A Dreadful Drumming

Theo Tait

  • BuyThe Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead by Carl Watkins
    Bodley Head, 318 pp, £20.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 84792 140 6
  • A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof by Roger Clarke
    Particular, 360 pp, £20.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 333 5

Dickens complained that ghosts ‘have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track’. They are reducible, he said, ‘to a very few general types’: the chain-rattler; the ghostly walker or horseman; the forlorn-looking child; the pale doppelgänger; the wronged maid; the spirit of an evil ancestor whose painting hangs in a gloomy panelled hall; the friend or relative who is dying far away. Dickens was discussing tales told around the fire at Christmas, but similar types appear in accounts that claim to be true. In The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead, Carl Watkins tells one of the earliest ‘veridical’ English ghost stories, recorded by William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon in Yorkshire in the 1190s. It’s a tale Bram Stoker could have used, one that could feature in the more old-fashioned sort of horror film even today. A local man who became convinced that his wife was unfaithful hid in the rafters of their bedroom; when her lover arrived and the man’s fears were confirmed, he fell from his hiding place in a fury and died, full of spite, without receiving the rites of the church. He returned from the dead ‘by the handiwork of Satan’, attacking people after dark and spreading disease with his rotting flesh. People began to die, one by one, so the villagers dug up the corpse. They found it bloated to a huge size; when they cut it open with a spade, blood gushed out. The men dragged the body out of the village, tore out the heart and burned the ashes, banishing the revenant for ever.

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