Archive for the Books Category

The Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens

Posted in Books, Christmas, Ghosts with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by mysearchformagic

There something about this time of year, with its early sunsets and long, dark nights, that lends itself to the reading of ghost stories. Huddled close to the fire with the wind howling outside, there is nothing more magical than enjoying a supernatural tale or two on a chilly evening. This winter I have been dipping into the ghost stories of Charles Dickens, and very good they are too.


Everyone has heard of A Christmas Carol of course, with its assorted spooks and ghouls who teach the miserly Scrooge some important lessons about goodwill to all men. This all-time classic has inspired all sorts of films, plays and TV adaptations, and I never tire of reading the original. The edition of the stories that I have, which is entitled The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, also features some lovely reproductions of the original Victorian illustrations. This famous image of Scrooge visited by Marley’s Ghost, drawn by John Leech in 1843, is particularly chilling.

Marley's Ghost by John Leech

Marley’s Ghost by John Leech

But there is more to Dickens’ ghost stories than just A Christmas Carol. The rest of the tales in this volume are a diverse bunch, a few of them a bit silly and fun, and some really rather scary. There is even another seasonal piece, the lesser known Christmas Ghosts, which includes a number of short vignettes featuring festive phantoms. Dickens himself was apparently rather sceptical when it came to things that go bump in the night, but that didn’t stop him from writing some fabulous stories on the subject. In fact, he is now recognised as one of the first authors to take the ghost story out of the of fantastical Gothic mansion of previous tales, and place it in a more recognisable domestic setting.

It seems a bit strange that the festive season is now associated with ghost stories, but I am certainly not going to complain. While I love such paranormal yarns at any time of year, I enjoy them even more around the winter holidays. So if, like me, you enjoy a bit of a creepy Christmas, then check out the ghost stories of Charles Dickens – if you dare!


The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

Posted in Books, Italy with tags , , , , , , on July 19, 2014 by mysearchformagic

It’s been a while since I read a magical book, so this week I picked up an old favourite, and re-read my dog-eared copy of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. An epic tale which straddles early nineteenth-century Europe, The Passion is set amongst the frozen wastes of Russia and the exotic, crumbling decadence of Venice. This is the story of Henri, a young Frenchman sent to fight in the Napoleonic wars, and of Villanelle, a cross-dressing Venetian woman, born with webbed feet.


Although the action takes place during the Napoleonic era, and the book conveys a wonderful sense of the period, the author rejects the idea that The Passion is a historical novel. Instead, Winterson suggests that the novel uses history as “invented space”, a setting for magical characters and weird and wonderful events. “The Passion is set in a world where the miraculous and the everyday collide,” she writes on her website. “Villanelle can walk on water. The woman she loves steals her heart and hides it in a jar. This is the city of mazes. You may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune depending on your face. The Passion is about war, and the private acts that stand against war. It’s about survival and broken-heartedness, and cruelty and madness.”

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

I particularly love The Passion‘s magical descriptions of Venice, a city that morphs and changes overnight, rising and sinking, a place that is confusing and disorientating for even the inhabitants. Apparently a film version was once on the cards, but it never came to be. I am rather glad to be honest, as I’d prefer to hold on to my own visions of the harsh Russian winter, of that enchanted water-logged city, of the amazing adventures of Henri and Villanelle and the bizarre cast of characters that they encounter on their long, mysterious journey.

Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford

Posted in Books, History, Library, Oxford with tags , , , , , on March 21, 2014 by mysearchformagic

During my recent visit to Oxford, I was lucky enough to spend some time studying in the wonderful Duke Humfrey’s Library. This extraordinary space is the oldest reading room in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, with parts of it dating back to 1487.

The impressive entrance to Oxford University's Bodleian Library

The impressive entrance to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library

Duke Humfrey’s Library is split into three parts; the original medieval section, which was reconfigured in 1602, the Arts End which was created in 1612 and the Selden End which dates from 1637. It is named after Humfrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester, a son of King Henry IV who donated his important manuscript collection to the University.

The magical interior of Duke Humfrey's Library, Oxford

The magical interior of Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford

Since my visit I discovered this lovely print, below, showing the library in the mid-17th Century. Amazingly, apart from the rather dashing costumes of the students, not much has changed in the last 350 years. With its narrow rows of old oak desks below shelves filled with ancient volumes, its beautifully painted ceiling and high walls lined with historic portraits, Duke Humfery’s Library is a magical, if rather distracting, place to study!

A 17th Century view of Duke Humfrey's Library, Oxford

A 17th Century view of Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford

The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, E.F. Benson

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Superstition, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I always think it is strange that Christmas time is now so closely linked with ghost stories. Recently it seems like the tales of M.R. James have become a festive perennial, and hardly a year goes by that they don’t appear somewhere, be it in print or on TV or radio. Much as I love James’s creepy stories, this year I fancied something a little bit different. And so it was I delved into my library and came out with a well-thumbed copy of The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by E.F. Benson.

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

Born in 1867, Benson is perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia books, which were successfully recreated for TV in the mid 1980s. Anyone familiar with these light, comic tales of high society in rural 1920s Tilling may be surprised to find out that Benson was also a master of the supernatural yarn, with the stories in this book a world away from the curtain twitching and idle gossip of the Tillingites.

Having said that, most of his ghostly tales are set in a world long gone, an country inhabited by dapper bachelors who rent country houses for the summer and frequent polite garden parties. Benson writes about an early 20th Century England, a place of good manners and good breeding, in the human protagonists at least. The author himself believed in the supernatural, and claimed to have experienced a couple of ghostly visitations himself, including one at his charming Georgian home, Lamb’s House in Rye.

E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson

Some of the stories in this collection are rather traditional, featuring hauntings in places where terrible things have happened and spirits that need to be appeased. Vampires make an appearance too, with one of the respectable inhabitants of a village turning out to be not so respectable after all. A couple of the tales are just downright weird, particularly the one entitled And No Birds Sing; quite what that strange thing lurking in the woods was is never quite explained, which inevitably adds to the scariness of it all. How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery was apparently the author’s favourite, and in fact is a rather touching tale of contact from beyond the grave.

So next time you fancy settling down in front of a roaring fire on a dark, chilly evening, the ghost stories of E.F. Benson come highly recommended. While the characters and settings of the stories are very much of their time, the narrative thrills that they provide are never old fashioned. I guess terror is timeless!

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, Caroline Smailes

Posted in Books, Fairy Tales, Legend, Superstition with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I came across The Drowning of Arthur Braxton while browsing through the book reviews in The Guardian. The reader comments on there are unfailingly positive, describing the book as ‘magical’, ‘strange’ and ‘breathtakingly good’. I headed over to Amazon, and on seeing the rave reviews on there (a 100% five star rating last time I checked) I knew that I had to get hold of a copy.


The Oracle is a run down Edwardian swimming pool in an unnamed northern town. It has been taken over by a bohemian band of new age healers, who offer water-based therapies to the eager locals, claiming that the pool lies right on top of a sacred spring. Laurel is a lonely teenager who gets a job there, and soon becomes involved in the strange, sometimes sinister goings-on. She sees things that she cannot explain, and attracts the attention of Martin Savage, one of the healers whose intentions are less than honourable. Silver, who can read palms, sees something terrible in her future, and things start to quickly unravel.

Years later, Arthur Braxton seeks refuge from the torrential rain in the now apparently empty, damp and dilapidated pool complex. Arthur is an outcast with a dysfunctional family and a band of bullies on his back. He discovers something magical inside The Oracle; a beautiful girl who swims naked in one of the pools, her sad-looking friend watching on from the side. He is instantly smitten, and on returning to the pool he finally makes contact with the strange pair. Despite the fact that the girl, named Delphina, seems unable to leave the pool, their relationship quickly develops. But The Oracle is under threat from American developers, Arthur is under threat from his persistent bullies, and the blossoming love between the boy and this water-bound beauty is under threat from the unavoidable differences between them. As the pressure grows, unbelievable truths about Delphina’s past begin to emerge, and as young love grows, Arthur and Delphina are pulled apart by circumstances beyond their control. And oustide the rain keeps on falling…

The blurb on the back of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton describes it as a ‘modern fairytale’, but if you are looking for a happy-ever-after story of handsome princes and pretty princess then look elsewhere. This book is dark, very dark, filled with swearing, sex (not all of it consensual), depression and more swearing. At times it is painfully sad, at others strangely surreal, absurdist even – if Angela Carter and Samuel Beckett had ever collaborated on a novel then it probably would have ended up something like this. As the narrative progesses, Smailes successfully racks up the tension – I read it in twenty four hours, unable to stop until I got to the dramatic climax. The Drowning of Arthur Braxton more than lives up to those great online reviews. This is modern magic at its best, and I challenge you not to love it.

A Voyage to the Moon, Gustave Doré

Posted in Art, Books, Illustration with tags , , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I’m off on a hunt for magic this week, so in the meantime here is a charming illustration created by Gustave Doré for an edition of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, entitled A Voyage to the Moon.

A Voyage to the Moon, Gustav Doré

A Voyage to the Moon, Gustave Doré

The Orphan Choir, Sophie Hannah

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Music with tags , , , , on May 28, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Like a lot of today’s parents, Susannah struggles with the stresses and strains of a modern life. To make things worse, her achingly hip and annoyingly arrogant next-door neighbour has a habit of playing loud rock music late into the night. Her son is a worry too, but not in the fact that he gets under her feet. In fact, quite the opposite; Susannah’s only child Joseph has been sent away to choir school thanks to his incredible vocal talents, and she misses him terribly. Her complaints about that noisy neighbour seem to have a positive effect, but then she begins to hear the distinctive sound of children singing at the strangest moments. The man next door denies all knowledge, and choral music is certainly not his style, but the singing becomes more and more persistent. Her husband Stuart tries to be understanding, but clearly thinks she is losing her marbles. So is the haunting music real, or just in her increasingly confused mind? Is it perhaps even something more supernaturally sinister?
Susannah’s dramatic attempts to regain control of both her son and her senses lead inevitably towards an unsettling, and ultimately tragic, conclusion.

The Orphan Choir. Sophie Hannah

The Orphan Choir. Sophie Hannah

The Orphan Choir is the third Hammer novel that I have read in recent months. It is more subtle than either Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate or Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, and a bit of a slow burner. It’s the kind of book that plays with your mind, blurring the boundaries between reality and imagination, leaving the reader just as confused as to what is really happening as the troubled protagonist. What at first may appear to be middle-class paranoia eventually turns out to be something quite different – this is a Hammer novel after all. Only in the final few pages does the horrible truth come to light, and although it may be predictable, the terrible denouement is none the less shocking because of it. Don’t expect big frights from The Orphan Choir, but give it a bit of time and you will be transfixed by this achingly sad tale of unfulfilled love, soul-destroying loneliness and terrible, heartbreaking loss.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

Posted in Books, Fairy Tales with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Anyone who loves modern magic will love the writing of Angela Carter. I have already featured one of her best-known novels, Nights at the Circus, a book that I have enjoyed many times. This week I read her translations of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault for the first time, a very different work perhaps, but no less enchanting.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

Charles Perrault wrote his fairy tales in late 17th Century France, re-interpreting old stories which had been passed down from generation to generation. Some of them are still well know, in particular Cinderella, Blue Beard and Little Red Riding Hood, some are more obscure – I for one have never come across the strange adventures of Donkey Skin or Ricky with the Tuft! Perrault spent many years as a notable figure in the government of Louis XIV, but took to writing more seriously following his retirement in 1695.

Charles Perrault, 1628-1703

Charles Perrault, 1628-1703

Angela Carter has remained largely faithful to his original text, but in places was unable to resist adding her own (often feminist) slant; here and there, little sparks of pure Carter shine through, particularly in the instructive ‘morals’ which follow each tale. Although not nearly as dark or gruesome as the Grimm Brothers’ versions which followed a century later, Perrault’s fantastical fictions are often far from cosy. Quite who they were written for is still debated, for although we now assume that children were their target market, in fact the idea of ‘children’s literature’ didn’t exist in the 17th Century, and it is likely that these tales were aimed firmly at the members of the French Royal Court, who were currently in the grip of a fashion for tales of magic and wonder.

Carter’s translations may seem rather tame compared to her other writings; perhaps she felt constricted by the idea of interpreting a historic text. What is for certain is that it was working on Perrault’s stories that inspired one of her greatest collections of short stories, The Bloody Chamber of 1979, in which she was finally allowed free reign with these classic fairy tales. Her versions are bold and subversive, violent of often terrifying, and feature female protagonists who are strong and decisive, far from the blushing princesses of tradition. But I won’t go into too much details about them here, as The Bloody Chamber definitely deserves a blog post all of its own!

The Greatcoat, Helen Dunmore

Posted in Books, Ghosts with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2013 by mysearchformagic

It’s been a while since I have featured a book in my search for magic, so inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, I decided to check out another of the new supernatural tales commissioned by Hammer publishing. Apart from the fact that it is rather brief, and readable in one sitting, Helen’s Dunmore’s novel The Greatcoat  has little in common with the Winterson’s work, except of course for the fact that it is decidedly spooky and most definitely magical.

The Greatcoat, Helen Dunmore

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The early 1950s were a tough time in Britain, the country mired in post-war austerity. Food was still in short supply, moral standards were strict, life was often pretty grey. For Isabel Carey, a newlywed setting up home in rural Yorkshire, things certainly are not easy. Her husband is trying to establish himself as a GP, and working all the hours, and their grim rented flat is cold and forbidding. The days are long and lonely. But when Isabel finds an RAF greatcoat folded up in one of the closets, things begin to change. That night she hears a knock at the window, and an unexpected guest arrives – a young man in RAF uniform.

The Greatcoat is different from your average ‘haunted house’ ghost story. Much of it is rather romantic, as Isabel develops an inevitable bond with her mysterious visitor. Like every good thriller, the story unravels itself slowly at first, but gathers speed as the truth is gradually revealed and the narrative rumbles towards a nerve-wracking finale. Dunmore explores the shadowy world of memory, and as Isabel’s own complex past mixes with that of Alec the ghostly pilot, the borders between reality and the supernatural begin to blur. The Greatcoat is elegantly written, atmospheric and more than a little sad. Strange things happen when people are lost and lonely, often with tragic consequences. But will the ending be a happy one for Isabel Carey? I’m not going to tell you, so there is only one way to find out…

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2012 by mysearchformagic

As some of you may have read last week, Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus has just been chosen as the best ever winner of the James Tait Black award. By pure coincidence this was announced on the very day that I had finished rereading my dog-eared copy of this fabulous book.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with her work, Angela Carter could be described as the queen of magic realism. Her writing is heavily influenced by myth, and much of it built around strong feminist principles. Her female protagonists are powerful, intelligent, sexy, and sometimes terrifying, her stories dark and disturbing. Carter also edited and translated a number of fairytale collections, and even wrote her own modern versions of these traditional tales, turning many of their old-fashioned ‘prince rescues princess’ tropes on their misogynistic heads.

Nights at the Circus features the raucous adventures of Fevvers, a variety show star at the turn of the 20th Century whose unique selling point is the large, delicate wings which sprout from her broad back. The novel follows her from the music halls of London to the Siberian wastelands, taking in Belle Époque St Peterburg in the process, and charts her encounters with dukes, kings and vagabonds. This is a world inhabited by amazing characters; muscled and oiled circus strongmen, piano playing lion tamers, a crazy Siberian shayman, and a band of escaped Russian female convicts to name but a few. In the book, which was first published in 1984, Carter wonderfully captures the glamour and depravity of the era, and the shabby underbelly which hides just behind the dazzling glitz of the circus. The book is a romance, but it is never soppily romantic. As well as beauty and excitement of life, Carter also describes its horror, the two intermingling like the overpowering stink of fine perfume and sweat.

Is Fevvers really a bewinged ‘freak’, or is she just a clever con-artist? Of course, we never really find out, which is all part of the magic that the author weaves. If you haven’t already read it, then I suggest you do. It is a great introduction to the work of Angela Carter, a subject to which I shall no doubt be returning in the not too distant future…