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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

144 pages, Paperback

February 1, 2023 by Zero Books

ISBN 9781789049794 (ISBN10: 1789049792)

Available HERE and other book stores

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available now HERE and at other book stores

Review by Andy Paciorek

The Art of Wandering: the writer as walker by Merlin Coverley

Published by Oldcastle Books

Review by John Pilgrim

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.

Merlin Coverley

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.

Virginia Woolf

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.

The Beckoning Fair One: Film Review

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 CampagnaA 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.

Review by Andy Paciorek
All images unless credited otherwise © Julian Butler & Mark Goodall

What the Folk!: A Write-up of the London Film Festival Panel

Written by Kern Robinson

Off the back of Mark Jenkin’s new film Enys Men (2022) being premiered in official competition at the London Film Festival (LFF), the Southbank Centre hosted a panel discussion entitled What the Folk! on Saturday 15th of October. The event was advertised as an introduction to the Folk Horror subgenre; a discussion of “the dark innovative projects that test the boundaries of art and media, and [a] journey through the forests, fields and furrows to explore all the seamy, dreadful and macabre elements of the folk phenomenon” (bfi.org.uk). It was hosted by Michael Blyth (LFF programmer) and was in conversation with Mike Muncer (the creator and host of the Evolution of Horror podcast) and Adam Scovell (author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017)). Anna Bogustskaya (host of The Final Girls podcast) was advertised to attend but couldn’t make it due to illness.

            From the jumping-off question of ‘What’s your favourite folk horror property?’ the panel praised 70s British television like Children of the Stones (1976) and Sapphire and Steel (1979) – citing the creative and economic freedom of ITV and the BBC in this period as being an irreplicable space to introduce avant-garde film to a wide audience; “imagine something like Penda’s Fen being aired today, right after the Ten O’clock News”.

Scovell and Muncer also praised contemporary novels like Francine Toon’s Pine (2020), Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014), and writers like Benjamin Myers, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Daisy Johnson.

These examples were then drawn together to create something towards a taxonomy of folk horror – what is it that connects these disparate works across time, form, and aesthetics? Is there then an example that neatly contains everything that the subgenre has to offer – a starting point for potential folk horror fans? Scovell repeatedly praised the quality of Czech folk horror but suggested James Mactaggart’s Robin Redbreast (1970), as a good starting point for British folk horror viewing.

Muncer moved a little further afield, speaking on the overlooked influence of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) on the themes and aesthetics of folk horror. He then discussed examples of films that he felt played with the typical folk horror formula in interesting ways. Films like Pumpkinhead (1988), Onibaba (1964), and Straw Dogs (1971) – those titles that have something folk horror about them but seem too difficult to define as ‘purely’ folk horror in the way that The Wicker Man (1973) or The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) are.

This diverse range of examples provided by both panellists drove the conversation down the difficult path of defining folk horror. After some back and forth, the conclusion ultimately ended up being that they couldn’t really define the subgenre in any concrete way. Scovell admitted that, upon rereading his seminal text Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, he hadn’t managed to define the subgenre very well in that book either.

This was one major highpoint of the discussion, the panellists’ aversion to gatekeeping the discourse around folk horror. When Blyth asked if there were any films that either panellist would say definitively isn’t folk horror (despite the wider world suggesting that it is), they were reluctant to suggest anything – pointing to the ambiguity of the subgenre, a lack of concrete definition, and the importance of keeping the discussion open. To this quality, Muncer described how discussion and interaction with fans and their theories are some of the most productive parts of the Evolution of Horror podcast. In fact, the closest thing to negativity that either panellist said was that some modern folk horror chooses to reproduce the aesthetics of the 70s films but does so without any of their innovation or excitement; becoming, as Scovell said, ‘content’.

The panellists’ reluctance towards providing a solid definition of folk horror and the awareness that a firm definition will run the risk of diluting the ineffable folk horror-ness of the subgenre, is a breath of fresh air within folk horror discourse. It is a fantastic answer to the parade of ‘What is Folk Horror’ articles marching across the internet. Scovell and Muncer argued that there are a hundred different ways to define folk horror depending on form, country of origin, or time that the piece was created in. We must keep these definitions in discussion with one another, while at the same time knowing that they are all equally correct and incorrect.

As Scovell, Muncer, and Blyth agreed – now is an incredible time to be a folk horror fan. Films and television programmes that would have been expensive or impossible to track down only a few decades ago are being lovingly restored by institutions like the BFI and Arrow Films and released to a wide audience. Artists like Mark Jenkin are endeavouring to recapture the ‘English Eerie’ on screen while simultaneously creating something entirely new. And, perhaps most importantly, it has never been easier to find other fans and open these dialogues with them, attempting and failing to define or taxonomize a shared interest.

High John The Conqueror by Tariq Goddard: Book Review

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

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

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

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



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

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Forests Damned and Furrows Cursed: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

John Buchan

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

Arthur Machen: Illustration by Andy Paciorek

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

Vernon Lee aka Violet Paget

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

Algernon Blackwood: Illustration by Andy Paciorek

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

Edgar Jepson

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

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

Faun by Moonlight: Leon Spillaert (1900)

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

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Dark Folklore: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Andy Paciorek. First Published in Fortean Times magazine

Lizzy Laurance – Rocketman Review

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 album can be listened to and bought from Lizzy’s Bandcamp page at: https://lizzylaurance.bandcamp.com/album/rocketman

You can also keep abreast of any future news by signing up to Lizzy’s website at:

https://lizzylaurance.wixsite.com/mysite

All social media links are available on her website.

Amazing Graze: Summer Solstice Charity Donation 2022 ☀️

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

You can support more Wildlife Trusts projects by buying our folk horror and urban wyrd books at –

https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/andypaciorek

and/or donating directly at –

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/appeals

☀️Happy Solstice☀️