Sunday 11 February 2024

Read an AI generated ghost story

I gave MS Copilot the following prompt, which is not complex and you can see where problems arose..

Please write a ghost story in the style of M.R. James set in Edwardian England at Cambridge University. It should be 3,000 words long and feature a mysterious book with a Latin title, a professor in his mid-forties who wears glasses, and a young woman reporter. The book tells how to contact spirits of the dead. The professor wants to use it to discover buried treasure somewhere in the grounds of the university.

The Book of Shadows

Professor Arthur Langdon was a respected scholar of ancient languages and literature at Cambridge University. He had a passion for collecting rare and obscure books, especially those related to the occult and the supernatural. He had amassed a large library of such volumes in his office at the university, where he spent most of his time studying and translating them.

One day, he received a letter from a colleague in Italy, who claimed to have found a remarkable book in an old monastery. The book was written in Latin, but with a strange and unfamiliar script. The title was "Liber Umbrarum", or "The Book of Shadows". The colleague said that the book contained secrets of contacting the spirits of the dead, and that he had managed to decipher some of the rituals and spells. He also said that the book hinted at a hidden treasure buried somewhere in the grounds of Cambridge University, and that he was willing to share the information with Langdon, if he agreed to help him with the translation and the exploration.

Saturday 10 February 2024

'The Crucifix'

The penultimate story in Peter Bell's new Hauntings, 'Portrait', was first published in Supernatural Tales back in 2014 as '|The Refurbishment'. It seems an eternity ago, and I hardly need to add that my opinion of the story is at least as high as it was when I accepted it. So, moving along, we come to the final tale. And we also come full circle, as we began in The Cairngorms with 'The Bothy' and now we head north of the border again. On which note:

'Pamela was sure there was more to Scotland, a wilderness to experience.'

Perfectly valid in context, but not ideal from a tourist information viewpoint. 

'The Crucifix' is superficially quite simple as to plot. Pamela, an unscrupulous book dealer, finds herself out of work and takes a job in Scotland, cataloguing a country house library on a behalf of a widow who just wants to sell her late husband's books'. (As a minor aside, isn't it surprising that - in all those Lovecraftian knock-offs - nobody ever seems to consider how staggeringly rich they could become by simply selling the Necronomicon and all those other arcane volumes?) The family were hardcore Covenanters who killed 'witches' and Catholics with grim enthusiasm. Pamela happens to be wearing a crucifix bequeathed by her grandmother, but takes trouble to hide it.

Things go quite well, not least when Pamela discovers that the late laird's collection includes some immensely rare and valuable items. This is a story that only a true bibliophile could have written, especially the scene in which Pamela discovers and immensely rare copy of Dracula. In some old-fashioned ghost stories, Pamela might take a hint and play it straight, just brushing up against terror before doing the right thing. Here, however, greed takes charge and our anti-heroine finds herself facing a judgement on her morals that, while harsh, is not entirely unwarranted. 

And so we reach the end of Hauntings by Peter Bell. I think this is the author's best collection, harking back to the classics and paying homage to the greats of the field, but offering much that is new and interesting. This volume is a worthy addition to any library, haunted or otherwise.

Friday 9 February 2024

'The Swing'

The next story in Peter Bell's new collection, Hauntings, is in fact 'The Tunnel'. But that story first appeared in Supernatural Tales (issue 17, many years ago) so I hardly need to add that I found it more than acceptable. I'll move on, therefore, to a short tale that first appeared in the second Brian Showers anthology in his Uncertainties series.

As you might expect, this is a tale that offers the reader a choice - how much to believe? The time is that unspecified period a few decades ago, with the 'slight haze of distance' recommended by Dr. James. A group of boys are hanging out at a friend's house and the topic of conversation turns to ghosts. A claim is made - Mr. O'Neill across the road has a picture of a ghost. The photograph is obtained, and proves to be disturbing - it has a 'hideous impression of authenticity' (a phrase I thought was plucked from 'Pickman's Model', but I was wrong). 

The photograph subsequently attracts the attention of a mysterious, patrician-looking visitor, and is taken who knows where? The boys grow up, and eventually, the narrator receives news of Mr. O'Neill's death. The man's son explains the possible origin of the phantom captured by his father's camera. Then a story in a tabloid newspaper revives memories of the photograph. Is it a coincidence that so similar a fate befell someone else decades later, and at the same spot? 

While a relatively slight tale this one impressed me. I have always found ghost/spirit photography fascinating, along with the idea of events recurring for arcane reasons. Some places are arguably cursed, haunted, or otherwise rendered uncanny. And, as the author makes clear, such spots are as likely to be found in a run-down housing estate as in a ruined abbey.

The review continues tomorrow.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

'The Curator of Souls'


A middle-aged academic falls for a student twenty years his junior. Dr. Slade is unwise but infatuated. Laura is beautiful, erudite, and mysterious. She vanishes periodically, refusing to say where she has been but sending Slade postcards that sometimes bear enigmatic messages. Eventually, after introducing Slade to many and varied erotic experiences, Laura takes her lover to meet another professor, whose studies mirror certain episodes in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

This story bears an epigraph from 'The Oval Portrait', but Laura is very reminiscent of Ligeia and Morella. Peter Bell successfully creates a convincing affair that hints at self-destructive tendencies on Slade's part. The finale delivers the goods, as intellectual playfulness gives way to bizarre - one might say grotesque - discoveries. This is another fine tale from Hauntings, which captures some of the Romantic weirdness of Poe while remaining firmly grounded in English horror tropes, particularly the idea of horror revealed within a sleepy cathedral city.

Another one tomorrow - so far, no duds!

Next issue - cover and contents


Tuesday 6 February 2024

'The Cry of the Curlew'

 'Anxiety is never a good counsellor'. 

In this story from Peter Bell's Hauntings a retired teacher returns to her deceased aunt's house in rural Aberdeenshire to find things changed. Fiona's girlhood memories are a mixture of the idyllic and the disturbing. Devoting her time to studying earth mysteries and related matters, Fiona sets out to investigate the area with an adult, informed eye. Instead, she gets lost in one of the vast conifer plantations that were created after the notorious Clearances, and stumbles upon some ruins that arouse feelings of unease.

This is a relatively gentle tale, but one that lingers in the mind. The curlew's cry, held to be ominous by some, is a kind of leitmotif running through the story. The truth that emerges after the visit of a respected professor is a sadly familiar tale of working-class folk victimised by callous landowners. Not exactly a ghost story, then, more an account of a haunted landscape. The beauty of the rural skies stands in contrast to the bleakness of glens set aside for rich men to shoot game. But then, the story is loaded with powerful imagery, not least the scene in which Fiona gets lost in the woods and suffers near panic. 

More from this running review tomorrow. So far I am enjoying Hauntings, as you may have guessed!

Monday 5 February 2024


This story from Peter Bell's new collection Hauntings (Sarob Press 2023) jogged my memory. The protagonist ventures to another one of those remote rural churches, this one containing a remarkable hybrid monument to Christianity and Norse mythology. I think I visited the same church with Peter during an excursion arranged by A Ghostly Company. And the cross in question is fascinating, with Odin and other Scandinavian hairy types getting equal billing to Jesus and his entourage. 

The idea of a 'blended family' of deities is here taken a little further, though. The cross is decorated not merely by Norse deities but entities that recall our old pal Howard Philips Lovecraft and his school. The stained glass in the church confirms that something distinctly odd is going on. But the true horror occurs when the protagonist explores the nearby countryside and encounters the most disturbing manure heap in contemporary fiction. I kid you not. 

This is a fun story, a pick-and-mix combination of M.R. Jamesian tropes with Lovecraftian monstrosity. I suspect the author had a lot of fun writing this, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. More tomorrow in this running review.  

Read an AI generated ghost story

I gave MS Copilot the following prompt, which is not complex and you can see where problems arose.. Please write a ghost story in the style ...