SOME very English folk horror for your post-Christmas delight? Hannah Eaton’s Blackwood was one of Graphic Content’s Graphic Novels of the year. It’s the beautifully drawn story of two suspiciously similar murders decades apart in a small, overlooked corner of the country.

Set in the fictional town of Blackwood, Eaton’s story takes in eerie folk traditions and rumours of witchcraft, and a local peer with a menagerie and Irish servants, but also deals with issues of insularity, class and post-traumatic stress disorder that feel very much of the moment.

Here, Eaton talks about her book, the real-life murders that inspired it, family history, Brexit, her love of The Wicker Man, the end of multiculturalism and the “obfuscating woo woo” of Agatha Christie.

HeraldScotland:

Hannah, to start with, the detail in every panel of every page of Blackwood is incredible. How long did it take you to draw?

Thank you. I worked on it on and off for six years. For most of that time I worked full-time or part-time in schools and in residential childcare, with a couple of months off here and there. I lost nearly all my paid work as soon as the pandemic hit, but finally I had enough time to finish the book. I am grateful to myself of six years ago for deciding to do the whole thing in pencil as well, due to the fact that if you do a terrible drawing you can rub the terrible bit out and not have to start again!

There’s a similar complexity to the story. How did the idea begin?

A dream. I’ve dreamed ever since I was a child about being pursued by various cults, and this one was about a small town in rural England which was run by a sinister guild of town elders – a Rotary Club of nightmares – who wanted to arrest and kill me. There was a nice pastoral bit as well where people were tying baby shoes to an apple tree for a fertility ritual. I wrote the whole story structure after that, which took ages to work out, but the place – the town of Blackwood – came fully formed.

The murders in the book were inspired by the Meon Hill Witchcraft Murders of 1948. Can you tell us a little about them?

In Lower Quainton in Warwickshire, this elderly farm labourer called Charles Walton was bludgeoned to death and then stuck and marked with his own pitchfork and billhook, which was supposed to be a local practice to stop a witch from walking after their death. Robert Fabian, the famous Scotland Yard detective, went to investigate, but his team were thwarted by button-lipped locals, accounts of witchcraft, a xenophobic scapegoating of an Italian prisoner of war and rampant superstition.

My auntie used to live down the road from there in the 1990s and it was still very much a thing people whispered about, and they’d talk about Meon Hill in almost a 16th-century way. “Apparently, it’s where the witches hold their sabbats.”

It is quite a creepy place. There’s an Iron Age hill fort near a famously haunted stone circle, and for some reason the summit is nearly inaccessible – there are no footpaths or bridleways going up at all. I used to ask her about it, desperate for the truth of it to actually be magical and supernatural rather than just brutal and sad.

You were born in London and live in Brighton. Have you any experience of living in small-town England?

Oh, yes! I moved to a small town on the South Coast (inaccurately named ‘the jewel of Kent’) for five years when I got a job there in my twenties. I fell in love with the empty marsh landscape and the sea, but not with the facts that it was basically the cradle of UKIP and that there were two options for socialising: if you were skint, you could sit on a bench outside Aldi, and if you weren’t you could go to a sex party in the next village with Tory MPs.

Actually, if you were spiritually inclined, there was a weekly psychic evening for a pound, I went to that twice. There are loads of magicians and psychics in Kent – I worked in a care home once where my boss was very free with the fact that she was a reincarnated Assyro-Babylonian temple priestess who used to give me psychic messages from my dad and had a white tiger (“in spirit”) who sat under the table in the office and helped with staff appraisals.

It’s a book that travels from the 1950s to the present day. What level of research did you have to do even just for the visuals?

It was mostly a case of image searches for random ephemeral objects like 1950s ration books and biscuit boxes, for things which don’t exist anymore, like boiling coppers, and checking for dress details, skirt lengths … None of my historical characters are well-off or trendy, so would have had a lot of the same stuff for years. Peg still has the same chair 70 years later; although I do remember going down a rabbit hole of men’s suits for the 1950s detectives.

I’m more annoyed by the fact that graphic novels take much longer than a season at Primark to draw, so the clothes on the contemporary characters, who are supposed to exist in “the present”, look out of date already.

But I’ve got quite a photographic memory for visuals, so a lot of the interiors and things are just ones that I’ve seen on TV or books or in people’s houses and kept in the bank because they suit a particular character.

It’s a story also partly inspired by your own family history. How did you discover that history?

From when I was a tiny child I would ask my parents questions about their childhoods, and I always loved books and films set in the past. My best Christmas present was when I was about 10. My mum’s friend gave me a creepy old handbag with someone’s personal effects in it from 1944, and I used to read her diary over and over: “April 4th. Raid. Set hair.”

I was looking desperately for a good story, because she wasn’t that chatty. The most mysterious entry was: “Saw H. Felt sad.”

My parents both died before I was 22, but my mum’s father only died four years ago. He lived in the same small south Midlands town for 94 years, and he’s the one who told me about the local peer with the menagerie and the handsome young servants who had to ride on pigs, about the long-dead old maids and the ghosts. I don’t know much about my family history further back than that generation on either side, but his stories made up for that.

HeraldScotland:

It’s a book about how family history can shape our lives without our knowing. It reminded me of that Philip Larkin line: “man hands on misery to man …”

Hah, yeah. I “don’t have any kids, myself” …I love that you pointed that out, because to me that’s the emotional centre of Blackwood. I’m obsessed with the idea, from Hungarian psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok originally, I think, of the family crypt, the invisible casket of unspeakable events – abuse, betrayal, war – which is handed silently down through the generations, causing symptoms like post-traumatic distress in people who themselves have not experienced those traumatic events.

Gabor Mate talks about this kind of thing as well in his work on addiction and disease and cites his own origin story of having been born as the Nazis marched through his city.

I think expectations of gendered behaviour operate especially powerfully in this way. For instance, in my family, in my mother’s generation, both her parents hated their own mothers, and their two daughters grew up and each had one son who grew up to be a steady professional with three kids and one childless, non-conforming daughter with obvious “issues”… To be glib about something quite complex, obviously.

I won’t give any spoilers, but there’s a pretty big family crypt that echoes right the way through the book.

It is also about silence and the damage it can do.

Oh yes, definitely. I come from a place with a lot of silence in it … I think silence can be good for contemplation and creativity, to hear the birds and stuff, but silence between people where there should be words, or a silence around injustice, is awful.

In Blackwood, I try and make a point about, well, again about gendered silence in a way, about how fathers who fought in one war don’t talk about it to sons who fight in another … How the acceptability of war and of other forms of violence is shored up by the idea that it’s not masculine for men to talk about their feelings to each other, and how this leads to fear and desperation, to more violence; people feeling so alone with their pain.

It’s a vision of insularity. You’ve been working on it for the last four years. Has the national conversation about Brexit fed into the book?

Weirdly, the story in the book was pretty fully formed by 2014, and I’ve kind of sat and watched in horror as it has steadily looked less and less dystopian and more realistic! The town of Blackwood pretty much works as a straightforward stand-in for the UK; that insularity.

I think what fed the book was the political undercurrents and manipulations leading up to the Brexit referendum. I remember about 2010, when the Conservative coalition took over, there was suddenly this current in popular culture which seemed to replace the narrative of pluralism and multiculturalism which had been there for the previous 20 years or so, and which felt like the place I had lived and grown up in. It had to do with the way nostalgia, especially around the Second World War, can be co-opted to fuel toxic nationalism.

It was little things I kept noticing, a little visual language of bunting and Rosie the Riveter scarves and folksy music on adverts, and when you felt all cosy at the village fete they’d hit you with the notion of “Great British” so and so, or there’d be a little Union flag.

And from then it’s a short step to things like detaining immigrants and manipulating people through the tabloid press to believe that they’re disenfranchised because of other poor people rather than the wishes of billionaires.

HeraldScotland:

Of course, the book is also very good folk horror. What do you love about that genre?

Again, it’s about silence and secrets and mysteries, but blowing them open so you can see the fault lines … Kill List and Get Out! are brilliant contemporary examples of this.

Anything that calls itself folk horror has to have within it a sense of place, as an atmospheric way to explore the hauntedness or evil in a location or community, and that is always to do with people creating an enemy or an “other,” and separating them somehow. Cults and made-up ancient religions are a brilliant metaphor for this too.

Blackwood is a sort of murder mystery, and I always liked as a child the way Agatha Christie would use obfuscating woo-woo – scary old myths and seances, talismans and rituals – as red herrings or veiling devices to lead us away from the truth of the matter, that human beings can be really bad to each other. That’s really inspired me.

I actually think IT by Stephen King is an amazing example of folk horror: it’s about the evil at the heart of America, the creation of a haunted land – symbolised by this weird town of Derry, held to ransom by a child-eating clown – by acts of colonial and racialised murder. My favourite thing is the intersection between trauma and the supernatural.

There’s a brilliant radio and TV play called The Exorcism from 1972. You can watch it on YouTube – a middle-class dinner party in a bijou holiday cottage goes wrong when one of the women gets possessed by the ghost of its former tenant who starved to death in the 18th century. The ending is unrelenting and horrible, but it’s my favourite Christmas film!

You say The Wicker Man is the book’s urtext. When did you first encounter the movie and what did you respond to?

I turned on the telly once late at night when I was about 12 … Maybe 14, but I felt young… and can still remember that zip of static and pressure as the button rose and the picture formed as I lay back on a brown nylon carpet, and it was the shot where the islanders in their animal masks are coming over the brow of the cliff and the great wicker man is there, and everything is inexorable.

I immediately knew it was going to be my favourite film (and I didn’t even know yet that it was a musical), and that it was about the absolute evil of authoritarian power in some way. I’ve always found killing by a state, or for ideological or traditional motives, the single most terrifying thing.

What is brilliant about the Wicker Man, and loads of my favourite films, from Three Women to Carrie to Female Trouble, is that they can be really gleeful and hysterical and terrifying and deeply moral but in a completely skewed way, all at the same time.

Is there something about the British countryside that lends itself to folk horror in particular?

I think, yes. I know the English countryside better than the Scottish or Welsh, which are wilder and grander, and there is something intimate and creepy about the scale of it. It’s easy to get lost in, to turn the wrong way in a wood or take the wrong bridleway and end up on a farm which is deserted except for a couple of dead crows hanging over a sheep shed. And you know that it’s a country famous for its ghosts rather than its hospitality.

Do you believe in magic?

No. And I’m gutted that I don’t. I believe in the power of the symbolic and in a sort of mysticism on some level, I suppose, but not actual magic. And everybody in my family has seen a ghost except me … It’s not fair!

HeraldScotland:

Blackwood by Hannah Eaton is published by Myriad Editions, £18.99