Edward Parnell’s Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country is a highly personal exploration of the idea of “haunted” in literature and film. It’s also a bit of travel guide, a dash of history, and a family memoir. But as in so many things, it’s the blending that counts and Parnell is an expert bartender. I don’t think he ever uses the word but I felt as if he were trying to demonstrate how various terroirs affect the ghost stories and the strange folk lore that then show up in the fiction and cinema that he has loved since childhood. To do this, he guides us through large swaths of Great Britain in search of the sites depicted in these books and films. As we ride next to and walk alongside the thirty-something Parnell, making pilgrimages to locations where, for example, The Wicker Man was filmed or where some of the tales of Algernon Blackwood were set, we also learn bits and pieces of Parnell’s own life, how he came to love these kinds of books and films, of the difficult deaths of his parents, and the shock when he learns his own brother has a lymphoma that will eventually kill him, too.
Parnell is not an academic and he makes no claim to be covering an entire field, although he writes about scores of nineteenth and twentieth century writers and filmmakers. Some of their names might be familiar, like Walter De La Mare, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, or F.W. Murnau. But Parnell enthusiastically introduces us to names that have, for the most part, become forgotten and lost, names like M.R. James, Lawrence Gordon Clark, L.P. Hartley, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner. Moreover, Parnell made me want to pursue some of their books and films as well.
Parnell is also a natural tour guide. I would accompany him on a road-trip anywhere. It seemed like he covered the breadth of England from East Anglia to Penzance, from Southampton to the Lake District, with even a dip into Wales for good measure. As an American, I was lost most of the time (there’s no map in the book). But it didn’t matter. I was caught up in the endless charm of English place names like Deeping High Bank, Crowland, Tyne and Wear, Lakenheath, Mow Cap, and Llanymawddwy. I should also mention, for those who care, that he’s quite the bird watcher.
Parnell is most wonderful writing about the Fens, “the unnerving flat landscape of my youth.”
I used to love the anticipation before you ran up the grassy bank: would the tide be in so that you’d feel yourself standing at the seaside, or would you be confronted with a green-and-brown expanse of mud and saltmarsh, the distant water barely visible at the edge of your vision? In the summer the landscape seemed kinder, its harsh edges softened by the pale blooms of cow parsley that grew rampantly along the dykes. My granddad called it “kek”, and one of his sluice-keeping tasks would be to burn it off and the other weeds that would clog the drainage ditches later in the season; in his eighties and early nineties, when I drove him around his old stamping ground, he would wistfully point out tinder-dry stands of dyke-side grasses he’d like to put a match to.
The book’s epigraph comes, appropriately, from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.” As a bonus for us Sebald readers, there are some genuine gifts tucked away inside Ghostland. The first occurs during a trip to Suffolk, when he visits Somerleyton Hall, which plays a prominent role in The Rings of Saturn. Parnell takes the official guided tour of the Victorian mansion, asks pointed questions of his tour guide, and snoops around the grounds, all with a mind to tell us how much of Sebald’s description of Somerleyton is factual. The second gift occurs when Parnell discovers that his friend owns the house where Sebald lived when he first came to Norfolk to teach at the University of East Anglia in 1970. Sebald eventually used that very house as the setting for where Dr. Henry Selwyn and his wife lived, in the first story in The Emigrants. As Parnell and his friend talk, she explains that the Selwyns were largely based on her father-in-law and mother-in-law, and she describes some of the transformations that Sebald made with their characters. All of which makes for some fascinating stuff for Sebald readers.
I count it as a blessing that Parnell never truly defines what he means by “haunted” because it lets him roam rather freely. Several times he shifts to the more expansive word “unsettling” and that allows him to not only bring Sebald underneath his umbrella, but it lets him write about such things as Graham Swift’s novel Waterland and the filmmaker Derek Jarman, just to name two examples.
Ghostland took me by surprise. I tend to avoid anything that deals with the haunted or the Gothic or with fairy tales. But a friend recommended the book and I am glad I trusted him. Ghostland, which is filled with Sebald-like photographs and film stills, was published by the William Collins imprint of HarperCollins, London, in 2019.