Monday 28 February 2011

Sincere thanks to Waterstone's at Wigan

Thanks to those who made it to the Waterstone’s book-signing, in Wigan, last Saturday afternoon. In the end I think I shifted a decent number of books. Most of the store’s copies of Stronghold went, and Sparrowhawk sold out entirely, so that was a bit of a result. It was also pleasant to chat with people about what it means to be a writer trying to make a living in this day and age, even those who in the end opted not to buy.

A few folk also asked about the much promoted movie version of Stronghold, but I wasn't able to enlighten anyone, as - thus far - I haven't had much involvement with its development.

I think we benefitted from having the Wigan Athletic v Manchester United fixture in town at the same time, not to mention the Wigan Warriors v St. George-Illawarra Dragons Rugby League World Club Challenge pre-match press conference just down the mall, as, by around lunchtime, both of those events had swelled the number of shoppers and browsers to what was probably maximum capacity – and quite a few of them strayed into my presence.

For those who missed it, there is a possibility I’ll be in the store again in April, when my Dr Who novel, HUNTER’S MOON, is released – though that isn’t a firm fixture just yet.

I ought to offer special thanks to those staff on duty at the store, as I was looked after with great care and attention. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Pictured is yours truly, inscribing a book for my first customer of the day, who, rather delightfully was waiting next to the desk when I arrived, some half an hour before we were due to start. She proved to be very pleasant and very chatty, and had a flattering knowledge of my work. These are definitely the perks of the job.

Friday 25 February 2011

The Power of Three - 15th Installment

It’s that time of the week again. Entertain yourself over your first coffee break of the morning by recollecting this trio of dark chillers, or, if you haven’t read them yet, by wondering how on Earth you missed out on such tainted treats.

Again, these selections were made purely at random, but by complete chance we have three tales this week from the grimmer end of the horror spectrum. They may have been published 60 years apart, but there were no punches pulled in any of these studies in dread. This is definitely the stuff that nightmares are made of.

The Last Night by Charles Birkin

Young Nora will soon be leaving the mental hospital where she’s been sectioned for several years. But first she has to get through another night during which that awful psychotherapist will visit her – a man obsessed with proving his theory that hypnotism can defeat even extreme pain.

It still amazes me that stories like this were ever published back in the morally upright 1930s, but Charles Birkin – who originally penned this one under the pseudonym ‘Charles Lloyd’ – was a one-man industry when it came to truly unpleasant horror fiction. This is certainly a good example, and though not quite as gratuitous as its titillating premise may make it sound, it affects a powerful atmosphere of intellectual depravity, and in addition delivers one terrific kick right at the end. A classic example of what I suppose you’d call ‘Great British horror’ from an era when the more odious the concept, the more the genteel readership of those days seemed to like it.

First published in CREEPS (pictured), 1932.

Welcome To Mengele’s by Simon Bestwick

A jaded suburbanite attends a brothel where surgically altered sex-workers can be anyone, or anything, you want them to be. Getting into this place is all about who you know. But that’s even more important when it comes to getting out again.

There are certain horror stories that stop you dead. I’m talking about those dissertations of delirium that scare you out of your wits with their mere concept. This tale is one such, though the fun doesn’t end with the concept. If anything this concept is relatively simple – though only in a “why on Earth didn’t I think of that?” kind of way – but it’s written with such skill and intensity, and it takes us so quickly into such realms of unimaginable abomination that you can’t quite believe what you’re reading. This tale is exactly what they mean when they say “extreme” or “hardcore”, and yet the literary skills on display here are admirable. This is a complete short story, not just some superficial shocker. The incisive subtext raises it to a whole new level.

First published in NASTY PIECE OF WORK 11, 1999.

The Inn by Guy Preston

A travelling man lost on the moors of northern England finds shelter in the form of a decrepit inn. The blind, slug-like landlord isn’t a welcoming sight, though he does have a rather dishy daughter, which convinces our maybe not-so-tired hero to stay after all.

Most readers will be familiar with this tale from the Pan Books of Horror Stories, but in fact it dates from a much earlier period, when – rather like The Last Night – you might have thought this sort of thing wouldn’t quite be permissible. And yet The Inn is just about the most full-on scare-a-thon I’ve ever read. Okay, there’s nothing hugely original about it, but every type of creepiness is employed in its early stages – from the mist-shrouded moorland to the bizarre and menacing inn-sign, while the finale, which isn’t over with anything like merciful speed, is an explosion of truly astonishing terror, not to mention full-gloss gore. In addition, it’s gorgeously written; totally atmospheric of a genre which back in its heyday was almost boyishly proud of its ability to hurt and deprave.

First published in GRIM DEATH, 1932.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Waterstone's book-signing this weekend

Just a quick reminder to anyone who may be interested that I’ll be signing books at the Waterstone’s store in my home town of Wigan (6, The Grand Arcade, Wigan, WN1 1BH) on February 26th, which is this coming Saturday, from 1pm in the afternoon.

There’ll be plenty of copies of STRONGHOLD on hand, but it’s also very possible, in fact highly likely, that copies of SPARROWHAWK will also be available for purchase and insciption. So if there’s anyone who hasn’t already got one (or either) of these, and would like signed copies, you know where I’ll be. I’m not sure what the rules are about people turning up with copies of my other books which they may want signing – but from my POV, I’m more than happy to scribble a quick signature on anything.

Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

'Sentinels of the New Dawn' set to arrive

If it seems like I’m churning out new Dr Who material at a rate of knots at present, I can’t deny it, and I must admit it feels rather good. My next Dr Who audio for Big Finish, a ‘Companion Chronicle’ called THE SENTINELS OF THE NEW DAWN (pictured), will be available for purchase in April, and can now be pre-ordered via most of the usual sites. I’ve pasted a few links in at the end of this blog.

SENTINELS stars Caroline John, who recreates her iconic character of the early 1970s, Liz Shaw, and Duncan Wisbey, the actor and impressionist.

In a nutshell, not long after leaving UNIT, Liz asks the Doctor – still in his third incarnation – to visit her at Cambridge, where scientists are experimenting with the new time-dilation device. Perhaps inevitably, there is a mistake and the machine hurls them forward into the year 2014, where they meet the charming and hospitable Beauregard family. Of course, things are never what they seem in Dr Who. A dark secret is about to be uncovered, which may have devastating repercussions for many centuries to come …

That’s about as much as I’m allowed to say, though, in keeping with the Pertwee era of ‘Who’ there is action and sci-fi horror aplenty.

Anyone who follows the Big Finish audio series will already have noticed that this adventure is a prequel to my last audio outing, LEVIATHAN. So if you want to know any more about the mysterious Sentinels of the New Dawn, that’s the place to look.

Here are several links that might be of use:

Friday 18 February 2011

The Power of Three - 14th Installment

Oh yes, it’s Friday morning (at last, we all say), and to while away the first coffee break of the day, here are three more random selections from my 90-page list of the world’s best horror stories.

Once again, my choices – made entirely on the luck of the draw – cover a broad spectrum of the genre, and an immense time-zone as well. As always, I wish I could reprint these stories for you in full, but that wouldn’t be possible. All I can do here is offer heartfelt recommendations for some choice, coronary-inducing reading. If you haven’t already shuddered your way through any of this terrible threesome, I suggest you quickly go out and do it. How can you enjoy the bright side of life if you don’t occasionally immerse yourself in its darkness?

The Man Upstairs by Ray Bradbury

Young Doug faces a long, boring summer at his grandma’s boarding house. But then Koberman, the strange-looking guest arrives and by coincidence a series of bizarre murders commences. It isn’t long before Doug knows who he blames for the crimes.

Another poetic masterpiece from the limitless imagination of Ray Bradbury, though this one is perhaps more macabre than most. On the surface, it’s a vampire / serial killer / alien intruder tale – take your pick. But by the end we’re facing an altogether different kind of monster. A weird and surreal outing for Bradbury, who often found magic in the mundane but here really lets rip – with suggestions of transcendental windows, altered realities and parasitic menaces which occupy no place in the physics or biology of our world. High concept horror at its most exquisite.

First published in HARPER’S MAGAZINE, 1947.

Where Angels Come In by Adam L.G. Nevill

A pair of mischievous kids bunk off school to investigate the big white house on the hill, which everyone in town seems to be frightened of. The things they discover there will claim the life of one and the sanity of the other.

Adam Nevill is fast emerging as one of the top genre writers of the 21st century. Aside from the eloquence of his writing, he also understands that generating fear is the spook story’s primary purpose, and this has to be one of the best examples I’ve ever read. I won’t say too much because this tale’s other great strength is its originality, and it would be a crime if I revealed anything about the living nightmare our heroes encounter inside the edifice of evil on the hill overlooking town. Suffice to say that this essay in terror starts out like a traditional haunted house mystery, but quickly becomes so much more than that. If you haven’t read it, you simply must.

First published in POE’S PROGENY (pictured), 2005

No Man’s Land by John Buchan

An outdoor sportsman plans a fishing and hunting trip in the remote Highlands of Scotland. But when he discovers evidence of a lost subterranean tribe, it becomes clear that he is the one being stalked.

Perhaps a little overlong – though that’s more to do with the era in which it was written, this is still a classic slice of Edwardian action-horror. It starts out like a rousing adventure from the Boys’ Own stable, but the excitement soon gives way to raw fear as a hardy, red-blooded male is forced to learn that modern man, for all his weapons and intellect, is no match for the savagery of untamed nature. In some ways a precursor of the cannibal/hillbilly movies of the late 20th century, but of course far more elegant and restrained, this is a cut above so many of its imitators thanks to Buchan’s lyrical prose. Rarely has the wildness and grandeur of the Scottish lochs and crags been more vividly captured in print.

First published in BLACKWOOD’S MAGAZINE, 1899.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Movies made and some that still may be

Owing to popular demand, I've started a new page - as you'll see above - dedicated to my movie writing of the last decade.

In all cases these are completed scripts, several of them now at third, fourth or even fifth draft stage. With one or two exceptions, all have been optioned at some time or other by film companies, and so have been work-shopped, refined, rehearsed and so on.

I'm a little bit wary of saying too much about those that are currently under option - producers don't generally appreciate it if you give unofficial advance publicity on their forthcoming projects, but a couple, as you'll see, have gone the whole way and actually made it onto celluloid. Links to their dedicated IMDB entries are also included, so you'll have no shortage of info if that's something you're interested in.

Pictured above is an (admittedly poor quality) print of the development artwork that was done for HUNTING GROUND, a horror/thriller I wrote about five years ago, which was under option for most of that time, but sadly is now available for re-option. In addition to the impressive online pre-publicity drive, at least three drafts of that script were written - and it all came to nothing. It just shows what a strange and frustrating experience the movie industry can be. On the other hand, when it all goes to plan, there's no better job in the world than writing screenplays for films. Pictured below is Luke Mably in a tense scene from SPIRIT TRAP, which made it to the big screen in 2005.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Resurrected - some of my earliest chillers

Some of my earliest professionally sold stories will soon be seeing the light of day again, courtesy of the new electronic age.

I’ve recently been chatting with Graeme Hurry, editor of KIMOTA, one of the great horror and fantasy magazines from that golden age of the UK Small Press – the 1980s/90s. Graeme had the reputation for being an indefatigable editor, and the proof of this would seem to be that KIMOTA, or something very similar, will now be returning in Kindle form. I won’t steal Graeme's thunder – almost certainly he’ll be beating the drum for this new publication himself in due course, though I don’t think he’ll mind if I mention that it will contain some reprints from the hard-copy days but also stacks of new, original material.

I’m pleased to announce that three tales of mine, all of which appeared in KIMOTA during that halcyon age, will be included. They are: EUGENE (#6 – 1997), JULY (#7 – 1997), and THE SIMULATOR (#12 – 2000).

EUGENE tells the tale of three bored kids who, late one night, make a courageous foray into the heart of an eerily derelict school. (The picture above is the original artwork by Jamie Egerton, which accompanied this story). JULY concerns a village cricket match, which ends in supernatural horror, while THE SIMULATOR contains both sci-fi and horror elements, and takes place during an ill-fated police anti-drink/drive campaign.

I can’t tell you much more because it’s still early days, but I promise I’ll post more information regarding this project when I get it.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

The Power of Three - 13th Installment

Well ... for once it isn't that time of the week again, but as I'll be spending the next two days in the capital - at Ladbroke Grove Studios, to be specific - observing at close hand as my latest DR WHO audio is recorded by Big Finish and a cast of thousands (I'll also, hopefully, be shaking hands with yet another of my favourite Doctors), I won't be able to do the usual Friday morning coffee break thing.

So here, two days earlier than normal, but still for your delectation, are three more selections from my unofficial list of the best and scariest horror stories ever written. Again, they were chosen entirely at random. No theme exists other than that they all came out of the hat on the same day.

If you don't already know these, you've just got to go and find them.

Mrs. Jones by Dorothy K. Haynes

Mrs. Jones, an excellent but uncharitable cook, is well known for her prize-winning cakes and biscuits. But when she is rude to a hideous hag who wants a free sample at the village fair, she is whisked off to a terrible and eternal punishment.

There’s only one message to be drawn from this one: don’t insult the fairy folk. Whether that subtext is to be taken seriously or not depends on the reader, but with her usual exquisite prose, Dorothy K. Haynes here delivers a horror story of a unique kind, transforming a race of entities who most of us regard as harmless beings frolicking on the pages of nursery books into an intelligent and baleful lot, who’ll have no hesitation in delivering severe penalties if so deserved. What’s more, it’s all done completely believably. In the hands of a lesser writer, the big twist at the end would probably come over as ludicrous. But it doesn’t here – far from it.

First published in WELSH TALES OF TERROR (pictured), 1973

The Cave by Basil Copper

A hill-walker lost in the Tyrol holes up in a remote village, only to find the locals living in fear of a cave-dwelling something which started out killing goats and cattle, and may soon be killing people.

Basil Copper’s eloquent descriptive style is perfectly suited to this classic monster story, which makes wonderful use of its scenic backdrop, but is also chillingly effective in the way it conjures an unknown but terrifying foe simply by portraying the sounds it makes in the depths of a cave or on the other side of a flimsily bolted farm door. You never actually see the dreadful antagonist, but in true Jamesian style – and this tale is very much a tribute to M.R. James – there is no end to the terror these simple techniques create, or the ultimate violence that results. Extremely frightening.

First published in NOT AFTER NIGHTFALL, 1967.

Loopy by Ruth Rendell

A middle-class mother and son make an odd couple. He likes to dress in a wolf costume and romp around the house. She, who is no stranger to this kind of behaviour herself, indulges him. But what’s going to happen when his girlfriend shows up?

Another perceptive Ruth Rendell study of psycho-sexual repression in Middle England. This one is written in her usual lively style, and with more than a touch of Dahl-esque dark comedy – but the laughter doesn’t last for long. There are several nice jabs in the direction of traditional werewolf stories, though in some ways this is a werewolf story. At the same time we’re invoking that equally traditional horror staple: the mother-inspired serial killer, and yet this is no send-up of the subgenre because it's such an effective tale in its own right. A lot of fun, but very clever and very creepy.

First published in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, 1982.

And now for something completely different. Well ... not totally. I was interviewed this week by those splendid chaps and chapesses at Twisted Tales. So, if anyone is interested in hearing my views on this, that and the other (mainly horror-related, it goes without saying), then check out the following link:

Sunday 6 February 2011

'One Monster' now available in paperback

I’m pleased to be able to announce that ONE MONSTER IS NOT ENOUGH, my second collection of 2010 is now available in paperback - both from its publisher Gray Friar Press and from Amazon UK and US.

The book, it won't surprise you to learn, is themed around monsters, and contains several reprints (including one British Fantasy Award winnder and one International Horror Guild Award winner), but also quite a bit of new material, and hopefully presents a satisfyingly wide range of dark, sinister and supernatural tales.

It’s gratifying that interest in this collection still seems to be running high. The hardback was published last September, and sold out very quickly. But since then, a couple of pretty good reviews have certainly helped. Here’s the latest, from Matthew Fryer, writing on Hellforge.

Just be advised, if you’re going to read from this point, I should issue a slight * SPOILER * alert:

I became familiar with Paul Finch through his anthologised short fiction, and he always ticks all the boxes. One Monster Is Not Enough, a themed collection of 8 novellas and novelettes courtesy of Gray Friar Press, continues that tradition of quality. With the freedom to expand his tales, this book is a treat.

It kicks off with one of the shorter stories: “The Old North Road”. Here we find a down-on-his-luck historian travelling to a ruined abbey for a project on the legendary Green Man. He meets a suspicious couple out in the quiet countryside, and the unease notches up slowly towards a terrifying climax in which the supernatural almost takes a back seat to the three human characters. But only almost.

“The Tatterfoal” concerns the widowed wife of an 80s pop star. She arranges for his former band-mates and family to attend a party in her isolated mansion: a place rife with tales about the legendary man-horse of the title. This story keeps us guessing throughout, and ladles on the atmosphere including the best use of fog since… well, The Fog. My only complaint is that it felt slightly too long, and shorn of a few pages, it would’ve been truly unputdownable.

“Calibos” is an immediately gripping SF story in which a titanic mechanical crab – designed to harvest seabed specimens – clambers onto dry land and wreaks a trail of carnage across the country. We follow a crack squad of soldiers into the crab’s guts as they try to bring it down, fighting off the brilliantly anatomical internal defences. Although this is a lighter tale, it’s not without horror, especially when we encounter the “specimens” the Calibos has collected and processed. The angle of innocent technology gone awry is handled with aplomb, and it also reflects on the value of human life within the world of politics.

Next up is a story with a strong urban flavour. Set in Manchester, “Hag Fold” is a serial killer tale told by an ex-cop. The childhood reflections are superb, and reading it is like watching a grim jigsaw being assembled.

“The Retreat” is a definite favourite. Set during World War II, a group of German soldiers trek across the frozen Russian Steppes and discover a forest shack that seems strangely welcoming. Utterly intriguing from the off, this story has a nightmarish quality to which the hardened soldiers respond perfectly. It’s also notable for its battle scenes, which are nothing short of breathtaking. To read brutal, realistic, wince-inducing bloodshed in such beautiful prose is an unforgettable experience, and you would think the author was actually there.

“Kid” is narrated by a tough, bitter ex-boxer. He plans to tell his ex-wife what he thinks of her - and knock her new fella’s teeth out - but instead gets lost in a threadbare and indifferent part of London called Baker’s Wood. He’s an eloquent narrator, despite his primal nature and other shortcomings. I won’t ruin the surprises, but the whole package is a triumph of both concept and voice.

In “Red in Beak and Claw” we meet Ben: gangster muscle in the witness protection programme. When he’s relocated to a country cottage with his wife, he learns of a local robber’s hoard said to be protected by a gigantic, man-slaying cockerel. This tale shows the author’s talent for keeping those pages turning fast, and like the previous story, you engage even though the protagonist is somebody you might avoid in the street. This investment is helped by plenty of character back-story, but as always, not a whiff of infodumping. The conclusion doesn’t quite have the clout as some of the others, but it certainly isn’t disappointing, and it’s a brilliant story to re-read once you know what’s going on.

“Crow-Raven” brings the entertainment to a close. The first couple of paragraphs give a rather bland tour of a medieval manor called Buckton Hall. Okay. Then the narrative begins to describe a couple of murdered corpses in that same polite, slightly jocular and informative tone of a tour-guide, and suddenly I was beaming. This is writing. It transpires that Buckton Hall used to be owned by a family of vicious hunchbacks, and we follow the efforts of a specialist police unit for investigating strange and paranormal crimes. The whole thing pans out like the pilot for an English adult version of the X-Files with plenty of humour, gore, scares, and a dollop of sexual tension.

I suggest getting hold of One Monster Is Not Enough immediately. All the stories are strong. They conclude with a satisfying flourish, with not a hackneyed twist in sight, and the supernatural tales are just as real and chilling as those with concrete foundations. Paul Finch also has an extraordinary ear for dialogue: there are big-budget scriptwriters who can’t pen scenes as natural as those in this book. Regardless of genre, it’s genuinely heart-warming to see the short fiction form in the hands of somebody so bloody good at it.

Friday 4 February 2011

The Power of Three - 12th Installment

Ah yes … Friday morning, the first coffee break of the day, and here we go with another installment of tales which any self-respecting horror addict should already have read by now, and if they haven’t, which they should certainly be looking out for (otherwise, how can they ever say they’ve exposed their souls to the full sword’s edge of terror?).

As usual, none of these stories were chosen deliberately. They came off my loaded, dust-laden shelf at random, but yet again, I think, they make for an interesting and rather complementary trio. Again – to all those asking if I can actually post these stories here on my blog, rather than simply offer a taste of them, sorry but the answer is ‘no’. Too many copyright issues (and a heck of a lot of typing, in most cases).

Strange Event In The Life Of Schalken The Painter by Sheridan Le Fanu

In 17th century Holland, art-student Godfrey Schalken is disturbed when his teacher’s beautiful daughter is forcibly betrothed to a wealthy but hideous man who doesn’t quite seem to be alive.

Unlike many of Le Fanu’s other early works, this timeless classic is far from ambiguous. There is no uncertainty about whether we’re dealing with the supernatural here. This is an out-and-out tale of devilish horror, containing deeply disturbing elements including abduction, voyeurism and necrophilia. Inspired by one of the real life Godfried Schalcken’s paintings, Lady With a Candle (pictured), Le Fanu set out to write as frightening a ghost story as possible, and undeniably succeeded. Despite its great age, it’s still as readable now – and as unsettling – as it ever was. The 1979 BBC adaptation was a superbly accurate rendition, and helped bring it to a much wider audience.

First published in THE DUBLIN UNIVERSITY MAGAZINE, 1839.

The Worst Of All Possible Places by David A. Riley

A disgraced teacher is re-housed at the top of a tower block filled with drug addicts and criminals. As if that isn’t bad enough, he then learns that a heretical cult once committed ritual suicide there.

A bone-chilling study of the urban underbelly, liberally dosed with extreme supernatural horror. There are unrelenting shocks, as Pan veteran Riley piles one ghastly development on top of another, putting both his hero and his readers through an ordeal of terror, the intensity of which builds steadily until it’s almost impossible to keep reading. It’s a beautifully written piece as well – in a dark and demented sort of way, lovingly detailing the damp, urine-stained edifice in which our hero is forced to live, not to mention the twisted wrecks of humanity that dwell there with him. A non-stop, gut-punching nightmare of the sort the smartarse 21st century deserves.

First published in HOUSES ON THE BORDERLAND, 2007.

The Music of the Dark Times by Chet Williamson

A hotshot record producer plans to release an album interspersing triumphalist Nazi themes with the original gramophone recordings of a death camp quartet. Needless to say, not everyone approves.

Where do you draw the line between empathy and exploitation? That is the crux of this thought-provoking analysis of past crimes and modern indifference. Once again, we’re dealing with a hint of the unknown but also a human psyche so damaged that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to try and establish from where exactly the eventual backlash originates. But in truth none of that matters. History has shown us that unfeasibly terrible things can happen, and we belittle the possibility at our peril.

First published in THE TWILIGHT ZONE, 1988.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Haigh Hall - 'the walker in the woods'

Well, since my last post regarding Haigh Hall, I’ve not been able to track down any of those poor folk who supposedly experienced the more extreme ghostly manifestations that I’ve thus far mentioned. But I have interviewed several other folk who’ve reported experiences there. All but one want to remain anonymous. And, interestingly, all expressed concern about my Easter Monday presentation in the haunted upper tier, saying they were surprised the authorities were allowing it, given the past disasters that have occurred on that eerie top floor.

John O’Malley, a very elderly chap now, is a native Wiganer who helped clear the land at Haigh Hall in the 1950s. Of all the spectres reputed to roam the building and its grounds, he said the one he and his pals were most frightened of was that of Lady Mabel, the veiled, ragged figure who is said to cause insanity if you meet her, because she has no face.

Mabel Bradshaigh, lady of the manor at Haigh in the early fourteenth century, was married to the knight, William Bradshaigh, who had a roguish reputation. In 1315, he fled the country after his involvement in a rebellion against the Earl of Lancaster. Hearing nothing from him for many years, his wife eventually remarried. However, Bradshaigh returned in 1322. He killed his wife’s new husband in single combat, and resumed living at the Haigh manor house until 1333, when he fought another rival and this time was killed himself. In penance for her bigamy, his wife, Mabel, made a daily barefoot walk to a stone monument just outside Wigan’s north wall (the Mab’s Cross monument still exists, but has now been enveloped by the town), a distance there and back of about six miles.

No-one really knows why Lady Mabel’s ghost, well known around Wigan as ‘the White Lady’, should be so terrifying. She was not an evil person in life, though she was said to be unhappy in her final days, and indeed her phantom supposedly cuts a forlorn figure.

“You must never look at her face,” old John told me. “That’s what we were warned about. You won’t see her inside the Hall. She never walks in the Hall itself, she walks through the grounds, usually from around twilight onwards – just about the time when we’d be knocking off and setting off home through the Plants (the ‘Plantations’ – dense woodland covering the estate). She’s covered in rags and dirt, but you must never look her in the face. She hasn’t got one, and to see that empty space with no human features is said to drive you mad. At least, that’s what we were told. None of us saw her while we were working there, but we’d often call into the pubs on Wigan Lane, and the locals told stories about blokes who’d come running in late at night, terrified out of their wits, saying they’d just seen Old Mab.”

Further investigations about Lady Mabel concern the Wigan Convent, a girl’s grammar school which was constructed in the nineteenth century over part of the ground where Lady Mabel’s ghost is alleged to walk. The building was demolished at the end of the 1960s, but I spoke to a couple of ex-Convent girls (chirpy grandmothers, these days) who confirmed that a spectre known as “the Faceless Nun” was supposed to haunt the school’s basement. They didn’t automatically link this visitant with Lady Mabel, until I mentioned the similarities – lack of facial features, long, ragged robes, a veil or wimple.

“That’s quite creepy actually,” one of the ladies said. “I mean, we used to take the faceless nun as a bit of a joke, though the older girls, particularly some of the boarders, said they knew people who’d seen her late at night. But I never made the association with Lady Mabel while I was there, and I’m glad. As a child living in Bottling Wood (a housing estate abutting onto the Haigh Hall Plantations), we were really quite frightened of Lady Mabel. None of us would go down into the woods when it got dark. They used to say that Old Mab, or what was left of her, wandered the leafy paths, looking to grab you. Oooh, I’m glad I didn’t know it was supposed to be Mab while I was at the Convent. I wouldn’t have been very happy with that.”

Strangely, it’s less easy getting information about the even more terrifying ghosts that are supposed to haunt the interior of the building, in particular the cobweb-laden upper floor. But one former junior caretaker, who worked at Haigh Hall in the 1980s, was prepared to talk:

“I know for a fact that none of the staff liked going up on the top floor. We all knew that a ghost-hunter type had had a nervous breakdown up there in the 1970s, though we were told we shouldn’t speak about it. I know people who reported other things too. One guy who’d been there a long time told me how he’d been up to the top floor to collect something. There was a wedding going on downstairs, but it was the middle of winter, and freezing cold up there and presumably quite dark. A lot of those upper rooms were being used as storerooms. He’d got hold of this box of stuff and had just come out into the main passage when he became aware of a figure standing watching him about thirty yards away. No-one else should have been up there, and at first he thought he was seeing things. This figure was wearing a long white garment – like a shroud, he said, and a black executioner’s hood. Apparently he blinked, and the figure was right in front of him. He said it was like time-lapse photography. He ran for his life, and apparently gave his notice in shortly afterwards. As far as I’m aware, no explanation was ever given for that hooded figure.”

Yet again, of course, this is hearsay. We can’t be sure if there’s anything in it. But I was interested enough by this particular tale to do some more background digging, and I can’t help wondering if it has any connection with Haigh Hall’s blood-stained Civil War history. James Stanley, the former Earl of Derby, was the Royalist commander at the Battle of Wigan Lane in 1651. Wounded and captured, he was executed at Bolton that same year. En route to Ormskirk, where he was to be buried, his truncated corpse and severed head were kept overnight at Haigh Hall in separate boxes.

Any link there? You decide.

Another thing I’ve picked up recently, though I haven’t had time to fully research it yet, is the uncovering during an archaeological excavation underneath Wigan Parish Church in the 1930s, of an altar to Mithras. This dates back to the Roman occupation of the site, when Wigan was a military camp called Coccium. Does this have any relevance to Haigh Hall’s legion of unearthly occupants? The two sites are several miles apart, but rumours have long held that an as-yet-undiscovered tunnel links them. Could this be the portal by which Haigh Hall’s spirits come and go?

More when I get it.

(The picture comes courtesy of Wigan Observer snapper, Nick Fairhurst, and shows yours truly on the stair leading to the much-feared Noah's Ark Room, believed by many to be the hub of the Hall's ghostly activity).