Cat Sparks has done pretty much everything there is to do in Australian speculative fiction. She’s been a publisher, illustrator, and editor. These days, she’s expanding her long-standing writing repertoire: she’s just released her debut novel, Lotus Blue, and is putting the finishing touches to a PhD in climate fiction.
Here, she takes us back into the depths of her childhood, and goes some way to answering what so many of those of us who call ourselves her friends have wondered: how did she get like that?
I had thought this particular gem lost to the mists of time – or the travails of practical adulthood at least, but when Rob and I moved house last August, a process by which so many peculiar things went missing (including our Optus set top box and half my winter smalls), at the other end when we unpacked, there it was, a book I swear I had not seen for decades, the book that freaked out my living ghoulies back in the day when I was a 70s preteen.
The introduction to Aidan Chambers’ Book of Ghosts and Hauntings explains that such things fall into four distinct groups: experimental ghosts, crisis ghosts, post-mortem ghosts and ghosts who persistently haunt the same place. The book contains everything my nine-year-old mind could possibly have wanted to know about ghosts, mediums, séances, haunted houses and things that went bump in the night.
The pages were peppered liberally with fanciful black and white illustrations of things people really might have seen: The ethereal ghost of Lady Hoby; a redcap brownie jigging on the tiles; young men tumbled from their bed by a poltergeist; witches cavorting around headstones; a lubin bewitching a ploughman; evil spirits lifting cows by their tails.
The book also featured stern photographs of old stone buildings in which supernatural incidents reportedly took place. Other more interesting photographs of spiritualism in motion included: psychic energy table turning, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, an infra-red light séance room photograph in which a medium levitates a table. A section on fake spirit photography: the (paper cut out) witch on a broomstick, the loving (cotton wool) ghosts, a ghostly figure on the stairs — the product of photo-montage and transparent tissue.
And there, nestled in innocently amongst all the rest of it, sat chapter four, page 27, The Hideous Face with Flaming Eyes. No photographs were offered as accompaniment, instead a rather fetching ink illustration.
The story was excerpted from In My Solitary Life by Augustus Hare, set at Croglin Grange in Cumberland. No date was offered, only the fact that the Grange had been owned by the Fisher family for hundreds of years. The Fishers, so we were told, moved out, renting the house to two brothers and a sister. And then one fateful night…
… the sister still felt the heat too great for sleep, and sat up in her bed, still watching the moonlight through her window, for she had not closed her shutters…
She became aware of two lights flickering in a nearby belt of trees… The lights belonged to something moving closer…
Suddenly, she could never explain why, the terrible object seemed to turn aside, and to be going round the house, instead of straight towards her. She sprang from her bed to unlock the door, but at that instant she heard scratch, scratch, scratch at her window, and saw a hideous brown face with flaming eyes glaring at her. She took comfort in the thought that the window was securely locked on the inside, but all of a sudden the scratching ceased, and a kind of pecking sound took its place. The creature was unpicking the lead! A diamond shaped pain fell onto the floor, and a long bony finger came inside, and found the latch of the window, and turned it.
Cutting to the chase — eventually one of the brothers shot the window-scratching creature, which limped off into a vault in the nearby churchyard. Next day, they found the thing, wounded leg and all, inside a coffin!
My spongy, susceptible nine-year-old mind believed every word of this account. Every. Fucking. Word. And the knowledge that such a creature had been discovered in the everyday world slid beneath the surface of my comprehension, forming an impermeable layer. That thing was out there somewhere, which meant it might come after me some day.
A couple of years later my parents decide to take me & my younger sister on a trip through Europe by way of the Panama Canal and Italy. We eventually wound up in the UK to visit a bunch of relatives.
One of the aunts we met had been making Wombles to sell at a local fete. You remember Wombles? They were everywhere at the time. For no good reason that I can recall, I decided to make myself a doll out of leftover scraps of Womble fur. First I made a skeleton out of pipe cleaners, then sewed on the fur and gave the thing big round sewn-on eyes. I named this doll Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy and my mum made her a little outfit out of denim scrap. Mum was good at making clothing for our dolls.
But Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t like other dolls. She was an absolute hairy-scary fright. So frightening, in fact, that I then went on to make a magic talisman to hang around her neck to stop her coming alive in the middle of the night and murdering me. Miss Fuzzy Wuzzy was so much like that scratching thing with the hideous brown face and flaming eyes at Croglin Grange. The talisman was a bright pink plastic bead with multifaceted sides, like a dewdrop crystal. I guess it worked because I’m still alive to tell this tale…