Two men pulling a woman along by the arms in a field, while a crowd looks on.

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange by Adam Scovell, a Review

G. H. Finn reviews Adam Scovell‘s excellent new book: Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange.

What exactly is Folk Horror? Is it the writing of M.R. James and Alan Garner? Is it the television scripts of Nigel Kneale, John Bowen and David Rudkin, the films of David Gladwell and The Blood On Satan s Claw? Or could it be the paranoid Public Information Films of the 1970s; the Season Of The Witch ; The Advisory Circle reminding us to Mind how you go! ; or perhaps a contemporary story of two hit-men caught unknowingly in a class-saturated ritual of violence? Interest in the ancient, the occult, and the wyrd is on the rise. The furrows of Robin Hardy, Piers Haggard and Michael Reeves have arisen again, as has the Spirit of Dark of Lonely Water, Juganets, cursed Saxon crowns, spaceships hidden under ancient barrows, owls and flowers, time-warping stone circles, wicker men, the goat of Mendes, and malicious stone tapes. Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful And Things Strange charts the summoning of these esoteric arts within the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond, using theories of Psychogeography, Hauntology and Topography to delve into the genre s output in film, television and multimedia as its sacred demon of ungovernableness rises yet again in the twenty-first century.

Who Will This Book Appeal to?

Aside from existing devotees of folk horror, this work is likely to appeal to those with an eye for the darker aspects of folklore and the supernatural, as well as most fans of horror and dark fantasy in general. In addition, those with an interest in cinema, film-making as a whole, speculative & pulp fiction genres, media studies, and popular culture of the 1960s-80s, will all find the book an informative and enjoyable read.

Writing Style and Tone

Adam Scovell’s writing is clear, easy to read and friendly. Folk horror is obviously very dear to Scovell’s heart and his enthusiasm for the genre fills every page. This book was undoubtedly a labour of love for the author and Scovell’s passion for his subject is likely to infect the reader. Each chapter begins anecdotally with the author reminiscing on an event or meeting connected to the theme of the chapter. Scovell then moves from his anecdote into a detailed examination and discussion of a particular aspect of folk horror. Scovell’s writing provides an expert level of information without becoming dry or overly academic.

What You Can Expect to Find in the Book

  • A thorough grounding in folk horror films (and to an extent TV shows).
  • An easily accessible text that is presented in a friendly and enthusiastic manner.
  • A critical framework with which to define and examine the subject of folk horror.
  • An extremely wide ranging overview of folk horror in the visual media, taking in practically every notable example over a period of several decades.

What You Shouldn’t Expect to Find in the Book

  • Detailed information on folk horror in literature – the book mentions this but does not focus on it and the author predominantly refers to books/short stories that were adapted for film without addressing the purely literary side of the genre.
  • Discussion of folk horror either on the radio or on the stage (plays, audio or theatre adaptations of literary works, etc.)
  • Detailed discussion of aspects of early folk horror found in 19th or 20th century literature, or indeed film prior to the 1960s.

What will the reader get out of this book?

For those who grew up watching films such as The Wicker Man this book will be a nostalgic trip down the dark, overgrown, twisting path of memory lane  ̶  but it will also offer the chance to discover many fresh insights into well loved material.

For those new to the genre, this book will give an enthusiastic introduction to many of the ‘cult classics’ of folk horror, and while doing so will provide more than enough suggestions for what to watch at midnight when black clouds hide a gibbous moon (from the safety of a hiding spot behind the sofa, naturally).

The Main Review

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange is an enjoyable, informative and erudite read. It has a wealth of information on its subject and is the kind of book that works equally well if read cover-to-cover or is ‘dipped into’. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone with an interest in horror or dark fiction. For the serious folklorist, while the text may not shed a lot of light onto ancient traditional practices, nevertheless it does provide a good deal of insight into contemporary folk belief, which has at times been heavily influenced by cinematic depictions of subjects such as witches, ghosts, and other supernatural elements. While some prior familiarity with the subject matter will make the book more enjoyable and accessible, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange is not a daunting text and the reader will follow Scovell’s assessments and arguments even without an existing knowledge of the genre. If I had to give any criticism of this book, as a quality review should, it rests with the title, not the content. I feel it would have been more appropriate to have possibly used “Folk Horror in Film & TV” rather than just “Folk Horror”. Naturally no book can encompass everything, but while dealing with genre of folk horror as a whole, the author focuses mainly on film and TV rather than print, radio, or theatre.  I do not think this detracts from the text, Scovell writes extremely well about the subject and the examples he gives are excellent.

In this work, Scovell presents the reader with certain theories of analysis with which to approach folk horror; perhaps most notable of these is the triad of:

  • Landscape
  • Isolation
  • Happening/summoning

The author does a very creditable job of assessing how these three phenomena appear in a select range of folk horror films. While I would have found it interesting to read more of how and why Scovell feels folk horror employs this triad in a way that separates folk horror from other genres of horror & supernatural literature (for example by offering an explanation not only of why film X is considered folk horror but also why film Y is not), this is not actually a criticism of this particular book, but rather a desire to read more on the emerging critical theory relating to folk horror. For example, it might be suggested that there is a certain continuity of tradition from earlier material e.g. H. P. Lovecraft’s use of rural isolated settings, communities with warped/alternative views of morality & beliefs, rituals to summon the old gods etc. Yet Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’ is both similar to, and totally different from, ‘folk horror’ as presented by Scovell. Indeed, it would be fascinating if future volumes were to look at earlier influences upon folk horror, for I do not doubt there are many such eerie avenues to explore. For example, some of Scovell’s points about landscape and isolation can be found neatly expressed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th Century:

[Watson speaking] “Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”
[Holmes replies] “They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
“You horrify me!”
“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
Sherlock Holmes speaking in ‘The Copper Beeches’, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892).

To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. I found the book was filled with a cornucopia of information to delight any fan of folk horror. Scovell’s knowledge of his subject is encyclopedic, and if his focus is at times a little narrow, this is perhaps a strength, allowing him to delve more deeply and look more closely at key areas of folk horror.

I certainly recommend this book and hope the author will produce many future volumes.

Win a copy of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange by Adam Scovell

The wonderful folks over at Auteur Publishing have offered a copy of Adam’s amazing book for a lucky #FolkloreThursday newsletter subscriber this month!

‘What exactly is Folk Horror? Is it the writing of M.R. James and Alan Garner? Is it the television scripts of Nigel Kneale, John Bowen and David Rudkin, the films of David Gladwell and The Blood On Satan s Claw? Or could it be the paranoid Public Information Films of the 1970s; the Season Of The Witch ; The Advisory Circle reminding us to Mind how you go! ; or perhaps a contemporary story of two hit-men caught unknowingly in a class-saturated ritual of violence? Interest in the ancient, the occult, and the wyrd is on the rise. The furrows of Robin Hardy, Piers Haggard and Michael Reeves have arisen again, as has the Spirit of Dark of Lonely Water, Juganets, cursed Saxon crowns, spaceships hidden under ancient barrows, owls and flowers, time-warping stone circles, wicker men, the goat of Mendes, and malicious stone tapes. Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful And Things Strange charts the summoning of these esoteric arts within the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond, using theories of Psychogeography, Hauntology and Topography to delve into the genre s output in film, television and multimedia as its sacred demon of ungovernableness rises yet again in the twenty-first century.’

Sign up for the #FolkloreThursday newsletter to enter (valid September 2017; UK & ROI only).

The book can be purchased here.

Disclosure: A copy of the book was kindly supplied by the publisher for this review.

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Ganfer Haar Finn is both a keen amateur folklorist, with a particular interest in Northern European traditions, and also an author of many types of speculative fiction, including horror and dark folkloric fantasy. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

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