Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

ghost-stories-ouija-board-skullAs befits the scariest month, I embarked at the beginning of October on a volume of ghost stories by British scholar and author, M.R. James. (Collected Ghost Stories, Oxford University Press, 2013.)

I must admit that, until I stumbled upon this title whilst browsing online, I’d never heard of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). Promotional material touts his work as some of the finest of the supernatural genre, right up there with Poe, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft and Stoker. Indeed, the back cover claims he’s ‘considered by many to be the most terrifying writer in English.’ How could I have missed him?

This omnibus, in perpetual print since its publication in 1931, contains all of James’ ghostly tales, including the two most popular, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad and Casting the Runes. The 2013 edition starts with a lengthy introduction by Darryl Jones, Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. If you get this book, don’t skip it; it offers valuable and fascinating information about James’ background and career, and of the ghost story form itself. There’s a timeline of the author’s life in relation to cultural events of the time, and an appendix of James’ notes on his stories.

I learned, for example, that the modern ghost story is dead. That is, proper ghost stories are always set at least a hundred years in the past, which by its archaic detail imbues the proceedings with a ready-made ambiance of mysterious antiquity and shadow.

It’s important, I think, to remember the era and environment in which James, a Victorian and a lifelong college man, was writing. Whilst I recognize how well-crafted his tales are, I did have some trouble with them at first. Modern audiences, so used to overwrought Hollywood blockbusters with catastrophic violence, blood and gore in every scene, will not, perhaps, appreciate James’ subtlety. Today’s fare consists of a continuous series of intense blast-’em-ups with no true climax, so the brief moments of horror in his stories might – as they did with me, at first – disappoint. After the third or fourth tale, however, I’d acclimatized to the author’s style, and found myself drawn in to his claustrophobic world of remote country houses and haunted inns, ancient churches, cobblestones, lamplight and fog.

James’ dénouements might also leave the reader wondering, “Is that it?” – or, “What happened?” The demons and fiends which so terrorize our protagonists are always shadily-sketched, and endings can often be abrupt and more than a little vague. And, as I’ve mentioned, the story arcs, whilst concise – as all good short stories should be – are rather more gentle than the sensationalism we’re used to. But all of these, I believe, are precisely what make James’ works so skillful. Rather than over-the-top, jump-out-of-your-seat horror, the ghost stories of M.R. James are designed to evoke a creeping sense of spookiness, of suspicion, mystery, paranoia and doubt. If you’re looking for some deliciously gothic shivers this season, do give this book a try.

In James’ honour, I’ve tried my hand at penning a Victorian ghost story. You’ll find it on my new creative writing site, Flagstones & Fog. The blog is intended to be a repository for my occasional jottings – short stories, poetry, book reviews, perhaps excerpts from the novel I’ve been working on for a very long time (and perhaps will never finish). I’d be exceedingly pleased if you paid me a visit there!

Autumn Craft: Fabric Pumpkins

Autumn Craft: Fabric Pumpkins

Happy Thanksgiving from Canada! Here is a craft to get you in an autumnal mood. These cheerful fabric pumpkins make me happy every time I look at them, and they were pretty simple to put together. I made the four shown here in one evening – and I got to use my new sewing machine for the first time! (Really, each pumpkin requires only one sewn seam, plus a bit of hand basting.)

fabric-pumpkinsThe idea came from Pinterest; there are lots of examples and tutorials out there. I used this tutorial, but after trying it changed one step. I also finished the pumpkins using my own variation on the leaves. See the tutorial for step-by-step instructions with photos; I’ve included my version (without pictures) below.

diy-fabric-pumpkinsThis project is a great way to use up fabric scraps in your stash. (I found an orange polyester tablecloth and plaid cotton placemat, plus the wide green ribbon at the dollar store; the smallest multicoloured pumpkin is made from a fat quarter I already had.) I used typical autumnal colours, but you could go non-traditional to fit your décor, use cotton, muslin, flannel or burlap, and add any type of embellishment you like. A gathering of these pumpkins would make a great centerpiece, or would be wonderful to sell at a bazaar. Imagine a whole table covered with these bright beauties!

To make this project, you’ll need:

fabric for pumpkin • sewing machine (optional) • needle & thread • polyfil stuffing or batting • twine, string, yarn, embroidery floss or narrow ribbon for “veins” • glue gun • small stick or cinnamon stick • ribbon, felt or fabric for leaves, or artificial leaves • raffia, twine, wired twine or pipe cleaners for tendrils (optional, not shown)

The Pinterest tutorial gives directions for round or squat pumpkins. I like the squatty ones – plus, they sit better; to get this shape, the fabric length needs to be two and a half times the width. (For round pumpkins, the length is two times the width.) I cut the fabric for my pumpkins as follows:

6 inch dia. pumpkin (orange):  10” x 25”
5 inch dia. pumpkin (plaid):  8” x 20”
4 inch dia. pumpkin (orange):  6” x 15”
3 inch dia. pumpkin (multi):  5” x 12.5”

small-fabric-pumpkinsNow, start making!

• Cut pumpkin fabric and fold lengthwise with right sides together so that the short ends meet. Machine- or hand-stitch the short end closed using a 1/2 inch seam allowance. This is the pumpkin’s side seam.
(This is the step I changed from the Pinterest tutorial) With right sides still together, hand-baste a loose running stitch around one open end of the pumpkin, using a 3/4 inch seam allowance. Pull the thread ends to gather the fabric evenly and tie off as tightly as possible with several knots. This is the bottom of the pumpkin.
• Turn fabric right side out. Check the gathered bottom to make sure no raw edges are showing to the outside; if they are, poke them back in and adjust the gathers as needed.
• As you did for the bottom, hand-baste a gathering stitch around the top of the pumpkin. Gather slightly but don’t tie any knots.
• Fill pumpkin with stuffing until fairly firm.
• Gather the top closed and tie off as tightly as possible with several knots.
• Cut three lengths of twine (etc.) that will encircle the pumpkin to create vertical “veins”, dividing it into 6 sections. Wrap each piece around the pumpkin, tying at the top. When adding the last piece, loop it around the first two underneath the pumpkin to help keep them centred and in place. Trim ends.
• Cut stick (I found a fallen branch with lichen on it) to desired length for the stem. Add a dab of hot glue to the centre top of pumpkin and push in the stick. A cinnamon stick would also make a lovely, fragrant stem!
• To hide the knots around the base of the stem, add leafy embellishments: cut leaves from fabric or felt (or use artificial leaves) and hot-glue them to the pumpkin. Instead of leaves, I used 1.5” sheer ribbon, looping and tying it loosely around the stem and tacking it down with hot glue.
• If you’ve added leaves, you might want to finish the pumpkin by tying raffia, twine or ribbon around the stem. “Tendrils” can be created by winding wired twine, ribbon or pipe cleaners around a pencil or marker and fastening the curlicues around the stem.

I think this method would be perfect for a pincushion, too. I’ll probably try to make a velvet pumpkin- or tomato-shaped pincushion. (See more about my passion for pincushions here.) Stay tuned!autumn-fabric-pumpkins


Welcome, October – my favourite month! A season of jewel-coloured days and inky nights, crisp apples and snuggly sweaters and pumpkin everything, ghosties, ghoulies and cackling ’round the cauldron. ’Tis the Witching Month, the time of Samhain, and it’s when I truly come alive.

Over the next 31 days, I’ll be reading a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, whose spine-tingling work is considered some of the best in the genre.

I’m expecting my new sewing machine to arrive any day now, so I’ll be trying some basic projects to get used to its features. (I sewed a lot when I was much younger but haven’t done any machine stitching for many years.) I hope to share some of the results. A good way to keep busy as the days get colder!

October is also Pumpkin Month, so I’ll be doing a couple of craft projects involving pumpkins – both real and, well, not.

There’ll be some witchy stuff, too, including another installment in my “Magick” series – a really spooky one, in keeping with the situation!

And, if the weather permits and I can get out to my favourite places, perhaps I’ll share pictures of a country jaunt, or the changing leaves using a new photographic technique which will nicely fit Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up prompt of “Tree”.

In the meantime, here is a sampling of Octobers past.autumn-fall-October

Wishing you the most comfortably cosy, deliciously eerie and shiveringly scary October!


• • • • • • •  )O(  • • • • • • •

Time for Tea

french-macarons-with-blue-willow-tea-setA while back, I wrote about my Basket List, a few things – nothing elaborate or outrageous – I’d like to do, own or experience.

Finding some reasonably-priced French macarons at the grocery store bakery means I’ve checked off one of those items, at least!

A few of you commented that I shouldn’t bother, that macarons are expensive bits of tasteless cardboard. I’m happy to report that these ones were fresh and tasty, with a pleasing texture. They were flavoured with lemon meringue, pistachio and strawberry-rhubarb and were quite rich and sweet, so one or two are all that’s needed. On a cool, grey and rainy afternoon, they were just the thing with a nice cup of hot tea.

I hope that on this Sunday, you take the time for some restful relaxation and a well-deserved treat!

Pins and Needles

Pins and Needles


Seen at the market: Shaker-style spool caddy with pincushion circa 1940

I promised to share my collection of pincushions – and here they are!

I’ve been collecting sewing implements for years, including a variety of pretty pincushions. I’m proud to own two antique examples, one of which – the shoe, below – I picked up just recently at an antique market. I was absolutely thrilled to add it to my collection!

There are other special ones, too, handmade by talented fabric and bead artists and given to me by my mother. I will treasure these one-of-a-kind gifts forever.

The last group consists of Pinterest-inspired projects. These Mason jar pincushions are fun and easy to make and require only fabric scraps, minimal sewing (there are no-sew methods, too), some stuffing and a bit of glue.

Pincushions have been documented in Europe since the Middle Ages and over the centuries were called pyn pillows, pimpilowes, pimpilos or pin-poppets. These sewing implements weren’t just practical; they were an opportunity to show off one’s collection of pins and needles, which, being made of metal, were expensive and rare. Early pincushions were often made of fine fabrics and embroidered with intricate designs, and could have a base of ivory, bone, wood, silver, pewter or porcelain in different shapes such as birds, baskets, dolls, tuffets, acorns or fruits. They were cherished objects that took pride of place in the lady’s parlour.

antique-pincushionsVintage and lovingly handmade (clockwise from bottom left): Early 20th century silver-plated Art Nouveau shoe pincushion made by Jennings Bros., a metal foundry established in 1891 in Connecticut. The bottom is marked “JB 515”, the company’s mark and model number  •  Victorian-style velvet apple pincushion with vintage glass-headed hatpins  •  Antique metal pincushion with original velvet cover and sawdust filling  •  Beaded strawberry by First Nations beadwork artist Naomi Smith who learned the craft from her mother. The strawberry is sacred to the Fish people, Naomi’s clan; the pincushion is a copy of an antique pattern. Following old ways, Naomi takes care never to make two pieces exactly alike.

pincushionsModern whimsy (clockwise from bottom): The iconic tomato-shaped pincushion that we all grew up with – and which is still commonly available today – was a Victorian invention. It was a folk custom to place a tomato on the mantel of a new home to keep evil spirits away and protect the household. When tomatoes weren’t in season, ladies made fabric tomatoes stuffed with sawdust, cotton, wool or horsehair instead. Often, they included a small strawberry filled with emery powder for keeping pin ends sharp and clean  •  Owl pincushion weighted with sand  •  Felted wool “geode” pincushion handmade by a friend of my mother’s. Lanolin in the sheep’s wool helps keep pins and needles conditioned and rust-free.

mason-jar-pincushionsDIY Mason jar pincushions: This Pinterest tutorial was the basis for these cheerful pincushion/storage jars, perfect for holding buttons, thread, pins, embroidery floss, bobbins, beads, clothes pins or other needlework tools. I made the largest jar into a basic sewing kit with thread, extra buttons, a needle pack, measuring tape, scissors, thimble and a seam ripper. How pretty would this be on the sewing table? It would also make a great gift for a sewing beginner or a student going off to college, and it could serve as a useful emergency kit at the office.

For the large- and medium-sized examples, I used Mason jars with two-part lids; the lid insert is placed inside the filled, gathered “pouff” which is then pushed up through the outer ring. The overstuffed cushion of the medium-sized jar stayed in place on its own and didn’t have to be glued; more modest domes will have to be hot-glued to the inner rim of the lid’s ring.

The smallest example is a reused honey jar with a regular metal lid. I put a cardboard circle a tad smaller than the lid’s diameter inside the pouff, hot-glued the whole thing to the top of the lid and added lace to cover the edge. The lid can still be removed with no problem.

Other objects such as teacups, egg cups, little terra cotta pots, wooden spools or small tins can be recruited for this idea, too.

All these needlework-related posts have got me in the mood – I just bought a new sewing machine! I’m on pins and needles waiting for it to arrive so I can start more cute and colourful little projects – it’ll be sew much fun!

Key Magick

“The key to happiness…”

A key can both unlock and lock, at the same time giving access to that which was previously hidden and setting boundaries or limits. Symbolically, a key is the means to a new realm of knowledge, spirituality or destiny; when we say something is the “key to happiness (success, etc.)”, we call upon its symbolic power to open the door to whatever it is we aspire. The key is a male symbol; a lock represents the feminine. Together, the lock and key possess a yin yang duality, i.e. one thing complementing the other, or the inability to function one without the other.


This collection includes antique and modern skeleton keys – some functional, some decorative. Can you spot the jailer’s key from the 1880s?

The skeleton key, which can be any shape, plain or decorative, both antique and modern, is designed to open any door, thereby symbolizing versatility. In magick, the skeleton key (’cause, you know – we can’t just use a plain one) represents gaining passage to unknown worlds or planes, secrets and arcane knowledge.

Cultural Keys
The Roman god Janus, with his two faces looking to the past and future, was the protector of gateways, doors and roads, and beginnings and endings (especially of conflict). His symbols are the staff and key. In the Roman Forum, an enclosure dedicated to Janus was opened during times of war and locked when there was peace. Christianity’s St. Peter, guardian of the Pearly Gates, is often shown with two keys: a gold one which gives the worthy access to heaven, and a silver one which locks out damned souls. The Hindu elephant god Ganesh is the remover of obstacles and is associated with keys. In Voodoo, Papa Legba – an elderly man bearing a cane and keys (and a dog) – is the gatekeeper between the physical and spiritual worlds. Hecate, queen of the witches, is another key-carrying gatekeeper. In Tarot, the Hierophant has a set of crossed keys at his feet – one gold (the Sun), one silver (the Moon). Their meaning has many interpretations: the keys to the kingdom, heaven or the temple of wisdom; the conscious and subconscious, etc.

“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.” – Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

antique-key-with-bookKeys to the Castle
In antiquity, the person responsible for guarding a house’s keys was almost always female; this may stem from the Greek and Roman deities Hestia and Vesta, hearth goddesses of domesticity who kept the keys to household supplies. Upon marriage, Viking women became responsible for the family’s treasures and wore their keys conspicuously as a symbol of equality, respect and power. From the Middle Ages onward, the lady of the house or a head housekeeper (think: Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes) wore the keys on a chatelaine, a set of chains with a decorative clasp worn at the waist; she had the authority to direct servants and servicemen and decide who had access to what. Tea was once so expensive that only the woman of the house owned a key to the tea chest.

Bestowing the “key to the door” (presumably, the front door of the home) on a person’s 21st birthday is a traditional coming-of-age gift representing the attainment of adulthood and responsibility. Giving someone the keys to the city is a symbolic sign of trust and honour rewarding public service or a great deed.

Having the “keys to the kingdom” means you have everything you’ve ever wanted, with the world at your feet and all roads open to you.

“Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Love Locks
A movement which started in Rome in 2006 as a result of a book and film has couples attaching padlocks to bridge railings and other public places, and then throwing away the key as a symbol of their unbreakable affection. Paris’ Pont des Arts bridge is perhaps the most famous example of this charming yet destructive act of sentiment (let’s call it vandalism by devotion). Sadly, the added weight of hundreds or thousands of locks – over 700,000, in Paris – can cause the structure to which they’re attached to crumble and become a hazard and eyesore, so the locks eventually must be removed. However, some municipalities such as Niagara Falls, Ontario, embrace the locks as a tourist attraction, to the point of selling padlocks right next door!


Love locks on the Humber Bay Arch Bridge in Toronto, ON • Photo © Nancy Barrett Photography

Toronto has seen its share of love locks, too (see photo, taken by my sister). In the historic Distillery District, there’s a Love Lock public art installation which encourages visitors to add their own locks, customized with initials, dates or special message, to a large metal LOVE sign complete with giant heart. The padlocks are removed from time to time (and put in storage intact, according to the City) to make room for new ones, but ‘locking up your love’ is, after all, just a symbolic act.

“You unlock the door with the key of imagination.” – Rod Serling

The practice of divination using keys to uncover information, predict the future or tell fortunes is called Cleidomancy (Greek for ‘key prophecy’). It originated in Europe as a means of discovering the identity of a thief, and later spread to the New World. The basic method involves suspending a key like a pendulum and interpreting its movement in response to a simple question.

Bibliomantic Cleidomancy, still used today, involves inserting a skeleton key into a bible or other large book, with the loop protruding from the top of the pages. The book is wrapped tightly with a ribbon or string, and two people grasp the protruding key and suspend the book between them. The name of a possible guilty party or a yes/no question is uttered; if the key moves, turns or pulls out of the book, that person is deemed to be guilty, or the answer to the question is “yes”.

Good Luck
Old iron keys, especially rusty ones, are good luck. Any key that rusts easily (and stays that way despite cleaning) is a sign you will receive an inheritance • Giving someone a key is a sign that family or domestic relations will improve • Receiving a key indicates you will receive assistance from someone with means or influence • Finding a key represents enlightenment or gaining understanding. It can also predict an upcoming move of domicile • Dreaming of finding a key symbolizes a positive solution to a current problem • Dreaming about keys can mean a marriage is coming • Dreaming that you are responsible for a set of keys indicates a new position of authority.

Shut the Door!
Finding a key can sometimes mean a robbery; it could be a reminder to increase security measures • Dropping your keys is a bad luck omen • Worst still, breaking a key means an opportunity will be lost • Losing keys, the worst omen of all, indicates something unpleasant is about to happen, including being disappointed by a friend. In extreme cases, it can be a harbinger of disaster or death.

Harnessing Key Power
Hang a key on the interior wall above your doorway to protect the household, specifically to guard against losing the home • Wear a key as an amulet to remove obstacles, open doors to opportunity and protect you whilst travelling • Wear three keys together to unlock the doors to health, wealth and love • Place a large key under a sleeping child’s pillow to ward off evil spirits and nightmares (old European tradition) • Touch a key for comfort and to keep you safe, especially when entering a dangerous situation • Jangle your keys to repel negativity or evil. But don’t do it on a Wednesday; it will drive you mad! • When lost, throw your keys over your left shoulder; the longest key will point in the right direction • Wear a key necklace when searching for a new job; it will unlock new opportunities • Give a symbolic or decorative key as a housewarming or house blessing gift.silver-key-necklaceWhatever you do, don’t leave an extra house key outside (e.g. under a rock, above the door)! It’s the first place thieves will look. And don’t ever trust those magnetic boxes for storing car keys under the vehicle – they can fall or be knocked off easily.

“A very little key will open a very heavy door.” – Charles Dickens


I have to admit, this month’s prompt for Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up was a bit perplexing. What, after all, could I do with a cue like Case?

I’ve got vintage and antiques on the brain lately, so much so that this blog’s theme for September is “Vintage Memories”. At the beginning of the month, I spent a leisurely afternoon at a country antiques market housed in a century-old barn. “The girls” and I used to go there fairly regularly, but those shopping excursions eventually stopped, and I hadn’t visited the place for about twenty years. So the act of returning to that barn – familiar yet new again – brought back very fond memories. For a couple of hours that day, I had a good browsle (that’s a browse + ramble). Or did I enjoy a good brummage (browse + rummage)? I went there with a particular couple of items in mind, and I happily scored good deals on a few small pieces. They’ll soon, no doubt, make their way into an upcoming post or two.

With vintage on my mind, and pondering the case for Case, I eventually realized that I do have something for this photo challenge!

Over the years I’ve gathered a modest collection of needle cases.

Aha! You were wondering where I was going with all this, weren’t you?! Here are several types of needle case – also known as an étui – along with other sewing implements I’ve gathered over the years.

antique-sewing-implementsClockwise from bottom: This dainty sterling silver Art Nouveau needle case belonged to my grandmother and bears her monogram; it came with a few old needles and a pin with a tiny grey pearlized head (topmost in case) • Although not technically a case, this pewter magnetic needle holder is sculpted in the shape of a lady mouse with sewing needle and spool of thread; I’ve used it for nigh on 30 years • A velvet apple pincushion holds antique glass-topped stick pins • These silvery embroidery scissors are embellished with leaves and the Tudor rose • The thimble is also an antique and came to me along with the needle case.

needle-cases-pincushionClockwise from top left: This roomy needle tube, made in France of turned boxwood, was a gift from my husband after I’d complained I had no container large enough to hold my hefty darning and leatherwork needles • The classic tomato pincushion comes with an emery-filled strawberry to keep needles sharp. It holds a tiny stork scissors lapel pin • This small wooden needle case came unfinished; I gave it a few coats of beeswax polish and use it to hold cross-stitch needles • Another lapel pin, this time in the shape of a sewing bird • Ever-popular gold-plated stork scissors have been a delightful tool for many a sewing project.

medieval-sewing-toolsClockwise from top right: This handmade 4.5” needle case of spalted maple with stopper on a leather thong is a rustic repository for forged iron and bone needles, part of my collection of Dark Ages and medieval living history ‘artifacts’. (Check out the wonderful Jelling Dragon for period-accurate Celtic and Viking supplies.) • Waxed linen thread for leatherwork • Forged iron snips with leather case, also from Jelling Dragon.

I have more pincushions, too, which I’ll share some day in another post. Since many of the bloggers I know are needle and fabric artists, I would love to see your collection of sewing implements!