Hallowe’en is upon us, though I prefer the old word Samhain. A time when the boundary between nature and the supernatural is thin. The spirits visit, witches and warlocks are out and about – maybe they are just ordinary people in fancy dress, but can you always be sure?
The other day I found myself lost in the woods. The woods are not that far from home, are near to Oxford and the main road. You can park up in the little lay-by just past the private school and pop in, no arduous journey over stormy field and moor required. They’re pretty benign woods really, though when I realised I was a bit lost, a bit tired, and dusk was setting in I started to feel a bit spooked.
I had this on my mind as my friend V had said she’d seen a ghost in there when she was out doing a moth survey. The ghost was gliding through the wood, dressed in an old fashioned way and holding a big old fashioned square lantern, apparently “she came right up to us, and my colleague said ‘Hello’ but she didn’t reply” said V, ” I was totally freaked out, I’m CONVINCED it wasn’t an actual person, it was a ghost”. I can’t deny I felt a bit envious, it’s odd that the idea of having a supernatural experience is thrilling and frightening in equal measure.
This is probably why so many of us can’t resist a spooky story, even a short one like V’s , which popped out unexpectedly after a Sunday chat over tea and shortbread. Though I like to put myself in their path – a wood a dusk, a visit to a deserted abbey, graveyards – I’ve never seen a ghost, encountered the grey-folk or any kind of restless spirit (at least…I don’t think I have). This may be why my yen for a supernatural narrative is so strong. Here are a selection of unsettling stories, for this, the day when the veil is thin…
Adapted by Toby Hadoke from an original screenplay by Nigel Kneale, BBC Radio 4
Most people know Nigel Kneale through the Quatermass series, but I find The Stone Tape much more beguiling. In this drama Kneale took the idea that a place can ‘record’ what has happened there and then play it back – in this case with terrifying consequences. Science and the supernatural were often mixed up together in Kneale’s writing, it’s quite a common trope. Many spooky tales like to play with the hard line between the apparently rational and irrational; some science – especially the quantum stuff – seems pretty odd if you think about it.
The Road runs along similar lines to The Stone Tape, although the enquiries are those of an 18th Century gentlemen scientist (Sir Timothy Hassell) and a sceptical philosopher (Gideon Cobb). A local wood is said to be haunted, the ‘visitation’ takes the form of roaring and screaming. It sounds like an army fleeing or battling on a road, but there has never been a road there. Special equipment is used to investigate and witnesses are interviewed. Is this a collective madness, or is there a haunting? The local population are spooked. So are we, the listeners.
Despite it being a play originally broadcast at 2.30 on a Saturday afternoon Toby Hadoke’s adaptation has a real sense of growing dread to it. I often think audio drama, if you really allow yourself to fall into it, can be a pretty full on experience.
And the resolution to the tale? Well, you have 23 days to find out….
I like an audio drama on while I’m making pots, so I was delighted that another brilliant radio drama also returned for this Halloween season. two new episodes of Pilgrim, by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. I banged on about this one for a whole post when we thought it had gone for good!
Pretty much anything by
Even if you’re not familiar with Phil Rickman’s writing you might have seen the television adaptation of “The Midwinter of the Spirit” (it’s currently on Britbox) which is one of the Merrily Watkins stories. Merrily is a Deliverance Minister in Herefordshire, what used to be called an exorcist, and star of the longest series of Rickman books. Merrily is not only dealing with unquiet spooks, but is a single parent with a headstrong teenage daughter and a difficult relationship with…relationships. She is a brilliant character and, over 14 books (15th upcoming!) we get to know her and a huge cast of recurring characters dealing with really quite disturbing events in the Welsh Borders (the landscape is a character in itself).
These are, as the writer himself says, detective stories with a supernatural aspect. They all run to that formula, but oh my it works so well and is never boring. The same goes for the other ‘non-Merrily’ supernatural thrillers Rickman’s written. There’s a short series which revolve around Grayle Underhill and Bobby Maiden. The opposite side of the coin to Merrily, Grayle is a ‘New Age’ journalist (nicknamed ‘Holy Grayle’) Bobby Maiden’s a policeman with a near death experience he’s finding hard to cope with. If that sounds utterly bonkers written out like that, the feeling goes away on reading the books, they are as atmospheric and good-scary as the Merrily Watkins series.
Rickman’s ‘standalone’ novels which, despite being standalone, often feature recurring characters are just as entertaining. Characters such as Moira Cairns (a folk singer with The Gift) and folklorist Joe Powys. What I love most about all of these stories are the way they’re threaded through with what are obvious loves of the author, I feel Rickman has thoroughly researched these novels because he’s so curious about what they cover. They feature 20th century folklore studies and esoterica like Alfred Watkins, John Cooper Powys – no relation, really, to Joe – Dion Fortune, the whole Glastonbury scene and the ‘New Age’ (which I recall being all the rage back in the 1990s when many of these novels werw written).
There’s a clear passion for music too, for its power and magic, especially that of the folk/folk rock/psychedelic scene of the late 20th Century. Merrily’s friend Lol Robinson is a musician too frightened to make music because of what it could summon, Moira Cairns a singer who could have been BIG but chose not to (which rather reminds me of Anne Briggs). A whole band is central to the truly terrifying story recounted in ‘December’ and, in part, the fallout from one to ‘The Man in The Moss’. Maybe my own similar interests are why these books appeal to me so much. Whether they are your interests or not, they’re truly great reads for a winter afternoon by the fire, though you may want to keep a big light on nearby.
So let’s finish with a song about the grey folk, or faery – it seems fitting. Here are two of the many versions of Tam Lin, the story of a man captured by the Faery Queen, who gains back his freedom through the courage of a young woman. This Scottish ballad dates back to at least 1549, but it never seems to die. Fairport Convention’s version is a folk rock tour de force – a straight telling of the legend, and in 2007 Benjamin Zephaniah wrote a modern version for The Imagined Village album. Both are equally enthralling.
Have a good Samhain, however you celebrate it this year.