And don’t bother putting your answers on a postcard. As you probably realise, TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS is the latest installment in the TERROR TALES series, and one I’ve been particularly excited about for quite some time for reasons that I’ll go into below … along with the table of contents of course, the back-cover blurb and anything else necessary to send you straight to the TELOS website, where the book, which will be published on October 22 this year, is already AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER.
On a not dissimilar subject today – i.e. rural ghost stories, folk horror and tales of dread drawn from all corners of this sceptred isle – I’ll be offering a detailed review and discussion of GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND, Vol 1 in the hugely popular anthology series, GREAT BRITISH HORROR, as edited by Steve J Shaw.
If you’re only here for the GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND chit-chat, by all means shoot down to the lower end of today’s blogpost and the Thrillers, Chillers section, where I post all my book reviews. On this occasion, though, I recommend you stick around a little while at least. If you’re not familiar with the TERROR TALES books but you enjoy GREAT BRITISH HORROR … well, I mean, come on! How different in tone do you think they’re really going to be?
Okay, cool. Let’s get on with …
The TERROR TALES series has been running since 2011, as many of you are hopefully aware. For those who aren’t, we publish annually, each year featuring a different corner of the British Isles and mining it thoroughly both for horror fiction and horror non-fiction, the ‘true’ anecdotes always interspersing with the stories, one or two of which will usually be lesser-know classics, though the vast majority are original works by some of the best names in the business.
If you don’t believe that latter boast, just check out the back-cover blurb and the Table of Contents below:
Bastions of Dread
The Strathantine Imps by Steve Duffy
Spirits of Palace and Tomb
Gie Me Something ta Eat Afore I Dee by John Alfred Taylor
Glasgow’s Dancing Corpse
Land of the Foreigner by Tracy Fahey
The Bloodiest of Ends
Proud Lady in a Cage by Fred Urquhart
The Ghost Road
Drumglass Chapel by Reggie Oliver
The Devil in the Dark City
Two Shakes of a Dead Lamb’s Tail by Anna Taborksa
I’ll Be in Scotland Before You
The Real Mr Hyde
Dishes Served Cold
Echoes from the Past by Graham Smith
The Murder Dolls
Herders by Willie Meikle
The Vampire of Annandale
Birds of Prey by SJI Holliday
The Selkirk Undead
The Clearance by Paul M. Feeney
The Overtoun Bridge Mystery
The Fourth Presence by SA Rennie
The Lowlands of Scotland was always going to be an exciting call, because it ticks so many of the Terror Tales boxes.
Though you might, on first thinking about it, assume that the Scottish Highlands would be the more dramatic backdrop for a collection of chilling tales, and indeed we did TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS back in 2015, you have to remember that while the Highlands is undoubtedly wreathed in Celtic folklore, the Lowlands were much more embroiled in the brutal mainstream politics of the British Isles. Thus, more slaughters and other atrocities took place there, and not just as the Scots saw off foreign invaders like the Romans, the Norse and the English, but because there were civil wars as well. If you’ve never heard about the Covenanters, or the Jacobites, or if you thought the English Civil War was confined only to England, well you should find this volume informative as well as entertaining. Some of the region’s darkest, bloodiest days stemmed from brother turning upon brother.
That said, with so many pitiless massacres in its past, the Lowlands’ ghost lore is absolutely rife. You can parachute into Southern Scotland just about anywhere, onto the roof of a castle or church, an open stretch of moor, a defensive wall, a tower, even on top of a tenement in Glasgow or a terraced house in the old West Bow district of Edinburgh, and you’ll disturb its dead occupants as surely as those that are living. Likewise, tales of diabolism run rampant throughout the region’s mythology. This too was a realm where witchcraft was both practised and persecuted, while the sprites and goblins associated with the braes and cairns of this strange and lovely land were almost unique in their wickedness.
And when it comes to evil beings, we aren’t just discussing those of the supernatural variety. From Bluidy Mackenzie to Bible John, the Scottish Lowlands has produced an array of fiendish villains, real-life bogeymen, the mere mention of whose names casts long and eerie shadows.
Many of them will appear here, in this book, in one form or another. But that’s enough from me for now. If you really want do drill deep into TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH LOWLANDS, you know what you need to do.
As I say, it’s out on October 22, and available for pre-order on the TELOS PUBLISHING website right now.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
edited by Steve J Shaw (2016)
Black Shuck Books is one of the most exciting publishers of homegrown horror to have emerged onto the British scene in the last few years. The Great British Horror series is only one of several that owner, publisher and senior commissioning editor, Steve J Shaw, currently has underway, but it’s already proving to be hugely productive. Five titles have been launched under the banner to date in both paperback and hardback, and this one, Green and Pleasant Land, was the first.
Before digging into it story by story, let’s allow the publishers themselves to make an introduction. Here is the back cover blurb:
Great British Horror 1 is the first in an annual series showcasing the best in modern British horror. Every year, the series will feature ten British authors, plus one international guest contributor, telling tales of this sceptred isle.
The 2016 edition, Green and Pleasant Land, features eleven original stories of small town, rural and folk horror from eleven authors at the very top of their game.
I suppose it’s easily possible these days to conflate folk-horror fiction with all things British. Okay, people still dispute what actually constitutes folk-horror, even now, a decade after it suddenly reappeared and elbowed out some space for itself in what was already a much pigeon-holed market. But if you consider that in its most basic sense, it involves witchcraft, remote rural locations, stone circles and ancient cults, you won’t go far wrong.
After all, the three horror movies (all British of course) that celeb horror aficionado Mark Gatiss originally nominated as the unholy trinity from which folk-horror was born – Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man – are all exactly that. But, judging from his editorial decisions on show here, Black Shuck head honcho, Steve J Shaw, might give you an argument that traditional British horror isn’t solely drawn from folklore, and in fact that the ‘British horror’ label could also be attached to several other very identifiable subgenres.
Traditional ghost stories, for example, are still a staple of it, and have been for a long time. MR James, EF Benson and even Charles Dickens got out into the British back-country and told chilling supernatural tales decades before the term folk-horror was coined. Visionaries like Arthur Machen added strangeness to the mix. In later years, the 1960s and 1970s, the Pan Horror anthologies became notorious for the violence and sleaziness of their stories, many of which focussed on madness and murder rather than ghosts and goblins but invariably took place in mundane and yet recognisably British locations.
Around the same time, the Amicus portmanteau movies, while drawing so much inspiration (and sometimes a whole lot more) from American horror comics, were almost entirely located in the UK and thoroughly flavoured by British culture. On top of that, this was the age of Hammer, who, though they set almost everything they did in the past and in semi-mythical central European locations, produced the majority of their films on the same sets in and around Bray Studios in Berkshire, using familiar all-British casts, and could not have been more British in tone.
All of these influences, and others, are on show in the Great British Horror series, though perhaps it was always going to be inevitable that Volume 1, Green and Pleasant Land, in which the emphasis lies on the British countryside, was going to lean most strongly towards folklore.
Like all the other volumes that would follow in this series (to date), Green and Pleasant Land contains eleven stories, ten written by British authors, one extra contribution sourced from overseas.
The folk-horror stories themselves are an eclectic mix.
For example, very traditionally, in Rich Hawkins’s Meat for the Field, a young man tortured by guilt decides that he can no longer stand the human sacrifices committed by the cult that dominates his poor rural village, and resolves to do something about it. It’s an interesting twist on the secretive village witchcraft tale that we’ve become so used to on film and TV in that it’s an insider confronting the evil rather than an outsider, but all the comforting tropes are there.
In contrast, VE Leslie’s Hermaness has a gentler tone, but leans towards the psychological. It focusses on a young couple who, despite their crumbling relationship, go on holiday to Shetland. While there, Brian dismisses Nell’s knowledge of the local seabirds and her fascination for the mythology of the region, showing much more interest in a sexy American tourist. And then the mysterious fog comes down …
There are even darker forces at work in the three other folk-horror contributions.
Ray Cluley’s The Castellmarch Man takes us on a round-trip of ancient sites, many of them in Wales, and delves deeply into Arthurian legend, but as this is the strongest story in the collection in my opinion, I’ll save the synopsis for this one until later; just trust me, it’s ultra-creepy. Another powerful folk-tale is AK Benedict’s Misericord, in which an academic and her fiancé visit a marshland church, which for centuries has somehow withstood the local floodwaters. According to the vicar, this is down to the power of prayer. But could it be something else?
But perhaps the most folk-horrorish (is there such a phrase?) story here is Jasper Bark’s complex but compelling Scottish Highlands novella, Quiet Places. There are many ideas and concepts wrapped up in this one, so it’s no surprise that it runs to 70 plus pages (I understand that a new, revised and lengthier version has since been released as a stand-alone), but none of them are wasted. More about this one later too.
But as I said, Green and Pleasant Land doesn’t lurk solely in the realms of folk-horror.
We get more than a dollop of Machenesque weirdness (with some extra nasty stuff added) from Laura Mauro in Strange as Angels, though this is another strong entry, so I’ll be talking a little more about this one later too, while the aforementioned Pan Horror series would not have turned its nose up at Adam Millard’s sad and ultimately horrifying She Waits on the Upland (more about this one later as well), or David Moody’s Ostrich, in which a pleasant country cottage becomes a prison when it dawns on a middle-aged housewife that all her controlling husband wants her to do is keep the place spick and span. Inevitably, she soon reaches breaking point …
Less pulpy in tone and in some ways more relevant to the here and now – this one certainly enshrines the darker side of England’s green and pleasant land! – the ever-reliable James Everington hits us with A Glimpse of Red, the story of a foreign woman living in Britain under Witness Protection, but going slowly mad on the streets of an English market town that seems hopelessly alien to her.
Less ‘real world’ and in fact a whole lot more bizarre, we should also mention two unearthly tales that simply take possession of the word ‘horror’ and run with it like mad.
In Simon Kurt Unsworth’s Mr Denning Sings, we centre on an eager churchgoer, who loves singing hymns during services at his local country church. But one week, the celebration is repeatedly disrupted by an ugly coughing sound, which no one else in the congregation seems to hear, though that doesn’t stop the hideous entity causing it to finally materialise. Even eerier, we have Blue Eyes by Barbie Wilde, in which a homeless alcoholic discovers the corpse of a beautiful woman in the woods, and returns to it repeatedly to use it as his personal sex toy. But how dead is this woman? And is she even a woman?
All round, Green and Pleasant Land is an excellent start to the Great British Horror series. As I say, it’s a diverse but entertaining mix of dark fiction, richly flavoursome of the British countryside but not hidebound by the more typical conventions of ‘rural horror’. More important still (to me at least), all the stories selected are of the highest quality, expertly written and paced, and in many cases, deeply unsettling. It gets my strongest recommendation.
And now …
GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND – the movie
I doubt that any film maker has optioned this book yet, or even that it’s ever likely to happen, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my opinions just in case some major player decides to put it on the screen.
Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a portmanteau horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in.
Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to either relate spooky stories or listen to them. An eerie village pub might suffice in this case, or a bus stop out on lonely moorland, or even an endlessly winding woodland path as a bunch of progressively less-cheery hillwalkers tramp sturdily along it.
Without further waffle, here are the stories and the (very expensive) casts I would choose:
The Castellmarch Man (by Ray Cluley): Charley and Lynsey enjoy ‘geo-caching’ around the UK, visiting ancient or sacred sites and leaving evidence of their visits in specially provided boxes. On a trip to rural Wales, however, they meet the mysterious and scary ‘Castellmarch Man’, and their lives will never be the same again …
Charley – Andrew Scott
Lynsey – Jodie Turner-Smith
He Waits on the Upland (by Adam Millard): Embittered old farmer, Graham, is struggling on many fronts. His wife, Jenny, is slowly succumbing to dementia, and he is convinced that his rude and coarse neighbour’s pack of dangerous dogs are damaging his sheep. One night, he decides to take firm action …
Graham – Brian Cox
Jenny – Gemma Jones
Strange as Angels (by Laura Mauro): Two recovering drug addicts discover a small winged creature, which they christen an ‘angel’. They feed it meat and it grows, but when Frankie, the girl, starts to become overly fond of it, Jimmy, the boy, is increasingly jealous …
Frankie – Anya Taylor-Joy
Jimmy – Jack O‘Connell
Quiet Places (by Jasper Bark): A mysterious feline beast stalks a remote community in the Scottish Highlands, holding the local laird, David, enthralled by its mere presence. But his spirited lover, Sally, is determined to free him whatever it takes, despite the warnings of local librarian, Jane…
Sally – Natalie Dormer
David – David Tennant
Jane – Kelly Macdonald