|Jock in winter |
I've been reading the excellent A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke. (Not the R4 series of the same name but the earlier, brilliant book.) Seek it out, because it's well researched, thought provoking and entertaining. His exploration of the story of the events that may have inspired The Turn of the Screw alone is worth the price of the book. It's something very few people know anything about, perhaps because instead of a vulnerable governess, the hypothetical true story involves a brave 18th century woman, who was able to put up with a string of extraordinary events that would have had most of us screaming and running for safety.
I'm very fond of a ghost story myself and I've written quite a few - for example Rewilding is a ghost story of sorts, (and I'm thinking of writing the sequel, because there is one.) But there's also this little collection, titled Stained Glass although I think that the story called The Penny Execution in that eBook is the creepiest of the lot.
Have I seen a ghost? Well yes, yes I have. Years ago, when we were looking after my parents' dog, I was coming back from a walk one evening, when I saw an elderly man on the opposite side of the road. You have to understand that this is a small village where people often stop and chat. Besides, the dog saw him too and pulled me over the street to get to him. He was walking beside a low wall that runs alongside the old 'glebe' - the field that used to belong to the manse.
When I reached him, he disappeared.
It was exactly like somebody switching off a TV set. I wasn't so much frightened as disconcerted. I found myself looking behind the wall, and up the long, open driveway of the old manse, to see if he was there. But he wasn't. Nobody was there. Later, my husband, who has lived here longer than me, said, 'That sounds like Jock.' And indeed, when I saw pictures of him, it looked like Jock. He was the village blacksmith and handyman and an elder of the kirk. What he didn't know about all the old houses wasn't worth knowing, and he used to patrol the village in the evening like an unofficial watchman, making sure everything was as it should be. Perhaps he still does.
The best ever 'told as true' ghost story, however, was not mine, but was related by a friend of such sound common sense, a practical man in every way, that to this day, it gives me a little frisson of fear.
It happened many years before when he was a young man. Some of them had taken a party of scouts to camp out at Culzean, a few miles outside the town. It was a fine summer night, the wife of one of his friends was about to go into labour with their first child and - feeling worried - he had decided to walk back into town. Our friend volunteered to accompany him. So they found themselves walking along the High Road back into town, a road that on old maps follows what was once the ancient post road between Ayr and the coast (and incidentally the route that Tam O' Shanter would have taken in the poem of the same name.)
He said his friend, anxious to get home, had outstripped him and was keeping up a good pace some yards ahead, when they heard the 'clip clop' of a horse approaching. This was about three in the morning, and at midsummer here, there would be just enough light to see what was coming.
He looked up and saw a tall man on horseback wearing what he swore was a cloak and one of those old fashioned, wide brimmed slouch hats. 'Like a cavalier, in the pictures' he said. He wondered who on earth could be on the road at this time. He knew somebody who kept a horse and did sometimes ride out of town, (we knew them too) - but he couldn't imagine why they would be out here in the early hours, and dressed so oddly too.
Just then his friend drew alongside the rider, paused briefly, and suddenly took to his heels and ran. Our friend said he himself stood still while horse and rider approached, looked up - and realised that there was no face, no head, nothing at all, between hat and cloak. Just a blank, black space.
He too ran like Tam o' Shanter's mare, until he caught up with his friend. They kept on running and neither of them dared to look back till they were almost in the town.
The road, of course, was empty.
Not my ghost story, but a pretty good one all the same!