Wednesday, 9 January 2019

My own gazetteer of strange, eerie places

Today, I’m taking advantage of a photo-gallery idea I recently had.

It came from a question someone asked me: what are the most amazing places in Britain that you’ve ever written about? Now, that’s not an easy one to answer. I mean, define ‘amazing’. But it certainly struck me that it would be fun to contemplate the most scary and mysterious places that I’ve ever written about … or more importantly, that I would LOVE to write about but haven’t thus far.

So, that’s what today’s blogpost is all about.

I’m going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the top ten weirdest/eeriest real-life places in Britain and Ireland that I would love to take my fictional characters to in either my crime-thriller novels or my horror stories. And, as an added bonus – and why the hell not? – I’m also going to show you my top ten weirdest/eeriest real-life places that my fictional characters actually HAVE visited.

Somewhat in keeping with that theme, I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Rosemary Pardoe’s compelling new anthology, THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR.

If you’re purely interested in the review, fair enough, You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s post. Just scoot on down there right now. However, if first you fancy checking out a few remote corners of Britain and Ireland where folkloric type chills are said to manifest in real life, then stick around for a bit …

British and Irish Top 10 spooky spots where my fictional characters may fear to tread, but where they’re going to tread at some point, like it or not …

The uncanny, ankle-breaking moonscape of the Burren in County Clare, Western Ireland. A glaciated georama, it visually embodies spookiness. Even Oliver Cromwell said of it ‘a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury one’. I’m sure that some thriller/horror writer has dealt with it before, though I haven’t personally, and I’d love to get there at some point.

The Hellfire Caves in the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A tourist attraction for many years now, they have a genuine arcane history, having played host to Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hellfire Club of the 18th century, which saw drunken reprobates from the local aristocracy indulge in orgies, black magic and even (allegedly) human sacrifice. If I ever do manage to set some fiction there, I’ll be late to the party as Hammer Horror beat me to it years ago, having filmed To the Devil a Daughter there back in 1976.

Possibly the world’s most famous avenue of beech trees, the Dark Hedges, which run along the Bregagh Road near Armoy in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. HBO’s Game of Thrones has immortalised this remarkable sight, making it into a world-famous tourist attraction, which probably renders it useless for my purposes now – it’s only a road at the end of the day, but Hell, what a road! It could so easily be a movie set, but it’s a genuine piece of nature, the trees first planted in 1775.

Now a deceptive one. This is the idyllic Blue Lagoon in the hills near Buxton, Derbyshire. Looks gorgeous, doesn’t it? Fancy a dip on a nice summer’s day? Well … best not to, because the water is only that lush blue colour thanks to being toned blue by toxic chemicals leaching from the surrounding rocks. Plus, it’s not a lagoon or even a lake, it’s a flooded quarry which just beneath the surface is filled with car wrecks, dead animals and human excrement. It has no esoteric history as far as I know, but it’s just so damned nasty that I can’t ignore it forever. (As a footnote, it’s recently been dyed jet-black to stop people swimming).

Back in the world of folklore and fable, the Beetham Fairy Steps, on the border between Lancashire and Cumbria, offer chilling false promises. They’re a natural rock formation, unless you believe the rumours that the faeries carved them. If so, and you venture down, making a wish en route, and manage not to touch the sides before you reach the bottom, your wish will supposedly be granted. But ensure that a so-called shade is not coming up at the same time; a dark form with glowing eyes – encounter this and it means you are doomed to die very soon.

Further south in my home county of Lancashire, we have Pendle Hill, notorious for the 12 female inhabitants of the region accused of causing death by witchcraft in 1612, tried for their lives and then (ten of them, at least) hanged. It’s a bleak, windswept place, undeniably eerie on desolate autumn days, but it’s beautiful too in a wild wilderness kind of way. At least part of its evil reputation stems from visitors venturing up there on dark Halloween nights, losing their way and falling down ditches and into gullies. I’ve written many times about rural Lancashire, but never about Pendle Hill itself. 

There aren’t many places in the British Isles where you can shake hands with an 800-years-old mummy, but the crypt of St Michan’s Church, Dublin, is one. Believe it or not, a legal glitch enables visitors to have physical contact with certain of these dried-out, 11th century corpses, as Church Law only forbade the opening of the caskets, not the touching of their contents – and the caskets have collapsed under their own weight, whereas natural chemicals in the walls are believed to have preserved the bodies. Rumour holds that Bram Stoker was first inspired to write about the undead after visiting this nightmarish place.

High in the Yorkshire Dales lies Trollers Gill, wherein strange deaths have been recorded since the 14th century. The name of the gorge hints at early stories that trolls would lie in wait along the top and throw heavy stones down on anyone passing below – and indeed there are reports of lone travellers who have died under falling rocks. Meanwhile, the Gill is most famous for the Barghest, or ‘hill ghost’, a terrifying demon dog, said by some to have been brought here by the Danes as a mythological weapon of mass destruction. One glance from its fiery eyes is certain death. (The image is by Matt O’Brien).

There’s surely no more picturesque nor more tragic a place in Britain than Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands. Featured in many movies because it is quite simply beyond beautiful, it’s also the scene of bitter betrayal and foul, bloody murder. Little wonder that when night falls and the mist rolls down the hillsides, the shadowy forms of the massacred MacDonalds – callously slain in 1692 by the same government forces they had recently fed and sheltered –  are said to roam the silent glens. (The image comes to us from Travels with a Kilt).

The spectacularly spooky Mary King’s Close underneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Said to be rife with ghosts, this fascinating visitor attraction comprises several streets remaining from the 17th century, which were simply buried under new architecture in the 18th and eventually forgotten. Rumours abound that murder victims and plague sufferers still haunt its claustrophobic confines, while it’s now been proven that the Close once ran alongside the Nor Loch, a mini lake into which the city’s sewers discharged, leaving it so vile and polluted that it gave off poisonous fumes. Surely, no writer on the dark side can resist underground Edinburgh for long? But just in case you think you can, look more closely at the picture. Is that an hallucination caused by foul gas … or an honest to goodness spectre?  (The image comes to us from the Real Mary King’s Close).

British and Irish Top 10 spooky spots where my fictional characters have already trodden … 

No, not the entrance to Mordor, but Castle Crag at the north end of Borrowdale in the Lake District. In my 2014 thriller novel, DEAD MAN WALKING, I transplanted it, cairns and all, to the Langdale Pikes. You may recall that Heck followed it up through thick fog to a ghastly ruin of a house, where something very nasty awaited him. (Picture by Tim Parkin).

Red Sand Towers, a World War II anti-aircraft emplacement still standing in the Thames estuary in Kent. I renamed it Blacksand Tower for my 2013 thriller novel, STALKERS. Anyone who read it may recall that Heck was marooned there at the mercy of a psychotic hitman.

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. An extensive spread of marsh, broad and reedbed mostly owned by the National Trust. It doesn’t look too scary, but there are many fenland myths attached to it – lantern-men, witches, black dogs, and the fearsome, vampire-like mere-wives. I went all out to make it as scary as possible in my aptly-titled horror story of 2012, Wicken Fen.

The notoriously scary Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor in Devon, in legend the kennels of the nightmarish Yeth Hounds, Satan’s pack, or Odin’s depending on which era of folklore particularly interests you. I hope I managed to capture its demonic aura properly in my horror story of 2009, We, Who Live in the Wood.

Where else but Highgate Cemetery in North London? Okay, I know it’s not really Highgate Cemetery; it’s actually a still from the Weeping Angels on Dr Who, but it appears on so many websites dedicated to London’s most famous and ancient graveyard that I thought I’d try to cheat you all too. I haven’t written anything set in Highgate Cemetery yet … but I am doing in my next-but-one thriller novel, which unfortunately I can’t name at this stage.

Lindisfarne, better known as Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast. A mystical, majestic place rather than somewhere that’s likely to haunt you, but a wealth of myths are attached to it, while the actual history is bloody enough, the Viking raid of 793 leaving the island’s small population, both monks and lay-folk, slaughtered en masse. There was plenty more violence there in my thriller novel of 2014, THE KILLING CLUB, which saw Heck take refuge on the island while being pursued by a gang of terrorists. (Picture by Swalby).

A pic from the recent past now, because Dreamland, at Margate, has since been revamped and reopened. But when I saw it a few years ago, it was one of several abandoned theme parks in the UK, all of which combine that strange air of melancholy mingled with menace. I was inspired to include one such ruined fun park in my seaside horror story of 2014, The Incident at North Shore.

The one and only Long Meg and Her Daughters site in Cumbria, with me included just to prove that I’ve been there. One of our most spectacular Neolithic henges, some of the stones still displaying visible Bronze Age carvings. Mythology tells how they were witches transformed into rock by an angry saint. But pagan groups still celebrate there – the evidence of rituals is widely to be seen, and I made extensive use of it in my Lovecraftian novella of 2002, Long Meg and Her Daughters.

The fathomless, ever-mysterious Loch Morar, in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Over 1,000 feet in depth, it’s the deepest, darkest freshwater body in the British Isles. Needless to say, it’s got its own monster legend, occasional sightings of a huge, unidentified creature having led to the tale of Morag, ‘the Harbinger of death, the giant swimmer in deep green Morar’, an impressive quote I remember from somewhere but can’t quite put my finger on. Anyway, I visited the loch in my horror story of 2015, The House of the Hag. (The picture is by Andrew Hillhouse).

Back to the Lake District with my final selection, not because the Lodore Falls have got any reputation within folklore, but simply because they are so spectacular and because I was yet again able to transplant them to somewhere else in the Lake District for the sake of dramatic license. In my thriller novel of 2014, DEAD MAN WALKING, I really indulged myself, sending Heck on a frantic downhill boat-race with a serial killer. I used the Lodore Falls as the model, relocating them to the high Langdales and renaming them the Cragwood Race. If you feel this isn’t quite as good a pic as the others, that’s because I took it myself. Sorry about that. 

(I've included photo credits wherever I could find them, though many of these images were simply floating around online. The dramatic picture at the very top comes from Visit Wiltshire. The short stories I reference were first published as follows: Wicken Fen in Terror Tales of East Anglia; We, Who Live in the Wood in Black Static 14; The Incident at North Shore in Terror Tales of Wales; Long Meg and Her Daughters in Children of Cthulhu; The House of the Hag in The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories).


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

ed by Rosemary Pardoe (2018)

An enthralling anthology of macabre supernatural tales, some old and some brand new, but all drawing heavily on folklore, primarily of the British variety, and written in the style and tone of MR James.

Initially, rather than outline all the stories contained here, I’ll let the official Sarob Press blurb do the talking, as it nicely pitches the chills and thrills to come.

Sarob Press is delighted to present a superb collection of Jamesian folk horror tales. Ten have been selected from the pages of editor Rosemary Pardoe’s journals Ghosts & Scholars and The Ghosts & Scholars MR James Newsletter – and seven are newly written especially for this volume. The previously published stories date from as early as 1980 and as recently as 2015.

Here, you’ll find folk horror in a variety of expected and unexpected settings, from ancient burial mounds in Wiltshire and East Anglia to a park in Liverpool, by way of ruins in Ireland and the countryside villages of the Lake District, Dorset, Derbyshire and an unspecified southern county. In the new stories the settings range further afield and include Scotland and Greece. In one case, while the setting is Scotland, the folk horror comes terrifyingly from pre-war Germany.

For the uninitiated, Ghosts & Scholars, which Rosemary Pardoe also edits, is a long-running and very informative magazine, which as well as encouraging scholarly research into MR James (a noted academic as well as a famous writer of ghost stories), includes new fiction written in the Jamesian fashion, articles, reviews and atmospheric artwork.

To my mind, there’s always been a correlation between James’ style of writing and the concept of folk horror, a subgenre that has long been with us, but which has returned to the public’s attention in a big way after the release of recent horror movies like The Ritual, Borderlands, Wake Wood, A Field in England etc.

All that said, I don’t think the two forms are necessarily the same thing.

MR James is widely regarded as the architect of the modern English ghost story, focussing on arcane but mainly fictional mysteries, often setting his tales in the world of antiquarians, where scholarly meddlers arouse the ire of supernatural malcontents by seeking out musty treasures of the past. James died in 1936, so invariably the bulk of his stories occur in the first quarter of the 20th century, a period very familiar to traditionalist ghost story fans, and while many modern authors who’ve been influenced by him have set their fiction in our own age, the gentlemanly tone often remains.

James’ stories frequently take us to countryside locations, Lost Hearts and A View from a Hill for example, or isolated stretches of coast, such as in A Warning to the Curious. Though, in my mind this still doesn’t automatically equate with folk horror; sometimes there’s a more occultic feel to his fiction, such as with Casting the Runes or Number 13, or they may be straight tales of vengeance from beyond, like The Mezzotint and, most famously of all, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

Ultimately, I suppose it depends how you define folk horror, which is also a bit of a conundrum as opinions on that vary widely. To some, it must reverberate with archaic lore and pre-Christian tradition derived from the land and the turning year, whereas to others it’s all things rural, from standing stones and faerie rings to time-honoured village murder mysteries.

To me, it’s simpler still: folk horror is horror fiction derived from recognisable folklore. There needs be nothing more to it than that.

Even then, I can’t see an unavoidable link between folk horror and Jamesian horror. But that’s me being finickity, because, as I also said, they certainly make for very cosy bedfellows, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Rosemary Pardoe has been able to raid the innumerable back-copies of Ghosts & Scholars for reprints and at the same time acquire some quality new fiction from modern Jamesian writers to put together this very effective and chilling anthology.

In some stories, as you’d expect, James’ favorite theme of vengeful revenants is to the fore: in Geoffrey Warburton’s The Lane for example, where a simple grassy path appears to lead into another dimension controlled by an evil force that was summoned in times past, or in Chico Kidd’s Figures in a Landscape, where an investigation of some old Irish ruins leads to near-disaster.

At the same time, in others we’re talking full florid folk horror. Philip Thompson’s Beatrix Paints a Landscape (1884), sees the Lake District’s most famous resident encounter a menacing woodland entity – the polar opposite of the friendly Lakeland creatures she so lovingly wrote about and drew, in Carole Tyrrell’s Lorelei we’re concerned with a village well, the dark goddess dwelling at the bottom of it, and the terrible effect she has on those who hear her call, while in SA Rennnie’s Out of the Water, Out of the Ground, one of several truly excellent stories contained herein, we face the full terror of what it would mean to be at war with the little people.

This of course is a key factor in any work of horror fiction: how highly did it score on the scareometer?

In that regard, The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror is pretty satisfactory. As I’ve already mentioned, Out of the Water, Out of the Ground is especially frightening, but Michael Chislett gets us there too with Meeting Mr Ketchum, in which a hot Lammas Day sees two youngsters casually disturb an East Anglian tumulus, which unfortunately for them, is not undefended, while in CE Ward’s The Spinney, a deceptively simple tale, a motorist stranded in the Derbyshire wilds is inexplicably pursued across a desolate landscape by two increasingly menacing figures.

Possibly the two scariest stories in the entire book, however, are traceable back to my native Northwest: Christopher Harman’s genuinely bone-chilling Sisters Rise, which is centred around an eerie megalith on a lonely Lancashire hillside, and Ramsey Campbell’s short but effective The Burning, set in the depths of urban Liverpool on a cold Bonfire Night. Campbell needs no introduction of horror aficionados, of course, but The Burning is a particularly strong entry because, despite its brevity, it examines the brutal origins of November 5th, the mob mentality of sectarian violence and the victimising of the innocent.

It’s no surprise that we get such an intelligent message from Campbell, but there are other entries in the book that are equally thought-provoking.

Gail-Nina Anderson’s intriguing Variant Versions follows the quest to pin down the truth about an obscure rural ballad, the author balancing the scare factor, which is very subtle, with a genuine academic enquiry into the feminist origins of old country tales. In The Walls, meanwhile, by the ever-reliable Terry Lamsley (whose valuable contributions to the genre sadly seem to have ended years ago now), an attempt to investigate an old lead mine invokes a very different and unusual kind of entity, while in The Valley of Achor, Helen Grant takes us to the Perthshire wilderness, where an ancient pagan site has found a unique and disturbing way to reclaim itself from the new religion imposed on it during the Christian conversion.

There are other stories in the book which I haven’t yet mentioned, but that’s basically because we’re out of room. Put it this way, none disappoint. This is a lively and engaging anthology, filled with often gentle and yet hair-raising tales. What it eschews in terms of excessive blood and guts, it more than makes up for in its intelligence and its undoubted style, and of course, in its air of creeping dread. I feel sure that Dr James would have been delighted to get involved.

And now …

– the movie.

Just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. 

Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they’re all held in separate cells in a mental hospital, eager to tell their individual tales to the new house-man (a la Asylum) or find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (as in Dead of Night) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Sisters Rise (by Christopher Harman): A teacher-turned-local historian spends his retirement at the Forest of Bowland Visitor Centre, Lancashire. When a bunch of schoolchildren are terrified on Sisters Rise, where their tree-rubbings reveal faces in the bark, he investigates, but it’s a fearsome task. At the heart of the Rise stands the monstrous sandstone megalith, Tall Maud…

Rodney – Mark Addy
Ann Allan – Emily Beecham
Marjorie – Miranda Richardson

The Burning (by Ramsey Campbell): Recently rendered unemployed, Liverpudlian lad Blake attends the Guy Fawkes celebrations downtown in a sour and angry state. He yearns to punish those who, to his mind at least, are the cause of his redundancy. But he isn’t the only one out that night looking to scapegoat someone else for their troubles …

Blake – Matt Ryan

The Discontent of Familiars (by John Llewellyn Probert): A middle-aged academic inherits big money and uses it to buy a rural cottage, once allegedly the home of a witch whose familiar was a raven. He soon becomes convinced that an evil presence remains, and is increasingly afraid of the woods across the river, which are filled with ravens …

John Wilson – Tobias Menzies
Doctor – Andy Nyman

Out of the Water, Out of the Ground (by SA Rennie): An art-school guy is summoned to an isolated castle in the Cairngorms, where a friend is living in a state of mortal if irrational terror, convinced that recent blasphemies by his late father, the death of his brother in an overseas war and the rape of the land by industry and technology have aroused the ire of the local dwarves …

James – James McArdle
His friend – Will Poulter


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