Haunting Ourselves – A Year In The Country: Straying From The Pathways
Words by Grey Malkin
Now almost in its sixth year, the A Year In The Country project (helmed by Stephen Prince) has given birth to numerous hauntological musical excursions on its associated record label, not least on the continuing series of compilation albums that merge spooked electronics with bucolic folk from the likes of Sproatly Smith, Grey Frequency and The Heartwood Institute in a pleasing hybrid of otherly pastoralism. Similarly, the AYITC website provides a digital resource documenting cultural artefacts such as TV programmes (for example The Children of the Stones, The Owl Service and Chocky), books (by the likes of Alan Garner and John Wyndham) and films (including Day of the Triffids, The Wicker Man and Quatermass and the Pit). 2018’s published collection of these website articles along with new material, Wandering Through Spectral Fields, was a critically acclaimed and essential reference for those who like to venture along the edgelands of the UK’s ghost filled concrete fields and weathered rural landscapes. If you like a touch of Sapphire and Steel with your Witchfinder General, or some Delia Derbyshire with your Pentangle, then this may very well be a valuable and much returned to compendium.
Which brings us to Straying from the Pathways, the second physical publication from AYITC, appropriately subtitled Hidden Histories, Echoes of the Future’s Past and the Unsettled Landscape. Split into twelve chapters to follow the course of the year – but which also stand alone as individual essays – AYITC spread their net concisely and thematically, but also widely. Subjects as varied as the impact of landscape on culture (via discussion of nature author Robert McFarlane and TV’s Penda’s Fen), to spectral motorways and petrol-fuelled visions of the recent past in the chapter In Cars, Building A Better Future, Peculiarly Subversive Enchantments and Faded Futuristic Glamour, are all examined with equal consideration, curiosity and insight. Along the way, there is effective exploration of a number of recognisable hauntological features and fixations, such as Brutalist structures and Ballardian high rises, as well as their counterparts found in rustic supernaturalism and country life. These more rural aspects include a look at television’s recent ghost story opus Requiem and the quiet, gentle wyrdness of The Detectorists. Regarding Britain’s haunted countryside and coast, there is also a fascinating chapter devoted to delving into ‘the village and the seaside gone rogue’ that draws in references and threads from films and shows seemingly (but only seemingly) as disparate as Hot Fuzz, The Prisoner, and Aberystwyth Mon Amour.
AYITC also veer off from some of the more well-worn and common psychogeographical paths; more unusual topics such as lycanthropy or post-apocalyptic themes in TV, film and literature are also considered and examined, with reference to their place in a wider cultural context. Additionally, the films of John Carpenter make an appearance; this latter focus is interesting in that it expands the breadth of the subject matter from UK based cultural references to an American variant, an American movie director. Yet it is clear that growing up in the UK and being of a certain age would have meant absorbing late night movies on television such as Christine or Halloween 3, or visiting a suburban video shop as a young teenager to illicitly hire a VHS of the X rated The Thing. AYITC know that we are human sponges when it comes to soaking up both the overt and the subliminal influences of assorted media, fashion, architecture, art and the contemporary zeitgeist. Indeed, each chapter or article serves as an acknowledgement or mapping of an element of popular culture that both informs and results from the personal, generational and physical landscape.
This is well evidenced in the book’s discussion on the children’s TV show The Changes, whereupon it is surmised that, by the early to mid-1970s, an underlying anxiety or lack of trust in the capitalist economic model and its promises of a ‘better future for all’ permeated some aspects of popular media. This perhaps included a filtering down of anxiety and alienation into children’s TV shows such as The Changes and Children of the Stones, as well as potentially influencing the unease in contemporary films such as The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General. These productions seemed to hark back to a more wistful (but imagined) pastoral or mystical age as a reaction to current or modern unease, crisis and uncertainty. An interesting idea posited by the book is that our current unstable and unpredictable world or domestic situation makes these type of shows and films extremely relevant again, this may account for some of the ‘Folk Horror Revival’ and renewed interest in such subject matter; it reflects the anxieties of the age.
Music too receives close exploration, particularly the spectral and haunted sounds of the Bristol ‘scene’, Scotland’s Boards of Canada and the Ghost Box label roster. Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack (and their contemporaries such as DJ Shadow and Unkle), as well as the hauntological electronics of The Focus Group and Belbury Poly: all receive due attention for their use of the past to inform the present (via sampling, effects such as record crackle or evocation of memory through deliberate use of analogue electronics). Current day psychedelia such as the excellent Rowan: Morrison album In The Sunshine We Rode The Horses is also cited as an example of the past creating an echo or a haunting in the field of folk music. Here, the ghosts of the underground 1970’s folk scene inform and breathe a sense of nostalgia or implied memory into what is also a contemporary and modern recording, resulting in a release that both feels timeless and which could be easily mistaken for a long lost, hidden gem of acid folk.
This review barely scratches the surface of Straying From The Pathways: it is a comprehensive and hugely satisfying read, both as a book and as a reference guide to the liminal and the eerie in popular culture. There are numerous rabbit holes and recommendations for the reader in which to wander or to explore, and the book as a whole rewards repeated readings, such is the wealth of ideas or intriguing cross-referencing between genres and mediums. For those who have found their way to and enjoyed the writing of Mark Fisher or the recent Wyrd Harvest Press / Folk Horror Revival books such as the two volume Urban Wyrd publications, this is an essential companion piece. And, if you are already familiar with A Year In The Country and their uncanny explorations, you will find much to be equally enthused with here. Highly recommended; a haunted house of a book that you will wish to frequent time and time again.