Thom Burgess’s latest graphic novel and his third supernatural tale of horror Hallows Fell follows businessman Simon as he travels through the Kent countryside to reach his fiancée’s family party.
Lost in the ancient woodland, he takes a flower from a memorial to placate wife-to-be Margi and is met by a veiled woman, whose white flowing dress, he slowly realises, is covered in blood.
Her presence, which follows him down country lane, in hitchhiked lorries, and to his hotel bed, grows more and more unsettling, and Simon – who the strange woman speaks of as her ‘beloved’ – slowly loses his mind with fright and desperation to get home to Margi.
Eventually Simon meets that horror staple, a local in the know who reveals the story of ‘the Graum’. This hateful old hag’s wickedness resulted in violent retaliation from the nearby villagers. The Graum, after being immolated within her cottage located at Hallows Fell, naturally returns to wreck bloody havoc on those responsible for her brutal demise, demanding a husband a year to ‘feed on’ in return for the villagers’ peace.
The story twists and turns, and, without revealing the end, ties in many of the established themes and plot points introduced throughout Simon’s Kentish journey to create a satisfying and chilling conclusion.
As a horror story, it is successfully eerie and creates a menacing atmosphere, and several of the illustrations by Canadian artist Izzy Stanic haunt the mind’s eye after finishing the novel. In particular, the woman – the unearthly, wraithish bride-to-be – is genuinely unsettling, with piercing eyes, a mouth with far too many teeth, and a number of old rhyming songs about October weddings at her disposal.
Fittingly for any ghostly tale, Hallows Fell draws on the themes and ambience of the autumnal period, orientated around the Kentish village’s All Hallow’s Eve tradition.
Samhain, the Celtic new year, is a time when the mother goddess of ancient lore is now in her Crone phase, while the god lays deep within the underworld. Hallows Fell evokes these leitmotifs throughout its story, while reimagining the old rumours of human sacrifice supposedly held to ensure a survivable winter: the king, it was said, must give himself over for the good of the harsh community and their harsher environment.
Narrative is very much informed by the landscape in Hallows Fell, a concept which the author continually returns to within his graphic novels.
The themes and imagery of folklore connected to location recur throughout Burgess’s oeuvre, from the ghostly lore of his Malevolents: ‘Click Click’ (2014) to the strange Sussex smuggling spirits haunting the pages of The Eyrie (2017).
As with The Eyrie, Hallows Fell draws on the ‘real’ traditions and superstitions of a particular English site – this time Blue Bell Hill in Kent. This, the author explains, is a location which has always captured his imagination; an area which ‘has become notorious for a string of particularly bizarre ghost stories’ (42). The Blue Bell Hill road, in particular, is a site with many reported hauntings.
Drivers have picked up hitchhiking girls, only to find them disappear from the back seat, and have reported accidents with women who subsequently vanish, along with any trace of blood. Angry old women are said to ‘beat’ cars with sticks before disappearing, and figures in Edwardian dress have been sighted running along roads. In the 1960s, a car accident resulted in the deaths of several young people along the road, one of whom was to be married. Ghostly girls and withered hags, deaths of would-be-weds, figures in antiquated clothing stalking the roadside: the connections between Kent’s folklore traditions and Burgess’s fictional folktale are clear.
This collision between the violence of ancient traditions and the unsuspecting fish-out-of-water character of the modern era is a theme seen in classic folk horror examples such as The Wicker Man, and seems to be partly inspired by Blue Bell Hill’s liminal position between leylines and the A229: ‘it’s a strange ‘borderland’ where such ancient land is set against such fast paced modernity’ (42), says Burgess.
There are many correlations between Burgess’s tale and folk horror, beyond the narrative reflection with the genre’s iconic cinematic offering from 1973.
In particular, they both showcase a belief system skewed by fear and otherworldliness. Most importantly, perhaps, the countryside remembers the violence of its past, and demands a confrontation with this – in Hallows Fell’s case, the looming presence of the cursed Graum’s death place is marked with a pile of rocks, depicting the hag’s crooked face.
Rurality is central to the narrative, themes, and aesthetic of the story, an uncanny rootedness which is well reflected in the shadowy grayscale illustrations by Stanic. The artist’s monochrome depictions of the wooded landscape of Hallows Fell are particularly evocative, with sketchy depictions of trees and paths clouded in fog. Shot through with moonlight, the whites of eyes and pale, panicked faces are emphasised by a chiaroscuro effect.
Recognisable items imbued with folkloric connections echo through the pages, such as the bluebells populating Hallows Fell, which are the ‘something blue’ at a particular doomed woman’s wedding, and whose poisonous petals cling to Simon’s person as he struggles to escape the Graum. The strange, uncanny mysticism of wedding traditions are also played on, not only through the ghostly woman’s unsettling desire to ‘marry’ the protagonist, but also in the novel’s climax – till death do they part?
Due to the comparatively short length of the graphic novel, Simon’s character is fleshed out by short lines of dialogue. A liar and cheat, Simon is a personality who is difficult to root for until we begin to feel his fear at the hands of the decaying bridal Graum. Perhaps the two deserve each other – ‘a husband for her cold bed’ indeed.