You say “I’ve not seen many geese this year”, and folk say “That’s because it hasn’t been cold”. But they don’t say why that matters, and the truth is that nobody knows. We think back to the last time that geese were here in good numbers, and we realise that was ten years ago when you couldn’t dig a hole in the ground for the ice. The skeins were so grand back then they’d take half an hour to move from mine to your side of the glen.
And it was bitterly cold, and there was hardly standing room for all the geese in Galloway. They had to fly round in shifts just so the tired ones could land and roost for a while, and great tatty palls of shit pattered around you when they passed overhead and darkened the sun and fair deafened you with nattering. Shooting geese was easy as pie – if you could stand to be out in the ice for more than twenty minutes at a time, you could pull the goosemeat down with a rake and save yourself the cost of a box of cartridges.
So they were here when it was cold – we can agree on that. But try and find the line between correlation and causation in all this mildery mud. If you said “It’s not been very cold this year”, folk might say “That’s because the geese haven’t come”.
It seems premature to publish my favourite five books of 2020, particularly since I’m currently up to my neck in all manner of fantastic latecomers which might easily be added to the list. But if I don’t throw down a marker now, the moment will inevitably pass. And I share this list in the knowledge that everybody in the world wants to write a blog about books – I have nothing new or unusual to add, and I make no apology for indulging myself.
Wodwo – Ted Hughes
I was slightly astonished that so much of my life had passed before I came across this collection of prose, drama and poetry by Ted Hughes. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I slipped into the book as if it were a warm bath. I often found that I was gliding through the pages as if I’d read them before; as if the stories and images rose up and coiled around me like simple fun. And I was desperately gratified to discover such a strong engagement with shooting and rural life, which helped me to feel less like a literary leper. Think of Grooby, who, in shooting a hare that is driven out of a standing crop by a combine harvester, wounds himself in a manner both ambiguous and graphic. And Billy Red, who catches and kills rats with his teeth like a terrier. I was so enraptured with Billy Red’s story (Sunday) that I wasted an entire night making a print of him in action (above). If I could build my home inside a book, I would choose Wodwo.
North – Seamus Heaney
Heaney has become a recurrent theme for me, and there is so much in his work that I find startling and direct. North was his first real departure from a period of early work which critics have called “the anonymous” – the sequence I have always liked best. I read this collection of poetry in a single inhalation, then pulled it into a thousand pieces over successive weeks. Because here is a vast overview of deep time and the mass movement of human beings, killed and dying with the relentlessness of the tide. Leathery bog bodies are woven into strange relics of Norse and Scandinavian culture, then folded back into modern concerns around nationhood and identity. And if North didn’t have enough to commend it, Heaney also tries his hand at translating Skeletons Digging by Charles Baudelaire. And it’s blisteringly creepy.
Le Gloire de mon père – Marcel Pagnol
I’ve read that “the French are proud of Proust, but they love Pagnol”. Unashamedly nostalgic and concertedly rose-tinted, Pagnol’s autobiography is just beautiful. And it makes my top list because in truth it’s a powerfully evocative description of rural Provence in the years leading up to the First World War. The thrust of the book follows a day’s walked up partridge shooting in the mountains above Aubagne, and the young Marcel’s experience of following the guns through the rocks is a cast-iron testament to that almost religious devotion small boys can feel for their fathers. Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette featured on last year’s (unpublished) top five, but there’s more than mere loyalty at play to see him placed again. And in the meantime, I’m rediscovering a growing obsession with France – I’ll make the nerdy confession that I set aside a fair amount of extra time to read this in the original French. It was a total joy.
Poor Fellow My Country – Xavier Herbert
Herbert is a literary giant in his native Australia, but he is almost unheard of in Britain. I happened to find this extremely scarce novel by sheer fluke, and it felled me. At 1,500 pages long, it took almost two months to read from beginning to end, but nothing will ever look the same again. I don’t know much about Australia and I’ve never really bothered to look – so I was staggered by this epic post-colonial monster which drew together numberless characters, cultures and landscapes and rendered them in a vast, breathless collage which actively rolled and moved around the page. Herbert was a master of shifting focus; his characters flit and dance with the busyness of termites, but we never lose track of the bigger picture – his ability to examine the smallest human detail and then pose it against the enormity of aboriginal deities actually made me laugh out loud with admiration. And if I get another dog, I’ll gonna call it Prindy, the ‘goanna.
Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley
I’ve written before on this blog about Starve Acre. To say I “enjoyed” the book is an overstatement, but I can honestly say that I’ve thought about this story every day for the last six weeks. And for all I’m a little hesitant about praising a novel that I would love to amend and rehash, I am grateful that my eyes were opened to an entirely new genre. All I’d add is that if you intend to read Starve Acre, make sure you have time to cover the whole book in a single sitting. It has a strange and compelling momentum that will not survive a pause. And I also have to say there’s no reason why Hurley should occupy this spot above Sarah Moss or Daisy Johnson, but I read him first and went to them later for better. Maybe number five should be split three ways. To be continued.
And The Worst Howler of the Year goes to:
The Other House – Henry James
I gather that there are many good reasons why this book is so terrible. For a start, it was originally written for the stage and then adapted into a novel. That process of adaptation seems to have stripped away even the merest muttering of fire or passion, replacing tension with screeds of staid and wordy convolution. I have enjoyed Henry James in other guises and I was glad to learn of his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson – but this was the first book I’ve encountered in many years which I would describe as genuinely unreadable.
They came to clean the ditches in 1989. All the farmers chipped in for the job because there’s no use cleaning the top of the glen unless the bottom’s done too. So the digger worked up from the village to the caulside of Barlochan where the burn splits and my father’s half comes up to the back of Clonyard as a steep and hedgy slit in the mud. The water lay backed-up and slack as treacle in the ditch. Jab it with a stick and it stank.
We went to see them working, walking on mounds of birch brash and rush tumps. The digger stood at the business end with a trail of broken soil streaked away behind as if it were an alien spaceship come skidding to a halt. Steam and fuel residues roiled around the cockpit – something was moving inside. I rode on my father’s shoulders and two men stood up from their spade-leaning to nod at the heavy machine. Their expressions seemed to say “It was here when we found it”.
The digger’s bucket boiled in the ditchwater and came up drooling. It teemed a tank of sludge onto the bank like chowder, and the aftermath disclosed a rancid nest of movement. Grey, regretful shapes unrolled from the sediment like a spool of guts. I’d long since seen the intestines cut from sheep and I’d marked the way they burped and bellydanced; the fat, purple coils slithering in the pan of a ‘barrow. And that was my impression as the mud guts drew and redrew their disappointment in endless treble-clefs. The digger driver stopped and lit a cigarette. I was placed on the ground to explore, but I wanted back up immediately. Six feet was close enough.
Frogs and toads had been flayed alive in the upheaval. The bucket had torn into their skin like wet paper, but they walked on as if nothing could have surprised them less; each one bearing injuries that would stagger you to hear them described. But I never saw the mud guts harmed in all my careful watching. They were too slippery to be cut by the bucket’s edge, too decisive in their choice of in or out, so each one stayed or came up whole; lidless and sombre and thick as hydraulic hose.
My father spoke to the men and nobody mentioned the mess as it splayed in the smoke and slime. The mud guts seemed to see me coming. They would nuzzle under clods that were too small to hide them, churning and hunting for somewhere to lie in peace. One of the men saw me staring. He said “have you never seen eels before?”
I’ve loved Seamus Heaney for years, ever since I found a copy of his poem The Early Purges at school. His work felt heavy and relevant to me, and as I read further into his verse and prose, I began to think I’d found a comfortable home. And it’s only ninety miles from my farm to the fields where Heaney grew up; that’s a fair leap in cultural terms, but it’s hardly two steps for a weather-front.
I often find that it’s hard to write about the immediacy of farming places; to capture an honest and accurate reflection of this life which lies around me. After ten years of trying, I’ve found that I’m well able to sink deeply into this landscape; deep enough to find the reality I’m searching for. But then I’m doomed to smudge that clarity with the constant desire to record and reflect the experience by writing it down. I flick between the roles of participant and observer, and I worry that authenticity dribbles away in the gap between the actual experience and my expression of it. I have to accept the fact that I’ve snagged on an impossible paradox which I can never wholly overcome; trying to capture the precise and accurate truth of being a farmer – by being a writer. And while this dilemma is true to all kinds of art and creativity, it’s doubly relevant in an agricultural world where the subject is “hard” and the poet is “soft”.
In a recent article on Seamus Heaney in the Irish Times, Michael Foley described him as “especially fond of things with significant heft, the sledgehammer, the stove lid and [turnip] snedder – a heavy metal poet – and of practical tasks – a labouring poet”. That sounds perfect to me in principle, but I’m hung up on the idea that “labouring poet” is an oxymoron; like “substantially ethereal”; “bluntly fey”. And I worry that despite Heaney’s many strengths, he was sometimes little more than an observer in scenes of rural labour. I want to believe in the authenticity of his voice, but I get suspicious.
And as always, Heaney is ahead of me. It’s deeply comforting to find him drawing the clear and reassuring line between labour and poetry in his own work. In Digging, he’s quite explicit about his role as a poet; “I’ve no spade to follow men like them / Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests / I’ll dig with it”. He seems to confirm my hope that spade and pen can make similar inroads to the same subject matter; that writing itself can be participatory, and that the “switch” between active and reflective is really a dial. Besides, if I’m occasionally uncomfortable with the authenticity of his early poems, it’s helpful to remember that Heaney was only a child at Mossbawn. I can’t expect a boy to have participated in the sweat and labour of man’s work. And he acknowledges the boundaries of complicity; and he explains the choice to use different tools as he works towards the same destination.
I’m glad to read critics like who suggest that Heaney’s first three collections of poetry (Death of a Naturalist, Door Into The Dark and Wintering Out) are actually far more than rich, descriptive nostalgia. If you buy the idea that Heaney is digging, those books can be read as the hands-on continuation of a rural tradition – the harvest of heritage into a paper barn. And that makes his work even more valuable to imagine Mossbawn simmered down like a stockbone; the bare essentials made portable in a few small pages. It can be done, and while that’s encouragement for me to grow towards, it’s testament to Heaney’s depth that he was only just getting started. Complexities would build a thousandfold during the phases of his work which came afterwards.
There’s another reassuring idea in Patrick Kavanaugh’s novel Tarry Flynn (1948). Kavanaugh and Heaney had an odd relationship, but the two overlapped for a time before Heaney streaked away like a comet and Kavanaugh crumbled. Set in rural Co. Monaghan, the novel follows the life of an idle, entitled dreamer called Tarry. He’s forever postulating and shirking his catholic responsibilities, and he takes some interesting lines on his own creativity. The best of these is that “The land keeps a man silent for a generation or two and then the crust gives way. A poet is born or a prophet”. That’s a fine expression of a shared, hereditary personality, as if generations in a family are merely moods in the same identity. But more importantly, it locates the urge to write and reflect as being within a rural tradition – a cyclical fruiting in a pattern of “hard” and “soft”. Writers and artists are not spiritual outsiders, but part of the place; digging the same materials from a different angle.
So if poetry and laborious pragmatism are knowingly connected, there’s actually a fun dialogue which can spark between them. I’ve often felt like a shirker for working indoors; that real jobs are pursued outside in the grip of strength and sweat. Heaney suffers with the same concern, but finds comfort in allowing the labourer to respond. The result is a perfect evocation of “to each their own”:
In Electric Light, a teacher is told: “Book-learning is the thing. You’re a lucky man. No stock to feed, no milking times, no tillage/Nor blisters on your hand nor weather-worries”.
Heaney often returns to the idea of “earning” your subject matter; establishing the lived credentials to write well and truly. It’s a key theme in the essay Nero, Chekov’s Cognac and a Knocker in TheGovernment of the Tongue (1988), and it’s one of the lines between literature and journalism which continually haunt me. But Heaney is reconciled to the link between participation and reflection; what he describes as “suffering and song”. He argues that art, writing and poetic expression (on any subject) are weak or inauthentic when the mode of expression becomes preoccupied with itself. As an example, he worries that the technical puzzle of writing “lyric poetry” can become an escapist vanity-project for the writer, particularly when it is disconnected from lived reality. I was glad to see that particular thread exposed and dismembered. I’m often frustrated to find that my own writing tends towards florid window-dressing – in writing pretty puzzles, it’s no wonder I’ve felt like a sham. But when Heaney establishes that writing is part of being, it’s possible to see good poetry as profoundly participatory and authentic. He seems to say “write truly and you have nothing to fear”. I love the man for all manner of reasons, but that is both balm and provocation.
When I first came here you were always singing, a hint of the clip of the pick in your winnowing climb and attack. Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.
The cattle have begun to bend my ear. Their grass has gone, and they bellow in the dusk for hunger and frustration. I started to feed them hay in early November, but this was a poor summer for sunshine and I only made a hundred small bales. The bulk of that crop should be saved for the bull, so I’ve moved the herd onto my silage, half a ton at a time; black-wrap balls like beetle shells which squeak if you rub them up the wrong way.
When I first came to cattle, I had four small calves. A big bale would last them for a week. But then I began to grow my numbers and the silage dissolved before my eyes. Suddenly I look up and find that I need to unwrap a new bale every other day, and I’m heavily aware of the cost. I was proud to see my silage stacked in lines during the height of midsummer, but already there are ominous gaps emerging in the store. Here’s that annual bottleneck again; the testy balance I have to strike between boom and bust.
I don’t have enough cows to catch all the grass when it comes in May – but when I have to provide their winter feed, it feels like I have too many. Grass swings between feast and famine, and this year I’m doubly tested by the arrival of four new heifers which came in June. Nine stores were sold in October at eighteen months old, and I’ll go into winter with twenty three head. That’s more than I ever imagined or planned for at first, and now I’m expecting eleven calves in the spring. There’s plenty of excitement ahead, but a fair heft of cost and labour to come first.
Having recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I listened to a radio interview with the writer and actor Mark Gatiss, who has adapted the book for television. I remember Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen, but he has since become the go-to pundit for ideas around horror and the macabre. In a wide ranging conversation with Nihal Arthanayake, he talked of his interest in ammonite fossils; and as we enter December, he pressed on the idea that ghost stories are an integral part of his Christmas tradition. That’s never been my experience, but as he discussed the festive connection, I began to see how candlelight and a weight of breathless expectation could allow something ghoulish to coalesce on Christmas Eve. Gatiss praised the writer MR James, who, as a schoolmaster in the 1920s, used to read ghost stories to his students on Christmas Eve. I was curious enough to find out more.
I’d love to say that “Selected Ghost Stories by MR James” dropped through my letterbox a few days later. In reality, the postman is so scared of the bull I keep in my front field that he flings the post towards the house from the window of his van. So I gathered the parcel from where it lay in the frost and brought it back indoors while the bull slept peacefully under a tree, enjoying his placid dreams. The kettle was boiling, and I soon found myself halfway through Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, the first of sixteen short stories in the collection.
Set in Southern France, the story is grotesque in its portrayal of a demon that is magically linked to a set of religious manuscripts. The drama unfolds around the cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges in the Haute-Garonne. By an odd twist, I visited Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges almost twenty five years ago when I was studying at a school near Auch. The name has stuck with me ever since; it’s one of many things which I’ve replayed backwards and forwards in my head for so long that it’s lost all meaning; it’s just become a sound – “sanber-trander-commange”. But having been nudged by MR James, I searched for images of the cathedral on the internet and found that it was beautiful; a heavy old building which stands high up on a hill like some Transylvanian keep. I pitied the school teacher who had driven my fellow students and I to visit that place in a minibus when we were twelve years old. He was casting pearls before swine, particularly since I went on to forget every single detail of the day.
As I searched around for more information on the cathedral, I realised that it is also famous as the home of a large nile crocodile which hangs on the wall beside the choir. Stuffed and dried to the texture of a raisin, the precise origin of this ominous reptile is obscure. It’s likely that it was brought back from North Africa by medieval merchants or crusaders, but nobody knows for sure. In the days before museums or natural history collections, strange curiosities would’ve been placed on display in the church, so perhaps it’s inevitable that as centuries passed, it became a relic. The crocodile is said to be the baby-eating monster killed by St. Bertrand to ensure his beatification, and that’s as good a tale as any. But I found other articles which added more layers of interest to the story of the crocodile at St Bertrand de Comminges. Some medieval bestiaries describe crocodiles as the avatars of Satan himself; the living embodiment of pure evil. So a dead crocodile suspended upside down in a position of deliberate indignity is a nice statement of intent in a house of God.
Pondering the idea of a crocodile in a cathedral, I clicked through to the next randomly generated post on a blog about the history and folklore of southern France (Lieux Secrets de Pays Cathare). It was a description of an annual carnival in Limoux, near Carcassone; a festival which places a specific emphasis on clowns and pork sausages. But I was most interested in the idea of the Goudils of Limoux – characters in symbolic costumes which accompany the main carnival, causing mischief and mayhem.
The concept of a stylised “mischief-maker” is fairly widespread in folklore and tradition, but the role is usually taken by young, cheeky ne’er-do-well characters. By contrast, Goudils are specifically old and cantankerous – their costumes are wrinkled and overtly conservative; the men wear berets and sweeping moustaches, the women carry rolling pins. The article gave a little more detail; “cassé par la vie, le Goudil représente souvent un homme chenu ou, mieux, une vielle dame indigne” (broken by life, the Goudil is represented by a stubborn old man, or better, an irritable old woman). Elsewhere, we’re told that “the Goudil is the heroic representation of the poor, the marginalised and the “opprimés” (the downtrodden)”; a kind of latter-day Diogenes, reminding us that modern ways are extravagant and wasteful; that simplicity and frugality are virtues in their own right. And if the Goudils of Limoux have become a lighthearted representation of socially conservative values, I wonder if their original inspiration was some “Madame Goudil” who heard the carnival passing by her house one afternoon and said “I’m sick of those damn noisy kids – I’m going to give them a piece of my mind”. And grimacing with ill-temper, she picked up her rolling pin and stepped into the street, becoming a permanent fixture in the culture and tradition of the town.
Tickled by this idea and others like it, I realised that my coffee had gone cold. It was lunchtime, and I had squandered half a day pursuing ghost stories, crocodiles and carnivals. I write all this partly as a test of my own memory, but chiefly to warn against following your nose through books and ideas. One thing leads to another, and days can simply vanish.
I went out west to shoot woodcock; out beyond Innermessan to the edge of Galloway. Then shoving up through birch trees and bracken banks, I followed the dog and came upon a view of the sea below me. There was Antrim and the Mull of Kintyre, with boats ploughing ruts into the flat black water of the Clyde.
People clattered through the woods around me, crackling twigs and laughing at their dogs and the state of a bright December day. I drew breath at the view and a woodcock flared in the brambles near my feet. I watched it rise and turn back over the guns, and somebody killed it when it was gone. I heard a dog being praised for the retrieve, and there was laughter again at some comment recalled from earlier at how the dog would always look you in the eye when it shat.
They were Wigtownshire folk; a mix of farmers and neighbours. I was the outsider, but there was no less warmth for being strange. When we stopped for a break, a girl asked me where I came from. I said “Dalbeattie”, and she shrugged as if she’d never heard of it. She said “you sound posh”, but it was a statement without judgement or accusation. I wondered if I could ever master the kind of accent I’d need to pass without comment here. Her “glen” was “glayin”; her “black” was “blake”, and maybe that’s no surprise when the nearest decent pub’s in Belfast. I was born and brought up in Galloway, but the west is another country.
Then more birds rose and the tide turned and a creel boat passed up the loch to the open sea. We beat the whinns and pushed snipe into the breeze where they hung like larks above the sun. Two fell, and a party of stags recoiled from the sound of shooting. They hurried out from the alders, and they only paused to look back when they’d run for a quarter mile. We stopped and gazed at their bodies on the horizon towards Glenapp; cream and dun and cloudless blue.
And hares flared away from the dogs. They raced for the gateways, turning their ears like shoe tongues to better hear behind them. I don’t like to see hares killed, but it can be fine to find them hanging with other game at the end of a cold day. Their upended bodies roil in steam and torchlight; tentative tongues emerge behind their teeth like fingertips.
I had killed a woodcock and a snipe by lunchtime. I carried the birds in a bag on my back with a flask and wrap of sandwiches. Older people say there is a softening which comes with age; that the desire to shoot hard will decline in later life. I’ll confess that I’m less interested in killing woodcock nowadays, but my shot was good and strong and I worked for it. And perhaps I push against that softening out of stubbornness too. I’ve often taken it badly when grey-haired guns patronise me with the prediction that I’ll soon grow out of my pleasure. I can’t bear the thought that they might be right – and besides, I half suspect that many of those who claim to have forsworn woodcock on the grounds of seniority are simply too idle to invest the legwork.
But anyhow, the choice to stop may not be my own. People say that woodcock should be given legal protection, and I can understand the arguments which drive towards that conclusion. If I was pressed to defend this kind of shooting, I’d say that a day like this can be more than mere killing. Woodcock navigate by the stars; they go unseen by all by a tiny cadre of careful observers; chasing them is an observance of ritual; a nod towards moonlight and witchcraft; a tone of engagement which far exceeds the clumsy blat of gunpowder. It’s bigger and more vital than death alone, but you’ll never win an argument with that kind of language. And it’s clear that nature has begun to shrink before us; we’re crowding out this tiny island, and it’s inevitable that we should be forced to compromise and accept that some of the old ways will have to go. We can’t be the people we used to be, so I clutch at these valuable days with desperate clarity. They’re surely numbered.
Dogs run in the lowering sun, and birds rise up before them.
My autumn has revolved around the novel Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley. I’ve always been a wimp when it comes to horror in film or literature. I don’t like being scared, but Starve Acre won me over with the promise of something a little closer to home; the idea that horror could be woven into more familiar themes of nature, history and folklore. And I couldn’t put it down; I devoured the entire book during the course of a single, hair-raising afternoon.
In reading reviews and publicity about the novel afterwards (including this excellent article by Hurley himself), I realised that I had stumbled upon a subgenre called “folk horror”; stories which play around that odd flux between people, nature and the supernatural. Folk horror traces its roots back to cult films like The Wickerman, and it rose to prominence during the 1970s alongside threads of witchcraft and paganism. After an extended lull, folk horror is currently enjoying a revival in the wake of the recent film Midsommar (2019), in which a group of American students visit a rural commune in Sweden. It’s an eerie and engrossing tale, and it shines on the back of an extraordinarily fragile and ghoulish performance by the actress Florence Pugh.
Realising that I’ve spent my life avoiding “horror”, I watched Midsommar and began to worry that I might’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Ignore the the obligatory scenes of blood-spatter and disembowelment which seem to characterise horror films – beneath that silly grandstanding, Midsommar taps into some horribly soft and sensitive pieces of the human brain. It turns out that I’m magnetically drawn to this kind of story, less for the glare of bloodshed and more for that oddly mesmerising and wholly immersive atmosphere of discomfort. When the credits began to roll at the end of Midsommar, I had no idea where I was. I looked around the room as if I’d been away on a trip for two hours. I can’t remember when I last felt like that after a film.
And likewise, I vanished into Starve Acre because it felt directly relevant to my own life. It’s based on rural history and a close engagement with nature. There’s a heavy dependence upon the folklore of hares, but look closer and you begin to see patterns emerging through the genre. Folk horror frequently depends upon a protagonist “looking in” to rural places from the outside. In Starve Acre, Juliette Willoughby is a self-proclaimed outsider. The same is true for Police Sergeant Howie in The Wickerman, and the cocksure American students in Midsommar; they’re all stumbling into something which lies far beyond their ken. For me, that opens up a vast and complex discussion around authenticity and perspective.
We feel like we ought to be at home in woods and fields. The countryside is part of Britain’s Creation Myth, even though most of us live in towns and cities. When my urban friends come to visit me on the farm, they’re looking for peace and relaxation, but I’m aware that the reality of this place can make them uneasy. It gets very dark at night, and the house can be awfully quiet. I find that they often want to close the kitchen curtains in the evening. I ask them why, and they reply that they don’t want “people looking in at them”. I’m baffled by the idea that anybody would bother to peer in my windows, but my friends are dead set on the nightmare of voyeurs lurking in the gloom outside. I’d say it’s much more sensible to worry about voyeurs in a city, but it’s clear that the countryside provides little escape from habits of anxiety. Besides, whether real or imagined, visitors have deeply-engrained expectations that the countryside should be crisp and clean-living; that small rural communities are meant to be harmless and restorative. And horror lurks in the suspicion that these expectations might be wrong.
Keen to find out more about these ideas, I’ve been reading a folk horror anthology called Fiends in the Furrows. It’s a mixed bag. Some of it is chilling, but most of it is utter crap. It’s become clear that, without care, folk horror can tend towards a list of dull cliches; the nightmare of inbred, gun-toting Satanists with a penchant for bestiality and bonfires. That’s quite fun for a while, but I’m starting to wonder if the genre is partly a response to the realisation that our expectations have been confounded. Having placed the countryside on a pedestal, visitors expect to experience a restorative home-coming on the land. But face-to-face with the reality of rural places, they might start to feel like outsiders. Maybe they’re wrong-footed, which makes them cross; and that anger is expressed as something close to vengeful malice in a genre which often trades upon scapegoating rural communities and stereotyping them as credulous, rapacious clans. It feels like misplaced frustration, and that’s another layer of fascinating complexity around authenticity and perspective.
I want to keep reading into folk horror. Parts of it are silly, but I think it has genuine value. Sick of “nature writing” which treats rural landscapes as a peaceful escape from an urban normality, it’s nice to have found something different to shed new light on places and people. It becomes clear that fear and discomfort are foundational sensations which ring true wherever you are. Harness them properly and you can deliver a major artistic punch; a vivid and primal expression of human experience, regardless of gore and discomfort.