Archive for January, 2011

Been awhile since I’ve posted any bedtime music–

Tonight I have an earworm of sorts: Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies” from their 1987 album Tango in the Night. Not sure why–unless it’s because I’ve been thinking ahead to Valentine’s Day–not my favorite commercial holiday :)–and the little lies we sometimes tell when we love.

Beats me.

Night all–

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Up from under the dripping dark of the trees it came, shining with a thin, moony radiance. There was no clatter of hoofs, no rumble of wheels, no ringing of bit or bridle. He saw the white, sleek, shining shoulders with the collar that lay on each, like a faint fiery ring, enclosing nothing. He saw the gleaming reins, their cut ends slipping back and forward unsupported through the ring of the hames. The feet, that never touched earth, ran swiftly–four times four noiseless hoofs, bearing the pale bodies by like smoke. The driver leaned forward, brandishing his whip. He was faceless and headless, but his whole attitude bespoke desperate haste. . .[the coach] went past at a a gallop. . .Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention”, in Lord Peter Views the Body (1928)

In Sayers’ story, the death coach is a hoax–a bit of jiggery-pokery that ultimately spares a rightful heir from losing his birthright. In England, though, there are a good many stories of such coaches, the most famous of which may be a Dartmoor legend of the Lady Mary Howard, a seventeenth-century heiress who actually lived a fairly blameless life, but who gained a sinister reputation for one reason and one alone–she outlived four husbands, three of whom died within an oddly short time after their nuptials.

Born Mary Fitz in 1596, the daughter of a wealthy man who killed two men in fights before stabbing himself to death when his daughter was nine, Lady Mary Howard was left in the care of the contemporary Earl of Northumberland. At twelve, she was married (purely to keep her money in the Northumberland family) to the Earl’s brother, Alan Percy, who died shortly thereafter of a fever.

The Widow Percy’s second marriage was made for love–to a man called Thomas Darcy, with whom she eloped, rather to the chagrin of the Percys. Unfortunately, Darcy, like his predecessor, died very shortly after their wedding.

In 1612, Lady Mary was married for the third time–at the ripe old age of seventeen, it would seem–to Sir John Howard. This marriage lasted ten years, and produced children. Mary, though, had grown canny with age, and had taken steps to secure her fortune to her ownself, so that no husband could enrich himself at her expense–which apparently caused a good deal of friction in between her and John, who died in 1622.

And the whispers were beginning about her marital “bad luck”–even in a time when life was not expected to be long, it struck people as odd that she should be thrice widowed at twenty-seven. She was suspected, it would seem, of doing away with one husband after another.

She remained unmarried, upon John Howard’s death, for nearly six years. In 1628, she married Sir Richard Grenville. It would seem that Sir Richard was not happy that he couldn’t claim her fortune, and their life together–although it’s said to have produced a son named George whom Mary doted on–was fairly hellish. Sir Richard, at least, lived to complain about it; he divorced her in 1633, and she reverted to her previous married name of Howard.

Mary Howard, after that fourth misadventure, never remarried. She moved back to one of the Fitz family holdings not far from Tavistock in Devon, raised her family, and is said to have died of grief at seventy-five, following the death of her favored son, George Grenville.

But the whispers that had begun so long ago had continued, and in death, she gained the status of a monster–and, eventually, a ghost.

And hence the coach.

Nightly–so goes the legend–she drives forth in a coach and four. The coachman is headless, and the coach is built from the bones of her four husbands (in death, she stands accused of having murdered Richard Grenville, although he lived quite some years after their divorce). The murderous lady, dressed in white, sits in the coach.

She’s not alone on these jaunts. In front of the coach runs a great, coal-black hound with red eyes–one of the many cousins of that ubiquitous phantom Black Shuck. The coach, with canine escort, drives in a godless clatter of bones from Fitz House to Okehampton Castle, some fifteen miles away. On the grounds of Okehampton, the black dog picks a single blade of grass, and carries it in his mouth as the whole ghastly equipage returns to Fitz House.

They’ll repeat the trip night after night, for, says the legend, Mary Howard cannot rest after her great crimes until every blade of grass is picked from Okehampton–

or the world ends, whichever comes first.

Mighty dark road to travel for so hopeless a task.

For what it’s worth, stories of great black dogs who haunt the moors of Devon, told by a Devon man, inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. In turn, that novel inspired Laurie R. King, who writes a series of Holmes pastiches that feature Holmes and a wife he acquires late in life, to write The Moor, which features not only the great hound, but Lady Howard’s coach (with some interesting contemporary updates) in a murderous plot to, once more, try to get the Baskerville estate from its rightful heirs.

For more about Lady Howard and the death coach legend, see

Legendary Dartmoor

and (briefly)

Ghost Sightings, by Brian Innes (Barnes & Noble, 1996)

and 500 British Ghosts and Hauntings by Sarah Hapgood (Foulsham, 1993).

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Early this rainy morning, we lost another of our great country singers: Charlie Louvin.

Charlie had a moderately successful career as a solo singer (and with sometime duet partner Melba Montgomery) after splitting with his brother Ira in 1963; Ira died in a car crash in 1965. They originally performed all gospel material, but eventually switched to country, and are still regarded as the greatest of all country’s “brother acts”.

I still prefer the songs he and Ira recorded together, in part because my daddy and I used to sing them together.

Our favorite was a sentimental one called “I Love You the Best of All” ( a number 12 hit in 1961, the year I was born), but we were partial to this one too. 🙂

May you rest well, Charlie. You’re up there with the rest of the greats now–and singing with Ira again.

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the great Scots poet was born on January 25, 1759–

and bein’ o’ Scots bluid masel’ (many generations back, but hey!) you KNOW I’m gonna pay tribute with this, my favorite of all his poems:

I’m reminded that in a very odd railroad ghost story one of the participants quotes from “Tam o’ Shanter”–on a dark and stormy night, no less–

May have to tell that story, here in a day or two. Meanwhile, I’m just gonna listen! 😉

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This week’s song at Take This Tune is Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me”.

Unlike many people, I still live in the house that built me–across the road from the creek, on the only high ground in the immediate area. When I first knew the house, forty-two years ago, it was covered in white shingle (which, we learned much later, was saturated with asbestos) and had no bathroom: just an oldtimey farmhouse, with two porches and an outhouse and a shallow hand-dug well. When we moved here I was seven, my brother just barely five and my sister only two.

Although I remember one other home prior to this, this one has been home for so long that that other seems a dream of a place I never knew.

We were renters for the first twenty-odd years we lived here. The landlord was a skinflint who raised the rent every time he had to make an improvement: digging a well, repairing holes that rotted through the front porch, putting in a bathroom.

Here my grandmother moved in, allegedly because she was too infirm to live on her own; the truth of the matter was, she was an intractably mean woman determined to be the center of the universe, and made my mother’s life a living hell. There were things that happened in those seven years that have colored my life, and those of the rest of the family, to this day. She died when I was seventeen, but there was damage contained in our souls that has only slowly been healed.

The house, fortunately, doesn’t seem to remember. There are ghosts here, but they come from an earlier time in its history and seem in the main to be happy spirits.

Here first my brother, then my sister, began courting and eventually married and made households of their own.

Here my father became ill in his late forties with the heart ailment that eventually killed him. One cold morning in November 1992 he dropped dead in the kitchen floor.

Here Mom and I continued living. There have been hard years here, some of which I wonder how we’ve survived.

We have made improvements over the twenty-plus years since the landlord died and we finally bought the house: new bathroom (twice); new roof (twice); new electrical outlets; partial new flooring; new siding that covered the ugly white shingles; changes in heating, from kerosene to wood and finally to propane.

Here there has been music from the very beginning, for my dad played guitar and sang, my mother and I sang, my brother played just about any instrument with strings and my sister played clarinet and mandolin.

Here there were pets: dogs, cats, a pony, a baby duck.

Here Mom’s health has declined.

For the time being, I am here alone while Mom is in a skilled nursing facility receiving physical therapy following a mild heart attack and pneumonia that kept her hospitalized for twenty days. Here now things are silent save for the TV, the cat, and the click of my keyboard as I type these words.

It has never been this quiet before.

Eventually, it will be quieter, for Mom will pass–although, God willing, not for years yet–and I will be here.

There are memories here with me, for better or for worse, in this quiet.

This is the house that built me.

Take This Tune is a weekly meme hosted by my friend Jamie. Each week, she posts a music video and asks participants to write about the images, associations or emotions the song raises in them. Please click on the above link if you’d like to join in and follow the instructions given there.

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The Calgarth Skulls

Our cousins across the pond–meaning the Brits, that is–do have a sort of monopoly on some types of ghost stories. One such motif is that of screaming skulls. There are many tales in British folklore about these noisy crania, which shriek, laugh, and are said to bring bad luck to any fool who takes them out of the house where they’ve taken up residence.

Most of these screaming skulls aren’t, shall we say, motivated by any great emotion left over from their living years. The Calgarth Skulls were different. They took it upon themselves to drive a man out of his ill-gotten home and into penury and madness.

I first read the story of the Calgarth Skulls in a Ripley’s Believe It. . .or Not! illustrated anthology way back in the 1970s. They also make an appearance in Sarah Hapgood’s 1993 book 500 British Ghosts & Hauntings. Hapgood casts some doubt on the story; there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of documentation to prove any of the principal characters actually existed. But I’m of much the same opinion about the Calgarth Skulls as I am about our own Bell Witch; something extraordinary must have happened in that setting for the story to persist in folklore for so many centuries.

In the late sixteenth century, in Cumbria, there lived a great landowner named Myles Phillipson, and he was not well thought of. He had a reputation of being dishonest in business dealings and, in his capacity as the local magistrate, a little too eager to dole out heavy punishments to people who crossed him.

Among those who crossed him were an elderly couple whom tradition names as Kraster and Dorothy Cook. They had the good fortune to own a small and picturesque farm property and, while not wealthy people, had done well for themselves.

Unfortunately, the big man in those parts–Myles Phillipson–wanted their land. He had a fancy to build himself a great house on that small farm, with its pretty views. Phillipson made the Cooks an offer he thought only fools would refuse.

Far from being fools, the Cooks were simply happy on their farm and wanted to keep it. They turned Phillipson down.

Like many another dishonest magnate, Phillipson did not like being thwarted, and set in motion an evil plan to take the Cooks’ land without having to pay for it.

He pretended to have no hard feelings, and he invited the elderly couple to a party at his home. They came, and had the misfortune to express admiration for a fancy serving bowl (tradition says it was either gold or silver) that was used in the course of the evening.

Within a day or so, the Cooks were under arrest. While they were out, Phillipson had a henchman plant the beautiful bowl in their wee house. Phillipson then raised a hue and cry, proclaimed the bowl stolen, accused the Cooks of theft, and as magistrate sentenced them to hang.

Kraster Cook protested to no avail. Dorothy took more direct action; in court, she placed a curse on Phillipson: he would never prosper from then on, for she and her husband, she threatened, would haunt him until the end of his days.

They were hanged, Phillipson snatched up their property, and his great house was soon built.

At the first party he gave there, the guests stampeded out in terror. There was a grand staircase in the foyer of the mansion, and just as the party was in full swing, the guests heard two voices raised in raucous shrieks–not of fear, but of laughter. The sounds seemed to come from the staircase, and sure enough, when the servants investigated, there on the bannisters sat two grinning skulls.

Phillipson threw the skulls out into a nearby lake and bade his guests continue their revelry, but no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the skulls reappeared and resumed their unholy glee at his expense.

The guests ran. A few of them, as they left, reminded Phillipson of Dorothy Cook’s curse as sentence of death was passed on her.

Phillipson never held another party at his great house; word got about that the skulls sat on that staircase, laughing, day in and day out. Worse yet, his canny, if hardly legal, business ventures failed, and he eventually died penniless.

His heirs were unable to live in his mansion, for the skulls remained there. Only when the house fell into ruin did the haunting cease.

Strangely, Myles Phillipson figures in another story of much the same sort, from about a century later than that of the Calgarth Skulls. That story, from John Canning’s Fifty Great Horror Stories, involves a hand taken from the body of a holy man called Father Arrowsmith and tells how Phillipson used the hand to restore a dead man to life long enough for the man to change his will in Phillipson’s favor, and how Phillipson murdered–and was haunted by–the man’s heirs, with much the same results as Dorothy Cook’s curse brought about in the older story.

All I can say is, DANG, if there really was a Myles Phillipson, he was a wrong ‘un. (^_^)

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Well, my friends, I come to you today from a different computer altogether, thanks to the kindness of my friends Lily (who donated the puter) and Willard (who set it up) ;).

The following five stories are my favorite literary ghost stories by American authors. And they, also, I have been known to read back to back, simply to give myself the willies. 😉

Of course “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving has to be on the list. First published in 1820 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, this tale of Ichabod Crane and the ghostly antics of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is based on legends from the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now of course the state of New York). Although Irving would go on to write other tales of the supernatural (“The Adventure of the German Student,” “Guests from Gibbet Island”) this is the most famous. A number of movies have been based on it, most recently Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow , a very loose retelling of the story starring Johnny Depp. Fun fact: Irving was buried in a cemetery in North Tarrytown, NY; a few years ago the town officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow.

The Shadowy Third” by Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945). Richmond, Virginia native Glasgow was better known as a novelist; her In This Our Life (1941) won a Pulitzer the following year. This creepy story was published in her 1923 collection The Shadowy Third and Other Stories, but may have been written as early as 1916. It’s fairly standard Victorian fare: a sickly wife married for her money by a society doctor, positive he murdered her daughter so he would inherit a fortune, a nurse who is told the woman is mad but who, like the mother, can see the child’s ghost–and the ghost’s revenge against the doctor following the mother’s death. Very eerie.

The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” by Edith Wharton (1862-1937). The novelist Edith Wharton (a 1920 Pulitzer winner for The Age of Innocence; the first woman to win the award) was born into the wealthy Jones family of New York, from whom we derive the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” This story, about another sickly woman tolerated for her money by an insensitive drunken husband, treats of how her deceased personal maid returns from the dead to protect her beloved employer. The maid, Emma Saxon, usually appears after causing her bell, disconnected after her death, to ring, thus summoning her replacement; on at least one occasion she blocks the husband’s view of the new maid, prompting that worthy to blurt, “How many of you are there, in God’s name?” Originally published in Scribner’s Magazine in November 1902, this story leads off the collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, first released in 1973.

The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943). Like Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Benet’s story of a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil is based on New England folklore. It fits into this category because of the satirical but spooky scene in which Old Nick summons a jury of Americans remembered for their infamous lives: the Tory guerrilla fighters Walter Butler and Simon Girty; the New England Native American King Philip; Salem witch trial judge John Hathorne (an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne) and others. Benet also used the great New Hampshire native statesman and attorney Daniel Webster as the instrument of Jabez Stone’s salvation. Much of Benet’s output deals in the same mythic way with American history; he won a Pulitzer in 1929 for his long poem about the Civil War, John Brown’s Body.

The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” by John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922) reminds me no end of the humorous writings of Mark Twain; they combine sidesplitting funny elements with genuinely frightening ones. The title story of his 1894 collection The Water Ghost and Others is a rollicking tale of an American who inherits an English manor house haunted by the extremely wet ghost of a suicide by drowning, and how he uses the new technologies of the time to lay the ghost.

If I remember right, the first of the stories on this list I ever ran across was “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall”, when I was no more than nine or ten years old, in my middle school library. Alas, stories of this sort, and the others I list here, generally don’t turn up in school libraries or on high school reading lists anymore. 😦 They’re worth a read, though– 🙂

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