The approach to Christmas is also traditionally the time for ghost stories. The most famous of British writers of ghost stories, M R James, often gathered together friends or students at this time of year to read one of his latest offerings to them. You can picture them in in an ancient university city, in an old academic’s study, lined with bookshelves and lit by candles or gaslight. A small group of like minded men in comfortable chairs gathered round the storyteller. Perhaps the only light is the one illuminating the reader’s manuscript.
It’s always gatherings of men in these things isn’t it? So wipe some of them from your mind and insert some academic women in their place, perhaps in evening dress after some college function. The reader is an equal opportunity teller of scary tales. You can insert a clergyman if you like, and a nun,or even a woman dressed as a nun as in a Gothic novel, or a couple of actual modern goths with black dresses and white faces, shifted back in time to this seasonal setting.
I’m not going to tell you a supernatural story (I do that at Halloween). We’re unfortunately not sitting in a dark cosy room. (Or perhaps you are. If so, draw the curtains.) I’m going to entertain you with some illustrations, to a book called the Haunted House. The book is a long poem by Thomas Hood written in 1843, the year of his untimely death, which is unfortunately appropriate. Although it was strongly admired by that other poet of the unearthly, Edgar Allen Poe, the poem is curious rather than scary. It’s the illustrations, created long after Hood’s death, that do the trick.
Unhinged the iron gates half open hung,
Jarr’d by the gusty gales of many winters,
That from its crumbled pedestal had flung
One marbled globe in splinters.
The pictures are by Herbert Railton from an illustrated edition of 1896 (introduction by our old friend Austin Dobson, the master of prefaces of course.) We’ve met Mr Railton once before . I told you then that there was something mysterious, wild and unsettling in his work, even when he was apparently simply depicting ordinary buildings. In the Haunted House he lets himself go, and this time he does want to scare you.
O’er all there hung a shadow and a fear,
A sense of mystery the spirit daunted,
And said as plain as whisper in the ear,
The place is haunted
The haunted house, a “colossal wreck” (to quote another poet) is often desolate, ruined, abandoned. The final member of an ancient family died here, the last of the line perhaps, who lingers on, unable to rest. Or was it a gifted young man, (or woman remember) who discovered dark philosophies and delved into hidden and perverse arts and ended up raising something which could not be put down?
The lone heron is the demoralized soul or familiar of the dead sorcerer standing guard over the scene of its downfall. The waters of the moat both protect outsiders from the influence of the place and keep the forces within imprisoned. Well, you could say that if you were a travel writer wandering the country looking for interesting stories and local colour (like the author of Moated Houses, W. Outram Tristram who was mentioned in the first Railton post).
Or “you” could be one of those invented sources used by writers of supernatural stories to lend a sense of authority to their creations. They write about the horrors at second or third hand, safe in their warm studies. But someone always ends up ignoring all the warnings and entering the haunted place. There’s often a handy path (secretly intended for this purpose) free from the undergrowth.
Inside there’s a courtyard or what remains of an ornamental garden with a handy sundial. It will probably have some cryptic and oblique words carved on it in an obscure language. If you happen to read that language, don’t read the words aloud. So many do, and come to regret it.
The statue, fallen from its marble base
Amidst the refuse leaves, and herbage rotten
Lay like the idol of some bygone race
Its name and rites forgotten
When you get inside the house there should be no shortage of detritus from another age. It looks like the former inhabitants left in a hurry. If they left at all?
Some kind of trail will lead you, through small pools of water dripping in through a leaky ceiling, or scraps of clothing or holes in the floor, up the dark staircase to the final location. Mr Railton has a gift for making you not quite sure what you’re seeing.
At last, the haunted bedroom. Think of the Thing in the Corner (or the Whistling Room) in William Hope Hodgsons’s collection about the supernatural investigator of Cheyne Walk, Carnacki the Ghost Finder. Nothing is more terrifying than an unwanted presence in a bed chamber as several unwary sleepers in M R James stories discovered to their cost. (“Casting the runes” springs to mind, with the narrator finding a hairy mouth under his pillow.) A bed is usually a sanctuary from the world not a source of terror.
The unquiet sleeper might prefer not to hang around and wait for what is coming but to throw on a gown or coat and retrace their steps out of the house.
Even if they have to walk out into the moonlit courtyards and navigate gloomy passages to escape. Better to be off the premises altogether and out into the forgiving night. Will there be any pursuit?
Maybe it’s not that kind of story.
Sometimes the spirits too slip away, bound for their final destinations, or the beginning of their adventures. Farewell to them, and back to that academic’s study, where the storyteller closes his book and the guests gather up their coats or cloaks so they too can venture out into the night back to their own places of refuge. The storyteller wishes them well. Happy Christmas, he says to Mr Railton and Mr Hood, to Mr Reid, Mrs Hernandez and Miss Smith, and all the others.
More whimsical stuff. Next week I’m doing some short daily posts like last year. I’ve done four out of the five so we’ll have to see if I can come up with another one pretty soon. After the holidays we’ll have to get back to some proper history.
A vaguely related anecdote: do you recall the photographs of Simon Marsden, who published several books of pictures of disturbing houses taken using his own special techniques? He was a master at showing haunted houses (or houses that looked like they should be haunted) in desolate spots. One example was Plas Pren, in Denbighshire, now practically a ruin and nothing like it was when Mr Marsden took his picture, and coincidentally when someone took me there with a group of friends, parking just off the road and walking across a classic desolate moor to the empty house around which rumours of hauntings had grown. We actually ventured inside, although as I recall we were more concerned with the state of the floor than any possible ghosts. But of course we were there on a sunny afternoon, not after dark. And nobody recited any incantations. (We were on our way back from Portmerion, a place which had cast a different kind of spell over us.)
There had better be another dedication, to Mr Hughes and Mr McLennan and Mr Paxton.
I have one old friend who lives in a city of dark and splendour who is a regular reader so best wishes to Graham once again.