Category Archives: From Spooky Isles

Books Bound in Human Skin

One of the most irritating scenes in all of horror is in The Devil Rides out with Leon Greene and Christopher Lee. Green’s character, Rex Van Ryn, touches a leather bound book and shudders. He turns to Christopher Lee who nods sagely and says, “Yes, bound in human skin.” It’s a really annoying scene, because there are loads of books bound in human skin and I have it on good authority that you can’t tell the bloody difference between that and any other kind of leather.

At least unless it has a tattoo on the cover saying, “I love Mum”.

Okay, first myth first: to my knowledge there are no books of magic, black or otherwise, bound in human skin. The reasons are simple common sense: for most of history any form of magic has been really VERY illegal. Necromancers and evokers couched their magic in highly pious and religious terms:

Human Skin Covered Book

“I do invocate and conjure thee…by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paulmachia…  Powerful Princes… and Ministers of the Tartarean Abode … also, I, being made after the image of God, endued with the power from him, and created according unto his will, do exorcise thee by that most mighty and powerful name of God …” – Pseudo Solomon, The Goetia (circa. 1566)

In Necromancy, the procedures for getting divinations from the dead and having conversations with Spirits weren’t called spells, but ‘experiments.’

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The Selkie Wife

https://i0.wp.com/www.spookyisles.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Selkie-Wife-Stamp.jpgTake a look at the image at the side of the article here. It’s a woman, draped at the feet of a man wearing a cloak. It has a touch of the 1970s about it, like the cover of a fantasy novel that makes you wonder if the artist should have stopped for a cold shower. Except the closer you look at it, the more WRONG you see: for example, yes, she’s naked, but she doesn’t look happy… in fact from the way she’s grabbing onto his arm, it might almost be as if he’s dragging her by the hair. Oh, and then there’s her face: ‘not happy’ is an understatement, she looks like an early version of Munch’s The Scream.

So, who is this woman, what’s going on?

It’s simple: she’s a Selkie, a beautiful and innocent water spirit, what’s going on is that she’s being dragged off into a life of sexual and domestic slavery. Not the good kind of slavery, where there’s a safe word and lots of special equipment ordered off the internet, this is the full Fritzl: the Orkney Islands story of Goodman O’Wastness is a great example.

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Yeth Hounds, Lost Souls of the Moors

1942 was a terrible year for snow. RAF Davidstowe Moor records a significant spike in crashes wrecks due to bad weather. It was a dark time for the allies, but for one anti-aircraft gunner, time weren’t just dark. They were haunting.

Private Jack James was heading back for his bed, looking out over the moors, when he saw a mass of black spots. They were a long way off, but moving quickly, cutting across his path, lapping over one of the rolling white fields. Sheep and cows were a fairly common sight on the Cornish moors, but herds didn’t move so quickly or purposefully as that. This something much more dangerous than a herd, this was a pack.

Yell Hounds. Yeth Hounds. Wish Hounds. They’ve got many names and they appear all over Britain: in the North of England, Sussex and the West Country. Strange hounds with glowing eyes, baying on the Moors. Bringing back the kind of primal fear that we British have now forgotten: the fear of being outnumbered by predators, cornered and taken down. The fear of being forcibly returned to the animal world.

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Doctor Faustus and Demonic Pacts

Believe it or not, the intelligentsia have always had a ‘thing’ that they felt set them apart from everyone else. When I was a teenager, it was Postmodernism, later it was the Sceptics movement. In the early modern period, it was Demonology.

Obviously, they didn’t call it Demonolgy. Well, the practitioners didn’t. They called them ‘experiments’. It was just that a lot of those ‘experiments’ involved standing in the middle of a magical circle calling out to various angels and devils to send a Lord of Hell your way.

Part of the reason that Demonology, or Nigromancy (i.e. black magic) was so pervasive was there were echoes of it accepted in the science of the time. Astrology and the physical influence of the Astrological planets was accepted to be fact. The only debate was about whether it was okay for man to take hand in his own destiny by manipulating the power of the planets through magical intervention.

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Filed under From Spooky Isles, Religion and the Occult

The Deadly Chicken-Lizard of Hampshire

1533 and Britain was entering the first stages of the Reformation. The Priory at Wherwell, Hampshire, had escaped relatively untouched by the reformers. Unfortunately for them, something far darker was hatching.

Down in the vaults of the Priory’s Minster, the Prior’s aged cockerel, nearing the end of its life, had found a cool, dark place to lay an egg. There in the darkness it laid a single yolkess sphere, with a tough skin like a serpent’s egg, and quietly expired. Serpents and toads made their homes in the cool damp of the chapel’s crypt, strangely drawn to sit on and incubate the egg… and all too soon, it hatched.

Instantly a terrible poisonous vapour started to seep out of it’s mouth and nostrils, killing the crypt rats and driving everything else out of the chamber. The Cockatrice, barely six inches long, feasted on the days old body of the Cockerel, hissing at the footsteps of the unsuspecting monks above it.

It was a nightmare thing: standing on two upright legs, like a chicken, with the feathered upper body and beak of a bird, a crown of wattles on its head. It’s lower body was a long, writhing serpent-like tail. It ate anything it could: carrion, scraps, corpses and other serpents. And it grew.

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The Fachen, A Strange Giant

Bit of weird personal information from me (this might be more than you really want to know:) I never really properly knew either of my grandmothers.

From what I remember, though, one of them (on my father’s side) was awesome and probably contributed the genetic material that made me turn out how I am.

When hearing that my mother was pregnant again, she immediately started taking her out to a series of walks in Cemeteries, Crematoria and derelict lunatic asylums (well… I might have made that last one up).

That’s why it’s a bit strange that I remember hearing about this monster from my Grandmother, despite the fact that the numbers don’t really add up.

On the other hand, from what I know of her, I can imagine her telling this tale to a baby squalling in its crib:

“When the world was young, there were a race of giants with only one arm. They also had only one leg, and only one eye. In fact they lived as if they were split down the middle, with all their guts hanging down one side. Imagine what that would be like.”

That’s the story, imagine my surprise decades later when (in the course of my daily weirdness) I find out it’s a real thing. Or at least, an authentic piece of folklore, rather than Grandma trying to warn me that I might get my arms and legs chewed off.

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Filed under From Spooky Isles, Irish Folklore, Scottish Folklore, Welsh Folklore

Alp-Luachra, The Flesh-Burrowing Faerie

This week’s spooky creature is the Alp-Luachra, or Joint-Eater. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about weed. This rather unpleasant faerie won’t be munching on that sweet nail of Aunt Mary you cool cats have been burning up on (as you can see, I’m down with the kids). No, this creature will get under your skin, breed inside you body and starve you to death.

To understand why something would do this, particularly an intelligent creature like a faerie, presumably capable of reasoning, morality and abstract thought, we need to go to the manuscript of a Scottish priest named Robert Kirk, writing in 1691.  Kirk’s book, called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, talks about the society and ecology of the fair folk, explaining how they live, why they live as they do and what it means to us.

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The Dark Origins of Halloween

There is no single Halloween. The name itself, Halloween, comes from Hallowtide, also sometimes called Hallowmass, encompassing the festivals of All Souls’ on the 31st of October and All Saints on the 1st of November.

The ancient Celts celebrated it for three days before and after the part of the year that is now November 1st, and the Elizabethans observed Hallowtide from October 31st to just after November 5th, eventually all but combining the whole thing with their celebrations of bonfire night. But even that isn’t the whole story.

You might have heard Halloween called Samhain, or Sowan.

The quaint idea leaps to mind of a dark Pagan festival, brought from prehistory and forced to hide in Christian clothes… and the festival was dark: this was the dying of the summer, when the leaves started falling and food would become more scarce.

Most importantly, the night would come gathering in.

Darkness was a frightening thing before the era of streetlights: a moonless night was effectively blackness.

Even walking abroad could be fatal with travellers being killed as they fell down embankments and into ditches, without the predation of wolves and bandits. Strange shapes and noises would haunt the darkness.

As the world ground to a halt the ancient Celts needed something to get it started again, a ritual act that would kick the world’s momentum back into gear.

This was the night of the 31st.

In Ireland, folklore insisted that all fires would be extinguished for the night. Ulstermen and women would gather together, clustering around the leaders and kin.

In their crowded fortresses of light they would drink and dance in defiance of the darkness.

Nature’s slowing momentum meant that the world of man was weaker than ever.

A fragment written at the time says, “Any Ulsterman who did not come Samhain night to Emain (a fortress of the Irish Kings) would lose his reason and his… tomb would be and stone would be erected the next morning.”

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Vampires and Zombies, Walter Map’s Mysterious Herefordshire

Through the works of Walter Map, we learn that medieval monsters were as real as night and day

History wasn’t always as safe as it was meant to be. Whereas now to find scary history you have to come here to The Spooky Isles, in 12th century Britain waiting to jump out and convince you that there were horrible monsters lurking behind every corner.

Respected historians like Geoffrey of Monmouthshire collected tales that claimed Britain was named after a Roman called Brutus who came here and did a WWE/BFG crossover by getting his friend Corineas to wrestle all the giants to death (except two, who stayed alive and fought for him, and who are believed to be buried somewhere under London… although this is more likely to be a confused urban myth than real folklore, the confused memories of effigies used in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.)

Other historians, like William of Newburgh were frostier and kept to the facts – ordinary things like stories of dancing corpses, and an abusive husband who comes back from the grave to crawl back into bed with his wife.

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Filed under English Folklore, From Spooky Isles, Medieval Monsters

Stonehenge, Burial Site or Ancient Computer?

Stonehenge, a lonely set of standing stones surrounded by clusters of barrows.

The site appears to have been evolved from around 3000BC to 1600BC.

The earliest version of the site, a ditch and earthwork, might have been surrounded by a wooden palisade, possibly with stones having been brought from as far as Wales to act as grave markers.

After time some sort of cremation building was erected on the site, followed by an avenue that might have been used for rituals marking rising sun during the solstice. In fact, the idea of Stonehenge’s use for astrology is still hotly debated amongst archaeologists, even contributing to the specialised field of Archaeo-astronomy.

The first theory that Stonehenge was a computer came from before 1740 and was still being championed in 1965. William Stuckley, the first archaeologist to suggest that Stonehenge was a tool for tracking and measuring astronomical phenomena, noted that the structure has a north-east facing earthwork called ‘The Avenue’, which terminates with the sun almost rising above a stone known as ‘The Heelstone*’ on the morning of the midwinter solstice (although skeptics point out that the sun won’t rise precisely over the stone until the year 3260AD, which would be a strange thing for neolithic builders to be marking… unless it’s the year day when great Cthulu rises to eat us all). Other archaeologists, like C.A. Newham, put a lot of meaning in a set of postholes (or possibly just the cavities left by tree roots) when the monument’s car park was extended in 1966, believing that they were useful for tracking a number of solar and lunar phenomena.

Other Astro-archaeologists have raised astronomical links with the Station Stones, a vaguely rectangular arrangement of stones just outside the main part of the monument.  Alexander Thom and others have argued that it’s possible to make no fewer than eight astronomically significant sight-lines using the stones, although Christopher Chippendale, in Archaeology, a magazine published by The Archaeological Institute of America, said that modern research has revealed that only three of those sight lines were astronomically relevant, and two of those lines were perpendicular.

One of the most interesting, and macabre, factors of the uses of Stonehenge as an astronomical tool relates to the Aubrey Holes, compacted chalk pits discovered by the 17th century antiquarian John Aubray, who found that there were bodies buried in the pits; a New Zealand-based researcher has also found that the holes – with knowledge of the moon’s movements and how lunar phases affect the sea – can be used to predict tides in the English Channel with uncanny accuracy. Were the dead some sort of sacrifices to the gods of Astronomy, or to the moon?

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