There was a time when almost every rural British family who kept bees followed a strange tradition.
Whenever there was a death in the family, someone had to go out to the hives and tell the bees of the terrible loss that had befallen the family.
Failing to do so often resulted in further losses such as the bees leaving the hive, or not producing enough honey or even dying.
Traditionally, the bees were kept abreast of not only deaths but all important family matters including births, marriages, and long absence due to journeys. If the bees were not told, all sorts of calamities were thought to happen. This peculiar custom is known as “telling the bees”.
The practice of telling the bees may have its origins in Celtic mythology that held that bees were the link between our world and the spirit world. So if you had any message that you wished to pass to someone who was dead, all you had to do was tell the bees and they would pass along the message.
The typical way to tell the bees was for the head of the household, or “goodwife of the house” to go out to the hives, knock gently to get the attention of the bees, and then softly murmur in a doleful tune the solemn news.
Little rhymes developed over the centuries specific to a particular region. In Nottinghamshire, the wife of the dead was heard singing quietly in front of the hive,
“The master’s dead, but don’t you go; Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.”
In Germany, a similar couplet was heard,
“Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress”.
But the relationship between bees and humans goes beyond superstition. It’s a fact, that bees help humans survive. 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population rely on bees for pollination.
Without them, these plants would cease to exist and with it all animals that eat those plants. This can have a cascading effect that would ripple catastrophically up the food chain.
Losing a beehive is much worse than losing a supply of honey. The consequences are life threatening.
The act of telling the bees emphasizes this deep connection humans share with the insect.
Art: The Bee Friend, a painting by Hans Thoma (1839–1924)
The trick or treat festivities may be curtailed for us this year, but that just leaves more time for reading! In time for Halloween, an All Hallows’ evening themed ghost story, by Ellen Wood (1814-1887), the long-time editor and eventual owner of Argosy magazine.
“Why, that,” said Harriet. “They believe that the dead are allowed to revisit the world after dark on the Eve of All Souls; that they hover in the air, waiting to appear to any of their living relatives, who may venture out, lest they should forget to pray on the morrow for the rest of their souls.”
Strictly speaking, Harriet is talking about the evening of November 1, not the evening of October 31, but if you interpret “Hallowe’en” to mean “All Hallows’ evening” rather than “All Hallows’ eve,” then we still have a Halloween ghost story, right?
It was, as far as I can ascertain, on Christmas Eve of the year 1994 that a young man drew up before the door of his childhood home, in the heart of Lincolnshire. He looked about him with the keenest curiosity during the short interval that elapsed between the fumbling of his keys and the opening of the front door. Inside, he began to study the four programmes available on his television set, pausing before a presentation that caught his eye. The time was five minutes before one o’clock, he realised. Christmas Day itself …
This, more or less, was how I first became acquainted with the work of M. R. James, my favourite – and arguably Britain’s finest – writer of ghost stories. I was home for the holidays during my third year at university and had been into town to celebrate the festivities. A little the worse for drink, I was alone in the living room, as my brother Chris – nearly six years my senior – was still out with friends. In the morning the two of us would open our presents together before spending the rest of the day at my aunt and uncle’s. In an attempt to compensate for the house’s emptiness and our parents’ absence, we’d started a tradition of labelling our gifts to each other as if from various half-remembered figures from our past: obscure family acquaintances, disliked former teachers, or people who we had given nicknames to – like Porkpie, the middle-aged man in the pork-pie hat who was a constant fixture in the pub we frequented, boring anyone who’d listen about the supermarket where he worked.
Not ready for sleep, I lay on the sofa and flicked through the TV channels. On BBC Two a grainy drama from the seventies was beginning. What I’d chanced upon was an episode of the classic ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ strand: Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M. R. James’s supernatural tale ‘Lost Hearts’.
There’s a fearful symmetry to this, I’ve come to learn, because this particular film was first shown on BBC One a little before midnight on Christmas Day 1973, less than a fortnight after I was born. Had I already witnessed it before as a crying baby – perhaps my mother had happened at that very point to switch on the TV set to try and calm my tears? If she had, I doubt she would have found much respite, because the BBC version is a frightening piece of work; I was to find this out some twenty-one years later, when the ghost of a razor-nailed boy and his dark-eyed companion appeared on the screen in front of me.
Through the white gate at the back of the graveyard the ground changes abruptly, the approach from the rectory with its aged, ivy-clad trees replaced by a squat jumble of shrubs and sedge, punctuated by paths that run aimlessly to the water. The ‘lake’, as it is called, seems out of place in the west Suffolk countryside, reminding me of one of the shallow, ephemeral coastal lagoons you find in the Camargue. Lifeless trunks point upwards from its greyness like rigor-mortised fingers. The division between land and water is tenuous; there are no banks as such, just a dirty shoreline of mud over which the waves lap, adding to the feature’s temporary feel. This is not a giant puddle left behind by a flood, or some deliberately drowned world, but a spring-fed mere that has given its name to the neighbouring village.
Livermere Lake. ‘The lake where rushes grow’, from the Old English laefor-mere. I’ve known about this place for a long time too: since my brother saw a vagrant black-winged pratincole here in 1993, a rare hawk-like wading bird. I couldn’t join him to see it, which, as a keen birdwatcher, riled me for years (until I finally caught up with one myself on the Norfolk coast) and lent the location an enduring mystique in my head. Only later did I become aware of the connection between Great Livermere and M. R. James.
Montague Rhodes James – known to his close friends as Monty – was born in Goodnestone, a small Kent village midway between Canterbury and Deal where his father was then curate, in August 1862. After three years the family moved to Livermere, six miles from Bury St Edmunds, when Herbert James took up the rectorship of St Peter’s Church, whose gravestones I passed between on my way to the mere. This section is Broad Water, with the narrow tree-lined southern arm, Ampton Water, snaking off somewhere behind me, obscured by a screen of trees. The rain slants sparsely down as I scan the surface and shore: there are no rare waders today, though a typically noisy pair of black-and-white oystercatchers flies past, splitting the silence with their piping.
Across the water stands a second church, the now-ruined St Peter and St Paul of Little Livermere, derelict since the first half of the twentieth century. The tower, according to James in his 1930 work Suffolk and Norfolk: A Perambulation of the Two Counties with Notices of their History and their Ancient Buildings, was heightened so as to be seen from Livermere Hall, itself long gone, demolished as superfluous in 1923. Its owner, Jane Anne Broke, was a relative by marriage of Herbert James, which was how he came to be offered the role of attending to the spiritual needs of the village – a serendipitous move in terms of its influence on young Monty’s future ghost stories. Stately homes and their surrounding parkland appear in a number of those tales, reflecting James’s upbringing as the son of a well-connected rector and the privileged circles in which he was to circulate during his later career as provost of both Cambridge’s King’s College and Eton’s famous public school.*
In ‘Lost Hearts’, the young protagonist Stephen Elliott stands at his open window listening to the strange noises coming from across the mere: ‘They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either.’ The lake is rich with bird life, and it’s easy to picture the youthful James kept awake by their sounds – distorted by the space between mere and rectory – as he lay in his bedroom searching for sleep. Monty, however, appeared fond of his childhood home – various surviving fragments of juvenilia extol the virtues, and to an extent the eeriness, of the local landscape. In the undated poem ‘Sounds of the Wood’ he begins:
From off the mere, above the oaks, the hern Come sailing, and the rook fly cawing home.
The scene in front of me is little changed from that the young James took pleasure in over a century ago. Sure enough, a heron is present this afternoon (‘hern’ is an archaic form of the word), roosting in the alders beside Ampton Water. A striking adult bird, its blue-grey plumage is broken up by its black-feathered shoulder and the thick stripe that extends above its eye.
I walk back towards the church of James’s father. A small deer – a muntjac, I presume – peers at me from through the sedges, sliding beneath the cover of a sallow before I can get a proper look. In the churchyard I wander among the headstones, one ghosted with the faint outline of a cherubic face, another with a lichen-covered skeleton. The commonest surname I find is Mothersole, the name James bestowed upon the witch from his story ‘The Ash Tree’. The horrifying Mrs Mothersole goes on to enact a spidery revenge on the descendants of Sir Matthew Fell, the man responsible for her hanging, delivering a chilling rebuke as she stands on the gallows awaiting her fate: ‘There will be guests at the Hall.’ ‘The Ash Tree’ is set in Suffolk, and a mere features in the grounds of the fictitious Castringham Hall; it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the now-vanished house across the park from James’s childhood home might have been the model for the story’s location.
Alongside the grave of Charles and Ann Mothersole I find the remains of a blackbird, dead a week or so and becoming one with the surrounding soil and oak leaves. Banding its leg is an identification ring from the Natural History Museum. Later, I learn the bird’s melancholy fate: ringed in Great Livermere as a fledgling the previous spring, barely moving from its place of birth.
Towards the back of the churchyard, beyond a dark rectangle of yews (which bring to mind the whispering grove from James’s story ‘The Rose Garden’), stands a spindly cross. This might be the memorial to his mother and father that James had erected. I look for the word ‘PAX’, which is meant to be inscribed on it, but can only make out the letters IHS at its apex: Jesus, saviour of mankind. The stone is crusted with pale-green moss, obscuring the writing on its base. I start to flake off the material with my fingernail in an attempt to expose further clues. There is an inscription, though it’s not easy to read – and something about the act of uncovering it feels wrong, like the sort of foolish feat an inquisitive scholar in one of James’s stories would do and later come to regret.
I decide to leave it a mystery.
Returning to where I parked my car by the front gate of the churchyard, I peer over a wall, through the rhododendrons on the other side, at a cream-coloured building. It’s James’s childhood home – a square, solid-looking place rising to three storeys, with plenty of rooms for the young James to have lost himself in on the occasions he was here and not away at Temple Grove prep school, on the outskirts of London between Mortlake and Richmond Park. This was followed by Eton, where in 1882, and already writing his own ghost stories (as well as indulging in more serious sixth-form study, including a love of the classics, ancient manuscripts and the architecture of churches), he passed his scholarship exam for King’s College, Cambridge.
I contemplate the chances of being allowed to take a closer look at the rectory, restyled as the new Livermere Hall and used as accommodation for expensive game-shooting trips, but decide that rocking up unannounced is unlikely to gain me a warm welcome and an offer of the full guided tour (I tried the same earlier, without success, at the farm neighbouring the derelict church of Little Livermere). Besides, the daylight is waning and the rain now falling more keenly. As I drive from the village, past the dark earth of countless ploughed-open fields, the final words of James’s last published story, ‘A Vignette’, resonate:
Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them?†
‘Lost Hearts’ was probably the second of James’s published ghost stories to be written (after ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’), finished at some time between summer 1892 and autumn of the following year. It appeared in print in the Pall Mall Magazine in December 1895, then in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, his first collection of supernatural tales, in 1904.
By this point, James had been made a dean (of King’s) and, from 1893, the director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. In addition to an expert command of Latin, Greek and French, he also had a familiarity with German and Italian – and even a modicum of Hebrew and Danish. These formidable linguistic skills served him admirably: he was a noted scholar of the medieval, and of esoteric branches of study such as biblical apocrypha – the sorts of subjects the lone middle-aged protagonists of his stories specialise in. Now in his early forties – though always, perhaps, appearing a little older than his years – James was a tall, well-built man with dark hair (parted to the right) and rounded spectacles. His features were soft, apart from a strong, square jaw. He spoke quietly, often chuckling, often drawing on his curved tobacco pipe.
I knock and enter the opaque-paned door to the Founder’s Library of the Fitzwilliam. Inside the architecture appears largely unchanged since James’s time, when the room acted as his office. Built in 1848, it houses ten thousand fine volumes in carved oak bookcases that stretch more than twenty feet up to the white, geometrically patterned ceiling. An imposing marble-surrounded fireplace dominates the room. It’s a place of work and study where today the museum’s manuscript department is based – something James would approve of, I’m sure. A young woman at a table is leafing through an oversized illuminated book of musical scores, the only sound apart from the occasional swish of turning pages being the background hum of a dehumidifier. It is a soporific, comforting space that sends me back to another time, another world – and it’s easy on this darkening winter’s afternoon to imagine the director at his desk, squinting through his glasses in the pooled light at one of the antiquated tomes that line the vast shelves.‡
James himself appeared rather indifferent to ‘Lost Hearts’, writing to his friend James McBryde in March 1904 that ‘I don’t much care about it.’ The same was not true of Monty’s feelings for the man who was to become the illustrator of his first collection of ghost stories, his affection rising from the page as he later described McBryde in glowing terms: ‘no one who, even when he supposed himself out of spirits, brought so much enjoyment into an expedition. A smile will never be far off when his friends speak of him …’
James McBryde was a decade younger than MRJ – the three initials were how James usually signed his own name, and how he was referred to by many acquaintances – arriving at King’s College, Cambridge from Shrewsbury in 1893 to study medicine (‘Natural Sciences’ as it was then known). The dashing McBryde came to be a close companion to James, joining him on summer cycling trips, including those to Denmark and Sweden that provided the setting for the stories ‘Number 13’ and ‘Count Magnus’. After completing his medical studies in tribute to the wishes of his late father (though caring little for the subject), McBryde took up a place at the Slade School in 1903 to commence his formal artistic training – a calling for which it is clear he had a considerable talent. Early in the following year, however, he became seriously ill with appendicitis, and a second attack followed in March.
During his friend’s recuperation, James welcomed the idea that McBryde should illustrate some of his stories for the book that was to become Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – stories James had previously read out on Christmas Eve, by the light of a single candle, to the assembled King’s choristers and his fellow academics and acquaintances of the Chitchat Society. In carrying on a loose tradition popularised by Charles Dickens, the Cambridge don became the unwitting new keeper of the seasonal, supernatural flame. In folklore, ghosts had long been linked with Christmas Eve – a night, like Halloween, in which the boundary between this world and the Otherworld, the realm of the spirits, is said to be thinned. And though the festive telling of ghostly stories clearly took place before Dickens – dark winter nights lend themselves to it – the Victorian writer had brought the practice into the mainstream through A Christmas Carol and the tales he published in his own weekly magazine, Household Words.
Perhaps the most effective of these is ‘No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman’. It too was produced specially for Christmas, as was the 1976 BBC version directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, the first of the ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ films not to have been adapted from one of James’s stories. The Signalman features a superb performance from Denholm Elliott, whose terrifying vision of his future may well be the most frightening sequence in the entire strand. The story features three supernaturally foretold railway accidents, and it seems no coincidence that it was written the year after Dickens was himself an unwilling participant in such an event.
On 9 June 1865, returning from France through Kent en route to Charing Cross, the train he was travelling in came to a low viaduct at Staplehurst that was in the process of being repaired. Several carriages plunged off the tracks, killing ten people and injuring fifty, although the structure stood only around ten feet above the muddy stream below; at the moment of derailment Dickens was reading through the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. As the writer and his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan, were at the front of the vehicle in first class, they got off relatively lightly. However, Ternan suffered physical injuries that incapacitated her for weeks, while Dickens, who helped to comfort other passengers, was traumatised, and nervous of train travel thereafter. And, in an odd twist, his own death (resulting from a stroke) was to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the accident.
James McBryde completed only four drawings for Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. He died in early June 1904, five days after having his appendix operated on. James’s book was published at the end of that year, with his friend’s illustrations embellishing ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. In his preface James paid tribute to its illustrator: ‘Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work.’ Despite his Victorian, repressed reluctance to display his emotions, Monty was devastated by the death of McBryde, picking rose, honeysuckle and lilac blooms from the Fellows’ Garden at King’s, and taking them with him on the train to the funeral in Lancashire.§ He cast them into his friend’s grave after the other mourners had departed.
James’s sexuality has long been the subject of speculation – he was a lifelong bachelor, and surrounded himself with close, often younger, male friends. Those searching for Freudian clues about his personal life might point to the lack of female protagonists in his stories, or note that when women do appear they regularly take the role of the fiend, like Mrs Mothersole in ‘The Ash Tree’. The academic Darryl Jones refers to the ‘mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it’ inside which Mr Dunning in ‘Casting the Runes’ unsuspectingly places his hand, in the nook beneath his pillow, as a ‘vagina dentata – a nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine’. A similar horror could be ascribed to the mouldy well-cavity and the guardian-thing it harbours (‘more or less like leather, dampish it was’) in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’.
Both of these examples may indeed, possibly, point to a fear of (or at least unfamiliarity with) women, and therefore may be indicative of James’s clandestine fears or desires. Undoubtedly, having spent his life in all-male academia, he was far more comfortable in the company of men. This stretched to an enjoyment of the rough wrestling-games of ‘ragging’ and ‘animal grab’ that he played at Eton and continued to engage in while at King’s – at the meetings of the TAF (‘Twice a Fortnight’) society, or at college Christmas Eve parties. James’s friend Cyril Alington, later the headmaster of Eton (while James was its provost), provides surprising evidence contradicting the image of James as a stilted academic who we might expect to shun such physical contact; he recalled another friend, St Clair Donaldson – the future bishop of Salisbury – rolling on the floor during one of these games ‘with Monty James’s long fingers grasping at his vitals’.
James’s tactile nature is reflected in his stories, in which the protagonists often experience the touch or feel of something that causes them revulsion, or, in the case of Stephen in ‘Lost Hearts’, wake to find his nightgown has been shredded in the darkness by the raking fingers of the ghost-boy Giovanni. However, it would be presumptuous to assume that these horrors result from some subconscious psychosexual terror experienced by James – they may have been chosen simply for their unpleasantness, or for their resemblance to the medieval visions of Hell garishly on display in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and also prevalent in the manuscripts of that period and the biblical apocrypha of which James was such a keen scholar.
Because it strikes me that an unexpected toothed mouth appearing beneath a pillow would be equally terrifying to any sleeper, regardless of whether they were a man or a woman, gay or straight.
Gordon Carey, a former King’s chorister and Cambridge student who was one of James’s closest later friends, told his son long after James’s death that he supposed Monty was ‘what would now be called a non-practising homosexual’.¶ However, a definitive answer to the question of the writer’s sexuality – something that is ultimately irrelevant in relation to our enjoyment of his stories – seems likely to remain unknowable.
The reticence about ‘Lost Hearts’ that MRJ voiced to James McBryde perhaps hints at the atypical nature of the tale. In some ways it’s grubbier and nastier than most of his stories – which might explain James’s apparent disdain for it.** One of its main characters is a child – and children rarely feature in his work. Before the action begins, the real devil of the piece, Mr Abney, has already lured two adolescents to his grand house, removing their still-beating hearts with a knife while they lie drugged before him, then eating the organs accompanied by a glass of fine port. He plans to confer the same grim fate upon his young orphaned cousin Stephen Elliott in a ritual attempt to attain special powers for himself: invisibility, the ability to take on other forms, and the capacity for flight.
I disagree with James’s own lukewarm opinion of ‘Lost Hearts’. The story is viscerally effective in exploring the loss of childhood innocence (and of the boundaries people will cross to achieve their aims), though I think the adaptation I happened upon on that distant Christmas Eve is in some ways the more frightening of the two versions: certainly the gypsy girl Phoebe and the Italian boy Giovanni make petrifying on-screen apparitions with their greyish-blue skin, yellowed teeth, weirdly hypnotic swaying, and those extraordinary claw-like fingers. The maniacal movement of Mr Abney – he’s usually filmed with the camera tracking him, or circling Stephen in the way a big cat circles its prey – was inspired by Robert Wiener’s fêted work of German Expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. And, in the appearance of the two ghost children, I see echoes of another silent German classic, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, in which Max Schreck’s depiction of the spindly-fingered vampire, Count Orlok, remains one of the most iconic images of the supernatural committed to celluloid.
Yet, above all in the small-screen version, it was the ghost-boy’s hurdy-gurdy music that I found most unsettling. The film had no budget for an orchestral score, with scratchy vinyl 78s from the BBC archives providing the unforgettable aural chills; the adaptation makes no attempt, however, to replicate the ‘hungry and desolate cries’ of the dreadful pair of ghosts, a savage detail in James’s original.
‘Lost Hearts’ has its setting at Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire – when James was writing still a real, extant country pile just south of Sleaford, twenty miles to the north-west of the Fenland market town of Spalding where I grew up (and where I first came across the story in the early hours of that Christmas morning). I cannot visit the hall, as it was demolished in 1951, the result of damage and neglect while under requisition during the Second World War; the parkland that is described so beautifully in the story, however, remains. The adaptation was filmed in twelve days, with Harrington Hall in the Lincolnshire Wolds taking the place of Aswarby. Another location in the far north of the county, the Pelham Mausoleum at Brocklesby Park, was used for one of its most atmospheric scenes – when Stephen visits the temple in the grounds with its haunting, painted glass ceiling of cherubs. The mausoleum, based on that of the Temples of Vesta at Rome and Tivoli, was built between 1786 and 1794 by the First Baron Yarborough as a memorial to his late 33-year-old wife Sophia.
The TV production of Lost Hearts ranged widely over my home county, moving south to shoot the unvarying agricultural vistas I was so familiar with; I would have recognised the landscape of the ominous opening scene, as Stephen’s carriage emerges from the morning haze of a long Fenland drove, passing vast fields where the ghost children wait.†† This premature appearance of the two grey-skinned horrors is one of the film’s weaknesses, for it raises too many questions about their motivation, and their foreshadowed knowledge of future events; in this way, at least, I think James’s original, where the spirits are portrayed as forces of vengeful hunger, works better. But the hurdy-gurdy music of the film, the wonderful visuals of its ghosts, coupled with Joseph O’Conor’s predatory Mr Abney – and of course the circumstances in which I first encountered it – means that the adaptation retains pre-eminence for me.
It has an added layer of poignancy, I now discover: the child actor Simon Gipps-Kent, who conveys Stephen’s likeability and wide-eyed terror with such effectiveness, died fourteen years after the film was made from a morphine overdose, aged twenty-eight.
From the dreaming spires, I head north-west through the drizzle and darkness, edging my way the last few miles along puddle-filled minor roads. Then, through an attractive village, an open gate and a gravel driveway, until the sturdy walls of one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in the country loom above me. It’s not quite the opening of Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, in which the main character comes to his great-grandmother’s – a place modelled on this building, Hemingford Grey Manor – in the middle of a flood of near-biblical proportions. But in terms of atmosphere it comes close, evoking the scene where Toseland reaches the house by boat – one of the most magical arrivals in children’s literature:
‘They rowed round two corners in the road and then in at a big white gate. Toseland waved the lantern about and saw trees and bushes standing in the water, and presently the boat was rocked by quite a strong current and the reflection of the lantern streamed away in elastic jigsaw shapes and made gold rings round the tree trunks. At last they came to a still pool reaching to the steps of the house, and the keel of the boat grated on gravel.‘
Published in 1954, The Children of Green Knowe is another book I encountered through its BBC adaptation, which aired in four half-hour teatime episodes from late November 1986. As it was my second year at grammar school I was perhaps a little too old to be watching it – certainly the cooler boys in my class wouldn’t have admitted to doing so. However, I definitely wasn’t the only one, with my friend James gaining the nickname Tolly due to his perceived likeness to the central character (Tolly is the familiar form of Toseland). The name stuck for a while, and as I view the series again now the face of the young actor, Alec Christie, who played the main role, has become inseparable in my memory from that of my classmate.
The Children of Green Knowe is the first of six children’s novels set around the eponymous twelfth-century house of its title. Born in 1892, Lucy Boston did not start writing the series until she was in her sixties; by then she had been living in Hemingford Grey, twelve miles from Cambridge, since 1937, having purchased the riverside manor after the failure of her marriage. The house (and its topiary-strewn garden) features at the heart of all of the books, with the spirits of its former inhabitants offering a usually reassuring presence.‡‡
The Children of Green Knowe commences with seven-year-old Tolly travelling, like so many characters in bygone children’s fiction, alone by train. (John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, filmed two years before by the BBC – and also avidly watched by my younger self – is another.) Tolly, however, breaks one of the apparent rules of this kind of story by not being an orphan – his parents are in Burma and he’s been summoned from boarding school for Christmas by his great-grandmother, Mrs Oldknow, whom he has never met. The wise, elderly lady seems a version of what Lucy Boston herself was to become – she spent the rest of her days in the manor, where she passed away, aged ninety-seven, in 1990.
Tolly is entranced by the house and his ancient relative’s tales of the past, which seem to come alive in the manifestations of the three benign ancestral Oldknow children, Toby, Linnet and Alexander. Victims of the Great Plague of 1665, they appear to him, alongside various tamed spectral animals and birds, when the whim suits, and Tolly pieces together their lost existences from the fragments they reveal about themselves. More prosaically, the young Toseland might be reconstructing the children’s lives in his head from the stories his great-grandmother tells him and the family artefacts she shows him. In any case, The Children of Green Knowe is a magical piece of writing about imagination and what it is to be a child.
It’s also a book that captures the weather in an almost touchable way – from its opening flood to the dramatic later blizzard, both of which were drawn from Lucy Boston’s memories of the devastating winter of 1947. Harsh heavy snowfalls were followed, that March, by the worst flooding ever recorded along Britain’s east coast, affecting a hundred thousand homes and turning the Fens into an inland sea. It was a transformation which Boston describes in her recollections of Hemingford, Memory in a House:
‘It was like trying to shovel away the sky. The flakes were huge, purposeful and giddy, fantastic to watch when we sat inside. They descended on the garden, and through their rising and falling play one could glimpse the steady disappearance of all known features. The frozen moat was filled up level with its banks, the big yews were glittering pyramids rising from the ground; drifts changed all contours.‘
I’m shown around the manor by Diana Boston – the wife of Lucy’s late son Peter, who etched the Green Knowe books’ striking white-on-black scraperboard illustrations and line drawings. The atmosphere of the place hits me the instant I enter. Diana’s enthusiasm for the house and its story is palpable. She gets me to don a pair of linen gloves, so I can handle the numerous intricate, but now fragile, quilts that Lucy Boston also worked on; these home-made treasures feature at the core of the second novel in the series, The Chimneys of Green Knowe. I have to admit my ignorance at this point, as Diana has assumed my fandom extends to every detail of the stories. At the time of my visit I have read only the opening title and have somewhat vague, thirty-year-old memories of its action.
She seems a little disappointed in me.
I do, however, vividly remember Toby’s carved wooden mouse, which Diana takes down from a high shelf and places in my hands – I run my thumb over the comforting smoothness of its dark wood, surprised by its weight. It is exactly like its illustration in the book (executed more than sixty years ago by Diana’s husband), and happens to be the very artefact used in the television adaptation.
We head to the first floor’s imposing music room. Here, during the Second World War, Lucy held evening recitals for airmen from the nearby base – but because she was an eccentric outsider and fluent in German, many of the locals had suspicions that she was spying for the enemy, rather than doing her morale-boosting bit for the war effort. The men sat on cushions in the church-like alcoves as the industrial-sized trumpet of the gramophone crackled out its sound. Diana puts a record beneath its needle now, to demonstrate: the effect on the room is transformative, almost placing me among the milling throng of blue-suited young men to whom this steadfast, ancient house must have seemed such a place of sanctuary compared to the uncertainty of their own impermanent prospects.
We climb the narrow staircase that leads to the attic. The room at the top is dominated by a black-maned wooden rocking horse, conjuring for me the opening credits of the television series in which the camera circles the horse in close-up while the woodwinds, violins and harp of the main theme swirl in accompaniment.§§
This is the bedroom in which Tolly sleeps, and is a near facsimile of the one described in the text. As the two of us stand there and Diana recounts details of the furniture, something odd happens. A hardback novel with no dust jacket seems to propel itself, with considerable energy, onto the floorboards from the low, built-in bookcase on the wall behind the horse. Her little brown terrier, who has been following us on the tour, saunters across and sniffs it.
‘What was that?’ I ask.
‘These sorts of thing happen here sometimes,’ Diana says, picking up the book and replacing it.¶¶
I’m not someone who claims to have any predisposition to such things, and I have little experience of similar incidents, but the happening is not a frightening one and seems in keeping with the location. I suppose my rational explanation would be that our footfalls caused a vibration that dislodged the already unbalanced book, but even so the force of its flight was unsettling. The cynic in me wonders for a moment whether Diana has an elaborate mechanism to activate such a trick that she uses on all wide-eyed visitors – but I know this isn’t actually the case. Indeed, Lucy Boston comments in her memoir:
‘Meanwhile the house continued its own mysterious life and from time to time sent feelers out from its darker corners, such as slight poltergeistic displacements, footsteps up the wooden stairs, wandering lights, voices, etc., but so much immediate and dramatic human life filled the place that irrational trifles did not get much attention.‘
Later, in the music room, we sit as Robert Lloyd Parry, a Cambridge actor and M. R. James devotee with a more than slight resemblance to Monty, reads two of the scholar’s ghostly tales by candlelight to a now-assembled audience.*** I am transfixed by MRJ’s words (and Lloyd Parry’s performance), though a growing sense of weariness seems to have taken hold of me for some reason – the effect of all the Manor’s encroaching history, perhaps? I feel a little like Tolly midway through The Children of Green Knowe, after his great-grandmother reveals to him that the house’s three elusive young visitors are long dead:
‘He must have known of course that the children could not have lived so many centuries without growing old, but he had never thought about it. To him they were so real, so near, they were his own family that he needed more than anything on earth. He felt the world had come to an end.‘
Afterwards, I traverse the monotony of the moon-risen Fens in near silence, not wanting the radio to interrupt the drumming of the rain and the hypnotic drone of my car’s engine. As I pass a stand of willows that lines a deep dyke, a winter moth – the hardiest of our lepidoptera – flutters skywards, luminous in my headlights.
Another lost heart.^
There are, perhaps, wider sociological factors as to why grand houses and their surroundings feature so prevalently in the stories of James (and other writers) – historically, ghosts have seemed largely a concern of the two extremes of British society, with belief in them concentrated among the upper and working classes. Roger Clarke’s A Natural History of Ghosts makes a neat case for these polarities: ‘Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.’
† Written in 1935 and printed posthumously in 1936, ‘A Vignette’ is the only one of James’s works to reference Livermere and his childhood home directly. The apparently autobiographical tale tells of a malevolent, haunting face glimpsed through an opening in the rectory’s wall.
‡ It’s tempting to think the room inspired ‘The Tractate Middoth’. But the primary setting of James’s story (published in 1911) is Cambridge University’s old library – today the library of Gonville & Caius.
§ That same month McBryde’s wife Gwendolen gave birth to a daughter, Jane, with James taking up the role of her guardian; he wrote his sole children’s book, the Narnia-esque The Five Jars for her, and remained in close contact with the pair for the rest of his life.
¶ It must be remembered that the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 had added a new layer of homophobic persecution to British society, criminalising ‘gross indecency’ between men, as Oscar Wilde would discover to his cost; it was not until 1967 that these laws were partially repealed, and only in 2004 (in England and Wales) that they were fully abolished.
** In his 1929 essay ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’ James comments: ‘Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories.’
†† Although he spent so many of his seventy-three years on the fringe of the Fens, James’s stories, with the exception of the ‘The Fenstanton Witch’ (which was unpublished in his lifetime), are not explicitly set in this flat farmland world. For an excellent example of a truly Fens-located tale, R. H. Malden’s ‘Between Sunset and Moonrise’ is difficult to top. Malden was a fellow Kingsman and an acquaintance of James; his single collection of supernatural stories, Nine Ghosts, was brought out by MRJ’s publisher Edward Arnold during the Second World War. Its dustjacket made the grand claim: ‘Dr James has found his successor.’
‡‡ Except in the fifth of the series, An Enemy at Green Knowe, which gives us the malingering trace of Dr Vogel, an ominous seventeenth-century alchemist not unlike Mr Abney from ‘Lost Hearts’.
§§ The adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe wasn’t actually shot at Hemingford Grey Manor, but at the moated Crow’s Hall, near Debenham in Suffolk. Although the production team borrowed Hemingford’s rocking horse, they ended up using a near-identical one with a blonde, not dark, mane.
¶¶ When I later examine the solid-feeling shelves, I find they contain first editions of Alan Garner’s Red Shift and The Owl Service – two more important books from my childhood in which the past parallels the present. Neither, however, was the volume that flew out into the room; its identity must remain a mystery, as in the excitement I forgot to check.
*** Lloyd Parry provides the introduction to Lucy Boston’s posthumously published collection of stories written in the 1930s, Curfew & Other Eerie Tales; the title piece is particularly effective, along with the menacing water tower of ‘Pollution’.
Why does a person “dress up” as a ghost by cutting eye-holes in a bed sheet and then draping that sheet over his or her head? Does a traditional ghost really wear sheets?
Well, people in the English-speaking world have been “doing” ghosts in just this way for hundreds of years, and there is a good reason for it. In Britain, until relatively recently, a wooden coffin was a post-mortem luxury that was far too expensive for many people. In fact, only the relatively well-to-do could afford coffins in which to bury the remains of their departed loved ones. That meant that the corpses of poor people—and there were a lot of those—had to go coffinless.
So instead of boxing their dead, the poor shrouded bodies for burial by wrapping them in a winding sheet—a white cloth that bound and covered the corpse, head to toe. And whenever a mischief-maker wanted to frighten someone by pretending to be a ghost, he used white fabric to give himself the appearance of a body that had just crawled from the grave.
According to Owen Davies, in his book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, winding sheets traditionally were made of linen, in imitation of Jesus’ burial shroud. But in 1666, in an effort to support the country’s textile industry, the British government ordered that they be made of wool.
For centuries, if you were British, dressing in sheets was an extremely effective way of scaring people. Not only did most British people believe in ghosts—in fact, a slight majority still do—but one highly popular myth concerning the form in which a dead person might return in order to haunt the living was that of the revenant—a reanimated corpse that had clawed its way out of the ground. Of course, one of these “walking dead” would doubtlessly be trailing its winding sheet as it staggered about the earth.
Although burial shrouds have been out of fashion for so long that we barely remember them, the archetype of the ghost as a supernatural being draped in sheets has remained with us, unchanged.
As for “The Winding Sheet”—the brief Scottish story that inspired the illustration at the top of this article—it has to do with an old woman who predicts a teenage boy’s untimely death after experiencing a vision in which he walks across a field, wrapped in his winding sheet.^
So, after you banish drama, consider following it up with a tarot reading or a scrying session to give yourself a little perspective.
Some form of fire banishing appears in spell books around the world.
This banish drama method is accessible and easy to customize to almost any situation.
Write down the name of the person at the center of the drama in your life.
Or, alternatively, if it involves multiple people or toxic group dynamics, simply describe the situation in your own words.
On the first night of the waning moon, fold some dried banishing herbs (like rosemary or mugwort) into the paper. Light it on fire and toss it into your fire-safe cauldron or bowl outside.
Visualize the drama “going up in smoke” as you watch fire vapors rise into the atmosphere.
Recognizing you are at the center of your own drama is the hallmark of a well-adjusted person.
The truth is, we all sometimes create drama, and we do it for any number of reasons. Sometimes, we want to get the attention of the people in our lives. Sometimes, we feel the need to “shake up” our situation when we feel stagnated.
Usually, it causes more problems than it solves.
But it happens.
So, if you find that you generated some unnecessary upheaval in your life, just admit it. It’s okay. You’re human. Recognizing that is the fastest way to move on and heal from any self-inflicted theatrics.
Draw a hot bath. In a cotton or muslin drawstring pouch, place a piece of (affiliate link —>) hematite or obsidian inside, along with a lemon peel.
Soak for at least 15-20 minutes, and visualize yourself taking on the quality of water and “flowing” around obstacles and circumstances, rather than fighting them. Then, remain in the tub after you pull the plug or stopper and imagine your struggles flowing down the drain with the water.
Ritual cleansing is one of the oldest forms of magic. Nearly every culture, religion and spiritual tradition in the world incorporates some form of energy clearing.
This approach works especially well if drama centers around a particular place.
(For example, drama at home with roommates or family, or drama at work with your colleagues).
I came across this in my FB memories, my second published flash fiction piece . I had fun with this one and it really scared me. I’ve yet to elaborate on the story of this winged vampire-like thing. God knows what it is—and I’m not sure I want to know. Writing is interesting like that. I suppose a character can lay dormant between a short story appearance and a longer work, or a second story. Maybe this character needs its story continued. 🥶 The wonderful artwork by Jeanette Andromeda is available in a variety of formats (see link following the story).
In honor of sharing the love this Halloween season here’s a flash fiction story from my fellow blogger and horror storyteller, Sanguine Woods. And if you like my blog then you’re going to enjoy his work on thesanguinewoods.wordpress.com. His blog is all about horror and mysteries explored through photography and a love for the literary world. Seriously, it’s a blog after my own heart.
Anyway, enough preamble from me, here is a little flash fiction from Sanguine Woods to help you find your Halloween way.
“I put on its skin. I put on its skin,” it said. “Must I put it on again tonight? I loathe it. It has an…odor.”
Narrow nostrils flared at the phantom scent of moist stinking flesh.
“You’ll do it. Again. Odor or no.”
A cracked iron pipe made a hissing sound.
Its head found the cup of its hands and rested there. A…
“We have a number of beautiful jewelry pieces. We have really interesting tarot cards. We also have stuff that veers into the satanic element of it,” said museum owner Steven Intermill.
The Buckland attracts a diverse crowd.
“I get the most diehard Wiccans to just the most open-minded people. I get a lot of groups of seniors that come in and they are like ‘hey this sounds like fun’ along with the general seeker types,” Intermill said.
A few questions crop up regularly with visitors.
“A lot of people ask about Satanism. I get a lot of people asking about ‘are witches evil?’ I just think they’re just like any other subset of society, just because you’re ‘anything’ doesn’t make you a certain way. It’s the person,” he said.
Intermill has run the museum with his wife, Jillian, since 2017. Cleveland is the latest stop for the Buckland collection, much of which was assembled by the museum’s namesake.
“Raymond Buckland and his first wife, Rosemary, had come to the United States in the early 1960s from London. He settles in Long Island and starts working for British Airways. He’s a copywriter. He’s making money for the first time, but there is something spiritually missing. He’s seeking, and he discovers Wicca, which for our purposes is witchcraft through the lens of Gerald Gardner,” Intermill said.
Inspired by Gardner’s Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, Buckland opened his own museum on Long Island in 1966. He eventually moved his collection to New York City before relocating to New Hampshire, where the museum closed in 1980. In 2015, Buckland donated his collection to a temple in Columbus, Ohio, where it was purchased by Toni Rotonda. Intermill, who had an interest in witchcraft and the occult wanted to open a museum of his own, so he contacted Buckland who directed him to Rotonda. The two have partnered to display the collection in Cleveland.