Category Archives: Landscape

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.

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

TRIBES THAT DON’T EXIST

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, Penguin, 2012

The Old Ways is a fascinating account of some of the paths that Robert Macfarlane has taken during his exploration of ancient byways and strange landscapes, and some of the people he has encountered on his travels.

One such is the artist Steve Dilworth.  He lives with his wife in the challenging environment of the Outer Hebrides – on Harris, where, Macfarlane tells us, they can “live cheaply in a landscape of animal rituals, megaliths, weather dramas and excellent malt whiskies”.  Macfarlane refers to the artist’s studio as the “lair of a demented magus”, containing as it does the materials he finds around the island – skeletons of birds, their feathers, bones of whales, porpoises, and sheep, minerals and rocks, fossilised wood, water, eggs, air and sand.  Out of these diverse elements, Dilworth fashions what he describes as “ritual objects for a tribe that doesn’t exist”. Continue reading

A VIEW FROM A HILL

by M R James

A View from a Hill

A View from a Hill

THERE’S MORE TO THIS THAN MEETS THE EYE ….

Here’s an uncanny tale.

An academic, Mr Fanshawe, is enjoying a summer visit to a new friend in the country, Squire Richards.  He cycles the two miles from the station to the Squire’s residence, and after tea, the Squire suggests a walk in the surrounding park, so that the visitor can get his bearings for wider exploration during his stay.  Mr Fanshawe borrows a pair of binoculars – old fashioned, heavy things, in a box with sharp corners on which he cuts himself as he struggles to open it.

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THE LOST DOG

by Michelle de Kretser

Tom Loxley, an Anglo-Indian academic living in Melbourne, loses his dog in the bush, and then, eight days later, finds his dog, but not before de Kretser has taken us into Tom’s inter-continental history, and his mothers’ current failing health and difficult relationship with her sister; his growing obsession with Nelly Zhang, an artist with a secret past; and his developing relationships with Nelly’s circle of bohemian friends. Continue reading

THE UNCANNY SENSE OF BEING WATCHED

Imagine: an early summer day in the country, and you’re enjoying a view over a golden landscape dotted with the vibrant colours of wild flowers.  The sun is warming your back and a light breeze eddies through the long grass.  You’re rambling along the edge of a field, listening to the birdsong from the hedgerow, contentedly daydreaming about the lazy afternoon ahead.

But now – you have to climb a wooded hillside.  You pass under the trees, and the canopy blocks the sunlight.  No birds sing here, and the air is still.  You venture forward, but you can’t make out a path.  You turn to the right and then the left.  It’s not clear which way you need to go.  You feel a little anxious, and suddenly sense that someone is watching you. Continue reading