I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much ‘literary’ fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the ‘interiority’ of the middle class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion amongst the progressive literati. The result is a kind of placid, smug, dullness which it’s mostly impossible to care about: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.
But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason and manners, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers like Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been labelled ‘folk horror’ by the kind of people who like creating labels. They in turn are drawing from a blossoming, booming underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth work that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.
What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. Mythology, the otherworld tradition, what we might call the ‘folk soul’, still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination? The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. ‘Fantasy’ novelists like Alan Garner, M. John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin, have long known this better than their ‘literary’ counterparts.
In this vein comes Folk, a debut novel from Zoe Gilbert. Just occasionally, the jaded, ageing writer, who has read too many books and is easily bored by most of them, will pick up new one, hyped as usual by its publisher as an ‘instant classic’ or a ‘stunning new talent’ and begin to read. Unexpectedly, he will then find that it is hard to stop reading until the end, at which point he will think to himself, blimey – that was the real thing. This was my experience with Folk, which draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, where the author hails from, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and – always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down
Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter is discrete and could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.
Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. I am a sucker for books with maps in the front. I grew up on Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin and Stephen Donaldson and any other fantasy book I could get my hands on, and the maps were always part of the attraction.
Folk, then, is a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to. Gilbert’s writing has shades of Ursula Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core which both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself. The Disney corporation would have trouble focus-grouping the stories in this book for its key viewer demographics.
A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. ‘Realism’ might seem a bizarre word to use about a book set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.
Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like ‘The Neverness Ox Men’, ‘Fishskin, Hareskin’, and ‘The Winter Guest’ – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.
This is the marker of Folk’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for ‘reality’, and it is more human too.