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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The Mozart of the English Ghost Story

12 Jul

How does William Wymark Jacobs earn the title “The Mozart of the English Short Story”? Because his prose is exquisite and translucent, and his plots – like Mozart/Da Ponte operas – are full of fun and mischief, as anti-romantic as they are romantic. Just as in the last act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, if you blink you risk missing a sublime, or a sublimely comic moment, if your attention lapses when reading a Jacobs story, you risk missing sly irony, wry innuendo or a mordant remark – more often than not about marriage! In fact, the simple pleasure of reading Jacobs’s perfectly paced prose – in Evelyn Waugh’s words, his “exquisite precision of narrative” – is often more enjoyable than following the actual plots of his stories, which are often intricate and sometimes seem only to hang by a thread, which require the reader’s alertness, if not participation, and which are often not resolved until the very last word, sometimes leaving the reader vexed, or even disappointed, however charmed by the telling of the story itself. An example of this is the delectable The Bequest, from Ship’s Company, about late-middle-age second marriage and – inevitably with Jacobs – money. Even the end of The Monkey’s Paw requires some reader participation. The fact is that Jacobs’s invisible craft of narration often cannot be matched even by the ingenuity of his plots. That the lasting satisfaction of a Jacobs story lies less in its plot than its telling means that, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Jacobs is infinitely re-readable. His sentences always have buoyancy and air. Knowing the plot of a Jacobs story – but not perhaps fully understanding its denouement – does not spoil the pleasure of reading and re-reading him. Open any Jacobs story and you will receive a lesson in how to write English prose and dialogue. Jacobs sustained this prose style, seemingly entirely natural to him – but he always worked hard and slowly – over some 150 stories and six novels. This means that making a selection from his stories is extremely difficult, because they almost all offer the same degree of pleasure.

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The Three Investigators

14 Jun

The Three Investigators was a young adult detective book series written by Robert Arthur. It centered on a trio of high school boys who live in the fictional town of Rocky Beach, California. They are: Jupiter Jones, First Investigator, who is a leader known for his remarkable powers of observation and deduction; Pete Crenshaw, Second Investigator, who is a tower of strength in any kind of trouble; and Bob Andrews, Records and Research, who is something of a scholarly type with an adventurous spirit. The boys spend their free time solving various mysteries rather than true crimes, mysteries which tended to be far more bizarre, unusual, complex, and intriguing than those of other Kid Detective books of the day, with protagonists who were simply ordinary, middle-class American boys, without the riches or special advantages of sleuths such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, both of whom had famous fathers who helped them out in their cases a great deal. Headquarters for The Three Investigators is a damaged 30-foot mobile home trailer within the salvage yard run by Jupiter’s Uncle Titus and Aunt Mathilda which has been cleverly hidden from view by stacks of junk which surround it. For travelling long distances, the boys have the use of a gold-plated Rolls Royce, complete with a chauffeur, Worthington, whom Jupiter won the use of in a contest. Adding to this quasi-realism was the real-life movie director, Alfred Hitchcock, who appeared in the original texts of the first thirty titles. His character provided the introductory and closing remarks in each book and, acting as a mentor, he was occasionally called upon by The Three Investigators during the course of solving a mystery. The real Alfred Hitchcock had little to do with the creation of these books. He was simply paid a handsome percentage for the use of his name and character. This provided brand-name recognition and helped boost sales of the books. Following Robert Arthur’s death, the writing of the series was taken over by several successive authors — two titles by Nick West (pseudonym of Kin Platt), three by Marc Brandel, and the bulk of them penned by William Arden (pseudonym of Dennis Lynds) and M V Carey.

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The Case of Gervase Fen

17 May

The detective Gervase Fen and his creator ‘Edmund Crispin’ were born (or, to be more accurate, conceived) sometime in April 1942, when a twenty-one-year-old Oxford undergraduate named Robert Bruce Montgomery was arguing about books over a congenial pint at a pub. His friend, the actor John Maxwell, was astonished that Montgomery had not read the detective stories of John Dickson Carr, famous as the creator of Dr Gideon Fell and master of locked-room mysteries and seemingly impossible crimes. Montgomery later recalled that in those days he was ‘a prig and an intellectual snob,’ but he agreed to read Carr’s shuddery novel of witch cults and rational detection, The Crooked Hinge. ‘I went to bed with it not expecting very much,’ Montgomery said. ‘But at two o’clock in the morning I was still sitting up with my eyes popping out of their sockets at the end of one of the sections—I think the third [actually it was the second]—with the doctor looking after the nerve-racked maid, saying, “You devil up there, what have you done?” And of course I finished the book that night. It was to be the seminal moment in my career, and to alter it entirely, for although subsequently I read and enjoyed other detective-story writers, in particular Michael Innes and Gladys Mitchell, it was Carr primarily who induced me to try my hand at one myself, thus creating Edmund Crispin.’

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