Following 2017’s Holy Terrors (review here) the excellent film adaptation of various tales by the mystical author Arthur Machen, the directorial duo of Julian Butler and Mark Goodall return with a tale from another past master of the mysterious and macabre – Oliver Onions* and an adaptation of his short tale ‘The Beckoning Fair One’.
The premise of the story follows a writer as he moves into a new apartment in order to complete a novel. Eventually it is revealed that apartment is haunted by the ghost of a previous resident- the ‘beckoning fair one’ of the title.
Timed at 23 minutes, Goodall & Butler’s version of the tale stays closer to Onion’s original short story than the 1968 Don Chaffey directed adaptation that featured as an episode of the ABC/ITV supernatural/weird anthology series Journey to the Unknown. The Chaffey version has a different tone and replaces the author protagonist with a painter. It gives a specific time-setting in that it takes place 25 years after the World War 2 bombings of London and in doing so gives a more thorough exposition of the presence in the house than either Onion’s story or the Butler-Goodall version. The Chaffey adaptation runs at one hour which is perhaps too long to tell the story as it feels repetitive in parts rather than tension-building. It is however worth a watch both in itself and as a contrast to Goodall & Butler’s envisioning. (There is also a 1973 Italian Giallo film called Un Tranquillo Posto di Campagna – A Quiet Place in the Country inspired by the tale.)
Butler & Goodall only take 23 minutes on the tale which is enough to do it justice. Its tone and atmosphere is rather oneiric; slow-burning yet getting subtly under the skin delivering an entirely believable yet uncanny experience. Its sound design and crisp well-framed photography coupled with an aesthetically pleasing palette and good location choices serve up a pleasant yet eerie package – with a tale and delivery that does hazily unsettle. It is set in contemporary times, but still maintains a timeless quality. It keeps close to the psychological aspect of the original story, keeping the presence within the house and the brooding will of the building itself to the front and foremost -its horror is cerebral and suggestive not an exhibition of gore or jump-scares. Having a narrator detail the entire tale over live-action footage may not be to the taste of all viewers but for a film of this length serves its purpose well. Indeed I could see Butler & Goodall’s The Beckoning Fair One sit perfectly into A Ghost Story For Christmas slot. Having previously seen (several times actually) and loved their take on the tales of Machen, they have now displayed an empathy and understanding of Oliver Onion’s macabre tale and how to deliver it. I am left hungering to see them take on more of the past visionaries of the horror short story. I’d be curious and keen to see what they could do with the tales of Robert Aickman and Algernon Blackwood for instance. If anyone from the BBC happens to read this, take heed for Goodall and Butler are creating work that suits these times but also sits comfortably with established spooky series such as A Ghost Story for Christmas, Supernatural (1977) or The World Beyond etc.
The Beckoning Fair One can be seen in its entirety HERE
Portrait of Oliver Onions – Andy Paciorek
*Oliver Onions (1873 – 1961) was an author and artist from Bradford, England. Originally trained as a graphic artist, Onions began writing fiction under the encouragement of the American writer Gelet Burgess. Turning his hand to detective stories, science fiction and historical drama also, it is perhaps for his short tales of the weird, supernatural and spectral that he is best known. His 1911 collection Widdershins which features The Beckoning Fair One is amongst his most famous and critically acclaimed works (including amongst several other writers of weird fiction). As with The Beckoning Fair One, the theme of the relationship between creativity and madness is a theme that he returned to in his work several times. Married to the novelist Berta Ruck and the father of two sons, Oliver Onions passed away in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1961.
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.
For a clearer picture of this book you need to look at the subtitle ‘ Tales From The Darkside’ as it may be presumed from the main title and the the pentagram design on cover that the book may be a history of discourse on the occult traditions of witchcraft, ‘alternative religion’ and ceremonial magic. This is not the case as the book is in fact an anthology of classic and lesser known short tales of the supernatural and psychological. It takes the term ‘Occult’ in the wider sense of being hidden or secret; of being occluded. In the more common usage of the term to denote dark magic, only a few of the stories peripherally allude to this and I wonder whether the name ‘The Repeater Book of the Uncanny’ would have been a more apt description of the greater tone of the contents. Nomenclature and cover aside, the book will still likely be of considerable interest to many Revivalists.
Each story is selected and prefaced by writers who have penned works for the Repeater publishing house and I found these introductions to be most interesting. It is intriguing to discover why they selected the particular stories they did and also the commentary on the lives and mindsets of those that scripted the strange tales. I also approve of each story being preceded by an illustration.
Included within the volume are two stories from the pen of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu ~ ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ and ‘Green Tea’. Squire Toby’s Will concerns itself with a family feud between two brothers regarding inheritance upon the death of their father and the dark emotions and vices that arise from greed and bitterness. The other tale featured ‘Green Tea’ is the more well-known and I think stronger of the two. Its premise revolves around the popularity of Green Tea a beverage that was popular in the time of the Romantic and Gothic poets and the story’s strength is bound not to its narrative, which really doesn’t go anywhere, but its hallucinatory energy. Within the tale the drink is in part demonised as a psychotropic that causes the decline of mind of the character Jennings who drinks lakes of the stuff but in another aspect it is seen as a key to opening the mind. Jennings was also a reader of the works of mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (providing the book with one of its stronger associations to the Occult in the narrower sense) and had earmarked a passage about opening the inner eye. Alas for Jennings, the opening of his mind’s eye released madness or something perhaps worse – an actual manifestation of his shadow self. A malevolent alter-ego that appeared in the guise of a grimacing, muttering monkey. Now this may sound absurd, but consider if you were haunted by such a beast, disturbing your peace and even urging you to commit suicide! I wonder personally whether Le Fanu should have only had one story within the compendium as with the other featured authors, and another writer to have been featured in place, but as the book revolves upon the choice of Revolver writers in selecting stories that spoke strongly to them, then it is understandable how one storyteller could feature more.
In keeping with simians and also another story with a stronger occult theme, the classic WW Jacobs’ tale The Monkey’s Paw also features in the compendium. As is the case with the author Carl Neville who selected it, this is a story that has been with me since childhood. Basically it is a moral of being careful what you wish for. A family come into the possession of a taxidermy piece – a preserved monkey’s paw that can bring desires into fruition. Sounds like a blessing but the mitt reveals itself to be more of a curse. It is a simple tale but in its telling of what lurks beyond the door of grieving is a powerful piece of horror writing.
A short segment of contemplation by the author Mary Shelley ‘On Ghosts’ is short but sweet and had space permitted I would have been interested to read more writers’ musings on supernatural matters and delivering anecdotes of creepy tales they’d heard.
Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Haunted House’ is another brief inclusion that also serves to make the book something a bit different. It is more a reverie, a daydream, a description of sensations of being in a house that may be haunted – more perhaps a prose poem than a short story as such, but it continues a mood whilst also acting perhaps as an interlude in the book.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of the more well known stories in the book, but deserves to be known more widely still both in horror literature and other circles of discussion. Brave and ahead of its time (when I first read it as a teenager, I thought it had been written well into the 20th Century, rather than in 1892 and actually still upon reading it as the images play out like a film in my mind, I visualise it not in Victorian fashions but those of a later date). This is certainly due to both its timeless quality, its courageous questioning of womanhood and postnatal depression in that patriarchal era and the spectre of ‘hysteria’ that cast like a shadow over women of the period. The horror in it is not explicit – we are not told this is a definitely demon,a ghost, a vampire doppleganger or whatever but left to consider that it may very well be an inner demon manifest as a woman virtually imprisoned in her room obsesses over the yellow wallpaper in there and begins to see it take on a life of its own. Either way its build-up of dread and strangeness as the tale progresses marks it as horror as well as being an important piece of literature in other ways.
A more obscure gem in the book is Marlene Dotard’s ‘Par Avion’ from 1928. Taking as its premise the spirit communication between a living lover and one who has passed over. It does however introduce the unsettling suggestion of how malady – a virus is transmitted from the world of the dead into our world by mediumship and spreads through time. Interspersed within passages of the tale are shots of lyrical description blending scientific processes with an almost feverish mystical beauty.
A more well-known author Mark Twain, broaches contagion also in his tale Punch, Brothers, Punch’, befitting this Covid age. It is a peculiar witty story, that preceded the book and film ‘Pontypool’ by many decades, and though a beast of different tone deals in the same territory of language of words becoming viral. Tristam Adams’ introduction to his choice of tale, also struck a chord with me beginning as he does with talk of INMI (Involuntary Musical Imagery) – i.e. Ear-Worms! Because at the time of reading and for too many days surrounding I for some unfathomable reason was dealing with the song ‘Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon)’ on a constant loop in my head. It’s a good song but damn, it got a bit much! He also speaks of another subject close to my heart (hopefully not literally) – Parasites! When working for The Wildlife Trusts in a past life, in doing environmental education activities when school groups visited the reserves, one of my perks of the job (which I must say the vast majority of kids seemed to enjoy) was telling them about the weirder, grislier, grosser wonders of nature. I must admit that in talking about the world of parasites my skin would crawl too, but damn (again) they are really fascinating creatures. And that is a joy of this book, the peculiar twists and turns the selecting writers take in the delivery of their story of choice.
Bizarre creepy-crawlies and the apparent dissolving of ‘reality’ into a psychotropic nightmare are again themes that reoccur in Francis Stevens Unseen -Unheard and again why I question if this work should perhaps have been called The Repeater Book of the Uncanny, as many of the stories seem to dwell in the moments where something happens or something encountered is not quite right and then becomes increasingly wrong.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat is more familiar territory though for readers of horror short fiction. The classic tale of whereby a man’s cruelty and callous arrogance come back to bite him or rather in this case incriminate him for woeful wrongdoings.
The book ends with the brooding novella The Willows by Algernon Blackwood. This tale of being at the mercy of nature is apt in these days of Climate Change and is an eerie, atmospheric classic of folk horror / weird fiction in its own time and own right. The author Algernon Blackwood was himself a scholar of Rosicrucianism and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and I wonder whether perhaps a chance was missed here as other authors of supernatural material such as Arthur Machen, WB Yeats (who wrote extensively on folklore as well as being a great poet) and even E. Nesbit were members also of The Golden Dawn. As was notoriously for a while Aleister Crowley – though certainly not the best writer (and definitely not the best poet) he did pen some short fiction and his life is certainly an interesting topic, regardless of whether your opinions on his character or literary ability are foul or fair. Perhaps should an extended edition ever come about more tales by writers actively involved in the occult in their own lives could be a factor.
As it stands, The Repeater Book of the Occult: Tales From the Darkside is a solid enough anthology of short horror, that combines some well-known classics of the tradition with some unfamiliar and offbeat fare and is enriched further by each tale being preceded by diverse and intriguing introductions and also by illustrations.
Publisher : Repeater Books; New edition (9 Feb. 2021) Language : English Hardcover : 350 pages ISBN-10 : 1913462072 ISBN-13 : 978-1913462079
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.