Paul Hodge is the author of Freaky Folk Tales, a blog featuring fictional and factual accounts of ghosts, revenants and possessed objects that have inhabited ancestral homes in the south of England. The stories are brought to life through atmospheric prose, beautiful photography and artwork inspired by the golden era of ghosts, the Victorian age.
What is the idea behind your blog Freaky Folk Tales?
Freaky Folk Tales is an anthology of tales of the macabre and supernatural, from the haunting of ancestral homes to the malignancy of inanimate objects. The tales typically begin in the archives, from the report of a well or lesser known haunting that took place in a southern English county, and from here somewhat two-dimensional characters from history are given personalities and placed upon a stage where they creep ineluctably towards something dark calling them from the shadows.
Why a blog, though?
Choosing a blog to profile my writing was an obvious choice because of the unrivalled exposure it offers up-and-coming authors. I believe strongly that writing should not be practised and performed in a vacuum; it’s important for an author to have some sort of dialogue with his or her readers. This is especially important in the genre of supernatural writing where anecdotal information coming back from a readership eager to share their tales of ghostly encounters can help to build a community of interest. It may even help to rejuvenate the powerful art of storytelling; I remember so vividly what it’s like to be scared by a story told around a campfire (or, in my case, a demolished factory on a London building site!)
Are there any places in Hampshire or neighbouring counties that feature in your writing?
Yes! I’ve been meaning to put together a map that pinpoints the locations of these stories because most stem from a visit to an actual town or village, church or stately home.
So, for Hampshire, there is The Box-room, a tale of terror set in Fair Oak, Walk with Me (to the estuary), a story of a death foretold that developed out of a winter evening stroll around Lepe Beach, and The Terror of Tichborne, that hopefully speaks for itself!
The first is a protrusion of timber thrusting upward from the mud, tailing off to a sharp point, shrouded in a mass of spidery sea-mist. The second, a corpulent slab of wood, only a boat distance from the first, but much larger and denser, and laid flat. He flips between the two, blinking, adjusting his vision, attempting to get the best view possible. But then something curious takes place. From behind the hulk of wood to the west, a tiny shape emerges. At first, it appears to be the edge of a small craft, but as its silhouette pulls away from the jutting timber it takes on human shape.
Walk With Me (To the estuary)
Dorset is another county rich in ghostlore. The Flames of Stalbridge Manor, John Daniels Returns and The Dark Conjurer of Batcombe are all set there. It’s also the setting for Return to Tyneham, a personal favourite of mine despite its long gestation!
The scraping ceased, and from above the pews, rose the figure of a man. He had his back partly towards me, but I could see he was holding a paper in his hand, which he appeared to compare with something on the ground, for he looked from one to the other several times. Then, with a gesture of anger, he crumpled the paper in his hand and turned, so that the rays of the moon fell full upon him. He was a big man, dressed in a sort of sleeve-waistcoat, knee-breeches, and what looked like worsted stockings and heavy boots. His eyes were sunken, and his face deathly pale. I could see his lips moving as though he was muttering to himself, but I couldn’t hear a sound. Then, he moved towards me, and I screamed with terror, for except that the eyes gleamed in their hollow sockets, his face was as the face of a corpse. Round his throat, exposed by the open shirt, were livid marks, such as once I saw on the throat of a convict, who hanged himself in his cell.
The Dark Conjurer of Batcombe
What are your most notable works?
The first is based on my interest in the Yew as a tree to be primarily admired but, secondly, to be slightly wary of.
Kingley Vale, north-west of Chichester is the largest yew woodland in Britain. One story concerning the ancient woodland has always fascinated me. It tells of Danish invaders who came to Sussex over a thousand years ago. They had travelled great distances to conquer the Saxon communities of south Britain but the locals had fought back, slaying some of the invaders in skirmishes amongst the yew trees near Bow Hill. Legend says that the four large barrows upon the hill, known as The Devil’s Humps, are the graves of the dead Vikings. In late summer evenings, when the blood-red sap of the yews spills onto the chalk hill it is said that their ghosts roam the dark and silent wood, tormented by defeat.
Inspired by several visits to this beautiful, but eerie, sanctuary, I wrote The Yews of Kingley Vale.
What is Return to Tyneham about?
Tyneham stands as a defining example of the term ‘ghost village’. It was once a quiet little place, nestled on the Dorset coast; a quintessential chocolate box scene of a church, a school house and tidy lines of cottages. However, in 1943, the residents of the village were asked to leave so that the army could use the area for training. At the time, the folk received a promise from the government that once the war had ended they would be allowed to return. Sadly this did not happen; the promise was never honoured. Years passed, and the villagers accepted, sometimes grudgingly but always with a sense of honour in sacrifice, that they would never return. After years of neglect the church and the school house have been restored and are now museums. The remaining buildings are derelict and have a distinct presence about them, serving as a reminder of the many home sacrifices that were made for the war effort.
Over the years, the plight of Tyneham has continued to touch me; and the more I investigated its history, the more I felt compelled to write about it. And so, using the writing genre I know best – the ghost story – I wrote Return to Tyneham and attempted to convey the sense of duty that comforted and supported these people in their valiant efforts to help Britain win the war.
It was these shapeless fragments of forgotten walls and buildings, as much bound together by the dark tangle of woodland that had encroached upon the settlement as destroyed by it, that had an unsettling effect upon Harry. Within this strange arrangement, there was something quite ghostly; and Harry knew, for all his mounting apprehension, that if anything stirred within its depths he would have to be very brave. And then, almost at the precise moment he had some hold of his composure, it had left him, replaced by a feeling of emptiness, and the sense of something approaching.
Return to Tyneham
How did your interest in the paranormal and the unexplained begin?
I am indebted to an unfettered childhood spent traipsing over fields and amongst ruins for providing a collection of vivid imagery that has fuelled my writing.
I grew up in London in the 1970s at a time when the city still retained the shells of crumbling post-war factories, littered with shadows of the past. Though pretty hazardous, they were my playground. This, together with Bunyan’s churches and graveyards, and the covered plague pits of Bunhill Row, was the catalyst for a life lived imagining what may lie beyond this earthly veil.
I spent my childhood reading HG Wells, Poe, Ray Bradbury and borrowed numerous tomes on ghostlore and legends from my local library. Though I found it easy to get vicarious thrills through the safe medium of fiction, I wanted to explore the places I had read about. And so I went exploring, typically on train journeys to the home counties. I even found myself organising trips to visit the remains of places such as Borley Rectory (yes, I was on a very long leash at 11 years of age — my, how things have changed!)
Is it just books that have influenced your work?
No, far from it, though books have been the primary influence. I am also indebted to my father for allowing me to watch such a rich diet of supernatural TV and film at a relatively young age (and fortunately I’m only ever so slightly unhinged because of it!) The 70s was a golden age for such themes of folk horror, stories of death foretold and children’s supernatural TV drama. So, in no particular order: Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (the Du Maurier book being wonderful too), The Woman in Black (1989 TV adaptation), The Signal Man (BBC TV adaptation), The Children of the Stones, Quatermass and the Pit and nearly all of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, including the deliciously chilling Whistle and I’ll Come To You.
What do you hope to achieve from your stories?
I just hope that through my writing I am able to spark an interest in these places, the sites that are off the beaten track yet tantalisingly close to our doorsteps. The world ‘appears’ to be a much more threatening place than it was when I was a child but what a redundant life it would be if we were to always tread so carefully that our knowledge became entirely dependent on the internet and second-hand sources of information. Not only do these fail in delivering the first-hand practical experience of actual physical encounter but they never tell us the whole story. For this, we need to venture forth, brave and dare I say it, slightly foolhardy, to gain such treasures of the imagination.
Why, specifically, ghost stories?
My partner often asks me why I write ghost stories — and why I don’t write wholesome stories for children! My answer is simple: there is more horror in our local communities, on every street corner, than there is a single macabre tale. Tales of nefarious deeds and the supernatural are often vehicles for exploring human frailty; in telling them, we may help society to debate and unravel the age-old moralistic dilemmas we as humans are constantly trying to understand and define.
What are some of your favourite ghost stories?
Oh, anything by MR James of course! But beyond Monty’s seminal tales, I have always been a big fan of gothic writing of the 19th and early 20th century , particularly the supernatural stories written by women writers who were highly prolific in the ghost story genre during Victorian and Edwardian times. In my opinion there’s no one better at telling a tale of flesh-creeping terror than Edith Nesbit, primarily associated with fantasy novels for children, but not at all well known today as a Gothic writer. What I love about Nesbit is that she not only places emphasis on the impact that unexplained phenomena have upon her characters but, most importantly, she presents the terrifying experience as a means of unravelling whatever it is that lies within the core of relationships. Again, the ghost story used a vehicle for dealing with the foibles of what makes humans human!
Do you believe in ghosts?
I was wondering when you were going to ask that!
Well, in a short answer, yes, but I think I’ll ask one of my characters to elaborate on my behalf:
“It appears to me that it is entirely possible that a spiritual or unearthly shape, a spectral simulacrum, a belated reflection of life, is capable of subsisting for some period, of releasing itself from the body, or surviving it, of traversing vast distances in the twinkling of an eye, of manifesting in solid form to the living and, sometimes, of communicating with them. There is no earthly use trying to banish or exorcise them by such a simple thing as disbelief in them. I say that it is entirely the prerogative of the spirit, or for those who make use of its name first to prove that it exists. In this sense, I very much welcome their manifestations!”
Have you had an experience that could not be explained?
No, but a number of people who I hold in the highest regard have told me tales that have chilled my spine.
One in particular was told by my ex-father-in-law, a well respected Medical officer for the county of Gwent. One Christmas Eve, several years ago, he had gathered with friends at his home in Cardiff to celebrate. After a few light drinks, the host, Mr H, bid goodbye to one of his medical team who had to return home, a journey of several miles out of the city. It was a particularly cold and icy night, and he reminded the young fellow to drive carefully considering the inclement conditions. It was no more than half an hour after he had left when Mr H and his wife heard an almighty crash from an upstairs bedroom. When they entered the room to check what had made such a commotion they found that an ornament of significant size and weight had shattered into pieces. Nothing had fallen upon it; neither was there anything or anyone around at the time to topple it from its base. For some reason unexplained it had simply splintered into fragments.
Later that night, Mr H received a distressing telephone phone call from the police. It appeared that shortly after the young medical chap had left their home, he had encountered a patch of ice just before crossing a bridge, skidded uncontrollably and ended up driving off the road and into the river, where he had little chance of survival.
Well you guess how upset Mr H and his wife were. It wasn’t until they had gotten over their initial shock, however, when their thoughts turned to the figurine that had broken into bits. Their conclusions were cold and unsettling. You see, they realised that not only had the ornament been given to them as a gift by their medical friend, the one who had been killed, but it was likely that the figure had smashed into pieces at almost exactly the time when the unfortunate chap had entered the river and drowned.
What scares you?
When I was a child, I had several terribly upsetting recurring dreams. One, involved my parents and myself sitting in our living room. In this particular dream, I would be sitting on a chair opposite my mother and father, terrified, waiting for the inevitable knocking on the living room to take place. When it came, I would plead with my father not to answer it, but, as is the futility of attempting to divert a dream, he always would. On seeing him about to turn the handle to open the door, I would run back to the sofa and curl up in a ball, gazing out from a gap between my fingers. As always, a man and a woman would step in, the living duplicates of my parents, their hands held aloft, their thumbs parted and tips joined, as if to strangle; then, they would make their way towards their intended victims with slow exaggerated steps. It was at this point the dream would conclude with my screaming – something that transferred itself beyond mere dream – and a pleading for my parents to run. But they never did. And every time I knew that they were to be replaced.
Which is the most memorable place you have investigated? Why?
That would be Balcombe Viaduct which crosses the Ouse Valley in West Sussex. The railway itself is an engineering marvel, with its long turreted tunnels and huge, red-bricked viaducts that took three years to build. But for every such project of its day, there was a cost in human lives as well as financial. It took over three thousand men to build the railway, the workers equipped with little more than gunpowder, picks and shovels. For a construction project of this size, accidents would have been a fairly regular occurrence; if a tunnel or bank were to collapse, the consequences would be extremely grim.
And where there is toil, hardship and tragedy, the ghosts of men are sure to follow.
These ghosts are explored in my short story, The Viaduct.
Peter took an anxious gulp of air and reluctantly joined the march towards the viaduct. There was something about the structure that made him feel quite uncomfortable. As he walked, the sensation grew more intense until halfway across the field he stopped suddenly and shivered; for he had a distinct feeling that someone was watching. Drawing closer, he was certain that whatever hid amongst the shadows of the viaduct wasn’t at all friendly.
What are you working on now?
Three things. The first is a story provisionally titled The Ghost Bureau. It’s based on research I’ve completed on the life of William T. Stead, an English newspaper editor who claimed to be in receipt of messages from the spirit world. In 1909, he established Julia’s Bureau where inquirers could obtain information about the spirit world from a group of resident mediums. The story is about one of the many people he employed to document these manifestations – his private secretaries to the dead.
The second does not yet have a title but it involves one of my favourite themes: the malignancy of inanimate objects. It’s the story of a Hampshire watermill, built from the timbers of an 18th century American warship, that’s host to several unbidden guests.
The third, Rise of the Dolmen, is something completely different. It’s a little reminiscent of the 1970s TV series, Children of the Stones and book by Jeremy Burnham. In a nutshell, it’s the tale of a Victorian farmer who disturbs fragments of a megalithic tomb and revives an ancient curse!
Do you have any published stories?
I’m excited to announce that my first collection of stories, Ghosts, revenants and other unbidden guests; The First Volume of supernatural stories from the pages of Freaky Folk Tales will be published in November/December and will be available to purchase in Kindle ebook, Paperback and Hardback from Amazon.
Four of my short stories are currently available in published form:
The Yews of Kingley Vale was published in ‘Few Words’ magazine in 2012.
If readers want to find out more about you and your works, where can they go?
They should visit the Freaky Folk Tales blog
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