The Horror Reader’s Vade Mecum

by S. T. Joshi

EDWARD PARNELL. Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. London: William Collins, 2019 (hc), 2020 (tpb). 468 pp. £9.99 UK, $18.99 US.

I have never read a book like this one. On the surface, Ghostland might be regarded merely as a routine travelogue of some of the places in Great Britain that have inspired some of the greatest weird stories and films of the past century or more; but it is anything but routine. And it is certainly not even remotely an academic study of the field—for which we should all be immensely grateful. What Edward Parnell—who, when he is not exploring the remoter corners of his history- and strangeness-laden nation, is a novelist, and he has described to me that his one published novel (The Listeners, 2014) is “a rather dark, gothic study of family secrets in a rural WWII British setting”—has done is to testify, in restrained but lapidary prose, to his lifelong interest in horror in literature and other media and his determination to seek out the locales where some of these works were set; and he has apparently done so as a means of coming to terms with the wrenching tragedies in his life.

Weird fiction is in many ways a product of landscape. It is not merely that, as Thomas Ligotti has stated, we really don’t care much about the characters in weird stories; and it is not simply because, as H. P. Lovecraft declared long ago, “phenomena” rather than persons are or should be the focus of the weird. It is that, as the work of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen, M. R. James, and so many other writers attest, there is something in topography—some of it not intrinsically bizarre—that triggers our imagination. Possibly it is the weight of history in a given region; possibly it is simply its non-human otherness—a sense that it has endured for countless aeons in bland defiance of the taint of human occupancy or propinquity. Whatever it is, it is this element of the natural world that Parnell has devoted a lifetime in seeking out.

His interest began at least as a teenager, when he began reading weird fiction and also saw some broadcasts of it on television. His book begins with an account of M. R. James’s grim story “Lost Hearts,” and its television adaptation on the BBC, Christmas 1973. That was only a few weeks after Parnell was born, so he of course saw it in a subsequent broadcast. But it led him to Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire, where the story is set. Later, Parnell discusses Jack Gordon’s The House on the Brink (1970)—a novel that may well betray a James influence. An account of Andrey Lilian Barker’s story “Submerged” (1947) leads to a rumination on inland waterways, those distinctive English landmarks that have few parallels in the United States. And, of course, this leads to a survey of the work of Robert Aickman, who, when he was not writing his “strange stories,” ardently sought to preserve these waterways.

“The woods enthralled me”: so Parnell states near the beginning of the third chapter of Ghostland, and as a result we are given summaries of the work of L. P. Hartley (although the focus here is on the novel The Go-Between, which most readers would not consider a weird work), Walter de la Mare (whose classic weird poem “The Listeners” presumably had some influence on Parnell’s novel of the same title, although he modestly declines to discuss his own book), and Rudyard Kipling (whose mesmerising story “‘They’” is set in the Sussex countryside). But perhaps the greatest weird writer who was inspired by woods was Algernon Blackwood, whose novella “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” is set in the New Forest in Hampshire. Parnell makes clear that he himself is exquisitely attuned to the mystery of forests:

They are mesmeric in the way that they move. On calmer days these sixty-five-foot giants that shield my garden sway like wave-washed sea urchins, but whip to and fro with an unpredictability bordering on violence as the wind strengthens. In a gale their smaller twigs are shed like confetti and the precarious angled boughs make strange high-pitched squeals that have me puzzling momentarily what species of bird they might be—before I realise that the sounds originate from the trees themselves.

From the willows.

As a result, of course, Parnell expatiates on Blackwood’s imperishable tale “The Willows,” although he is fully aware that that story was largely inspired by Blackwood’s 1900 canoe trip down the Danube.

It is not only the heart of England that elicits Parnell’s fascination. A trip to the remote Orkney Islands north of Scotland brings forth a rumination on John Buchan and his grim tale “Skule Skerry”—not to mention the film The Wicker Man (1973), set in a fictional island in the Hebrides. Parnell has visited the several locales in Scotland where the film was shot, and he writes illuminatingly about them.

A visit to Wales leads to a passage on William Hope Hodgson, who lived in the town of Borth, Cardiganshire, between 1904 and 1910. Is this the locale that inspired The House on the Borderland (1908)? It is possible, but unlikely. Parnell appears unacquainted with the research of Sam Gafford, who established that The House on the Borderland was completed in early 1904, right around the time (or perhaps just before) he moved to Borth[1]. And of course, Parnell cannot resist telling of the famous encounter of Hodgson (then a proponent of “physical culture”) and Harry Houdini in Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1902.

Wales, of course, cannot be cited without reference to Arthur Machen, whose birth in Caerleon and familiarity with the Roman ruins of Isca Silurum proved to be a lifelong influence. And Parnell follows Machen’s footsteps in London, which the Welsh author considered a kind of Arabian Nights realm of infinite wonder and mystery. And was it not Machen who glancingly cited Dunwich in The Terror? This town in Suffolk, much of which is now submerged under the sea as a result of coastal erosion, is actually featured in Ghostland in the course of an extensive study of the novels of the German-born writer W. G. Sebald, whose work has captivated Parnell for a multitude of reasons. But Parnell goes on to conjecture that one of Robert Aickman’s greatest tales, “Ringing the Changes,” may well have been inspired by Dunwich.

If I have conveyed the impression that Edward Parnell has just gone around randomly looking up weird sites in Great Britain, I am guilty of a mischaracterisation. For in many ways it becomes clear that these travels—many of them made in the company of his brother, Chris—were a means of solace in the face of the successive deaths of his father and mother to cancer when he was a teenager. The quietly moving way in which Parnell writes of these matters, and the inferences he leads us to draw from them—i.e., that the natural world, and perhaps weird fiction and film themselves, were a means of coming to terms with loss and grief—is what makes this book far more than a vade mecum. Parnell draws an explicit comparison with Machen, whose first wife died of cancer. Machen spoke of her in only one ambiguous sentence in his autobiographies; Parnell is less reticent, but his account of his parents’ struggles with the dread disease is a model of unsentimental sensitivity.

If there is any flaw in this book, it is one that results from Parnell’s charitable assumption that his readers—especially his American ones—will be roughly familiar with the locales he discusses. People on this side of the water (and I, to my shame, must number myself among them) are woefully deficient in the specifics of English topography: a map pointing out the various sites Parnell has visited would have been welcome.

Otherwise, given how much literary, cinematic, and artistic territory Parnell covers—and given the fact that he makes no claim to be a scholarly authority on weird fiction—his errors of fact are remarkably few and insignificant. He gives Harry Houdini’s real name as Erik Weiss, rather than Erich Weiss. He is a little careless in listing certain titles. In both Kipling’s “‘They’” and M. R. James’s “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” there needs to be a single quotation mark within a double quotation mark (or vice versa in British punctuation), since the titles themselves have quotation marks around them. And for one who is so keen on Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal,” Parnell should not have been so careless as to cite the episodic novel in which it appears as The Three Imposters (i.e., The Three Impostors).

But these tiny blemishes hardly mar the overall brilliance of a work that is simultaneously a travelogue (lavishly illustrated with photographs and other images), a treatise on weird fiction, film, television, and even music and painting (admittedly intended for the novice rather than the specialist), and a deeply affecting chronicle of love and loss. It is that rarest of books—one we wish would never end.

[1] See Sam Gafford, “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson” (1991), in Gafford’s Hodgson: A Collection of Essays (Warren, RI: Ulthar Press, 2013), 24.