First, let’s agree on what these two stunning books are not. They are not Folk Horror, but they did grow in a neighbouring field. All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison and Lanny by Max Porter are two of the finest novels I’ve read so far this year. They’re part of a growing number of novels – none of which are strictly horror – which look at either folklore or the role of the (usually English) countryside, and find dark things there. Other recent works in the same vein include Folk by Zoe Gilbert, Jon MacGregor’s Reservoir 13, and the novels of Andrew Michael Hurley.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these novels are appearing at this particular moment in British (specifically English) history. They’re a welcome counter to the sentimental view of the past – which has always been there in a part of the English psyche – that drove the Brexit vote. Johnny Rotten was spot-on when he snarled “there is no future in England’s dreaming”; he could have been speaking of 2019 rather than 1977. There’s a pastoral vision of England and its countryside which does not square with actual history. These works – to a greater or lesser degree – engage with that. Paul Wright’s stunning film Arcadia does so too, in a non-narrative way.
All Among the Barley is told by Edie Mather, a young teenage girl growing up on a farm in an East Anglia so remote from 1930s London that it may as well be in a different century. Her existence is unsettled by a burgeoning sexuality, and the arrival of an exotic stranger: writer Constance FitzAllen. Constance is on a mission to document “the old ways” of country life before they are lost to memory. Her motivations for doing so, however, are suspect: she turns out to be a “blood and soil” nationalist who believes the true soul of England lies with its rural folk (volk?).
She is, after initial suspicion, welcomed into the local village and wastes no time in ingratiating herself among those who may be of use to her. Her credulity does lead to some incidental humour:
“Haunted? How wonderful! You must tell me more – a black dog, or the Wild Hunt? Its fascinating to think how all these funny little folk tales spring up…the wellspring of the nation’s character, I feel.”
“No – it’s Lord Lyttleton. He shot himself…after the telegram came saying his son had been killed at Ypres.”
Edie has lived a very sheltered life: her mother treats her as far younger than she is. She becomes infatuated with Constance, seemingly immune to her patronising manner and manipulation.
Constance stirs up feeling within the village as she gains confidence, and the villagers’ confidence. She organises a meeting to raise funds and encourage membership of her far-right group. Suddenly, locals whose existence had always been taken for granted is suddenly conditional:
“They’re Jews, Edie. And we don’t need any more of them…I’m no anti-semite, of course. But…”
Unlike Lanny, any element of the supernatural is subjective. Edie becomes convinced she has inherited her grandmother’s (and by extension, her mother’s) subtle powers of witchcraft. There are magical artefacts: “dried-up cats, horse skulls…” and when she asks “Do we have anything magical?” is told “Most likely”. Harrison leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the small acts of magic Edie thinks she’s performing have efficacy.
Harrison evokes a countryside teeming with far more wildlife than our impoverished, intensively-farmed industrial farmland. But it’s a countryside with as many shadows as sunlit meadows. There’s debt, there’s domestic abuse, there’s exploitation. This is an era before the NHS and the full welfare state. Those who seem to want a return to these times (or, as seems to be the case, a return to days when the population was almost exclusively white) would have the form without the content. A decade of austerity has hollowed out the social landscape that made the mid-20th century what it was.
Max Porter’s Lanny is set in the present-day. A couple and their off-beat son (Lanny) are incomers to a home counties village. The story is told in episodes, initially by Lanny’s Mum, his workaholic Dad, and Lanny’s adult friend, misfit artist Pete.
The family’s outsider status defines them, and seemingly nothing they can do to ingratiate themselves can truly assimilate them.
“I don’t know who I have to please. I have to please the village but I can’t because the village is a place defined for me by its proximity to London and I am therefore part of the problem, cause and effect, my only right to be here is the right brokered for me by a mortgage lender in Canary Wharf so I cling to little victories”
There’s a further character at work: the wonderful Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient tutelary spirit (of sorts) who awakes and revisits “his” village. He can take any shape and among his many other weird acts of surveillance he offers a tour of the village to an empty can of Fanta. Genius! I couldn’t help but be reminded (partly it’s the name) of Papa Lazarou from League of Gentlemen. Toothwort listens to the voices of the villagers, whose everyday chatter careers and bends and spirals across the page in a piece of typographical extravagance.
“Dead Papa Toothwort has seen monks executed on this land, seen witches drowned, seen industrial slaughter of animals, seen men beat each other senseless…He has seen the land itself cut apart, its top layer disembowelled, stripped and re-plundered, sliced into tinier pieces by wire, hedges and law. He has seen it poisoned by chemicals. He has seen it outlive its surgeons, worshippers and attackers.”
That “sliced…by law” is interesting, because it isn’t a physical effect, it’s a mental abstraction but one whose effects are just as potent.
Toothwort is not a benign character, though.
“He whistles his song, and the song is a set of private instructions. He feeds his plan into this ordinary home-county place, sliding it like lubricated wire into the soft flesh of the village, into buildings, gardens, sewage pipes and water tanks…folded into sweaty creases and scratched into red eyes, into the dreams of children and the bones of sleeping house-beasts. He has done this before but never with such sincerity. He means this terrible thing. He’s meant it forever.”
Lanny is a peculiar child, a savant lost in his own world, his own head. When he goes missing, the voices of village spill over, unleashing pent-up hatreds that had hitherto been kept behind closed doors and which only Toothwort was party to. The media descend upon the town, and Pete is the suspect. Porter builds the tension in brief paragraphs until it’s almost unbearable.
Toothwort means Lanny has an explicitly supernatural element, in contrast to the subjective nature of All Among the Barley‘s witchcraft. He may be a catalyst, but the darkness in the village is only activated by him: it already exists within the inhabitants.
Neither of these works shows a rural idyll; neither the past or the English countryside are Elysian fields. Yes, Lanny has much light among the darkness: Lanny’s quirkiness; his and Pete’s friendship. In All Among the Barley the overwhelming abundance of flora and fauna that Edie can put a name to is startling, but because much of that – hedgerows and meadows – are now gone, destroyed by industrial agriculture, these moments are inseparable from their shadow.
Harrison, Melissa: All Among The Barley (Bloomsbury, 2018)
Porter, Max: Lanny (Faber, 2019)