Ginger Nuts of Horror
There’s nothing to be scared of in the countryside, surely? Suspicious villagers? Maybe. Local ales that burn the lining from your stomach? Maybe. Scarecrows? Probably. Cow shit? Definitely.
Of course I jest, as I’m from the noble county of Somerset. And as I write this article in the comfy living room of a house in the middle of an ‘urban’ neighbourhood of concrete, glass and brick, I find myself missing the sweep of the wind across the hills and the bleak beauty of the fields in winter. I miss the summer sun upon lush grassland and the browning of the trees in autumn. I miss it all; every leaf and blade of grass, every whisper of wind through narrow country lanes and across bridle paths. These things will always be in my heart. I will always be a child of fields and meadows.
And yet there is something else about the landscape that fills me with a sense of disquieting dread. When I remember the hush of a cold breeze through the boughs of great oaks and thin birches, I can only think of the whispering voices of child-snatchers, murderers, witches and spirit-folk; the ghosts of people murdered under the rule of superstition and fear of devilry. The thin places within reality. And then I remember that England is an old country, and the land is ancient beyond the comprehension of most people, me included. It is easy to imagine the fields imbued with some sort of elemental power.
Folk horror is experiencing a renaissance, it would seem - and about time too, because there is something beguiling and intrinsic about it. It speaks to something fundamental within ourselves. The cold dread of the dark countryside, the shadowy lanes and pathways, and the possibility of arcane rites performed in isolated hovels set amongst the old hills. It encompasses superstition, folklore, traditions and myths passed down through generations. The darkness of prehistory. Pagan and Christian theology clashing, as witnessed in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, a film based upon the novel Ritual.
There has always been a vein of religious fundamentalism running through folk horror. 1968’s Witchfinder General, for example, is known for its depiction of torture upon those unfortunate enough to be accused of witchcraft and conniving against God in 17th century East Anglia. While The Blood on Satan’s Claw focuses on the Christian inhabitants of an early 18th century village gradually being corrupted by a satanic beast.
Even forty-five years later the blood of folk horror still runs thick with films such as Troll Hunter, Black Death, The Shrine, Yellowbrickroad, Kill List, The Blair Witch Project, A Field in England and the recently-released The Witch emerging amongst the glut of slashers and zombie films. Even Dog Soldiers could be classified within the subgenre, to an extent.
Folk horror can also be found in television. The first season of True Detective was littered with pagan references and imagery. Earlier examples include The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, and the BBC adaptions of M.R. James stories, such as The Ash Tree, A Warning to the Curious, and The Stalls of Barchester.
Then there is the literature. Adam Nevill’s The Ritual and House of Small Shadows are sublime examples. Read them, if you haven’t already. Seriously, do it.
And, of course, the work of writers such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R .James and William Hope Hodgson continue to remain popular after so many years.
Thomas Brown’s Lynnwood is another excellent novel with a folk horror theme. I could list more, but I’d be here until Christmas. In fact, in many stories of supernatural/Lovecraftian horror there is some hint of folk horror within them. The subgenre only seems to be getting more relevant, especially in these times of environmental issues and technological advances. Is our increasingly high-tech society a reason for the rekindled interest in folk horror? Do we wish to return to the fields and work the earth? While it’s not as clear-cut as that, I think that part of ourselves – a primal section of the brain – finds the old traditions and rituals appealing. Except Morris dancing, of course. No one wants to see that. Ever.
Maybe the revived interest is due to the increasing danger of climate change, as sea levels rise and nature responds to our meddling. Are we afraid that the planet will grow tired of us and we’ll be obliterated to near-extinction or worse? Is there a desire to return to simpler times, to be closer to nature like our ancestors were, before it’s too late and nature punishes us for being so careless?
I think folk horror is here to stay for a while and will only become more pertinent over the next few years. Maybe soon, not too far into the future, we’ll all be wearing simple garments and animal masks while cavorting around a great bonfire in worship of pagan gods – and even that sounds better than Morris dancing, to be honest.
So be careful the next time you’re out in the fields, because that frail voice you hear upon the wind only wishes to lure you from the safety of the pathway and into the shadows under the skeletal boughs. Keep walking and ignore it; keep your head down and don’t look towards the trees. Don’t stop when it calls your name. And whatever you do, don’t follow it into the woods.
Rich Hawkins hails from deep in the West Country, where a childhood of science fiction and horror films set him on the path to writing his own stories. He credits his love of horror and all things weird to his first viewing of John Carpenter's THE THING when, aged twelve, he crept downstairs late one night to watch it on ITV. He has a few short stories in various anthologies, and has written one novella, BLACK STAR, BLACK SUN, released earlier this year. His debut novel THE LAST PLAGUE has recently been nominated for a British Fantasy Award for Best Horror Novel. The sequel, THE LAST OUTPOST, is due for release in the autumn of 2015.
He currently lives in Salisbury, Wiltshire, with his wife, their daughter and their pet dog Molly. They keep him sane. Mostly.