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.
Stephen J. Clark’s The Satyr & Other Tales is an anthology of his earlier book releases The Satyr (2010) and The Bestiary of Communions (2011) now released as a paperback edition.
Uniting the 4 tales in a single anthology is a good move as the tales compliment each other and are united not only by all the tales being set around the times of the two world wars but there is also a thread of artistic significance that weaves through all the stories.
Beginning with the book’s eponymous tale The Satyr, we the readers, are taken into the world of the great artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare. Although familiar no doubt to many Folk Horror Revivalists, Spare’s star as one of Britain’s greatest lost artists has begun to deservedly shine more in the last decade, he is still too unknown a quantity in the wider public consciousness. Though he was accepted into the Royal Academy whilst still a teenager and reputedly asked by a pre-war Adolf Hitler to paint his portrait (which Spare refused), he faded into semi-obscurity living almost a hermitic (and hermetic) life, reportedly paying for beer with paintings and taking care of a clowder of stray cats in his small London home. Being a somewhat enigmatic and eccentric character in real life, he is suited to be cast as a character within fiction. For me however there is always a sense of reticence upon beginning any fictional tale that features real people – what if their characterisation is ill-fitting and totally alien to how I imagined that person? In this case my fears are unfounded, Clark’s personification of Spare is well crafted. For the most part Spare is represented by reputation within the tale as the mysterious ‘Borough Satyr’ but when we do get to meet him in person as it were, Clark’s portrayal of him is very much how I’d envision the nature of Spare. The main characters of the story however are an ex-con called Paddy and a strange visual artist he has took up with, who (her own name being unknown), is referred to as ‘Marlene Dietrich’ and her pursuer, a psychiatrist named Doctor Charnock. The story unfolds in WWII London during the aerial blitzkrieg as Marlene seeks to find Austin Osman Spare through the bombed out rubble of the nation’s capital and show him her portfolio of strange esoteric drawings and of Charnock’s endeavours to seize those drawings for her own purpose. A difference made by Clark and his publisher Swan River Press to the anthologised edition is the inclusion of Clark’s own drawings in the style of Spare. I am biased as I approve of illustrated books and I like it when authors illustrate their own work as it gives a greater insight into the original creative vision of the piece. Clark does this justice. The art certainly emulates Spare but not only does it illustrate the story, it is suggestive of what Marlene’s own portfolio would look like. The tale itself is an esoteric adventure of crime, war and occult drama.
Unfortunately Clark has not illustrated the second half of the book, the trinity of novellas that make up The Bestiary of Communion. It would have been interesting to see the tales illustrated in the author’s own hand or if he can evoke (invoke?) other artists as well as he has Spare, then illustrations in the manner of Bruno Schulz, Nicolai Kalmakoff and Marie Čermínová would be fitting as probably would be a style befitting Alfred Kubin, Hugo Steiner-Prag, the New Objectivity movement or others of that era and ilk. It is curious that earlier authors that came to mind in reading The Satyr, literally made their presence more apparent in the triumvirate that followed.
In the first of the Bestiary Tales, The Horned Tongue, a bookseller in Amsterdam, comes to learn that there were secrets about his late wife that he would never have imagined. My mind had flitted to the Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, upon the introduction of a key character and it becomes apparent that readers familiar with that book are intentionally led down that path. I found this theme that recurs of having real creative luminaries inspiring and influencing the texts intriguing.
The Lost Reaches is the next tale and possibly the one that sidesteps most from early 20th Century European gritty post-decadence into the world of surrealism as refugees take sanctuary in an art-house nestled in the Carpathian mountains. Again another author whom passed through my mind in reading Clark’s work first came to mind and then manifestation. This time the remembrance of Bruno Schulz makes an appearance. Schulz, a Polish-Jewish artist and writer, whose work has been brought to the screen and a wider audience by both the visionary film director Wojciech Jerzy and the master animators The Brothers Quay, was tragically murdered by the Nazi regime during WWII.
Finally in a re-working of his novella My Mistress The Multitude, now renamed The Feast of the Sphinx (personally I preferred the first title, but I appreciate the name change in differentiating the versions) takes us to Prague whereby a strange chimeric Countess becomes the focus of attention and obsession in a time where the imminent arrival of invading Germanic troops into the city is a cause of profound dread.
These collected tales of Stephen J. Clark put me in mind of several notable authors – in addition to those mentioned above I perceived shades of Franz Kafka, JK Huysmans and Gustav Meyrink. That is not a complaint but a compliment. Clark’s writing is not derivative of these authors, his work is not a pastiche – it is just a case that his vision and settings are evocative of those times and souls and this book can stand alongside the works of these authors on its own merits. The Satyr & Other Tales may very well then be of interest to folk who like that strain of weird fiction that rose from the bones of Fin de Siècle decadent Europe, through secessionist expressionism and entartete kunst to interbellum and post-war surrealism. But how would it fare to the general reader? You do not need to be familiar with the artists and writers that cast a spell upon Clark’s tales – indeed his stories may be the gateway to discovering those creatives if previously unfamiliar with them and your curiosity piqued. But the tales need the reader’s attention, they are likely not suitable for a light summer holiday read but would suit dark nights and long rainy days.
Intriguing work, unknown to me upon its original release but that I’m very pleased to have caught The Satyr & Other Tales this time around.
It’s grim up north … actually it’s not entirely. There is a lot of beauty in the north but as Glen James Brown’s debut novel illustrates there is a bleakness to that beauty – the north has a shadow self and certain areas dwell in the shade that is cast. Places such as the Burn Estate, the central location of Ironopolis.
This is not a new book. It first hit the shelves in 2018, so it isn’t an old book either, but we are not ageist here at Folk Horror Revival and Urban Wyrd Project, we’ll happily review media of any vintage. Ironopolis missed my radar until now but here it is better late than never.
Why is it here? Is it Folk Horror (whatever that is)? It is all set around a rundown council housing estate in Teesside, so hardly … yet there is an element of connection (connection being the overlying arc of this novel) to which we’ll come. Does it then relate to our other main point of interest here, the mode of urban wyrd? Most definitely. Its name harks back to the area around Middlesbrough in the north-east of England- a region built on the back of iron and steel, on hard graft and rivulets of molten sweat. An area that was left to pick up the pieces when the arse fell out of these heavy industries. So yes, this book is an epitome of urban. The root of the word ‘wyrd’ relates to fate to destiny and within this weaving novel we see the threads of connectivity between numerous people of different generations associated to the Burn Estate, the hub of the tale and the heart of the characters we meet, some of which consider it a dark heart that beats to the rhythm of a heavy iron drum.
Set in different time periods and told in varying formats – letters, interviews, first and third person narrative and even pages from a prison diary, lives and deaths interconnect. The Burn Estate connects them and is a character in itself, albeit a senescent dying character that for much of the narrative is in a state of demolition and waiting for rebirth and regeneration – new buildings, new lives. Those that still live on the Burn in its dying throes alternately cling on to life there as long as they can or eager to leave take the offers made by the development company, sometimes uncertain of whether they will or whether they want to return to the place after it has been reinvented. But memories remain, as do lies and secrets … some very dark secrets.
Yet there is more than simply the interconnection of living jowl to jowl that binds the characters of this web of stories but something … someone… else that melds their lives. A presence older than the tower blocks and bedsits. It is this someone who takes us from the gritty social realism of the tale into the territory of magical realism. But do not be blindsided by the word ‘magical’ – the supernatural element is not some fairy godmother nor are there summery uplands to escape to. The grit sticks to sweat and blood spills and stains. The presence that haunts the locale of the Burn Estate and the minds of some of its troubled inhabitants is both weird and wyrd.
We first encounter the presence through the paintings and memories recalled of a teenage girl Una Cruickshank who lived in Loom Street on the estate in the 1950s. Coming from a difficult home, Una found some escape and expression in art. Continuing into adulthood, she became known for her paintings of misty riverbanks, lonely and quiet yet in some pictures vague figures may be present. In one picture entitled The Green Girl, this figure is perhaps more manifest. This strange female was not the invention of Una. she was known to the grandmother of Jean Barr, Una’s friend, and to many before her, yet is was an entity that Una became obsessed with as she talked to her … and not her alone.
The mysterious creature in question is known to folklorists and folk horror fans as Peg Powler. An entity I know personally from lore local to me for she is the spirit of the River Tees, one of the rivers that runs through my home county. Like Jenny Greenteeth and the Grindylow of Lancashire and Yorkshire (as well as Nanny Powler of the Skerne, a tributary of the Tees in the Darlington area), Powler is a water witch (known as Groac’h by the Breton people) – a green-skinned, pond-weed strewn hag who lures children to the edge of the river, then grabs their ankles and pulls them in to a watery demise. The disappearance of young girls is a thread that winds through the book- another haunting aspect of the novel’s locale. In Ironopolis though, Peg Powler does not exist simply in relation to the leafy green banks that nestle the Tees in its winding from hill to sea but also within a large pipe leading to the sewers beneath the housing estate and she dwells even below one of the toilets in an old folks’ home. She also at times lurksv at the bottom of a well situated on the derelict waterworks near the Burn estate. The waterworks are an urban wasteland, an edge-land where kids go to play (on one instance resulting in a bullying prank gone horribly wrong), where teenage Una used to go with men and where decades later an illegal acid house rave which did not proceed as well as hoped was held.
As the stories unfold, we meet a host of characters – Vincent, a garage owner and local gangster who has more going on in the work-pits of his motor shop than automobile repairs, his awkward, nervous son, a hairdresser with a gambling problem and her disfigured brother who falls under suspicion of being the child abductor. We meet a man who lives in a shed, another who lives in the past (a Footy Casual who obsesses over rare Adidas trainers) and an elderly Teddy Boy who used to drive a mobile library van. These details also bring the book into a phase of nostalgia, which links it to Generation X hauntology, but Ironopolis is so much more. It is kitchen-sink and gritty crime and at times is darkly humorous (the scene with the birds of prey in the retirement home had me laughing out loud). And at times it is a horror story of sorts, though the brutality of it is in human actions, the strange Great Darkness of 1968 features – a real-life event, whereby weather conditions combined with the petrochemical and industrial emissions of Teesside resulting in midnight gloomth falling at midday in combination with wild storms. (The chemical industrial landscape of Teesside, whilst producing some unsavoury pongs and earning the locals the nickname -Smoggies, has also provided inspiration for the cinematic luminaries David Lynch and Ridley Scott.) And of course there is the subtle yet unsettling presence of Powler, like a whispering manipulative genius loci lingering under each turn of the page adding another element to the work that helps this excellent debut novel get under your skin.
Ironopolis is a well crafted novel that deserves to be far more widely known. Highly recommended to folks who like their ‘urban wyrd’ fix of a flavour akin to films like Dead Man’s Shoes and Kill List. I look forward to reading more from the pen of Glen James Brown.
When I read fiction, my mind’s eye tends to play out the unfolding narrative as a film. In the case of Lucie McKnight Hardy’s novel ‘Water Shall Refuse Them’ the setting and style adapted itself on the cinema screen behind my eyelids in the manner of a 1970s Play For Today or similar. That is far from a criticism – BBC plays such as Nuts in May, Brimstone and Treacle, Our Day Out, Blue Remembered Hills, Red Shift, Abigail’s Party and Penda’s Fen are high water-marks of British telly.
Anyway like Ronnie Corbett, I digress. Hardy’s debut novel concerns itself with a married couple, their teenage daughter and their mentally impaired infant son taking a holiday at a rural Welsh cottage in the bid to try and deal with the aftermath and trauma of a family tragedy. They discover that the locals are not exactly the most welcoming or friendliest bunch and instead find solidarity with a teenage boy and his mother, who also being incomers to the village are not held on the best terms by the parochial families either. Indeed the mother Janet is regarded as a witch by the villagers; an accusation she does little to dispel.
Her son Mally develops a close and strangely bonded relationship with Nif, the 16 year old daughter of the troubled family vacationing in the Welsh valley and protagonist of the book. Nif is an individualist who is governed by her own rituals and way of seeing. In discussion about the book on a Twitter post, the author Dr Miranda Corcoran drew a comparison between Hardy’s debut and Shirley Jackson’s classic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. For me these are big footsteps for it to walk in as We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite novels. I can see the parallels between the works and furthermore without giving too much of the plot away, I think comparisons could also be drawn with that other fine example of Dark Americana /American Wyrd – Thomas Tryon’s The Other. Water Shall Refuse Them does however have a very British personality.
One of the points of comparison between Hardy’s and Jackson’s novels is the presence of an unconventional and troubled young woman as narrator and therein lies a personal feeling and also intriguing topic of thought in that whilst I like Jackson’s protagonist Merricat Blackwood, I just don’t like Nif. Yes she is an intriguing well-written character but I don’t warm to her at all. But do I need to like the main personality to read the book and enjoy it? Or any book? I think personally the answer is sometimes. For instance, I gave up on reading Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game quite soon into it as I disliked the protagonist and her husband so much. In the realm of film really disliking the central family in Hereditary and the child in The Babbadook are part (not the whole) of the reason I don’t like those films much at all. But then again I did not like the principal characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut or Misery (book and film) yet I appreciate those works overall more. Does it matter if you don’t like the characters who you will spend much time with? They don’t have to be likeable for a work to be a success – Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is a prime example of that.
As Water Shall Refuse Them progresses I like Nif less and less. I don’t know if that is a matter of concern with Hardy, whether it is of any importance to her whether the reader likes her main character as a person. And it could just be me – other readers may feel sympathy or empathy towards Nif, but she leaves me cold from the offset. It could be the case that that she is meant to. As the story develops, without saying too much, Nif (and in some instances Mally, whom I never warmed to either) do some rather unpleasant things; so it is perhaps an intention of Hardy for the reader to question how they feel about chief characters instead of just easily slipping into a comfortable synch with them.
In regard to Nif’s actions, as someone who has immersed themselves in ‘horror’ fiction since a child it is possible to become numbed or desensitized to all manner of fiendish happenings, but there are scenes in the novel that did leave me feeling disturbed. This is a credit to Hardy’s writing as these scenes are generally quite underplayed, there is no great crescendo of gore but subtlety delivered, small yet in their way powerfully resonant occurrences that get under the skin. These traits do foreshadow the great reveal, which is not the most unexpected (though I do tend whilst reading fiction or watching films automatically ponder how I would end the narrative were I the writer of it , so do quite frequently see the ‘twist’ coming and wonder if my mind were wired differently would more fiction catch me off-guard) but the resolution of the end happenings does however throw in another swerve ball.
It is not my place nor intention to issue ‘trigger warnings’, but it must be noted that some scenes may especially upset some readers and perhaps provoke them to ask whether they were necessary or at least whether they needed to have occurred several times. That is not a question for me to answer but perhaps for the author to address and certainly for individual readers to make their own judgement upon.
So these points have caused me to mull over the book and would have even if I were not writing a review of it, so it did get under my skin and that is a credit to it. Did I like it? That I need to think over more – I didn’t dislike it, of that I’m sure. I would read it again and I don’t say that of all novels. But it is one that I will need to contemplate more as to my deeper, long-lasting impression of it. Is it a good book either way? Yes I think it is; it is a intriguing debut that makes me curious to investigate Hardy’s future works, so that’s a job well done there. It is a book that reminds me somewhat of some of Benjamin Myer’s novels – scenarios which are simple but effective and hold some moments of strong, sometimes brutal or harrowing but not overworked significance. aving grief, loss and trauma at its heart it also is reminiscent of Will McClean’s The Apparition Phase (recently reviewed on this website Here ). The themes unearthed in Water Shall Refuse them are pertinent to the bucolic uncanny and it is a worthy addition to the folk horror fiction shelf, though because of events described within may indeed be contentious with some readers.
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy is available to purchase from HERE and other book stores.
To discover more about the writing of Lucie McKnight Hardy visit HERE
The ‘X’ in Generation X (those born roughly between the early 1960s and late 70s/ early 80s) must surely refer to the X certificate formerly bestowed upon horror movies or ‘X’ as in X Files in relating to spooky paranormal mysteries. The other title bestowed by writer and broadcaster Bob Fischer upon the folk born of these times – ‘The Haunted Generation’ would seemingly confirm this. Maclean’s novel, ‘The Apparition Phase’ is set in the 1970s and pays homage to the creepy things that deliciously traumatised those of us of a certain age. Told from the viewpoint of Tim Smith, reminiscing on his teenage years in that era, we see that as with the title of Dave Lawrence and Stephen Brotherton’s excellent encyclopedic work about those times, our narrator is indeed ‘Scarred For Life’. The tale begins with Tim and his twin sister Abi plotting to fake a photograph of a ghost. Their inspirations for this experiment / prank are the photos that I would flick past fast and then slowly sneak back to look at in Usborne’s ‘Mysteries of the Unknown: Monsters, Ghosts and UFOs’ (despite my Catholic education and unbeknownst to the nuns, the true bible of my youth) – those being the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (a semi transparent figure descending some stairs), the Spectre of Newby Church (a tall, skull faced monk near an altar) and the one that possibly freaked me the most, the Chinnery car (the dead mother-in law in the back seat). In creating this hoax, they stir up more than they can ever expect when they show their creation to a girl at their school who, unknowingly to them, is sensitive to otherworldly happenings.
As the story progresses (through events I will not spoil for you) we are taken to a paranormal investigation conducted in an old large house in the countryside. This aspect of the book is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and Richard Matheson’s ‘Hell House’ novel and subsequent cinematic adaptations. But despite this familiarity, Will Maclean does mark the proceedings with his own voice and creates a page-turning tale that will evoke nostalgia in many of us Generation Xers but would also likely appeal to young adult readers now as its themes of ghosts, grief, haunted minds, mystery and coming of age are timeless.
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean Publisher : William Heinemann (29 Oct. 2020) Language : English Hardcover : 416 pages ISBN-10 : 1785152378 ISBN-13 : 978-1785152375
Think of ‘British Horror’ and what comes to mind? In this circle perhaps your mind turns to witchcraft shenanigans of centuries past or ritual cult activity in sleepy places in more recent times. Perhaps in the wider society of horror the refined hauntings of the likes of The Innocents or MR James scholarly tales may spring to thought. Or perhaps the gothic kitsch of Hammer movies.
Within this book of 18 British tales of terror, Richard Freeman casts his net wider into scenarios and locations that have a, perhaps less obvious to casual thought but recognisably apparent when there in the moment, very British feel – the walk home from the Youth Club, a spoiled little girl’s birthday party, a country churchyard, walking the dog down near the nature reserve, a fishing excursion to a Welsh lake, the streets of London and much more besides.
Being an established Cryptozoologist and Fortean, the natural and supernatural worlds provide great inspiration for Freeman’s short stories and we see creatures from familiar and comparitively unfamiliar folklore and legend, both ancient and modern, brought to life. This could be a risky venture as fairies, dragons and unicorns for example are so well entrenched in many minds as being associated with sword and sorcery, mawkish fairy tales and flowery new age representation, but Freeman does exceptionally well in granting these otherworldly creatures a more authentically believable and gritty presence in a world we are familiar with on a day to day basis.
There is an element of the ‘kitchen-sink’ as well as the supernatural in some of the tales which does indeed give the works a British flavour. Freeman’s fairies are a tribute to Arthur Machen’s treatment of the subject, which is made clear within the tale. His unicorn is not a saccharine sweet entity but a creature of flesh and blood. There are nods to science as well as superstition within this book’s narratives. Freeman also notes his fondness for the earth-bound adventures of the third doctor, Jon Pertwee in the long-running BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who, which I think does come through in the atmosphere of some of these tales. Creatures of British myth and of contemporary anomalous encounters such as the Lambton Wyrm of County Durham and the large hominid of Cannock Chase make their physical presence manifest and believably threatening through Freeman’s skilled and brave treatment. Some of the tales I could see working well in a TV anthology in the manner of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts. They set a scene, tell a simple tale, sometimes with twists that would satisfactorily make for effective episodes of a cryptozoological – folkloric themed Tales of the Unexpected type show.
Another point of approval I have with Green, Unpleasant Land is that each tale is accompanied by an illustration by Shaun Histed-Todd. I’m biased on this matter being a book artist, but I do really think that horror short story anthologies are given a further dimension and appeal by the inclusion of illustration.
This astonishing anthology gathers award-winning work by contemporary short-fiction writers from around the English-speaking world, all of whom drew their inspiration from the supernatural. Each of these fine authors, whether from the U.K., the U.S., Ireland, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere, puts his or her own thought-provoking, 21st century spin on some aspect of the paranormal—there are ghosts, of course, but you’ll also find tales revolving around demons, zombies, spirits in the Voudou pantheon, out-of-body episodes, doppelgangers, shape-shifters, hallucinations, dreams, imaginary people, mythical beings, and Things You Just Can’t Explain. These 29 stories are chilling, or funny, or a bit of both, and they all will continue to turn in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading them.
Available now from ~ http://www.lulu.com/shop/paul-guernsey/21st-century-ghost-stories/paperback/product-23734410.html
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In August 2017 via the pages of Fortean Times Magazine I first heard of the film Holy Terrors created by Mark Goodall and Julian Butler much to my delight and anxiety. Not only was it a movie featuring 6 weird tales of Arthur Machen but it was made in Whitby! Machen and Whitby – two things I cherish very dearly so I was very eager to see this film but also worried that it might be awful. (Those worries were happily unnecessary.)
Also at the time we at Folk Horror Revival were organising the Winter Ghosts event for the following December in Whitby. I mentioned to our Events Manager, Darren Charles how the film could’ve been a good addition to our bill if it were not already fully booked. Then much to my surprise and delight, I received an email from the film director Mark Goodall, who had heard about our event and was wondering if we would like to screen Holy Terrors there. Would we?? Is a bear Catholic? Does the pope … Yes! We were interested!
Some jiggling around of schedule and the film was added to the bill and was indeed an atmospheric and beautiful end-piece to the event.
Before discussing the film further, just a short resume of Arthur Machen, for although his light is belatedly beginning to shine brighter, outside of certain horror fiction circles, he is still something of an unknown quantity to many folk.
Born in Wales in 1863, Machen’s career in weird fiction blossomed out of the Symbolist and Aesthetic fin de siècle of the 1890’s. Like a number of other artists and writers of the era, Machen’s work was a curious brew of spirituality and decadence. Blending paganism and Christianity both in his work and in his own personal mysticism, born the son of an Anglican minister he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but did not renounce his Christian faith. He therefore, in a sense, has an air of the notion of Celtic or Insular Christianity, whereby it has been suggested that some of the earliest priests of the Celtic Church were possibly former druids some of whom preferred to preach in the outside cathedral of nature than within a church; and that numerous acolytes of which were ascetic hermits that lived in remote quiet places. Oddly enough it is often claimed that the Synod of Whitby marked the official end of the Celtic Church. (The Synod of Whitby (664 A.D.) was a Northumbrian synod where King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and its satellite institutions. The synod was summoned at Hilda’s double monastery of Streonshalh (Streanæshalch), later called Whitby Abbey.)
Machen was one of the early masters of weird fiction, particularly a faction of which, with his own use of folklore (notably the use of fairies not in their tiny twee Disneyfied forms but as the strange human sized people of old lore) and spirit of place, may now frequently be referred to as Folk Horror.
Those who cite Machen as an inspiration or to express enthusiasm for his work include figures as diverse as the writers H.P. Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen King, Ramsay Campbell, Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and Sir John Betjeman through to musicians such as Mark E. Smith, Belbury Poly and Current 93. Notorious occultist Aleister Crowley was a fan of Machen’s work but reputedly it was far from being reciprocated, with Machen having a personal dislike for the man.
So how would Machen’s subtle strange tales translate to screen?
Holy Terrors slowly fades in to scenes of an empty shore and a desolate man. The hauntological soundscape of composer David Chatton Barker (Folklore Tapes) leads us to the body of a man beneath a bridge. Thus opens ‘A Cosy Room’ the first of the 6-weird tales of Arthur Machen. (Indeed, I can vouch it is a cosy room and one not devoid of otherly presence either as I recognised it straight away as a room that I myself have spent several nights in. In fact, after viewing Holy Terrors for the first time at Winter Ghosts, it was the room that I would return to sleep in that very night. The filming location for this segment was The Stoker Room of the cool and quirky hotel La Rosa in Whitby’s East Terrace. Overlooking a great view of Whitby Abbey and the harbour, the wonderful building-sized cabinet of curiosities that is La Rosa hotel has a plaque outside marking it as a place that author Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll of Wonderland fame amongst other things, stayed at several times. The Angel Hotel in New Quay Road is also suitably plaque-bearing as a residence where Machen stayed.)
The opening wordless narrative shot in atmospheric black and white marked in me the feeling that I was really going to like this film, but also mark it as a film that would not appeal to viewers who only like their horror visceral, fast and with a simple plot and conclusion. Like the tales of Machen, this film adaptation is steady, subtle, atmospheric and most often strange rather than horrific. Some of the tales do not build up to a definite explanation and conclusion but remain more as captures of a strange moment or sequence, rather like many reported real life anomalous experiences.
So, it is safe to say from the outset I could see that Holy Terrors will not be to all tastes but is deliciously to mine.
We are then invited to taste The White Powder of the second tale. This is one of the Machen stories to have a more typical sense of narrative in that it follows an event to a solid culmination. It is a tale of both dread and decadence and has both the air of M.R. James ‘The Ash Tree and Kafka’s Metamorphosis but still remains essentially a Machen tale.
(an amusing synchronicity with the screening at Winter Ghosts was that the imbiber of the said White Powder of the film develops an odd black spot on his hand as an early symptom that something is amiss. The black spot very much resembled the black spot on the audience members’ hands that bore the blurred remains of the mark of the Folk Horror Revival sun symbol hand-stamp.)
The White Powder is a solidly told tale and it really brings forth the power of Goodall’s film-making. Relying strongly on an audio narration that bonds Machen completely with these new dreaming of his creations, the character that is etched within the faces, particularly the eyes of the actors in this film is a strong motif, that in its use becomes somewhat hypnotic. Another film-making skill that Goodall employs to great effect is making Whitby timeless; the use of soft focus, careful framing and light bleached backgrounds removes any trappings of modern life such as shopfront banners and so forth.
The third tale is one of Machen’s most famous, not because it is his best work or most identifiable of his style but because it has been noted as being the possible origin of the Angels of Mons legend. At the Battle of Mons on the French borders in 1914, it was claimed and published in the British Spiritualist magazine in 1915, that British soldiers were protected in battle by a host of Heavenly angels. However, in 1914 The Evening News newspaper had published Machen’s story The Bowmen, in which a battalion headed by Saint George intervenes in a conflict between World War I British and German forces.
Out of all the stories within the Holy Terrors film The Bowmen could have been the most problematic for a low budget production. By the effective use of old newsreels of wartime footage, Goodall skillfully conquers this problem and overall the artistry of the entire film does not give the slightest impression at all that it is not studio funded. The photography, editing and production is on the contrary not only skillful but beautiful.
The fourth segment of the portmanteau initiates us into the Ritual. It is however not a ritual of hooded or sky-clad figures in the depths of a wood or desecrated church but that of a playground game of schoolchildren. The simplicity of this has a deeply unsettling nature and again the actors of Holy Terrors deserve applause. To act without words uttered needs to tread a line between expression, subtlety and communicative skill lest it become exaggerated like a mime performance. Again, we find great casting is at work here, for the children have a look to them that would not see their faces out of place in antique Victorian or Edwardian photography.
The next tale, The Happy Children remains with the theme of strange youths. Unlike those in Ritual, there is a question arises as to whether these children are alive or even of human nature – a Celtic belief about Fairies is that they are spirits of the dead and the Happy Children indeed have an otherworldly sense to them. This segment again effectively uses the townscape of Whitby as a strange and beautiful filming location, and with good cause for this tale is set in Whitby. It is renamed Banwick but the tale is undeniably inspired by Machen’s visit to Whitby on a journalistic task to report on the town’s Jet industry. The story reveals Machen’s mystical sensitivity both of place and to the horrors of war. Whitby and other towns on the North Eastern English coast had been subject to wartime attack by the Germans and Machen’s reference also to the biblical slaughter of the innocents undertaken by Herod in his efforts to eliminate the infant messiah.
A phrase within the story describing Whitby as The Town of Magical Dream is a perfect description (it also is aptly used by Carolyn Waudby for her excellent essay on Whitby). The night after Winter Ghosts I walked Whitby’s streets and the pier and the 199 steps to Saint Mary’s Church and the Abbey, and it was not mere suggestion but there was a palpable otherness to the coastal town darkened save for the twinkling of Christmas lights. There was a definite presence, not unwelcoming for the most part save for the pool behind the abbey where I felt that I was not meant to proceed further so I didn’t and for a strange unsettling sensation in the Screaming Tunnel of the Khyber Pass. I know that I am far from being the only one to sense something strange in Whitby’s thin sea fretted air – Machen sensed the liminality as did Bram Stoker and Mark Goodall captures it in Holy Terrors as do Michael Smith and Maxy Neil Bianco in their atmospheric and poetic short film ~ Stranger on the Shore: Hounds of Whitby.
Francis Frith: The Peart family. Whitby 1891
Holy Terrors concludes with Midsummer and for the first time, the effective ambient monochrome palette is replaced with colour; but this is the colour of hand-tinted antique photographs, the faded pastels of half-remembered dreams and half-forgotten memories. It is a fitting place to leave the darkness and step into the light, but minding always that they are integral to and part of each other.
And on this note we will depart this house of souls, with the conclusion that whilst Holy Terrors may not suit the constitution of all, it is a film that has found its way under my skin and into my head and heart and for it its understated beauty and mesmeric invocations, it is something I feel that has touched me deeply. When I first read about this film with my mingled feelings of trepidation and tantalisation, I happily know now that I had nothing to worry about but happily a fair bit perhaps to fear.
On the weekend of 15th and 16th December 2017, a strange mist will fall upon the coastal town of Whitby. From the sea fret will come haunting sounds and tales and more besides. Here over the coming days we shall in turn usher in the ghosts of winter …
Two Bobs from the Boro region will bring marvelous stuff to Winter Ghosts.
Leasungspell: A Fool’s Tale at the Metropole Ballroom, Whitby 17th December
An epic poem set to live music and recorded sound effects performed by Bob Beagrie, Sara Dennis, Kev Howard, Peter Lagan and S.J.. Forth, recounting the journey of Brother Oswin’s from the monetary of Herutea at Hartlepool to Whitby in the year 657 AD. Oswin’s carries secret letters from St Hild and must keep to the wee wegs as he traverses the wildoren, haunted by the ancient spirits of the land and his own grim ghosts. The piece brings the Wyrd of the dark ages to life in a strange language that is uncannily familiar.
Bob Beagrie will also be reciting poetry with Jane Burn from their book This Game of Strangers earlier in the day on 17th December at the Rusty Shears book readings.
Also appearing at the Metropole will be Bob Fischer, who will invoke a strange and sinister familiar figure from the past to bring us some eeriness to shiver our timbers.
Bob Fischer is an experienced writer and broadcaster specialising in an eclectic blend of popular culture and folklore. His debut book Wiffle Lever To Full! (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) was an offbeat travelogue of British science-fiction and cult TV conventions (‘A joyous, irreverent celebration of Britain’s secret love of the bizarre’ – Gay Times) and, in more recent years, he has written for the Fortean Times magazine, covering such diverse subjects as the hauntology movement, the books of Alan Garner, and the folklore and mythology of the North Yorkshire moors. This latter subject also formed the basis of his radio documentary Worms, Witches and Boggarts, broadcast on BBC Tees in 2014. He continues to broadcast regularly for BBC Tees, and is currently using his love of Northern folklore as the inspiration for his first novel, Juddwick. It’s a work in progress… but that’s what they all say, isn’t it?