Tuesday 31 December 2013

Michael Palin in Andrew Wyeth's World

Michael Palin in Wyeth's World

Michael Palin heads for rural Pennsylvania and Maine to explore the extraordinary life and work of one of America's most popular and controversial painters, Andrew Wyeth. Fascinated by his iconic painting Christina's World, Palin goes in search of the real life stories that inspired this and Wyeth's other depictions of the American landscape and its hard grafting inhabitants.

Tracking down the farmers, friends and family featured in Wyeth's magically real work, Palin builds a picture of an eccentric, enigmatic and driven painter. He also gets a rare interview with Helga, the woman who put Wyeth back in the headlines when the press discovered he had been painting her nude, compulsively but secretly for 15 years.
Available on BBC iPLayer until 5 January:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b03njgvc/

Monday 30 December 2013

Jack Clayton - The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents: Angels and demons
Based on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents remains one of the very best ghost films. As it is re-released for the festive season, Michael Newton explores the freedoms and horrors of trusting your own imagination

Michael Newton
The Guardian
Thursday 26 December 2013

One late Victorian Christmas Eve, around the fire, a man settles down to read aloud to the other house-guests the manuscript of a ghost story. His tale is that of a governess in another country house decades before, and of her two charges, a boy called Miles and his sister, Flora. Removed from the world in an idyll of apparent purity, things darken as the governess perceives, or perhaps merely imagines, that the children's last governess, Miss Jessel, and her Heathcliff-esque lover, the virile servant, Peter Quint, have returned from the dead to possess the children. And then a darker fear comes to her mind: what if the children are complicit in their corruption? What if they comprehend the presence of these beckoning ghosts, and welcome them? What do the children know?

This is the premise of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), one of the best of all literary ghost stories, and the source for one of the very best ghost films, Jack Clayton'sThe Innocents (1961). Clayton's movie is being re-released for the festive season, while in a new book in the BFI's Film Classics series Christopher Frayling offers a superb account of its origins and its spectral attractions.

The tradition of a ghost story for Christmas seems to be a Victorian one, popularised by Charles Dickens. There are good reasons for the link: the long nights where the cosiness and warmth at home contrast with the murk and chill outside; the family associations of the season that draw us back to the home, the natural location for most ghost stories. There may even be faint traces of a response to the incarnation that Christmas celebrates, the ghost in the stories standing for a spiritual remnant that lingers once our bodies are consigned to the earth.

In its own way, James's tale has become a modern myth, reinterpreted by Clayton, but also transformed into Benjamin Britten's authentically spooky opera, or reimagined faintly in Susan Hill's excellent The Woman in Black. Like other gothic classics, it has broken its own bounds and possessed the spirit of later creations. The reverberations that the story has elicited correspond to its own sense of indebtedness: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre haunts The Turn of the Screw, just as it and Clayton's film haunt Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001).

The film's casting similarly alerts us to echoes of other works. As the governess (named Miss Giddens in the film), Deborah Kerr evokes recollections of her previous roles: she had good form for the part, memorably playing a laced-up governess in The King and I (1956) and having already been terrorised in a remote house in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's magnificent Black Narcissus (1947). Her earnest intensity provides the keynote of the film. It is a rigorously serious movie, remarkable for the absence of the nervous laughter that characterises many ghost movies; there's no wisecracking, cowardly Bob Hope figure here to slacken the tension with a gag.

The Turn of the Screw may be a tale told at Christmas, but the story itself plays out in the brilliant radiance of spring and summer. For a gothic work, The Innocents is a noticeably brightly lit movie, limpid with sunshine. (It's all cinematic illusion, of course – the film was shot in February.) There's the blanched effect of Kerr's Scottish pallor, her blonde hair; Miles's horse is white, his pigeons are white, the roses in the gardens are white, and the governess's nightgown too; at night, she stalks the house holding aloft a burning candle, a symbol, it appears, of a fragile enlightenment. And then comes the shade, the unlit corridors, the zones of blackness at the periphery of the screen. Images flit past, too rapid or unclear to be grasped; sounds resonate without origin, voices ricochet around the panelled walls; laughter strikes and vanishes; someone, somewhere, sobs.

The great problem of ghosts on stage is the solidity, the fleshiness of the spectre; for all that make up and lighting can do, an actor must embody them. Film both inherits this difficulty and, by virtue of the medium's own evanescence, sometimes transcends it. While Peter Wyngarde's Quint is all vulgar, physical presence, Clytie Jessop's Miss Jessel remains the ideal cinematic ghost, perhaps the best (that is, the most uncanny, most disturbing) apparition ever put on film; it's hard to see how CGI could improve on her. Few on-screen spirits have seemed so genuinely disembodied. We glimpse her at a distance, across the lake, awkwardly standing among the reeds; black-dressed, her hair dank, her eyes scoured out by shadows. Although she is there before our eyes, she still seems insubstantial, no more than an image, a faded photograph, a glimmer in the lens. We look at her, but fail to know how we see her.

These hesitancies in trusting our perceptions take us to the heart of James's story. Ever since Edmund Wilson argued this case in the 1930s, debate has turned on the question of whether the ghosts are really present (and therefore the governess is a heroine battling with demons) or whether they are in fact only dreamed up by her – or even perhaps there but unperceived by her young charges. In the latter cases, our heroine becomes a deluded abuser, tormenting innocent children with a knowledge they ought not to possess.

The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents depend on our culture's strange unease about children. It's there in all gothic tales – a genre that depends upon the recalling of childhood fears. This is often accomplished through using the accoutrements of the playroom – the dolls and puppets, or the nursery rhymes of Britten's opera – or by returning us to infantile terrors, back to the moment when something lurked beneath the bed, waited in the shadows of the wardrobe, or brooded deep in the gloom at the top of the stairs.

Moreover children themselves have come to seem uncanny. From my own experience, I know that this feeling is not merely an adult's one. As a boy in the 1970s, watching Village of the Damned (1960), Wolf Rilla's adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, I was terrorised by the sight of that movie's blond, Hitler-youth-style alien children. My fear was about children who were not acting like children, whose stares suggested the possession of hidden powers, of a more than grown-up knowledge. Their leader was acted with sinister force by Martin Stephens, who in The Innocents plays a similarly disturbing Miles. This is a boy ready to kiss his governess with an out‑of-place intensity, one which she appears, at the film's grim close, to return. In watching The Innocents, there is a kind of perpetual double-take, akin to Miss Giddens's doubts, whereby sometimes we see two sweet child-actors, and sometimes two jarringly sinister monsters. The governess desires children to be unspotted; but this yearning for wholesomeness necessarily evokes the fear that it might be corrupted. Once we create a space for innocence, it seems we force ourselves anxiously to picture its fall.

In the course of both James's novella and Clayton's film, the audience may wonder who is the real object of fear here – the ghosts or the governess? If asked, the children might declare it is the latter, terrorised as they are by Miss Giddens's insistence that they own up to their (supposed) hidden knowledge. So it is that several times in the film, as in the book, our heroine stands or sits where the ghosts just were, one governess in the place of another; doing so sometimes strikes fear into her fellow servants, just as the ghosts have aroused fear in her. Miss Giddens supplants Miss Jessel, and the governess's terror is that the dead Quint and Miss Jessel wish to merge with Miles and Flora. Statues of cupids, satyrs and garden gods surround the house, images of a disturbingly hedonistic pagan past, and so the dead lovers' illicit lust beleaguers and perhaps invades the governess's pious Victorian virtue.

Henry James declared that the novelist was someone on whom nothing is lost, and certainly few people have ever been so able to garner all the distinctions and subtleties of human behaviour. Yet this facility was also potentially a kind of trap, the nose for nuance at fault when misapplied, when projected on to the necessary secrets and privacies of childhood. In reading The Turn of the Screw, in watching The Innocents, it can seem as though James was offering up a self-criticism, exposing the moral dangers of his own curiosity, those finely discriminating habits of mind. Unlike the sturdy, kind-hearted, illiterate housekeeper Mrs Grose, the governess falls into the trap of over-reading things, fantastically assigning the worst possible motives and meanings to what may after all be two blameless, ordinarily naughty children. So it is that The Innocentsis a film that infiltrates and celebrates the imagination, while recognising that faculty's pitfalls. For, it argues, while the imaginative may understand situations and people better, sometimes, to their and our danger, they see rather more than is there.


The Innocents – review
This sinister ghost story, adapted from a Henry James novella, makes your blood run cold

Peter Bradshaw
The Guardian
Thursday 12 December 2013

Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), now on national rerelease, is an elegant, sinister and scalp-prickling ghost story – as scary in its way as Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist. It has to be the most sure-footed screen adaptation of Henry James, taken from his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, clarifying some of the original's ambiguities and obscurities, but without damaging the story's subtlety. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess hired to look after two children in a country estate: Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Giddens finds something she describes as "secret, whispery, and indecent": the house is haunted by the souls of Peter Quint, a drunken, disreputable valet, and Miss Jessel, the former governess whom he seduced. Without admitting it, the children can see the ghosts as well; the spectres have become their secret, parasitical friends. Flora's pertly knowing innocence and Miles's insolent adult hauteur show how the children become possessed and corrupted by them. Clayton brilliantly uses slow dissolves to create ghostly superimpositions, and the harmless squeals of bath-time fun, or squeakings of a pencil, suggest uncanny screams. The most disturbing scenes take place in daylight: Quint's appearance in the garden is heralded by the sudden silencing of the birdsong. It's a moment that makes your blood run cold. The whole film does that.


Saturday 28 December 2013

Penelope Lively - Stairs: a Christmas Ghost Story

Christmas ghost stories: Stairs by Penelope Lively
An exclusive short story by the Booker-winning veteran author

Penelope Lively
The Observer
Sunday 22 December 2013

Here we go, she thought: "Ripe for renovation." Of course. Another one.
Tim was turning off the main road, responding to the satnav. They left the traffic, forged through a mesh of suburban streets, arrived at the heart of what had once been a rural village, now digested by later development. Row of old cottages, a pub, the church.

"Should be just along here," he said.

"An irresistible wreck?"

He laughed. Patted her knee. "Trust me."

"No way. Medieval barn, is it?"

"If only. Thirties, I think. Ah – must be this."

He pulled up. They studied the house. Undistinguished. Plain, thought Laura. Basic house. Bit like a child's drawing: front door, window each side, three above. And yes, crack in the brickwork, roof tiles missing, window-frames haven't seen a splash of paint in years. Right up Tim's street.

There had been the murky basement flat in Kentish Town. A gleaming space by the time he had done with it, all wood floors and halogen lights and clever cupboards. And the two-up, two-down in Croydon, to which he had given a loft and a conservatory extension. She had never lived other than surrounded by tools and timber and drums of paint. Oh well – he's worth it.

He had the key from the agent, unlocked the door.

"Nice and damp," she said, sniffing.

"Empty for ages, apparently. The price is good. Very good. And we'd get it down." He was diving into the rooms at either side of the hallway. She heard him banging across the boarded floors, throwing open a window.

Staircase to the side of the hall, up to the floor above, where there was a small landing, with rooms opening off. Steep staircase, surprisingly steep, not well designed.

He had flung open the door at the back of the hall. Kitchen, she saw. Well, sort of kitchen, once.

She joined him. "Just what I've always wanted – granite worktops, cabinet lighting, carving trolley."

He put his arm round her. "You'll get all that. Let's have a look upstairs."

"It's a good thing I love you," she said. "Most women would be out of here and into the car by now."

They climbed the stairs. The wood of the banister was splintered and there were balusters missing. The landing above had a loose plank that lurched when stepped on. Tim opened doors to rooms. "Ah. You'd do an en suite here. Maybe knock another window in this one – a bit dark."

She sighed.

He was inspecting floorboards. "Sand them throughout. Possibly slate flags in the kitchen. Oh …" He had spotted a dead bird in the corner of what she now grimly knew would be their bedroom. He picked it up by one desiccated wing and dropped it out of the window.

"Dead birds I can do," she said. "A passing inconvenience. I'm more interested in damp, and that dysfunctional roof, and a funny smell in what is supposed to be a bathroom, and that crack up there, and those over there."

He was leaning out of the window. "Old orchard at the end of the garden. You'd make a paved area – perhaps steps up from it to the lawn. Come and look." She looked. Shaggy grass. Nettles. Remains of a bonfire. Various plastic bags. The carcass of a child's buggy.

"No one could ever accuse you of lack of imagination," she said.

He grinned. That confiding grin that had first won her, at some party she'd nearly not gone to, aeons ago, or so it now seemed. Six years, actually.

"You're on board, then?" he said.

"What choice do I have?"

"You'll love it. Eventually. You see."

"Ah. You mean we're going to settle here?"

"Oh, well…" He shrugged. "Let's have another poke around the kitchen area."

Down those stairs. Cold, she thought. Extraordinarily cold in here. June day, sun outside, and so cold.

Central heating installation one of his specialities. Just as well.

He was a local government official. Not a builder. He worked in an office, amid computers and filing cabinets, and escaped to his power drill, his saws, his hammers, his larder of screws and nuts and bolts and intricate ironmongery, his drawing-board, his pencils and set-squares and compasses. Then, he took flight.

Laura taught. She taught six-to seven-year-olds. One day they would have one of these of their own. Two, maybe. Nice. When he had banged his way through enough decayed properties.

She could stand it – the dust, the dishevelment. In a curious way, she quite liked it, because this was essence of Tim – his energy, his beguiling enthusiasm, the way he flung himself into a new project, on a high with schemes, his eyes alight with power showers and quarry tiles and fitted cupboards. Weekends, she supplied endless cups of tea and coffee, admired, consoled when something went awry. Their outings were to Homebase and builders merchants. Once, contemplating fireplaces in a reclamation yard, he said, "When you can't put up with any more of this you must say so."

She smiled. "Seriously? And then what will you do with yourself?"

"Crosswords? Sudoku? Learn to play the violin. Take up judo. You are a saint. I know that. You indulge me."

"I suppose it could be said that I am climbing the property ladder. We both are."

"Never thought of it like that. It's the doing it. Do you like this one? Lovely marble surround."

"Exactly. And that's why I indulge you. And no, marble is not appropriate for a small Croydon terrace house."

She loved the intensity of his application, his ability to concentrate for hours on the exact construction of a shelf. He had made a wrought-iron spiral stair for that basement, an exquisite tiled bathroom for the Croydon terrace, squeezed into an extension. Once she had suggested to him quite seriously that he should think of packing in office life and go into business as a builder.

He laughed. "But it's exactly because it's not work. That's the joy of it."

And now, she saw, there would be this somewhat unlovely, seriously dilapidated and enticingly cheap house in an outer London suburb. Oh, well. And it was worth it for his soaring good spirits – always so when on the brink of a new undertaking.

"This is going to be really good. Huge potential. The only thing is, it could take years."

"I shan't complain," she said. "Who knows – you might decide to live in it."

It was autumn when they took possession. Within weeks the ground floor was piled high with his equipment; weekends were spent sourcing materials. Radiators, piping – he was making central heating a priority, thank goodness – timber, tiles. They both had further to travel to work from here, but even so he would set to each evening, if only to sit staring at squared paper on his clipboard, working out how he would deal with some particular space in the house. He was happy, and she with him. They made love a lot.

The neighbour appeared when they had been there about a month. Elderly woman – 80-plus – coming up the front path, eyeing things as she went: timber under a tarpaulin, that sagging gutter. Laura saw her out of the window and went to the door.

"I've tried you before but you're gone a lot. Sheila Bates. I live down there." The visitor waved towards the nearest housing – a little 19th-century terrace beyond the scrubby field that separated their own house from the rest of the sprawling nearby development. Tim was a touch concerned about this field: likely to be built on, at some point. "I see you've builders in. High time someone did some work on the place."

Laura smiled. "The builder isn't a professional, I'm afraid." She hesitated. "I'd suggest a cup of tea, but it's an awful mess in here."

"That'll be all right." Sheila Bates had both feet on the doormat by now anyway: stumpy woman, stick in one hand, Asda carrier bag in the other. "I've not been in here for years. The last people weren't what you'd call matey, and they're long gone anyway."

Laura took her into the kitchen, put the kettle on.

The visitor inspected the room. "Well, he'll have his hands full with this. Dry rot, I shouldn't be surprised. And that roof… Nobody's much stayed, and then it's left empty. Children?"

"No," said Laura. "Milk?" Oh, dear. Well, maybe there are other neighbours.

"Yes, and one sugar. Both at work, are you?"

"We are. Have you lived here long?"

Sheila Bates became more expansive. Since childhood, it seemed. Born here, left for elsewhere to marry, husband died. Parents also, 20 years ago. "And then I thought I'd sooner end up here than in Manchester where we'd gone. So I'm back where I began." She fished in the Asda bag. "Here – green tomato chutney. Made it last week."

Laura took the jar, thanking effusively. There, heart of gold after all.

"Doing heating, is he? Those radiators out there? You'll need it. That him outside?"

Tim could be seen through the open kitchen door sawing timber.

"It is."

"Married long?"

"We're not married," said Laura firmly, and at once regretted this. "We – we're partners."

"That's all right with me," said Sheila Bates. "It's the way nowadays, I know. Makes sense, really. Marriages come unstuck." She looked down the garden at Tim. "Big chap. Needs to be – into DIY on this scale. Reminds me a bit of…" She broke off. "Do something about the garden, will you?"

"Oh, yes. In time."

"You've got apples down there at the end. A nice Russet, I remember. I can use any you don't want."

An exchange economy, thought Laura, When Sheila Bates had – eventually – left. Fair enough.

She told Tim about their neighbour.

"So long as barter doesn't include me fixing her plumbing."

"Come on, we should be neighbourly."

Autumn segued into winter; he had the heating up and running, and basic remedial work done on the kitchen. He was sanding floors now – dust everywhere.

She had never known him so absorbed in a new project, immersed in it each evening, every weekend. It was as though he were possessed. He sanded, he replaced rotten floorboards, in fine weather he got up on the roof and started to tackle the slipped and broken tiles. He set about the creation of the en suite bathroom next to their bedroom to replace the original dank facility at the end of the landing.

Winter now in full control. Icy mornings. Snow that came, melted, lay around as slush. The house could not be called warm, despite the radiators, the state-of-the-art boiler.

Intermittently warm. She said, "The heating works in an odd way, have you noticed? There are cold patches. Here and there."

He grunted, dismissive, short with her. "It's fine. Just that the house has been empty."

He could be like that these days.

Laura cooked a lot, surprising herself. She had always been a rather lazy cook, favouring easy things, short cuts; now she found herself making hefty stews, doing complex bakery. And it passed the time – her rather solitary time; there is only so much tea and coffee you can supply.

She went for walks, too – not that the neighbourhood came up with much by way of an interesting route. Too built up. On one of these she met Sheila Bates, heading for her house, dragging a shopping trolley.

"How's he doing, then? Got your heating in?"

"He has," said Laura. "He's got masses done."

Sheila parked her trolley, nodded. This was not to be a fleeting exchange, it would seem. "You know, it's maybe as well you've not got children. There was a child fell down those stairs. Wasn't all right after. The family left quite soon."

"They are quite steep, I suppose," said Laura. Right, let's have all the bad news.

"Ages ago. In my parents' time. There's been people since, several lots, but no children, I think. You hadn't Russets to spare, then?"

Oh, heavens – the apples. I forgot entirely. Black, black mark. "Do you know – there weren't that many. A bad year, perhaps. I'm sorry. But… but can I bring you a cake next weekend? I always bake then."

Sheila Bates looked interested. "Into cooking, are you? That's unusual, with younger people, I've noticed. It's all takeaway and that. All right, then. I won't say no."

There had not been much intercourse with other neighbours. A couple at the end of Sheila's terrace occasionally passed the time of day, a few faces had become familiar. Sheila seemed vaguely to be valued, as some kind of tether to this place.

Actually, Laura thought, I'm not at all sure I'd want to stay here. Something… oh, I don't know, something not right. Well, staying put is not likely to happen, with Tim's track record.

Sheila was saying something about the house, their house. "…new back then. Not far off new. Built just before the war."

"Sorry? Oh, our house. Yes, I suppose. To me it feels old."

"Well, it's not been cared for, has it? My parents never liked it."

"I must get back," said Laura briskly. "Tim will be wanting his tea." And what does it matter whether your parents liked it or not? They didn't live there. "I'll remember the cake, next weekend."

Laura found Tim sitting in the kitchen, in a state of exasperation because the wrong tiles had been delivered. She tried to cheer him up with an embellished account of Sheila Bates – the archetypal crusty old neighbour – and merely provoked irritation.

"Look – without those tiles I'm set right back this weekend. Can't get ahead with the bathroom."

"So? There's no deadline. So it takes a bit longer… You know, you're a bit obsessive, this time. This house… I don't know… it seems to consume you."

No reply. He was examining his plan of the bathroom, and did not look at her.

"I watch telly on my own every evening," she said.

"For Christ's sake, Laura, stop being so pathetic." He stood up, and slammed out of the room.

Later he had calmed down, appeared to have forgotten the exchange. She was relieved but disturbed. What is this? Tim, who was always so agreeable? Never a cross word.

At Christmas her mother came to stay, a visit proposed by Laura with the notion that some kind of family Christmas would tame the dishevelled house, normalise it. Her father had died a couple of years before and her mother, Susan Harper, was glad to come. She was gallant about the various deficiencies: "No, really, it's not that cold… I've coped with worse bathrooms, I promise you… The kitchen's going to be lovely eventually, I can see." There was a frenzy of cooking: the full-scale Christmas dinner, Laura made an iced cake, Susan an array of mince pies. The house smelled rich, seemed to mellow.

"Really warm now," said Susan. "Mostly, anyway. Just chill places. Draughts, is it? Feels like that. Does Tim need to do something with the windows?"

"Nothing wrong with the windows," he snapped. Tense, annoyed. Busy with his clipboard, the squared paper. Susan fell silent, abashed. They had got on fine in the past. She said as much to Laura.

"He can be tetchy these days. Sorry."

Susan took herself off to the shops, being tactful, perhaps, on the pretext of some need. Tim was now tiling in the bathroom. Laura brought him coffee, stood for a moment. "You did rather squash my mum, you know."

He said nothing, intent upon placing a tile. Then he turned, looked at her. A look of pure hostility that shocked her. She went downstairs, so fast that at one point she nearly tripped, her stomach lurching.

Susan returned from her excursion, with a placatory bottle of wine. She and Laura had tea in the kitchen, Tim still immersed in bathroom fittings overhead.

"I was pounced on by one of your neighbours – saw me leaving the house. Old. Asks questions."

Laura pulled a face. "I know. Her. Yes, she does."

"Checking me out. Then – how was Tim getting on? Saw him up on the roof, hopes he takes care, you don't want another accident. Went on and on… funny place, that, nobody stays that long, wonders why you two wanted it…"


Oh, someone's wife – way back when old Mrs Thing was a child. She didn't elaborate. Offered to walk me to the shops but I escaped."

"I'm in the market for a different neighbour," said Laura. "No one's come forward so far."

She made a curry with the remains of the turkey. Tim drank most of the wine, opened another bottle, became more congenial. They made love that night. No, Laura thought, after – we had sex. Love wasn't what we were making. He had been cursory, rather rough. He felt, indeed, almost unfamiliar, as though a stranger took over the bed.

On the day that Laura's mother left she said, "Will you actually live in this house?"

Laura laughed. "You mean, unlike Tim's other projects? Maybe. Maybe not."

"Would you like to?"

There was a silence. Laura's mother became brisk. "We'd better get going if you're going to run me to the station."

In the car, she said, "If you really don't like the house, when he's done, you must say, Laura."

Laura sighed. "Of course I would, Mum."

After Christmas it got a bit warmer. Tim was doing some decorating now, in the new bathroom and elsewhere. The heating seemed to have become more effective lately, and Laura would leave an upstairs window open for a while to clear the smell of paint. The Christmas break had given Tim a spell of concentrated work on the house but it was now back to routine – the daily stint at their jobs for both of them. For Laura, this was something of a relief. At least she had company at work. Conversation. Laughter.

Everything we used to have. Before we came here.

Thoughts fermented on those winter evenings, cleaning up after supper in the kitchen, watching television later. On one of those nights, restless and suddenly resentful, she took him up a mug of coffee. He was in the spare bedroom, plastering a wall.

"I suppose I can't persuade you to join me for Have I Got News For You?"

He did not look at her. "No. I've gone off it, anyway." "You used to love it.We did."

He glanced at her. "You seem to assume that everything always stays the same." Exasperation in his voice.

She left the room, slamming the door. Ran down the stairs.

Halfway down, she felt it. A hand on her back. Between the shoulder blades. Pushing. A sharp push. Then it was gone. She had clutched the banister.

She looked back up the stairs. The door she had slammed was still shut, Tim inside that room. It had been cold, the hand. Cold through her sweater.

A draught, of course. A chilly draught from that window on the landing – must have been left open. She went into the kitchen, got herself a glass of wine, sat down in front of the television and applied herself to a programme that no longer seemed particularly entertaining.

They coexisted now, she and Tim. That was how it felt. They lived together, under the same roof, but their lives were quite separate. They ate together in the evenings and at weekends and there might be desultory exchanges. But we never have a conversation, she thought, we never talk. It was as though the Tim she had known for six years had retreated, subsumed into some other persona. Sometimes he was short with her; most of the time he simply paid her little attention. She began to wonder if perhaps he had depression. What are the symptoms of depression?

And she sensed changes in herself. Anxiety, instability. Well, no wonder – with Tim like this. But it was more than that; she was conscious of some deep unrest. Of wanting… to get away, it felt like. Get away from what? From Tim? No, no. From this place? Perhaps. She never returned from work in the evening with any sense of coming home. The surroundings seemed forever alien, a place that was not hers. And the house… Yes, the house too. At weekends she found herself going out as much as possible – shopping excursions that were barely necessary.

On one of these she met Sheila Bates, not seen for some weeks.

"Your mother gone, has she?"

"Some while ago," said Laura.

"Pity. You'll miss her. We had a chat."

"So I heard."

"She was saying she didn't feel you were really settled in."

She did, did she? A bit previous of you, Mum.

"No wonder, with all that building work. I said as much. He's got going on the roof again, I saw. Up there yesterday."

"He's taking advantage of this break in the weather," said Laura. "And he's not going to fall off. You said something to my mother about an accident."

"No one ever fell off the roof, that I know of. It was a woman. Young woman."

I don't think I want to know about this, thought Laura. And that's enough neighbourly exchange. "I must get on – shopping to do."

"Him that lived there before the war. I was a child so I hardly remember. Big man, like yours. And the wife had an accident. Bad accident. People didn't care for him. There was talk he'd had something to do with it. Then he went."

"A long time ago," said Laura irritably. "And nothing to do with us, is it?"

Sheila Bates shrugged. "Long time ago, that's right. Neither here nor there now, I suppose. And you'll have the place all done up to the nines before long, I don't doubt."

"Well, made habitable, at least. Anyway, I must be off."

"My mother wouldn't walk past the house. She said he'd never really left," said Sheila Bates.

Laura stared at her. Turned and walked away. She's an old bat. I really have to find myself another neighbour.

She bought some salmon for supper, a favourite of Tim's. Wine, a piece of stilton. It was almost dark when she got back, still those raw winter afternoons, the light draining by five. Tim was up on the roof.

"Come down," she said. "You can't see, up there."

No answer. "Well, be careful then."

Soon, from the kitchen, she heard the front door slam, his feet on the stairs. He would be plastering now, on the landing.

She did things in the kitchen. A sauce for the salmon, vegetables. A salad for starters. Presently the salmon went into the oven.

She called up the stairs. "Supper in 20 minutes – OK?"

A reply, after a moment or two. "I'd rather have it later – I'm in the middle of something."

"I've put it in the oven. It's salmon."

Plastering sounds. "I said later."

She glared up at his back. "If you wanted late supper you should have told me earlier."

No response. Then, "Just keep mine."

Laura took a breath. She ran up the stairs. Halfway up. Stopped.

"Look, Tim – I've bothered. I've taken trouble over the meal. The least you can do is eat it with me."

He paused. Noticed her now, it seemed. Looked down at her.

"Just fuck off, would you Laura," he said. A cold voice. A note in it she had never heard before.

She froze, there on the stair. Then she turned. And as she did so she was snatching at the banister, clinging on, almost flung off her feet.

Hand on her back. Push. Violent push.

Tim up above on the landing still, plastering.

She ran down. She grabbed her coat. She fetched her bag from the kitchen. Where's my phone? The car keys? She spun from room to room, shrugged on her coat.

She stood in the hall. "I'm going," she said. He was watching. Up there, watching.

"I'm going, Tim."

He laughed. No, someone else laughed. Tim standing looking at her, but the laugh was someone else's.


Friday 27 December 2013

Mark Gatiss - M. R. James' The Tractate Middoth and M. R. James: Ghost Writer

The Tractate Middoth: A Ghost Story for Christmas

The chilling story of Dr Rant, whose wicked streak continues from beyond the grave. Based on the festive ghost story by MR James.

When a relative comes to find a particular book at the university library, young student Garrett is drawn into a family feud over a will and its legacy - with terrifying consequences.

M. R. James: Ghost Writer

Mark Gatiss steps into the mind of MR James, the enigmatic English master of the supernatural story. How did this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, come to create tales that continue to chill readers more than a century on?

Mark attempts to uncover the secrets of James's inspiration, taking an atmospheric journey from James's childhood home in Suffolk to Eton, Cambridge and France, venturing into ancient churches, dark cloisters and echoing libraries along the way.

M R James: Ghost Writer (2013)

by Roger Edwards

MR James: Ghost Writer is a sixty minute documentary written and presented by Mark Gatiss, exploring the life of Britain’s foremost ghost story writer. Gatiss, a long time admirer of James, delves in to the life of the author from his devout Anglican upbringing and close knit family life, through to his ascent to the summit of academia at King’s college, Cambridge. The program seeks to discover what motivated this scholarly bachelor to create some of the most iconic and chilling ghost stories in English literature. By following in James’s footsteps, the documentary attempts to gain a greater insight in to the enigmatic author.

MR James: Ghost Writer explores in some depth the legacy of Mr James, emphasising his early life in Suffolk and the religious nature of his family. His academic prowess and near obsession with Medieval text and apocrypha clearly had an impact upon his writing, with much of the visual imagery from his writings being directly lifted from manuscripts hew worked with on a daily basis. Only being familiar withJames’s work from a literary standing, I was greatly surprised by the great academic achievements of his life. His written treatise on illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts still remains an unparalleled achievement along with his rise to the office of provost and directorship of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Despite the dry and formal nature of Victorian life, James was a surprising gregarious animal, taking an active part in college social life. Although he certainly reflected facets of the antiquarian characters that so often populated his stories, he was also a man of immense passion. His personal friendships were deep and of great importance to him, as correspondence with his inner circle demonstrate. His relationship with ex-pupil and illustrator James McBryde, succinctly demonstrates a profound platonic friendship of a type seldom seen these days. The documentary also addressed the impact of the “Great war” upon both James and the college and the subsequent way it influenced his later writing.

Perhaps the best aspect of Mark Gatiss’s exploration of all things Jamesian, is the honest and fair way the subject of his “personal life” is explored. There is a trend in contemporary analysis to sometimes over zealously look for evidence modern schools of thought in those from prior eras. Several revisionist scholars seem to seize upon “examples” of a sexual subtext in the author’s work and are then happy to extrapolate this in to theory’s of suppressed homosexuality. Mr. Gatiss does not shy away from such notions but neither does he make any definitive conclusions. His interview with a former pupil of James whose father was also a close personal friend, perhaps sheds the most light on the matter.

The visual and editing style of MR James: Ghost Writer is very compelling and follows a broadly linear narrative path, with many a tangential aside to explore illustrative points. Being a BBC commission project there a lot of use of footage from previous adaptations in referencing James’s literary work. The documentary effectively makes use of actor Robert Lloyd Parry, who recreates James celebrated readings of his stories at Christmas, to his fellow members of the “ Chit Chat Club”. Parry specialises in one man performances of the work of M R James and provides some excellent readings from such stories as Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and A warning to the Curious.

Although it is a impossible task to definitively encapsulate a writer such as M R James in a single sixty minute documentary, MR James: Ghost Writer certainly provides an interesting overview. Mark Gatiss has an obvious passion for the man and clearly identifies with him on many levels. However, this is far from an unobjective eulogy and depicts James as a man of his time with not particularly progressive attitudes on sexual equality or modernisation. MR James: Ghost Writer is to be shown on the BBC in the UK over the Christmas period along with the newly commissioned adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, also written by Mark Gatiss. I whole heartedly recommend both shows to not only established M R James fans but to wider scholars of the ghost stories who wish to learn more about one of the genres finest authors.


Mark Gatiss: The Tractate Middoth Q & A

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

If it's Wednesday, it must be Santa!

Bob Dylan - It Must Be Santa

Dennis Wilson - Morning Christmas

The Roches - The Hallelujah Chorus

Ron Sexsmith - Maybe This Christmas

Paul Simon - Gettin' Ready For Christmas Day

Bob Dylan - Christmas Bells (I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day)

Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal

Jethro Tull - Solstice Bells

Brian Wilson - Winter Symphony

Simon and Garfunkel - Hazy Shade Of Winter

Darlene Love - (Christmas) Baby Please Come Home

Herbie Hancock with Corinne Bailey Rae - River

Simon and Garfunkel - Comfort And Joy

And a ghost story for Christmas night:
Lindisfarne - Lady Eleanor

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Jeanette Winterson's Dark Christmas: A Ghost Story

ghost stories house in snow illustration
Christmas ghost stories: Dark Christmas by Jeanette Winterson
Renting a remote house for the holidays sounds idyllic, but not in The Stone Gods author Jeanette Winterson's haunting tale...

The Guardian
Saturday 21 September

We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know.

Highfallen House stood on an eminence overlooking the sea. It was a square Victorian gentleman's residence. The large bay windows looked down through the pines towards the shore. Six stone steps led the visitor up to the double front door where a gothic bell-pull released a loud mournful clang deep into the distances of the house.

Laurel lined the drive. The stable block was disused. The walled garden had been locked up in 1914 when the gardeners went to war. Only one had returned. I had been warned that the high brick wall enclosing the garden was unsafe. As I passed it slowly in the car, I saw a faded notice falling off the paint-peeled door. DO NOT ENTER.

I was the first to arrive. My friends were following by train and I was to collect them the next day and then we would settle down to Christmas.

I had driven from Bristol and I was tired. There was a Christmas tree roped on the top of my 4x4 and a trunk-load of provisions. We were not near any town. But the housekeeper had left stacked wood to build a fire and I had brought a shepherd's pie and a bottle of rioja for my first night.

The kitchen was cheerful enough once I had got the fire going and the radio playing while I unpacked our festive supplies. I checked my phone – no signal. Still, I knew the time of the train tomorrow and it was a relief to feel that the world had gone away. I put my food in the oven to heat up, poured a glass of wine, and went upstairs to find myself a bedroom.

The first landing had three bedrooms leading off it. Each had a moth-eaten rug, a metal bed and a mahogany chest of drawers. At the far end of the landing was a second set of stairs up to the attic floor.

I am not romantic about maids' rooms or nurseries, and there was something about that second set of stairs that made me hesitate. The landing was bright in the sudden way of late sun on a winter's afternoon. Yet the light ended abruptly at the foot of the stairs as though it couldn't go any farther. I didn't want to be near that set of stairs, so I chose the room at the front of the house.

As I went to bring up my bag, the house bell started to ring, its jerky metallic hammers sounding somewhere in the guts of the house. I was surprised but not alarmed. I expected the housekeeper. I opened the door. There was no one there. I went down the steps and looked round. I admit I was frightened. The night was clear and soundless. There was no car in the distance. No footsteps walking away. Determined to conquer my fear, I walked round a little. Then, turning back to the house, I saw it; the bell wire ran along the side of the house under a sheltering gutter. Perhaps 30 or 40 bats were dangling upside down on the vibrating wire. The same number swooped and swerved in a dark mass. Obviously their movement on the wire had set off the bell. I like bats. Clever bats. Good. Now supper.

I ate. I drank. I wondered why love is so hard and life is so short. I went to bed. The room was warmer now and I was ready to sleep. The sound of the sea ebbed into the flow of my dreams.

I woke from a dead sleep in dead darkness to hear… what? What can I hear? It sounded like a ball bearing or a marble rolling on the bare floor above my head. It rolled hard on hard then hit the wall. Then it rolled again in the other direction. This might not have mattered except that the other direction was upwards. Things can come loose and roll downwards, but they cannot come loose and roll up. Unless someone…

That thought was so unwelcome that I dismissed it along with the law of gravity. Whatever was rolling over my head must be a natural dislodging. The house was draughty and unused. The attics were under the eaves where any kind of weather might get in. Weather or an animal. Remember the bats. I pulled the covers up to my eyebrows and pretended not to listen.

There it was again: hard on hard on hit on pause on roll.

I waited for sleep, waiting for daylight.

We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes.

It was a brooding day that 21st of December. The shortest day of the year. Coffee, coat on, car keys. Shouldn't I just check the attic?

The second set of stairs was narrow – a servants' staircase. It led to a lath and plaster corridor barely a shoulder-width wide. I started coughing. Breathing was difficult. Damp had dropped the plaster in thick, crumbling heaps on the floorboards. As below, there were three doors. Two were closed. The door to the room above my room was ajar. I made myself go forward.

The room was under the eaves as I had guessed. The floor was rough. There was no bed, only a washstand and a clothes rail.

What surprised me was the nativity scene in the corner.

Standing about two feet tall, it was more like a doll's house than a Christmas decoration. Inside the open-fronted stable stood the animals, the shepherds, the crib, Joseph. Above the roof, on a bit of wire, was a battered star. It was old, handmade in a workmanlike but not craftsmanlike sort of way, the painted wood now rubbed and faded like pigments of time.

I thought I would carry it downstairs and put it by our Christmas tree. It must have been made for the children when there were children here. I stuffed my pockets with the figures and animals, and left quickly, leaving the door open. I had to set off for the station. Stephen and Susie could help me with the rest later.

As soon as I was out of the house, my lungs felt clear again. It must be the plaster dust.

The drive to the station was along the coast road. Lonely and unyielding, the road turned in a series of blind bends and tight corners. I met no one and I saw no one. Gulls circled over the sea.

The station itself was a simple shelter on a long single track. There were no information boards. I checked my phone. No signal.

At last the train appeared distantly down the track. I was excited. Memories of visiting my father as a child when he was stationed at his RAF base give me a rush of pleasure whenever I travel by train or come to meet one.

The train slowed and halted. The guard stood down for a moment. I watched the doors – it wasn't a big train, this branch line train – but none of the doors opened. I waved at the guard who came over.

"I am meeting my friends."

He shook his head. "Train's empty. Next stop is the end of the line."

I was confused. Had they got off at the earlier stop? I described them. The guard shook his head again. "I notice strangers. They would have boarded at Carlisle, asked me where to get off – always do."

"Is there another train before tomorrow?'

"One a day and that's your lot, and more than anybody needs in a place like this. Where are you staying?"

"Highfallen House. Do you know it?"

"Oh aye. We all know it." He looked as if he were about to say something else. Instead, he blew his whistle. The empty train pulled away, leaving me staring down the long track watching the red light like a warning.

I needed to get a signal on my phone.

I drove on past the station, following the steep hill, hoping some height would connect me to the rest of the world. At the top of the hill I stopped the car and got out, pulling up the collar of my coat. The first snow hit my face with insect insistence. Sharp and spiteful, like little bites.

I looked out across the whitening bay. That must be Highfallen House. But what's that? Two figures walking on the beach. Is it Stephen and Susie? Had they driven here after all? Then, as I strained my eyes against the deceit of distance, I realised that the second figure was much smaller than the first. They were walking purposefully towards the house.

When I arrived back, it was nearly dark.

I put on the lights, blew the fire into a blaze. There was no sign of the mysterious couple I had seen from the hill. Perhaps it had been the housekeeper and her daughter come to make sure that everything was all right. I had a telephone number for Mrs Wormwood, but without a signal I could not call her.

The snow was thickening in windy swirls. Relax. Have a whisky.

I leaned on the warm kitchen range with my whisky in my hand. The wooden figures I had brought down from the attic were lying on the kitchen table. I should go up and get the stable.

I don't want to.

I bounded up the first set of stairs using energy to force out unease. At my bedroom I put on the light. That felt better. The second set of stairs stood in shadow at the end of the long landing. I felt that constriction in my lungs again. Why am I holding on to the handrail like an old man?

I could see that the only light to the attic was at the top of the stairs. I found the round brown Bakelite switch. I flicked down the nipple. A single bulb lit up reluctantly. The room was straight ahead. The door was closed. Hadn't I left it open?

I turned the handle and stood in the doorway, the room dimly lit by the light from the stairs. Washstand. Nativity. Clothes rail. On the clothes rail was a child's dress. I hadn't noticed that before. I suppose I had been in a hurry. Pushing aside my misgivings, I went in purposefully and bent down to pick up the wooden nativity. It was heavy and I had just got it secure in my arms when the light on the landing went out.

Hello? Who's there?

There's someone breathing like they can barely breathe. Not faint. Struggling for breath. I mustn't turn round, because whoever or whatever it is, is behind me.

I stood still for a minute, steadying my nerve. Then I shuffled forward towards the edge of light coming up from downstairs. At the doorway I heard a step behind me, lost my balance and put out a hand to steady myself. My hand gripped something wet. The clothes rail. It must be the dress.

My heart was over-beating. Don't panic. Bakelite. Bad wiring. Strange house. Darkness. Aloneness.

But you're not alone, are you?

Back in the kitchen with whisky, Radio 4 and pasta boiling, I examined the dress. It was for a small child and it was hand-knitted. The wool was smelly and sopping. I washed it out and left it hanging over the sink to drip. I guessed there must be a hole in the roof and the dress had been soaking up the rain for a long time.

I ate my supper, tried to read, told myself it had been nothing, nothing at all. It was only 8pm. I didn't want to go to bed, though the snow outside was like a quilt.

I decided to arrange the nativity. Donkey, sheep, camels, wise men, shepherds, star, Joseph. The crib was there, but it was empty. There was no Christ child. And there was no Mary. Had I dropped them in the dark room? I hadn't heard anything fall and these wooden figures were six inches tall.

Joseph was wearing a woollen tunic, but his wooden legs had painted puttees. I pulled off the tunic. Underneath, wooden Joseph wore a painted uniform. First world war.

When I turned him round, I saw there was a gash in his back like a stab wound.

My phone beeped.

I dropped Joseph, grabbed the phone. It was a text message from Susie. TRYING 2 CALL U. LEAVE 2MORO.

I pressed CALL. Nothing. I tried to send a text. Nothing. But what did it matter? Suddenly I felt relief and calm. They had been delayed, that was all. Tomorrow they would be here.

I sat down again with the nativity. Perhaps the missing figures were inside. I put in my hand. My fingers closed round a metal object. It was a small iron key with a hoop top. Maybe it was the key to the attic door.

Outside, snow had fallen snow on snow. The sky had cleared. The moon sped above the sea.

I had gone to bed and I was deep asleep when I heard it clearly. Above me. Footsteps. Pacing. Down the room. Hesitate. Turn. Return.

I lay in bed, eyes staring blindly at the blind ceiling. Why do we open our eyes when we can't see anything? And what was there to see? I don't believe in ghosts.

I wanted to put on the light, but what if the light didn't come on? Why would it be worse to be in darkness I had not chosen than darkness I was choosing? But it would be worse. I sat up in bed and pulled back the curtain a little. The moon had been so bright tonight, surely there would be light?

There was light. Outside the house, hand in hand, stood the still and silent figures of a mother and child.

I did not sleep again till daylight, and when I slept and woke again, it was almost midday and already the light was lowering.

Hurrying to get coffee, I saw that the dress was gone. I had left it dripping over the sink and it was gone. Get out of the house.

I set off for the station. There was an air frost that had coated the trees in glittering white. It was beautiful and deathly. The world held in ice.

On the road there were no car tracks. No noise but the roar and drop of the sea.

I moved slowly and saw no one. In the white, unmoving landscape, I wondered if there was anyone else left alive?

At the station, I waited. I waited some time past the time until the train whistled on the track. The train stopped. The guard got down and saw me. He shook his head. "There's no one," he said. "No one at all."

I thought I would cry. I took out my mute phone. I flashed up the message. TRYING TO CALL U. LEAVE 2MORO.

The guard looked at it. "Happen it's you who should be leaving," he said. "There's no more trains past Carlisle now till the 27th. Tomorrow was the last and that's been cancelled. Weather."

I wrote down a number and gave it to the guard. "Will you phone my friends and tell them I am on my way home?"

On the slow journey back to Highfallen House, I filled my mind with my departure. It would be slow and dangerous to travel at night, but I could not consider another night alone. Or not alone.

All I had to do was manage 40 miles to Inchbarn. There was a pub and a guesthouse and remote but normal life.

The text message kept playing in my head. Had it really meant that I should leave? And why? Because Susie and Stephen couldn't come? Weather? Illness? It's all a guessing game. The fact is, I have to go.

The house seemed subdued when I returned. I had left the lights on and I went straight upstairs to pack my bag. At once I saw that the light to the attic was on. I paused. Breathed. Of course it's on. I never switched it off. That proves it's a wiring fault. I must tell the housekeeper.

My bag packed, I threw the food into a box and put everything back in the car. I had the whisky in the front, a blanket I stole from the bed, and I made a hot-water bottle, just in case.

It was only five o'clock. At worst I'd be in Inchbarn by 9pm.

I got in the car and turned the key. The radio came on for a second, died, and as the ignition clicked and clicked, I knew that the battery was flat. Two hours ago at the station, the car had started first time. Even if I had left the lights on… But I hadn't left the lights on. A cold panic hit me. I took a swig of the whisky. I couldn't sleep in the car all night. I would die.

I don't want to die.

Back in the house, I wondered what I was going to do all night. I must not fall asleep. I had noticed some old books and volumes when I had explored downstairs yesterday – assorted dusty adventure stories and tales of empire. As I sorted through them, I came across a faded velvet photograph album. In the cold, deserted sitting room, I began to discover the past.

Highfallen House 1910. The women in long skirts with miraculous waists. The men in shooting tweeds. The stable boys in waistcoats, the gardening boys wearing flat caps. The maids in starched aprons. And here they are again in their Sunday best: a wedding photograph. Joseph and Mary Lock. 1912. He was a gardener. She was a maid. In the back of the album, loose and unsorted, were further photographs and newspaper cuttings. 1914. The men in uniform. There was Joseph.

I took the album back into the kitchen and put it next to my wooden solider. I had on my coat and scarf. I propped myself up in two chairs by the wood-fired range and dozed and waited and waited and dozed.

It was perhaps two o'clock when I heard a child crying. Not a child who has scraped his knee, or lost a toy, but an abandoned child. A child whose own voice is his last hold on life. A child who cries and knows that no one will come.

The sound was not above me – it was above the above me. I knew where it was coming from.

I put my hands over my ears and my head between my knees. I could not shut out the sound; a locked-up child, a hungry child, a child who is cold and wet and frightened.

Twice I got up and went to the door. Twice I sat down again.

The crying stopped. Silence. A dreadful silence.

I raised my head. Footsteps were coming down the stairs. Not one foot in front of the other, but one foot dragging slightly, then the other joining it, steadying, stepping again.

At the bottom of the stairs, the footsteps paused. Then they did what I knew they would do with all the terror in my body. The footsteps came towards the kitchen door. Whatever was out there was standing 12 feet away on the other side of the door. I stood behind the table and picked up a knife.

The door swung open with violent force that rammed the brass doorknob into the plaster of the wall. Wind and snow blew into the kitchen, whirling up the photographs and cuttings on the table. I saw that the front door itself was wide open, the entrance hall like a wind tunnel.

Holding the knife, I went forward into the hall to shut the door. The pendant metal lantern that hung from the ceiling was swinging wildly on its long chain. A sudden gust lurched it forward like a child's swing pushed too high. It fell back at force against the large semi-circular fanlight over the front door. The fanlight shattered and fell round my shoulders in shards of sharp rain. Flicker. Buzz. Darkness. The house lights were out. No wind now. No cries. Silence again.

Glass-hit in the snow-lit hall, I walked out of the front door and into the night. At the drive, I turned left and I saw them: the mother and child.

The child was wearing the woollen dress. She had no shoes. She held up her arms piteously to her mother, who stood like stone.

I ran forward. I grabbed the child in my arms.

There was no child. I had fallen face down in the snow.

Help me. That's not my voice.

I'm on my feet again. The mother is ahead of me. I follow her. She's going towards the walled garden. She seems to pass through the door, leaving me on the other side.


I tried the rusty hoop handle. It broke off, taking a piece of door with it. I kicked the door open. It fell off its hinges. The ruined and abandoned garden lay before me. A walled garden of one acre used to feed 20 people. But that was a long time ago.

There were footprints in the snow. I followed them. They led me to the bothy, its roof patched with corrugated iron. There was no door, but the inside seemed dry and sound. There was a tear-off calendar still on the wall: 22 December 1916.

I put my hand in my pocket and I realised that the key from the nativity was there. At the same time, I heard a chair scrape on the floor in the room beyond. I had no fear any more. As the body first shivers and then numbs with cold, my feelings were frozen. I was moving through shadows as one who dreams.

In the room beyond there was a low fire lit in the tiny tin fireplace. On either side of the fire sat the mother and child. The child was absorbed playing with a marble. Her bare feet were blue, but she did not seem to feel the cold any more than I did.

Are we dead then?

The woman with the shawl over her head looked at me with deep expressionless eyes. I recognised her. It was Mary Lock. She nodded at me, or at not me, at some other me in some other time, I do not know. Her gaze went to a tall cupboard. I knew that my key fitted this cupboard and that I must open it. I did so.

A dusty uniform fell out, crumpling like a puppet. The uniform was not quite empty of its occupant. The back of the faded wool jacket had a long slash where the lungs would have been.

I looked at the knife in my hand.

"Open the door! Are you in there? Open the door!"

I woke to blinding white. Where am I? Something's rocking. It's the car. I am in my car. A heavy glove was brushing off the snow. I sat up, found my keys, pressed the unlock button. It was morning. Outside was the guard from the train and a woman who announced herself as Mrs Wormwood.

"Fine mess you've made here," she said.

We went into the kitchen. I was shivering so much that Mrs Wormwood relented and began to make coffee.

"Alfie fetched me," she said, "after he spoke to your friends."

"There's a body," I said. "In the walled garden."

"Is that where it is?" said Mrs Wormwood.

At Christmas 1914, Joseph Lock had gone to war. Before he left for Flanders, he had made a nativity scene for his little girl. When he came back in 1916, he had been gassed. They heard him, climbing the stairs, gasping for breath through froth-corrupted lungs.

His mind had gone, they said. At night in the attic where he slept with his wife and child, he leaned vacantly against the wall, rolling the child's marbles up and down, down and up, pacing, pacing, pacing. One night, just before Christmas, he strangled his wife and daughter. He left them for dead in the bed and went out. But his wife was not dead. She followed him. In the morning, they found her sitting by the nativity, her dress dark with blood, his fingermarks livid at her throat. She was singing a lullaby and pushing the point of the knife into the back of the wooden figure. Joseph was never found.

"Are you going to call the police?" I said.

"What for?" said Mrs Wormwood. "Let the dead bury the dead."

Alfie the guard went out to see to my car. It started first time, the exhaust blue in the white air. I left them clearing up and was about to set off when I remembered I had left my radio in the kitchen. I went back inside. The kitchen was empty. I could hear the two of them up in the attic. I picked up the radio. The nativity was on the table as I had left it.

But it wasn't as I had left it.

Joseph was there and the animals and the shepherds and the worn-out star. And in the centre was the crib. Next to the crib were the wooden figures of a mother and child.


Monday 23 December 2013

The Victorian Ghost Story - just for Christmas...

Illustration from Charles Dickens' The Signalman

Ghost stories: why the Victorians were so spookily good at them
Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth. And 19th-century writers were fearsomely adept at exploiting a world of creaking floorboards, creepy servants … and gas lamps that caused hallucinations

Kira Cochrane
The Guardian
Monday 23 December 2013

Curl up by the fire and I'll tell you a ghost story. Don't be alarmed by the creak of the floorboards, the murmurs in the basement, the shrill ululations of a distant dog. Try not to be perturbed by the flickering candle, the fleeting shadows, the horned, hairy hand that appears at your elbow. Something moved? There's a face in the brickwork? A murderer, long ago, was buried in the cellar? Stay calm. Breathe deeply. The ghosts of Christmases past are gathering.

It was the Victorian era, of course, when ghosts proliferated most obviously in fiction – as well as on stage, in photographs and in drawing room seances. Before the start of Victoria's reign in 1837, the health of the genre was thought to be failing. But by 1887, when Mary Louise Molesworth wrote The Story of the Rippling Train, her character Mrs Snowdon was bemoaning ghosts' prevalence. "One hears nothing else nowadays," she said, and in the pages that followed, she would hear yet another, about the phantom of a beautiful woman who had appeared after being terribly burnt in a fire.

What had raised all these apparitions from the dead? The most straightforward explanation is the rise of the periodical press, says Ruth Robbins, professor of English literature at Leeds Metropolitan University. Ghost stories had traditionally been an oral form, but publishers suddenly needed a mass of content, and ghost stories fitted the bill – short, cheap, generic, repetitive, able to be cut quite easily to length.

Ever one to spot a commercial opportunity, she says, Charles Dickens produced his own highly successful ghost story, A Christmas Carol, in serial form just before Christmas 1843. This was the same year the first commercially produced Christmas card was sent, and Dickens's story both reflected and influenced a growing trend for marking Christmas with secular celebrations. Dr Andrew Smith, author of The Ghost Story 1840-1920, says: "People like Dickens wanted to revive some notion of community invested within that idea of Christmas. What's interesting about his version of Christmas is that it's not particularly Christian. It's about the family, helping the poor, a moment where you might pause and reflect on your life." It's about Ebenezer Scrooge realising, through the counsel of ghosts, that he must embrace his family, look after his good-natured clerk, and become the embodiment of generosity.

Illustration from M. R. James' The Ash Tree

Christmas has long been associated with ghosts, says Roger Clarke, author of A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. Just before Christmas 1642, for instance, shepherds were said to have seen ghostly civil war soldiers battling in the skies. This connection continued in the Victorian era through Dickens's story, and through the ghost stories he later published at Christmas in his periodical All the Year Round, with contributors including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. It would also continue in the tradition started by MR James, the provost of King's College, Cambridge, who would invite a select few students and friends to his rooms each year on Christmas Eve, where he'd read one of the ghost stories he had written, which are still popular today. They include Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book (1895), in which an ancient holy book brings forth a demonic presence, first announced by a hand covered in "coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled".

The popularity of ghost stories was strongly related to economic changes. The industrial revolution had led people to migrate from rural villages into towns and cities, and created a new middle class. They moved into houses that often had servants, says Clarke, many taken on around October or November, when the nights were drawing in early – and new staff found themselves "in a completely foreign house, seeing things everywhere, jumping at every creak". Robbins says servants were "expected to be seen and not heard – actually, probably not even seen, to be honest. If you go to a stately home like Harewood House, you see the concealed doorways and servant's corridors. You would actually have people popping in and out without you really knowing they were there, which could be quite a freaky experience. You've got these ghostly figures who actually inhabit the house."

Lighting was often provided by gas lamps, which have also been implicated in the rise of the ghost story; the carbon monoxide they emitted could provoke hallucinations. And there was a preponderance of people encountering ghosts in their daily life come the middle of the century. In 1848, the young Fox sisters of New York heard a series of tappings, a spirit apparently communicating with them through code, and their story spread quickly. The vogue for spiritualism was under way. Spiritualists believed spirits residing in the afterlife were potentially able to commune with the living, and they set up seances to enable this.

Peter Lamont, author of Extraordinary Beliefs, says these gatherings started off quite simply, "and the phenomenon gets more and more impressive. There are floating tables, floating musical instruments, and at some point you get full-form materialisation of ghosts, dressed in white. Occasionally, the [apparition] would get grabbed at a seance and it was discovered that it was actually the medium."

This interest in the supernatural might seem at odds with the growing body of scientific and technological knowledge, but many argue they were intimately connected. In the 19th century, people were increasingly able to communicate at a distance, in disembodied fashion. The telegraph allowed messages to be tapped out in code over long distances – not so unlike the Fox sisters' purported ghost – and the ability to communicate first with other cities, then countries, eventually to transmit messages across the Atlantic, was brilliant and alarming. "If you can have people communicating from 3,000 miles away," says Robbins, "words coming across the ocean, tapped out in Morse code, it may actually be quite a small leap of the imagination to say, 'There's a dead person who I used to know quite well who is talking to me through Morse code.'"
ghost photo woman scared by apparition
'Ghost' photograph from the 1860s

The growth of photography brought the advent of spirit photography – there were people who charged enormous fees, and used various tricks, to picture sitters with ghostly images of dead loved ones. William Mumler, for instance, who created a famous image of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly hands of her dead husband, Abraham Lincoln, resting on her shoulders. Then came film and radio. Ghostly disembodied voices and images poured out of the screen and over the airwaves.

There were ghosts in the ether, under the bed, and more and more, in people's heads. "Throughout the 19th century," says Smith, "there is a progressive internalisation of horror, the idea that the monsters are not out there, but to be found within. That obviously culminates with Freud. With the ghost story there's a sense that instead of being able to lock yourself away in your home, to leave the monster outside, the monster lives with you, and has a kind of intimacy."

Merry Christmas – and sleep soundly.