Never judge a book by its cover or so ‘they’ say … whomever ‘they’ are, ‘they’ don’t always get it right. The cover artwork of Benjamin Myer’s 2017 novel ‘The Gallows Pole’ designed by Delaney Williams captivated me at first sight. Instant reaction was that this wasn’t a new book but was one of Penguin books vintage green mystery and crime series and indeed though differing in time setting from the 20th Century noir of the majority of the Penguin books, ‘The Gallows Pole’ would be a more than worthy addition to the series. There is a ‘folk horror’ sensibility also to the artwork and within the novel itself there is an element of this sub-genre. Telling the tale of ‘King’ David Hartley, leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a troop of currency forgers living and working on the West Yorkshire Moors in the 18th Century, the sense of place and landscape is integral to the tale and this would in itself lend itself well to the folk horror reader but the visions of David Hartley and his reverence to a stag entity tie a tighter knot – as does the unfolding brutality as an outside agency heads north to the barren heaths to investigate the crimes against the crown. Myer’s writing itself is visionary and atmospheric, transporting the reader to the time and place of the harsh drama, which itself is inspired by true events. The dark mystique of the cover indeed is highly evocative of the tale that Myers spins with great craft and gravity.
Benjamin Myers’ roots lie in the soil of County Durham, as does those of Folk Horror Revival and also of The Shining Levels, a band that inspired by Myer’s novel have created a beautiful album of music and lyrics also entitled The Gallows pole.
Having had the good fortune to see The Shining Levels perform live at The Old Cinema Launderette in Durham and at the lovely Victorian library in Darlington as part of the Hark music and literature event, I urge anyone who gets chance to see The Shining Levels in concert to do so as their live performance brings a further element of beauty and depth to the stunning creation that is The Gallows Pole.
Folk Horror Revival were honoured to have The Shining Levels answer a few of our queries …
Folk Horror Revival: How did the collaboration with Ben Myers to produce a concept album inspired by his book The Gallows Pole come about?
The Shining Levels: The idea was first mentioned by Dan as a solution to me (Davey) whining about going through a creative void. It was a real light-bulb moment and the obvious thing was to create the album together which is exactly what we did once we had Ben’s permission and blessing to do so. He’d actually forgotten all about it and was genuinely shocked when I said it was nearly finished and could I get him to do a short piece of spoken word on it. Thankfully he really liked what we’d done and was happy to be associated with it. He was also very flattered that his book had inspired others to create their own work. Then we were then lucky enough to be taken on by our fantastic label Outre who did a great job of releasing a beautiful vinyl for us.
FHR: What is it about The Gallows Pole novel that you find particularly evocative and inspirational?
TSL: There is so much to delve into, the story of these poor people being able to stick it to a government that doesn’t care for them really resonated with us. There are so many defined characters with their own interesting storylines and there are several themes running through the book that really matter to people, like corruption, solidarity, treachery… I could go on. But when you add the thread of the supernatural, King David’s frightening visions of Stag Men and the alchemy of the coin replication it takes it to another level. And I shouldn’t forget to mention the way Ben writes and describes the landscape, it’s like another character, as a songwriter it’s a gift to turn a landscape into a soundscape.
FHR: Yourselves and Ben Myers hail from Durham (as incidentally do the founders of the Folk Horror Revival project); what is it about the county and / or city that you think inspires art of such a nature?
TSL: As I mentioned landscape is very important and we are lucky to have such beautiful surroundings here. From rich woodland to beautiful moorland and rolling hills, all mixed together. I’m a regular visitor to it all and I think you can feel its history coming up through your feet. Whether that is strolling the riverbanks in the city or moving further to the outskirts and hills, there are ghosts of our past right there. One day we’ll all be ghosts of it too so creating art out of that inspiration is very satisfying.
Not to forget the people, Durham has unique character and references. The city is very small so there are many cross connections and small degrees of separation. It’s a place with a full spectrum of characters to draw inspiration from.
FHR: Does your band name relate to the book ‘The Shining Levels’ by John Wyatt about his transition to rural life in the Lake District, or indeed the name applied to the lakes and tarns of Cumbria? Is this a book of any significance to you or did you come about the band name for a different reason?
TSL: Ben gave me a copy of that book about 20 years ago and I loved it. We’d virtually finished the album before we arrived at our name. We were throwing names back and forth over text and email, between me and Dan and then myself and Ben and that one came up. I believe it was one of Ben’s ideas as I’d asked him for his thoughts and we immediately all agreed on that. The imagery it evokes and the fact it has a literary connection. It sounds bright, hopeful and grand to me. Ben gifted it to me twice.
FHR: You recently performed live at the Hark event at Darlington Library which brought music and literature together as its theme and of course The Gallows Pole revolves around Ben’s novel; Are there any other books that you find of great inspiration or influence? Would you consider doing other albums pertaining to particular books?
TSL: I love the concept of art forms connecting and crossing over. Art inspiring art. I think we’re going to see more cross pollination in the future so it feels natural that we would follow up on the success of The Gallows Pole album with another literary connection which is what we are doing now.
Personally, I buy/receive more books than I have time to read which is ridiculous. I’m a bit of a geek so my go to choice is generally sci – fi/fantasy fiction though I do read other genres and non – fiction too. I think music could be written to any book you like. That’s why we’re careful to use the term ‘Inspired by’ rather than suggest it’s a soundtrack.
FHR: What plans lie ahead for The Shining Levels?
TSL: In 2020 we plan on playing many more live events and will hopefully both finish and release our next album which we’re hard at work with now. Something different but it will still very definitely sound like us.
(A little birdy has chirped that The Shining Levels may be seen and heard at Folk Horror Revival’s Winter Ghosts event in Whitby in November … touchwood … keep watching this space …)
To listen to and buy a digital download of The Shining Levels – The Gallows Pole visit here – https://theshininglevels1.bandcamp.com/album/the-gallows-pole-ost
To purchase the album on vinyl –
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Image © Kevin McGonnell
The Gallows Pole book is published by Bloomsbury and is available here and other on and offline bookshops.
Ben Myers website
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