Are you a kallikantzaros, destined to terrorise your village for the next few days? Or are you impish and troublesome at this time of the year by choice? Today we recommend a novel, recount some dark folklore and suggest baptism in the Orthodox church. We are in the Twelve Days of Christmas, and thus calling in on Greek folk-legends, shadow puppetry and science fiction. Naturally.
(Oh, and check out the end of this post for some nice news…)
Let’s turn to the author Roger Zelazny, who knew that children born at this time run the risk of turning into those blackened, misshapen goblins known to the Greeks as kallikantzaroi.
Twelvetide has many myths and rituals associated with it across the world. We thought about going with the Hunting of the Wren, but the lure of a particular novel, This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1937-1995), was too great.
The book was serialised in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1965 under the title And Call Me Conrad, with some cuts from the original manuscript. Subsequently released in various forms as a novel, the original text was restored, and it became known under the This Immortal title. Zelazny apparently preferred the Conrad title, but the publishers didn’t.
It’s not Zelazny’s best book, but it does introduce some rather neat ideas. And it’s another work showing his fascination with immortal or extremely long-lived central characters. Corwin of Amber, from the Amber series; Sam from the quite brilliant Lord of the Light; Francis Sandow from Isle of the Dead. We covered the last one at length earlier in the year – roger zelazny – my family and other vorvolakas . Another novel full of great ideas, including a man possessed by an alien god.
So what’s the folklore element here? In Greece they have a rather interesting Twelvetide belief, one which is shared in various forms across Southeastern Europe – Serbia, Greece, parts of Turkey and so on. The kallikantzaros is a mischievous creature, a sort of blackened goblin. These goblins are often portrayed as stunted or malformed creatures of various heights, some with animal parts, others with enormous genitalia, or with mis-matched limbs.
The most curious part is their behaviour, which is governed by light and religion. For most of the year, the kallikantzaroi spend their time underground, sawing at the roots of the Tree of the World and trying to bring it down. Echoes of Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree, and the dragon/demon Níðhöggur which gnaws at Yggdrasil’s roots.
Spurning the light, it is only during the Twelve Days of Christmas when the sun is at its lowest, that the kallikantzaroi emerge into the world of humans to cause trouble. They’re not exactly the most evil goblins, but tricksters and mischief-makers. And some believe that children born during these twelve days may turn into kallikantzaroi (the Serbs called Twelvetide ‘the unbaptised days’). This was to be prevented by various folkloric traditions – surrounding the child with garlic or straw rubbed with garlic, making sure that a priest had blessed them, and, for some odd reason, singeing their toenails.
After causing minor mayhem, such goblins returned underground with the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, either the 5th or the 6th of January. This must have been frustrating, as in their absence the Tree of the World had healed itself and it was time to pick up that saw again.
Roger Zelazny composted a whole bundle of Greek myths when he came up with This Immortal. You can look for connections not only with the kallikantzaros legend, but with Dionysian tales, the Great God Pan and sundry other beliefs. He has a nice observation about the nature of the Greek goblins in there as well:
“So feathers or lead” I asked him.
“It is the riddle of the kallikanzaros. Pick one.”
“If I had said ‘lead’… ?”
“Uh-uh. You only have once chance. The correct answer is whatever the kallikanzaros wants it to be. You lose.”
“That sounds a bit arbitrary.”
“Kallikanzaroi are that way. It’s Greek, rather than Oriental subtlety. Less inscrutable, too. Because your life often depends on the answer, and the kallikanzaros generally wants you to lose.”
“Why is that?”
“Ask the next kallikanzaros you meet, if you get a chance. They’re mean spirits.”
In the book, he references Easter, and the possibility that kallikantzaroi are driven from their work on the World Tree by the Easter bells. This would be fitting, given the importance of East to the Greek Orthodox Church. Χριστὸς ἀνέστη – Kristos aneste – Christ is Risen. In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is really a preliminary to Easter, which is the more significant event in the liturgical year.
The novel is set on an Earth devastated by war and mostly in ruins, with much of the planet owned by aliens, the Vegans, who come here on sight-seeing trips. Humans live under many stars, mostly as employees or servants of the aliens, who are generally benevolent in their way. Only the Mars and Titan colonies are semi-independent, having had to get along on their own after Earth fell apart. With a disjointed human population, a lot of post-war wreckage and radioactive hot-spots, humanity is not in the best of positions. The Returnist movement has fought, physically and politically, to have their planet back, but with little success.
Enter Conrad. Like Sam in Lord of Light, he has many names. He may be Conrad Nomikos, Konstantin, or the freedom-fighter Karaghios. He avoids being pinned down on that most of the time.
What he is, no-one is sure. He was born during Twelvetide, and may not have been baptised (the priest had a stroke during the ceremony). His girlfriend calls him a kallikantzaros, and as in stories of the imps, he has physical defects. One leg is shorter than the other, and he has a scarred face and heterochromia, appropriate goblin traits.
Conrad’s legendary status is confused between the possibilities of radioactive mutation and mythic origins. Conrad also relates to beasts and to satyrs in the Greek ruins and wildlands, which raises the Pan connection. Zelazny declared that
“I wanted to leave it open to several interpretations—well, at least two. I wanted to sort of combine fantasy and sf… either Conrad is a mutant or he is the Great God Pan. The book may be read either way.”
The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 2: Power & Light
The surname Nomikos means ‘of the law’, but it also links to Nomios, a name for a version of Pan. Nomios was Hermes’ son, and Nomios’ mother was the dryad Penelope. He was an excellent shepherd, a seducer of nymphs, and musician upon the shepherd’s pipes. True to form, Conrad plays the syrinx (panpipes), and has a way with women. Add his odd looks and his seeming immortality, and you have your possibilities.
One of Conrad’s names, Karaghiosis, has a very specific link to Greek folk traditions. Long ago we were rattling on about shadow-puppetry with Richard Mansfield of Mansfield Dark, who produce their own excellent style of silhouette and shadow puppet films ( mansfield dark and hans christian andersen: the shadow out of denmark ). It’s a theme which comes up in a number of modern stories, but its roots are ancient. Karagiozis is a shadow puppet and fictional character of Greek folklore, originating in the Turkish shadow play Karagöz and Hacivat.
Kargiozis is a man of apparently little importance, sometimes ignored or slighted, who uses his wiles to get the better of others. Both a hero and an anti-hero. Like Punch, he often has a humped back and other deformities, which links us again to the kallikantzaroi.
Sadly, the puppetry is less common these days, but the shows are still held.
All the figures that represent the characters of the shows are two dimensional and designed always in profile. They were traditionally made from camel skin, carved to allow light through the image, creating details, but are today most often made of cardboard. Traditional puppets gave off black shadows against the white screen, but some more recent puppets have holes covered with colored silk or plastic gel materials to create colored shadows.
The torso, waist, feet and sometimes the limbs, were separate pieces that were joined together with pins. Most figures were composed of two parts (torso and legs) with only one joint to the waist. Two characters, the Jew and Morfonios had joints in the neck, and had a flexible head. They were moved with a stick attached to their ‘back’, except in the case of the figure of Karagiozis, Stavrakas and a few other characters whose arms or other limbs required separate movement. The ‘scene’ was a vertical white parapet, usually a cloth, called mperntes (from Turk. ‘perde’, curtain). Between the figures and the player (who was invisible), were candles or lamps that shed light to the figures and made their silhouettes and colours visible to the audience through the cloth.
Nicked from Wikipedia to save time typing. We’re shameless
Back when we were talking about Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead, we mentioned that the source of the image of that isle is supposedly the island of Pontikonisi, just off Corfu.
By coincidence, the author Lawrence Durrell (brother of Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals) wrote about Karagiozis and the Corfu Greeks:
Their national character is based on the idea of the impoverished and downtrodden little man getting the better of the world around him by sheer cunning. Add to this the salt of a self-deprecating humour, and you have the immortal Greek. A man of impulse, full of boasts, impatient of slowness, quick of sympathy, and inventive as well as assimilative. A coward and hero at the same time…
Prospero’s Cell (1945)
And the Conrad of Zelazny’s This Immortal shows signs of these characteristics as well. We’ll leave Roger Zelazny and the Greeks with this quote from the novel:
“I’m tired of being a gravekeeper, and I don’t really want to spend from now until Easter cutting through the Tree of the World, even if I am a Darkborn with a propensity for trouble. When the bells do ring, I want to be able to say, “Alethos aneste”, Risen Indeed, rather than dropping my saw and running (ring-a-ding, the bells, clackety-clack, the hooves, et cetera). Now is the time for all good kallikanzaroi… You know.”
It’s worth a read. And possibly checking if you were baptised by a Greek Orthodox priest. Best be safe.
Our Award-Winning Site (Not Really)
While we were away, greydogtales rather surprisingly got nominated for something. It’s up on the Critters ‘preditors and editors’ critique site, and someone has posted this nice commen:
“GreyDogTales is remarkably in-depth and remarkably prolific horror and dark fantasy essays, reviews, and commentary. John Linwood Grant’s work is outstanding.”
Can’t see us winning anything, but a few votes would be nice if you fancy making your mark. The poll is open until 14th January, and seems short and simple to complete. If you’d like to show your appreciation for our modest efforts, you can go here and do the deed. Thank you!
Back in a few days, and on a regular schedule as Twelvetide comes to an end – more lurcher madness, weird fiction and art. Do you join us, and Happy New Year, dear listener, if we don’t see you until then…
Seasonal felicitations, dearest listener. As the soft snow falls about the kennels, and a bad-tempered robin tries to eat one of our shoelaces, we wish you all a merry whatever it is you celebrate. Which may include Christmas. And in honour of the time of year, we offer you a lengthy and exclusive, if ill-conceived, tale of St Botolph-in-the-Wolds and that acclaimed author J Linseed Grant.
Startling in its punctuation and shamelessly ripped from Dickens, we present ‘A Midwinter Night’s Carol.’ We have no idea how you listen to greydogtales, so you can either go for the pdf below, or read the whole damnable thing right online. Neither of them make us any money, so what the heck…
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. It is perhaps unfortunate that Marley has absolutely nothing to do with today’s tale, as he sounds quite interesting. Still, these things happen. Come with us instead, dear listener, to the sleepy village of St Botolph-in-the-Wolds, in East Yorkshire. After all, if you hang around in Dickensian London, you might catch something, and we don’t mean fresh fish.
It is, as usual, Christmas Eve. The village itself is not really our concern, although we could point out that at the moment it lies under a thick coating of snow. Mounded beneath winter whiteness, it is the nearest to picturesque it’s ever going to get. Some of the snowmen shouldn’t be examined too closely, but you might want to ask Mummy and Daddy about that later. With luck they’ll go red in the face and offer to take you for an icecream.
But look now beyond the warped spire of St Botolph’s church, further even than the barbed wire surrounding the Girl Guides’ hut. Can you spot that lone, decrepit building on the hillside above the village, the house half-hidden by undergrowth? The one next to the sign saying “And Don’t Come Back”. That is our destination today.
As you can see, it is large and gambrel-roofed. If an Elizabethan builder had lost a fight with a group of Amish alcoholics, this would have been the result. Crouched behind dense banks of rhododendrons, the house emits faint spirals of smoke from its dilapidated chimneys, and occasionally through holes in the roof. It stretches the word ‘disrepair’ so far that even the rats write to their local Member of Parliament and ask for better accommodation. You get the idea.
On the doorstep of this architectural accident stands a grey-haired figure, wrapped in a number of worn-out dog coats. The immediate impression is of a man who badly needs ironing, and we’re not talking about his clothes. He is listening to a group of carol singers who have braved the snow and rough path up the hillside this evening to regale the old gentleman with merry songs. As the last strains of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ fade away, a tear rolls down his cheek…
J Linseed Grant’s eyes watered with pain as he regarded the plucky band of singers. They had been truly, unbelievably awful. Their ‘First Noel’ had rattled his remaining teeth, and their version of ‘Angels We have Heard on High’ would have made the Baby Jesus convert to Buddhism.
Reflecting on that mangled carol, he reached under the dog-coats and produced a German machine-pistol, which he had liberated during the war. Or ‘stolen from a pawn shop outside York on the 5th August 1943′, as the magistrate had put it at the time. He found it a great comfort during the festive season.
“I warned you about coming up here again,” he said, and fired a few rounds into the air, rather than aiming directly at the carol singers. It was an uncharacteristic gesture which showed how he too had been touched by the meaning of Christmas. The carol singers scattered, and were soon lost to sight.
“Bah. Sausages,” he said (an almost tragic choking incident the week before had left him with an aversion to boiled sweets).
He went inside, slamming the front door shut and dislodging several tiles (most cold-callers to his house ended up with head injuries one way or the other). Despite all this, he was in a relatively good mood, as his housekeeper Mrs Gumworthy had gone to her sister’s for the holidays. Mshindi, the under-gardener, was planning to roast one of the penguins Swahili-style, and the maid had volunteered to tackle some of the less aggressive vegetables in the kitchen-garden. There would be jokes and japes, and the dogs could have the beak.
As he kicked the snow off his boots, fond fancies of a meal he could actually keep down were interrupted by the plaintive cry of the telephone. After it had rung for four or five minutes, he picked up the receiver.
“We regret that Mr Linseed Grant is currently unable to come to the–” he began.
“I know you’re there, JLG” came a distressed female voice.
The old man shuddered as his agent commenced to list the many deadlines he had missed, and to point out that he was due in court again for libel.
“I can’t live on a percentage of what you make,” she said. “The children are down to eating the pizza boxes, and we haven’t paid the gas bill for six months. For pity’s sake, send me something saleable,” she ended, descending into the usual wracking sobs.
“It’s in the post,” he said, and put the receiver down.
Damned money-grubbing agents, he thought. And the rest. Everyone wanted something from him at this time of year. Next it would be some non-existent nephew calling round to invite him for Christmas dinner, and calling him ‘Uncle Linseed’ every other sentence to make sure the readers got it. He would cut the phone wire and go to bed, an approach which usually solved most of his problems.
Mshindi was out with two of the dogs, and would probably spend the night trying to round up a suitably fat penguin. And Henrietta the maid was down in the village drinking a yard of absinthe for charity, which left only him and Bottles the lurcher in the house.
He glanced in the parlour, where Bottles was dozing upside down on a pile of abandoned sonnets. The dog was having an extended break from his adventures with a local girl. The vet said that he was in danger of complete bladder collapse, and needed to be kept away from any excitement for a while.
Confident that he might have the bed to himself, the author climbed the stairs and stumbled into his bedroom. They had eaten most of the candles for lunch, so he navigated by the light of the small fire in the cast-iron hearth. At least he had enough rejection letters to keep that going for a few hours more.
“Ah, peace at last,” he said, quite unnecessarily.
He wrapped himself up in the quilts, though not without remembering to take out his teeth and reload the pistol. After a moment’s thought, he removed his teeth from the weapon and put bullets in the magazine instead.
“Damn the expense. It’s Christmas.”
STAVE THE SECOND
A Providential Spirit
He was on the edge of slumber when he heard a noise. A Phut. Then a clank. And another clank. He remembered tucking most of Father’s legs into the cot and locking the cellar door, so it couldn’t be him. He peered over the quilts.
There, already halfway through the far wall, was a terrifying apparition. If you were easily terrified. Or you thought that walls were there to stop that sort of thing. It was man-sized, and man-shaped. It was a man, in short. A somewhat pale, worried looking man in an outdated suit, with chains dragging behind him, great iron chains hung with antique typewriters. As the spirit materialised fully, it was clear that he had brought some of the wallpaper with him.
“Can I help you?” The old man sighed, lighting the last stub of candle from a damp book of matches stamped ‘Property of RMS Titanic’.
“I show myself on this mortal plane as a warning, J Linseed Grant. And to tell you that other spirits, more dreadful than I, will visit you this night.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if you just gave me the gist of it now, and let me get some sleep?”
The apparition frowned, hauling his chains closer and clearly trying not to fall over. “You don’t seem very bothered by all this.”
“Happens all the time round here. We had the ghost of Prince Albert last month.”
“Wasn’t he the one who had a thing in his… no, I am here with fell purpose. Ask me, J Linseed Grant, ask me who I was in life”
The old man sat up in bed and wished he had some cigarettes upstairs.
“From the suit and the jawline, I’d say you were H P Lovecraft. That colonial chap who used to send me drafts of horror stories about squamous things getting up to no good. Damned nuisance, it was.”
One of the typewriters clattered, producing the first few lines of an awkwardly-written tribute to Edgar Allen Poe.
“Lucky guess.” said Lovecraft’s Ghost. “I was indeed he, but now I am condemned–
“So is this house. Has been for years. Mother has half the tiles off the roof when she gets in one of her moods. I’m not sure how long that attic is going to hold her.”
“Now I am condemned,” repeated Lovecraft’s Ghost with determination, “To wander the Earth, and consider in woe as to why I didn’t become a plumber and make proper money. And why I held so many peculiar prejudices. I mean, I pointed out that I was only echoing the social mores of my age, but no-one seemed to buy that one, and…”
“Is there a point to this?” Linseed Grant yawned. “I’ve had a long day.”
The ghost took a deep breath, or its spiritual equivalent. “I didn’t ask for the assignment, you know. I was on call, and one of the Powers Above remembered that I knew you… it’s all a bit of nightmare.”
“Much what I was thinking. Never mix gin and laudanum with cheese. Still, you’re here now. I don’t suppose that you’ve brought some inspirational material – plots, characters and so on?”
“I don’t imagine you’ll find anything inspirational in this tale,” said Lovecraft’s Ghost, relieved that he wasn’t in it for very long. “By the way, I saw a suspicious looking man outside the house while I was materialising. Not a… how can I put this? Not a white fellow.
“That would be Mshindi, the under-gardener.”
“I see. Some debased native you tolerate, I suppose, for philanthropic purposes.”
“My only philanthropic purpose is the hope that Mshindi and I can make enough money to have the roof fixed and buy a case of decent port. He’s smarter than most people I’ve met round here, even if he is a rubbish gardener.”
“Smarter? And yet not Caucasian?” Lovecraft’s Ghost looked puzzled. “Ah, then the locals themselves are perhaps the product of some foul and degraded miscegenation…”
“Not especially. You might want to meet Father, though.”
“This is hardly a social occasion. J Linseed Grant, I am here to warn you that if you do not mend your ways, you too will be doomed to trudge the ethereal plane, burdened by your sins, much as I.”
Lovecraft’s Ghost shook his chains, and the typewriters rattled out some moderately good verse, followed by a short story about rats who got drunk on cheap cider and couldn’t find their way out of the walls.
“A terrible fate indeed,” said the author, noticing the many typos in the story. “And how might I avert such a fate, then? It’s not the old sudden conversion to Catholicism game, is it?”
“You’d be amazed by how many writers fall for that one,” said Lovecraft’s Ghost. “But no. I am here to tell you that this night, you will be visited by three spirits from the Great Beyond, in order to show you your errors.”
“I do use too many semi-colons, I suppose.”
The apparition raised itself high above the bed, which set the typewriters off again. Fragments of juvenile stories fell to the bedroom floor, mostly to do with forbidden practices and damp bedsheets.
“No, Linseed Grant. The errors of your life, the poor choices you have made – and your attitude, which stinks, by the way. Three spirits, remember…”
With that, Lovecraft’s Ghost turned majestically and made his ectoplasmic way through the far wall, only pausing to curse as one of the typewriters got caught in the skirting board.
No wonder you didn’t go to Heaven with that sort of language, thought Linseed Grant. He lay back on his pillow, wondering if he should take some bicarbonate of soda to settle his dinner, but then there came a scratching at the door. It was a suitably ominous sound for the way the evening seemed to be going.
He got out of bed and grabbed the poker from the fireplace. Maybe cold iron would settle this first spirit’s hash and let him get a decent night’s sleep. He pulled the door open, his improvised weapon raised high, to be greeted by Bottles. The lurcher promptly wet himself at the sight of a man waving a poker in the air.
“Oh, it’s you. I notice you weren’t around when astral annoyances were in the room.”
Bottles gave an aggrieved yelp, and threw himself onto the bed. Grumbling, Linseed Grant rescued a portion of the quilts and managed to make himself vaguely comfortable. As usual, the dog seemed to have an excess of limbs, one of which was always poking him in the back of the neck.
“Move over, you daft mutt. I have to get back to sleep. Or wake up and get out of this dream. Not sure which.” He let Morpheus draw him into slumber, assisted by the occasional soft fart from the dog…
STAVE THE THIRD
A Brief, if Spectral, Misunderstanding
“J Linseed Grant!”
The old man opened his eyes, a trick he had learned in the desert. There, at the foot of his bed, stood a tall figure in white, its hair a flickering mass of silver flame. It had a tin bucket in its hand – or in whatever that was at the end of one arm. Whether male or female, the supernatural visitor had a variable number of appendages, and seemed to be continuing the Lovecraftian theme somewhat longer than necessary.
As Linseed Grant blinked at this new apparition, the clock in the hallway chimed out eighteen minutes past eleven. An ill-omened time, he reflected, especially for itinerant clock-repairers who didn’t know what they were doing.
“Your head’s on fire,” he said. “Isn’t that uncomfortable?”
“I am no mortal being, but the Ghost of Christmas Past. Didn’t Lovecraft tell you I was coming?”
“Not specifically, but he always was one for vague intimations. Don’t let me spoil things. Why the tin bucket, by the way?”
“Health and safety. J Linseed Grant, you must come with me and behold your history. I shall help you to see what made you the sorry person you are.”
“I’m not that sorry,” said the author.
Ignoring him, the spirit reached out a tentacle and took his hand, raising him from the bed. Ever watchful for danger, Bottles drifted with some determination into a deeper sleep, where he dreamed about chasing asthmatic rabbits which had lost their inhalers.
It seemed to Linseed Grant that the spirit drew him into a past which he had long forgotten. The usual mists involved in this sort of thing parted, and before him lay a typical school scene. Outside the school, fresh-faced boys played rough and tumble on the rugby field, occasionally checking out the contents of each other’s shorts. In an otherwise empty classroom, however, a lone child studied feverishly, ignoring the calls of his classmates to come out and play.
“See how the others wait for their parents to pick them up, but you have already lost the joys of family and companionship.”
The author scratched his chin. “Very nice point, I’m sure, but that’s not me. It’s not even my school.”
“I went to Mrs McCreedy’s School for Wayward Girls. Some sort of typing mistake in the application, apparently. And it was cheap. I don’t know where this is, but it’s definitely not Mrs McCreedy’s.”
“Oh.” The spirit flickered uncertainly. “No matter.”
It coughed awkwardly and whisked him through a veil of ectoplasmic mist to another scene. After Linseed Grant had wiped the gunk from his face, he found that they were peering down upon a fine country house. Inside the main entrance hall, a sweet-looking girl held a young man by the hand. Laughing at his shyness, she led him into a room full of jovial, well-dressed people.
The Ghost of Christmas Past sounded more confident. “Watch, pitiful mortal, as your sister introduces you to the pleasures of polite society, yet you do not see the joy in others…”
“Only child, I’m afraid. And even then Mother was convinced that I was a large otter who had been hiding under her petticoats.”
The spirit reached inside its robes and pulled out a small notebook, flicking through the pages and muttering to itself. It used a number of its features to make an expression of mild annoyance.
“The world of the supernatural is a mysterious one,” it said quickly. “I shall show you instead how you spurned your first love for the urge to write, despite having affection from both her and your kindly employer Mr Fuzzypeg…”
“My first love? I had a quick fumble with Hetty Olthwaite behind the church organ. After that I worked as sump-drainer and sports correspondent at the Wolds Tractor Review, and never went out with another girl. They cost too much.”
“Oh bollocks. I think that they’ve given me the wrong booking. Look, it’s all about you understanding that the past makes the present, and so on.”
“An invaluable lesson,” said Linseed Grant. “If every visit is as short as this one, I should still get a good night’s sleep after all.”
Taking the tin bucket, he shoved it over the spirit’s head, whereupon the already bedraggled flames went out, and both spirit and bucket vanished.
STAVE THE FOURTH
The Third of the Spirits if You Count H P Lovecraft, Which You Probably Shouldn’t
As soon as the spectre was gone, Bottles opened one eye and gave a warning yip.
“Nice timing.” The old man started back to his warm, if over-occupied bed. Before he could get under the quilts, he heard the clock chime eighteen minutes past eleven for the second time that night, and there came the distinctive Phut of another spirit appearing. He turned around, to be confronted by the gigantic apparition of a bearded man in a green towelling bathrobe.
“Is this how you usually appear? It’s rather informal.”
“I was in the shower when I got called. Not many of us like working the Christmas shift.”
The spirit waved one robed arm, and around it appeared mounds of festive food – knock-off hampers marked ‘Fortmun & Mason’, frozen turkeys with one leg missing, and a large heap of chocolate flavoured wine-gums. As a dozen boxes of Turkish delight materialised at the foot of the bed, Linseed Grant couldn’t help noticing that they were past their sell-by date.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present.” the figure boomed. “Hence these magnificent gifts I bring. Ho ho ho!”
Awakened by the spirit’s unconvincing jolly laughter, Bottles lifted his slender head and slid slowly off the quilts. He eyed up the multi-packs of pork chops which lay at the spirit’s feet.
“Oh.” Linseed Grant sighed. “I suppose you mean to take me somewhere, and show me various morally relevant scenes?”
The Ghost of Christmas Present looked annoyed. Suddenly the corners of the bedroom were full of toothpaste and slimming products, each carton covered in Turkish writing and marked 50% off.
“Have I done you before?” it asked.
“Don’t think so. There’s usually a pattern to this sort of thing, though.”
“Hmpph. Well, take my hand…”
Without waiting, the spirit grabbed hold of the old man, and the bedroom shimmered out of existence. Linseed Grant found that instead he was hovering near the ceiling of a tawdry room in a run-down London suburb.
“That carpet’s pretty ghastly. Is that what I’ll end up with?”
“Shut up and watch.”
A harassed man in his forties was trying to disentangle a cat from a length of tinsel, watched by five children of irrelevant ages. Behind them loomed a Christmas tree of such proportions that it might generously have been called a pot plant. It was festooned with ornaments and tinsel for a tree ten times its size, thus usefully obscuring the almost needle-free branches.
“Don’t worry, children,” said the man, booting the disentangled cat into one corner of the room. “Mama will be home soon with Little Jim.”
The children shrugged and went back to picking each other’s scabs. True to their father’s forecast, not a moment later they heard the sound of the front door trying not to come off its hinges, and in walked J Linseed Grant’s agent, who was too poor even to afford her own name. On her shoulders sat a pale boy of five or six years with mucus running from his nose.
“What did the doctor say, dear?” asked Mr Agent.
“She was quite positive, really. Little Jim has only rickets, scurvy and beri-beri this time. And he was supposed to have the calamine lotion on his skin, not to drink it, so that explains some of the down-below problems.”
Linseed Grant stared at this sad vision, and felt a certain swell of emotion. Even on the ethereal plane, the room really stank of used cat litter.
His agent placed Little Jim on an upturned plastic bucket by the ‘tree’, whereupon the pale child settled down for inspired fit of coughing and wheezing.
Linseed Grant turned to the Ghost of Christmas Present.
“That cough. Tell me spirit – is Little Jim to die, perhaps of consumption?”
“No, he stole one of his mother’s hand-rolled cigarettes, and smoked it behind the goose-sheds. He will get acne quite badly, though. And possibly trench-foot.”
The two adults in the scene held hands, trying not to make eye contact.
“Is there no hope that old Linseed Grant might sell something soon, and raise us from this penury?” Mr Agent glanced sadly at Little Jim, whose mucus flow was becoming prodigious.
His wife shook her head. “No. His biography of Ebediah Crake, the Wolds’ least successful mass murderer, is barely started. The manuscript for ‘At the Mountains of Mild Confusion’ is still with the solicitor, pending a High Court case for plagiarism. And most of his poetry is being used for toilet paper at various publishers.”
“Home-made tofu for Christmas dinner again, then.” The man sighed.
Linseed Grant turned away. “Enough, spirit, enough. Take me from this tragic scene.”
“You are touched by their plight?”
“No, they’re just very annoying. And I suspect they’re socialists.”
“Then I shall show you where even now your nephew sits with family and friends, in joyous celebration of companionship and paying your staff a living wage–”
“We’ve done that one. I don’t have a nephew.”
“I could find you one.”
The spirit laughed heartily to disguise a venomous look. “Back to your wretched home it is, then, where I have one last thing to show you, troublesome mortal.”
In a moment they were at the house above St Botolphs again. Bottles was in the middle of the bedroom floor, surrounded by the discarded wrapping of four packs of pork chops. Looking surprised at their sudden reappearance, the dog coughed up half a tube of toothpaste.
Linseed Grant sat on the edge of the bed, and the spirit loomed above him, reaching to grasp the towelling at its loins…
“You’re not going to take that robe off, are you?” The author winced. “I tried that sort of thing during the war, and it made my knees hurt. We don’t have any margarine, either.”
“Foolish mortal, I must show you what comes when Charity and Love are lost. See now what clings to me…” The green towelling parted, revealing two thin forms, children with narrow faces and hungry eyes. “These tragic figures before you, they are Ignorance and Want, and they–
“No they’re not.”
“What do you mean?” The spirit’s face went dark with anger.
“That’s Emily Pethwick and Mary-Sue Perkins from the Girl Guides. I’d recognise those little horrors anywhere, even if you hadn’t wrapped them in old bedsheets.
The smaller girl, Emily, shoved most of one finger up her left nostril. “An’ this feller telled us we’d get ten shillins, an’ Ad’laide our boss says oh yeah, heard that one, an’ then–”
“We made a gosh-darned deal, faster than you could say Jiminy Cricket.” said Mary-Sue, who had been brought up to believe she was American. “And here we are, a-clinging to this fine feller’s breeches like hominy grits to a plate.”
The spirit winced at the girl’s appalling accent, but tried to rally. “You’ll have to imagine them as the personifications of Ignorance and Want. I told you I was rushed.”
The author nodded. “I would ask if they were yours, but no-one in their right mind would have these two.”
“An’ we is to say,” Emily beamed, “That we has your doom writted on our foreskins–”
“Foreheads,” snapped the spirit, shedding a consignment of gluten-free frozen chickens, most of which were in the process of defrosting.
Linseed Grant sighed. “Am I suppose to ask if they have no other refuge, except for bothering me?”
The Ghost of Christmas Present seemed to have had enough. “I doubt there are any prisons or workhouses which would take these two. I’m pretty sure that one of them has already been through my robe pockets.”
“An’ I founded a hedge-piggy!” said Emily brightly, holding up what was obviously a bath brush with the handle broken off.
The Ghost of Christmas Present kicked over a pile of ‘Buy One Get One Free’ chocolate oranges, each with a slice missing.
“That’s it! I give in. You have learned nothing from me, and so I will leave you to the most dreadful spirit of all – the one you will not be able to ignore. Beware, J Linseed Grant, for soon you will be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!”
And the spirit vanished, leaving behind only the smell of damp bathrobes, and a sense that there was always a hidden cost to buying counterfeit goods. Sensing that he wasn’t going to get any sleep until all this was over, Linseed Grant patted Bottles on the head.
“One of those nights, boy.”
His words were wasted, as the dog had passed out. Twelve large chops, and a substantial amount of toothpaste, had sent him into that Dreamland which the old man seemed destined to miss.
STAVE THE FIFTH
Four Hooves and an Attitude Problem
As the clock choked out yet another version of the dreaded eighteen minutes past eleven, the author was alarmed to see the room darken, as if a mighty thunderstorm had come within the house. Door and windows rattled in their frames, and from the darkness stepped a black horse the size of a main battle tank. Its mane was wild, and its eyes burning with a sulphurous crimson flame.
Linseed Grant drew back, wishing he’d kept the German pistol nearer. He found that his usual sarcasm had deserted him.
“What now approaches to haunt and punish me? Are you the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?”
The great beast snorted, and slammed one hoof down in a move which shattered a floorboard.
“Where will you take me, O spirit?” asked Linseed Grant, opting for a respectful tone this time. Christmas was not a good time to get your head kicked in. “What scenes of my no doubt appalling future are you to show me?”
The horse stretched its muscular neck and spat.
“Buggered if I know.” said Mr Bubbles. “Was in my barn, then here.”
The old man took a deep breath. “I think you’re supposed to show me what will become of me if I keep to my dubious ways. That’s what H P Lovecraft’s Ghost said, anyway.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“To… I don’t know, make me a better person?”
“Look, there’s no point in me having a chill visitation without reflecting on my own shortcomings and mortality. Or something along those lines.”
Mr Bubbles considered the matter.
“Suppose so. If it gets this over with. Grab my tail, then.”
Linseed Grant took hold of the thick black hair with a certain caution. He knew about the back end of horses, and he didn’t have a shovel to hand. As if in some badly written song, the two of them rose above the decrepit house, ignoring the structural impediments of walls or roofs.
“’I’m walking in the–‘” he began to sing.
“One more word of that, you get your nadgers bitten off.”
The old man went quiet. High above the rooftops they flew, avoiding the edge of Whateley Wood. Even at this distance they could hear the sound of birds croaking in the gnarled trees.
“As I said, I had that H P Lovecraft here earlier.” Linseed Grant felt he ought to make conversation. “I think he’s the reason why the woods are full of whip-poor-wills with bronchitis.”
But the horse was silent, pounding the night air as they approached the village hall. Descending, Linseed Grant noticed that rich yellow light shone from the windows and the open door. There seemed to be a crowd inside. Sounds of merriment floated out into the crisp air.
“Am I to look in on this gathering, spirit?”
Mr Bubbles did not reply, so Linseed Grant crept forward to peer through the doorway. The hall was decked out in the style of a typical village festivity in the Wolds – cold iron, trays of silver bullets, rowan branches and the demon-averting symbols of half a dozen religions. Hex marks were scrawled on the walls with creosote, and although he recognised many of the people there, they seemed older. Still, he didn’t get out much.
There by the pork pie stand was the round, bearded figure of Imam Syal, debating with Father O’Hanrahan, but both had less hair than he remembered. They were deep into their regular theological debate about who would win in a fight, a djinni or a leprechaun. Beyond them he saw Mr Quilling, the village pervert, in conversation with the chair of the Womens’ Institute.
“…But he wasn’t all bad,” Mr Quilling said. “He used to let me have Mrs Gumworthy’s used bras every so often–”
They were interrupted by a large, shaven-headed man in pink chiffon and kitten heels.
“He wasn’t the worst of masters, either.” said the man, a slight sob in his voice. “Bought me a new apron every Martinmas – and he once complimented me when I added a little lace to my outfit.”
Linseed Grant nodded his insubstantial head. Henrietta, his maid, had always understood that keeping such a complicated household was not an easy task. Besides, Henrietta was the only maid in the area capable of felling trees and splitting them for the log shed. You didn’t take an ex-coal-miner with an axe for granted, even if they did wear their maid’s outfit above the knee.
“But… Henrietta talks as if I’m no longer around.”
Mr Bubbles snorted. “Quick, aren’t you?”
“Have I gone on holiday, then? Or…” Linseed Grant paused, shocked by a sudden thought. “O spirit, do not say that I’ve moved to Wetwang!”
The horse snickered, but would not explain. Despite the passing words of sorrow from Henrietta, most of the people at the gathering were less complimentary. The author listened as the words skinflint, miser and pain in the arse were trotted out by various villagers, along with a number of personal recollections which were hardly flattering.
“All of those ducks were volunteers,” he protested, but no-one could hear him, and after he had passed through several of them, he remembered that this wasn’t your normal Christmas Eve.
“Right, next stop.”
“But wait, spirit – is there not more to learn here?”
Mr Bubbles turned his head. In each of the horse’s large, crimson eyes was a tiny reflection of an old man with a surprisingly fragile skull.
“Do you have a warm barn and a pile of turnips to get back to?” said the creature.
“No,” Linseed Grant admitted.
“Then button it.”
The horse drew him once more into the ether, rising above the village and heading for the old churchyard. That’s never good, though Linseed Grant. There were many things buried in the overgrown cemetery, and not all of them stayed where they should.
His own great-grandmother had been interred there last century. Four times, in fact. Even a year after her demise, she insisted on scrubbing the front door step and black-leading the stove once a week, a habit instilled in her as a good Yorkshire woman. Her last words as they weighted her down for the last time were ‘And them net curtains need washing…”
Alighting amidst leafless brambles and discarded bottles of the local Old Suzy gin, Linseed Grant found that he was before a newly-carved gravestone. It seemed time to have a bad feeling about this.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said. “Whose grave is this, O spirit?”
Mr Bubbles raised an ominous hoof, indicating that he should go nearer. The author trembled. A night-shirt made out of old tablecloths was not the best attire for a cold winter night. Avoiding the discarded bottles, he crept forward until he could trace the letters caved in the gravestone.
“’Agnes Cleggins. Not resting, but dead.’” he read out aloud. In smaller letters below it said ‘Good riddance, from all the family’. He straightened up. “Er, who is Agnes Cleggins?”
“No idea. Couldn’t be arsed to find yours. Same thing though, I expect.”
Linseed Grant shuddered. “Then I am dead in this time you show me. But – did I at least succeed in my quest for literary recognition? Did I ever complete my biography of Ebediah Crake?”
The great beast gave a sigh of annoyance. “Remaindered after three days. A woman in Malton bought one.”
The author allowed a moment of hope to enter his crabbed heart…
“Cheaper than cat litter,” added Mr Bubbles.
“Nooooooo!” Linseed Grant fell to his ethereal knees in the graveyard. “Is there still time for me to make amends, to avoid these terrible sales figures? Tell me it is so, kind spirit, tell me.”
He inserted the ‘kind spirit’ part with little confidence. In truth it was hard to work out if the horse was malevolent or merely bored.
“Don’t know. Don’t care.”
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come flicked his tail, and suddenly they were back in the bedroom of the old house. Before Linseed Grant could frame one last question, the monstrous black horse whinnied, kicked the door down for amusement, and was gone.
STAVE THE SIXTH
The Inevitable Consequences of Paranormal Meddling
Along with the return of corporeal presence came a feeling that he needed the bathroom and a stiff gin. And a carpenter. He looked around at the mess. Everything the Ghost of Christmas Present had manifested was still there, and he was surprised to see that Lovecraft’s Ghost was back, trying to open a dented can of peaches with a typewriter key.
“You had a further message for me?” asked Linseed Grant.
“Not really. I was just hungry.” The embarrassed spirit dropped the peaches and went Phut, leaving the author alone. Or almost alone. Bottles peeked out from under the bed, and after checking that everything of a supernatural or otherwise threatening nature had left, started barking loudly.
“Good dog,” said the old man. “What would I have done without you?”
He sat down on a box of Korean whisky-type liquor and put his head into his hands. Was it too late to learn the lessons that the spirits had taught? Or, indeed, to work out what those lessons were? It was all a bit confusing, really. He watched Bottles cock his leg on the night-stand, and came to a decision.
Going to the window, he threw it open, a process which caused most of the glass to fall out its frame. Down below, the butcher’s boy sat eating a meat pie.
“You there, fine young lad!” shouted Linseed Grant.
The child looked up, trying to hide the meat pie behind his back. “I think it was off, sir.”
“Tell me boy, what day is this?”
“Er… it’s the fifteenth of January, sir. Almost Chinese New Year, and only three days until the Feast of St Scrofula the Blessed Martyr. In the Hindoo calendar, it’s coming up to…”
“Ah. Not quite what I’d expected. Never mind. Is that fine goose still hanging in your master’s shop, the one as big as your bicycle?”
The boy looked surprised. “It is, sir. Bit ripe now, but…”
“Here is a shiny silver sixpence if you will pedal back to the shop and send it to the address I provide.” He scribbled the details of his agent on a flannel, and threw it down to the boy.
“Make it a shilling, and you’re on.”
Linseed Grant bit back his usual ill-tempered comment, and tossed the lad a shilling. He could only imagine the expression on his agent’s face when presented with a large, only slightly-decomposed goose. It was enough to feed her entire family for a week, with only a moderate chance of dysentery afterwards. And she must have some of those sonnets, as well. The paper was quite thick, and ideal for wrapping children in when the heating was off. Perhaps he should add some nicotine gum and acne cream for Little Jim.
“Come, Bottles.” He rushed downstairs, followed by the confused lurcher. Mshindi was in the kitchen, boiling a sausage in the tin kettle.
“Merry Christmas, my good and faithful fellow!”
Mshindi muttered something in Swahili and turned to cut the sausage in half.
“No, have it all. And here is a guinea. You must buy that chainsaw you so wanted, and let the rhododendrons beware.”
The young under-gardener’s face was reward enough for Linseed Grant’s crabbed old heart. Truly, the spirits had touched him (but not in that way), and he felt a new, charitable life lay ahead of him. Henrietta would have a new dress, not just a few lace trimmings, and he would send a bottle of Brasso to the Girl Guides as a peace offering. After that, perhaps he would work on the next chapter of his biography, the one where Ebediah Crake completely failed to slaughter seven people in a railway carriage outside Bugthorpe…
“Come, Bottles, get your lead. We shall go down into the village and distribute some of that dubious out-of-date food to the needy.”
He might even pretend that one of them was his nephew, and pump his hand warmly, as if he were a miserly old uncle who had suddenly come to his senses. He wasn’t sure what good that would do, but what the heck. It was only three weeks after Christmas.
The kitchen seemed full of post-seasonal levity.
“Mshindi, we shall have another penguin for dinner, and damn the expense. Where are the other dogs?”
The under-gardener smiled and nodded to a heap of lurchers dozing in the corner, tangled in the remains of Linwood Grant’s best overcoat. Bottles hesitated, sensing a good nap coming on, but bravely went for his lead instead. He had already urinated on almost everything inside the house, and even he seemed to be emboldened by the experiences of the calendrically-challenged night behind them…
Therefore, dear listener, it is with a sense of unusual merriment that we watch J Linseed Grant and his faithful Bottles venture out on a crisp morning, heading down to the village to spread good cheer.
“I shall show the people of St Botolph-in-the-Wolds that I can be as joyous as any man,” he proclaims.
The curmudgeonly old author is better than his word. For some days he visits people all around, knocking on their doors and distributing the knock-off toothpaste and bent salamis left by the Ghost of Christmas Present. To Little Jim, his agent’s son, he is like a second distant relative who rarely writes and forgets most birthdays. Even Mrs Gumworthy, who has returned from her sister’s, finds him a changed man. He attempts to eat at least half of her meals, and rarely spits out the larger bits of rat.
On the seventh day, having declared him to be the most jolly of men for the umpteenth time, the locals decide that they have had enough of enforced charity and frivolity. It strikes them that they prefer the miserable old recluse who keeps his nose out of their business. So they throw stones through his windows and shout rude words until he stops bothering them.
Sitting in his freezing parlour the next day, J Linseed Grant has to accept that he is a wiser man for the visit of the three ghosts and the slightly psychopathic horse. He is now absolutely sure that it is preferable to be bad-tempered and penny-pinching.
He strokes Bottles behind the ear, and the two of them watch peaceably as Mshindi sellotapes greaseproof paper over the broken window panes. From outside comes only the sound of a badger being violently sick in the rhododendrons. All is well again.
And so, as Mr Bubbles often observes, Sod them, Every One.
Have a good break if you can, and we shall return next week to round off the year with midly interesting or enjyable snippets…
Today, a dash of Fenland history, a gentle vicar and some ghost stories, as we follow in the footsteps of M R James – in a way. Join us, dear listener, for a ramble in East Anglia and some ghostly trivia in the company of E G Swain…
It’s easy enough to chart those authors who continued the M R James tradition in the early half of last century. Some became over-specific in their horrors; others grasped at James’ style but couldn’t quite achieve his ease. And a number broke one or more of his ‘rules’.
His friend and contemporary Edmund Gill Swain, often broke a cardinal rule and yet achieved stories which shine with that careful, detailed touch which makes James so readable. So today we stand on the edge of The Fens a while, and reflect on Swain’s Mr Batchel and his landscape.
M R James on Ghost Stories
There are no real rules, of course, but M R James set out a number of points as to what he himself considered to be the requisites of a ghost story. These can be found in the introduction to the collection Ghosts & Marvels (1924), and in the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911):
“Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage…”
“For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. ‘Thirty years ago,’ ‘Not long before the war’, are very proper openings. If a really remote date be chosen, there is more than one way of bringing the reader in contact with it. The finding of documents about it can be made plausible; or you may begin with your apparition and go back over the years to tell the cause of it… On the whole (though not a few instances might be quoted against me) I think that a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness for himself is preferable to anything antique…”
Ghosts and Marvels
“Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.”
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
E G Swain (1861-1938) adhered closely to the first two points above, but pretty much ignored that last one. Swain was Chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1892 to 1905. His chaplaincy came after he had been a curate for some years in South London.
He and M R James had an amiable relationship, and shared a number of interests beyond college and religion. It’s known that he regularly attended M R James’ ghost story readings at Christmas, and his only collection of ghost stories, The Stoneground Tales, is dedicated:
TO MONTAGUE RHODES JAMES, FOR TWENTY PLEASANT YEARS MR BATCHEL’S FRIEND, AND THE INDULGENT PARENT OF SUCH TASTES AS THESE PAGES INDICATE
We gave a brief mention to this volume over a year ago ( gods and garden rollers), but felt it was time to do more justice to an unjustly forgotten writer and his geographical influences. Like James, he drew on antiquarian knowledge and folk-lore to bring a strong feeling of history, the church and the land to his tales.
The Stoneground Ghost Tales took form quite directly from Swain’s period as the vicar of the real Stanground, near Peterborough, on the edge of The Fens. He was in that position at the church of St John the Baptist from 1905 to 1916, and his collection was published in 1912. M R James had already featured parts of East Anglia in a few of his stories. Swain confined himself entirely to the area outside Peterborough, and to that part nearest to his living.
Unlike James, there are no un-named or varied narrators in Swain’s stories – only Mr Batchel, vicar and amateur antiquarian. And the wry, delightful bachelor Mr Batchel at Stoneground is, indeed, a certain version of E G Swain at Stanground.
As one of those ‘small’ heroes who seeks justice in whatever way they can, he is admirable. He brings God to the Fenland in that peculiar old-fashioned way which makes allowances for both the supernatural and the foibles of humanity. He doesn’t employ the degree of rational deduction of G K Chesterton’s more famous Father Brown, but he does share a certain mild determination with that figure. And having introduced the protagonist, we should say a little more about the backdrop to the stories.
The Drained Land
The geography of the area is of direct relevance. Although Stanground is situated south of the River Nene, on relatively high ground, most of the Fenland lies within a few metres of sea level.
The area originally consisted of fresh- or salt-water wetlands. These were artificially drained and have to be protected continually from floods by drainage banks and pumps. Stanground itself was not immune to flooding, as happened in the August of the same year as Swain’s collection was published. Swain wrote, concerning these events:
“It may well be that Vermuyden and the Dutchmen who drained the fens did good, and that it was interred with their bones. It is quite certain that they did evil and that it lives after them. The rivers, which theses men robbed of their water, have at length silted up, and the drainage of one tract of country is proving to have been achieved by the undraining of another.
“Places like Stoneground, which lie on the banks of these defrauded rivers, are now become helpless victims of Dutch engineering. The water which has lost its natural outlet, invades their lands… and a summer flood not infrequently destroys the whole produce of (the) ground.
“Such a flood, during an early year in the twentieth century, had been unusually disastrous to Stoneground…”
The Eastern Window
In The Richpins, Swain gives a fine picture of the area at its best, with regard to an area called ‘Frenchman’s Meadow’:
“It was upon the edge of what is known locally as ‘high land’; and though its elevation was not great, one could stand in the meadow and look seawards over many miles of flat country, once a waste of brackish water, now a great chess-board of fertile fields bounded by straight dykes of glistening water.”
Only a few miles from Stanground (now a suburban neighbourhood of Peterborough) lies Wicken Fen, one of the only ‘wild’ fens in East Anglia, although it has long been under human management. The first recorded sedge harvest at Wicken was in 1414, and ever since then, sedge has been regularly cut for roofing. The area is also notable for the history of Spinney Abbey, more properly Spinney Priory.
Beatrice, the grand-daughter of the Steward of the Count of Brittany, founded the Priory of St Mary and the Holy Cross in the spinney by Wicken in the early 1300s. The priory was first endowed with three canons of the Augustinian order. In 1403 the Prior, William de Lode, was murdered by three of his own canons who stabbed him in the priory church. Only the priory cellar and few fragments of the original buildings remain.
It may be the murder of de Lode which started legends of monkish ghosts being seen in the area. Some would say that the area is a supernatural hotspot. The bank nearby called Spinney Bank, for example, is a location notorious for sightings of the mythical ‘Old Shuck’, the demonic black dog of East Anglia. For our Northern equivalents to the Shuck, see game of groans and clanking chains
The Church of St John
St John’s church itself in Stanground was constructed some time in the 1200s and is the oldest building in the parish. The Lampass Cross, a 12th-century scheduled monument, stands in the churchyard, and is thought to date from the 11th or 12th century. It was originally in the vicarage gardens, and would have been in the latter position during Swain’s time.
These gardens are a constant presence in the stories – Bone to His Bone, one of the best tale, concerns a genuine predecessor, Vicar William Whitehead, who donated his own close of ground to these gardens. The real-life church is key as well, and even its glasswork has a role.
“The focal point of the interior is the impressive stained glass window at the east end of the chancel. This features Christ in majesty at the top, holding globes with hand raised in blessing. To either side he is flanked by his disciples, eleven of them depicted, along with Mary Magdalene. Below, we have scenes from the life of Christ. From left to right the infant Jesus lying in a manger, Jesus baptised by John The Baptist, the crucifixion, the last supper and the ascension.”
Here is Mr Batchel’s typically deprecating take on this, which plays a crucial part in The Eastern Window:
“It is a large painted window, of a somewhat unfortunate period of execution. The drawing and colouring leave everything to be desired… The five large lights in the lower part are assigned to five scenes in the life of Our Lord, and the second of these, counting from the north, contains a bold erect figure of St John the Baptists, to whom the church is dedicated. It is this figure alone, of all those contained in the window, that is concerned in what we have to relate.”
The interconnection between fact and fiction is a constant in Swain’s ghost stories. He doesn’t go in for exploitation of the more macabre Fenland legends such as the Black Shuck, although he does include two tonsured figures in cassocks in his story The Place of Safety. He tends to choose rather smaller human stories, and eschews the viler apparitions of M R James. In The Richpins, for example, he draws on another genuine piece of history – Norman Cross.
Norman Cross was the site of the world’s first purpose-built prisoner-of-war camp or “depot” built during the Napoleonic Wars by the Navy. It was intended to provide humane confinement for prisoners of war, especially those who had limited means. The average prison population was about 5,500 men most of the men held in the prison were low-ranking soldiers and sailors, including midshipmen and junior officers, with a small number of privateers.
“Within five miles of Stoneground a large barracks had been erect for the custody of French prisoners during the war with Bonaparter. Many thousands were confined there during the years 1808-14. The prisoners were allowed to sell what articles they could make in the barracks; and many of them, upon their release, settled in the neighbourhood, where their descendants remain.”
Particularly pertinent to the tale is the fact that in Swain’s time, there were older folk still alive whose grandparents had witnessed the Napoleonic wars. The last British veteran of the Battle of Waterloo had died only 20 years before the publication of Stoneground Ghost Tales – Morris Shea (1795–1892), of the 73rd Foot Regiment.
The Richpins is a small reminder of that past, with a faint shiver included. As we said of Swain last year:
“His tales are not ones of loathsome horror, or doom to come. They include hauntings, but avoid being trite or overly romanticised. They… are of loss, longing and wistful souls, and all the better for it.”
Swain only ever wrote the nine tales. David G Rowlands did take up Mr Batchel’s cause and write another dozen or so stories of the vicar in the eighties and nineties. It’s a difficult task to capture quite the right tone of James and Swain, but some of them are certainly worth a read. Perhaps the best of these were included in Michael Cox’sBone to His Bone collection for Equation in 1989. This is sadly long out of print, but old copies can still be found at a good price.
Anyway, there you have the Stoneground Ghost Tales – an essential read for enthusiasts of M R James, and of the gentler or more curious sort of ghost story. If you can’t find a second-hand copy, you can read all Swain’s stories at Project Gutenberg:
Did H P Lovecraft receive his concept of cosmic horror via astral transmission from the late Helena Blavatsky? Were E Hoffman Price and Talbot Mundy the reincarnations of Atlantean mystics? And what has this to do with an English plumber or with Edward Douglas Fawcett, one of the founding fathers of the Devon County Chess Association?
It’s the Fawcett Saga Part Two, dear listener, with lots of H P Lovecraft, some other writers of the weird and the Book of Dzyan again. And we have a rather nice slice of fiction, courtesy of today’s guest, Bobby Derie. Theosophy is once again our cue, and, by an odd coincidence, we are reminded of a piece of local history. Did you know that the world’s first Science Fiction Convention was held in 1937, Yorkshire? In our own city of Leeds, in fact – at the Theosophical Hall (hence the passing thought). We’ll tell you more about that some other time.
Everybody loves books of forbidden knowledge and lost cities of the ancients. A week or so ago we began our latest saga, concerning the lives of two late Victorian/Edwardian brothers, Edward and Percy Fawcett. One of our many interests in the pair was Edward’s serious involvement in theosophy, which led us to the Book of Dzyan, mentioned in a couple of H P Lovecraft’s stories. We rattled on about this in Part One, so we won’t repeat ourselves ( the fawcett saga 1 ). What we didn’t provide is a definition of the linking school of beliefs, so we’ll amend that now:
“Theosophy is a collection of mystical and occultist philosophies concerning, or seeking direct knowledge of, the presumed mysteries of life and nature, particularly of the nature of divinity and the origin and purpose of the universe. Theosophy is considered part of Western esotericism, which believes that hidden knowledge or wisdom from the ancient past offers a path to enlightenment and salvation.”
Not long after writing Part One, we were talking about the whole caboodle to scholar and historian of weird literature, Bobby Derie.
The knowledgeable Mr Derie has often assisted greydogtales with quotes and curiosities related to some of those classic old-time writers – H P Lovecraft himself, Henry S Whitehead, Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. Most usefully, this time he kindly supplied some quotes on HPL’s familiarity with theosophical tomes. We’ll explain…
The world of Edwardian Arcane is littered with theosophists, and there’s no doubt that their works influenced weird fiction. Strong among theosophy themes were the concepts of ancient civilisations and phases of human development which you didn’t find in the history books, and these were rich material for writers throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
We should briefly mention the largely forgotten British adventure story writer Talbot Mundy (1879-1940), a fairly prolific writer who was once quite well-regarded – and certainly sold well. He was, yes, an active theosophist, a convert from Christian Science.
He deserves a nod not only because his Tros of Samothrace (1925) is a fond memory from our teens, but also because Robert E Howard, E Hoffman Price and Fritz Leiber all acknowledged that he had an influence on their writing. Amongst his many works are a couple of books, concerning The Most Reverend Lobsang Pun, known to all as ‘Old Ugly Face,’ a mystical monk of venerable age, who lives in Tibet, a magical land of forbidden places and secret mountain fastnesses. The Thunder Dragon’s Gate and Old Ugly Face are the books in question.
One of the repeated themes in theosophical writing is that much of their knowledge was supposedly dictated over the astral plane by various Hindu and Tibetan mystics. Which reminds us of another teenage influence, the works of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, wherein we learned of life in a Tibetan monastery and the secrets of the Third Eye. Excepting the fact that T Lobsang Rampa was actually an English plumber called Cyril Henry Hoskin. Cyril claimed that his body was inhabited by the spirit of the Tibetan lama, and that was how he received detailed information on growing up in a lamasery. Unlike Talbot Mundy, who had travelled extensively and been to the Orient, Hoskin never bothered to leave England for his own ‘Lobsang’ material.
When it comes to H P Lovecraft, whilst we doubt the direct link to any particular theosophical author, he certainly had access at various points to copies of their wilder tales. So what we will do is to give you a flavour of some of the connections, including quotes supplied by Mr Derie from relevant letters (quotes in order of date of letter). This is, of necessity, a skim over the material, our own main interest being the Edwardian Arcane side of the British connection, but it’s nice to see the inter-linkages.
One of the certainties is that HPL read William Scott-Elliot. An active theosophist, Scott-Eliot wrote two very pertinent books entitled The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904), which were combined into a single volume in 1925.
I’ve also been digesting something of vast interest as background or source material—which has belatedly introduced me to a cycle of myth with which I have reason to believe you are particularly familiar—i.e., the Atlantis-Lemuria tales, as developed by modern occultists & the sophical charlatans. Really, some of these hints about the lost “City of the Golden Gates” & the shapeless monsters of archaic Lemuria are ineffably pregnant with fantastic suggestion; & I only wish I could get hold of more of the stuff. What I have read is The Story of Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria, by W. Scott-Elliot.
HPL to CAS, 17 Jun 1926
Scott-Elliot expanded on ideas from Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888), which, you’ll remember, was prepared for publication with the assistance of the older Fawcett brother, Henry Fawcett. Scott-Eliot drew on information which had come to a fellow-theosophist, Charles Webster Leadbeater, via astral transmission.
A Lord of Venus
Leadbeater (1854-1934) returned from India in 1889 to live in England, and eventually lived at the London headquarters, and Scott-Elliot was an active member of the London Lodge. There seems little doubt that these two and Fawcett encountered each other.
Charles Leadbeater and later adherents of Theosophy such as Alice A. Bailey believed that a Lord of Venus, Sanat Kumara, descended from the etheric plane of the planet Venus to Earth 18,500,000 years ago. To many theosophists Venus, The ‘Planet of Love’, is the most spiritually advanced planet in the solar system. The beings living on the etheric plane of Venus are said to be hundreds of millions of years ahead of us in their spiritual evolution.
(We’re not here to knock anyone’s beliefs, only to explore weird literature. You can easily read more about Sanat Kumara from the point of followers online.)
And speaking of astral transmission or clairvoyance:
It is good to know that you liked this last story. As to that problem of transmission—well, it seems to me that the author has to be omniscient or nothing: though one might get the story out of the “astral records” (preserved somewhere in the ether, and accessible to adepts) which are mentioned in the literature of esoteric Buddhism! The tradition of Hyperborea, Mu and Atlantis were supposedly preserved in these records! […] I have never seen The Riddle of the Pacific, nor the book by Scott-Elliot either, and must find out if they are locally procurable.
CAS to HPL, 16 Nov 1930
Reference to the Book of Dzyan crops up later in the correspondence:
What you say of your new tale, and of the Pushkara-Plaksha-Kusha-Shâlmali-Mt. Wern-Senzar-Dzyan-Shamballah myth-cycle which you have dug up, interests me to fever heat; and I am tempted to overwhelm you with questions as to the source, provenance, general bearings, and bibliography of all this unknown legendry. Where did you find it? How can one get hold of it? What nation or region developed it? Why isn’t it mentioned in ordinary works on comparative folklore? What—if any—special cult (like the theosophist, who have concocted a picturesque tradition of Atlanteo-Lemurian elder world stuff, well summarised in a book by W. Scott-Elliott) cherishes it?
For gawd’s sake, yes—send along those notes, and I’m sure that Klarkash-Ton, High-Priest of Tsathoggua, would (unless he knows about the cycle in question, appreciate them as keenly as I. Incidentally—Klarkash-Ton tells me that his Semitic oracle de Casseres never heard of Zemargad. Tough luck! But the hint so strongly appeals to HIgh-Priest Klarkash that he is going to use the name Zemargad—in conjunction with more synthetic nomenclature—in his new and hellish conception, The Infernal Star. Meanwhile, as I said before, I’m quite on edge about that Dzyan-Shamballah stuff. The cosmic scope of it—Lords of Venus, and all that—sounds so especially and emphatically in my line!
HPL to E. Hoffmann Price, 15 Feb 1933
Please return the epistle, since I want to save those references to the Dzyan-Shamballah myth-cycle which Price has just uncovered. As you’ll see, this stuff looks decidedly interesting!
HPL to August Derleth, 16 Feb 1933
The Book of Dzyan was supposedly the source of sections of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. We noted last time the mention of Dzyan in The Diary of Alonzo Typer, by Lovecraft and William Lumley, and here again there is a nice reference in the letters:
Lumley is naturally in touch with all sorts of freak cults from Rosicrucians to Theosophists.
HPL to REH, 8 Jun 1932
The Soup of the Ancients
The author E Hoffman Price (1898-1988) was certainly fascinated by Eastern mysticism, though he became a Buddhist rather than a theosophist.
Price has lately come upon some genuine folklore closely resembling my pre-terrestrial Yog-Sothoth stuff—he promises particulars later.
HPL to Donald Wandrei, 17 Feb 1933
In the context of our trail, note that these latter quotes are from 1933, which is nearly seven years after H P Lovecraft wrote Call of Cthulhu, and five years after The Dunwich Horror. Lovecraft was already well along the road of his Yog-Sothery. It appears that HPL’s ideas fermented as part of a soup made from many different sources. We can see no direct ‘steal’ from theosophy, despite superficial connections. Theosophy has so many mystic strands that it would be hard not to bump against them at some point.
Price has dug up another cycle of actual folklore involving an allegedly primordial thing called The Book of Dzyan, which is supposed to contain all sorts of secrets of the Elder World before the sinking of Kusha (Atlantis) and Shâlmali (Lemuria). It is kept at the Holy City of Shamballah, and is regarded as the oldest book in the world—its language being Senzar (ancestor of Sanscrit), which was brought to earth 18,000,000 years ago by the Lords of Venus. I don’t know where E. Hoffmann got hold of this stuff, but it sounds damn good…
HPL to CAS, 18 Feb 1933
By the way—it turns out that Price’s mystical legendry was, after all, only the stuff promulgated by the theosophists—Besant, Leadbeater, &c. I thought it sounded like that. Do you know anything of the origin of that stuff? It pretends to be real folklore—at least in part (of India, I suppose)—but I have a certain sneaking suspicion that the theosophists themselves have interpolated a lot of dope. There are things which suggest a knowledge of certain 19th century conceptions.
HPL to August Derleth, c. 27 Feb 1933
A few days after, Clark Ashton Smith wrote to express his interest:
The Book of Dzyan is new to me—I haven’t read any great amount of theosophical literature. I’d be vastly interested in any dope you or Price can pass on to me. Theosophy, as far as I can gather, is a version of esoteric Yoga prepared for western consumption, so I dare say its legendry must have some sort of basis in ancient Oriental records. One can disregard the theosophy, and make good use of the stuff about elder continents, etc. I got my own ideas about Hyperborea, Poseidonis, etc., from such sources, and then turned my imagination loose.
CAS to HPL, 1 Mar 1933
That Besant, Leadbeater stuff originates undoubtedly from Indian folklore, though as you suspect, the English have unquestionably interpolated much material.
HPL to August Derleth, 6 Mar 1933
Leadbeater you know. Annie Besant (1847-1933) took over the Theosophical Society after Blavatsky’s death in 1891.
And here are the same theosophical folk again:
Another cycle of impressive-sounding folklore or pseudo-folklore is that sponsored by the modern theosophists. Some of this is undoubtedly genuine Hindoo myth, but I suspect that the cult of theosophists has mixed with it a great deal of synthetic fakery of 19th century origin. The best books of this sort of thing to read are the following:
Besant, Annie—The Pedigree of Man
Blavatsky, Helena—The Secret Doctrine
Leadbeater—The Inner Life
Scott-Elliot, W.—Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria
Sinnett, A. P.—Esoteric Buddhism
More of this stuff can be found in the catalogues of the Occult Society, 604 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. Those theosophical mystifications involved vast gulfs of time & cycles of change—pre-human aeons & life coming from other planets—not found in other folklore.
HPL to Natalie H. Wooley, 18 Jul 1933
There’s more of interest, but we’re out of space. We’ll end this part with a note which shows Lovecraft had not actually read The Secret Doctrine as late as 1936. He may never in fact have finished reading it.
Thanks, by the way, for the loan of the Blavatsky opus—which I shall read with the most intense interest. I’ve never read any of the classics of theosophy, though I’ve always been meaning to. I wonder if anybody has ever tried to isolate the real Oriental folklore in them from the 19th century fakery & interpolations? I may have fumbled the allusion to the Book of Dzyan, since all I know about it is something in a letter of Price’s which spoke of the early parts as having been brought from an older solar system than ours. Of course the text ridiculed in the Necronomicon is the merest imitation!
HPL to Henry Kuttner, 30 Nov 1936
Less than two months later, Arthur C Clarke and others gathered formally at the Theosophical Hall in Leeds for the first Science Fiction convention. Three and half months later, H P Lovecraft was dead.
We’ll return to the Fawcetts and many other tangled threads in Part Three of the Fawcett Saga, but to close we go to Bobby Derie. You may know him as the author of a rather fascinating book, Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, which we mentioned a while ago ( cthulhu may not live here any more ), or as a regular commentator on Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and the others.
What you may not know is that he also writes rather neat short fiction, which he mostly keeps to himself. In the process of going theosophical, we came across a recent piece of his fiction which we thought deserved a more public airing. And here it is:
by Bobby Derie
There had not always been a babelech, though none now lived that remembered the nights before it. It was the local bogey, complete with its own cave where the children were admonished never to play, though a few every generation dared each other on as the days started to shorten, and of winter nights mothers would threaten their kinder that they would be left out in the cold, where the babelech would come on its long thin legs and gobble them up.
Every child knew the babelech, and told the stories over and over, just as on dark Christmases by the fire the old men would smile and tell of “The Feast of the Babelech” – the great blizzard when the legend had full reign through the streets of the town, scratching at windows and doors, frightening cattle and horses, and parents would awaken at night to find only broken windows and empty, frost-coated cribs with a few gnawed bones, or stiff little fingers still clutching a rattle… a story told with much relish and in such gorey detail, in infinite variations as each teller tried to top the previous one, while the fire burned on into the night and the wind howled and shook the trees.
Children grow. Lovers unite; spouses are unfaithful; children are born in joy and sorrow, and taken by illness or accident or murder, leaving only the bereft and bloody-handed behind. The factory closes; the bills go unpaid; houses are reclaimed, lie vacant, their lots unkempt, windows boarded up, roofs sagging, rusting monsters on the lawn, some slowly being reclaimed by thorny vines and weeds. Feral things roam the night, root through trash, disappear down storm drains and into shadows. Hunger and want begin to creep in; illness and injury and arrest more common, the very punctuation of life. The very features of the people become marked by thinness, scars, unhealthy colors made all the more stark by poor decisions, garish attempts at escape, to reclaim some of the vital energy and joy of life once again.
Yet there was always the babelech – and there were stories that they did not tell the children.
Dierk’s boots crunched through the snow toward the babelech’s cave. It was, really, simply a kind of hollow created by glacial remnants – massive stones left behind by the retreating ice, so that one like a great shelf rested on top of two rounded, lichen-covered boulders; the whole thing half-buried in the hill, to form a kind of hollow. He rested as it came into sight, a darker shadow against the night. Pain lanced up from his midsection; it had been hurting all day – for days – and the junk had run out a long time ago.
Using the trees for support, he made his way up the steep path to the gap between the boulders – a path beaten hard by the feet of many adventurous little climbers, like Dierk himself, years ago. He paused at that entrance, breathing harder than he should have, sweating a little despite the chill, which set him chattering. Beyond the entrance, he knew, the floor dropped down a few feet. There was nothing in the hollow itself but earth and stone – no creature ever made its burrow there, as far as Dierk knew.
When they were kids, they had talked about how it would be full of bones…or maybe the scratchings of cave people, explorers, something. He remembered how he’d wanderd around almost blindly in the dark, a space not ten feet from one side to the other, and never saw so much as a candy wrapper or used condom, no names or declarations of love scratched or sprayed on the walls. A quite, unsullied place.
Dierk felt bad for a moment – not panic, exactly, but regret for…littering. He imagined the next child coming this way in the summer, finding the nasty clothes on the floor, and knowing someone had been there. He shook his head, then easing himself away from the entrance, he made his way to a broken stump, a natural witch’s cauldron, and began to disrobe. Frost bit into the pale flesh, the veins running through it like cheese, bringing up fancies of hidden colonies of blue fungus eating away at him from the inside, dissolving him with acid. With numb hands he covered the clothing with snow, then looked up at the clear sky. They would find them come March, probably, but not in the cave.
He lowered himself down into the hollow carefully. It was almost pleasant, out of the wind, though the cold earth seemed to suck the heat from his bones. Dierk’s hands and feet were already numb, though he didn’t think the frostbite had set in properly yet. It had been too long since he had been out in the snow…too long in hospitals with their wan artificial suns and cheerless antiseptic smiles; in alleys where dead-eyed drop-outs set the price on his “medicine”; in the empty house with its blaring television muted to a low roar…
In the cave, Dierk waited for the babelech to gobble him up.
There had not always been a babelech, though everyone in town knew it was there. Waiting for them. It was always hungry, the mothers whispered as they drew the covers tight, but it was patient. It waited for them, for all of them, and it would get them someday. That was the end of every story, of course. No one escaped the babelech.
You can obtain a copy of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos by Bobby Derie below. Despite the ‘adventurous cover’, it’s a nicely researched book and a great reference volume for H P Lovecraft enthusiasts.