The Corn Mother: Night Wraiths ~ Review

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Stephen Prince and his project A Year In The Country are best known for their derives through the haunted areas of unusual folk music and folklore, occult British culture, pagan children’s TV shows of the 70s and 80s and the electronica of these isles such as Delia Derbyshire and Ghost Box Records. Their website charts a course through the shadows of modern culture of TV, literature, music and film, finding that which provides a more spectral, hauntological narrative of the last 50 years. Similarly, their music imprint has spawned several high quality compilations featuring artists such as The Heartwood Institute, The Rowan Amber Mill and Grey Frequency, as well as albums by Prince himself under the moniker A Year in the Country.
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‘The Corn Mother’ first (re)emerged in 2018, as the A Year in the Country music label issued a soundtrack inspired by the notorious, possibly imaginary and subsequently unreleased film of the same name. Renowned for its tortured production history and its fabled lost screenplay, the movie itself had become something apocryphal and of legend, rarely seen but oft mentioned. Described as a ‘folkloric fever dream’, how this piece of cinematic conjecture fitted within and contributed to the current folk horror trend or to aspects of psychotronic cinema has been left as, essentially, a question mark. Indeed, there has been much musing but little else solid or informative regarding ‘The Corn Mother’ to base any consideration of its urban myth upon, until now.

In its ongoing pursuit of exploring the more haunted and liminal aspects of this island’s culture, A Year in the Country has produced ‘The Corn Mother’ novella, furthering the themes and characters of this spectral and hidden world, as well as an accompanying soundtrack, entitled ‘Night Wraiths’. Both are described as being ‘explorations and reflections of the whispers that tumble forth from the corn mother’s kingdom. A place and story where fact, fiction, reality and dreams blur into one’. The novella itself is sequenced according to the cycles of the year, into four sections or seasons and 52 chapters of no more than 365 words each. This nod to nature throughout the structure of the story alludes to the rural and harvest horror that spawned the original tale of ‘The Corn Mother’. Beginning in the year 1877 in a tiny, rustic English village, we first encounter the innocent Mrs Jessop who is unfairly accused of poisoning and spoiling the crops by employing witchcraft. This initial section details the growing hysteria that descends upon the small, insular village, already unsettled by the encroaching industrial revolution and consequent unwanted changes in country life that technological progress is bringing to them. The persecution of Mrs Jessop and her subsequent revenge as ‘the corn mother’ proves both disquieting and compulsive reading.

Time then shifts rapidly on and we find ourselves in the 1970s, as scriptwriter Peter is working on a story concerning a wronged villager who causes a village to splinter, fight, go mad with guilt and eventually up and leave. Sound familiar? Arthouse director Alain, whose films sound like they inhabit a genre somewhere between the Czech New Wave and Blood on Satan’s Claw, picks up on this script, which has been named ‘The Corn Mother’, and it goes into production. Things seem to be progressing well with the movie; the character of Ellen is introduced, who is producing the movie’s soundtrack, as well as Sarah, who is to play Mrs Jessop (this asks an eerie unanswered question; how does Peter know of her, know of her name?). Each chapter is written in the first person, giving a varied perspective and a personal take on the unfolding mystery that reveals both motives and intrigue. We also hear from crooked film funder Hines, whose corrupt financial dealings result in the whole production being cancelled and all cinematic reels and work completed on the movie disappearing. All, except for those which are taken and stowed away by a certain crew member, kept safe and hidden in a basement until they eventually emerge more than twenty years later. Meanwhile, the decades roll on and the rumours circulate. There is talk of ‘The Corn Mother’ being available as a bootleg VHS. A collection of videotapes that may have an edit of the film appear and then just as quickly are gone, as if they never existed, almost as if someone or something is eliminating all trace of the film’s existence. We are introduced to Alan, a film obsessive, who spends a significant part of his life trying to track down proof of ‘The Corn Mother’s existence, attending comic cons and searching internet databases, in particular the websites dedicated to the burgeoning folk horror movement. However, as reference to the film builds, it just as quickly vanishes, deleted. The evidence that ‘The Corn Mother’ existed, is being removed, but by whom or what?

A fascinating and truly inventive novella, ‘The Corn Mother’ touches upon those familiar pillars that A Year In The Country have become known for, the hauntological (and the imagined film in this tale really is a ‘past that is haunting the present’), as well as recognisable folk horror lodestones such as The Wicker Man. The story even cleverly builds in, during a ‘meta’ moment, the existence of 2018’s ‘The Corn Mother’ compilation that was actually released by the A Year in the Country label. Additionally, the text serves as a cultural and social reference point; throughout the passing of the decades; mention is made to the three-day week and power cuts of the 70s, to the Blockbuster video chains of the 90s and the subsequent rise of the internet. Nevertheless, much is also pleasingly unexplained. Prince is in no rush or pressure to reveal or join the dots, he trusts the readers to do this themselves, to surmise or imagine what machinations are at work.

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The novella comes accompanied by ‘The Corn Mother: Night Wraiths’, a soundtrack for the stories as well as a standalone piece of work. The album itself is split in a similar fashion to the novella; inspired by the cycle of the year it is sequenced into seven tracks – as in seven days of the week. Spectral, swooping electronics and ominous analogue washes create a barren, shadowed landscape to illustrate ‘The Infernal Engines’, Mrs Jessop’s walks amongst the fields and the suspicion of ever nearing industry and mechanization. ‘Night Wraiths’ stays within this era, documenting the coming of the corn mother and her lysergic revenge upon the mob hysteria of the village. Chillingly effective and genuinely unsettling, the synth pulses and growls are an adept soundtrack to the terrors in the book itself and work in a similar manner; subtle, pervasive and with a creeping sense of unease. ‘I Have Brought a Myriad Fractures and Found Some Form of Peace’ is a ghost story of a track, decaying and ebbing as much as the village and the inhabitant’s psyches were cracking and breaking under the weight of their madness and guilt. ‘Ellen’s Theme’ then takes us into the 1980s and the synth soundtrack to the long lost film, the music inspired by such compositions as featured in that period’s horror cinema such as that of ‘Halloween 3: Season of the Witch’, electronic strings hinting at the darkness behind the reoccurring melody, a pulsing and layering paranoia. Hints of Coil, John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream float on a doomed, resonating motif that circles and breathes, growing in intensity. ‘Dreams of a Third Generation Grail’ references Andy’s search for ‘The Corn Mother’ film, a spooked sense of yearning and obsession played out in the ghost-strewn harmonies. ‘They Are All Here’ charts the disappearance of any record of the film ever existing, a lonely electronic arctic wind that is framed by solitary notes and unearthly bleeps. Finally, ‘An Unending Quest’ completes the album, hinting at the cyclical and repeating nature of ‘The Corn Mother’ saga itself.

This is an original and significant piece of work, not only in its novel, singular and successful approach to folk horror and ‘imaginary’ films (tropes which, as hinted at within the book, have perhaps reached saturation point in lesser hands), but in the creation of its own self referencing  folklore. This may not be the last we have heard of ‘The Corn Mother’, her myth has been sown and will undoubtedly spring forth anew once again. Both an excellent tale of the supernatural and an effective slice of spooked electronica, ‘The Corn Mother’ is waiting in the fields for those who watch and listen. Time to gather the crops.

Available from the 16th March at www.ayearinthecountry.co.uk/shop/, Amazon and Lulu.

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Review by Grey Malkin

See also ~ https://folkhorrorrevival.com/2018/09/07/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-o/

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