S. Elizabeth: I am not going to lie to you. I initially brainstormed this idea solely as an excuse to show off my Simon Marsden book collection. Even so, it’s still one of my favorites!
For a dreary stretch of years I lived cut off from friends and family in a miserable realm known to me now as, “that shit-hole of which we do not speak,” (to others, I suppose it is just “New Jersey”.) I led a rather joyless existence during that time, especially during the winters, for I had to that point lived most of my life in Florida, where, more often than not on Christmas day my sisters and I comfortably wore shorts and flip-flops. I was neither used to the cold and ice and snow, nor did I ever become enamored of it.
I have written before, on my personal blog, of that emotionally and spiritually crushing time, and well, it’s a bummer. I won’t go into it again, but I’m linking to it here so that you might see where I am coming from. The high point of my existence was my yearly trip back down South during the week of Thanksgiving to spend time with my sisters, and of course the low point was the moment I set foot back in my small apartment upon returning.
The idea for late autumn/early winter graveyard stroll occurred to me one gloomy Saturday morning in December, a few weeks after the glee and glow of my recent vacation had begun to wane. Though I had probably lived in the tiny town three or four years at that point, I was still unfamiliar with most of the area and I had never been one for exploring on my own.
As it happened, I recalled seeing a small cemetery at the bend of a slight road which ran past a shopping plaza I frequented. With that destination in mind, I packed a small sack with apples, notebooks, and my camera, wrapped a woolen scarf around my neck, and drove the six or seven minutes through town, where the afternoon sun was so dim that the Christmas lights, tangled around the street lamps for the upcoming holiday, gleamed and glimmered like a map of blinking, holiday-themed constellations.
I was uncertain of where to park, so I left my car in the back lot of the shopping center and hiked along the side of the road until I reached a rusty fence that ran the length of the property. I held my breath at the gate–I’m always the one who is worried that they are doing something that they are not supposed to do, about breaking the rules, about “getting into trouble,” but it was unlocked and the space was completely deserted, so I stepped through. The only sounds to be heard were my relieved murmur of, “oh, thank goodness,” and my scuffed boots crunching on a path of unswept November leaves.
It was a tiny place; I ambled through it in less than ten minutes. After traversing its few paths, I sat on a soft lump of earth with my back to the scarred, scratchy bark of a sturdy tree, and scribbled in my journal for a while. I snapped a few photos. I lunched on an apple, and realizing there were no trash receptacles nearby, tucked the sticky core in my pocket. I blew on my hands, stamped my feet and realized it was too chilly for my comfort. It was time to head home. Not much of an adventure, but then again, I am a timid soul who likes my adventure in small, gently administered doses.
The chilled, late-autumn weather, stepping through that old chain-link fence, taking photographs of local grave markers, worn smooth by time and the touch of the bereaved –this became a ritual that I would come to repeat year after year, during the remainder of time that I was to spend in New Jersey. It was like a reset button for my soul; after the intensity and ecstasy of feeling that came from time with my beloved sisters and the resulting despair and depression when we parted and I traveled back to that black hole of perpetual heartache and misery, I needed a tranquil place to calm and quiet myself, to find an even keel, to function like a normal person for the rest of the year.
Thus, I suppose, began my minor obsession with the eerie romance of strange and solitary spaces, of places lost in time and overlooked by human hands; of neglected graveyards, dilapidated buildings and derelict structures, architectural ruins, and spectral landscapes. Forlorn, forgotten and forsaken. Much like I felt a great deal of the time.
What is it about the desolation of abandoned spaces that fascinates and captivates us so? There’s an uncanny beauty in decay and abandonment, in the decrepit, ghostly aesthetics of what was once thriving and pristine, now fallen to ruin, suspended in time and place.
The late Sir Simon Marsden knew well this appreciation for those things that vanish: these decaying buildings and vestiges of places that once existed, remaining in the landscape, reassuring our minds that death might not be the end. A photographer and master of darkroom techniques, his body of work is replete with ghostly black-and-white photographs of the shadowy and ethereal–various allegedly haunted houses, gothic graveyards, and moonlit abbeys throughout Europe.
From my reading, it seems that Marsden had a childhood one might read breathlessly of in a weird Victorian tale: he grew up in two haunted English manors, and his father, who had a collection of books about the occult, did nothing to discourage such interests. He would tell his four children ghost stories before they retired to bed; Simon was terrified, and said that he spent the rest of his life trying to exorcise these fears.
“It is not my intention to try and convince you that ghosts exist,” Marsden said, “but rather to inspire you not to take everything around you at face value. I believe that another dimension, a spirit world, runs parallel to our own, and that sometimes, when the conditions are right, we can see into and become part of this supernatural domain. The mystical quality of my photographs reflects this ancient order and they attempt to reveal what is eternal.”
Over the years Simon Marsden traveled widely — primarily in Britain and Europe — and created his uncanny style by using infrared film, veiling his images with that characteristic unearthly atmosphere. I regret that I did not discover for myself the spooky splendors of his work until 2010 or so, just two years before he died in 2012. I was stricken when I read of his passing. Within the world seen through his misty lens, I felt as if I had just found a like-minded spirit, a kindred soul who somehow shared startling glimpses of what was in my own dreams, my own heart—and then he was gone.
Marsden’s œuvre clearly asserts his kinship for the otherworldly and a fondness for the macabre; with titles such as The Haunted Realm: Echoes from Beyond the Tomb (1998); This Spectred Isle: A Journey Through Haunted England (2005); and Memento Mori: Churches and Churches of England (2008). There is no mistaking that he was an aficionado of the mysterious, who dedicated his art to the phantoms and revenants of yesteryear.
In the past I had purchased a calendar or a set of postcards showcasing his stunning imagery, but it is in recent years that I began collecting his works in earnest. I no longer live in what feels like an eternal winter of solitude; my days are sunny and warm, and I am more content than I ever dreamed possible with my life and in the company I now keep. My ritual of trawling the boneyards searching for serenity has fallen by the wayside, and I can’t say that even I particularly miss filling that peculiar hole in my heart.
On a quiet evening in early December though, when the sky has begun to darken early and the clouds float across the glowering face of the moon, I sometimes feel a chill that has nothing to do with iced-over window panes or the damp promise of snow. When the goosebumps rise on my skin in the presence of an invisible wind and a strange melancholy rises in my heart, the only thing to be done then, is retrieve a title from my growing collection, and immerse myself in the somber shades and shadows of Simon Marsden’s kindred glooms.
Featured image from the Marsden Archive. All other photos by S. Elizabeth and from her personal collection.