Review: Ghostland by Edward Parnell

I consider what it is that leads me to reach for my shelf of ghost stories as soon as I get a whiff of autumn. The change in season reveals so much of the landscape. Especially for those of us that live in the Northern Hemisphere: the long dark nights, freezing mists, frost, snow, fog, mizzle, pelting rain – these are the things that make for a great backdrop to a ghost story. This is why I love them and why I love living in such a weather-beaten place as the British Isles.

Landscape affects our psyche deeply and Parnell’s Fens and their strange flat landscape create the genius loci to Parnell’s familial world – the landscape that beguiles and haunts him. These are places that also allow him to explore and mark his grief.

I don’t want to reveal too much detail and betray the circumstances that make this story so compelling – it’s a long walk with a good friend you haven’t seen in a while – you need to be patient, listen, the story will unfold in its own time. In Ghostland, as in all good ghost stories, something terrible has happened. But it is hazy and lurks at the edges of the book and is only very skilfully hinted at in foreshadowing. Parnell’s personal horror is drip-fed and his experience is the haunting; is the presence throughout this book. This is Edward Parnell’s own ghost story in which he declares:

“It is not the house that is haunted it’s me.”

I wonder, are we haunting the landscape or does the landscape haunt us? In life we leave places behind but they always contain our memories. Whenever I return to a place of significance I always have a feeling I’ll meet myself as I was back then – or I’ll bump into someone I know is long gone too.

The presence of the natural world, especially Parnell’s observation and love of birds, serve as spiritual and seasonal signifiers. You could almost name the book The Naturalist’s Guide to Ghosts, such is the deep immersion in nature and symbiosis of the spiritual. The book is so many things and so much of life’s experience runs through it.

Ghostland is a beautiful exploration of grief, ghosts, nature and the origins of some of our favourite ghost stories. The book is a story within many stories, this is even reflected in the labyrinthine footnotes at the bottom of almost every page. I learned so much about the tales and lives behind some of my favourite ghost story writers and of some I’d never heard of. It is a deeply personal account of loss and how what we read and when we read it, really matters. What stories do we turn to when our own life is unravelling?

This book made me want to do a few things: cry, pay more attention to bird migrations, call my family and then run to the local bookshop with the bibliography, take a couple of months off and spend it in an old house in the middle of nowhere in The Fens reading. I advise that you buy Ghostland and then do the same.

Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country is available from Harper Collins.

Rebecca Parfitt is founder and editor of The Ghastling.

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