Where Ghosts Gather… Usborne's "Ghosts" book in the Fortean Times

In August 2019, I spent an hilarious and fascinating afternoon with Christopher Maynard, writer of the classic 1977 book Mysteries of the Unknown: Ghosts, reissued by Usborne Publishing in October this year. It became a feature entitled “Where Ghosts Gather” in issue 385 of the Fortean Times, dated November 2019. The full article is now here…

WHERE GHOSTS GATHER

In 1977, Usborne published World of the Unknown: Ghosts, the children’s book that inspired a generation of junior Forteans. Four decades on, following a concerted fan campaign, the book is back in print… and the perpetually haunted Bob Fischer tracked down its pleasantly surprised writer, Christopher Maynard.

The man responsible for some of my more potent childhood nightmares is sitting opposite me at a picnic table in Old Spitalfields Market, basking in the syrupy East London sunshine of a late summers afternoon and – quite frankly – he’s at it again.

“There was an animal called the Behinder,” says Chris Maynard, in the mellifluous Montreal accent that has lost none of its delicious resonance since he left his native Canada for post-swinging London in the early 1970s. “You can tell when you’re being followed by a Behinder, because the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and stand up. And the way to check that you’re being followed by a Behinder… when that happens, whip around really fast. If there’s nothing there, but you’ve still got that feeling, you know you’re being followed…”

Good grief, Chris. What do they look like?  

“You can feel them, sense them, almost taste the fear they engender, but see them? Never! I’ve heard tell that you would drop dead if you ever saw one face to face. Though I take that with a pinch of salt…”

Forty years on, the architect of my 1970s night terrors is proving to be brilliant, engaging, and very funny company.

In 1977, Chris poured this fascination with the ghost stories of his Canadian childhood – told in hushed tones around the crackling fires of woodland summer camps – into a book that became a ubiquitous, and thrilling, mainstay of every British school library for years to follow. Ghosts was one of the earliest successes of the nascent Usborne Publishing house, one third of a trio of books issued under the umbrella title The World of the Unknown… the others being, inevitably, Monsters and UFOs. Its 32 pages are packed with tales of ancient hauntings, outlandish folklore and indispensable practical advice for primary school-age children with a healthy curiosity about what lies beyond the veil. Lovingly and vividly illustrated, it strikes a perfect balance between comic-book dynamism and factual reportage, all seemingly custom-designed to fire the imaginations of a generation of youngsters whose formative years had already been delightfully tainted by an upsurge of interest in all things supernatural. This, remember, was the decade of Rentaghost; of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films; of Horror Top Trumps and Shiver and Shake comics. 

“Peter Usborne, the owner of the company, would be sitting in the bath,” laughs Chris, “and he would think ‘Let’s do something on dinosaurs. Fossils and dinosaurs… and then we’ll do something on the Ice Age and we’ll bundle it up.’ And somewhere along the way, the idea of folklore came up… which is why Ghosts was bundled with Monsters, which was bundled with UFOs. He would have just come in and tossed it onto the pile, and the editorial teams would have picked it up and said ‘Yeah, we’ll take that one.’ And that was it, that was the brief.”

So was it something that Chris actually pitched to write?

“I really can’t remember! Most likely what happened was that somebody would have come in and said, ‘Chris, these are the books we’re thinking of doing over the next year, which ones do you fancy running with?’ And I’d say ‘Yeah, I’ll do the Ghosts one… that’ll be a lot more fun.’ It just struck me as something that I could have a shot at. It struck a funny bone.”

“UFOs,” he confides, bashfully, “are not my cup of tea…”

I was around seven years old when I first discovered the book, nestling in a shadowy corner of Levendale Primary School’s modest library, somewhere between Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, a well-thumbed haul of Target’s Doctor Who novelisations, and a dusty, shamefully-neglected collection of the Children’s Brittanica. I can still remember the head-freezing pall of terror that enveloped me upon my first glimpse of a randomly-opened page; the collection of “Mystery Photographs” that swam back and forth through my nightmares for months to follow. There was the glowing, spectral figure of a woman in a flowing, formal gown, descending the stairs of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, captured on camera in 1936. There was the grinning driver of a 1950s Hillman Minx, entirely oblivious to the spirit of his recently-deceased mother-in-law, sitting expectantly on the back seat behind him. And – most chilling of all – there was the translucent figure of a spectral monk beside an elaborate altar, “taken in the early 1960s by the vicar of a church in England.” The hollow eyes of this latter apparition, two ragged holes cut into a white death shroud, seemed to bore into the very fibres of my being. I was convinced that my inadvertent eye contact with this terrifying spirit had, effectively, alerted the agents of the paranormal to my existence, and that a parade of malevolent ghosts, spectres and poltergeists, headed up by the towering, black-robed monk himself, would be gliding silently up the stairs to claim me in my sleep that very evening. As Chris’ text solemnly declares: “All three of these pictures are considered by experts to be genuine.”

If the experts were convinced, then so was I.

And yet this proto-panic attack inexplicably failed to deter me from investigating the rest of the book, and being somehow both terrified and intrigued by the stories within. I discovered “Tom Colley’s Ghost”, the spirit of the 19th century mob-leader, whose restless spirit was shackled to the rotting remains of his gibbeted body. In Tring. I winced at the fate of the phantoms of the Battle of Shiloh, grimly and ceaselessly re-enacting this brutal 1862 conflict of the American Civil War. I read wide-eyed about the Arabian “Afrit” ghost, whose rising could only be prevented by the driving of a fresh nail into the bloodstain of its associated murder victim; and of “Black Shuck”, the demon dog that haunted “lonely country roads, graveyards and old gallows sites”, distinguished by its “single cyclops-eye, as large as a saucer, in the centre of its forehead.”

And, obviously, I vowed never to set foot in “The Village With A Dozen Ghosts”: namely Pluckley, whose assorted spooks are vividly described beneath photographs of their respective haunts, all laid out on a detailed road map of this sleepy Kent idyll. Keen to hook up with the “White Lady of Dering”? Head for the burnt-out husk of Surrenden Dering manor, where she still glides silently through what remains of the library. From there, it’s a short walk to the Church of Saint Nicholas, where the 12th century “Red Lady” – “buried in a sumptuous gown with a red rose in her hands” – stalks the graveyard. Cross over Dicky Buss’s Lane to find “the hanging body of the schoolmaster”, a victim of suicide in the aftermath of World War I, whose phantom corpse, suspended from a laurel tree, “is said to be visible to this day, swinging in the breeze.” And then, on your way back to the railway station, pay your regards to “the ghost of the screaming man”, a brickworks employee “smothered to death when a wall of clay fell on him”, whose spirit still “screams in the same way as he did when he died.”

The book is an extraordinary feat of research, and I was intrigued to note that folklorist Eric Maple had been credited as “Special Consultant”. Maple, born in 1916 in Essex, was the son of a spiritualist medium and a voracious collector of folk and occult tales; his magnificently-titled works The Dark World of Witches, The Realm of Ghosts and The Domain of Devils forming a quintessentially 1960s triumvirate of books, published – entirely appropriately – by Pan.

“When I started doing research in libraries,” remembers Chris, “I realised that Eric Maple had a long pedigree. We tracked him down, and got in touch with him, and he’d been researching and writing folklore books for years. We wanted him as an advisor, as much to help me wade through this mountain of stuff that was out there. I was working through public libraries at the time, and he would have steered me towards newspaper libraries as well.”

The still-extant Society For Psychical Research is credited too, along with its one-time rival, the sadly defunct National Laboratory of Psychical Research. Chris has fond memories of making contact with a community of paranormal enthusiasts and societies that were arguably enjoying their heyday, in a 1970s Britain whose fascination with the otherworldly frequently crossed over into the mainstream media.

“They were these wonderful, eccentric little corners that we only discovered as we were working,” he smiles. “And they all had cuttings libraries – they’d been amassing folklore for years. And they would have regular symposia for people around the country… for all I know, people around the world. I never figured out the depth of all this. So they would be a real source of stuff that might not be in the broader public domain. That was really helpful, and Eric was particularly good at steering us to those kinds of places, and winkling out little bits and pieces.”

The double-page spread on Pluckley, however, was the result of an expedition made by Chris and Usborne art director David Jefferies, a day of bona fide ghost-hunting that makes him especially proud. “I like the fact that we did Pluckley,” he beams. “We went and did the research in the field. It was great, really delicious. [We had] the demented idea that we had to overlay it onto a map, so that was the one occasion when we actually took ourselves out and spent a day wandering around… and to my way of thinking at the time, it was a particularly successful page. This was important…” (We have a copy of the book on the table, open at the Pluckley double spread, and Chris is pointing proudly at one particular illustration.) “The compass! We wanted you to be able to orientate yourself, and made it a map where you could actually locate these various objects…”  

But did any unsuspecting members of the Pluckley public not wonder why two strange men were wandering around their village all afternoon, taking photographs?

“I suspect,” laughs Chris, “if they had seen us, they would have thought we were estate agents! Or someone from the council. Why else would you be taking pictures of houses, and measuring up?”

Reading Ghosts as an adult, it’s clear that my seven-year-old self overreacted somewhat; certainly with regard to a curious period of 1980, when I became convinced that the White Lady of Dering had forsaken Pluckley for the wardrobe in our spare room. Although the stories and illustrations presented within are as chilling as I remember, the book frequently adopts a laudable stance of objective distance, and is filled with reminders for young readers to form their own judgements. “Ghosts are supposed to be the appearances of the spirits of the dead in a form visible to the living,” reads Chris’ introduction. “Whether they really do exist is still a complete mystery, but perhaps this book will help you to make up your mind.”

Elsewhere, there are accounts of “ghost stories” subsequently explained away as the results of flooded sewers and amplified alarm clocks, and – my favourite – the 200 metre-tall “Spectres of the Brocken” on the summit of a German mountain, which transpired to be the shadows of climbers, cast onto banks of cloud by a gently setting sun. The unambiguously-titled section “Sense or Nonsense”? even includes a bar chart displaying the results of an 1890 survey of 17,000 people; a mere 1,684 of whom claimed to have had a supernatural experience. Was all of this, I bravely ask, something of a Fortean approach?

“We adopted that,” nods Chris. “We stood back… we were the scientists. We were the researchers. And we just brought to the table the things that needed to be told and explained. We would have done exactly the same if we’d done a book about aeroplanes: we would have talked not as a manufacturer, not as a passenger, but purely in a factual way with that deadpan style… in fact, deadpan is precisely what it was! And my own feeling now, reflecting on what yourself and what other people have been saying, talking about your memories… I’ve come to realise the extent to which that approach made it possible for youngsters to engage with the material. Not because it was a rip-roaring story – they got their rip-roaring stories from somewhere else! – but because this was just factual, and their own imaginations could then pick that up and run with it and go… what if that’s real? Did I actually see that? What did my sister tell me that time? And that’s where, suddenly, the fascination comes in.”

Given this approach, is Chris slightly disconcerted that the book proved so terrifying to at least one unsuspecting seven-year-old?

“‘Thrilling’ works better for me than ‘terrifying’!” he laughs. “I would probably have been mildly shocked if someone said ‘You know… you’re going to scare the Bejesus out of kids.’ I wanted the kids to take something away, and feel that they owned a bit of knowledge, and had an insight into something about the world, an insight that may return fuller and more complete. They could sit down at the dinner table with their parents and expound… display what they had learned, talk about it, ask questions, ask their grandparents, run with it… that kind of thing. Start a conversation that would build upon this little pool, this little island of knowing that they had extracted.”

Since its publication, Ghosts has become a totemic symbol of the “haunted” childhood. The day after our meeting, I tweeted a photo of Chris holding up a rare, pristine copy of the original edition (a book I had to borrow from Usborne’s offices on the way to meet him; they’ve become an incredibly scarce collector’s item), and awaited the reaction. By the end of the day, 411 likes and 75 retweets later, I had been overwhelmed by a cavalcade of Proustian nostalgia from fellow children of the 1970s. “To the mid-forties set, he’s like our fourth dad – the other three being your actual dad (or stepfather or guardian), your favourite male teacher, and of course, Geoffrey from Rainbow,” tweeted writer and podcaster Paul Childs. “Chris Maynard is responsible for the person I am now!” added author and paranormal investigator Robert Johns, whereas fellow supernatural enthusiast Justin Cowell was merely full of gratitude. “I sincerely hope you thanked Chris for scaring generations of children,” he tweeted. “Some of whom were inspired enough to never stop being fascinated by this intriguing, delicious subject!”

Meanwhile, the most astute observation came from the shadowy mastermind behind the Things That Go Bump Youtube channel: “I bet Mr Maynard has no idea how many people consider him a hero and an inspiration…”

“No idea,” confirms Chris. “I’m over the moon. I mean, we all dreamed that what we were doing was important. We told ourselves that. We’d sit in the pub after work, and we’d say ‘you know… we’re knocking these books out, and yeah… we’re making life better. We’re giving kids tons of things to read.’ But we never could measure it. There were no ‘likes’, there was no internet, there was no social media, no real awareness.”

Ghosts was only one of “about 80” non-fiction books that Chris wrote in a twenty-year period from the mid 1970s onwards, and was published at a time that he now considers to be a halcyon era for the industry (“It was like producing music at the time of the Beatles and the Stones…” he tells me, “To be there, at that time… the golden age…”). And his level-headed but engaging approach to this most otherworldly of subjects clearly inspired a generation of budding Forteans, whose fascination with the likes of “Gef, the Talking Mongoose” (whose clawed paws I was convinced would one day poke through the cracks in my own bedroom ceiling, as the book’s alarming illustration suggested) has come to shape our adult pastimes and professions.   

The 2019 reissue campaign began, curiously, in Finland, where – back in the 1970s – the book had been licensed to publishers Tammi, and published under the title Noidan Käsikirja. A Facebook group formed by Finnish fans gained almost 3,000 members, and led to an August 2018 reprint that sold out within a week; with the country’s latest sales figures now surpassing 18,000. Meanwhile, back in Britain, film director Ashley Thorpe and his Nucleus Films team contacted Usborne to request an interview with Chris; citing the book as a major influence on their forthcoming animated feature Borley Rectory, due for release this October. They found themselves in touch with Usborne marketing director Anna Howorth, herself a fan of the book, who was inspired enough to set up an online petition, hoping to convince the publishers that a UK reissue was a viable proposition. 1,000 signatories later, and with a promise in the bag from League of Gentlemen, Inside No. 9, and – indeed – Borley Rectory star Reece Shearsmith to write a new foreword, the deal was sealed.

“Again, amazement and thrill!” grins Chris, when I ask for his reaction, and he gushes with enthusiasm as I press him on the subject of the film. Although the infamously spook-plagued rectory itself is never mentioned by name in the book (there were, apparently, potential legal issues at the time), it clearly provided the inspiration for the “Haunted House” double page spread, detailing the trademark signs of a textbook ghost infestation (“an old skull screams whenever it is moved from the house”; “a bloodstain on the floor cannot be removed”), and Chris has been a willing participant in the film’s bonus features, with director Ashley Thorpe making a distinct impression on him. “A lovely guy from Exeter…” muses Chris, “who had in his school library a copy of the book that he took out regularly, and it lasted and stayed with him. He crowdfunded the various stages of the film, and part of the story that he told was his joy at taking a book that inspired him, and finally realising it in this wonderful animated film. And what he hadn’t expected was people then to say ‘Oh, I remember that book!'”

“We’ve broken down the walls of resistance to blowing off the dust from books that are twenty years out of date, and reissuing them like this. We’ve never had a revolt from below…”

Chris retired from full-time writing in the late 1990s, but is still clearly fizzing with energy and inspiration. In the two hours that we spend together, surrounded by the effervescent hubbub of the market stalls, he brims with ideas, anecdotes, thoughts and opinions: they tumble out of him, joyously, in a ceaselessly entertaining flood. “Two hundred years from now, people will be doing books like this about the ghosts of Old Spitalfields Market, and you and I will be sitting here,” he grins. “We are the hauntings of the future…”

As we part, and I begin the slow amble back to Liverpool Street station to return the original Ghosts book to Usborne’s bustling Farringdon offices, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I whip around fast, but there is – of course – nothing there.

But thanks to Chris, I’ve still got the feeling. 

The reissued edition of The World of the Unknown: Ghosts is available now from Usborne Publishing…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/World-Ghosts-Christopher-Maynard/dp/1474976689/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=usborne+ghosts&qid=1577725559&s=books&sr=1-1

Thanks to Chris Maynard, to Anna Howorth and Emma Baxter from Usborne, and to Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books.

The Scarfolk Annual, Richard Littler… and Merry Christmas!

Christmas morning! Without exception, the most exciting morning of the year. A head-spinning rush of excitable sleeplessness (In 1981, I stayed awake constantly from Christmas Eve morning until the early hours of Boxing Day – with a table football from Romer Parrish’s toyshop in the offing, sleep was impossible), giddy anticipation at the delights to come, and a wild, morning sugar rush on the only day of the year when it becomes socially acceptable to eat a Toblerone before 9am.

When I raced downstairs at six or (if my parents were lucky) seven o’clock, I would be greeted with a pile of brightly-wrapped presents stacked carefully below the branches of our silver Woolworths tree, its fragile plastic twigs groaning wearily beneath the weight of the entire Teesside tinsel reserve. After a few delaying tactic formalities (pot of tea, coal fire lit, curtains open to reveal drizzly twilight, local radio switched on because TV programmes didn’t start for another hour and a half), I would be allowed to “sort out” the presents into piles; individual stacks of oddly-shaped gifts for my Mum, my Dad, my Gran, my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose… and then a dizzily exciting mound of goodies for me, inevitably the largest of the lot. I was lucky, and I was spoiled, and with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight, I can’t thank my parents enough for that. God knows, they must have worked themselves into the ground for our Christmases.

During this giddy sifting, it was – of course – essential to attempt to guess the nature of each present before the wrapping came off. And the easiest to identify by far were the annuals. A4, hardbacked, reassuringly solid… there’s something about the very distinct weight of them that still transports me back to childhood Christmases, whenever I lift one from the self in 2019. There would be Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee annuals, of course, but – as I grew older – also Doctor Who and Blue Peter, publications that combined the “Cor!” rush of fun comic strips with worthy, educational features and stories, and often rather disconcerting illustrations. They never could get Tom Baker quite right.

These publications have all provided the inspiration for the new Scarfolk annual, a devastatingly dark and unerringly accurate pastiche of the genre. Writer and artist Richard Littler, the genial self-proclaimed mayor of this fictional, dystopian, 1970s North-Western town, joined me to share some memories of his favourite childhood annuals, and to discuss the influences on his own rather wonderful book…

Bob: Congratulations on the Scarfolk annual… has it been a long time in the planning? When did you start thinking about this, and compiling material?

Richard: Thank you! I had the idea shortly after the release of the last book, but it took a while to collate the ideas for content because I was working on other projects. I was also still regularly creating Scarfolk blog posts, but an annual requires different content, so I decided to take a break from the blog in order to focus on this new Scarfolk direction. Throw a move to another country – and a few other issues – into the mix and suddenly a couple of years have zipped by.

It’s a brilliant homage to the annuals of our youth, always seemingly published by the mysterious World Distributors. Can you recall particular 1970s annuals that left a distinct impression on you as a kid? Any particular features, stories or comic strips you’d like to share?

When I was very small, I was fond of Playhour and Disney annuals. I suffered from night terrors, and I’d leave the light on so that I could see the happy cover of my Disney annual as I tried to sleep. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from countless horror films, juxtaposing something creepy with something innocently childlike tends to somehow make matters worse. When I was a little older, my favourites were the 1968 TV Tornado annual, which contained strips of The Saint, Tarzan, The Man from UNCLE, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and others. Print technology changed a lot in the early 1970s, so it felt ancient with its rough paper and gaudy colours when I bought it from a school jumble sale, circa 1977. Another oft-thumbed annual was Ghost Special No. 2, which is where, as a six-year-old, I first encountered Borley Rectory, in a factual feature alongside Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun-style cartoons. There weren’t any ghostly photos – just pictures of rubble and remains – but it still unsettled me.

I remember finding a certain ‘wrongness’ to 1970s annuals, too… the Doctor Who annuals, for examples, often had illustrations that bore little resemblance to the actors  in the series, and there would be educational articles too, unconnected to the show. Was that feeling something you remember, and kept in mind when working on the Scarfolk annual?

Yes, I recall that well. Buffering the true, series-based content, there were many pages in annuals only vaguely connected by theme, especially factual or puzzle content. The 1976 Doctor Who Annual, for example, contains a feature about the signs of the zodiac, and the 1978 annual has an educational piece about the Apollo mission crew emblems. They were quite lazy, really: anything to do with time or space went in. “Doctor Who is about time, and they called him grandfather, so let’s do a chapter about workmen who clean grandfather clocks”. I parodied the loose space theme in the Scarfolk Annual, as well as other nebulous fact pages… such as the page about the origin of “things”.

The strip artists also frequently used existing source material in their work. In the 1976 Doctor Who annual strip called “Neuronic Nightmare”, the character Skizos is actually a sight rejigging of Vincent Price from the film Madhouse (1974). In the story “The Mission”, the character called Tamrik is a reworked image of Charlton Heston. In honour of that kind of thing, there’s an illustration in the Scarfolk Annual that I based on an image from the 1922 Scandinavian horror film Häxan.

The annual itself is bitingly political in places – which I know has always been a part of Scarfolk, but have recent political events made Scarfolk seem closer to 21st century reality than it’s ever been? “Foreigner Identification Badges” actually seem terrifyingly plausible, as do government statements dissuading people from protesting…

I think it might be the other way around to some extent: the 21st century is getting closer to Scarfolk – or any number of dystopias – than it has been for a while. If real-world events start echoing motifs from dystopias, many of which are cautionary tales, it’s time to make sure that totalitarian and socially-extreme ideas don’t start to become normalised. That said, Scarfolk isn’t a fixed artefact like a novel. Because it’s a blog, there is some leeway and it can more easily “interact” with the latest political and cultural developments as they occur.

Has that come as a sad surprise to you over the last few years? You launched Scarfolk in 2013, which now seems like a relatively stable era in hindsight… did you have any inkling back then, that Scarfolk would become so relevant to modern life?

I didn’t at all expect that it would become so relevant to modern life. Looking back, it was an almost an innocent time. Back in comparatively utopian 2013, Scarfolk’s dystopian aspects were quaintly surreal. Since 2016 particularly, real-world developments have become absurd and tribal, Trump being a perfect personification of this. A real step back. Every time I see or hear Trump I can almost feel the human race regressing.

I loved the comic strip “Waugh in the War”, with the insane, titular “hero” determined to kill everyone… including his own soldiers. I actually remember being a little unsure as a very small kid was to whether World War 2 was still being fought in the 1970s, because it still just seemed to be everywhere. Were we still fighting it in our heads, do you think?

The 1970s were only 30 years from the war, very much within living memory of two, maybe even three generations, so it was bound to feature prominently in culture as we tried, as a society, to define what it all meant. Children’s books were full of simple tales of war-time heroism and “beating the Jerries”… as featured in comics such as Commando, Warlord and Battle, not to mention the innumerable films. Sadly, I think a lot of people still hold onto this idea of the war, which almost defines “Britishness” for them. We even hear it in mainstream political discourse. It’s facile.

I laughed a lot at the feature about “IFOs” as well – “Identified Flying Objects” – which gives supernatural significance to ducks and aeroplanes. And the “Seance Poodle”, too! Do you remember the 1970s as an era when the paranormal became an unlikely element of mainstream society? Not just in the media, with reports of ghosts on Nationwide and the like, but also everyday life… universities were still conducting “psychic research”, and I suspect belief in things like the Loch Ness Monster would have been pretty widespread. It was a pretty credulous era.

The supernatural was very much presented as scientific, rather than pseudoscientific, in the 1970s. As you say, university departments had psychic laboratories and parapsychology departments. It was all taken very seriously; it wasn’t joked about, and TV presenters didn’t make light of it at all. In fact, the same broadcasters also presented the news and other factual programmes. Books about UFOs, ghosts, Nessie, spontaneous human combustion and ESP were always in the non-fiction section rather than being in the “religion, spirituality, and new age” type category, which is where I tend to see them now.

Also, I don’t know what it was like anywhere else in Britain, but in the north where I’m from, people still went to spiritualist churches and visited mediums. Maybe they still do, I don’t know. Despite the modernist and brutalist architecture springing up around them, and the dreams of utopian, technological futures, interest in the supernatural was very much present – in fact, it accelerated. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a reaction to the concrete, glass and steel (and increasingly godless) progress that alienated some people.

Is that credulity part of what makes the era so ripe for satire? An era when people believed information provided by the mainstream media, and the government, in a way that they maybe don’t in 2019…

A few years ago, I would have said yes, the 1970s was a ripe era for satire – and it was – but seeing what has occurred in the past handful of years, I would say that gullibility is still a huge concern. Many people have been deftly manipulated into believing untrue, flagrant absurdities. Arguably, it’s worse now: At least in the past, people had the excuse of “innocent” ignorance, in that there was less access to information and knowledge. Nowadays, information is at everyone’s fingertips and, arguably, it doesn’t take too long to discern whether or not a piece of information is factual, manipulated or fabricated. More than ever we can see confirmation bias at work and this is frequently exploited by controlling agencies such as governments, corporations and media sources (and often so-called ‘alternative’ media sources).

On a lighter note, with “Scar School” in mind… which of the Play School toys did you find the most unsettling, and why?

It has to be Hamble. She’s a cursed toy. She’s supposed to be baby but she looks about 80 years old. She’s like a witch or the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. She’s to be avoided at all costs.

I also love your ear for little phrases that remind me of feeling scared at school. Reading the annual was the first time in 35 years that I’d come across the phrase “Middle C of the piano”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I felt like I was supposed to know, and that scared me. Any other phrases like that that haunt you?

There are so many, and I try wherever possible to include words and phrases that aren’t in use as much as they once were. Even something simple like “Hallo” or “hullo”, instead of “hello”, which I remember from reading Enid Blyton books as a kid. The phrase that unsettled me the most – “for more information…” – I adapted into Scarfolk’s slogan: “For More Information Please Re-read”. I panicked whenever I read official documents, whether at school or elsewhere. And if you reached that kind of phrase at the end of forms, and still didn’t understand, you were in trouble. Too frightened to ask for fear of looking stupid, or risk a clip round the earhole from a proudly abusive teacher, you’d just smile and pretend that you got it.

This is complete nosey parkery on my part, but a recurring theme in Scarfolk is the breakdown of trust (or the attempt to drive a wedge) between children and their parents.  The annual even has a feature called “Are You Parents Hurting You?”! Dare I ask… what’s your relationship with your own parents like, are you exorcising anything here?

Ha! My relationship with my parents is fine. Honestly (honestly!). Writing from the point-of-view of Scarfolk Council is really only like an actor playing an unsavoury character. “Method” blogging, if you will.

One central concept of the annual is about indoctrinating children – or anyone, I suppose – so I studied the brainwashing and coercive techniques of cults. One method is to break down the trust between a prospective cult member/victim and their closest family members and friends with the ultimate goal of pressuring the victim into cutting all ties so that they are under the full control of the cult. Once a cult has broken down the victim’s connection to the outside world, it starts eroding their concept of themselves as individuals. So, you know, I thought that would be a good idea for the basis of a children’s book. As you do.

Any future plans for Scarfolk that you could share with us? Could the annual become an, erm, annual occurrence?

It could only be an “annual annual” if I involved other artists and contributors, because of publisher and printer deadlines. The turnaround would be too tight for me on my own. Involving others was originally the plan for this book, but when I realised how much it might cost to commission so many contributors, I took on the onerous task of doing everything myself. I’m so cheap. I ended up having to teach myself to draw in the varied style of the old annuals. Thankfully, and very fortunately for me, the art in some of them is quite crude, but I still I had to improve myself enormously just to reach the dizzying heights of crudity!

Thanks so much to Richard for his time, and typically thoughtful and fascinating conversation. The Scarfolk Annual is available here…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scarfolk-Annual-Richard-Littler/dp/0008307016

And thanks, from me, to everyone who has been part of this blog throughout 2019! It’s been a joy to put together, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has contributed and commented, or simply read and enjoyed these articles. Particular thanks go to David Sutton and all at the Fortean Times. Lots more to come in 2020, in the meantime… wishing you all a merry – and hopefully not too haunted – Christmas.


Bob x

Hattie Cooke, The Sleepers and Spun Out of Control

The 1970s felt like a very “ill” decade. Those of us who were children at the time were well aware of the impact of commonplace maladies, and we all share fond memories of gazing woozily at BBC Schools programmes while attempting to shake off the unpleasant effects of mumps, measles or chickenpox. Or, indeed, incorporating unspecified abdabs into our childhood games… it was an era when simple playground pursuits like “Tag” were rebranded as “Bugs”, or even “Fleas”, the sole object being to contaminate as many of our closest friends as possible with the lethal, imaginary infection of our choosing.

Then, of course, we could wallow in the welter of TV and film favourites that took a myriad of plagues and maladies as their starting point. There was Survivors, of course, but even Hollywood blockbusters had their moments: 1978’s Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a spate of unexplained brain-deaths in a Boston Hospital; and the lesser-known Patrick – from the same year – sees a troubled Susan Penhaligon despatched to care for a comatose young man who nevertheless seems to exhibit worrying telekinetic powers.

Good grief, there was even Only When I Laugh, an illness-based sitcom, with James Bolam, Peter Bowles and Christopher Strauli seemingly stranded indefinitely in a grim hospital ward with three non-specific, long-term lurgies.

All of these memories sprang to mind when I first listened to Hattie Cooke‘s excellent new album, The Sleepers. Released by the cassette-friendly Spun Out Of Control, it forms the soundtrack to an strikingly original narrative, an approach that has become the label’s intriguing trademark. The story is that of a worldwide sleeping sickness that baffles the scientific community, and the young woman – Maude – whose son becomes affected. When he is kidnapped by a violent sect who are determined to sacrifice the snoozing victims to achieve misguided absolution, she decides, in desperation, to infiltrate the cult’s membership. But unexpectedly finds herself falling for a fellow member…

It’s an album of beautiful, cinematic electronica, and I asked Hattie about its inspirations and evolution.

Bob: Your previous work has been as a more traditional singer-songwriter, although you’ve incorporated a few synths here and there. Had it always been in your mind to make a full-length instrumental album?

Hattie: I’ve always loved soundtracks, and classical music especially. When I was about 12 or 13 I started asking for soundtracks as Christmas and birthday presents. I was really into Amelie, and the Yann Tiersen soundtrack in particular, and I pretty much played it on repeat. I think it was around that time that I starting thinking “One day I want to compose music for films…” So I guess you could say I’ve always had the inclination to do it. But realistically I had no idea what that meant in principle or how it would sound, just that I wanted to be like all of the composers I admired. That feeling has never gone away, especially as I’ve gotten more into film as I’ve grown older.

The ideas behind The Sleepers are quite specific, and it has a set narrative… did you always intend it to be a musical work, or did it ever cross your mind to write it as a novel, a short story, or even a film?

The Sleepers actually started out as something else entirely. Technically it started out as a dance record about four years ago, but I scrapped it. And then last year I came back to the files and realised that there was some good stuff that I could develop into something new. At the same time, my friend Nick [as Nicholas Langley and Dark Half] was about to release a concept album called Rebel Convoy, on Spun Out Of Control, and he inspired me to try something cinematic myself. The music kept reminding me of a post-apocalypse, dystopian movie, and so I started to imagine a film in my mind, and began to re-write the music as a soundtrack.

Initially I was thinking along the ‘nuclear apocalypse’ line but, somewhere along the way, the music began to take on a life of its own. When the album was half-written, it had a much more dream-like quality. So I spent a few days coming up with a new plot. I came up with some pretty terrible ones but eventually I landed on the idea of the The Sleepers, which was partly inspired by the Oliver Sacks book, Awakenings. It was on my bedside table at the time.

I had wanted to release a short story along with the music, but ran out of time. In my wildest dreams somebody would turn it into a film and let me write the screenplay.

The idea of a worldwide sleeping sickness is so delightfully reminiscent of those blockbuster 1970s “disaster” books and films, and I guess the obvious comparison is something like Coma. Did you have that kind of thing in mind when you started thinking about The Sleepers? Is there a secret Michael Crichton fan in us all?

Gosh, I could talk for hours about 1970s films; Marathon Man, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Two-Lane Blacktop, All the Presidents Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Deliverance, Papillon… the list goes on and on. But when I was making the album I kept thinking about 1970s science fiction, and dystopian films like Logan’s Run, Westworld (Hello, Michael Crichton) and THX 1138.

The scene in THX 1138 where Robert Duvall is climbing up that ladder trying to escape to the outside world, as those terrifying robot men call after him, kept playing around and around in my head. That’s why I titled one of the tracks ‘Ladders’, as a private nod to that film. 

How did you approach the album – did you have the whole story planned out, and then compose music for each plot point accordingly?

Sort of, but not quite. I definitely didn’t approach it as logically, or as constrained as that. It was a bit all over the place to begin with, but once the album was half done and I knew what the plot was going to be, I began to refine the whole thing. It became clear that I had a specific sound that I was trying to capture. I was going for a dream-like calmness that also had a sense of tension about it, like something ominous or dangerous was about to happen. I have no idea if I pulled it off!

Certainly, at points I’d think, “I have too many dreamy tracks, I need to write one that’s more upbeat, with more tension and energy” and so I would sit down and write until something good came out. But mostly I just tried to put myself into the various emotional states of the characters. I’d picture something happening to them in the film, and then write the musical version of their thoughts and feelings. It’s an abstract process that’s hard for me to get my own head around.

Can you talk us through any characters that you had in mind for The Sleepers? Tell us about Maude! And the cult member she falls for…

Maude! She’s so determined to get vengeance for the death of her son. She’s heartbroken. But the pain drives her. She becomes obsessed by the need to “do something”. She thinks that if she can join the cult, and rise up the ranks, that she might be able to take it down from the inside, so to speak. And then she meets this guy at one of the cult meetings, I never gave him a name, but we can call him Bob after you…

I’m honoured…

And so Bob is part of the cult too, but unlike the other members, there’s something familiar about him, something in him that she recognises but that she can’t put her finger on. And there’s this tension between them, sexual or emotional maybe, it’s hard to say. But Maude is beating herself up, because she’s really only wanting to focus on her plan. And more to the point, she doesn’t understand why she’s falling for this sociopath who seemingly thinks it’s acceptable to steal children from their beds and sacrifice them.

Eventually they discover that they’re both fake members. and Bob has his own vendetta against the cult. So they connect over their mutual hate and desire for revenge. It’s all very odd and backwards, romantically speaking, but then again I was going through a break-up when I wrote the album, so that might have something to do with it!

As a maker of electronic music, who are your inspirations and influences? I think I picked out hints of John Carpenter and even Mark Snow’s music for The X-Files, but I’m happy to be told that I’m wrong!

It’s funny, so many people – after they hear the music – say to me that I must like John Carpenter. Truth be told, I had no idea who he was at the time. Turns out I’ve seen a ton of his films, but I definitely wouldn’t be able to sing you one of his themes. I’ve always been into classical musical, especially minimalism and chamber music. I spent most of 2017 and 2018 listening to Arvo Part, Henryk Górecki, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, John Tavener… that sort of thing. I think that feeds into what I do.

Obviously I don’t have an entire orchestra to hand, and actually I can’t even read music. I just have an old iPad with GarageBand on it, so I take my influences and impose the dodgy built-in synth sounds on them, and it comes out sounding like John Carpenter or New Order or whatever. It’s a total accident. The music I make is really just a product of my own various limitations. I’d probably be writing for a 72 piece orchestra, or a string quartet, if I could. 

How did you link up with Spun Out Of Control? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

I wrote the album specifically with them in mind. After Nick showed me a preview of Rebel Convoy, I was really keen to release a concept album too. The artwork, the sound, the concept… it was all so exciting to me. And Spun Out of Control are a very cool label. So I spent a few months working on a demo version of the album and then I contacted Gavin [Stoker, label boss] via Twitter… pretty much just asking him to take a listen and let me know if he might be interested in releasing something with me.

I suppose it’s quite a lot of work to put in without any guarantees, but I think it helped knowing that Spun Out Of Control were supportive of my first album… plus Nick at Third Kind Records said he’d release it if nobody else wanted to, ha! But Gavin has been great, very helpful and very encouraging. This was my first attempt at a concept album/soundtrack so it was a great feeling to have him on board with it. He’s a man who knows his stuff! It’s also very exciting to be the first female artist on the label.

They’re on a sensational run of form with their covers… what was your first reaction when you saw the sleeve for The Sleepers?

The artwork, by Eric Adrian Lee, is always mind-blowing. It’s genuinely half the reason that I wanted to work with Spun Out Of Control, because he does the majority of the covers for them. It’s funny though, because I gave him very different suggestions for the artwork when we initially spoke, and then he got behind on another project… so it took a few months. The anticipation was ramping up. And then when I saw what he’d come up with, it was a bit of a shock. Not a bad shock, just not at all what I was expecting. He said he found the album very relaxing and wanted to convey that.

I thought that was very funny. I guess it’s impossible to know what other people are going to think of when they hear your music. The artwork looks fantastic though, very striking and iconic, the sort of thing that belongs on a full-size film poster. I’m a little concerned that the artwork is better than the music!

The revival of the cassette is an interesting phenomenon, too. Do they hold a lot of sentimental value for you?

The fact that I’ve released two albums on cassette is sort of an accident, to be honest… it turns out that the labels who like my music are the sort of people who also like to release stuff on cassettes. I’m OK with that, although I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t desperate to release something on vinyl. I don’t even own a cassette player… I did when I was a little kid, but I only used it because it had an FM/AM radio, and I liked tuning into AM and listening to strange French music.

It took me two and a half years to listen to my first album on its physical format. I was drunk on whiskey and wine, and when we tried to play the B-side the tape went all weird and warped. We wound it back using a pencil but it happened again so we stopped trying. I still haven’t listened to The Sleepers cassette yet. I have one by my beside and I’ve very proud of it, but I’ve always found it surreal and a little uncomfortable listening back to my own music.

Has it whetted your appetite for more scores, and instrumental albums? What will the next album be?

I’ve had another solo album in the pipeline for two years, but I haven’t had the guts to record it properly. It’s wrapped up in a lot of emotions and I guess I’ve been putting off “going there”. But certainly I’d like to write more scores, and I’d love to score for a real-life film, not just one that I’ve made up in my head!

Partly I was hoping somebody would hear The Sleepers and ask me to score a film for them. But since it came out I’ve been asked by Alex White from Electric Soft Parade and Brakes to collaborate with him on a new album. He’s a wonderful songwriter, so hopefully that will happen at some point in the not too distant future. It would be nice to work with somebody else. I’m kind of a hermit when it comes to my work, but I think maybe it’s time to come out of my shell a little bit.

Thanks for Hattie for a fascinating chat, and The Sleepers is available here…

https://spunoutofcontrol.bandcamp.com/album/the-sleepers