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.

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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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Free books? Free books.

A giveaway for Saturnalia!

Saturnalia was the Ancient Roman mid-December festival of feasting, gift-giving, and wild partying, when ordinary Romans turned social norms upside down and revelled in pandemonium.

Saturnalia features in Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs, my novella of magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish. I have three signed copies to give away this December, to lend a little pandemonium to your mid-winter festivities.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs by Verity Holloway

Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs

by Verity Holloway

Giveaway ends December 30, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

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An 1870s Christmas

IMG_5042It’s the weekend before the first Sunday of advent, traditionally the time to whip up your Christmas cakes and puddings so they have time to mature (i.e. get sufficiently saturated in alcohol you’ll be comatose until Twelfth Night). In Britain, we make heavy fruitcakes with chopped almonds and candied citrus fruit peel, as well as puddings with a tarry consistency that we like to set on fire. The recipes haven’t changed hugely since the nineteenth century, though we no longer put pennies or tiny dolls in our puddings because, well, death.

In my research for The Mighty Healer, I got my hands on a gorgeous little household almanac from 1870s Philadelphia. These flimsy books were printed to advertise patent medicines, with calendars, joke pages, and bits of first aid advice inside, so you’d keep it handy and suck up the advertising by osmosis.

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They also contained recipes. Some…more appealing than others. Here are some of the Christmas ones. Try them at your discretion/peril.

IMG_5059I’m not sure I can applaud the juxtaposition of beef suet with vermifuge purgative, but the Victorians did invent Christmas, so who am I to judge…

Next up is a more American dish, pumpkin pudding. Just the thing for the pangs of neuralgia.

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And finally we have Nun’s Butter and Wine Sauce preceded by Hoofland’s German Bitters, which were good for the appetite, apparently, what with being 25% alcohol.

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ADD AS MUCH WINE AS IT CAN TAKE. Nun’s Butter sounds like the brandy butter we put on mince pies to make them palatable. It can also be used as an icing to rescue dry cakes. Trying to dig up the origin of the name, I came across French puff pastries called Nun’s Farts. So there you go. Butter up a Nun’s Fart.

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Open Day at Cambridge’s Pre-Raphaelite Church

This Saturday, the 13th of June 2015, All Saints Church on Jesus Lane will be open to the public from 11.00am to 3.00pm.

Building started on site in 1863 where no former church existed. Instead of a mishmash of different ages like most medieval churches, All Saints is a testament to the vision of one man, George Fredrick Bodley, one of the most significant architects of the Gothic Revival.

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With the artistic input from William Morris, Charles Eamer Kempe, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, Frederick Leach and Philip Web, there are plenty of stories to tell. Volunteers will be on hand to guide you around the church’s intricate details, including the pre-WW1 graffiti in the chamber to the right of the altar.

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Friends of All Saints are always looking for more volunteers. Opportunities include being part of an advisory forum, research, events and fundraising. Email Karen Fishwick for more details: kfishwick@thecct.org.uk

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No need to book – just drop in between 11.00am and 3.00pm All Saint’s Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, CB5 8BP.

Please contact: southeast@thecct.org.uk or phone 01223 324442 for more information or see visitchurches.org.uk.

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Christmas: A Survival Guide For The Spooky

Every year, around September, the nightmares start. I’ve lost the ability to cook, or forgotten to buy presents, or – and I had this one last night – a completely imaginary cousin is having a breakdown over the sprouts because he can’t afford to move out of his parents’ house and what are you going to do about it, Verity?!

Wading through the syrupy supermarket ads, the money-grabbing pop songs, and all that infernal fruitcake, we’ve forgotten that midwinter was once a time for ghost stories, when our ancestors met around the fire to celebrate another year of narrowly avoiding the bloody flux. All that phoney Christmas cheer can be hard when you’re spooky by nature, so I’ve put together a list of things that might just get you through…

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Misty winter evenings, strong drink, and Victorian medical students with too much time on their hands. It’s a pocket-size ghostly novella that can be read in one sitting, and the punchline is Susan Hill at her effortlessly chilling best.

M.R. James’ ghost stories by Nunkie Theatre

nunkieI’ve seen Robert Lloyd Parry read James’ tales of the uncanny twice, in the flesh – in a candlelit medieval leper chapel, no less. Parry’s softly-spoken delivery casts you back into an antiquarian age of fusty academics and sherry sipped alone by the fire. He is the next best thing to re-animating the author. You can buy DVDs and audio here.

Krampus

krampussticksIf you’ve ever worked Christmas in retail, you’ll understand the appeal of a giant Germanic goat-man dragging naughty children away in chains. Krampus has enjoyed something of a Renaissance in recent years, so it’s no longer hard to source hilariously macabre cards, ornaments, and festive jumpers bearing his grinning hairy visage. My own tree features a glass Krampus nestling amongst bat tinsel.

Christopher Lee’s heavy metal Christmas singles

Thrashing as we go
In a hearse that knows the way
To hell we go!
Crying all the way.

“It’s light-hearted, joyful and fun,” he says. Thank God for Christopher Lee. His own Christmas tradition involves wearing Vincent Price’s special festive hat.

The Haunted Looking Glass

Selected and illustrated by Edward Gorey, this is one of my favourite collections of ghost stories. Highlights include Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’, and Stoker’s ‘The Judge’s House’. Small enough to produce from your handbag during those hellish Post Office queues.

Jill Tracy – Silver Smoke, Star of Night

Because nothing fosters that festive glow in the heart like the minor chords of murky cabaret. Jill Tracy’s voice is silk and cyanide. Her Christmas album features gloomy renditions of traditional carols as well as ‘Room 19’: “Tracy’s tale about the forlorn spirit who haunts a desolate hotel room where he committed suicide Christmas Eve 1947”.

Charles Dickens’ hot gin punch

ginpunchI sampled one or two of these at the recent London Month of The Dead, courtesy of Hendrick’s Gin and inspired by Mister Micawber…

I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning spirit, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of a punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Gin lovers disagree on the finer points, but go ahead and experiment with the basic elements: gin, Madeira, lemon juice, sugar, spices, and boiling water. For a more authentic Victorian taste, perhaps swap dry gin for the harder flavour of Dutch genever. Punch doesn’t have to be cosy; simply don a black veil and sit in a corner, a la Lady Dedlock, and brood over the intoxicating vapours.

There. Doesn’t that feel better? Merry bleedin’ Christmas. And roll on next Halloween.

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That Damned Elusive Pearl Spiral

You will have seen it again and again in Rossetti’s paintings of lush, isolated women – a spiral of pearls nestling in waves of red or raven hair. Once you’ve noticed it, it keeps turning up. Here it is in ‘A Christmas Carol’…

christmas-carol…and in Alexa Wilding’s hair in ‘Monna Vanna’…

dante_gabriel_rossetti_12_monna_vanna…and, naturally, adorning Jane Morris in ‘Mariana’…

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Rossetti was an incorrigible collector. His Chelsea house was crammed with musical instruments he never played, mirrors he never polished, and great swathes of fabrics for the beautification of his models. He spent the evenings rummaging in junk shops for exotic jewellery and amassed quite a collection of cheap yet dramatic pieces. Some of these pieces still surface in Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic exhibitions. Unfortunately, the spiral hair pin he obviously adored was allegedly borrowed by a friend and never seen again. That probably didn’t do Rossetti’s latent paranoia any good.

While we wait for it to turn up on Antiques Roadshow, we have Kirsty Walker’s biscuit replicas to enjoy, and – at last! – beautiful handmade replicas by Joanna of Nanya Online. I don’t normally do plugs, but I won Joanna’s Tumblr competition and I’m just thrilled. It arrived today in a tiddy box adorned with ‘The Beloved’.

IMG_2672 IMG_2678Isn’t it delicate? It feels like a network of tiny bones in my hand. Joanna also makes earring replicas of the spiral. Have a look at her shop.

Unlike Alexa Wilding and friends, my hair is made of ghosts, so nothing will ever stay in it. Luckily the spiral comes with another pin so it can be worn as a brooch. I’ll be wearing it on my Victorian riding jacket at Portsmouth’s Victorian Festival of Christmas where I’ll be ‘performing’ – ha! – later this month. See you there.

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The Doom of The Gods – bloodlust & cake

It sates itself on the life-blood
Of fated men,
Paints red the powers’ homes
With crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
In the summers that follow,
Weathers all treacherous.
Do you still seek to know? And what?
– Völuspá

February the 22nd 2014: Ragnarok – the Viking apocalypse.

The Doom of the Gods is coming. I love a good apocalypse, and this one has magnificent shieldmaidens and mandatory mead. So, with the proviso that the Vikings are about a thousand years past my historical comfort zone, I thought I’d try my hand at a couple of Old Norse recipes to celebrate the final destiny of the Gods “before the world goes headlong”.

Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler (1905)

Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler (1905)

The Vikings liked their sweets, and most of their ‘dessert’ recipes are recognisable today: there’s a yoghurty substance called färskost, fruit pancakes (did they flip them, I wonder?), and a custardy sauce charmingly called ‘creme bastarde’. I made the honey nut cake for after honey-roasted chicken with soda bread, both of which are in the linked PDF (with sources on the final page). All that protein and carbohydrate – perfect before heading West and ransacking a Northumbrian village.

(I’ve done my best to convert American ‘cups’ into metric here. That was the hardest part, and it’s probably still wrong.)

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Ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders. Illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript.

Honey Nut Cake
100g hazelnuts
100g walnuts
140g dried apple
350ml of honey
2-4 eggs, depending on how massive your baking tray is.

Preheat the oven to 175 C. Finely chop the hazelnuts and apple. Mix the nuts, apple and honey in a bowl. Whisk in the eggs. Spread the mixture on a greased baking tray, preferably one with deep sides as the mixture gets a bit lively. Bake on the middle shelf of your authentic Viking fan-assisted oven for approximately 15 minutes. Leave it to cool on the tray. It should smell like a fruity sponge pudding and look like those bags of hot honeyed nuts you find in the Mediterranean.

Honey Cream
300ml whipping cream
Handful of lingonberries (I used dried cranberries – there were no cranberries in 10th century Denmark, but lingonberries go for around £45 a kilo in the UK, and I haven’t recently robbed a monastery.)
150ml of honey (At this stage, I felt as if I’d used up the planet’s supply of honey. It could either be my maths, or just that the Vikings were just wild about sweets).

Mix the cream and honey in a pan. Simmer the mixture while whisking until it thickens. Spread the honey cream over the finished cake. It doesn’t say what to do with the berries, so I sprinkled them on top. Rejoice.

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Mead. Bread. Cake. Metal.

Don’t forget your mead. If there’s anything historical romance novels have taught me it’s that if you’re about to enter into an arranged marriage with a duke you personally despise, a gallon of mead is just what the apothecary ordered, shortly before flinging yourself off a tower. You can make your own, but buying a bottle frees up more of your time for pondering the smell of burning sheepskin and the martyrdom of Saint Cuthbert.

Shieldmaiden Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

Shieldmaiden Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

Shieldmaiden Lagertha: “A skilled Amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest with her hair loose over her shoulders. All marvelled at her matchless deeds, for her locks flying down her back betrayed that she was a woman.” – Saxo

I’ll bet Lagertha’s honey cake was a riot.

Skål!

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Verity gets a hamster. Kind of.

I always thought I had no crafting talents. Friendship bracelets, daisy chains, iced cupcakes – all a total loss. Turns out, I’m alright at taxidermy.

As a child, I was hugely upset by stuffed animals. I seem to remember it stemming from the conviction that a squirrel would appreciate a proper Christian burial. As I got older, however, seeing the anthropomorphic work of Walter Potter and taking an interest in human mortuary customs and anatomy as a science, I began to develop a fascination. Plus, an exceptionally large pigeon once dropped dead out of a tree and into my garden, and as I shooed the dog away I found myself thinking, “I should really do something with this…”

So we booked our places at one of The Last Tuesday Society‘s anthropomorphic taxidermy classes. If you’re at all Fortean in nature, you must get down to Hackney and see this place. I felt like I’d found my tribe.

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It probably helped that I’d never had a pet hamster.

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All our hamsters were the unsold snake food variety, destined to otherwise go in the bin. It’s important to most modern taxidermists that their animals are not killed especially for stuffing, and instead rely on roadkill, stillborns, and the like. There are surprisingly numerous vegetarian taxidermists, our instructor Michelle included. The omnivorous variety often consume the more edible animals, and Michelle feeds her leftover meat to her pet axolotl.

I’ll admit, I felt some trepidation as I wielded the scalpel for the first time. It didn’t help that my instrument was blunt, so, when given a sharper blade, I punctured the inner cavity and learnt a sudden exciting lesson about intestines.

If, unlike me, you’re a natural skinner of rodents, you should never see the inner cavity. There’s very little risk of flying gore. You more or less de-glove the hamster, taking care around the eyes, clip the feet, clean the skin, pop a cotton wool mould inside, and sew it up. Ours took about five hours while the room gradually began to smell like an upmarket charcuterie.

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Downstairs, in Viktor Wind’s Little Shop of Horrors, we saw how the professionals do it.

It will sound strange to anyone naturally repulsed by taxidermy, but being so hands on with a dead creature actually increases your feelings of respect. You get a fantastic sense of the wonder of anatomy; milky little hamster ribs perfectly encased in tight, pink flesh. And then you get to put a hat on it!

My effort:

Bertie

Burlington Bertie, he’ll rise at ten-thirty, and saunter along like a toff
He walks down the Strand with his gloves on his hands
And saunters back down with ’em off.

And Gabriel’s:

PhantomHe’s here! The hamster of the opera.

mousebook2I think I was always destined to become that odd woman with a bin bag, scouring roadsides. At least now I’ll have a purpose.

For more anthropomorphic taxidermy, see Margot Magpie’s Of Corpse Taxidermy (or indeed her Taxidermy Workshop Manual, which we bought for future adventures), and Amanda’s Autopsies. For some crappy taxidermy, head to…Crappy Taxidermy.

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Salute! Frances Rossetti’s rum punch.

Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori Rossetti

With kind permission from the University of British Columbia, and the help of author of The Rossettis In Wonderland, Dinah Roe, I have a Christmas treat to share with you: Mama Frances Rossetti’s recipe for a frightfully boozy rum punch!

The Rossetti family’s little London parlour was always crammed with displaced Italian revolutionaries, carousing and debating while the cat warmed herself in front of the fire. Christina talks about “chestnuts, cake, and a social glass of grog”, although Dante Gabriel didn’t drink at all until much later in life. (That didn’t stop him, as a child, from feeding beer to a hedgehog and watching it stagger about, the unusual boy). However, I like to think he partook of the occasional sip of family punch. Especially if it was anywhere near as tasty as my attempt!

Let’s give it a go, shall we?

Frances doesn’t give especially detailed instructions, so most of this is guesswork verging on generosity. Here’s the recipe as it appears in Frances’ recipe book:

2 lemons
1 orange
Rum
Brandy
Lump sugar to taste

The lemons being first scraped white, therewith, boiling water.

Looking for further details, I found this fantastic article on Charles Dickens’ favourite punch, circa 1847, involving a pint of rum (!) and a glass of brandy. That, between myself and Mr May, would be lethal, so I’m going to tone down the quantities a bit for the sake of propriety.

Yes, this is classed as research.

…said the bells of Saint Clements.

I sliced the lemons (first scraping them white with a knife, because for some reason I don’t own cheese grater) and cut the orange into four. I ended up slicing the lemons in half because I didn’t quite believe the juice would get out through the zest. Maybe that was a mistake. We’ll see.

On the hob, I boiled a pint and a half of water, brought it off the boil and added the fruit. I left the lot to simmer for three minutes while I repeatedly got the maths wrong and ended up deciding on half a pint of rum, which, on reflection, was a bit much. Oh, well.

Both the brandy and rum were the finest El Cheapo supermarket bathtub plonk, because, unlike the myriad characteristics of gin, all brands of rum taste to me like aviation fuel. So I added the half pint of rum directly into the pan over a gentle heat, letting it ‘mull’ a bit in the fruit juice, which was beginning to smell pleasantly like Christmas cake.

I then ‘measured’ out roughly a quarter of a pint of brandy. I’m not used to brandy (the stuff I used smelled like a dentist’s surgery) so I took Charles Dickens’ advice (sorry, Uncle Thomas) and spooned it in, setting it alight spoon by spoon. To what benefit, I can’t say, but it made a nice “voomph!” sound and made me feel like some kind of pagan Goddess of winter debauchery.

At this point, mind your hair.

So! Next, I had a little taste test, resulting in flashbacks to childhood toothache remedies. It was quite bitter, and the lemons had crumpled slightly, leaving floating bits of lemon on the surface. I don’t know what Mrs Rossetti would have done, but she seemed the sensible type, so I removed the lemons and let the oranges take over.

I added a liberal quantity of brown sugar, and stirred the punch for a few minutes. The rum really needs a bit of sweetness to balance it out, but it’s all personal taste.

Once the lemons were out, the punch began to taste much more recognisably fruity (I suspect winter lemons in this country are just a bit mean-tasting) and the sugar and alcohol complemented each other nicely.

Serving suggestion: On the face of Holbein’s Ambassador

* Don’t let it boil
* Take a distinctly un-Victorian swizzle stick and give it a good stir.
* Pour into a tall glass because I don’t own any other kind of glass.
* As Christina wisely suggested, add cake.
* Toast General Pepe, repeat.

It actually tastes delicious. It is distinctly piratey – grog! – though the citron gives it a more festive kick than something you’d swig before pillaging a small coastal town.

Queer loaves are the best loaves. 

Frances did her best to reproduce Italian food for her family. Indeed, Dante Gabriel was still sourcing cannelloni from Soho decades later. However, I always think of him when I buy my Christmas panettone. In 1874, he wrote to Frances:

I have been painting from a little Italian boy who highly appreciates Toscone; but on my giving him a piece of Panattone (that queer loaf) he said in a startled tone, “Quanto costa questo?”* I replied “Non credo molto,” & he rejoined “Crederei quasi neinte”. Such was his verdict on that comestible.

To complete the experience, I’m going to curl up on the sofa with my copy of The Collected Letters of Jane Morris, an incredibly thoughtful gift from Becki of Fifteen Precise Facts.

Buon Natale, everyone!

*“How much is this?”
“I do not think much.”
“I would think almost nothing.”

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