Tears For Fears – The Curse Of The Crying Boy

I have a recurring dream. I’m at my grandparents’ house, the one with the grotty pink shag carpet that enveloped my toes when I was small. I’m alone in the house, wandering through dark rooms with orange floral curtains and vases of papery Honesty, gathering dust. I touch the doorstopper that looks like a slab of chocolate but smells of burned things. The bath towels are scratchy with age.

In my dream, I never look up at the Crying Boy.

IMG_6299 (1)He disappeared from my life long before I was old enough to know his folklore, but even as a kid under ten, I could have told you that painting was cursed. The boy stands in a void, the ruffles of his infant blouse reminiscent of a Tudor prince awaiting the block. Something has made him cry. Not the tantrum of a little boy who’s just flushed his Lego down the toilet – there’s dread. We can’t see who or what he’s looking up at. And what is he pleading for? Comfort? Forgiveness? Mercy?

You’ll know The Crying Boy. Your own grandparents probably had one. Somehow, during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, context-free devastated children struck a chord with the British public. There are dozens of versions of the Crying Boy, and by 1985, an estimated 50,000 prints of one Crying Boy variant had been sold in Britain.

It isn’t the first time the British have flocked to purchase pictures of children they aren’t related to. Where nowadays you might have a calendar of Yorkshire Terriers in your kitchen, Victorians exhibited their softer side by collecting sentimental pictures of children. This gauze of innocence still applied if you were a single man, and even if said children were unclothed (looking at you, Lewis Carroll). Sentimental infants go in and out of fashion – look at those unspeakable Anne Geddes bumblebee babies, for instance – but the Crying Boy has an altogether more intriguing history.

cryingboy2In September 1985, Ron and May Hall lost their home in that most retro of household disasters – the chip pan fire – leaving them with nothing but an intact Crying Boy. Days earlier, the couple had laughed at Ron’s fireman brother as he warned them of all the times he had attended blazes where the child had hung weeping on the walls. “Peter told us he wouldn’t have the picture in his house,” May told The Sun, “and nor would his friends at the fire station.” Maybe Peter and his friends just weren’t tacky as all hell. Or maybe they were onto something.

cryingboy4Crying Boy disasters flowed steadily into The Sun’s mail room. Kevin and Julie of Rotherham lost their home to the flames. The couple were left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and the infernal child on the wall. More than one reader claimed their children mysteriously died following the purchase of the painting. Someone swore they saw their Crying Boy move. One of the Sun’s pin-up girls – Sexy Sandra, 21 – played a trick on a friend by giving her Crying Boy spiky red hair, only to find the house wrecked by floods the following day. The boy, of course, was fine.

For those who don’t know, if it’s printed in The Sun, it might as well be printed on Beelzebub’s toilet paper. ‘Enough is enough, folks’, they wrote, as if the Crying Boy were some kind of foreigner, leftie, or feminist. ‘If you are worried about a crying boy picture hanging in your home, send it to us immediately. We will destroy the painting for you, and that should see the back of any curse there may be.’

Soon enough, The Sun had a pile of Crying Boys, and Sexy Sandra was armed with a can of kerosene to sort them out. The paper’s fine arts correspondent, Paul Hooper, was relieved to report that no muffled cries were heard as the paintings turned to ash.

crying boy 2The South Yorkshire Fire Service were forced to issue a statement assuring the public their Crying Boys would not turn on them, but their chip pans might. The Boy was a running joke in the fire service for years afterwards. Prints became the retirement gift du jour, but the picture retained an aura of bad luck long after the tabloids ran out of fuel. I recently saw the Boy donated to a charity shop, only to be immediately thrown in a skip by the management for being ‘too spooky’.

The legend of Crying Boy lived on. Who was the model? Some say he was an Italian war orphan. Others said he was a runaway who disappeared after posing for his portrait; his anonymity played nicely into the cultural fascination with child murder victims. At school in the 1990s, we had The Boy Ghost who heralded your death if you caught a glimpse of him wandering the corridors. Children are inherently creepy. You can’t have innocence without acknowledging the threat of corruption and death.

The Crying Boy has entered urban legend, where he belongs. Thanks to the Internet, The Sun‘s campaign of burning can continue, despite a BBC documentary in which a leading expert in the field of cursed paintings explains that varnish can have fire retardant properties.

One of the final Crying Boy headlines read: ‘Tears for fears…the portrait that firemen claim is cursed.’ It’s an interesting choice of words. ‘Tears for fears’ relates to psychologist Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream therapy. Janov argued that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. This pain could be brought to conscious awareness and resolved through re-experiencing the incident, expressing the resulting pain during therapy. The patient trades their repressed fears for cathartic tears. In short, the inner child screams.

What does therapy have to do with a spooky newspaper hoax? The victims of the boy – or at least the real people who were captivated by the curse – were working class, struggling to make ends meet. Power cuts, unemployment and strikes made the post-war decades grim. Parents and grandparents harboured traumatic memories of recession and war. Perhaps this mass desire to bring innocence and sentimentality into the home was a method of banishing the ghosts of the early twentieth century, putting all those sorrows in a frame and leaving them safely on the living room wall. Maybe that’s why the legend of the Crying Boy still holds the attention – old trauma, like a curse, has a way of bursting out into our cosy homes.

So what happened to my grandparents’ Crying Boy, hanging behind the kitchen door? Their house never burned down. There were no floods. But there was one incident…

Whenever we ate Edam cheese, my mum would roll the red wax between her fingers and tell me the story of a juvenile food fight she had with her siblings in the old house of my dreams. Cheese rind is a natural projectile, and as the five of them pelted each other with Edam wax, a blob of it flew over its target’s head and hit the Crying Boy right on the nose. Choking with laughter, they peeled it off the canvas to discover it had stained the nose clown red. It was permanent, and my nan went spare. Every dinner time became an exercise in not sniggering at the picture, red nosed and tragic forever.

It was around that time that my youngest uncle decided he was going to grow up to be a karate master. He practiced high kicks at the kitchen door beside the Crying Boy, gradually training his muscles until he could connect with the top of the door in one kick. Only one day he got his shoe stuck. Losing his balance, his whole body ended up suspended from his ankle, which broke instantly, leaving him dangling there under the tearful gaze of the red-nosed boy.


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For your listening pleasure (?), here’s yours truly reading from my novel Pseudotooth. I hope you like Chopin.

Read a free sample and get a copy at Unsung Stories.

And while I’ve got you, I was on Folklore Thursday this week talking about why you should never wander off with any strange pixies. It’s all fun and games until… well, ask Richard Dadd…

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The con is on

Good morning, sweaty British people. Do you fancy spending tomorrow in a nice air-conditioned aircraft hanger with thousands of people dressed as Pyramid Head?

You do? Splendid. See you at ComicCon tomorrow! Here’s where you’ll find me…

Dream a little Dream – The Importance of Dream Worlds in genre fiction:

Dream logic and Dream Worlds have been a staple of genre fiction for years now, but they can be a very tricky thing to pull off right. Join authors Oliver Langmead (METRONOME) Verity Holloway (PSEUDOTOOTH) Claire North (THE END OF THE DAY) and Catriona Ward (RAWBLOOD) as they discuss the use of dreams in fiction.

Exact time: 10:00am – 11:15am
Day: Sunday 28th of May
Lower Platinum Suite – Author signings afterwards – Books available at Forbidden Planet Int.

Unsung Stories Presents: A Very British Scene

For a tiny island on a very large planet, the British turn out a lot of stories. Why is this, and how do they differ from the wider market? Join Unsung Stories authors Aliya Whiteley (THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES) Verity Holloway (PSEUDOTOOTH) and Oliver Langmead (METRONOME) as they discuss the role that Great Britain has played in influencing and expanding the staples found within speculative fiction.

Exact time: 12:30pm – 1:45pm
Day: Sunday 28th of May
Lower Platinum Suite – Author signing immediately afterwards – Books available from Forbidden Planet Int.

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New story: A Little Star


Phew. Fresh off the train from Unsung Live #8. Met some lovely people, listened to some lovely (and scary and violent and hilarious) fiction, and got to share A Little Star, my story of an opium den, a convict, and a shiny little something. It’s online now, if you fancy reading it.

A lamp with a shade of red paper. No matter what draughty lodge or bawdy house Benjamin laid his head for the night, he saw that Lime Street crimson whenever he closed his eyes, the way another man might see the face of a girl he loved, or a child a ghost in the doorway.

Read more on Patreon…

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Pre-Raphs in Space

I’m surfacing for a brief moment as I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, and with Pseudotooth coming out next month I need to make it look like I’m alive.

Those who know me are well aware of my weakness for Beautiful Tragic Dead Boys. This means I frequently get gifts of antique photographs to hang on my wall where I can imagine the anonymous subjects were thwarted poets who died at sea. We all have our preferences.

Rejoice: I have a new Beautiful Tragic Dead Boy. Nils Asther was beamed down to earth in 1897 by the same aliens who gave us David Bowie. He grabbed my attention a few weeks ago for being the dead spit of my Az from Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. I had in mind an androgynous silent film star look for Az, and Nils’ dark, unearthly prettiness, though rather too tall, is precisely how Az materialised in my head, stealing my silverware and hijacking the neighbours’ wifi.

Thank you, Outer Space, for loaning us your bisexual cheekbony creatures.

So I’ve been watching as many Asther films as I can find. Mostly, he was the romantic bad boy, which he hated, but there are a few surprising films. Himmelskibet (A Trip To Mars) featuring a twenty-one-year-old, rather skinny Nils as a citizen of Mars, which is probably where he came from in the first place. While lacking the whimsy of Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip To The MoonA Trip To Mars – made in 1918 – has a certain Pre-Raphaelite flavour that caught my eye.


As unlikely as it may seem, the Pre-Raphaelite link to sci-fi is something that keeps popping up. (See the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood post on Princess Leia for some hair-talk.) Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, by definition, interested in the naturalistic style of art before Raphael, they still interacted with the issues of their own Victorian age through a lens of medievalism and myth. Science, okay, not so much – Rossetti, famously, had no idea if the sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa, and argued it was unimportant anyway – but later disciples of the PRB did dip their toes into the world of modern technology. This 1910 Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painting of an angel guarding a biplane has always fascinated me…

eleanor fortescue brickdale the guardian angel

The celestial meets the mechanical.

There’s something odd about watching a film about space exploration made during the First World War. And there’s a yearning quality to A Trip To Mars. While the Earth is tearing itself apart, Mars turns out to be populated by peace-loving vegetarians. We get to watch a rocket full of uniformed Earthmen barging onto the peaceful planet where everyone floats around like Grecian deities. It’s as if Man has found Eden again, and another way to ruin it all.

Are the Earthmen ready for the Martians’ message of peace and love, or will they give in to the temptation to hurl grenades for no good reason? Here’s their chance to go back in time and halt things before they go wrong – something the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were deeply concerned with.

Here are a few of my favourite rather Pre-Raphaelite moments. You can watch the whole film here.



Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast Denies Him Her Salutation

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Frank Dicksee – La Belle Dame Sans Merci



William Holman Hunt – Rienzi Vowing To Obtain Justice


John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais – The Black Brunswicker.

And finally, a spaceship decked in flowers. Just because.

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 20.12.21

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New Story: Trenchfoot Theatre

I adjust my bonnet, take a breath, and emerge into the lamplight. I can see the public in the cheap seats, and they thunder their appreciation with hands and feet and fag smoke. I smell spilt beer and ladies’ perfume disguising sweat, and I fear I will be sick. My debut. Climbing up and out and over the smoky precipice, I want to turn tail and run for the wings, but I wouldn’t survive it. The master of ceremonies wields his gavel like a sabre.

“Ladies and gennlemun, boys and girls! MISTER – PADDY – SYKES!”

Read more on Patreon…

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Surviving The Season Whilst Spooky

This is me doing my annual Goth National Service. Here’s my list of dark little treats and recommendations to help you traverse the purgatory of December.

How To Survive The Most Wonderful Time of The Year When You Find This Time of The Year Pretty Unbearable Actually.


Vincent Price decks his tree. Just ignore the feet sticking out at the bottom…

2016 has been nightmare upon nightmare, but it was last year that we lost the incomparable Christopher Lee. Mr Lee’s baritone M.R. James readings have become a Christmas tradition in my household, and thank all the sunken crowns of East Anglia, you can buy a DVD of the lot. Forget carols at Kings’. Don your mortar board and enter James’ study for an evening of room-temperature madeira and dread.

For reading matter, cosy won’t cut it. You want something cold. Lauren Owen’s The Quick is a fresh look at the vampire myth, and it stayed with me for its sense of the physicality of being undead as much as Owen’s clever wordplay when it came to the child blood-drinkers of Victorian London.

I was on a panel at London ComicCon with Alison Littlewood earlier this year, so I picked up one of her novels and now I have an incurable fear of cupboards. I’m saying no more. Read The Unquiet House.

In The Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer and Sprenger wrote that Christmas was a good time for witches to work their magic, as all the revelry made bad Christians easy to bring over to the Devil. In that spirit, please enjoy Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate.

Speaking of bewitching, other things to treat yourself to include cosmetics, which I’m strangely shy of talking about despite having written an entire book on the subject. I’ve always been a fairly atypical consumer of beauty products, so I hope you’ll understand when I say if you wish to smell like this…

censer2…then wear this:

comme_des_garcons_series_3-_incense_avignon_enlIncense Avignon by Comme des Garçons is bottled ritual. Morrissey used to have it sprayed into concert halls before he came onstage to foster a feeling of holiness and dread. I always think it smells like Rasputin might if someone forced him to have a bath. Holy smoke and hard drink.

And for your filthy sinful face…

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 19.21.43I’ve been a fan of Aromaleigh cosmetics for years and years, and they keep getting better. I never end up in the MAC shop, because Aromaleigh not only beat them on pigment, price, and quality, but their ranges are inspired by arse-kicking historical women, Dante’s Inferno, and deep space, which are really the only topics worth focusing on when browsing eyeshadows. The Hannibal-themed collection, This Is My Design, is particularly delightful for having a copper duochrome shade called Abattoir. “Ooh, you’re so glittery. What is that?” “ABATTOIR.”

I’m going to close this year’s guide on an unusually festive note with Mediaeval Baebes, because if there’s one thing December is good for, it’s putting a big blanket around your shoulders, drinking red wine and pretending to be a weatherbeaten medieval king. Mediaeval Baebes are especially good at taking traditional carols and imbuing them with that sense of midwinter darkness you just don’t get with Slade. Salva nos, stella maris…

There, now. Doesn’t that feel better?

And remember, at Christmas, Christopher Lee always wore Vincent Price’s special Christmas fez. Make spookiness a part of your festive traditions, for the sake of our dear departed Goth Granddads.

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If you’re anywhere near Surrey, come along to the beautiful Royal Holloway College on Monday the 14th at 5pm to help launch The Mighty Healer: Thomas Holloway’s Victorian Patent Medicine Empire in Crosslands bar.

I might even divulge the secret pill recipe…

And if you haven’t got your copy yet, Pen & Sword are giving away three copies over on Goodreads. It’s free to enter, and open to entrants anywhere in the world.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Mighty Healer by Verity Holloway

The Mighty Healer

by Verity Holloway

Giveaway ends November 24, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

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Good for what ails you

The day has come for The Mighty Healer: Thomas Holloway’s Victorian Patent Medicine Empire to roll out into the world. I hope you’re pleased with it, Cousin Thomas. Or at least not too annoyed with me for giving away your secret ointment recipe.

Screen Shot 2016-10-31 at 10.15.31

And as it’s Halloween, what better way to launch a book than with patent medicine cupcakes?


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Outings: MCM London ComicCon & Holloway College

Hello. Long time no post.

I’ll be on a panel at MCM London ComicCon tomorrow – Saturday the 29th – talking about horror and dark fantasy with Jason Arnopp and Alison Littlewood. We’ll be on the Silver stage at 12pm. I’ll then be on the SolarStorm podcast talking about my upcoming novel Pseudotooth. After that, I’ll be knee deep in Star Wars merch, so say come and say hello while you can.
londonCOMICOnly a few more days until the general release of The Mighty Healer. All being well, there’ll be a launch evening at Holloway College itself on the 14th of November, where I’ll be signing books and lurking at the bar. More details as they’re finalised.


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