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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The Travelling Grave

12 Apr

Leslie Poles Hartley has been credited with writing some of the most sophisticated ghost stories in the English language, and was once quoted as saying that this type of story was “if not the highest, certainly the most exacting form of literary art.” Hartley was born in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, England, on 30 December 1895. His father was a solicitor who invested his money in local brickmaking businesses, eventually becoming one of the directors of a prosperous company. Harry Hartley was a busy and respected public figure in his locality: the personification of the self-reliant and god-fearing Victorian businessman. Harry’s wife Bessie was very different, a soft-spoken woman who delighted in poetry. She was also consumed by worry about her health and that of her three children – and was never to let them forget it. Nevertheless, Hartley’s parents complemented each other, and by all accounts enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Hartley’s biographer Adrian Wright quotes Bessie as telling her husband, “I have never seen you come in without pleasure, and I have never seen you go out without regret.” Their only son was never to find such requited fulfilment, except, perhaps, in aspects of his close friendship with David Cecil – but even then Hartley’s feelings were not to be returned in the way that he seemed to have longed for. Once Hartley started to write, his short stories would frequently feature single men who were always somewhat on the edge of things, outsiders who could never quite be at home, who could never quite be themselves, even in the most apparently pleasant settings and comfortable situations.

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The Demon Barber

15 Mar

Sweeney Todd—the ‘demon barber’ who is alleged to have slit the throats of his unsuspecting customers before dropping their bodies into a cellar that connected to a nearby pie shop—is one of the most famous Londoners of all time. Since he first entered the public scene in the mid-nineteenth century, his exploits have chilled and fascinated readers and audiences all the world over. Whether in print, on the stage, or in films, the name of Sweeney Todd has become so ubiquitous that it has entered the English dictionary. The general outline of his story, as it first appeared in the pages of nineteenth-century periodicals, and as it subsequently played itself out in a seemingly endless succession of melodramas on the Victorian stage, is straightforward enough. A prosperous London barber in the days when men were compelled regularly to bare their throats to be shaved by comparative (and often disreputable-looking) strangers, Todd routinely murders the unsuspecting patrons of his Fleet Street ‘tonsorial parlour’. Making use of an ingeniously constructed barber’s chair, he dramatically hurls his victims head over heels into the basement of his shop before robbing them. Occasionally, if the drop from the chair to the stone floor below has not already done the job for him, Todd is compelled to ‘polish them off’ with his razor. He then drags their bodies (via an ancient network of subterranean passageways) to the convenient cellar of the nearby premises of Mrs Margery Lovett, who transforms the fresh corpses into succulent meat pies. The clothes, walking sticks, hats, and other personal items belonging to Todd’s unlucky customers are hidden in the barber’s house; their otherwise ‘unusable’ remains are secreted within the mouldering and long-disused vaults beneath the neighbouring church of St Dunstan’s. Todd’s greed and increasing bloodlust inevitably gets the better of him, and his murderous activities spiral out of control. Thanks to the combined efforts of a well-known local magistrate, a team of Bow Street Runners, and an enterprising pair of star-crossed young lovers, the pair are eventually captured and brought to justice before the bar of the Old Bailey. The relatively simple outline provided by this frankly ghoulish tale of terror has demonstrated itself to be peculiarly accommodating, however. Each generation has been compelled to make use of what might best be described as the ‘mythic’ elements inherent in the macabre story—its resonant themes of avarice, ambition, entrepreneurial capitalism, and cannibalism—effectively to mirror its own particular concerns. Todd’s presence continues to haunt our storybooks, novels, plays, and our airwaves and works of musical theatre; his figure can often be found creeping, only barely disguised, through related collections of folklore and local legend.

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Lupercalia

15 Feb

More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying. Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival held each year in Rome on February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. The origins of the festival are obscure, although the likely derivation of its name from lupus (Latin: “wolf”) has variously suggested connection with an ancient deity who protected herds from wolves and with the legendary she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. As a fertility rite, the festival is also associated with the god Faunus. The Lupercalia may be the longest-lasting of the Roman pagan festivals. Some modern Christian festivals, like Christmas and Easter, took on elements of earlier pagan religions, but they are not essentially Roman, pagan holidays. Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) or even before. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century AD, at least in the West, although it continued in the East for another few centuries. There may be many reasons why Lupercalia lasted so long, but most important must have been its wide appeal.

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The Curse of La Llorona

19 Jan

La Llorona is a legendary figure with various incarnations. Usually translated into English as ‘the wailing woman’, she is often presented as a banshee-type: an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often found by lakes or rivers, sometimes at crossroads, who cries into the night for her lost children, whom she has killed. The infanticide is sometimes carried out with a knife or dagger, but very often the children have been drowned. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realising what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever. To some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to scare children into good behaviour. This folk story has been represented artistically in various guises: in film, animation, art, poetry, theatre and in literature aimed at both adults and children alike. The legend is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and among the Chicano Mexican population of the United States. The legend of La Llorona has supposedly haunted Mexico since before the Conquest. Her story is one of violence, much like the country whose suffering she is often taken to represent. So beware the woman in white…

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Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

22 Dec

Oliver Onions’s ghost stories are as unusual as his name. Indeed he is unique in the realms of writers of the supernatural in that his tales are so far-ranging in their background and substance that they are not easily categorised. Remarkably for a writer born in the mid-nineteenth century his style is very modern and his approach is as psychological as it is supernatural. One of the well-regarded commentators of the ghost story genre, Mike Ashley, observed: “Onions’s best stories are powerfully charged explorations of physical violence, their effects heightened by detailed character study and a preparedness to challenge the accepted.” Onions’s fiction is also graced with a powerful poetic elegance often missing in even the best of ghost stories. While other writers may create moods and images designed to chill, Onions is able to add a richness to the prose giving it a depth and beauty which enhances the development of the plot and cultivates living, breathing characters who are more than just pieces to be moved about the chessboard of a plot. In simple terms Oliver Onions goes for the cerebral rather than the jugular. However, make no mistake, his ghost stories achieve the desired effect. They not only unnerve the reader, but disturb him also and stay with him long after the book has been closed.

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The Black Dahlia

24 Nov

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter Anne in a stroller down the sidewalk, heading to a shoe repair shop. She paused when she noticed what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. But as she looked closer, she discovered it was something much more alarming: a mutilated corpse. Bersinger grabbed Anne and ran to a nearby house, where she used the telephone to call the police. Authorities arrived on the scene just a few minutes later, kick-starting what would become a years-long investigation (that many people are still trying to solve). The naked body Bersinger discovered was in horrifying condition. In addition to being cut completely in half at the waist, and having her intestines removed, Short’s mouth had been slashed from ear-to-ear, giving her face a ghastly, semi-smiling appearance known as a Glasgow Smile. Her body had also been washed clean before it was left to be found. Despite the severe mutilation, there was no blood at the scene, leading police to conclude that the young woman had been murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, then cleaned before the killer dumped her body. The young woman turned out to be a 22-year-old Hollywood hopeful named Elizabeth Short—later dubbed the “Black Dahlia” by the press for her rumoured penchant for sheer black clothes and for the Blue Dahlia movie out at that time.Who killed the Black Dahlia and why? It’s a mystery. The murderer has never been found, and given how much time has passed, probably never will be. The legend grows…

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Ten Essential Halloween Spine-Tinglers

31 Oct

The tell-tale signs of Halloween’s quick approach are pumpkins galore and Monster Mash on repeat on the radio—and let’s not forget the clever ghost decorations. But you can’t really be in the spooky spirit until you plop down on the couch and binge on some good old classic Halloween movies. Yes, Halloween is coming and that means it’s officially horror movie season, so what better way to spend a cold, dark October night than hunkering down with a scary film. It’s the perfect time to grab some popcorn, huddle with all of your friends, and get prepared to scream your head off at some of the scariest movies out there. There have been so many horror films over the years and it can be so hard to figure out which ones you should definitely watch and which ones you should stay away from. Plus, it can also be tough to find the best Halloween movies that everyone in your friend group will love, but whether you’re looking for the ultimate slasher film or are just trying to find something dark that the whole family can enjoy, there are plenty of picks here for any kind of Halloween and horror lover. So gather your most trusted friends or family members, turn down the lights, maybe add a few candles, definitely grab some Halloween sweets and candy, and you’ll be ready for the ultimate fright night.

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Out of the Deep: Walter de la Mare’s Supernatural Tales

27 Oct

What qualities contribute to the making of a really good ghost story? A deftly crafted air of unease and suspense is essential. A well-defined sense of place is also an advantage – the isolated mist-shrouded mansion, or the forest landscape never penetrated by the sun. Then you need a protagonist, someone who is haunted as much by loneliness and doubt as by the spirits of those departed. All these qualities help to shape a good ghost story, but the best ghost stories, and those by Walter de la Mare are certainly among the best, have something else in their favour – an enduring sense of mystery and a solution or explanation that remains tantalisingly out of reach. Take for example perhaps the most famous ghost story of them all, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). James’s tale certainly has the atmosphere, the location and the troubled protagonist, but it also raises numerous tantalising questions. Are the ghosts in the story ‘real’, or do they only exist within the mind of the governess? Do the children within her care see the ghosts but refuse to admit it, or are they totally innocent and merely bewildered by events? Is the governess malevolent or mad, or is she rather the only hope of salvation in a story that deals almost exclusively with evil? James’s ability to weave ambiguity into the fabric of the tale makes it a sublime ghost story. Walter de la Mare possessed a very similar ability to create narratives in which many interpretations are possible, something which – taken together with his perfectly pitched sense of place and his elegant prose – made him one of the finest writers of supernatural tales in the language.

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The Dark Origins of Creepypasta

22 Sep

Creepypastas are horror-related legends or images that have been copied and pasted around the Internet. These Internet entries are often brief, user-generated, paranormal stories intended to scare readers. They include gruesome tales of murder, suicide, and otherworldly occurrences. The age-old tradition of telling ghost stories around a campfire has gotten a digital upgrade with creepypastas — scary stories or pictures that spread across message boards, becoming internet lore that are discussed both on and offline. People around the word share their bizarre and terrifying creepypastas, hoping that the tales will gain popularity and become classics, often quoted or cited by horror fans and frightened netizens. Like with the ghost stories of old, not all creepypastas are particularly scary or good, even if they are frequently passed around. Reading a long story with an interesting title or image is no guarantee of a frightening payoff, and the writers often forget that just having someone meeting a quick and unfortunate fate does not an interesting story make. When a real gem of a creepypasta is found, it makes all the searching and scavenging worth it (at least until it’s time to fall asleep). So grab a friend, turn off the lights, and prepare to be scared to scroll any further. Scary stories aren’t the stuff of campfires and sleepovers anymore. For adults who still enjoy a good spook, the internet is the place to turn for tales of horror and the supernatural.

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