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This haunted isle of English ghosts

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Essay | 20 minute read
Is there a distinct tradition of the 'English uncanny' in fiction? Yes, says Boyd Tonkin, who traces the literary history of homegrown gothic from MR James to Andrew Hurley and The League of Gentleman

‘Outside the Club, the streetlights of Pall Mall burned brighter as a chill day dwindled into dusk. Inside, in the dining room, lamps illuminated the group of guests gathered around a table. The talk turned, as it often does when people who have a solid reputation to keep up feel off-duty and at ease, to ghosts. Did we believe in them, and had we ever encountered one? Superstitious nonsense, scoffed the Lawyer. All in the mind, but the mind can be a strange place indeed, answered the Professor. The Journalist admitted that he had never seen or sensed a spirit, but had talked to plenty of sane witnesses who avowed that they had. The Traveller was in no doubt: phantoms existed, plain as the pictures on the wall, and he had experienced their presence and their power all over the world. Then the Novelist, who had some experience of curious phenomena on literature if not in life, threw in a remark that made us all pause. In Germany, the author reflected, a conversation such as ours would be reserved for lunatics. Sensible folk there would regard our speculations as stark, raving mad . . .’

So might begin any one of the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of ghost stories that filled up the booming periodicals of late-Victorian and Edwardian England. The crepuscular firesides, clubmen’s banter, bashful confessions and off-the-record revelations that frame countless tales from this Golden Age of spooks created a climate that still finds its way into supernatural stories by writers who have never knowingly picked up a copy of the Strand Magazine, Blackwood’s or Pearson’s. That stereotypical scene in Pall Mall, however, really happened to me – give or take a few embellishments. The Novelist in this case was female: unusual, but not unthinkable, during the heyday of the ghost story, when women writers did fight their way into the press more successfully than into the gentlemen’s clubs of London. Writers such as Vernon Lee (pen-name of Violet Paget), Edith Wharton and May Sinclair all extended and enriched the form.

Edith Wharton (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The suggestion that the enduring British affection for apparitions ranks as a national eccentricity, an outlier taste, bears examination. It’s not as if the German-speaking world lacks its own, immensely rich, Gothic and supernatural tradition. Indeed, its literary pinnacles during the Romantic age, in the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann or the Brothers Grimm, helped to shape the geography of Britain’s ghostly landscapes. When, during the famous storm-lashed evening beside Lake Geneva in 1816 that eventually birthed both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, Lord Byron and his friends frightened one another with ghost stories, the volume they read from was a French translation of Apel and Laun’s 1811 anthology, Gespensterbuch.

Perhaps the most influential analysis of the psychic roots of sinister tales, Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on ‘The Uncanny’, is steeped in dark Germanic fantasy and draws on Hoffmann’s tales. However, the terrors and disasters of the German twentieth century meant that irrational, pre-modern forces could hardly be indulged any longer as a simple source of entertainment. The shadow of the swastika fell over German Gothic style. The sort of retro-ghost which routinely fills TV schedules, cinema screens and bookshop tables in the UK has few spectral cousins in a country re-built on secular rationality.

I have failed to locate any German-language equivalent of, say, Susan Hill, whose succession of finely-crafted vintage chillers began in 1983 with The Woman in Black (its dramatisation runs to this day on the London stage) and continued unbroken through stories such as The Small Hand and The Man in the Picture. Not coincidentally, the one outstanding post-war German author who did mine Gothic seams to conjure the legacy of tyranny and genocide was W. G. Sebald, who for thirty-five years lived in England – in the famously haunted county of Norfolk. On this reading, today’s Britain – blessed, or cursed, by its lack of catastrophic breaks with the past – has never had the need to clear out its cultural attics. Therefore it remains a comparatively primitive place, where phantom throwbacks stalk millions of minds. Well, that might help to explain Brexit.

Some elements of the twilight tableau that set up the archetypal ghost yarn of the 1890s or 1900s may remain, in Britain at least, pretty much unchanged. Educated people tend to react to the mention of uncanny or paranormal events – or pseudo-events – with an automatic scepticism that co-exists with a keen, even prurient, hunger to hear from true believers. Ghostly narratives partake of scandal and taboo; like all taboo topics, they attract as much as they alarm.

During the 1890s, too, many writers would already have assumed that the default position of their average reader was scientific scepticism. Freud himself wrote in ‘The Uncanny’ that ‘All so-called educated people have ceased to believe, officially at any rate, that the dead can become visible as spirits, and have hedged round any such appearances with improbable and remote circumstances’. The characters, the investigators, even the narrators, of Golden Age supernatural stories habitually start out from the confident materialism of Mrs Bouverie-Barton (also a fervent advocate of ‘Women’s Rights’) in Grant Allen’s 1892 story, ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’. She was ‘modern, and disbelieved in everything. ’Tis a simple creed; one clause concludes it’. Invariably, something – or someone – will then happen to shake that ‘simple creed’ for ever.

Far from being a regression to a lost age of universal faith, the classic formulations of the ghost story rest on a slightly crumbly bedrock of doubt and disbelief. The genre throve mightily in the late-nineteenth-century soil of rationalism, empiricism and, often enough, secularism too. Hence its longevity. The same tug between the pleasures of credulity – even if it dissipates as soon as the story ends – and the consolations of scepticism pulls the readers of today.

The scoffers of the 2010s enjoy the same delicious alloy of scorn and thrill as their forebears in the 1890s. The authors that delighted them at that time could switch codes and modes, oscillating between belief and unbelief. Remember that Arthur Conan Doyle, who in Sherlock Holmes created the ultimate icon of empirical detection, wrote scores of stories of hauntings, revenants and possessions. With ‘Lot No. 249’ (1892), he even pioneered the plot of the mummy’s revenge. In this case, the leathery Egyptian leaves a bloody trail of havoc across Oxford. The architecture, the atmosphere, even the décor, of the phantom yarn all show a tenacious continuity over the past 150 years. Which may explain why, in 2017, a Hollywood indie hit such as David Lowery’s A Ghost Story could drape its undead hero in (really) a white sheet. Though, it must be said, the bedsheet that covers Casey Affleck’s spectral shape serves a more sentimental purpose than the ‘intensely horrible . . . face of crumpled linen’ that terrifies the briskly rational Professor Parkins one night in the finale of M. R. James’s 1903 classic, ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.

Literary ghosts from this high season of hauntings flourished during an interregnal age. For writers and most readers of the fin-de-siècle (though not for the bulk of the population, arguably), reason and science had banished most of the clouds of superstition, and the more florid forms of religious faith. But that old world still lingered, in sinister wisps, breaths and echoes from the past. Accursed but alluring remnants from pagan British pre-history hold a fatal attraction for the too-curious scholars of Arthur Machen’s fiction. In his ‘The Great God Pan’ (1894), a story which laid its clammy hand over later horror writers both in Britain and the US, the demonic femme fatale Helen Vaughan channels ‘the most awful, most secret forces’ of the heathen past to madden and slaughter in ‘dim London streets . . . an old mystery played in our day’. Yet the erotic fantasies of her ‘victims’ must open the door to their destruction.

Photo by Tertia Van Rensburg

The abiding supernatural masterworks from this epoch unfold in a limbo between subjective delusion and manifest apparition, the neurotic and the mystical. Does anyone other than the feverishly imaginative governess, who tells the story as we receive it, actually see the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898)? When they re-appear on the lawns to her, she feels ‘a thrill of joy at having brought on a proof” that she is ‘neither cruel nor mad’. By this point, however, her frantic visions might have spooked the housekeeper Mrs Grose, and her charges Miles and Flora, as much as any solid ghost accessible to every sober eye. James’s ambiguity – haunting or hallucination? – persists in an irresolvable suspension: a sign of times profoundly torn between metaphysical and materialistic creeds.

II

Notoriously, the Gothic narrative always patrols the misty borderlands of life and death, being and not-being, creature and object. On this liminal terrain, the supernatural tale blurs another boundary: that which normally separates belief and disbelief. Oliver Onions, one of the most original ghostly authors from this period, argued that the credible phantom had almost dematerialised. In place of the corny old machinery of ‘shrouds and moans and bony fingers’ comes a vaguer, more sinister realm of suggestion and implication. His kind of haunting  unsettles precisely because it may lie in the character’s mind. Or, perhaps, not.

This ‘ghost-belt’ ‘never asserts its spectre’, but it may still frighten unto death. In Onions’s ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ (1911), a masterpiece of its kind, the ‘capricious, fair, mocking, slippery, eager Spirit’ that drives the blocked writer-hero into insanity may be no other than the heroine of the novel he tries, and fails, to complete. Using a modish scientific metaphor, Onions claimed that he composed his uncanny stories on a variable scale between ‘the ultra-violet and the infra-red of the ghostly spectrum’. Even within the same tale, the modern ghost of the fin-de-siècle could hover between fantasy and reality, abnormality and para-normality. Montague Rhodes James – reactionary pedant, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and still, for many, the nonpareil ghost-author of a century ago – cannily advised that ‘It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation’, but ‘let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable’. At the end of ‘Oh, Whistle . . .’, no one has suffered a hideous death or fled shrieking into the asylum. Still, ‘as you may imagine, the Professor’s views on certain point are less clear-cut than they used to be’.

That complication of the ‘clear-cut’ view applies first to the question of faith. The classic ghost story not only permits but even demands that its audience simultaneously accept and reject its supernatural elements. Accept it without question and you would need, impossibly, to revert to a pre-modern identity. Reject it utterly and you would have no further reason to read or watch such a fanciful narrative. But in the mental limbo in between, on this edgeland of shadow, spectres may still walk. Fans of the form like to spot M. R. James’s ‘loophole for a natural explanation’, but then refuse to pass through it.

This twilight zone applies to what we know as much as what we believe. In recent decades, critical study of the Golden Age ghost story has often focused on its hidden, or disguised, subtexts of sexuality, class and race. Here, again, ambivalence rules. These stories, at their most powerful, both acknowledge and overlook their erotic or social undercurrents. Like their present–absent ghosts themselves, the subtexts hover fractionally out of reach. Have Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw been abused? If so, by whom? We hear from Mrs Grose that Peter Quint was ‘much too free’ with the children, which gives the governess ‘a sudden sickness of disgust’. But what of her own stifling passion for the precocious, damaged Miles, who banters with her as with a lover?

In the toxic liaisons of his mature fiction, in novels such as The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl, James knew how to convey the anguish and sadness of bad sex, or of no sex, without ever penning a word to shock a prudish reader. He cloaks a knowing, forensic analysis of erotic misery in prose that both conceals and reveals. In The Turn of the Screw, no single sexual key will unlock the mystery. Yet James does enough by hint and clue to keep the alert reader trying to make one fit. Even in M. R. James’s stories, often interpreted as the vehicles for a repressed homosexual don to express both his terror of, and desire for, intimate contact, the narrative voice seems more self-conscious than some of the critical decoders of ‘homospectral’ fiction currently assume. Yes, fabric and furniture do regularly touch James’s petrified scholars with soft and clinging mouths, hands and limbs. The occult specialist of ‘Casting the Runes’ reaches under the pillow in his suburban bed to find ‘a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it’. But James introduces his predatory orifices and digits with such relish that one starts to doubt the critics who treat them as a pure shriek from the bachelor-don unconscious. He once wrote that in supernatural fiction ‘reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it’, and that sex, which is ‘tiresome enough’ in novels, has no role as ‘the backbone of a ghost story’.

Of course, such canny self-awareness in one mood does not mean that, in another, M. R. James and his buttoned-up peers did not find their authorial selves ambushed by hidden impulses. Freud identified the reflux of buried desires or beliefs as the very essence of the uncanny effect, arguing that since ‘every emotional affect . . . is transformed by repression into morbid anxiety, then among such cases of anxiety there must be a class in which the anxiety can be shown to come from something repressed which recurs. This class of morbid anxiety would then be no other than what is uncanny’. Yet this return-of-the-repressed model of supernatural narrative may surely be managed, even manipulated, by authors who know or guess at what they’re doing, as well as by ‘innocents’ swept along on subterranean rivers of dread and desire.

The most creepily effective of uncanny tales often tremble on the threshold of self-consciousness. For authors, as for readers, the latent content of a story may flicker into the light and then vanish again. In Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mark of the Beast’ (1890), which appalled its first readers in British India, colonial officers torture a leprous ‘Silver Man’ who has occult powers. He has turned their colleague into a kind of werewolf as retribution for defiling a temple. Their torments, which involve red-hot gun barrels, lift the curse after a night of horror. The story shockingly reveals that the imperial settlers now share local belief-systems: no one scoffs at the temple curse. It also lays bare the brutal coercion at the heart of the Raj. Did Kipling tell more than he wished, or even grasped? In many tales from this period, something half-glimpsed breaks the surface. The story-telling itself become a site of unruly, disruptive possession.

Then, as now, that leaves the more sophisticated practitioners of Gothic and supernatural fiction with a challenge. Without some element of naivety, even credulity, the uncanny hardens into outright horror. Or else it migrates into pure psychology. Arthur Machen, who moved in the ‘Decadent’ circles of 1890s London, knew Oscar Wilde. He shared a publisher with Aubrey Beardsley, cover designer for ‘The Great God Pan’. Machen wrote creepily disturbing tales of terror, menace and obsession, but they have left any trace of innocence or ignorance far behind. Sexily vampiric females prey on his thrill-seeking dandies. The pagan mysteries that sow panic in his late-Victorian breasts have an overtly erotic core. In ‘The Shining Pyramid’, typically, the ‘hideously deformed’ heathen revenants who celebrate their naked rites have ‘almond eyes burning with evil and unspeakable lusts’. Machen looks forwards to full-frontal, adult-rated horror, in the vein that leads from H. P. Lovecraft to Stephen King, rather than sideways to the veiled passions and yearnings of his time.

Another route leads from the uncanny tale of the Golden Age into the Modernist fiction of disordered consciousness. Not only Henry James moves in this direction but a writer such as May Sinclair, who was steeped in Edwardian feminism, in early psychoanalysis, and in the avant-garde literature of her associates T. S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford. Her Uncanny Stories (collected in 1923) fuse traditional and modern species of spectre. ‘Where their Fire is Not Quenched’ anticipates Jean-Paul Sartre in its tale of hell as other people: the deceased Harriott must spend eternity making love in hotel rooms to her bit-of-rough married lover. Not much naivety here. On the other hand, in a piece such as ‘The Intercessor’ (1911), Sinclair does balance old and new. The spirit of little Effy, pining piteously after death in a Yorkshire farmhouse for the mother who rejected her, has a spine-chilling, Brontë-like frisson. At the same time, Mrs Falshaw becomes a post-Freudian study of pathological motherhood, prey to ‘the hard, save lust that avenges its frustration on its own offspring’. This feels knowing but credibly sinister as well – not least when Effy’s sobbing shade seeks comfort in the bed of the male lodger who uncovers her sad story.

III

For a writer after the Golden Age, it takes a truly uncanny skill to walk the faint line between knowledge and innocence, doubt and faith. The ghost stories of Elizabeth Bowen achieve that balancing-act, prompted by the all-too-real dread of wartime air raids and sudden death: the backdrop of her classic ‘The Demon Lover’ (1941). Bowen, though, keeps to the supernatural script that forges terror, and wonder, from the eruption of buried emotions. Repression still fuels her eerie happenings. Can the genre thrive, though, in an era where little or nothing is denied? In the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s, the consummately artful ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman answered that call. From a shadow-free environment of suburban houses, commuter trains and seemingly frank sexuality, they lurch back into primeval darkness. Even a job as a pornographer – like the narrator of ‘Meeting Mr Millar’ – cannot lay ancient demons to rest.

Aickman’s characters have briskly modern, sensible thoughts about love and sex, life and death. Ghouls and bugbears seldom bother them; lateness for a business meeting does. Then, either suddenly or by creeping increments, the lights of reason switch off. In his peerless ‘The Hospice’ (an awful warning about running out of petrol anywhere near Birmingham), the stranded traveller stumbles into a sort of upmarket Crossroads Motel. There, of course, he is expected, as the jaws of a tastefully upholstered hell begin to gape before him.

Aickman remains vanishingly rare in his talent for blending the moods and motifs of the ghostly Golden Age into a contemporary milieu. Among modern spirit-summoners, more common is the time-slip back towards a period when characters either did not know so much, or else declined to speak of what they knew. Almost a century ago, M. R. James recommended the near past, with its ‘slight haze of distance’, as the optimum setting for a supernatural story. His successors heed that advice. The trauma and sorrow of two or three generations ago frame several of the best recent forays in the genre – as in the downbeat, post-war atmosphere of Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. In fact, with its secret-ridden country house that the heirs imagine to be haunted, its portrait of an old landed family stranded by social change (‘Class-wise, they’ve had their chips’), its just-too-narrow ‘loophole’ to explain away paranormal and poltergeist effects, and its troubled heroine in baffled revolt against the conventions that stifle her, The Little Stranger (2009) makes an exemplary contribution to the modern upkeep of the form.

M. R. James’s advice to find your phantoms fairly long ago, or far away, still holds. The latest contender for inclusion in the English Gothic canon draws back from the strictly contemporary scene. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (2014) was first published in a limited edition by spooky specialist Tartarus Press, before cult acclaim pushed it towards the bestseller lists. In the 1970s, his tight-knit group of suburban Catholics blunders into ancient heathen horror on a – brilliantly drawn – stretch of God-forsaken Lancashire coastline. Hurley avoids visible spirits. But the hauntings and possessions of this ‘dark and watchful place’, which harbours ‘grim secrets’, align his fiction with the ghostly great tradition. Crucially, his band of old-fashioned pilgrims huddle together against sceptical, permissive modern society. They stay plausibly indifferent to their own, home-grown nightmares – such as the fanatical Father Wilfred’s torture of his adolescent charges as a punishment for masturbation. But this claustrophobic isolation makes them vulnerable to the faith-eroding paganism that swirls around the grey shores of this ‘old part of the country’.

Andrew Hurley (Photo by ®HalShinnie)

Devil’s Day (2017), Hurley’s second novel, also has a frame-story from the recent past, and an eerily beautiful landscape in darkest Lancashire. However, with this remote farming hamlet (‘the Endlands’), stricken by the malaise brought by a ‘devil’ from the surrounding uplands, he explicitly returns to the high noon – or deep midnight – of the vintage spook. The malevolent local entity blights flocks and spreads sickness. It has returned here, we learn, thanks to the occult experiments of ‘the Hellenics’: upper-class pals of an Edwardian landowner who ‘raised the Devil from his sleep under the moors’. Hurley’s Hellenics indulge in orgiastic séances. Arty gents in lipstick snog one another while a duke’s daughter ‘spent the evening on all fours . . . and let the men stroke her as they played canasta’. Save for its graphic detail, Hurley’s snapshot of elite debauchery might come from a Machen story of the 1890s. His uncanny mood-music becomes the soundtrack for a richly textured portrayal of dogged, defiant peasant life, and the superstitions that maintain it. Still, the corruption supposedly carried into this lonely spot by depraved toffs suggests that anxieties of sex and class continue to haunt the English supernatural story.

For all Hurley’s artistry, his climate of fictional fear depends on its perceived distance from everyday, urban or suburban, routines. Among contemporary authors, Robert Aickman has very few emulators in his elegant and urbane refits of classic ghostly decor to fit the social and mental architecture of his age. In fiction, that is. On television, things have changed. The Gothic black comedy of a series such as The League of Gentlemen – created by Aickman admirers Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, and by M. R. James’s TV adapter Mark Gatiss – does reveal a kinship in tone with Aickman’s weird drollery. As does the almost-supernatural undercurrent that flows quietly through Shearsmith’s and Steve Pemberton’s recent series of bizarre dramas, Inside No. 9.

On page or screen, today’s uncanny authors must still try to re-imagine that nebulous borderland between trust and doubt, knowing and unknowing, innocence and experience. Sooner or later, fiction writers will discover that authentic spectres in the twenty-first century inhabit not creaking mansions but the bright devices that now partner our every thought and deed. Mainstream fiction has, so far, been slow to exploit the uncanny and supernatural dimensions of the internet. Again, television proved quicker off the mark. Look at an episode of Charlie Brooker’s groundbreaking Black Mirror series such as ‘Be Right Back’ (2013), and you glimpse one future for the Gothic mode. Here, a bereaved woman’s partner returns in the form of a digitised ‘bot’. It gathers his technological remains and re-animates them so that she can ‘talk’ to the dead man. Software developers are actually at work on just such virtual ‘ghosts’.

Long before the advent of the digital domain, Joseph Conrad – in his 1916 preface to The Shadow Line – rejected paranormal fiction on the grounds that ‘The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is . . . No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural’. But what if, as many thinkers now recognise, the marvels of our galloping technologies blur the lines dividing reality and fantasy, reason and magic, even life and death, in ways that recall the ‘peak spectre’ period of century and more ago? If and when it arrives, the next Golden Age of the fictional phantom will surely arise from the ghosts in our machines.