In October I released a ghost story for Halloween. It was partly inspired by Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, but the majority of its actual narrative structure (especially in terms of character) came from a short story of my own inspired as well by Blackwood’s story. As it’s near Christmas, the original story is presented below. It’s very typically Jamesian and should be read late at night by the fireside. It may also, however, be interesting as a context provider for the film and show how the process of working out what is actually possible logistically for my filmmaking. The majority of the back story was lost in the transition to film so hopefully this may also provide some meat to the visual bone that was simply not possible to sketch at the time.
The Lost Man.
When a stone drops into a lake, its ripples speed away; nudging at the everyday until they give in to the swell. Walking around the marshes of Salthouse in Norfolk reflects this with the early morning wanderer seeming to traverse endless circles of wintery mud and thick, opaque mist. In between the marshes and the sea runs a networks of small rivers, saltwater of course. These small veins of water are just of size enough to fit a small boat upon their surfaces, often for fishing. Perhaps it is the pleasure of fishing within a tundra of reeds or hunting on a river for saltwater fish that used to draw the people to its shores. The marshes also have another, more primal draw though this one is unspoken.
The reed-beds can lure and trick. While the marsh acts as a defence against the sea, the land itself seems to defend itself from trespassers also. It takes someone of a brave, almost naive conviction to head out early into its labyrinth of winding pathways. Within the marsh’s history, it took several cases of intrigue before the message was truly retained by the local people who daren’t venture into its yellow haze even during the heights of summer. In the morning the birds begin to call. Willow warblers can rise and fall above its horizon before roosting and taking shelter in between its vast canvas with comfort while a stray person is, on the contrary, at the mercy of something entirely repellent.
The land around them becomes an illusion as the rivers wind on and on until tempting the boatmen to an end that daren’t be spoken of. The marsh can drive people toward insanity supposedly. It seems ambiguous because their madness is only defined by what they claim to have seen. How can those phantoms really be behind their eyes if not wallowing in the deep abyss of madness? Is it possible for those blessed with clean slates of sanity to witness such fantasies of the mind? All of the documented encounters seem to share resemblances, almost as if the marshes of Salthouse can induce a collective dream upon those who sail and wander its muddy ghost-ways.
One wanderer, initially a confident sea-worthy man, is said to have been found aimlessly meandering around the nearby village of Cley, unsure of where he was or even who he was after an early morning fishing trip within the marsh. Jonathan Barkley was his name; a retired soldier who had settled in the town of Wells-Next-The-Sea during the year of 1919 for a quiet life enjoying the simpler pleasures and distractions. His memories were said to haunt him with vast, bloody visions of the Boer War and the Great War deeply ingrained on his furrowed brow. His part in the latter was little less than an advisor. The former however had left him greatly disturbed, to the point where he endeavoured for solitude at every possible moment , avoiding the risk of being publically labelled a coward. His only requirement was that his surroundings be something more than a mere hermit’s abode; a study filled with unread books and the tail-ended pipe-tobacco satisfied only part of his needs. It was a reassuring home but the outdoors were what really drew him in and silenced his inner demons.
Barkley was a duality; a strong but troubled man. Perhaps his time in the wars had made him physically resilient on his outer layers but emotionally rotten within his shell. While stood perfectly still, looking out onto the small dock at Wells as he was often seen to do, a simple examination of his eyes could reveal a far greater sea raging than the gentle waters in front of him. This made his absent wandering on the streets of Cley on the morning of the 29th of November 1921, seem relatively normal at first.
It simply wasn’t out of character enough to attract the attention Barkley so desperately needed that morning. It wasn’t until the owner of the local butchers noticed that he had rips in his clothing and was missing a boot that the alarm was raised. With the help of a trio of local gentlemen, he was carried into the near-by pub, The George. His face was whiter than usual, his body shaking and absent of consciousness. One of the men stoked the nearby fire, putting a new log on and pushing it violently into the flames. They manoeuvred the empty man nearer and pushed a strong glass of brandy under his beard, cupping it under to pour the liquid down his frozen throat.
Barkley spluttered with some of the brandy going on the fire causing minor flourishes that made the men jump. It was only nine O’clock in the morning and dew was thick on the grassy patch outside, the windmill down the lane was still but a shadowy shroud in the engulfing fog. The man started to regain colour in his face, becoming alerted to the fact that he was surrounded by people. The crackle of the fire and the richness of the drink were a comforting, warm blanket of safety away from the icy morning over the way on the marshes. It was safe enough to speak, perhaps even cathartically so, of what had occurred that morning. The entity he had encountered could not possibly reach him here and probably didn’t need to, having defended the marshland river ways with such vigour and violence. Its job as malevolent guard was executed with finesse.
An extract from an unedited discussion with Jonathan Barkley from the 18th May 1927 edition of the Holt Chronicle.
I got up early in the morning that day at roughly 4am. It was still dark, added to further by this relentless fog we’d been having of late. It was so little into the nightly hours before a man should get up that even the curlews had failed to arise from their minimal slumber. My long walk from Wells to Blakeney Quay ferry was an uneventful one, except that I saw not a soul on the Stiffkey Road. The only sounds to accompany me were the rustle of my fishing bag, the occasional brushing of my fishing rod with the lower down branches of pines along the road and the breeze giving life to the fauna around me.
My boat was moored at Blakeney Quay so I followed the Beach Road and walked along to the point where I parked my belongings and rowed out into the water. The early morning during that time of year is good for fishing. I manoeuvred the boat outwards, away from the Blakeney Eye and into the flooded fields and reed beds of the marsh. My boat glided well along its waters which were remarkably calm for the weather (a breeze was blowing the reeds around me but the water itself seemed little interested in giving an equal reaction).
My boat moved into Arnold’s Marsh by the East Bank, or at least I think it was around there for at the time, I was beginning to get lost. Afraid to move further into the marsh, I moored up in a quiet spot near what looked to be Purdy’s Drift and stayed there for quite some time. The fishing was poor. An hour or so went by and still nothing had even given a bite. I started to lose hope that this would be a successful trip and gathered up my equipment ready to leave.
The day had started to become lighter with the sun beginning to edge out over the horizon. Yet with this added aid to my cause, I could still not see well at all. At first I thought it was marsh gas but it seemed too deliberate, too knowing to be a natural phenomena. It blocked my vision of even a few feet in front. With the arrogance of a fool, I believed that the journey back would be a simple case of the turning the boat about. After trying and failing for another hour to find my way, I began to worry.
My boat was still in the middle of the marsh as far as I could perceive and I had gained no further distance back to the quay. I kept it still for a moment, thinking my scenario through. How had I got lost in this marsh? It wasn’t too big an area and the river ways were barely sailable unless flooded like it had been recently. While pondering these thoughts, something caught my eye. Through the misty air, I could see the edge of reed-bed a little way further along the water. Within the tangle of reeds there seemed to be a figure standing there.
It only appeared for a second. Closer viewing revealed nothing but the swaying plants. The warblers had woken up and gave a slight sense of company. Sometime later and still lost in the early morning of the marsh, my boat had lead me seemingly further in land and away from the sound of sea which had been heard earlier to crash on the nearby beach. The marsh seemed thicker than ever when I first saw the light. It was a vague, yellowy light floating across the water some way ahead of the boat. It seemed to be coming from a lantern, clearly held by what looked like a man. At last! I thought I had found my saviour, this person would of course know the way out of this marsh or at least be able navigate more effectively with their bright lantern. As I rowed closer to the light it seemed to move away. I called out but my voice appeared lost on them.
I gained some distance towards this lantern before I started to notice something even stranger. My boat was close enough to be able to logically see at least the faint outline of this person’s boat but I could not. The mist had begin to thin in the few feet around and yet I still could not see their boat. It then became clear that the lantern was being by carried by someone wading through the water. I called again but the light did not stop or change direction. The strangeness of this person’s movement and the almost sickly glow of the light began to give great feelings of unease.
My oar suddenly slipped from my hand, the foolishness of a lack of concentration on my part. I only just caught it in time for the oar had almost sunk. It then occurred to me how deep this water really was. I tested it with the full length of the oar and found the bed of the water to be untouchable. How could this person wade through this deep causeway? The realisation was beginning to sink in that I had been lured away from my true path. I noticed that the light ahead had now stopped. The silhouette of the person was now clear, stood arched and motionless some way ahead in the water.
I panicked and quietly turned my boat, aware that this creature (it was most definitely inhuman if able to traverse this water without a boat) was watching my movement. Yet the light followed, slowly at first and then quickly. My rowing became heavier as the lantern got closer, the devilish creature seemed to play with my situation, deliberately speeding up when it noticed my pace had slowed due to fatigue.
My delirium had lead my boat to another clump of reeds but instead of just the gentle nudge of the vegetation, there was the firm thud of land. Land! I had found land and what seemed to be a pathway, perhaps even leading back to one of the villages. I scrambled up its small slope, leaving behind my equipment and boat, stumbling as fast as I could down the muddy path. The light had disappeared and did not seem to be giving chase.
I was some way down the path (a path I later learned to be Meadow Lane) when I saw another figure stood some way ahead, a lit lantern held in their hand. I was too tired to try and turn back so simply stood still and let the veiled figure approach. Its movement was jittery and unnatural, it appeared to be a black mass rather than have any definite features. I fell past it in exhaustion as it closed in and a clawed hand reached out from under and scratched the side of my body until it cut through my clothes and finally to my skin. It seemed to scream as it stood there with its claw digging in to my side.
My memory fades of what happened afterwards. I have no further memories of being on Meadow Lane or almost anything between then and when I arrived at The George pub. An image plays upon my memory of wandering around the heath-land over on Telegraph Hill but little else. The roads, with their tunnels of foliage seem oddly familiar though I can’t quite place them. I felt lost and drained and still do. I cannot comprehend what it was that guided and lured me away from safety but heed my warning: if you have any sense, never venture out into the Salthouse Marshes. It is a place that punishes.
Many of the older villagers from the towns of Cley, Weybourne and Kelling never walk out onto Salthouse Marshes. The stories passed on from the men who helped Jonathan Barkley in The George, alongside the interview that appeared in the Holt Chronicle, meaning people took the threat of the marsh very seriously. Barkley, the already defunct, broken man, went completely into isolation after the event, only speaking publically some time after his experience to the reporter from the Chronicle.
Outside of this, he fell into complete solitude even refusing to enjoy the visual splendour of the other lengths of countryside around him. The sea of troubles that for so long had raged behind his eyes were now calmed; his transient thought seeming to disappear leaving him an automaton. Something had pushed Barkley over the edge of the precipice seeming to disable him of common thought. While the marsh continued to thrive with life and animistic activity, Barkley curled up, afraid of his memories; blocking everything out in order to stop, in order to forget.
The week before he died in 1931, he was spotted again in Cley wandering for the first time since the event. Stood next to the windmill leading to The Coast Road, he was seen to be staring out onto the marsh across the way. A local woman reported that he was shouting out, almost involuntarily, something about why he was so punished. He died of a cardiac arrest several days later on the 16th of December 1931, though accounts of bleeding claw marks upon the side of his body have never been verified.