Ghoulies and Ghosties…

Photo credit: Cask Creek on VisualHunt

I don’t know why the phrase came to mind, except that it is coming up to Hallowe’en and thoughts turn to such things. My mother used to say around this time of year, as a joke, a prayer or saying she had heard as a child:

‘From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.’

Now as a small child this both amused and slightly worried me. It sounded funny and several of the words were not ones I was familiar with and sounded archaic or possibly made up (“archaic” probably wasn’t what I thought aged seven of course, although I did like and collect odd words even then) and so it stuck in my mind for that reason. There was also however the element of “what are ghoulies, ghosties and long legeddy beasties”? and perhaps more concerning for its linguistic ordinariness but inexplicable auditory reality, ‘things that go bump in the night’?

There was also a slight worry about the existence of these things God was supposed to be delivering me from. Mum always made the point of saying they didn’t exist, but the niggling question of why anyone would formulate a prayer against them if they didn’t exist wouldn’t go away. I would seek reassurance from time to time that this was just an amusing piece of old time stuff we didn’t have to worry about now, and duly received same, but it obviously lurked in my mind, as you can see from this if from nothing else.

Harder to admit was the sneaking suspicions I had about God. If you couldn’t see Him (and it most certainly was a Him in those days) how did you know God existed? People said He did, and as the schools I attended until age eleven were called St George’s and Christ Church you may imagine that they were quite keen on the idea of believing in the existence of God. Indeed they were quite keen on belief in the existence of the Devil, not the boring generic secular concept of evil that serial killers, war and Disco inflict on the world, but a real supernatural entity after your eternal soul.

School also, independently of my mother I assumed, regaled us at this time of a co-opted Samhain or Calan Gaeaf, with tales of witches, and ghosts and this prayer was trotted out as an example of folk wisdom asking God for protection from the unknown evils around us.

The ‘deliver from’ was not as problematic to me at seven as it may be to seven year olds these days. Postmen, again, definitely men in those days, delivered letters but I was aware of the concept of delivery from evil in the Lord’s prayer and once explained I had no problem with the idea of words having nuanced meaning.

So where did it come from, this prayer or folk saying/request? I don’t know that anyone said where it was from. I always had the feeling it was Scottish, whether this from something someone said when they told me about it or whether the odd syntax and words just sounded Scottish to me I am not sure. It certainly didn’t bother me sufficiently to seek out its origin or if it did, for me to commit it to memory. And then today when it popped back into mind I thought I’d do some in depth research on it. Yes friends I Googled it.

‘Nobody knows’ is the executive summary.

The two front runners in terms of repeated claims are:

A prayer from a Cornish Litany.

A Scottish prayer.

There is also an honourable mention for a Hausa origin in a book c1918.

The earliest written explanations for the origin of the prayer cluster around the early twentieth century, the earliest written claim I can see is from 1905 but presumably the use they are referring to was late nineteenth century. There are a few unsourced claims for a sixteenth century origin but for all sorts of reasons I am suspicious. The Cornish would have been speaking Cornish in their everyday lives at this period and litanies would be in Latin, and Scots would likewise I suspect have more distinctly Scottish (not Gaelic) words in a vernacular prayer and again litanies would be in Latin.

I have a regard for the work of Victorian antiquarians and folk tale collectors but also a healthy distrust of taking too seriously much of their disquisitions on the origins of what they collected.

And how have long leggety (another version) beasties fared in the meantime? Much the same as God I’m afraid. Interesting examples of pre-Enlightenment attempts to explain the world’s unknown boundaries since refuted by science and logic. There may be more things in heaven and earth than exist in Horatio’s philosophy but if he were alive now he’d probably be working at CERN and ghoulies, ghosties, long leggedy beasties and a bearded creator would have been long ago struck off the list of unknowns.

I love a good ghost story, tale of a vampire or a lycanthropic romp, especially at this time of year, but the suspension of disbelief required is greater, or perhaps the reigniting of belief in the face of the evidence is what is required. Whichever it is, I am happy to put the Enlightenment on pause for a few hours while I watch a seasonably unsettling film or read a troubling tale of terror. Just don’t expect me to be seeking deliverance from non-existent bumps in the night when the credits roll.


In ‘New Flash Fiction From Old’ I talked about paring down a story to 350 words. What I cunningly omitted to say, although I alluded to it rather obliquely, was that I did this for possible publication in small circulation magazine. The point being that it didn’t get selected. I haven’t read the submission that did get published because I haven’t been able to get hold of the magazine yet and although it has some of its content online, the flash fiction doesn’t appear to be part of that. So I can’t say if it was better than mine or just more suited to the readership they aim at or if they just can’t spot genius when they see it.


Whatever the answer to that question may be I said if it didn’t get published I might put it on here. So if anyone wants a slightly different Hallowe’en story here it is. I will put it in the Flash Fiction section as well.



I jumped on the train just as it was about to depart and the door slammed shut behind me. The carriage was empty. Ceridwen had warned me not to get on the first train by the barriers. Only the second went her way. I hoped her Hallowe’en party would be worth all this. When she asked me I’d only said yes because I was infatuated. I hated fancy dress parties, particularly ones with as vague a theme as this one. When I had asked what to come as, she had said ‘The past. I love old things’. An odd way of putting it, I had assumed she was having a dig at our age difference. The train fitted the bill at any rate, it was older than I was. It pulled out of the station and the rocking of the carriage lulled me to sleep.

I woke with a start. We had stopped, but where? ‘Beech Grove’, the sign said. I panicked. Where was that? I was sure it wasn’t on the line I was supposed to be on. Beyond the platform lights the night was black and the station deserted.  I looked round for someone to ask where we were, but I was still alone in the carriage. The diesel moved off into the darkness. I must have got on the wrong train. I would have to get out at the next stop and retrace my steps. I checked my mobile. No service.

We seemed to rattle on forever before we stopped again. I got off and the train departed. I could see no station nameplates. As I made my way across the old bridge to the opposite platform the night seemed to gather more thickly about me with every step. Each light I passed seemed to flicker and dim to almost nothing behind me, darkness pressing me forward. Ahead, a station building reared out of the gloom. I reached the dilapidated ticket office. It was closed, but in the window was a crisp new notice.

‘This station will close on 31 October 1963’.

New Flash Fiction From Old

So the next attack on the humble fairy story is rolling along. The few people who are privy to part of it have mostly given it a positive reception. Two comments, ‘too much dialogue’ and ‘a bit longwinded’ momentarily made me think about it but this was a first cut so I’m not too bothered. I’ll let it stay as is for now and finish it before reviewing. (I know I’ve said I hate rewrites but I know they are worth doing – just once or twice, not ten times). I like dialogue, it moves the story on without being didactic. When you read it you should be able to make your own mind up about the character of the person speaking without having to be told about it. Of course I suppose actions speak louder than words so sometimes a description of the actions of a character can reinforce or counterpoint what they say, but the interplay of the two makes for an interesting dance that is difficult to have without a fair amount of dialogue.

Having said that I’ve just written a very short piece, 350 words, with no real dialogue at all. A short ‘spooky’ piece, the brief not my choice,  for Hallowe’en, it is a very concise working of an idea I had years ago. It was an experience rather than an idea in fact. I raced across Manchester one night from Victoria Station to Piccadilly, ran through the barriers and onto a train to Macclesfield. We went through Stockport which was fine and then I noticed the next station was Hazel Grove when it should have been Cheadle Hulme. I was on the wrong train and on the wrong line. I got out at the next station, Middlewood which was deserted and as the name suggests in the middle of a wood. The station buildings were closed and the bridge to the other platform was accessed by a path up through the woods onto a small lane through the woods, over the tracks and back into the woods. There was not another soul about and no houses or, save for the old station, any buildings at all, visible anywhere. I waited alone on the deserted station in the dark with fog gathering for what seemed like hours before a little 2 car dmu arrived and eventually took me back to civilisation. Not that spooky in the end but it made me wonder a lot of what ifs over the years. Finally I got around to making something out of it. The end result may not be the best interpretation but it’s certainly the shortest of the variants I have considered. We’ll see if it gets published. If it does there’ll be a link. If not it may see the light of day here.

Whatever happens it’s done two useful things:

One, it’s made me think about reworking this into a longer piece, probably a genuine short story.

Two it’s made me realise how difficult it is to pare down an idea into this sort of length. I used to worry years ago about not being able to write enough. Now I worry about being able to write little enough to make it work and not ramble.

Worth another look at my attack on Cinderella to see whether it may be longwinded after all.