Merely raw materials

Lamb House and garden, from the south

Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991

‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb

A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?

The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.

What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.

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When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

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A wistful longing

Robert Macfarlane: The Gifts of Reading
Penguin Books 2017 (2016)

This short essay — just 34 pages of text in A6 format — is a paean or hymn to reading, giving, and books. In fact, one book in particular which he was given as a present, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Macfarlane then uses this as a springboard to discourse on what moves him: teaching, talking and travelling, companionship, landscape and nature.

I can’t begin to grasp or comprehend all that the author has read, visited or achieved but there is no doubting that the writer of last year’s unexpected bestseller The Lost Words (illustrated by Jackie Morris) is someone who lives life to the full and exults in all he puts his mind to. In describing Leigh Fermor’s book he describes it thus:

I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out — to walk into adventure.

It’s clear that he finds so much of what he comes across in his reading as inspiring. He’s not without humour; he declares that “not all books received as gifts are transformative, of course. Sometimes the only thing a book gives its reader is a paper cut.” But from being given books that expand both his mind and his horizons he makes it his habit to do the same, in the hopes that recipients will likewise find inspiration.

The back cover of this slim booklet tells us that all proceeds from its sale are donated to Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The charity’s mission is designed to provide desperately-needed search and rescue services to people attempting dangerous sea crossings while fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. Such migrants are travellers who don’t have the liberty to journey for leisure or pleasure. The purchase of this publication may therefore in some small way help a few of those who are in most desperate need of aid, one of the many ways in which reading can prove to be a gift.

Mainline in miniature

Southern Maid

Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
RH&DR 2016

Combine our fascination with small-scale models, dolls and simulacra of all kinds with the romance of railways (especially steam engines) and what do you get? Miniature railways of course! These naturally range from toy train sets to model railway layouts and beyond, including quite small locos that can pull a couple of extended families round a circular track; but I want to talk about a more ambitious type of miniature railway.

Often described (and with initials in capital letters too!) as The World’s Smallest Public Railway, the RH&DR was from the start conceived and built in the first third of the twentieth century as a miniature version of its bigger siblings, running on 15-inch gauge, with engines and rolling stock roughly one-third the size we’d expect to encounter.

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A heart-warming tale with a twist

First snowfall: Pembrokeshire road

Joan Aiken The Shadow Guests Red Fox 1992

Joan Aiken was one of those children’s fantasy writers who made the task of reading her books not a task at all, just a pleasure to slip between the sheets and lose yourself in the narrative. Her command of story and speech seems so effortless yet true to life.

The Shadow Guests opens in a 20th-century airport, Heathrow, with a youngster waiting to be collected by a relative, an opening so unlike many Aiken novels as to feel incongruous. There is a mystery surrounding Cosmo’s family back in Australia, a mystery which gradually unfolds itself but which sets up an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety which maintains itself right through to the end.

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Spooky portal fantasy

Neil Gaiman: Coraline. The Graphic Novel
Adapted and illustrated by P Craig Russell
Colourist: Lovern Kindzierski; letterer: Todd Klein
Bloomsbury 2008

Gaiman’s Coraline is a chilling portal fantasy, a warped version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) as seen through a distorting prism, and here impressively presented in graphic novel form. Coraline’s family moves to a flat in an old decaying mansion, but her parents are too wrapped up in themselves and their work to pay much attention to her. In her boredom, exasperated at the rather dotty aged residents in the other flats, she explores the house and eventually finds a locked door.

Though it’s bricked up she soon somehow finds herself through on the other side, only to find herself confronted by a psychic vampire of an ‘other’ mother with button eyes, eventually becoming trapped in a nightmare existence. However, just as Alice had both her Dinah and the Cheshire Cat, Coraline has a feline helper as adviser and companion, guiding her through the labyrinth and assisting her with the tricksy obstacles the other mother puts in her way.

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