Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

(most probably) Emily Brontë by her brother, Branwell

Wuthering Heights (1847) is the subject of my favourite book review ever, in a letter from Pre-Raphaelite artist & poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Irish poet William Allingham, in September 1854:

“…it is a fiend of a book — an incredible monster, combining all the stronger female tendencies from [poet] Mrs Browning to [murderer] Mrs Brownrigg. The action is laid in hell, — only it seems places and people have English names there.”

My first attempt at scaling Wuthering Heights was when I was trying to work through all the books in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. I was perhaps feeling a little jaded by that book’s eccentricities by that point, as I’d read Moby Dick thanks to their recommendation, and couldn’t quite see the relevance to fantasy. (I can perhaps see their point a bit better now, and mean to reread Moby Dick at some point, free of false preconceptions — which is the best way to enjoy a classic novel.) A little way into Wuthering Heights, I began to feel it was going to be another of Cawthorn & Moorcock’s more eccentric inclusions, and gave up on it. (I really wonder if I’d have been able to appreciate it properly anyway, back then.) On recently learning that David Lindsay thought highly of it, though, I decided to give it another go, and am glad I did.

Wuthering Heights has had a long association with the more subtler and supernaturally-tinged fantastic. As Julia Briggs says in her study of the English ghost story, Night Visitors (1977):

“…the whole tenor of the book… implies a coherent universe wherein man, nature and spirit interact closely, and where the cruel and uncompromising power of love is more ruthless and compelling even than death.”

Most surprisingly of all, considering its reputation as perhaps the most darkly romantic of all love stories, H P Lovecraft liked the book — Lovecraft, who reacted so strongly to a “few touches of commonplace sentimentality” in William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he says:

“Though primarily a tale of life, and of human passions in agony and conflict, its epically cosmic setting affords room for horror of the most spiritual sort… Miss Brontë’s eerie terror is no mere Gothic echo, but a tense expression of man’s shuddering reaction to the unknown.”

Both of these quotes make it clear it’s the atmosphere of the book that speaks of the supernatural and fantastic, rather than the details (though there is, of course, ghostly Cathy’s “ice-cold hand” through the window one night, which may be a dream, but nevertheless imparts some details the narrator couldn’t at that point know). In fact, a lot of the power of the book comes from its narration being so low-key and realistic, thanks to the down-to-earth servant’s-eye-view of Nelly Dean, whose general lack of judgement only makes all the violence and brutality centred around Heathcliff seem that much more violent and brutal, lacking as it does the narrative cushioning of explanations, justifications, and condemnations.

Faber and Faber cover

It’s around Heathcliff this dark air of the supernatural accumulates, from the moment he first appears in the story, a “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” with an oddly old-looking face. Mr Earnshaw, who brings this child back the 60-miles walk from Liverpool, names it after a dead child of his own, adding to the feeling it may be a fairy changeling or a soul retrieved from hell. Like one of Le Fanu’s supernatural companions, it sucks the life out of those around it, as both Mrs (who most dislikes it) and then Mr Earnshaw (who most likes it) fade away and die after it’s brought into the home. (And the detail that, as well as presenting this unwanted child to his family, Mr Earnshaw discovers that the gifts he was asked to bring have either been lost or broken seems almost Aickmanesque. Did Earnshaw have to struggle to bring the child along with him? Or, did the child’s mere presence supernaturally spoil all attempts at affection, however minor, from that point on? The weird creeps in where the explanations are lacking.)

By name and nature, Heathcliff is more a landscape than a person — or, perhaps, a Gothic castle in human form, bleak, forbidding, oppressive, imperturbable, dark and haunted, monomaniacal. He feels like a character from a different mode of fiction altogether, a blood-soaked Webster tragedy, perhaps, or one of the wilder folk ballads. Placed in an otherwise respectable early-Victorian novel, he becomes a sort of black hole, pulling everyone in his orbit down into the dark pit of his loveless world.

Puffin cover

And that’s the thing that most struck me about this novel. By reputation, Wuthering Heights is a love story, but it seems to me the whole point about Heathcliff and his world is it (and he) cannot express, or even understand, love. Heathcliff’s relationship with Cathy, for instance (who’s too infantilely self-absorbed to express love herself: “I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me…”). Their relationship seems more about possessiveness than love, but a possessiveness so deep that Cathy feels it as identification (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”). So, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t marry Heathcliff, because she and he are already one. Heathcliff himself seems only able to express anger, resentment, and a dark joy in revenge. He teaches the young Hareton Earnshaw, who lives with him at Wuthering Heights, “to scorn everything extra-animal as silly and weak.” When Isabella Linton marries Heathcliff, and lives with him at the Heights, she’s forced to ask, of the affable narrator Nelly Dean:

“How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me.”

I still find it hard to express what I felt as I read Wuthering Heights for the first time. It was like a constant series of affronts, as Nelly Dean’s calm and seemingly level-headed narrative was peppered with acts of sudden anger and violence, some of which didn’t serve the plot, but just added to the air of devastation. The way five-year-old Hareton, for instance, reacts to the woman who, till six months before, had been all but mother to him: he throws a heavy flint at her head, and not out of anger at her, but more a sort of feral rejection of all human beings. There’s something about the way these brutal emotions swamp out the more human ones that recalls, to me, the way the children in The Turn of the Screw have been in some undefined way defiled by the depredations of Peter Quint, at the other end of the 19th century.

Wordsworth cover

And I think Wuthering Heights has more in common with The Turn of the Screw and those great horror stories of the end of the 19th century than that. Just as the ghost story at that time made the transition from pure fright-tale to a new and deeper exploration of human psychology, so Wuthering Heights’ power derives, in large part, from its presenting the sort of tumultuous passions brewed up in those earlier Gothic novels in a more realistic — and so, undeniably recognisable — way. It makes the novel’s characters and story that much more believable, and its horror all the more horrific — and so, I’d say, the psychology all the more insightful. This is, it feels, an authentic layer of human experience that no amount of civilised society can do away with.

It’s Heathcliff who’s haunted in Emily Brontë’s novel — “The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!” — but the result is itself a haunting narrative, still shockingly powerful and weirdly irresolvable.

And you can’t talk about Wuthering Heights without mentioning Kate Bush. Her song, I think, stands alongside Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Queen’s “Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke” as rare examples of songs inspired by other works of art that equal them in artistic power.

Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair

This 2006 book from Wordsworth Editions reprints May Sinclair’s 1923 collection of the same name, plus one other long story, “The Intercessor” (from The English Review, July 1911), the first ghost story Sinclair wrote, and certainly the best included here.

Sinclair (1863–1946) was already an established novelist when she brought out Uncanny Stories, having been writing since 1891. She combined an interest in psychology (being a founding supporter of the first medical institute in Britain to offer psychoanalysis as a treatment) with parapsychology (joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1914), as well as being a suffragist and an early proponent of Modernism (she was the first to use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to describe the literary technique). Her grisly murder story “The Victim” (included in Uncanny Stories) was published by T S Eliot in the first edition of his magazine, The Criterion (in October 1922), alongside “The Waste Land”.

“The Intercessor” is a powerful story of a household in rural Yorkshire haunted by the death of a child. The narrator, Garvin, is in the area writing a county history, and his one stipulation is lodgings without children. Directed to the Falshaw farmhouse, he’s annoyed on the first night to hear a child’s sobs:

“…it was hardly a crying, a sobbing, a whimpering rather, muffled by closed doors. The wonder was how it could have waked him; the sound was so distant, so smothered, so inarticulate.”

The Falshaws — a stoic farmer, his pregnant wife, and their grown-up niece — are a grim, closemouthed bunch, with Mrs Falshaw in particular treating their paying guest as though it’s predetermined he’ll soon want to leave. Garvin at first assumes the cries are from a child who has been locked into the small room opposite his own in an effort to comply with his not wanting any children about. It cries every night at the same time:

“There was no petulance in it and no anger; it had all the qualities of a young child’s cry, except the carnal dissonances and violences. The grief it uttered was too profound and too persistent, and, as it were, too pure; it knew none of the hot-blooded throes, the strangulated pauses, the lacerating resurgences of passion. At times it was shrill, unbroken, irremediable; at times it was no more than a sad sobbing and whimpering, stifled…”

In contrast to the Falshaws’ dour uncommunicativeness, this crying feels like a desperate expression of all the sad coldness at the heart of this tragic but inarticulate household. Soon, Garvin sees the “child”, and even feels it climbing into his bed to sleep at night.

In contrast to, say, M R James’s ghost stories, which are all about the horror of the spook, and revel in its weird and demonic nature, Sinclair’s ghosts are human things, giving voice as much to the anguish of the living as the tragedy of their own demise. They return not for revenge, or to punish the living, but often simply to be acknowledged, even listened to (at least one of Sinclair’s ghosts delivers a lecture on how the afterlife works, but the more powerful, like the Falshaw child, are pure emotion). Sinclair takes her ghost stories beyond the point where James would end them (the moment the thing is revealed), into having her characters understand and resolve the ghost’s torment (and, usually, their own).

In a very un-Jamesian way, that torment is mostly about love. Sinclair’s fiction, though, isn’t generally sentimental. Love, in these tales, is tangled with guilt (over the transference of love from a dead wife to her successor, for instance, in “The Nature of the Evidence”), or control (a mother’s smothering influence in “If the Dead Knew”), or is stifled, unrequited or poorly expressed (as in “The Token”, where a young wife lingers after death for a sign that her stoic husband truly loved her). And sex, in Sinclair’s stories, just complicates things (as in “Where their Fire is not Quenched”, a bleak vision of an afterlife in which a woman whose one consummated affair was with a man she soon found boring, but she has to live and relive that affair forever after death).

The longest tale here, “The Flaw in the Crystal” (originally published as a separate novella in 1912), is not a ghost story, but a tale of psychic powers. Agatha Verrall has moved to a house in the remote countryside so she can receive weekend visits from her lover, the married Rodney Lanyon. She has an inner link to a “Power”, a gift that allows her, somehow, to extend a circle of psychic protection around people, and to heal them, or at least keep them free of illness (mental illness, anyway) while she holds them in this way. She knows, though, that this gift works best with a very light touch, and an assumed indifference, even though it’s the people she loves that she uses it on — at first, anyway. But when the Powells, a couple she’s acquainted with, move near because of the husband Harding Powell’s bouts of paranoia, Agatha extends her gift to include him. At first it works, and she makes the mistake of telling the wife, Milly, what she’s done. Milly tells Harding, and he, though a staunch non-believer, comes to expect Agatha’s protection. When Agatha realises that the protection she’s so far been giving her lover, Rodney, is waning because of this, she finds herself having to fight for control of her gift from the strong-willed Harding.

Sinclair herself was an atheist, but there’s an evident belief in some sort of afterlife in these stories, as well as, in “The Flaw in the Crystal”, a “Power” behind it all. In this novella, Harding Powell’s utterly unbelieving worldview starts to seep into Agatha’s own:

“Harding’s abominable vision of the world, that vision from which the resplendent divinity had perished…”

It’s quite a heavy going story at times, being tangled so much in the abstractions of Agatha’s inner world, and the mental battles she has with Harding for control of her “gift”. Sinclair’s writing is at its best, perhaps, in “The Victim”, whose protagonist (a thick-accented chauffeur with an uncontrollable temper) is mostly seen from the outside rather than (as with Agatha Verrell) so intensely from within. Some of her stories rely on someone coming forward to explain the reason for the haunting and so resolve it (“The Token”, “If the Dead Knew”, “The Victim”), but the more powerful ones dramatise the emotion behind it rather than the reason (“Where their Fire is not Quenched”, for instance), while “The Intercessor” attains the best balance between these approaches, to deliver an emotional wallop of an ending, which feels, oddly, at once redemptive and bleak.

For someone writing supernatural fiction at a time when Freud’s ideas were beginning to be known (which, as Julia Briggs suggested in Night Visitors, marked the beginning of the end for the popularity the ghost story had been enjoying since Dickens’s day), there’s a real feeling of psychological depth to Sinclair’s tales, and although they may have been influenced to some degree by Freud (the title of Uncanny Stories, for instance), I feel, reading them, that her understanding is definitely her own, and far more nuanced than a merely derivative take on Freud’s ideas could have served up. The most successful tales, dealing with the inequality of love in relationships, or of the very human horrors of emotional neglect, certainly transcend any merely psychological reading to become powerful dramas.

“The Intercessor” is the must-read story here. It was adapted (very faithfully) by Alan Plater (who I mostly know for his quirky comedy The Beiderbecke Affair from 1985) for the ITV Shades of Darkness anthology series (in 1983). (Which is how I first heard about May Sinclair, via a post on the Wyrd Britain blog, which has a link to the Shades of Darkness episode on YouTube.)

You can read “The Flaw in the Crystal” at Gutenberg, and I have “The Intercessor” as an ebook on my free ebooks page. You can learn more about May Sinclair herself at the May Sinclair Society’s site.

Night Visitors by Julia Briggs

Night Visitors, Julia Briggs’s 1977 study of ‘The rise and fall of the English ghost story’, employs a bit of (potentially fatal) boundary-blurring early on, first as regards the term ‘ghost story’:

‘It may be apparent that the term ‘ghost story’ is being employed with something of the latitude that characterises the general usage, since it can denote not only stories about ghosts, but about possession and demonic bargains, spirits other than those of the dead, including ghouls, vampires, werewolves, the ‘swarths’ of living men and the ‘ghost-soul’ or Doppelgänger.’

NightVisitorsThe second bit of boundary-blurring regards the term ‘English’, as she includes Irish (Sheridan Le Fanu and Oscar Wilde), Welsh (Arthur Machen), Scottish (Robert Louis Stevenson), American (Henry James and Vernon Lee), and French (Guy de Maupassant) writers in her study. (And if Henry James is excused because he was living in England, what of Kipling, who was living in India?) What makes this so potentially fatal is that her thesis — that the ghost story, as a form, is dead, indeed ‘has become a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere. It no longer has any capacity for growth or adaption.’ — and her reasons for it, can perhaps only be taken to apply to the strictly defined ghost story, and perhaps only the English version of it, certainly not the breadth of weird fiction she covers in this study. After all, when the book was published, a horror boom was in full swing, with not only countless anthologies of old ghost and horror stories being published (driven, no doubt, by Hammer’s popularity in the 60s), but also horror novels hitting the bestseller charts for perhaps the first time since Dracula, thanks mostly to Stephen King, but helped by a Brit or two (James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell). So it seems Briggs’s argument should be that the purely English, purely literary, purely ghostly, purely short story may have become moribund, but that the rest of what was taken in by the boundary-blurred remit of her survey was booming.

There is another way to look at it, perhaps only possible now the book is over four decades old. This is that the ghost story achieved a brief and uncharacteristic literary relevance to the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian eras, then stepped back into the crypt of popular, generic fiction where it had always lurked, and where it remains to this day. And what, I’d say, Night Visitors is good for is its look at this brief foray into literary respectability, and why this phase came to an end. (Which perhaps also answers why it came about in the first place.)

So, why did it end?

In short, Freud and the Great War:

‘The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors by comparison, it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore. The rigid conventions of sexual behaviour which had influenced middle and upper class attitudes, began to be flouted more openly… Now the unconscious itself had become the subject of close scientific scrutiny rather than the more philosophic, often more amateur speculation of the previous century.’

NightVisitors_backSupernatural stories, at the end of the Victorian Age and into the Edwardian, achieved a new relevance and richness thanks to their exploration of the darker areas of human psychology that, after the World Wars, were more explicitly addressed using the newly-accepted scientific terminology of psychoanalysis. (Though some, between the two World Wars, like Blackwood, went to the opposite extreme and used the technical language of the occult.) The ‘psychic doctors’ of Le Fanu, Blackwood and Hodgson had been replaced by psychoanalysts, and the only recourse for the popular ghost story was a retreat into formal conventions, achieving a sort of final perfection in the hands of M R James, who:

‘…did not share the concern shown by other writers (Blackwood or Le Fanu, for instance) with the significance of spirits, the state of mind in which ghosts are seen, or the condition of a universe that permits the maleficent returning dead.’

But Briggs nevertheless finds certain writers who continued to make meaningful use of the ghost, each in their individual way. Elizabeth Bowen, for instance, whose 1945 collection The Demon Lover ‘reveals her ghosts as somehow necessary to their victims, occupying spiritual voids left by the shock of war.’ Or Walter de la Mare, in whose work ‘death has taken over the role which love traditionally plays in fiction, as the most central and significant experience of life…’ She doesn’t mention Robert Aickman, but he’s an author, I’d say, whose ‘strange stories’ — the closest thing the ghost story came to a reinvention in the 20th century — were enabled, not negated, by Freud.

Meanwhile, the 1970s, when Night Visitors appeared, had a definite tendency to render its horrors in gaudy, gory, sensationalistic cinema, often rendered as fleshily physical as the censors (and the special effects) would allow. The psychological subtlety of the ghostly tale, as championed by Briggs, was perhaps not so much dead but drowned out.

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

The fundamental human experiences that ghosts, as literary devices, were used to explore, though — secrets, repressions, guilt, loss — remain, and always will. Those dark, cobwebby corners of the psyche can’t have been entirely exorcised. So how were they addressed when the ghost story was superseded?

Modern psychological thrillers, whose killers are too often endowed with near-supernatural abilities, provide similar grounds for exploring the darker regions of the psyche. People may not be haunted, but they are stalked. Detectives and criminal profilers try to get into the minds of the killers they’re tracking, as though working on the assumption that these psychos are their own, personal Doppelgängers. The wrenching twists and revelations of a story like Gone Girl — a ghostly title, surely — may not be spiritual, but they tick the other boxes in the formula Briggs provides for what the ghost in the ghost story represents:

‘…the eruption of the tip of the spiritual iceberg, the sudden sense of the existence of previously unknown modes of being that undermined and ultimately invalidated a comfortable confidence in the world of appearances.’

All of these are ghostly tropes, remade for a disbelieving age. (A pity they don’t work as well, for me. I need that hint of the weird, it seems.)

Briggs finishes her study by saying:

‘That bulging, cobwebby box which had so long been clamped down to prevent its terrors escaping has at last been opened, to reveal nothing at all…’

And it’s true, nothing’s there. But that’s probably because he’s standing behind you, with a knife.