Tag Archives: omens of death

Shrieks in the West Room: 1835

Shrieks in the West Room at Flesbury

A plain statement of the facts, as they occurred, without any attempt to embellish or magnify them, will be given.

Early in 1835, my brother John was taken seriously ill, and for many weeks his life hung in the balance. A crisis was reached and passed, followed by a fortnight of mingled hope and despair. At the end of that time his condition showed so great an improvement that the most sanguine hopes for his recovery were entertained by all the family, except his mother and aunt, who continued to be very anxious so long as the doctors were unwilling to give a decidedly favourable opinion.

It was between five and six o clock on a fine spring evening, towards the end of March. The sinking sun was cheerfully lighting up the West room, where three of John’s sisters and his brother William were sitting, having just left their father in the dining-room. Their mother and aunt had returned to John’s room. The West room adjoins the principal staircase, which leads up from the entrance hall through the centre of the house. There is a small landing at the door of the West room, the stain ascending a little further to the principal landing. A second flight leads to the upper landing, on which opened the room occupied by John. Owing to the centre of the house being open, any sound in the hall is distinctly audible on the upper floor. The offices are reached by a long passage behind the hall and the dining-room, so that ordinary sounds from the hall or the staircase cannot be heard there.

The children in the West room were all in the highest spirits. They were no longer feeling anxious about their brother and were even a little inclined to think that their elders had been unnecessarily alarmed. Poor dear Johnnie, they told each other, after all the fuss that had been made, was getting well.

To be sure, it was impossible to spoil him; he was such a dear good boy and never made a fuss about himself. But even now Mamma and Aunt would not believe that he was not going to die. In fact, that very day at dinner. Mamma had been actually crying again. The children went on to discuss the two doctors who were attending John. The younger of the two had particularly annoyed them that day m reporting on the state of the patient to their father. While admitting an increase in strength and appetite, he had added, ‘Still, I see no improvement.’ ‘Papa said he was ridiculously inconsistent,’ one of the children remarked; and someone went on to say something which raised a general laugh. The laughter had not ceased when a piercing shriek rang through the room. It was as if uttered by someone standing on the landing just outside the open door.

There was silence, and then a second shriek like the first; another silence, and then yet a third shriek, even louder and more prolonged than the others, and ending in a rattling, gurgling sound, as though someone were dying.

The children in the room were struck with horror. None of them is likely to forget that awful sound. As I write, it seems to ring in my ears.

In a moment the door of the drawing-room, on the further side of the hall, was thrown open, and Mr Carnsen, who had been sitting in the room alone, hurried across the hall to the foot of the staircase. He called in an agitated voice to his daughter, whom he knew to be in the West room ‘Gertrude, what is the matter! Who is screaming in that dreadful manner!’

‘Papa,’ we answered, ‘we don’t know. It wasn’t one of us, though it seemed quite close.’

‘It sounded as though someone were in great distress,’ our father said. ‘Go down to Grace and ask her if the people in the kitchen are all right, although the noise did not seem to come from there.

Gertrude went at once and found the housekeeper alone in the big front room. She was standing as if listening and declared she had distinctly heard three shrieks. She was wondering what could be the matter and though positive that the sound had come from further off than the kitchen, she went there to enquire if the servants knew anything.

When she returned her usually florid face was quite pale. ‘Oh, Miss Gertrude,’ she said, ‘there is no hope for Master John — that is what it means. What we heard was none of the servants, and no human voice. The servants heard the screams too but they seemed to come from far off.’

‘How can you talk such nonsense!’ Gertrude replied. ‘A person like you ought to know better. Papa says you must find out what it was and let him know.’

The girl then returned to the hall, where she found her father talking to the old doctor, who had just arrived. Mr. Carnsen was saying: ‘It was like a woman’s voice, screaming as though in the utmost distress. You would have supposed she was being murdered.’

The doctor replied that he had been crossing the lawn at the time, and that if the noise had come from outside the house, he must have heard it.

After Gertrude had reported the failure of her enquiries, her father asked her to tell her mother, who was in John’s room, of the doctor’s arrival. On her way upstairs, she looked into the West room, where she found that the others had been joined by Ellen, a faithful and attached servant, with the youngest child, then about two and a half, in her arms. Ellen said they had been in one of the rooms on the first landing when they had heard the shrieks, coming, as it were, from the West room or near it. The child asked, ‘Who is screaming, Ellen; I didn’t scream’; and picking her up the maid had run to the West room to find out what was the matter.

One of the children remarked: ‘Poor Johnnie! How frightened he must have been!’

Whereupon Ellen suggested: ‘Could it have been Master John seized with a fit?’

Struck with this idea, Gertrude ran upstairs. The door of her brother s room was partly open, and when she went in she saw him lying with a very placid look on his fact. As she passed the bed, he gave her a look and a smile, but did not speak. Her mother was resting on the sofa and her aunt was reading by the window. Nothing in short, could have been quieter or more composed than the room and its inmates.

After announcing the doctor s arrival, Gertrude went over to the bed to discover if possible, without alarming her brother, if he had heard the shrieks.

‘Johnnie, how quiet you look!’ she said. Have you been asleep?’

No, Gertrude,’ he replied, ‘I was not asleep and I knew the doctor had come. I heard Dash give his little bark’ — meaning a short single bark which the old dog, who lay on a mat in the hall always gave when the doctor arrived. So it seemed that John had heard the bark, but not the awful shrieks which had rung through the house and been heard by everyone in it except himself and those who were with him.

The doctor was now on his way up and Gertrude, as she left, beckoned to her aunt to follow her. In the West room she told her of their experience, the aunt replying that everything had been exceptionally quiet that afternoon in John’s room.

He had been lying awake, but without speaking for some tune and no unusual noise of any kind had been heard.

An immediate search was made, every possible and impossible cause being sought for and suggested; but all was in vain; no explanation was forthcoming.

Next morning, the doctor came to breakfast, accompanied by his brother, the old clergyman, who occasionally visited John; and while they were there, the housekeeper and the farm bailiff were called in and questioned as to the result of the enquiries which, by Mr. Carnsen’s orders, they had made. One point was clear: the sounds had been made in the house, since no one outside had heard them. The accounts of all those inside the house talked: there had been three shrieks at short intervals; it was as though a woman’s voice were being strained to the utmost; and the noise had ended in a dying rattle. What was most unaccountable was that the shrieks were loudest on the staircase, close to the West room, and therefore should have been distinctly audible in John’s room just above; yet everyone there was utterly unconscious of them.

Nothing more could be done. The servants were given strict orders not to allow any report of what had happened to leak out. Mr. Carnsen, who disliked the subject so much that no one ventured afterwards to allude to it in his presence, enjoined a similar silence on the children. The clergyman, after hearing all the evidence, pronounced the incident to be of a kind for which it was impossible to give a natural explanation. He told us that we could not pretend to deny the reality of what we had heard, but must not give way to superstitious fancies Some lesson or warning which time would make more clearly known, was intended.

From that day onwards, even those of us who had been most hopeful, found their confidence gone, though for another week John’s health continued to show signs of improvement.

After that he took a turn for the worse, and three weeks from the day when the shrieks were heard he died. It may be asked whether a similar warning was given on the occasion of the death of any other member of the family

Fifteen years later, John’s young sister, Emma, was on her deathbed. In the middle of the night, just before the end, those who were watching in her room heard sounds of hysterical wailing and lamentation passing through the house The noises ceased as she drew her last breath A few months later, when the daughters were watching by the deathbed of their mother they had so strong an expectation of hearing that unearthly voice once more, that they told each other they ought to doubt the evidence of their senses if it came but it did not come. Nor was any warning given of the deaths of two of the sons in distant lands, or when Mr Carnsen himself passed away in March 1860 as he knelt in prayer by his bedside.

Further Stories from Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book, 1937, pp. 3-9 (reported earlier in an abbreviated form in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 16 November 1888).

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As the Proceedings and the introduction to this story in The Ghost Book says, ” Lord Halifax copied the following story from a manuscript, written by the sister of John Carnsen, the child concerned, who died on April 22nd 1835, aged eleven. He added the information that ‘the house where the events of this narrative occurred is Flesbury, a lonely country house on the north coast of Cornwall. The family who reside there are the only descendants of the Carnsens of Carnsen, in Cornwall.’ The names are given as they appear in The Ghost Book, but Carnsen should probably be Carnsew, the name of an old Cornish family, and Flesbury, should probably be Flexbury, near Bude.”

Ah, that is so often the trouble with supernatural accounts: the narrator wishes to disguise the name of the family or the location so that the family is not embarrassed or the house does not get a bad name. One wonders if such subterfuges confused the wailing spirit, who did not appear at the death of the narrator’s brothers, mother, or father, but instead found itself in the Bude-Stratton Business Centre car park, puzzling over a Ordnance Survey map in search of a non-existent family and house.

 

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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Pigeons of Doom: 1700

 

Doves in a funeral flower arrangement, 1885

Both doves and pigeons are constantly associated in the popular mind with death. Every reader of Westward Ho! will remember the white dove which was the habitual death-token of the Oxenham family.

We have in Shropshire a less poetical record of a similar death-warning, which, however, seems to have been attached not so much to a particular family as to a particular house. The narrative shall be given verbatim from the pages of the old writer who has preserved it for us.

‘Beecause many maryages of persons in this parish of Myddle have beene made with persons of Cayhowell, I will say something of that farme. . . . There is a wounderfull thing observable concerning this farme, of which I may say, in the words of Du Bartas—

Strang to bee told, and though believed of few,

Yet is not soe incredible as true.

It is observed that if the chiefe person of the family that inhabits in this farme doe fall sick, if his sicknesse bee to death, there come a paire of pidgeons to the house about a fortnight or a weeke before the person’s death, and continue there untill the person’s death, and then goe away. This I have knowne them doe three severall times. 1st. Old Mrs. Bradocke fell sicke about a quarter of a yeare after my Sister was maryed, and the paire of pidgeons came thither, which I saw. They did every night roust under the shelter of the roofe of the kitchen att the end, and did sit upon the ends of the side raisers. In the day time they fled about the gardines and yards. I have seene them pecking on the hemp butt as if they did feed, and for ought I know they did feed. They were pretty large pidgeons; the feathers on their tayles were white, and the long feathers of theire wings, their breasts, and bellyes, white, and a large white ring about theire necks ; but the tops of theire heads, their backs, and theire wings (except the long feathers,) were of a light browne or nutmeg colour. (My brother-in-law, Andrew Bradocke, told mee that hee feared his mother would die, for there came such a pair of pidgeons before his father’s death, and hee had heard they did soe beefore the death of his grandfather.) After the death of Mrs. Bradocke, the pidgeons went away. 2ndly. About three-quarters of a year after the death of Mrs. Bradocke, my father goeing to give a visit to them at Kayhowell, fell sicke there, and lay sicke about nine or ten weekes. About a fortnight beefore his death, the pidgeons came; and when hee was dead, went away. 3rdly. About a yeare after his death, my brother-in-law, Andrew Bradocke, fell sicke, the pidgeons came, and hee died; they seemed to me to bee the same pidgeons at all these three times. When I went to pay Mr. Smalman, then minister of Kynerley, the buriall fee for Andrew Bradocke, which was in April, Mr. Smalman said, this is the fiftieth Corps which I have interred here since Candlemas last, and God knows who is next, which happened to bee himselfe. Andrew Bradocke died of a sort of rambeling feavourish distemper, which raged in that country, and my sister soone after his decease fell sicke, but shee recovered, and dureing her sicknesse, the pidgeons came not, which I observed, for I went thither every day, and returned att night. Afterwards my Sister sett out [= let] her farme to John Owen, a substantiall tenant, who about three yeares after fell sicke; and my Sister comeing to Newton, told mee that shee feared her tenant would bee dead, for hee was sicke, and the pidgeons were come; and hee died then.’

From Richard Gough, Antiquityes and Memoyres of the Parish of Myddle, 1700, Ed. 1875, pp. 45-48

Shropshire folk-lore: a sheaf of gleanings, edited by Charlotte Sophia Burne, 1885: p. 227-9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: On several recent mornings Mrs Daffodil has noticed the mourning doves making moan in the shrubberies. The creatures visit only intermittently and Mrs Daffodil does not know whether to take it as an omen or a directive…

Doves and pigeons are often conflated in folk-lore. One suspects that their reputation as downy death omens comes from their role as a symbol for the Holy Spirit.  In some parts of England there was a superstition that if pigeon feathers were found in the feather bed or pillow of a dying person, that person would not be able to pass on until the offending feathers were removed. See this post on “Feather Superstitions” for the particulars of death-preventing feathers.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

The Swans of Closeburn: 1700s

swan

Whenever any member of the Kirkpatricks of Closeburn in Dumfries-shire was about to die, a swan that was never seen but on such occasions was sure to make its appearance upon the lake surrounding Closeburn Castle, coming no one knew whence and passing away mysteriously when the predicted death had taken place. In connection with this omen the following legend is told: In days gone by the lake was the favourite resort during the summer season of a pair of swans, their arrival always being welcome to the family at the castle, from a long-established belief that they were ominous of good fortune to the Kirkpatricks. No matter what mischance might have before impended, it was sure to cease at their coming, and so suddenly as well as constantly that it required no very ardent superstition to connect the two events as cause and effect.

But a century and a half had passed away, when it happened that the young heir of Closeburn, a lad about thirteen years of age, in one of his visits to Edinburgh, attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice at the theatre. In the course of the play he was surprised to hear Portia say of Bassanio that he would

Make a swanlike end.

Fading to music.

Wondering whether swans really sang before dying, he determined at the first opportunity to test the truth of the words for himself. On his return home he was one day walking by the lake, when the swans came rushing majestically towards him, and at once reminded him of Portia’s remark. Without a moment’s thought he lodged in the breast of the foremost one a bolt from his crossbow, killing it instantly. Frightened at what he had done he made up his mind that it should not be known, and as the dead body of the bird drifted towards the shore he lifted it and buried it deep in the ground.

No small surprise, however, was created in the neighbourhood when for several years no swans made their annual appearance. As time passed it was thought that they must have died, but one day, many years later, much excitement was caused by the appearance of a single swan with a deep blood-red stain upon its breast. As might be expected, this unlooked-for occurrence occasioned grave suspicions even among those who had no great faith in omens; and that such fears were not groundless was soon abundantly clear, for in less than a week the Lord of Closeburn Castle died suddenly. Thereupon the swan vanished and was seen no more for some years, when it again appeared to announce the loss of one of the house by shipwreck.

The last recorded appearance of the bird was at the third nuptials of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick, the first baronet of that name. On the wedding day his son Roger was walking by the lake, when, on a sudden, as if it had emerged from the waters, the swan with the bleeding breast appeared. Roger had heard of the mysterious swan, and although his father’s wedding bells were ringing merrily, he himself returned to the castle a sorrowful man, for he felt convinced that some evil was hanging over him. On that very night the son died, and here ends the strange story of the swans of Closeburn.

The Occult Review March 1916: pp. 164-5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Some might take this as a warning about the evil influence of the play-house on Impressionable Youth.

The exact quote is

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.
(The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.46)

Of course, the term “swan-song” is proverbial; swans were believed to burst into beautiful song as they were dying.

Swans are also considered to be a death omen for the Marquises of Bath. When the Marquis is about to die, it is said that one of the swans flies away from the lake at Longleat and does not return.

“The present Lord Bath told author [Christina Hole] that during World War I, when his elder brother, then the Marquis, was fighting in France, his mother saw a swan fly away as she stood by a window. Five swans flew toward her, then circled the mansion. One swan then turned out of the formation and flew into the distance while the four returned to the lake. The following morning she received the official telegram informing her of her son’s death.” The Psychic Power of Animals, Bill Schul

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

The Dead Lights: 1882

shipwreck 1848

A STORY OF SECOND SIGHT.

“Towards the close of a dark cold evening,” he said, “the 23rd October, if I remember rightly, I found, much to my annoyance, that I had quitted the high road leading to Portree and was wandering about in the most helpless manner possible amidst innumerable bogs and morasses. What was to be done? To retrace my steps was simply impossible. There was nothing to indicate the proper route. The moon had not yet risen. Darkness enveloped me like a curtain, and I was alone. Once I paused and whistled, but no human voice made answer. The sole response was the beat of the wild sea surf on the distant shore.

Stumbling and falling till I was footsore and weary, I came at length within sight of the sea. I could distinguish its billows, foam-crested and angry, as they cleft the darkness; and O, joyful sight! I also perceived twinkling lights at some little distance off along the shore. I was then in the neighbourhood of cottages, in one of which I might pass the night.

The threshold of the nearest gained, I knocked at its door. After some little delay this was opened by a middle-aged and rather gaunt looking female. My request for shelter was listened to in silence. After a moment’s reflection, she went back a few paces, threw a hurried glance over her shoulder into the interior, and then beckoned me to enter. I did so.

The room or kitchen into which she ushered me was miserable in the extreme. The plenishing consisted of a wooden table, two straw pallets in one corner, and three chairs, on one of which, cowering over the embers that glowed on the hearth, sat an aged white-haired man. Raising his faded eyes for a moment on my entrance, he again lowered them to the hearth, moaning and muttering the while in the strangest fashion.

“The woman looked on him with an unmistakable expression of awe and fear on her face, then placed for me a chair on the opposite side of the hearth, while she herself took one some little distance off. Her knowledge of English was much too limited for us to indulge in anything like conversation; still she could both understand me when I asked questions and make herself understood when she replied, which was about as much as I expected.

“Her father, she said, pointing to the old man, could talk English well, for he had been gamekeeper in his youth to a south-country gentleman, and the little she knew she had learned from him.

“A few sentences exchanged, we lapsed into silence, which I was on the point of breaking with some trivial remark when the door opened and there entered a tall, handsome girl enveloped in a chequered plaid. Darting a hasty glance at me, she addressed the woman hurriedly in Gaelic, a language with which I was but slightly acquainted. What she did say, however, seemed in some way to have reference to the old man, for my hostess, while making answer, looked at him and shook her head.

“Much to my surprise, although he must have known he was the subject of their conversation, he never once looked up nor took the slightest notice of his visitor. His dim eyes still remained riveted on the fire, and he moaned and sighed and shivered as if with cold. I could see I also was being made the subject of remark, for once more the maidens fine dark eyes turned in my direction, as mine hostess replied to some questions of hers. Her curiosity in respect to my presence apparently satisfied, the girl, having previously refused with a smile the chair I offered her, seated herself on the floor beside the woman, and conversed with her in low, anxious tones, while her eyes frequently reverted to the clock with looks of anxiety.

“I was beginning to feel perplexed and curious as to the existing state of matters in this solitary household. Was the old man ill or out of his mind? Was the handsome stranger any relation of the couple, or was she merely a sympathising friend? Why did she look so repeatedly at the clock? Had she any—here an end was put to my mental soliloquy by the girl giving a sudden start, and seizing hold of her companion’s wrist, while she raised her forefinger as if enforcing silence. An ashen hue overspread the woman’s harsh features as her visitor did this, and she remained rigid and motionless as a statue in the attitude of listening. I, too, listened.

“Mingling with the dull roar of the billows, I distinctly heard a crashing sound as though some wooden substances were being crushed together; to this succeeded a noise like the dragging of chains. The women also hearing it, a look of terror swept over their faces, and my hostess uttered, half aloud, the pious ejaculation—‘Lord, have mercy on them!’ Then both rose to their feet. The younger one, eager and trembling, undid the bar that fastened the casement, opened it, and they gazed out in silence. My curiosity now intensely excited, I also arose, and, noiselessly treading the floor, took my station immediately behind them. The wild scene I then saw I shall never forget. The moon, struggling through a dense mass of storm cloud, threw broad streams of light on the heaving billows as they broke in rude shocks on the shore. Lying at anchor, out of reach of the waves, were several fishing-boats; and, strange to say, although there was a profound calm, these were being dashed up against each other in the most unaccountable manner, while the chains by which they were fastened, creaked and rattled as though they were being dragged about by powerful hands. Then a moaning sound seemed to pervade the air.

‘“There—there it’s again! O! isn’t it dreadful?’ whispered the girl.

“‘Did you tell them about this?’ said her companion.

“‘Yes; but they only laughed at me.’

“‘Then, they’ll go.’

“‘Sure and certain.’

“‘Poor things! then I doubt they’ll never come back. O, look there!’ Again the boats were dashed to and fro; the chains emitted the same harsh grating sound, but this time I could see several little blue twinkling lights moving along the shore.

“‘The dead lights!’ groaned the elder woman. The young one, shivering, buried her face in her hands.

‘“Aye, the dead lights!’ was shouted in frenzied tones behind us. I looked round in amaze; so did the women. The old man was standing bolt upright; his hair upon end; his eyes glaring wildly into space; his hands outstretched and quivering.

‘“Aye, the dead lights! and they’re not there for nought. Death! Death! nothing but death! I see it all! There they are! The boats! dancing merrily over the sea—there—there! Three in all! Away—away! No fear of danger. Stout hearts and strong arms. The bread winners for the wives and children. The wind rises—but what of that? There is no danger! The boats are stout—and the fishers brave, and stalwart, and young! Ha! ha! A sudden squall—Good God! Down goes the foremost—and another—and another— gone, all gone. Neil, Duncan—and—Farquhar—!’

“As the old man uttered this name, the girl, with a loud cry, sank senseless on the floor, at the same time that the speaker relapsed into his moaning shivering posture by the hearth.

“When we had succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, I inquired of the woman the meaning of all this.

“‘O, sir, he has had the “second sight,”’ she said, ‘he was telling us, as he has done for the last three nights, that our fisher lads will be drowned, and poor Mary’s (pointing to the now weeping girl) lover, Farquhar Macdougall, is among them—so he said to-night.’

“‘Surely they will not go when they hear of this,’ I said.

“‘They must, sir, or we should all starve,’ was her sad answer; ‘that is they will go, though we have done our best to prevent their going this week, for should they be drowned, we’ll starve all the same.’

“Painfully impressed with what I had seen, and unwilling any longer to intrude my company upon them in their distress, I placed some silver in the woman’s resisting hand, and told her the moon being now up, if she would kindly direct me how to get to Portree, I should wish to continue my journey.

“She did so, at the same time saying how sorry she was that her father should have been taken in my presence.

“With a few words expressive of hope that he would turn out to be a false prophet, I bade her good evening, and bestowing a farewell glance on the sorrowing maiden, I went my way pondering on what I had seen and heard.

“Not many days afterwards I read in the Inverness Courier of the melancholy loss of three boats with their fishers while fishing off Skye.

“Amongst the names of the drowned were those mentioned by the aged seer.”

Psychological Review, May 1882

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The grinding noise of the fishing boats is reminiscent of the so-called “Tolaeth before the Coffin,” or the sound of phantom carpenters sawing, planning, and hammering as they make a coffin for a person soon to die. You will find a post on this subject here and another on “corpse candles“–the death lights–which presaged death. “The Blood-stained Cap” is another exceptionally chilling post about a token of death in a fishing community.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.