Frightened Folk: Where Folktales and Horror Intersect

There’s something undeniably creepy about folk tales. Think of Bloody Mary, Krampus, the Big Bad Wolf and the Headless Horseman. Folktales are the kind of stories told at night around a fire, and they don’t start out written down as short stories or novels. These tales have always been transmitted among a people through oral tradition. Folklore, legends and myth are a boundless topic, and found in almost every aspect of human culture, but here we’re looking specifically at Gothic horror novels that take their inspiration from tales that once propagated exclusively through oral traditions.

These tales exploit the native fear humans have for the unknown and lend themselves beautifully to the devices of the horror genre. Folk horrors creep into our awareness as we traverse the space in between worlds, the urban and the rural, the mundane and the fantastical. They turn pastoral daydreams into nightmares, familiar waking life slips into a surreal parallel dimension. The collection gathered here, while often built upon European folk elements, makes an attempt to bring in a more diverse variety of folk culture. The combination of folk and horror often tends less toward the typical formula of the genre and moves more in the direction of literary fiction. The sampling below represents a slightly more literary horror novel than what you might expect.

Melmoth book cover

Melmoth” by Sarah Perry

Melmoth is a manufactured legend based on the tale of the wandering Jew, but adjusted to fit into the backstory of Perry’s novel. In Melmoth, the legendary character who witnessed Christ rising from his grave denied the truth of what she saw, and as a consequence, must bear witness to “every shameful secret, every private cruelty” until Judgment Day. Bearing witness is a potent theme for this novel. The difference between actively bearing witness to terrible actions and being passively present at the unfolding of an atrocity, this is what devils our main character, Helen, who has her own private crimes revealed at the end of the novel. Some reviewers find the author’s lush prose contrasted with the austere habits of the main character worth the price of admission alone. Other critics found the tales within the tale of real life atrocities, like the Armenian genocide, were not handled with the kind of serious tone they deserved. As a horror aficionado, one must determine for oneself.

Devil's Day book cover

Devil’s Day” by Andrew Michael Hurley

Hurley, a key author in the British folk-horror scene, paints a picture of rural Lancashire’s “Endlands” and annual harvest rituals that are said to keep the Devil at bay. Three old shepherding families, staunch adherents to local tradition, participate in the annual “Gathering,” while unexplained events seem to confirm the validity of long held superstitions. The line between natural and supernatural is blurred and ominous portents build until the narrator, returning native John Pentecost, is revealed to be a less than reliable source.

The Only Good Indians book cover

The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones

A highly disturbing tale of supernatural revenge. On the eve of Thanksgiving, an ill-fated hunting party of young Blackfoot Indians disrespects sacred hunting grounds, trespasses and kills a small herd of elk at close range. One Blackfoot, Lewis, discovers that his kill was a young pregnant female who fought to survive for her baby. His shame at the discovery has him making a failed attempt at amends with the spirit of the dead elk. Ten years later, the elk exacts revenge upon the hunting party, driving Lewis to madness and murder. When the vengeful she-elk is reborn in the belly of Lewis’ dead girlfriend, she matures at unnatural speed and kills Lewis as he makes a run for the reservation. She seeks out the remaining Blackfeet, killing them off one at a time. The suspense is palpable and the slow burn for her victims is especially unnerving.

The Night Strangers book cover

The Night Strangers” by Chris Bohjalian

After a flock of geese forces Chip Linton to crash land his plane into Lake Champlain, killing 39 passengers, Linton moves with his wife and twin daughters to a picturesque town in rural New Hampshire. The family is looking for a fresh start, but their mysterious new home turns out to have a tragic history and is filled with secret passages and a door in the basement with 39 bolt locks. As the family settles in, Chip’s wife Emily joins the local law firm. His children try to fit into their new school. Chip, experiencing PTSD and hearing the voices of his dead passengers, slowly unravels in the midst of his home renovations, while creepy herbalist neighbors show an unhealthy interest in his daughters.

The House of Whispers book cover

The House of Whispers” by Laura Purcell

This novel follows two timelines 40 years apart. In the earlier timeline we are introduced to Louise Pinecroft who’s just lost her mother and siblings to “consumption.” Her father’s reputation as a doctor and man of science has been greatly damaged by this tragic event and as a last ditch gambit, he’s purchased Morvoren house on the Cornish shore, with nearby caves that he believes are ideal for nursing consumptives back to health. His new patients are convicts who likely contracted tuberculosis in jail. They endure his many pseudo-scientific cures, including leeches and tobacco smoke. Through all this, young Louise assists her father while managing the house. 40 years later, a disgraced ladies maid is on the run from her former employers and takes on the pseudonym “Hester Why.” Her faked credentials bring her to Morvoren House where she is to serve as nurse to a paralyzed and mute Miss Pinecroft. In both timelines, we see Creeda, the superstitious maid who was brought there as a girl to be watched over by the good doctor. Creeda’s talk of fairies and changelings, though dismissed by other characters, is supported by a few odd happenings in the house and down in the caves. Creeda’s strange convictions take hold in the end, along with a bit of madness.

The Summer of the Ubume book cover

The Summer of the Ubume” by Natsuhiko Kyogoku

This is the first book in the “Kyogokudo” series. The central character, Kyogokudo, is a highly philosophical bookstore owner who performs exorcisms on the side. He and his associates investigate the case of a woman who is 20 months pregnant and whose husband went missing two months into her pregnancy. For Kyogokudo, the case calls to mind Japanese folklore and several wives tales surrounding pregnancy. Unnaturally long pregnancies supposedly bring about a monstrous child. And when a pregnant woman dies and is interred, it is said that she rises again as a spectre or “Ubume,” offering her baby to passersby.  Kyogokudo is long winded and spends a good portion of the book on exposition over a number of topics. His lengthy lectures and ruminations might remind you of something Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft might have written. Much of these lectures are fascinating and touch upon philosophy, physics and the spiritual. While I could appreciate all the “holding forth,” I found it slowed down the action of the story a great deal.  If you’re into page-turners, this is probably not the book for you.

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