Archive | October, 2011

The Riddle of Loch Ness

19 Oct

For generations the crofters of the Scottish Highlands have passed stories onto their children about the great beasts, or water kelpies, which are supposed to live in the lochs, the best known of which is the Loch Ness Monster. For all the stories about this loch and the mythical beast that is supposed to dwell in its depths, it is sometimes forgotten just how huge this body of water is. Loch Ness is about 38 kilometres long – more than the distance from Dover to Calais – and over two kilometres wide. It is also very deep, 240 metres, which is greater than the average depth of the ocean, and the cliffs around its sides drop sheer to the lake bed. Leaving aside the old wives’ tales, the most common theory about ‘Nessie’ is that it is in fact a prehistoric creature that was somehow ‘trapped’ in the loch. Millions of years ago Loch Ness was an inlet of the sea that became an inland lake when the land rose, trapping a number of sea creatures which were forced to remain and breed there. Today the only outlets to the sea are the shallow River Ness and the Caledonian Ship Canal – both of which are said to be too small for a creature of Nessie’s alleged size.

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Frankenstein: Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus

18 Oct

Who would have thought that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the frail, delicate wife of the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, would be responsible for writing, in 1818, what was to become one of the world’s most famous works of horror fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In her preface to this Gothic tale of terror she records that she, her husband and fellow poet the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron had spent the wet summer of 1816 in Switzerland reading German ghost stories. Following this, all three agreed to write tales of the supernatural, of which hers was the only one to be completed (she also records that the original concept came to her in a half-waking nightmare).

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The Croatoan Mystery

17 Oct

In 1587, the English, led by John White and financed by Sir Walter Raleigh, made their second attempt at setting up a colony on Roanoke Island, which now lies just off the coast of North Carolina in the USA. The colonists disappeared, however, during the Anglo-Spanish War, three years after the last shipment of supplies from England. The settlement is known as “The Lost Colony,” and the fate of the colonists is still unknown.

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East Anglian Ghosts

16 Oct

East Anglia has always been rich in tales of the supernatural, as is perhaps befitting for a region full of lonely roads, ancient churches, isolated farms and graveyards overgrown with weeds. This area is also infamous for the witch trials which swept through here at the time of the hated Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who left a trail of death and destruction behind him in his blind pursuit of ‘justice’. The four English counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire are replete with stories of ghostly black dogs, phantom coaches and spectral monks so it is no surprise that M R James drew much of the inspiration for his supernatural fiction from this area, where he was born the son of a rector in a small village in Suffolk and later lived as an adult attending Cambridge’s famous university. But even James’ incredible imagination cannot compete with East Anglia’s own local folklore in the form of the many stories which have been passed down from one generation to the next, the true factual basis of which may have been long since lost in the mists of time.

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Time of the Wolf

15 Oct

All over the world it is believed that there are human beings cursed with the horrifying affliction of changing under the full moon into wolf-men and destroying those they love the most. Bound by ancient maledictions, captives of man’s primal side, and bearers of insatiable bloodlust and brute strength, werewolves are nevertheless perhaps the most tragic of all horror’s great pantheon of monsters. Condemned (usually through no fault of their own) to metamorphose during the phases of the moon into bestial killers, werewolves exemplify the classic dichotomy of Good versus Evil which lies at the heart of most great modern horror fiction. It is unsurprising therefore that the werewolf, like its stablemates the vampire, the mummy and the zombie has been successfully adapted into numerous works of literature both short and long.

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Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere

14 Oct

Although it first appeared at the end of the eighties, Neil Gaiman is still best known as the creator of the wonderfully dark and imaginative Sandman comic series. Whilst this approbation is undoubtedly well-earned, it does something of a disservice to this multi-media writer’s other fine contributions to literature, film and TV (including the movie Stardust, the American Gods novel and some of the best episodes of shows ranging from Doctor Who to Babylon 5, not to mention his involvement in the formative stages of other landmark comics such as The Books of Magic and Spawn). I cannot think of another creative talent who has excelled in all of these areas as Gaiman has and this is best illustrated by Neverwhere – a story which has appeared in book, television and comic format.

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The Beast of Glamis Castle

12 Oct

Glamis Castle in Scotland is probably best known today as the childhood home of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, late mother of the current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Although a castle has only been here since the 14th century, the site of Glamis has a history which goes back much further, so far in fact that it mixes with legend and myth in the form of associations with Shakespeare’s MacBeth (In 1034 King Malcolm II was murdered at Glamis). The family chapel is said to be haunted by a Grey Lady, the spirit of Lady Janet Douglas, who was burned at the stake as a witch on Castle Hill, Edinburgh in 1537, on charges of plotting to poison the King. The ghost of a woman with no tongue is said to haunt the grounds, and to look out from a barred window somewhere within the castle. The restless spirit of the licentious Earl Beardie, who was rumoured to have gambled with the Devil in life, is said to wander the castle, and there have been reports of children waking to find the figure leaning over their beds. In this long and lurid history, filled with tales of murder, treason and black magic, no account is as chilling as the story of a secret room somewhere within the castle that harbours a dreadful secret: The Beast of Glamis Castle.

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The Benson Brothers

11 Oct

The instance of there being two talented sibling writers in the same family is rare but for there to be three famous authors born to the same parents is truly exceptional. The most famous case, of course, is the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Less well known but still of great interest are the three brothers A C, E F and R H Benson, born between 1862 and 1871, who between them managed a literary output consisting of over a hundred works of fiction and non-fiction, both short and long. While ghost stories formed only a relatively small part of their collective output, it was the contribution that each brother made to the supernatural genre by the quality of their work that is most remarkable.

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The Island of Disappearing Men

10 Oct

There is an island in the North Atlantic called Eilean More, most northerly of a chain of islands known to seafarers as the Seven Hunters, which has become synonymous with a maritime mystery that has become as infamous and seemingly unsolvable as the affair of The Mary Celeste. Located seventeen miles to the west of the Hebrides, these bleak islands received their official name of the Flannan Islands from a seventeenth century bishop, Saint Flannan, who built a small chapel on Eilean More. Although Hebridean shepherds often ferried their sheep over to the islands to graze on the rich turf, they themselves would never spend a night there, for the islands are said to be haunted by spirits and by ‘little folk’. There have been rumours of disappearances, odd sightings and unexplained mysteries ever since the island chain was discovered but the oddest event in their three hundred year history took place in 1900 and is still being debated to this day.

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Edgar Allan Poe – A Tormented Genius

9 Oct

Edgar Allan Poe is a writer whose life and personality have attracted almost  as much attention as his writing, which is a pity considering that there are few, whether in the field of supernatural or mainstream fiction, who can be called his equal. A New Englander, like his great admirer H P Lovecraft, Poe was born in in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809 and was the son of itinerant actors. Orphaned as a child by the death of his mother and mysterious disappearance of his father, Poe was taken into the home of a Richmond merchant, John Allan, from whom he later took his middle name. Despite this, Poe’s relationship with his ‘foster-father’ (he was never legally adopted) was never good and was strained especially when he was forced to withdraw from the University of Virginia because Allan refused to finance him. Although in 1830 Poe attended the Military Academy at West Point at Allan’s behest, in an act of defiance he neglected his duties there intentionally, which led to his dishonourable discharge in 1831. Thus began an itinerant, tormented life which nevertheless resulted in the publication of some of the most visionary, powerful and searing poetry and prose ever committed to print.

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