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

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Rowan Man­tell

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.

Nor­wich Cathe­dral

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.


ABOVE: Way­land Wood Pic­ture: Richard Os­bourne

ABOVE: An image of the misty con­di­tions on a frosty morn­ing be­side Way­land Wood

Pic­ture: Ed­ward Par­nell

LEFT: Crox­ton’s ru­ined church

Ghost­land, In Search of a Haunted Coun­try, is pub­lished in hard­back by Wil­liam Collins on Oc­to­ber 17. £16.99

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