I have had a pretty painful few months, with a dental problem that defied easy treatment and eventually rendered me constantly ill and miserable. I have rather lost the will to write for some months, and have been focussing on a huge research effort in reading the poltergeist literature, interspersed with some writing of freeform games and keeping up my commitments to the Ars Magica rpg. I have dome other things as well of course – designing and playing boardgames, arguing on forums in sporadic bursts, and being fairly busy, but I have not really been “with it”. (To be fair I did find time to post so far seven episodes of my Ars Magica RPG podcast Arcane Connection).
Last week I was fortunate enough to finally have the long awaited operation, and am now recovering well, All is good: I received excellent care from the NHS, and feel much much better. I went home and saw my folks, enjoyed being driven round my beloved Suffolk, and had a few new thoughts on the vanishing house mystery. I’m doing OK. and now I am back at my computer, and planning to start blogging again.
Anyway I thought I’d just say hello as it has been a while, and hope to be in touch with you all soon.
all the best
If you asked people what the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century was (baring disease epidemics like the 1919 flu), most people will look at you and probably have no idea. It was actually in 1953 when a Spring tide combined with low atmospheric pressure led to an incredible storm and flood, and left 30,000 people homeless, and 307 dead on land, and over 224 at sea in the UK. Where I grew up it was known as the Great East Anglian Flood; however in the Netherlands they call it the Watersnoodramp, and Wikipedia calls it the North Sea Flood of 1953. Closer, but even that does not really cover the scale of the disaster – 28 died in Scotland, and the MV Princess Victoria a ferry doing railway duty on the Stranraer to Larne crossing sank with loss of 133 lives, with just 44 saved. Across the Low Countries and UK, over 2000 people died. 13,000 cattle drowned: a thousand miles of coastline flooded, and in modern terms did £941,000,000 in damages – that is £50 million pounds in 1953 money converted by purchasing power. This was nothing compared the Netherlands – there around 1,800 people perished.
The first casualties were on the MV Princess Victoria — a “roll on roll off” ferry. It went down around 2 in the afternoon, having been battered by the storms. The navy tried to reach it with HMS Contest and the lifeboat Jeannie Spiers; a few were saved by the heroism of the lifeboat crew of the Samuel Kelly and two merchant ships in the area. It was a day of heroes, and the valour of radio operator David Broadfoot who remained at his post till the very end sending the SOS was marked by his posthumous George Cross. Notably Captain James Feguson was last seen as the ship sank standing on the bridge, saluting: he went down with his ship in line with naval tradition, and all of the other officers were lost.
Despite the potential to notify those on the coast as the storm beat round Scotland, warnings were not passed on – many port offices were unmanned on a Saturday night, and the radio did not broadcast late enough. Some telephoned warnings did save lives, but everyone reacted as if it was a local problem. At least today modern communications technology would instantly notify almost everyone as to the impending threat.
Sixty years ago tonight. If the sinking of the Titanic was a defining moment in my grandmother Alice Bentley’s childhood, the Great East Anglian Flood is a memory that my parents told me of. They married in 1952 – I was not born for another 17 years, but they were living in Bury then. The memories of ’53 have conflated with a later East Anglian flood, probably ’64, when the Lark Valley flooded deeply apparently, as did many streets in town. I can’t imagine that had much to do with tidal surge — it has to have been rain run off, and one day I am going to go and find the Bury Free Press archive and take a look at the photos. Eastgate Street was flooded – and my father was amused by stories that he had been seen rescuing people in the road in a rowboat; it is the kind of thing one can imagine him doing. Well, he is a Viking! However, back to 1953…
There were heroes, like Reis Leming, one of those “oversexed overpaid and over ‘ere” US airmen who were part of East Anglian life for so. Reis died last year; but his heroism that night lives on. It is sad that Reis, who saved so many despite not being able to swim, could not be here for the 60th anniversary. All kinds of folk stories arose about the flood – but in Bury the effects were inconvenience and amazement, but not terrible tragedy as on the East Coast, thirty miles away. One of Alice’s friend’s husbands died; I recall sitting drinking tea in St. John’s Place and her telling me how she lost her husband, Mr Laytin that night, washed away and drowned near Felixstowe if I recall correctly. He was a coastguard or port official – I’m hazy on the details some thirty years on, but it was an awful thing to hear.
For all the stories I heard growing up, my knowledge of the event is limited to several articles and a single book I read years ago, that focussed almost entirely in the East Anglian aspects of this “perfect storm”. It is to my mind a very local tragedy — and everyone regards it this way. So despite some wonderful coverage today (and a decade ago) in the press, which seems to render any commentary from me redundant – after all witnesses like my parents are still alive and able to tell what they saw that night — I thought I’d comment here. If you want to see what it looked like, Pathe News have some footage here : http://www.britishpathe.com/video/east-coast-gale-disaster
It was not “a very local” disaster at all – it was a national disaster. Yet the scale of the losses on Canvey Island down in the Thames Estuary, which was devastated by the flooding with a huge loss of homes, was just as severe as in East Anglia, and the losses in Scotland and Lincolnshire grim too. So why is it recalled as such a local matter? This is what interests me — I actually wondered if there was an intentional cover up, given the late and ineffective government response, or whether it was just the local press primarily reported the story which was therefore perceived everywhere as a local matter, and for some reason the London Press played it down? This was post-war Austerity Britain – and the Coronation and Festival of Britain demonstrated a “move on, keep cheerful” (I nearly quoted that bloody poster) attitude that natural disaster would have been at odds with.
I think that is probably the truth — people were sick of doom and gloom, and while the disaster was noted, to London it was (despite killing one person) a fairly minor thing. In Lincolnshire, the Western Isles, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, East Anglia and The Thames Estuary as well as across in the Netherlands it was very big news, the papers never reported the big picture, and so it has gone down in folk memory as a local affair. Perhaps it is for the best, for such a perfect storm should occur again, maybe not for centuries, but inevitably, and then we will see if the flood defences built in the aftermath really do work…
Eight couples who had never experienced any ‘haunting’ activity in their houses and had no reason to expect they would experience ‘ghosts’ were asked by the author to keep a diary for one calendar month from 17th October – 17th November 2012 in which they recorded unusual experiences. 62.5% of the participant couples recruited completed the task and submitted the diaries for analysis. Of the five participant couples who submitted diaries, four reported at least some phenomena that met the criteria, and one couple reported no unusual activity at all. The study was a larger scale replication of Houran and Lange (1996). My findings are compared with those of the original study which featured only one couple.
UPDATE: Within 20 minutes of the first draft of this paper going live on my blog I was contacted by one of the missing research participants and was able to locate the couples data which had been submitted at the time but by Facebook message rather than e-mail. I have therefore revised the figures to take in to account the new material. It had no impact on the overall findings, fortunately.
Introduction: Houran & Lange’s 1996 Study
James Houran and Rense Lange have been the authors of a number of innovative studies in parapsychology. In this 1996 paper they were exploring if hauntings and in particular it would seem poltergeist cases were explicable in terms of a self-reinforcing-psychological contagion hypothesis. In essence the idea is that once one notices unusual anomalies in one’s home, and has ones attention drawn to it, more such anomalies are noticed. The paper is often cited (for example Wiseman 2011; Wiseman 2011b) as it provides an elegant psychological explanation for purported “hauntings”. The original paper is based on the experiences of one couple, mature students, who were requested by the researchers to keep a 30 day diary of unusual events in their home which was in no way believed to be ‘haunted’ before the study began. The small number of participants (one diary) troubled me: it seems dangerous to draw too many conclusions form a single innovative pilot study like this, and I could find no replications, yet the paper is repeatedly cited by sceptics without mention of this limitation. I therefore decided to replicate the study, on a larger scale.
The basic idea behind Houran and Lange’s paper appears simple. Imagine one day you come home and find your books are symmetrically stacked in the living room. You don’t recall doing it, and your housemate is never so neat! Later on, an egg starts to fry on your kitchen worktop, and then you hear an odd voice say “Zuul”. Your attention may now well be extremely focussed upon the weird things happening in your house – you probably approach the fridge with trepidation – and when the cat knocks over a flower vase later and the hot water system causes knocking in the pipes, you are only to quick to jump to the “ghost did it” conclusion. In short, ghosts are by this hypothesis merely a narrative we create to explain little mysteries (anomalies) in our daily lives. When my door keys go missing, I search and search and eventually find them on the shelf where I thought I had looked first, I may be more willing to blame a spook than my poor perception.
In the same year I suggested something similar (Romer; 1996); what did not occur to me was that such observations of purportedly paranormal phenomena would eventually die out. Houran and Lange argue this based upon
“the assumptions that (1) the environment provides a stable supply of events that can be interpreted as paranormal and (2) the probability of noticing an additional anomaly is directly proportional to the number of anomalies already noticed as well as the number of remaining potential anomalies. Under these assumptions, it can be shown that the cumulative frequency distribution of perceived anomalous events should follow the familiar logistic curve.” (Houran and Lange 1996: my emphasis)
So you notice something odd going on; you start to look for it as your attention becomes focussed on the “ghost” – that much seems straightforward. However I am slightly confused by the “number of remaining possible anomalies.” This implies there are a limited number of such events in the environment, and eventually you will reach a point where you have observed most potential anomalies, causing the number of new experiences observed to tail off. I am puzzled as to how Houran and Lange came to this conclusion. If perceptual mistakes give rise to some anomalies, and others are simple misunderstanding of mundane events, I see no reason for them to “run out” as suggested. What limits the “number of remaining anomalies”? Yet this is an important aspect of the paper, even if not explained within it. As has been pointed out, poltergeist type events usually run out if steam in a fairly short period – the “logistic curve” Houran and Lange hypothesise would explain this within their psychological explanation. Here is the graph of the cumulative experiences that were reported by one couple in their diary study. As we can see it neatly fits the predicted logistic curve.
Yet without understanding why the potential anomalies in any given environment (house) are limited in the time period, it is hard for me to understand. Why they predict the classic logistic curve above. I would have predicted an exponential rise in cumulative frequency: the problem is that while this neatly represents reports of ‘actual’ poltergeist cases, which trail off over time, I can’t see why it should be suggested in the first place. What limits the potential anomalies?
Replicating The 1996 Paper: A New Diary Study
Given the fact that people citing the original 1996 paper have at times drawn rather strong conclusions from this single diary study with only one couple involved, I decided to attempt a replication. I intended to recruit ten couples as participants, though that proved impossible. I wanted to see if the couples reported similar experiences to those in the original study, and if the puzzling logistic curve was borne out in the new data.
Recruitment was via volunteers through the authors Facebook account. 8 couples living in the UK volunteered to keep the diaries, and then again two days before the end of the study. Five couples mailed me completed diaries. No reason was given by the other three couples for failure to complete (though simple forgetfulness is one possibility). The couples were all aged between 30 and 50 years, though I did not ask for precise ages, marital status, or other personal information. Two of the couples have strong interests in the paranormal, and two in religion. This was not intentional selection, nor even a feature of the couples who initially responded to my request for participants, but it may be a reason why they stuck with the study till the end.
Of the four couples who submitted diaries, one had experienced nothing unusual which met the criteria at all in the time period, and a second had a relevant experience while staying in a place other than their own home (discussed briefly later.) So from the original eight couples, five participated and three had experiences that met the criteria. The fact three did not is in itself of interest. They were certainly aware of the study – Couple C reported several events which met the criteria, but which occurred while they were away from their home, hence were excluded. Couple D reported that no such experiences occurred in the time frame, though one partner had experienced anomalous experiences in the past. Couple E had one very striking experience.
Those who expressed an interest in participating were sent the following instructions (along with some introductory text and contact numbers for myself. No one called during the study). The instructions, and the 8 categories were based on those employed in the 1996 study – the categories they employed derived from an Lange paper on ‘Contextual mediation of perceptions in hauntings and poltergeist-like experiences’. (Lange et al. 1996) I attempted to replicate as faithfully as possible the original research. Here are the instructions I emailed out to the prospective participants.
“For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited to
* Visual – seeing things not there
* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause *
Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason
* Olfactory – strange smells
* Sensed “presences”
* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience
* Object movements with no apparent cause
* erratic function of equipment.
At the end of the month I would like you to send me the file with your notes. Obviously the experiment requires the full consent and participation of your house mates. I’m asking for volunteers on my Facebook because I want people who I can trust and know. My final report will be anonymized to prevent personal details being shared, and will credit you by name if you wish in the credits. You can end participation at any time.
You can always contact me if necessary on (numbers removed). This is a very important piece of research and I’ll be hugely grateful if you can assist.”
The Phenomena Reported
Only two couples (labelled A and B for ease of reference) provided phenomena that occurred in their own homes. Couple C reported phenomena that occurred to their car, and a phenomena that met the criteria but occurred while she was working elsewhere overnight in the period in question, and while of considerable interest this had to be excluded as not occurring in their own home from this study: however it was still of great interest. Couple D reported no phenomena. Couple A reported 19 events, couple B 10, Couple E 1 – compared with the 1996 couple where in the slightly shorter period of 30 days (as opposed to 32 days in this study) 22 events were reported.
In this study the five couples reported an average of 6 experiences that met the criteria and were in their homes, but of course 50% of the participants reported none – so the actual figures are 0,0, 1, 10,19. Only on the 7th November did three events occur to the same couple on the same day: No more than 3 events are reported on any given day. Halloween (October 31st) gave us only one event – which rather knocks traditional beliefs in this respect!
The nature of the phenomena can be classified by the eight categories used in the original study. There was however a new category that emerged strongly. “Sense presences” were inferred by both couples by the behaviour of there cats seemingly staring at things not there and behaving unusually. Given that this is not a “sensed presence” by a human percipient, but certainly can be seen as building towards the narrative of a psychologically induced haunting, I included these in a new 9th category (which might be called Unusual Pet Behaviour in any replication). The single human “sensed presence” was of a deceased cat, sensed by the owner on November 3rd, and appears in the Sensed presences category as the percipient was human. A visual experience reported was also of a cat where no real cat was; this was from the other couple.
|Phenomena||Couple A||Couple B Couple E||Total (Percentage)|
|Visual||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Auditory||5||1 0||6 (20%)|
|Tactile||2||0 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Olfactory||1||0 1||1 (3.3%)|
|Sensed “presences”||1||0 0||1 (3.3%)|
|Intense emotion||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Object movements||0||8 0||8 (26.6%)|
|Equipment Erratic||1||4 0||5 (16.6.2%)|
|Cat Behaviour||1||2 0||3 (10%)|
One of the issues when tabulating the data was what to call an “experience”. For example, on one experience a cat was heard to jump on the sofa, and the black tail briefly glimpsed out of the corner of the eye – and no cat was there. (A very mundane common hallucination, any cat owner must be used to). As the two events followed each other in quick succession, I recorded them as 2 events – auditory and visual. However for a strange noise heard coming from a bookcase one night, I recorded it as one experience, despite it recurring a few minutes later. Such subjective judgements are unavoidable in dealing with diary studies.
So as we can see “un-haunted” houses can appear surprisingly haunted once we pay attention to the anomalies, just as the 1996 paper said, and as I argued in my (also) 1996 piece a cumulative narrative can be composed from non-associated and presumably non-paranormal occurrences. (We will return to this seemingly solid conclusion later however.) What is also clear is that while there are commonalities the specifics of our two haunts vary considerably, with Couple B reporting object movements and classic poltergeist “small object displacement” or “jottle” effects while Couple A report significantly more strange noises and auditory experiences. So we appear to have a general confirmation of expectancy/priming effects and focussing awareness leading to the development of a ‘ghostly’ narrative – though it is important to note neither couple actually reported their experiences in those terms, and both were aware that the experiment led to them paying attention to the anomalies obviously. Just to confound matter further Couple B included with their diary a query as to whether I was familiar with Houran and Lange (1996), the paper that I was attempting to replicate. While I trust them obviously this could colour their dairy, as they were clearly aware of the hypothesis I was testing. In this day and age finding “naive” subjects for any experiment is increasingly difficult while meeting the needs of informed consent!
The Logistic Curve
So what of Houran and Lange’s hypothesis that the experiences would follow a logistic curve? Let us firstly remind ourselves of what this looks like in the original study.
As I currently lack the software to plot the logistic curve all I can note is this looks more like a straight line distribution to me: it levels off , but if we just plot the experiences the effect of the curve is far from apparent. I see less evidence of the purported “running out of anomalies” effect, and given the tedium of keeping up a diary study, it is just as possible the whole logistic curve tells us more about the enthusiasm of research subjects for participation in a project than the nature of hauntings.
Let us move to Couple B. Here are there results, presented the same way. Firstly graphed as in the original paper.
Again, despite the levelling off in the middle, there is no resemblance to the logistic curve. I am fairly sure that if tested the relationship between the observed values and the expected values would be non-significant. Just to be consistent, here are just the cumulative experiences depicted.
Again we see as I hypothesised a fairly straight line progression. The evidence does not seem to support a logistic curve, and hence does not support a “running out of anomalies” factor. There is no apparent reason why in 32 days the effect should tail off – which is an important criticism of the idea that it explains why poltergeist events are short-lived and episodic, if the psychological hypothesis theory is correct. Let us finally combine all three couples results (with single experience of couple E included) and examine them.
The Logistic Curve is nowhere to be seen. Our couples did not “run out of anomalies” – they continued to find new odd occurrences to remark upon. The very nature of a diary study where the research participants may strain to find things to comment upon to “do their homework” and feel they are justifying their participation may lead to this result, but then one would have expected it to show up in the original study.
Comparing the Experiences
The original paper gives relatively little information about the actual phenomena reported. Equipment behaving erratically was the most common experience, with 16 of the 22 reported events, followed by 5 counts of object movement and one subjective experience. So in the 1996 study the phenomena classes described were far more limited than in this replication. Furthermore it is surprising to read in Houran and Lange (1996)
“Further, in agreement with the focussing effect described by Roll (1977), three out of the five objects which were found to have moved were the same, and all of the erratic functioning involved the same piece of equipment.” (emphasis mine)
If I had the same piece of equipment malfunction 16 times, I would suspect that there was something broken with it, not spooks. 72.7% of the phenomena reported in the original study were malfunctions of this one piece of equipment, the nature of which is not specified. I find this quite incredible. The pattern does not repeat in this replication – all object moved were unique, and Couple B’s 4 cases of erratically behaving machinery only involved two the same, both involving the lounge lamp, several days apart. There is no evidence to support the kind of effect seen in Roll’s poltergeist cases as cited in the new study.
UPDATE: re-reading Richard Wiseman’s Skeptical Inquirer piece gives additional information cited as from the paper, but not contained within the paper.
“Reporting the results in the paper “Diary of Events in a Thoroughly Unhaunted House,” he noted that the couple reported an amazing twenty-two weird events, including the inexplicable malfunctioning of their telephone, their name being muttered by a ghostly presence, and the strange movement of a souvenir voodoo mask along a shelf.” (Wiseman 2011b)
I am not sure what Richard’s source is, presumably the author’s themselves: however of the ‘amazing’ 22 experiences 16 (72.7%) involved the telephone malfunctioning.
Nonetheless the replication provides greater diversity and similarly impressive numbers in some of the 5 diaries. While the original study found a significant case for a ‘focal person’ as often found in poltergeist-like cases, who witnessed 16 of the phenomena while by themselves (72.7%) no such effect is apparent in the replication. It is impossible based on the ambiguity of the records regarding who exactly was present or first discovered an object had moved to tabulate exactly, but the experiences are generally framed from the author’s perspective (in both cases a female) but seem to have involved and been witnessed by their partners (both male) on several occasions, and in some instances the males was the percipient. Again, an effect found by Houran and Lange and common to the case history of poltergeists does not appear in this replication.
The greater diversity of experiences reported seems to me to strengthen the case for a psychological contagion effect, but it is important to note that a) the participants did not come to the conclusion they were being haunted and b) for those familiar with the Census of Hallucination (1894) research, I do not think any of the experiences reported would meet the exclusion criteria used there: object movements were not included in that study. To compare these experiences with say the witnesses at Enfield (Playfair 1980) or Cardiff (Fontana, 1991) or Andover (Colvin 2008) appears unreasonable. These experiences may well lead some people to believe their house is haunted, but with the possible exception of the object movements (none of which were witnessed moving, and for 60% of which the participants offered likely mundane causes) none of them are likely to cause resort to paranormal explanations.
So What Have We Learned?
The replication has provided significantly stronger evidence for the psychological contagion case than the original paper does, in that it shows that a wider range of “paranormal-type” experiences can occur in everyday life, with the potential to be misinterpreted and develop in to a ghost story narrative. Yet we must note several things.
Firstly, the phenomena involved would not I fear withstand an objective external investigator. The participants themselves repeatedly “explain away” the phenomena – after all, as in the original study, they were instructed to report such things even if “even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen.” Secondly, the study may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment.There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study. It is important to note that 40% of those who responded, and quite possibly the other three participants who did not submit diaries, experienced no notable phenomena. If the three who had expressed willingness to participate but never got back to me had noticed anything similar occurring, you might have expected them to respond.
Yet I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer. Neither of us have jumped to the conclusion we are haunted: but I can see how it could well happen, and I think the psychological contagion hypothesis requires much more study, and am thankful to Houran and Lange for their pioneering and important work. Houran and Lange (1996) wrote
‘This resulting cumulative frequency distribution of event times closely follows a logistic curve… thereby providing strong support for our hypothesis that perceptions of anomalous events are an artefact of attentional contagion. This finding implies that explanations of anomalous events need not invoke such untestable notions as “discarnate agents” or “recurrent spontaneous psycho-kinesis”.’
This study found no evidence for the logistic curve – and the author is still confused as to why it was invoked, as it appears to be difficult to justify as a hypothesis. While the replication was relatively small scale, it was of course still larger in scope than the original study, and leads to the question as to why no one appears to have attempted to replicate it in the intervening sixteen years given the elegance and simplicity of the research design. Widely cited, and fascinating in its implications, the Houran and Lange study opens up new vistas for research in to people’s interpretation of ambiguous stimuli, but one must question whether it really demonstrates all that some sceptical proponents have made out.
Chris Jensen Romer, January 2013
Note: I would to acknowledge the kind assistance of Tom Ruffles of the SPR in helping me locate articles used in writing this piece. Participant Bryan Saunders has kindly agreed to be waive his identity, and I would like to thank him and Barbara for their faithfully maintaining their diary throughout the month and all their help. It is always pleasing to have some non-anonymous participants, as it it lowers the potential for fraud (I did not make up the results, but you don’t know that). I would also like to thank the SPR for their research grant support of my ongoing research.
Colvin, B (2008) The Andover Case: A responsive poltergeist, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 72, p. 1-20. Fontana, D (1991) A responsive poltergeist: A case from South Wales, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 57, pp. 385-402.
Houran, J. and Lange, R. (1996), Diary of events in a thoroughly unhaunted house, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 499-502
Lange R, Houran, J, Harte T.M. & Havens R.A. (1996) Conceptual mediation of perception in hauntings and poltergeist -like experiences, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 755-762
Lange, R., and J. Houran. 1997. Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s model of haunting phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 1455–58.
Playfair, Guy Lyon, (1980) This House Is Haunted: the Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist, Stein & Day, London.
Roll, W.G (1977) Poltergeists in B.B. Wolman (ed) Handbook of Parapsychology, Jefferson, NC; McFarland p.382-413
Romer, C. (1996) The Poverty of Theory: Some Notes on the Investigation of Spontaneous Cases, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61, 161-163
Sidgwick, Eleanor; Johnson, Alice; and others (1894). Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 10.
Wiseman R, (2011), Paranormality, Macmillan, London.
Wiseman R, (2011) The Haunted Brain in Skeptical Inquirer 35.5 (available online at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_haunted_brain/)
Growing up in Bury St. Edmunds it is almost impossible to not know the story of ‘Maria Marten and the Red Barn’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. In essence a fairly tawdry tragedy, there are a number of features – including some overtly supernatural elements – that render it fascinating even to this day, but at the time the sensation it caused was vast, and it was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were reported, and even the English language.
I don’t have time to give a full account of the case, so I will quickly summarize it here. On Saturday 18th May 1827 William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family apparently set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two walked separately through the night to a barn, the now infamous ‘Red Barn’ on Corder’s property, Maria dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice. In the barn Maria change in to her women’s attire, and while changing met her death, and was buried by Corder within the barn.
Corder remained in the little village of Polstead, and informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but that to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth. She was unable to write because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London, and wrote to her father saying that Maria and he were now married, and living on the Isle of Wight, and very happy (and requesting that the father burn the letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P.). Yet he told others in the village during his visits many other stories, with little consistency, as to whether or not he was married, and where Maria was residing in the year before the discovery of her body.
A Sensational Case
Now Corder forms the archetype we are told for the “wicked squire” (the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks) and Maria the type for the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama, and certainly the story formed the basis for large numbers of plays, many still extant today, which were performed by travelling troupes all over the country. Local author Peter Haining informs us that these plays, performed in barns, gave us the word “barnstorming”. Certainly they were hugely popular, and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows all over the region and down to London depicting the murder, and in Bury a camera obscura show. A nonconformist minister preached to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn, which was dismantled by souvenir seekers, and in Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten, chipped away by curiosity seekers. The London papers sent reporters to the Inquest and Trial of Corder, and 7,000 people gathered in Bury on August 10th, 1828 to watch Corder hang.
The Background to the Crime
Yet all this sensation masks some of the story, which may have a bearing on what really happened on the fateful night. Firstly, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman who is referred to at the Inquest as Mr P. (His identity is known and was given in court, but does not matter for our purposes). As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardry, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not it seems a “burden on the parish”, and because the father made generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep. (Though actually only one appears to have been alive by the time of the murder, and was being raised by Maria’s parents).
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time as they lived in a fairly small village, and Corder and her went off to live in sin in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one by Corder, and again bastardy charges could have followed. The couple returned to Polstead, and the baby died; Corder took the remains off in a box, and told people they were buried in Sudbury, but he in fact buried the child in a field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and William remained lovers, despite the gulf in their social position (nowhere as great as that between her and her former lover Mr P however), and the apparent disapproval of his family. Corder’s father was dead; several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother died in what according to Haining was a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice in to the village pond. Mrs Corder suffered an immense amount of tragedy, and now William was heir, and helping to run the farm. Yet he still did not have control of the money, and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child from it. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder, who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardry charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they prepared to elope, but Corder backed out, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life seems to have been troubled by the moral condemnation of her younger sister, who appears to have regarded her as a ‘tart’, and been particularly scathing about how she dressed herself up. The death of her baby seems to have effected her greatly, she had health problems, and now Corder told her she was about to be arrested for bastardry, using this to frighten and control her. On the fatal night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, and so she dressed in his clothes, and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They left by different doors the Marten’s cottage, and walked to the Red Barn – there she was to out of sight of any villagers change, and they would make off to marry by Licence, so no banns need be read.
Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, and what followed appears straightforward enough. Maria was changing out of Corder’s clothes in to her own when she was shot by a pistol in the head, and then perhaps stabbed twice with Corder’s sword, before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they left the Marten’s cottage, Corder went to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder claimed the boy was mistaken, and this was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who also wore a velveteen coat. (The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at the trial of Corder the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.)
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. There is one curious episode during these proceedings, when he offered one of his farm hands a £1 to cut his throat. The man thought he was joking, but it may well be that Corder was under a terrific strain.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) was rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. An illustration exists (below) but it is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds, and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight, but actually to perform far more extraordinary deeds in London. We will return to those shortly. However for the next eleven months Maria was to remain buried in the Red Barn.
Supernatural Interlude 1: The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence [[CJ: That is, God]] led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest; in fact the events which led to the discovery of the body have been a staple of supernatural books from then onwards, because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt where the body was buried, and thereafter managed to convince her husband (Maria’s father) to go look. Note that in most accounts it is Maria’s mother who has the dream – that lady was long dead it seems, and so it was the stepmother, not that it makes any difference. What we know from The Times, April 22nd 1828 is that the dream was Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and occurred for three successive nights.
Now the papers made a lot of this, but in fact in that era of great scepticism they also offered fairly critical comment as well; sadly from the viewpoint of a psychical researcher like me the evidence for anything supernatural being involved is very weak. Maria and William had always met (and one presumes made love) in the Red Barn – it was “their place”, and they were well known by all to frequent it. As early as immediately after Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ Maria’s parents were suspicious something had happened to her, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe near dawn on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the aforementioned difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife’s dreams, when finally convinced he must search the barn, he took the time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. To be honest, such deference by farm labourers and the rural poor towards big farmers and landowners is not uncommon even today, or was at least not when I was growing up.
So Mr Marten took a friend, Mr Pryke, and armed with a spade and a rake they set off to the barn, went immediately to the very spot indicated in the dream and quickly uncovered the remains of poor Maria, much decomposed, indeed mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was note there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged, apparently missing any target. As Corder habitually carried, and occasionally fired in to the Marten’s fireplace, a pair of percussion cap pistols, well it looked bad for him.
So the dream – was it supernatural? On the contrary, the bizarre way Maria who could read and write and was close to her parents had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of all too conscious anxiety on the part of the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband who had spent eleven months doing nothing but worrying actually go and check Maria was not in the Red Barn dead. Some modern sceptics have suggested the Martens were in some way involved to know where the body was: the Trial record makes a nonsense of that suggestion. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe it display any supernormal faculty on the part of Mrs Marten. We are not done with the supernatural — I shall return to other supernatural elements later — but the most uncanny thing about the discovery of the body is just how long it took. However, I do have a theory here – not only did Corder have the barn key, but until April the area where they body was buried was under a large amount of winter hay, cattle food I suspect. Only after the cows returned to grazing could it be easily examined. Perhaps the Marten’s were just every patiently awaiting that chance.
Peter Haining also points out that the barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. The Red Barn was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun, and such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. It is inevitable that there are stories of ghostly re-enactments of the crime, but none holds much substance and the Red Barn itself is long gone now.
William Corder’s Lonely Hearts Club Fan
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria Corder was of course in Polstead for a long period, but eventually he set off purportedly for the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London, where Haining suggests he and Maria had a number of criminal associates. I don’t have Haining’s book here to check his sources (it is truly excellent and I do want to re-read it) but what we know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself, and quite quickly given his unwillingness fixed his eyes upon matrimony. He may have planned to leave the country – her procured a passport to travel to France, but never did – instead he did what has been described as ‘inventing the Lonely Hearts column’. He took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827 –
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement suggests Corder’s lonely hearts ad was not the first, but it certainly worked. He received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him, perhaps with the intent of immediate marriage, at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling, and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck, and attend a certain service where they would meet. Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left; he afterwards discovered the woman making enquiries for such a man was a high ranking lady with a large fortune, and he was planning to try and contact her again when he met his wife to be.
Corder met Miss Moore in a public place, and they immediately hit it off. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single state, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were wed. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy, and Mr and Mrs Corder opened a boarding school for girls at Grove House, Ealing Lane. It was there, living with his wife and a few pupils, that he was to be apprehended for murder.
After the discovery of the body it was quickly ascertained by missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse was Maria. There was only one suspect, and the village constable set off to London to try and find Corder. However London was outside his jurisdiction, so he went to a police station, where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took him fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London, quite an impressive achievement! If Corder had changed his name or tried to hide it would have been harder, but he was easily located, and Mr Lea entered his house pretending he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as he had Corder in his study, he told him the game was up and Maria Marten was found; three times Corder denied knowing the girl. Corder was arrested nonetheless, and his sword taken, along with a small black reticule, effectively a handbag, that was once the property of Maria Marten. Inside it were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder; his wife, believing the charge was bigamy at first, stood by him, and did so until their final parting the day before his execution.He was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester, and on the second night there transferred in the early hours to the Cock pub at Polstead, where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
By ten am The Cock was filled with interested persons and representatives of the London press. There was a dispute between the Coroner Weyman, and the press about whether notes could be taken for their articles – the Coroner ruled against them, so accounts of the proceedings were filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that already the sensation was great, and that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and had declared Corder the murderer, to great prejudice against him. There is a strong irony in this, as we will shortly see. Proceedings were they delayed by Corder’s representative asking he may come downstairs and witness the testimony – this was am inquest, not a trial, but the Coroner ruled against him and stated instead he may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
In fact this proved extremely difficult – she appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed — and at his trial, Corder was charged with all nine, so as to make sure one of them stuck. (‘Murder by pistol, murder by stabbing in heart, murder by stabbing in neck’, etc, etc). This legal nicety, like the fact everything in the charge must be valued (stabbed by sword (“worth one shilling”), buried in gravel and soil (“of no value”) seems a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined poor Maria had been murdered – and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
Corder’s Other Crime
Corder it seems had already stolen £5 sent by Mr P to Maria; and after her death eh continued to benefit this way. However as he was in prison in Bury he was accused of another crime that could have sent him to the gallows, this time fraud. Those guilty of fraud were shown no mercy at all under the law in 19th century England – while murderers might have their sentence commuted from death on occasion, fraudsters, no matter how innocent, were hanged.
We will never know if Corder was guilty of this crime, but it does appear likely. On the 14th April 1828 Corder had apparently arrived at the White Hart in Manningtree, stating he had business with the bank opposite, Messrs Alexanders. Making conversation with Mr Dale the landlord, he explained he was an agent sent to cash a cheque, and when the bank opened he presented a cheque for £93 on the Hadleigh branch payable to a Mr Cook of Wenlam-Hall from the account of Mr Atkins, butcher of Stratford. The banker Mr Taylor refused, as he knew neither party, but Corder explained he was Cook, and was well known in the area. The landlord of the White Hart helpfully said he knew Mr Cook by sight, so the money was handed over. The presumed Mr Cook was paid in local currency notes — I’d like to know more about what these were – and Cook/Corder dashed off to the Branch Banking Establishment at Ipswich where he exchanged the notes for gold and departed before the fraud was discovered that night. When arrested his wife found eighty pounds in gold in his drawer, and Corder never denied the charges, simply saying “I dare say they will try to make enough of it”. He appeared genuinely defeated and contrite when confronted by Mr Taylor and Mr Dale, both of whom identified him as the fraudster. It seems the crime was committed for the purpose of funding his move to Grove House and new boarding school.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life is he never seemed to have enough money. That is the fate of many of us, but Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead, and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – the Corders were locally important folk. Yet he hints time and time again at trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear he doted on his mother, she seems to have been unwilling to surrender any control over finances to him. She was very attached to him, and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles, but she may well have disapproved of Maria, if she knew anything of their relationship, and certainly Corder while a snappy dresser with expensive tastes seems to have been unwilling to seek financial aid from this obvious source.
The trial held at Bury St Edmunds continued the sensation. Chief Baron Alexander presided, and his orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos as the crowds milled around outside, and once his carriage arrived it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with murder on nine counts, to cover all possible ways he disposed of Maria, and was horrified and outraged to discover the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! As he complained, this meant the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything but reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – last seen with the victim, who was found interred in his barn, with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, and having lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder, and there was no evidence he planned to procure the promised marriage licence or actually elope with her; he appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site, and for the first time in his life kept the barn locked after the murder, and his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was certainly looked grim. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardry. Afterwards when he was supposedly living with her he had refused to give an address to her parents claiming the couple were in fear of Mr P (who whatever his moral failings, seems to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and keep an eye out for Maria’s welfare). The picture from the trial that emerges of Corder is of a weak, not very bright schemer, who lied constantly to cover up Maria’s fate. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him, and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for the fellow. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence, and indeed his wife and it seems Corder were convinced he would be acquitted – and perhaps today he would be, on technicalities.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect and try for a technicality, as he had been charged with all nine! His second chance was stronger: arguing the body was not Maria Marten. He however chose to admit it was, and the evidence was such there can be no doubt it was anyway. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner now being employed as the Prosecutor, and the Judge was certainly sympathetic to that, as he was to Corder’s point the notoriety of the case was such he had already been judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial began. However, Corder decided to argue the one strong argument he could make, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide, and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury, when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night – I was not clear from the trial evidence if it was on this night he did this, but the Martens certainly said he used to do this. If it was, Corder had the pistols when he left their house. However, we know the pistols were found in Corder’s School in what was essentially Maria’s handbag. Corder claimed she had the pistols that night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen by her family to be crying, and as she changed at the barn Corder asserted she began to abuse him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, he claimed that he told her if she spoke to him like this before they were wed how would she treat him once they were married?, and telling her he would not marry her he walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, and turned to see her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. (No explanation was given for the second bullet mark, on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left, if his account was in anyway true.) He panicked, and concealed the body, cleaned up the scene, went and borrowed a spade and then later returned with a pickaxe, and buried poor Maria in the barn. After that he did all he could to conceal her fate, and this was why he told so many lies and wrote so many untruths.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – this happened he claimed as he dragged her body to the grave — and how to account for the wounds made by a stabbing instrument, growing wider as it went in, attested to by three surgeons and attributed to his sword. Corder made an interesting defence — that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse. I’ll return to this later.
The End for Corder
The jury retired and spent over an hour discussing the case, before finding Corder guilty. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday, and was taken from the court in a state of near collapse. He committed to Bury gaol, and met twice more with is wife, who seems to have behaved with great courage and dignity, and offered him a lot of religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others sought an interview, but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the chaplain. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he wrote and had witnessed a confession. According to this the argument was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated Corder killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn they fell to fighting, and while struggling Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime, and events proceeded as above. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon and hanged in front of 7,000 witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs.
So Was Corder Guilty?
In recent years there have been a number of attempts to suggest Corder was not guilty of the murder. Given this appears one of the most open and shut cases I can think of, and that he confessed, it is hard to see any other possibility. There is however one possibility I think, well perhaps two. At the times rumours circulated Corder was also having an affair with Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria, and she was involved hence her knowledge of the burial site. I find that hard to believe. Other authors have mentioned Corder’s criminal associates, and even a gypsy fortuneteller lady, but all this strikes me as nonsense. Corder was there when she died, and covered up the death – but was he actually telling the truth about suicide? Maria seems to have been deeply disturbed that night, and perhaps she did have the pistols — if so, perhaps the handkerchief round her neck was irrelevant as Corder suggested. The “sword wounds” could easily have been made by Mr Marten as he found the body. As a child I can recall Suffolk farmers using unusual looking “mole spades” with long slender blades, not unlike those used for tree planting today. Mr Marten was a mole catcher. We know that Mr Pryce probed the ground with the handle of his rake, and found an iron spike, perhaps part of Corder’s pickaxe. The wounds in the heavily decomposed body could be many things. So did Maria shoot herself? I find it extremely unlikely, and think not. Corder must have realised if she had covering the matter up would only make things worse, and in an argument as described I find it hard to see why she did not shoot him instead. A second, slightly more plausible theory would be that actually there was some suggestion of a double suicide, and each discharged a pistol at their head, but Corder decided to live and fired his in to the wall. Possible, but there is no evidence for this at all, barring the curious bullet marks in the wooden wall of the barn. No, I am afraid I think Corder was guilty, but fired twice, trying to stop Maria in some kind of violent physical struggle, probably with the intention of scaring her – but maybe with the intention of murder. In his Confession Corder says this, and there seems little reason to doubt him, though he is at great pains to swear before God that he did not make the sword wounds alleged.
Supernatural Interlude 2: The Ghost of Corder
In Moyses Hall musueum today you can still see a collection of relics related to the infamous murder. These include a particularly grisly item, a book about the trial bound in the Corder’s skin!
For many years Corder’s skeleton was used for anatomy lessons at teaching hospitals. One doctor became fascinated by this grim artefact and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his nerves by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned. So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore I read in the 1980′s anyway.
I managed to go a whole year without getting a cold or sick, and was becoming all too smug about it – and now I find myself on Christmas Eve laid up in bed unwell! Well next year I shall do better. Anyway I did not manage to sort out any Christmas cards, apart from a few for my family I shall take home when I visit mum and dad next – because what sibling would not want a Christmas Card in mid-January? Anyhows, I figured I’d make a Christmas card, and then if people want it they can download it and read it, and if they don’t, they don’t have to and I won’t know anyway and we can all live happily ever after.
Now if you know me you have probably guessed that my saving on rewarding Clinton Card’s shareholders and saving Wicked Postmen DC, the lugubrious Postmen Ben and Tom “Christmas Temp” Nowells’ backs as they heft mailbags is not why I did not send cards. I am of course, a notorious Scrooge, and chose to pay the rent rather than do it. That is not the only reason Scrooge appears above though, for this card is about to turn in to an account of the horrors that have recently visited me!
‘Twas three nights ago, and I was soundly sleeping the sleep of the just, having been reading the latest Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR). “I’ll just read this fascinating article and then…” – and of course I was snoring away. The cats padded around mewling, looking for food: from somewhere in the house came snoring, but in my room all was peaceful. And then it happened – I awakened to find two terrible shades, clanking chains and moaning their guilt, calling upon me to repent and mend my ways! (See illustration above). Yes; I was faced by the shades of Derek and Harry, forever banished in to the outer darkness for their sins against psychical research!!! These former ghosthunting associates of mine wailed upon me to REPENT! REPENT! I was immediately filled with curiosity, sat up, grabbed a pen and started to take notes. Derek (and Harry) were alive: There is no doubt whatever about that.
“Oh Frightful Shades summoned forth from my mis-spent youth” I cried, “you two are still very much with us, which means you have probably not run in to the SPR committee recently. You are therefore clearly ‘Phantasms of the Living’? So are you actually telepathic projections from the appearant, namely yourselves, hallucinated by me as percipient, or are you actually caused as Gurney appears to suggest in some of his later writings telepathically generated by me after I passively survey the environment using ESP powers?”
The two phantoms stopped clanking, and looked extremely annoyed. No one likes a smart arse., especially one who has spent the last 15 years since they gave up on this stuff studying theories of apparitions. The phantasmal Derek wailed a lament “You are supposed to say ‘You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’”.
I was too interested to remark on how our understanding of hallucinations in the sane had moved on a bit since disordered digestion was commonly blamed, I was now far more interested in learning all I could about the two “Marleys”. ‘Are you consciously aware of your projecting status? Can you supply me with some veridical data, that I can note down and subsequently show to prove that you were external entities not mere dreams? The winner in the 2.15 at Aintree, your current bank accounts details and sort code and security three digit code, that sort of thing?” I inquired hopefully.
The phantom Harry now responded, in good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon, and with a muttered threat about three more ghosts they vanished wailing through the floor.
Oh well, I’d be ready for them now…
The Ghost of Christmas Past never stood a chance. No sooner had he walked through the wall, the blinding flashes of my cameras froze him in terror. I was upon him with a dictaphone. “Right, spook, I’ve waited years for this chance. First question, are you composed of normal matter and energy? That is, are you physical?” I rammed him unapologetically in the bottom with an EMF meter, and the poor spook let out a howl of horror. “Ah fairly physical.” I prodded his ectoplasmic bulk again, and then scraped off some of his beard in to a Petri dish for analysis. “Right, Second question, are you a telepathic projection, or are the discarnate spiritual remnants of a deceased human as Spiritualists suggest?” It seems the question was too much for the poor spook: he turned, and with a truly melodramatic wail launched himself up the chimney. Never mind. Two more to come…
Like any Big Game Hunter, I have patience. And kit. The unquiet shade of Christmas Present was not leaving until I had thoroughly grilled him on the conditions of the hereafter, and advanced parapsychology 200 years and won a Nobel. Ha! Dawkins and Randi will never recover! All thoughts of Goodwill to All Men, Women, Ghosts and Small Fluffy Animals had left. I had my chance and I was going to take it – these ghosts were gonna talk, or else! My only problem was I do not have a Proton Pack, PKE meter or any of that fictional stuff. What I have is vast amounts of peer reviewed parapsychological literature on ghosts, and that seems to be singularly lacking in practical advice in how to grab one and interrogate it. However soon I had a plan!
I have always said Gauld and Cornell’s 1979 magisterial study Poltergeists is a wonderful book, and as the Ghost of Christmas Present came through the wall, I took my chance to finally use it’s 389 page bulk, and deftly clumped the spook over the head with it. To my horror the book just passed straight through it, and the ghost of Christmas Present flailed about horrified as cameras flashed and my webcam recorded every gruesome detail. “Hey” I said “you looked like John Travolta there pulling those dance moves” The spirit looked indignant, and I hastily pursed my advantage. “OK ghostie, I have you on video to show the world. Now we can do this nicely – or I can dub Staying Alive on that little performance of yours, and post it to YouTube? You will be a laughing stock. So sit down and start telling me everything.”
I felt just a tiny bit mean, but this was for Science! The poor old ghost knew when he was beaten, and sat miserably down. “please” he muttered “ just don’t start on about paradigms, phenomenology or the nature of consciousness. I’d prefer to sit through Skeptics In the Pub than that any day!”. Now I had him! I prepared to discover who was right on apparitions – McCreery and Green, Tyrell, Hart, Myers, Podmore or Gurney! Now I could revolutionise the field.
And at that moment, Marmalade came hurtling in the room, chasing Cuddles, in some 3am feline game. I was distracted, and as I turned to shoo the cats out, the Ghost of Christmas Present grabbed my webcam and apported it to another dimension, before leaving up the chimney in a flash of spectral smoke.
I had twenty minutes to modify the hoover, and I used all I know of Paraphysics and Weird Science. This time the spook was not getting away. I have never built a Carnacki Electric Pentacle before, but I have now, and it glowed beautifully in neon colours on the floor, ready to trap and contain the third pesky ghost. This time, I was READY for them! I had donned a set of painter and decorators overalls I keep for when Hugh is called upon to help out (frequently), and had strapped Lisa’s GOBLIN hoover on my back, and looked for all the world like a cut price DIY ghostbuster…
Anyway, you can guess how it all ended. If the Ghost of Christmas Future is not something you have ever seen it, imagine it as a sort of balefully spooky version of Metal Mickey the robot from the 80′s kid’s show. The electric pentacle did its job well, and I was able to suck the ectoplasmic shade up in to the bagless hoover, but then it all went wrong. The hoover became possessed, and even as I struggled Becky up to witness the apparition, so at least it would count as a collective case (she muttered something about “already passed my VIVA” and went back to sleep) the hoover ran around and around in circles, bleeping eerily, and waving its hose in the air in a frighteningly Freudian manner. Even as I prepared to leap upon it and unplug it, prepare dot bear it in triumph to the SPR office at Marloes Road, the blasted thing managed to open a vortex to another dimension.
Now I, being a generous soul, had of course bought an exquisite, expensive and lovely presents for you all. Unfortunately as the ghost and hoover vanished through the TV to another dimension, it took with it all my carefully purchased Christmas gifts. And this is why I don’t have much research to show the SPR for their generous research grant this year, and why I have not given any of you Christmas Presents and Cards – because a spectre telepathic descending from my attic came and spirited them away, hey?
So it simply remains for me to wish you one and all a Wonderful Christmas time, and a truly magical 2013.
All the best
Every Christmas I attempt writing fiction, and most specifically a short Christmas ghost story. I think my best so far is Ethel, which I wrote last year. This year I tried something slightly different - and something I think very hard. I have attempted to write a realistic ghost story. That is, I have tried to tell the kind of story I often hear when interviewing people who claim to have experienced paranormal phenomena. Therefore I am afraid you will find little of the usual spine chilling stuff; no Victorian ladies spectres walk through walls, no headless corpses rise from unquiet graves to seek ghastly vengeance on the living, and no strange curses are muttered on moonlit moors. Instead, my story is rather mundane, and rather modern. It could happen in any home. Your home even. Tonight.
I hope despite all this, a few of you enjoy it. It is not finished yet, if it ever will be, but perhaps I will continue tomorrow if the writing frenzy befalls me again. Oh and one last thing — it is fiction, and never happened: but the central phenomena are based loosely on a real case I once investigated, many, many years ago.
Now I’ll let the narrator take up the story.
OK, so it’s 1982. Thursday evening, the day before Christmas Eve, and I’m walking home in crisp white snow, humming “Hymn” by Ultravox. I stop to look at some mysterious footprints, surely those of a giant panther or wolf in the crisp frozen snow? and then turn away as three older kids on BMX’s wobble unsteadily by. I want a BMX – but no way will I get one, not this Christmas. (Or the electronic Tron home arcade game I’d seen on TV). Nope, I’m due to get a “sensible bike”, but that will do me I guess. I was walking back from the Scout’s carol service, and no one had asked me to sing, but then at 12 your voice can go any time. Some of my mates, like Paul, well he already has a voice like Darth Vader. My voice, it’s more Minnie Mouse.
As I approach the house, the church bells loose off another thunderous peal, the bell ringers hurling defiance at the sodium orange tinted clouds overhead. Tea time, but seems to have been dark for hours, yet the open curtains of our little house – “our house in the middle of the street” – Madness are still in the Top Ten with that – anyway the windows cast bright squares of light on the thin crust of snow turned to ice.
Now the house is the hero of my story, so I’ll introduce it. Built a long time ago, it is exactly the same as all the other houses in the street. Like all of them it has been done up, and the little icy path to the loo at the bottom of the garden is redundant these days, replaced when I was little more than a toddler by the new brick built extension where the old kitchen was, with a modern bathroom and indoor loo. About 74, maybe 75? I have dim memories of sprinting freezing cold past the rhododendron bush and over the mossy path slick with slug trails to the icy confines of the loo up there, and the crisp feel of medicated toilet paper, horrid stuff but did not get damp no matter how bad the roof leaked. The privy in the garden, well it’s a tool shed these days – dad keeps his junk in there, when mum forces it out of the ‘dining room.’ Not often in winter; but right now the bits of radio, lawnmower, model aeroplanes and of course his illicit CB radios. Many a night he is in there, working on some US kit, sawing down aerials or doing whatever he does, if not busy talking in numbers to bored farm hands and passing lorry drivers. He tried ham radio, but the illegality of CB remains the thrill for a bored rebel like my dad.
Oh yeah the house. Well like many other houses – kitchen filled to the bursting with Christmas food we were forbidden to touch as the great day was not yet upon us, a tiny parlour with a turkey to big for the fridge sitting in a bowl of icy water, over which mum cooed and ah’d like it was a newborn, the front room where I tried to watch Top of the Pops if mum went to bingo that night, and enjoyed Terry & June if she didn’t, and the dining room which was really dad’s lair filled with his gadgets, machinery and rubbish. Upstairs three bedrooms, one quite bare and empty – I used to hurry past the open door at night, and slam it shut without looking in to the darkness. Mum said she heard someone died in there, a former tenant, but now it holds are racks and racks of old shirts, pullovers and spare bedlinen. Still gives me the creeps. My room and my parents: and the ‘new’ bathroom, all olive green fittings and deep blue walls slick with the steam of the piping hot bath water (if someone had remembered to turn the immersion heater an hour before at least).
There remains just one more thing- the loo. Olive green to match the bath – but who wants to hear about our toilet? Yet I’m afraid it is the toilet, this modern comfortable convenience, that is the heart of my story. Not the grim cold little privy long disused at the bottom of the garden, but this most convenient of all, well, modern conveniences. It was upon this very throne that five years ago on Christmas night Uncle Roger had passed in to eternity, just four months after Elvis met a similarly tragic fate.
Now I can’t recall much of that night, apart from the cheery ambulancemen wishing us all “a very Merry Christmas” as they wheeled out Uncle Roger’s corpse. What a way to go! Roger was my mothers brother, a kind jovial plump chap, who we all liked. We are far less keen on his wife, the rather glamorous Aunt Gladys. She hailed from somewhere in Surrey, and from a ‘good family’ I’m told, and they never really forgave her for marrying Roger; a provincial librarian was not what they had planned for a woman who was I am told in her day a prominent society type. I know Gladys as a women of decidedly uncertain complexion and very forthright views, who makes disapproval an art form. The thing she most disapproves of most in the world is my mother; dad however comes a close second, with the dog and I vying for third. Her (extremely infrequent) visits are ordeals, inspections, perhaps even inquisitions? She seems to take delight in being disappointed, and I had never known her to spend a single night under our roof. When Gladys and Roger came, it meant picking them up from the hotel, and not even a small sherry for dad till they were safely back in the Station Arms, where Gladys had made herself the least popular guest in that worthy establishments history. She likes like to criticize, does Gladys, and the staff take umbrage at her extremely honest (and lengthy) descriptions of her failings.
Enough! I must speed up this story, or I will be here all night. On getting in and tramping slush and ice over the carpet of the hall, I saw Dad in a state of wild agitation. He was carrying a milk crate stuffed with motor parts, bookies forms, long dead chequebooks and jam jars full of valves, defunct batteries and odd bits of wiring. No word was necessary; he as off to the outside privy, to put away as much as he could, and tomorrow he would drive to the skip to abandon three years cherished treasures. He was clearing the dining room; for the first time in 36 months, and only the second since we lost Uncle Roger, Gladys must be coming to visit, and last time had been a fleeting and unwelcome visit on legal matters. Gladys, or Mrs Broome-Verall, as I must not desperately attempt to remember to call her. The hour was at end, and the innocence of youth was gone, Christmas was no longer a time of cheer and goodwill, but a time of sterile manners and terrified politeness, amidst the hostile stilted chatter of my elders, and the long silences. Silence, because Mrs Broome-Verall as Gladys shall be henceforth, well she does not like the TV on. Television is a vulgar medium, as she is fond of saying.
OK, OK. This is supposed to be a ghost story, and I can tell by the look on your face you are bored with it already. Let’s cut to the chase…
It’s midnight now, Christmas Eve creeping in as the clock ticks on closer to Gladys and a Christmas ruined. Dad is furiously scrubbing something, mum shouting at the dog as she re-hoovers the front room for the fifth time– lucky old Mrs Siddons next door is deaf as a post, and I can faintly smell emulsion as dad has tried to make the dining room look respectable, OK, less shabby. I’m reading my mothers copy of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, which adults have raved about for weeks and I just can’t see the humour in. Then it happens: a sharp, persistent rapping, loud enough to reverberate throughout the house.
The hoover instantly cuts out, and Dad lets slip a word I’ve never heard him use before, even after a dozen pints at one of his roisterous CB eyeballs at The Thorn. Debbie the Dog lets loose the most ghastly, unearthly howling. It’s like a game of freeze tag. We all stop, frozen by a dreadful realization – Gladys has come early. Even know she is standing outside, her prim pointy little nose doubtless growing icicles as her mood becomes more icy than the weather. For a moment the whole house seems to crouch in terror, the painful expectancy building. And then a sudden flurry of agitated violent raps breaks the calm, and I hear dad steeling himself for the horror to come stride manfully over and throw open the door. The whole world waits juddering in pace for a second; then anticlimax. No Gladys, no polite but frigid hugs, no sound of machine gun tutting as she enters. Just mum and dad laughing, and the sound of dad bouncing up the stairs, shouting down “well we know she is not here till three tomorrow” with a kind of wild joy. He does not bother to knock, but hurls open my door, and shouts at me “what’s with all the banging? You’ll wake the neighbours.”
And then it happened again. A short staccato burst of machine gun raps, sparking off Debbie’s howling again, and echoing clearly from along the passage. Dad actually jumped, as did I, so unexpected was it. In his jubilation at discovering Gladys was not already at the door, he had forgotten the violent knocking he had taken as an omen of this doom. Now he decided it was an omen of failing plumbing, and rejuvenated by the prospect of dismantling the hot water system shot off downstairs to find a spanner.
I wasn’t so sure, but the hour was late, and I needed the loo. I walked along the passage, and saw the basted door to the “haunted” room had swung open again, so averted my eyes and tugged it shut as I made the leap for safety in to the bathroom. Well nearly, even as I was barging in, a sudden flurry of deafening raps send me skidding backwards, the light snapping off in my hand as I fell on to the lino, and nearly wetting myself in terror, crawled back towards the sanctuary of my bedroom. That was how dad found me, clad only in Y fronts, crawling like a thing possessed away from the bathroom, waving the light cord like a trophy. I don’t think he knew whether to howl with rage, tears or laughter, but he chose the latter.
A while passed, the banging now seemingly over. Dad fixed the light cord with a quick knot, and set about dismantling the immersion, muttering about air blocks and lime scale build up but happy to have an excuse to take apart the whole system, however unnecessarily. In the meantime I discard Adrian and quickly dressed, as I hear mum calling with a certain urgency. Turns out all she wants is for me to pop next door and check old Mrs Siddons is alright. “After all dear, it would be awful if she had had a fall, and is lying there banging on the walls trying to get us to hear, and we did nothing – it being Christmas and all.” Biting back the urge to ask if it would be better if we left her to die slowly at Whitsun or Easter, I pulled on my old parka that no longer fits properly, and scrambled off on my errand of mercy.
On arriving at Mrs Siddon’s front door however I was rather lost. All the lights were off, and I could hardly knock till she awakened if she was safely asleep. Even if she did not mind me woken after midnight, and she is always up at 5am sharp to go get her morning paper, even if I she doesn’t mind, the noise it would take such a deaf old woman to come down would wake the rest of the street. And if she had fallen, and was lying somewhere in the darkness upstairs rapping on the wall for help, how was she meant to answer the door even if she heard me? I decided I’d best see if the back offered any more possibilities. I slipped back through our house, and heard mum saying in a hollow tone “and the stupid bitch still believes I poisoned him. I should have done to put him out of his misery with her, would have been be a mercy I tell you”. Even now Gladys arrival overshadowed everything it seems.
I tried to call the dog to follow me to the back garden, but Debbie was clearly upset. She had retreated in to the parlour, squeezing herself behind the beer crates and boxes of never used silver wedding gifts. Always does that if there is a row in the house, and spends most of her time there when Gladys is in the house,but just as well as Gladys can’t abide dogs. I nose out in to the garden, the sky still the colour of a muted electric fire from the myriads of street lamps. Then I recall mum’s dream.
It was just a few weeks after Uncle Roger had passed from us; mum had woken suddenly, having trouble sleeping. The funeral had not been a success, and the missing will and almost open hostility of Gladys to us all had really upset mum. I wasn’t meant to know about the dream, but I have heard her tell other story when she thinks I’m not listening. Maybe a dozen or more times now, and always in those hushed tones she adopts when talking of sad or strange things. On the night in question she had awakened, and heard a voice calling her name. She did not wake my father, but went to her bedroom window, and looked out, and there was real as life was Uncle Roger, deathly pale and clearly a corpse, staring up at her from by the rhododendron bush. She had really liked, indeed loved her brother, but in that instant she said she felt a chill of utter pure evil, and she threw herself backwards on to the bed, awakening herself and my father instantly. (I can still recall the muffled screams from them both – I just wondered what the hell they were up to, and deciding better not to ask, went back to bed. There are some things we are not meant to know, at least when it comes to your parents bedroom pursuits.)
My mother was not right for a few days after that, and she kept shaking. Dad told her Roger was probably still alive, having faked his own death and was doubtless hiding out from Aunt Gladys in the potting shed, but no, for once she failed to see the funny side. The “ghost” had really really upset her. However I could tell dad was worried, and a few days later he took mum off to see the doctor, who I think gave her “something for her nerves”. After that, normality slowly returned.
Anyhows as I walked through the frozen night garden, past that rhododendron bush, I shivered and I’m not sure it was entirely the cold. Then my blood ran – well not exactly cold, as it was freezing in my veins from being out there in the night, but the thumping in my ears told me it was doing something. From the privy I heard the phantom rattling of chains! After a second or two I realised, it was just the chain on the cistern blowing in the wind. Spooks! What rot! I steeled my nerves again, and climbed over the fence in to the inky blackness of Mrs Siddon’s yard.
Suffice to say this proved no more useful than the front; and actually I did not try very hard to find her, for there propped against the wall I discovered a shiny new bike, a 5 green gear racer, still firmly wrapped in Halford’s plastic. So this was where my Christmas present was concealed! When I finally got back in, there had been no more knocking, and mum and dad were demolishing the Christmas port and lemon. Given we had no central heating, not even storage heaters, I left them to their drinks and scurried off to my welcome bed, head racing with thoughts of what five gears could achieve on a downhill run.
Christmas Eve dawned with the frost staining my window in a fantastical pattern of faerie ferns. I jumped down the stairs, hoping my parents inevitable hangover from last night had not precluded them getting up and putting the electric fire on, to be greeted by the reassuring smell of toast and frying bacon. And I’m afraid nothing of interest happened for hours, not till maybe eleven, by which time the house was once again a whirling kaleidoscope of frenzied tidying, panicked squealing and near hysteric dusting. Only a few hours till the doom that is Gladys needs picking up from the station, and the lucky old hotel staff stand inspection for the first of her tirade of complaints. Soon after that, our turn! What that, isn’t this a ghost story? OK OK, I’ll move on…
It was just before noon it started up again. Mum and dad were arguing downstairs, in fact shouting quite loudly. I did not need to ask what about. I was upstairs, arranging the linen in airing cupboard. It was the banging again, clear, sharp, raps, and close by. In fact this time they seemed to be getting faster, indeed building in speed and momentum, until finally there was a tremendous rapidfire volley of sharp short cracks. And then I realised it was coming from the bathroom.
OK, it took a moment for that to sink in, and in that moment my parents stopped shouting, and the banging ended. I wandered in to the bathroom, and looked suspiciously at the taps, and dad started to come up stairs to see what was going on. Mum wasn’t having that – she had to get the last word in, and so she did, and as they started shouting again, I began to carefully inspect the plughole. Snap! Snap! Right behind me, causing me to yelp in sheer shock, the air knocked out of my lungs by the unexpected rapping. And then I saw the ghost.
You look relieved that I have finally got to the ghost, but I suspect you won’t be. What I saw was no misty apparition, not even a figure like mum’s dream of Uncle Roger: nope what I saw was the plastic toilet seat on our loo banging up and down, up and down, seemingly as if slammed with real venom, hatred even, by an invisible hand. I’m not a brave person – not even a strong willed one; but the effect was both so odd and so ridiculous I could do nothing but stand and stare, and then giggle, and finally laugh. The more I laughed, the harder it slammed, as if my jollity in the face of this unnatural phenomena, this sanitary convenience from the other side, was somehow annoying it. I must have laughed a good thirty seconds, and all the time the lid slammed with greater speed, until I heard both my parents running up the stairs. I cared not: I wanted them to see this. And then suddenly, a tremendous gurgling built up, and a strange watery voice issued forth from the cistern, crying “GET OUT!!!” I fled for my life down the passage, knocking my mother flying, and causing dad to pirouette in to the wall and fall clutching a long string of shiny tacky tinsel.
OK, time to leave this for tonight. I’ll finish the story later if anyone cares.
I’m extraordinarily tired, so what follows may make painfully little sense. Before I collapse in to my bed however I would like to quickly record my impressions of a wonderful weekend spent at a games convention called Consequences F. Don’t stop reading just yet though — this is not just about my usual roleplaying games hobby.
This weekend I have been Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a spiritualist medium in 1920′s Arkham attending a gallery opening, a troubled English aristocrat in 1938 England, a brave (but rash) young Viking warrior trying to prove himself, an industrialist on a backwater planet, an AI programmed to open a stargate, and … well the list goes on!
You may be familiar with the idea of murder mystery games, often played at dinner parties, where people dress up and play a character, trying to solve a mystery. They are a type of roleplaying game, but unlike “tabletop” games which are played with a group of frreinds, dice pencil and paper around (as the name implies) a table, these “freeforms” are a form of LARP (live action roleplaying). You walk around, talk to other players in character, and physically interact. Unlike the kind of LARP you occasionally see on Facebook or even the TV, these games are played without bashing one another with foam rubber weaponry. I think the Americans call this “theater style gaming”, but I’m not sure that is much more use, unless you realise all the actors in the game have freewill, and the script is determined by their actions and in character actions. No one knows whether the mystery will be solved, your chap will get the girl, your pig will win the contest, you starship will survive the battle; until it happens! A hard working teams of referees (GM’s) write the games, and cast characters, and you take your role and try and achieve your goals while everyone else tries to achieve theirs! The rules cover the outcome of inevitable conflict, but your ability to piece together information, understand clues, scheme and manipulate others or just convince folks your character is a nice person, that is what determines how you do.
Anyway Consequences (so called as it is held nine months after another games convention for tabletop games called “Conception”) is an annual freeform game convention held down in Naish, near Christchurch, Dorset. The site is a holiday camp, and all the players stay in chalets on site under bleak November skies, gathering in the main building to play whichever of the many games on offer have taken their fancy.
Now I can’t afford to go on holiday: I really, really can’t. However this year I went to another great gaming convention dedicated (mainly) to tabletop roleplaying games called Continuum up in Leicester, with my friends Lloyd and Hugh. There we met some lovely people (who shall remain nameless – I’m not going to name any other names, because people may not want their gaming hobby exposed ) who persuaded me that after five years of reading about Consequences this year we should all attend. So we saved up £78 each for a chalet for four nights (!!!) , Hugh agreed to drive, and we paid our £30 booking fees to attend the con. I had always thought Consequences sounded pricey – but that was because I mistook £312 or whatever a chalet costs as being the cost per person. Nope that is the cost per chalet, each of which has two twin and two double rooms — so in theory you could have 8 people stay for four nights for just £312 – less than a tenner per person per night. The trick is to go with a friend or two, and as the chalets are self catering this is possibly the cheapest holiday I have ever had, and i specialise in pretty cheap holidays when I taken them at all.
OK, so what happened? Well about a month ago, having paid up front in July, I suddenly realised I had best sign up for some games. I chose Starship Aries, a Star Trek style game, Dulce et decorum est (set in 1938 during the Munich Crisis), Midsummer Mischief based upon the characters of PG Wodehouse, Gallery of Shades a Cthulhu game set in the 1920′s and Come Hel or Hiawatha, a game set in Viking Vinland. There were many many more games, Tolkien inspired, Science Fiction – the space marines were very colourful to look at, and even some games set in Zelazny’s fantasy worlds of Amber. Hugh played a cyberpunk game Marlowe 2020, and a different one, Collision Imminent, set on a spaceship (he had a great time in both!)
OK my experience: after Continuum where the costuming had astonished me – people REALLY dress up – I was dreading having to costume for 5 games. However, I need not have worried as much – while my costumes were fairly cheap, as I borrowed, scrounged and improvised what I needed, anything from perfect historical dress to theatrical minimalism – a pair of mirror shades say for cyberpunk – was perfectly acceptable, and some folks who stepped in at the last moment for games did not costume at all. I could not costume for Gallery of Shades because I did not see my character till the day of the game, so I used the same outfit for the 1920′s as I had for 1938 — and that worked fine, but actually I found that dressing as a character and having a single prop (a book, a cabbage, whatever) helped me get in to character and probably enhanced my enjoyment of the game!
Getting down to Christchurch was a nightmare. Lloyd went ahead, and Mark a friend we met at Continuum who was sharing the chalet with us also drove down earlier. Hugh and I planned to set out quite early, but by mid afternoon gales and widespread flooding not to mention torrential rain had closed many roads, and we finally waited till 9.30pm before setting off, missing the first half day of the con. Luckily neither of us had signed up to any games till Friday. When we set off we agreed if conditions were too bad on Salisbury Plain we would just turn back, and the trip was to be honest pretty harrowing. The worst of the weather had passed over by the time we set out, but I honestly did not think we would be able to make it. Still by Marlborough I was more confident, and once we passed Salisbury things improved, and we arrived on site by half midnight.
Of course we were too late to sign in: luckily I knew the chalet number, and the others were there with keys, but if you have ever looked at the ranks of chalets in a holiday park in pouring rain in the teeth of a howling gale a hundred yards from the cliffs down to the English Channel on an icy November night, wondering just where ML65 might be, well you will appreciate our concern as we stood in the car park looking at a scene devoid of human activity, outside a locked reception!
Just then Lloyd hailed us. Quite by chance he had gone back to some folks chalet for drinks, and considerably the worse for wear had got lost wandering back, and had returned to Reception to get his bearings. We fell upon him like a guardian angel sent to deliver us – we might have kissed him had he not seemed so bewildered at our great joy in seeing him a few hours after we last had in Cheltenham. He directed us to the chalet, and we unloaded our many bags of costume, food, and necessities.
Wow! Chalets are far more luxurious than I recall. We had two toilets, a proper bath, a fully equipped kitchen, a TV, and it was all toasty warm. Despite the late hour we knocked up some food, greeted Mark with equal joy, and played a quick game of Dominion (a board game) before crashing out. I really recommend Naish as a holiday venue, though obviously it costs more in high season.
Friday morning saw me up at 8am, ready for the 9am start of Starship Aries, a game run by friends of mine. It was what is called a “horde” game; a very clever device by which some folks play one character for the whole game ( the starship bridge crew in this case) and others like me had up to 5 different roles to play, sequentially. I really enjoyed this — I was Ambassador Lexington, out to make contact with a frontier world, then I was … anyway I can’t really say. The wonderful thing about freeforms is you can run them many times with different players — and I can’t give spoilers, because I am sure this one will run again. Costuming required was also minimal – any black trousers and something red as a shirt , or blue if you were bridge crew. This worked just fine. The game lasted 3 or 4 hours, but I had no time to grow bored, as I had to keep changing roles and the fiendishly clever plot was worthy of (several) Star Trek episodes. I took part in a coup, failed to keep my secret relationship with my professor very secret, and almost destroyed the Starship Aries: but they are not spoilers, as if the game runs again whoever runs the characters I had will do things completely differently I’m sure.
After Starship Aries it was back to the chalet to dress in white tie, or some semblance thereof, for dinner at Markyate Manor, home to the Viscount Markyate. The Athertons in 1938 are a troubled family, and Geoffrey who I played was certainly troubled with reason. I am afraid I can say almost nothing about him or what transpired, but this was emotionally intense dramatic gaming about people more than plot, and was one of the best games I have ever played of any type, freeform, tabletop or whatever. It helps (if a chap at least) if you have some knowledge of the period, and the politics and issues of the time, but after the first half hour that need faded for me as Geoffrey’s own personal issues and goals became increasingly paramount. The character sheet was brief, and I had no clearly laid out goals; nor did it tell me how Geoffrey felt about things, leaving that for me to decide. I knew facts about what had happened in the past – my own response to them was however left to me as Geoffrey, and a few very simple events quickly spun me in to a web of intrigue, mystery, complicated romantic and familial relationships and an increasingly rising pace until I suddenly heard a referee call “5 minutes left” and realised I had spent three or more hours completely immersed in being Geoffrey, and that I needed to do something to try and resolve the desperate situation I found myself in. Geoffrey had a final scene talking with his father, a terribly fumbled pass at a French opera star as he stalked out, and a rather harrowing leave taking of his family. Even I don’t know exactly what he did after he shouted his final sardonic farewell to the assembled guests and walked out in to the night. Epic stuff! I’m no actor, and I hope my bumbling at times portrayal of Geoffrey did not spoil anyone else game, but I did really get in to this one, and liked the character a great deal, whatever his (many) flaws. Dulce et decorum est is certainly an apt title for this game: very highly recommended.
After a quick meal in the chalet I was back to gaming, this time in the 1920′s for Gallery of Shades. I had mixed feeling about this one. I have loved HP Lovecraft since boyhood, love the Cthulhu Mythos, and am particularly fond of Robert W Chambers King in Yellow cycle. I have written a book for Call of Cthulhu; I own almost everything for that game, and loved Cthulhu Live, running a very successful Cthulhoid larp with it over seven weekends in the year 2000. Yet recently Cthulhu has become a constant geek cliché, and is endlessly parodied, and HPL has become increasingly reinterpreted in more and more parodic and playful ways. There is even an episode of Supernatural I am told that references Lovecraft and the game Call of Cthulhu! Furthermore I know from experience of running my own games that doing scenarios about the king in Yellow and Hastur cycle are extremely hard, if the players are to have any meaningful input in to the outcome. I fear my reservations on this as least proved true.
I finally signed up for Gallery of Shades because the referee is known to be outstanding, and the level of game prep in terms of the game environment was very high. That however is no replacement for a pre-game issue at least the day before of a character sheet so one can dress for the part, and think about how to play the role. I actually liked the character, someone who had experienced an apparition with an enigmatic message and had become a medium — but I would have asked to play a very different role if I had the chance to fill in a casting questionnaire. The reason why was the fist few minutes of the game, when none of us were sure if we were “in character” or “out of character”. Some poor soul asked me “what can you tell me about the theories of ghosts?” I was really pleased someone was interested in my research and replied in character (just in case) limiting my response to the state of the topic in 1927. I fear I may have bored them to death — this essay of mine is pretty much what I related, though it brings the survey of the field up to date. At least I was not asked to play a parapsychologist (though Tischner does not coin that phrase I think until 1929 — So I mean psychical researcher I guess )
There was another moment once the game was in full swing a while later that shows the perils of trying to keep in character and out of character knowledge separate – my character had been intensely religious in youth, so when it came to the inevitable debate with a vicar suspicious of my spiritualism, I was ready to quote scripture and make theological arguments. The poor vicar’s player of course can not be expected to counter that, as they have probably not thought about the issues quite as much as an Anglican ghost hunter like the real life me — but they took it in good grace, and we laughed about it, and broke off the conversation when it was clear that I was going to go the full ten rounds. I still felt a bit of an arse about it, and thereafter limited myself strictly to what it said on my character sheet, however likely I thought it the character would know something about Spiritualism.
Anyway this started out as a great game: and it ended wonderfully, with some incredible effects. However… I am not one to critique others games. I have written what I am sure were lousy games, and some players probably avoid me after one bad experience. The set up here though became intensely frustrating – it was not that we could not do things – we did all kinds of things, and there were some wonderful pieces of characterisation, the suffragette was amazing, the decadent flapper Greta a perfect mix of boredom, indifference and sensual amorality, the utterly insane (literally) lady in the burgundy dress was magnificent, and Walters, Bream and others fine characters and great fun to play with – the PI and I had our moments too – nothing wrong with the characters, they were all great, or the players – nope, the problem was we felt we could not do anything to resolve the issue we faced. The game went on an hour to long, because the person who needed to act in a certain way to provoke the next scene did not realise it, and despite my best efforts to find the catalyst, it seemed a very long time till the resolution, while a few players appeared to me bored and not committed, as they felt there was no way to influence the outcome?
This is a game by one of the finest freeform authors there is: it has a magnificent climax, but in disempowering the characters, and driving them to madness frustration and a realisation of cosmic futility, it is important not to alienate the players. That is a very hard trick to pull off. For a few I don’t think it worked. This was a first run, and Gallery of Shades should certainly run again, but it needs a few minor tweaks to give those battling to save their characters sanity a sense of small gains, and large losses, rather than a static brick wall of frustration and inevitable doom, no matter how Lovecraftian that may be in essence. Recommended for future runs, but needs a tiny bit of work. I enjoyed it though.
Friday night the Belgian contingent threw a wonderful chalet party, and I got to chat to some of the other delegates I had not met before. This was a great part of the whole experience. I woke up late on Saturday, perhaps at ten, and I had taken a whole day off gaming. A friend came down to visit us, and we enjoyed a long walk with Lloyd around the beach and cliffs, and down the “bunny” and back. In hindsight I probably could have played another game on Saturday – everyone has their own endurance on how many games they can face in a day,and two I think might be my limit really; perhaps tiredness leads one to not enjoy a game as much as you should.
Saturday night however was to prove amazing, for me at least. I was off to Blandings Castle – my castle in fact, for I was Lord Emsworth, and with the county fete just four days away I was determined the Empress of Blandings my prize pig would take the prize. Midsummer Mischief is a perfect slice of pure Wodehouse, and whoever the authors were, I wish to thank them for this heavenly madness. There referees did an outstanding job, time flew by (one day an hour, and four hours till the end) and one had a real sense of freedom to scheme, plot, interact and do some pretty odd and very very silly things.
Now one of my biggest fears in any game where I get a chance to play an over the top character is that I will spoil it for others with my rather exuberant performance in the role – I certainly never wanted it to get too silly, because then comic characterisation fails as absurdism creeps in. It can work in a Monty Python sketch, but there is one episode of Father Ted that I felt became just marginally too surreal: for me a brilliant comic character is like Basil in Fawlty Towers extreme but (just about) believable. I’m hoping I managed to stay just the right side of the line, and keep dear old Emsworth eccentric but acceptably so, rather than making him a thin parody! However some players clearly liked my Emsworth, which genuinely surprised me, but I guess it was my sheer love of the character and the enthusiasm and real joy I found in playing the role that shone through, whatever the deficiency in my “acting”. Beach was absolutely perfect in the role, Connie and the other two sisters present were fantastic, and Pru and her bloody cats, Vee and Aggie and their romantic arrangements, blasted Freddie my son and the insufferable Popjoy all kept me running around in increasing panic, while bloody Huxley — I can say no more. Maudie the librarian was great, and Lord Vosper with the pig kept me so so paranoid, while that slime Parsoe-Parsoe (beautifully played) outwitted me as I expected. I should have asked Gally to biff him!
This is an older game, and the use of item cards can to me be distracting, as can the multiple envelopes and sub-systems of the rules certain players need to know, but it all works perfectly. I don’t recall speaking to a ref once in Dulce in decorum est – there was simply no need, the game ran itself. Gallery of Shades needed a couple more refs, Starship Aries was just right, but the three referees in Midsummer Mischief were worked off their feet and served admirably. They were marvellous, simply marvellous. I can not give a best game, as they were so VERY different, but Dulce and Midsummer are certainly among the best games I have ever played, and if you love Wodehouse you must play this game!
Saturday night saw an amazing chalet party, and astonishingly good hospitality, plenty of booze (which I did not partake of ) and great company. I’d like to thank our hosts, and hope the chalet survived the influx! I was home by 4.30am and in bed by five — shame I had to be up at eight thirty today…
The final game of the weekend for me was Come Hel or Hiawatha, a fun game set in Vinland. Some Vikings have landed in the wake of an earlier failed expedition, and met the natives, the Skraelings. Plots involve the tense negotiations between the two parties, tempered by romances, personal ambition and the epic consumption of mead. Strange things are afoot, and my character was a rash young Viking warrior, who I played as wildly impulsive, hotheaded and not exactly bright. I hope that I did not take it too far, but I did really enjoy the character, and while he had the same name (Gunnar) as my dad, they were very very different Vikings! My character married the girl of his dreams and gave up on a career as a warrior to farm ducks. I called them all Anders, in case you were wondering.
This is a gem of a game, that could be played slightly comically, or totally straight. We played it straight, with my character providing occasional moments of mild comic relief from the tense negotiations. Well crafted, definitely worth playing!
OK, so we left after the closing ceremony, Hugh driving back through driving rain, but finding time to take in the Rufus Stone, Stonehenge and Avebury en route. I had a great weekend, and if anyone is interested in learning more about Consequences or Freeforming do check it out or email me: a good place to start with friends at home might be these excellent games.
A wonderful memorable weekend, but I’m off to bed.