Stephen J. Clark’s The Satyr & Other Tales is an anthology of his earlier book releases The Satyr (2010) and The Bestiary of Communions (2011) now released as a paperback edition.
Uniting the 4 tales in a single anthology is a good move as the tales compliment each other and are united not only by all the tales being set around the times of the two world wars but there is also a thread of artistic significance that weaves through all the stories.
Beginning with the book’s eponymous tale The Satyr, we the readers, are taken into the world of the great artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare. Although familiar no doubt to many Folk Horror Revivalists, Spare’s star as one of Britain’s greatest lost artists has begun to deservedly shine more in the last decade, he is still too unknown a quantity in the wider public consciousness. Though he was accepted into the Royal Academy whilst still a teenager and reputedly asked by a pre-war Adolf Hitler to paint his portrait (which Spare refused), he faded into semi-obscurity living almost a hermitic (and hermetic) life, reportedly paying for beer with paintings and taking care of a clowder of stray cats in his small London home. Being a somewhat enigmatic and eccentric character in real life, he is suited to be cast as a character within fiction. For me however there is always a sense of reticence upon beginning any fictional tale that features real people – what if their characterisation is ill-fitting and totally alien to how I imagined that person? In this case my fears are unfounded, Clark’s personification of Spare is well crafted. For the most part Spare is represented by reputation within the tale as the mysterious ‘Borough Satyr’ but when we do get to meet him in person as it were, Clark’s portrayal of him is very much how I’d envision the nature of Spare. The main characters of the story however are an ex-con called Paddy and a strange visual artist he has took up with, who (her own name being unknown), is referred to as ‘Marlene Dietrich’ and her pursuer, a psychiatrist named Doctor Charnock. The story unfolds in WWII London during the aerial blitzkrieg as Marlene seeks to find Austin Osman Spare through the bombed out rubble of the nation’s capital and show him her portfolio of strange esoteric drawings and of Charnock’s endeavours to seize those drawings for her own purpose. A difference made by Clark and his publisher Swan River Press to the anthologised edition is the inclusion of Clark’s own drawings in the style of Spare. I am biased as I approve of illustrated books and I like it when authors illustrate their own work as it gives a greater insight into the original creative vision of the piece. Clark does this justice. The art certainly emulates Spare but not only does it illustrate the story, it is suggestive of what Marlene’s own portfolio would look like. The tale itself is an esoteric adventure of crime, war and occult drama.
Unfortunately Clark has not illustrated the second half of the book, the trinity of novellas that make up The Bestiary of Communion. It would have been interesting to see the tales illustrated in the author’s own hand or if he can evoke (invoke?) other artists as well as he has Spare, then illustrations in the manner of Bruno Schulz, Nicolai Kalmakoff and Marie Čermínová would be fitting as probably would be a style befitting Alfred Kubin, Hugo Steiner-Prag, the New Objectivity movement or others of that era and ilk. It is curious that earlier authors that came to mind in reading The Satyr, literally made their presence more apparent in the triumvirate that followed.
In the first of the Bestiary Tales, The Horned Tongue, a bookseller in Amsterdam, comes to learn that there were secrets about his late wife that he would never have imagined. My mind had flitted to the Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, upon the introduction of a key character and it becomes apparent that readers familiar with that book are intentionally led down that path. I found this theme that recurs of having real creative luminaries inspiring and influencing the texts intriguing.
The Lost Reaches is the next tale and possibly the one that sidesteps most from early 20th Century European gritty post-decadence into the world of surrealism as refugees take sanctuary in an art-house nestled in the Carpathian mountains. Again another author whom passed through my mind in reading Clark’s work first came to mind and then manifestation. This time the remembrance of Bruno Schulz makes an appearance. Schulz, a Polish-Jewish artist and writer, whose work has been brought to the screen and a wider audience by both the visionary film director Wojciech Jerzy and the master animators The Brothers Quay, was tragically murdered by the Nazi regime during WWII.
Finally in a re-working of his novella My Mistress The Multitude, now renamed The Feast of the Sphinx (personally I preferred the first title, but I appreciate the name change in differentiating the versions) takes us to Prague whereby a strange chimeric Countess becomes the focus of attention and obsession in a time where the imminent arrival of invading Germanic troops into the city is a cause of profound dread.
These collected tales of Stephen J. Clark put me in mind of several notable authors – in addition to those mentioned above I perceived shades of Franz Kafka, JK Huysmans and Gustav Meyrink. That is not a complaint but a compliment. Clark’s writing is not derivative of these authors, his work is not a pastiche – it is just a case that his vision and settings are evocative of those times and souls and this book can stand alongside the works of these authors on its own merits. The Satyr & Other Tales may very well then be of interest to folk who like that strain of weird fiction that rose from the bones of Fin de Siècle decadent Europe, through secessionist expressionism and entartete kunst to interbellum and post-war surrealism. But how would it fare to the general reader? You do not need to be familiar with the artists and writers that cast a spell upon Clark’s tales – indeed his stories may be the gateway to discovering those creatives if previously unfamiliar with them and your curiosity piqued. But the tales need the reader’s attention, they are likely not suitable for a light summer holiday read but would suit dark nights and long rainy days.
Intriguing work, unknown to me upon its original release but that I’m very pleased to have caught The Satyr & Other Tales this time around.
Though folk horror is often associated to Britain, in looking through the vast number of films, TV series, books and other media that dabble in these ways, it soon becomes very apparent that it is a global phenomenon and not a new one at that. The forerunner of horror story books and films are the folk and fairy tales told as entertainments on those cold evenings around fires. And not just as an entertainment but at times a warning of dangers; traditional precursors of the Public Information Films that stuck in the minds of the kids who managed to survive the perils of being electrocuted in pylon-frisbee combinations or locked away for an eternity inside a fly-tipped fridge. But the traditional tales and the folk horror they later spawned had cultural and geographic nuances that defined their style and identity. Sometimes the land itself tells the story.
In the Folk Horror Chain, an analysis of the elements that constitute folk horror devised by the author and academic Adam Scovell, he mentions two links of the chain that are pertinent to this essay. They are Landscape and Isolation. In consideration of Landscape, the most common environment to be found in many examples of folk horror is rural or at least semi-rural. There are however stories that feature elements of folk horror in more built up areas (which may fall under the mode of Urban Wyrd, which is not simply folk horror in an urban setting but the nuances of which are beyond this article) however here shall concentrate on the more traditional or rural settings. In considering Isolation we have to remember that whilst it may in some instances relate to being out in the wilderness alone, it could also relate to being culturally or socially isolated for instance being a stranger among strange folk.
Where better to start in looking at these factors than in Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic folk horror movie The Wicker Man? The harbingers of The Wicker Man that are the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner and the 1970 BBC Play For Today episode Robin Redbreast (directed by James McTaggart) both also followed the plight of a person away from their original home and now amongst folk with different ways to their own. Ritual followed a police officer, (not entirely unlike Sergeant Neil Howie the protagonist of The Wicker Man played by Edward Woodward) investigating a missing child case in a rural Cornish village whilst Robin Redbreast follows the situation of a woman (played by Anna Cropper), who in taking a break from London, rents a country cottage in a location that is not specifically identified but from the accents of the locals appears to also be in the southwest of England. In deciding that Ritual was too problematic to film and thus deciding to write a screenplay with a similar central theme, Robin Hardy and script-writer Anthony Schaffer decided to make the location of their tale more remote still than in Ritual and Robin Redbreast (it is not known if either Hardy or Schaffer had seen Robin Redbreast). Setting The Wicker Man on an island off the Scottish coast, they made Sergeant Howie’s eventual plight more difficult – he could not run away, back-up from other police could not rush instantly to his aid. The fictional isle of Summerisle is an oddity in itself, due to geographical conditions it is place known for its amazing fruit production, not something the Scottish islands of the north are usually widely acclaimed for. But Summerisle is not a wilderness, its inhabitants are not prehistoric troglodytes hiding in caves; it does have an archaic system of having a local Lord who is also the people’s leader, but it also has a post office, shops and a thriving business in the form of the export of its fruit, particularly apples. However, it is when the harvest fails and their livelihood is threatened that things begin to occur. The ways on the island are old ways resurrected (details of which were inspired by historically questionable but conceptually intriguing books such as The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion by Sir James George Frazer). Sergeant Howie finds himself isolated not only by being cut off from the mainland by a channel of seawater but alone among people whose beliefs are so alien to his own that he struggles to barely comprehend them. The local people’s association to the land, particularly the fertility of the land, shapes their entire lives and in ensuring the fecundity of the crops they will, with a disturbing glee, take any actions they deem necessary.
In other examples of British folk horror films of the era, time plays a part. Witchfinder General (1968), Cry of the Banshee (1970) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) for instance are all set in centuries past in times where superstition, suspicion and fear spread across the country and continent like a virus. This was a time when it was feared that Satan was especially active in corrupting folk into worshipping him and employing malevolent actions against their neighbours or even against the crown or state. This was the time of Witch-hunting. Films of this kind were not hellbent on historical accuracy it must be said, and would not let facts get in the way of a good horror story. This is particularly noticeable in the movie Witchfinder General (directed by Michael Reeves). The historical time-period has been played with, as has the age, character and fate of Matthew Hopkins the titular Witchfinder General (played by Vincent Price). It does however illustrate the cruelty and injustice of the witch hunts that cut a swathe through the valleys, villages and burgeoning cities of Britain and beyond, and like The Wicker Man makes for an effective horror that has no actual supernatural happening in it. Cry of the Banshee and The Blood on Satan’s Claw however do unearth the demons from the forests, from the furrows and fields of olde England. The notion of superstition in small communities was returned to by Nigel Kneale with his 1975 TV play Against the Crowd: Murrain whereby the residents of a Yorkshire village fear that an elderly woman living in their midst is a witch intent on causing them and their animals harm. The premise of madness and maleficence within a meadow was beautifully returned to by Ben Wheatley in his strange 2013 film, A Field in England. Set during the 17th Century English Civil War, the film takes place within a single meadow, where the protagonists appear to be trapped. What transpires in the film is a medley of alchemy, intrigue and psychogenic mushroom hallucinations but in its poetic weaving it does reveal why folk horror is often associated to the British landscape as there are centuries of history and spilled blood within the soil of these small isles. However, the phenomenon of folk horror is not confined to these lands.
Crossing the ocean to the Americas, Europeans took their old fears to their new lives. The 1996 film The Crucible (directed by Nicholas Hytner and based upon the 1953 play by Arthur Miller) is based upon the real-life Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s whereby nineteen people lost their lives through the accusation that they were practising witchcraft. These events inspired a number of other movies including Crowhaven Farm (1970) and The Lords of Salem (2012). The 1973 Thomas Tryon novel Harvest Home and the television adaptation The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) follows a similar path between the plough-lines as The Wicker Man in depicting surviving old rites of sacrificial libation to the land. Children of the Corn (directed by Fritz Kiersch and based upon the Stephen King story of 1977) also tells of an archaic religion whereby an agricultural god named He Who Walks Behind The Rows must be appeased with blood sacrifice.
But the land itself is of gigantic proportions compared to Britain and the matter of geographic isolation increases in scope significantly. This is evident in the non-fictional but beautifully presented 1999 documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (directed by James Marsh) and the 1973 book it is based on by Michael Lesy which contains great old photography by Charles Van Schaick. Within its pages and on the screen are told tale after tale of madness, murder and misfortune mostly befalling European settlers struggling to cope with their new lives in the vast expanse of America. The theme of adaption to a hard, unforgiving land is displayed also in Robert Eggers’ 2015 folk horror masterpiece The VVitch. The film is inspired by both the lives and toils of the Plymouth Pilgrim Colony and accounts of witchcraft practice and history as described in accounts of period books and pamphlets inspired by tomes such as Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum – Hammer of the Witches (1487). Again, in The VVitch we see the desperation caused by the failing of crops.
But before the settlers colonised America the land was already old and walked upon. Indigenous American mythology like all world tales contains darker stories and entities. Though there have been numerous attempts to bring the stranger creatures of tribal mythology to screen such beings as skinwalkers, wendigos and the manitou, at times they have been not the most understanding or respectful of their source material. There is also the now stereotypical trope of ‘Indian burial grounds’, though that premise was used effectively in Stephen King’s 1983 book Pet Sematary and originally adapted for film in 1989 by Mary Lambert. This tale of resurrection beyond death contains the very folk horror line,” The ground is sour.” A lesser known film is 1983’s Eyes of Fire directed by Avery Crounse in which a scandalised preacher and his acolytes are forced out of their settlement and take shelter in a forest haunted by the spirits of long-deceased Indigenous Americans. There has been a growing wave of Native American film directors producing works in the horror genre, mostly so far it has been psychological horror that has been produced but it would be intriguing to see some of them bring their old tales of fear to the screen.
Although folk horror ‘purists’ may state that folk horror has to have a pagan or folkloric element, there isn’t actually a folk horror manifesto, (the term was originally utilised in reference to films by Piers Haggard when talking about The Blood on Satan’s Claw stated that his intention was to make a ‘folk horror film’), so it is mostly a matter of opinion. The Folk Horror Revival multimedia project prefers to take aesthetic, atmosphere and the elements of Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain into account as much as individual subject matter. Folk Horror Revival considers the subgenre of backwoods horror to often graze in a nearby field to folk horror. Bearing this in mind, the factors of landscape and isolation certainly play an important part in several American backwoods or ‘hillbilly’ horror movies. John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance follows the adventures of four friends who head out from Atlanta to a remote Georgia wilderness on a canoeing expedition. Their holiday turns sour as they encounter a pair of violent mountain dwellers. Equally notorious and often undeservedly maligned is Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) which is not as gory as some people seem to remember but is just as disturbing. A group of teenagers set out on a road trip to visit the rural Texan farm of the deceased grandfather of a pair of them. Picking up a weird hitchhiker on the way was not the strangest or worst thing to befall them on their trip, it was merely the start. Falling into the clutches of a demented cannibalistic family a grim battle for survival begins. 1981’s Southern Comfort (directed by Walter Hill) follows a squad of nine National Guard soldiers on a routine training exercise in a Louisiana bayou. The atmospheric deep southern swamp provides a setting that in its landscape is itself another major character in the film. Stirring the wrath of local Cajun hunter-trappers, the soldiers find themselves out of their depth as one by one they are hunted down. Southern Comfort also belongs to the southern gothic subgenre, another form of art and fiction that relies heavily on place and the cultural character of the location.
The culture of Louisiana is distinct in having both French Creole and Afro-Caribbean influence as well as American. It is this combination that provides the backdrop of the development of Louisiana Voodoo as a folk religion and the source of inspiration for Alan Parker’s great 1987 movie, Angel Heart. Angel Heart is a southern gothic / neo-noir fusion that also bears relevance to the folk horror subgenre due to its folk religion as well as Satanic themes and the cultural isolation New York detective Harry Angel (played by Mickey Rourke) feels among unfamiliar people with unfamiliar ways in the New Orleans landscape.
Some other films are noteworthy bedfellows on the premises of landscape and / or especially isolation. Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971) is a deliciously twisted movie based upon Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil (a name later changed also to The Beguiled). Set during the American Civil War in 1863 the film portrays the fate of an injured Union soldier, John McBurney (played by Clint Eastwood) who finds himself and his wounds tended within the confines of a seminary for young ladies. Bruce Beresford’s 1991 movie Black Robe accompanies a Jesuit missionary team on a gruelling trek across Canada as they bid to convert the First Nations people to Christianity. Both the vast landscape and encounters with local people who bear animosity leads to a film that is at times brutal, at others beautiful.
Veneno Para Las Hadas (Poison for the Fairies) directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada is a 1982 Mexican film with a rather different theme and aesthetic. Concentrating upon the relationship between two young girls living in a rural area as one embroils the other in the notion of witchcraft; Poison For The Fairies is a quite different inclusion iin the canon of North and Central American folk horror
The culture and landscape of Central and South America are rich in folklore and history. Mel Gibson’s 2006 movie Apocalypto follows the plight of a Mesoamerican tribe, particularly a young man, Jaguar Paw (played by Rudy Youngblood), as their lives are threatened by an invading force seeking human sacrifice, in a bid to ensure their own culture’s survival. The film has been controversial regarding the accuracy of the portrayal of the cultures of the period with different scholars and critics divided on their opinions. Another film worthy of mentioning, that casts its protagonists into a hostile landscape far from home, is German director Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, The Wrath of God. Following the expedition of 16th century Conquistadores searching for the fabled city of gold El Dorado, Aguirre sees madness and death unfold. Though not a horror, Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo is again set in Amazonia, and its feel and dreamlike quality in telling the tale of a steamship being dragged over a hill in Peru may appeal to fans of the folk horror aesthetic.
Casting our boats into the vast Pacific, there aren’t many horror films that concern themselves with the Oceanic islands until we get to New Zealand, though Polynesian culture offers many beautiful myths and lore, some with a dark heart. Māori tradition has however delivered more in the way of horror or dark folktale inspired material to the small and large screens. Mataku was a New Zealand television series that ran between 2002 and 2005, that was in format something akin to Tales of the Unexpected or The Twilight Zone was inspired by Māori myth and folklore. Whilst many New Zealand horror films are concerned with the more mainstream (if horror is ever particularly mainstream) fare of vampires, zombies and suchlike, John Laing’s
1985 film The Lost Tribe follows the trail of an anthropologist who disappears whilst travelling on a research mission studying a reclusive tribe.
Into the vast expanse of the Australian outback we see landscape and isolation play a big role in some of the films of the land down under. It is noteworthy that the films that will be mentioned here for the most part fall into that ‘are they actually horror films?’ category. It really depends on how you personally define horror, for it is subjective and folk horror even more so. For the deep feelings of dread that isolation and environment can provoke, these films certainly merit a mention here; the aesthetic and otherworldly qualities tie them in with the broader view of folk horror. Let us begin with Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout. Categorised as Austrialian New Wave or alternatively as Ozploitation, Walkabout is loosely based on James Vance Marshall’s 1959 novel of the same name. Following a manic violent episode and subsequent suicide of their father, a teenage girl and her younger brother become stranded in the outback. Struggling to survive they are discovered by a young native man (played by the great indigenous actor David Gulpilil), who helps them survive in the wilderness but at a cost to himself. Roeg’s considerable skill as a cinematographer makes great use of the vast, barren sun-baked environment of the Outback. The notion that such a place could drive a soul to madness is again brought to the fore in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, also released in 1971 and initially bearing the title Outback. The film centres on a young teacher John Grant (played by Gary Bond), who en route to Sydney stops off in a blood and spit rural mining town known colloquially as the Yabba. John is aloof to the hard-living residents but, becoming engrossed in a gambling game, loses his money and becomes stranded in the town. The influence of the residents and the outback immerse him and he falls into a spiral of alcohol abuse and identity crisis. Both Walkabout and Wake in Fright raised controversy about scenes depicting the actual hunting and killing of animals. These scenes do make for some uncomfortable viewing but it is worthwhile to read up on their inclusion. Whilst it can be argued that the scenes are not vital to the films, their inclusion does emphasise the brutal aspect of the outback, where survival seems to be a constant, harsh struggle. Nature fights back in Colin Eggleston’s strange 1977 movie, Long Weekend. An urbanite couple go for a camping trip in the country but proceed to disrespect the animals and the environment. The natural world then unites to make them pay for their callous and thoughtless behaviour.
A supernatural aspect to the Outback is revealed in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Based on Joan Lindsay’s luscious 1967 novel of the same name, the story centres around a group of schoolgirls from Appleyard College attending a Valentine’s Day picnic at Hanging Rock, a geological feature out in the bush. Several girls and one of the teachers do not return from the day out. Mystery surrounds their disappearance – did they suffer to an accident? Did they get lost and succumb to the hot, dry conditions? Were they raped and murdered … or did some stranger fate befall them? The location is a major player in the film; Hanging Rock, or Ngannelong (or Anneyelong) to give it its traditional Aboriginal name, is a dead volcano in Victoria. Formerly it was occupied by the Woi Wurrung, Taungurung and Dja Dja Wurrung tribes but were driven from it in colonial times. The old lore of the rock has vanished as mysteriously as the girls and teacher from the film and book (intriguingly Picnic at Hanging Rock created its own myth as to whether the narrative was based upon an actual event). Despite the lack of real Aboriginal presence in Picnic at Hanging Rock, within Weir’s dreamlike cinematic direction of Lindsay’s hauntingly romantic book a shadow of the Dreamtime is cast by the rock. Weir did however pursue more distinctly indigenous themes in his 1976 film The Last Wave. This film is intriguing as it infuses the whole of Australia, both rural and urban with the Dreaming. The Dreamtime or Dreaming refers to the cosmological / spiritual concept of the Australian Aboriginal people whereby in a time out of time the land is inhabited with supernatural entities. The Dreaming is spoken of sometimes in the concept of ‘everywhen’ which refers to all times at once. In The Last Wave, it can also be seen as being everywhere or at least everywhere in Australia, as from outback to city strange weather suddenly arises as a lawyer (Richard Chaberlain) begins to feel a psychic connection to a man (David Gulpilil) who is accused, with a group of others, of committing murder. The aspect of everywhere and everywhen is perhaps also subtly suggested by the magnetic anomalies of the watches stopping both in Picnic at Hanging Rock and also in Wolf Creek (2005). Wolf Creek, directed by Greg McClean, is a brutal slice of Australian backwoods horror, that uncompromisingly reminds us that the isolation of the bush and Outback are perfect hunting grounds for serial killers – though whilst the prey may at times be few and far between, once the hunt has begun,both it and the ensuing slaughter can be pursued at grisly leisure. The Kettering Incident television series (2016) also looks at disappearances that is not due to killers on the road abducting victims, but instead is associated to mysterious lights seen in the sky above the mysterious, evocative forests of Tasmania.
Depictions of horror are rich and prevalent in Asian folklore, art and cinema; however, landscape tends not to be as much a factor as in the Chinese wuxia movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) for instance. A common feature of Japanese horror (or J-horror), the most internationally successful of all Asian horror films, is that of Yūrei – that is to say ghosts, and especially the Onryō or vengeful ghost. Frequently depicted as pale females with very long black hair, the most famous of which is probably Sadako from the Ringu series, these entities have been seen in Japanese cinema in earlier films such as The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959), The Ghost of Oiwa’s Spirit (1961) and 1968’s Yabu no naka no Kuroneko (also known simply as Kureneko). Yukki-onna is a similar looking spirit seen in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 film Kwaidan (meaning Ghost Stories and based on the folk tales transcribed in the 19th century by Lafcadio Hearn). Yukki-onna however is an elemental spirit rather than the tortured soul of a dead girl and is associated to the winter. Featuring in the section of the film entitled The Woman of the Snow, this tale would send a shiver down the spine of the viewer, listener or reader for that is literally the point of Japanese ghost stories; unlike the spooky tales that are told in the west around Halloween and Christmas, in Japan ghost stories were told in the summer with the intention of causing a chill to ease the heat. Whilst ghosts of the west may be confined to particular locations, it appears from Japanese movies at least that Onryō may travel from place to place, often haunting a particular person rather than locale. Similar entities are known across Asia by a variety of names. A Japanese film that uses the landscape of reed fields to amazing effect is Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 masterpiece Onibaba (which translates as Demon Hag). Onibaba relates the situation of two women who live in the rustic area and make a living by killing and robbing soldiers during the 14th century civil war. One day a demon masked man appears in their midst and the relationship between the women takes a darker turn. Fabrice du Welz’s 2008 film Vinyan is actually a British-French-Belgian-Australian movie but is set in Southeast Asia after the devastating 2004 tsunami. Searching for their son who was lost in the disaster a western couple find themselves out of their depth in an unfamiliar continent.
The continent of Africa has a rich and diverse bounty of folklore, legend and myth from the Ancient Egyptians in the north to the Zulu nation of the south, and a tremendous and vast, varying landscape, but horror films are only beginning to blossom here and future creations are eagerly anticipated. Thanks goes to Folk Horror Revival colleague, Richard Hing, for alerting me to several unfamiliar diamonds from Africa. Yeleen is a 1987 movie from Mali, directed by Souleymane Cisse, the title of which means ‘brightness’ in English. Based on a legend known to the Bambara people, it tells of a young man with magical powers who is tracked by his father, who wants to kill him, through the terrain of West Africa. In 2016, Uganda produced Bunjako, directed by Kizito Samuel Saviour, which centres on a group of students who find themselves lost in a haunted forest. Rungano Nyoni’s 2017 film, I Am Not A Witch displays how old superstitions and suspicion can still affect a populace in its tale of a young girl who is accused of practising witchcraft. As with America and Australia, the lonely roads and vast expanses of the African continent can give certain dangerous individuals a chance to kill at their leisure should unfortunate victims pass their way. The people of Namibia still shudder at the mention of Nhadiep, a notorious murderer. Nhadiep (born Klaas Pieters) went on the run in the early 1980s leaving several dead bodies in his wake. Successfully eluding the law, he became a legendary figure and was rumoured to possess supernatural powers. Following the fatal shooting of Nhadiep in 1982 by Sergeant Coenraad du Preez, people said that the ghost of Nhadiep still lingered in the Karas mountains and when spoken of, when it is dared even to speak his name, he is referred to as a bogeyman type figure. At least two very different films have been inspired by the case of Nhadiep. David Wicht’s Windprints (1989) is a straightforward fact-based drama starring John Hurt and Sean Bean that follows the manhunt through the unforgiving terrain whilst Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992) is inspired by the case but takes it in a more supernatural, stylised direction. Both Dust Devil and Miguel Llansó’s 2015 movie Crumbs, display the African landscape in a post-apocalyptic / science fiction fantasy fashion rather than showing it in its current age and in respect to the lore of its past, but Crumbs especially, does make good use of the immense and unyielding expanse and topography of the continent.
Let us now head northwards and back into Europe. Whilst Italy is more well known for its Giallo suspense thrillers, a film that displays the old beliefs of rural areas in a dark and dramatic fashion is Il Demonio (Brunello Rondi, 1963). A decade before The Exorcist, Il Demonio narrates the tale of Purif (played by Daliah Lavi) who in exploring the rustic magic practise of malocchio is suspected by the locals and clergy of a Southern Italian mountain village to be not only a witch but possessed by evil spirits. The film portrays the grim actions spawned by the locals’ fears As the persecution of Purif endures, it feels like there is no escape for her in this Spaghetti Western like habitat; the village looking as if it had actually sprung forth from the rock of this desolate terrain. Spaghetti Westerns were also incidentally filmed in Spain where we will turn to next.
The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 casts a shadow over some of Spain’s cinematic output and it is the aftermath period of this that provides the setting for Victor Erice’s El Espíritu de la Colmena – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Despite a subplot involving Boris Karloff’s iconic rendition of Frankenstein’s Monster, The Spirit of the Beehive is not a horror film but it does have a very earthy yet ethereal quality and an aesthetic that is akin to folk horror. This tale of a child encountering a wounded soldier in a sheep pen in a lonely location surrounded by a beautiful yet haunting landscape, informs the work of director Guillermo del Toro who has expressed admiration for the film. Its influence can perhaps be seen more in El Espinazo del Diablo – The Devil’s Backbone (2001) than in his striking fantasy El laberinto del fauno – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), though both of these films also relate to the influence of the civil war. The Devil’s Backbone interweaves the tale of a missing boy at a remote orphanage and a subsequent haunting with the political turmoil of the time. J.A. Bayona’s 2007 film El Orfanato – The Orphanage also utilises a home for children whose parents have died as the centre of its narrative but is set in contemporary times. Before we head out of the Mediterranean, a mention must go to the absolutely stunning landscape in the 2017 Greek short film Mandelion, directed Achilleas Gatsopoulos, about the nature spirits the Neraides.
Though there are other film genres mixed into Le Pacte des Loupes (Brotherhood of the Wolf) directed by Christophe Gans in 2001, its inspiration by the true-life killings that occurred in the French province of Gévaudan lends to it a folk horror element. Between 1764 and 1767 there were an estimated 210 attacks upon people with perhaps a hundred deaths in the mountainous region. They were attributed to a ferocious beast that some thought to be a wolf or wild dog but that others feared to be a werewolf. Brotherhood of the Wolf adds a theme of intrigue and conspiracy to its stylish depiction of the story.
Fabrice du Welz, mentioned earlier as the director of Vinyan, gives a bizarre and brutal lesson about the dangers of having a vehicle break down in a rural, sylvan town in Belgium in his 2004 backwoods horror Calvaire (The Ordeal). Though it may veer into ‘urban wyrd’ territory Pieter Van Hees 2008 film Linkeroever (Left Bank) has the curiosity of nature creeping back in to reclaim the Left Bank area of the Belgian city Antwerp and gives the impression through its exterior cinematography ,and the isolation of the protagonist, of transpiring in a more remote place than it actually is.
Filmed mostly in Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Germany and The Netherlands Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) sees director Werner Herzog again unite with actor Klaus Kinski and the band Popol Vuh who worked together on the afore mentioned Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. This remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens combines some stunning photography (especially making good use of the Tatra Mountains) with atmospheric music to create a dream-like vampiric folktale on screen. Jeder für sich und Gott gegen – The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; Herzog’s 1974 movie based upon the true story of a young German man who was suspected first of being a feral foundling but then became the figure of greater theory and curiosity, is again not a horror film as such but the strange narrative and use of place lend it also to this essay.
Heading northward button up your coats as we travel into Scandinavia, where there is a good argument that folk horror cinema originated. Häxan(or Heksen) Witchcraft Through the Ages is a 1922 Danish -Swedish co-production written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. It is presented as a docudrama but it is more fantastical than that. It is clear to see that Christensen had fun researching the weird and grisly details gleaned from accused witches’ confessions and from folklore and in his dark presentation of these tales, he made Häxan a work of art that is ahead of its time. Originally presented as a silent movie, Häxan has been re-released with various scores and voice-overs including narration by the acclaimed Beat poet and occultist William Burroughs and more recently by, the talented actor and writer of gallows-humour tv shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No. 9, Reece Shearsmith
There are aesthetic and thematic elements to be found in a number of the films and television shows that have been associated to the crime thriller genre known as Scandinavian Noir. A pair of Swedish television series Ängelby and Jordskott (both premiering in 2015) initially seem like regular detective stories but then unveil an undercurrent of supernatural weirdness. Set in small towns in wooded areas both shows display an earthy folk horror strangeness. In the case of Jordskott association is drawn to the skogsrå – forest spirits of Nordic lore. Norway has also drawn on its rich folklore for a number of movies. Aleksander L. Noraas’ 2012 movie Thale also explores the concept of forest spirits. A Thale (or Thallen or Huldra) is a female wood spirit that may have a hollow back but generally, as is the case in the film, the Thale possess cow tails. Noraas’ film relates to one of these creatures that was discovered being held in captivity. Whilst Thale is not a bad film, my personal preferences would have seen it produced with less mainstream horror action and instead given it a slower stranger atmosphere. 2010’s Trolljegeren – Trollhunter (directed by André Øvredal) pulls off the at-times risky ‘found footage’ approach very well. Following a film crew making a documentary about a man whose mission in life is to hunt trolls – those lumpy, unpleasant monsters of Norse myth and fairy-tales. This it does with dark humour, interesting character exchange and the use of the wintry landscape is so powerful you can almost feel a chill through the viewing screen. Before we head eastwards, a diversion west to Iceland and Nietzcha Keene’s The Juniper Tree. Starring elven singer Bjork, The Juniper Tree tells the tale of two sisters who flee from their home after their mother is executed as a witch. Filmed in black and white, the film displays a desolate beauty and is something of a folk horror hidden gem.
Finally, on our folk horror odyssey we shall again head eastward. Finland has offered some treats to the folk horror viewer; it is home to one of the oddest Yuletide movies ever – Jalmari Helander’s 2010 Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale in which wild Santas are captured and traded,but it is another two movies that better illustrate the Finnish landscape. Valkoinen Peura – The White Reindeer (directed by Erik Blomberg in 1952) is an early folk horror classic and again one that deserves to be better known. Taking inspiration from Sami mythology and folklore, The White Reindeer is a strange, spellbinding tale of shamanism, transformation and vampirism.
Antti-Jussi Annila’s 2008 film Sauna (also known as Filth and Evil Rising) is set in the aftermath of the 16th century Swedish-Russian war which saw Finland used as a battlefield. Two brothers are given the job of marking the Finnish-Russian border but find themselves in a swamp that is not marked upon the map, and upon discovering a bathhouse in the dank and treacherous terrain, dark forces are stirred. The cinematic use of the location in Sauna is delightfully menacing and eerie. For those wishing to investigate more Finnish horror, Roland af Hällström’s 1952 movie Noita Palaa Elämään – The Witch is also worth checking out.
Returning to the snow, Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки – The night Before Christmas or as it is better known Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is a 1961 Soviet film directed by Aleksandr Rou based on a series of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. It is charming yet weird film that sees perhaps the cutest depiction of the devil in screen history. 1967’s Вий – Viy, also based on a Gogl tale and directed by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov has a similar aesthetic to Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and is a classic of East European folk horror. Viy relates the tale of a young priest holding a three-day vigil over the corpse of a witch. Морозко – Morozko. Father Frost is actually a children’s film, at least I think it is. It is rather creepy whether it intends to be or not and it does feature a favourite witch of Folk Horror Revivalists – Baba Yaga. The most disturbing thing about it though for me is the bear mask, worn by the actor whose character is transformed into a bear. All of these 3 films have a particular cultural aesthetic that is enchanting and appealing.
The 1981 Ukranian movie directed by Yuri Ilyenko, Lesnaya Pesnya. Mavka – A Story of the Forest is a dark fairy tale relating to wood nymphs whilstЛептирица – Leptirica – The She-butterfly is a 1973 former Yugoslavian film directed byĐorđe Kadijević based on a story by Serbian writer Milovan Glišić. Dealing with a rustic village that harbours a haunted mill with a vampiric association, Leptirica is influenced by the Slavic folklore that describes how vampires may take the form of butterflies and has been considered to be the first Serbian horror film. Former Czechoslovakia has exported some of the finest international folk horror both in certain movies of the Czech New Wave and in the distinctly creepy animation by master filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, (Alice, Faust and Little Otik are all classic folk horror animations worth seeing). Numerous Czech films have folk horror elements or qualities, but for the purpose of this essay will mention only a handful. Kladivo na carodejnice – Witchhammer
directed by Otakar Vávra in 1970 and based upon the novel by Václav Kaplický returns us to the days of the witch hunts, specifically those of Northern Moravia in the 17th Century. There is quite possibly a political subtext of the times within Witchhammer but taken directly as a historical horror it is a powerful film. Juaj Herz’s 1972 film Morgiana about two twisted sisters is in a way a sort of Bohemian Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, but is also a visual delight. The atmospheric coastal scenes were shot on location in Bulgaria. Finally we will end our folk horror world tour with 1970’s Valerie a Týden Divů – Valerie and Her Week of Wonders which was directed by Jaromil Jireš and based upon the novel by Vítězslav Nezval. Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a visual delight, surreal and dreamlike. Its narrative at times is not always the easiest to follow, but the basic gist is that the titular Valerie, upon entering womanhood, becomes the focus of lust of numerous characters, men women and even priests and vampires. Filmed around the area of Slavonice, some of the scenes in the film are truly beautiful. Its oneiric atmosphere and aesthetic appealed to both the author Angela Carter and director Neil Jordan and its influence can be seen in their 1984 dark fairy-tale The Company of Wolves. This luscious adaptation of the Red Riding Hood tale with extra sensual elements pertaining to Carter’s work in her The Bloody Chamber short story collection has appeal to both the appreciators of gothic horror as well as folk horror, and as sure as apples fall from the orchard tree, it brings us back to Britain where our story today began.
Back in the infancy of Folk Horror Revival, myself and fellow founding member Darren Charles cut our teeth on the live talk scene on behalf of FHR, delivering a lecture to the Alchemical Landscapes symposium at Girton College, Cambridge Univerity. In those hallowed halls we dedicated our talk to two luminaries of sound – Cambridge town’s own madcap Syd Barrett (as it was on the anniversary of his death that we spoke) and also to Delia Derbyshire, as Girton was the college she attended whilst studying her twin passions of mathematics and music.
But why would a pair of northern folk horror revivalists pay homage to an electronic music pioneer? The answer lies in that peculiar relationship (symbiosis?) between folk horror and hauntology. That and the fact we were both honoured and awed to be invited to speak at the seat of learning that the sculptress of sound once haunted with her presence.
Caroline Catz’s impressive documentary / docu-drama Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes (broadcast as part of the BBC’s Arena arts programming) further illustrates the bond between Derbyshire and her contemporaries and the worlds of folk horror & urban wyrd aesthetics.
Born in Coventry in 1937, Delia Derbyshire stated that hearing the sound of air raid sirens as a child during the war had a profound effect on her and cemented a lifelong obsession with sound. Hailing from a working class background (which the plum intonations of her speaking voice would hardly suggest), Delia was offered places to study at both Oxford and Cambridge but followed a scholarship at the latter to study mathematics. She combined this course with her love of phonaesthetics and graduated in 1959 with a BA in Maths and Music.
Having taken up a position at the BBC in 1960; in 1962 she was reassigned to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – a department that some may have considered as punishment but a place where Delia felt a yearning to be. It is her work and time here that provides the main focus of Catz’s documentary.
Set up in 1957 by Desmond Briscoe and the legendary Daphne Oram (an aural enchantress whose mastery of sonic weirdness was hidden behind features that would not have looked out of place at a Women’s Institute coffee morning) the task of the Radiophonic Workshop was to provide incidental sounds for radio and then television programming. Their task of creating new and different sounds led the workshop, which was based in Maida Vale, London and employed the sonic services of a number of sound wizards and visionaries to various fields of experimentation and the embracing of tape manipulation and Musique Concrete methodology. Oram departed the Workshop to found her own studio in 1959, but Delia would later fill those shoes with great competence and vision. A moment that would mark her place in music history came in 1963 when composer Ron Grainer asked whether she could do anything for a theme tune that was needed for a new BBC series. Providing Delia with a few musical notes and abstract suggestions for sounds including “wind bubbles” and “wind clouds”, she set to work. The TV show was called Doctor Who and for it Delia crafted one of the most infamous, innovative, timeless and enduring television theme tunes ever.
Catz’s documentary of course captures that seminal moment, but she has a lot more to say about the life, loves, art and depression of Delia Derbyshire. The film is cut between interviews with those who knew and worked with Delia, recordings of her own voice in interviews and dramatised scenes in which Catz herself plays Delia. (I was racking my brain trying to remember where I recognised Caroline Catz from and it turns out that she plays the love interest of Doctor Martin in the eponymous tv show that has seemed to air on British telly since the dawn of time). In my mind now though she will be forever associated to this film which is clearly a work of love as well as of art.
Catz guides us through the highs and lows of Delia’s life and soundscapes- through a haze of marijuana smoke and acid colours as psychedelia and Delia embraced each other and her depression and alcoholism (which was not considered much of a problem by Delia who seemed to see herself as a hopeful drunk rather than a hopeless one). We surrender to the white noise and are immersed in history and sound under the guiding light of Nick Gillespie’s cinematography. We voyeuristically listen on as seance-like, Delia engages in conversation with the disembodied voices of Mary Wollstonecraft and Ada Lovelace. Yet we are not merely enveloped in the broadcast of ghosts, for working with the 267 tapes belonging to Delia, that were found stored in cereal boxes in an attic after her death in 2001, the artist Cosey Fanni Tutti (possibly most well known for her work in the extreme art-music scene of COUM and Throbbing Gristle alongside Genesis P-Orridge) uses the magical archive to create more manipulation of sound. It is not just Tutti however that has been inspired by Delia Derbyshire, as without her and the other Radiophonic visionaries the music output of the likes of Caro C, Burial, the Ghostbox oeuvre, Concretism, Broadcast, The Soulless Party and various other trip-hop, vapourwave, hauntological, electronic and film, TV & radio soundscape composers would likely be a different kettle of fish altogether.
Passing away from renal failure early after the turn of the century, Delia Derbyshire would likely be “tickled pink” to know that two decades into the 21st Century that the sound experiments she created as much as 60 years ago would be inspiring and innovating musicians and music now.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths & The Legendary Tapes is available for free streaming to UK viewers now at ~
In the 21st Century Folk Horror Revival, several names keep coming to the fore, among those are the partnership of British film director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Together they have previously brought us the new wave of folk horror gems Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) as well as the tangentially associated Sightseers (2012) – a darkly humourous film that is akin to Mike Leigh’s classic 1976 BBC play Nuts in May but on PCP. In the years between then and now Wheatley and Jump have ventured into the world of the Urban Wyrd with their adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise (2015) as well as working separately on a variety of works.
When rumours began to be whispered around that Wheatley was returning to the old pastures of pastoral terror, the ears of folk horror folk began to prick up. Then the trailer dropped for In The Earth with its flashing psychedelic images, discordant noise, glimpses of folksy woodcut art and a monolith that hearkens back to the cult ‘children’s’ book and TV series of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The tag line of the trailer invitites us to go on a Trip with Ben Wheatley and why the Hell not? I’m up for that. https://youtu.be/3Lqkfo7IymU
And so it must be assumed that Mr Wheatley may have a fascination for hallucinogenic mushrooms as they play a part in his alchemical civil war drama A Field in England and play a greater role in In the Earth. The premise of the film sees Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) venture out from a state of quarantine imposed upon urban areas due to an unspecified viral pandemic to a research facility in a forest in the south west of England. The shadow of the pandemic is not only cast over the health and safety measures Martin must undertake and the scientific research prevalent in such times but it also manifests in the social awkwardness and behaviour of folks who live in conditions of isolation and distance. Martin as such is a non-typical protagonist, he is not some confident self-assured doctor-come-hero of numerous horror and sci-fi films but a quiet, anxious individual. In seeking out his ex-lover and scientific partner Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is researching the mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants) network beneath the forest which has a higher than normal soil fertility, Martin is assigned the trekking assistance of a woodland ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia). Before setting off into the woods, seeing a large woodcut artwork upon the wall of the cabin recommissioned as a research base, Alma informs Martin about the local lore and belief in a sylvan spirit named Parnag Fegg.
Whilst camping in the woods, the pair are subjected to a nocturnal attack by an unseen assailant. They are not badly hurt but the attacker has stolen their shoes, making an already precarious journey more troubled still. This is darkened further by Martin tearing the sole of his foot open upon sharp terrain. All is not lost however as a bedraggled man Zach who lives and works as an artist in the woods, approaches them and offers them food, drink, shelter and footwear. he even stitches up Martin’s wound. This rudimentary arboreal operation is one of several scenes where gore and the ‘ouch-factor’ comes into play. As with Kill List, Wheatley and Jump’s ‘Arthurian’ gangster movie (it is much better than that description sounds) violence and injury are graphically depicted in In The Earth. However as may not be totally unexpected there is more to Zach and his art than may first appear.
After a brutal hallucinogenic nightmare unfolds, Martin and Alma against all odds reach the research camp of Dr Olivia Wendle, whom it transpires her study has progressed beyond soil fertility and is also trying to reach the ‘consciousness’ of the mycorhizzal mat – the spirit of the earth. Though she is attempting to invoke an animistic presence through science (utilising sound and light – which significantly shapes the aesthetic of core sections of the movie) rather than art like Zach, her practices are ritualistic and it becomes apparent that her and Zach are perhaps estranged but are not strangers to each other.
Sound and image are very important factors of the film as can be seen from the Art and Sound department’s roll call of talent which reads as a folk horror revivalist / hauntologist’s dream – Richard Well’s woodcuts, Julian House’s credits sequence, camera work & cinematography by Nick Gillespie and musical / soundscape composition by Clint Mansell. One scene that will likely live on in future discussion of Wheatley’s work alongside the culminating ritual of Kill List and the magic mushroom sequence in A Field in England, is the passing of a hazmat suited Alma into a mist of fungal spores. The image of her affixed to a rope is reminiscent of the tent scene in a Field in England and both have a symbolic resonance of an emerging child still attached to the umbilical cord suggesting a birth or rebirth. It must be noted however that any viewer who may experience seizures when exposed to flashing lights or certain sound wavelengths should proceed with great care if at all, for numerous segments of the film are something of a sonic and stroboscopic assault.
But is it all style over substance? Not quite, but I do feel that the film would have benefited from greater input into the writing from Amy Jump (whose role on this film is given as a Producer credit) and /or a longer period of time taken by Wheatley on the plot development (he only spent 15 days on the script-writing). This is particularly pertinent to the ending which could in my mind have been both stronger and stranger. Part of both Kill List and A Field in England’s strength (though it would annoy some viewers) is the ambiguity. Too much yet oddly maybe not enough is revealed with In the Earth. Much of the plot is quite predictable and follows a familiar enough path. It would have been better perhaps to follow wander lines and go further into the abstract and see where the film would end up.
However this is a film made in strange times under different conditions. It will be noted in future as a work that was seeded, grown and bloomed in the days of the Covid19 plague. It offers further reading potential in that area and it has to be said that it does deliver scenes of both weird (and wyrd) beauty as well as brutality. The characteristics and dynamics of the characters are a bit off the beaten track which is interesting however and Shearsmith is particularly sharp casting. The shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No 9 display his versatility and his role of Zach is the most interesting in the film, though at times the visuals portraying him are suggestive of The Shining’s Jack Torrence escaping into the wild.
In conclusion, I liked In the Earth and with subsequent viewings I feel my appreciation for it could possibly grow more, but I would have liked more in terms of plot development which prevented me from experiencing love at first sight. But certainly it is an intriguing and welcome addition to both Wheatley’s oeuvre and the folk horror canon. I imagine though that it will be a film that divides audiences.
It’s grim up north … actually it’s not entirely. There is a lot of beauty in the north but as Glen James Brown’s debut novel illustrates there is a bleakness to that beauty – the north has a shadow self and certain areas dwell in the shade that is cast. Places such as the Burn Estate, the central location of Ironopolis.
This is not a new book. It first hit the shelves in 2018, so it isn’t an old book either, but we are not ageist here at Folk Horror Revival and Urban Wyrd Project, we’ll happily review media of any vintage. Ironopolis missed my radar until now but here it is better late than never.
Why is it here? Is it Folk Horror (whatever that is)? It is all set around a rundown council housing estate in Teesside, so hardly … yet there is an element of connection (connection being the overlying arc of this novel) to which we’ll come. Does it then relate to our other main point of interest here, the mode of urban wyrd? Most definitely. Its name harks back to the area around Middlesbrough in the north-east of England- a region built on the back of iron and steel, on hard graft and rivulets of molten sweat. An area that was left to pick up the pieces when the arse fell out of these heavy industries. So yes, this book is an epitome of urban. The root of the word ‘wyrd’ relates to fate to destiny and within this weaving novel we see the threads of connectivity between numerous people of different generations associated to the Burn Estate, the hub of the tale and the heart of the characters we meet, some of which consider it a dark heart that beats to the rhythm of a heavy iron drum.
Set in different time periods and told in varying formats – letters, interviews, first and third person narrative and even pages from a prison diary, lives and deaths interconnect. The Burn Estate connects them and is a character in itself, albeit a senescent dying character that for much of the narrative is in a state of demolition and waiting for rebirth and regeneration – new buildings, new lives. Those that still live on the Burn in its dying throes alternately cling on to life there as long as they can or eager to leave take the offers made by the development company, sometimes uncertain of whether they will or whether they want to return to the place after it has been reinvented. But memories remain, as do lies and secrets … some very dark secrets.
Yet there is more than simply the interconnection of living jowl to jowl that binds the characters of this web of stories but something … someone… else that melds their lives. A presence older than the tower blocks and bedsits. It is this someone who takes us from the gritty social realism of the tale into the territory of magical realism. But do not be blindsided by the word ‘magical’ – the supernatural element is not some fairy godmother nor are there summery uplands to escape to. The grit sticks to sweat and blood spills and stains. The presence that haunts the locale of the Burn Estate and the minds of some of its troubled inhabitants is both weird and wyrd.
We first encounter the presence through the paintings and memories recalled of a teenage girl Una Cruickshank who lived in Loom Street on the estate in the 1950s. Coming from a difficult home, Una found some escape and expression in art. Continuing into adulthood, she became known for her paintings of misty riverbanks, lonely and quiet yet in some pictures vague figures may be present. In one picture entitled The Green Girl, this figure is perhaps more manifest. This strange female was not the invention of Una. she was known to the grandmother of Jean Barr, Una’s friend, and to many before her, yet is was an entity that Una became obsessed with as she talked to her … and not her alone.
The mysterious creature in question is known to folklorists and folk horror fans as Peg Powler. An entity I know personally from lore local to me for she is the spirit of the River Tees, one of the rivers that runs through my home county. Like Jenny Greenteeth and the Grindylow of Lancashire and Yorkshire (as well as Nanny Powler of the Skerne, a tributary of the Tees in the Darlington area), Powler is a water witch (known as Groac’h by the Breton people) – a green-skinned, pond-weed strewn hag who lures children to the edge of the river, then grabs their ankles and pulls them in to a watery demise. The disappearance of young girls is a thread that winds through the book- another haunting aspect of the novel’s locale. In Ironopolis though, Peg Powler does not exist simply in relation to the leafy green banks that nestle the Tees in its winding from hill to sea but also within a large pipe leading to the sewers beneath the housing estate and she dwells even below one of the toilets in an old folks’ home. She also at times lurksv at the bottom of a well situated on the derelict waterworks near the Burn estate. The waterworks are an urban wasteland, an edge-land where kids go to play (on one instance resulting in a bullying prank gone horribly wrong), where teenage Una used to go with men and where decades later an illegal acid house rave which did not proceed as well as hoped was held.
As the stories unfold, we meet a host of characters – Vincent, a garage owner and local gangster who has more going on in the work-pits of his motor shop than automobile repairs, his awkward, nervous son, a hairdresser with a gambling problem and her disfigured brother who falls under suspicion of being the child abductor. We meet a man who lives in a shed, another who lives in the past (a Footy Casual who obsesses over rare Adidas trainers) and an elderly Teddy Boy who used to drive a mobile library van. These details also bring the book into a phase of nostalgia, which links it to Generation X hauntology, but Ironopolis is so much more. It is kitchen-sink and gritty crime and at times is darkly humorous (the scene with the birds of prey in the retirement home had me laughing out loud). And at times it is a horror story of sorts, though the brutality of it is in human actions, the strange Great Darkness of 1968 features – a real-life event, whereby weather conditions combined with the petrochemical and industrial emissions of Teesside resulting in midnight gloomth falling at midday in combination with wild storms. (The chemical industrial landscape of Teesside, whilst producing some unsavoury pongs and earning the locals the nickname -Smoggies, has also provided inspiration for the cinematic luminaries David Lynch and Ridley Scott.) And of course there is the subtle yet unsettling presence of Powler, like a whispering manipulative genius loci lingering under each turn of the page adding another element to the work that helps this excellent debut novel get under your skin.
Ironopolis is a well crafted novel that deserves to be far more widely known. Highly recommended to folks who like their ‘urban wyrd’ fix of a flavour akin to films like Dead Man’s Shoes and Kill List. I look forward to reading more from the pen of Glen James Brown.
Both Brotherstone and Lawrence’s Scarred For Life books and Simon Matthews’ Looking For a New England cover the same period of television and cinematic history in Britain, covering some same ground they come at it from slightly different angles, but both are very aware of the culturally powerful and distinctive time of the 1970s and 80s.
When I first heard about the Scarred For Life project, a voyage of discovery into just what haunted the formative years of Generation X, my reaction was ‘oh bugger’ as I had been considering creating a similar work. However, upon seeing their first book I was pleased that they had done it rather than me as their enthusiastic expertise for the subject is enlightening and infectious. Whilst Volume 1 covered the whole gamut of macabre and frightening stuff that beset 1970s children from spooky-themed ice lollies to folk horror TV shows to bizarre board games, Volume 2 takes a narrower focus concentrating on weird 1980s British TV. They’re not caught short for material there by any means. They kick off proceedings with Noah’s Castle, a tea-time drama for kids, based on John Rowe Townshend’s novel, about British families hoarding food in a time of economic desperation. With reference to crime, violence, a precarious situation for family pets and the implication of teenage girls selling their bodies for food, this grim scenario is haunting in these times of Brexit and Covid. Bizarrely it was originally broadcast directly after The Sooty Show! From dog-puppet Sweep’s squeaky mischief to economic dystopia in the space of an advert break.
Things don’t really get any lighter on our stroll down televisual memory lane subsequently as those of us of a certain age are reminded of our childhood traumas of viewing Jigsaw’s Noseybonk or Salem’s Lot (I shared a bedroom with my elder brother as a kid and during the night he would make scratching noises claiming that Danny Glick was at the window!) or being subjected to PIFs (Public Information or rather Panic Inducing Films) telling us that if Rabies did not get us it could be cigarette induced lung cancer, AIDS, or heroin (Just Say No Zammo!).
Scarred For Life does not need to be read cover to cover but can be dipped into randomly. I first sought out the things that personally resonated most with me – John Wyndham (the adaptations of Day of The Triffids and Chocky), Tales of the Unexpected (The Fly Paper episode which freaked me out the most, seemingly being one that many remember with a shudder), the birth of Channel 4 (its offbeat edgy early days being very vivid in my memories), ghostly dramas and odd TV plays. Strange figures on the edge of our memories return to haunt us such as the Weetabix skinheads, Murun Buchstansangur and the Chockadooby Kinder egg man (I was blocked on Twitter by politician Iain Duncan Smith for comparing him to an evil doppleganger of the latter). But there are so many more engrossing rabbit holes to fall down within this book and there are more to come. In Volume 3 we are promised a closer look at the nuclear war paranoia of the 80s and more Fortean fare such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and The Unexplained magazine.
Whereas Scarred For Life may be seen as exploring the effect that certain films and TV shows have had upon viewers, Simon Matthews’ Looking For a New England looks at how the political-social culture and music of the era affected film, and for a big part how punk rock stamped its DM boot print on media output.
A New England does mention Fortean Times in passing, but its attention to Fortean and folk horror subject matter is peripheral and mostly in relation to edge-land figures such as Ken Campbell, Derek Jarman, Genesis P Orridge, John Michell, Nigel Kneale, Mark E Smith and a whole chapter on David Bowie. Like Scarred, New England also brings attention to Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (both the film and the earlier television play). Potter sometimes seems rather forgotten in the annals of nostalgic televisual revisitation but this tale of the devil visiting suburbia and ‘babysitting’ a disabled catatonic woman is surely one of British TV’s most powerfully disturbing moments. Unsurprisingly the permanently disgusted Clean Up TV campaigner of yester-year, Mary Whitehouse, can be found wandering through both books like a froth-mouthed rabid beast.
A New England does have a chapter dedicated to Dystopia covering a host of dark dramas such as the Sheffield-based nuclear devastation TV film, Threads, the mini-series Edge of Darkness and The Quatermass Conclusion but does not delve into horror particularly. Matthews clearly knows his stuff, which sometimes feels like a machine-gun barrage of names and dates, but when the pace slows and he centres in on specific films it is very informative & engaging, suggesting that the book could have benefited from having more pages and film lists covering specific themes at the end of each chapter.
Unearthing Forgotten Horrors’ is a weekly hour-long delve into the darker recesses of the musical underworld. A chance to immerse yourself in obscure horror soundtracks, dark drones, weird electronica, freaky folk, crazed kosmiche and some of the most abhorrent and twisted psychedelia ever committed to vinyl, CD or cassette.
In honour of the 300th episode to be broadcast on A1 Radio on Tuesday 30th March 2021 at 7pm (UK time) Folk Horror Revival talks to our very own Darren Charles – the John Peel of Scary Music and Film Soundtracks and the voice of the consistently excellent Unearthing Forgotten Horrors …
Folk Horror Revival: Hi Darren. You are approaching the 300th episode of Unearthing Forgotten Horrors radio show on A1; could you tell us more about the show and how you came to be doing it and does that name have any connection to a certain folk horror film?
Darren Charles: Unearthing Forgotten Horrors is derived, as you allude to, from a quote in ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’, when the Judge (Patrick Wymark) responds to the Doctor’s belief in old knowledge with the phrase “Witchcraft is dead and discredited…Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?” It was originally used as the name for a series of events that took place in Newcastle featuring live music performances and film screenings at the Star and Shadow cinema. We liked the idea of ‘forgotten horrors’ but my partner in crime Chris felt that using ‘reviving’ meant we sounded like we were selling tea infusions. I mentioned this in conversation with Andy Sharp of English Heretic fame and he suggested ‘Unearthing’ which instantly felt far more appropriate and was adopted instantly.
As for the radio show, I had a mix created by Jim Peters for the first event and approached a local radio station to play it as a marketing tool on Halloween, of which they obliged. Afterwards they asked if I would be interested in recording a radio show for them and so the UFH radio show was born. It ran for a while until the station closed down and we moved to our new home at A1 Radio, who we have since recorded almost 300 shows for.
FHR: Every episode you spotlight a Soundtrack of the Week amongst the great diversity of tunes you play, do you have any personal favourite soundtracks and which film / score first got you interested in cinematic music?
DC: I think it’s so difficult to pick out a single favourite because there are so many incredibly effective soundtracks out there. I would definitely suggest several Goblin soundtracks, Suspiria, Deep Red and Dawn of the Dead are all favourites, as well as Fabio Frizzi’s scores for Fulci’s zombie trio; City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and Zombie Flesheaters. Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, Halloween, Maniac, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Haunting of Julia, the list goes on and on.
The film that first got me hooked on soundtracks was probably Jaws or Star Wars, I loved both as a kid and both had these hugely iconic scores that were everywhere when I was a boy. In later years, and once I was old enough to discover real horror movies, I think Suspiria was the first to truly hook me in, it was the first time I thought of the music in a horror film as an integral factor in what made it truly scary. I also really love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre score, which I discovered around the same time. It’s such an appropriate score for that film, every time I watch it, it reminds me how much I love it.
FHR: Which folk horror film do you think has the most effective soundtrack?
As much as I love The Wicker Man it has to be Blood on Satan’s Claw for me. Marc Wilkinson’s score is astonishing, it’s so unusually sinister and queasy sounding, but it really is embedded deeply in what makes that film work so well. It has a playful devilish quality that Candia McCormack described as “wickedness itself” in the first volume of Harvest Hymns, which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.
FHR: You have a Masters Degree specialising in the History of Witchcraft, what connections do you think there are between music and the occult?
DC: I think the two are inextricably linked, music has always been a powerful tool used in ritual magic dating back as far as we can remember and so many different cultures have cited its healing properties. There is something special about the way music makes us feel. A live performance can be uplifting or heartbreaking depending on the artist/performer and how many depictions of sabbats feature dancing and songs?
I think it’s also worth mentioning the number of musicians who are alleged to have sold their souls to the devil, like Robert Johnson and Paganini, those who write music that is influenced by occult writings such as Black Widow, Sun-Ra or Led Zeppelin, and even those for who the actual process of making music is part of their magical working, Coil, Psychic TV.
FHR: You have organised several live Unearthing Forgotten Horror events and As one of the head honchos of Folk Horror Revival, you have been instrumental in coordinating live events for us too – if money were no option which musical artists or bands (active or departed / defunct) would you most like to have headlining a FHR event?
DC: Oh, now that’s a hard one as there are so many great artists I would love to work with; The Incredible String Band, Donovan, Black Widow, Coven, Coil, The Doors, The Butthole Surfers, but I think my top choice would be Comus. First Utterance is my go to album when it comes to Folk Horror sounds, it has the perfect mix of moods, it’s quite a beautiful sounding record, yet it is one of the most horribly sinister and downbeat albums I’ve ever heard. I would love to see how it comes across in a live setting.
On the other hand we have had the privilege of working with some amazing artists at our events and I still dream of the day we can finally put on a Ex-Reverie or Rusalnaia gig. I won’t list everyone we’ve worked with in the past as the list would be enormous, but a huge thank you to them all for their support, their time and their incredible talents.
FHR: What is the scariest or most disturbing music you’ve personally heard?
DC: Another difficult one, as I don’t think of any single album when you ask this question, as there are a number of records that would fit the bill for scariest or most disturbing. Suspiria by Goblin would be one contender, it’s a safe choice as it has been widely recognised as being an incredibly sinister sounding record, the film itself is particularly effective when seen on a big screen with the soundtrack booming out of a massive surround sound speaker system. It’s incredibly nuanced, but it’s not until you’ve heard it in that sort of environment that you notice many of those nuances.
Other than that, I would suggest Fabio Frizzi’s City of the Living Dead soundtrack, it has real menace to it and a very downbeat vibe. Guiliano Sorgini’s Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is another that works on an ultra-creepy level. These are all albums I would recommend for someone looking to delve into the creepy soundtrack scene. On top of this, I would suggest those mentioned earlier in this interview, as well as Keith Emerson’s Inferno, Mark Korven’s The VVitch and The Radiophonic Workshop’s Possum, to name but a few.
Outside of the movie soundtrack, I would suggest checking out some of the great electronic music around today, The Heartwood Institute, English Heretic, Drew Mulholland, Hawthonn, Pefkin, Grey Malkin, Ashtoreth, Burial Hex, Black Mountain Transmitter, Haxan Cloak, Pye Corner Audio, Nathalie Stern and the myriad of associated acts that are springing up all the time.
FHR: Thanks for talking to us. Happy 300th Episode and keep up the excellent work. We wish Unearthing Forgotten Horrors continued sonic success for many strange aeons to come.
Unearthing Forgotten Horrors airs live on Tuesday evenings at 7pm (UK time) – HERE
An Archive of some of the previous episodes can be found HERE – Well worth checking out 🌞👍 …
When I read fiction, my mind’s eye tends to play out the unfolding narrative as a film. In the case of Lucie McKnight Hardy’s novel ‘Water Shall Refuse Them’ the setting and style adapted itself on the cinema screen behind my eyelids in the manner of a 1970s Play For Today or similar. That is far from a criticism – BBC plays such as Nuts in May, Brimstone and Treacle, Our Day Out, Blue Remembered Hills, Red Shift, Abigail’s Party and Penda’s Fen are high water-marks of British telly.
Anyway like Ronnie Corbett, I digress. Hardy’s debut novel concerns itself with a married couple, their teenage daughter and their mentally impaired infant son taking a holiday at a rural Welsh cottage in the bid to try and deal with the aftermath and trauma of a family tragedy. They discover that the locals are not exactly the most welcoming or friendliest bunch and instead find solidarity with a teenage boy and his mother, who also being incomers to the village are not held on the best terms by the parochial families either. Indeed the mother Janet is regarded as a witch by the villagers; an accusation she does little to dispel.
Her son Mally develops a close and strangely bonded relationship with Nif, the 16 year old daughter of the troubled family vacationing in the Welsh valley and protagonist of the book. Nif is an individualist who is governed by her own rituals and way of seeing. In discussion about the book on a Twitter post, the author Dr Miranda Corcoran drew a comparison between Hardy’s debut and Shirley Jackson’s classic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. For me these are big footsteps for it to walk in as We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite novels. I can see the parallels between the works and furthermore without giving too much of the plot away, I think comparisons could also be drawn with that other fine example of Dark Americana /American Wyrd – Thomas Tryon’s The Other. Water Shall Refuse Them does however have a very British personality.
One of the points of comparison between Hardy’s and Jackson’s novels is the presence of an unconventional and troubled young woman as narrator and therein lies a personal feeling and also intriguing topic of thought in that whilst I like Jackson’s protagonist Merricat Blackwood, I just don’t like Nif. Yes she is an intriguing well-written character but I don’t warm to her at all. But do I need to like the main personality to read the book and enjoy it? Or any book? I think personally the answer is sometimes. For instance, I gave up on reading Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game quite soon into it as I disliked the protagonist and her husband so much. In the realm of film really disliking the central family in Hereditary and the child in The Babbadook are part (not the whole) of the reason I don’t like those films much at all. But then again I did not like the principal characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut or Misery (book and film) yet I appreciate those works overall more. Does it matter if you don’t like the characters who you will spend much time with? They don’t have to be likeable for a work to be a success – Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is a prime example of that.
As Water Shall Refuse Them progresses I like Nif less and less. I don’t know if that is a matter of concern with Hardy, whether it is of any importance to her whether the reader likes her main character as a person. And it could just be me – other readers may feel sympathy or empathy towards Nif, but she leaves me cold from the offset. It could be the case that that she is meant to. As the story develops, without saying too much, Nif (and in some instances Mally, whom I never warmed to either) do some rather unpleasant things; so it is perhaps an intention of Hardy for the reader to question how they feel about chief characters instead of just easily slipping into a comfortable synch with them.
In regard to Nif’s actions, as someone who has immersed themselves in ‘horror’ fiction since a child it is possible to become numbed or desensitized to all manner of fiendish happenings, but there are scenes in the novel that did leave me feeling disturbed. This is a credit to Hardy’s writing as these scenes are generally quite underplayed, there is no great crescendo of gore but subtlety delivered, small yet in their way powerfully resonant occurrences that get under the skin. These traits do foreshadow the great reveal, which is not the most unexpected (though I do tend whilst reading fiction or watching films automatically ponder how I would end the narrative were I the writer of it , so do quite frequently see the ‘twist’ coming and wonder if my mind were wired differently would more fiction catch me off-guard) but the resolution of the end happenings does however throw in another swerve ball.
It is not my place nor intention to issue ‘trigger warnings’, but it must be noted that some scenes may especially upset some readers and perhaps provoke them to ask whether they were necessary or at least whether they needed to have occurred several times. That is not a question for me to answer but perhaps for the author to address and certainly for individual readers to make their own judgement upon.
So these points have caused me to mull over the book and would have even if I were not writing a review of it, so it did get under my skin and that is a credit to it. Did I like it? That I need to think over more – I didn’t dislike it, of that I’m sure. I would read it again and I don’t say that of all novels. But it is one that I will need to contemplate more as to my deeper, long-lasting impression of it. Is it a good book either way? Yes I think it is; it is a intriguing debut that makes me curious to investigate Hardy’s future works, so that’s a job well done there. It is a book that reminds me somewhat of some of Benjamin Myer’s novels – scenarios which are simple but effective and hold some moments of strong, sometimes brutal or harrowing but not overworked significance. aving grief, loss and trauma at its heart it also is reminiscent of Will McClean’s The Apparition Phase (recently reviewed on this website Here ). The themes unearthed in Water Shall Refuse them are pertinent to the bucolic uncanny and it is a worthy addition to the folk horror fiction shelf, though because of events described within may indeed be contentious with some readers.
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy is available to purchase from HERE and other book stores.
To discover more about the writing of Lucie McKnight Hardy visit HERE
In art history discussions British Surrealism is often an under-represented topic as is one of its most important pioneers – Ithell Colquhoun. But there is more to and more to say about Colquhon than her on-off relationship with Surrealism as Amy Hale makes strongly apparent in her biography of this intriguing artist. Born in India in 1906 and apart from a period residing in Paris, Colquhoun spent the majority of her life living and working in England with most time spent between London and Cornwall. Cornwall in the 20th Century was known as something of a haven for British artists particularly the Newlyn, Lamorna and St Ives schools. Despite treading in art as well as magic circles, Colquhoun largely followed her own path. Hale divides this path into 3 areas; those being Surrealism, Celticism and Occultism and she takes us to these destinations via a non-linear route. Hale states that anyone hoping for a solid art-historical approach from her book will be sorely disappointed – I don’t think they will be. The art-history aspect of the book is built on as solid ground as that of many purely art-history tomes. Hale’s pedigree as a folklorist and anthropologist, as well as her clear enthusiasm and curiosity for Colquhoun as a subject, enrich the discussion of the art and what influenced it.
Colquhoun was a graduate of the Slade School of Art, so had a history of training and was not an Outsider artist as such but she was largely self-taught in her methods and independent in her creative aims. Her relationship with Surrealism was always destined to be hit and miss as it was a notoriously fractious movement with Andre Breton steadfast in his vision of the intentions and character of Surrealism which would at times clash with artists whose own inherent drive would at times veer from his routed roadmap. A point of interest shared between Breton and Colquhoun was Automatic Art – the main feature of this trinity of book reviews. For Breton it was an art that sprung solely from the subconscious of the executor, but for numerous others it was seen as being produced by discarnate spirits, namely the dead, working through a living channel thus combining the corporeal artist and their materials truly as a medium. From within or without, Colquhoun was not content to be simply a conduit as from her painting, collage and writing we can see a very inquisitive mind and this led her to create art in relation to her spiritual and intellectual interests and indeed to create art as part of magical practice.
The roots of tradition can be a considerable factor in certain magical paths and for Colquhoun living in and inspired by Cornwall, Celticism was an obvious avenue to explore. Her deep regard for the visionary poet and chronicler of Celtic folklore William Butler Yeats further bonded her to this path. A problem with traditionalism and indeed some magical / religious avenues is that of nationalism, which in itself could be benign but as is all too sadly evident even now in the second decade of the 21st Century can develop into something discriminatory, malign and ugly. Hale does not dwell long on this point but neither does she ignore it.
As Hale notes, in the 20th Century there were numerous occult societies and orders active and it seemed like for some people membership to them was something to be collected like esoteric stamps or mystical train numbers. Colquhoun herself passed through numerous doors, but it really does seem that this was due to her quest for knowledge and perhaps kinship – that she was exploring all available paths to find the one that best suited her, rather than feeding the ego with membership titles. But a mystery seems to remain, did she find her right path, her true spiritual and magical home or at the point of her death in 1988 was she still seeking? Hale digs deep and unveils a lot about Ithell Colquhoun, her sexuality, her artistic endeavours, her magical questing but yet Colquhoun still seems something of an enigma. Whilst more of her has been brought out of the shadows by Hale’s very impressive detective work, it is perhaps a right balance found – enough of Colqhoun revealed to further engage both art aficionados and occult scholars but not so much as to pick her bones clean and stripped of the intrigue that captivates.
The quality of the artwork featured in the book is very good and left me greedy to see more of her work . Fortunately Fulgur Press have released Colquhoun’s Taro in Colour in book format – this would serve as a fitting companion to this volume as would indeed the biography of Austin Osman Spare written by Phil Baker, also published by Strange Attractor Press.
To purchase Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of the Fern Loved Gully by Amy Hale and to see more information on the title visit -> HERE
Taro as Colour focuses on Colquhoun’s work in 1977 / 1978 whereby she pared down the traditional idea of Tarot divinatory cards, stripping them of the usual figurative imagery and symbolism and instead presented as 78 images of vivid colour and abstract expression. They do still retain relation to the Tarot tradition. Presented with new titles and divided into elemental sets of Earth, Air, Fire and Water as well as ‘Trump’ cards. The works actually have a profound resonance. They may derive from Colqhoun’s long exploration of automatic art but they also pay heed to magical colour tradition as followed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. As could be said of much (but not all) Abstract Art there is scope for personal interpretation and I found whilst looking at the cards that I would ‘see’ things. I think it goes beyond pareidolia and is more associated to Rorschach psychological tests whereby the subconscious becomes visible. Furthermore I could see these cards being useful for both meditative and scrying purposes.
It would have been good for the book to come with a set of cards as it is not the cheapest purchase by any means. But you have to take into account that this book is a limited edition – 1200 copies in runs of 300 different cover designs. Each pertaining to one of the elemental suits Earth (indigo) Air (yellow) Fire (Red) and Water (Blue) – make sure if ordering to make preference in the notes on order box at checkout and subject to availability that will be fulfilled. I did not read that part so ended up with a colour I wouldn’t have picked, but don’t mind as I see the colour that fate ended up giving as interesting in itself like the ‘random’ selection of a card. And the book is very nicely presented. Each card gets its own page – off which they sing with vibrancy. The book also is mainly visual. There is no textual interruption save for card title and division of suits within the book but it is opened with a great introduction, again penned by Amy Hale. Ithell Colqhoun: Taro As Colour is available to purchase from – Here
Not Without My Ghosts : The Artist As Medium – various artists and writers
Ithell Colqhoun is one of the artists featured in this charming little book (with a quote from Amy Hale in reference to her) that marks the touring exhibition of that name curated by The Hayward Gallery and The Drawing Room. Concentrating on art created through or in relation to spiritualist channeling, automatic and trance state composition the show featured work from William Blake; Cameron; Ann Churchill; Ithell Colquhoun; Louise Despont; Casimiro Domingo; Madame Fondrillon; Chiara Fumai; Madge Gill, Susan Hiller; Barbara Honywood; Georgiana Houghton; Anna Mary Howitt; Victor Hugo; Augustin Lesage; Pia Lindman; Ann Lislegaard; André Masson; Grace Pailthorpe; František Jaroslav Pecka; Olivia Plender; Sigmar Polke; Lea Porsager; Austin Osman Spare; Yves Tanguy and Suzanne Treister with The Museum of Blackhole Spacetime Collective: therefore spanning time from the Victorian period to the present day. A lot of the older art however looks ahead of its time. This is particularly true when it comes to works of an abstraction style.
Though Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) has oft been credited as the pioneer of Abstract Art, it is clear from the earlier works of artists such as Georgina Houghton (to whom we will return in greater detail shortly) that this isn’t the case. Because women featured significantly within the earlier creation of abstract art it must be asked whether their gender is the factor in them remaining largely unknown until now and this is a matter broached within the essays featured in the book, those being Spiritualist Sisters in Art by Simon Grant, Spirit Voices, Women’s Voices: Art and Mediumship by Susan L Arbeth and Infinite Redress: Politics in Spiritualism and Medium Art by Lars Bang Larsen. Within a lot of Victorian opinion, women were perceived as being more generally ‘sensitive’ and therefore often more prone to hearing spirit voices and more ‘passive’ therefore more suited to being used as a channel for the dead to communicate with the living through art – so a question arises as to whether such clairvoyant conduits can be considered the creators of these work or merely the channels for the true dead artists.
Some such as Madge Gill (whom is most often categorised as an Outsider Artist) credited her work to the spirit Myrinerest whom would ‘possess’ her. Notably the name Myinerest comes from ‘My Inner Rest’ which for people like-minded to Breton, whom attributed Automatic Art to the inner subconscious rather than the influence of spirits from outside, can give cause to consider the works of interest and study and not just to sceptically disregard them if they feel uncomfortable with notions of the occult or supernatural. Gill is probably most widely known for her renderings of haunting faces caught within swirling monochromatic maelstroms of patterns or scrawls, but an image of hers displayed within this book shows an abstracted rendition of plants executed in a mix of earthy and rich deep colours. Stylised botanical specimens, swirling patterns and strange faces are well represented within this book.
For further information and to purchase a copy visit -> HERE
World Receivers: Georgiana Houghton. Hilma Af Klint. Emma Kunz
The third of the books reviewed here today, World Receivers, takes a closer look at 3 mediumistic painters and also 3 experimental filmmakers whose work draws association to the spirit-influenced art-forms via the essays and editorship of Karin Althaus, Sebastian Schneider and Matthias Mühling in relation to a 2018/19 exhibition at the Lenbachaus gallery in Munich.
Before Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian who all recognised a spiritual aspect within the abstract painting they were long credited with creating in the 20th Century, there was Georgiana Houghton, born in England in 1814. Houghton did receive some artistic training but the details of which are not known. Whatever she learned at art-school will have been at odds with what the spirits guided her hand to do. Following the death of her sister Zilla in 1851, like many people within the Victorian and later Edwardian period Houghton turned to Spiritualism for guidance and comfort through their dark journey through grief. By 1860 Houghton was a practicing medium herself. Initially using a planchette (a wooden wheeled device into which a pencil can be placed and guided by unseen hands enable the medium to render art or writing) Houghton requested that the spirit of her sister Zilla or her deceased brother Cecil guide her hand but neither could apparently do so. However Houghton testified that the spirit of a departed deaf and dumb artist by the name of Henry Lenny was able to work through her. The work created was of a vastly different manner to the precise and naturalistic representative art of the 19th Century. Resplendent in kinetic swirls, sweeps of colourful energy and only sometimes depicting instantly recognisable forms such as faces or flowers, the art of Georgiana Houghton was radically different for the time and even when Kandinsky first experimented with abstraction nigh on half a century later, the disintegration of form into shape and colour would still be too avant-garde and beyond comprehension for many observers. In 1871, Houghton exhibited her work at a personal financial loss to, beyond the more sympathetic fellow spiritualist observers, a rather bemused, sometimes indignant audience. Not until the 21st Century has her work gained greater attention suggesting that whatever her spirits had to say was ahead of her time.
Hilma af Klint (1862 -1944) is another Spiritual Abstraction painter whose light has finally glowed stronger, years after her own passing over. This is however largely of her own doing, requesting that her spiritual works be kept secret until at least 20 years after her death. A graduate of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, Klint created accomplished pieces of more traditional art for commercial purposes but her hidden work was something else entirely. As with Houghton, the death of a sibling, Klint’s sister Hermina, proved the catalyst for both her spiritual and artistic development in 1880. Her growing interest in Spiritism, Theosophy and after a meeting with Rudolf Steiner, the esoteric philosopher and clairvoyant, his Anthroposophical Society was to have profound influence upon her artistic oeuvre. Bold colours and geometric shapes were common motifs of her Automatic paintings. It wasn’t until her aptly named ‘Paintings For The Future’ exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2019 that the light of Klint burned with a stellar intensity. Proving to be one of the most successful exhibitions hosted there to date, perhaps in these strange days the strange art of Hilma af Klint has finally found its right audience.
Emma Kunz (1892 – 1963) the third of the Spirit artists showcased in this book had an intriguing manner of working. Going into a trance state she would swing a pendulum over large scale graph paper and plot dots along her momentum and then in single sessions which could last through the night she would join those dots. The results were spectacular. Like a human Spirograph, Kunz would create stunning geometric designs. Sometimes she read her pictures as answers to spiritual questions but sometimes they served another unusual purpose. The pendulum of Emma Kunz was not used only to guide the creation of art but as a tool in the treatment of ailments for as well as being an artist and clairvoyant, Emma Kunz was a healer. The book World Receivers features a fascinating short piece by Peter Burri who recounts how Kunz saved his life as a child after he had become badly poisoned by iodine consumption.
The book World Receivers culminates with essays and images on and from the experimental film artwork of John & James Whitney and Harry Smith, but it is the work of the 3 female artists of the spirit that carries most weight and focus and is presented with great care and respect in this lovely large book which can be obtained -> HERE
The trinity of books reviewed here compliment each other very well and all are great additions to both the Occult / Spiritual and Art bookshelves.
The ‘X’ in Generation X (those born roughly between the early 1960s and late 70s/ early 80s) must surely refer to the X certificate formerly bestowed upon horror movies or ‘X’ as in X Files in relating to spooky paranormal mysteries. The other title bestowed by writer and broadcaster Bob Fischer upon the folk born of these times – ‘The Haunted Generation’ would seemingly confirm this. Maclean’s novel, ‘The Apparition Phase’ is set in the 1970s and pays homage to the creepy things that deliciously traumatised those of us of a certain age. Told from the viewpoint of Tim Smith, reminiscing on his teenage years in that era, we see that as with the title of Dave Lawrence and Stephen Brotherton’s excellent encyclopedic work about those times, our narrator is indeed ‘Scarred For Life’. The tale begins with Tim and his twin sister Abi plotting to fake a photograph of a ghost. Their inspirations for this experiment / prank are the photos that I would flick past fast and then slowly sneak back to look at in Usborne’s ‘Mysteries of the Unknown: Monsters, Ghosts and UFOs’ (despite my Catholic education and unbeknownst to the nuns, the true bible of my youth) – those being the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (a semi transparent figure descending some stairs), the Spectre of Newby Church (a tall, skull faced monk near an altar) and the one that possibly freaked me the most, the Chinnery car (the dead mother-in law in the back seat). In creating this hoax, they stir up more than they can ever expect when they show their creation to a girl at their school who, unknowingly to them, is sensitive to otherworldly happenings.
As the story progresses (through events I will not spoil for you) we are taken to a paranormal investigation conducted in an old large house in the countryside. This aspect of the book is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and Richard Matheson’s ‘Hell House’ novel and subsequent cinematic adaptations. But despite this familiarity, Will Maclean does mark the proceedings with his own voice and creates a page-turning tale that will evoke nostalgia in many of us Generation Xers but would also likely appeal to young adult readers now as its themes of ghosts, grief, haunted minds, mystery and coming of age are timeless.
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean Publisher : William Heinemann (29 Oct. 2020) Language : English Hardcover : 416 pages ISBN-10 : 1785152378 ISBN-13 : 978-1785152375