One day in 1872 the brig Dei Gratia, while butting her bows through the Atlantic rollers west of Spain, came across another ship that appeared to have been deserted in mid-ocean for no apparent reason – the Mary Celeste. When the Mary Celeste did not reply to their signal, the first and second mates of the Dei Gratia rowed over to the seemingly abandoned ship and hauled themselves on deck, little realising as they did so that they had stumbled across one of the greatest shipping mysteries of all time. It soon became clear that the Mary Celeste had no one aboard and to this day the mystery of what happened to her crew and passengers remains.
Almost everyone knows of Jack the Ripper and his fearsome reputation as one of the most notorious (and un-caught) serial killers of all time. Fewer people have heard of a character who was equally infamous, and feared, about fifty years before the time of Jack the Ripper: Spring heeled-Jack. This was the name given to the entity which terrorized London and later the whole country in a string of bizarre incidents which occurred with most frequency between 1837 and 1843 but were reported again every few years until the last sighting in 1904. Despite this large span of years, each incident was strikingly similar: on every occasion a young woman was the victim and Spring-heeled Jack was described as having the same characteristics – the ability to jump inhumanly long distances, the capacity to disappear without trace, and a frightening countenance variously described as bestial, demonic and even extra-terrestrial.
The term ‘Stone Tape’ relates to two things: first, the theory that inanimate materials such as buildings can record the resonances of living things and ‘play back’ those memories in the form of ‘ghosts’; and secondly, a little known original screenplay broadcast on BBC television way back in 1972. The Stone Tape theory is interesting enough, if a little mundane in the way that it explains away ghosts as ‘recordings’ rather than spirits, but the TV serial based on it is quite simply one of the most disturbing things that I’ve ever watched (which is perhaps why it has not been shown on TV again – it’s difficult enough to find it on DVD/video).
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, where he also lived for most of his life and eventually died in 1937. Despite his relatively short life and modest literary output – three short novels and about sixty short stories – he left an indelible stamp on the field of supernatural fiction, of which he is regarded as the leading twentieth-century American exponent. Lovecraft was gifted with a fertile imagination which, fed by the independent study and reading that was forced upon him by frequent illnesses which disrupted his schooling, spurred him to write many essays and poems early in his career based on the wide knowledge he acquired. But it was in the writing of horror fiction that Lovecraft truly excelled, especially after the advent in 1923 of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, to which he contributed most of his stories.
If you’ve ever been anywhere near this strange island in the South Pacific, you’ll know that all over it stand hundreds of strange statues. As the Dutch admiral who discovered this island in 1722 wrote: “All over the island stand huge idols of stone, representing the figure of a man with big ears and bearing a head covered with a red crown”. These ‘idols’ remain secrets in stone because, to this day, no one knows why they are there or who built them.
One evening in early February 1855 snow fell in Devon, and with it one of the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time. For when people awoke in towns and villages across the county, they noticed in the otherwise untrodden snow thousands of very odd footprints – footprints which were found not only on the ground but also across the rooftops of houses, over high walls, and even across a two-mile estuary! But the oddest thing about the impressions left in the snow was the fact that they were left by cloven feet and were so deep and clearly defined that they looked as though they had been burned into the snow by a hot iron. All over Devon curiosity turned to fear as the question was asked: Did the Devil walk the rooftops? Continue reading
A few years ago Wordsworth Editions, a highly respected publishing house most famous for its range of classic literary fiction, published a line known intriguingly as Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural. This was a collection of works written by Victorian and Edwardian ghost story writers, including giants such as Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, M R James, H P Lovecraft and Rudyard Kipling as well as far less well known (but perhaps equally gifted, in this field at least) writers such as W F Harvey, Algernon Blackwood and Sir Andrew Caldecott. Their aim was to bring those works which have been forgotten undeservedly back to a mass audience for the acclaim that they deserve. Many of the short story collections that made up this line of Wordsworth editions had been out of print for decades, despite being some of the finest examples of the short story form in any genre. Sadly, the Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural are no longer being published, although there are still plenty available in the right bookshops (and online of course). I hope to talk about a number of the writers in this range in future posts but I thought I’d start with one of my favourites: William Hope Hodgson.
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.”
I’ve lived in Cambridge for about fifteen years but it’s only recently, much to my own surprise, that I’ve discovered that as well as being a famed university town and centre of technology, it is also reputedly one of the most haunted locations in the British Isles and has been the setting for a wide variety of supernatural phenomena over the centuries!
When it comes to reviewing books on this website anything goes – new releases, old favourites and undiscovered/forgotten gems are all equally likely to appear on these pages (at some point I’ll also start reviewing films, graphic novels and albums – huge fan of folk and world music!). I thought I’d start with a book that’s a few years old but which I’ve always felt has never really received the attention it deserved – 362 Belisle St. by Susie Moloney.