MJ STEEL COLLINS interviews paranormal author Geoff Holder about his work uncovering Spooky Scotland
Geoff Holder is a prolific author of all things spooky, quirky and darkly historic, having published several books over the last five years, including The Guide To Mysterious Glasgow, 101 Things to do with a Stone Circle, The Little Book of Edinburgh and most recently, Poltergeist Over Scotland.
MJ – What drew you into writing about high strangeness and dark history and how long have you been working in the area?
GH – Once upon a time there was a little boy who grew up in a house without books. But then someone gave that little boy a full-colour book on dinosaurs. Little did he know it, but on that day his life changed forever. Soon he had ploughed through the entire stock of fantasy, science fiction and horror in his local library, and had developed a pash for dragons, vampires and weird stuff. Which just goes to show that books are dangerous things and should be kept away from impressionable minds.
Fast forward several decades to December 2006, and the publication of that former little boy’s first book, The Guide to Mysterious Perthshire. At the time he thought that would be his one and only venture into print. 28 books later…
MJ – Which tales out of the ones you have covered are your favourites?
GH – Possibly the monument to Maggie Wall, which I wrote about in Paranormal Perthshire. It reads ‘Maggie Wall Burned as a Witch 1657’. The roadside cross-topped memorial is the only historic monument (it’s B-listed) to a named witch in the whole of the UK, and is regularly visited by neo-pagans and others who wish to commemorate the witch prosecutions. I wanted to know why, out of all the approximately 2,500 people executed for witchcraft in Scotland, only Maggie Wall had a monument. After extensive research into archives and old maps I discovered that (a) Maggie Wall had never existed; (b) the monument was erected in the 1790s or early 1800s, long after the witch craze; (c) it is named not after a person but after the walled field in which it stands, which was known as either Maggie’s Walls or Muggie’s Walls. I think I even know who built the monument – but I have no idea why they did so. Perhaps it was a kind of folly, or there was a more personal reason. So the whole thing is simply a farrago of misdirection, falsehood and obscurity. Perfect.
MJ- Why do you concentrate so much on Scotland?
GH- Quite simply because, up until just recently, I lived there, and the logistics of visiting locations and going to libraries and archives mean that proximity is best. All my books are written on a shoestring, so I have to take care with travel expenses (two entire books, The Guide to Mysterious Aberdeenshire and The Guide to Mysterious Skye & Lochalsh, were researched and written from a touring caravan). I should point out that, Scotland aside, I’ve written two books on north-west England (The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District and Paranormal Cumbria), and books such as 101 Things To Do With A Stone Circle, What is a Poltergeist? And the forthcoming Zombies from History have a national, even international scope. And future books will continue that trend, as I’m casting my eye across the UK, Europe and the US.
MJ – What is the strangest thing you have ever written about?
GH – Where to start? Aleister Crowley’s magical war conducted out of his Boleskine House bunker? The religious fanatic who thought he could walk across the River Tay? The ‘mad dog’ that terrorized 19th-century Cumbria and was probably a Thylacine? The fairy sightings on Arran? St Columba suffering demonic air raids on Iona? The ‘true’ ghost stories of St Andrews that are entirely invented? The bodysnatchers’ secret cellar in Edinburgh, complete with a sliding door hidden in the fireplace? One of my favourites comes from What is a Poltergeist? where I examined nine theories that attempted to ‘explain’ poltergeists; in parts of 19th-century Bulgaria, it turns out, poltergeists were regarded as invisible vampires. Let’s say that again: poltergeists are invisible vampires. Can it get any better?
MJ – Who is your biggest influence?
GH – This may sound strange, but my biggest influence isn’t a writer, although if it was, the front rank would be occupied by Charles Fort, Colin Wilson, Alan Moore, Terry Pratchett and that Lovecraft fellah. No, my greatest influence was the late, great DJ John Peel. I always write to music, and my musical databank – whether it’s prog, psychedelia, post-punk, krautrock, dub, folk or electronica – owes so much to hours spent listening fervently to the John Peel wing-ding. Plus, he was a decent bloke.
MJ – What is the book you really want to write?
GH – My stock answer is ‘one that pays the bills’. As for the genuine answer, well that’s a secret only to be revealed to the initiated adepts of a dread secret society. Or, as we authors call them, publishers.
Find out more about Geoff on his website at www.geoffholder.com
Spooky Isles’ Scotland Correspondent MJ STEEL COLLINS is a Glasgow based writer. She is a reviewer for the Fortean Times and also writes for Haunted Digital Magazine and CSRPI in the US. Her blog is Ghostly Aspects.