Water Shall Refuse Them
By Lucie McKnight Hardy
A Book Review by Tony Jones
A grieving family visit a remote Welsh village in the sweltering summer of 1976
‘Folk Horror’ can be notoriously difficult to classify or pin down and aspects of this sub-genre can appear in many works you care to classify broadly as ‘horror’. In modern cinematic history, three classic films Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) are widely agreed as the three Folk Horror benchmarks, however, when it comes to literature it is not so clear cut. Ask fifty people for three ‘classic’ Folk Horror novels, and you will get a lot of very different responses and arguments over the respective selections. Perhaps a few will mention recent stuff like Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney or Adam Nevill’s House of Small Shadows, or dig further back into the classics by Robert Aikman, Algernon Blackwood, MR James or the legendary children’s writer Alan Garner. Others reference Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, however, you could argue the film version, which has a radically different second half than the book, has more elements of Folk Horror than the original. Ultimately there will be much disagreement and I’m no different in that I would also struggle to list a definitive top three.
It’s generally accepted that Folk Horror involves a return to the ‘old ways’ or contains elements which can predate or contradict Christianity, often with pagan traditions or rituals. It does not necessarily have to be anti-Christian or Satanic, although the demonic is often involved. The settings are often remote villages, locations that have not changed with the times, and stories which can feature stone circles, weird relationships with nature, sacrifices, witchcraft, or bastardised versions of Christianity. If your crops fail; perhaps there is an obscure deity to pray to for help which is not necessarily a god of the Bible?
Ari Aster’s film Midsommar has had the internet buzzing about Folk Horror once again, however, if you want to read something which dances around the subject (not the maypole), I wholeheartedly recommend Lucie McKnight Hardy’s debut novel Water Shall Refuse Them. The story was originally written as part of an MA creative writing course and has since been picked up by the small press Dead Ink. Like many of the novels which get branded Folk Horror, this is one of those tales which features a few of the crucial elements, but it as just as much a coming-of-age story as anything else. You might even read it and not even give Folk Horror a second thought, and there is nothing wrong with that either.
The novel is narrated entirely in the first person, by sixteen-year-old Nif, whose family is in crisis after the recent death of a younger sibling with the story revealing the exact circumstances deliciously slowly. Nif was an outstanding lead character and as things develop, you’ll realise that she is a sneakily unreliable narrator who drops hints here and there, sometimes out of context, so follow her train-of-thought very carefully. In trying to recover from the death, Nif’s father takes the family on holiday to a remote cottage in a tiny Welsh village which does not take too kindly to outsiders and where the Welsh language is predominately spoken. As Nif’s mother has been struggling to cope, her father hopes the sprawling Welsh countryside will help her turn a corner.
Set in the roasting hot school summer holiday of 1976, the story has a vivid sense of time and place, but does not indulge in indicators which would obviously place the story in the mid-seventies, it is much subtler than that. Upon arrival they find the cottage to be a real dilapidated dump and this only worsens the fractured relationship between her parents and she is an expert at reading their moods. Due to the heatwave, there is no running water and Nif is tasked with filling buckets from a neighbour’s well in their garden. Due to her mother’s problem’s Nif becomes the unofficial primary carer for her little brother Lorry who has some special needs. The relationship between the two was very tender and is key in the complex family dynamics Lucie McKnight Hardy weaves together.
To say the village was cliquey is a major understatement and this is where elements of Folk Horror begin to filter into the story. Whilst Nif is out exploring she spots a group of men acting strangely outside of the local church and after she meets local boy Mally, she is told that the churchgoers are different from the normal villagers and this becomes obvious when they visit the local pub and are told a private meeting is taking place. Much of what goes on is kept very vague and this suits the story perfectly.
I would be very surprised if Water Shall Refuse Them is not influenced by the cult classic The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which if you haven’t read I cannot recommend highly enough. In that novel, teenager Frank kills animals and insects as part of a disturbed personal mantra which borders upon obsession, but it is a ritual he cannot ignore or exist without. Nif does something very similar in Water Shall Refuse Them connected to objects she has found or killed and has incantations she recites connected to it: “Robin’s egg, magpie’s egg, duckling bill and bone. Blackbird’s egg, feathers of wren….” Following these rituals make her feel safer and more comfortable in her own skin and once she arrives in the Welsh countryside her senses are heightened. She is not religious but calls her incantation ‘The Creed’ the name as the Christian prayer. She believes for every action there is a reaction to balance it, so when Lonny falls and cuts his knee, she scratches the other one.
The other main plotline is Nif’s developing friendship with village boy Mally. He may be local, but he is still an outsider. Mally and his mother are rejected, and to an extent persecuted, by the churchgoing community, which is also another part of the story which also has Folk Horror elements. Mally also has his own collection of objects, a haul perhaps even more impressive than Nif’s, but together they become more powerful. This novel was top heavy with ambiguity and symbolism, sometimes this lack of clarity in a novel can be frustrating, but this was not the case with Water Shall Refuse Them. Did the novel have any witchcraft at all? Much will depend on your interpretation of the book and how the female characters are treated, often with suspicion.
Folk Horror aside, the story worked well as a convincing family drama seen from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl who had nobody to talk to and lives, for the most part, inside her own head. The author astutely avoids all of the usual horror tropes and one of its strengths is the simple fact that it is very hard to classify at all, some readers might not even see it as horror. Ultimately I love books which are impossible to pigeon-hole, have fresh distinct voices and convincingly set themselves in the recent past. Water Shall Refuse Them does all of this with aplomb.