Ghostly Paths through dark Forests

ghost in white sheetThroughout history unusual features in the landscape have sent human imagination into overdrive, spawning legends, fairy-tales and myths. I’d like to use the next couple of blog posts to investigate this super-charged landscape issue a little further.

 

My first candidate for natural phenomena are Hohlwege, the German word for well-trodden paths that have literally been hollowed out by generations of feet, hooves and paws as well as by rain and wind, taking several centuries to mature into their creepy and myth-inspiring selves. Such footpaths lead through fields, forests and mountains and typically connect ancient market towns and places of worship and are usually found close to popular pilgrim routes.

 

So close your eyes and imagine you’re on your way to a medieval market to sell your farm produce. Turnips, onions and beets anyone?

 

Travelling through Germany’s Mecklenburg in your top-of-the-range oxcart, you’ll come across a forested area called Hohenzieritz Woods, which sits in spooky silence between the towns of Penzlin and Hohenzierlitz. The ancient Iserputt footpath or Hohlweg snakes through the wood, where it leads overgrown and hollowed out by the weather, with deep and muddy cart tracks left by a hundred generations of market traders just like you and your team of pretty oxen, to the nearest place to sell your wares.

 

Vampire-bats-animatedMake haste and drive on your team of oxen, for at midnight twelve gleaming white men carrying a black coffin will appear out of nowhere and they just might select you as their number thirteen!

 

We can only imagine with what urgency travellers raced along the Iserputt path, their sandals flying over sticks and stones, their feet splashing through mud-filled puddles and their heads full of ghostly apparitions out to get them for whatever sin their superstitious medieval minds could conjure up!

 

Another legend has it an old man on a cart travelled on this path in the middle of the day. Without warning, the cart came to a halt and his horses refused to take another step. The old man got off his cart and went to investigate the source of the delay. He found a tall, black figure on the back of his cart, laughing wildly and terrifying the horses. The old man was furious to have a stranger mocking him, so he whacked the apparition with his whip. To the old man’s surprise the apparition disappeared and his horses took him and his cart from that place as fast as their hooves would go.

 

Ghost below the Sunset?

 

Ghosts, as one rather rude and ignorant blog reader informed me the other day, “do not exist, you idiots”. I dare to disagree! They may not be Caspar and Co. zipping down the corridor in some abandoned mansion or the Ghost of Canterbury having a score to settle with a new set of occupants, but ghosts are likely to exist in our traditions and belief systems we inherit from our forbearers and that makes them very real to us.

 

English: A ghostly Black Dog.

 

As long as humans believe in a soul surviving death, there will be talk of ghosts…they exist in our minds because they might represent our guilty conscience of unfinished business with the dear departed or our longing to see loved ones again or simply express our own hope that there’s life after death despite scientific proof that we’re just ending up as worm fodder.

 

Deutsch: Die Burg Penzlin (Landkreis Müritz, M...

Deutsch: Die Burg Penzlin (Landkreis Müritz, Mecklenburg). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Imagine you’re an uneducated peasant working the fields surrounding Castle Penzlin in Mecklenburg, bringing in your hay in medieval Europe. The drudgery of day-to-day life must have been unbearable for an intelligent, but uneducated person of the lower ranks. How better to while away the time while making hay than to invent little stories about the things that occur in our surroundings – natural or supernatural phenomena, if that’s what you believe.

 

ghostly images in graveyardWhen we see mist rising up from the heated soil after a long, hot day in summer is cooled down by sudden rain, we can easily imagine ghostly spirits are leaving the ground in protest. Morning mist swirling upwards and gathering in clouds around the summits of hills and mountains, the wind changing and moulding their shapes into fantastical apparitions, are perfect candidates for souls rising up to heaven, while pea-soupers in historic towns are bound to be a demon’s breath robbing us of our sense of direction, trying to lure us into a trap.

 

Hohlwege

Hohlwege (Photo credit: crobgun)

 

Naturally, I’m going to use this spooky landscape feature called Hohlwege in my upcoming novel Willow the Vampire and the Wuerzburg Ghosts. Are there any mysterious features in the landscape near you that might inspire a ghostly tale or two?

 

Ghostly Goings-on

I was bravely ploughing on with chapter 4 of my new Willow the Vampire adventure, when I discovered my story was taking a rather unexpected turn. This required me to rethink the entire plot, because to my great annoyance the underlying theme had changed – thanks to my wilful, mischievous protagonist having developed a mind of her own.

All truly great children’s stories – those that endure the test of time anyway – have an underlying theme that resonates with the reader, no matter what age they might be. Sometimes this theme might be self-discovery or being brave in the face of adversity or coping with something really difficult like the death of a parent. While on the surface there might be a really cracking story with all the usual twists and turns, the author’s intention will be that the book should be something more than just an adventure story. In other words, there will be layer after layer of themes that the writer has woven in, so readers of different age groups can make all manner of discoveries for themselves.

Deciding on an overall theme can sometimes be hard to do and will largely depend on the age range one is writing for. From a certain age onwards children begin to understand comparatively complex, abstract issues like love and hate, fear, revenge and betrayal. This is well demonstrated by the success of TV family shows like Dr Who and PIXAR movies, where the jokes and emotional moments are multi-layered so they appeal to an audience of different ages.

New children’s writers and those who perpetually underestimate children (yes, teachers and literature critics, I’m referring to YOU) often don’t get this and doggedly believe just a good “story” is needed to make young readers want to read a book. However, children writers today compete with TV, video and online games, books, comics, movies and the Internet in general for the short attention span a child has to commit to anything. Children are far more sophisticated than literature critics, teachers and many new children’s authors give them credit for, so their books need to reflect this, if they are to stand the test of time and become that fabled thing, a piece of “literature”.

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Making abstract themes accessible to young, but accomplished readers who choose a novel for the age range 8 to 12 is naturally quite a challenge. Not every child reader will pick up on all the author’s intended subjects straight away. This may only happen at a later stage, when the story is re-read over time. Telling a multi-layered story then is what a dedicated author of children’s literature should be after to prolong the shelf-life of their work.

In my last blog entry I mentioned how we can use animals’ characteristics to express human traits of character as well as using certain types of animals as a metaphor for time passing during an important event in our storyline. It is also possible to use creatures of the night (or day) to mirror relationships that human protagonists have with each other.

In the animal version it often becomes much clearer what relationships signify – dogs and cats are deemed natural enemies, just like cats and mice or cats and birds. In the paranormal world this would then equate to vampires and werewolves for example or white witches against black magic witches, whereas in the human world the sensitive child becomes the natural victim of the bully in a schoolyard context, while teachers are typically everybody’s least favourite person.

Tolkien uses mirrored relationships – as well as mirrored locations – to great advantage in the Lord of the Rings. When we write about human protagonists, we are all too often distracted by what they are supposed to look like, their mannerisms and how they are supposed to carry our plot rushing from A to B.

Philip Pullman signing a copy of Lyra's Oxford...

Philip Pullman signing a copy of Lyra’s Oxford for a reader, Margaret Maitland, at the Oxford Literary Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems so much easier to express a number of complex emotional issues with the assistance of animals – presumably this is why Philip Pullman included the idea of daemons into His Dark Materials and J K Rowling used the Patronus spell in Harry Potter’s books to show us each individual’s true self (Harry’s takes the form of a stag, his mother’s took the form of a doe).

Can you think of other novels, where authors have used animals to mirror a human’s inner self?

In my new Willow novel I decided to use the “mirror” technique to show how different relationships can work – some relationships are between adults, some between children, some between vampires and humans and some are inter-vampire relationships…and all of them are upset by a bunch of ghosts!

The ghost element of my story will be the most difficult to deal with. They are no longer “concrete” beings, but spirits with their own agenda who might be anything they choose to be, even physically. The nature of ghosts in literature, folklore and film is often that they have unresolved issues and as long as they resolve them, they can finally go to rest. What if they don’t want to though, what if their intention is to ensnare humans to allow ghostly entities back into this world?

What if ghosts wish to become flesh once more and have another stab at LIFE, that precious commodity we treat in such a cavalier fashion until somebody tells us, it’s time to take our last breath?

Does this ghost theme remind you of anyone or anything?

 

Not making the same Mistakes in the Afterlife

It seems that some of us never learn and are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Some never learn with regard to money and fall for every conman they meet, others fall in love with the wrong person every time, but won’t hear of changing their ways, when friends tell them to stay clear of cheats and ruthless seducers.

Some people never think of the consequences of their actions and believe they will be forgiven, no matter what they do – their charm and winning smile allows them to get away with murder during their lifetime; in some case, quite literally, but in their afterlife they’ll have to face up to what they did.

Only when we are brought face to face with our demise do some of us realise we cannot go through life without leaving some mark, even if we believe ourselves to be a fairly unassuming nobody, who wouldn’t hurt a fly or invisible, because we are of no interest to society at large. Words can often cut more than we realise, hurt even more than an actual blow. Yet rarely do we go back and say sorry or try to make amends to relative strangers or those we do not deem that important to our happiness.

In Willow the Vampire’s adventures I love to play with the notion that humans rarely get a chance to put things right, while vampires do, since they have their eternal afterlife to seek redemption. Meeting a large number of ghosts in her next adventure, Willow will for the first time understand the value of being a vampire, of not being mortal.

Ghosts are troubled spirits. Some seek revenge for the wrongs done to them during their lives, others cannot find peace, because they did someone a wrong they never had the chance to put right. Others again had an unhappy life, sometimes because of their own making. There are those men and woman who only ever date the brainless, but pretty and never find true happiness as a result. Others like to subdue and conquer in their relationships and are only content when they can humiliate those they call their friends. There are bullies and sadists, eternal victims and martyrs and those who are too arrogant to care much about anything.

A vampire’s afterlife is quite different from that of a ghost. The Egyptians depicted their dead looking very much like they did in life. The Book of the Dead shows people wearing the same style of clothes, eating the same type of food and doing similar things to those they did in life. Some ghosts reappear as animals, mostly as birds, in some cultures, while vampires have the option how they want to return and can change their appearance almost at will – at least with some practice and with the help of ancient magic. Vampires will retain some of their human characteristics, some will even be enhanced, but on the whole they will turn into quite a different creature to the one they were when blood still pulsed through their veins.

While our bodies might be cremated or buried in some grave, many people believe our souls or spirits remain, either floating to some paradisiacal land called heaven or tumble straight into hell for our “sins”. Traditional Romanian folklore puts vampires far more into the same category as ghosts than modern fiction has done since Bram Stoker wrote his Dracula. Modern vampires spend their afterlife chasing teenage lovers, fighting for justice or simply battling against werewolves for the sheer fun of it.

I’d like to believe that someone, no matter what they were like in their first life, would use their afterlife to contemplate about the mistakes they made the first time round and try to put things right. The afterlife will last an awfully long time – a whole eternity in fact – so trying to atone for the things we did wrong and gaining redemption from those we wronged during our lifetime seems one of the few things truly worthwhile doing when we’re dead.

(animation source: heathersanimation.com)

Things that go bump in the Night

We’ve encountered some truly strange creatures of the night so far, from insomniacs to moths, from witches and ghosts to Willow the Vampire herself.

Ghosts come in a variety of guises and the German word Poltergeist describes a noisy, rumbustious type of ghost or goblin that likes to play pranks on the inhabitants of a house or dwelling. The spirit of a deceased moves into a home – for reasons that might not be apparent at first glance – and starts throwing furniture about by invisibly moving and manipulating objects. This is usually accompanied by groaning, knocking at doors and walls, scratching, rattling of chains and eerie screams for good measure.

The ultimate aim seems to be to drive the inhabitants from the dwelling so the poltergeist can have some peace. According to some cultures’ folklore, Poltergeister (German plural) haunt a particular person and recorded incidents date back as far as the 1st century AD.

In severe cases the Poltergeist – presumably if the living human is too thick to notice otherwise – resorts to biting, hitting, pinching and punching their intended victim. Throughout history there are recorded cases (such as Lithobolia 1698, explained on pamphlet in the British Museum, The Bell Witch of Tennessee 1817 to 1872, Rosenheim in Germany in 1967 and Borley Rectory, England in 1937 for example) of people being haunted by a Poltergeist.

In the Harry Potter books J K Rowling famously uses a poltergeist to great comic effect, but I’d like to return to the more sinister meaning of poltergeist activity in my Willow the Vampire novels. Originally Poltergeister were deemed to be malicious ghosts, spirits with an axe to grind.

Although over the  last couple of centuries people have tried to come up with various explanations of this paranormal phenomena – such as stress and anxiety of a householder causing the imagined events – nobody has so far had an adequate explanation that covers all the strange cases recorded over time.

It struck me that a guilty conscience of the householder – having previously committed some crime or grievous offence against someone – could be a good reason for a poltergeist or two to move into somebody’s home to take revenge.

Since Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts is in part about exacting revenge for wrongs done to children, the introduction of this nocturnal avenger seems appropriate. And, as J K Rowling so beautifully demonstrated, one can have quite a lot of fun with such a creature of the night, too.

A 14-year-old domestic servant, Therese Selles...

A 14-year-old domestic servant, Therese Selles, experiences poltergeist / spontaneous PK activity in the home of her employer, the Todeschini family at Cheragas, Algeria, as featured on the cover of the French magazine La Vie Mysterieuse in 1911. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spooky in the best sense of the word, Poltergeister who move objects, make strange noises and jump out at us from behind the curtain are part and parcel of growing up and learning not to be afraid of the night. The night terrors we perceive as children are often little more than furniture bathed in shadow and moonlight, suddenly unfamiliar at night and therefore frightening. When we grow up, we start to recognise what is real and what is imagined – at least most of us do, leaving writers out of this argument…

Looking at things from a different perspective is also a lesson we learn as we grow older. Revenge can sometimes be a good thing, but mostly it blinds us to the underlying causes of our real or perceived misery.

For Sale: Toad, Cat and Cauldron, one careful previous Owner

Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos: ¡Linda maestra...

As some of you might have guessed, at some point Willow the Vampire’s second adventure will have to have some ghosts – after all, the book title is Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts!

We’ve met some of the creatures of the night Willow and her friends might encounter, but so far we’ve only scraped the surface when it comes to supernatural critters. The last blog post was about the European green toad and some time ago I wrote about nocturnal creatures like cats, dragons and  trolls, though I haven’t written about wicked fairies, yet.

What could therefore be more natural to bring witches into the equation? Not the large as life warts-an-all witches you’re thinking off – no, real people murdered by religious fanatics who suspected witches and warlocks behind every tree and wardrobe.

Marienkapelle auf dem Marktplatz in Würzburg.

The Würzburg ghosts are none other than people who were burned at the stake between 1626 and 1630. Many of them were small children and young adults of no more than 12 or 14 years of age. The aristocratic bishops Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn and his equally demented nephew Philipp Adolf von Ehrenberg were solely responsible for brutally torturing and then burning more than 900 people. Anyone who spoke up in defence of those accused of witchcraft were instantly tried for sorcery themselves and before long ended up being burned alongside the other victims. The infamous Würzburg Witch Trials mark one of southern Germany’s darkest chapters with regard to religion.

Black cat, brooms and toads as well as cauldrons have for some reason always been associated with witches. My next Willow the Vampire novel will put a rather different spin on witches, given that a substantial number of those accused of witchcraft and subsequently murdered were very small children. Although quite a lot of the Würzburg  trial details were recorded, the noble bishops couldn’t even be bothered to have the names of the children registered along the adults they murdered, thus denying the children an existence – even in death. So much for Christian charity.

In the 1970s, when an underground garage and parking lot was to be built under the old market square right next to St Mary’s Chapel (Marienkapelle) in Würzburg, workmen discovered the charcoal remains of four posts that had been lined up opposite the entire length of the chapel. Dendrochronology discovered the remains of the wooden posts were indeed from the 17th century. In other words, the murders took place right outside the church, day in…day out. Hallelujah!

Deutsch: Würzburg - Statue des Julius Echter v...

Just outside of the old walled fortifications of the town there was another place of execution. Here workmen found not just the remains of wooden stakes and human bones…animals had been burned alongside their accused owners. It seems that many of the victims were first executed by having their heads severed, after which they were burned. Please do not attribute this to Christian charity either – the majority of buildings were made from timber at that time and the local magistrates felt it safer to keep fires under control – dead people burn more quickly and need smaller fires, so it seems. Like with all monsterous Christianevil doers, Julius Echter was honoured by the Church and had a statue erected in the city centre – while the names of the children and young people remain a mystery.

Willow and her friends will need their own army to fight monsters that are trying to end the world – what better than an army of ghosts…murdered children with no more evil in them than the animals burned with them at that time?

Sell  my toad, black cat and cauldron, but leave me my broom so that I may paint a large picture of the Würzburg  children’s short lives and remember them through the magic of writing!

Willow and the Afterlife

RAIOimage113

Image via Wikipedia

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, ghouls, zombies, vampires and similar apparitions, writing about them is great fun and has for centuries been a staple source for writers of many genres. As mainly creatures of the night ghosts are supposed to come out at midnight and haunt places and people, where they’ve had an unhappy time, while they were still alive.

As I am preparing the groundwork for Willow the Vampire’s second adventure (Willow the Vampire & the Würzburg Ghosts), I’m reading up on all manner of horrible events that might cause a whole army of the dead to rise up and take revenge.

Ghosts are deemed to be the spirit or soul of a dead person or even animal that can suddenly become visible to the living or return to “life” in the form or shape of other manifestations, such as sounds, smells or a difference in temperature in a room.

Hollywood ghosts might be either cute and cuddly (Caspar) or truly scary (The Woman in Black); they are often depicted as wispy white, floating shapes, like the proverbial fluttering sheet in the wind or a nightgown on legs. Sometimes they are the translucent skeleton jumping out at us, at other times they are the headless zombie seemingly appearing out of a wall, before gliding off down the corridor.

Do I have to believe in the existence of such a paranormal manifestation to write about it? No, I guess not. Do I believe in ghosts…well, not exactly. At least, until I had a rather singular experience some years back I would have said, no, most decidedly not, I do not believe in ghosts or people coming back as spirits to haunt the living, no matter how annoying some relatives of mine might have been during their lifetimes.

Walking back from the supermarket one day when I was still living in London, I was caught out by a heavy thunderstorm. The afternoon turned to night with flashes of lightning illuminating the sky. I hurried home – just a ten minute walk normally, but burdened with heavy shopping bags and an umbrella struggling to stay in my hand I had to fight my way up the steep hill on which I used to live.

To this day I don’t really understand what happened. A picture of my beloved grandmother, who died in 1986, flashed up in my mind. She was trying to say something to me…and as I “watched” with my mind’s eye how her mouth attempted to form a word, I stopped in my tracks, just for a couple of seconds –  but it was enough to save my life!

Lightning struck the car standing to my right hand side. The lightning bolt set off the car alarm and, I guess it bounced off the car, setting off the alarm on the house on the opposite side of my street. The bolt of lightning had struck just 30 cm in front of me – had I not had my grandmother’s vision flashing up in my mind to arrest my steps, I would have been the lightning bolt’s target instead of the car.

Was this a “ghost” or a guardian angel or some kind of friendly spirit protecting me? I shall never now. Once indoors, I stood in my hallway, my hands shaking, trying to make sense of what had happened. The flash of light, the ear-splitting crack as the full force hit the car, the alarms going off right next to me…and my grandmother saying STOP.