They Return at Evening: H R Wakefield

16 Jul

When Herbert Russell Wakefield’s first collection of supernatural stories, They Return at Evening, was published in 1928, it would not have been apparent to contemporary readers that the book marked the start of a new era. Wakefield’s appearance on the ghost story scene came at a time when many of the great names in the field were nearing the end of their careers as writers of supernatural fiction. M R James, E F Benson and Algernon Blackwood, who had dominated the field, had either published their last new stories or were within a few years of doing so. That his first two collections of ghost stories, They Return at Evening (1928) and Old Man’s Beard (1929) have not been reprinted since is little short of a crime, albeit one that may be partly explained by the popularity of the two anthologies which were published by Jonathan Cape in their Florin Books series, which used many of the best stories from Wakefield’s first three collections. Such neglect places Wakefield in distinguished company: E G Swain, R H Malden, A N L Munby and L T C Rolt are all authors of fine collections of ghost stories, which for many years after their publication were not easily available, and consequently more talked-about than read by ghost story enthusiasts. Wakefield, however, differs from the others in that he wrote several collections of weird tales, over a period of thirty-three years – Messrs Swain, Malden, Munby and Rolt wrote one collection each. They Return at Evening thus marked a turning point – away from the last century and on into a brave new world whose boundaries seemed limitless.

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Sleep No More: L T C Rolt

11 Jun

The first half of the twentieth century was a golden era viewed in terms of the English ghost story. We may trace the real foundation of that era to the early years of the century, when M R James set the standard by which his successors would be judged. Successors there were: those whose stories, because they exhibited similarities to the style of the maestro, are often classed as ‘Jamesian’. This classification simplifies matters too much and tends to deny the author credit for his or her own particular talent. However, bearing in mind that some of these successors were friends and associates of James, sharing an academic background and an interest in manuscripts, it is hardly surprising that there should be some similarity in subject matter. Nor should it be overlooked that James utilised several excellent plot devices, which would naturally appeal to anyone attempting to write ghost stories at a later date. There are a limited number of plots available to writers in any genre, and often the best an author can hope is that he or she may be able to bring an exciting new twist to a plot that has been used several times before. Writers like R H Malden, A N L Muny, E G Swain and Arthur Gray succeeded in doing that (to a great extent). Others, like H R Wakefield, succeeded when they ‘borrowed’ plots from James, but also developed their talent to a much greater extent, with the result that their work stands very much on its own, and has its own distinct style. L T C Rolt (1910-1974) is one author whose work very clearly displays an individual style. True, there are ‘Jamesian’ touches here and there in his stories, but Rolt’s background and environment were very different from that of the traditional ‘Jamesians’ mentioned previously.

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R Chetwynd-Hayes, Britain’s Prince of Chill

14 May

Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes (1919-2001) was known as ‘Britain’s Prince of Chill’, and his numerous collections of genteel and humorous ghost stories filled the shelves of almost every public library in Britain during the 1980s. In 1989 he was presented with Life Achievement Awards by both the Horror Writers of America and the British Fantasy Society. Ronald’s tales of terror are often notable for a disarming sense of humour, which the author readily admitted that he could not help. “I’ve always got this terrible urge to send the whole thing up. It just slips in, I have never been able to stop it.” However, his skill as a horror writer also resided in his ability to bring new perspectives to familiar themes. Not only was he happy to write about such genre standards as ghosts, demons, ghouls, vampires and werewolves, but he delighted in making up his own bizarre monster variations that managed to stretch the imaginations of both author and reader alike. This ability to create new creatures is perhaps never more evident than in his most famous book, The Monster Club, in which he set out ‘The Basic Rules of Monsterdom’. In the 1970s and ’80s Ronald produced a further twelve original collections of ghost stories, which were aimed principally at the library market in Britain. These books proved to be extremely popular, and Ronald was always proud of the fact that each year he was one of the highest earners of the annual Public Lending Right (PLR), based on the number of times an author’s books are loaned out from libraries in the UK.

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Mist: The Ghost Stories of Richmal Crompton

16 Apr

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!

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The Dunwich Horror

12 Mar

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.

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Secrets of the Pow-wow

12 Feb

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.

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The Kingdom of Hay

15 Jan

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.

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Video

A Warning to the Curious

18 Dec

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

11 Dec

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).

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Canterbury Tales

13 Nov

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.

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