These days it may be socially acceptable to admit to having seen a ghost. In some circles, even having spotted a UFO will not invite derisive snorts. Yet there are some things which if one confesses to having encountered, will provoke such disdain that no-one ever does. Well, no-one outside the county of Hookland and the village of Long Magog. For here monsters seem to dwell o ridiculous to modern sensibilities that on first hearing about them it is hard to keep a straight face. However, having herd the accounts first hand, having been looked in the eye as they were told to me by people I have good reason to believe are profoundly honest, I would urge you to put aside mockery for a moment and consider, could monsters really exist on the hills of rural England? – Bob Wellings, Nationwide, BBC One, 1976
Hello. Welcome to issue eight of the Hookland County Chronicle, read in 46 US states and 42 countries worldwide, (why West Virginia, one of my favourite US states turns its back upon us so I do not know). February is not a favourite month of mine as it’s filled with birthdays, the sort of cold that means typing in fingerless gloves and anniversaries of loss. However, I’ve always found solace in its snowbells, call for candles and returning ghosts. If you are troubled by tearing of the calendar, I hope some of the words below give you some distraction if not balm. – David
The land remembers the harshest winters in tree ring libraries, we remember it in folklore. When the Redwater froze in 1644 and drifts of snows contorted the land in terrible white alchemy, many sightings of both the fabled Frost Witch and Queen of the Winter Court of Faery were claimed. This should not surprise. Men have a terrible tendency to blame women for ills beyond their control – even those mythic ones who icily take the extremities of those castigating them. – C.L. Nolan, The Turning of the Year
You Beast You! Stirzorgs
In the margins of many mediaeval manuscripts, we find depictions of monstrous crows emerging from the mouths of the newly dead. Instantly recognisable as something to be afraid of, there is a continuity of depiction – all bile streaked black feathers, beaks open in screech as they crawl up the throats of bodies still spasming at the end of a hangman’s rope. For there was an old belief that the souls of convicted criminals, murderers and those who died at the end of a noose were transformed into Stirzorgs. Also known at later points in history as Sorrow Crows or Gallows Crows, they are distinguishable from other corvids by their huge size – at least a third bigger than a raven – glowing red eyes and iridescent scales instead of chest feathers. Any appearance of a Stirzorg at a location traditionally caused panic for two reasons. Firstly, they were thought to possess the power to change both the psychic and meteorological atmosphere, darkening both internal and external skies. If a single Stirzorg was not driven away, its crawing could attract others of its kind till they reached such a murderous density that a great, life-periling storm was summoned. Secondly, Stirzorgs were known to fly down and try to seduce innocents into suicide, by whispering all of the despair they had seen in the world since their transformation into the cursed corvid form. Sightings outside of the late mediaeval period have been rare, but not unknown. When crowds gathered at Coreham to watch the public execution of murderess Phoebe Hartwell in 1793, many swore they saw a Stirzorg emerge from her mouth and fly high into the sky. Witnesses to the hanging of Daniel Meadow at Weycheter Prison in 1913 were sworn to secrecy when further Stirzorg claims were made. In 1940, residents of Wadewall petitioned their MP for assistance in dealing with ‘a persistent flock of Sorrow Crows with red lamps for eyes’. While the end of capital punishment in England in 1964 has hopefully played a role in the further population decline of Stirzorgs, the dreaded bird is till thriving in the imaginations of some. Talismans to ward against the birds’ power to infect with despondency are still made and many suggest that the savagery of Crow Feasting on each November 23rd is a memory of collective apotropaic ritual against them. The phrase ‘Stirzorg mobbed’ meaning ‘to be assailed by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness’ is still in circulation in Hookland. Claims that the Stirzorg is the beast behind the origins of the collective noun for crows as ‘murder’ are clearly spurious. However, there is less reason to doubt it may be to blame for citizens of Coreham being known as crows given the number of hangings the town’s castle hosted across the centuries. Some even believe Coreham being the origin of so many Stirzorg is why it has the highest average rainfall of any town in southern England.
Devil, Devil I spy thee!
Devil, Devil I tie thee!
Devil, Devil I defy thee!
Devil, Devil, I deny thee!
Devil, Devil I try thee!
Devil, Devil I fly to thee!
Devil, Devil I cry to thee!
Devil. Devil I lie with thee!
– Trad. Hookland rhyme known as either ‘Old Clip’s Calling’ or ‘The Devil’s Seduction’ and sometimes recited in folk magic while empowering a charm
Is It Worth It? Borley Rectory: The Most Haunted House in England
Borley’s ghosts, both of its rectory and church, loomed large in my childhood imagination and physical explorings of the Essex eerie. This is why I will keep coming back to review media inspired by it. This is why I will keep wading through excrement in hope of finding a decent telling of a legend that seeped not only into Hookland, but the collective English experience of hauntings.
Happily I can report that Ashley Thorpe’s Borley Rectory: The Most Haunted House in England (2017) is not excrement. Far from it. The film is a part-animated documentary and reconstruction that offering visual flair that sometimes gloriously transcends its painful central flaws. It is a great entry point for those who know nothing of the legend that has developed around the now erased property.
Within the first two minutes of the film, its narration inadvertently tells you the biggest problem at the heart of it when he says:”So much has been published about Borley Rectory, it seems inconceivable that anything new could be unearthed.” Unfortunately, this proves utterly prophetic. Before five minutes are up, you are also aware of its other big weakness, caused paradoxically by its highly individual and well-realised style.
In trying to echo the look of 1920s an early 1930s horror films, Ashley Thorpe has created something of a film equivalent to uncanny valley. While its holds a near-identical resemblance to its inspirational sources, there is something about it that veers into caricature, into a sense of unease with the artifice. Thorpe’s animations and the mixing of live action are often visually arresting and beautifully accomplished. Yet they also provoke a sense of emotional distance. At times it becomes akin to watching an illustrated Haynes Manual where everything is stripped down and reassembled, but no affecting connection or great sense of the whole emerges.
This is not to say that Borley Rectory isn’t without delicious moments of creepiness. The ghost of nun at dining room window, a figure manifesting at the foot of a child’s bed, gaseous shadow entities – all realised with the perfect degree of chilling, all compelling in their beautiful, gothic composition. When Thorpe allows himself to play with the story we get treated to some spectacular almost Jan Švankmajer-esque psychedelia. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of this and when it pops up and out, it only makes you realise how stolid and lacking in bravery the rest of the film is.
There is much to enjoy in the film’s crafting. When it rises above clichés such as the scratchy gramophone record, Martin Pavey’s sound design is a joy. There are walls of indistinct whispering, muffled prayers. A palpable sense of place in enigmatic scratching, the sighing of wooden floorboards, the half-submerged sounds of the rectory’s slow, neglectful disintegration through time. Its cast – including Reece Shearsmith, Jonathan Rigby, Virge Gilchrist and Claire Louise Amias – are exquisitely equipped to handle the show-don’t-say silent acting style needed for the film’s aesthetic core.
Borley Rectory is rich in detail that captures everything from Harry Price’s pandering to the Third Reich to the often excluded story of Helen Glanville’s 1938 planchette seancés with the mysterious temporal spirit of Sunex Amures. It’s sharp focus on minutia is a tactic which allows space for the viewer to make up their own minds on the haunting – as does Julian Sand’s nuanced narration which provides gravitas without a sense of judgement. All the evidence of it as a phenomena of tabloid flashbulb’s and Price’s desire for press attention are included. As are numerous hints of its as both a fraud with numerous actors and a genuine occasion where time cracked, a place remembered sufferings it had seen.
Thorpe’s Borley Rectory is clearly a labour of love and labours of love are notoriously difficult to edit. Even at 68 minutes, the film feels bloated. While rarely less than visually striking, the film’s pacing often dissipates its ambience. If all it’s unnecessary lingering was cut, it would come in at under an hour and be all the better for it. Unfortunately, no amount of editing would imbue it with emotional resonance or a sense of providing anything new on the subject.
5.5/10 A solid, stylish docudrama, but one that’s unlikely to leave you feeling haunted or more problematically, anything in particular. An extra 0.5 for using quotes by Stephen Volk throughout.
Belief is an odd landscape. Facts often have little to do with the gradients of it hills, the twisting flow of rivers carving through its valleys. Whether The Church of Shadows ever had any actuality matters not, people persist in believing it once did. Some even believe it continues to exist in the now. If we could unpick the knot of claim and counter-claim, untangled all the threads of story and prove it met all the qualifications for receiving that most dubious label ‘real’, it would do nothing to impact upon what people hold as having happened at its services. No fact would trouble the conviction of some that at The Church of Shadows, the congregation shared communion with supernatural being from an enfolding magical universe. Beings that could only manifest in our realm as shadows that moved against the light. – C.L. Nolan, The Secret Land, Richard & Horlick, 1912
Notes From the Wyrd Lab
How Columbo, J.M. Waterhouse and Radomes all say “FuckYou ChatGPT” from the Bottom of this Writer’s Pocket
Writers’ minds are like the deep pockets of your favourite winter coat. We pick up things, put them in the cavernous cloth reaches and forget about them. Those things then jostle around in them for years, become collision-polished and lint-clothed. Eventually, hands are thrust into the unknowable dark of the pocket and weird objects are dragged out for use in stories. Often what comes out of our mind pockets is an utter surprise to us.
This partly because an odd alchemy happens in the writers’ mind. In the unconscious crucible of the pocket, wildly disparate items become fused, transformed in logically impossible ways. Shards of tin memory react unpredictably with impure glass of antimony. Alkahest – the universal solvent of time – eroding everything into bizarre new forms.
Fragments of a conversation about a séance overheard on a bus meld with the intoxicating memory of having seen J.M. Waterhouse’s darkly lush Consulting The Oracle in a gallery. Schoolyard rumours of unspooled C-90s as black magic cursings – demons held in the magnetic coating of plastic film – crash into car boot sale boxes of cassettes, the specific smell of tower block lifts. Wednesday nights in 1976* trying to hear the future in the beeps and sweeps of The Six Million Dollar Man intro now forever amalgamated into melted Action Men, the nausea you feel when you break a bone. Radomes and the gas-tight shells of nuclear power domes combine, forge alliances with the half-remembered facts of Thomas Edison trying to build a ghost radio.
Where inspirations on the county remain singular and definable, I always try to share them with the A-Z of Hookland Influences. However, that’s much harder to do for that complex alloys that most fiction is partially built with. My earliest TV memories aside from Doctor Who are Ishirō Honda’s
King Kong vs. Godzilla first showing on Thames TV, Thunderbirds’ Attack of the Alligators and an episode of Columbo**. I am sure all three have manifested in my work across the years, but I couldn’t tell you where except possibly for a hint of Columbo’s detection as an arm of class war somewhere in the bits of DI Callaghan not based on two actual policemen I worked with.
The writer’s magpie instinct, the jumbling up and entanglement of things dumped into the deep pockets of the mind might not be the origin story people want. Mental sea glass randomly washed up by unconscious tides cuts across the lovely lie some authors like to tell of everything they write being uniquely crafted and novel. Beware mendacious claimers of purity and authenticity.
If you think the pocket alchemy side of writing Hookland is something that ChatGPT could do, then you are wrong. The catalyst for creation of thought chimeras, unique artefacts forged in the brain’s electrical storms is imagination – willed or unbidden. The imagination is a lived and living force. No algorithm will ever map the peculiar human factors of feeling that shape it for an individual. No algorithm will ever chart the subtlety infinite ecosystem it resides within.
*I know it was Friday nights in America. We do things differently in England.
**Death Lends A Hand with a bravo performances by Robert Culp and Ray Milland.
Few things seem so alien as the past of a 1,000 years ago. We feel a profound sense of crossing an invisible threshold if we touch an object of old before the Normans came – sudden physicality to the vanished dead speaking to the now. Beyond those institutions who offer such events as Hook Central Museum’s regular ‘Hold The Ghost’ days, it may rare for most of us to directly connect to yesterday at such a substantial level. However, for me this is exactly what folklore allows – a holding hands with the past, a tangible palpable sensation of being a living link in a chain between what has gone before and what is walking down tomorrow’s lane. – More Cottage Lore, Vera Winterfield (Benfield & Collings, 1970)
The robin sings the first notes of the new year, summoning bear’s foot blooms as little yellow suns of hope. Larks become bustling bevy. Corn buntings flock. New-leafed honeysuckle is twisted around the arms of first-footers crossing calendar thresholds.. Rosemary gives purple beauty to the deflowering of the well. Cups are taken from funeral fords for wet wardings. Farmers beg luck and omens. New hawthorn globes are fed pear cider and hung up, old ones burnt and dragged to field edge.
Grey wagtails come to the yard. Fools feast. Candles crowd in auction for the Poor Meadows of the county. Witches walk river for fox-tailed feather moss knowing there are wounds to come. Winter aconites push up against the dead season, wear crowns of snow for their bravery. The misssel thrush sings, but fails to wake the land from its shivering sleep. Old Christmas Eve ends the twelve days of its time.
Plough Monday players drag the lanes for beer or ale pennies, every knocking a possibility of Bone Horse ride or Woodwose wailing. Coal tits form bandit gangs to search for food. Parcels of linnets show the saltmarsh their crimson. Fisherfolk take whiting from the deeps. The hedges begin to sing as the feathered chorus grows bolder. Even nuthatch and skylark are heard when they see red dead-nettle’s first flowers. St Engyth gives chime to drive away madness.
Ghost moth larvae are gifted to robins to win resurrected wishes and St. Kentigern’s protection from bullies. Rooks return to old nests, dine in delight on worms and mice. Furze flowers perform golden alchemy on moor and heath. Witches pluck black hellebore blooms for flight, for conversation across the Bone Border. Spiders test the frost with the shooting of the year’s first webs. Tantony pigs are given bells and running of the streets. Magpies leave the wood to bring number augury.
Hazel catkins decorate hedges – yellow strips of prayer and pink kisses for the coming of the bees. Wrens sings as they make sheltering nests. Chaffinches guzzle rowan berries too high to be picked for jelly. Jackdaws make survey of ruins – though we must not ask who for. Orchards become riot with wassailing, with apple howling. Sticks are beaten, libations poured. Shotguns blast as witch ward. Surely such hollering must wake the Apple Tree Man?
Blackbirds pair. Field speedwell brings its blue to waste land. White wagtails flock water’s edge and warmest of roofs. Spider’s gift the land gossamer cloaks. Meadow and hedge wear temporary transformations, weaving wonders. All that noise has disturbed more than grove guardians. The Lord of the Forest is seen among the trees. The Ghost Bear dances. Doom Dogs growl open the night. Not all shaking behind cottage doors is caused by cold.
Fleas wake, scratching begins. Woodpeckers make drum. Rumours run the rivers that hairy pike may be sighted. Time itself weakens for St. Agnes Eve tellings in dumb cake ceremonies. Future wraiths are summoned in glass, water and ash.
Cormorants change into their breeding plumage. Dab are taken in shallow water. Children of the coast give thanks for caught crabs. The shore sprouts salt and stone shrines. Sea-witches do brisk business. Sell sprat charms for the nets of fishermen, offer Foam Foal wardings. A harvesting of tide treasures after any storm they were not paid to calm.
Cunning folk stoop for White-tipped Bristle Moss, the six-petalled flowers of Butcher’s Broom. A dealing against heavy pains and hard veins. Marsh Titmouses sing the wood. St. Vincent comes to predict weather and provoke drink. The Lord of the Forest’s music is heard.
The soil is hard, the soil is ploughed. In its slicing the release of ghosts. Mezereon crowds mild days with its perfume. Usher Moths appear to test sunlight’s strength. White Owls hoot to claim love and territory, to tell their Queen where the land is waking. Rush carpets are laid, candles are lit. Bridget’s Eve is come with hope of her visiting and the growing of light.
– C.L. Nolan, The Turning of the Year (Back in print next year after more than 80 years and after after much delay by me).
From the black deeps and to the rock
We all hear the Sunken King’s knock
From the sunless deeps and to the shore
We all hear the Fifty Fathom King’s roar
Tide teeth, tide teeth
Salt and blood
Come the flood
From the dismal deeps and up to our door
The Tide Tyrant King comes to make war
From the Salt God deeps up to land’s edge
When he’s done they’ll be bones to dredge
Tide teeth, tide teeth
Salt and blood
Come his flood
– Trad. Hookland sea shanty
As if by magic, free words from Hookland will be given to you if you hit the button below
Hookland Roll of Kindness
Lee Ann Day
K J Stark
In kindness there is connectivity, an impulse for good and a better world that is not denied. Kindness is a refusal of darkness. In its graceful light friendships have been found, lives saved and hope restored. – C.L. Nolan
The Eye Maze
There is a popular perception that January is dead, winter without the festive activity of Christmas and New Years. Trust C. L. Nolan to find the real truth underneath.
I have fond memories of Wellings presenting “Out and About in Hookland” before his Nationwide career. When I was 9 I saw his spectres of Weychester episode. I was afraid to visit the cathedral for many years. A great presenter.