Apparently the tag was coined by Mark Gatiss in 2010, and used to describe a certain genre of very British horror movies that focused on the countryside, its people and its folklore, its legends and superstitions.
The three movies that form the core of the genre are Michael Reeves’ historically accurate nightmare Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s delicately-titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s classic The Wicker Man (1973). A lot of stuff follows, including some of the things that creeped me out the most when I was a kid, to wit Children of the Stones, a rather scary 1977 occult serial from ITV. It was supposed to be kid’s entertainment, but boy was it the stuff of nightmares.
But hey, even The Persuaders had a folk horror episode!
Now I am usually wary of labels when it comes to fiction – they make for good party games, but obsessing too much about such things often means forgetting about the story.
But there is a folk element in Arthur Machen, of course, and in M.R. James, and even in Lovecraft. The genre has a history, and deep roots, and more than a little pulp blood in its veins.
And, there is certainly something about rural areas that makes for good horror.
We are creatures of the open savannas, we evolved there and then moved out. We still feel the predator’s eyes on us whenever we are out in the open, alone.
And paradoxically, the main attractions of the countryside – the silence, the loneliness, the wide spaces and the undomesticated nature – are also the main sources of disquiet, of unease, of fear.
You are all alone, in the middle of nowhere.
The only sounds you hear are unfamiliar and unknown.
The feeling of being observed is very strong.
And the locals, they are either reserved in a suspect way (what are they hiding?) or even more sinisterly friendly (why such geniality? What are they hiding?!)
I’ve been living in the countryside since 2009, and I found out that being just 50 miles out of industrial towns like Turin or Milan is actually something that makes things more sinister.
You leave behind the city lights, the fast food joints and wandering crowds, and in about half an hour you take an exit and soon you are in a landscape of overgrown fields and ghost-like villages, in which surly natives stare at you like you just walked out of a flying saucer.
The nights show you more stars than you remembered from your city-bound life, and the silence is broken by the calls of animals (you hope you are animals) you don’t know anyway.
I was living here in the hills of Monferrato no more than a week when I spent a night alone at home – my father being away on some of his business, because back in 2009 he was still reasonably fine.
I was sitting in my room, reading (what else), and all of a sudden I heard a strange call, a sound like someone raging and screaming. I looked out of my window, and I caught a dark shape in the moonlight, an unknown man that was gripping the iron bars of my house’s gate in his fists, and shaking like a wild baboon, roaring.
By the time I found a high-power flashlight, he was gone.
To this day, I don’t know who or what it was. But it was an apt welcome.
The local countryside offers abundant fuel for fiction, and indeed some of our finest horror writers come from this area, and have tapped the mother lode of local legends (first among them, Danilo Arona, who created a whole parallel geography of horror in the hills of Southern Piedmont) and folk tales (such as the “Masche”, the witches/hags that were the subject of my old friend Fabrizio Borgio, that used them in his eponymous novel).
It is Danilo Arona that usually speaks of Piedmontese Neogothic, to describe the heady mix of urban horror (such as the stories by Cristiana Astori), that from Turin and Milan seeps and fades into the rural gothic of Arona himself, of Borgio, of Luigi Musolino and many others.
I get sometimes bundled with these fine folks, mostly because of my horror shorts set in the Belbo Valley, so when I speak about Piedmontese Neogothic, I usually say we.
Are we creating a genre, or a sub-genre?
Are we founding a new tradition, or discovering an old one?
Being a Leiber fan myself, and having spent part of my youth with the smoke ghosts and paramentals of the Big City, I sometimes think that all horror is folk, meaning it always hinges on a body of location-specific traditions. The city has its legends, its shadows, its mysteries, and they are often an update, a transmogrification of older stories, older spooks.
Coming back to the countryside, as we take that exit on the highway, we are just coming back to the roots of all of our fears – and they feel so vivid and sharp because we had buried them in the darkest recesses of our memory, and now we start to remember.
All this to say I am reworking a story I had started last winter (the one with the Templars) and then dropped after about one third. It’s about a former punk rocker that retires to the Italian countryside looking for oblivion and starts seeing things.
I’d like to do something with it, one of these nights1.
I’ll keep you posted.
Oh, and in case you wanted to know more about folk horror, here’s three useful links:
AND the folk horror episode of The Persuaders – because it’s Easter.
- this is one of the four projects I’m outlining now, and that I’ll probably pitch to a few publishers just to see what happens if I shake the tree. I’ll work on these stories on the road, in all likelihood. ↩