Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Kindness of Fairy Children

Today, we take our last visit to the pages of  The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Volume 82 (1818). This time, the mysterious CTCS shares the tale of a sickening girl whose life was saved by the kindness of fairy children.

Many, indeed, are the traditionary stories afloat in Clydesdale, which prove that the fairies are not to be looked upon as uniformly malignant, but rather that there are two orders, the members of the one distinguished for their goodness, generosity, and loving kindness towards man, while those of the other are no less remarkable for their irritableness, peevishness, and malignity. 

An old woman in the moors of Avondale, who lived with her only daughter, a lively lass of twenty-two, was entirely dependent upon the industry of her child for bread. A wasting seized the industrious girl, and, after consultations had been held with every medical gentleman in the neighbourhood, her case was given up as hopeless, and her aged and helpless parent was plunged into the utmost distress. In her extreme necessity she applied to the only never-failing source or consolation, and besought the Father of mercies “that he would not leave her when she was old and grey-headed, but that he would yet spare her beloved bairn to close her auld an’ feeble sen, whilk had lang sensyne been shut to all the vanities of this wearie world.” 

The prayers, says the story, of the waefu’ widow, are always accepted. A coagful of loaf and milk was placed at her door every morning, and a little phial, of a reddish liquid, and a small loaf, as white as snow, which she rightly conjectured were for her daughter. Upon this diet she lived sparely, but was contented and thankful, and her daughter recovered slowly, but surely. Anxious to behold the immediate hand that blessed her in so extraordinary a manner, the old woman watched one morning and saw two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, bring the food, and place it on the threshold, the girl carrying the medicine for the daughter, and the boy the provisions for the mother. Having carefully performed this operation, their eyes were thrown upwards for a moment, with an expression of great devotion. 

As they were turning to depart, the old woman, who, as the story goes, declared that “they war sae unco bonnie, an’ sweet-lukan, that she couldnae be fleyit,” could not help exclaiming, “fair fa’ ye, my bonnie bairns, may ye be as gude as ye’re bonnie, an’ as happy as ye’ve made me.” 

The boy looked on her with an evanescent frown, mixed with pity. “Was it not aneuch, wanweirdit woman, that ye sould hae been servit wi’ meat and drink, but ye boud alsae pry into things on whilk ye maun na turn your ee? Nevertheless, lest ye sould imagine an evil thocht agains the hand that feeds, I will tell you that we are Gude Fairies an’ live for ever mare in happiness an’ bliss.” The fairies instaritly vanished, and the old woman continued to receive her daily supply of provisions till her daughter recovered when it ceased. 

There are innumerable stories remaining in this country, illustrative of the peculiarities of the fairy mythology; but, as I have not Scott's Essay on that superstition by me, I am afraid to mention any more at present, lest I should perhaps transmit to you some which are already contained in that curious and valuable performance. 

I shall, therefore, in the meanwhile, conclude with saying, that, if this be deemed worthy of a place in your valuable Miscellany, I shall as soon as possible transmit you several more stories of the Scottish fairies hitherto unpublished, and likewise some account of the Clydesdale belief concerning Wraiths. 

I remain your obedient servant,


Monday, 22 August 2016

The Dead London Chronicles

Over at The Dead London Chronicles, our free Gothic tale continues…

"I think," Grace observed the towering snow structure that was taking shape on the wintery lawn, "That this will be the largest snowman ever made." A perhaps too-innocent smile played over her lips then as she added, "If only we could reach the top to make it even higher..."

Renaud stood back, regarding the sculpture with a shrewdly narrowed eye, sharp white fangs chewing thoughtfully at the inside of his lip for a moment. He would remember he had fangs one day, he told himself as he gave a wince of discomfort, and stop chewing his lip in moments of thoughtfulness. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Spirits of Auchenleck

Today, we return to The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Volume 82 (1818). This time, the mysterious CTCS shares some tales of the spirits of Auchenleck and William Wallace.

Upper and Nether Auchenlecks are said to have been anciently the property of one of the relatives of Wallace, and to have been so denominated after the possessions of his family in Ayrshire. At Nether Auchenleck, or as it is usually called Nether Affleck, there is a very curious relic of antiquity called Wallace's Syles, which, as tradition reports, was made by that matchless man while he was staying with his kindred at Killbank and Nether Auchenleck. The Syles, which are of a very curious and complicated construction, and exceedingly strong, are made of oak, which, having stood for centuries in one of the smokiest hovels in Scotland, has long ago become quite saturated with soot, and rendered almost incombustible. The feet of the Syles are placed on the ground, with the sides built firmly into the wall; and though the house has been twice burned down to the ground, this venerable relic of Wallace has escaped unharmed. The people around, fond of the memory of their beloved chief, attribute this preservation to the interposition of some superior power; for they contend that Sir William Wallace was not only the greatest hero and most disinterested patriot that the world ever saw, but also an eminent Christian. 

Nether Auchenleck has always been a peculiar haunt of the fairies and other spiritual beings. The late tenant, Alexander Waddel, having, in the course of his improvements, grubbed up a broomy brae where the fairies were wont to hold their revels, incurred the displeasure of these irritable spirits.

“They rade his horses in the night till they were quite blawn, shot his ky, an; did na even haud aff him sell. 

For ae nicht as he was sharpan his saw by the fire-en’, ben cam an elfshot-stane wi’ unco birr frae the door, an’ dang a tuith out o’ the saw. But nae doubt it was ettlet to break his arm, gif no to do him war skaith.”

At another time as he was felling some trees, he perceived an arm strike at him several times with a hatchet; “but the shaft o’ his ain axe was made o’ rowan-tree, sae they could nae harm him.” 

There is a deep glen at Nether Auchinleck, called Hellsgili, wherein a spirit has frequently appeared in the very extraordinary shape of a cart-wheel, or rather of the ring of a cart-wheel, trundling down the brae. It appears always rolling right against the beholder, and often has the eirie night-traveller been terrified that he would be overturned by this whimsical apparition: but after coming bounding from brae to brae, thundering to his very feet, all of a sudden it vanishes, and a loud unearthly laugh, or, as it is expressed in our country dialect, “an eldritch nicheran gaffaw” is heard in the bottom of the ravine.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Dead London Chronicles

Over at The Dead London Chronicles, our free Gothic tale continues…

In the minutes before the world went a little haywire, Daniel Miller was a happy, if decidedly naked man. It had taken somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds for him to desert the room he had very properly been shown to and make his way to Lucile's quarters and straight into her arms. There should probably have been introductions to be made to fellow guests, formal business to be attended to but instead the couple had been happy to flout such society and were already tucked up in the enormous, flamboyant bed that was Lucile's billet, their embraces heated and their kisses fierce.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Fairy, the Child and the Red Worm

Today, we return to The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Volume 82 (1818). This time, the mysterious CTCS shares the tale of a woman whose daughter was stolen by fairies, and returned by fairy magic!

But let us return to Thomas the Rhymer, - who appears, from the most authentic accounts, to be a very beneficent prince, and to have still a very great regard for the inhabitants of his native land, to take delight in promoting their interest, and in doing all in his power to release them from the thraldom of superhuman malicious powers. A worthy old woman who lived in a small cottage, (the remains of which were lately discernible on the banks of the Taigillin burn, a small streamlet in the parish of Lesmahag,)o and who had no other means of support than what she earned by spinning, and what she drew from a cow which the neighbouring fanners very kindly allowed her to pasture on the uncultivated braes, and by the waj, sides and hedges, - was harassed almost to death by loud and unearthly noises; so that what with terror and want of sleep she was nearly driven distracted. Her cow, which lowed continually, either produced no milk, or what she gave was sour as vinegar: and let her spin ever so diligently, she could make no progress; she had just as much thread when she began as when she stopped. 

Tibbie knew not what to do; her neighbours judging her uncannie, deserted her; and she was in the utmost distress. day exactly at noon, having passed a most fearful nigh,t and when after much consideration, she had just determined to flee from the house and all that was in it, a gentle tap came to the door, and a mild voice inquired if any were within. The good woman rose and opened the door, but saw nothing. Imagining that she had been mistaken. she went and sat down. when she again heard the same tap with the same inquiry. A second time she went to the door, and a second time she saw nothing.  She had no sooner returned again to her seat, than the tapping and inquiry were repeated. Tibbie’s patience was inexhaustible. She went a third time to the door, and again seeing nobody, she stepped round the corner of her hut to see if any boys had been playing her a trick. Nought was there, and, not a little agitated, she returned into her house, when, to her amazement she found the floor occupied by a tall young man, clad in green, attended by seven blooming boys dressed in the same habiliments. 

The youth told her not to be alarmed: that, being out a hunting he had taken the liberty of calling for a drink, to which, as he was somewhat hungry, he would be much obliged to her if she would add a little bread and cheese, for which he would most willingly pay. He apologized for their conduct at the door, by saying, that his young attendants wished to give her a little surprise, but he should be sorry if it had occasioned her any alarm. 

“I am vext I canna gie ye a drink of ocht but water, my bonnie bairn, but that ye’s hae clear as the bell; for though I hae tholit muckle wearie ill, He has nae luiten them scaithe the siller well.” 

She bustled about, and set before them excellent bread and cheese, the last indeed which she had in the house, and, taking a white bowl, she filled it with crystal water, and, according to the invariable practice of the Scottish peasantry, after having wished them good health, and God's blessing, she took one sip and placed it before them.

They ate very heartily, though still the good woman's bread and cheese appeared to be growing no less; which she perceiving, after looking for some time, she could no longer contain herself, but in great anxiety exclaimed, “I doubt, Sirs, ye binnae cannie!” The eldest smiled, and told her not to be alarmed, that he was indeed no longer a man, but Thomas the Rhymer, King of the Fairies, and that these were seven of his pages. He further told her, that he perfectly knew her situation, and what it was that had long haunted her abode, but that, if she would take his advice, she should get quit of all her misluck, as well as of her nocturnal, visitors for he was well aware of her great kindness in setting before unknown strangers her only provisions. 

Mongolian Death Worm by Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx.
“Ony thing, ony thing, that tramps nae on Him that is abune us a’, an if ye’ll but say the Lord is gude an’ gude till a’, whate’er ye bid I’ll do.” His Majesty smiling, satisfied the good woman's fears, and told her to watch till eight o’clock exactly, when she would perceive the outer door to open apparently of its own accord, and a gentle whirlwind to enter thereat. This would move slowly forwards, till, having arrived at the middle of the floor, it would stand there whirling a few moments, when a red worm would come up between the stones. The instant that appeared, she was to throw a few drops of the liquid contained in the phial, which he now put into her hands, upon it, and say, “

“Gin God made ye sae, 
   Remain as ye are,
But if ye be in wae,
   Beturn to what ye war.”

Whatever she might see she was not to be afraid, and if at any time she grew alarmed, she was to sprinkle a few more drops on the object of her apprehensions and repeat the above words. If she grew terrified and forgot this advice, it was a thousand chances to one but both she and her house would be destroyed. The fairies, having said this, immediately vanished, leaving a large purse of money behind them, which the good dame would not touch till she had sained it, when finding that it did not turn into withered leaves, nor bits of “sclate stands, but bade still gude white siller,” she adventured to put it into the press. 

About eight o’clock she watched with great anxiety, and no sooner had the church clock of Abbey Green struck, than the door slowly opened. The whirlwind moved to the middle of the floor, where, according as “True Thomas: predicted, a red worm came crawling up from between two stones. Tibbie immediately threw some of the liquid upon it, repeating the incantation. A large black boar in a moment stood before her, gnashing its tusks, and apparently just going to fly at her. Some more of the phial was bestowed upon the boar, which was instantaneously changed into a most enormous serpent coiled around the room, and crawling towards her with glaring eyes and open mouth. Tibbie dashed some more of the liquid in its face, when suddenly a corpse was extended at her feet, with its cold and glassy eyes fixed sternly upon her. 

In great terror she dropped the phial at her feet, when the stiffened corpse began to relax, an; extended its arm to seize the bottle. Suddenly recollecting herself, she snatched up the phial, and dashed it, liquid and all, with her whole force, upon the corpse, roaring out, “His presence be about us! what will come neest!” room grew dark as midnight,- a loud peal of thunder shook the house, and, by the momentary glare of the lightning, the goodwife could perceive a little ugly thing, somewhat resembling a man, but exceedingly hideous, come out of the mouth of the corpse, and fly away on the firefiaucht. All was light, and a young woman, whom Tibbie recognized to be her daughter, who had been lost when an infant, was lying on the floor in the manner of one recovering from a swoon. The child told her mother that one day when she had “gane out to blade some kail for the pat, a little man, no that doons braw,” came to her, and asked if she would go with him. “He shew me a wheen rings an’ braw flegairies. I replied, scorninwise, ‘Tweel I may gang wi’ you, for wow but ye are a bonnie strappan body!’ - ‘Chapse ye at your word! quo he; an’ wi’ that the grun’ claveaneth us, and we sank down till a frichtsome den, whar naething was to be seen but the cauld clattie sides o’ the cove, shawn by a blae wanyoch glare. Because I wadnae submit to be his sin, he dumit me to torment an’ fley my kind auld mither, an’ this I bude to do, whill I was winfreeit by a mare powerfu’ being nor himsell. Ilka nicht I was turnit intil a laithsome worm, an’ the ilkleetlie fuirie entered the house by a whirlwind, an’ forcit me, sair agains my will,  to talc an active han; in a; the trouble an; mischief whilk has happcnit to you sen ye war trystit wi’ this sare visitation.”

The old woman was also informed, by this communicative daughter, that she had lived fourteen years in the fairy's dungeon, during which time she had resolutely withstood all the dishonourable attempts of the elf who, by anointing the crown of her head, and the palms of both hands, with a very fragrant oil, “gart her grow woman-muckle in twathree days.” 

She also informed her mother that the real reason why the Fairy King did not enter her dwelling at the first, was because she had only opened her door a-jar, at which the dignity of the gude fairies would not permit them to enter, it being only evil spirits who come in at doors in this situation. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Seven Ages of Death and Mr Pickwick

I am thrilled to throw open the salon doors to Stephen Jarvis, author of the marvellous, Death and Mr Pickwick. I heartily recommend the novel, which is an utter delight, and Stephen's post will give a wonderful introduction to his remarkable work!


The Seven Ages of Death and Mr Pickwick

My novel, Death and Mr Pickwick, is now out in paperback. It tells the story behind the creation of Charles Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers - and In my view, The Pickwick Papers has the most fascinating backstory of any work of fiction: it cried out to be turned into a novel that's what I did! 

But what is Death and Mr Pickwick's own backstory? I have broken down the evolution of my novel into seven 'ages'. And here they are.

Griff Rhys Jones
First Age: It all began in 2001 when I was listening to the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs. As you probably know, the celebrities who appear on this show select eight pieces of music and one book to take to a hypothetical desert island. On this occasion, the guest was the comedian Griff Rhys Jones, and he chose The Pickwick Papers as his book, which he said was "so full of life". There was something about that phrase which resonated with me.  And so, as I had never read The Pickwick Papers before, I decided to get the novel out of my local library.  In the modern-day preface there was one line referring to the suicide of Pickwick's first illustrator, Robert Seymour, and I was instantly fascinated. Why had this man killed himself? I wanted to know more - and the fact that nothing more was said just made the suicide all the more intriguing.  Also, the preface stated that Pickwick had been a truly huge, global phenomenon - and the idea of this colossal success set against the personal tragedy of a suicide was fascinating. I got a real buzz inside - I just KNEW there was something here that had to be investigated and written about. 
Second Age: My original intention was to write a novel  about Seymour.   He had shot himself with a fowling gun (a sort of nineteenth-century shotgun) after doing a drawing of a dying clown for The Pickwick Papers, and, because he was a professional cartoonist, whose job was to amuse the public,  I wondered whether he saw himself as a dying clown.  I realised also that the book had to be a novel about Seymour, not a biography, because nothing was known about a fateful meeting between Seymour and Dickens: after that meeting, Seymour came home in a state of extreme emotional distress, and he burnt all his correspondence and papers about the Pickwick project. A few days later he lay dead in his garden. His heart was literally torn to pieces by the gunshot. But anyone attempting to write a biography would have to be silent about what happened at that meeting - and such a book would almost certainly seem like it was missing its most crucial element. Only a fiction which was plausible could fill the gap.

Third Age: However, as I read more about the background to The Pickwick Papers, I began to encounter other intriguing characters. For instance, I discovered that Pickwick's dying clown was inspired by the tragedy of a real clown, J S Grimaldi. Then there was the artist R W Buss, who is most famous today for the painting Dickens's Dream - but many years before doing that work, he had been Seymour's replacement as the Pickwick illustrator, and was fired after producing just two pictures, which left him mentally scarred. 

I discovered so many interesting characters tied up with Pickwick, from a wine merchant with a pet vulture, to a Prime Minister put on trial for adultery that I decided to change course.  My objective now was to turn the novel into a fictionalised history of the entire Pickwick phenomenon.  This gave Death and Mr Pickwick an epic range. 
Dickens's Dream
Fourth Age:  But I did not realise just how HUGE the task of researching the book would be, once I changed course. It used to be said that more had been written about The Pickwick Papers than any other novel - and I can believe it. I set myself the task of reading everything ever written about The Pickwick Papers...and I am talking about hundreds of academic papers and books, and countless newspaper articles. In all, it took twelve years to write Death and Mr Pickwick.
Mr Pickwick Addresses the Club by Robert Seymour

Fifth Age:  The book changed course again when I discovered that Dickens had lied about the origins of Pickwick. Contradictions started to emerge in his account of how the novel came into existence, and there was a complete lack of evidence for his statements.  I also looked into the background of Dickens's agent and biographer, John Forster, and discovered firstly that Forster had written some historical works, and secondly that he had no reputation as a historian - he was quite prepared to fabricate evidence and be fiercely partisan. In other words, he was exactly the sort of person to persuade Dickens to lie about the origins of Pickwick. 

Sixth Age: Publication! The hardback was published in mid 2015 by arguably the two most prestigious publishers in the English-speaking world: Random House in the UK, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the UK. The book attracted a lot of acclaim -  in the UK, The Sunday Times declared it to be "Outstanding" while The Daily Telegraph called it "A masterpiece of imagination".  The book also made the Oprah Winfrey list in the USA, and was declared to be "Astounding" by the American book-trade journal Publisher's Weekly.  Important articles about the book appeared in The Atlantic Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, and many other places. The main negative note was struck by the New York Times -  and that review was described by my agent  as 'an abomination'. But overall, reviews were very favourable. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, even declared Death and Mr Pickwick to be his book of the year, as did Lord Bird, the founder of Big Issue magazine. The novel was also nominated for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.  Some people did ask me, after publication, "Do you need to read The Pickwick Papers before reading Death and Mr Pickwick?" The answer is no, not at all. However, if you read Death and Pickwick, you may well be led to read The Pickwick Papers afterwards.  

Two disgraceful responses to the novel came from the Dickensian community. On the Dickens Blog, I was declared to be an inept, hate-driven conspiracy-theorist...and the reviewer completely ignored the evidence of Dickens's lies. In the journal Dickens Quarterly, the reviewer tried to re-define Dickens's lies as non-lies, using academic jargon. These pieces should not be taken seriously. 

Seventh Age: An extraordinary fan community for the book is now building at the facebook page There are now hundreds of posts on the page, which give fresh insights into Death and Mr Pickwick every day. Moreover, these posts are now being turned into an e-flipbook, which is much easier to access than facebook. Nine volumes of the e-flipbook are now online, and a tenth will be added soon. To access the flipbook volumes, go to and click on the 'Further Reading' tab - you will see ideas for Death and Mr Pickwick excursions, historical research, lots of scenes of eating and drinking, and much more!  One of the fans on the page even suggested that perhaps no other novel has such a facebook presence as Death and Mr Pickwick. I am beginning to think he might be right. 

Written content of this post copyright © Stephen Jarvis, 2016.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins

It was with a great sense of excited anticipation that I sat down to dip into Claire Cock-Starkey’s marvellous new book, Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins. Claire is a great friend of the salon and her books are always a treasury of little-known facts, eyebrow-raising tales and fascinating moments from history.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins asks readers whether they remember the first time they saw a penguin or even tasted a pineapple and if they do, what their reaction was. Of course, we probably don’t remember, because there is nothing that remarkable about these events today. Once upon a time, however, the thought of encountering a completely new animal, piece of fruit or even indigenous culture, was one that fascinated explorers and academics.

This book takes us back through the centuries via the archives of the British Library. In this meticulous researched work, Claire puts us in the shoes of these explorers and scholars, capturing their wonderment, excitement and, occasionally, fear as they record first encounters with all manner of flora and fauna.

Whilst the book is perfect for dipping into for a quick historical fix, it really rewards a more through read too and it’s easy to get caught up and lose hours! The archive material is wonderfully complemented by evocative illustrations and Claire’s writing is authoritative, accessible and entertaining too.

I really can’t recommend Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins enough; treat yourself to a copy - you might even get to find out what polar bear tastes like! 

Available here!