Category Archives: ghost stories

Reading The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories and Shadows in the Attic

An elderly review, from Vector sometime in 2001.


Peter Haining, ed. – The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories
Robinson, 2000

Neil Wilson – Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820-1950
The British Library, 2000

Over the years, all manner of fictional places and objects, from canals to Buick cars, have been portrayed as haunted, and yet the most powerful, the most resonant image in supernatural writing is still that of the haunted house, As Peter Haining shows in this anthology (bafflingly hailed as ‘the first major anthology of the best tales about haunted houses,’ as though the world is flooded with minor ones) the haunted house comes in all shapes and sizes, from the classic ivy-clad country seat to dingy town apartments, from opulent stately homes to the meanest of tumble-down cottages, with perhaps a village pub or two thrown in for good measure.

And here I encounter a difficulty with this anthology. Some haunted house stories are more haunted than others, if you follow my meaning. Every ghost story has to be set somewhere, but the very fact of it being set in a house, as opposed to a railway carriage or on board shop, doesn’t necessarily make it a story about a haunted house. It is, I admit, a very fine distinction, but in a number of stories in this collection, the setting is almost incidental, and I would include here examples such as M. R. James’ much-anthologised ‘Lost Hearts’, a fine story but it could be set practically anywhere … the focus of the action is the ghosts, not their setting. Much the same might be said of Hugh Walpole’s otherwise delightful ‘A Little Ghost’ in its generic country house, or Penelope Lively’s ‘Uninvited Ghosts’ and several other stories in this anthology.

You’ll see what I mean if you contrast them with stories such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s magnificent ‘Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House’, Charlotte Riddell’s ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’ or, to take a more recent example, Ramsey Campbell’s atmospheric ‘Napier Court’. In stories like these, the house is a character, is often the character, setting the tone and pace of the story. Even Bulwer-Lytton’s relentlessly turgid ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’, when stripped of its overwhelming desire to examine the philosophical mechanics of a haunting, is dominated by the menace of the otherwise highly desirable residence at 50 Berkeley Square.

There is also a faint air of desperation about Haining’s categorisation of the stories in this book, neatly divided up as they are into unnecessary sections such as ‘Shadowy Corners: Accounts of Restless Spirits’ or ‘Psychic Phenomena: Signs from the Other Side’ (as though the earlier ghost stories weren’t?). Ignore this and concentrate on the stories themselves. Even constrained by a dubious theme, as he clearly was, and also missing out a number of perhaps more appropriate stories Haining has nevertheless assembled a collection which includes some of the finest writers the genre ever saw (L.P. Hartley, W.F. Harvey, Mary Eleanor Freeman) as well as some unusual modern examples from the likes of Ian Watson and William F. Nolan, and provides some genuinely thrilling and spooky moments.

The ghost story was a distinct genre phenomenon, probably reaching its peak during the early part of the twentieth century. Nowadays, we most often remember M.R. James’ stories but he was a prodigious talent among many gifted writers. Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic attempts to catalogue these authors and their output in what turns out to be a monumental (and extremely expensive) work but one that’s informative rather than useful. The bibliographical nature of this work means that while it is an excellent tool for establishing an author’s output, it’s much less helpful if you want to discover what may be currently available. Clues exist in the notes, pointing the reader towards the output of, in particular, the Ash-Tree Press, Sarob Press and Tartarus Press, all of which are republishing many hard-to-find volumes or else producing collected editions of popular authors, but these references are incidental and not always thorough. (This uncertainty extends to the addresses included in Sources Consulted, at least one of which is now defunct.) Having said that, for the devoted scholar of ghost stories, this is surely an essential volume. Each entry includes a brief biography and a listing of the first publication of all known stories by each author, with full bibliographical references and their British Library call number, and an indication of their contents. The bibliography also provides a useful introduction to the subject.

Christmas ghost stories …

The Guardian published a series of ghost stories over Christmas. Some were more successful than others.

Lionel Shriver – Repossession

Ned Beauman – Light and Space

Jeannette Winterson – Dark Christmas

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Ofodile

Penelope Lively – Stairs

Also, over at Spitalfields Life

Rosie Dastgir – The Hades Hotel

Kate Griffin – A Shaggy Dog Tale

Sarah Winman – Song of the Long Gone

Things I read on the internet: almost end of year edition

Paper Knife staggers, blinking, into its fourth year of existence (it celebrated its third birthday on December 28th). Yes, I’m also quite surprised I’ve kept it going this long. At present, I’ve no idea what 2014 will bring in terms of blogging. Unlike many of my blogging colleagues, I tend not to make plans but just roll with it. Consequently, my head is full of long, complicated and not easily articulated thoughts about lists, reviews, fan service, publisher service, and so on, which never quite make it to print. In 2014, I hope they will.

I have to admit too to a sense of disappointment with the blog at times. I started it in order to engage with a community I thought existed. Unsurprisingly, insofar as it does exist, if it does exist, it is a community that reads rather than comments (and here I’m as guilty as the next person) so the hoped-for discussion didn’t happen. Instead, I’ve sometimes felt more as though I’m performing to an empty auditorium, refusing to take the hint that it’s time to get offstage and do something else.

Yet still I keep going, even if I am apparently doing it all wrong. I don’t actively court publishers as some bloggers seem to; I don’t particularly care about spoilers, unless I am discussing something very recent. I couldn’t give a toss about cover reveals, nor do I squee or take in blog tourists (I might, but I’ve not yet seen a book I wanted to promote in that way). I write too much, about the wrong books, and I’m always late to the newest controversy. It has been intimated that I am putting people off by being «cough» a little too academic in my approach. Oh yeah, and it’s a rare month that goes by without someone loudly proclaiming the death of blogs … usually on their blog, and without a trace of irony as they do so. (Moments like this, I love the internet.)

Whether any of that is true or not, so be it. Coming into my fourth year of blogging I see myself now as scratching away on my patch of dirt, producing a crop of some sort, keeping myself mentally sustained, and if people want to read too, that’s fine. If I have any kind of resolution for 2014 it’s to be more regular in my reading and writing habits, but we shan’t know if I managed that until 2015, shall we?

The one big change I’ve made lately is to move to WordPress. The entire archive is now here, though I’ll also leave it on Blogspot. It’s taken an age to clean up the html: there are still odd glitches that need sorting out and I have to do some work on the website end of things, but basically, this is where Paper Knife now lives.

In the meantime, have some links … because what is the internet for if not the clicky stuff?

Reading

The New Yorker’s Tim Kreider wondered if Kim Stanley Robinson might be ‘Our Greatest Political Novelist‘.

Meanwhile, The Economist promoted the work of Ted Chiang but also produced a deeply wrongheaded piece on how 2014 would see more science-fictional ‘cheering tales‘ (though I personally predict increased sales of sick bags if they publish much more of this nonsense).

It being Christmas, and Christmas being a time for ghost stories (as though the other 364 days of the year weren’t), here’s an article from the tor.com website, in which Grady Hendrix surveys the work of some women ghost-story writers.

Andrew Liptak discusses the work of Francis Stevens, possibly the first professional female pulp writer.

And here is a letter to a fan from Tove Jansson

Will Wiles on creepypasta

Miscellaneous

London’s lost pneumatic dispatch railway

“there were cobwebs—thick”

His hat was on the table, and he had a bald head. I waited a second or two looking at him rather particularly. I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. […] He turned round and let me see his face—which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another, I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones there were cobwebs—thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can’t tell you anything more.

This is William Garrett’s description of his strange encounter in a Cambridge library. Sent to fetch a volume for another reader, Garrett finds it already in the hands of ‘an old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a—yes—in a black cloak’. When the reader returns the following day, and Garrett once again goes to fetch the book, the Tractate Middoth, the ‘clergyman’ is there once again, and it is at this point that Garrett sees his face.

To recuperate from the shock of the experience, Garrett takes himself off to Burnstow-on-Sea, where he meets Mrs Simpson, and her daughter, and the second part of the story begins to unfold. In effect, it’s a treasure hunt, based on Garrett’s realisation that Mrs Simpson’s cousin, who is hunting for a will made in her favour in order to destroy it, is the reader who asked him to fetch the fateful volume, and that the numbers which are her only clue are in fact a library classmark.

‘The Tractate Middoth’ is not, in all honesty, in the first rank of M.R. James’s ghost stories; it relies too much on the coincidence of Garrett’s meeting with the Simpsons in order to move the story along, and the ending verges on the sentimental. [I’ve noticed in reviews, a lot of people being exercised about its effectively being a chase sequence, which is true, but I am less bothered about that.] And yet, I’ve always had a soft spot for it, partly because of the title, partly because of the library setting, but mostly for the description above: ‘from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, there were cobwebs–thick’. It is so intensely visual even while being so very economical in its description. For that reason, I wasn’t overly surprised to learn that Mark Gatiss had chosen to adapt it for the BBC, for the Christmas night ghost story slot.

Ah, the Christmas night ghost story slot. I have become uneasy about the nostalgia that pertains to so much of the BBC’s output in the 1970s but Lawrence Gordon Clark’s James adaptations remain some of the best programmes made. I rewatched them last Christmas and there is no doubt that they really have stood the test of time. ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in particular, is a fine piece of work. Lawrence Gordon Clark was respectful of the originals while bringing his own artistic vision to bear on the material – the opening shots of ‘Lost Hearts’ are a particular example of this. And of course, over all this looms Jonathan Miller’s magisterial adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, its influence acknowledged even in the BBC’s 2010 revisiting of the story, a travesty that not even the presence of John Hurt could redeem.

And that, perhaps, is the biggest problem in adapting James for the screen (and to a lesser extent for the radio as well). James’s fans, in common with those of other well-loved writers, have such great expectations of dramatists and directors, and such a fierce love for those 1970s productions, it is hard to break away from the influence of the past. In fairness, Neil Cross tried, but then produced something that was so tangential as to be unrecognisable. Gatiss, I felt sure, was never going to take that path. Instead, I wondered just how slavish to the original he might be.

In the end, it turned out he was perfectly willing to play a little fast and loose in terms of the setting, much as Gordon Clark would do, while leaving the basic story intact. James’s story was published in 1911, so one would have been looking at a story with either an Edwardian or late Victorian setting. Instead, Gatiss has moved it into the twentieth century – the clothing and furniture suggested something vaguely inter-war, although the brief but identifiable presence of Pearsall’s Mountains and Moorlands volume from the New Naturalists series means that, in fact it could be no earlier than 1950. The change lent nothing new to the story but then neither did it get in the way, and there was nothing in the original story that was obviously period-specific. [I now wonder if this shift was a nod to the earlier tv adaptation of 1951.]

Gatiss followed the basic storyline quite closely, with a few elisions here and there (and I do wonder why he overlooked something so wonderful as Dr Rant’s being buried upright, at a table, in a tomb, though perhaps we should be grateful he resisted that one). In the story, John Eldred, the man in search of the Tractate Middoth, visits Garrett after his experience but cuts off the younger man as he starts to tell his story. We learn of it when he is visited by his friend, George Earle. Gatiss cuts this, and wisely, I think, given he has only half an hour in which to tell his story. Eldred is already positioned as a man with something on his mind. His unwillingness to handle the book in the library suggests that he has already had an unpleasant experience; it works better for a sceptical friend to hear the story.

It’s not the elisions that are a problem but the embellishments. Dust, its presence, its smell, plays an important part in the story as an indicator of the presence of Dr Gant, the man who sets the story in motion by hiding the will written in favour of his niece, Mrs Simpson, in a place where her cousin, John Eldred, can find it, but not her. In the story, James relies heavily on mentions of the smell of dust but, given this is tv, who could resist the thought of dust motes dancing in the light passed through stained-glass windows. But such dust! Not delicate grains caught in sunlight. This was DUST, great fluffy clouds of it, not so much fragments of skin as sheets of it. It reminded me of nothing so much as a description I once heard of asbestos waste floating in the streets around an asbestos factory. It was impossible to overlook the point being made.

And in case we missed that, there were also the spiders. Now, in the story, James mentions spiders only once, right at the end, after Eldred has died. At the spot where he died, Garrett discovers a mass of cobwebs and several spiders. In the drama, though, spiders appear several times – a design in a stained-glass window, a close-focus shot of spiders in a web on a window frame, crawling across the cobwebbed head itself, and, at the end, creeping across the floor of Bretfield Hall, after Mrs Simpson and her family, soon to include Garrett himself, take possession.

Small niggles, perhaps, but symptomatic of an unnecessary telegraphing of story points, a concern that the viewer shouldn’t miss anything. One might view the presence of the Nellie Deanish servant in a similar way; delightful as it always is to see Eleanor Bron on screen, her character apparently existed only to ram the point home that Dr Gant was a bad ’un: ‘where other people had a soul, he had a corkscrew’. And if we missed that, the camera lingered on his teeth, rather as it lingered on the lower part of the apparition’s face (an excellent prosthetic job, but not actually necessary). Too much, too much, as Mole said to Ratty in a completely different story, yet there is a sense of Gatiss’s Ratty fussing anxiously, trying to make sure that we as viewers have the very best story experience we can, just like in the good old days.

Having said that, there were also moments when one wondered what on earth was going through the writer’s mind. In the original story, as he boards the train for his rest cure, Garrett is startled by the sight of a clergyman in a cloak, echoing his original encounter. It is at this point he first encounters Mrs and Miss Simpson, who offer him smelling salts to counter the shock, and then offer him a place to stay. The tv adaptation, however, features an interminable few minutes of passengers, most prominently Una Stubbs, chatting away about this and that, before a scene as Stubbs’s character fumbles for her ticket while Garrett, feeling increasingly ill, notices the clergyman’s figure. There seems to be an element of social commentary coming into play: Stubbs’ character has been expressing distaste for the way in which young people travel abroad when they could stay at home more cheaply, and so on, but it is one of the most gratuitous additions to the story, as though inserted simply to give ‘Mrs Hudson’ a part.

As to the ending – James was a man who liked things neat and tidy closed ending. There were invariably explanations, not always complete within the story but sufficient to ensure that the reader was satisfied. On occasion one was left with a hint of after-effects: such an example would be Parkins’ ongoing nervousness of billowing clothing, etc. in ‘Oh Whistle’. But the revenant was usually satisfied and went away. Not so, here, where, Gant’s housekeeper having assured Mrs Simpson that she would need to watch out for him, in life and in death, the viewer is already primed to anticipate something extra, and it comes as less of a surprise than Gatiss might suppose to see dust and spiders come in through the door of Bretfield Hall, and a shadow fall across it. In fact, it echoes Gordon Clark’s ending for ‘A Warning to the Curious’ but whereas in that instance it seemed to work, here it just seemed very twentieth-century, very tiresome, and so very unnecessary.

And yet, these are minor cavils with what was on the whole a successful production, certainly one scary enough that Paul Kincaid said he felt hair rising on the back of his neck, and insisted we sleep with a light on that night.

And yet, and yet, when I say ‘successful’, what do I actually mean? Successful, undoubtedly, when it comes to recreating the mood of those old productions (and had I time for a closer analysis, I suspect I could point out a lot more in terms of visual resonances with those old productions) but I find myself whether it is possible to break free of the nostalgia mode. I praise ‘The Tractate Middoth’ for its fidelity to the original, for its fidelity to the mood of the 1970s, but what in it is original to 2013? It may be that James’s stories resist major reworking – the topics alone tie his writing so tightly in time it is difficult to bring it much further forward than circa 1950 – but Lawrence Gordon Clark’s work in the 1970s seem to have bound tv adaptations even more tightly in time, and Gatiss’s unabashed nostalgia finishes off the job.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good period production as much as the next person, and I did enjoy this very much, but neither can I overlook the fact that Gatiss is part of that group of writers and directors who grew up in the 1970s and who reach back to that time for their inspiration, with varying degrees of success. Their influence seems to permeate so much of the BBC’s output at present (Dr Who, the rebooted Sherlock and so forth) and I find myself wondering if this is entirely healthy.

Over at [feuilleton], John Coulthart also has some thoughts on the Gatiss adaptation of The Tractate Middoth.

I should also draw your attention to A Podcast to the Curious (hat tip to Fred Kiesche for drawing my attention to its existence), and in particular, to episode 11, on The Tractate Middoth.

 

The cold earth slept below; Above the cold sky shone

This has turned into the commentary that refused to die, or at any rate to be finished. I read Cold Earth back in the late summer and wanted to write about it because I found it so problematic but the words simply refused to come out right. Consequently, the review has been sitting around half-finished for months but I finally managed to complete it during the Christmas holiday. Now read on, bearing in mind that as always there are likely to be spoilers. My next post is unlikely to feature M.R. James or ghosts.

Cold Earth – Sarah Moss (London: Corvus, 2010)

I cannot recall any other novel that has so frustrated my attempts to write about it. With Cold Earth it has been almost impossible to find a point from which to begin without almost immediately feeling I should have started from somewhere else, except that when I try to start from there, I realise that I am wrong again, and should have started from over there, somewhere in the distance. And so it goes on, to the point where I think my own difficulty is indicative of the novel’s inherently problematic nature. This novel is slippery and elusive; it resists an easy description and a straightforward critical approach. This ought to be a virtue but in this instance, I think it is more an accidental than an intentional achievement, mostly because I am not convinced this novel has any clear idea of what it is trying to do. It oscillates between several points, unwilling to settle on any one of them, but neither does it persuade one that there is a need for it to keep moving. As a result it is a far less satisfying read than it could have been if the author had come at it from a different angle.

This is how Cold Earth begins: six graduate students come together to spend the brief Arctic summer digging a Viking settlement in a remote part of Greenland in an attempt to discover why the settlement failed. From the outset, it is an ill-made expedition. While Yianni, its leader, is incredibly focused on his research, the motives of other expedition members in going to Greenland are less clear-cut. At least two seem to be running away from their quotidian lives or past tragedies while one, Nina, is not even an archaeologist but a literature student, and has presumed on her friendship with Yianni to get a place on the expedition. On top of this, the expedition is dogged by mysterious incidents that occur around the camp, and experiences increasing difficulty in maintaining contact with the outside world.

This latter fact exacerbates fears that a virus has wiped out most of the world’s population while the group has been isolated in Greenland. When the expedition finishes but the plane fails to arrive at the agreed time, the group realises that it now faces death from starvation as the expedition has no emergency stores and no proper back-up plan. As they wait for transport that probably won’t ever arrive, the expedition members write to their family, friends, lovers, not knowing whether their letters will ever be received.

All of the above appears in the novel but it gives little clue as to what is really going on. And I am not the only one who is confused. Other commentators seem to have similarly struggled to characterise the book. I’ve seen it pitched as an apocalyptic thriller or as near-future sf, maybe even as a ghost story (and of those three it probably comes closest to being the last) and yet none of these descriptions really suit, though not because I believe the novel has deliberately set out to resist labelling. As I’ve described it above, Cold Earth could be a low-key mystery, a gripping account of people struggling for survival in hostile conditions, threatened by not one but two nameless horrors, but that doesn’t really fit either.

What these responses have in common is that they attempt to slot Cold Earth into some genre category or another, in an attempt to get a handle on it, but none of this works. As I’ve said, this is surely a good thing yet there are genre tropes scattered throughout the novel, like finds in a particularly productive occupation layer in an archaeological dig. However, their presence is puzzling rather than helpful; they operate clumsily and often in a highly and inappropriately visible way, nudging the plot in one direction or another rather than allowing the story to emerge in a more natural way. The most obvious example is the mysterious virus which lurks in the wings for most of the novel. It is this which has prompted some reviewers to represent Cold Earth as near-future sf but I remain unconvinced that it is quite as central to the novel as other commentators have suggested.

As the expedition gets under way the virus is a vague half-glimpsed threat, rather like swine flu in 2009 (although this novel was published before the alleged swine flu pandemic swept the world that summer). It is a possibility rather than a probability, and once the group is in Greenland they have no idea what is actually going on in the outside world. Presumably, the horror is supposed to lie in this lack of knowledge, of certainty, but it is difficult to step beyond a feeling that one is being prodded into feeling a lot more anxiety than the situation actually warrants without having more detailed knowledge of what is going on out there.

Nina, the dominant narrator, observes that:

[i]t’s usually a mistake to think about the news […] but worse when travelling, and a particularly bad idea to think about people you love and news at the same time when you’re nowhere near either of them. There’s something about dislocation that makes the news seem horribly probable in a way that it doesn’t at home. (2)

She doesn’t say what it was she saw on the airport billboards but later, perhaps a little too casually, asks Catriona, another graduate student, for news. ‘Oh, you mean the virus thing?’ Catriona says, dismissing whatever is happening as a media panic and not worth worrying about. However, there remains a suppressed anxiety among the group members, each one eager to check email and, incidentally, check the news as well, but is this a genuine fear of an epidemic or is it simply homesickness magnified? Given so many of the expedition members seem to be experiencing conflict about where they want to be and who they want to be with, there is a strange irony in this concern.

Later, when Catriona, the person who initially dismissed the reports, reports the news that, ‘[t]hey think it’s mutated and it seems to be spreading’ (57), no one has a clear idea what this means, though it naturally sounds threatening. Later, the diggers hear that the US epidemic has spread, with tens of thousands of people ill, but here is the paradox; they have to rely on news websites which may or may not be exaggerating the effects of the epidemic, (and again one thinks of the 2009 swine flu epidemic, when it rapidly became impossible to determine whether one might have had flu or not, or indeed to gain any sense of how unusual the illness figures might be). Once the expedition loses internet access, they have only their imaginations to help them through the situation, and inevitably their imaginations run riot, however much they keep their thoughts to themselves.

What is lacking is the opportunity to construct any kind of perspective about events. Thus, Cold Earth becomes a novel not about an epidemic, or even a novel about the possibility of an epidemic, but a novel that worries about news, about its lack and about the inability to accurately evaluate such news as is available. The one moment when a chance of outside evaluation becomes available, it is undermined by the fact that the shepherds they encounter have poor English and themselves are habitually isolated from other communities. This was, I think, meant to be ironic but it feels convenient and manipulative as a literary device. In the end, we have no way of knowing if the epidemic itself precipitates the expedition’s being marooned or whether it becomes a retrospective explanation for its having been marooned. And this presupposes that the epidemic ever happened. At the end of the novel, when Nina takes up the story again, her account seems to suggest that something did happen, but again, from her elliptical comments it’s difficult to determine what that was.

The situation is exacerbated by Yianni’s reluctance to allow team members much time with the computer. The excuses vary from day to day – using the internet is expensive, he is worried about computer viruses, he doesn’t want to waste good digging time – but in the end it comes down to this:

Partly, it doesn’t seem worth any risk to our work here just to access information we can’t do anything about. They only want to know what’s in the news out of habit. And partly, I suppose, I like the idea of isolation. It seems silly to come to West Greenland and then check your e-mail (55).

One feels a certain sympathy with Yianni’s view. It taps into a frustration with a world where people are almost permanently attached to their Blackberries and iPods, incapable of taking a step without telling the world about it while failing to notice what’s going on around them. However, Yianni’s view is imbued with a degree of asceticism which seems starkly out of place in the twenty-first century, particularly when people might have good reason to be concerned about their families.

As Nina observes, Yianni apparently ‘wants the full nineteenth-century heroic experience’ (55), with all that entails, which suggests a distinctly misplaced romanticism, particularly when one considers how nineteenth-century expeditions remained out of contact for years not through choice but through force of circumstance. There is no need to be out of touch in the twenty-first century so why enforce the lack of contact? Having said that, Nina’s comment is not so much a foreshadowing of the disaster that is about to unfold as a frantic hand-signalling of its inevitability.

Certainly, Yianni’s style of leadership owes a good deal to that of the classic nineteenth-century expedition leader. He is aloof from the others for much of the time, more so as the situation deteriorates and his first concern is for the site’s integrity rather than the diggers’ safety. He behaves more as overseer than as first among equals, doling out rations, assigning work, and working people very hard. He is unable to connect with his companions on an emotional level, failing to understand their anxieties (and in Nina’s case, he cannot bring himself to accept that her strange experiences are anything more than the product of nightmares and sleepwalking rather than being actual events). His final letter is almost exclusively concerned with explaining what he has done with the expedition’s research data and its finds, recommending suitable journals for publication, although he does, almost grudgingly, admit that the expedition is in trouble because of his poor organisation, which he tries to justify as a need to remain within his budget.

The immediacy of this note suggests that Yianni must believe that they will be found, and found soon, though equally he seems not to imagine he will personally survive, though there is no indication as to why he feels this. Did he ever really believe in the virus? One suspects not butit is not clear what else Yianni does believe in. It is strikingly obvious that of the six members of the team, he is the one about whom the reader learns least. While Nina has known him for some time, and indeed has presumed on their friendship in order to get onto the expedition, and there is some depth of friendship on which to presume, Yianni seems otherwise to have nothing beyond his work. In his letter there is an odd oblique reference which suggests that he has something on his conscience, possibly murder (this following an earlier incident where he hit Nina, holding her arm in such a way as to ensure she could not defend herself), but this, like so many other things in this novel, is never fully examined or revealed, even though it might go some way to suggesting why he is unable to connect even with his own emotions, let alone empathise with anyone else’s.

Yianni’s exhaustive documentation of the dig’s findings may remind the reader that explorers have habitually kept accounts of their journeys, not only meticulously recording scientific data and details of every aspect of their experiences, but often also keeping a personal journal. A useful if rather overblown analogy in this instance might be the journal of Robert Falcon Scott which recorded the failure of his Antarctic expedition, and the death of its members from cold and starvation. However, Yianni appears not to keep any kind of private journal nor indeed, with the one exception already mentioned, to commit himself to any kind of introspective commentary; instead, it is Nina who takes on the role of expedition memoirist, and indeed who appears consumed by a general need to keep a day-to-day record of events. It is also Nina who, according to Ben, suggests, when death seems imminent, that everyone should write final letters, though we do not know her motivation in suggesting this. Given that Nina is working on portrayals of ‘the imaginary nature of Iceland in Victorian poetry’ (36) one cannot help wondering if she isn’t as much infected by the romanticism of the enterprise as she suggests Yianni is. Certainly, her reasons for being on the dig seem rather specious: ‘I just need to write something explaining how being here helps with my doctorate. It doesn’t really, that’s the whole point, that the Vikings turned into a Victorian fantasy, but I’ll make something up. I’ve always wanted to go to Greenland […].’ (17)

Various reviews have focused on the supposed epistolary nature of this novel, the last letters home, but it’s immediately obvious that Nina’s portion of the novel is not a letter but a journal. Even taking into account the voluminous letter-writing habits of the Victorians she’s studying and apparently emulating, one could reasonably ask how a starving woman found sufficient mental and physical energy to construct a coherent account of the expedition’s early days. The ‘letter’ is supposedly addressed to Nina’s partner, David, but the tone of it suggests that its writer, real or imagined, is having to remind herself that she is writing a letter rather than simply telling a story, and at these moments, the account becomes oddly stilted.

However, the problem with this narrative device only becomes fully clear when the story is handed off to Ruth, whose account picks up almost precisely where Nina’s leaves off and the reader must surely begin to think that these are really peculiar letters. Ruth’s account seems to be more nakedly addressed to someone, in this instance the therapist helping her through the trauma of her partner’s death in a car crash, but again she tells the story as though keeping a journal rather than taking leave of the world, and indeed much of her journal is about what has brought her to Greenland in the first place. Jim’s ‘letter’, warmly addressed to his extensive family, is again a lengthy narrative, taking up where Ruth’s leaves off, and interspersed with memories of his childhood.

By this point, and on the assumption that these accounts are intended to be read as letters, the reliability of the framing device must surely called into question, to the extent that terseness now becomes a sign of potential authenticity (the letters from Ben and Catriona fit a more conventional model of farewell, while Yianni’s letter, as previously noted, is more like a will, a set of instructions to an imagined executor). More than that, the convenient dovetailing of accounts suggests that somewhere there is an editor very crudely topping and tailing each narrative, so we can have no idea what has remained ‘unpublished’. Whoever Nina, Ruth, Jim and Catriona may think they’re writing to, and in each case they are writing to a specific person or group, they’re writing for the reader who needs to be told a story. A letter to a family member or to a close friend would not, I think, be as all-encompassing as these ‘letters’ appear to be. There would not be so much establishing of background, there would not be so great a focus on people that the presumed recipients probably do not even know. The list goes on.

The inevitable question has to be asked: why so many first-person narrators (Ruth’s and Nina’s voices in particular are almost indistinguishable from one another, while Yianni and Ben scarcely feature as commentators) when the novel could as easily, and perhaps more successfully, have been told in the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator? One can only speculate on why Moss made this decision – and as author, it is of course hers to make, and to tell the story as she sees fit – but I really do not think it works. Granted, there are arguments in favour, not least that a first-person viewpoint strengthens the sense of witness and testimony. But in that case, what are we witnessing? Nina, Ruth and Jim write at greatest length and between them tell the story of the expedition up to the point where it is obvious that no plane is coming to collect them any time soon but of the period of starvation itself there is little to be said, perhaps not surprisingly. Survival is a tiring business and there is presumably little energy spare for writing.

It is unfortunate that there is no way for the reader to learn the details of their last few days on the shore and their rescue. There is no witness to the arrival of a boat, and in the novel’s afterword, written by Nina, this event is mentioned only tangentially. There is undoubtedly something attractive in the idea of using multiple viewpoints to provide an overlapping and interlocking account of events, but this presupposes that the narrative was originally constructed with this aim in mind. In this instance, the handing off of the narrative from one character to another, like a relay baton, suggests otherwise and pretty much ensures that there can be little verification of experience or impression. This is a great pity as there is a lot going on in the narrative that would benefit from a layering and cross-referencing of experience, not least the alleged supernatural incidents that occur.

The Vikings sagas, as Nina observes, included some really unpleasant and harrowing ghost stories. She paraphrases a story that William Morris allegedly liked:

about an isolated little bothy, on the side of a mountain track, a place for benighted travellers to wait for dawn. Sometimes an angry dead man came out and stabbed everyone while they were asleep. The screams carried down the valley when the wind was in the right direction and the villagers would send for the priest before investigating. (8)

This becomes particularly apposite for Nina, who turns out to be ‘sensitive’ and dreams extensively about the circumstances which brought about the demise of the settlement, witnesses historical killings, and claims to be acutely aware of presences moving around the dig site. The story she dreams is muddled but, in some respects at least, chimes with the Morris story. The other diggers variously suspect Nina of melodramatic tendencies or of being a sleepwalker. Only later do one or two of them begin to have odd experiences and wonder if she may be telling the truth, though by this point anxiety about their situation is becoming the dominant emotion, and there is the suggestion that Nina has been more anxious all along as a result of not enjoying the travelling and camping..Ultimately, we really only have Nina’s word for it that any of these experiences took place, particularly the dreams. Alongside her knowledge of the sagas, Nina is clearly well versed in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, which includes a rich repository of ghost stories, and the hauntings themselves would not be out of place in a story by M.R. James (for that matter, the archaeological setting would surely have appealed to James). There are moments, such as when Nina sees a mysterious hand pressed against the fabric of her tent, which are genuinely chilling (and I don’t mind admitting that I slept with the light on after reading that incident), but the more complicated the story becomes, such as when she dreams about past events, the more difficult it becomes to take them at face value.

We are, I think, intended to take them as being truthful even though there is no written account to verify them, and Nina is primarily a woman of the written word. She doesn’t want to dig if it means having contact with human remains, and the implication is that she is highly imaginative and thus constructing stories from the others’ interpretations of their finds. However, it is difficult to accept the idea of Nina as sensitive when she is otherwise so self-absorbed, and obsessed with material things. Instead, I’d suggest Nina’s role in the novel is to provide the reader with an alternative interpretation of the archaeological finds; in other words, she is being grossly manipulated by the author to provide narrative counterpoint. Obviously, it is an author’s job to manipulate their characters and tell a story but again, this is so obvious I can’t decide whether it is an accident or simply a feature I don’t quite understand.

However crude this manipulation, it does bring us to what I think is at the heart of this novel, and that is its focus on writing and on archaeology, two disciplines that demand the practitioner find a way under the surface, peeling off the layers one by one, telling a story in the process. ‘Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text.’ (64) Writers of fiction and archaeologists face a similar challenge in producing something that appears to make sense, out of a jumble of ideas and perceptions. What they produce may be a truth but it can never be the truth. We assume that because archaeologists deal in artefacts, solid found objects, that they deal with truth in a way that a novelist can’t. Fiction is not real. Yet, as this novel shows, if we place our trust in Nina’s dream experiences, while the others speculate about why the settlement failed, Nina actually knows but there is no tangible evidence to support her knowledge. Whereas the archaeologists can construct a story that is consonant with what they’ve actually found, but we have no way of knowing if it is accurate. At one point Jim comments that:

archaeology has to be more interested in establishing customs than instances of spontaneity. […] I mean, a particular person going swimming, even every day of every summer, probably wouldn’t leave evidence. It would only be if someone made a carving or left a record of swimming that we’d know, and even then we’d probably assume that it was because swimming was important to that society. But I have to say there would be a presumption that people in the Arctic probably don’t swim for pleasure. (75)

By employing first-person testimonies, inevitably written with an awareness of a particular reader’s presence and thus partial in their selection of topic and language, it may be that Moss is trying to point up the literally partial narrative of the archaeological report, constructed out of fragment and conjecture, and undermine the fallacy that fact is the same as truth. Or, as Yianni puts it to Nina, ‘You wanted an ending. It’s just evidence. More evidence. One way or another.’ (218)

Having said that, there is something remarkably unfinished about Cold Earth itself. It doesn’t end so much as miraculously resolve itself in ways that don’t quite make sense, given what has gone before, and at least one reviewer has suggested that the final chapter is a cop-out, given the build-up to tragedy. The group is suddenly rescued, possibly the single most important thing that happens in the novel and yet this happens off the page. We know so little of what happens at this point, which is frustrating, though I’d like to believe that the author is, however ineptly, trying to pick up that point Yianni makes about evidence. Yianni dies, alone, Scott-like in his tent, a situation that Nina, who finishes the story, edges around, much as she edges round such things as whether there really was an epidemic. We are, I think, meant to infer that there was, from Nina’s discussion with the butcher about the advisability of eating game. It seems that Nina hasn’t been particularly changed by her experience and is as preoccupied with gourmet food, much as she was before she went to Greenland. Much may be contained in comments such as ‘There used to be a little brother,’ (275) about a neighbour’s child, or am I putting in more than is really there, falling prey to Nina’s romantic notions?

I suspect, in the end, that Nina’s romantic ideas get in the way of describing the rescue because it does not fulfil  her fictional expectation. We learn that Ben, the only one still ambulant when they heard the boat, ‘went straight past you [that is, Yianni, for Nina clearly addresses him in this last section] on his way down to the beach.’ (276) Ben has surely done the sensible thing, using his energy to save the entire group, while we note that it was Yianni’s decision to live alone on the beach, so appalled was he by the idea of contaminating the archaeological site, even at the risk of his own life, and incidentally living out that ‘full nineteenth-century heroic experience’ to its furthest extent.

I may have given the impression that I don’t much like this novel but that’s too simple and straightforward a reaction to something so complex and confusing. As I said at the beginning, it frustrates me. There is so much in it that appeals but the story is composed of so many loose ends it is difficult to work out what is bona fide artistic effect and what is the result of the author’s failing to master her own story. I admit I’m getting to the stage where I’m enjoying the process of figuring out why and how it doesn’t work more than I enjoyed reading the novel in the first place. I am sure it is also significant that I’ve found it difficult to stop writing about the novel. The novel itself feels as though its author didn’t really know which thread she wanted to follow nor indeed where the novel ought to end. I’m forced to the conclusion that in this instance the multi-viewpoint first-person narrative structure was a mistake, providing the author with an illusory freedom while placing severe constraints on her ability to tell a remarkably complex story. I admire the ambition but in the end have to it down as, perhaps appropriately, an heroic failure. But, bizarrely, it is an heroic failure that is still worth reading: a paradox right to the very end.

Link

For those who have never read it, M.R. James’s Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad

‘Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, is now available on DVD, as is the Jonathan Miller version, ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’, and the other M.R.James productions from the 1970s. In my humble opinion they stand up very well after all these years. (Both adaptations are currently available on YouTube but I shan’t link as they vanish and reappear with monotonous regularity, as do the Robert Powell readings of M.R. James’s stories, and I’m tired of refreshing links. Have a look around and see what you can find.)

And lastly, Robert Burns’ poem:  Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad

Quis Est Iste Qui Venit

Who Is This Who Is Coming? 

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ghost stories, and 2010 was no exception. BBC’s Radio 7 broadcast a series of ghost stories from Walter de la Mare, interspersed with a set of rather weak parodies of ghost stories by M.R. James (meant, I assume, for the aficionados who know the originals rather than the casual listener, and all the more tiresome for that). Meanwhile, BBC2, harking back to its own tradition of adapting James’s stories for the festive season, offered a new version of ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, called ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You’, written by Neil Cross, directed by Andy de Emmony, and featuring John Hurt.

I wondered why we suddenly needed a new version of the story, and how this new version could possibly improve on Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation, also called ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’, which is still one of the two or three finest adaptations of James’s stories ever produced (up there with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘Lost Hearts’, both broadcast by the BBC in the early seventies). Matters were not helped when I noticed Alison Graham’s preview in Radio Times: ‘Silly me. Here was I thinking that the whistle in the title was the essential component in the best ghost story ever written’, nor by A N Wilson’s revealing, in the review on Radio 3’s Nightwaves on 22nd December, that the protagonist dies at the end of the film, when confronted by his wife’s spectre, something that certainly didn’t happen in either Miller’s version or James’s original.

In which case, I should begin by revisiting James’s story, which follows the fortunes of Parkins, Professor of Ontography at Cambridge, who travels to Burnstow for a golfing holiday. At a colleague’s request, he also undertakes to look at the site of a possible Templar preceptory and while doing so, he discovers a whistle concealed in a wall. The first odd event occurs as Parkins returns to the hotel. A glance behind him:

showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of.

Parkins cleans the whistle and discovers the inscriptions on it, the longer one of which reads ‘Quis est iste qui venit’. “It ought to mean, ‘Who is this who is coming?’ Well, the best way to find out is evidently to whistle for him,” which Parkins duly does. The result is striking. As James put it:

He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure – how employed, he could not tell. Perhaps he would have seen more had not the picture been broken by the sudden surge of a gust of wind against his casement, so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white glint of a sea-bird’s wing somewhere outside the dark panes. […]

‘But what is this? Goodness! what force the wind can get up in a few minutes! What a tremendous gust! There! I knew that window-fastening was no use! Ah! I thought so – both candles out. It’s enough to tear the room to pieces.’

The first thing was to get the window shut. While you might count twenty Parkins was struggling with the small casement, and felt almost as if he were pushing back a sturdy burglar, so strong was the pressure. It slackened all at once and the window banged to and latched itself. Now to relight the candles and see what damage, if any, had been done. No, nothing seemed amiss; no glass even was broken in the casement.

Subsequently, Parkins dreams of someone being chased along the beach by ‘a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ while a local boy sees a similar figure apparently waving to him from Parkins’ bedroom window. The story culminates in the figure attacking Parkins in his room, having used the sheets of the spare bed to give itself substance. ‘[W]what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen’. Parkins is rescued by Colonel Wilson who, having heard Parkins’ original story and seen the whistle, has clearly been expecting trouble.

James’s ghost stories, for all their inventiveness in terms of individual hauntings, follow familiar patterns. The ignorant or unwary meddle with the supernatural at their peril, and either meet with or narrowly dodge an unpleasant death. Alternatively, an ancient wrong must either be righted or at any rate be recognised for what it was. Often, there is also a mystery to be solved. ‘Oh, Whistle,’ falls into the first category, in that Parkins is engaging with something he simply doesn’t understand. This is made apparent in a number of ways, not the least of which is Parkins’ guileless decision to blow the whistle, presumably in a spirit of enquiry which fits with his position as a Cambridge academic, and indeed as Professor of Ontography, concerned as he is with describing the nature and essence of things. What is not clear is how this process of description might relate to matters of belief. Is it possible to describe something in which you refuse to believe?

Among Parkins’ most vehemently expressed convictions is a fervent disavowal of the existence of spirits, an irony not lost on the reader in the light of what is to come. His views stand in sharp contrast to those of the Colonel, who comments on the strength of the wind the previous night: ‘In my old home we should have said someone had been whistling for it’ and goes on to say ‘my experience is, mind you, that there’s generally something at the bottom of what these country-folk hold to, and have held to for generations.’ However, I think it is worth going back to that part of the story describing Parkins’ journey back to the hotel after finding the whistle, and that brief reference to his ‘unenlightened days’. That, his loud rejection of the supernatural and his discomfort with the Colonel’s stout Protestantism and complex views on the local vicar’s ‘Papist’ practices suggests that Parkins’ philosophy is as much of an atheistical bent as it is rationalist. His rejection of superstition, most immediately embodied in his refusal to accept the Colonel’s belief in the possibility of whistling up a wind, makes him vulnerable when dealing with the whistle.

I’d also suggest that what has been brought back into play for Parkins is the world of the imagination. When the wind first answers the summons of the whistle:

Quickly as it had risen, the wind did not fall at once. On it went, moaning and rushing past the house, at times rising to a cry so desolate that, as Parkins disinterestedly said, it might have made fanciful people feel quite uncomfortable; even the unimaginative, he thought after a quarter of an hour, might be happier without it.

There is something so studied about Parkins’ ‘disinterestedly’ saying something, when juxtaposed with the ‘fanciful’ and ‘even the unimaginative’ as to suggest that Parkins ‘unenlightened’ self is being consciously suppressed by his intellectual training, with inevitable consequences. The Colonel recognises this when he observes that the creature’s ‘one power was that of frightening’ and that it could probably have done little else. But what effect might such a fright have on the suppressed imagination? Parkins’ nerves are said to have suffered: ‘he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved, and the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.’ These are surely the responses of a man whose imagination suppressed for so long is now in overdrive as a result of his encounter As the narrator drily remarks, ‘the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’. The whistle can be thrown into the sea and the bed sheet that transformed itself into a figure can be burned but this in no way alters the fact of their having existed and been witnessed by Parkins. As a result his perception of the world must inevitably have altered; at what cost to his intellectual practice, we never learn.

James’s narrator described Parkins as young, neat, and precise in speech’ but also as being ‘something of an old woman – rather henlike, perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour, but at the same time dauntless and sincere in his convictions, and a man deserving of the greatest respect’, and the reader has a sense that for all his foibles, Parkins is a social creature and his colleagues and acquaintances appear to like the man. Jonathan Miller’s take on Parkins, now Parkin, is rather different. While his production substantially follows James’s original story, Miller is not interested in simply replicating the account of an unwary academic’s brush with the supernatural. Parkin is no longer an over-earnest but generally collegial figure. Instead, he has become a solitary, anxious man, staying in a hotel filled with long, silent, empty corridors; eating lonely meals in a deserted dining room, spending his days tramping along an equally deserted beach. Michael Hordern invests Parkin with the neurotic tics of a man who does not engage much with others, instead humming and muttering his way through his days, accompanied by a soundtrack of slight noises hugely amplified. He is, classically, a man who lives almost entirely in his own mind, his contacts with other people limited to stilted encounters with the hotel staff. There is one conversation, with the Colonel, about the possibility of an afterlife; yet even this the observer comes to in medias res, with no clue how it was originally initiated. Like his Jamesian predecessor, Parkin does not believe in such and rejects the Colonel’s arguments that there might be things that he, Parkin, cannot account for through logical explanations. We must assume that the need to explain is fundamental to the Professor’s life, and his inability to find an explanation for what happens to him is in its turn essential to Miller’s production. Parkin’s encounter with the sheeted figure creates a fatal undermining of his philosophy, and our final view of Parkin is of a figure who has retreated to an infantile state, sucking his thumb, repeating ‘No’, as if this can dispel the evidence of his own eyes.

The BBC’s 2010 production seems to owe more to Miller’s version than to James’s, not least in visual terms. We find the same empty hotel, the same long corridors; the broad, empty beach, the same small noises dominating the soundtrack. Here is also the same sense of isolation and of silence. In this production, however, Parkin’s experience in the hotel is mirrored by that of his wife in the care home to which he commits her at the story’s opening. In the home, which is as unhomely as you might care to imagine, there are endless doors, endless glass walls, endless rows of chairs, all of them occupied by silent, unresponsive women in identical white shifts. Is this how a distressed Parkin sees it or is it really as institutional as represented? The environment appears to be entirely stripped of warmth, and although the nurse (there is only one) appears to be sympathetic, she also seems disturbingly eager to remove Parkin from the scene, urging him to relax and take a holiday. The camera almost always observes Parkin’s interactions with his wife from a distance, through a window, through a doorway, placing the viewer in the position of a watcher, as though checking up on him, as though he cannot quite be trusted to be alone with her. (In the Nightwaves review of this production, Philip Dodd and A N Wilson kept returning to the close-ups of John Hurt’s face – which, lined and wrinkled as it is, seemed to me to stand in for the face of crumpled linen that will never appear in this version of the story – but never posed the question I felt to be most pertinent: at any given moment, through whose eyes are we watching?)

The introduction of a wife already indicates that Neil Cross’s script has moved sharply away from the original story. James Parkin is no longer a philosopher but an astronomer, although he holds equally trenchant views on the possibilities of the survival of life beyond death. In this instance, though, what most preoccupies him is not the absence of anything beyond death but the horror of absence in life. Parkin’s wife, Alice, obviously provides the focus for this concern, although the nature of her condition is not made clear; she is pale, still, always staring straight ahead, and almost entirely unresponsive to events around her. She speaks only once, to utter a few nonsensical half-sentences, and on another occasion, after Parkin has spoken to her, we see her wringing her hands as they lie in her lap. She is physically present but her body has outlasted her personality. For a man who lives by the intellect, this is clearly a devastating position to be in, but Parkin must, as he notes, reject the idea of the ghost in the machine. Matter rots, after all, but what happens when the issue is not death but disconnection?

We are given to understand that Parkin has been devoted to his wife but there is no indication of why he has suddenly relinquished her to the care home. He seems to have no family, no friends, no outside interest. Without her, he is utterly lost. What she thought of him, we can have no idea. There is the argument that an outsider can never properly understand the nature of a couple’s relationship, but the outsider can always surmise, and was observed on Nightwaves, the viewer inevitably fills in the gaps. One might suggest that Parkin’s apparent uxoriousness has somehow crushed his wife’s personality. A dream sequence which occurs after Parkin’s first overtly supernatural experience suggests that there is some unspoken tragedy in the couple’s lives. We see Parkin’s wife holding a posy, like Mary in a painting of the Annunciation, followed by her cradling an invisible something in her arms. The porcelain head of a doll explodes from within. The drama’s opening, as it focuses on the photos on the mantel-piece, does not show any family portraits. We are almost obliged to assume that Mrs Parkin has experienced at least one miscarriage and that the couple have been unable to have children. Whether Parkin blames her for this or not is not certain.

There is one curious moment when he finally leaves her at the care home. As he departs, Parkin says, ‘Call me if you need me’, not as crass as it might sound if one accepts he continues the pretence that she is alive, but he then leans close to her ear and whispers or, more accurately, quavers ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’. We might assume this refers to James’s story, in the light of what is to come, but we should also remember that James got his title from a poem by Robert Burns, in which a girl exhorts her lover to pretend that he is not interested in her if he sees her outside, and to visit her covertly, to ‘come as ye were na comin’ to me’. That Parkin seems to be singing the words suggests that this refers to Burns rather than James. What it means is another matter; is Parkin commenting on his wife’s indifference to him, or is he simply saying that he is, as always, at her disposal? Is that a threat or a promise?

I think we are supposed to assume guilt on Parkin’s part for committing his wife to the home, and to read his concern as love. Perhaps this explains his attempt to reclaim something of their life together by revisiting some of the places they went as a couple, a refusal to let go. Thus Parkin finds himself staying in an empty out-of-season hotel, with corridors and stairs that seem to go on forever; walking along a deserted beach, past huge white chalk sea stacks, their weathered organic forms foreshadowing the white figure he encounters on the beach Whatever I might feel about the storytelling in this drama, it is impossible to deny the power of some of the images.

Then Parkin finds the wedding ring buried in a grass tussock – on Nightwaves Dodd and Wilson helpfully point out that this is suggestive of relationships as though the point might be lost on the viewer. Strangely, when Parkin cuts the ring free it proves to have something engraved on the inside – Quis est iste qui venit – and it is this which provides one of the few solid connections with James’s original story. And here I cannot decide whether it is a weak attempt to acknowledge the original, a showy piece of prop-dressing or a genuine attempt to say something about the nature of relationships. In many respects, this drama’s haunting is cruder than anything that appears in either the original story or indeed Miller’s production, and some of it makes little sense. James was always most rigorous in the working out of a haunting; everything happened for a reason and would, in due course, be explained, although on occasion ‘explanation’ is left to the reader, presented with a series of facts which could be construed a certain way, the implication being that this was precisely what James required. Similarly, while Miller takes a more psychological approach to Parkin’s experience, he remains faithful to James’s storyline, although for reasons that are quite obvious he edits out one particular manifestation because it would require Parkin to interact too much with other people.

But in the 2010 version we are presented with curious scratching noises, maybe a rat in the wall (although, in fairness, one might note that the noises are similar to the much more appropriate sound of the rattling windows in Miller’s version). There is a bedside lamp which switches itself off when Parkin is asleep (and this preoccupation with the light can be clearly linked to Miller’s similar framing of Parkin in bed at night, with the light pull to one side). The viewer’s attention is also directed to a particularly unaesthetic white porcelain bust of a woman in the room which appears to alter its position of its own volition, although this is not directly commented on, and indeed seems to be an almost entirely unnecessary piece of business, except insofar as it is presumably meant to resonate with the whiteness of the figure on the beach and Mrs Parkin’s seemingly intrinsic paleness. That, on his final night in the hotel, Parkin locks the bust away in a cupboard indicates that we are supposed to invest it with significance, but what kind of significance remains unexamined.

More shockingly, and this is a genuine and memorable moment of horror that would, I think, have appealed to James himself, given how corporeal some of his hauntings were, someone comes to the door of Parkin’s room, turns the door handle and shakes the door violently, attempting to gain admittance. During this, the visitor’s feet are visible in the light streaming under the door. Afterwards, when Parkin sleeps, he experiences the dreams I mentioned earlier. Only on the following day does Parkin discover that he was in fact alone in the hotel that night, and he subsequently seems to have decided that his wife is calling him home. Yet, for his last night in the hotel he prepares his room as though for a siege, stuffing a pillow under the door to obscure the light, drawing the curtains tight and, as noted, shutting the hideous bust in a cupboard, before getting into bed.

After this, events unfold in short order. The pillow is sucked out from under the door into the corridor, another rather good moment of drama, then the fingers of a small pair of hands appear briefly, trying to work their way through the gap under the door, and the next thing we see is Parkin’s wife, spectral, still in a white shift, clawing her way up the bed, all the while telling Parkin that ‘I am still here’. A small coup de theatre perhaps, but I was reminded very strongly of the extended shot in the TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, where the Woman comes to Kidd as he lies ill in bed, and her face fills the screen as she looms over him for many seconds. It’s still the best and most frightening thing about an otherwise rather indifferent production. However, here, while Gemma Jones crawling up the bed is presumably supposed to play into the scurrying noises that have disturbed Parkin, it just seems somehow cheap, a feeling strengthened when those noises are finally shown to be an inept piece of foreshadowing: the movement of the now dead Parkin’s dangling arm drags his fingernails along the floor. The cause of Parkin’s death is not stated. One might, I suppose, look to others of James’s stories for clues; in ‘Lost Hearts’, Mr Abney is clawed to death by the ghostly revenants of his earlier victims, their fingernails having continued to grow in death, but I’m not sure this is really the answer, for this is not the end. The camera returns to Parkin’s wife who suddenly seems to have come to life. A tear slides down her face, she gets up from her chair and is gone. Has she caused Parkin’s death? Does this provide her with a release of some sort? We are, I think, supposed to meditate upon the nature of death-in-life, of the fate of the mind trapped in the body, unable to communicate, but I am not clear whether this drama is suggesting that the trapped mind can exact a distant revenge, confounding everything that the victim once believed in, killing him by confronting him with that which he cannot intellectually accept.

At the end, though, I still don’t quite see the point of this ‘adaptation’. Its relationship to the M.R.James story is so slight as to be inconsequential, so it’s hardly an updating, and one almost wonders why the writer and director retained such connections as they did. There is clearly a stronger link between this and Miller’s production in visual terms (which, oddly enough, Dodd and Wilson never remarked on) but it still has little to do with it in terms of story content. Wilson can mutter as much as he likes about Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and the character’s constant perambulations (this also comes from Miller’s production) and make comments about the East Anglian setting (there are no chalk cliffs in Norfolk, and indeed the outdoor filming took place in Kingsgate Bay in North Kent) but he comes nearest the truth when he commented that nothing connects. Having said that, he did also observe that it is not a ghost story. Not, perhaps, in the classical Jamesian sense but I’d argue that there is enough of the supernatural as well as the psychological about it to give the viewer pause for thought. However, at the same time, it seems to be playing into that irritating late-1970s vogue for explaining away hauntings as externalised psychological experiences, something I’m not convinced the BBC has ever quite got over when it comes to dealing with ghost stories.