All posts by greydogtales

John Linwood Grant writes occult detective and dark fantasy stories, in between running his beloved lurchers and baking far too many kinds of bread. Apart from that, he enjoys growing unusual fruit and reading rejection slips. He is six foot tall, ageing at an alarming rate, and has his own beard.

The Finwife, the Longdog and the Raj

Folk-horror and lore are much on our minds at the moment. For starters, we’ve been back in finwife territory, to the long coast of our youth. Imaginations were stirred by a bright stone in the sand, a skeletal fish in the wrack from the tides. Whilst the longdogs ploughed across the empty shore, we murmured of the drowned and the deep places.

finwife hunt
chilli keeps her eyes open for mythical beings

Django found a weed-encrusted World War 2 fortification, set in a turquoise pool. He was sniffing madly, trying to get to it, convinced that there were German spies lurking within; we suspected a dead crab. Maybe all of us were wrong.

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Maybe behind barnacles and strings of chipped mussels, there crouched a finwife, far from Eynhallow. Unsure of the two large hunting beasts that circled her hiding place, she was waiting, waiting until a man came who might free her from her hag-shaped future.

Summer075
the search begins

Not wishing to doom her, we moved on. The longdogs charged across the long sands, and drank in Auburn Beck, one of the last markers for the sunken village of Auburn, now under the waves. The North Sea is constant; the land is not…

Here’s a snippet for you:

Finwife Blues

Two walkers found a dead gull that afternoon. It was pinned to the side of a twisted hawthorn near the cliffs, its breast torn open and the small ribs spread wide. They had no idea what it meant, and so they left quickly to eat their packed lunches somewhere else. They preferred their countryside like their sandwiches, in small, tasteful bites.

One of the Miss Hetheringtons was sat outside the village shop when the vicar came for supplies. She smiled at him and rolled her way inside.

“More pilchards, reverend?”

“I’m afraid so, Miss Hetherington. And do you have any cod-liver oil left?”

The shop had many things. Small and dusty, its shelves were sparsely set with out-of-date cans and packets of stale biscuits, brands which had died out decades before. Like the pub, it offered one face to passers-by and another to the locals. The vicar had rarely found the Miss Hetheringtons out of stock of anything, if you knew how to ask.

He filled his shopping bag and after a pointless pleasantry or two made his way back up to the church. He was slow today, dragging the shopping home. His sleep had been broken, an odd night of dreams which he couldn’t recall. He felt like he’d already walked five miles before he started.

St Michael’s stood to the south of the village on the rolling hump called Leatherman Hill. He never asked about that. Kelda was waiting for him in the church porch, wearing a soft blue wool dress from one of the donations boxes. Her white-blonde hair was combed, long and silky, and she smiled at him. The sight of her sharp little teeth seemed normal by now.

“Pe-ter.”

She took the shopping from him as if it was an empty bag. He had been surprised at how strong she was. Though not as surprised when he had learned her true age. Jenny Mainprize had been careful when she whispered to the finwife and told her what to say. Kelda had been born, or spawned, he didn’t like to ask, in the wild sea currents near the Orkneys, one hundred and nineteen years ago.

“We can have our lunch.”

He ignored the way the wool stretched over her breasts. Maybe he had been lonely, but he was a man of God and had a duty here. He struggled with two fantasies at night. One was that of Kelda coming to comfort him in his over-sized, creaking bed, the other was of converting a finwife to the ways of the Anglican. Neither seemed likely.

They spent the afternoon exploring the churchyard, reading dates and memorials. Kelda seemed interested, and he found the gravestones a sign of normality. The village had funerals and burials like any other parish, though he had never conducted one. Some of the stones were caved with unlikely ages, but he could live with that.

“Crop-ton.” said Kelda, tracing a name. “Cun-ning Folk. Like old man.”

“Yes, Harry.”

She pressed nearer to him, a warmth in her thin body which came from the afternoon sun.

“He send me back?”

He put his arm around her. “No, I don’t think so. He’s a… good man.”

After dinner she lay on the sofa in the vicarage while he tried to draft a sermon. It was getting close to the autumn solstice, a time when he could pretend to be a proper vicar.

He finished his notes a little before midnight. Kelda was asleep, her bare feet twitching. The soft webbing between her toes was almost attractive.

One swift whisky and he lay down, fully clothed, on his bed. He was searching for sense in the Gospel according to John when he drifted off.

The sea was a lonely place. Townsend dreamed of vast abysses under the waves, of a watery emptiness where he swam, lost, on currents which carried him away from everything he cared about.

And then there was warmth in his dream, like the night before. He imagined hands stroking his body, comforting him. He moaned as slender limbs entwined him, and two large eyes shone with pleasure…

Later, when the moon was dim, a particular chalk boulder near the edge of the village was moved. No-one noticed.

You can find more about the North Sea coast lore and finfolk at the link here  whale-road, widow-maker .


The Raj Revisited

Meanwhile, we’re busy with numerous other projects. Not only is Issue Two of Occult Detective Quarterly almost ready to go to the printers, but our concept anthology Their Coats All Red is being assembled as we scribble. The editors, old greydog and Matt Willis, now have a fantastic collection of tales, and are selecting the very best of those for 18thWall Productions.

tcarweird

Their Coats All Red: Dark Tales of Empire will contain strange stories which capture the feel of the high Victorian era. Stories such as those of soldiers marching under a parched South African noon to fight the Boer, soldiers who learn that Africa has its own purposes.

Young London ladies shipped with their husbands to quarters in Calcutta with little company save their Indian servants. Traders and planters in Malaya, fighting the monsoon shadows, and the forlorn garrisons in the Sudan. The sailors of the West Africa squadron, seizing slave ships off the Gold Coast.

The English woman who finds the beliefs of the local people to be far darker than anything in her book of ghost stories. The Zulu who trades his iklwa for a Martini rifle. The Egyptian who finds her officer lover will not acknowledge her in the street…

This will be an anthology with a difference, dwelling muchly on the horror and folklore of those peoples under the Empire. We’re rather pleased. And though there is no finwife, there are likely to be some different watery dooms awaiting you within.


We shall speak again soon, dear listener…

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An Appropriate Conscience: Writing Black Characters

I think about things. I’m an older white author from Yorkshire. But the stories which come to me aren’t often set in Yorkshire, though it does happen. They begin as stories of strangers in strange places. Those strangers start to become fleshed-out characters – and then, occasionally, they turn out to be black characters.

I tend to write through vision. Nothing mystical – I mean that I ‘see’ a story inside my head – usually a character, sometimes a snapshot scene, or a place where something is going to happen. And that shows me who is the natural narrator or protagonist. If I go against that, by levering in a different main character, the story usually goes horribly wrong and has to be scrapped.

Last year, I was in a bad mood with certain pieces of early 20th Century weird and historical fiction I’d been reading. A few good, or even great plots, but the most appalling caricatures of non-white people. Specific stories of Edgar Wallace and H P Lovecraft spring to mind, though there are many tales by those two which I admire.

In response I wrote a story, wisely or not, about a group of black African villagers facing a sort of Lovecraftian horror in the 1920s. Why wouldn’t they react as any human beings, using their smarts, their best resources, their local knowledge and such equipment as they had to meet such a threat? What made an intelligent African villager less able to face mind-numbing horror than anyone else? Nothing, it seemed to me.

There’s no such thing as a generic African villager, obviously. So I drew on an area I’d read more about than others, the colonial Igbo territories in Eastern Nigeria. I tried to reflect reality as best I could within what was essentially a weird horror story – a fantasy, mixing real and invented geography. I’m sure I got some of it wrong, but that one was an attempt to ‘balance the scales’.

writing black characters: zora neale hurston
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: zora neale hurston

I’ve written other black characters, mostly set in the 1920s and 1930s with specific backgrounds (hence the photos used here). I didn’t do it because they were ‘exotic’. I wasn’t trying to shoe-horn black characters into stories to gain credit or look cool. As I say, I’m an ageing Yorkshireman – too late for that.

The ideas came to me, in the same way that a Victorian mill tragedy with supernatural overtones (and an entirely white cast) might come to me the next day. Some I squash as too far beyond my knowledge, too inappropriate. Others I try. And I’ve really pondered about it.

I am not entirely dim. I think there are genuine issues when you do this sort of thing. I’ve also heard the counter-argument that all writing is made-up stuff, and you should just write whatever you want, with whoever you want in it. People can challenge me about my views – I’m an open, interested participant, not an immovable object.

In so many stories the default position is to use white characters, even white middle-class characters. It’s the safe option, and an unchallenging, non-inclusive one that gives little thought to a wider world. I find it boring after a while, unless there’s an obvious reason due to setting (and there can be). Is it true that  white middle class writers should only delve into their own kind?

A black woman in a roadhouse in 1927 is as human and complex as a white guy in a townhouse in 2017. If I’m any sort of writer, I should be able to learn and empathise with both. They should both be potential protagonists or antagonists.

langston hughes
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: langston hughes

So I don’t believe that it’s inherently wrong to write about characters and cultures outside of your direct experience. It isn’t inherently wrong for white people to write black characters (or Han Chinese, or Inuit ones). But it is more demanding, and it should be. Its purpose has to be exploratory, not exploitative, because there certainly is such a thing as cultural mangling.

I see cultural mangling as grabbing trinkets from other cultures and putting them on white characters – or equally bad, on cardboard black characters – because it looks good, without any thought. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that the more marginalised, oppressed or disenfranchised the culture/group, the more it’s better for the words to come from its own members, in one way or another.

It is wrong to do this sort of thing without holding yourself responsible for what you produce. Whenever you write about someone you don’t know, someone who has experiences different from our own, you risk creating a stereotype. You risk taking a facile look at a person, a culture or a situation which you don’t fully understand. If you really mess it up, then it becomes either offensive or ludicrous. On the other hand, to not try at all…

black writers and thinkers between the wars: alan leroy locke
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: alain leroy locke (wikipedia, fair use)

It goes much further than skin colour, of course. Black African isn’t the same as Black American, Black Caribbean or Black British, though they may share root concerns and histories. A female IT manager in Britain may not have had the same experiences as a male teacher in Detroit, or a cop in Lagos.

I once made the mistake of chatting about religion to the amiable (black) father of one of my kid’s friends. Turned out he was a conservative, rampant Islamophobe, amongst other things. Skin colour/racial identity was the least of the barriers between us. The refugee Iraqi greengrocer up the road didn’t know the viewpoint of a Shia militiaman in Basra, or a Kurdish woman in Northern Iraq. And my local Indian off-license guy said he didn’t understand people from Pakistan, had no empathy with them.

There was plenty to learn from them, but each was a human being, not a ‘representative’ for others in different circumstances.

Even limited knowledge can’t protect you from misunderstanding and misrepresentation. But if you write outside your own life, you can employ empathy, imagination – and research – to try and bridge some of the gap. When I write black characters, I try to consider historical or cultural aspects which might have impacted on them, as well as the human strengths and weaknesses we might share. Things which I’ve never directly encountered, and which shouldn’t be just made up. I’d do the same if I suddenly ‘saw’ an Inuit story in my head.

countee cullen
black writers and thinkers in the 20s & 30s: countee cullen

It’s a matter of respect. Respect for the culture, group, or person you’re writing about, and for the reader. Which leads to another aspect of my argument. It’s incredibly important that black creators produce black characters. I’m not just talking politically here – I have two personal reasons for saying it.

Firstly, I have a family with younger members in it. Were they black, I would want them to grow up seeing black people amongst their role models. I would want them to read books and watch films which had exciting or moving black characters with whom they could identify.

Ideally, I would want them to have role models of all colours and genders/identities, but I would want them to have this chance, especially when young. Which means there has to be good, easily available SF, fantasy and weird fiction, with black writers’ faces on the back cover – and black characters on the front cover. And hey, those kids might want to write themselves one day.

Secondly, I write (mostly) in the field of strange fiction. I want to read unusual stories, different stories, and the best way to do that is to be able to see tales from many, many different creators. There will be takes on the weird which need a black writer to explore properly, bringing a different perspective and history than mine. And as suggested above, there will be stories I’ve thought up that might only work if written by a black writer. As a writer and as a reader I want that diversity.

I take this aspect of my own work seriously, and so I want to be better informed. The very process of including black characters has taken me to places I’ve never been. It’s exposed me to aspects of black history and experiences which I might not have encountered otherwise. It’s a growth thing.

My opinion isn’t that valuable. It’s here because I have the space to express it, and because it does have a bearing on my fiction. You can learn more than I can ever capture through actually reading or buying weird and speculative fiction by black authors. Through finding out about the reality of black history. And by giving support to people who are helping further things like black SF, fantasy and steamfunk in an exciting way.

I believe that we can move beyond our own lives and potentially write characters of many different creeds, colours and cultures – if we’re willing to learn. Even to learn when we probably shouldn’t do it. And admit that sometimes we’ll get it wrong. We can try, with good heart and with effort, to write out the characters who come to us.


END-NOTE: I’ve read a lot of articles related to the above – on cultural celebration, cultural appropriation and the kitchen sink. It’s possible to have your head explode trying to navigate it all. ‘Writing the Other’ by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward is useful to get your mind working if you’re a writer.

Balogun Ojetade’s blog is always a great source of news on black creators, https://chroniclesofharriet.com, and Milton Davis, also in the States, does a lot of energetic creatorism.  We try to regularly feature cool work by non-white creators here. Because it’s fun, not because we preach…


P.S. greydogtales is on holiday until the weekend, so we look forward to seeing you in a few days.

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Some Signposts for the Curious

Hey! Want to know what’s going down in the world of weird, speculative and period fiction? Then you probably need to find a proper website. But if you want our usual collection of oddities, here’s all the news that we can remember while trying to stop the dog eating the computer mouse. As we call yourselves a signpost site, check the signs and see if any of them intrigue…


Book Enjoyed by Local Man

Gwendolyn Kiste’s new collection And Her Smile will Untether the Universe is out now. We’ve read it, and were impressed. It’s an almost mythical ride through the Weird, blending and deconstructing different themes to create some powerful tales and lasting images.

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Many of those images reflect aspects of female needs and identity. Gwendolyn, already noted for her strange and eerie short stories, writes so fluidly, without polemic, that you can choose to seek out deeper meanings – or simply be drawn into the tales for pure enjoyment.

“A murdered movie star reaches out to an unlikely fan. An orchard is bewitched with poison apples and would-be princesses. A pair of outcasts fail a questionnaire that measures who in their neighborhood will vanish next. Two sisters keep a grotesque secret hidden in a Victorian bathtub. A dearly departed best friend carries a grudge from beyond the grave.”

Very worth a look. We’re going to try and have Gwendolyn on here soon to talk about it. Follow the links below to find it:

untether on amazon uk

untether on amazon us


Alien Shoots Detective: Barbarian Questioned

Broadswords and Blasters is a new quarterly magazine edited by Matthew X. Gomez and Cameron Mount. The first issue has just come out, and it lives up to its title, with speculative stories which range from grimdark-y fantasy to pure science fiction – with a pulp touch.

cover-1-twitter

“ ‘A pulp magazine with modern sensibilities.’ What does that even mean? It means we want characters who act, who go on adventures, who push boundaries. We want new takes on old ideas… adventurers who discard the old stigmas on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity.

“We want readers from diverse backgrounds to be able to pick up an issue and see themselves in these characters. It means we wanted writers to look at the old tropes of pulp fiction and update them for a modern audience. We wanted writers to actively look at the problems inherent to the old pulp stories and subvert, invert, and otherwise turn them on their head.”

We haven’t finished reading it yet, so won’t say much more, but here’s the run-down of what you’ll find inside:

Table of Contents

  • Skin Deep by Nicholas Ozment
  • Dead Men Tell Tales by Dave D’Alessio
  • The Executioner’s Daughter by R.A. Goli
  • Pension Plan by Dusty Wallace
  • Saturday Night Science by Michael M. Jones
  • Island of Skulls by Matt Spencer
  • The Waters So Dark by Josh Reynolds
  • Thicker than Water by Rob Francis

Broadwords and Blasters #1 is available in eformat from Amazon at: http://a.co/30xMbPG


Man Bites Wolf

Whilst reading for Occult Detective Quarterly last year we encountered an interesting period tale by a certain Rafe McGregor. As it happened, that tale, ‘The Wolf Month’ became part of a themed collection that he was putting together at the same time, and so we wanted to see what came of the venture. The result was The Adventures of Roderick Langham, recently released.

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As Rafe is both an academic, a prolific short story writer, and received praise for his late-Victorian novel The Architect of Murder, it’s no surprise that the collection has a strong evocation of period. This is another one on our to-read pile, but looks promising, and we’ll try to report back.

“Roderick Langham is a retired soldier, disgraced police inspector, and reluctant occult detective. He inhabits the world of Sherlock Holmes, investigates cases with John Watson and Sebastian Moran, and is able to perceive the reality concealed by the illusion of everyday appearances. These nine stories follow Langham from his first encounter with the inexplicable in the Himalayan hills to his investigation of the wreck of the Demeter and his growing realisation that the dales, moors, and wolds which surround his Yorkshire refuge are home to an evil far older than the honeycomb of medieval monasteries and Roman ruins suggests.”

You can check out The Adventures of Roderick Langham at http://amzn.eu/31Fq2hi


The Tarot on the Road

Matias Zanetti‘s new project is on-line and readable either in Spanish or English. Camino Royal, or the Royal Road, is a comic linked loosely to the Tarot and readings.

Camino Real, próximamente - Slider Cast

The first issue offers a speculative, dystopian tale, set in a world where an infection has spread throughout humanity, and the survivors struggle to stop themselves degenerating. There’s something wrong with the water – or is there?

We said a little more about it here http://greydogtales.com/blog/le-fanu-fire-royal-road-ash/.

Issue 2, from Holograma Comics, is available to download now:

http://hologramacomics.com.ar/en/comics/camino-real-2-eden/


Back soon with writing and project news to delight and astound everyone, except the lurcher fans, probably. They’ll have to hang in there, because Django needs to go out and pee on the last of the daffodils…

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Linseed Grant at Home – An Exclusive

From the Journal of J Linseed Grant, 11th April: “Apparently people want to know exactly who lives at my house. Why, I cannot imagine. I spend much of my time trying to forget or avoid them all. Still, if it distracts the solicitors, I suppose it might be worth it…” (Fragment recovered from two passing ducks, possibly Methodist but with a hint of Non-Conformism)

Today, dear listener, we at greydogtales are busy preparing a new round of features and interviews. We have many weird and supernatural fiction articles, interviews, exciting projects and lurchery things to come, so we shall have a brief diversion.

We are in St Botolph-in-the-Wolds once more, with that old curmudgeon J Linseed Grant. And here is your exclusive cut-out-and-keep guide to the main inhabitants of Rhododendron House.

linseed grant house
artist’s impression of rhododendron house in its heyday (most parts now missing)

The House

Rhododendron House has lost large chunks of its East and West wings over the years, plus some of the centre. No one is sure how that happened. At least one storey disappeared entirely in the 1890s. This lowered the building by 16 feet, which surprised the Duchess of Filingdales, who was in that part at the time.

The house is also reputedly built over a Gateway to Hell, as might be expected, but that feature has long been covered by plywood and some hasty plastering.

A recent description runs thus:

“…It is large and gambrel-roofed, but only in parts where the roofbeams have collapsed. 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.”

Owned for many centuries by the Linseed Grant clan, it currently belongs to reclusive author J Linseed Grant, assuming he is still alive. As there have been no sightings of his cousins, Mortimer and Gerald Linseed Grant, since they abandoned their scandalous stage act, and vowed to climb Lake Tanganyika, he may indeed be the last true master of the house. See ‘Two Against the Waters: When Mountaineering Charts Go Wrong’ Albino Penguin Books (1954).

As the author himself has been well-documented through fragments of his journal, and his bombastic letters to other writers over the decades, let us focus on the rest of the household.

The Principle Players

Pride of place must go to MSHINDI CHEBOI, the under-gardener (there are no other gardeners, but see Note A below). A proud Swahili, but oddly enough the son of a Scarborough cobbler, Mshindi speaks his mother-tongue with a broad East Yorkshire accent, and knows absolutely nothing about gardening.

He is addicted to The Times’ crossword puzzle, has a healthy overseas investment portfolio, and yet acts as Linseed Grant’s main confidante and support in times of crisis.

His ancestors inhabit parts of the local woodland, and assist him in his constant struggle with the vengeful wraith of the Rhododendron-Woman. “Mwenye nguvu mpishe”, as he often says, which means either ‘Brain is better than brawn’, ‘Might is right’, or ‘Help, the bushes have my legs’. His accent makes it hard to tell.

MRS GUMWORTHY is their vindictive housekeeper and live-in cook. Spends much of her time devising toxic delicacies to incapacitate her employer, putting ground glass in the salt cellars and so forth. She is an indifferent housekeeper, and an atrocious cook, even when in a good mood.

She is known to have a sister in exile in Lancashire (for crimes against humanity), and a mother in Malton. Following the collapse of her project to market free-range Norwegian rats’ milk, she is currently between Grand Schemes.

Most of the actual housekeeping is done quietly and efficiently by HENRIETTA, the maid. Henrietta is a heavily-built former coal-miner, who used to fight dockers in Newcastle for sixpence a time. Won over by lace collars and the swish of taffeta, he insists on dressing in a full Edwardian maid’s outfit. He keeps his miner’s boots handy for heavy housework.

The Dogs

The house is occupied by up to three dogs, depending on circumstances.  BOTTLES, a rather nervous lurcher, is frequently on loan to a local schoolboy. This leads to many jolly japes and exciting adventures, most of which he would rather avoid.

bottles1a

The permanent canine residents are two longdogs. THE BLACK DOG is an inveterate gambler and carpenter. She has a particular talent for constructing trebuchets and other wooden war-machines (despite her lack of opposable thumbs). She is lean, dominant, and often at odds with Mrs Gumworthy, with whom she shares a muzzle.

THE DOG BORN OF KANGAROO is an entirely different looking longdog. He is sometimes scurrilously described as what might result ‘when a daddy-dog and a mummy-kangaroo love each other very much’. Spends most of his time upside-down. He frequently runs away with Linseed Grant and Mshindi to hide in the potting shed when things get difficult. Amiable to the point of incompetence, his ideal night is a can of pilchards with the boys and a bottom-rub. His, not theirs.

The Sundry Horrors

FATHER is of uncertain age, but certainly Victorian and probably a Linseed Grant of the old line. With a snappish nature and the wrong number of legs, he is usually to be found dozing in his crib, either in the cellar or by the kitchen fire. He is somewhat corrosive, and inclined to lash out when disturbed. Fortunately he sleeps for some twenty three and half hours of the day.

What is assumed to be MOTHER occupies the attics, her crinoline-clad mass crashing against the roof-beams and dislodging the slates. Mrs Gumworthy tends to her, utilising a selection of iron chains, armoured aprons and long poles with hooks on them. No one looks too closely at who or what they are feeding, as long as they come away intact.

butcher1

THE BUTCHER’S BOY, from Murchison and Daughter in the village, is perhaps the most frequent other visitor. He is a precocious child, given to quoting Greek philosophers whilst hiding links of Cumberland sausage under his apron. The Butcher’s Boy sleeps in the potting shed at certain times, especially when the local Girl Guides pack is loose.

We should add that a BADGER occasionally calls, either to gamble with the Black Dog or to be sick in the umbrella stand. The badger’s name is not known.

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Gardening In Adversity

NOTE A: The rumoured succession of gardening staff at the house goes as follows:

  • 1783-1847 – Harry ‘Margaret’ Coddle, a Peninsular War deserter. Once sold Wellington a diseased geranium, and wore women’s clothing for fifty years in case they found him.
  • 1847-1848 – Gaston of Acquitaine, who had found himself in the wrong story.
  • 1849-1873 – Several Hindoo Brahmins, exiled from their homeland for being too ‘touchable’.
  • 1873-1914 – ‘Mad Jack’ Hepperthwaite, a village agitator and virulent opponent of vegetarianism. Remembered for shooting a row of carrots after they came up too easily. Died from injecting beef.
  • 1914-1918 – M’sieur Alfonse Sellotape, a Belgian refugee who made a number of bad patent decisions.

Records vary after this, until the arrival of the present incumbent, Mshindi, a self-taught rhododendron wrangler.


Next time – weird and strange fiction news, probably, and maybe literary matters, horror, fantasy and the like…

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