The mark of the wolf

For me the fascination with the weird and the uncanny was there from the start: on a family holiday to Wales, aged four, asking the tour guide in Caernarfon Castle whether we might see the place’s spectral lady; a few years later, obsessing over Borley Rectory – the ‘most haunted house in the world’ – or, at the Halloween party I begged my mother to let me have (long before such events were a commonplace British occurrence), my friends and I dressed as Dracula, the Wolf Man and various grinning ghouls. My favourites back then, which called out to me from my spine-creased Usborne Guide to the Supernatural World, were vampires and lycanthropes; the popular late 1970s children’s book even showed a “typical magical werewolf ritual” which involved rubbing a transformative ointment of wolfsbane, opium, bat blood and the blood of a murdered child into your chest at, of course, midnight.

I was hooked; I was definitely for the dark.

My Halloween party, c. 1981. I'm dressed as Dracula...

My Halloween party, c. 1981. I’m Dracula… (Copyright: Edward Parnell)

As I grew older that lurid childhood book was superseded by the black-and-white filmic horror of Lon Chaney Jr. in the purportedly Welsh-set The Wolf Man (sneakily recorded off late-night telly), before aged around ten I managed to persuade my older cousin to hire me a copy of An American Werewolf in London from the local video shop; I doubt I appreciated its inherent humour, but was hypnotised and terrified in equal measure by its Nazi zombies and jaw-stretching transformations from man to beast. A few years later, now a teenager, for a while I decided I’d outgrown such imaginary scares – perhaps there was enough real horror in my mum’s repeated trips to the hospital for chemo and radiotherapy? The countryside and its wildlife, particularly birds, offered a new obsession to pursue, though what M. R. James might refer to as those “pleasing terrors” never went too far away.

1981 poster for 'An American Werewolf in London'

I grew to love moors and mountains, a landscape so different to my own south Lincolnshire flatlands, and loved the stories and folklore that seemed to cling like mist to the hills we visited on childhood holidays to Dartmoor and the Lake District. An early holiday to Wales had taken in the haunting Gelert’s Grave, traumatising me with its folk tale of a wrongfully killed, faithful wolf-slaying hound. Later, I fixated on stories of Britain’s actual lupine past, but it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I first came to the Scottish Highlands, their reputed last redoubt. That strange imaginative hold of the wolf over our collective consciousness has been an enduring one, reflected in the wealth of falsehoods that persisted long after the species had been hunted and hounded to the dark edges of the British map.

A wolf on the prowl. Etching after P. Potter, 1659.

A wolf on the prowl. Etching after P. Potter, 1659. Credit: Wellcome Collection

There seems little certainty about when wolves became extinct on our island, though Anglo-Saxon place names that refer to them are relatively commonplace, indicating the species was widespread (or at least recently had been) during that period; this is backed up by the considerable numbers of successfully hunted animals recorded as late as the second-half of the tenth century. The increasing penchant of the monarch and the ruling class for the pursuit of deer – and the creation of royal forests and enclosed parks – led to an escalation of anti-wolf efforts after the arrival of the Normans. In 1281 Edward I commissioned Peter Corbet, a Shropshire knight, to bring out about their final extermination from England – a feat he is said to achieved nine years later; by this point wolves had likely long-vanished from Wales. Canis lupus lingered on north of Hadrian’s Wall, with a 1427 law passed during the reign of James I of Scotland making wolf-killing a compulsory activity. This did not lead to a nine-year removal like the purported extirpation south of the border, as Mary, Queen of Scots was still enjoying the hunting of wolves in the Forest of Atholl during 1563. However, the intensive woodland exploitation of the period would have meant that any remnant populations clinging to Caledonian survival must surely have been approaching their end by the time of Mary’s own execution in 1587.

Like the story of the legendary Gelert, a number of tales of dubious provenance were gathered during the nineteenth century surrounding the fate of the supposed sole remaining Scottish wolf, all of which possess an unreliable pedigree (the nature writer Jim Crumley catalogues these stories in The Last Wolf). Just off the A9 in Perthshire, outside the town of Pitlochry, is the Pass of Killiecrankie, a narrow gorge enfolded in mixed woodland where, in 1689, a decisive battle occurred during the Jacobite Rebellion; nine years before, in 1680, Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel (who would go on to be a commander on the battle’s winning Jacobite side) was said to have shot what, at the time, was considered the last wolf to be killed in Scotland. On the early Spring day on which I stopped off at the Pass while researching Ghostland it was hard to imagine any such creature lingering for long among the steep-sided slopes: the airy green woods were far removed from the bleak wilderness vistas in which my imagination had come to place the species.

One-hundred-and-fifty miles to the north along the same meandering A9 – at Helmsdale, halfway between Inverness and John O’Groats – stands a carved stone that marks the spot near which “the last wolf in Sutherland was killed by the hunter Polson, in or about the year 1700”. In fact, William Scrope’s Art of Deerstalking gives us the rather-less romantic account of the “feeble howling of the whelps” and subsequent killing of five or six wolf cubs, before the desperate, but ultimately futile intervention of their fearsome, full-grown mother.

No such monument exists near Strath Glass, northeast of Loch Ness, where in 1720 a woman supposedly defeated a wolf with an iron griddle pan, nor is there any commemorative marker along the lonely middle stretch of the River Findhorn, thirteen miles east of Inverness. Here, in 1743, a six-foot seven-inch giant of a man named MacQueen – who in my imagination appears like Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod from the film Highlander – slayed, according to Victorian accounts composed a century later, a huge black beast: absolutely the last of its kind left in the land.

I retraced the mythic-seeming MacQueen’s steps on my trip north, putting up with the driving rain that soaked through my inadequate trousers for a glimpse of the landscape in which the fabled carnivore lived out its final days. The Findhorn curved below me like a scythe, the winter-bleached grass on the hillsides punctuated by ribbons of brown heather and the occasional leafless birch. A blackened, freshly charred area of burnt-off moor filled the air with a distinctive aroma not dissimilar to that of cooking sugar beet – a smell familiar from my Fenland youth and the four giant silos of the steam-emitting factory that rose over my hometown until their demolition in 1996. Though big-skied and vast, the lonely country all about me was managed and tamed, I realised, with the distant house perched on the bluff above the bend in the river, close to where the infamous deed was said to have been done, now a base from where less-mythic modern-day MacQueens head out with their shotguns to pursue tame, farm-reared pheasants and red-legged partridges, or flick their expensive fly rods to and fro for salmon.

The bend in the River Findhorn close to where the last wolf in Britain is said to have been slain. Copyright: Edward Parnell

The bend in the River Findhorn close to where the last wolf in Britain is said to have been slain. Copyright: Edward Parnell

As I descended to my car, tentatively crossing a shallow tributary by stepping on its slippery stones – for a second once again the excited little boy of those earlier upland holidays – three songbirds flew in front of me and perched low, half-obscured, in a birch: two taupe-coloured females and a coral-red male bullfinch that sat in silence while I watched them, before taking off in a flash of white and whispered whistles. Despite its long absence from the landscape the wolf will, I think, continue to persist as a powerful icon of our folk tales and supernatural fables, because it reminds us of the ultimate dominion of nature and time, of our fragility away from the safety of our ring-fenced human enclaves: we each know too well that there will be no hiding in our houses of straw – or even in slate-roofed, stone-walled cottages – once the Grim Reaper’s dry breath begins to blow our way.

 

(This is an adaptation of an article I wrote for a feature that appeared in The Scotsman on 31 October 2019.)

Interview on writing for UEA website

I had a very interesting and pleasant interview a couple of weeks ago with Freddie Reynolds from the University of East Anglia, who was chatting to me about my experiences  of taking the Creative Writing MA course. I can’t believe it’s now more than a decade since I joined my fellow students among all that 60s concrete and started working properly on The Listeners. Where does time go?

You can read a transcript of the interview here.

It’s alive!

How exciting! The hardbacks of ‘Ghostland’ have arrived. I’m thrilled to see them looking so splendid, and with the numerous photos and illustrations inside being so well reproduced. Here for the first time too is Richard Wells’s wonderful back cover of the dust jacket, with its echoes of Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson and Penda’s Fen, among others… The book is released in hardback on 17 October.

Back cover of 'Ghostland' by Edward Parnell Hardback of 'Ghostland' by Edward Parnell

The cover of ‘Ghostland’…

I’m really excited to share the cover to my forthcoming narrative non-fiction book Ghostland, which is being published by William Collins on 17 October. The dust jacket illustration is by the brilliant Richard Wells and features all sorts of references to various ghost stories and films… (There are more on the back too, but we’re just waiting for a few quotes to go on there.)

It’s already available for pre-orders on Amazon. Next, I’ve got my first sight of the proofs to look forward to. How exciting!'Ghostland' by Edward Parnell

 

Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country

My new narrative non-fiction book, Ghostland, now has a confirmed hardback release date from William Collins.

Rather appropriately, and excitingly, it’s having its launch in the Book Hive in Norwich on 31 October 2019, and will be available in shops from 17 October…

A grave of one of the Mothersoles, the inspiration for the name of the witch in M. R. James's 'The Ash Tree'; several graves of family members can be found in the Livermere churchyard where the young James's father was the rector.

A grave of one of the Mothersoles, the inspiration for the name of the witch in M. R. James’s ‘The Ash Tree’; several graves of family members can be found in the Livermere churchyard where the young James’s father was the rector.

Organised chaos

desk

I find that as I near the end of a chapter in Ghostland the chaos of my room increases. My cat, however, seems to enjoy checking out the titles strewn across the floor.

Soon, I hope, the book will be finished. It better be, as it’s being published in October

 

Walter de la Mare and ‘The Listeners’

The most outwardly apparent influence on my own novel was Walter de la Mare’s enigmatic thirty-six-line poem ‘The Listeners’, which gave me the title, as well as a template for my own book’s atmosphere of strange solitude and its key location: a dilapidated cottage among the trees being gradually subsumed by the unrelenting forces of nature and time, and in which young William Abrehart explores.

I’ve just been going through some of my images and here are a few that I think capture something of the dreamlike qualities that pervades De la Mare’s poetry and short stories.

Ice

Waking up to a sharp frost and a sprinkling, if you can call it that, of snow these past few mornings, took me back to my summertime trip to Greenland, where the ice was a little more spectacular. It was an incredible place and I will write about it properly at some point, but for now here’s a little selection of long-overdue photographs of the town of Qeqertarsuaq on the wonderfully named Disko Island, one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited, complete with what must surely be the most spectacular football pitch in the world!


In the bay in the evening, just before our ship departed we watched two pods of Fin and Humpback whales feeding among the icebergs.



Elegy for a whale

This article originally appeared in the final issue of Earthlines magazine, which was published in March 2017. I’m including it here with some further photos I took last Autumn, and a postscript about my recent fin whale observations in Greeland during July.

whale-eye_LOFrom way back in the dunes I can make out the pale mound of its outline behind a huddled melee of figures. At this distance it seems much less massive than the leviathan I was expecting: a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest species known to have ever lived on the planet, smaller only than the blue whale.

It’s an hour since the retreat of the tide. Bare canes form a borderless circle around the body of the whale – I suppose the rising waters washed away previous attempts to cordon people off – conferring an esoteric Seahenge element of ritual upon this usually lonely Norfolk beach. I approach with trepidation, surprised when no one prevents me from walking right up to where she lies.

She. I learn later that the whale is female. An immature animal 13 metres in length. She had come to rest here on the fringe of the North Sea the day before, lying parallel to the waves that are breaking 50-metres distant, her starboard to the sky. Her mouth is half agape, her right eye half closed. The point of her jaw is obscured, pressed into a claret-filled hollow in the sand. It is all quite visceral and overwhelming.

whale-wideLOExcluding skeletons in museums, I have never seen a dead whale before. Earlier in the year several sperm whales were beached a little further west of here, around the coastline of The Wash. I contemplated going to look at them, to appreciate fully the size and grandeur of these animals I had previously observed tail-fluking and spouting off New Zealand, but decided I did not want to risk having those memories replaced with something tawdry. Today though I have given in to my morbid curiosity and am now close enough to touch a species I have witnessed with awe in the Bay of Biscay and, most memorably, beneath a sunlit midnight sky off the coast of arctic Spitsbergen.

When you watch a fin whale at sea so little of it breaks the ocean’s skin: just the top of the head and the shock of the blow – a vertical, pressure-blasted column rising up to eight metres – then a smooth arcing movement that reveals the uppermost part of the spine and the short, rear-pointing dorsal fin before it rolls under the waves; rarely any sign of the tail, and certainly no breaching of the water like you get with extravagant, show-off humpbacks. I think that the fleetingness of the encounter adds to how lucky, how mesmerising, the experience feels. Because it is luck, largely, if you happen to be focusing your binoculars on the exact section of the sea’s vastness just at the moment when a previously concealed sliver of whale happens to pop the surface.

whale-profile_LOHere though it is very different, and those underwater mysteries may be about to find resolution in the flesh. Above, her skin is pencil-grey with a hint of storm-cloud blue. Her belly is pale and etched with dark longitudinal lines. This is her ventral groove blubber, highly elastic tissue that can be expanded accordion-like during a fin whale’s gape-jawed lunge feeding, which draws in up to 70,000 litres of fish- and plankton-filled water in a single mouthful that is then filtered away through the tightly shut baleen plates, leaving behind perhaps as much as 10 kilograms of krill to digest. Up close these pleated throat grooves are beautiful, curving and sweeping along her underbelly like the caressing waves themselves.

throat-groovesLOThe baleen is attached only to the upper jaw. Its ends are feathery and brush-like – it’s hard to imagine that it is made from keratin, the same material that forms human hair and nails, or that it once was prized as ‘whalebone’ to make corsets and the ribs of parasols. The rear two-thirds of this baleen are black, with the front portion coloured cream. Fin whales are unusual among whales (and vertebrates generally) in having consistent asymmetrical colouration: the right side of the immense head before me has an off-white jaw and lower lip, while the hidden left side will match the dark shading of the rest of her back; the baleen shares this odd, two-tone pattern. Scientists are not sure why this lopsided colour scheme exists. Earlier speculation that is was some sort of adaptation to the species’ lunge-feeding technique appears not to be supported by more-recent scientific research, though interestingly, like humans, the large rorqual whales are mainly ‘right-handed’, preferring to lunge with the right sides of their bodies facing downwards. Perhaps then, the fin whale’s asymmetric patterning just is.

The icy wind blows briskly, gaining in strength by the minute. Just offshore a pair of dark-bellied brent geese, winter visitors from Siberia, are labouring westwards. Peering into the whale’s mouth the tremendous tongue is quivering, making me wonder for a moment whether she is still alive, if I should step backwards in case internal vapours are building inside her already decaying body (there have been isolated cases of whale carcasses ‘exploding’ due to an excess of intestinal gases as the process of decomposition progresses). I realise, however, that it’s just the reverberative effect of the gathering breeze. I peer into her half-closed eye: murky, about the width of my fist, it seems to gaze straight into my thoughts.

More people are here now, including two film crews and a photographer from the local media. Staff from the Holkham Estate, which owns the beach, are beginning to unwind a coil of orange binding twine around the bare posts.

A late middle-aged man saunters past, while an acquaintance hollers at him: “Big bones here for your dog!”

The dog-man grins. “It stinks!” he says.

“No, that’s me,” his friend replies.

The sands are dancing, twisting in the wind and I want to shout across to the men, to try and make them appreciate the magnificence of the creature in their midst, to move them beyond the banal. But am I any different? After all, I’m here too for the ghoulish spectacle. I try to shut out the presence of others and study the whale, a final attempt to give my visit meaning because I can see that in a few minutes we will all be asked to move. A Land Rover is now pulling up, containing scientists from London Zoo and CSIP, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigations Programme.

I examine the animal’s topside in detail. Etched onto the skin, which this close is glossy and near-black like the sea in a squall, are markings that resemble spidery runes. The uppermost layer of paper-thin flesh has, in places, peeled away to reveal narrow rows of parallel horizontal lines below.

whaleskin-runes_LOOccasional scattered gouges expose the harsh white of deeper blubber. The blowhole is not a single opening but two thin slits that form an incomplete triangle, sited just behind a ridge that runs forwards down the centre of the head. Most strikingly, about halfway along the back there is a distinct bend, an ugly unnatural angle from which point the whale’s stern, her tail stock, is noticeably wasted. The dorsal fin, often the most-telling tool when trying to identify whales at sea, is just visible through a puddle of seawater, its tip buried beneath the beach. I estimate its height to be only around a foot or so; it seems remarkably small compared to how I remember those of living, swimming animals.

Days later, after CSIP have conducted their autopsy, they post details of their findings online. The kink in the spine – the ‘abnormality’ as they refer to it – now appears to have likely been the result of a past traumatic event such as a collision with a ship. The subsequent damage to the whale’s vertebrae and surrounding tissues would have limited the range of movement in her tail, causing progressive muscle wastage in the area. This would have lessened her ability to dive and feed, leading ultimately to starvation, stranding and death.

I do not know this though as I look down upon her, and as the orange-stringed cordon is reinstated and I am asked to retreat. All I know is that here before me is something beautiful, something poignant. An animal I want to mourn for properly but am not sure how best to. I walk away as the scientists, now wearing disposable plastic overalls, begin to stride with purpose towards her.

Little-Auk_LOAt the strandline along the base of the dunes I spot a starling-sized black-and-white bundle of feathers at my feet: it is a little auk (Alle alle), a rare storm-blown seabird from the High Arctic, another species I watched, years ago, in a northern, Spitsbergen reverie. And I am in that moment once more, with the inverted sun glinting off the blue as the midnight whale’s swept-back dorsal fin slices the water ahead of our ship. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville describes the Fin-Back as “gifted with such wondrous power and velocity in swimming, as to defy all present pursuit from man”. Here, scuttled on the wind-whipped sands, she has not been so fortunate. I will prefer not to think of her this way, but streamlined and magnificent as she cuts and lunges through the food-laden waters of the Greenland Sea, vast flocks of auks whirring above her wake.

***

fin-iceberg-diskoDuring a three-week trip around Greenland in July of 2017 I spent a lot of time thinking back to the previous October and the Holkham fin whale. Fin whales were the most numerous large whale that I encountered, with numbers in double figures on a couple of days. Memorably, on Disko Island, halfway up Greenland’s west coast, we were treated to a prolonged encounter with what was presumably a family group of fin whales, which fed around the ship and in front of the nearby numerous icebergs; at one point on the other side of the ship a group of humpbacks put on a similar show.

This mysterious communion, as they presented a sleek sliver of themselves to the sky, was altogether a better way to enjoy the beauty of these mesmeric leviathans than that storm-churned Norfolk beach.

fin-blow-disko

(All photos © Edward Parnell)