Archive for the Ghosts Category

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens

Posted in Books, Christmas, Ghosts with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by mysearchformagic

There something about this time of year, with its early sunsets and long, dark nights, that lends itself to the reading of ghost stories. Huddled close to the fire with the wind howling outside, there is nothing more magical than enjoying a supernatural tale or two on a chilly evening. This winter I have been dipping into the ghost stories of Charles Dickens, and very good they are too.

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Everyone has heard of A Christmas Carol of course, with its assorted spooks and ghouls who teach the miserly Scrooge some important lessons about goodwill to all men. This all-time classic has inspired all sorts of films, plays and TV adaptations, and I never tire of reading the original. The edition of the stories that I have, which is entitled The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, also features some lovely reproductions of the original Victorian illustrations. This famous image of Scrooge visited by Marley’s Ghost, drawn by John Leech in 1843, is particularly chilling.

Marley's Ghost by John Leech

Marley’s Ghost by John Leech

But there is more to Dickens’ ghost stories than just A Christmas Carol. The rest of the tales in this volume are a diverse bunch, a few of them a bit silly and fun, and some really rather scary. There is even another seasonal piece, the lesser known Christmas Ghosts, which includes a number of short vignettes featuring festive phantoms. Dickens himself was apparently rather sceptical when it came to things that go bump in the night, but that didn’t stop him from writing some fabulous stories on the subject. In fact, he is now recognised as one of the first authors to take the ghost story out of the of fantastical Gothic mansion of previous tales, and place it in a more recognisable domestic setting.

It seems a bit strange that the festive season is now associated with ghost stories, but I am certainly not going to complain. While I love such paranormal yarns at any time of year, I enjoy them even more around the winter holidays. So if, like me, you enjoy a bit of a creepy Christmas, then check out the ghost stories of Charles Dickens – if you dare!

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Posted in Cemetery, Church, Edinburgh, Ghosts, History, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2014 by mysearchformagic

If there is one place you can be pretty sure of finding magic, it is in an old graveyard, and my visit to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh this week certainly didn’t disappoint. The graveyard is situated on the edge of the city’s Old Town, and has been in use since the 16th Century, so there are lots of wonderful old tombs and carved stones to look at.

A packed corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard

A packed corner of Greyfriars Kirkyard

As I wandered around the graveyard, I noticed skulls and skeletons everywhere. A rather lively looking dancing skeleton welcomes you as you enter, and many of the tombs are decorated with carved Memento Mori, suitably macabre reminders of our own mortality.

A Dancing Skeleton near the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard

A Dancing Skeleton near the entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard

As well as being the last resting place of many of Scotland’s most prestigious citizens, the Kirkyard has also witnessed some dramatic events over the years. In 1679 over a thousand Covenanters, Scottish Christians who were battling for a new style of worship and church organisation, were kept prisoner in a corner of the graveyard. They were left out of doors for over four months, surviving on scraps of bread and any extra food which kindly locals were able to sneak in to them. Not surprisingly many died, and more were later executed, and the melancholy spot now bears a memorial to those who lost their lives in this atrocity.

The Covenater's Prison, Greyfriars Kirkyard

The Covenaters’ Prison, Greyfriars Kirkyard

The tomb of the man largely responsible for these terrible events sits just a few yards away. Sir George Mackenzie (1636-1691), later known as “Bloody Mackenzie” for obvious reasons, now rests in a rather grand, if slightly overgrown monument, designed by famous Scottish architect James Smith.

The tomb of "Bloody" MacKenzie

The tomb of “Bloody” Mackenzie

I say that he rest there, but in fact recent reports of ghostly events near the tomb suggest that Mackenzie is not resting at all, with hundreds of unexplained events in the graveyard in recent years being blamed on his malevolent spirit. If you really want to be creeped out, then ghost tours of the Kirkyard are held every evening. Check it out, if you dare…

A Memento Mori in Greyfriars Kirkyard

A Memento Mori in Greyfriars Kirkyard

The Château de Trécesson, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Ghosts, History, House, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , on February 25, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I’ve just got back from another trip to France, and just like the last time I have been tracking down more of Brittany’s magical castles. During this visit I made the journey to the picturesque château of Trécesson, which lies in a quiet, wooded valley not far from the town of Campénéac on the borders of the forest of Paimpont, a region steeped in myth and legend.

The château of Trécesson

The château of Trécesson

Much of the present-day castle seems to date from the 15th century, although it is assumed that there has been a fortress on this site for much longer. Its impressive towers and strong walls of the emerge from the depths of a wide, dark moat, and past the elaborate turreted gatehouse a small chapel sits next to a pretty 18th century wing.

The turretted gatehouse of the château of Trécesson

The turretted gatehouse of the château of Trécesson

Not surprisingly given its location near Paimpont, Trécesson has its own collection of supernatural legends. One concerns a ‘white lady’, the ghost of an unfortunate past resident who was bricked up into the walls of the castle by her own brothers for daring to marry the wrong man. A ‘headless curate’ haunts the corridors, and phantom card-players have also been seen in one of its bed-chambers, apparently indifferent to the terror that their appearance induces in hapless guests.

The overgrown avenue leading to the château of Trécesson

The overgrown avenue leading to the château of Trécesson

Despite these creepy stories, the castle seemed like a calm and quiet place on the day that I visited. A grand avenue of trees, now long-neglected and overgrown, leads up to the front gate. Most of the year the castle is closed to visitors, with only the exterior visible from the nearby road. However, the courtyard and chapel of this still privately-owned château are apparently open to visitors during the summer months, so you can be sure I will be back there soon in search of some more Trécesson magic…

The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, E.F. Benson

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Superstition, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I always think it is strange that Christmas time is now so closely linked with ghost stories. Recently it seems like the tales of M.R. James have become a festive perennial, and hardly a year goes by that they don’t appear somewhere, be it in print or on TV or radio. Much as I love James’s creepy stories, this year I fancied something a little bit different. And so it was I delved into my library and came out with a well-thumbed copy of The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by E.F. Benson.

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

Born in 1867, Benson is perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia books, which were successfully recreated for TV in the mid 1980s. Anyone familiar with these light, comic tales of high society in rural 1920s Tilling may be surprised to find out that Benson was also a master of the supernatural yarn, with the stories in this book a world away from the curtain twitching and idle gossip of the Tillingites.

Having said that, most of his ghostly tales are set in a world long gone, an country inhabited by dapper bachelors who rent country houses for the summer and frequent polite garden parties. Benson writes about an early 20th Century England, a place of good manners and good breeding, in the human protagonists at least. The author himself believed in the supernatural, and claimed to have experienced a couple of ghostly visitations himself, including one at his charming Georgian home, Lamb’s House in Rye.

E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson

Some of the stories in this collection are rather traditional, featuring hauntings in places where terrible things have happened and spirits that need to be appeased. Vampires make an appearance too, with one of the respectable inhabitants of a village turning out to be not so respectable after all. A couple of the tales are just downright weird, particularly the one entitled And No Birds Sing; quite what that strange thing lurking in the woods was is never quite explained, which inevitably adds to the scariness of it all. How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery was apparently the author’s favourite, and in fact is a rather touching tale of contact from beyond the grave.

So next time you fancy settling down in front of a roaring fire on a dark, chilly evening, the ghost stories of E.F. Benson come highly recommended. While the characters and settings of the stories are very much of their time, the narrative thrills that they provide are never old fashioned. I guess terror is timeless!

Halloween Decorations, Atlanta

Posted in Ghosts, Hallowe'en, House, Superstition, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I’ve often heard how much they love Halloween over in the USA, but it was only on a visit to Atlanta, Georgia last week that I discovered quite how much.

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These houses in the suburb of East Point give you an idea of the amount of effort some people go to when it comes to putting up Halloween decorations. Forget about a couple of sorry-looking pumpkin lanterns, these guys really go to town – giant cobwebs, gravestones all over the lawns, hanging corpses and much, much more.

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I know that some people bemoan the commercialisation of Halloween, and I certainly saw plenty of that on my recent trip, including everything from pumpkin flavoured lattes to the constant advertisements for the latest horror blockbuster and supermarket aisles brimming with candy and junky plastic toys. But I loved these decorated houses with all their spooky accoutrements. The work and imagination involved the putting them together is astounding.

Zombies and corpses outside a Halloween house

Zombies and corpses outside a Halloween house

Strolling past these houses as the sun sets and a long dark night begins, well that is definitely a magical experience, even if I didn’t get to experience the crowds which apparently visit them on Halloween night itself.

Happy Halloween y’all!

Enter if you dare!

Enter if you dare!

The Ancestor, Leonora Carrington

Posted in Art, Ghosts with tags , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by mysearchformagic
The Ancestor, Leonora Carrington 1968

The Ancestor, Leonora Carrington 1968

I love the work of Leonora Carrington. It is always strange, often unsettling and unfailingly magical. Her life story is intriguing too; brought up in a grand family in the 1920s and 30s, she was expelled from two schools before discovering a passion for art. Her relationship with Surrealist Max Ernst, who left his wife to be with Carrington in Paris, scandalised society and horrified her relations, who promptly disowned her. Ernst was forced to flee from the Nazis following the outbreak of World War Two, soon afterwards Carrington had a breakdown. She eventually ended up in Mexico, where she was to spend the rest of her long life painting wonderful images such as The Ancestor and Temple of the World, and where she is still viewed as a national treasure. Leonora Carrington ended up outliving most of her Surrealist contemporaries, and finally passed away at the ripe old age of ninety four in 2011. The subjects of her paintings are always obscure, but that is pretty much the point; indeed Carrington was often disparaging of any attempts to ‘decipher’ or ‘intellectualise’ her art.

Her 1976 novel The Hearing Trumpet is hilariously bizarre and well worth a read. But then I should probably save that magical little gem for another day…

The Orphan Choir, Sophie Hannah

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Music with tags , , , , on May 28, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Like a lot of today’s parents, Susannah struggles with the stresses and strains of a modern life. To make things worse, her achingly hip and annoyingly arrogant next-door neighbour has a habit of playing loud rock music late into the night. Her son is a worry too, but not in the fact that he gets under her feet. In fact, quite the opposite; Susannah’s only child Joseph has been sent away to choir school thanks to his incredible vocal talents, and she misses him terribly. Her complaints about that noisy neighbour seem to have a positive effect, but then she begins to hear the distinctive sound of children singing at the strangest moments. The man next door denies all knowledge, and choral music is certainly not his style, but the singing becomes more and more persistent. Her husband Stuart tries to be understanding, but clearly thinks she is losing her marbles. So is the haunting music real, or just in her increasingly confused mind? Is it perhaps even something more supernaturally sinister?
Susannah’s dramatic attempts to regain control of both her son and her senses lead inevitably towards an unsettling, and ultimately tragic, conclusion.

The Orphan Choir. Sophie Hannah

The Orphan Choir. Sophie Hannah

The Orphan Choir is the third Hammer novel that I have read in recent months. It is more subtle than either Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate or Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, and a bit of a slow burner. It’s the kind of book that plays with your mind, blurring the boundaries between reality and imagination, leaving the reader just as confused as to what is really happening as the troubled protagonist. What at first may appear to be middle-class paranoia eventually turns out to be something quite different – this is a Hammer novel after all. Only in the final few pages does the horrible truth come to light, and although it may be predictable, the terrible denouement is none the less shocking because of it. Don’t expect big frights from The Orphan Choir, but give it a bit of time and you will be transfixed by this achingly sad tale of unfulfilled love, soul-destroying loneliness and terrible, heartbreaking loss.

The Greatcoat, Helen Dunmore

Posted in Books, Ghosts with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2013 by mysearchformagic

It’s been a while since I have featured a book in my search for magic, so inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, I decided to check out another of the new supernatural tales commissioned by Hammer publishing. Apart from the fact that it is rather brief, and readable in one sitting, Helen’s Dunmore’s novel The Greatcoat  has little in common with the Winterson’s work, except of course for the fact that it is decidedly spooky and most definitely magical.

The Greatcoat, Helen Dunmore

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The early 1950s were a tough time in Britain, the country mired in post-war austerity. Food was still in short supply, moral standards were strict, life was often pretty grey. For Isabel Carey, a newlywed setting up home in rural Yorkshire, things certainly are not easy. Her husband is trying to establish himself as a GP, and working all the hours, and their grim rented flat is cold and forbidding. The days are long and lonely. But when Isabel finds an RAF greatcoat folded up in one of the closets, things begin to change. That night she hears a knock at the window, and an unexpected guest arrives – a young man in RAF uniform.

The Greatcoat is different from your average ‘haunted house’ ghost story. Much of it is rather romantic, as Isabel develops an inevitable bond with her mysterious visitor. Like every good thriller, the story unravels itself slowly at first, but gathers speed as the truth is gradually revealed and the narrative rumbles towards a nerve-wracking finale. Dunmore explores the shadowy world of memory, and as Isabel’s own complex past mixes with that of Alec the ghostly pilot, the borders between reality and the supernatural begin to blur. The Greatcoat is elegantly written, atmospheric and more than a little sad. Strange things happen when people are lost and lonely, often with tragic consequences. But will the ending be a happy one for Isabel Carey? I’m not going to tell you, so there is only one way to find out…

http://www.helendunmore.com

Yester Castle, East Lothian

Posted in Castle, Ghosts with tags , , , , on January 3, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Despite the fact that it was once one of the most impressive and important medieval fortresses in south east Scotland, you won’t find Yester Castle in any guidebooks or on many maps. Its romantic ruins sit in wild woodland just a couple of miles outside the pretty town of Gifford, on private land belonging to the later Yester House. Finding the castle is not easy – I parked up on a farm track, walked across some fields, climbed a couple of fences and cut across the corner of a golf course before I spotted the tips of its craggy walls rising above the treetops.

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The approach to Yester Castle

Yester was originally built by one Hugo de Giffard, a 13th Century nobleman who also dabbled in the dark arts. The famous Goblin Ha’, which was reputedly built by a band of hobgoblins, is the only remaining part of his original castle, and also the location of the warlock’s supposed magical experiments. Ever since the castle fell into ruins in the 16th Century, tales of strange sounds and lights emanating from this underground lair have circulated, a result perhaps of de Giffard’s alleged pact with the Devil.

On a grey, drizzly winter day Yester Castle can seem rather forbidding. Slipping and sliding in the leaves and mud as I scrambled up a low rise to reach the ruins, I quickly regretted my totally unsuitable canvas trainers, but it was worth the treacherous climb. At the top sits a tall fragment of ancient masonry, a barrel-vaulted room at the base and some intricately carved moulding towards the top giving a tiny hint of the long-lost grandeur of this once imposing building.

The ruins of Yester Castle

The ruins of Yester Castle

Wandering further through the trees, I suddenly came upon a huge stretch of curtain wall, its grey stonework almost camouflaged amongst the muted colours of the woodland.

The camouflaged curtain wall of Yester Castle

The camouflaged curtain wall of Yester Castle

The wall is still impressive and solid, punctured by just a small arched doorway, but down to my left I spotted a set of stone stairs, inevitably covered at this time of year in slimy brown leaves. At the foot of these stairs lies two dark, iron-grated windows, and beyond them the reason for my visit, the Goblin Ha’.

Stairs down to the Goblin Ha'

Stairs down to the Goblin Ha’

Getting down to the windows without breaking my neck was the next challenge. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once they did the sharp gothic vaulting of the subterranean chamber below became clear. The Goblin Ha’ is wonderfully spooky from the outside, but I wasn’t going to stop there. I had read somewhere that it was still possible to gain access to the mythical hall. And so I began the search.

Once through the door in the curtain wall I was able to make out the subtle line of a path which curved down the side of the hill. As I followed it I became starkly aware of the huge drop to the gushing river far below. Squelching and sliding precariously along the tiny path I began to wonder whether I wasn’t being slightly foolish, but by then it was too late to turn back. At the end of the path, tucked in at the base of the ruinous corner of the curtain wall, I found a tiny, stone lined doorway, with a low, murky passageway beyond. I took a deep breath, hunched my shoulders and headed in.

The tiny doorway into the Goblin Ha'

The tiny doorway into the Goblin Ha’

The Goblin Ha’ is even more impressive on the inside. The two grated windows give some light, but it is still pretty dark in there, particularly on an overcast winter’s day.

Inside the Goblin Ha'

Inside the Goblin Ha’

It was only when I used my flash to take a couple of photos that I noticed something in the shadows of the blackest corner – a narrow set of stairs descending into the shadows below. Of course, my first thought was how I could get down there to find out what lay at the foot of the stairs. In the absence of a torch, could I somehow use my camera flash to guide my way? Could I edge down in the darkness and then flash away to reveal what lay beneath?

Stairs down into the darkness...

Stairs down into the darkness…

Then the reality of  my situation hit me. I was standing in a dark, reputedly haunted castle cellar in the middle of nowhere. No one knew I was there, and as far as I knew there was no one for miles around. I was considering heading down some dark, wet stairs to find God-knows-what at the bottom. My heart began to pound, Sweat prickled my brow. I glanced around at the desolate, dank hall with its impenetrable shadows and dark corners.

Within seconds I was up the passage, out of the door, and slithering my way back up that muddy path to safety. I blame it on a lifetime of ghost stories and horror movies, combined of course with the unmistakeably creepy atmosphere of the Goblin Ha’. It took me a good few minutes of brisk walking to recover from my overwhelming feeling of cold terror. Yester Castle is certainly extremely magical, but visiting the strange, decidedly spooky Goblin Ha’ is not an experience I will be rushing to repeat, at least not without some sturdy shoes, a torch and a brave companion…