Strange places in the Scottish Borders 1: Riccarton Junction


At the start of this month Network Rail, the authority in charge of Britain’s railway infrastructure, took the helm of a new project that will hopefully rectify one of the great injustices of 20th-century British transport policy.  Closures of railway lines during the 1950s and 1960s left the Scottish Borders, where I went to high school and where I have lived intermittently since, as the only region in Britain not to have a single railway station on its territory.  The coastal line linking Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Edinburgh runs along its eastern edge but there are no stops where train passengers can get off on Borders soil – or where Borders travellers can get on board.


Now, however, plans are afoot to lay 35 miles of track and begin train services that will reconnect the biggest town in the region, Galashiels, with Edinburgh.  Officially, the line will be open for business in 2015 and will cost £295 million, which works out at more than £8 million per railway mile.  However, given Scotland’s recent dismal history involving transport projects – see the trams fiasco in Edinburgh – I have a horrible feeling that both the deadline and the price tag are instances of yet more Scottish wishful thinking.


The proposed new Galashiels-Edinburgh rail-link will constitute a partial reopening of the Waverley Line, which was the last railway to run through the Borders and connected not only Edinburgh and Galashiels, but also Hawick and Carlisle.  It finally got the chop in January 1969 and its closure provoked such a furious reaction that even a local Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend Brydon Maben, got arrested during the protests.  Although that happened 43 years ago, you still don’t have to walk far in the Borders before you encounter someone who’ll tell you angrily that the loss of the railways was the death-knell for the region’s economy.


For much of this we have to thank Dr Richard Beeching, the technocratic civil servant whose 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways resulted in Britain’s rail system losing some 5000 miles of track.  It also left millions of people living in rural areas with a stark choice about how to get around in future – to rely on often-patchy bus services or to invest in cars.  Needless-to-say, in our more environmentally-conscious (if scarcely more environmentally-friendly) world of 2012, we can see how disastrous it was to dismantle so much of the rail network and force so many people onto the roads in CO2-spewing, lung-clogging and globally-warming automobiles.


A while back, I saw a repeat of a TV interview with Beeching, recorded in the early 1980s a few years before his death.  Questioned about how his report had decimated the railways, he was unrepentant.  He even expressed his regret that he hadn’t axed more.  For instance, he said he wished he’d closed the east-coast line north of Newcastle, on the basis that it only served one small town, Berwick-upon-Tweed – which was more than a little disingenuous of him since, above Berwick, the line also serves a slightly bigger town, Edinburgh.  (You know, the capital of Scotland.)  But to be honest, Beeching wasn’t the only villain in this affair, even if he got most of the flak for it.  His report was submitted to a 1960s British government that was in thrall to the roads lobby and was only too happy to get an excuse to crucify the country’s train services.


The railways are still plainly visible on the landscapes of the Borders even though they’ve been train-less for four decades.  From my own town, Peebles, a line ran north to Edinburgh and the route of the line is marked along much of my Dad’s farm, while a railway hut still stands – just about – in one of his fields.  Lines ran east and west out of Peebles too, along the scenic Tweed Valley.  A half-mile from the town, the west-running line emerged from a hillside tunnel and crossed the River Tweed over a viaduct.  The tunnel and viaduct both survive and are as much landmarks of that part of the valley as the nearby Neidpath Castle.  (Like so many other old rail routes in the Borders, the disused line has become a footpath and it continues for a couple of miles to Lyne Station.)


For my money, however, the grandest landmark left by the Borders railways is the Shankend Viaduct south of Hawick, which once bore 199 yards of the Waverley Line and so had trains steaming along it in the directions of Carlisle and Edinburgh.  Here’s a photograph of the viaduct that I took from the B6399 road a couple of years ago whilst cycling between Hawick and Newcastleton.



Riccarton Junction, located on the Waverley Line a few miles further south from the Shankend Viaduct, scarcely qualifies as an railway landmark because very little of it survives to make any mark on the land.  It is, nonetheless, one of the eeriest places I’ve visited in the Borders.


It’s an example of the many abandoned villages whose remnants pock the British countryside, crumbling testimonies to communities that once thrived on their sites but that ultimately vanished.  And many are the reasons why these villages were abandoned.  Natural reasons include flooding, plague and coastal erosion.  Manmade ones include commandeering by wartime governments, as happened to Tyneham in Dorset, cleared of its population and turned into a training ground for 1944’s D-Day operations; and industrial decline, which in the cases of Glenbuck, Burnbrae, Craighall and other villages in Ayrshire in western Scotland came with the running-down of the local coal mines.


Riccarton Junction, however, was a casualty of British transport policy.  It was a railway village and when the railway went, it went too.


It stood where a branch line left the Waverley line for the pretty market town of Hexham in Northumberland.  At its peak, the village contained 37 houses and accommodated 118 people, all of them railway workers and their families.  It had its own school, post office and grocery shop, the latter run by the Hawick Cooperative Society.  Situated in moorland a couple of miles from the nearest road, Riccarton Junction depended on the trains that ran in and out of it for access to the outside world.  When a doctor was needed, he’d be shuttled in from Newcastleton or Hawick on a scheduled service.  In emergencies the doctor would be brought on a freight train or pilot engine.  Meanwhile, for the village’s religious needs, a church minister would walk along the line from a nearby parish and conduct services in the waiting room on Riccarton Junction’s platform.


Even by the time Dr Beeching penned his notorious report, Riccarton Junction was no longer a proper junction.  The branch line to Hexham had closed for passenger trains in 1956 and subsequently for goods trains in 1958.  When Beeching made his recommendations, the village’s fate was sealed.  Its inhabitants had already been moved when the Waverley Line ceased operations in 1969 and all that remained to be done was the lifting of the train-tracks.


I went looking for Riccarton Junction during a cycling trip in the autumn of 2010 and it took me some time and effort to find it.  After pedalling back and forth along the B6357 road north of Newcastleton, I finally discovered a single track-road called the Steele Road.  From the Steele Road, I then had to push my bike up a forest track for a quarter-mile before emerging onto the route of the old Waverley line.  It was another two miles from there to the site of the village.  The area seemed to be entirely in the hands of the Forestry Commission and it had been saturation-planted with silka spruce trees.  Thus, I spent a long time trudging through a landscape smothered in a dense, uniform and seemingly endless pattern of green-needled branches.


From the monochrome photographs I’d seen of Riccarton Junction in its heyday, those plantations hadn’t existed back then, which was probably just as well for the sanity of its hardy railwaymen inhabitants.  I had a feeling that if I were to live in the place now, I would gradually go mad from the green, ordered monotony of the all-engulfing forestry.


When I finally walked into the clearing that’d been home to Riccarton Junction, my first reaction was of disappointment.  I’d expected to see a few huddling ruins, at least suggesting the past existence of a village, but there wasn’t even that.  In the old photographs, a row of houses had stood on the west side of the Waverley Line, but these were wholly gone.  Well, not quite – after hunting about in the undergrowth, I discovered this lone chimney stack.



However, there were still clear traces of the village’s raison d’être, the railway line itself.  One platform remained and near it squatted a small, square and somewhat graffiti-ed generator building.  Past the platform-edge ran a short stretch of track that was laid down in 2004 by a voluntary group of rail enthusiasts called the Friends of Riccarton Junction.  The platform’s paving slabs were heavily lichened and the track was overrun with tall reddish weeds, and only a blue-and-white sign saying Riccarton Junction – restored no doubt by the voluntary group – was in reasonable nick.



It took me a few minutes to spot the stationmaster’s house, which still stood on the slope east of the line.  Supposedly at one time the most imposing building in the village, this was now a decrepit roofless shell.  There seemed to be as much vegetation growing inside it as there was around it.



Once I’d adjusted to the place’s bleakness, I noticed that I wasn’t quite alone there.  I could hear a faint birr of machinery from the hillside above and to the side of the stationmaster’s house, which I took first-of-all to be the sound of forestry workers.  However, I realised that I was really hearing a dump-truck, which a gang of builders were using while they worked on two more houses, intact houses, which stood overlooking the village site.  These, I learnt when I did some research later, were the former school building and school master’s house, which are now ‘in private ownership’.  I read too on a Riccarton Junction-related website a request for visitors to respect the owner’s privacy, so from this I assume that, even today, Riccarton Junction isn’t entirely uninhabited.  It has a population of at least one person, for at least part of the time – no doubt leading a pretty secluded and ascetic existence.



Two school buildings, the walls of a station master’s house, a little generator hut, a platform, a sign, a fragment of restored track and a chimney-stack – there isn’t much left of Riccarton Junction now, but in terms of the desolate and melancholy atmosphere that the place conjures up it’s more than the sum of its surviving parts.  It would, by the way, make a bloody good setting for a ghost story.


And who knows?  If the new line between Edinburgh and Galashiels doesn’t end up costing the earth, and if it’s a financial success once it starts operating, would it be too much to hope for that one day it might be extended south to Hawick?  And ultimately, from Hawick down to Carlisle?  It may not happen in my lifetime, but I like the idea that at some point in the future trains might be rumbling again across the terrain where the village of Riccarton Junction once flourished.



A website about the village, presumably put up by former members of the now-defunct Friends of Riccarton Junction:


Two recent newspaper articles about the partial return of the Waverley Line:


Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine, shares some thoughts about Dr Richard Beeching:


A feature in the BBC news-website magazine about Britain’s abandoned villages:


It doesn’t include Riccarton Junction (not yet, at least), but here’s a website dedicated to abandoned British villages:


Row versus wade


One evening last week, Tunis experienced a violent thunder-and-lightning storm that dumped a great deal of water on it in a relatively short time.  I did a late shift at my workplace the same evening.  When I was about to finish the shift at 9.30 pm, I discovered that the balcony outside the top-floor office in the building had acquired several inches of water that showed no sign of draining away.  Meanwhile, despite the balcony door being shut, the rain had somehow penetrated the staff kitchen inside and a huge, long puddle meandered across the kitchen floor.


I alerted the building’s security staff about the flooded balcony and the waterlogged kitchen and began to walk home.  Usually, walking from my workplace to my flat takes about 15 minutes.


It’d stopped raining by then but evidence of the storm was everywhere.  Avenue Mohammed V was flooded where the tramlines cross it from Avenue Louis Braille into Rue de Angola.  Two trams were parked bumper-to-bumper in Avenue Louis Braille, their drivers having decided that it was too risky to try to navigate the water in front of them.  I turned into Rue de Angola.  The tramlines were awash there too.  The floodwater rushed between the platform of the local tram-station and the opposite pavement so that the street looked like a concrete-lined waterway.  At one point it spilled over the pavement and to avoid getting my feet soaked I had to monkey-climb along a railing.


I made it to Avenue de la Liberté, where I saw the first person who was walking barefoot, carrying his shoes and socks in his hands.  I’d soon see many more folk like that.  The avenue became more flooded the further I walked down it.  In front of the Italian Club, nearly half of the road was underwater and the intersection beyond looked like a lake – cars just about managed to plough across it, looking more like boats than vehicles.  The water lapped around the base of the kiosk at the top of the intersection and the people staffing it, and the squad of never-do-wells who every evening hang out by it, looked marooned.  I ran and long-jumped over the water in front of the Italian Club, onto the other pavement.  But I decided I wasn’t going to get home by continuing along Avenue de la Liberté.


Instead, I went up Avenue des Etats Unis and cut across to Avenue Taieb M’Hiri, which runs along the edge of Belvedere Park.  The city-side of this avenue was passable, though the park-side looked inundated.  I saw a string of weary-looking young men and women wading along that side, looking like refugees filing in bedraggled despondency.


I hoped I could turn off Avenue Taieb M’Hiri and go down Rue de Khartoum, then cross the road in front of the Diplomat Hotel and press on to my own street.  Rue de Khartoum looked surprisingly dry.  On a construction site at one end of it, work was going on as normal, as if nothing was amiss in the city tonight.  At the other end, however, was a great mass of water.  There were places at one corner where the pavement stood a foot or more above the road surface, but the whole pavement was submerged now.  Past the other corner, the water came right up to the steps of the Diplomat Hotel.  The road in front was practically a river.


It was strange how different those streets looked with so much water coursing through them.  The large, wide streets were by far the worst affected because, like tributary-rivers, so many side-streets were feeding water into them.


I returned to Avenue Taieb M’Hiri, walked further along and turned down Rue Zaghouan.  This street was awash too but it had a high pavement that was above the water level.  However, whenever a car prowled past, a sudden tide would slosh across the pavement and around my feet.


I finally made it to the end of Rue Ibn Haytam, but I discovered that the alley that ran from there to the neighbourhood containing my flat was flooded for most of its length.  So at last I decided to do what everybody else had done that night.  I took off my shoes and socks, put them inside my knapsack, rolled up the ends of my trouser-legs and started wading.


I trod very, very slowly through the floodwater, which in the glow of the streetlights looked a mucky yellow-brown.  I made sure there was nothing under the soles of my feet before I put my weight on them, mindful of all the rubbish I normally saw littering those streets – tin cans, broken glass, bottle-tops, wire, mouldering food and bones that’d been pulled out of refuse bags by the local cats.  At one point, as I attempted to wade from a flooded road onto a flooded pavement, my foot dropped down into the trench of a kerbside gutter and I wondered in panic how deep into that gutter my foot was going to sink.


Against my expectations, when I trudged barefoot into my street, I found that it – at least, the end of it where my flat was located – was free of floodwater.  I entered my flat, where the first thing I did was scrub my feet with hot water and Dettol, in case something small, sharp and dirty had pierced one of my soles without my realising it.


As I said, the walk home from work usually takes about 15 minutes.  That evening, it took me more than an hour.


Lady of the flies: book review / Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard


(c) Flamingo Books


I opened J.G. Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise with a little trepidation because of two common assumptions about Ballard’s oeuvre: firstly, that he was better at writing short stories than at writing novels; and secondly, that his earlier novels – those up until 1984’s Empire of the Sun, including the loose trilogies of The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World (1964-1966) and Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise (1973-1975) – are better than his later ones.


Generally, I agree with both assumptions.  While I think Ballard, who died in 2009, wrote some excellent novels, none of them had quite the same impact on me that his best short stories did – items like Concentration City, The Drowned Giant, Now Wakes the Sea and The Air Disaster are masterpieces of short fiction that aspiring young writers should be made to study in order to learn How It Is Done.  And though I always got some enjoyment out of his later novels, such as SuperCannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), it was clear that they weren’t in the same league as his earlier novels.


The problem with his later books, I feel, is that there’s too much going on in them and as a consequence they lack focus.  For example, Kingdom Come, which looks at the disturbing influence that a huge new shopping mall has on the inhabitants of a satellite town outside London, begins with a shooting spree by a crazed gunman, then touches on several contemporary issues like racism, football hooliganism and rampant 21st-century consumerism, and ends with a bizarre final section where an assortment of misfits take over the mall and try to set up a new (and inevitably dystopian) society inside it, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Alex Garland’s The Beach crossed with the George A. Romero movie Dawn of the Dead.  In other words, just as you’ve managed to take one trope on board, another one bustles along to confuse you further.


Sometimes I feel that this was due not so much to a decline in Ballard’s writing powers, as to the fact that the modern world – which all Ballard’s work portrayed through a uniquely distorted prism, part Franz Kafka and part Salvador Dali – was by the 21st century changing so fast.  Even his satirical radar couldn’t keep up with all the weird social, political and technological developments that contemporary life was generating.  Neither could he quite manage to accommodate everything adequately in each new book.


(Having said that, I should thank Kingdom Come for a memorable frisson it gave me last year, while I was reading it.  I’d arranged to meet a friend one afternoon in Carthage, the swankiest of Tunis’s suburbs.  My friend hadn’t yet turned up when I got off at the local TCM station, which was next door to the Carthage Branch of Monoprix, so I took Kingdom Come out of my bag and spent a few minutes waiting beside the big supermarket with my nose stuck in its pages.  It took me a minute or two to realise that the supermarket wasn’t just closed for the afternoon.  It was gutted.  During the Tunisian revolution in January, it’d been looted and trashed and stood now as a razed shell, a disturbingly incongruous spectacle in the middle of this smart neighbourhood of high white walls and thick iron gates, four-by-fours and swimming pools, orange trees and jasmine bushes.  This was all spookily similar to what was happening in the book I was holding – wow, the prophetic power of literature!  If Ballard’s ghost had been nearby, having a quiet chuckle, I wouldn’t have been surprised.)


A plot summary of Rushing to Paradise suggests a similar lack of focus.  It tells the story of a group of environmental activists, led by an intense and plainly unbalanced woman called Dr Barbara Rafferty, who head for Saint Esprit, a Pacific atoll, to protest against a French nuclear test and save the albatrosses that nest there.  By dumb luck rather than by any tactical ability, they manage to force the French to withdraw from the atoll and, with the place to themselves, Barbara hits on the idea of converting it into a global eco-sanctuary, one where endangered plants and animals can brought from other continents and allowed to grow or breed in safety.  “Think of Saint Esprit as the ultimate environmental project,” she tells the youngest member of the group, a naïve 16-year-old called Neil Dempsey who is the novel’s focal character and whose loyalty to Barbara strays further into psychosis as the story progresses.  “We’re engineering the ecology of paradise!”  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and the utopian society that the environmentalists set up on Saint Esprit falls more than slightly short of its goals.  In fact, it all goes Lord of the Flies.  (That happened a lot in Ballard’s fiction.)


Later, however, Ballard shifts gears and what had been a dark satire of environmental idealism becomes an even darker satire of feminism.  Barbara starts to muse that, “Women don’t dislike men… We bring them into this world and spend the rest of our lives helping them to understand themselves.  If anything, we’ve been too kind to them, letting them play their dangerous games.”  Meanwhile, the male members of the party start dying of strange, debilitating sicknesses.  And whenever boatloads of environmental sympathisers arrive at the atoll, the women on board are persuaded to stay while the men go mysteriously missing.  It eventually dawns on Neil that Barbara is keeping him alive so that he can impregnate the women around him and the atoll can propagate what she has identified now as the most valuable species of all – the human female.  And if anything happens to compromise Neil’s fitness and virility, he’ll go the same way as the other men.


But the sudden switch from environmental satire to feminist satire here isn’t as jarring as the competing elements in Kingdom Come or Ballard’s other later books.  Perhaps it’s because we’re set up for this transition early on in Rushing to Paradise.  After meeting Barbara for the first time, a curious Neil does some research on her.  He discovers that in her youth she was a proper medical doctor but was disgraced in a scandal where she assisted some terminally ill patients with their (alleged) wish to die.  Thus, Ballard establishes her as a chameleon of trendy causes – voluntary euthanasia, environmentalism, feminism – who happily drops one and adopts another whenever it suits her damaged state of mind.


In fact, I found Rushing to Paradise a surprisingly enjoyable book, more enjoyable than the assumptions I mentioned at the start of this review had led me to believe.  Nonetheless, the strongest part of it is the bleakly-amusing central section, which details the environmentalists’ hopeless attempts to build a Gaia-friendly Shangri-La on the atoll after the French have abandoned it.  (After sinking the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985, and after deciding to run nuclear tests at Moruroa to pre-empt the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, those beastly French were definitely the environmental villains du jour when Ballard penned this novel.)  He has a merry time skewering his characters for the gulf between their rhetoric and (the consequences of) their actions.  For instance, the ship that carries them to the atoll causes an oil slick that destroys most of its birdlife.  And the endangered animals that environmental groups around the world send to them, believing they’ve turned the atoll into an ecological Noah’s Ark, end up in their cooking pots as survival there becomes more desperate.


Although his early novels like The Drowned World and The Drought dealt ostensibly with environmental disasters and were prescient of our modern fears about global warming, Ballard never seemed to have much truck with the environmental movement.  Indeed, one or two of the pieces in his 1996 collection of non-fiction, A User’s Guide to the Millennium, were published originally in motoring magazines and suggested he was even a bit of a petrol-head.  However, I wouldn’t go so far as the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle who, on the event of Ballard’s death, declared that the writer had been a Conservative (  I know he did write once about “the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher… the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip…” but as this came from the pen of a man who’d written in Crash about people being sexually aroused by car accidents, Mrs Thatcher would be ill-advised to take it as a compliment.  Besides, in the 1990s, Ballard turned down the offer of a CBE, condemning the British honours system as “a Ruritanian charade that helps prop up our top-heavy monarchy.”  Hardly the words of a man of the right.


My feeling is that, rather than expressing Ballard’s disdain for the environmental movement or for the feminist movement, Rushing to Paradise is merely a character study.  It examines a megalomaniac who, as I’ve said, uses causes such as environmentalism and feminism as tools to herd her followers closer and closer to her messianic goals.  Indeed, Barbara is one of the most intriguing of Ballard’s characters, managing to be a tyrant and mass-murderer but managing to engage the reader’s pity too.  In one of Neil’s rare moments of insight, he glimpses the profound solitude that she really longs for, realising “for the first time that she would only be happy when was alone on Saint Esprit, when Kino, Monique and the Saitos had gone and even the albatross had abandoned her.”  And her demented spirit seems to shine ever more brightly as people die around her and as her own body withers with malnutrition, illness and overwork.


Correspondingly, if Rushing to Paradise has a fault, it lies in the characterisation of Neil.  Possessing little spirit himself, easily manipulated and more than a little stupid, he seems to exist only as a literary device — as a blank page for recording, and an empty mirror for reflecting, Barbara’s glorious insanity.  And unsurprisingly, at the book’s finale, when he is rescued from the atoll, his one impulse is directed towards the mad but magnetic older woman who has dominated him for so long.  Neil, writes Ballard, “would join her, happy to be embraced again by Dr Barbara’s cruel and generous heart.”


Indeed, his passivity becomes downright annoying.  Reading the book, there were times when I wished that I could step into its pages, onto the sands of Saint Esprit, and throttle him — or that Dr Barbara Rafferty would bump him off too and finish the job of rendering Saint Esprit’s male population extinct.


Jim Mountfield – now on e-reader


At the end of the summer a short story of mine, The Deposits, which was written under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield and which told the tale of an unscrupulous landlord getting his comeuppance after one of his properties developed a severe mould problem, appeared in the webzine The Horror Zine.  Jeani Rector, The Horror Zine’s hard-working editor, has now assembled all the stories featured in her webzine over the past few months, including The Deposits, and published them in both paperback and Kindle form.


The paperback collection can be ordered here:


And it can be downloaded as an e-book from here:


As far as I know, this is the first time my writing career has taken a step into e-reader territory.  Thanks for that, Jeani!


Ten scary paintings


Less than a fortnight after apologising for writing a blog entry that was simply a list of things – as I said then, I hate it when music and film magazines publish ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists as a lazy substitute for imaginative features – I have decided to be even more of a hypocrite and compile another list.  The Review section in last weekend’s Observer newspaper had the bright idea of marking Halloween by nominating the ten scariest artworks ever painted, a list that included works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Bosch, Gericault and Warhol.  In fact, so appealing was this idea that I have decided to rip off the Observer and do the same thing myself.  Although I’ve missed Halloween by one day, here are my choices for the ten most frightening paintings in the history of fine art.


First of all, however, here’s a link to the original Observer feature:


There are two paintings on the Observer’s list that are also on mine.  One, inevitably, is The Nightmare, by the Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli.  Its hideous incubus, squatting on the bosom of a sleeping maiden, is disturbing enough – but what really spooks me about this painting is the goggle-eyed and deranged-looking horse whose head protrudes into the action.  That horse is worthy of David Lynch, in fact.  Such was the excitement generated by The Nightmare when first exhibited in 1782 that Fuseli painted several variations on it.  The original, however, now resides in the Detroit Institute of Arts.


The second painting about which I agree with the Observer is The Ghost of a Flea, a miniature work by William Blake that is now in the Tate Gallery in London.  The image of this muscular, mutant and malevolent thing supposedly came to Blake while he was participating in a séance in 1819.  Nearly 200 years have passed since then — and the last 100 or so have seen the flourishing of cinematic culture, wherein make-up artists and special-effects technicians have worked hard at populating horror movies with all manner of scary and loathsome monsters.  Yet Blake’s humanoid-flea creature still manages to be more repulsive than 90% of the monsters that have lurched across cinema screens in the 20th and 21st centuries.


Moving on to my own choices – I’d like to mention the Australian painter Peter Booth, whose bizarre, apocalyptic-feeling work I first encountered during a trip Down Under 14 years ago.  Particularly unsettling is his untitled 1977 painting, now in the National Gallery of Victoria.  Why is that nocturnal sky dominated by a blood-red sun?  What does that big albino bull terrier got to do with anything?  And why does that white-haired central figure remind me so much of Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher, a horror movie that wasn’t made until nine years later?


And now onto to Gustav Klimt.  Yes, I know in the public mind he’s now almost entirely associated with glittery, glossy and sensual paintings like The Kiss – but the dark side of me rather likes these depictions he did of some monstrous females from Greek mythology (whom many artists have been drawn to over the centuries).  His The Gorgons and Typhon, which I believe is a much reproduced detail of his Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building in Vienna, still has a Klimt-esque ornateness and sensuality about it.  But at the same time, his gorgons look vicious, rancid and decidedly unwholesome.


Edward Hopper also isn’t a name one normally associates with macabre art, but I feel he deserves inclusion here on the strength of his 1925 painting The House by the Railroad, which now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Although the house is depicted in daylight, it is eerily lonely and still-looking and its gaunt façade even has a hint of a skull about it.  And if the house touches a deeper nerve in you, it’s perhaps because it was the inspiration for the look of the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.


For something gruesomely and apocalyptically medieval, I will pass over Hieronymus Bosch, genius though he was, and opt instead for Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  His 1562 painting The Triumph of Death does what it says on the tin – death has indeed triumphed, as evidenced by the fires burning across a razed wasteland, the leafless trees, the shipwrecks, the rotting fish, the panic-stricken crowds and the many gleeful and malevolent skeletons.  The detail that kills me (sorry) is the skeleton riding on a horse-drawn cart, who merrily plays a hurdy-gurdy whilst people disappear under his hooves and wheels.  This painting has hung in Madrid’s Museo del Prado for nearly two centuries.


For my next choice, I’ll cheat a little – for it isn’t a painting but an engraving that I’ve seen reproduced in a many books and on many websites.  Representing John Dee, the legendary 16th century magician, astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (needless to say, Dee fell from royal favour when the deeply witch-fearing James VI of Scotland claimed the English throne), and fellow magician Edward Kelley conjuring up a spirit in a nocturnal churchyard, the engraving isn’t particularly frightening.  But there’s a great charm in the way it depicts the traditional paraphernalia of the occult – the magic circle, the book of spells and rituals, the sword-wand, the headstones and the heaped bones and skulls.


I’m a sucker for ukiyo-e – the art of Japanese woodblock prints – so I’ll include here Takiyashi the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who, until his death in 1862, was one of the last great masters of the form.  Now to be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, this triptych is a gloriously ghoulish and cartoonish work, and the oversized skeleton spectre in it would not look out of place in a fairground haunted house or ghost-train ride.


Next up is perhaps the nastiest piece in my top ten.  It’s surely the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of scary art. Yes, it’s Figure with Meat by – who else? – Francis Bacon.  Supposedly based on Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, this 1954 painting unflatteringly transforms the poor old pope into a grotesque, dribbly-faced gargoyle with two halves of a cow-carcass hanging behind him.  The rows of ribs in the carcass correspond unpleasantly to the rows of teeth in the figure’s maw.  Kept in the Art Institute of Chicago, this painting appeared in a scene in Tim Burton’s 1989 version of Batman – it was the only painting that the similarly rictus-faced Joker instructed his henchmen not to vandalise, because he ‘kinda liked’ it.


And finally, this painting has certainly lost some of its impact due to over-exposure in popular culture – blame Wes Craven, for one.  But nonetheless, I was surprised that the Observer article didn’t mention the most famous work of Edvard Munch.