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.