Sunday, October 12, 2014

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

This was a conference held in Queen's University Belfast. What first attracted me to this was the poster, with its stylised image from The Wicker Man. The event was billed as "presenting perspectives on 'Folk Horror' in literature, film and music" and promised papers on various kinds of weird fiction and films like The Wicker Man and A Field in England, together with musical and theatrical performance. By folk horror they seem to mean horror fiction or films that draw on disconcerting folk practices. Anything with strange "old ways" would probably fall under this banner.

I only found about the event just before it was about to go ahead. Unable to find affordable accommodation in time, I could only attend one of the three days, taking the bus to and from Dublin. This involved getting up very early and listening to the bus driver's choice of dreadful music radio until we crossed the border and the more appealing sounds of BBC Radio 2 came on. For your delectation I will now briefly outline my impressions of the programme items I attended.

The day began with a plenary address by Stuart McWilliams on Aleister Crowley. He was introduced by another fellow whose name I unfortunately did not catch, who ran through the biographical details of Crowley's life. As you know, Aleister Crowley was a famous practitioner of ritual magic and achieved such notoriety that the tabloid press at one point dubbed him "the wickedest man alive"; he seems to have referred to himself as The Great Beast, among other things. He also appears to have signed his name so that the first A looks like a giant penis.

McWilliams himself adopted a somewhat droll approach, initially talking about the hagiographical bollocks put out by some of Crowley's biographers: that he anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity, that his political and economic ideas could transform the world into a utopia, and so on. He then went on to talk about Crowley's portrayal in fiction, which began even in his lifetime with Somerset Maugham's The Magician, whose villain is clearly modelled on Crowley, whom Maugham had met in Paris. McWilliams delighted us with some scenes from a 1920s silent film adaptation of The Magician, which featured a bacchanalian orgy where, somewhat unusually, everyone present seemed to be having the most terrible fun.

McWilliams' most fascinating point was that people should pay more attention to how conservative Crowley was. He seems to have been defiantly anti-modernist in his cultural tastes. Despite, or perhaps because of, his relatively humble background he adopted all kinds of faux noble titles and acquired a stately home in which to live the life of an aristocrat. He delighted in the company of people from old money backgrounds (especially impressionable young ladies). His professed political beliefs were a bit slippery, but he was happy enough to write a letter to Henry Ford congratulating him on the crushing of labour unions, affirming that union busting was in accord with his own esoteric principles.

This was followed by a panel pairing Edmund Cueva and Darren Oldridge. Cueva delivered a paper entitled The Wicker Man: Nothing to Do with Dionysus? The title played on an Athenian saying about the theatre and the paper itself drew a line of continuity from The Bacchae by Eurpides and popular film The Wicker Man. The Bacchae is the one about the cult of Dionysus arriving in Thebes; King Pentheus tries to resist the cult and suffers a terrible fate. You can do a great compare and contrast job on the play and film, with Howie and Pentheus mapping onto each other (both representing state authority and inflexibility), though the difference is that Howie is an outsider while in The Bacchae it is the new cult's priest (eventually revealed as the God Dionysus himself (spoilers)) who is the outsider.

One thing I always love hearing about is how the ancient Athenians related to theatre, which at the time was a very new thing. Herodotus recounts a story of a play about a Greek defeat by the Persians that so upset the audience that the entire city was given over to grief for days after the play's staging (Herodotus did not see this himself). Cueva mentions another such story. Apparently at the first staging of The Furies by Aeschylus, when the actors playing the demonic Furies first appeared on stage, audience members were so convinced by the costumes that they thought real demons had landed and so fled the theatre in terror.

In his paper Filming Magic: The Problem of Belief from Witch finder General to A Field in England, Oldridge talked about the problems we have engaging with folk magic beliefs in fictions when we no longer believe in such things ourselves. He cites the Witchfinder General film, in which the eponymous witchfinder is portrayed as a smarmy hypocrite where it might have been more disturbing to paint him as the sincere opponent of evil the historical character he is based on seems to have been. Likewise, for all its engagement with the strange to us beliefs of the 17th century, A Field In England somewhat cops out by introducing magic mushrooms as a partial explanation for the supernatural elements. In contrast, The Wicker Man presents the islanders as true devotees of their strange religion, not as sadistic maniacs or hypocrites.

We then broke for lunch, which was buffet style and included in the admission price. Jurassic Park! After some slight confusion over which items contained the flesh of dead animals I ate my fill, particularly enjoying the vol-au-vents. These edible treats were followed by a theatrical one, the Wireless Mystery Theatre's adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea, which marked this year being the 200th anniversary of Le Fanu's birth.

Green Tea is an odd beast (like the demonic creature revealed as its villain), alternating between psychological horror (the growing sense of the terror stalking the vicar at its centre, coupled with an ambiguity as to whether the whole business is the product of mental illness) and bumptious comedy (coming from the self-important and largely ineffectual Dr Hesselius, who narrates that story as a case history). I myself have always thought that the vicar's dread contrasts with the somewhat comedic nature of the monster that is tormenting him (as in I could imagine a demonic monkey being more of an entertainment than a torment). Like so much horror, the vicar's doom is the result of a seemingly trivial choice, in his case a fondness for excessive consumption of green tea.

This production was very enjoyable. Even though it was presented as a radio play, it still managed to have a dramatic quality, thanks to the quality of the actors' performance. The live musical accompaniment was also highly effective.

You can read the full horror of the afternoon programme of this terrifying event here

A Field in England

1 comment:

ian said...

By a diabolical coincidence, it turns out that today is Aleister Crowley's birthday. Why not celebrate the Great Beast's birthday by making rice the way he liked it: ALEISTER CROWLEY’S CURRIED RICE RECIPE