Hauntology by Merlin Coverley: Book Review

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Divided into 3 sections – Hauntings, Experiments with Time and Ghosts of Futures Past; within this new work Merlin Coverley, embarks on a mission to seek out the roots and growth of the cultural phenomenon that is known as Hauntology. It is a walk that takes the author and reader down many diverse paths, foremost among them being Memory Lane.

Though it does explore the concept of hauntings and references numerous supernatural films and TV shows, this is not a book about ghosts in the traditional sense but a study of the concept of the cultural mode known as Hauntology. The word Hauntology was conceived in 1993 by the French political philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx as a portmanteau of Haunt and Ontology and relates to his concept that Marxism continues to “haunt western society from beyond the grave”. However, Hauntology has expanded far beyond its original meaning to encompass a certain aesthetic in music, media and art and beyond that a feeling. Hauntology is a nebulous creature, difficult to define but always recognised when encountered, at least on an emotional level. The wider concept of Hauntology as an art and thoughtform owes a lot to the writings of cultural historian Mark Fisher and here Coverley joins the dots between the Derradaian and Fisherian views.

Coverley notes the cultural importance of the 1970s as a fixed point in hauntological time. Notably lying within the formative years of Generation X (or what Bob Fischer has accurately described as The Haunted Generation, which is evident in the work of Scarfolk and Scarred For Life for example) the 1970s were abundant with weird TV, strange discordant library music and were politically hard times (a ghost of which resurfaced, I think in flashbacks of Thatcher and Foot, when May and Corbyn were the UK Prime Minister and opposition leader). But Coverley turns the clock back to the 1840s when Marx released the Communist Manifesto and Charles Dickens penned ghost stories. Centring on Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Coverley makes interesting comment on the ghosts and their repetition of the past not only within the story but within the cultural repeating of the tale by readers and viewers each Christmas. (This set me thinking of how Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman animation has now perhaps become a Christmas ghost – each year destined to be reborn and melted – an analogue ghost now haunting a digital house). The nature of haunting as a recurring point in time or a moment trapped in its environment lends itself to one of the Fortean themes to arise in the book, the theories of Charles Babbage, Eleanor Sidgwick, Edmund Gurney and most prominently in these pages of T.C. Lethbridge and the televisual drama The Stone Tape written by the recurringly hauntological explorer Nigel Kneale and first broadcast on Christmas Day 1972.

Other Fortean points of interest touched upon within the book’s meanderings include Pepper’s Ghost, J.W. Dunne’s philosophy of time, spiritualism and Alfred Watkins and John Michell’s ley-line  explorations. Numerous other authors are encountered as we wind our way through the pages including W.G. Sebald, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and J.G. Ballard. As with Nigel Kneale, Coverley is most interested in their use of time – how seeming anomalies of time and events can cause a person or place to be haunted.

Memory and nostalgia are key to Hauntology, but as we delve deeper it is clear that the nostalgia of hauntology is not a simple fond reverie of bygone times but in using the 1970s as a strong reference point is something akin to mild trauma, yet with a strange streak of thrill. The ghost stories of Christmas, weird TV plays, folk horror films and public information film continue to haun us. But a pertinent point is that these aspects of attention are not simply daydreams of times past but a re- living of a history that has never left us. A past that has just been buried like the fiends of horror films waiting for a sequel. It is the memories of Tomorrow’s World predicting the future that is now our present – a world not of personal jet packs and happiness machines but a present where the grim ghosts of 1970s austerity, division and unrest not only did not go away, did not stay in the past , but are risen and with us again, haunting our past, present and future. This is of course reflected in artistic expression, Hauntology as a concept may have appeared in the 1990s but it is strangely a notable aspect of our current zeitgeist. We can see its past roots in a lot of contemporary writing, film and music that dwells on the outer edge of the mainstream, but it is not simply retro, it has its originality but is haunted by the past. A catharsis of demons still needing exorcised perhaps.

Coverley’s book is thought-provoking and although rather academic is engaging, but it is theoretically focussed and therefore is perhaps not the best starting point for anyone fresh to hauntology but for anyone already immersed and seeking to dig deeper into the subject it is a great addition to the haunted bookshelf.

Hauntology by Merlin Coverley
Available now from Oldcastle and other book shops/ online stores

review by Andy Paciorek

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