The Lay Of The Land: Weird Possibility In The English Countryside
, August 8th, 2016 05:22
Aliya Whiteley, author of The Arrival of Missives, examines the role of the English countryside in weird and speculative fiction, du Maurier to Fowles, and wonders why the landscape holds such potent possibility
(Photograph by sagesolar)
I once described my dream house to a friend. A big pile in the depths of the English countryside, I said. No neighbours for miles, no traffic, nothing but the trees and the birds, the hedgerows and the rabbit holes and the growing of the ferns and flowers.
My friend nodded. He said - Imagine you're tucked up in your cosy bed in your old country house, with nothing but nature surrounding you. It's just gone midnight, utterly dark, and you're alone. And then... then there's a quiet knock at the front door.
I don't want to live deep in the countryside any more.
Why is it that English trees, English woods, English fields and flowers make the perfect backdrop to so many stories that contain an element of weird possibility? A knock at the door could herald the arrival of anyone at all, perhaps even Alex and his Droogs looking for a bit of the old ultra-violence. A tap at the window could be the ice-cold hand of the ghost Catherine Linton, who has been lost on the moor for twenty years. And don't even think about looking down the rabbit hole at the bottom of the garden, or you might find yourself attempting to play croquet with flamingos for mallets.
Anything can happen, and it's the description of the countryside that precedes the possibility, as if the land itself signals strangeness and is inherently unpredictable. Books that we don't think of as speculative in nature use this technique as much as fantasy, science fiction and horror writing. It can be no more than a mention to trigger that leap into weirdness, priming the reader to accept the way the strange encroaches into our lives just as easily as moss encroaches on our driveways.
Daphne Du Maurier used this to great effect in a number of her books, from the moorland of Bodmin that surrounds Jamaica Inn to her last novel, Rule Britannia, in which US troops land on Cornish soil and the locals turn to guerrilla warfare, hiding in the fields. But the first book I ever read that I would describe as weird fiction was her most famous; Rebecca, where Manderley is the big old house in the middle of nowhere and the metaphorical dreaded knock at the front door belongs to the dead wife of Maxim De Winter. The approach to the house, now a burnt-out shell, is so loving and carefully described by the fauna that encroaches upon it:
“The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into an alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs... A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy...”
By the time we reach chapter two Manderley is already a looming, ominous presence where we suspect something sinister has taken place entirely because of the plants and flowers that lead to it. Rhododendrons are not native to Britain, but alien invaders that perfectly suit as a choice of flower to suggest Manderley will not welcome the invasion by the new Mrs De Winter. They are also the choice of Robert Aickman as a symbol of foreboding and encroachement in his disturbing short story The Hospice. Mr Maybury's car is about to run out of petrol and so he pulls into a hotel for a meal and possibly to stay the night; as he makes his way towards it he sees that:
“...the drive he had come down, if indeed it had been a drive, was not the original main entrance. There was an older, more traditional drive, winding away between rhododendron bushes.”
A hidden drive, and he is the interloper arriving at a house with hidden meanings.
So although its the house that appears secretive and strange it's the position of the house within its landscape that controls this impression on the part of the reader, and enables the strangeness to be foreshadowed and expanded upon. The season can play a large part in this mood-setting; when Watson arrives at Baskerville Hall with Sir Henry in Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles he comments upon the autumn journey, and the arrival upon the moors:
“... to me a tinge of melancholy lay upon the countryside, which bore so clearly the mark of the waning year. Yellow leaves carpeted the lanes and fluttered down upon us as we passed, The rattle of our wheels died away as we drove through drifts of rotting vegetation...|
Death already lies heavy on the ground before the house is even seen. In contrast, here's the landscape around Kim Newman's magical house, The Hollow, in An English Ghost Story, as the family who are looking for a new home arrive in Somerset in springtime and find apple trees:
“The largest lay on the ground, roots exposed like a display of sturdy, petrified snakes, hollowed-out body sprouting a thick new trunk, fruiting branches stretching upwards.”
Spring offers renewal with new shoots of life; the possibility of a happy ending exists for this family. But the threat of dark happenings is made clear by the imagery of the snakes and the existence of the dead, fallen tree. Deadly events have happened here before.
Some books start with dread and stay there; for instance, Belinda Bauer's crime novel Blacklands announce its intention to be dark from the opening sentence:
“Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough colourless grass, prickly gorse, and last year's heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the moor cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected.”
Black in the title, black in the first sentence, and set in wintertime too, this story of a boy's attempt to find out the location of his uncle's body, buried somewhere on Exmoor, by writing to the paedophile who killed him is stark and relentless.
For a subtlety in the opening lines that mixes that same moorland in dismal weather while giving nothing away, try John Fowles' A Maggot. Fowles tells us that travellers long ago on horseback journey onwards:
“The peaty track they follow traverses a waste of dead heather and ling; below, in a steep-sided valley, stand unbroken dark woodlands, still more in bud than leaf. All the furthest distances fade into a mist, and the travellers' clothes are by chance similarly without accent. The day is quite windless, held in a dull suspension.”
What does he really tell us here? There's a sense of a deep breath taken and held. We're not plunging into any action, and the landscape is shrouded in a mist that stops all from being clearly seen. It's a great start because A Maggot is a historical novel that refuses to be labelled beyond that. The travellers defy conventions and have experienced something that may or may not be a visitation by the devil, or by alien beings. It's a surprising novel that uses that peculiarly blank quality of English moorlands to suggest ambiguity.
It's not all moorlands, though. The bleakest stretches of landscape often lead us to think about the strangeness of humanity - the way the character does not fit, is an interloper, has dark thoughts that offer the possibility of violence. But DH Lawrence used the Nottinghamshire countryside as a reflection of the innate bizarreness of being alive, not more than animals deep down under the guise of civilisation and unable to escape the weird pull of the land upon us. In The Rainbow Ursula walks with her love, Skrebensky, through the fields after the corn has been threshed. The cutting down of nature parallels his battle for supremacy over her in the relationship, taking place on a deep level that neither can articulate:
“There he saw, with something like terror, the great new stacks of corn glistening and gleaming transfigured, silvery and present under the night-blue sky... She, like glimmering gossamer, seemed to burn among them... He was afraid of the great moon-conflagration of the cornstacks rising above him.”
I love the way Lawrence captures the true strangeness of life, coming not from external forces that act upon us but from our own natural desires - the desire to be fecund, to renew, to change and grow.
It's no surprise to see that the countryside, even as much as the weather within the idea of pathetic fallacy, gets linked to the characters' emotional and psychological states. But it's the fact that we are all part of the countryside and its changes, both predictable and yet miraculous (and even now still sometimes inexplicable), that gives such a breadth of possibility to the writing that starts with it. And to the writing that ends with it, too; the last word here belongs to Fay Weldon, who uses the Somerset countryside as the setting and a companion to Liffey, the main character in Puffball. Liffey falls in love with Somerset, and moves to a cottage in the middle of nowhere. And yet when Liffey falls pregnant the growth of the baby inside her is part of the forces of nature that surround her, and also surround her menopausal witch neighbour, Mab. The story could go in any direction from such as starting point, and yet it feels as if the writing and the characters are in the grip of the countryside.
The book ends at Christmas time, and the edible puffball mushrooms that grew around the house throughout the pregnancy have shrivelled. Liffey burns them on the open fire to keep her warm. There is no sense of victory over nature; there is only an acceptance that the things that grow around us have a time that is here and gone, and who knows to what good use they might be put?
In this respect, the cherry trees and the blackthorn of the English landscape is not being used - in that most selfish of ways – to reflect humanity. Humanity instead reflects the very strangeness of the land that grows, spores, seeds, and then dies around us. Life and death is, after all, the very weirdest of all businesses. Whether reading crime, fantasy, horror, literary or science fiction, the realisation that anything is possible belongs within the land, and therefore within ourselves.
This is what I strive for when I write of the English countryside in books such as The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives. It's not just the fear of the knock on the door in the middle of all those rabbit holes and hedgerows; it's the realisation that the door is no protection at all, whether we open it or not. The land is already inside us.