Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Samhain - the Origins of Halloween

What we think of today as Halloween (All Hallows' Eve) was known to the Celtic world as Samhain - and I'll let you in on a little secret: it's not when you think it is.

In many ways, the Celtic world was the opposite of ours.  Their day started at twilight (which is why their festivals began on the "eve" of the day itself).  They seem to have felt that life began with death - so that debts which had been accrued in this life could be repaid in the Otherworld (i.e. after death).  And while the Celtic year was quartered by regular festivals, the two major festivals of Beltane (the "Fires of Beli" which burned in early May) and Samhain stood as the twin poles of the year.  Beltane ushered in the summer.  Samhain marked the end of summer.  It was, essentially, the Celtic New Year.

The Celtic year, then, began at the threshold of winter (in contrast to the Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar, which set March 25th as the start of the year).  Just as the Celtic day began with night, and life began with death, so the new year began with the death of the old.

Samhain (pronounced "SOW-un" or "SAH-vun") was one of two calendrical gateways, the other being the "May-Day" festival of Beltane.  Both were essentially Moon festivals and both featured large bonfires.  In Britain, the bonfire element of Samhain has been retained, although the date was moved when, in 1606, an Act of Parliament determined that the people should celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot each year on the fifth day of November.  Thus, Bonfire Night - as it is known in the United Kingdom - is really a sort of detached Samhain celebration, and the effigies of Guy Fawkes which are traditionally burned on the bonfires compare with the diabolical images associated with Samhain or Halloween: the hollowed-out pumpkins (or turnips, in Scotland) representing the spirits which are honoured at the end of summer.

As much as anything, the timing of these festivals was related to the agricultural year.  Beltane marked the moment when cattle were moved to their summer pastures; at Samhain, the cattle were brought back to their winter quarters, and some would be slaughtered and the beef salted to provide meat for the winter months (this tradition became associated with the Christian festival of St Martin - "Martinmas" - which falls on the 11th of November; in the Scots dialect, a "mart" is a cow killed for winter provisions).

But Samhain's associations with the agricultural round and, in particular, the end of the harvest season, are easiest to recognise in terms of grain.

The folk character of John Barleycorn represented the spirit of the grain which grew through the summer months.  He was, in essence, the solar hero - the "god" who flourished as the Sun grew more powerful, only to decline from Midsummer onwards.  His feminine counterpart (the Moon) underwent a similar sort of journey through the course of the year: she began as the youthful Maiden at Imbolc (early February), becoming the Flower Bride of Spring at Beltane and the fruitful Mother-figure at Lughnasadh (early August), before manifesting herself as the aged Crone or Hag at Samhain.  Together, the male and female principles were engaged in a sort of cyclical dance: she grew old as the year grew old; he rose with the corn, only to be cut down at harvest time - just as the Sun became stronger, and then weaker.

The corn harvest therefore represented something of a crisis for the solar hero, the John Barleycorn figure who - though he would rise again - was doomed to be cut down in his prime.  His sacrifice was made manifest in the fields, both by the deaths of any animals which were discovered amidst the corn, but also by the poppies which grew in the cornfields.  A perennial symbol of sleep, and the dream-state of death, the blood-red poppy came to represent the "blood-sacrifice" of the corn-god during the grain harvest and those warriors who had fallen during the battle season of summer.

As the celebration of Summer's end, Samhain was one of the major turning-points of the year: the harvest was in, the cattle were returned (some to be slaughtered); preparations had been made for the winter.  There was a natural sense of facing both ways - looking backwards, to give thanks for the successful harvest (the "sacrifice" of John Barleycorn), and forwards, to the winter, when the Earth seemed to sleep.  Death-rates, particularly among the elderly, inevitably rise during winter, and so while preparations were made for the months of hardship there was also the anticipation that some wouldn't make it through to the following spring.

The sense of facing both ways - backwards and forwards, remembering and anticipating - remains in our modern New Year, which takes place at the beginning of January (from the Roman god Janus, who faced two ways).  At Samhain, this implied a liminal time, a moment when time itself was suspended between past and future.  And just as at that other turning-point of the year - Beltane - this liminal moment was seen as an occasion when the veil between worlds was exceedingly thin.  The spirits of the ancestors and those of the natural environment were deemed to have been especially active at this time, and liable to revisit the living.  Samhain provided a sort of portal or gateway for these spirits to return, and so in honouring the (past) sacrifice of the corn-spirit and the (present) sacrifice of the Martinmas cattle, the living also honoured those who had gone before them into the Otherworld.  It became a festival of the ancestors, a Celtic Day of the Dead, a time to remember the ancestral and the elemental spirits at the very moment when the world turned from summer to winter.

Whatever the early Church thought of these traditional festivities, it was powerless to stop them.  The holy day of All Saints was introduced by the Church in AD 609.  Originally celebrated on May the 13th (the equivalent of the Celtic "Beltane" festival, often glossed in Christian literature as Whitsunday), it was moved at the behest of Pope Gregory IV in 835 to its present date of November the 1st.  The reason appears to have been because the Church was eager to "legitimise" the Samhain festivities - and so the old festival of Samhain or "Summer's  End" became known as All Hallows' Eve, the evening before All Saints Day.  (There was something of a precedent for this alteration of a festival: nowhere in the Bible does it indicate at what time of year Christ was born, but the powerful cult of Mithras celebrated the birth of the solar hero on December 25th, and this was duly adopted by the Church as Christmas).

However, for a real taste of what Samhain traditionally meant, we must bear in mind a more recent change in the calendar.  The Gregorian Calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII) was introduced in 1582, but it was not adopted in Britain until 1752.  By then, the difference between the "Old Style" Julian Calendar and the "New Style" Gregorian equivalent was 11 days.  When the New Style calendar was introduced in Britain, Wednesday, September the 2nd 1752, was immediately followed by Thursday, September the 14th.  People rioted, fearing that nearly two weeks of their lives had been taken from them!

But the change in the calendar meant that the old festivals shifted.  Imbolc - the Celtic festival which took place around February the 2nd - now fell on February 14th (which is why we celebrate true love on "St Valentine's Day").  The "games of Lugh", which were celebrated at Lughnasadh - August 1st - became the "Glorious Twelfth" and the start of the grouse-shooting season.  The Midwinter festival of Yule now fell twelve days later on January 1st, or "Hogmanay", as it is known in Scotland.

Samhain also slipped from its traditional date.  We have already seen that some of the Samhain traditions - in particular, the slaughter of cattle to provide meat for the winter - became associated with St Martin's Day, or November the 11th.  The bonfires of Samhain now burn, thanks to an Act of Parliament, on November the 5th (although a visit to Northern Ireland should show that the night of bonfires and "false faces" is still celebrated there on October 31st).  But early in the 20th century, a historical accident reinstated much of the old spirit of Samhain.

When the Armistice brought an end to the First World War, the date of November 11th became Remembrance Day, and the "Doomed Youth" which was cut down on the Western Front was commemorated in much the same way as the dead were traditionally honoured at Samhain.  Even more telling, the Flanders poppy became the essential symbol of remembrance - just as it had previously signified the sacrifice of John Barleycorn at harvest time.

Though, in our overly commercial age, we tend to celebrate the traditions of Samhain at Halloween - with mischief and trickery, treats representative of summer's bounty, and images of the ghosts and goblins which are loosed upon the living world at this time of year - the "real" Samhain would fall today on Remembrance Day, our contemporary "Day of the Dead".

Tuesday, 29 October 2013


Welcome to our 4th day of our Great Creepfest! Today on Paula's People, I want you to meet again a lovely, but scary lady: Michelle Gent! I met Michelle a year or so ago when I was scouring the net for a new editor and she was recommended to me by a fellow author friend. Michelle, I soon found out. likes to have a finger in many pies and today she talks about the Horror Pie! When I knew we were having a Halloween Creepfest, I knew exactly who to invite on my spot. Being an author of horror/urban-thrillers, I asked Michelle to tell us all what got her into it and why scary things rock her boat! Over to you Michelle!

Why do I like horror? There’s a question to get creative juices flowing (well, mine, anyway).
Why do I like horror? I don’t know why, I just do.
I like the thrill of terror as something scares the living daylights out of me. I like the way my pulse races and adrenalin floods my system but I also like the satisfying and very real safety net of knowing it’s all fiction, made up for entertainment, and as soon as it becomes too much, I can put my hands over my eyes and stop watching or close the book and stop reading. I also like the idea that my stories can inspire the same feelings in other people, my readers. Yes, I like that very much.

As a kid we used to make up stories that scared us. When the nights drew in around this time of year, not too late and not too cold or wet but dark, it had to be dark. We’d sit on doorsteps and make up stories. There was a large field next to my friend’s house and that gave us a creepy setting for the storytelling. My main problem was that my house was the furthest away but because I was the tomboy, the bravest, most daring of us all and the most reckless, it didn’t seem to matter that as one by one the group went back to the safety of their homes and I was left to walk the last few yards on my own. Of course I had to maintain that fearless facade in front of everyone because that was all I had. I wasn’t one of the cool kids who everyone wanted to hang out with, I didn’t have the best toys or the most fashionable clothes – all I had was my ‘image’ and my bravado. So, I had to tell the scariest story and I had to be the bravest when getting the rest of the kids back to their houses, even if I was frightened to go in by the back door because there was a bigger, darker field at the back of our house.

I grew up in the 70s and I remember one horrible event from back then. The Black Panther was loose. He had kidnapped Lesley Whittle and her body was discovered in a drainage shaft. The summer that he was on the run, we were mostly playing in drainage systems that ran under the M1 motorway near to us. We’d scare each other silly with stories of discovering the Black Panther in our ‘playground’. I had a macabre imagination – I still do. The Black Panther was caught that December, a few miles from where we lived. Not that he’d have been interested in a handful of kids from a council estate. Our parents wouldn’t have been able to raise £50 let alone £50,000!

My mind is a fabulous place, a terrifying playground filled with dark and dreadful things that have yet to make their way into my books – but I’m sure they will at some point. I was ‘advised’ to calm my scary stories down when the younger kids were about because I scared them too much. Yeah, that was me, the weirdo with the over-active imagination, the dark side that could find the cruel and vicious nature in most things. Cats are cruel when they play with their prey but it’s their nature, it’s not deliberate. A cat hones its skill on the half-maimed mouse, bird or vole. It will bring a young mouse to its kittens – or its human – to help teach them how to hunt. That’s not cruelty, that’s nature, teaching the next generation how to survive.
One of my childhood pets came home limping. He allowed me to look at his leg. Someone had wrapped an elastic band around it and it was biting into his leg. It would have cut off the blood supply and he’d have lost the leg if I hadn’t spotted it. Another cat didn’t do that to him; that was the vile and deliberate act of a human. Cats aren’t cruel, humans are cruel.

Humans seek out ways to hurt other humans, by their deeds and their words. Kids in the playground: One kid wears glasses so she’s a ‘specky-four-eyes’. Another kid has a speech impediment so he’ll be labelled ‘st-st-st-stuttering-Stanley’ (remember, Sixth Sense?) Another kid has ginger hair and if she doesn’t have a means of answering back and making her tormentors look silly, she’s going to have a hellish time at school.
Then what happens if kids are left to their own devices? Lord of the Flies paints a pretty grim picture and that book fascinated me at school.
Spooky places fascinate me. Haunted houses, derelict buildings, castles, ancient manor houses, caves and forests; I’m drawn to those places but my imagination is such that I couldn’t stay in any of them alone. My mind betrays me, it ‘sees’ things, hears things and it makes up all kinds of terrible possibilities.
So I channel those horrors and terrors. I put them in situations where there’s danger and strife but I make the story someone else’s predicament.
I try to make the people and situations in my stories as real as I can. Obviously that’s not always possible but if there’s a little something real in there then it adds weight and credibility.
I put my friends in my stories (yes, they know) and I also put people I’ve met, worked with and had other ‘encounters’ with in my stories. Of course any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.
I like to play with situations and ‘what if’ moments. Deadlier started out with such a ‘what if’ moment.
“What if there was someone leaping from rooftop to rooftop, silhouetted by that gorgeous full moon?” I asked Loretta, receptionist at The Late Lounge, the nightclub we were working at in Mansfield, North Notthinghamshire back in 1999.
“Oooh, you mean a vampire?” she said.
I looked back at her over my shoulder and grinned. “No, vampires have been done to death, I think werewolf.”
I went home early the next morning with my head filled with werewolves leaping across buildings in a small mining town in the midlands, England and I started writing the very next day.

So, why do I like horror? Because natural justice can be served in a way that satisfies the bloodthirsty, morbid and twisted mind by methods that convention, society and the law of the land frowns upon. I can wreak havoc upon the nasty, the sly and the cruel people I’ve met – yes, there are a number of those. The bullies, freaks and throwbacks get their come-uppance without me getting arrested. But I think most of all it satisfies something in me that nothing else I’ve tried comes close to. The voices in my head are quietened, they are calmed and they are sated by the way I portray them. My imagination has found a way out of the confines of my head and it seems at peace when my stories are read. It’s almost like they can go to other heads and other imaginations to play and that makes them happy.

So, if any of my stories play on your mind for longer than usual, I apologise. The dark thing that nags at me to write them all out and release them into the world is happy and I can’t do anything about that, at least they’re allowing me some peace for the moment but they’ll be back, they don’t leave me alone for long...

It Wasn’t...

The fleeting shadow that passed you on the darkened streets that you thought was a stray dog?
The person behind you that you thought was coincidentally going the same way that you were?
The feeling you got that there was something behind you that you thought was your imagination?
It wasn’t.

The glint you thought was the lights on a car passing the house?
The caller that hung up as soon as you answered the phone you thought was a wrong number?
The movement you saw from the corner of your eye you thought was your imagination?
It wasn’t...

The flicker of a shadow you thought was the wind blowing the branches of the tree?
That noise you thought was the central heating switching on?
The sound you thought was the cat bumping against something?
It wasn’t!

The shadow was someone checking you out.
The person was seeing where you live.
The feeling was instinct, you should have taken notice.

The glint was light reflecting off a knife.
The caller was making certain you were alone.
The movement was the knife being raised to cut the phone line.

The flicker was someone in the garden.
The noise was someone forcing the window.
The sound was someone on your stairs.

Are you scared yet?

Wow! Thanks Michelle! I don't know if that was my imagination or not but there is a noise on my stairs!!!
Michelle is giving away a set of 6 short stories of her YA book, Dusty the Demon Hunter, so if you'd like to win these for your kindle or e-book, please leave a comment on the blog and tell us why YOU like ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night!

Lisl's Bits and Bobs: "The Open Door"

It was a dark and stormy night--no, no, that's so not right. Besides, it had stopped snowing days ago and the hoarfrost clinging to the trees stood stark against the clear blue sky. Mid afternoon shouts of romping children squealed in through the crack I'd allowed with the open door to relieve some of the baking heat, and I peered into the stove at my rosemary bread. Nearly done.

But the house was slightly dark, which I found odd, given the southern exposure that generally lights up the rooms and, one might think, contribute to the heat even this far from the kitchen. Peering outside I scanned the skies for clouds, chalking it up to time of day and knowing night would soon have us in its grips, not so long after dinner. Running upstairs for a jumper I swerved to avoid something Adam had left there. I’ll have to discuss this with him later—again.

Still surprisingly early when I tucked him into his bed later, I decided to read, something I hadn’t had heaps of time to do lately, given the circumstances. Very satisfying it was to sit down in a tidy room; my mind felt a bit more at ease for it hadn’t since some weeks—the room as well as my mind, that is. Mad, jagged piles of mail and papers threatening to overwhelm me at any given point had been stuck in a corner, sewing projects piled up, notices from school: all hinted to me with their glaring reminders of unpaid bills, necessary mending, unfinished applications, attorney appointments and job interviews to prepare for, re-furbishing plans to attend to—and the wee one needs boots! I drew in a breath and then just as quickly shushed myself: not tonight. I needed to take advantage of the calm and orderliness of my surroundings, for I am one, unfortunately, with poor filters and have always found it difficult to ignore disorder around me; my mind senses it too keenly and itself feels cluttered and distracted.


The soft thud of the heavy book on the carpet must have been what woke me. Still stretched across the sofa, I groggily scanned the room, indulging once more in the lovely order finally achieved, and remained seated. The pleasure of not jumping up for some demand or another washed over me and even my face seemed to blush. I glanced at an empty corner, which I’d designated as the spot for the suit of armour I’d had my eye on; it would fit nicely with the décor I’d spent months gathering. My home was comfortable and inviting, and I felt pleased.

Long ago I had dreamt I was sitting on a sofa, elbows leaning on knees, when I became aware of a tiny form at the door frame peeking round the corner and, elbows remaining on knees, opened my arms to invite the small, sneaky being to me for a hug despite the late hour. It was perhaps this recall, an immediate indicator then that the child I carried was a little boy, that told me now the sensation I felt of someone creeping down the stairs behind me was this boy child, six years later acting out the dream I’d had of him, even if not precisely in the same way.

Having moved lazily from my groggy state and now sitting up so the stairs were to my right, I was surprised to see nobody there. A soft feeling, however, had spread across the room, and slowly I felt the movement of others as they gathered nearby, watching me as I unseeingly watched them, breathless, and quietly astounded at my lack of terror. Some I felt were people I recognized; the identity of others I could not say. In the corner stood a very still and tall someone, watching me quietly, as if he were assessing me, or perhaps my world. Oddly my first articulated thought was of the suit of armour and how impossible it was for him to remain because of this; I knew he smiled from one corner of his mouth and laughed ever so softly, as if he were benignly amused at my acquired dilemma. I looked back to the others and heard their reassurances that all was well; they can no longer be harmed and the time for mourning them has passed.

The time is past? How do you – I stopped, tickled by a breath near my face, the breath of the first someone to lean down to the level of my seated position, as he looked directly at me. That is, we were face to face; though I could not see him, I knew I was looking squarely into the face of someone long late. I tried to say the words in my mind, to create a greater sense of reality, that I was not imagining or making this up and even if I could not see, I was indeed staring directly past some breach between two worlds. My heart beating only somewhat stronger, perhaps because I continued on some level to tell myself this was not happening, I searched the space before me for his face, for something visual, anything to help me reach across to him, for I felt I must see him, had to communicate with him; the devastation of not doing would be great.

It must have been relief that came with the breath finally escaping from my lips, though it also seemed to solidify some separation, and this being was no more, at least not in front of me as only moments before. The feeling of grief took me by surprise, like a storm that breaks without warning and, as the rush around my ears and self that engulfed me dissipated, I collapsed onto the sofa. All the gathered company had disappeared, excepting the mysterious man who outrageously stood in the way of “my” suit of armour; I was alone. I could hear Adam’s soft, rhythmic breathing coming from his room upstairs, and I wept.


My mother’s favorite ghost was the lady who floated down the stairs as she sat knitting. Always some ‘Lady,’ I scorned when I heard her stories. Grey, green, betrayed, sorrowful, unimaginative, why do they have to be here at all? Of course she recognized my disdain for the fear it was, and frequently scolded me for what she designated as my lack of discipline. She came from a misty land filled with ghosts and though she chided me—So do you! You have this ability as well, though you refuse to work to develop or understand it. It is easier for you to be afraid—she was wrong. She told stories of her premonitions and ghostly encounters in her own childhood, but even my father seemed not to spend much time giving these tales any credence. I supposed then that I was like him, and wanted no part of it all. Still, there were unnerving, eerie parts of our house: the back storage room, staircase and my bedroom were all areas that alarmed me owing to the unsettling events that occurred there, and I avoided them like the plague.

It was a gigantic show, of course. Though I never engaged these apparitions or presences alone, I liked listening to her stories and after some time openly allowed her to tell them, even reveled in their brashness and chill-inducing breathlessness. There was the man in the kitchen who apparently, she concluded, must dislike dirty floors because every single time she dropped something—which she always asserted was actually pushed from her hand; she felt the force—she ended up realizing how dirty the floor was and she might as well clean the whole thing. Nothing ever “fell” from her hands when she stood on a floor immaculate. Someone else disliked loud noises, the explanation she conjured up whenever my brother complained of his stereo being turned off. I myself heard coughing and speech at night on the other side of my bedroom wall, in what my mother called the “loft” despite its adjacent location.

One day I returned from school to find her closest friend waiting for me. My mother, she related, had been papering the wall on the stairway, fell all the way down and broke her arm. Pushed, really she said in a whisper. She says in no uncertain terms that she felt a hand give her a good shove and down she went. Apart from wondering how it got to be called a “good” shove, I later wondered that my mother had to have missed some serious pre-considerations when she failed to reckon on the danger of climbing a stepladder at the top of a staircase. My siblings mocked my common sense at every turn, but even I would not have engaged in such reckless behavior.

In reality, I believed her. I lost no love for this particular staircase and sprinted up or down whenever I had to pass through its hair-raising effect. More than once I had encountered something myself there, though it puzzled my mother why I sat at the top of it at bedtime. The truth is I refused to go upstairs to the bedroom I shared with my sister until she came as well—the stairs were the less frightful as our room clearly had some manifestation, as evidenced by my chronic nightmares, voices and the sensation of someone being in there. As the time Nadia came upstairs was generally much later than my bedtime I tended to be chronically tired at school. Once I fell asleep sitting at the top of the stairs and hit the door jam with such force I developed a cartoonish bump on my forehead. I also fell several times though it was not until someone pushed a glass of water out of my hands as I was about to descend did I actually ever feel anything. There was definitely a push.


So it was I surprised myself by being unafraid one evening as I stood by the washing machine and the lights flickered on and off. Indeed it was with great relief that I looked up at them because just several nights before my visitor had appeared to me in a dream, perhaps in response to my request. Having recalled my mother’s advice to ask apparitions who they are or what they need (Are you bloody kidding me? had been my response), but not being quite ready to accept a verbal reply should it come, I did in fact speak aloud, carefully choosing my words to form statements and no questions. Briefly I expressed my disappointment, explaining my shameful cowardice, and asked him to return in a way that could facilitate communication without fear breaking us apart. I expected that nothing would happen.

 Ordinarily I would have dismissed such an encounter as did in fact occur save for the utter vivid reality of it all. Very rarely have I had a dream in which I was so aware as I was in this one, and never before did I know I was in an altered state as I carried on a conversation with someone. Yet there I was, fast asleep when he appeared at my bedside, at first standing some distance away, and I swiftly sat up. He began to speak and came closer, sinking to his knees in much the same way as I had been taught to do for the comfort of small children. His facial expression was very earnest and he spoke to me as if it were of great import that I hear what he had to say. For all his intensity, he was also very kind and soft-spoken. I was so awake, so very, very awake, and yet I slept.

It was perhaps after some time I began to tire, and this may have lessened my ability to absorb the notion of speaking to someone from the next world. I found myself easing off the elbow holding up my head and backing onto my pillow, which in turn may have further increased my unease. Suddenly I felt it was unnatural to be engaged as I was, and a shock of alarm shot through me. My companion’s expression became inquisitive, then anxious when I said, “I am sorry, so very sorry but this is a bit much for me.” Immediately he backed away, apologizing as he did, and my regret was swift to arrive, for I could see the upset written clearly on his face. How I longed to turn back time but for mere seconds! Alas, it was too late and once more I found myself, face wet with tears, wondering how it is this could happen and why did I care so much about these encounters.


The flickering lights brought me straightaway to recall of my mother’s guidance on the ghostly: they can be mischievous or simply want to say hello; electricity is a favorite medium for them to capture our attention: just acknowledge them and all will be fine. I smiled in relief, for I had spent some days being sorely disappointed and wondering if he would ever return.

As time went on I became somewhat accustomed to the lights—which had hitherto never shown any signs of faulty wiring—flickering at one turn and going completely off at the next. Of course the deeper suspicion that aging wires really was the only cause may have engendered acceptance, although the timing frequently puzzled me. One afternoon found me wrecked and with heaps of washing to do, when the lights went off and remained so.  Astonishingly unafraid, I sighed deeply and waited. Still the lights failed to return. I became slightly impatient. Please turn the lights back on I bid in a somewhat testy voice. Without hesitation they returned, I resumed my work and went to my bed.


As months passed I continued to be aware that the male presence in the living room—in my suit of armour’s corner—had not taken his leave. Apart from the décor dilemma, this was not so much a cause for concern, although I did find it peculiar he remained. I sensed he watched me frequently, and as I came down the stairs and his position was directly opposite, often our eyes would lock, even though I could not see him. Sometimes I would stop, continuing the gaze, almost willing him to speak for I sensed a very strong personality, a dark and brooding one almost but again, not threatening to me. I thought if he ever spoke or appeared I might scream and leap from my skin, but this dance went on nonetheless. If I allowed myself to form actual words in my mind—He is watching me, for example—then I could sense his energy in a stronger form; many of the times he was somewhat amused with me, though I never could learn what I did to entertain him so. I wondered if he ever moved from his spot when I slept or left.

It is perhaps an indicator of how comfortable I was—or at least how edgy I was not, as “comfortable” may be taking things a bit too far—that one night I wished to take some tea in between my first and second sleep, though I felt slightly wary to go downstairs. I would have to walk through the spot where someone had taken to lingering: the bottom of the stairs, as if it were some transitional spot that somehow benefitted them and also lent credence to Adam’s firm insistence on that first night that he had not left anything there. Whether I was bothered by moving past here or not simply depended on the night, though I never detected any sort of pattern to be able to predict if I would or would not run screaming at last, betraying some terror occupying my inner being. It was just all too smooth.

On this night I felt the disquiet, though oddly enough I decided to go for my tea. I say I “decided,” though it was not so much a choice as that some force, my own or otherwise I do not know, propelled me to the kitchen. All the while I had instinctive rather than articulated thoughts of the weirdness I felt coming from downstairs, but moved as if I were a puppet, somehow controlled by someone else. I coached myself just to keep moving, whatever happened, to play at being calm, with the notion that only the appearance of fright could elicit anything horrid.

The kitchen felt very safe; I prepared my tea and moved through the dining room towards living room and the stairway. Walking through the same spot I had to get to the kitchen, this time I suddenly began to move as if I were in a film and progressed in slow motion.  I strode directly into…something. Have you ever been walking through a neighborhood, perhaps very early in the morning and suddenly your face is enmeshed in a gigantic spider’s web? The sensation is somewhat equitable, as in you realize it and generally keep going, though the web stretches with you. In this instance I, too, moved on for I felt it crucial to continue unhindered and return to the safety of my room. But this whatever it was stretched as I went, elongating into a battle of wills as I determined that as slowly as I may be walking, not only will I get away from it but I will do so the victor. Within this slowed version of time I walked, tea in hand as it splattered and scalded my wrist, then leapt in tiny waves out of its cup and I could feel myself break free from the phantom I had just walked through and calmly proceeded to my room.

The lights continued to capture my attention, though not always in ways I favored. They came on at night when all were abed, and my spoken wishes began to be ignored. I became aware of another presence, that is, in addition to the two I already knew: I could sense their differences, perhaps in the same way mothers can discern those of their babies’ cries. It stood in my room at night near to the same spot my first visitor had, and it by turns frightened me as well as caused my temper to flare. On several occasions I woke in the night to catch it blowing in my face; twice it seemed to be sucking my breath away. I gagged and coughed to resume normal breathing and shooed it off.

After some time the kitchen lights began to play havoc with my work, including just some days after installing fresh bulbs. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I lost my temper that day; with so much pressure bearing down on me related to being jobless and too many other stressors, I felt not the energy to play games with someone whose tricks were now becoming unfunny. Angrily I told it I had enough to do without chasing after its silliness and mean games. You are to leave this light alone, now.

At one point I consulted experts to have a look and offer advice. They explained the etiquette of communicating with the dead and showed me machinery designed to detect factors to eliminate the possibility of ghosts or enable an exchange. Results were rather inconclusive: while there was nothing really to confirm any sort of presence—and even I didn’t sense anything in the company of these ghost hunters—the male of the group claimed to have also walked smack into someone unseen, and several of us witnessed an India tin by some unseen force rattle and settle, as if it had been picked up and dropped straight down onto the counter. There were also those questions we asked yielding a fantastically lit-up monitor that went mad at particular enquiries. We discussed reasons why they might not show themselves: they may be gone or never have existed; annoyed or discomfited by my recent furniture shift; or not in favor of the newcomers’ arrival. We discussed a great deal, but nothing in either direction could ever really be ascertained. I questioned the entire experience, wondering if perhaps the strain of the past year was simply too much, and my own energy caused many of these occurrences.


Things then came to a head. I had taken practically to cowering under my covers at night, growing increasingly frustrated with a situation in which sleeping required a guard; I left the light on to disable the spectre’s ability to sneak up to me, and enabled my light sleeper mode—something I could do from the days when Adam was a sickly baby and I woke at the sound of his labored breathing.

On one particular evening I woke just as the creature made to come closer; my eyes opening sent a swoosh across the room and it reeling backwards. I sat up, throwing off the protective covers, vexation emboldening my anger, which outranked any fear I may have felt. I would not have tolerated any human intruder; why had I allowed this to go on for any supernatural one? This is my home and you are violating my good nature; I won’t have it any more. You are to leave at once!  I felt its astonishment and a drawing back of breath, similar to that of an infant gathering steam for another good wail and knew it aimed to test my resolve. No! It’s enough! You snuck in here with others, but are unwelcome! Get out! I hissed these last words from my standing position in the middle of the bed as I watched its transparent form, a shape I could not quite define, rush from the room, an echo reverberating down the hallway as I knew it was gone. At the doorway stood someone else whose head turned as he observed the pathway of departure, and I felt also his somewhat surprise at this turn of events. But I was grievously exhausted and fell down to the bed, where I woke up next morning without having pulled up the covers.

Some weeks later, when it had been just over one year since the night when my living room was somehow opened to those who had passed, I sat with a pile of books, reading, skimming, trying to decide which one to indulge in. I happened to glance at the red book I’d been reading then, and a breeze blew in from the open window. Late morning, the sun was finally marking his appearance, with a break in the cold snap. We’d had a very rainy summer, often too miserable for the children to play outside, and hoped for a nicer one this year, though it was still some months away.

The chinook coming from the glacier blew in once more, this time capturing the leaves of Tagore, skimming through as if by some unseen hand looking for a particular page. The swirls indicated a midwinter relief, and I stood in the doorway to watch the magnifiscent sunrise, observing as if Aurora herself brushed broad crimson and saffron strokes across the sky just for me. Stretching, I captured some of the dust in my hands, releasing it to the air as I watched it dance away into time. Slightly chilled I turned back to my work, noticing as I sat once more that a passage had been chosen. Leaning down as I sipped my tea I read—

That traveller is no longer here, no longer here.
His beloved kept him not,
His realms released him,
Neither sea nor mountain could bar him.
Today his chariot
Travels at the beck of the night
To the song of the stars
Towards the gate of dawn.
I remain here weighted with memory:
He is free of burdens; he is no longer here.


Thank you for reading this account recording some of the events of this particular year. If you are not sufficiently creeped out, may we recommend this book:

A long-time fave!--with stories by such authors as Muriel Spark, Tim O'Brien, A.S. Byatt, Robertson Davies and Penelope Lively. If you'd like to win a copy, just comment below to get your name into the hat. Tell us your favorite ghost story or comment about the encounters in this post--or whatever you like! (Please be sure to leave a contact.) We shall draw a name on Halloween to determine the winner. Good luck!

Lisl can be found writing about ghosts and other topics on her blog before the second sleep

Monday, 28 October 2013

Putting Meat on the Table!

Scotland in the early 16th Century was largely a lawless place once you left the perceived security of the towns and cities. Out in the wilds of the countryside all manner of unpleasantness was rumoured to lurk and only the very brave or the very foolish would dare to travel far from the beaten track without the safety of a large group. One part of Scotland however had a reputation so fearful that travellers would go far out of their path to avoid crossing this portion of land; that area was Girvan in the south-west of Scotland on the Ayrshire coast.
Today it is an area of exquisite natural beauty beloved of both nature lovers and golfers as well as those seeking to follow in the footsteps of Scotland's bard Robbie Burns. Back in those long gone days not all of the locals were as welcoming to visitors as they are today.
Over the course of 25 years a hundred, possibly as many as several thousand people vanished while travelling through the rolling hills and fields and while the authorities did what they could to solve these mysterious disappearances, and indeed several innkeepers were tried and executed on suspicion of being involved, people continued to go missing!
Dismembered limbs washed ashore
The only clue as to what had happened was the dismembered limbs which were washed ashore from time to time along the Ayrshire coast to horrify the locals and reignite the calls for action to be taken. In response to these calls local magistrates turned to the highest powers in Scotland demanding that assistance be given. Soldiers were dispatched to find and capture those responsible but they returned empty-handed. There was no trace of the guilty to be found.
The disappearance may well have continued for another 25 years were it not for a mistake made by the killers when they ambushed a young couple returning from a market and fair. The couple, on horseback, were set upon and the unfortunate wife dragged from the back of their mount to be immediately murdered and torn asunder by a mob of wild men and women more animal than human. The husband using pistol and sword managed to win free from their clutches but could do no more than ride for his life pursued by the shrieking blood crazed savages.
This time the authorities were determined to put a stop once and for all to the crimes and once again they set forth to Edinburgh to demand help. Their pleas came to the ears of King James IV who was as outraged by the bloody crimes as the people of Ayrshire were. He ordered a small army of 400 soldiers be assembled and led them personally to put an end to these murderous bandits himself.
Aided by a pack of trained hounds the king and his men found a deep cave on the very shore itself where the murderers lived and from where they surrendered when the King demanded they do so.
The criminals numbered 47 in total and it quickly became obvious they were the incestuous results of decades of inbreeding led by the head of the family and his common law wife.
His name was Alexander Beane, a former labourer from East Lothian near Edinburgh who had decided that hard work was not for him. He had headed off in search of pastures new in the company of a woman named Agnes Douglas. Unwilling to earn a living by honest means they instead took to robbing and murdering travellers on the roads of Ayrshire and soon discovered the most profitable way to dispose of the bodies of their victims was to eat them!
They raised a family in their home which was a cave on the shoreline whose entrance was below water at high tide and meant that no'one ever thought to look for them there. These children as they grew to adulthood were bred with by the parents and between themselves until a great gang of murderous cannibals roamed the dark roads around Girvan and brought terror to all until they were finally captured. Their cave was found to contain the smoked and pickled remains of dozens of men, women and children! The king ordered the whole clan be shackled in heavy chains and taken to Edinburgh.
There was no question as to their guilt and it was decided that the punishment should fit the crimes. On the cobbles of the Royal Mile outside St Giles Cathedral the male members of the family had their arms and legs hacked from their bodies and they were left to bleed to death. Once the last man had expired the women, who had been forced to watch the death of their menfolk, were bound together around a stake and burned to death in front of a jeering crowd of thousands.
That then was the end of the reign of terror of Alexander (Sawney) Beane and his murderous family.
That, at least, is the legend of Sawney beane but just how much of it is true?
Probably none of it.
There are no records of any of those hundreds of missing people. No court records to show the trial of innkeepers thought to be involved and even the identity of the King varies from version to version. King James I, the IV and the VI are all named as being the one responsible for solving the problem. Even the name 'Sawney' is a clue as to where the story originates: England. Sawney was an old and derogatory term for the Scottish and the story first saw the light of day in the early 18th Century when English suspicions of Scots and their Jacobite leanings were always at the forefront of suspicion minds.

One interesting footnote to the legend is that the tale of a murderous cannibal family inspired Wes Craven to make the movie The Hills Have Eyes!

So from the Ayrshire hills to the Hollywood hills the story of blood, incest, greed and murder stretched across the centuries.

This post is written by Stuart S Laing - Review Blog author and writer of 18thc Scottish mysteries

Sunday, 27 October 2013

When the Devil Came to Devon - Rob Bayliss

It was a cold morning on Thursday February 8th 1855 in South Devon. There had been a moderate snowfall the previous night which had ceased around midnight. Those early to rise in the villages (as they were then) along the Exe estuary were greeted with a shocking and frightening surprise; footprints, or rather hoof prints, “burnt” into the snow.

From Exmouth they stretched to Topsham, crossed the River and continued to Dawlish and Teignmouth. Reports later surfaced that they continued towards Totnes; that is a journey of 100 miles between the Exe and Dart estuaries.

The prints were maddening; they traversed the country without any thought of the obstacles in their way. If they led to a house, the prints traversed the roof to appear on the other side. Likewise haystacks and high walls (some 14 feet high) were no obstacle and, strangely enough, neither were narrow pipes (some only 4 inches in diameter). It mattered not, the footprints were at either end; as if their maker had squeezed through them.                                                                        

Local Clergymen were quick to point the finger at Satan, scouring Devon for the souls of sinners to claim as his own, and urged repentance and full church pews as a remedy. It would be easy to put this down to the superstitions of rural folk, but even those of an empirical bent joined the feeling of general unease.

When the tracks were measured they were worryingly consistent; they were 4 inches long, 3 inches across and 16 inches apart and in single file. They left a trail that could only have been made by a bipedal creature. They were left in virgin snow, there were no tracks around them, making the explanation of the phenomenon as a hoax by pranksters difficult to sustain. Hunting parties followed the tracks on both sides of the Exe without success. Amid the ensuing hysteria, reports were made of sightings of a “devil-like” figure.

For two days the area was awash with fear and rumour, as the locals wondered whether the strange nocturnal visitation would return. The story was taken up by the papers and relayed far and wide, in Britain and beyond. The following report was published in Bell’s Life in Sydney& Sporting Reviewer 26th May 1855:

“It appears on Thursday night last, there was a very heavy snowfall in the neighbourhood of Exeter and the South of Devon. On the following morning the inhabitants of the above towns were surprised at discovering the footmarks of some strange and mysterious animal endowed with the power of ubiquity, as the footprints were to be seen in all kinds of unaccountable places - on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and court-yards, enclosed by high walls and pailings, as well in open fields.

As the story spread a number of theories were put forward. The eminent Victorian biologist and founding father of palaeontology, Sir Richard Owen, suggested them to be  caused by foraging badgers; the distinctive hoof shape being caused by freeze-thaw action. Other suggestions of their cause were swans, a hot air balloon trailing a rope, even hopping wood mice!

The papers settled on the theory suggested by the Rev. Musgrave, in a letter to the London Illustrated News, that the tracks were caused by escaped kangaroos from a private zoo in Sidmouth, owned by a Mr Fische. However it was never ascertained whether Mr Fische had actually lost some animals from his collection, or indeed how the kangaroos had managed to cross the River Exe.

To add to the mystery, after the local hysteria had died down, Rev Musgrave later retracted his statement to the paper:

“I found a very apt opportunity to mention the name of kangaroo, in allusion to the report then current. I certainly did not pin my faith to that version of the mystery ... but the state of the public mind of the villagers ... dreading to go out after sunset ... under the conviction that this was the Devil's work ... rendered it very desirable that a turn should be given to such a degraded and vitiated notion ... and I was thankful that a kangaroo ... [served] to disperse ideas so derogatory…” Rev G. M. Musgrave: letter to The Illustrated London News, 3 March 1855


Perhaps if such a phenomena occurs again, 21st Century science can be applied to explain their cause, or perhaps a blank will be drawn, as what happened over 150 years ago. Surely the cause couldn’t have really have been diabolic… could it?

Rob Bayliss - the Review

Friday, 25 October 2013

A Night Out in Old Edinburgh

Every weekend the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town are full of revellers in search of a good night out. From the pubs and clubs of the High Street and the Grassmarket there are venues to cater for every taste and occasion. The ready supply of strong drink can, and sometimes does, lead to problems.
While this may be the type of headline we have all seen in the popular press over the last few years the phenomena is far from new.
city centre revellers
Throughout the 18th Century Edinburgh was to find itself awash in a great array of clubs and societies frequented by the great and good of Society. From poets to painters, jugglers to judges, Scotland's capital saw dozens of gentlemen's clubs spring up to provide them with the opportunity for convivial chat, radical politics, intellectual debate or more commonly, the chance to misbehave.
Indeed the local paper The Edinburgh Courant at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment in the latter half of the century complained that it wasn't safe to walk the streets of the city at night due to drunken youths roaming about bent on mischief.
What all these clubs had in common were bizarre rules, invented traditions and ridiculous names. The Bonnet Lairds when gathered would each wear a broad, blue Scots bonnet!
The Pious Club held their drunken soirées in a far from pious manner but took their name from the fact these drunken nights were held in the back room of a pie shop, which indicates the level of humour popular with these young rakes.
Most teenagers would have met the criteria for becoming members of The Boar Club: they had to keep their bedrooms looking like a pig-sty! At club meeting it was traditional to only communicate by oinking and grunting at each other, no doubt with much cause for amusement for all concerned!
Yet another popular society was The Dirty Club. Members here were required to arrive for meetings dressed in filthy, stinking rags to gain admittance.
Other societies aimed for a more sinister reputation however. The Skull Club claimed to drink their liquor from a human skull while The Sweating Club would drink heavily until the stroke of midnight then set out in search of victims. Anyone they found on the streets would be chased until they collapsed exhausted and soaked in sweat. How far they would be capable of chasing anyone after drinking all night is debatable.
The good old days!
Typically the societies were all male affairs but The Horn Order, formed in 1705, was a notable exception. The Order was popular with the sons and daughters of the city's leading citizens along with the young lords and ladies of the Lothians. The Horn Order, their symbol was a horn spoon hence the name, held regular masquerade balls in private homes far from parental eyes where these young people were able to drink and mix freely without regard to the normal conventions of Society.
Some rules, typically, remained unchanged. On the streets of Edinburgh. While it was considered unremarkable to see a party of High Court Judges swaying down the Royal Mile singing rude songs and drunkenly accosting young women it was considered disgraceful for those same young women to be seen in a similar condition! Being a 'little' inebriated while in good company however was thought of as perfectly fine.
South Bridge Cellar
The other great opportunity for young men and women to meet and mix freely were the so-called Oyster Cellars! Invitations were issued to the sons and daughters of the Middle and Upper classes bidding them attend secret events held in dark cellars made claustrophobic, hot and sweaty through the press of bodies and illuminated by tallow candles. Here great platters of oysters were laid on rough tables along with punch-bowls filled with porter. Unlike the formal evenings held in Assembly Rooms where every word and gesture was observed by chaperones, the cellars allowed the most fashionable young men and women to mix freely and without constraint.
For those who opposed these events, the rudeness and vulgarity displayed were said to be the sole attraction! For those who attended however the Oyster Cellars one of the main attractions was the opportunity for displays of wit, intellect and merriment by both sexes. Remarks and jokes which elsewhere would have been considered scandalous were celebrated here.
Live music in an Edinburgh cellar
Once the oysters and porter had been consumed bowl of brandy and rum punch would be brought out. Hired musicians would strike up a lively tune and a night of wild dancing and free abandon would commence. As these events were held in generally small and cramped rooms and actual cellars it can be imagined that the dancing would have been intimate!
One of the principal locations for these evenings was Luckie Middleman's Taverns on the Cowgate where the south pier of South Bridge now stands. Bannerman's Bar now occupies almost the exact same spot and is still popular with the young people of Edinburgh providing live music seven nights a week although the last time I visited there were no oysters on the menu! 
As ever in Edinburgh, the more things change, the more they remain the same so the next time you hear someone complaining about the youth of today remind them that bad behaviour is nothing new!

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries the #1 bestselling series in the Kindle Edinburgh Historical Fiction chart
His blog can be followed at