by Matt Wesolowski
Ally Wilkes reviews Deity by Matt Wesolowski, the latest instalment in the utterly compelling, podcast-inspired Six Stories horror/crime series...
I can never recommend the Six Stories series of novels highly enough: short, tightly-plotted and weaving ‘found footage’ tropes together with a podcast format, they’re effortlessly readable, with a substantial injection of supernatural and folkloric horror. In the past, Wesolowski – via his fictional podcast host Scott King – has tackled witch/hag lore (Six Stories), internet legends and creepypasta (Hydra), elven abduction (Changeling) and vampires (Beast). Each one manages to offer a compelling and unique take on its subject-matter, and Deity is no different. This time the headline is folk horror, with a harbinger spirit – like the Grim or the Mothman – of a rotting stag with a decaying skull and glowing red eyes. In its treatment of ancient, madness-inducing survivals from another time, and also its signature narrative techniques, Deity may well be the most accomplished and most Machen-like instalment yet.
Arthur Machen was a Welsh author and mystic writing in the 1890s heyday of the British ‘haute Weird’. He’s perhaps best known for his short stories and novellas, including The Great God Pan (1894), The Three Impostors (1895) and The White People (1904), each of which has a very characteristic story structure: the reader is required to unravel a series of framing narratives, interrogate various found documents, and weigh up accounts to decide what really happened. It’s easy to draw a continuity between Machen’s work and the found-footage horror phenomenon which is often – wrongly – limited to film: what about Max Brooks’ World War Z (Crown, 2006), for example, or Mark Z Danielewski’s majestic House of Leaves? The Six Stories books sit within this tradition: the narrator Scott King presents the reader with a disjointed narrative made up of snippets of transcript, internet posts or correspondence, and six meatier interviews with characters connected to the central mystery.
Reading Deity, I constantly thought of Machen’s The Three Impostors, in which the motive of the tale-tellers is often as important as the tale they’re telling. It’s an intriguing device which wouldn’t work without Wesolowski’s considerable gift for ventriloquism. Scott King has a measured, rhythmic voice – instantly identifiable as our ‘host’ and anchor point – whereas the other six narrators have distinctive voices across the class and gender spectrum. (I have to say Machen’s 1890s army of near-interchangeable young men does get tiring after a while).
To the story. Zach Crystal is a megastar, a singer-songwriter surrounded by hysterical fans. He’s also a mystery – a young man with long blond hair and a crown of antlers, adorned with leaves and branches, a modern-day Cerunnos – who lives in Crystal Forest, a remote and highly-guarded Scottish woodland. Inviting young girls from troubled backgrounds for sleepovers in his ‘treehouse’, throwing around wealth and privilege like confetti, Crystal appears childlike and troubled: readers will immediately see he’s coded as a Michael Jackson figure. In September 2019, at the climax of a bizarre series of disappearances, deaths and allegations of sexual assault, he’s found dead in a fire which consumes the entire property. Enter Scott King and his podcast.
The woods of Crystal Forest are the book’s first – and arguably most powerful – setting for horror, and it’s once again a Machen-esque theme: forces of nature, primal survivals, and madness-inducing brushes with elementals. The forest is primordial: ‘endless, sodden’ and Deity opens with ‘the 2007 Crystal Forest video’ which depicts two girls caught in its darkness. The camera dips and spins, and there’s a noise – ‘an inhuman screech, a truncated howl that distorts then falls into sudden silence. A blast of pure savage rage’ – which hints at a supernatural agency either chasing or acting on the girls. In a visual straight out of the ending of The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), we see: ‘Lulu or Jessica, hair plastered over her face, clothes torn and wet, walk[ing] towards the phone, knees at funny angles, her movements stiff, like a marionette.’ It’s the perfect introduction to Wesolowski’s savage woods, which are a hinterland full of sudden drops and vanishing paths, a place where it’s very easy to become disorientated and lost.
As in The Great God Pan, encounters with something preternatural have a ripple effect through a narrative otherwise firmly grounded in human evil. Indeed, the two themes are woven together firmly, as Crystal uses the idea of seeing the Frithghast – that spectral stag – as a lure to beckon his young girls into his sphere and into his forest: ‘Why do you think so many kids see fairies? Why do so many kids have imaginary friends? It’s only when you grow up that you’re conditioned into thinking otherwise; you’re told that magic doesn’t exist.’ As a statement of grooming, it’s chilling: as an echo of the madness-vector faerie initiation which kills Machen’s young protagonist in The White People, it’s utterly horrifying.
For me, this was the most supernaturally terrifying of the Six Stories, despite its ambiguity, harking back to the nail-biting tension of Changeling. That opening found-footage is viscerally upsetting, and the mystery of what happened to Lulu and Jessica is threaded throughout the novel: we’re told that ‘horrific rumours abound about what actually happened to the two girls while they were in or near Crystal Forest’, and episode three – told by Craig Kerr the groundskeeper – is pure folk horror. He narrates the story of the ‘Whispering Wood’ which once told a child ‘things no human is supposed to know… [things that] could send you raving mad’ until she murdered her own family and ate them raw.
Craig Kerr also found the two girls’ bodies in a cave with ‘funny marks’ on the rocks which gave him ‘a bad vibe’ (so deliciously understated!), in a condition which suggested butchery and cannibalism had once again taken place. He remarks, sadly, that you’d have thought their deaths would have made bigger headlines. This was also my one complaint about Deity: call me a ghoul, but I wanted to know much, much more about the fate of those girls, and wished that their found-footage strand had been a bigger presence within the book. We’re left with considerable ambiguity about the presence (or delineation) of the supernatural, but perhaps the biggest hint at the ‘realness’ of the Frithghast comes when a character who is not part of the hysteria surrounding Crystal goes into the woods at night: ‘the breeze was making all the leaves hiss as well, all chattering together all around me. It was a strange sensation… it was like… well, it felt like it was laughing at me.’
Other ambiguities abound: what is happening to the studio audience in Crystal’s July 2019 appearance, interspersed throughout the stories? They make ‘short, high, yelping sounds’, twitch in their seats, and the broadcast is frequently cut, studio lights going on and off – a fascinating intrusion of the supernatural into the apparently objective, reminiscent of Ghostwatch (Leslie Manning, 1992). Is it a case of fan hysteria, or something more sinister? No easy answers are offered up, and the various revelations delivered along the way urge the reader to reinterpret what they’ve already read.
Wesolowski welds this sense of otherworldly dread with real-world evil in Crystal, who – dressing like a forest god – tells his ‘special girls’ they are also able to see the Frithghast. He’s a skin-crawling character, making all the wrong noises about ‘places where young people escape into other worlds’ (the way he speaks about Narnia is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Neverland; and once again we can see Machen’s childhood seduction/destruction tale of The White People). One of the most successful moments of understated horror comes when the supernatural noise – the off-screen suggestion – of a stag is combined with the discovery of a pair of discarded pyjama bottoms: ‘Little frilly things, with bows, like what young lassies wear.’ It opens up a yawning pit of discomfort, and demonstrates Wesolowski’s mastery of his disparate materials.
And what a mastery it is. Deity is full of characters who sit at the edge of our moral judgements, resisting straightforward categorisations. We meet an internet paedophile hunter – or do we? We meet Sasha Stewart, a Crystal superfan who unleashes vile and vicious victim-blaming towards the singer’s accusers. And we meet Marie Owen, a mother who lives among the debris of her previous life, waiting in a too-large house bought by Crystal for her lost daughter Kirsty to come back – hounded by tabloid headlines like ‘I Sold My Daughter To Zach Crystal’. It’s the sheer nuance which always marks out Wesolowski’s writing: he has a real empathy for the desperate decisions sometimes made by those living lives of deprivation, precarity, and grinding poverty. The Six Stories books often feature absent or abusive or drug-using parents, ill-reputed council estates and coercive partners, and it’s easy to see that the author’s other career – as a English tutor for young people in care – is able to offer him a rare insight and authenticity.
I was delighted by Deity, from that horrifying found-footage opening right up until the point it detonated its awful question – what if Lulu and Jessica weren’t trying to get into Crystal Forest, but out of it? The unravelling took in the Satanic Panic, dodgy interview techniques, reputation and cults, and a hint at something truly awful that might have come to pass in those woods. While I’ve drawn several comparisons between this book and the works of Arthur Machen, perhaps the most obvious is the lingering sense that there was more to the story all along – more than we can ever know – and that’s why the Six Stories books are both compelling and effortlessly binge-worthy.
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