Journey through some of our most unsettling landscapes and stories, by way of ghosts, birds and a longing for lost loved ones, with a mesmerising new book
The haunting tale Ghostland – and eerie Norfolk places
Ghosts haunt every page of Edward Parnell’s new book. His Britain is a land reverberating with the whispers of the dead. Its shores are washed with unease, its rivers coil around a constant flow of folklore, its woodland crackles with the sense of something just glimpsed, its streets shimmer with long-gone lives.
Some of these ghosts have lived only in fiction and film; others were his family.
Ghostland is the story of Edward’s own life, as well as of the fictional lives and deaths created by other authors and directors. It is a memoir, a travelogue, an essay on ghosts in stories and on screen, and an exploration of grief.
He tells us, early in the book, that he is alone. So the lovely, ordinary stories of family life, his mum and dad, his brother, are imbued with dread. Something bad is coming, just as it is in the stories, films and television programmes he grew up with.
Travel with him through landscapes which inspired the ghost stories of MR James, the children’s fantasy novels of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, the
cinematic folk horror of The Wicker Man.
But horror lurks in the bright rooms of all-too-real hospitals as well as in dark forests and isolated islands. As Edward tracks characters and their authors through mossy moors and cemeteries, gaunt cliffs and ruins, the fog-wreathed Fens of his childhood or the streets of London, Edinburgh or long-gone Dunwich, he is haunted by his grief.
Travelling through landscapes populated by his favourite writers of the weird and eerie, and by his memories of his lost family, he takes fascinating excursions into fiction and films almost forgotten by the mainstream today.
Edward is a naturalist too, and while Ghostland is about the stories we scare ourselves with and dread of what might be lying in wait for us, his lyrical writing makes it an enthralling journey. A keen birdwatcher from boyhood, Edward summons stories of birds he has seen, and almost seen, in a flicker of feather and rustle of leaves, these barely-glimpsed ghosts woven into the stories of fictional phantoms and their creators.
Wells Wood and beach
Despite all the visiting tourists and birders, this narrow stand of lightstealing Corsican pines soon manages to feel remote, disorienting and strangely lifeless. The neighbouring beach too, on a quiet day, is sublimely awe-inspiring. The fact that both locations were the backdrop for the brilliant 1972 BBC adaptation of MR James’s A Warning to the Curious adds to the atmosphere.
Wayland Wood, near Watton
When I was writing my Gothic novel The Listeners I visited Wayland - today an NWT nature reserve, but also popularly regarded as the historical location of the events of the Babes in the Wood folk tale – several times for inspiration. Its trees grow dense in places and on a winter’s afternoon it’s easy to become spooked by its silent, claustrophobic vibe.
The Halfway House, Blakeney Point
This most-isolated of buildings, near the midpoint of the shingle slog of Blakeney Point, was the inspiration for the early twentieth-century ghost story writer EF Benson’s
A Tale of an Empty House. In certain lights it seems to shimmer on the horizon as you trudge towards it, and I can definitely see what attracted Benson.
On a late afternoon when you’re one of the few people in the vast old building it certainly has the potential for eeriness – if you’re feeling in that kind of mood. I love the old memento mori on the south wall, and the cloisters in the shadow of the peregrinehaunted spire. The place was used as the location for the first of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas strand, MR James’s The Stalls of Barchester, in 1971.
Church of St John the Baptist, Croxton, near Fakenham
I was lucky to visit many of Norfolk’s abandoned churches with my friend Clive Dunn while he was compiling Landscape of Towers, his excellent guide to the county’s lost religious ruins. One really sticks out to me: a 12thcentury shell in the woods. As I was walking around its tree-clad remains, I flushed a tawny owl that shot out from the ivy in front of me: a dark, silent ghost that caused me to jump back in fright.
EDWARD PARNELL, WHO GREW UP IN THE FENS AND LIVES IN WYMONDHAM, PICKS HIS TOP FIVE EERIE NORFOLK PLACES…
ABOVE: Wayland Wood Picture: Richard Osbourne
ABOVE: An image of the misty conditions on a frosty morning beside Wayland Wood
LEFT: Croxton’s ruined church
Ghostland, In Search of a Haunted Country, is published in hardback by William Collins on October 17. £16.99