Tuesday, October 14, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast. Part 2

I am recounting my experiences at one day of this conference on folk horror held in Queen's University Belfast. You can read part one here.

After that dramatic interlude we were back into the papers for a session devoted to music. Clare Button's paper "See Not Ye that Bonny Road?": Places, Haunts and Haunted Places in British Traditional Song dealt with varying conceptions of place in British folk music, whether specific places (songs about events happening in a particular location) to a more general sense of landscape and the countryside etc.. That transition occurs in tandem with the British folk revival and folk music becoming more curated and less folkish.

Button talked also about the second folk revival (roughly situated in the 1960s). This was even less rooted in the original folk tradition but more overtly political. She suggested that The Wicker Man and popular TV series The Good Life are both contrasting products of it.

I took away from Button's talk a feeling that I really should get round to reading the copy of Rob Young's Electric Eden that has been lying around Panda Mansion for some time now. Of records she mentioned, the recent Visionary Seascapes album by Jen Finer and Andrew K├Âtting also sounded like it would be worth investigating, as would records by Sproatly Smith. The consideration of place in music also put me in mind of the brilliant Hirta Songs by Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson (this being a record about the people who lived on Hirta from neolithic times to the 1920s).

The other music paper was The Minstrel’s Grave: Hauntology and the Folkmusic Traditions of the British and Irish Isles and it was presented by Eamon Byers, one of the conference's organisers. Beginning with a discussion of the history of the recording of folk music, Byers moved on to talk about the so-called hauntological music of artists on Ghost Box, in particular Belbury Poly. The work of these people has a particular type of retro modernist focus, attempting to evoke Britain from roughly from 1950 to 1979 (i.e. from the dawn and to the end of the post-war consensus).

Ghost Box artists seem in one way very removed from anything to do with folk music, given their retro-futurist approach and heavy reliance on computer technology to make their music. However is a kind of shared impulse in play given their curatorial approach to the past. And there are more direct crossovers, with Byers drawing attention to Belbury Poly's sampling of very early folk music recordings from 1908. As used by Belbury Poly, Joseph Taylor's treated voice now sounds like one of those spectral recordings featured on the celebrated flexi disc given away with The Unexplained.

I was reminded here of Broadcast's Trish Keenan. Her voice has continued to appear on new records despite her untimely death. I was also curious as to why Byers' discussion of Ghost Box focussed solely on Belbury Poly, with no mention of The Focus Group, the label's other main act.

The next session saw two creative types talking about their own attempts to create work drawing on folk horror ideas. Christine Stanton talked about her novel in progress, set in the 17th century about a bloke from what is now Indonesia, who is abducted and taken to England to be included as a live specimen in some rich guy's collection of curiosities (this kind of did apparently happen). The first part of the story is told from the point of view of the Indonesian (to use a term that would have had no meaning in the 17th century), who does not understand what is happening to him and thinks he has been abducted by demons. Later there is a switch when he first encounters the villagers living near the rich guy's mansion, who in turn mistake him for a demon.

Stanton talked about horror fiction as we know it only emerging with the Enlightenment, possibly as a reaction to the loss or marginalisation of a superstitious world view. As someone who has dabbled in the fictional arts, I was interested by her discussion of how to write from a 17th century point of view but in a way that is understandable by a modern reader.

The second person in this session was one Chris Lambert, who presented the results of his own investigations into the Black Meadow, a mysterious site of unexplained phenomena in the Yorkshire moors. Eventually he cracked and revealed what we were increasingly suspecting: that the Black Meadow is a fiction. He was nevertheless trying to accentuate the sense of horror by being completely straight-faced about it all, with much of the Black Meadow stuff being presented as faux documentary and referencing real things to make people wonder if maybe, just maybe it might all be true (an old trick; I remember being intrigued at the discovery that some of the books mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft were not merely real but available in the library of my university).

This whole Black Meadow business has spawned a whole multi-disciplinary attack, with books being joined by film clips and also music (of, naturally, the hauntological variety). I think this might repay closer attention, if only to see whether any of it as good as Lambert's poem 'Beyond the Moor'. This tells the story of a woman accosted by a rogue who threatens to rob, rape, and/or murder her. She replies to each threat that she is unconcerned, because she has been "beyond the moor".

That was it for the papers. After a great wine reception (thanks Folklore Society!) we had a performance piece called by Nick Freeman and Dan Watt called If You Go Down in the Mythago Woods Today: A Sinister Excursion. This featured the two blokes lost in the woods, fearful of encountering every possible folk horror menace imaginable. It was chortlesome. I particularly liked the gastropub joke. The suggestion that the Teddy Bears Picnic is an event of existential horror, something fearful as much as it would be wonderful, rang true with my memories of being a small child.

After Mythago Woods we had a concert by Sharron Kraus and Clare Button. Kraus sang and played guitar while Button provided additional vocals. They treated us to some of the songs from Kraus's forthcoming album inspired by the Mabinogion, that cycle of Welsh myths and heroic tales that include some early versions of the Arthurian stories. Kraus's songs are not narrative so much as describing situations or presenting character studies. I particularly like the one about the Mabinogion character who is just a bad ass who likes causing trouble and provoking discord. There was also one about someone meeting the enchantress Rhiannon, which sadly or otherwise in no way referenced Stevie Nicks.

And that pretty much was that. After Kraus and Button finished, my beloved and I made our way back into the centre of Belfast to grab some food before taking the bus back down south.

One overall impression I had of the conference was that its focus was very English. That is not really a criticism, as England is the centre of gravity of These Islands, but as the event was billed as being about folk horror in British and Irish fiction and music, more non-English stuff might have been expected. In fairness, though, my sense of an English bias may have been a false one derived from only attending one day, as the Friday and Sunday programmes featured a number of items looking at Irish subjects or authors (including a paper on Kevin Barry's brilliant novel The City of Bohane). It may also be that folk horror is a product of the alienations from the countryside that comes with industrialisation and urbanisation, so England is a more natural focus for this than elsewhere.

Still, while walking back from Queen's to the centre of Belfast I passed by a residential street adorned with Union Jacks, the emblem serving as a reminder that people like me were not particularly welcome there. It did make me think about the possibilities of an urban folk horror, given how there are many aspects of urban societies or subsections of them that are strange, mysterious and threatening to outsiders. The Fiend in the Furrows event took place in the film theatre of Queen's, which seems to double up as Belfast's art house cinema. They had a poster up for a forthcoming film about a British squaddie lost in West Belfast in 1971, and I wondered if perhaps that might be a film that future folk horror conferences would find themselves discussing.

See also:

Fiend in the Furrows website

Tales from the Black Meadow image source (Bandcamp)

Songs from the Black Meadow image source (Mixcloud)

Tales from the Black Meadow

Sharron Kraus

Scarfolk Council

Ghost Box

Hirta Songs


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