Under the Sign of the Black Raven

(Originally posted on pioneering online underground culture magazine, 3:AM, here.)

Of all the tales told and incited by the weird documents in my possession, this is the one I have the greatest personal connection to, the one that harrows me most.

Soundtrack: Hala Strana, ‘Wood Scree’

In 2004, a friend of mine, Martin Camblin, a scholar of Early Modern English drama, was sent to examine some annotations a private collector had discovered in a copy of the third quarto of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which, or so the collector thought, provided new information pertaining to the authorship of the 1602 additions to the play. In fact, the marginalia were clearly a much later forgery and of little interest. However, Martin did find, tucked into the book, folded into quarters, something that intrigued him – a handbill advertising what sounded a bizarre spectacle:

Handbills advertising similar freakish attractions at sixteenth and seventeenth century London fairs being commonplace, the collector had considered the flyer of little interest, an insignificant document used as a bookmark, had not even opened it out. Martin, though, was fascinated by the genre and unfolded the handbill to examine it more closely. In doing so, he discovered, on the back, a short handwritten text:

The collector merely shrugged when Martin pointed out the odd note, dismissed it as ‘doggerel’. Martin, horribly fascinated, asked the collector if he would be prepared to part with the handbill, and he agreed to do so, for a modest sum.

Intrigued by his find, Martin, for a few months, spent much of his spare time in research, hoping to discover something to cast light on the dark enigma. At some point during this period, knowing my interest in such things, he showed me the handbill, asked my opinion of it. I told him that, though the handbill itself was certainly real,  I thought the note some later fakery.

He enquired why; I shrugged.

He glared at me. ‘The hand looks authentic enough.’

‘Oh, come on,’ I replied. ‘That’s easy to imitate. And even if it is genuine, then it’s an early seventeenth century prank, or some delusional ramblings, perhaps of a woman badly affected by postpartum depression.’

‘Maybe,’ Martin said. ‘But I’m not so sure.’

To be continued