Archive | September, 2011

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

30 Sep

One day in 1872 the brig Dei Gratia, while butting her bows through the Atlantic rollers west of Spain, came across another ship that appeared to have been deserted in mid-ocean for no apparent reason – the Mary Celeste. When the Mary Celeste did not reply to their signal, the first and second mates of the Dei Gratia rowed over to the seemingly abandoned ship and hauled themselves on deck, little realising as they did so that they had stumbled across one of the greatest shipping mysteries of all time. It soon became clear that the Mary Celeste had no one aboard and to this day the mystery of what happened to her crew and passengers remains.

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Sherlock Holmes versus The Supernatural

29 Sep

Sherlock Holmes, the most celebrated private investigator in all of literature, famously shunned all suggestion of supernatural agency (as he told his companion Dr John Watson on more than one occasion “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”). Despite this, a surprising number of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the great detective start with strong hints that something uncanny is at work, most obviously The Sussex Vampire, The Devil’s Foot, The Creeping Man and, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is also the famous missing, though oft-mentioned by Holmes, adventure of The Giant Rat of Sumatra. In the end, however, these seemingly supernatural accounts are always rationalised and we are left with the comforting knowledge that all can be explained, that there is no darkness too deep to be illuminated by the light of intellect and reason. Whilst this may the case with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, however, it was not the case with all of his short fiction.

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Dracula and The Historian

28 Sep

Dracula (1897), not only an incalculable influence on the world of supernatural fiction (and horror movies) but also one of the most famous of all literary characters, was the creation of Abraham (Bram) Stoker, who was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1847. As a child Stoker spent many hours listening to his mother’s grim tales of Irish folklore and real-life horrors. We therefore need look no further than his childhood to find the terrifying and haunting images which would later be the mark of much of Stoker’s literary output as an adult. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin (Ireland’s finest academic institution), Stoker in the end disappointed his father’s ambitions for him to become a lawyer and instead became the manager of the famous English actor, Sir Henry Irving. Stoker’s association with Irving brought him into contact with some of the finest writers of the day, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, Wilkie Collins and Walt Whitman, but for him the excitement of touring with an actor paled into comparison beside his true passion of writing. Strangely enough it was Irving, with his striking appearance and imposing presence that provided the template for the figure at the heart of Stoker’s life’s work: Count Dracula.

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Arthur Gray and the Ghost Club

27 Sep

Sir Arthur Gray , the author of Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye, one of the most obscure (and oddly titled) of all collections of ghost stories, was a friend and contemporary of M R James as well as a key member of the Chitchat Society (see my previous post on M R James). A Cambridge don like James, Gray was the Master of Jesus College and contributed to a number of respected literary periodicals such as The Cambridge Review during the early years of the 20th century. Also like James, Gray was an antiquarian and writer of ghost stories under the curious pseudonym of Ingulphus, possibly to hide his supernatural tastes from potentially disapproving academic colleagues. Gray’s interest in both antiquarianism and the paranormal tended to be confined to quite a narrow field – that of his own college, with its long, lurid and occasionally bloody history.

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The Visions of Eleanor Jourdain

26 Sep

Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924) was an English academic and author, as well as the Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, between 1915 and 1924. Neither her studies nor her writing, however, ever propelled Eleanor to such fame as her connection to the supernatural, for this particular Oxford don was known throughout her life to have strange ‘visions’. The first of these occurred in her student days, when on an occasion in North Oxford she saw a medieval gallows attended by executioners, priests and onlookers. More famous was the so-called Moberley-Jourdain incident, when she and her predecessor as Principal of St Hugh’s, an equally respected academic by the name of Charlotte Moberley, claimed that while on a trip to Versailles they slipped back in time to the period of the French Revolution. In An Adventure, an account of the escapade published later, they claimed that they took a wrong turn and suddenly found themselves in the company of people from eighteenth-century France, including Marie Antoinette herself.

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Spring-heeled Jack: The Other Ripper

25 Sep

Almost everyone knows of Jack the Ripper and his fearsome reputation as one of the most notorious (and un-caught) serial killers of all time. Fewer people have heard of a character who was equally infamous, and feared, about fifty years before the time of Jack the Ripper: Spring heeled-Jack. This was the name given to the entity which terrorized London and later the whole country in a string of bizarre incidents which occurred with most frequency between 1837 and 1843 but were reported again every few years until the last sighting in 1904. Despite this large span of years, each incident was strikingly similar: on every occasion a young woman was the victim and Spring-heeled Jack was described as having the same characteristics – the ability to jump inhumanly long distances, the capacity to disappear without trace, and a frightening countenance variously described as bestial, demonic and even extra-terrestrial.

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The Forbidden Planet of Faerie

24 Sep

There’s a street in London called Shaftesbury Avenue, which runs though some of the most glamorous parts of the British capital – Oxford Circus, Covent Garden and Leicester Square – but is otherwise unremarkable, save for its length and how busy it is. There is little to signify the fact that secreted somewhere along this road (you have to look really hard to find it) is one of the best bookshops in the world – Forbidden Planet. American readers will probably be very familiar with the name already, as there are several large stores that are part of the same chain in the States (the one in New York is particularly famous). For those of us who live in England, however, Forbidden Planet is particularly to be treasured because there is virtually nothing like it anywhere else in this country (and believe me, I’ve looked). Even ignoring the vast collection of graphic novels and associated memorabilia within these hallowed walls, this bookshop is home to by far the largest, most varied and most eclectic selection of fantasy, science fiction and horror to be found in the UK. I stumbled across the place quite by accident while trying to find a spot to avoid the rain and for a book lover like me, it felt like coming home! I mean, this place had everything – brand new best-sellers from the USA in their original covers (several months before they were available in any other store), old favourites which weren’t stocked anywhere else, genuine collector’s items which had been out of print for years (or in some cases decades), works by authors whom I’d never heard of before but devoured eagerly nevertheless, magazines, journals, hardbacks, paperbacks, fiction, non-fiction, illustrated books and absolutely everything in between. Needless to say, I’ve been back on a regular basis ever since and London’s Forbidden Planet has been a never-ending treasure trove of reading material for me for many years now.

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Ghosts in the Cloisters Facebook page

23 Sep

Just to let everyone know that I’ve set up a Facebook fan page for my book, Ghosts in the Cloisters, so if you’d like to check it out click on the ‘Facebook’ link in the sidebar under ‘Blogroll’ (and if you like the book or this website you’re very welcome to join as well!).

There was a slight ‘glitch’ with Monday’s post ‘Books of the Dead’ so I’ve re-posted it below – apologies all round! I’ll be back with another brand new post this time tomorrow.

Books of the Dead

23 Sep

I wanted to begin this post by referring to one of my favourite horror films of the last decade or so, The Others. If you’ve seen it you’ll know that it’s a great ‘haunted house’ movie, with plenty of suspense and authentic shudders but an absence of the brainless blood and guts that seems to sum up a lot of modern horror. For me, it’s a particular delight because it’s very reminiscent of a lot of the classic ghost stories of the Victorian era, only on screen rather than on the page. The story is also classic in its simplicity – a troubled woman who lives in a lonely old house with a couple of creepy children welcomes a housekeeper, maid and gardener who soon turn out to be more than they appear. Like all the best haunted house films, there is a claustrophobic feel from the outset, with tension that builds to a level that is almost unbearable before the dénouement (which is probably the only weak part of the film – you’ve never read a ghost story or watched a horror film if you don’t see the ‘twist’ ending coming a mile off!). Continue reading

The Stone Tape

22 Sep

The term ‘Stone Tape’ relates to two things: first, the theory that inanimate materials such as buildings can record the resonances of living things and ‘play back’ those memories in the form of ‘ghosts’; and secondly, a little known original screenplay broadcast on BBC television way back in 1972. The Stone Tape theory is interesting enough, if a little mundane in the way that it explains away ghosts as ‘recordings’ rather than spirits, but the TV serial based on it is quite simply one of the most disturbing things that I’ve ever watched (which is perhaps why it has not been shown on TV again – it’s difficult enough to find it on DVD/video).

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