The Gothic is often typified by a propensity to look back and consider the influence of the past on the present, whether this takes the form of secrets long dead buried, hereditary curses, or revenants come back to haunt the living. But a question rarely considered is how far back to look?
This is what Grant Allen posits in his short story ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’. Originally published in the Illustrated London News in 1892, it was influenced by Allen’s own academic work into the Ogbury Barrows, an iron-age hillfort. Prehistoric barrows – ancient burial mounds – were of great interest to both anthropologists and folklorists at the time, eager to discover more about our heritage. ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’ is likewise concerned with the mysteries of the distant past and the nature of our long-lost ancestors.
The story is set on the evening of the autumnal equinox, a suitably liminal moment between two seasons. It is also referred to as St Michael’s eve, though before it was adopted as a Christian festival it was known as Baal’s night (after the god Baal, worshipped by Semitic peoples). The reader is told that, “it was somebody else’s night…before it was Baal’s” indicating that this particular evening has been attributed spiritual significance for centuries. It also suggests early on that progress and change will be important themes in the story.
It begins with the protagonist, Rudolph Reeve, sitting beside the Old Long Barrow on Pallinghurst Common. Instead of preparing for Lady Bouverie-Barton’s dinner he tarries to watch the sun set. Though he knows he has to go, he feels a strange magnetism to the earth and an eerie sense of something moving in the barrow underneath. When he does rouse himself, he fancies strange unseen figures are watching, gathering around him in an “invisible crowd”. He runs back to the house feeling them following behind.
Feeling “positively childish” and as silly as a “schoolgirl”, Rudolph discusses his strange encounter with the company gathered for dinner – mostly men of science – but also Mrs Bouverie-Barton’s teenage daughter Joyce. Joyce is the only one who has had a similar experience at the barrow. In fact, Joyce is familiar with all the superstitions surrounding the barrow and later the men discuss an idea conceived by Novalis, a German Romantic, that “Children are early men… they come straight to us from the Infinite” and are therefore closest to primitive states. Allen seems to be exploring the idea that the tendency to see or experience the supernatural is reserved for children and those with childlike outlooks, like Rudolph.
This idea of only some people being able to experience the supernatural extends to the discussion that follows. One of the dinner guests, Dr Porter, questions why it is that, “the only ghosts people ever see are the ghosts of a generation very, very close to them.” He goes on to say that people often profess to seeing ghosts in eighteenth-century clothes “because everybody has a clear idea of wigs and small-clothes from pictures and fancy dresses” but far less heard of are ghosts in Elizabethan clothes and hardly ever at all in Anglo Saxon and Roman attire. Dr Porter explains that most modern people are unfamiliar with the intricacies of Elizabethan dress, such as ruffs and farthingales, suggesting that our ability to see the past is limited by our own historical awareness. That the person perceiving a ghost is as responsible for its existence as the ghost itself; we cannot see beyond our concept of history.
According to this argument, it follows then that there must be legions of obsolete ghosts in the world that most people cannot comprehend, a kind of secret population that exists beyond our notice. H. G. Wells refers to Allen’s idea in The Time Machine, with his protagonist musing that “if each generation die and leave ghosts… the world at last will get overcrowded with them.” It implies also that ghosts from different epochs coexist in the spirit world, which would ultimately be a kind of stagnant melting pot of historical periods. It is an interesting contrast to the modern, scientific world at the time in which Allen’s story was written, a world preoccupied with progress and expansion, less concerned with the past and more interested in the future (the distinction perhaps between the Gothic and science fiction).
Plagued by headaches, Rudolph is prescribed Cannabis Indica by Dr Porter and retires to his room. In a kind of hallucinatory state, he is led to the barrow by a strange blue light. Remembering his research into folklore he walks around the barrow widershins (the opposite way from the motion of the sun) and is suddenly able to see the spirits he sensed before. They are described as having “matted-hair” and “tawny-skin” and are wearing loincloths. They are savages but also ghosts, the “two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilized experience”. Rudolph is their intended sacrifice and they attack him with their flint weapons. By walking widershins, against natural progress, Rudolph has in effect gone backwards, evolutionarily descending into the midst of a pack of ghostly barbarians, linking again to the scientific period and the fear of the primitive.
Allen’s story isn’t just about a fear of the past, or about the adversaries of civilised man. It is also about the inevitable process of change. Under attack by the ghostly horde, Rudolph spies a ghost dressed in a sixteenth-century costume in the barrow with him. The ghost points to the way out and tells Rudolph to “show them iron”. Rudolph draws his pocketknife and at the sight of steel (an alloy of iron), “which no ghost or troll or imp can endure to behold” the ghostly savages withdraw. Though there are obvious superstitious overtones attached to steel and its power, like silver, to ward off supernatural beings, it is a victory of evolution that has taken place here. Flint is no match for iron. The Renaissance man, a man of reason, is closer in evolutionary terms to our protagonist, and supplies Rudolph with superior means, in the same way that iron was a superior tool to flint, to make his escape. The coming of the iron-age marked a significant moment in the development of our civilisation. Allen’s story is as much about the certainty of progress and advancement, the promise of the future, as it is about the past, blurring distinctions, perhaps, between genres.
Though ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’ is undoubtedly a horror story, it draws on Allen’s interest in scientific fields, including anthropology and ethnography. In fact, Allen is perhaps better known overall as a pioneer of science fiction (his name was borrowed by Michael Crichton in that horror/sci-fi mix that is Jurassic Park). As an emerging genre, science fiction reflected society’s preoccupation with developing technologies, theories and debates. But there is also a place for science in horror and much of the literature of the end of the nineteenth century can be seen to encompass elements of both genres (The War of the Worlds for example, Martians feasting on human blood, is effectively vampires from space). Next month I intend to explore this slippage further, examining why moving forward can potentially be scarier than looking back…
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