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Women’s voices in Folk Horror and Landscape (Part 1)

By Paul Watson on .

photo by Paul Watson

I’ve been going through a number of my blog posts on the subject of the Folk-Horror/Landscape thing that often gets shortened to the “English Eerie” and I noticed a distinct lack of women’s voices - with just a couple of exceptions all the sources I cited or quoted were from male authors.

This post is therefore:

  1. an attempt to redress the balance in my previous posts,
  2. the results of my research to include more female authors on this subject into my daily incoming feeds (both Twitter and RSS) so that what I read from now on is more balanced and contains a richer variety of work.

I’ve called this “Part 1” not because I have a second part already planned, but because I’m sure I’ve got many more female authors on this subject still to discover, and I’ll want to include them in a follow-up post or posts at some point in the future.

(This land is bright and full of terror)

I’d like to start with Sarah Wishart’s piece Wyrd prairies, an evocative description of her personal pilgrimmage to visit Derek Jarman’s house in Dungeness:

The English countryside can be rolling and soft, gentle wending slopes and rich soil, like the Shropshire Marshes. This is not that sort of English countryside. This is a slightly fearful and weird place. I saw no-one else my whole afternoon on the road. Not one soul. The most constant presence was the wind…It never stopped, it whipped sound away and added a strange hallucinatory quality to the landscape. Great pylons buzzed noisily as the wind picked up, quietened as it dropped…

The eerie took on another form of attack in that I was reminded of danger every hundred yards or so. Glaring red signs everywhere warned how very close I was to military firing ranges…

The section ends with a wonderful parenthesised single-sentence paragraph:

(This land is bright and full of terror).

…which sums up much of the “English Eerie”. The parentheses make it feel like a whispered aside, a truth spoken quietly in fear that the landscape itself might overhear and disapprove of such a warning.

Landscape as Narrative Arc / Landscape Tales

Nina Lyon, author of Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man, tackles the idea of writing about Place in her post Openness, or a Logic of Sense of Place, a piece inspired by a walk through the Herefordshire countryside.

Writing about places was always supposed to be about chasing encounters, a sense of the uncanny or the sublime, whether found in passing human faces or the crumbling edges of buildings or elevated hillwalk metaphysics…I wonder whether each sort of landscape might conjure up its own particular philosophical space. Perhaps these considerations are merely the product of the hyperoxygenated brain. Perhaps psychogeographic endeavour should restrict itself to the disruption of industrial society. Perhaps, for all its ambitions of the directly lived encounter, this fashionable habit of talking about walking in hills and open spaces is part of the same bourgeois ideology that the Situationists were trying to overturn in the first place…

As soon as you write about place, or situate what you are trying to write about in a place, the place becomes a metaphor. It has no choice in the matter: it has become the narrative arc the ideas need to be couched in, co-opted into an elastic description of its describable characteristics as required to illustrate a point plucked from the mind’s ether.

Lyon is not alone in questioning psychogeography (in the form of the critical academic framework it seems to be becoming) - “LandscapePunk” has already emerged as an alternative, but there’s another way to look at landscape: Landscape Archaeology. Dr Lucy Rider’s blog Landscape Tales does just that - she is a Landscape Archaeologist researching landscapes, folklore, perception, and memory.

In a post last year I went on a bit of a whimsical tangent imagining a folk-horror version of Time Team: Landscape Archaeologists are those who can see the ghosts of past landscapes haunting the present landscape; the Geophysical Surveyors use strange cartographic machines to make maps of ghosts of past landscapes hidden under the ground. In Dr Rider we have a Landscape Archaeologist who can indeed see the shape of ghosts of folklore-past in the landscape.

Returning to Nina Lyon, she also reviewed Carolyne Larrington’s book The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles in the Spectator in a piece called Spirit of place: the landscape of myth and magic in which she writes (emphasis mine):

There are flirtations with landscape writing here, some very good. Larrington’s conversational style works a treat when describing a 20th-century encounter with the ‘Black Shuck’, the East Anglian manifestation of the Black Dog myth. Rooting the tales in their place with more than a fleeting mention of where that place is takes the book beyond academic factoid mode and into somewhere more compelling.

And it is indeed this compelling combination of the folk/horror being rooted to a specific place, to a particular piece of the landscape, that I think is at the heart of the English Eerie (and other national varieties). I’ve just bought Carolyne Larrington’s book, but I won’t have finished it in time for this post to be published.

The Witch, the Weird, and the Wonderful

Willow C. Winsham is currently working on her first book, Accused: British Witches Throughout History, and much of her research is published on her blog The Witch, The Weird, and the Wonderful. She is also, along with Dee Dee Chainey and SelineSigil, the co-organiser of the #FolkloreThursday hashtag and @FolkloreThurs account on Twitter.

Witches are a staple of English folklore, but Winsham explores not only the folklore but also the historical records of witch trials. Based on the blog posts so far her book is going on my must-read list.

The soul of the place that dwells within your bones

I mentioned Dee Dee Chainey above as one of the three co-organisers of the #FolkloreThursday hashtag, but I also want to look at her written work, particularly the post Inspiring Landscapes: Unearthing the Magic of Our Own Places, a short but inspired illustrated post on training ourselves to really see the landscape around us,whether urban or rural:

The places around us all have stories to share, legends to be told as we listen on with our small ears and wide eyes to the tales and myths that grow up around the places we live. These stories become part of us, shape us, make us one with the places that we grow in, and also grow around us.

The magic of your stories comes from the soul of the place that dwells within your bones.

Dee Dee Chainey will be one of the speakers at the Spirits of Place interdisciplinary symposium in Calderstones Park in 2016.

I am very eager to expand on this initial research, so please add any suggestions of female authors in the subject area in the comments below.