Book Review – Ghostland, Edward Parnell.
Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country
by Edward Parnell.
Review by Barbara Chamberlin (see bottom of page for bio).
The British landscape, be it geographical, literary, artistic or ideological, has always been riven with ghosts, a folkloric and supernatural fusion of the multiple histories and cultures embedded within the spaces that surround us. Ghost stories in part represent ways of making sense and meaning from the past, as well as offering a means of understanding our present. In such uncertain times then, it is perhaps no wonder that so many of us, dubbed ‘the haunted generation’ by the Fortean Times, remain preoccupied with the ghosts that have shaped us: the stories we’ve loved since childhood, the genius loci of our landscape, or those collective and personal memories that lurk in the edgelands of our minds, too fleeting or too painful to bring into full focus. All this and more can be found in the pages of Edward Parnell’s haunting (and haunted) Ghostland, a narrative that continuously reminds us that it is ‘always the ghosts’ that linger.
Ghostland is a book that is hard to classify, and all the more beautiful for being so. From the Men-an-Tol in Cornwall to the dark and lonely water of the Fens, Ayrshire to Dungeness, Parnell is our convivial and incredibly well-researched spirit guide to the places that inspired the stories and their tellers. He deftly moves from first-person narrative to social and literary history to nature writing, a psychogeographical drift through time and space that drops in many a reference to Gothic and horror texts. His sphere of reference is clearly shaped by his 1970s childhood and the array of wonderful television and film the decade offered, and he maps memories of encountering these for the first time to moments mirrored within his adult life, sometimes situating these in the very landscape they capture, making this delectable reading for anyone interested in the current folk horror revival. We walk in the footsteps, both real and imagined, of M. R. James, Algenon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, W. G. Sebald, among others, writers who Parnell himself has seen as having have a ‘wistful, haunted air about their lives’. Places, stories, artists, cultures, families. They all have ghosts in abundance.
Memory, too, is spectral – momentary, vague, flickering, deceptive, disquieting. Beneath the layers of stories, places, literary and filmic histories, Parnell’s own ghosts reveal themselves slowly, but so much more powerful for their tendency to whisper in the wings before taking centre stage. It is, in places, heart-breaking and it is an extraordinary achievement to have woven such sadness and loss into a tapestry of so many things that clearly bring the author (and, I suspect, much of his audience) joy.
Ghost stories, haunted houses, deserted beaches, literary mapping, walking, the sea, memory, horror films, folklore, a connection to the natural world. It truly is a book that lives up to the promise of the front cover (a visual feast of folk horror references!) and has all the ingredients for what is for me, essential reading, capturing so many aspects of what Robert McFarlane has called our ‘spectred isle’; landscape, ghosts, stories, memories. If anything, I would have loved Parnell to delve deeper into why it is these stories and liminal places continue to hold us in their thrall, but perhaps it is for the reader to question this in themselves. Reading it feels like going on a long steely-skied coastal walk with an old friend who, over the sound of crunching shingle under foot, regales you with stories and recommendations, some you know, some you don’t, as you make a mental note to dash to the nearest bookseller with a list of must-read items. There is something incredibly comforting in Parnell’s writing; not only is it beautifully written, it is reflective perhaps of the solace many like-minded readers may find in the pages of M. R. James or Alan Garner, or the deliciousness many feel as the nights draw in and the veil thins. It is a jolt then as Parnell pulls us away from Machen’s Grey Hill or Sebald’s Suffolk with the reveals of his unfolding personal memories, a reminder of the horror of loss; a collective sharing of grief, but a narrative that can only be deeply personal. It feels cathartic; Parnell’s longing for ‘reconciliation with the ghosts of the past’ we hope fulfilled.
About Barbara Chamberlin. . .
Barbara is a full-time lecturer at the University of Brighton where she teaches on an eclectic range of creative writing, media, literature and language modules and a part-time doctoral student at Central Saint Martins (UAL) where she is pursuing a practice-based PhD within comics studies which fuses psychogeography, folk horror and witch histories. On the rare occasions Barbara isn’t working or studying, she can be found either with her head in a book or traipsing muddy boots along the coast path.
CoRH!! (Comics Research Hub) profile: http://comicsresearch.arts.ac.uk/index.php/people/members/barbara-chamberlin/
University of Brighton PURE profile: https://research.brighton.ac.uk/en/persons/barbara-chamberlin