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
In this engaging and timely update to The Art of Wandering we are in the convivial company of Merlin Coverley, an author who has written on a variety of topics which will naturally intrigue many Folk Horror Revivalists, including hauntology, psychogeography and occult London.
In the preface to the new edition Coverley reflects on the increasing popularity of walking, not least as an antidote to the stresses of modern life. Many of us will have experienced the positive impact which walking can have in relation to our general sense of wellbeing and in helping us to make sense of our lives. In this book Coverley guides us through the historical legacy of the ‘writer-as-walker’ and surveys the work of contemporary authors, all of whom illustrate how walking, sensemaking and writing are intimately connected.
We learn how from the ancient world to the modern day, the role of the walker has continued to evolve, ‘from philosopher and pilgrim, vagrant and visionary, to experimentalist and radical’. The deceptively simple act of placing one foot in front of another is explored in the context of a rich literary tradition which encompasses writers such as Rousseau, De Quincy, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Clare, Thoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Machen and Virginia Woolf. We learn too of the work and lives of those involved in twentieth century movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Situationism. Other perspectives are shared such as that of the anthropologist Tim Ingold who reflects on how walking and writing are closely coupled in movement, for ‘to walk is to journey in the mind as much as on the land: it is a deeply meditative practice’.
As well as the philosophical reflections on the relationship between walking and writing, I very much enjoyed the colourful anecdotes which are peppered throughout the book. Coverley explains how Charles Dickens had an extraordinary capacity for walking, on one occasion choosing to get out of bed at two in the morning and walk for thirty miles into the country for breakfast. Another account relays how Dickens often expected his dinner guests to join him for a walk of many miles across the city at night before eating.
As might be expected given the author’s related work, some time is taken to explore the foundations and contrasting traditions of psychogeography, the space where psychology and geography intersect. Throughout the book an illuminating approach is taken to the use of literary extracts. One such example is that taken from ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ by Guy Debord for whom the psychogeographer, ‘like the skilled chemist, is able both to identify and distil the varied ambiences of his environment’, not least through walking in the form the aimless drift or dérive which enables the practitioner to determine the emotional characteristics of particular zones in the city in a way which would not otherwise be possible.
Several writers highlighted in The Art of Wandering will be of particular interest to those with an interest in horror. One such writer is Arthur Machen, author of The Great God Pan, who Coverley considers to be of equal significance as a literary walker to William Blake, De Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater) and Dickens.
Portrait of Arthur Machen by John Coulthart
Machen spent many years walking through the streets of London, frequently around Gray’s Inn Road but also further afield and often without direction, overwhelmed by a sense of awe bordering on sheer terror at the city’s dark undercurrents and occult associations. Coverley explains how much of Machen’s work can be seen as a strategy to combat this sense of dread and gain mastery over London’s streets by walking them, and through this knowledge overcoming their menace. Here Coverley draws a vivid picture of Machen as ‘the solitary walker seeking an escape from the labyrinth, yet fated to spend a lifetime in doing so’.
One contemporary author who appears to have been similarly fated, though not necessarily in such a solitary way, is Iain Sinclair. For more than fifty years Sinclair has pursued what he refers to has his ‘London Project’, a series of poems, novels, diaries and other non-fiction accounts of London’s neglected spaces.
Iain Sinclair in conversation with John Pilgrim at FHR’s ‘Otherworldly’ event
Early works such as Lud Heat took inspiration from work of Alfred Watkins’ thesis that much of the country’s landscape is connected by hidden ‘lines of force’:
A triangle is formed between Christ Church, St George-in-the-East and St Anne, Limehouse. These are centres of power for those territories; sentinel, sphinx-form, slack dynamos abandoned as the culture supported goes into retreat. The power remains latent, the frustration mounts on a current of animal magnetism, and victims are still claimed.
For Sinclair the city is to be re-discovered through a process of walking and imagination which has the potential to reveal the hidden relationship between the capital’s financial, political and religious institutions.
In more recent years Sinclair has extended the scope of his London project, one journey of note being his extraordinary walk around the M25 in the company of his wife Anna, the artist Brian Catling and the fantasy writer and magician Alan Moore. Participants in the Folk Horror Revival ‘Otherworldly’ event held at the British Museum may also recall Sinclair’s account of the pilgrimage which he and others undertook in memory of Edith Swan Neck, who may have been the first wife of King Harold II. This involved walking over one hundred miles from Waltham Abbey in Essex to St Leonards via Battle Abbey. In instances such as this walking and the act of writing are complementary tools by which hidden narratives and forgotten lives may be resurrected.
Lengthy and arduous walks such as those of Sinclair and Will Self (who once walked across London to New York in a day) are by no means the sole focus of Coverley’s exploration of writer-as-walker. One literary example which Coverley highlights is ‘Street-Haunting’ by Virginia Woolf. Subtitled ‘A London Adventure’, Woolf’s essay is essentially a light-hearted account of one woman’s walk across London in search of a pencil.
The deliciously named practice of ‘street-haunting’ was a lifelong habit which Woolf first began when she moved to Gordon Square in 1904 and enabled much of the author’s creative thinking, planning and ‘scene-making’ to flourish. In this essay, Woolf leaves the solitude of her room to explore her fleeting impressions of London’s inherent strangeness and ‘that vast anonymous army of anonymous trampers’. The transitory nature of Woolf’s walking experience is reflected in her writing which reveals a sense of self which is fragile and free floating.
Importantly, Coverley notes the historical importance of Street-Haunting in relation to the female experience of writer-as-walker, a critical dimension which has traditionally been overlooked. In the preface to this new edition of the book Coverley rightly acknowledges the dominance of this ‘somewhat dispiriting demographic of ageing masculinity’ and welcomes the counter-narrative that has emerged in recent years, with Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse providing a critical turning point in bringing the female writer-as-walker to the fore. I would have welcomed a deeper exploration of this aspect, for example, through a more detailed appraisal of Rebecca Solnit’s work (Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost).
The updated edition of The Art of Wandering is an invigorating read, impressive both in its scholarly breadth and in the vivid way in which the relationship between walking and writing is communicated. It also offers the reader something more: a welcome stimulus to re-connect with our cities and landscapes in deeper, more meaningful ways. It is a tonic for our times.
Following 2017’s Holy Terrors (review here) the excellent film adaptation of various tales by the mystical author Arthur Machen, the directorial duo of Julian Butler and Mark Goodall return with a tale from another past master of the mysterious and macabre – Oliver Onions* and an adaptation of his short tale ‘The Beckoning Fair One’.
The premise of the story follows a writer as he moves into a new apartment in order to complete a novel. Eventually it is revealed that apartment is haunted by the ghost of a previous resident- the ‘beckoning fair one’ of the title.
Timed at 23 minutes, Goodall & Butler’s version of the tale stays closer to Onion’s original short story than the 1968 Don Chaffey directed adaptation that featured as an episode of the ABC/ITV supernatural/weird anthology series Journey to the Unknown. The Chaffey version has a different tone and replaces the author protagonist with a painter. It gives a specific time-setting in that it takes place 25 years after the World War 2 bombings of London and in doing so gives a more thorough exposition of the presence in the house than either Onion’s story or the Butler-Goodall version. The Chaffey adaptation runs at one hour which is perhaps too long to tell the story as it feels repetitive in parts rather than tension-building. It is however worth a watch both in itself and as a contrast to Goodall & Butler’s envisioning. (There is also a 1973 Italian Giallo film called Un Tranquillo Posto di Campagna – A Quiet Place in the Country inspired by the tale.)
Butler & Goodall only take 23 minutes on the tale which is enough to do it justice. Its tone and atmosphere is rather oneiric; slow-burning yet getting subtly under the skin delivering an entirely believable yet uncanny experience. Its sound design and crisp well-framed photography coupled with an aesthetically pleasing palette and good location choices serve up a pleasant yet eerie package – with a tale and delivery that does hazily unsettle. It is set in contemporary times, but still maintains a timeless quality. It keeps close to the psychological aspect of the original story, keeping the presence within the house and the brooding will of the building itself to the front and foremost -its horror is cerebral and suggestive not an exhibition of gore or jump-scares. Having a narrator detail the entire tale over live-action footage may not be to the taste of all viewers but for a film of this length serves its purpose well. Indeed I could see Butler & Goodall’s The Beckoning Fair One sit perfectly into A Ghost Story For Christmas slot. Having previously seen (several times actually) and loved their take on the tales of Machen, they have now displayed an empathy and understanding of Oliver Onion’s macabre tale and how to deliver it. I am left hungering to see them take on more of the past visionaries of the horror short story. I’d be curious and keen to see what they could do with the tales of Robert Aickman and Algernon Blackwood for instance. If anyone from the BBC happens to read this, take heed for Goodall and Butler are creating work that suits these times but also sits comfortably with established spooky series such as A Ghost Story for Christmas, Supernatural (1977) or The World Beyond etc.
The Beckoning Fair One can be seen in its entirety HERE
Portrait of Oliver Onions – Andy Paciorek
*Oliver Onions (1873 – 1961) was an author and artist from Bradford, England. Originally trained as a graphic artist, Onions began writing fiction under the encouragement of the American writer Gelet Burgess. Turning his hand to detective stories, science fiction and historical drama also, it is perhaps for his short tales of the weird, supernatural and spectral that he is best known. His 1911 collection Widdershins which features The Beckoning Fair One is amongst his most famous and critically acclaimed works (including amongst several other writers of weird fiction). As with The Beckoning Fair One, the theme of the relationship between creativity and madness is a theme that he returned to in his work several times. Married to the novelist Berta Ruck and the father of two sons, Oliver Onions passed away in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1961.
Lizzy Laurance’s debut album, Rocketman was released April 30th of this year. I would like to start by apologising to Lizzy for the delay in posting this review, however, a series of health issues and time constraints have held things up, which I hope are gradually coming to an end. Anyway, now that’s out of the way lets get down to Lizzy and her suitably impressive debut release.
Lizzy is a London based electronic musician who create “grainy pop-collages inspired by spatial locations; inner, outer and cyber”. In creating her music, she uses found sounds, ambient electronics, library samples, and electronic beats; stitching them together to create atmospheric aural soundscapes. Lizzy explores “the mythology of pop music and the icons who inhabit it”, through stories of “female identity, image-making and toxic masculinity”. Her inspirations are varied and thought-provoking, Lizzy cites David Lynch, Lana Del Ray and Godspeed You! Black Emperor as key influences on the sound of her album, and whilst this may sound like a disparate selection of artists, you can hear a little bit of each in the music, as well as a whole lot of herself. This is by no means an exercise in simply showing adulation for her heroes, she simply uses them to inspire and inform her own original sounding material.
The concept for the album came together while Laurance was artist in residence at Illutron, an arts and technology institute situated on an 800ft dredging boat in Copenhagen. She lived alone on the boat and made a number of field recordings that would form the basis of the songs featured on the album, not just from a musical perspective but from a storytelling perspective too. Lizzy says that she always felt there was “something rotten about the place” before she eventually uncovered that she was living at the site of the infamous Copenhagen Submarine murder of 2018. Founder of Copenhagen’s rocket building scene, Peter Madsen murdered a journalist (Kim Wall) who had come to interview him on board his home-made submarine. Laurance tries to reconcile the visionary ideals and technological innovations Madsen made with the destruction that was “left in its wake.”
After a short intro track (Promenade) that merely hints at what is to follow we are into our first song proper. “Baby Loves”, is a hauntingly atmospheric piece of Avant Garde audio that is eloquent and beautiful, yet possesses hints of a much colder, darker, industrial soundscape. “Come Down” almost sounds like drum and bass at times, yet Lizzy’s haunted vocals and the jazz trumpet samples give it a wholly warmer feel. “Gasoline Blue Jeans” reminds me a little of Portishead at their most experimental. There is also a starkness throughout the album that draws me back to Lynch’s solo albums Blue Bob and Crazy Clown Time. I also feel this particular track would have fitted nicely on the soundtrack to Lynch’s third series of Twin Peaks. “Too Hard to Die” is an off kilter, glitchy industrial nightmare that leaves the listener feeling drained, while “White Nights” is the sound of some sort of clanking mechanical hell, manifesting as music, with Lizzy’s ethereal vocals rising out of the clanking sounds of heavy machinery. “Shine” is a largely ambient track that allows Lizzy’s voice to take centre stage while strange otherworldly sounds move around it. I really like this track for the way in which it manages to create something that sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack to a 1970s Avant Garde science fiction movie. “Famous” starts off with what sounds like corrupted seabird samples before settling into slightly off kilter ethereal pop territory. The lyrics are written from the perspective of a man who stalked Lizzy during her time in Copenhagen, but it’s got a much deeper meaning about toxic masculinity and why women continue to fall for bad men. “Rocketman” is a collision of metallic sounds, screeching metal guitar punctuates ambient industrial drones amid the roar of mighty engines. This is a throbbing and pulsing masterpiece of wyrd electronica. The album closes with the incredibly sad, “Song for Kim Wall” a short, melancholy tour de force that reminds you of the horrific events surrounding her disappearance and subsequent discovery before coming to what feels like quite an abrupt end.
Overall, I found Rocketman to be a masterpiece of dark industrial electronica that sounds like nothing else out there. There are hints of other things from time to time, David Lynch’s albums really come to mind at certain points, but it retains a special quality all of its own. Lizzy’s ethereal vocals are somewhat reminiscent of the sadly missed Julee Cruise, but that may be a lazy observation on my part.
The Hellebore Guide is produced by the same team that created the very popular Hellebore zine that has blossomed in the recent renaissance of indie specialist-interest zines and the revival of attention to occulture and folklore. They have taken their sphere of interest and distinctive design aesthetic forward into book format with this very handy and beguiling gazetteer of British ritual, weird-lore and magical creativity. In the introduction specific attention is brought to the 2 books that this guide could most oft be compared to, the Readers Digest Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain and Westwood & Simpson’s The Lore of The Land. The inspiration and similarities are worn on the sleeve but as Pérez Cuervo informs us, there is a difference that carries the themes forward and makes this work a useful companion to those other books mentioned. In addition to covering numerous sites of folklore, occult practice and strange history, this book also points us to places that inspired or in some instances were used as filming locations for numerous cult /horror novels, films and TV shows. Fans of M.R. James, Derek Jarman, Witchfinder General, The Owl Service and many other such creators and creations will find notes of interest therein. This richly illustrated book will fit handily into a backpack for onsite visits. One point that readers may raise is that due to size restraints certain localities or topics may not be covered in the greatest of detail but within its 316 pages a lot of ground is trekked. The book therefore can inspire further personal research and does offer scope for further volumes.
The Atlas of Dark Destinations however is not a book as easily taken out on location unless you have huge pockets as this is more of a weighty coffee-table book – lusciously illustrated but also incredibly informative. Again, as with The Hellebore Guide, the book cannot contain everywhere and everything but does cover considerable distance across the globe. As some countries are perhaps underrepresented there is again potential perhaps for a further volume. Hohenhaus, in his introduction, explains his reasoning for some omissions; he holds no truck with the visitation of living slums as tourist destinations nor does he favour notable suicide sites such as Japan’s legendary Aokigahara Forest. Serial Killer haunts and other singular murder sites are not represented but there is certainly no shortage of death behind the book’s dark cover. Sites of Genocide and wartime suffering are extremely well covered, with a lot of the book being taken up by sites of military and political intrigue. (Which upon showing the work to my 95 year old father, who was in internment and forced labour across Europe during WW2 and isn’t much of a reader generally gained a second review of the Atlas as being “A very good book”).
In addition to well known places covered within the book such as Chernobyl, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and 911 Ground Zero there are notable cemeteries, ossuaries, catacombs, penitentiaries, ghost towns and areas of natural wonder featured and some less familiar intriguing sites such as such as the ornate Milano Cimitero Monumentale necropolis, the Bali Trunyan Burial site and the Darvaza Hell Mouth (a 250 foot wide, 65 foot deep crater in Turkmenistan where an inferno fuelled by natural gas reserves has burned unabated for over 50 years.) Less obviously Fortean in subject-matter than The Hellebore Guide, and perhaps too heavily martial-politically focused for some readers of this magazine, The Atlas is nevertheless actually very readable and fascinating (in many instances particularly in provoking contemplation of humankind’s inhumanity towards each other.)
Both books could also be inspirational to fiction-writers as well as Fortean travellers, for use in setting location and back-story of their tales. Both books are designed to be dipped into rather than be read cover to cover and whether out on the road or in the comfort of my own arm-chair I can see myself delving into both titles for many years to come.
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.