A Dream of Wessex
Christopher Priest's A Dream of Wessex: Twentieth Century Slipstream Echoes
Christopher Priest's 1977 novel A Dream of Wessex came to this author's consciousness via a trail of cultural breadcrumbs dropped by Rob Young in his book Electric Eden (2010), which explores interconnected and underlying lines of folk and rural orientated British music and culture and how it has been handed down and transformed by successive generations. It is featured in the later “Toward the Unknown Region” section of the book wherein the lines through an otherly Britain he has drawn and explored wander towards an almost maelstrom gathering of the more hauntological concerns and hidden landscapes of the likes of exploratory record labels/projects such as Ghost Box Records and English Heretic, public information films that have gathered layers of uncanniness over the years, Oliver Postgate's gently off-centre animations, the unsettled televisual pastoralism of Penda's Fen (1974), The Stone Tape (1972) and Children of the Stones (1977) and related folk horror-esque work. Including A Dream of Wessex in amongst such work seems particularly apt as though it was written before the term or concept had been created, at points it reads like part of a manifesto from or description of a release by a hauntologically-inclined record label; the text talks of spectral versions of oneself, time being deposited like layers of sedimentary rock which could be excavated via imagination and the muddy remains of the twentieth century being scattered like shipwrecks across the landscape. Alongside which one of the main strands of the book involves time-travelling ability developed by participants whose minds have been electronically pooled but which is nearer to a visualisation via technological dream projection equipment. In such ways, A Dream of Wessex connects with a hauntological sense of spectral, misremembered and reinterpreted histories and culture and the related creation and exploration of parallel worlds. The book is also curiously prescient of modern day escaping into a virtual digital, social media world; the plot involves a group of researchers in an underground centre who join a scientifically created group projection of a future Britain, which is being carried out in order to try and learn about and provide solutions to modern day problems. This virtual world eventually becomes more attractive than the real world, its participants not wishing to leave and this created world possibly becomes self-sufficient/creating. Essentially A Dream of Wessex narrates a mass dream or hallucination, which makes its inclusion in Rob Young's book at the Ghost Box/hauntological juncture all the more fitting; such activities form part of what he has called experiments in consensual hallucination, whereby the participants willingly allow themselves to become immersed or even subsumed in the dream like atmospheres, phantasms and worlds that particular cultural activity can at times create. It could also be linked to another of the concepts/phrases which I came across via Electric Eden; that of imaginative time travel, which is used to describe voyagers in folk and other cultures when they interact with and attempt to visit or summon elements of other times through their creative work and ways of living. Connected to such experiments and activity, the reference within A Dream of Wessex to time being deposited in a similar manner to layers of sedimentary rock and its excavation via the imaginations of participants in a mass dream has parallels with cultural tropes within hauntological realms. In such work past culture is often explored, mined, reformed and repurposed and used as elements within new cultural artifacts. Within hauntological-related work there is also often a deliberate mis-remembering of the past, filtering it approximately from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, but which rather than being overly time period specific is possibly nearer to a never-never land parallel world slipstream. A journey to the Ghost Box-created world finds TV station idents, educational broadcasts, public information films, modernist intents, utilitarian library music soundtracks and an overly picture perfect village parish life having somehow intertwined to variously become exercises in mind control, forms of transmission for hidden/occult messages, a yearning for lost futures and a quietly carried out Midwich-isation. The cover artwork of the earlier printed editions of A Dream of Wessex further reflect and forebear that Ghost Box/hauntological world and intertwining. The original hardback cover from 1977 published by Faber & Faber is quite a traditional landscape painting by Paul Nash but knowledge of the plot of the book and its appearance in the “Toward the Unknown Region” section of Electric Eden seem to infer a subtle sense of otherliness to it. The original softback cover from 1978 released by Pan Books features a depiction of a happy couple ensconced amongst the idyll of a rural landscape but then wanders off to more Sapphire & Steel-esque hauntological territory; they are sitting on an incongruous maroon fabric stool that would be more fitting in a gentrified parlour, their outlines glow and their featureless faces reflect only a further imagined idyll, while far off in the distance behind them a red sun hangs over what appears to be some kind of futuristic, scientific building. In this sense the cover’s layering of the known, even comforting with elements of the unknown and unsettling atmospheres could be seen as a prescient reflection of some of the defining aspects of what would later come to be thought of as hauntological work.