Sunday, 20 October 2013

We had eyes for phantoms then

As the dying light of summer drifts through the snap of autumn, and life and the land are readied for the murk of winter, a sense of gloom begins to pervade, or so received wisdom dictates. But darkness and melancholia are a powerful combination, life-enhancing even. An existence without cold nights, foggy dawnings and cloudscapes with the promise of snow would be one sadly diminished. In William Blake’s words: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy”; and the lead-in to the midwinter solstice crackles with hearty and joyful arcane ceremony and ritual that has wintered throughout the centuries and still pulses strongly, though the times when gods, spirits and magic underpinned daily life are long behind us. The old ways were receding fast even in Thomas Hardy's time, as essayed in his elegiac poem Yuletide in a Younger World
"We had eyes for phantoms then,
And at bridge or stile
On Christmas Eve
Clear behind those countless ones who had crossed it
Cross again in file
Such has ceased longwhile!" 

What remains - the family and community conventions, and commercial set-pieces - of Halloween, Guy Fawkes Night, Christmas and New Year have become so ingrained that it is hard to look beyond their familiar glare. However, these are but the over-boiled remains of the framework of rites, feasts and gatherings that stitched together this glowering season for our ancestors; helping them through the months of thrift and want, life lived in a fallow landscape. Halloween, of course, derives from All Hallow’s Eve, a Christianised festival of all saints and the dead to mark the end of summer, with its pagan roots clear and strong. The fading light of dusk and the long dark nights of howling wind and rain, hostile to all but the cawing crow, provided, and still provide, a fitting backdrop not just to merry-making but also to storytelling; the subject matter often meeting a seemingly universal and antediluvian human desire to scare ourselves into safety. Samuel Johnson’s adage that “All argument is against it (the existence of ghosts); but all belief is for it” explaining the enduring popularity of tales of phantoms and the supernatural. 

Landscape, sense of place – the natural or human setting – is a key element of the folklore tales, songs and ghost stories that have always been at the heart of winter custom, underscored by the elements and the weather; such narratives for dark nights maintain their hold on our collective imagination exactly because they play out in a familiar environment that can easily shape-shift into something altogether more spectral, a phenomenonological shadowland: "Precisely because locales and their landscapes are drawn on in the day-to-day lives and encounters of individuals they possess powers. The spirit of a place may be held to reside in a landscape" (Christopher Tilley). So, like a gnarled character actor, the landscape helps to give its central storyline depth and authenticity. It is this preternatural terrain that will be navigated here. 

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MR James, the master of the concise ghost story, famously devised tales to be told to his Cambridge undergraduates around the fireside before midnight on Christmas Eve. Ancient manor houses, cathedrals and windswept coastlines provide the settings which form such an important element in the development of the story; a winning juxtaposition with the winter night staging. The opening lines of The Ash Tree from his 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary establish a landscape of centuries-old familiarity, in which the historical and contemporary shocks can be played out: “Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller country-houses with which it is studded – the rather dank little buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong attraction: with the grey paling of split oak, the noble trees, the meres with the reed-beds, and the line of distant woods.” Tree-scapes in the forms of woodland and forest are, of course, a staple backdrop for sinister deeds in popular imagination. In Trees: Woodlands and Western Civilisation Richard Hayman asserts that "woodlands were one type of wild place where the boundary between the natural and the supernatural worlds could be crossed, as it could be at caves or springs ... They were, in effect, a gateway between secular and supernatural worlds, and in classical literature to the underworld".

Topographical descriptions often foreshadow the rising sense of impending dread that runs like a creeping fog through James’ narrative; in order to feel the fear we need to picture ourselves in the midst of the scene, to know the lie of the land. The Dickensian imagery of A Warning to the Curious (1925) immediately whets the palate for a move through the gears of trepidation: “Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods and above all gorse inland”. In this environment, “in all this quiet”, we are able to share the narrators’ “acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash that may be let go at any moment”. Marsh, a netherworld not quite land not quite water, provides a zone of sensory disorientation that forms a recurring backdrop for ghosts and ghouls. Peter Ackroyd, in his 2010 collection The English Ghost , notes that “The English have a rich repository of words to describe uneasy soil – ‘marsh’, ‘mere’, ‘mire’, ‘fen’, ‘bog’ and ‘swamp’ among them – and it is not at all coincidental that they have also been used to describe the abode of ghostly apparitions”. The antecedents of this theme go back all the way to the Ur-text of the English language supernatural story, Beowulf, in which Grendel and his monstrous mother harry the local population from their watery fastness. In Susan Hill’s modern take on Victorian Gothic, The Woman in Black (1998), the creepiness of the potentially hackneyed old dark house setting is given added lustre by the visceral descriptions of the approach across Nine Lives Causeway to isolated, wind-wracked Eel Marsh House, enveloped by estuarine stillness and lowering clouds.

The deadly bog of Grimpen Mire looms large in perhaps the most celebrated supernatural tale to be underscored by its landscape, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskerville (1902); the story inseparable from its Dartmoor location and inspired by folkloric antecedents of savage black dogs and other spectral beasts from across the West Country. The untamed moor provides a – to the reader - reassuringly inclement and foreboding stage, lair of a lunatic escaped convict and the "gigantic hound" of the title. As Sir Henry Baskerville journeys to his ancestral home for the first time he initially travels through a district of benign bocage, of winding lanes and rolling pasture, “but behind the peaceful and sunlit countryside there rose, ever dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills”; and the layered gloom builds further: “… in front of us rose the huge expanse of the moor, mottled with gnarled and craggy cairns and tors. A cold wind swept down from it and sent us shivering”.   

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Tales of moorland hell-hounds share kinship with stories of the Wild Hunt, the lost souls of Woden’s Army guiding their pack of dogs across the winter skies, led by Herne the Hunter or some other dead hero. The wild and desolate uplands of the west and other parts of the British Isles offer a classic dread-scape, a ready-made stage set for such demonic action. Many of the black dog legends cast them as the shape-shifting ghosts of the hanged or murdered, and a further strain of the human-animal metamorphosis is the lycanthrope. The plaintive lyrics of Barry Dransfield’s The Werewolf, a remnant of early 70’s weird-folk, hail the wolf-man of the hills: “You can hear his long holler from away across the moor”. Lupine howling echoing across the fells: all the way to Hollywood in the shape of An American Werewolf in London (1981). Mostly staged in the capital, the film’s opening scene plays out across a wet, unwelcoming Yorkshire moor (albeit shot in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales) as two all-American innocents abroad leave the malignant safety of The Slaughtered Lamb inn and inadvertently stray from the road as darkness falls…

Lonely paths and tracks are a regular topographical touchstone for the supernatural - whether the setting for lost or weary benighted travellers or crossroad pacts with the Devil. In times past, when most travelled on foot, such a setting - at once familiar and mysterious - would have a particular frisson. As William Howitt would have it, people walked to and from home and work "... through deep and lonesome dells, through deep, o'ershadowed lanes by night; by the cross-road, and over the dreary moor: all places of no good character" (The Rural Life of England, 1838). Even John Clare, more regularly associated with chronicling the natural history and human experiences of the landscape spoke in his Autobiography of journeys in which he "... had haunted spots to pass and ... the often-heard tales of ghosts and hobgoblins had made me very fearful to pass such places at night".

In On the Brighton Road (1912) by Richard Middleton a tramp wakes from his roadside bed to a snow-bound world and encounters a frail looking boy also travelling the road on foot. The story captures the relentless desperation and inherent violence of a homeless life. It soon becomes clear that the boy represents the doomed walking dead: "...I've been knocking about like this for six years, and do you think I'm not dead? I was drowned bathing in Margate, and I was killed by a gypsy with the spike; he knocked my head right in, and twice I was froze like you last night, and a motor car cut me down on this very road, and yet I'm walking along here now, walking to London to walk away from it again, because I can't help it. Dead? I tell you we can't get away if we want to". And by the end of the story it is clear that the tramp has joined the boy in this endless wandering of the afterlife. 

A nice twist on the lost traveller ghost story is provided by A.N.L. Mumby's An Encounter in the Mist (1949). The story's protagonist strays from his ill-defined route, ''in places little more than a sheep track", in the unfamiliar - and inevitably mist-drenched - country of the Cambrian Mountains of Mid-Wales. He is set back on his way by a white-haired Welsh-speaking shepherd who directs him along a mountain track by means of an aged map with a "rude archaic look". The traveller makes it to his destination but not before he almost plunges to his death as the path steers him towards a steep cliff. It transpires that this has been the scene of a number of fatal accidents and that the map is from the year 1707, predating a landslide that carried away much of the path. The old man, Madog ap Rhys, was "...the ghost of a benevolent hermit, who revisited the scene of his former acts of kindness and, with the best intentions in the world, inadvertently sent unsuspecting wanderers to their destruction". Another ghost who seems to the reader enigmatic and intriguing rather than an object of fear is the titular character in Matthew Arnold's elegiac poem The Scholar Gypsy (1853), a legendary and mysterious figure who forsook the life of an academic in Oxford to "learn the gypsy lore" and subsequently appeared amongst shepherds and others populating the Oxfordshire and Berkshire hills, lanes and alehouses: 

"But rumours hung about the country side

That the lost Scholar long was seen to stray,
Seen by rare glimpses, pensive and tongue-tied,
In hat of antique shape, and cloak of grey,
The same the gypsies wore".

If location has been an important factor in literary representations of the scary story, this has equally been the case in the oral tradition of folk-lore and legend. Katharine Briggs, an eminent folklorist, gathered hundreds of examples in her authoritative collection, Dictionary of British Folk-Tales and Legends (1970). By no means all are sinister, but many of the accounts of goblins, fairies, boggies, boggarts, kelpies, dragons, giants, trolls, night riders and ghosts - 'the People of the Hills' of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill - would have thrilled and chilled their audiences; not least because of their strong sense of place and locality. How much more alive and maybe threatening these shadowy creatures become when they are abroad in the very fields, lanes, woods and out of the way places that you and your neighbours inhabit. The everyday ubiquity of this liminal population is evidenced by, for instance, references to the supernatural in fields names. A number of examples from all parts of England can be found in John Field's English Field Names: A Dictionary (1972, a gem of a book, though out of print, for anyone with an interest in landscape history): Boggart Field, Boggart Hole ("Land haunted by goblins; applied to land which was heavily shaded, secluded etc"); Elf Lands, Elves Tyning, Fairy Croft, Fairy Ground ("Land said to be haunted by fairies"); Goodman's Acre, Goodman's Close ("A piece of waste land enclosed and left to the devil, euphemistically known as Good Man"). This is workmanlike terrain imbued with a supernatural quality; where wily and pragmatic agriculturalists are unwilling to exploit ancient burial mounds, 'fairy roads' and the like.   

The themes of ghost stories and folk tales told on the page and orally segue naturally into screen representations, the landscape setting given extra lustre on film. M.R. James has been well-served by television through the BBC's Christmas Ghost Stories, satisfyingly collected together in a 2012 BFI box set. Included here is an adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Signalman. Dickens, of course, was a formidable writer of supernatural prose and this story has the unusual setting of a remote railway signal box and an adjacent gloomy black tunnel "in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air".

Also much heralded in this regard are the run of films through the late-sixties to early seventies  - latterly dubbed 'folk-horror' - that venture into the archaic countryside of the British Isles. A triptych of cult classics are generally held up to represent this sub-genre, Witchfinder General (1968), Blood On Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). There has been much 'casting the runes' over the themes and sub-texts of this holy trinity in recent times. Suffice it to say they all drip with a profound sense of place and the viewer is transported to the fields of Puritan England - seething with fear and suspicion - or the seductive paganism of Summerisle. Anyone with a soft spot for the exotica of the 'old gods', lurking beneath the surface of rural normality, is advised to seek out David Pinner's 1967 novel Ritual (said to be the original seed from which The Wicker Man screenplay grew, and recently republished by the esoteric record label Finders Keepers) and the BFI film Here's A Health to the Barley Mow: 6 hours of old and modern footage of bizarre and ever so slightly sinister folk customs and rituals from across the British Isles. 

An intriguing post-script is provided by recent works from two of the more original directorial voices in modern British film, Ben Wheatley and Shane Meadows. Neither is operating in traditional spooky territory, but they have provided a fresh take on some of the central tropes of  folk-horror. Wheatley's Kill List (2011) is a film that's hard to classify, morphing from Mike Leigh-style suburban black comedy to hit-men buddy movie and finally into Wicker Man pagan terror turned up to 11. The landscape setting is similarly varied: nondescript and anonymous urban spaces for much of the film, the denouement suddenly changes to claustrophobic and foreboding forest darkness. His latest offering,  A Field in England (2013), is a work that invites repeated viewings to fully fathom its multi-layered arcane and supernatural themes, played out entirely in the titular field: a micro landscape that conjures a compelling mix of claustrophobia and wide horizons.   

Shane Meadows films, from his Twenty Four Seven (1997) debut onwards, have always displayed a strong sense of place; often the previously uncharted on-screen territory of the scruffy and down at heal margins of small town north and east Midlands of England, from Staffordshire to Lincolnshire. This setting, and the regular Meadow's cast of sympathetic and psychotic scallywag characters, is much in evidence in perhaps his finest film to date, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004). Although ostensibly a story of revenge, the dead brother of the central character, Paddy Considine's returning soldier, proves to be a mundanely spectral - or at least imagined - presence throughout. To my mind the two most striking elements of the film are the fact that the considerable violence and horror are played out entirely amongst the living characters - Anthony, the ghost-brother is the only sympathetic role on show - but also the setting. In the opening frame Considine's unnamed soldier tramps a moorland path above his home town, evoking the avenging angel of the Western. The location is not specified but we are in small town Derbyshire, on the edge of the Peak District; though a scene more humdrum quiet despair than National Trust photo opportunity. Looming over the town and the narrative is an abandoned and soot-soaked Gothic pile, hill-top seat, no doubt, of the self-made Victorian grandee who made this town. A ghost of times past in its own way, this is where the pivotal set-pieces of the story take place; senseless deaths in a dying house, above a dying town. I should mention here that this is also a very funny film, demonstrating that in reality humour, pathos, tragedy and acts of violence are more likely to messily coexist. 

As a nice addendum to this memorable modern Derbyshire tale, I recently came across A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread, a collection of Gothic stories written in the early twentieth century by R. Murray Gilchrist. Gilchrist's work was rooted in the landscapes around his Peak District home and topographical detail embellishes his supernatural narratives. Who could resist reading on from this opening scene setting paragraph from A Night in the Moor on a cold winter's night: "The sun had set in a dull red glow, and twilight fell with odd swiftness. Although the sparse thorns of the moor, all inclining from west to east, in obedience to the prevailing winds, were scarce tinged with the bright hues of autumn, a few thin flakes of snow were falling gently".

Monastery graveyard in the snow, Caspar David Friedrich (image from

It would be easy to go on, but the fire has turned to embers and the night is in the ascendency; so here is a closing thought. Perhaps we have not strayed far in the aesthetics of our supernatural imagination, and the landscapes in which these stories are played out, from our forebears in early medieval, or Dark Age, Britain. In his study of the historical realities, beliefs and legends that inspired Tolkien's magical world, Brian Bates outlines the topographical template for all that was to come:

"The gods and godesses lived in the bright spaces of the Underworld, along with the light elves. Far beneath, in the cavernous shadows of the Lowerworld, lurked the spirits of the dead; they were accompanied by dark elves and the dragon called Nidhog. And in between, reached by a bridge formed of a rainbow called Bifrost (Trembling Pathway), lay the enchanted landscape of Middle-earth. It was a magical realm inhabited by men and women, and surrounded by an infinite ocean ... This landscape of three realms, one above the other, is how the peoples of historical north-west Europe saw their world during the first millenium ... The great cultures of those times, the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse, infused their lives with a remarkable imagination and sense of spirituality. The natural landscape of Europe took on a whole new meaning - a deeper, enchanted dimension, making it a realm of magic and mystery".    


Ackroyd, Peter, 2010 The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time London: Vintage. 

Baker, Kenneth (Ed.), 2000 The Faber Book of Landscape Poetry London: Faber & Faber.

Bates, Brian, 2003 The Real Middle Earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages London: Pan

BFI, 2011 Here's a Health to the Barley Mow: A Century of Folk Customs and Ancient Ritual Games DVD booklet London: BFI.

Briggs, Katherine, 2002 British Folk-Tales and Legends: A Sampler London: Routledge.

Conan Doyle, Arthur, 2003 The Hound of the Baskervilles London: Penguin.

Cooper, J.C., 1993 Brewer's Book of Myth & Legend Oxford: Helicon.

Cox, Michael and Gilbert R.A. (Eds.), 1986 The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dickens, Charles, 2009 Ghost Stories London: Collectors' Library.

Field, John, 1989 English Field Names: A Dictionary Gloucester: Alan Sutton.

Gilchrist, R. Murray, 2006 A Night on the Moor & Other Tales of Dread Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

Hannant, Sara, 2012 Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the English Ritual Year London: Merrell.

Hayman, Richard, 2003 Trees: Woodlands and Western Civilization London: Hambledon & London.

Heaney, Seamus, 2000 Beowulf London: Faber and Faber.

Hill, Susan, 1998 The Woman In Black London: Vintage.

Hutton, Ronald, 1994 The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400 - 1700 Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kipling, Rudyard, 1994 Puck of Pook's Hill London: Penguin.

Legard, Phil, 2011 Psychogeographia Ruralis: Observations Concerning Landscape and the Imagination Leeds: Larkfall Press.

Pinner, David, 2011 Ritual London: Finders Keepers.

Taplin, Kim, 1979, The English Path Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Tilley, Christopher, 1994 A Phenomenology of Landscape London: Berg.



  1. This is a fantastic and dizzying trip through the gothic, the supernatural and the other-worldly; so very apt for this time of year. I hope to see some form of postscript on all hallow's eve, when the phantoms may still be seen in wild landscapes for those with eyes well-attuned. I apologise that I have not kept up with your prolific burst of creativity lately, but I've enjoyed it all

    best wishes


    1. Thanks Ian. Seemed timely. I love the landscape, the quality of light, at this time of year and being a little spooked is all part of the fun.

  2. Thanks to Matt Gilbert @RichlyEvocative for this link on MR James and Sylan Dread

  3. Great selection Eddie - lots of old favourites but some I don't know and as said very seasonal. I used to love watching those BBC M R James stories. Tilley's book is another favourite.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece which also caused me to add a few additions to my winter's reading list.


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