A Classic Ghost Story for Haloween: Squire Toby’s Will by Sheridan le Fanu

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Of course, there is nothing like a ghost story or tale of terror for Halloween.

Perhaps they are best enjoyed in an isolated old house by a crackling open fire, with the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows, but a really impressive one can be almost as atmospheric to read in modern building in town.

In fact, I did live in a reputedly haunted and certainly isolated house in the Clwyd Valley in North Wales when I read the story that I am going to recommend here as a brilliant ghost story for Halloween. No doubt, that added to the spine chilling effect. Still, it would probably have made me shiver if I had read it later, when living in London, seeing that it was written by a master of the art, Sheridan le Fanu (1814-1873).

He is generally considered the greatest influence on the development of the Victorian ghost story. His works include the Gothic tale ‘Uncle Silas’ (1862) and the collection of long short stories or short novellas, collected as ‘In a Glass, Darkly’ (1872). These include ‘Carmilla’ (which had a massive influence on the depiction of the vampire in fiction), ‘Green Tea’, a sinister story about a man haunted by a demonic monkey, and also ‘The Familiar’ — which M R James considered the best ghost story ever written.

I wrote a post about ‘Carmilla’ some years ago, and that is a wonderfully atmospheric story, but the one I want to recommend today is ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ written in 1868.

The story begins with a superb description of an ruinous great house:
‘Many persons accustomed to travel the old York to London road, in the days of stage coaches, will recall passing , in the afternoon, say, of an autumn day in their journey to the capital, about three miles south of the town of Applebury, and about a mile and a half before you reach the Old Angel Inn, a large black and white house, as those old-fashioned cage work habitations are termed, dilapidated and weather-stained, with broad lattice windows glittering all over in the evening sun with little diamond panes, and thrown into relief by a dense background of ancient elms. A wide avenue, now overgrown like a churchyard with grass and weeds, and flanked by double rows of the same dark trees, old and gigantic, with here and there a gap in their solemn files, and sometimes a fallen tree lying across on the avenue, leads up to the hall-door… ‘

Despite the lengthy sentences – Victorian’s did love those – this sums up a vivid picture.
(Off topic, it is sad to realise that all of those ancient elms would, since the outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970’s, be dead unless they were of the resistant Wych Elm variety. This quintessentially English tree gradually vanished from the landscape after that decade. I am old enough to remember it in hedgerows in my youth.)

‘Of late years repairs have been neglected , and here and there the roof is stripped, and the ‘stitch in time’ has been wanting. At the side of the house exposed to the gales that sweep through the valley like a torrent through its channel, and there is not a perfect window left, and the shutters but imperfectly exclude the rain. The ceilings and walls are mildewed and green with damp stains. Here and there, where the drip falls from the ceiling, the floors are rotting. On stormy nights, as the guard described, you can hear the doors clapping in the old house, as far away as Gryston bridge and the howl and sobbing of the wind through its empty galleries.’

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Squire Toby Marsden is a squire of ‘the old school’ a swearing, hunting, hard drinking, horsewhipping philistine of the type of landed gentry common in Britain in the eighteenth century. A widower with two sons, he favours the younger, Handsome Charlie, and despises his heir, Scrope, as: ‘Handsome Charlie was a man for his money. He knew what a horse was, and could sit to his bottle; and the lasses was all clean wad about him.’

Scrope, however, thin and sallow, despising sports, country activities and joviality, returns his contempt.
When the old squire dies, having run up many debts, it is discovered that he has left all the property to the younger son. Enraged, Scrope contests the will in the courts, but is defeated.

Years pass. Neither brother marries. Then, twenty years after the death of the old Squire, Handsome Charlie has a near fatal hunting accident, that leaves him with a halting walk and his ‘rollicking animal spirits’ sunk into melancholy.

He confesses to the old butler, Tom Cooper, that when he lay unconscious for days, he was with his late father, who bullied him mercilessly about one thing; he thought that he never would escape him; but on his return to consciousness, he could not remember what it was about which the old squire badgered him.
Cooper suggests that it might have been to do with the fact that no proper memorial stone has been erected over the Squire Toby’s grave. The family burying ground is in an ancient chapel some way across the estate, and the two men set off near sunset to visit the graveyard.

On the way, they meet a great white dog of the bull breed. ‘The dog was looking up into the Squire’s face with the peculiar grim visage of his kind, and the Squire was thinking irreverently how strong a likeness it provided to the character of his father’s fierce pug features…’

Squire Toby is buried in the ruinous chapel. Charlie resolves to placate him by placing a gravestone on his tomb.
‘They strolled round this little burial-ground. The sun was now below the horizon, and the red metallic glow from the clouds, still illuminated by the departed sun, mingled luridly with the twilight. When Charlie peeped again into the little chapel, he saw the ugly dog stretched upon Squire Toby’s grave, looking at least twice his natural length, and performing such antics as made the young Squire stare. If you have ever seen a cat stretched on the floor with a bunch of Valerian, straining, writhing, rubbing its jaws in long-drawn caresses, and in the absorption of sensual ecstasy, you have seen a phenomenon resembling that which Handsome Charlie witnessed on looking in.’

This is only the first of many increasingly grotesque and alarming encounters between the dog and the present Squire, waking and sleeping.

Now the Squire remembers that Squire Toby, in his earlier dream, urged him to look in a sealed cupboard in King’s Herod Chamber, a room unused for forty years. He goes there, and makes a find which horrifies him…

I won’t go into any more details of the story, for fear of writing a spoiler. But for a truly spine chilling ghost story that is both traditional and original, I recommend ‘Squire Toby’s Will’.

Stonehenge as a Backdrop for Novels

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Just before Whitsun I went to see Stonehenge, staying a couple of miles away in Amesbury.  Oddly, although I have always lived towards the west of the UK, I had never got round to visiting.

It was wonderful weather when we went. I had not expected there to be much atmosphere, given that if you go at a normal hour you are fair way from the stones. Oddly enough, despite the crowds and distance, I could still pick up on one, which I felt must be very intense, both at the rising and setting of the sun. The site is surrounded by grazing, staring sheep, and we saw two leverets dashing across the grass, a sight that made me very happy, hares being so scarce these days. The visitor centre was not as incongruous in the landscape as I had feared.Stonehenge_visitors_centre

I also thought how wonderful the surrounding Wiltshire countryside was. In a truly parochial way, I have always assumed that countryside of Buckinghamshire and Denbighshire as the most beautiful in the UK; Now I thought that the rounded hills of Wiltshire easily rivalled them. I have read that the chalky hills in the surrounding countryside meant that in the Neolithic era, when the whole of the UK was forested, this area was less so, and it was perhaps for this reason that it was used as a site for the monument.

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It seems to have been a hill fort besides, and there are pits that were thought to have held great totem like structures  dating perhaps from 8,000 BC, long before Stonehenge itself was built in 2500 BC in the early Bronze Age. Oddly enough, it was not until the nineteenth century that the great age of the structure was understood. It was blithely dismissed as having been built in the Iron Age, shortly before the Roman occupation. In the Middle Ages, the problem that has always haunted researchers – however those great stones were transported from perhaps as far away as Pembrokeshire in South Wales— was explained by Merlin’s magic.

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Various theories have been advanced over the centuries as to its original use. Some have thought it a giant astronomical computer, some a religious site, and it is, of course, of great religious significance to Druids for the festival of the summer solstice.

Privately owned after the crown ceased to own the lands, it was once in the possession of the various landowning families, and in fact auctioned by Knight, Frank and Rutley Estate Agents, in Salisbury on 21 September 1915 as ‘Stonehenge with about 30  acres…of adjoining downland’.

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After the National Trust acquired the monolith and the surrounding countryside, it was freely open to the public until 1977, when the need to protect the site led the organisation to erect the surrounding fence. Old sketches and photographs illustrate how much the site had fallen into decay before the restoration work began.

It seems typical of we British, somehow, that for so many centuries we should have neglected this marvel of antiquity on our doorstep, while overawed by the ruined of Ancient Greece.

It  will certainly surprise no-one to read that after visiting Stonehenge and Wiltshire, I have decided to locate the concluding part of the work I am drafting at the moment in Wiltshire, with the final scene played out near Stonehenge – which has long been surrounded by myths about time.

In this, I am just about as unoriginal as I could be, of course. Countless novels have been centred about Stonehenge, particularly historical fantasies, while others have used the monolith as a dramatic backdrop to pivotal scenes or their grand finale, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of D’Ubervilles’ onwards.

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Interestingly, it was in Peter Ackroyd’s  brilliantly evocative  tale of horror, human sacrifice, and time defying synchronicities,‘Hawksmoor’  –  which only mentions a trip to Stonehenge in passing – that I found the most riveting description.  The antagonist, and in fact satanist Nicholas Dyer, an architect commissioned to build  London churches following the 1666 Great Fire of London, goes with Sir Christopher Wren to see the monolith:

The latter part of the journey from the entrance to Wiltshire was very rough and abounded with Jolts…and so it was with much relief that we left the Coach at Salisbury and hired two Horses for the road across the Avon to the Plain and Stone-henge. When we came to the edge of this sacred Place, we tethered our Horses to the Posts provided, and then, with the Sunne directly above us, walked over the short grass which continually cropt by the flocks of Sheep) seemed to spring us forward to the great Stones.  I stood back a little as Sir Chris. walked on, and I considered the Edifice with steadinesse; there was nothing here to break the Angles of Sight,  and as I gazed I opened my Mouth to cry out but my Cry was silent. I was struck by an exstatic Reverie in which all the surface of this place seemed to me Stone, and I became Stone as I joined the Earth which flew on like a Stone through the Firnament. And thus I stood till the Kaw of a Crow roused me; and yet even the call of the black Bird was an Occasion for Terrour, since it was not of this Time. I know not how long a Period I had traversed in my Mind, but Sir Chris. was still within my Sight when my eyes were cleared of Mist…

Then the Rain fell in great Drops, and we sheltered beneath the lintel of one great Stone as it turned from gray to blew and green with the Moisture. And when I leaned my Back against that Stone I felt in the Fabrick the Labour and Agonie of those who had erected it…’

That description of Stonehenge as it must have been in the eighteenth century would be pretty hard to beat.

 

 

 

 

 

Page Turners for the Run Up to Christmas: Review of ‘Dark Moon Fell’ by Mari Biella

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I finished this on Halloween – highly appropriately, as I don’t think it will be writing a spoiler to say that this is a real ghost story – and there is more than one ghost.
But, as ever, Mari Biella’s style is subtle. No crowd of phantoms jumping out of cupboards here – and as ever, the psychological and the psychic are expertly blended.
She has also done a fine job in creating a sympathetic heroine out of Angela Martin – a has been pop star of less than outstanding talent, who becoming a drunk and squandering the money and fame that has so easily come to her, is caught by alcoholic poisioning.
But, at least – unlike ‘reality celebrities’ – she has some talent; and she also has a redeeming sense of irony. This is what she thinks as she fades out of consciousness in her bathroom:
‘ The papers are going to go wild over this, the voice in my head continued, in its arch, you-silly-thing way. Another faded has-been going out with a whimper, drowning in booze. Never mind alcohol poisoning, you ought to die of sheer bloody embarrassment.’
She also speaks of the delusions of fame:
‘You suddenly find that you have no shortage of friends, all of whom appear to offer you unconditional loyalty and affection. They laugh at your feeble jokes and applaud even your smallest achievements. They put up with you when you behave like a jerk, which you frequently do, because nobody dares to challenge you. What you don’t realize is that, through it all, those same friends are quietly keeping score. And when the money and fame dry up, which they invariably do, so too does their devotion.’
I took to Angela after that.
During her period of unconsciousness, she is haunted by an odd dream which she remembers, of a substantial Victorian house, of being hunted, of being chased by an evil pursuer across a moor.
It might not seem surprising that Angela would have a nightmare about pursuit, as she has been stalked for some time by an obsessive fan, who at first inclined to worship her, is now disgusted with her. His letters have become abusive.
Angela is short of money, and options. Again showing her ability to view herself with detachment, she says to her former manager of her group:
‘All I know about is singing reasonably well, dancing a bit and having my photograph taken.’
He feels to some extent responsible for her emotional collapse, having plunged her thoughtlessly into the cut throat pop world as a young girl. Now he offers to help her get a job as a caretaker in one of the houses owned by the owner of her old recording company. Angie is eager to get away from London – especially the stalker.
After a cursory interview, Angie gets the job at Fell House in Northumberland, situated by a sinister moor, which is rumoured to be cursed.
But what worries Angela more is that this is literally the house of her dreams. This is the place she visited when in a coma.
From the start, she knows that someone else is in the house. The question is, is this person living or dead?
Yet, she feels that she cannot give up this opportunity. Besides, it is a lovely old house set in wonderful countryside,and she relishes this new existence.
…There is also another attraction. Ethan Haar, the architect who is designing some work on the house in line with the rules pertaining to a listed building. Angela is attracted to him at once. In fact, with him, she forgets to feel jaded.
As she begins to learn about the tragic history of Fell House, and to uncover the secret of Ethan Haar’s past, Angela finds herself increasingly drawn to solve its mystery, and to help him lay his own ghosts besides.
But there is more danger lurking about the house for Angela than a possible haunting…
Written with the smooth flow, striking word pictures and introducing the vivid characters we have come to expect from Mari Biella, this is an absorbing, sometimes spine chilling, read.
It also includes the extra pleasure of a tender love story.
As ever, I am hard put to it to narrow down my choice of quotes, but here are two:
‘I thought of the years in which we must both have lived in London, he and I, walking the same streets, falling asleep beneath the same grimy sky. We might have passed each other on a crowded pavement, or ridden in the same taxi, or gone to the same shops and bars, but we’d never met. Now we’d been brought together in this obscure little place, two travellers looking for a better tomorrow.’
‘I had the sudden sense that Fell House existed in its own time zone, quite separate from that of the rest of the world. It was a zone, perhaps, where past, present and future lost their meaning. Maybe that was why I’d dreamed of the place before I’d ever set eyes on it.’
‘Stray sheep, startled by my approach, darted away from the path. Pausing to tie my shoelace, I realized that I could hear nothing apart from their occasional, plaintive bleating, and birdsong, and the low whine of the breeze. A few clouds sailed across the sky, throwing fleeting shadows over the rough grass and bracken.’
You can here buy Dark Moon Fell at amazon.co.uk
and at amazon.com

‘Rhiannon’s Tomcats’: A free short story by Lucinda Elliot for Halloween

 

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I wrote the following short story  (approximately 2,500 words)  a long time ago, about ten years at least, for a short story writing course.  I believe it was the only one the tutor praised and told me was worthy of publication: he and I did not share the same sense of humour, that’s for sure;  but certainly, I had a lot to learn about writing marketable output in those days.

As I was meaning to write a story specially for Halloween for my blog, and left it too late, I hope this one will do instead to give a few tingles down the spine.  I have left it just as it was written, and the changing patterns of migrating labour show that it was written over ten years ago, as young men coming to look for building work in Mid Wales these days would probably be from Eastern Europe rather than Southern Ireland.

 

Rhiannon’s Tomcats

By Lucinda Elliot

 

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“It might be here!” Liam darted past a row of lock up garages.

Connell, squelching after him in soaked trainers, didn’t answer.  There was nobody else out in the howling wind and driving rain to ask for directions, and he had almost given up hope of ever finding the right road on this dismal housing estate. When he came out by the sign, ‘ Heol Bryn’ the very name of the road for which they were searching, he was amazed.

Number Seven looked even more dismal than the rest of the featureless estate.  It was a mid terraced house with flaking paint, an overgrown garden and a sagging fence.

As they walked up the path, Connell was willing to bet that the man in the pub who had told them that old Mrs Rhys and her great granddaughter took in lodgers had just been talking drunken nonsense.  After all, as the man had staggered away from the bar, the only other customer apart from Connell and Liam, an old man, had looked up from his paper to laugh. “He’s not going to remember a thing tomorrow!”

They started as a black cat dashed out from the straggling bushes to the side with a wild shriek.  It stopped directly in front of them, meeting their eyes and hissing.  Back home, Connell’s grandmother had had a cat that had taken to attacking people.  Thinking of this, he held back, but Liam said, “Scat!” and the cat streaked away round the side of the house.

The doorbell was answered by a woman too young to be Connell’s idea of a landlady, but too old and haggard to be a girl.  She looked pale and unhealthy, with lustreless fair hair hanging in strings over her shoulders.  Her shapeless grey housecoat emphasized her colourless look.

“Yes?”

Her flat voice struck Connell as being surprisingly posh for someone living on such a bleak estate.  That made him nervous, but it didn’t worry Liam, who flashed a wide grin at her.  Everyone said that Liam was very good looking, with his curly black hair and bright blue eyes, and he agreed with them. “We heard you take in lodgers.”

To Connell’s surprise, the woman brightened. “Come in.”

The noises of the storm outside vanished as she shut the door.  In contrast to the neglected outside, the dimly lit hall was quite luxurious, with hardwood flooring, rugs and a heavy gilt framed mirror.

She suddenly became sympathetic. “Isn’t it dreadful weather?  You look drenched.  You didn’t come by car, then?”

“No such luck, by train.” Liam said, as he wiped his feet.  He liked talking about how he’d left a grand car back home, but for some reason he didn’t mention it now.

Connell saw that another cat, a big ginger one, had appeared.  This one wasn’t hostile, merely watching them with a superior air as it wound about the woman’s ankles.

“Come and dry out in front of the fire.”  She led them into the sitting room.  It had expensive looking striped wallpaper, and was furnished throughout in what Connell vaguely recognised as Victorian furniture.  Sitting by a large fire in a rocking chair, a very old woman turned alert dark eyes on them.

Nain (Granny), people to see you about some rooms for the night.”

“Afternoon,” said Connell, gently.  “I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“We need disturbing…Rhiannon, put the kettle on.  These poor boys are soaked.”  Unlike Rhiannon, Mrs Rhys had a Welsh accent.  Her voice was surprisingly strong for someone so old.

Rhiannon brought hot scones with butter and jam as well as tea.  The old woman and Connell worked out the business transaction as they ate and drank.  Connell knew that he should be glad that he didn’t have to go back out into the wind and rain, yet somehow – for no particular reason – he had an uneasy feeling.

He told Mrs Rhys that they would probably be working at the building site for a couple of weeks, but these things were never certain.  She suggested that they took dinner in too, at a rate so low that Connell felt guilty.  Perhaps she had lost touch with modern prices.

“We can pay a bit more than that!” He ignored Liam’s warning stare.

Liam, usually so fond of the sound of his own voice, took no part in the conversation as he stretched his legs in front of the fire, drank and ate.  He smiled now and then at Rhiannon, who in the light of the fire looked quite young and pretty; the glow gave a golden light to her hair and a rosy tint to her cheeks.

Mrs Rhys told them that Rhiannon was her great-granddaughter and asked Connell about himself and Liam.  “So you come from Southern Ireland?  I’ve always wanted to visit there, but I’ve never got round to it.  Bricklayers?  That’s a very useful skill.  So you’ve been staying in London.  Did you make many friends there?”

“We didn’t make any,” Connell felt ashamed as he admitted it. “I’d dreamed of working in London and making big money, but after three months of it, I’m glad to get away.  It was all too much for me, to be honest.  People rushing everywhere and the mad traffic, and everybody so unfriendly.  Well, Liam knew some of the lads down the pub, darts and that, but I doubt any of those will miss us.”

“Cities are lonely places.” Mrs Rhys agreed.  “But then, these housing estates can be no better.  Do you know, Rhiannon and I have been living here for years now, and we know hardly any of the neighbours? Well, I suppose you’re talking to your families on your mobile phones every day?  I know about you young people and your mobile phones!”

Her easy chat put Connell more at his ease. “Up to last week I was phoning them up all the time, but then I lost the thing.”

In fact, someone had stolen it.  He suspected one of the other men in the house where they had been staying in Acton.  Of course, Liam had a much better one, but after paying the train fare, he hadn’t got round to topping it up.

Connell went on, “I’ve just realised, our families don’t even know that we’ve left London. Hey, we couldn’t pay you to use your phone, could we?”  He’d had a glimpse of a fifties-style black bakelite telephone in the hall.  Judging by the rest of the contents of the house, it was probably an original.

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Mrs Rhys shook her head.  “I’m afraid that ours is out of order, and we haven’t had it repaired yet.  Oh, I know it’s foolish when we have guests.”

When Rhiannon went out to make up the beds, Connell thought that her walk had changed, becoming vigorous and upright.  He wondered vaguely if the company of a couple of males had worked on her as a sort of beauty treatment?  He’d heard of such things.

They followed Rhiannon’s sturdy legs up to the first floor, hoisting their bags up to their rooms.  The room they were to share was a fourth bedroom at the back of the house, which had been extended at some time.  It was done out with comfortable old-fashioned furniture, but it was chilly, with an unused air about it.  Connell shivered.  Something about the room increased his feeling of unease.  Perhaps it was the silence; he suddenly realised that he couldn’t hear the sounds of the wind or the rain.

Despite the fact that Mrs Rhys had been so friendly and helpful, he couldn’t stop himself asking Liam, “Don’t you think there’s something a bit weird going on?”

Liam laughed scornfully.  “What!  Are you scared of the old lady? The only weird thing is our luck in getting something decent so cheap.”

Connell jumped as something sharp sank into his leg.  A large tabby had clawed him from behind.  “Psst!  Go away!” he tried to scare it off, but it stood its ground, meowing at them.

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Liam couldn’t stop laughing.  “Are you a man or a mouse?”

Connell said, “These cats are surely a pest! Hey, Liam, I wish there was some way of letting them know at home where we are.  It only makes sense, you know.”

“You can always take a walk out in that, looking for a phone box.” Liam jerked his head in the direction of the rain-washed bedroom window.

“You noticed that there’s no sound coming from outside?”

“Special double glazing, I suppose.  Don’t be so daft.”

Connell felt too tired to appreciate the roast lamb that Rhiannon served for dinner.  The tight-fisted woman who owned the house where they’d stayed at Acton wouldn’t have thought of giving the lodgers a roast on a Sunday, never mind on a weekday.  He glanced at Liam; Liam seemed to take it all for granted as he pushed it into his face without much thought for table manners.

Connell felt a bit ashamed of him as he turned to Mrs Rhys, and caught her staring expressionlessly at Liam. “Lovely dinner.  We didn’t expect a meal like this!”

The old woman at once smiled at him warmly.  “I always say that Welsh lamb is the best.”

There was wine, too.  Connell preferred beer with his dinner, and he refused it at first, but Rhiannon smilingly encouraged him; “You must try this, I don’t usually like red either.”

Flattered that she thought his opinion on such a topic worth anything, he accepted a glass.  He realised then that she had hardly said anything since she had first chatted to them in the hall.

Liam asked Rhiannon a couple of questions about herself.  He even asked her Great-Grandmother some questions about herself, too, though you could tell that he wasn’t listening to her answers.  Then he told some funny stories about himself in turn.

Connell envied him his arrogance.  He envied him his flashing white teeth, too.   Perhaps they were the secret of Liam’s success with women; well, those teeth and his blue eyes and dark curly hair might be the reason for his success with them.

Connell himself was shy, unremarkable looking, with an equally unimpressive record of girls who had been interested in him.

Rhiannon was saying to Liam, “Work? Oh, I give piano lessons.  I studied music.  Of course, I help Nain with the house, too.”

Connell could tell that Liam was thinking, “That’s really sad.  No sort of life for a young woman.”

In the absence of any girls of his own age, Liam was obviously happy to flirt with Rhiannon.  She was glowing under the attention, so that she looked half a dozen years younger than she had.  Connell felt sorry for her.  Maybe she hadn’t had male admiration for years.  Perhaps she believed that Liam thought that she was special.

Liam was always chasing after girls.  In rural Southern Ireland, that was risky for a man who didn’t want to be tied down.  He’d had to leave the country because of trouble once too often over a girl.  Connell disapproved of Liam’s attitude towards women, but he enjoyed his company so much that he had offered to go with him.  Tonight, however, Connell almost disliked him for his greed and insensitivity.

Suddenly, Connell noticed how attractive Rhiannon was looking, with her long, lustrous lashes, her hair hanging in shining golden ringlets. Of course, women were always doing things to their appearance, things about which men had no idea.  He could only suppose that Rhiannon must have worked on her looks up in her room to change herself to that extent.

Meanwhile, Mrs Rhys under the electric light, looked just as old, but somehow indefinably more powerful, as if she had drawn strength from somewhere.

“You’re a nice boy,” she said suddenly to Connell. “You will be all right.”

Connell smiled politely, though of course, he didn’t want to be a granny’s idea of a nice boy; they never had any fun.

Rhiannon rose to collect the dinner plates, and Liam’s eyes widened as he got up to open the door for her.  Like Connell, he had noticed her amazing, hourglass figure that even the old-fashioned looking print dress that she had changed into couldn’t conceal.  Connell could have sworn that when they had come into the dining room she’d been  dumpy.

As she opened the door, a tabby cat tried to squeeze past her into the room, calling loudly.  Rhiannon laughed at it, pushing it away with one foot.  “Who’s a silly Mr Puss-Puss?  Who wants to talk to the humans?”

This drew Connell’s attention to Rhiannon’s legs.  They were now long and slim; Connell knew that they had been short and sturdy half an hour ago. He wondered if fatigue was making his eyes play tricks.  Perhaps had he been right in sensing that was something sinister about the place?  He glanced at Liam, who was- of course – staring at Rhiannon’s legs too, but with an expression of unthinking lust.

Connell resolved that however much Liam might laugh and however wet he got, after dinner he was going to go straight out, find a phone and let their families know exactly where they were staying.

By the time that Rhiannon came back with the pudding – baked apples – Connell could hardly keep his eyes open.  For his part, Liam couldn’t keep his flashing blue eyes off Rhiannon.  Her Great-Grandmother, far from disapproving, seemed positively to gloat at his interest.

Connell couldn’t remember being so tired since he was a child.  Everything was blurry, as if he had had too much to drink, and yet he hadn’t even finished his glass of wine.  The voices of the others were alternately unnaturally loud and then very faint in his ears.

He knew that he had to act or it would be too late.  It was probably too late already.  He stumbled to his feet, knocking his chair over. “Liam, let’s go!” his voice came out so slurred that it was unrecognisable to him.

The others stared at him. “What are you playing at -?” Liam demanded.

Slowly, as if he was walking through water against a current, Connell fought his way over the fallen chair and across the room.

“Are you ill?” asked Rhiannon. Her voice rang poisonously sweet in his ears.

He felt someone grab his shoulder and he jerked himself away to wrench at the door handle.  There was a rush of cold air as he fell amongst what seemed like twenty cats.

Then there was nothing but darkness.

Much later, he had a sensation of swinging, as if he was being carried, and he heard muffled voices.  He struggled in terror to wake up, but sank back into unconsciousness…

 

Connell became aware of cold and damp, and the persistent nuzzlings of a mewing cat.  He opened his eyes, remembering nothing, and long wet grass came into focus.  The cat, a handsome animal with thick black fur and wild blue eyes, now flung itself on his chest, meowing frantically.  He pushed it away and sat up, trying to clear his head by shaking it.  He was unable to make anything of the terraced house at the end of the garden.

He started blankly at the dumpy, faded looking woman in the grey housecoat who was bending over him.  She laughed as she picked up the struggling, hissing cat, holding it at arms length to avoid its claws.  “Silly boy!” she said to it.  Who’s my little pet, now?”

Lucinda Elliot 2007

A_black_cat_named_Tilly

When the Ghostly Meets the Absurd

mrx%2BnecronomiconSome months ago, I wrote a post about the thin line between horror and comedy; and on how one can so often lead into the other. It can be so difficult to get the balance right. After all, at times even the masters of terror, like Stephen King and Bram Stocker, can mistakenly stray over into the ludicrous.

That is one comfort about writing spoof Gothic. Here, the relationship between the two is out in the open. If the reader laughs a bit where the writer is aiming for pure terror, or is appalled by a bit which on the contrary is intended as one of the comic episodes, then it really doesn’t matter.

I mentioned in that post, how I let out a hoot of laughter when reading one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, which unluckily, was not meant to be comic at all.

In it, a monster, born of an unnatural mating between a creature from outer space and a woman, was trying to obtain a copy of ‘The Necromican’, apparently so that the other members of the race to which his father belonged could come to earth. Well, it’s nice that he was a fond son, anyway…

There being no Internet and no Amazon in those days, and seemingly no public libraries willing to loan a copy of this book of magical rites (even if he had to read it in the reading room, as in the British Library), he broke into a private library to steal a copy.

Here, a watchdog attacked him, tearing his trousers and revealing that his body below the waist was ‘the stuff of fantasy’ (and certainly not of the sort found in the ‘Romance/Erotia’ section in Amazon, either).

The unlucky miscreant soon began to melt into a pool of goo. I was worried that the dog might have been poisoned by tearing at his flesh, but we didn’t hear that it suffered any ill effects.

There was another, which involved a man whose body had been stolen by these same aliens, and who came back to life in the coffin of one of their dead human accomplices (I forget why). He somehow got out, and made a series of warning phone calls, but as his vocal cords had begun to disintegrate, the recipients only heard, ‘Obscene gurgling noises’. Again, I collapsed into laughter. 51qDfwesoBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_

It’s decades since I read those short stories, and I can’t, unfortunately, remember the names, though I do remember I read them as part of an anthology of possibly, ‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ or ‘Tales of Terror’ or some such thing. When I’ve mentioned them, people have been eager to read them too, so that’s a shame (that’s the annoying thing about short stories, they are so hard to track down).

Recently, however, I read the most absurd ghost story I have yet read, and I am sorry to say that it was chosen for ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’. I do remember the title of this. ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by one Margery Lawrence.

This choice is the more extraordinary, as I gather that this largely forgotten writer was fully capable of writing genuine tales of terror. I can’t imagine what made the editor choose this, apart from the fact that it does stray repeatedly over into the ludicrous, and this, seemingly, by accident.

I did wonder if it is meant as a spoof, though this is not mentioned in the write up. Rather, I think, the combination of the dated, class-based assumptions of the characters, and their strangely cardboard nature, combine with a not sufficiently alarming ghostly presence to make for an unintentional comic effect.

By contrast, ‘Juggarnaut’ in the same volume, by D K Broster, a tale about a haunted ‘bath chair’, written about the same time (1926) with the same dated assumptions, is clearly meant to be ludicrous as well as horrific, and is highly entertaining.

The Haunted Saucepan’ comes from a book of collected stories by the author called ‘Nights of the Round Table’. In it, the hero, Conner, is an engineer come back to the UK along with his devoted manservant who is positively grovelling in his subservience towards the hero – and called the incongruous name of Strutt ; Conner is looking for affordable accommodation in Mayfair, near St James Park. 300px-Savile_Club_New_Bar_2

Unable to find any, he fears – horrors – that he would be reduced to living in a hotel, or else, his club (it isn’t clear where he would have placed Strutt; presumably in the attics) . This is hardship indeed, as he says he needs to live near his business interests. Then he comes on a fully furnished flat to let at a startlingly low rent. The agent tells Connor that the owner is abroad, having left abruptly for unspecified reasons.

The devoted Strutt has even been approached by a cook, an elderly woman who turns up, offering her services. He says to his master, ‘I took the liberty of exercising my own judgement…I hope I did right, Sir?’

The woman is an excellent cook. After his first dinner, Connor concedes; ‘Tell her I’m pleased.’ (What, no tip? Well, you mustn’t indulge staff too much; they’re bound to take advantage.)

Naturally, we have guessed at once that the flat is haunted. The mystery is in what form this haunting is going to take. The object of terror is in fact, a saucepan, which bubbles in a sinister way when the stove isn’t alight. Not only that, but if anyone eats anything cooked in it, he or she suffers from terrible agonies. This happens to Connor, after the delightful meal, for Strutt heated him some coffee in that saucepan.b732a28730f411f534c740cb1564b6ed

Connor, reading late on that first night, finds that Strutt has failed to supply him with fresh soda for the siphon, and he has to go along to the kitchen to get it. Here on the stove:
‘One, a little saucepan, had it’s lid not quite on – not fitted on levelly, I mean –and it had the oddest look for a moment, just as if it had cocked its lid up to take a sly look at me!’

Later in the night, Connor awakes: ‘Shaking and gasping, my hands alternately grasping my throat and stomach as most awful griping agonies seized me, throwing me into convulsive writhings…’

Strutt to the rescue: ‘My God, Sir, what’s the matter? You waked me coughing! Wait a second, Sir, I’ll get you a drop of brandy…If you’ll take my advice you’ll change those damp things and let me rub you down…’

The next day Connor feels fine, and his doctor says there’s nothing wrong with him.

But then, Connor is dismayed when he and his friend Trevanion, who’s come to dine, hear an odd bubbling noise coming from the kitchen, but a visit their reveals nothing:

‘Trevanion’s cheery laugh died away down the street…The kitchen door stood ajar…craning forward, I peeped round the door…The little saucepan stood where I had put it, on the stove, still cold and unlit – but it was boiling! The lid was rakishly aslant, and tilted a shade every second or so as the liquid, whatever it was, bubbled inside, and gusts of steam came out as I gasped, dumbfounded –somehow as I listened, the noise of the bubbling shaped itself into a devilish little song, almost as if the thing was singing to itself, secretly and abominably, chortling to itself in a disgusting sort of hidden way….’b732a28730f411f534c740cb1564b6ed

This was the point at which I began to chortle to myself in a disgusting sort of hidden way at Connor and Strutt’s terrors, and the general Boys’ Own way in which the hero and his friend Trevanian set out to resolve the mystery.

The servile Strutt taken ill, too, after boiling himself an egg in the murderous saucepan (Connor is so astonished that his man is late wth his early morning tea that he goes to investigate). Now, Trevanian callously decides to engage in some animal experiments. He borrows a dog, boils up some bones in the pan, and gives them to the unfortunate animal, which is seized by the symptoms of poison also:
‘Poor old brute! Never mind; he’ll be all right in a jiff.”

Then, the two friends decide to wait in the kitchen –along with the unlucky dog – in an attempt, it seems, to see the ghost:
‘We had brought cushions and rugs with us, and threw them in a corner, the furthest away from the stove…from where we could watch both door – and stove – and saucepan…Settling ourselves down, I rummaged in my pocket for my pipe.’

SaucepansAtWW30sI’ve read a number of descriptions of such night vigils in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Conan Doyle can make the situation full of alarming suspense rather than absurdity. He achieves this in ‘The Speckled Band’, for all the baboon which runs across the garden, and the cheetah that snuffles at the window.

With this story, by contrast, I began to snigger heartlessly again. Then I came to the climax of the vigil: –
‘A faint movement in the passage at the further end – on tiptoe for greater stealth, something stole towards the kitchen door…the Thing in the passage trailed nearer and nearer…a faint footstep accompanied by a soft rustle like a trailing skirt. At this moment, I became aware of another phenomenon –there grew a heavy scent on the air, like patchouli, I think…our throats dry with fright, we shrank closer to each other, staring at the dog as he moaned and whimpered, and the steps drew nearer, and paused outside the kitchen door, as if Whoever walked that night paused to peer at us through the crack in the kitchen door, and laughed at us through the chink!
‘For sheer terror, that beat all that I have ever known, yet still the spell held us both motionless…the dog’s eyes fixed about five foot from the floor, followed – Someone – who entered…suddenly upon the silence broke a sinister little sound – the clink of a saucepan lid lifted…with a yell of mortal fear I threw aside the rugs, and bolted past that horrible stove like a maniac, Trevanion close at my heels, blundering madly over poor old Ben as he ran.’
51qDfwesoBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_
At this, I laughed so much that I thought the story deserved a place in the collection for its sheer entertainment value. If it was written tongue in cheek, which I doubt, as it seems the author had little sense of the ridiculous, it is a masterpiece of understated satire.
None of the comedy of these two he man types running in terror from the apparition of a living and lovely young woman is indicated as the story draws to  a close (for the siren murderer who owns the flat and who killed her husband with poisoned meals from the saucepan still lives abroad with her male accomplice).

Connor and Trevanion take Strutt into their confidence. He is all gratitude, and says he threw the dread saucepan out, but it turned up in the kitchen again. On no account is his beloved master to touch it.

The cook is called. Trevanion seizes her, and Strutt, rather like a school sneak, informs them that she laughed when Connor was taken ill, and threatens to make her eat something cooked out of the saucepan.

After this ungallant treatment, she crumbles and tells all of her former mistress, her lovers, and the elderly husband subject to painful attacks of acid indigestion , and the wife carefully cooking him invalid’s meals in the dread saucepan, laced with a strange white powder from her doctor lover. For all this deviotion, he faded slowly away. Then the doctor married the siren and they went abroad…

After that, the wicked old woman used the saucepan now and then to scare away tenants, as she wished to keep her caretaking job (it’s never explained why, with her skills as a chef, she didn’t take up work as a cook; but perhaps it was harder work). Connor sternly dismisses her:
‘The door closed on her dismissed figure, and Trevenion’s eyes met mine. With one accord we said, ‘My God, what a horrible yarn!’ That is redolent of Rinaldo Rinaldini, where his men are forever speaking in chorus.

It is left to Strutt to throw away the saucepan. The environmentally unfriendly Connor suggests he tie a stone to it, and sinks it in the Thames (but might it not poison the whole river?)

I was disappointed to come to the end of the tale; it had given me a wonderful laugh.41h7eo8lA4L._SS160_

I hasten to add that there are far more spine chilling ghost stories in ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ – ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ by F M Mayor, for instance, is brilliant and touching, and ‘The Eyes’ by Edith Wharton is truly alarming, and has a wonderful psychological slant that in no way detracts from the ghostliness.

It is also only fair to add, that I lived in a reputedly haunted house myself for several years, and I found listening to the sound of disembodied footsteps decidedly unpleasant myself (though their owner was almost certainly dead). I also found the inexplicable mechanical clicking noises which passed up one of the long corridors at dead of night disturbing, neither of which sounds frightening when recounted in the light of day (though I often heard them in the light of day, though more often at twilight, including the last time that I heard them, about which I will write next Halloween).

The problem, then, is less with the prosaic nature of a ghostly saucepan than the whole Boy’s Own Adventure Story atmosphere which surrounds this 1920’s ghostly tale. However, as laughter is the best tonic, I strongly recommend it.

‘Wintergreen’ by Mari Biella; Interview with the protagonist, Cat Armistead

Wintergreen Cover EBook 2The idlyllic English village below, complete with old fashioned telephone box , is unfortunately the location of a current murder investigation. The dead body of a local businessman, estate agent and wealthy landlord, Hugo Montbray, was recently discovered a local woods.

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I’ve bene lucky enough to be able to interview somebody actually staying in the area (aside: she also happens to be a journalist, and may be no easy subject, but here goes…).

Lucinda Elliot; Cat, I believe you are currently involved in quite a ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ type adventure down in the cosy English village of Wintergreen. A family curse, no less. That is a bit spine chilling.

Cat:

Well, I wouldn’t say I was involved, exactly. I mean, I just happen to be staying in a cottage not very far from where someone was found dead in suspicious circumstances. And yes, it would seem that there is a local legend involving a curse, but hey, I’m just a passive observer. It’s not my business to get involved, even if [she tries to look nonchalant as she flicks through a notebook] I’m a journalist and I’m always on the trail of an interesting story.

Lucinda Elliot:

Hmm. I suppose the local detective, Jake Fernsby, isn’t it, has told you to be noncommittal about it. Or maybe as a professional journalist, you are a little reluctant to give anyone else a story? Well, I’m not a journalist; I’m a part time blogger and writer of gothic. But perhaps, these days it amounts to the same thing in a way.

But to revert to my previous line of questioning – sorry, I mean, friendly chat, trying to put characters at their ease the way I notoriously do – I do know that there is a legend about a family curse on the male line of the Montbrays, because in the bad old days of the squirearchy one of them seduced and abandoned one local girl too many, and she put a curse on him.

Hey, that’s a great story for Christmas! I want to read all about it.

Cat:

All of that may be true, Lucinda. I couldn’t possibly comment about the status of the police investigation, not least because DI Fernsby is indeed playing his cards close to his chest. Besides, as you know, I’m off-duty at the moment and enjoying a quiet Christmas break with my family. I’m not planning to write a story about it, not even for the Festive season. [Looks thoughtful.] Unless, that is, it turns out to be a truly spectacular story of the type that I simply can’t ignore…

Anyway, the Montbray curse is well-known in the local area, so I won’t be treading on too many toes if I confirm that there is indeed such a legend. The Montbrays were always a colourful lot and, according to local gossip, if they weren’t cheating you, fighting you or stealing your money they were busy trying to sleep with you. Legend also has it that one of their many victims, a servant girl called Patience, invoked a terrifying curse upon the male Montbrays as revenge just before she hanged herself.

You’ve probably heard something like this before, which wouldn’t surprise me. Britain is full of these little myths, and few of them have any basis in historical fact. Interestingly, though, one Hugo Montbray recently met a sticky end, which some might take as evidence that the curse is still in effect.

Not that it’s any of my business, of course. As I said, I’m just here to enjoy a quiet Christmas…

Lucinda Elliot:

Oh, come on. That cliché about the leopard is applicable here. No doubt Jake Fernsby was off duty when I saw him talking to you. The two of you seem to be getting quite close, one way and another.

Cat:

[Blushing furiously] A policeman and a journalist? Are you serious? That would be a marriage made in Hell. And by the way, he wasn’t talking to me in any normal sense of the word. He was keeping tabs on me, just like policemen always do.

Lucinda Elliot:

[Under her breath] You’re a fine one to talk…

Cat:

Sorry, I didn’t quite hear that.

Lucinda Elliot:

Nothing. Just clearing my throat.

Cat:

Well, it’s true that I’ve met him on occasion. It’s impossible not to in a little village like Wintergreen, especially when he’s a world-class busybody.

Lucinda Elliot:

[Sniggers.] It seems to me that journalists don’t like being interviewed themselves. [Returns to the attack] But you are, after all, actually staying in Stable Cottage, and while you can’t accuse your landlady Lita McQuoid of being the over imaginative type, rumours circulate that it is the very place where the tragic girl hanged herself so long ago, now prosaically converted into a holiday cottage.

Of course, you never know with these business people. Lita may have spread that rumour about herself, to attract custom from bold, adventurous types.

Cat:

I’m not sure that Lita cares what kind of person stays there, as long as they pay the rent. Luckily, I’m not the superstitious type, so rumours about long-ago suicides don’t trouble me too much. I belong in a newsroom, not a gothic novel.

Lucinda Elliot:

It is never safe for a character to say that; after all, your fate depends on your author, and I see that you may be even be involved in a series.

Cat:

What?!

Lucinda Elliott:

What, you weren’t aware that Mari Biella was writing your story as an exciting seasonal mystery novella available on Amazon at a highly reasonable price?

Ah, she’s terminated the interview. ..But you can get this excellent Christmas read on:

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