Antlers (2021), directed by Scott Cooper and based on the short story ‘The Quiet Boy’ by Nick Antosca, has in its promotion highlighted the production role of Guillermo del Toro, to whose films Antlers shares some similarities but shows some differences. Like a number of del Toro’s movies the principal backstory concentrates on children growing up in difficult circumstances, but the delivery here is darker and more desolate than del Toro’s presentations. That for me personally is not a problem, I like bleak movies. Another difference is that even though there is potential there for it, Antlers does not really share del Toro’s sympathy for monsters. Again personally I have no problem with that, but had the film been longer I would have liked to have seen more indication of the character of Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) and his relationship with his children prior to the strange and brutal circumstances that befell them.
Frank Weaver, a single father following the death of his wife, supports his family by brewing and selling Methamphetamine in a town in Oregon that has been beset by social and economic difficulties (actually filmed in beautiful British Columbia). Whilst in an abandoned mine that he uses as a lab, he encounters a very strange and very dangerous creature. His colleague and his son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) are both also attacked, his drug partner being killed outright. Following the assault, Frank and Aiden begin to sicken and grow increasingly feral. Locked into a room, they are cared for by another son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) who brings food to them, which in the case of the father often consists of roadkill. Dealing with being a young home carer to his father and sibling in the weirdest and direst of circumstances, as well as coping with the grief of losing his mother, has a noticeable effect on the child. He is overly thin and his clothing is threadbare. Small, quiet, insular, poor and unconventional, Lucas is sadly the target of bullying. This concerns his new teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) who has returned to the town where she grew up, sharing her childhood home with her brother Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons) following the death of her father. A victim of childhood abuse herself at the hands of her father (her mother dying whilst Julia and Paul were still children) upon seeing the character and condition of Lucas as well as his grisly drawings, fears that the boy may be a victim of abuse at home. The school principal (Amy Madigan) pops around the child’s home to assess the situation and that is when hell breaks loose.
The delivery of the film situates itself between a slow-burn social realism horror and a more mainstream creature-feature, which doesn’t in this instance for me completely work. The horror SFX are fairly visceral and delivered well enough but they seem somehow a bit out of place. I would have preferred more of the gore and violence to have been implied rather than shown, but the literal nature of the beast in this film is bloody so a proportion of viewers may have felt that to remove this component would dull the film. Again, because of treading two stylistic paths it could perhaps be felt that not enough characterisation was given to certain roles, situations and backstories. The amount of attention given to Julia and Paul’s own childhood trauma and grief feels perhaps underrepresented but film has a limited timescale generally and the time allocated for the overall narrative is enough where Antlers is concerned; if this film were any longer it would be too long. This is not because it is a bad film that I wanted to end as soon as possible, but because the horror aspect of it that dominated the final third played out following familiar tropes in a more conventional horror film manner and in that sense did not offer anything really that has not been seen before.
Because the story is based on the lore of the Wendigo of some Native North American peoples, but has been made by predominantly non-native creators and cast there is the risk of potential exploitation / appropriation and of colonial-hangover misrepresentations of the ‘Other’. Although some viewers / readers may feel generally weary and wary of sociopolitical considerations in film-making and reviews, if as a creative you are inspired to write about and film an aspect of another culture, whether for fiction or documentary purposes, I believe there is a duty of being sensitive, respectful and factually correct. (Personally as an artist who frequently works with the folklore and legends of varied cultures, I don’t believe that non-sacred lore is necessarily off-limits to representation by someone of a different society or ethnicity nor that mythic representation should be racially segregated at all, but I do believe that it is important that appropriate attention is given to the beliefs and considerations of other people and that no exploitation occurs.)
I watched Antlers with my girlfriend Erin, who has Mi’kmaq ancestry and who holds an interest in Wendigo mythology, and I was curious to see what her opinion of the film would be. There is the matter that the main protagonists are all white, with the only First Nation character, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene) seemingly only being there to give exposition to the police and school teacher regarding Wendigo lore upon seeing the child’s drawings and the medicine protection put up in the tunnel meth lab. The main family in this film could have been Native American, but if them alone, a risk there would be a negative representation as the family were socially troubled and the father (though perhaps by necessity to provide for his family) was a criminal. To have all the cast Native American could’ve been a possibility but that would remove the discovery and shock element of the supernatural invading regular life for the Wendigo concept would likely have already been familiar to all concerned. However, due to the relevance of native belief to the film’s core it would have been good to see a stronger First Nation role and presence. Although the Wendigo is a spirit, it is not a sacred figure as such so the film does not demonise a god or religious tenet. The Wendigo myth though is more than just a fireside bogey man story for it represents a Taboo – a forbidden practice – namely that of cannibalism. In times of famine some Native American tribes would hold a ceremony to remind and warn of the prohibition and spiritual danger of anthropophagy.
For Erin, the meteorological setting of the film was brought into question, for winter is seen more as the time of starvation and would have befit the film better. Set at the dirty end of autumn, Jack o’ Lanterns still on display rather than Christmas decorations, there is a chill in the air and damp a plenty, which does certainly add to the bleak atmosphere, but a wintry setting would perhaps represent desperate hunger more. The social realist aspect of the plight of the afflicted family with Lucas’ emaciated condition and desperation to find food for his increasingly ravenous family does symbolically relate to the myth as perhaps does the father’s production of methamphetamine- a drug that can diminish appetite replacing it with a craving addiction and in the cases of prolonged addiction lead to the emaciation of the user as if they were being devoured from inside by a possessing spirit.
The physical appearance of the Wendigo is a debated point. Warren Stokes’ description of it in the film does state that it can take different forms. This applies also according to the old lore. In some cases it humanoid but very wizened and gaunt, in other tales it is seen as a gigantic figure and in others more animal than man. The antlers which give the film its name and one of the strongest individualistic representations of the Wendigo are not always to be found in the older myths. For Erin and many though, the antlers are an integral factor in the form and nature of the Wendigo. Its representation in the film is done well enough and the final transformation from human form into that of the monster is a distinctive element of the movie, though I myself am undecided whther it revealed too much and that less would be more or whether it is needed for the film to make a distinctive stamp on the cinematic genre.
In conclusion, I think I liked Antlers but did not love it. Further viewings may endear it to me more or possibly leave me colder. It promised more than it delivered, that there was something not quite fulfilling about it but perhaps that is the way it should be, like a Wendigo hunger that cannot be satiated and always a craving for more.
Every now and again a book comes along that really captures the imagination. Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers is one such book. Written by David Greygoose, this volume of short stories is nothing short of excellent. A veritable smorgasbord of classic fairy and folk tale tropes, mixed with Greygoose’s wonderful knack for telling a story, Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers is a must read for fans of traditional storytelling.
Mandrake Petal and Scattered Feather features a multitude of interlinked stories, that not only showcase Greygoose’s brilliant storytelling capabilities, but his richly fleshed out cast of characters. Pickapple, the loveable trickster at the crossroads, Mullops, the man who falls prey to Pickapple on a number of occasions, Elmskin, the lovelorn, who is searching for Rimmony, the love of his life, who has just dropped everything and gone off in search of Flax Wing, a potentially mythic being who she thinks she she saw once bathing in a clearing by the river and who she believes has spoken to her. Mandrake Petals intertwines the stories of these characters and many others into a complex but moreish whole that draws the reader in and won’t let go.
David Greygoose writes with a passion that leaps off the page, his stories, regardless of length always leave you wanting more and ready to move on and find out what happens to these characters who you have become so invested in. The only sad thing about this magical book is that it has to come to an end.
Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers is a modern-day masterpiece of storytelling. It mixes short stories, poetry and songs, just like the folk traditions of old and it is all done with such elegance and flair. The book itself features recommendations from some pretty big hitters in the form of legendary storyteller and folk music icon Donovan, Phil May from the Pretty Things and Melanie Xulu, from Moof magazine.
As a rather lovely promotional tool, David Greygoose has created a short film that introduces us to the world of Pickapple, Rimmony and the others. This serves as a wonderful introduction and if my review doesn’t whet your appetite for the book, then hopefully the video will.
Mandrake Petals and Scattered Feathers is released by Hawkwood books, and is available from the rather wonderful indie bookstore News from Nowhere.
Damnable Tales: A veritable tome of classic Folk Horror stories from the pens of Shirley Jackson, MR James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and numerous other luminary writers, selected and illustrated by master print-maker Richard Wells.
Folk Horror Revival recently interviewed Richard and reviewed his illustrated opus … Read on or be Damned.
FHR: Hello Richard. Thank You for agreeing to talk to us. Although many of the folk horror revivalists will already be very familiar with your work, please tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
Richard Wells : Hello! Thanks for having me. In my day job life, I’m a graphic designer for film and television, working as part of the art department team. It’s my job to provide any props or set dressing that requires any kind of graphic design. So, for example, on Dracula, I made the hand-written correspondence and documents relating to the sale of Carfax Abbey, and background elements like heraldic pennant flags hanging up in Dracula’s castle. I intentionally picked an exciting example there – other times it’s contemporary drama, where I’m producing mundane things like product labels to hide the real brands we aren’t allowed to show (just this morning I was working on shampoo bottles). Away from the telly work I produce my own artwork, which for the past few years has mostly taken the form of lino printing. I find the solitary, hands-on work keeps me sane, an escape from the computer screen and hectic 11 hour day TV schedules.
FHR: Much of your work has a horror flavour to it. Is there an area you’ve had a long interest in and can you remember what was the first story, TV show or film that scared or unsettled you? What are your favourite films and TV shows?
RW: Yes, an interest in horror has been there as far back as I can remember. A book I treasured as a child was the Usborne book of How to Draw Ghosts, Vampires & Haunted Houses (an illustration of Dracula by the late Victor Ambrus I would obsessively try and copy). I remember being terrorised by Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch ‘live’ on Halloween night 1992 (age 9). Another memorable viewing was the 1953 version of House of Wax round my grandad’s. There’s a sequence where Vincent Price’s black-clad villain stalks a victim through fog-bound back alleys that really struck a chord. I seems like nothing watching it now, but at the time I had nightmares for weeks. When I was allowed a tiny TV in my bedroom to play on my SNES, I’d occasionally catch bits of late night horror following a mammoth stretch of gaming. I can vividly remember being frozen in fear at the ghoul appearing at the car window in Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. In my memory, the fuzziness of the old 4:3 film on my mid 90s tv screen only added to its uncanny grip. I’ve got the shiny Blu ray now, and a small part of me wonders if it has lost some of its power looking so sharp, now you can make out the white face paint caked onto the ghouls. My favourite film is The Wicker Man, watch it every year. Last year I saw Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure for the first time, I can see that quickly becoming a firm favourite. His mastery of generating understated creeping terror is thrilling to watch.
FHR: A lot of your artwork utilises a print-cut technique that is evocative of old chapbooks and the like, what is it that appeals to you about this method and style of work?
RW: I think it’s something to do with the rendering of disturbing subject matter contrasted with the fairly crude and naïve style that appeals. Historical horrors that on the surface appear like images from a children’s picture book. The horror doesn’t always hit you on first glance, the mix of dark humour and eeriness in the imagery. As a spooky teenager, I had a book on the Mexican printmaker Manuel Manilla, and would obsessively try and replicate his animated skeletons. I’m drawn to the individual imperfections you get with relief printing. No two prints will be identical, which again I find a refreshing contrast to working digitally. If I could make a living solely from relief printing, I think I would. Probably born a few centuries too late…
FHR: One of your first works to garner a lot of attention amongst the folk horror community was your poster for The Wicker Man. Is there anything in particular that drew you to that film and to folk horror in general?
RW: Well it definitely all started with The Wicker Man. I vividly remember seeing it for the first time on tv with my mom as a kid, glancing across to see her visible distress at the ending. To be honest, I think on first viewing I found it more silly than scary, I couldn’t really get a handle on it. I came to fully embrace it when it first appeared on DVD, and fell for its quirks and beautiful imperfections. My taste in horror tends more towards the uncanny and quietly eerie over more overt, showy horror (though I do enjoy a mad gore show on occasion), and Folk Horror fits the bill. I’m a keen walker, and I’m drawn to films that capture the landscape in an interesting way, which you obviously get with a lot of Folk Horror. Also anything with a folkloric twist, or ancient terrors, evocations, all that good stuff.
I never expected that my Wicker Man fan art would lead to me having tea and biscuits with Robin Hardy. I think he’d seen the poster at an anniversary screening. I thought it was some kind of bizarre prank call when I picked up the phone to “Hello, this is Robin Hardy, I directed the Wicker Man.” He was interested in me designing a couple of posters for the crowdfunding campaign for his new film, so I was invited down to his home to meet and discuss ideas. It was a strange and wonderful afternoon, chatting to the director of my favourite film, him occasionally sloping off to deal with the workmen fitting new curtains on the first floor. Sadly, Wrath of the Gods never came to be, but I have the memory to treasure all the same.
FHR: Another one of your renowned works is your poster for Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England and subsequently your artwork featured in his most recent foray into folk horror, the film In The Earth. How did your involvement in the film come about and what are your thoughts on Ben Wheatley’s work?
I instantly became obsessed with A Field in England right from its initial poster by Kenn Goodall and Luke Insect, and the arresting teaser trailer by the great Julian House. After seeing the film on opening day, I was very keen to create my own fan artwork. On the Blu ray commentary (I think it was the first film to be released in cinemas and on Blu ray on the same day), Ben Wheatley talks about how the unusual static tableaux moments in the film were inspired by woodcut art of the period, so it seemed an obvious way to go when producing a poster design. I’d recently joined Twitter, and I think that was my first piece of artwork I put up on there. Amazingly, it quickly received attention from the film’s DOP Laurie Rose and star Reece Shearsmith (a particular thrill for me, as a huge fan of The League of Gentlemen). Some time later I then got an email from producer Andy Starke, asking to get the design printed to give out as a gift for cast and crew. So I guess I stayed in their address book from that experience. During the first Covid lockdown, I had another email from Andy enquiring about producing some art for Ben’s latest film (it was called simply ‘The Woods Film’ then). Of course I jumped at the chance, got to chat with Ben about the project, and he sent me some of his initial design sketches as a starting point. I’m especially keen on Ben’s darker pictures, the naturalistic mundanity of Kill List, making the sudden and shocking jolts of horror even more powerful. A Field in England is my favourite, the terrific ensemble cast and wonderful flow of the dialogue in Amy Jump’s screenplay. And it’s funny! I would’ve loved a spin-off series with the double act of Richard Glover & Reece Shearsmith’s Friend & Whitehead on an occult cross-country walking odyssey.
FHR: You have recently released the rather marvellous anthology of classic folk horror short stories Damnable Tales selected and illustrated by you. How long did this take to put together and what are the reasons for selecting the tales you have? Some of the stories are by more obscure writers, were they all already familiar to you or did you have to do some digging? Who are your favourite writers and which is your favourite short story and book?
RW: The Damnable Tales project came pretty much out of the blue. In early 2020 I received an email from John Mitchinson (co-founder of crowdfunding publisher Unbound), asking if I might like to collaborate on a project. I think he’d seen some of my lino print work online. At the time I’d been working on a series of lino prints based on the ghost stories of M.R. James. I’d been thinking about expanding the series to encompass vintage Folk Horror tales, so when coming up with potential ideas for a book, that seemed a good way to go. It came about at just the right time, as like most people, my day job instantly collapsed with the arrival of the first lockdown. So I was able to solely concentrate on searching for tales and working on lino prints for a good few months. As Folk Horror has fairly slippery and wide-ranging definitions, I was generally looking for short horror stories with a folkloric element, though that isn’t true of every story. Something like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant ‘The Summer People’ has no supernatural or folkloric elements, but I think the deep rural unease and suggestion of a sinister community at work are entirely in keeping with the genre. Right off the bat, I knew two stories I definitely wanted to include were from my two favourite writers: M.R. James and Robert Aickman. ‘Bind Your Hair’ from Aickman’s 1964 Dark Entries collection is probably my favourite short story. I love how with Aickman you’re never sure where the horror is going to come from, how the stories unfold like a dream, the uncanny stealthily creeping in. ‘Thrawn Janet’ is another tale I was familiar with. I wonder if readers unfamiliar with it will be put off by the untranslated Scots text of that story, but I find it a pleasurable experience to decipher, and I think lends itself to the evocation of the period. Other tales came from fishing for recommendations, some from Folk Horror lists I found online. Others came simply through scouring any vintage horror anthologies I could lay my hands on. I’d never read any horror tales by A.C. Benson before, so ‘Out of the Sea’ came as a nice surprise, one of my favourites in the collection, fantastic imagery with the demonic goat snuffling along the seashore! A couple of tales came from my searching of Folk Horror buzzwords in a mammoth e-book of 1001 horror stories (I never claimed to be a professional anthologist)! That was how I came to find ‘A Witch-Burning’ by Gertrude Minnie Robbins (writing under her married name Mrs. Baille Reynolds).
FHR: Your work suits the book medium incredibly well; do you have any plans afoot for further illustrated anthologies or other books and what other projects can we expect to see from you in time to come?
RW: As of next week I’ll be finished on my current TV project, so I’m looking forward to getting back to some lino cutting. I’ve had a design based on In the Earth lying half-finished for months. Plus I’d like to get a few more designs added to my M.R. James series. Speaking of Monty, this Christmas we’re getting Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of The Mezzotint, in which I perform the title role! I’d produced a 17th century pamphlet for his previous adaptation Martin’s Close, and was given a lot more to do here. I was unfamiliar with the mezzotint printing process beforehand, so enjoyed researching that. The time constraints of TV meant I had to produce the haunted imagery digitally, but I had a lot of fun with it.
I think I’m going to be doing some more cursed artwork for the band Green Lung, whom I’ve enjoyed collaborating with over the past few years. And there’s a very exciting illustration project with Unbound on the horizon, but I can’t talk about that, yet (suffice to say, it will be of particular interest to fans of Folk Horror). And there’s also early talk of a second book of illustrated short stories. One idea I’m keen to pursue is a second volume of Damnable Tales that takes in vintage tales from around the world. Looking forward to researching that. Watch this space…
Damnable Tales : Book Review
As soon as I had heard the initial musings of a book of classic folk horror short stories selected and illustrated by Richard Wells, my curiosity was piqued on several levels. Being a ‘book-artist’ myself(writer, illustrator & small-press publisher) I have both a bias and fondness for illustrated editions and Wells is not an artist that has bypassed the attention of many folk horror revivalists. Should his name have somehow escaped attention then his film posters for The Wicker Man and A Field in England, his lino-cut prints of folkloric entities and his cover for Edward Parnell’s atmospheric and resonant book Ghostland, and his work featuring in film and Tv (most notably here in Ben Wheatley’s film In The Earth) will very likely not have passed unnoticed. The subject matter of this tome unexpectedly caused my ears to prick up with curiosity considering my own involvement with this whole folk horror thing and as I am a little bit of a collector of weird short stories, I was very intrigued to see which tales he would select.
As with all collections of short stories there are likely to be tales that appeal to some readers and others less so. I believe this is generally subjective on the part of the reader and not always because a bad selection is made. I will not dally on the tales which sat less well with me, because there is nothing constructive in doing so, my taste is not necessarily your taste, and I didn’t actually dislike any of the tales selected – there were just some I liked more than others, as is the way with anthologies. This book is more voluminous than I expected and within its hallowed pages may be found some familiar tales by some familiar writers, some unfamiliar tales by some familiar writers and some unfamiliar tales by some unfamiliar writers. This makes the book a good choice for those new to the folk horror ways whilst still being of appeal to those already acquainted with the strange goings-on behind the old hedges and the standing stones.
The tales are presented chronologically according to when they were written, starting with Sheridan Le Fanu’s darkly romantic Laura Silver Bell of 1872 and culminating in Robert Aickman’s delightfully bizarre 1964 story Bind Your Hair. This shows how the sub-genre or mode of folk horror developed over nearly a century, which is more stylistically than subject-wise for the most part. It also clearly illustrates otherwise to anyone who may still think that folk horror originated with 3 British films at the tail-end of the hippy dream. A note therein though is that the majority of stories in this book do have a British or Irish origin, with Shirley Jackson’s 1950 tale The Summer People notablybringing an odd slice of Wyrd Americana to the table. This may not be too unexpected as folk horror is a prevalent feature within British and Irish weird fiction as it fits so well with the landscape, lore and history of these isles. It is not of any detriment to the book but should further volumes follow (which I hope they will) then my curiosity would again be piqued to see stories selected from a variety of nations – certainly Eastern Europe and Asia could provide a wealth of possible content and it would be intriguing to see how Wells would visually approach the writings of Gogol, Meyrink and Kafka for instance or the translations made by Lafcadio Hearn of Japan’s haunted heritage. And what wonders could be dug from the soil of Africa, Australasia and Scandinavia and rendered with the imagery of Richard Wells? Temptation to the imagination, but anyway back to the book in hand and before I speak further about Well’s art, just a note that some of the early tales in this book are quite heavy on the use of vernacular dialect, which when done well can illustrate the versatile skill of a writer but can alas also sometimes put something of a screen between the reader and the tale being told. It is easier to become absorbed and drenched in the delicious dread and atmosphere of a spooky tale if you do not have to repeatedly reach for a dictionary or try to second-guess what is actually being said. However, these tales are important examples of the diversity of the folk horror tradition and worthy of inclusion in such an anthology. There are only a couple of tales that do this, so for the casual reader or those entirely new to folk horror, do not be put off. As these stories occur early in the book, it would be advised perhaps not to read cover to cover but to dip in and out randomly or even start at the last story and work widdershins back to the beginning. If, however you do wish to read chronologically and do strain a little to engage with the earlier stories due to the linguistic unfamiliarity, do not let this put you off pursuing further with the book. And what a book it is, it is a considerable and considered selection and delivered handsomely. When I heard it was being crowd-funded I was a bit wary of what the quality would be like but there’s no complaint here. It is solidly constructed and well presented. The subtle touch of adding an earthy red to some of the text of chapter opening pages is just a little thing but I found that a nice attention to detail. And the illustrations are superb. Sharply printed and the olde woodcut style suits the material. There is a quirkiness and humour to some of the illustrations which suits some folk horror tales really well, yet even so the image for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Thrawn Janet is rather disturbing (and also my favourite illustration in the book).
Of the writers included in the book are some of my personal favourites – Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman, but it was great to read alongside well-known writers such as M.R James who is represented with his tale The Ash Tree , Saki (The Music on the Hill), Walter de la Mare (All Hallows) and Thomas Hardy who with his The Withered Arm, is possibly a contender for my personal favourite story in the book – tales previously unfamiliar to me such as The Sin-Eater by Fiona Macleod and Cwm Garon by L.T.C. Holt.
The book is fore-worded by the author Benjamin Myers, amongst whose gritty novels, The Gallows Pole has made an impression on many folk horror revivalist readers (and which has been adapted to screen by Shane Meadows and the BBC) and that’s another box in its favour ticked. So wicked witches, bad fairies and the restless dead be damned, for those who are looking to fill up their folk horror fiction shelves Damnable Tales is a must have.
Wyrd Kalendar is a collection of weird and wonderful tales from Chris Lambert – the magus behind the Black Meadow and illustrated throughout by Andy Paciorek. Each month has its own strange tale to tell …
One for the junior Revivalists. Join enchanting songstress Sharron Krauss on her bewitching adventure into the lapine otherworld with The Hares in The Moonlight
Hear ye Hear ye … Wytches are abroad this verye monthe but fear ye not as Doctor Bob Curran and Mr Andy Paciorek have unearthed an ancient manuscript The Wytch Hunters’ Manual to help ward off those maleficent minions of the night & devile…
(change to your local currency at the bottom of the linked webpage)
Offer valid through 8th October 2021
Sales profits from FHR / Wyrd Harvest Press books sold in this store will be charitably donated at intervals to different environmental, wildlife and community projects undertaken by the Wildlife Trusts.
This vibrant collection of award-winning supernatural stories from around the world offers something for every taste in the uncanny. Yes, there are ghosts. But you’ll also find pieces involving revenants or reanimated corpses of different sorts, including—but not limited to—zombies, as well as stories that make literary use of fairies, vampires, demons, The Devil Himself, snakes (talking, and otherwise), time slips (aka unintentional time travel), mystery animals, ancient curses, contemporary curses, a plague even scarier than the coronavirus, Santería, and a number of haunted objects, including fine dinnerware, some smoky panes of old window glass, and a stuffed rabbit with a bad attitude. We’ve got several stories that fit the category of magic realism, a couple that are just plain hard to categorize, and one that has to do with dragons. Each of these 30 stories, in addition to providing the reader with a thrill, a chill, a laugh, or a new perspective on life and death, is also a small literary gem that you’ll want to revisit again and again.
After having to cancel last year’s Winter Ghosts due to our old friend Covid-19 we are pulling out all the stops to ensure this year’s event is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. This year’s event features the usual selection of talks and music as well as some pretty exciting performances, that we’re keeping a little bit under wraps for the time being, as well as a classic film that we will be unveiling in the very near future.
As many of us are based in wyrm country, up in the North East we have chosen a cryptid theme to this year’s event. So, expect to be regaled with tales of dragons, serpents and sea monsters.
Anyway, without further ado, here is our first lineup announcement. We are keeping all the juicy details close to our chests for now, but we wanted to share with you the supremely talented individuals who will be set to entertain you across the weekend of November 27th and 28th.
First up on the speaker list is an old friend of Folk Horror Revival, Dr Sarah Caldwell Steele – proprietor of The Ebor Jetworks, Gemologist, jewellery designer and expert in all things Jet. Sarah will be presenting a fascinating new talk for us.
The Shrouded Republic is a performance piece inspired by Rev. Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle author of “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies: A Study in Folklore and Psychical Research” and brings together once again the team that were responsible for the rather wonderful Leasungspell. Led by poet and author Bob Beagrie this promises to be a fascinating piece that needs to be seen.
Up next is Dr David. R Rowe or “Doc” for short. Doc Rowe is an archivist and collector, who has been recording and filming cultural tradition and vernacular arts, folklore, song and dance of Britain and Ireland since the 1960s. His collection currently represents the most extensive collection of audio and video material to celebrate the variety and richness of traditional folk culture of these islands. We look forward to revealing more details about his talk.
We are also incredibly proud to announce that Richard Freeman – Cryptozoologist, writer of both fiction and non-fiction and one of the world’s leading experts on all things Dragon will be joining us to present a talk on what lies behind the dragon legends and is there a possibility that these were more than just folklore?
We are also joined by The Hazelsong Theatre, whose work is rooted in the songs, stories, myth and folklore of the North and the Borderlands and the many cultures that have made the North their home. Hazelsong creates performances which bring together music, storytelling, puppetry and theatre borne of the knowledge that these stories and songs are very much alive. For us they will be presenting a talk on John McKinnell with a vaguely tame wyrm or two in attendance.
Evening Music Lineup
Our evening musical lineup is also very strong and features some of the most interesting performers working within the field today.
Folk Horror Revival are really pleased to be working with one of the brightest new lights in electronic music, Everyday Dust. Everyday Dust is a producer based in Scotland, who uses analogue synthesizers, effects and tape machines to create his own unique narrative-driven music. His most recent album for Castles in Space records, Black Water is a deeply immersive electronic album of sonar explorations which celebrate the ongoing search for the creature at large in Loch Ness. We think you’ll love what could well turn out to be his debut live performance.
Nathalie Stern and the Noizechoir are local legends in the Newcastle music scene, mixing drones and lush harmonised vocals Nathalie and the choir perform music to invoke elder gods to. Why not have a listen to last year’s Nerves and Skin album by Nathalie, that should give you an idea of what to expect from what is a hotly anticipated set.
Our final musical act are darkwave and industrial legends Attrition, after more than 40 years of producing interesting dark electronic music they remain as strong as ever, continually adapting and honing their sound, the group led by Martin Bowes remain at the cutting edge of modern day electronica and remain as influential on today’s artists as they ever have. We are very excited to see what they have in store for us at Winter Ghosts.
Ok that’s almost it, apart from one more artist, a super-secret film screening that we will be announcing in the not-too-distant future, and the relaxed Sunday lineup that is also coming soon. I hope that has whetted your appetite for this year’s Winter Ghosts. Tickets are available now from our Eventbrite page below priced at a modest £13 for the whole weekend. We hope to see many of you there.
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.
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.