Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Spectral Treasure!

I've blogged once before about fabulous Innerpeffray Library, Scotland's oldest lending library:
I'm pleased to say that I visited it again today. Fellow author Che Golden came to visit me in the depths of rural Perthshire. Whenever I have guests I try my hardest to think of some delightful entertainment for them, and what better than a trip to see a leper squint and the King James Daemonologie?

        Above: you can see by Che's expression that she is thrilled to see her first ever leper squint!

Whilst I was at Innerpeffray, librarian Lara Haggerty showed me another treasure. The spine of the book announced it as Broomhall's History of Specters (printed in 1658) but the title page describes it as follows:
A Treatise of Specters, OR, AN HISTORY of Apparitions, Oracles, Prophecies and Predictions With Dreams, Visions and Revelations AND THE Cunning Delusions of the DEVIL, to strengthen the Idolatry of the GENTILES, and the Worshipping of Saints departed; with the Doctrine of Purgatory. A Work very seasonable for discovering the Impostures and Religious Cheats of these Times.

The really wonderful thing about Innerpeffray Library is that you are allowed to read the books, even the ones that are three or four centuries old. The Treatise of Specters is an absolutely fascinating tome full of collected tales and anecdotes about ghosts, witches and monsters. I was particularly struck by this one:

39. Jacobus Ruffus writes in the fifth Book, the sixth Chapter, of the conception of men, that in our time Magdalena, a Citizens Maidservant was ravished by a foul spirit, and then took her leave on her repenting, by the order of the Ministers of the Church; after which she felt such cruel torments and pangs in her belly, that she thought every hour almost that she should be delivered of a child; then came forth out of her womb iron nails, wood, pieces of glasse, hair, wooll, stones, bones, iron and many such like. 

There is not much to add to that, except, "Nasty, eh?"

I hope when I have a little more time to go back to the library and copy out some of the other tales, which I will post here in due course.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

M.R.James and Spiders

                                                        Above: a large spider. Yuk. 

I'm posting another article which I wrote for the M.R.James Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter because, like the one about wells, it is not available online and the issue in question (number 10, September 2006) is now out of print. It's been a rather spidery week, as we went to Deep Sea World in North Queensferry yesterday and saw their colony of pink-toed tarantulas. Aptly, this article is about spiders. 
M.R.James wrote a story called The Ash Tree which features huge venomous spiders of supernatural origin; elsewhere in his work spiders are used as a metaphor for all that makes the flesh creep! The article was the result of a little research I did into other chilling tales about spiders which may or may not have influenced him. 

The Black Spider
Antecedents of "The Ash Tree"
by Helen Grant

"Other people have written of dreadful spiders – for instance, Erckmann-Chatrian in an admirable story called L’Araignée Crabe..." In his introduction to the Collected Ghost Stories, M.R.James himself acknowledges the antecedents to "The Ash-Tree", his tale of vengeful witchcraft expressed through the agency of enormous venomous spiders. MRJ was a known arachnophobe, and his loathing of spiders is apparent not only in those stories which actually feature spiders, such as "The Ash-Tree" and the incomplete "Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb"[i], but also in his use of spider imagery to describe the demonic apparition in "Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book"[ii]. Were the horrific spiders of "The Ash-Tree" simply a product of MRJ’s arachnopobia, or were they inspired by a particular event or previous work of fiction? In her article, "Spiders in 'The Ash-Tree' "[iii],  Jacqueline Simpson eloquently argued that their creation was influenced by the "true" story of a horde of spiders which besieged the house of a Mr. Duncomb until destroyed by fire; the spiders’ appearance was attributed to witchcraft by the intended victim. There is, however, another possibility, cited by MRJ himself when he raises the question of whether his stories were "suggested by books". Did some fictional antecedent inspire the spiders of "The Ash-Tree"?
MRJ gives Erckmann-Chatrian’s[iv] "L’Araignée Crabe" as an example of other spider stories. There are certainly some points of similarity between the attacks of "L’Araignée Crabe" and that of MRJ’s spiders, but it would be hard to say that it inspired "The Ash-Tree", since the setting, range of characters and the spider itself are very different. "L’Araignée Crabe" is set in the spa town of Spinbronn (the name means "spider spring“ in German) where the business of the local doctor, Hâsselnoss, is ruined after a human skeleton, and then the corpses of animals and birds, fall out of the cavern where the spring originates, and frighten away the patients. A new young doctor, Weber, arrives from French Guiana with his black servant Agatha in tow, and takes over the business and the one remaining patient, Sir Thomas Hawerburch. Sir Thomas reveals a loathing of spiders after seeing one of Weber’s specimens brought back from Guiana. Later, after rashly deciding to bathe in the waters before the cavern, he is attacked and killed by something. Weber uses some kind of hypnotic magic to find out via Agatha what it is that has happened: a gigantic spider, far bigger than those she ever saw in her native Guiana, has bitten him whilst he bathes; he has cried out and died, and the spider has drawn him into its web. "Maintenant il est tout noir,[v] exclaims Agatha. The villagers then employ the time-honoured device of burning the creature out. The spider is consumed in the flames.
Erkcmann-Chatrian’s spider is described by Agatha as being "grosse comme ma tête!“ – as big as her head. When the spiders in "The Ash-Tree" are burnt out, the watchers see "a round body covered with fire – the size of a man’s head – appear very suddenly". Erckmann-Chatrian’s spider leaves its victims dead and black. "So with Sir Richard – dead and black in his bed!" MRJ tells us. "L’Araignée Crabe" features the mysterious Agatha, who is seen as impossibly exotic by the inhabitants of Spinbronn, and who appears to have supernatural powers, since she can be made to see what has happened at a distance and in the past. "The Ash-Tree" features the witch Mrs. Mothersole, who directs the spiders’ revenge upon the Fells. The spiders in both tales finally meet a fiery end. This is, however, as far as the similarities go. The spiders of Castringham Hall are numerous; the spider of Spinbronn is a single monster. MRJ’s spiders, although living creatures, are quite clearly of supernatural origin, somehow directed by the will of Mrs. Mothersole, whose desiccated corpse shares their lair in "The Ash-Tree". Their motive is to wreak revenge upon the Fells. "L’Araignée Crabe", by contrast, though loathsome and deadly, appears to be a natural phenomenon; at the end of the story, the explanation is suggested that the thermal waters of the spring produced the same localised climate and temperature as that of Africa or South America, and thus enabled the spider to grow to its unusual size. There is no suggestion of any motivation other than the mindless aggression of a predatory animal; the only thing that the victim, Sir Thomas, does to provoke his horrible end is innocently to bathe in the spring waters near its cave.
The most interesting point for the MRJ enthusiast is probably the contrast in styles between Erckmann-Chatrian’s tale and "The Ash-Tree"; taking similar subject-matter, they have produced vastly different works. "L’Araignée Crabe" ranges from the jovially humorous – as we hear that Sir Thomas, who does not flee with the other patients, would have drunk "bouillon de squelette“ (skeleton soup) if he had thought it would cure his gout – to the melodramatic, as one of the villagers hurls an axe at the burning spider and showers the scene with gouts of blood. It is, indeed, an "admirable story" in its own way, but it cannot help but throw MRJ’s understated style into sharp relief!
Although "L’Araignée Crabe" (published in the second half of the nineteenth century) is the antecedent to "The Ash-Tree" cited by MRJ himself, it was in fact preceded by another, considerably longer work: Gotthelf’s Die schwarze Spinne. The Black Spider, published in 1842, was the work of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf. The son of a Swiss Protestant pastor, Gotthelf studied theology and later became a pastor himself. He wrote many works of fiction and essays, of which Die schwarze Spinne is undoubtedly the most famous; the German writer Thomas Mann said of it that he admired it more than nearly any other piece of world literature[vi].
Set in Gotthelf’s home, the Swiss Emmental, the novel opens with a christening at which a cousin asks the grandfather of the family why the house incorporates an odd piece of black wood. The grandfather then relates the tale of the Black Spider. Many generations before, the area was under the control of the cruel knight Hans von Stoffeln, who built himself a great castle on the Bärhegen hill. The knight declared that the men of the village must uproot one hundred beech trees from Münneberg and plant them on the hill leading up to the castle, to form an avenue. If they failed to do this within the specified time, they would be flogged to death and the dogs set upon their wives and children. As the villagers lamented the impossibility of the task, a mysterious gaunt huntsman dressed all in green appeared to them and offered to complete the work fort hem – the payment required being a single unbaptised baby. No-one dared accept the unholy bargain, and all continued to lament their situation, apart from one Christine, an outsider born in Lindau, a woman with "wild black eyes" who "had little fear of either God or man."[vii] Christine daringly met with the huntsman and agreed to his terms, which he sealed with a kiss; but where his lips had touched her face, she was left with a terrible burning sensation. Well, the work was completed as the huntsman had agreed, but the villagers soon fell to finding a way to cheat him of the promised baby. When the next child was born in the village, they had it baptised immediately to protect it. As the baptism was carried out, Christine suddenly felt an intense burning pain on her face where the huntsman had kissed her, and soon a black spot began to grow there. As the time came nearer for a second child to be born in the village, the black spot, which was growing ever larger, sprouted legs and flashing eyes, and the horrified villagers recognised it for an enormous poisonous spider. After the birth of the second baby, Christine tried desperately to interfere with the baptism, but was restrained. Whilst the villagers celebrated, Christine fell to the ground, wracked with terrible pains; her face split open and out poured a multitude of long-legged venomous black spiders which ran off into the night. Soon the villagers were disturbed in their revels by the sound of the cattle bellowing in their stalls. Upon investigating, it was discovered that the cattle were dead or panicking with fear; by morning all of them had succumbed and the cause was plain to see: swarms of poisonous black spiders. As the herds were ravaged, the villagers began to think that after all they might have to deliver up a baby to the huntsman; however their plans were thwarted at the last minute when the priest sprinkled holy water over the newborn at the moment when Christine prepared to hand it over.
Then followed a scene of gruesome horror: as the holy water splashed Christine, it shrivelled her up "with a hideous sizzling, like wool in a fire, or lime in water"[viii], until she dwindled down to a huge spider, perching on the child. At last the priest was able to pick the spider up and hurl it away. The child died, badly scorched, but its soul was saved through baptism. Meanwhile the priest suffered agonising pains in the hand and arm he used to hurl the spider away. The spider then conducted a reign of terror against the villagers, no longer just attacking cattle but now going for people, even the very old and babies in their cribs. It attacked in broad daylight, scuttling from person to person at the breakfast table; its bite brought burning pain and death, the victims turning black. It appeared at the castle and brought agonising burning death to Hans von Stoffeln and his men. Finally the reign of terror was ended by the selfless action of a mother: a woman in the village sought to protect her two children from the spider by making a hole in the timber in her house and preparing a peg blessed with holy water to seal the hole. When the spider appeared and went to attack her children, she picked it up, thrust it into the hole and sealed it inside with the peg. She died from its venom, but her children were saved.
This is the main narrative of the novel. The grandfather then relates how many years later the villagers had become complacent again and let the spider out; only by the personal sacrifice of a father was it imprisoned once more. His message is clear: the threat from the spider is ever-present, and only those who trust in God are safe from it.
So, did Gotthelf’s spiders inspire the monsters of "The Ash-Tree"? It is unlikely that we will ever be able to give a definitive yes to this question; it is more likely that Die schwarze Spinne will remain one of a number of possibilities, which include Mr. Duncomb’s spiders in Bury St. Edmunds. There are however quite a lot of points in its favour. M.R.James travelled in Germany and Switzerland; he read German (though unenthusiastically). Gotthelf’s work was therefore quite accessible to him. There was much to interest MRJ in the novel; the main narrative has a mediaeval European setting, and the whole book teems with colourful details of local culture and landscape. The central theme, that of mortals meddling with diabolical forces and subsequently being pursued by an implacable assailant, is one that features again and again in MRJ’s own tales. Although the book has a very different style and tone to MRJ’s stories, Die schwarze Spinne has, as they do, very definite rules. There is nothing random about the supernatural element in the novel – in fact it has a strong moral compass: no matter how dire the circumstances, a pact with the forces of evil can only ever lead to trouble; those same forces of darkness can only be overcome by trust in God, and self-sacrifice. By comparison, the loathsome monster of  "L’Araignée Crabe" was a real animal rather than a manifestation of evil, and merely indulging the appetites of its predatory nature.
There are also some striking similarities between the narrative details of  "The Ash-Tree" and Die schwarze Spinne. Both feature a multitude of spiders, rather than a single outsized one as in "L’Araignée Crabe". In both cases the spiders are the instrument of revenge; in "The Ash-Tree" they slay members of the family who brought about the execution of an old woman as a witch, and in Die schwarze Spinne they punish the villagers to failing to honour their diabolical pact. Each story has a central female figure who in some way controls the spiders; MRJ gives us the beldame Mrs. Mothersole, Gotthelf the presumptuous "woman from Lindau", Christine, who gives birth to the creatures. Each of these female characters is "venomous" in personality, Mrs. Mothersole having "the living Aspect of a mad Divell", Christine uttering savage howls as she circles the house where a baby is being baptised, desperate to lay hands upon it. The ends of these women bear striking similarities; after the ash tree burns down, Mrs. Mothersole’s desiccated corpse is found under the roots of the tree, the skin clinging to the bones; Christine herself shrivels up into the form of a spider, burnt by the holy water.
In each story, the spiders prey upon the local cattle. In "The Ash-Tree" the livestock of the Fells is subject to the "Castringham sickness" until Sir Richard moves into the fated bedroom and falls victim to the spiders. In Die schwarze Spinne the spiders’ first victims are the villagers’ cattle, as a warning of the devil’s wrath if the pact is not honoured. Gotthelf describes in horrific detail how the animals bellow and rampage in their stalls, desperate to escape, as the spiders swarm over everything. When the villagers drive the cattle outdoors in an attempt to save them, the spiders spring up out of the earth in the meadows, as thick as alpine flowers, and continue their venomous attacks[ix].
In both tales, the effect of the spiders’ attacks is the same: terrible agonies, as evinced by the details of Sir Matttew Fell’s death. "The Body was much Disorder’d as it laid in the Bed, being twisted after so extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy Friend and Patron had expir’d in great Pain and Agony," report Mr. Crome’s notes. Die schwarze Spinne abounds with descriptions of the terrible burning pains suffered by those whom the spider attacks, its preferred method being to crouch upon the victim’s head and bore into his brain with fire. The venom of the creature is so virulent that the mother who saves her children from it suffers a thousands agonies even from picking it up[x], and the priest who touches it erupts with painful black boils[xi]. We might compare the sufferings of the women who lay out Sir Matthew’s corpse and are smitten with pain and immoderate swelling for many weeks. The intolerable agonies of the spiders’ bites are accompanied by a hideous blackness: in "The Ash-Tree" Mr. Crome describes the "great Swelling and Blackness" of Sir Matthew’s corpse, and Sir Richard is also later found "dead and black in his bed!" In Die schwarze Spinne the first human victim is bitten in the foot, which instantly turns black[xii]; later Christian, the father who imprisons the spider a second time, finds his wife and mother dying, with black and swollen faces[xiii].
There are many points of similarity between "The Ash-Tree" and Die schwarze Spinne – but can we know for sure whether M.R.James’ story was influenced or even inspired by Gotthelf’s? Probably not. But one thing is certain: once read, Die schwarze Spinne is not easily forgotten. The Bulgarian-born German novelist Elias Canetti describes in his autobiography[xiv] how, after reading it, he found himself tormented by imaginary tickling sensations on his face, compulsively washed himself and checked his reflection in mirrors. What the novel would mean to an out-and.out arachnophobe can only be imagined! And to those who love the ghost stories of M.R.James, it is definitely worth taking time to read Die schwarze Spinne – if for no other reason than to see how another literary master handles the subject of spiders so effectively treated in "The Ash-Tree".


Die schwarze Spinne (German) by Jeremias Gotthelf is available in various editions; I used that of Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, ISBN 3-423-02633-2.
The Black Spider (translation into English by B.O.Adefope) is available from Knightcross Books, ISBN 1-874373-05-1.

[i] The most complete published version of this story appeared in the G&S Newsletter 7 (2005).
[ii] "Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form…and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy.” Later, the hero Dennistoun momentarily mistakes the thing’s hand for an enormous spider.
[iii] G&S Newsletter 5 (2004), pp. 16-17.
[iv] Émil Erckmann (1822-1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890); born in the east of France, they met as students and later collaborated on a number of works of fiction including tales of the occult.
[v] “Now he is all black.”
[vi] "Ich bewundere (Die schwarze Spinne) wie kaum ein zweites Stück Weltliteratur.”
[vii] "Sie hatte wilde schwarze Augen und fürchtete sich nicht viel vot Gott und Menschen.”
[viii] "…schrumpft mit entsetzlichem Zischen Christine zusammen, wie Wolle im Feuer, wie Kalk im Wasser…”
[ix] It is interesting to note that the theme of dead cattle being the first sign of attacking spiders did not end with "The Ash-Tree”. The motif has featured in several horror films, including Kingdom of the Spiders (1975) starring William Shatner!
[x] "Unter tausendfachen Todesschmerzen drückte sie mit der einen Hand die Spinne ins bereitete Loch…”
[xi] "Hoch auf schwoll der Arm, schwarze Beulen quollen immer höher auf…” The priest’s sufferings are also highly reminiscent of the girlish experiences of "The Grandmother” in "An Evening’s Entertainment”: stung by a "black thing”, her arms swell up terrifically, the swelling accompanied by indescribable pain.
[xii] "under der Fuß ward Schwarz…”
[xiii] "(Die) hatten schon keine Stimme mehr in den hochaufgelaufenen schwarzen Gesichtern.”
[xiv] Entitled Die gerettete Zunge. Canetti first read Gotthelf’s novel in 1920.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wells and treasure (and nastier things)

Anyone who has read my debut novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden will know that there is a scene involving a well (don't worry, no spoilers coming up). The book was first published in the UK in 2009, but long before it was written I was researching the topic of wells for an article I wrote for the excellent M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, whose website can be seen here:
I have been a fan of M.R.James' ghost stories since I was a child, and when we moved to Germany in 2001 we found ourselves living not far from the setting of one of them, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.    The tale concerns treasure concealed in a well at Steinfeld abbey and protected by a grotesque supernatural guardian.
I have written several articles about Steinfeld and I became very interested in the topic of wells and their place in local folklore. In 2005 I wrote an article about it which was published in the Newsletter. It is not one of those articles available on the Newsletter's website, and the issue is now out of print. Therefore, with the permission of editor Rosemary Pardoe, I am pleased to reproduce it here.

"Depositum Custodi"
Wells and Treasure in German Folklore

"...I have tried to make my ghosts act in ways not inconsistent with the rules of folklore,“ wrote M.R.James in the introduction to his Collected Ghost Stories. MRJ never visited Steinfeld Abbey, scene of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“, and there are inconsistencies between the Abbey as portrayed in the story and the Abbey in reality (cf. G&S Newsletter 5, pp. 4-8); however, his tale of treasure hidden in a well and guarded by a supernatural creature is thoroughly consistent with German folklore, and specifically that of the Eifel, where the Abbey is situated.
The fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm include a number featuring the inhabitants of wells. In "Das blaue Licht“ ("The Blue Light“), a soldier jumps down a well to retrieve a blue light for a witch he is forced to serve; when he lights his pipe at the blue light, a dwarf appears to do his bidding. With the dwarf’s assistance the soldier acquires the witch’s store of gold and silver, and eventually marries the king’s daughter. In the better-known tale "Frau Holle“, the heroine jumps down a well after a lost spindle, and finds herself in a wonderful land; she enters the service of Frau Holle and for her good work receives a shower of gold pieces and a golden dress. Frau Holle’s gold is not freely given to all, however: the ugly and lazy sister who enters Frau Holle’s service in the hope of a fortune receives a shower of black pitch instead!
"Der Froschkönig“ („The Frog King“), also known as "Eiserne (Iron) Heinrich“, is a variation of the Frog Prince story, in which a frog recovers the princess’s golden ball from a well. The well in this version is situated in a great dark forest, and the frog which dwells in it has a distinctly unpleasant appearance, "stretching forth ist big, ugly head from the water“. Later, as the princess was at dinner, "something came creeping up the marble steps, splish splash, splish splash“; when the princess opens the door she slams it again and sits down at the table once more, her heart beating violently with terror. Shades of that "horrid, grotesque shape – perhaps more like a toad than anything else“ in "Abbot Thomas“...
From the Eifel town of Kall, not far from Steinfeld, comes the tale of the "Kaller Erdmännchen“, the "Little Man of the Earth“[1], which features a kind of "well of treasure“. The story goes that a starving widow sent her eldest son out to beg; the young man met a little man dressed as a miner who led him to a deserted shaft full of precious metal. The young man could remove and sell as much as he liked, on condition that he told no-one where the treasure had come from. Many people, curious at the young man’s sudden wealth, tried to find out where he was obtaining it, but he refused to tell. Finally some of them contrived to get him drunk, and he revealed the secret. The next morning when the young man descended into the hole, the little man was waiting for him, glaring with anger... A little later, the men who had discovered the secret came and eagerly hauled up the bucket on its winch  from the hole; in it lay no metal but the young man’s dead body. After that none dared enter the shaft, and at last the entrance became overgrown and lost. At the end of the story, as in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“, the site of the treasure is nce more left to become overgrown.
In the mediaeval town of Bad Münstereifel, some ten miles west of Steinfeld, there is a local tradition that ecclesiastical treasure was hidden in a well somewhere in the town. As in MRJ’s story, the tale of the Bad Münstereifel treasure also has its Mr. Somerton, in the form of local businessman and philanthropist Alex Schlierf. Herr Schlierf kindly agreed to share his experiences with the G&S Newsletter[2].
The story of the Bad Münstereifel treasure has been handed down orally.[3] Tales of hidden treasure are about as old as mankind, dating back to the times when precious items were buried with their owner in his grave. A well, especially one located under a house, is a particularly good hiding-place, since anything in it is protected even in the event of the house burning down. According to local legend, the nuns of the Carmelite convent in Bad Münstereifel hid treasure belonging to the church in a well when the French invaded the town[4] – and the treasure still lies there, awaiting discovery.
Bad Münstereifel has two public wells, with winch and bucket still extant, in the south end of the town. What is not so obvious to the casual visitor is that most houses in the old town also had their own well in the cellar.[5] There were many advantages in having one’s own well: apart from the saving in the labour of fetching water from a public well, the inhabitants could deal with a house fire more quickly, and last out longer in the event of a siege. These wells were capped according to new sanitary regulations after World War II, and water pipes were installed instead. Whatever lay within a particular well was seemingly sealed off forever.
Alex Schlierf was born in his family home in the town in the 1950s. As an apprentice of fourteen he listened to older me relating tales dating back a hundred years, which had been handed down from their own grandparents – tales such as that of the grisly discovery made under the crypt of the Jesuit church in the 1920s, for example[6]. There was also an unsubstantiated rumour that a number of skeletons of unwanted babies had been found close to a wall in the Heisterbacher Strasse.
In 1973, Herr Schlierf acquired the house in which his business, Optik Alex Schlierf, is now conducted. The building stands on the site of a mediaeval mill belonging to the collegiate church in Bad Münstereifel, extensively renovated in the eighteenth century. Alex Schlierf was convinced that there was a well somewhere in the cellars of the house. Could it be the one in which the nuns’ treasure was concealed? Since the mediaeval mill was church property, and it stands only a short distance from the site of the old convent, it seemed a likely candidate. With an enthusiasm of which Mr.Somerton would be proud, Herr Schlierf had the floor tested, and after some false starts a well-shaft was found and excavated. Alas! The excavations revealed a lot of masonry and part of the mill-wheel axle, but no treasure. If the treasure of the church really was deposited in a well in the town, thus far it has obeyed the injunction, keep that which is committed to thee. [7]Readers of the G&S Newsletter may take the view that this is for the best...
Finally, here are some general observations about wells in the mediaeval Eifel from Herr Schlierf, which provide interesting background to the location of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas“:
Having one’s own water supply (as did Abbot Thomas) increased the capital value of a building. Well-building in itself appears to have been a hazardous occupation, quite likely to produce its own ghosts. The procedure was to dig downwards, sometimes as far as fifteen metres, supporting the excavated sides of the well with stones as the work proceeded. The stones were not cemented, and therefore there was always the risk that the sides would collapse, or that the water table would suddenly break through. Many workers never got out of the well at all! The completed well also represented a risk to the unwary: some wells were bottle-shaped, and others had a bend in the neck. Either way, if anyone fell in, their chances of ever getting out again were slim.
Furthermore, all the wells in a town like Bad Münstereifel were connected, since each householder sunk his well into the water table which also supplied his neighbour’s house. Co-operation was vital; if, for example, an animal fell into the well at the top of the street and was left to decay, it would poison every well further downstream. It was an arrangement which could only work if the inhabitants of the town shared their water responsibly. For Alex Schlierf, this is significant: "Teilen ist der grösste Schatz“ – "The greatest treasure of all is sharing.“
A well could be valuable, very dangerous, and sometimes the repository of secrets – whether hidden wealth or a tiny skeleton – in fact, the ideal location for Abbot Thomas’s treasure and its unpleasant guardian...

With thanks to Herr Alex Schlierf.

[1] The story of the "Kaller Erdmännchen“ is retold by Hans Peter Schiffer in his collection of Eifel folktales, Die Drachenlaterne (1998). The Grimm quotations are from Grimms Märchen (Knaur Verlag, 2003); the translations are mine.
[2] As the original interviews were in German, I have related the content as reported speech.
[3] I have not been able to find any record of the story in collections of local folk tales, etc. This may be its first appearance in print!
[4] This gives a probable date of 1689, since that year the castle was burnt by invading French troops. The fear of war and plundering was instrumental in the history of the Steinfeld glass (see G&S Newsletter 5), which was repeatedly removed and hidden.
[5] It is possible to see the location of one of these wells in the local history museum, one of the oldest houses in Germany. It is, of course, now capped, but the staff report that a few items were found in it, including coins.
[6] Allegedly, three skeletons were found with bound hands!
[7] It seems unlikely, however, that Alex Schlierf’s treasure hunting will end here. He lent me a document written by his daughter, in which she describes how she and her father explored another well, in his parents’ house in the Wertherstrasse. The well was only accessible via a hole in the cellar wall, though which the water could be seen gleaming. Undaunted, Herr Schlierf used a waterproof torch on the end of a rod and line to explore the waters! 

Above: well in the Heisterbacher Strasse, Bad Münstereifel

Above: gazing down the well! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In which small son & friend contemplate Eternity.

Today I took small son and his friend to the mountain bike skills park. On the way back we had to take a diversion because of a fallen tree on the road, and we passed a cemetery. "My auntie's buried in there," said small son's friend. This led into a discussion about what we wanted done with our remains after we have shuffled off this mortal coil. 
I said I quite fancied this (below), a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence. I visited it whilst touring Iran in 1992. The bodies used to be laid out on the top in a walled area and birds came down and pecked them up. According to the Iranian guide who showed us round this one, if the birds pecked out your right eye first it meant you were going to heaven, and if they pecked the left one out first it was hell. He assured us that the guardians of the tower always told grieving relatives that the right eye had been pecked out first, regardless of which it had been, to spare their feelings.
"But what if they didn't LIKE their dead relative?" objected small son's friend. "They might not WANT him to go to heaven."
"Then I expect the relatives asked a leading question," I said. "Such as, 'they DID peck his left eye out first DIDN'T THEY???' "

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows

Last September I posted details of a competition being run by the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter (as it was open to everyone, not just subscribers). The competition was to write a sequel or prequel to one of M.R.James' ghost stories.
G&S Editor Rosemary Pardoe wrote, "What happened to the 'satyr' (or 'satyrs') after the end of 'An episode of Cathedral History'? Are the lanes of Islington still frequented by whatever it was that Dr. Abell encountered in 'Two Doctors'? What is left of the residue of the atrocities in 'An Evening's Entertainment'; and do Count Magnus and his little friend still lurk at a certain crossroads in Essex? As for prequels, I for one would like to know what sort of treasure Canon Alberic found, how it was guarded, and the details of his death in bed of a sudden seizure. And what exactly was James Wilson's belief system, which prompted him to have his ashes placed in the globe in the centre of Mr. Humphrey's maze: what is the significance of the figures on the globe - was Wilson a member of a Gnostic sect? Need I go on? I'm sure you can think of many more mysteries and questions that demand to be solved and answered."
I'm pleased to report that the competition had enough entries of a high standard that the Sarob Press is bringing them out next month as a limited edition hardbacked book, The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows. It includes my entry Alberic de Mauléon, a prequel to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book. This has not previously been published. Canon Alberic's Scrap-book is one of my absolutely favourite M.R.James stories - you can read it at The Literary Gothic website here: although personally I'd buy the whole collection to savour over and over again - Wordsworth do a very cheap print edition and it's even cheaper on Kindle!
The Book of Shadows costs £28.00 including postage and packing to the UK; details of costs to other parts of the world and how to order can be found here:
Personally I can't wait to get my hands on it, as the only story I have read is my own!

       Above: the cathedral at St. Bertrand de Comminges, setting of Canon Alberic's Scrap-book.

PS Update on 20th November 2012: the book has now been reviewed, here:

...and here is another (posted on 21st November)!

So farewell then, London 2012

It is a peculiarity of our household that sporty outdoor hubs loves sport and I love books. (Opposites attract, right?) So 2012 has been a bonanza year for him, with Wimbledon running smoothly into the Olympics, with the Tour de France tucked in there somewhere too. I don't watch sport on TV if I can possibly avoid it, except the Tour de France, and that is mainly because I fancy sitting halfway up Mont Ventoux with a nice bottle of red wine and a baguette. I'm not so much of a sporting curmudgeon as to ignore London 2012 though - I loved the opening ceremony, quite liked the closing one (it was fun reading the tweets) and shouted so loudly when Mo Farah was running the 5000m that the resident techie asked me to shut up because it was like needles going through her head. All the same, on the morning after the closing ceremony, when hubs told me that the football season was beginning, my reaction can best be described as "dismay." Okay, horror, actually. MORE sport on TV?
"Supposing," I said to him, "all you sports fans had to sit through weeks of televised book festivals? Supposing there was nothing else in all the papers? Supposing politicians went around saying that everyone in Britain was cheering for English Literature?"(Hmmm...that would be good.)
"But it wouldn't be competitive," objected hubs. He thought about it, though. "I'd watch a book-off against Germany."(This might work...a quick peek at Amazon reveals that Shakespeare's complete works weigh in at a hefty 2,552 pages compared to 486 for Goethe's. Result.)
The idea was not sufficiently attractive to lure him away from televised sport, though. A little while later I found him watching the Olympic highlights.
"You know how you once asked me why I re-read books?" I said.
"Well, how come you're re-watching the Olympics? I mean, you know what happens at the end..."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

In the lair of Countess Dracula!

This is not strictly speaking a blog post but an article I wrote back in 2007. It was accepted for publication but never in fact saw the light of day. As I still think the subject is very interesting, I thought I'd post it here. It describes a visit I made that year to the castle of the infamous "Blood Countess" Elizabeth Bathory, in Hungary. There are photos too!

Countess Elizabeth Bathory[1], sometimes known as the “Blood Countess”, and famously played by Ingrid Pitt in “Countess Dracula”[2], is legendary as a sadistic killer accused of torturing and murdering over six hundred women and girls, allegedly bathing in their blood to keep herself young and beautiful. Born in 1560, she married Ferenc Nádasdy whilst still in her teens. The couple at first lived at Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár, where the young Elizabeth often remained whilst her husband was away fighting. She inherited his estates upon his death in 1604. Even before his death, accusations of cruelty were made against Elizabeth, but it was not until 1610 that she was arrested. Horrific tales of torture, of the Countess biting flesh from living victims, and of (literally) buckets of blood were reported. Although some of her accomplices were tried and executed, the Countess herself never came to trial, but spent her last years incarcerated in one room in Castle Cséjte[3], where she died in 1614.
Castle Cséjte is a ruin, having been plundered in the 1700s. Sárvár Castle, however, remains intact, and parts of it are open to visitors. It is, it has to be said, a long way off the beaten track. Situated in Transdanubia in the far west of Hungary and not far from the Austrian border, Sárvár is a considerable drive from both Budapest and Vienna and thus unlikely to be on the itinerary of a short term visitor to either city. The town has been developed as a spa centre for Germans and Austrians over recent years, but it is rare to hear English spoken[4]. Apart from the spa facilities, Nádasdy Castle is its single big attraction. Situated in the heart of the town, the castle, which was formerly surrounded by a moat, now by green lawns, is reached via a long stone bridge. The visitor then enters the castle via a square, white-walled tower with a pyramidal red-tiled roof and hefty portcullis.
The peculiarity of the castle’s architecture is now apparent: built and extended over the centuries by successive owners, it forms a pentagon around a large central courtyard. Perhaps a third of it is open to the public, comprising a museum and some palatial interiors, reached via a winding staircase. It is on the wall by this staircase that one may see a copy of a portrait of Elizabeth Bathory, showing a richly-dressed woman with a high forehead, arched brows, a long nose and a wide mouth. This appears to be the only reference to Elizabeth Bathory anywhere within the castle; strangely, the country which produced such colourful characters as Prince Miklos II “The Ostentatious” and Géza Csáth appears rather squeamish about the notorious “Blood Countess”. Some of the displays in the castle relate to Ferenc Nádasdy, but not to his wife. All the same, the castle does not disappoint: the interior is an intriguing warren of interconnecting rooms, with high ceilings and shuttered windows, chandeliers and marble floors. The display cases are full of curios including flags and uniforms, and fabulously ornate swords, their handles encrusted with mother of pearl or turquoise. A tapestry depicts the wooden horse being borne into the city of Troy, whose inhabitants, all unawares, are rejoicing. A corner of the staircase is adorned with a marble statue of Cleopatra reclining, an asp clasped to her bosom, its fangs deep in her flesh.
The jewel in the crown of Nádasdy Castle is however its Festival Hall. It is decorated with seventeenth century ceiling paintings by Hans Rudolph Miller, depicting the campaigns of Ferenc Nádasdy, and eighteenth century frescoes by Stephan Dorfmeister, showing a series of Biblical scenes frankly shocking in their brutality. In spite of the apparent reticence to memorialise the castle’s most notorious mistress, one cannot help thinking that the choice of subject matter gives a nod to the bloodthirsty Countess: prominent amongst the depictions are scenes of savagery carried out by women. One painting shows Samson awakening from sleep and thrusting out a hand as though to ward off an attacker, whilst a triumphant Delilah with an impressive décolletage brandishes an enormous pair of wicked-looking shears, the sharp points of the blades thrusting upwards, a tangled heap of dark curls tumbling down from them. Another painting depicts a richly-attired Jael standing over the body of Sisera, who lies sprawled at her feet, his body limp, his head hanging lifelessly back. In her dainty right hand Jael flourishes the hammer which she has just used to hammer a tent peg into her victim’s skull. The contrast between the tumbled corpse at the bottom of the picture, and Jael’s graceful and unperturbed deportment is marked. A third picture shows Judith and Holofernes. Holofernes lies abed, unaware of the frightful fate about to befall him; Judith stands to the left of the picture, grasping the sword which she has already swung high above her head, ready to deal the bloody blow which will separate her victim’s head from his shoulders. This gallery of female butchery is a fitting decoration for the former home of the “Blood Countess”. The effect, at first stunningly ornate, and then upon closer inspection so violently savage, has a slightly claustrophobic effect upon the visitor; it is something of a relief to descend the winding staircase once more, and step out into the sunshine.

[1] Rendered in Hungarian as Báthory Erzsébet.
[2] Hammer, 1971.
[3] Cséjte is in modern Slovakia.
[4] This is also true of the staff at the castle, where virtually no English is understood. The majority of the display labels etc. are also exclusively in Hungarian. 

Above: exterior view, Nádasdy castle. 

Above: interior view.

                                                    Above: statue of Cleopatra with the asp!

                                                            Above: Samson and Delilah.

                                                                Above: Jael and Sisera.

                                                       Above: Judith beheads Holofernes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Lost in translation

I've spent this week working on the copyedited version of Silent Saturday, going through the copyeditor's comments and agreeing (or disagreeing) with proposed changes. Most of the suggested amendments are minor and pretty uncontroversial, but there are some special challenges in setting a book in a foreign country, as I have done.
My first three books were all set in the Eifel region of Germany, and although they were written in English and the dialogue was in English (with the occasional German word or phrase for a bit of colour), it was understood that the dialogue was an English rendering of conversations that would in reality have been in German. I had to take great care, therefore, that I didn't use any English phrases for which there is no suitable German equivalent. I could say, for example, that Klara Klein had "bitten the dust" because in German someone can "bite the grass" (ins Gras beißen), but I would not have Steffi Nett say that she would "give someone the top brick off the chimney" (ie. do anything for that person) because a German would not say that. Whilst I was writing those books, I constantly kept the theoretical German text in my mind.
My new Forbidden Spaces trilogy (coming in April 2013) is set in Belgium, and this presents different problems. Veerle De Keyser, the heroine, is Flemish-speaking but she lives in a village close to the cultural and linguistic faultline that divides the Flemish- from the French-speaking population. Most of the characters who appear in the trilogy are Flemish, but a number are French-speaking.
Towns and cities in Belgium often have a Flemish name and a French one, and sometimes even an English one too. Thus what we Brits call Brussels is called Brussel (Flemish) and Bruxelles (French). Antwerp (English) is Antwerpen (Flemish) and Anvers (French). Ghent (English) is Gent (Flemish) and Gand (French). So which versions to use?
An obvious solution is to use the name used by the local residents - Antwerpen, Namur, etc. However, some parts of suburban Brussels have both Flemish- and French-speaking populations (eg. Auderghem/Oudergem) so it is hard to know which to choose.
I then wondered whether to simplify matters by anglicising all the place names. This would also forestall anyone unfamiliar with the Flemish version of Brussels, Brussel, thinking that the missing s was a typo! Aha, I thought, a great solution....until I realised that the "English" version of Brugge, "Bruges" is actually also the French version. A Flemish-speaking resident of this city in north Flanders wouldn't think of it as Bruges. Veerle certainly wouldn't.  In the end I concluded that there is no "one size fits all" solution. Where a town is firmly Flemish-speaking, let it have a Flemish name; where it is French-speaking, a French one. Where it could go either way, I shall use the Flemish one since that is the one Veerle would naturally use. I shall use the English name for Brussels, hoping to avoid enquiries about the "missing" s and keeping things safely neutral in this political and linguistic minefield. Inconsistent, perhaps, but it strikes me as a nicely Belgian compromise. 

                                                            Ghent, Gent or Gand..?