There’s an event coming up in Manchester which I’m aiming to go to called ‘Rural Eerie: Exploring the Strange Countryside’ (Oct 19th, The Peer Hat). That term rural eerie has stuck with me as its something that I’m increasingly finding myself reaching towards in my fiction. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been intrigued and disturbed by the strange rusting hulks of farm-buildings that loom over various public footpaths in the peaks and dales where I often go walking. Part of this is the various incursions of the human upon the natural landscape and the ongoing inevitability of the natural taking it all back. Last Saturday, I was walking up by Hathersage in the Peak District along a route which took in an ancient Saxon fort, a tor topped with boulders carved with love-hearts and initials of long-dead peoples, and twin bridges which spewed forth the copper-red waters that were rushing off the moors. We also encountered many a mysterious mushroom, a flock of startled grouse (with doom hanging over their heads), and many a twisted and weird tree root, one set of which I couldn’t resist sprawling out over…
Tolkien once said that Britain lacks its own tangible mythology (noting that we borrowed King Arthur from the French), which is why he tried to invent one with his Middle Earth books. But that always felt somewhat disingenuous to me. Perhaps Britain doesn’t quite have the clear-cut pantheon of Gods that the Greeks, Romans and Vikings had, nor even much of a more modern mythology like the Americans. The closest it gets is the Empire, or perhaps the War Spirit, but both of those have got us into all manner of difficulty of late.
Instead, Britain’s mythos lies somewhere in its rural eerie; the dramatic rip and sweeps of mountains, dales, fens, lakes, lochs and rugged coastlines. It is a rich and fertile greenery which we have carved up into patchwork fields and filled in the blanks with tight-knit villages which, in the John Wyndham sense, are perhaps a little too tight-knit. And in amongst all this we do have a quiet mythology of magic and demonic peoples and creatures – wizards, boggarts, ghosts, sprites, ghouls and beasts, - which are disparate, disconnected, not hierarchically ruled. Perhaps that’s it: we have a radical, anarchic mythology which has rejected a blatant Zeus in favour of the shadows and mosses of its treasured lands. There are authors out there who have seen it. Alan Garner’s books rely on it, Wyndham had a sense of it and, more recently, Andrew Michael Hurley has witnessed it, as has Lucie McKnight Hardy.
My first proper step towards the ‘rural eerie’ was published last week in Dusk and Shiver, an online magazine of weird fiction and horror. It’s called ‘The Campsite’ and I wrote it a year ago after coming back from a camping holiday. Horror fiction was on my mind at the time, having just read the first volume of The Shadow Booth, edited and published by Dan Coxon (which features my story ‘Betamorphosis’). There is, of course, ample potential to get creepy with campsites; our most fragile incursion into rural worlds, where the barrier between us and the outside wilds is at its thinnest. The image which always creeps into my mind when I’m in a tent is that scene from The Blair Witch Project when some outside force violently shakes the tent the kids are staying in and they all run out screaming. God, that film terrified me.
My story takes a simple premise: the sudden and strange appearance of hundreds of tents. The protagonist goes to bed as the single occupant of a campsite, gets up an hour or so later to find herself impossibly pressed in. Night-time insects bother her as she hurries to the toilet block, while unseen sheep bray on distant hills. When she gets back, all hell breaks loose. But what is that hell? And why does it break loose? What has she, a nobody, done to that hidden world of our rural mythos? Have a read of it over here on this link to find out: The Campsite.
In the meantime, get out into the rural eerie and let it tell its strange stories to you. It might be blatant, like the strange incidents that haunt the top of Winter Hill near Bolton, or it might be subtle, like the rock formation on Derwent Edge that supposedly looks like a horse and carriage. But its all out there…just…waiting. And its infinitely more strange than a bunch of hobbits and their magic ring (just joking Tolks, I love ya).
It’s Big Words tomorrow! Come on down to Vinyl Fiction in Chorlton on Thursday 3rd October (National Poetry Day, no less) to hear the poetical outbursts of various local scribes. I’m particularly delighted to have my own father joining us this month, reading from his new collection of short stories, Strictly Done Dancing.
And for a slice of aural rural eerie, I will always reach towards Boards of Canada. This is their ‘Diving Station’, which always reminds me, for some reason, of the liminal landscapes of reservoirs and rural water-works: