The Past is Always Present: New Music for Old Rituals
This is a story of folk horror and of its roots in much older tales. It’s a story of how these old, cautionary tales still cast long shadows in contemporary culture. And of course, it’s part of the story why I wrote my second collection, the nineteen tales of folk-horror that make up my second collection, New Music for Old Rituals (Black Shuck Books 2018).
This collection grew organically from my own upbringing as a child in rural Ireland, where the very landscape was infused with myth and folklore. I grew up on the site of the great Irish saga of the Táin Bó Cúailnge halfway between two towns, Dundalk, where the Táin hero, Cuchulainn was born and Ardee, where he slew his best friend Ferdia at a pivotal battle−even my secondary school sits beside an ancient burial ground where mounds marked the site of Cuchulainn and his wife Emer’s graves.
But even more so, New Music for Old Rituals was influenced by the stories I grew up with, curses, stories of na Sidhe, the dark Irish fairies and their interactions with human, tales of jumping churches, of banshees, of curses and of graves cracked by a hungry Devil. These stories were told in my neighbourhood, within my family, and they formed the cornerstone of my childhood experience.
The first piece of short fiction I published in 2013, ‘Looking for Wildgoose Lodge,’ (in Hauntings, Hic Dragones Press) was based on a story originally told to me by my grandmother; a tale of a two hundred-year-old atrocity. I was fascinated by the idea of the persistence of memory in a small community, and the fact that these stories were still told. I was drawn to this topic by the fact that in folklore the past was always present−that these stories still operated strongly as cautionary tales that warned of the dangers of secrecy and of secret organisations, and the untrustworthiness of neighbours. I spent three years working on a memory project with these families and recording their variant stories of this event as part of my PhD thesis.
At the same time I was also researching the folklore and how it echoes through contemporary Irish art and literature, and have since published five academic essays on this topic in edited collections by Palgrave, Routledge, Peter Lang Publishing, Aguaplano, and Boydell and Brewer. However, this research kept inspiring new ideas for fresh fiction, and so in 2016 I started writing in earnest on a new collection that would focus on the survival of past narratives in contemporary Ireland.
In putting together this collection, I’ve only obliquely referenced ‘real’ Irish folktales. I was more interested in the nature and character of folktales; how they seep upwards from the very landscape, how they’re mapped by real sites that act as portals to other worlds; dolmens, passage graves, fairy mounds. In 2015 I’d spent time armed with a copy of Tarquin Blake’s Haunted Ireland, visiting and photographing local spectral sites; many of these photographs would later act as triggers for some of the stories that I would write, most notably ‘The Green Road,’ ‘Graveyard of The Lost,’ and ‘The Black Dog.’
I was conscious when writing of other contemporary Irish authors like Patrick McCabe, who creates evocative dark, small towns with a savage magic realism, and Peadar Ó Guilín whose dystopian novels are influenced by his erudite knowledge of Irish folklore. The stories that I wrote between 2016 and 2018 all feature the pervasive power of the past; how old, bitter stories ripple outwards and continue to shape our culture. Some reference the Irish fairies, but the tales that do so consider them in contemporary contexts; man-made fairy villages (‘The World’s More Full of Weeping’), children’s games (‘Under The Whitethorn’), burial rites (‘The Cillini’) and gender identity (‘The Changeling’). The collection also references modern Irish phenomena like ghost estates (‘Scarecrow, Scarecrow’) and the Celtic Tiger economy (‘What Lies Beneath’). What all stories do is consider the ties between the past and present, and how certain themes are both repetitive and timeless; ideas of loss, love, sacrifice, family, inheritance and transmission.
There were also two things that were important to me in writing this collection; I wanted it to have a strong female voice (most of the protagonists and narrators are women), and also that it represented the Irish lived experience of folklore as a continuum between past and present. The reason for this is that New Music for Old Rituals sits squarely within the canon of folk horror, a term that has gained popularity since the BBC4 TV series A History of Horror of 2010 where Mark Gatiss used it with reference to Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and also Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Folk horror is also characterised in terms of contemporary contributions towards the genre: Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England, Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015), David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017), and The League of Gentlemen (1997-2017).
However, there are two interesting things to consider when looking at this genre since the 1960s: the fact it tends to be Anglo-centric and male-dominated. This isn’t to say that women are omitted in the canon−especially in terms of literature with Angela Carter’s marvellous The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) and Susan’s Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence (1965-77)−but there Carter’s contribution, as with so many other outstanding works by female writers like Margaret Atwood, Tanith Lee, Gemma Files, Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi tend to be categorised under the heading of ‘revisionist fairy tales.’ Not that there’s anything wrong with revisionist fairy tales−the rewriting and re-questioning of these forms is a valuable part of the feminist canon of writing−but it’s strange that many of these are not considered as folk horror. James Gent’s definition of folk horror could be used to sum up some remarkable short stories by women including Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ or Angela Carter’s ‘Wolf Alice.’
Hermetically sealed (usually rural) communities; imagery of agriculture, fertility and the soil; modern man standing on the precipice of deeper, hidden, horrors and the friction that arises; a haunting of the present by the past; and the arrival of an innocent outsider drawn into this hinterland. (Gent 2017)
Women in Horror Month is more than just about celebrating the women who are or have been active in the field; it’s also about honestly examining whether female achievement is correctly attributed across horror. The horror genre−and the folk horror genre−is richest when it encompasses a breadth of diversity and experience−from across genders and nationalities.
I’m glad to see that recent folk horror collections; Green and Pleasant Land (2016, Black Shuck Books), The Fiends in The Furrows (2018, Nosetouch ress) and This Dreaming Isle (2018, Unsung Stories) all feature a very balanced number of contributions by outstanding female writers. I’m also delighted to see the accolades coming in for Alma Katsu’s The Hunger (2018), which draws upon oral folklore of The Dinner Party and ideas of the Wendigo, and Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens (2018), a meditation on urban folklore.
And of course, I’m very grateful to my publisher Steve J. Shaw of Black Shuck Books for taking a chance on my ode to Irish folk horror, Old Music for New Rituals, and to all who have bought, read and reviewed it. Folklore continues to evolve and to be part of our lived experience, and I’m proud to have offered a small reflection on it with this collection.
Gent, James. ‘Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man and Folk Horror.’ Etext at http://wearecult.rocks/robin-hardy-the-wicker-man-and-folk-horror. Last accessed 9.05, 29/06/2018.
Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction. In 2017, her debut collection The Unheimlich Manoeuvre was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. Two of her short stories were long listed by Ellen Datlow for honourable mentions in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 8. She is published in over twenty Irish, US and UK anthologies and her work has been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel, The Girl in the Fort, was released by Fox Spirit Press in 2017. Her second collection, New Music for Old Rituals was published in 2018 by Black Shuck Books. Her website is at www.tracyfahey.com