The weirdest ‘children’s books’ ever

The novel captured the imagination of author Edward Parnell, whose autobiographical journey around places associated with British folklore, Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country, was published in 2019. “For me, it was first of all the setting: this claustrophobic Welsh valley, seemingly almost cut off from the rest of the world – when I visited the actual place Garner based it on, it felt a little like coming home because he’d rendered the real so wonderfully on the page,” Parnell tells BBC Culture. He was also drawn to Garner’s portrayal of adolescence, “and add in the seamless way he ties in folklore and the stories from the Mabinogion with this sense that you can’t really escape your past or the confines of your present, then for me it seems pretty close to perfection.”

After winning the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian award for children’s fiction, The Owl Service was soon adapted by Garner himself into an eight-part series by Granada Television (part of ITV), which was the network’s first major series to be shot entirely on film, in colour and on location. With its strong central performances, striking cinematography and production design it has lost none of its power. Its avant-garde animated title sequence – featuring a gentle harp interrupted by a roaring motorbike exhaust and the sound of talons tearing paper – sets the surreal tone, and images such as a flash of Alison’s face tattooed with the floral plate design are arresting and unnerving. The series also exacerbates the simmering jealousies, class tension and sensuality of the novel – these are teenagers grappling with emotions too adult for them to yet comprehend.

As the writer Kim Newman points out in his essay accompanying a new Blu-ray restoration: “It’s unthinkable that something as complex, ambiguous, difficult and strange as The Owl Service could be broadcast on British television in a prime-time slot these days – let alone on ITV1 as a children’s programme.” Indeed, with its heady mix of mythical beauty and terror, The Owl Service has now been canonised as a “folk horror” classic as well as a memorable children’s programme, most recently by the 2021 documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which dissects the genre. Ritual sacrifices, demons of the past reawakening and the unspoiled countryside hiding dark secrets are all signifiers of folk horror.

A folk horror renaissance

The term “folk horror” is a relatively recent one; while it was used by journalist Rod Cooper in 1970 in his review of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, it was popularised by Mark Gatiss in his 2010 BBC Four series, A History of Horror. Much like Garner’s writing, folk horror is rather difficult to characterise. As Roger Luckhurst writes in his 2021 book, Gothic, “[folk horror] has proven to have very flexible boundaries, incorporating music and half-remembered children’s television shows as easily as films and horror novels.” The key texts are usually considered to be the “unholy trinity” of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973), all made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, while they encompass the most well-known early examples of the genre, The Owl Service predates all three. While Garner himself resists any labelling of his writing, its unnerving rural weirdness, reverence for nature, disdain for rigid class structure and sense of the past haunting the present arguably place it at the centre of the folk horror tradition.

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