Adventures in Bookland: The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

Some stories are spare and lean: every excess word trimmed away in service of the narrative. But others are ornate, luxurious plays upon the sound and texture and harmonics of words: like a coral reef growing upon the wreck of a foundered ship. The Death of Halpin Frayser belongs in the latter category: a feast of word play, allusion and writing for word’s sake. As such, it requires somewhat closer attention from the reader than the first sort of story, but it’s an effort worth the making for a voyage into a literary jungle, fecund with life and texture.

Adventures in Bookland: Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

By the time Robert E. Howard wrote this tale of Conan the Barbarian, he had both thoroughly learned the craft of writing and fixed the world of the Hyborian Age in his own imagination and the imagination of the reader. The result, in Beyond the Black River, is a taut, surprisingly melancholy tale told through the point of view of a young man who aspires to be a warrior like Conan. The story is as sharp as one of Conan’s axes and as spare as a winter wolf. There are very few writers who create characters who transcend their own ability and time: with Conan, Howard emphatically did so.

Adventures in Bookland: Sea Above, Sky Below by Richard Medrington

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle

Back in 2017 – which seems a long time ago now – my family and I saw Richard Medrington’s one-man show of JRR Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle for Puppet State Theatre. It was a wonderful, uplifting, heart stopping evening that highlighted once again the extraordinary dramatic power and possibilities of theatre. If Puppet State Theatre ever puts the show out on the road again, I would urge you to see it.

After the show, Richard Medrington said that a side-effect of rehearsing and producing the performance was that he had dusted off a three-quarters finished novel that, like Niggle, he had never finished but, inspired by Niggle, he had finished and it was available for sale if we would like to buy a copy. So, I did, hoping that some of the hope sparkle of the evening would be dusted over the pages of the book.

And it was. In fact, the book is a testament to ideas and writers sometimes being able to transcend their own technical limitations to produce something better than the words on the page. How can a book, that is made entirely of words on a page, transcend those words? Because words are magical, sound engines of meaning, creators of worlds and vistas; givers of the Secret Fire of life – in Tolkien’s thought – as far as is possible for we sub-creators. So while there are problems on the surface of Medrington’s book – some repetition, stricly speaking it should be cut by a quarter for better narrative drive, and a few other things – the singular vision that drives it, and the characters that populate it, particularly Alma who hides behind a bin and finds a door to another world, enable the story to transcend its formal limitations and reach – or point – beyond itself: just like that Leaf, by Niggle.

Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

A short but thorough, within the limitations of the space, introduction to Suleiman, tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the man who raised it to the height of its power and prestige. While the European princes of the Renaissance, Charles V, Francis I and Henry VIII, vied for prestige and power, Suleiman brooded in the east, exquisitely aware of his power and even more exquisitely, indeed excruciatingly, aware of the lack of his family’s prestige with respect to the ancient monarchies of Europe. By the high point of his reign, all that had changed: the crowns of Europe glanced nervously eastwards to the brooding sultan in his Sublime Porte. Indeed, it is quite likely that Suleiman’s presence made possible the enduring split in Christendom that produced the Reformation: Charles V could never devote all his forces to defeating the Reformation due to the ever-present threat of Suleiman – a man who regared Charles’ imperial title as Holy Roman Emperor as a direct personal insult for there can only be one emperor and, so far as Suleiman was concerned, that emperor was him. A well written gallop through a most important reign.

Adventures in Bookland: The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

Channelling my inner football pundit, if ever there was a book of two halves, this is it. As to the content of those two halves, the subtitle of The Hobbit describes it perfectly: there and back again.

But this is also a book that is difficult to review as it was both one of the most extraordinary and one of the worst books I’ve ever read – although the extraordinariness outweighed the bad sufficiently to pull me through to the ending, even though the second half of the book (the back again) was significantly worse than the first half (the there).

It’s also a book whose influence has been substantial. Its narrative structure was stolen wholesale by Olaf Stapledon for his extrapolation of humanity’s future, Last and First Men and its vision of the future has inspired a whole tranche of writers.

So, let’s say something about The Night Land. It begins in some undetermined but vaguely early modern kingdom where a young man of low station falls in love with a princess, who after some trials returns his love, and they are married, blissfully happy until the princess dies in childbirth and the unnamed narrator is stricken with grief. Then, in his grief, a message, an intimation from the far future reaches back to him, of his own soul reborn into the last age of mankind, when all humanity has retreated to its final redoubt, a huge pyramidal structure, to hold against the obscure but terrifying monsters that plague the Night Land – for the sun has gone out and all is dark. But when I say all humanity, it turns out that this is not the case: there is another colony, holding out against the Night, and among its residents is the reincarnation of the narrator’s lost love.

Mirdath the Beautiful is her name and the narrator leaves the safety of the Last Redoubt in search of her (the there). This part, as the narrator travels through one of the strangest, most intensely imagined landscapes ever committed to paper, is the strongest part of the book, as the deep horror of this haunted land drags the reader into the story: it’s an extraordinary imaginative exercise in an almost physical darkness.

But finally reaching the other redoubt, our narrator finds that it has fallen to the forces of the night. However, he finds the reincarnation of Mirdath the Beautiful and then begins the back again. Here is where the story drags, firstly because they are literally going back over the same footsteps and with largely the same dangers and obstacles, but secondly and worse because of the turgidity of the love story – yes, we know she is the most beautiful and lovely woman in the world but there is a limit to how often we need to be told that as readers, that limit being reached before they have managed to cover more than one tenth of the journey home.

So, I confess, the back again part I read with the aid of a fair amout of skipping – whenever it returned to another bout of mutual mooning, or teenage squabbling (with a weird overlay of corporal punishment) I turned the page – but having travelled so far with our narrator, I wanted to see him home again. And they make it! Back to humanity’s final refuge, holding out against monsters and evils too strange to even describe, until it too falls and the night rules all.

The whole thing is written in repetitive, cod-17th century prose, however I found that less of an issue than the irritation with the cooing love couple.

But the vision – ah, the vision, of the earth in its desuetude and the final struggle of humanity against the night…

There are few books that can overcome so many problems with their style and their plot, but this is one of them. I will remember it long after many ‘better’ books.

Webinar Q&A

There were many more questions than we had time to answer during our talk for the York Festival of Ideas. But luckily, we have all the questions that were submitted during the webinar and here are the answers!

Warrior: A life of war in Anglo-Saxon BritainSaturday 7 June 2020, 1.00pm

York Festival of Ideas 2020 Online

Audience Questions, captured from the Zoom Webinar:

Stan Tan 01:25 PM

Hello from Singapore!

What is a “Bowl Hole” / why is the “Bowl Hole” termed as such?

Answer: Because it is a bowl shape: a depression amid the surrounding sand dunes.

Geoff 01:25 PM

Would the bodies buried face down with legs raised maybe infer a disposal rather than a burial?

Answer: we go into this in some detail in the book but in short, there are two explanations advanced for this type of burial: that it’s a sign of the person buried being in some form of disgrace or that, with the bloating that occurs in dead bodies and the corpse being put into the grave simply wrapped in a shroud, that it can be impossible for the burial party to know which way up they were burying the body.

Jack 01:37 PM

Given the classification of “warrior” to the finds and the idea they are elites are there any traces of this in their skeleton? healed broken bones or sign of a violent death etc?

Answer: Yes, there are. We go into this in detail in the book, but some of the skeletons show clear evidence of a very violent death: I am thinking in particular of one body where the skeleton was basically cut diagonally in half, from shoulder to waist.

Beverley Hallam 01:47 PM

What evidence can be gleaned about diet?

Answer: both direct and indirect. Remains of various foods have been excavated at Bamburgh, indicating a protein-rich diet with much meat eaten and various exotic imported foodstuffs, ranging from wild crane to lentils. The bones of the people excavated are uniformly free of the stress marks that indicate periods of starvation, so they were a well-fed and wealthy elite. Among the men, there is more evidence of tooth decay than among the women, which may be the result of drinking lots of sweet, and very alcoholic, mead.

Chris U 01:49 PM

Was there any evidence of cause of death on any of the skeletons?

Answer: there are some skeletons with clear evidence that they died violently, including one unfortunate man who was cut diagonally in half, from shoulder to waist.

Ruth 01:21 PM

Don’t forget the story of Grace Darling too. Women of the North East ….. strong women!

Answer: Indeed! There is an excellent Grace Darling Museum in the village.

Anonymous Attendee 01:25 PM

Why is it called the Bowl Hole?

Answer: because it’s shaped like a bowl!

Raffi Thomas 01:31 PM

Do you know if the broad axe was found in the same context as the sword? I’d be interested if they belonged to the same individual.

Answer from Paul: In the same garage, yes 😉  Until the archives are fully analysed and published I suspect this is uncertain.

henselmd 01:46 PM

Did you find a workshop at Bamburgh or implications of one–or are the artifacts thought to be spoils of war/raids?

Answer: There is some evidence for a smithy over towards St Oswald’s Gate.

S 01:46 PM

Did you find any female burials? If not, where would the women have been buried?

Answer: Yes, there were many female burials.

Sue Cumberpatch 01:47 PM

Is the book a fictionlised recreation, or a factual account?

Answer: the book is a factual account of the archaeology and history of Northumbria and the life and times of the Warrior: to bring this to life, I also interweave episodes in the Warrior’s life written with the techniques of historical fiction but always alive to the reality of the history and archaeology.

Lesley Hagon 01:47 PM

Can you talk more about the technology of the sword making – and is this a craft that died out?4

Answer: We’d need a whole book to do that – and we’re  hoping to write one next, on how to make the perfect sword.

Anonymous Attendee 01:47 PM

The materials used particularly on the sword furniture are not local so where did these come from and so what does this say about the kind of trading relationships that these people had?

Answer: it tells us that trade links were much wider, and further reaching, than might be supposed for the time. For instance, some of the garnets used in Anglo-Saxon jewellery came from as far away as Sri Lanka. These luxury items were probably traded through a succession of middlemen before fetching up on the coast of the North Sea.

Anonymous Attendee 01:51 PM

Hi Paul, thank you for the interesting sharing. May I ask how do archaeologists tell from skeletons that these people are well-fed?

Answer: bones have a growth pattern that in some way resembles the rings in the trunk of a tree. If the person suffered periods of famine, particularly when growing up, this is shown in the patterns of bone growth.

Paul Bernardi 01:19 PM

Has any evidence of the early Angle fortress ever been found? From the time of Ida and his wife Bebba?  (appreciate i may be jumping the gun here!

Answer: Yes, there has. St Oswald’s Gate and the structures around it date from the seventh century, and the well in the castle was probably cut down through the rock at this time.

Alison Offer 01:38 PM

These warriors living in a parallel world – are they exclusively young – do they settle down if they survive – thinking of Cuthbert who seemed to have fought as a youth – would he be one of these warriors – do you see the warriors as a separate community (say like the monks) or is been a warrior a rite of passage for all elite men?

Answer: Not exclusively young, but fighting is a young man’s game, then and now. However, experienced warriors still had to be prepared to fight at need. Having proved themselves among the king’s retinue, the best of his warriors were probably granted land and became, in effect, the king’s local representative.

Simon Thomas 01:39 PM

What date was the layer in which the window glass was found?

Answer: seventh century.

Walter Van Opstal 01:42 PM

beautiful gate!

Anonymous Attendee 01:44 PM

Having visited Bamburgh many times over recent years I have to say the information boards about the project could do with updating and expanding! Can members of the public support the project in some way to facilitate updating the information boards?

Answer: any support is gratefully accepted! If you would like to help, please email

Ruth 01:45 PM

What is the connection with Bradford Kaims?

Answer: Bradford Kaims is about five miles from Bamburgh. The BRP is excavating an ancient (Mesolithic to the Iron Age) wetland site there. For more information about the finds, please see here:

Danny 01:45 PM

Presumably there was a larger Anglo-Saxon settlement at Bamburgh at this time. Can you say something about that?

Answer: Not too much, archaeologically, as we haven’t excavated there. But certainly, historical sources suggest a settlement around the castle, and there was probably a beach market on the strand.

Valerie Coyne 01:46 PM

Any females amongst the burials?

Answer: Yes, and in particular a young Norwegian woman (early 20s) who died and was buried in the cemetery in the sixth century, long before the better known contacts between Britain and the Viking world.

Valerie Coyne 01:51 PM

thanks very informative

Answer: Thank you!

Nic 01:46 PM

Why do you think one of the skeletons was buried face down?

Answer: we go into this in some detail in the book but in short, there are two explanations advanced for this type of burial: that it’s a sign of the person buried being in some form of disgrace or that, with the bloating that occurs in dead bodies and the corpse being put into the grave simply wrapped in a shroud, that it can be impossible for the burial party to know which way up they were burying the body.

Susan Palmer 01:47 PM

Are you still excavating in Bamburgh?

Answer: Yes, and you can join in! The Bamburgh Research Project excavates each summer (although this summer’s dig is still up in the air for obvious reasons) and it’s open to members of the public interested in trying archaeology hands on. See here for more details:

Gavin Welch 01:47 PM

How long does it take to acquire a burial licence? And how do you secure such an important site for that time frame whilst you wait?

Answer: It’s all in the book! But the short answer is, a while. And the BRP secured the site by reburying the bodies while they waited for the licence to come through.

Anonymous Attendee 01:47 PM

Why were the swords so extravagantly decorated?

Answer: Wouldn’t you? These warriors lives depended upon their weapons, and the blades were things of beauty in themselves. Further, the wielder’s status would be enhanced by the sword’s accompanying ‘bling’.

Andrew Sefton 01:48 PM

Why were they buried away from the church, were they fully Christian?

Answer: while the earliest graves in the Bowl Hole date from the pre-Christian era, most of the people buried there would have been Christian. In the book, we suggest that the Bowl Hole cemetery was reserved for non-local people who died while in Northumbria, as many of the bodies show evidence of having been born and brought up elsewhere.

Rick Brookes 01:48 PM

Did all of the graves have the same orientation?

Answer: roughly, yes, towards the east and the sea.

Jan Garrill 01:50 PM

Are these people of a similar size in height and physical stature to modern man?

Answer: Yes. And probably much stronger.

Karl&Vicky 01:50 PM

Have any other examples of pattern welded blades been excavated eleswehere in the country? Are they specific to the Anglo-Saxon period?

Answer: Yes. The best known is the sword buried at Sutton Hoo but there have been others. Pattern-welded blades are not specific to this era, but the time and effort that went into making such a sword was best repaid at a time when armies were small (often less than a hundred men), rather than the much larger armies of the late Anglo-Saxon/early Norman era.

James Pennock 01:51 PM

The book is superb – the crossover of 2 different approaches to history works really well. What have you both taken away from the other? Can the other approach influence your own?

Answer: Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I think we were trying to do something different – dare I say, unique – with this book, hammering together different strands of narrative to make a whole that lights up the subject from different angles, rather like the way the garnets of the period were cut and polished.

Walter Van Opstal 01:53 PM

Do you know exactly where the sword was excavated from? r were the records lost in that garage?

Answer: We have a reasonable idea of the context of the swords.

Paola 01:54 PM

In terms of pathologies… was there any evidence of inter-personal trauma in the skeletons? Paul showed one skeleton buried prone which in Saxon times this is interpretated as possible ‘deviant’ and as such they’re likely to present some form of trauma…

Answer: yes, some of the skeletons did show very clear, indeed quite horrific, evidence of injury, in particular one unfortunate man who was sliced diagonally in half, from shoulder to waist.

Anonymous Attendee 01:54 PM

Where were the metal workers buried?

Answer: We don’t know.

Stan Tan 01:55 PM

Hello from Singapore!

How did the Indian or Japanese influences get imported?

Answer: There probably weren’t any Japanese influences, but some garnets did come from Sri Lanka, traded through middle men via the Middle East.

Barry 01:55 PM

Had most of these people died of natural causes or had they been killed?

Answer: You can only tell for certain a violent death if the skeleton was damaged (as happened with one man who was cut diagonally in half). Others may have died through blood loss or injury to internal organs without that leaving any trace on the body.

Raffi Thomas 01:55 PM

Do you think the Dalriadan would’ve been a Christian, and if so is this reflected in his burial?

Answer: Yes, we think the Warrior was a Christian. He has no grave goods, and the portion of the cemetery where he was buried has a number of other graves buried in a typical Dal Riadan fashion.

Helen Butt 01:58 PM

Thank you for such a fascinating talk. Can’t wait till I can visit….

Answer: You’re welcome! You should visit: Bamburgh and Northumberland are wonderful.

Adventures in Bookland: The Colonel’s Monograph by Graham McNeil

There was a question, extant in publishing in the 1990s, that I think I can now answer: who (or what) killed horror? Back in the 1980s, on the back of the huge success of Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert and Peter Straub, horror was the big genre, with publishers greenlighting pretty well everything calculated to scare the reader.

And then, horror died. The readers stopped buying, the publishers stopped publishing and those writers who had started off in the genre had to find another outlet for their talents – or another career entirely. The usual reason given for the sudden collapse of the market was over saturation: too many books by too many mediocre authors. But that has scarcely been a problem for chick lit, or detective fiction so why did horror fiction crash?

I think it was because, for horror to be truly frightening, there has to be an underlying belief, on the part of the writer as well as the reader, that there is something worse than dying. There has to be consequences for moral choices that transcend merely pain and suffering, which, however bad, will terminate in death, and a sense of the possibility that we, as human beings, can fall into an eternal state that cuts us off completely from what we are and what we should be. For horror to work, there has to be a profound sense that, while human beings enter this world as human beings, it is possible for us to leave it as creatures anywhere on a hierarchy from the basest and most depraved to the highest and most exalted, and that these possibilities carry on after death. For a horror that is based purely on this world becomes, in the end, nothing more than torture porn, variations on the suffering that can be inflicted on to the physical body and a mind that is conceived as nothing more than an emanation of the physical. As such, horror loses its horror, for death brings down the curtain on all suffering and cuts every story, well, dead.

This is exactly what happened with the decline and fall of the horror genre: it devolved into variations on how to cause pain, with Clive Barker’s Cenobites representing the terminal perfection of this view of horror: pain as ecstasy, horror devolved into a sado-masochistic forever.

But in the Warhammer 40k universe, there really are things that are worse than dying. Accepting the premises of the universe, with its pervasive dread of a corruption that can continue far past death itself, there is the possibility of reworking the necessary tropes to make horror work, to return it to its Victorian prime, and I’m pleased to say that Graham McNeil takes the opportunity in his stride. Indeed, with the nods to M.R. James, doyen of Victorian ghost fiction, in the book, it’s clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing in The Colonel’s Monograph. There are worse things than dying and McNeil lets that deepening dread seep through the controlled prose of this taut novella. A fine addition to the 40k universe.

Warrior – Out Now in Paperback

Warrior: A Life of War in Anglo-Saxon Britain is out now in paperback. The Bookseller called it ‘enthralling…brilliantly written‘. The Spectator said it ‘reveals the disruptive and imaginative force of archaeology‘. Find out what they mean, and how the bones of an anonymous warrior excavated near Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland can reveal the deep foundations of Britain. Get it from Amazon and other good booksellers.