In her book on ‘graveyard hunting,’ The London Burial Grounds (1896), Mrs. Isabella Holmes describes All Souls’ Cemetery at Kensal Green as ‘truly awful,’ decrying ‘its catacombs, its huge mausoleums, family vaults, statues, broken pillars, weeping images, and oceans of tombstones’ (Holmes: 1896, 256). It was not, however, the ‘corruption underneath,’ the ‘ninety-nine acres of dead bodies,’ or the fact that it joined the Roman Catholic site that so offended Mrs. Holmes, but the extravagance of the monuments themselves:
Can there be any more profitless mode of throwing away money than by erecting costly tombstones? They are of no use to the departed, and they are grievous burdens laid on the shoulders of succeeding generations (Holmes: 1896, 256 – 257).
And the most common of these decorations were angels. As Bob Spiel has noted, ‘There are probably as many statues of angels across Britain as statues of anything’ (Speel, 2009). Mrs. Holmes had no time for the ornamental ostentation of the Victorian bourgeois funeral, a well-known celebration of death rivalled only by Egyptian pharaohs. She argued that such things were going out of fashion, while the cash expended on monumental masonry would be better employed building churches, creating hospital beds, sending the poor on holiday, funding voluntary schools and missionaries, and erecting public drinking fountains (Holmes: 1896, 258 – 259).
As the age of empire collapsed into the crisis of belief, and therefore representation, that followed the First World War, and less became more in art and design, Mrs. Holmes was proved right. The Romantic excesses of the Victorians gave way to the utility and experiment of Modernism, rendering the frozen figures of the potter’s field, once symbols of faith and the triumph of wealth over death, rather ridiculous; as Joyce reminds us in Ulysses:
—They tell the story, he said, that two drunks came out here one foggy evening to look for the grave of a friend of theirs. They asked for Mulcahy from the Coombe and were told where he was buried. After traipsing about in the fog they found the grave, sure enough. One of the drunks spelt out the name: Terence Mulcahy. The other drunk was blinking up at a statue of Our Saviour the widow had got put up … And, after blinking up at the sacred figure, Not a bloody bit like the man, says he (Joyce: 2000, 135).
The graveyard angels had reached their zenith by the end of the nineteenth century, after which production began to drop off, with only a brief Art Deco resurgence in the 1930s.
To us, Kensal Green is, like St. James’ at Highgate, the quintessential Victorian cemetery: ancient, eldritch and imposing. These atmospheric necropoli are familiar now as gothic spaces. More mise-en-scène than momento mori, the silent monuments and mausoleums were frequently used as external locations in horror films of the old school, most notably Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), and Amicus’ Tales from the Crypt (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1974) – all of which shot exteriors at Highgate – and Vincent Price’s wonderful Theatre of Blood (1973), part of which was filmed at Kensal Green. It is this rich semiotic vein that Steve Moffat so successfully tapped when he created the Weeping Angels for the Doctor Who story ‘Blink’ in 2007.
‘Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels,’ explains David Tennant’s Doctor in their origin story:
‘The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. No mess, no fuss, they just zap you into the past and let you live to death. The rest of your life used up and blown away in the blink of an eye. You die in the past, and in the present they consume the energy of all the days you might have had, all your stolen moments. They’re creatures of the abstract. They live off potential energy’ (Doctor Who, 2007).
Although ‘as old as the universe (or very nearly),’ the Weeping Angels in repose uncannily resemble Victorian funerary statues. The implication is that religious iconography is based on them, a common genre device, or that our sepulchral statuary is, in fact, a legion of alien monsters. With folded wings, diaphanous robes and serene faces that crack into vampiric snarls when they attack, they are ghastly doubles of themselves reminding us that in the Miltonic sense demons are fallen angels. Weeping Angels are blurringly fast, but because of an evolved ‘quantum lock’ they can only move when you’re not looking at them; when observed they literally turn to stone. ‘That’s why they cover their eyes,’ explains the Doctor: ‘They’re not weeping, they can’t risk looking at each other. Their greatest asset is their greatest curse. They can never be seen.’ They are, he concludes, the ‘loneliest creatures in the universe’ (Doctor Who, 2007).
Like all the best gothic icons, this is an elegant and poetic monster. As tragic, deadly and implacable as Victor Frankenstein’s original creation and as bored and corrupt as Stoker’s Dracula, they are children of the Romantic era, just like the Victorians. Although very recent to Doctor Who mythology, the Weeping Angels have struck a resonant cultural chord, and are regularly cited in viewer polls in the same league as the Daleks, with Neil Gaiman including them in his ‘Top 10 New Classic Monsters’ (Gaiman, 2008). ‘New’ and ‘Classic’ is right. In the Weeping Angels, Moffat has taken Doctor Who back to the gothic sensibility that characterised the original concept as much as science fiction, with a hostile universe of malevolent alien creatures quickly replacing the early-1960s BBC vision of entertaining but edifying historical fiction. And whereas Russell T. Davies’ rebrand introduced complicated romance and adult sexuality to the character, Moffat’s stewardship as producer and lead writer has bought back the horror in the most traditional sense, with stories of ghosts (‘Listen’); vengeful revenants (Jamie Mathieson’s ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ and ‘Flatline’); the marriage of heaven and hell (‘Dark Water’/’Death in Heaven’); and statues that come to life. There is definitely something of the Hammer film about Doctor Who these days, just as there was when Jon Pertwee fought the ‘Dæmons’ and Tom Baker faced ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’ when I was a kid in the 1970s.
The high concept here is, of course, the ancient children’s game of ‘Statues,’ and the idea of statues coming to life is probably as old as artisan culture itself. In narratological terms, it’s the ‘Pygmalion’ archetype, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 AD, but it was far from new then); and although Aphrodite’s blessing resulted in a happy ending the corresponding gothic archetype inverts it, just as Pinnochio’s double is Chuckie the Doll.
A seminal example is the short story ‘Man-size in Marble’ by E. Nesbit, originally published in Grim Tales (1893). (Although best known nowadays for The Railway Children, Nesbit was a versatile and prolific author, who wrote four collections of horror stories published between 1893 and 1910.) In ‘Man-size in Marble,’ a story popular in anthologies of supernatural fiction, the narrator, a newly-married and struggling artist, tells of moving with his wife to a cottage in the country. Their new home stands on the site of ‘a big house in Catholic times,’ the occupants of which were ‘guilty of deeds so foul’ that their ancestral seat had been ‘stricken by lightning and the vengeance of Heaven.’ The effigies of the original owners can still be seen in the local church:
…on each side of the altar lay a grey marble figure of a knight in full plate armour lying upon a low slab, with hands held up in everlasting prayer, and these figures, oddly enough, were always to be seen if there was any glimmer of light in the church (Nesbit: 1893, 119).
The couple engage a local woman, Mrs. Dorman, as a domestic, and are delighted by her tales of ‘the “things that walked,” and of the “sights” which met one in lonely glens of a starlight night’ (Nesbit: 1893, 115), but towards the end of October she announces suddenly that she must leave by the last day of the month, apparently because of the figures in the church:
‘They do say, as on All Saints’ Eve them two bodies sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble…’
‘And where do they go?’ I asked, rather fascinated.
‘They comes back here to their home, sir, and if any one meets them —’ (Nesbit: 1893, 124).
What happens next, Mrs. Dorman will not say, but she is adamant that she won’t be staying.
The unnamed protagonist decides to keep the legend from his wife, but although unsettled he soon becomes lost in his work and puts it from his mind. On Halloween, he goes outside to smoke and decides to take a stroll to the church; the marbles figures are gone. Rushing from the church he meets the local doctor, who convinces him to return in defiance of old wives’ tales. The figures are, indeed, where they should be, although the hand of one appears recently damaged, his stony face ‘villainous and deadly in expression’ (Nesbit: 1893, 140). The pair assume vandalism and return to the cottage, where in dark epiphany they find the lady of the house quite dead:
There, in the recess of the window, I saw her. Oh, my child, my love, had she gone to that window to watch for me? And what had come into the room behind her? To what had she turned with that look of frantic fear and horror? Oh, my little one, had she thought that it was I whose step she heard, and turned to meet — what?
… Her lips were drawn back, and her eyes wide, wide open. They saw nothing now. What had they seen last? … Her hands were tightly clenched. In one of them she held something fast (Nesbit: 1893, 143 – 144).
When they pry her dead fingers open, they find a grey marble finger.
In the gothic, we are repeatedly forced to confront our own mortality, allegorising through fantasy the central anxiety of existence. Death, like the Weeping Angels, Nesbit’s recumbent Norman effigies, and our mates in the playground creeps up on us, removing us from the stream of time, leaving only a memory. Even the Doctor cannot save us forever.
My wife and I have one of these Victorian funerary statues, purchased without a trace of irony to mark the spot in the garden beneath our bedroom window where we scattered the ashes of our first child, Lily, who didn’t make it to full term. It’s a figure of a little girl that never was which we both find oddly reassuring: a little goth fairy that might play by moonlight when no-one is looking. Our son has no idea what it represents, but he loves Doctor Who so he reckons it’s a ‘Baby Weeping Angel.’ And who’s to say it isn’t?
This piece was originally published in Mnemoscape No.3 ‘Set in Stone’ (September, 2016), edited by Elisa Adami.
‘Blink.’ Doctor Who. Written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie MacDonald. (Originally broadcast June 9, 2007, BBC).
Gaiman, Neil. ‘My Top 10 New Classic Monsters.’ Entertainment Weekly (July 23, 2008). Available at: http://www.ew.com/gallery/neil-gaiman-my-top-10-new-classic-monsters (Accessed August 24, 2015).
Holmes, Isabella. (1896). The London Burial Grounds. New York: MacMillan and Co.
Joyce, James. (2000). Ulysses. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1922).
Nesbit, E. (1893). ‘Man-size in Marble.’ Grim Tales. London: A.D. Innes & Co.
Speel, Bob. (2009). ‘Angels.’ Victorian and Edwardian Sculpture in London and Elsewhere. Available at: http://www.speel.me.uk/gp/angels.htm (Accessed August 8, 2015).