winter Solstice, when our Neolithic ancestors worshipped their death and resurrection gods and the Germanic tribes celebrated Yule, when the wild hunt rose and the Draugr – the ‘again walkers’ – gave up their graves on the darkest day of the year. People have always got together at this time of the year. And as these pagan echoes blend with quasi-Victorian religiosity, like rum and ginger in a winter punch, folk are bound to tell some pretty strange stories. When the unnamed framing narrator of Henry James’ seminal ghost story The Turn of the Screw listens to a friend reading the eerie manuscript, for example, it is on Christmas Eve. This was doubly so before radio and then television took over, and friends and families still had to entertain themselves. And why stand starchily around an upright piano singing carols when you can scare each other witless? This was the point of Jerome’s book, which both satirised and affirmed the genre of the late-Victorian ghost story, a particular type of English gothic that had become clichéd and ripe for parody by the end of the century. The form was, however, about to be accidently revitalised by M R James, a prestigious academic who took a ghoulish delight in frightening the life out of friends, colleagues and students by writing a single ghost story every year and reading it aloud to them in his rooms at King’s on Christmas Eve, extinguishing every candle but one. As he later explained, ‘If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.’

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Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

15 Nov

The seductive Dark Lady who inspired some of Shakespeare’s most famous and explicit sonnets has remained a mystery for centuries. This mysterious woman is described in Shakespeare’s sonnets and so called because the poems make it clear that she has black wiry hair and dark, brown, “dun” coloured skin. What was to become perhaps one of the most famous poetic works of all time was a slim volume on publication in 1609, containing 154 poems over 67 pages, and the edition is now extremely rare: only 13 copies survive. But its influence has been all-encompassing, providing a template for language, for literature, for love, ever since. Recent years have seen the sonnets disseminated in ways that Shakespeare could never have imagined. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is quoted 5m times on the internet. Apps have been created in which famous voices recite the poems, sonnets are tweeted, T-shirts are printed, and poetry that was once said to circulate only among Shakespeare’s “private friends” is now stored for ever in the cloud. But what remains one of the great mysteries of English literature is who, exactly, was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets? Did she even exist? And, if so, who was this tantalising woman with “raven” brows and black hair to whom Shakespeare addressed a string of overtly passionate and sometimes explicit poems? Scholars have debated the issue for decades — potential candidates include Aline Florio, wife to a translator, Mary Fitton, a lady-in-waiting, and “Black Luce”, a brothel-owner.

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The Legend of Stingy Jack

18 Oct

People have been making jack-o’-lanterns – pumpkins with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles, which are a sure sign of the Halloween season – for centuries. The practice of decorating jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as early canvasses. In fact, the name, jack-o’-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

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A Plague on Both Your Houses

13 Sep

Susanna Gregory is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cruwys, a Cambridge academic who was previously a coroner’s officer. She writes detective fiction, and is noted for her series of medieval mysteries featuring Matthew Bartholomew, a teacher of medicine and investigator of murders in 14th-century Cambridge.These books may have some aspects in common with the Ellis Peters Cadfael series, the mediaeval adventures of two men, a highly intelligent physician and a Benedictine monk who is senior proctor of Cambridge University. Matthew Bartholomew’s activities as a healer, including examination of corpses, embroil him in a series of mysterious crimes, both secular and monastic, and he reluctantly assumes the role of an amateur sleuth. Sceptical of superstition, he is somewhat ahead of his time, and much accurate historical detail is woven into the adventures. But there any resemblance to the comparatively warm-hearted Cadfael series ends: the tone and subject matter of the Gregory novels is far darker and does not shrink from portraying the harsh realities of life in the Middle Ages. The first in the series, A Plague on Both Your Houses (1996) is set against the ravages of the Black Death and subsequent novels take much of their subject matter from the attempts of society to recover from this disaster. These novels bear the marks of much detailed research into medieval conditions – many of the supporting characters have names taken from the documentation of the time, referenced at the end of each book – and bring vividly to life the all-pervading squalor of living conditions in England during the Middle Ages. The deep-rooted and pervasive practice of traditional leechcraft as it contrasts with the dawning science of evidence-based medicine is a common bone of contention between Matthew and the students he teaches at Michaelhouse College (now part of Trinity College, Cambridge), whilst the conflict between the students of Cambridge and the townsfolk continually threatens to escalate into violence.

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The Enid Blyton Affair

16 Aug

Enid Blyton (1897-1968) was an English children’s writer whose books have been among the world’s best-sellers since the 1930s, selling more than 600 million copies. Blyton’s books are still enormously popular, and she is probably best remembered today for her Noddy, Famous Five and Malory Towers series. She is the world’s fourth most-translated author, behind Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare with her books being translated into 90 languages. Despite this popularity, Blyton’s work became increasingly controversial among literary critics, teachers and parents from the 1950s onwards, because of the alleged unchallenging nature of her writing and the themes of her books, particularly the Noddy series. Some libraries and schools banned her works, which the BBC had refused to broadcast from the 1930s until the 1950s because they were perceived to lack literary merit. Her books have been criticised as being elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic and at odds with the more progressive environment emerging in post-Second World War Britain, but they have continued to be best-sellers since her death in 1968. After her death and the publication of her daughter Imogen’s 1989 autobiography, A Childhood at Green Hedges, Blyton emerged as an emotionally immature, unstable and often malicious figure. Imogen considered her mother to be “arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct. As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult I pitied her.” Blyton’s eldest daughter Gillian remembered her rather differently, however, as “a fair and loving mother, and a fascinating companion”. A H Thompson, who compiled an extensive overview of censorship efforts in the United Kingdom’s public libraries, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘The Enid Blyton Affair,’ and wrote of her in 1975: “No single author has caused more controversy among librarians, literary critics, teachers, and other educationalists and parents during the last thirty years, than Enid Blyton. How is it that the books of this tremendously popular writer for children should have given rise to accusations of censorship against librarians in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom?” How indeed?

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