Caught by the River

Salthouse Marshes

Robert Macfarlane | 31st October 2015

Salthouse Marshes by Adam Scovell

Words: Robert Macfarlane

In 1907 Algernon Blackwood published The Willows, a novella that HP Lovecraft would later acclaim as ‘the finest supernatural tale in English literature’. The book is set among the deltas and river-forests of the upper Danube. Two friends* on a canoeing trip meet bad weather, and are forced to haul out for safety on an unstable shingle island in the middle of the current. There they find themselves menaced by unknown forces. Dark shapes are glimpsed. Impossible sounds (gongs, hums, taps) are heard. Their canoe’s hull is slit. Food is stolen. Most alarming of all is the jungle of silvery willows that surrounds them, limiting their sight and susurrating the air. The trees seem to possess emergent properties of intent, organisation, even conversation.

The ‘amazing influence’ of the willows at first provokes an unease, tightening into dread, in both narrator and reader. But towards the story’s end dread yields to a rarer feeling. The narrator believes himself to have entered what he calls a ‘beyond region’ – or at least a transition zone to such a region. The vibrancy of matter has achieved a new and strange frequency. The delta is suddenly a xenotopia. The landscape, writes Blackwood, has become ‘the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.’

Once read, never forgotten: The Willows is a dazzling study of how the natural might corrupt or condense into the supernatural. Its own influence has been ‘amazing’: frequently adapted for radio and film, adored by writers from Lovecraft to China Mieville, leaving its traces in Jeff Vandermeer’s superb Southern Reach Trilogy – especially Annihilation – and in Stanley Donwood’s darker forest paintings. In 2011 Jeremy Millar made a sculptural work entitled Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (The Willows), in homage to both Blackwood and Hippolyte Bayard. He cast his own body in silicone, dressed it in his own clothes, then gouged his doppelganger’s face and skull with odd puncture wounds. The disconcertingly lifelike (deathlike) ‘drowned man’ that resulted was first shown at Glasgow’s CCA, displayed prone on the gallery floor. It proved so disturbing to audiences that warnings had to be issued to those entering the room in which it was exhibited.

And now there is Adam Scovell’s fascinating short film Salthouse Marshes, in which the presence of Blackwood is clearly strong – but which has smartly relocated its ‘alien world’ from the river forests of the Danube to the marshes of the English coast. Where the willow was Blackwood’s eerie species, the phragmites reed is Scovell’s.

If you’ve ever been to the Fens, the Broads, or pretty much any English wetland, you’ll know Phragmites australis by sight if not by name: an elegant grass that grows in wide, high reed-stands. Its leaves are fine and blade-like, and its flowers form a silky purple panicle that is gorgeously soft to the touch in late summer. But when wind blows through them – especially in autumn and winter when they have brittled up – phragmites beds make an extraordinary sound: the rattle of stem on stem, the rasp of leaf across leaf, a vast compound whisper that is eerie on the ear.**

Reed-beds supply both the set of Scovell’s film and the source of its horror. I give no spoilers away if I say of the plot that a young man called Jonathan Barkley, out walking the salt-marshes, has an encounter among the reeds that leaves him changed forever. Scovell makes clever visual play throughout with a combination of openness and enclosure. Glimpses through and over the reeds give a sense of the expanse of the marshes, and the sea beyond. More often, though, the camera is pushing through stem and leaf, or trapped within a high-sided canyon of reeds, unable to see beyond their pressing, crowding presence.

As in Scovell’s earlier film Holloway, Super-8 is vital to the film’s atmosphere: the pops and blebs that scar the visual surface, the dark blurs that may be artefacts or may be presences. So too is the editing technique of over-layering – though where in Holloway that was present to catch at the sense of enfolded and mutually shaping histories, here the layering works first to unsettle and eventually to engulf the viewing eye.

When shooting the film out in the Dee estuary on The Wirral, Scovell found that he had to go out each day and re-tread paths into the phragmites, which had reformed themselves due to the overnight tides: strong echoes there of Blackwood’s self-organising willows, and his description of the uncannily dynamic Danube deltas, ‘forming new islands innumerably which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an impermanent life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence’.

Blackwood isn’t the only influence apparent here. MR James inevitably stalks the margins, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) is at work, and so is the hunted-man tradition of British fiction, running from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped through Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and to Household’s Rogue Male. For me one of the film’s highlights is the soundtrack by In Atoms, which takes the fizmer and susurrus of phragmites reeds in wind as its drone – a noise that begins almost soothingly, builds into something more haunting, as in Brian Eno’s ‘Lantern Marsh’, and by the film’s end becomes laceratingly sharp and hostile.

I’ve written recently about the surge of ‘English eerie’ contemporary culture, and Scovell’s film knowingly situates itself as part of that surge. Clearly, notions of nation – and devolution – bear heavily on thinking about the causes of unsettlement that underlie today’s eerie. There was a reason Ben Wheatley called his film A Field in England, rather than A Field In Britain. But the existence of a distinctively English eerie doesn’t, of course, displace the possibility of a Scottish eerie or a Welsh eerie. And Scovell’s film suggests that we might also think about the eerie bioregionally or chorographically, rather than nationally: as a form of dissenting culture attracted to certain regions (Mark Fisher’s eerie north-west), say, or certain terrain-types – the woodland eerie, the hedgerow eerie, the brownfield eerie, or indeed the reed-bed or fen eerie, there in Scovell, there in MR James, in Rudkin and Clarke’s folk-horror classic Penda’s Fen (1974), in Donwood’s ‘Soken Fen’, there in These New Puritans’ astonishing album Field of Reeds.

Scovell’s adventurous film also causes me to reflect again on the current convergence of what is (debatably) called the new weird, and what is (also debatably) called the ‘new nature writing’ but would surely now be better known as ‘landscapism’. Adam Roberts has written brilliantly about this with regard to Vandermeer and the ‘natural turn’ more broadly in SF, and others including Paul Watson have started to notice the alignments and mutated hybrids that are arising from these entwinings. Watson speaks nicely of it as a multi-levelled mash-up of ‘psychogeography, ecology, archeology, mythology and hauntology (to taste)’. What is shared by all involved is a sense of landscape not as a settled realm of comfort, an owned demesne – but rather as something disturbed and dynamic, haunted by its histories and troubled by its futures.

* Blackwood’s story has, to my mind, a strong family resemblance to another novel from the 1900s, Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands (1903), in which two men explore the tidal mazes of Germany’s Frisian coast at their peril.

** As you may be able to tell I have a mild obsession with phragmites, to the extent that it’s been my online gaming handle for a decade now: I frag as ‘Phragmites’ (come find me in UT)

Adam Scovell on Caught by the River

Robert Macfarlane on Caught by the River