So, now we’ve talked about Folk Horror for a bit, I’d like to review a new book that most definitely – almost self-consciously – fits the category; Hekla’s Children by James Brogden (just as a statement of intent, I’ll be reviewing both old and new books – possibly even going out a limb and dropping in a non-fiction title or two – but hopefully always ones that are interesting or relevant to the various topics I’ve discussed).
I’ve not been familiar with Brogden’s work up to now (and have the feeling that this is his breakout title). Previous titles were published by (the excellent) Snow Books. This, his fourth, sees him moving to Titan. Brogden is concerned with realities, both ours and those that exist just beyond reach, on the other side of a doorway, or a dream. What does it mean to people to live in two realms, or within touching distance of another place?
Hekla’s Children is no different, but this time its ‘other place’ is rooted firmly in the world of folk horror, of a different reality in time as opposed to just in space, a time revealed to us through the archaeology of bog bodies. These disquieting figures, mummified and preserved in peat and marsh have been discovered throughout Northern Europe, with examples coming from Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany and Britain, and argument still rages over their origin and purpose. Known examples date from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. Were they murder victims, criminals, sacrifices, shamans, of high or low status, or a combination of all these? Much of the evidence is suggestive, but not conclusive (for those wishing to know more, a good summary of present knowledge is Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery by Miranda Aldhouse-Green).
Brogden sets out his stall from the outset, in a prologue which introduces us to a Neolithic tribe conducting their own sacrifice: a champion, chosen from amongst the most able warriors, to act as intercessor between their world and ‘Un’, the mystical otherworld wherein dwells a terrible being, the afaugh, whom they need to prevent entering our world. The champion is subjected to the mooted ‘threefold death’ evidenced from various bog bodies discovered in northern Europe – strangulation, stabbing and drowning (it should be emphasised at this point that this is a reasonable conjecture for how various victims met their end, but it is by no means universally accepted), and the villagers depart, confident that they have foiled the afaugh’s plan of bringing its hunger into our world.
All this sets the scene in the most folk horror way imaginable. From here we move smoothly into what seems to be fairly standard horror thriller fare as we become embroiled in the terrible events surrounding a school field trip led by Nathan Brookes, which leads to three pupils vanishing. Shattered by his experience, Nathan retires from teaching and takes up a job as far away as possible, until another decade passes and a body is found in the location of the children’s disappearance. And it is at this point that the two narrative threads collide, as the body is that of the sacrificed warrior from thousands of years earlier.