While Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, is known for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise and his use of forensic science to solve difficult cases, rather less is known about his early life and family. This is in part due to the nature of Doyle’s stories, which purposely focus on the investigation rather than the detective and eschew details about Holmes himself, often using the framing device of his colleague Doctor Watson’s narration. Although this is highly effective as a narrative device, it raises as many questions as it answers when it comes to Sherlock the man, as opposed to Holmes the master investigator. Where was he born and educated, did he have any family apart from his brother Mycroft, what happened to him after he finally retired from detective work? etc. Whilst Doyle’s stories allude only distantly to these issues, the many fans of Sherlock Holmes have, somewhat appropriately, through careful detective work of their own, managed to come up with a number of theories, explanations and answers in what is usually described as ‘The Great Game’: a concerted attempt to resolve anomalies and clarify details about Holmes and Watson from the Conan Doyle canon. You may be surprised to hear that, as a result of this exercise, evidence has been found in Doyle’s own work that, among other things, Holmes and Mycroft have another elder brother and even a younger sister!
A rich body of geographical lore, much of it related to real or imaginary hazards, characterises perceptions of bog landscapes. Bog bursts, will-o’-the-wisps, carnivorous plants, weird creatures, and perceptions of the ‘bottomless’ bog all play a part in the folklore of the landscapes. For example, there is Lindow Man, the preserved body of a man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire, North West England on 1 August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters. The find, which is regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 1980s, caused a media sensation and helped invigorate study of ‘bog men’ in Britain. Ambiguity about the features of bog landscapes is further heightened by the descriptive terminology employed by tale tellers, who present to us a world inhabited by meanings that go beyond the physical environment and touch on the primordial inner landscape. Not long after its discovery, Lindow Man inspired Phil Rickman’s horror novel The Man in the Moss, in which a man’s body is found perfectly preserved in peat, despite the fact that it has been there for over two millennia. For the isolated Pennine community of Bridelow in the novel, his removal is a sinister sign. In the weeks approaching Samhain – the Celtic feast of the dead – tragedy strikes in Bridelow. Soon, firm believers of both the Christian and pagan persuasion are at each other’s throats, while the village prepares to face a natural disaster unknown since the time of King Henry VIII.
With its atmospheric setting on the ancient, wild moorland and its eponymous savage apparition, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the greatest crime novels ever written. Rationalism is pitted against the supernatural, good against evil, as the great detective Sherlock Holmes seeks to defeat a foe almost his equal. The hound of the title is a symbol of the mystery that unleashes the plot, the dark secrets of the moor, and of the ancestral curse that must be explained away. But what is the origin of the hound? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend, the crime writer Max Pemberton, reckoned that the inspiration for the hound came from the Black Shuck of East Anglian lore, while one editor of the Strand magazine likened the creature to the phantom boar-hound of Hergest Ridge on the Welsh Borders. Others have opted for a whole pack of spectral hounds – the wisht hounds that hunted the evil 17th century squire Richard Cabell to his doom at Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor each Midsummer ‘s Eve. Certainly there is no shortage of tales of ghostly black dogs and demonic hounds in the folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles that might have led Doyle to write this novel.
With Halloween almost upon us, I thought that a post on the late Ray Bradbury – that October Dreamer extraordinaire – was timely. After all, the season of thrills and chills never had a greater fan, or finer exponent of the Halloween-themed short story, than the great man. Bradbury only passed away fairly recently (he lived from 1920-2012) but he left behind him a vast, influential body of work ranging from science fiction to horror novels, short stories, plays and TV scripts. Best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury was one of the most celebrated 20th-century American writers, inspiring the likes of Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Robert Bloch to follow in his footsteps. Bradbury is credited with writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories – more than eight million copies of his works, published in over 36 languages, have been sold around the world. His honours include Emmy and Nebula awards, as well as the National Medal of Arts. However, leaving all these achievements aside, his work is particularly celebrated at this time of year – and he appears on this website mainly because of – his enduring love of the Halloween season. If you’re looking for something to put you in the mood this year, you could do much worse than seek out Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or the stories of The October Country, which are nothing less than a series of passionate love-letters written about Halloween and all of its associated thrills and dread.
Although Daphne du Maurier is remembered as one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, she is in many ways an unlikely success story. Daughter of the famous actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, Daphne was educated at home in London, and then in Paris, before writing her first novel in 1931. Three others followed before Rebecca, in 1938, made her one of the most popular authors of the day (much to her own surprise). Nearly all her fifteen novels have been bestsellers, and several of her works became successful films, notably the version of Rebecca starring Laurence Olivier, and the chilling adaptations of her short stories The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Daphne herself was made a dame in 1969, in recognition of her unique achievement of writing novels that were both popular and literary classics. What merits her mention on this website is that she has been credited with shifting the Gothic mode towards romantic fiction with her novels, which were built on the work of the Bronte sisters and inspired a genre that has flourished ever since.
Shrouded in Arthurian myth and rich in mystical associations, the town of Glastonbury was once one of the most important destinations for pilgrims in England. Now thousands flock here for the annual music festival and for the summer solstice on Midsummer’s Day. Over the years history and legend have become intertwined, and the monks who founded Glastonbury Abbey, around 700 AD, found it profitable to encourage the association between Glastonbury and the mythical ‘Blessed Isle’ known as Avalon. Avalon was another name for the Otherworld, and was the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged, as well as being the supposed site of his eventual tomb. Once Glastonbury and its conical hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from a vast inland lake that covered much of present day Somerset, had been a sacred site of the Old Religion of the British Isles. Even today, it is a place where the very air is alive with the stuff of myth and legend. In Arthurian legend it was ruled by the enchantress Morgan le Fay and her eight sisters, every one of them skilled in the magical arts. Before that, it was said to be ruled by the dark Celtic deity Aballach. It has variously been called the ‘Isle of apples’ and the ‘Isle of glass’. In the Christian era, it was said to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea came carrying the Holy Grail in order to found Britain’s first church. All of these myths, legends and historical associations have inspired numerous fiction writers over the years, among them Phil Rickman, whose novel The Bones of Avalon, takes full advantage of this rich body of lore.
The ‘green flash’ or the ‘green ray’ is a term applied to rare optical phenomena that sometimes occur either right after sunset or right before sunrise. The latter term was made famous in the 19th century by the publication of Jules Verne’s classic sci-fi/romance novel of the same name. Basically, when the conditions are right, a green spot is visible above the upper rim of the disk of the sun. The green appearance usually lasts for no more than a second or two. Sometimes (rarely) the green flash can resemble a green ray shooting up from the sunset (or sunrise) point. This spooky optical phenomenon has played on people’s imaginations over the centuries, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the visionary Verne appropriated it for his famous tale. In Le Rayon Vert (to give the book its original French title) Verne’s heroes are trying to observe the green ray in Scotland. After numerous attempts prove unsuccessful due to clouds, flocks of birds or distant boat sails hiding the sun, the phenomenon eventually becomes visible but the hero and heroine, finding love in each other’s eyes, end up not paying any attention to the horizon. Whilst the plot sounds fairly risible, the idea of the green ray itself has proved to be an intriguing one to this day, even inspiring a recent film which has in many ways become as famous as Verne’s novel.
Fans of M R James probably know author Denis MacEoin better as Jonathan Aycliffe, writer of The Matrix. This novel features strong themes of black magic and necromancy, and is centred around an indestructible occult tome, known as the Matrix Aeternitatas (which, rather like the cursed talisman in M R James’ Casting the Runes cannot be given back once one has taken possession of it). Like James, Aycliffe is a master of mood and atmosphere, creating an increasing sense of creeping dread in the minds of his readers the longer they read his stories. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Aycliffe shares James’ background as an accomplished scholar: he studied English, Persian, Arabic and Islamic studies at the universities of Dublin, Edinburgh and Cambridge, and lectured at the universities of Fez in Morocco and Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. He even carried out his doctoral research at King’s College, Cambridge, which was James’ alma mater. Probably Aycliffe’s most famous work of fiction is Naomi’s Room, a novel of psychological horror, which shot him to fame in the 1990s. With the recent re-publication of Naomi’s Room, coinciding with the release of Aycliffe’s latest novel, The Silence of Ghosts, now is perhaps the perfect time to take a look back at this spine chilling classic.
‘The secret that will shake the world’ is the tagline to Simon Toyne’s 2011 novel Sanctus, itself part one of the Sancti trilogy. The plot outline immediately places it firmly in Dan Brown-holy-conspiracy-territory. A monk throws himself to his death from the oldest inhabited place on the face of the earth, a mountainous citadel in the historic (but fictional) Turkish city of Ruin. This act, witnessed by the entire world thanks to the marvels of modern media, causes the cowled and mysterious fanatics within the citadel to take extreme measures to protect a millenia-old secret. The Sancti, as this ancient monastic order are called, are the custodians of one of the greatest secrets (some would say cover-ups) in human history – one which, if it ever got out, would change everything, for everyone, everywhere. This intriguing set-up, coupled with a suitably ominous cover, is what probably attracted most people to Sanctus (which topped the bestseller lists when it was published) in the first place. It certainly worked on me, despite my somewhat disappointing experiences with similar sub-Dan Brown fare like the Templar Legacy, The Sacred Scroll and The Atlantis Code. The question is, was Sanctus just more of the same?
“All art is useless” – so says the author’s 1891 preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (sometimes referred to, wrongly, as The Portrait of Dorian Gray), the only published novel by Oscar Wilde. This darkly sardonic, Faustian-themed novel very much reflects the interests and personality of its author. Ever the aesthete, Wilde was himself profoundly affected by beauty and lived and dressed in a manner which, compared to the Victorian styles and mores of the time, was regarded as flamboyant. As such, he was often publicly caricatured and the target of much moral outrage in Europe and America. His writings (including Dorian Gray, with its homoerotic themes) also brought much controversy for him. He was nonetheless part of the ever-growing movement of ‘decadents’ who advocated pacifism, social reform and libertarianism. While many vilified him, he was making his mark with style and wit and enjoyed much success with many of his plays. Wilde was also lauded by and acquainted with many influential figures of the day, including fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, American poets Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and English author and social critic John Ruskin. In Dorian Gray the titular hero, realising that his beauty will one day fade, expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure that his portrait ages while he does not. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts. The portrait serves both as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement or ageing of his form, and as a warning to all that no amount of outer beauty can make up for the darkness within.