There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow

The word inauguration has its roots in the Roman augury, the rituals of divination used before major undertakings to divine the best way to ensure a favourable outcome. The act of augury is undertaken by an augur, sometimes known as an auspex (from which we derive the modern word auspicious). In the illustration below the augur wields their lituus, a wand used to direct the augury.

Perhaps the most famous augur – ex avibus – uses both the flight and song of birds to divine the future. This is why birds are released even today during major events and celebrations. Other augurs existed, however: the presence of thunder and lightning (ex caelo); the distribution and consumption of food (ex tripudiis); the actions of certain animals like dogs and wolves (ex quadrupedibus); the manifestation of “ominous events” (ex diris).

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St Walpurga and the Night of the Witches

February 25th marks the death, in either AD777 or 779, of St Walpurga. Born in Devon, the young Walpurga was entrusted by her father – St Richard the Pilgrim – to the nuns of Wimborne Abbey when he set out on pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately, Richard died in Lucca and never reached Rome but Walpurga’s years of training under Wimborne’s abbess left her in good standing; she was accomplished enough in her letters to write the vita of her brother, St Winibald (Walpurga’s family was undoubtedly a holy one), and because of this she is sometimes referred to as England’s first female author. She is often depicted holding a book, as in the painting below.

Santa Walpurgis (The Master of Meßkirch, c. 1535–40)

Walpurga spent many years travelling Europe and evangelising until she settled down to become abbess of the double monastery of Heidenheim and Hahnenkamm, in the south of modern Germany. She is the patron of many German towns and is also invoked by sailors and those beset by storms.

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Dicing With Death – How D&D Learned to Love the Gothic

This talk on how Gothic theory can be used to subvert and develop play within Dungeons & Dragons was presented on 19/07/20 as part of the Romancing The Gothic series of lectures, organised by Dr Sam Hirst. My first lecture on Gothic D&D, focusing specifically on Ravenloft, was presented as part of the Gaming the Gothic conference and can be found here.

I Am Stone – R Murray Gilchrist and the Gothic Weird

This talk on the weird fiction of Sheffield-born author R Murray Gilchrist was presented on 08/11/20 as part of the Romancing The Gothic series of lectures, organised by Dr Sam Hirst. My lecture on Gilchrist from the Tales of Terror conference can be found here.

Godflesh: Flowers (1994)

This short piece was written in response to a call from the editors of Zero Tolerance, who I was writing for at the time. They were looking for short pieces that covered a musical moment; something that wasn’t just a favourite piece of music but which developed our understanding and appreciation of sound as a concept This was mine.

Taking musical inspiration from the anger and dead-eyed despair of late eighties inner-city life as much as from bands like Swans and Killing Joke, Godflesh crashed onto the scene like a wrecking ball through a council high-rise. My introduction to the band came in the form of the 1994 single Merciless, a monstrous slab of bass and guitar feedback with anguished vocals soaring over everything. Yet it’s not the title track that is my Godflesh “moment”, it’s the b-side remix Flowers. Arcing from submarine sonar-pings to juddering, monotone guitars and back again it’s almost so minimal as to be non-existent yet it embodies the inhuman menace that is Godflesh at their best.

Not One Word Wasted: A short introduction to even shorter fiction

On the 12th September, 2020, I was asked to run a workshop about micro-fiction for Dr Sam Hirst’s Romancing The Gothic series of webinars and lectures. I thought it would be useful to condense some of the ideas I presented into a blog post, mainly so I would remember them.

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Weirdwards: Balehouse, Daniel Pietersen

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

Inevitably, I’ve succumbed to the temptation of reading some of my own writing for Weirdwards. Each of these six pieces are a drabble, a story that is exactly one hundred words long. They’re good writing exercises in themselves but trying to make something that has a narrative in such a short space is a wonderful puzzle. Whether I’ve solved it with these tales is not for me to decide but I like how they link into each other, often unwittingly.

I grew up by the sea, in the Northwest of England, and the Balehouses of these stories is based on the coastal villages we would visit on family days out. Sitting in a car park, windows steamed from bags of chips. Walking along cliffs, along beaches. It’s something I enjoy even as an adult. That eerie dreariness, too tired to be melancholy, that suffuses the British seaside.

These stories were first published on the Another North website, where you can also read a semi-biographical essay I wrote about childhood and memory.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: The Red Crown, Mikhail Bulgakov

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

Perhaps best known for The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov also wrote a number of short, satirical works that fit very well with the Weird canon. The Red Crown is a tale of madness and regret, told from the shifting perspective of a narrator who has been driven into a sanitorium by the horrors of Russia’s post-revolutionary Civil War. he speaks of his brother, a cavalryman: “He had ridden away in a grey officer’s cap; he came back in a red one. And the day had ended. His face had become a black shield under a coloured crown. Where his hair and his brow had been was a crimson halo with yellow flecks.”

This “crimson” crown is, in reality, the blood and exposed bone of his brother’s skull, shattered by an artillery shell. It is implied that, whilst not yet dead, the brother soon will be and, if not, would be better off if he were.

The brother returns repeatedly through the story, standing proudly in his red crown, and this proves too much for the narrator who admits that “I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave”.

Bulgakov was born on the 15th May, 1890, in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of Ukraine). He died on the 10th March, 1940, of the kidney disorder nephrosclerosis.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: When I Was Dead, Vincent O’Sullivan

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

I often plan which story to read each week but sometimes I like to flick through a book at random and see what stands out. This is how I stumbled across Vincent O’Sullivan’s When I Was Dead, first attracted by the link between the story’s title and the song of the same name by Endura.

When I Was Dead is a strange tale. It is told from the perspective of someone who, we learn, has recently died but doesn’t yet realise (or, perhaps more properly, doesn’t accept) the fact of their death. And nor are they a sympathetic character, as we might expect someone who has died to be depicted. The narrator is bitter and hateful, berating his servants even as they realise his death and mourn him. This immediately sets up a conflict of voice and makes the story much more aggressive than it might normally be. Robert Aickman described When I Was Dead as “a spasm of guilt” and this is surprisingly insightful; the denial and horror the narrator experiences is palbable.

O’Sullivan himself was an interesting character. He was friends with Oscar Wilde – who declared, after reading one of O’Sullivan’s poems “what maladies he draws from the moon!” – and Aubrey Beardsley amongst other figures of the time. For the first part of his life O’Sullivan lived off earnings from family investments and property holdings but, in 1909, his brother managed to disastrously fumble the finances and plunged them into poverty. O’Sullivan died in Paris, 1940, where his life, as Aickman tells us, “ended anonymously in the common pit for the cadavers of paupers”.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: The Voice in the Night, William Hope Hodgson

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

William Hope Hodgson was what you could call something of a character. At the age of 13 he ran away from home to become a sailor and, on his return at the age of 22, opened a School of Physical Culture – what we would now know as a body-building gym – to share the knowledge he had gained from defending himself against violence on the highs seas. Yet it is through due to his large body of weird fiction that he is most well-known today, most prominently his tales of occult detective Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and the terrifying masterpiece of strange science-fiction that is The House on the Borderland.

He also wrote a vast body of short fiction, published in various magazines and journals. Many of these tales, like The Voice in the Night, are set on the open sea that consumed so much of Hodgson’s early life. The Voice in the Night, first published in the November 1907 edition of Blue Book Magazine, is an unsettling piece of work – it tells of a chance encounter with an eerie character, who tells the story of how he is slowly succumbing to fungal parasitism – and one that unnerves all the more when we consider its concerns of infection, isolation, category breakdown and abject disgust in light of the current pandemic. It is a horrible piece of writing, in the very best of senses.

The Voice in the Night has inspired many other works of related fiction, perhaps more notably the Japanese horror film Matango, and Hodgson himself was an inspiration on the likes of HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Olaf Stapledon and China Miéville.

Hodgson was killed in the Fourth Battle of Ypres, April 1918, when he was hit by artillery fire.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.