I’m going to be screening a couple of my favourite televised adaptions from the works of M.R. James in Leytonstone (London) next month. All You Read Is Love have very kindly allowed me to take over their cafe/bookstore/arts space for the evening to show, what I believe to be, the finest two filmic interpretations of James’ ghostly tales. I will also be giving a short introductory talk on the roles of hauntology and landscape in these works, as well as offering a few thoughts on the Jamesian geographies of East Anglia.
Free entry. Doors at 7pm.
I drafted this mid-2014 and for some reason never got around to posting it. A recent train journey back to East Anglia led my partner to enquire as to why we should travel ‘so slowly when Norfolk is so flat’, reminding me of the opening passages to Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’. This in turn led me back to this post. I’ve made a few updates so as to keep the writing relevant. There is, without question, a great deal more I could say about Aickman, about his particular type of horror and moreover of the rich sense of geography he evokes in his writings, but I’ve neither the desire nor the urge to create spoilers (for those unfamiliar with the tales) to do so here. Instead I hope that the few words and suggestions that I have put to the page might pique interest and introduce Aickman to a few new readers….
Robert Aickman is a master of British horror. His writings are every bit as disturbing as those of other writers in the genre, in many cases I would say they are more so. What makes Aickman’s work particularly unsettling is that he rarely provides a definite ending; the tales themselves are short but often without a terminal narrative. Rather the reader is left in a continual state of suspense and this itself, I believe, proves far more frightening than the horrors described within the text – this sense that they have been created to endure, even after the tale has been read.
Describing his work as ‘strange stories’, Aickman wrote 48 supernatural tales before his death in 1981, most of which were published within a series of 7 collected works released between 1951 and 1980. Despite the number of works he produced, Aickman has remained relatively unknown, gaining far less notoriety for his writings than the likes of M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, Dennis Wheatley and so on. There has been something of a resurgence in Aickman’s writings over the past few years, with notable horror enthusiasts such as Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss bringing attention to Aickman in their own work. Gatiss provides a particularly haunting (and haunted) performance in Dyson’s eerie short film adaption of Aickman’s ‘The Cicerones‘ (2002). Two years prior to ‘The Cicersones’, Dyson and Gatiss had worked together on a radio adaption of Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’ for BBC Radio Four. The adaption isn’t all that easy to track down but I’m aware that there are a few digital versions floating around online and it is definitely worth a listen if you can track one down.
The collected works themselves have been fairly difficult and expensive to get hold of in recent years, cheaper alternatives being available in the form of Fortana’s Book of Great Ghost Stories, which Aickman compiled a good number of. Now however, one need not search so hard to find Aickman’s writings as Faber & Faber began republishing the key titles in June 2014. The first to be printed was Dark Entries, which contains two of my favourite tales; ‘Ringing the Changes’ and ‘The Waiting Room’. The second collection, Cold Hand in Mine, was published in July and boasts ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Real Road to the Church’ – all the tales are worth reading but these two in particular are most unnerving. Two further collections The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, published in August and September respectively, complete the Faber Finds series of Aickman’s works. Each of the books is beautifully adorned with updated cover art by Tim McDonagh and echoes the style of Ed Gorey who illustrated some of the original cover’s of Aickman’s works.
As a geographer, what strikes me about Aickman’s work and particularly his construction of the uncanny is his attentiveness to the description of place as well as an emphasising of movement in and between places and times.
Like all forms of storytelling, ghostlore is constructed from a series of key components; characters, dialogue, repetition, setting and so forth. There are of course narratival similarities between many of the ghost stories belonging to the British Isles, however the settings (or rather, the places) that spectral entities frequent are intrinsically linked to spaces of habitus as much as they are to the types of narrative that describe them. Ghosts appear to prefer specific places in which to haunt, notoriously sharing a penchant for stately homes, cross roads, old pubs. ruins, churchyards and various other historical sites.
Davies (2007) describes this ‘geography of haunting’ as being complicit with spaces of liminality, of sites that ‘are on the border or threshold of two defined states of existence’ (p.45). Liminal spaces are those that are imbued with a sense of duality, of binaries, they are spaces that allow for a transgression or moving in and between two states of being. Churchyards are an obvious example of such a site; existing at the thresholds of life and death; decidedly awkward, churchyards act simultaneously as spaces of materiality and immateriality, of fixedness and transcendence, they are out of sorts with landscape and time, both heterotopic and heterochronic (Foucault, 1974).
Indeed, Western ghostlore tends to develop phantoms that are attached to certain places. Though there are some exceptions to the theory of the fixed ghost (some spirits are indeed far more mobile than others, such as that of East Anglia’s Black Shuck), most tales tell of ghosts whom are static, frequenting staircases, bedrooms, hallways and the like. The anchoring of the ghost proves to stricken its sense of spatial autonomy and thus allowing for the haunted to leave the situation, usually at the their own (hastened) speed. Aickman’s spectral entities however are decidedly more mobile. Like the conjurings of James (see A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You), Aickman’s terrifying concoction of the spectral and the mobile creates a ‘geography of haunting’ that works towards an emancipation of the ghost, an unchaining of spirit from place.
As roaming entities, Aickman’s phantasms are capable of moving through landscapes, of following and terrifying the protagonist within a multitude of environs. Such is the case in the ‘The School Friend’ which, like so many of Aickman’s works, is not so much a traditional ghost story but better described by that category of the ‘strange’ which Aickman himself used to talk about his works. ‘The School Friend’ makes use of multiple locations and situations of supernatural terror through which to draw the reader in; moving between homes and hospitals, and indeed room to room within the school friend’s home allows Aickman to develop a sense of mobility that not only creates a ‘geography of haunting’ but allows for multiple locative points through which the hauntings might occur.
‘Ringing the Changes’ is another tale indebted to landscape, specifically that of the East Anglian coast and moreover an emphasis on a movement within it. Making use of traditional rural/urban dichotomies (like those seen in Pinner’s Ritual), Aickman weaves a tale of ritualised horror that depicts a sheltered coastal community committed to an annual ringing of the church bells in order to wake the dead. In just a few pages the plot moves from train line, to platform, to hotel, to beach and back again. Street names, along with descriptions of lighting and sound are all used to give a sense of distance and time in and between places rather than to elaborate on the implied character of the locations themselves.
Both space and time important for Aickman, they allow his particular rendering of the uncanny to function; illustrative of a return of the repressed, an unexpected calling forth of place and time. As such we might view Aickman’s writings as hauntological, necessitating a return and making an all to often ‘other’ present in their absence. Further still, the role of mobility here not only sets up the distance required to dichotomise cosmopolitan/ coastal existence, but further constructs a space through which Aickman’s monstrosities move through, a space of wildness and savage tradition. The dead stalk the landscape, moving from beach through to town; their singing, calling and dancing echoing throughout the streets as they go. Even as day breaks and the tale concludes the reader is left ill-informed as to why the events of the previous evening have even occurred, only in the knowledge that they will again. Aickman’s works are topographically rich, allowing for an almost unrivalled spectral dynamy, where the strange is not so much preternatural but rather part of the landscape itself.
Robert Aickman was born in London, 1914. As well as being a prolific writer of supernatural tales, much of his life was dedicated to the conservation of England’s (then mostly derelict) canal system and he was co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association. Aickman died of poor health in 1981. Further information on Aickman can be found online at Aickman Data as well as in the recently developed journal Aickman Studies
I’ve been doing a spot of tidying up of my HD recently, having amassed scores of empty and duplicate folders over the course of my PhD. I was rather excited to rediscover a collection of photos of Waverley Abbey ruins that I took back in 2009 whilst conducting ethnographic work with ad hoc ghost hunters. I never used these photos in the thesis, although I think they made appearances in a number of supporting PowerPoint presentations for conference papers at the beginning of my research.
My experience(s) of Waverely Abbey ruins formed the basis for an entire chapter of my thesis and I have many fond memories of chilly nights spent taking audio recordings and shooting photographs in the darkness whilst waiting for paranormal enthusiasts to show up. It seemed like a shame to waste the shots, hence I am sharing the more interesting of them here. For those of you not familiar with the ruins, Waverely sits a few miles outside of Farnham, Surrey (UK). The abbey is free to visit and is accessible 24/7. Having spent about a hundred hours at this site over the last five years, I can highly recommended taking a trip out there (it’s especially atmospheric in the dark). Waverley Abbey is managed my English Heritage and is the first example of a Cistercian abbey in England, dating back to 1128 AD.
A few years ago I organised a half-day symposium on the themes of geography, nature and the occult under the name of Strange Naturalisms: Reflections on Occult Geographies. I was in my second year as a research student at the time and was feeling frustrated by the very few events taking place that were aimed at dealing with geographies of the strange and uncanny, not least because I knew from my own research that this was an of area cultural geography that was growing in popularity. After submitting a short proposal and projection of costs to my department, I was awarded a grant of £300 to invite speakers and pay for refreshments. I had previously met and was aware of other, more established scholars working in the field of the strange and so it made sense to try and get as many as I could together, given the small grant I had to work with, so as to establish some sort of cohesive school of thought around these geographies of the strange.
The symposium was fairly well attended for a Wednesday afternoon in late February and despite the winter weather a number of people made some heroic trips to come speak and take part in the event. As is so often the case with this sort of event I had planned on doing something productive with the speakers’ contributions but never actually got around to it. Earlier today I came across the recordings of the talks that I had taken during the session and I thought now to be as good a time as any to finally make them available.
The abstract for the day is below and the microsite for the symposium together with the abstracts for the talks can still be found here. The running order for the talks was as follows:
Julian Holloway (MMU) – The Strange Nature of Gef the Talking Mongoose
James Kneale (UCL) – London’s ‘lively unknown dead’: Maureen Duffy’s Capital
James Thurgill (RHUL) – Conjuring place: the strange case of the Ankerwycke Yew
Owain Jones (UWE) – Sylvan Spirits. Trees as makers and shapers of strange places
Steve Pile (OU) – Telepathy, affect and the strange nature of the human mind
Phil Crang (RHUL) – Discussant
‘Strange Naturalisms’ is a half day symposium aimed at collating discussions of the spectral, the fortean and the occult in geography; demonstrating that the very events and practices that we regard as supernatural are better viewed as instances of the vitality of nature. This event will bring together a number of geographic thinkers to discuss the uncanny formations of an occult landscape. Investigations into the fortean have proliferated within geography and cognate disciplines in recent years (See Holloway:2003,2006, Pile:2005, Dixon:2007). As such, the immateriality of place has come to rival the importance of material features in geographic writings. To this end, we have seen something of an occult turn in approaches to the landscape, with attention turning to uncovering the hidden or mystical properties of place. This session is dedicated to locating experiences of the strange; to elucidating those places that are perceived as anomalous, weird, and unnatural. There is much scope to develop understandings of the mystical, spectral and enchanted in relation to landscape, particularly in exploring the methods or ways in which we might encounter the uncanniness of N/nature. Through relations to place, landscape and the cultural practices and narratives that aid in their construction, each paper will provide an account of how our surroundings are bound up in a network of landscape mysticism.
At the beginning of the summer, I decided to take a trip back to my parent’s house in Norfolk so as to briefly escape the claustrophobia of the city. Norfolk, with its somewhat oppressive, charcoal clouded skies and warren of hedge-lined lanes that wind their way through the patchwork fields of the Anglian countryside, makes for a much quieter environment in which to stop and take stock of things. The perfect retreat after weeks of 18 hour days in order to finish writing my thesis. On the train journey home (I always call it home despite having left over 12 years ago) I can physically feel time slowing down, the crash of the urban sprawl rapidly deteriorates into the undisturbed silence of open fields and bellowing clouds; even the train seems in no rush to meet its terminus, it decelerates to something of a saunter as it makes its way through the northern parts of Suffolk and into Norfolk. It is, as Robert Aickman commented on the region as if ‘time matters less’.
The so-called rump of England, East Anglia has often been the victim of unfair criticism; the whole ‘NFN: normal for norfolk’ myth did little to raise the reputation of the area, neither the horrific tales of inbreeding and webbed footed fen dwellers. Having cities whose only recognised claims to fame are being the home town of a fiction failed radio presenter and the lead singer of a 90s death metal act, Norwich and Ipswich respectively, rarely gain a chance to showcase the unrivalled beauty that the area has to offer. Anglia presents as a dichotomous landscape: its easterly and northern reaches are, in their entirety, sea lined, and offer some of the most diverse coastline in the country; from salt marshes to mudflats, vertical cliffs to expansive sands with dunes and sea bordering pinewoods to boot; W.H. Hudson, amongst others, wrote extensively of the region’s unrivalled beauty in his works of ornithology. The central and western parts of Anglia are instead completely rural, a combination of ancient woodland, meadows and fields. To the south, the Thames estuary creates a natural boundary between Anglia and the South East of England, working to keep London and its encroachment at bay. And whilst the criticism this region attracts is somewhat irksome to those who know it well, Anglia does feel like another place, somewhere olde, a place where superstition and folklore remains integral to the ongoing customs and traditions of many village’s existence.
This is no archaic romanticism at the hands of the author, not at all; having grown up in a place where almost everybody I knew had their own tale of a ghostly encounter, where apparitions, giant black cats and ominous spectral hounds remained ubiquitous within local memory, decades (sometimes centuries) after their last reported sightings, East Anglia, always was, and will continue to remain, a rather haunted landscape for me. Norfolk, in particular, is like nowhere else in England. Richard Mabey wrote of adolescent trips to the county in a short piece for Blythe’s Place: an anthology of Britain (1981), describing Norfolk as ‘an awkward protuberance’ that was both ‘cryptic and compelling’. Indeed the whole area is drenched in a stark remoteness that is scarcely felt elsewhere in southern parts of England. Unlike the cities and towns of the midlands, home counties and the South proper, Norfolk does not enjoy motorways or high speed rail connections. Norwich, the final destination of Norfolk-bound carriages from Liverpool Street, is quite literally at the end of the line and the feeling of being at the end of somewhere definitely resonates with the train passenger, right down to the the door handles that can only be accessed, with some precarity, by reaching out of the carriage window. Of the landscape, the rich fertile soils and close proximity to the German Sea has resulted in the county being blessed with plentiful crops of cereals and vegetables and the freshest supply of seafood one could hope for. Wildlife is in abundance; myriad rare species choose this region, and this one alone, to make their home, and as such, Norfolk provides a cornucopia of flora and fauna for the budding naturalist to explore, if they have the desire to do so.
You may well be asking yourselves why then, if the place is to be held in such high regard, would the author want to move away from these idyllic surroundings? And you would be right to do so. Whatever yearning I may have for the county, Norfolk is both helped and hindered by its remoteness; on the one hand it feels authentic, quintessentially English and untouched by the outside world. On the other, commercial success and cultural development have been retarded by the lack of decent communications with the rest of the South, there are limited opportunities for employment.
For the most part, Norfolk has been left alone by developers, some larger towns (like the one I grew up in) have expanded somewhat over the last 15-20 years and the extension of the Southern Bypass (a section of duel carriageway that skirts the county’s capital) in the early 1990s has seen an increased traffic flow through the area, in turn the quiet solitude of Norfolk life is probably not what is was, even as recently as thirty or forty years ago. Either way, Norfolk continues to have much to offer in the way of strange spaces and I believe much off the reasoning for this comes down to a combination of this sense of ‘slowing down’ and the permanence of the ruralism that inflects the landscape of the entire county; Norfolk, the eternal hinterland. Maybe not, but it does retain a definite sense of remoteness, of a wildness that is unlike anywhere else I have visited. Needless to say the area is a haven for exploration of all manner of weird and wyrd places, replete with ruins, earthworks, ancient meadows and woodland. All the places where enchantment might be seen to take root, which provides a nice segue for the introduction of the main subject of this post; the ruined church of All Saints, Oxwick.
My journey home had been in part to catch up with family but equally as something of a cheap vacation to celebrate the completion and passing of my PhD. Whenever I visit, at least one person in my family wants to get involved with my research, driving me out to some remote ‘myth’ shrouded location, primed for paranormal investigation. On this occasion, I’d been staying in Norfolk for the best part of a week before my brother and I finally got our acts together and made a definite plan to visit an unusual/haunted site in the area. We got out the maps and trawled the internet in search of interesting locations that were, for us at least, as yet unexplored. Before too long, we had arrived upon a list of sites of archaeological significance and unanimously agreed upon the remains of a medieval church, hidden away in a secluded wooded area, as the subject of our investigation. Jotting down directions on the back of an envelope and hastily packing cameras and notebooks, we made a dash for the car, both excited about the prospect of having discovered a hidden gem in Norfolk’s forgotten ecclesiastic heritage.
The directions we had written down proved of little use, most of the turns they suggested didn’t appear to exist and the roadsigns were next to non-existent. After about 40 minutes of wrong turns and 20 point turns down ditch bordered lanes, we happened upon across a small area of woodland that extended from the back of an old cottage and out into a field. We parked up and made our way across the soil ridges of the field and towards the trees. A rusty wire fence marked the perimeter of the woodland. Below the trees lay a glimmering carpet of dew drenched emerald blades, each one raised to about knee hight and resting in perfect stillness. No church in sight though. Deciding to walk around the field a bit further, we found a small, overgrown trackway leading into the trees. We followed the route inwards, carefully negotiating low hanging brambles, neglecting to allow for the nettles sitting at calf-height that had been heating up in the Summer sun and which left trails of scorching, match-head sized bumps across the backs of our legs. The discomfort was worth it however, as within moments of walking the trackway, both the trees and the unsavoury undergrowth opened up to reveal a substantial, roofless church building surrounded by rough grasses and neglected headstones.
The space was silent: no birdsong, no traffic, no breeze. The entire site stood absolutely (and disconcertingly) still. To add to the eeriness of the silence further, the density and height of the surrounding trees, though not excessive, had done much to curtail the sun’s warming of the ruins and so the place suddenly felt a lot colder than the nettle lined peripheries of the field and woods. ‘This place is definitely haunted’ my brother exhaled. In a manner of speaking, it definitely was. The setting of an M.R. James work brought into existence, the church ruins cast an uncanny sense of mourning over the location. We made our way around the chancel and entered the church through a doorless archway leading into the southern side of the nave. The inside was even cooler than the structure’s exterior, heightening my brother’s sense of unease as inexplicably, there was ‘no roof to keep the sun out’. Attached to the side of the archway was a small wooden box containing folded information pamphlets. The container was still rather full; I picked a guide out from the front of the box, it was marked #78, presumably of 100. The pamphlet was dated December 1994, evidently, the church didn’t attract too many visitors.
To the eastern end of the ruins, a large 14th century stone window held fragments of red and white stained glass; sullen looking shards of hand-worked transparency were clasping to their lead linings in a final act of defiance against the dereliction that had enveloped the rest of the building. Under the window lay a bisected headstone, propped up against the knapped flint wall of the chancel. Turning to face the vestry, one gained a sense of the height of the structure, and in spite of the missing arched roof, the church building stood there, towering its spectators, above us. We headed toward the vestry, which appeared to be in a worse state (structurally speaking) than the rest of the church.
In the middle of the vestry was a tall and narrow arched window, different to the kind that were built into the nave and chancel. The surrounding walls were low and crumbling and the southern side in particular was succumbing to the onset of ivy growth. The high pitched gable end stood defiantly upright and in surprisingly good shape, in comparison to its adjoining walls. We looked out through the slender window frame and across the unfolding graveyard, through the trees and into the earthy field beyond. We could have seen anything through that window, but we didn’t. Just the field. The mind conjured shadowy figures stalking the spaces between the graves, but we only had to look around to see that we were really quite alone out there. If anything, the sense of haunting, of loss, felt in the space was more a grieving for the church and its evident retreat from habitus as well as from local memory.
The information pamphlet drew attention to a number of features on the exterior walls and so we set out in order to find them. Walking clockwise around the vestry and to the northern side of the church, two stone figures, carved in the 14th century, stood guarding the now blocked north doorway. The elements had not been kind to the carvings over the past 600 or so years and the facial features looked badly weathered. As such, the once ornamental carvings had become transformed into rather more malign looking grotesques. The gaping mouth and hollowed eyes of the figure carved on the right side of the archway appeared particularly menacing. The scream of a startled pheasant suddenly echoed against the old flint walls and the two of us leapt in fright, though laughed about the incident only moments later. I still maintain that I only ‘jumped’ as an act of solidarity, you have to do these things for family.
We carried on shuffling through the sodden grass that surrounded the church, examining headstones as we did so. One grave, that of Thomas Lawrence, was especially Jamesian looking, sporting a carved totenkopf nestled between upturned hourglasses. Suitably macabre for the cold and isolated setting.
Leaving the church via the trackway by which we had entered, we then made a turn to the right and walked along the side of the cottage and onto the road, so as to evade the nettles and thorns that had proved so irritating just an hour or so before. At the end of the track was a grass verge. Raised about half a foot above the road, the verge had two very old looking white markstones, similar to the white markstones that line the roads leading from Fakenham (another small norfolk town) out to the coastal villages, which are, as local legend goes, pre-Roman in origin. The stones seemed like a final gesture from the site to present itself as extraordinary, a way of confirming both its place in the spectral lineage of abandoned mediaeval settlements that lay across the county, and further evidence of the site’s more ancient past.