Sunday, August 23, 2009

Storied Visits: The Hand of Glory

This entry is taking a step away from the renovation on the house to tell you about one of my passions. That is, ghost stories. Ghost stories, which I have collected from my home state, WV - reflect so much about our culture and history that I insist they must be protected from dying out. In essence, they must be saved from being lost to time and neglect.

Also, one of my favorite times in history, the Victorian era, had a wonderful storytelling tradition. Some of this has passed on to us today, but there are few who recognize or who can say they have been part of a "storytelling visit". In the Victorian era, named for England's Queen Victoria (1819-1901, pictured below), was a time of great invention and exploration. Not only did it give the world some fabulous furniture and decoration, but also embodies a magical and mystical quality that few eras achieved (in my opinion).

During this time, some of my favorite things occured: West Virginia became a state in 1863. Alice in Wonderland (my favorite book - below) was written in 1865, among others.
But I want to focus on one particular - the visits that friends and acquaintances would make to each other's homes (sometimes grandiose two week or more visits). During these, they would have contests during which they would come up with stories - either originals or personalized versions of common tales. At the end of the visit, they would then vote and give a prize to the person who told the best story. This is similar to our modern storytelling festivals, but not as impersonal. These groups were often ten or less people, as compared to today's hundreds.

One of the most famous stories to come out of these "story visits" is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. She was married to Percy Shelley (of Ode on a Grecian Urn fame) and was spending time with him and some other literary friends, one of whom was none other than Lord Byron. They decided among themselves to write ghost stories for one another, and make a contest of it.

Mary (above), of course, felt completely out of her league, but one night she had a dream about a man who was creating a monster out of cadavers - and it scared her so much that she just knew it would terrify others. So she wrote the story, won the contest, and gave the world one of the greatest monster stories ever told.

More of these "story visits" are recorded in ghost story collections, such as The Ghost Book of Charles Lindley, Viscount Halifax and The Ingoldsby Legends (1889). The Ghost Book is still in print - and The Ingoldsby Legends is now available online in pdf format.
The Jackdaw of Rheims and The Hand of Glory are two of the best-known of the Ingoldsby Legends. This collection of humourous and macabre stories in prose and verse was published in three series between 1840 and 1847 with splendid illustrations by Cruikshank and other artists.
The best of them are very superior light verse, marked by verbal cleverness, wit, elaborate rhymes and bi-lingual puns. They were very popular in the 19th Century and remained so until relatively recently, but are now out of print. Almost all the popular writers of the time were influenced by it and many refer to it explicitly or quote from it. Even Walt Disney used The Lay of St. Dunstan. However, it is now dificult to obtain in print and deserves to be better known. I bought mine at a used book sale years ago, and it is a rather neat original text with the first owner's name written on the front cover in fountain pen dated Jan. 27, 1891.

Those of you familiar with the Harry Potter series of books will recognize the mention of the Hand of Glory - which is a magical item featured in one of the books. This is where it originally came from - well, at least where it was first written down. And more observant readers of the series might note one of the illustrators of the original text - Cruikshank - as the namesake of Hermione's cat in the same series.

Here is the Hand of Glory, taken from the text, which you can find in full version here. It was originally told, my book says, by the nurse in residence at Tappington Hall when the "story visit" was taking place. Below is only the first few stanzas:


On the lone bleak moor,
At the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallows Tree,
Hand in hand
The Murderers stand
By one, by two, by three!
And the Moon that night
With a grey, cold light
Each baleful object tips;
One half of her form
Is seen through the storm,
The other half 's hid in Eclipse!
And the cold Wind howls,
And the Thunder growls,
And the Lightning is broad and bright;
And altogether
It 's very bad weather,
And an unpleasant sort of a night!
'Now mount who list,
And close by the wrist
Sever me quickly the Dead Man's fist!
Now climb who dare
Where he swings in air,
And pluck me five locks of the Dead Man's hair!'

To read the full text (it's lengthy, but reads quickly and is worth it!)
So if you're looking for a way to lighten up your autumn, why not schedule a "story visit" - maybe not for a week or two, but a few days or hours? I think it's an idea well worth revisiting....