In the shadow of the recent announcement over at The Haunted Shoreline I came across this grisly story in the Accrington Observer and the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. The synchronicity of one wave receding and then seeing another strange tributary opening up was too speculative an opportunity to miss. Certainly comment might be apt because – to make a suggestion – might one future application of Shoreline’s psychedelic omnivision be in the direction of
England’s inland empire: its
serpentine network of streams, rivers and canals?
As for the story, it reported the discovery of a dead python in the waters of the Leeds to Liverpool canal. The 10ft carcass was found on the canal’s Huncoat section just a few miles outside of Accrington in Lancashire. The story interested me for a few reasons, not least because I grew up around there and the canal was always a source of strangeness. A body of still water surrounded by coke ovens and empty mills, redundant industry and exhausted fields. Snakes for some reason were also a source of great fear for me and my sister. I didn’t have an actual phobia per se, but snakes and similar creatures always came to mind whenever I thought about monsters or demons. I think it was this image that did it. And this one. And not forgetting this one.
I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about memory and geography; where do we actually go when we think about a specific place, particularly a place that we associate with childhood? Whether the conjuration is positive or negative, this thought-place is inevitably simulacral. It’s a place one builds out of nostalgia, longing or as part of an intentional act of forgetting. Either way, when I saw the snake in the water it precisely summed up the nature of this architecture. The snake, like the projected place is a creature from the depths. Liminal: neither in nor out. It’s something that floats around in liquid aether and occasionally shows itself. A peculiar combination of myth and matter that’s uncanny insofar as it generates a groundless but nonetheless resonant familiarity, a sense of homecoming and recognition: I have found it, I am here.
The report in the Telegraph hinted at this ambiguity when it quoted RSPCA officer Charlotte Brooker:
It is obviously an animal that has been kept as a pet and not something that would naturally be found near the canal. It could be that someone has dumped their pet in the canal so as to avoid the charges of disposing of it or it could be something more sinister but we can only speculate at this stage.
Between the ‘obvious’ and the ‘speculative’ there is the ‘sinister’. Sinister is an interesting word. It’s generally used as part of the gothic lexicon of fear and fright like “spooky”. It does denote that which is “suggestive of evil and mischief” but there is a much more specific meaning connected to its role as a mantic signifier. Sinister describes a particular category of omen, one that “portends or indicates misfortune or disaster; full of dark or gloomy suggestiveness; inauspicious, unfavorable”. The word took on this currency because it originally related to a particular type of information, that which is “prompted by malice” and given with “the intent to deceive or mislead”. The link to prophecy comes via the idea that divination involves the reading of signs sent through various natural phenomena. Such occurrences were intuited across the elements including, of course, water. That which is sinister, then, is a bad sign. It is not just that which is frightening but that which is indicative of bad things to come. To describe an object or creature as sinister is to suggest that it exists both here and there. It has not just appeared but has been sent and has broken through. Sinister thus describes exactly the kind of thing we might expect to find in a half-imaginary place of memory and it is precisely the right kind of terms in which to speak of the canal snake.
The Observer also spoke of ‘Horror as remains of 10-foot snake are spotted in canal’. The idea of the snake as an ill-omen could be archetypally linked to myths of serpents crossing paths and fighting at forked roads. As for horror, the discovery clearly connotes this in terms of its overt abjection. However, as with sinister, ‘horror’ also has a more specialized meaning that the resonance of the episode similarly manages to tease out. Horror is a term of sensibility that relates to an experience of shuddering or shivering. In a leap of metaphor from effect to cause the word also has an obscure sense that describes a shuddering or rippling on the surface of water. As a figure of horror, the found snake encapsulates both of these senses. It is an alien thing that physically troubles the surface of the water, but in so doing also causes a disturbance in the waterways of the imagination. It hints at a cryptozoological depth containing unknown creatures that are potentially physically and philosophically dangerous. This is why The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) remains such an effective horror film. The creature can emerge and attack from beneath the surface but at the same the appearance of this pre-historic anomaly disturbs a much wider set of preconceptions relating natural, human and anthropological history.
Lovecraft’s Arkham is full of such things and there are glimpses of similar entities in the streets and factories of David A Riley’s Grudge End. What characterizes these fictional locations is their combination of horror and deep, imagined histories. Both are also literary conceits that work (at the very least at a genetic level) as superimpositions upon actual territories. Geographical re-imaging is a technique of habituation just as much as it is a device of estrangement, but there is also something both sinister and horrific about such a cathexis, perhaps inevitably so. The conscious or unconscious construction of a place in the memory is an act of cosmogenesis, (the creation of a world or universe) however much it is grounded in geographical specificity. Whilst the boundaries of such a space are potentially vast they are also porous, open to visitation from the outside in as well as the inside out. I’m not sure which side of the door the snake is on.