Recording our own ghosts; a review of ‘A Year In The Country – Wandering Through Spectral Fields, Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology’

Grey Malkin

For nearly five years the A Year In The Country project has been diligently producing field reports from the more haunted and folk horror inclined borderlands and wyrder areas of popular culture. Transmitting via their regularly updated webpage and issuing audio relics in the medium of themed compilation CD/ downloads featuring such artists as The Rowan Amber Mill, Sproatly Smith and United Bible Studies, A Year In The Country (AYITC) has amassed a valuable archive of all that is uncanny, unusual or unsettling in modern culture, whether it is film, TV, literature or music. Be it Bagpuss or Beyond The Black Rainbow, Shirley Collins or Sapphire And Steel, AYITC has documented these idiosyncratic yet highly significant moments in modern media.

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These writings (or transmissions) are reproduced, revised and expanded upon here, in the first AYITC publication ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ (for the musical side of the project please do visit AYITC’s splendid Bandcamp page). Divided into 52 distinct chapters (one for each week of the year), the book is described as;

an exploration of the undercurrents and flipside of bucolic dreams and where they meet and intertwine with the parallel worlds of hauntology; it connects layered and, at times, semi-hidden cultural pathways and signposts, journeying from acid folk to edgelands via electronic music innovators, folkloric film and photography, dreams of lost futures and misremembered televisual tales and transmissions’.

Indeed, AYITC embrace a wide range of avenues to bring together not only a sense of how far reaching and varied the origins, mainstays and current players of genres such as folk horror or hauntology can be, but crucially also how they intertwine and cross pollinate. There are chapters therefore on 70’s acid folk and its impact and influence on today’s folk artists, on ‘Folk Horror Roots’ (including an entire chapter on ‘cultural behemoth’ The Wicker Man) but also on ‘Folk Horror Descendants’ such as Kill List, on apocalyptic popular culture through the decades (taking in the horrific The War Game as well as Frankie Goes To Hollywood) and on dystopian literature and cinema such as No Blade Of Grass, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day Of The Triffids. Television series that have become a part of the folk horror conversation also feature prominently, such as The Owl Service, The Changes, Penda’s Fen and the influential Robin Redbreast (arguably a forerunner for The Wicker Man). Each chapter expertly charts its chosen subject’s impact upon the public consciousness as well as indicating that these artefacts are now part of a greater cultural cobweb that may well have threads and components that are radically different in genre or style but that equally have a strong commonality in their sense of unease and their haunted content; of similar ghosts in the machine (or spooks in the television and bookshelves). Further investigations delve into folklore, TV public information films and the landscape itself as a medium through which a certain mood, an uncanny, can be evoked.

Speaking to author Stephen Prince, we discussed this sense of cross pollination, over genres overlapping and finding common themes and ground;

SP: I think, to a certain degree, the way in which it isn’t easily definable how the different and loosely gathered areas of culture that are discussed in ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ appear to connect, influence one another, have become part of a lineage etc is an aspect of what is appealing about them and that gathering; it is part of what creates a certain mystique around it. Possibly in an age where every area of culture, no matter how niche, can be investigated and explained by for example a brief online search, it is the sense of a hidden history and stories, of an at least partly unexplained aspect to such work that is one of the things which may draw people to it. Along which lines, some of the older culture, although at times inherently containing a left-of-centredness, was initially produced and intended as quite mainstream entertainment. However, over time it has gained an otherlyness and also become points of interconnected reference and inspiration for future hauntological/ otherly pastoral work or again a loose “tradition” or set of themes:

 

“…they have come to be touchstones or lodestones that seem to invoke a hidden, layered history of the land but which also encompass and intertwine with a wider, hauntological, parallel, alternative version of Britain…” (Wandering Through Spectral Fields, P. 38)

 

In Chapter 4 of the Wandering Through Spectral Fields book (Cuckoos in the Same Nest: Hauntological and Otherly Folk Confluences and Intertwinings) I discuss some possible shared ground for such work, including a yearning for lost utopias; whether Arcadian dreams within more folk/pastoral orientated work or the lost progressive futures of hauntology. Connected to which you may know of this article but in Robert Macfarlane’s “The Eeriness of the English Countryside”, that he wrote for The Guardian in 2015, he suggests a possible more overtly politically orientated or at least rooted explanation for this curious confluence of culture:

 

“What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters: our noun monster, indeed, shares an etymology with our verb to demonstrate, meaning to show or reveal (with a largely lost sense of omen or portent).” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane

 

There’s not really an overarching and definitive name for this “broad spectrum” of work but in that article he describes such “eerie counter-culture” as being an occulture; which seems appropriate and connects to the earlier mentioned sense of the hidden within such possibly disparate seeming work as some of the roots of the word occult are from the older French word occulte meaning “secret, not divulged” and the Latin occultus which means “hidden, concealed, secret”. I’m wary of seeming overly serious (!) about such things; to a certain degree you could see such cultural exploring as in part a form of grown-up make-believe and world creation, a form of escapist fun. At the same time and connected to the above comments by Robert Macfarlane, that escapist aspect may also at times have roots in more serious areas in that such intertwined work and the worlds it creates could be seen to also create a bulwark from what some may see as the more potentially overwhelming, rapacious or secularly monotheistic aspects of modern life, culture and dominant belief systems.

 

Philosopher Jacque Derrida, who again as you may know introduced the idea of hauntology, suggested that in a certain stage of society (what has been described, possibly erroneously/precipitously, as “the end of history”) the present will start to orient itself towards ideas and aesthetics that can be thought of as rustic, bizarre or “old-timey” or towards the “ghost” of the past. Much of the culture that I discuss in ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ whether older or more contemporary, folkloric and/or hauntological, could be seen as having an “old-timey” or nostalgic aspect. At the same time often rather than purely providing the potentially more comforting, familiar and recreation of the past aspects of nostalgia, it also has reimagined, unsettled or eerie aspects:

 

“A re-imagining and misremembering (that creates) forms of music and culture that seem familiar, comforting and also often unsettling and not a little eerie, creating a sense of work that is haunted by spectres of its and our cultural past…” (P. 27-28; from a section in ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ that brings together some of the recurring themes of hauntology and which could also be applied to work which explores the flipside/undercurrents of folkloric culture).

 

The flipside of folk/pastoral culture and hauntology seem to interconnect to create those familiar but also reimagined, unsettling, eerie and spectral aspects; creating a cultural harvest that on paper and technically you would not expect to, as you also say, cross pollinate but which has proved curiously and intriguingly fertile and hardy.

 

FHR: Can you say more about your motivation for producing ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ and the possibility that this may just be a first volume of many?

 

SP: In terms of why I produced ‘Wandering Through Spectral Field’s as a book separate from the AYITC website; at heart and in part it’s not all that much more complicated than it was a book that I wanted to read, that I found myself looking for over the years. Previous to and since its publication/I finished writing it there have been a number of books released which have explored some similar areas but they have generally more tended to focus on one particular area of related culture; semi-consciously I wanted to bring all these different aspects together as, well, they seem to fit, interconnect and influence one another. Online and print orientated publishing both have their pros and cons, their strengths and weaknesses and I’m not didactically more inclined towards one or the other but the more possibly curated, edited etc aspect of a book can bring a particular theme or set of themes into focus – or again as you say, on reading a collection of writing in book form it is hopefully possible to “see how they become part of a larger cultural tradition”. In terms of ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ possibly becoming part of a series of books; we shall see (!).

 

The AYITC webpage continues to be updated with new thoughts and recollections, new features and films, books, television and music that seem to exist either in a more liminal space outside of the mainstream or that instead occupies the mainstream in a more liminal and unusual manner. Seek it out if you are not already a regular visitor. And for those who favour a little Quatermass with their Wicker Man, a touch of Belbury Poly with their Incredible String Band or a taste of Children of the Stones with an offering of Chocky, this volume is highly recommended.

 

With thanks to Stephen Prince for his time and answers. ‘Wandering Through Spectral Fields’ is available from ayearinthecountry.co.uk as well as Amazon.

 

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