Hello everyone, I am quite chuffed to announce the Samhain/Halloween launch of the third instalment of the Cecil Herbert Woolley mysteries, A Shadow Over Shanghai. It is a beast of a novella that will hopefully thrill you right down to your opium dens. Please enjoy this sneak peak chapter and on Halloween, please be sure to purchase your copy for the new year. I will add a link when it is ready for sale. Thank you always.
Cecil opened the cabin door to let Clemency out, then followed into the dimly lit corridor. He turned and locked the door. The long passage was lined on one side with cabin doors, on the other windows and ornate wood panelling burnished to a warm glow. The minimal lighting was from wall sconces with red shades. The windows, black from the night, were frosted from the cold air. Blue velvet curtains hung and swayed with the motion of the train. The train was almost empty due to the country’s inner turbulence; the few passengers on this trip were there because they had to be, or were foolish, or both. It seemed as one revolution ended, another more bloody and unrelenting started up. The country was righting wrongs, bringing itself into the 20th century, but what little gain was hard fought and hard won. The past did not want to let go. In the long golden hallways of the palaces, the ghosts that had wandered for millennia did not want to leave.
Woolley unclasped a window and slid it down. Instantly a cold gust of air blew in. “What a place in which to be friendless,” he said and turned to Clemency. “Clemency, darling, thank you.”
“For what, darling?”
He took her in his arms, “For being perfect, perfectly perfect to me.”
“Oh Woolley, honestly, when you say such things I think you really don’t know me at all. How could you think me perfect? I’m an average girl.”
“Ha! Average! Shall I make a list, starting with your lovely brain and ending with your lovely bottom? And no girl can be said ‘average’ who is somehow related to the secret service and loaded. Let’s not forget that. Loaded.”
Clemency kissed Woolley. “It is my money, isn’t it – my assets?”
“Absolutely not. I would love you if you were penniless, a beggar girl. You were made to be loved by a lost misfit like me. We are misfits, darling. Let’s hope there’s an excellent wine list!”
Just then a small man in a white dinner jacket pushed by in a hurry. “Excuse,” he grunted as an afterthought.
“Extraordinary,” said Woolley, frowning and letting go of Clemency while pausing to appreciate the feel of her bare breasts moving beneath the fabric of her dress. “There is a fellow with indigestion.”
“He vaguely resembled a bug, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Not a nice bug,” said Woolley, “not nice.” People are in such a hurry these days, he thought. How can one be in a hurry when they are on a journey of 9,259 kilometers that takes eight days to complete? There’s nothing really to hurry to except perhaps the bar car and the hope of food that doesn’t still have eyes left in it. Woolley pushed up the window and with a gesture, encouraged Clemency forward.
They wound their way along the corridor hesitantly, as the rocking of the train was quite pronounced. Outside the train they caught a shimmer; they looked out to see squares of orange light, small houses, and further off the glow of large fires burning. Clemency shivered. “A festival?”
“A revolution, more than likely. From now on we must be very mindful of what we say and who we talk to.”
“Oh Woolley, is it that bad?”
“I fear it may be, darling. But let us focus on the food and drink before us, and the fact that you and I are gloriously alone on a magical train, warm and in love as we speed through the chilly Siberian night.”
Clemency smiled and slipped her hand into Woolley’s, gripping it tightly. They kissed. More passengers jostled by. Women in traditional costumes, women in elegant dresses and feathers, men in dinner jackets, many in military garb, each acknowledging the couple in their own way.
“I fear we’ve become a spectacle,” said Clemency.
“Wherever we go, my darling, wherever we go.”
They hushed down the carpeted way, eventually reaching the coupling section. Woolley cracked the door and they were hit with an instant explosion of sound and cold. “Lord!” shouted Woolley to Clemency as he quickly pushed the adjacent door and hurried Clemency through. They entered a warm vestibule with more varnished wood and a door with a window of peacocks etched in the glass. Through that was the dining car. The smell of food and cigarette smoke was intoxicating.
“Shall we?” asked Woolley.
“Yes, let’s.” Clemency replied, and they slid the door aside.
The dining car was lush and overheated, half full of glistening patrons. The decorating scheme was suffocated with ornamentation. Gold everywhere. On the ceiling were polished wooden beams with garish patterns in between, and atop the purple velvet plush backs dividing the booths was curling metal work. Each table was lit by a small deco lamp, dangling crystals swaying with the rhythm of the train, and had a small fluted silver vase. Crisp white tablecloths and a patterned carpet that looked of trampled-upon ikons. There was a smattering of tourists, some army officers and a few men who looked all business. The whole gave the impression of a bought second-hand hotel restaurant. Everything made on the cheap, everything lacking that luster that said it was well made, the carpet frayed at the edges, the booths worn, lumpy and ill upholstered. Woolley turned to Clemency, “Brings to mind Teignmouth in South Devon where I acquired food poisoning.”
Clemency tittered, “Charming.”
An unnaturally thin, pale and pomaded maître’ d in an opulent train uniform approached with menus.
“I am Woolley, I believe my man reserved….”
“Mr. Woolley!” purred the man. “No need to introduce, your table is here. I’ve held the best for you.” Then, turning and giving Clemency a wink, “right by the bar.”
He guided them to their table and put down two menus and a wine list. “The cellar is quite good, sir.”
“Worries me a little,” smiled Clemency as they settled into the booth.
“What does, darling?”
“He said, ‘Our cellar is quite good.’ Can you imagine some poor cabin boy having to shimmy down there for some of the 1878?”
Cecil snorted and considered the menu. “Interesting translations here. I will avoid the intestinal chicken – you?”
“Same for the pork eyes. Lord, what could that be?! Not really. Do you think?”
“Should we order them?” smiled Woolley.
A waiter in a lesser version of the maître’ d’s uniform (less frog, more stains) appeared by their table, pressing himself against the edge for balance. “Would you like something to drink?” he said in a thick, unrecognizable accent.
Cecil smiled – foolish question. “I’m assuming it’s vodka from here on in?”
The waiter clicked his heals. “No sir, we also have a number of gins, English gins.”
“Ah. Darling? A martini to refuel, take stock, etc.?”
“Two icy, dry gin martinis please, shook, olives. Thank you. Then, while we’re drinking we’ll think about eating. Sound good to you darling?”
“I’ve never been more in love.”
Suddenly without warning the train ground to a sudden, horrific, screeching halt. The sound of crashing dishes and cutlery was deafening. Many languages and dialects loudly brought to the fore a myriad of deities. The waiter fell back and hit the floor hard. Woolley shot up to offer his assistance. “No, no, please,” said the waiter smoothing his uniform with one hand, his hair with the other. “I am quite used to these disturbances.”
Clemency pulled the cutlery from her lap and placed it back on the table. “What could it be, I wonder?” she asked, looking out at the black night and seeing only her own reflection. In the distance there were three brief flashes of light.
“Ah,” said the waiter.
“Ah? That meant something to you?” questioned Woolley.
“A rebel has been shot, probably found on the train by the guards and chased off. That was gunfire. I’m sure he is dead now. We can move on.”
Cecil looked at Clemency and frowned. “A rebel?”
“Yes,” said the waiter, righting the vase that had toppled and mopping up the water. “They are vermin.” The train jostled and began to move.
“But what will become of him?” asked Clemency.
The waiter leaned forward to straighten the tablecloth and said, “The wolves will dine well tonight.” Then, changing his tone, “It is not of your concern. They are not really people. I will get you your drinks,” and walked away.
Clemency nervously picked up the silver vase. “What a lovely blue flower,” she said.
“Siberian squill, late this year,” said Woolley.
Clemency smiled and reached for a cigarette. Woolley leaned over and lit it. She couldn’t help but notice his hand was shaking.
With drinks ordered, Clemency cast her gaze out of the window. “Oh Woolley, what is this place?”
“End of the old, start of the new. Kicking and screaming.”
“Quite right Mr. Woolley,” said the large man in a breathy, gravelly voice from the booth beside them. “Forgive me,” he continued. “Let me introduce myself. Moffatt St. Andrew Woodside-Chang. It is an honour to finally meet you.” He moved his head as in a bow, losing his chin into the folds of his neck. “And you must be Miss Clemency de la Tour, an honour also.” With great delicacy he raised a teacup with his enormous hand as a kind of toast, his movements accentuated by a strong scent of patchouli.
Cecil took him in but could not place him. He resembled a frog, a large amphibious creature stuffed into a well-tailored suit. “I can’t say we’ve met before, forgive me, have we?”
“No sir, I only know you from reputation, your war record of course speaks for itself. But I’ve been fascinated by your work, especially in the occult, for some time. You have not heard of me?”
“I confess I have not, I apologize.”
The man made a small moue of discontent, “I concern myself mostly with the East. The western Occult I find is only interested in bickering, cliché, rebellion, profit and scandal. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Order of the Golden Dawn? Yes?” He paused dramatically and dipped his bejewelled hand into a bowl of rose water. “The H.B. of L., the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor?”
Woolley smiled, the drinks had arrived. He watched with anticipation as the waiter delicately placed the frosted glass in front of him. After the server had retreated Woolley held up one finger and taking the glass, sipped. He smiled again, “Ah.”
Moffatt St. Andrew Woodside-Chang chortled. Clemency frowned. Woolley visibly came back into himself, breathed in and began, “The Golden Dawn, why of course, you were a member? The second order, I am guessing.” Woolley assumed the man was lying.
Woodside-Chang settled back and smiled, “I was a sub-imperator tasked to gather wisdom from the East. My mother is English, my father Cantonese. I was born in Macau but educated in England. Eton, Oxford, cruelty, isolation, depression, buggery.” He waved his hands as if pushing away a dark cloud. “My parents died by mysterious circumstances when I was at Oxford.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Perhaps you’ve read my paper on The Lost Canon of Proportions of the Egyptians? No? No matter.” Again, he waved his hand. “People do not want the math, they want the romance, the mystery.” Splotches of red began to form on his face as he made a fist and shook it. “The violence.”
“Quite!” said Woolley, settling into his drink. Clemency sipped hers and under the table kicked Woolley.
“I was devastated by the death of my parents. I loved them both … deeply. But with their passing came a great light, a small fortune, shares in a tin mine, which allowed me to … do what I like, as they say. Esoterica was my obsession, the dark arts, alchemy. With this freedom I could pursue these interests without distraction. I took a house in London and began my great work.”
The waiter arrived. Woolley signalled another drink. Clemency, sensing a long night, decided to pace herself. “A mineral water, please.”
“But of course,” said the waiter. “And your food?”
“Ah, we are still considering…”
“Stay away from the meat,” Woodside-Chang said. “It’s not what they say. Keep to the fish, at least I think it’s fish.”
The waiter frowned.
Woolley smiled, “I’ll have the fish.”
“And the lady?”
Clemency snapped shut the menu. “The same. Will there be vegetables?”
“Cabbage, carrots and beets,” replied the waiter.
Woolley smiled and passed the waiter his empty glass. “I’m sure it will all be excellent.” He turned to St. Andrew Woodside-Chang. “And so in London you found your kind, people who thought like you?”
“Ha!” the man barked loudly. Startled, Clemency dropped the fork she was fiddling with. “My own kind! Charlatans! They knew nothing of the hermetic order, nothing of the ways of the elders! They were imposters, bowing down to celebrities, letting anyone in who could pay the dues. My own kind!” He ruminated, “Ha! Like life, like everything, the great religions, the great prophecies, it all started with a lie.”
“Ah, so were you able to learn anything from them?” asked Woolley, clearly enjoying himself.
“I learned to watch my ways, to trust only what I learn myself. These adepts, these so-called seers, they were all fools. I took what I could and then moved on. I read their books, slept with their wives.” He paused, making sure he had shocked, and seeing he hadn’t, continued, “Oh yes, sex magik … so important to those English prudes. They published The Mystery of Eros and tried to recruit married couples to, ahem, copulate while they danced about in some half-understood mystical energy. So English, making the servants do the work…” He paused. He had become visibly agitated and the violent red splotches on his face had turned to a solid coating of vermillion.
Woolley was amused, Clemency appalled.
Woodside-Chang took out a large handkerchief and wiped his wet brow. Taking a sip of tea, he wheezed. “I do apologize, we are in a dining car, traveling across the vast and haunted tundra of Siberia. We are not in some English salon arguing like school children. I apologize.” His voice trailed off. “As you can see, these matters matter much to me.”
Woolley smiled. The second drink had come. “My dear sir, without passion there is no forward, no, ah, thrust.” He looked at Clemency, who frowned. “I do understand. But I sense there is disappointment to this story.”
“I learned nothing. An Oxfordshire vicar with a science kit in his basement looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. Nudists and madmen all saying they know the way. Bosh and nonsense. But I had to see if perhaps they did have some truth, some golden knowledge. After working my way through all their rituals, I came to the realization they had none. Like all the great religions, they were just making it up. The sublime arrives, as Mr. Burke wrote, when religion begins its retreat.” He closed his eyes and inhaled dramatically. He opened them and smiled. “Perhaps I was a little too radical for them. I do not pretend to be a comfort…” He laughed, then made eye contact with Clemency, and said very quietly, “I am a curse!”
“Oh dear,” Clemency said, again kicking Woolley under the table.
“Yes, well, let us hope you do not curse us fellow travellers,” replied Woolley.
“Mr. Woolley, you have me wrong! I find you far and above most of my supposed ‘kind’. You are a pioneer, I could learn from you.”
Woolley didn’t like the sound of that.
The waiter arrived with their order. The fish could have been some sort of bass, Woolley wasn’t sure, and as promised, it was surrounded by cabbage, beets and carrots expertly arranged. The plates were lovely and large, printed with the logo of the train line – a scrolling text of T.S.E. intertwined. As the purple of the beet juice ran into the fish portion, Clemency could not but feel foreboding. St. Andrew Woodside-Chang sat back in his booth and lit a brown cheroot, keeping his eyes fixed on Clemency. Settling back, he exhaled a swirl of acrid blue smoke into the air. “So, Mr. Woolley, what brings you to the East?”
Woolley was fishing fish bone out of the white meat with extreme concentration. “Pleasure, as Oscar Wilde said. What should bring anyone anywhere?”
Woodside-Chang leaned forward and smiled. “Come, come Mr. Woolley, you can’t expect me to believe that. You of all people, travelling to a place that at the moment is so dangerous for an Englishman that even your embassy has advised against visiting. Surely you are here on business.”
Clemency was now finding menace in everything that St. Andrew Woodside-Chang said. She wanted to leave and was about to kick Woolley again when he kicked her first. She squeaked.
Woolley put down his fork. “It is a simple holiday…. Seeing the sights, visiting old friends, attending to some matters.”
“Ah! Then not just for pleasure,” enthused Woodside-Chang, clapping his large fleshy hands.
Clemency did not want to talk further with Woodside-Chang staring at her as he was.
He chortled with glee. “Let me guess… you meddled where you should not have. You opened a portal, you angered a spirit.”
Woolley pounded his knife down upon the table. “Good god man, not everything is of the spirit.” Woolley was visibly angry, a rarely seen state to Clemency. She reached out and put her hand on his. “I am sorry darling…the war… ,” he said quietly
St. Andrew Woodside-Chang bowed. “I, too, am sorry. I played Pandora and I apologize. I was too ill to fight in that horrific conflict, and I must be more sensitive to the feelings …”
“No,” Woolley interrupted, “you did not know, and it is fine.” Woolley took a drink and frowned. Water. He signalled the waiter, held up his martini glass and made a sweeping gesture which the waiter assumed meant, ‘keep them coming.’ Ominously the lights in the dining car dimmed, went out and then came back on. Clemency would forever be haunted by the vision of St. Andrew Woodside-Chang’s huge greasy face glowing in the orange light of his cheroot.
All illustrations © Taeden Hall
This post illustrator and all around talented person Taeden Hall writes of her experience with illustrating our Vintage Vampire Version of Carmilla*:
My educational background is in illustration but there was a time in which I barely lifted a pen; I stepped back from my drawing work to focus on surviving a dark time in my life. Carmilla was the first project I took on after that time, after several years of not drawing much of anything. It’s a true classic for any vampire or horror fan out there and I was delighted to be asked. It was a challenge creating artwork for this classic story that didn’t feel typical or imbued with the expected symbols and themes. I wanted the artwork to feel feminine and dreamy, filled with lush detail and thought. Admittedly looking upon the work now causes feelings of both faint embarrassment, for my rusty handiwork, and a pride in knowing that it was that commission that shook me out of my shadows. I hope you enjoy the illustrations alongside this beautiful old story.
*the video we made to promote the book featuring models wearing Gloomth (Taeden's fashion line) and Daniel Richler, the writer of the foreword can be watched here.
Model: CheshireCat, Photographer: Russel Hall Stylist/MUA: Taeden/Gloomth
Above: Vampire Dispatching Kit Open, Fabric Pressboard, Velvet, Brass Fittings and props, 2018
It started at yet another department store closing sale in the 70s with my mother wisely steering me clear of the toy section. However, I managed to get there anyway and there it was, a James Bond Secret Agent Case, complete with all the (probably toxic) plastic weapons I could possibly want or need. There were even plastic cigarettes (I’m sure which shot poison darts). I was eventually tugged away to look at underwear or socks and life moved on. But the thought of that James Bond Secret Agent Case never left me.
Above: Secret Agent 707 Case from Japan C. 1960s
I was a morbid child. Writing my will (“…and to you I leave my Famous Monsters collection and 3D Dracula View-Master slides to...”) at 12, rallying the neighbourhood kids to stage our own slasher films. But I also had an overactive imagination, converting my bedroom into a study complete with horrible rec-room fake wooden paneling, climbing onto the roof at night, begging my father to build me a turret, a trap door, a submarine, an underground train, a Burmese tiger trap… etc. I knew to maintain my cache I needed my own Secret Agent case, so I made one out of cardboard found in the basement and a lot of tape.
Above: David Keyes, Coffin Cigarette Boxes, Japanese Paper, Silk Ribbon and Press Board, 1987
Gradually I grew more morbid and eventually went to art school. In the late 1980’s I was in an occult shop. I remember picking up a small jar of ‘Graveyard Dust’ and the owner – who I did not know at the time was the city’s celebrity go-to witch and subsequently a successful realtor – walked up to me and said, “Wow! You sure must be mad at someone!” I’m not sure how I replied but I bought the dust and went home. I started to haunt the shop and eventually got to know the owner. One day I mentioned I made coffins and boxes and she asked me if I would make her a Steamer Trunk so she could make house calls. “Of course,” I said, having never made one.
Above: David Keyes, Witch's Steamer Trunk, Pleather, Japanese Paper, Press Board, Brass Fixtures, 1989
I was cat sitting at the time in a palatial apartment 20 stories up with a view of the city. I brought my supplies to this grand space – I had always worked on the floor in my apartment, much to the consternation of my cat – and figured out how to make a steamer trunk. There wasn’t a world wide web yet, so all answers came from the ads in the backs of magazines. I found a woman in Texas who sold trunk parts. I bought clock parts from odd hobby stores and handles and hasps from ancient findings stores that still existed in the garment district. I wouldn’t use leather even then – the idea made me queasy – so I bought a few yards of black pleather. Gradually I made something that so entranced me I didn’t want to give it away. This was so much better than a Secret Agent Case, this was a secret trunk filled with magic
Above: Toland Grinnell, Pied-à-Terre, 2007
I became obsessed with Louis Vuitton and his trunk business and artists like Toland Grinnell, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, anyone really that made worlds within worlds, that took an ordinary rectangle and filled it full of magic. Chinese puzzle boxes! The lament configuration! My love of clockworks soon had me add moving parts to my boxes, my love of haunted forests had me lining them with moss.
And then Christie’s had an auction…
Above: Page from Christie's 2007 auction catalogue
A Vampire Killing Kit, 19th Century. Who cares if it was real. Here was the culmination of all my morbid obsessions in one box. Well, a few anyway. As there was no way I could afford even the selling estimate, I had to make my own.
A little history
The kits have been popping up on eBay and auction sites since the early days of the internet. There are a lot of obvious ‘fan’ made ones, which I am intrigued by. I’ve never thought any were made to be sold as ‘original.’ Bear in mind, ‘original’ means a kit created to slay an imaginary monster. Like saying, ‘This is a unicorn horn, a genuine one, not one made by a fan.’ After the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, the story is that these kits were distributed throughout the hotels of Victorian Europe and for safety’s sake, a well-healed traveler could ‘rent’ one for the night or might even purchase one if so inclined.
The true kits were manufactured by an obscure professor named Professor Ernst Blomberg. I believe the one in the Christie’s auction was one of his. He was apparently an expert on the subject, yet I have no memory of him being mentioned in Montigue Summers distinguished works, The Vampire, His Kith and Kin and Vampires of Europe .
No matter, I liked believing there was such a thing (like spirit rapping and faeries at the bottom of the garden) and in 1989, the Mercer Museum in Doylestown acquired one. There are also at least two known ‘original’ kits sold through reputable auction houses – Sotheby’s sold one for $12,000.
Above: David Keyes, Vampire Dispatching Kit (closed), Fabric Pressboard, Velvet, Brass Fittings and props, 2018
However, in 2005, Torquay antiques dealer, Michael de Winter posted an article online (the link is a relinking of it) stating that he was the Professor and began his hoax in the 70s as a way of offloading inferior or damaged antiques.
On the blog of the British Library, Jonathan Ferguson, the curator of firearms at UK’s National Museum of Arms and Armour puts it this way:
“I suspected that they were indeed novelty items but were rather more recent than many believed. I conducted a survey of the folklore surrounding 'real' vampires, that is, dead bodies exhumed by a troubled community and ritually 'killed' as scapegoats for whatever malaise might be affecting people. Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits. I persisted, revisiting the fictional stories and movies of my childhood and beyond, noting the development of the various ingredients in the typical vampire killer's toolbox.
It became clear that the "Blomberg" kits, with their focus upon silver bullets, were very unlikely to have existed prior to about the 1930s at the earliest. Though constructed from antique boxes and contents, they were most likely not produced until the era of the classic Hammer vampire movies. Other kits are harder to pin down in terms of date and could be older, but there is as yet no evidence of this.
To some this might come as a disappointment, or even as a reason to decry the kits as fakes as some do. Would-be buyers should certainly not purchase under the apprehension that they are buying a Victorian antique as my own research has shown. So why acquire such an object regardless? Museums do collect deliberate fakes as comparators and for their own artistic and cultural merit, yet vampire kits are not fakes per se, because there is no evidence of a Victorian original.
So, if they're not fake, and not reproductions, what are they? The answer is that they are "hyperreal" or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props.
Although I had set out to 'debunk' their very existence, I came to realize that these enigmatic objects transcend questions of authenticity. They are part of the material culture of the gothic; aspects of our shared literary and cinematic passions made physical. Lacking any surviving artifact of vampirism either folkloric or fictional, fans of the gothic had created one to fill the gap. So whilst we at the Armouries still plan to scientifically test our vampire kit, and there is the possibility that it's early rather than late 20th century in date, for me the outcome has almost become moot. Vampire killing kits are genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction that still provides sustenance to our most beloved monsters.”
Above: Vampire Dispatching Kit Top, Fabric Pressboard, Velvet, Brass Fittings and props, 2018
And that to me is fine. Although my kit is an invented artifact, it is to me, and I hope to whoever purchases it, a magical work of art, a secret box to open and allow one’s imagination and whimsy free.
p.s. this kit is for sale, send me a note for details.
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!