Ghost in the machine
I was 14 when the first season of The X-Files was broadcast on UK television. This was the perfect age to become obsessed with the programme’s mix of aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories. Like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. The series sparked an obsession that made me an eager viewer of the other – mostly awful – programmes which tried to cash in on the 1990s vogue for the paranormal. Amongst the most awful was a BBC series – it may have been the one presented by Carol Vorderman, although I can’t recall for certain – which was a ragbag of “strange but true” stories presented through dramatic reconstructions. I can remember very little about it, save for one episode that has always stayed with me.
It told the story of a man in the early 1980s, who found that his BBC Micro computer had become a conduit through which he could communicate with a man from the sixteenth century. The latter was mystified by the “box of lights” which had appeared in his house, and accused the computer owner of witchcraft. Gradually, however, as the two carried on their electronic conversations a more trusting relationship developed. The programme concluded by stating that archival research supposedly revealed that the sixteenth-century man had actually existed, and that expert linguists had concluded that the dialect and vocabulary he used was authentic to the period.
A few weeks ago – fifteen years on – a memory of this story popped back into my head for some reason. Some quick Googling revealed that other people remembered it too; and that the man in question, Ken Webster, had written a book about his experience called The Vertical Plane. Intrigued, I ordered a second-hand copy and spent a happy afternoon reacquainting myself with the story. The book badges itself as “a unique supernatural detective story”, and one look at the cover gives an early warning that it was published by Harper Collins’s “occult” division.
You may or may not be relieved to know that this isn’t going to be a post about whether Webster’s account is true. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to consider Webster’s book as a cultural artifact in its own right. Webster’s book has quite a lot going on beneath the surface, which will perhaps be of interest to early modernists who study texts and the different forms they can take. So this post does two things. First, it summarises the story Webster sets out in his book. Secondly, it looks at how Webster tells his story, and how his own text and narrative link to early modern ideas about texts and narratives.
Webster’s story starts in the autumn of 1984, in the village of Dodleston near to the English border with Wales. He is living in Meadow Cottage, an eighteenth-century house in the middle of the village, with his girlfriend Debbie and friend Nicola. Webster borrows a BBC Micro computer from the school at which teaches, so that Nicola can use the word processor (EDWORD, for others who grew up with the Beeb) to write comedy sketches. All three are alarmed when files start appearing on the computer with messages in an archaic form of English, signed “L.W.” The messages are accompanied by various poltergeist phenomena, such as objects being moved or piled in particular formations.
L.W. gradually reveals himself as Lukas Wainman, living in a house on the site of Meadow Cottage during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Parr (ie at some point between 1543 and 1547). He kept various livestock on the land around his house. He had been married with a son, but both wife and child died of the plague in 1517. He had studied at Brasenose College, Oxford and knew Erasmus, having met him three times in all.
A friend of Lukas’s then starts communicating: it turns out that Lukas has been arrested and is being held by the local sheriff, Sir Thomas Fowleshurst, due to his communications with the ‘light box’ or ‘leems boyste” as Lukas calls it, in his house. The friend also reveals that ‘Lukas’ is a pseudonym. Lukas is then released and held under house arrest, resuming communication and confessing how scared he is of the fate that could await him. He also reveals that the ‘leems boyste’ was brought to his house by someone called ‘one’, from the year 2109. ‘Lukas’ had been under the impression that Webster was also from 2109 until the latter says that he is living in 1985.
An unnamed contact from 2109 then starts leaving impenetrable messages on the BBC, saying that the events they are experiencing have a wider purpose. In the meantime Webster and his friends try to think of a way to save Lukas’s life. They remember a chance reference by Lukas to Henry Mann, Dean of Chester and find information in the present that Mann had in 1533 communicated with Elizabeth Barton, the so-called “Maid of Kent”. Barton was a Catholic nun who had made prophecies critical of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who was executed as a result in 1534. Webster gives this information to Lukas to use as a bargaining chip with the sheriff. However, it doesn’t work, and Lukas goes on trial regardless: but is kept alive to keep the light box working. During this period Thomas Fowleshurst begins to use the box to communicate with Webster and it emerges that events are happening in 1546.
Communication is re-established with Lukas, but with further intervention and inscrutable comments from 2109. Webster and Lukas begin to suspect that 2109 is changing their messages, and develop a system where Lukas starts communicating with paper and charcoal left out for him in the present (Lukas meanwhile is able somehow to see and hear Webster in the past). Though this means Lukas reveals that his real name is Tomas (sic) Harden/Hawarden, a graduate of Brasenose who had been dean of the chapel there but was expelled in 1538 for refusing to expunge the name of the Pope from a book in the chapel, as was required by law after the break with Rome. 2109 become extremely irritated that Webster has learnt Wainman’s real name, and demand that he stops disrupting their experiments.
Eventually, the Grosvenor family – Harden’s landlords – demand that he leaves his house. Harden leaves a final message wishing Webster and his friends well, and stating that he will go to Bristol to buy a horse then see if he is welcome again at Brasenose. He says that he will write a book about the events, and hopes that some day they might meet so he can read Webster’s book and Webster his. Harden is then never heard from again, although Webster finds a reference to him – or at least someone with his name – becoming vicar at Little Barrington in Gloucestershire from 1551 to 1554. The tale is rounded off with some final, ever-cryptic communications from 2109.
One of the themes which emerges most strongly from The Vertical Plane‘s narrative is the instability of texts. Webster’s ghost is a textual ghost. Although Harden seems able to see and hear what is happening in the present, Webster himself never sees Harden (although his girlfriend, Debbie, sees him in her dreams on several occasions). Instead, he primarily interacts with Harden through various forms of textual communication, none of which the reader can rely on:
- Through the letters on Webster’s computer monitor. Some of these – Webster never knows which – are altered in subtle ways by 2109. Others are deleted by mistake, meaning that Webster has to summarise what he can recollect of them.
- Through printed copies of those same letters. A number of these are also subsequently lost, and again we rely on Webster’s memory of them for the content of his narrative.
- Through manuscript notes which Harden scratches onto surfaces in the present-day Meadow Cottage, or writes on scraps of paper. The materiality of these notes inclines Webster to place the most faith in them, even though they are often the shortest and most cryptic of Harden’s statements.
Harden communicates through different identities: directly as Lukas Wainman then as Tomas Harden, and second-hand through an unnamed friend and through the sheriff Thomas Fowleshurst. He also sets traps for Webster, in attempt to assess whether he is really from the future. For example, he claims to have done his degree at Jesus College, Oxford, which at that time did not exist: anyone from the future, Harden reasons, would surely know there is no such thing as Jesus College and that it is nonsensical to claim to have studied there. Webster, meanwhile, sees this as a “mistake” which could point to the presence of a hoaxer.
And Webster and Harden themselves also take steps to further mediate how their texts are received. Both try to modify their grammar and vocabulary so as to make it easier for the other to understand. Harden also modifies his hand-writing to try to make it as clear as possible. Webster’s own narrative then further mediates Harden’s, by ‘translating’ his texts. Harden’s original is presented in upper case, with a rendering in modern English below in lower case as with this example:
MYNE GOODLY FOOL MYNE LINKMAN THINKETH THAT THOU ART BE AL IN MYNE PAN H’SAYETH THAT ME MAKETH LYK DIVINSTRE BUT I KNOW YOW LYVE NOWE HE ALS SAYETH THAT MYNE BLOOD BE POYSOND AN THAT IT BE MYNE WEEK HIGNED FANCY BUT LUNE ME NAT METHENKE AN TOLDE HEM SO I ALS SEID ‘TIS LYK FAIRYMGOLD AN THAT TO HOLD IT CLOSE TIL ME WRYTS BOOKE.
My pleasant fool, my servant, thinks that you are all in my head. He says I act like a seer but I know you live now. He also says that my blood is poisoned and that it is my weak-hinged imagination; but I am not mad, I think, and told him so. I also said it is like fairy gold [that he should] keep it secret until I write a book.
The result is a patchwork of overlapping, unstable narratives, which through their structure resist any attempt to derive a “true” version of the story. Harden makes this point explicitly at one stage:
METHYNK YOW ARN A HISTORIE BOKE THAT HATH ITS FRONTE AN BACK SKYN JOYNANT WE ARN EECHE A SYDE
I think we are a history book that has its front and back pages joined together. We are each a side of it.
Indeed, Harden states at various points that he is writing his own book about these events: a completely alternative meta-narrative to set against Webster’s, albeit one that the reader is not privy to. Others clearly are, though: 2109 say that Harden’s book will be found one day. We are left, as a result, with the impression that yet another side to the story remains to be told.
The way in which layers of different textual forms impose themselves upon each other, adding to or contradicting each other, is not unlike the way in which the real Harden might have experienced the textual culture of sixteenth-century England. The bound, printed and unannotated book was by no means the prevailing manifestation of textual culture in early modern England. Textual forms which to modern eyes appear much less ‘settled’ than print interacted both in partnership and in tension with the printed book. Commonplace books reproduced text from printed sources while at the same time subverting it to the owner’s own needs. Manuscript newsletters co-existed with printed newsbook. Printed almanacs provided space for owners to hand-write their own annotations. While we are used to looking for linear, narrative compositions put together by a clear author and generating a fixed meaning, early modern writers and readers were willing to cut and paste material from different types and forms of texts, to create texts embedded within texts or texts that co-existed alongside others. People creating and using early modern texts had a much more creative understanding of the possibilities of textual culture than we have, until recently, given them credit for.
Given all this, the ease with which Webster’s sixteenth-century counterpart adjusts to the different forms of communicating with him is perhaps not so far-fetched. Harden’s sense of confusion and wonder is reserved for the ‘leems boyste’: where has it come from, and how does it glow so? But he adjusts very quickly to communicating with Webster in different textual media, and becomes adept at flitting back and forth between them. As a student at Brasenose, he would no doubt have been just as adept at negotiating printed and manuscript versions of texts. He alludes to a relaxed attitude about “remixing” different forms when Webster leaves out a picture of Erasmus which subsequently disappears, taken by Harden back to his own time:
THANK YE FOR THY PORTREYING ME SHALT HATH IT PORTRAYD IN MYNE BOKE OF YOW TIME.
Thank you for the picture. I shall have it put in my book about your time.
Webster’s narrative is, on the surface, a supernatural detective story which strives after truth. Who is/was Tomas Harden? Did he really exist? Were his communications real, or faked by someone with a good knowledge of the sources? Webster’s character devotes considerable energy during the early days of the haunting – if that is what it was – to researching early modern Chester and its surroundings. He is jubilant when Thomas Fowleshurst, the first verifiable character they come across, makes an appearance. He is even more jubilant when Robin Peedell, an assistant librarian in 1980s Brasenose, identifies Harden in the college records and Harden confirms who he is. But it is significant that Webster’s character also quickly grows fed up with this quest for truth:
I became bored… I wanted to go home, to read about something else.
And so Webster’s book can also be read, exercising one’s freedom as a reader, as an exploration of the relativity of truth. There is not just ambiguity in Webster’s narrative; there is layer upon layer of ambiguity, driven by the way he sets out his different narratives. Whether they are intended to echo the writing and reading practices of Harden’s contemporaries is not clear. But it is also, perhaps, not the point. Texts in whatever form are unstable, shifting media that resist attempts by authors to impose a fixed meaning upon them. In reading Webster’s story I have found my own meaning in it. In retelling it, I have used a particular structure, a long-form blog post, in a particular medium, the electronic text, both of which will shape how it is received. And in reading it, you will no doubt impose your own meanings on my telling of Webster’s telling of Harden’s life. Whether you read it as fact, metaphor or a simple ghost story, I hope you enjoyed it.