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The Hunt for the Hound

21 Feb

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.

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Nine Ghosts for Christmas

21 Dec

If you’re looking for a ghost story to elicit a pleasurable shudder this Christmas, then you could do far worse than read the work of that oft-overlooked Edwardian scribe of the supernatural, Richard Henry Malden. His book of short stories Nine Ghosts (1942) was compiled over many years and issued as a tribute to his long friendship with the writer M R James, who had of course been one of the most celebrated authors in this particular genre. One of the most appealing features of R H Malden’s ghost stories is that we are always conscious of the presence of Malden the narrator. We may be sure that it is Malden and not some fictional persona because of the brief and entertaining, if not always actually necessary, fragments of his own experience that are mentioned in his ghostly tales. This is also most likely a natural result of the fact that the tales were written to be read aloud – Malden was among those present at the auspicious first readings of the ghost stories of M R James at the celebrated meetings of the Chitchat Society at King’s College, Cambridge and remained forever affected by the experience. As Malden notes in his introduction to Nine Ghosts, “It was my good fortune to know Dr James for more than thirty years”.

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Five things to do this Halloween

31 Oct

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If you’re at a loose end this Halloween and in the mood to be scared silly, here are some suggestions courtesy of Ghost Cities:

1 Thing to watch – the Babadook will scare you silly…

1 Thing to read – one classic by Wilkie Collins and one modern chiller by Joe Hill (slightly cheating here with two but I couldn’t resist!)

1 Thing to visit – the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum: just about the scariest place to visit this Halloween!

1 Thing to eat – here’s a ghoulishly good recipe for that old favourite: pumpkin pie!

1 Thing to listen to – what else but Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre?

Enjoy – Happy Halloween!

The October Country

19 Oct

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.

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Don’t Look Now

13 Sep

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.

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Naomi’s Room

9 Feb

Fans of M R James probably know author Denis MacEoin better as Jonathan Aycliffe, writer of The MatrixThis 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.

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The Awakening

17 Nov

In the period between Halloween and Christmas, with the country in the icy grip of winter and the nights long and cold, there is nothing like a good scary ghost story to bring family and friends together around the hearth. One of my favourites in this particular film genre is 2001’s The Others, the sort of suspenseful chiller which doesn’t seem to come around too often, given the modern preference for out-and-out shocks and gore in horror movies. Probably the best recent example of a film in the mould of The Others is 2011’s The Awakening, starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West. In post-World War I England, an author and paranormal sceptic (Hall) is invited to a countryside boarding school by one of the teachers (West) to investigate rumours of an apparent haunting. But just when she thinks she has debunked the ghost theory, she has a chilling encounter which makes her question all her rational beliefs. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that there’s something very clever about a film that is subtle enough to scare and unsettle its audience by placing suspense, atmosphere, a gripping plot and a quality script and actors at its heart. As an added bonus, The Awakening also has one of those jaw-dropping twists at the end that make you question everything that you’ve just witnessed. If you enjoy films like The Sixth Sense, An American Haunting and The Woman in Black, you’ll probably need to make room on your DVD shelf for The Awakening.

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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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“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”

5 May

M R James, grand master of the ghost story genre, wrote around two dozen short tales. However, of them all, perhaps none are more famous, anthologized or distinctive than “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. This story, first published in the collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was apparently written in 1903; at any rate, it was read at one of the celebrated informal meetings of the ‘Chitchat club’ at King’s College, Cambridge in that year. The odd title derives from the first line of an untitled song (1793) by Robert Burns and the story contains perhaps the most distinctive ‘ghost’ in James’ entire corpus, which may have been derived from a nightmare. In the late and apparently autobiographical tale A Vignette, James writes of a creature he has seen in a dream:

“It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.”

This iconic image has, ever since the publication of Whistle, accounted for the archetypal ‘ghost’ that springs to mind whenever the word is mentioned – a human form draped entirely in white linen. Interestingly, a similar entity is featured in James’ other tale The Uncommon Prayer-Book, which speaks of a role of white flannel that “had a kind of a face in the upper end of it”. The recurrence of such a uniquely envisaged spectre in James’ stories naturally leads one to wonder whether it was inspired by a real incident that occurred in the great man’s life.

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The Picture of Oscar Wilde

7 Apr

“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.

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