Sunday, 31 May 2015

HYPNOGORIA 12 - Dark Entries: An Introduction to Robert Aickman

In this episode Mr Jim Moon takes a journey into the strange stories of Robert Aickman, exploring the life and works of this modern master of weird fiction, and taking a look inside his first collection of tales Dark Entries.

Jeremy Dyson's Aickman documentary for BBC Radio 4 The Unsettled Dust
The Dyson and Gatiss short film The Cicerones
CBS Nightfall version of Ringing the Changes

DIRECT DOWNLOAD - Dark Entries An Introduction to Robert Aickman

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Friday, 29 May 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Toads On the Whole

Late on Monday night a toad came into my study: and, though nothing has so far seemed to link itself with this appearance, I feel that it may not be quite prudent to brood over topics which may open the interior eye to the presence of more formidable visitants
MR JAMES, Stories I Have Tried To Write

The humble toad has often suffered from a somewhat bad reputation. While today many gardeners welcome the presence of a toad as they happily gobble up slugs and other pests, not that far back in history toads were considered bad news. Even in more recent sources from the early 20th century, folklore held that a toad entering the house signified an enemy nearby or that misfortune would come calling soon. A belief well illlustrated by our opening quote from MR James, first published first in November 1929.

However delving back further into older texts, we find a clear origin for this curious belief. In The History & Antiquities of Lyme Regis and Charmouth (1834) G Roberts tells us that - 
Toads that gained access to... a house were ejected with the greatest care, and no injury was offered, because they were regarded, as being used as familiars by witches, with veneration and awe.
And as recently as 1876 this belief persisted - Trans. Devon. Ass. 52 (Ashbourne) relates - 
He had a heart to work but no strength... One evening on entering his door, he saw a great toad which he killed with a pitchfork, and threw into the fire. The next evening he saw another... and did the same... He believes they were witches. Soon he recovered, and has not suffered the like since. 
Indeed as we have seen in previous articles on the English witch trials (see here) we have court records that alleged that witches possessed familiar spirits in the shape of toads that they sent out to cause ill. And evidently the sight of a toad remained ill-omened, in folklore at least,  long after the belief in witches and witchcraft dwindled away.

However the toad was associated with pestilence and poison long before the witch trials, and these beliefs evolved from biological rather than supernatural reasons. The  idea that toads are poisonous arises from their natural defences; most species of toad will secrete a substance that causes irritations to the skin to persuade predators to let the hapless amphibian go. And this was observed and documented by many ancient naturalists.

Now before the discovery of bacteria and viruses, diseases were thought to be caused by miasmas - clouds of diseased air. Damp or foul smelling places such as marshes, wetlands, dunghills, and caves were seen as prime sources of these poisoned airs. Now the medieval worldview operated on a 'like goes to like accordingly' philosophy, that is to say, things that were similar were somehow linked together. And hence it was thought that toads frequented marshes, sewers and middens in order to consume noxious humours and miasmas in order to create their poisonous secretions. As Shakespeare has one of his doomed heroes say -   

I had rather be a toad. 
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon

Othello, Act I Scene III

Indeed the toad was so closely associated with poison and disease that in ages past that the harmless animals were mistakenly thought to be venomous creatures. For example in Thomas of Monmouth's Life of St William of Norwich - whose modern edition was translated by MR James incidentally - it is said in the reign of King Stephen, who ruled from 1135 to 1154, that prisoners in dungeons suffered "enduring miserably cold, hunger, stench, and attacks of toads". While in the Second Continuation of Peterborough Chronicle, the entry for 1137 tells of the following dire fates for prisoners taken by King Stephen - 
They were hung by their thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains. They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. 
However the medieval histories contain an even more horrifying tale. Giraldus Cambrensis, better known as Gerald of Wales, was a clergymen of Welsh and Norman descent, who wrote many chronicles and travelogues. He was also a keen naturalist and a good many of his writings feature descriptions of the habits of local wildlife. However like many ancient scholars, Gerald was prone to mixing fact with folklore, and hence in his 1191 tome, Itinerarium Cambriae or Journey through Wales, we get the following (hopefully fictional) dire events that befell a unfortunate young man whom he names as "Seisyll Esgairhir, which means Longshanks". Gerald tells the following troubling tale -  
In our own days a young man who lived in this neighbourhood, and who was lying ill in bed, was persecuted by a plague of toads. It seemed as if the entire local population of toads had made an agreement to go to visit him. Vast numbers were killed by his friends and those looking after him, but they grew again like the heads of the Hydra. Toads came flocking from all directions, more and more of them, until no one could count them. In the end the young man's friends and the other people who were trying to help him were quite worn out. They chose a tall tree, cut off all its branches and removed all its leaves. Then they hoisted him up to the top in a bag. He was still not safe from his venomous assailants. The toads crawled up the tree looking for him. They killed him and ate him right up, leaving nothing but his skeleton. 
Yes, I know! It's like a tale from an 11th century Guy N Smith paperback! And some people say history is boring!

Anyhow, what is particularly fascinating is the reason that Gerald of Wales proffers for this horrific attack by  flesh-eating toads. One might expect that an Archdeacon such as Gerald would obviously be asserting that witchcraft was the cause of this horrible unnatural death. However while belief in witchcraft was strong in Gerald's time, interestingly the general attitude of the church in that era was that witchcraft and sorcery were the product of superstition, and it would be another few centuries before witch-hunting became an obsession in England.

Now this was partly because the clergy in the first centuries of the second millennium were intelligent enough to realise that most claims of witchcraft were sorely lacking in evidence and rather preposterous. But it was also partly due to the then current theological thinking, which asserted that humans could not command such supernatural powers - there was only one fellow who could do that, the Boss Upstairs! And this was illustrated in scripture with the story of the plagues that the Lord inflicted upon Egypt. And appropriately enough for this article, the key passages for this argument concern a plague of frogs, as recounted in the book of Exodus. In order to demonstrate His power,  the Lord had Moses call up swarms of frogs from the Nile. The Pharoah's magicians then demonstrated that they too could make frogs appear but their conjuring could not get rid of the teeming amphibians. Hence the Lord instructed Moses to ask the Pharoah when he would like the bratchian plague to vanish, and so the beleaguered ruler named a date, and duly the Big Fella made all the frogs disappear. God 1, Pharoah 0.

Therefore being a theologian, and knowing his scriptures well, Gerald concluded that this toad horror death must be a judgement from God, and therefore just. Although he does concede "it is sometimes hard to understand". Gerald also mentions that he has heard of "another man was persecuted the same way by a large species of rodents, called rats" but that's a story for another day...

So then considering these medieval horror tales concerning toads, it's no surprise that, regardless of the association with witchcraft, you really wouldn't want a toad in your house to start with. I mean, they might not just poison you with venom but actually strip the flesh from your bones! However much like that other historically much maligned animal. the black cat, not all superstitions held that meeting a toad was ill luck. Indeed in some places it was said that a toad in the house or crossing your path was a sign of good luck to come. Furthermore despite their reputation for being noxious and toxic, toads were thought to possess some very useful properties. And hence as we will discover next week when we explore the various remedies derived from parts of toads, it was often very bad luck for a toad to cross your path... if you happened to the toad that is!  

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #11 - The Doctor Who Monster Book (1975)

Alright, alright, I admit that strictly speaking this isn't a tome of weird fiction! However back in 1975 when this was released, Doctor Who was the scariest show on TV. Now obviously that had a certain amount to do with me being only 6 at the time, but at the same time it was during the mid '70s that this long running SF show was at its most frightening. Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor had fought all manner of monstrous foes, including killer shop dummies, giant telepathic spiders and an alien Devil, but it was at the beginning of Tom Baker's reign as the Fourth Doctor that the show moved further into horror territory. Along with the new Doctor came a new producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, and a new script editor, Robert Holmes, who would for the next three seasons steered the show into stories that were a sublime blend of SF and gothic horror. 

In this era, the Doctor would not only face some of his most iconic enemies such as the Davros, Weng Chiang, and the Zygons, but also encounter Egyptian mummies (Pyramids of Mars), Quatermass style killer plants from space (Seeds of Doom), anti-matter werewolvery (Planet of Evil), and deep sea Frankenstein experiment (Brain of Morbius). And all this in addition to battles with established monsters such as the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Sontarans. 

Hence with the show mining this rich, deep vein of outer space terror, the time was ripe for a special volume celebrating all the marvelous monsters and villains of Doctor Who. Now publisher Target already had launched their now legendary range of paperback novelizations of classic Who stories, and were keen to expand. However The Doctor Who Monster Book was no paperback, instead it was a large format book, featuring 64 glorious pages packed full of information and pictures. The concise but detailed text was by veteran writer Terrance Dicks, who had not only written scripts for Doctor Who, but served as script editor, and authored many of the Target novels, so we were in safe hands here! The full rogues gallery featured was - 
  • Daleks
  • Ogrons
  • Exxilons and Bellal 
  • Davros
  • Cybermen
  • Vogans
  • Ice Warriors
  • Monster of Peladon aka Aggedor
  • Yeti
  • Autons
  • Silurians and Sea Devils
  • Sontarans featuring Styre and Linx
  • Zarbi
  • Sensorites
  • Mechanoids
  • Axons
  • Mining Robot and Guardian
  • Dæmons and Bok
  • Omega and Gell guards
  • Draconians
  • Giant Maggots
  • Dinosaurs
  • Spiders from Metebellis III
  • Giant Robot aka K1
  • Wirrn
  • Zygons  
And if all that wasn't exciting enough, the first edition came with a gorgeous poster reproducing the lovely Chris Achilleos cover. 

The selection of baddies included in this tome mostly comprises of the then recent additions to the canon, featuring monsters from much of the Pertwee era and the first couple of Baker seasons. However coming out during a golden age of the show has meant that now its contents do read like best of classic Who monsters. Looking at it today as a long time fan of the show, it's only the inclusion of the Exxilons, Bellal and the Mining Robot that really jump out as being vogueish inclusions from the time of publication, monsters would be replaced by the likes of the Mara or Sil if this book was covering the entire run of the classic series.

And there is another change Time has wrought - these days the internet is awash with this kind of material; there are whole sites that detail the history and lore of popular fiction universes. However back in 1975, while it was aimed at the children's market, this volume was one of the only reference books available on Doctor Who.  Yes, there were regular Doctor Who Annuals every Christmas (see here for more information on the humble annual) - but these rarely included much about the show's past or history. And so, in the mid '70s the only reference books available were this volume, The Making of Doctor Who (also from Target) and the Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special if you were lucky enough to pick up a copy in 1973. The Doctor Who Monster Book was therefore not just the only encyclopedia style reference work on Doctor Who available at the time, but also the first of its kind.

Furthermore this was well before the dawn of the home video age, which meant you could only revisit the old stories through the Target novelizations, and this book was the only way to see actually see the old monsters. Hence for a fan of the show, this book was as valuable as if it were printed on gold! And I can't describe how utterly thrilling it was to look at the photos in this volume, a glimpse into stories now vanished into the ether. Back then we never dreamed that you would be able see, let alone own, copies of these classic serials, and hence The Doctor Who Monster Book was like a rare tome of elder lore, a bestiary of lost creatures and monsters from the inaccessible past! Needless to say my copy was literally read until it fell to bits! 

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Call me a picky Holmesian purist, but I don't think that was quite what Sir Arthur had in mind....

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world

Sunday, 24 May 2015

TOMEGORIA 07 - The Great God Pan

Odile and Jim delve into the mysteries of The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, tracing the influence of this weird fiction classic and unraveling its hidden horrors...

The statue mentioned in the show can be seen here - WARNING: NOT SAFE FOR WORK!


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Friday, 22 May 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Fairy Finds III: The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan Castle

In 1772, the noted Welsh naturalist and antiquarian Thomas Pennant went on a tour of Scotland, visiting all manner of places in that fair country. However while on the Isle of Skye he dropped in at Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the McLeod clan and there he was shown a curious artifact, that coincidentally linked to his own name; an ancient flag with a strange history which Mr Pennant carefully recorded for us:
Here is preserved the Braolauch shi, or fairy flag of the family, bestowed on it by Titania the Ben-shi, or wife to Oberon king of the fairies. She blessed it at the some time with powers of the first importance, which were to be exerted on only three occasions: but on the last, after the end was obtained, an invisible Being is to arrive and off standard and standard bearer, never more to be seen. 
from A Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides 1772 (John Monk 1774)

Pennant went on to relate how the flag had its own specially designated family of bearers and how the flag had indeed been unfurled three times - 
A family of Clan y Faitter had this dangerous office, and held by it, free lands in Bracadale. The flag has been produced thrice. the first time in an unequal engagement against the Clan-Roland, to whose fight the Macleods were multiplied ten-fold. The second preserved the heir of the family, being then produced to save the longings of the lady:  and the third time, to save my own; but it was so tattered, that Titania did not seen to think it worth sending for.
And thus the world came to know the legend of the Fairy Flag of the McLeods. A few decades later, at the close of the 18th century, Norman McLeod described the flag as "a piece of very rich silk, with crosses wrought on it with gold thread, and several elf spots stitched with great care on different parts of it", but now the colours are so faded the darned gold crosses and elf spots are barely visible. But the antique banner was carefully preserved, and indeed is still displayed in the Drawing Room of Dunvegan Castle.

Since Thomas Pennant's visit to Skye, numerous legends have emerged about the flag's origins, if you'll pardon the pun, embroidering Pennant's concise account. While several of these tales recorded in the 19th century claim to be based in older traditions, we obviously cannot rule out that some were not actually genuine folklore but stories crafted to bolster the relic's status and indeed play into the Victorian fascination with faeries. The excellent Faerie Folklorist has an excellent article here collecting and dating the various tales that have appeared down the years that describe how the McLeods received this gift from the Fair Folk. 

And over the years the flag was ascribed more powers too, with Sir Walter Scott recording that it was said to have the power to cure cattle of illness, bring fertility when spread out on a lady's bed, and also brought herring to the nearby loch. It is also said that the flag magically extinguished a fire in Dunvegan Caste in 1938, and that during the Second World War, the 28th chief of McLeods, Dame Flora McLeod offered to unfurl it on the White Cliffs of Dover to defeat Hitler! 

But where did the flag actually come from? Mr Pennant theorised that it might date back to Viking times, noting the strong influence of the Norse in Scotland and drawing parallels to Scandinavia legends of heroes carrying magic banners. And while this was a fine hypothesis, modern science however indicates a different origin - when the flag was examined by experts from the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early 20th century, it was concluded that the flag was made out of silk from either Syria or Rhodes. And as the Mcleods can trace their lineage back to one Harald Hardarada, a Norwegian king who spent fifteen years in exile as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire, we therefore have here a likely first owner. Interestingly further expert analysis has suggested that the silk was probably manufactured in the Middle East but between the 4th and 7th centuries - in other words several centuries before the First Crusade. This means that  the decorated silk was already an ancient relic even in the days of Harald Hardrada, and hence a worthy prize to carry off from the Holy Lands. 

So then like the Luck Of Edenhall, here we have an artifact most likely brought back from the Near East gaining a fairy origin when the real history was forgotten. Or rather almost forgotten, for one of the earliest tales of the flag's mysterious origins does have a McLeod getting the magical banner in the East - writing in Notes on the Relics preserved in Dunvegan Castle, Skye, F Macleod recounts a tale found in a manuscript dating from 1800 -
The legend of its origin is that a MacLeod who had gone on a Crusade to the Holy Land when returning home in the garb of a pilgrim was benighted on the borders of Palestine in a wild and dangerous mountain pass, where by chance he met a hermit who gave him food and shelter. The hermit told him that an evil spirit guarded the pass and never failed to destroy the true believer; but by the aid of a piece of the true Cross and certain other directions given by the hermit this MacLeod vanquished and slew the 'She Devil' called Nein a Phaipen, or Daughter of Thunder, around whose loins this banner had been tied; and that in reward for conveying certain secrets which she wished some earthly friends to know she revealed the future destinies of the Claim to her conqueror, in whose family this knowledge was supported to be deposited to its final extinction, and desired that her girdle should be converted into this banner, which was to be attached to her spear, which became the staff which is now lost. The secrets were never known and are likely to remain unknown forever, although many editions have been recited.
So far as I can uncover, there is no established mythology or folklore relating to the Daughters of Thunder, and so must conclude that this was merely a title given to this alleged "evil spirit". And to make some further educated guesses, the fact that she delivers prophecies to our McLeod in return to carrying messages to her friends, rather suggests that this "evil spirit" was more likely a local wise woman or witch rather than a supernatural being. But given that she was alleged to guard a certain mountain pass through which pilgrims traveled, there are some explanations for why Nein a Phaipen had gained a bad reputation. 

It is possible that she had some kind of shrine or retreat there, and could have been dubbed a 'She Devil' for either holding beliefs or worship that were deemed heretical, or even just taking tolls or tithes from passing pilgrims without the local clergy's sanction. Equally plausible in the times of the Crusades is the possibility taht she was operating as a bandit preying on those passing travelers. Pilgrimages were a hazardous business, with the faithful being easy pickings for outlaws and brigands, and indeed many a fortune were made offering armed escorts and protection to parties of pilgrims. 

Weighing up the possibilities, I would suggest that the legend above has more than a grain of truth in it. And it seems very likely that the flag began life as a trophy taken from some mountain recluse, possibly originally given freely as payment for passing on messages, or looted from a shrine or robbers' horde. However as stories about the adventures of Crusaders and pilgrims began to fade in the public imagination, and tales romancing the landscape and history of the British Isles, particularly the Celtic legends and English faery lore became more popular, the flag gained an origin both closer to home and more rooted in the Otherworld. 

A Trilogy of Terrors by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As it is the anniversary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's birth, here is a little free gift for you all! A little ebook I made a while ago collection three of my favourite weird tales by Sir Arthur!

A Trilogy of Terrors by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ebook

Download for Kindle (mobi format)

Download in EPUB format

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #10 - The Devil's Children ed. Michael Parry

In the late '60s, there had been something of an occult revival, with all manner of mysticism, witchcraft and black magic finding its way into pop culture, as the new generation explored a host of alternative beliefs and ideas. However in 1973 things hit a peak with the release of William Friedkin's adaptation of William Peter Blatty's  novel The Exorcist. The novel became a global bestseller and the movie was a worldwide box office smash, making The Devil not only hip, but very good business too. 

Naturally there was a whole wave of similarly Satanic themed books and movies following not only after. At the time in the UK, publishers were still doing good business with legions of horror anthologies, and naturally in the Exorcist boom years a good few were produced in a demonic vein. And one such anthology was The Devil's Children, assembled by one of the legends of horror anthologies the late great Mr Michael Parry. 

Parry, who sadly passed away last year, was one of the holy trinity of editors alongside Peter Haining and Richard Davis, names I soon learned and indeed loved in my early years as a weird fiction fan. He curated many excellent collections of weird fiction, but The Devil's Children has a special place in my heart as the first of his anthologies I ever read. And nostalgia aside it's still a cracking round-up of tales about demons and exorcists - see for yourself! 

Enoch by Robert Bloch
Father Meuron’s Tale by R. H. Benson
Vacant Possession by Ramsey Campbell
The Horla by Guy De Maupassant
The Thing on the Doorstep by H. P. Lovecraft
Saunder’s Little Friend by August Derleth
A Porta Inferi by 'Roger Pater' (Dom Gilbert Roger Hudlestone)
The Lips by Henry S. Whitehead
From Shadowed Places by Richard Matheson
The Unspeakable Betrothal by Robert Bloch
Isabo by J. A. Cuddon
The Possession of Angela Bradshaw by John Collier

There's no doubt about it, we have some of the brightest and the best here, along side a few surprises. The likes of Lovecraft, Bloch and Matheson surely need no introduction, and while back when this book was published he was still a young writer making ripples in the horror pond, Ramsey Campbell is now a big fish too. John Collier is a big name too, and while not known for his macabre fiction, he is widely recognised as one of the masters of the short tale. Weird fiction fans will also recognize August Derleth, Henry S Whitehead and RH Benson. Whitehead's The Lips is regarded as one of his finest stories, as is Father Meuron's Tale by RH Benson, brother of noted ghost story writers EF Benson and AC Benson. Maupassant's The Horla of course is a bona fide classic, and while it is more commonly thought of a vampiric tale, in truth it works just as well as a story of demonic invasion. 

Aside from a top flight selection of tales and writers, what makes The Devil's Children such fun is the diversity in the tales. Of course we have the traditional confrontations between priests and the possessed as you would expect, but Parry serves up a wide menu of demoniac terrors. Good old Robert Bloch gives us a tale of backwoods American witchcraft in Enoch, and then later gives us a far stranger tale of  unholy pacts with otherworldly powers in The Unspeakable Betrothal which plays with hints from the Cthulhu Mythos but without being the usual Mythos tale. Whitehead and Matheson bring us tales not of Christian devils but of the more exotic sorceries of voodoo and juju, while Ramsey Campbell gives us a hallucinatory nightmare of woodland witchcraft and elemental possession. JA Cuddon's Isabo is horrific but rich in jet black humour and John Collier ends the collection with his tongue in his cheek and a knowing devilish wink. 

While there have been many short story collections themed around witchcraft, possession and black magic, there are few as rich and varied as The Devil's Children, and fewer still that featured such a talented roster of writers. It's a great introduction to the anthologies of Michael Parry, and one any armchair discipline of the dark arts should have their shelves.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


The Undying Monster was first published back in 1922, and was made into a movie of the same name back in 1942 (see Hypnobobs 86  for more details). And this tale of a lycanthropic curse was popular enough to remain in print until the '70s and the dawn of the age of the photo cover... Bit unfortunate that really...

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world


By the fireside in the Great Library of Dreams, Mr Jim Moon presents the second and final part of his complete and unabridged reading of Arthur Machen's classic novel of the weird The Great God Pan

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  The Great God Pan Part II

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Sunday, 17 May 2015


By the fireside in the Great Library of Dreams, Mr Jim Moon presents a special two part podcast - a complete and unabridged reading of Arthur Machen's classic novel of the weird The Great God Pan

Part II will be released very soon...

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  The Great God Pan Part I

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Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Great God Pan Theme

As a teaser for the forthcoming reading of Arthur Machen's classic novel of weird terror, coming soon on the Hypnobobs podcast, here is the opening theme composed by Mr Jim Moon and the Eldritch Light Orchestra


Friday, 15 May 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - The Berkeley Toad

Byatis by Luis Nessi

One of the more entertaining aspects of writing this little series of articles on folklore is the fact that my researches often throw up a huge number of surprises. Often these are the unexpected connections between different things, surprisingly ancient origins for common customs, or simply discovering that the received wisdom on a particular topic is complete hogwash. But every now and then, you unearth something that will give you a little chill...

Over the last week or so, I've been researching the folklore that has grown up around toads; and a very fascinating area of study it is too, as you will discover in the coming weeks. Now then, I was just doing a bit of digging, hoping to discover more about a secretive group of yesteryear called the Toadmen, when I chance upon an article discussing a creature that I was fairly sure was the invention of a favourite author of mine. Now as regular readers of my Great Ghosts of the Shelves articles will know, I have long been a devotee of the fiction of Mr Ramsey Campbell. So then it was something of a strange surprise to find an article by a cryptozoologist on a being that I had always assumed to be one of his creations. 

Mr Campbell began his writing career at an early age, having his first weird short stories published while still a teenager. And in these early years he had fallen under the spell of HP Lovecraft, as many of us do at that age, and hence his first tales were stories in a Lovecraftian vein, expanding the canon of the Cthulhu Mythos. Following his hero's lead, Campbell constructed a milieu of fictional towns, located in the Severn Valley, where his own pantheon of evil Elder Gods and beings from Outside brought the gifts of madness and death to all those disturbing their ancient slumbers. One such early tale was entitled The Box in the Priory, which under the mentoring of Lovecraft's friend and publisher August Derleth, would become The Room in the Castle. And this tale would appear in Campbell's first book, published in 1964 by Arkham House, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (and can also be found in the Campbell anthologies Cold Print 1985, Dark Feasts 1987, and Alone With the Horrors 1993) which collected together these Lovecraftian pastiches from our young author. 

Now Cthulhu Mythos tales are very much exercises in myth making with writers inventing monsters, alien races and demon gods that haunt accursed places and are referenced in blasphemous grimoires and ancient legends. The approach was pioneered by Lovecraft, who being rather disappointed by conventional occult lore and feeling the likes of ghosts and vampires were a bit too familiar to be frightening, decided to create his own horrors and constructed their own histories and myths to give them life. Other authors - at first friends of Lovecraft such as August Derleth, Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch, but later new generations of writers - joined in the game, dropping names and references picked up from each others stories, weaving together a new dark mythos. 

Therefore The Room in the Castle, like many Cthulhu Mythos tales, takes an obscure name found in an earlier story and spins a new yarn with it. In this case, Campbell had picked up on a reference in a Robert Bloch story entitled The Shambler from the Stars (first published in Weird Tales, September 1935). In this tale  Bloch (the man who would later write classics such as Psycho) has his narrator say "I recall allusions to such gods of divination as Father Yig, dark Han, and serpent-bearded Byatis". And as no one else had written anything about the last in that roll call of ancient evil, Campbell decided to pen a story about the snake-fringed Byatis. Hence in the tale we learn the monster god was accidentally freed from its in a primordial tomb by the Romans in ancient Britain, and had haunted the Severn Valley for centuries ever since. Byatis's manifestations was the dark truth behind a local legend of a monster known as the Berkeley Toad, and the alien horror would later be captured by a wicked nobleman who practiced the dark arts, who trapped the horror in a dungeon in the ruins of a crumbling Norman castle. It is a fun little story, and given that it has been reprinted in two best of collections, it's fair to say it's one of the better Lovecraftian pastiches the young Campbell wrote. And indeed it is a favourite of mine too, and not just because its hero is a researcher into folklore!   

So then, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a site relating the tales of the Berkeley Toad as actual fact. At first, I simply assumed that this was merely the product of the kind of sloppy journalism for which the interwebs are notorious. And the paucity of the results yielded by an initial causal Googling seemed to confirm this, with the Berkeley Toad only appearing on pages relating to Byatis, the Cthulhu Mythos and of course Mr Ramsey Campbell. However one should never give up after the first attempt, and with some more extensive and careful searching, I discovered to my surprise that actually the reverse was true - that what I had assumed to be a fictional entity was in fact real. Or rather, a real life legend I should say...

Now it is fair to say that this is a rather obscure local tale, and I had trouble in finding sources for some of the claims in the original article, and its recounting of Romans discovering a curious tomb sound suspiciously like a garbled version of Campbell's backstory for Byatis. However I have established the following facts...

Berkeley is a small market town in Gloucestershire, and indeed just like in Campbell's story there is a Norman castle there. However rather than being the isolated ruin of the tale, Berkeley Castle is still in relatively good order and is the home of the Berkeley family - indeed it is the one of oldest continuously inhabited castles in England.  However in the Morning Room of the castle there is a curious carving which depicts a monstrous toad-like thing squatting upon two human heads. More curious still, a very similar carving of a toad and two heads is found carved on a corbel in a local church, St. Marys. And significantly this carving adorns the chapel of the Berkeley family tombs.

Toad carving in the Morning Room of Berkeley Castle

According to the conventional wisdom, these carving are supposedly what is often called a sermon in stone. The medieval world had a complex system of symbolism, and hence many odd features in old churches that feature seemingly un-Christian things are actually visual lessons using this  language of imagery. In the medieval mind toads were associated with poison (for they secrete toxins as a defence) and romantic jealousy (due to their breeding habits where several males will attempt to mount the same female), therefore these two Berkeley carvings are traditionally interpreted as warnings on the sins of gossip and envy, with the toad figure poisoning the minds of two women as they speak. 

However local legend has a different interpretation - allegedly the carvings show not two women but two children, a pair of unfortunates who were gobbled up by the monstrous toad!  Now quite where the horrible creature came from I have been unable to ascertain, but it was claimed that the skin of the beast was exhibited in Berkeley Castle. In his 1837 tome A History of British Quadrupeds including the Cetacea zoologist Thomas Bell quotes an associate, a Mr Broderip who relates the tale in a letter -
The legend ran, that this was the great toad which inhabited the dungeons of the castle, and victimised the captives. Two of his own children were said to have been sacrificed to this monster by a Marquis of Berkeley of the olden time. I remember hearing the tale from our old nurse, and afterwards venturing to dispute the truth of the story. I can see her now, with her close white cap and shaking head, reproving me for my want of faith, and settling the question, as she thought, by solemnly announcing that the skin of the toad was still seen at the castle.
Delving further into the matter, I discovered that in the early 1600s, a faithful servant, John Smyth of Nibley,  the steward of the castle, had compiled a history of both the Berkeley family and their home. And in these voluminous writings, which historians have named The Berkeley Mss.,  Symth writes -
Out of which dungeon in the likenes of a deepe broad well goinge steepely down in the midst of the Dungeon Chamber in the said Keepe, was (as tradition tells,) drawne forth a Toad, in the time of Kinge Henry the seventh, of an incredible bignes, which, in the deepe dry dust in the bottom thereof, had doubtlesse lived there divers hundreds of yeares; whose portraiture in just demension, as it was then to me affirmed by divers aged persons, I sawe, about 48 years agone, drawne in colours upon the doore of the Great Hall and of the utter side of the stone porch leadinge into that hall; since, by pargettors or pointers of that wall washed out or outworne with time; which in bredth was more then a foot, neere 16 inches, and in length more. Of which monstrous and outgrowne beast the inhabitants of this towne, and in the neighbour villages round about, fable many strange and incredible wonders; makinge the greatnes of this toad more than would fill a peck, yea, I have heard some, who looked to have beleife, say from the report of their Fathers and Grandfathers that it would have filled a bushell or strike, and to have beene many yeares fed with flesh and garbage from the butchers; but this is all the trueth I knowe or dare believe.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with archaic measurements, the terms mentioned were weights for dry goods - a peck was two gallons, a bushel was eight gallons (four pecks), and a strike was sixteen gallons (or two bushels). So then we have a beast that was several feet in size - far from Godzilla proportions of course, but all the same a toad, an animal usually only a few inches long, that was the size of a large sack of grain would indeed be a "strange and incredible wonder". And more to the point, big enough to chomp on people...
Corbel in St. Marys

Here we also have the origin of the legendary beast - an old well deep in the castle dungeons. However it is interesting to note that as the loyal servant he undoubtedly was Symth somewhat glosses over the fact that the old tales claim that prisoners were fed to the monstrous toad. Nor does he mention the legend that two of the family's children were once upon a time fed to the beast. So far I have not been able to locate any Marquis of Berkeley, or any other worthy of that family for that matter, who had a reputation for dabbling in the black arts as did Sir Gilbert Morley in The Room in the Castle.

Was the beast ever real? Well toads in captivity can live up to fifty years and do indeed grow larger with age. Hence it is possible that a very long lived specimen might have exceeded the usual six inches or so. And so, taking the lower end of the range of sizes mentioned by Symth it is perhaps just feasible that there was such a creature - although a toad around a foot long would hardly be able to chow down on prisoners. Alternatively it may have been a specimen of some larger foreign species acquired as an unusual pet - the largest on record was a cane toad that measured 15 inches, which is certainly in the same ballpark as the smaller estimates of the Berkeley Toad.

But what of the skin that hung in the castle? Well sadly, it was long ago identified as something rather different. In his 1836 book Berkeley Castle: An Historical Romance, Volume 1Grantley Fitzhardinge Berkeley writes - 
One thing, which I remember well as a child has been removed; on yonder shelf was the stuffed skin of a huge seal, often pointed out to me by my nurse, as the great toad of old, which my ancestry used to keep in the donjon to feed upon their captives; and to which, as an ancient legend run, (doubtless derived from as authentic a source) the Marquis of Berkeley was supposed to have abandoned his two children.
Yes, the hide of the Berkeley Toad was nothing more than a badly stuffed seal it would appear. Whether this was acquired to embroider the legend of the carvings or maybe was their inspiration we cannot say. However it seems likely that some noble of the Berkeley family at some time either had the stuffed seal ,or perhaps a live toad of amazing proportions, as a curiosity. For in the pre-modern age, it was not uncommon for aristocrats to furnish their homes with such wonders and curiosities - such things were the blockbuster movies of their day. For like having ornate gardens and exhibiting works of art, owning an unusual animal would make one very fashionable, and draw many eminent visitors and guests to one's home. And the tales of feeding the creature on human flesh would only spice up the attraction of the curiosity. 

However one mystery remains - and that is why as a long time devotee of the folklore of the British Isles, and indeed having a love of mythical monsters, I had not come across legends of the Berkeley Toad before.  
But perhaps I had read of these tales before, and merely forgotten... For after all, did not Ludwig Von Prinn write in the horrible De Vermis Mysteriis that Byatis had the power to cloud the minds of men?
Byatis, the serpent-bearded, the god of forgetfulness, came with the Great Old Ones from the stars, called by obeisances made to his image, which was brought by the Deep Ones to Earth. He may be called by the touching of his image by a living being. His gaze brings darkness on the mind; and it is said that those who look upon his eye will be forced to walk to his clutches. He feasts upon those who stray to him, and from those upon whom he feasts he draws a part of their vitality.
But surely that cannot be. Indeed, one hopes not, for might not dwelling upon the legend constitute a modern version of making obeisances to its image. No, of course not, that is mere folly born of poring over too many old and dusty tomes. But wait... What is that slithering I hear at the window...

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #9 - The 2nd Armada Ghost Book ed. Christine Bernard

The Armada Ghost Book had proved to be such a hit with readers that the following year editor Christine Bernard was called upon to assemble a second serving of spooky tales for younger readers. And hence in 1968, The 2nd Armada Ghost Book hit the shelves. 

This second volume followed the template of the first quite faithfully, serving up a mixture of different sorts of ghostly tales. However this time round it resulted somewhat thinner book - not only in size but in content. Like the first we have two tales drawn from folklore from Sorche Nic Leodhas, another brace of tales from HG Wells, and in addition there are yet another two stories that are from the same author, a pair by William Croft Dickinson. The full contents are as follows - 

The Ghost Who Didn't Want to be a Ghost by Sorche Nic Leodhas
The Keepers of the Wall by William Croft Dickinson
Fiddler, Play Fast, Play Faster by Ruth Sawyer
The Magic Shop by H G Wells
Mr Fox by Traditional
His Own Number by William Croft Dickinson
The Man Who Walked Widdershins Round the Kirk by Sorche Nic Leodhas
The Flowering of the Strange Orchid by H G Wells
The Uglie-Wuglies by Edith Nesbit

(As usual I have linked to my own audio readings of any of these tales)

Given that we have another chunk of folklore in the shape of the traditional old fireside tale Mr Fox, a variant on the Bluebeard story, and that the last story in the collection from E Nesbit is actually just an excerpt from her novel The Enchanted Castle, this collection feels a good deal less diverse than its illustrious predecessor. But furthermore this book is somewhat light on actual ghost stories - the Wells tales while entertaining don't exactly feature any hauntings, likewise the extract from Nesbit. Mr Fox though horrible is free of spectres, and while the tales from Leodhas and Ruth Sawyer do feature the supernatural, the ghosts and sprites from folklore are more fairy tale baddies than figures from nightmare. Thankfully William Croft Dickinson is on hand to deliver a fine eerie tale in the MR James tradition in the shape of The Keepers of the Wall and in a nice contrast, conjures some memorable unease with computers in His Own Number.   

The 2nd Armada Ghost Book isn't a terrible anthology by any means, as all its tales are good. However it does lose marks for wandering away from proper ghost stories and having a limited pool of authors. So on one hand its a fun collection to tales to have but not one of the stronger outings in the Armada series. Tellingly the third volume of Ghost Books would see a new editor taking the helm...

Tuesday, 12 May 2015


Because nothing says 'dystopia' quite like a bunch of farmers beating up a giant Mr Potato Head...

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world

Friday, 8 May 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Not So Merry in the Month of May Part II

Last week we explored the widespread superstition that it was unlucky to marry in the month of the May, and we traced this age-old belief back to the Romans. Due to the Roman festival of Lemuria, which was to placate the shades of the unquiet dead, being held in the middle of May, the whole month was considered unlucky for marriages. However in the annals of folklore, the fifth month was ill omened for a variety of other activities too. 

In Scotland, where they placed much store in the old proverb "marry in May, rue the day", it was also said to be hazardous for a young mother to be weaning her children in this month too. Possibly this too derives from the same ancient beliefs that the rites of Lemuria tainted the month, for there was a more widespread belief that children born in May were destined for ill-luck. Many folkloric sources that warn it is unlucky to marry in May add the sinister line that children born in this month "die in decay", holding that "a May baby is always sickly, you may try but never rear it". A common taunt to those unlucky enough to be born in this month was "you are but a May cat". 

And what pray tell is a May cat? Well, obviously these were kittens born in the fifth month, and like their human counterparts they too were held to be sickly and weak. Indeed the May malaise touched other branches of the animal kingdom too, with May ducklings being said to be more likely to sprawl and in Dorset it was said that colts born in the May would have the unfortunate habit of lying down in any water you tried to ride them through. 

But it is the humble cat who gets the worst share of folklore here. For in addition to being sickly, May cats who did survive had the widespread reputation of being somewhat useless. According to many sources, a May cat would not make a good mouser, with many holding that not only would they be rubbish at keeping down the local rats and mice, but would also bring venomous reptiles, worms and snakes into the house instead. In some places it was even said that it was May cats that would creep into beds and cots and steal your breath away...

Again this is possibly related to the rites of Lemuria. Cats were popular pets in ancient Rome, and were associated with the Diana, goddess of hunting and Libertas, the goddess of freedom. Furthermore they were the only animals allowed in the temples, hence as the temples were closed during this Roman festival possibly this is why cats born in May are ill omened, having been denied the presence of the gods. However given that the superstitions about May cats are localised to the British Isles, perhaps we shouldn't be stretching back to the Classical world, and instead looking for connections closer to home.   

Certainly in British folklore, May is a hazardous month. For example, you've postponed your wedding, are not expecting a child, and even the cat is not having kittens so surely you're safe to get on with a bit of housework and make ready for the summer... Wrong! Stop right there! Firstly leave that winter bedding in place! "Wash blankets in May, you'll soon be under clay" says the lore of Oxfordshire, while in Bristol it is said "wash a blanket in May, wash a loved one away". Ok so we're leaving the bedding alone! How about getting some lighter clothes for the summer? Well, that is out too - "don't cast a clout, until May is out"  says an old British proverb - "clout" an old English word for "clothes". 

Now the reasons for these strictures and taboos on changing bedding and garments in the month of May we can trace to a different origin than ancient Roman festivals of the dead; indeed it is perhaps the origin of much of the other lore of ill luck in May too. And like many things in the British Isles, it comes down to the weather! The clearest indication, and indeed explanation comes from an 1852 publication, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine Almanack, where it is written -   
We warn young persons during this month not to throw off their warm clothing too suddenly, as in this changeable climate we often have a day of sunshine followed by a day of rain and hail. Many are the deaths by consumption, the seeds of which have been sown by this pernicious practice. 
And there we have it - from sickly kids and kittens, to keeping cosy blankets and coats - all these forms of ill luck in the fifth month we can attribute to the changeable weather in May. Now for years it was thought that it was just an old wives' tale that getting cold can lead to catching a cold, but recent scientific research has shown that there is truth in the old saying. For, in basic terms, when your body has to work harder to regulate your temperature, your immune system becomes less effective; in particular the body's heat saving device of constricting blood flow means there are less white blood cells in the blood vessels to fight incoming germs and viruses.

Naturally infants are more prone to infection, and by getting caught out in cold weather, by not having your winter coat or having ditched the winter bedding, adults are at risk too. And as we don't commonly associate May with a time for colds, flu or infections, to fall ill in this month was seen as bad luck. Hence it turns out that the dire warnings about the month of May are founded not in superstition or ancient rites, but based on practical observances that folks were at risk of falling ill at an unexpected time of the year. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #8 - Dark Companions by Ramsey Campbell

A few weeks ago on Great Ghosts of the Shelves, I covered one of my early encounters with Ramsey Campbell, the anthology The Gruesome Book. Now in that little write-up I did mention that his bleak and horrible tale Calling Card in that tome had resolved in my mind that I really needed to read more by him. Therefore his name joined a mental list, one that at that time included Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, of authors I was looking out for when browsing various anthologies of fantastic fiction. And naturally I was keeping an eye out for his own books. And as it turned out, it wasn't too long before whichever angel that is set above secondhand book stores looked in my direction...

For one day in town, I had a sudden impulse to swing by the secondhand paperback stall on the market. Now this was one of those places whose stock didn't dramatically alter from week to week, but there were gems to be found for those willing to flip through the battered long unsold paperbacks, passing through the familiar same creased covers. And to this day I wonder if they ever did shift that dog-eared copy of The Devil's Coach-horse by Richard Lewis... But I digress...

And I'm sure it is no surprise to seasoned book hunters, but that this particular impulse turned out to be a golden one, as such sudden impulses often are. Yes, the angel of battered paperbacks was smiling at me, for there, amid the tatty Kings and Herberts, was a pristine copy of Dark Companions, whose cover (miraculously still rather pristine after all these years) you can see above. Yes, the condition was good, the price was even better, and I was already reading the introduction on the bus home.

Issued by Fontana in 1982, Dark Companions was the fourth collection of short fiction from Mr Campbell, and thanks to my somewhat excitable interpretation of the back blurb, for a good while I was thought it was a kind of best of collection spiced up with some new tales. Well, on the back it did say -
Dark Companions is a collection of some of his best stories. Most have not been published in this country before and some have never been published before.
In fact, it wasn't until I hunted down copies of his second and third short story collections - Demons By Daylight (1973) and The Height of the Scream (1976) - that I realised my error. So then, were the folks at Fontana being a bit naughty with their blurb?

Well, not really. First up, I'd have to say that really there's no such thing as a bad short story collection from Campbell - and I should know having being addicted to them ever since I picked up this volume. However as it turns out, this collection could well be legitimately considered a best of, for by a weird twist of fate it does contain a great many stories that have turned up in bona fide cream of Campbell collections - sharing nine tales with the 1987 best of Dark Feasts: The World of Ramsey Campbell and thirteen with Alone With The Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell 1961-1991. So as it goes, my initial misreading of the back cover has ended up being not that far off the mark.

The full contents list is as follows  -
  • The Chimney
  • Down There
  • Above the World
  • Napier Court
  • Out of Copyright
  • The Depths
  • The Man in the Underpass
  • Vacant Possession
  • The Little Voice
  • Drawing In
  • The Trick
  • Heading Home
  • The Show Goes On
  • The Change
  • Calling Card
  • Baby
  • In the Bag
  • Conversion
  • Mackintosh Willy
  • Call First
  • The Companion
And if you know your Campbell, you''ll see that there are some of his most famous short tales in this collection, such as award winners like Mackintosh Willy, The Chimney and In The Bag. While in stories such as Out of Copyright or The Trick you can see why later critics would hail Campbell as the modern day heir to MR James, Campbell's terrors are very much his own, with tales like The Companion and Down There coming as close as one can to capturing the essence of  nightmares in print. 

And the collection showcases nicely the diversity of Campbell's short fiction. We have old school ghost stories with a modern twist and exercises in urban horror and alienation, but there's some fun homages to old horrors too. There's a sprinkling of tales that Campbell wrote to honour the infamous EC Comics, some fun takes on well-known horror tropes (Conversion and Vacant Possession), while others put interesting and entertaining spins on classic monsters, with Drawing In being one of my all-time favourite takes on bringing a certain gothic horror icon into the 20th century. 

After being out of print for many years, Dark Companions has been recently reissued in hardcover, paperback and e-book. The new edition has seen some slight changes to the running order with some stories swapped out for different ones, but given that any Campbell tale is usually a treat that's not a real problem. Dark Companions, in either incarnation, is still a fantastic introduction to Ramsey Campbell's short fiction and it's very good to have it back haunting the shelves once more. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015


...And presumably how to get out doing any cover art whatsoever....

Celebrating the mad, bad, and dangerous to look at covers inflicted on the book world

Sunday, 3 May 2015

MICROGORIA 14 - Censors and Sensibilty

In this week's show, Mr Jim Moon muses on the subject of censorship in film, asking what makes a horror film a horrible film and pondering how we handle extreme cinema and film classification.

DIRECT DOWNLOAD -  MICROGORIA 14 - Censors and Sensibilty

Find all the podcasts in the HYPNOGORIA family here -

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




Friday, 1 May 2015

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Not So Merry in the Month of May

For many of us in the Northern hemisphere, the month of May signifies a time when if summer is now definitely coming, then at least the winter is certainly behind us. The weather is warmer, the trees are in blossom, and the nights are growing longer. Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker dubbed it The Merry Month of May, there's the tradition of dancing round a Maypole, and jolly songs like Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May. So then with the brightening weather, the sap rising and flowers blooming, May is a popular month for lovers to finally tie the knot... However the annals of  folklore beg to differ!

According to folklore and superstition, generally May is considered an unlucky month. But best known, or perhaps that should be best remembered, of all the folk beliefs about May is the widespread claim that it is the unluckiest month to get married in. As an old, and still frequently quoted, rhyme has it -
Married when the year is new, he'll be loving, kind & true,
When February birds do mate, You wed nor dread your fate.
If you wed when March winds blow, joy and sorrow both you'll know.
Marry in April when you can, Joy for Maiden & for Man.
Marry in the month of May, and you'll surely rue the day.
Marry when June roses grow, over land and sea you'll go.
Those who in July do wed, must labour for their daily bread.
Whoever wed in August be, many a change is sure to see
Marry in September's shrine, your living will be rich and fine.
If in October you do marry, love will come but riches tarry.
If you wed in bleak November, only joys will come, remember.
When December snows fall fast, marry and true love will last.
And over the other side of the pond, things weren't much better, with an old American folk rhyme holding that -
January, always poor.
February, wed once more.
March, splendid catch.
April, happy match.
May, turn to hate.
June, enviable fate.
July, poorly mated.
August, better have waited.
September, very wealthy.
October, extremely healthy.
November, quick undoing.
December, Cupid's wooing

 by Daniel Lindsey Thomas and Lucy Blayney Thomas 
(Princeton University Press 1920)

And if that wasn't enough, a third oft-quoted rhyme alleged that - 
Married in January's hoar and rime,
Widowed you’ll be before your prime.
Married in February's sleety weather,
Life you’ll tread in tune together.
Married when March winds shrill and roar,
Your home will lie on a foreign shore.
Married 'neath April's changeful skies,
A checkered path before you lies.
Married when bees o'er May blossoms flit,
Strangers around your board will sit
Married in month of roses — June —
Life will be one long honeymoon.
Married in July, with flowers ablaze,
Bitter-sweet mem'ries in after days.
Married in August's heat and drowse,
Lover and friend in your chosen spouse.
Married in golden September's glow,
Smooth and serene your life will go.
Married when leaves in October thin,
Toil and hardship for you begin.
Married in veils of November mist,
Fortune your wedding ring has kissed.
Married in days of December cheer,
Love's star shines brighter from year to year.
So then while the above three verses give somewhat variable results to the other eleven months of the year, they are in complete accord that May is not a merry month to be marrying in! And as all good folklorists know, three is the charm! More seriously though, the belief that May is an unlucky month for marriages is extremely widespread and very old.

For example, it is often claimed that this superstition was so prevalent that Queen Victoria forbade any of her children from marrying in May. But interestingly, Queen Victoria's parents, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, had married on the 29th of May in 1818. And despite Edward having mistresses, it is said the marriage though short (due to Edward's death in 1820) was a happy one. So then considering Queen Victoria's birthday was in May, and that she had become Empress of India in on 1st May 1876, if there is any truth is this oft-repeated claim, it is possible that she just didn't desire anymore royal occasions and anniversaries cluttering up the regal calendar!

However it is perfectly true that in Victorian society, May was widely considered to be an unlucky month in which to marry. But where does this superstition originate? Well, it is often claimed that the belief dates back to the ancients. A commonly bandied about theory states that the beginning of May was the festival of Beltane for the ancient Celts, who celebrated it with wild fertility rites involving large outdoor orgies. And hence with all this socially-approved nookie going on, it was a terrible time to get hitched and miss out on all that free love.

It's an entertaining notion, I'll grant you that, but it does suffer from one slight drawback... It's complete codswallop! To begin with, Beltane is actually an old Irish Gaelic festival, and it is only theorised that perhaps it dates back to the Celts. Secondly from the literature and historical records we do have we know that Beltane marked the start of the summer, when livestock was put out to pasture once more. Hence it was celebrated with sacred fires to drive away evil spirits and purify the animals and the lands for the coming summer months. In short, while Beltane is obviously linked with improving agriculture and by extension fertility, at the same time, while we have several historical sources attesting to bonfires, and assorted folk traditions involving lighting fires, there's no mention anywhere of  ancient people staging public orgies.

Now it is true that there are many folk traditions, dating back at least as far as medieval times, that are possibly survivals of ancient pagan rituals celebrating fertility. The common tradition of electing a May Queen, and in some areas, a May King, to lead May Day processions have been theorised to be the cultural echoes of ancient rites where people honoured assorted earth mothers or love goddesses, as incarnations of spring being reborn after winter. However again while such rural customs might be echoes of pre-Christian religious rites, again there is no evidence that such fertility rituals involved community orgies. Indeed said rituals are largely hypothetical rather than properly historically documented.

But it is true that the concept of May being unlucky for marriages does date back to ancient time. However we should not be looking to the mysterious Celts, but further south to Rome. For indeed, the Romans had a saying  "mense Maio malae nubent" which translates as "they wed ill who wed in May". Now this belief originates with the Roman festivals that were held in May, and no, they didn't involve orgies either. On the 9th, 11th and 13th of May (and according to some sources another two dates as well at different points in Classical history), the Romans celebrated Lemuria, the festival of the dead.

This was a series of household rites where at midnight the head of the family would ritually purify himself - washing with pure water and donning fresh clothes without any knots, and walk around the entire home and property, casting black beans behind him, and intoning a special prayer nine times. The family and household would follow him, and at the conclusion of the recitation of the prayer, bang assorted instruments made of brass, sometimes actual musical instruments and sometimes just pots and pans. Now the goal of these rituals was to drive away the Lemures - the spirits of the unquiet dead. In addition, during Lemuria sacrifices and remembrances would be held for the family's ancestors and deceased members so that their spirits did not grow restless and return to plague the living.

Furthermore Lemuria was book-ended by two other festivals. From April 28th to the 3rd May saw the Ludi Florales - the games of Flora, which saw outdoor events which included sports and theatre which celebrated the return of spring and  to encourage fertility in the land. And the month of May closed with Ambravalia on the 29th of May, a festival honouring the earth goddess Ceres and involved a purification ritual for the fields to ensure fertility and good crops in the coming months.  Therefore for the Romans, May was very much a month of spiritual housecleaning, setting up home and hearth for a fresh start after winter.

Hence it was a time for setting one's house in order, but not an appropriate time to set up a brand new household. During this time it was thought unwise to begin a marriage before these cleansings had been completed. And as Lemuria was a home based festival, the temples of the gods were actually closed. As Ovid said of Lemuria in Fasti, his epic poem detailing the Roman festivals throughout the year -
And the ancients closed the temples on these days,
As you see them shut still at the season of the dead.
Its a time not suitable for widows or virgins to wed;
She who marries won’t live long.
Given the extent of the Roman Empire, you can understand how this belief was spread across Europe. Also as one of the prime sources of information about Classical times, naturally Ovid's words informed later European superstitions and beliefs. And while European customs of remembering the dead aggregated around the end of the agricultural year with the medieval establishment of All Hallows at the end of October (see my Origins of Halloween podcast for more details), evidently the idea that May was an unlucky month for marriage persisted.

However as we shall see next week, May was a somewhat troublesome month for all manner of other things too!