I must confess that I watched Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb (Dýrið) whilst having a goblet or two of Absinthe, but had I viewed it tea-total, I don’t think it would have been any less strange!! I don’t want to give away too much of the film but the basic premise is that a farming couple, Maria and Ingvar (played by Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) living on a remote sheep-holding in Iceland discover that one of their animals has given birth to a very peculiar offspring. They develop a deep attachment to this progeny and it becomes like a child of their own. This strange scene of domestic bliss is strained by the arrival of Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) the brother of Ingvar and, so it would seem, a previous lover of Maria, (or at the very least someone who would very much like that to be the case). But it transpires that he is not the only visitor to the isolated farm.
Lamb is slow to the point of being glacial. That is not a problem for me as I really like slow-burn movies and here it really suits both the plot and the setting. The desolate beauty of the Icelandic landscape seems to lend itself to atmospheric, introspective drama and the photography in the film is bleakly beautiful.
As with other A24 films that dwell in ‘folk horroresque’ fields, I can see that Lamb may prove to be a ‘Marmite’ movie that would provoke a divisive response between viewers ( I myself am of the camp that loves the current output of Robert Eggers but have little regard for the films of Ari Aster, which are very popular with some; but one person’s poison is another person’s meat.) Regarding Lamb I could see why some viewers would not like it, but I personally thought it was an unusual tale delivered well, with hints of a fairy-tale like narrative to it. It is worth noting though for viewers who have a sensitivity to animal death in film, that there are two animal deaths depicted in the film, one of which, the first has a specific narrative role but the latter is arguably unnecessary but serves as one of the film’s actual few ‘horror’ moments. For the most part Lamb does not play out as a ‘horror’ film as such but as a domestic drama (albeit it a very strange one) but its conclusion returns it firmly into a horror fold.
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.
It might be spooky season now, but you can write and publish horror all year round! Tune in to the Lulu learn what makes a great horror story and tips for getting started in the genre from Andy Paciorek, author, illustrator and founder of Folk Horror Revival, Urban Wyrd Project, Northumbria Ghost Lore Society & Wyrd Harvest Press .
In this session, Andy will share his tips, tricks and treats for writing and publishing harrowing horror stories.
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.
Following in the footsteps of the Treasury of Folklore: Seas & Rivers: Sirens Selkies and Ghost Ships (Reviewed Here ) folklorists extraordinaire Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham (the masterminds behind the #FolkloreThursday social media phenomenon) take us by the hand now like babes in the wood and lead us … er … into the woods! But fear not, you could find no better guides to alert us to the wonders and the woes of this strange sylvan kingdom.
Within its pages, upon the paper that came from the woods itself, we are introduced to many amazing arboreal creatures and woodland wanderers from forests the world over. Some of them heroes and heroines like Vasilisa the Beautiful, a fair maiden who braved the cold Birch forests of old Russia and encountered one of folk horror’s favourite supernatural witches – the iron-toothed crone, Baba Yaga, and Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of the North American timber lands & his loyal companion the blue-haired moose, Babe. We encounter strange creatures such as the timid Squonk which upon capture would dissolve into nothing in a flood of tears and the human-faced tree dogs of China – the Penghou. We meet gods and demi-gods and elemental spirits of the wild woods – the Leshy, Hamadryads, Herne the Hunter, the Moss People and many many more. We encounter those denizens of dark woods for centuries – the bears and the wolves, yet these bears and wolves may be more than we dreamed and may disturbingly be more like us than we’d dare to imagine. And we hear the lore of the trees themselves from the Dragon’s Blood Trees of Yemen to the ancient funereal Yews of Britain; from the sacred Banyan trees of India to the giant old Cedars of Canada.
The book is illustrated throughout by the charming block-print style illustrations of Joe McLaren. Images both dark and strange but with a quirky humour to them, which will likely appeal to readers of a wide age-range. Again as with the Seas and Rivers volume, some adult subject matter is touched upon but with parents’ own discretion and judgement I could see this book being popular with both themselves and their kids. I know I would have loved these Treasury books as a youngster. Furthermore I remember years ago when I was doing Tree Warden training at an agricultural college one of the tutors asked the class what it is we liked or indeed loved about trees and forests. I had numerous reasons, their role in the environment and natural habitat, their look both as pleasing landscape and for their interesting aesthetic from the point of an artist, their smell, their ambience and I also mentioned their role in folklore. At the end of the class another student approached me and asked if I could recommend any books that featured the folklore of trees and had Dee Dee and Willow’s book been available then I know it would have been top of the list. It is a great introductory book to the topic, yet it is also so diverse and so widely researched that all followers of folklore no matter how seasoned will find something unfamiliar or of further intrigue within this beguiling little book. I myself was rather bemused to encounter Tió de Nadal, within these pages. If unfamiliar with this bizarre Yule Log of Catalan tradition, then I’ll say no more and let you discover this rather odd custom for yourself within this fantastic book. Woodlands & Forests makes an excellent companion both visually and content wise to the Seas & Rivers volume and also Dee Dee’s earlier A Treasury of British Folklore. It would make a great little present for a loved one or for yourself for Halloween or a great stocking filler for Christmas … but maybe not put it in the same stocking as Tió de Nadal !!
Treasury of Folklore: Woodlands & Forests: Wild Gods, World Trees and Werewolves. Dee Dee Chainey & Willow Winsham Batsford. 2021. Hb. Illus. 192pgs.
Having proved a big hit on the film festival circuit Kier~La Janisse’s magnus opus is now available to buy. At over 3 hours long, Folk Horror Revival creator Andy Paciorek and Co-founder & project manager Darren Charles were honoured to be part of this fantastic, bewitching award- winning documentary which also features music by our esteemed colleagues Grey Malkin and film footage by John Chadwick. Nestled among a wealth of talent such as the directors Piers Haggard, Robert Eggers & Lawrence Gordon Clark, actors Alice Lowe and Ian Ogilvy, screenwriter Jeremy Dyson and a whole host of horror historians and revivalists including Gail-Nina Anderson, Mark Pilkington, Kat Ellinger, Lindsay Hallam, Ian Cooper and many, many more.
Covering folk horror from numerous different angles and locations across decades, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is not only one of the most thorough horror media documentaries across the board but specifically is a must-watch for all disciples of the old ways. Kier~La Janisse has poured heart and soul into this epic venture and has created a classic out of a cult. Highly recommended.
It is available to purchase as a stand alone Blu Ray or as part of the impressive Severin Films folk horror box set All the Haunts Be Ours which boasts 20 feature films – including a new 4K scan from the original negative of the long-unavailable EYES OF FIRE – over 70 bonus features, a soundtrack CD, a spoken word album of Arthur Machen’s THE WHITE PEOPLE read by Linda Hayden of Blood on Satan’s Claw with an original score by Timothy Fife, and a book introduced by Folk Horror Revival’s Andy Paciorek, and featuring new writing by Dawn Keetley, Sarah Chavez, Stephen Volk, Dejan Ognjanovic, Stephen Bissette, Mitch Horowitz, alongside archival pieces, all beautifully designed by Luke Insect.
Hurry though as the even more special special edition set The Witches Bundle which also featured a poster, Owl Service plate, Key-rings, an Oracle deck and other goodies has already sold out.
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.
Having previously reviewed John Towlson’s wonderful Candyman monograph from the Devil’s Advocates series from Auteur books, I was delighted to receive another two books from the collection with some serious folk horror credentials. The books in question are David Evans-Powell’s monograph of The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Brandon Grafius’ treatment on The Witch.
The Devil’s Advocates range is aimed at exploring the classics of horror cinema, and the contributors are generally firmly entrenched in that world via careers in academia, journalism or through their own contributions to the literature of horror. What is evident from the very beginning is that those who have been asked to write these books are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject matter and whilst the books have a certain academic quality to the writing they are never overly wordy or impenetrable.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw by David Evans-Powell
One of the unholy triumvirate of films that are deemed the very cornerstones of the Folk Horror movement, Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) is a supernatural horror movie set in a small rural English village in the 18th century. After the discovery of a sinister looking skull in a freshly ploughed field, a series of bizarre occurrences take place among the village’s young people culminating in a ritual rape and human sacrifice. In recent years the film has become a classic of the Folk Horror genre and David Evans-Powell’s monograph is a thorough and interesting delve into the film’s history, looking at its position within the Folk Horror oeuvre, its relationship to the landscape and nature, and its socio-political message, particularly its relationship to the late 60s and early 70s counterculture.
The book is divided up into series of different sections, the first provides a brief synopsis of the film and an introduction that places the film within the context of the time it was made, and in relation to other films of the time. The next section looks at the film’s production and reception, this introduces the reader to some of the key figures involved in making Blood on Satan’s Claw such a runaway success. There are sub-sections on cinematographer Dick Bush, director Piers Haggard, composer/musician Marc Wilkinson and screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons, as well as the film’s production that provide a lot of valuable information about the film’s genesis and how it all came together. The next couple of sections deal with the importance of the landscape and how it is used in the film, as well as looking at nature and the way the setting juxtaposes the simple superstition of the rural setting with that of the rational, enlightened city (London).
Beyond that Evans-Powell delves into ideas about a past the refuses to be forgotten, the concept of “reviving forgotten horrors” to paraphrase the great Patrick Wymark in his role as the judge. This section is interesting and provides some fascinating and detailed discussion of our pagan past. The final section is called Anarchy in the UK and features a fairly in-depth discussion of the film’s relationship to the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s, particularly the darker side of that movement with a focus on the Manson murders and English child murderer Mary Bell.
Evans-Powell has written a powerful and fascinating monograph that is very readable. He manages to cram a lot of intriguing detail into such a short book yet it never feels as though the reader is overloaded with information, and it always feels relevant and interesting.
The Witch by Brandon Grafius
The second of our two books is a monograph based around the Robert Eggars film The Witch. Much like Blood on Satan’s Claw the film has become synonymous with the Folk Horror movement and has achieved a similar status as a classic of the genre. If Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General are the classic unholy triumvirate, The Witch is one of the titles that fits the bill as their modern equivalent, alongside films like Kill List, November, In the Earth and Midsommar it sits at the forefront of the Folk Horror revival.
Brandon Grafius is a Professor of Biblical studies at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, and is well noted for his writing on the subject of religion and horror. The book is heavy on facts and Grafius provides some tremendous background information about the time in which the film is set. Eggars himself spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on researching the period in order to bring the film a realness. Grafius does much the same for the study of the film, and after delving into New England’s puritan past and considering the context of the witch trials that took place in the late 17th century, he takes the reader on a whistle stop journey through the realms of literature, cinema and folklore in order to place The Witch within the context of what we call folk horror. The sections on The Witch as folk horror and the folklore associated with the film and witchcraft in general are excellent, well researched and kept me hooked in. These are followed by a section discussing the film’s main characters, that features some interesting analysis of not only the family and their flawed existence but even Black Philip himself.
Much like Evans-Powell’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Witch is a well-researched and beautifully written monograph that provides a fascinating and in-depth study of a classic film in around a hundred pages. As with the previously reviewed Candyman it has be said that Auteur have really come up trumps with this wonderful series of short monographs looking at the classics of horror cinema. I have already started to build a list of the other titles in the series that I need to check out.
In the 21st Century Folk Horror Revival, several names keep coming to the fore, among those are the partnership of British film director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Together they have previously brought us the new wave of folk horror gems Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013) as well as the tangentially associated Sightseers (2012) – a darkly humourous film that is akin to Mike Leigh’s classic 1976 BBC play Nuts in May but on PCP. In the years between then and now Wheatley and Jump have ventured into the world of the Urban Wyrd with their adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise (2015) as well as working separately on a variety of works.
When rumours began to be whispered around that Wheatley was returning to the old pastures of pastoral terror, the ears of folk horror folk began to prick up. Then the trailer dropped for In The Earth with its flashing psychedelic images, discordant noise, glimpses of folksy woodcut art and a monolith that hearkens back to the cult ‘children’s’ book and TV series of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The tag line of the trailer invitites us to go on a Trip with Ben Wheatley and why the Hell not? I’m up for that. https://youtu.be/3Lqkfo7IymU
And so it must be assumed that Mr Wheatley may have a fascination for hallucinogenic mushrooms as they play a part in his alchemical civil war drama A Field in England and play a greater role in In the Earth. The premise of the film sees Dr Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) venture out from a state of quarantine imposed upon urban areas due to an unspecified viral pandemic to a research facility in a forest in the south west of England. The shadow of the pandemic is not only cast over the health and safety measures Martin must undertake and the scientific research prevalent in such times but it also manifests in the social awkwardness and behaviour of folks who live in conditions of isolation and distance. Martin as such is a non-typical protagonist, he is not some confident self-assured doctor-come-hero of numerous horror and sci-fi films but a quiet, anxious individual. In seeking out his ex-lover and scientific partner Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who is researching the mycorrhizal (symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants) network beneath the forest which has a higher than normal soil fertility, Martin is assigned the trekking assistance of a woodland ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia). Before setting off into the woods, seeing a large woodcut artwork upon the wall of the cabin recommissioned as a research base, Alma informs Martin about the local lore and belief in a sylvan spirit named Parnag Fegg.
Whilst camping in the woods, the pair are subjected to a nocturnal attack by an unseen assailant. They are not badly hurt but the attacker has stolen their shoes, making an already precarious journey more troubled still. This is darkened further by Martin tearing the sole of his foot open upon sharp terrain. All is not lost however as a bedraggled man Zach who lives and works as an artist in the woods, approaches them and offers them food, drink, shelter and footwear. he even stitches up Martin’s wound. This rudimentary arboreal operation is one of several scenes where gore and the ‘ouch-factor’ comes into play. As with Kill List, Wheatley and Jump’s ‘Arthurian’ gangster movie (it is much better than that description sounds) violence and injury are graphically depicted in In The Earth. However as may not be totally unexpected there is more to Zach and his art than may first appear.
After a brutal hallucinogenic nightmare unfolds, Martin and Alma against all odds reach the research camp of Dr Olivia Wendle, whom it transpires her study has progressed beyond soil fertility and is also trying to reach the ‘consciousness’ of the mycorhizzal mat – the spirit of the earth. Though she is attempting to invoke an animistic presence through science (utilising sound and light – which significantly shapes the aesthetic of core sections of the movie) rather than art like Zach, her practices are ritualistic and it becomes apparent that her and Zach are perhaps estranged but are not strangers to each other.
Sound and image are very important factors of the film as can be seen from the Art and Sound department’s roll call of talent which reads as a folk horror revivalist / hauntologist’s dream – Richard Well’s woodcuts, Julian House’s credits sequence, camera work & cinematography by Nick Gillespie and musical / soundscape composition by Clint Mansell. One scene that will likely live on in future discussion of Wheatley’s work alongside the culminating ritual of Kill List and the magic mushroom sequence in A Field in England, is the passing of a hazmat suited Alma into a mist of fungal spores. The image of her affixed to a rope is reminiscent of the tent scene in a Field in England and both have a symbolic resonance of an emerging child still attached to the umbilical cord suggesting a birth or rebirth. It must be noted however that any viewer who may experience seizures when exposed to flashing lights or certain sound wavelengths should proceed with great care if at all, for numerous segments of the film are something of a sonic and stroboscopic assault.
But is it all style over substance? Not quite, but I do feel that the film would have benefited from greater input into the writing from Amy Jump (whose role on this film is given as a Producer credit) and /or a longer period of time taken by Wheatley on the plot development (he only spent 15 days on the script-writing). This is particularly pertinent to the ending which could in my mind have been both stronger and stranger. Part of both Kill List and A Field in England’s strength (though it would annoy some viewers) is the ambiguity. Too much yet oddly maybe not enough is revealed with In the Earth. Much of the plot is quite predictable and follows a familiar enough path. It would have been better perhaps to follow wander lines and go further into the abstract and see where the film would end up.
However this is a film made in strange times under different conditions. It will be noted in future as a work that was seeded, grown and bloomed in the days of the Covid19 plague. It offers further reading potential in that area and it has to be said that it does deliver scenes of both weird (and wyrd) beauty as well as brutality. The characteristics and dynamics of the characters are a bit off the beaten track which is interesting however and Shearsmith is particularly sharp casting. The shows The League of Gentlemen and Inside No 9 display his versatility and his role of Zach is the most interesting in the film, though at times the visuals portraying him are suggestive of The Shining’s Jack Torrence escaping into the wild.
In conclusion, I liked In the Earth and with subsequent viewings I feel my appreciation for it could possibly grow more, but I would have liked more in terms of plot development which prevented me from experiencing love at first sight. But certainly it is an intriguing and welcome addition to both Wheatley’s oeuvre and the folk horror canon. I imagine though that it will be a film that divides audiences.
Both Brotherstone and Lawrence’s Scarred For Life books and Simon Matthews’ Looking For a New England cover the same period of television and cinematic history in Britain, covering some same ground they come at it from slightly different angles, but both are very aware of the culturally powerful and distinctive time of the 1970s and 80s.
When I first heard about the Scarred For Life project, a voyage of discovery into just what haunted the formative years of Generation X, my reaction was ‘oh bugger’ as I had been considering creating a similar work. However, upon seeing their first book I was pleased that they had done it rather than me as their enthusiastic expertise for the subject is enlightening and infectious. Whilst Volume 1 covered the whole gamut of macabre and frightening stuff that beset 1970s children from spooky-themed ice lollies to folk horror TV shows to bizarre board games, Volume 2 takes a narrower focus concentrating on weird 1980s British TV. They’re not caught short for material there by any means. They kick off proceedings with Noah’s Castle, a tea-time drama for kids, based on John Rowe Townshend’s novel, about British families hoarding food in a time of economic desperation. With reference to crime, violence, a precarious situation for family pets and the implication of teenage girls selling their bodies for food, this grim scenario is haunting in these times of Brexit and Covid. Bizarrely it was originally broadcast directly after The Sooty Show! From dog-puppet Sweep’s squeaky mischief to economic dystopia in the space of an advert break.
Things don’t really get any lighter on our stroll down televisual memory lane subsequently as those of us of a certain age are reminded of our childhood traumas of viewing Jigsaw’s Noseybonk or Salem’s Lot (I shared a bedroom with my elder brother as a kid and during the night he would make scratching noises claiming that Danny Glick was at the window!) or being subjected to PIFs (Public Information or rather Panic Inducing Films) telling us that if Rabies did not get us it could be cigarette induced lung cancer, AIDS, or heroin (Just Say No Zammo!).
Scarred For Life does not need to be read cover to cover but can be dipped into randomly. I first sought out the things that personally resonated most with me – John Wyndham (the adaptations of Day of The Triffids and Chocky), Tales of the Unexpected (The Fly Paper episode which freaked me out the most, seemingly being one that many remember with a shudder), the birth of Channel 4 (its offbeat edgy early days being very vivid in my memories), ghostly dramas and odd TV plays. Strange figures on the edge of our memories return to haunt us such as the Weetabix skinheads, Murun Buchstansangur and the Chockadooby Kinder egg man (I was blocked on Twitter by politician Iain Duncan Smith for comparing him to an evil doppleganger of the latter). But there are so many more engrossing rabbit holes to fall down within this book and there are more to come. In Volume 3 we are promised a closer look at the nuclear war paranoia of the 80s and more Fortean fare such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and The Unexplained magazine.
Whereas Scarred For Life may be seen as exploring the effect that certain films and TV shows have had upon viewers, Simon Matthews’ Looking For a New England looks at how the political-social culture and music of the era affected film, and for a big part how punk rock stamped its DM boot print on media output.
A New England does mention Fortean Times in passing, but its attention to Fortean and folk horror subject matter is peripheral and mostly in relation to edge-land figures such as Ken Campbell, Derek Jarman, Genesis P Orridge, John Michell, Nigel Kneale, Mark E Smith and a whole chapter on David Bowie. Like Scarred, New England also brings attention to Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (both the film and the earlier television play). Potter sometimes seems rather forgotten in the annals of nostalgic televisual revisitation but this tale of the devil visiting suburbia and ‘babysitting’ a disabled catatonic woman is surely one of British TV’s most powerfully disturbing moments. Unsurprisingly the permanently disgusted Clean Up TV campaigner of yester-year, Mary Whitehouse, can be found wandering through both books like a froth-mouthed rabid beast.
A New England does have a chapter dedicated to Dystopia covering a host of dark dramas such as the Sheffield-based nuclear devastation TV film, Threads, the mini-series Edge of Darkness and The Quatermass Conclusion but does not delve into horror particularly. Matthews clearly knows his stuff, which sometimes feels like a machine-gun barrage of names and dates, but when the pace slows and he centres in on specific films it is very informative & engaging, suggesting that the book could have benefited from having more pages and film lists covering specific themes at the end of each chapter.