How to Haunt Yourself

Photo by Julia Field

Photo by Julia Field

We fanned out into the entrance hall, my sisters and I, like it was a military procedure. We missed nothing: Twin Peaks wood panelling, torn lampshades, musty rush mats. Doors, to be taken later, led to bedrooms with curtains inexplicably drawn. At the end of the hall, wan light peeked round a door left ajar, leading to a living room where a panoramic window framed the rain that drummed on the roof and robbed us of the view. Loch Eck would be revealed in the morning. For now, all we had was a weak afternoon sun that could barely push through the glass, managing to outline the room but not brighten it. While dad unpacked the car, we sat drinking cartons of squash by the window like hunter-gatherers guarding the mouth of a cave. Another holiday, another strange little down-the-back-of-the-sofa cottage. We were terrified, of course. We always were.

Later that day I took a book from the shelf in my bedroom: a Mickey Mouse comic, Topolino. It was in Italian, which startled me, I guess, as I had never before been confronted by a language other than English. Seeing those familiar faces spouting gibberish was dislocating, like having a stroke. At bath-time the taps were a source of horror. They belched the brown water of the mountainside, and even my Lego police boat did little to ease my anxiety about being immersed in that beery liquid. My thoughts ran up the tap and through the pipes, up the slope behind the house. What was to be found there, where this water sprang from the ground? What beasts shared my water before it washed over me?

That night I lay in bed thinking of the brown water in the pipes, the Disney Necronomicon on the shelf, the trees pressing in on the house and the deadly deep loch. All week I was conscious there might be adders in the meadow between the house and the loch-side. Like many children of that age, I was terrified of snakes; each trip to the water put me in danger of death. I had a recurring dream of the Birks of Aberfeldy in which all my family were bitten and killed by purple-and-orange adders. I don’t know what our parents would have thought if they’d even suspected we were so scared. Studies have shown how parents underestimate the deep and pervasive anxiety of their children. On the phone, mum reminds me what a happy time we had in that cottage on the bank of Loch Eck but adds, as if it’s no thing, that my sisters made dad turn every painting in the house to face the wall. What was that about?

Goldilocks had got to us, was the thing. It wasn’t our home, so it must have been somebody else’s. There were raincoats in the cupboard, sweaters in the drawers and fishing gear in the shed. When would someone return to claim them? Would they find us sleeping? We felt that we were being intrusive or, at the very least, we were guests of someone we didn’t know or trust. We were vulnerable, lacking proprietary rights. Such feelings undid what faith we had, especially in our parents. They had made the wrong choice and taken us there in the first place. They’d put us in danger. To be small and uprooted and faithless; how brave we were to keep living as children!

As we grow these fears become numb so gradually that we forget to be grateful. We slough them off. But they don’t go anywhere. They shape us, then they sit back and watch. We can summon them if we want to, and they can be thrust on us with great ease. Kristin Lagattuta at the University of California has shown that, at about the age of five, when children are becoming more adept at discerning the imaginary from the real, all it takes to confuse their judgement is fear. She tells me that adults never become invulnerable to this. I can believe that. I’ve read books.

A writer who understands how the words on a page can become real through fear has a powerful tool. The author is the parent figure of any book; all they have to do is let go of your hand in some unfamiliar place, and you are bereft like a lost child in a mall. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black seems to be a scary book because it taps into the grown-up fear of losing a child, but that initial fear is what softens you up for scares you thought you’d grown out of: darkness, sudden change, loneliness, ghosts. Such things are innately frightening for children but a story such as The Woman in Black can remind us we’re not so far off being children ourselves.

A year or so ago I was waiting for a friend at a roadside bar in north Italy, reading a ghost story and drinking a Campari spritz. I remember the high sun, the bitter drink… and the fear. I was amazed at my capacity for fear on such a bright day, with Radio DeeJay blasting from inside the bar. I was reading “The Mezzotint”, a 1904 short story by MR James. The narrator witnesses a cyclical haunting recur in a photograph that shifts when he is not looking at it. Distrust of new technology is a grown-up concern, but the irrational fear of looking at something to find it has unexpectedly changed is one of the first we develop as children.

The solitude inherent in the act of reading seems to aid the book-bound reversion to childishness. One of the last fears a child manages to soften is that of being alone and, in a way, this one fear pervades all others. I was alone in that Italian bar, not just waiting for a friend but deep in a book. And books – like charismatic cult leaders – can cut you off from everything around you so that you barely remember where you came from. For the first half of “The Mezzotint” the narrator is alone, unable to establish what is wrong with the photo and then unable to interest anyone in looking at it. Similarly, if you look up from your reading and try to explain to someone nearby what, exactly, is frightening about your book, you will fail unless you hand it over and insist they read the whole thing there and then. The weight of pages is too great to get across in an instant. Empathy fails. You are alone with your fear, like a child whose anxiety is unfathomable to his parents. Everything is worse when you are alone. It is insidious what writers will do to you through your loneliness.

Photo by Julia Field

Photo by Julia Field

The narrator of “The Mezzotint” never confronts the monster; he only watches it through the photograph. This, too, is insidious: it means the cycle of the story is unbroken and therefore continues after you’ve thumbed off the eReader. Closure is the new collective dream – if we can’t be happy, we can at least have closure – so stories that rob us of it are brutal and difficult to bear. When cyclical hauntings are written about in children’s literature, the loop is often drawn to a close. In The Ghosts by Antonia Barber, the titular spirits are laid to rest and the book is therefore a comforting read. This is probably for the best; we want to instil joy in our children, not futility and listlessness.

The cycles in books such as The Ghosts help us explore our relationship with our past selves, our past fears. When Marnie Was There, by Joan Robinson, is about Anna, a lonely orphan, who finds a girl, Marnie, in the sand dunes and befriends her. Without Robinson explicitly making a ghost of Marnie, it becomes clear that the two girls come from different points in time: Marnie from the past and Anna the present. It is a cheery novel about the restorative powers of friendship, and has nothing to truly frighten a well-grounded adult reader. For a child, however, it is fraught. The death of Anna’s parents hangs over the entire book, making every joy seem fragile. Marnie is adrift, without provenance, in the dunes, and her uprootedness makes her somehow less human, like a weather pattern. If Anna is alone, how much more alone is Marnie? Is Marnie dead, or have the girls met in some benign time-slip? Very little is explained in the novel, which is satisfying for an adult’s sense of narrative and disconcerting for children. If you are at all connected with your childhood self then the novel can seem sinister.

The Ghosts, When Marnie Was There and, even more explicitly, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden make clear not just that we are haunted by the past but that we haunt the past ourselves. In Carrie’s War, Carrie struggles with the sense that she is responsible for the burning down of a house she knew and loved as an evacuee, which she feels she brought about by casting a “cursed” skull into a lake. The skull is the nexus of childish fears in the novel, but adult fears are distinct in a frame story that brackets the main narrative: a grown-up Carrie returns to the site of the fire with her own children and is almost overwhelmed by the attempt to coexist with her younger self. Alison Waller, in her 2010 article “Revisiting Childhood Landscapes”, describes Carrie as a Freudian revenant, “a figure at once linked to the spectre returning from death that haunts a place or person and to the exile returning to a homeland from which they have been banished”. It is unnerving to revisit the past because of what we might find of ourselves still trapped there; our adult identities are threatened by our child selves, which can emerge unchanged when prompted. In memory we haunt our younger selves; our child selves live alongside our adult selves in the same way Nina Bawden entwines cursed skulls with adult guilt. Charlotte Brontë understood this too; in Jane Eyre, one of the first novels to explore childhood with any complexity, a nameless child haunts Jane’s dreams, hanging round her neck and slowing her progress. It hangs round the neck of Carrie, too. Round your neck and round mine. This is what a good, scary book can remind us.

As adults we indulge in things that frighten us; we choose to live in fear for a moment, for the duration of a movie. We can almost forget what it was like to live in fear when we knew no alternative, when we had no choice but to fear, and still to continue. “We were more open minded, perhaps more gullible, certainly more imaginative, and those were formative times,” Marcus Sedgwick sums up. Sedgwick’s complex and atmospheric children’s books, such as My Swordhand is Singing, show he has not forgotten what it was to be a fearful child; we still had agency, we still had courage. Henry Selick’s adaptation of Coraline, on the other hand, takes the bright, brave and cunning main character of Neil Gaiman’s novel and renders her powerless, without initiative, and easily fooled by the story’s villain. The film critic Lindsay Myers points out that Selick’s movie seems to tap into modern, reactionary, adult fears about predators – stranger danger – whereas Gaiman’s more progressive novel recognises the vitality and wonder of a child. Selick has forgotten how to be a child. Poor lad. From time to time I lie back and time travel, wander my memory as a ghost, and conjure the fear I felt in the cottage on Loch Eck. I read to be scared, to dwell in fear like a child. It’s like I snagged my jumper on a barb long ago, and the thread has been playing out ever since.

James Field

About James Field

James Field is the Book Reviews & Online Essays Editor at Litro and is also the editor of a children's literary journal, Lamplands. He currently finds himself in London where he is reconciliatory. His typing speed is 65 wpm, he has 25 Steam achievement points, and he has recently become comfortable with swearing around his family.

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