This review first appeared in Horrified magazine in 2021.
The Folk Horror Chain was developed by writer and film-maker Adam Scovell in his essential guide to the sub-genre, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017). The chain consists of four ‘links’ which can be used (amongst other things) to help define a cultural artefact as a work of folk horror. Scovell admits the chain is not exhaustive, and that the presence or absence of one or more of the links doesn’t disqualify a work from being considered folk horror. All four links of the chain are at play, though, in Julian Payne and Zoe Elkins’s excellent graphic novel Harvest. They are:
1) Landscape: the land should play an active – and potentially threatening – role.
2) Isolation: the environment into which the protagonist ventures should be to some extent cut off from the familiar trappings of modern capitalist consumer culture.
3) Skewed moral beliefs: the inhabitants of the isolated location do not subscribe to conventional religious, ethical or social practices.
4) Happening / summoning: whether by means of ritual or other process, the other links in the chain should combine to form some form of horrific climax.
Harvest comes in two volumes, and the first one explores the slow self-destructive spiral of Greta Harrow. Back at home after graduating, with a degree and £50k of debt, she is trying her stepmum’s patience. Greta’s dad disappeared five years ago (and is presumed dead), and her return to an awkward home life only sees a further unravelling of what fragile connections she has. She lives in a remote, seemingly moribund country village (with boarded up frontages and no evident signs of life), spending time with her boyfriend Harry. She’s skint and sends off postal job applications by the handful, hoping the charm of an application by letter will make her stand out. Meanwhile, she ekes out a pittance by babysitting for Aggie, who runs the equally moribund local pub, the Foresters Arms.
Greta is a relatable, flawed central character: her own worst enemy, she seems doomed to follow in her father’s hapless footsteps. We soon see, however, that someone is performing small fire rituals to gain power over her – we glimpse matches and pentagrams without a reveal of who the practitioner may be – and this is where the comic medium works perfectly. A film would give too much away (by means of voice, for instance), and a book wouldn’t be able to give away as much. There’s also a breathtaking set of images in Book 2, where hidden layers are revealed by looking ‘through’ burned pages in a way that only comics can do.
A slow creepiness bleeds into the story, bolstered by the subliminal violence of the countryside: there are numerous references to killing animals, and the pub sign features a pair of axes. Nonetheless, I’ve always been rubbish at second-guessing plots, so the big twist at the end of Book 1 came as a real shock. Book 2 builds nicely on it: delving into the buried past, it explores the fate of Greta’s father, and the complex web of relationships in her own past. Although the cast of speaking characters is small, it adds to the sense of claustrophobia (‘there is no anonymity in a village’), and this narrow dramatis personae is nicely juxtaposed with the sweeping vistas of the English landscape.
These fields, hills, hedgerows and fences are beautifully rendered by Julian Payne’s cinematographic artwork. Over almost 300 pages we see the area – which bears a striking resemblance to the Malverns landscape of Penda’s Fen (UK, Alan Clark, 1974) – changing slowly over both quotidian time (shadows move and lengthen) and seasonal time (the literal harvest sees fields stripped of their crop as hay bales are gathered). Tellingly, every image of the landscape – though devoid of people – shows the work of humankind, whether by means of fences, hedgerows, gates or roads. The English countryside is not truly ‘wild’, but with its ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Private Land’ signs it isn’t exactly welcoming either – being full of latent violence instead.
There are numerous tiny details that drove me to re-read this superb work in order to catch them: Greta sends a job application to a woman with the surname Gowdie (Isabel Gowdie was, famously, a Scottish woman who confessed to being a witch), who works for Witch Designs; the male/female signs on the pub toilets wear witches’ hats; Aggie’s son Sam plays with lettered blocks, making words which are either pertinent to the story, or endlessly ambiguous; and the book’s few splashes of colour are judiciously used for maximum impact. Finally, the specials board in the Foresters Arms at the end made me laugh out loud.
The ending is deliciously dark and the epilogue is superb, tying many strands together but also being ambiguous enough to pose further questions. I thoroughly enjoyed Harvest, highly recommend it, and look forward to seeing where Payne and Elkins go next.