Suffolk Horror: Wakenhyrst, a Jamesian Inversion

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A cold and crusty middle-aged antiquarian. Unseen horrors, half-animal, half-spirit, lurking in a fen. An unearthed relic from the ancient past, a Last Judgement painting which fuses Christian and pagan symbolism into a Hieronymus Bosch-style nightmare.

Together with its rural East Anglian setting, these elements seem to belong to a story from M.R. James (1862-1936), perhaps Britain’s most admired writer of ghost stories.

But the antiquarian in Michelle Paver’s novel Wakenhyrst (2019) does not belong to James’s world of confirmed bachelors. Emotionally frozen though he is, Paver’s Edmund Stearne is a man of lustful appetities and incessant demands. Without a shred of remorse, he sleeps with his underage maid and drives his wife into multiple miscarriages and ill-health by insisting on his ‘conjugal rights’ every night regardless of her situation. 

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His hunger for arcane knowledge is equally obessive, especially when it comes to a lost fifteenth century manuscript relating to one Alice Pyett, mystic and saint.

Commandeering his undervalued daughter Maud to act as his secretary, Stearne prepares his modern translation and exegesis on the Pyett document. Stearne notes how literate and efficient Maud is compared to his slower son. But he regards her obvious capabilities with amused irony. In true Schopenhauer form, he believes nature has mistakenly bestowed some limited intellectual powers to a woman, who, by virtue of gender, will lack the depth necessary to use them. He also disparages the memory of the wife once he’s driven her to the grave, suggesting that her mediocrity “was holding [him] back.”

But in the case of Maud, the joke is on him. We experience Stearne’s thoughts through the ‘secret’ diary Maud has discovered. Stearne’s daughter has ideas of her own, as well as her own particular loves which include the surounding fen with its mysterious night calls, its swamps and eels, as well as her pet magpie, Chatterpie, and the undergardner, Clem.

Stearne is unnerved by the ancient Doom (Last Judgement) he encounters by accident the tries to conceal.The man who painted that Doom,” he notes, “believed in Hell as completely as he believed in his own existence.” In fact, he decides, “there is nothing sacred about it, and that it possesses a quality of the infernal.” 

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Hieronymus Bosche, the Dutch painter Stearne thinks of when he sees the ‘Wakenhyrst Doom’.

 

The parrallels with M. R. James are quite striking, in particular with the The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral in which an overly ambitious cleryman, Archdeacon Haynes, senses the carved figures in the Barchester stalls becoming imbued with a distinctly unholy presence.

In its depiction of a stuffy patriarchial world, its lurking malignity and its Suffolk setting, Wakenhyrst might be considered a riff upon James’s universe. But it’s also an inversion.

James was an extremely male author and he was also a writer for whom working class people were most often comic relief. Here, Maud, the overlooked daughter, Stearne’s mistreated wife, and the working-class Clem are the characters with whom the reader most identifies.

And the pyramid is also inverted in terms of the supernatural themes.

Malign forces creep stealthily through James’s eccentric characters and comedic situations until the supertural threat becomes the most real and unsettling aspect of the story. In Wakenhyrst, the living fen, vivid and mysterious, is a constant presence but the most monstrous agency by far is entirely human. 

Wakenhyrst begins with a newspaper account of a journalist’s meeting with the elderly Maud sixty years after the main events in the novel. So the reader knows in advance that the story in the past is leading to bizarre and inexplicable violence. Intriguingly, we are invited to piece togther from Stearne’s research and his diary the motivations which lay behind the infamous event.

One of Michelle Paver’s recurring themes, explored also in Thin Air (2016) and Dark Matter (2010), is a sinister or threatening environment that reflects something about dysfunctions of the characters and the times in which they live. The aforementioned titles address the last gasp of the era of exploration in the 1930s. For those yearning for an Edwardian horror story yet also long to see the genre revisited through a progressive lens, Wakenhyrst is the perfect tonic.

Paul Butler is the author of the newly-released Mina’s Child and 2017’s The Widow’s Fire

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‘Dracula’ Meets the New Generation – Mina’s Child

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It’s 1921, a generation after the events depicted in Dracula.

The ‘heroes’ of Bram Stoker’s novel, Jonathan and Mina Harker, have lived through the Great War. The Harkers have lost a son, Quincey, named after the martyred Texan hero in Dracula. Their daughter, Abree, is skeptical about the late-Victorian values of her parents, especially their blind trust in authority, as embodied by their friendship with the aristocratic Arthur Holmwood. To Abree, loyalty to the class structure is what led the world to the catastrophe of 1914-18 and the death of her brother, Quincey.

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Caught in the crosswinds of social change, Abree tries to commit herself to studying literature at King’s College. But external concerns are about to overtake the Harkers. They find themselves haunted by two characters, one living, one dead: A young professor from Wallachia reawakens the Harkers’ suspicion of foreign strangers, and Lucy Westenra, victim of Arthur Holmwood’s stake, weaves her way through their collective dreams, threatening to unearth a forgotten crime.

Here, as a brief preview, is a 5-minute reading of Mina’s Child.

Mina’s Child is available for order or pre-order through amazon, Chapters-Indigo chain, Barnes and Noble, and all good independent book stores, but, because of Covid-19, the quickest and most reliable way for now is directly through the publisher, Inanna Publications.

Upcoming June 11!

Mina’s Child will be included in the virtual book launch, hosted by Inanna along with The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton, Carousel by April Ford, The Negation of Chronology: Imagining Geraldine Moodie by Rebecca Luce-Kapler, and Seeds and Other Stories by Ursula Pfug. Everyone is free to sign up for this exciting event!

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Malignant Nature II: Excavated Devils and Pagan Kings

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THE EARLY 18th CENTURY. A plough scores its way through the earth. Farmhand Ralph  stops his horse to rest, turns around and takes a look at his work. He notices a cluster of pigeons gathering around a newly-formed furrow. Moving in closer, he sees feathers scattered around the soil. Then, nudging aside a stone, he discovers a tuft of lack fur, an oddly-formed skull, and a staring eye.

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The ‘fiend’s’ staring eye in Blood on Satan’s Claw

Ralph runs away.

The opening titles roll to Marc Wilkinson’s lyrical score. Woodwinds weave a  romantic folk melody. In the background, staccato tympani strikes mischievous notes as though depicting some creature hopping around in the undergrowth. A raven perches below a lowering sky. Twigs and ferns curl like claws, their seeds quivering in the breeze.

Blood on Satan’s Claw, directed by Piers Haggard in 1971, had the misfortune to be released in a period when the British horror film had begun to degenerate into gratuitous sex and dismal youth-oriented gimmicks. But, despite the association, Blood on Satan’s Claw is an outlier in the history of British film, a true inheritor of Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s celebrated Haxan (1922) in its attention to art history, visual composition, and a total  abandonment to the full scope of nightmarish imagination.

Screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons, who had an interest in William Blake’s visionary writings as well as Irish folklore, worked closely with director Haggard on the many startling visual sequences.

The skull unearthed in the opening sequence belongs to a ‘fiend’ who, with the help of village children, is slowly reconstituting itself using patches of fur which have been growing on the skin of the villagers.

A local doctor (Howard Goorney) opens a book of ancient lore about witches. He shows an illustration to a visiting nobleman, ‘The Judge’ (Patrick Wymark), saying the visage in question is very similar to the skull described by Ralph.

“Doctor,” the Judge snaps. “Witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you intent on reviving forgotten horrors?”

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Urban Enlightenment: Patrick Wymark as ‘The Judge’

“How can we know, Sir, what is dead?” The doctor retorts. “You come from the city. you cannot know the ways of the country.”

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Rural wisdom: the doctor (Howard Goorney)

Cinema goers in the early 1970s  would have been used to Hammer Films’s systematized approach to horror in which a satanically evil character was often pitted against a hero wielding Christian icons like a crucifix or holy water. A threat such as a vampire came complete with an already-established FIFA-style rule book about the extent of its powers and the means of its destruction.

In Blood from Satan’s Claw a more obscure battle rages. This fight is not between conventional ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but between the Enlightenment, personified by the urban Judge on the one hand, and darker primeval forces characterized by the doctor and villagers on the other. It is the Judge himself who, after a series of tragedies and murders, finally determines that there is indeed an evil which must be purged. The dream-like climax sees him impale the almost complete ‘fiend’ with a decidedly medieval-looking spike which he then holds high above the fire within the church ruins before lowering it onto the sizzling flames.

As the end titles roll the Judge’s eye is seen through briefly parting flames, an image that clearly  recalls our first glimpse of the fiend’s eye staring up from the furrows. Is the Judge an Enlightenment equivalent of the fiend he has vanquished? This would certainly seem to be the implication. But ultimately, like Haxan, the story bypasses the intellect and appeals to the senses and the imagination. The interior sets have more than a hint of the Dutch masters, with their autumnal hues and attention to domestic arrangements such as pots, wicker bird cages, and hanging herbs. The exteriors, captured by cinematographer Dick Bush, are gorgeous and bucolic, an ironic counterpoint to the children led by ‘Angel’ (Linda Hayden) who play murderous games while serving their dark master.

THE FORCES OF DARKNESS and light in the English countryside received a more obviously cerebral treatment three years later in the television film Penda’s Fen (1974) written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

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BBC Poster for Penda’s Fen 1974

Nearing his eighteenth birthday, Stephen (Spenser Banks), an earnest young vicar’s son, pens an effusive tribute to Edward Elgar’s opera The Dream of Gerontius, the tale of a man led by an angel to the throne where he will confront the “piercing glance of God”.

The music, writes Stephen, attempts to capture the “fearful dissonance” of  looking upon the face of the Creator and also the moments of worrisome self-judgement that lead up this climatic event.

An intensely patriotic young man, Stephen reacts angrily against a bohemian neighbour, a playwright (Ian Hogg), who disparages the “psychopaths” who wield the real power behind British politicians. Stephen rails (to his parents) that the playwright is “unnatural” — his plays always have “someone unnatural” in them — and this is why the the writer and his wife have not been blessed with children.

The parents look at each other with weary resignation. Their son, they realize, has very little self-awareness. They have seen the way he looks longingly at the young milkman who comes to the door in his t-shirt.

Assailed by dreams in which an angel hovers over his shoulder by day and a demon sits on his chest at night, Stephen also dreams he can turn a demon perching on his father’s church spire back into an angel.  A church’s spire, according to his father (John Atkinson), can act like an aerial to forces of both good and evil because it presents the “Manichean challenge” — the struggle of forces of light not to be overwhelmed by darkness.

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Vicar’s son, Stephen, and angel in Penda’s Fen

Stephen’s own notions of darkness and light are rigidly conventional. In a speech before the class he harangues his classmates about the dangers of a ‘subversive’ tv documentary Who was Jesus? and praises a couple he calls “the mother and father of England” who were successful in their injunction to have the programme banned.

But Stephen’s worldview is about to be challenged not only by his own burgeoning sexuality but also by the discovery that his father’s opinions are far more radical than he thought. On a bookshelf he finds his father’s old thesis, The Buried Jesus, which mourns that fact that the “name of this life-enhancing, revolutionary Jesus should be dangled like a halo over a sick culture centered on authority and death.” 

His father later explains that to live in the world you must be “two selves” the one who needs to survive and must play along with authority, and also the real self. His view of Christianity is similar. There is the “life enhancing” Jesus but there are also the “institution men” — like Paul and Augustine — who degraded the Christian message.

The Penda’s Fen of the title is the ancient name for Stephen’s village, Pinvin. Penda was the pre-Christian king and throughout the film there is a sense that the surrounding institutions — the Anglican church, Stephen’s military-style private school, the various levels of government — are interlopers in a land still haunted by ancient tradition.

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The spirit of King Penda, Penda’s Fen

For such a richly-layered film, Penda’s Fen also conveys a sense that the landscape is very much alive — in the Shropshire vistas, and in the beautiful sunsets, especially in the scene in which Stephen’s father suggests that the spirit of Penda still lives in the hills that surround them.

Time has been good to both Blood from Satan’s Claw and Penda’s Fen. Both works explore particular kinds of disquiet and ambiguity, and above all, a sense of unpredictability and agency in our natural surroundings.

Malignant Nature I: Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

 

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

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Malignant Nature I: Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

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Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil; but even when they fed, it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire.

(Daphne du Maurier, The Birds, 1952)

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Virago short story collection featuring The Birds

So thinks protagonist Nat as he enjoys his solitude on his lunch break. Injured in the war Nat sustains his family by doing odd jobs about a farm, mending fences and digging ditches. Today he watches as an odd assortment of birds — gulls, finches, songbirds — wheel and dive around the furrows.

The birds, he decides, are in a panic because of a cold snap that seems to herald the coming of winter. They are suddenly aware of their own mortality. As a war veteran this is something he understands: Apprehensive before their time [people] drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise. 

But a night of horror is about to follow. The birds invade Nat’s home, terrifying his children, going for his young son’s eyes. This is quite unlike anything he has heard of or experienced.

At first he can’t get the farming community to take it seriously. “Foreign birds maybe,” someone tells him. “From that Arctic circle.”

The rural people around Nat seem insular and small-minded. When at last they do believe there is a genuine problem, their response is to go out with guns and try to shoot the birds.

The Birds is at least partly social satire. Nat, we are told, is held in some suspicion by the rural community. He is said to be superior. Read[s] books and the like.

Du Maurier’s short story is set in one of the gloomiest periods of British history, during the post-war years when the trauma of  conflict was still present and the sense of deprivation was yet to lift. Nat directly compares the blind savagery of the birds’ attacks to the air raids he experienced over Plymouth. It’s as though the war never really ended and the siege of the blitz is everywhere.

The final scenes, with Nat’s family holed in in their farmhouse, have an apocalyptic flavour: Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.

Nat moves the dial on the radio and finds no stations are broadcasting. He throws his final cigarette package — the last trapping of luxury and civilization — on the fire.

***

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Daphne du Maurier around the time of Rebecca’s publication, (1938)

When author du Maurier heard that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to adapt her short story, she had every reason to be both pleased and confident that the result would reflect the themes of her original. This had been the case with Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) based on du Maurier’s bestselling novel published in 1938.

But it had been David O. Selznick, Rebecca‘s producer, who had insisted the film remain as close to its literary source as possible. Selznick had just produced epoch-defining Gone with the Wind and saw himself as the guardian of modern literary adaptations.

Hitchcock, in contrast, was all about film, and he was no longer the youngish director working under Selznick trying to get a foothold in Hollywood. After several smash hits, including, most recently, Psycho (1960), he was in creative control of his projects. To the veteran director, a literary source was something to be exploited for what it might yield, not slavishly followed to please the fans of its author.

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A study in helplessness: Hitchcock’s publicity poster for The Birds (1963)

So, for Hitchcock, the gloom of southern England becomes the breezy freedom of Northern California. Understated farmhand Nat becomes dashing San Francisco lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and in the most surprising liberty of all, we are introduced to rich socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a creation reminiscent of socialites played respectively by Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and North by Northwest (1959).

Melanie Daniels’  sole purpose in the first third of the film is to stalk (in modern parlance) Mitch who she she has come across by accident in a pet store. She uses her  connections as the daughter of a newspaper proprietor to trace Mitch’s licence plate and follow him in her sports car to remote Bodega Bay.

This character is pure Hitchcock. No such character as Melanie Daniels exists anywhere in the real world, let alone in du Maurier’s parochial farming community. While Tippi Hedren was criticized at the time for her mannequin style of dress and behaviour, Hitchcock himself must take the lion’s share of the blame.

He “discovered” Hedren by accident watching a TV advert for a diet soda. In the ad, someone wolf-whistles and she reacts archly, a scene which is repeated in The Birds when we first encounter her. With no real acting experience, Hedren had little choice but to closely follow Hitchcock’s meticulous direction, which included precise instructions about movement and facial expression; this last aspect is notably absent except for a hint of smugness. As Hitchcock once intimated, Melanie represents an all-too-human confidence in our own indomitable power. We are supposed to find her overconfident.

Aside from Melanie, the tone and setting could hardly be more of a contrast to du Maurier’s original. Bodega Bay may be ‘rural’ but the characters — Mitch’s oddly possessive mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy),  Mitch’s former girlfriend, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) — are worldly and sophisticated.

Only in one scene set in a local diner does a sense of social satire come to the surface with various types reacting to the story of the savage birds. Beret-wearing ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) is naturally skeptical and rather indignant at the idea. Drunken prophet of doom (Karl Swenson) sees it as the apocalypse but we get the idea he has predicted the end of the world many times before.

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Famous set piece: birds gather for attack

The Birds, perhaps more than most Hitchcock movies, is about its set pieces: the schoolyard climbing frame gradually filling up with crows to the sound of a nursery rhyme from within the school while oblivious Melanie looks the other way and smokes her cigarette; the series of accidents at a gas station which culminates in a man dropping his cigarette butt in a growing pool of spilled petrol. The inferno caused by this incident leads to perhaps the film’s most effective cut. We are suddenly high above the town and looking from the point of view of the gulls as they amass in preparation for attack.

In some ways The Birds seems like an odd project for a director so interested in plot. There is not a great deal of story until the birds start attacking and then there is little room for anything except bird attacks. Both du Maurier’s short story and Hitchcock’s film are inconclusive, although the original implies the likelihood of impending death for Nat and his family. Hitchcock generally liked resolution, even when it meant a great deal of exposition at the end of the movie, as in Psycho.

But the memory of World War II resounded with Hitchcock as much as with anyone, and The Birds is an exploration of this kind of fear. During the war Hitchcock had returned to London to make morale-raising documentaries for the British government. His stay in West End hotels during the blitz was an experience he didn’t forget.

The Birds is unsettling both in its prose version and in Hitchcock’s movie precisely because it’s a story that strips away human agency. The birds are not attacking for a purpose. Humans are not the cause for nature’s hostility nor do we have the means to solve the problem. And this, our helplessness amidst greater forces, is one of our deepest fears.

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

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Heretics and Adventurers: Mantel and Morgan-Cole’s Historical Fiction

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Tudors and Stuarts, the two royal dynasties most familiar to every British school child of my generation, can provide mouth-watering backdrops for historical fiction.

In very broad stokes, the Tudor monarchs, beginning in 1485 with Henry VII, were about religious strife, the quest for stability, and a clean succession. Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530s, established himself and his court as the ultimate authority on all things religious. Queen Mary, Henry’s elder daughter, brought England back to Rome in the 1550s before Elizabeth I, Henry’s second daughter, re-established the English church again as the ultimate authority under the power of the English monarch.

While exploration to the New World was in vogue for Tudor gentleman explorers such as Philip Sydney, Walter Raleigh, and Francis Drake, it was during the post-1604 Stuarts that a fresh wave of exploration bore significant fruit and reached into the popular imagination. The newly-formed East India Company looked to plunder in one direction while, in the other, fresh colonial enterprises sought to claim the treasures of North America. New plantations were established, for instance, in Virginia in 1607 and parts of New England. Further north, John Guy landed in Cuper’s Cove, Newfoundland, in 1610.

Three recent novels seek to further define the themes of each age, often highlighting parallels with our own time.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2010) and Bring up the Bodies (2015) are the first two novels in a planned trilogy which will culminate in this spring’s The Mirror and the Light. The trilogy brings us Henry VIII’s most turbulent years. Our guide is master politician Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell is driven by an ambition neither he, nor the reader, fully understands.

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Wolf Hall, the first of three Cromwell novels

Already a wealthy man by most standards, Cromwell starts political life as an agent for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and the nearest equivalent of today’s ‘prime minister’. Wolsey answers directly to the king.

By the late 1520s, Henry wants Wolsey to persuade the pope to approve his divorce from Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that, as Catherine was his brother’s widow, the match was incestuous. This blasphemy, Henry believes, is the reason the marriage has failed to produce a male heir.

As the pope is soon under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (Catherine of Aragon’s nephew), Wolsey’s task becomes impossible. The cardinal’s enemies close in but Cromwell remains loyal, despite the urging of his friends to abandon Wolsey. Foreshadowing Cromwell’s career, the cardinal himself outlines the danger for any servant of the king: Wolsey says, you know he will take the credit for your good ideas, and you the blame for his bad ones? When fortune turns against you, you will feel her lash: you always, he never.

Sick and under a gentile form of house arrest, Wolsey dies. But Cromwell’s friends were wrong. In faithfully pleading the cardinal’s case to Henry, Cromwell has already impressed the king. He continues in the ascent that will see him stepping into Wolsey’s shoes as key adviser.

The late cardinal becomes a whimsical thread in Cromwell’s thoughts. When Cromwell feels delighted about the way a day’s work has gone, Wolsey is apt to appear with fresh warnings.

But Cromwell cannot resist the urge to serve Henry regardless of the consequences. Things are stacked up against him. Like Wolsey, the son of a butcher, Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, is from too low a birth for the well-born courtiers who surround him. He has to contend with their open contempt and hostility and must be several times cleverer than his enemies. With many years spent on the continent of Europe as a soldier, gambler and all-round chancer, Cromwell is up for the task.

And he can see an opportunity to get on Henry’s good side. He can promise the one thing the monarch values most, money: [Cromwell’s] guess is, the clergy own a third of England. One day soon, Henry will ask him how the Crown will own it instead. 

The idea of a wily politician managing the desires of a temperamental leader seems thoroughly modern. Dealing with Henry, Cromwell reflects, is like dealing with a child; one day you bring in a box, and the child asks, what is in there? Then it goes to sleep and forgets, but next day, it asks again.

Mantel’s Henry VIII is intellectually and emotionally stunted in comparison with the advisers who have to serve him. But, once allowances have been made for the brutality of the age, he is also warm and sincere. He is subject to nightmares and superstition and genuinely believes his first marriage is against God’s will. Unexpectedly, Mantel also reveals how in hindsight both Cromwell and Henry are on the right side of some social issues.

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Henry VIII in Bring up the Bodies: more progressive than we thought.

In Bring up the Bodies, Cromwell, with Henry’s support, prepares a bill for parliament to provide wages for out-of-work men to help repair roads and bridges. This has become increasingly important as the breach with Rome has made England vulnerable to attack from Charles V: We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich.

The nobles in parliament balk, arguing furiously that feeding and housing the poor is  against the natural order. The bill does not pass. It is curious to encounter in the infamous monarch sentiments that place him in a more progressive light than some 21st century Conservative MPs. But Mantel’s exhaustive research, as well as her eye for irony and contradiction, unearth many such surprises.

Not least of these is a rethinking of the Catholic saint, Thomas More, a man who always has the last word and the better turn of phrase than his detractors but who, in Cromwell’s eyes, is a “vain and dangerous man.” By the standards of his time, Mantel’s Cromwell is something of a libertarian as far as religion is concerned. He happily conceals the identity and whereabouts of William Tyndale. Tyndale is a wanted man whose crime is to have translated the Bible — only read by clergy and scholars in Latin, Hebrew, or Greek —  into English.

This allows the population to see for themselves that the practices encouraged by the church such as indulgences — money paid to the clergy to shorten the time a loved one spends in purgatory — are inventions with no foundation in scripture. More, Wolsey’s successor as chancellor, has Cromwell’s Tyndale-supporting friends tortured and burned.

For those, like myself, who are the product of Catholic education, this reversal — brokerage politician Cromwell being so much more human, and more sympathetic, than idealist More — is unaccustomed territory. But it’s entirely plausible and rooted in historical fact.

Against his will, Cromwell himself becomes an agent of destruction. In Wolf Hall, his duty to Henry demands he either force More to sign an oath declaring new wife Anne Boleyn’s children the only legitimate heirs to the throne, or he must engineer More’s execution. In Bring up the Bodies, Anne herself falls out of favour when she fails to produce a male heir.

An overarching theme for both novels becomes vicarious revenge. Cromwell does not enjoy causing the downfall of others but, as he must to this to serve the king, he makes sure the collateral damage punishes those who caused Wolsey’s demise. Through rumor, court gossip, and dishonest bragging, a number of Anne’s confidantes and Wolsey’s enemies become implicated in Anne’s secret — and probably non-existent — love life. This, of course, is treason.

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies present a closeted world of corridors and dark secrets. The reader lives inside Cromwell’s head. We see everything though his crepuscular lens and the reader-protagonist intimacy is sustained through some narrative oddities such as attributing speech to all the characters by name but Cromwell only by use of “He.”

Recurring symbolism reinforces this sense of cloisters turning ever inwards. The ailing Wolsey gives Cromwell his turquoise ring as a parting gift. Around the same time a litter of black kittens is born under the cardinal’s bed. One is adopted by Cromwell to grow and become feral prowling the grounds of his home. Cromwell is therefore anointed twice; he has received Wolsey’s blessing and also his curse of ambition.

***

In Trudy Morgan-Cole’s A Roll of the Bones we shift from narrow, dark corridors, and poetic conceits into breezy daylight and swiftly changing points of view. The contrast befits the new era of exploration. The story has become about ordinary people — tradesmen, wives, and servants — who might realize their ambitions through voyage.

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Roll of the Bones: uncharted history of women and ordinary folk

John Guy’s Bristol plantation, established on the east coast of Newfoundland in 1610, provided a chance for breaking free of narrowly defined fate. As Morgan-Cole’s young colonist Ned decides,  “here…in the year of our Lord 1610, there would be such a chance–for any brave man to throw over a good apprenticeship and a safe path. Shuffle the cards, cast the dice, roll the bones: take a chance.”

By signing on as one of Guy’s 39 skilled men to land on Newfoundland’s shores, Ned  achieves a promotion from apprentice to stonemason.

Not all transitions are straightforward. Eighteen-year-old Kathryn has married Bristol tradesman Nicholas Guy, a cousin to the colony leader. She sees him as a kind man and is shocked when he announces to his relatives that he, too, will join the expedition to Newfoundland. The other expedition members consulted their spouses first, Kathryn complains.

Nicholas adds insult to injury: “At their time of life, a husband would naturally seek the counsel of a wife who is mature and has proven her worth.”

Morgan-Cole’s historical fiction often delves into the the layered stories that lie behind textbook history, especially the uncharted history of women. In Kathryn, and her companion Nancy, the author explores the social straitjackets in which seventeenth century women could find themselves. New wife Kathryn is already in a (mainly unacknowledged) battle with her sister-in-law over details like what to buy and cook for dinner. She sees herself as mistress, but her rival seems to claim household supremacy without effort.

Worse, Kathryn has to “prove her worth” by not causing ructions in the house. For her husband’s comfort, everything must appear serene.

She must practice another kind of patience too. In history, and in Morgan-Cole’s novel, the perilous journey across the Atlantic to Cuper’s Cove (or Cupids Cove) was undertaken only by men until, in 1612, when wives and other women joined the colony. Morgan-Cole playfully entitles one chapter A Parcel of Females is Delivered.

But the reader feels the tension of the men waiting to see their wives: Nicholas Guy was also straining to see the faces of the women in the boat. “I believe that be my wife,” Guy said, but when Ned looked back at the boat he saw not Kathryn but Nancy.” 

Intriguingly, in letters sent across the ocean, Morgan-Cole’s prose reverts to seventeenth century-style construction and spelling. The effect of this stylistic shift is to present the reader with something that feels like an artifact from the era and it draws us even more securely into the story. 

Other than the letters, the prose in Roll of the Bones is flowing and sensuous. The reader experiences the smell of mud and dung as Kathryn trudges through a Bristol market. We feel the swell of the sea while Ned, as a crew member of the Indeavour, travels north along Newfoundland’s coastline in search of the island’s native people.

With both Mantel and Morgan-Cole’s fiction, the eras in question are brought to life in the very texture of the writing. Perhaps this is the highest kind of achievement for a historical novel.

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

 

Social Media and Spirits in Fiction

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The ever-changing nature of social media presents a special challenge when it comes to using it as the backdrop to a novel. This landscape never stops moving and evolving. Facebook gives way to Instagram. Email slips away in favour of texting and Whats app. What was current two years ago is old hat now.  

As writers typically spend years, rather than months, penning a novel, and often longer still from first submission to seeing the work in print, how does an author capture this fast-moving target? And, once caught, how do they ensure the themes and situations remain current to readers five, ten, fifteen years or hence when modes of  social media may have gone through fresh revolutions?

Three recent novels explore the effect of social media on our lives and transcend the difficulties in distinct, yet effective, ways.

The Nix by Nathan Hill is a multi-character, multi-generational saga. At its core is a broken relationship between Faye, a mother  who left her home in the 1988 without warning, and her son, Samuel, who she deserted.

The Nix

In 2011, Samuel, now a writer and literature professor trying to cope with his disinterested but entitled students, hides away in his office frequently playing Elfscape, an online video game. When his publisher threatens to sue him for non-delivery of a manuscript for which he has been already paid, a solution to his immediate problems springs from an amazing coincidence. In a Chicago park, a former peacenik has apparently attacked a rising right-wing political figure, Governor Sheldon Packer. Dubbed  the “Packer Attacker” by the media, the woman in question is none other than Faye, Samuel’s long-lost mother.

Samuel’s amoral publisher is prepared to give Samuel a break providing he puts his name to a damning biography of the Packer Attacker, one that gives credence to ‘inside knowledge’ of Faye as everything the right wing media would have her — dangerous, irresponsible, and a serious public menace. While Samuel, bitter and resentful toward his mother, agrees to the deal, we find out in fact Faye has a complex and layered history. Desertion runs in her family, as does a folkloric Nordic force, ‘The Nix’ of the title. 

In The Nix, conventional and social media converge to create an alternative reality which bears little relation to the real world but which nevertheless exerts a huge influence on people’s lives. Governor Packer, a brutal populist, becomes a ‘victim of terrorism’ even though diminutive Faye only succeeded in throwing a couple of small stones at him. Samuel, likewise, is accused of victimizing a lax student when he refuses to give her passing grades. In revenge, she  bribes a would-be boyfriend, with a texted nude selfie, to hack into Samuel’s computer and find his guilty Elfscape secret which she has passed on to Samuel’s supervisor.

In one of The Nix‘s most satirical moments, another Elfscape addict has become so unused to normal human contact he gets enraged at an imaginary slight from a counter clerk and yells a catchphrase from a meaningless but omnipresent pop song, “You have got to represent!”

In The Nix, manipulation of media and political interests have permeated all levels of daily communication in a way the characters themselves don’t fully understand. Very little information can be relied upon. Crucial to the softening up of people’s brains is the immediacy and the quick fix of the information age with its gaming, texting, and selfies.

Similarly inter-generational is Leslie Vryenhoek’s We All Will Be Received.

At the heart of Vryenhoek’s novel is another escapee. It’s 1977. Traumatized by witnessing a recent knife fight, a young woman, Dawn, skips out from a seedy Ontarian motel at night, leaving her drug dealer boyfriend, Slake. She takes the cash Slake owes to his bosses. Thinking of the best way to avoid pursuit, she accepts a lift from long-distance trucker, Jerry, who’s heading east to Newfoundland.

This is a fag end of the space rock era. Jerry, though more a fan of the recently-deceased Elvis, romantically envisages a future where humanity has migrated to other planets. Jerry’s world is pregnant with exploration and optimism. He sees in the waif-like Dawn a chance to be helpful, a chance for connection.

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They remain friends as Dawn gradually settles on Newfoundland’s west coast, changing her identity and depositing Slake’s drug money in the bank bit by bit so as not to arouse suspicion.

Jerry is the perfect innocent in the real sense of the term. He’s experienced enough to know that Dawn has been in serious trouble but doesn’t pry as to its nature. He takes her on  drives around the landscape he loves, introduces her to family and helps her get involved in the hotel business.

Humanity, contrary to Jerry’s hope, never makes it to other planets but the universe becomes more accessible nevertheless. The internet changes everything, including the chance of remaining anonymous to those who believe they have left their pasts behind. The web can also bring together people who don’t easily mix, as it does many years later when Dawn is a successful owner of a hotel near St. Anthony, high on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula.

One of these people is Ethan. As a small child, Ethan escaped a kidnapper by crawling through a bathroom window. Now a man, he feels he has never ceased to be a fugitive, and is on the run from the relationships crowding his life.

His overbearing mother, Pauline, retains an outdated VCR player so she can show people the footage of news programs from the times of her child’s abduction. It is important, we are told, “that everyone understand what a brave pioneer she was in the field of desperate mother love.” When it’s no longer practical to keep the VCR, Pauline has the footage digitized.

Ethan’s relationship with his girlfriend has imploded in the only way relationships implode in the 21st century — online. He watches from another room as Lana changes her relationship status first to it’s complicated and then to single. Then he witnesses the online sympathy bestowed on Lana for having tried so valiantly to heal such a damaged individual.

Having broken free again, Ethan is skeptical about rehabilitation for people convicted of violent crimes. But he is about to meet a representative of an organization devoted to this very purpose at Dawn’s hotel.

One of the reasons why both The Nix and We All Will be Received work so well is that they use social media to delve intelligently into issues of social change. While modes of communication never stop altering, this sense of constant flux is almost guaranteed. Both novels also deal with misunderstanding and miscommunication. They highlight the fact that, while there is a far greater volume of daily communication than ever before, this ‘information’ in no way enhances the amount of accuracy or insight that surrounds us. Nor does it make our decisions any more sound.

A third novel, Ghosterby Jason Arnopp delves intriguingly into communications as a backdrop to the supernatural,  a subject dealt with before in this blog.

All the action of Ghoster takes place within a single year and, unlike the other two novels, it has a sole protagonist and narrator. Kate, a paramedic and social media junkie, is about to uproot her life in Leeds, England, and move to Brighton on the south coast to be with her dreamboat boyfriend, Scott.

ghoster cover

She’s handed in her notice at work, transferred to Brighton, and is ready to go. Trouble is Scott, with whom she has been in constant contact for months, has ceased texting back. It’s only 24 hours since she heard from him but Kate is worried and can’t stop checking her phone.

Izzy, a fellow paramedic who suffered an injury while trying to guide a disorientated man down the stairs, reassures her everything will be okay. Kate feels guilty about Izzy’s accident. She should have been on the other side of the patient but she was taking a break to check her phone for messages.

Kate tries telling herself she is paranoid to think that Scott’s non-response presages disaster. And yet, she, and the reader, are too used to the immediate gratification of an answer not to worry. Her own texts become urgent and demanding.

Kate drives down south on the appointed day and arrives at Scott’s sumptuous Brighton apartment to find it empty of Scott and all his furniture. He’s simply disappeared. An apparently mocking emoji scrawled on the window overlooking the sea is the only thing which might constitute a message or an explanation.

On the balcony, beyond the glass, lies the only other relic from Scott’s habitation, his cell phone.

Next day she starts her new job in the seaside town, dealing  with life and death issues as before. She takes two phones to work, hers and Scott’s. She’s decided the only way to crack the mystery of Scott’s disappearance is to hack into his accounts. When she does so, the puzzle deepens. Scott is not only alive and well; he is online, sharing photos and memes. His phone shows he has also been very active on dating sites even during their time together. 

At night, squatting in Scott’s abandoned apartment, Kate experiences a ghostly blue light which eventually morphs into a monstrous distortion of one of the women who appeared as a head-shot on Scott’s phone. Kate, soon joined by Izzy, becomes more determined than ever to solve the mystery of Scott’s disappearance and the ghostly visitations.

The prose in Ghoster is frequently punctuated by text exchanges, mainly between Kate and Izzy, and the subject never strays far from social media addiction. Kate’s new paramedic partner, Tyler — Kate finds to her horror — is surreptitiously snapping photos of the accident victims they have been dispatched to save. He’s uploading them onto a voyeurism site called sickfuxx.

The non-fussy nature of the writing masks a sneakily profound story reminiscent of Ira Levin’s high concept fantasies Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. In the addiction-denying Kate, Scott, and Tyler, Arnopp satirizes an aspect of our own society just as Levin satirized the father-knows-best husband Guy Woodhouse and the ‘diabolical’ patriarchal web that oppresses the Rosemary of the 1966 Levin story.

In these novels, Hill, Vryenhoek, and Arnopp demonstrate how a canny writer can produce something timeless even from a highly topical backdrop.

Also on the subject of supernatural fiction see previous blog entries on M.J. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Dorothy Macardle, Sarah Waters, and Shirley Jackson.

 

 

Paul Butler is the author of the upcoming Mina’s Child and The Widow’s Fire

The Genealogy of Self-Harm: Finton O’Toole’s Heroic Failure

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If an apocalyptic flavour accompanies the end of 2019 for people born and brought up in the UK, I think we can be forgiven. The country has just suffered the second of two extraordinary self-imposed blows.

The first, in 2016, was the country’s Brexit referendum in which the population narrowly decided to leave the world’s most powerful trading block to ‘go it alone’. The second was the thumping victory for the Conservative party which unequivocally supports the referendum decision. This is against a mountain of evidence that  the consequences of leaving the EU will be almost entirely negative for the majority of UK citizens.

News media outlets in the UK — most of which are Conservative-supporting — have been concentrating on the ‘how’ of the issue. How exactly will the United Kingdom leave? Hard Brexit without a deal, or “soft Brexit” with a deal? How will Brexit affect Northern Ireland which is technically part of the United Kingdom but which, since the Good Friday Agreement, shares some education, water, and health care services with Ireland (which is and will remain an EU country)? How can the UK justify leaving the EU while keeping Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted ‘remain’ and whose independence party, the SNP, has won the vast majority of Scotland’s seats in parliament?

But the “how” question is not even the most compelling one.

The real issue is”Why?” Why did the British government create a problem with the EU  that didn’t exist before the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) began its lobbying efforts in the early 1990s? Why did the people of Britain go along with the anti-European stance not once with the 2016 referendum, but twice by voting in 2019 for the Conservatives and therefore eliminating any chance of sober second thought?

There must be some extraordinary psychological need, one so extraordinary that it ignores facts, figures, and logic, and even revels in doing so.

The famous, “We Send the EU £350 million a week” slogan on the side of Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit tour bus in 2016 was an outright lie, of course. But, more importantly, it was proven to be an outright lie before people cast their vote in 2016. More staggering still, in the 2019 election, a non-partisan government watchdog found that 88 % of the statements made by the Conservatives were misleading or simply untrue. Again, this statistic had become common knowledge before people went to the ballot box. It still didn’t change anyone’s vote. And the usual caveat that all politicians lie doesn’t apply because the nearest rival, the Labour Party, told no verifiable lies using the same measures.

Irish writer Finton O ‘Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain goes further in explaining this ‘why” question than would have seemed possible. O’Toole is a modern day Friedrich Nietzsche on this subject, discomforting readers with ideas we’d rather not face.

Using a broad historical brush, O’Toole takes us from the 2016 discovery of the wreckage of the doomed 1948 Franklin Expedition, to Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his disastrous attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, to the last stand against the Zulus in Islandlwana, to the “heroic” catastrophe of the Charge of the Light Brigade. All of these events were about disaster. They all involved unnecessary suffering and loss of life.  Yet all have been enthusiastically celebrated in adventure books, film, and poetry.  

heroic failure

In the chapter, The Pleasures of Self Pity, O Toole examines the relationship between nationalistic self-pity and exaggerated self-regard — two sides of the same coin and essential ingredients of the British psyche, especially since the country began to decline as a colonial power. The British suffer and die — by choice– and this makes them deserving. Colonization went hand in hand with virtue and self-sacrifice. Most penetrating of all is the way O’Toole identifies the neat inversion of reality achieved through this celebration of national disaster:

“…heroic failure was an even more powerful mechanism for assuaging guilt; it re imagined the British conquest of the earth as an epic of suffering, not for the victims, but for the victors. It took the pain of the oppressed and ascribed it to the oppressors.”

There was shock and indignation when former colonies fail to display the expected gratitude to the UK in its decline. When the people of former colonies immigrate to Britain after World War II, this sense of indignation was further inflamed. Immigration was seen by some rabble-rousing politicians, most notably Conservative MP Enoch Powell,  as an invasion, a reversal of the natural order of things.

Most pertinent to twenty first century politics was the seamless way this indignation  transferred itself to Britain’s relationship to the EU. Brussels, host city of many EU institutions, was seen as the centre of a colonizing power. Euro-skeptics conveniently forgot that the UK had as much input into EU laws as any other country, and that, given Britain’s size and status,  Brussels is (or was) as much “us” as it is anyone else.

But as anyone who listens to James O’Brien on LBC radio knows, poetic loyalty to the idea that Britain is unjustly overrun by foreigners cannot be overturned by logic. O’Brien’s technique with irate callers complaining about the tyranny of the EU is simple. He asks them which EU rules interfere with their lives.

There is usually a pregnant silence on the other end of the line.

As O’Toole reminds us, Boris Johnson has his own method for whipping up anti-EU hysteria. He lies. Among his famous assertions was the charge that the EU had banned prawn cocktail flavoured crisps (British word for chips). The small grain of truth behind this complaint was the fact that all food was subject to health regulations which limited harmful additives.

kippers

Another fictional outrage: the EU threatens the ‘great British kipper’.

 

O’Toole expresses a grim kind of humour as he negotiates through the faux outrage of the Brexit camp, including the false claim the EU was limiting the amount of bend permissible on bananas sold in British stores.

The Brexit campaign might read like a particularly over-the-top satire, except that it really happened and was ultimately successful in its mendacious goals.

Johnson courting votes

Boris Johnson’s 2019 campaign: creepy, dishonest, but successful.

But being exasperated with Brexiteers is a waste of energy. Trying to understand the insanity, on the other hand, is almost a kind of balm, even though it won’t make the consequences any less damaging. O’ Toole’s book helps in  this regard and, in its rigor and insight, often brings to mind the cold excavations of Nietzsche. 

The parallels between O’Toole’s and Nietzsche’s way of thinking are sometimes striking.  Every belief, however fervently held, has some deeply-rooted psychological cause.

Christians can recognize in Nietzsche’s  On the Genealogy of Morality some uncomfortable truths about the psychological (rather than religious) functions of the biblical narrative. Here we are told about an all-loving God whose supreme sacrifice (of his son) puts humanity into a moral debt so enormous we can never hope to repay it. According to Nietzsche, the emotional torture caused by this debt compensates for the fact that, since the emergence of civil society with laws and regulations, humanity can no longer commit unspeakable cruelties against each other. If we can’t torture others, we have no choice but to turn our innate cruelty inwards and torture ourselves with the knowledge of our permanent indebtedness. .

Is Brexit, on some smaller scale, a way of  internalizing the cruelty the Empire once visited upon others? The deliberate nature of it, the sense of stepping into misfortune with eyes wide open, suggests it might be.

O’Toole provides eye-opening twists and turns in the psychology of the Brexiteer by distinguishing British nationalism from English nationalism. It is an argument that at first takes a little swallowing, but in the end makes perfect sense. After all, there is a very clear divide between opinion in England and opinion in Scotland. In the referendum England was largely hostile to the EU; Scotland was overwhelmingly in favour.

A shift in England’s cultural identity occurred when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England in 1604. The first step towards unification of the two nations means that the ‘glory’ years of colonial expansion came under the banner of Britain rather than England. O’Toole demonstrates how Shakespeare and his company, renamed the King’s Players, suddenly became the purveyors of British, rather than English, history and drama. The disappearance of English culture into British culture would stoke trouble for the future.

While the last decades of the twentieth century saw the exercising of  Scottish and Welsh identity through devolution and the eventual creation of separate Scottish and Welsh parliaments, no parallel movement occurred for England. But it was there, bubbling under the surface. O’Toole notes that Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, was a traumatic forerunner of Brexit, correlated to the spontaneous, and perhaps unexpected, reappearance of St. George’s Cross, taking the place of the Union Jack.

In the chapter The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella, O’Toole argues that anti-EU sentiment is a displacement of suppressed English nationalism. “The tooth is a very small part of the body . . .,” O’Toole notes, “But a person with toothache finds it hard to think about anything else.” While Brexit is “radical, invasive surgery — not dentistry,” it does, “distract from the pain, much in the way that hitting your foot with a hammer will make you forget the ache in your tooth,” akin to self-harm.

Repression and displacement, then, are key parts of the Brexit madness, and they were ruthlessly exploited by some genuinely malignant characters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Johnson has no regard for the truth whatever, and has made innumerable racist, sexist, and Victorian anti-working class statements. None of the people who served in his cabinet so far have shown any sign of possessing a social conscience. Rees-Mogg championed Brexit for the population he claimed to represent. Meanwhile, without a whiff of irony, he defended a move from London to Dublin of the investment management firm he founded and of which he remains a partner. Through its Irish-based investment vehicle, Somerset Capital Management can have one foot in the EU and one outside, a choice unavailable to British residents who lack Rees-Mogg’s ample means. Both these Dickensian ‘characters’ are in the mold of the well-known English eccentric, renamed by O’Toole the “harmful eccentric,” who represent “as invasive species  as tenacious and damaging as Japanese knotweed.”

The “broken umbrella” of the chapter’s title refers to the nation state and its safeguards, until recently, the linchpin that was the welfare state. “The problem is,” O’Toole says, “the umbrella is broken, its material tattered, its struts sticking out like bared bones.” To see beyond self-pity and the delusions it fosters, he concludes, it is necessary to first fix the umbrella.

But the 2019 Conservative re-election feels like a last chance missed. A Nietzschian overview would suggest a country absolutely intent upon self-harm.

Paul Butler, originally from the UK, lives in Canada. He is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna), a Gothic-inspired revisit of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, May 2020), in which the daughter of Dracula’s ‘heroes’ (Mina and Jonathan Harker) questions her parents’ claim to have acted with courage and virtue when disposing of a foreign nobleman. 

Le Fanu’s Faustian Variation: Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter

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Light fades in the artist’s studio in Leiden. Godfrey Schalken, ambitious young student  of Dutch master Gerard Douw, struggles with his latest assignment. With charcoal on canvas he reworks ‘a group of extremely roguish-looking and grotesque imps and demons, who were inflicting various ingenious torments upon a perspiring and potbellied St. Anthony.

Aware suddenly of his own limitations, Schalken curses. He wishes the devils, saint, and picture to hell.

A sudden laugh from behind tells Schalken he is not alone. He turns to see an old man, obscure in the dim light. There is ‘something indescribably odd . . . in the perfect, stonelike movelessness of the figure.’

Author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Readers of Gothic fiction in 1839, when the story first appeared, would have recognized the essentially Faustian scenario. Schalken the painter is at the crossroads. He has conjured a malignant force. Someone is about to be tempted. A deal will be struck. But the price paid will be greater than anyone could foresee.

Author Sheridan Le Fanu, who would later write ‘sensational’ novels Uncle Silas (1864) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869),  was only twenty-five when he penned this extraordinary tale combining art history with supernatural invention. Godfrey Schalken (or Godfried Schalcken, 1643-1706) did indeed study under Gerard Douw (or Gerrit Dou) in Leiden, and the atmosphere in Schalcken’s paintings, ghostly candlelight barely penetrating an encompassing darkness, seems perfectly represented in Le Fanu’s story.

Young Girl with a Candle by Godfried Schalcken

The death-like stranger, who calls himself Wilken Vanderhausen, wishes for the hand of Gerard Douw’s niece and ward, Rose Velderkaust. The temptation he proffers is money. But there is one major deviation from devil-pact convention. In Le Fanu’s story, Schalken, who appears to conjure the malign force, is not the one lured into the deal. Although in love with Rose, he remains quite unconscious of the agreement struck between Vanderhausen and Douw for Rose’s hand. He acts as go-between, taking Vanderhausen’s chest of gold to be valued, turning up at his Douw’s request at the supper where Rose is introduced to her unearthly suitor, all the while unaware of the purposes of these events.

Rose herself is horrified when she hears of the plans. She recoils at the Vanderhausen’s ‘bluish leaden hue’ and his enormous eyes in which the white appeared both above and below the iris, which gave to them an expression of insanity.’ The stranger, she tells her uncle, reminds her of an “old painted wooden figure that used to frighten me so much in the church of St. Lawrence of Rotterdam.”

But her uncle is firm. The deal has been made. Rose will marry the grotesque stranger and live with him in Rotterdam. She does as she is told. Then, to the consternation of both Douw and Schalken, she seems to disappear from the earth. Neither husband nor young wife contacts Douw as promised and, when he makes inquiries, Douw can find no record of a Wilken Vanderhausen of Rotterdam.

One day Rose returns unexpectedly to her uncle’s Leiden home ‘wild and haggard, and pale with exhaustion and  terror.’ Seemingly about to expire, she begs for wine and then bread, and then for a priest from whom begs prayers that might saveone who lay in the hands of Satan.’

As Rose talks to the priest, a gust of wind blows out the candle. Douw and Schalken leave the room to get another light but the door jams behind them, preventing their return. Scream follows scream from within. Schalken hears the sound of a window thrown open. When at last he gains entry he runs to the window to see Rose gone and the ‘waters of the broad canal beneath settling ring after ring in heavy circular ripples, as if a moment before disturbed by the immersion of some large and heavy mass.’

Nothing more is heard of Rose. Many years pass. The now middle-aged Schalken travels to Rotterdam to attend his father’s funeral. Arriving before the procession, he accepts the hospitality of the church sexton and drowses in a fire-lit anteroom just above the church vaults. He wakes to see a female figure wearing a muslin robe and carrying a lantern. She glides away from him and moves down the steps to the vaults. Schalken follows. As she reaches an antique chamber full of old furnishings including a four poster with heavy black drapes, she turns and reveals herself to be Rose.

Rose touches one of the bed’s drapes. She pulls it back. ‘Bolt upright in the bed’ is the ‘livid form of Vanderhausen.’

At this terrible sight Schalken faints dead away until the following morning when he is found not by a four poster bed but rather by a large tomb.

Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter begins with the narrator describing an  (apparently fictitious) Schalken paining hanging in the house of a friend. A white-robed woman in an antique religious vault smiles archly at the viewer as though engaged in ‘some roguish trick’ while in the background there is a bed and a man standing in an ‘attitude of alarm.‘ 

Sensing that the scene springs from life rather than imagination, the narrator asks the owner about the painting, and hence draws the answer which makes up the bulk of story.

Originally published Dublin University Magazine, Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter showcases Le Fanu’s convoluted yet graceful style and, more particularly, an almost reckless embrace of the Gothic themes that would later make his novels so popular. Seldom does 19th Century literature provide such a frank juxtaposition of sexual desire and death as the one in the story’s finale.

The tale, with its cavernous darkness, living flames, and a sense of visual art coming to life is a such a gift to the world of film and television that it comes as a surprise that only one major screen dramatization appears to have been attempted. Like Jonathan Miller’s famed M.R. James adaptation, Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), Schalken the Painter (1979) was produced as of part the BBC’s arts series Omnibus.

Series producer Leslie Megahey adapted the Le Fanu story with co-writer by Paul Humfress and achieves a flavour of ‘docudrama’ by using Le Fanu’s voice-over (provided by Charles Gray). The author takes us on a tour of Schalcken’s works from restrained still lives, to commissioned portraits, to enigmatic candlelit dramas, settling on the portrait which propels the story. This last work, in Schalcken’s style, was especially created for the production.

The plot follows Le Fanu’s short story quite faithfully with a few major exceptions. Schalcken himself  (Jeremy Clyde) is made more responsible for the pact to sell Rose (Cheryl Kennedy) to Vanderhausen. Although initially unaware of the reason he is valuing the stranger’s gold, Schalcken is appealed to directly by Rose before the dreaded marriage. Schalcken responds that there is nothing he can do. Then, extravagantly, and implausibly, he asserts he will work, gain his fortune, and buy her back. The implication is clear. His position, pleasing his mentor Douw, and the rewards he believes will follow, are simply more important to him to his avowed love for Rose. 

In the original story, Le Fanu makes a number of disparaging asides about the phlegmatic, unromantic nature of the Dutch character in general and that of Schalcken in particular. It is possible Schalcken’s passivity is supposed to speak for itself. But by presenting Schalcken a clear cut chance to intervene, Megahey’s drama brings the theme of romantic cowardice much more to the fore. As he is seen to prosper in his subsequent career, still living with Douw, he becomes as much a part of the Faustian pact as his mentor.

In one telling addition to the story, Megahey takes a line from Le Fanu’s original dialogue, spoken by Vanderhausen to Douw, “You will not pledge yourself unnecessarily but you will do so if it is necessary,”  and has the same phrase repeated by a number of characters like a musical refrain that seems to mock Schalcken and his inability to commit. The recurrence centralizes the themes of hesitation, compromise, and self-interest.

Le Fanu has Douw travel to Rotterdam to seek out Rose in the silent months after the wedding. But the drama gives this task to Schalcken, who, falling into a pit of loveless ambition and self-loathing, resorts to visiting brothels once his search for Rose turns out to be fruitless.

The filmmakers looked to Vermeer as well as to Schalcken for set composition, and many scenes present themselves like a works of art in their own right. More impressively still, each visual detail is utilized to expand upon the emotional aspects of the story. We see a bird being plucked in preparation for Vanderhausen’s first meeting with Rose. Then we see Rose herself, ordered by her uncle to “trick” herself out nicely for the stranger. Goose bumps stand out on her neck as she puts on her necklace. When we see the carving knife slice through the goose on the table, we know this is poor Rose being likewise carved up against her will.

Cheryl Kennedy is an enigmatic presence at the heart of the production, passive like Schalcken, but transformed to half-feral when she returns demanding bread, wine and a confessor. Veteran actor Maurice Denham makes a suitably dry, grouchy Douw, and John Justin’s  fixed wooden stare, aided ghastly grey-green makeup, give Vanderhausen the required otherworldly quality.

John Justin as Vanderhausen

Jeremy Clyde makes a wonderfully subtle Schalcken, transforming seamlessly from gauche, un-mannered novice, to surly, embittered painter.

The climactic scene is even franker than Le Fanu would have dared, presenting the most nightmarish punishment imaginable for this man who lacks conviction in love. In the crypt, Rose gives Schalcken a knowing smile and then disrobes and climbs into bed to copulate with the corpse-like Vanderhausen. The distraught Schalcken holds his head and screams silently at the vaulted ceiling.

Godfried Schalken in happier times: self-portrait with signature flame

Shown originally on December 23, 1979 in the traditional spot for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, Schalcken the Painter has perhaps been overlooked among the M.R. James adaptations. This is a pity as it is a genuine high point of television supernatural drama, an adaptation that takes an excellent literary source and manages to improve on it.

  • Quick note: I’ve tried to make the spelling of the painter’s name reflect the work in question. Le Fanu removed a ‘c’ from Schalcken; the 1979 production put it back.

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna), a Gothic-inspired revisit of Jane Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020), in which the daughter of Dracula’s ‘heroes’ Mina and Jonathan Harker questions her parents’ claim to have acted with courage and virtue when disposing of a foreign nobleman. 

Why We Run from Ghosts: a Q & A with Author and Researcher Jan Olandese

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Some day researchers might isolate the gene which makes people afraid of ghosts.

For the moment, though, we might have to agree that some people fear spirits and some don’t. Personally I find the idea of ghosts more terrifying than anything else I can think of. But I don’t know why.

I love delving into ghost stories, whether written by specialists like M. R. James or Sheridan Le Fanu, or by authors like Edith Wharton and Charles Dickens for whom ghosts were a sideline. But the great thing about books is you can put them down when it gets too much. This is not the case in the movie threatre or playhouse. Several times, in this captive state, I’ve found myself wishing I had not entered; what’s happening on screen or on stage is simply too terrible to be borne.

I remember a ‘locked’ nursery door suddenly creaking open in Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version of Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black. I nearly shot out of my skin.

Dimly, after such moments, I become aware of another emotion: embarrassment. I notice that my wife is amused at the jolts and gasps coming from my seat.

Poster for Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black

It’s frustrating trying to explain a fear of ghosts to someone who is immune.

The first thing to point out is that the word “fear” is wholly inadequate. Supernatural terror is quite unlike anything else. To separate this argument from mere semantics, it’s important to note that the physical response to the supernatural is different from the physical response to a more practical danger. If, God forbid, your car hydroplanes towards a guard rail, your adrenaline pumps and your heart beats faster. While you might tremble after a near miss, at the time of greatest peril your body is a jumble of action, muscles and sinews flexing.

If you experience supernatural terror, there is no adrenaline surge, no “fight or flight” response. Instead you might feel a  cold at the back of the neck, a tingle of hairs standing on end. And, most importantly, you freeze.

So, what are we afraid of exactly? And what, in our innermost primal imaginings,  comprises a “ghost”?

I was delighted to speak to someone perfectly placed to tackle this most baffling of human mysteries. Jan Olandese (MDiv, MA) is a retired Episcopal priest and chaplain, a columnist, blogger and author on all things supernatural. She has conducted many interviews with people who have experienced the paranormal and has taught seminars on such intriguing subjects as the Spirituality of the Ghost Story. 

Q: First of all, Jan, the obvious question, why are people afraid of ghosts?

A: This is a great question, Paul.   

For one thing, ghosts are something we often say we don’t “believe” in.  Although I don’t think it’s an issue of belief: they exist (or not) regardless of that.  We are conditioned to be afraid thanks to horror stories, ghost stories and scary movies:  sit through Haunted with Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale (1995) and trust me, you’ll be shakin’!  

Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of James Herbert’s Haunted (1995)

 

Ghosts do not conform to any standard pattern, either. So it’s hard to know what to expect. Most of the time they seem unanticipated, and that’s startling. Especially when you see someone who disappears, or see someone who is there from the waist up, or see someone who is see-through. So you’re experiencing this manifestation of something/someone that doesn’t belong in your sphere of reference.  

 

And it doesn’t do what you expect: it may walk through a wall. It may address you, it may ignore you.  It may touch you or throw you out of bed (this was supposed to have happened the year before I attended in the dorm of my theological college). You may see nothing, but feel the room become cold.  You may find an item vanishing from the spot you know you left it, only to reappear someplace ridiculous (I found a book in the refrigerator, and even I am not that absent-minded).  Doors may open or close of their own accord. Suddenly there may be a breeze in the house, ruffling the drapes.  A scent may permeate the air: something old-fashioned (lavender) or strongly associated with a person (“oh, that smells like Jack’s aftershave!”).  Is any of this really terrifying? Mostly, not. But it doesn’t fit our logical conceptual framework and when things go there, they make us nervous.  

 

Then again, we’re afraid.  Ghosts may in some cases be manifestations of our fears. Maybe sometimes we see them because we are fearful of something we can’t deal with, so it appears as a haunt.  

 

Of course, it you’re home alone, it’s “a dark and stormy night,” and you just watched The Exorcist, you’re in the right frame of mind, for an actual spirit or a poltergeist created by your nerves: who knows?  It’s still scary.  It’s still a ghost.  

 

We enjoy ghostly shivers.  Movies and TV shows with ghosts proliferate, ghostly novels are best sellers.  Ghost hunting is a growth industry. We enjoy the vicarious shivers.  Real hauntings, maybe not so much.  

 

Q: You have written about the various theories behind hauntings in some of your books, for instance About Ghosts. These include all manner of theories, including the returning of the dead, the ghost as warning or premonition. But some of the ideas are quite scientific. You talk of Cambridge academic T. C Lethbridge’s intriguing idea that certain physical materials — walls or rocks — can act as a “stone tape” capturing events which may, by some so far unexplained reason, be projected before us. Which theories do you think hold most credence?

 

A: Another great query! I’ll try to address a few of these.  You mentioned Lethbridge, who has been both greatly admired and written off as an eccentric kook. I remember reading his books back in the 70s and 80s and finding them intriguing.  One of his theories was that ghosts are not spirits of the dead, but mental projections from individuals which are picked up by others. Whilst I don’t think people sit around (consciously) projecting ghosts, I do know that E.S.P. is a real thing, which was first scientifically studied by Professor J.B. Rhine at Duke University.  When I was a teen, my friends and I used to play E.S.P. games in which one would think of something and the rest would try to get the impression. We found with practice, it worked quite often. So, perhaps there’s a way that strong emotions can “impress” themselves on atmosphere, whether on damp stone (the stone tape theory) or not, and be picked up later by others.  Perhaps humidity does play a role: some very haunted places I’ve lived in or visited have been on the ocean or near other water.  Maybe it’s E.S.P.

 

I’d like to suggest that many times hauntings appear to be reflections: of intense emotion, of subconscious thoughts, and often, of dysfunction.  I discuss in About Ghosts how in both literature and real life, people sometimes seem symbiotically attached to a haunt, even though it makes them crazy.  No matter how bad it gets, they stay for a second, third, and even fourth act.  Parapsychologists and ghost hunters often comment that room temperatures drop in the presence of ghosts because the ghosts use the energy.  Perhaps they use the emotional energy of those around them, too, to manifest in various ways.  As I’m not a scientist I have no idea if this can be proven, but it does make a kind of psychological and emotional sense.  
There are ghosts which appear to warn the witness.  It is possible that Grandma came from Beyond to caution Sonny not to marry that girl, but is also may be Sonny’s own misgivings, which he has repressed, are are really haunting him. Then again, there are cases where it’s really a ghost.  Really.  
 
Some ghosts do seem like personifications of negativity.  These may some kind of non-human “entities” – it’s hard to say exactly what, but they can be overwhelming. These can be the most frightening haunts.  Again , they reflect people, even if they are not human themselves. There are people who radiate evil, or good and light: ghosts can do that, too.  
 
Are there ghosts who are spirits of the dead? The literature affirms this, although for those who don’t believe in an afterlife it may be difficult to swallow unless and until they experience it.  
 
I saw a ghost once. It was quite unremarkable, an old woman in a blue woolen coat of the kind worn in the ’50s, with a headscarf from that era, bending down to put on boots.  I thought it was a real person, although later (when the others I was with compared notes and no one else saw her) I realized she hadn’t noticed us or greeted us when we came in.  The owner of the home said my description fit her grandmother to a tee. It wasn’t scary, it appeared quite human, but it was certainly a ghost.  
 
While no scientific proof exists of ghosts per se, with modern technology we have been able to record all sorts of paranormal manifestations.  It’s easy to suggest it’s a spirit, or a daemon:  but we can’t prove it.  The best approach is an open mind (but not so open the brain falls out), careful observation, and objective assessment. 

 

 

Q: One of the chief functions of the ghost story throughout the history of the genre has been to provoke fear. As a priest and theologian you are in a unique position to see the spiritual side of a haunting. Can you say a little about the dichotomy? Is there a serious, non-frightening and non-entertaining side to ghosts. What kind of experiences have you encountered that illustrate this?

 

A: Yes indeed. I do think ghosts can be reflective of human dysfunctions.  They may be psycho-spiritual manifestations of fears, hopes, guilt, rage, all kinds of things which have been brushed under the emotional rug, only to appear in a startling, ghostly format.  Jeremy Taylor, the great dream work expert, says often that nightmares are simply the dreamer’s subconscious tugging at his sleeve, becoming scary when other hints have failed.  Ghosts may well come, as Taylor says of dreams, “in the interest of the dreamer’s health and wholeness.” As anyone knows who has had even a smidgen of therapy, it’s difficult, can be arduous and even scary: but the insights gained are invaluable and lead to emotional integrity and healing.  Perhaps ghosts might in some cases play a therapeutic role.  

 

Some ghostly antics don’t seem to make sense to us. Why bother hiding that book in the fridge? Why scare the dog?  Why make the chandelier sway or open and close the door?  Why indeed?  To get attention.  This brings up poltergeists, “noisy ghosts,” who prank us with knockings, creaks, footsteps, all kinds of things.  Many theorize that poltergeists are emotional manifestations and indeed they seem to happen most often in homes with adolescents present.  

 

Then there are ghosts and visitations that seem quite spiritual in and of themselves.  Anyone who has seen what they think is an angel or angel-like being gets this.  These beings are awe-some in the true sense. Are they messengers of the Divine?  Perhaps.  Whether one believes in angels or no, we saw something spiritual and will be thinking about it for years to come.  Whether God sent a literal angel or pushed us to manifest one ourselves, the imprint is the same. 

 

I worked for many years as a hospital chaplain, and I learned that those nearing death often sense ghosts, and sometimes talk to them.  A patient’s daughter once shared that her mother, who had had dementia for years and had stopped talking months ago, surprised her.  The daughter entered the room to see her mother sitting up, carrying on a quite lucid conversation with an invisible someone in the corner. Variations on this theme have been shared with me countless times.  Added to the stories about those who are “clinically dead” for a brief time and then come back, it would seem that there’s spiritual help and perhaps old friends or family who come to meet and guide us: a reassuring thought. 

 

Once I had a very close call in a car that went out of control on an icy freeway.  It flipped in the air and somehow miraculously landed on all four tires in the grassy area between the road and the on ramp.  I was convinced I was a goner, and I can’t impart the sense of sheer panic and terror I felt at the prospect of immediate and unexpected death.  Yet in the midst of overwhelming fear, as the car vaulted into the air, I suddenly felt a sense of ineffable peace. Somehow I knew everything would be all right, even if I didn’t make it.  My fear vanished.  I can’t explain this but it was reassuring and frankly incredible.  While I didn’t see anything, I felt comforted in an extremely uncomfortable situation.  I read about a study of others who had nearly died but didn’t (mountain climbers who fell) and it appears they too all experienced this peace.  So while not what we usually think of as a ghost, it seems to be a fairly universal impression among those who’ve survived extreme sudden danger.  Call it a manifestation of the spiritual. 

 

Many thanks for these generous insights, Jan!

Jan Olandese is a retired episcopal priest chaplain and writer on ghostly topics (not to mention some pretty ghastly haiku!Visit Jan’s homepage for frequent ghostly stories from different parts of the world, for information about her books, and for her unique series of Haiku poems!

 

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

Ghosts and the Radio, Part II: The Dead Room, A Ghost Story for Christmas

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“Would a ghost from the ’70s work?” asks Tara, producer of the radio show, The Dead RoomTales of Terror and Unease. She’s talking to Aubrey Judd, the show’s veteran host, and it’s a loaded question. 

Simon Callow (host, Aubrey Judd) and Anjli Mohindra  (producer, Tara) lock philosophical horns about radio in The Dead Room (image: RadioTimes).

As non-patronizingly as he knows how, Aubrey (Simon Callow) has been trying to educate the millennial Tara (Anjli Mohindra). He talks of the “haze of distance” necessary for a good ghost story opening line, such as, “Thirty years ago. . .”

“Or Forty,” Tara suggests. This is how long Aubrey has been narrating The Dead RoomBeneath the thin camaraderie of the studio, battle lines form in this most recent BBC Ghost Story for Christmas, written and directed by Sherlock co-creator, Mark Gatiss. Aubrey resents change, and, though he doesn’t quite say so, he also resents Tara.

Tara, for her part, thinks Aubrey might be simply stuck in the past.

One vital element of a successful ghost story, Aubrey persists, is “an old fashioned thing: reticence. Hold back, hold back, always hold back until the climax.”

Ghosts and the Radio, Part I

Aubrey doesn’t much care for the vulgarity of the new material he is forced to read. He longs for the days when he would intone tales inspired by M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu.

As our host reads from the script, describing the thing which is “pure malevolence, all directed at him,” we catch sight of the impassive stare of Joan, the sound-effects technician.

Is she looking at Aubrey with “pure malevolence?”

Not really. But that doesn’t quell Aubrey’s growing paranoia. He complains bitterly to Tara that Joan has worked with him in the same studio for four decades but has never said more than hello to him.

Dimly, we get the impression something is troubling Aubrey’s conscience. His overreaction to Tara’s cell-phone ditty confirms this. He demands to know why her phone should have “that” tune — Single Bed, by the band Fox, a cloying hit from the summer of 1976.

Strange occurrences ensue. The script Aubrey is reading from morphs into something else, a description of a young man on a beach. A shadowy figure appears briefly in the corner of the studio. He lashes out at Tara, apparently believing she is playing a trick on him.

Then, calmed, Aubrey explains his disorientation; the long hot summer of 1976 was his first working at the studio. He had an affair which was “not entirely legal” because of the age constraints placed on same sex couples in the era. Soon after, the young man died tragically in a swimming accident. Afraid for his career and his reputation, Aubrey pretended not to know him.

But this confession is, it turns out, only part of the story.

The Dead Room is laced with irony. Aubrey’s haunting closely follows the incremental pattern he admires so much in M.R. James. It begins unobtrusively. Cell phone ditties, altered scripts, shadowy figures are all entirely in line with the old-fashioned “reticence” Aubrey favours. Its substance, however — a hidden crime coming to life — seems to owe more to Poe, and to novels like Therese Raquin (Emile Zola) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde) which deal with projections from a troubled conscience. 

This literary tradition tells us that a half-baked confession will not be enough. Aubrey is keeping something to himself, and, ultimately, he will have to pay for it.

Mark Gatiss’s script is finely honed. Every phrase — even those of the modern horror story for which Aubrey has no time — resounds with thematic significance. Simon Callow moves persuasively between irascibility and smugness. He is a man moving out of his era and his comfort zone, and he doesn’t like it. Anjli Mohindra gives Tara a sense of wary patience; she’s more well-read than Aubrey seems to think she is but has to make sure she defers to the show’s star. A playful genre connection is provided by Susan Penhaligon, a memorable Lucy Westenra in a 1977 BBC production of Dracula. Penhaligon is the inscrutable, and not particularly friendly, Joan. 

Susan Penhaligon in the 1977 BBC television production of Dracula

The question — the only essential question according to author L.P Hartley who famously wrote that the ghost story “either comes off or it is a flop,” — is this: Does The Dead Room frighten?

The answer is no. But this may be not such a bad thing.

“But it has to be scary,” says Tara, in response to one of Aubrey’s lectures about subtlety. “They are supposed to be horror stories.”

“Horrifying, yes, but not just horrible,” says Aubrey.

This is the philosophical nub of the story. There is a great deal going on in The Dead Room, too much perhaps for a single-minded focus on creating a shiver; you might even say The Dead Room proves that the more a story engages the intellect, the less it is likely to frighten. When Aubrey’s full history is revealed, the dominant emotion isn’t so much terror as a sense of waste mixed with sadness.

Author/director Gatiss — a prolific renaissance man with a particular fondness for history and nostalgia — unearths a forgotten era in his portrait of Aubrey Judd. There is a backstory about Aubrey’s predecessor, “Seymour Rand” with a voice like “dark chocolate with just a hint of poison.”  This seems to be a tribute to Valentine Dyall, ‘The Man in Black’ and long-time narrator of the BBC radio show Appointment with Fear.

“Irreplaceable,” muses Aubrey mistily as he thinks of Rand.

“Except not,” says Tara, snapping Aubrey out of his reverie. “You did replace him, didn’t you?” 

Irony, character, and layers of meaning aren’t natural allies of supernatural frisson. The Dead Room, however, is a mature and thoughtful riff on the genre, well worth a second look. 

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).