“Signal”, a Ghost Story by John Lanchester, The New Yorker, 2017

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Signal, a Ghost Story

John Lanchester, 2017

 


Read an interview with John Lanchester regarding this story from the New Yorker…

https://thesanguinewoods.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/on-ghost-stories-a-modern-take/


 

I tried to give the children an etiquette lesson while we were waiting at King’s Cross on December 30th.

“You aren’t allowed to ask for the Wi-Fi password before you say hello,” I said. “That’s the main thing.”

“Uncle Mike won’t care,” said Toby, who was nine.

“He’s nice,” said Mia, who was seven.

“Both of those things are true,” I said. “Uncle Mike is nice, and he wouldn’t care, but this is a life lesson. It’s just not what you do. You say hello, you chat for a bit, and then you ask for the Wi-Fi password. It’s just one of the rules.”

“Fear? That’s the other guy’s problem,” Toby said. We had recently let him stay up too late to watch “Trading Places,” and this line had made a profound impact.

Michael wasn’t my oldest friend and he wasn’t my closest friend, but he was older than any of the ones who were closer and closer than any of the ones who were older, so he had a special status, as part of the furniture of my life, the kind of friend who when you’re asked how you met you have to think for a while to remember. What he certainly was, though, unequivocally and by a huge margin, was my richest friend. Michael was loaded, seriously and unambiguously loaded. He was the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich. He had made the money himself. It was all the more impressive because Michael seemed barely to have noticed. His peers and friends and rivals and colleagues were all amazed by the fact that Mike was now some kind of gazillionaire, but it didn’t seem to make much impression on Michael himself.

He’d drifted through Cambridge doing something scientific—engineering or maths, I think it was. I’d always thought that, like me, he was going to be an academic, but Michael had got a first and then stumbled into the City, and then shuffled or ambled through an escalating series of jobs in finance before “going off to try something a bit different,” and at that point it became clear that he had ascended to some new stratosphere of international wealth. The first sign was when he invited us to join him on holiday for a week, and that turned out to mean a helicopter pickup in Battersea taking us to a private jet at Northolt, taking us to a yacht the size of a municipal tennis facility, and a week’s cruising in the Med. And still it was never clear how Michael had done what he’d done. This was a characteristic that had been salient from the time we first met, at university, his ambient, all-purpose, omnidirectional vagueness. It was a well-meaning vagueness, but it could also be highly irritating, and there were certain situations in which it more or less guaranteed disaster, such as anything involving social life.

This was shaping up to be another of those occasions. Michael had “bought a little place,” as he put it, which, after he mentioned the address and I did a certain amount of cyberstalking, turned out to mean an estate of several thousand acres in North Yorkshire. The previous owner had suddenly died and the estate had been sold, in the flattering and far from accurate language of the only newspaper report, to a “mystery financier.” Michael had invited us to go up for New Year’s Eve about a month earlier and Kate and I couldn’t resist, despite knowing that, while the setting was guaranteed to be amazing, from the social point of view it was likely to be chaotic, or hard work, or both. On the other hand, we knew that halfway through the alleged holidays we’d be hallucinating with fatigue, and three days with someone else looking after our lovely but exhausting little ones would feel like the kind of thing that should be available on the National Health Service.

The trip up north felt like punishment for our hubristic attempt to change holiday routine. King’s Cross was a maelstrom. The stress was magnified by the fact that Michael had said, by text, only that we’d be met at the station, without saying exactly where or by whom. Network Rail seemed to pride itself on displaying platform information at the last possible moment, so we were quivering like greyhounds as we waited to run to the train. Toby and Mia hadn’t eaten and were holiday-cranky, and were demanding a trip to the Harry Potter Shop and to Platform 9¾. We didn’t know what we’d be doing at the house, or how fancy it would be, and as a result had overpacked. It was a perfect storm of travel stress and bad omens. Kate looked at me.

“This is a look of mute reproach,” she said.

“Yep,” I said. “Sorry. We’ll wait for the platform info, get to our seats, and hope it sorts itself out at the other end.”

“Unless he just forgot.”

“No, he never forgets,” I said, which was true: Michael might mis- or dis-organize things, but he never plain forgot them.

The rest of the journey was both better and worse than I had expected. There were as many people standing as sitting, and when I say standing I mean lurching, swaying, listening to music at the perfect volume to irritate everyone within a five-metre radius. Add to that overheating, an unexplained twenty-minute delay after Peterborough, and two motion-sickness-prone children. We got off at York and, in the general mayhem, Kate found a driver carrying a sign with a misspelled version of our surname. The subsequent ninety-minute car trip through the Yorkshire dark, stopping only twice, for children’s pee and vomit breaks, was a week at Jumeirah Dubai by comparison.

The driveway of Michael’s big house was so long that even after we got there it took a while to get there. The four of us came out of the cold into a double-height entrance hallway, to be greeted by no one at all, apart from a very, very tall man, at least six feet five, who was looking at his mobile phone as if he was struggling to get reception, and more interested in that than in any other form of human interaction. His response to a family of four bursting through the door was to do nothing except scowl at us, then drift toward the side hallway. The rudeness was compounded by an air of complete coldness and disconnection, as if he couldn’t have cared less whether we lived or died.

“Hello,” Toby said. “Very nice to meet you. My name is Toby. How do you do? Also, would you mind awfully telling me the Wi-Fi password?”

While Kate and I spluttered and glared at our firstborn, the man continued to walk away and vanished around the corner. Silence settled in the entrance hall of the big house. There was a stag’s head on the far wall. Large portraits of formally dressed people from previous centuries frowned from above the unlit fireplace. Presumably, they were ancestors of the previous owner. The unwelcoming, inhospitable, eerie quiet loomed and grew. It seemed, for a moment, as if we didn’t really exist. It seemed, for a moment, as if coming here for the holiday had been a very bad idea indeed.

Then, as in a farce, from the other side of the hall came four members of the household staff in uniform; a smartly dressed couple in early middle age arguing heatedly in French; and our host, who was carrying a pair of roller skates and a copy of a book called “Option Volatility & Pricing,” by Sheldon Natenberg, thickly interleaved with Post-it notes.

“The four-fifteen,” Michael said. He hadn’t forgotten that we were arriving, but he had forgotten that we would be arriving at that exact moment, so he was too distracted to greet us or smile or say hello. “Pickup at, say, four-thirty,” he said to himself. “Ninety minutes across the moors. A few extra minutes for other journey variables. Six-thirty.” He looked at his watch. “Yes!” And then suddenly there was the sweet smile and the abrupt sense of warmth and intimacy, which was why, after all, people did love him. “Yes!” he said and hugged Mia and then Toby and then Kate and me. He hugged like a natural non-toucher who had taken professional instruction in how to overcome his instincts and hug, and then found, greatly to his own surprise, that he liked it. Which, in fact, was what he was, and the reason I know is that I gave him the course, “I Hate Hugging: Overcoming Your Fear of Intimacy Through Touch,” as a fortieth-birthday present.

After that, everything became better. I don’t mean better from the social point of view, because Michael still didn’t know how to introduce people, and, that evening, as we tried to work out who was who, it became clear that he had done exactly what we suspected, and invited an essentially random group consisting of us, a large selection of work acquaintances who didn’t know one another, and a few people he’d barely met but had asked at the last minute.

Read the story in The New Yorker, free, here…

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/signal-john-lanchester

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Sherlock Holmes and the Scene of the Crime, a Pastiche…

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(The Strand)

 

The autumn of 1897 presented such an array of singular cases that to pen any one of them seems unjust to those excluded. Clients from all walks of life brought their seemingly insoluble problems to my friend for resolution. There was the case where Holmes vindicated a hapless fellow named Sedgington, whose lascivious pencil sketchings of Queen Victoria fell into the hands of the nefarious blackmailer Reginald Quigg. My sleep is still plagued with nightmares of the Horace Bellefonte dental floss affair, as shocking a tale as The Giant Rat of Sumatra or The Monster Anchovy of Crete. It was also during this period that Holmes found my scarf under the sofa. However, complete written accounts of these and other adventures will never reach the public eye, the unfortunate result of my having rammed my case notes so tightly into my desk drawer that I can’t pull it open.Sherlock Holmes and the Scene of the Crime

There is one case that I feel competent to chronicle entirely from memory, so deeply are its details etched in my mind. It all began early in October on a chilly Sunday afternoon during a lull in my friend’s casework. Holmes was deep in the sway of a cocaine-induced stupor as was his habit when no interesting cases occupied his intellect. He had been curled up in a chair by the window all morning with his violin, his incoherent state evident in his effort to coax a tune out of the instrument by licking it. I myself was engrossed in a philosophical treatise concerning man’s pursuit of perfection, which I took to be an allegory of a whale hunt.

The silence was interrupted by the sound of footfalls on the stairs leading up to our flat. Seizing the moment to inject some spirit into my friend, I quickly adopted his deductive methods to describe our visitor in advance.

“Your next client is a man,” I confidently proclaimed. “Rather tall and quite sturdily built, no doubt a logger by trade.”

I succeeded in getting Holmes’s attention, if not his enthusiasm, so I continued.

“Despite the capabilities of his stride, he ascends the stairs one at a time. This, in addition to a slightly perceptible limp, tells me he incurred a leg wound while serving in the army, possibly in Afghanistan.”

Undaunted by my companion’s sardonic grin, I confidently swung the door open to admit Mrs. Hudson, delivering our morning tea. On her way out she mentioned that we had a visitor waiting downstairs and asked whether she should show him up.

“By all means,” I replied on behalf of Holmes, who was too convulsed in laughter to speak. “Anything to relieve the monotony.”

I greeted our visitor at the door and offered him the seat across from Holmes. He was quite young, handsomely attired in the manner of a genteel aristocrat. Once comfortable, he lost no time in beginning his narrative.

“My name is Ichabod Thortonshire. I live with my father and younger brother on a modest country estate in Kent, a mere stone’s throw away from here, provided you can throw a stone about 20 miles. My mother died shortly after my brother, Rodney, was born and Father took it upon himself to raise us on his own, choosing not to remarry.

“Despite his family responsibilities, my father developed a fine career as a physician. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, Dr. Watson, Dr. Osgood Thortonshire?”

“Why, yes, “ I replied. Dr. Thortonshire was the author of many a medical treatise and had caused quite a stir in the profession some years ago when he advocated closing surgical incisions not with suture but through the use of huge styptic pencils.

“Well,” Mr. Thortonshire continued, “about five years ago, my father left a thriving practice for academic life. He had been offered a chair at Cambridge and six months later a file cabinet, but after a while he grew listless in his teachings and eventually had to surrender his chair and was forced to stand. Not the ambitious sort, he elected to retire to Kent and manage a gentleman’s farm there; you know, the type where all the crops get cultivated but somehow no one ever gets their hands dirty.

“The three of us led a comfortable, sedentary life until last week when tragedy struck. I awoke one morning to find my father slumped in a chair in his study, dead of a broken neck. Naturally I called Scotland Yard at once but as yet they’ve no clue to the identity of the murderer. I’ve no one else to turn to, Mr. Holmes, and your reputation for divining solutions in matters like these is widely known. I beg of your help.”

Holmes, who had been listening intently throughout, now leaned forward. “Was your brother at home at the time of your father’s death?”

“Yes, he was. I awakened him with the awful news that morning. He’s a bit simple-minded and quite harmless, though as a child he tended to be rather cruel. I can remember times when he would lay his pet chameleon on plaid surfaces and watch it go crazy trying to blend in. He keeps mostly to himself nowadays, a voracious reader though he ignores the words and reads only the punctuation. Surely you don’t suspect him, Mr. Holmes?”

“Any conjecture I could make at this point would be premature,” assured Holmes. “I suggest that if it is at all convenient, I accompany you back to Kent for a thorough examination of the scene of the crime.”

“Excellent,” Mr. Thortonshire exclaimed. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know you’ll be working on the case. You’ve certainly set my mind at ease!”

“I only hope I can live up to your expectations,” my friend modestly replied as he donned his overcoat and deerstalker. Within minutes they left and I decided to take advantage of the solitude to return to my reading. My volume of philosophy in hand, I situated myself comfortably in the easy chair and was asleep in no time flat.

An hour or so later, I was awakened by the creak of a floorboard to find a hobo-like character fumbling through our belongings near the desk. It was obviously Holmes, attired as he was in order to blend in with the London lowlife. He often did this to ferret out clues for a case and took great delight in tricking me with his impressions, but this time I refused to be duped. When he first noticed I was awake, he feigned alarm but I quickly dismissed his anxiety, detailing the whereabouts of certain valuables and chuckling all the while he collected them. After he scurried out the door with a sack full of plunder and a perplexed look on his face, I resumed my nap, confident I had gotten the better of my friend.

Holmes had still not returned that evening when I retired, but early the following morning I awoke to the smell of Mrs. Hudson’s breakfast and putting on my robe, I walked into the living room to find my comrade reading the morning paper while eating.

“Ah, Watson,” he said without even lifting his eyes. “Come and enjoy this marvelous meal Mrs. Hudson has prepared for us.” There was an uplifted tone in his voice that I assumed was attributable to the Thortonshire case, so I sat down to eat and asked him about it.

It’s finished,” he said glibly. In contrast to Holmes’s nonchalance, I reacted to the news with noticeable startle, flinging a forkful of scrambled eggs with such force that they stuck to the ceiling.

“Finished?” I cried, regaining composure. “But it was only . . . “

“The good doctor’s death was accidental,” he murmured, oblivious to my amazement.

“But a broken neck! How, in a chair?”

“Dr. Thortonshire suffered from a rare combination of narcolepsy and insomnia. When the narcolepsy seized him, he would begin to nod off, only to jerk back, unable to sleep. Over time, this presented such stress to his neck that the break was inevitable.”

“But surely his son Ichabod was aware of his father’s condition. Why didn’t he proffer this information to Scotland Yard?”

“I suspect that Ichabod was reluctant to share his father’s inheritance with his brother. Since the death could easily be misinterpreted as foul play, Ichabod concealed this detail, allowing the authorities to draw conclusions implicating Rodney, who was too simple to defend himself. After the dust settled and his brother was institutionalized, the entire estate would accrue to Ichabod.”

“Of all the brazenness!” I exclaimed. “Deliberately submitting the case to your purview and expecting to deceive you!” Holmes characteristically shrugged off the compliment and resumed his meal.

“One thing puzzles me,” I continued. “Why was the disguise necessary?”

“What?” Holmes replied, his face now straight.

“You know, the riff-raff garb.” I proceeded to outline the episode of the previous day while Holmes listened with a blank stare on his face. When I finished, Holmes paused a full minute and then handed me his dinner knife handle first, stood up, turned with his back facing me, and his arms raised, crying “Go ahead then. Finish the deed!”

I wrote off his overreaction to tension and fatigue, although even after a good night’s rest it was weeks before he deigned to acknowledge my presence.

END.

5 Historic Hauntings: Are These the Most Frightening of All Time? You Be the Judge…

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borley25The Haunting of Borley Rectory, England. Concept & Design by Woody Dexter. (Images unless otherwise noted: Pinterest)

It’s always fun to put ghost stories into Best Of categories. Well, here is a list of the “Top 5” of all time, one per century. What do you think?

Going back to the 1500s, which stories or legends of ghosts/hauntings stand out? Well, according to this list (historyextra.com), these were some pretty nasty hauntings—one in a church?!

I DO hope they were caught, trapped, exorcized…

The Top 5 Hauntings 1500-1999

scoganTitle Page to Scogan’s Scoggin’s Jests, 1666, 1866

Ghost Tale from the 16th Century

Anne Boleyn, whose headless ghost is rumoured to haunt the vicinity of the Tower of London and other locations, may be the most famous ghost of the 16th century. But instead I nominate a literary hoax ghost.

Following the Reformation, Protestant theologians dismissed ghosts as Catholic inventions, delusions and frauds…

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Illustration for “The Moth” — a Story by H. G. Wells

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Art by Geoff Woodbridge for Old Style Press. 

Optical wormholes: punching virtual tunnels in space via metamaterials!

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Though the introduction of optical invisibility cloaks in 2006 caused a huge sensation around the world in both the media and the general public, arguably even more significant to the optical scien…

Source: Optical wormholes: punching virtual tunnels in space via metamaterials!

The Diary of Xander Tulley—a Novella-in-Progress by Sanguine Woods…

Dear Book Lovers and Ardent Readers,

RE: A quick note from the writer’s desk…

Greetings!

I’m excited to share with you that I started my next writing project this week: a novella set in a small village in North-Central Massachusetts, up near the Vermont-New Hampshire borders. It’s 1800 and a new century lies ahead, filled with hope and expectation. At least for one man.

Xander Tulley is a clever man; some would call him a man of science, a practical and pragmatic lover of facts and the path they reveal to hard truth. That is the side he shows the outside world, anyway. But inside, Tulley has another passion; one for writing, chronicling the world around him; and for the growing technology of the printed word. Fresh out of college, he accepts an apprenticeship with a printer in a small town called Widow’s Wood, where the townsfolk have a respect for the past, and a collective closed lip about it as well.

It’s a typical early American setting, he supposes, and the townsfolk have a right to live quiet lives; but Xander Tulley is a man on the brink of an age of discovery. He becomes curious about an odd grouping of stones in the woods, about a mile from the village square. There is no visible path to the outcropping, and reaching it is difficult unless you know the woods, and the way. The stones circumscribe what appears to be a gash in the earth, a crooked cave opening some five paces across at its widest. The trees that surround the area are the only trees in the wood that turn red when Autumn comes. It could be a strange coincidence. The rest of the forest is dense evergreen and white birch.

Tulley has been dreaming about the red trees. His preoccupation with learning the history of Widow’s Wood seems exciting, at first. He has a good eye and a keen mind for research. He loves a good puzzle. But, it’s a mere step or two from preoccupation to obsession. And some things—some geographies, secrets, some stories, have lain quiet and undisturbed for a long time. Before the advent of science and man’s inventing, they were there; long before a man or woman ever set foot on the forest floor.

The story of the woods is old. And when Xander Tulley reaches a fork in the road, he will be faced with one of the hardest decisions he will ever have to make.

I’ll share more updates on how the story is coming along soon…

Hope you’ll check back.

Sw

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Artwork by Sanguine Woods. Cover design, text, story concept/idea (c)2016 by Sanguine Woods.