I recently read John R Gordon’s new novel Hark set in a racially divided Southern US town – a world I’ve never experienced. But something about the book chimed with me far beyond getting wrapped up with the story and characters.
It took me till I’d finished the book (no spoilers) to work out that – for me at least – it has a huge amount in common with some of the folk horror films and books I’ve always enjoyed. And while Hark is light years in subject matter from The Wicker Man, The Stone Tape or the stories of MR James, it uses elements of folk and supernatural in similar ways to draw the reader into the narrative and leave them with a sense of unease and a corruption of time.
Hark starts the night a statue of a Confederate colonel is torn down in the center of a dying, opioid-scarred and racially divided Southern town. It’s also the night two gay teenagers meet and start to fall in love. White working class Cleve is broke and drifting into criminality while black, bourgeois Roe is alienated and rebellious. They meet and slowly come to have feelings for one another.
But when the young men’s relationship looks set to move to another level they’re interrupted by Hark, a mysterious Black vagrant who seems to possess supernatural powers, and takes them on a strange journey into the past.
The introduction of Hark as a character (no spoilers) adds a beautiful dimension to the story, and this is where the folk horror element comes into play, for me at least. The characters of Roe and Cleve are reckoning with the horrors of the past, and suddenly the past is there in front of them in the shape of this stranger. We explore this past with them, and learn of its injustices and how human experience is a continuum. Suddenly the normal rules of the world no longer apply.
A common element of folk horror seems to be the past coming back to reckon with us in the present (the pagan rituals of The Wicker Man, evil ghostly presences in The Stone Tape, an ancient satanic group in Kill List) – and in Hark this happens through the lens of segregationist politics and racial injustice.
It made me realise that folk horror isn’t just quaint pagan rituals in the English countryside, vengeful ghosts and stone circles – it’s a sense that any injustices and horrors of the past coming rushing back to meet us in the present day is terrifying. We have to face what we’ve done previously as a society, and where we came from. Even if we have no personal direct connection with that past – in this case, the segregated Southern US states. The common thread is man’s inhumanity to man – and that’s the stuff of the most powerful horror.
Hark isn’t a horror novel by any stretch, but it employs the supernatural to get its message across in an arresting way.
Once I’d finished it, I disappeared down a folk horror wormhole (there’s a title for some fan-fiction). Adam Scovell’s book Folk Horror – Hours Dreadful and Things Strange collects together the most common folk horror staples of the past 100 years, attempting to draw a definition of the sub-genre.
Scovell says in reference to The Wicker Man (and folk horror in general) ‘…the law/lore of Folk Horror; that fear supplanted into communities comes back to haunt those who sowed its first seeds’.
Hark illustrates this point beautifully – the direct result of one of the worst atrocities ever committed by human beings.