Category Archives: Being stared at


A British film directed Robert Fuest, written by Brian Clemens and Terry Nation

I recently rediscovered this film – I remembered it being in black and white, but no, it’s in glorious technicolor. It’s a compelling psycho-thriller/horror, uncannily hypnotic, tapping into fears of being an outsider and unable to make oneself understood, and of being watched and followed by sinister strangers – but which one presents the real danger?

Two English nurses, Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michelle Dotrice) are on a cycling holiday in rural France. The landscape is flat, the road straight, the sky cloudless – a folk-horror setting, eerie and threatening even in bright daylight. The girls disagree – Cathy is finding their progress tedious and wants to meet people and have fun. Jane want to see more of the countryside. A young man on a scooter appears to be following them.

Cathy and Jane start their trip

There’s an argument; Jane leaves Cathy sunbathing at the edge of a wood beside the road and continues on her way. A while later, she waits at a roadside cafe (the ominously named “Store at the Bad Turn”) for her friend to catch up – but Cathy doesn’t appear.

The stage is set. We watch as Jane searches for her missing companion. The tension builds as she learns (with difficulty, as her French isn’t good) that there was a murder in the area some time ago. The language barrier contributes to the air of menace; there are no subtitles provided, so when the local characters are speaking French, understanding isn’t complete – like Jane, we’re confused and can’t make sense of what is happening. As in all effective thrillers, each person she meets could be a suspect – the young man following the girls, the café proprietor and his wife, the distant figure in the fields, the English woman in the car.

What gives the film it’s uncanny quality?

It’s the mood of open-air claustrophobia; the landscape is wide and empty but at the same time restrictive and threatening. Despite all the apparent movement – Jane shifts between the hotel, the wood, the police station and the roadside café, back and forth, by bicycle on her own, on the scooter with Paul, in the car with the English woman and again on her own, running from the wood – she is confined to the same stretch of road, tracing and retracing her steps, watched from afar by the sinister old farm labourer. Eventually, we lose our bearings; which way is she going and to what end?

Motifs and themes recur. The music playing over the opening credits is repeated on Cathy’s transistor radio when she is sunbathing in the woods. The first shot of the film, of the girls cycling along the road, is repeated in the last shot, when another two cyclists appear on the same road, pedalling into the same danger. Jane is repeatedly told by different characters to “stay here, wait for me here”. She asks the café proprietor to speak more slowly, and in turn she is asked the same by the policeman. Cars repeatedly speed along the road, and they might offer a way of escape, but no.

The final scenes crank up the tension, increasing Jane’s sense of dread and isolation. We know it’s not going to end happily. And it doesn’t.


Of all the images of the Queen published following her recent death, one caught my attention in particular – a photograph taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007. It shows the Queen in full Garter Robes and diamond tiara in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace.

The composition is unusual. The seated figure fills approximately an eighth of the frame, in the bottom right hand corner. Bright sunlight streams into the room from a window on the Queen’s left, highlighting her silver hair and diamond tiara, her rich robes and chains of office. It’s a portrait designed to reinforce the power and authority of the monarchy, and the setting certainly complements that intention. The room is elegant, lavishly furnished with red and gold brocaded chairs and settees. The carpet is richly patterned, the walls are adorned with decorated pilasters, mirrors reflect and re-double the splendour, and the chandeliers drip crystal teardrops.

But on the far wall behind the Queen, a huge doorway opens a dark interior. The details of the next room can’t be seen clearly, but it creates an uneasy absence in the centre of the picture, making the room appear uncomfortable and insecure, and despite all the chairs, I don’t think I would like to sit in there for too long. Or go through the central door.

The reproduction of the photograph I was looking at wasn’t a good one, so I went online to find a copy that I could examine in detail. Here’s an image that allows just that:

But something strange is going on. I didn’t notice at first that the Queen is not alone. In the far left corner of the room, a woman stands behind a chair, and she looks uncannily like Elizabeth as a much younger woman. The same figure, the same hairstyle, and around her neck the pearls the Queen always favoured. Stranger, the woman is standing in front of a large mirror, but her back isn’t reflected.

There’s another odd thing – the mirror behind the woman reflects a light source from a window which should be on the left wall, opposite the window where the Queen sits on the right – but the light doesn’t reach the space in the left foreground of the image. The way the mirror reflects the room creates an unstable image, as the eye alternates between seeing it as a mirror and as an opening through the wall to the room beyond.

And finally, and most creepily, there are two dark-suited men just discernible in the mirrors, one each side of the doorway. The one on the left must be standing against the left wall – but he’s not in the “real” space of the image. The other seems to be directly behind the viewer of the portrait – that’s us. Don’t turn around, but is he there now?


I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost  – do try and read it if you can.

When Hilary is six, the family moves into a haunted house.  “Our daily life,” she says, “is hushed, driven into corners. We move in a rush between the house’s safe areas, and the ones less safe, where, as you enter a room, you get the impression that someone is waiting for you.”

When I read this, I was taken straight back to my own childhood and visits to my grandmother’s house.  On the ground floor, a stained-glass paneled front door led into a dark passage, from which the front room, the stairs, the kitchen and the living room at the back of the house were accessed.  There were also two doors which opened onto steps down into larder cupboards, one on either side of the kitchen door and at right angles to it, and you had to pass between these to get to the kitchen.  I remember family Sunday lunches at grandma’s; afterwards, in winter, we would all gather in the living room in front of the fire to watch tv.  But when you wanted to go to the loo, you had to leave this place of safety and run down the hallway and up the stairs and back again, as quickly as you could, because there was something behind those larder doors that was intent on catching you, and you could always feel it watching as you ran by.

As quickly as you can!

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A Novel by Alan Garner

I remember Alan Garner from the early 70s, when people were talking about his book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I came across him again recently when his novel Thursbitch was mentioned in an article on “sentient landscape” – the idea that the world apart from ourselves may be somehow aware in ways which we don’t or can’t acknowledge.  One aspect of the uncanny – the feeling that we are being observed – clearly has close links with this idea.  What if the stones themselves are watching us?



Thursbitch is the name of a valley in the south Pennines not far from Macclesfield, and Garner’s novel, published in 2003 but long in the making, gives the location a powerfully threatening and magical character.  There are standing stones which may or may not move in the night, strange geological formations and old stone houses, now abandoned and tumbling.

Two strands run through the narrative.  An eighteenth century community still clings to ancient beliefs, which, along with associated practices, are being threatened by new Christian ideas and a new politics of land management.  The central character is the journeyman John Turner, who appears to be only the most recent shaman of an ancient line, and he performs the strange rituals that keep the farming community safe.

In the present day, two friends, Sal and Ian, habitually visit the valley and walk the surrounding landscape.  Time has a habit of shifting around here, and sometimes, through the mist or in a blizzard, John sees Sal and Ian, and sometimes Sal and Ian see or hear John.  Artifacts from the earlier time appear in the later.

The novel is challenging.  John Turner and his community speak in a thick Cheshire accent that is quite opaque at times. and the relationship between Sal and Ian is complicated.  But the book lingers in the mind long after the reading has finished.

In 2008, Garner gave a lecture about the evolution of his story.  In 1952, he had been running on the moors of the Southern Pennines, close to the valley of Thursbitch, and came across a memorial stone by the side of the road upon which was carved


John Turner's Memorial Stone

John Turner’s Memorial Stone

On the hidden reverse of the stone, he discovered more lettering:


The strangeness of such a find stayed with Garner, and eventually in 1972 “it was laid upon me that the story of John Turner must be told.  But I’d no idea of what that story was or might be”.  It was during his research to pin down that story that the uncanny flavour of the moorland landscape and its inhabitants began to emerge.

He discovered that the memorial stone had been erected by a Turner relative in the nineteenth century (and that the date should have been 1735, not 1755), and pieced together the details of John Turner’s life – he was born in 1706 and became a packman carrying salt from Chester to Derby, returning with malt.  These details were still, in the 1970s, well know to the farmers of Saltersford (another valley close to Thursbitch) with whom Garner consulted over many years.  The unexplained death of John Turner was still making them uneasy; he died in a snowstorm not half a mile from his home, and an experienced packman, very famliar with the ways and the weathers of his path, would have had the knowledge to protect himself and his beasts from such conditions.

Garner got something else from those farmers;  “it was a sense that they were glad of my interest.  They were, and still are, troubled in their souls by something they can’t describe and only begin to articulate.”

It wasn’t only the farmers who found the area unsettling.  Garner met a GP whose practice, from 1948, had been in the hill country to the north east of Macclesfield.  The doctor said he’d “never been happy with Saltersford, and always dreaded … a night call there”.

A church dedicated to St John the Baptist was built in 1732, close to a monolith at a site known as Jenkin Cross – but the Bishops of Chester refused to consecrate it for 61 years, and only then on condition that Jenkin Chapel, as it was known, be re-dedicated to St John the Evangelist.  Garner points to the fact that St John the Baptist “frequently accumulated folkloric and mythic and pre-Christian baggage” and suggests that this was the reason for the Church’s reluctance.

Jenkin Chapel

Jenkin Chapel

The vicar responsible for Jenkin Chapel had, in 1972 at the start of his term, been told by the Church Wardens that “it would not be safe for ‘a man of the cloth’ to enter the valley.  One of them had said that he himself never went there, because it ‘was not a healthy part’ “.  The vicar respected this advice and “he also said that the people of Saltersford think of it as ‘no good place’, ‘not right’ …. ‘I wouldn’t like to go up myself.  I think the valley needs feeding’.”

During his researches, Garner wanted permission to drive along the Western ridge of Thursbitch.  The farmer’s response to the request is the most telling of all.  He agreed but “he said he wanted me down by dusk and he wanted me to let him know I was down.

“You see.” Pause. “There isn’t a farmer in all these hill around.” Pause. “As will open his door after dark.” Pause. “Not even to cross the yard”.  Pause.  “Without he’s got his gun”. “Not that it would be of any use.” “But it makes you feel better.” “Somehow ……”


Read the full text of Garner’s lecture here.


Do you remember The Judderman?  It was an ad for Metz schnapps drink, aired in 2000 in cinema and on tv.  What a glorious collection of uncanny tropes it is!judderman[1]

The style of the commercial is reminiscent of early European cinema.  It’s shot in flickering black and white, the camerawork is shaky, and it looks as if it’s an old print that needs to be restored.  The background music is discordant, with the flavour of a creepy fairground calliope.  The voice-over is supplied by a lady called Alicia Suszka Fielder, who is half-Polish and half-Czech, and who brings an exotic account to her recitation of the warning

Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.

Sharp of tongue and spindle-limbed he is, and cunning,

With sweetened talk of schnapps and Metz, and the deliciousness of judders.

But schnapps, though sweet, has teeth, my love, and sharpened ones at that.

Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.

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It was a sunny summer day in around 1980, and I was sitting upstairs in our small house, a modern “link-detached” (that is, not detached at all), in the spare bedroom, sitting at my sewing table and machining away, running up something to wear that evening, as we often did then.  It was a repetitive task that didn’t require too much concentration, and I was daydreaming the afternoon away.

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by M R James

A View from a Hill

A View from a Hill


Here’s an uncanny tale.

An academic, Mr Fanshawe, is enjoying a summer visit to a new friend in the country, Squire Richards.  He cycles the two miles from the station to the Squire’s residence, and after tea, the Squire suggests a walk in the surrounding park, so that the visitor can get his bearings for wider exploration during his stay.  Mr Fanshawe borrows a pair of binoculars – old fashioned, heavy things, in a box with sharp corners on which he cuts himself as he struggles to open it.

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by Michelle de Kretser

Tom Loxley, an Anglo-Indian academic living in Melbourne, loses his dog in the bush, and then, eight days later, finds his dog, but not before de Kretser has taken us into Tom’s inter-continental history, and his mothers’ current failing health and difficult relationship with her sister; his growing obsession with Nelly Zhang, an artist with a secret past; and his developing relationships with Nelly’s circle of bohemian friends. Continue reading


Imagine: an early summer day in the country, and you’re enjoying a view over a golden landscape dotted with the vibrant colours of wild flowers.  The sun is warming your back and a light breeze eddies through the long grass.  You’re rambling along the edge of a field, listening to the birdsong from the hedgerow, contentedly daydreaming about the lazy afternoon ahead.

But now – you have to climb a wooded hillside.  You pass under the trees, and the canopy blocks the sunlight.  No birds sing here, and the air is still.  You venture forward, but you can’t make out a path.  You turn to the right and then the left.  It’s not clear which way you need to go.  You feel a little anxious, and suddenly sense that someone is watching you. Continue reading