Categories
Best Horror Books Best Of Best of Movies Featured Horror Books Lifestyle

Exploring the Roots of Folk Horror

Defining the term “folk horror” and tracing its trajectory throughout history is somewhat of a Herculean task. For a term that sounds so simplistic, it is an incredibly complex and ever-expanding genre. Entire books have been written on the subject (such as Adam Scovell’s 2017 film criticism Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange), and there’s even a three hour long documentary about it titled Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, which itself features over one hundred examples from film.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched cover

And while much of the emphasis surrounding the conversation is placed on British movies, there are plenty of overlapping examples in film, TV, and literature from around the world. Not to mention the actual elements that make up the genre are diverse, and range from folklore to the occult to witchcraft. 

Simply put, it’s complicated.

To that end, this article is not going to be an exhaustive look at the genre (that’s what the books and documentaries are for), but rather a brief overview of the term, its tropes, and popular examples. Think of it as a primer; a starting place in the shallows of the vast ocean that is folk horror. Ready to wade in?

Origins of the Term

The British music scene experienced something of a folk revival in the 1960s, and that, coupled with the rise in Neopaganism, led to a general infatuation with and exploration of older belief systems. Bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin explored occult themes in their songs, and the writings of famous occultist Aleister Crowley gained popularity. It wasn’t long before the fascination with folk and occult themes found its way into the world of cinema. And that’s not to say that music was the only vehicle for introducing folk horror, as disillusionment with modernism and outrage at governing bodies engendered in many a desire to return to nature and the simpler, older ways of life. At the same time, our post-industrial life has made us unused to rural life and uncomfortable with isolation.

When cult classic The Blood on Satan’s Claws came out in 1971, the Kine Weekly referred to the film as “a study in folk horror”. The movie’s director Piers Haggard also used this term when describing his film. Later the term received renewed attention in 2010 when writer/actor Mark Gatiss interviewed Haggard during a section of the BBC documentary A History of Horror. These two moments, 1971 and 2010, appear to mark the emergence and then subsequent revitalization of the expression “folk horror”.

The Blood on Satan's Claws cover

Elements of Folk Horror

Though it can be difficult to pin down the exact definition of folk horror, there is a general agreement that it is more of a mood, an atmosphere, than anything else. You know it when you see it, though it may be hard to explain why. Even common tropes can vary widely depending on geographic region and time period, and movies with very dissimilar plots can still fall under the folk horror umbrella. But for the purpose of simplicity, we will highlight what writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell (owner of the Celluloid Wicker Man blog) describes as the “Folk Horror Chain”, or the four basic thematic/aesthetic tenets of folk horror: Rural Location, Isolated Groups, Skewed Moral and Belief Systems, and Supernatural or Violent Happenings.

Rural Location: This was a big one for movies in the 60s and 70s because it saw a move away from filming in studios and out into the natural world. This element typically involves a fascination with pastoral landscapes and locations outside of urban life. Often there is an outsider who stumbles upon or is forced into a rural community, and who usually becomes some sort of scapegoat or sacrifice to traditional/pagan beliefs. Some argue that this element also encompasses ideas of psychography and location being a “state of mind” in more urban communities, such as in Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Isolated Groups: This element typically takes one one of two meanings – either an individual is isolated from their normal physical environment or they’re isolated from those who share their same moral beliefs. For example, the characters in David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) find themselves stranded in the forest but also in discord with people who worship much different gods than they. This element is a link between the previous one and the next because isolation usually happens in rural environments, and it’s made even more upsetting because the antagonistic forces don’t act or think the same as the protagonist.

Skewed Moral and Belief Systems: In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Sergeant Howie finds himself in a community whose religious beliefs and practices are at odds with his own. Across other examples there is a common thread of “modern” or “Christian” beliefs finding themselves in direct conflict with occult or pagan beliefs. This collision of morality and religious belief leads into or is specifically connected to the final element of the chain.

folk horror ritual

Supernatural or Violent Happenings: Folk horror stories are often steeped in, or at least influenced by, folklore of the particular region they’re set in, and this final piece of the chain usually involves either supernatural beings or some form of ritualistic violence (or both) related to that folklore. Invocations of demonic entities, horrific sacrifices, occult practices, and pagan idolatry are all par for the course. 

British Folk Horror

The current popularity of folk horror, at least what our primary audience would be familiar with, owes a lot to British cinema, and in particular the Hammer Films production company. A group of films from the 60s and 70s, known affectionately as the “Unholy Trinity,” is what many point to as the birth of the genre. These movies are Witchfinder General (1968), the aforementioned Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). These three films helped distinguish some common characteristics of folk horror, namely the picturesque landscapes, the isolated communities, and the emphasis on sacrifices and supernatural summonings. And yet, showing how intangible the genre is, these are also three very different movies in terms of plot.

BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas cover

Strong examples of the genre can also be found in British television from the same time period. There was the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, which adapted several of M.R. James’s short stories with folk horror elements, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), A Warning to the Curious (1972), and The Ash Tree (1975). There was a drama series from the BBC, titled Plays for Today, with standout hits like Robin Redbreast (1970) and Penda’s Fen (1974). And there were still other enduring examples of the genre like Children of the Stones (1977), a miniseries made for children but still incredibly terrifying.

Though the British rise in folk horror began in the 1960s and 1970s, there was something of a resurgence in the genre in the 2010s. Some of these newer British films (and in the UK more widely) took the tropes and themes from decades previous and put their own modern spin on them, while others sought to return to folk horror’s roots, so to speak, with their emphasis on ritual, folklore, and mankind’s connection to nature. While there are many examples to pull from – folk horror appears to be trending right now – several standout movies include David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), Elliot Goldner’s The Borderlands (2013), and Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015). Another prolific filmmaker in the genre is Ben Wheatley, whose canon of folk horror movies includes Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), A Field in England (2013), and In the Earth (2021).

Kill List cover
Sightseers cover
A Field in England cover

Most of the common examples in British folk horror are from film, however there are many books from Britain that include plots and tropes from the genre. In fact, as it goes, some of the oldest examples of the genre are found in literature, from authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R. James. Some shining examples in more modern literature include Adam Nevill’s The Ritual (2011) and The Reddening (2019), Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014) and Devil’s Day (2017), Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex (2016), and Stephanie Ellis’s The Five Turns of the Wheel (2020) – as well as numerous comics, such as Simon Davis’s Thistlebone (2020) from 2000AD. 

American Folk Horror

Though the term originated in the British imagination, the evolving genre of folk horror has set roots in American cinema and literature as well. In some cases this involves American filmmakers creating movies very much influenced by the British tradition, such as Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1983), Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), Gareth Evans’s Apostle (2018), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). These films have strong similarities to their British cousins in regards to their emphasis on British landscapes and lore. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is another movie that could be included in this group, though it doesn’t fit the mold quite as well.

There are also many crossover elements between the genres of southern gothic and folk horror, and these commonalities can be seen in films such as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). There is also a sub-genre of film called “hicksploitation” or “hillbilly horror” which spawns from the southern gothic tradition and which, upon first glance, may not seem to have much to do with folk horror. Yet, when one applies Scovell’s folk horror chain theory, the similarities begin to arise. Films that would fit in this category include movies like John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

Old rusty tools in a toolshed

In American literature, elements of folk horror can be seen as early as the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. Other popular novels and short stories in the genre include Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (1973), Stephen King’s “Children Of The Corn” (1977), Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1984), Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988), Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015), John Langan’s The Fisherman (2016), and Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling (2017).

A Genre Diverse and Divergent

As we continue to reevaluate and redefine what folk horror is, we begin to notice a few common truths: the genre has existed in some form or fashion long before the 60s and 70s, and some version of it can be found in almost every country around the world. Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, early forms of mystical poetry, and even some of Shakespeare’s plays all have folk horror elements. The earliest example in film comes from the Danish-Swedish fictionalized documentary Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922). Sweden has Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Australia has Peter Weir’s The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Japan has Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). And on and on it goes.

Scene from Haxan movie

Also the more we explore the foundations and tenets of folk horror, the more we find examples which lie outside of the commonly accepted cannon, but which end up fitting the mold in diverse and interesting ways. Some titles here would include Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), and even the Paranormal Activity franchise. 

As it should be clear by now, attempting to box the folk horror genre into an easy-to-digest definition is simply not possible. We didn’t even get into the various histories of folklore and dark fairy tales around the world and their individual influences and appearances in the genre. We also didn’t get into the overlapping traits in genres such as science fiction and cosmic horror. What we did accomplish, hopefully, is to give you a taste of the world that you will carry with you into your own exploration of this wonderfully diverse genre known as folk horror.

Categories
Best Horror Books Best Of Featured Horror Books Indie Horror Indie Horror Creation Indie horror writers

On the Verge: Folk Horror Authors You Need to be Reading

We know we’re not allowed to pick favorite genres of horror here at Puzzle Box, but we do tend to get particularly excited when discussions turn to folk horror. Creepy cults, pagan rituals, rural isolation, and frightening folklore all spell a good time. It seems the further we rush into the future, the more the past becomes something strange, disquieting, and enticingly foreign to us. Especially for those of us who live in bustling cities and urban areas, the thought of being lost or trapped out in the countryside, out of our normal element, is quite discomforting.

Though the history of folk horror leans heavy into film for its exemplars, there are also plenty of fantastic books being written in the genre. In particular we want to highlight and promote the work of authors who are self-published or writing for indie presses but who deserve mainstream attention. So without further ado, here are five of our top picks for folk horror authors you need to be reading!

Stephanie Ellis

Stephanie Ellis author photo

Stephanie Ellis is based in Southampton, UK, and writes dark speculative prose and poetry, much of which has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her latest work includes a novella, Bottled, published by Silver Shamrock, and novel, The Five Turns of the Wheel. She has been published in Flame Tree Press’ A Dying Planet anthology, the charity anthology Diabolica Britannica and is included in Silver Shamrock’s Midnight in the Pentagram anthology. Her poetry can be sampled in the Horror Writer Association’s Poetry Showcase Volume 6 and 7. She has collected a number of her published, and some unpublished, short stories in The Reckoning, dark verse in Dark is my Playground, and flash in The Dark Bites, all available on Amazon.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing?

I’m a writer of dark fiction, having recently made the move to writing full-time. Prior to this I had a convoluted career path via quality control in pharmaceuticals, quality assurance in raw materials (food industry), programmer and technical author and most recently, teaching assistant and librarian in a secondary school. The shift to writing has been made possible due to a supportive husband and a house move to Wales!

I’ve been writing several years now. I am 57 years old to those who think they are too old to start writing! My start came as my three children grew up and I’d been dabbling in protest poetry at work for a select few colleagues to read(!) – it was a good way to vent – and I thought I’d try writing short stories. I used to subscribe to Writers News and they would list markets and I remember a call from Theresa Derwin’s KnightWatch Press and subbed a story – “Death is not a Potato”. It was dark but it wasn’t “horror” enough, though Theresa encouraged me and I responded to their following calls with some success and it all evolved from there.

I never read horror in its pure form growing up, apart from Edgar Allan Poe. The specific children’s books I remember and which stayed with me are Alan Garner’s Owl Service and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen and also Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. I only started reading the more traditional horror at the end of my teens, early twenties, and yes that was Stephen King, but I have since expanded and read a lot more within the genre although with a huge amount to catch up on.

In terms of writing the sub-genres, that seems to have evolved naturally and I have three main “go-to” sub-genres: gothic, post-apocalyptic/dystopian and folk. The folk horror side has grown considerably as I created my own world in the novel, The Five Turns of the Wheel, and the characters refused to die. They have returned in the sequel, Reborn, which is currently resting after the first draft write up, and also in my collection As the Wheel Turns – More Tales from the Weald, which was just released.

These stories have allowed to me to use elements of the people and land I knew growing up, revisit British rural traditions and create a world which feels like home to me. The rituals in The Five Turns were completely made up but I researched some actual traditions for use in my collection.

Horror to me, and I’ve said it quite often, is not something instilled by movies, but by the senses. Twilight is the time, day in, day out, which makes me pause and think there’s something else, something lurking in the darkness. It’s a feeling that never goes away – when the sun sets, the owl hoots and the shadows grow. It always makes me shiver.

As well as writing, I am co-editor of Trembling With FearHorrorTree.com’s online flash zine. This is a weekly publication which I’ve been working on for nearly four years now with Stuart Conover, the owner of Horror Tree. This is a huge demand on my time as it is 52 weeks of the year with little let up but it’s been my way to give back to a site which published the opportunities which gave me my break. It is also an excellent place for new writers to get their first publication!

Bottled book cover with house in a jar
The Reckoning book cover with grim reaper chess piece
The Five Turns of the Wheel book cover with tree and fire

2. We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

I knew it would be hard to break into publication, but the sheer amount of resilience required to pick yourself up after rejection upon rejection – which still happens to me, despite my successes – is considerable. I always felt my writing wasn’t good enough, and it probably wasn’t in the early days, but a number of rejections are based on fit or just not to the editor’s taste. Rejection does not mean you wrote a bad story. I didn’t really come round to that idea until a couple of years ago! Be prepared for this. It is a mentally draining and sometimes soul-destroying career. You have to be determined.

Another tip is read submission guidelines. I’ve always followed these but with my editor’s hat on at Horror Tree’s Trembling With Fear zine, the number who send in wrong story lengths (e.g. novellas for a flash market) are considerable. And format correctly. NEVER use spaces to indent or center paragraphs.

3. What are some of your favorite aspects of the folk horror genre?

The setting! The British landscape is a character in its own right and plays a huge part in my stories. It is the idyllic canvas covered with roses and honeysuckle which hides bloody tradition beneath the blooms. I love the juxtaposition of apparent beauty and perfection with evil and death. Subversion of what is assumed about the countryside allows so much scope.

There are also many weird and wonderful traditions in our country which offer a huge amount of material to write stories in this vein. Some of them are in my collection – e.g. “Running the Hood” is based on the Haxley Hood, an ancient “rugby type” game of village against village. Look it up on YouTube. Mummers troupes, May Day celebrations, seasonal fires – there is quite a calendar to pick from.

When I was younger I developed a considerable awareness of the countryside, its moods and seasons. Your eyes are open in a different way than if it was just a day out in the country from the city. The relationship between the people and the land is much more evident. This relationship is something I also like to explore. I do have a dig at those who move from the urban to the rural and then complain about the noise or the smell. I also dislike those from the city dictating to those who manage the countryside about how it should be done with no consideration for the realities or difficulties those folk already face. Perhaps if people think they might end up on one of the pyres lit by Tommy, Betty and Fiddler, they might think again about how they treat country folk.

In addition, the pagan element of so many of our rural traditions draws my interest, these are so strongly linked to the land, the seasons and the reliance of people on nature for food and shelter and the ever-increasing extremes people will go to in the belief it will grant their prosperity and survival. Something very clearly demonstrated in The Five Turns of the Wheel.

Harvest Home book cover with creepy house
The Wicker Man book cover with burning wooden figure
The Ritual book cover with skull in the woods

4. What are your top three favorite folk horror books (and/or films)?

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon. I read this a few months back and it’s wonderful. It is very much the subversion of the absolute idyll leading to one of the most chilling endings you could imagine.

The Wicker Man (70s film and book). I’ve seen this film a few times and there are two parts which have always stayed with me. The parade of characters led by Christopher Lee as the half-man, half-woman with others dressed as the Hobby, the Fool and the like. If you look at old pictures of real processions, it’s strange how sinister they can appear at a time of celebration and goodwill. That sort of garb hints at evil, despite any other intentions, and I like to use that in my stories. The other part is when Sergeant Howie sees the Wicker Man and understands what is to happen and the emotion in his voice as he prays despite the fire. That gets me.

The Ritual by Adam Nevill is extraordinarily claustrophobic as the group of men travel through the forests (and yes, trees!), trying to find their way out of the Scandinavian wilderness. The element of paganistic discoveries underpinning their journey builds the terror and suspense.

And I know you said three but I’d like to give a shoutout to Kev Harrison, he’s coming up in the world of folk horror which is very niche and demands more readers and writers! His novella, The Balance, is a great new addition with its Eastern European setting and retelling of Slavic folk tradition.

If you’re interested in learning more about Stephanie Ellis, check out her website at www.stephanieellis.org. You can also follow the author on Twitter (@el_stevie) and Goodreads (@Stephanie_Ellis). Finally, to purchase books check out the author on Horror Hub.

Kev Harrison

Kev Harrison author photo

Kev Harrison is a writer of dark fiction and English language teacher from the UK, living and working in Lisbon, Portugal. His nomadic lifestyle has previously taken him to various cities in the United Kingdom, as well as to Turkey and Poland. He has an unquenchable thirst for travel and is passionate about food, photography, and music, as well as fiction. He is a staff writer for This is Horror and has had short fiction published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His first novella, The Balance, was released early in 2020, through Lycan Valley Press.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing?

I’m a British writer of horror and dark fiction, in my forties, living in Lisbon, Portugal. To go straight in with a cliché, I started telling stories when I was very young, whether that be oral storytelling or writing, it was just something I always gravitated towards. The first horror piece I wrote was for a school camp talent show, which ended with tears, nightmares and angry teachers. I stepped away from writing for a long time due to allocating my time to being in various bands, travel writing and some other pursuits, coming back to it in my late thirties. When I did start writing again, I knew it was horror or dark stuff more generally that would be my home.

2. We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

I would definitely tell myself just to do it and do it earlier. I always thought writing was something other people did. That you needed permission, or something daft like that. If I’d done a bit more investigation, I’d have seen that there are pathways into writing for anybody, as long as you can tell a good story. So don’t wait for the invite – get stuck in as soon as you feel ready.

The Balance book cover with woman in forest
Cinders of a Blind Man Who Could See book cover with monkey statue
Paths Best Left Untrodden book cover with man's shadow

3. What are some of your favorite aspects of the folk horror genre?

I think folklore is likely the pre-cursor to what we now think of as horror. Stories around the campfire, with elements – real and imagined – from the daily lives of the storyteller and the audience. These stories were probably allegorical – don’t go into the woods at night or the monster will get you. Bury your dead properly or bad things will be afoot, etc. So, much as horror is maligned by some foolish individuals, through folklore, we can understand that horror is where it all began. I think, too, that folk horror brings out a location or a population like no other sub-genre. The folklore and the situ are inextricably linked. The rules are there, often known intimately by the population, yet someone transgresses – be that a member of the community or an outsider.

4. What are your top three favorite folk horror books (and/or films)?

For books, I’m going to pick out Stephanie Ellis’ brilliant, The Five Turns of the Wheel. I had the pleasure (terror?) of beta reading the novel and I immediately knew she was onto something special. The way it twists extant British folklore into this monstrous, self-contained world of the Weald is as impressive as it is horrifying.

After that, I’ll plump for Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. LaValle is one of those authors who writes so well, I’d feel obliged to hate him a little bit if he wasn’t such a nice guy. The Changeling takes a folkloric tale that’s thousands of years old and exists in some form or other in so many cultures, and plants it into modern New York. And when the final act kicks off…well, just don’t have anything planned for the rest of that day.

Finally, I’m going to choose Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Witches are well-trodden ground and something that is so hard to do in a way that is new and different. Heuvelt skilfully builds the folklore of the town of Black Spring around this witch who was put to death centuries earlier, but whose spirit persists. How might a modern Hudson valley town deal with such a thing? Read Hex and find out.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kev Harrison, check out his website at www.kevharrisonfiction.com. You can also follow the author on Twitter (@LisboetaIngles), Instagram (@mrevilkev), and Goodreads (@Kev_Harrison). Finally, to purchase books check out the author on Horror Hub.

Catherine McCarthy

Catherine McCarthy author photo

Catherine McCarthy grew up in the industrial valleys of South Wales where she went on to teach in primary education for almost three decades. Having been “shown the light” by her mother, who had the tradition of oral story-telling down to a fine art, she quickly developed an insatiable appetite for all things literary. Her first published novel, The Gatekeeper’s Apprentice, is a fantasy, magical adventure for middle grade readers. Her second novel, Hope Cottage, is a dark and mysterious family saga of triumph over adversity, reconciliation and, well…hope. Her most recent publication is a collection of ten portal stories for adults, entitled Door and Other Twisted Tales. Having traded the challenges and rewards of teaching for the hurdles and merits of writing, Catherine McCarthy now lives with her illustrator husband in a two hundred year old cottage in West Wales amidst spectacular, story-inspiring countryside.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing?

I’m a Welsh author and an ex-primary school teacher who writes dark fantasy and quiet horror in a variety of sub-genres such as folk horror, psychological horror and Gothic horror. My work is more creeping dread than explicit horror. I prefer to hint at the unknown and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions. It’s difficult to say what got me started in horror writing other than I’ve always been very much in touch with my dark side. Even as a young child I was keenly aware of illness, grief, death, and the powerful consequences such states have on us as humans. Writing about the human condition during times of angst helps me come to terms with my own demons, therefore it’s a cathartic act of creativity.

Hope Cottage book cover with stained glass window
Mists and Megaliths book cover with stones
Immortelle book cover with red bird

2. We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

I’ll give you two: one from a marketing point of view, the other from a practical point of view. When I published my very first book, a middle-grade novel, I was so wet behind the ears! I imagined the book would simply sell itself, and to some degree it did, but that was because the children and parents from my school bought it, not the wider reading community.

So, tip number one…before you even consider publishing, take time to establish a name for yourself. Join groups on social media, make yourself known in the writing community by reading and reviewing other people’s work. Refrain from confrontation and stay supportive and positive towards others. Begin with short stories and submit them online or to anthology calls, even those that only offer a token payment. As with most walks of life, you really must be prepared to start at the bottom before climbing the ladder. However, there is nothing wrong with ambition. Aim high, but do not lose sight of reality! The motto is, be patient.

The second tip I would give is to revise and edit thoroughly and tirelessly, because if you put an unprofessional product on the market you will gain an unprofessional reputation. Remember, you are expecting people to pay for your work and therefore need to offer a product of high standard. If you put stuff out there too soon, before it’s thoroughly edited or formatted, or with a poor quality cover, you are setting yourself up for a fall.

3. What are some of your favorite aspects of the folk horror genre?

Folk horror takes me back to childhood. Not because it is childish, but because it evokes all those wonderful feelings I remember having as a child when reading folktales and fairy tales: the eerie power of rural landscapes, sinister conspiracies and strange customs, rituals and sacrifice concealed from outsiders. Folk horror has a natural tendency towards quiet horror, which I have already said I prefer. Take, for example, the slow-burn psychological tension embodied in The Wicker Man or the perfect blend of Paganism and Christianity that flows throughout Arthur Machen’s work. This type of horror has depth and forces the reader to ask moral questions. Much of my own work incorporates elements of religion gone wrong, remote, rural settings, and the power of nature. It isn’t something I set out consciously to write, instead it stems from the subconscious and finds itself on the page as if by chance.

The White People book cover with statue
The Loney book cover with tree and house
The Balance book cover with forest

4. What are your top three favorite folk horror books (and/or films)?

This is the toughest question of all, because there are so many! Is it even possible to reduce them to three? Okay, as a Welsh writer, I have to say Arthur Machen’s The White People ranks among the best, along with Andrew Michael Hurly’s incredible debut, The Loney. Now, I’m going to cheat and mention two indie folk horror writers who, to me, do it so well. They are Stephanie Ellis (The Five Turns of the Wheel) and Kev Harrison (The Balance).

If you’re interested in learning more about Catherine McCarthy, check out her website at www.catherine-mccarthy-author.com. You can also follow the author on Twitter (@serialsemantic), Instagram (@catherine_mccarthy_author), and Goodreads (@Catherine_McCarthy). Finally, to purchase books check out the author on Amazon.

Gemma Amor

Gemma Amor author photo

Gemma Amor is a Bram Stoker Award nominated horror fiction author, podcaster and voice actor based in the UK. Her books include Cruel Works of Nature, Dear Laura, White Pines, Girl on Fire, and These Wounds We Make. She is also co-creator, writer and voice actor for horror-comedy podcast Calling Darkness, starring Kate Siegel. Her stories have been featured on the NoSleep Podcast, Shadows at the Door, Creepy and the Grey Rooms podcast. You can find her in a number of horror anthologies, too.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing?

Hi, I’m Gemma and I am an author, illustrator and voice actor/occasional podcaster amongst other things. I write genre fiction, contribute to several horror audiodrama fiction podcasts as both a writer and a VO, paint book covers, and have begun to dabble in screenwriting- or at least I have dipped my toes in, which is a start. I’ve been interested in horror from a young age, but my first love was actually fantasy and science fiction- I cut my teeth on Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I studied Shelley and the classics at university, then rediscovered my love of the horror genre in my mid-twenties when I was travelling in India and picked up a second hand copy of Cujo by Stephen King (it was the only book on sale in English). I devoured it and was hooked- I loved how he made character driven horror so appealing, and the world-building around Castle Rock was incredibly appealing for a fantasy nerd.

Cruel Works of Nature book cover with monster pulling off face
Dear Laura book cover with hand holding teeth
White Pines book cover with red door in the woods

2. We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

Oh god, I still consider myself “new” to be honest. I often feel like the greenest berry in the punnet, and I know I have an awful lot left to learn. However, if I had to give myself advice, it would be:

  • Routine is essential 
  • Know when to rest
  • Find people you trust, and stick to them like glue
  • Editors are the difference between a shite book and a good book, so respect them
  • Also understand your own boundaries, not just in how you write but how you conduct business 
  • Make playlists
  • Go for lots of walks 
  • Don’t worry about writing well, not to begin with- you can always polish a turd, but you can’t polish a non-existent turd (yikes, I need to work on my mottos) 
  •  Always have a notebook on hand
  • When in doubt, do some research – it works like a treat to unblock any creative snarls 
  • Its okay to ignore all the rules and write whatever feels good, natural and authentic to you.

3. What are some of your favorite aspects of the folk horror genre?

For me, growing up in England, I think I have a healthy respect for history, and that history includes a rather big chunk of folklore, depending on where in the country you grow up. It’s also important to define what I mean by folklore. Personally, I don’t think it is simply a case of regurgitating fairy tales, myths and legends. Folklore is exactly that to me: lore of the people, history passed down over the years. It’s culture and heritage, gifted to us, an oral and written tradition that locks our unique heritage in place within history.

Our countryside is liberally littered with cairns, castles, stone circles, forts, processional ways, henges, long barrows and chambered tombs, not to mention old mines and agricultural archaeology from the Palaeolithic to the 20th century, and its enormously evocative to grow up amongst all of that, scrambling over ruins, imagining long-dead knights and druids and children no different to me living out their days in the misty past. Additionally, I grew up in a very flat, agricultural part of the country called the Fens, which is heavy in pre-history and ripe fodder for horror- lots of steely skies, reed beds, marshes, squealing terns and sea birds, mud and bleak (but beautiful) coastline.

Folk fiction, and folk horror in particular, taps into that very specific part of my brain that hungers for stories rooted in the countryside and history surrounding me, which includes witches, faeries, magic and dark, evil curses, sure, but also includes every day people carving out an existence: tribes, hunters, fishermen, farmers, the creatures that live in the seas, forests rivers and skies.

I also love how symbolism and geometry come into play in a lot of folklore and in rituals enacted by ancient cultures. I’m obsessed with the notion of sacred geometry and how that can be tied up with telling and re-telling stories across thousands of years. It’s all extremely exciting to think about as a writer, because there is both so much we know, and so much we don’t know, and those two things can create a wonderful environment to write within – mystery and legend, balanced with a little evidence-based fact.

I tried to include a lot of these ideas in my novel White Pines, which is set in the Scottish Highlands, and blend folklore with geometry, body horror and a sense of legacy and heritage, because these things sang to me so much while I was up there researching the book. I’ll be leaning heavily into folk in the next book I have lined up to write, and I’m extremely excited about it. 

Kwaidan movie cover with multiple people
The Only Good Indians book cover with deer antlers
The Bloody Chamber book cover with birds and flowers

4. What are your top three favorite folk horror books (and/or films)?

Folk horror is one of my favourite things, but the representation in films is sadly lacking when you compare it to other subgenres like slashers and so on. I adore the staples like The Wicker ManBlood on Satan’s Claw, and Midsommar, but the stories that draw on actual mythology are perhaps my absolute favorite of all, and so in that respect I’d have to say something like Kwaidan (1965), directed by Kobayashi, really hits the spot for me. It’s a horror anthology film that draws directly on Japanese folk tales, and it’s a real trip, aside from being gorgeous to look at. Ben Wheatley is also doing incredibly exciting things with folk horror at the moment, and I’m not sure how firmly Kill List or A Field in England slot into the folklore niche, but I loved them anyway.

In terms of literature, we have more scope. Adam Nevill has a firm grip on folk, and wields his understanding of how the land can influence a story incredibly well. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is also an incredible example of a raw story rooted in heritage and steeped in the supernatural. And of course, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a collection of visceral, sexy, alluring fairy tales retold and reclaimed in her mesmerizing, inimitable style – extremely influential for me, and I absolutely adore it. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Gemma Amor, check out her website at www.gemmaamorauthor.com. You can also follow the author on Twitter (@manylittlewords), Instagram (@manylittlewords), and Goodreads (@Gemma_Amor). Finally, to purchase books check out the author on Amazon.

A.J. Vrana

AJ Vrana author photo

A. J. Vrana is a Serbian-Canadian academic and writer from Toronto, Canada. She lives with her two rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who nest in her window-side bookshelf and cast judgmental stares at nearby pigeons. Her doctoral research examines the supernatural in modern Japanese and former-Yugoslavian literature and its relationship to violence. When not toiling away at caffeine-fueled, scholarly pursuits, she enjoys jewelry-making, cupcakes, and concocting dark tales to unleash upon the world. Her published works include The Chaos Cycle Duology: The Hollow Gods (2020) and The Echoed Realm (2021) from The Parliament House Press, and a short supernatural horror story, “These Silent Walls” (2020), printed in Three Crows Magazine.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you started in horror writing?

I’ve been drawn to horror for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I ate up Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark, and my favourite films always had horror elements. I was pretty obsessed with the first and second Terminator films (don’t ask how I got away with watching those at a grade schooler) and the apocalyptic horror of them. Things hidden and unseen always fascinated me, and this followed me through life. 

Now, I’m working on a PhD that examines the supernatural in fiction and its relationship to violence, and although I started dabbling in fiction eons ago, I didn’t write seriously with the intention of publication until my academic research took off and I had fodder for inspiration. One chapter of my dissertation focuses almost entirely on folklore, and this chapter in particular inspired a lot of the horror in my novels, The Hollow Gods and The Echoed Realm. 

The Hollow Gods book cover with large black bird
The Echoed Realm book cover with weeping willow tree

2. We talk to a fair amount of new writers. What tips would you give yourself if you could go back to when you started based on what you know now?

I’d give myself two pieces of advice: First, time is your friend! Letting a manuscript sit for a few months is a totally acceptable (and advisable) thing to do. Taking 2-3 months off before editing will be more productive than diving right into editing and then having to re-edit for the next 2 years because you can’t get perspective on your work. You’d be amazed at the stuff you’ll detect when you’ve let things lie for a while!

Second, it’s okay not to take everyone’s feedback! This is one I still struggle with. You don’t want to seem stubborn or stuck up, so you try to take every bit of feedback you to heart, but in truth, I really think there are only two types of feedback that matter. If someone gives you a piece of critique that excites you and makes you think, “Oh, yeah, that’ll make my story better!” then it’s a good piece of feedback to take. Or, if it’s something you keep hearing over and over again from a qualified editor or beta-reader, then it is definitely something to consider! Who you take feedback from is also pretty crucial; not all opinions are made equal, and you want feedback from people who know the difference between personal preference and critical feedback tailored to the author’s vision.

3. What are some of your favorite aspects of the folk horror genre?

I think folk horror, despite being associated with the past and the pre-modern, is really such a modern phenomenon, which means that most modern people have at least a passing interest in it. 

Folklore studies in most parts of the world only cropped up with the advent of modernity, and folk horror as a genre is inseparable from the academic discipline of folk studies. For example, Jacob Grimm didn’t just record creepy fairy tales; he was a scholar who was deeply concerned with the role of folk culture and folklore in German nationhood and identity. The same could be said about Vuk Karadzić in the Balkans and Yanagita Kunio in Japan. Incidentally, all three of these scholars were in loose contact with one another; Grimm took ideas from Karadzić, and Yanagita took ideas from Grimm. 

So, while I wouldn’t quite say that folk horror and folk studies are a universal phenomenon, they are definitely transnational in that modernizing nations were interested in the power of folk culture to define regional or national identity. And this is one of the things I find most fascinating about folk horror! It isn’t just some quirky genre that incorporates folklore to scare its audience; it’s tapping into something collective and deeply rooted in our cultural heritage and our shared history. 

In Ghostly Japan book cover with skeleton
Kwaidan book cover with monster

4. What are your top three favorite folk horror books (and/or films)?

Oh, that’s a tough one! I’m not going to lie, I think Japan is the master of folk horror. Japanese cultural productions are just so good at using folklore as a kind of kinetic mythology and reincorporating old tales into new productions. I think some of my favourites come from Japan! Off the top of my head, some of the stories that still get me include Sakaguchi Ango’s “In the Forest Under the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom” (seriously creepy), Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Hell Screen” (based on an old Buddhist folk tale), and really anything recorded by Lafcadio Hearn (Check out In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan). There are so many others, and it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint because Japan does such a brilliant job of weaving folk horror into daily life and non-horror genres! 

If you’re interested in learning more about A.J. Vrana, check out her website at www.thechaoscycle.com. You can also follow the author on Twitter (@AJVrana), Instagram (@a.j.vrana), and Goodreads (@A_J_Vrana). Finally, to purchase books check out the author on Amazon.