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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Uncanny things

Sunday, November 28th., London.

Talking about things uncanny, Webster said that the weirdest thing of all was the vibrating cry of the snipe on the moors at night - a cry which you hear, faint and wavering, in the distance, and which the next second has shot past your ears in the darkness. This bird is also called the bog-bleater; Webster said that its cry had been termed "the wail of a lost soul", and that the name was justified. There is nothing more horribly scaring, and the awfulness of it cannot be conceived by those who have not heard it. He described it effectively as "the last cry on earth", and related how, as a child, he had been lost all night on the Westmorland moors; his terror of the invisible snipes shooting across the waste with their awful cries; and his terror of stepping into a bog.
Then he told me of his sole experience of ghosts. On a hill near Milnthorpe is a ruined cottage, said to be haunted. A man and his wife had lived there, and one night the man, being called away, gave a gun into his wife's hands for her protection and told her to shoot anything that appeared. Before he had proceeded far, he recollected that he had left something behind him, and returning to his cottage was shot by his wife. Hence the ghost.
It seems that Webster was walking late in a dark lane near the ruin - a lane with a dreadful reputation for spirits - when he saw a sombre figure in front of him. It advanced to within a few paces of him, and then grew large and wide, till it towered above him. Then it collapsed and Webster was standing in the middle of it. At last it edged away from him, face upwards, with a curious backward motion on hands and feet. As soon as it had moved, Webster turned and ran two miles to the nearest humanity ... He was a child, and thinks now the appearance was merely a subjective hallucination, but at the time nothing could have been more real to him.
Webster related these stories with extraordinary graphic effectiveness.  As he spoke of the terrors of the bog-bleater and his night on the moor, I had one of those periodical glimpses which are vouchsafed to me occasionally, of the vast crowd of wonderful sensations and experiences that a dweller in towns, like myself, is debarred from .... A night on the moors, alone, with the snipe winging and crying about one .... The townsman can scarcely imagine it!
All this leads me to think of ghost stories, but I hardly think I have the sort of imagination to produce one effectively. My particular favourite is Dickens' "The Signalman". I cannot read it without a chill passing along my spine, my breathing becoming shallow and my heart starting to race! Dickens was a master of atmosphere and excels himself in this short story.

Virginia Woolf is a very different sort of writer and I have today reviewed "A Room of One's Own" in the Evening Standard. I have often been informed by the elect that a feud exists between Virginia Woolf and myself, and I dare say that she has received the same tidings. Possibly she and I are the only two lettered persons unaware of this feud. True, she has written a book about me and a mythical Mrs. Brown. But I have not read the book (I don't know why). True, I always said, until she wrote To The Lighthouse that she had not written a good novel. But I have said the same of lots of my novelist friends. True, she is the queen of the high-brows; and I am a low-brow. But it takes all sorts of brows to make a world, and without a large admixture of low-brows even Bloomsbury would be uninhabitable. One thing I have said of her: she can write. A Room of One's Own is a further demonstration of this truth. However, she suggests that five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door are the essential prerequisites to writing fiction or poetry. I beg to state that I have myself written long and formidable novels in bedrooms whose doors certainly had no locks, and in the full dreadful knowledge that I had not five hundred a year of my own - nor fifty. And I beg to state further that from the moment when I obtained possession of both money and a lockable door all the high-brows in London conspired together to assert that I could no longer write.

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