Ghosts I Have Seen
by Violet Tweedale
Violet Tweedale is described in the 1910-1912 Every Woman's Encyclopedia thusly:
“Exceedingly versatile, Mrs. Tweedale has been described as "a woman of all works." She can paint a landscape and cook a dinner; she can write a book and make a shirt; she can etch a sporting scene and embroider the finest, designs; she is a brilliant pianist and has the reputation of being one of the best political speakers of the day. "I never know an idle moment, and I never know an unhappy one until by some misadventure I am forced to sit with idle hands," is a remark she has often been heard to make.”
But who is, or should I say was, Violet Tweedale?
The Rev. Charles, Mrs. Tweedale and unidentified specter
She was born in 1862, the daughter of Scottish publisher and editor Robert Chambers (Chamber’s Journal). A wealthy eccentric, he loved his work and reportedly gave millions away – Violet said he loved jewels and would carry a bag of diamonds with him at all times. Chamber’s voracious appetite for knowledge meant the house was crammed with books which allowed Violet, who had inherited her father’s quizzical nature, to educate herself (as it was common at that time for the daughters of the house not to receive a formal education). At 16 she was a ‘reader’ at the journal and was, at that age, considered quite brilliant, immersing herself in literature and art while assisting her father.
In 1889 she moved to London, spending her time writing and doing charitable work with the poor and sick in the pestilent soul-destroying slums of the East End. She released her first novel And They Two in that year. In 1891 she married a gentleman whom she considered her ‘literary soulmate,’ Clarens Tweedale. Together they were quite flush, both in spiritual vim and financial vigor. They travelled, read and did everything one expects of a well-heeled, socially connected couple of that time, counting Lords, writers, free-thinkers and spiritualists as friends. Violet was a close companion of Theosophy co-founder Helena Blavatsky, and a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which counted Aleister Crowley and the poet Yeats as members.
She published more than 30 novels, dying at the Villa Languard, Torquay, Devon on December 10, 1936 predeceasing her husband by 14 years.
Victorians are an odd lot to come to grips with. They were innovators, loved gadgets and new things, loved to travel, loved foreign experiences, loved to do good. They believed – as I do - that hanging a work of art in one’s home can save a life. They were also in love with empire, loved only what they owned, were bigoted explorers, xenophobic (it is commonly believed that the novel Dracula was born of their fear of foreigners), lovers of pornography and pain, shooting animals, ardent adherents to class by helping and yet holding down the poor…all with impeccable manners and the customs of royals.
Reading Ghosts I Have Seen was a delight to me. These are not the ghost stories of today, there are no Ghost Hunters with EMF readers, infrared lights and video cameras. These are the stories of spirit mediums, ghost photography, gooey ectoplasmic manifestations, The Society for Psychical Research and the British National Association of Spiritualists. These are stories heard each night as a child in the nursery, the rustling of a silk dress rushing up unseen stairwells. These are stories of cocktail parties with the literary lights, travels from Nepal to Brighton. This was a time when a horrific war had just ended not only killing sons and husbands, in fact more than 8 million deaths, but forcing one to question God and the Victorian invincibility. The book travels a serendipitous course through her spiritual and spectral experiences, while we hear of the social, political and artistic shining lights of the day along the way. And, with a breathtakingly straight face she talks of the ‘proof’ provided by doctors that mediums lose weight while in trances – proven when she effortlessly heaved an enormous medium who, in a trance, had fallen on the floor into the next room for a brandy.
It is a pleasure to be able to bring this book back to life (pardon the pun). Like all of the House of Pomegranates Esoteric imprint, they are designed to resemble books from the time when they were published; those books you find on dusty shelves in flea market stalls, paper wrapper gone, slightly worn and filed incongruously next to an almost complete set of Nancy Drew’s. In the coming months we will be releasing a slew of esoterica, starting with the first of the Bulldog Drummond mystery series of the ’20s and Ghosts I have Seen. We do so hope you enjoy them.
15 years ago my heart stopped working, my heart literally broke. Since then I've tried as hard as I could to fight the meanness of the world with art and beauty. A goal is to put on a sumptuous new production of Dracula in 2019 with a newly written play, music and dance. It means I have to stay alive that long. I started a playlist on Spotify called Music for The Prince of Darkness to orchestrate it as I fuss with the minutia. You're more than welcome to listen and even add. Thank you.
Screen shot from the hugely popular Mr. Vampire series from China
In the third instalment of my Cecil Herbert Woolley, Occult detective, adventure series, I have Woolley, his beloved Clemeny and their trusted ‘man’ Benedict travel the Trans Siberian Express to China; to Shanghai to be specific.
The route is long and arduous, leaving Moscow and running, over the course of seven days, through Yekaterinburg (though known as Sverdlovsk at the time) the site of the infamous Romanov Family massacre, Irkutsk (the Paris of Siberia), Lake Baikal (the oldest and one of the biggest in the world), the Urals, the rolling steppes of Manchuria and through the Great Wall of China before stopping in Beijing (Peking). From there, it is a short 10-hour train ride to Shanghai.
At that time opium ruled Shanghai. It had made the fortunes of so many ang mo kui (slang literally meaning red-haired monsters – a racial slur aimed at foreigners, which, the more I read, seemed apt). England wanted silk, porcelain and tea, had cheap opium from India to trade and demanded access to the Chinese market. Through a series of elaborate trading schemes, which resulted in the first Opium War, English forced the Chinese government to sign the Treaty of Nanking (1842), which opened the way for further opium trade and ceded to England the territory of Hong Kong.
In Shanghai organized crime was so powerful and so sophisticated the city fathers handed over policing of the city to them. The Green Gang, the largest of the secret societies, run by Du Yuesheng (aka Big Ears Du), was so powerful and influential they openly gave money to Chiang Kai-Shek and were often called in to break up union meetings and labour strikes.
This was the 1920s, you did not require a passport to enter Shanghai, making it a destination of the stateless, the criminal, the wastrel, stray and vagabond. They all washed up on their muddy, swamp ridden shores with the hope of sanctuary, and easy access to gambling, opium, drink or the sordid nightlife. To partake, or to be the partaken.
Having never travelled the Trans Siberian, and having only been as far east as Hungary to try and capture much research was needed. You can imagine the daunting task of painting this rich and tragic history as a background to my story without it being in any way tawdry or insulting. Bram Stoker travelled no further than the local library for his facts and a Baedeker served as his own version of Google Street view. So I set out to do the same. For now I would have to sightsee sitting at my desk.
My story deals with the occult, with ghosts and memory. Being ancient, China has a rich and fascinating relationship with the dead. Disney found this out when proposing a theme park and found The Haunted Mansion just wasn’t how an entire population thought of ghosts. I whole-heartedly recommend Yangsze Choo’s magical novel The Ghost Bride for a very elegant primer into the fascinating customs and rituals of death and the dead.
One such tradition that I stumbled upon in my research, and to this day the image of which I cannot get out of my head is the Corpse Herders, or the Hopping Dead. “Herding corpses” is the tradition of bringing corpses back to their hometowns. In Chinese culture it is considered very inauspicious to be buried far from home. A person’s soul, body, home, and land are entwined. If the body cannot go home, the soul is lost forever in the world after death and caused to suffering everlasting turmoil (see The Ghost Bride). To remedy this out of piety, feng shui and ancestor worship, families would hire Corpse Herders, usually a Taoist monk, a master and his student, to go to where their loved one is buried and essentially, walk them home.
There is little written history, but oral stories remains to this day. It is said that the priest first checks the deceased’s date of birth. He begins to utter spells, and waves a peach wood sword to check whether the spirit will obey his commands. Terrifyingly the priest generally doesn’t take just one corpse, but will wait for other similar orders so that they can all leave together. Before they set off on their journey, the priest performs a ritual, sticking a symbolic talisman on the forehead of each corpse and utters incantations. The talisman is yellow paper with red ink depicting characters, images, or symbols that can conjure power and manifest energy. The bodies then rise up and follow the priest. As rigor mortis has set in, the dead can only hop. I cannot imagine a more terrifying image than a series of hopping corpses passing by ones window at night following a dour priest ringing a bell.
You won’t see anything like that is The Haunted Mansion (as much as I love it) in Florida, California, Paris or Tokyo. (But you can get a cocktail, FYI, in the Tokyo Disney)
I’ve been so enjoying the research for my next book I’ve left poor Woolley, Clemency and Benedict stranded at a train station in Shanghai for the last 3 months. I’d best get back to it, I’m sure, no matter how fascinating the landscape, they’re desperate to get the plot underway.
The first two instalments of my Woolley mysteries, The Blood Red Heiress and The Uninvited Guests are for sale worldwide. Do enjoy them. And do please keep in touch!
Toronto, July 1, 2017
p.s. there is an excellent article about this on the very wonderful blog The Order of the Good Death here
The tide is low! April 23rd (St. George's Day) marks the launch of David Keyes' newest novella The Uninvited Guests, another occult mystery with consulting detective Cecil Herbert Woolley and his beloved Clemency de la Tour. Read what evil mischief befalls a birthday party on an island in the south of France. Spoiler alert, there will be much cocktail drinking! Available worldwide on all web book sellers.
Watch this page for a live on Facebook reading and cocktail party coming in May!