The subject feels like an appropriate lens through which to contemplate such difficult emotions as grief and loss, but there remain unplumbed depths beyond the lives and works of the particular writers Parnell focuses on, however intertwined these are with his own memories. Reading ghost stories can be ‘an act of defiance’, he writes towards the end as he tries to get his dying brother interested in James’s fiction. Here a sense of why Parnell has chosen to explore his attraction to this 20th-century breed of the supernatural is uncovered: it is ‘an act of clinging to the life my brother still held onto, and the deeper-seated memories of our faded family’.
Throughout, Parnell’s choice of stories and films is a resolutely personal one: his book is not intended to be a survey and he does not set out to offer original research. Instead, as he conversationally discusses writers’ lives, describes plots and compares original stories with later adaptations, another theme quietly develops that involves memory, place and emotion. As well as being about literature and landscape, Ghostland is, at its heart, a book about grief. Parnell was prompted to return to the stories and films he loved as a child and young man by the third in a series of acute and tragic family crises which, in his late thirties, he found himself facing. Ghosts – at least literary ones – can comfort as well as frighten. He interleaves his discussions and digressions on books, films, journeys and childhood memories with accounts of his parents’ illnesses and deaths.
Part of the book’s achievement is Parnell’s willingness to wander far from the mainstream and to consider the broadest taxonomic subdivision of his field. Here are standard ghost stories, but also works of weird fiction, magic fiction, folk horror and cosmic horror. The author is equally well versed in the cinematic versions of his favourite literature, and provides a meticulous cross-reference to show us how the two art forms influenced each other.