Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Book that Haunts You: Jeremy Dyson's The Haunted Book

The Haunted Book – Jeremy Dyson.

Increasingly these days we see the term ‘anthology’ banded about, especially in terms of television series – American Horror Story and Channel Zero being the first two that spring to mind in terms of TV. If we turn to films, and these are some I would never want to re-watch, but The ABCs of Death, and, the VHS films follow this (Find and watch them at your own peril). But more interesting to my nerdy self, and probably you if you’re anything like me (and let’s face it, you probably are a little bit), is the way in which this idea has started to bleed into contemporary literature.

Pictured: Channel Zero's true monster - disappointment.
Of course, we’ve always had short story anthologies or collections, and it’s hard to even say the word ‘anthology’ without giving a major portion of the British population terrible flashbacks to the days of A-level English, but recently the idea of an anthology text is coming more and more to the fore, to lesser or greater degrees of success.

David Mitchell’s Slade House fits (albeit uncomfortably, but that’s the topic for another blog) into this category, along with, I would argue, Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town, which acts a metafictional anthology; the collection situates itself as a series of three short stories centred around Manhattan, yet the progression of themes between the three directly mirrors the progression of style and concerns of the author himself. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure works as an anthology series in some ways too – a series of stand-alone stories that all have a common theme or thread, though those toe the line of sequel.

There are countless examples of short story collections with common themes, and novels that match this, but the example that has become the most prevalent in my mind, and which I want to talk about today is a book that sat on my shelf gathering dust for way longer than it should have – Jeremy Dyson’s The Haunted Book.

The book is the story of an author tasked with the creation of a book. So, metafictional. But not just metafictional, but linking back to Alistair Fowler’s idea of the Poioumenon:

‘In this genre (poioumenon) the central strand of the action purports to be the work’s own composition, although it is really ‘about’ something else […] often the writing is a metaphor for constructing a world. […] the poioumenon is calculated to offer opportunities to explore the boundaries of fiction and reality – the limits of narrative truth.’ [1]

While Fowler’s attempts to define metafiction before the term was introduced later by Gass ultimately failed – Stop trying to make poioumenon happen Fowler! – The sentiment here remains true. The poioumenon is a recurrent feature of metafictional texts. See House of Leaves for a recent and wonderful example. Also, just go read that book. But anyway, back to the haunted book.

The text initially seems a simple anthology of ghost stories. The main narrative is of Jeremy Dyson travelling around the United Kingdom, visiting cites of certain supernatural reports in order to get the inspiration needed to flesh them out into full short stories for his anthology ‘The Haunted Book’. All well and good. Sure, he starts to see the figure of a small girl following him as he travels, but such is the nature of the Gothic. Nothing to write home about, right? Oh, how innocent I was when I thought these words.

The twist comes part way through when, in following a lead for a particularly existential story, our author comes across another document. A Document titled ‘This Book is Haunted’, which tells the tale of a writer in the late 70s travelling around the UK chasing ghost stories, who begins to see the figure of a small ghostly girl following him. The text itself shifts format at this point to mimic the book our original author has found. 

However, the author of This Book is Haunted eventually comes across a book in a haunted library titled ‘A Book of Hauntings´ written in the the late 1930s, a collection of short Ghost Stories told by an author who admits to seeing a small ghostly – You see where this is going.

The author of this text then finds a collection of stories published in 1885 about various supernatural accounts before THE PAGES TURN BLACK! We travel from The Haunted Book (2012), to This Book is Haunted (1978), to A Book of Hauntings (1938), to Glimpses in the Twilight (1885), and finally to black.

It’s an interesting, experience, as with each narrative layer we expect to be removed back out, to find ourselves thrust at some point back into the original narrative frame of Jeremy Dyson and The Haunted Book, but this never comes. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but as soon as you hit the black pages at the back of the book ones mind truly blows. 

The contents of these dark, final pages, reach out of the book and drag you – yes you, dear reader – into the narrative tradition. Much as each layer finds a book and reads it, The Haunted Book effectively places its reader as the first of these narrative layers; just as each of the authors has found a book of short stories, so too does the reader come to realise that they too have just done that very same thing. That they are the first short story, in which a reader finds a book. 

The experience is incredibly thrilling, and incredibly smart, as this reader found himself looking around for that ghostly female figure for several days after reading. But this reader is incredibly paranoid and easily scared. 

Hiding under the bed like a true scaredy cat.
I really can’t recommend this book enough, for the incredibly clever way that it draws the reader in through the multiple narrative layers before the grand shock of the end and forcing the reader into their own hellish realisation. It’s a smart, well written text with great implications in terms of both reader response theory and Gothic literature, and it raises questions about that actual role of texts that I dare not too think too heavily about. It’s also an interesting metafictional application of the genre tropes of the anthology, and a clever final twist that the most recent season of American Horror Story also managed with the final title splash.

So, yes, go out and get yourself haunted. And get thee a damn good book!

[1] Alastair Fowler, A History of English Literature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), p. 370. My Parenthesis

Daniel ‘Don’t Read This Book’ Southward is a PhD Researcher at the university of Sheffield. His research focuses on contemporary Gothic literature, metafiction, and post-postmodernity. He is a big old scaredy cat who should not be allowed to read alone. But then, he’s never alone… he’s just behind you, reading this over your shoulder his skeletal fingers grazing the top of your ear… or not. Merry Christmas.

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