The Queen of the High Fields
Rhiannon A Grist
by Ally Wilkes
The novella form is having a comeback: so many of the exciting horror titles of 2021 have been short, punchy narratives put out by smaller presses. But it can be easy to feel that this is largely a US-based movement, and that the UK lags behind in short-form fiction. Not so: there are indie presses over here, too, which are consistently putting out high quality novellas, and this year Luna Press (based in Scotland) offers instalments #7 – #12 in their appealingly packaged Luna Novella series. The Queen of the High Fields, by Welsh writer Rhiannon A Grist, is out on 8 February 2022.
What’s the dividing line between dark fantasy and folk horror? To my mind both labels could apply to this tantalising little novella which deals with a mythical kingdom off the coast of a dying Welsh seaside town, the eponymous High Fields. Two misfit girls, Carys and Angharad, focus single-mindedly on learning its secrets, and one of them – Angharad, or ‘Hazard’ to her friends – becomes its deeply sinister nature goddess: think dark Galadriel from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (NZ/US, Peter Jackson, 2001), or the discomforting flowers-and-sunshine imagery of Midsommar (US/Sweden, Ari Aster, 2019).
Carys leaves, but later has to return to the High Fields as an adult, taking two unwelcome travellers with her. The story is told in alternating timelines, between Angharad-as-seeker and Angharad-as-goddess, and it’s an extremely effective device, capable of effortlessly hiding the darker secrets of how the girls took power on the island. (My only peeve would be the use of chapters in italics to denote the ‘past’, which I find annoying to read – others, however, may disagree).
Hazard is a fascinating creation, coming from a troubled background with little in the way of support other than her Nan – and Carys – via an unexpected love for forestry and the outdoors to a resentful role as a fast-food worker to finance their explorations into the lore of the High Fields. She’s at once knowing and petulant, and Grist deftly draws out the horror of how her years as a near-omnipotent goddess have changed her: from a relatable, sarcastic human to a performance of what Carys dismissively calls ‘American prom queen debutante bullshit’, all ringing-bells-voice and demure queenliness. We get the sense that something truly traumatic lies beneath; something that Carys is extremely reluctant to remember or reveal.
This mediation of high fantasy (the girls literally drawn on the power of Arawn, Lord of Annwn) and real-world privations keeps the story grounded. Carys and Angharad are shocked to find that their local library is no repository of hidden lore like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and their quest to understand the High Fields finds them living in a cramped second-hand caravan on the Welsh coast, ‘pale olive-green decorated with pink floral curtains’. The novella is full of well-chosen touches like this that keep the reader engaged – worthwhile when it descends, in its last few chapters, into something truly weird and a little bit cosmic.
This was where I felt the novella could best be described as folk horror, as things start to go wrong on the island in a way that can’t help but remind the reader of The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973). Rather than a sacrifice, however, the horror is more personal to Carys and Angharad. I was left wishing for an extended version that really dug into some of the more nightmarish imagery associated with the High Fields, but sometimes that’s no bad thing: to be left tantalised by what isn’t revealed or dwelled upon is, to my mind, half the fun of the folk-horror form. Anyone with an interest in Welsh mythology (did anyone else grow up reading Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, or Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider?) will find lots to love here, and some truly interesting characters in Carys and Angharad. Rhiannon A Grist – and Luna Novella – are obviously ones to watch.
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