Sunday, 8 January 2012

Influences, inspirations, nightmares and folk horror

After quite a while away from it, I'm writing a lot of weird fiction at the moment (never feel entirely comfortable with horror as a label, and I quite like what people like the Vandermeers and China Mieville are doing in resurrecting the label of the weird).

I've written this kind of story since I first started writing stories, and I've read them for much longer than that. In part, this is because when I was a child, I saw or read some of the things below. I'll post a bit more about each of them over the next few weeks.

"The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood. Had flu. Read the story in a state of delirium. Was never quite the same again.

 The angel appearing in the BBC Play for Today, "Penda's Fen." This scene haunted me for years. Even now, thinking about it gives me a chill.

 My dad's book, "Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain", published by Reader's Digest. 
552 pages of weirdness and fear.

"The Owl Service" by Alan Garner. There are strange things and there are older things, and you can write about them in fiction for children without talking down. Garner creates his own folklore which feels as real as anything in the big black book one up from here.

BBC TV Series "The Changes". Never been comfortable about pylons since.

As an aside, I've stumbled over some interesting discussions yesterday about the idea of 'folk horror'. This isn't the experience of sitting through an evening with a nightmarish Steeleye Span cover band, but rather a term coined by Mark Gatiss in his BBC series A History of Horror to describe a run of films in the late sixties and early seventies which drew on folklore, paganism and the British countryside for inspiration - Wicker Man being the obvious example. I like this description of the genre in the 2012diaries blog
Folk horror typically is concerned with the uncanny and often unsettling vitality of folk/pagan traditions and beliefs – with witchcraft, black magic, fertility rites and festivals; in essence, with the idea that the Old Ways, the Old Religions, and the Old Gods never really die out. They remain hidden under the surface of the modern world, preserved in secluded rural enclaves, or waiting to be rediscovered in ancient manuscripts, artefacts, and monuments. The greatest iconic signifier of folk horror is the endlessly mysterious and suggestive form of the Neolithic stone circle – with their eerie mixture of nature and artifice, primitivism and a sense of elusive technology, these Neolithic monuments are the emblem par excellence of the uncanny return of the antiquated.
It's interesting how many of the stories and programmes and images that I think of as influences could be said to fall into this genre, and that's got me thinking about how many of my own stories do. And whether I should write more of them.  When my dad died, one of the things of his that meant a lot to me was the Folklore book - 'borrowed' it and read it under the covers when I was nine, inherited it when I was forty. I think I might have a browse for inspiration, and this year, write some stories that have the same atmosphere as the things that shaped my reading, my writing, my thinking, my nightmares. 


  1. Some great stuff there. Been chatting about The Changes and The Owl Service recently. Had forgotten about Pender's Fen! Chilling stuff, indeed!

  2. And this, of course

  3. Yes! The Children of the Stones - exactly that sort of thing. Should have gone on the list. There's definitely something that ties together what I had previously thought of just as 'weird stuff I like'.

    Have you read Alan Garner's more recent novel 'Thursbitch'? Is an amazing book.

  4. No. Beaut that he's still writing. In his '70s?

  5. Fantastic stuff. Cheers, Paul, for recommending this. More to seek out. I live folk horror (and folk joy for that matter).

  6. Or even "love" it >_< but you know, live it, too.

  7. Oh you begger, I was planning on a blog post on The Willows over the next few weeks too! Great minds etc. (am going to start a semi-regular blog series on my favourite 'strange stories' as Aickman called them; although 'weird' good too). The Willows is an amazing story.

    That Gatis series was really good; and folk-horror an interesting term. I like the idea of all these strange odd pagan stories surviving even in our oh so sophisticated age...

  8. Was about to say Kate, living it shows real dedication to the genre...

    Be interesting to see your take on The Willows, James - it really is one of my all time favourites. Looking forward to your blog series too, that's a good idea. Sure there will be some Aickman in there - be hard to pick a faovurite, I guess.

    I did like Gatiss' series, but felt it was too short - wanted more! Will see what I can dig up on folk horror over next few weeks and come back to it here, I think.

  9. Kill List is the most recent movie I've seen that falls into this category. It's an odd film.

  10. Thanks Alan, will have to check it out.