Friday, 26 August 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Tales from the Playground

I can trace my love of folklore back deep into my childhood. A huge inspiration for myself, and I daresay many of us growing up in the '60s, '70s, and '80s were the wonderful retellings of all manner of folk tales and legends from all round the world in the books of Ruth Manning-Sanders. However I also had a more personal connection. I grew up in the little village of Aycliffe in the North-east of England, and at the little village school I attended there was something of a craze for telling spooky stories. Quite how or why this pass-time took off I am not entirely sure, but what I can tell you is that is was very popular, and it seemed to be something more than just some passing fad. There was a great deal of kudos in having a popular tale to tell, with the keepers of the best stories being sought out at play-time or over the lunch-break to spin their out their stories for new audiences.

I heard a great many stories back then that have stuck with me to this day, and often because more than a few them made bed-time a troubling prospect. But over the years I have been able to uncover the origins of a large number of them. When writing of the strange tales children tell each other in A School Story, that great writer of ghost stories MR James remarked -
I imagine, if you were to investigate the cycle of ghost stories, for instance, which the boys at private schools tell each other, they would all turn out to be highly-compressed versions of stories out of books
Now being a lecturer and a teacher himself, the good doctor was bang on the money here. And what he observed of schoolyard tales back at the start of the 20th century was still very true in my playground some sixty years later. Indeed, a good number of the stories I heard, that were retold with all the appropriate hushed tones and lurid details, were exactly as James described: concise reworkings of tales from books. For example, I particularly remember hearing a version of the WW Jacobs's famous chiller The Monkey's Paw; in fact this was my first encounter with a version of this famous short story. However of course, this playground version had a few details changed - most notably that at the tale's climax, the front door is opened to reveal in gruesome detail the mangled and rotted corpse that has been called up from the grave.

Furthermore, another large proportion of these little stories were what we would now term urban legends. And indeed I heard a great many of the classics during my school's spooky story craze - ones I'm sure most of you will at least know of, if not heard in your own youth - The HookThe Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, the Killer in the Backseat, and of course the great-daddy of the all The Phantom Hitchhiker. Now typically, many of these tales were embellished in various ways depending upon the teller, and it is interesting to note that the first three famous tales I mentioned, plus a good many other little stories of death and murder, I first heard as being incidents in the blood-soaked career of the same killer, a monster known only as Jordan.

"and Jordan was bouncing all the children's bloody cut-off heads on the bed..." 

Now there was no definite description of Jordan; he was always a somewhat shadowy figure. But according to the lore passed around my playground, Jordan was a cannibal and an insane killer, often escaped from a nearby asylum. But there were dark hints that he was something more: I vividly remember a grim-faced little girl in a woolly hat solemnly proclaiming that he was, and I quote, "half man, half ghost". However despite his unclear origins and nature, what all the various stories of his gruesome escapdes agreed upon was Jordan's weapon of choice - he committed his acts of horror with his abnormally long and sharp finger nails. They were as lethal as bayonets and just as strong, capable allegedly of piercing brick and concrete... Well, at least according to leading Jordan authority Little Miss Wooly Hat, and obviously back then, I had no cause to doubt her.

Most infamously for me, in a scene that haunted my nightmares for years, was the Jordan version of the climax of the tale of the Hook. Just like the classic incarnation of the story, at the end the girlfriend disobeys the police and looks round to see what is on the roof of the car. And discovers that, as usual, the tapping noise she has been hearing is the demented killer banging her boyfriend's severed head on the car roof. However in my local version, Jordan actually had the dripping head, and now partially gnawed head, impaled on his long talon-like nails!  

Now of course, I'm sure many of you are stroking your chins and formulating all kinds of theories that our local bogey-man Jordan was clearly inspired by kids hearing garbled reports of that 1980s horror superstar Freddy Krueger. But the interesting thing is, I was hearing these tales of this monstrous maniac with finger knives in the early 1970s, a good decade before Wes Craven first brought the infamous dream-killer to the screen. However I suspect I am not alone in getting an extra dose of the chills from the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie, as for pupils of a certain village school circa the mid 1970s, old Fred Krueger appeared to be a figure from our own childhood nightmares come to life...

Another iconic character with knife-like, super-strong talons that could have served as an inspiration is of course that famous X-Man, Wolverine. However delving into comics history, I was hearing the blood-splattered tales of Jordan a good while before Wolverine would become a familiar face for British comic book readers. The famous mutant and his retractable claws had only appeared in late 1974, and it would be another few years before he became one of Marvel's stars. He certainly hadn't made it into the Marvel reprint comics that were appearing in UK newsagents at the time, and if I recall correctly he didn't even appear in the Marvel Superheroes Top Trumps set that came out in 1977 which '70s kids regarded as the ultimate guide to the Marvel heroes and villains.

I also have wondered whether our local monster was perhaps inspired another famous character. In the '70s, the BBC produced a two and a half hour version of Dracula, which starred Louis Jourdan as the Count. And what's more, in this version Bram Stoker's undead villain was seen sporting long and sharp nails. Had some imaginative child seen part of this production and been inspired? Or perhaps a more likely scenario is that some kid saw a trailer for this forth-coming production and seen an image of a sinister man with pointy nails and heard the star's name... However as plausible as that might be for the genesis of my childhood bogeyman, as this production of Dracula screened at Christmas 1977, just before we moved away from the village, unfortunately Louis Jourdan's Count is arriving too late on the scene to inspire all those blood-thirsty tales I heard.

Louis Jourdan as Dracula

It is a fair bet I think that some kid at some point thought it would be cool if all these much passed around tales of murderers and madmen could be the work of one super-maniac. However I would love to know the inspiration for the name, but I suspect I'll never know where the long-taloned cannibal killer really came from. And perhaps that's for the best - monsters are always scarier the less you know about them...

Thursday, 25 August 2016

FOLKLORE FLASHBACK #4 - The Mystery of the Hammersmith Ghost

In the early 1800s, London was a very different place to the brightly lit city that it is today. This London was a maze of winding streets and dark lanes, and a dangerous place to be out and about in after nightfall. And one winter there came a tale of spectre haunting Hammersmith...

This dread phantom did not only terrorise the good citizens of Hammersmith, but when it was reportedly physically attacking folks, vigilantes joined the hunt... Which would lead to one of the odder trials ever to take place in the Old Bailey...

 Discover what exactly occurred in the curious case of the Hammersmith Ghost here! 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

FROM THE GREAT LIBRARY OF DREAMS 22 - The Hounds of Tindalos

This week Mr Jim Moon invites you to take a place by the fireside in the Great Library of Dreams to delve into the dread world of the Cthulhu Mythos. And we'll learn an important lesson about messing about with mystic drugs and the mathematics of the fourth dimension... For in the angles of Time lurk some exceeding foul things... 

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - The Hounds of Tindalos

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Thursday, 18 August 2016

FOLKLORE FLASHBACK #3 - The Croglin Vampire

This week we are delving in the audio archives of my weekly podcast. A few years ago I did a little series of shows chatting about favourite monsters from childhood, and I got onto the subject of vampires, and in particular the legend of the Vampire of Croglin Grange... 

This week, Mr Jim Moon dusts off the great tome marked 'Favourite Childhood Monsters' and explores the world of the vampire. We examine the legend of the Croglin Vampire in depth, and along the way discuss the diverse nature of the undead, the difference between fictional blood-suckers such as Count Dracula and the actual vampires of folklore, and somewhat bizarrely, the wrappers of 1970s sweets...

Download the episode here -  Favourite Monsters: Vampires
Listen online  HERE

This week, Mr Jim Moon embarks on a perilous journey to hunt down the infamous Croglin Vampire. During the course of our investigations into this notorious case of British vampirism, along the way we'll meet such luminaries as occult scholar Montague Summers, the legendary Man In Black himself Valentine Dyall, and Sir Francis Varney, hero of epic Penny Dreadful Varney the Vampire! The truth is indeed out there... and it has fangs!

Download the episode here -  The Hunt for the Croglin Vampire
Listen online HERE 

The Croglin imagery mentioned in the shows can be found HERE

You can also hear a wonderful mix of ambient sounds and the extract I read from Varney the Vampire by Melmoth the Wanderer

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HYPNOGORIA is hosted by GeekPlanetOnline and is part of the ROGUE TWO Podcasting network.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

MICROGORIA 32 - Stranger Things II

Warning!  We are unlocking the curiosity door! 

In a second show on the marvellous Stranger Things, Mr Jim Moon is joined by Odile Thomas to embark on a SPOILER-FILLED discussion of the Duffer Brothers series that's taking the world by storm! 


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HYPNOBOBS HOME DOMAIN - Full archive, RSS feed and other useful links




MICROGORIA is hosted by GeekPlanetOnline and is part of the ROGUE TWO Podcasting network.

Friday, 12 August 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Riddle of the Churchyard Yew Part II

Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! that loves to dwell
‘Midst skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms:
Where light-heel’d ghosts, and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied, thick, perform their mystic rounds:
No other merriment, dull tree! is thine.

from The Grave, A Poem by Robert Blair 

Last week we began digging into an oft-debated mystery: why are graveyards planted with yew trees. And after debunking several commonly trotted out theories, we traced the association of the yew tree with death and funerals back to ancient times. As a writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (1781) surmises neatly for us - 
We read in the Antiquities of Greece and Rome that the branches of the cypress and yew were the usual signals to denote a house in mourning. Now, sir, as Death was a deity among the antients (the daughter of Sleep and Night), and was by them represented in the same manner, with the addition only of a long robe embroidered with stars, I think we may fairly conclude that the custom of planting the yew in churchyards took its rise from Pagan superstition, and that it is as old as the conquest of Britain by Julius Caesar.
And certainly we do have very good evidence of the yew and cypress being used in funeral customs in the United Kingdom during the Roman occupation. For example, in a very revered work by the pioneering polymath Sir Thomas Browne, entitled  Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, published in 1658, he notes that - 
 The funerall pyre consisted of sweet fuell, cypresse, firre, larix, yewe, and trees perpetuall verdant. 
And here we are perhaps getting closer to the heart of our riddle, for in Classical times, and often in the ancient pagan world too, cremation was more common than burials. Now yew wood burns at a very high temperature, and to cremate a  human body one does need a very hot fire to burn the bones. Furthermore, yews are highly aromatic, and so building a funeral pyre using timbers from resinous trees such as the ones listed by Browne has another very practical use - namely masking the smell of charred flesh. Now one of the reasons why cremation was so popular is the fact that fire was seen as cleansing, and there are of course many traditions which feature flames as a symbol of  spiritual purification. And once again on a practical level, cremating a body did effectively neutralise the threat of infection from decomposing corpses. 

 However on the subject of the yew in particular, Browne goes on to wonder -
Whether the planting of yewe in churchyards holds its original from ancient funerall rites, or as an embleme of resurrection from its perpetual verdure, may also admit conjecture.
Now this opens up another aspect of the yew tree - its evergreen nature. Now trees and plants that do not shed their leaves in winter have long had association with eternal life and rebirth. However one does wonder why it seems to be the darker and woodier yews and cypresses that have gained funereal associations. One hypothesis is that the link with death specifically came from the yew's poisonous nature. The tree was widely to believed to so toxic that is was dangerous even to sleep in its shade. And in fact there is some truth in this old piece of English folklore - for, if the weather is hot enough the yew tree's deadly toxins such as taxin, taxiphyllin, and ephedrine, can evaporate from the sap. And hence it is, theoretically at least, possible to become poisoned if one is sitting close by the trunk on a hot day.

But also I suspect there are also some underlying practical considerations that made the yew more associated with funerals and burials than other evergreens such as holly or ivy. Our ancestors may have been many centuries away from the discovery of bacteria, but they knew well enough there was a hazard of infection from the recently dead. Now to this day we associate the smell of coniferous trees with cleanliness, to the point it has entered our language - "pine fresh".  And I suspect this is why we find yew, cypress and other of the more resinous evergreen plants and trees being part of funeral decorations in many cultures - for their fresh scents were thought to clear the air of noxious vapours and unclean forces. And certainly it is a tradition that has crossed both the centuries and different cultures. The Oxford Book of English Folklore (2000) notes that up until the 19th century, it was a popular custom to lay boughs and wreaths of yew upon a coffin before burial, with several regional variants. For example in 18th century Somerset, the Reverend John Collinson records -
Our forebears were particularly careful in preserving this funeral tree whose branches it was usual for mourners to carry in solemn procession to the grave, and afterwards deposit therein under the bodies of their dear friends
from A History of Somersetshire Vol. 1 (1791)

Another interesting variation is found in Ireland, where boughs of yew trees are used in Palm Sunday parades. Indeed in some regions this special day in the run up to Easter is even known as Domhnach an Iúir, which means "Yew Sunday". Now some have theorised that yew branches were chosen for their supposed resemblance to palm leaves, however looking at the two trees it is hard to imagine any that are perhaps more dissimilar! Therefore I'm rather more inclined to suspect the yew was chosen for its funereal associations - for after all, Palm Sunday is the beginning of a series of events that will lead to the Crucifixion of Jesus. And it is especially fitting considering that the Yew tree also has folkloric connections to rebirth and eternal life as well as death.

As we remarked in the first part of this little investigation, yew trees are extraordinarily long lived, and they possess remarkable powers of regeneration. Indeed yew branches can actually reach down to the ground and burrow under the soil to throw up new stems, creating new trunks around themselves. And hence while the yew tree had a fearsome reputation thanks to its toxic nature, with the 17th botanist Nicholas Culpeper ominous proclaiming "the most active vegetable poison known in the whole world, for in a very small dose it instantly induces death without any previous disorder", our forebears were equally well aware of its resilience, longevity and its powers of regeneration. Truly it was a tree of both life and death.

Recent research into the age of yew trees certainly suggest that our ancient forebears were probably well aware of the tree's astonishing life-span. It is currently reckoned that one of the oldest living things in Europe is an ancient yew tree growing in St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog in Powys, and is believed to be more than five thousand years old! And this venerable tree is not alone: for example, the yew growing in the churchyard of Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland is reckoned to be in the region of three thousand years old, while the yew where King John alleged signed the Magna Carter, which stands in the now ruined priory of Ankerwycke in Berkshire has witnessed at least 2,000 years.  And modern tests have established that there are many more ancient trees still growing throughout the British Isles.

However this does rather raise a large question - for such ancient trees almost certainly predate the churches whose graveyards they stand in. All of which makes one wonder if there is perhaps more to the theory that the churches were constructed on ancient places of pagan worship. Now while we rightly pointed out last week, we actually know very little about the beliefs and practises of the Druids, however we do know considerably more about the culture of later pagan inhabitants of ancient Britain. After the Roman Empire collapsed, a new wave of colonists arrived but this time from Northern Europe. And rather than being the barbarous Vikings, beloved of historical cliches, a great many Norse, Scandinavian and Germanic folks came and peacefully settled in old England.

Now their religion revered a pantheon of gods and goddess, lead by the All-Father, most commonly known as Odin. Now in Norse mythology there were said to be nine worlds which were supported by the branches of an immense cosmic tree, Yggdrasil. And Odin had gained his wisdom, and not to mention his considerable powers of magic, by hanging himself on this world tree in a ritual of death and rebirth. Now for decades, scholars have referred to Yggdrasil as an ash-tree, however recent research, most notably by Fred Hageneder, has revealed that this is probably a mistranslation. For in the oldest sagas, and from where we gain much of our knowledge of Norse culture, Yggdrasil is referred to as vetgrønster vida which means "most evergreen tree", and as barraskr meaning "needle-ash". Hageneder therefore has claimed that Yggdrasil was actually a yew tree not an ash, and scholars have found that while there is no archaeological evidence for the ash being important in Norse rituals, there are many example of the yew tree being revered in their culture.

Now considering that Christianity co-existed with Norse and Germanic paganism for several centuries, with the Catholic Church only becoming properly established in the British Isles around the 6th century, and it taking another couple of centuries to completely convert the country, it is therefore very possible that some already ancient yew trees may have had some religious importance to the pagan locals, and hence churches were built nearby them. Clearly with modern research proving the incredible age of some of our churchyard yews, and the recent revelations of the nature of Yggdrasil, it perhaps time to have a closer look at the role of the Yew in ancient British paganism and how t relates to the history of Christianity in these isles.

Certainly the close links to both the Classical world and the Northern European pagan traditions we have uncovered certainly suggest that the yew tree has long been revered as a tree of life and death, and the seemingly ancient tradition of planting yews in graveyards is merely one of the more recent additions to the lore of this magical tree.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

FOLKLORE FLASHBACK #2 - The Fairy Coffins of Edinburgh

Now then, last year I did some investigation into a very curious case. In the early 19th century, a strange discovery was made just outside Edinburgh - a little tomb containing a cache of miniature coffins. Over the years these little caskets and weird occupants have been the source of much speculation, and here's what I could uncover...