Over the last few years I have been increasingly drawn to stories about the water. I imagine this is partly due to the fact I live on the coast, with the sea a constant source of wonder and inspiration. Also in the process of writing my novel, Bodies of Water–out now from Salt Publishing–I spent a great deal of time researching water-related therapeutic trends popular in Victorian times, as well as plumbing the depths of the archives in search of folk stories about watery creatures. These mythical and monstrous entities lurking in the deep have become a firm fixture of horror fiction, and the water itself has come to represent the fear of the unknown and the unfathomable. But what I want to consider in this column are stories that position themselves right on the water’s edge, close to secretive spaces just out of reach. By looking at some particularly notable examples within the genre, I want to explore how the water functions to cut-off and isolate characters, as well as, very occasionally, relenting just enough to allow temporary access to spaces that are usually out of bounds.
Time and Tide
Perhaps the most famous example of a location cut off by the water is in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, where the foreboding Eel Marsh House is only accessible at low tide. The story centres on solicitor Arthur Kipps entrusted with the task of sorting the affairs of the late Mrs Drablow but the act of crossing the Nine Lives Causeway signals a departure from the safety of the real world and allows for supernatural possibilities. Similarly, Angela Carter’s story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ in a collection of the same name is located in a castle that can only be accessed at low tide. The story, a retelling of Bluebeard, focuses on a young pianist, who leaves her mother and a life of poverty to marry a Marquis. His castle, ‘at home neither on the land nor the sea,’ is a ‘mysterious, amphibious place’ likened to a ‘mermaiden who perches on her rock and waits, endlessly, for a lover who had drowned far away, long ago.’ The comparison serves to present the castle as a melancholic place, desperately longing for the arrival of its new mistress, as we learn that the Marquis has been widowed three times already. The topographical imagery continues with the narrator regarding her union with the Marquis as a journey into ‘ the unguessable country of marriage’ further emphasising her departure into the unknown.
Prohibited spaces and forbidden knowledge are at the crux of the story. The narrator is at liberty to explore the house and given keys to open all its many doors, the only physical space she is denied entry to is the Marquis’ ‘den’, a place where he can escape the ‘yoke of marriage’ and imagine himself ‘wifeless.’ As with most stories about female curiosity, the narrator uncovers a secret that threatens her life. The bloody chamber of the title is a torture room, where she discovers the bodies of the Marquis’ murdered brides, their crime being same curiosity that led her there. It implies that knowledge comes at a cost and the narrator accepts the Marquis’ judgement to execute her for her transgression declaring that, ‘I must pay the price of my new knowledge’. But help comes in the form of her mother, who with time and tide on her side, races across the causeway armed with a revolver. When we consider that the story’s title could refer to the womb, this is particularly apt. The story isn’t so much about male-dominated control but about the path to female autonomy, which can only be gained by breaking down boundaries and crossing thresholds and through the acquisition of knowledge and experience.
This idea of the water allowing access to a space that should remain off limits is perhaps best seen most recently in Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney. In this story, the narrator known only by his nickname Tonto, recounts the last time his family, along with a handful of his fellow parishioners embarked on their annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine. Tonto and his mute brother Hanny take to playing along the Loney, a ‘wild and useless length of English coastline. A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied twice a day and made Coldbarrow–a desolate spit of land a mile off the coast–into an island.’ But it isn’t curiosity that prompts them to cross the causeway but the desire to retrieve Hanny’s watch, dropped on the beach and pocketed by one of the mysterious residents at Thessaly – the house on Coldborrow. Once there Hanny becomes fascinated by a young pregnant girl, who reveals that she has been in the same predicament before despite her very young age, though the significance of this isn’t revealed until much later.
Like the Nine Lives Causeway in The Woman in Black, this transitory platform across the sea is extremely dangerous. The tide comes in so quickly that it frequently claims the lives of ‘unlucky fishermen’ and ‘opportunist cocklepickers’ who ‘thought they had read the place well enough to escape its insidious currents’. But the water is not just presented in the novel as life-threatening but also as life-giving, with the water of St Anne’s holy well reputed to cure the sick. Tonto’s mother is so desperate to cure Hanny–though he refuses to drink the water from the well–that she surreptitiously slips it into his tea. Hanny’s refusal to drink from the well is no doubt because the shrine is in such a derelict state, the well itself likened to an ‘oubliette’ suggesting that it is no longer maintained by the devout, perhaps indicating the increasing decline of religion. In direct opposition to the evangelical belief of the pilgrims are the secrets housed at Thessaly. Like ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Hurley’s novel is a coming of age story, about the brothers gaining knowledge and experience of the evils of the world. The reference to an oubliette is particularly fitting, considering that once the brothers acquire the forbidden knowledge at Thessaly, one of them forgets entirely what took place there, whilst the other is intent on concealing it.
Water is the pivotal force in John Avide Lindqvist’s novel Harbour, with wells and the contaminated water they contain being at the heart of the story. In this case, the drinking water contains too much salt, which is not so surprising considering that the story is set on the island, called Domaro in the Roslagen archipelago, with the land besieged by the sea. The negative effects of the salt on the inhabitants present the sea as a dark force that needs to be appeased. Especially when combined with the number of people who disappear from Domaro each year–mostly presumed drowned though their bodies are never discovered–sometimes in completely inexplicable circumstances. This is the case with our protagonist Anders whose daughter Maja disappears on a stretch of frozen water that serves as a causeway to the lighthouse at Gavaston. The only physical marker for those who have disappeared is the anchor in the churchyard at Naten dedicated to all those who have been lost, though they are still bound to earth as if ‘by an invisible chain’. The idea of these ghosts without a final resting place is a common enough trope in horror fiction, though the fact these revenants use the water as a conduit to the real world reinforces the capacity of water to move between different states and spaces.
What is arguably more sinister is the fact that historically the residents of Domaro were responsible for the disappearances. In the days of herring fishing, small communities learnt that giving a life to the sea greatly increased the sea’s bounty and minimised the destructive power of the sea. Like The Loney, Harbour is about the deals we make with dark forces and the ripples they cause on the lives of all those concerned.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
As a motif, causeways, whether they are made of shingle, sand or ice represent a bridge between our world and oftentimes a place wholly other. In these examples, the locations across the water are old and long-standing and in the case of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and The Woman in Black the properties themselves represent material wealth and privilege; the fact they are cut-off implying that they are off-limits for most people with modest aspirations. Arguably, the narrator in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ complies with the Marquis’ rules because she is in awe of his affluence, in which case the marriage itself could be seen as a contract or bargain she has entered into. But it is not just what the causeways deny or allow access to that is of significance. The liminal quality of these spaces mean that they can harbour things that likewise exist between two worlds, such as the answers to mysteries or the ghosts of things long forgotten. All you have to do is dig beneath the ice or the mud or wait to see what the tide will bring in.
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