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Edward Parnell
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Review by Metellus Cimber II

I have never read or reviewed a book quite like this one. Readable, enjoyable in a scary, crazy way, it combines grief memoir, autobiography, biography, ghostly folklore, literary and film criticism with travel around the UK. Edward Parnell is an ornithologist as well as a ghost-hunter; if the ghost does not show up, he often manages to spot a rarity, such as a Golden Oriole or a Hoopoe, and writes about that instead. The black-and-white illustrations are a mixture of the author's own, and other people's, atmospheric photos; stills from films and old engravings.

Ghostland grew out of a therapeutic pilgrimage round Great Britain, which Parnell undertook to help him to cope with bereavement: starting in 2013, he lost three close family members in quick succession to incurable illnesses. This concentrated his mind wonderfully on death, life-after-death, ghosts, the past in general and the function of memory. My impression is that Parnell's original objective was probably modest; to revisit places where he had been happy with his parents, brother and other relations and maybe to write about them. Some of these places were enjoyably spooky. The idea of the book grew out of this.

Taking on a life of its own, the project evolved over several years, to include places where the other family members had never been, but where Parnell's favourite ghost-and-mystery-story writers had lived, died or been inspired. Those authors include Rudyard Kipling; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Arthur Machen; M. R. James (the author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, who features prominently in the book); Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson (killed in the Great War) and more. Poets receive their due place, including Robert Burns, for Tam O'Shanter; Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, for Flannan Isle; and a few artists, such as Richard Dadd, who painted The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke and murdered his own father, and Thomas Bewick. Parnell's enthusiasm extends to film; we learn a lot about how and where such British horror classics as The Wicker Man and Robin Redbreast came to be made.

The author often has new information to share with us about these luminaries; he seems to have been very successful – or lucky - in tracking down people who had known them, their descendants and serious students of their work. I for one was unaware that Conan Doyle's ghost had haunted his former home in Hampshire until 1961, when the then owners, who - like Doyle - were Edinburgh medical graduates, decided that they had had enough and had him exorcised. Fictional ghost stories like Henry James's The Turn of the Screw are mentioned alongside 'authentic' local legends; sometimes the latter turn out to have inspired the former.

Ghostland has had extremely complimentary reviews, especially from other authors: “A uniquely strange and wonderful work of literature” (Philip Hoare); “A marvellous blend of travel writing, history and grief memoir” (Paul Willetts) and “Psychogeography at its finest” (Cathi Unsworth, the author of Weirdo). In this instance the compliments seem fully justified. In particular, Parnell is a master of atmosphere; his descriptions of Glasgow's Necropolis, Kensal Green Cemetery and the remains of Dunwich cannot be bettered.

Edward Parnell was born in 1973. Ghostland is his second book. He has received an Escalator Award from the National Centre for Writing and a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. His novel, The Listeners, won him the Rethink New Novels Prize.

Metellus Cimber II

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