Spooky stories for Halloween

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

It is surely significant that Ed Parnell’s first novel The Listeners was an updated examination of themes latent in Walter de la Mare’s famously spooky poem of that title. The author credits this predilection for the macabre to an aunt’s VHS recordings of the Quatermass stories in the 1970s, when he was just a small child. Since then he has become an aficionado of the genre, and in his latest book makes a journey through Britain, from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands, to pin down his own passion for ghost stories while exploring our national obsession with writings on the supernatural.

Ghostland includes many of the genre’s key exponents, such as M.R. James, who is widely credited with liberating modern ghosts from their traditional Gothic settings of dilapidated mansions and decaying graveyards. There is also careful consideration of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Robert Aickman and Alan Garner.

Part of the book’s achievement is Parnell’s willingness to wander far from the mainstream and to consider the broadest taxonomic subdivision of his field. Here are standard ghost stories, but also works of weird fiction, magic fiction, folk horror and cosmic horror. The author is equally well versed in the cinematic versions of his favourite literature, and provides a meticulous cross-reference to show us how the two art forms influenced each other.

He has a genuine soft spot for lesser-known figures in the field, such as John Gordon, author of children’s literature, whose second book, The House on the Brink (1970), while perhaps little read today, is described as a ‘wonderful novel’ and a cult classic. Gordon set much of his fiction in and around the town of Wisbech, where he drew on the vast skies and empty spaces of the Fens to create the weirdness in his writing.

A key point made in Ghostland is that almost any British landscape will yield a sense of the eerie or the discomforting. It is all a question of treatment. Yet there are recurrent topographical elements in the genre. Ancient creaking houses are writ large in the works of Lucy Boston, whose The Children of the Green Knowe and its many sequels drew on the author’s own riverside Huntingdon manor, Hemingford Grey. Similarly, M.R. James constantly reworked his long-dismantled Norfolk home at Livermere Hall into his ghost tales.

Another interesting part of the horror genre’s DNA is the presence of woods and trees. Yet few have tapped as effectively into this latent fear of greenery as Algernon Blackwood. In his story ‘The Man Whom the Trees Loved’, his central character is slowly emptied of personality and filled with the insinuating force of an encroaching forest. Similarly, in a tale called ‘The Willows’, Blackwood creates menace out of the sheer unending multitude of the trees and their macabre capacity to crowd out human existence. Given that we have destroyed so much of Britain’s native woodland, one wonders if Blackwood had diagnosed some central anxiety in our collective national psyche.

What I found disappointing was Parnell’s unwillingness to ask why horror has had such a dominant place in the English fiction of the past century. Many of the works he loves span a roughly 80-year period on either side of the first world war. Were ghost and horror stories perhaps a way of evading, or even confronting in displaced form, the carnage of the Western Front? Did these writers retreat into occult mystery in response to a wider societal march away from faith and towards scientific rationalism? Alas we learn little about such questions.

Yet Parnell does sketch in a hinterland of cultural activity that shows how preoccupied the British were with ghosts. We learn of Harry Houdini’s relentless exposure of fake seances and of the fixation with a spirit world shown by Arthur Conan Doyle, whose wife claimed to be able to summon the ghost of a third-century Mesopotamian. Famous novelists such Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence and John Buchan also turned to the macabre for inspiration.

Ghostland may largely dwell on the occult as a source of entertainment, but there is genuinely disturbing horror in the fact that the author has endured the saddest family history, with his parents both dying prematurely from cancer. Parnell and his only sibling, a brother Chris, were orphaned in their teens, only for the latter to suffer the same fate as his parents a generation later. The book is thus an account of the wraiths and apparitions on the page, but also a tender consideration of how our experience is shaped and enriched by our encounters with life’s real ghosts.

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