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The Highgate Vampire

18 Jul

For years, North London had been plagued with a series of apparently inexplicable events and sightings, in and around the confines of Highgate Cemetery, culminating one Friday morning in February of 1970, when the Hampstead and Highgate Express ran a headline calibrated to chill the blood of residents across suburban north London: “Does a Vampyre Walk in Highgate?”. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a series of bizarre events occurred in and around Highgate. In 1967, two adolescent girls walking home along nearby Swain’s Lane claimed to have witnessed the dead rising from their graves by the cemetery’s north gate. Another teenager had been awoken one night with “something cold and clinging” on her hand, which left prominent marks the next morning, while reports circulated of a “tall man in a hat” walking in the area, before melting through the cemetery’s walls. Then, more chillingly, in the 1970s, several animals were found dead and drained of blood near Highgate Cemetery. A number of ‘sightings’ of phantoms and spectres – particularly of a tall, dark-cloaked entity with burning eyes – led to speculation the capital had acquired its very own vampire. Reports soon came from Highgate of tombs being broken into. Graves and bodies were desecrated and black magic rituals allegedly performed. Vampire hunters claimed to have broken open coffins, and plunged stakes into – and even burnt – the corpses of the ‘undead’. Newspapers obsessed over these strange occurrences. TV programmes were made about a supposed nest of vampires in Highgate Cemetery and those promising to root out this ancient evil were interviewed. In the years that followed, two men went to war over the narrative.

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T G Jackson – Architect of the Gothic

16 May

Around a hundred years ago, two celebrated Gothic architects each began writing ghost stories. One was the young American, Ralph Adams Cram, whose first book Black Spirits and White appeared in 1895, but was sadly never followed by any further similar tales during his remaining forty-eight years—whereas, unlike the much younger Cram, the veteran English architect Sir Thomas Graham Jackson waited until his eighty-fourth year to publish his own sole collection, Six Ghost Stories, in 1919. Although not really a ‘Jamesian’ writer, Jackson is clearly a genuine antiquarian, scholar, and classicist, and his personal love of arcane lore, objets d’art, historic buildings, and Italian antiquities is clearly evident in these traditional post-Victorian ghost stories. During his own lifetime, very few readers knew Jackson as a writer of ghost stories (or any other kind of fiction). He was celebrated as a great ‘New Gothic’ architect, with a special devotion to the Romanesque style. In retrospect he is seen as one of those pioneers who strove to loosen the bonds of rigid medievalism in the belief that by doing so a living Gothic style, capable of gradual development, would take the place of one that was bound by archaeology, and for which they felt there could be no future. An inveterate traveller, and pursuer of antiquities, he virtually rediscovered Dalmatia as far as its art and history were concerned. A brief résumé of his incredibly busy life and achievements will reveal the unique personality behind the long-neglected collection of Six Ghost Stories.

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The Black Reaper

14 Mar

Literary fame seems almost like a lottery; ghost story writers in particular seem to pick losing tickets more than any other kind of author. It is an interesting exercise to ponder why certain authors and their works in this vein, just as well equipped to stand the test of time as their contemporaries, fall into speedy obscurity, while others stay in the public eye. The Victorian era is a fine example of this – for every tale of terror that has survived in print today, there are a hundred languishing in undeserved obscurity. Bernard Capes is a case in point. During his writing career, he published forty-one books, contributed to all the leading Victorian magazines, and left behind some of the most imaginative tales of terror of his era – yet within ten years of his death, he had slipped down the familiar slope into total neglect. Until the early 1980s, Capes seldom appeared in reference works in this (or any other) field of literature, and even histories of Victorian writers published in his lifetime give him scant mention. He was overlooked by every anthologist in this genre from his death in 1918 right up until 1978: sixty years of lingering in the dark while many of his contemporaries were brought back to light. I would place Capes among the most imaginative writers of his day. He turned out plot after plot worthy of the recognition accorded to such contemporaries as Stevenson, Haggard, and Conan Doyle, all of whom are still in print today. This selection of his stories help put Capes in his deserved position with the leading talents of Victorian fantasy.

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In Ghostly Company

17 Jan

The writing of ghost stories has attracted more talented amateurs than any other form of literature. By the term ‘amateur’, I mean those individuals whose main occupation in life is not writing, but those who take up their pen or sit at their typewriters in their idle hours between the demands of their normal profession. The list of candidates in the ghost story genre includes M. R. James, Sir Andrew Caldecott and A. C. and R. H. Benson. Another name to add to the list, one which is forgotten today by all but the most knowledgeable aficionado of supernatural fiction, is Amyas Northcote. Northcote remains a shadowy figure, and not a great deal is known about him or what prompted him to create this delicious collection of ghost stories. He was born on 25 October 1864 into a privileged background. He was the seventh child of a successful politician, Sir Stafford Northcote who was lord of the manor at Pynes, situated a few miles from Exeter. During his childhood years, all the great Tory politicians, including Disraeli, Lord Salisbury and Randolph Churchill, were guests at the house. Sir Stafford was a great devotee of the theatre and literature. He had an especial fascination for ghost stories and the tales of the Arabian Nights and needed little encouragement to spin yarns of magic, wizardry and the fantastic to his children. No doubt this influenced the young Amyas Northcote in his reading tastes and sowed seeds of inspiration which were not to flower until many years later. Amyas attended Eton and was there at the same time as that doyen of ghost story writers M. R. James. It is not known if the two young men knew each other at this time, but the ancient and academic atmosphere that they breathed in together finds its way into both of their writings when, it would seem, out of the blue he brought out a collection of ghost stories in 1921.

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Ghosts of Christmas Past

20 Dec

‘There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas,’ wrote Jerome K. Jerome in the introduction to his darkly comic collection Told After Supper (1891), ‘something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails’. Dickens would no doubt agree, as well as anyone who grew up in the 1970s and was scarred for life by the BBC’s annual Ghost Story for Christmas. It is often assumed that this is a tradition inaugurated by the publication of A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843. But Dickens had been channelling something much more ancient, something, in fact, much older than Christmas itself. These are the fireside tales of the Winter Solstice, when our Neolithic ancestors worshipped their death and resurrection gods and the Germanic tribes celebrated Yule, when the wild hunt rose and the Draugr – the ‘again walkers’ – gave up their graves on the darkest day of the year. People have always got together at this time of the year. And as these pagan echoes blend with quasi-Victorian religiosity, like rum and ginger in a winter punch, folk are bound to tell some pretty strange stories. When the unnamed framing narrator of Henry James’ seminal ghost story The Turn of the Screw listens to a friend reading the eerie manuscript, for example, it is on Christmas Eve. This was doubly so before radio and then television took over, and friends and families still had to entertain themselves. And why stand starchily around an upright piano singing carols when you can scare each other witless? This was the point of Jerome’s book, which both satirised and affirmed the genre of the late-Victorian ghost story, a particular type of English gothic that had become clichéd and ripe for parody by the end of the century. The form was, however, about to be accidently revitalised by M R James, a prestigious academic who took a ghoulish delight in frightening the life out of friends, colleagues and students by writing a single ghost story every year and reading it aloud to them in his rooms at King’s on Christmas Eve, extinguishing every candle but one. As he later explained, ‘If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.’

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The Mozart of the English Ghost Story

12 Jul

How does William Wymark Jacobs earn the title “The Mozart of the English Short Story”? Because his prose is exquisite and translucent, and his plots – like Mozart/Da Ponte operas – are full of fun and mischief, as anti-romantic as they are romantic. Just as in the last act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, if you blink you risk missing a sublime, or a sublimely comic moment, if your attention lapses when reading a Jacobs story, you risk missing sly irony, wry innuendo or a mordant remark – more often than not about marriage! In fact, the simple pleasure of reading Jacobs’s perfectly paced prose – in Evelyn Waugh’s words, his “exquisite precision of narrative” – is often more enjoyable than following the actual plots of his stories, which are often intricate and sometimes seem only to hang by a thread, which require the reader’s alertness, if not participation, and which are often not resolved until the very last word, sometimes leaving the reader vexed, or even disappointed, however charmed by the telling of the story itself. An example of this is the delectable The Bequest, from Ship’s Company, about late-middle-age second marriage and – inevitably with Jacobs – money. Even the end of The Monkey’s Paw requires some reader participation. The fact is that Jacobs’s invisible craft of narration often cannot be matched even by the ingenuity of his plots. That the lasting satisfaction of a Jacobs story lies less in its plot than its telling means that, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Jacobs is infinitely re-readable. His sentences always have buoyancy and air. Knowing the plot of a Jacobs story – but not perhaps fully understanding its denouement – does not spoil the pleasure of reading and re-reading him. Open any Jacobs story and you will receive a lesson in how to write English prose and dialogue. Jacobs sustained this prose style, seemingly entirely natural to him – but he always worked hard and slowly – over some 150 stories and six novels. This means that making a selection from his stories is extremely difficult, because they almost all offer the same degree of pleasure.

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The Travelling Grave

12 Apr

Leslie Poles Hartley has been credited with writing some of the most sophisticated ghost stories in the English language, and was once quoted as saying that this type of story was “if not the highest, certainly the most exacting form of literary art.” Hartley was born in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, England, on 30 December 1895. His father was a solicitor who invested his money in local brickmaking businesses, eventually becoming one of the directors of a prosperous company. Harry Hartley was a busy and respected public figure in his locality: the personification of the self-reliant and god-fearing Victorian businessman. Harry’s wife Bessie was very different, a soft-spoken woman who delighted in poetry. She was also consumed by worry about her health and that of her three children – and was never to let them forget it. Nevertheless, Hartley’s parents complemented each other, and by all accounts enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Hartley’s biographer Adrian Wright quotes Bessie as telling her husband, “I have never seen you come in without pleasure, and I have never seen you go out without regret.” Their only son was never to find such requited fulfilment, except, perhaps, in aspects of his close friendship with David Cecil – but even then Hartley’s feelings were not to be returned in the way that he seemed to have longed for. Once Hartley started to write, his short stories would frequently feature single men who were always somewhat on the edge of things, outsiders who could never quite be at home, who could never quite be themselves, even in the most apparently pleasant settings and comfortable situations.

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The Demon Barber

15 Mar

Sweeney Todd—the ‘demon barber’ who is alleged to have slit the throats of his unsuspecting customers before dropping their bodies into a cellar that connected to a nearby pie shop—is one of the most famous Londoners of all time. Since he first entered the public scene in the mid-nineteenth century, his exploits have chilled and fascinated readers and audiences all the world over. Whether in print, on the stage, or in films, the name of Sweeney Todd has become so ubiquitous that it has entered the English dictionary. The general outline of his story, as it first appeared in the pages of nineteenth-century periodicals, and as it subsequently played itself out in a seemingly endless succession of melodramas on the Victorian stage, is straightforward enough. A prosperous London barber in the days when men were compelled regularly to bare their throats to be shaved by comparative (and often disreputable-looking) strangers, Todd routinely murders the unsuspecting patrons of his Fleet Street ‘tonsorial parlour’. Making use of an ingeniously constructed barber’s chair, he dramatically hurls his victims head over heels into the basement of his shop before robbing them. Occasionally, if the drop from the chair to the stone floor below has not already done the job for him, Todd is compelled to ‘polish them off’ with his razor. He then drags their bodies (via an ancient network of subterranean passageways) to the convenient cellar of the nearby premises of Mrs Margery Lovett, who transforms the fresh corpses into succulent meat pies. The clothes, walking sticks, hats, and other personal items belonging to Todd’s unlucky customers are hidden in the barber’s house; their otherwise ‘unusable’ remains are secreted within the mouldering and long-disused vaults beneath the neighbouring church of St Dunstan’s. Todd’s greed and increasing bloodlust inevitably gets the better of him, and his murderous activities spiral out of control. Thanks to the combined efforts of a well-known local magistrate, a team of Bow Street Runners, and an enterprising pair of star-crossed young lovers, the pair are eventually captured and brought to justice before the bar of the Old Bailey. The relatively simple outline provided by this frankly ghoulish tale of terror has demonstrated itself to be peculiarly accommodating, however. Each generation has been compelled to make use of what might best be described as the ‘mythic’ elements inherent in the macabre story—its resonant themes of avarice, ambition, entrepreneurial capitalism, and cannibalism—effectively to mirror its own particular concerns. Todd’s presence continues to haunt our storybooks, novels, plays, and our airwaves and works of musical theatre; his figure can often be found creeping, only barely disguised, through related collections of folklore and local legend.

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The Curse of La Llorona

19 Jan

La Llorona is a legendary figure with various incarnations. Usually translated into English as ‘the wailing woman’, she is often presented as a banshee-type: an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often found by lakes or rivers, sometimes at crossroads, who cries into the night for her lost children, whom she has killed. The infanticide is sometimes carried out with a knife or dagger, but very often the children have been drowned. Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband who leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realising what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is often described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever. To some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to scare children into good behaviour. This folk story has been represented artistically in various guises: in film, animation, art, poetry, theatre and in literature aimed at both adults and children alike. The legend is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture and among the Chicano Mexican population of the United States. The legend of La Llorona has supposedly haunted Mexico since before the Conquest. Her story is one of violence, much like the country whose suffering she is often taken to represent. So beware the woman in white…

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Dead of Night: The Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions

22 Dec

Oliver Onions’s ghost stories are as unusual as his name. Indeed he is unique in the realms of writers of the supernatural in that his tales are so far-ranging in their background and substance that they are not easily categorised. Remarkably for a writer born in the mid-nineteenth century his style is very modern and his approach is as psychological as it is supernatural. One of the well-regarded commentators of the ghost story genre, Mike Ashley, observed: “Onions’s best stories are powerfully charged explorations of physical violence, their effects heightened by detailed character study and a preparedness to challenge the accepted.” Onions’s fiction is also graced with a powerful poetic elegance often missing in even the best of ghost stories. While other writers may create moods and images designed to chill, Onions is able to add a richness to the prose giving it a depth and beauty which enhances the development of the plot and cultivates living, breathing characters who are more than just pieces to be moved about the chessboard of a plot. In simple terms Oliver Onions goes for the cerebral rather than the jugular. However, make no mistake, his ghost stories achieve the desired effect. They not only unnerve the reader, but disturb him also and stay with him long after the book has been closed.

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