Tuesday 28 September 2021

Review by Tracey Foster of "Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country" by Edward Parnell

As a reader whose own childhood is rooted in the 1970s, I instantly recognised a very familiar soundtrack to this book: essences of the eerie that accompanied the TV productions of gothic tales from M. R. James, Kipling, Algernon Blackwood and others, the hypnotic hurdy-gurdy music of the black and white productions, often shown at Christmas in line with the Dickens tradition of an uncanny  tale for Christmas Eve. Parnell returns to his own childhood experiences and revisits the parts of the country directly connected with each story, speaking to people connected to the history and taking a fresh look at the landscape involved. 

The author Robert Macfarlane mentions in his article, ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside,’  the nation’s obsession with the ‘sceptred’ in this ‘sceptred isle.’ This seems to ring true with Parnell’s mission to travel to its furthest corners and poke about in all its ‘sequestered places.’ Using his own memories to exorcise some sad periods, this also becomes an exercise in dealing with grief, to ‘not let those particular ghosts slip away, even when the very act of remembering is sometimes terribly painful.’ M. R. James noted that ‘for the ghost story, a slight haze of distance is desirable,’ and from the distance of adulthood we try to make sense of our haunted past. My own encounter with the vivid description of ‘the thief and his load’ in Jane Eyre at a young age pales in comparison with Parnell’s experiences, which are bound to send a shiver of recognition through its readers because of the wide net it casts. TV productions of ghostly classics, ‘folk horror ’ films, startling Public Information shorts, all form a backdrop to the childhood of this era, creating a ‘haunted generation,’  who will enjoy the detail this book goes into, researching these creations. The landscapes involved have their own tale to tell and many of us will enjoy seeing the pastoral idyll portrayed in a new way. Rather than a ‘stage set to offer the picturesque, it is a realm that snags, bites and troubles.’   

Landscapes of the desolate are a great environment to inspire and set the uncanny, the X MOD land off Orford in Suffolk being a great example. However, large houses with fading decadence also dominate these stories and this leads us to enquire why storytellers were fixated on them. Clarke thinks it is because they resonate with our social expectations of the eerie: ‘toffs like ghosts because it’s a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.’  Parnell explores this in more depth: what is it about the place, brick, gravestone that brings us back to our fears? As John Clare puts it,

          We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stone
          On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
          On rank weeds, battening over human bones,
          Till even one’s very shadow seems to fear. 

The eerie has a tendency to surface at times of hardship, endurance. Several authors suffered losses as a result of two world wars, and this gave birth to an outpouring of ghostly grief from Rudyard Kipling, M. R. James and Walter de la Mare. We can find echoes within our own times as the 1970s was an era of unemployment, depression and darkness following the power cuts of 1972. As we find ourselves in troubling times again, writers of all genres are turning their sights to the uncanny once more and I for one can’t wait to see where it may lead. 

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster has been teacher of Art and Design in schools in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland for over 40 years. She took part in the Comma Press short story course in 2019 and had a short story published in a collection, Tales from Garden Street. She had a poem about Covid published by BusPoetry Magazine and has since commenced an MA in Creative writing at Leicester University. 

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