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The shapeshifting horror of The Hateful Thing in Geldeston

As befits one of the wildest areas of the county and in the midst of marshland, The Hateful Thing waits in the darkness for unsuspecting passers-by. The Norfolk Folklore Society interviewed eye-witnesses to something terrifying in these waterlogged lands (listen HERE) but It has been catalogued for centuries.

Geldeston is on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk, on the north bank of the River Waveney between Bungay and Beccles, named for the Geld Stone where in the 10th century, Danegeld tax was paid. And the tale of The Hateful Thing was shared by MH James.

Bogie Tales of East Anglia was written by Margaret Helen James in 1891, a remarkable woman and one of the first to devote an entire book to East Anglian folklore. Margaret grew up with ghost stories. Her first cousin Montague Rhodes James’ nightmares and visions in Suffolk - where she too was raised – led to him penning chilling tales such as The Ash Tree, A Warning to the Curious and Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad.

James was a regular visitor to Great Livermere, where her uncle was rector and where her cousin MR James lived from the age of three. It was there he saw a Hateful Thing of his own, an unimaginable horror that lay in wait in the darkness and crept towards him when he blinked. Pink, malevolent and with large open eyes, the creature peered at him from a hole in the garden gate before shambling away into the trees. Horror, folktales, fear and dread ran through the veins of the James family.

In her book, Margaret writes of “an uncomfortable sort of ghostly terror, in beast form, that haunts villages on the borders of the two counties [Norfolk and Suffolk] which is commonly called the ‘Hateful Thing’.

“I allude to the churchyard or hell-beast. This charming creature generally takes the somewhat indefinite form of a ‘swoundling’, ie swooning shadow. Whenever it is met in any locality, it is a sign that some great and unusually horrible wickedness is about to be committed, or has just taken place there.”

A ‘swoundling’ is something which would produce a swoon, something so hideous, so heinous, so other-worldly that it overrides the human instinct of flight and instead causes the heart to slow, pump less blood and the body to fall where it stands. It stands to reason that such a sight might very well be a Hateful Thing.

Church beasts, or Grims, are guardian spirits in English and Nordic folklore that watch over churches and churchyards, protecting both from those who mean them harm. In England, the Church Grim is most often seen as a large black dog which offers protection from not only thieves and vandals, but more powerful forces such as witches, warlocks and the Devil.

The belief that the first soul to be buried in a new churchyard would spend eternity protecting it led to a ritual which saw animals, usually dogs or boars, being buried at the cornerstone of a church as it was built. A foundation sacrifice meant no human would be press-ganged into an endless role as caretaker in the afterlife, instead leaving creatures anchored to Earth-bound tasks for eternity.

The Grim is said to be a guardian spirit. CREDIT: Wellcome Collection

If the Grim was ever seen by human eyes, it was an ominous portent, and if it rang the church bell at midnight, death would quickly follow. During funeral services, if the clergy taking the ceremony spied the Grim as the body was being lowered into the ground, it was said they could tell whether a soul was heaven or hell-bound by the way it looked back at them.

Some tales claimed that if you were the last to die during the year, your fate would be to serve the Church Grim for the following 12 months, others that the Grim was, rather than a guardian, an evil parasite drawn to the energy of the church where it could hungrily feed on people’s dreams, hopes and fears.

Margaret wrote: “…the Church Beast was driven over the threshold of every new Church by the devout Norse colonisers here, as in their own land, in order that the Devil, who claimed the first living thing that entered a church, might be satisfactorily compounded with.

“The beast was then walled up in the building, and was supposed to issue forth on nights of omen, or before great events, and to hobble through the township, stopping and howling after its kind before the house where Death stood on the threshold.”

At the beginning of her tale, Margaret mentions a close encounter she had with the Hateful Thing: “The writer, when crossing a field at night, once came on a countryman who had just seen this apparition, but a slight search for the goblin was wholly unsuccessful.”

She continues with a “…carefully authenticated story, from a host of others on the same subject…” which is “…given in the words of the narrator...

“Mrs S tells her story as follows: “My youngest daughter, A, was keeping company with a young man…So A, she says to me, ‘Mother’, she say, ‘a walk in the evening’d do you good, do you come along of us’. I went along, together, as they seemed to want me - unusual daughter! – and A and the young man took me to Gillingham, and then, about eight or nine, we came back to Geldeston, over market path, and it was that time I saw the Hateful Thing.

“Just as we got over the stile, into the road, A say ‘Mother’, she says, ‘how that dog did frighten me!’ I says, ‘Where?’ and neither me, nor the young man see any dog.

The Hateful Thing of Geldeston seem to shift shape and size…CREDIT: Jean-Baptiste Oudry/The MET

“’It’s on ahead’, says A, ‘and O, it ain’t a dog, it’s bigger than a horse now, and it’s walking slow.’ Now I began to get skeary, and I minded that A had been born under the chime hours, so she could see things.

In Norfolk and Suffolk, it was widely believed that if you were born in the ‘chime hours’, a term alluding to the old monastic hours of night prayer (8pm, midnight and 4am), which many rural churches marked by bell-ringing even after the Reformation, you would be able to see much that was hidden from others.

“Well, A clung to her young man, and I listened, and I heard a thumping, but could see nothing.

‘Well,’ A said, ‘O, we are just agin it,’ and the young man struck with his stick about the road. Then A, she come over and cling hold of me and the moment she touched me I saw the Hateful Thing.

“The beast was black, and didn’t keep the same size, and it wasn’t any regular shape. We walked slow, for I was afraid of its getting behind us, and we kept just agin it. I lost sight of it every time A left hold of me.

“The young man wasn’t a bit afraid, he saw nothing, but he heard the thumping. Well, we went on half-a-mile, and it was terrible passing Gelders, for I had seen things there afore.

“The beast kept on afore us, till it came to the sandy lane that go up to the churchyard, and went off there, and we went up the village, and A’s young man had to go right back up the road, for he came from Beccles.”

The Gelders or Gelders Clump stands in the triangular centre of a road convergence which used to be the site of the 'Geld Stone', while the church mentioned is St Michael (St Michael boasts another dread spectre, a chilling story for another day).


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