The Catacombs revisited

Most people go to museums to see beautiful gilded objects or paintings. Perhaps they go to admire the work of craftsman or fine sculptures. They don’t normally have to descend a 132 steps, then walk down dimly lit dark corridors. There are ceilings dripping water. There is the sense of decay.

There is the air of the unexpected. I am with my ten year old son, who is gripped by curiosity. At a point he says “this is the most unusual tourist place.” It was something I myself had concluded, just before, as if our minds are in tandem.

Eventually after trudging down corridors, following a crowd of tourists, from an array of different countries, we arrive in an area full to the brim with skulls and bones. They are caked in dust and brown in colour. It is hard to believe they once lived and breathed. There is often a sculptural quality to them. They have been carefully arranged. They might have been put together by some conceptual artist. They haven’t been just thrown in an inordinate heap. Tourists stop in small groups and take inevitable photographs on their smart phones.

At a point I am quite looking forward to exiting this subterranean homage to the dead, going back to more familiar settings. The catacombs are brimming with history. There is more to them that just a refuge for the dead. They are also entwined in history, used for example by the French resistance during the second world war. To gather knowledge of this unusual environment, you can listen to a commentary with headphones. I chose just to take it all in.

This is not my first visit. Some years previously I went on an illegal nocturnal visit. We covered a far bigger distance and this visit was fraught with danger. At around six in the morning we exited the catacombs, fearful some observant police officer might clock eyes on us. I remember being exhausted and caked in dust.

This legitimate adventure was in part to please my son during his school holiday. He has a leaning towards the macabre fuelled by watching endless Scooby Doo cartoons and more recently “Wednesday” the Tim Burton Adams family series offshoot. He didn’t appear greatly disturbed by what he was looking at.

Once we had seen all there was to see, we mount up the many steps leading us back to the normal world above. There was of course the lure of the gift shop and I was forced to buy my son a memento. He chose a white plastic skull keyring. This done we walked out into a Parisian street, with a blue sky way above.

M is for Maggot

Serpent and Apple

Maggot is one of my short stories, it is about a circus owner, who has run into debt and is forced to sell his daughter in order to be debt free.  He is a buffoon, an oaf, with no evidence of any real likable traits. The story starts with him bargaining with Excellency, the cruel tyrant who he hopes will give him a good price for his daughter. His daughter is brought in, like some kind of merchandise.

The young girl beneath the veil might have been Cleopatra, except that but for a fine gold thong, she was entirely naked. Gold coins strung on golden chains hung from all four sides of the palanquin, making chinking sounds with each of her carriers’ steps

She has been coerced into being sell-able  goods, having been cruelly beaten by her father.

She couldn’t be more than sixteen. Her long black hair flowed  over her shoulders down to her waist, barely covering her adolescent breasts. Every male in the room stared greedily at her, none noting the smudged makeup highlighting her deep brown eyes, the result of a copious flow of tears at having been coerced.

After the young girl Apollonia is presented, some crude bartering takes place.

“Is she…pure?” demanded her would-be purchaser, shooting a quick glance in Maggot’s direction, as if this would have direct bearing on the “price” of the goods he was considering purchasing.

“Of course, Excellency,” said Maggot boldly. “She’s never been touched.”

 Finally the two men come to an agreement and Maggot’s greed is seen through the way takes the money.

 Maggot grasped the money in his gnarled fingers, trying his best to give the impression he really wasn’t interested, though, in fact, he undeniably was. His beady eyes drifted from the coins in his hand to the remaining ones flashing and glinting inside the treasury box.

 The unwilling merchandise makes one final plea to stop the sale…which will inevitable end up with the slimy tyrant violating her.

The girl’s fate decided, the four strong men shouldered the palanquin while Apollonia searched her father’s eyes a final time, beseeching him to change his mind. It was a useless gesture, as Maggot was busy counting and ogling the gold coins. To her dismay,he never gave her a second glance, and she was carried, wailing inconsolably, through the massive banquet hall doors and down a short hallway.

Maggot is a despicable man without scruples, what kind of man would sell his own daughter?

Francis H Powell is a writer. His recently published book is Flight of Destiny, a book of 22 short stories.

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L is for laughter is killing me!

L for Twitter

I hope at least that there are some strong elements of humor in my book Flight of Destiny, sometimes humor naturally evolves in a story. If humor is evident, it is doubtlessly dark. I am British, so this perhaps accounts for a dosage of dark humor in my stories.  The humor is often surreal.

In my story Fire and Brimstone,  for some reason I came up with a Danish character called Helga, who is sent to a correctional school for delinquents by the Danish Bible society.  She is a very rotund young lady, who is seduced by a morally corrupt Night warden.

The story also seems to have an obsession with fish.  Jonathon Noteworthy (who is sent to the correctional school, arrives home to find his mother having sex with a local fishmonger).

The boy had been sent to the school following “a fire incident.” He’d come home early from school one day and noticed a distinct smell of fish. Looking about, he noticed a bloodstained striped apron, a white hat, an oiled sweater, a pair of heavy woolen trousers and two rubber boots scattered about the living room. Upstairs, he heard the repetitive sound of his mother’s beds prings. Running up the stairs three at a time, he burst into her bedroom, thinking somebody was attacking his mother. His eyes caught sight of Mr. Lucius Pike, the fishmonger, his thin sallow face with two tiny polka dot eyes, naked on top of his mother.The shock of this discovery, forces Jonathon to seek revenge on Lucius Pike. Retribution came exactly two days later, when Noteworthy broke into Pike’s Fish Mongers during the night and filled a large sack with every kind of fish he could lay his hands on. Bass, eel, haddock, mackerel, mullet, sturgeon, turbot, it didn’t matter. He dragged the sackto Pike’s house and peeked into the man’s living room window. Pike was curled up asleep in his favorite chair pulled close to the hearth for warmth, a woolen blanket draped over his skinny legs,snoring loudly, while the television across from him announced the latest fishing news.

Noteworthy rummaged about outside, located a ladder left by  some workmen, and climbed it, carrying the stuffed sack over his  shoulder like a coal miner a sack of coal onto Pike’s roof, and then began dropping the fish, one by one, down the chimney. The fish landed on the fire, and soon the living room was filled with the acrid smoke and the smell of charred fish. Just before Pike awoke, the sizzling, fire made a popping noise and leaped from the hearth onto the man’s blanket. As Pike’s living room burst into flames, a neighbor noted a boy on Pike’s roof stuffing a huge halibut into the chimney.

The image of a boy dropping fish down a chimney, might not appear funny to some, in the same way perhaps the famous Parrot sketch involving an irate  customer Mr Praline (played by John Cleese) and a shopkeeper (Michael Palin), who hold contradictory positions on the vital state of a “Norwegian Blue” parrot, while poking fun at the many euphemisms for death used in British culture, might appear lacking in humor or at least sensibility. This brings me onto the subject of “death”.  Would you like to die laughing?  Members of the Monty Python team were responsible (inadvertently)  for the death of a man named Ole Bentzen whose demise was brought about by the scene where Ken (Michael Palin)  gets chips up his nose that caused him to laugh into oblivion.  Imagine the indignity of dying from hearing a dirty joke…Pietro Aretino, an Italian author, suffocated from the hysterics that ensued after his sister told him a dirty joke. I guess the sister must  have rued killing her brother by laughter.

The British comedian/magician Tommy Cooper, may not have died laughing, but he died during the course of his penultimate show.  The audience were certainly laughing when Tommy suddenly

Slumped to the floor during an onstage comedy routine in 1984 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Audience members believing it was part of the act expected him to get up. When the realization that Tommy had passed away, they stopped laughing.

Francis H Powell is a writer. His recently published book is Flight of Destiny, a book of 22 short stories.

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B is for Bugeyes.


We live in a world of body image stereo types, which are perpetuated by the media. Those unfortunate beings, born with abnormalities, could face a lifetime of cruel jokes, and in this story’s case rejection.

You can’t but help but feel for Bugeyes.  He is born with oversized eyes and is consequently ruthlessly mocked.  Besides being mocked , he is sent away  from his biological family’s grand estate,  almost as soon as his mother sets eyes on him. Not a happy start to  life.  Bugeyes is one of my favorite characters in my book of  short stories,  it covers the life of an outsider, a reject.  The character does not speak much, he is like a shadow.  It is a story about revenge,  Bugeyes is not stupid,  he has a sharp calculating mind, as well as being curious to discover the truth of his true origins.  This curiosity finally leads him to confront the family that has rejected him and to claim his rightful inheritance.


BOOK EXERT (Bugeyes)

Bug-eyes was destined to a life of toil. As his mother, Lady
Harriet Lombard, remarked gruffly when holding her swaddled firstborn,
“He has disproportionate eyes,” adding tersely, “the child’s
abnormal.” As she handed the squalling reject back to the doctor, she
decreed, “Drop it down the well for all I care.”

Dr. Shady, a tall, thin, nervous practitioner from a line of doctors
who had served the Lombards for generations, wasn’t given to
infanticide. After some negotiations with Lord Lombard, he concocted
a plan, which, despite being highly irregular and grossly illegal, at
least allowed for the child’s preservation. The shrieking infant, who
should at this point have been profiting from his mother’s milk or at
least that of a wet nurse, was promptly dispatched to the periphery of
the estate where the infant’s upbringing became the responsibility of
the Lockjaws, who Doctor Shady had known were desperate for a
Ralston Lockjaw, the Lombard estate gamekeeper, and Hettie, his
barren wife, lived in a poky ramshackle cottage. The infant was was
welcomed heartily by Hettie. Ralston had his reservations, but wisely
kept them to himself. A sizable pay increase on the promise of total
silence sweetened the pill of having to feed another mouth and tolerate
the strange bug-eyed infant. Lord Lombard determined to keep the
secret of the child’s whereabouts to himself, while his seething wife
continued to bitterly rue her “cursed luck,” blaming the abomination
squarely on her husband. In fact, some odd physical defects were
known to exist within the aristocraticly inbred Lombards. Lady Harriet
had more hoped for a healthy heir to grace the front cover of many a
society magazine, like her society friends with their offspring, not
some kind of monstrosity with a conspicuous defect. In disgust, she
took to noting the overly protruding eyes present in the line of
Lombard portraits looking contemptuously down on her in the
corridors of the huge manor house. The infant’s “death” was officially
pronounced by Dr. Shady to all the world, the reality being otherwise.


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Men watch out for Black Widows!

Black Widow inner image
You come home from work, perhaps your loving wife greets you with a kiss. The smell of the dinner your wife has prepared wafts from the kitchen. You exchange small talk and sit down for dinner. The food looks good and wholesome…but there’s a catch…your wife has only gone and laced it with arsenic…you have succumbed to a Black widow.

There are quite a number of them out there… Back in the mid 1860s, we encounter Lydia Sherman who was facing life with an unemployed husband and six dependent children. She found the idea of getting divorced as unappealing, her answer lay in poison a cheap and easy solution. So she served her husband a bowl of oatmeal gruel laced with arsenic. Following this, she gave arsenic-laced chocolate to her six children and calmly collected the insurance money.

On to pastures new Lydia found a wealthy farmer considerably older than her. She didn’t bide her time she poisoned his clam chowder a year later.
After hitting the marriage trail again she just couldn’t help but poison her third husband for good measure. Between 1864 and 1871, Lydia Sherman dispatched 10 people to an early grave. Dubbed “The Derby Poisoner,” “America’s Queen Poisoner,” or “Connecticut’s ‘Lucrezia Borgia’,” Lydia Sherman was accused of murder in 1871. She escaped the gallows because women were not sentenced to death at the time. Instead, she received the maximum penalty of life in prison.

Gesche Gottfried, seemingly a sweet attractive blond had men flocking to her doorstep, only to choose a loser alcoholic called Mittenberg, a handsome yet unsuitable man who she married in 1815.Their marriage proving a disaster Gesche took a lover, while deciding it was best to get shot of her husband. Having slipped arsenic into his beer, with no suspicians raised as to all and sundry he’d died alcohol poisoning, her next move was to induce her lover into marriage. He declined, due to her having two children, so she promptly poisoned them. When her parents raised objects to the marriage she cherished, of course they joined her list of victims. Due to his persistent refusal to marry her, Gesche poisoned her lover, however they did marry on his deathbed and Gesche was recipient of all of his fortune. She was finally brought to justice, the exact number of her victims is hard to define, but it could be up to 30.

Madeleine de Brinvilliers, a French aristocrat was reckless in the way she went about poisoning people, her Father and two brothers were among hher victims, her motives finacial. She attempted to poison her husband , having earlier taken on a cavalry officer lover. Her end was not so happy she was tortured, beheaded, and her body was burned at the stake in 1676.

Vera Renczi from Bucharest was a woman of rare beauty sent a grand total of sent two husbands, 32 lovers, and her own son to early graves.
What can we deduce? Most Black Widows are after their husband’s fortunes and are particularly interested in insurance money. Some are distrustful of men, driven by jealousy and paranoia. Another trait of a Black Widow is they have to be accomplished liars, to cover the tracks of their heinous crimes, especially if their murders are botched jobs, as in the case of Michele Williams who murdered her husband, successful businessman Greg, claiming she had been shot by an intruder, adding other unlikely stories in the mix, which only thrust more suspicion in her direction.

It is advisable that any Black Widow, plays the role of the grieving widow, something Michele failed to do, the next day going a restaurant for a celebratory big fry-up breakfast. It was later claimed Michele was a man-eater, who moved from one man to the next to get what she could, living the dream life. Under the pressure of the police Michele kept changing her story, coming up with ludicrous alternatives, for example that her husband had committed suicide and that she was simply try to hide this fact from her young daughter. In the end all fingers pointed to her and she was arrested. This compulsive liar continued to spin lie after lie, including saying she was pregnant with twins. It also turned out she was dating a toy boy Gene, a personal trainer. After angering judges, repeatedly changing her story, she finally was awarded a sturdy prison sentence.

In my book Flight of Destiny, one of my stories is called Black Widow. A woman Mercedes Shwartz, is a young woman whose marriage was short-lived. She lives in a remote luxurious house, on her own. She lures a man to house and then after they have had sex has his inexplicable urge to kill him. Suddenly luring unsuspecting men, having sex with them and murdering them becomes a ritual way of life for her.


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Why do we tell ghost stories at Christmas?

Christmas story reading


Christmas has a binding association with ghosts, going back in time just before Christmas 1642, for instance, shepherds were said to have seen ghostly civil war soldiers battling in the skies. Ghosts have long been in people’s minds. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, departed people are shown to return, not merely looking as they did in life, but dressed in similar garments.

Christmas has different memories for different people. One memory I hold is there was always a “ghost story” on TV as well the fact that Charles Dickens also often featured. It seems a strange combination, “ghost stories” and” Christmas” so where does this union come from?
The answer is commonly assumed would probably be Victorian times. This period which is usually seen as being rather staid, prim and proper, but also was characterized by those who wanted their share of thrills.
Charles Dickens is heralded as perpetuating this desire to be captivated by chilling tales at Christmas. There is little evidence prior to Dickens that authors wrote ghost stories for Christmas in mind, but some have their own points of view.

The writer Peter Haining, in the introduction to his collection of festive chillers Christmas Spirits says about Dickens. “Yet despite the seeming timelessness of this tradition, it has to be admitted that the idea of creating ghosts stories especially for telling at Christmas goes back no further… than the time of Charles Dickens.”

Dig further back into the past quite a while before Dickens and you have a famous bard who might also lay claim to originating this fascination with spine chilling stories. One of William Shakespeare’s most famous works Hamlet can be considered as being a ghost story. He also includes many traits of Ghost Stories with his Winter’s Tale.
The tale which begins ‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard…which leads us to believe it is going to be a ghost story. Winter tales were similar, if not identical to Christmas ghost stories.

Dickens writes in Telling Winter Stories, from The Christmas Tree in 1859, “There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.” Shakespeare used the phrase in A Winter’s Tale, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one. Of sprites and goblins.” And a hundred years before that in 1589, in the Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe writes:
“Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night”

Shakespearian scholar Catherine Belsey writes of Shakespeare.
Among the terms in circulation in the period for far-fetched narratives and improbable fables, one favorite was “a winter’s tale.” In the long, cold evenings, when the soil had been tilled to the extent that climatic conditions permitted, the still predominantly agricultural community of early modern England would sit and while away the hours of darkness with fireside pastimes, among them old wives’ tales designed to enthrall young and old alike.

We can trace the telling of ghost stories as a popular winter craze to the 16th century and that it was an integral part of the Elizabethan Christmas festivities. A ‘winter’s tale’ has become synonymous with weird stories of the fantastic and phantasmagoric, however the tradition most likely goes back at least a century further…

While I used to cower behind the sofa watching a riveting ghost story on TV, prior to television, my ancestors would be gathered around a roaring fire, some might say much more atmospheric.
Inherent in Christmas are many ancient supernatural aspects. I remember while living Austria, being told of the ritual of Krampus, which is still followed in modern times in rural areas. While Saint Nicholas may bestow gifts to good boys and girls, ancient folklore in Europe’s Alpine region also tells of Krampus, a frightening beast-like creature who emerges during the Yule season, looking for naughty children to punish in horrible ways — or possibly to drag back to his lair in a sack. I heard stories of people dressed as Krampus running amok in Austrian villages.


The work of Henry James often features as a TV adaptation. James’s work helped bring back the tradition from obscurity, as the formed the basis of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, which was a yearly Christmas offering dating back to 1971.
M R James is recognized as the undisputed master of the Christmas Ghost story. His stories, were written to be read around Christmas to a select group of friends. His work encompassed the dual nature of the season – the cosiness of sitting round the fire, but at the same time the need to banish the dark.
Can you pass through Christmas without watching Scrooge, the antithesis of the Christmas spirit? Or curling up in front of a roaring fire, with a good ghost story in hand?

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Francis H Powell, author of Flight of Destiny, 22 quirky short stories…

I enjoyed these tales as they gave me a fantastic break from my daily routine and I enjoyed remembering them and day dreaming about them afterwards. They’re a little Ray Bradbury, a little Stephen King, but with Powell’s own unique twists. Very interesting read.

Interview with Oscar Wilde 2015

Oscar Wilde

Interview with Oscar Wilde 2015
Having managed to resurrect Oscar Wilde, he kindly permitted an interview.

Interviewer : A lot of things have changed compared to the world you are more familiar with.

Oscar Wilde : They certainly have, the world has a lot of its charm and innocence. Many things have changed, some things for the better it is true. Homosexual marriage, I would never have anticipated that, in a million life times. In many parts of the world, cruelty abounds, people persecuted because of the way nature made them. People are forced to live in the shadows, hiding their true natures, like a flower that doesn’t have the possibility to fully bloom. People still have this wish to decimate all that is beautiful, like a malicious child crushing a beautiful butterfly in a tightly clenched fist.

Interviewer: What other changes have you noticed?

Oscar Wilde : The world seems to have got smaller, travel was the pastime of the rich, now many seem to take to the skies. The “drinking classes” have now joined the “traveling classes”. In the world I knew only the aristocracy and privileged few, would set foot out of the domains of their towns or villages.

Interviewer: what other things have you noticed about people?

Oscar: They seem to walk about with these devices, telephones I believe they are called, having inane conversations, for some reasons compelled to take pictures of themselves, an unhealthy appetite for self-love, but then as I said “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”

Interviewer: Which world do you prefer the world of your times or present times?
The pace of the world seems to have quickened. There seems to be parts of the world in which persecution still reigns. I would be happy to return to 34 Tite Street, but I understand the famous and celebrated have little peace, pursued like a fox by hounds, by journalists and television crews. Your privacy is owned by other people. The aristocracy seems to stoically exist, but all manners of new classes seem to have come into existence, all appallingly dressed, and doubtlessly poorly educated.

Interviewer: What about humor, have you noticed any changes?

Oscar: In my day words were chosen with care, subtlety and with wit. Many of the witty things I said have lived on, long after my “demise”. I used humor in the way that it is thought provoking. I have noticed the world of 2015, is characterized by course words, lacking in pleasantry. Banter does not seem to flow as it did in my times.

Interviewer: It’s been a great pleasure talking to you, Oscar.

Oscar: Dead or alive it is always such a pleasure to be the center of attention.

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