Ghosts and Serpents



The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail, 2016 Melmoth Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail, 2018 Ghost Helen Grant, Fledgling Press, 2018

The Gothic has always been a genre which speaks to the needs of the people, dealing not only with scientific advances but also with issues of race, sexuality, morality and the environment. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, circulating libraries such as the Minerva Press published Gothic fiction more than any other genre. Novels were serialised in newspapers or spread over several volumes to sate the public’s hunger for spooky thrills. As Britain faces unprecedented technological developments, New Atheism and plummeting church attendance, the Gothic is resurfacing once again.The Essex Serpent (2016) was Waterstones’ Book of the Year, and as we move into 2019, its popularity shows no signs of diminishing, with copies still displayed prominently in major bookshops.


The novel tells the story of a late-Victorian widow, Cora Seaborne, who moves to the fictional Essex village of Aldwinter, where a monstrous serpent is rumoured to be lurking in the local waterways. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist, thinks it may be an undiscovered species, while country pastor Will Ransome is convinced that it is simply a manifestation of mass hysteria that can be cured by holding fast to one’s faith. The beast in the river Blackwater is bound up inextricably with the conflict between religion and science, and we as readers are drawn into this dilemma. Our modern scientific knowledge may at first incline us to agree with Cora’s theory that the serpent is a kind of ‘ichthyosaur’, and yet when an entire class of schoolgirls succumbs to hysterical laughter, chanting, ‘It’s coming ready or not, coming ready or not,’ it is hard to shake the feeling that there is something more at play here than a ‘living fossil’.


Although a nominal solution to the mystery is found, these fundamental religious-scientific tensions are never resolved. When Francis, Cora’s curious young son, questions Will about the nature of sin, the latter gives an uneasy response, ‘hoping he’d fallen somewhere between faith and reason, and fallen without doing himself harm.’ Perry, the daughter of a Creationist who worked as a materials scientist, shows that for many people the two can and do coexist: that using one’s reason does not preclude the existence of something which goes beyond rational explanation. Although Perry now describes herself as living in a ‘post-religious’ state, estranged from the strict Baptist community in which she grew up, she insists that her childhood was happy and her relationship with her family is strong; she is no longer a practising Christian, but still feels that ‘there is something that can’t be accounted for by atoms, and neurons firing in my brain. The Gothic enables me to explore that feeling away from the structure of religion.’ It is unsurprising, then, that she leaves the reader of The Essex Serpent in a state of uncertainty, refusing to come down either on the side of scientific rigour or of faith-by-numbers; the last sentence of the novel, which we might expect to provide closure, instead ends with a series of paradoxes: ‘I am torn and I am mended – I want everything and need nothing – I love you and I am content without you.’


Helen Grant’s Ghost (2018) is similarly reluctant to furnish the reader with concrete answers. Its main character, Augusta McAndrew, or ‘Ghost’ for short, has spent her formative years hidden away at Langlands, a dilapidated mansion in Perthshire. The reader knows it is 2017, but Ghost’s grandmother has told her that the year is 1945 and World War II is raging outside. Locals, who have glimpsed the officially non-existent Ghost through the trees surrounding the estate, believe that Langlands is haunted by ‘the ghost of a girl who died here during the War.’ At first this seems like a mistake, but as the outside world begins to impinge upon Ghost’s sheltered existence, taking a heavy toll on her mind, the reader is led to question whether or not Ghost, forever excluded from all the possibilities modern life has to offer, might just as well be dead after all. The spectres in Ghost take on an identity which goes beyond the confines of the story: The reader remains disturbed by the image of the central character, ‘slumped over the kitchen table’ in her ‘blood-stained nightdress’, long after they have turned the final page. Ghost may be an ordinary mortal, but she still has the power to haunt us.


The ‘blood-stained nightdress’ Ghost wears may call to mind thoughts of archetypal Gothic female frailty, but, in Ghost’s case, the garment is soiled with the blood of Tom, the lover she has just killed. Similarly, Perry overturns conventional expectations of female behaviour in The Essex Serpent: Cora is a formidable figure, ‘tall and not slender’, who strides fearlessly about the countryside; moreover, she and her companion Martha have extramarital sex without being punished either by the machinations of narrative justice or the twinge of their own consciences. Perry’s women embody the paradoxes so central to The Essex Serpent: When Cora’s husband dies, she is ‘neither mourning nor relieved’; Martha becomes ‘half-wife, and half-conspirator’; Stella is the solitary figure standing in the way of Cora’s deeply sensual love for Will, yet the two women have nothing but respect and admiration for one another.


Ghost is both victim and perpetrator, human and monster. As with Frankenstein, we find ourselves sympathising with a central character we should find repulsive. Although we are disgusted by the flagrant immorality of the protagonist’s murderous actions, we are forced to accept that Ghost is only what her grandmother has made her. Ghost’s path seems inevitable, foreshadowed from the very beginning as she confronts Tom with a hunting rifle the first time he enters the house, and the inescapable tragedy of her predicament only increases our sympathy for her. We know that the monsters in Gothic novels tend not to be granted a happy ending (think of Jekyll/Hyde, dead in his laboratory, or Dracula, crumbling to dust); we know that Ghost’s dreams of Tom ‘step[ping] into my world, instead of I into his’ can never be more than fantasy. Our sympathy with Ghost, however, sits uncomfortably with the natural repulsion which arises when we are confronted with the brutally visceral reality of Tom’s death – ‘the bloodless face’, ‘the eyes staring into nothing’. We are thus left in a state of moral discomfort: Our conflicting feelings of disgust and pity for the protagonist are never reconciled.


This is often the case in The Essex Serpent as well. Perry’s characters cross and re-cross the line between man and monster. She does not shy away from describing physical deformities and peculiarities, often with the fascinated tone assumed by Cora when she encounters a new biological specimen. There is young Naomi Banks with the ‘little webbing of flesh set deep between each of her fingers’, and Edward Burton, stretched out on the operating table, whose cheeks are ‘marked with moles in black clusters’ and whose hair ‘had begun to recede early’. Perry’s unflinching fascination with the grotesque is also made apparent in her choice of setting. Essex, a county often derided for containing a charmless web of concrete jungles, seems at first to be a curious backdrop for a novel which is so deeply preoccupied with the interactions of humans and the natural world. Frequent references to the modern towns of ‘Colchester’, ‘Maldon’ and ‘Chelmsford’ make the novel’s contemporary connotations impossible to forget. Yet Perry portrays Essex as a beautiful, mysterious place, where ‘the copper on the pillars of the trees turned to verdigris’, and ‘coils of mist moved across carpets and hung in empty grates’ like the insidious Serpent. The same is true of Ghost; exposed to modern phenomena like Primark, smartphones and glossy magazines, Ghost nevertheless struggles to resist the pull of Langlands, where ‘the dark and the damp press in … like it wants to keep Ghost all for itself.’ In the earliest Gothic novels, the action typically occurred in remote settings (The Mysteries of Udolpho, Vathek), a calculated move which enabled authors to explore contemporary social issues in a safely exoticised space. It was only later, with the publication of novels like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that fictional monsters began to stalk the streets of Britain, with authors capitalising on the Gothic’s potential to frighten by bringing the terror closer to home. Perry and Grant’s transformation of familiar places into something unusual and scary thus builds directly on Gothic tradition, creating once more a sense of tense duality.


Ghost also cautions us against the dangers of idealising the past. Ghost’s grandmother imprisons her in the Langlands of the 1940s because her own childhood there was happy and safe: remembering ‘sunny afternoons exploring the grounds’ and ‘the intensely sweet taste of berries gathered in the kitchen gardens’, she views it retrospectively as ‘a kind of Paradise’. She wants to protect her granddaughter, to give her a better life than the one she eventually ended up living, but Grant reminds us that no one can turn back the clock: Ghost’s inability to cope with the real world, an ‘Outside’ which ‘had invaded Langlands and laid everything waste’, is ultimately what destroys her.


Similarly, Perry questions the logic of wistful nostalgia for a bygone era by creating a Victorian world which feels both fresh and modern, where characters discuss news from Afghanistan and get stuck on the Tube. In a world which faces the rise of right-wing political parties and fears about immigration, Perry’s description of a London populated by ‘Polish labourers’, a ‘Jewish family’ and ‘an Indian woman’ amongst others seems calculated to make a statement. Martha’s desire for her companion, Cora, is not viewed as scandalous, but rather as natural and ‘as fixed as the Pole Star’. Perry’s message seems to be that we should not fear change, for nothing really changes.


Yet, even though The Essex Serpent is a novel with a strong social conscience, Perry has said that continuing to write in the aftermath of events like the drowning of Syrian refugees and the Orlando shootings felt like ‘fiddling while Rome burned.’ She wanted her next book to reaffirm her ‘faith in the value and purpose of literature’; consequently, Melmoth (2018) is substantially darker and weightier than The Essex Serpent. It takes its inspiration from Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, which is about a man condemned to walking among humans at their most wretched to see if anyone will exchange their soul for his. In Perry’s version, the monster Melmoth is female (Perry claims that, as a child, she felt ‘really incensed that there wasn’t a titular female villain’ in the Gothic genre), but she, too, stalks the earth, observing humanity’s most terrible deeds. Like Maturin’s original, the novel is comprised of a patchwork of testimonies from different countries and historical periods; as a result it does not share Ghost and The Essex Serpent’s fixed, almost oppressive, determinedly British sense of place (though, admittedly, there is something frighteningly claustrophobic in the idea of the characters being unable to escape Melmoth no matter where they are). However, the novel is far from irrelevant to a British audience: Melmoth’s narrative sweeps across Prague, rural Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, but it is anchored by Perry’s English prose, which draws attention to itself through its lyricism and beauty (take, for example, a description like, ‘the low clouds split and the upturned bowl of a silver moon pours milk out on the river’). Helen Franklin, the novel’s modern-day heroine, is placed alongside us as a reader of testimonies; we are never allowed to forget that we, too, are called to ‘bear witness’, to think about our place in the world and whether or not we have stood by and allowed evil to occur.


Melmoth’s brand of horror is even more horrific for being rooted in real historical events: where the beast in The Essex Serpent remains intangible, a manifestation of different characters’ fears, readers are left with little choice but to accept Melmoth’s reality. She forces her way into our thoughts, commanding us repeatedly to ‘Look!’ The Gothic can often function as a form of escapism, in which destructible imaginary figures of evil replace real-life problems; however, there is no getting around Melmoth’s uncomfortably realistic descriptions of violence and pain – the ‘fat’ which ‘dropped out the end’ of a burning man’s arm, the ‘nose’ of an acid attack survivor which is no more than ‘two black slots above an upper lip half gone’, the ‘sacks’ filled with the corpses of children slaughtered in the Armenian genocide.


Perry takes the Gothic, a genre previously viewed as kitsch and outdated, and uses it as a vehicle for a pressing call to action. The modern Gothic is not just about creepy thrills and hot-blooded heroines; we are required to look both to the past and the future, scrutinising the similarities between the two, evaluating what we have done and what we could do better. Both Ghost and The Essex Serpent amplify the contradictions found in the traditional Gothic, problematising dichotomous notions of faith and reason, man and monster, right and wrong. The Gothic’s distinguishing feature is its ability to unsettle the reader; Perry and Grant take it to a new level because they play not just on our fears, but on our sense of morality and beliefs about the nature of the world around us.


HANNAH PATIENT reads English at Somerville. When she was five she convinced her best friend that her wardrobe contained a portal to Hogwarts, accessible only on Thursdays. Artwork by Alex Haveron-Jones

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