Wayne Adrian Drew, the author, theatre producer and playwright, joined us at Writers’ Centre Norwich for a reading from his new collection of ghostly tales, Shadow on the Fens, and to discuss his upcoming Halloween Event at Dragon Hall.
Tell us about the cast of characters you’ve prepared for the evening.
Actor Richard Holliss, will be in the role of M.R.James, our host. Richard has been the lead in many plays and has recorded extensively for the BBC, Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers too. Infact, he acted the role of M.R.James for me in The Laws of Shadows, my play about a tragic relationship he had when he was at Kings College, in Cambridge at the end of the 19th Century. And it’s a play I would truly like to see staged up here in Norfolk – as it has clear local resonance. So local theatre groups do get in touch!
With Richard, we also have the author Piers Warren – who was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards some years ago – and those great local actors Robin Watson and Susan Seddon. Together they will be reading five stories from the book itself. These range from the latest exploits of Black Shuck, to tales of witchcraft, the undead and those horrific Lantern Men who it’s claimed still roam the Fens – even today.
The evening will have suitable lighting and rather eerie special effects – and it’s decidedly one for adult audiences only. It starts at 7.30pm and the entry price includes a glass of something special. I really look forward to meeting the audience – and signing a book or two, if anyone would like. And they’ll be at a special reduced price for audience members only.
So how did the book come about?
I’ve been a collector of ghost stories for many years and began work on Shadows on the Fens at Halloween in 2013. Our cottage, in the heart of the Norfolk countryside, dates back 600 years. Indeed the cottage’s footprint is over 1000 years old. And it’s on a track that leads to a recently unearthed Saxon burial ground. A coffin road it’s called, where the bodies were carried. So it was an excellent setting to work on the project!
Literally, in front of blazing inglenook, I ploughed through a massive selection of rare ghost stories by the great authors of the past and selected 17 of those – as well as choosing four new stories too, for this limited edition hardback that IndieBooks asked me to create.
How did you choose which stories to include?
I wanted a selection of the finest supernatural literature this region has inspired from the earliest times – right up to the present day. The oldest tale is by Abraham Fleming. It’s from his 1577 pamphlet, A Strange and Terrible Wunder, where he wrote about Black Shuck – the devil dog – on an evil rampage in Bungay church!
Then, after starting in the 16th Century, the stories continue right up to the present day. Indeed the three new tales I’ve chosen, were written just last year.
And, ironically, the one by Piers Warren is about Black Shuck too. So ‘The Hound from Hell’ bookends the collection! Shuck – as I’m sure you know – is one of the sources of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. And he’s said to have begun writing it when on holiday in Cromer.
Judging from your introduction to the book a great many chilling stories appear to be set in the Eastern Counties. Why do you think that is?
I suppose it’s because in the 19th century the region was quite isolated. And of course it is a very atmospheric part of the country too. We have the misty fenlands, a rugged tide-lashed coast, ancient towns and cities, and the broads too, which in the autumn can seem a very mysterious place indeed. Try boating in the twilight and you’ll understand what I mean!
The stately halls of Blickling, Rainham, Felbrigg, and Oxburgh, all have their ghosts
Then there are the region’s myths and strange tales and its numerous hauntings too?
The stately halls of Blickling, Rainham, Felbrigg, and Oxburgh, all have their ghosts. In Norfolk alone, there are over two hundred sites where it’s claimed paranormal events have taken place. And if you add to this Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and the country to the west – as far as Peterborough – then the list of hauntings becomes endless. Although the book is not about them, it’s a collection of purely fictional tales of frightful happenings.
I suppose the region’s history must have played its part in influencing the writers though. Especially the unsavory bits!
East Anglia has a truly dark history. With more than its share of witchcraft, black magic and occult practices too. Just look at the horrifying exploits of Mathew Hopkins – the Witchfinder General. His mission was to find by fair means –and mostly foul – as many women accused of black magic as he could, and then to torture and hang them! Echoes of such events have effected the psyche of visiting writers without a doubt. They certainly did me.
So it’s really not surprising that so many stories are set here?
In my book I’ve brought together a broad selection of some of the most powerful that were inspired by the region. I had to include the great Montague Rhodes James, of course, who for many years was Provost of Kings College in Cambridge and who is arguably the finest ghost story writer this country has ever produced. He was responsible for three classic collections of spooky tales of which his volume Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is the most famous. I’ve included three of his greatest stories in my book.
But alongside such towering figures as James and E.F. Benson, I’ve included many lesser known, but rather wonderful, authors from the past. Their work is mostly out of print, but even when any rare editions can be found, they may fetch prices difficult to believe. A first edition of M.R. James, for example, can fetch three, or even four thousand pounds.
In the introduction to the book you’ve also made clear the locations of many of the stories, in case readers wish to do their own East Anglian ghost tour?
The Everlasting Club by Arthur Gray, takes place at Jesus College in Cambridge. It’s set in a haunted chamber near a staircase with the idiosyncratic name of ‘Cow Lane.’ But believe me, what goes on there is no joke! While Fenstanton, just to the North of Cambridge, is where M.R. James’ story The Fenstanton Witch is set. It’s about two students, who fall foul of something decidedly nasty.
Seaburgh, in A Warning to the Curious, is Aldeburgh and Burnstow, in O Whistle And I’ll Come to You, is Felixstowe. E. F. Benson’s The Face is actually set in one of Suffolk’s most evocative of sites – Dunwich – although pretending to be somewhere else. You know the spot I’m sure. It’s where an entire village was lost beneath the sea.
East Anglia has a truly dark history
There are several set in Norfolk too?
In E. F. Benson’s story The Tale of the Empty House, he’s clearly referring to the shack, still visible, on Blakeney Spit. You see, when he was on holiday, he took refuge at The Blakeney Hotel during a torrential thunderstorm and from there, if you look out onto the marshes, you can see the grim old house still standing ominously on the far distant promontory. And for those with energy enough – it’s a two hour trek each way along the pebble banks – you can actually reach the house itself from Salthouse.
In the autumn that can be a particularly eerie thing to do, believe me. With the wind howling and the sea lashing beside you –your really have to keep your imagination in check or you could frighten yourself to death!
We had a competition to find a writer who was continuing the ghost story tradition and Piers Warren, the winner, used that precise location of Blakeney Spit in his tale.
That whole coastal area seems very popular with many great ghost story writers.
The story Lot 62 by Noel Boston – the distinguished father of my local vicar – is about a mansion near Blakeney too. Most probably Wiveton Hall.
Then further along the sea road to the east, in R. H. Wakefield’s tale The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster, he must surely be referring to the large golf course close to Sheringham. But just be warned,if you are playing there – it really is a good idea to avoid that seventeenth green. Avoid it like the plague.
You’ve also mentioned, in your introduction, several of the local locations where TV ghost stories were filmed?
The golf course I mentioned is right next to The Poppy Line that runs from Weybourne to Holt. And that, and its sister line The Walsingham and Wells Light Railway, have been used in several television adaptations of some of the stories I’ve included in the book.
In Jonathan Miller’s classic version of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, one of those trains brought actor Michael Horden to the seaside resort where his character met a very nasty fate.
At Wells Next the Sea, the BBC filmed A Warning to the Curious, the famous installment of the much missed series A Ghost Story at Christmas. With the horrifying climax taking place in the sand dunes near Holkham beach.
One of the stories in the anthology is set on the Norfolk Broads too, I see?
Well, I’ve included a chapter from Wraiths and Changelings, Gladys Mitchell’s rare story of ghost hunting and murder on the Broads. At a Halloween party, an intrepid gang of ghost hunters decide to visit all the supposedly haunted broadland sites, and they certainly get more than they bargained for!
if you want something to truly chill the blood, take a look at the Lantern Men
And, of course, The Fens themselves are at the heart of the book.
We have Celia Dales’ wonderful tale Hetty Pegler’s Christmas which takes place in her rush-lit cottage on the edge of the marsh. There’s Witches at Hallowe’en, by W. H. Barrett, too. That’s the only piece of non-fiction in the collection. It’s the true account of an autumn evening spent in Welney, when the narrator’s belief in local myths and legends suddenly materialises in a decidedly comic way!
But not all the stories are so amusing?
Far from it! That’s the only laugh I the book! The horrific happenings in R.H. Malden’s Between Sunset and Moonrise (one of my favourite tales, occuring ‘off a drove’ near the village of Yaxholme). That tale is a real shocker!
And if you want something to truly chill the blood, take a look at the Lantern Men, James Humphrey’s new tale. They inhabit a desolate spot between Wisbech and Cambridge and you most definitely don’t want to meet any of them on a dark October night! James was born in that area and is now a successful novelist who runs a communications agency in London, and he’ll be with us for the readings
You’ve also included one of your own stories?
Shadows on the Fens, my title story, takes place on a very bleak New Year’s Eve somewhere between Revesby and Boston. It’s about a very ordinary man who I’ve described as “someone who passes by unnoticed.” His wife has recently died and he’s travelling to stay with a distant relative in Lincolnshire, but gets lost in one of the most desolate parts of the Fens in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. Then his car breaks down and he’s forced, at midnight, to walk to what he hopes will be safety. For in the distance he hears a church bell tolling. But it’s tolling rather strangely….and you’ll have to come to Dragon Hall on Halloween to find out what happens next!
What’s next for you after The Shadow of the Fens and this Halloween event?
I’ve just finished my first novel, which is called The Armageddon Stones. It’s a science fiction horror story which is set partially in the middle of the fens and partially on Dartmoor. It pays homage to the great science fiction writer Nigel Kneal.
I’ve also got three new plays which are in the middle of being produced.On the 11 November we have the showcase of The Blaze of Noon, my play about Dante and Milton. I’m working with a young actor in Norwich on a new play about Aubrey Beardsley, the artist. And I’ve just finished, literally two days ago, a new – well, it’s a bit of a shocker – it’s called Autumn of Blood and it’s a precursor to Jack the Ripper. I know we’ve had lots of Jack the Ripper stories, but you’ve never had one like this!