Damnable Tales: A veritable tome of classic Folk Horror stories from the pens of Shirley Jackson, MR James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and numerous other luminary writers, selected and illustrated by master print-maker Richard Wells.
Folk Horror Revival recently interviewed Richard and reviewed his illustrated opus … Read on or be Damned.
FHR: Hello Richard. Thank You for agreeing to talk to us. Although many of the folk horror revivalists will already be very familiar with your work, please tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
Richard Wells : Hello! Thanks for having me. In my day job life, I’m a graphic designer for film and television, working as part of the art department team. It’s my job to provide any props or set dressing that requires any kind of graphic design. So, for example, on Dracula, I made the hand-written correspondence and documents relating to the sale of Carfax Abbey, and background elements like heraldic pennant flags hanging up in Dracula’s castle. I intentionally picked an exciting example there – other times it’s contemporary drama, where I’m producing mundane things like product labels to hide the real brands we aren’t allowed to show (just this morning I was working on shampoo bottles). Away from the telly work I produce my own artwork, which for the past few years has mostly taken the form of lino printing. I find the solitary, hands-on work keeps me sane, an escape from the computer screen and hectic 11 hour day TV schedules.
FHR: Much of your work has a horror flavour to it. Is there an area you’ve had a long interest in and can you remember what was the first story, TV show or film that scared or unsettled you? What are your favourite films and TV shows?
RW: Yes, an interest in horror has been there as far back as I can remember. A book I treasured as a child was the Usborne book of How to Draw Ghosts, Vampires & Haunted Houses (an illustration of Dracula by the late Victor Ambrus I would obsessively try and copy). I remember being terrorised by Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch ‘live’ on Halloween night 1992 (age 9). Another memorable viewing was the 1953 version of House of Wax round my grandad’s. There’s a sequence where Vincent Price’s black-clad villain stalks a victim through fog-bound back alleys that really struck a chord. I seems like nothing watching it now, but at the time I had nightmares for weeks. When I was allowed a tiny TV in my bedroom to play on my SNES, I’d occasionally catch bits of late night horror following a mammoth stretch of gaming. I can vividly remember being frozen in fear at the ghoul appearing at the car window in Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. In my memory, the fuzziness of the old 4:3 film on my mid 90s tv screen only added to its uncanny grip. I’ve got the shiny Blu ray now, and a small part of me wonders if it has lost some of its power looking so sharp, now you can make out the white face paint caked onto the ghouls. My favourite film is The Wicker Man, watch it every year. Last year I saw Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure for the first time, I can see that quickly becoming a firm favourite. His mastery of generating understated creeping terror is thrilling to watch.
FHR: A lot of your artwork utilises a print-cut technique that is evocative of old chapbooks and the like, what is it that appeals to you about this method and style of work?
RW: I think it’s something to do with the rendering of disturbing subject matter contrasted with the fairly crude and naïve style that appeals. Historical horrors that on the surface appear like images from a children’s picture book. The horror doesn’t always hit you on first glance, the mix of dark humour and eeriness in the imagery. As a spooky teenager, I had a book on the Mexican printmaker Manuel Manilla, and would obsessively try and replicate his animated skeletons. I’m drawn to the individual imperfections you get with relief printing. No two prints will be identical, which again I find a refreshing contrast to working digitally. If I could make a living solely from relief printing, I think I would. Probably born a few centuries too late…
FHR: One of your first works to garner a lot of attention amongst the folk horror community was your poster for The Wicker Man. Is there anything in particular that drew you to that film and to folk horror in general?
RW: Well it definitely all started with The Wicker Man. I vividly remember seeing it for the first time on tv with my mom as a kid, glancing across to see her visible distress at the ending. To be honest, I think on first viewing I found it more silly than scary, I couldn’t really get a handle on it. I came to fully embrace it when it first appeared on DVD, and fell for its quirks and beautiful imperfections. My taste in horror tends more towards the uncanny and quietly eerie over more overt, showy horror (though I do enjoy a mad gore show on occasion), and Folk Horror fits the bill. I’m a keen walker, and I’m drawn to films that capture the landscape in an interesting way, which you obviously get with a lot of Folk Horror. Also anything with a folkloric twist, or ancient terrors, evocations, all that good stuff.
I never expected that my Wicker Man fan art would lead to me having tea and biscuits with Robin Hardy. I think he’d seen the poster at an anniversary screening. I thought it was some kind of bizarre prank call when I picked up the phone to “Hello, this is Robin Hardy, I directed the Wicker Man.” He was interested in me designing a couple of posters for the crowdfunding campaign for his new film, so I was invited down to his home to meet and discuss ideas. It was a strange and wonderful afternoon, chatting to the director of my favourite film, him occasionally sloping off to deal with the workmen fitting new curtains on the first floor. Sadly, Wrath of the Gods never came to be, but I have the memory to treasure all the same.
FHR: Another one of your renowned works is your poster for Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England and subsequently your artwork featured in his most recent foray into folk horror, the film In The Earth. How did your involvement in the film come about and what are your thoughts on Ben Wheatley’s work?
I instantly became obsessed with A Field in England right from its initial poster by Kenn Goodall and Luke Insect, and the arresting teaser trailer by the great Julian House. After seeing the film on opening day, I was very keen to create my own fan artwork. On the Blu ray commentary (I think it was the first film to be released in cinemas and on Blu ray on the same day), Ben Wheatley talks about how the unusual static tableaux moments in the film were inspired by woodcut art of the period, so it seemed an obvious way to go when producing a poster design. I’d recently joined Twitter, and I think that was my first piece of artwork I put up on there. Amazingly, it quickly received attention from the film’s DOP Laurie Rose and star Reece Shearsmith (a particular thrill for me, as a huge fan of The League of Gentlemen). Some time later I then got an email from producer Andy Starke, asking to get the design printed to give out as a gift for cast and crew. So I guess I stayed in their address book from that experience. During the first Covid lockdown, I had another email from Andy enquiring about producing some art for Ben’s latest film (it was called simply ‘The Woods Film’ then). Of course I jumped at the chance, got to chat with Ben about the project, and he sent me some of his initial design sketches as a starting point. I’m especially keen on Ben’s darker pictures, the naturalistic mundanity of Kill List, making the sudden and shocking jolts of horror even more powerful. A Field in England is my favourite, the terrific ensemble cast and wonderful flow of the dialogue in Amy Jump’s screenplay. And it’s funny! I would’ve loved a spin-off series with the double act of Richard Glover & Reece Shearsmith’s Friend & Whitehead on an occult cross-country walking odyssey.
FHR: You have recently released the rather marvellous anthology of classic folk horror short stories Damnable Tales selected and illustrated by you. How long did this take to put together and what are the reasons for selecting the tales you have? Some of the stories are by more obscure writers, were they all already familiar to you or did you have to do some digging? Who are your favourite writers and which is your favourite short story and book?
RW: The Damnable Tales project came pretty much out of the blue. In early 2020 I received an email from John Mitchinson (co-founder of crowdfunding publisher Unbound), asking if I might like to collaborate on a project. I think he’d seen some of my lino print work online. At the time I’d been working on a series of lino prints based on the ghost stories of M.R. James. I’d been thinking about expanding the series to encompass vintage Folk Horror tales, so when coming up with potential ideas for a book, that seemed a good way to go. It came about at just the right time, as like most people, my day job instantly collapsed with the arrival of the first lockdown. So I was able to solely concentrate on searching for tales and working on lino prints for a good few months. As Folk Horror has fairly slippery and wide-ranging definitions, I was generally looking for short horror stories with a folkloric element, though that isn’t true of every story. Something like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant ‘The Summer People’ has no supernatural or folkloric elements, but I think the deep rural unease and suggestion of a sinister community at work are entirely in keeping with the genre. Right off the bat, I knew two stories I definitely wanted to include were from my two favourite writers: M.R. James and Robert Aickman. ‘Bind Your Hair’ from Aickman’s 1964 Dark Entries collection is probably my favourite short story. I love how with Aickman you’re never sure where the horror is going to come from, how the stories unfold like a dream, the uncanny stealthily creeping in. ‘Thrawn Janet’ is another tale I was familiar with. I wonder if readers unfamiliar with it will be put off by the untranslated Scots text of that story, but I find it a pleasurable experience to decipher, and I think lends itself to the evocation of the period. Other tales came from fishing for recommendations, some from Folk Horror lists I found online. Others came simply through scouring any vintage horror anthologies I could lay my hands on. I’d never read any horror tales by A.C. Benson before, so ‘Out of the Sea’ came as a nice surprise, one of my favourites in the collection, fantastic imagery with the demonic goat snuffling along the seashore! A couple of tales came from my searching of Folk Horror buzzwords in a mammoth e-book of 1001 horror stories (I never claimed to be a professional anthologist)! That was how I came to find ‘A Witch-Burning’ by Gertrude Minnie Robbins (writing under her married name Mrs. Baille Reynolds).
FHR: Your work suits the book medium incredibly well; do you have any plans afoot for further illustrated anthologies or other books and what other projects can we expect to see from you in time to come?
RW: As of next week I’ll be finished on my current TV project, so I’m looking forward to getting back to some lino cutting. I’ve had a design based on In the Earth lying half-finished for months. Plus I’d like to get a few more designs added to my M.R. James series. Speaking of Monty, this Christmas we’re getting Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of The Mezzotint, in which I perform the title role! I’d produced a 17th century pamphlet for his previous adaptation Martin’s Close, and was given a lot more to do here. I was unfamiliar with the mezzotint printing process beforehand, so enjoyed researching that. The time constraints of TV meant I had to produce the haunted imagery digitally, but I had a lot of fun with it.
I think I’m going to be doing some more cursed artwork for the band Green Lung, whom I’ve enjoyed collaborating with over the past few years. And there’s a very exciting illustration project with Unbound on the horizon, but I can’t talk about that, yet (suffice to say, it will be of particular interest to fans of Folk Horror). And there’s also early talk of a second book of illustrated short stories. One idea I’m keen to pursue is a second volume of Damnable Tales that takes in vintage tales from around the world. Looking forward to researching that. Watch this space…
Damnable Tales : Book Review
As soon as I had heard the initial musings of a book of classic folk horror short stories selected and illustrated by Richard Wells, my curiosity was piqued on several levels. Being a ‘book-artist’ myself(writer, illustrator & small-press publisher) I have both a bias and fondness for illustrated editions and Wells is not an artist that has bypassed the attention of many folk horror revivalists. Should his name have somehow escaped attention then his film posters for The Wicker Man and A Field in England, his lino-cut prints of folkloric entities and his cover for Edward Parnell’s atmospheric and resonant book Ghostland, and his work featuring in film and Tv (most notably here in Ben Wheatley’s film In The Earth) will very likely not have passed unnoticed. The subject matter of this tome unexpectedly caused my ears to prick up with curiosity considering my own involvement with this whole folk horror thing and as I am a little bit of a collector of weird short stories, I was very intrigued to see which tales he would select.
As with all collections of short stories there are likely to be tales that appeal to some readers and others less so. I believe this is generally subjective on the part of the reader and not always because a bad selection is made. I will not dally on the tales which sat less well with me, because there is nothing constructive in doing so, my taste is not necessarily your taste, and I didn’t actually dislike any of the tales selected – there were just some I liked more than others, as is the way with anthologies. This book is more voluminous than I expected and within its hallowed pages may be found some familiar tales by some familiar writers, some unfamiliar tales by some familiar writers and some unfamiliar tales by some unfamiliar writers. This makes the book a good choice for those new to the folk horror ways whilst still being of appeal to those already acquainted with the strange goings-on behind the old hedges and the standing stones.
The tales are presented chronologically according to when they were written, starting with Sheridan Le Fanu’s darkly romantic Laura Silver Bell of 1872 and culminating in Robert Aickman’s delightfully bizarre 1964 story Bind Your Hair. This shows how the sub-genre or mode of folk horror developed over nearly a century, which is more stylistically than subject-wise for the most part. It also clearly illustrates otherwise to anyone who may still think that folk horror originated with 3 British films at the tail-end of the hippy dream. A note therein though is that the majority of stories in this book do have a British or Irish origin, with Shirley Jackson’s 1950 tale The Summer People notablybringing an odd slice of Wyrd Americana to the table. This may not be too unexpected as folk horror is a prevalent feature within British and Irish weird fiction as it fits so well with the landscape, lore and history of these isles. It is not of any detriment to the book but should further volumes follow (which I hope they will) then my curiosity would again be piqued to see stories selected from a variety of nations – certainly Eastern Europe and Asia could provide a wealth of possible content and it would be intriguing to see how Wells would visually approach the writings of Gogol, Meyrink and Kafka for instance or the translations made by Lafcadio Hearn of Japan’s haunted heritage. And what wonders could be dug from the soil of Africa, Australasia and Scandinavia and rendered with the imagery of Richard Wells? Temptation to the imagination, but anyway back to the book in hand and before I speak further about Well’s art, just a note that some of the early tales in this book are quite heavy on the use of vernacular dialect, which when done well can illustrate the versatile skill of a writer but can alas also sometimes put something of a screen between the reader and the tale being told. It is easier to become absorbed and drenched in the delicious dread and atmosphere of a spooky tale if you do not have to repeatedly reach for a dictionary or try to second-guess what is actually being said. However, these tales are important examples of the diversity of the folk horror tradition and worthy of inclusion in such an anthology. There are only a couple of tales that do this, so for the casual reader or those entirely new to folk horror, do not be put off. As these stories occur early in the book, it would be advised perhaps not to read cover to cover but to dip in and out randomly or even start at the last story and work widdershins back to the beginning. If, however you do wish to read chronologically and do strain a little to engage with the earlier stories due to the linguistic unfamiliarity, do not let this put you off pursuing further with the book. And what a book it is, it is a considerable and considered selection and delivered handsomely. When I heard it was being crowd-funded I was a bit wary of what the quality would be like but there’s no complaint here. It is solidly constructed and well presented. The subtle touch of adding an earthy red to some of the text of chapter opening pages is just a little thing but I found that a nice attention to detail. And the illustrations are superb. Sharply printed and the olde woodcut style suits the material. There is a quirkiness and humour to some of the illustrations which suits some folk horror tales really well, yet even so the image for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Thrawn Janet is rather disturbing (and also my favourite illustration in the book).
Of the writers included in the book are some of my personal favourites – Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Machen and Robert Aickman, but it was great to read alongside well-known writers such as M.R James who is represented with his tale The Ash Tree , Saki (The Music on the Hill), Walter de la Mare (All Hallows) and Thomas Hardy who with his The Withered Arm, is possibly a contender for my personal favourite story in the book – tales previously unfamiliar to me such as The Sin-Eater by Fiona Macleod and Cwm Garon by L.T.C. Holt.
The book is fore-worded by the author Benjamin Myers, amongst whose gritty novels, The Gallows Pole has made an impression on many folk horror revivalist readers (and which has been adapted to screen by Shane Meadows and the BBC) and that’s another box in its favour ticked. So wicked witches, bad fairies and the restless dead be damned, for those who are looking to fill up their folk horror fiction shelves Damnable Tales is a must have.
Available Now from Here & other book stores
Reviewed by Andy Paciorek.