Archive | December, 2011

A Very Dickensian Christmas

23 Dec

This close to Christmas Day (and having promised to do so already), I felt I had to dedicate my final post of 2011 to perhaps the definitive Christmas ghost story – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is extremely difficult to find anything new to say about a story like this, which has achieved an iconic status that very few others have ever done. Characters like Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and of course the Three Ghosts, are easily identifiable, while Dickens’ themes of regret, redemption and remorse (to mention only those beginning with an ‘r’) remain timeless. What I would like to emphasise is that, whilst A Christmas Carol certainly ends on an uplifting note, it is in many ways one of the darkest pieces that Dickens ever wrote. Dickens’ sources for the story include the humiliating experiences of his childhood and his sympathy for the poor, which is why it is sometimes viewed as an indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism as much as it is a modern fairy tale.

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Ghost Stories for Christmas

21 Dec

Although Halloween is the time of year that is popularly associated with ghost stories, it should not be forgotten that traditionally Christmas is every bit as appropriate a time for telling tales of the supernatural. Over the years, dozens of newspapers and magazines have echoed the words of the editor of Eve magazine addressing his readers in 1921: ‘Ghosts prosper at Christmas time: they like the long evenings when the fire is low and the house hushed for the night. After you have sat up late reading or talking about them they love to hear your heart beating and hammering as you steal upstairs to bed in the dark…’. It was the master of the ghost story genre, M R James, who arguably enshrined the traditional of the festive spine chiller, although others had contributed to this before him, most notably Charles Dickens and J S Le Fanu. At the dawn of the 20th century, James was telling ghost stories to friends at Christmas gatherings in the shadowy, candle-lit gloom of his rooms at King’s College, Cambridge. It is therefore fitting that, many years later, the works of James inspired a BBC series, A Ghost Story for Christmas,whose remit was to provide a television adaptation of a classic ghost story referencing the oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.

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Urban Legends

19 Dec

We’ve all heard them, the stories that are alleged to have happened to a ‘friend of a friend’ of someone whom we know. Folklorists use the term ‘urban legend’ to describe such tales in order to distinguish them from traditional fairy tales from pre-industrial times, although the two story forms have much in common. Like any other story they have a cast of characters and a beginning, middle and end. They often serve as cautionary tales but are presented in a compelling format due to the utilisation of such elements as mystery, horror, fear and (often dark) humour. Nevertheless they are at heart still morality tales that depict someone acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead by way of comeuppance. Many urban legends depict horrific crimes or frightening supernatural occurrences e.g. the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo; the ‘kidney heist’ story of people being ambushed, anaesthetised, and waking up minus one kidney; and ‘The Death Car’ story, which is probably too gruesome to go into here. The existence of popular contemporary legends is compelling evidence that myths and folklore do not occur exclusively in so-called primitive or traditional societies and that there seems to be an in-built human need to terrify in order to educate. Two of the best examples of such urban legends are Bloody Mary and The Hook Man legend.

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The Philosopher’s Stone

17 Dec

In the popular consciousness the term ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ now conjures up images of Harry Potter and, indeed, J K Rowling’s first novel is concerned in part with the real-life figure of Nicholas Flamel, who was a successful French scrivener and manuscript-seller who developed a posthumous reputation as an alchemist due to his reputed work on the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. Alchemy is the ancient art of trying to change metals such as mercury and lead into gold and silver. Although it was first brought to Europe by the Muslims who conquered Spain in the 8th century, alchemy in fact originated in Egypt four or five thousand years earlier. In the kingdoms of the pharaohs their funerary priests were said to be adept at obtaining silver and gold from the very earth. In 1144 an Englishman, Robert de Chester, made the first translation of many old Arabic writings into Latin. These writings contained the knowledge of most of the ancient Egyptian alchemists and were used by Flamel and others in pursuit of the mystical goals of alchemy. These were to create the elusive Philosopher’s Stone, which turned lead into gold, and to achieve immortality through the fabled ‘Elixir of Life’.

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Robert E Howard and the Lovecraft Circle

15 Dec

Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an extraordinary writer who achieved achieved more in his short lifetime than many who lived to be two or three times his age. Nowadays he is best known for his character Conan the Barbarian and for virtually creating the sword and sorcery genre, spawning a raft of imitators and giving him an influence in the fantasy field rivalled only by J R R Tolkien. What he is less well known for are the many strange tales of horror and suspense that he penned but these should not be disregarded, especially given that they have earned him comparison with other American masters of supernatural fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe and his great friend and contemporary H P Lovecraft. The great tragedy of Howard’s short life is that, because he died so young, he never lived to see his works published outside magazines. It is also worth noting that in many ways Howard’s premature death remains a mystery, much like that of Poe and Lovecraft before him.

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Edward Elgar and Alfred Watkins

13 Dec

Most people have heard of Edward Elgar, the famous English composer who became a national institution because of orchestral works such as the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches. Perhaps less well known is Alfred Watkins, a businessman, self-taught amateur archaeologist and antiquarian who is most famous for coining the term ley lines to describe the apparent arrangement of straight lines positioned along ancient features on the British landscape. What hardly anyone is aware of is the strange link that the two men share, which was fictionalised in Phil Rickman’s novel The Remains of an Altar.

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Where no one can hear you scream

11 Dec

Science fiction horror has a long and venerable tradition on both the small and big screen. At the very dawn of the movie age, science fiction films were hopeful, almost idealistic in tone, looking forward to a bright age of exploration and discovery. It did not, however, take very long for the visions of film-makers to darken considerably and between about 1930 and 1950 the first true ‘horrors’ of the sci-fi genre were made. Classics such as The Day the Earth Stood StillThe Thing from Another WorldThe War of the WorldsForbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were notable for the genuine terror that they could inspire in their audiences, just as much as for the more traditional qualities of a science-fiction film, like special effects and imagination. These films really set the tone for the creature features that followed in successive decades, from the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the more sophisticated horror of Alien, Predator, Terminator and Species. This revolution on the big screen was reflected to some extent in television series which veered away from purely ‘futuristic’ science fiction to stray into horror territory, probably the best examples of which being Doctor Who in the 1970s and, of course, The Twilight Zone.

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‘Wydda’ has been published!

9 Dec

Anyone who enjoyed reading my post yesterday on ‘A History of Witchcraft’ may also be interested in my new novel Wydda, which has just been published as a Kindle e-book and is now available for download on the Amazon website. More details are below but Wydda is basically a story of witchcraft, paganism and the struggle between good and evil set in my own home town of Cambridge, England. It is also the first part of an ongoing series, The Eternal Struggle, which should appeal to regular readers of this blog and hopefully anyone else who has an interest in urban fantasy, mythic fiction and tales of mystery and the supernatural.

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A History of Witchcraft

8 Dec

It is sometimes speculated that the word ‘witch’ came from ‘wit’ (in this sense meaning knowledge), and that it was originally a term that was applied to people who knew, or said they knew, things that other people did not. This theory as to the origin of the term ‘witch’ makes sense in view of the fact that another term commonly used for people who practised withcraft (or the ‘craft of the wise’) was ‘Cunning Folk’. Although there were male Cunning Folk, most people in western Europe who claimed to have the hidden knowledge of witches seem to have been women. Even today the popular perception of witches, derived no doubt from Grimm’s fairy tales and other such sources, is of stereotypical ugly hags with broomsticks and pointed hats, casting evil spells on people with their demon-inspired supernatural powers. In truth, however, the witches of the Middle Ages were in fact for the most part simply people who continued to worship the pagan gods. Before the coming of Christianity to western Europe, religious ceremonies were held at great stone monuments known as dolmen or cromlechs, many of which, like Stone Henge and the Rollright Stones, are still around today. In time these monuments were looked upon not only as tombs of the dead but as places from which the spirits of the dead could come to be born again in new people. These old stone tombs were therefore often the centres where witches gathered and in distant parts of the British Isles, like the Orkney, Shetland and Channel Islands, pagan ceremonies have continued to be enacted long after the coming of Christianity.

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Ghosts beyond the Cloisters

7 Dec

Just a quick post to say that I’ve got snazzy new usernames for both my Facebook profile and the Ghosts in the Cloisters’ fan page, both of which are below together with my Twitter details if you’d like to follow or get in touch with me via any of those forums (they will from now on also appear on this site’s ‘Contact’ page).!/legallyanil

As an added treat, given the time of year, I’ve also included a suitably Christmassy extract from my own story Ghosts of Fairport (click to read!), one of the forthcoming sequels to Ghosts in the Cloisters, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

That’s all folks!

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