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Ghostland review: Both haunting and entertaining

Ghostland: In Search Of A Haunted Country

Edward Parnell                                                                      William Collins, £16.99

Rating:

The Seventies were a foreign country. They did things creepily there. Nowhere was this more evident than in what often passed as family, even kids’, entertainment. From the grisly public information film in which a cowled spectre, the ‘spirit of dark and lonely water’ (voiced by Donald Pleasence) terrified would-be wild swimmers to Christmas TV ghost stories such as M R James’s Lost Hearts, in which cadaverous, taloned children danced to eerie hurdy-gurdy melodies. 

These nostalgic scares are now part of a sub-culture known as ‘hauntology’ or, less academically, ‘folk horror’. Its appeal is seen in the popularity of the Scarfolk website, (about a sinister northern town), in the number of YouTube hits for arcane children’s TV series such as Children Of The Stones and The Owl Service, and in the cult status of movies like The Wicker Man.  

Some of us are suckers for this stuff. Edward Parnell certainly is.

These nostalgic scares are now part of a sub-culture known as ‘hauntology’ (Above, Scrooge meets the ghost of Jacob Marley in the 2009 film A Christmas Carol)

These nostalgic scares are now part of a sub-culture known as ‘hauntology’ (Above, Scrooge meets the ghost of Jacob Marley in the 2009 film A Christmas Carol)

Many of the above are considered in his enjoyably curious Ghostland: part memoir, part travelogue, part exhaustive primer for anyone interested in the strange and disquieting corners of the British landscape, literature and drama. 

Parnell travels to places that have associations with his own life as well as those with links to the macabre. He treks the dank fenlands of his youth and the lonely Suffolk coast, the desolate mountains of Wales as featured in the stories of Arthur Machen, and Alderley Edge – inspiration for Weirdstone Of Brisingamen novelist Alan Garner. 

There is a great deal of scrunching on shingle and a great many grey afternoons on small hills.

IT’S A FACT

In 1973 public information film Lonely Water about the dangers of water put many children off swimming for life.

For source material, Parnell casts his net wide. Even those of us steeped in this milieu will find new names to investigate – in my case, for example, the authors A L Barker and William Hope Hodgson. 

Masters such as E F Benson and Thomas Hardy get their due, as well as more modern mavens of the unsettling, Robert Aickman and Shirley Jackson among them. With regard to TV, Parnell rightly dwells on Lawrence Gordon Clark’s masterful adaptations of M R James stories and Jonathan Miller’s version of James’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You, which ends with a wraith of twisted linen rising from a narrow bed. 

Parnell writes that this is ‘still the most powerful image of a ghost in any film I’ve ever seen’. Having shivered at it scores of times, I can only agree.

Running alongside all this is a personal story of premature loss. The ghosts of Parnell’s mother, father and brother pervade the pages. This kind of writing has become commonplace since Helen MacDonald’s H Is For Hawk and quantity does not always mean quality, but here it is done poignantly and unshowily. 

The separate strands of this quiet and melancholy book often remain just that – not entirely woven together – but Ghostland is both haunting and entertaining, echoing with an enthusiast’s love for that which is out of kilter with the everyday; things not quite right glimpsed from the corner of the eye…

 

The Life And Loves Of E Nesbit

Eleanor Fitzsimons                                                                            Duckworth, £20

Rating:

Ask J K Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Wilson to name their greatest literary influences, and there’s one author they have in common: E Nesbit. Nearly 100 years after her death, the author of Edwardian classics including The Railway Children, Five Children And It and The Phoenix And The Carpet remains a firm favourite with readers and writers of all ages. 

That’s because her characters behave like actual children – they squabble and boast and get bored. What’s more, the problems they face are startlingly modern – mother or father is often missing, which means everyone is feeling distinctly insecure. 

Most crucially, says Eleanor Fitzsimons in this new biography, Nesbit has the magic ability of being able to reinhabit her own experiences of being a child. She remembers the terror of a creaky staircase or the excitement of realising that fairies might just exist.

Nearly 100 years after her death, the author of Edwardian classics including The Railway Children (above) remain a firm favourite with readers and writers of all ages

Nearly 100 years after her death, the author of Edwardian classics including The Railway Children (above) remain a firm favourite with readers and writers of all ages

That doesn’t mean, though, that Edith Nesbit was anyone’s idea of a simpering innocent. Her chemist father died when she was just four, so money was always a problem. 

From her late teens, Edith held passionately ‘advanced’ views on everything from Free Love to social equality. She was a founder member of the socialist Fabian Society and counted G B Shaw (whom she fell in love with) and H G Wells (whom she fell out with) as friends. 

At the height of fussy Edwardian fashion, Edith favoured ‘socialist’ clothes – simple, sweeping lines and natural fibres. She also bobbed her hair decades before anyone else and smoked enthusiastically.

Ask J K Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Wilson to name their greatest literary influences, and there’s one author they have in common: E Nesbit (above)

Ask J K Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Jacqueline Wilson to name their greatest literary influences, and there’s one author they have in common: E Nesbit (above)

When she got married at 19 to a womanising bank clerk called Hubert Bland, she was a scandalous seven months pregnant. Over the course of their marriage, Hubert had two children by his long-term mistress. Edith sportingly brought them up as her own.

As if to add insult to injury, Hubert soon set up a business that promptly failed. That left Edith as the main breadwinner. Her real passion was for writing socialist-themed poetry, but it was her short stories for children that made her name. 

Boys and girls responded equally enthusiastically to stories free from moralising in which the main characters were portrayed as mature almost-adults. There was also the thrill of hearing children use what was then considered bad language. 

IT’S A FACT 

In the 1970 film of The Railway Children, Sally Thomsett, who played an 11-year-old, was 20 and was mad about sports cars. 

Critics complained that Nesbit’s characters should have their mouths washed out with soap for saying ‘beastly’ quite so often.

Nesbit provided her own children with an almost story-book life. They were allowed, to the neighbours’ horror, to run about barefoot in the family’s huge London garden.

There have been two outstanding biographies of Nesbit since her death in 1924 and it is hard to see what Fitzsimons brings new to the table. She quotes endlessly from original sources, rather than working the information into her own words. 

The result can be both jerky and plodding, even managing to pull off the difficult trick of making this extraordinary woman and her work seem a little dull.

Kathryn Hughes

 

Almost Human: The Story Of Julius, The Chimpanzee Caught Between Two Worlds

Alfred Fidjestøl                                                                                Greystone, £18.99

Rating:

A biography of a chimpanzee – even Norway’s most famous chimpanzee, as Julius is billed here – may seem unnecessarily sentimental. But Almost Human is nothing of the kind. 

Instead, it’s a captivating, morally complex and utterly affecting story. Born in Kristiansand Zoo in southern Norway in 1979, Julius was rejected by his mother. The only option was to hand-rear him, so the baby was fostered between two human families: he learned to wear clothes, play with toys and sleep in a bed. 

Julius survived, but his unusual upbringing meant he would still have to learn how to be a chimp.

Born in Kristiansand Zoo in southern Norway in 1979, Julius was rejected by his mother. The only option was to hand-rear him, so the baby was fostered between two human families

Born in Kristiansand Zoo in southern Norway in 1979, Julius was rejected by his mother. The only option was to hand-rear him, so the baby was fostered between two human families

In the late 20th century, zoos were adapting from being cabinets of living curiosities to being custodians of rare wildlife. Understanding chimps in captivity was a work in progress. 

As Julius was promoted to celebrity status – starring in TV documentaries and best-selling books, and even anointed ‘Norwegian of the decade’ at the end of the Eighties – the temptation to exploit him for publicity was great. 

While on the one hand efforts were made to integrate him with his troop, on the other his unnatural behaviour was in great demand.

The result, says Fidjestøl, was ‘as if two versions of Julius now existed’. There was the public version, mischievous and practically a person. Then there was Julius the animal: traumatised by his abandonment and extremely dangerous. 

(Violence is fundamental to chimp hierarchy, and Julius was well capable of using it.) How this damaged individual went on to become a successful alpha is part of the story. 

But this is also an account of a deeply human failure to meet nature on its own terms. It’s by being all ape that Julius teaches us the most about ourselves.

Sarah Ditum

 

Travel Light, Move Fast

Alexandra Fuller                                                                      Serpent’s Tail, £14.99

Rating:

The story centres around Fuller’s father Tim, a banana farmer in Zambia’s Zambezi Valley, who had outgrown his pompous English family at an early age. He met and married Fuller’s mother, Nicola, in Kenya in 1964 when he was 24 and she was 20. 

By the time Alexandra came along five years later, following her older sister Vanessa, her nomadic parents had already lived on several farms in three countries on two continents.

The author recalls moving 20 times across southern and central Africa, because her mother had an uneasy feeling or because there had been a weekend of bad fishing, or after the death, one by one, of three of her parents’ five children.

The story centres around Fuller’s father Tim, a banana farmer in Zambia’s Zambezi Valley. He met and married Fuller’s mother, Nicola, in Kenya in 1964 when he was 24 and she was 20

The story centres around Fuller’s father Tim, a banana farmer in Zambia’s Zambezi Valley. He met and married Fuller’s mother, Nicola, in Kenya in 1964 when he was 24 and she was 20

Fuller insists she came through childhood unscathed, despite ‘the usual’ malaria, parasitic worms and being stomped on by a pony that put her, aged ten, in hospital for two weeks with a crushed spine and bent ribs.

Many years later when her father is taken ill on holiday in Budapest, Fuller leaves her home in Wyoming and her own three children and joins her mother at his bedside. Twelve days later he is dead, and there begins Fuller’s emotional and often hilarious journey back through her relationship with both parents and her sister.

While her father is undoubtedly the backbone of the book, its chapters titled with his nuggets of parental advice (‘In the unlikely event of money, buy two tickets to Paris’), it is her mother who steals the show. 

Caustically funny, she is the kind of woman who, armed only with a walking stick, bludgeons to death a massive cobra. She pops ‘anti-mad pills’, loves a ‘proper dustup’ and never hesitates to tell her daughter to stop writing her ‘awful books’.

Just when you think Fuller can’t possibly cope with any more chaos, the epilogue delivers a final, tragic blow. Despite everything our author endures, I can’t recall a book that has made me laugh so hard and so frequently.

Jade Beer    

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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