The Man in the Iron Mask

23 Jun

During the reign of King Louis XIV, an enigmatic man spent several decades confined to the Bastille and other French prisons. No one knew his identity or why he was in jail. Even stranger, no one knew what he looked like—the prisoner was never seen without a mask covering his face. The anonymous prisoner has since inspired countless stories and legends, yet most historians agree that he existed. The mysterious prisoner lived during the reign of Louis XIV. To his supporters, Louis was le Roi Soleil (“the Sun King”) in whose reign France expanded and strengthened her borders. To his detractors, he was a near tyrant, whose belief in absolutism—the idea that he ruled as God’s representative on Earth—had turned France into a police state. After his death, the unknown prisoner’s story began to take on a life of its own as gossips said that his punishment stemmed directly from the French throne. From the very outset, the “masked man” stories were more than just lurid tales: They played directly into anti-Louis propaganda. During the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) the Dutch, fighting to protect their republic from French expansion, exploited the rumor to undermine the legitimacy of Louis XIV. Agents of the Dutch spread claims that the masked prisoner was a former lover of the queen mother, and was the king’s real father—which would make Louis illegitimate. Historians have, however, discounted the theory popularised by famed philosopher Voltaire and writer Alexandre Dumas that the masked man was the twin brother of Louis XIV. So who was he?

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The Grandfather Paradox

26 May

Time-travel has long been a staple of genre films, novels and television shows serving as everything from a backdrop to teen-comedy hi-jinks in Back to Future to thoughtful contemplation in Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder. Perhaps the craziest of the time travel paradoxes was cooked up by Robert Heinlein in his classic short story All You Zombies. But in the ‘real world’ time travel is thought to be impossible. The world-famous late physicist Professor Sir Stephen Hawking famously once threw a party at the University of Cambridge which was, he said, “a welcome reception for future time travellers,” a tongue-in-cheek reference his 1992 conjecture that travel into the past is effectively an impossibility. The ‘grandfather paradox’ outlines both philosopher’s and physicist’s main objection to time-travel: the possible violation of causality. The term for this comes from the paradox’s common description: a person travels to the past and kills their own grandfather before the conception of their father or mother, which prevents the time traveller’s existence. Whilst time-travel itself remains in the realm of pure speculation, the possible results of the violation of the principle of causality and how nature may prevent them, are hotly debated topics beyond the realms of pulp-fiction with philosophers and physicists speculating on possible solutions.

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Lovecraft Country

21 Apr

Matt Ruff’s novel, Lovecraft Country, is set in Jim Crow America, long after Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Despite drawing the title from a term coined by Keith Herber to describe the fictional New England landscape in which Lovecraft set many of his stories, Ruff’s novel takes place primarily in Chicago; though there are excursions afield to locales both terrestrial and celestial, very little of the story is actually set in the eponymous Lovecraft Country. Nor do Ruff’s characters resemble the typical Lovecraftian protagonist — white, male, and with antiquarian tendencies. Atticus Turner, a 22-year-old African American Korean War vet, has just returned to his hometown of Chicago only to find his father, Montrose, has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Montrose and Atticus never got along very well, mostly due to the friction caused by how each man navigated the racial tightrope of living in Jim Crow America. Guided by his Uncle George’s self-published ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, Atticus, George, and Letitia, his friend from childhood, set off for the east coast to track down Montrose. Their trip takes them to a rustic white enclave in the backwoods of Massachusetts run by the wealthy Braithwaite family. The chaos that ensues from Atticus’ subsequent choices ensnares two black families and their friends into a centuries-long battle of freedom and oppression, hope and hatred, racial intolerance and violent magic.

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What became of the Bunyip?

24 Mar

Australia is famous for its huge swathes of untouched wilderness and for the unique, often deadly animals that wander there. You wouldn’t expect that a nation with the likes of the platypus and the killer box jellyfish would need to invent a new creature to add to its allure, yet reports of a mysterious, massive creature lurking in the waters of Australia abound. This creature, the Bunyip, is as much a part of Australian culture as any of its other fantastic beasts. The Bunyip (translated in Aboriginal Australian to mean devil or evil spirit), also known as the Kianpraty, is a creature of Aboriginal mythology. It lives in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds and waterholes all over Australia. The Bunyip has many descriptions. Some say it has a dog-like face, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill. Others think the creature has an appearance similar to a snake with a man and a beard. Some even think that the Bunyip is actually the prehistoric marsupial, Diprotodon australis, that managed to escape extinction. But the figure of the Bunyip was part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, while its name varied according to tribal nomenclature. In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations of the creature known as the Bunyip across Aboriginal Australia. Europeans recorded various written accounts of Bunyips in the early and mid-19th century, as they began to settle across the country.

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Locke & Key

24 Feb

Locke & Key is an American comic book series written by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King and a noted horror author in his own right, and illustrated by Gabriel Rodríguez. Quite simply, the series stands as one of the greatest works of modern horror in any medium. It begins with the brutal murder of the Locke family’s father and then moves the survivors of the attack back to their ancestral home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. It may sound a bit hokey and contrived, but the reality is far different. After that shaky little pitch, the comic book series becomes a spellbinding reading experience, demanding page turns as the family comes to terms with its haunted past. The Keyhouse has magical keys that allow their users powers. These keys start revealing themselves to the Locke kids, who use the keys not only for their special powers, but in various attempts to deal with their trauma and to aid them in the struggles of adolescence and fitting in, as a malevolent force bent on unleashing demons long buried hounds them. That concept allows for some incredibly gripping moments throughout the series, which make reading the series’ finale a bittersweet experience.

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The Many Faces of the Bogeyman

20 Jan

The Bogeyman is an imaginary creature commonly used by adults to scare and terrorise children into submissive behaviour by telling them that if they misbehave, the bogeyman will get them. The Bogeyman has no specific appearance in its stories and conceptions about it can vary drastically per nationality or household. Instead he is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror, whose goal depends on what purpose needs serving. Bogeyman tales first made their appearance around the 16th and 17th century. The word “bogey” is probably a variation of the German word bogge, which in turn is a variant of the Middle English bugge, meaning “a frightening spectre”. The earliest modern form of the word was “bogle” (definition: ghost), which was popularised around the 1800’s in English literature and based on the similar Scottish word attested around 1500. The Bogeyman has no specific appearance and conceptions vary drastically by household and culture, but is commonly depicted as a masculine or androgynous monster that punishes children for misbehaviour. Bogeymen may target a specific act or general misbehaviour, depending on what purpose needs serving, often based on a warning from the child’s authority figure. The term “Bogeyman” is sometimes used as a non-specific personification or metonym for terror, and in some cases, the Devil.

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Marjorie Bowen’s Twilight Tales

23 Dec

A writer whose life was as fascinating as her output, Marjorie Bowen was born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long in 1885 on Hayling Island, Hampshire. Her mother had literary aspirations; her father was an alcoholic who died on the London streets. She spent the early years of her career writing prolifically to support her extravagant mother and sister. She used a variety of pen names to conceal her huge output of over 150 novels, using the Bowen pseudonym on her supernatural stories, starting with Black Magic (1909), a tale of a medieval witch that became a best seller. Despite this productivity, the best of her books brilliantly conjure up haunted landscapes along with a unique mixture of cruelty and pathos among her characters. The best of the Bowen short stories – or ‘twilight tales,’ as she liked to call them – were collected in several volumes between 1917 and 1932, her own favourites appearing in The Bishop of Hell (1949).

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The Mandela Effect

18 Nov

The Mandela Effect refers to a phenomenon in which a large number of people share false memories of past events, referred to as confabulation in psychiatry. Some have speculated that the memories are caused by parallel universes spilling into our own, while others explain the phenomenon as a failure of collective memory. This form of collective misremembering of common events or details first emerged in 2010, when countless people on the internet falsely remembered Nelson Mandela was dead. It was widely believed he had died in prison during the 1980s. In reality, Mandela was actually freed in 1990 and passed away in 2013 – despite some people’s claims they remember clips of his funeral on TV. Self-described ‘paranormal consultant’ Fiona Broome coined the term ‘Mandela Effect’ to explain this collective misremembering, and then other examples started popping up all over the internet. If you have ever been convinced that something is a particular way only to discover you’ve remembered it all wrong, then it sounds like you may have experienced this phenomenon.

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Haunted Holland

28 Oct

Here’s a special pre-Halloween treat for all of you – a post about Utrecht, the most haunted city in the Netherlands! Founded by the Romans in 47 AD, Utrecht was one of the first places in the Netherlands to embrace Christianity, and in the Middle Ages it grew into an important religious centre. The city retains many of its medieval churches and monasteries – wandering the backstreets it is possible to revel in the architectural reminders of past centuries. But there is also a darker aspect to this history. During the horrific witch hunts of the 16th century, thousands of women all over the country were executed – burned, drowned or otherwise tortured to death – on suspicion of witchcraft. Weighing was one of the more common methods of determining witchery, as a popular belief held that any woman who was too light for the size of her frame was obviously a witch (because hags like that have no soul). The nearby town of Oudewater emerged with some honour – no one was ever proved to be a witch here and this is held up as a symbol of the honesty of the locals, who refused to take bribes to rig the weights. It is also seen as the first stirrings of people power and a turn against the church, which was behind the witch-hunts.

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Ghosts of Kernow

23 Sep

Kernow is an ancient name for an ancient place: the English county of Cornwall. When D H Lawrence wrote that being in Cornwall was “like being at a window and looking out of England,” he wasn’t just thinking of its geographical extremity. Virtually unaffected by the Roman conquest, Cornwall was for centuries the last English haven for a Celtic culture elsewhere eradicated by the Saxons – a land where princes communed with Breton troubadours, where chroniclers and scribes composed the epic tales of Arthurian heroism, and where itinerant men from Welsh and Irish monasteries disseminated an elemental and visionary version of Christianity. Primitive granite crosses and a crop of Celtic saints remain as traces of this formative period, and though the Cornish language had ebbed away by the 18th century, it is recalled in Celtic place names that have grown more exotic as they have become corrupted over time. Another strand of Cornwall’s folkloric character comes from the smugglers who thrived here right up until the 19th century, exploiting the sheltered creeks and hidden anchorages of the southern coasts. Cornwall has long been branded the most haunted place in the UK and there are quite a few spooky places you can drop in to see why – if you dare…

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