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Written and directed by Mark Gatiss, this was the BBC’s 2018 A Ghost Story for Christmas offering. It is the short but not very sweet tale of tetchy veteran actor Aubrey Judd’s nightmarish encounters in a radio studio, where he trying to record a story for his regular Man in Black-esque horror series (which was latterly presented by Gatiss himself, who must at some point have had to apply for extra fingers in order have the necessary number required to insert into all the horror filled pies his many digits are stuck in). His script seems to have been replaced, he complains to the young producer. And then it doesn’t. And then it does, and an alternative horror story unfolds, an episode from Judd’s history he has spent the subsequent years trying to forget. But his past has very much resurfaced in every sense of the word.


Judd is played by actual veteran actor Simon Callow, as version of himself, it seems, which is no bad thing. He delivers both Aubrey and Simon’s lines with relish so fruity you could stick it in a jar and call it piccalilli. Callow’s an actor I’ve had a soft spot for since I first saw him extravagantly snog Brenda Blethyn in the sitcom Chance in a Million in the 80s. Rather marvellously, last Christmas he recorded a short anthology of ghost stories for Audible, which are linked by a slight but enjoyably hokey ghost story in which he plays another version of himself, with Sally Phillips as his producer. The readings themselves are splendid and perfect for spooky festive hunkering.


I was slightly underwhelmed by the Dead Room when I first saw it. I think I was hoping for something along the lines of Gatiss’ Crooked House which I loved and remains one of my Christmas TV staples. With it’s modern functional setting of a radio studio, this is a much less flamboyant offering but it’s grown on me - taut and claustrophobic, I really enjoyed watching it in preparation for drawing this. It also gave me the challenge of drawing a series of sounds. It’s on Youtube. Altogether now “S-s-s-single bed…”

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I was first introduced to this gentle tale of an ancient haunted house via the 1986 television series, broadcast just before Christmas. I can even remember that I had a cold when it was on, which only seemed to make it better somehow, swaddled as I was in a duvet guzzling Lemsip and Lockets. Me and my brothers had been big fans of the BBCs adaptation of the Box of Delights a few years previously and this is very much in the same vein. Both feature an upper middle class boy whose parents live abroad, both go to stay with relations during the Christmas holidays and both make friends with uncanny types, and have brushes with ancient evil.


The Children of Green Knowe is an altogether more wistful, melancholy affair compared to the boisterous adventurousness of the Box of Delights. Even the approach to the Green Knowe, the house of the title is allegorically portentous - the fens have been flooded and our hero Toseland/Tolly is first carried á la St Christopher and then rowed to the house by the evocatively monickered retainer Boggis. Once sealed off from real life entirely, and in the safe custody of his great grandmother, Linnet Oldknowe, he is largely left alone to explore and make his own entertainment. In the evenings, his great-grandmother tells him stories of the house’s former inhabitants, all of whom were his relations, and particularly of three children who lived and died there in the 17th century. It becomes apparent that these three have never actually left Green Knowe and slowly reveal themselves to Tolly, befriending him, at least to the extent that a four hundred year old spirit can befriend you. As the story progresses, Tolly becomes to know more of the house’s history and his deep connection with it through the dozens of ancestors who have lived and died within its walls. Even his name resonates through the years - he’s only the latest of many Toselands of Green Knowe.


It’s a blanket of a story, a soothing wrinkle-handed stroke on the fevered modern brow for both reader and Tolly himself. He arrives alone at the house, apparently friendless, his mother dead, his father thousands of miles away, and finds that he is a part of the magnificent tapestry of the house’s history. Time itself becomes irrelevant, and the worries and bustle of the world outside fade, literally cut off by the rising floodwaters and then a heavy fall of snow. It’s a house which embraces its history to the extent that its past inhabitants forget to be dead. It’s not all sweetness and light though - the children that whisper and giggle in empty rooms died of the great plague, never to reach adulthood, and in the garden lowers the brooding demon tree Green Noah, a terrifying folkloric presence. But the easiest way to avoid him if I remember rightly is to run back inside where Granny is serving tea and cakes, just like her granny did and hers before that. Green Knowe itself was based on the 12th century (!!!) Cambridgeshire manor house that author Lucy M Boston bought in the 1930s and patently fell completely in love with to the extent that she set many of her books in it, and not only the Green Knowe series. I can’t say I blame her. After watching the series, and subsequently reading the book to my children, I’d quite like to move in myself and hang out with the ghosts, eventually becoming one myself. The TV series was not filmed there but at Crow’s Hall in Suffolk, which is Tudor in origin, but my picture does feature the original Green Knowe. As for the illustration, this was definitely one of those ones I just had to stop because it could have gone on forever. I’m not entirely happy with it, especially the ghosts who a) you can’t really see and b) look ridiculous if you zoom in on them so don’t bother. Hey ho! Onward.

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I’ll be the first to admit it, I didn’t have a clue what a tractate or a middoth was before I first read this, but obscure as it is, the title really is weirdly redolent of cobwebs and dusty arcane knowledge. Garrett, a university library assistant has a nasty encounter with a spiteful clerical ghost as he searches for a volume of the Talmud, an obscure Jewish text, for a twitchy cove called Eldred. This sets him unwittingly on the trail of a lost will, thanks to a few barely credible coincidences, and ultimately a romantically inclined happy ending, a rare if not unique occurrence in a James story.


My illustration draws heavily from the Mark Gatiss adaptation of the story from the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas strand from 2013, Gatiss’ directorial debut. Set in the 1950s, it’s beautifully shot and is so obviously saturated with the man’s love for both M R James and celluloid spookiness (yes, that IS an actual genre) - it’s an homage but he makes it his own I think. It’s kind of slight but lovely to look at and boasts a fantastic cast, including a delightful turn from Roy Barraclough as the amiable but indolent library porter.


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