‘A uniquely strange and wonderful work of literature’Philip Hoare
This book is not merely a meandering biography of souls such as W.G. Sebald, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Alan Garner and other tellers of strange tales but is also a psychogeographic derive, a nature diary, memoir and journal of grief.Folk Horror Revival and Urban Wyrd Review
Ghostland is the latest book by 1996 American Studies graduate Ed Parnell. Defying easy characterisation, the book is a work of narrative non-fiction that tackles memory, grief, geography, and the literature that is rooted both in the British landscape and the childhood memories of the author.
In this interview, we find out more about Ed’s memories of Hull, his reflections on the role of geography on his writing, and his thoughts on the the way that stories help us to make sense of loss.
Looking back into my own fractured recollections of my adolescence from thirty years ago – something I did to write Ghostland – it becomes really apparent how much of our selves are made up of selective shards of memory, to the point that these fragments that we cling to and fashion into a narrative can be the only thing that’s left. Even if they were never really all that important back when they first played out.Ed Parnell
What attracted you to the University of Hull?
At the point in the sixth form when I was applying to universities I was really into American literature; I was studying William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for English A-Level, and I’d recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which is still one of my favourite novels. So I definitely wanted to go somewhere with a good American Studies department. My other main criteria was rather more esoteric, however, and almost certainly based on a place’s proximity to good birdwatching sites. So with Hull being the nearest university to Spurn Point and Flamborough Head, that proved to be a big draw for me…
What strong memories of your time at Hull do you have?
I have lots of strong memories of the place, though I do look back with the wisdom of experience and wish I could re-run the first year again from a learning point of view. I seem to remember skipping lots of lectures due to being hungover or just plain useless, largely, I think, because back then the exams at the end of the year didn’t actually count towards the final degree. And I look back and think what a waste that I didn’t read all of the great novels at the time that I should have done (though, in fairness to myself, there was an enormous amount of reading). For instance, I know I definitely didn’t make it through Moby Dick at the time, though I did attend lectures on it, and it was a number of years later before I finally finished it and it became one of my favourite books. I also really enjoyed all the modules on modernism and post-modernism that I took – that love of Faulkner and Vonnegut again. And those courses in particular introduced me to thinking about painters and visual artists, which was something that I hadn’t really done before.
When I was studying in Hull creative writing wasn’t available as a taught option, though I did take a course on American short stories that also had an assignment that required the students to all write and submit one of our own stories. I really enjoyed that, even though the thing I wrote wasn’t exactly a shining example of the genre. I think though that the city itself is probably a good place to get inspiration, because it has its own distinct identity and that slightly isolated, end-of-the-line feel, a bit like my own nearest city, Norwich, does.
What role does geography play in your writing – and did the geography of Yorkshire in general and Hull in particular inspire you?
Location was definitely the overriding factor in my first book, the novel The Listeners. It’s set in May 1940 in an isolated west Norfolk village. It’s that point where the war has been going on for several months but its effects haven’t, up to that point, been really felt back in Britain. Though all that’s about to change with Dunkirk and how things rapidly escalate afterwards. It’s really though a novel about family secrets and I based the location on the tiny village where my grandmother lived, which I’d loved to visit as a kid. Its gothic woods, which I’d wander round in on my own seemed magical and exotic in comparison to the flat Lincolnshire landscape in which I’d grown up, and I loved all the folklore and stories that clung to those meadows and trees.
With Ghostland, which is a work of narrative non-fiction, the British landscape and its buried layers of histories and hidden stories, was also a huge factor in the book. There was a chapter in the first draft that talked about Yorkshire (the Brontës, for example, and my obsession with the film An American Werewolf in London), but it ended up getting lost in the edit in the finished version. Hull itself hasn’t yet featured in any of my work – and I suppose now that it’s a long time since I’ve lived in the city, so I’m not sure how confident I’d be about writing about it. If I did it would probably be an early 1990s Hull way before there were places like The Deep or all the smart regeneration around the docks.
Your book brings together your personal response to a family tragedy, the books that you read as a child, and the landscapes of Great Britain. How would you characterise the book and what were you trying to achieve through writing it?
Ghostland is definitely a hard book to classify. I’m useless at describing it when people ask me. It’s kind of a mixture of memoir, cultural criticism, nature and travel writing that explores the places around Britain that inspired writers of the weird and eerie, I apologetically mumble. But, yes, it’s also to me primarily a book about my own rather haunted family history – stuff that had happened a few months before I came to Hull University (which probably does cloud my memories of studying there). I suppose as well as trying to impart my love of ghost stories, old children’s novels and weird television series and films to readers, I also wanted to explore the act of trying to retrieve a half-forgotten past, to force myself to think about that time again. And the book also became an exploration of lots of other writers in whom I discerned a similarly haunted sense.
What are the Hull stories/writers that inspire or interest you?
I’m really interested in whales and dolphins and have been on lots of boat trips in different locations around the world to look for them. So last time I was in Hull I spent a lot of time in the whaling section of the city’s museum, which was grimly fascinating. Hull-born author Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water has sat on my bookshelf for a while, waiting for me to pluck up the courage to read it – and I’ve recently read that it’s being adapted by the BBC this autumn; I’ll definitely read it before then.
Your first book, the Listeners, also tackles themes of grief and loss, and how we make sense of that loss through stories. What role do stories play in our lives?
I guess they help us to make sense of the events that surround us, or they give us another reality to escape into. Certainly for me, novels, films and stories have always been a huge part of my life. And now, as a writer, continuing to consume other people’s books is a vital part of getting inspiration for my own work: reading is definitely a big part of being a writer. But looking back into my own fractured recollections of my adolescence from thirty years ago – something I did to write Ghostland – it becomes really apparent how much of our selves are made up of selective shards of memory, to the point that these fragments that we cling to and fashion into a narrative can be the only thing that’s left. Even if they were never really all that important back when they first played out.