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This Haunted Land of Childhood

With its deep layers of history, folklore, and fable that lie just beneath the surface of every building and landscape, Great Britain is a haunted land. As a child born and raised in south Wales I became deeply entranced by this, and I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated by ghost stories and tales of the macabre and the supernatural. It’s hard to trace exactly when I began reading ghost stories, but two compact collections of these tales had a formative influence on me at the tender age of eight.

I was born in the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital in Caerleon, Wales, an old manor house that like everything in the UK has a tale or two behind it, transforming as it has from house to hospital to hotel. The house was built in 1860 by coal baron Thomas Powell. One of the largest coal owners in the country, Powell co-founded the first coal ring in south Wales, eventually owned sixteen coal pits, and for a time was probably the largest coal exporter in the world. Originally named Coldra House, the building was given to Powell’s oldest son as a wedding gift, when it was redubbed Coldra Hall. In 1869, Powell Jr. and his wife and six year old son were murdered while on an Ethiopian safari. According to the Saturday, June 12, 1869 edition of the County Observer and Monmouthshire Central Advertiser the family was “murdered by the natives in Abyssinia” with the “wife and son cut to pieces.” Also killed at the same time were Powell’s servant, a Swedish missionary, and three Abyssinians that Powell had taken with him on the safari. A letter about the incident received by Powell Jr.’s brother Walter noted that the details were “too horrible to contemplate” and the newspaper reported that the bodies were “mutilated in a most dreadful manner.” As a footnote to this particular story, the Christmas 1869 edition of the Cardiff Times reported that the expedition mounted to recover the remains of the Powells incurred over £15,000 in expenses. Sadly, two more of Powell’s sons met with tragic ends. In 1881 his youngest son disappeared without trace in a hot-air balloon over the English Channel. Some years later his middle son died after receiving a fatal kick from a horse. 

Stories, always stories. In the buildings around me and in the land itself. In the fields, the trees, the hillside tracks. 

After the deaths of Powell Jr. and his wife and son, Coldra Hall was leased and then sold in 1915 to Welsh iron and steel manufacturer and Baronet of the Coldra, Sir John Wyndham Beynon (curiously, “John Beynon” was one of the pen names used by the English SF author John Wyndham). Beynon built an additional wing to Coldra Hall, and in 1930 he donated the building to the local authority. On New Year’s Day 1940, Coldra Hall officially became the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital, named in honour of Sir John’s mother. Before it became part of the Celtic Manor Resort in 1999, some 60,000 babies were born in the Lydia Beynon. I came into the world late on a dark Autumnal night punctuated with the staccato crack of fireworks, Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, 1966, into a place steeped in weird and fantastic stories that seem to have leeched their way into my consciousness from birth. 

Stories like my father’s time in a house by the cemetery. When he was young, probably no more than ten years old, my dad’s family moved to a house near Bettws in Newport. Next door to this two-storey house was a large cemetery that had as its eerie centrepiece an alabaster-white statue of an angel with outstretched wings, perched on one of the tombstones. Relegated as the less-favoured child to a closet of a bedroom, my dad hated having to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. Those few dark feet through the corridor felt oppressive and menacing, like something was always waiting there. My great grandmother lived with them and complained about a face looking in through the windows, though this was probably a local peeping tom. Though no actual spectres were sighted, when the family moved on my grandfather confided to my dad that he never felt settled there and that something about the place just didn’t feel right

Tales spun at family get togethers, to feed the childrens’ appetite for the macabre, like the story of the Celtic heads. My dad related this one at my grandparents’ house. At a house in England two Celtic stone heads were unearthed in the garden and put on display inside. Unfortunately, this brought uninvited guests into the house. The wife of the couple who owned the house came through the front door one evening to see a disturbing creature, a bipedal wolf that was padding slowly up the stairs. This lycanthropic beast then vanished. The same thing was seen leaping over the low stone wall at the bottom of the garden. I don’t remember how this tale concluded, except that my dad noted ominously that “wherever the stone heads are now…”

And then there were the ridiculous, obviously made up stories that kids relate, like the one about the ghost horse. My friend told me this one. See, a couple of kids had been walking along a path by a stream and had come across a trail of hoofprints in the soft mud. But the hoofprints were uneven; here, an unbroken trail of them, and there a blank space where they disappeared! And then a local boy’s body was fished out of this stream, but here’s the thing, the body was covered in horrible bite marks! Quite why a horse, spectral or otherwise, would bother to kill and chew on a little boy was left unexplained. 

Nevertheless, stories like these, everywhere. Part of the reason for this might lie in the sense of mystery and unhuman otherness that the fields, woods, hills, hollows, and hedge-lined lanes can occasionally instill. As novelist and poet Catherine Fisher notes in the text of her lecture Machen’s Gwent, about Caerleon-born author Arthur Machen’s connections with the landscape of south Wales:

“Still sparsely populated, the villages of this region are small, its churches old and grey. Grey-stone manor houses and farms hide in its hollows. It is a landscape where Celtic hill forts and Roman legionary ruins hint at the buried underground survival of the past. A land of rain and wind and below that a dark layer of bone and stone and artefact.” 

The deep, eerie layers of artefact, fable, and enigma bleed inevitably into even the pop culture. In 1973, seven years after I was born, Universal-Tandem Publishing founded a UK imprint aimed at children and teenagers called Target Books. Target was extremely successful in publishing a line of novelizations of Doctor Who TV serials, many written by Terrence Dicks. I had several of these books, including a copy of Doctor Who and the Daleks that had been signed by actor Tom Baker, which unfortunately has been lost in one of my moves. Target dabbled in the supernatural, unexplained, and cryptozoology with its “Target Mystery” sub-line. A paperback version of Tim Dinsdale’s The Story of the Loch Ness Monster was published in 1973, followed by Investigating UFOs by Larry Kettelkamp, a book that encouraged its young readers to join one of the UK’s numerous UFO clubs. In 1974, as part of the Target Mystery series two books of purportedly true supernatural stories were published, both written by Bernhardt J. Hurwood. At the age of eight I persuaded my parents to buy the first of them, Haunted Houses, from W.H. Smiths in Newport town centre. 

A scant 128-page paperback that sold for 30p, Haunted Houses was a cornucopia of brief, shuddery jolts, interspersed with simple but evocative black and white line drawings by Carl Keighley. Scanning the table of contents now brings it all back, a sample of which: 

The Mystery House of Horror

Horror by the Sea

The Noisy Ghost of Barbey

The Screaming Skull of Belliscombe House

The Cold Dead Hand

The Girl with the Beckoning Eyes

As dictated by the book’s title, the subject matter of the stories is fairly limited in range, dealing with supernatural events taking place in a type of dwelling. The definition of house is, however, stretched to include castles, hotels, and even a lighthouse. But they all fit the definition of what Stephen King has called “the bad place.” Many are about a tragedy or injustice that is replayed supernaturally to the hapless occupants. The Legend of the Screaming Skulls is perhaps the quintessential example from this compilation. In this story, which is said to have taken place four centuries ago, a farmer and his wife are framed by a greedy, covetous neighbour who desperately wants their farmhouse. The innocent couple are sent to the gallows for stealing, but not before the wife utters a chilling curse: “…never will you be rid of us!” The new occupants of the house are disturbed by terrifying screams echoing through the premises in the dead of night. The source of the bloodcurdling sounds is two skulls, perched on a bannister, “covered with green mould, vermin crawling from the eye sockets, and matted with wild, maggot-infested hair.” The skulls refuse to stay buried, and the family that stole the farmhouse ultimately end up in financial ruin and disappear into obscurity and poverty. Much like the E.C. horror comics, many of the stories have this stark view of morality and revenge.

One of the strangest and least conventional stories was also one of my favourites. Titled A Blood-Drinking Ghost and set in a “lonely lighthouse” in an unspecified time and place, this is the unsettling tale of a lighthouse keeper who is discovered dead and completely drained of blood. Told in a brief two pages and six paragraphs, the narrative ends with an account purportedly taken from the dead man’s diary. It is this part that upped the creep factor for me as a kid: “You are lying in your bed at night, thinking of nothing but sleep, when you see by the faint light in your bedroom a shape entering at the door and gliding toward you with a long sigh, like the wind across the water.” The tale draws to a close with the keeper’s words, “When you awake in the morning you think it was all a dream, until you see a small blue, deadly-looking spot on your chest, near the heart.” The worst part is that the keeper confesses he is doomed, powerless to stop his own death from coming at the hands of this spectre: “every night comes the horrible shape to your bedside, with a face that seems horrified at itself…You are under a sort of cloud of fate…” 

The unexplained “otherness” of the entity was probably what made this story so memorable to me as a child. Whereas many of the stories in the book were populated by more familiar ghosts of those who died in tragic circumstances that merely scared people, this was a different and seemingly inhuman thing that caused actual physical harm to the living. Reading it now as an adult the single most disturbing detail is that the supernatural creature appeared to be “horrified at itself.” This is heady stuff for a slim paperback aimed at young readers. 

The specific locations of the stories were frequently obscure. The Lady in the Cupboard begins thus: “There is a very old house in a certain part of Wales known as the Oaks…” Another story opens with “In the Kensington area of London there once was a rambling old mansion…” There are even three haunted house stories set in China. The House of the Lonely Ghosts takes place in an unnamed locale in Peking, “over a hundred years ago.” The second Sino-supernatural, The Room of the Murderous Phantoms, simply locates itself as “Long ago, in old China…” Similarly, the third, The Invasion of the Fox Spirits begins with “A long time ago in the southern part of China…” When a real town is specified, the house that is the centre of the haunting is sometimes said to not be there anymore. The “quiet family-operated hotel” that is the home to the Horror by the Sea was in the Welsh seaside town of Llandudno, but the story notes that the building is no longer standing. In an odd way this vagueness actually adds to a sense of authenticity, in the same counterintuitive way that a creepy story that happened to “my friend’s aunt’s sister” seems to make it more believable. 

Some of the places named don’t seem to exist today, if they ever did. The story of The Ghost with the Missing Shoe takes place “in the little town of Rathaby.” An internet search does not reveal any town thus named. Rathaby, perhaps, occupies the same imaginary geography as H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich or Stephen King’s Castle Rock. 

The second of the Hurwood supernatural anthologies I acquired, circa 1975, was the more ambitious Ghosts, Ghouls & Other Horrors. This one has 50 stories, double the number in Haunted Houses, and in addition to ghosts encompasses a vampire, a giant mutated maggot, a werewolf, spectral hounds, a vampiric feline, a haunted ocean buoy, and were-jaguars. This variety resulted in a spine-tinglingly delightful cornucopia of horror, like an expanded Amicus portmanteau. 

Though there are a number of fairly conventional haunted house tales, it’s with the outlandish stories that this book really shines. Take for instance one of my favourites, The Glowing Maggot of Doom, an exploitation movie title if ever there was one (you can almost imagine the poster). Centred in a “little Yorkshire churchyard,” this thoroughly peculiar yarn begins on a moonlit night with a postman walking past the graveyard on his way home. His attention is caught by a blob of luminous slime that oozes its way out of the grave of a recently dead villager. The blob takes loathsome shape into a giant maggot creature that weaves its way caterpillar-like through the tombstones, only to vanish when it closes on the house of the vicar. The next day the vicar and his family are discovered dead from food poisoning. On the following night the thing is spotted again, and once more it slithers to the threshold of a house, this time that of the village blacksmith, who also dies of food poisoning by dawn. The wriggling portent of death is not seen for ten more days, but then the postman, who has kept vigil, sees the creature sliming its way to the door of his own house. His son dies in the morning. In their grief the postman and his wife plot revenge. In true horror movie fashion, they wait until darkness to steal into the graveyard, dig up the body beneath the grave from which the giant maggot emerges, and burn the corpse to cinders. The vile beast is never seen again.

It would be fascinating to know the origins of this particular yarn. I mean, why a maggot? Why not a simple ghost? The occupant of the grave that is the source of the pestilential creature had a beef with both the vicar and the blacksmith, but it is unexplained why the maggot goes to the door of the postman, unless it was merely pissed that it had been seen. I’ve come across different accounts of some of the stories in both of these books, which hints that many or all of them are retellings by Hurwood (as Stephen King notes in The Breathing Method, it is the tale, not he who tells it). But I’ve yet to encounter another version of this supernatural giant insect tale. Perhaps it’s an old Yorkshire folk tale, one of the many that make up the cultural stratigraphy of Britain.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange is one of the stories that can be easily identified from other sources. This tale was first included in Story of My Life (1896), a six-volume autobiography by Victorian writer Augustus Hare. As related in volume four (beginning on page 202), Hare describes the story being told by a Captain Fisher as something that happened to Fisher’s own family. 

Croglin Grange, Fisher says, was a “very curious old place in Cumberland,” located next to a church and graveyard, that his family owned and then rented to two brothers and their sister. In their first summer as tenants, the sister retires for the night. Unable to sleep, lying in bed and gazing out the bedroom window, she spies two lights in the trees that border the graveyard. The lights morph into a dark shape that glides inexorably towards her. It moves around the house and then is at her window, picking at the pane of glass, “a hideous brown face with flaming eyes glaring in at her.” The creature gains entrance, grabs her hair with its skeletal fingers, and violently bites her in the throat. She screams, the brothers rush into the room, and one of them chases the creature, which disappears over the wall into the graveyard. After convalescing in Switzerland to recover from the shock, the three of them return to Croglin Grange in the Autumn. Months pass without incident, and then the next March the fiend returns, scratching malevolently at the sister’s bedroom window. This time the brothers are ready, and they chase it into the graveyard, shooting at it with a pistol and wounding it in the leg. It disappears into a vault of “a family long extinct.” The next day they open the vault and find all but one coffin open and their contents scattered around. They lift the lid of the intact coffin and there they find the mummified figure of the vampire, which they remove and destroy with fire.

Similarities between this narrative and the first chapter of Varney the Vampire, which were both published in 1929 by Montague Summers, have led some to conclude that the Croglin Grange story is simply based on the fictional Varney. In Ghosts, Ghouls & Other Horrors, Hurwood merely condenses the story from Hare’s autobiography.Regardless, it’s still a creepy little tale as related by Hurwood, and the image of a dark figure with a “brown and shriveled face” that scritches and scratches at the lead of the window frame, like the undead Danny Glick in Salem’s Lot, is one that gave eight-year-old me a serious tingle down the spine. 

Of the stories in Ghosts, Ghouls & Other Horrors I had many favourites that I would turn to, picking up the book and thumbing through its well-worn pages. The Bleeding Skeleton Hand was an artifact kept in a glass case in a bar. A patron asks the story behind it, which involves a woman who disappears on her wedding night, her skeletal remains eventually being discovered. Having been told the story, the punter drops the skeleton hand, screaming that it is oozing blood from its bony joints. In a twist worthy of Tales from the Crypt, he confesses to being the jilted lover who abducted and killed the woman all those years ago. In The Ghost of the Werewolf a woman in a remote English village is menaced by the spectre of something half-man and half-wolf. One of the few benevolent supernatural manifestations was found in The Spectral Hounds of Kasli in which, deep in Russia, a pack of mysterious, ghostly hounds saves a man from being torn to pieces by wolves. And a weirdly fascinating tale called The Gorilla’s Revenge involved ghastly vengeance being wreaked upon a wicked zookeeper, in the spirit world of animals no less. 

However, nothing compares in sheer weirdness to the final tale, Wer-Jaguars of the Amazon. This slice of utter bizarreness relates the story of a Dutch trader in the Amazon who saves two children from abuse by an old woman. The two children, who say their mother is “the spirit of the jungle,” disappear into the rainforest. The trader follows them and watches as they come to a pool with a giant pink and white water lily in the centre. The children speak curious, unintelligible incantations, complete a strange ritual, and transform into deadly jaguars. Travelling back to the old woman’s hut, the hunter hears “a peculiar crunching sound” from within, and finds the two children, blood-smeared and feasting on the woman’s remains. 

A whacked-out mix of David Lynch, Val Lewton, and George Romero, the story is even acknowledged in its oddity by Hurwood himself, who begins his retelling with “There is no way to verify this incredible tale, but it has been said that it is true.” At the time I didn’t know what to make of this story, but it’s likely here that an appreciation for some of the more out-there, trippy aspects of horror was first instilled.

So who was this “Bernhardt J. Hurwood,” whose scarifying digests had such an impact on my young, impressionable mind? Born in 1926 in New York, Hurwood wrote an impressive range of material, publishing over 60 books in the course of his career. He didn’t start out as a writer, though. After serving in the merchant marine and finishing a Bachelor of Science degree, Hurwood became a film editor who worked for NBC, becoming part of the staff of the original TODAY show. 

Hurwood’s career as a writer began with authoring comic book adaptations of Universal horror films for Dell. This led to his first paperback book, Terror by Night (1963), a chronicle of vampires, werewolves, and ghouls. In addition to several books on the occult and supernatural for younger readers, he authored: a series of nine softcore sex thrillers, the Man from T.O.M.C.A.T. sequence; the Invisibles sequence, which comprised two SF novels; an early manual for writing using computers; and the novelization of the 1977 eco-horror film Kingdom of the Spiders. He also seems to have had a sideline in erotic non-fiction, including A Psychiatrist Looks at Erotica, The Golden Age of Erotica, and Joys of Oral Love. A third book of supernatural “true” stories was also issued by Target in the ‘70s, Vampires, Werewolves & Other Demons. Though I did end up borrowing this book from a friend, it did not have anywhere near as great an influence on the young me. Bernhardt J. Hurwood died in 1987, also in New York. 

Hurwood’s Target paperbacks of Haunted Houses and Ghosts, Ghouls & Other Horrors in a sense became a gazetteer for a supernatural landscape that seemed to exist in parallel with my childhood world, a place that was there but always just out of reach, like an eerie shape glanced in the peripheral vision that vanishes when looked at directly. As the green of the Welsh hills has become the colour of my eyes, so have the shadows of that ghostly parallel land stayed with me. Hurwood’s books were two of my most important early guides. 

“Lights out! And don’t forget to look beneath the bed before you go to sleep. Sleep? You’re joking!”

— From the back cover of the Target paperback edition of Ghosts, Ghouls & Other Horror

About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

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