Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past

Henry Wowler always liked a certain midwinter day when his Oomans fed him turkey, and treats, and gave him a fresh catnip mouse. But he preferred a day which came round a couple of weeks beforehand – a rare day when he could go UP. UP was Henry’s Most Special Place, right at the top of the house, under the roof. The Oomans worked in there sometimes, making it into a store for things they seldom needed but wanted to keep, like Christmas decorations. So they’d given UP a boarded floor covered with worn rugs and odd scraps of carpet, shelves along its sloping sides packed with boxes, books, games and old toys, and piled a great assortment of stuff, from electric drills to Henry’s outgrown cat-basket, on the floor underneath.

To Henry Wowler, UP was a magical kingdom, dark and mysterious despite its skylight window, full of hidden corners where mice might someday nest. Going UP to check for them was a rare treat which only happened when the Oomans decided to go UP themselves. And it was special because he’d made a nice comfy den there so secret that they could never find it, no matter how hard they looked. And so on a certain morning in early December he was excited to hear the tell-tale click of the loft-hatch being opened, a boinging of springs as the ladder unfolded, a creaking of rungs, then the sound of Ooman footsteps crossing the ceiling overhead.

Henry jumped down off the bed and went to watch from the doorway as his She-Ooman backed carefully down the ladder holding a box labelled CHRISTMAS, a string of fairy-lights round her neck and a roll of wrapping paper clamped under her chin. Then he darted past and quickly climbed the ladder.

“Oh no! Don’t do that, Henry Wowler! Oh, you bad cat!” She cried, putting down her load. Then, sighing, She followed him into the loft. Naughtily, Henry hid in the shadows while his Ooman dropped a giant carrier bag of gift-bags down the ladder, hung a sparkly bunch of tinsel over one arm, and collected a last box of trimmings. Then She called, “Henry Wowler? Come on down, there’s a good boy. It’s freezing up here.”

Snug in his thick furry coat, Henry Wowler didn’t care; and determined to stay and carry out his full mouse patrol, he crept behind the chimney-stack into the dark narrow gap beneath the eaves, hidden from view by a rolled-up mattress, and wriggled into the den he’d hollowed out in a heap of paint-spotted dust-sheets. His Ooman poked around uselessly, calling, pleading, growing impatient then angry. Then She stomped down the ladder, cursing Henry for making her leave the hatch open on such a cold day.

Meanwhile he set off happily to inspect UP’s every long-neglected nook and cranny. As usual, he didn’t find any mice; but he did find a big black hairy spider, which ran away when he poked it with his paw. Henry chased it out of the darkness and across the floor, swiping madly with his forepaw as it scurried up some bulky object draped in a dirty old sheet. His claws caught that instead of the spider, and dragged it down to reveal an ugly old mirror leaning against a stack of picture frames. It had a heavy dark frame, carved to look like twisted rope and dotted with woodworm holes, and dull, tarnished glass with big brown freckles where the silver had flaked off. Still, through a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, Henry could make out a dim, ghostly reflection.

“Hello?” he said, putting his face close to the glass, trying to see better. “MC? Is that you- achoo!” The dust, tickling his nose, made him sneeze violently, three, four times; and when Henry looked again, he saw he’d blown clear a circle just the right size for the Mirror-cat to peep through.

“Henry Wowler! How fortuitous!” MC exclaimed happily. “Do come over, my dear fellow. You’re arrived in the very nick of time.”

Henry frowned. “Nick of time for what?”

“No time to explain. Suffice to say you’ll enjoy it.”

The Mirror-cat didn’t sound quite like his normal self, thought Henry Wowler, more like a character from the old talking book his Oomans always listened to at Christmas. Feeling very curious, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pressed slowly through to the Other Side. He immediately bumped into something warm and soft. “I beg your pardon, Henry Wowler,” it said, “but I felt obliged to stop you lest you step off the plank. For I fear the plaster would not bear your weight, and I should hate to see you fall through the ceiling.”

“Oh, er – thanks.” Henry opened his eyes and gazed round an UP very different to his own. Overhead, instead of neat white insulation boards there were only bare roof slates, with chinks of daylight showing and a cold wind whistling through. Underfoot were only bare wooden joists with strips of black sooty plaster in between, and several rough planks laid over them beside the hatchway. And this UP was completely empty but for cobwebs, wasps’ nests, and a few pieces of junk piled on its bit of makeshift floor – including the mirror, leaning against a wooden crate with a cat-shaped patch of dust missing from its surface.

“Brr.” Henry shivered. A cloud rose from his fur. “Achoo!” He shook himself to get rid of the rest, and sneezed again. “Achoo! Well, I’m not enjoying it so far. Please can we go somewhere else?”

“Yes, indeed,” said MC. “Permit me to conduct you to the parlour. You’ll find it far more agreeable – besides, our presence will be required there very shortly.”

He disappeared through a simple square hole with no trapdoor to close it, and bounced nimbly down a ladder; not a fixed, sturdy ladder like the one Henry was used to, with broad flat rungs and a thick carpet underneath to cushion his landing, but an ordinary stepladder propped on the hatch frame and standing on bare wooden floorboards. In fact the whole room below was very bare, Henry saw, peering nervously down. No carpet, no curtains, no paper on the cracked plaster walls. No cosy radiator, just a little black grate that didn’t look as if it had held a fire in years. No light fittings, even; and nothing in it but dusty suitcases, hat boxes, leather-bound trunks, and baskets and bags of every size and type stacked around the walls – and the Mirror-cat, of course, waiting expectantly.

Henry put a careful paw on the ladder. It wobbled. He gulped. Then gathering all his courage, he skittered down the first three rungs, took a flying leap from the fourth, and landed with a resounding thud on the hard floor.

Downstairs, a door opened. “Marmaduke?” a voice cried. “Master Carrot, is that you? Come here at once, you wicked cat!”

Marmaduke Carrot?” Henry tried not to laugh. “Seriously? Is that what MC really stands for?”

MC nodded. “It does here. Yes, indeed, Marmaduke Carrot, companion and assistant to the Widow Carrot – she’s a medium, you know – and honoured to be at your service, Master Wowler.” He bowed his head politely. “Now we really must go, or we’ll be late.”

Henry followed him out of the lumber-room onto a dark, gloomy landing with sludgy green walls, dark brown woodwork, and waxed floorboards with a strip of dull red carpet running down the middle and on down the stairs, fixed to each one by a shiny brass rod. At the foot of the stairs was a hall with black and white tiles on the floor, a red and white stained glass window in the front door, and six candles burning in a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Its furniture looked very strange to Henry: a coat-stand draped in black cloaks and bonnets next to a big grey wrinkly animal’s foot with enormous toenails, and a walking stick and two umbrellas poking weirdly out of it; a big floppy plant in a green enamelled planter on a spindle-legged stand; a huge wall-mirror with two more candles burning in holders on either side of its heavy oak frame; and lurking in the shadows under the stairs, a very tall clock in a dark wooden case with a long swinging brass pendulum and a very loud tick.

Bing-bong! it said as they passed, making Henry Wowler nearly jump out of his skin and MC exclaim aloud, “Oh, my – quarter to, already!” He speeded up to a trot. “Make haste, Henry Wowler! We must be ready to start on the hour.”

Waiting for them in the parlour doorway was a She-Ooman in a dress of floor-length black silk, with a black lace veil over her bun of silvery hair, and a black lace shawl around her shoulders, pinned with a black jet brooch. “Oh, there you are, Marmey! Thank goodness! I thought you were lost. What a bad pussy you are to worry me so.” She plainly didn’t see Henry Wowler trotting close behind. “I do hope you’ll behave better for the Circle.”

Medium? She looks pretty small for an Ooman to me, thought Henry. And I wonder what a Circle is? Keen to find out, he followed them into another strange room lit by oil-lamps and a crackling fire, the daylight shut out by thick red velvet curtains. Crammed within were a fat cushioned sofa, two matching armchairs and a footstool, a round polished table with six wooden chairs, a massive oak dresser laden with porcelain dogs, blue-patterned crockery, and Toby jugs shaped like little fat Oomans in old-fashioned clothes, a glass-fronted cabinet full of curios and trinkets, a piano with sheet music heaped on the stool, a big gilded concert harp, a music stand, several stands of potted plants, and three tall ornament stands; a stuffed raven stood on one, a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards on another, and a glass dome covering a bouquet of flowers made of sea-shells on the third. The carpet was patterned with red roses and the wallpaper with red and cream stripes, largely hidden by paintings in fancy gold frames, brown-tinted photos in silver frames, embroidered samplers in rustic wooden frames, stuffed fish and bright butterflies in glass cases, and colourful pictures made from pressed flowers in all sorts of frames, large and small.

Rather stunned by it all, Henry Wowler sat down on the tufted rag hearth-rug. “Tell me, MC, why’s everything so weird here? Why does your Ooman wear such funny clothes? Why does She have so much stuff? And what’s happened to your voice? You don’t sound like you.”

“Old mirrors show old reflections,” MC replied simply. “I’m afraid I haven’t time to explain more until after the game. Speaking of which, do join in when it starts. You’ll find it highly entertaining, I assure you.”

“But I don’t know how,” protested Henry. “You haven’t even told me what we’re playing!”

“Oh, an easy, teasy game. There are no rules, we just make it up as we go.” The Mirror-cat’s eyes glinted with mischief. “I recommend you sit under the table to begin with, Master Wowler, until you get the gist of how it works.”

Henry Wowler couldn’t imagine what this game might be. Extremely curious, he perched on the back of an armchair, his eyes following the Widow as She bustled about, fussing with the musical instruments, adjusting her chair, and bending to feel the carpet round its feet, all the while glancing over her shoulder as if she felt someone watching. Then She turned the lamps down low and put a screen in front of the fire, making the room very dark. Finally She sat down, breathed out a long breath, and laid her palms flat on the table. Seconds later, much to Henry’s surprise, the piano went plink-plonk and the harp went twing-twang.

“Do we have any evil spirits here among us?” She asked in an odd, high-pitched voice.

A sound came from under the table. Tip-tap!

“Do we have any good spirits among us?”

TAP! said the table.

Nodding in satisfaction, Widow Carrot chanced to look in Henry’s direction at the exact moment he jumped down from the chair and ran to inspect the still-quivering harp-string. She blinked rapidly. “What- what was that? Did I see-? Is there a good spirit present? Ernest, my love, is it you here with me?”

Henry froze. “MC!” he hissed. “She saw me! What shall I do?”

Jingle-jangle-jing! said the doorbell before MC could reply. Footsteps pattered across the tiles as Janey the maid went to answer it. A babble of excited voices broke out as five members of Ethel Carrot’s Spiritualist Circle came into the hall, and began taking off their outdoor things for Janey to hang up.

“Oh my goodness! My ladies!” Forgetting Henry, the Widow leapt to her feet, grabbed MC, tugged a black velvet ribbon from her pocket, and tied it in a bow round his neck. Then leaving him guarding her chair, She went to greet her guests.

“Here come today’s players,” whispered MC as three heavily-veiled figures filed into the parlour. “May I present the Misses Blewitt, Faith, Hope and Charity. Their father Reverend Blewitt doesn’t approve of mediums, so they’re obliged to attend incognito.”

“In-cog-what?”

“Nito. Incognito. Anonymous. Not known,” said MC, when Henry went on looking blank. “So that no-one can see their faces and report them to the Vicar. And now here’s Miss Lavinia Crabtree, whose great-grandfather died at Waterloo. The battle, that is, not the railway station.”

Henry Wowler crept under the table to escape from their long, swishing skirts as a fifth She-Ooman entered, dressed all in black like Widow Carrot.

“Ah,” said MC, “and lastly we have Mrs Victoria Makepeace, named after the Queen, who can’t get over losing her husband, either.”

Bong! The hall clock struck one. “The hour is upon us,” cried Widow Carrot. “Take your seats, Sisters!”

Henry Wowler, crouched under the table, found himself hemmed in by a rustling wall of silk skirts from which wafted a riot of smells he didn’t recognise, although MC could have told him what they were: lavender sachet, carbolic soap, laundry starch, mothballs, button polish, shoe polish for high-buttoned boots, and damp leather footwear, all mixed together with dusty carpet wool. It tickled his nostrils. He rubbed his nose hard with a forepaw, trying desperately not to-

“Achoo!”

“What was that?”

“What was what, Ethel dear?”

“That sound.” Henry froze as Widow Carrot’s face appeared under the table, peered around, frowned at him, then withdrew.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said the other voice. “Did you, Faith?”

“Not I. Or, well, maybe a coal hissing on the fire.”

“Or maybe the spirits are with us already!” Black skirts shook as Widow Makepeace bounced with excitement. “Maybe my Fred’s come at last! Oh, please, Ethel, can we get on and find out?”

“Hush, Vicky dear. Do try to remain calm and receptive.” Widow Carrot settled MC on her lap. “Yes, we should make a start – let’s join hands, Sisters. We meet in this holy Advent season in hopes of communing with the spirits of our dear departed… hopes which will surely be fulfilled today, for I feel blessed with a powerful sense of their presence! So remember, whatever might happen, do not be afraid – and above all, do not break the circle. The circle. Ooh,” she began crooning in unearthly tones, “ooh, yes, the eternal circle of life, death and rebirth, endlessly renew-ooh-oohed.”

“Oow-ow-oooow,” MC crooned along.

“Into our own Circle we invite any and all benign spirits, and from it we banish any and all that are evil.”

Henry Wowler heard a faint rustle, and saw Widow Carrot’s feet poke out from beneath her black hem, and ease off her black velvet slippers.

Are any evil spirits here among us today?”

Her right big toe in its black silk stocking pressed twice on the centre of a red carpet rose.

Tip-tap! Henry Wowler flinched as two raps sounded directly above his head. The Circle let out a chorus of “Oohs.” So did MC. “Oow-ow-oooow,” he yowled.

“No! Heaven be praised! Yet we do have a presence among us, as we have heard and Marmaduke Carrot plainly sees. So tell us, Spirit – are you a good soul?”

Widow’s Carrot’s toe moved again. Henry Wowler looked up, just in time to see a tiny metal hammer, painted black, jerk downward then spring back to strike the underside of the table with a loud, clear Tap! Squinting through the dim light, his cat-eyes made out a thin black wire running from the hammer to the edge of the table, down the leg nearest Widow Carrot’s chair, and across an inch of floor to disappear into the rose. He crept over and sniffed the place. It smelt of Ooman toes. And there was something round – a button? – poking through a little round hole in the carpet. And all of a sudden, Henry Wowler understood the game. It seemed cruel. His tail lashed back and forth. He liked cruel games. And if Oomans could be so easily fooled, he wanted to play Circle with them!

“In that case, Good Spirit, we bid you a hearty welcome! Have you come to speak to any particular person-”

Henry Wowler trod hard on the button. Tap!

Widow Carrot’s foot twitched in alarm. “Er- yes, it appears.”

“Oh!” cried Widow Makepeace. “Is it me? Is it a message from my Fred? Or is this him? Is it darling Freddie himself?”

“Hush, dear! Do leave the talking to me. The poor soul can’t be expected to answer when you molest it with so many questions at once.” Widow Carrot’s left big toe inched towards a red carpet rosebud. “So tell me, Good Spirit: what would you like to say to this particular person?” Her toe pressed the rosebud, again and again.

Twing-twang-twing-twang-twong,said the harp.

“Ah – a musical soul, choosing to speak through an angelic instrument-”

“Oh, no, Ethel!” interrupted Miss Charity Blewitt. “Angels don’t play the concert harp.”

“No, indeed,” Miss Hope agreed. “They’re normally depicted carrying something much smaller, like a Celtic harp. Or a lyre.”

“Yow-owl,” MC added helpfully.

“Be that as it may, a concert harp is still a harp and makes heavenly music!” snapped Widow Carrot.

Henry Wowler picked that moment to rear up high on his haunches, come down fast, and smash both forepaws together, as hard as he could, onto the rosebud. The resulting TWANG! didn’t sound heavenly at all. It made the whole Circle jump, and several cry out in alarm.

“Wow!” yowled MC. “Jolly well played, Master Wowler! A most timely contribution.”

Shocked rigid, Widow Carrot stammered, “H-hold tight, l-ladies! D-don’t break the circle. Our spirit sounds angry… perhaps it didn’t like hearing us argue.”

“Quite. And you started it, Char, interrupting like that,” said Miss Faith. “So perhaps you should apologise to Ethel and our Good Spirit.”

Twing.

“There, see? I was right, it wants you to say sorry,” She finished smugly. “That’s why it spoke softly again.”

“Oh, very well,” said Miss Charity. “I suppose it was rather rude of me. Please accept my humble apologies, Good Spirit – you too, Ethel dear.”

Henry Wowler pressed lightly again on the rosebud. Twing.

Goodness me – apologies accepted all round, by the sound of it,” Widow Carrot said faintly. “So, er, may we continue? We have with us a good, musical soul who speaks to us through the harp and dislikes argument.”

“It can’t be Great-grandpapa then,” sighed Miss Crabtree, “unless the afterlife has improved him. I’m told that in this life he was tone deaf and exceedingly contentious.”

“As I was saying,” resumed Widow Carrot, “does that mean anything to anyone?”

“Well,” Miss Hope began hopefully, “our late Mother adored harp music-”

“Yes!” Widow Makepeace said over her. “My Frederick was a musician, and very mild-mannered.”

“Your Frederick played the trombone, not the harp,” Miss Charity objected.

“He might’ve liked playing brass, but he liked listening to strings. The fiddle, mainly. But he was fond of harps, too. So I’m sure this must be Fred-”

Twing.

Yes! It is him! Oh, my. I feel quite overcome.” Widow Makepeace snatched her hands back from her neighbours, buried her face in them, and burst into noisy tears.

“Oh, you poor dear. I know what you need – a nice cup of hot, sweet tea for the shock,” said Miss Crabtree. “I’ll run and tell Janey to make some.”

A chair slid back and a gap opened up in the skirts. Henry Wowler wandered out and saw Widow Makepeace rocking backwards and forwards, sobbing uncontrollably. On her left sat Miss Faith, hugging her shoulder, patting her knee, and saying, “There, there.” On her right sat Miss Hope, offering fresh handkerchiefs. Opposite them sat a pale-faced Widow Carrot, clutching MC on her lap, staring dumbly at her harp, with Miss Charity beside her, twiddling her thumbs and biting her lip with impatience.

“Bravo, old chap!” MC greeted his appearance. “You play remarkably well for a novice, if you don’t mind me saying. Moves timed to perfection.”

“Thanks. And you were right,” Henry replied, “it’s a good game, I’m enjoying it. So, what happens now?”

Charity Blewitt snapped. “For heaven’s sake! Vicky doesn’t need tea, she needs something stronger. Then perhaps she can pull herself together, and we can get back to the Circle.” Shoving back her chair, She marched off to get brandy and smelling-salts. Unfortunately, on the way, She tripped over Henry Wowler and fell headlong into the table with the Tarot pack and crystal ball. It overturned. The cards scattered harmlessly, but the heavy crystal, flung like a cannonball, crashed into the curio cabinet, sending broken glass and china flying everywhere.

“Ee-ooo-ow!” screeched Henry. Fleeing blindly, he ran smack into a tall, top-heavy plant-stand. It fell over onto the glass dome, shattering it and the sea-shell bouquet, and cracking the glazed planter in half. He made a flying leap for the piano stool to escape the dangerous mess of sharp splinters, shell flowers and soil. The pile of sheet music shifted under his paws. Panicking, scrabbling, he leapt again, dislodging a dozen sheets which wafted to the floor like autumn leaves.

Plink-plink-plonk-plank, said the piano keys he landed on; and plonk-plonk-plank-plink as he moved; and a long, resounding ploooom as he sat down at one end to get his breath back and plan his next move.

Janey and Miss Crabtree returned with the tea things at the very moment the piano began to play itself – not any sort of tune, but a random collection of notes as if an invisible cat was jumping about on the keyboard. They froze in the doorway, gaping. Then with a loud shriek, the maid dropped her loaded tray, threw her long white apron over her face, and scurried away at top speed to lock herself in the laundry-room.

Miss Crabtree’s horrified gaze swung from the piano to the spilt tea steaming from the carpet. For a few seconds she swayed; then her eyes rolled upward, her knees gave way and She fainted, collapsing among the scattered sugar-lumps, saucers and spoons.

The piano fell silent as Henry Wowler stopped prancing to survey the damage and chaos. I can’t believe I did all this by accident, he thought. A delicious naughty feeling, a familiar madness, ran through him. No rules, eh? Then let’s see what I can do on purpose…

Widow Makepeace stopped crying to watch open-mouthed as the parlour came alive, with a great stirring of air as if an invisible demon was racing round in circles, screeching horribly as it went. The fire-screen toppled down onto the hearthrug. The fire-irons fell with a great clatter and clash onto the hearth tiles. A row of Christmas cards, flicked by an unseen tail, sailed off the mantelpiece. The stuffed raven flew one last time as his toppling stand threw him into the air to land in a potted aspidistra, which fell off its plant-stand and broke. Cloths to protect the upholstery from hair-oil crinkled and slid about on the backs of the sofa and armchairs, and dents appeared in their plump cushions. The music stand fell, hit the harp with a loud TWING-TWANG-TWONG and bounced onto the floor. Two china dogs and a particularly ugly Toby jug flew off the dresser and smashed on the wreckage below. Then the Widow stood up and screamed at the top of her voice.

STOP! Oh, please, Fred, please, please stop!”

Henry stopped.

“I know why you’re so angry, and I know it’s all my fault. And I’m so, so, sorry, my darling, and I’ve been so desperate to reach you and tell you how bitterly I regret what I did.”

“What did you do?” Recovering from her faint, Lavinia Crabtree sat up shakily. “What have I missed?”

“I killed my Freddie, same as if I’d murdered him deliberate.”

“Oh, no. No, Vicky dear,” said Miss Faith. “You didn’t kill him! Frederick died naturally. His heart failed.”

“Broke, you mean! With him home alone while I gossiped with the chemist’s wife instead of coming straight back with his medicine! If only I’d done that, he’d still be alive… that’s why he lost his temper, and why all this mess is my fault. I’m terribly sorry, Ethel. I should never have come – but I’ve been praying for a chance to say goodbye, and tell Fred how much I’ll always love and miss him, and beg him to forgive me.”

A sweet, rippling sound filled the room as Henry Wowler drew a gentle claw over the harp-strings.

“Well, dear, there’s your answer.” Ethel Carrot smiled. “Frederick forgives you most willingly – and asks in turn that you forgive, and cease to blame, yourself. Only then can he truly rest, knowing that his beloved wife has peace of mind.”

The Circle left an hour later, babbling with excitement. “Incredible experience… conclusive proof… eye witnesses… report for the newspapers… greatest medium in England… thank you so much, Ethel dearest… goodbye and God bless… Merry Christmas… goodbye!”

While the Widow and Janey, (brave on medicinal brandy), finished clearing up the ruined parlour, the cats crouched on a rag rug in front of the kitchen fire sharing Marmaduke Carrot’s wages, a dish of boiled cod cheeks in cream.

“I always hated those china dogs,” said MC as they sat washing their whiskers afterwards. “I shall be eternally grateful to you, Master Wowler, for ridding me of their silly grinning faces.”

“My pleasure,” said Henry. “Although I never planned to do so much damage. It started by accident when that Ooman fell over me, then the rest- well, you know, it just happened. Things worked out fine in the end though, didn’t they? Everyone seemed happy, in spite of all the cleaning up they had to do.”

MC nodded. “That’s why I play the game. It comforts other Oomans, and makes them feel better when they’re sad. It isn’t all trickery, either – Widow Carrot gives wise advice and She really does have a sixth sense. It’s just not very strong, because She can’t sense Him. Ernest. The Constant Presence.” He rubbed his cheek lovingly against a transparent, faintly glowing hand. “Ernie was devoted to Ethel, and a dear friend to me and Janey, and so happy living with us in this house, that He says Heaven’s right here in His own home and so here’s where He’ll jolly well stay. She’d be overjoyed to hear it, and I’ve tried to tell Her many, many times– alas, thus far to no avail.”

“Well, keep trying.” Henry Wowler looked up at Ernest Carrot, who smiled and stroked his ears with a feather-light touch. “If She believes She brought the spirit of Fred Makepeace here today, maybe She’ll believe She can bring Ernest too. Then they’ll both be comforted, won’t they?”

“Ah, yes. I perceive you grasp the essence of this sacred season, Master Wowler,” MC looked at him approvingly, “as well as of the game. And I feel privileged to have played it with such a natural talent.”

“Likewise,” said Henry. “Although I’m not sure I want to play it again. No… the past has been very interesting to visit, but I think I prefer my own time. And now I think it’s time I went back there. No offence, MC.”

“None taken, dear fellow. Come, then. Let us leave Ernie toasting his slippers by the fire, and I shall escort you back to the looking-glass portal.”

Five minutes later, Henry Wowler bounced thankfully down off his own solid, safe loft-ladder, landing with a dull thud on a soft carpet in a relatively warm, comfortable room. He heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be back here and now, feeling the warm, glowy feeling that for once he’d managed to do something good – if only by accident, and at the same time as doing something bad.

Then his She-Ooman came out of the bedroom next door. “Henry Wowler! At last! You wicked cat,” she softened the words with gentle hands, rubbing the special place on his back, “upstairs feels like a fridge, thanks to you.”

Henry only had time for a last wistful glance before she folded the ladder away, shut the trapdoor tight, and made UP disappear until next time. He sat for a minute picturing Marmaduke Carrot on the Other Side, sitting on the lumber-room’s cold hard floor. And even though cats don’t really celebrate it, he said the words aloud.

“Merry Christmas, MC.”

Straining his big ginger ears, he caught the faint, ghostly reply. “Merry Christmas, Master Wowler! God bless us, every one.”

The White House Farm Murders

In the early hours of 5th August, 1985, a horrible gunshot massacre took place at White House Farm in Essex. The killer apparently planned to despatch householders June and Nevill Bamber, and their six-year-old twin grandsons Nicholas and Daniel Caffell, asleep in their beds. As a precaution, the kitchen phone was left off the hook to disable the upstairs extensions and prevent calls for help. Then, using a ten-shot rifle fitted with a sound-moderator, (‘silencer’), a single close-range shot was fired into the head of each child. Both died without waking. The remaining eight rounds were emptied into their grandparents. Both initially survived, obliging the assailant to run downstairs to reload, pursued by a badly injured Nevill Bamber. While June, shocked and bleeding, struggled to reach the telephone on her husband’s bedside table, he was in the kitchen, fighting desperately for possession of the gun. Struck repeatedly with the barrel, he tripped and fell awkwardly by the Aga, where he was executed by four shots to the head. Rifle fully re-loaded, the murderer returned to the master bedroom and killed June Bamber with three shots to the head and neck, then pumped another six bullets into the twins. The rifle was subsequently found lying on the body of Sheila Caffell, the Bambers’ adopted daughter and mother of the boys, who had died from two shots to the throat.     

Local police were called to the scene by Sheila’s adoptive brother, Jeremy Bamber – according to whom Nevill had phoned around 3 am to say that she was ‘going mad with a gun.’ Officers arrived braced for an armed siege, only to find an apparent murder-suicide. The resulting investigation was biased towards supporting the senior officer’s unshakeable belief that Sheila Caffell was responsible – notwithstanding her unusual double wound, the absence of trace evidence/blood other than her own on her nightdress, the paucity of her fingerprints on the weapon, and complete lack thereof on the bullets. Opportunities were therefore missed to seek vital evidence, such as blood- and gunshot residue-spattered garments worn to commit the murders, or signs that she had ‘ritually cleansed’ herself after shooting her family. Furthermore, the question of whether it was physically possible for her wounds to have been self-inflicted was – and never could be – convincingly answered, because the bodies of Sheila and her parents were cremated soon after the inquest.  However, forensic evidence suggests otherwise, since the rifle had to be re-loaded again, and the sound-muffler removed, to inflict her second, fatal wound.

Today, matters would be handled very differently – partly as a result of the painful lessons learned by police after the debacle of White House Farm. Firearms involvement would mean an automatic presumption of homicide, and the victims’ bodies would be retained accordingly. A thorough search of the crime scene would reveal clues overlooked at the time, including the bloodstained sound-moderator put away in a downstairs cupboard, and Nevill’s bedside telephone hidden under a pile of papers in the kitchen. Ballistics, forensics and blood-spatter experts would minutely reconstruct the course of the shootings. Jeremy Bamber, as the last person to see his parents, sister and nephews alive, face-to-face, and having ample means, motive and opportunity, would be the prime suspect. His clothing and body would be examined for trace evidence and signs of injury from fighting with Nevill. His car, cottage, (where June’s bicycle was found), and the likely routes between his home and the farm, would all be searched; as would the home of his then girlfriend Julie Mugford, who might have told the full truth from the outset rather than risk being charged as an accessory. DNA analysis of the sound-muffler might conclusively show the presence of Sheila’s blood, thus (since it was not found with her body) proving that she was murdered. Conceivably, faced with such a strong prosecution case, Jeremy Bamber might have pleaded guilty (and would probably be time-served, rehabilitated and free by now); otherwise, the weight of evidence would likely have ensured a unanimous verdict from the jury, and provided better closure for the bereaved families and friends.  

As it was, a month later and following the break-up of their relationship, Julie Mugford cracked under the strain of a terrible secret. In a shocking statement to police, she revealed how her ex had discussed plans to kill his family, and had long known a way to enter and leave the apparently secure farmhouse. Her information, combined with additional physical evidence, led to further investigations by a new, more rigorous team and the subsequent arrest of Jeremy Bamber; tried and convicted of all five murders by a majority 10:2 verdict in 1986, he was duly sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bamber has stayed in the public eye ever since, protesting his innocence, backed by many supporters who believe he has suffered a gross miscarriage of justice. However, his defence has yet to supply any fresh concrete proof, relying instead on nit-picking irrelevances, (like the play of light on a window which caused a twitchy officer to briefly believe he’d seen movement – ‘evidence of life’ – inside the farmhouse), searching for legal loopholes, accusing the police of everything from incompetence (valid, up to a point) to corruption and evidence-tampering, and the prosecution witnesses of being mistaken, if not lying outright.

Most recently, the case came to renewed, wide public attention thanks to a major TV series, White House Farm, starring Freddie Fox as Jeremy Bamber. It fired my own interest to such an extent that I bought Carol Ann Lee’s book on the case to find out what had really happened, and whether the drama had portrayed events accurately (it had).

Having previously read One of Your Own, Lee’s biography of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, I was not disappointed by The Murders at White House Farm. Just as meticulously researched, scrupulously referenced, and narrated in the same lucid prose, it sets the scene with a prologue describing Colin Caffell’s ominous journey to take Sheila and their sons on what would be their last visit to his former parents-in-law. The main narrative then opens with a family history which goes some way to explain why either of the young Bambers could have been driven to murder: a troubled background of well-intentioned but inadequate parenting, emotional repression, recurrent mental illness, and excessive, controlling religiosity. On the face of it, Nevill and June should have been ideal parents. An attractive, intelligent couple, each had a distinguished war service record and devout Christian faith, and enjoyed a prosperous business, a comfortable home and a well-off middle-class lifestyle. But at the time of their marriage, post-war society was extremely conservative, with any deviation from the norm disapproved of, or even – like homosexuality – illegal. Divorce was frowned upon, as were pre- and extra-marital sex, and illegitimacy was considered so disgraceful that many single women were forced to procure illicit abortions or give up their babies for adoption. Even infertility was a stigma, with childless women the objects of pity, suspicion and scorn, and a pain deeply felt by June when the longed-for babies failed to arrive.

She received medical treatment for the resulting severe depression, which was in some ways exacerbated rather than cured by the adoption of two new-born babies. Although the children were desperately wanted and loved, the Bambers remained painfully conscious that they were not biological parents; and while they enjoyed relaxed, natural relationships with their nieces and nephews, (of which Sheila and Jeremy were deeply jealous), June remained insecure and awkward as a mother. Ever fearful of censure by the adoption agency, she may have raised her daughter and son literally by the book – the notorious Dr Spock method of strictly regimented routines – explaining Sheila’s early memories of being left to cry for hours in her pram in the garden, watched over only by the family dog. And ever anxious to give their children every possible advantage, she and Nevill packed them both off to boarding school at a relatively young age – another baffling rejection to compound the abandonment by their blood-parents. Predictably, both suffered; Jeremy was bullied by his schoolmates as ‘the bastard’ and by his cousins at home as ‘the cuckoo.’ The resulting low self-esteem arguably contributed to Jeremy’s psychopathy and Sheila’s mental breakdown, especially as June’s religiosity increased; dismayed by an increasingly permissive society, she was terrified of the male attention attracted by Sheila’s growing beauty, and applied every kind of pressure to control her daughter’s sexuality (and her son’s, to a lesser degree). Predictably, in their teens, both rebelled against parental strictures and expectations, and struggled to live their own lives – often with painful consequences all round, including an abortion for Sheila and problems thereafter with carrying a baby to term.

The second section examines the eight months from New Year 1985 to the night of the murders, by which time Sheila’s marriage to Colin Caffell had failed and her mental health become precarious, while Jeremy tried to reconcile himself to farm work and eventually succeeding Nevill in the family business. Meanwhile, finding Sheila’s mental state hard to handle, resenting the financial aid June gave to her and the Church, he began thinking, and talking to his girlfriend, about how he might become sole inheritor of the estate. Sheila’s arrival with her sons provided the opportunity he had planned and waited for, and the section closes with a description of the family’s final hours on the evening of 4th August: an argument, causing Nevill and June to sound tense and distracted when talking on the phone; and Jeremy roaring home in his car at 9.30 pm, then phoning Julie to tell her words to the effect, ‘It’s now or never’.

Part Three picks up with Jeremy’s report to police in the early hours of Wednesday 7th August. Allegedly woken by Nevill’s panicked phone-call, abruptly cut off, Bamber rang Julie Mugford at around 3.15 am before calling local police rather than dialling 999. He then drove so slowly that the police overtook him and arrived first at the scene. According to Jeremy, he’d been afraid of what he might find – thereby removing an automatic degree of suspicion, with police to witness that he did not enter the property, find the bodies or tamper with evidence.  Based on his story, the lead officer became so focussed on the murder-suicide scenario – despite peculiarities like the two shots needed to kill Sheila – that he failed to pursue the only other obvious line of enquiry. Luckily, others kept more open minds, working with relatives and uncovering further clues until Jeremy could be arrested and charged on all five counts of murder.

The fourth and final section, from 30th September 1985 to July 2015, covers the trial. Bamber’s defence maintained that Mugford, and other prosecution witnesses who gave evidence of Jeremy’s dislike of his family, were lying, and otherwise relied on some highly doubtful speculations: that Julie Mugford, while visiting White House Farm with Jeremy, had discovered for herself a faulty window which could be locked from the outside by banging the frame; that Sheila Caffell, (only known to have fired a gun once in her life), had developed a proficiency with the murder weapon to the extent of knowing how to fit the sound-moderator, clear a jammed cartridge, and reload repeatedly under stress; that despite the debilitating effects of her medication, she entered a homicidal frenzy so unstoppable that she could overcome the wounded Nevill Bamber in a physical fight, and execute her entire family by shooting them in the head; and finally shot herself not once, but twice, in order to take her own life. Defence witnesses were obliged to concede that none of these things were impossible, no matter how unlikely they seemed individually, or how ludicrously improbable when considered all together. The jury eventually reached a majority verdict of guilty, and the remainder of this short section gives an outline of the aftermath, Jeremy Bamber’s life in prison, and his ongoing campaign for release, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence as the only means of getting what he wanted from the start: family money.

The epilogue rounds off the story with a summary of what happened next to various people whose lives were deeply affected by the tragedy, including Julie Mugford and Colin Caffell (whose impassioned plea for Bamber to remain incarcerated appears as Appendix 2), while Appendix 1 gives the best reconstruction possible, based on all the evidence and expert opinion, of the murders as carried out by Jeremy Bamber.

What the book doesn’t – and has no reason to – do is examine the alternative scenario which Bamber and his defenders would have the world believe: that while her family were sleeping, a deranged Sheila Caffell rose in the small hours, stripped naked, (explaining the absence of high-velocity blood spatter or gunshot residue on her nightgown or any other clothing), went downstairs, loaded the rifle and fitted the sound-moderator – having first put on gloves, since none of her fingerprints were found on the cartridges, and none of her long nails were broken or unduly chipped. Leaving the kitchen phone off the hook, she then crept upstairs to remove her sons from June’s baleful interference, and save her parents from the misery she felt responsible for causing. After failing to kill the adults outright, she fled downstairs and was in the midst of re-loading when Nevill staggered into the kitchen. Shot twice in the mouth and jaw, he nonetheless managed to ring Jeremy, without getting blood on the phone, to say that she had ‘gone crazy’. With the gun partially re-loaded, Sheila (a slender 5’ 7”) then got into a violent fight with her father (a robust 6’ 4”), overturning furniture and taking a gouge out of the Aga surround as she beat him around head and shoulders with the gun-barrel – all without sustaining a single detectable injury herself.

After executing Nevill then fully re-loading, she cleared a jammed cartridge on her way back upstairs, finished off June, and fired six more ‘overkill’ shots into the bodies of Nicholas and Daniel. For some unaccountable reason she then hid Nevill’s bedside phone in the kitchen, ‘ritually cleansed’ and dried herself thoroughly, put her nightwear on, and returned to her parents’ bedroom. Lying on the floor with June’s Bible beside her, she shot herself in the throat with the last bullet. The clumsy shot was not immediately fatal. Sheila recovered, removed the moderator and put it away downstairs, loaded another bullet, returned to the master bedroom, shot herself again under the chin, and died.

It seems incredible that a woman sufficiently disturbed to murder her whole family could be, at the same time, so coldly calculating – and an amazingly good shot under high-stress conditions, hitting a target with all but one bullet. Jeremy Bamber, on the other hand, had learned to shoot at school and was a proficient, experienced marksman, familiar with/having access to a murder weapon purchased at his instigation; he stood to inherit an estate worth more than £1.5 million in today’s money; and knew how to get inside the locked and bolted farmhouse at a time when all the people standing between him and a fortune were together under its roof. He therefore had more cause to lie than any witness, could easily have provoked a family argument to cause tension on the eve of the murders, and fabricated ‘Nevill’s phone-call’ to add plausibility to his account and place the blame on Sheila.

His guilt seems inescapable when Lee’s book is read in conjunction with one of her primary sources, Colin Caffell’s moving memoir In Search of the Rainbow’s End. Like Lee’s book, this is divided into chronological sections, although Caffell’s boundaries are looser and his narrative flows back and forth in time between chapters. In Search opens with forewords from the two editions, (1994 and 2020), and a prologue summarising his early life, meeting and love affair with ‘Bambs’, and impressions of her parents. Part One then begins on 7th August 1984 with the immediate aftermath of the murders, and Caffell’s painful recollections of the last time he saw his ex-wife and sons: Sheila medicated and monosyllabic, vegetarian Daniel afraid of being scolded for not eating his meat, both twins anxious about being forced to kneel and pray – and both so desperate not to be left at White House Farm that they seem to have had premonitions of disaster. A second short section covering the lead-up to Bamber’s arrest describes Jeremy’s grossly inappropriate behaviour, sniggering over (then trying to sell to a tabloid) explicit nude photographs of his late sister, and stripping out the twins’ room in her flat/dumping the contents into bin-bags instead of offering their father the chance to carry out such a sensitive task. Caffell endured the further pain of seeing Sheila’s name dragged through the gutter press with wild and lurid speculation, then the sickening discovery that he had been deceived and bereaved by Jeremy, the brother-in-law who once callously referred to his beloved boys as ‘millstones round his neck.’ The third section continues the story of Colin’s life with and without Sheila, as he strove to come to terms with his overwhelming loss and gradually reached a place of spiritual calm and deep philosophical acceptance. Reserved, ladylike June Bamber emerges as a terrifying ‘house monster’ in a series of disturbing drawings – only described by Lee, but reproduced here – by Daniel Caffell, to illustrate a (sadly forgotten) story. The twins loved, but were also clearly frightened of their grandmother, disliked her preaching and forcing them to pray, and were upset by her distorted mind-set which perceived their naked bodies as ‘dirty’, and the innocent fun of their bathing together as ‘sinful.’ Colin Caffell’s observations flesh out his son’s portrait of a repressed, unhappy woman feverishly pursuing good works to the detriment of her family and health, to atone for her own sterility and the sins of her adopted children; furiously puritanical and beset by harsh concepts of sin and punishment; frequently cruel and manipulative towards Sheila; and unhealthily preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with controlling the sexuality of others while Nevill stood by, a hapless pig-in-the-middle. The toxic emotions Caffell experienced within this ostensibly ‘normal’ middle-class family make it easier to understand why White House Farm became the breeding-ground for a psychosis which resulted in such appalling tragedy. The last two brief sections tie up loose ends, and conclude on a positive note with Colin Caffell, having come through his traumatic ordeal as a stronger, wiser, more deeply enlightened and compassionate person, now happily remarried and established in Cornwall as a successful sculptor and ceramic artist.

Because Caffell writes from personal knowledge rather than objective journalism, his book fills in gaps and answers questions left by Lee. Two highly significant revelations are the reason for Nevill Bamber’s uncharacteristically low mood towards the end of his life, and why he began putting his affairs in order: he feared that Jeremy planned to kill him in a ‘hunting accident’, and may have been compiling a dossier of supporting evidence to present to police; and an anecdote from someone who saw Jeremy trying (and failing) to persuade Sheila to load the new rifle, presumably to get her fingerprints on the ammunition, a clear indication of pre-meditated, first-degree murder (subjects omitted from the trial as hearsay or too prejudicial). Subsequent spiritual revelations suggest that Nevill feared only for himself, not suspecting that other family members were also in danger of death; and whether or not one believes in communication with the spirit world, this is entirely consistent with Nevill’s reported actions and state of mind during his last months.

The combined effect of these two fine publications leaves me firmly convinced that Jeremy Bamber is guilty of the murders at White House Farm. I find it impossible to believe that Sheila Caffell was mentally or physically capable of doing half the extraordinary things she must have done in the murder-suicide scenario – and given the way it was staged, there is only one other viable suspect. However, I’m equally convinced that Bamber has suppressed the memory of his crimes to such an extent that he genuinely believes himself innocent – the comforting fantasy to which he must cling in the hope of release and recompense for thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. In this respect he is like Myra Hindley, unable to accept that the only path to rehabilitation and release is full confession, co-operation, demonstrable remorse, and efforts to atone; and I trust that as long as he persists in this futile denial, he will stay locked up where he belongs.   

REFERENCES:

Caffell, Colin, In Search of the Rainbow’s End, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020

Lee, Carol Ann, The Murders at White House Farm, Pan Books, 2020

Fantasy Writing: The Lay of Angor Trilogy

As a newcomer to the magnificent Game of Thrones, I was wryly amused to discover how many of its motifs and themes crop up in my own opus, Lay of Angor: messenger ravens, cold northern and warm southern kingdoms, graphic sex, torture and battle violence, consensual brother-sister incest, jolly prostitutes, same-sex romps, creatures not too far removed from living species and plotlines drawn directly from real-world history. I was a bit dismayed too, lest I be thought derivative, because this is purely accidental; the Lay is mine own, begun long before I’d ever heard of George R.R. Martin – but I suppose it’s inevitable that in the realm of fantasy writing, imaginations will sometimes collide.

And that’s where the similarities end. My world of Urth, a planet not unlike our own, is a smaller, cosier place than Westeros and the story revolves around one principal heroine and hero (Elinor, Princess of Gondarlan, and her suitor Jehan Sol-Lios, Elect of the Republic of Angor). It’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to the ‘high fantasy’ style I’ve always loved; a coming-of-age story in which Elinor finds herself (and finds out what a prissy, spoiled idiot she’s been all her life!), leavened with a thread of farcical humour; and unlike Game of Thrones, it’s now finished!

Yes, after more than 12 years of endeavour, false starts and re-writes, the trilogy is at last complete and all three volumes available in electronic and paperback form. It’s been a very strange and occasionally rough ride; friends from back in the manic ‘virgin author’ days will probably remember my glazed expression and abstracted presence as I split between Urth and the here-and-now, the former often more insistently real to me than the latter as the story constantly played out behind my eyes and the characters nattered in my ears. I could see and hear it all so clearly that I felt like an inept secretary trying to minute a meeting and simultaneously describe the surroundings while the participants wandered through the rooms of a palace – a most curious sensation, and sometimes deeply frustrating as it took hours and pages to capture on keyboard scenes and conversations which flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this is quite a common experience for authors).

But gosh, it was fun – and it became even greater fun as the story progressed, all the characters were introduced and plot threads laid down, and I simply had to develop them. Gondarlan, the first book, took by far the longest to write and required the most revision; if it hadn’t been radically cut it would have ended up the length of War and Peace and I doubt if I’d ever have finished! But Breath of Gaia rolled along much faster, and Wolfsbane came out at breakneck speed as I sensed the end in sight, together with the chance to finally write some climactic scenes I’d envisaged almost from the start of the project.

Now it’s done, I’d like to thank everyone who read and commented on the work in progress, and put up with me while I was so consumed by it (especially my long-suffering husband); and I hope other people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you happen to be in the North Yorkshire area on Saturday 2nd August, you could drop in at The Crooked Billet on the B1217 Wakefield Road between Garforth and Towton from noon – 5 pm; I’m launching Wolfsbane at the Towton Battlefield Society Yorkshire Day event, and you can snag copies of the full trilogy, signed by my fiction alter ego Rae Andrew, for a mere £9.99 (saving over £13 on the RRP). Otherwise, you can get the same deal (plus P+P) from YPD-books.com by quoting ‘Trilogy Offer’ – or pick them up at £2.99 apiece on Amazon Kindle or e-pub from Kobo books. Happy reading!

Literature Matters: The Adventures of Jack Moon

The Adventures of Jack Moon: The Curse of the Body-Snatchers by Keith Souter, 2012, Golden Guides Press, ISBN978-1-78095-003-7, £7.99; also available on Kindle and e-pub.

Looking for a last-minute stocking-filler for an older child? I can recommend The Curse of the Body-Snatchers, the first Adventure of Jack Moon by Wakefield-based author, Keith Souter (who joins me below to chat about his work). Body-Snatchers begins with the 12-year-old hero, Jack Moon, secretly burying the body of his best friend in a spooky cemetery in Victorian London, and goes on to become a cracking adventure yarn full of twists and turns. Jack falls into the hands of the sinister phrenologist Professor Stackpool, who purports to diagnose his low character from the shape of his head, (a form of quackery much in vogue in the 19th century); is rescued and given a job by the benevolent Sir Lionel Petrie; and befriends Sir Lionel’s pretty grand-daughter, Olivia, who is soon overtaken by a horrible fate…

I don’t want to give more of the plot away; suffice to say that it’s a gripping period piece with plenty to engross intelligent older children or young teens – and an entertaining read for their parents, too!

Its multi-talented author Keith Souter is a prolific writer in various genres; as well as non-fiction medical books and a health column in the weekly Wakefield Express, he writes historical fiction for adults, crime novels under the pen-name Keith Moray, and Westerns as Clay More! So I’ll ask Keith to join me now to answer a few questions about Body-Snatchers and his other works:

HRR: Keith, your literary output is staggering, and puts mine to shame! How many hours per day (or week) do you spend writing?
KS: Firstly, thank you for having me on your blog, Helen, I appreciate it. Actually, I have no set schedule. I usually have several projects on the go at once and have to be a bit of a plate-spinner. I devote however much time is needed to keep the various projects moving along. In part it’s deadline driven, in that my agent arranges book deals so I have a contracted time in which to deliver each book. I have an absolute minimum of 300 words a day, but I once did 9000 in a day.

HRR: Do you have a favourite genre and/or character – and if so, what?
KS: I like writing in all genres, but curiously, when I’m writing one I want to be doing one of the others! I read many years ago that if you want to write, you should aim at having at least two genres to help stop you going stale. The very first things I wrote were children’s stories for The People’s Friend, a Scottish family magazine, and for the Kingston-Upon-Hull telephone exchange. They had a dial-a-bedtime-story service, so parents could ring up and get a tuck-me-up tale for sixpence. Then I started writing medical articles, and when we moved to Wakefield I was fortunate enough to be asked to write for the Express – which I’ve now been doing every week for the past thirty years! About ten years ago, I started writing my Western novels. After three of those I turned to crime fiction, then to historical fiction with my Sandal Castle mysteries – then Jack Moon popped into my head and I returned to where I started, writing children’s stories.

HRR: Body-Snatchers has some rather gruesome scenes – what age-range are you pitching it at?
KS: It’s aimed loosely at 8 – 13-year-olds, but a lot of young adults and adults have read it and seem to have enjoyed it. One very interesting thing you learn in writing for youngsters is not to use clichés like, for example, ‘my heart was breaking’. You have to be far more careful with your choice of language.

HRR: The cliff-hanger ending of Body-Snatchers suggests there might be a sequel… am I right, and if so, when will it appear?
KS: Oh yes, it’s the first in a series. I’m working on the second, but other projects with deadlines have had to take priority.

HRR: What was your inspiration for Body-Snatchers?
KS: I love Dickens and always wanted to set a story in Dickensian London. I had been working on a book entitled Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians – the Victorian Age of Credulity and had delved deeply into phrenology, spiritualism – that is, fraudulent spiritualism as it was practiced then – and the stage magicians of the age, who exposed their frauds. Then one misty day I looked out of my study window, and for a moment imagined I saw a Victorian urchin staring in at me from the mist – and Jack Moon was born. I immediately grabbed a notebook and the plot started to unfold.

HRR: What projects are you working on now?
KS: The fifth in my series of crime novels, along with two medical books, one on stroke and the other on depression. I’m also working on a collaborative novel with some American Western writers, and a series of Western short stories for an ebook publisher called High Noon Press. These are about Doctor Marcus Quigley, a dental surgeon, gambler and occasional bounty hunter, and are coming out one a month – each is a separate adventure but they build into a complete tale, like the old Saturday matinee serials. All in all, I’m having a lot of fun!

HRR: Keith, you must find more hours in your days than I have in mine! Many thanks for sharing this – and the very best of luck with all your ventures.

Literature Matters: One of Your Own

One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee, Mainstream Publishing Company, revised and reprinted 2012; paperback, £8.99, ISBN 9781845976017

I was only a child when the Moors Murders were committed, but I remember them well: the blaring newspaper headlines I was just learning to read, the unnerving mugshots, the black-and-white news on our little TV, the grown-ups talking in hushed tones about the horror of it all. And thanks to the ongoing media obsession with the subject, they remained on the periphery of my consciousness – so when I spotted Carol Ann Lee’s recently updated biography of Myra Hindley in the bookshop, I decided to give it a go.

One of Your Own is a profoundly disturbing, profoundly tragic book. In it, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady are shown in the round as intelligent, gifted people with likeable qualities, (such as their deep love of animals); two people with the potential to do great things with their lives, had they not chosen to murder. More harrowingly, their five victims, three boys and two girls aged from ten to seventeen, appear not just as grainy newsprint images but live, flesh-and-blood young people cherished by their families, their lives, their last days and the hours leading up to their deaths painstakingly (and heartbreakingly) reconstructed. Their murders are discussed as bleakly as the moors themselves, without prurient sensationalism – and include for the first time, a full transcript of Ian Brady’s tape of Lesley Ann Downey recorded shortly before she was forced to pose for indecent photographs and then killed.

The story plays on through the trial, the lives of the murderers in prison and the bereaved families imprisoned by grief, to the eventual disclosure of more murders and the discovery of the bodies of John Kilbride and Pauline Reade; to the death of Myra Hindley and the intermittent searches for the murderers’ last known victim, Keith Bennett. It also discusses the relentless media vilification of Myra Hindley in particular, which may have served to keep her in prison for life, (as she arguably deserved), but also did untold damage by making targets of her wholly innocent parents, sister, and brother-in-law David Smith, whose witnessing and subsequent reporting of Edward Evans’ murder led to the perpetrators’ arrests. And, sadly, the tabloids’ ranting has to date failed in a vital respect, in that the body of Keith Bennett still lies undiscovered on Saddleworth Moor.

Altogether, Carol Ann Lee has pulled off a stunning piece of work. One of Your Own is meticulously researched, admirably even-handed in its treatment of this most painful subject matter, and like all the best biographies, presents its evidence in such a way that the reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Would Ian Brady ever have realised his murderous fantasies if he hadn’t met the perfect foil in Myra Hindley? Possibly. Would she ever have thought of committing murder if she hadn’t met, and fallen fatally in love, with Ian Brady? Almost certainly not. Therefore did she deserve to be so comprehensively demonised because of her sex, seen as somehow worse because ‘women shouldn’t do such things’? In this respect, I think Hindley was unfairly treated… although it doesn’t follow that I think she should have received the parole she endlessly campaigned for. Throughout, she lied to her family, to her supporters, to her God and to herself about the extent of her involvement with the crimes, rather than doing the one thing that might have demonstrated true repentance and secured the release she so desperately sought: coming clean and revealing the whereabouts of all her victims long before Ian Brady forced her hand with his own confessions in 1985.

Literature Matters: RIP, Sylvia Plath

At 4am today I was up drinking coffee, fussing the cat, planning my day and thinking. Thinking about the early hours of another February 11th fifty years ago, when one of the 20th century’s greatest poets was also up planning her day… and planning to make it her last.

Did Sylvia Plath really mean to kill herself on that freezing cold morning in 1963? Folk have argued the point ever since, speculating that she did not; that it was a horrible misadventure, a misfired attempt to stage a ‘Lady Lazarus’-style resurrection from which she would arise, purged and purified, to begin her life anew. But I think the evidence on which this assumption is based can be read in quite the opposite way to show that (alas) she did indeed mean to end her life.

For a start she did not take an overdose, as she did for her first suicide attempt in 1953, but chose instead the common and more reliably fatal method of asphyxiation by domestic gas. For this to have been a gamble surely implies knowledge and calculation which Plath may not have possessed, or which may have been beyond her in her terminally distressed state: knowledge of how long it took a person to die in this way, and calculation of the time she would therefore need to switch on the gas in order to stand some chance of rescue. Given the imprecise nature of time-of-death estimations, even in modern forensic science, we cannot know exactly what time Sylvia Plath did turn on her oven; only that it was not a last-minute gamble but long enough before 9am for sufficient gas to have seeped down and stupefied her neighbour Trevor Thomas in the flat below. (Her remark to him, ‘I am going to die and who will look after my babies?’ also suggests that the decision to suicide was a done deal by the night of February 10th).

And she took advantage of a perfect ‘window of opportunity’: she would not lie long undiscovered, expose her children to excessive risk, or traumatise a friend, neighbour or her husband Ted Hughes with the finding of her body, because she was expecting a new nanny to arrive at 9am – a stranger who could loosely be termed a health-care professional, someone Plath may have felt would be better equipped to cope with such a situation.

Finally there is her note, the instruction to call her GP, Doctor Horder. The doctor would not have come equipped with the emergency life-saving equipment an amblulance crew would carry, but he was equipped with an understanding of how severely his patient had been suffering in the last weeks of her life; maybe she viewed Doctor Horder as a living suicide note, a trusted medical man more capable of explaining her final act than was Plath herself, in the grip of her dreadful desperation.

Of course, we can’t know – the only person who could tell exactly what happened and why is Sylvia Plath herself. My hunch is that she had simply had enough of living with crushing bouts of depression, exacerbated in the winter of 1962-63 by general ill-health, atrocious weather and the misery of her marriage breakdown. I do so wish she could have toughed it out longer… gone back into therapy, found lasting relief from the condition that blighted her life – spared everyone who loved her, above all her children, the pain of her premature death, and survived to enjoy the great fame that instead she received posthumously.

So I remember you today, Sylvia Plath, and raise a glass to your memory. Rest in Peace – or perhaps I should say, ‘Rage in Perpetuity’, fill the afterlife with your magnificent verse. Perhaps you’d like that better.