Reading 1959: Cider With Rosie and unexpected folk horror

The cover of the 1973 edition of Cider With Rosie

The first moment when it occurred to me that I might have the wrong idea about Laurie Lee’s autobiographical novel of life in rural Gloucestershire between the wars was a casual, almost approving mention of incest.

It is thrown into a run-through of various village characters:

John-Jack spent his time by the Bulls Cross signpost staring gloomily into Wales. Silent, savage, with a Russian look, he lived with his sister Nancy, who had borne him over the course of years five children of remarkable beauty.

Before I get to the murder, drowning, haunting, near-death experiences and rape, let me set out what I expected from this book: The Darling Buds of May, I think. Early evening ITV, yellow filters and the gentle romance of rural life.

Every edition I’ve ever encountered, including the hundred or so dusty copies in the store cupboard at my secondary school, has a cover design signalling that kind of lightness. Or, at least at first glance; there is, now I know to look for it, something sinister in Roger Coleman’s illustration for the early 1970s Penguin edition I read – a touch of Don’t Torture a Duckling, the uncanny gaze of a child too knowing.

I didn’t actually think of folk horror until almost half way through the book and a chapter entitled ‘Public Death, Private Murder’. In it, Lee tells the story of a traveller, a local boy made good, who returns to the village for Christmas. Flashing his money, boasting and insulting the locals, he makes himself the target for a gang which beats him, steals his wallet, and leaves him to die in a snowdrift. The horror – the stuff that wicker men are made of – comes in the reaction of the villagers:

[The] young men who gathered in that winter ambush continued to live among us. I saw them often about the village: simple jokers, hard-working, mild – the solid heads of families. They were not treated as outcasts, nor did they appear to live under any special strain. They belonged to the village and the village looked after them.

The very next vignette concerns Miss Flynn, a promiscuous young woman driven half-mad by the torturing presence of the ‘sick spirit’ of her late mother. She is found dead and naked in a pond by the milkman, having apparently drowned herself. Lee’s point is that death is part of village life, but this chapter approaches the mood of Wisconsin Death Trip at points:

The wet winter days seemed at times unending, and quite often they led to self-slaughter. Girls jumped down wells, young men cut their veins, spinsters locked themselves up and starved.

Our narrator himself is intimate with death. He dies as a baby, and comes close again later in life, surviving a harrowing illness that “put a stain of darkness upon my brow and opened a sinister door in my brain, a door through which I am regularly visited by messengers whose words just escape me, by glimpses of worlds I can never quite grasp”.

To balance death, of course, there is sex, but that too has the Summerisle look about it, enough to make Edward Woodward spit:

Our village was no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly… Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers…. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in the local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.

As it nears it conclusion, with the boy Laurie in the grip of adolescence, thrusting away at the fertile earth, we are given a final, sustained moment of suspenseful horror straight out of The Blood on Satan’s Claw: the plotting and attempted execution of the gang rape of a demonstratively Christian girl. In the exploitation film version of this story, the rape would be depicted in grim detail, but here the girl brushes away her would be assailants who are left feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

Cider with Rosie isn’t folk horror because it isn’t a horror story, but, still, I wonder what Ben Wheatley might do with it all. I’d especially like to see his handling of the two-headed talking sheep that appears during thunderstorms.

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