Thursday, 23 August 2018

Spring-Heeled Jack

 They seek him here, they seek him there…But Spring-Heeled Jack can turn up anywhere.

Here is a legend first begun in early Victorian England. A man with the apparent ability to leap over walls and capable of turning up anywhere from the Black Country (in the Birmingham, West Midlands area) to Liverpool, Chichester and London - even a foray to Scotland. Sightings of this fantastical and scary creature grew to a peek in the 1880s – especially in the West Midlands.

So what did he look like? Descriptions vary with the witness, but some characteristics occur more frequently than others. He was alleged to possess a goatee beard and devil’s horns, pointed ears and flashing eyes of fire. The popular Penny Dreadfuls of the day depicted him looking like a swarthy devil. Another feature common to all sightings was his ability to leap high over hedges, walls, rooftops with complete ease. He terrified his victims by suddenly leaping in front of them, or up behind them.

 In 1855, one report saw him in Old Hill in the West Midlands, where he leaped from the roof of the Cross Inn public house over to the roof of the butcher’s shop across the road. This occurrence was swiftly followed by reports of other sightings in the area and a wave of panic from the local populace.

A period of quiet was followed in 1877 was followed by a whole spate of sightings in Blackheath, Dudley and the Acocks Green area of Birmingham in 1877. Spring-Heeled Jack continued to be active through the 1880s. The Birmingham Post in 1886 reported that: “First a young girl, then a man, felt a hand on their shoulder, and turned to see the infernal one with glowing face, bidding them a good evening.”

 He usually appeared at night and targeted mainly young women. Originally his intention appears to have been to scare rather than cause actual harm to his victims. But before too long, he tired of this tame pursuit and his modus operandi turned from scary to full blown assault. On one occasion, he was said to have been accompanied by companions, all dressed in armour, who attacked a carpenter, ripping his clothes to shred. There was a suggestion in the press that the assailants were a group of, essentially bored, young gentlemen out to get their kicks by frightening people so much they lost their wits. Most of the people prepared to talk to the newspapers about Jack presented mere hearsay. It hadn’t happened to them, but to a friend of a friend.

 The first credible account came from 18 year old Jane Alsop who, in February of 1838, reported to magistrates that she had been approached by a man dressed in a cloak, near the gate of her home in Bearbinder Lane, near Bow, London. He had asked her to bring a candle as the police had caught Spring-Heeled Jack nearby. She duly did so. He took the candle from her, opened his cloak and she caught sight of his “hideous and frightful appearance”. He then vomited a blue and white flame and his eyes became like “balls of fire”. He wore a helmet and tight fitting clothes and he began to set about her with metal claws, ripping her dress and tugging out her hair. She managed to escape his clutches when her older sister, hearing her cries, opened the door and dragged her inside before shutting the beast firmly out.

In Limehouse, London, a girl called Lucy Scales, along with a female friend, was accosted by a gaunt man, of seemingly gentlemanly appearance. She was so scared she collapsed in a fit. In this instance, two men were actually brought to court charged with her assault but were released owing to lack of evidence.

 Outside London, Spring-Heeled Jack seems to have toned down his fire-vomiting behaviour in favour of his more athletic accomplishments and, for the rest of the century, it is for this incredible ability to leap to great heights that his fame persisted and spread. 

In 1904, in Liverpool during one of his last appearances, he was reported as leaping over rooftops and bounding down the street. He was even reported as being seen on the rooftop of St Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street in the Everton district of the city.

By the end of the nineteenth century, his notoriety was such that almost any strange encounter with a swift-footed criminal could result in Spring-Heeled Jack’s name being associated with it. In Edwardian times, his name was quoted to children by parents, to ensure they came home before dark. A convenient and effective bogeyman.

 There were rumours that he was a real person – Henry de la Poer Beresford, the Marquess of Waterford no less, who was certainly in London at the time of the 1830s sightings and was known to be something of a rake at the time, being hauled up before magistrates for drunken, brutish and outlandish behaviour on more than one occasion. However that wouldn’t account for all the other sightings, or the fact that the legend persisted into the twentieth century, with no apparent diminishing of athletic prowess that would be caused by the natural ageing process. No one was ever convicted of the assaults he is alleged to have committed and some sources at least believe he was capable of the earlier attacks but, following his marriage in 1842, he appears to have led a blameless life. Maybe he had imitators.
These days, Spring-Heeled Jack is once again providing entertainment for the masses, through steampunk literature and appearance in popular TV shows, such as Dr. Who. No doubt, as with most urban myths, there is a grain of truth there somewhere, but rumour, numerous retellings and embellishments have gifted us a larger than life character that merely adds to our cornucopia of rich folklore traditions.
Of course… if you are out one dark night and see a strange man leaping over the rooftops,  you may yet prove me wrong…

 (If you want to know more about Spring-heeled Jack, try this book by Dr Karl Bell The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack)

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

King of the Witches

Birkenhead is probably most famous for its shipbuilding history and for its park – which formed the inspiration for New York’s Central Park.

What is less well known is that it is the birthplace of the co-founder of the Pagan tradition known as Alexandrian Wicca. Alex Sanders (born Orrell Alexander Carter) became so renowned that he was dubbed ‘King of the Witches’ by his followers in the 1960s.

 He was born in Moon Street, Birkenhead, on June 6th 1926 into a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. He claimed to have been introduced to Wicca at an early age by his grandmother, although this has been disputed since. He certainly seems to have been precocious and dedicated to his spiritualist beliefs. Over the years, he amassed a wide knowledge of all aspects of ritual and ceremonial magic and by the time he was a young man was practising ceremonial magic.

In the 1950s, Sanders pursued the ‘left hand path’ – the darker side of witchcraft and black magic – in order to amass wealth and personal prestige.  According to him it worked successfully. He met, by chance, a couple on the street who said he was the spitting image of their dead son. A relationship developed between them and Sanders moved into their home. They treated him as one of the family, supporting him financially and even buying him a house and providing him with a generous allowance which he proceeded to send on lavish parties, clothes and high living.

It wasn’t to last though. Sanders had a rude awakening when, in the space of a short time, one of his favourite mistresses committed suicide, and his sister, Joan, was injured in an accidental shooting. She recovered, but soon discovered she had terminal cancer.

Eleanor Bone
Realising the error of his ways, Sanders renounced black magic and resolved to teach magic to others. At around this time, he took employment in the John Rylands Library in Manchester where he discovered and copied The Key of Solomon, going on to be influenced by the works of French occultist Eliphas Levi and incorporating some of his teachings along with that of the practice of Goetia (a practice that includes the summoning of demons especially those related to King Solomon, contained within The Lesser Key of Solomon). This heady mix eventually led to the development of his Alexandrian branch of Wicca but, for now, he merged many of the elements of magic into the Gardnerian Wicca (founded by Gerald Gardner) tradition. This, along with his penchant for attracting publicity in the press and on TV, brought him into direct conflict with other Gardnerian Witches, such as Patricia Crowther and Eleanor Bone who openly criticised him in the media.

Patricia Crowther and Gerald Gardner

By 1965, Sanders and his High Priestess wife, Maxine, led over one hundred Alexandrian Wiccan covens including 1623 initiates, and in 1979, he began to work with a psychic medium – Derek Taylor.  According to the pair, they connected with celestial intelligences and disembodied spirits. By doing this and by their other work, they went way beyond what was acceptable to Witches at that time. Sanders was allegedly an expert channeller and allowed spirits to communicate through him. The pair even claimed to be able to communicate with the great Fashioner of the Universe (the demiurge).

June Johns wrote a biography of him called King of the Witches and a film, Legend of the Witches was released in 1970 – both these led to even greater publicity for him and his beliefs.

Sanders began to work with a ceremonial magic group called the Ordine Della Luna and continued with them throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In the last decade of his life, Sanders and Taylor documented their magical experiences despite being, by now, widely ignored and denounced by their community. They believed their work to be of vital importance not merely to themselves but to mankind in general. They began to see patterns emerging in their spirit communications – prophecies even presaging the Apocalypse itself (namely a World War III).

When he died on 30 April 1988, Sanders was given a popular send off, recognised as an innovative leader with a solid place in the history and tradition of witchcraft. The King of the Witches was survived by his second wife, Maxine with whom he had founded the Alexandrian Witches. The pair had been estranged since 1971 but retained a close (if, at time, stormy) bond until the end.

If reports are to be believed though, Sanders still managed to communicate from ‘the other side of the veil’. In 1998, a Wiccan coven in New England claimed to have channelled his spirit at Lammas tide.  He informed them that he was to be reincarnated as a boy in the United States on April 30th 2000.  He continued to communicate with them past that date and up until 2003. His messages urged all Wiccans to love the Goddess and to be strong and unified in their Wiccan beliefs. Maxine Sanders and others have attested to the authenticity of the communications and they are documented in A Voice in the Forest by Jimahl diFiosa.

Derek Taylor died in February 2000 but the Ordine della Luna continues to this day, as does the tradition of Alexandrian Wicca whose initiates meet on new moons, full moons and Sabbats.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Ghosts of Gannaway Return!

I love Stuart West's writing, and now Grinning Skull Press have released a new edition of The Ghosts of Gannaway, I had to invite him over to talk about it. The stage is all yours Stuart:

Ghosts of Gannaway, my attempt at sweeping historical horror fiction (is that a thing?) has been given a second life by the fine folks at Grinning Skull Press. Just like some of the characters in my book, it refuses to remain dead.

Part of my novel’s resurrection is due to the poorly matched cover it was initially saddled with. Take a gander:

Despite the appearance of this old cover, my book’s definitely not a Chippendale dancer romance saga. It’s a historical ghost tale full of curses, scares, Native-American rights, one of the first feminists, greed, suspense, hissable villains, noble heroes, hippies, union strikes, violence, animated statues, haunted museums, pollution, and love that transcends death. It’s based on true events that transpired in the town of Picher, Oklahoma during the Depression and the aftermath of those results that took place in the swingin’ sixties. Sure, I moved the events over the state line to Kansas, but the book’s true!

Except it’s a horror tale. You decide what’s real.

This edition contains a new foreword and photos taken on my flip-phone camera (a ghost in itself) of what remains of the ghost town of Picher. Come with me now on a little virtual tour and visit what inspired the spectral hauntings of my book. 

First stop is the actual Picher mining museum (which was torn down shortly after I nabbed this photo…no doubt due to poltergeist activity).

Next on our ghost town tour is one of the last remaining standing structures in Picher, the gorilla mascot of the high school football team. I changed it to a lion in the book, but just like the gorilla, it comes alive late at night.

 Check out some of the dilapidated buildings torn asunder by tornadoes, pollution, and…dare I say it?…haints*.

One of my favorite photos is the shuttered store with the bathrobe hung up over the door. There’s a story in there somewhere and I hope to have given it justice.

 And, of course, there’re the chat piles**, a remnant of what killed the town and long outlived the populace all in the name of good old-fashioned American greed.

So, travel with me to the lovely town of Gannaway, Kansas. It’s just a day-trip away and a night full of bad dreams to come.

About the author:

 Stuart R. West is a lifelong resident of Kansas, which he considers both a curse and a blessing. It's a curse because...well, it's Kansas. But it's great because…well, it’s Kansas. Lots of cool, strange and creepy things happen in the Midwest, and Stuart takes advantage of them in his work. Call it “Kansas Noir.” Stuart writes thrillers and mysteries usually tinged with humor, both for adult and young adult audiences. 

Stuart spent 25 years in the corporate sector and now writes full time. He’s married to a professor of pharmacy (who greatly appreciates the fact he cooks dinner for her every night) and has a daughter who’s dabbling in the nefarious world of banking. (Stuart also finds it uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person, but whatever).

Stuart R. West Blog: Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley
Stuart R. West Amazon author page
Stuart R. West Facebook
Stuart R. West Twitter: @StuartRWest

* ghosts
** contaminated mining waste