I was directed from a tweet by @GothicHeroine to this article by Muriel Grey. The demise of the Christmas ghost story is saddening so I thought I would redress the issue.
The following scribble is inspired by a ghostly encounter experienced by Dr Anne Ross. It appears in one of my favourite books; Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain published in 1973 by Readers Digest.
A courier appears at the door of my house with a crate that should have been delivered to the museum where I work. A draught of cold, early morning December air snakes past my pyjama clad legs. I attempt to persuade him to redirect the box, but, a jobsworth to the core he declines. I scrawl my signature on his etch-a-sketch pad as he unceremoniously dumps the container into the hall and almost runs down my drive to his van. Closing the door I crouch down next to the box. Measuring around 20 inches square by about 10 deep I slide my fingers under the base to test the weight; heavy, but no more than I expect.
Can I move it? Desperate to view the contents I figure I can cradle it in my arms and carry it as far as my study without breaking my back. I stagger down the hall and with a twist of my hips whack open the unlatched door to my room and drop the box on my desk.
Straightening up I push my hands through my hair and sigh deeply. Inexplicably I feel nervous and agitated. I should be opening this alongside my assistant in the sterile environment of the lab at the museum. Not in my home, in my jim jams. Oh for gods sake, woman, open the box. I fumble around in the drawer for a pair of scissors and as I open them wide to score the parcel tape a gust of wind howls around the house. So sudden is the sound that I pause to listen. Glancing out the window I watch the leafless limbs of the silver birch bend in the wintery blast. I shiver and lay down the scissors. I decide to shower and dress.
Thirty minutes later, with the comforting banter from the radio, I enter my study once more. Leaving the door open to allow warm air to permeate the unusual chill of the room I resume the task of opening the box. The blade of the scissors cuts through the taped package with ease and I pull open the flaps of the crate. I push my hands into the dozens of Wotsit shaped polystyrene packing pieces and ease them, squeaking, out of the container onto the desk. Lifting a layer of paper dockets reveals corrugated card and acid free tissue. Beneath that there they are.
Two carved stone heads, excavated from a garden close toHadrian’s Wall. They are both quite weather worn, the one on the right in particular, but even so I see coils of hair or horn artfully etched into the sides of each head. Perhaps they represent Cernunnos, the Celtic hunting god. I can’t resist and I trace my fingers along the features. There is nothing unpleasant about the faces and yet they disturb me.
Without warning an appalling howl from the room above almost causes my bladder to release its contents. I grip my arms tightly about myself and stare at the ceiling. I am dimly aware that the radio has fallen silent. Leaving my study I proceed to climb the stairs fascinated by the fact that I can’t stop myself from doing so.
I walk along the landing and into the spare room from which I thought the scream had come from. Nobody is there.
The door slams shut behind me. I spin round letting out a stream of expletives and lunge for the door handle. There is no means of locking the door yet it holds fast. Horrifyingly I hear grunts and bovine like breathing coming from the other side. What the hell is in the house with me?
The door is released and I stagger backward. Recovering my balance I run out onto the landing and see a tall figure dark and indistinct making for the stairs. Bellowing like a beast it rushes down the stair case and vaults over the banisters. For all its size it lands in the corridor with a soft thud and turns down the hall to the kitchen. I almost slide off the treads as I race down after the creature listening to its claws clattering on the tiled floor. I am too terrified to venture any further and cling to the final stair post. All at once the radio bursts into life and I sense the intruder has fled.
The Celts believe that the severed heads of their enemies hold magical properties and bestow the same powers upon carved stone heads just like the ones sitting in my study. Perhaps their job was to act as guardians outside a shrine to some god long since abandoned and now departed.
I think not.