Saturday, 21 May 2016

Of Faithful Dogs, Poltergeists...and Miss Cathcart

No one knows just how many bodies lie under the peaceful, rolling landscape of Edinburgh's Greyfriars Kirkyard. It is known that, in 1562, Mary Queen of Scots gave the land to the town as an overflow cemetery for the overcrowded St Giles churchyard. It took just 340 years to accumulate 100,000 bodies, not helped by the addition of several tons of human remains re-interred there from St Giles during restoration work there.

By the late eighteenth century, the situation was so bad that it was almost impossible for the sextons to dig a fresh grave without coming across remains - some of which were not by any means fully decomposed. You certainly get the feeling as you wander among the gravestones, that you are not alone. Is that whispering an unquiet spirit? Or merely the breeze ruffling the spring leaves...?

 

There are only two entrances to the Kirkyard and, if you enter from the junction of Candlemaker Row, Chambers Street and George IV Bridge, chances are you will have paused a moment to reflect upon one of Edinburgh's most famous monuments. Unusually, it is not commemorating some famous war hero, monarch or statesman. This little bronze statue, said to have been carved from life not long before its subject died, is of a faithful Skye terrier called Bobby. His story is one of simple, lifelong devotion. His owner was a policeman called John Gray who was employed as a night watchman by Edinburgh City police. Bobby was just two years old when his owner died and was interred in Greyfriars Kirkyard. For fourteen years, the little dog guarded his master's grave until he too died in 1872, aged 16. Technically, Bobby was a stray and could have been subject to a tragic fate, but the Lord Provost of Edinburgh - William Chambers - paid for his license and Bobby was granted the freedom of the City of Edinburgh. In 1873, a local philanthropist, Lady Burdett-Coutts, commissioned a statue of the faithful dog to be positioned atop a drinking fountain which would provide refreshment for both weary humans and dogs alike. Sadly the fountain's water supply has been turned off, but the monument remains and generations of visitors have rubbed the little dog's nose so that it gleams in the sunshine.




 Not all tales of Greyfriars Kirkyard are so sweet. Sir George Mackenzie (1636-91) was known as the ‘Hanging Judge’. Boasting that he had ‘never lost a case for the King’, he was a man of violent temper, and a scourge of the Covenanters – a group of Scottish Presbyterians who signed a Covenant protesting at the form of English worship introduced by Charles I. For this, they were branded as heretics and Mackenzie saw it as his mission to rid Scotland of their presence. When he died, he was buried in an ornate mausoleum, but it appears his spirit does not rest in peace. 

Inside the Black Mausoleum
The Mackenzie Poltergeist is a familiar presence – especially after dark. City of the Dead Tours run a fascinating nightly trip around the graveyard, culminating in Mackenzie’s Black Mausoleum. The tours have been running since 1999 and during that time, hundreds of visitors have reported being pushed, tugged, scratched and knocked over. Jan-Andrew Henderson’s book, The Ghost That Haunted Itself gives a collection of visitors’ spooky – and at times disturbing - experiences.


There are many unusual gravestones in Greyfriars Kirkyard. Some have no names – just initials – but the most enigmatic (for me at least) has to be the one which simply reads, ‘Miss Cathcart’. There is no trace of a first name. No one today knows who she was. Since I returned from Edinburgh, I have been researching likely candidates. Judging by the style of lettering on the wall-mounted stone carving, and comparing it with nearby memorials, it may have been created in the mid-nineteenth century. I have found at least two possible contenders from around that time. Spinster sisters called Miss Helen and Miss Isabella Cathcart who each owned a house in fashionable Princes Street. One of them could have been the Miss Cathcart (no first name given) who was Treasurer of the Edinburgh Ladies Association – a worthy institution that raised money for missionary causes.


But who would erect a memorial to a person without showing their first name? Maybe they didn’t know it. Maybe this Miss Cathcart was a teacher and the tablet was commissioned and paid for by a grateful former student who never knew her as anything but ‘Miss Cathcart’. The possibilities are many and varied. But then, I never could resist a mystery…


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

On Funerals - Somer Canon



Somer Canon is an exciting new author who has hit the horror scene with a most unusual, exceptional novella. Here she gives a clue as to one of her influences:

          
I have a hazy memory of being not long out of my toddler years and attending my first funeral.  My grandmother had me for the weekend, as she often did, but she needed to attend the viewing of her recently deceased elderly neighbor.  I knew the woman vaguely in that to my young mind, she as a gifter of an endless supply of colorful hard candies.
             It was an uncomfortable experience, seeing that kind lady looking to be asleep surrounded by her weeping family.  I remember my grandma telling me not to look at her and when I asked why, she said that I was too young, a catch-all explanation that I loathed.  

             “If I’m not supposed to look, why is she out for everybody to see?”  I asked.
            My grandma had no answer.
            The experience was vastly different when my grandma passed.  Drowning in the grief of losing someone who had always been so important to me, I was still able to be confused that my mom and my aunt bought my grandma a new dress and jewelry for her viewing.  The funeral home styled her hair in a way different from how she wore it and they put too much makeup on her.  All of that toiling away to create the illusion that she was merely sleeping ended up looking gruesome to me.  I, like everyone else who knew and loved her, preferred her how she had looked when she was alive, not overly painted and wearing clothes she’d never have picked out for herself. 
            Seeing her like that caused me to make up my mind that I did not want that for myself. 
            Vicki, a character in my novella, Vicki Beautiful, agrees with me.  She has serious concerns about how her last showing to her loved ones would be carried out. While I want to avoid causing distress to my loved ones by creating a poorly executed illusion, Vicki wants to avoid looking anything other than beautiful perfection.



One last taste of perfection… 
Sasha and Brynn descend upon the showplace home of their girlhood friend, Vicki, planning to celebrate her surviving cancer to reach her fortieth birthday. As they gather around Vicki’s perfectly set dinner table, though, her husband shares devastating news. The cancer is back, and she doesn’t have long to live.

Her life is cut even shorter than Sasha and Brynn expect—the next morning, their friend is found dead, her flawless skin slit at the wrists. But a tub full of blood is only the beginning. Before the weekend is through, they are forced to question how far they’re willing to go to fulfill Vicki’s last wish.

A very specific, very detailed recipe that only the truest of friends could stomach…
 Praise for Vicki Beautiful
 “ I read this at one gripping session and I shall read more by this author. Excellent, original and worth every one of my five stars.” –Catherine Cavendish, Author of The Devil’s Serenade

“At times it reminded me of the cult classic "Eating Raoul" and others "The Big Chill". Suffice to say, Canon has created an intriguing tale that will not only have you caring about characters put into an awkward, unsettling situation but also wondering how they'll react to it every step of the way. I highly recommend this unique and entertaining story.” –Matthew Franks, Author The Monster Underneath

“This is not the normal type of book that I would read, but the cover sold it to me, and I like reading new authors and genres. This book is beautifully written, the writing flows and you feel you really understand what the character’s are feeling…” Rebecca, GoodReads Reviewer

“The ending of this story was truly horrific. I am an old school horror fan, and have been indulging in the genre since I was old enough to hold a book. I also adore and enjoy the sub-genre splatterpunk, I read Jack Ketchum as a bedside book all the time. It takes a lot to phase me, but even I was turning my head in repulsion at the end. What a wonderful debut story for Somer Canon.” –Badseedgirl, GoodReads Reviewer

“A simple story, but all the more powerful for its simplicity. Four stars. The author has guts and skill.” –Outlaw Poet
 Biography 
Somer Canon is a minivan revving suburban mother who avoids her neighbors for fear of being found out as a weirdo.  When she’s not peering out of her windows, she’s consuming books, movies, and video games that sate her need for blood, gore, and things that disturb her mother.
Vicki Beautiful is her debut novella.

Find out more about Somer and her upcoming works at her website http://www.somercanon.com. You can also connect with Somer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SomerM.