SAFE AND UNSAFE PLACES

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been reading Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost  – do try and read it if you can.

When Hilary is six, the family moves into a haunted house.  “Our daily life,” she says, “is hushed, driven into corners. We move in a rush between the house’s safe areas, and the ones less safe, where, as you enter a room, you get the impression that someone is waiting for you.”

When I read this, I was taken straight back to my own childhood and visits to my grandmother’s house.  On the ground floor, a stained-glass paneled front door led into a dark passage, from which the front room, the stairs, the kitchen and the living room at the back of the house were accessed.  There were also two doors which opened onto steps down into larder cupboards, one on either side of the kitchen door and at right angles to it, and you had to pass between these to get to the kitchen.  I remember family Sunday lunches at grandma’s; afterwards, in winter, we would all gather in the living room in front of the fire to watch tv.  But when you wanted to go to the loo, you had to leave this place of safety and run down the hallway and up the stairs and back again, as quickly as you could, because there was something behind those larder doors that was intent on catching you, and you could always feel it watching as you ran by.

As quickly as you can!

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WHAT IS MY BRAIN THINKING ABOUT?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a couple of things that happen to me quite frequently.  There’s nothing particularly uncanny about them, but they are a little strange.

Firstly, when I’m reading, I often stop in the middle of a chapter, rather than at the end.  And when I pick up the book again, perhaps days later, my eyes are immediately drawn to the exact place I left off.  Sometimes, I go back a couple of paragraphs to make sure that I’m right, but I always am.

And when I’m browsing a newspaper, I may suddenly decide to read an article which normally wouldn’t attract my attention, but which turns out to include something relevant at that particular time.  For instance, last week I was looking for a bed-time book, and picked up Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost to re-read.  The same evening, I came across a newspaper interview with Amy Tan, in which she was discussing her favourite books. Umm, not compelling, I thought, and turned the page – but immediately I turned back and read that one of the author’s favourites was Giving Up the Ghost. Continue reading

DARK MATTER

By Michelle Paver

Here’s a truly unsettling ghost story.

London, 1937. A four-man scientific expedition to the Arctic recruits Jack as their wireless operator – it’s through Jack’s journal that the story is told. There are tensions within the group – upper-class Gus, Hugo, Teddy and Algie look down on Jack’s more lowly background, but he is determined to take advantage of the opportunity to prove himself the scientist he longs to be.  Before the expedition sets off, Teddy has to withdraw.  The remaining four continue with their arrangements to overwinter in the abandoned mining settlement of Gruhuken in Spitsbergen.

Spitsbergen

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HUMMADRUZ

A couple of years ago, in late December at around half past seven in the morning, I was walking along the old village road, now a cycle path, on my way to work.  The street lamps were still on, but it was just beginning to get light.  It was cold, but not icy or damp – the air was still, and it was very quiet.

Suddenly, behind me, I heard the sound of tyres fast approaching.  I turned to make sure I wasn’t in the cyclist’s way – but there was no-one there.  What I was hearing I couldn’t see.  I couldn’t place the sound – a strange and unnerving uncanny moment.

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THE SENTIENT LANDSCAPE

THURSBITCH

A Novel by Alan Garner

I remember Alan Garner from the early 70s, when people were talking about his book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I came across him again recently when his novel Thursbitch was mentioned in an article on “sentient landscape” – the idea that the world apart from ourselves may be somehow aware in ways which we don’t or can’t acknowledge.  One aspect of the uncanny – the feeling that we are being observed – clearly has close links with this idea.  What if the stones themselves are watching us?

thursbitch-bw

Thursbitch

Thursbitch is the name of a valley in the south Pennines not far from Macclesfield, and Garner’s novel, published in 2003 but long in the making, gives the location a powerfully threatening and magical character.  There are standing stones which may or may not move in the night, strange geological formations and old stone houses, now abandoned and tumbling.

Two strands run through the narrative.  An eighteenth century community still clings to ancient beliefs, which, along with associated practices, are being threatened by new Christian ideas and a new politics of land management.  The central character is the journeyman John Turner, who appears to be only the most recent shaman of an ancient line, and he performs the strange rituals that keep the farming community safe.

In the present day, two friends, Sal and Ian, habitually visit the valley and walk the surrounding landscape.  Time has a habit of shifting around here, and sometimes, through the mist or in a blizzard, John sees Sal and Ian, and sometimes Sal and Ian see or hear John.  Artifacts from the earlier time appear in the later.

The novel is challenging.  John Turner and his community speak in a thick Cheshire accent that is quite opaque at times. and the relationship between Sal and Ian is complicated.  But the book lingers in the mind long after the reading has finished.

In 2008, Garner gave a lecture about the evolution of his story.  In 1952, he had been running on the moors of the Southern Pennines, close to the valley of Thursbitch, and came across a memorial stone by the side of the road upon which was carved

HERE JOHN TURNER WAS CAST AWAY IN A HEAVY SNOWSTORM IN THE NIGHT ON OR ABOUT THE YEAR 1755

John Turner's Memorial Stone

John Turner’s Memorial Stone

On the hidden reverse of the stone, he discovered more lettering:

THE PRINT OF A WOMAN’S SHOE WAS FOUND BY HIS SIDE IN THE SNOW WHERE HE LAY DEAD

The strangeness of such a find stayed with Garner, and eventually in 1972 “it was laid upon me that the story of John Turner must be told.  But I’d no idea of what that story was or might be”.  It was during his research to pin down that story that the uncanny flavour of the moorland landscape and its inhabitants began to emerge.

He discovered that the memorial stone had been erected by a Turner relative in the nineteenth century (and that the date should have been 1735, not 1755), and pieced together the details of John Turner’s life – he was born in 1706 and became a packman carrying salt from Chester to Derby, returning with malt.  These details were still, in the 1970s, well know to the farmers of Saltersford (another valley close to Thursbitch) with whom Garner consulted over many years.  The unexplained death of John Turner was still making them uneasy; he died in a snowstorm not half a mile from his home, and an experienced packman, very famliar with the ways and the weathers of his path, would have had the knowledge to protect himself and his beasts from such conditions.

Garner got something else from those farmers;  “it was a sense that they were glad of my interest.  They were, and still are, troubled in their souls by something they can’t describe and only begin to articulate.”

It wasn’t only the farmers who found the area unsettling.  Garner met a GP whose practice, from 1948, had been in the hill country to the north east of Macclesfield.  The doctor said he’d “never been happy with Saltersford, and always dreaded … a night call there”.

A church dedicated to St John the Baptist was built in 1732, close to a monolith at a site known as Jenkin Cross – but the Bishops of Chester refused to consecrate it for 61 years, and only then on condition that Jenkin Chapel, as it was known, be re-dedicated to St John the Evangelist.  Garner points to the fact that St John the Baptist “frequently accumulated folkloric and mythic and pre-Christian baggage” and suggests that this was the reason for the Church’s reluctance.

Jenkin Chapel

Jenkin Chapel

The vicar responsible for Jenkin Chapel had, in 1972 at the start of his term, been told by the Church Wardens that “it would not be safe for ‘a man of the cloth’ to enter the valley.  One of them had said that he himself never went there, because it ‘was not a healthy part’ “.  The vicar respected this advice and “he also said that the people of Saltersford think of it as ‘no good place’, ‘not right’ …. ‘I wouldn’t like to go up myself.  I think the valley needs feeding’.”

During his researches, Garner wanted permission to drive along the Western ridge of Thursbitch.  The farmer’s response to the request is the most telling of all.  He agreed but “he said he wanted me down by dusk and he wanted me to let him know I was down.

“You see.” Pause. “There isn’t a farmer in all these hill around.” Pause. “As will open his door after dark.” Pause. “Not even to cross the yard”.  Pause.  “Without he’s got his gun”. “Not that it would be of any use.” “But it makes you feel better.” “Somehow ……”

 

Read the full text of Garner’s lecture here.

THE HAUNTING (1963)

One of the scariest films I have ever seen is the 1963 film The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise.  It’s based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and it’s the story of a paranormal investigator, Dr Markway, who persuades Mrs Sanderson, the owner of the empty Hill House, to allow him to rent it for a while to investigate its strange happenings and history of unusual phenomena.  He invites several observers to accompany him, but only two actually arrive – the psychologically fragile Eleanor, who feels acute guilt at the recent loss of her mother (the death may have been due to Eleanor’s negligence), and who experienced poltergeist activity as a child; and Theodora, a self-regarding young lady who is apparently a psychic.  The fourth member of the party is Luke, the nephew of the owner and at the house to keep at eye on things at her request.

Ettington Hall Hotel, the exterior of Hill House

Ettington Hall Hotel, the exterior of Hill House

The four settle into the house and begin to experience mysterious and disquieting events.  But although the film is called The Haunting, there are no ‘ghosts’ to be seen.  Instead, it works by the power of suggestion and our fear of the unknown. Continue reading

THE UNCANNY VALLEY

If you type “uncanny” into Google, the top results will be several references to the “Uncanny Valley”.  This is an idea put forward in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori concerning the appearance of robots, and how the more human they look, the more we accept them, but only up to a certain point.  When the robot looks too much like a personal, and yet seems different on a fundamental level, our reaction becomes negative.  It suggests that the distortion of the familiar can be more disturbing than the unknown.Uncanny Valley Continue reading

WHEN YOU HEAR THE SINGING, YOU WILL KNOW IT IS TIME

Thomas Ligotti is an American writer of strange, disturbing fictions, which linger in the mind long after you’ve finished reading.  He has been compared to the horror writers H P Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and since 1982 he’s been winning nominations and awards for his work.

His 2008 collection of short stories Teatro Grottesco is an unsettling one.  Although they appear at first sight to be about the routines and rituals of “normal” life, details soon accumulate that twist our perception of the world he is conjuring into existence.  Several of the stories share a very similar environment – a remote “northern border town” which inhabits a  post-industrial landscape, semi-derelict and decaying.  Very little can be seen – the stories are usually set at twilight, or during the night, or in a miasma of permanent fog.  The street lights, when working, are dim.  The inhabitants work at pointless and repetitive jobs – processing endless forms or constructing strange metal artifacts with no understanding why they are doing so.  They are overseen by managers and foremen, who may or may not be human, and who mysteriously appear and disappear, possibly at the behest of the Quine Organisation, a company that also controls the medication upon which everyone relies. Continue reading

THE HAUNTED HOUSE AND THE UNCANNY

The haunted house is a motif which occurs frequently in discussions about the uncanny – indeed, Freud himself calls it “perhaps the most striking of all” examples of uncanniness.  So I thought it would be useful to draw out what he says about how the two ideas are connected.

In The Uncannyhe sets out to define what it is that “allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.”  He sets out two approaches: firstly, to explore “what meaning has come to be attached to the word ‘uncanny’ “; and secondly to collect examples of situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness and “then infer the unknown nature of the uncanny from what all these examples have in common.” Continue reading

THE JUDDERMAN

Do you remember The Judderman?  It was an ad for Metz schnapps drink, aired in 2000 in cinema and on tv.  What a glorious collection of uncanny tropes it is!judderman[1]

The style of the commercial is reminiscent of early European cinema.  It’s shot in flickering black and white, the camerawork is shaky, and it looks as if it’s an old print that needs to be restored.  The background music is discordant, with the flavour of a creepy fairground calliope.  The voice-over is supplied by a lady called Alicia Suszka Fielder, who is half-Polish and half-Czech, and who brings an exotic account to her recitation of the warning

Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.

Sharp of tongue and spindle-limbed he is, and cunning,

With sweetened talk of schnapps and Metz, and the deliciousness of judders.

But schnapps, though sweet, has teeth, my love, and sharpened ones at that.

Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.

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