The Christmas Ghost Story: Spook Rock

It’s time for another Fox Spirit Books ghost story for Christmas. For some, 2020 may have been all the horror needed. But a little chill in the darkest days is just what the doctor ordered — if she’s the Prof she does anyway. There is a real Spook Rock (in fact there are several in New York). It can be found in a picturesque little town that would perfect for a Hallmark movie — or a horror film, as two young women discover…

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K. A. Laity

“Well, isn’t that a picture?”

April wasn’t sure if Joyce was being sarcastic. “Picturesque. I promised you picturesque. I deliver.”

“Quaint. Isn’t that what they call it? Perfect for a haunted house in the dark, but quaint in the daytime.” Joyce laughed. “Your aunt didn’t actually die here, right?”

“No, in the hospital in town.” An early COVID-19 casualty wavering between life and death for a couple weeks then gone. No visitors allowed. Not that they were close anymore.

“In town?”

“I told you. Town is what we came through off the thruway. This is the village.”

“Spook Rock is such an inspiring name.” Joyce sighed and grabbed her bag from the car. “The porch is nice. Huge.”

“Just imagine us sitting out there on a summer’s evening, sipping wine.” April pawed through her handbag to find the big old key for the front door.

“April, it’s winter.”

“Okay, hot chocolate?”

The door opened easily, no creaking at all, despite Joyce’s muttered predictions. The smell was a bit musty. The house had been closed up for months as the estate stuttered through its process.

“Old lady smell,” Joyce wrinkled her nose.

“Old food more like,” April said, throwing her bag on bench in the foyer. “Her neighbour—Elizabeth something…Wylding maybe? She said she threw out what was gone bad on the counters and whatnot, but I’m sure there’s more.”

They explored the house, opening doors and curtains. Everything was coated with a fuzzy layer of dust, but mostly neat. Only her aunt’s bedroom showed any sign of her presence. The patchwork quilt on the bed was folded back as if still awaiting her return.

“I’m afraid to open the refrigerator,” April confessed.

“That’s why we brought lunch from Zabar’s,” Joyce said. “Can you start a fire in that?” She pointed at the fireplace.

“Of course. Auntie taught me when we were living here after mom’s divorce. You cold?”

“Of course I’m cold. I’m from Queens. We don’t live in Hallmark cards like you melanin-deprived people. We like radiators that overheat everything so you have to leave the windows open.”

“Your mother would never stand for that. I know better.” April laughed and picked some sticks out from the kindling box.

“You didn’t see some of the places we lived before, like the horrible apartment in Astoria.” Joyce shuddered.

The fire took off quickly. The wood was really dry. April added firewood to the list she had begun. The furnace kept the place reasonably warm, but it was a drafty old house. The stone fireplace was especially welcome this time of year. The flicker of the flames was cheery, too. The sun descended early leading up to Christmas.

“Shall we tackle the fridge now?”

They worked methodically from the kitchen through the dining room to the sitting room, cleaning, clearing and vacuuming up what they could, tossing unidentifiable bits and pieces into the garbage bags Joyce had remembered to bring. It was funny how they adapted their usual work habits to new circumstances. April was the idea generator, Joyce was the logical problem-solver. Their PR firm was really taking off—until the coronavirus shut everything down.

Manhattan rents don’t recognise emergencies.

They were making good progress when a fuse blew. Everything went quiet. It wasn’t quite dark but it was definitely getting there. Add flashlights to the list.

Joyce popped out into the hallway, phone in hand with the flashlight on. “Do the ghosts come out now?”

“It’s just a fuse. Or a circuit breaker. I forget which.”

“Down in the spooky cellar?”

“It’s not spooky.” But April remembered how she had hated it as a kid, mostly because it always seemed to be festooned with spider webs. They trooped down the stairs, Joyce lighting the way with the phone over April’s shoulder. The stones of the walls felt very cold, but there weren’t cobwebs that she could see.

The metal cabinet was on the west wall below a window and beside the washer and dryer. April was pleased to see they looked like recent acquisitions. She jiggled the latch of the box open. None of the circuits had labels but the one in question showed red while the rest were white. She flipped the switch over and then back to clear it. The vacuum started whining above them. “You didn’t switch it off.”

“I was startled,” Joyce said. “What is that smell? Did something die down here?”

She hadn’t noticed it at first, but now April could taste it on her tongue. “Maybe she had a mousetrap and…you know.”

“Whatever it is, it is rank.”

April pulled the string for the bare bulb in the center of the cellar. There were some boxes and a tool bench on the wall opposite. Hammers and saws hung neatly on a pegboard. Shelves held flower pots and gardening items.

“What’s that?” Joyce pointed to the round wooden cover with a handle on the floor. It looked like the top of a barrel.

“I don’t remember,” April said, but almost at once she did. “Oh…”

“Is it the old sewer? That’s where the stank is coming from. Need some Clorox down here.”

Joyce bent over to reach for the handle but April stopped her. “Don’t!”

“What’s up, buttercup?” Joyce looked at her in the gloom. “Horrible childhood memories stirred up?”

“No. Yes. Actually yes. It’s the old well. Auntie told us not to open it but I did and I dropped my favourite bracelet down there and she said I would never be able to get it back and I cried all day over it.”

“I’m sorry for that, kiddo. But as childhood traumas go, that’s pretty mild.” Despite her tone Joyce looked worried. April knew she was overreacting but there was something about the well that made her stomach clench. And it wasn’t just the stench.

“Let’s run to the hardware store and see if there’s something we can get to kill that smell.” It was late but they were probably open until five.

The shop looked just the same as she remembered, like a log cabin surrounded by pines. The old geezer at the counter had been replaced by someone younger. He was helping an elderly woman with a cane wearing fancy lace facemask. “If you gotta be safe, why not be elegant?” she whispered to Joyce as they headed down the aisle. They had utilitarian cotton masks that were easy to launder.

“What do you think? Bleach? Or something stronger?”

April sighed. There wasn’t a wide range of cleaning products. “I’m not sure.”

“Maybe we should try Walmart. Is there a Walmart here in Spook Rock? And where is the rock? I don’t want to know where the spooks are. No haints for me.”

“It’s on the river, just south of the bridge we came over from the house. We can go by there tomorrow.”

“Why is it called that?” Joyce picked up a blue bottle to read the ingredients.

“There’s an old story that lovers parted by their parents would meet there but one time, spring I guess, the floods were too high and they drowned. Native American tale, I think. Not sure which tribe.”

“Mohican.” April started. The young man from the counter had made his way over to them. “But it’s nonsense.”

“Mohican, ah.” April wasn’t sure what else to say.

“People of the water that are never still.” He smiled but only politely. “Stockbridge-Munsee community around here.”

“So then why is it called Spook Rock?” Joyce asked. “We’re not on some ancient Mohican burial ground, are we? That would be bad news.” She smiled at April but the hardware guy wasn’t amused.

“This land is pretty much all burial grounds for my people. What are you looking for?”

April felt chastened but maybe he was just trying to change the subject. “Uh, we need something to put down an old well to get rid of the stink.” She did not expect him to look so horrified.

“What? Are you nuts?”

“I’m sorry. Is that offensive to your people’s um…”

“Yes probably, but you’ve got to know it’s criminal to pollute the watershed.” His expression made clear she was an idiot. “You can’t put bleach or other harsh chemicals down a well. You’d cause a huge die off of plants and animals and possibly poison people who use the same water system. All these old wells are connected.”

April could feel her face blush crimson. White guilt! Oh, god. That was it. What must he think of her? Clueless consumer trash.

“What do you suggest we do?” Joyce asked. As always she was focused on practicalities. “The smell is atrocious.”

The hardware guy turned away and for a moment April thought he was just going to ignore them, but he reached behind the counter and grabbed a business card. “Call this guy. He’ll see what you need to do.”

April took the card: Tom Miller, Dowser. “Okay. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

Later as they ate the grocery store pizza in the much cleaner kitchen, April confessed her embarrassment. “He was probably muttering under his breath about stupid white ladies the rest of the day.”

“Nah, he just called you a Karen and complained to his other customers about city folk coming up here to gentrify their old village.” Joyce sipped her wine. “Too bad, but maybe that was your meet-cute moment and you messed it up.”

“Shut up!”

“Seriously, we’re in a Hallmark movie here and you had your meet-cute and blew it. As the Black best friend I only get the Obama-safe handsome Black man in the closing moments of the movie. I can see the cut of his suit right now.”

“You are too much.”

“So what’s a dowser anyway?”

April sighed and picked up her wine. “It’s a person who finds water. I learned it in a movie with Russell Crowe. You use these rod thingees and they cross when you’re over water and you dig down to find the well.”

“So, this is going to be some Obi-Wan kind of guy? Intriguing.”

However, when they met Miller the next day, he defied their expectations by being young and peppy and not at all mystical. “I don’t know how it works. It just works. My dad taught me, his dad taught him, and so on.”

“Okay but there’s some kind of magic behind it, right?” Joyce was clearly disappointed.

“The well is in the cellar,” April said to change the subject. They gathered around the wooden cover and Miller took it off. If anything, the smell was worse today, maybe because the rest of the house was clean. The dowser crouched down. You couldn’t see the water. It was too far down in the dark. But you could smell it. April suddenly felt nauseous. Joyce fanned the air away from her nose as if it might help.

Miller sighed and stood up.

“What should we do?” Please don’t let it be real expensive.

“If it were me,” the dowser said, his hands held up as if to fend off expected objections, “I’d cap it, bulldoze the house, and move far, far away.”

“What?!” April felt faint.

“Sell the house, pass the problem on to someone else. You could do that. Not entirely ethical but you could do it.” He sighed again.

“What’s wrong with it?” Joyce asked. April was still in shock.

“It’s dead.”

“How can a well be dead?” April wanted to laugh. Maybe he was more woo-woo mystical than they thought.

“Water is a living thing. A well is a living thing. This is not a living thing.” He explained as if it were perfectly logical. “You could seal it up and try digging elsewhere to find a new well but I don’t think you’re going to find something within easy reach of the house. Didn’t you notice the state of the woods behind here? Something dead, something deep.”

“What kills a well?” Joyce looked equal parts dubious and curious.

“Usually it’s runoff from manufacturing or mining. Chemicals get in the watershed that shouldn’t be there. I honestly don’t know what’s in your water. I just know dead water when I see it.” He sniffed. “Or smell it.”

April couldn’t wrap her head around the idea. All her plans were sunk into making this house a success, a refuge from the financial woes, a place to rebuild their business. A place to get back to normal after this hellish year. Not a new curse.

They didn’t laugh as much in front of the fire that night. They ate coldcuts and watched videos on April’s laptop until they got fed up with the slowness of the internet. The phone signal was poor and they hadn’t set up wireless yet. Joyce hadn’t even unpacked the router.

They decided to go to bed early. April tossed and turned in her aunt’s bed, feeling all the lumps. She woke to the night wind and the trees scratching the siding on the house. She dreamed there were eyes in the woods watching them, then woke to find the moonlight bright outside her window. Every time she closed her eyes, she heard his words again, “Dead water.”

She woke bleary-eyed, yawning to a tapping at the door. “You up?”

Joyce stuck her head in, hair tied up in a bandanna. “Is the water we’re using in the shower dead too? I don’t want to shower in dead water.”

April sat up and rubbed her eyes. “The shower? Um…” She generally needed coffee before thinking. Then she remembered. “The water goes through a filter—no, not a filter. A whatchacallit: water softener. Which I think does filter it. Yeah.”

“You sure?” Joyce didn’t look as if she slept very well either.

“We can go look if that would make you feel better.” She hadn’t even thought about the rest of the water in the house. At least Auntie had put one of those filters on the tap in the kitchen. April grabbed her comfy robe to pull on over her flannel jammies. It was colder this morning, too.

The reason it was colder was that the furnace was off. It was off because the cellar was flooded with black water. “Oh my god.” It took a lot of effort not to simply burst into tears. April sat down on the top step and stared in dismay.

“You suppose there’s a pump?” Joyce asked. “Maybe this happened before.”

“If so, it’s probably down there.” She didn’t fancy wading through that muck to go look.

“I saw some gardening boots in the hall closet.” Joyce was off at once to grab them. April took off her robe. It wouldn’t do any good to get it wet. In her head a little chorus of Not fair! Not fair! was playing, but she tried to ignore it.

“Here,” Joyce handed her the boots which at least looked like they could fit. Her aunt was a head shorter than April but she seemed to have big feet. They were bright red with yellow ducks in rain hats on them.

Gingerly she went down the stairs, her bare feet sliding around in the boots. She stepped into the black water and it was cold. Her body trembled. It was probably just because she was so tired. At least the boots didn’t seem to leak. Stepping carefully April went over to the light to pull the string but her hand froze.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just thinking what are the odds of electrocution?” She laughed but it wasn’t funny.

“If you were going to get electrocuted it would have been from the furnace or whatever controls it. The wires from the light aren’t in the water.”

“You’re right, of course.” The string clicked and the bulb lit and somehow it was even worse. April assumed the water might look oily, like the flooding in the gutters outside their building on Grove Street in the Village. But it was just black. Darker now with the light on. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something move or thought she did. But it was just black water. It didn’t have eyes looking at her.

“Maybe by the tool bench?” Joyce suggested.

April waded over. There was nothing on the bench that looked like a pump. Everything was carefully labeled. Auntie was a stickler for that, she remembered. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place.’

There was a movement for sure. On the right. What if it were a rat? They said rats could swim. Were there rats out in the countryside? She had seen enough of them in the city. April stared into the black water, mesmerized. There was a curious sound. Probably just the splash of the water, magnified by the walls of the basement. Maybe it was the cold of the water, the earliness of the hour, or just the overwhelming panic of dealing with house troubles, but she started to tremble.

“Your aunt must have had a plumber. Where would she keep the number?” Joyce as always thinking logically.

April coughed and shook herself. “The phone book in the nook.” Yes, let a professional deal with this.

Suddenly a red plastic ball popped up from the water. April let out a yelp. It looked so incongruous. There was really nothing sinister about it, but that was it for her. Out of the water, up the stairs, boots off.

By then Joyce had found the little phone book by the old landline handset in the alcove made just for telephoning back when it was a new and fancy thing. April was shaking with a chill as she lit the burner on the stove to make some coffee. Thank goodness for gas.

“Here it is. Baumbach, plumber. Think it’s too early to call?”

“Call.” April grabbed the old French press she found in the cupboard and filled it with the special grind they’d brought with them from the city. She stared dully at the kettle even though she heard her aunt’s words again about a watched kettle never boiling.

“Lillian says—that’s the plumber—that chances are the floater came off the sump pump and that’s why it’s flooded. Apparently that happened before. She was after your aunt to replace it but—”

“The floater?” April started. “Is it a red ball?”

“Yes, that’s what she described. The sump pit is just beyond the tool bench, she said. Joyce stared at April as she laughed. “What?”

“It popped up from the water and I was never so startled.” The relief pouring through her veins was better than caffeine. Why had she been so scared of a little red ball?

“Anyway, she says if you can get it back on the arm thing it will kick in again and start pumping the water out.”

April sighed. “Are those rubber gloves still under the sink?”

An hour later they were still at it, which is to say April was trying to reconnect the ball and Joyce was being encouraging from the steps. “If there were another pair of boots…”

“I know. And you said the plumber could come later?” April had found the ball right away. It was still floating. Finding the arm was tricky. They had found a diagram online so she knew what it ought to be like but it was hard to find in the black water.

“Yeah. I think it might be, you know, a little deeper?” Joyce didn’t like to criticize especially when she wasn’t helping. “What if we covered your arm in plastic wrap? That way you wouldn’t have to worry about the water coming over the gloves.”

“I can just wash up with antibacterial soap. At least we have plenty of that.” April thought she saw a glint of metal through the water and dipper her arm a little deeper into the black. “I’ve got it!”

She tried to feel for the end of the arm to slip the floater back on it. It was hard to do without seeing it. The splashing sounds of the water became almost musical, a sort of drone. The floater resisted her attempts to bring it under the surface and it was almost as if there were voices in the drone but it was just a trick of the ear or so she imagined and then something grabbed her hand.

April went face down in the black water, choking, sputtering, thrashing at the waves, the hands, the eyes looking at her, were her eyes open in all this muck? How could that be—and then gasping, flailing, blinking, sobbing. “April, April!”

Joyce had the back of her shirt in her fist, pulling her up. They both tottered for a moment and then April found her feet, coughed, spit, vomited, then righted herself again. “Upstairs, now.” Joyce dragged her to the steps and marched her up. They both stripped off wet clothes right there in the kitchen, then ran to the bathrooms to shower.

“Mouthwash!” Joyce called as she grabbed her towel. “Get that muck out of you.”

April rinsed her mouth, coughing and gagging, three times. The hot water ran out in the shower before she washed off all the soap but she was already shivering so the cold didn’t matter. By the time she dried and dressed again, Joyce had a second pot of coffee brewing and eggs scrambled in the pan.

“Drink this. Eat this.” Joyce sat a plate in front of her as she refilled the coffee mug.

“I’m not sure I’m hungry after that.”

“Look at you shake, girl. You might be in shock. Eat.” Joyce looked somewhat shaky herself as she started eating. “What happened?”

“I was reaching for the arm…” April paused. She didn’t want to sound like she had lost her mind. “Maybe the pump…created some kind of suction…I don’t know.”

“Did you hear something?”

April looked up. “What?”

Joyce was crying. “I heard voices. I heard weird sounds. I kept seeing faces, eyes in the woods behind the house at night. I was thinking it was my imagination. That I just hated the country side. But I saw it—saw something—pull you into the water.”

“No.” Her voice was no more than a whisper.

“Look, you know me. You know I’m a skeptic of—well, just about everything. I didn’t want to give in to the idea of bad vibes, or dead water, or whatever. But I have a strong instinct for self-preservation. We are not in some Hallmark movie here, we are in a horror film. Even if the horror is just old houses that turn out to be money pits, I am done.”

April tried to speak. She thought of all the things she wanted to say. How they needed this to get their business going. To survive the pandemic. To not admit defeat.

Joyce lay a hand on her arm. “I know how stubborn you can be. I know when you have a vision and you move hell and earth to get it, sometimes even if it’s not worth it and yes, I mean the Andersen account.” She gave a little laugh, but April didn’t respond. “You know how Black people are the first to die in horror films. So I’m leaving today. I’m going to pack up, call a cab to take me to Amtrak, and god help me, I am going to Queens to shelter with my family.”

“I can’t,” April said, crying.

“I love you, my friend, but I love life more. Maybe there’s nothing down there. Maybe it’s just black water from, I don’t know, roots and dead leaves. Maybe it can be fixed. And just maybe this place should be burnt down and the earth sowed with salt. But we can close it up for now. Come back after the holidays. Come back in the spring. Come back some other time, but leave it for now. Leave with me.”

April pushed the eggs around on her plate silently. Joyce sighed, poured some more coffee and ate. When she finished she washed up the dishes and went to pack.

The plumber came before Joyce was ready. She was trim, fiftyish, and no-nonsense. “I told your aunt to replace that armature or the whole damn pump a dozen times. I can order you a new one and install it next week.” The pump started right up. April could hear the whooshing (and nothing else at all, no voices).

“Where does the water go?”

Lillian jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Out back in the woods there’s a ravine that leads away from the house towards the quarry. It’s all downhill, so no worries. It’ll all be cleared away, toot sweet as the man says! But seriously replace this. It’s no fun having to dig around in dirty water to try to reconnect it. Especially if you don’t have the equipment!” She held up her elbow length gloves.

“Yes, I should probably do that,” April agreed, waiting for her to leave. But she couldn’t think even afterward, one ear cocked to hear that the pump was working, the other…well, the other just hoping not to hear anything. The plumber left her notes and estimates, but April left them on the kitchen table and went to feed the fire. It was the only heat now. Lillian had said the furnace might kick on as soon as the water level went down, and suggested turning on the dehumidifier, which was sitting on a cabinet by the shelves of pots. April had mistaken it for an air conditioner. It was humming now, too.

Joyce gathered up her things by the front door as the taxi arrived. “I will call you every day until I change your mind.” She hugged April fiercely. “Don’t be so stubborn. We can resurrect our careers from Queens as well as we could from here. Just keep me from fighting with my dad about every little thing.”

April dozed on the couch, listening the crackle of the fire. She tried not to look at the flames because she kept seeing eyes in the orange, yellow and red.

She woke and it was twilight. The house was silent. Outside birds called. April closed her eyes again.

She woke struggling for breath, deep in black water, hands holding her down, mouths open. Then a log in the fire popped loudly throwing sparks against the screen. A few made it through the grill to glow and die on the cobble stone hearth. It was only a dream. But her heart raced. She sat up.

It was dark now. Full night. Where had she left her phone? Upstairs maybe. No, there on the coffee table next to her laptop. It was only 7:34. There were two messages from Joyce. Probably texting from the train. She must be in Queens now. Although she had slept most of the day, April felt heavy and tired. She should check email and throw another log on the fire, maybe in a moment…

Arms, hands, fingers, eyes, always eyes. April sobbed, heard an owl, wondered if she were awake this time. Yes, awake. The fire had burned down to red coals but still warming. She was shaking. Maybe caught a chill from the water. A bitter taste in her mouth like ashes. She got to her feet, feeling shaky. It seemed to take an enormous amount of strength to pick up a log and put it on the fire.

Dehydrated, that’s it. Fires always suck up the moisture in a room. She needed water. April picked up the crocheted throw from her aunt’s rocking chair and wrapped it around her shoulders. Where am I going? Oh yeah, kitchen. She shuddered again as a memory from her dreams tried to surface. Water. Eyes. Hands reaching.

She let the tap run, grateful for the purifier. Filling a glass she appreciated the crystalline beauty as it sparkled in the moonlight. The furnace had not come back on. She turned the tap off. It was silent in the house. There wasn’t even a wind blowing. Hadn’t it been raining before?

Silent? Maybe the pump had done its work. She started, thinking there was someone looking in the kitchen window but it was just the moonlight. Was it a full moon tonight? Maybe.

April put on the boots just in case and opened the door to the cellar. It was pitch black. Maybe she should get her phone for light. She took a hesitant step onto the stair. It was only a few steps down and then she could switch on the overhead light.

So quiet. So black.

There was a sound here. She cocked her head to make it out. It wasn’t voices. There was a word for that, how your brain turned random images into faces, random sounds into voices. Maybe it was just her own breathing which had become a little labored. Maybe she had caught a cold. Maybe it was her heart hammering. Just a few steps. Just do it.

Her will faltered.

Maybe Joyce was right. Maybe she should just lock it up and walk away and think about it later. Or sell it off. Whatever. Why had she been so stubborn about it? Maybe because she had never in her life had something that was hers, just hers, not shared with somebody else. But this place, this deadness, this…

What was that sound? So familiar and yet—

Water. The pump had stopped.

It would be all right. Not too deep. The boots were tall. If she headed directly straight from the steps she would find the string for the light

—but she stepped off a cliff that had not been there and plunged into deep water, impossibly deep, black water, rotten water, leaves, limbs, trees—could there be trees under the water?—no, limbs not trees: hands, arms. Fingers that reached for her, fingers that pulled at her clothes, fingers that tried to open her mouth and stop her ears and yet she could still hear. She didn’t want to open her eyes. She didn’t want to open her mouth. She didn’t want to hear the churning sounds. Maybe it was just her chilled flesh that felt the motions, swirling around her, wrapping her in its labyrinth.

April tried to hold her breath, not to breathe in the way the voices coaxed her. She couldn’t move her arms and legs, couldn’t kick away, back up to the surface. A thousand screams filled her head or maybe it was just her brain demanding air, life, air more air. And her limbs sagged and her heart cried and maybe drowning wasn’t so bad, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing, maybe the quiet peace of it was what she had been looking for anyway or so the voices soothed her. Dead wasn’t so bad maybe.

Until she saw their eyes.










10 Archaeologists to Dig

10 Archaeologists to Dig

By Jenny Barber

Archaeology has been shaped by women from its inception – they have been pioneers of new field methods, new understanding of history, and activists for better conditions for the women studying, teaching, and working in the field.  While their names are often forgotten, their number is legion, so here’s ten of archaeology’s pioneering women to get you started…

Honor Frost

A pioneer of underwater adventure and archaeology, Honor Frost combined her passion for diving with her experience of land archaeology, applying the rigor of careful site and artefact recording to the wreck dives she took part in.  She was responsible for the identification of a Bronze Age Phoenician ship near Turkey and despite being omitted from many of the later reports, made many vital contributions to the recording and analysis of the site.  She went on to excavate many other sites in the Mediterranean Sea and continued her archaeology and typography work right up until her death at age 92.

 Zheng Zhenxiang

Zheng Zhenxiang developed a passion for archaeology when Chinese archaeology was still a new discipline, and persevered through much local turmoil to become the first female archaeologist of New China and one of the leading experts on Shang Dynasty archaeology.  Her most notable discovery was the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, a Bronze Age female general and priestess.  This discovery, the only undisturbed Shang Dynasty tomb found to date, provided such a wealth of artefacts and remains that it has given archaeologists many valuable insights into Fu Hao and the Shang Dynasty world.

Margaret Murray

Margaret Murray was an archaeologist and Egyptologist who was equally at home on excavation sites as she was teaching generations of students in the lecture hall. She nursed in foreign wars and during epidemics; and was also a member of the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U), participating in the 1907 Mud March.  Her activism also led her to champion better conditions and facilities for the female staff and students at University College London.

Shahina Farid

Considered one of the best field archaeologists in the business, the ‘Lady of the Höyük’ spent 20 years as Field Director and Project Coordinator at the Çatalhöyük site, managing a large international team of over 200 researchers and students.  Seen as a mentor and inspiration by those who worked with her, her expertise is recognised as being a driving force for the Çatalhöyük excavation, while her stratigraphic work has broadened the field and become the foundation for many archaeological and scientific studies.

 Dorothy Garrod

Dorothy Garrod was a pioneer in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology, the first person to use aerial photographs for archaeological work, and the first woman to hold a professorship at the University of Cambridge.  From 1942-1945 she served as section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Force and in 1965 was awarded the CBE.

 Whitney Battle-Baptiste

Whitney Battle-Baptiste is a scholar and activist who examines the intersection of race, gender, class and sexuality through the lens of archaeology.  She is the author of the ground-breaking Black Feminist Archaeology and co-author of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

She is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UMass Amherst and has served as the Director of its W. E. B. Du Bois Center since 2014.

Check out her website here: or follow her on twitter @blackfemarch

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

Born in Russia, Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s start as an architect was derailed by the Great Depression which led to her working as a museum artist. She decided to dedicate her life to Maya architecture, art, and hieroglyphs after a visit to the Maya site of Piedras Negras (Petén, Guatemala) and produced a number of architectural plans for Chichèn Itzá (Yucatán, Mexico) and Copán (Honduras) as well as a book – A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture. She contributed to the deciphering of Maya hieroglyphic writing and is considered the pioneer of the idea that the Maya recorded their political and dynastic histories as well as calendrical and astronomical information.

 Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was a woman of many talents – known as the ‘Queen of the Desert,’ she was a traveller, a photographer, a mountaineer, spoke eight languages, worked for British Intelligence in Cairo, and her visits to Maltese ruins to draw and photograph them led to an enthusiasm for the excavation and surveying of other ancient sites further afield. She had a particular concern with the security and archaeology of Iraq and visited sites to check for looting and wartime damage, then tracked down and interfered with artefact sales in Baghdad’s bazaars. Later, an official appointment to the Iraqi Department of Antiquities made her officially responsible for monitoring excavation methods and artefact dispersal of Iraq sites. She also established the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (now the National Museum of Iraq) and willed money towards the British School of Archaeology in Iraq which was founded as a memorial to her.

Theresa A. Singleton

Theresa A. Singleton is a writer and archaeologist who is considered a pioneer of historical archaeology in North America. Her work has been particularly important in uncovering finds relating to the African Diaspora, especially African-American history and culture under slavery, and life in communities of African-Americans descended from former slaves.  She is the author of Slavery Behind the Wall: An Archaeology of a Cuban Coffee Plantation and the forthcoming The Archaeology of Plantation Life in the Caribbean and United States.

Amelia Blanford Edwards

A prolific writer and traveller, the ‘Godmother of Egyptology’ developed a passion for the protection of Egypt’s ancient sites after witnessing the rampant destruction and thefts plaguing them.  Along with curators of the British Museum she set up the Egypt Exploration Fund with the aim of studying, conserving and protecting the ancient sites of Egypt, and worked tirelessly to promote and secure funds to enable young archaeologists to study the sites in better ways.

Further reading:

For more on these legendary ladies and other awesome archaeologist women, check out:

Ladies of the Field by Amanda Adams

Photo Credits:

Honor Frost: By Editsicinf at Italian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Zheng Zhenxiang: People’s Daily Online, October 2008, accessed via 2019

Margaret Murray: By Unknown (Lafayette Ltd) –, Public Domain,

Shahina Farid: from

Dorothy Garrod: By Newnham College, Cambridge –, Public Domain,

Whitney Battle-Baptiste: from

Tatiana Proskouriakoff: By Ms. Char Solomon, biographer of Ms. T Proskouriakoff, and owner of site the image is sourced from –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gertrude Bell: By Unknown – picture copied from the Gertrude Bell Archive [1], Public Domain,

Theresa A. Singleton: from,_Theresa/

Amelia Edwards: By unbekannt – entweder der Verlag oder eine Zeitung – aus dem Buch von Amelia B Edwards “PHARAOHS, FELLAHS AND EXPLORERS”, Public Domain,


10 Female Lead TV Shows

Top 10 Female Lead TV shows

By Molly Bruton

The Bold Type

This show started in 2017 following the lives of three strong women who are working at a fashion magazine called Scarlett. Each one is pursuing their own pathway in life with each other by their sides to help. It touches on the issues of feminism, female representation in the media; LGBT issues, politics and many more.

Watch on – Amazon Prime Video (Seasons 1-3)

Derry Girls

A comedy series following the lives of Erin, Clare, Michelle, Erin’s cousin Orla and Michelle’s cousin James – who happens to be English. Not only are they dealing with trying to navigate relationships; their Catholic girl’s school and their parents; they’re also having to deal with the troubles the 1990s brought to Derry, Northern Ireland.

Watch on – Netflix (Season 1) or 4oD (Season 1&2)

One Day at a Time

A sitcom based around the Alvarez family, a Cuban-American family. With three generations of Alvarez women living under the same roof, there is bound to be some conflict as well as some amazing stories being told. Lydia, the grandmother, Penelope, the mother and Elena, the daughter are all very different but all similar in the way of them all being strong, powerful women who speak their minds. The show covers a lot of different topics that are important in today’s society in both a comedic way and a serious way as well.

Watch on – Netflix (Season 1-3) and PopTV (Season 4)

Orange is the New Black

Since the first season premiered back in 2013, this show has always been praised at its large, diverse cast of women portraying some of the most empowering, inspirational women on TV. Even if they happen to be criminals. As Orange heads into its final season there is no doubt in my mind this show will forever be known as the show that changed the way people watched TV as it was, and still is, Netflix’s most watched show. It was one of the first shows that had people “binge-watching”.

Watch on – Netflix (All Seasons)

Sex Education

An unexpected stand out Netflix original from this year following the story of Otis who, despite his mother being a sex therapist, is extremely awkward about sex. After meeting Maeve – a confident, outgoing, yet vulnerable classmate – they set up a sex advice business helping students with their problems. This show definitely made a lot of people, especially women, feel more confident talking about sex and owning their sexuality as the characters in the show do.

Watch on – Netflix (Season 1)

Dead to Me

Two women who seemed to have lost everything become fast friends when they meet each other at a therapy group for widowers. Jen is mourning the loss of her husband who was killed in a hit-and-run; while Judy is grieving her finance, who had a heart attack. As this show is a dark comedy there are lots of twists and turns, but the main element of it is the friendship between the two women and how important that is to each other.

Watch on – Netflix (Season 1)

The Act

Based on the true story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a young girl confined to a wheelchair due to multiple illnesses with an extremely overprotective mother. While Gypsy tries to find more independence, she begins to rebel against her mother finally finding out that she has been lying about her illnesses as Gypsy was in fact healthy. This leads her (and her boyfriend) to kill her mother. Although this isn’t the most joyful thing, the acting throughout the show is amazing.

Watch on – Amazon Prime Video

Killing Eve

A classic spy thriller with a twist. The series follows a British investigator, Eve, trying to capture the slightly insane assassin Villanelle. While they are taking part in this cat and mouse chase, the two develop an obsession with each other. Not only is this a critically acclaimed TV show, the two lead actresses in it are both being praised immensely with Sandra Oh receiving two Golden Globe awards for this role. The showrunner of each season has also been a woman.

Watch on – BBC IPlayer

Big Little Lies

One of HBO’s biggest hits in the past few years; with murder, mystery and comedy set in the town of Monterey, California. Their community is fuelled by rumours the whole thing being divided into the people who have and the people who don’t. The series is told through the eyes of three mothers – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley exposing broken relationships between spouses, families, friends and neighbours.

Watch on – NowTV

Stranger Things

Set in Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980s. The laboratory near the town were performing experiments in the paranormal/supernatural. This included human test subjects – one of those being Eleven. They accidentally manage to make a portal to an alternative dimension – The Upside Down. The shows cast is extremely well known due to them being so young and so talented.

Watch on – Netflix (Seasons 1-3)

10 Lost City Breaks

10 Lost City Breaks

By Jenny Barber

If you’re bored with all the usual resorts this summer, why not try one of these city breaks instead! Whether you’re holidaying at home or abroad, adventure beckons…


This island paradise has a network of canals to rival Venice – enjoy one of the boat tours from the coast to the centre of the city and listen to knowledgeable guides while you admire the classic sculpture on the many bridges.  Take a visit to the jewellery district and explore the Atlantean arts scene in the recently renovated orichalcum studios where you can watch your own one-of-a-kind piece being made; or drop into one of the coastal restaurants for the best fish dishes this side of Lyonnesse.  And when you need a break from the bustle of the city, the black and silver beaches are not to be missed. 

image from world atlas


Hidden away in the magnificent Kunlun mountains, Shangri-La is just the place if you want to get away from it all.  Try out one of the many spiritual retreats; walk the peaceful lake trails; or eat at one of the famous home-style restaurants where everyone is welcome, and all ingredients are acquired fresh that day – and don’t forget to sample one of Shangri-La’s famous peach dishes!


For an exciting Mexican adventure why not try an activity break in Chicomoztoc!  With seven main city-caves and a multitude of caverns and tunnels to explore, there’s something for every level of caver. Beginners can explore the underground streams, lakes, and caverns with stunning stone-age wall art; the more experienced will find some of the most thrilling cave dives in the world, with challenging cave passages that lead to the ruins of ancient tribal sites.


Twinned with Lyonnesse, this gem of Brittany is one for the shopaholics as it boasts a thriving network of markets that will leave you cash poor but infinitely richer in souvenirs.  The Arts Quarter has always been one of its popular attractions and Ys’s signature marble, cedar and gold can be seen here in abundance.  An energetic night life can be found in the clubs and bars near the dykes and those seeking something quieter will find a great many cathedrals and historic churches to visit.


Despite its limited access restrictions, you’ll find Hy-Brasil a mist shrouded wonder whatever time of year you visit. Situated west of Ireland, its unique environment boasts rare flora and fauna native only to this region, making it a haven for nature lovers; and history buffs will delight in the active excavations and detailed museum that documents the ancient ruins and castle. Guided tours through the ruins and woodlands are available twice a day, or those with stronger stomachs can chance a boat trip around the island and discover the many secrets of its stormy coastline.

image from ancient origins

El Dorado

In the South American jungle, on the shores of Lake Parime, you’ll find the ancient Muisca city of El Dorado.  Known as much for its water sports and vibrant night life, as for its gold, silver, and emeralds, El Dorado caters to many tastes.  Learn to sail on sparkling water of the deepest blue or join a dive tour to see the ancient artefacts that still litter the lakebed; then spend your evening enjoying one of the many regular open-air concerts, festivals or dance clubs. 


Closer to home is the fabled island-city of Avalon: one of Britain’s Arthurian centres, you’ll find the famous Avalon Abbey and Academy of Healing as well as bountiful orchards, extensive herb gardens and sacred springs.  Cider aficionados can visit one of the island’s cider breweries and sample the many custom brews, while those looking for something more restful can spend time in the meditation retreat or browse the local bookshops – there’s at least three bookshops per street so seekers of knowledge will not be disappointed.


In the desert, far west of the Nile, you’ll find the shining white city of Zerzura. Built around an oasis network that provides the city with multiple natural pools, springs, and rivers, Zerzura’s impressive city gates are guarded by black stone giants that date back to the Bronze Age.  Its library and university are renowned for holding the oldest records of Egyptian history and its ancient ruins have remained intact and untampered with.  But if history’s not your thing, the dunes outside the city are perfect for sand-boarding and buggy racing, while the nearby mountains are a hiker’s dream!  

Biringan City

If you fancy a trip to the Philippines, why not visit Biringan City! This city of dazzling lights and towering buildings is on the cutting edge of technology and you’ll find the inventions of science fiction brought to life on its streets.  Biringan is also well known for its ghost tours and has a rich folklore woven into local life, making it a rare treat of a city that balances scientific and magical wonders.


Between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly you’ll find the historic island-city of Lyonnesse.  While famed for its 140 churches and abbeys; its sub-tropical climate, golden beaches, and azure waters easily rival the Mediterranean – making it the perfect staycation destination for the discerning sun-worshipper.  The nearby Seven Stones reef boasts the best diving in the British Isles and at low tide it’s possible to see the remains of the forest that once stretched between Lyonnesse and the mainland.  You’ll find the best clubs, pubs and arcades along the north coast and a thriving shopping district to the south that demonstrates why Lyonnesse was once a hub of European trade.


Fox Spirit is Seven! #skulkisseven

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Fox Spirit is Seven! How did that happen?!

Did you know there’s an ebook store right here? And that you can use coupon code ‘skulkis7‘ to celebrate our 7th birthday with 25% off throughout June!! What are you waiting for?

It’s a milestone that makes you thoughtful. Shakespeare talked about the ‘seven ages’ of human life in his ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech. The first is birth which he describes as

At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Fox Spirit managed to avoid that unpleasantry: it was born with a song in its heart, a laugh in its mouth and a pub on  its mind — the Nun & Dragon. It was meant to be a one off, but here we are seven years later! Which in Bill’s words means:

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

I suppose we can see a little bit of that: hands up skulk members who would rather be writing/drawing/plotting than creeping to our jobs and other duties? Yes, you can put your hands down now. We itch to have the luxury of time, but there are always new responsibilities. In the mean time we can remember that we are yet young and have so many ways to grow.

What will the next anniversary bring? More books? More multimedia efforts? Games? Skulk Island? World Domination?

Time alone will tell — but the skulk has ambitions, you can bet your floof on that. All kudos to our fearless leader Adele!

On Representation by Danie Ware

Representation of LGBT characters is changing – and high time. From films like ‘Priest’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ which focused on the agony and tragedy of a same-sex relationship, and in a community or society where such a thing was deemed shocking, we’re seeing better and fairer representation of LGBT characters on our screens – Killjoys, for example, or Wynnona Earp, or Legends of Tomorrow

And we’re seeing those changes in fiction, too – that LGBT relationships should just be a part of the overall narrative. There needs to be wider representation, and storylines that treat LGBT characters exactly the same as they treat straight ones – with a whole raft of troubles and plotlines and daemons that have absolutely nothing to do with their sexuality. We should have LGBT stories that are not based in tragedy or denial, stories where ‘being gay’ is not an illustration of being troubled or alone, stories where gay relationships can develop with all the normal hiccups that plague us all, gay, bi, straight, or anything else. When I wrote Children of Artifice, this was something that I really wanted to get right.

I’ve chosen five of my more recent SFF reads, each featuring an LGBT character or relationship, and taken a look at how things are changing – and for the better!

Paul Cornell – London Falling (Shadow Police)

All credit to Paul Cornell, the sheer amount of research that goes into his work is astonishing, and, as this book picks up pace and information, we see the narrative unfold through the eyes of each of the central characters. It’s very cleverly done, and allows a thoroughly detailed, police-procedure plot to take shape with wonderful effect.

As one might expect, Paul’s thread of inclusivity carries on through all three books in the series. Unlike the Morgan, the gay relationship/character is not the focus of the story, rather the sub-plot as Sefton, one of the PoV characters becomes involved with a new boyfriend. And while he has his daemons to battle, the remarkable thing about it is… that it’s so unremarkable. As the relation progresses and they move in together, they ‘re just two people, becoming involved, surrounded by the craziness of the main storylines, and falling in love as they should.

More narratives like this one, please.

Natasha Pulley – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

If there was a book that I wanted ‘Artifice’ to emulate, then this is the one.

Entwined, subtle, beautifully written and very character driven, it follows a crescendo of events that tear Thaniel, the central character, between multiple loyalties. It’s a delightfully cunning tale – but even with that in mind, its core relationship took me completely by surprise.

And the set-up is just too clever – the sub-plot of Thaniel’s involvement with Grace seems writ large from the beginning. So, the beautiful moment where Thaniel actually reaches out to Mori is so completely unexpected, and has a wit and gentleness to it that just aches with sincerity and insight.

Plus – who doesn’t need a clockwork octopus?

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

Violence, politics, sarcasm and deliciously biting courtroom wit – if you like the vicious and genteel savagery of the upper classes, then this is a title not to be mised. It’s also available on audiobook with a full-cast ensemble, and it’s pretty spectacular. And Swordspoint illustrates the case as flawlessly as one might expect.

The title features a gay lead character, Richard St. Vier, and his lover Alec – indeed almost all of the supporting cast seem to be bisexual – but any hint of romance is only ever implied, a part of the colour and richness of the background, and that’s all. They story focuses on the duelling of blade and wit and intrigue, and does so with a polish (and a sarcastic humour) that’s truly glorious.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

 A Clarke winner, and deservedly so.

A book about the magic of little things, how tiny touches and moments spin into the critically important, how the smallest of objects becomes precious. A book about how things interconnect, and about how a word can carry across miles and generations.

It’s also book that also has only one straight white male – the narrative’s focus, who dies in the first chapter. And yet Arthur provides the centre of the Venn Diagram that binds the rest of the story together – most notably, Arthur’s best friend Clark, who follows a wonderful narrative arc of his own. From the processions of his youthful lovers, to the normality of having breakast, to finally being the curator of all those obsolete and magical wonders – and re-finding himself (and his youthful haircut) after years of being supressed by society’s expectations…

The important thing to note is that the suppressions were about the mundanity of his ‘normal’ life and nothing to do with his sexuality.

Aliette de Bodard – The House of Binding Thorns

In the second book in the series, following The House of Binding Thorns, Aliette takes us back taking us back to her beautiful, dystopian Paris.

Woven with plot-threads, politics and flashbacks, and threaded through with flickers of Vietnamese myth, this is a story like darkly woven lace, and as intriguing as what lies beneath the waters of the Seine…

And there are whole sequences of LGBT relationships in this book. Gay couples lead both major houses, the characters all completely entwined in the ongoing narrative. And it’s a perfect example of a book where gay relationships are just present – they’re not played for drama, or for cool points, or for shock value.

Women in Horror : Round Up

Well, this wraps up Women in Horror month and our series of guests posts, by women about horror.

Elvira, Hostess of Horror

We will do a quick link round up of all the posts so you can make sure you haven’t missed anything on our tour of movies, books and horrors from mythology, but first we just wanted to state the obvious. Women don’t only do horror in February. There are a huge number of talented writers, musicians, directors, artists and other female creatives out there living and breathing the horror genre. So while we hope our month of celebration has got you thinking about where you can find women doing horror and how women are treated or mistreated by the genre, we hope you won’t stop there. 

We recommend checking out, The Cultural Gutter, Popshifter, Ginger Nuts of Horror as great starting points. 

The blogs

K.A. Laity : The Haunting of Hill House
Snippet Sunday : Winter Tales
Kim Bannerman : Disability, Motherhood and Personal Autonomy
C.A. Yates : A Monstrous Love, Crimson Peak & The Writer
Jan Siegel : Fear of the Female in Vintage Fiction
Aditi Sen : Bengali Ghosts
Interview of Emma Bridges By Margret Helgadottir : Making Monsters 
Snippet Sunday : Respectable Horror
Su Haddrell : The Weird in the Normal
Jenny Barber : Short Fiction Queens
Kerry Fristoe : My Bloody Valentine 
Sharon Shaw : Women who Fight Back
Leslie Hatton : ‘What Have You Done to Solange’ Exposes the Legacy of Misogyny 
Snippet Sunday : Pacific Monsters
Angela Englert : Once, Twice, Three Times a Villainess: Karen Black, Sex, and Twist Endings in Trilogy of Terror
Amelia Starling : Female Spirits and Emotions in Japanese Ghost Stories
Snippet Sunday : Asian Monsters
Zoe Chatfield : Lost Cities (Unfriended)
Carol Borden : Cat People

Women in Horror : Cat People

Cat People (1942)

Carol Borden

Cat People (1942) is a fine entry into the tradition of films that cause modernity—and gaslighting—some trouble by having a woman turn into an actual panther. Well, not as much a tradition as I might like, but it’s a start. Based on, Val Lewton’s short story “The Bagheet,” and adapted for the screen by DeWitt Bodeen, Cat People was produced by Lewton, directed by Jacques Tourneur and shot by RKO noir superstar cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca during the war at an extremely low-budget. There is no gore or on-screen transformation effects. There are only the shadows, a woman’s fear of herself and her own sexuality.

Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is an illustrator whose work is published in fashion magazines, highlighting the most modern of clothes. She is from Serbia, perhaps a refugee fleeing the Nazis and the war in Europe. She is definitely fleeing her home town, a village she and her fellow townsfolk believe was settled by devil worshippers who escaped execution in the 16th Century. And Irena is definitely trying to escape her fear that there is something evil inside her. Big cats fascinate Irena and her favorite subject is a black leopard at the Central Park Zoo. It’s an animal that an old maintenance man considers a killer. One day, Oliver Reed (no relation) approaches Irena as she draws. She tells Oliver (Kent Smith) she is fascinated by the big cats. And really, who wouldn’t be?

As they become closer, Irena tells him the story of her town. They were devil worshippers and were executed by the Serbian King John, aka, Jovan Nenad (1492-1527). The worst, however, escaped into the mountains. Now their female descendants are cursed to become panthers when they are sexually aroused or jealous. Oliver isn’t put off by her story. He is a modern lad and believes superstitious worries can be defeated by rationality and the love of a good man. Almost convinced that she was letting a fairy tale frighten her off of love, Irena accepts when Oliver proposes.

But when at a Serbian restaurant with Oliver and her friends right after the wedding, Irena is spooked when a cat-like woman approaches their table and calls her, “My sister.” Irena knows in her heart that this woman is one of her kind, another cat person. At home, Oliver has been respecting Irena’s boundaries, sleeping in another room and not pushing her to be intimate, but Irena becomes so distressed that he confides in his co-worker and best friend, Alice (Jane Rudolph). Alice suggests a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Judd is a terrible psychiatrist. Dr. Judd falls in love, or in lust, with Irena.

Cat People was made in a psychoanalytic time, a time with a lot of optimism about modernity and science. Dr. Judd reflects it, cynicism and all. He doesn’t just pursue a scientific understanding of the human mind, but believes he already rationally understands what is before him and that he already knows all there is to know. More tragically, Judd believes knowing something is enough to cure or protect one. To Judd, Irena is just another another woman with a sexual dysfunction that is coded as “frigidity” or Lesbianism (“My sister”), albeit with an interesting clinical lycanthropic twist. Less philosophically, Judd is convinced that there’s nothing wrong with Irena that a more modern attitude in general and a healthy attitude toward heterosexual sex in particular can’t fix. Failing that, there is nothing wrong with Irena that sexual intercourse with a man, regardless of her fear or lack of desire, won’t fix. It is an era when what was considered sexual dysfunction sometimes called for realigning a woman’s sexual attachments with what we now consider “corrective rape.” (If I ever had a “corrective rape film festival” it would feature a lot of movies starring Sean Connery). Oliver was ahead of the curve compared to Judd at a time when it was not conceivable that a woman could be raped by her husband, especially when he is trying to help cure her fear that she could turn into a panther and kill him when she really gets going.

In saying all this, it’s not that I think Cat People is anti-rational. It’s more that it respects that while we pursue reason and understanding, we remember that are not already, inherently reasonable, rational, or objective. It leaves space for the unknown and the unexpected—the thing that is unbelievable but nonetheless true. It’s easy to think we already know everything and being modern has led us to believe so for the just over a hundred years or so that we have considered ourselves living in the modern world. While we might believe humans can know or understand anything, there is still a lot to discover, learn and understand. I believe Dr. Judd wants to help Irena. I believe he believes that once she has sex with a man, she will realize her fears are irrational and will fade away. But Judd makes a mistake in believing that he is only concerned with Irena’s well-being. Judd is too attracted and attached to Irena to be dispassionately, rationally helping her. He won’t listen to Irena. He already knows. And already knowing the answer is not scientific, my dear doctor.

But however you feel about his methods, Dr. Judd makes for some great cinema. He hypnotizes Irena, allowing for a fantastic, phantasmagoric dream sequence. Afterwards, Judd tells Irena that he can help her and recommends Irena tell Oliver nothing about her fears. Irena, however, doesn’t believe Judd understands or can help her. Irena comes home to find Oliver and Alice together. Worse, Irena find out that Alice knows about her problems. Irena is angry, embarrassed and appalled that Oliver would discuss something so private with Alice.

Alice is the first person to decide that Irena is not just haunted by superstitious fears, but is, in fact, transforming into a panther. Oliver turns to Alice for comfort and support. Alice admits that she loves him but would never do anything to threaten his marriage saying, “I’m the new kind of other woman.” Irena already knows Alice loves Oliver, though. And she becomes increasingly hurt and jealous. This leads to one of the most eerie stalkings of cinematic history. As Alice walks down the street, she thinks she hears a growling panther in the shadows. And at the YWCA, a panther (Dynamite) growls from the shadows and tears Alice’s bathrobe to shreds as Alice, terrified and vulnerable, treads water in the center Y pool. Irena then appears to ask Alice if she’s seen Oliver. Alice’s decision to believe Irena seems less a product of “feminine intuition” and more a decision to trust her instincts and not to deny her experience. Something happened at the Y. Alice doesn’t know how it happened, but she’s not going to pretend it didn’t. That’s how you end up dead.

After Oliver decides to divorce Irena and marry Alice, Irena menaces them both at their work. Oliver and Alice are now pretty sure Irena is a cat person. Dr. Judd, however, is still convinced he can fix Irena. He decides that what Irena needs is the love of a good man or at least the love of a terrible pschiatrist and he makes moves on her in her own apartment. Irena rebuffs him, but he continues and she finally transforms into a panther and slashes him. Because he is the kind of mental health professional who carries a sword cane, Judd draws a sword from his cane and stabs her. Wounded, Irena runs back to the zoo and opens the cage to the black leopard letting it kill her.

There is some crossover with another Val Lewton film, The Seventh Victim (1943). Both films share themes of Satanism, suicide and men who fall for troubled women. And both share two actors and at least one character: Dr. Judd. It is in The Seventh Victim that Dr. Judd’s terribleness as a psychiatrist is underscored. I mean, what therapist would be prepared for a woman who actually does turn into a panther? In The Seventh Victim, we discover that Judd has a reputation for sleeping with his patients—and perhaps worse. There is also a character played by the same actress who played the Serbian cat woman in Cat People, Elizabeth Russell. In The Seventh Victim, Russell plays Jacqueline’s neighbor Mimi. Mimi is terminally ill and decides to go out and enjoy herself one final time before she dies. Dressed up for her last fling, Mimi looks a great deal like the woman who calls Irena “sister” in Cat People. Is Mimi the same woman? Do Cat People and The Seventh Victim occur simultaneously? Is Dr. Judd that unlucky a psychiatrist? (And will there ever be a Dr. Judd, Occult Psychiatrist series?)

The sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), is another Val Lewton production, this time directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise and with another screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen. As with Cat People (1983) it is less satisfying to me than the original. It unfortunately completely lacks all cat people and suffers in some ways from its title. It does bring back the original cast as Oliver and Ann’s daughter Amy becomes friends with Irena, who might be a ghost but even I admit is probably not. Irena helps Amy through a difficult time—including a woman who tries to kill her, played, again by Elizabeth Russell. Curse of the Cat People is a thoughtful and melancholy film—and a bit disorienting to watch with Cat People. But again, there are no cat people. Even Irena appears only as a maternal and protective human albeit ghostly figure. And cat people are what I am here for.

Cat People was remade in 1982 starring Nastassja Kinski as Irena Gallier and Malcolm MacDowell as her brother, Paul. And director Paul Schrader unleashes all the power of 1980s color and style. Giorgio Moroder and David Bowie even provide the soundtrack. But in trying to make Irena’s secret more shocking–that she can only sleep with her own kind, i.e., her brother, it loses some of the power of the original. And it sadly adds rape back into the mix—this time making Oliver the rapist, which is just sad. It’s not like we are much more comfortable with women’s sexuality in 1982 or even 2018 than in 1942, no matter how much we would really like to be there.

Women in Horror : Lost Cities

Lost Cities by Zoe Chatfield

In April of 2015, I sat in a movie theater as I had done so many times before. Lights dim, trailers play, opening credits roll. But unlike times before, as I sat there, watching two characters – a boyfriend and a girlfriend – talk and flirt via Skype on screen, I heard my own voice playing out through the theater speakers. I am certainly not alone in the category of people who always find it a little odd to hear themselves in recordings (Is that really what I sound like?) And boy, is there a difference between hearing yourself talking in a video taken on an iPhone and hearing yourself sing through the giant speakers of a theater. It’s even more overwhelming when the song is one that you never wanted to share with people in the first place.


I am a part of a band with two friends that I’ve known since my freshman year of high school. We formed the summer after our senior year, and recorded 11 songs total (split into two releases) at the end of that summer and during our freshman year of college. We recorded “Lost Cities,” along with the other songs on a single microphone in the living room of a family friend’s illegal apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. (The apartment was in a building meant for businesses – the spaces for rent were intended as offices and studios. There were only shared bathrooms in the hall and he had rigged a shower in his kitchen that definitely wasn’t supposed to be there). I stood closest to the microphone, singing the melodies and the words I’d written. Emily stood a step or two behind me, singing harmonies, and Athena sat at a little Wurlitzer keyboard.

Some of the songs I was eager to share, happy with how they’d turned out. One was about my friend’s relationship with her boyfriend and how I thought they needed to break up. I liked it because I’d managed to use the ridiculous metaphor – and image – of someone wearing rainboots in a desert to talk about the state of their relationship in a way that I thought turned out to be pretty clever. It was also fun to sing, and we managed to write the song using only two chords on the piano without it sounding annoyingly repetitive. “Lost Cities” was also about love, but unlike my song about wearing rainboots in the desert, it was not one that I wanted to share. The song originated from a story familiar to many children of divorce: upset over a relationship that just needs to die already. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, and the fact that I was an eighteen year old still living at home, I was incredibly hesitant to perform it after putting music to it with the band. I was resistant to record it and put it online. It took debating and deliberating and a little bit of pressuring from peers. Finally, I gave in. We performed the song at gigs, we recorded it for our online release.

We uploaded the songs to Bandcamp with an album cover I (poorly) designed myself. It featured a picture I’d taken of my sister around the age of four, standing against a mural in New York City that consists of a tide of hearts dropping down from a helicopter like bombs. Besides promoting on our personal and band page on Facebook, we did nothing to announce the music to the world, and expected little to come of it – the songs were now out in the universe, for mostly just a few supportive family members and nice friends to listen to. Out of all the songs we recorded, this was the one I was most sensitive to, the only one I really didn’t care to “promote”. So of course, this song would become the one that now has over 1.5 million plays on Spotify, that has been heard by people in 58 countries around world.  In essence, it seems to be the song that will never die. It continues to, fittingly, haunt the band. It definitely continues to haunt me.

To say the least – given the complete lack of professionalism both in our recording and promotional process – we never expected to be contacted about licensing our song to be in a movie. What’s more, when we first agreed to it, we didn’t know the details of the movie we were licensing the song to.


At this point, I think I should provide more information about the song. Each verse begins with the phrase “Lost cities, what a pity” and goes on about a failing romance; for example, “No one knows when it’s time to accept a lost love and say goodbye.” The chorus plays off of wedding vows – “Til death, til death, til death do we part. Til death, til death, til the death of this love.” Then, Emily sings “ooo’s” that emulate the sound of wedding bells. 


We pondered over the type of movie and scene the song would be used for. None of us were particular fans of the romance genre, and assumed that that our song about love had landed somewhere in that realm. Probably something super cheesy. That was a guess we all agreed on. Some kind of break up scene. Or a couple getting into a big fight. Maybe one of them storms off, slamming the front door of a little apartment they share, as I sing – “destroy yourselves already, you’re halfway there….” Maybe a somber, lonely person is walking down the street as we sing – “don’t you see there’s no home, no home left for love here.”

I suppose we weren’t completely wrong in our guesses. There was a couple in the movie. And they did go through turmoil. However it came as a surprise (although looking back – we probably shouldn’t have been that surprised), that the song would actually be in a horror movie. (I guess “til death do we part” works better as literal than nuanced while playing in the background of some scene). The movie, Unfriended, originally debuted at a Canadian film festival before being picked up by Universal Pictures and re-released in theaters internationally about a year later. The movie takes place completely on computer screens (good for us – not only did the song play, but it showed the character opening it up on Spotify, our album cover and title sitting in the corner of the screen. This was particularly exciting for my little sister. She was seven at the time the movie came out in the United States and very proudly talked about how she was famous now. Don’t worry, we didn’t let her watch the film.) Six friends, including the couple I watched as I first heard myself subtly singing in the background, are on a joint Skype call when they start getting messages from a classmate who had killed herself the year before. You can probably fill in some of the blanks here… the ghost starts messing with them (the big game changer is that she’s using online platforms to communicate and haunt them). If you don’t want spoilers for this movie that’s been out for a few years now, don’t read the next sentence. Long story short, everyone periodically dies.

The last two people to die are the couple that start the movie off. In the beginning, they are flirting and happy. By the end, infidelity has been revealed. They’ve watched their other friends die in disturbing ways. “Lost Cities” plays twice in this one and a half hour time, in conjunction with the sad spiral their relationship takes. My songs about failing relationships and distaste for rom-coms may already be clues to a larger attitude of mine: an overall cynicism about romance. So it was definitely a little satisfying for the song to be a prelude for the scene when the couple in the movie dies. Much better than some normal break up scene when you know the couple will find each other again in the end. When you know there will be a happy ending. This had no happy ending. In that way, cheesy horror movies will always be more honest than cheesy romantic movies. Romance reveals our desires, our fantasies, what we wish our lives could be. Life rarely pans out to these dreams. Horror reveals our fears, our downfalls, the reality that we break under pressure, we regret mistakes when it’s far too late, that we are all imperfect people, and in this movie, bad people. It is more violent, more extreme, and at times, more otherworldly than our realities. But beneath the cheap scares, there is a truth. If I had to choose a genre for this song to appear in – this song that I had a fear of sharing at all – I’m glad it was horror.

Women in Horror : Japanese Ghost Stories

Women in Horror: Female Spirits and Emotions in Japanese Ghost Stories
by Amelia Starling

Summer in Japan is ghost season. The windows of every bookshop display tales of spirits and monsters, nestled between strings of paper lanterns. During the humid, uncomfortable nights, people huddle together to share these stories. There is nothing quite like the prickly, icy feeling of fear crawling over your skin to fend off the relentless heat.

Forget the floating white sheets with unfinished business, who will disappear to rest peacefully once their task is complete. In Japan, there is a detailed classification system for different kinds of ghosts. The word rei is used as an umbrella term for the ghosts of deceased humans (in Japanese it is written as 幽霊, with the first symbol meaning ‘faint’ or ‘dark’ and the second meaning ‘soul’). There are many categories of rei. There are the shiryō; ghosts who haunt loved ones and sometimes attempt to take them to the land of the dead, kosodate-yūrei; ghosts of mothers who died in childbirth and return to care for their children, and jibakurei; spirits that are tied to a specific location.

Whilst rei can be male or female, the prevalent image of them is female. A typical rei is a woman with long, prehensile black hair, wearing a white burial kimono. She has no feet; instead she hovers above the ground. Each rei haunting is unique, as each human life and death is. As such, there is no standardised way to deal with them. Each has its own reasons for haunting, and its own terms to be fulfilled before it rests.

Here we meet Okiku, the heroine of ‘Banchō Sarayashiki,’ a well-known Japanese ghost story. In a plot, she bravely helped to save the true ruler of Himeji castle and overthrow his imposter, and protected herself and her lover by defying an undesirable suitor. In revenge, the suitor framed her for the theft of a gold plate and hoped to blackmail her into marriage. When Okiku still refused, he killed her and tossed her body into the castle’s well. There she remains as a jibakurei, her wronged, restless spirit forever counting the plates in search of the missing one. People stopped visiting the well after dark, for fear of confronting her wrathful spirit.

Okiku’s untimely, violent death caused her spirit eternal torment, and spread fear to those she once loved. But there is another category of rei which present their feelings in much more harmful ways. When people die with strong emotions, such as rage, jealousy, or hatred, their spirits remain connected to the human world, enacting vengeance on anyone or anything which crosses their path. They behave more like forces of nature than ghosts, being powerful enough to inflict illness and death and even cause natural disasters. Of all the types of rei, these are the ones which no-one ever wants to encounter. These are the onryō. Aside from their abhorrent deeds, what makes onryō so terrifying is that they can seldom be reasoned with or banished. Unlike other rei, their desire for vengeance is insatiable.

The story ‘Of a Promise Broken,’ collected by the writer Lafcadio Hearn, features a tenacious onryō. A husband promises his dying wife he will never marry again. But soon he does, triggering the onryō of his deceased wife to rise. She haunts the new wife every night, ordering her to leave the house. If she tells her husband why, she will be torn to pieces. Sick with fear, the new wife tells her husband and he orders two samurai to guard her whilst she sleeps, for one night he must go away on business. When he returns in the morning, he finds the samurai in a bewitched sleep. His wife’s decapitated body lies on the ground. Beside it floats the onryō, with her wild, unbound hair and dishevelled white burial gown, clutching the torn off head…

It is an old Japanese belief that women are more susceptible to high levels of emotion, which makes them more likely to transform into rei (and in particular onryō). This perhaps explains why the dominant stereotype of a rei is female. Many rei stories are about young women who are betrayed by lovers, die tragically during childbirth or from sickness, or are murdered for their defiance like Okiku.

It’s unsettling to consider pitying something so horrifying, but knowing their stories it’s easy to understand Okiku’s and the deceased wife’s motives (if not their actions). In life, they were honest and true. Their mistreatment ignited their emotions, and gave them no choice in what they became. They induce fear not only because of their unnatural actions and appearances, but also by providing a glimpse of the corruption emotional upset can create. With understanding them comes the realisation that we could also become them if the circumstances arose.

These ghost stories are not just about death and hauntings. They are also full of heartbreak, anger, rage, and jealousy. Traumatic events leave their mark on the physical world, which yūrei are tragic reminders of. Feeling these emotions makes us human, and the legends of the onryō show us that they can be the scariest things of all.


‘Banchō Sarayashiki’ (Himeji castle version):

‘Of a Promise Broken’ by Lacfadio Hearn:


Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist who loves travelling and collecting stories. She is a graduate of Creative Writing from the University of Winchester, and lives in the UK. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales at, with particular interest in Japanese folklore. She is also a content editor for Folklore Thursday. You can follow Amelia on Twitter @amyelize.