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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Still Warmth In These Bones

Scared Stiff is one of a few short story anthologies in Ramsey Campbell’s back catalogue to have a rather special status. As with most authors who produce a large number of short stories over a long career, most of Campbell’s collections are basically state-of-the-Campbell benchmarks, a grab-bag of the crop of material he’s churned out since his last significant collection along with, perhaps, an older item or two which hasn’t been previously collected and maybe a brand-new story if you’re lucky. That’s no criticism of them – when your ratio of hits to misses is as good as Campbell any random collection of stories is going to be pretty decent – but it does mean they tend to blend into each other.

Then there’s other collections which stand out for other reasons. There’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, for instance, which stands out simply because it was his debut collection and because it was so overwhelmingly dominated by the stylistic influence of H.P. Lovecraft. His second collection, Demons By Daylight, is perhaps even more significant; written largely as a piece, it found Campbell going the extra distance to find a distinct voice of his own.

Scared Stiff is significant not because of its impact on Campbell’s career but because it’s a thematic collection. Originally issued in 1987 before emerging in an expanded edition (with some stories from the 1990s and 2000s) in 2001, as its subtitle notes it’s all about sex and death, with a major emphasis on sexuality. These stories are explicit but not in a gratuitous fashion, because one of the big things Campbell does here is make sexuality central to the story, rather than lazily tossing in a sex scene to spice up an otherwise slack portion of a story.

All the sexuality and consent-related content warnings apply to this discussion, by the way; if you don’t want to read about rape and various other violations of consent at all in a horror story, no matter how thoughtfully the subjects are handled, this really isn’t going to be your bag and that’s fine.

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Out On a Limb

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It took Robin Hardy until 2011 until he could turn out a sequel to folk horror classic The Wicker Man in the form of The Wicker Tree. To be frank, it’s not great. Supposedly it had a budget of over seven million dollars, though if this is so then for most of its running time that money simply isn’t evident onscreen, with the production values seeming more in keeping with a simple TV movie than anything fancier and a cast of comparative unknowns and reasonably skilled but not especially exciting character actors. (There’s a cameo from Christopher Lee, mind, but he was unable to undertake a more extensive role due to an injury.)

As far as the plot goes, it’s the exact same thing as The Wicker Man without the kidnapping angle to tie everything together. Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) used to be a wild and extremely sexualised pop-country star in the US of A, but she’s flinched back from that past, adopted a new gospel-country style, and got back together with her childhood sweetheart Steve Thompson (Henry Garrett). Their backwater Texas church sends them on an evangelical mission to Scotland, they fall in with pagan masterminds Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and Lady Delia Morrison (Jacqueline Leonard), who convince them that preaching door-to-door in the towns won’t do any good and they’ll have better luck coming out to the countryside village the Morrisons preside over, particularly since it will be a nice opportunity for them to partake in the May Day festivities. By this point you should have guessed where this is going.

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Satan’s Infectious Taint

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s somewhere in the English countryside, somewhere in the first half or so of the 18th Century. (A treasonous Jacobite toast made at one point to “his Catholic Majesty James III” means it must be somewhere between 1701 and 1766.) Ploughman Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is tilling the fields when he uncovers a corpse – too human to be an animal, too inhuman to be holy. He rushes to tell the Judge (Patrick Wymark), who’s visiting with Gower’s landlady Isobel Banham (Avice Landone), but when they come back to the field the body is gone.

The Judge puts the nonsense out of mind, and in any respect is too caught up giving moral support to Isobel, who deeply disapproves of her nephew Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) making plans to marry Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov). And yet, it seems that the thing from the field, or at least a part of it, must have followed Ralph to the Banham house – for when she’s dispatched to sleep in the musty old Banham attic, Rosalind has an encounter with something up there – something which reduces her to shrieking, scratching panic at first. By the morning, she’s eerily silent… and her right hand has turned into a hideous claw.

Rosalind gets taken away by the authorities. But out there in the fields, where Ralph farms for his meals, the local youth turn up another claw, remarkably similar to that which grew on Rosalind. Young Angel Blake (Linda Heyden), who first discovers the claw, becomes the centre of a cult – a cult whose members all undergo physical transformations and changes as a result of their exposure to the strange claw. As the cult sweeps among the local youth, will the Judge discover how to put things aright… or will the area be reduced to teenage wasteland?

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