Celebrating Edward Parnell's
Joe Howsin interviews the author Edward Parnell about his 2019 book, Ghostland, a haunting meditation on the ghost story, weird fiction in British film, television and literature, and a personal reflection on grief and loss…
The ghosts are everywhere.
They are in our screens, our novels, our history, our lives and our thoughts. To glance at Edward Parnell’s Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country (2019) in a bookshop is to see many things: a beautifully illustrated and haunting front cover inspired by iconic British film and television, a weighty collection of pages containing a rich well of references and research materials, and a deeply personal reflection on family, grief and loss. Ghostland is a comprehensive history of the ghost story and weird fiction in British film, television and literature, but this description only scratches the surface of this enlightening and enthralling book. Like the ghosts whose fiction he documents, Edward Parnell exists across several planes at once; this hauntological, semi-autobiographical book is difficult to define by virtue of the fact that it is utterly unique. The prose moves deftly between nature writing, the personal and publication histories of some of the country’s most beloved ghost story writers and filmmakers, and Parnell’s own tragic family life. It is the combination of these seemingly disparate elements that makes Ghostland as a whole so effective and so memorable.
Lovers of the ghost story will revel in the multitudes of intriguing authors and their enchanting stories (both real and fictional) that are documented with reverence and clarity, soon overloading any Gothic or horror fan’s reading/watch list after only the first chapter. This book is perhaps the best place for horror fans to learn about their favourite authors of weird tales and to be introduced to many new, often obscure, creators of the macabre, the ghastly, and the occult. For the uninitiated, too, Parnell writes about ghost fiction with deceptive simplicity and clarity that emphasises the artistry of these works while avoiding any esoteric indulgences that could leave a reader alone in the dark.
Parnell binds together this journey through the histories of artists and their creations with a tour across the British countryside. This nature writing aspect of Ghostland creates an immersive atmosphere akin to that of a ghost story since Britain’s landscape is depicted as a sweeping, colossal, sublime place of melancholy beauty, with a subtle undercurrent of threat running through every towering tree and storm-beaten rockface to keep things interesting. Parnell conjures the landscape we’ve all seen and feared in film and tv over the decades and forces us to inhabit the minds of those who brought such places to life in our imaginations.
All this ensures an enthralling read, a reverential and informative look into the hauntingly beautiful history of the ghost story. But Parnell goes a step further by interweaving his own painful family history of tragic disease with images of desolate beaches, foreboding woods and mournful apparitions. The personal ruminations within this book are some of the greatest expressions I have found of the power of art to enable individuals to cope with the pain and strangeness we encounter over the course of our lives. Parnell does not merely state, but demonstrates, how personal histories interweave with the landscape that forms their backdrop, the stories read and watched along the way and the people who form our lives the way words form a story and trees form a forest so that no one element can truly be separated from the other.
Ghostland is a testament to the power of language – of watching, reading and experiencing stories. Parnell articulates our deep sense of belonging to the world we live in, the importance of respecting and maintaining the natural landscape, and the impact of our loved ones: the joy of their presence and the despair of their departure. By doing so, he explains our fascination with the other side and those who dwell there. Ghosts are our memory and our history, both personal and national; they are those we love, and they are ourselves. I would recommend Ghostland to anyone who has seen ghosts on the page, on the screen, in the fields, trees, and in themselves.
As part of this small celebration of Ghostland, I spoke with Edward Parnell about all things horror – its development, its history and its future. Edward lives in Norfolk and teaches creative writing for the National Centre for Writing and the University of East Anglia; as well as Ghostland he has written a novel, The Listeners, which was awarded the Rethink New Novel Prize in 2014.
An Interview with Edward Parnell
Joe Howson: I first picked up Ghostland because I love horror, but once I read it and realised it also dealt with bereavement (something I can personally relate to) I knew this would be a truly special book. Did you always intend to write Ghostland with this dual-purpose?
Edward Parnell: When I initially met Tom, my editor, we bonded over a shared love of ghost stories and, in particular, seemed to spend most of our meeting chatting about pulpy old 60s and 70s horror films like Psychomania (Don Sharp, 1973) and Tower of Evil (Jim O’Connolly, 1972). But when I went home and tried to think about whether I could write a non-fiction book about the subject – Tom had emailed me after I’d written a piece on my website about M. R. James and Great Livermere – I realised that there were a large number of links between the authors, stories and films I’d like to talk about and with my own rather haunted family history. So, I decided that would be the book I’d pitch, which came as quite a surprise to Tom since I’d not really mentioned those autobiographical elements when we’d first talked.
JH: You interweave Britain’s dark culture with its sublime scenery and wildlife; how do you think the natural relates to the cultural? Is there anything about this relationship currently that you would like to see change or evolve?
EP: Well, our relationship with the countryside and its wildlife is always tied in with social factors and what’s happening in a particular moment. You can currently see direct evidence of that in the number of people over the last year who’ve engaged with their local landscape for the first time – certainly all the footpaths near my house which eighteen months ago I might have had virtually to myself while I was out birdwatching, are now filled with a stream of walkers getting a break from their houses and the confines of Covid. Hopefully, that might translate into more voters being properly interested in environmental issues to the extent that it exerts a political need for the government to actually enact proper policies rather than just talking a good green game.
JH: How has the British horror landscape changed, in your opinion, from the 1970s to now? What developments have you loved, or hated?
EP: I feel a bit of a fraud answering questions about contemporary horror as so much of the material that I read and watch is from an earlier period. I’m not really a huge consumer of recent British horror, though that’s more down to the fact, I think, that I’m rather obsessed with the historical, as opposed to not liking the newer stuff.
One thing I do notice, however, is a practical one – when I compare Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1970s A Ghost Story for Christmas films with the more recent adaptations it’s striking how prominent the locations were in those earlier films. At least relatively they had much greater budgets than their newer counterparts, which in my eyes suffer a little in comparison due to their lack of available location time. But I also think there’s something about the graininess and colour palettes of those 70s film-shot dramas that adds a magical, odd quality to the atmosphere which it’s difficult for modern digital and HD to capture.
As M. R. James once wrote: ‘For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable.’ And I love reading and watching things that I can now view through that haze, as it adds more layers of interest and atmosphere to the proceedings.
JH: Horrified is all about British horror, but horror is a universal concept; what are some of your favourite international horror books/films? In what ways, do you think, have/are international horror fictions influencing British horror, or vice versa?
EP: I grew up watching lots of US horror films – graduating from old black-and-white Universal movies such as Lugosi’s Dracula (Tod Browing, 1931) and Karloff’s Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), to more visceral thrills like An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981) – once I could manage to persuade my older cousin to rent it for me from the local video shop. Then I got into H. P. Lovecraft in my early teens, which definitely gave me a latent love of weird fiction that was rekindled years later when I discovered the stories of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. I devoured quite a bit of Stephen King as a teenager too, as my brother was a big fan. And when I was researching Ghostland I picked up Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) for the first time: that was probably the one book I’ve recently read that genuinely scared me – it’s a great novel.
For more international fare I hugely enjoyed Babak Anvari’s 2016 Persian-language movie Under the Shadow, and I love the Machen-esque influence that you can see in some of Guillermo del Toro’s films such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – though I still think the gothic Spanish Civil War horror of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is my favourite of his films.
As to the cross-cultural ways that British horrors have influenced international films and fiction, I suspect that’s a hugely complicated subject that could easily fill a book! Maybe I should attempt it…
JH: Had you written Ghostland during the pandemic and in lockdown, how might the project have changed? Has your relationship with media changed at all in this time?
EP: I’m so pleased I managed to write Ghostland when I did during 2018 and the first half of 2019. For one thing, a vital aspect to my approach with that book was to visit lots of locations around the British Isles to try and capture a flavour of the haunted writers and filmmakers whose work had a connection to those places – as well as, in a number of cases, a resonance with my own life; for practical reasons that would have been really difficult to do over the past year… But I also think that for many of us the last twelve months have mainly been about getting through things – and during a lot of that time I haven’t felt particularly creative or focused, which would have made writing Ghostland much more tortuous.
It’s also interesting how certain works become harder to engage with – or conversely easier to obsess over – at different times too. I’m sure that would have made itself felt during my research if that had fallen in the middle of the pandemic. There would probably have been a lot more post-apocalyptic John Wyndham stuff and John Christopher’s brilliantly depressing The Death of Grass (1956), which I did foolishly read during the first lockdown and still has me sweating about failed vaccine strategies a year on!
JH: Why do you think dark and upsetting media comforts us? Especially during dark and upsetting times?
EP: I suspect there’s a difference between the solace some might take from dark fiction and film (and other creative forms) and dark coverage on the media. For me at least, there is a comfort – and that strange frisson of excitement – to be had from the former, though I don’t think there’s too much to be had from morbid news stories. It’s easy to become all-consumed by up-to-the-minute figures or unfolding developments and to want to seek them out constantly – certainly in the earlier part of the pandemic I found myself watching a lot of rolling news and wondering about the latest gloomy predictions, until I realised that I was just putting myself permanently on edge.
With ghost stories and horror films, on the other hand, I think much of the comfort – if that’s the right word – that I take from them is that they put me back into a better, earlier moment. A moment when I young and taking pleasure from reading and watching those works for the first time, unencumbered by some of the stresses and sadnesses that were to come. And, even though a lot has happened to me since then, I’m pleased to say that’s still the case thirty years later, through another haze of distance.
JH: Finally, what new projects are you working on right now?
I’m just starting to think about a narrative non-fiction project that will explore a sense of place and cultural works a little like I tried to do with Ghostland – though the main subject matter would be rather different. But its progress partially depends on if and when I’m able to travel again, as it would be good if it could have more of an international flavour.
I’m also keen to try my hand at a supernatural novel too, so that’s something else I’m toying with. I don’t think I will ever be the most prolific writer in the world though, so that may require a bit of a wait…