Thursday, August 22, 2019

Revenants & Maledictions

Revenants & MaledictionsRevenants & Maledictions by Peter Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last month, my wife and I took a holiday to Europe – England, Wales, Germany, and Austria. We had a fabulous trip, and I hope, someday, to make it back again. As with any vacation, choices had to be made, and potential destinations had to be dropped. If we go back again, Scotland, Ireland, and more of Germany are on the list. Alas, I had to take my trips to Scotland and Ireland via Bell’s book. Or maybe “alas” isn’t quite the right word. And maybe it’s best to leave well-enough alone, to specifically not travel to the areas that he’s written about so as to preserve my imaginary view of these ancient, strange places. Bell paints an evocative series of pictures of the British Isles (and one of Iceland). Let’s explore:

Our first stop is "Apotheosis,” a somber, moody piece about a visit to a Hebridean isle. The narrator finds that he is or was an unknowing stranger visiting strange shores. I can't say it was "heavy handed", but the fingers fell just a touch too bluntly on the "X" of the plot map, and I like more subtlety in my reading material. Still, a four-star story and well worth the read.

"The House" is clever, with the perfect amount of creepy. Much is left to the imagination in this self-referential mobius-strip of a meta-story, pulled off to perfection! The story is a trap for the characters, but not one the reader can anticipate. Five stars to this excellent tale, a primer on how to creep your reader out! Fantastic!

Having been lost, alone, on an unfamiliar mountain at night, I had a strong reaction to "The Executioner". While not everything correlated internally, I know the sense of fear that comes with that situation. California or the Outer Hebrides, that fear is the same! This story is a horror of nature, along the lines of some of William Hope Hodgson's work. Respect nature, because it won't respect you, haunted or not! Four stars.

"Many Shades of Red" is a prettily written story set across a stretch of sea, in Iceland, but it was not very effective at pulling an emotional reaction from me. Three stars.

"The Virgin Mary Well" gave me shivers. Stories don't often do that to me. Reality maps on phantom reality in spite of efforts to contain or banish malevolent spirits. Not precisely the ending I expected, but a nice (that is, nasty) bit of a surprise. Bell caught me off-guard with this one. I shall not look at wells in quite the same way now, especially when young ladies are present. Five twisted stars.

"The Island" was well-written, but standard fair for an English-isles ghost story. Bell did well, James did it better. Three stars.

"Wild Wales," with an introductory quote by Aickman, is on the border of what I might call "Aikman-esque," but not quite up to the same standard. Still, what struck me is the strength of the voice in the story. The narration itself heralded the predilections and preferences of the narrator himself: His likes, his comforts, his dislikes, his fears. It was a view into the soul, through a glass, darkly. For this, and a story well-told, four stars.

Maybe "Sithean" wasn't the right story for me to read on the same day I had browsed travel information on the Isle of Skye and just returned from holiday in the UK AND the same night my wife is flying home from having visited her mother. Now I'm spooked. Five annoying stars. Thanks a lot, Bell. (P.S. She made it back here safe and sound. Still . . .)

Anyone who fell deeply in love in the summers of their youth will feel the sweet tugging of old joy and the profound sadness of loss upon reading "Blackberry Time". I can't tell if the ending was too abrupt or exactly terse enough. I'm leaning far enough toward the latter to call this a five-star story. Uncanny and melancholy, this story might set its hooks (in the form of blackberry thorns) into you, too.

Here, in "The Robing of the Bride," all my expectations for what I was anticipating when I bought this book are met - gothic atmosphere, a revelation of hidden things that ought not to be, an unholy masquerade un-veiled. Or, rather, veiled. To quote the sound advice of one character "it is best you do not see". Also, the history here correlates closely with what I am currently reading in Robert Grave's The White Goddess, which has added some verisimilitude for this particular reader/ing. This story, previously unpublished, shows that often in collections, the new works are the best. Five stars

Not a bad trip at all. Outside of a couple of flat spots that seemed all-too familiar, the scenery here is (darkly) beautiful. Stamp your passport and take the trip!

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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies - Second EditionFolk Horror Revival: Field Studies - Second Edition by Andy Paciorek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This (second edition) of Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies . . . wanders. But, not all who wander are lost.

I recently returned from a trip to the Cotswolds (after a 32-year absence from the UK) where wandering was a good part of our purpose there. We, my wife and I, were “all over the place,” as they say. Our itinerary was packed, but packed in such a way as to not overload us in any particular area or town, outside of a long hike through the country from Moreton-in-Marsh, past Blockley, down to Longborough, then back up to Moreton. 12 miles of magic, with several cases of becoming utterly lost and having to discover our way again, whether by pure serendipity or with the help of strangers. We trod across forbidden areas (because we did not know any better and wished to “pick up the trail” again – a strange turn of phrase, that: “pick up the trail”. From behind you? Or ahead of you?) and broke the boundaries many times (apologies to the many farmers whose land we innocently crossed).

Funny, then, that I should have finished this book right before our journey. This was perfect timing, both thematically, and because this is a huge book and I needed room in my luggage for other books I was hoping to find and bring back from the UK, especially because we were going to the famous booktown, Hay-On-Wye, for a day. And, yes, I did bring several books back, but that is a different story.

This book, also, wanders. It becomes lost. It finds the track again. Then loses it. Ad infinitum.

My readerly advice: become lost with it. Keep it by your side, but don’t worry about your next destination. Just go along for the ride. Yes, there will be moments when you will want to tune out and complain that your feet hurt and you are thirsty, with little water left. There are a few essays that you will skim or skip, I know I did, though I was surprised at how few there were, to be honest. The vast bulk of the book was at the very least enjoyable and sometimes a burning revelation, like the sun in your eyes when you wake up from having slept outdoors. Whether your interest is literary, cinematic, musical, historical, religious, or philosophical or, like mine, a combination of all of these, anyone with interests in the ever-widening circle of Folk Horror will find something amazing here.

Please allow me to share some of the highlights of my wandering . . .

In my travels, there are a few souls who I’d like to meet. Yes, there is an excellent Thomas Ligotti interview herein, and I am a big fan of his work, to say the least. But I don’t know that I’d much like to sit down and have tea with the man.

Gary Lachman (ex-bassist for Blondie), however, is a sort of kindred soul. So much of what he said in his interview resonates with me on the level of “spirituality” (a term he spurns, but principles he lives), a fondness for much of the same art, and shared experience regarding the evolution of taste in music. I would love to spend a few hours with him.

Nick Brown's essay "Ghost, Landscape and Science" hews very closely to my most speculative and wild thoughts regarding quantum mechanics and the spirit world. I don't plan on writing about this, as it's all rather speculative and very, very personal. But I'm glad to see that someone else is thinking in the same general direction as I am, even if we aren't diving down to the specifics. I'd love to chat with Brown.

There are others I should like to meet, not because of them as people, per se, though I’m sure they are fascinating people, but because of the subject matter of their essays and their fantastic treatment of such.

First among these would be John Harrigan, whose essay "The Sacred Theatre of Summerisle" is a profound look into ritual itself based upon the Wicker Man celebration. It is an incredibly insightful piece and lends some reassurance to those of us who do believe that ritual itself carries power to infuse life with meaning. Fabulous essay!

Cobweb Mehers' "One Small Step for Man: Hunting the Nephilim" is a remarkable dive into the archaeology of knowledge: the origins of giants, the evolution of myth, and the contemporary social relevance of stories far older than the Bible from which we know them. This was fascinating and has my philosophical wheels spinning so quickly that my brain is shooting sparks. I could read volumes of this type of work.

One of the more intriguing essay titles comes from Aaron Jolly in his essay “Kill Lists: The occult, paganism and sacrifice in cinema as an analogy for political upheaval in the 1970s and 2010s”. I was a bit wary going into this, as historical recusivity can sometimes be imposed upon evidence, rather than being arising from it. There are some connections here, I think, with Mark Fisher’s ruminations on the slow cancellation of the future, though I would need time to ferret out and clearly identify the threads and how they tie together. In any case, “Folk Horror Historiography” is now a thing, thanks in part to this essay.

It took some research to understand that Jim Peter’s essay “The Wanderings of Melmoth” is a sort of multi-media piece about music, but without the music. You’ll have to go find it online. Here is a sample. Listening to this whilst reading this most excellent and playful essay might take you to realms heretofore unknown or might drive you mad. Perhaps both, at once.

And speaking of music, there are several excellent essays about music, the best of which is Clare Button’s “’See Not Ye That Bonny Road?’ Places, Haunts and Haunted Places in British Traditional Song”. This is an incredibly well-researched and carefully documented essay that thoroughly and critically examines the subject matter without becoming academically stodgy. This is the only essay in the book for which I used the term “amazeballs” in my notes. This should speak volumes.

Another well-documented essay is Phil Legard’s “The Hunted Fields of England: Diabolical Landscapes and the Genii Locorum,” in which he provides the psychogeographical connective tissue between pagan tradition and post-Christian diablerie. I must add here, also, that Legard and his partner, Layla, perform as the band “Hawthonn”. Their album Red Goddess: of this men shall know nothing is one of my absolute favorite pieces of Folk Horror music. I cannot recommend it strongly enough!

One final essay that caught my attention featured Chris Lambert quoting Tony Redman in his treatise on M.R. James: "Wherever you've got a margin between two types of culture and two types of landscape you often get a deeper awareness of the supernatural and the spiritual". This rings true to me, who lived overseas most of my childhood and loved (and still love) to wander the "spaces between". This is especially true given our recent trip (back) to Europe (my wife lived in Austria for a year and a half in her early-twenties), where we stepped across several liminal boundaries, cultural, geographical, and psychogeographical. I could go on, but should probably do a blog post about this some time.

Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies is a wild and wooly volume like
A Year in the Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields, which is to say that it’s not easily defined or corralled. And I like that: variety is good. I may re-read A Year in the Country alongside Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies, as the volumes complement each other quite nicely. Both of these volumes have given me a thousand threads to chase regarding the subject of Folk Horror. That makes me a very happy reader!

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