HAUNTOLOGY: Ghosts of Futures Past
Ally Wilkes reviews Merlin Coverley's Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past which uses speculative fiction to produce a careful examination of the concepts of haunting, time, and nostalgia.
Martin Coverley’s book, Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past is an academic text with much to offer the casual reader – particularly anyone interested in the ghost literature of the Victorian period, the folk-horror Weird of Machen and The Stone Tape, or the seminal 1970s childhood texts of Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. Coverley begins by asking the question:
“why is contemporary culture so preoccupied with the supernatural?”
noting the 1990s resurgence of interest in the uncanny, eerie and weird. He takes us on a journey through our cultural preoccupation with hauntings, and the ways they reveal to us a profound dislocation in the way we perceive time. Simply put, this is not a set of ghost tales, but an examination of what we talk about when we talk about something ‘haunting’ or someone ‘being haunted.’
But what, first, is hauntology? Rather ruefully, Coverley notes that as a philosophical concept it’s hard to pin down – expanding to embrace its surroundings in the same way the ‘uncanny’ does in the works of Freud, Royce (The Uncanny), or Fischer (in his fantastic The Weird and Eerie). In this book, hauntology is a shorthand for the ways in which the past intrudes on the present.
Coverley takes a refreshing approach rather than striving after conceptual purity, and the book benefits from a readable style which uses familiar touchstones to introduce quite difficult philosophical concepts. Only in the third essay does he tackle Derrida’s hantologie directly (giving a fascinating sense the author finds him as “painfully, excruciatingly obscure” as those he quotes): this section may be less immediately accessible to the casual reader than those which examine hauntology through well-known speculative fiction.
We start our journey in the Victorian era, with 1848’s ‘spectre of communism’ set against the craze for Merrie England and fairies, the ‘spirit rappings’ of the Fox sisters imported across the channel, and technological ‘hauntings’ such as Pepper’s ghost and spirit-photography. It’s worth noting that hauntology’s idea of ‘time out of joint’ is deeply embedded even here – one need only think of the Victorian passion for Arthuriana (an imagined or perpetual past), or Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who shows Scrooge an imagined future capable of being rebutted.
Coverley examines the clash between our linear time and the ‘cyclical’ time of myth as a source of horror in writings of the period, such as Vernon Lee’s A Wicked Voice or Machen’s The Great God Pan, in which the intrusion of ‘deep time’ – “the vertigo-inducing expanse of the prehistoric past” – acts as a madness vector and a haunting in itself.
These interactions of human and prehistoric time will, of course, be familiar to anyone who grew up reading the wonderful and deeply folk-horror works of Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, examined by Coverley in the following chapter. Noting that Machen was also preoccupied with the Victorian-era ideas of evolution and degeneration, Coverley takes in The Red Hand and The Novel of the Black Seal, both texts in which the past lives alongside us, but hidden and monstrous (“the troglodyte and the lake dweller”) – clear precursors to the later writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
One of Coverley’s particular areas of interest is psychogeography, and he makes interesting observations about M.R. James, often thought to be predominantly a writer of haunted landscapes – but with so much of his ‘action’ set in dusty archives and human geography. Similarly, the book has a lot to say (and makes for very engaging reading) on Alfred Watkins and his ley lines (The Old Straight Track), which is another example of prehistory being superimposed on modernity and later said to have occult or psychic effects.
I suspect any reader will come away eager to revisit all the authors mentioned here, and the book as a whole would make for a good pairing with Edward Parnell’s Ghostland, another work of psychogeography focusing on the interaction between a peculiarly British landscape (why do these authors always say ‘English’ when so much takes place in Wales?) and the ghost stories told about it.
‘Haunting’ as a concept challenges linear time – the ghost comes from the past to haunt the present but belongs to neither. We see this in some pieces of contemporary ghost culture, for example the interesting case of the ‘Bent Neck Lady’ in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (and I hope I’ll be excused for those mild spoilers).
In the second essay, Coverley looks at temporality, and while parts of it may be hard to understand – JW Dunne’s theories of time are particularly obscure – he grounds his discussion in the media of the 1970s. TC Lethbridge’s theories are discussed through Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, and I personally weep for the fascinating-sounding The Road (1963), a BBC drama whose recordings were overwritten after one solitary broadcast: it dealt with a rural squire in the 1770s hearing the screams of survivors of a nuclear attack in the 1970s, neatly upending our notions of what constitutes the ‘linear’ progression of a haunting.
In discussing Garner’s monumental contribution to children’s literature, Coverley offers interesting insight from the author’s personal life, in particular the breakdown he experienced while writing The Owl Service, “the distance [having] gone” – Garner experiencing a temporal breakdown not unlike that experienced by the teenagers in his book (in a true ‘layers upon layers’ moment, Garner explains it not only in terms of ‘engrams’ attaching to him – a concept familiar from Scientology – but also as visiting the Aboriginal Australian Dreamtime).
So why is contemporary culture so preoccupied by the supernatural? In his third essay, Coverley addresses the “failure of the future” (Fisher). T.S. Eliot wrote that “Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take” and this is a further layer of hauntology: the past (or future) that never was. Coverley deftly illustrates this through the works of J.G. Ballard, notably the regressions of The Drowned World, and that author’s conviction that science fiction gave us “a future arrived too soon”, prompting a fracturing of our own sense of time and our proper place in it.
A different example might be our affection for the 2015 seen in Back to the Future Part II, an imagined future which now belongs firmly to the past; or the fondness of commentators to juxtapose the current political climate with the sense of national optimism seen in the opening to London’s 2012 Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot to think about in this take-down of our ceaseless consumption of the past, seen by Simon Reynolds as ‘retromania’: “time itself seemed to grow sluggish… instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once.” The redirection of nostalgia – once a form of longing so intense it nearly undid the Russian Army – towards consumerism and kitsch is rightfully skewered.
One might ask oneself: what is the feel of the 2000s? Fisher and Reynolds (among others) answer us: revivals, reissues, and remakes. Coverley asks whether the unfulfilled potential of the 1970s represents the turning point into this “lost future” (seeing, for example, the cultural resonance of Scarfolk today). But in the end, we are preoccupied by the supernatural because the past continually intrudes into the present; and now, more than ever, our culture consumes that past.
We cannot be anything other than haunted.
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