[This story was published November 2017 in Issue 12 of the Gramarye, the journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. Pick up a copy from here: store.chi.ac.uk/product-catalogue/sussex-centre-for-folklore/journals/gramarye-issue-12-e-book.]
A mysterious owl insignia, ominous rural landscapes, misty cobbled streets, creaky taverns, and irate sea-dogs baring warnings – recently published graphic novel The Eyrie ticks all the boxes for a classic ghost story which combines the rural uncanny with a thriller’s distinct sense of unease.
In this folk horror tale, Rebecca, a magazine photojournalist struggling under immense pressure from her editor, travels a long way from her home in the States when she visits the ancient county of Sussex.
Staying in her boss’s remote ‘Carfax’ cottage on the outskirts of Rye, Rebecca discovers an ancient lamp and heads into town, where she learns just how superstitious the locals can be.
Stumbling across a hidden tunnel underneath her cottage as well a secret vista cordoned off with police tape near the shoreline, a menacing figure begins to stalk Rebecca through the fields and towns of Sussex. From the night mists emerges an animalistic shape with glowing, eerily circular eyes, crouched behind a ghostly scarecrow.
Written by Thom Burgess and illustrated by Barney Bodoano, The Eyrie generates a mise en abyme, a fictional folklore within the novel’s wider narrative, a mythology which was inspired by the author’s visits to Rye and Hastings.
With the English Channel to the south, the forest to the north and marshes to the east and west, Sussex’s folklore emerges sea-soaked from the coastline and enchanted by the woodland’s fairy rings.
Shaped by the county’s landscape, Sussex’s legends feature phantom smugglers, horseshoes from the Land of Oak and Iron, haunted taverns – and it is from this phantastic heritage that The Eyrie weaves its own fictional yarns.
After recognising the face of a smuggler in an antique book, Rebecca begins to connect the local tales of ‘The Black Mantles’ or Brothers Bannick – inspired by the infamous eighteenth century Hawkhurst Gang – with a lamp and door found underneath the cottage. Both objects bare the mark of an ‘owler’; the afeared smuggling gang used hooting sounds to evade capture, they say. As Burgess’ tale progresses, the eyrie, a secret tunnel used by the contrabandists which eventually led to their gory end, begins to give up its secrets.
Through both its narrative and illustration, the graphic novel is highly successful in its depiction of a haunted landscape, generating an authentically atmospheric reimagining of rural East Sussex. Perhaps the novel’s greatest success is how truthful it remains to its ‘source material’ – the area’s cultural backdrop. In addition to interweaving coastal folklore which faithfully echoes the themes and concerns of traditional county lore, Burgess evokes its archaic dialect, referencing aggy-jaggers (sea mists). The cottage in which Rebecca stays – The Old Carfax – is named after an old word for crossroads, that liminal space favoured for dealings with the devil and burying suicides or criminals in tales of old.
It is interesting to see that The Eyrie, which follows the model of the classic horror tale of suspense and mystery, has been accompanied by the unconventional illustration of Bodoano. The elongated, skeletal figures inhabiting many of L.S. Lowry’s paintings are a clear influence on how Bodoano depicts characters – with bony fingers and swathes of straight hair hanging down, hunched over.
Etching in pen and ink, the artist creates a suitable misty landscape in a palate of black, white and grey. Bodoano – who has also illustrated stories by M.R. James, a clear literary influence on the creation of The Eyrie – tells the story through a series of panels which are mostly close-ups of faces, parts of buildings, or photography equipment. The decision to not depict Sussex via views of its wide, expansive landscapes serves to increase the reader’s sense of Rebecca’s claustrophobia.
The Eyrie is a distinctly cinematic graphic novel, both in terms of the pacing of Burgess’ writing and the German Expressionist feel of Bodoano’s illustration. A two-panel scene, for example, shows Rebecca glance through her car’s back window to reverse the vehicle towards a wooden scaffold in the distance, and as she looks forward to drive off, the ghostly silhouette of one of the ‘longmen’ manifests, hanging from the post. This reverse jump-scare references the horror film format whilst playing with the convention itself.
Following Burgess’ debut Malevolents: Click Click, which conjures the narrative framework of the classic ghost story within a modern setting, The Eyrie similarly takes the masters of the supernatural short story – Charles Dickens, E F Benson – as a starting influence for a tale in which the past comes back to haunt the present. A novel which explores the creation of local legends and the impact they can continue to have on communities, the author weaves a gripping tale about ghostly smugglers wreaking their revenge on those who would cross them. The novel is well constructed, drawing the reader into the its folk horror ambiance through the compelling creation of setting. However, it effectively creates an unsettling feeling of anxiety even before the terrible hidden secrets of the landscape are revealed. The true horror of The Eyrie lurks in the shadows, behind masks, in corrupted picture files, crouched in the mist and slowly manifesting, effectively leading up to the great unveiling of the monsters themselves.
Burgess’ narrative builds up a sense of tension, as well as an aura of unreliability. Rebecca is an unstable narrator – immensely under pressure, she is paranoid, irritable, isolated and claustrophobic, and there are hints of past issues with drinking. By undermining the authority of its protagonist and suggesting links but ultimately allowing mystery to shroud details of the narrative, The Eyrie uses ambiguity to create a classical but artfully constructed horror story. ‘It’s not real’, Rebecca cries to herself as the book reaches its conclusion, ‘it can’t be real’. Or can it?