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There is a red keep high above the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. Buried within a forest in which tall trees entomb it, the bones of the building seem to vibrate like stifled breaths, a strange and kinetic rumble. Occasionally, the whirring noise reaches a crescendo and metamorphoses into an intermittent scream so loud it can be heard for miles across several towns. At night, the red keep is lit up like a constellation of itself, dots of hundreds of lights blinking, perceptible from the roadside. The hum continues through the night, while electricity pumps orange, low level lighting over manicured grounds, playing fields and a little farm. These subtle sounds and their rarer, deafening cries and figurations are beacons of modernity: the red keep is a 150 year old relic, an asylum, and the faint buzz which reverberates through its imposing estate is the sound of an Orwellian web of surveillance. The monthly wailing emitted from speaker systems strategically placed around the surrounding areas is the warning bell, the rehearsal of an alarm system whose air-raid style screams confirm the asylum is secure.
This ‘red keep’ is formally known as The West London Mental Health Trust but is it is, for many, a site of horror, or rather of horrific connotations owing to its historic containment of ‘the criminally insane’. Broadmoor was close to the childhood home of the gothic horror writer Patrick McGrath and his father’s employment at the hospital permitted him access inside the inner walls of the estate. Indeed, Broadmoor casts a long shadow over much of his work, directly in terms of his broaching of the issue of psychiatry as a trope within his oeuvre and as an embodiment of strangeness: an extraordinary environment moored to the everyday world of Crowthorne. Its name alone conjures all sorts of gothic imagery, of some kind of rugged vista or dank, marshy harbour, but nothing can come close to the real thing and its fascinating topography, its precious zone of containment, stasis and retreat.
McGraths’ father was a Medical Superintendent at Broadmoor, the very reason why this monumental place is etched into the fabric of McGrath’s writing, namely, Asylum, which features a psychiatrist working at a remote hospital, Spider’s story of a schizophrenic and Trauma’s exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder narrated by an American psychiatrist. And so it seems everything leads back to Broadmoor. It is more than likely that this ‘red keep’ persists in mooring itself to McGrath’s consciousness, beautifully abstract, eviscerated into gauzy and spidery layers. I know from my discussions with McGrath that he has not been back to Crowthorne for a very long time. One wonders, then, if Broadmoor just keeps on entwining itself around the narratives he fleshes out on paper, its otherness multiplied and enlarged, like ancient tendrils of ivy. Crucially, this kind of imaginary ‘snowglobe’ of Broadmoor that McGrath seems to carry around with him might be all we have left as much of it is to be demolished and rebuilt, altered ever more.
Broadmoor is a maximum security hospital founded in 1863 and its Listed Victorian architecture is astonishing. It was designed to be within deliberate close proximity to everyday life, a gesture which rejects the stigma associated with mental illness, acceptance and normativity neatly represented by its discrete positioning near the villages of Crowthorne and Sandhurst. Yet, despite its nestling within a few feet of a Victorian high street, it exists entirely within its own eerie realm, islanded by fields and hidden within thousands of pine trees. It has its own special zone, signalled not only by the low hum of electrical activity which ensures it is impregnable, but by its stillness and beauty. It is not uncommon to see locals walking up to its walls with children and dogs in tow, drawn to its stately environment and the meadows it resides in; the Broadmoor estate itself also borders Wildmoor, a dry lowland heath and valley bog whose habitat contains unusual varieties of plants and birds. If approached via the top of the high street, the hill which leads up towards Broadmoor leads straight into the path of the trees, like looming gatekeepers shivering at new arrivals. At this height, it is even possible to see deer within the outer perimeters of the hospital. This coupling of the pastoral and the everyday with a more phantasmatic reality offers up an acute sense of texture and duality characteristic of McGraths’ gothic style. For me, this is especially summed up by that walk into Crowthorne, up Upper Broadmoor Road, moving from the very banal and innocuously pretty ghost town to the high red walls and the trees, in which one is immediately possessed by a kind of wonder and ambivalent fascination – an ambivalence which must have underscored McGrath’s childhood conception of this world. No doubt, it is a world, a microcosm, ignited by intense emotion, fragility, the unknowable and the lost.
While some of its inhabitants might suffer from mental disorders which blur the lines between fantasy and reality, the institution they are confined to is a place of ‘unrealness’, a manifestly surreal and otherworldly zone with its own sense of temporality and spatiality. The deer living in the Broadmoor estate are like spectres of McGrath’s work, an outward and uncanny reflection of otherness constantly escaping our grasp. The fallow deer lend the grounds of Broadmoor a beguiling kind of animality which might call to our archaic and primal selves. In this sense, Broadmoor’s DNA can be traced throughout McGrath’s work, most notably in the screen adaptations of Spider (David Cronenberg, 2003) and the short film The Lost Explorer (Tim Walker, 2011).
Here, nature plays a significant part in Cronenberg and Walker’s films and its alchemic role in McGrath’s unique style of gothic literature is rare and powerful. Both films feature shallow graves, make-shift burials sodden earth. Spiders and birds are cyphers for the humans in each story. Psychic terror reigns. As with much of McGrath’s psychological narratives, the horror is in the detail.
In Cronenberg’s harrowing adaption of McGrath’s Spider starring Ralph Fiennes, the visuality of the film formally emphasises web-like imagery and the physicality of the world the protagonist inhabits in order to tell the story of a mentally ill man coming to terms with murder of his mother. Spider murdered his mother by gassing her, using an elaborate series of wiry threads to release the gas switch on the oven and, in this context, a wide-angled, looming shot of a large gas tower, with its criss-cross steelwork, is powerfully charged. While a defunct gas fireplace is also an object of terror, the invisible smell of gas torments the protagonist, imagined everywhere he goes, in his hair and on his skin. Synonymous with the body-horror genre, Cronenberg employs a fleshy colour palette of beige, brown and grey, highlighting the sinewy body of his protagonist and the twine he uses to make webs; his hands are all ashen fingernails, filth and lined, red knuckles, we see yellowing skin stained by cigarettes. In one scene we see his torso, scrubbed and pallid, bound by twine, not only a spider making webs but now uncannily resembling a fly, the Spider’s bait. Spider is perpetually entrapped in his own mesh of deception, distortion and paranoia.
When did it all start to go sour? When did it start to die? There was a time when we were happy; I suppose the decay was gradual, a function of poverty and monotony and the sheer grim dinginess of those narrow streets and alleys. Drink, too, played its part, and so too did my father’s character, his innately squalid nature, the deadness that was inside him and that came in time to infect my mother and me like some sort of contagious disease.
Cronenberg may be best known for his obsession with infectious bodies in films such as Rabid and Videodrome, but Spider not a horror movie in this vein, it is simply is consumed by the experience of horror. The protagonist is deeply tormented by some kind of subconscious terror, unnerved and fragile, hopeless. Images of yellowing and peeling wallpaper, derelict houses and creaking floorboards contribute to the texture of the film’s fractured identity, its embodiment of Spider’s state of mind. Furthermore, his mental illness is only explicitly acknowledged in earlier scenes when he is at a hospital being assessed – we come to know this character through his everyday reckoning with the terror that haunts him: we live in his skin.
Unlike the film, McGrath’s book is told through Spider’s perspective and his framing of this through the character’s obsession with writing intimately connects us with his stream of consciousness. While Cronenberg makes up for this through the intimate aesthetic of his film, McGrath’s words suggestively capture the kind of verbal and psychic disturbance associated with mental illness:
“All is quiet in the attic now and my terror has abated, to some extent. My relationship to this book is changing: when I began to write I intended to record the conclusions I’d arrived at about the events of the autumn and winter of my thirteenth year; and in the process I thought I’d buttress and support myself, shore up my shaky identity, for since being discharged I have not been strong. But all this has changed; I write now to control the terror that comes when the voices start up in the attic each night. They have grown worse, you see, much worse and it is only with the flow of my own words that I am able to block out the clamour of theirs. I dare not think of the consequences were I to stop writing and listen to them.”
The opening titles of Spider also betray McGrath’s childhood experiences of clinical psychology absorbed while at Broadmoor, evoking Rorschach ink blots, dissolving into and out of each other, gothic and ethereal. The composer Howard Shore accompanies these images with an old ballad, Love Will Find Out the Way, whose lyrics aptly underpin the narrative’s representation of all-consuming (Oedipal) love and obsession.
Where there is no place
For the glow-worm to lie,
Where there is no space
For receipt of a fly,
Where the gnat dares not venture,
Lest herself fast she lay,
But if Love comes, he will enter,
And will find out the way.
Throughout the titles, the varying textures, sharp lines and mottled ink stains are like waves of consciousness, moving from one thought to the next, one uncertainty to another. Some of the elongated and distorted stains resemble the stretched and contorted scream of Munch’s Scream.
Ultimately, Spider offers up no resolution, no ultimate redemption or moment of reconciliation. It asks us to imagine the kind of terrors which might break ones soul, to accept this trauma as a part of humanity and to rid ourselves of the constant need to rationalise and objectify mental illness.
While Spider features a troubled young boy, the fashion photographer Tim Walker made his directorial debut with The Lost Explorer, an adaptation of McGrath’s short story about a young girl’s discovery of an adventurer in her back garden. Here, the eponymous explorer suffers from malaria and is found hidden in ‘a tangled thicket of evergreens’, soothed only by young Evelyn, as she brings him food and water. The Lost Explorer is a story which permits McGrath to write about a state of consciousness cut off from its rooting in reality, adrift, afraid and isolated, much like his protagonist in Spider. McGrath is adept here at cultivating our perception of tormented souls, intimate, highly emotive and visceral. The explorer clings on to Evelyn as his only hope and source of comfort, mistaken in the fug of malaria for his beloved ‘Agatha’, but she is no ordinary little girl: she blithely collects objects such as a pickled thumb and her father’s black revolver holds a dark fascination for her. For her, the explorer is a different kind of object, a piece of archaeology which she will return to the earth sooner than she had expected.
At the centre of The Lost Explorer is a tale of a clipper ship whose birds are released from their cages in order to search for land, a meta-narrative which serves as a symbol of the explorer himself, his desire for flight, freedom and selfhood. Walker uses digital effects to evoke the scale and beauty of the clipper ship and the birds, a feint projection of the explorer’s story while he holds Evelyn’s hand. In an abandoned parlour, we see the explorer and Evelyn with their backs turned towards us, silently watching something moving about the dust and plaster. There are sails like delicate cobwebs, a masthead and creaking timbers. Shimmery yellow birds perch on the sails, tinting the room the colour of autumn leaves and lichen. Evelyn, all knee-high socks and tweed, is dwarfed by the ship, floating just above the aged floorboards: a mirage inside an unloved Victorian home.
We’d make two trips a year to the West coast, to collect the canaries you understand. Thousands of them…Way back out in the middle of the sea, we’d open their cages. We’d release them! They fly all around the ship in great swarms. Great yellow swarms. Perching on the masts, swooping about the deck.
Just as the image of the clipper ship cannot last, disintegrating into clouds of dust, Evelyn cannot cure the explorer’s malaria and he dies soon after their meeting. We see Evelyn calmly dragging the body of the explorer out of the woods and burying him at the bottom of her garden. Her woollen blue jumper is caught on branches and her knees are scratched; her hair becomes wild as she carries out this ritual, setting his possessions afire, caked in dense smoke and sulphur. These images are filmed as stark shadow plays with silhouettes of trees and Evelyn’s diminutive body. The flames burn brightly. The smoke soars. To some this might seem the most horrific image of all: a young girl burying a man, but McGrath avoids such sentiments. Muddied and cold, Evelyn is not afraid to give the explorer a burial and dispose of him properly, with no haste or disgust.
“For two hours she dug; her young limbs strong from hockey, she tore a steadily widening, steadily deepening hole out of the earth in the center of the clearing in the midst of the rhododendron bushes at the bottom of the garden. And when she was finished she lined the hole with a tent. And then she burned that old map of his, creased and sweat-stained; she set it afire with the odd vestas he had left on the folding stool, and the ashes fell into the pit. And then she tossed in the gun, having hauled it with a sob from the dead man’s waistband; and then the flask and the oil lamp, and then the man himself, into his grave, but not unmourned, and maybe this is all that any of us can ask for.”
All of this macabre activity takes place against the backdrop of everyday life, a world of mannered calmness, order and banal ceremony which throws everything else sharply into relief. Evelyn’s mother is concerned about the quality of the chops she has baked, there are also references to tea, flowerbeds, goldfish ponds, games of bridge and beef. The explorer is also a psychic manifestation of Evelyn’s burgeoning adulthood, an acknowledgement of her mortality and, indeed, morality. There is also a hint of the clinician about her, like McGrath’s father, rational and precise. The stately home her family owns resembles the scale and beauty of Broadmoor, its wooded glade much like the Wildmoor heathland.
“A subtle theme of peace had entered his diseased symphony of being.”
Like the ghost of the explorer that slowly fades from existence as Evelyn grows older, the Broadmoor that was once known by McGrath is vanishing. The sirens will continue to wail once a week, but the site is reconfiguring, metamorphosing. For those inclined to know how places are mapped onto the world, Google maps depicts this space as a large, circular block which tells of the true scale of this estate, larger than the inhabited areas it sits alongside (Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Crowthorne). The Pat McGrath library will remain, as will the cameras, the lights, the trees, but its spirit will alter.
With thanks to Pat McGrath for his help all those years ago when I first starting writing about Spider.