Thursday 31 October 2019

Samhain Shivers

Happy New Year (Samhain) to any Pagan followers. Thought I'd share a little box of shivers this year.

First up is the film I mentioned in my Zodiac review. Said to have influenced the serial killer. The Most Dangerous Game from 1932. No blood or gruesome special effects. Just a creepy concept.

Whilst looking for that, I also found one of my favourite dated horrors, Theatre of Blood, from 1973, starring Vincent Price. A thoroughly Shakespearean tale of revenge and murder.

If you're looking for more modern thrills, I suggest The Haunting of Hill House and Typewriter on Netflix. There's also David Farrier's travel documentary, Dark Tourist.

For reading, lovers of horror might like to turn their attention to Peter Laws's book, The Frighteners, exploring why we love to get goosebumps.

Or pick up a classic work of Gothic fiction from my suggested reading list.

You can also check out one of my three dark stories. If you like paranormal spookiness, try Creeper's Cottage (UK/US). If you prefer murderous historical fiction, perhaps Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran (UK/US), if something more contemporary and dreamlike, Lucid (UK/US).

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Code Name Verity

With the exception of Birdsong, which was extraordinary, I read very little fiction set in the two world wars. I'm not really much of a spy thriller or romance fan, and that's what most of it tends to be about. However, I found myself on an Audible sales binge and needed to make up the basket number. I thought the premise of this one sounded good, so added it to the cart:

Code Name Verity is a compelling, emotionally rich story with universal themes of friendship and loyalty, heroism and bravery. Two young women from totally different backgrounds are thrown together during World War II: one a working-class girl from Manchester, the other a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a wireless operator. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted friends. But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in Verity's own words, as she writes her account for her captors.

I found the first half dragged me in, but the second half, where it changed perspective, was a bit of a slow burn - up until the climax, which was rather unexpected and extremely memorable. I was listening on Audible, and had set it to turn off at the end of the chapter. When it did, I lay there in stunned silence, waiting for the next sentence, which of course didn't come. Ten out of ten for setting that up and knocking it down. Very good storytelling. 

Please forgive any errors below as I'm transcribing from audio clips, one annoying issue with reviewing audiobooks, as you can't check the original text.

There were some insightful moments:

People are complicated. There's so much more to everybody than you realise. You see someone in school every day, or at work in the canteen, and you share a cigarette or a coffee with them, and you talk about the weather or last night's air raid, but you don't talk so much about what was the nastiest thing you said to your mother, or how you pretended to be David Balfour, the hero of Kidnapped, for the whole of the year when you were thirteen, or what you imagine yourself doing with the pilot who looks like Leslie Howard if you were alone in his bunk after a dance.

Some funny ones:

[The ATA] fly without radio or navigation aids. They do have maps, but they're not allowed to mark balloons or new airfields on them in case they lose the maps and you lot pick them up. Maddie did a training course when she joined, early in 1941, and she had one instructor who told her, "You don't need a map, just fly this heading for as long as it takes to smoke two cigarettes. Then turn, and fly the next heading for another cigarette... FDF - Fag Direction Finding.

Some very interesting factual ones:

Since 1940, we have not come off daylight saving at all, and in summer it is double, which means for a whole month it doesn't get dark till nearly midnight.
I wonder where that is right now, the safest place in the world? Even the neutral countries, Sweden and Switzerland, are surrounded. Ireland's stuck with being divided. They have to mark the neutral bit IRELAND in big letters made of whitewashed stones, hoping the Germans won't drop bombs there thinking it's the UK side of the northern border. I've seen it from the air.

And the occasional literary sparkler:
But a part of me lies buried in lace and roses, on a riverbank in France. A part of me has broken off forever. A part of me will always be unflyable.


The Official Secrets Act is of little consequence in a house which absorbs secrets like damp. 

I also learned that Aberdeen's dialect is called Doric (you can hear a sample here), that Hitler had a real downer on smoking and it appears women weren't allowed to buy cigarettes in some places, and a fascinating bit about the invention of the ballpoint pen, originally known as Etta Pens. The author explained this at the end of the book, 'as paper and ink are the fabric of this novel.'

So I thought I ought to check to make sure ballpoint pens existed in 1943. It turns out they did, but only just. The ballpoint pen was invented my László Bíró, a Hungarian journalist who fled to Argentina to escape the German occupation of Europe. In 1943 he licensed his invention to the RAF, and the first ballpoint pens were manufactured in Reading, England, by the Miles Aircraft manufacturer to supply pilots with a lasting ink supply.

Which brings me to an issue I'm still making my mind up about audiobooks. This one reminded me a bit of Before We Were Yours, partly because they both had characters called Queenie, and also because, at the end, the authors added an explanation of some of the details in their books.

I enjoyed Wingate's supplementary in Before We Were Yours, because I was extremely curious to know the real-life events the book was based on. I went off and had a good Google afterwards. However, a lot of the time it can be quite intrusive. With a print edition, you can read the last sentence, close the book, lie back and absorb what you've just read. But with an audiobook, it ploughs on regardless, and before you know it, you've got an author who starts to explain the reasoning behind plot decisions, points out and tries to explain any inaccuracies and stretches of the imagination, and offers up extra titbits from their research. This can really break the spell. And it's not the author's fault, a lot of what they're saying is interesting, but it's a fault with audiobooks that you don't get a chance to decide whether to finish at the end of the story or the end of the book. Plus, this edition also had a really pushy book advert at the end which just left me thinking bugger off

That aside though, it was a good story. I'm glad I bought it. Memorable.

Saturday 26 October 2019

TEDx Luxembourg II

A year ago, I gave my TEDx talk at the University of Luxembourg. This year, they held the event for a second time. It will be a while before the professionally edited versions go live, but here's the link to the three livestream sessions on the University of Luxembourg's Facebook Page:

As with all TEDx events, they include a couple of previous TED videos. The one at the top was really funny, the one below is really poignant.

Thursday 24 October 2019

The Black Biscuit Baker

Long-term readers will know my affiliation with Hookland (@HooklandGuide), a mythical county in England where folklore lives and breathes. I set a previous novel there, Creeper's Cottage (UK/US).

Some years back, there was talk of a Hookland anthology, but it went wandering out across the misty moors and never returned. That happens a lot in Hookland, so here's a little story I wrote for it. If you make it to the end, there's a picture of some real funeral biscuits my mum made using the recipe at the beginning. She said they tasted 'gritty'.

The Black Biscuit Baker
or Skulls and Hourglesses

8 lbs. of flour
1½ lbs. of butter
1¼ lbs. of sugar
¾ lbs. of charcoal powder
½ pint of eggs
Milk as required

That is how you bake death.

Like my mother and her mother before her, it has been my duty to keep alive the tradition of funeral biscuits. Each is embossed with a sigil. In the east of the county, they are baked with a skull. In the west, with an hourglass.

Here at Panhurst Drift, we do things proper: one of each.
A skull to remind us that we are going to die.
An hourglass to remind us that we still have time.
You cannot see time, you cannot hear it or taste it, but when there is none left, you know about it.
Come, take my hand. I will show you how to make them.
Funeral biscuits are an ancient custom, baked black with charcoal. 

In the depths of night on the new moon, I walk the ancient corpse road from Panhurst Drift to the village down the valley. You may choose to light a lanthorn if you wish, but I have walked this path my entire life, and need no such guide.
It is only in the dark that you can hear the voices of those who have walked this route before. On late summer eves they whisper to themselves amongst the trees, babbling through the brook and laughing as their spirits chase one another across the marshy morass. See there, those little balls of light which seem to know one another, and move away as we approach?
In winter come the angry ones. The olden spirits who died in battle, aggrieved by foes, calling out the names of all their deeds left yet undone. Their voices scream up from Devil’s Scar, intent on stripping flesh from bone. You’d do well to pull your shawl about you tight and make for hearth and home.
It is not my place to follow the playful dead, nor fear the vengeful. 

I serve Death, and in so doing, he leaves me be.
Follow, a little faster now. Pick up your feet where the road grows rocky.
I’ll take you with me on this journey, yet when we arrive hold all complaint. You asked to come, and I am willing, though I shall not have you act surprised, nor listen to you opine upon my methods. The dish I cook has filled the stomachs of those five hundred years dead. It is not for a new-born to curl up their nose at the food of their ancestors, for it will be your food, and the food of your young, and for many a generation left to come.
Watch. Take note if you must. But do so in silence.
See down there in the valley – the lights of Panhurst.
When I was a child, I used to look upon those glowing bulbs as stars. See how dark it is about, as though we step through space itself. Minor gods glancing down upon a galaxy. That bright one there, the glowing sun of John Maudlin School, around which all other planets circle, drawn by the weight of intellect.
We will not reach that far tonight.
Under the Myrtle bush we roam, thrice together and thrice alone. O’er the moor and up the hills, through the crags and down the rills. When grandma calls you home for tea, go to her or follow me.

That’s a song my mother used to sing as we walked. She sang so that I would never wander further than her voice, lest I lose myself in the dark. My throat is sore from age, so I trust you will stay close behind the sweep of my cloak.
There in the dark, that crooked finger pointing to the sky. That is the shadow of the church. When we arrive you’ll see a well before the gate. We each must throw a penny in to pay our way, though you will never hear it hit the bottom.
And now that we have paid, the dead will let us pass.
So many names here. People I have known in legend and in life.
There’s the grave of Mary Bay with weeping angels at her brow. She was the first I ever baked for. Three days in labour for a still-born son. She wept three days more before walking out into the snow and lying down to numb her grief. In some counties they would not allow her a burial on consecrated ground, but here our land belongs to those who sweat and suffer. God may visit if He pleases.
There, beneath the yew is the body of Brown Man Muirs. The stone that marks his place is worn by weather, yet some say he walks the valley as a black fox with a silver-tipped tail. Poachers beware on the full moon, for he moves the traps and tricks the hunter into hunting himself.
Up there by the porch is a plaque to Lady Eleanor Mordant, see the eyes carved beneath the inscription? She watches all who walk beneath, trusting none. For they say it was poison what took her, administered by the hand of her own husband who caught her once with a stablehand.
And there, over by the wall, a twisting cross of ivy for the resting place of Marjory Blue. She was a healer in my great grandmother’s time, walking the woods and the moors, collecting all manner of herbs. She mended bones and calmed the cough of infants and the elderly. They call her Blue because the whole summer through, a bright ring of forget-me-nots flower about her grave.
Enough now, we have work to do.
Follow me to the back of the bone hall, and mind you step on no one’s grave. The dead consider that an insult and your dreams will be disturbed for a month.
To make this dish, we must make charcoal. Only the wood of the weeping willow will do, and here is an ancient one. Take my slicer with the bog oak hilt, that wood is five thousand years if it’s a day. Burry the blade in the earth, kiss it, and repeat these words:
I come to you mother of sorrows, to take from you a branch or two. You, whose roots lift the shrouds of the dead, whose friends, the worm and grub, will be my friends too someday. I take no more than I need. What I take will comfort the grieving. Within three days I will return your kindness with flesh to strengthen your bow.

Mother Welig, Sallow Sue, she never minds a branch or two.
When women have their monthlies, or a young buck breaks a bone, I make a tea of willow bark to ease their pain, though I never take from a tree in the old bone hall for that.
So, now we have what we came for, it’s a slow steady march back to the Drift. You’re thirsty. I can tell, but don’t let food nor drink pass your lips in this place. Let’s get beyond the wailing rock, there’s a stream there with water fresh from the hills.
They call this the wailing rock because they say it’s the furthest point that mourners’ heartbreak can be heard. When they inter the dead, when mothers cry for their daughters and fathers their sons, their laments echo up the valley. Yet grief must have its end, beyond which life continues its merry jaunt. Here is that point.
Sip from my cupped hands and quench your thirst.
Always drink from the fast-flow, never the eddies, for it is in the silent pools that fay folk dip their feet and enchant the water.
Here, now, as we enter the Drift, keep your quiet. The folks round here know that I hold my own hours, but it does no one good to remind them. If you should meet someone on the path, hold your breath and bow your head. Come morning, they will have forgotten they ever saw you.
Come, wipe your feet upon the mat. I do not want bone hall soil across my floor. Stoke the fire and let us take some bread and cheese before we set to work. We have journeyed far and not every footfall met with solid earth. We must bring ourselves back to this world before we go further.
Throw your crumbs into the fire. These flames helped to cook that bread, and now must reap their reward.
Yes, please. A little cheese for Sula, for she protects the house when her mistress goes out walking. There has always been a cat at this cottage, black as the biscuits we bake. She welcomes guests, as you can see.
You are warm and your belly full, so let’s begin before you grow tired. Stoop your head, for the back door is low. People were shorter once upon a time, when this house was built. Its stones have absorbed many ouches and buggers from people who were not wary.
Can you smell the lavender and the rosemary? That is bergamot over there, it flowers flame-red at summer’s end. And here, lemon thyme. Rub your fingers through it to improve your mood. There is sage, and fennel, and over by the wall a shaded patch of jack-in-the-hedge, which smells of garlic and garnishes leafy salads.
Bring logs from the wood stock and help me place them in this pit. We’ll build a fire high, and let it burn low. Once the embers rest and sigh, we’ll strip the willow of her bark and place her in the dottie pot.
Pass me a branch and watch how I do it. First you pull away the leaves. Put them in a pile, we’ll compost later. Take your slicer and cut it gently just behind the brown. Hold the bark to the blade with your thumb and pull, peeling it down top to tail. If it snags, slice and pull again. All the way around until the stem is green.
My thumb is hardened from years of this, but if you start to sore, I have a plaster you can wrap about. We’ll need maybe twenty of these to make enough for baking. Five for you, fifteen for me, it’ll only take a little while.
Now cut the stems three inches each and put them in the dottie pot. This one here’s the oldest. A gift to my grandmother of buttered shortcake. That was a true luxury in those days. This one here you might recognise, an old tin of Quality Street, the memory of a long-ago Christmas past, all the colours burnt black.
Hold the tin up to the fire and you’ll see the dots. Eight little holes through the lid to allow the spirit of the wood to escape. Pack your strips of willow tight, and pop the lid on tighter. Now place it across these two sticks and I’ll lower it into the embers.
See now, as it starts to smoke? That’s Mother Welig breathing out. It’ll take an hour or more for all her breath to leave her. Pass me that stick there and I’ll poke it in the ashes till it catches, then set light to the vapours. That’s how you know it is done. When you light the dotties and nothing burns, that’s when the dragon sleeps.
Let’s you and I refresh ourselves whilst we wait. I have dandelion coffee on the shelf. Baked the roots myself and ground them down to powder, a little honey to sweeten.
Raise your cup to the sky and keep your eyes wide for falling stars. We see them often round these parts. Christ folks say it’s God casting another angel out of Heaven, but stars have been falling long before angels walked on earth, so perhaps it is simply the Infinite waving hello.
Tonight we bake for the dead, but many’s the living I’ve bake for, too.
We call the biscuits titch cobs, little lumps. If a woman be wanting a brood and all her huffing and puffing beneath the blankets yields her none, then she comes to me for a red cob, baked of her monthly blood and carmine. A lover’s cob, with a dash of a man’s seed or a woman’s slick excitement, means the one who consumes it will never leave. Bake a briny cob, mashed with spit, and ill fortune will afflict the one who eats.
Folks round here pretend they’re above it, but every moon I have a dozen customers or more.
Though it doesn’t always work the way they’d like. When I was still a cub myself, I baked a lover’s cob for Anabel Clark. She’d had her eye on Duncan Polter, as had all the girls. Duncan worked the fields beside his father, sleeves rolled up, muscles slick with sweat. What a fine sight he was. All the women, maiden, mother and crone, would find an excuse to pass by the field when Duncan was hoeing.
She paid me handsome with coin and pheasant. We mixed the batter together, cinnamon and sugar, baked until the butter crumbled to the touch. She placed the biscuits in a little box, tied it up with a green ribbon, and left them by his door.
The young man came home hot from the sun, washed himself down in the trough and ate the entire lot in one sitting.
When he awoke, all he could think of was Anabel Clark. She weren’t the most attractive girl in the Drift, nor the plainest neither. Yet something about her sparkled. A little voice whispered to him that she was special, and that he would be a fool not to seek her out and propose before the day was done.
That night she went passing by his place and he happened to be awake, fondling thoughts of her, as you might well imagine. He looked out his window to see Anabel there, lit up by the swollen moon.
That night he took her to bed, next month they were wed.
A happy story, you might think. Two young’ns in love.
Three years they were happy, two sons they had. Duncan was still a handsome man. Briding hadn’t turned him to wine, nor stuffed his belly fat with oats and stew. He continued in the field, working that extra weight into muscle. Many women tried their luck, but he refused them all. Faithful to the core, was Duncan Polter.
Then, come harvest, a terrible misfortune befell.
Duncan, his father, and his men were out loading hay onto the cart, when a flock of birds took wing, spooking the horse. It shied and reared, twisting in its harness. Duncan’s father ran to calm it, but all too late, for the cart came over, right on top of poor Duncan.
There was naught to be done, for it crushed his legs completely. They brought him to Old Shrewdie, who patched him up proper. She kept the rot out, splinted him straight with wood and clay. He lay like that for months. Anabel was by his side every day until they lifted him into the chair. She broke her back pushing him up that hill to home, for she wouldn’t let another do it.

Yet, as the days went by and the seasons changed, her feelings towards him waned with the harvest. No longer working, the oats and stew began to fill him out, and the wine pitcher lay empty. Her children kept her busy all the hours long, yet when night falls, a woman needs her husband’s warmth.
Duncan would not die, and he could not leave. The spell she’d cast in youth had aged into a burden. He would weep whenever she left his side, and cling to her skirts like a babe. Three children she had to wash, not two. Three to feed, three to dress, three pots to empty every morn.
Eventually she found the warmth that she’d been missing. A farmhand called John Under, who had no qualm in sharing her bed whilst her husband slept by the hearth.
John wanted Anabel to wife, and she was desperate to accept. So, one night they conspired beside the flames, to press poor Duncan’s pillow about his face until his broken heart gave out.
How many biscuits do you think I had to bake that month?
Three batches.
One for Duncan, and two for those who had put him in the earth.
They said Anabel and John had died of grief for their wicked sin, found swinging from the ash in Ploughman’s Copse. Yet round these parts, there are those who hold to justice tight. Those who come for others in the late hour of the night, to remind them of their wrongs.
You may well ask why I still bake, when my own flour-dusted hands played a part in their sad story. Well, baking is my business, and fate is theirs. Of more than twenty-dozen lovers’ cobs I’ve mixed, that was the only tragic end as I recall. Every baker’s batch turns out one duff cob now and then.
Speaking of which, look there, you see? The dottie pots have ceased to squeal, the flames have tapered out. Help me lift them from the fire, we’ll place damp cloths atop them and then we’ll head to bed. We’ve worked the night away, and soon dawn will grey the horizon. We’ll wake late and I’ll crisp bacon on the pan until the sides turn brown. We’ll eat it with goose eggs and a steaming pot of coffee, then set upon our next task.


Rested, let us pop the lids.
Have you ever known such black velvet in your life? Take a piece and break it, see how it crumbles, leaving your fingers sooty and smooth as silk. Artists down in Panhurst bring thicker branches for me to turn to vine. They sell it in the shops in Hook, to Bohemians and students who like to draw in old-fashioned ways.
This is destined for the pestle, though. Come, bring your pot to the kitchen and we’ll lay down paper to catch the black. One small handful at a time, we’ll add it to the mortar and grind it into powder so fine it feels like flour.
Now for the dough. Measure out the white flour along with the charcoal, we’ll sieve it together to remove the crumbs. Mother’s earthenware bowl is large enough. Add the butter, fresh churned from Greenfeather Farm. Get your fingers in there, nice and sticky, rub between your tips until it starts to bind.
Pass me the wooden spoon right there. We’ll make a well in the middle to crack in the eggs. We have a hundred biscuits to make, so you take five and I’ll take five and we’ll take turns to break them. Leave a couple of shells on the ground, Sula likes to lick them.
Now to add the sweetness. Roll up your sleeves and beat that batter hard with the spoon. Try not to think of angry thoughts or lustful ones. They’ll help you beat the batter harder, but a baker’s thoughts flow into the mix and will haunt the dreams of all who eat. Fix your eyes upon a single spot and whip and whip until your arm aches. If you must think on something, think on that ache. Enjoy it, for it means you are working hard.
When the spoon gets stuck, lay it aside and get your hands back in there. Knead with your knuckles, get your full weight behind it. Don’t worry if your sweat drips, the salt will mix with the tears of the mourners. Pummel and punch, roll and raise.
Bring it over to the table here. I’ll dust it with flour and we’ll roll it out the full length.
Over there in the wall beside the fire, you see that iron door? Put on the oven mitts and pull it open. We’ll stoke the hearth and that will heat the box. That’s how everyone used to cook in the old days. You can do a fine roast in that, chicken with sage stuffing and skin that melts on your tongue. A nice leg of mutton with rosemary and plum sauce.
It’s small, though. We’ll have to bake the biscuits in lots. I’ll cut the dough into quarters and we’ll likely work through until midnight. Another late night, but you’re not tired, are you?
That’s it. Roll it out nice and thin, then take the glass, hold it upside down, and cut those circles close together.
Remember what I said about the sigils?
Well, I’m going to show you a family heirloom. Rosewood handles, solid silver stamps. See how they’ve tarnished through time. My mother held these, and her mother, and her mother before. Ancient, these are. Tonight I will allow you the honour of holding them, for all the help you’ve given an old woman at her work.
We’ll do one batch of skulls and one of hourglasses. They’ll go in separate baskets. Each guest is offered one of each.
Now, onto the tray and into the oven with them.
It will rain tonight, I can smell it in the air, and the pine cone by the window has closed.
They say it is good luck to have rain before a funeral. It means the sky is weeping, and it only weeps for those who have lived a good life. People buried in dry earth are forgotten quickly, but those buried in the damp bloom memories in the minds of others for years to come.
I like the smell of rain. It reminds me of the night I gave birth to my own daughter. She was small and pale, and did not last the night. Yet when I pressed her to me and smelled her forehead, it felt as though the world were at peace.  The rain hammered against the window so hard I thought a hundred souls had risen from the bone hall to come look through the glass and love her.
When eventually they took her from my arms, I set about baking straight away. The whole of the Drift came, and half the inhabitants of Panhurst. I did not cry, for although she would never live, I knew that she had been born whole, complete.
Those stamps there will go to the grave with me. Once I am gone there will be no black baker left in these parts. Some may remember the tradition and try to copy, but baking titch cobs is a lifelong calling. It is not simply something one does, but something one is. Few would give up their modern lives for the dedication it demands. Why walk to a graveyard and grind your own charcoal when you can simply order it online? Why take the time to learn the names of the trees, and their courtesies, when lumber yards in Coreham split the logs and deliver to your door?
It is not only people who die, but traditions also.
Come, let us not think on sad things this evening. I can taste the charcoal on my tongue, that batch is close to baked. Let’s ready the next so that the heat of the oven won’t be lost.


And so all the cobs are crisp and cooling.
We have worked hard these past two nights, and now it is time to rest. In the morning we will pack them into Oval Eddies, tuck them in with blankets, and take them down to Greenfeather Farm. Elmen keeps an ice house down on his land. That’s where we store the dead until it’s time for them to go along the corpse road to the church.
Old Man Merriton will be tuning up his flute, and little Arthur Arnot has been practising his drum all week. He plays in the cadet band in Coreham, and can keep a marching beat well enough for a ten-year-old.
So, to bed with you. We must wake early, for the procession starts at sunrise.


Were your dreams pleasant?
I find that mine are often far-reaching the night before a day like this.
Sometimes I feel as though I leave my flesh beneath the quilt, whilst I head out across the moors. I swoop and reel like a kestrel at its prey. The wind sweeps me high across the burnt landscape, the marsh lights and the mist weaving a shroud below until I barely feel I know my way home.
You still have sleep in your eyes, but the sky is starting to lighten and we must leave if we are to do our duty well.
Take your waterproofs. The dew on the grass will seep through your soles, soaking your socks. My father taught me from the war, that the most important thing a person possesses is a dry pair of feet.
Come now, leave Sula in her basket. Her paws are twitching, she’s off across the field chasing phantom mice.
I can hear the call of Merriton’s flute already. His fingers never miss a hole, though when he practises I do not know, for he only ever plays in public for funerals and births.
When we get down to the farm, you mind your footing. The cows walk the track twice a day to the milking parlour, and they’re none too mindful where they spread their dung. It’s slippy along the path, and there’s no dignity in turning up to a funeral covered in ripe.
There’s more people here than I’d expected.
Make your way over to that corner there. I’ll take an Eddie of skulls and glasses, whilst you watch the stock. Mrs. Witburn already has her eye on me. She knows I’m needed, but she’s one of those Christ lovers who dislikes reminders of the old ways. I’d best go give her a smile and a cob.
My basket’s empty already.
Here, let me take the second round.
You just stay and watch. 

That’s it. All our hard work handed out. A sombre breakfast for a sullen crowd. Only Old Man Merriton seems to be enjoying himself, and little Arthur Arnot. His mother is so proud he’s leading the march, and he’s so proud that she’s so proud.
The procession is lining up outside and the pallbearers taking their places.
Here is where I must leave you.
I’ve never been much for the pew. The bone hall calls me down at night, but come daylight I prefer to give worship to the hills and the rivers. They birthed me, and when the time comes, they’ll claim me.
But you go with them now. They’re all good folks, they’ll see you right.
And when they put you in the ground and cast that first fistful of earth upon you, do not be afraid. Remember these two nights we’ve shared, and know that where I roam I will remember.
You will not be forgot.
And know that though you leave us, others will come to take your hand. Mary Bay and Eleanor Mordant, and Marjory Blue with her delicate wreath of forget-me-nots.
We are none of us ever alone.
Where they’ve been, you shall go, and I will follow after.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Littlest Hobo

Oh boy, my friend just reminded me about this and now it's stuck in my head FOREVER!

Sunday 20 October 2019

Witchy Ways

My work here is done. 

Saturday 19 October 2019

Grimm Tales for Young and Old

Last book review for a little while. This is Grimm Tales for Young and Old, a retelling of many of the Brothers Grimm stories by Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials and the Ruby in the Smoke series.

I was lucky enough to pick up a signed copy from the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2012, where I saw him speak for the launch of this.

Shamefully, due to travel and life, it has taken me this long to get around to reading it. Seemed like a logical follow-up to Mythos, and to Peter Laws's Purged, as it also has a forest on the cover.

Growing up with large tomes of illustrated fairy tales, I knew most of the stories in this, but it had been a really, really long time and it was nice to have a refresher. I realised that I get a bit confused between Brothers Grimm and Aesop's Fables. I was waiting for the fox and the stalk to try to have supper together, and for the dog to climb into the manger. When you're a kid, you enjoy the stories, you don't really care where they come from, so you don't always remember who said what as an adult. 

There were certainly a few in there that I definitely hadn't heard before, such as Hans-my-Hedgehog, The Three Snake Leaves, The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers, Godfather Death, Gambling Hans and The Girl With No Hands. Many of which are extremely dark when you sit down to think about them.

Other stories seemed to splice together in modern retellings, such as Snow White and Briar Rose, both lending elements to modern tellings of Sleeping Beauty, and Bearskin having slight echos of Beauty and the Beast. Many of the old stories share elements such as wicked stepmothers, witches and journeying into the woods. There are also parts that get left out of many modern retellings, such as the Prince in Cinderella tarring the step to snare her slipper as she runs away. I think that crops up in Into The Woods, but doesn't seem romantic enough for many adaptations. Neither does the fact Cindarella gets birds to peck out the (actually, not ugly) sisters' eyes. There's a lot of swift and extremely violent punishment for wicked deeds.

I really enjoyed the introduction. Pullman explains the nature of fairy tales very well, and what makes them a unique form of storytelling.

There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad... The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.


The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with a toy theatre. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience, but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.


The speed [of storytelling] is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you're travelling light; so none of the information you'd look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc. – is present. And that, of course, is part of the explanation for the flatness of the characters. The tale is far more interested in what happens to them, or in what they make happen, than in their individuality. 


The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be. You are at perfect liberty to invent other details than the ones I've passed on, or invented, here. In fact, you're not only at liberty to do so: you have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.


...the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can. Like jazz, storytelling is an art of performance, and writing is performance too.

I did enjoy this collection, but found myself drifting in and out a bit towards the end, as many of the stories do share similarities, and the flatness of the characters starts to get a bit predictable. It's more a book you want to dip into, maybe read one chapter a night, than try to complete straight through. More a book to be read out loud to someone. 

Like Mythos, it's a good grounding in the classics, but I must admit to enjoying modern retellings with a bit more depth, like Circe. It's interesting to listen to the originals, but it's delicious to dive into them and tear apart the thoughts and feelings of characters who at first seem so straightforward. That's just the way my mind works, but you need to know the originals before you can start to mess with them.

Speaking of which, I messed with Red Riding Hood, Snow-White and Rose-Red, and Donkeyskin in The Tangled Forest collection (UK/US). If you like dark adult retellings, it might be for you. 

Grimm Tales is for both young and old, but like I say, there's some dark stuff in there which is often missing from the beautifully illustrated fairy tale books for children. As a child though, I loved dark stuff. Many kids are drawn to it. They go in search of the shivers. And the stories we hear as children often stay with us a lifetime.

Friday 18 October 2019


My friend Emma introduced me to Peter Laws's writing last year. I started out with The Frighteners, which is an excellent exploration of why we love to be spooked and downright jellified by films and books. Really was a very entertaining and sage read. Highly recommended.

Because I enjoyed that so much, I picked up one of his fictional works, Purged:

Matt Hunter lost his faith a long time ago. Formerly a minister, he’s now a professor of sociology writing a book that debunks the Christian faith while assisting the police with religiously motivated crimes.

On holiday in an idyllic part of Oxfordshire where wooden crosses hang at every turn, Matt’s stay becomes sinister when a local girl goes missing, followed by further disappearances. Caught up in an investigation that brings disturbing memories to the surface, Matt is on the trail of a killer who is determined to save us all.
Laws is an ordained priest, who picked up the nickname the Sinister Minister. His Instagram and Twitter accounts are good fun, and you can find his website here. He does bear a passing resemblance to Dominic Cooper in Preacher.

Growing up, I devoured horror novels, though over the years it's slipped off my shelf, largely replaced by literary fiction and non-fiction tomes. I do still watch quite a few horror movies and Netflix series, like The Haunting of Hill House and Typewriter, so I was looking forward to it.

It was full of wonderfully dark humour, with some nice one-liners:

He could tell he was getting nearer to his house because gangs of youths started to shimmer out of the concrete with hoods up like medieval monks with ASBOs.


... what he didn't expect to see was a gang of about twelve protesters. They stood by the huge wooden gate looking lobotomy-level bored.

And, as you'd expect from a novel about a minister who's lost his faith, there was a bit of back-and-forth on the meaning of life and the existence of God, but it seemed to land more on the side of cynicism, which is obviously interesting when written by a minister who doesn't appear to have lost his faith. The Frighteners goes into Laws's perspective in far more depth. He's extremely relatable and, I'd say, more than a little brave for writing horror whilst in his current profession. 

It's an easy read, and doesn't disappoint on graphic description, with some notable moments involving lip removal and running over a fox. I think there was a similar scene in Ian Watson's Meat, if I'm not fogged by time. There's such a horrific dilemma about what to do with a terminally injured animal when you're not naturally a killer. 

Suitably creepy, with doors that creek like a 'Bela Lugosi coffin' and a host of characters you're just not sure whether to suspect or not, because they're all isolated-cult-type weird. 

If you like a good whodunnit with a twist of exorcism, this is right for you.

Thursday 17 October 2019

Homo Deus

Catching up on a few book reviews after my recent holiday.

This is Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which was the follow up to Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, both by Yuval Noah Harari. It's going to be quite a quotey review as there's some interesting stuff in there. 

Whereas Sapiens looked at how the human race got to where it is, Homo Deus looks at where it might potentially go from here.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times bestseller, Harari maps out our future.

Some parts of the book are a recap of Sapiens, looking at the state of the world today. As you can see from the Sapiens review, parts are word for word:

In 2012, about 56 million people died throughout the world. 620,000 of them died due to human violence. War killed 120,000 people and crime killed another 500,000. In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

Still, worth revisiting as I still highlighted some of the same passages as really interesting, having forgotten them from the first time round.

There's some interesting perspective on the shift from material economies to knowledge economies, which sets the stage for future developments:

As knowledge became the most important resource, the profitability of war declined, and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world... where the economies are still old fashioned, material-based economies.

In 1998, it made sense for Rwanda to seize and loot the rich coltan mines of neighbouring Congo, because this ore was in high demand for the manufacture of mobile phones and laptops, and Congo held 80% of the world's coltan reserves. Rwanda earned $240 million annually from the looted coltan. For poor Rwanda, that was a lot of money.

In contrast, it would have made no sense for China to invade California and seize Silicon Valley, for, even if the Chinese could somehow prevail on the battle field, there were no silicon mines to loot in Silicon Valley. Instead, the Chinese have earned billions of dollars from cooperating with high-tec giants such as Apple and Microsoft, buying their software and manufacturing their product. What Rwanda earned from an entire year of looting Congolese coltan, the Chinese earn in a single day of peaceful commerce.

And there are echos of The Brain: The Story of You in there, talking about how the idea of a soul - an eternal individual essence - is more likely mythical than factual, which does put a different spin on things when we consider what individualism means for the future. 

He also revisits the power of fiction and the fictions we tell ourselves in the section The Storytellers. "In the 21st century, fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth..." Which always catches the imagination of a writer. However, he also talks about the confusion humans face between fiction and reality, and how we so willingly relinquish control of our own reality, and our lives, to fictional bodies such as gods, corporations and nations:

When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer. It’s just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newborn calf, she suffers. This is reality.

It's also long been known that people tend to respect the written word over the spoken, even if it comes from a less reliable source. One story in this book that I found fascinating was that of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who I had not heard about before. He saved thousands of people from Nazi death camps by continuing to issue visas even after he was told to stop:

Yet officials who cared little for the plight of human beings nevertheless had deep respect for documents, and the visas Sousa Mendes issued against orders were respected by French, Spanish and Portuguese bureaucrats alike. Spiriting up to 30,000 people out of the Nazi death trap. Sousa Mendes, armed with little more than a rubber stamp, was responsible for the largest rescue operation by a single individual during the Holocaust.

History isn't a single narrative but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.

Once we catch up with where we are today, the book really breaks down into two parts. First, like Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy, it takes a shot at traditional religion and the outdated fictions they weave. Whereas Russell discussed how religion had held back human intelligence, Harari simply suggests it's obsolete in the modern age. We've gone beyond a point where it can hold us back.

If modernity has a motto, it is "shit happens". On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not limited to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want, provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning, but we can eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future, but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death, but we can create paradise here on earth, and live in it forever if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties.


More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced him dead, God seems to be making a comeback, but this is a mirage. God is dead, it just takes a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package because, for all their fervour, the zealots don't really understand the world of the 21st century and have nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us...

What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor? You will not find the answers to any of these questions in the Quran or Sharia law, nor in the Bible, or in the  Confusion Analects, because nobody in the Medieval Middle East or in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms, but in order to navigate a storm, you need a map and a rudder, rather than just an anchor. Hence, radical Islam may appeal to people born and raised in its fold, but it has precious little to offer unemployed Spanish youths or anxious Chinese billionaires. True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, but numbers alone don't count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.


The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations – the monasteries – which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods. Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centres of Europe, helping to found many of Europe’s first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.

Today the Catholic Church continues to enjoy the loyalties and tithes of hundreds of millions of followers. Yet it and the other theist religions have long since turned from a creative into a reactive force. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the Internet – and rabbis argue whether orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call upon women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, the Islamic State knows how to put videos on YouTube; but leaving aside the industry of torture, how many new start-ups have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity. Think, for example, about the acceptance of gay marriage or female clergy by the more progressive branches of Christianity. Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality or Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’. Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they find what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that if interpreted creatively enough means that God blesses gay marriages and that women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to liberalism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science. For if you want to understand these breakthroughs, you don’t have much choice – you need to spend time reading scientific articles and conducting lab experiments instead of memorising and debating ancient texts.

Hard to argue with that, really. The next part goes on to look at where we go once our original fictions die. What's the new story we tell ourselves? Will algorithms take over the world in the way nations and corporations currently do? In the way the gods of Sumer once did? Will we give up control and decision-making to them in the same way we have always done to great stories? And why not? Wouldn't that be a wise decision if these algorithms know us better than we know ourselves? If they are more likely to bring us happiness than our notoriously misguided and erratic 'gut feeling'?

A recent study commissioned by Google’s nemesis – Facebook – has indicated that already today the Facebook algorithm is a better judge of human personalities and dispositions even than people’s friends, parents and spouses. The study was conducted on 86,220 volunteers who have a Facebook account and who completed a hundred-item personality questionnaire. The Facebook algorithm predicted the volunteers’ answers based on monitoring their Facebook Likes – which webpages, images and clips they tagged with the Like button. The more Likes, the more accurate the predictions. The algorithm’s predictions were compared with those of work colleagues, friends, family members and spouses. Amazingly, the algorithm needed a set of only ten Likes in order to outperform the predictions of work colleagues. It needed seventy Likes to outperform friends, 150 Likes to outperform family members and 300 Likes to outperform spouses. In other words, if you happen to have clicked 300 Likes on your Facebook account, the Facebook algorithm can predict your opinions and desires better than your husband or wife!


Today in the US more people read digital books than printed volumes. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are reading the book. For example, your Kindle can monitor which parts of the book you read fast, and which slow; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kindle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it can know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to evaluate the suitability of a book much better than ever before. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.

This leads to a discussion on Dataism. It's worth following that link to Wiki, to get a grip on the concept.

People rarely come up with a completely new value. The last time this happened was in the 18th century, when the humanist revolution preached the stirring ideals of human liberty, human equality and human fraternity. Since 1789, despite numerous wars, revolutions and upheavals, humans have not managed to come up with any new value. All subsequent conflicts and struggles have been conducted either in the name of the three humanist values, or in the name of even older values such as obeying God or serving the nation.

Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a really novel value: freedom of information. We mustn't confuse freedom of information with the old liberal ideal of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was given to humans, and protected their right to think and say what they wished - including their right to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves.

Freedom of information, in contrast, is not given to humans. It is given to information. Moreover, this novel value may impinge on the traditional freedom of expression, by privileging the right of information to circulate freely over the right of humans to own data and to restrict its movement.

All in all, I did enjoy this book, though I felt it was rather weighted towards recapping Sapiens, and I would have like to explore the future a bit further. I'm a huge fan of Black Mirror, with San Junipero being perhaps my favourite of all time. I am intensely interested in how mind and machine will merge and the possible ramifications of that. I felt The Brain: The Story of You really went deeper on this point. Whereas I find the idea of dataism very interesting, I didn't come away feeling I fully understood the implications or the possibilities.

Combined, though, I think Sapiens and Homo Deus are a fantastic double act and well worth reading in close succession.