The Speaking of the Stones

Essays Published June 1, 2016 in First Light: a tribute to Alan Garner

On 23rd October 1642, an army of English Royalists under the command of Prince Rupert of the Rhine was marching from Shrewsbury towards London. Their aim was to meet up with the forces of King Charles I, and to crush the rebellion against his divine authority represented by the newly raised army of Parliament.

Midway between the small Oxfordshire towns of Banbury and Warwick, Rupert’s forces were intercepted by an army of Parliamentarians under the command of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Battle was joined, and thirty thousand soldiers clashed in a bloody melee which left thousands dead and wounded, but gave neither side a conclusive victory. Victor or not, the day was of huge significance: the battle of Edgehill was the first engagement in what would become the English Civil War.

Two months later, just before Christmas 1642, some shepherds were walking across the battlefield, which was still strewn with rotting bodies and rusting weapons. As they crossed the site of the struggle, the shepherds later said, they could make out the sounds of battle. They heard the cries of soldiers and musket fire and the sound of horses and clashing pikes. Then, as they watched, astonished, they saw the battle itself being replayed across the landscape on which it happened two months before. An army of ghostly soldiers was refighting Edgehill.

Naturally, the shepherds told anyone who would listen of their experience, and over the next days and weeks local people gathered on the battlefield to catch a glimpse of the ghostly re-enactment. Many claimed to have done so, and the phenomenon spiralled from a local to a national talking point. In January 1643, a pamphlet entitled A Great Wonder in Heaven was written about the haunting. So persistent were the reports that the King himself, even in the middle of a Civil War, found the time to send a Royal Commission to the battlefield to investigate the claims.

When the Commission visited the site, its members saw the ghostly re-enactment for themselves. Paying close attention, they were able to identify some of the soldiers whose ghosts were replaying their recent traumatic experience. The Commission noted that some of the ‘ghosts’ they saw were of people who were, in fact, still living.

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In December 1972, BBC television broadcast a ‘Christmas ghost story’ written by Nigel Kneale, creator of Quatermass. The Stone Tape told the story of a group of electronics researchers working on a new recording medium, who move to a new research facility in an old Victorian building. One of the oldest rooms in the building, according to local tales, may be of Saxon origin and is said to be haunted by the ghost of a screaming woman.

Working in the room, many of the team experience the sound and sometimes the sight of the screaming woman themselves. But when they leave their state-of-the-art recording equipment set up in the room it picks nothing up. Puzzling this over, the head of the team notes that every time the screaming woman is seen she moves in the same way and makes the same sound. He suspects that what his team are seeing is not the returning spirit of a dead person but a recording of a past event, which is somehow being replayed in their presence. He hypothesises that some property in the ancient stone allows it to act as a recording device. It is the presence of living humans which triggers playback.

The Stone Tape popularised a theory, recently developed by the paranormal researcher T. C. Lethbridge, that recurring ghost sightings, such as the phantom battle of Edgehill, may be ‘recordings’ of traumatic events which had somehow been stored and ‘replayed’ by the physical environment. Paranormal investigators call this the ‘theory of residual haunting’, but it is more popularly known these days simply as ‘Stone Tape theory.’

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Five years before The Stone Tape, ITV broadcast its adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service. I was forced to watch this as a teenager in school English classes in the 1980s. How we all sniggered at the haircuts and trousers and production values of the late 1960s. Still, underneath the bravado, I was spooked. The weird plates. The noises in the attic. The sound of the phantom motorbike. That figure on the hill they kept seeing. Standing there with his spear, summoned by mistake. Recorded by time and now played back, unbidden and bringing malice. History, it seemed to suggest, was not something that had once happened, but something we all still lived in, whether we liked it or not. The blood must repeat the cycle.

As a writer, I have learned two things from Alan Garner. Or, rather: there were things I was already aware of at some level, things I knew I had to do, things that were in me and which I wanted to bring out with my writing. Alan Garner showed me it was still possible to write about these things, even at a time when so much fiction writing, in tune with our wider culture, is sterile, rational-realist, playing on the surface and afraid to dive underneath. ‘Good novels,’ asserted George Orwell, ‘are written by people who are not frightened.’ Alan Garner has never been frightened by what lies beneath the surface of the stories we tell ourselves to get through the day.

Garner explained this in an interview in 1989. ‘As I turned toward writing,’ he said, ‘which is partially intellectual in its function, but is primarily intuitive and emotional in its execution, I turned towards that which was numinous and emotional in me, and that was the legend of King Arthur Asleep Under the Hill. It stood for all that I’d had to give up in order to understand what I’d had to give up. And so my first two books, which are very poor on characterisation because I was somehow numbed in that area, are very strong on imagery and landscape, because the landscape I had inherited along with the legend.’

This is the first thing I learned from Alan Garner: that a place can be a character in a novel. That a landscape has a soul just as a human does, that it merits investigation, that it has its own inner life and history and that it can play a role in fiction not simply as a backdrop to the travails of human actors, but as a living actor itself. Garner learned to write about the character of landscape before he learned to write about the character of people. I suspect this is what baffles many critics when they consider his work. A novel, a real proper novel, written by a grown-up ‘literary’ writer, is supposed to be an elegant dissection of the individual human psyche. Garner is more interested, it seems to me, in investigating the psyche of the landscape than those of the people who just happen to be passing across it at this brief moment in time.

The second thing I learned from Garner is that the past is not past at all. Rather, history is still living, and we are all in it. This is not simply true in the obvious sense that we ourselves will be history in the eyes of future generations. It is true in the sense that history has never ended, that the past is not dead, that like the phantom soldiers of Edgehill, it returns to draw us back and entwine us. In his work, Garner comes back again and again to that image of Arthur and his knights asleep under the hill. This old legend has it that King Arthur never died, that he still sleeps somewhere under an old hill or mountain or in some deep cave, and that in the nation’s hour of greatest need he will rise again with his knights to save us. There are a dozen hills in Britain which claim to have Arthur sleeping beneath them.

But Arthur here is a metaphor for the past itself, for the history he steps out from. It never dies, it only sleeps, and sometimes it returns when you least expect it, and then it can control your fate. What does a novel look like when its creator takes that idea seriously? Garner gives us one answer to that question. Like the stone tape, he replays the past again and again, hauling it up from the depths of the rock, until the people of the present wake up and take notice of what has come back to speak to them.

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