We come to this path in many ways. An animal trail in a forest, a gleam of light scattering on the ocean, a narrow alley off a city street, piled with refuse of the modern world; a vague terrain in the same-old suburbs, cleared for development, overgrown with weeds.
This was my path.
I grew up in the city, three or four generations from rural life, a child of emigrant families, more generations from a connection with the land and its spirits. But my parents returned to a country that their forebears fled, a country where the wall between the worlds is thinner, where the crumbling buildings entwined with ivy, and the standing stones on bare grey hills speak of a deeper connection with the ancestors, with the Otherworld. They may not have known the stories, the superstitions, the spirits, but they took us into the wild places, where sea meets sky meets land, and taught us the reverence for the world and its wonders that their folk-inflected hippy Catholicism had bequeathed to them.
Growing up, the only cosmology that was presented to me was a distant and hierarchical one: far above us, there was God and His Angels, untouchable, out of reach; but the Saints were closer, and could intercede, and in every church, in many villages, and by the roadsides in desolate, lonely corners, there were shrines to the Mother, her hands spread to hold us, her sorrowing eyes resting their compassionate gaze upon us.
And there were ghosts.
I don’t know at what age my fascination for the Otherworld began, but I have very early memories of the world I lived in being thronged with invisible presences. As a little child, I could hear the stirrings in the dark, the sounds of things creeping across the floor of my bedroom, the whispers from Beyond. I had no vocabulary to address the spirits of ancestors or the natural world, save that of the Gothic fiction and mysterious books that I was obsessed with. In these books, gods and monsters, ghosts and phantoms, strange creatures and weird happenings were rife. Mysteries of the Unexplained; the title of one of those yellow-paged books from the library stands as a metonymy of what I sought.
Lacking a vocabulary or a worldview that would incorporate these things in the official narrative of my time and place and culture, I sought it in the old-book smell and musty carpet tiles of the children’s library, and in the solitude and smoky earthy fragrance, among the dead leaves and the damp stones, in the lonely places, the abandoned places, that, to me, were teeming with invisible life. There was another world. Ours was merely the bright surface; beneath there were Hosts of the Dead; beyond there were spirits abroad in all Nature. I knew this, somehow. I went alone into the magical half-light of dusk, and sought the liminal, the unseen, the numinous. I would breathe and close my eyes in the times-between, in the thin places, the ancient places, the forgotten places.
In my country, the weather is not stark and definite; it is a place of mist and drizzle, of lowering clouds and bright sheen on the water as the sun breaks briefly through: changeable, fleeting, never one thing or the other. In my country, in my childhood, there were still visions at shrines, and pilgrimages on foot up mountains, and holy wells, and faery forts. But we knew none of this. We were not Native, and did not speak the language, or observe the Old Ways. Except at Hallowe’en. Back then, in my country, it had not yet quite morphed into the cartoonish scare-fest that we imported back from America, where we had sent it a century or two past. We had no pumpkins or candy-corn (though a cousin in Saint Louis would send us a care-package including just those things, and spider webs, and black-and-orange bunting: the envy of my school-mates). We would carve turnips, just as they did long ago, to hold a coal from the fire, to carry it back through the night to their dark house. We played old games, bobbing for apples, cutting a pile of flour ‘til the grape on the peak fell, eating nuts and thick moist cake speckled with raisins, in which were hidden the stick, for travel, the rag, for poverty, the coin, for riches, the ring, for marriage. We played innocent games of divination and protection, not knowing we were enacting ancient rites. Because my brother and I had birthdays either side of Hallowe’en, we combined them into one party on the Ancient Night. Our house was filled with little demons and spectres every year, with illicit fireworks from Germany in the garden, with cobwebs draped around the doorways, with villainously coloured drinks, called Bat’s Blood, and Witch’s Brew. Old schoolfriends still reminisce about those parties; our house was the spooky one.
And I was a spooky child. I read ghost-stories late into the night, in collections I found in the library. I frightened myself half to death with tales by MR James, HP Lovecraft, Robert Westall, Manley Wade Wellman, Edgar Allen Poe. I remember debating whether to finish a particular story, unsure whether its horrifying conclusion would be worse than what I imagined if I put it aside, and lay wide-eyed in the dark, listening to the creeping, slithering sounds around my bed, to the whistling of the wind and the rattling of the windows. I finished it, and was haunted for weeks. My nightmares were vivid and searing; I woke in terror, and could not move. There was a house down the street, with reaching shadows in the driveway that pursued me as I pelted past, my errand to the shop all but forgotten.
But something happened. One night on television, up past my bedtime, I saw a glimpse of a programme about lucid dreaming: in a scene burned onto my memory, a red-haired woman ran along a beach, pursued by a black-cloaked figure on a horse; she stopped, and the rider stopped too; she turned and faced it, and it lowered its hood, revealing its face to be her own. From then, I learned to take control of the dark dreams, to live with the ghosts and spirits. I did not banish them, but realised I was one of theirs. I made a deal with the Dark, and took a step away from the daylight world. I dreamed of being a magician, but in my day the tales of wizard schools were far more terrible and wonderful than those that kids grow up with now; I read over and over, in A Wizard of Earthsea, how Ged eventually turned and faced the Shadow, and saw it as himself, and drew it in. I sought out the wild places, and the lonely places, and invoked the ghosts and spirits. I drew them in. I scared playmates in an abandoned house, around a flickering, outlaw fire, as my eyes burned and my voice whispered tales of haunting and possession; I summoned the Dark in a neighbourhood garden, and I muttered and shook, and went wild, and the children I had played with began to shun me. I stared at myself in the mirror in a dim room, and saw the vision of my face blur and shift, my outline flickering, as I became the Wolf of fairy tales. I cast spells and performed childish rituals, collecting weird symbolic objects: bones, stones, shells, antique curiosities cast in bronze. The spirits of the Dark spoke to me in dreams, whispered to me at night, cradled me, protected me, gathered me in. I saw the Dead, silent among the ruins, felt their presence in the abandoned, haunted places I frequented. I was a spooky child.
It was only later, having put aside these childish things, having foresworn magic and superstition, that I let the Light come in. As a teenager, I renounced my weird and lonely ways, and embraced the sunlit world. I wandered in Nature, discovered the Romantic poets, I fell in love with Beauty, I felt the fleeting connection with the grand, eternal energy of the World, and sought these Peak Experiences in moments of tranquillity and transcendence, in a sylvan amphitheatre staring at the stars and reeling, by a lake shimmering with moonlight, under a copper beech whose bark I caressed as I felt the tingling energy that ran through it. I felt the rush and thrill of first love, felt the vastness of the Universe around me – but I had banished ghosts and spirits. I explained it all in terms of “energy”, “transcendence”, “enlightenment”.
It was only in later years that I rediscovered the Otherworld, and integrated it: it is both the Dark and the Light, the Love and the Fear, the restless Dead, and the luminous Everliving. I had no words for spirits of Light, Life, and Love; so many of us raised in a long-dead religion, in echoing vaults of shadows that smelled of incense and cold stone, that lived in gloomy Northern climes, were given no words for these. And so, some of us, because it was the only way we found to explore the Mysteries of the Unexplained, we made a deal with the Dark: we must never forget, that when the Light was reserved for a far-off, unreachable God, it was the Dark that gathered us in.
Ivernus has been studying the occult and the weird all his life, and inscribing spells and stories in leatherbound books since he was very young. A devotee of wild, ancient, and lonely places, a speaker to spirits and practitioner of magic, he has recently felt the call to minister and mediate between this world and the Otherworld, and has found himself on the Path of Druidry … only to discover that he had been walking it all along, and only now looked back and seen where he was coming from.
2 thoughts on “A Haunted Childhood”
Thank you for this, Invernus! Any friend of LeGuin is a friend of mine!
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This is beautifully written. Thank you.
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