Just started rereading Peter Ackroyd's chilling Hawksmoor, twenty years or so after it first terrified me.
Ackroyd moves back and forth between the eighteenth century and the present in this tale of architect Nicholas Dyer who builds churches based on satanic principles. Dyer is based on real-life architect based on Nicholas Hawksmoor who worked with Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London and constructed a number of churches in London. And there is certainly evidence of the incorporation of occult elements in the Hawksmoor churches. (If you're curious take a look at this excellent essay The Eloquence of Stone: A Long Look at Christ Church by Eduardo Zinna.)
All my own nightmares are here between the pages. Ackroyd recreates the London I search for each time I walk the oldest parts of the city, conscious of the thousands of years of history beneath my feet. Sometimes the past seems so close that you could enter it.
I am afraid of old churches too. Wake in a cold sweat dreaming of spires and the chanting of demons.
I'm leading up to a story ...
My friend Lucy taught EFL with me on Summer School at my college in Plymouth. She has a brother who is an archaeologist and has been on numerous digs, and she's always fascinated by his work. Back in the mid-80's he was involved in the first dig of a crypt of a church from the eighteenth-century. The church was Christ Church in Spitalfields, and it was one of the Hawksmoor churches.
The idea was that the crypt was to be cleared of coffins so that it could be used as a centre for the homeless of this very poor area of the East End. But there were quite a number of coffins dating from the period when the church was built and these had to be catalogued first since they would offer important insights into the life of the local population of the time.
Now at that point in time it was common to use lead-lined coffins which preserve the body from the elements.
My friend's brother and his team set about opening up the coffins to document the contents.
Maybe it was because of the build up of gases in the coffin, or maybe there was a chemical reaction when air rushed in, but as soon as the coffin lids were prised open, the bodies just ... exploded.
One woman had a corpse explode in her face and was covered with fragments of the body. She began to scream, couldn't stop. Had to be warded in a psychiatric hospital.(Apparently post traumatic stress syndrome is a very real danger for forensic anthropolgists who need to receive regular counselling).
Anyhow, Lucy heard this story from her brother when she went to visit the site of the dig in the crypt one day and she could see her brother was pretty spooked out by the incident.
Lucy later caught her bus home, decided to read on the journey and reached into her bag for the new novel she had bought that morning.
You've guessed it - Ackroyd's Hawksmoor. Set in the very same church she had just visited.
Now how's that for synchronicity?