Ghost stories are often not about ghosts at all – they are about people. And so goes Edward Parnell’s Ghostland, a deeply personal and quietly magnificent reflection on what it is to be human, through a genre-blending mix of memoir and narrative non-fiction.
In adulthood, having endured family tragedy, Edward turned to the comfort of his childhood bookshelves, stuffed to the brim with ghost stories that enthralled him. In Ghostland, he visits desolate moorland and lichen-capped cemeteries to meditate on supernatural literature and film, from that master of masters, M. R. James, and The Wicker Man, to folk horror masterpieces such as The Owl Service and the reality-bending The House on The Borderland. Through an enduring fascination, he explores what has haunted writers and artists, and what is haunting him – the story of his own family.
This absorbing book exhumes his own past and, like all good ghost stories, reveals richness within the bleak. It’s concerned with many things – rural psychogeography, loss, nature, and the importance of recording our shadows and ghosts as well as happy times, to name a few – and captures a shifting landscape within which we ourselves shift, flitting wraith-like as any of the ghosts in those childhood books of his. How easily people can vanish from memory, Ghostland tells us, and how important it is to not forget. It is also very firmly a book about birdwatching. I spoke to Edward Parnell – also the author of The Listeners (2014) – to mark Ghostland’s release in paperback.
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Lucy Wood: What set you off on the journey that became Ghostland?
Edward Parnell: Ghostland was born out of a blog post I wrote about the odd little village of Great Livermere in Suffolk – the place where the Victorian-born master of the ghost story, M. R. James, spent his childhood. Out of the blue after posting it I was contacted by Tom, an editor at HarperCollins, to see whether I’d ever considered writing a non-fiction book about writers like James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson etc. At that point I hadn’t, as I was gearing up to finally start to attempt my second novel (in which I liked the idea of featuring an imagined version of the Cambridge academic M. R. James). After meeting with Tom and bonding over a love of old, trashy horror films (as well as some rather better ones), I went away and tried to consider whether this was a book I might actually be able to write. I was certainly interested, as I’d been hugely into ghosts and ghost stories from a young age, but I realised that if I did attempt it then I’d want to make my own story – and the story of my family – a major part of it. The more I thought about the mechanics of it, the more I realised that so many of the places that I’d want to visit – places connected with films, or stories, or writers – also had a strange connection to my own haunted past. So, that was the idea I pitched, and I was lucky that Tom took to the approach – though he had little forewarning from our initial flippant conversations about Psychomania and An American Werewolf in London about quite what I was going to end up presenting him with.
LW: The book could be described as a toolkit for the supernatural genre. We know it is a vast specialism… how did you select which authors or books to use, and which to discard? Was it difficult? I’m guessing it could have been double the size!
EP: The first draft nearly was nearly half as big again – we cut out 40,000 words, and it’s still a sizeable book even after. Essentially, I chose works that had a personal resonance for me, whether that was because I’d encountered them at a young age and they’d really stuck with me, whether they fitted a particular place I wanted to explore, or whether they meshed into the overall atmosphere that I was trying to build. And as the book progressed it became clear to me that I was being drawn, in particular, to writers in whom I discerned a certain haunted quality (even if that might have been me projecting that quality onto their lives from fairly scant evidence). It was never intended to be an overarching survey of the genre, and was always going to be about stories, novels, films, and art that I personally felt a connection to.
LW: At the heart of Ghostland lies some very traumatic personal experiences. Were there any times you hesitated in laying this bare? I was struck by the idea that ghosts become part of us, and how remembering can help us embrace grief.
EP: I wanted it to be an honest book and consequently it was emotionally difficult to write – to take myself back into some devastating points in my life. But I also felt that the time was right for me to consciously make myself confront some of those half-buried moments, because I wanted – needed, I suppose – to remember about my lost family members, and to breathe some sort of flickering life into the ghost of their memories.
To give them some kind of form, albeit a phantom one.
So in that sense Ghostland is a book about the difficulties inherent within such an act of retrieval, particularly when you’re the last person standing, and those memories are becoming increasingly distant and fractured. But although it was difficult to think back to some of those moments, it was also uplifting and life-affirming to remember the better times, and how good I think we were as a family way back then. I hope I captured that – one reader contacted me to say that he was really moved by the book and thought it was a beautiful love letter to my family; I realised then that was part of what I was trying to write, without consciously realising.
LW: There’s a strong connective power between books and memory… is there one book from your childhood you can pick out to demonstrate this?
EP: There’s one book I briefly mention in the book – The Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World. It’s a book I owned as a child in the early 1980s when I was at primary school and I loved it. It contained three volumes: one on ghosts, one on mysterious powers, and my favourite, on vampires, werewolves, and demons. Of course, I’d long given ago lost or given away my copy, but knew it was a book I wanted to read again, so ended up buying an expensive hardback on the net that came from Germany. But as soon as I started reading it, I was transported back to being that weird little seven-year-old boy and could photographically remember the illustrations and the stories it contained. The first draft of Ghostland contained quite a lot about the Usborne book but it ended up not making the cut, though I really enjoyed writing about the bloody story of the Serbian vampire Arnold Paole, a story my younger self was quite obsessed by.
LW: Otherness and the supernatural seem to fit together with nature, topography, and so on – it’s interesting that your passion for bird-watching and reading supernatural fiction both began early on for you.
EP: Well, all the birdwatching stuff is in the book because those memories are so tied up with my childhood – and indeed much of my subsequent life. I think I always I felt a connection with the land and with wildlife – birds in particular – my mum used to take me, my brother and my granddad on drives through the local lanes in the Fens where I grew up, to look for barn owls and herons. It was always very hit and miss as to what we would see, but on those occasions when an owl did ghost across a bare winter field there was a strange kind of magic in which I knew I was witnessing something special that most of my friends weren’t privy to, or wouldn’t even be interested in. So being into that stuff as I grew older also marked me out as a bit of an outsider, as it definitely wasn’t cool to be a teenage birdwatcher back then. So, I’m sure that contributed to me being drawn to the odd and the other – as well as then having to deal with more tangible horrors like my mum being ill for several years while I was at secondary school.
Birdwatching also introduced me to lots of wonderful places around the country that have links to ghost stories – like the crumbling Suffolk coast around Dunwich and Aldeburgh that forms the backdrop for some of M. R. James’s most-famous stories, or Wells Woods in north Norfolk where the BBC film adaptation of A Warning to the Curious was shot, or those magical valleys on the Land’s End peninsula in Cornwall that feature in E. F. Benson’s “Negotium Perambulans” (Benson was himself a keen birdwatcher). And it also got me used to wandering around woods and lonely spots on my own, which probably helped to further cultivate my love of the odd and esoteric…
LW: There’s a poignant moment in the book when you say that ghost stories stopped being fun…
EP: I was really into ghost stories and old horror films – I definitely was a bit of weird little kid – when I was at primary school. Then I moved more into fantasy – Tolkien, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner etc, who I also talk about in the book – as I got older, before entering more of a sci-fi phase in my early to mid-teens. Later, I switched away from all that stuff for a while as I was studying and enjoying more realist fiction at school in English lessons – but that point did coincide with the darkest period in what was going on with my family. So, whether I didn’t want to really read about cosmic horror when very tangible horrors were happening all around me, or whether it was a more natural process of moving on to more ‘serious’ literature, I can’t entirely be sure; I suspect it was a bit of both. That love of ghost stories and the gothic never went very far away though – I’d say that studying a lot of Victorian literature at university probably helped to push me back towards it, as did the arrival of The X-Files while I was uni…
LW: Why do you think we get a strange comfort from reading these kind of tales?
EP: I don’t think there’s a single, simple reason, and I imagine it’s probably different for each of us. But at the heart of it I think that reading ghost stories (and other works of the fantastic) transports us back to being children, a time when the world is awash with mystery and possibility. Then there’s the “pleasing terror” of it all (as M. R. James would term it) – the visceral joy in being scared but knowing that we’re going to come out of it fine. But lots of these stories are also working on deeper levels too – by their very nature they deal with grief, loss and mortality (and subjects like the nature of evil), so reading them helps us to gather our thoughts on those big existential questions. Many of the best stories also deal with the subconscious and how we deal – or don’t deal – with all the other demons inside us. And I think acknowledging those issues can probably help us too, to a certain extent.
LW: Ghostland is joyously difficult to classify. It’s at once a travelogue, a memoir, and an encyclopedia of ghost-story writers… now there’s distance between the writing of it and publication, is it still as cathartic to you as it comes across to the reader?
EP: I’m very proud of it and I can honestly say that there’s nothing I’d change in it – apart from if I pick a copy up and start reading it when I’ll invariably want to tweak the wording of an occasional sentence… I think it was cathartic for me to write, but I don’t really buy into that concept of closure – it hasn’t made everything right with the world for me, and I’m probably still just as sad if I think back to some of the darker moments that I talk about in the book. But I’m glad, as I said earlier, that I’ve given some kind of form to all those personal ghosts – and I hope that doing so also resonates with readers who’ve been through similar experiences.
As to the book’s hybrid mixture of genres, that very much was deliberate. I decided early on that I couldn’t really second-guess who my readers were, so I would write something that I’d want to read. At least, I thought, I can be reasonably sure of that.
This was a very new type of book for me to write – I’d written one novel, The Listeners, beforehand. So, I think I was just working on instinct. Reading Ghostland back now it seems slightly miraculous to me that I did manage to write it. Perhaps maybe I didn’t, and the spirits were working through me somehow!
LW: As with ghost stories, not everything is explained, leading the reader on a journey of discovery about what happened to you in parallel with your explorations of supernatural literature.
EP: I always wanted to withhold what was going on and gradually reveal it. A lot of that was probably about trying to structure the narrative like how I might try to with a novel. But I also had a quote that I found when I was writing about M. R. James (in his introduction to Ghosts and Marvels, 1924) that I thought really summed up a kind of modus operandi I could have for the book: “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”
LW: In your opinion, what elevates a book from good to great?
EP: I’m not sure I can answer this. I always think that it’s hard to discern what makes a book – supernatural or otherwise – great. For the ghost story (or weird novel) though, I’d say that a powerful sense of place and atmosphere do a lot of the work, as does having an internal logic that’s consistent and doesn’t deviate. But strong characters and a distinctive literary voice surely play a big part too…
LW: You visit some atmospheric/haunting places in the book. Where was your favourite and why?
EP: There were so many, but I loved being able to visit the actual building in a little seaside town on the west coast of Wales in which William Hope Hodgson worked on The House on the Borderland. I didn’t even know that I’d find the place when I turned up, so when I did and then encountered such a friendly and knowledgeable current owner who indulged this strange writer turning up out of the blue, then that was quite magical.
LW: Do you believe in ghosts?
EP: I don’t entirely not believe in them, even though I’m generally rather sceptical… (I definitely have a Fox Mulder streak though which “wants to believe”…) And I do talk about two or three incidents in Ghostland for which I don’t have an entirely satisfactory rational explanation.
LW: Are you able to share what you’re working on or planning next?
EP: I’m still playing around with various ideas, but I’d certainly like to try my hand at some point at a novel that deals on some level with the weird and eerie. (My first novel – set in rural Norfolk at the start of WWII – was rather gothic and had quite a lot of local folklore in it, but at its heart the strangeness came down to the characters themselves and the choices they’d made; I like the idea of the supernatural featuring in a more explicit way in a future novel).
LW: Finally, what is your personal sublime horror?
EP: I first read some of William Hope Hodgson’s wonderfully weird maritime tales while I was on a ship travelling towards the arctic. That really added to the experience of reading them, though if we’d have been becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, I might have started to get a little worried. Particularly if I’d heard a voice in the night sounding out across the waters…
Ghostland by Edward Parnell is published by William Collins.
Buy the book: US