Archives for posts with tag: Ghosts

Welcome to Ghost Month on my Fantasy Reads blog. Prepare to be chilled by some very unquiet spirits. I’ll start by recommending a classic haunted house story – “Frost Hollow Hall” by British author Emma Carroll. This  novel, which came out in 2013, is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It was published as a children’s book but is multi-layered enough to appeal to adults as well. The story is set in South-West England in 1881 and moves between a grand country house and the cottages of the local village.

Teenager Mathilda (Tilly) Higgins lives in the village of Frostcombe with her Ma and her older sister. Tilly’s Pa has been away for a long time. If he doesn’t come home soon, the Higgins family will be turned out of their cottage because of unpaid rent. On the day that her Pa is expected back, Tilly is dared by annoying Butcher’s Boy, Will Potter, to come skating with him on a frozen lake in the forbidden grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. Tilly falls through the ice and nearly drowns but is guided to the shore by a vision of a beautiful golden-haired boy. She soon identifies her golden boy as the ghost of Kit Barrington, the young heir to Frost Hollow Hall who drowned in the same lake ten years previously.

Tilly begins to dream about Kit who tells her that he “can’t rest in peace until the truth is known”. After Tilly and her Ma suffer a betrayal, Tilly asks for work at Frost Hollow Hall in order to earn some money and investigate the death of Kit Barrington. At the hall, the intimidating housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, offers Tilly a job as a housemaid. Tilly makes friends with a maid called Gracie but it quickly becomes clear that Frost Hollow Hall is a very unhappy household.

Lady Barrington cannot get over her grief for Kit and has her son’s room kept exactly as it was on the day that he died. Tilly can’t sense Kit’s ghost in his room but she and Gracie encounter a spiteful poltergeist who smashes china and haunts the back stairs. Risking everything in her quest for the truth, Tilly learns about a second untimely death and discovers that someone at Frost Hollow Hall has been keeping a terrible secret. How can the dead rest in peace while the living are crippled by guilt and remorse?

This is a ghost story which manages to be both frightening and moving. It deals with two very different types of haunting: one that seems benevolent and one that seems malevolent. Tilly sees Kit’s ghost as gentle and sad and she is flattered that he has entrusted her with the important task of uncovering the truth about his death. This gives Tilly new confidence in herself but as she becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall, the reader begins to wonder if Kit’s influence might be a dangerous one. The way that Lady Barrington insists on a fire always being kept alight in Kit’s bedroom to warm her frozen son is extremely creepy. Yet it is the absence of Kit’s ghost from his old home which Tilly finds troubling. Instead, Tilly has to endure what seems to be an alarmingly physical manifestation of someone’s unresolved anger. An episode in which Tilly and Gracie are trapped in the dark with a being that whispers, pinches and smells strongly of honey, certainly scared me.

The supernatural elements in “Frost Hollow Hall” work because the late 19th century village and country house settings are convincing and the leading characters are credible individuals. I believed in the ghosts because I believed in Tilly and her world. If you enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey”, this novel may appeal to you but it has a less romanticized view of the past than the popular television series. Carroll shows the Higgins family living in grim poverty. Pa is forced to take labouring jobs a long way from home and Ma does sewing and mending seven days a week even though “it paid little and hurt her eyes”. Most of the village is dependant on the whims of the local aristocrats. There is a telling incident when Tom fails to back Tilly because he knows that his family will be ruined if they lose the custom of the Barringtons. Tilly isn’t ill-treated at Frost Hollow Hall but her work as a housemaid is exhaustingly hard and she can be unjustly sacked at a moment’s notice.

Sharp-tongued, fierce-tempered Tilly Higgins is a distinctive heroine. She is sometimes surly and unreasonable but she never lost my sympathy. Tilly is convinced that she is far less attractive than her blonde elder sister and her critical mother makes her feel worthless. In the course of the story, Tilly has to face the hard truth that the father she adores has chosen to abandon her in order to follow his dream of a new life. She longs to be needed and trusted, if only by a ghost. Tragic Kit Barrington is the kind of romantic youth that girls dream about but ordinary Tom’s friendship proves solid and real. The prickly relationship between Tilly and Tom is beautifully observed. Tilly’s viewpoint dominates the narrative but Carroll sometimes gives us glimpses of the way that other characters see her – as a courageous wild rose of a girl.

Carroll is good at making the reader think that they know what kind of people her characters are and then changing that perception with a single speech or incident. Tilly’s Ma seems harsh and her Pa feckless but I ended up feeling some sympathy for both halves of this incompatible couple. At Frost Hollow Hall, Mrs Jessop at first appears to be a standard sinister housekeeper and Lady Barrington a typical selfish and capricious aristocrat but there is much more to both of them than that. The hauntings don’t arise from some ancient evil but from a plausible sequence of events in which understandable actions have disastrous consequences. Tenacious Tilly uncovers a story of the strength of maternal love and the healing power of forgiveness. You might find it worthwhile to explore the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall alongside her. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In time for Hallowe’en, I’m recommending a gentle ghost story – `The Children of Green Knowe’ by Lucy Boston. Published in 1954, this was the first in a series of six children’s novels about an ancient house set in a magical riverside garden. The fictional Green Knowe was based on Boston’s own home, the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the oldest inhabited houses in England. An ebook edition of `The Children of Green Knowe’ is now available but I’d advise you to find an old hardback or paperback copy in order to get the full benefit of Peter Boston’s atmospheric illustrations. This is a book I loved as a child but interpret rather differently now that I have re-read it as an adult.

The story opens with an unhappy seven year-old boy travelling to stay with a great-grandmother whom he has never met. Tolly has been sent to an English boarding school because his mother is dead and his father has remarried and is living in Malaysia. Now Tolly has been invited to spend the Christmas holiday at the isolated home of Mrs Oldknow. After a disorienting journey through the flooded East Anglian countryside he arrives at the ancient house known as Green Noah or Green Knowe. Tolly is warmly welcomed by Mr Boggis the gardener and by Mrs Oldknow  but he soon notices that Green Knowe is a house full of strange shadows and noises. The rocking horse in his attic bedroom moves when no-one is touching it and Tolly starts to hear music and children’s voices.

When the floods recede Tolly is able to explore the gardens with their wonderful topiary figures in the form of animals. Mrs Oldknow tells him stories about three children who lived in the house during the 17th century, Toby, Alexander and Linnet Oldknow and about Toby’s horse, Feste who is said to haunt the stables. Tolly longs to see Feste and to meet these ghostly children whom he can hear whispering and laughing. Mrs Oldknow promises that he will find them soon but she also tells him a darker tale of the gypsy curse on Green Knowe. When the garden wakes into life, Tolly must beware of the evil fingers of the Demon Tree called Green Noah…

This is a shorter plot summary than usual because `The Children of Green Knowe’  is more about atmosphere than plot. Essentially, the house and garden are the main characters. The story simply follows Tolly as he gets to know the living and dead inhabitants of the house and the natural and supernatural creatures to be found in the gardens. Green Knowe is a mysterious place where there are no firm divisions between past and present, yet it seems far more solid and believable than most fictional houses. It is very obvious that Lucy Boston was writing about somewhere she knew and loved. Even the toys that Tolly finds in the nursery, such as the rocking horse and a carved ebony mouse, are based on objects played with by her real-life son, Peter. Lucy Boston, who died in 1990 at the age of 98, was a remarkable woman. She restored the semi-derelict Manor House, created a beautiful wildlife-friendly garden, sewed intricate American-style patchwork quilts, and published her first novel when she was 62. She’s definitely one of my role-models.

Lucy Boston was a newcomer to her ancient house, so perhaps it was a desire for a deeper connection that led her to invent the Oldknow family, who are supposed to have lived at Green Knowe for centuries. The theme of  finding a place where you truly belong runs through all her fiction. In `The Children of Green Knowe’  Tolly aches to be part of family again while in later books in the series Green Knowe becomes a sanctuary for outsiders such as a black ex-slave (`The Chimmneys of Green Knowe’), displaced children from Poland and Burma (`The River at Green Knowe’) and even an escaped gorilla (`A Stranger at Green Knowe’). The author seems to extend the same invitation to her readers, asking us to make ourselves at home at Green Knowe and gradually discover its secrets.

As a child I gladly accepted her invitation. I loved to imagine myself sitting by a flickering fire in the Knights Hall or playing hide and seek amongst the yew trees. I thought that Mrs Oldknow was an ideal granny when she let Tolly wander by himself or made him do half-crazy things like covering his hands in butter to attract small birds to come and feed. I envied Toby, Alexander and Linnet as they walked in their paradise garden with their tame deer, hare and squirrel. Now though Mrs Oldknow’s treatment of her great-grandson seems rather sinister to me. Instead of trying to find real friends for this lonely child, she encourages Tolly to see and interact with `the others’ – children who sometimes remember that they died horribly three hundred years in the past but seem unable to leave Green Knowe. Taken out of cosy context, there are many passages in this book which read as if they are from a far more chilling ghost story – `in the stillness he thought he heard little bare feet running across the floor, then laughter and whispering, and a sound like the pages of a big book being turned over.’ Tolly feels that the house `is full of shiny black eyes all looking at me’ and on another occasion `he could feel breathing beside his ear. He put his hands up and felt two very little ones and some curls, soft little cobwebs.’ Cobwebs – a very M.R. James moment (see my October 2013 post on his ghost stories).

This darker view is undoubtedly influenced by my own experience when visiting the house on which which Green Knowe is based with a group of children’s authors. I had greatly looked forward to being shown round by Lucy Boston’s daughter-in-law but by the time we got to the Knights Hall I could hardly bear to stay in the house. Normally, I do not find old buildings spooky. I have been in numerous Ancient Egyptian tombs without feeling a flutter of fear but on a beautiful summer afternoon at Hemingford Grey I was overwhelmed by horror and dread. Perhaps there is some truth in the story of the gypsy’s curse after all. Have a haunting Hallowe’en.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

This week I’m recommending something suitably scary for Halloween – a collection of old-fashioned but far from cosy ghost stories. When I was student at King’s College, Cambridge it was a privilege to eat in the splendid Gothick hall but there was one portrait hanging in the hall that I didn’t like. If I sat facing it, there was something about the intense gaze of the man in the painting which bothered me. If I sat with my back to it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that his fat white fingers might start reaching out for me. It was a portrait of the eminent scholar and former Provost of King’s, Montague Rhodes James, who is now more famous for the ghost stories he wrote in his spare time. James composed his first ghost story in around 1893 and his last in 1935, a year before he died. The collected `Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, which came out in 1931, is still in print and available on Kindle. There are also paperback editions of selected stories published by Wordsworth or Penguin Classics. Audio versions are well worth considering because James wrote most of his stories to be read aloud. The BBC recordings narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi are particularly good.

The thirty tales in `The Ghost Stories of M.R.James’ are set in England or Europe and mainly take place in the 19th or early 20th centuries, though they often go back into earlier periods to explain the hauntings. Collectively, they create a world in which old sins cast long shadows, evil is manifest in terrible forms, and the unwary may meet with `persons walking who should not be walking’. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories, by which I mean that he’s the one who frightens me the most. Film and television adaptations of his work rarely do it justice because they can’t resist adding complications to James’ relatively simple plots. `Night of the Demon’ is an effective horror film but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the brief story it’s based on (Casting the Runes). Atmosphere is everything  In an M.R. James story, and that atmosphere is created by the slow building-up of convincing detail. He loved to create spurious documentation for his ghosts and demons in the form of old manuscripts, letters, diaries or court records. Reading these may require some patience but if you let yourself become absorbed in the dusty worlds they evoke, the shocks to come will be all the greater. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that many of the stories were written to amuse school boys, the plots often involve the murder of children. There are scenes in these stories as nightmarish, and far more haunting, than anything in a modern horror film.

You won’t find screaming blondes or dashing action heroes in James’ stories. His leading characters tend to be rational, emotionally repressed, middle-aged men. They are not the sort of people who believe in ghosts or demons and that makes their bizarre experiences seem all the more real. James’ greatest talent was for infusing ordinary places and objects with horror. Some of his stories are set in traditionally spooky old libraries, manor houses or churches but, in many of the best tales, terrors are encountered in places you would normally think of as dull and safe, such as a hotel room (Number 13), a commuter train (Casting the Runes), a country inn (Rats) or a rose arbor (The Rose Garden).  He turns woods (A Neighbour’s Landmark) and shingle beaches (A Warning to the Curious) Into landscapes of menace and in  James’ dark imagination a doll’s house (The Haunted Dolls’ House), the puppets in a Punch and Judy show (The Story of a Disappearence and an Appearence), an engraving of a house (The Mezzotint) and even a pair of binoculars (A View from a Hill) become disturbingly sinister objects. He’s the only author I know who can make the pattern on a pair of bedroom curtains terrifying (The Diary of Mr Poynter), while the grotesque behaviour of the linen sheets in `Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ could put you off sleeping alone in a room with two beds for the rest of your life.

James wrote of his own work that, `The ghost should be malevolent or odious: aimiable 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’. His apparitions are varied and memorable, including the ghost of a drowned woman singing in a dreadful squalling voice, a feline creature who comes to `fetch away’ a clergyman with blood on his conscience, the toad-like guardian to an ancient treasure, and a `great roll of shabby white flannel’ with an earth-coloured face and dry eyes `as if there was two big spiders in the holes’. James’ ghosts are disturbingly solid. They are not just  ghastly visions, they can sound, smell and feel horrible as well, and are capable of strangling, suffocating or even poisoning their victims.

One of the collections published in James’ lifetime was called `A Warning to the Curious’. It’s a title that might apply to all his work. In a number of stories, scholars are cruelly punished for morbid curiosity, perhaps because they are seeking knowledge for their own selfish ends rather than to share it. In `Count Magnus’, the over-inquisitive Mr Wraxall becomes fascinated by the legend of a wicked Danish Count and the creature he brought back with him from the `Black Pilgrimage’. In spite of warnings about men who’ve had the flesh sucked off their faces, Wraxell lingers near the Count’s tomb while one by one the locks fall off Magnus’ coffin. Wraxell flees to England, but it is inevitable that his doom will catch up with him, just as it is inevitable that I will once again give in to the dark lure of this grim story and go on reading past the point of safety. Have a horrifying Halloween…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk