‘Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.’
With Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss has produced a tiny masterpiece, a novel which – like all great horror stories – mines the human condition to excavate that which we would rather remained buried.
Silvie and her family are spending their summer holiday in Northumberland with a group of students from an ‘experiential’ archaeology course, the aim being to live like our Iron Age forebears. A teenager, Silvie finds herself torn between two camps: her father, a man whose frustrated archaeological dreams have produced a brooding bully who casts a violent shadow of control over his wife and daughter, and the students with their youthful freedom, exuberance and easy sexuality: a family drama haunted by the fate of the ‘bog girl’, sacrificed by loved ones so many, many years ago…
‘The bog seals around you, and it will of course go further than skin, or at least will fill the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from inside out.’
There are two strands to ‘Ghost Wall’: the dreadful abuse at the heart of Silvie’s family life: in Bill (Silvie’s father) she has created a brooding monster whose ice cold heart spreads shivers all across the long, hot summer days and in Alison (Silvie’s mother) the worn down woman-child whose voice you only ever hear as a timid whisper, afraid to defend herself or her precious daughter. Silvie is a finely drawn portrait of a teenager: innocent and yet acutely aware; footloose but far from fancy free; bright but dim: a conundrum waiting for the key to somewhere, anywhere but here.
And intertwined with this is the strange relationship between land and history, between folk and memory, time and space. How somehow traces, essences can seep through the land, through time and speak to us, influence us: this is something which Nigel Kneale has written about in a number of his plays for television, notably ‘The Stone Tape’ in which scientists investigate a reputed haunting, to discover that the spirits of the long dead have been ‘recorded’ in the very stone which forms the building. But that is an overtly ‘supernatural’ work whereas ‘Ghost Wall’ is more subtle (and I mean that with no disrespect to Mr. Kneale or the supernatural genre) in that it deals purely with the natural world, but imbues it with an overwhelming power which holds us – humanity – close to it as bit players, mere walk on parts, destined to live and relive our petty dramas while it carries on, regardless. But while the ways of those no longer here may seem alien, perhaps their instincts – our shared nature – is never far away, hiding beneath the surface, waiting, waiting…
‘Of course, the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there.’
‘Ghost Wall’ is a short, sharp jolt of a novel. For some, perhaps, the leap of faith to reach the denouement may be a little too far, but if you abandon yourself to Ghost Wall’s soothing rhythms and creeping dread, you will not be disappointed.