Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

Buffering…please wait…

sandlands

When I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s collection of short stories set in the Suffolk sandlings, I mentioned that there was an air of mild ghostliness about some of them, and that one of them, in fact, is a “proper” ghost story. So I thought it would be perfect for this week’s…

Tuesday Terror 2

Mad Maudlin
by Rosy Thornton

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

The unnamed narrator of the story is staying in The Ship, a pub that features more than once in the stories. (Intriguingly, there’s nothing to identify whether the narrator is male or female, but for pretty vague and possibly sexist reasons, I thought of him as male while reading, so for ease I’m going with he/him throughout.)

I’m looking at a piano. That is, I’m looking at the video image of a piano, because I’m in the half-light of a rented bedroom at the back of a pub after closing and it’s just me and the laptop.

That afternoon, the narrator had filmed in the bar of the pub where locals and regulars had been having a folk session, playing and singing centuries-old traditional songs. Later, in his room, he had found two earlier videos of folk nights in the same pub on a local historical website – one from 1954, and the second from 1979. He has been comparing the three, noticing how little has changed over the years in the bar, and that the same songs are still being sung.

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall - I can't be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall – I can’t be sure, but I reckon this is the pub the story is set in.

Pubs, I’ve always thought, can be divided into two camps according to the stability of their décor. There are those that undergo a complete refit once or twice a decade, reinventing themselves from Haywain kitsch through ebony veneer and mirrors and back again in accordance with the latest fashion (or in spite of it) like the shifting political colours over some volatile town hall. Then there are others, the ones you’ll generally find me drinking in, where change is so incrementally slow as to be almost imperceptible, as gradual as the softening of the contours of a familiar face.

Even the photos on the wall of The Ship have stayed unchanged over the years – the old football team in their baggy shorts and moustaches…

One or two of the eldest players could be grandfather to the youngest, a grinning lad of twelve or thirteen, as if every able-bodied male in the village had to turn out to make up the eleven – and perhaps it was the case, it occurs to me with a bit of a shiver as I spot the date inscribed below the picture: 1919.

Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall - can't find a date.
Drinking in the bar of the Ship Inn, Blaxhall – can’t find a date.

One of the photos he spots in the 1954 video is of a woman dressed in the clothes of an even earlier era – a woman with a distinctively cleft chin, giving her a heart-shaped face. The face seems familiar to him…

I’m sure I’ve seen it, or an echo of it, very recently. Just this afternoon, in fact. That’s it: a woman with the same chin sat in the corner seat… and sang ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ in a soft but sure contralto.

A strong family resemblance, he assumes, not unusual in a small village. Clicking through to the 1979 video, he is astonished to see the same face again, sitting in the same corner seat, singing…

For to see poor Tom o’ Bedlam
ten thousand miles I’d travel;
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes
for to save her shoes from gravel…

Daughter, mother and grandmother? But the resemblance is so strong. Hastily he opens up the file of the video he took himself that evening and searches for the woman he had listened to singing…

I let the tape roll on. But as the teenagers linger on their final major chord, modulating to a plaintive minor, and applause stutters around the bar, the scraping chairs and rumbling voices are interrupted not by the woman with the cleft chin, but by the piano again…

The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.
The Ship Inn, Blaxhall, circa 1900.

He runs through the tape again, but the woman isn’t there. Had he stopped recording before she sang for some reason he’s now forgotten? He hastens back to the 1954 video to look again at the photo…

The camera swings round, and my stomach lurches. The corner chair is no longer empty…

There the woman sits, singing…

So drink to Tom o’ Bedlam,
he’ll fill the seas in barrels.
I’ll drink it all, all brewed with gall,
with Mad Maudlin I will travel.

Now trembling, he clicks again to reopen one of the other files, but now the connection is playing up and all he gets is the maddening rotating circle that tells him it’s buffering. And yet, somehow, he can still hear the singing…

buffering* * * * * * *

Ooh, this is a creepy one! It starts out as if it’s simply going to be an interesting look at the three videos, with some musings perhaps on unchanging traditions in small communities where generations of families still live in close proximity. And even just as that, the quality of the writing and observations make it interesting. But then, gradually at first, Thornton sneaks in a couple of things that are a little odd and a gentle air of unease begins to develop. She reminds us subtly that the narrator is alone in unfamiliar surroundings, in a room above the bar that appears in the films.

Then gradually, as the woman begins to shift from photo to video, sometimes appearing, sometimes not; and then when the buffering begins, and the only lights in the room are the laptop screen and the winking bulbs of the router, and the only sound is the singing… and it still goes on even when the screen freezes… ooh, I say! The ending is left beautifully ambiguous, adding much to the spine-tingling feeling of dread.

A first-class ghost story that relies on tension and atmosphere rather than chainsaws and gore. I loved that Thornton managed to use modern technology so effectively in what feels nevertheless like a traditional style of tale. Great stuff! I wonder if she could be persuaded to write an entire collection of ghost stories…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

35 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Mad Maudlin by Rosy Thornton

  1. This is really good! I was almost a bit nervous to press play on the video – just in case the cleft-chin woman appeared! So if your review can make me jumpy, no doubt the whole story would have me fleeing for the light switch!! I love that picture of the chaps drinking in the bar (the one with no date) Look at that fellow on the right – he looks so proud of his jaunty tank top and funny trousers!

    • It is, isn’t it? I love the little touches like the photos of the ancient football team, and was already enjoying it before the woman began to appear and disappear – it crept up on me! Put me off using youtube for a day or two, I can tell you! I like to think the tank top man is belting out an old folk song. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a vid of them performing Mad Maudlin in the pub – that would have been deliciously spooky…

  2. Oh, this does sound deliciously creepy, FictionFan! Pubs really are great places (as settings) for ghost stories, too. Some of them have been around for a very long time, and when you get the atmosphere just right, you really can imagine a ghost story. Little wonder you had a porpentine visitor today!

    • It really is! It was because she brought the pub setting so brilliantly to life that I began to wonder if it was a real pub, and location and the folk sessions, and just the look of the bar, make me fairly certain this is the one. I wonder if it actually has a “ghost” in real life…

    • Haha! I was still getting creeped out every time I used youtube for the next couple of days after reading! And she made it feel so real that I wondered if it was a real pub, and the location of this one, plus the videos of the folk sessions, make me pretty certain this is the one. I wonder if they know they now have a ghost…

    • Haha! I must admit I was still creeped out every time I tried to use youtube for the next couple of days… and then got creeped out all over again listening to all the videos from the pub… great stuff!

    • She made the pub feel so real that I was certain it must be based on a real one, so was delighted to find this one in the right place and with regular folk sessions. I just wish there was a video of them playing Mad Maudlin though… great story!

  3. Sounds properly frightening, as a good ghost story should be! Thanks for bringing this one to my attention (as if I need more books calling my name!) And how delightful to see Mr. Porpentine once again!

    • The only problem with including modern stories is that they’re not available to link to individually, but only come as part of a collection… but this one was too much fun to resist. The porpy loved it! 😉

  4. Well you’ve done it – I have added this selection of short stories to my wishlist despite my resolve following your full review – yes I do like the sound of this one and I’m getting more and more fond of the spooky stories as a whole through this series of posts.

    • Oooh, good!! Both that you’ve added this one, and even more that you’re enjoying the spooky stuff more! So am I, actually – I started this feature way back because I didn’t like horror in writing much, and now I’m kinda addicted to seeking out the old classics all over the internet. So it was lovely to fall over a modern story that equalled them in quality. 😀

    • It really is a great ghost story, which is a bit of a dying art in modern days. Some of the rest of the stories have a nice touch of ghostliness too, but not to the same extent as this one. Hope you enjoy the collection! 😀

  5. Thank you so much for your lovely review. You convey the suspense so well – I think it’s actually better than the full story! And you have correctly tracked down the real Ship Inn where the story is set – my local at Blaxhall, and with its folk tradition very much still alive. I’ll be in there on Friday night as usual… (Not singing, I hasten to add!)

    • Thank you for popping in – I’m glad you enjoyed the review! I loved this story so much – I’m a sucker for a spinetingling ghost story. Ah, that’s good to know – thanks for confirming! It felt so real in the story I was sure it must be based on a real place – I must admit to more than a tingle of fear when I found the videos on youtube though… 😉

    • It’s a great ghost story – traditional style but brought right up to date with the use of the technology. The whole collection is very good – hope you enjoy! And thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

  6. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I wrote the story as a sort of homage to M.R. James’s ghost story ‘The Mezzotint’ in which figures mysteriously appear and disappear from an engraving. There have been many stories using the same idea with photographs, so I thought an online video clip would be the contemporary equivalent. And there is something so intimate about being alone in a room looking at a laptop, almost as if the on-screen happenings are inside your own head. (Also, when I get that cursed ‘buffering’ wheel, I sometimes do think my laptop may be haunted! 😉 )

    • Intriguing! I haven’t read that MR James story, but I was just about to start looking round for a story for next Tuesday – sounds perfect! I really started this slot a couple of years ago because I didn’t often find written stories scary, so I decided to search some out. Now I’m completely hooked, but still not very widely read in the genre. I agree about the spookiness of laptops – any time I go to one of these sites that suddenly starts playing unexpected music at me, I’m convinced it shortens my life-span! And there’s also something spooky about being alone in pubs or other places that are usually crowded… 😀

  7. Well, if you haven’t read much M.R.James you should definitely delve into his ghost stories. He’s a master of the art!

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