Photographing a Ghost

[This essay was submitted for my Voices in the Archives term paper, MA Creative and Critical Writing, May 2015.  Mark: 74.  It is a hybrid creative-critical exploration.]

A Creative-Critical Exploration of Narrative Form and Structure

in  Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus


January 1894.  The First Copyrighted Film: Fred Ott’s Sneeze, by Thomas Alba Edison, New Jersey.

Ahhhhhhhh – where is it? 

The sneeze recorded for all time and posterity; the copyrighted sneeze.  But what sneeze, where?  Ahhh, ahh, ah – the sneeze that was recorded on celluloid film – wasn’t it?  The sneeze that is owned for ever more by Thomas Alba Edison of the Edison Manufacturing Company, West Orange, New Jersey.  Ahhh, ah, ah – the sneeze sneezed on Sunday 7th January 1894, or maybe Tuesday 2nd January 1894 – Happy New Year – or perhaps any of the days in between.  Fred Ott’s sneeze.  The captured sneeze.



Fred_Ott's_SneezeFred Ott’s Sneeze


How many frames in a five-second film?  Forty-five in 1894: that’s nine frames per second.  Each moment captured one-ninth of a second’s presence and the sneeze from beginning to end lasted five seconds.  In the film, I see the sneeze sneezing before my very eyes.  A phantasmagoria – this ghost from the past: a man long dead who lives on in his eternal sneeze. 

[Where] does it exist? 

My eyes run vertically down each of the five columns of nine frames, left to right, looking for the sneeze.  But it doesn’t exist.  In this film of a man sneezing, where’s the sneeze?  It’s not there.  Not in any of the forty-five frames that captured every ninth-of-a-second of that sneeze that really happened, I really saw, but where?  I see that in the first nine frames he is clearly putting the snuff into his nose.  But I don’t see the snuff.  And I don’t see it enter his nose.  All I see is a hand raised in gesture.  Gesture – noun: 1. ‘A movement of part of the body [especially a hand or the head] to express an idea or meaning’; 3. ‘An action performed for show in the knowledge that it will have no effect’, (Oxford English Dictionary, 2003) – a movement towards; an expression of a signal or sign; an idea of a thing, yet not the thing itself.  By frame ten, the hand is beginning to retreat: but what happened between nine and ten to make it so?  Between –


Between frames ten and seventeen the hand retreats and the head goes back.  Or at least, moments of it appear to.  Somewhere.  Between twenty-two and twenty-six the head begins its roll forwards.  But where?  And has the sneeze already happened when it does?  By frame twenty-eight, there begins the most forceful of forward head movements – is this the sneeze, here? 


What has happened between twenty-seven and twenty-eight to propel the head so violently forward like this?  The sneeze?  Between twenty-seven and twenty-eight?  No, it’s over by twenty-seven, I can see. 

Wind back. 

Somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-six again, then? 
















  1. A lost film. Photographing a Ghost by George Albert Smith, Brighton. 

A film about a photographer – attempting to photograph a ghost.  George Albert Smith: pioneer film-maker; experimenting with the effects of double-exposure and match-cuts to create surreal and supernatural narratives far beyond their time.

‘Twixt two worlds in double-exposure, ghosts – real or imagined, staged spectres, or dead-men walking – superimposed onto another reality.  Between the light and the dark: between this world and the next: between spaces: between moments. 

Where? and when? [does] the ‘between’ exist?

Between quotation marks, between parentheses, between words, between letters, between you and me?  Between frames? Between takes?  Between the vision and the camera?  Photographing the ghost.


 In the film, they never can catch it.





Ghost Photography: Between the Worlds of Fact and Fiction


The narrative form and structure of Angela Carter’s fantasy-historical novel, Nights at the Circus (2006 [1984]), explores the pulsating tensions in the interplay between contradictory oppositions.  Through a study of Carter’s narrative, and its movement through the liminal spaces, it is possible to trace a dynamic drive that is both critical and utopian in its aesthetic.


This picaresque novel comprises numerous vignettes presenting many minor characters through their past and present experiences, which has the effect of both retarding and propelling Fevver’s major narrative movement towards the arrival of the twentieth century.  In one such vignette, Carter explores the emerging technology of photography as a device that illustrates the dynamic tensions between reality and illusion.  The development of photography in the late nineteenth century seemed to be coupled with a fascination for the supernatural.  Rachel Carroll, in her study of ‘Time, modernity, and the end of history in Nights at the Circus’ (2000), suggests that the emerging photographic technology was ‘[c]haracterized by supernatural illusion and magic[;] this new science is cloaked in the superstitions of the séance and spirit-rapping.’  She says,

It seems as if the science of photography is too early to be assimilated; the return of the dead is perceived as more probable than the technical reproduction of images. (p191)


Herr. M., who ‘was a medium’ (p154), exploits this interplay between superstition and science by ‘sell[ing] his unhappy clients authentic pictures of the loved and lost ones’ (pp158-159), for their comfort and his profit.  The idea that these can be ‘authentic pictures’ deliberately plays upon the disparity between the implicit trust that the photographed image has the potential to engender, due to its being a pictorial representation of a moment that the eye has witnessed, and the mechanisms of illusion that were employed from photography’s very beginnings to create a sense of something beyond the world the eye can see.


Curator Gaia Tedone, writing about her 2014 Contemporary Art Society exhibition, ‘Twixt Two Worlds, explained that

the exhibition takes the technique of double exposure and the visual effect of superimposition as starting points to explore the transition between still and moving image across photography, magic lantern slides and cinema.

Whilst looking at this transition in both historical and technical terms, it also attempts to articulate a parallel trajectory, which considers the use of doubling as a suggestive vehicle to signal the apparition of another world; a world that is governed by the laws of imagination, illusion and paranormal phenomena. In the space amongst these two worlds, only separated by the cinematic screen, the tensions between science and magic, vision and insanity, life and death crucially play out.

These tensions are central to Nights at the Circus, in which Carter explores the doubling of relationships between fact and fantasy, truth and fiction, authenticity and illusion, not only historically but as an enquiry into the novel form itself.  Herr. M. instructs the families to ‘[s]how these photographs to nobody, or else her face will disappear!’, the narrator adding that, ‘[t]he indistinct features melting into darkness surrounding them were those of whomever longing and imagination made them.’ (p161)  It is the interplay between imagination and the tangible objects of reality that constructs both the narrative dynamic of this novel, and of the novel form more generally.

The dynamic of Nights at the Circus unfolds around the question of Fevvers’ authenticity; her slogan, ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’, initiates the narrative desire that will drive the text towards its conclusion in ever greater uncertainty.  Carroll says that ‘[a] double dynamic is in motion in Carter’s text: a return to origin, to the past, the archaic, the “primitive”, and projection into the future.’ (p188)  This, she suggests, characterises the novel as an ‘exemplary postmodern text’, in which, ‘the textuality of history is self-consciously evoked by the historical and literary pastiche in which it revels’ (p188).  The self-consciousness of this novel’s relationship with the textuality of history implicitly and explicitly draws upon the self-consciousness of the tension between fact and fiction, authentic representation and crafted illusion.  It is within and between this dynamic relationship that Fevvers’ story unfolds, and that the novel form itself is energised.  Hélène Cixous (2005 [1996; 1998]), writes that

A book does not have a head and feet.  It does not have a front door.  It is written from all over at once, you enter it through a hundred windows.  It enters you.  A book is just about round.  But since to appear [paraître] it must adjust itself into a rectangular parallelepiped, at a certain moment you cut the sphere, you flatten it, you square it up.  You give the planet the form of a tomb.  The book has only to wait resurrection.  (p120)


Cixous’ language here is suggestive of the novel form in its relationship to the dynamic tension between life and death.  The ‘form of a tomb’, the flattened and rectangularised book, ‘has only to wait resurrection’: its enlivenment through the eyes and imagination of the reader who will open it and enter it, be entered by it.  Death is not the end for the novel, only an invitation for a return to the beginning.  The book is a tangible object, lifeless in itself, yet with the investment of imagination, new worlds beyond the boundaries of reality are opened up.


The novel form sits at the threshold of the moment between life and death.




Spin the reel forward to November 22nd 1963:  Dallas, Texas.

The Zapruder film: eighteen point three frames per second, four-hundred and eighty-six frames, twenty-six point six seconds of film.  There.  Frame three-hundred-and-thirteen.  The assassination of President John F Kennedy.  What do I see?  A husband and wife.  In an open-top car; she holds him between her Chanel candy-pink arms, leans her head towards his face – a private intimacy of tender love and care, for him, his life.  In that moment she is blind

                                                to all else


                                                            only him

                                                                        as her world



                                                            is shattered


                                                                                    will never




Replay the scene.  Spin back.  Pause.  Begin again.

            Where is the moment in truth –

Between life and death?



















It isn’t there.  Not anywhere I can see.  Not in frame three-hundred-and-thirteen, nor in any of the four-hundred and eighty-six frames of the twenty-six point six seconds of film at eighteen-point-three frames per second.  Not there.  But somewhere in between.  Somewhere, between frame one and frame four-hundred and eighty-six, a man has been killed.  Between the world before the assassination of JFK and the world after.  The ghosts of one bleed into the other without being seen.



Thresholds: The Voice Between Two Worlds

Nights at the Circus is an exploration of thresholds, of intangible instants, of moments in between fantasy and reality, authenticity and imagination, life and death, that serves both to energise the narrative dynamic and critique the novel form.  Historically, the novel is set at the cusp of the twentieth century, the threshold of consciousness between the past and the future.  However, as Carter demonstrates emphatically throughout the narrative dynamic of this text, the idea of definable, calculable, linear progression with tangible moments of distinct transformation from one state to another is as elusive and illusory as the photograph of a ghost.

Through a ‘return to origin[s]’ (Carroll, p187) which both forestalls and propels the narrative dynamic, the circus train encounters the pre-industrial landscape and culture of the Siberian taiga, where the reader is told, ‘[t]he village would also remain in ignorance of that moment, now approaching at great speed, when the nineteenth century would transform itself into the twentieth.’ (p314)  Carter then continues to elaborate that, at that time, the majority of the world’s population would have ‘heartily concurred’ that ‘the whole idea of the twentieth century, or any other century at all, for that matter, was a rum notion’ (p314).  Here she suggests that our ideas about time and the fixing of a moment are illusory, fictive, and indeed, highly subjective.  She critiques the notion of ‘history, that is, history as we know it, that is, white history, that is, European history, that is, Yanqui history […] history as such [which] extended its tentacles to grasp the entire globe’. (p314)  Carter’s succession of modifiers and qualifiers in relation to the word ‘history’, coupled with the monstrous connotations of destruction and greed in the ‘tentacles’ that ‘grasp’ are suggestive of just how subjective, and how damaging, the idea of ‘history’ has become.


However, the drive of the novel’s major narrative thrusts Fevvers forward into that elusive moment of the threshold of the new century, despite the reflections and returns forestalling the arrival of the event.  Writing contemporaneously in 1984, Peter Brooks, through his reading of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920),

emerge[s] […] with a dynamic model [of narrative plot] that structures ends […] against beginnings […] in a manner that necessitates the middle as detour, as struggle toward the end under the compulsion of imposed delay, as arabesque in the dilatory space of the text. (p108)

This is in direct response to the more linear and deterministic narrative theories of Shklovsky, Propp and Todorov.  Brooks suggests the necessity of dynamic duality within the movement of narrative plot structures, as opposed to simple linear progression.  Whilst maintaining that ‘the desire of the text is ultimately the desire for the end’ (p108), he presents us with the paradox that, ‘the end is a time before the beginning’ (p103), suggesting that, ‘[a]ny final authority claimed by narrative plots, whether of origin or end, is illusory.’ (p109)

Carter’s critique of the interpretation of history as objective, linear, progressive and deterministic can equally be seen as a critique of these values as applied to the novel form as history itself.  Rachel Carroll cites Gianni Vattimo’s argument that ‘modernity is “dominated by the idea that the history of thought is a progressive “enlightenment”” […] whereas postmodern thought is characterized by a critique of Western thought and of the very notion of foundation’ (pp187-188).  As an ‘exemplary postmodern’ novel (Carroll, p188), Nights at the Circus continually subverts expectations relating to origins and destinations in both its narrative form and content.

Carter’s exploration of history as illusory, fluctuating, subject to constant revisions, repetitions and omissions, can be traced through the unfolding narrative of Sophie Fevvers, protagonist and occasional narrator of this novel.  According to her foster-mother Lizzie, Fevvers ‘never existed before.  There’s nobody to say what you should do or how to do it.  You are Year One.  You haven’t any history and there are no expectations of you except the ones you yourself create.’ (p232)

The self-consciousness with which Fevvers sets about creating her own personal narrative history throughout this novel is an exercise in the continual tension between dialectical oppositions – fact and fiction, authenticity and illusion, past and future, life and death –oppositions which are dynamically charged and mutually essential.  All foundations are removed in this novel, as every instant slips away and every opposite is as viable as its counterpart.  The narrative moves both forwards and backwards, and at times stands still, through the devices of memory, picaresque, tableaux and vignette.  The exuberant, feathered giantess, ‘Cockney Venus’, Fevvers recounts her history to Walser, in her own bawdy words, throughout the novel’s first part; but in the timeless Siberian taiga, ‘she felt herself diminishing’(p323), desperately clinging to the hope of Walser to verify her authenticity.

The young American it was who kept the whole story of the old Fevvers in his notebooks; she longed for him to tell her she was true.  She longed to see herself reflected in all her remembered splendour in his grey eyes. (p324)

Fevvers’ history is at once a story of her own making, a life in her own hands, and also reliant on the verification of others, beyond her control.  It is a history that is interwoven with the history of everyone she has ever encountered, and with those she has not; it takes narrative twists and turns, digressions across space and time, embracing ostensible opposites, multiplicities and uncertainties in its ever-accommodating wings.

It is, for me, the multiplicities and uncertainties within the narrative voice of this novel that make it most intriguing.  The novel begins with what appears to be a dispassionate, third-person, omniscient narrator, recounting the evening of the conversation between Fevvers, Lizzie and Walser in Fevvers’ dressing room at the Alhambra, London.  The events of Part 1 are recounted in past tense narration, although much of the text is dominated by the direct speech of Fevvers’ own narrated history.  In the novel’s second part, set in St. Petersburg in pre-Soviet Russia, the narrative voice begins to break out into exuberant flourishes of direct address to the reader, disrupting the device of the impartial and distant narrator created in the first part and unsettling the narrative’s relationship with time and history.

They lived on, without knowledge or surmise, in this city that is on the point of becoming legend but not yet, not quite yet; the city, this Sleeping Beauty of a city, stirs and murmurs, longing yet fearing the rough and bloody kiss that will awaken her, tugging at her moorings in the past, striving, yearning to burst through the present into the violence of that authentic history to which this narrative – as must by now be obvious! – does not belong.

[…] in the sugar syrup of nostalgia, acquiring the elaboration of artifice; I am inventing an imaginary city as I go along.


In this passage, the narrative voice emerges from the web of its own narration to comment in the continuous present tense on its own narrative process and pull the reader into a shared future that is, nevertheless, undisclosed to the characters within the body of the narration.  As part of Carter’s critique of the utopian thinking of the nineteenth century that imagined the twentieth century, Carter’s own century, as the ‘new dawn’ (p338) of hope and liberation, she here introduces into the narrative voice a reminder from the novel’s future – the future shared by and known to Carter and her readers, but eclipsed from the view of the characters within her narrative – that within a very few years of the new century’s arrival the world was to know more blood and suffering and trauma than it had ever seen before.  She refers in this passage to the Russian revolution of 1917, which, in the name of Communism, hope and liberty, overthrew the aristocracy and brought about civil war and years of oppressive rule.  However, the acknowledgment of this undreamt-of future also carries resonances of the advent of the two world wars in the early twentieth century and the unprecedented loss of life that resulted from these conflicts.  This puncturing of a hole within the fabric of the narrative propels the reader back into self-consciousness with regard to the world outside of the novel’s text, and serves as a counterpoint to the utopian imaginings of the fin de siècle consciousness.

However, this passage goes further still, in drawing attention to itself as narrative and to the processes by which it is created.  It is a narrative that ‘does not belong’ to ‘authentic history’, but rather to artifice, invention and imagination – the author’s craft in relationship with the tangible facts of reality; although the unfolding narrative bears its own witness to discredit the assertion that it resides ‘in the sugar syrup of nostalgia’.  We might assume that the ‘I’ in this passage belongs to the voice of the author, Angela Carter, drawing attention to the artifice of the novel form within which she is working to create and manipulate the desire of the text.  Yet it is not clear.  This passage is interwoven with a passage of narration that is revealed to be Walser’s typewritten report for the newspaper, a hyperbolic personal account of the city of St. Petersburg.  The admissions of ‘sugar syrup nostalgia’ would seem to fit Walser’s account here, but his ability to look back on the scene from a point outside and beyond the scope of the narration is uncertain.  We do not know if the character Walser would have lived to look back on those events, and the random insertion of his future voice into the narrative at this juncture would seem to be an isolated incident, and therefore unlikely.

Furthermore, the narrative voice becomes even more richly multi-layered and complex in the third part of the novel.  In the narrated account of the Siberian taiga, the narrative voice shuttles unexpectedly and inexplicably between third-person, omniscient narration, and a first-person narrative from Fevvers’ distinct perspective.  This section opens with a lengthy first-person account in which the ‘I’ is definable as Fevvers herself: ‘I’m basically out of sympathy with landscape, I get the shivers on Hampstead bloody Heath.’ (p231)  Yet it veers continuously between Fevvers’ own voice and the voice of the unnamed narrator: ‘Fevvers, thus pushed, could think of no reply.’ (p234)

This section of the novel presents a narrative rollercoaster, a constantly unsettling and destabilising series of shifts in voice and perspective that gives the reader no firm foundation upon which to build.  Is the whole novel contrived to be a masterpiece of Fevvers’ creation, a personal narrative account of her own and others’ history, presented as if dispassionately narrated, but with increasing intrusions of her own voice and perspective as it progresses?  This would, perhaps, provide an additional layer to Carter’s critique of history and the novel form, as the illusion of objective authenticity is gradually eroded in the novel’s own increasingly passionate and subjective voice.

Georg Lukacs (1969), suggests that what characterises the early historical novel is ‘artistic faithfulness to history […] the great tradition of realism’, and a ‘relation to the real object [that] is always historically and socially correct’ (p69).  Carter’s novel is self-consciously placed outside of the tradition of ‘authentic history’, and through its own interruptions within its narrative voice, it embodies a critique of the illusion of the objective authenticity of the novel form.

In this novel, author, narrator and character exist in a complexly interwoven relationship with one another: distinct yet indistinct.  Narrative intrusions serve to draw attention to the artificiality of the text, but here they become distorted and re-consumed within the narrative unfolding of the text itself.  There is no inside/outside binary with this novel: in the words of Derrida, ‘There is nothing outside the text’. (Derrida, quoted in Royle, 2003: p62.)


6.30a.m., 21st December 2012.  Butts Brow, Willingdon, East Sussex.

I rise and climb the grassy hill to the mound, the ancient Temple of the Four Directions.  Wind tears the teardrops from my eyes, streaking my cheeks with their inscription, and buffets my forward motion with assaults from either side or head-on rebuffs.  At the top, I greet the four directions and find a place to sit amongst the aromatic sheep-shit on the turf.  I close my eyes and feel the presence of the earth and sky around me here, sink into my heart and feel the elusive peace within.  In the silent darkness, even the birds are stilled in this hour before the dawn.  Time passes.

            Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the sky brightens by degrees and the birds begin their morning song, calling up the sun from across the sea.

            I stand alone atop the tumulus and watch a star reborn from deep within the ocean of the night.  Now is the end of darkness: the dawning of the Light.  I don’t know precisely when it started, and I can’t see when it will end.  I only know that it is not the End.  Not the end that they predicted, the end of life on earth.  But an end and a beginning of something more subtle perhaps: something intangible, imperceptible, between.  Between the end of something that has no beginning, and the beginning of something that has no end.  A moment within a moment between time and eternity; all in one and one in all at last.


1.30p.m., 12th May 2015.  Eastbourne, East Sussex.

The photograph I thought I’d taken to mark that utopian moment does not exist.  There’s nothing to prove that it ever happened.  And now, less than two-and-a-half-years on, I have no idea whether it did or not.  Memory, more elusive than that inner peace and more elastic in its relationship to time than the yo-yoing transit of the sun, contains so much that never happened and lets go so many things that did.

 I can find no information about the time of the sunrise on December 21 2012, or even any clear evidence that it did rise at all; nothing to support the hypothesis that there ever was such a date or time in living history.  It, like every preceding moment and all that shall ever come to pass, is gone. 

I remember the days before it, the anticipation and preparation for things to come.  I live in the days of the aftermath, the shifting uncertainty, the rising new world.  But of the day, the time, the moment in between, there is only my word and the ghost of a memory – a ghost that cannot be photographed.



Now: The Utopian Moment

Nights at the Circus presents, in many ways, a strong critique of nineteenth century utopianism.   The myth of the ‘new dawn’ of the coming twentieth century is exposed through narrative intrusions and shared realities that both Carter and the reader are able to see from the other side, from our perspective of futurity.  Neither Ma Nelson’s brothel, Madame Schrek’s ‘chamber of imaginary horrors’ (p79), the circus, the taiga, the past, the present, nor the future offers any kind of comforting or sustainable illusion of liberty and happiness.  Fevvers’ euphoric outpouring about the ‘new dawn’ in which ‘all women will have wings, […] will tear off [their, Blakean,] mind forg’d manacles, will rise up and fly away […] transformed’ is cut short by Lizzie who says, ‘It’s going to be more complicated than that. […] I see storms ahead, my girl.’ (p339)  This novel continually resists linear momentum towards a teleological and desirable end point.

Ernst Bloch (1996 [1964]) suggests that ‘In a non-teleological world there is no such thing [as utopia]’ (p12).  For Bloch, Utopia resides in that which is ‘in the process of being’ (p15), and becomes realisable through the dynamic interplay between dialectical positions and their continual forward motion through time.  Carter’s novel resists the teleological, precisely through its ‘double dynamic’, or dialectical dynamics, in the kind of dynamic narrative motion described by Brooks as the desire for the end, in which the end is a time before the beginning, and both are illusory.  Carter disrupts all distinctions between end and beginning, real and illusory, inside and outside in Nights at the Circus, dancing instead within the dilatory spaces in between these polar opposites towards an end that is a new beginning, beyond time and space.  It is this dynamic movement through the fluctuating tensions of liminality that gives the novel its truly utopian aesthetic.

The novel’s envoi presents the final image of ‘[t]he spiralling tornado of Fevvers’ laughter [which] began to twist and shudder across the entire globe, as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed, everywhere, was laughing.’ (p350)  This is the end of history, but the celebration of life.  In contrast to history’s tentacles that grasp the entire globe, Fevvers laughter infuses everyone and everything on the planet with its own infectious delight.  It is a vibrant image of continued life, hope and happiness, yet an image with its own implicit shadow – the tornado that twists and shudders – reflecting the novel’s dynamic and dialectical structure of the utopia that can be found, here and now, within the embraced paradoxes of life’s myriad contradictions.

The dynamic structure and complex narrative voice of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus contribute to the creation of a novel that is both critical and utopian in its thinking, embracing the ambiguity of opposites to provide a dialectical structure from within the centre of which the text is animated.  It is a postmodern critique of history and the novel form, and a critical exploration of utopian thinking, which is energised by its own unsettling contradictions and the paradoxes inherent to the time and perspectives it explores.



Midnight, 31 December 1899.  Elynge Ellett, the Sussex Marshes, Sussex.

 She’s nothin’ like they say she is, you know.  Green-haired, frog-faced, sucker-fingered creature, with the tail of a six-foot eel.  I mean, most people don’t even realise she’s a woman.  But I’ve seen ‘er, so I know.  

​            Was down on the marshes, or the wishes, as we call ‘em.  Dark it was, Samhain and no moon.  North wind sent a chill right deep into your bones and them wish-hounds was howling enough to make your blood curdle.  I was out looking for me poor son Jack, oh how I cursed ‘im for being lost so late at night and in winter too.  He’d been playing by the wish-pools and so help me I’d told ‘im a thousand times if I’d told ‘im once: Don’t go down to them ponds, stay away, ‘specially at night when it’s dark.  

​            He couldn’t ‘elp himself.  Drawn to ‘em he was, like a sheep to summing – I forget the phrase now, too muddled I am, and muddied.  Used to sit down there and make up stories, he said.  ‘E said, she told them to him.  Used to come back with a head full o’ wishes, he did.  Shaggy hair all matted with mosses and a fistful o’ bright ideas.  Stories about this and that – fairies, magic, witches, princes and heroes.  His favourite was The Nixie of the Millpond: a magical tale of a young lad promised to the Nixie by his dad in exchange for riches.  Down at the water’s edge this lad was, cleaning his knife from the hunt, when the water began to bubble and boil, bubble and boil, and up popped the Nixie, a green-haired, frog-faced, sucker-fingered creature, with the tail of a six-foot eel; she stretched out a dripping wet hand an’ pulled him down, beneath the water, never to be seen again.  Except his true love wouldn’t have that.  She went down to find him an’ cried her heart out, she did. Eventually being given a series of magical objects to help her get him back – a silver comb, a golden spinning wheel, and a magic harp.  Oh yes, he told that one so many nights over, even I can remember how it went.

He loved those tales more than real life.  Wanted to be ‘em all, to live in ‘em all.  ‘E’d tell us his stories, or her stories if that’s what they were, and he lit up the dark nights with ’em, he did.  Sometimes, people would come to ‘ear him, little boy as he was even then, and they’d stop by for the night and pay lodgin’s.  ‘E’d croon his stories to a full ‘ouse some nights, and the fire always burned warm an’ bright when he did.

​            ‘E loved the attention o’ course, and he started stringing out those stories for all they was worth as he got older.  Weavin’ ‘em in an’ out of each other for nights at a time, gettin’ more an’ more fantastical always. Shocking really, some o’ the things he was tellin’ in them stories.  The ways lovers carried on in ‘em – not just your ordin’ry men an’ women, either.  All sorts goin’ on in there, as I said.  

​            Well, the more absurd they started gettin’, the less people wanted to ‘ear ‘em.  Losing money then, we was.  People stopped coming to stay.  But he didn’t seem to care.  It wasn’t about that any more, for him.  


​Always, always, he wanted to go down to them pools and see her, so he said.  To ‘ear her voice and listen to her stories.  I couldn’t fathom it, and I didn’t want him goin’ down there.  But he was getting to be a big lad and I could ‘ardly stop him, and I cursed that his father was dead and gone and couldn’t ‘elp.  An’ as it got darker an’ colder, he seemed to want it more an’ more, strange as it seems, I know.  ‘E always did seem to live on the opposite side o’ things from the rest of us.  

​            ‘E’d wake in the middle o’ the night and wander down there ‘alf naked, just to gaze into those murky, reedy ponds.  ‘Ardly even seemed to notice when it was frosty underfoot an’ shards of ice cut into the gloomy water.  

​            Then he started tellin’ stories about the dead, an’ that just wasn’t on at all.  ‘E’d come back, hair drippin’ and  wide-eyes starin’, saying he’d seen his dad, and his ol’ friend Jimmy, an’ all manner of others from times past and present, and that made people mad with fear an’ rage, an’ they closed the door on our lodgin’s for good then. 

His skin got paler and his eyes grew darker as he wandered those wishes beneath the moon night after night.  There was something beginning to eat him away on the inside, as she whispered like a worm her tales of times past, and things she said that was to come.  Time was all awry to him; Truth was gradually undone.

​            I begged him to stop, to think about what he was doin’ to us, to himself even.  But he was havin’ none of it.  Wanted her and her stories more than he wanted us lot in the land o’ the living, that’s for sure.  An’ the last time I saw him, he was heading off down to her again in the twilight.

​            She wasn’t as you’d expect at all, like I say.  Green-haired, frog-eyed, sucker-fingered creature, with the tail of a six-foot eel. 

​            Elynge Ellett: the undoin’ o’ my poor Jack.






Benjamin, Walter. (1935) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.  In Arendt, Hannah (ed.). (1969) Illuminations.  New York: Schocken Books.


Bloch, Ernst. (1964) ‘Something’s Missing’.  Collected in Bloch, Ernst, (Zipes, Jack, and Mecklenburg, Frank (trans.)), (1996)The Utopian Function of Art and Literature.  Massachusetts: MIT Press, reprinted 1996.


Brooks, Peter.  (1984) ‘Freud’s Masterplot: A Model for Narrative’.  In Brooks, Peter. (1984) Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, pp. 90-112.


Carroll, Rachel. (2000) ‘Return of the century: Time, modernity and the end of history in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus’, Yearbook of English Studies, 30, pp.187-201.   Accessed online at March 2015.


Carter, Angela. (1984) Nights at the Circus.  London: Vintage, reprinted 2006.


Cixous, Hélène.  (1996) ‘Writing Blind’.  In Cixous, Hélène. (1998) Stigmata.  London: Routledge, published online 2005, pp. 115-125.


Lukacs, Georg. (1969) The Historical Novel. London: Penguin.


Royle, Nicholas. (2003) Jacques Derrida. London: Routledge, reprinted 2004.


Soanes, Catherine (ed.) (2003) Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Tedone, Gaia. (2014) ‘’Twixt Two Worlds’ Accessed May 2015



Additional research for creative component:


IMDB: (Photographing a Ghost).  Accessed 20 May 2015.


O’Leary, Michael. (2013) Sussex Folk Tales.  Gloucestershire: The History Press.


Wikipedia:’s_Sneeze Accessed 26 March 2015.


Wikipedia: Accessed 26 March 2015.


Wikipedia: Accessed 26 March 2015.


Youtube: Accessed 26 March 2015.

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