Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror - Review Part 1.

The title says it all - or at least, tells most of it. This is a collection of folk horror tales edited by noted M.R. James expert Ro Pardoe. Published by Sarob Press, it represents one of those collector's items that comes along rather infrequently.

The first half of the book (roughly speaking) consists of stories previously published, while the second contains entirely new fiction. This makes for an interesting range of authors, styles, and ingredients. There is also an introduction in which the editor points out that, though it's definitely out there, folk horror is hard to define. She also lists those ghost stories by James that fit the folk horror definition. It's a long list.

The first story Michael Chislett's 'Meeting Mr. Ketchum'. This is a good start, as it's a tale with a contemporary setting and believably modern characters. When a young couple on holiday venture into a field containing a mysterious mound, they encounter a man who seems a little flyblown, as well as being erudite and somewhat old-fashioned in his attire. The blend of humour and horror is excellent, and sets a high standard for the rest of the book.

Chico Kidd's tale 'Figures in a Landscape' has a slightly more Jamesian feel, with its exploration of ruined churches in Ireland. Here, too, is a mysterious figure best avoided. The blending of folk story, hints of uneasy dreams, and the exploration of old buildings is nicely handled.

'The Burning' by Ramsey Campbell is, of course, different again. The author's typically nightmarish imagery is well-suited to this very short piece about an unhappy, frustrated man wandering alone on Guy Fawkes' night. He discovers in the ritual burning of the guy an outlet for the anger and resentment he feels - only to find himself targeted by beings who arguably have even greater grievances.

'Where Are the Bones?' by Jacqueline Simpson is the title story of the author's upcoming collection, and I hardly need to point out that it is solidly founded in authentic folklore. It features Monty himself and his friend Will Stone, who find themselves entangled in a strange series of events that involve pagan rites, a student, and a tumulus.

Another G&S veteran, C.E. Ward, contributes 'The Spinney', which offers a taut, anecdotal approach. A driver breaks down in the countryside and decides to seek help at a nearby cottage. Ward's narrator finds himself under observation by a countryman in slightly antiquated clothes. The watcher becomes a pursuer, and is joined by an equally menacing woman. The folk-horror element here is that of rural violence that lingers, and the accelerating pace of the story makes for real tension.

'Beatrix Paints a Landscape (1884)' by Philip Thompson is, in marked contrast, a vignette about a possible incident in the life of Beatrix Potter. Something altogether more menacing than a rabbit in a waistcoat appears to the young naturalist. She chooses a different path to the one offered by creatures that somewhat resemble those in 'After Dark in the Playing Fields'.

Landscape is also central to 'The Walls', by the justly-acclaimed Terry Lamsley. Two friends of an eccentric researcher head into the hills to try and help with lead-mine exploration. The landscape is crossed by dry stone walls that seem remarkably well preserved. As the two progress they become aware that there is a presence, a distinctly Jamesian entity with a rather unique take on intruders.

Somewhat gentler in tone, but still rooted in rural oddness, is 'The Peewold Amphisbaena' by Kay Fletcher. It's an ambiguous tale, in which a tour bus crashes into an old Celtic cross and - perhaps - unleashes something disturbing. As always with Fletcher's work, the characters are nicely drawn and there is a subtle, artistic unity to the whole.

Geoffrey Warburton's 'The Lane' is another pithy, punchy tale of someone who strays into a neglected place where something lurks. In this case the protagonist finds himself in a lane that seems to wind into some other dimension, and is the literal stamping ground of a huge, unseen being. The legend of a destroyed monastery and the unearthing of an engraved stone provide background. Warburton's approach is to imply much but describe relatively little, which works well for me.

The last of the reprints is 'The Lorelei' by Carol Tyrell. This is a prequel to one of M.R. James' later tales, which is also one of his nastiest. Suffice to say that it concerns a well, and the theme is one of blood sacrifice. A genuinely horrific tale to round off the first half of the book, and the first half of this review.

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