by Ally Wilkes
If you like found-footage horror – or epistolary horror, to give the literary form its proper name – then Black Mountain by Simon Bestwick is unquestionably a must-read. It felt like diving into the best and most compulsive creepypasta, or the weird world of Missing 411 and disappearances in the wilderness: full of questionable narrators, conflicting explanations, and the unspooling realisation that whatever haunts the Bala Triangle has been doing so at least as far back as recorded history.
The novel presents itself as an investigation by Rob Markland (a freelance journalist of the creepy) into an article written about ‘Hafan Deg’ – an idyllic back-to-nature retreat turned abandoned location – by Russell Ware, who had later widened his remit to include all disappearances and unexplained happenings in the so-called Bala Triangle, a patch of North Wales which tantalisingly includes abandoned settlements, multiple areas of woodland, a lake, a deserted mining village and the eponymous Black Mountain. As Ware digs up more of the area’s history, so Markland becomes intrigued, and gripped with a similar compulsion. It soon becomes apparent that anyone who looks too closely at the incidents in the Bala Triangle might be called there – to commune, to worship, and ultimately to participate in their own destruction. Cleverly, this includes not only both narrators, but also anyone who reads the book, creating a layered and complicated House of Leaves-esque effect (Mark Z Danielewski). In setting out the narrative like this, Bestwick neatly side-steps my perennial complaint about found-footage anthologies like the V/H/S franchise, which is that the framing device of the person who ‘uncovers’ the footage is often weak and unsatisfactory: by nesting his narrators right up until the final reveal, he avoids much of the need to ‘check in’ with them, creating a propulsive narrative and a compulsive read.
Bestwick’s other remarkable achievement is creating the scope and depth of this area’s weird and troubling catalogue of incidents. It’s easy to end up with a rather similar recitation of disappearances, but Black Mountain includes a twice-razed mediaeval village, a terrible wolf-like creature stalking a gold mining settlement, the overnight disappearance of a student on a camping trip (which could itself form the basis for one of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories books), a Roman legion thwarted by the mountain, and so on… if you’ve ever done a deep dive into the absolutely uncanny US Forest Search and Rescue creepypasta then this one is certainly for you. None of the incidents are similar in feel, either – the wolf creature plays out more like a B-movie than anything else, and then there’s the heartbreaking descent into madness and violence of the people living in the farmhouse of Plas Gwynned, told through the diary of the house’s teenage son.
My one critique arises from this abundance of detail and incident – it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the different locations which make up the Bala Triangle, particularly later on in the book where the characters’ lives sometimes depend on getting out of that triangle by the quickest means possible. A sketch map would have immeasurably improved the reading experience, even if it wasn’t presented up-front but instead added to as the book went along. However, I can also see the argument that the sheer confusion and horror of the characters in those chase scenes – often at night, in woodland, stalked by terrifying unseen forces and ‘white dancers’ calling to mind the works of Arthur Machen – is heightened by the fact they can’t visualise their environment. You may want to make your own sketch-map-in-progress: I did, and this was a delightful addition to the book’s ‘now you too are under the influence of Mynydd Du’ meta-narrative, as I found myself leafing through the text rather like the doomed Ward and Markland.
Overall, the book resists easy answers, which is ideal for something so steeped in the ambiguous and oral storytelling nature of found-footage or creepypasta. What exactly leads to the mysterious faces which can sometimes be seen in the windows of the abandoned eco-village at Hafan Deg? What of that wolf-man? We don’t know, and while some stories have answers which tease themselves out over the course of many layers of narrative (such as that disappearing archaeology student), others are far less easily categorised. There’s a folk-horror bent to the mystery, but equally a cosmic-horror one as well: the idea that human minds are bent and warped by the touch of something powerful, ancient and elemental which guards its territory jealously. It’s a theme for which I have a lot of time, and an investigation of this nature (multiple documents, unreliable narrators) feels long overdue since Machen’s The Great God Pan.
Bestwick is to be applauded for creating a pitch-perfect creepypasta in book form, full of unsettling incidents and genuinely scary scenes of folk – and cosmic – terror. It feels like this book was made for me: perhaps I, now, am part of the story of Mynydd Du, and will disappear into its area of influence. Watch this space.
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