I’ve always been an enthusiast for the ghost story, though genuinely unnerving ones are remarkably hard to find. I’m surprised, for example, that Jonathan Aycliffe’s novels are largely out of print. His book Naomi’s Room is the only novel I’ve ever read that disturbed me so much I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it again, terrific though it was. But it’s the time of the year to seek out the spooky, so I was pleased that the BBC had once again revived its occasional tradition of dramatising an M R James story at Christmas. I was moderately enthusiastic about the prospect of an adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ from the pen of Neil Cross, as Cross is a consistently interesting writer and ‘Whistle’ is one of the best even of James’s excellent stories. Furthermore (whisper this quietly), I also seem to be one of the few people who didn’t think much to Jonathan Miller’s much-lauded 1968 version, which has always struck me as a triumph of style over substance.
In the event, Cross’s adaptation left me with mixed feelings. He’d altered the story to the point where James’s name wasn’t even included in the opening credits, though he received a belated acknowledgment at the end. The changes seemed not only substantial, but actually antithetical to the tone of James’s writing. In particular, James’s world is very much that of the Edwardian bachelor don, and that’s somehow key to the uneasy tone of his stories (even if this analysis maybe slightly over-stated). Cross’s adaptation gives the lead character – here, for some reason, Professor Parkin rather than the original Parkins – a wife who at the opening of the film is being placed in a care-home, suffering from what we presume to be some kind of dementia. This new back-story bookends a series of events which loosely parallel those of James’s tale – a visit to a bleak coastal town, the finding of an old artefact (here a ring rather than a whistle, presumably to maintain the marital theme, though rather harder to blow), the invocation of some sort of spirit. The ghostly parts were, on the whole, pretty well done, with John Hurt as Parkin in charismatic form and at least one genuinely unnerving moment. And there was an undoubtedly potency in Parkin’s musing, apropos his sick wife, that the possibility of the soul surviving after death is perhaps less disturbing than the survival of the body after the soul appears to have gone. Having recently experienced something very close to Parkin’s fictional agonies, I felt that rang dreadfully true.
But the ending was, for me, a tremendous let-down – both too literal-minded and yet not fully coherent, a long way from the spirit, and indeed spirits, of M R James. It felt like an opportunity missed through a distrust of the source material. It would have been better if Cross had forgotten James and created his own story, rather than trying to force new themes into an inappropriately shaped narrative. As it was, the film never found a convincing tone – the Jamesian elements seemed out-of-place in what was supposedly a contemporary setting, but the new story never gained its own momentum.
The heyday of the BBC’s ‘ghost story for Christmas’ was, of course, the 1970s, when life was simpler and I was no doubt much more impressionable. A new film was shown every Christmas between 1971 and 1978, largely adaptations of M R James (including the splendid version of ‘A Warning to the Curious’) but also Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ and, in the final years, a couple of original scripts by Clive Exton and John Bowen. As Rob Young’s Electric Eden suggests, there seems to have been a flowering of a particularly British form of ghost and horror story in those years, in film, television and books. By coincidence, over Christmas I was reading a highly enjoyable though probably largely forgotten novel by John Burke, The Devil’s Footsteps, originally published in 1976 (which I picked up second-hand from the excellent Scrivener’s Bookshop in Buxton, Derbyshire – they deserve the plug). Burke, who’s still very much with us and still writing, is a figure I very much associate with the 1970s. As well as his own novels, Burke specialised in ‘novelisations’ of well-known films and television series of the time, producing an extraordinary range that ran from films like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors to TV series such as Till Death Us Do Part and Dad’s Army. Many of those books were part of my childhood, alongside the eerie collection, Tales of Unease, and its successors, which Burke edited.
The Devil’s Footsteps was published just a year or two after the film The Wicker Man appeared and, consciously or not, the book shares some of the same themes – a remote community, human sacrifice. But the book moves in a different direction with a more explicitly supernatural underpinning. It is set in 1885, in a remote Eaat Anglian village where a set of large cloven footpr
ints have appeared in the winter snow, slowly progressing towards the village. The book has a couple of splendid protagonists. The first is Bronwen Powys, a highly independent young woman who, following her late father’s lead, is using photography to help preserve images of a rapidly disappearing landscape. She finds herself working alongside the mysterious Dr Caspian, a magician and vehement debunker of the supernatural – a 19th century James Randi or Derren Brown, in effect. It’s an intriguing and gripping book and Burke ventures into some challenging territory, particularly in describing the remarkable link between Powys and Caspian. I’m not sure that entirely comes off, but it doesn’t detract from what’s generally a very well-told tale, highly suspenseful and full of intriguing ideas. I understand that Burke wrote two more Caspian novels, so my next task will be to track down copies of those.
Finally, while I’m on this loosely supernatural kick, let me draw your attention to one of the best British films I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s not often that you stumble across something that feelsgenuinely original, but Nick Whitfield’s film Skeletons struck me as just that. It’s almost impossible to describe. It’s set in a world that’s presumably ours, but with the odd twist here and there. The heroes, engagingly played by Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley, are – well, what exactly? Exorcists? Psychic healers? They work for a company which provides the service of bringing people’s darkest secrets quite literally out of the closet, working for a mysterious boss known only as The Colonel (played with typical charisma by Jason Isaacs), and their latest mission is to discover the truth about a husband and father who is missing, presumed dead. Needless to say, the task proves more problematic than they expect, and the result is both funny and unexpectedly very moving. A friend of mine described it as ‘an apparently ordinary tale told in an extraordinary manner’, which is about right. Through its quirky conceit, the film manages to shine a different light on issues of loss, need and memory. It’s also very funny, with the two bickering, bantering leads inevitably owing something to Beckett and Pinter and, in turn, to their influences in music-hall cross-talk (it’s not surprising to discover that Gaughan and Buckley were already a comedy double-act). On top of that, it’s beautifully filmed, largely in the Peak District, conjuring a very real, if indistinct, set of place in a style that’s reminiscent of Shane Meadows’s work in the same locale in Dead Man’s Shoes (the highest possible praise in my book). The film deservedly won the Michael Powell Award for best new British Film at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Seek it out.