Friday, 27 September 2013

Conceiving A Story. Where Did That Idea Come From?

I'm always being asked this question and the truth is, ideas can come from anywhere. A chance comment, a phrase that slips into your mind, a dream (or a nightmare!).

I've just been rambling through a collection of short stories and flash fiction, written when I was a member of an online writing community called Litopia. Sadly, except for Radio Litopia, the site is now defunct. But in its heyday, a lively community of published, unpublished, longing to be published and determined to be published, writers mingled with editors and other publishing professionals and advised, critiqued and supported each other. Real, lasting friendships were formed - ones which I am proud to have to this day.

Every month, Litopia held a Flash Fiction contest on aparticular theme. I've already shared Sarah's Cat and Jamie's Dream from those days. But I had completely forgotten that the idea for one of my favourite novellas was born there too. Then, it was called Dark Shadow, but many moons later, it blossomed into my Gothic Paranormal Horror, Miss Abigail's Room.

The contest that month was to produce an opening paragraph. Here, for the first time outside the echoing halls of Litopia, is the original:


It wasn’t so much the blood on the floor that Becky minded, it was the way it kept reappearing. The tower clock struck nine as she heaved herself, her mop and her bucket up the narrow stone stairs. Turning the handle of the heavy oak door, she pushed its unwilling hinges open. As she peered into the darkened bedroom, she prayed that, just for once, she wouldn’t have to get down on her hands and knees and scrub away the gruesome stain. But there it was again. There was an air of inevitability about it that had long since pushed the fear to the back of her mind. Staring at it, she sighed deeply, before hitching up her skirts and lowering herself onto her aching knees. Soaking a rag in her bucket, she began to scrub, oblivious to the dark shadow in the corner that watched her every move.

Becky waited for a few months before I let her out again and told her story - a scary tale that one reviewer described (wisely in my view) as, 'not for bedtime reading'. At any rate, not on your own, on a stormy night, with the windows rattling and a power outage...
Miss Abigail's Room is available here:
Barnes and Noble

And, please, don't have nightmares...leave that to me

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Wicca Man

How old is Wicca? Lost in the mists of time? Can it trace its lineage back to the dawn of mankind, or maybe later, to the builders of Avebury and Stonehenge?

Well, you may be surprised to learn that, in fact, Wicca as we know it today owes much of its origins to a man born in an upper middle-class suburb of Liverpool in the late nineteenth century. His name was Gerald Gardner and he is known and revered as the father of modern witchcraft and the religion of Wicca.

Gerald Brousseau Gardner was born on Friday 13th June 1884 in Blundellsands, the third son of a wealthy timber merchant and his American wife. Gerald spent much of his childhood abroad, in the south of France, the Canary Islands, the Gold Coast and Madeira. This was ostensibly to avoid the cold British winters which aggravated his lifelong battles with asthma. He lived with his nursemaid, Georgiana McCombie (known as 'Com') but she appears to have been more interested in flirtatious liaisons than caring for a sickly child. As a result, Gerald virtually raised himself, teaching himself to read by looking at copies of The Strand Magazine. Formal education was definitely lacking in his youth, but he had an unquenchable thirst for learning, so taught himself everything he wanted and needed to know.

He became a voracious reader and developed a particular interest in books on spiritualism, which led to a strong belief in the existence of an afterlife and the dawn of the future direction his life would take.

Gerald carried on living abroad with Com even after she married a tea plantation owner in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It was generally assumed he would learn the tea trade and it certainly started that way. But, in 1907, he returned to Britain for a few months and became involved with some relatives who were interested in the paranormal. It was from this side of the family that Gerald learned that his grandfather had been rumoured to be a practising witch.

Back he went to Ceylon and was initiated into the Freemasons. In 1911, Gerald and his father decided to sell the family's rubber plantation, which had proved to be an unsuccessful experiment. Gerald was now unemployed. He moved to Borneo and became friendly with members of the local indigenous population - the Dyak and Dusun people. He was intrigued by their customs, weaponry and the tattoos so many of them sported and he also developed a keen interest in their religious beliefs, attending seances.

For the next few years, Gerald moved around Asia, from Borneo to Singapore, familiarising himself with the beliefs and way of life of the people he met there, while abhorring the racist attitudes of his British compatriots.

 Back in Britain in 1927, Gerald's interest in spiritualism and mediumship intensified and he became critical of what he saw in the Spiritualist churches he visited. He met and married his wife, Donna, and together they returned to Malaya, where Gerald's interest and involvement in Freemasonry stepped up significantly. He also became keenly interested in archaeology and joined digs around the country.
The Mill House, Highcliffe -

Over the ensuing years, he and Donna spent their lives between Britain and Malaya and Gerald befriended famous archaeologists such as Flinders Petrie and Alexander Keiller (who had conducted extensive excavations in Avebury). Finally, in 1936, he acceeded to Donna's wishes and the couple moved back permanently to Britain. This proved detrimental to Gerald's health and, after a bout of illness, he was recommended to take up nudism. It was to prove a lifelong pursuit.

He and Donna bought a house in Highcliffe, Dorset, and Gerald continued to develop his interest in spiritualism, which now extended to Rosicrucianism, with all its attendant magical and religious traditions dating back centuries. He also joined the Folk Lore Society and appeared to have acquired some rather dubious academic qualifications of which a number of fellow members were sceptical.

Then, in 1939, he was taken by a number of disaffected Rosicrucians to the home of Dorothy Clutterbuck, a leading witch in the New Forest Coven, where Gerald was ordered to strip naked in order to be initiated. 

In 1945, Gerald purchased a plot of land near Bricket Wood in Dorset. In 1947, he held a housewarming at the 16th century 'witch's cottage' which he had bought, from its site near Ledbury in Herefordshire, then ordered to be dismantled, transported and rebuilt on his land. The Bricket Wood Coven was born and Wicca was its Craft.
Aleister Crowley

By now, Gerald had also been initiated into the Ancient Druidic Order and attended the annual Midsummer rituals at Stonehenge. He had also met Aleister Crowley and became heavily influenced by him, rising in the ranks of his Ordo Templi Orientis. In fact, after Crowley's death in 1947, Gerald was regarded as the highest ranking member of the Order in Europe.

In 1951, Gerald and his wife moved to Castletown on the Isle of Man, where a friend - Cecil Williamson - had established the Folk-lore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft. In 1954, Gerald bought the museum off him and renamed it The Museum of Magic and Witchcraft, which he ran until his death. Meanwhile, Williamson returned to England and founded a new Museum of Witchcraft which, after an uneasy birth, finally settled in Boscastle, Cornwall where it stands today, housing a unique and fascinating collection of artefacts and an extensive library.

In 1954, Gardner published the most celebrated of his books, Witchcraft Today - and it is this work which has been deemed largely responsible for bringing modern witchcraft into the public arena.
Doreen Valiente -

By now, a young woman called Doreen Valiente had asked to join the Craft and Gerald initiated her. She joined the Bricket Wood Coven and grew to become a highly respected Wiccan, responsible for eliminating much of the controversial Crowley doctrine from the Gardnerian tradition. She became High Priestess of the Bricket Wood Coven but, sadly, frictions developed within its ranks when Gerald attempted to reduce the powers of the High Priestess and introduce new rules, including one which would allow him to remove the High Priestess if he felt she was too old! He also upset his members by actively seeking publicity for what had, hitherto, been a largely secretive and private movement. Disgusted with this, Doreen went off to found her own coven, taking a number of members with her.

In 1963, Gerald travelled to Lebanon to escape the British winter. While returning home on ship in February 1964, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was buried in Tunisia, which happened to be the ship's next port of call, at a funeral attended only by the ship's captain. Donna had died a few years earlier.
During his life, he had amassed an amazing collection of artefacts from all over the world and he bequeathed these to various people, including some to Doreen Valiente. Sadly, this collection was broken up in the 1980s. 

Some years after his death, a Wiccan High Priestess, Eleanor Bone, discovered that the cemetery where Gerald was buried was to be redeveloped, so she raised sufficient funds to have him reburied at a cemetery in Tunis, where his headstone reads:

"Father of Modern Wicca. Beloved of the Great Goddess"


Friday, 13 September 2013

Jamie's Dream

Today, I'm sharing a short - but, literally, chilling  - tale of a young man's worst nightmare...

Jamie's Dream
Last night, I dreamed I was frozen. Quite literally, frozen.
Like most dreams, it seemed to have no beginning or end. Just a middle.
I work in a cash and carry and I dreamed I’d gone into the walk-in freezer to top up the frozen mince. My daily task finished,  I was all loaded up and ready to come out again. I always left the door open, but I must have been thinking about that pint waiting for me at the pub, because it was closed now.
I pushed at the safety handle. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. I kicked the door and threw my weight against it, but it just wouldn’t budge. Panic set my heart racing.
Despite my physical exertion, the intense cold seeped into my bones. My teeth were chattering and I saw my breath – white mist pouring from my mouth - as I panted. I hadn’t reckoned on staying in here more than five minutes. A quick in and out just before closing time and we would be all stocked up for the morning. It never took longer than that. I’d never dreamed I needed to dress for arctic conditions. So there I shivered, in sub-zero temperatures, clothed only in a short sleeved shirt and jeans and a pair of well-worn trainers.
I screamed for help. I banged on the door again. But I knew no one would hear me. Not much gets through steel that thick.
            I steadied my hand long enough to glance at my watch. 8.55. The store would be closing in five minutes. Most, if not all, the customers would have gone. Many of my co-workers would be packing up. No-one would have any reason to come down here. They’d probably think I’d bunked off early. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time. God, I wished this dream would end.
I could barely feel my fingers. Still, I kept banging on the damn door, praying for a miracle, until I had no more strength left.
 And then it hit me. How stupid was I not to realise it before? Someone had locked me in here. There was only one way that door could have stuck and that was if someone had deliberately used the key and locked it from the outside.
But who would do such a thing? Who had I upset so much that they would want to kill me? Or was it just a practical joke and any minute now someone would open the door and laugh their rotten head off?
I lifted a shaking arm, stiff and blue with cold, and peered again at my watch. Half past nine. No-one was coming and they would find me here sometime tomorrow. Dead.
It was deathly quiet in that freezer. The only noise came from the whirring of the motor that kept the place at its constant minus 18 degrees.
A sudden click. The lights went out, leaving only the low level safety lamp. It cast an eerie green glow over carcasses and shelves of pre-packaged meat. Now I was truly alone. I knew I needed to concentrate, but staying awake was going to be a real struggle. Scared as I was, a part of me marvelled at this dream. So vivid and real. I’d never had one like it in my life before and I never wanted to experience one like it ever again.
Tiredness overwhelmed me and I sank down against the door, hugging myself to try and conserve whatever meagre body heat remained in me. Surely I would wake up any second, find the bedclothes on the floor, the window wide open and an icy blast blowing through my room. That would explain it.
I forced my befuddled dream brain to try and work out who hated me so much they wanted me dead.
Of course there was one person; that’s if he had found out, anyway. Pete, my supervisor. I’ve been seeing his missus on the quiet for six months now. It’s his own fault anyway. He never spends any time with her. Neglects her for his golf course and his football. More fool him. It just means that Sharon and I can find plenty of opportunity to get together for a curry and a shag. He must be mad because she’s gorgeous, but she reckons he wouldn’t even notice if she left him. Personally, if she was mine, I wouldn’t let her out of my sight, but then, I’m not Pete. Even without all that, I don’t think he likes me much anyway. He thinks I’m too cheeky and familiar with the customers, but they seem to like it and we have a laugh. He needs to chill out more. Oh God, I’ve just realised how ironic that sounds! He couldn’t get any more chilled than me at that moment.
The dream grew fuzzy. Vague images washed over me. Sides of beef took on a life of their own and started to edge closer to me. Half a lamb bleated and a suckling pig grunted. I curled myself up as tightly as I could.
How much longer before someone came and found me?
I didn’t feel as cold anymore. I’d stopped shivering and my teeth weren’t chattering. Well, it was a dream after all, so I suppose you have to accept these lapses of reality. I was actually beginning to feel quite warm. Maybe I’d pulled the covers back over me and now I was cocooned in my duvet.
Then, from nowhere, a bright light nearly blinded me, although I couldn’t even blink, and I heard voices. One belonged to Steve, my mate from hardware. I recognised his distinctive Leeds accent. What was he doing in my dream?
‘Bloody hell, he’s blue! How long’s he been in here? He’s got icicles hanging off his nose!’
‘Is he dead?’ That was Pete. Didn’t sound too happy. Not angry. Just… sort of…worried.
I couldn’t feel anything but I think Steve checked my pulse.
‘I can’t find it. Not on his wrist or his neck. You’ve only gone and killed him, you moron.’
Pete didn’t reply.
More voices. Someone said, ‘Call the police. And an ambulance!’ Someone else suggested using a mirror to see if my breath clouded it.
‘No, there’s nothing there. He’s dead all right. He must have been in here for over twelve hours. Look at the poor bugger. He didn’t stand a chance!’
At that moment, I realised something else.
Last night I dreamed I was frozen.
And now I can’t wake up.


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Conan Doyle And The Case of The Cottingley Fairies...

Once upon a time...

Bradford is not a city you would normally associate with fairies. At the heart of the Industrial Revolution, its 'dark satanic mills' belched acrid, choking smoke high into the air from towering chimneys, caked in soot - surely, enough to send any self-respecting fairy scurrying for protection before her wings became torn and grimy.

Cottingley Beck. Photo - Paul Glazzard
But our story doesn't take place in the heart of this city. Around 4500 people live in the suburban village of Cottingley, which, while sharing part of  Bradford's mill working heritage, manages to convey a peaceful, rural setting with woods and a pleasant stream - known as a 'beck' in the local, Yorkshire, dialect - running through it. And in 1917, this  Cottingley Beck began to gain a bit of a reputation - for fairies.

In the early summer of that year, nine year old Frances Griffiths came, with her mother, from South Africa, to stay at her aunt's house in the village. The aunt had a sixteen year old daughter, Elsie, who immediately developed a friendship with her cousin, despite their age difference.

Cottingley Beck ran along the bottom of Elsie Wright's garden and the two girls played there every day the weather would allow. When Elsie's mother protested at the sight of the girls' muddy feet and wet clothes, they protested that they went there to see the fairies and, to prove it, they would photograph them.

With Elsie's father's camera firmly in hand, off they went and returned half an hour later, their photographs duly taken. With great scepticism, Arthur Wright developed the plate, which showed Frances behind a bush watching four fairies dance in front of her. A pragmatic man, Mr Wright dismissed the photograph as a fake. He knew his daughter was artistic and creative. and also that she had spent some time working in a photographer's studio. She was, he said, perfectly capable of making cardboard cutouts and faking the photograph.

Two months later, the girls borrowed his camera again and this time when the plate was developed, the print showed Elsie holding out her hand to a gnome. Annoyed by what he saw as a prank, Arthur Wright refused to allow them to borrow his camera again. But the girls insisted there really were fairies at the bottom of the garden - and Elsie's mother believed them.
In 1919, Polly Wright attended a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford and showed the two photographs to the speaker, whose topic was "Fairy Life". As a result, the pictures were displayed at the Society's annual conference and came to the attention of Edward Gardner - a leading light of the Society. He was so impressed he sent the negatives to a photography expert - Harold Snelling - who stated, "the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs...of whatever was in front of the camera at the time."

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - creator of the most famous sleuth of all time, Sherlock Holmes, was a leading Spiritualist and had been commissioned by The Strand Magazine to write a Christmas article on fairies. He wrote to Elsie and her father requesting permission to use the photographs, and then sought expert opinion from Kodak. They too said they could find no trace of them being faked, although they wouldn't go as far as issuing a certificate of authenticity. Well, to do so, would have been to state publicly that Kodak believed in fairies! Ilford, on the other hand, disagreed. They felt there was a possibility the photographs had been faked. Despite this difference of opinion, the 2-1 ratio in favour of authenticity was enough both for Edward Gardner and Conan Doyle. As far as these eminent gentlemen were concerned, there really were fairies down by Cottingley Beck - and they were anything but camera shy!

Over the next months, other experts examined the pictures and differing opinions emerged, but Conan Doyle maintained his interest and, as he was off on a lecture tour of Australia, asked Gardner to meet the Wrights during the following summer of 1920.

Frances had once again been invited to stay with her cousin and Edward Gardner arrived, armed with two Kodak Cameo cameras and a set of secretly marked photographic plates. Elsie and Frances insisted the fairies would not come out if anyone else was watching so, on a fine day in August, the girls went off alone to take phtographs and returned, triumphantly.
On one, Frances is up close to a fairy. On another, a fairy offers a flower to Elsie. The next day, they took their final picture - of the fairies having a sun-bath. The photographic plates were sent to London and Gardner informed Conan Doyle, still in Australia, of his successful visit. Sir Arthur was ecstatic: "My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance"

 The photographs appeared in The Strand in December of that year, as part of his article and the issue sold out within a few days. The rest of the press didn't know what to make of it, beyond a high degree of sceptism. Sir Arthur saw that, if the public were prepared to accept that the Cottingley Fairies were indeed real, then they would be far more amenable to other, perhaps, darker, Spiritualist ideas of which he was an adherent.

In 1922, Conan Doyle published a book, The Coming of the Fairies, which once again relied heavily on the photographs. This time, his critics said the subjects looked suspiciously like fairies straight out of nursery books and that their hairstyles were fashionably Pariesienne. Conan Doyle was having none of it. For the rest of his life, he protested that the fairies were real and the photographs genuine. He died in 1930.

By now, the public's interest was waning and the girls themselves were getting a little fed up with being hounded. They produced no more fairy photographs and settled down to the business of growing up.

Renewed interest came in 1966, and again in 1971, when the BBC's Nationwide programme tracked down Elsie. On each occasion, she stood firm, saying, "I've told you that they're photographs of figments of our imagination, and that's what I'm sticking to." The idea that, somehow, the girls had found a way to capture their thoughts on camera seems almost more incredible than the possibility of the photographs being genuine!
Fairies from Princess Mary's Gift Book

In 1976, both women were interviewed again and stuck by their story. The photographs were examined again and denounced as fakes.

Eventually, Elsie and Frances admitted that the first four photographs were cardboard cut outs, copied from illustrations in Princess Mary's Gift Book and held together with hat pins but, while Elsie applied the same explanation to the fifth photograph, Frances insisted to her dying day that this indeed was the genuine article. She said, "It was a wet Saturday afternoon and we were just mooching about with our cameras and Elsie had nothing prepared. I saw these fairies building up in the grasses and just aimed the camera and took a photograph."
The disputed fifth photograph
So who was telling the truth this time? Certainly, if you look at the fifth photograph, it is rather different to the previous four...

Frances handed her assertion down to her daughter, who appeared, with the original photographs and one of Conan Doyle's cameras, on an edition of Antiques Roadshow in 2009. She was accompanied by her daughter - Frances's granddaughter. The value of the items was estimated then at between £25000-30000.

Elsie died in 1988, two years after Frances, but the story of the famous writer and the two young girls from a suburban village in Yorkshire continues to delight and intrigue. At least two films (Fairy Tale; A True Story and Photographing Fairies) have been based on the story and, anyway, with so much doom and gloom in the world, it would be rather nice to believe in fairies wouldn't it? Or, at the very least, the possibility of them.