Category: supernatural

Excavating the mummy’s curse

mummy's curse coverRoger Luckhurst‘s 2012 book, The Mummy’s Curse, is much more than just an opportunity to revisit the familiar story of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the winter of 1922 and the death soon after of his patron Lord Carnarvon in circumstances ascribed to the eponymous curse.

Roger’s real interest is in finding out where the story of the curse came from and what it says about the society in which the rumours circulated. I met up with Roger in order to explore ‘the lumber room of the Victorian exotic unconscious’ and tune in to the shuffling footsteps of the mummy…

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Paranormality: investigating the impossible with Richard Wiseman

paranormalityMy guest on this podcast is psychologist (and former magician) Richard Wiseman, who has long been interested in why people are fascinated by the paranormal – and willing to believe things for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence. The result of his interest is Paranormality, a book which lifts the lid on the tricks that psychics and mindreaders play and investigates why humans developed and retained a readiness to believe the impossible. In the podcast he explains how he rose to the challenge of investigating Hampton Court Palace’s ghost

To listen to the podcast, click here.

2. Books of the Year – Elizabeth Knowles

Elizabeth KnowlesOur second guest to select her Books of the Year is Elizabeth Knowles.

Elizabeth spent much of her career as a historical lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. She is also the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and, most recently, the author of How to Read a Word, a book that aims to make lexicographical sleuths of us all. You can hear my recent interview with Elizabeth by clicking here.

And here are her Books of the Year:

Since I was thirteen and first encountered M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, I have had an affection for his particular subsection of the genre. The protagonist (generally learned) is drawn through his speciality into an exploration which is as tempting as it is unwise. The background (a country library or monastic church) is solidly evoked, but a crack through which terror can enter opens and widens as too many questions are asked, and warning voices are ignored. Throughout his canon of short stories, James again and again successfully achieves what he himself said were the two most valuable ingredients: “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo”.

Susan Hill Small Hand jacketIt was exciting to find this year two books which in many ways take and remake the elements which allowed James to chill the blood of his Edwardian readership. In Susan Hill’s The Small Hand, the narrator, a dealer in antiquarian books, follows a frightening path which leads him from a derelict garden in Sussex to the library of a Trappist monastery in France – and finally, back to the garden again, and the tragic secret at its heart.

The places he visits and the people he meets are delineated with all Susan Hill’s precision, and the unobtrusively scholarly background (with its explanation of how an unknown First Folio might be discovered) underpins evocative descriptions of the French countryside. Like many of James’s protagonists he is making a journey of personal discovery which will change for ever how he sees the world around him.

M. R. James thought that “a short haze of distance” was desirable for a ghost story, and recommended “not long before the war” as what he called “a very proper opening”. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter opens in 1947, but looks back ten years to a disastrous scientific expedition to the High Arctic. Once more, a terrifying aspect of the supernatural emerges through convincingly evoked realities: the Arctic landscape itself (often lyrically described; Michelle Paver knows and loves the region), and the disparate group who make up the expedition.

Michelle Paver Dark Matter coverThe world of the 1930s is convincingly evoked, not least through the voice of Jack (the main narrator) who sees the expedition as the only chance he will ever have to achieve the career in science that lack of money has put beyond him. By contrast Michelle Paver has used, to great effect, the background history of a real (though less disastrous) Oxford University Arctic Expedition: I loved the details of their taking fine china and champagne for Christmas, as well as more essential supplies.

Paver’s ghost, like Hill’s, is properly in the James tradition: deeply wronged and insatiably vengeful. Both protagonists (like the unlucky Mr Wraxall in James’s Count Magnus) go on when it might have been wiser to turn back. And yet there may not have been a real choice: as the Abbot in Hill’s story says, for him “Everything is the better when faced.” There is always a point at which turning back is not a real option.

We are a century on from the Edwardian world of M. R. James’s first stories, and both Hill and Paver show us more of the emotional lives of their characters than James would ever have done. But for me both these twenty-first century stories of the supernatural embody the key qualities of a fine ghost story which I first met in the writings of M. R. James. I shall keep them on my shelves, and re-read them pleasurably.