Tuesday, 19 August 2014

A Ghost In The Machine?




 
 I was having dinner with a friend of mine recently and we got onto the subject of strange incidents we had experienced involving a range of electrical applicances. Not so much a case of Deus ex machina but rather of a ‘ghost in the machine’.

Sue, my friend, had been quite unnerved at the strange antics of her TV. Her husband had gone to bed early one night and she stayed up to watch a programme – part of a series she was following.  Suddenly, the volume started to increase. Louder and louder. She pressed the volume control, but to no avail. Still the sound grew louder, until she was sure it would wake not only her husband but the neighbours as well.


She depressed the on/off switch. Nothing happened.  Still the TV blared. Her husband came downstairs. He tried switching it off. Nothing.

“Probably the batteries,” he said. True, TVs play up in all sorts of ways if the batteries are low.

He unplugged the TV at the mains. It went off, but a troubled Sue didn’t sleep very well that night.

The next morning, the TV worked fine. There was nothing wrong with the batteries. Neither my friend nor her husband can explain what happened the night before.

I have had weird experiences with TVs doing all sorts of strange things, seemingly all by themselves. Some years ago, I sat and watched my TV remote control, which was next to me, start flashing its red operational light while the volume steadily increased. I picked it up. Like Sue, I tried to lower the volume. It didn’t respond, although at least it stopped getting any louder, and, after a few more seconds, the red operational light went off.

Somebody suggested interference from another remote, or from a taxi or emergency vehicle radio signal. Fine, except where I lived then was nowhere near either possible influence. I don’t believe remotes can operate through brick walls. and taxis and emergency vehicles usually travel on roads. We were some distance away from any. Again, batteries weren’t the issue, and it never happened again. Surely if radio interference had somehow been responsible, it wouldn’t have been a one off event.

 
Around four or five years ago, we came home to find the TV switched on and lights on in the living room. The TV we had then would default to the terrestrial BBC1 channel and would have to be switched over to digital, using a freeview box. It was an automatic thing for us to do just that as soon as we switched TV on. It would then stay happily adjusted until we switched it off. But on this occasion, the TV was still on the BBC terrestrial channel. So we knew for certain we had not left it switched on. Besides, I remembered turning the TV off in broad daylight when the lights weren’t on!

But spooky events involving appliances aren’t restricted to TVs in our flat, which has known a whole range of unexplained activity.

One odd event occurred one Saturday. I was in the living room, reading. In the kitchen, the washing machine was nearing the end of its drying cycle. I needed something from the cupboard above it, so I went into the kitchen, leaned up against the washer/dryer and retrieved what I needed. I left the machine to it and returned to the living room.

 Some time later, I returned to the kitchen to empty the machine. I stopped dead and stared. The washing powder dispenser tray was pulled out as far as it could go. I checked it and, even the vibration of the machine on its fast spin cycle couldn’t have given it the extra tug needed to pull it out this far. Not only that, the washer/dryer had already completed its spins when I had been in the kitchen earlier. I had leaned up against the machine, my body resting against this very tray. It certainly wasn’t pulled out then.

Three or four years after this event, I am still unable to explain it. It has never happened again.

Plenty of other things have though…

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ouija - A Warning To The Curious...

 

 Ouija Boards. Harmless bit of fun? Or something more sinister?

 I have certainly had a scary experience with a homemade variety, many years ago, in my misspent youth. As a result, I will never go near them again. But more of that later.

My mother tells a story of when she and some ATS friends, during World War II, decided they were going to have a bit of fun and set up their own homespun Ouija board, using a pack of Lexicon cards and a thick glass tumbler. Each of them placed one finger, lightly on the glass. It worked almost immediately. At first they asked it relatively mundane questions and received predictable answers, but then, out of the blue, the glass suddenly started shooting around the board, circling faster and faster. Mum said something felt different about the glass. Up until then, she could easily have believed one of them could have been manipulating it, but now, it was as if the glass had a mind of its own.
 Then it started to spell something out. Just one word that struck fear into all of them.

“Die”.

They stared at each other for a few moments until one brave soul (not my mother, she was too scared) asked, “Who?”

Suddenly the glass shot out from under their fingers and across the table, coming to rest in front of a quiet young woman called Desiree. The others looked at her in open-mouthed horror, but she laughed it off. “Silly game”.

Two weeks later, Desiree deliberately rode her bicycle into the path of the London express train.

She had been one for keeping her personal life very much to herself and it was only after her death that her friends learned how violent and unhappy her marriage had been. She came from a well to do family and her marriage to a young man from another well connected family had been presumed since the two of them were children. She had done what her parents insisted upon and married him. He had a drink problem and regularly beat her. In her world, divorce was unthinkable. She could see no way out.

Could she have thrown the glass at herself? Maybe as some last ditch, but too subtle, cry for help? The young women considered it, but it seemed impossible owing to the angle at which she was sitting and the position of her lone finger on the glass. We will, of course, never know, but neither Mum nor any of her friends ever played with an ouija again.


 I had known of this story for maybe ten years, but still I had to have my own experience, didn’t I? Two female work colleagues and I did just as Mum and her friends had done and used a lexicon pack, plus postcards with ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Goodbye’ on them. Needing a fair amount of space and lacking a table big enough, we set up on the (thankfully clean) floor of the Ladies’ washroom. We placed a heavy glass water tumbler in the centre and each positioned one finger lightly on the glass. Giggling with nervous anticipation, we started.

My colleague Mary asked the usual question, “Is there anyone there?”

The glass began to move, gently circling the board.

Mary again piped up, “Who are you?”

Now it started to spell out something, until the name “Richard” emerged. Although a relatively common name, this rang no bells with any of us.

I gained a little confidence now. “Do you have a message for one of us?”

The glass moved to “Yes”.

“Who is your message for?”

“M A R Y”

My other colleague, Josie, and I looked at Mary. She had gone a little pale but nevertheless asked the inevitable, “What is your message for me?”

Nothing. The glass didn’t move. We sat in silence for a few moments, exchanging glances. Then Mary asked, “Are you still there?”

The glass skimmed around the floor, pausing at letters and moving off so rapidly it was hard to keep up.  The words were mainly four letter expletives – and they were directed at Mary. This did not feel the same as the seemingly innocuous Richard. Under my finger, I felt the glass pulling away. Josie said she felt the same. So did Mary.

Random words now. ‘Devil’, ‘Satan’, ‘Evil’. But then it spelled out, ‘Devil F***s Mary’. She let out a scream, took her finger off the glass and backed away.  The glass pulled even stronger. It tugged itself away from Josie and I - who were sitting next to each other - hurled itself across the floor and smashed against the far wall. The impact shattered the glass. We stared at it like idiots for a minute or more and I am certain I did not imagine the chill in the room. We all experienced it. That was the first and last time I ever messed around with an ouija.

Oh I know, mass hallucination. One of us must have pushed the glass. There are a myriad of perfectly sane and logical explanations but, you weren’t there. You didn’t feel that glass tug away from us. You didn’t see the way it shot across the room, as it someone had hurled it with all their strength. This was a heavy Duralex glass. The sort you could often drop on the floor and they would virtually bounce. At the time it made its dramatic exit, just two of us had one finger each, lightly, on the glass. One was me and I know I wasn’t moving it at any time. The other was Josie. Trust me, it would have taken far more than one of her fingers, plus a degree of skill in the art of throwing, for her to have achieved that result.

You only have to tap in ‘ouija boards’ in your favourite search engine to find a whole host of cautionary tales, warning people not to use them. Some have had far more violent and frightening outcomes than I have. Whether users really do tap into something supernatural or not, it’s clear that some highly undesirable results can – and do – occur.

If you’re still determined to go ahead and ‘have a bit of fun’, nothing I say will stop you.

But don’t ever say I didn’t warn you...

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The House That Moved - And The Ghost That Stayed


 

Back in the Sixties, when I was a child, many family holidays were spent visiting my grandparents in Hereford. This ancient city has seen its fair share of upheaval over the years. Parts of its Roman wall can still be seen, despite the best efforts of unscrupulous 1960s developers seemingly hellbent on demolishing it! During the English Civil War, the city backed the wrong side and ended up besieged. Yes, Hereford has certainly had its ups and downs. A river runs through it - the enchanting River Wye. But this picturesque waterway can be anything but enchanting when it's lapping at your front doorstep, which is precisely what happened to my grandmother in 1965.

oldherefordpics.blogspot.com

There are plenty of ghost stories and reports of paranormal events at various locations throughout the city and two of the least surprising locations are also two of the most interesting.

geograph.org.uk
The Old House was built in 1621 and you simply cannot miss it. It stands there, all by itself these days, although it used to be part of a block of houses and shops known as Butcher's Row. In 1816, a number of neighbouring properties were demolished and this continued until, by 1862,  this was the only house left. Maybe the residents just refused to move until, eventually, whoever wanted to demolish just gave up.

It almost certainly started its life as a Butcher's shop, but has variously been occupied by a Saddler, Grocer and a couple of banks. In 1928, Lloyds Bank  moved out and the house was given over to the City of Hereford. These days it houses a museum, where each room has been faithfully recreated in 17th century style, although it isn't known what each room was actually used for.

It would appear that the resident ghost can mostly be found on the second floor. In one of the bedrooms up there is a four poster bed, dated 1625. The curtains on this bed regularly close all by themselves. In another room on the same floor, the bed has been found unmade - even though no one has been up there. Doors close by themselves, objects move and shadows walk...

So, who is the ghost of the Old House? Some people believe his name was John Payne and he dates from around 1712. If anyone knows any more about this gentleman, I'd be delighted if they would comment, as he seems to have faded from history. Also, The Old House Museum does not allow paranormal events, so further investigation seems unlikely.

But, there is another building with an (arguably) more fascinating history. In the High Town, you will see New Look's modern store. Crane your neck upwards. There you will see an 17th century timber framed building nestling among typical Sixties architecture. This is the extraordinary House That Moved.

In 1965, at a time when so much of the city was undergoing transformation (and not all good either!), the local council insisted that builders of a new Littlewoods store must incorporate the ancient, former apothecary shop into the facade. To do this, a civil engineer called John Pryke devised a method whereby the building was put onto a chassis of steel girders and hydraulics and moved along a track to a temporary location. There it remained, until building work on the new store reached the point where it could be returned. You can see film of this here:  The House That Moved



Its ghostly presence appears to have begun in 1886, when this old building was a chemist's shop. The owner employed an assistant who complained of a severe toothache late one evening. The kindly chemist made up a potion, but, in the dim light, mixed the wrong ingredients. The boy took the medicine and it poisoned him. He died, and his employer was so full of remorse, he hanged himself from one of the wooden beams in the building. 

The sorrowful chemist found no lasting peace though. He was said to return, time and again, to the place where he had unwittingly handed the poor apprentice a glass of poison. And his guilt is so strong, it even survived the move of the building. He is still there now.

There is now no public access to this old shop, but the chemist's spirit may not remain locked in one place. Littlewoods' staff reported poltergeist activity - especially upstairs - strange noises, unexplained shadows and other ghostly phenomena. The store is now occupied by New Look, and the stories continue...
 
But these are just two of the many haunted locations in the city centre alone. Pubs, shops, the magnificent Norman cathedral - none seem to escape the spirits that continue to walk amongst us. Even a hairdresser's - The Best Little Hair House in Hereford - has more than its fair share of hair-raising (sorry!) activity. Customers and staff have witnessed chairs spinning all by themselves, cups sliding off shelves and smashing on the floor, cold spots, the smell of pipe smoke - even a ghostly cat! 

When I was a child, visiting my grandmother, I was unaware of the ghostly goings-on so close at hand. In fact, with so many ghosts around, Hereford can rightly lay claim to being one of the most haunted cities in Britain. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that Alfred Watkins, the discoverer of the alleged 'ley lines' was born here - in the Imperial Hotel, Widemarsh Street, in the centre of the city.  He is said to have had a spiritual awakening, or vision, while out riding one day. The results can be read in The Old Straight Track. Maybe, he was inspired by so much paranormal activity going on around him.




You can find out more about haunted Hereford here:


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Yes, I Survived The Blue Classroom!


When I picked up Rod Labbe's new novel, The Blue Classroom, I was hooked from the first page. As the full horror of the story developed, I knew I'd found an author I wanted to read more of. I'm delighted to welcome him as my guest today, with a fascinating - and scary - post which delves into the deep-rooted inspiration for his novel. Over to Rod:

When I decided to write a novel, I burned through several ideas. First, there was the one about zombies. Pure gold, right? This was in 1986, before zombies were all the rage, so I’d be cornering the market! Well, my zombie novel lasted nine pages before sputtering out like a deflating balloon. I just could not get a handle on zombies or why they’re so darned interesting. Still can’t.
Then, I tried my hand at writing a vampire tale. Since Stephen King had such great success with Salem’s Lot, and I’m also a Maine boy born and bred, I figured, hey, why not? Vampires and living in Maine kinda go hand in hand, don’t they?

Apparently not…when I’m writing about them. What I didn’t realize is, King had the perfect combination: a small Maine town, an insidious villain, and a plague of vampirism. What did I have? A small Maine city with a super Wal-Mart. Scary, yes, but not the stuff of modern-day classics.  


So, despondent but certainly not discouraged, I dug into my past and pulled out an experience that provided the seed for The Blue Classroom, my first horror novel from Samhain Publishing, now on sale. Sit back, and I’ll tell you all about it.

The Blue Classroom is a ghost story involving a haunted Catholic school. Oh, and a vengeful nun, can’t forget that part. The first third of the novel is a lengthy flashback to 1957 and the second grade of my protagonist, Timmy Stinneford. Most of the reviews and comments I’ve received concentrate on this flashback. Why? I suppose because the scenario is very real. Genuine, you might say…after all, I was there.

In September 1959, a little six year old boy named Rodney Labbe started his first day of the first grade at Notre Dame Catholic School. Yep, that’s me! My older sister, Suzanne, already a worldly seventh grader, helped make that transition a relatively painless one. I listened to her advice carefully--which teachers to avoid, what pitfalls to watch out for, and how, basically, to succeed and prosper. The lessons were invaluable. 

Notre Dame was an imposing--and ancient--brick structure located in my hometown of Waterville, Maine. The entire top floor housed a church. We (meaning my family) were good Catholics and members of the parish and attended boring church services every Sunday and on holy days. That required climbing a steep slate stairway to the top (not handicapped accessible, by any means), entering the cavernous church, genuflecting with respect, and finding a seat--as other parishioners disapprovingly watched your every move. 

Classrooms, offices, cafeteria and bathrooms comprised the main and basement floors. Our teachers, save for one (Mrs. Drouin, who taught fourth grade), were Ursuline nuns, some young and some old…but they were all imposing figures, no matter the age. Their wardrobe was simple: floor-length black habits, complemented by long, airy veils. Needless to say, these formidable women commanded respect and exuded Authority with a capital A. You did NOT disobey a nun, whom we all addressed as “Mother.” If you did, there’d be hell to pay. Literally.  

My first grade teacher was Mother Rosary. I’d lucked out! Mother Rosary must’ve been at least 60, but she made even the most mundane classroom work fun. I remember her as a kind, generous and vivacious person, always laughing. What a grand way for me to start my school career!

Mother Rosary, too, was draped in black, with a long, filmy veil, rosary beads and a thick leather belt around her waist. Above her forehead was a white band of some stiff material (it held up the veil), and across her breast was a “wimple,” again a stiff, white band. Sometimes, she’d reach up under the wimple to pull out a pocket watch. Other times, her veil would get caught on desks and chalk holders. She chuckled good-naturedly whenever that happened, and so did we.

Our laughing stopped one year later, in the blue classroom--where we were introduced to Notre Dame’s new second grade teacher, Mother Ernestine. A younger woman, approximately 35, Mother Ernestine was a strict disciplinarian and tolerated no “shenanigans.” She expected “superlative academic results” from the second grade. Catholic students excelled. The word “mediocrity” did not exist and therefore had no meaning.  

Mother Ernestine devised a special punishment for wrongdoers, something she referred to as “the Pill.” Neither a vitamin nor an aspirin, this “Pill” could be anything from a humiliating dressing down to classroom chores (like cleaning erasers or washing the blackboard) to corporal punishment. Because none of us knew what it entailed exactly, we toed the line and stayed good, sweet Catholic children.

Weeks passed without The Pill being dispensed. In fact, we’d pretty much forgotten about it.  

Until one day…

It was close to Halloween, 1960, I remember. An innocuous afternoon, one like any other.

The first and only recipient of Mother Ernestine’s Pill was a boy (Ronnie B.) who’d stayed back twice. I hated his guts; he’d bullied me on the playground relentlessly, pulling at my jacket and pushing me down, even spatting in my face. When he was physically hauled up to the front of the classroom by our teacher, I watched in eager fascination. And anticipation! Ah, at last, the bully gets his deserved comeuppance.

Mother Ernestine let go of Ronnie’s ear, stood back, and observed him as if he was a bug under a microscope. “Why were you talking during the lesson?” she asked.

“I weren’t talkin’,” he defiantly responded, head down.   


“What? Speak up! Do you have marbles in your mouth? You can speak English, I presume?”
“Uh-huh,” Ronnie mumbled. “I kin speak inglish.”

That’s when things descended into craziness. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Mother Ernestine screeched, suddenly grabbing him by his hair and yanking it hard. He said nothing, mouth opening in silent agony. Then, for good measure, she stomped on his foot. He howled, fell backward against the blackboard, and accidentally erased the Catechism lesson.

That sent Mother Ernestine into a paroxysm of fury. She attacked him viciously, slapping, punching, kicking, tweaking his nose and ears, tearing at his clothes and actually knocking the poor kid to the floor.  

We sat there watching in awestruck silence. And horror. I’d never seen anything like this before! It frightened me to the core of my being.

“You’ll kneel until recess,” Mother Ernestine wheezed. “And ask God for forgiveness. Imagine, talking during a lesson. What’s wrong with you? Are you a moron?” For good measure, she struck him on the head with an eraser. “Are you?!”

As Mother Ernestine composed herself, untwisting the rosary beads and straightening the leather belt and filmy veil, she breathlessly explained to us what just transpired.

“When Rules are broken, punishment is swift. That is the way things are in this disgusting world, and you might as well learn it now. I trust our obnoxious friend here won’t break the rules again.”

Of course, he did break the rules again…he was the only one who EVER broke the rules. Seeing him up there as Mother Ernestine’s punching bag became a part of school day routine. She’d end each session with a dire warning. “Don’t tell what you just saw, children. This is a Catholic school, and our doings here are sacred. I will know if you told. God will know if you told. And the Pill you’ll receive with make this one look small by comparison.”


None of us told. The year trundled on, more and more Pills were dispensed, and then it was June. We had our last day of the second grade, a happy event. Mother Ernestine said goodbye, exiting permanently from our lives…at least, physically.
 I finished school, graduated, went to college and became a freelance writer. In 1989, trying my hand at writing a novel, I revisited the blue classroom and Mother Ernestine. Memories, once hazy, solidified, and I saw see the situation through adult eyes. It shocked and saddened me. How did Ronnie B. survive? Isolated by Mother Ernestine and hated, en masse, by us? 

Survive, he did. I called him while doing research for my book.

“What do you remember about the second grade?” I asked.

Without hesitation, Ronnie replied, “sometimes, she’d hit herself, and I was glad.”

My God, had Mother Ernestine smacked him with something? Her metal pointer, perhaps? I do remember her thwacking the blackboard with it…but human flesh and bone?

That’s the moment everything came rushing back at me: the ritualistic beatings in the cause of “discipline,” sinful recriminations, blood and bruises and a fear of “telling outsiders.” Mother Ernestine has certainly passed away by now, and I’ve no doubt she had a beautiful funeral Mass with a eulogy uplifting and inspiring. Nobody knew about the torments she rained down upon one innocent soul. We played our part and kept her secret.  

And so, The Blue Classroom grew from that nugget of truth and became a fictional ghost story.

Alas, in real life, there was no epic conclusion and settling of scores. Evil triumphed. The scales of Justice remain forever unbalanced.  

Here's the blurb for The Blue Classroom:
  For four decades, Sister Emmanuel’s second grade class kept their lips sealed, locked tight. They didn’t tell about the beatings, humiliations, blood-soaked dreams or those horrible deaths so close to Christmas. What happened in the blue classroom stayed secret, a sacred trust between God and child. Not even Father Begin’s confessional could break that Rule. 

Then, on an October day in 1998, backhoes and steam shovels descended upon Immaculate Heart of Mary Academy, and the blue walls of a classroom seeped human blood. 

God was everywhere. She was everywhere, and a penance had to be paid. Don’t tell, or I’ll find you. Don’t tell, or I’ll kill you. 
You can buy The Blue Classroom  in both ebook and paperback here:
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 You can connect with Rod on his Facebook page:
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