Archive | April, 2012

Northwest Passages

29 Apr

The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways amidst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Sought by explorers for centuries as a possible trade route, it was first navigated by Roald Amundsen in 1903–1906. Before that it attracted an almost mythical significance as the link between Asia and the Americas and numerous attempts were made to map it. Perhaps the most famous (or rather infamous) of these was the ‘Lost Expedition’ of Sir John Franklin. This was a doomed British voyage of Arctic exploration which departed in 1845. Much-heralded at the time as the British Empire’s grand effort to explore one of the last frontiers of mankind, it ended in death, despair and darkness. Despite the expedition’s failure, the Victorian media nevertheless portrayed Franklin as a hero. It was only many years later that the horrific truth of what happened to Franklin and his men gradually  began to emerge.

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Supernatural Sleuths

22 Apr

The Gateway of the Monster… The Red Hand… The Ghost Hunter… To Sherlock Holmes the supernatural may have been a closed book but luckily for us other great detectives have always been ready to do battle with the forces of darkness instead. There are the casebooks of the Victorian haunted house investigators John Bell and Flaxman Low; Thomas Carnacki, William Hope Hodgson’s Edwardian battler against the abyss; horror master Arthur Machen’s Mr Dyson, a man about town and meddler in strange things; Robert Barr’s Eugene Valmont (who may have inspired Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot) and Donald Campbell’s young explorer Leslie Vane, the ‘James Bond of the jazz age’, who battled against occult enemies of the British Empire. More modern times have seen the introduction of Phil Rickman’s ‘Deliverance Consultant’ (diocesan exorcist) Merrily Watkins and James Herbert’s psychic investigator and ghost hunter David Ash to the genre. Sherlock Homes may have shunned all suggestion of supernatural agency, but thankfully his many rivals and literary descendants have not, leaving us with a delightfully large number of deliciously dark detective cases to enjoy for generations to come.

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Women of Otherworld

15 Apr

Canadian author Kelley Armstrong’s novels straddle the grey borderland between horror, speculative fiction and urban fantasy, without entirely falling into any of these genres. Despite the fact that her books deal with many types of supernatural characters, including witches, sorcerers, werewolves, necromancers, ghosts, shamans, demons and vampires, there is actually not a huge amount of gore, shocks or frights in them. Instead, Armstrong’s novels tend to superimpose supernatural characters upon a backdrop of contemporary North American life, with strong romantic elements. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that Armstrong has drawn strong comparisons with Charlaine Harris, Laurell K Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all of whose books tend to inhabit the same genre of contemporary paranormal romance as hers. Whilst the Southern Vampire, Anita Blake and Rachel Morgan series are all well known, however, Armstrong’s Women of Otherworld and Darkest Powers series are perhaps less so. However, for their wit, verve and sheer readability, I’d recommend any fan of the aforementioned other authors to seek out Armstrong’s work – you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

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The Pagan Roots of Easter

8 Apr

Easter is at once both an interesting and a mysterious time. One the one hand it is undeniably one of the most important Christian festivals of the year but on the other it has a wide range of baffling imagery related to it – eggs, the Easter Bunny, chocolate – even the very date of Easter Day differs on a yearly basis. Where did it all come from and what does it mean? Well, the word ‘Easter’ comes from the Old English Eostre or Ostara, the name of a Germanic pagan goddess. During Ostarmonath (the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of April) feasts were held in Ostara’s honour among the then pagan inhabitants of Britain. Ostara was a major deity among the early Germanic tribes (her name still survives in the form of modern Austria) and represented, among other things, the dawn, rebirth and light. As such she was closely related to the Greek Eos, the Roman Aurora and the Indian Usha. Given Easter’s association with the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ, it is also possible to begin to see a connection between this pagan goddess and one of Christianity’s major holy days.

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Zombie Pirates!

1 Apr

The concept of zombie pirates and ghost ships has most recently been popularised in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. However, stories of ghostly galleons crewed by undead sailors roving the high seas have been around for centuries. This is hardly surprising – the sea has always had romantic associations for poets and explorers but equally it represents the unknown and, as such, has also carried with it a certain element of dread. In the early days of exploration no one knew what lay outside the realm of human experience in those uncharted waters and hence legends, superstitions and ghost stories were told in order to fill the vacuum. The term ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ entered into popular parlance precisely because there was a time when it was not known which was the worse of those two evils. Tales were told of sea monsters, ships of death and supernatural creatures haunting coastlines, estuaries and the seven seas. Some of these stories are now so famous that the mere mention of them is enough to strike fear into men’s souls – who has not heard the terrifying tale of the Flying Dutchman for instance?

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