Derrida coined the term hauntology during a lecture at my alma mater, the University of California Riverside. He used the term to suggest that the present only understands itself in and through the past (and that the future haunts the present in the same way). It’s a term used here and there in philosophy and critical theory circles, but its main use is in the realm of music. Initially, it was used in the 90s to describe trip hop and ambient music; then it was used to describe the Ghost Box label and the weird, unsettling British Information Films sound of The Advisory Circle and The Focus Group; more recently, it has been applied to any music that combines nostalgia and weirdness (like Boards of Canada, The Caretaker, Mordant Music, Moon Wiring Club, among others). The concept has always had a decidedly English feel to it–to the point that The Wire magazine coined a different term, hypnagogic, to describe American music that shares some hauntological themes (like Emeralds, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Pocahaunted, and so on). A lot of people absolutely hate these two terms for the same reason they hate all labels applied to music–because they deprive unique artists of their very uniqueness. And I think that is true. But I have a soft spot for hauntology for a few reasons. First, I really like English weirdness (or really British weirdness–I’m part Scottish and part Welsh, so the Celtic is important to me), especially when it is coated with pagan sensibilities (which comes easily in the UK since it’s hard to throw a dead cat without hitting a henge or standing stone). Second, labels have a way of giving attention to music that might otherwise be under-appreciated, and anything that gets more people to listen to Belbury Poly or William Basinski is a good thing in my book. Finally and most importantly, hauntology (and my listening to and reading of anything connected to the concept) helped me rediscover something from my childhood that had been buried in the nether reaches of my unconscious for 20 years: Children of the Stones.
I have a vague, almost unreal sense of watching Children of the Stones in the early 80s. Apparently, it was on Nickelodeon in the United States, but I don’t remember watching it on that channel. In fact, I only have fleeting, fragmented memories of my original viewing. I remember being disappointed that I only caught one or two episodes (the empty, unfulfilled sense of “what will happen next?” pervading my mind). I remember being scared and a little creeped out, but I don’t know why. I also remember my parents not liking the series because it seemed vaguely satanic (in their minds; they were quite religious). The most significant memory, however, is of the standing stones (the show was filmed at Avebury). I probably had no idea what a standing stone was back then, and I probably didn’t really care much. But they left an impression of ancient mysteries that percolated in the back of my mind for many, many years, only to resurface when I actually went to England and Ireland and I suddenly realized how amazing and fascinating these stones really are.
So these memories were buried in my mind like a time capsule waiting to be opened at the right moment. That moment came when I stumbled across a reference to the series in a hauntology-based article somewhere, which led to a quick YouTube search (followed by a trip to Amazon to buy the DVD). The moment I heard the strange music of the opening, the memories came flooding back–the weirdness, the paganness, the surreality:
I’ve heard this music sampled in several different works by Mordant Music, Moon Wiring Club, and others (hell, I’ve used it too). Honestly, I’m amazed that Trunk Records hasn’t released the OST for this series (they did The Tomorrow People, so why not this?). The reverb-rich moaning voices, matched with the images of standing stones, bring a chill to my ears and eyes–and drive my wife crazy (she can’t stand the series). It’s truly spooky music that is designed to frighten children, and while I was probably too old to be truly frightened by these sounds when I first heard them (I must have been 13-14), the true otherness of the music must have struck a chord. Added to this odd music was the very odd behavior of the people in the fictional village of Milbury (where the story is set). The villagers are always happy and over-polite in a way that immediately raises red flags in the minds of the protagonist and his son (visitors to the town–the father played by none other than Roj Blake himself, Gareth Thomas). These people were odd precisely because they were too normal, an impression that anyone who grew up in a suburb (like I did) can instantly identify with. Add to this the fact that all the happy children in the town are (somehow) super geniuses at math, even smarter than the protagonist’s astrophysicists son who is otherwise quite bright, and it doesn’t take long for our heroes to sense trouble. As the plot unfurls, we learn the source of the town’s happy normality, and I don’t want to give it away to anyone who hasn’t gone to YouTube to watch it, but suffice to say that the stones are involved (along with druids [for some reason–druids came long after the stones were erected, but whatever], psychic energy, ley lines, and black holes). Watching today, I am impressed by the acting in the series (especially Thomas, though the kids could use a few more lessons) and the intelligence of the show (they don’t dumb down kids programs in the UK the way they do in the US). Really, though, what stands out is the nice way that the show manages to link the everyday strangeness of the people with the very extraordinary world of ancient Britain and the Avebury standing stones. As a student (and teacher) of mythology, I really appreciate the emphasis that is placed on linking the past with the present. As a music fan, I enjoy how the series uses sound to convey so many deep, dark, unsettling feelings–and I like the fact that the majority of the music is created using only human voices (reminiscent of Ligeti). But I love the series mostly because it gives me a window into my own past, a past of a teenager who lived in a strange world of happy people and wondered why they were happy, what made them happy, and why wasn’t I happy too? And I think that’s what hauntology is all about–not so much celebrating all things weird and (mostly) British but exploring epiphanies of weirdness from the past in order to better understand what makes the world so damn weird to begin with. And perhaps the very Britishness of Children of the Stones helps me better understand my own fascination (or is it obsession?) with the UK: why my favorite TV shows are from the BBC, why my favorite musical artists are British, why my plans for vacations always begin in London, and why–especially why–I spent 12 years getting a PhD in English with a focus on 20th century British and Irish authors. To think: despite all that British stuff, I still ended up in a small desert town on the Mexican border. Now that’s weird.