34: The English Eerie

Mark Fisher’s book, Ghosts of My Life, includes an interview where Burial discusses the influence of MR James on his work, and how many of his mates have seen ghosts. MR James is also the starting point for an essay by Robert Macfarlane about The Eeriness of the English Countryside. For Macfarlane, James has an “understanding of landscape – and especially the English landscape – as constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships“. This is emblematic of a wider movement which Macfarlane describes as English Eerie, relating it to the current political scene and ongoing environmental crises.

This eerie counter-culture – this occulture – is drawing in experimental film-makers, folk singers, folklorists, academics, avant-garde antiquaries, landscape historians, utopians, collectives, mainstreamers and Arch-Droods alike, in a magnificent mash-up of hauntology, geological sentience and political activism. The hedgerows, fields, ruins, hills and saltings of England have been set seething.

Like hauntology, this English Eerie is a grouping for various ideas, as varied as PJ Harvey’s stunning White Chalk album, the movie A Field in England, Julian Cope, The Wicker Man, Ley Lines, Paul Kingsnorth and MJ Harrison’s ‘Empty Space:A Haunting’. He also points to On Vanishing Land, an audio essay by Mark Fisher. If nothing else, MacFarlane’s work provides an exciting list of things to investigate. It’s easy to think of other elements to add, such as Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic work Riddley Walker, or the strange and unsettling chapters of the Wind in the Willows.

Like all definitions of movements, the English Eerie acts backwards, collecting these different strands that might have been seen as unrelated (an effect discussed in the Borges essay, Kafka’s Precursors). The movement also creates something for other artists to align with and respond to.

MacFarlane sees this movement as inherently political: “What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.” It also relates to concerns about surveillance – in Jeremy Keith’s response, he points towards recent work by James Bridle, The Nor.

Another thing that Keith links to is Warren Ellis’s dConstruct talk A Cunning Plan. Much of my interest in folklore has been kindled by Warren Ellis’s work over the past few years, particularly a couple of essays in his collection Shivering Sands – and Ellis’s upcoming work promises more exploration into these issues.

In an increasingly wired and urban world, the English countryside is still relevant. It is not the wild, natural environment some people like to think, but a place that has long been warped by economics and politics – the Downlands as we know are a result of farming, not of wildness. There are debates and struggles that have been going on for centuries: and modern concerns like online privacy and ownership are merely a continuation of these.

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One thought on “34: The English Eerie”

  1. Macfarlane’s article seems to have been very influential in just the past few days since it was published – I’ve been tracking down several responses to it (and wrote one myself, which tied in with a series of related posts from the past 12 months or so).

    I think it ties in with an even wider (beyond just England) growing paradigm about nature and landscape. Adam Roberts, in his review of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy wrote:

    The more interesting question is whether there’s something in the water that is informing speculative writing today. Maybe “Nature” in this sense is the coming thing. A kind of Macfarlanization of the Science Fictional idiom.

    Something’s definitely emerging related to landscape/nature, myth, and related concepts.

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