Wednesday 31 October 2012

The Ghost Story

Twenty people gathered in the library of Cavill House. They sat on hard wooden chairs arranged near the fireplace, checking their watches and muttering amongst themselves. A tall wing-backed chair sat in front of the hearth, the small table beside it holding a candlestick and a glass of port. Books sat in the usually empty shelves, draped with fake cobwebs and interspersed with plastic skulls. Jackie and Sandra stood beside the main door, whispering in urgent tones.

"He's late! I'll have to phone Christine." 

"What's she going to do about it? You know what she's like, Jackie. She'll just tell us to sort it." Sandra pried the door open a crack and peered into the entrance hall. She hoped to see their actor striding in through the front door. All she saw was a flurry of snowflakes swirl past the window.

"How? Sandra, it's her event, she should bloody be here. What's she expecting us to do, read the stories ourselves?"

A door near the back of the room opened and the attendants sighed in relief. Jackie leaned forward and dimmed the lights, leaving only the warm glow of the fire, and the pale illumination of the candles. The murmurs of the audience quietened down, and they watched a tall man walk towards the fireplace. Dark brown curls surrounded his face, and blue eyes shone above a neat goatee. Dressed in the Cavalier garb of the seventeenth century, his boots knocked hollow on the wooden floor. He sat in the chair and peeled off his brown leather gloves. Moments passed, and he opened his mouth. 

"Halloa! Below there!"

The audience gasped at the sudden intrusion of a rich baritone voice into silence. The actor cast his eyes across the gathered people and leaned forwards.

"When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line."

The audience watched, spell bound, as the actor told Dickens' story of The Signal Man. Even the attendants came closer, ignoring their posts at the main door to kneel on the floor beside the audience. Gasps and even Sandra's mild shriek punctuated the calculated pauses of the recital. The actor reached the closing words of the story, and left them hanging in the air. The audience leaned forward, seeking more. The actor fixed the gathering with a meaningful stare which each member felt was intended for them, and them alone.

"Samhain Greetings…and good evening."

The actor faded into thin air, leaving only the ghost of his words in the quiet room. The audience leapt to their feet to begin a five minute standing ovation. Even Jackie and Sandra joined the applause.

The enthusiastic clapping died away. Jackie clambered to her feet and turned on the harsh overhead lights. Sandra skirted the wooden chairs and opened the little side door through which the actor had entered. She led the way toward the small cafe, stocked with interval refreshments for the audience. Twenty people formed a queue, paying for coffee or hot chocolate. 

Two minutes later, a man with wild hair and snow-encrusted trousers hurried into the cafe. He grabbed Jackie's shoulder. Her eyes grew wide when she turned to see his harried appearance.

"Simon! What happened to you?"

"I got stuck out on the back road with a flat tyre. Took me ages to get it changed. I tried phoning to say I'd be late but there's no bloody signal out here."

"That's okay, your replacement came on. The audience loved him! Where did you find him?" 


"The other actor. He came on a little late but he did The Signal Man. Got a standing ovation. You'll have your work cut out for you topping that one!"

Simon stared at her.

"But I didn't send a replacement…"

Somewhere in the house, Fowlis Westerby chuckled.

* * *

Happy Halloween from Fowlis and I! If that's gotten you in the mood for a good ghost story, then you can do no better than No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal Man itself, one of Dickens' finest. You can read it online here...

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Fowlis takes a leap

As most of you know, I wrote my Fowlis Westerby novel in 2008 as part of NaNoWriMo. Since then it has undergone various revisions and while I've been putting various Fowlis stories on this blog, I haven't done much with it. And you know what? I feel bad about it. Fowlis is probably my "oldest" character (in terms of time I've had him, not age) and I'm not giving him the attention he deserves.

I think I've been trying to take a step back from all things paranormal which is, quite frankly, daft since my PhD thesis concerns the representation of haunted space in the modern horror film. Besides, I still love a good ghost story.

So I've vowed to have a workable version of the book by the end of the year! He's also made his Twitter debut, and you can follow him here. I'm also hoping to have a few more stories to share with you. All speed ahead!

Thursday 29 December 2011

Friday Flash - A Different New Year's Eve

The clink of glasses and low hubbub of voices filled the drawing room. Roddy darted to and fro, proferring the bottle of champagne to the assembled guests. He turned to laugh at the tail end of a joke and saw Gloria by the sideboard, her mouth turned down in a frown. She held an empty glass and glowered at their friends. Roddy sidled across the room towards her.

"Why are they all here?" she asked.

"It's New Year's Eve! After that splendid party at the Glennister's for Christmas, I simply had to have New Year's here," replied Roddy. He smiled and nodded to two passing blondes. He couldn't remember their names but he knew they'd arrived with Doug. Roddy made a mental note to press for an introduction later.

"Why? Father wouldn't be at all impressed."

"Well Father isn't here, is he? Besides, I thought it'd be nice to show the place off a bit."

"It's tasteless, and it's insensitive. All that loss of life, and we're swanning around drinking flat champagne!" Gloria glared at him.

"Oh do try not to be so dull, Gloria! The war has been over for over a year now. 1948 shall be simply marvellous!"

Roddy turned away from his sister and disappeared into the throng of guests. One of the blondes was waxing lyrical about the marble fireplace and he felt compelled to give her a tour of the whole house.

He and the blonde reached the door when he felt a hand on his arm. He turned to see Madeline gripping his sleeve, a gaggle of her fan club clustered behind her.

"Roddy, darling, I've told all of the girls about your lovely house, and they want to know if we'll be able to see the ghost?" Her dazzling smile almost blinded him, and the simpering giggles of the fan club made his skin crawl.

“Oh but of course! She’s our star attraction. Look, Gloria here will tell you more about it!” Roddy tried to snag his sister’s arm as she stalked past.

“But it’s almost midnight.” Madeline held out her pale hand, gesturing to the diamond-studded watch hanging from her wrist. The fan club cooed their appreciation, and even the anonymous blonde at Roddy’s side gasped at the sight of such expense.

“Ah yes, Roddy, I do recall hearing your father talking about a ghost or some such nonsense. Care to enlighten us?” Doug appeared behind the fan club, his champagne glass in one hand, and the second blonde in the other.

“The house has a ghost?” The exclamation rippled through the guests as an approving murmur, and all eyes turned towards Roddy. He groaned, and threw open the door.

“Yes, it does, but to truly appreciate the story, we need to gather in the hall. Come along, this shan’t take long.” Roddy ushered the blonde into the entrance hall. Gloria slid past and directed guests to gather by the front door, better placed to gaze up at the magnificent staircase.

“Is everyone here? Can everyone see the stairs?” Roddy stood in the centre of the grand hall. The guests nodded.

“The story is simple, yet tragic. This house was built in 1812, and saw many a happy family reside within its walls. Yet in 1860, the house was home to the Redwing family. The patriarch had a beautiful daughter, named Elspeth. Unfortunately the patriarch also had a fondness for gambling, and he ran up extensive debts. One New Year’s Eve, some of those he owed decided to break in while the family were out at a party, and take what they pleased to cover the debts. Elspeth had stayed behind with a headache, and she heard them break in. She ran to the staircase, determined to rouse the servants, but tripped over her own nightgown and fell headlong down the stairs.”

“That’s awful!” Madeline’s eyes traced the legendary fall down the staircase.

“She broke her neck and died instantly, or so they say. It is said that every New Year’s Eve, on the stroke of midnight, she can be seen descending the stairs, and anyone to whom she speaks will be dead within the year.”

The prophecy prompted an outbreak of speculation among the guests, and feet shifted on the marble floor. Roddy laughed and shook his head. He tried to catch Gloria’s eye, expecting to see a reflection of his own merriment. Instead, she stood transfixed, staring at something on the first floor balcony. Was that whispering he could hear upstairs?

The guests quietened with the first strike of the clock. Roddy turned to face the staircase. The dark figure appeared on the second strike of the clock. It descended another stair with every chime, its head bowed beneath a heavy mantle, its face in shadow.

The figure stopped at the bottom of the stairs as the clock struck midnight. The guests stared, but Roddy glanced upward, convinced he’d seen a flash of white disappear around a corner. The house ghost wore a white nightgown, not a black cloak.

He looked back up at the figure. It threw back the hood and tossed the cloak backward in one fluid movement. A translucent Cavalier stood in the entrance hall, plumed hat held aloft in a gloved hand, the other hand extended in greeting. A collective gasp drew a breath of cold air into the hall.

“Happy New Year, one and all! May your 1948 be full of surprises!”

The Cavalier vanished from sight before the echo of his booming voice finished reverberating inside the hall. Five minutes passed before any of the guests could raise a glass to the New Year.

* * *

Fowlis Westerby giggled in an upstairs bedroom with Elspeth Redwing.

“That’s the best New Year I’ve had in over eighty years!” Elspeth held her aching sides. Fowlis doffed his hat, and bowed.

“My pleasure, Elspeth. Hopefully I will see you soon, but for now, Happy New Year!”

Happy New Year from myself and Fowlis Westerby!

Monday 31 October 2011

Happy Halloween!

Dearest Readers,

My esteemed colleague, Icy Sedgwick, has most graciously allowed me to use her blog on this most auspicious of occasions to wish you all a most pleasant Halloween. In her own words, "Who better to write about it than a ghost?"

As you can imagine, Halloween is a somewhat busy time of year for me and my kind, and HQ gets rather hectic as we ready ourselves for the Big Day. It is with some gratitude that I say we have the privilege to be never understaffed. Unlike Father Christmas, who endeavours to reach all children on a single night by himself, we have plenty of Haunters to go around!

Naturally, we have seen many changes in the festival as the years have rolled by. Why, back in my day, we did not even celebrate Halloween, being as it was the pagan festival of Samhain. (I shall ignore the fact that the Puritan movement wished us to not celebrate anything, let alone Halloween.) What does a Celtic celebration have to do with the demands of small children for sweets?

That particular tradition began in days gone by, when it was believed that a soul's transition to the afterlife was eased by the number of prayers offered by the living. I have never been able to square this belief with the widespread fear of, and belief in, the supernatural, but I do not make the rules, I simply observe them. But I digress. The wealthy, believing themselves to be too busy to offer endless prayers of supplication to the Almighty, needed someone to do it on their behalf. The poor, never ones to miss a trick, stepped in to offer these prayers for the deceased loved ones, in exchange for small biscuits known as soul cakes. I am unsure as to whether or not any poor ones denied their soul cakes chose to toilet paper the houses of the wealthy, but we may leave this matter to speculation.

Thus it was that the festival, and the celebration thereof, has continued to evolve, and nowadays, you are more likely to be visited by children dressed as their favourite pop culture characters, on the trail of E-numbers and sugar, but I want you all to remember that while you may not be able to see them, you may find your home playing host to visitors of a more spectral nature. Ancestors, enemies, even old neighbours may come knocking this evening, and their "tricks" are likely to be of a more supernatural nature than flaming bags of dog business or fake vomit pushed through your letterbox.

So remember, good people. You never know who might pay a visit tonight, so make sure the house is tidy and you have sweets to hand. Even ghosts like the occasional square of chocolate.

Kindest regards,
Fowlis Westerby

Monday 26 September 2011

Monday Morning Ghost 3 - The Grey Lady of Ightham Mote

Image by Richard Croft

Ightham Mote is a picturesque country manor house near Sevenoaks in Kent, but as with many of these old houses, looks can be deceiving.

Ightham Mote was built in 1340, and was home to the Selby family from the late 16th Century to the middle of the 19th Century. Over the years, it has had many owners, ranging from medieval knights to Tudor courtiers and high-society Victorians. Ightham Mote was given to the National Trust in 1985, and it is now open to the public. It is a Grade I listed building, and considering the way each new owner has added something new, it is believed to be a startling visual history of architectural developments throughout 700 years of British history.

So the story goes, in the 1870s, the owners grew tired of an unearthly chill in the tower bedroom. Normal heat couldn't overcome it, and eventually workmen were hired to investigate. During their work, they uncovered a small space behind the wall panels - the space was occupied by the skeleton of a woman seated in a chair.

Who was the woman? She is believed by many to be Dame Dorothy Selby. A diehard Catholic, she'd learned of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. She sent an anonymous letter to her cousin, Lord Monteagle, and told him not to attend Parliament on 5th November. Unfortunately the letter was intercepted, the Plot was thwarted, and the conspirators caught. Dame Dorothy's intervention was discovered, and friends of the Plot walled her up in a secret room and left her to die. If the story is true, then she remained behind the wall for over 260 years. However, many experts believe this tale to be utter hokum, based on a misinterpretation of her memorial at the local church. After all, records state she died in March 1641 - some 35 years after Guy Fawkes was executed.

So if it isn't Dame Selby, who is it? Another tale dates back to 1552, starring the then occupant, Sir Thomas Browne. Allegedly, he murdered a serving girl and hid the body inside the walls, although if you believe another story, Sir Thomas' priest was involved in a sordid affair with the servant. After the prist committed suicide, Sir Thomas bricked up the servant.

No matter who the poor woman was found within the walls, the chill continues to haunt the tower to this day. The Grey Lady is unlikely to be the only unlucky ghost wandering the halls of Ightham Mote. The crypt is below the water level of the moat, meaning that prisoners kept there could be disposed of by opening a sluice gate. If that wasn't enough, there was also a trapdoor added during the Wars of the Roses in the floor of a tower room where suspicious visitors would be dropped into a dark hole and left to starve. The room above the main gate is said to be haunted by the ghost of one such visitor.

If you're in the area, Ightham Mote is well worth a visit. You can find out more information on the National Trust website.

Monday 19 September 2011

Monday Morning Ghost 2 - Grey Lady of the Assembly Rooms

Image by Richard Webb
My first Monday Morning Ghost saw me choose a spectre from my most recent home, in London. This week, I'm coming back to my ancestral home of the North East, and introducing you to the Grey Lady of the Assembly Rooms.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many major cities had assembly rooms to provide an elegant location for their high society to gather and enjoy genteel forms of entertainment, such as balls and concerts. They were one of the few public places to which women could gain admittance, although unmarried women would require a chaperone. The assembly rooms of towns such as Bath were immortalised in the fiction of writers such as Jane Austen, where the buildings also hosted "marriage markets" as rich parents sought to marry off their offspring.

Newcastle upon Tyne was no different, and the city's Assembly Rooms are located in a fabulous Georgian building on Westgate Road. Designed by William Newton, they opened in June 1776, on Midsummer's night (surely a magical night, if ever there was one). The inscription on its foundation stone, laid in 1774, reads "Rooms dedicated to the most elegant recreation". Indeed, in the past, the assembly rooms have played host to concerts by Strauss, Liszt and Rachmaninov, and Charles Dickens' amateur theatre group staged three playlets here. Royal visitors have included Edward VII, George VI, and Elizabeth II.

Of course, few buildings of such an age escape having ghost stories, and the Assembly Rooms are no exception. Legend has it that on December 31, 1777, a rowdy group of wealthy patrons were celebrating the New Year. The drink flowed and the behaviour became increasingly bawdy, until one of the young men ordered his wife to dance naked for his boorish friends. This being the eighteenth century, a wife was little more than her husband's property, and she did as he demanded. Sadly the shame and humiliation was too much for her, and she threw herself from the musician's gallery in the ballroom. This might sound a little melodramatic to us, but social standing was everything to the upper classes.

Staff at the Assembly Rooms have heard the rustle of a taffeta ball gown, and the Grey Lady often announces her presence with the scent of lavender. The double doors open and close on their own, but are too heavy to be blown open by a draft. On Halloween in 2000, a radio crew were terrorised by unexplained noises and knockings while trying to record a special on the haunting. Another group of investigators experienced changes in temperature, balls of light that moved on their own, and electronic equipment that turned itself on and off. Research into the identity of the lady has proved fruitless, and there is no way to substantiate the legend, but it would certainly seem that there is a sad lady haunting such an elegant building.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

An Encounter in Beamish Woods

If you decided you wanted to go ghost hunting, you'd probably assume you need to visit a crumbling medieval castle, or a grand stately home in the country. Even pubs and hotels seem to accrue a high number of hauntings, compared to other hives of human activity like hospitals or offices. So would you be surprised if I told you that you could have a paranormal experience during the the woods?

David and I took a trip today to the woods around Beamish Museum and Causey Arch. The area was once riddled with mineworkings (indeed, you can visit a drift mine at Beamish) and the paths through the woods follow the waggonways that would have taken the coal to the Tanfield Railway, ready for transportation to the Tyne. Most parts of the country favoured canals, but the deep valleys of the North East lend themselves better to waggonways - indeed, when these waggonways began to be used elsewhere in Britain, they were known as Tyneside Roads.

It was a beautiful day today, if a trifle windy due to the after effects of Hurricane Katia, and we enjoyed the stroll through the woods, ever watchful for phantom highwaymen, ghost trains and spectral hikers. While following the path that runs between the back of Beamish museum and Mill Wood, David spotted a marble in the middle of the path. No, we don't know what it was doing there, either. David picked it up and we carried on our way.

You know that feeling when someone's watching you? Both of us kept turning around, convinced that someone was following us. The path was deserted for at least half a mile in each direction, and yet we had the distinct impression we were not alone. I even got the fleeting sense that we were followed by something male. We heard twigs snapping on the path behind us, yet when we turned around, there was nothing there, and the snapping stopped, as if whatever was following us had also stopped.

We'd gone prepared, and we got the EMF meter out. The meters are actually scientific tools used for measuring electromagnetic fields, particularly the AC fields emitted by man-made sources. They're good for detecting fields around electrical goods etc. to rule out electromagnetic radiation poisoning and so on but in the field of paranormal research, they allow an investigator to pick up on the electromagnetic fields believed to be caused by spirits. If you're nowhere near a man-made power source and one of those puppies goes off, then you need to start considering potentially paranormal causes.

We'd been taking readings all along the path, and were getting readings of minor electromagnetic radiation. That in itself was surprising given the lack of potential sources, but we started getting spikes in the readings. The needle on the gauge flicked up into the high yellow segments while the meter squealed. On a whim, David got the marble out. I held the EMF meter beside it and the needle went crazy! We also tested the meter beside my phone and David's camera but in both cases, the needle dropped back into the 'normal' range, ruling them out as potential causes. Back to the marble and up went the needle again.

David decided to ask out (basically a verbal way to establish contact) and again, the needle peaked. The sensation of being watched was a lot stronger now we'd stopped. We established a "one peak for yes" and "two peaks for no" system, and we ascertained that the marble belonged to our unseen companion. Whether the marble belonged to it in a material sense, or was simply a physical object to which the entity had taken a shine, we don't know, but when David asked if he could keep it, the answer was a vehement "no". He put the marble on the wall at the side of the path out of harm's way and told the entity he was leaving it somewhere safe. The EMF meter settled right down, and as we followed the path away from the marble and around a bend, the feeling of being followed also stopped!

I can't even begin to explain what it meant, and I know a lot of skeptics and naysayers will scoff at such subjective evidence as "feelings of being watched or followed." Indeed, as a student of the uncanny, I can easily explain the psychological causes of those feelings. However, with practice it becomes easy to tell the difference between imagination and genuine sensation, and we simply cannot explain the behaviour of the EMF meter. There were no nearby sources of electricity to set the meter off, and I hardly need point out that the marble was made of glass, which is an inert substance that doesn't emit electromagnetic radiation. No, I feel we had a genuine encounter, though with what, I can't say.

It just goes to show that you can find the paranormal anywhere.