A Folk Horror Anthology
Andy Paciorek reviews Damnable Tales: A Folk Horror Anthology selected and illustrated by Richard Wells, and finds it to be a ‘must-have’ collection.
As soon as I heard the initial musings of a book of classic folk horror short stories selected and illustrated by Richard Wells, my curiosity was piqued on several levels. Being a ‘book artist myself (writer, illustrator and small-press publisher), I have both a bias and fondness for illustrated editions, and Wells is not an artist that has bypassed the attention of many folk horror revivalists. Should his name have somehow escaped attention, then his work (film posters for The Wicker Man and A Field in England, his lino-cut prints of folkloric entities, his cover for Edward Parnell’s atmospheric and resonant book Ghostland, and pieces featuring film and TV (most notably Ben Wheatley’s film In The Earth)) will very likely not have passed unnoticed. The subject matter of this tome unexpectedly caused my ears to prick up with curiosity – considering my own involvement with this whole folk horror thing – and as I am a little bit of a collector of weird short stories, I was very intrigued to see which tales he would select.
As with all collections of short stories, there are likely to be tales that appeal to some readers and others less so. I believe this is generally subjective on the part of the reader, and not always because a bad selection is made. I will not dally on the tales which sat less well with me because there is nothing constructive in doing so: my taste is not necessarily your taste, and I didn’t actually dislike any of the tales selected – there were just some I liked more than others, as is the way with anthologies. This book is more voluminous than I expected, and within its hallowed pages may be found some familiar tales by some familiar writers; some unfamiliar tales by some familiar writers; and some unfamiliar tales by some unfamiliar writers. This makes the book a good choice for those new to the folk horror ways, whilst still being of appeal to those already acquainted with the strange goings-on behind the old hedges and the standing stones.
The tales are presented chronologically, starting with Sheridan Le Fanu’s darkly romantic ‘Laura Silver Bell’ of 1872, and culminating in Robert Aickman’s delightfully bizarre 1964 story ‘Bind Your Hair’. This shows how the sub-genre or mode of folk horror developed over nearly a century: a development that is more stylistic than subject-wise, for the most part. It also clearly illustrates otherwise to anyone who may still think that folk horror originated with three British films at the tail-end of the hippy dream. It is notable, however, that the majority of stories in this book do have a British or Irish origin, with Shirley Jackson’s 1950 tale ‘The Summer People’ notably bringing an odd slice of Wyrd Americana to the table. This may not be too unexpected; folk horror is a prevalent feature within British and Irish weird fiction as it fits so well with the landscape, lore, and history of these isles. It is not of any detriment to the book but should further volumes follow (which I hope they will), then my curiosity would again be piqued to see stories selected from a variety of nations – certainly, Eastern Europe and Asia could provide a wealth of possible content, and it would be intriguing to see how Wells would visually approach the writings of Gogol, Meyrink, and Kafka, for instance, or the translations made by Lafcadio Hearn of Japan’s haunted heritage. And what wonders could be dug from the soil of Africa, Australasia, and Scandinavia and rendered with the imagery of Richard Wells? Temptation to the imagination, but (anyway) back to the book in hand.
Before I speak further about Well’s art, just a note that some of the early tales in this book are quite heavy on the use of vernacular dialect, which – when done well – can illustrate the versatile skill of a writer, but can, alas, also sometimes put something of a screen between the reader and the tale being told. It is easier to become absorbed and drenched in the delicious dread and atmosphere of a spooky tale if you do not have to repeatedly reach for a dictionary or second-guess what is actually being said. However, these tales are important examples of the diversity of the folk horror tradition, and worthy of inclusion in such an anthology. There are only a couple of tales that do this, so for the casual reader or those entirely new to folk horror: do not be put off. As these stories occur early in the book, it would be advised perhaps not to read cover to cover but to dip in and out randomly, or even start at the last story and work widdershins back to the beginning. If, however, you do wish to read chronologically and do strain a little to engage with the earlier stories due to the linguistic unfamiliarity, do not let this put you off pursuing further with the book.
And what a book it is: a considerable and considered selection, and delivered handsomely. When I heard it was being crowd-funded I was a bit wary of what the quality would be like, but there’s no complaint here. It is solidly constructed and well presented. The subtle touch of adding an earthy red to some of the chapter openings is just a little thing, but I found it nice attention to detail. And the illustrations are superb. Sharply printed, and the old woodcut style suits the material. There is a quirkiness and humour to some which suits folk horror tales really well, yet – even so – the image for Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’ is rather disturbing (and also my favourite illustration in the book).
Among the writers included are some of my personal favourites – Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Machen, and Robert Aickman – but it was great to read, alongside well-known writers such as M.R James (‘The Ash Tree’), Saki (‘The Music on the Hill’), Walter de la Mare (‘All Hallows’), and Thomas Hardy (whose ‘The Withered Arm’ is possibly a contender for my favourite story in the book) – tales previously unfamiliar to me, such as ‘The Sin-Eater’ by Fiona Macleod and ‘Cwm Garon’ by L.T.C. Holt.
The book includes a foreword by the author Benjamin Myers, amongst whose gritty novels The Gallows Pole has made an impression on many folk horror revivalist readers (and which has been adapted to screen by Shane Meadows and the BBC), and that’s another box ticked in its favour. So wicked witches, bad fairies, and the restless dead be damned, for those who are looking to fill up their folk horror fiction shelves, Damnable Tales is a must-have.
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