Wings & Fire, Our New Horror Anthology, Hits Number One!

Wings & Fire: A horror anthology with 23 stories from 15 authors (The Box Under The Bed Book 5) by [Dan Alatorre, Roberta Eaton Cheadle, MD Walker, Frank Parker, Dabney Farmer, Allison Maruska, Jessica Bakkers, Heather Kindt, Susan Lamb, Geoff LePard, Marjorie Mallon, Adele Marie Park, Alana Turner, Betty Valentine, Christine Valentor]

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you may know that I write for the BOX UNDER THE BED horror series. We have, to date, released five books, all of which I am very proud. Our latest release, WINGS & FIRE came out on December 31. I am ecstatic to announce that this week, our book hit the Number 1 slot on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” page!!

WINGS & FIRE features 24 all-new, creepy, scary stories by 16 authors. (Two by me!) Other contributors include best-selling authors Dan Alatorre, Roberta Cheadle, MD Walker, Frank Parker, Dabney Farmer, Alison Maruska, Jessica Bakkers, Geoff LePard, and more!

“From the creators of the #1 bestselling horror anthology THE BOX UNDER THE BED and its #1 bestselling sequels DARK VISIONS, NIGHTMARELAND and SPELLBOUND comes WINGS & FIRE, a horror anthology with 24 stories from 16 authors.”

Two high school girls discover an old book with strange powers that causes strange things to happen. As they learn more, they realize the book may be a link to a mystical world and the people who “reside” there.

What follows is a trip into eerie places full of madness and murder, where readers encounter all things horrifying, hellish and haunting. Expect blood drinking, strange spells, love obsessions with the dead, battles of good vs. evil, and some dark, inexplicable events of real life history.

If you like my blog, you will love my horror stories! Copies available on Amazon.

And for those that can’t get enough of the macabre, please check out our previous release, SPELLBOUND, full of all-new, weird and wonderful witchy tales…

Happy Birthday Charles Perrault!

He was called the “French father of fairy tales”, a politician turned story-teller who is largely responsible for the popularity of fantasies such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Over one hundred years before the Brothers Grimm cemented German culture and language in their chilling and horrific retellings, Charles Perrault introduced what came to be known in 17th century book circles as “a new literary genre” — the Fairy Tale.

Primed For Politics

Charles Perrault was born on this day, January 12, 1628. Ironically, he was the seventh child (sometimes considered to be clairvoyants) born into a wealthy Parisian family. His father and brothers before him had been government employees, and young Charles was groomed from birth to follow in their footsteps.

He studied Law at prestigious universities and had a reputation for his quick mind and wit. He served in the court of King Louis XIV and in 1663 he was appointed as a secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to Humanities. He was later appointed to the Académie Française, a council which oversaw all matters regarding French language and literature. He persuaded the King to bring his brother Claude into court, where Claude famously became a designer for the Louvre.

Perrault was well aware of how to use clout and wield influence. His connections to people in high places helped cement his family’s place in elite society. Interestingly, years later, Perrault would write Puss in Boots — a tale of a determined cat who uses wit and charm to elevate his lowly owner to a high position.

Perrault’s writing talents were obvious. In 1668, he wrote La Peinture (Painting) to honor the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun. In 1670 he wrote Courses de tetes et de bague (Head and Ring Races), to commemorate celebrations staged by King Louis in honor of his mistress, Louise Francoise, Duchess de La Valliere.

Perrault also had a hand in designing the layout of the gardens of Versailles. In 1669 he advised King Louis to include thirty-nine fountains. Each fountain represented one of Aesop’s Fables. Water jets spouted from the animals’ mouths, intended to give the impression the creatures were talking to one another.

Years later, Perrault would write of more talking animals — seductive wolves, slick cats, birds and rabbits who could be commanded to do a human’s will.

Dangerous Liaisons

In the 1670’s an intellectual dispute began in the Académie Française between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. This was known, quite famously, as Le Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. It caused sharp divisions and much debate, not to mention bruised egos and political manipulation. The central argument was over which was to be valued more — “modern” art, created by contemporaries, or the “ancient” tried and true classics.

Perrault sided with the Moderns, taking the position that civilization, literature, art and culture must evolve together. He wrote a poem,  Le Siècle de Louis le Grand  (“The Age of Louis the Great”) which honored modern writers such as Moliere and Francois de Malherbe. Perrault saw these writers as greater than those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perrault’s stand was a landmark in the eventually successful revolt against the confines and restrictions of traditions. Interestingly, the French Revolution, overthrowing the “old monarchy” in favor of the “new rule” of liberty, would also take place in Perrault’s lifetime.

Father of Fairy Tales

Tensions at court between Perrault and his boss, the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, eventually drove Perrault from court. He retired early, in 1682 at age fifty-six. It was then that he began to devote more time to his children. (Perrault had married late in life, at age forty-four. His bride, just nineteen years old, sadly died a few years later, leaving him with three young children.).

Perrault enjoyed telling the children folk tales which had been passed on by oral tradition. These stories were told in salons and had become very popular in France. Although Perrault is credited for introducing the “fairy tale” as a new literary genre, the term was actually coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel, Baroness d’Aulnov, who was writing stories of this nature as early as 1690.

Eventually, Perrault published his own versions of the oral traditions in his collection Tales of Mother Goose.

Interestingly, Mother Goose has never been identified as a real person, but several goddesses have been associated with her. The Alpine goddess Berchta, who is said to have one goose foot, is often thought to personify her.

Perrault’s stories, particularly his versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard, emphasize the dark side of human nature. They offer the lesson that success can be achieved if one can maintain virtue — even though the world is full of cruelty, trickery, chicanery and decrepit morals. Some scholars have suggested that Perrault used his fairy tale “spin” to reflect the evil nature of human beings, as he had experienced in his long career in politics.

Wolves, Beauties, Castles and Cats

One of Perrault’s most beloved tales is Little Red Riding Hood. It was written as a warning to readers about men preying on young girls walking through the forest. For anyone who has forgotten — Little Red goes out into the dangerous woods to deliver some goodies to her sick Grandma. She gets sidetracked by a conniving wolf. The wolf sneaks away and arrives at Granny’s house before Red, then actually poses as Granny, luring Red into more trouble. (It doesn’t end well.)

Perrault ends his tale with a moral, cautioning women and young girls about the dangers of trusting men. He states, “Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves/ Are the most dangerous of all… I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are, of all such creatures, the most dangerous!”

In Perrault’s version, Little Red even goes so far as to get in bed with the Bad Wolf. This results in her being eaten alive. (Disney it is NOT!)  

Perrault remained true to his principles of favoring the “modern” over the “ancient.” He updated the ancient folk tales to fit his current audience (albeit the 17th century.) He used images and characters taken from everyday life. For example, his palace for Sleeping Beauty was modeled after the Chateau Usse, a French castle that would have been recognizable to his readers.

In Puss in Boots, the Marquis de Carabas was modeled after Claude Gouffier, the real-life Marquis of Caravaz. Perrault’s stories are full of quips, details, asides, and subtexts. Many of these are drawn from the contemporary world of fashion. (Very important to 17th c French Society,)

Happily Ever After

Charles Perrault died in 1703 at age seventy-five. This was just eight years after his first fairy tales were published. His works continue to be popular to this day, best known for their easy-to read style, creativity and deep cutting moral lessons. The Mother Goose collection was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729.

Happy Birthday Charles! Thanks for the forbidden forests, spectacular spells and magnificent magic!

Who Says Reindeer Can’t Fly?

Image

To be fair, I think this animal might be a moose. (But I like to think it is a flying reindeer.)

Pic found on twitter, I have no idea of its origin. It may be photoshopped, but it sure looks real to me! Someone claimed that the moose, deer and other animals of the region have learned to take “flying leaps” over the road so they will not be hit by cars. Sounds plausible.

Better safe than sorry.

Have a magical Christmas and a fantastic Holiday Season 🙂

Winter Solstice: The Mystery of Newgrange

Imagine an ancient monument, built 1000 years before the Egyptian Pyramids and a few hundred years before Stonehenge, by prehistoric peoples who had not yet invented paper or measuring tools.

Imagine further, that this monument was engineered with such precision that the light of the sun can only enter its inner chamber on one specific day of the year — that is, the Winter Solstice.

Strange but true. This is the phenomenon of Newgrange.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today, December 21, marks the longest night and also the return of the Sun in the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently, our ancestors knew the patterns of the sun very well, and had them in mind when they built this fantastic structure.

A Site for Sore Eyes

Newgrange is a Neolithic tomb, located in Bru na Boinne, County Meath, Ireland. It consists of a large mound, built of alternating layers of earth and stones. Grass grows on top of it. Some historians have suggested it resembles a womb. The mound measures 76 meters (249 feet) across and 12 meters (39 feet) high. It covers 4,500 square meters (1.1 acres) of ground. Within the mound is a chambered passage, that stretches for 19 meters (60 feet), about a third of the way into the center. At the end of the passage are three small chambers and a larger central chamber with an arched roof.

It is huge! To get some perspective, take a look at this photo, with tourists.

The stones used for its construction were not just any old stones. Rather, they came from places far off, and it seems a great deal of thought and effort went into the choice of them. Some boulders were brought from the Wicklow Mountains — approximately 70 miles (113.9 km) south of the site. Others were brought from the Slieve Croob Mountains — 67 miles (107 km) to the north. Still others were brought from the Mourne Mountains, 59 miles (94 km) away. Whoever built the monument would have needed to locate and choose the specific rocks, then move them from the far off mountains, most likely via the Irish Sea, and then transport them inland to Bru na Boinne. Not an easy task.

And these boulders were not lightweight!

According to Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, who began excavation of Newgrange in 1962, “there are 97 kerb stones, none weighing less than a ton, and some weighing considerably more”. The whole of Newgrange contains “about 200,000 tons of stone” total. Gigantic boulders were placed at the entranceways and at the curbs. Interestingly, they were carved and decorated with spirals and various art, which are interpreted as ancient Druidic symbols.

The House of the Rising Sun

The innermost burial chamber of Newgrange was engineered so that no light can reach it, except on Winter Solstice. On that day alone, a single sunbeam penetrates the passageway thru a special “roof box”, constructed specifically for this event. It was Professor O’Kelly who discovered this in 1967.

Back in the 1960’s, the phenomenon of the Winter Solstice at Newgrange was not widely known. In fact, it had been reduced to gossip by some of the locals.

During the early excavation, these locals would tell Professor O’Kelly of a tradition, that the rising sun, at some “unspecified time”, would light up the triple spiral stone in the end recess of the chamber. No one had actually witnessed this, but it continued to be a strong legend, and one that greatly interested the Professor. In 1967 he decided to find out for himself if it was true.

The Professor reasoned that, due to a southeast orientation of the sun at Winter Solstice, and the positioning of the sun in relation to a special “roof portal” in the monument, the “unspecified time” of light just might be on this day.

Some minutes before sunrise on the 21st of December, 1967, Professor O’Kelly stood alone in the darkness of the chamber at Newgrange, wondering what would happen. To his amazement, minute by minute, the chamber grew steadily brighter and a beam of sunlight began to enter the passage. O’ Kelly wrote of this beam “lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof six meters above the floor – were all clearly illuminated”.

Needless to say, the Professor was in awe. According to ancient legends, Dagda, the sun god, had actually built the tomb.

Upon witnessing the beautiful passing of the sunbeams, O’Kelly began to wonder if this was true. He stood rigid and transfixed. Professor O’Kelly continued his excavation and observations. At Winter Solstice, 1969, he wrote:

“Between the bright sky and the long glittering silver ribbon of the Boyne the land looks black and featureless. Great flocks of starlings are flying across the sky from their night time roosts to their day time feeding places. The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and casts a glow of light all over the chamber. I can even see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back in to the back of the end chamber.”

History and Mystery

The whole phenomenon is really amazing, when you consider the circumstances. As I stated before, Newgrange was built in 3200 BCE. It predates the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge. They were not writing on paper, they were not planning things architecturally. As far as we know, they had no telescopes of space rockets. If you look at the size and precision of the monument, you will see that even today, with U-haul trucks and modern tools, it would be hard to build! Plus they would need to have a sophisticated understanding of the earth’s movement, which, even today, is difficult for NASA!

So this begs the question: Who built Newgrange?

I don’t believe for one minute that ordinary humans built this thing, not to mention rubes running around in loincloths who had no way to measure the galaxy. (Doesn’t it seem seriously IMPOSSIBLE?)

So who?

Were they some sort of alien race? Were they gods, goddesses, or the faeries? Were they super-humans? (Even the Bible speaks of giants, and men who lived to be hundreds of years old.) And if so, what happened to our human race? Was it somehow diminished?

Well, the history of Newgrange has always remained strong within Irish mythology. The place is steeped in magic and legend. The Tuatha de Danaan (tribe of the goddess Dana), were said to have built it. This ancient faerie race had supernatural powers, and we assume they’d have little trouble moving 200,000 tons of stone down from mountains.

Newgrange is believed to be a burial site, and indeed, human bones have been discovered within it. But it was not an ordinary mausoleum. It is thought to be the tomb of the chieftains and Irish kings, the great Dagda Mor, his son Oengus of the Brugh, and the great god Lugh of the long arm, father of the hero Cuchulain. One myth claims that Cuchulainn was conceived at Newgrange, when Lugh astro-traveled and “visited” the maiden Dechtine in a dream while she slept there.

(The god Lugh was quite a character. It would not surprise me if he had a hand in the construction. He was very powerful and popular. For more about Lugh, read https://witchlike.wordpress.com/category/lugh/)

Newgrange was imbued with magical properties. It was said the site could produce endless quantities of food and drink, especially ale and pork. One legend states that two pigs would come forth from the chambers, one living and the other already dressed, cooked, and ready to be eaten.

Suppression and Repression

You might be wondering, as I did, why it took so long to excavate this monument. The thing was built some 5200 years ago, yet they waited until the 20th century to explore it.

It seems the site was forgotten and nearly abandoned through suppression, repression, and prejudice. Irish language, literature and mythology were nearly lost under English rule. The Norman Invasion of 1169 CE brought the English to Ireland, and their control over the people became increasingly oppressive. The great mound of Newgrange, along with other ancient monuments, stone circles, myths, legends and Irish culture in general, were neglected. The people of Ireland suffered greatly, and in fact, did not begin to liberate themselves until the 20th century, with the rise of the Irish Republic.

However, in 1699, a Welsh scholar by the name of Edward Lhwyd was making a tour of Ireland. He heard of the tomb and became interested. Other scholars followed. Throughout the 18th century the site was visited by a number of explorers who speculated about its origin and purposes. In 1882 the monument was taken under care of the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland through the Ancient Monuments Protection Act and conservation efforts were initiated.

Professor O’Kelly’s work began in 1962 and lasted until 1973. In 1993, Newgrange was designated a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. Before Covid, people could visit Newgrange through the Bru na Boinne Visitor’s Center. It attracted approximately 200,000 tourists each year. Because so many folks wanted to see the Solstice sunrise, a lottery was held. Each year they had thousands of applicants.

Fortunately (for us, anyway) because Covid prevented anyone from attending Winter Solstice this year, the stewards decided to give the world a live stream! If you are curious about the miracle of Newgrange, watch below. And if you have any ideas about who built Newgrange, let me know in the comments!

Quiz: What Type of Ghost Are You?

“I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
― Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Halloween is almost upon us. The veils are thin and our thoughts often turn to the dearly departed, the occult, spirits and worlds unknown. Have you ever wondered what sort of ghost you would be in the afterlife? This completely unscientific, just for fun quiz will let you know!

Take the quiz here:

https://www.quotev.com/quiz/10064819/What-type-of-ghost-are-you

Let me know your results in the comments!

As for me…

Apparently I would be a Banshee.

“You are the Banshee. An Irish ghost known for crying or screaming to warn people of a death in their family.”

What’s in a Name? Mabon, Feast of Avalon and Others

Today, September 22, marks the second harvest festival in the northern hemisphere, usually called the Autumn Equinox. This is the balance between dark and light, the one day of the year when we have twelve hours each of daylight and night.

On the Wheel of the Year, this Sabbat is sometimes called Mabon. (And some folks adamantly argue that it should NOT be called Mabon.) I thought it would be fun to look at some of the names for this holiday, their origins, and help you choose one that resonates with you. So in case you don’t like Mabon, don’t worry! There are several alternatives.  

 The Mabinogian Make-Up

The name “Mabon” is not official, nor is it ancient. In fact, it has only been in the vernacular for about fifty years or so. Back in the 1970’s a writer named Aidan Keller came up with it. Apparently he found it in the Mabinogion Collection as he was searching for a myth that (sort of) corresponded to Persephone’s descent into the Underworld.

According to Keller, “It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them… I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday.”

In Celtic mythology there is also a god called “Maponus”. His name has been translated as “divine son”. Some ancient writings also address him as “Apollo Maponus” therefore identifying him with Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. However, as a sun god, some folklorists argue he should have been associated with the Winter Solstice (return of the sun) rather that the Equinox. Which brings us to some other alternatives…

Mists of Avalon

The equinox is also known as the Feast of Avalon. The Isle of Avalon – also called the Isle of Apples — is the magic island of Arthurian legend. It is associated with Glastonbury, hidden beneath the mists and not visible to the human eye. King Arthur was taken there after his death. It was at Avalon that the enchantress Morgan La Fey, along with her eight sisters (Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten, Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, Thiten and Thiton) healed Arthur and brought him back to life.

It is believed that Arthur will one day return again to be the future king of Great Britain.

The Isle of Avalon can definitely be associated with this time of year, as it relates to death, and all things in nature begin dying. Also, it is appropriate for its association with the apple harvest. The apple itself is a symbol of beauty, life, immortality and healing.

Did you know there is also a secret pentagram within the apple?

If you cut an apple in half, you will find five points. These represent the five elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether (or Spirit). They also represent the directions of East, West, North, South and Within.

Vikings

In Norse mythology, the Autumn Equinox is called Gleichentag, which means “Even Day”. The festival honors Sif, the Norse goddess of grain, for the harvest she has provided and also the god Thor, for his protection of the crops.

Sif is known as the Golden Goddess, named for her long golden hair. The Edda states that Loki, the trickster god, once deceived Sif by cutting off all her hair while she slept.

When she woke up, Sif was horrified to find herself bald. She immediately sent Loki to the Elves and he had them create a new head of hair. The new hair was magic and golden, the color of wheat. It gave Sif dominance over crops and the harvest.  

The Vikings knew winter was coming. The Even Day of light and dark was an important time to celebrate Sif’s bounty, and give thanks for all the food that had been stored for the upcoming cold season.  

Stab It With the Steely Knife…

In another Germanic/ Scandinavian tradition, the Autumn Equinox was called Haust Blot, meaning “Autumn sacrifice”. The first animal to be sacrificed was slaughtered on the equinox and eaten as a meal with the whole community.

This was a time to pray and thank the “landvaettir” – the spirits of the soils and land, for their bounty. People also prayed to the Elves and the goddess Freya, who worked along with the land spirits to keep the soil fertile.   

When people left the celebration, they lit their torches from the communal bonfire and took the flame home to light their own hearths. (This may or may not have been the inspiration of the modern day Olympic torch, but it sound pretty similar to me!)

Eastern Dreams

In Slavic tradition, the modern Autumn Equinox is called Dożynki, meaning “to reap”. It is currently celebrated in Poland and other Eastern European countries. Celebrations include dancing, feasting and parades.

Interestingly, Slavic folklore held the belief that the world was organized according to the oppositional, yet complementary cosmic duality of light and dark. This was expressed through the Belobog (“White God”) and the Chernobog (“Black God”). These deities collectively represented the  heavenly-masculine and earthly-feminine, and also the waxing and waning of light in relationship to seasons. Therefore, the equinox was an extremely important time.

 Villagers celebrated by baking a giant pancake made of wheat. It was believed that the larger the pancake, the better the harvest for next year was guaranteed to be. Grains of wheat were also woven into wreaths and decorated with flowers. The wreaths were a central part of the celebrations. They were stored over the winter and used in the spring as a gift to the land in exchange for good crops.   

There is a sketchy mythology around which deities were honored, but here are a few: Marzana, the rural goddess of winter and death (also personified as the witch Baba Yaga). Mokosh, the goddess of grain, earth, the harvest, and weaving. Uroda, the goddess of ploughed land, and Karna, the goddess of funerals.

Regardless of what we decide to call it, the Autumn Equinox is a sacred time. There are several ways you can celebrate.

  • Do some baking. It is a great time to bake an apple pie, bread or cookies. Maybe even try your hand at a giant pancake!
  • Go for a walk. The lovely colors of fall are just beginning and it is a great time to appreciate them.
  • Do some fall cleaning. It is said that the dark goddesses of autumn love a clean house! Welcome them, and prepare your home for hibernation.
  • Plant bulbs. They will have all winter to germinate, and give you something to look forward to when they bloom in spring.
  • Sip a hot tasty beverage such as apple cider, tea or hot chocolate as you take in the first chills and contemplate autumn.
  • Light a candle for your favorite deity. Use candles scented with apple, cinnamon, chestnut, or something rich and spicy to remind you of the harvest.

However you choose to celebrate, and whatever you choose to call it, have a blessed and happy Autumn Equinox!

Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

agatha-christie-young

She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.

The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Fans of every generation cannot get enough.

 But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!

Just My Imagination…

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.

Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.

At First Sight

In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.

Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.

During World War I, Agatha  served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.

It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.  Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.

After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.

They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.

For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.

When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.

 On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.

Without a Trace

At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.

Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.

Searchers try to find clues to Christie's disappearance.

Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.  

The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit.  Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.

Agatha, however, was not there.  

As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Stranger Than Fiction

It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically –  all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.

Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.

Yet her body was nowhere to be found.

Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.

Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.

To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”

At this point it was anyone’s guess.

Swan Song

On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found.

Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.

Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.

So what happened?

The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.  

The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.

When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”

The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.

Silence is Golden

Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.

Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.

Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”

In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Love on the Orient Express

Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)

Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed  Commander of the Order of British Literature  (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree  by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.    

In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received  knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.

She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.

Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.

 

Appreciating Black Cats

 

Cat, Domestic, Black, Animal, Pet, Cute, Cat Eyes, Eyes

“This was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”
― Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat

Have you hugged your black cat today? If not, you should. Today, August 17, is National Black Cat Appreciation Day!

And why (you may ask) do we need an appreciation day for black cats?

Well, they deserve it!  Look at the bad rap they have gotten over the ages. Lots of superstition has grown around them and left a dent in the collective consciousness. Some people are afraid of them to this day. People may, for example, avoid getting in the way of a black cat, believing them to be bad luck if they cross your path.

Black cats, however, were not always considered bad. In fact, in some cultures they were quite revered.

Spirits of Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians loved and worshiped black cats. This love came from a belief that black cats were associated with the gods. The Egyptian goddess Bast was known as the “cat goddess” and used black cats as symbols to represent her. She was often depicted as a goddess with a human body and the head of a cat.

Early Egyptians also prized cats because of  their great ability to eliminate rats, mice, and other unhealthy pests.  Having a cat meant a cleaner house, cleaner food, and all around better health. The Egyptians took their love of black cats seriously.  Killing a black cat in Ancient Egypt was a capital offense and the murderer would be put to death! (Sounds like a good law to me. Maybe we should bring it back..)

Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife, but they also believed their cats would come with them. When the Egyptian family cat died, he would be mummified and buried within the family tomb. The family would also take time to mourn his death.

Ah but this veneration of the black cat would not last! Egyptian civilization fell and so did the status of the beloved kitties. By the Middle Ages, our feline friends were acquiring their evil reputation. Many myths and legends contributed to this.

Black Magic Woman

One story that circulated around Europe told of a black cat running into the house of a witch. According to this legend, a father and son were walking across the road when they noticed the cat. Apparently, the two were not animal lovers, because they began pelting stones at the cat. Scared and defenseless, the kitty ran into a house that — according to the local gossips — was the home of a woman who did spell casting.

I’d say the cat was pretty smart, running away from two attackers.

According to the legend, the next day the father and son encountered the woman who lived in the house, and she was limping. Thus it was assumed that the witch had shape shifted to a black cat and received an injury from the rocks that were thrown at her.

The story spread and the long association of black cats and witchcraft became ingrained in folklore. Black cats were believed to be witches in disguise, witches’ pets, or even demons sent by witches to spy on humans.

This folklore actually took on a legal ramifications when the Catholic Church took issue with cats!

In 1233, Pope Gregory IX drew up a decree to condemn black cats as evil, satanic creatures. This led to a widespread extermination of black cats. They were killed in droves, drowned, burnt, fed poison and hung.

A Plague Upon Their Houses

Exterminating black cats was a really dumb thing to do, as later realized, because cats were a major force in killing off diseased rats that brought in the Black Plague. The great outbreak of the Black Death in the 14th century may have been in part due to this mass extermination of back cats. The Pope would have done much better to just leave the kitties to their work of killing vermin!

Because they were considered to be witches’ familiars, black cats  were often burned at the stake or hung, along with an accused witch. This practice remained in effect between the 13th-17th centuries when witch hunts were rampant.

Luckily, as witches, women and animals earned more rights, these superstitions faded as well. Most witchcraft laws were repealed by the 20th century, and animal rights groups have come to the rescue of cats.

To this day, black cats remain associated with Halloween, which can be a particular time of cruelty for them.  For this reason, many shelters prohibit the adoption of black cats in the month of October. (Please note, they are available all other months and make excellent pets!)

Lucky Charms

Black cats are known to be among the most affectionate and entertaining of felines. Besides that, there are plenty of good superstitions about black cats.

  • In England a black cat on a ship was considered lucky. Many sailors believed that a black cat could ensure a safe voyage and keep the ship from storms.

  • Pirates believed black cats could portend the future of their ship. For example, if the cat walked on and stayed on the ship, it meant good luck. But if the cat walked on and then off again, this was a bad sign that the ship would sink. (Hopefully the pirates baited the kitties with some tasty treats, like fresh fish, to make them stay!)

  • Wives of fishermen often kept black cats, as they were considered good luck charms to help the fishermen make a safe return home.
  • In Japan, black cats were symbols of financial fortune and prosperity.
  • In Scotland it was believed that women who owned black cats would have lots of male suitors.

So, you see, these clever felines really do deserve a day all to themselves, to help their human friends realize how great they are.

Jasper says, “Have a lovely Black Cat Appreciation Day! And be kind to a black cat.”

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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax…

 

Gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

Gave her father forty one.

Or did she?

Infamous might-be ax murderer Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in their own home, injuring them with (maybe not forty) but so many bloody hatchet whacks their faces were unrecognizable.

The story had all the elements of Gothic intrigue. A wealthy family. A miserly widower. An evil stepmother. Two secluded, spinster daughters. A family enmeshed in bickering and resentment. A gory murder and the trial of the century. Read on to find out about the real Lizzie Borden, a mind boggling tale and a murder mystery that continues to baffle experts to this day.

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born on this day, July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her parents were Sarah Anthony and Andrew Jackson Borden. Lizzie had one older sister, Emma, born in 1851. Lizzie attended the Morgan Street School. After graduating, she became a Sunday school teacher, a secretary of the local Christian Endeavor Society and a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. (The real Lizzie was yet to be revealed…)

Lizzie’s life was hardly a whirlwind of adventure. And this just may have been the environment that led her to crack.

Evil Stepmother, Frugal Father

Andrew Borden’s first wife Sarah died in 1863 when Lizzie was just three years old. Two years later Andrew remarried a woman named Abby Durfee Gray. Since Lizzie was so young, Abby should have been her main maternal figure. But Lizzie and her sister Emma never liked Abby very much. They called her “Mrs. Borden” rather than “mother”, and didn’t even eat their meals with her. Lizzie believed that Abby had married her father for his wealth.

Andrew Borden was indeed a wealthy man. But with the way he lived, no one would know it. He came from modest beginnings and eventually made a fortune in real estate and textile mills. He was also president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. The guy was loaded. At the time of his death in 1892, Borden’s estate was valued at $300,000  — the equivalent of $9 million in today’s money!

Despite his vast wealth, Andrew was a notorious miser. Picture Ebenezer Scrooge, holed gloves, scant coals on the fire, watery tea.

The house the family lived in was small and shabby. It had no electricity or indoor plumbing. It was located in a modest part of town, far from the Fall River elite, who lived in a ritzy district known as “The Hill”.

Sisters Lizzie and Emma longed for a life on The Hill. Debutante balls, champagne, glitzy dancing, diamond brooches. But no. Because of their father’s frugality, these luxuries were denied them.

In addition to Lizzie hating her stepmother, other tensions were growing within the family. Miser Andrew had bestowed generous gifts of real estate to various members of Abby’s family. For example, he had given a house to Abby’s sister. In retaliation, Emma and Lizzie had demanded property of their own. They purchased a house from their father for one dollar. A few weeks later they sold it back to him for $5,000 —  the equivalent to $142,000 in today’s money. A pretty good deal 🙂

And money wasn’t the only issue. Lizzie was a devout animal lover.  She had recently built a roost in the barn for stray pigeons. Andrew decided they were a nuisance, so he took a hatchet and sliced up the birds. (Yes, a hatchet. You will see a theme emerging here…) Needless to say, Lizzie was devastated.

The Bordens were NOT a happy family.

By July, 1892, a family argument prompted both sisters to take vacations. When Lizzie returned, she was not eager to go back to her father’s house, and even stayed a few days in a hotel before returning. Emma remained on vacation for an extended time and was therefore (lucky for her) not home during the time of the murders.

In Cold Blood

The Borden murders occurred on August 4, 1892.

It started out like any other morning. The family had breakfast.

The Bordens employed a live-in maid named Bridget Sullivan, whom they called Maggie. A relative named John Morse, Lizzie’s uncle, had come for a visit. The only people in the house that day were Lizzie, Andrew, Abby, Maggie and John. At around 8:30 am John left and went to town to buy a pair of oxen. (Can you imagine going to town to buy oxen? But I digress 🙂 )

At a little after 9 am, Andrew went out for his daily morning walk. At sometime between 9 and 10 am, Abby went upstairs to do housework in the guest room. The making of that bed would be her last. By 10:30 am Abby was dead.

According to the forensic investigation, Abby was first struck on the side of the head with a hatchet. Her ear was cut, which caused her to turn and fall face down on the floor. The killer then struck her seventeen times in the back of her head.

Meanwhile, Andrew returned from his walk. He had trouble with his key at the door and Maggie came to let him in. The door was jammed and Maggie uttered a curse word as she opened it. She later claimed she heard Lizzie laughing at this, her voice coming from the top of the stairs. (This was significant because anyone upstairs would have presumably been near Abby’s body.) Lizzie, however, denied it. She claimed to have chatted briefly with her father. She also claimed she had removed Andrew’s boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap.

Interestingly, the photos from the scene of the crime show a dead Andrew with his boots still on.

Maggie was in her room on the third-floor. At approximately 11:10 am she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Andrew had been struck in the head eleven times with a hatchet. His face was so bludgeoned it was nearly unrecognizable.

Actual police photo. See the shoes.

Somebody called the police. Detectives and a forensics expert were called in. Andrew’s still-bleeding wounds suggested a very recent attack.  It was estimated he died at approximately 11:00 am. Upstairs, Abby’s body was already cold.

Trial of the Century

Reporters swarmed in. News spread through town and crowds began to gather around the Borden house. People walked off their jobs to check out the scene. This was the most exciting event of their lives! Nothing like this had ever happened before in Fall River. People were also terrified that the murderer was still on the loose.

Lizzie was a prime suspect. Of the other household members, John Morse had an alibi and Emma was out of town. Maggie was briefly considered, but she was not a likely candidate because she had no motive. Lizzie, on the other hand, stood to gain financially from her parents’ deaths.

The idea of Lizzie being accused of ax murder was a shock to the townspeople. Polite Victorian society could not fathom the idea of a woman wielding an ax. It was simply too unladylike. They could not picture it. So therefore, the townspeople maintained Lizzie’s innocence from the beginning and never flinched.

At the inquest, Lizzie gave conflicting and confusing testimony. She tripped up her story, claiming to be in different places – – in the kitchen reading a magazine, in the garage searching for tackle, in the orchard eating pears. Finally the judge had enough. Lizzie was arrested for the murder of her parents and thrown in jail.  (To be fair, it should be noted that doctors had prescribed doses of morphine to Lizzie at this time, to help her cope with the horrible situation. The confusing testimony was given under the influence of heavy drugs.)  When the case finally went to trial, the press called it “the trial of the century”.

Lizzie herself did not testify in court, saying only, “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.”

Plenty of evidence was stacked against her. For one thing, it was reported that she’d tried to burn a dress a week after the murders. Presumably the dress was stained with blood. A friend, Alice Russell, testified that the dress had been stained with paint, not blood. There was also a report that Lizzie had tried to buy poison just days before the murder. (Her parents had also become sick, presumably with food poisoning, during those days.) And then there was the matter of the murder weapon. A hatchet head, detached from its handle, was found in the cellar. Miraculously, no blood stained clothes were ever found in the house, despite the fact that these crimes were a literal blood bath.

As it turned out, the jury was sympathetic. The evidence presented was not considered “direct enough” to convict her.  Lizzie was acquitted on June 20, 1893. She had spent ten months in jail.

Bright Young Things

After the trial, Lizzie and Emma inherited their father’s fortune. (It was nine million bucks, remember?)  They immediately bought a fourteen room mansion in (you guessed it) the prestigious neighborhood of The Hill. The house was a magnificent palace, full of summer and winter bedrooms, crystal chandeliers and lavish furniture. The girls had finally achieved their dream.

You would think the story ends here and the Borden sisters lived happily ever after, right? But NO!

Lizzie was no shrinking violet, and now that she had money she did as she pleased. Her ‘notorious’ activities did not sit well with the polite society of Fall River. And what exactly were those activities? Well… prepare to be shocked!

  • Lizzie changed her name to Lizbeth. Unheard of! It was only acceptable for girls to change their names if they were married! The townspeople gasped, ogled, wagged fingers and disapproved.
  • Lizbeth decided to put a name on her mansion as well. She named it “Maplecroft” and had the name engraved in the porch.

Unheard of! This was a flamboyant, shameless display of wealth and definitely NOT to be tolerated! (Ax murder your parents? Fine. But name a mansion? Oh no, that will not do!)

  • And finally, the pièce de résistance! Lizzie started hanging around with (wait for it…) THEATER PEOPLE! Lizzie loved the theater. She attended often and made friends with actors and actresses. They were, of course, considered the dregs of society. Lizzie took to entertaining them, throwing lavish parties at Maplecroft.

That was it! The last straw. Even her own sister Emma abandoned her, moving out of the house in 1905. The two never spoke to one another again. (True story!) 

Lizzie ‘Lizbeth’ Borden died on June 1, 1927 of pneumonia, at the ripe old age of sixty-seven. We shall never know whether or not she actually committed the murders, but she sure had a hell of a life. What do YOU think?

Happy Birthday Lizzie! You were slick, wicked and uncompromising.