Alan Garner’s play for TV The Keeper is a relatively minor item in his oeuvre but it nonetheless captures some of his more enduring themes, most notably the unassimilable power of the land. It was broadcast in 1983 as part of ITV’s Dramarama children’s series and, to be honest, it does rather suffer from this production. The Lorelei was broadcast in 1990 as part of BBC 2’s Screen Two series of stand-alone plays. It was written by the actor Nick Dunning and, according to IMDB, it is his only writing credit. This is a great shame as The Lorelei is a fantastic drama balancing right on the cusp of the supernatural but managing to maintain a disconcerting ambiguity. Both dramas are, in a way, haunted house stories but they also pursue questions about human culpability in supernatural presencing. More deeply, both are concerned with human agency and how the spectral can be understood as an intrusion into the real.
The Keeper begins with Sally and Peter entering a dilapidated house. It soon becomes apparent that they are some type of paranormal investigators and that they intend to spend the night there in the hope of experiencing and recording a haunting. They set up thermometers around the house so that they can record the temperature at regular intervals. Peter explains that the house, Beacon Lodge, has a long and unhappy history. Built as a gamekeeper’s lodge in 1843, all of the previous occupants have had bad luck and accidents. In 1912 the then gamekeeper shot himself. In 1960, Peter continues, the gamekeeper’s daughter bought the house and left it unoccupied and open to the elements. She did not demolish it but left it to rot.
Sally and Peter then play a game of Scrabble. The words that they place are evidently intended to be significant: cuckoo, love, west, wind, window, lodging, nest, go. Sally tires of the game and says that she needs to write some letters. Soon, she falls asleep. When Peter wakes her he questions her about the poem that he has found written on a notepad. Sally insists that she has no knowledge of it although she concedes that it is written in her handwriting. The poem eerily echoes the Scrabble game:
Go from my window, my love, my love,
Go from my window my dear,
For the wind is in the west,
The cuckoo’s in his nest,
And you can’t have a lodging here.
There is then a loud knocking outside the house. Peter starts a tape recorder and they follow the noise as it moves around outside. The sound then appears to enter the house upstairs even though the floor has long since collapsed. And then it stops. Peter rewinds the tape and plays it back but all that can be heard are their own voices; the sinister knocking is not there. Peter tells Sally to write down everything that has happened and he himself starts to write. At this point Sally starts to speak in a slow, mannered voice:
“All it wants is to be left alone; the earth not broken. They were wrong to build a house here. That woman – she knew the land should not be broken. That’s why she left it. There is a keeper for the land. A keeper against trespass.”
Sally approaches Peter who is busy writing. He turns to look at her and is terrified by what he sees. “Who are you?” he asks. “Who are you?” she replies. “You,” Peter says. Roll credits.
In truth, The Keeper never really delivers on its promising subject matter. It is hamstrung by an overly obtrusive and cliched soundtrack that is constantly attempting to signpost the creepiness. If the direction had attempted a more understated approach then it might have achieved a greater frisson of genuine fear, and it would certainly have aged better. And the fact that this was a production for children’s TV is no excuse. After all, The Owl Service was an earlier and much more successful adaptation of a Garner script for a young audience.
As mentioned earlier, The Keeper is concerned with the question of a power residing in the land. Much of Garner’s later work returns to this subject and, it has to be said, in more subtle and interesting ways. In Thursbitch in particular there is a power in the valley that has been sensed by different people across a vast span of time. The valley itself almost seems to pulse with a deeper rhythm of life that can only partially be intuited by a human observer. But nonetheless Garner will usually describe this power as being filtered through, or emergent within, a human character. There is a dynamic resonance between person and land. In The Keeper, by contrast, the power seems to be wholly chthonic and inimical to human presence, and this is perhaps the most interesting thing about the play. This landscape potency seems to be “wholly other” as Rudolf Otto would put it when describing the numinous. Its power is antecedent to the human and cannot be assimilated in any way. It is all consuming so that it totally obliterates a sense of self. Who are you? You.
Interestingly, Garner would revisit the trope of the tape machine being used to record paranormal phenomena in Boneland. In that book too, just as in The Keeper, the machine does not record the supernatural sounds that the character hears. Instead, the tape recorder seems to provide a scientific objectivity that blinkers our view to more spectral realities.
The Lorelei concerns a lonely school teacher, Kate, played by Amanda Redman. She is on holiday in Wales staying on her own in a B&B called The Lorelei. One evening, whilst alone in her room, a dishevelled man opens her door, looks at her and says, “Oh my God.” He then quickly closes the door. She immediately rushes out of the room to see what is going on but the man has completely disappeared. The landlord who was on his way up the stairs insists that no one was there. It appears to be a supernatural apparition (or a trick of the mind). Kate returns to school for the new term and presently she encounters a man in the street who seems to be the mysterious visitant from The Lorelei. She challenges him but he convinces her that he knows nothing about her disturbing encounter. Shortly thereafter, Kate sees him at school and it transpires that he, Tony, has begun working there as a drama teacher. They strike up a relationship and go on holiday together. Prior to their leaving, Tony keeps the location secret as a surprise but it turns out to be somewhere in Wales.
Whilst in their hotel room they decide to play a game of Scrabble. The words that Kate places all reflect her hopes for establishing a relationship with Tony: desire, forever, trust. But the words that Tony places all have a sinister significance, seeming to refer back to moments of interaction between them before they got to know each other: café, meat, vanish. In fact, the play as a whole contains lots of moments of mirroring, where an incident is reflected later on with a shifted significance. Ultimately, this mirroring plays out in an alarming and unsettling climax which leaves a great deal of ambiguity regarding what has happened previously.
The Lorelei is a superb play with excellent performances from Redman and Michael Maloney (Tony). It has a vein of rich symbolism focused on insects, bringing into play two central ideas: the fatal attraction of a moth to a flame; and the meaning of transformation. Whereas the original Lorelei story concerns a female supernatural entity who attracts men, in this rendition it is the character of Tony who plays the role of a supernatural entity who attracts Kate. Kate’s attraction is made plain by the Scrabble words that she places but she is haunted by the memory of the mysterious encounter with the man who seemed to be Tony. Her doubt, her hesitation in giving in wholly to the desire she feels means that she is unable to transform her life into something more fulfilling and she is condemned to continue repeating her lonely routines. All of the mirroring in the film (the lights that she sees flashing on and off, the moths at the beginning mirrored in the insect play at school, etc.) serves to underscore the self-contained loop that Kate has inscribed for herself.
It is not clear at the end of the film how to interpret the ontological status of Tony (we share this dilemma with Kate). He is evidently a real person; he works as a teacher at the school and has a definite, independent existence. But he also seems to exist as a spectral apparition who disappears into thin air. Rather like a wave/particle duality he exists for Kate in both states at once. It is really her own indeterminacy that allows for this dual state, as she has been too cautious in trying not to singe her wings and so refuses to collapse the wave function into a material thing. In this sense, the play represents a reversal of the original Lorelei story. Rather than providing a salutary lesson in the dangers of temptation, The Lorelei shows the danger of avoiding temptation; of refusing to fall headlong into the violent transformative process that is erotic love.
A key feature of both The Keeper and The Lorelei is the transmission of messages through the medium of the Scrabble board; what we might term a form of ludomancy. I have no idea if Nick Dunning was familiar with The Keeper and appropriated this procedure from the earlier film or if it was arrived at independently, but in both cases it’s an interesting updating of the Ouija board. The significance of the Scrabble board is that it is a game that combines chance with human skill. The letters that one is dealt arrive randomly but they are deployed deliberately. In this liminal nexus between chance and agency there is the ever present possibility of discovering something that belongs to neither. There, as Eliot would have it, falls the shadow.
The Keeper depicts Sally falling wholly under the influence of this shadow. Her identity is completely subsumed into something that is entirely other than human. But The Lorelei depicts Kate refusing to fall into the trap. She holds back and clings to her present, safe identity. Consequently, she does not grow and remains stuck in her loop of mundane eternal recurrence. This makes The Lorelei all the more unsettling. It seems to incorporate the spectral into the field of the Real whereas The Keeper expels it onto the Other. Given that The Lorelei is Dunning’s only writing credit it is striking – in fact, almost odd – that his TV play should seem so much more ambiguous and unsettling than Garner’s.
Both plays can be viewed as haunted house thrillers. On this basis, The Keeper seems quite conventional by comparison. The point of interest regarding The Keeper is that the spectral presence inhabits the land before the house was built so it is not generated through human agency of any sort. It appears to be a direct emanation from the land itself. The Lorelei has its own haunted house but Tony’s role there does not seem to be determined by anything particular to that building. Instead, his appearance results from a complex web of past and future connections all centring on Kate’s desire, and the possibility of her acting on it. The house is significant – there is no doubt of that – but it acts as a significant backdrop for a more dispersed haunting, rather than being responsible for generating it from its own locale. Again, The Lorelei’s treatment of this trope is the more disturbing. There is no localised, defined place where the haunting occurs – it is irreducibly ambiguous. It crosses seamlessly from the spectral to the real, so that the possibility of objectively proving its spectral nature is never allowed. The ghost hunters in The Keeper hope to find a ‘real’ haunting and they are consumed by its appearance. Kate hopes to find a ‘real’ lover and she fails to be consumed by his appearance so she remains stuck in her groove.
The spectral is an unknown quantity and therefore dangerous. It has the power to destroy a coherent sense of self. In some cases, it can operate as a stand-in for sex and death. In The Keeper it represents death, in The Lorelei, sex. For most people these are the only two instances where they find themselves thrown into a form of ego-death. But it is apparent that this devastating power can be utilised as a transformative procedure as well as a merely destructive one. If there is anything to be gained from a comparison of The Keeper with The Lorelei it is in seeking to appreciate the meaning of these dimly understood forces of numinous power; of apprehending their destructive potential and then making a headlong leap of faith into them anyway.