Edgelands in fiction: works on the wild side

From blasted heath to Yorkshire moor, the whole island of Ireland to ghost estates, Annemarie Neary traces the evolution of the wilderness in fiction

Wild places have hosted literary psychodramas ever since Lear took to the heath. The buttoned-up Victorians loved a wilderness – the wilder the better. These places were an essential attribute of the Gothic, the terrain of the unquiet soul. Dante Gabriel Rossetti referred to the moors above Haworth, to paraphrase him slightly, as “Hell…(with) English names”.

When Britain’s National Trust acquired Slepe Heath in Dorset, the supposed inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, its spokesperson characterised the place in terms of atmosphere – it was, he said, “a place to lose yourself in”.

Losing yourself is, of course, the whole point of fiction. And if the writer is aiming to destabilise readers, to conjure a sense of dissonance and unease, where better to take them than a wild place?

The 19th-century Irish Gothic writers made the supernatural a proxy for all manner of unnameable terrors, a feature of some recent fiction with a ghost estate setting

The effect is all the more powerful when wilderness rubs up against an urban world crammed with ordinary people, their workaday lives and illusory certainties. According to Robert Macfarlane, the English word “wild” probably derives from Old Norse and Old High German words denoting disorder and irregularity. And so – on one level anyway – an urban wilderness is a reminder that not everything can be controlled.

Urban wild places – heath or common, building site or town dump – retain a connection with ancient wilderness, with folklore and history and archetype. When selecting such a location, the writer benefits from the reader’s ability to contribute some of the imaginative work. After all, readers have absorbed many other stories set in such a place, or somewhere like it – the forest on the edge of town, the ruin in the castle grounds – old stories that reach back into folklore and fairy tale. They are primed for weirdness.

In fiction – whether Dickens or Hollinghurst or Greene – London’s edge-lands are often the preserve of the outsider. From Hampstead Heath to Clapham Common, these places – ungated, open round-the-clock – have played host to vampires, renegades, covert lovers.

In most cases, these urban commons retain the traces of former usage, and sometimes of ancient rights, in the copses and ragged ponds that co-exist with the more pedestrian amenities of any open space in any city. And they retain the whiff of notoriety as night places, cruising grounds for those forced to the margins.

I live on Clapham Common and, when I came to live here 20-plus years ago, it struck me how different a space it was from anywhere I’d lived in Ireland where the urban common is a much rarer beast. When I came to set my novel, The Orphans, on a south London common, I wondered about the equivalents of these London edge-lands in fiction set in Ireland.

In his book about the emergence of the Irish Gothic novel, Jarlath Killeen has commented that when Victorian fiction was busily colonising the English moorlands, the entire island of Ireland was regarded by the English reading public as prime territory for the Gothic.

This is a genre that favours the “outlandish”, places that are “on the edge rather than at the centre” – the patch of wasteland, the space under the stairs, that Other Island. And, for a time at least, it seems that Ireland as a whole was something of an imaginative edge-land for the much more urbanised English. A coterie of Irish writers, mainly from the Anglo-Irish tradition – Maturin, Wilde, le Fanu, Stoker et al – adapted the more esoteric aspects of Irish folklore and self-consciously delivered wilderness, in the sense of something uncontrollable (and therefore terrifying), to an English audience. Some of this fiction was set in Ireland, but most was not.

Edge-lands in fiction typically signify dislocation; they play host to the marginalised, to transgressive behaviours and submerged emotions. So much for the 19th-century English view of the Irish. But what of more recent fiction. Where are the fictional urban edge-lands and wild places within Ireland itself?

In a society where – due to the various oppressions of empire, church or state – many felt forced to wear another’s skin, perhaps Irish writers experienced little need to create a fictional repository for dislocation. Or perhaps Irish towns and cities simply had fewer wild places – after all, in much of the country wilderness was a fact of life, so perhaps in urban spaces the desire was to eradicate rather than cultivate it.

Whatever the reason, apart from isolated examples such as Phoenix Park, used by Joyce and others, or Glenn Patterson’s Belfast dump, there seems to have been little of the urban edge-land in Irish fiction. Until recently, that is, when the financial crash of 2008 offered a surprising gift to the writer on the edge of every town.

Sometimes, as in Clare Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, the primary role of the ghost estate is a metaphorical one. At other times, it is the surreal setting for psychological unravelling, ghostly occurrences or both. One way or another, the ghost estate, like the urban edge-land, has come to represent a place where ungovernable emotions and behaviours and memories rise to the surface.

In Tana French’s 2012 novel, Broken Harbour, the author plays with the setting for the purposes of the murder mystery, adding layers of strangeness and unease to the main plot. Here, where the haunted house meets the wasteland, a vernacular Gothic emerges.

But French also employs the ghost estate as a reservoir of suppressed emotion and memory, reaching back into Scorcher Kennedy’s childhood to a holiday spent there before the houses were built, to the night his mother walked into the water and the enduring trauma of his sister, Dina. “All that strafed hope where there used to be bright swimming costumes fluttering on makeshift washing lines between caravans.”

“The Future is a cold mistress.” Donal Ryan’s polyphonic novel The Spinning Heart, one of whose 21 narrators is himself a ghost, combines perfectly the characterisation of a ghost estate as an apposite metaphor for greed and lost hopes with a physical place that burdens lives and hangs the present on the future. More recently, in Conor O’Callaghan’s debut, Nothing on Earth, the meticulously evoked setting – an echo chamber of unacceptable desires and unreliable memory that “hangs heavy with absence” – seems inextricable from the series of unexplained vanishings.

The 19th-century Irish Gothic writers made the supernatural a proxy for all manner of unnameable terrors, and this remains a feature of some recent fiction with a ghost estate setting. The difference is that nowadays the actions of more prosaic agencies – markets, financial institutions, over-reaching developers – seem just as esoteric, their destructive power every bit as devastating.
The Orphans by Annemarie Neary is published by Hutchinson, at £14.99