Don't Go Far

Folk horror: because small towns are weird

Speculative fiction has a laughably large amount of subgenre terminology floating around: steampunk, hopepunk, silkpunk, splatterpunk, biopunk, godpunk, sword & sorcery, space opera, science fantasy, slipstream, dying earth, generation ship, first contact, etc, I could go on for several hours, please help, my family is starving. Authors and sometimes fans wear these terms as badges, but the purpose these categories ultimately serve is to tell you what elements you can expect from stories that fall under those umbrellas.

So what constitutes folk horror? I’m not a prescriptivist about genre – ultimately if something feels like folk horror, it probably is – but a good rule of thumb is that if there’s a creepy pagan ritual somewhere in the countryside, it’s folk horror. (The genre is generally understood to be a riff on/reaction to the back-to-the-earth movement of the 1960s, with communes becoming cults and neopagan belief systems morphing into dark pagan rituals.) It’s the occult, but less esoteric. It’s rural and insular, the pastoral uncanny. Folk horror should smell like tilled soil and sap and hay and hot blood on cold wet stone, all hung about with woodsmoke.

What folk horror isn’t is any scary story that incorporates elements of folklore, because that’s… honestly just most horror. Also, some people will tell you that it needs to focus on European paganism in order to count, but that edges too close to white nationalism for my tastes, and anyway it’s silly to say that something has to come from a specific region in order to qualify. (Genre is a construct!!!)

The last round of folk horror discourse we had here on Al Gore’s own internet was when The Witch (or The VVitch, as my husband insists on both spelling and pronouncing it) premiered in 2015. Now, with Ari Aster’s much-anticipated Midsommar hitting screens in early July, we’re getting primers aplenty. Pretty much all of them are gonna tell you to get into the genre by watching the “unholy trinity”: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General, all released between 1968 and 1973 – and in fact it was Piers Haggard, director of Blood on Satan’s Claw, who coined the term “folk horror” in the early 2000s. And that’s all well and good – you should absolutely watch those movies, and The Witch, and buy your tickets for Midsommar.

But I really want to highlight that there’s so, so much great folk horror happening in literature right now, and if you’re not reading it, you’re not getting a full picture of the genre. Here are a few of the best:

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley | Nightmare Scale: 6/10

I read this book in one frenzied sitting on a long train ride a few years back, and it’s one of those debut novels that leaves you thinking how unfair it is for anyone to get it so right on the first try.

This is the story of a devout Catholic family who make a pilgrimage each year to a shrine on the blasted northwest coast of England, full of hostile locals, gloomy weather, and dangerous tides. They have two sons, Smith and Hanny, the latter of whom is mute, and these journeys are made in the hope of a divine cure for his condition. This isn’t stolid institutional religion, though - this is cultish, wild faith, with effusive offerings and ritual baptisms in mossy grottos.

But this is really the story of Smith and Hanny and their explorations of the coastline, particularly the spit of land that becomes an island during high tides, where the townsfolk go under cover of night. What happens on that island becomes a secret that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

CW for this book: animal harm, child harm/death

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon | Nightmare Scale: 8/10

A phenomenal entry into the category of “protagonist who’s afraid of women and, frankly, should be.” Published in the early 70s, the book follows Ned, his wife Beth, and their troubled daughter, Kate as they move from New York to an isolated, charmingly backwards town in rural Connecticut (the idea of an “isolated Connecticut town” is maybe the part of this book that’s aged the worst). Before long, of course, Ned grows suspicious of his new neighbors, especially the straight-out-of-a-morality-play Widow Fortune, the town matriarch and resident herbalist (she’s a wonderful character, swathed in black with a pair of shears hanging from her belt). The townspeople celebrate a number of arcane festivals tied to the year’s growing cycle, the most important of which is Harvest Home – but no one will tell Ned what exactly Harvest Home involves.

There’s some midcentury benevolent paternalism shit going on in this book, as well as some deep-seated fear of being cuckolded, but I didn’t find it affected the read for me – if anything, I think the men in this book largely get what they deserve.

CW for this book: suicide (not graphic), child harm/death, weird sex stuff

The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson | Nightmare Scale 7/10

This novelette (which you can read for free at the link) is a spectacular accomplishment, layered and thorny and painful. In the late 1800s, after the end of slavery, in a town called Rosetree, a family of Black farmers work the tobacco fields. Their young daughter, who can see angels, makes a tragic mistake, and, panicked, makes a deal with a man who says he can fix it. But when her debt comes due, it’s in a tidal wave of violence and blood.

This is supernatural horror, sure, but it’s real-world horror too. Wilson grapples solidly and tragically with the way American slavery dismantled cultural knowledge, folklore, and family tradition. But when a six-year old girl named Easter faces down a devil who can cross a field in a single step, she ultimately can only rely on herself, and the consequences of what she’s done.

CW for this book: graphic anti-Black violence

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand | Nightmare Scale 8/10

The gothic haunted-house tale meets folk horror in this delicious novella. It’s the story of a legendary acid folk band who spent a summer at the titular manse after the death of one of their members. Julian, their lead singer and songwriter, a young man of ethereal beauty and arcane interests, is fascinated by the house and surrounding grounds, which are home to barrows, Bronze Age ruins, House of Leaves-style passageways, and one mysterious girl in white. By the end of the summer, Julian is gone, presumed dead, but the band’s last recording session becomes a cult (hah) sensation, and the band’s legend lives on in infamy.

The book is written as an oral history, a series of interviews with the surviving band members, their manager, and a journalist who profiled the band that summer, which I love as a narrative choice, because you’re immediately plunged into a plethora of narrators of varying degrees of unreliability. Add that to the fact that the interviews are taking place forty years after the events of the story, and you’ve got a nice haze of uncertainty over what actually happened at Wylding Hall.

It’s not the most frightening book in the world – though Hand excels at persistent low-level disorientation throughout the narrative – but there is one culminating scare in this story that really, earnestly fucked me up (email me if you’ve read it, you know which one I’m talking about, I need to commiserate over the lost sleep).

Note: this one is out of print in physical editions but I highly recommend you pick up the ebook. Even if you prefer not to read on a screen, it’s worth it.

Further Reading:

  • Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: I’ve had this weird thing where I’ve been holding off on writing about this book, because it’s one of my favorite horror novels and also one of the flat-out most terrifying things I’ve ever read. I’m likely going to dedicate a whole edition to it at some point in the future, but I wanted to include it here because it’s a great example of contemporary American folk horror (even though it was originally set in Europe, but that’s neither here nor there).

  • The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen: A classic! It caused quite a scandal at publication in the 1890s – readers were aghast at the fact that Machen dared to acknowledge that sex existed – and it’s still a weird and unsettling and sexual and visceral read. It’s about a scientific experiment to prove the existence of the god Pan which goes awry and results in a young girl with unsettling powers. You can read this one for free at the link via Project Gutenberg.

  • Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange by Adam Scovell: Scovell quite literally wrote the book on the genre – this is a nonfiction cultural history of English folk horror and the cultural forces that informed and shaped it as a genre.

Final Girls:

  • When is a Myth Not a Myth: The Origins of the Green Man []: Speaking of folklore (though not of horror), I just adore this piece from Emily Tesh (author of the gorgeously romantic and lush gay Green Man novella Silver in the Wood) about the syncretic origins of the Green Man figure and the ways we conflate ancient and recent history – it really and truly could not be MORE my shit if it tried.

  • On the Edges of a Haunting: Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall []: This is a 2016 piece from friend-of-the-newsletter and very talented author Kat Howard, and it’s a lovely deep dive into everything that makes Wylding Hall wonderful.

  • British Folk Horror Is Back, and It's Scarier Than Ever [Vice]: If you’d like to do some further reading on folk horror, this is a good place to start (even though it’s mostly focused on cinema).

  • The trailer for season 2 of The Terror is here and it looks GREAT (and, unfortunately, extremely fucking timely). Season 1 was an exceptionally well-made piece of television – Jared Harris is an understated powerhouse of an actor – and I’ll be writing about the show and the book it was based on in an upcoming newsletter, but this is your official notice to watch the first season now (summer is the perfect time for it).

    And now, as is traditional, a couple spectacular covers, this time for Harvest Home and Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch: