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Author Archive

It occurred to me that many of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the years have all been set in the Spring/early Summer.  I don’t know why this is, I would’ve thought Autumn would be more my time, but that’s how it goes.  So as it’s now Spring-time (allegedly) I thought I’d mention a few of the books I’ve liked which always remind me of this season.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

The “excellent women” of the title refers to those reliable spinsters (to use an old-fashioned word) who were often the backbones of their small communities, volunteering for thankless menial work, but for whatever reason – usually a shortage of men – they never seemed to be fortunate in the love department.  Mildred Lathbury is one such woman, living by herself in a small London apartment in the 1950s, and helping out at her local church.   I loved Mildred, and her small, unassuming lifestyle.  She is a great character, often quietly fuming inside at the worthy image she has (so now I’m the kind of woman who always hangs up her tea-towel am I!).  Over the course of a few months we follow Mildred as she gets caught up in the relationships all around her, particularly with her neighbours.

The Face Of Trespass by Ruth Rendell

My favourite RR novel, it concerns a washed-up writer, living in a tumbledown cottage in the Essex countryside, and trying to survive on the few meagre royalties his book still earns.  He is obsessed by the memory of a temperamental lover.  This is not one of RR’s Inspector Wexford novels, which suits me just fine, as I’m not a fan of the police procedural genre, and I was fascinated by the lonely life of the central character.  I feel RR was at her very best when writing about lonely people living on the edge of mainstream society.  The book opens at the beginning of May, which  was the time of year when I first read it.

Hangover Square, & Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse by Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton is probably most famous these days for writing the play Gaslight, on which two famous thrillers of the 1940s were based (one starring Ingrid Bergman), and giving rise to to the expression “gaslighting”, to show psychological abuse in a relationship.   But he was also responsible for Hangover Square, which for me is one of the finest British thrillers I’ve ever read, and The Gorse Trilogy, about a psychopathic conman, Ralph Gorse (brilliantly filmed as The Charmer in the 1980s, starring Nigel Havers).   Both books begin in the month of January and span the following few months.  In Hangover Square, the central character, a troubled young man called George Harvey Bone, is returning to London after the Christmas holidays, and resuming his wasted existence, moving from grim bedsits in Earl’s Court to seedy London pubs.   He is obsessed with a woman called Netta, who is downright sociopathic and not worth anybody’s time.  The book details their wretched relationship over the next few months, culminating in tragedy at the end of Summer, just as War is about to break out.  In Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse, the middle book in the Gorse Trilogy, Gorse has found his way to Reading (of all places), where he proceeds to prey upon the insufferably silly Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, in order to divest her of all her savings.   It is said that Hamilton based Gorse on the notorious sexual sadist and murderer Neville Heath, who preyed upon vulnerable women in the chaos of immediate post-war Britain, and who was hanged in 1946.  Ralph Gorse remains a horribly convincing portrait of an amoral psychopath devoid of all feeling.

The Haunting Of Toby Jugg, & The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

I’ve blogged about Toby Jugg on another page, but for me this is Wheatley on top form, and listening to a recent audio book of it confirmed just how scary it is in parts.  The novel is told in journal format, and covers a few weeks in the life of one Toby Jugg, a young airman crippled during active service in WW2.  Toby has been sent to a remote castle in Wales to convalesce, and fears that his carers are trying to deliberately drive him insane so that they can get their hands on his inheritance (his 21st birthday is only a few weeks away).   The book covers most of May and June, culminating in grim Satanic rites on Midsummer’s Eve.   Wheatley can be a trifle long-winded, and with a tendency to rant at times, which may be off-putting for some readers used to a brisker, more taut style of story-telling, but some of the scenes are amongst the scariest I’ve ever come across in a horror novel, and those damn spiders … ugh!  I’ve heard there is a filmed version of this around (The Haunted Airman), but I don’t think I could watch it for that reason.   Wheatley’s most famous novel, The Devil Rides Out, is also set in the Spring, culminating as it does on May Eve, Walpurgis Night, the 30th April, and said to be one of the Satanic highlights of the year.   Once you’ve read this, or seen the famous Hammer film version, the end of April will never be the same again.

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

This much-loved book is also told in journal format.  It is the story of a 17-year-old girl, Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling Suffolk castle in the 1930s.  She falls in love for the first time, but unfortunately it’s with her sister’s fiance, and the bittersweet pain of first love has never been better evoked.  Cassandra begins her diary on a cold, wet, miserable March day (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”), and the bulk of the book covers the months March, April, May and June.  The whole way Dodie writes about the English countryside shouts of a homesick exile, living as she was in California at the time she wrote it.   When the weather warms up Cassandra takes her diary to write outside, and we get beautiful words like “the moat is full of sky”.  Stand-out scenes are the May Day walk to the village pub, the nocturnal swim in the moat, and Cassandra’s special way of celebrating Midsummer’s Eve.   I often think of it as Dodie’s love letter to home.

Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy

This book spans several years, covering as it does the lives of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but I first read it in the run-up to Easter, and I always seem to start thinking of Anne at this time of the year, probably because she was executed on May 19th.  There are numerous books about the Tudor wives out on the market, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this one, simply because JP doesn’t try to reinvent the characters to suit some modern perspective, which can often be a failing with modern historical fiction.  It is also Plaidy in her prime, before she had a tendency to slip into sausage machine mode, of churning out several books a year.

Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier

Containing quite possibly one of the most memorable openings in English Literature (“last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Rebecca concerns a nameless young woman who falls in love with a mysterious older man, Max de Winter, whilst working as a paid companion in the south of France.  He takes her back to his ancestral home in Cornwall, which is still saturated with the memory of his first wife, the beautiful, vibrant Rebecca, who drowned there only a year before.   The main part of the novel is set in late spring/early summer, as Max and his young bride return to Cornwall around May/June time.  I can never forget the huge bank of rhododendrons the narrator sees when she first arrives at Manderley.

Summer At Fairacre by Miss Read

Miss Read – her real name was Mrs Dora Saint – wrote many popular novels set around the fictional small English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green.  My favourites were the Fairacre school books, narrated by a feisty, good-humoured headmistress.  She began these with Village School in the mid-1950s, and turned them out on a regular basis until Miss Read finally took a well-deserved retirement in the 1990s.   Miss Read remains one of my favourite fictional characters of all time, and I love the gentle, understated humour in these books.   Summer At Fairacre was published in the early 1980s, and begins on March 21st, the first day of Spring, when it snows!  The book covers the next 6 months, coming to a close on Michaelmas Day, at the end of September.  I love it, and Miss Read is often at her funniest in her observations on the absurdities of life.  She’s not as starchy as she can sometimes appear in the early 1950s books.   Yes, these books are cosy and idealistic, but they don’t paint an impossibly idyllic view.  The village has its fair share of strife (particularly if it’s anything to do with Arthur Coggs), and it reminds me of growing up in a small village in the mid-20th century.

Writing about some of these has left me with the slim hope it might inspire the weather to warm up a bit.  I won’t hold my breath on that one.  Anyway, whatever you’re reading this Spring, I hope it gives you as much pleasure as these books have given me.

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Recently I was browsing through some of my favourite YouTube channels, and I came across a short film by Beyond Creepy (who I recommend subscribing to if you’re a fan of anything paranormal by the way, he does some very interesting stuff). The 10-minute video, entitled ‘Another Place’, was about people who had what I can only describe as NDEs, Near Death Experiences. One story in particular caught my attention because it was about Roger Ebert, the American film critic.

Ebert had been a writer and film critic for well over 40 years. I’ve read several of his books, and always found him interesting and often very funny. Sadly he passed away on 4 April 2013, at the age of 70, after a long battle with cancer. Ebert said he didn’t fear death, as he believed “there is nothing on the other side of death to fear”.

In the week before he died, his wife Chaz would visit him in hospital, and Ebert would tell her of visiting another place. Chaz, naturally, thought he was hallucinating, due to medication. But, the day before he died, he wrote her a note. It simply said “this is all an elaborate hoax”. Chaz asked him what was a hoax. Ebert said the world, the place, it is all an illusion. He described The Other Place as vast, of a vastness that is impossible to imagine. It is a place where the past, present and the future are all happening at once.

I was reading the Comments underneath this video, and one woman remarked that it reminded her of her grandfather who passed away when she was little. Shortly before dying he had said to her mother “it’s all a cod”. She said she had to ask her mother what this meant, and apparently it was an Irish expression for a hoax, or something that is not what we are led to believe it is.

The idea of Life as an illusion, or even a giant computer game, is one that has gained a lot of currency in recent years. The likes of David Icke for instance believe it is all a huge hologram. Over the past year I’ve also read several books by psychic mediums who claim to have communicated with the other side. The personalities they have chatted with all seem to confirm what Ebert said about the vastness of this place, and where Time (as we know it) has no meaning. I’ve read a number of things over the years where the departed have said that the traditional views of Heaven and Hell over the centuries are wrong, and it is not what we think it is.

Another interesting Comment on the video was one guy who posited the idea that Earth itself is Purgatory, and we are here to learn a specific task. This ties in with some of the books I’ve read where it is asserted that we are often here to work out something of a Karmic nature. All I know is that in recent years there seems to have been a general mass awakening, a development of the subconscious I suppose. Things that were dismissed or scornfully pushed aside years ago as Nutty Stuff, are now being seriously discussed. It is as if we’re all seeing the world through new eyes.

It is certainly an exciting time to be alive.

I once overheard someone saying she hated short stories “where everything’s left up in the air”.  That’s precisely the kind I do like.  I’m not really a fan of the Everything Neatly Tied Up At The End scenario, partly because life is rarely like that, and partly because I like the puzzle element.  The constant guessing game of “so what did happen there?”  I like the challenge of it.  My favourite type of short stories are the ones where the author seems to slip into another dimension, giving us a window on a parallel world.  Anyway, I thought I’d compile a list of the short stories that made a profound effect on me when I first read them.  These are the ones that immediately sprang to mind when I thought of doing this list, and I’m largely doing this from memory, off the top of my head.  I may well add to it at some point.  You’ve been warned.

The Hospice by Robert Aickman

Anyone who knows me well will know I’m a massive Robert Aickman fan, and I find it nigh-on impossible to pick out one story above all the rest.  I went with The Hospice because it was the very first story of his that I read, and it’s left me with a long fascination for his work.  It’s one of his most popular, and has been published in many anthologies.  Aickman is highly surreal.  Sometimes he is too much so, and his stories can feel as if they’re disappearing off onto some wild tangent that skates dangerously close to just being plain silly.  There are times – such as with The School Friend – when I wish he’d helped the reader out a bit more, as that story both beguiles and exasperates me every time I read it.  In The Hospice a man seeks shelter for the night at a small suburban hotel.  The most striking thing about this odd establishment is the copious amounts of food which are constantly served to the guests.  Things take a very dark turn when he finds some of the guests are literally chained to the dining-tables.  Everyone has their own theories as to what is going on with this story.  I’ve read some who believe the hospice is a kind of halfway house, between this world and the next.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if the guests are like human cattle being deliberately fatted up at an abattoir. Apparently this story was filmed about 30 years ago, but I’ve not been able to find a copy anywhere.  ADDENDUM 29/12/2017: a kind soul has posted a copy of this highly elusive film onto YouTube, and it does full justice to Aickman’s original story.  Try and catch it as soon as you can, before some interfering busybody goes and removes it.

The Night Wire by H R Arnold

I know very little about the author of this, and it’s the only work of his I have found.  It is marvellously eerie.  Written in 1926 (according to Wikisource), The Night Wire concerns two wireless operators whose job it is to receive news reports from around the world (the days before Breaking News apps).  One of them begins to receive reports of a mysterious fog descending on a town called Xebico … unfortunately there is no trace of a place called Xebico.  There are free transcripts of this story Online, including on Wikisource, and I have heard a good audio reading of it on YouTube.

Mrs Amworth by E F Benson

E F Benson is most well known for his much-loved Mapp And Lucia books.  But he was also a prolific author of what he called “spook stories”, and his ghostly tales have been anthologised so many times that it can feel as if no short story anthology would be complete without one.  I found it very difficult to pull out one.  I have a soft spot for The Room In The Tower because at times it has a very dreamlike quality to it (the black playing-cards for instance), and The Man Who Went Too Far is an interesting study in someone who lives life to such a rarefied extent that he loses touch with his own humanity.  You can read all sorts of Freudian subtexts into Mrs Amworth.  Benson’s sexuality has been an endless source of speculation (he always comes across as a shy, gentle soul, so I don’t know what he would have made of that), and there is no doubt that women have often featured as the villains in his stories*.  The epitome of that is Mrs Amworth, in which an older woman comes to live in a small English village, and preys upon the young male locals.  It’s a vampire story with a difference, and has a fairly chilling punchline from what I remember.   A short 30-minute TV adaptation of the story was made in 1975, with Glynis Johns superb in the title role.  *Benson was once asked who he preferred writing about, men or women.  “Women”, he replied “They’re more complicated”.

The Summer People by Shirley Jackson

When it comes to short stories, Ms Jackson is most well known for The Lottery, a story about the vindictiveness of small-town mentality, which provoked a furore when it was first published.  The Summer People is less well-known, but it is splendidly dark.  A vacationing couple decide they want to extend their holiday let beyond the end of the Summer, unfortunately this does not work out well.  In some ways this has similarities to W Somerset Maugham’s The Lotus Eater (see below), but it is much more haunting.  As Stephen King once put it: “to Shirley Jackson, who never had to raise her voice”.

The Mezzotint by M R James

I almost felt obliged to include one by M R James, and the one that immediately sprang to mind was The Mezzotint.  It concerns a haunted picture, which seems to change regularly, showing a sinister creature crawling along a lawn to an old house.  It turns out that the picture is replaying a crime from many decades before.  I liked the imagery James creates with this story.

Minuke by Nigel Kneale

I’m never entirely convinced that the haunted house scenario is really suited to the short story.  I can’t help feeling it’s a form that needs time for the reader to move around in, a Slow Build-Up Of Tension as it were.  But sometimes it can work.  This is a rip-roaring read from the author of The Stone Tape, not exactly a gentle ghost story.  An estate agent sells a bog-standard suburban semi to a couple, and then all sorts of mayhem ensue.  This could so easily have been ridiculous, and yet it works.

The Medusa by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti is one of the most enigmatic writers around today.   He has been compared to Lovecraft, and he shares the same detached, coolly unemotional style.  I was drawn to this story because I’ve had a fascination for the legend of the Gorgon for as long as I can remember.  In The Medusa the central character is also obsessed with the snake-haired creature, and is convinced that she really exists.  He finally gets to encounter her in the basement of a house.  I found the ending to this quite haunting in a very subtle, low-key way.  This little man (presumably) went willingly to his doom, knowing full well that the object of his fascination would destroy him.  ADDENDUM: for another Gorgon-related short story, I can also recommend The Gorgon’s Head by Gertrude Bacon.  This is an old tale, rarely anthologised these days, in which a ship’s captain relates a very odd experience he had in his younger days.  I’ve seen it branded as far-fetched, but who cares?  I found it eerie and atmospheric.

Seaton’s Aunt by Walter de la Mare

A schoolboy goes to stay at the house of an unpopular classmate, whose little eccentricities make him disliked by the other boys.  Seaton lives with his Aunt, a terrifying woman, who mocks him cruelly.  The Aunt comes across as the type of person I call a psychic vampire.  Someone who sucks the energy out of everyone around her.  I once saw this strange, elegant story compared to Hitchcock’s Psycho.  For sheer originality it takes some beating, and it does show the psychological cruelty that adults can mete out to sensitive children.

The Lotus Eater by W Somerset Maugham

This story concerns a man who has saved enough from his moderately-paid job to afford a holiday on the Isle of Capri.  He likes it so much that he decides to stay there permanently, and to sacrifice his quiet, hard-working existence back home in London, for a life of idleness and ease.  Unfortunately it all backfires on him, and I suppose the moral of the story is that you can have too much of a good thing.  Some might dislike it for that reason, as the author seems to be implying he would have been better off going home and doing his job.  BUT, whilst work certainly isn’t everything, I can’t help thinking of the fact that so many people seem to die within one year of retiring completely.  Just a thought …

The Apple Tree by Daphne du Maurier

I had to include one by Ms du Maurier, and I suppose the obvious one to go for would be The Birds, which is certainly exceptional.  But I like the subtle dark wit of The Apple Tree.  The central character is a woman, Poor Midge, who rules her husband through a sort of understated tyranny.  She exudes martyred patience, and is the sort who constantly gives a sad sigh of “oh well”.  When she finally dies (“oh well”), the husband finds his troubles are only just beginning.  I’ve known far too many women like Poor Midge (“oh well”), and I can only assume Ms du Maurier had too.

The Inn by Guy Preston

I read this one in  a very old anthology many years ago, and although I could remember the story vividly, I couldn’t recall the name of the author!  Anyway, it has been recently rediscovered and anthologised in a new volume, The Greatest Ghost and Horror Stories Ever Written Vol. 7, which is currently free in Kindle format on Amazon.  This is gloriously OTT pulp fiction from the Golden Era.  In it a lonely traveller on the Cumbrian moors seeks shelter at an inn, only to find the owners are a touch on the odd side.  When I first read this I just loved the way the author went for it, and gave the reader a full-on experience. Sometimes I get a little tired of long drawn-out subtlety.

The Little Room by William Sansom

A story which seems to be virtually unknown these days.  I first read it in an old Pan Horror paperback collection during my schooldays.  The story concerns a nun, who has been naughty and broken her vows (it’s never exactly specified how, but sex seems to be involved), and her punishment is to be walled up alive.  Rumours are that this was used as a punishment against nuns in Medieval times, although I’m never sure if it ever actually happened.  This story though seems to be set in the modern era.  The nun has the use of an electric fire for instance, and a device on the wall cruelly informs her how much oxygen she has left.   This story terrified me when I first read it, and I think it still holds up well now.

The Grey Men by Dame Rebecca West

This one was a bit of problem, but I had to include it.  I read it in an old anthology back in the 1990s, and I’ve never been able to track it down since.  I haven’t been able to find it included in any list of Dame Rebecca’s works, and I’m starting to wonder if she did write it at all!  It’s a very short story, barely two pages, but I remember being very creeped out by it.  It concerns the inhabitants of an old people’s home, who claim they are haunted at night by visitations from The Grey Men.  It proved to me, once and for all, that you don’t need a long story to make an impact.

 

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I thought I’d do this one as a bit of fun for Christmas week, as I’m quite fond of this quirky little tale.  There seems to be only one source for this particular haunted house story, and that’s legendary Irish ghost-hunter Elliott O’Donnell, who had some quite extraordinary brushes with the paranormal (including a claim that he was nearly throttled by a ghost in Dublin).  Well either that or he was simply a good story-teller, it’s up to you which slant you take.   O’Donnell’s prolific career as a writer and a ghost-hunter spanned from early Edwardian times to the 1950s.

Back in the 1840s, in a village near Basingstoke, stood a house called The Swallows.  It was a substantial rural property, standing in its own two acres of land.  The house had been standing empty for quite some while, when a Mr Bishop of Tring finally bought it in 1841.  Things were kick off at The Swallows almost immediately.

After being in residence for barely a fortnight, Mr Bishop found two of his servants giving notice that they wanted to leave.  Their reasons for doing so was that they claimed the house was haunted … by either a big cat or a big baboon.  They said they had constantly seen this peculiar creature creeping down the staircases and passageways.   Even more alarmingly than that, they also said they had heard the sound of somebody being strangled.

Naturally news of all this spread like wildfire through the village, and crowds of people descended on the house to see if they could witness anything.   Vigils were kept, and one night, at about midnight, several of the vigilantes were keeping watch in the courtyard when they witnessed something quite astonishing.  What appeared to be the forms of a huge cat and a baboon rose up from the closed grating of the cellar underneath the old dairy, rushed passed them, and disappeared into a dark angle of the walls.   These extraordinary creatures were also seen afterwards by other witnesses.

Early in December 1841, Mr Bishop heard terrified screams, accompanied by hoarse jabberings, coming from the top of the house.  He rushed to the top of the building, only to be greeted by silence.  By that time, understandably, Mr Bishop had had enough of the house, and put it up for sale.  He was lucky enough to find a buyer fairly quickly, a retired colonel.  However that gentleman was also scared out of it, and he too left the property in 1842.

The house seems to have been pulled down soon after that, and the land was used for cottages.  Unfortunately the haunting continued, and the cottages soon became uninhabitable.  The cottages too were eventually demolished, and the land was converted into allotments.

No one seems to have any idea what could have been behind this haunting.  There is some rumour that the property had previously been the lair of a notorious highwayman (when aren’t they notorious?), and he had died after falling through a floor into a vat of oil.  I’m not quite sure where the baboon and the big cat fit in, although there has been some vague speculation that they might have been his pets.

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Ethel Major is not exactly a household name in the annals of True Crime.  She rarely crops up in anthologies of Female Murderers, and in a recent Who’s Who Of British Crime In The 20th Century she doesn’t merit a mention at all.  She doesn’t even get a page in Wikipedia, not that I’ve found anyway.  I first read about her in an old issue of Murder Casebook many years ago, and came across her again recently when reading an out-of-print book from 1960 called Daughters Of Cain by Rene Huggett and Paul Berry, which covered all the women who had been hanged in Britain since Edith Thompson in 1923.

Daughters Of Cain (which I can recommend if you can get hold of a copy) was written in the final years of the Death Penalty in Britain, and the authors take a sympathetic view of the cases they cover.   With some cases this is easier to understand than others, but Ethel Major is not an immediately sympathetic case.   Whereas Edith Thompson and Ruth Ellis, for instance, generate sympathy because theirs were crimes of passion.  Both were very attractive women who were felt to be more sinned against than sinning.  Even Ruth, who undoubtedly killed her victim, David Blakely, gunning him down in the street, is thought to have been wronged by the justice system, and her fate at the hangman’s noose helped usher in the end of the Death Penalty in Britain.  Albert Pierrepoint, her executioner, seemed to think the public were dazzled by her platinum blonde Monroe-esque looks, but there was a growing kickback against capital punishment.

Pierrepoint might have been correct in the sense that attractive women do seem to generate more sympathy than anyone else (although you can also legitimately argue that Ruth’s immaculate blonde appearance in the witness box helped convict her).   For all the sympathy that glamorous ones like Edith and Ruth get, no one gives a thought to Charlotte Bryant, an illiterate, dowdy working-class housewife, who was hanged for giving her husband arsenic in 1936.  And yet there is a question-mark over whether Charlotte was actually guilty of the crime.  She comes across as a somewhat pathetic creature.  In her final weeks in the Condemned Cell she taught herself to read and write, so that she could write a message to the King, pleading for her life.   Needless to say it didn’t work.  At the time the King, Edward VIII, was probably too busy on a yacht in the Med with Wallis Simpson, to worry about someone awaiting the hangman’s noose.

Likewise with Margaret Allen, who was hanged in 1949 for the completely unprovoked attack on an elderly lady in her neighbourhood.   Margaret was transgender.  She was masculine in appearance, preferred to wear men’s clothes, and liked to be called Bill.  To this day it is not known why she suddenly carried out the attack, or why she made so little effort to cover her traces.  Nowadays Margaret/Bill might get more sympathy, and in fact the author Moll Cutpurse has written a short book about her.   But in 1949 it is doubtful she garnered much support, and a petition got up to save her generated less than 200 signatures.   It’s all a far cry from the massive outpourings of demonstrations and petitions generated by the Thompson and Ellis cases.

Ethel Major was also someone not likely to attract sympathy.  She was a cantankerous little woman, plain, wearing wire-rimmed round spectacles.   With her berets and woolly hats, and her patterned overall, she looks every bit the 1930s working-class housewife.   There is nothing in Ethel’s background to suggest a murderer in the making.  Unlike Ruth Ellis, who had had a troubled childhood at the mercy of a father who very likely sexually abused her, Ethel, born in 1891, enjoyed a stable upbringing in rural Lincolnshire.  She was the daughter of a gamekeeper, and although she trained as a dressmaker, her main occupation, like it was for so many girls of her generation,  was Helping Mother At Home.

And then in 1914, scandal hit.  Ethel found herself pregnant.  For the rest of her life she steadfastly refused to divulge the identity of the baby’s father, and it was a secret she took with her to the grave.   This would have potentially been a huge scandal at that time, but Ethel’s parents decided to adopt the baby as their own, and as such Ethel’s daughter, Auriol, was passed off as her little sister.  This was far from unusual for that time.   During the closing months of World War One Ethel met Arthur Major, who had been sent home wounded from the Front.   The couple married in the Summer of 1918, and went on to have a son, Lawrence.

The marriage was not a happy one though.  Ethel became a bitter, bad-tempered woman.  Things came to a head a few years later when Arthur heard that gossip was circulating about Ethel’s younger sister, Auriol, and her true parentage.  Arthur confronted his wife about it, and Ethel admitted the rumours were true.  From then on the marriage became a truly miserable state of affairs.   It was rumoured that Arthur took to drink, and began to have affairs.   He had fits of temper, and he never lost an opportunity to criticise Ethel, or to remind her of her past.

Ethel would refuse to spend the night under the same roof with Arthur, and would instead take Lawrence to sleep at her father’s house.  On one occasion Ethel found love letters in her husband’s coat pocket, which she said had been written by a neighbour, Rose Kettleborough.  There is some doubt about this, and rumours are that Ethel wrote the letters herself.  In revenge Arthur took out an ad in a local newspaper, saying he refused to be held responsible for any debts his wife ran up.  In turn Ethel contacted the firm where Arthur worked as a truck driver, and told them he was usually too drunk to be driving.  When a marriage goes spectacularly wrong, everybody in the nearby vicinity gets caught up in its poisonous web.

On 23 May 1934 Arthur came home from work feeling ill.  By the time the doctor arrived, Arthur was sweating, having fits, and unable to speak.   The doctor concluded that Arthur was suffering from epilepsy.  He must have been somewhat surprised then, when the next day Ethel calmly turned up at his office and said that Arthur had died.   Without any more ado Ethel began briskly organising his funeral, which she wanted to take place as soon as possible.

Ethel might well have got away with it, if an anonymous person, simply signing themselves Fairplay hadn’t sent a letter to the police, which accused Ethel of poisoning Arthur’s food.  On one occasion Arthur had to chuck away his sandwiches at lunchtime, saying “I’m damned sure that woman is trying to poison me”.   On another occasion he had given his food to a neighbour’s dog, which had promptly died.

When questioned by the police, Ethel said she had flatly refused to have anything to do with Arthur’s corned beef, saying “it is a waste of money to buy such rubbish”.  Ethel then made a textbook error.  She told the police “I did not know my husband died from strychnine poisoning”.  No one had told Ethel about the strychnine in the corned beef.  It was a fact known to very few people at that time.  Ethel had made a fatal wrong move.  No evidence of poison was found in the Majors’ home, but, acting on a hunch, CI Young went to Ethel’s father’s house.  Being a gamekeeper he had kept strychnine in a locked box, for killing vermin.  The original key to the box had gone missing several years before.  It was subsequently found in Ethel’s house.

It didn’t help matters either that Ethel wasn’t exactly the grieving widow.  She referred to Arthur as “a detestable man”, and said she was glad he was gone.  She also said she didn’t mind the prospect of a few years in prison.  After her hellish marriage, it would have probably seemed like a holiday.

Ethel was tried at Lincoln Assizes in November 1934.  Whilst waiting for the jury to return their verdict, she seemed to age 10 years.  She was found guilty, but the jury put in a strong recommendation for mercy.  On hearing the verdict Ethel collapsed, sobbing, in a state of shock, and had to be supported by two wardresses.  The Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, ignored the jury’s recommendation for mercy.  He also ignored the feelings of many working-class women in the area at the time, who didn’t relish the prospect of a fellow wife and mother being marched to the gallows.

Ethel Major was hanged at Hull Prison, a few days before Christmas, on 19 December 1934.  Like her predecessor, Edith Thompson, she spent the last 48 hours of her life in a state of total emotional collapse, and had to be half-carried to the scaffold.   In Daughters Of Cain the authors argue that if Ethel had suddenly snapped one day and simply attacked Arthur with a poker, or pushed him into a river, she may well have got away with it.  But poisoning him suggests a degree of cold-blooded premeditation.  The poisoner rarely generates sympathy.  It is not a crime of passion, or a sudden moment of uncontrollable rage, like shooting someone, or coshing them.  There is something curiously cold-blooded about the poisoner.  They don’t have to get into close physical contact with their victim.  The deadly deed can all be done clinically removed, at a distance, both physically and emotionally.

At the risk of sounding flippant though, it can also be seen as the housewife’s weapon of choice.  She has numerous opportunities to put strychnine in her old man’s corned beef.   No wonder Hercule Poirot, when asked in one story why he never married, replied that he had seen too many cases where wives murdered their husbands!

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I was watching Man In The Attic, a 1953 film about Jack The Ripper, on TalkingPicturesTV very recently, and I was curious to find out more about the girl playing Lily, the music-hall star who befriends the Ripper (played by Jack Palance).  I hadn’t seen her before in anything, and my curiosity was piqued when one reviewer referred to her film career “mysteriously” ending in the late 1950s.  So I did some digging around, and unearthed a classic tragic tale of riches-to-rags, of showbiz gothic, of a beautiful woman who couldn’t conquer her demons and who paid a terrible price for it.

Constance was a feisty Irish girl, born into grinding poverty in Limerick in 1928, the eldest of 11 children.  Her father died when she was a child, and her mother, unable to support them all, put Constance into a convent school.  At the age of 16 Constance won a Hedy Lamarr-lookalike competition in Dublin, and was offered a screen test.  Constance wasn’t interested in a career in the movies though, but her mother pushed her into it.  She was taken up by the Rank Organisation in London, who found they had bitten off more than they could chew with Constance.  She had what we would call today “attitude”.  Constance wasn’t a girl to be pushed around.

The peak of Constance’s short career was in the early 1950s, when she starred in the aforementioned Man In The Attic (where she considerably enlivens a pretty pedestrian film in my opinion), and was a presenter at the 1952 Academy Awards ceremony.   Constance was as much of a handful in Hollywood as she had been in London though.  Hollywood wanted another feisty Irish beauty in the Maureen O’Hara mode, whereas Constance had more of a dark, ethereal quality to her.  She has been described as more like Vivien Leigh or Grace Kelly than the flamboyant O’Hara.  She has also been described as “the Dublin Dietrich” and “the intelligent man’s Elizabeth Taylor”.

Constance flatly refused to change her name from Smith – the studio wanted something more memorable – and was forced by them to undergo an abortion.  Her first marriage, to director Bryan Forbes, lasted only a couple of years.  Forbes was so busy working that they didn’t even have a honeymoon.  Constance sued him for desertion in 1955, and he went on to marry Nanette Newman, later the same year.  Forbes saw the way the Hollywood system crushed Constance, lifting her up and then pushing her down to (in his words) “the status of a Hindu road-sweeper”.  A classic case of We Build ‘Em Up To Knock ‘Em Down.  Some wonder if, witnessing this destruction first-hand, inspired him when he came to direct The Stepford Wives in the early 1970s.  By the mid-1950s Constance was feeling increasingly embittered that she wasn’t getting the parts that she felt she was owed, and turned to the familiar rocky road of drugs and alcohol.

In the late 1950s she decamped to Italy, and made a few forgettable minor films.  None of them did anything to salvage her career.  Her final film appearance was in 1959, when she was still only 31.   Her time in Italy was eventful though, probably for all the wrong reasons.  She had a second brief marriage, this time to the son of a Fascist politician, who referred to her as “a barefoot Irish peasant”.  She also attempted suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.   One high note in all this misery was a triumphal return to Limerick, which Constance made in 1960, where she was feted as a star.

Constance met her third husband, Paul Rotha, a documentary film-maker 20 years her senior, in 1959.  Rotha was in Italy to make a film about Mussolini.  Theirs was to be a tempestuous relationship to say the least.   In 1962 Constance attempted to stab Rotha, and she found herself in prison for 3 months.  Her short stint inside did nothing to curb her temperament though.  In 1968 she stabbed Rotha in the back (literally).   He survived, and Constance was charged with attempted murder.  Rotha accompanied her to the prison gates, and was waiting for her when she came out a short while later.  Incredibly, none of this repelled Rotha, who went on to marry Constance in 1974!  He was to die in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in 1984.

Constance’s life continued to spiral downwards in a truly shocking way.   She was in and out of hospital being treated for alcoholism, and attempted suicide more than once.  During the brief periods when she was reasonably compos mentis, she took a job as a cleaner.  Her fellow workers had a feeling they had seen her before somewhere, but no one realised she had once been a Hollywood starlet.

Constance wasn’t the only Hollywood actress to find herself in this kind of situation.  Gene Tierney, one of the most stunningly beautiful women ever to appear on screen, battled severe mental health issues for most of her life, and had to be hospitalised for depression.  On release, she hoped to find her way back into society by getting a job in a dress-shop, but she was recognised by a customer, and the Press had a field-day, screaming out hysterical headlines.

Veronica Lake had been a major star during World War 2, famed for her flowing locks hanging over one eye, earning her the nickname The Peek-a-Boo Girl (her hair had been a health and safety concern, as women working in wartime munitions factories copied it.  Veronica had to make a big show of adopting a more restrained style, in order to prevent her fans being caught in the machinery by their own flowing locks).   Veronica also battled mental health issues and alcoholism though, and she got a reputation for being incredibly difficult to work with.  By the early 1960s she was found working as a hotel waitress.   The Press described her as “destitute”, and well-meaning fans sent her donations of money.  Veronica returned the cheques as a matter of pride.

The end for Constance Smith came when she died on a street in Islington, London, on 30 June 2003.  She was 75.  It is said that her toes had turned black from gangrene.   As Limerick historian Sharon Slater put it, “a sadder end is hard to imagine”.   I’m also reminded of the famous quote by journalist Julie Burchill: “it has been said that a pretty face is a passport.  But it’s not, it’s a visa, and it runs out fast”. 

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I’ve been fascinated by the Thompson & Bywaters case ever since reading F Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin To See The Peepshow about 30 years ago.  On the surface of it – as far as True Crime cases go – it wasn’t that extraordinary.  It was more a classic case of an eternal triangle that went tragically wrong.  It wasn’t particularly grisly, and there was no great Whodunnit element to the case.  But in the nearly 100 years since it happened, it has remained in the public interest, largely down to the fact that there is a general feeling that a huge miscarriage of justice occurred.   Like the case of Ruth Ellis, nearly 30 years later, it was felt that Thompson & Bywaters were hanged for their personal morals as much as the crime committed.   In France, it would likely have been dismissed as a crime passionnel. 

It was a classic case of curtain-twitching Sex In Suburbia.  Percy and Edith Thompson were a quintessential lower middle-class couple, who had a less than perfect marriage.  Edith, a hugely romantic, fanciful woman, had formed an intense relationship with Freddy Bywaters, a young man a few years her junior.  Both were frustrated by Percy’s continuing presence in their lives, and it is thought that Freddy suddenly flipped one dreadful evening in October 1922, and physically attacked Percy with a knife, whilst the married couple were walking home from the theatre.  Percy died of his injuries in the street, and Fred and Edie (as I’ve seen them called) were arrested for murder.

The main conundrum to the case was how complicit was Edith in the attack?  Did she know about it beforehand?  Did she actively encourage Freddy in his mad, headstrong impulse?  Freddy was adamant that Edith was completely innocent, and during the trial he went to great lengths to try and exonerate her from any blame.   The authors state that, by a dreadful irony, this may have actually helped to convict Edith.  The bulk of the evidence lay in the numerous letters the lovers exchanged over the previous months, hence the title of the book, (although Edith wasn’t strictly a housewife, she was in fact a businesswoman, who earned more than her husband).

Anyway, the paper-trail left by the lovers were the main factor in leading them to the gallows.  Without these incriminating missives, it is likely that Freddy may have done a short custodial term for manslaughter, and Edith would have been let off completely.   The letters were highly inflammatory, with Edith writing that she had ground up glass and put it in Percy’s food for instance.  The big question that tantalised True Crime buffs at the time and ever since was just how serious were these claims.  Was Edith genuinely trying to kill Percy in a premeditated, cold-blooded fashion (the Messalina Of The Suburbs as one novel depicted her), or was this just more toxic fantasising from a woman who, it is genuinely believed, struggled to tell fantasy from reality.  Edith was the sort of woman who habitually read romantic novels and saw herself in the lead role, and in fact one romantic novel served as evidence at the trial.

The authors present the facts of the trial in a very easy-to-digest way, and show how the presiding Judge deliberately led the jury, in one instance describing the case as “common and vulgar”, provocative words which should never have been used.   He also misquoted Edith’s defence lawyer.  Freddy comes out of the case as a likeable young man, who accepted that he had done wrong and was determined to meet his fate with dignity (which he did).  He also selflessly tried to protect Edith right to the end.   Edith … well I suppose all I can say is that she comes across as a passionate, idealistic woman who had trouble accepting reality at any time.   During her short term in prison she veered from stoic acceptance, to hysterical optimism that she would be reprieved, to complete emotional collapse.

Freddy and Edith were both executed on 9 January 1923.  The tale of Edith having to be literally carried to the execution chamber has gone down in British True Crime legend, and it still leaves you feeling emotionally pulverised after reading it*.  During her execution Edith’s “insides fell out”, which led to an Urban Legend for years afterwards that Edith had miscarried a baby on the scaffold.   This isn’t thought to be true, but from then on all condemned women had to wear a special undergarment to prevent such a thing happening again.

The executions had a long-lasting and profound effect on everyone involved with it.   Edith’s hangman, John Ellis, attempted suicide afterwards, and was to succeed on a second attempt in 1932, when he cut his own throat with a razor.   Edith’s devoted sister, Avis, who had worked tirelessly to try and secure a reprieve right to the end, converted to Catholicism, and refused to marry.  Freddy’s mother never recovered from the ordeal, and was broken-hearted until she died in the late 1930s.

Letters From A Suburban Housewife is a good, economic overview of the case, particularly if you are new to it.  I’m never very happy though about mixing fact with fiction in books, and having some scenes dramatised, although this sort of thing works fine with docu-dramas I suppose.   And at the risk of sounding pedantic, there are some typo’s.  These can become a bit intrusive, for instance “I” often appears as a capital “T”.   It has reignited my interest in this case though, and I look forward to Laura Thompson’s book, Rex v Edith Thompson, which is due out in March 2018.

I can also recommend a solid Lady Killers dramatisation of the trial, which is currently out on DVD (Lady Killers 2).  This was made in the late 70s/early 80s, and stars Gayle Hunnicutt as Edith, putting in a fine performance.  Margaret Tyzack is also superb as Freddy’s poor mother.   One day – I hope! – somebody may even release the 1970s TV adaptation of A Pin To See The Peepshow on DVD too.  I would love to see it.

*Not included in this book is an anecdote I read elsewhere.  On leaving the courtroom after being condemned to death, Edith had a brief meeting with her father in a room below.  She collapsed sobbing into his arms, and begged him to take her home.  Harrowing.


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