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Midwinter Ghosts

15 Dec

There is something about the festive season that irresistibly brings ghosts to mind. Who can tell whether it is the wintery chill, the creeping mist or the inscrutable blanket of snow, but the period approaching Christmas seems inextricably bound with the supernatural. A traditional time for tales of unquiet spirits and the restless dead, the Yuletide season has inspired writers from Charles Dickens to M R James to write ghost stories either during or expressly set at Christmas. But is there perhaps more to this? Are these fictional ghostly tales actually based on real-life paranormal occurrences? There is no shortage of material to support such a conclusion – in Britain alone, there are spooky stories of things that go bump in the night each Christmas that span the length and breadth of the country. From spirits that roam the bleak North York Moors, to haunted houses in the garden of England, from ghastly deeds in the cobbled streets of old London town to dark legends of the highlands of Scotland, almost every region has its own chilling seasonal tales to recount. So, whilst everyone else is buying presents and preparing for Christmas parties, spare a thought for the more sinister side of the festive period and its very own Midwinter ghosts.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Ghost

28 Jul

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) has long been recognized as one of the greatest of American writers, a moralist and allegorist much preoccupied with the mystery of sin, the paradox of its occasionally regenerative power, and the compensation for unmerited suffering and crime. His most famous works are The Scarlet Letter, a classic inquiry into the nature of American Puritanism and the New England conscience, and The House of the Seven Gables, a study in ancestral guilt and expiation, also deeply rooted in New England and his own lurid family history. His work invariably appears on reading lists at schools and universities in the United States and for many his is the quintessential American literary voice of the 19th century: “the best of it was that the thing was absolutely American” – said Henry James of Hawthorne’s writing – “it came out of the very heart of New England”. What is perhaps less well known about Hawthorne is that he had an abiding interest in the supernatural and some of his finest works were his ghost stories. Hawthorne, it was said, was haunted by a paranormal presence throughout his life (although its identity, as we shall see, remains something of a mystery). Not only that, the ‘Hawthorne ghost’, some say, is still around to this day, lurking in the vicinity of the original ‘House of the Seven Gables’ in Hawthorne’s birthplace in Massachusetts.

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The Strange Life of John Ruskin

2 Jun

John Ruskin – art critic, philanthropist and prominent social thinker – was also, by all accounts, a very odd man. Probably the most infamous aspect of his personal life was the strange annulment of his marriage to Effie Gray and the subsequent rumours that this gave rise to concerning his sexuality.  He has variously been described as a prude, asexual, homosexual and even, like his contemporary and fellow Oxford man Lewis Carroll, showing an unhealthy interest in children. None of these allegations, it must be stressed, has ever been made out, which is hardly surprising given that Ruskin was an intensely private man. For this reason it is also very difficult to determine whether there is any truth in the suggestions that Ruskin received messages from a supposed former lover, Rose La Touche, even after her death and that he once encountered the Devil himself at Brantwood. With the forthcoming release of the feature film Effie, based on Ruskin’s bizarre ‘marriage’, now seems as good a time as any to examine the strange life of John Ruskin.

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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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Royal Ghosts & Hauntings

10 Jun

With the Jubilee not long past I thought that this would be the ideal time to look at the long and storied history of Britain’s royal ghosts and hauntings. The most difficult part is knowing where to begin – one thing that this country does not have is a shortage of tales of blue-blooded phantoms and faders. There is the ghostly lantern-carrying groom of Althorp in Northamptonshire, the spectral limping priest of Amersham, the blood-curdling screams of Edward II in Berkeley Castle, the decapitated head of Charles I seen floating around Billingham Manor, the various phantom coaches of Norfolk, the duelling knights with fiery swords at Blofield, the disguised queen at Borthwick Castle and the crazed laughter of Queen Isabella at Castle Rising. Royal ghosts haunt the New Forest, Hampton Court Palace and St James’s Park. Windsor Castle, one of the main royal residences, is also one of the most haunted. It somehow seems fitting that a royal line with a history as long, colourful and often lurid as that of the British Isles should boast so many ghost stories. But is there a deeper, darker reason for the prevalence of malevolent spirits in relation to the British Crown?

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A Haunting at Haworth

6 May

That the supernatural should be associated with the most famous trio of sisters in literature, the Brontës, should perhaps come as no surprise. Raised by their grim and brooding father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, in the bleak hillside village of Haworth in Yorkshire, Charlotte, Emily and Anne were lonely, dreamy children. Their mother died the year after Anne was born and, since their surviving parent spent most of his time in his study – often even having his meals alone – the girls were left to themselves to read and wander on the wild empty moors surrounding their home. Together the Brontë children – they also had an unhappy brother named Branwell – made up stories of an unreal world, writing them in tiny handwriting on small sheets of paper, which they stitched together to look like real books. For one year Charlotte and Emily went to a school for the daughters of clergymen, but they were very unhappy there. This tumultuous early life inevitably found its expression in their fiction. Charlotte gave a terrible picture of her school in Jane Eyre, where she called it ‘Lowood’. Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, is a wild, strange, powerful book, containing stirring descriptions of the Yorkshire moors that she knew so well. Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, contains a terrible account of a drunkard, which was written from what she knew about her brother Branwell’s alcoholic binges. The three sisters were very different in character. Anne was gentle and open, Charlotte was quiet but with very deep feelings, and Emily, who was perhaps the greatest of the three in talent, had the strongest and the strangest character. She was silent and reserved and endured pain of body and mind with determination; only in her writing can be seen the fierce passions which she kept hidden inside her. The three also each had very different attitudes and experiences of the supernatural.

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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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Ghosts of Prague

25 Mar

Prague, the city on the Vlatava river, is not only one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, it is also one of its most haunted. This bustling, cosmopolitan Czech city is sited amid the tranquil Bohemian countryside, which is home to dozens of brooding castles and historic towns, whose appearance has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. It is hardly surprising that a place with so many layers of history, that has seen battles, murders, executions and assassinations aplenty, as well as many of the key moments in the story of Europe, should also boast more than its fair share of ghosts. In the late Middle Ages, during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperors, Prague’s position as the crossroads of Europe aided its growth into a magnificent city (at that time far larger and more important than Paris or London). In the 16th century the Austrian Habsburgs took over and built many of the Baroque palaces and gardens that delight visitors today, few of whom suspect the many secrets and supernatural mysteries that lie beneath the glossy veneer. Whether you are a believer, a sceptic, interested in the unexplained or simply looking for a good old-fashioned scare, learning more about the dark side of Prague is a fascinating process. The narrow lanes, cobbled alleys, ancient churches and historic monuments of Prague are brimming over with tales of alchemists, murderers, executioners, and the many unfortunate souls who once lived there. Some of them are said to linger in these places, and who knows, perhaps they can still be seen today…

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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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