Inspired by my work on the Terror Tales series, I thought I’d make a round-trip of England and recommend a suitable ghost or horror story for each county. Works of fiction rather than ‘true’ scary tales, with the authors all credited and a thumbnail sketch offered in each case
Because of this, on a similar theme, I thought today would also be a good opportunity to discuss and chat about LTC Rolt’s legendary ghost story collection of the 1940s, SLEEP NO MORE, which for those unaware is still regarded as a Jamesian masterclass albeit drawing its aura and inspiration from Britain’s industrial heritage rather than digging into our ancient and medieval past.
If you’re only here to check out the Rolt review, that’s fine. You’ll find it, as with all my book reviews, at the lower end of today’s blogpost, in the Thrillers, Chillers section.
However, if you’re also keen to discover a chilling tale for every county in England, stick around here and take a …
Before we embark on our Bank Holiday scare marathon, I need to offer a couple of quick thoughts.
When I first had the idea to do this, it struck me as a daunting task. Those among us who enjoy scary stories probably remember hundreds of them vaguely. Highly likely, we remember what it was about them that unsettled us so much. We’ll recall the eerie situation, perhaps the personalities of the main protagonists. Almost certainly we’ll recollect the terrifying punchline. But it’s highly unlikely that in each case we’ll be able to remember exactly where and when it was set.
And so it was with me when I decided to pen this blog.
How the heck could I remember every story I’d ever read in such detail that I’d know which ones to include? At the very least it would involve days, if not weeks, of research as I dug these tales up again and re-read them. And frankly, when it was only for a blogpost, that would have involved an expenditure of time that I simply couldn’t afford. So … I’ve mainly gone here for stories that I could remember very clearly, which means there could be some obvious choices I’ve neglected to include. Sorry about that. Feel free to let me know, though, and maybe, at some point, we can do a Daytrips to Terror 2.
What this also means, sadly, is that not every author I know and love is represented here, so apologies to you guys (and gals). On a similar subject, I determined from the outset that each author here would only be mentioned once, so additional apologies to anyone who thinks they could have supplied several titles for this list. But as I’ve just said, this may not be the last time we do this.
(As a footnote, you’ll spot that I’ve included a story of my own. I don’t normally apologise for that, but on this particular occasion I wasn’t going to do this … until I realised that, rack my brains though I did, I couldn’t find anything else for that particular slot).
You may also wonder why I drew the line at England, and didn’t venture into Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Well, I initially intended to, but I’ll freely admit that I struggled to find a suitable story for every county in those countries.
Okay, enough blather. Here we go …
Taking Tusk Mountain by Allen Ashley
An ex-con trying to get his life back on track reluctantly joins a scheme to break into a storage unit at Whipsnade Zoo where offcut elephant tusks are kept, but doesn’t allow for the facility’s mysterious guardians …
Summer Holiday by John Llewellyn Probert
The gleefully fiendish heir to a family fortune arranges for his annoying relatives to spend a holiday weekend at Oakley Court, the country house where numerous British horror films were made, his plan: to kill them off in ways representative of those famous, gruesome movies …
Wide Shining Light by Rio Youers
Two old schoolfriends reunite after many years. Martin is going through a torturous and acrimonious divorce, but Richard, a thoughtful widower, is able to offer help and advice. The two become firm pals again, but Richard has some fairly dark secrets of his own, and it isn’t long before Martin is drawn into them …
Dolly by Susan Hill
In post-war Britain, Edward and Leonora, two young but distant cousins, are sent to live with relatives in a remote corner of the fen country. It’s an eerie location, but Leonora thinks her life would improve if she could only have the exotic porcelain doll she long ago set her heart on …
Cold for Evermore
Terry takes a well-earned solo holiday on Sark, in an idyllic cottage off a quiet country lane. She hasn’t been there long, however, before she hears the story of a drowned child, whose horrible spectre is still said to roam the district, and whom, if it physically touches you, is a portent of imminent death …
The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall
Steeplejack Joe Clarke is an affirmed atheist, but he happily takes on a difficult job at the top of medieval Muncaster Cathedral’s highest tower. It strikes him as odd that one of the bigger firms were not brought in first, but it is only when bad things start happening that he can’t help wondering if there might be something wrong with the steeple’s unusually hideous gargoyle …
The Beautiful Ones by Mary Williams
When hen-pecked Arthur’s domineering wife browbeats him into moving to Cornwall, he expects to be unhappy. But then one day, a local oddball gives him the gift of an unusual plant, which, the more he tends it in his quiet, upstairs den, the more it assumes the form of an alluring woman …
The Claife Crier by Carole Johnstone
Teenage Kerry doesn’t get on with her father, but when they attempt to bond during a Lake District hiking trip, they get lost in rainy Claife woods, the haunt, or so legend tells, of the Claife Cryer, a phantom so horrible that just to look at it causes insanity …
The Hunter by David Case
When a series of hideous murders occurs on Dartmoor, the corpses left torn apart and headless, rumours circulate that a werewolf is at large. The police are at a loss to stop the slayings, but retired big game hunters, Wetherby and Byron, think they may have a chance …
The Sea Change by Helen Grant
An adventurous dive-team falls out when obsessive team-leader Daffy develops a strange compulsion to visit the same eerie offshore wreck again and again, at an increasingly strange and terrible cost …
Dagon’s Bell by Brian Lumley
A young couple move into age-old Kettlethorpe Farm on the North Sea coast. It has great potential, but also lots of mysterious character.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
A demure governess takes charge of two orphaned children who have essentially been left to their own devices in an isolated country house. The governess likes the children despite their superior attitude, but increasingly catches sight of a pair of unknown adults hanging around the property …
WS by LP Hartley
A novelist becomes progressively more concerned by a series of vaguely menacing postcards, which he receives one after another, each one posted from a little closer to his home. They are signed WS, but the only WS he knows is his own arch-villain, a malevolent but entirely fictional character …
The Narrows by Simon Bestwick
During a nuclear attack, a small band of teachers and pupils from a Manchester school seek shelter in the underground waterway system, but while only slow death by poisoning awaits them above ground, it soon becomes clear that there’s something even worse down here …
The Humgoo by Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes
Mansfield, a lost motorist, calls for directions in a rundown village, where the filthy, emaciated locals seem to possess no modern amenities. When he finds his car damaged, he is forced to stay overnight, only to then discover that his new hosts get all their food and clothes from ‘boxes’ … in the nearby graveyard.
A View from a Hill
When Cambridge academic Fanshawe visits the country home of an old friend, the duo enjoy a pleasant walk to a local beauty spot. But when Fanshawe takes in the fine view with a pair of binoculars previously owned by a noted antiquarian, he is disturbed to see a body swinging on a gibbet …
Love Leaves Last by Mick Sims
An ambitious suburbanite takes his family to the country residence of an old pal, where he hopes to conclude an important business deal. The new guests are welcomed lavishly, but then given a stern but bizarre warning: at no time on these premises must anyone engage in physical relations …
ISLE OF MAN
Only Sleeping by Peter Bell
When a grief-stricken boarder commits suicide at a Manx guesthouse and the zealous local vicar refuses to allow the burial in his churchyard, a child visitor, who always found the poor woman inexplicably creepy, becomes convinced that her ghost will seek him out …
ISLES OF SCILLY
The Terror on Tobit by Charles Birkin
When two young women holidaying in the Scillies announce that they’d like to camp for one night on uninhabited Tobit, the locals try to dissuade them. People have vanished on Tobit, they are told. It belongs to the sea, and the sea’s creatures. But the girls insist on going …
ISLE OF WIGHT
The Long-Term Residents by Kit Pedler
An exhausted scientist takes a well-earned break at an Isle of Wight hotel, only to be shocked by how old and feeble the vast majority of its permanent residents appear to be. When he decides that he’s had enough, he discovers that leaving isn’t quite so easy …
Rawhead Rex by Clive Barker
The peace of a prosperous rural community is shattered when a young farmer, tired of the sight of the heavy stone that his father and grandfather before him inexplicably left in the middle of one of his fields, brings a mechanical digger to the problem, and accidentally releases an horrendous ogre-like creature from its centuries-long subterranean confinement …
The Poor Weather Crossings Company
Sykes, bored visitor to Morecambe, opts to kill some time by taking a guided tour across the famously dangerous sands, assuming that in the safe hands of Mr Calcraft it will be okay. But a storm is brewing, and the mudflats are even more treacherous than usual, and Mr Calcraft seems a little odd …
Bosworth Summit Pound by LTC Rolt
Fawcett, a man in ailing health, takes a solo boat trip through central England’s quiet network of canals, only for his illness to overcome him. Later on, after his death, his journal, tells a tale of terror concerning a particularly menacing canal tunnel at the journey’s halfway point …
The Vicar of Wryde St Luke by Steve Duffy
An antiquarian cleric discovers an ancient grimoire in an abandoned church in the fens, which was closed decades ago due to the activities of its diabolist vicar. But when he takes the priceless book away, something horrific comes in pursuit …
The Soldier by Roger Johnson
Obsessive young Richard dreams about being a soldier. When he discovers a hidden church in the heart of the City of London, he learns about the Worshipful Company of Militia, a mysterious order who predate Christianity but who now have an urgent need for new blood …
The Companion by Ramsey Campbell
As darkness falls on New Brighton, a lonely and nervous man takes refuge from a gang of troublesome youths in what appears to be a derelict fairground. Weirdly, the Ghost Train is still operational, and on an inexplicable whim, he jumps aboard …
Wolferton Hall by James Doig
A young scholar is permitted to attend Wolferton Hall, to make a detailed study of the medieval Throgmorton Papers. On arrival, he finds the hall mostly boarded up but filled with dusty antiquities and weird hints that Wolferton once knew evil. The scholar, a rationalist, is unconcerned, even though he’ll be working here alone …
Crow-Raven by Paul Finch
Detective Sergeant Nick Brooker investigates a double-murder at Buckton Hall, a preserved manor house from the Middle Ages, where both victims appear to have been slain with ancient weapons. Could this be connected to the Crow-Raven family who once lived here? Minor medieval barons who, according to the myth, were all vicious hunchbacks …
Heads by Gary McMahon
When a couple suffer their second miscarriage, they move to the countryside to heal. But then find three carved stone heads buried in the garden of their new cottage, two of which appear to be human, one a weird hybrid. Research pulls up an eerie story of witchcraft and Celtic ritual, and now the wife falls pregnant again …
Fairground Attraction by Steve Lockley
A youngster who feels inadequate and self-conscious thanks to the unsightly birthmark on his face visits a travelling fair, and meets a girl disfigured by an ugly scar. When she tells him there is a way that both of them can look ‘normal’, he allows her to lead him into the mysterious Hall of Mirrors …
In the Quiet and in the Dark by Alison Littlewood
Young Steph thinks she’ll find her new life in the rural village of Long Compton boring, but she makes friends surprisingly quickly in local girls, Holly and Anne, and can’t help admitting that she finds the handsome lad, Kix, pretty alluring, even if he is always hanging around the mysterious Rollright Stones …
One Over the Twelve by Clive Ward
When two old friends reminisce, one tells a terrifying tale about the old hall near the village where he grew up, the eerie sepulchre connected to it, and the strange fate of a peripheral underworld figure who took up residence there, and fell foul of a mysterious presence …
Treading the Maze by Lisa Tuttle
Amy and Phil love the peaceful Glastonbury guest house where they take a well-earned break. When they look from the window and see a group of unknown people parading in ritual fashion around a turf maze, Phil is entranced, but Amy feels strangely frightened …
The Cone by HG Wells
Raut, a talented artist, visits the ironworks in Stoke, where he intends to capture the ferocity of the industrial landscape on canvas. Horrocks, the manager of the plant, whose wife Raut had an affair with, is only too happy to show him around. In fact, Horrocks is extraordinarily helpful. He particularly wants to take Raut to check out the blast furnaces …
Deep Water by Christopher Harman
When Aldeburgh resident Peter’s wife vanishes, leaving him a cryptic note concerning the mysterious ‘Seagrim’, he assumes that she’s drowned herself having discovered the secret affair he’s been conducting. However, an investigating cop is suspicious rather than helpful, while Peter keeps catching glimpses of someone who looks distinctly but not entirely like his missing wife …
Where Are They Now? by Tina Rath
When a spirited but veteran actress goes missing after announcing that she intends to investigate a strange-looking mansion she’s recently spotted off a local woodland path, an eccentric acquaintance becomes convinced that she has fallen victim to the faeries …
The Room in the Tower
A man is haunted by a recurring nightmare about visiting an old university friend’s house, where the friend’s sinister mother assigns him the terrifying ‘room in the tower’. When he visits the family for real, all seems well, until a rainstorm maroons him and he is offered the room in the tower …
TYNE & WEAR
The Song My Sister Sang by Stephen Laws
When an oil slick devastates the Tynemouth coast, Dean volunteers to help clean up the gulls. But he soon becomes uneasy when the disaster takes him close to the derelict swimming pool, where, as a jealous child, he callously allowed his baby sister to drown …
Black Dust by Graham Joyce
A collier is trapped far underground. A neighbour of his, but someone he distinctly doesn’t like, joins the rescue team when they make their perilous journey into the depths. On the surface meanwhile, their two sons play together in a natural cave-mouth …
The Lost District by Joel Lane
A depressed man recalls an experience he had as a youth in the 1970s, when he encountered a strange but attractive girl on a local playground, and she led him back to Clayheath, an eerie, run-down district he had never heard of before, and from which, or so she said, no one ever leaves …
Lapland Nights by Reggie Oliver
A young woman wearied by caring for her difficult OAP mother takes advantage of the OPEN network, in which the workload is shared by other carers. When it is her turn, she finds herself lumbered, not just with her own parent, but with the Strellbriggs, an aged couple with some very peculiar and disturbing habits …
Reality or Delusion? by Mrs Henry Wood
A love triangle in a farming village leads to catastrophe when Maria, a jilted young woman denounces Daniel, her cheating fiancé, not just for his betrayal of her but for stealing his neighbour’s corn. Shamed and depressed, Daniel disappears, but this may not be the last Maria sees of him …
The Waiting Room by Robert Aickman
When Pendlebury misses a late connection, he is forced to spend a night in the waiting room of a dismal urban railway station. It’s bitterly cold and with all the staff gone home, he’s terribly alone. But it isn’t just the physical discomfort that he’ll have to worry about …
Okay, hope you all enjoyed that or at least found it informative. As I say, there may be more in the future. What you’ll notice I’ve NOT done here is include the antecedents for each story, i.e. list when and where it was first published, where you can read it etc. That’s again because time was not on my side, but also because so many of these stories have been anthologised repeatedly that it’s often difficult to establish their best showcase. My recommendation, if you really want to hunt some of these titles down, is to search online. Most will be listed on there somewhere, and their most recent date of publication should be easily obtainable.
I would also like to thank fine art photographer, Neil Burnell, who created the amazing image at the top of today’s blog. It depicts Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, in Devon.
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.
SLEEP NO MORE
by LTC Rolt (1948)
A newly-reissued single collection of British ghost stories from an author not primarily associated with the supernatural genre, but a book with a long reputation in the field, particularly among fans of Jamesian-style ghost fiction, for being a forgotten classic.
This powerful collection of stories of the supernatural combines LTC Rolt’s writing talent with his unparalleled knowledge of Britain’s industrial heritage to produce tales of real mystery and imagination. This haunting anthology takes the reader on a journey from Cornwall to Wales and from the hill country of Shropshire to the west coast of Ireland.
‘The House of Vengeance,’ set in the Black Mountains of South Wales, tells what happens when a walker becomes lost and disorientated as the mist falls, while in ‘The Gartside Fell Disaster’ an old railwayman recounts the terrible night when the ‘Mountaineer’ came to grief. Alongside these are twelve other tales of elemental fears and strange and inexplicable happenings.
First published in 1948, this enduring collection will appeal to all those who, like Tom Rolt, are passionate about the backdrop of our industrial landscape and will delight and terrify anyone who loves a good old-fashioned ghost story …
Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt (1910-1974) was best known during his lifetime as a trained engineer who turned his hand to writing on engineering and industrial matters, and, most famously, to producing well-regarded biographies on the two great pioneers of that field, Thomas Telford and Isembard Kingdom Brunel. He was also renowned for his interest in and knowledge of cars, trains and other vehicles, which manifested itself in his participation in vintage car rallies and the development of heritage railways, as well as for being a narrow boat enthusiast and a major promoter of leisure cruising on Britain’s inland waterways.
What there was no outward sign of was his fascination with ghost stories, particularly the ghost stories of MR James, which were characterised by atmospheric old English (or old European) locations, gentleman scholar protagonists, and malevolent spectral foes invoked through their attachment to mysterious and arcane artefacts or locations. Bearing this in mind, and that Rolt was also a close friend to Robert Aickman, a fellow conservationist and a founder member of the Inland Waterways Association (which restored Britain’s by then semi-derelict canal system) but best known today as an author and very accomplished practitioner of the English weird tale, it may be less of a surprise that in due course the one-time engineer also penned a bunch of ghost stories.
Sleep No More was first published by Constable in 1948, and was immediately well-received. But because Rolt didn’t write any follow-up collections, his standing as a ghost story writer gradually faded until by the turn of the century, for the average man on the street at least, it had more or less vanished. New small-circulation editions have since been produced by enthusiasts: Branch Line (who specialised in publishing railway books) in 1974, and the late much-lamented Ash-Tree Press in 1996 (who added two extra stories to the line-up), but both those versions are now out of print. For that reason alone, this relatively new edition (2010) from The History Press must be regarded as something of a collector’s must, but also because with a new introduction by Susan Hill, it’s a really nice piece of work in its own right.
As to whether the material it contains still works, well … it did for me.
To start with, it’s all beautifully and compellingly written. Tom Rolt couldn’t just paint pretty pictures with his words. He did it succinctly. Considering that much of his output was factual non-fiction, he also had the talent to pace his stories effectively and people them with convincing characters.
In terms of style, there is no doubt that Rolt was strongly influenced by MR James, though Rolt’s world was not that of academia or the cloister, and this is clearly represented in his tales, in many of which, though the central characters are often lonesome scholarly types on missions of discovery through the British back-country, the settings are abandoned industrial sites or places where industry or engineering is in process or has left its mark on the landscape. However, what is very reminiscent of the old master is the malign and even deadly nature of the supernatural threats, while from Robert Aickman, he appears to have inherited an intriguing habit of injecting strangeness into his stories as well, not always providing clean cut explanations for the weird and disturbing events he describes.
For that reason, some of the stories in this collection I’d regard as eerie rather than out-and-out frightening, but that’s a good thing, because that means they were affecting and left me thinking about them long afterwards.
Three of the best stories in the book fall into this category, The Shouting (one of the two later additions), Cwm Garron (which is exceptional) and Hawley Bank Foundry, but because I’m going to be discussing these three a little later on (in the movie adaptation part of this review) I won’t say too much synopsis-wise, except to comment that all three take place in otherworldly semi-rural locations, and that all hit us straight off with an indefinably doom-laden atmosphere, which steadily deepens until reaching a stark, bone-chilling denouement.
Also falling into this category is The Cat Returns, in which a car breaks down on a stormy night and the honeymooning couple inside it fight their way through the rain on foot until encountering an isolated house. A man they suspect is a servant admits them and bids them stay over, but he seems to be terrified of something … and then the phone rings. There’s a bit of a traditional ghost story vibe with this one, but again, the creepiness of the situation, almost from the beginning, is its main asset. Likewise, in World’s End, a traveller on the Pembroke Coast becomes lost in a sea fret and takes refuge in an inn, where he must share a bedroom with a man he doesn’t know and subsequently endures an appalling experience. This is another dreamlike Aickmanesque tale, with much to disturb the reader before we even consider its supernatural message.
Perhaps the most overtly Jamesian story in the book, and another of the best, is Bosworth Summit Pound. Again, I’ll be talking about this one a little more later on, so I’m offering no thumbnail synopsis, but it’s got the personal touch and perhaps the most authentic feel of them all (not that they haven’t all got the air of authenticity when it comes to the industrial heritage of Britain) as it takes the reader deep into Rolt’s beloved inland waterway system.
Also with a Jamesian aura, though in a very different way, is New Corner. This one tells the story of a 1930s land speed trial, which is continually interrupted when the new corner of the racetrack becomes subject to curious phenomena, including disturbing smells and apparitions. As with many a classic Jamesian tale, the stakes are raised drastically when one of the officials has a terrible dream, which seemingly presages an awful disaster.
Even without the shadow of Dr James lying over it, this would be a powerful and frightening ghost story, as is Agony of Flame, which follows the misfortune of two men who, during a fishing holiday in the West of Ireland, are puzzled by the lights shining nightly from a ruined castle on an island in a loch. Against their better judgement, they investigate … and pay the price for the rest of their lives.
Taking us smoothly into the realm of the more traditional non-Jamesian ghost story is A Visitor at Ashcombe, in which a successful industrialist and his wife move to a mansion in the Cotswolds and insist on opening up a forbidden chamber, where once, it is said, a celebrated witch-hunter held court. Almost inevitably, chaos and tragedy result.
Similarly reminiscent of the older, more typical English ghost story (Dickens’s The Signalman being a good example here) is The Garside Fell Disaster, in which a Victorian-era signalman reflects on the events that led to a railway accident in the tunnel where he was stationed in the wilds of Cumbria and his conviction that there’d always been something odd about that mountain. Meanwhile, in Hear Not My Steps, a professional ghost hunter takes it on himself to spend a night in a haunted room. He’s never encountered a real ghost yet, though all that will shortly change.
In Music Hath Charms, a young man inherits a coastal house in Cornwall. When he travels down there with a friend, it is in a semi-dilapidated state. It also boasts an uncanny history, and when they search among its lumber they find a curious musical box, which produces a tune the new owner falls in love with but which his friend is strangely repelled by. In The House of Vengeance (the second of the two later additions), meanwhile, young John gets lost while hiking through the Brecon Beacons to his friend’s cottage. When a fierce storm strikes, he seeks sanctuary in a curious farmhouse that is not on any map.
These more familiar types of ghost stories are perhaps slightly less impressive in terms of originality, featuring, as they do, demonic spirits, possession etc. At least, that’s the case when they’re read today. But overall this is an excellent collection of supernatural tales. It’s a superior standard of writing, often taking place in unusual settings and strange, blighted locations, and if the ambition was to produce something as intensely and lingeringly scary as MR James often was, then it’s a very worthy effort indeed.
We’ve often heard it proclaimed that such and such an author is the next MR James, and while I’ve never read one yet who was, LTC Rolt comes very close.
And now …
SLEEP NO MORE – the movie.
I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet, and whether or not it’s ever likely to happen, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my opinions just in case some major player decides to put it on the screen.
Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a portmanteau 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 either relate spooky stories or listen to them.
Without further chit-chat, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:
Edwina (no reason why it can’t be a woman) – Ruth Wilson
Bosworth Summit Pound: Fawcett, a man in ailing health, takes a boat trip along one of England’s lesser known waterways, which he doesn’t survive. His journal, however, relates a tale of terror concerning a bone-chilling encounter in a menacing canal tunnel at the journey’s halfway point …
Fawcett – Richard E Grant
Cwm Garron: Carfax embarks on a one-man holiday in the Welsh mountains. He stays at a peaceful inn in a picturesque valley. But a fellow guest, Elphinstone, a noted folklorist, advises him that not everything here is as pleasant as it may seem …
Carfax – Matthew Goode
Elphinstone (another gender change, but no harm done) – Alison Wright
Hawley Bank Foundry: During World War II, an industrialist reopens an abandoned ironworks deep in the Shropshire countryside, and immediately there are strange goings-on: reports of phantom figures and some type of unknown vermin that infest the factory and kill the local cats …
Clegg – Liam Cunningham