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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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Paranormal Activity: The Enfield Poltergeist

16 Nov

In all the annals of the investigations of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), whose history stretches back almost 150 years, there is no account as chilling as the affair of the Enfield Poltergeist. This is the name given to a period of apparent poltergeist activity in the Enfield borough of London at the end of the 1970s. Poltergeist is a term of German derivation literally meaning ‘noisy ghost’ and refers to a paranormal phenomenon which consists of events alluding to the manifestation of an imperceptible entity. Such manifestation typically includes inanimate objects moving or being thrown about, sentient noises (such as impaired knocking, pounding or banging) and, on some occasions, physical attacks on those witnessing the events. Poltergeists have traditionally been described in folklore as troublesome spirits or ghosts which haunt a particular person, although no conclusive scientific explanation of the phenomenon exists. The Enfield case exhibited all of the classic hallmarks of poltergeist activity, including  furniture reported to have moved by itself, knockings on the walls, and items said to have been thrown around and to have been too hot to touch when picked up. 

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Where the Children Cry

14 Nov

Jenny Jones’ Where the Children Cry is by turns a ghost story, a horror, a history lesson and a gazetteer of the ancient city of York. The heroine, Louisa, looks back from the present day to a harrowing episode in her childhood when one of her classmates, a young Jewish boy named David, is mercilessly bullied to his death – an event which has chilling echoes of the massacre in 1190 of the Jews of York by a mob of townsfolk led by a sinister white-robed figure. When another Jewish family moves into Louisa’s neighbourhood this coincides with a rising of similar anti-semitic tensions and the terrifying reappearance of the unnamed figure in white. The author concentrates on building up an atmosphere of tension and a sense of impending doom rather than resorting to outright ‘horror’ as such (although there is one particularly toe-curling moment in the middle of the book which I would recommend any animal-lover to skip over). The real strength of the novel, however, is the vivid description of York, a city which Jones clearly knows well, and is hence able to depict in all its historic, brooding glory. In many ways York is the perfect setting for a ghost story, especially given that it is often regarded as the most haunted city in England, with a recent survey claiming that it has been the site of over 500 recorded hauntings.

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The Stoneground Ghosts

10 Nov

Edmund Gill Swain (1861-1938) was Chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge as well as being an accomplished author of ghost stories, the best known of which were published in 1912 in the form of the collection entitled The Stoneground Ghost Tales. He was a colleague and contemporary of M R James and a regular member of the select group to whom James delivered his famous annual Christmas Eve ghost story readings. Like James, E G Swain was drawn to the rich vein of antiquarian and supernatural lore in East Anglia. In his capacity as Reverend Canon and Proctor at the University of Cambridge, he had ample opportunity to study the ghostly tradition of the eerie wastes of The Fens, where several of his best stories are located.

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The Murder Tree

6 Nov

There is an old story that is sometimes set in Yorkshire, England, sometimes in San Francisco, California and sometimes in Adelaide, Australia that goes something like this: one summer night in the year 1750, 1850 or 1950, a wealthy landowner, rancher or industrialist by the name of Timothy Lance, Thomas Read or Lance Thompson came home to find his wife and two children shot to death in their beds. The murderer was the estate’s head gardener, groundsman or gamekeeper, whose name was Harold Logan, Henry Fish or Logan Henriksen, who was seen fleeing the grounds with a pistol in hand and blood spattered on his clothes. For the rest of his life the wealthy man (we’ll call him Tom for the sake of simplicity) was haunted by the loss of his family and by the fact that the murderer (let’s call him Logan) was never caught and punished for his brutal crime. Tom let his business sink slowly into bankruptcy and spent his final years in an asylum, a mere shadow of his former self. In its day, this was a crime that shocked the nation (whatever nation that really was), but in modern times it’s been all but forgotten except by trivia and history buffs. At least that’s the official version. The truth of what happened that fatal night has never been made public. You see, it’s not true that Logan escaped. He was in fact chased down and apprehended by Tom and his servants on the very night of the murders. The reason that Logan was never seen again is that Tom hanged him from the tallest tree on his estate – an ancient sycamore that afterwards earned the ominous title of the Murder Tree.

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