Monday, 1 August 2022

Henges, barrows and malicious pixie folk


Humble apologies if I’ve been a less than conscientious poster this last few weeks. That’s not because I’ve been away on holiday. It’s simply that an awful lot has been going on behind the scenes here at Finch Towers, and yet at no stage have I actually been able to report anything solid. However, at last all this is finally changing.

I hoped to have quite a bit of interesting stuff to report today – mainly about my novel-writing, both current projects and future plans – but even if any such announcement on that front needs to go on hold for another week or so (I know, I know … frustrating!), at least I can talk freely about some major progress made on the latest installment of my TERROR TALES anthology series, which we’re looking to publish in the autumn and which will be TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, and I will certainly enjoy dropping a few fun hints about what it will contain.


In keeping with that last item, today’s book review also takes us into the West Country.

It’s the bone-chilling horror novel, CUNNING FOLK, by Adam Nevill. As usual, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Scoot on down there straight away if you must, but let me remind you that I have other stuff to talk about first.

Mystical England

I’m now in the process of line-editing the stories I’ve compiled for TERROR TALES OF THE WEST COUNTRY, and it’s proving to be an absolute joy.

The West Country lies at the very heart of mystical England, the spiritual home of what we these days call ‘folk horror’.

Its pastoral landscape is planted thick with rural legends and studded with the relics of ancient civilisations now entirely vanished from history. Avebury, Stonehenge, Silsbury (right) and other time-worn monuments attract thousands of tourists each year, but remain steeped in bewildering mystery. The lore of this place is equally venerable. According to myth, this is the Summer Land, and entrances to the faerie realm still lurk behind the tranquil facades of woodland pools, at the backs of caves or in the gnarled faces of age-old trees. King Arthur, they say, ruled this land from Cadbury Castle, the original Camelot, while Jesus himself walked amid the limestone ridges of the Mendip Hills, his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, later planting the Glastonbury Thorn and watering it from the Holy Grail.

But there are terror tales here too.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was only mining a long-standing Devonshire tradition that phantom hounds roamed the wilds of Dartmoor, while mysterious hill figures hint at the one-time presence of pagan gods and warlike giants. 

So rich is this region in eerie superstition that it remains the only part of the British Isles to spawn its own supernatural drama series, West Country Tales, screened on BBC2 in the early 1980s.

From the outset, I considered it vital that all the stories I accepted hit this spot precisely, and I had to advise all potential authors of that in the firmest possible terms.

In the end, they haven’t disappointed, and yet we’ve got an astonishing range of material. Everything from the demonic being who stalked the people of Devon to the Somerset farmer driven to physical ruin after trespassing at the pixie fair, from the many-limbed beast lurking among the shoreline rocks to the murderers who tore each other to pieces in the presence of their victim.

But I don’t want to say too much, obviously. The book isn’t due out until the autumn, and if you want to hear more, you’ll need to wait until then (though I will be posting a few more teasers in the weeks between then and now). But just for the fun of it, here’s a gallery of images related to some of the eeriness we’ll explore in this latest anthology.

A circle of cute figurines on a nicely-laid table in a rather majestic coastal residence. But each time one of them gets broken, something truly terrible happens. One by one, a select group of very different people are meeting grisly fates ...

A scenic river flowing through a picturesque realm. Nowhere could be prettier, neither in summer nor winter. But people keep dying here, and rumours persist that something horrible prowls the scenic riverbank ...

A narrow defile in an arty part of town. But the blood that soaked the cobblestones here was very real indeed. So real that even today, the locals still avoid it after dark, while the tourists, who think it sounds amazing, tend to find the inky shadows lurking in its eerie recesses just a little bit too much if they go there alone  ...

People don’t just avoid these woods because of their otherworldly appearance, it’s because of the terrifying predators that supposedly live here, one of them in particular with a reputation for having ripped out throats well into modern times ...


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

CUNNING FOLK
by Adam LG Nevill (2021)

Outline
No home is heaven with hell next door …

That’s the perfectly apposite tag-line for this tale of dark magic and deadly vindictiveness in the leafy heartlands of England’s West Country.

The narrative opens on a suitably grim note with a nameless householder, clearly in the midst of a complex renovation, suddenly downing tools and, in near robotic fashion, choosing to hang himself from one of his recently-installed light fittings.

Six months later, a happy little quartet of penniless city-folk, father of one and unsuccessful graphic designer, Tom, wife and bank clerk, Fiona, nursery-age daughter, Gracey, and cute-as-a-button puppy, Archie, arrive at the ramshackle rural cottage they’ve recently acquired for a knockdown price (even though it has still drained their life savings).

The location is stunning. Lush countryside runs to every horizon, while the land behind the cottage ascends into scenic hillside and is thickly wooded. The only other habitation is the beautifully kept house next door, the gardens to which are almost improbably well-manicured.

It would be a dream location for any family looking to escape city life (as Tom and Fiona are), except for the not insignificant matter of the new cottage itself.

The place has clearly been in a state of rack and ruin for a long time, and though Fiona has allowed her husband to talk her into abandoning their low-rent flat in a grotty part of town in order to embark on this adventure, she is concerned that restoring the isolated country residence to its former glory may actually lie outside of Tom’s powers, even though he’s a useful handyman. At the same time she’s been left uneasy by the story that the last resident here committed suicide by hanging himself.

Tom is more optimistic, and is convinced that, no matter how much effort is required, he’ll be able to transform the semi-ruin into the ideal home for his little girl, with whom he’s as besotted as any doting father can be, and for whom he envisages a safe, healthy future amid the green woods and rolling meadows of the English countryside.

Needless to say, Fate has different ideas.

An ageing but eccentric couple, Magi and Medea Moot, live next door, and almost from the outset, seem to go out of their way to be unwelcoming to the newcomers. They aren’t friendly when Tom tries to introduce himself and insist on keeping a scruffy old caravan parked in such a spot that it causes inconvenience whenever he or Fiona try to get out of their drive. In addition, there are some disturbing oddities where the neighbours are concerned: from strangers of all sorts calling by to purchase bagged items from the Moots and not leaving without kissing the back of Medea’s dirtily-gloved hand, to their weird ability to notice whenever anyone is observing them from the house next door and always responding to it sharply. They exude an aura of power and menace – they even infiltrate the young family’s dreams – and it isn’t long before Tom starts to feel oppressed by this.

However, open conflict comes dramatically closer when Gracey, eager to investigate her new domain, follows Archie up through the woods at the back of the two properties to a secluded tumulus or barrow, which is ringed with stones and has clearly been prepared for some kind of ritual. After interfering with some of the items used to dress it, she is chased back to the cottage by the Moots. They are not aggressively hostile at this stage, though Tom, who is wearing down under the pressure of the endless repair work he’s engaged in, is angered by his neighbours’ proprietorial attitude to the woodland (which is what he brought Gracey here to experience). And later that night, when he finds his rear fence deliberately smashed to pieces, he retaliates by noisily drilling brackets into the two houses’ shared wall. In response to this, Tom hears strange sounds – animals sounds, in fact – on the other side of the wall, but though he is vaguely disturbed, he still feels as though he’s winning the contest. Until the next day, when the Moots argue with a harassed visitor and cruelly mock him as he leaves. Tom accosts the visitor, trying to find out more about the repellent old couple, only to be advised to leave soon, because if he doesn’t, the Moots will make him leave.

More determined than ever to make this his dream home, Tom, in increasingly belligerent mood, has more altercations with the ageing weirdoes, but then Gracey, drawn into the woods by a compelling voice, sees something so strange that it leaves her dazed and lost. On recovering the child, Tom heads into the woods himself, this time to locate the missing Archie, which he does, but not before spying a mangled fox nailed to a tree. Tom tries to confront his neighbours again, but fails, and the next day finds his garden blighted, everything dying and rotten, and Archie dead, seemingly poisoned, which breaks his daughter’s heart. Enraged beyond reason, Tom takes his chainsaw and cuts down the Moots’ row of ornamental birch trees.

Which is the prelude to the gloves finally coming off.

Only now will the hot-headed townie father come to learn what truly terrifying powers the duo of witches next door can command …

Review
Anyone who’s familiar with the work of Adam Nevill will know that when he does horror, he really does horror. The author of various bone-chilling novels, such as The Ritual and The Reddening, to name but two, along with sundry hair-raising short stories, he can be so unrelenting when he starts to pile on the horror that it becomes stressful just reading it. And when I say ‘the horror’, I’m not talking gore. I’m talking an atmosphere of dread that steadily intensifies until it is difficult to keep turning the pages. I’m talking a succession of nightmarish predicaments, the anticipation of which alone can have you physically shuddering. One of Nevill’s trademarks is the pitting of suburban everymen, day-to-day Brits, usually families, against the most horrifying of supernatural opponents, and then slowly cranking the dial upward until his hapless individuals are enmeshed in a crescendo of otherworldly terror with no route out of it that won’t cost them hugely.

None of Nevill’s protagonists emerge from his stories unscathed. If they emerge at all. This is often because his antagonists are usually so irredeemably strange and evil. They are more like elemental forces than actual thinking-beings.

You may consider this analysis a little OTT so far, but if that’s the case, I challenge you to read Cunning Folk, because it’s as true here as in any of Nevill’s other works.

What might in some hands be nothing more than a simple morality tale about the folly of getting ‘into it’ with a neighbour, especially when it’s a neighbour you don’t really know, in Adam Nevill’s hands becomes a parable of emotional annihilation. And that’s because he recognises that the real horror here lies in the destruction from within of a victimised family unit.

We don’t hear a lot about Tom and Fiona’s life together, except that they’ve been married for 18 years, and so clearly love each other. We also learn that, for whatever reason, Tom’s business has gone belly-up and that for some time now they’ve been living on Fiona’s relatively meagre earnings. This was the spur to the departure from the city to the country. But much of their past remains a mystery. In my view, this is deliberate by the author, as his intent was to present his readers with a situation that many of us have either experienced for ourselves or lived in fear of. We are all of us Tom and Fiona: unremarkable citizens for whom life is mostly a struggle, but whose aspirations have not entirely been blunted just yet.

This makes their abrupt confrontation with a particularly acute form of occult villainy all the more harrowing, but it also explains their diverse reactions. Tom and Fiona, like most real-world partnerships that have endured the test of time, are two halves of the same whole, Tom the energy and exuberance, Fiona the pragmatist and the level head. But this alliance is designed to withstand the ordinary trials of life, not the extraordinary. And here’s where the real tragedy of Cunning Folk kicks in. Tom and Fiona never cease loving each other, but Tom’s reaction when he becomes convinced they’re facing a supernatural evil is to fight it at every turn until he’s literally got nothing left to fight with, while Fiona’s real-world concerns – the collapsing state of the house, their lack of income, her and her daughter’s increased isolation as Tom gets ever more haplessly angry and distracted – eclipses everything else until she’s forced to conclude that she and Gracey simply have to leave (if they’ll be allowed to).

To watch the rapid disintegration of a solid family is a truly terrible thing. You might be tempted to say that they obviously weren’t that solid, but in Cunning Folk I beg to differ, because the opposition here is literally monstrous.

Folk horror is a popular subgenre today, and Adam Nevill is an expert practitioner. He went there with both The Ritual and The Reddening, and he can keep going there again and again as far as I’m concerned because one thing Nevill does that is very different to many other folk horror writers is continually give us a different version of it.

It’s all too easy with folk horror to keep rehashing the ideas behind The Wicker Man, but for my money there’s always been more to it than that. British folklore in particular ranges widely through the myths and fables of a very ancient society. And if we must talk about witchcraft and rural magic, there’s a whole universe right there, because it comes in numerous forms. And in Cunning Folk, as in The Reddening, Adam Nevill digs deep into that multifaceted tradition, pulling out some particularly ghastly scenarios: a duo of semi-transmogrified human/animal hybrids gambolling through the night-time woods in pursuit of prey; their ferocious attacks upon doors and windows with mismatched teeth and claws; the ghastly life-size mannequins crudely built for the sole purpose of destroying innocent lives.

His description of the mound in the forest pre-prepared for some blasphemous ceremony, the haunting voice calling out from it, the horrific physical impact on a human being when one of their most prized possessions is purposely and brutally damaged (truly one of the most nightmarish scenes in the whole book!) will all take you close to the zenith of scary fiction.

As I say, intense horror is one of Nevill’s specialities.

I don’t want to reveal too much more about Cunning Folk for fear of spoiling it. But if you like folk horror, or plain, non specific horror, or if you just like any kind of thriller so long as there is huge tension and terror baked in, then this is definitely one for you.

As usual I’m now going to play my little game of naming a select cast in eager anticipation of Cunning Folk being adapted for film or TV, though in this case I’m going need to be quick off the mark, as it’s an Adam Nevill novel, and these days that means it’s likely to get snapped up pretty damn fast (in addition to which it’s a small canvas tale, which would be music to the ears of most producers I know).

Tom – Jamie Dornan
Fiona – Clare-Hope Ashitey
Medea – Helena Bonham Carter
Magi – Andrew Tiernan
Blackwood – Craig Parkinson