google.com, pub-1277587689226943, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0

The Other World In Challenging Times – Fantasy-writers As Mediators

Discussing higher realms, parallel worlds, the other world or simply philosophy is an easy exercise in peaceful times. But if war, natural disaster or a pandemic confronts us with existential fear and sorrow, these other worlds seem far away. There are times when we are deeply bound to the material world. Wait a moment. Aren’t visionary experiences often with existential crisis? Aren’t world shattering events heralded by archetypical visions? But this is a different thing. It is not about singled out experiences it is everyday life in dark times when the mind is filled with thoughts about the matters at hand.

Thinking about the other world seems on the one side not very useful in extreme situations and on the other side – even more important – the overwhelming reality of tough times often leads to disillusionment. This applies at least for people who have a positive attitude about higher realms. It is a similar question why does God let this happen.

What is the role of the other world in challenging times?

There is certainly no easy answer here. Instead this question might be the driving force for many things. Myth and modern fantasy tries to define the relationship between a (depressing) material world and the higher realms. There is a very good example. A writer which experienced desperation in the material world and later become one of the greatest writer’s of fantasy ever: J.R.R. Tolkien experienced the darkest aspect of life during World War I. But his later fantasy works, most of all the famous Lord Of The Rings are anything but escapist. Indeed, Tolkien is dealing with darkness all the time but putting it into a larger context.

As we know the theme of darkness is always paired with hope. Interpreters classified J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing as strongly influenced by Christian belief. It is certainly worth to discuss what Christian means exactly in that context. There is much expertise about this, but what’s interesting is that at the bottom we see that duality of light and dark. The conflict between light and dark runs through Tolkien’s epos, or better the eternal war between light and dark. This is the same dualism we know from many concepts about the other world and in cosmology.

Therefore it is an obvious thought that myth and fantasy is an attempt to better understand the crisis of the real world. Are we thrown into a battle between light and dark, between good and evil? It is impossible to say for sure what is an interpretation or what exactly is going on out there. Is the dualism in us or is it out there? However, there are many thoughts throughout history giving us some idea.

Does the other world reveals itself through archetypical forces in our world? Where does chaos originally come from? Where does darkness come from? The great works of literature, films and the weird tales are projecting the truth into our mind in the form of artistic images. How much we believe in this truth is an individual decision.

If you check interviews with Tolkien and other great writers you will find they are often reluctant to give us many clues what they exactly believe in or how to interpret their work. They are more mediators than inventors revealing what’s hidden behind the veil.

MYTH

Early myth are stories about creation. They tell us where we come from. How evil came into the world. But they tell us also about hope. What if we are still in the middle of a creation process? It was again Tolkien who created a world which is not stable. It is a constant evolution but also destruction. A concept which makes sense not only if we look at the emerge and downfall of empires and advanced civilisations.

Perhaps this ongoing creation process is indeed an eternal battle between light and dark. We live in a shapeshifting world and only through myth we can learn about the larger patterns.

Perhaps the other world is closer as we think in the moment when we forget about it. It is clear that no mythical knowledge helps us in the darkness, in the crisis of the real world. When it comes to survival we need to navigate through the material world. But perhaps it is the trick to not get lost in the material world. There are some interesting suggestions in the recent Rings Of Power TV-series on amazon based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium, which he begun already in 1914.

One thought is the necessity to touch darkness in order to cope with it (Galadriel needs to meet Sauron). The other thing is the central theme of the creation of the three rings of power and its consequences. If we see it as an allegory it might suggest that men is always subject to powerful forces he can’t really control. Power corrupts them. These forces bind mankind. Nevertheless there is a strong belief opposing fatalism here. In crisis we may lose the other world for some time. But it was never far away. We can gain new strength. What the writers and many myth tell us is that we must fear corruption. We need to learn to fear ourselves. What we might become. Challenging times might indeed not the time to discuss philosophy of the other world, it is a time where we experience things on an existential level not on a reflected level. But there will be a time to put it into context. The other world is always there.

Ancient Sites In The Forest

The secret cult in a remote town is a common element in many folk horror stories and movies. In weird tales, particularly in the genre of cosmic horror, there is another dominant motive: The pagan temple or shrine deep in the forest. Some stories use it as a backdrop or the setting where the secret cult meets in the middle of the night but there is more to it.

The pagan shrine in the forest is often a prerequisite. The old powers are still there. It is a place of power, a place of transformation and often a gate to the otherworld. The place is the center of the story. It is more important as it appears at first sight.

Arthur Machen’s short story The White People published 1904 is a good example to approach this subject. H.P. Lovecraft appreciated this extraordinary storyteller and named him one of the four modern masters of the weird tale. Arthur Machen stands in the tradition of other British writers as Algernoon Blackwood and M.R. James.

Arthur Machen, a Welsh writer, was born March 1863 and died December 1947. He is best known for “The Great God Pan”. Machen influenced the writings of many other writers in the genre.

The White People is also considered as an outstanding example of the supernatural fiction genre. The premise is pretty much what the genre is essentially about Michael Dirda, a book critic for the Washington post, wrote: “If I were to list the greatest supernatural short stories of all time, I would start with Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People,’ about a young girl’s unknowing initiation into an ancient, otherworldly cult”.

One interesting thing here is the epilogue. In the end this girl is dead. They find the girl in the woods near a Roman statue. This relict is a crucial element even it appears only as a detail in the story and it is not a big temple. But it is the ancient site in the forest which makes things happen (in the story there are of course other elements as a nurse as a guide-character, too.) The statue is obliterated in the end.

Influence

Machen grew up in Caerleon on Usk, in the county of Gwent, South Wales. This region is full of ancient sites from the Roman-British era and provided a lot of inspiration. In the 1870s archaeologists dug up Roman sculptures and inscripted stones in the area.

The Friends Of Arthur Machen write on their website: “Machen’s grandfather had found Roman inscriptions and carvings in his own Caerleon churchyard, and the boy’s imagination was captured early by the sense that the ground itself was haunted with a tangible and pagan strangeness”

And the Wales Arts Review emphases the otherworldliness of this extraordinary landscape: “He (Arthur Machen) also possessed a singularly strange vision of Gwent – regarding the landscape, with his birthplace of Caerleon at its spiritual centre, as some form of portal in which all time could be collapsed and all concepts of space exploded”. 

Furthermore Machen regarded the landscape of Gwent in a way which is at the bottom of the whole genre of cosmic horror: “.. a means by which the universe beyond the obscuring veil of our perceived ‘real’ world might be glimpsed – one in which Keats’ notion that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ was an objective and eternal law.”

The ancient sites are the symbol of a haunted landscape. And it seems they are generators where otherworldly energies concentrate. We find this concept in literature, film, for example the pagan statue in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and in reality itself. Janet and Colin Bord wrote a whole series of books about these places, for example Ancient Mysteries Of Britain. They give not only an impressing overview about this unparalleled heritage of mysterious sites but write also about experiments to grasp the so-called earth energies as the dragon project 1979.

The ancient sites seem a place where the elder gods still reside. Arthur Machen also referred to Nodens, a celtic God in his influential “The Great God Pan“. Again there is a “reference” in the British Landscape, the Lyney Park Roman Park (close to The Forest Of Dean). A Roman-British temple is dedicated to Nodens there. J.R.R. Tolkien did some research here. We can be sure that this work deeply impressed Tolkien.

History

Of course, there is a much deeper dimension when it comes to these ancient shrines and their reputation as power places and gates to the otherworld. One author which created the idea of the cult site in the forest is certainly Tacitus.

Tacitus delivers the connection to the woods which becomes a stable premise for many writers, artists and historians. Tacitus writes: “The Germans do not think it in keeping with the divine majesty to confine gods within walls or to portray them in the likeness of any human countenance. Their holy places are woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence”.

Historians later find everywhere impressing remains of the old religion. An example is the Gamla Uppsala, a pagan site where there was a temple was dedicated to Thor, Odin and Freys. The difference to ancient Roman and Greek culture is obvious: Often the greek temples were inside the cities and close to civilisation.

In the northern latitudes it is a different story. Here, the lonely forested landscapes with huge mountains and the cult site within become an echanchted and often haunted landscape. The elder gods still roam these forests and the ritual sites are the place to meet them.

Gothic literature and painters make plenty use of this heritage. See the ruins in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings or the setting in the literature of European romanticism (for example: Der Runenberg, Ludwig Tieck). Of course, it has not always a pagan temple. Friedrich’s paintings depict ruins of a cloister. Churches and cloisters are often placed at former pagan cult sites.

Subsequently there was already a long tradition there which the masters of the modern supernatural story made plenty use of.

Arcane Rituals

The cult site in the forest is a place for secret gatherings. The White People for example contains some detailed descriptions of these playful and dionysian rituals. There are very obvious parallels with beltane festivities and we see that connection between an ancient temple or a ruin in the forest very often also in movies, as the folk horror classic Blood On Satan’s Claw. It is indeed more or less an essential part in these stories.

The Place Is Alive

Gatherings in the forest might be a very common motive. However, after a somewhat dry philosophical prologue, The White People offers a unique visionary experience at a big bare place in the mountain forest, which is not only interesting as an extraordinary supernatural tale. From a modern point of view this an archetypical encounter with the otherworld.

Any words of the protagonist, a thirteen-fourteen year old, that describes a journey into an otherworldly realm, are far from any folklore or fairytale. She labels her live-changing experiences in the “green book” (an old book which serves as a sort of diary) as the white day. On one afternoon the girl walks into an unknown forest landscape where an incredible adventure awaits her. She follows narrow trails and ends up on a big bare place.

Machen does not describe the place as an ancient temple or cult site in an explicit way but we get that impression. The visionary experience that follows bears similarities of reports of alien-abductees or shamanic journeys. Already the journey to that places has the typical qualities of a transition from the ordinary into an otherworldly realm. The girls crosses a forest dark, where the woods are an ominous threatening place:  “I looked out from them and saw the country, but it was strange. It was winter time, and there were black terrible woods hanging from the hills all round; it was like seeing a large room hung with black curtains, and the shape of the trees seemed quite different from any I had ever seen before”. Nothing seems like an ordinary forest here.

Machen now describes something which is similar to people who went missing and were found later and then told rescuers an unbelievable story: “Then I sat down on the stone in the middle, and looked all round about. I felt I had come such a long, long way, just as if I were a hundred miles from home, or in some other country, or in one of the strange places I had read about in the “Tales of the Genie” and the “Arabian Nights,” or as if I had gone across the sea, far away, for years and I had found another world that nobody had ever seen or heard of before, or as if I had somehow flown through the sky and fallen on one of the stars I had read about where everything is dead and cold and grey, and there is no air, and the wind doesn’t blow”. Note the mention of “another world” which is obviously on another plane of reality.

We don’t know if what happens belong to the imagination of the storyteller or if it is real. First, she sees something, which could be a sort of a cult-site: “… I could see nothing all around but the grey rocks on the ground. I couldn’t make out their shapes any more, but I could see them on and on for a long way, and I looked at them, and they seemed as if they had been arranged into patterns, and shapes, and figures.”

A moment later it happens. The place becomes alive and what happens is somewhere between the supernatural and a psychedelic trip: “I got quite dizzy and queer in the head, and everything began to be hazy and not clear, and I saw little sparks of blue light, and the stones looked as if they were springing and dancing and twisting as they went round and round and round. I was frightened again, and I cried out loud, and jumped up from the stone I was sitting on, and fell down”.

This weird experience serves as a call to adventure for the girl which doesn’t end well. She is found dead under mysterious circumstances.

Another remarkable element in the story is the White people and other inhabitants of the forests. We think immediately about the parallel with Referent Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth about the fairy kingdom, and from a modern point of view, there is something alien about these creatures. The encounter with the White People bears many similarities with stories of encounters with the little greys from the Ufo-folklore.

From a modern point of view there might be some critical points about this classic story of Arthur Machen. One of the subplots transport cliches about witches and (maybe unintentionally) it sounds like there is a misogynist tendency here. But, nevertheless we find that one specific quality here which makes a true story of cosmic horror compelling. It is a story which feels strangely familiar.

Ancient sites as temples in the woods or ritual sites seem to have an important place in our minds in many aspects. Perhaps it is a cultural heritage, perhaps the secret place in the woods is indeed a common archetypical image.  But the ancient place is also not only connected with arcane rituals but as a point of transition into the otherworld and where men encounters the phenomenon of the others (the elves, the white people, the little greys) which does accompany us from the very beginnings. It is also a theme in The Forest Dark movie project where  there is also an ancient plays which become an important setting in the story.

There was an interesting moment in regard of The White People. I wondered if I had read Arthur Machen’s short story perhaps a long time ago, because it felt so familiar. But I am sure this is not the case. It felt more like we come automatically across the same building blocks for stories if it comes to otherworldly journeys. Sure, we read all the same genre books and see the same movies, but there seems more to it. It is like connecting to the Otherworld itself, which in a sense is a storehouse of images. From time to time writers enter that storehouse of images and borough valuable images from there.

Peter Engelmann, 11.29.2022

A Secret Character In Folk Horror Stories

There is an interesting question about some popular folk horror movies. Are they supernatural stories or not? The threat in these stories comes from men, not from some monster, ghost, or supernatural entity. Nevertheless, the basic premise of traditional folk horror films and novels is often a secret cult worshipping a (pagan) deity in a remote town.

That deity, demigod, demon, he who walks behind the rows, is an important character in the story. As we know, he is usually not a friendly guy. He demands sacrifices. Human sacrifices. He messes up people’s minds. In some stories, he seems to be like the Old Testament god. Brutal. Merciless. Demanding. He manipulates the people.

But do the people in the remote town or the wilderness believe, or do they only pretend to believe? Is it just their leader who uses the cult to manifest his power? Does the writer believe in these invisible powers? Does the filmmaker believe in the pagan gods or the telluric forces? It’s hard to say. You can write such a story without believing in anything. The cult can work as a convention. Maybe the original religious purpose is lost. A cult is a belief system to impose power and rules upon people. 

It’s the land

In many cases, there is an assumption that supernatural powers are a reality even if there are no supernatural beings occurring in the story. What is the god or the supernatural power? It is the land itself, this dark spiritual power of the land. The magic forces and the gods manifest themselves in the landscape. It’s in the woods, or is the forest itself? There is one obvious connection between the worshippers and the deity. In THE WICKER MAN, the cult is a fertility cult. That is the case for many of these stories. It’s obvious in Shirley Jackson’s classic, The Lottery: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. Even the ritual in the story is forgotten and there is no worshipping of some deity, the magical thinking is apparent. 

Here is the big difference between folk horror and backwood drama and horror. In folk horror, it seems there is, at last, some sort of higher entity, a kind of energy, a god which is in all things or a presence. The opposite is backwood dramas like STRAW DOGS. There is no god in Straw Dogs. No magic of the land.

The Ancient Gods

The gods in Folk Horror are great old ones. There is often a connection with the past, with remnants of an era long gone. Ancient symbols are an expression of presence. There is something here which has been here before men arrived and will perhaps be here when men have left.

But there is another interesting thing here: The gods are local gods. Their cult is mostly a local cult. The entity is tied to the land. The deity is often connected to a certain thing in the land. In The Children Of The Corn, it is a Corn god. The worshippers are often a secretive community. They are obviously not traveling a lot.

Mostly it is a stranger, not aware of the cult in the first place, which is confronted with the local cult and sometimes with the powers of place. In IN THE EARTH, the entity in the forest seems to create hallucinogenic visions. That’s a common thing. The stranger is of course often the victim. He can become the sacrifice as in The Wicker Man.

Communication

Another interesting question is if there is any communication with the gods or the energies of a place. It depends. If it is a story that is closer to cosmic horror, then these forces appear sometimes oblivious towards men. They are not evil nor benign in a human sense as the mysterious higher forces in the classic weird tale “The Willows” from Algernon Blackwood. There is no communication. These powers don’t care about humans. 

In other cases, this is what the characters hope. They hope for insights into the deeper order of things and perform rituals to get an answer from the gods. The wish to communicate and ” to see” is a driving force. It’s no wonder that the ritual is often a drug party, for example, Beltane. People want to look into the otherworld.

Gifts From The Gods

Wisdom is one gift from the god’s ritualist hope. But it is not only wisdom and a rich harvest. There are even stories where the dead should come back, like the Irish horror movie WAKE WOOD. Here, the forest is again a secret character.

The secret cult is empowered by the gods living in the Earth, on the mountain or in the forest. The community in these places is a special one. Even though we don’t see the secret character in these stories, he is always there. He is steering their lives in many ways.

It is worth thinking about this ominous presence in the land, in the forest, in the earth. In stories and in the real world.

Peyton Robinson raises some interesting points in the article The Harrowing and Hypocritical Humanity of Folk Horror in Filmschool Rejects. One of them: What lies in the terrain we’ve built our whole lives on, and who holds the power?

THE DAMNED FORESTS

by Peter Engelmann, August 27, 2022

Folk horror is often about a cursed landscape. Somehow the place where the story takes place is bewitched. We don’t see the ghost, the witch, the demon. The Folk horror genre is much about landscape shaping our minds. It’s about the elder gods which are still here, somewhere. Playing tricks with our mind. Demand a human sacrifice. In a remote town a secret cult is still worshipping the old deities. The most notorious places are the woods, these damned forests. Movies such as In The Earth or Midsommar pick up these traditions. However, some contemporary folk horror seems more like a revival of genre movies as The Stone Tape and books from the last century, instead of taking primarily inspiration from the real world.

It would be very interesting to know when we started to rely more on previous writings and creative products rather than taking the inspiration from the “original” ( a place we visited, an experience we had). Or is it a mix of inspiration from the real world and former movies and novels?

True Stories

Horror movies or forest horror movies sometimes claim to be based on a true story. Or they are mockumentaries as Blairwitch. However, as N.E. Genre pointed out in Beyond Blair Witch, the story of the Blair Witch benefits from a rich cultural heritage. An example is the stickmen, a well-established motive long before Blairwitch. Most of the stories we experience in books or films are more rooted in previous works or collective consciousness rather than any actual existing rituals or events. That doesn’t mean that magic belief, folk traditions, and even the idea of a landscape as a magical spiritual character isn’t pretty much alive. Thanksgiving is a good example. Many pagan Earth-God rites had been absorbed by Christianity. Christian practices are sometimes the same thing under a different label. But this is not the primary marketplace where most fiction takes inspiration from and starts off.

Movies like Wicker Man or The Stone Tape are from the 60ties and 70ties. It was a time of changes in society. There is often some subtext about undercurrents in society. But even then, at that time there was a strong tradition of literature. The ideas were not new. So, where are the real roots of folk horror and today’s stories in the woods?

Landscape And Imagination

The landscape was always a factor: The folk tales connected shapes in the landscape to mythical stories. For example, the devil created a block of boulders in a mountain forest. Or he created a canyon which spurred a new local legend. A mountain top with frequent wild weather is the witches’ dance place. We still find the remnants of ancient rituals in the fields and the forests. There are monuments. Neolithic stones, druid stones, and hill graves are reminders of a mysterious past. The remarkable works of modern fiction came much later.

Another background is tradition, folklore, practices in rural regions, symbols, and the rumors and remnants about pagans and their sacrifices. And to be clear: If it seems that modern folk horror in movies such as Wicker Man is connected to earlier works in literature, this is about the premise, the basic models for stories, and not the world of the film. The writers and moviemakers did a lot of research. They used “original” motives such as the Green Man or that “wicker man” sacrifice, which is rooted back in Julius Caesar’s descriptions of the Gallic War.

But again, our modern movies and folk horror stories usually don’t refer to this ancient connection between men and landscape or the “local legend“. The most influential stories were written at a time, when the connection between men and nature was already lost. These works, often novellas, were written in the late 19th/early 20th century. It is the period H.P. Lovecraft describes as the modern era of horror in his essay Supernatural horror in literatureAlgernon BlackwoodArthur Machen, and M.R. James are among the most prominent writers of the weird fiction genre. Algernon Blackwood established modern forest horror with supernatural stories such as The Wendigo and The Willows. John Buchan, a Scottish writer, wrote Witch Wood (1927) about the existence of a witch sabbath in the Caledonian forest. The Place called Dagon from the same time period deals with a secret cult. Fiction writers in turn were in some cases inspired by anthropological research, for example, The Witch Cult In Western Europe by Margaret Murray. These stories attribute a lot to the modern idea of the damned forests and the world of folk horror stories. I can fairly admit that my Forest Dark Movie project is also inspired by the weird tales.

Lovecraft writes that ” Serious weird stories are either made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to Nature except in the one supernatural direction which the author allows himself or else cast altogether in the realm of phantasy, with atmosphere cunningly adapted to the visualization of a delicately exotic world of unreality beyond space and time, in which almost anything may happen if it but happen in true accord with certain types of imagination and illusion normal to the sensitive human brain”. This may not so much about the later so-called sub-genre “folk horror” but he describes the modern conception of a genre which emancipated itself from romanticism and the patterns of gothic literature.

Of course, Lovecraft adds a lot to the genesis of the modern weird tales with his writings. Strange rituals in the woods and cosmic fear are a constant theme in H.P. Lovecraft’s writings. And we find many traces of this early 20th tradition in modern literature, as in “The Ritual” by Adam Nevill, which became a successful movie. “The Ritual” is one of the most convincing examples of a book and a movie, which explore both genre traditions but is also rich in a unique first-hand experience of the wilderness.

It is interesting that the modern weird tale, which is in some ways a foundation of folk horror and forest horror stories, emerges in the times of modern industrialization. Usually we wouldn’t associate the fin de siecle with a “back to the roots” or “a back to nature” (even though movements existed). But isn’t it, that there was a disenfranchisement from nature in modern times? Maybe this is the reason for the rise of haunted landscapes and damned forests in fiction in the first place. That kind of precursor of the folk horror weird tale and movie was less popular after the war. Science fiction was popular, and this was less about Lovecraft’s cosmic fear of alien visitors or invaders.

However, the landscape is a crucial element in Stephen King’s writings. Perhaps, “The Children Of The Corn” could be seen as folk horror. And most prominently, there is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. These stories also center around a central premise in folk horror: The remote town with a secret (pagan) cult and human sacrifice. There is a continuous tradition here, even if it wasn’t labeled as a subgenre.

Researchers have spent a lot of time exploring the roots of folk horror and the dynamic in the genre’s development. An excellent source for further information is the Eldritch Archives on YT. There is a hint, for example, about the role of the Salem Witch Trials in the genesis and development of American folk horror. 

There are times when curiosity arises about the mysteries of the landscapes and the forests. Janet and Colin Bord are writers and researchers and published books such as “Ancient Mysteries Of Britain” in the Eighties and Nineties. Everywhere that old heritage became popular again. Meanwhile, there are endless books about monuments, secret old places, old rites, ritual sites, and mysterious places. There is a new interest in the land.

Future Damned Forests

What are the best strategies for folk horror and forest horror? We should be aware of an obvious question. Do we still take the ideas of haunted landscapes, cursed places, and the influence of the landscape seriously? Do we believe that landscape, the dark forest, or the holy mountains are more than a shape, a mass of stone, or an arrangement of trees? What about psycho-geography? Does that mean that places have psychological influence, or is there more to it? Are the elder gods still here?

We don’t need to believe in dragons, but the mere stability of the genre suggests there is more to its central motives than we think. The most convincing stories and movies will sell “the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours” (H.P. Lovecraft) in a fresh manner, and will tap deep into realities which haven’t been told yet. 

It is also clear that if the folk horror genre and forest horror want to succeed continuously in the future, they will become less revival and more fresh and original. “The Ritual” or “The Reddening” are some excellent examples.

They represent a curiosity about the eerie landscapes and mysterious monuments surrounding in our everyday world.