Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Phantom Coach. Is Death a passenger, or is it our dark consciousness?

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror   January 29, 2013

Do we really believe in spirits of the dead lingering here among us, or do we only play with this idea in fiction—where it’s safe to accept it? If we read some of the modern paranormal investigations where ghosts are verified by EMF meters and electronic voice phenomena, even digital night photography, many people are not convinced ghosts exists. Skeptics are necessary if not endearing votes. But even personal experiences carry doubts of what might be convincing reality. Let me ask, are you a believer that spirits of the dead can haunt us here, or are you a skeptic?

The Phantom Coach (1864, written some 150 years ago) by Amelia Edwards is a story that addresses this question in a subtle but chilling way.

Meet our narrator, James Murray. He’s out in the dead of winter (pardon the pun), grouse hunting. Bitter cold, a gathering darkness, and a sudden heavy snowfall warn him to head home to his lovely bride expecting him by dusk. But inside the ominous snowfall, winds, and nightfall, James loses his way on the “bleak wide moor.”

James recalls stories of lost travelers, wearied out and found dead in the snow. Fear mounts as the dark cold and isolation threaten him. Is death near? As fate would have it, he meets a servant man, Jacob, with a lantern who guides him to his master’s farmhouse not too far away.

The master of the farmhouse is an odd sort, living pathetically alone for twenty-three years among flour-sacks and lumber, hundreds of old books, a telescope, jars of chemicals and microscopes, maps, and an ornately carved organ of medieval saints and devils. The two men dine on a meager supper and like a good host, the master invites James to chat with him by the fireside.

The master speaks of the soul, dead spirits and powers, prophecy, and supernatural appearances of ghosts. The brooding mood affects James, and he thinks this man somewhat of a sage, both scientific and philosophical. The sage is a true believer in the scientific cause and effect of dead spirits, and for that he was ridiculed by the skeptics and cast out of all respectable society, to be forgotten by all.

James finds this man’s despair quite sad, however declines to pronounce his own opinion on the phenomena of the dead. At last, the snow abates. The night sky clears. James takes the sage’s advice to catch the midnight mail coach at the crossroads not too far away.

Anxious to rush home to his bride who is likely sick with worry by now, and after a glass of whiskey, James walks the long miles in the icy cold, keeping an eye out for the signpost at the cross-road but does not come upon it. Has he lost his way again? Alas, the midnight mail coach appears with four steaming grey horses. When it stops for him, James boards with much gratitude and settles into his seat with three men who neither speak nor stir, “with the dank dews of the grave upon them.”

What happens to poor James now? Where does this coach bring him? Does he believe what he experiences on this fateful ride through the wintry woods?

I read this nostalgic story in an old book from my local library, Great Ghost Stories, edited by Herbert Van Thal, illustrated by Edward Pagram, Hill and Wang, Inc., NY publishers. The book has pen & ink illustrations. I felt like a little kid again, turning the thick pages by hand, examining the pictures and running my fingertips over them as if the scenes would grow bigger by touching them. With this digital age of books on Kindle, Nook, and computer screens, reading the old books can be a much more tactile experience, deepening the imagination of the story.

The author Amelia B. Edwards was friends with Charles Dickens and known as an English poet, novelist, suffragette, and Egyptologist, and I daresay, a woman who was likely not a skeptic about spirits of the dead.

And what of our James? Is the phantom coach a supernatural reality? Or born of suggestion? Or an experience from the dark of the consciousness?

Read it here online:

http://www.hauntedbay.com/tomes/stories/phantomcoach.shtml

And if you’d like a film version to watch, try this on YouTube (7 minutes) by Richard Mansfield. This is an artistic black-and-white performance, done in shadow puppetry.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPVEVunozv4

Do leave a comment … are you a believer or a skeptic?

And stop by next Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.

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Obsessions: Love, Art, Death. Poe’s The Oval Portrait

The Oval Portrait   by  Edgar Allen Poe (1842)

Tuesday’s Tales of Terror, January 22, 2013

The setting: deep midnight at an abandoned château in the snowy Apennines Mountains.

The narrator: a wounded soldier takes refuge in this château, stays the night in one of the turret bedrooms “decorations rich, yet tattered and antique.” His room is filled with flickering light from “tongues of a tall candelabrum.” The soldier’s vision is captured by a great number of “very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque on the walls.”

Can you see this? Very inviting, I think. This week being the anniversary of Poe’s birth date, I chose The Oval Portrait because it represents Poe, not for his grisly writings, but for the romance, passion, and the hypnotic effect of obsessions.

On the soldier’s pillow lay a small volume, handwritten in “quaint words.”  And a stunning portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood hangs in the niche of his room. The flashing of the candlelight plays on her face and shoulders for hours … until the soldier can sleep no more. There is a secret in this portrait, one that the soldier feels compelled discover.

The soldier takes up the little volume and begins to read. The volume is written by the artist. He describes how he painted the portrait of his beauty on the wall. The artist did “not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her.”

What does this mean? Ah-haa. Herein tells the destiny of fatal beauty and the obsession of art. Art and romance! I think it was Emerson who said art is a jealous mistress.

Read it here:  http://poestories.com/read/ovalportrait

Another of Poe’s romantic stories is Ligeia about a love object, written in the Germanic romantic tradition. The setting here is gray and decaying— even the sun and moon fall with a “ghastly luster.” This woman, Ligeia, is an exquisite beauty with dark curly hair and brilliant black eyes. But Ligeia is possessed with “a strangeness” the narrator describes … “She came and departed as a shadow.”  When Ligeia dies … the story takes a wicked turn into an obsession with death.

Read it here:   http://www.online-literature.com/poe/2126/

And stop by next Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.

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Spirits of the Dead, Poe’s Most Mysterious Poem

Greetings Poe Fans:

In honor of Poe’s anniversary birth date, January 19, I’ve selected  his poem, “Spirits of the Dead”  to mark  my Tales of Terror blog for this day. The full text of the poem is below.  This, in hopes that his spirit will rally forth as you read it, is my deepest desire—to truly feel the spirits of the dead authors we read.

This poem is moody and wonderfully atmospheric with dark thoughts on a windy night.

If you’d prefer a read aloud, click the link. This is a YouTube 2-minute dramatic reading, with phantasmic organ music that is sure to haunt.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gLUrPwP5SY

Spirits Of The Dead

Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.

Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness- for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.

The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

Edgar Allan Poe

Please stop in every Tuesday for more Tales of Terror,  free short stories by the classic horror masters of literature. I invite you to poke around my blog to read other tales by Hawthorne, Lovecraft, MR James and more.

Paula

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The Wintry Gloom of a Haunted Mind

The Haunted Mind  by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror, January 15, 2013

The NIghtmare HenryFuimages

Is there a state of mind, a supernatural zone, between the real and unreal? Examine the dream. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Haunted Mind, we enter a “midnight slumber.” If we were to dream of ghostly inhabitants, they would certainly be unreal yet we perceive these dream ghosts to be startlingly real, “wide awake in that realm of illusions,” as Hawthorne describes.

The Haunted Mind is probably one of the gloomiest stories Hawthorne’s ever written because he brings us into the subterranean psychodrama of sleep with pervasive phantoms and then blurs the wakefulness. A cunning device. And, to set his stage for deeper emotion, he uses of the second person you, “You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave ….”  This forces us to think we are feeling this dreadful experience with the narrator.

A most extraordinary story, the prose requires a slow read as each sentence, each chilling word holds a great deal of imagery, realism, and insight. We need to read it slowly as if every line is a delicious bite.

We are introduced to the single character alone in his bed on a winter night, frost patterns on the window glass, snow-covered roofs, streets frozen, perhaps like this dream we are in. Symbolisms abound. While the character slips in and out of dreaming and half-waking, Hawthorne gives us intense descriptions of funereal ghosts passing by—wrinkled, fiendish, evil. A train of regret and sorrow follows, disappointments, shame, despair. What a pervasive eerie mood. We begin to wonder… are we dreaming of the underworld? Are we awake? Are we in some psychological prison of the mind? I think it was Poe who compared sleep to death, calling sleep “little slices of death.”

Hawthorne holds us captive when his character believes he cannot be persuaded that the dead “… neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls against the door of the tomb.” The deathly isolation in this story made me shiver, wishing for a warm fire to appear. And when the hearth’s embers do shed a bit of gleam, as the flames vanish, we are left to wonder what is real, the cold or the gloom.

“Yesterday has already vanished from the shadows of the past, to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future.” Where is this poor soul? Does he awake fully in his warm bed? Do we?

If we know Hawthorne at all, we know that the supernatural and self-discovery are common themes in his works. You must read The Haunted Mind (a quick read at only 1700 words) for an extraordinary experience into the wilderness of sleep between reality and dreams from a true master of literature.

Read it here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9209/9209-h/9209-h.htm

Stories about dreaming and alternate realities (the inner world) are my favorite, so The Haunted Mind ranks very high for me. That is probably why I wrote Night Sea Journey, A Tale of the Supernatural. I’m no Hawthorne, not near his talents, but my novel delves into the dreaming mind, into the fears that often emerge when we are immobile and frozen in our sleep. You’ll find that Hawthorne brings his story to a disturbing destiny, not just merely waking up to start a new day after unsettling dreams. In Night Sea Journey, my character, Kip Livingston, journeys in her dreams to find a new destiny—a reality that defies the expected and enters the supernatural realm of angels and demons.

Which brings me to the obvious question: Why do we dream? What are these secret nighttime journeys with strange faces and imaginary events? Is there some supernatural power going on here? If you’ve had a dream that has affected you or your life in some way (A ghostly one, maybe? Or a dream with the spirit of a dead loved one?) please post.

And stop by next Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.

Artwork  is The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781.

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Murder, Murder, and Murder. The Silver Hatchet Strikes

The Silver Hatchet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror, January 8, 2013

If you like murder and murder and more murder, you’ll love Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Silver Hatchet (1883). What a perfect example of high quality narrative prose. Would we expect anything less from such a prolific writer? While Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes uses logical deduction in the detective stories, the author’s supernatural short stories are filled with spiritualism, magic, and the occult.

The Silver Hatchet is one of Doyle’s most exciting supernatural tales. The scene opens on the third of December in 1861 in Budapest. Snow and ice cover the streets and walkways with a bitter cold. Professor Hopstein and his friend Schlessinger have come into possession of a collection of medieval weapons. Not long after receiving and securing these ancient weapons, the Professor is brutally murdered, his head “split in two halves.”

There is no trace of the murderer, no motive of theft, no weapon at the crime scene, not a single clue, and Professor Hopstein has an impeccable reputation as he “never raised the slightest animosity in any human breast.”  Clearly one’s head does not just spontaneously split in two. Who could have done such a wicked deed? And will this monster strike again? Indeed!

Aside from a slight overuse of exclamation points, Doyle’s The Silver Hatchet is a juicy escape into 19th-century Budapest psychometry and supernatural phenomena.

Read it here: http://www.conan-doyle.narod.ru/other/hatchet.htm

Another of Doyle’s supernatural stories with the element of silver is The Silver Mirror. It is a psycho-physiological study about an overworked, bleary-eyed accountant who begins to see strange people in an old beveled mirror: fierce faces, bearded, dark, and a beautiful but frightened woman. This is so suspenseful, the anticipation so intense, I dare you to stop reading it.

http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/14642/

My last entry today is a short YouTube link of Arthur Conan Doyle speaking about his creation of Sherlock Holmes character and his experience in spirituality and psychic matters. This 10-minute piece (recorded in 1927) is wonderfully authentic and informative if you are a fan.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWjgt9PzYEM

Enjoy! Do leave a comment and stop by every Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.

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The Ash Tree … Hollow, Haunted, and Deadly

The Ash Tree  by  M.R. James

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror, January 1, 2013

Ashtreegraveyard_scene

M.R. James (1862-1936) is known as the master of ghost stories. His tales are somewhat formulaic in that he sets his characters in ordinary life, creepy surroundings, and into this he lets the ominous enter. Much of James’ horror is implied and suggested in his famous chilling style. The Ash Tree is a story that can truly make you shiver. The dark and gloomy house Castringham Hall in Suffolk is not without a history of 17th century witch-trials. We meet Sir Matthew Fell, his heir Sir Richard, and a particularly vengeful witch named Mrs. Mothersole, who, the story goes, is hanged for her crimes not far from the Hall. Witches, you might know, are especially fond of ash tree branches as they make quite fine brooms for zooming across the night sky.

In this old twisted ash tree that grows directly outside the windows of Castringham Hall, the branches touch the very glass of the bedroom windows. One evening Sir Matthew sees an odd moving creature scurry among the branches. In this thick moonlight, Sir Matthew can only make out that this blackened creature has more than four legs. The next day, Sir Matthew is found dead, swollen, and black in his locked bedroom, the window open to the branches.

Sir Richard succeeds Sir Matthew and inherits Castringham Hall, and Richard decides to build a family tomb on the property. But one grave in unhallowed ground must be removed.

Yep, you guessed it, they exhume the coffin of Mrs. Mothersole, the witch executed in the district. The sealed coffin is dug up, pried open, and …

And here is where M.R. James lets the ominous rule the rest of the delicious ghostly story, which has quite a fantastic climax.

Read it here, maybe on a windy night, by firelight, and near a window: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/24072/

But if you like stories to be read aloud to you, this version (15 minutes) is a real treat, read by Robert Powell from a shadowy English library under the flickering firelight. Superb! http://www.thinkatheist.com/group/atheistswholovehalloween/forum/topics/the-ash-tree-by-m-r-james

Also, I came across a short film of The Ash Tree (30 minutes) you might find fun: http://www.thinkatheist.com/group/atheistswholovehalloween/forum/topics/the-ash-tree-by-m-r-james

Please leave a comment and stop back every Tuesday for another classic Tale of Terror.

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