From the moors to the mountains, from gnarled woods to deserted beaches, Britain has spectacular countryside. But it’s also, in the right literary hands, very creepy countryside. So many of the best UK novels make use of that strange, unsettling quality of the British landscape, and our relationship with it.
Spooky houses, dangerous relationships, ancient folk figures or alien invaders – here’s a look at ten novels that use the countryside to connect us to a time and a place, and to make us realise that it’s not all sweet tweeting birdies and green rolling hills in Britain. There’s something dark at the heart of our landscape, and these writers know how to show it:
1. On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
On the border between Wales and England lies a farm called The Vision. Twins Lewis and Benjamin Jones live there, working the land, sleeping in the same double bed, and this book is consumed by their relationship to the land and to each other. From the beginning of the twentieth century, through the span of their lives, there is the sense that they are part of each other and of the farm in a way that cannot be explained in words.
Bruce Chatwin was a great travel writer, visiting places such as Australia and Patagonia and imbuing a sense of their mysteries to the reader. He did the same with the Welsh borders in this book. It reminds us of what is being lost as time moves on, and how unquantifiable an understanding of the land is.
2. Rawblood by Catriona Ward
Set in a gothic house in the middle of Dartmoor, with a ghost that haunts it through the years, turning those who see it mad: Rawblood is a brilliant throwback to all those stories about generational families with their terrible secrets, and things that go bump in the night. But it delves deeper into the whys of these strange events, and has a great understanding of the characters of the Villarca family that live there.
The west-country moors have been the setting for some of the most memorable of unsettling stories in British literature (see the book just below for another one); there’s something about that unconquerable space that threatens us, even now. Rawblood is a continuation of our long-standing fear of the bleak expanse of the wide-open, so far from shelter or from normality, and it’s brilliant.
3. An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman
So the Naremores, a family with a few problems, move into their new home miles from the nearest town after a particularly rash decision to purchase, and come to realise they’re not alone. It’s not a new idea, but old ideas done well can be just as fun.
Of course there are ghosts in the spooky house in the middle of nowhere. But what I love about Newman’s ghost story is that the relationship the spirits have with the new owners of the Hollow, a big house in Somerset surrounded by fruit trees and hedgerows; from bounteous beginnings to the big freeze, everything follows the seasons to suggest that the ghosts are not abominations, but part of nature too. I love that idea.
4. Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
Du Maurier wrote a number of books that used their west-country setting to maximum effect, and I think Jamaica Inn is the spookiest of them, being a tale of terrible happenings on Bodmin Moor, and of the hard, desperate men and women who live there.
The book begins with one of the great descriptions of English weather at its worst. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon in late November and a clammy mist has settled over the moor as our heroine journeys towards the inn in a rickety carriage that isn’t keeping out the damp in the least. She’s shivering, and heading towards an unwelcoming inn, and an amoral uncle who will frighten and abuse her. Brrrrrrrr.
5. Puffball by Fay Weldon
The juxtaposition between the city and the country is done so well in Puffball, which sees young couple Liffey and Richard decide to move out of London. Richard will commute every day from a charming cottage they’ve found in the middle of the countryside – except they didn’t check the train timetable properly and now Richard can only come home at the weekends. And that leaves beautiful, fertile Liffey in a dilapidated cottage with only the menopausal and resentful witch next door for company.
There are uncompromising descriptions about what’s actually going on inside the human body, reminding us that we’re all animals obeying deep urges, and the fruits and fungi that grow in the fields and hedgerows take on a deep significance. Procreation, flowering, growing and dying back: it’s all there, along with some very funny moments. No writer makes me laugh like Fay Weldon does.
6. Asylum by Patrick McGrath
The first part of Asylum takes place in the ordered environment of a psychiatric hospital, where murderous sculptor Edgar Stark is being treated. Stella, the wife of one of the doctors there, finds Edgar fascinating, no matter how dangerous she’s told he is. Everything in that hospital is so neat and clinical so when the book opens out into other locations it comes as a shock to the reader, and a realisation – Stella is in serious trouble here. Eventually the story takes us to a remote farmhouse in Wales and there, surrounded only by the hills, order breaks down entirely.
Do people need structure? How do we make it, if it’s not given to us? McGrath uses the settings of the novel to reflect brilliantly on the way the mind works, and how we lose ourselves if we are not surrounded by people and places that offer us support.
7. The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
It’s been a dry summer on a Welsh farm, and Gareth awakes to find one of the calving cows has gone missing. He must track her down, and as he walks over the countryside he thinks about his wife, his daughter, and the details of his life. Time stretches out and then snaps back in focus. This book plays with the idea of what’s important to us and how little control we have over nature.
It’s a pitiless read, paying no attention to the reader’s feelings through small problems and heartbreaking events – well, nature doesn’t either, and I get the feeling that’s the point of the book. Humans care about such strange things, but it’s all the same to the land.
8. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence
Nature, and the way we fight against and yet cannot defeat it, is a huge part of all Lawrence’s novels, and The Rainbow has some of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of living on the land, and being affected by it while trying to work out how you’re different from it.
The struggle for control – of one’s self, of a relationship, of a path in life – is written right through the character of Ursula Brangwen, a young girl who wants so much more than what is offered to her. Every aspect of her life is a vicious struggle. How can she become fulfilled? Is such a thing even possible?
9. A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter
A YA novel written in 1975, A Stranger Came Ashore is strange and chilling, and it captures that sense of unease that springs from old, old superstitions that might yet harbour a grain of truth. Set in the Shetland Isles, the story is a kind of battle between the land and the sea, and teenager Elspeth Henderson is the unwitting prize to be won.
During a fierce storm on a black night, a desperate man arrives at the Hendersons’ cottage. He calls himself Finn Learson, and tells of a shipwreck that nearly killed him, but he is far from all that he seems to be, and Robbie, brother of Elspeth, seems to be the only one who can see that the stranger poses an ancient threat to them all…
10. Year Of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
It’s the spring of 1665, and the plague has hit London. When a small rural village realises that the illness has come to them too they take a remarkable course of action; they decide to seal themselves off from the world entirely. Nobody can enter or leave. What happens next is seen through the eyes of young widow Anna Frith, who watches her fellow villagers try to stay alive in a time when nobody knew what caused such a horrific illness. Who it will take, and why, is a question to which only nature or God knows the answer.
The harshness of life on the land, at its mercies, is shown here so well. But so are those revelations of beauty and joy that seem so often to follow the worst moments in life. Year of Wonders reminds us that the spiritual and the natural were both viewed with a reverence born of suffering. And Anna Frith tries so hard to understand these events; she’s a brilliant character, and her journey is a captivating one. She, like all the characters on this list, has a deep relationship with the landscape in which she lives – a relationship that we share, and recognise.
British novels capture that relationship so well, from Scotland to Cornwall; if you can think of any other novels that bring the landscape to life with such skill why not leave a comment below? This list of ten has surely only scratched the surface.
Aliya Whiteley’s latest novella, The Arrival Of Missives (Unsung Stories) was published on May 9th 2016. It’s set in the strange British countryside, as all the best books are:
The Arrival Of Missives is a genre-defying story of fate, free-will and the choices we make in life. In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons.
The scarred veteran Mr. Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message: part prophecy, part warning. Will it prevent her mastering her own destiny?
As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley must choose: change or renewal?