A Pit of Darkest Night
In Peeping Tom (1960), Michael Powell’s dark meditation on pain, repression and loneliness, Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) – filmmaker, voyeur and serial killer – is told by the blind mother of his would-be girlfriend: ‘all this filming – it’s not healthy.’
It’s an amusing and chilling moment, and the line has understandably sent a frisson of guilty pleasure down the spines of cinéphiles ever since. Fascination for film can become an obsessive fantasy that overlays reality – so often dull, repetitive and strangely colourless – with a patina of glamour, wit and danger.
The same can also be true of literary fiction, as I discovered recently when Brigitte and I took our first holiday in something like twenty years and spent a couple of nights in the Yorkshire Dales, a beautiful area in the North of England riven with steep-sided valleys, open moorland and a lot of sheep.
We decided to take a walk on the afternoon of our arrival. A comfortable hike to the next village would, we believed, create a healthy appetite for dinner and prepare us for the arduous trek up a mountain we planned for the next day. The weather was glorious – a cloudless sky, a cool breeze, the sun on our backs – as we climbed the gentle hills beyond our village and followed a cart track through a labyrinth of dry-stone walls and ripening cowpats.
As we neared our destination, however, the track descended abruptly into a wooded valley. Beneath the ominous trees standing sentinel on each side of us, the air was cold and damp. Decayed wooden signposts warned cyclists to dismount. The ground became deeply rutted and strewn with boulders. Then we saw something up ahead that struck fear into my heart. It was a tunnel.
I felt possessed suddenly and uncontrollably with a great, engulfing panic. I began to tremble and perspire. The ground beneath my feet felt infinitely hostile.
As I stood there, lamely concealing my terror behind the lens of my camera and desperately searching for a plausible excuse not to enter Hades, I wondered why my fear was so highly specific. I am not afraid of enclosed spaces per se, nor am I afraid, for instance, of natural caves (the next day, I must boast, we visited the enormous cave at Ingleborough without any problem). As my eyes followed the arch of stones that corralled the ominous silence of the tunnel’s interior, I realized that much of my fear was connected to the fact that this thing was artificial, constructed, intended for a purpose, yet it was located in a wild and lonely spot (I did not know then that Clapham village was only just around the corner) and Brigitte and I faced it alone. It was the juxtaposition of wilderness and design, nature and culture that really made me scared. And I do mean scared. I would gladly have turned around and headed home, rather than enter that fearful place.
Yet, if I had taken two steps to my right, you would have seen a different photograph, one in which the light at the end of the tunnel was clearly visible. The fact is this tunnel (the first of two) is no more than about forty feet long, while its close neighbour can hardly be called a tunnel at all, but is more like a bridge.
Taking hold of Brigitte’s hand in case she tripped (I am an accomplished liar in these situations), we entered the tunnel. The darkness engulfed us, so that we could not see one another or the uneven path, which seemed to me to slope dangerously to my right, where a huge pool of night lay in wait to swallow me whole. It helped to talk, although the echo of our voices was strangely disturbing. Even as we left the tunnel and entered sunlight, the fresh hell of the second tunnel awaited me.
Of course, nothing happened. I survived the ordeal. Yet the memory of it haunts me still, and I know that the next time I encounter something similar, I will be just as afraid. Why?
‘All this reading – it’s not healthy …’
Nothing really bad has ever happened to me in a tunnel, so it is not as if I am reminded of something fearful when I come across the gaping mouth of structures such as the one at Clapham. If I were a classic Freudian I daresay I could relate the ominous void before me to birth trauma or a deep-seated insecurity about sex, but I find such explanations unconvincing – besides which, they do not help me to overcome my fear.
I thought about my experience as we continued our walk and realized it wasn’t just tunnels that reduced me to a quivering wreck. Bridges, deserted buildings, old machinery – particularly Victorian structures – in the midst of woods or fields are also evil in my book. I’ve seen Victorian ventilation chimneys in the midst of pastureland from a passing train and felt scared. Oh, and did I mention railways? And canals? The combination of a deserted canal and a tunnel was one of the most fearsome encounters I have ever had with my phobia.
I blame Charles Dickens and M. R. James. They are the principal culprits, along with Walter de la Mare perhaps. It is they who have inculcated a deepseated mistrust of all things tunnelular. Dickens’ short story The Signalman, for example, contains all the ingredients of my phobia: a tunnel, a railway, a lonely wooded valley. And any story by M. R. James will contain similar combinations of ingredients. The fact is, I have concluded, I am haunted by literary ghosts. They rise up, powerful and unbidden, whenever the appropriate circumstances manifest themselves. That is what ghosts do best, after all, and I am powerless to stop them.
The Bend in the Road
The track beyond the second tunnel at Clapham bends to the left and becomes a road. We stood at the curve of the lane and I took a deep breath, absurdly proud of myself for having braved my demons. A church was nestled in the crook of the valley, built directly on the geological faultline that cuts through the Dales to a depth of many hundreds of metres.
What a great place for a ghost story! The geological faultline would be the cause and metaphor of a troubled place with a bad reputation. I imagined a stranger coming to live in a remote village. Something would go wrong with the church heating, perhaps, necessitating a visit to the crypt, where strange emanations would be detected. A wall would crumble away, revealing an ancient doorway, heavily barred and bolted, with a dire warning written in Latin and a quotation from Revelation about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The door would nevertheless be forced open, revealing a bottomless flight of stairs … I might write this story one day, if someone doesn’t beat me to it.
The Hole in the Ground
As we crossed the moors on the way to Ingleborough mountain, we met H. P. Lovecraft. Well, not really, but he would have liked Gaping Gill. I looked down at this hole in the ground – a strangely innocuous yet deeply sinister combination of raw nature and human imagination – and thought of Lovecraft’s gothic short story The Outsider, whose lonely hero (if we can call him that) climbs a prodigious height, only to emerge at ground level, terrifying the people he wishes to befriend. His ultimate horror is to behold his reflection, which is inhuman, ghastly, evil.
There’s a lesson for us all there, somewhere.
The Top of the Dales
There are few places on the face of the planet that have not undergone transformation by humankind. It is tempting to think of areas like the Dales as pure nature, unchanging and unaltered, yet they are just as much the result of centuries of grazing and farming and human habitation as they are of millennia of glaciation and erosion and climate change.
Thus, as we climbed to the summit of Ingleborough mountain the next day and gazed out over the panoramic vista bright with afternoon sun, it seemed appropriate that the final literary evocation of our holiday should be brought by the sudden flight of a kestrel over the crest of the mountain, its breast painted a rose-coloured pink by the slanting light. I remembered Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Windhover, and ‘My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, – the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!’
Some literary ghosts are more welcome than others.