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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies—Second Edition, eds. Andy Paciorek, Grey Malkin, Richard Hing and Katherine Peach, Wyrd Harvest Press, 2018, $19.30, tpb

The Devil's Highway by Gregory Norminton, HarperCollins, 2018, £12.99, hc

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 2018, $22., hc

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore, Tor.com, 2019, $14.99 tpb

 

Blood in the Tracks

 

"The term 'Folk Horror' has been around since at least the 1920s," editor Andy Paciorek writes in the introduction to a new, wide-ranging, and often mesmerizing compendium of writings on one of the most enduring forms of literature and visual art, especially film. I couldn't find a source for that 1920s date—Folk Horror Revival lacks an index (and, in a few sections, an editor or proofreader, weaknesses in an otherwise strong work)—though Caroline Tisdall used the term in a 1975 Guardian review of a Tate exhibit of Henry Fuseli's art: "Fuseli impressed from the start with his mingling of history painting, Shakespeare, and dramatic folk horror of the changeling kind."

Those motifs—archaic and Shakespearean references, a preoccupation with the darker manifestations of Faerie or other folklore—remain an integral part of a genre that encompasses work as seemingly disparate as Doctor Who and The Blair Witch Project, the fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Colin Wilson, Susan Cooper, and Philip Pullman, among myriad others; artist Alan Lee; musicians like Brian Eno and Sharron Kraus (who contributes an entry to this volume), and those British Public Information Films of the 1970s that depict ghastly things happening to children who play near the third rail on railroad lines or go swimming alone. (I don't think Edward Gorey is mentioned in Folk Horror Revival, but he should be. Onward to the Third Edition!)

In the last few years, folk horror has become a popular topic for academic conferences in the UK, and author and filmmaker Adam Scovell wrote about it in an influential 2014 paper. There he defined its primary elements as landscape, isolation, skewed moral beliefs, and happenings/summonings. I would add 'trespass/violation' to that list: Surely one reason for folk horror's longevity is our increasingly parlous relationship to the world that we've destroyed, a sense that retribution is overdue for our transgressions upon the environment. With consequences of climate change and mass extinction that may be clear as PCB-saturated mud, there's some small comfort to be derived from the thought that the natural world may yet retaliate, with homo sapiens joining the list of extinct species as strange new creatures occupy the vast niche we've left behind.

Of the four elements Scovell names above, landscape and isolation exert the most influence, which may be why folk horror at its most powerful is a distinctly British form: more a mode or style or mood, perhaps, than a genre. The colonization of North America has left most Americans with a queasy relationship to a landscape that wasn't ours to inhabit when we arrived here just a few centuries ago. Physical isolation (as opposed to social isolation, a defining twenty-first century experience) is to be avoided, except in our cars. Archaic ritual provides a crucial link to landscape in much folk horror: that, too, is missing in the U.S., unless one has Native ancestry. And while there are ancient monuments in North America, they're not as ubiquitous as those in the British Isles, where standing stones, circles, and field systems have for millennia occupied the countryside, sometimes untouched for thousands of years, more often used as building materials as successive waves of human migration reshaped the land. A sense of trespass and violation lurks in much folk horror, and many Americans refuse to see themselves as trespassers upon a landscape they've violated almost beyond recognition.

The British landscape has been similarly disfigured, of course: Fifty-six percent of its native species are in decline; almost fourteen percent are in danger of extinction. Yet in the UK, it's still possible to be keenly, almost preternaturally aware of the presence of those whose footsteps first marked ancient byways which may have survived for ten thousand years. In his bestselling book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, the UK author Robert Macfarlane (who memorably wrote about folk horror in his 2015 essay "The Eeriness of the English Countryside") recalls a moonlit winter ramble through both space and time:

 

Distance stretched oddly, or perhaps time compressed, for it seemed that I had been moving for many miles or hours before I reached the point where the Roman road passed the end of a wide avenue of beeches that I recognized. I walked up the avenue, skirted the earthworks of a large Iron Age ring-fort, crossed a road and then entered a wide meadow that rises to the top of a chalk down.… At the down's top, under the moon, near the outline of a Bronze Age burial barrow, I sat in the snow and drank whisky again.

 

This uncanny sense of displacement is one of the touchstones of the British landscape as well as of folk horror—and, of course, of British fantasy. It is not any common earth, Rudyard Kipling writes in "Puck's Song" from Puck of Pook's Hill,

 

Water or wood or air
But Merlyn's isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare.

 

Numerous UK writers and filmmakers have explored the precarious, often threatening relationship between landscape and human interlopers, and many of them are discussed in Folk Horror Revival. Folk horror has become an especially popular byword in film circles, with four classic movies its designated exemplars—Curse of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur's 1957 adaptation of M. R. James's "Casting the Runes;" Witchfinder General [1968], memorable for a score by Paul Ferris; The Blood on Satan's Claw [1971]; and especially the The Wicker Man [1973], with a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer (who also wrote Equus, another classic of myth-soaked horror) based on David Pinner's 1967 novel Ritual.

How you feel about any or all of those films may determine how captivated you'll be by Folk Horror Revival. Me, I lost myself in this book for weeks, dipping in and out of interviews with Kim Newman, Ronald Hutton, Thomas Ligotti, Susan Cooper, and many others; articles on faerie lore and traditional music, M. R James and John Wyndham, weird Americana and Basque goddesses. For my money, the most intriguing and detailed essays were on folk horror's film, TV, and radio iterations. Of particular interest were Andy Paciorek's Arthurian interpretation of Ben Wheatley's 2011 film Kill List (predecessor to Wheatley's A Field in England, probably the best and most disturbing folk horror film since The Wicker Man); Paciorek on late 1960s-1980s British supernatural youth drama, including adaptations of Alan Garner's The Owl Service; Stephen Canner on The Night of the Hunter and Judika Illes on witches in films ranging from Bell, Book, and Candle to Practical Magic.

There's much, much more to delve into here. For pop culture fans as well as horror aficionados, Folk Horror Revival makes a great companion piece to Rob Young's brilliant Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, a survey of British folk music with myriad forays into art, literature and film. I'll repeat my earlier caveat: Folk Horror Revival is a print-on-demand publication, with no index, poor reproduction of illustrations, and lax copyediting. Many of its contributors are amateurs, but in the best sense—lovers eager to share their passion for the darkest byways of an art form that remains remarkably resilient in spite, or because of, our desecration of the countryside that inspires it. In folk horror, the landscape, too, is part of the resistance.

 

*   *   *

 

At eighty-four, Alan Garner is one of Britain's greatest living writers. His 1967 The Owl Service, one of the greatest modern supernatural novels, easily meets folk horror's remit, and nearly all of his books balance on that knife-edge where, as Jack Sullivan observed of Arthur Machen's work, "beauty and terror ring out at the same moment." His fiction is often set in Alderley Edge, the Cheshire village occupied by his family for over five hundred years. (He continues to live and write just a few miles from where he grew up, in a fifteenth-century house named Toad Hall.)

In Garner's work, the mythic past isn't merely evident in the contours of a valley, farmstead, archaeological dig, or ancient artifact. It survives as a living entity within objects and places, from whence it can emerge as a sort of virus to infect a vulnerable host, like Alison in The Owl Service, who against her will and knowledge reenacts the role of an ancient goddess from the Mabinogion, or Elidor's Nicholas, a young boy drawn into an ancient and terrible conflict that erupts in the streets of post-war Manchester, with echoes of The Fisher King legendarium and Browning's "Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came." Red Shift, one of his best-known books, braids interlocking narratives from three eras in British history—the Roman occupation, the English civil war, and the novel's 1970s present—in a spare, experimental narrative in which place—Garner's native Cheshire—asserts itself as the tale's dominant element.

You can see Garner's influence on established authors like Nina Allan, Neil Gaiman, M. John Harrison, and China Miéville, and, more recently, on writers Gregory Norminton, Sarah Moss, and Fiona Mozley, whose dark 2017 novel Elmet has no supernatural elements but is well worth seeking out. Gregory Norminton's haunting The Devil's Highway has Garner's cat's-paws all over it. Set on a (real) Roman road in southeast England, its chapters alternate between our present, the Roman occupation, and a future in which England, and presumably all of Northern Europe, has become a desert, where starveling adolescent nomads rove across the blighted landscape, avoiding slavers in a ceaseless quest for water and food. As with Garner's work, an ancient artifact—in Norminton's tale, a carved flint—carries talismanic weight across the millennia. Of the three narratives, the one set in a desolate future is both the most powerful and the most derivative, with echoes of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and, especially, Russell Hoban's linguistic tour-de-force Riddley Walker. "Hard to make out much at first," Norminton writes in The Devil's Highway.

 

Fire an sand leave a wrack of dust an ashes. Broke stuff mostly. A roastin smell find us an lead to a bloke in the beams of his hut. Arms out like the muscles still at work an fists clenchin. Flesh black charcoal. Head with its pain still showin. From out his belly grubs swell like fat grubs. On the hut step the scorch marks of a cooking fire, only yards from the corse. Becca sift the ground for left beans an corn.

Aban kiss the pray patches on his curta an others do likeways. Keep the evil off us. Goin from ruin to ruin an finding only the dead.

 

Things aren't much better in the novel's present, where a young girl, Bobbie, witnesses atrocities wrought on both her surroundings and those who trespass upon them, or the ancient past, where the boy Andagin is captured by invaders. Humanity's struggles for survival are unending and ultimately futile—"You cannot prepare for the end of the world," Bobbie observes. Still, The Devil's Highway ends on a note of poignant beauty, a flashback where Andagin first discovers the artifact left by even earlier inhabitants of his world. "The other flints were mute but this one spoke.… He held the stone, or the stone held him. It was a gift that would guide him home: a mystery for him to hold and keep safe." Ultimately, the stone can do neither, but its mystery endures as a promise, even if it's a broken one.

 

*   *   *

 

Sarah Moss's slender, devastating Ghost Wall has less of a crosshatch structure than The Devil's Highway. It opens with a brief scene in which we witness a girl being prepared for death in a bog burial.

 

They turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and family, to the people who held her hands as she learned to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary.… They place another rope around her neck, hold the knife up to the setting sun as it edges behind the rocks. What is necessary is on hand, the sharpened willow withies, the pile of stones, the small blades and the large. The stick for twisting the rope.

 

Is the girl a sacrifice? Is she being punished for a transgression? Moss doesn't tell us, and the remainder of the novel takes place in the present, as the teenaged Silvie joins her parents in a reenactment at an archeological site, an Iron Age encampment, living—and, perhaps, dying—as the ancient Britons did. Moss's spare prose heightens the sense of unease and gradual horror that envelops both Silvie and the reader. It also goes part of the way toward defusing some of Moss Wall's more over-the-top elements, which inevitably evoke The Wicker Man, with Silvie's father, a survivalist obsessed with ancient folkways, standing in for Lord Summerisle.

 

Dad had told me on one of our winter walks that if they gagged and blindfolded the bog people, it wasn't so's the victims couldn't see what was coming, they knew fine well what was coming and it didn't matter what kind of noise they made. No, the blindfolding and gagging were to protect the people whose job was killing from the last looks and the curses. Makes a kind of sense, doesn't it, he'd said…

 

It's all a long way from the becalmed dream of the English countryside that envelops Mackenzie Crook's cult hit Detectorists. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Best bring a knife.

 

Moonage Nightmare

 

Finally, a novel that's a respite from all—well, some—of the world's encroaching darkness. Scotto Moore's Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You is a wickedly clever amalgam of science fiction, horror, and contemporary music that makes one reconsider whether Ziggy Stardust's arrival here on Earth might not, in fact, be such a good thing.

Moore, a playwright and music blogger, utilizes his deep knowledge of contemporary music and internet culture to hilarious effect. A music blogger's pursuit of a mysterious band called Beautiful Remorse leads him into perilous musical territory that makes the Nazgûl, house band in George R. R. Martin's great rock and roll novel Armageddon Rag, sound like the Carpenters. Moore's book is relentlessly funny, especially if you possess even a passing knowledge of obscure corners of the internet devoted to musical obsessives, and he nails the millennials who live in those same online rabbit holes.

 

He was the first person from Maxnet I'd actually physically met, and we couldn't decide if we should awkwardly hug or just kind of do that hipster standoffish nod-and-be-cool thing. Hugging seemed weird just on principle but he was letting me stay with him tonight so being standoffish seemed weird too. Finally we did one of those almost-air-hugs, where there was definitely physical contact but kind of like how your grandma hugs you where it's really just kind of patting you gently to say, "That's nice, kid, now get me a fucking Marlboro and get the fuck out of my way."

 

I could have read Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You in one sitting, but I stretched it over two nights because I couldn't bear for it to end. Download the track. Buy tickets, the fictional blogger Maxstacy commands; to which I'll add, Buy this book.

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