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Maps of the Lost episode 15
from a little house high in the hills
stay out of sight
On a particular day you might wake to feel something in the air, as if a storm is coming, and feel a strong sense of unease. Listen to your instincts. Stay at home. Keep your curtains drawn. By the next day, the feeling will have disappeared and all will be well.
If you ignore what the old, old part of your brain knows but you don’t, and you go out, watch for the clouds. Even if it was a clear day, they’ll gather and build in the sky. You still have time to go back in, and to draw the curtains.
If you don’t, before very much time passes one of the clouds will shift and swirl and form into the shape of an eye.
And then it will look down on you, and you will be seen. Once seen, you will never been unseen, and the things that the eye sends to find you will find you, no matter how far you run.
Notes From The Cartographer
The year is dying, and it is not before time. 2021 has been a long and troubled year, and it will be good to see the back of it. Apologies that it has been a while since the last of these emails, but things have been happening. While calling anything a resolution at this time of year dooms it to failure, let’s just say I have an aspiration to get back to roughly monthly for 2022. Let’s see.
We’ve not long passed the shortest day here, and the mornings stay dark so long and the dusk steals in so early, and in my part of the UK it’s been mostly oppressive and low grey skies in between, so it feels like a good time to slide back into the strange and the spooky. I hope many of you have been able to spend some of this holiday season watching or reading or listening to something that leaves you a little uneasy, jumping at noises in the night or wondering what that shadow was that just…moved.
The BBC’s adaptation of another M.R. James classic, The Mezzotint, as part of their Christmas Ghost Stories caused quite the stir on Jamesian Facebook groups and on Twitter.
I thought it was quite good, though I’d have preferred the ending to cut to credits a few seconds sooner (no spoilers, but if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean). I’m sure that if the original adaptations were broadcast as new now there would be much criticism (those kids in Lost Hearts with painted faces? Pleeeeease. The spider-babies in The Ash Tree? Tacky. And so on), as there’s a certain amount of viewing the past through rose-tinted haunted binoculars going on. Anyway. The BBC are still making ghost stories. For that alone, we should be thankful. And the old ones still delight too.
Here’s to a better 2022 for all of us. Now, on with some weirdness.
You may be out walking in the Cheviots, and find the weather closing in. No matter how sensible your footwear, and how good your navigation skills, you will lose the path and your way, and your compass just spins in lazy, drunken circles. You’re cold and you’re wet and you’re tired, and the fog steals in on you and you lose all sense of direction.
Then you see it: a faint yellow light ahead, up on the side of a hill where no light should be. You head for it, over boggy ground that tries to pull your feet into the earth, and out of the fog you see faint outlines and as you get closer the outlines make shapes and then then shapes make a small, stone bothy. Grateful for its shelter and the promise of that warm yellow light, you push your way through the heavy wooden door.
A fire crackles and you feel its welcome heat on your cold face, and flickering candles make everything look golden and comforting. Two older men dressed in outdoors gear sit on either side of a rough table, playing a complicated game of cards. They welcome you with kind smiles, and pour you a drink of tea from a flask, and you exchange pleasantries about the weather and how it is not to be trusted at any time of year. You join them at the table, and drink your tea, and after a while they cut you into the card game and teach you how it is played. They have broken a chocolate bar into tiny pieces, and slide a third of them your way so you can bet on each hand too.
The two men become more and more intent on the game, wincing when they lose a hand and grinning wild grins when they win one, and you are glad that the only stakes are chocolate, not money, because your little pile is dwindling.
But, alas, that is not the game. You lost the game the moment you walked in to the bothy that appears on no maps and will not be there when the fog lifts. The two men are playing for your soul, and the only matter left to be decided is who gets to eat it.
you are seen
It’s a long time since you’ve been in a church, as you drifted away from your parent’s faith in your teens and never came back. Every now and then though, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might walk in to one. Nothing modern, and not while a mass or service is going on. But if it’s a church hundreds of years old, and if it’s empty or nearly empty, you find a certain kind of peace there that you don’t do anywhere else.
That’s why you find yourself in one this day. You had some time, and it was there, and besides the soft drizzle was starting to turn into harder rain. So you pull on the heavy wooden door and find that it opens (so many have to be locked, these days), and you step into that familiar smell of old stone and furniture polish and incense. It’s almost empty - a woman is polishing a railing down near the altar, looks across at you and gives you a friendly nod but then returns to her work.
You admire the high-vaulted ceiling, and the feeling of space and tranquility it brings. The muted colours of the stained glass window behind the altar, that you know will spring into life when the sun shines upon it. A bas-relief sculpture of an angel’s head up on one wall, looking out over the nave with a kind of sorrowful contemplation. The wood of the pews, polished not just by those who look after the place, but by decades - centuries even - of those who have sat in them.
The woman who was busy at her work collects a yellow bucket and drops her cloth in it and disappears through a side door. The rain gently hisses on the roof and the windows. You take a long breath, centring yourself, enjoying the stillness, and then the angel up above you on the wall moves, head turning to look down on you, still with that deep sorrowful contemplation. There’s no trick of the light, no fugue of the senses, you know that it moved, to look at you. Then it looks back, out over the church, and the woman bustles back in with a companion, carrying her bucket, and the atmosphere changes and you know what you saw, and will always remember what you saw, but will never be able to quite decide what it meant, and will never see anything like it again.
Maps Traced By Other Hands
The BBC have decided that the weird and the spooky gets listeners, and released a podcast series called The Uncanny presented by Danny Robins, which has grown a community of listeners who listen along live on Twitter or comment between episodes. This follows the success of Robins' 'The Battersea Poltergeist' (podcast link), which combined narration, interview and drama reconstruction to explore one of the UK's best known poltergeist cases and became the number one drama on Apple podcasts.
The Battersea Poltergeist told the story of a twelve-year long haunting which saw the BBC try and contact the noisy spirit live on air, and the Home Secretary discuss the case in the House of Commons.
The show combined interviews with the surviving witnesses including Shirley Hitchings, now 80 year-old but then the teenage girl at the heart of the case, discussion with various experts and commentators, Robins' usual breathless but engaging narration and lots of dramatised reconstructions of events with a cast that included the wonderful Toby Jones and Dafne Keen.
The Uncanny drops the dramatised elements of the Battersea Poltergeist and covers a number of different cases (though two cases each get revisited in a second episode) which branch out from just hauntings . The first episode, about strange goings on in a student accommodation block in Belfast, and provoked a flurry of former students and staff getting in touch to share their own experiences, some of which are in the follow-up.
The most recent episode features a strange encounter in an abandoned cottage in the Scottish Highlands used as a bothy by Scottish climbers, and what happens when one returns after a terrifying night spent there. In between, the series explores UFO sightings and strange abandoned bodies [1,2] in Todmorden in Yorkshire, a polt in Brooklyn, whether an angel unlocked a door to save a life, and more.
Robins' love of the supernatural in his work goes beyond audio: his play '2:22: A Ghost Story' is currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre in London, and has received positive reviews. He didn't start with the Battersea Poltergeist though - you can also listen to his earlier series 'Haunted' produced by Panoply.
For all of it: lights low, headphones on, enjoy, and that's probably just a floorboard creaking, don't worry about it.
The Ooser Speaks
(taken from the wonderful Readers Digest 'Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain')
A cave below Topley Pike in Derbyshire was once the home of a tiny elf or hob. The occupant was the guardian of a nearby spring, the water from which could cure every disease if drunk on Good Friday.
Once, a farmer walking home caught the hob and put it in his sack. It shrieked so piteously he let it go, and it ran back to its cave.
The cave is called Thirst House, a shortened version of ‘Hob o’ the Hurst’s House’, hurst of course being a word for a wooded place.
save the birds
There’s a particular glade hidden away in the Warwickshire woods, which is a delightful place to spend a little time. The oppressive crowd of trees opens up and the sun filters down through the leaves to make the forest floor shine gold, and oh, the birds! You have never heard such a chorus of song, such a joyous outpouring of music
It has been a hard year for the forest. The roots of the great trees were beginning to wither and curl, and the birds had lost so many of their nestmates. But now they sing their little hearts out in joy, they sing for themselves and the bracken, and the bees and the trees, because in walking into the glade you have offered yourself up and their dark year will be over.
Now, what’s that crashing through the undergrowth? As it draws nearer to you, the birds sing louder and louder with joy.
you have voicemail
You might receive a voicemail on your mobile phone from an unknown number. When you listen to it, rolling your eyes at the expected spam of someone asking if you have been in an accident that was not your fault or that your computer is showing hacking activity or that you have not paid your taxes but can resolve this in iTunes vouchers, you will be surprised.
The message that has been left is none of the above. You hear a faint hissing and sighing, like a very distant sea breaking on a very distant beach. Below that, so far below you are not sure whether you can hear it or not, is a deep bass hum, right at the edge of hearing.
You listen for a moment, because there is something about the sound you find compelling, then you decide it must be a glitch, a call that wasn’t connected properly and hang up.
The voicemail wasn’t meant for you, and arrived at your phone by accident, and wasn’t really a voicemail as your mobile operator would have found no trace of a call or a message, had they looked. The person it was meant for would have known what you didn’t, that what you could hear was the sound of the universe itself and that if you listened to it for long enough you might have started to realise some of the things that that sound can tell you.
Beyond This Point There May Be Dragons
You’ve been reading Maps of the Lost. Or have you? It’s hard to tell. Maybe this is all just a dream. Or a prophecy, or a forewarning. I hope you enjoyed it. Feedback is always welcome, as I’d really like to shape this newsletter to be what you’d like to read and hear. So, ideas, suggestions and comments welcome. You can just reply to this email if you like.
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Bothy photo courtesy of Nic Bullivant.
Thanks for reading, and watch for shapes in the clouds.