I am a natural laggard and nowhere is this more apparent than in my amateur horror reviewing activities, which always tend to be a good year or two behind the times. So as a second The Fiends In The Furrows anthology hits the shelves, I decided it was the proper time for me to review the first lot of fiends from Nosetouch Press.
At the moment there is, of course, a wealth of folk horror collections and anthologies to choose from. I picked this one because it had a good name and striking cover artwork, both reminiscent of the Queen’s University Belfast A Fiend In The Furrows conference .
I assume the conference and the books are related in some way, though I haven’t bothered to find out exactly how, because no-one’s paying me to care. What I do care about, however, is the stories inside. These European and US-centric stories are pretty homogenous culturally speaking, but are certainly a mixed bag in terms of quality. It’s quite a slim volume and, as I hinted above, I’m a lazy sod, so I’m just going to review each one in order.
The decent opening story,‘Sire of the Hatchet’ by Coy Hall, goes a fair way back in time. I’m not very good at history but it’s post-Lutheran and there’s a lot of religious persecution going on, so I imagine it’s 16th or 17th century. It actually has a kind of sword-and-sorcery vibe to it, though that may be mainly because it features a travelling band of rough men, one of whom is called Wulfric. Anyway, they’re riding into town to take part in a crackdown on witchy behaviour of a sylvan strain, and the atmosphere of cultural and interspecies tension is reminiscent of Blood From Satan’s Claw, often cited as one of the big three folk horror films.
‘Back Along The Old Track’ by Sam Hicks offers a more modern (but still fairly timeless) close-up of an inbred family of English country folk with unusual grieving customs, and again is competently written without being world-altering.
‘The Fruit’ by Lindsay King Miller is where things really got started for me. It features a lesbian couple who, along with all their neighbours, are forced to take part in a back-breaking and dangerous annual harvest after the whole village has fallen prey to some kind of vicious supernatural whammy involving a power shift between humans and trees. The predicament is interesting enough in itself, but this story is also great at showing how recurring trauma can wear away at a relationship and cause it to mutate into something almost unrecognizable.
As soon as I clocked the contents page I suspected that the top story here was going to be ‘The Jaws of Ourobouros” by Steve Toase, having already enjoyed it in the latest Datlow Year’s Best Horror. In my review of the latter anthology I’ve already frothed about this gripping, innovative, multi-tiered long story at length, so I will just say that my suspicion was proven right and Toase’s offering is definitely the baddest fiend in these furrows.
‘The First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers’ by Eric J. Guignard is set in rural America among a village of redneck Christian snake handlers who have a bit of trouble with a neighbouring community whose members have a slightly more intimate relationship with the reptile kind. Bashing the small-town religious right has been a massively popular pastime in horror fiction ever since Stephen King made it his calling-card, but the main problem with this story is not lack of original content – Guignard is at least chucking in a few curious beasts to liven things up – but rather the downhome American rustic narrator voice, which is just too clichéd and twee for words by this point.
The amount of enjoyment you derive from ‘Pumpkin, Dear’ by Romey Petite is directly dependent on whether or not you’re familiar with the English nursery rhyme ‘Peter, Pumpkin Eater’. If you’re not, this story will have quite an endearing WTF factor, but otherwise there is very little to distinguish it from the many other run-of-the-mill feminist reworkings of old fairy stories and folk tales.
No folk horror collection worthy of its name can miss out those ambivalent woodland forces personified in the Green Man, Herne, the woodwo and similar figures. ‘The Way of the Mother’ by Stephanie Ellis starts off well by introducing a much-feared village character called Johnny Hedgerow, but any hopes I may have had of some kind of Peaky Blinders/Green Man crossover were soon dashed. What we have instead is a thoughtful, compassionate tale about the impact of intergenerational change on agrarian communities (another major preoccupation of folk horror) and the way people deal with the burden of sacrifice (themes showcased in one of my favorite pieces of onscreen folk horror, the undeservedly obscure Robin Redbreast). So it’s not too bad a bait and switch.
‘Leave The Night’ by Zachary Von Houser also plays out in The Woods. I believe these ones are in upstate Philadelphia, but the pocket of civilization our alcoholic divorcee hero discovers lurking among the trees seems to owe more to medieval France. And with fantastic good luck he has turned up just in time for a weird local falcon festival! This story is a game of two halves: it starts off very well, with a sharp but oblique style that really puts the reader into the booze-washed, despair-scummed mind of the hero, his consciousness a suffocating mixture of swimming vagueness and unbearably sharp stabs of recollection. When we first meet the villagers there is also the promise of a good Eye of the Devil-style French rural witchcraft vibe. However, as the story goes on the writing becomes more pedestrian and the plot is too predictable. It’s not total rubbish by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Von Houser is capable of better.
Finally, ‘Revival’ by S.T. Gibson is a second story about snake handlers. You might think that’s one too many in an anthology of this size, and you’d probably be right, but it is heartwarming and the heroine and her dad are both likeable, as are the snakes. Sometimes it’s good to finish off a compendium of horror with a bright note.
Will I be buying the follow-up to this anthology? I’m not sure, because although it’s very affordable I’m also quite tight-fisted. However, I think I probably will.