Having recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I listened to a radio interview with the writer and actor Mark Gatiss, who has adapted the book for television. I remember Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen, but he has since become the go-to pundit for ideas around horror and the macabre. In a wide ranging conversation with Nihal Arthanayake, he talked of his interest in ammonite fossils; and as we enter December, he pressed on the idea that ghost stories are an integral part of his Christmas tradition. That’s never been my experience, but as he discussed the festive connection, I began to see how candlelight and a weight of breathless expectation could allow something ghoulish to coalesce on Christmas Eve. Gatiss praised the writer MR James, who, as a schoolmaster in the 1920s, used to read ghost stories to his students on Christmas Eve. I was curious enough to find out more.
I’d love to say that “Selected Ghost Stories by MR James” dropped through my letterbox a few days later. In reality, the postman is so scared of the bull I keep in my front field that he flings the post towards the house from the window of his van. So I gathered the parcel from where it lay in the frost and brought it back indoors while the bull slept peacefully under a tree, enjoying his placid dreams. The kettle was boiling, and I soon found myself halfway through Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, the first of sixteen short stories in the collection.
Set in Southern France, the story is grotesque in its portrayal of a demon that is magically linked to a set of religious manuscripts. The drama unfolds around the cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges in the Haute-Garonne. By an odd twist, I visited Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges almost twenty five years ago when I was studying at a school near Auch. The name has stuck with me ever since; it’s one of many things which I’ve replayed backwards and forwards in my head for so long that it’s lost all meaning; it’s just become a sound – “sanber-trander-commange”. But having been nudged by MR James, I searched for images of the cathedral on the internet and found that it was beautiful; a heavy old building which stands high up on a hill like some Transylvanian keep. I pitied the school teacher who had driven my fellow students and I to visit that place in a minibus when we were twelve years old. He was casting pearls before swine, particularly since I went on to forget every single detail of the day.
As I searched around for more information on the cathedral, I realised that it is also famous as the home of a large nile crocodile which hangs on the wall beside the choir. Stuffed and dried to the texture of a raisin, the precise origin of this ominous reptile is obscure. It’s likely that it was brought back from North Africa by medieval merchants or crusaders, but nobody knows for sure. In the days before museums or natural history collections, strange curiosities would’ve been placed on display in the church, so perhaps it’s inevitable that as centuries passed, it became a relic. The crocodile is said to be the baby-eating monster killed by St. Bertrand to ensure his beatification, and that’s as good a tale as any. But I found other articles which added more layers of interest to the story of the crocodile at St Bertrand de Comminges. Some medieval bestiaries describe crocodiles as the avatars of Satan himself; the living embodiment of pure evil. So a dead crocodile suspended upside down in a position of deliberate indignity is a nice statement of intent in a house of God.
Pondering the idea of a crocodile in a cathedral, I clicked through to the next randomly generated post on a blog about the history and folklore of southern France (Lieux Secrets de Pays Cathare). It was a description of an annual carnival in Limoux, near Carcassone; a festival which places a specific emphasis on clowns and pork sausages. But I was most interested in the idea of the Goudils of Limoux – characters in symbolic costumes which accompany the main carnival, causing mischief and mayhem.
The concept of a stylised “mischief-maker” is fairly widespread in folklore and tradition, but the role is usually taken by young, cheeky ne’er-do-well characters. By contrast, Goudils are specifically old and cantankerous – their costumes are wrinkled and overtly conservative; the men wear berets and sweeping moustaches, the women carry rolling pins. The article gave a little more detail; “cassé par la vie, le Goudil représente souvent un homme chenu ou, mieux, une vielle dame indigne” (broken by life, the Goudil is represented by a stubborn old man, or better, an irritable old woman). Elsewhere, we’re told that “the Goudil is the heroic representation of the poor, the marginalised and the “opprimés” (the downtrodden)”; a kind of latter-day Diogenes, reminding us that modern ways are extravagant and wasteful; that simplicity and frugality are virtues in their own right. And if the Goudils of Limoux have become a lighthearted representation of socially conservative values, I wonder if their original inspiration was some “Madame Goudil” who heard the carnival passing by her house one afternoon and said “I’m sick of those damn noisy kids – I’m going to give them a piece of my mind”. And grimacing with ill-temper, she picked up her rolling pin and stepped into the street, becoming a permanent fixture in the culture and tradition of the town.
Tickled by this idea and others like it, I realised that my coffee had gone cold. It was lunchtime, and I had squandered half a day pursuing ghost stories, crocodiles and carnivals. I write all this partly as a test of my own memory, but chiefly to warn against following your nose through books and ideas. One thing leads to another, and days can simply vanish.