The Coulson Archive
We’d like to explain more about how we've come to bring the work of Elizabeth Coulson to modern audiences.... it's a strange story that begins with a dinner party in 2007.
In addition to being a writer, I also run screenings of classic horror films, so often at the end of an evening of food and lots of wine, the conversation turns to: ‘what is the weirdest thing that ever happened to you?’
People often relate stories of footsteps in otherwise empty buildings, precognitive dreams, and other encounters with the paranormal, but on this evening, one of the answers made me sit up and take notice.
On this particular night in 2007, one of the dinner guests was a university lecturer, who said: “I was once making a video for the university. We were out on location in the ruins of a house on the edge of one of those abandoned villages in Norfolk. When we got back to the studio, there was a woman's voice on the videotape. There had only been me, a cameraman and a sound engineer on the shoot - all male.
“Out of curiosity, we took the same equipment back the following weekend and did a kind of electronic seance, asking questions. Again, we didn’t hear anything at the time, but when we got back, we could hear a faint woman’s voice answering.
”We checked out the name with the parish records. And after digging around, we eventually found that there was a box of papers with that womans’ name held by a museum in Cambridgeshire.”
I was immediately intrigued and asked if I could see the videotape footage.
A few weeks went past and I forgot about it, then one day, a package arrived in the post with the university postmark, and inside a DVD that had the original VHS videotape copied to it.
Once I saw the footage, I thought there might be a good story here.
Doing a little digging, I found out there was indeed a small trunk of papers called the Elizabeth Coulson Family Archive being held in a storage facility owned by Cambridgeshire Museums Service. Its contents were listed as 'sundry household papers'.
I put in a request to access the archive – which would take me some little time.
Around then, things began to get a little complicated about the video footage.
The university lecturer who had first brought my attention to the Coulson Archive, had experienced a rapid change in fortune and had been promoted to head of department.
Perhaps, with a serious academic career on the horizon, being associated with a video seance wasn’t quite so appealing.
Without warning, I received a letter from the legal department of the university, saying that I had come into possession of the video footage unlawfully, and it could not be used in any way, shape or form.
Able to demonstrate that I had indeed been supplied the footage legally, negotiations moved swiftly to attempting to prevent the video being used for any kind of publication or documentary.
This is not the way to get a good response from a journalist who knows their media law.
Since we had established that the footage was legally owned, I politely asserted that I could lawfully use excerpts from the material for the purposes of review or journalism.
What eventually became negotiated was that excerpts from the materials I had could be used as long as neither the university or its employees were specifically named – which we have been happy to comply with.
Below is the short clip from the first on-location shoot for a recorded lecture on psychogeography.
(Please note that the audio has been digitally boosted on this footage to make the voice clearer)
Below is a short clip from the second question-and-answer session.
(Again, the audio has been boosted)
Once I knew I could use the footage, I began to push again to get access to the archive to find out who Elizabeth Coulson actually was.
The Coulson Archive had never been a major priority for Crowland Museum.
The locked trunk had been bought speculatively for £7 at a farm auction in Cambridgeshire in 1981.
The buyer, on forcing the lock, discovering the trunk contained only old papers, and donated it to his local museum anonymously.
As the papers related exclusively to an obscure family in Norfolk – the neighbouring county – the trunk and its papers were summarily catalogued and put straight into storage.
By the time I became aware of the archive, Crowland Museum had long been closed, and its exhibits deposited in a long-term storage depot belonging to Cambridgeshire Museums Service, which was not easily (or cheaply) accessible to the public.
When that building was earmarked for sale as part of cutbacks, its contents were crated for putting into a permanent storage facility. We pushed hard to get access to the Coulson Archive.
Ultimately we had to pay a £200 de-archiving fee to have the trunk taken out of storage, and to have access to it for an afternoon before it was put in permanent storage (believed to be in an archiving facility in disused salt mines in Cheshire). We had to move quickly.
In the course of the afternoon we took literally hundreds of images of the manuscripts and contents of the archive, backing up our SD cards onto a laptop as we went.
As we began working through our images from the Coulson Archive, transcribing each page line by line, it became evident that among the commonplace books detailing the household accounts over some decades, there were personal journals from Elizabeth Coulson outlining both a harrowing descent from gentility to grinding poverty, and also a developing obsession with the occult.
Additionally, to try and make a living, Elizabeth Coulson sold (or mostly attempted to sell) short fiction to the ephemeral journals and periodicals which abounded during the Edwardian period. The Coulson Archive contained fair copies of finished stories, draft copies of stories, and correspondence between herself and publishers of periodicals.
Elizabeth Coulson's fiction is both of its time in terms of the language and tone, and ahead of its time in the bleakness of many of their endings. Also, there is a convincing matter-of-fact realism in her descriptions of the occult and supernatural. Her fiction contains detailed references to a number of occult works, including The Clavicule of Solomon and her diaries give sufficient cause to think she had access to these books and was attempting to put theory into practice.
It's slow work, but we have now fully transcribed and edited a number of complete works by Elizabeth Coulson, which we are pleased to present to the public.