Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Lost and found lives in the universe


I first saw Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe around the time it was released, in 2003. It is a curious film: dream like, with long stretches of landscape shots and wordless lone character machinations. This film is, I will argue, a useful springboard for exploring a prominent psychic form of haunting: loneliness, and the yearning for connection. Psychic forms of haunting refer to our feelings of being haunted, often not by actual spirits, but by the past and all that entails. For example, during the times when I struggle with loneliness, I feel that sense of longing for connection and relationship as a kind of haunting, partly because it seems to correspond to a clawing for past instances when I enjoyed those things in abundance. These memories become spectral occasions I conjure in the darkness, and one of the hardest aspects of loneliness is that the distance between the then and now feels vast and chasmic. Nostalgia can easily slip into the arms of despair when the present is found wanting. When someone finds you in those shadowy, painful realms, can hold that space and offers unconditional friendship; well, even the nectar of resulting feelings seems divine.  

The beauty of films like Last Life… is that they are murky enough to let their viewer make their own sense of what they might mean; its an interesting thing in itself that we unravel such things to fit with our own existential concerns.


To set the scene then – the film begins in Kenji’s Thailand flat, where he is preparing to hang himself. He has, it appears, become thoroughly disenchanted with the world, and seeks an opportunity to transform. His suicide note declares ‘this is bliss’, and the reappearance of this note at particular intervals during the film reminds us of his desire to escape a constrictive world from which he feels no connection or interest:

Many books say: "Death is relaxing." Did you know that? No need to follow the latest trends... No need to keep pace with the rest of the world... No more e-mail... No more telephone... It'll be like taking a nap... Before waking up refreshed and ready to begin your next life. That's what they say. "This is bliss”."

His suicide is interrupted by the arrival of his chaotic brother, someone who doesn't feel the need to pause between doorbell pressings, on the run from their native Japan, and a former yakuza boss with whose daughter he has slept with. Shortly after his brother’s arrival, Kenji sees Nid, a young Thai escort, at the Japanese library where he works, who is reading The Last Lizard. Things take an unexpected turn – Kenji’s brother is killed by a colleague of his boss, who Kenji later shoots dead. On a bridge afterward, Kenji is once again preparing for his suicide. This time, he is interrupted by the appearance of Nid, who is getting out of her sister Noi’s car opposite him following an argument in which it has been revealed that Nid has slept with Noi’s boyfriend Jon. Kenji and Nid see each other across the road, before Nid is hit by a car and killed.

This story is not about Kenji and Nid, you see, but about Kenji and Noi. After she returns Kenji’s misplaced bag to him, he convinces her to let him go back to her house. What follows is a touching and poetic unfurling of two very different people – who can communicate only through English and basic Thai/Japanese – come to connect with each other in a profound and transformative way.

In the undercurrent of the film is a Japanese children’s book called The Last Lizard (which was made up for this film, I think). In this melancholy tale, a lizard wakes up to discover that they are the very last lizard in the world. This saddens the lizard deeply; it instantly misses the other lizards, and subsequently ruminates on the pointlessness of the sudden – and uninvited – solitude stretching out before it. Wouldn’t it be better to be even in the company of one’s enemies, rather than being utterly alone? Then again, what is the point of such private thoughts if there is no one else in the world to have them about or before?

Staring at the sunset, he thinks. "What is the point in living... If I don't have anyone to talk to?" But even that thought doesn't mean anything... when you're the last lizard."

For the lizard, life must be other-bound or it is ultimately meaningless. If there is a 'message' at the heart of this film, then this must be it, and it is emphasised by the fact that when Noi returns Kenji’s bag, that book, which had been inside, is now missing. A new course has been plotted for Kenji, and he can no longer identify with the last lizard.

Last Life... provides a surreal and open ended meditation on being alone in the world and what is behind that, and the infusion of unexpected dream like sequences that transpose different time periods and perspectives, mixing the narrative and confusing the flow, leave the viewer wondering what, if anything, is real. Did Kenji actually die in his flat after all? Is this all a fantasy? It’s tantalisingly unclear, and all the more haunting for it. The exact point of the horizon shifts and changes with the rise and fall of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tide. 

We are living in a time where loneliness seems more epidemic than ever before (at least in Western societies), despite the rise in our population. Busy cities, with their richly populated high rises, heady congregational hubs buzzing with conversation and merriment, and the constant movement of vehicles and pedestrians seem yet to pass around, rather than through, many of their inhabitants. All too often, it would appear, individuals feel cast as witnesses at the window, condemned to watch that which they cannot be part of. They have become Scrooge watching the Cratchit’s gathered around their family table, or John Willoughby’s lone figure in the background of Marianne Dashwood’s eventual marriage to Colonel Brandon, who had himself been previously cast as outsider. I suspect this may, in part, be connected with our longing for authentic connection. As Carl Jung has noted, loneliness comes not so much from being literally absent from people, but from being unable to really communicate what is meaningful to us. Stripped of our village based obligations and unequivocal, inherited bonds we have tried to build our own tribes matching our unique passions and preferences, but this can be difficult to fully realise when simultaneously, we are sculpted by the invisible hands of our competitive cultural strains and its backlashes. As our sense of self becomes more uncertain, subject to a more fecundated myriad of influences, so too do its potentials multiply.  We are saturated with choice, so much so that we often don’t even know where to begin, and perhaps we are also flooded with expectations, that we will find exactly what we are looking for in some perfectible other(s), without recognising that fantasy can never really be made manifest in reality.

But there is something so desperately beautiful about human connection. A useful way to explore this is is to consider the potency of relational depth. Relational depth is succinctly explained as “…a state of profound contact and engagement between people.” (Mearns & Cooper, 2018: xvii) This term exists mainly in the counselling and psychotherapeutic fields, and has been pioneered by Dave Mearns & Mick Cooper, two Professors of Counselling Psychology, principally through their Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2005; 2018). Generally it is cited within therapeutic work, but it has such vibrancy and relate-ability that it is easily positioned within the worlds outside of therapeutic space; indeed in any situation where human beings interact. I quite like to see it as an intellectual kissing cousin of social collective experiences explored by anthropologists through terms like communitas (e.g. Turner, 1970; Turner, 2011) and collective effervescence (e.g. Durkheim, 1912). While the Turners and Durkheim have been interested in when ‘profound engagement’ and a heightened collective feeling occurs within social groups, relational depth is rooted in more intimate one-on-one relations (though of course, relational depth can and does occur in groups). There is ample literature, from all kinds of academic disciplines, that ultimately orientates towards the profound significance of human relationships; that we need them to be intricately woven into the fabric of our lives. Not only are we biologically wired for connection, so that it actually stimulates ‘the good stuff’ within us, but it is near impossible to live a purely isolated life. As Haruki Murakami has noted, a “…person's life may be a lonely thing by nature, but it is not isolated. To that life other lives are linked.”

When reflecting on the sensuous experience or a metaphoric scripture for potentially exploring deep relational depth, something moves, pulsates; it is both a lightening of the world’s mundane bleakness and a deepening of roots into something firm yet yielding; the mud of the lotus being made of phosphorescent soil perhaps. We want to belong, to be part of something; to be valued and valuable and to have this reflected back to us by the bodies and actions of those we care for; the resulting feeling, or experience of such connection, travels deep beyond and within our physical forms. Now that God has been abdicated of his monopoly over sacredness, we may find that it is in relational depth that we find the profane transcended to a state of divine. What has inspired the artistic mind more than the ecstasy of love or the agony of loss? Experiencing relational depth may feel like coming home after a long day of being someone else, striping off your facade and settling into a safe and welcoming nest; when you can finally talk about meaningful things and not worry about being misunderstood, rejected or belittled; a deep exhale and the relief that follows; coming in from the cold to warmth and succour. It can be in the moment when you feel heard and understood by the person you are talking to, or perhaps the simply reciprocal motion of leaning your head on someone's shoulder to be met by their head resting upon yours. More simply, it is the magic of being truly present and open to, and with, another person, or, as Virgina Wolff might suggest, it is the value of a “…naked contact of a mind” that is glorious and wondrous. Cooper beautifully describes relational depth as “..a reminder of some shared, common humanity: some shared way of being and connectedness with others that can stay there, in their minds and their bodies, as a reminder of what can be possible…[it is] brown and rich and sweet… [and it] takes us back into the heart of things and to the heart of what is often most meaningful for us.” (Mearns & Cooper, 2018: xi). There in lies the 'heart' of humanity: if such a thing could ever exist, it would be made up of all hearts, intertwined.

Do Kenji and Noi, one an introvert the other an extrovert, achieve relational depth? Yes, I think so. Something happens here, and it touched me to such an extent that I often revisit this film to try and catch hold of something I might make more corporeal to explain it (though in the end this is always ultimately fruitless, and it feels better to allow that to be as it is). It’s not through language here, but through a synchronising of their flows, an appreciating and learning from their differences, and through the every day activities of care they give to one another. It is through an empathic attunement that stems from being first witnesses and later co-participants in each other’s lives. They resist, or have resisted, the attempted interruption of others - Kenji remained ignorant to his colleague's affections while Noi refuses to answer the ongoing phone calls from her abusive and unfaithful boyfriend Jon. To some extent, we can also see that when Nid breaks their sisterly bond by sleeping with Jon, Noi attempts to break their connection, though this is something deeply regretted by Noi - deep relationships cannot generally be so easily shattered by one argument. Furthermore, with Nid now gone from the world, the emptiness Noi faces is agonising. 

The image of the scene below captures something that may work as a kind of speechless moment of relational depth: two people meeting quietly, making contact from their own points of need – for Noi, this is to be able to spread out and rest upon Kenji, while for Kenji this is to open himself out, unfurl like a blossom, and receive her presence in his unguarded space (In the film itself, the scene is more complicated due to a period of Noi morphing into Nid, but we can take this image independently I think).




The connection explored in Last Life… is a quiet one, something more akin to gentle presence rather than sharing a mutual existential discourse. It is also about the unexpected joy of exploring the other, of dissolving the gaps of otherness until they complement and then become a part of your own you-ness. When Kenji and Noi meet they are both catapulted to the edges of their known lives: castaways-in-waiting following the violent deaths of their only siblings. The film then unfolds in a bubble of inbetwixt time, a strange, drifting narrative, fragile but also growing ripe with anticipated newness. It is a translucent space, in a place where the land and sea meet (which is an ideal setting for exploring the edgelands of time and experience), and we generally don't see other people unless they are trying to 'break in.' Un-anchored and finding that their homes have become infected by a psychic and literal ruination, they gradually settle into a harmonious fit in each other’s unexpected parallels and start to see themselves more vibrantly in the other, rather than in the physical spaces of their mundane lives. Existing in a now that has been brutally cut off from the past (thought the presence of Noi’s dead sister Nid does wander in) but is as yet unfastened to the future; it is in their growing relationship that the process of opening up to impending change can move forward. Human connection thrives at the centre. Towards the end of the film they begin to perform a ritual of farewell: to their dead siblings, homes and former lives, but also to this halcyon period of in-betweenness. This goodbye to their former lives is also a firmer hello to their togetherness, that wherever they go they want to be together. Their parting moments with their homes are to act in the reverse, and so complete a mutual cycle of transformation – the previously chaotic Noi makes sure her house is neat and tidy before locking up while Kenji defies his previous demonstrations of OCD by knocking one of his carefully structured piles of books to the floor. Something of the other has now become part of their own intimate identities - its even in the way they look by the end of the film, in the way Noi now cleans and tidies where she works and Kenji smokes a cigarette.

If we open up to others, we can find ourselves changed by them, particular if we occupy close knit spaces or timelines. Such is a valid reminder that our selves are not fixed, static and unwavering but rather more fluid and reflexive. When we experience really profound episodes of relational depth with other people who we care about, and who we feel care about us, we are, in the same breath, both the body with its head in the lap of the other, being held and authentically met, and the body upon whose lap rests the head of the other we want to hold and authentically meet. Otherness, the brutal boundaries of self encased in independent flesh, starts to dissolve. Few experiences are quite so profound, healing and spiritual. They give the richest substance and nourishment to the challenge of facing mortality. Once we have experienced relational depth, and know that it is available for us in the future, we can meet the world as a benevolent playing field, for we have found in others a much needed secure based and safe haven to nurture and sustain us.



Lingering in coffee shops alone, with no book to buffer or phone to distract, one can either experience a heightened sense of being separate and alone, or a quiet place amidst the bustle of a society in action to which we belong but are, for the moment, content to simply observe. To access the latter may require a deep grounding and contentment in one’s own self, and security in the invisible ties that bind; to know that we exist as beloved in the minds of others, and that being independent is a temporary inbetwixt state rather than the never-ending hollow emptiness despaired of by the last lizard. I am reminded now of Raymond Carver’s final published poem, Last Fragment, which was written as he was dying from cancer and is now etched upon his tombstone:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to
feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

Ah, to feel ourselves beloved. What sweeter balm is there for our lonely, yearning souls?



Sunday, 24 July 2016

Re-conjuring the afterlife

Upon exiting an evening viewing of The Conjuring 2, I was left with a sense of unease. Not so much due to the film itself, though it offered up its fair share of demonic spectres (fast becoming a staple for James Wan) that sprang out from dark places, providing my companion with ample amusement as I jumped and blasphemed. No, this sense of unease came from the dislocation between the film's narrative, and the series of events I had previously associated with the Enfield haunting. I've nowhere near read all there is to read on this subject, but I thought I'd got the basics right. Lorraine & Ed Warren banished a demon in Brimsdown? That "minor" detail passed me by! Then again, Brimsdown (the part of Enfield in which the case is centred) is rather close to Brimstone, phonetically speaking (I think they missed a trick there).

Of course, The Conjuring 2, like so many films based on 'true stories', takes rather large liberties with the historical record. This is true of all manner of genres and subject matter concerned with historical occurrences, but it seems particularly pertinent to tales involving the supernatural. Largely, I would argue, they are advertised as being 'based on a true story' in an attempt to preserve their authenticity. This sense of the real, as being grounded in the everyday, and to ordinary people, is key to the scare. In this sense, the advertising of supernatural (and usually scary) film as 'based on a true story' blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, and in doing so, raises the supernatural - often boxed safely into imaginary spaces in other fictions - much closer to home. Look, it says, you can turn the television off, or leave the cinema, but you can't leave behind the fact that the supernatural does happen. It happened here... supposedly, it could happen to you. At least, that is the subliminal message one might pick out from this kind of publicity. After all, such films often provide 'follow ups' before the credits roll, with little snippets of what happened next to the characters involved (again, this is fairly common for all genres retelling of true stories), reinforcing the context in which said events occurred with a traceable legacy.

An embellishment of personal accounts, anecdotes, or historical events is perhaps necessary for such tales of the supernatural, due to the subtle nature of most supernatural events - a smell doesn't offer much for building dramatic tension. But also, at least my own research suggests, supernatural events often lack clean endings. The Enfield haunting, for example, seems to have drifted into gradual anonymity (save for the recent media interest due to its recent re-tellings and the on going concerns and discussions of the Society for Psychical Research), having divided scientific and public opinion of its legitimacy, and so Janet and her family disappeared from public life. Janet re-emerged on my path a few of years ago via a chapter in Will Storr's excellent Will Storr vs The Supernatural, but here she seemed a spectral character, haunted in relative obscurity by the events that momentarily elevated her to the heights of controversial reality star. Storr captures the unfinishedness of this story when he writes:
"But, but, but… I can’t achieve resolution. And so my memories of Janet just hang there in the back of my head, bumping around every now and then, my own noisy ghost. And whenever I hear talk of it, or see fictionalised retellings in the TV schedules, I can only think, "Oh yes, Enfield. That was weird."" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/06/13/the-conjuring-2-what-really-happened-during-the-enfield-haunting/)

While Lorraine Warren has been cited as regarding the film as 'fairly accurate', I find this somewhat difficult to consider with any seriousness as - from what I can gather - the Warrens were only present at the Enfield House for one day, back in 1978. And, according to Guy Lyon Playfair, one of the chief researchers for this case, they arrived uninvited (NB - there are some accounts that dispute this, and say that they were invited). But the accuracy of a film such as this is not my concern here, rather, it is the manner in which the narrative has been changed, and the significance of those changes and additions, that has captured my interest.    

In The Conjuring series, we have two paranormal investigators who are, first and I would argue foremost, devout Christians. Their beliefs are clearly symbolised through several different physical mediums, for example, the wearing of a large cross, their regular use of, and reference to, the bible, and their recognition and orientation to demonic evil as the cause of paranormal activity. Both films are not concerned with human spirits so much as they are with the battle against the demonic. And it is a battle, of words and crucifixes primarily, but a battle nonetheless.


Christianity has long been intertwined within supernatural fiction, but certainly not exclusively. We can see this in Bram Stoker's Dracula, whose heroes are all good practising Christian men. While many Western ghost experients may seek help from the church, the influence of the demonic tends to be more frequent in American interactions than with British ones. This most probably represents the higher percentage of devout Christians and explicit Christian identities in America as opposed to those in Great Britain, where church attendance and its presence in the public has dwindled over the last hundred years. Furthermore, there appears to be higher percentage of Christians who subscribe to the reality of evil as demonic forces in American, than those Christians in Great Britain who are not so convinced. A quick comparison of ghost investigation shows, say Ghost Adventures in the USA and Most Haunted in the UK, show this difference quite clearly - you are much more likely to encounter a demonic presence in the company of Zac Bagans than you are with Yvette Fielding (so, depending on what you're looking for, this might help when it comes to "who you gonna call").

The role of the demonic binds The Conjuring films to a particular cosmology: one in which there is a very definite and definitive God and the Devil, a very real Heaven and Hell. Demons are depicted as malevolently operational: they have a presence in the world of the living, and may appear as spectres or possess human hosts. Their sole motivation is a corruption of humanity; they're pretty primal in that regard, and not likely to engage you in any deep theological debate. I've long been rather disappointed by this, considering the longevity of their lives and the possibilities for knowledge they might have at least made a start on. Their desires are insatiable, and their purpose in a narrative is one of irredeemable horror, where such insatiability is at the root of their power to inspire terror (their immortality also makes them excellent fodder for sequels). The battle between demons and the Warrens is a sacred quest played out amid the landscape and inhabitants of the profane.

The role of, and their expertise in, Christianity is what sets the Warrens apart from the other protagonists. The Hodgson's Christianity is a quiet faith, and they are certainly no experts in demonology. Furthermore, because we can see are told through the film that the demonic is real by showing it, this also sets them over Maurice Grosse, who is situated as more of a concerned amateur paranormal enthusiast than lead investigator in The Conjuring 2. He is almost (unfairly) downgraded to a bumbling attention seeker, bar a 'touching' scene between himself and Lorraine in which he responds to her question of his integrity with the tale of his dead daughter, and his compassionate intention. All this plumps up the idea that the deeper you know of the bible,  the more committed you are to it, then the more likely you are to be able to be a proper hero. Devoutness is key.

The role of the demonic, and its corresponding Christian cosmology, was a controversial move in the original The Conjuring, primarily because of its 'reinterpretation' of history. Again, from what I can gather, there was supposedly some speculation that the spirit in question was, in life a witch, but this largely seems hearsay, and she certainly wasn't hung from a tree. The internet can be a rather frustrating resource when it comes to such matters. As the primary antagonist here is supposed to be descended from a witch executed in Salem, we see, I think, the problem with this kind of retelling. As W. Scott Poole writes:
"The Conjuring’s conservative politics are mostly implicit. Its historical revisionism, on the other hand, is all up in our grills. We learn that the persecuted people of 17th century New England were not, in fact, victims of religious fanaticism. They were Satanists who presumably got exactly what they deserved. The Crucible, and generations of historiography, has gotten it all wrong." (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/w-scott-poole/faithbased-horror-the-con_b_3670617.html

The issue of femininity, and the good nuclear family, are also important components for the film's narrative. Writers like Stephen King have established a popular strand for horror fiction as the malevolent intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary. Rather than the ghostly ensnaring of wary trespassers in off the road villages, circa M R James and H P Lovecraft, the terror stems from our powerlessness to control and protect our familial arenas. In these films that powerlessness can only be overcome by invoking the power of Godly forces; God, quite literally, has to be invited into the homestead, has to be endorsed as subordinate and supreme, and the evil therefore made to submit and subsist. In both films, the mothers are unable to protect their children, and so must be aided by the Warrens, who act as spiritual parents/guardians. Similarly, both films work with images of the anti-mother or anti-woman, of a reversal of the archetypal qualities of good mother and womanhood; in The Conjuring the spirit of Bathsheba is a child killer, and in The Conjuring 2 the demon Valak appears in a nun's habit. Andrew O'Hehir examined this further, calling into question the first film's reflection of:
"...America’s obsession with evil, and how easily that gets pointed in the wrong directions. It’s a movie based on the reassuring premise that when something is wrong in your family, your community or your country, you don’t have to worry about the priests, the cops, the dads or the other male authority figures. They’re the good guys. Blame the women." (http://www.salon.com/2013/07/18/the_conjuring_right_wing_woman_hating_and_really_scary/)


There's a kind of irony about the association between Catholicism and the demonic reveal in these movies (NB - The Warrens are cited as Catholic, and invoke Catholic paraphernalia). After all, Catholics gave plenty of theological space and consideration for spirits of the dead, particularly those springing forth from purgatory to beg for absolution, and remind the sinful living to repent in memento mori. In both installments of The Conjuring, we can find that the 'true' stories are presented as fairly typical ghost encounters, that is, that the families were haunted by spirits of deceased people. There was no terrifying possessions, no attempted child murder, no mass furniture levitation. But likewise, in both installments, these spirits have mutated via their translation to the silver screen, into the powerful demonic. The irony of this comes from that fact that it was the Protestants who called into question the reality of spirits. The development of Protestantism altered the afterlife map, by removing purgatory, distancing God's involvement in the world from actual interloper to hands off observer, and making the road to heaven and hell a one way system. Once you had been assigned to one of those two places there was no going back, and so the dead - quite simply - could not return to haunt us. The answer to the repeated protestations that ghosts had been experienced was that either the experient was mistaken, or that it had in fact been a demon in disguise. 

This is a rather light brush over the surface of these films, but the question that lingers in my mind is: so what? Does it really matter if we play around with history, if we glam up the God role and dumb down the bad? I go and see these movies after all, and if I'm honest, its not always due to 'research' as I'm sometimes heard to protest. Perhaps not, but then again... my thoughts turn to how these films, and the stories they represent, may be regarded in a hundred, or two hundred years time. After all, Bram Stoker took simple inspiration from Vlad Tepes' historical entry, and nowadays Tepes and Dracula are often regarded as one and the same. The power of fiction as a river into which the public imagination drinks from should not be underestimated. Still, maybe that doesn't matter, or maybe, as Poole and O'Hehir have suggested, we should critically consider what these films are really communicating to us about the societies we live in.

Finally, another thought lingers. If we start making our ghosts into demons, what might we be missing? An exploration of Sky TVs recent serialisation of The Enfield Haunting (a far superior effort in my humble opinion), while no doubt also adding great big dollops of made up happenings, captured something much more poignant. Through a much closer - and more genuinely empathetic - exploration of Grosse's terrible grief we are reminded that while demons stalking you in a creepy house is momentarily all rather spine tingling, bereavement, and our search for what awaits us after we and those we love die, is a much more meaningful, and sometimes agonising, affair. 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The house(s) at the end of the street

The haunted house is both an exotic and familiar location - most of us tend not to see ourselves as 'living' there (unless by accident), but we know it when we see it. We may outwardly turn away, but inwardly feel an irresistible call to walk in its preternatural pathways. The haunted house is the figurehead of uncanny domestic architecture; a building that is 'not quite' (or out and out) 'not right' amidst the fulcrum of civilisation. Its uncanniness stems from its subversion of 'right', because homes should be safe, ordered places; we see homes all the time, they follow patterns, they should conform. Empty houses should be temporary inbetwixt states - they are not designed to be uninhabited. They need the living, the social, the normal to fulfil their purpose and function.

Our home is the outermost layer, the visual beacon, of our daily lives. But homes emerge from houses, and houses are seldom limited to one single occupant. Here in lies the raison d'etre of the haunted house: we create our homes from the homes of others. And just as we can be territorial about our claimed personal spaces, so too can the dead. Films about haunted houses circle around and recontextualise this problem of ownership to varying degrees, and often the stake of the dead, or other supernatural forces, cannot be placated in order to allow the living to truly move in - think Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, The Woman in Black, even, in some respects, The Fall of the House of Usher. The idea that houses are tainted by, or bound to, past events is a useful tool for weaving together contemporary and historical narratives

I've been reflecting on haunted houses (more than usual) since spending an enchanting day of intellectual nourishment courtesy of The Alchemical Landscape conference organised by friends James and Evie. I've always been fascinated by haunted houses generally, but my imagination has often suckled inspiration from ruins and historical buildings, the haunted locale of the grandiose other. And then, quite unexpectedly, I found myself retracting the steps I would often take on my way to school, and thought of the house I passed there. The house reputed to be haunted.

There were not ghost stories as such attributed to this house, but it provided an uncanny fracture in an otherwise ordinary row of middle class suburban semi-detached and detached households. The house was un-tenanted because its previous owner had died, but the possessions of said owner still held court; you could see the tops of armchairs through the bottom of first floor windows. I knew this was somehow wrong, that it was in an inbetwixt state that suggested livedness and yet was not employed by the living. There is something deliciously sinister about furniture abandoned in houses, one of the most powerful representations - in my mind - of the inbetwixt and in-between.

In much of suburbia houses do not decay, they are kept in a constant flux of kemptness by the upkeep of their proprietors. One evening, a small group of childhood friends and I snuck around the back of this house after dark, and the sense of having entered into the uncanny was both frightening and delicious. No one lived there, but our presence was still an intrusion. Nevermind knowledge of the law, something deeper resonated that we were entering a space we should not be. We weren't the kind to push such trespass so left as quickly as we arrived, and yet a quiet part of me wanted desperately to stay and go further, to open the door and plunge into this strange portal. I was overwhelmed by my proximity to something mysterious, something that transcended the humdrum of a life I was already a little frustrated with.

I realise now my perceived sense of the house's ghostliness was its connectedness to neglect, and because it was a visual image of what comes after a demise, when there is not definitive end. This was lingering, a half life, a waiting. As is often the way, in areas that are reasonably affluent, and therefore desirable locations, the house was resurrected a few years later, the uncanny dissolved by a renovation and the reintroduction of living owners. I don't think I've been past there for well over a decade now. I don't think I'd recognise the site of it even I did go back, though it is only a minute or so from my parent's home.

The street that house stands on is still haunted though, albeit for an entirely different reason. You see, I walked past that house most days because I joined up with a friend who lived at the other end of the street. From there we'd brave the jitty (a small pathway linking that street to the back of a small church on a street at the other end), another liminal zone bordered by a wooden fence and trees that momentarily cut one off from the civilised comfort of being in proximity to other people's homes. Once in the clear, it was on to school and the dirge of adolescent education. The millennium ended and I left my home town for university... but such was not the course for my friend. L, who I had known since we were 7 or 8, was dead by the time she was 16, dead from a rare disease that had got into her brain after a bout of measles in early childhood, that had waited patiently, a quiet passenger until it finally killed her.

L's death was my first experiences of one that went against the natural order of things. Her parents, emptied by their loss, would wander vacantly, until a few years later their elder daughter had her first child and revived them. I raged against the Christian theology perpetuated by some of my peers and popular culture, for there was no argument that could satisfy as to why such a nice, innocent girl had been denied the rest of her life. 

I can see myself in her house, when we were young. The memories are almost sensuous, and the sound of her voice is like the tail end of an echo at the end of a cave. I'm not quite sure how to capture that sense of revisiting a place that no longer exists, and yet remains at the back of our minds. Perhaps it is like that abandoned furniture, sitting quietly and changeless. Eventually, the fabric warps and dusts smear the shines of surfaces, but something of its original incarnation remains.

These memories have a sense of haunting about them, of being caught momentarily in a time out of time, transported, giving two fingers up to the laws of linear time. There are of course feelings attached now to these memories; feelings of guilt because I was going to visit her in hospital when she was in a coma, but a mutual friend called me after I'd returned from a short trip away, and she was gone. I've wondered if I'd been as good a friend to her as I should have been - we were not particularly close at that point, as we had quite different personalities and had drifted into different social groups.

I have had two memorable dreams about L, both during my PhD research into spirit mediumship. In the first dream, it was very bright, and we were sitting in a field of green grass and flowers. She was serene, and looked a little older. "Its good to see you," I think I said. The second was similar, only I had boarded a bus and gone up to the top floor where she sat and looked out of the window. I was delighted to find her there, and went to sit with her, and we talked for a little while. Again, she had an ethereal air, and seemed content. I have friends whose spiritual beliefs would suggest that such dreams mean I have travelled to the spirit world to visit her. I like that explanation, although of course that doesn't make it true.

Increasingly, as I know understand life to be something punctured by the death, I see that our relation to the ghostly can become more and more intimate, as we are deposed from the armchair explorer whose curiosity and wonder can be put to one side. There are plenty of hauntings to explore like that, tantalising and numinous, wraiths and bogles and ladies in white who hover in and out of the everyday leaving questions and awe in their midst. But there are hauntings that become interwoven so tightly into our inner worlds, that we can not walk on past and leave them behind. L's house, in my mind, is as it was in the late 80s and 90s, and she and her family during this time will be its first, its last and its only occupiers. It won't age, though its clarity may fade, and I choose to go there, just from time to time, because though this all happened many years ago, it happened, and I remember.

  










Thursday, 12 September 2013

Oh, to be home.

'Oh, we don't want to lose you...'
(Paul Reubens)
 
'I shall go home, alone;
And must try to live life as before,
And hide my grief
For you, my dearest friend,
Who should be with me now,
Not cold, too soon,
And in your grave,
Alone.' (Guy Wilson)
 
O western wind, when wilt thou blow
    That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
    And I in my bed again!
(Anonymous)
 
 
Does home seep beyond the clothing of our mortal flesh, permeating that hidden heart of the everlasting soul? If ghosts retain their human feelings, would those feelings drive them to try to go home? Would they long for it, as those of us who love our homes and yet must venture far from them, so long to return? So much WWI and WWII war propaganda billed the home as that which one must be prepared to sacrifice in order to maintain it when threatened. The homestead itself became a thing of essential essence, the very threads we contribute to the tapestry of our collective, lived landscapes. The sanctity of home to everyday men and women became the lynchpin for duty; the sacred crux of society. It is hardly surprising that home became a central fantasy for those soldiers, sailors, airmen, doctors, nurses, etc., and the haunting presence of such is liberally scattered through the artefacts they created abroad: letters, diary entries, poetry. The consequences of WWI and WWII was that a large portion of men and women, who ventured bravely from their homes to save them, would never return. And, in turn, those gaping absences would change the homes of those left behind forever.
 
These thoughts were compounded by the chance discovery of a small entry concerning the ghost of Rupert Brookes (contributed by Dr A.I. Copeland to Marchioness Townshend & Maude Ffoulkes' True Ghost Stories, first published by Hutchinson & Company in 1936). Copeland's experience occurred in 1919, four years after Brookes had died from blood poisoning following an infected mosquito bite in Greece. The story itself is a simply one: Copeland was renting rooms in the Old Vicarage, in Grantchester, where Brookes had formerly lived. One evening, whilst sitting by the fire, Copeland heard the sound of footsteps making their way around the house toward the French windows of his sitting room. Upon inspection, no one was there, and it seemed impossible that anyone could have made those footsteps and found cover before he looked through the windows. When enquiring of this to his landlord, a Mr Neave, he was promptly told that such an occasion was not unusual, and that, since Brookes had died, his footsteps had often been heard making the same journey. 
 
 
 
 
Brookes seems the ideal candidate for such a haunting. His poetry reveals a deep, romantic affection for England; a sentiment that seems to have resonated in him from early life. While some of Brookes' work has been sucked into nationalist thinking (indeed, a good chunk of his poetry is explicitly patriotic, and compounds the obligation to fight for one's country), I think what he communicates is the tenderness of remembered belonging in a time where place and self have been fractured, of being connected to a sense of home that extends the premise of bricks and mortar and reaches into all the nooks and crannies of the land itself. It is the waiting glue that will fix the wounded traveller when they are able to return, as well as the very beacon that calls them to return. This sense of home becomes an essence, something intangible that is carried in the mind, that stretches a non-corporeal chord to anchor in the familiar. It becomes an icon, to glorify, that gives meaning to the horrendous agonies caused in war. Of course, 'England' and 'home' mean more than their physical manifestations; they mean people, lifestyles, a continuation of history.
 
In The Soldier, Brookes writes
  If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
 
 
Death in war can give rise to a plethora of ghosts, for the dead are not accorded with the burial rites attributed by their society, and so cannot be properly passed over by their living kith and kin. In Brookes' poem, the dead body becomes synonymous with its home, that 'bore [it], shaped [it], made [it] aware'. He recognises the fear and tragedy of dying away from home, of being potentially lost in a 'corner of a foreign field'. Recently, having been attuned to memorials as part of my book's research, I've been touched by the number of beautiful WWI and WWII memorials that exist to commemorate legacy and sacrifice where bodies cannot be lovingly tucked into their native earth. There is a bounty of these memorials, strewn throughout the landscape, each settlement offering up its recognition of all that was given to preserve it. What do we do when we don't have the body to bury? We make memorials, and we encourage our fellows to never forget. Remembrance is the best we can do to give the dead their dues, and to note and reward their sacrifice.  
 
WWI and WWII created mammoth craters of absence, and during a time when the comforting afterlife suggested by Christianity was a crumbling on its platform as that pedestal began to tip away from certainty, its framework coming increasingly into scientific questioning. I'm a fan of the cosy crime genre, and am particularly fond of three series of books involving young female detectives in the early 20th century. Interestingly, now I think about it, that all three echo that absence. From Daisy Dalrymple in the 1920s, to Maisie Dobbs and Kate Shackleton in the 1930s, these three young women have all lost their fiancées/husbands to WWI. The Dalrymple series, which is lighter in tone, finds the heroine resettled with a widower, but Dobbs (in the early books) and Shackleton are cast adrift, unable to really invest in a new relationship as they are unable to let go of that planned future so cruelly shattered. Shackleton's position is more precarious, as her husband is listed as 'missing, presumed dead'. Again, without that certainty a body provides, time slips into a limbo. Instead of love, they turn to their work, and their desire to help those who have similarly been damaged by the aftermath of WWI.
 
These wars punched a hole in our history; they consumed a mass of lineages, leaving countless marriages broken, and hundreds and hundreds of children that would never be born. And those who came back did not meet what they had left behind: they were changed and this could not be undone. JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings demonstrates this, with his idyllic Shire a representation of an innocent, green, settled England. For ghosts, however, perhaps things continue as they were. If the 'stone tape' theory of ghost activity is true, then there is an echo of Brookes making his journey home, again and again, over and over. Imagining that, for a moment... and so, if some corner of a foreign field is forever England, then some corner is elevated to home.  
 
 
 
 
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
(Robert Laurence Binyon)
 
 



Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Up... and away.


Up is a bittersweet animated film from Dreamworks that charters the adventures of elderly Karl, a widower, who is determined to oppose continual efforts to evict him from his home. His final act of rebelling involves a colourful myriad of balloons, spurred on by a revived gusto to relocate to Paradise Falls, the long held fantasy location coveted by his late wife. Unbeknowst to Karl at take off, a young Wilderness Scout - Russell - was hidden under the foundations of the house. The film is principally concerned with this dynamic of elder-child, or rather a heart warming tale about a disenchanted elder whose cynicism is gradually dissolved by an infatiguable child whose morality and optimism pushes them both into a quest to reunite a brightly coloured bird with her chicks.

It is funny and charming, but also rather poignant. Karl is lost without his beloved wife. His attachment to his home concerns his reluctance to let go of that physical anchor with his wife's memory, to the place in which they met, married, and which now houses him in the world of the living with the things that tenderise her aftermath. Initially, his desire to complete his mission to settle his abode above a grand waterfall in South America overrides all other imperatives. Indeed, his actions occur and are talked about beneath the benevolent image of his late wife who had taken charge of his childhood awkwardness with her own determination and dreams. Karl is haunted by a fear that he failed her, that the mundane features of their life together meant that her dreams were never fully realised, and so the noncorporeal accompaniment of his wife - fixed between legacy artefacts and imagining memory - gives added purpose to his flight. 

In the end, when the choice between his house and his comrades is at its most paramount, he lets go of the former and so enters a new phase of reconnecting with the living, and letting go of the dead. Knowing Dreamworks and their ilk, it seems unlikely that any other outcome would be plausible. As chance would have it, just before this split, he finds a new section in his late wife's adventures book. The pages dedicated to adventures, which he had believed empty (and therefore representative of her thwarted ambition) are instead full of pictures of their life together. Adventure is relocated amidst the mundane, and so retextualises the role of dreams and experience in their history. Her book ends with the message: