The horrific countryside 

Dumbledore posted an article by Rob MacFarlane on our Grove Facebook page about the resurgence of the English countryside in eerie and horror fiction and media, with particular reference to a story by M R James. You can read the article Here

The following are some thoughts that the article inspired:

“I guess the theme of the “rural idyll”  was first introduced into the popular consciousness during the aftermath of the industrial revolution (and embellished by romantic movement). 

The ideal of gentle pastoral simplicity and tranquility as seen through the misty eyed, rose tinted, remembrances of those crushed into the overcrowded, industrial, smog filled, urban chaos of the early to mid 1800’s cities has, passed down (somewhat diluted) into the modern urban mindset. The industrial revolution witnessed a massive population shift as people fled (economically forced out of) the rural life to the urban sprawl. And, as happens with most diaspora people, many of them became to regard what they had left behind as a sort of “paradise lost” or timeless Garden of Eden complete with green meadows, babbling brooks, gentle sunsets and simple, yet happy inhabitants. And, to a certain kind of independently wealthy person of the  leisure classes who could engage with rural nature in a very superficial and comfortable way, it probably was. To the actual rural people who worked and relied on the land for their existence, the reality then, as now, is very different. 

One of the comforts of the modern technological and industrial mindset is that we have fooled ourselves into thinking we’ve conquered and tamed nature, or at least we can do so if the motivation is right. Britain is a long conquered land that has been cultivated for thousands of years. Apart from places like the moors, it’s a haven of pastoral beauty. Farms, villages and small market towns litter the agricultural landscape. There are no savage predator beasts that prowl, no real danger of deadly poisonous snakes or spiders, there are no convenient land borders for invaders to swarm across. The climate is temperate and the wildlife timid or semi-domesticated. The land is dependable, the land is safe. 

Except, of course, deep down inside we know that that just isn’t true. 

The feelings of unease that make authors like Machen, Blackwood and James so potent doesn’t derive entirely from the supernatural elements of their fiction. Instead it comes from confronting the protagonist, and therefore the reader, with the realisation that we are not in control, we don’t or can’t fully comprehend our environment. They point out that our belief that we have “tamed” nature is pure hubris. Nature under the surface patina of calm domesticity is still very much wild, unpredictable and dangerous. The true sense of unease is the striping away of our certainty and civilised safety. It’s like the unwelcome reminder that the faithful dog sitting by your hearth is actually a wolf. 

James and Lovecraft, one subtly and one less so, draw upon how insignificant we are to nature, how fleetingly temporary our short lives are on the grand scale of the enduring landscape. Blackwood and Machen, amongst others, remind us that nature follows it own rules, is full of the hidden and unknown. They show us that nature in its pure form is beyond our comprehension and certainly beyond our self imposed comfort zone. 

We seek safety in community and society, our instinct is to band together against the darkness, so what is more disturbing than to become isolated and alone? To be cut off from civilisation? To be thrust into a hostile unknown and uncaring landscape? A landscape we thought we knew? A landscape we thought populated but is in fact emptier of humans inhabitants than we’d believed, a landscape with darkened corners and hidden wild places?

In horror nature at best is indifferent to us, our short lives barely registering across its untold centuries. At worst nature is vengeful and malignant, toying with us and extracting revenge for the damages we have done her or purge the guilt of our rejection of her.

As we realise that the dog in our house is actually a wolf, and that our land of pastoral beauty is really wild and chaotic, perhaps our biggest cause for unease comes from the realisation that our own veneer of rational civilisation is so fleetingly fragile and that just under the surface hides our own uncontrollable wild nature.”


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