Sandra Greaves, author of The Skull in the Wood, a contemporary ghost story set on Dartmoor, discusses the chilling folklore that lies at the heart of her book.
Dartmoor is one of Britain’s last wild places – 368 square miles of wilderness – and bristles with creepy legends. So when I decided to set my first novel there, I tapped into a story that’s terrified people since the Middle Ages – so badly there are death records to prove it.
The legend of the wild hunt turns up in different guises all over the world, but it’s especially strong in Europe. It describes a spectral chase through woods, moors and skies, often led by the devil himself. If you cross the path of the wild hunt, you’re cursed – it means someone’s going to die.
Dartmoor has a strong wild hunt myth of its own. The hunt rides out from an ancient wood on the moor, headed by the devil on a black horse and accompanied by a pack of enormous hounds. As late as the nineteenth century, a coroner’s jury decided that a man found dead on the banks of the River Yealm, which has its source in Dartmoor, had been ‘struck down by the phantom hunt’.
I wanted to bring this story bang into the present day. And I wanted to make it feel real and terrifying – just as scary for present-day readers as it had been for our ancestors.
I read lots of versions of the wild hunt myth. When I found accounts of something called the ‘gabbleratchet’, I was hooked. It’s a word that was used in several regions of England – mainly in the north – for the noise of geese flying at night. Only it meant more than just geese. The eerie clamour of the birds suggested something much more scary: the baying of phantom hounds in the skies above. In some of the folk tales, geese are omens of the wild hunt, or they actually turn into hounds themselves.
I had to use it.
And so, in The Skull in the Wood, the gabbleratchet stirs into life. For a long time, my two narrators, Matt and Tilda, don’t know what it is. And when they finally work it out, it’s too late.
I wish you a spooky Hallowe’en.
The Skull in the Wood is out this autumn, published by Chicken House, for 10+ readers.
Thank you so much to Sandra Greaves for supplying this really interesting post.
So sorry I've been so absent. I was working ALL holiday & haven't been well.
But I assure you I'm now back!
I hope you all had a fantastic Halloween & half-term holiday!!