The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Must There Be Horror? An All Hallow's Guest post from Helen Grant.

As you are probably aware by now, we're running a month long promotion of All Hallow's Read and today we're excited to welcome author Helen Grant to our foothills. Helen is here to share some very old ghost stories so for those of you who can't pass on a book for AHR, perhaps you could pass on this fascinating post.

“It’s the scariest game ever,” my son told me with a definite note of awe in his voice.
“Er…are you sure you should be playing it, then? You’d better let me take a look first…”

Sigh. The perennial appeal of a really good scare is such that I am now not only pre-watching creepy films to make sure they are suitable for my teenage daughter, but also pre-playing scary video games for my son. The game in question was Slendergame, which involves creeping around a darkened virtual wood by torchlight trying to collect obscure and menacing messages before the Slender Man gets you. Brrr. A charming instance of modern technology tapping into age-old fears.

It sometimes seems to me that you can divide people into two camps: those who “can’t” watch or read creepy material because they find it too scary, and those who absolutely love watching or reading that same material for precisely the same reason.

When I was a child I used to beg my father to re-tell us the ghost stories of M.R.James to while away long walks. Wailing Well was probably my favourite, with its murderous creatures that are all “flutterin' rags and whity bones” – what a deliciously nasty thought!

Saturday night was not Saturday night without watching Dr. Who from behind the sofa (I distinctly recall watching The Green Death through my fingers with a kind of horrified fascination). Now and again I even wangled a peep at some highly unsuitable film such as Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price.

Evidently the predilection for nastiness runs in the family: when my mother was growing up, the one book she was expressly forbidden to read was the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. This prohibition virtually guaranteed that the moment she was alone in the house, that was the book she would go for!

“Must there be horror?” asks M.R.James in his essay Ghosts, treat them gently! Yes, I rather think there must. He was making the point that ghost stories need not be horrid; a ghost may be pitiable instead, but it is much harder to make a good story out of it.

Of course, what is one person’s worst fear may not be another’s. Among the events that I occasionally carry out in schools, I offer a ghost story writing workshop. As part of the workshop, I read out two different accounts of a similar ghostly experience. One of them is from a collection of fictional ghost stories, the other a supposedly “true” story from a Victorian collection called The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. The participants are then invited to say which account they find more frightening, and why. There is, of course, no “right” answer, but the majority tend to find the fictional story creepier as it pulls no punches with its lovingly detailed description of spectral nastiness. Interestingly, however, some people find the Haunted Homes story creepier, simply because I read it from an obviously very old and dusty-looking book. The presence of the book somehow makes the story more real, as though it is drawing the listeners right into it.

I thought therefore that it might be interesting to offer here a couple of stories that come from a very old book indeed.

Recently I have been spending a lot of time reading Broomhall's History of Specters (printed in 1658, the title page describes as A Treatise of Specters), which was the nearest thing a seventeenth century amateur of creepy tales could get to a nice fat volume of Stephen King stories. The book is a collection of anecdotes and tales from various authors going right back to and including classical sources, evidence that whatever other characteristics our species has, we have always relished a really nasty story.

There is a copy of the History of Specters at Innerpeffray Library, which is Scotland’s oldest lending library, and perhaps unique in allowing members of the public to handle and read the books, some of which date back to the 1500s. As far as I can tell, the book has not been digitized, so I am transcribing some of the more interesting (for interesting, read nasty) stories myself. Here are a couple of them.

Both stories come from a section alluringly entitled An History of Strange Apparitions, and cunning delusions of Devils. The first is a description of what appears to be a zombie or perhaps a vampire in sixteenth century Bohemia!

In the year 1567, in Trawtenaw,  a City of Buhemia, there was one Stephen Hubener, that gathered such great Riches, built such stately houses, and was so successfull that all admired. And at last falling sick, dyed and was very honourably inter’d. But a short while after his death and buriall, his body (or that which is more likely, the Devill by his Diabolical power, carried about his body) did pinch many men with such strait embracements, that many of them died, yet diverse recovered again, who all with one consent confessed that they were thus clasped or beclipped by this rich man, in that very habit in which they had seen him alive, therefore the Magistrate of that place, that he might void or lay this Satanical sight, commanded the body of that man to be digged out of the grave, after he had lain in the Earth twenty weeks, yet was not corrupted or rotten, but fat, as young and well fed bodies use to be; the body was delivered to the Hangman, to be carried away to the place of execution, where he cut off his head with his Axe, and anatomizing him, took out his heart, and did cleave it: there issued out of his body bloud, as if he had been alive (witch-like) to sustain punishment, therefore the Hangman threw the body into the fire, a great company standing by, his head being bound to his feet, and so he tyed neck and heels.

"Not corrupted or rotten, but fat“ – how very unpleasant!

The second extract is a seasonal tale of witchcraft from Italy.

We read in Paulus Grillandus, a Lawyer of Italy, a man very well experienc’d in the facts of Witches and Sorcerers, That there was a certain Country-man not far from Rome, in the year of the world, 1526. who when he saw his Wife rise naked in the night to anoint her self, and that thereupon presently she was gone out of his sight, and could not be found in the house, the next day provided himself of a good cudgel wherewith to belabour her sides, untill she should tell him whither, and to what end she so conveyed her self last night, which she presently doing, he pardoned her, upon condition that she would convey him amongst her fraternity. She the next day anointed both her husband and her self, and then they were presently mounted each of them upon a Goat, and so presently brought amongst the muster of Witches. Now his Wife had forewarned the man, he should by no means name God or Christ, unlesse in scorn and opproby to him: when they were thus in the croud, the wife appointed her husband to stand a little aloof till she had saluted the Prince of them , (who was most magnificently cloathed and guarded about with a great ring of men and women; all honouring and waiting upon this their Lord) and that by so doing, he should see the whole of the businesse. When they had done this, they began a ring-dance, (which is now taken up among the Countrey-people) that dancing backwards, they might not see one the others faces: It may be to the intent they might not know, nor accuse one another, if perhaps they might be arraigned in the presence of one another, after: which Triscalanus did, to whom Charls the Ninth gave leave and liberty, that he might discover his fellows. He told them, being in a great assembly of young men, That there were many there that adored and worshipped a Goat in their meetings, and kissed his very posteriours (or arse-hole in plain English, if you will have it so). Then by reason his back was towards them, he not seeing them, they danced together, and the devils copulated together in men and womens shapes. After their dancing, the tables were covered and furnished with meat; the woman then moved the man to salute the Prince, and sitting down with the rest of the company to the table, seeing the table furnished with meat, he called for salt; and when salt was brought to the table, before he tasted any thing, he said grace, which being ended, presently men, meats and table vanished away, and he was left desolate alone, being very cold, and not knowing where he was; As soon as it was day, he came to some shepherds, of whom being asked, Whether he knew where he were? He answered, That he knew himself to be in the Beneventanian Earldom, in the royal command of the Pope. These things were done a thousand miles from Rome, from whence travelling, he was forc’d to beg his meat and rayment, and at length coming home upon the eighth day after, poor and lean, he apprehended his Wife; by whom many more being accused, and confessing the truth, they were all hanged.

I particularly like these two tales because of the wealth of detail in them; they are told almost as colourfully as any literary ghost story. I like to think that the seventeenth century readers of the History of Specters experienced a very pleasant frisson whilst reading them!

To return to the twenty-first century: I happened to mention to someone the other day that Slendergame was apparently the scariest game ever, and my son corrected me.
"Now it’s only the second scariest game ever,“ he said. "There’s another one that’s even scarier.“
Sigh. I wonder who’s going to end up pre-playing that one for him..?

Thank you, Helen for such an interesting, spooky and well-researched post.  Another MOI recommendation for All Hallow's Read would be Helen's latest book Wish Me Dead, a tale that epitomises the age old advice of being careful what you wish for... Helen also has a book of ghost stories hitting the shelves next year, so keep The Sea Change and Other Stories (published by Swan River Pressin mind when we remind you of All Hallow's Read 2013.  You can find out more about Helen and her great stories here and we'll see you over the weekend for some scary short films here in the MOI.

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