Twenty Classic British Folk-Horror Stories

08 Jul

Ever since Mark Gatiss popularised the term in his 2010 BBC documentary series, A History of Horror, the folk-horror idiom has experienced a singular renaissance of interest. An academic conference, titled The Fiend in the Furrows, was devoted to the sub-genre in 2013, whilst its expressions are debated daily online by the highly active and passionate Folk Horror Revival group on Facebook. Even more importantly, new artistic instantiations of the form are once more visible in popular media; from Ben Wheatley’s visionary film, A Field In England, to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s comedic take, The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge. At last, this overlooked yet integral strand of the macabre imagination is receiving the attention it deserves.

Gatiss himself originally used the term “folk-horror” only to refer to a triumvirate of British films which are rightly regarded as cornerstones of the genre: Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. However, as critical interest has grown, the field has expanded to encompass further films including The Witches and Cry of the Banshee, TV dramas such as Penda’s Fen and Children of the Stones, even musical acts like Comus and the Third Ear Band. Nor should it be considered an exclusively British phenomenon: the United States gave us Harvest Home and Children of the Corn; whilst Europe produced Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Examples can even be found from Japan and Russia.

This mission-creep has led to much discussion attempting to delineate the boundaries of the genre. Like many such taxonomic definitions, it is probably best to regard the term as describing what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein dubbed a “family resemblance”; i.e. works which are connected by a set of overlapping characteristics, but have no one feature common to all. Nonetheless, it is fruitful to consider exactly what these overlapping characteristics might be. The film-maker and critic Adam Scovell has suggested four distinguishing components which he calls the “folk-horror chain”: namely, landscape; isolation; skewed moral beliefs; and happening/summoning. Further exploration of these concepts can be read on Scovell’s blog here.

It has certainly become clear that folk-horror did not suddenly emerge in the late-1960s as a cinematic genre; rather, its resurgence then was a symptom of the wider folk revival which took place in that period, the form having existed as an underground tradition in popular culture for several centuries. As such, its earliest and most original expressions were primarily literary; anybody trying to identify the genre’s antecedents need look no further than William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Macbeth, completed in 1606. The gothic novel of the late 18th and early 19th Century also functioned as a vehicle for its development, and it is arguable that William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1848 gothic romance, The Lancashire Witches, represents the first fully-fledged example.

However, the genre seems to have reached maturity during the fin-de-siècle, when both horror stories and folklore studies were at the height of their respectability in educated circles. The following list represents an attempt to trace the folk-horror thread through British short fiction from this period till its first and most visible revival in the 1960s and ’70s. As discussed above, folk-horror is not an exclusively British idiom, but British examples nonetheless possess their own particular flavour, and are worth considering as a single tradition. Hence, there will be conspicuous omissions such as Viy by Nikolai Gogol, The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. These may, however, appear on a different list at another time.

I have chosen to focus exclusively on the short form as this is generally agreed to be the best, and certainly most ubiquitous medium for literary horror—although a couple of novellas are also included. As a consequence, classic texts such as John Buchan’s 1927 novel, Witch Wood, have been neglected—but again, such works might appear on a future list. Finally, although a number of tales by figures such as M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen may be legitimately described as folk-horror, I have limited the list to one story per author to allow greater breadth of focus. In these cases, I’ve attempted to select the most representative example of their oeuvre, but your mileage may vary. I would certainly be glad to hear of any additions or revisions people might suggest.

1. “Thrawn Janet” by Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

Mostly written in a phonetically-rendered, archaic Scots dialect, this story may prove challenging to the casual reader. However, those who persevere will be rewarded with one of the author’s most striking and macabre narratives. Rooted in native traditions of witchcraft and devilry, Stevenson evokes a rustic atmosphere thick with dread—something which the vernacular prose only augments.

2. “The Withered Arm” by Thomas Hardy (1888)

Hardy is perhaps not a name that immediately springs to mind when discussing seminal horror writers—and indeed, this tale is not so much a horror story an exploration of country superstition, working inexorably towards tragedy. Hardy is oft-praised for the vivid sense of place he conjures and here one can almost smell the peat fires and furze drifting across the Wessex heath.

3. “Pallinghurst Barrow” by Grant Allen (1892)

The association between horror and the inscrutable megalithic remains of our prehistoric ancestors is now so firmly entrenched that it has almost become a cliché. However, this tale—in which an antiquarian witnesses a grisly re-enactment of the pagan rites of antiquity at a Neolithic burial mound—is surely one of the earliest, and perhaps best, treatments of this familiar motif.

4. “Witch-In-Grain” by R. Murray Gilchrist (1894)

A Decadent writer of the “Yellow Nineties”, Gilchrist’s work can be too “utterly, utterly” for many readers. This short piece, more of a prose-poem than a story, is unlikely to convince anyone who finds such writing overly mannered, but to those who enjoy a bit of well-turned purple prose, it’s a rich and evocative vignette, with a particularly striking final image.

5. “The Sin Eater” by Fiona MacLeod (1895)

A leading figure of the “Celtic Twilight” movement which flourished in artistic circles during the fin-de-siècle, few writers evoked the mystery and romance of Goidelic culture as powerfully as Fiona MacLeod (pen-name of the Scottish author, William Sharp). Based on authentic folklore and beautifully written, this fatalistic tale is a human tragedy as compelling as The Withered Arm.

6. “The White People” by Arthur Machen (1899)

Rightly lauded, not only as the author’s masterpiece, but as one of the finest horror tales in the English language, Machen’s account of the induction of an innocent teenage girl into a witch-cult who traffic with sinister denizens of the Otherworld is an insidiously disturbing classic. Told allusively by the naïf narrator in exquisite cadences, it has an almost incantatory power.

7. “The Black Reaper” by Bernard Capes (1899)

A writer of considerable range, Capes’ contribution to weird fiction during the late-Victorian and Edwardian period is often overlooked—and this is one of his finest tales. During the Great Plague, a mysterious preacher appears in a godless village, calling down divine wrath upon it. The inhabitants’ efforts to silence this stranger unleashes a great evil in the cornfields and a black harvest ensues.

8. “No Man’s Land” by John Buchan (1902)

When this story was written, the “Pygmy-Pict” hypothesis of the antiquarian David MacRitchie had been circulating amongst the intelligentsia for the last decade. Buchan employs it here to visceral effect: his tale of the present-day survival of “fairies” in the wild places—actually descendants of our Neolithic ancestors—is more naturalistic than Machen’s, but still a potent variation on the theme.

9. “The Temple of Death” by A.C. Benson (1903)

As the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, it is perhaps unsurprising that Benson’s weird fiction is marred by a tiresome Christian piety. However, if you’re able to overlook this tendency, this story concerning a Roman priest’s encounter with a pagan temple in Gaul during Late Antiquity is a vivid slice of folk-horror, heavily influenced by Sir James Frazer’s “king-in-the-wood” theories.

10. “The Ash Tree” by M.R. James (1904)

One of the Monty’s finest efforts, this tale of witchcraft, familiar spirits and an ancestral curse is steeped in atmosphere and culminates in a truly unnerving manifestation; which, whilst having no root in folkloric witchcraft, invokes a unique maleficium that feels entirely consistent with tradition. The 1975 BBC television adaptation by David Rudkin is also an essential entry in the folk-horror canon.

11. “The Hole of the Pit” by Adrian Ross (1914)

Published around the outbreak of the Great War—and all but forgotten until 1992, when it was anthologised by Ramsey Campbell—this novella remains one of the buried treasures of supernatural literature. Written in a convincingly archaic style, the tale of fenland Royalists besieged by supernatural forces during the English Civil Wars, positively oozes with primordial atmosphere.

12. “The Tarn of Sacrifice” by Algernon Blackwood (1921)

Few writers have evoked the immanence and numinosity of the past as powerfully as Algernon Blackwood and here the legacy of native resistance to the Roman conquest in Britain echoes in the wild landscape of the Cumbrian fells. Although this is not one of Blackwood’s better known stories, like much of his work, it is a lyrical invocation of the vasty presence of Nature.

13. “The Temple” by E.F. Benson (1925)

Although his work lacks the philosophical weight of some of his contemporaries, Benson produced a substantial oeuvre of well-crafted, unpretentious tales which provide archetypal treatments of many classic horror tropes. Here, a couple of antiquarians rent a Cornish cottage built on the site of a prehistoric stone-circle, and soon find themselves haunted by its sinister heritage.

14. “Morag-of-the-Cave” by Margery Lawrence (1925)

A highlight of one of the most underrated interbellum collections of weird fiction, this tale savours of the Celtic Twilight, but ultimately treads a more uncanny path than that essentially nostalgic movement. Set in a remote and isolated Irish fishing village, the narrative charts the fascination of a local girl with a nearby sea cave, and the eldritch things she finds lurking there.

15. “Randalls Round” by Eleanor Scott (1929)

An antiquarian holidaying in a rural village stumbles upon a local calendar-custom associated with a prehistoric barrow—and soon discovers that it is far more sinister than the neutered revivals with which he is familiar. This story may represent the first occurrence of one of folk horror’s most enduring and characteristic tropes, and arguably remains its purest expression.

16. “The First Sheaf” by H.R. Wakefield (1940)

Wakefield was one of the most reliable British writers of weird fiction during the interbellum period; his stories are distinguished not merely by their robust handling of a wide array of tropes, but a cynicism and misanthropy which emphasises the bleakness of the narratives. This seminal tale of clandestine harvest rites in an isolated rural community is particularly downbeat.

17. “Lisheen” by Frederick Cowles (1948)

Frederick Cowles is often cited as a writer in the Jamesian tradition, but his oeuvre was actually far broader and pulpier (albeit pleasingly so), and whilst this tale didn’t see the light of day until after his death, it’s one of his finest works. It is also replete with folk horror tropes: a witch-child, pagan rites at an ancient stone-circle and an appearance by the horned god himself.

18. “Cwm Garon” by L.T.C. Rolt (1948)

An industrial historian as well as a writer of weird fiction, Rolt’s most characteristic work imports the supernatural into the factory; however, he was also adept at invoking the genius loci in more pastoral contexts, as this lyrical tale of strange ceremonies and demonic presences in a remote Welsh valley (clearly based on the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains) demonstrates.

19. “Ringstones” by Sarban (1951)

Like much of Sarban’s work, this novella possesses “a curiously-imparted quality of strangeness; the feeling of having strayed over the border of experience into a world where other dimensions operate”. The tale of a young governess’s experiences on a remote Northumbrian moor bristling with prehistoric monuments, it is also laced with a dark eroticism, which proves uniquely disturbing.

20. “Bind Your Hair” by Robert Aickman (1964)

Aickman’s work is so idiosyncratic—and frankly enigmatic—that it is often impossible to pigeon-hole within any idiom, yet this tale with its hostile countryside and disturbing rites feels like a surreal subversion or deconstruction of certain folk horror tropes. However, the symbolism remains inscrutable and ambiguous throughout, contributing to the story’s unsettling mystery.


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