Archive | August, 2012

The Secret of Atlantis

26 Aug

Atlantis has been described as the greatest of all historical mysteries. Plato, writing about 350 BC, was the first to mention the great island in the Atlantic Ocean which had vanished ‘in a day and a night’, and been submerged beneath the waves. Plato’s account in the two late dialogues of Timaeus and Critias has the absorbing quality of good science fiction. According to Plato, Atlantis was already a great civilization when Athens had been founded about 9600 BC. It lay beyond the pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and was larger than Libya and Asia put together.  The sea god, Poseidon, founded the Atlantean race by fathering ten children on a mortal maiden named Cleito. Although they were great engineers and architects, the Atlanteans were, however, also a warlike people who were only finally conquered by the Athenians. At this point violent floods and earthquakes destroyed both nations’ armies and Atlantis sank beneath the waves. The destruction of Atlantis was in part supposedly a punishment from the gods, for when the Atlanteans began to lose the wisdom and virtue they inherited from the gods, and became greedy, corrupt and domineering, the chief god Zeus decided to teach them a lesson. Although many later scholars and commentators have assumed that Atlantis was a myth or allegory, others have been persuaded by the sheer detail of Plato’s account that at its core it was grounded in fact but embellished in the manner of a fable or fairytale. Needless to say, many have taken either side in a debate that has rumbled on for over two thousand years: was Atlantis a reality or a work of fiction?

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A College Mystery

19 Aug

Visitors to Cambridge will find Christ’s College – the alma mater of both John Milton and Charles Darwin – in the middle of a crowded shopping precinct. To get in, you will normally have to go through a narrow door set in the large oak portal of the gatehouse. At once, you are a world away from the hustle and bustle, in a court that leads to another court that leads to a garden that could be in the heart of the countryside. When it was founded in 1505 (or more accurately re-founded – the college has been around since the early 1400s in one form or another), Christ’s College lay on the edge of town and this has enabled it to expand over the centuries. Now, beyond a gatehouse decorated with mythical horned beasts (known as ‘yales’), the college is one of Cambridge’s most attractive enclaves, boasting extensive gardens that must have been a Paradise Gained for Milton. Yet in the heart of any paradise there is almost always a serpent and at Christ’s this takes the form of an unusual and unsettling ghost story. Alfred Ponsford Baker, a graduate of the college, used Christ’s as the setting for a novel entitled A College Mystery. Published in 1918, this tells the story of how the ghost of Christopher Round came to haunt Christ’s College. Although it was ostensibly a work of fiction, it has since come to be widely accepted as true.

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Edinburgh: Dark Deeds in the Old Town

15 Aug

With the Edinburgh Festival upon us again, I thought now would be the perfect time for a reblog of one of my Scottish-themed posts from last year…

 

 

 

Ghost Cities

I’ve always found Edinburgh a splendidly atmospheric city, which is why I’ve visited it time and again over the years. The city is perched on a series of extinct (we hope) volcanoes and rocky crags – a setting so striking that Sir Walter Scott was moved to call it “My own Romantic Town”. In my opinion, however, it was another native author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who perhaps best captured the feel of this city with the following description in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes: “You go under arches and down dark stairs and alleys. The way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall; so steep that, in greasy winter weather, the pavement is almost as treacherous as ice.”

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Land of the Prince Bishops

12 Aug

For England’s northeastern region – in particular the counties of Northumberland and Durham – the centuries between the Roman invasion and the 1603 union of England and Scotland were a period of almost incessant turbulence. To mark the kingdom’s limit and to contain the troublesome tribes of the far north, a series of formidable coastal fortresses was built, most impressively those at Bamburgh, Alnwick, Wakworth and Durham. For arrivals to Durham, the view from the train station is one of the finest in northern England – a panoramic prospect of Durham Cathedral, its towers dominating the skyline from the top of a steep sandstone bluff within a narrow bend of the River Wear. This dramatic site has been the resting place of Saint Cuthbert since 995, when his body was moved here from nearby Chester-le-Street, over one hundred years after his fellow monks had fled from Lindisfarne in fear of the Vikings, carrying his coffin before them. Cuthbert’s hallowed remains made Durham a place of pilgrimage for both the Saxons and the Normans, who began work on the present cathedral at the end of the 11th century. In the meantime, William the Conqueror, aware of the defensive possibilities of the site, had built a castle that was to be the precursor of ever more elaborate fortifications. Subsequently, the bishops of Durham were granted extensive powers to control the troublesome northern marches of the kingdom, ruling as semi-independent Prince Bishops, with their own army, mint and courts of law. When they ceded their powers to the Crown in 1836, following a long period of decline, they also abandoned Durham Castle and transferred their old home to the fledgling University of Durham, England’s third oldest seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge. Unsurprisingly for a place with such a long and storied history, Durham is said to be the home of a number of ghostly residents and eerie legends.

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The President’s Vampire

7 Aug

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For 140 years, Nathaniel Cade has been the President’s Vampire, sworn by a blood oath to protect the President and America from their supernatural enemies. Cade’s existence is the most closely guarded of White House secrets: a superhuman covert agent who is the last line of defence against nightmare scenarios that ordinary citizens can only dream of. When a new outbreak of an ancient evil – one that Cade has seen before – comes to light, he and his human handler, Zach Barrows, must track down its source. To ‘protect and serve’ often means settling old scores and confronting new betrayals . . . as only a century-old predator can.

Anyone who enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will love this. Witty, exciting and compulsively readable, Cade is an (anti)hero that you won’t soon forget. Click here to find out more!

E F Benson’s ‘Spook’ Stories

5 Aug

I’ve mentioned The Benson Brothers in a previous post but the most famous and talented of them, E F Benson, really does deserve special attention. Benson was always interested in psychic phenomena and ghosts, and later described some of his own strange encounters in his autobiography Final Edition (1940). For instance, Benson records that on one bright hot summer day he and the Vicar of Rye both saw the ghostly apparition of a man in black at the bottom of his garden. It is no coincidence that Benson was well acquainted with that other great master of the genre, M R James, for nearly fifty years. He was a member of the Chitchat Society, a Cambridge literary society which had for its object ‘the promotion of rational conversation’ (i.e. the telling of tall tales around a homely fire). Benson was present at the historic meeting on 28 October 1893 when James read his first two ghost stories, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and Lost Hearts, but of all of those in attendance on that occasion he was the only one destined to follow the lead of the incomparable James. United by a perfect chilling atmosphere and graceful literary style, Benson’s ghostly stories range from the horror of vampires, homicidal ghosts and monstrous spectral worms and slugs to the satire of humorous tales that poke fun at charlatan mediums and fake seances. Whilst Benson’s tales may be somewhat less imbued with sheer terror than those of M R James, one thing that can be said of them for certain is that they never fail to chill and mesmerise.

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