Memories of Iceland help Dan Richards confront lockdown’s dark dreamscapes
Dreams have been much in the news this past year. A lot of us have had strange, vivid, psychedelic visions as our brains try to process the new normal. Overcharged and under-walked, unable to earth ourselves of new-normal worry, many unconscious minds have spent the past twelve months exploring the psychic-landscape Edward Thomas dubbed “the unfathomable deep forest where all must lose their way.”
Last night, here in Edinburgh, a great storm thrashed the trees. As I lay awake in the darkness, listening, the rain pelting the windows, the sound outside seemed nautical – the wind and waves far below, and me tucked up in my lighthouse keeper’s cot. As I drifted off, two thoughts occurred – “God bless those at sea tonight” and “Dan, you really should get out more.”
Which is a problem just now, of course. Where possible, many ofvus are still “getting out” but in ever decreasing, over-familiar circles. At the start it was fun familiarising ourselves with our manor; now many of us would bite your hand off to hop on a train or a plane “who cares where.” I saw a news story last week that magical mystery tours are set to make a great comeback once everyone’s jabbed and packed, and I’m all for that, although I suggest the sudden exposure to “crowds” and “strangers” may come as a bit of shock. Alongside books about oneiromancy, I predict The Baedeker Guide to Socialising will be flying off the shelves come September.
However, if solitude and strange dreams are your thing – if you’ve plans to light out alone come the great social easing, the better to grasp night-terror nettle – you could do a lot worse than following in my footsteps to central Iceland.
A few years ago – who really knows? Time’s a bit woolly just now – I spent several months travelling for a book named Outpost. The nature of the project involved visiting wild places on the edge – frozen Soviet ghost towns in Svalbard, Mars mission simulations in the Utah desert, shrines perched high on Japanese mountains, an actual lighthouse in the North Atlantic, fire-watch towers synonymous with Jack Kerouac that turned out to be surrounded by bears, that sort of thing.
The most uncanny, dream-like place I visited was an Icelandic sæluhús named Hvítárnes. Sæluhús translates as “house of joy” and it’s easy to see why when one imagines the ancient Norse sighting such a shelter after a long day’s slog across freezing hinterland. Originally built as way stations along ancient roads, latterly used more like bothies, sæluhús now range in shape from rudimentary rock and turf igloos, pigeon-loft assemblages like one-man-tents in wood, to solid chalets with stairs and stoves. Ships of Theseus, dotting Iceland’s tundric interior; a sweep of Trigger’s Brooms waiting to welcome footsore travellers; the Sugababes in bunkhouse form.
Built in 1930, Hvítárnes sits on the shore of a glacial lake – a two-storey timber framed structure clad in corrugated iron. It faces Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, which dominates the horizon of the north, looming crazed and cavernously cold.
I was there together with two carpenters, Stefán and Atli, to renovate the building for summer hikers to come. As we drove towards the glacier, the sæluhús emerged from the low sweep of grass and marsh: red roof, green gables, white sides banked with turf. A little cabin sat up, hugging its knees.
“You know this place we are going is a very haunted house?” Stefán had announced on the drive out. “Oh yes?” I’d asked. “Oh yes!” he’d repeated whilst Atli nodded. But that was as far as we got in the 4×4. Later that night he told me the story.
“You notice that this house is built near old ruins?” Stefán began, pointing to a series of hummocks outside. “Well, there lived a farmer and his wife and they had a girl working too. The farmer tried to sleep with the girl but she said no andso, in revenge, he locked her outside in a snowstorm. So she died, and the farmer was killed by his wife to avenge the poor girl.”
Stefán ended this story – the most Icelandic story you’ll ever hear – with a meaningful look. “I see,” I said. Then we all walked round to the room next door where there was a bunk built at 90 degrees from all the others. “That’s the bad bed,” he told me. “It’s built across a doorway. Sleep there and the girl runs through you.” Atli nodded and so did I.
Strange as it might sound, none of this seemed abnormal. Hvítárnes existed in a land apart with its own unique light and gravity. Some nights I’d watch the sun surf across the swells of grass, a leopard-print sea rolling out to the white mountains of the horizon.
A couple of days later, I descended the ladder from my bed to find Atli cooking breakfast and Stefán sitting red-eyed on his bunk. He looked a washed-out wreck. “The ghost,” he said, flatly, massaging his nose. “I had a long night with the ghost.”
He described his haunting as a series of dreams; dreams within dreams, none of them good. He’d been woken by a weight on his chest, something pinning him, pressing so that he could not breathe. He tried not to panic. He asked it to please get off him; he was polite. He was not in the bad bunk. Unnatural silence. Not quiet: a total lack of sound – apart from his breathing, shallow and creaking.
Still held fast, he began to talk, as best he could, about the work we were doing; the fact he was repairing the building, respecting the fabric of the place; explaining that he meant no harm. Then it was gone, the ghost, the weight, and he closed his wet eyes and filled his pained lungs and turned to sit sideways out of the bunk. After an indeterminate time he climbed the stair-ladder to Atli’s room and got into bed with him. Atli woke and turned, wide-eyed, and Stefán opened his mouth to explain and woke downstairs with an apparition pressing on his chest. He could not breathe. This happened a number of times.
“I’m part troll so I can deal with it,” he told me with a wry smile but he looked utterly knackered.
Hvítárnes’ historic guestbooks are chock-full of sightings, phenomena, and other uncanny goings on
It turned out that Hvítárnes is one of the most haunted buildings in Iceland – a title for which there’s a lot of competition, as you might imagine. When I got back to Reykjavík, I discovered that Hvítárnes’ historic guestbooks are chock-full of sightings, phenomena, feelings, and various other uncanny goings on. Recurrent features of hauntings include parties approaching a lit cabin with a figure visible inside but entering to find the house empty, dark and cold; meetings with the silent figure of a woman in either the cabin’s entrance hall or “around the single bed built across a former doorway nearest the stairs.” There are records of encounters with a “ghostly force” whilst in bed and drifting between wakefulness and dream – those fraying borders of sleep, the mouth of that deep unfathomable forest – as well as unaccountable sounds and lights emanating from upstairs when guests are downstairs and vice versa.
The first mention of ghosts occurred in July 1938: “Got the Ghost” wrote an anonymous hand who identified only as “coming from Hveravöllur and going to Reykjavík.” The following year (August 1939) Francis Gordon Reid, an English dentist, wrote the single word “Ghosts.” I love the formidable pith of that. Here be laconic monsters.
If ever I awake from a bad dream now, I think of Stefán’s matter-of-fact mantra, “I’m part troll so I can deal with it”, and play it over in mind together with Francis Gordon Reid’s matter of fact diagnosis: “Ghosts.”
In strange times, straight talking’s to be welcomed, I think. Sometimes I add my own maxim into the mix, the result of many nights spent in strange, windswept situations, real and dreamt: “What’s bad in life is often good in a book.” And, as Al Alvarez notes in his luminous, Night, “As every ghost-story writer knows – including the author of Hamlet – evil spirits only walk after sunset and fade “on the crowing of the cock.”
Dan Richards writes about travel, culture and art. His first book, “Holloway” (Faber), written with Robert Macfarlane and Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood, was a Sunday Times Bestseller. His latest book is “Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth” (Canongate, 2019)