A Corny Trilogy

As far as Stephen King short stories go, Children of the Corn is a pretty good one – a neat example of King taking a diverse range of influences and mashing them up into a powerful mosaic. You’ve got a touch of Lovecraftian menace in the sinister deity, He Who Walks Behind the Rows, you have a nod or two to It’s a Good Life – the old Twilight Zone episode where the adults destroyed by the whims of an all-powerful child are euphemistically referred to as being “in the cornfield”, you have a shade of the same hippy-ers “don’t trust anyone over 30” generational warfare that Logan’s Run drew on and maybe a snifter of Animal Farm in the sense that an agricultural community is taken over and run by those you might not expect to be able to operate it, but do so through a form of despotic tyranny that has powerful real-world satirical parallels (theology-poor, bigotry-rich American Fundamentalism as opposed to Soviet Communism this time around) – all powerful stuff.

But at its heart, it’s a fusion of two main pieces of precedent: Lord of the Flies and The Wicker Man. The main stroke of genius on King’s part is to relocate the story not on a natural island in the literal sea, but in a sort of man-made island in a man-made sea of corn – namely, the state of Nebraska, where outside of Omaha and Lincoln you have vast expanses of corn that you could lose a few European nations in and never find them.

All this made the original short story good fodder for turning into a movie. (For one thing, as a short story it doesn’t have the masses of backstory that King stuffs into his novels and makes any movie adaptation of them a challenge.) A whole movie franchise, though? With a remake currently shooting in Australia, let’s see if the original series provided a nice regular harvest or whether the field should have been left fallow after the original.

Children of the Corn

Once upon a time in the Nebraskan town of Gatlin, a strange young boy called Isaac Chroner (John Frankin) was preaching to the kids out in the cornfield whilst the adults were gathered at church, as was his habit at that time. Two children were missing – Joby (Robby Kiger) was made to go to proper church by his parents, and his sister Sarah (Annie Marie McEvoy) was sick at home – so whilst they, as youths under the age of 19, are permitted to continue to exist by Isaac’s cult, they aren’t full members.

For a cult is what Isaac’s little congregation became that day; he had been given a revelation from He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and he set his congregants to work, slaying all the adults in the town. Three years later, Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and his ladypal Vicky Baxter (Linda Hamilton) are driving through Nebraska, Burt having taken up a prize new intern’s position as a newly-qualified doctor in Seattle. Abruptly, they end up running into a child (Jonas Marlowe) in the middle of the road – when Burt examines the kid he discovers the lad was already fatally wounded, his throat having been slit by Malachi Boardman (Courtney Gains), Isaac’s sneering teenage lead enforcer, for the crime of trying to run away.

It’s the 1980s and a freshly-qualified doctor certainly doesn’t have a carphone in this era, not that he’d be likely to get reception here anyway; if they are going to alert the authorities, Burt and Vicky need find a phone, but when they enter Gatlin to look for one it’s a ghost town. Or at least, that’s what it looks like at first…

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Ramsey Campbell Unearths Old Themes

Once upon a time, when Patrick Semple was young, he’d sometimes get to spend holidays staying with Thelma, his aunt, and her husband Neville. Thelma was a talented artist, successful enough that her work graced the covers of a range of books, but she had rather eccentric ways and habits – many relating to the forest her house backed onto – and eventually, when Patrick was a teenager, Thelma’s behaviour managed to scandalise Patrick’s parents enough that they put a stop to the visits.

Some years later – when Patrick was all grown up with a little son of his own, Roy – Thelma died in a nasty fall; it was far from clear from the circumstances whether it was suicide, accident, or something more malicious. Around a decade or so later, Roy is fifteen and is staying over at Patrick’s place in the New Brighton area of Merseyside – Patrick and Julia, Roy’s mother, having divorced sometime in the intervening years – and becomes interested in Thelma’s art, as well as a curious journal she left behind in her studio which Patrick had kept hold of.

Patrick still thinks a lot about Thelma too, so Roy’s interest prompts some father-and-son trips to visit areas of significance to her work and life. In the course of this they meet Bella at an exhibition of Thelma’s work, and Roy and Bella are soon dating and going on excursions to locations listed in Thelma’s notebook without Patrick in tow.

This would be adorable if it wasn’t for some nasty coincidences and incidents that start occurring. What are the voices that Patrick thinks he can just about barely perceive in the places where Thelma found her inspiration? Who is the anonymous figure who keeps showing up in Thelma’s late-period paintings? Why is it that everyone vividly remembers Thelma splitting up with her husband Neville and living with another man – but nobody knew the man in question well enough to contact him after her death, or could even remember his name at the wake? And if Bella is just some stranger who happened to cross paths with Patrick and Roy at the exhibition, why are Patrick’s parents so unnerved by her?

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Spring’s Crop of Folk Horror Thrills

I’d previously been quite impressed with issue 1 of Hellebore, an attempt to do a graphically appealing folk horror periodical in print, and I’m glad to see that it’s survived to produce a second issue, even in the midst of this strange springtime. Issue 2 is the Wild Gods issue, and as the title implies it concerns itself in various ways with the concept of deities living in or presiding over untamed nature.

Katy Soar offers an overview of the latter-day British fascination with Pan, from 18th Century libertines of the Hellfire Club ilk adopting him as a patron of hedonism to Crowley and Victor Neuburg’s occult experiments to the Findhorn collective and all sorts of other revivals besides. She seems to miss Pan’s strange, incongruous appearance in The Wind In the Willows in the chapter The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd would later take as the title of their debut album (which, due to Syd Barrett being the band’s leader at the time, is arguably the most Dionysian and Pan-aligned of their releases).

I’d also be interested in Soar’s thoughts on Pan’s emergence in Hellier as a major figure, though this goes beyond the British shores she’d initially restricted her survey to; the way the team there end up resorting to Pan worship puts me in mind of how Soar argues that, precisely because Pan was a loose, easy-going mythological figure who tended not to have much of an intricate dogma associated with him, he’s more available for revivalists to try and experiment with than deities associated with more involved and difficult forms of worship to replicate.

Similarly informative articles come from Melissa Edmundson and Anna Milon. Edmundson gives an overview of womens’ writing about Pan and Pan-like figures from the late 19th and early 20th Century, identifying as she does so a small-scale movement to recontextualise Pan away from being just some rude dude who terrorises and rapes women and into a figure who represents a more nuanced engagement with the world, nature, and sexuality. Milon provides a fascinating anecdote about how a prehistoric cave painting which may or may not have antlers – depends on the photo you’re looking at – might have influenced Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theories.

John Reppion makes two contributions. His first is an interview with Alan Moore in which Moore seems to buck against the very notion of folk horror – opining that the Wild Gods might instead walk in urban areas, because only urbanised people regard the rustic and rural as being frightening or special. It’s a fun read, but mostly for how Moore steers the conversation towards his particular areas of interest and refuses to engage with Reppion’s thoughts. Reppion has a bit more success with an article about the Wild Hunt and the history of that particular folkloric idea. Reppion’s other article is a piece on the Wild Hunt, a decent overview of the different forms this legend has taken that takes an unfortunate turn into overt neopagan proselytising which is about as gratingly unwelcome as any other form of proselytising.

Other less successful articles include Kate Laity’s musings on the fairy folk which doesn’t seem to construct much of an argument or have much of a point to it, and Ruth Heholt’s examination of Hammer’s Cornish duology, which is hamstrung by arguing that it’s one of the few zombie movies which follow the Haitian folkloric concept of the zombie being raised and directed at the will of a sorcerer rather than just getting up and chowing down on people in an uncontrolled manner.

This is either a clumsy misrepresentation of the history of the genre or exposes a gap in Heholt’s knowledge: before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the pop culture concept of the zombie was “mind-controlled undead slave directed by wizard”, and zombie movies tended to depict them as such going back at least as far as White Zombie from 1932. It might just be a misstatement on Heholt’s part, but if so it’s a pretty serious one since it puts no caveats suggesting she really means “zombie movies from 1966 onwards” or whatever. As it stands, the text of the article reads like Heholt doesn’t understand the history of the subgenre she’s talking about, which is a problem when she is making sweeping statements about where Plague of the Zombies stands in the world of zombie movies as a whole.

On the whole, this issue was thicker than issue one by about 20 pages or so, tended towards more substantive articles, and generally improved on the weak points of the previous issue and maintained its strengths. Hopefully we’ll see an issue 3 this coming autumn…

Hammer Holidays In Cornwall

Hammer Studios had a great eye for a location, but at the same time were one of those studios who’d never use a set just once if there was the possibility of recycling them and often shot films back-to-back to make that easier. For instance, when their set designer Bernard Robinson made a magnificent replica of a Cornish fishing village on the Hammer backlot, there was no way they were going to use it just for one movie. The end result was two very different Hammer productions, both directed by John Gilling and released in 1966, both tackling colonial themes to varying levels of success, both ranking among their more interesting releases of the mid-1960s.

The Plague of the Zombies

The action of this one kicks off when medical authority Sir James Forbes (André Morell) receives a request for assistance from Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), a former student of his. After qualifying as a doctor, Peter became the general practitioner for a small Cornish village, and in the course of his work he’s stumbled across peculiar happenings in town and wants Sir James to help investigate.

Sir James is a grumpy old fart who’d rather go fishing, but his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) convinces him to go down – partially because Peter married an old school friend of hers, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce, pre-Servalan) and she wants an excuse to visit. Soon the Forbes and Tompson families will face a diabolical combination of idyllic countryside, suspicious locals and voodoo mayhem.

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Fresh Folk Horror For the Darkening Seasons

Autumn, especially that part where it begins turning into winter and the hours of darkness seriously start closing in, feels to me like the natural season for horror, especially folk horror and its neighbours. Even after the festivities of Halloween itself, it feels like the dark powers of the universe haven’t so much been banished as appeased, and that cold night is still on the upswing.

It’s good timing, then, that some interesting new offerings have come out at just the right time to be savoured – whether that’s the full-throated folk horror of Hellebore, or the more retro-suburban twist offered by Scarfolk, as explored on the blog of the same name and the previously-released novelisation.

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Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

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Burning Tensions and High Stakes In the Civil War

Released in the States as The Conqueror Worm for the sake of implying a connection to the successful run of Poe adaptations that Roger Corman had helmed and Vincent Price had starred in, Witchfinder General only shares Vincent Price in common with those movies. It was directed by Michael Reeves, an up and coming talent whose career was cut short when he died shortly after making this of an accidental overdose, and produced for Tigon, a production company making a bid to outdo Hammer by offering up films with similar subject matter fronted by horror icons and often featuring content more extreme – and more imaginative – than Hammer themselves were willing to offer at the time. (The production was also co-funded by AIP, home of the Poe adaptations – hence the retitling, hence the involvement of Price.)

The story takes place during the English Civil War (the famous mid-17th Century one, not the earlier one with Stephen and Matilda). Richard is a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting the Royalist forces whilst hoping to make a future for himself and his fiancee Sara once the war is done. Their happy plans, however, are disrupted when their sleepy home village is visited by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) whilst Richard is away on duty. Hopkins, accompanied by his disreputable assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell), roams around the country exploiting the disorder and panic caused by the war, showing up in towns and villages which have written to them asking for their help and presiding over witch trials that make those in Salem look like a model of balanced and fair jurisprudence.

They are well paid for this work, and they relish the opportunity to torture their suspects to their hearts’ content (though Stearne is much more honest with himself and others about how much he enjoys this part of his work than Hopkins, who maintains a holier-than-thou facade. They’ve been summoned to the village to interrogate the local priest – Sara’s uncle – and Hopkins wastes little time in extorting sexual favours out of Sara in return for stopping the torture. Eventually, Stearne ends up raping Sara, Hopkins loses interest in her, and her uncle and two local women are eventually strung up for witchcraft. When he returns and discovers what has happened, Richard embarks on a campaign of revenge that he’s determined will put an end to Hopkins’ reign of terror – but what will he end up losing before the job is done?

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