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Francine Toon on her Favourite Folk Horror

Posted on 10th February 2020 by Mark Skinner

Drenched in sinister rural gothic, Francine Toon's Pine is one of the breakout hits of the year so far. Here, the author picks her favourite volumes of spine-tingling folk horror. 

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

As a child, this tense, dreamlike novel about old stories repeating themselves settled somewhere deep in my subconscious. When a strange set of dinner plates is discovered in the attic of a Welsh house, the legend of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers, plays out among three teenagers.  I only realised how much it had influenced my own novel Pine long after the first draft, like a recovered memory. Having grown up in the Highlands, it’s the novel’s descriptions of the dark that have stayed with me the most: ‘Gradually the night separated into cloud and mountain, and trees river and wind, and sound in leaves and grass. A stoat killed near him, but he did not move.’

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Alan Garner was writing lyrical, fiercely intelligent fiction for older readers long before Young Adult had been identified as a specific genre, and this eerie pastoral is arguably his touchstone work. Deftly interweaving a tale of Welsh mythology into a sensitive and nuanced coming-of-age, The Owl Service is a classic novel beloved by children and adults alike.
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Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

Ever since his startling debut, The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley has been at the forefront of the revival of British folk horror. His latest novel Starve Acre, focuses on the Willoughbys who have just lost their son and are grieving for him. They feel regret, relief, and anger in equal measure and their relationship is at the heart of this tense and deeply psychological tale. As the couple deals with grief in different ways, hanging on to their memory of their son, the novel becomes increasingly atmospheric and gripping. Hurley’s precise and beautiful writing takes the reader on a mesmerising journey to the novel’s astonishing and unforgettable final scene.

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A brittle, bracing sliver of purest folk horror, seeped in the traditions of the best nature writing, Starve Acre is a gothic study of grief and haunting guilt from the acclaimed author of The Loney. In the aftermath of their child’s death, a couple search for answers but as they dig into the past – their own and that of their community - a blighted plot of local land births a living nightmare.
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Beloved by Toni Morrison

‘124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.’ From these opening lines describing a baby poltergeist, the inimitable Toni Morrison shows the full power of a ghost story in her modern classic Beloved. Complex, lyrical and gothic, the novel is, on one level, about the haunting of Sethe, when a mysterious woman ‘walk(s) out of the water’ and Sethe believes her to be an incarnation of her dead baby Beloved. At the same time the framework of a ghost story, peppered with folk songs and superstition, is used to explore one of the most horrific chapters of history, that of slavery in mid-1800s America. It is about the haunting of a community and a landscape ‘infected by the klan’. Morrison’s descriptions of the natural world are some of the most beautiful and chilling ever written: ‘The crickets were screaming on Thursday and the sky, stripped of blue, was white hot at eleven in the morning.’

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The seminal work from a giant of modern literature, Beloved is so much more than the sum of its compelling parts. Part ghost story, part profound reflection on the evils of slavery, Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning masterpiece synthesises myriad themes and ideas into a scorching, emotionally devastating narrative.
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Ponti by Sharlene Teo

‘My mother is a monster.’ Set between the 1960s, early 2000s and present day Singapore, through the eyes of three women, Sharlene Teo’s debut novel hooked me from its opening pages. I loved narrator Szu’s magnetic yet cynical voice as she charts her intense teenage friendship with Circe (whose name evokes the witch of Greek myth) and her strained relationship with her mother Amisa, a former B movie actress who now gives séances. Seventeen years later, Circe has cause to remember her estranged friend Szu as she works on a remake of the cult seventies movie series Ponti!, that Amisa starred in. The films are named after the Pontianak, a female vampiric spirit in Indonesian and Malay mythology and the way this supernatural element is weaved into the novel is brilliant. I have a weakness for schlocky horror movies and difficult teenage girls so this novel was like catnip to me, while painting a beautiful triptych of Singapore in different eras. A must also for anyone who enjoyed Netflix’s Shirkers.

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Witches, séances and vampiric lore intermingle in Teo’s brilliantly chilly story of three women living through a changing Singapore. Unashamedly revelling in supernatural tropes and knowing B-movie pastiche, Ponti is an atmospheric, sensory treat for lovers of all things dark and creepy.
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Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucy McKnight Hardy

During the sweltering heatwave of 1976, sixteen-year-old Nif and her family move to an isolated village in Wales, home to a strange memorial and church-goers performing peculiar rites on a neighbouring house. Left to look after her baby brother while the sun beats down, Nif befriends fellow teen outsider Mally, who has a fascination with bird skulls and Polaroid photography. Like Pine’s protagonist Lauren, Nif uses witchcraft and ritual as a coping mechanism, attempting to gain some control over her surroundings, while her parents process a deep trauma. In this case it is the death of Nif’s sister in unclear circumstances. Lucy McKnight Hardy skilfully plays with folk horror conventions, reminiscent of films such as The Wicker Man, while bringing her own imaginative originality and page-turning mystery.

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A haunting take on the coming of age tale, Hardy’s sinuous narrative channels the finest traditions of British folk horror to cast the Welsh landscape in an uncanny pagan light. Charting the burgeoning relationship between two damaged young souls, Water Shall Refuse Them oozes an ineffably eerie atmosphere and chill sense of impending dread.
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