Fear Before The Fall: Horror Films in the Late Soviet Union by Alexander Herbert – Book Review

I am of that age (Generation X aka The Haunted Generation) whereby a significant part of my childhood was enveloped in the Cold War fears of an impending nuclear apocalypse. A terror adequately catered for by the less than a handful of terrestrial channels emitting their cathode rays into British living rooms. We were treated to dystopian dramas such as Threads, When the Wind Blows, the eventual broadcast of the considerably disturbing 1966 docudrama The War Game and perhaps most unsettlingly the Protect and Survive public information adverts whereby the booming voice of actor Patrick Allen accompanied by a chilling bleep and bloop Radiophonic Workshop score that would just appear on the telly advising us how to bag and tag our dead relatives for collection by the binmen of the apocalypse. At school we read Z for Zachariah – a dystopian survivalist novel by American author Robert C O’Brien (Robert Leslie Conly) – which the BBC also considerately turned into a TV play, and we turned on our radios to hear Frankie Goes to Hollywood sing about when Two Tribes go to war. The USA obviously had some similar concerns in that era as their nuclear doomsday drama The Day After also appeared on UK screens … But what about the ‘bogie-man’ threatening to bomb us? I long wondered whether the citizens of the USSR – their Generation X children also lived under the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Did their films and TV predict atomic devastation or did they dismiss it with a ‘don’t worry, we’ve got this covered’ attitude or ignore the threat of mutually assured destruction altogether?

I was aware of the 1967 Czechoslovakian movie Late August at the Hotel Ozone and the 1979 Soviet sci-fi movie Stalker (based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Strugatsky but both of them were post-apocalyptic – set sometime in the future aftermath of a nuclear crisis with a level of distance from the immediate fears of the threat in our time. Beyond that, my knowledge of Soviet Bloc ‘horror’ films consisted of Jan Svankmajer animations, Czech New Wave films such as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Morgiana and Witch-Hammer, adaptions of Gogol stories such as Viy and Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and strange ‘fairy tales’ such as Ded Moroz and Baba Yaga, Polish book adaptations such as The Saragossa Manuscript and The Hourglass Sanatorium and odd offerings such as Yugoslavia’s The She Butterfly (Leptirica).

But of Soviet horror films that arose in the time of critical nuclear phobia just before the fall of the union my knowledge is as cold as the ‘war’ of that era. This is where Alexander Herbert’s book comes in. Mentioning online that I had Fear Before The Fall lined up to read and review, someone commented that they didn’t know there were any Soviet horror films and it would seem that there aren’t many. Shortly before the Fall of the title, the region experienced real-life horror and its legacy with the nuclear power-station disaster at Chernobyl.

Before looking at the films Herbert mentions in the book it is worth noting his stated aim is that “The book is not intended to be an academic monograph, it is for fun …”.
That is a sentiment I approve of – for me the true success of education is and should be the sharing of information to as wide an audience as possible in the simplest manner possible – Not by dumbing-down but by imparting even the most complex of data in the most efficient and understandable way – if it’s also entertaining all the better. Too often academic writing alas can suck all life and joy out of fascinating subjects by appearing to be deliberately obtuse and ‘clever’ in its dry language and delivery. It isn’t ‘clever’ however to have the intention of educating and then failing to do so to the most comprehensive result, because of unnecessary intricacy (there’s probably a simpler way of expressing my opinion there but …)

However that said, Fear Before the Fall isn’t the most commercial of film study books but has a potentially narrower target audience. In keeping with other titles published by zer0 books and to address the symbolism of the movies mentioned, there is by necessity a lot of sociopolitical material within the book. Therefore rather than being a general read it will be of more specific interest to those who already study the political and social intricacies of the region and era and those who have a deeper interest in the psychology of film studies but it is also of use to those, who like me, have a gap in their horror film knowledge when it comes to the Soviet Union. And therein it certainly has educated me to several films that not only have I not seen but hadn’t even been aware of, but now am most curious to see.

First up for consideration in the book is perhaps the most famous of Soviet films (and one which I’d both seen and read the story by Nicolai Gogol, upon which it is based). That film is the 1967 version of Viy (which also has a pre-Russian Revolution version from 1901 which is sadly lost and several 21st Century versions – it also was influential to Mario Bava’s 1960 film Black Sunday). Its premise follows a man who following a bizarre assault by an old witch beats her grievously, but upon the death of the beautiful young daughter of a Cossack chief finds himself forced to stage a 3 day vigil by the coffin of the young woman. Perhaps not all Hell but a fair portion of it then unfolds. Released 24 years before the Fall of the Soviet Union,Viy isn’t truly symbolic of those end days but its inclusion in the book is an important one – both in its context of the history of Russian horror film and also in outlining the time of mid Cold War era that strangely gave birth to it.

Next up is 1979’s Savage Hunt of King Stakh which is based on a story by Vladimir Korotkevich about a young anthropologist who travels to a remote region to investigate Belarusian folklore and the paranormal. It is set in 1899, which Herbert considers important as it just precedes the 20th Century which was to witness dramatic change in Eastern Europe and with regard to the beliefs and character of the people of Belarus before and during the Soviet era. In referencing the supernatural and folklore in what was to become a secular state that sought to replace individual nationalism with homogenous comradeship raises questions of matters of national identity and heritage – issues that people would consider themselves when the decline of the bloc approached.

Herbert then turns his attention to two 1987 films – Mister Designer and The Vel’d.
Concerning itself with an artist who seeks to address the matter of a more eternal life through the creation of mannequins. Having not seen this, it does sound something of a strange curiosity. Following the devastation at Chernobyl and the authorities realisation of the slipping of overall control but still wanting to set the narrative (in all things including film) the contemplation of the state intended and creator subliminal symbolism is thought-provoking. This is perhaps more curious still in the fact that The Vel’d is an adaptation of the short story The Veldt by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is an author whose work oozes 20th Century Americana and for Russian authorities to permit a movie based on his work is intriguing. Increasingly the youth of the Soviet era, whom hadn’t known life before and knew only often austere times would get tasters of Western youth-culture and wanted more, be it records, denim jeans, burgers or horror movies. An interesting note about the story of The Veldt is that it tells of children turning on their parents in a more technologically advanced leisure scenario.
As a big fan of Ray Bradbury I am intrigued to seek out this adaption of his work (the story does also feature incidentally in the American portmanteau movie The Illustrated Man (1969).

In the final chapters Herbert concentrates on films relating to Vampirism and Lycanthropy – both subjects that feature in the Slavic folklore of the different nations that made up either the USSR or the Warsaw Pact countries. Vampires and Werewolves however are frequently sources of a symbolic narrative beneath the surface story.
Vampires often reflect the ‘Other’ – an outside/outsider source that represents a real or scapegoated threat. Since the dawn of Marxism, vampirism was used as a metaphor for capitalism. (On the flip-side the ‘Other’ subtext of ‘Reds Under the Bed’ can be read into some American Cold War movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Vampires are often depicted also as decaying decadents – in the Soviet Union the symbolism there could be considered a reference to the parasitic aristocracy which the Russian Revolution sought to destroy. In the 1980s the concept of tainted blood and pestilence in Vampire narratives could not help but bring to mind the AIDS crisis of the time (with its further ‘Othering’ of gay men and intravenous narcotic users who made up a large portion of infected people). Herbert considers the symbolism of women in relation to the film P’iusche Krov (released in 1991 – the year of the Soviet Union’s breakup and a time when the members of future feminist punk art activists Pussy Riot were but mere children) and the matter of generational conflict in regards to ‘Fear of the Vampire Family’ – Semya Vurdalakov (1991). Vampire Family is a contemporary loose adaption of the short horror story by A.K. Tolstoy (a period adaptation that is closer to the original tale can be found as a segment in Mario Bava’s 1963 movie Black Sabbath – starring Boris Karloff as the bloodthirsty family elder).

Lycanthropy can symbolise a wild inner nature but it is an effective factor to symbolise transformation and at this time the Soviet world was at the start of profound metamorphosis. Herbert takes a look at the werewolf satire Lyumi (1991), a contemporary adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood. Russia is not through with change 30 years as it is currently writing another chapter of its own and Europe’s history. It would be intriguing for Herbert to return to the theme in the future and see what the post-dissolution horror films of Russia may reveal about the Putin era.

Fear Before The Fall: Horror Films In The Late Soviet Union
Alexander Herbert

144 pages, Paperback

February 1, 2023 by Zero Books

ISBN 9781789049794 (ISBN10: 1789049792)

Available HERE and other book stores

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

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Blood On Satan’s Claw by Robert Wynne-Simmons. Book Review

Over a half-century of waiting but finally that brooding member of the classic Folk Horror unhallowed triumvirate of British films, The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) has its own tie-in novel accompanying on the shelves the book partners of Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973).
Only in the case of Witchfinder General did the book precede the film (written by Ronald Bassett and published in 1966). The novelisations of The Wicker Man (which was initially inspired by David Pirner’s 1967 novel Ritual) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw followed the films after some years and were both penned by the screenwriters of said films – Anthony Shaffer (alongside the director of the film, Robin Hardy) in The Wicker Man’s case and Robert Wynne-Simmons with regard to The Blood on Satan’s Claw. With time passed this allowed the writers to return to their creations with a fresher mind and to alter or elaborate upon the stories – with greater success in the case of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, (The Wicker Man novel is a decent enough read and works well to flesh out Sergeant Howie’s character but the addition of the characters Beech and Sorrel and their narratives I find somewhat superfluous and distracting).
Wynne-Simmons is more successful in fleshing out the bones of the characters (or rather furring up their flesh) without veering too far from the soul of the film.

Blood On Satan’s Claw or The Devil’s Skin as the book is titled, follows events that unfurled in the early 18th Century in a pastoral British village named Chapel Folding following the discovery of grisly remains by farmhand Ralph Gower when turning the soil of Tarrant’s Field – a patch of land that generally was left un-ploughed. Remnants of the unearthed mysterious body parts fall into the hands of some local children and things in the sleepy village begin to turn decidedly fiendish. It was not simply bodily relics brought to the surface by Ralph’s toils but a malign presence that endeavored to make itself felt through the bidding and worship of many of the locals – particularly the children.

It is this utter corruption of innocence that I feel is the heart of Blood on Satan’s Claw and which gives both the film and book power. It is also however the source of controversy that casts a shadow upon the movie. Without giving away Spoilers to either film or book, there is one scene in particular that regards the fate of one of the village girls. In hindsight the director Piers Haggard says that if he were to have done it now, he would have filmed the scene differently. I personally feel that the events of this scene are pivotal in showing the savage possession that the children have fallen under but do understand the criticisms of its cinematic depiction. Perhaps this was of consideration to Wynne-Simmons in his novelisation as on paper the events unfold thematically the same but stylistically different.
I am categorically a fan of the film, though utterly conscious of any issues levelled against it; but there is something I find eerily spell-binding in it. The book also captivated me. I wonder though if this would differ much had I not watched the film so many times. Dialogue I heard spoken in the specific actors’ voices and I pictured them likewise, which I think speaks well of the casting in the film. The book is a page-turner, though, written in a flowing, inviting manner so I think that for readers with no prior exposure to the film, it would still prove an engaging and interesting read.

The film though also to an extent does seem to have influenced the artist Richard Wells whose chapbook-reminiscent prints illustrate the book. Depicted characters such as the beguiling Angel Blake (one of my all-time favourite movie villains) look very much like their onscreen counterparts (Linda Hayden in Angel’s case).
I am a huge devotee to illustrated books so the imagery contained within is appreciated and a nice-touch. Wells being a prominent figure in the revival of Folk Horror being an apt choice for the job.
One bugbear I have with the film is the visual reveal of the Fiend – I do not think the effects do the malignant entity justice (same bone of contention I have with the otherwise great 1957 film Night of the Demon). I would have preferred both to have been more unseen and would have found that more ominous and disturbing. However within the book the depiction of the devil of the fields in all his glory is reminiscent of the medieval texts and does suit the purpose better.
The red bookmark ribbon is another small but pleasing touch – these visual attentions make the book more of a pleasure to behold and make for a nice ghoulish gift for someone.

It’s been a long time in coming but well worth the wait I feel, as I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for its narrative and writing and for its visual appeal.

Linda Hayden as Angel Blake in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

Blood on Satan’s Claw or The Devil’s Skin
Written by Robert-Wynne Simmons, illustrated by Richard Wells

Available now HERE and at other book stores

Review by Andy Paciorek

High John The Conqueror by Tariq Goddard: Book Review

High John the Conqueror, the latest novel by Tariq Goddard – author, founder of Zero Books and Publisher at Repeater Books, is a strange brew – in large part a gritty British police procedural, partfolk horror / urban wyrd, political commentary and psychedelic trip-literature.

Set in Wessex in 2016, the book follows a team of detectives as they investigate a series of teenagers going missing from council estates in a provincial city and pursue a rumour that wealthy individuals are kidnapping the youths as sex-slaves and perhaps even sacrifices for orgiastic rituals. This premise is fed by Goddard’s political reflections as is a factor of numerous Zero and Repeater books. The debate of class divide and exploitation of the poor by the privileged is pertinent to the book’s plot and for the most part, the political message is delivered without preachiness, but I do question whether the prolonged discussion between a police investigator and a wealthy, powerful suspect is a realistic conversation but it does serve a purpose of exposition. Otherwise the book, which is led by a lot of dialogue paints believable characters. One issue I had with it, which may not bother most readers is the names of the police officers. Though I think it’s fine to pay tribute to inspirations in naming characters, for me the nomenclature of the individual coppers was too much. I visualise books strongly, and once a worm has burrowed into my brain I find it difficult to dislodge and as the officers were named after cult musicians – in one scene featuring a number of cops I pictured members of Coil, Psychic TV and the Banshees all dressed up as police officers. It does add to the surreal aspect of the book I guess, but alas for me was difficult to dislodge the image from my mind which distanced me a little from the story.

The combination of neo-noir police procedural and folk horror evokes thoughts of The Wicker Man and David Pinner’s Ritual, and other elements of the book reminded me of the Ben Wheatley films Kill List and IN THE EⱯRTH, but High John the Conqueror is also its own beast. The High John of the title referring to a natural psychoactive substance that only grows at lengthy intervals and when it does demands attention. This powerful drug is deeply entwined with the disappearance of the teens, but is far more strange and sinister than any recreational drug being peddled on the streets and across county lines.

Hallucinatory yet gritty, Goddard’s novel is a genuine portrait of Britain’s shadowy underworld but intensified to a psychogenic peak. Scattered throughout are scratchy, flowing line drawings which have a feel of automatic art to them. As a big appreciator of books featuring illustrations, I approve of this – actually I’d have liked it to feature more drawings, but kudos to the inclusion of book art.



High John The Conqueror by Tariq Goddard
Repeater
ISBN 9781914420306
https://repeaterbooks.com/product/high-john-the-conqueror-a-novel/

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Forests Damned and Furrows Cursed: Book Review

Forests Damned and Furrows Cursed is a new anthology of classic Folk Horror novellas harvested by the author William P. Simmons of Shadow House Publishing.
We say ‘Folk Horror’ but all of the contained novellas were written in the late 19th/early 20th Century before the term Folk Horror was widely applied as a sub-genre or mode, therefore all are written with a purity of independence, free from the worry of whether their work conforms to a set idea or ticks all the expected boxes – a problem contemporary writers of Folk Horror may feel they face. So within these covers we are presented with 5 comparatively diverse tales, which still nonetheless should content both the casual and the more rigid readers of folk inspired horror.

The stories featured are ~
Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan (1902)
The Novel of the Black Seal by Arthur Machen (1895)
Dionea by Vernon Lee (1890)
The Man Whom the Trees Loved by Algernon Blackwood (1912)
The Garden at 19 by Edgar Jepson (1910)

Differing from a number of Folk Horror anthologies that have collected short – short stories, Forests Damned gathers those creatures that dwell in the borderlands between short prose and novels – the land of the Novella. Outside of publisher demands (which may be of pragmatic /financial intent rather than creative) which may dictate a set word or page count, my personal belief with writing is that the story should be as long or as short as it takes to tell in the most rewarding manner. The precise amount of detail is required to describe the characters, setting and significant events. – applied to set the pace, to build suspense and either satisfy completely or to non-frustratingly leave the reader wanting more. Just enough detail for the reader to view the scene and unfolding events in their mind’s eye and to immerse in the story and be less conscious of reading a book, if that makes sense? So ideally, not so short as to appear rushed and unsatisfactory, not too long as to bloat and drag with superfluous padding. The stories in this book don’t always completely meet those aims but it is important still that they have been collected and presented again in our time as they are strong interesting stories in their own right and a vital link in the chain for any reader / collector that wishes to build a library and /or knowledge of literary fiction that falls under the umbrella of what is now rather widely referred to as Folk Horror.

Likewise these novellas are of their time which is relevant regarding their pace, style and also with reference to some social-political issues. They come from a time when there was little competition for attention in leisure time – no films, internet, games etc. So they can take their time getting where they are going and can stop to smell the roses in their descriptive manner. So as with all books and tales from different eras, may not be to the taste of all contemporary readers. In his introduction to the collection, Simmons does a good job of putting the works in context and explaining the feral nature of Folk Horror, so no previous experience of reading Folk Horror stories is necessary to enter into the wild lands contained, but it may be useful for those new to the form to read some shorter stories of both Folk Horror and of the era before tackling these long -short stories / short novels. Regarding the social-political issues within some of the tales, attitudes may raise some eyebrows and with fair enough cause; however whether they reflect the opinions specifically of the fictional characters portrayed, the author or the majority of their particular society at that time is not instantly identifiable. The reader can make their own judgement call when reading. Any issues do not overwhelm the tales, mostly they are concerned with traditional gender roles and the occasional opinion regarding foreign nations, but are mentioned purely for context of these tales being creatures of their own time. Such matters may also be of interest to Folk Horror fiction historians in their contemplation not only of tales being told but how they are told.

That overview out of the way, to look now at the individual tales contained and their creators.

John Buchan

The first story featured is The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan (first published in 1902). Buchan (1875 – 1940) was a Scottish polymath. In addition to being a fiction writer (his most famous work quite probably being The Thirty Nine Steps – an adventure tale of political intrigue (known more widely for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 cinematic adaptation); Buchan was an editor, non-fiction author, Unionist Politician and Governor General of Canada.
The Watcher by The Threshold tells of a man living on the Scottish moors whose studies of Justinian and classical philosophy go beyond obsession and finds himself feeling haunted by a devil. The importance of landscape in Folk Horror is well represented in this tale. I have a love of moors yet find them somewhat unsettling and Buchan’s writing sets the scene very well here.

Arthur Machen: Illustration by Andy Paciorek

Next we have The Novel of the Black Seal by Arthur Machen (1863 -1947) (which was first published as part of his 1895 collection The Three Imposters). Machen was a Welsh journalist, author, proto-psychogeographer and mystic – being a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn for a while, his personal spirituality though leaned towards Celtic Christianity.
The Novel of the Black Seal shares an element of Buchan’s tale which is also evident in a lot of M.R. James’ work that of academic study becoming embroiled in real situations of archeological, anthropological or folkloric horror. In this case case we find explorations of a subterranean site in the Grey Hills of Wales turning up more than expected. The existence and nature of the denizens of a Faerie Otherworld coexisting with our own goes against any Disneyfied Tinkerbell ‘airy-fairy’ conceptions of the ‘Little People’ of folklore and presents us with a forgotten, hidden swarthy, troglodyte race. In being of its time, perhaps the most horrific scene is implied rather than graphically explained. This works to its advantage, for in contemplation of the origins of the conception of the strange servant boy in the tale, I found myself genuinely unsettled. This tale went on to inspire both HP Lovecraft and Robert Howard in their weird fiction writing.
It was in connection to the Machen story incidentally, that I thought of the comparatively low incidence of classic tales fitting a Folk Horror vein being adapted to film during this current current Folk Horror revival. Rather than ‘karaoke’ versions of The Wicker Man, it would be good to see more of the old stories brought to the silver screen. This train of thought commuted my mind to the (criminally little-known) film adaption of a collection of Machen tales, Holy Terrors (2018) by Mark Goodall and Julian Butler (see https://folkhorrorrevival.com/2018/01/19/holy-terrors-film-review/ ) and I think that they would be perfect to adapt Forests Damned and Furrows Cursed to film as a portmanteau – an Amicus-anthology style Folk Horror film if you will.
Anyway I digress, so on with the book …

Vernon Lee aka Violet Paget

Next up we have Dionea by Vernon Lee. Originally published in 1890, Vernon Lee was actually the pseudonym of Violet Paget (1856 – 1935). Paget was a strong proponent of feminism but was published under a masculine pen-name. The author’s own contemplation and experience of gender matters can offer a further context to the story of Dionea, a foundling child raised in an Italian convent. Dionea does not care for the studies, chores and sewing that the nuns put her too and instead is drawn more to nature. As she gets older, her independence of thought – her perhaps even feral nature puts her at odds with the convent and later beyond those cloistered walls. Dionea’s strength of character and wild free-spirit is even seen to affect the fate of others and she is viewed with both suspicion and superstition. The return of buried paganism is a recurring element through different examples of Folk Horror, which marks Dionea’s place in this book and the Folk Horror canon, and the voice behind it is a refreshing interlude to the male, quite conservative – despite the themes, uttering of the other featured tale-tellers.

Algernon Blackwood: Illustration by Andy Paciorek

Perhaps one of the most evocatively titled of all horror stories follows next, The Man Whom The Trees Loved (1912) by Algernon Blackwood (1869 – 1951). A member of both The Ghost Club and like Machen, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Blackwood is perhaps the biggest name in the book among horror circles. Extremely prodigious and successful in his horror writing career, alas I find issue with The Man Whom the Trees Loved – it’s not that it’s a bad story – it’s a decent enough tale. The problem is that in my opinion, it should be a short story not a novella. There for me is an issue of repetition in the tale – if handled skillfully then a little repeating can build up suspense but I just find too much of it and dallying here. It is surprising as Blackwood knows his craft, so it would’ve been hoped that he did not opt for a ‘less is more’ approach here. As for the tale itself, it is quite poetically beautiful as well as unsettling. A woman becomes extremely concerned with her husband’s obsession for the trees that surround their country abode. It has an underlying mystical and philosophical debate about the sentience of life, (indeed all of the stories featured in this book pose a studious contemplation of the ‘nature’ of both nature and the supernatural) and it is a valuable addition to the Folk Horror bookshelves but I unfortunately cannot help but feel that it would have been a more powerful narrative had Blackwood decided to have it edited down.

Edgar Jepson

Closing the book is The Garden at 19 (1910) by Edgar Jepson (1863 -1948). Jepson, an English writer, is more widely associated to crime and adventure novels ( as well as translating Maurice Leblanc’s French tales of the aristocratic brigand Arsene Lupin into English). One of his wanderings into fantastic territory The Garden at 19 is a mixed bag. Like The Man Whom the Trees Loved, 19 could’ve probably done with being a bit shorter. It also has its eyebrow raising moments in its oddly repeated opinions of German professors and also in its portrayal of girls/women and their societal roles. Otherwise it’s a fair enough tale, reminiscent of Denis Wheatley’s Satanism in suburbia romps. The presence of that old horny deity Pan explains the book cover (featuring a painting by the, alas not familiar enough, Belgian Symbolist painter of the uncanny, Leon Spilliaert) and relates how a young lawyer becomes intrigued both by the strange goings-on in his neighbour’s garden and then by the presence of his neighbour’s niece. The character of the neighbour, Woodfell, is very clearly inspired by the notorious occultist and tabloid scandal-fodder of the time, Aleister Crowley.

The afterword of the book comes in the form of questions, an interesting addition that would perhaps prove useful for book groups, genre-study classes, and academic or personal-interest students of Folk Horror / horror literature. This and the novel approach of presenting novellas rather than shorter fiction makes this book an interesting and valuable addition to folk’s Folk Horror book collection.

Faun by Moonlight: Leon Spillaert (1900)

Forests Damned And Furrows Cursed: A Haunted Heritage of Folk Horror Novellas
Edited by William P. Simmons
Paperback, 236 pages
Published April 26th 2022
by Shadow House Publishing
ISBN13 – 798806998614

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Dark Folklore: Book Review

Upon hearing of the release of Dark Folklore by Mark and Tracey Norman, I was beguiled as to what Chthonic treasures the book would contain, for there is certainly darkness a ‘plenty to be found within the world of folklore. Upon opening the book and casting my eyes over the contents listing of the 5 chapters offering a bewitching array of lore with Fortean interest, the first chapter The Old Hag: Folklore and Sleep Paralysis was of particular personal intrigue to me, having experienced numerous incidents of this bizarre state myself. The Normans provide a very good overview on the subject covering the bases of superstition, psychoanalysis and scientific rationale. Presented are numerous entities associated to the Hag-riding phenomenon aspects of sleep disturbance in world folklore, from the Hungarian Liderc to the Arabian Quarinah and the Alien Greys. The authors put forward balanced and insightful consideration of the subject, without judgement. They explain the medical processes of such unsettling experiences but don’t merely dismiss the entities envisioned rather questioning why a feeling of somnolent physical inertia and laboured breathing (amongst other symptoms) can result in visions of old crones or other strange entities squatting on the sufferers’ chests or dark mysterious figures lingering in the corners of the room. Archetypal consideration is applied here, as is the rich folklore of myriad nocturnal entities that can be found across the world in both developing and more technologically advanced societies. (An unsettling folkloric belief, not mentioned within this book, was told to me by a Filipina associate who claimed that the Batibat, an entity associated to the strange hypnagogic / hypnopompic episodes is believed in her culture to be the ghost of someone who had died in their sleep). 

Chapter two deals with The Dark Church and covers wide-reaching examples of association mostly between the Christian church in Britain and superstition and pagan influence. Discussed are foliate head and Sheela-na-gig carvings, St. Mark Eve vigils (whereby observers may see a procession of those destined to die in the following year and other wondrous delights. Here we wander down corpse roads and meet the priests of Devon who reputedly employed rather than denied folk magic. The magician-priests included Reverend Franke Parker who lore declares had the power to shape-shift and had an esoteric library that he was deeply protective of. The peculiar Parson Parker was reportedly once found at rest in a bed surrounded by dead toads.

Folk Ghosts provide the focus of the third chapter and considers the distinction that should be made more in haunt studies between ghosts that exist purely in lore and those reported to have been experienced by verifiable witnesses. Many places are said to be haunted by a phantom stagecoach or phantom black dog for instance, but how many have known contemporary witnesses of the particular phenomenon? ‘Cockstride ghosts’ – the spirits of those destined to perform some impossible or potentially eternal penance for an earthly crime are also given good attention. Weaving rope from grains of sand or emptying large pools with a leaking diminutive vessel are examples of such posthumous burdens that may befall wicked souls.

Following on in Chapter four we are entertained with Urban Legends and contemplation of their history, endurance and evolution from the era of Spring-Heeled Jack through the Edwardian case of the Cottingley Fairy photographs, to the radio and televisual panics of the broadcasts of War of The Worlds and Ghostwatch to the virtual ‘fakelore’ creations taking on a real-world presence and influence in the digital-age such as Slender Man and the Momo Challenge, perfectly showing that folklore is not simply a historical study but a living, developing part of human culture.

Dark Tourism and Legend Tripping provide the basis of the fifth and final chapter. Here, Mark and Tracey turn tour-guide and lead us to some intriguing and odd international locations and contemplate why people may be drawn to visit places of grisly repute, to witness rituals alien to their own cultures or to even re-enact certain strange historical happenings. Included here are Aokighara – the notorious ‘suicide forest’ of Japan, the Black Mausoleum of Edinburgh’s Greyfriars cemetery which bears reported activity by the Mackenzie poltergeist and the ghost tours of the Ararat Lunatic Asylum in Australia. Also covered are the death rites and rituals such as the Torajan Ma’nene funerary customs in South Sulawesi, Indonesia and the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in Mexico. Quite a lot of lore is surprisingly covered within this relatively thin and rather charming, attractively presented book. Subjects however are frequently given a satisfying amount of considered attention rather than being skimmed over but other examples are mentioned in passing which can whet the reader’s appetite for further research. The allocation of five chapters also works well here, giving the book a tighter focus whilst still treading a lot of ground and providing plenty of scope for possible further volumes in the series, which personally I’d be keen to read.

Dark Folklore
Mark Norman & Tracey Norman http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com/
The History Press (2021)
Hb. 174 pp.
ISBN 9780750998

https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/dark-folklore/9780750998017/

Review by Andy Paciorek. First Published in Fortean Times magazine

Amazing Graze: Summer Solstice Charity Donation 2022 ☀️

Thank You to everybody who voted in our Solstice charity donation poll. The poll is now closed and we are pleased to say that Yorkshire Wildlife Trust will receive £500 from our book sales profits towards their grassland appeal.

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☀️Happy Solstice☀️

“Black Gate Tales” by Paul Draper

This is collection of short stories by Paul Draper is a very strong and diverse offering. Many of the stories are in contemporary settings but a few seem specifically tied to an era with the remainder in a vague but remote past. He doesn’t confine himself to the UK as well. Some take place in Europe and the Middle East and do not always have a strict Folk Horror vibe but are very compelling nonetheless. My descriptions are admittedly vague to avoid spoilers.

The standouts for me were:

Mrs. Pendelton’s Corpse” a dark humored tale that would be right at home among the Lore tellers of the turn of the 19th century.

“The Puppeteer of Prague” set in the city of a hundred spires shortly before the second world war. It evokes the best of Kafka and even a bit of Magic Realism.

“The King of Gorse” is my absolute favorite of the collection as I have a weakness for stories of this ilk. Draper has uniquely employed his own tools to steer the story clear of a formulaic telling.

“Twenty Steps to the Ditch” will appeal to anyone who has ever made the difficult trek back home after a long night in the pub. What one imagines in their stupor along the way turns out to be a grim reality in this offering.

One story that completely broke my heart was “The Undertow” which deals with the multiple levels of grief.

“The Fourteenth Day” was equally saddening. At first read it appears the story was a bit open ended but anyone who has watched international news can gleen what is to come. There is no outright horror save what humans are capable of doing to one another and the slight supernatural current of cosmology children create for themselves to deal with it.

Even though all of these stories would make great radio dramas or film shorts they stand on their own as excellent stories to be read or told. I highly recommend for anyone who loves a good story.

Archive 81: an Urban Wyrd Review

Archive 81 is a 2022 Netflix series developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine based upon the podcast of the same name created by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger (which I have not listened to as of yet, so cannot compare in this article).

Its premise follows the recruitment of Dan Turner (Mamadoudou Athie) as an electronic media conservator tasked with restoring fire-damaged videotapes shot by missing film maker Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi).

The show encompasses numerous elements of the Urban Wyrd. Apparently the term Urban Wyrd has caused confusion amongst some people, so it may be worthwhile to briefly explain the concept again here.
The Urban Wyrd designation was created and first contemplated by author & film-maker Adam Scovell on his Celluloid Wickerman website and was developed /investigated further in the pair of multi-contributor Folk Horror Revival: Urban Wyrd books published by Wyrd Harvest Press.
The Urban Wyrd is not ‘folk horror in a city’ though elements may sometimes be shared, and it was in reference and relationship to folk horror that the discussion first arose.

Urban Wyrd is not a genre, but a mode that relates to the incidence of the Uncanny, the Weird and the Eerie with specific relationship to the built-up environment, particular buildings, liminal edge-lands (such as motorway motels, service stations and sometimes suburbia) and/or to technology (including analogue and outdated forms).

The Urban Wyrd is frequently to be found where concepts such as Hauntology and Psychogeography occur on film, literature, music and art (both in the original academic remit of these subjects and in the development of their pop-cultural aesthetic).
The Urban Wyrd mode may therefore be applicable to narratives and/or imagery featuring haunted houses, uncanny urban geography & architecture (including transport stations and underpasses etc.) as well as haunted media (photography, digital, video etc) and also to supernatural, folkloric and/or occult excursions/infiltration into the modern world. Psychological relationships to the environment or technology may also be a factor. Concepts of time are also frequently a consideration.

(As with Folk Horror), ambience, aesthetic and that certain ineffable something that you may struggle to verbalise but know when you see, hear or feel it may also be apparent in items featuring modes of Urban Wyrd.
The concept of the Urban Wyrd is not a strict label or manifesto but more-so a feature or features that can be used to associate different films or media that share these similar themes, aesthetics or elements. Although it can be a topic for academic study, the designation of Urban Wyrd can and should be more widely and generally used as a handy way for people who like one film or book or song or artwork using the motifs described to find others featuring them that they may also enjoy.
Many of these elements just mentioned can be found in Archive 81.

Without giving too many spoilers away, a resume of Article 81 follows.
Dan is employed by a company named LMG to go to a remote complex to repair and restore a quantity of damaged video tapes filmed by Melody Pendras – a young woman who went missing in the 1990s following a fire at the Visser building, an apartment block built on the foundations (and history) of a former mansion belonging to the enigmatic Vos family. Melody is drawn there on a tip-off that her birth mother who abandoned her as a baby was a resident there. Family history plays a role within this drama which follows several different narratives apparently separated by time but united by people and place. As Dan delves further into his work he discovers a link to his own family and realises his task is far more than just being a regular job.

The show flits between found-footage and several story-lines occurring at different periods of time and also dream-narratives. The footage itself and its strange qualities is reminiscent of Koji Suzuki’s ‘Ringu’ (adapted to film in 1998 by Hideo Nakata and remade in 2002 by Gore Verbinski as ‘The Ring’) and whilst being quite a creature in its own right, Archive 81 wears its inspirations and influences on its sleeve. Rather than being derivative though a further meta narrative is added to the mix giving another layer for viewers and fans to mull over. We see references to movies as diverse as ‘Solaris’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Ministry of Fear’ and even ‘The Secret of Nimh’. Stephen King’s 1977 novel ‘The Shining’ is referenced and similarities can be drawn between the show and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 cinematic reworking of King’s book. The Visser Apartment/ Vos Mansion bears similarity with ‘The Shining”s Overlook hotel with its winding corridors, dark history, art-deco soirees and the feeling that the building is haunted not simply by the people that died there but by its own brooding character. Association can also be drawn to Ira Levin’s 1967 novel / Roman Polanski’s 1968 film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ with its mysterious apartment neighbours and occult ritual occurrences. Indeed there are elements of Polanski’s other Apartment Trilogy films ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and ‘The Tenant’ (1976) to be found in Archive 81’s make-up also.

There are also non-film associations that can be found in Archive 81 which will be of interest to those curious in the different aspects of the Urban Wyrd mode and also in wider aspects of the occult and paranormal outside of fiction.
The inclusion of Spirit Photography and Psychic Art works on both an aesthetic and narrative level. The name of the art group as Spirit Receivers and the examples of much the art shown seems strongly to allude to the book ‘World Receivers‘ which details the works of Georgiana Houghton. Hilma Af Klint and Emma Kunz – three artists of the 20th Century whose paintings were conducted through spiritual mediumship. (Another good book on that subject is Not Without My Ghosts and for Spirit Photography an excellent book is The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult).

In reference to pop-Hauntology (ie. that form associated to examples of popular culture as explored by Mark Fisher rather than the original political-philosophy form devised by Jacques Derrida) Archive 81 features strongly there both in aesthetic and topics covered. The attention to analogue technology, the literal ghost in the machine and genii loci – spirits of place; brings to mind ‘Ringu’ as mentioned previously, but also Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy’s 1972 TV play ‘The Stone Tape’ and the Electronic Voice Phenomenon {EVP} experimental studies pioneered by Friedrich Jürgenson, Hans Bender and Konstantin Raudive) have a strong hauntological quality as does the element of the movement of time that occurs within the unfolding tale. This is continued in the sound design brilliantly crafted by composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (one of the geniuses behind the Excellent Trip-Hop outfit Portishead). The combination of atmospheric music, drone and other aural invocations and evocations helps to induce a sense of unsettling perception – almost to the verge of inducing anxiety in the viewer (I myself have found myself ear-worming the prayer-song); this attention to sound likens Archive 81 to other films with significant Urban Wyrd content such as ‘Sinister’ and ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ (which also share the themes of uncanny elements within the actual media of film and video), and also to the works of David Lynch. The stilted slow dialogue also is reminiscent of the cinema of David Lynch and some of Stanley Kubrick’s work (‘The Shining’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’) however at times it does heighten the awareness of it being acted and therein lies a question as to how well the show was cast. There is another point however that lots of viewers have seemed to take issue with and that is the season’s finale. Again without giving away Spoilers, I personally don’t have a problem if that is how the show ends totally, although I do have a question /issue as to one of the character’s actions which culminated in that conclusion. The ending however does allow potential for the narrative to resume and develop further if Netflix decide to green light another season.

All in all, I enjoyed the series, it ticked numerous other interest boxes of mine and I was impressed by its techniques aimed to unsettle. Aesthetically I liked it, though for some of the special effects I personally would have opted for a more Less is More approach and it has inspired me to give the original Podcast a listen.

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Happy New Year + New Merchandise

Happy New Year to all Revivalists – Hope it is a good one.

To mark the dawn of 2022 – here are two new designs at our online RedBubble merchandise store –

Available on various items and garments in various colours and cuts.

Browse all our available designs -> here …

Interview with Stephen Rutt

Stephen Rutt is a writer and amateur naturalist, specialising in creative non-fiction prose and birds. He won the Saltire Society’s first book award, as well as a Roger Deakin award for his debut book, The Seafarers. His second book, Winteringwas one of The Times’s best nature books of the year for 2019. 

Stephen Rutt

Stephen’s most recent book is The Eternal Season: Ghosts of summers past, present and future, which has been described as combining ‘lyrical meditations on the abundant beauty of British summer with measured, poignant and vital reminders of the unsettling effects of global warming’. The book charts the many ways in which the season is becoming deranged by a changed and changing climate: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time; August days as cold as February; the creeping disturbances that we may not notice while nature still has some voice. It is both ‘a celebration of summer and a warning of the unravelling of this beautiful web of abundant life’. 

Folk Horror Revival has a strong affinity for the natural world and is a committed supporter of the Wildlife Trusts. In light of this and noting the distinct whisper of hauntology associated with The Eternal Season, John Pilgrim took the opportunity to ask Stephen a few questions about his writing and what inspires him.

The Eternal Season ~ Stephen Rutt

FHR: What were you hoping to achieve when you started to write The Eternal Season – and how did this turn out by the time of publication? 

SR: I wanted to write a sort of almanac. I have a bit of an obsession with old almanacs, I scour charity shops and second hand bookshops for them, most from authors I’ve never heard of. Observations of historic wildlife are fascinating to me, partly for how they’re framed but also for what they found: they seem like a great starting point for trying to work out where we’re at currently. Often the most banal passages illustrate how far things have changed. And then as the ideas for this sort-of almanac of summer were settling in my head in the autumn of 2019, I was reminded by the incredible exuberance of hawthorn berries that year that to take a selective timespan of nature is or can be misleading. There are no neat cuts to be made: it really can only be contemplated properly in the whole. This isn’t new, this was my re-realising the truth of John Muir’s seeing nature as a universe of hitches. And then I wanted to explore, taking those old almanacs as a starting point, the way that seasonal writing hasn’t really properly responded to the anthropocene. 

Almanacs present a vision of nature as a place of ordered happenings, a fixed schedule of emergences and migrations, which may well once have been true, but nowadays isn’t. Hence I had to begin on the Solway Firth, as storm tides threatened natterjack toad habitat, then in Liverpool where a blackcap – a common summer migrant warbler – had been spending the winter in my friend’s mahonia. This in particular is an increasing phenomenon that has actually led to blackcaps that winter here beginning to evolve differences from those that spend the winter in the Mediterranean. That destabilising was something I had planned to trace out… all the way until March, when lockdown hit, I was marooned in Bedfordshire instead of Dumfries and Galloway, and my planned research trips lay in tatters. The book benefitted from it though. It meant the rare stuff was out and I was refocused on the everyday, the common place and what was at hand in the fields and woods around, which were nothing special. I still found special things of course – and to return to those old almanacs, what they found and what I couldn’t, well that began to haunt me. By the end of the summer, when I was able to return to Scotland, I found that this had completely shaped my thinking.

As I turned to think about the role of climate change in all this more directly (it is woven everywhere of course) at the end of the book, I began to be a bit more hopeful. All I have as a naturalist is my observations. I am not alone. There are myriad naturalists observing, calculating, noticing the changes, expanding our knowledge of nature and what’s changing. That, I think, is where hope lies most of all. The absolute dedication and belief of conservationists thrills and inspires me.

FHR: The Eternal Summer can be seen as a hauntological meditation on summers past, present and future. Our memories of summers past shaping our sense of loss of summers yet to be. Different conceptions of the future are now playing out. Some are dark, yet others offer hope. As the American philosopher and baseball coach Yogi Berra has observed with great insight ‘the future ain’t what it used to be’. A sense of nature’s abundance slipping away is probably much more part of a younger generation’s experience and future anticipation – although of course The Silent Spring was published in 1962. How did writing the book help you to grapple with these sorts of issues?

SR: Nature is full of hauntings and full of the haunted too. Some of these on a basic, emotional level, some requiring a bit of knowledge. I’m still of a younger generation and I’ve grown up with the idea of loss in nature. Birding has been my obsession for half my life and in that time it seems like the narrative arc of it has headed inevitably (irretrievably?) towards loss. Not just loss as in absence but a loss of abundance. I don’t know if I agree that there’s a sense of abundance slipping away, because to me it slipped away before my time. For some of the haunting presences in the countryside, I need to educate and remind myself of it, like a snag that I can’t quite move beyond: it may be pretty but where are the turtle doves, and when did they disappear from here? 

I should say also that there is obviously still abundance in the countryside, and these are things worth celebrating. Often though these tend to be new species, spreading in response to a changing climate, conservation work or habitat creation. Which is great, but I worry it can hide what’s happening. It’s only normal to be distracted by something new. It’s easier to focus on presence than absence, even if absence has a way of being naggingly, insistently present. I was left with hope, though, on finishing the book, which surprised me. There’s an incredible seam of hope that runs through conservation to Greta Thunberg and the school strikers for future, people like me who grew up never needing to learn about climate change because it’s just always been there as the great impending threat. 

We have people doing inspiring things on every level, from the borderless world of the climate to looking after incredibly tiny, niche species. For us in-between, noticing and witnessing the species we find, the landscapes we see, the changes happening and how we talk about it: that’s a pretty good place for us to start. That’s what I wanted to say in the book. I offer no solutions and no answers, just an attempt at thinking and understanding.

FHR: Can you say a bit about your interest in folklore and why you draw on this? If you’d like to do a third and final one that would be ‘What projects have you recently been involved and is there anything in the pipeline which we should watch out for? Answers can be really brief if you wish as you’ve given great detailed answers to the first two questions.

SR: Folklore is fascinating. One of my guiding principles is that as birders, ecologists, naturalists, whatever, that we like biodiversity. I like a cultural biodiversity too. It’s never just the science, or the folklore, or my experience of nature in my narratives. Everyone’s experience of nature is valid and folklore is another expression of that. Where it interacts with science or experience: that’s gold. Also, when I was a teenage birder it wasn’t something I spoke about (except for online, forums and social medium were a godsend then). It was very easy to feel alone in my interest at that age. I’m always looking back, wanting to know the deep history of human interest in wildlife too, deeper than Gilbert White and organised birding. We’ve always looked at animals and thought things. I love that. I long to know what the Pictish thought about birds. 

FHR: What other nature writers do you admire?

SR:  Kathleen Jamie is the contemporary I most look up to. Her essays are something else: clear and thoughtful and wild and with an unparalleled way with words. I was an undergraduate when she became professor of poetry at Stirling. I was too shy to take her classes. As someone who is only capable at prose, I’m in awe of those who can master it and do poetry and criticism too. Recently I’ve been reading novels again. My literary diet has been nature heavy over the past decade and sometimes there’s just a comfort in being swept along in a plot-rich novel. I’ve been reading Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy and the way he gets the details without being overbearing is perfect. I’ve been reading a lot of Graham Greene too. Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is the perfect dark nature novel. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ~ Olga Tokarczuk

FHR: What projects have you recently been involved and is there anything in the pipeline which we should watch out for?

SR: Wigtown book festival will be publishing my latest project soon: a short manuscript about life and literature of saltmarsh, called The Saltmarsh Library. I’ve been jointly running walks across Wigtown Bay, out to the mud and creek dipping with Elizabeth Tindal for this year’s festival. It’s the most amazing, magic place. Because of the timing of the project, conceived in the first lockdown and finished in the second (here, it was the third for England), I really delved into what place means and how we interact and think about it, and what it means to be there in a habitat that is well described in ecology textbooks, yet is also nothing like that in real life. After that: just ideas, and no time to make anything of them yet. But always keep an eye on my social media.

Programme for 2019 Wigtown Book Festival

Twitter: @steverutt  Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/steve.rutt/  

Web: https://stephenrutt.com