‘Your old house was haunted,’ my girlfriend said to me. She had sensed it whenever she had passed the place, before she knew I had ever lived there. It was a curious hybrid, a rustic townhouse that occupied a crossroads in a residential neighbourhood of downtown Iowa City. What she pictured when she passed had been an elderly woman, glowering from the windows of the bedrooms, wringing her hands. I had lived in that house for two years and towards the end of my time there had been afflicted by bouts of insomnia and depressive homesickness. The house was beautiful, antique, and comfortable. I couldn’t ascribe my unease to it but neither could I deny that the place had a Gothic kind of atmosphere. Trees dipped to scratch the window panes and small birds would muck about in the guttering above. One morning, I sat at my desk, reading, and had paused to marvel at a squirrel delightedly collecting a nut from the branch that ran alongside my bedroom window. Without any fanfare, a hawk swooped upon the helpless, unsuspecting creature to deliver a mortal savaging.
A rational explanation for my feeling would be that I had not prepared myself for living in such a large house. The basement alone seemed to expand each time I visited it and every round of laundry assumed what felt like the dimensions of a cartographic expedition. The metal vines of the plumbing either crept towards or from another world. I haven’t always been known for my credulity. I suppose I have always projected a kind of rationalism. A friend once very conspicuously didn’t invite me to an exorcism in her apartment. She did this by telling me about the exorcism after it had happened. ‘You’d have laughed,’ she said, ‘and that would’ve made things much worse’.
By the time I moved into my second house in Iowa City, I was becoming more humourless about spirits. The second house was reputed to be the oldest residential home in the historic quarter of downtown, where the streets are bricked, the trees form a magisterial canopy, especially during the green months, and deer blithely canter about the sidewalks at night, never having apparently seen Bambi. The ghost of a cat, or a dog, was thought to inhabit the attic, and Kurt Cobain was rumoured to have spent a night up there before he was famous. By the time I had moved in, the door that led up had been padlocked.
After that year, my third in Iowa, I returned to England and coming back has since proved the real uprooting. There’s an instructive contrast in the ways that Britons and Americans move house. If you move into rented accommodation here, you can expect it to be furnished. America is, among other things, the land of the U-Haul. So many of my friends moved with couches or beds that had been with them for years, kitchen supplies, record players, pets, books, artwork and floor lamps. I became an adept at scouring second-hand shops, of which there are many in Iowa City, each of them curated with the kind of sensitivity to atmosphere that one might expect from a Berlin gallerist. Agonising over the right wooden spoon, which had to look just worn enough, became a languid pleasure rather than a chore. When it came to finally packing a box for the Good Will, it struck me how much of a cocoon I had inhabited. Having quickly hurdled the novelty of my presence as an Englishman in this small Midwestern college town, I came to assume the intimate familiarity of a local with the people who served me coffee or sold me books. I had allowed myself to think and to behave in ways more becoming of a denizen. I had arrived in Iowa to write fiction. Instead, I came to live it.
Javier Marias described Oxford as ‘one of the cities in the world where least work gets done, where simply being is much more important than doing or even acting’. The reverse is true of Iowa City: everyone is preoccupied with simply being but with the following caveat that this doesn’t preclude hard work. On the contrary, people hypothesise and experiment, and generally seem to be preparing themselves, their personalities, for a sustained creative effort. In my case, that required an evacuation of my interior world. Having dropped the context that England provided me, I gulled myself into thinking that I could wriggle free from the patterns I had formed there, while allowing myself access to a new kind of clarity on everything I had previously experienced and thought I knew about myself. I am describing a feature of migration and one it seems we are inclined to forget. Of course, I have had it easy in comparison to members of my family, who haven’t always volunteered to leave the places they came from.
Still, I now see that I was clearing room in my head for a good haunting. Certainly, I experienced some of the expected strains of living abroad. I missed my family, none of whom seemed to be in spotless health. I wondered generally if I was absconding. When it mattered, one freezing Thanksgiving week, it all got too much. I was mostly alone in the first of my haunted houses. Deep frills of snow fluted around the fruit trees in the yard and lay over the lawn in a cold, clean veil. In the pit of night, after no sleep, or only a couple of hours, I would pad downstairs and then outside and allow the air to nip at me for as long as I could stand it before returning inside to the kitchen where I would sit and wait for an appropriate hour in which to make breakfast. On those nights, I felt powerfully compelled to clear out of my bedroom though it never occurred to me that I might have been visited by anybody who might have once lived there. Confiding this now to the companionable internet doesn’t make my sense of having once been haunted go away. After all, the ghosts come to hang out here too. I type this without irony. I am beginning to believe in them.
The following week, Joy Williams came to read at the Writers’ Workshop and my housemates and I hosted an after-party for her. I was new to her work but had already been smitten by ‘Congress’, a story of hers in which a woman named Miriam, partner to a renowned forensic pathologist, embarks on a kind of vision quest with a lamp fashioned out of four cured deer feet after her partner sustains a brain injury while hunting. It’s a story in which her marvellous spiritual investment in the world that we habitually describe to ourselves as insensate, the world of animals and objects, becomes clear. Nothing is allowed simply to be in her world, nothing could ever function as mere furniture. I loved the story for being a picaresque, loved it for making me confront death in a way that seemed honest, wholly alien and yet horrifyingly familiar. She writes well about displacement too. Considering her partner’s gifts for identifying the dead and providing closure for their loved ones, Miriam notes her own ‘fondness for people who vanished’ and how ‘if she had a loved one who vanished, she would prefer to believe that they had fallen in love with a great distance’.
The night she visited our house, I’d say Joy Williams knew what was up. She wore pink-tinted glasses, seemed shy, but courteous, even happy to be there. She’d wisely asked my roommate’s girlfriend to take her on a tour of the place, an arrangement that retrospectively seems suspiciously like a medium casing the joint, and then disappeared back to her hotel.
I think every writer has wanted to vanish. I tell myself that the labour of writing, of mining a strip of feeling or pursuing thoughts about an aesthetic experience, resembles becoming a ghost among the living. It’s that great love of distance that Williams has Miriam identify in those who are presumed dead, which acts as the originary spur for writers, the need to run but not always to hide. I had come to Iowa to be haunted and then to write about it. The deep mistake I had made was to assume that the place itself would merely host those efforts, not shape them. Without my recognising it, a new shelf of significance had formed.
But I have since come to think of these connections as dragons’ veins. The phrase was introduced to me during my first week back in England. I was staying in a bed-and-breakfast in Heacham on the north Norfolk coast, where my parents took their annual holiday, and had done since my brother and I were children. Out of adult associations with neighbouring Suffolk, I now view this most familiar of landscapes with writers who walk the flat, harsh coastline of the peninsula and meditate on the collapse of European civilisation, or musicians who do much the same while also memorialising a golden age of English socialism. I wouldn’t be doing any of the above, having injured my ankle and Achilles tendon while moving furniture on my last day in Iowa City. So I hobbled between Heacham and Hunstanton, in search of espresso, in search of Mr Whippy, and wondered how or where I would write on this raw, small island.
One morning at the bed-and-breakfast, I had lamented my injury to a woman whose accent suggested she was from London but who seemed conversant with East Anglia on a lane-by-lane basis. I asked her if she knew of a restored Saxon church, St Mary, in the hamlet of Houghton-on-the-Hill, just outside of Swaffham, that I had wanted to visit but couldn’t. I told her who I missed and how much. I ordered kippers for my breakfast. I explained how both my ankles had always been weak and prone to injury despite my not being an especially active person. I wanted her to help me. She knew of St Mary. Not only had a warden from the parish rescued it from abuse by local Satanists; it occupied a convergence of ley lines. I didn’t know what ley lines were but she introduced me to the concept and told me more: about a valley further along the coast and just a little inland where the air bristled with what the locals called dragons’ veins and what I have since parsed as an unusual concentration of psychic energy. Writing this down, I can sense my new susceptibility like another skin. I too am in love with a great distance. Perhaps I can be invited to the exorcisms now. I won’t tell anyone where this valley is though. I promised no-one but myself to return there, this place I have never seen before.