This Dreaming Isle (Edited by Dan Coxon)
A book review
What is “folk horror”? Perhaps, like proverbial True Love, you’ll only recognize it when you meet it. Both as a term and as a literary and artistic genre, it defies a facile definition and is possibly easier to explain with reference to its typical – yet by no means exclusive – elements. The term itself is often attributed to British film director Piers Haggard, who coined it in a 2003 interview to describe his own film The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It was subsequently taken up by Mark Gatiss in his 2010 BBC4 series “A History of Horror” and applied not just to Haggard’s movie, but also to other films of the era with which it shares certain traits, such as Witchfinder General (1968) and the iconic The Wickerman (1973). One of the chief texts to explore the genre, Adam Scovell’s Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, cites a lovely quote from Andy Paciorek:
“One may as well attempt to build a box the exact shape of mist; for like the mist, folk horror is atmospheric and sinuous. It can creep from and into different territories yet leave no universal defining mark of its exact form.”
And yet, some basic elements can be identified in both literary and filmic manifestations of the genre. Landscapes, especially their ancient contours, are generally an important aspect of the story, often going beyond mere scene-setting. Plots often include references to folklore, myths and legends. More often than not, pagan or occult cults or beliefs make an appearance, in contrast with either a Christian or, quite ironically, material/secular worldviews. Another regular trope is an urban dweller moving to a rural context, and being overcome by ancient, pagan or natural forces – possibly a symbol of the inherent struggle between man and beast.
The term “folk horror” might be fairly recent. Its concerns are not. Indeed, stories by the likes of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood are often cited as forerunners of the genre. I would go back even more and venture that its roots are to be found in the dark Romanticism of the late 18th and 19th centuries, with its fixation with the Sublime – the terror and magnificence of the untamed forces of nature – its revival of interest in ancient folklore and legends, its themes of the alienated individual, and its fascination with the supernatural. To give just one example, beneath its farcical exterior, Goethe’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (famously set to music by Felix Mendelssohn), explores themes not far removed from those of folk horror.
“This Dreaming Isle”, issued by speculative fiction publishers Unsung Stories, was funded through a Kickstarter campaign by like-minded fans of weird fiction (including yours truly). When “This Dreaming Isle” project was launched on Kickstarter, the target of the campaign was to fund a “horror and dark fantasy anthology inspired by the British landscape, featuring leading horror and fantasy authors”. Editor Dan Coxon explains in his introduction to the collection:
It was always our intention to allow the contributing authors a free rein...we asked only that they should tie them to a specific place in the British Isles, and should in some way explore the myths and traditions, the folklore and history that make this land unique.
The result, which Coxon describes as “startling”, is that most of the stories could be considered to fall in the “folk horror” category, exploiting as they do certain tropes which have come to be associated with the genre. At the same time, the sheer variety present within the general, unifying theme of the anthology shows how rich this seam of dark inspiration can be.
As if to emphasize the central role landscape plays in this anthology, its seventeen stories are divided into three “geographical” sections, respectively titled “Country”, “City” and “Coast”. The structure forms a satisfying arch, with the shortest section placed in the middle.
“Country” starts with a particularly strong entry, The Pier at Ardentinny by Catriona Ward. The story, featuring a young woman’s visit to her older fiance’s family in Scotland, initally comes across as a rather twee excuse for a lesson in Scottish folkore, until the final page turns it into an Angela-Carteresque tale. Jenn Ashworth’s Old Trash, set in a camping site near Pendle, references both the notorious witch trials and legends about spectral dogs.
The unexpected success of Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel “The Loney” did much to push folk-horror into the mainstream – to this anthology, Hurley contributes In My Father’s House, a strange piece about a man, his elderly father and weird goings-on around Christmas. Land of Many Seasons is an understated piece by Tim Lebbon about a solitary landscape artist hounded by a ghostly figure. One of the best things about Aliya Whiteley’s Dark Shells is its captivating narrative voice, that of an old woman haunted by memories – and, perhaps, something more. The section ends with 'Domestic Magic (Or, things my wife and I found hidden in our house)' by Kirsty Logan. An interesting structure and an original take on Scottish water folklore makes for a different and striking read.
Folk horror often relies on a rural setting. But urban life also has its angst, one which can be effectively expressed through the medium of horror. The City section gives us some good examples – think urban Gothic, brought up to date. And one can hardly be more up to date than James Miller and his Not All Right, about an alt-right internet troll who comes to a chilling end. The Cocktail Party in Kensington Gets Out of Hand promises a rather extravagant tale, and Robert Shearman delivers. It’s one of the more surreal pieces, more Buzzati than Machen perhaps, about a male escort hired to be a rug at an exclusive do. It gets stranger with We Regret to Inform You by Jeanette Ng. An epistolary tale through emails, set in what seems to be a contemporary but different England, it veers uneasily between alternative history and post-apocalyptic fiction. Lodestones by Richard V. Hirst reminded me somewhat of a particular Mieville story about a street which kept disappearing – here, a shortcut to work leads us on a drive to a weird variant of Manchester.
It’s back to nature in the last section of the anthology, which takes us on a fictional journey around the British coast. Time is fluid in Gareth E. Rees’s The Knucker, in which a time-warp serves to combine three storylines. This idea that landscape itself can harbour ‘memories’ is also central to Hovering (Or, a recollection of 25 February 2015) by Gary Budden. Budden’s stories could be described as the fictional equivalent of “psychogeography” a-la Iain Sinclair. In this worldview, history, whether natural or human, shapes the rural and urban landscape and leaves residues which can be picked up by the more sensitive sort. Whereas authors like Sinclair use their imagination to read the past into contemporary landscapes, Budden exploits this concept in his works, which present us with individuals burdened by the weight of Deep Time. Is this story entirely fictional? It Seems purposely written to feel autobiographical. Perhaps it is. It makes matters uncannier still.
Although well-known as a writer of neo-Victorian supernatural fiction, Alison Littlewood uses a contemporary setting for The Headland of Black Rock in which an actor on holiday is seduced by a mysterious woman he meets on the wild Cornish coast. Alison Moore’s The Stone Dead taps into the ghost story tradition, although it also explores more prosaic horrors such as stifling family members. It’s a good yarn, albeit not really related to the “coastal theme”. The same could be said about The Devil in the Details, a rather Jamesean story about a haunted mural at St Brendan on Sea.
The anthology comes to an end with Swimming With Horses by Angela Readman. And here, as in Littlewood’s piece, the sea and its myths and legends once again take centre stage. A run-down coastal resort seems hardly the setting for an uplifting story but, unexpectedly, this tale turns out to be the perfect contrast to Catriona Ward’s opening gambit. The final, luminous paragraphs take us from the realm of folk horror to somewhere else – brighter, more hopeful, but just as tinged with the mystery of the landscape.
Paperback, 328 pages
Published November 19th 2018 by Unsung Stories