A Fiend in the Furrows Folk Horror Conference
Queen's University hosts three-day event exploring perspectives on folk horror in literature, film and music
Please note: This is an archive piece and the event has since taken place.
'The countryside isn’t just a nice place with tea and cricket. It is legitimately terrifying.'
So claims Eamon Byers, who, alongside Craig Wallace, is the co-director of A Fiend in the Furrows: Perspectives on Folk Horror in Literature, Film and Music, a three-day conference at Queen's University, which takes place from September 19 – 21.
It is an important step in the establishment of 'folk horror' as a respectable genre worthy of study in Northern Ireland. I meet them while in a state of mild panic, my Dictaphone having spontaneously exploded in my pocket. The work, no doubt, of night’s black agents.
Byers and Wallace are an impressively donnish pair and keen to impart the seriousness of, and the necessity for this endeavour, even as I continually derail the conversation in a thoroughly unprofessional manner, my enthusiasm for the subject, and the opportunity to talk about it, leading to violently effusive outbursts. I’m not alone, it seems.
'A lot of aficionados have been creeping out of the woodwork,' Byers reveals. 'So we’ve had a lot of enthusiasm for this. Craig and I met at Queen’s. Both of our work touched on folk horror and it was our supervisor who pushed us together.
'We were amazed that nobody else had done something like it, so we wanted to be there first to plant the flag for an academic study of the subject. And not in a dry sense, but to celebrate it. It has been bubbling away and building for a while, this idea that folk horror needs to be looked at and assessed.'
'I think it’s something that’s maybe associated with cinema at the moment,' continues Wallace. 'Especially since the 1970s, but it’s a tradition that goes back to late 19th and early 20th century literary scenarios, where archaeologists and academic types go off unearthing ancient artefacts and end up being haunted by ghosts of the past.'
Cinema certainly seems to be the driving force behind most of the popular interest. The three urtexts of the genre are Michael Reeves’ unflinching Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw and most of all Robin Hardy’s immortal The Wicker Man.
These films share a peculiar resonance, a shiver of creeping bucolic oddness, and setting – out in the country is where it’s dark, where there are strange sounds at night and nobody around for miles. Where different laws, different rules apply.
'Craig was looking at film and television as well as literature and I was looking at The Wicker Man for my thesis because it is the finest use of folk music you’ll find in any film,' says Byers. 'It’s what makes the film so powerful.'
It could be argued that The Wicker Man is the first horror musical, so enmeshed, so heightening is the music throughout. The final scene, where the people of Summerisle link arms for a sing-along to 'Sumer Is Icumen In', a 13th century round, with grins plastered all over their faces, is utterly chilling in context.
I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it. But you should have seen it. Not the Nicholas Cage one about bees, mind.
'Shirley Collins epitomises that kind of nice, school-teacherly tweeness that you get with a lot of folk music,' says Byers, 'but her tastes are so dark, examining what she calls 'England’s dark heart', showing that folk music is incredibly bleak, twisted and scary, as well as beautiful, and that the folk culture in a more general sense can, in fact, be terrifying.'
Witchfinder General, meanwhile – starring Vincent Price as the titular witch botherer – is an effective Western, albeit a Western set in East Anglia.
'Folk horror is in some ways like an Anglicisation of a Western,' Wallace argues. 'Just as the cinematic genre emerged at the same time as the folk revival in Britain, which was trying to do what American singers had been trying to do with traditional American music.
'The cinema too does take a lot of those American tropes, celebrating the weird old England rather than the weird old America. Westerns of that time do the same sort of things that folk horror does, an intrusion of modernism. A lot of Peckinpah films, for instance, have that clash between the rise of modernity and the past.' Indeed, it’s not much of a stretch to claim Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs as his own British folk horror western.
The A Fiend in the Furrows conference is not just about film, however. There is music, drama from our very own Mystery Wireless Theatre, and several plenary speakers, including Daryl Jones, professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin and recent editor of the Oxford edition of The Ghost Stories of MR James.
And there is Derek Johnston, lecturer in broadcast literacy at Queen's. Other cinematic treats at Queen's Film Theatre include a screening of Quatermass and the Pit, and a new 35 mm print of Jaromil Jires’ gorgeous Valerie and her Week of Wonders.
Does something so obviously rooted in the past have relevance now? And what, if anything, is the future for weird old England?
'There is a future especially as the genre becomes more canonised,' says Byers. 'When you have debates about Englishness and Scottishness with the Independence referendum coming up and with people thinking about what British culture means, people do turn back to these comfortable old ideas of country and home. But you also have to think about what elements of that are best left behind. So this haunting spectre is always there.
'Because folk horror has finally been identified as this genre people now are consciously doing folk horror. Ben Wheatley – with Kill List and A Field in England – is consciously drawing on those influences. HBO’s True Detective is essentially an American folk horror. This stuff is making a comeback. That makes this the right time to do a conference, to try and get a handle on what these disparate things are.'