This Halloween, Writers’ Centre Norwich is excited to host an evening of strange and ghostly tales based in East Anglia – an area steeped in myth, folklore and eerie goings-on. The event marks the launch of Wayne Adrian Drew’s major anthology, Shadow of the Fens, which celebrates the work of M.R James, his contemporaries, and present day writers who are continuing in the tradition of supernatural fiction. Read an extract from the introduction to Shadow of the Fens below, and perhaps plan your own visit to the sinister sites that are mentioned!
From the misty fenlands, to the rugged, tide-lashed coast, it comes as no surprise that, over centuries, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and that wild country to the west as far as Peterborough, have inspired so many writers to produce their tales of terror. For the ghost story is central to this far off corner of England, rich in its folklore, myth and remembered grim events. Here witchcraft, occult practices and traditions, quaint, strange and sometimes most obscure, survive right to the present day, in isolated villages far removed from city life – rich remnants of a rural legacy some may challenge, others mock or even fear, but many prize and celebrate as well.
For natives, such as me, the cry of Old Black Shuck, the “devil dog” will always echo on the wind. He’s part of our romantic heritage – but woe betide the poor soul who meets him on a stormy autumn night! More darker still, the vile crimes of Matthew Hopkins – known as the Witchfinder General – are not forgotten either. They resonate in those places where he undertook his cruel trade. The scent of smoke from off his burning pyres lingers even now, upon the evening breeze – as does the creak of swinging gallows’ ropes, and cries of dark plumed crows that feasted on his victims hanging there.
the spectral and macabre have always played a central part in this area’s dark folk culture
At the stately halls of Blickling, Rainham, Felbrigg, and great Oxburgh, it’s claimed ghosts walk not only at the midnight hour, but also in the midday sun. For, just in Norfolk alone, there exist almost two hundred sites where things claimed paranormal, or unexplained at least, took place. As for the adjoining counties? The list is endless and the events there equally bizarre and terrifying.
So, as the spectral and macabre have always played a central part in this area’s dark folk culture, it’s hardly a coincidence that they emerge in its literature as well. For exist or not, these phantoms evidently fulfill some deeply-rooted human need and tales of their horrifying deeds plainly fascinate as much today as they always did.
The locations of many of these haunted tales can be discovered with some diligent research and all may be visited by the curious and brave. M.R. James’ Fenstanton – from his unfinished story The Fenstanton Witch – is a real village, but very different now to that of the author’s day, let alone the period in which his tale is set. Seaburgh is unquestionably Aldeburgh, in his Warning to the Curious, and Burnstow, in O Whistle And I’ll Come to You, is Felixstowe. Though as time has considerably changed these actual places, they have no longer proven conducive to producers adapting James’ stories for film or television, and more atmospheric sites have understandably won out.
E. F. Benson, in The Face, may have had that most evocative of villages, Dunwich in mind for the fearful conclusion of his story, but the shack, still visible on Blakeney Spit, is certainly the site of The Tale of the Empty House. The Blakeney Hotel, where Benson took refuge during a torrential thunderstorm recounted in the story, still looks out from its prime spot on the old quay onto the endless marshes and the grim old house itself standing ominously, next land, sea and sky, on its far distant promontory.
where truth begins and folklore ends is not easy to unravel in the Eastern Counties
Blakeney Spit is also Stivinghoe Bank, in R. H. Malden’s memorable tale. For those with energy enough, a demanding two hour each-way trek, along its pebble path, next to shallow hummocks (that in summer are rich with multi coloured sea blooms but in winter forbidding, harsh and bleak) will take you to Benson’s empty house itself!
Witches at Hallowe’en, from W. H. Barrett’s delightfully anecdotal, Tales from the Fens, is a true account of an autumn evening spent at a very real Welney, when the narrator’s fearful belief in local myths and legends suddenly materialise in a decidedly unexpected way! While at Bungay, much further to the south, Black Shuck appears again, in Abraham Fleming’s authoritative and seemingly authenticated, A Strange and Terrible Wunder. The included text of his pamphlet, written in 1577, provides a frighteningly ‘true’ account of the demon dog’s misdeeds (and is one of the sources of Hound of the Baskervilles, that Conan Doyle reportedly began while staying at a hotel in Cromer.) Could such an event really have taken place? And if not, what accounts for the great deep claw marks that remain to this day on the door of Bungay church?
For where truth begins and folklore ends is not easy to unravel in the Eastern Counties – and with that rests their profound mystery and enduring fascination, I am sure. Something I have tried, in some small way, to capture in this little book.
So, as the nights draw in, the wind rattles the casement windows, shadows flicker and autumn’s withered leaves flurry before the late October moon, why not settle down, next to a blazing fire of apple-wood, and sample this selection of strange and ghostly tales I’ve here compiled for you? You won’t be disappointed by them I am sure. More likely chilled perhaps…Chilled to your very bone…
Wayne Adrian Drew.
Shadow on the Fens
A major anthology of new and classic supernatural tales set in mysterious East Anglia – to be published in October 2016 as a limited edition hardback from IndieBooks. Shadows on the Fens is an anthology of new and classic ghostly tales set in East Anglia, that celebrates the work of M.R James, his contemporaries, and present day writers who are continuing in the tradition of such masters of supernatural fiction. It is edited by playwright Adrian Drew, the author of The Laws of Shadows – the critically acclaimed play about M.R. James that recently showcased to great success in London. Website