Devils, pagan gods, cuckoldry: the Ooser represents many things to many people. How did you come across this object, and what drew you to spin it into this story?
I’ve always taken an interest in British, and especially local, folklore. One of my favourite TV shows as a teenager was Robin of Sherwood (on DVD, since it was slightly before my time), because my family comes from a village whose church is said to have been where Maid Marian married Robin Hood. The folklore of that region fascinates me, and has encouraged me to find similar myths closer to home.
One of my favourites from the south-west of England is the saying that if a hare runs down a village street, a fire will break out nearby. There are accounts of such hares turning back into women afterwards. Another favourite is the origin of the phrase “hag-ridden”—that there’s a hag who comes and sits on your chest at night and torments you with evil dreams.
When I came across the Ooser, the mystery of its disappearance immediately drew me in. Although a replica is on display in Dorchester, nothing quite comes close to the grainy black-and-white photos we have of the original. Of course, British cinema is rich with folk horror, from The Wicker Man right up to The Witch, so in hindsight it’s no surprise I went in that direction with the Ooser. Considering it used to be worn as a punishment, it made sense to me that it would be a story about guilt and penance, although it was a while before I settled on the 1930s setting.
Dot’s a writer who seems to struggle with finding value in her own stories vs. collecting firsthand accounts of wartime or folk practices. There’s a lot of pressure to get the research right in order to enhance a fictional work, but is the reverse true as well? What service does fiction provide for fact?
A considerable amount of contemporary writing about WWI was by women—Vera Brittain and Mary Ward are two writers that come to mind—and it’s interesting to consider the responsibility that they must have felt towards the loved ones they’d lost, to tell their stories in a way that was both authentic and uplifting (not always compatible traits where war’s concerned). I was struck especially by Brittain’s choice to include extracts of her late fiancé’s poetry in her beautiful memoir, Testament of Youth. Roland Leighton is posthumously famous because of that decision (flowers are left at his grave in Louvencourt), and yet he had no say in whether to share his work, or the contents of his letters, with the public.
I think in Dot’s case, she’s mostly concerned with imposing some kind of structural and artistic license upon material which is often ugly and disordered by nature. Folklore is generally not intended to be written down and catalogued, and in that way she misunderstands it, in the same way she misunderstands her responsibility towards her cousin, John, and all the men who trust her with their stories after the war. As with Testament of Youth, fictionalisation can provide context, especially emotional context or closure—by writing about him from her perspective, Brittain was able to give her fiancé’s life and death some higher meaning—but I think “We, the Folk” draws the line between fictionalisation that serves fact and fictionalisation that serves the author. Dot, in using such material, was very much thinking of her own ambitions as a writer in what would have been a crowded war-memoir market.
Edith seems to be at the center of events even though she isn’t the main character. She knows, warns, and then watches . . . is she the antagonist here, or one of many?
You can’t have folk horror without the creepy locals! The horror of the Ooser comes from without, so it was important to me to have a character who could fulfil that role from within the community of Crewkerne, who could watch Dot’s downfall at the end and give the reader a lingering, eerie sense of complicity.
I thought she would also make a great counterpoint for Dot—they are both chased down and chastised by the Ooser because of their transgressions. Those transgressions, while opportunistic, are ultimately their attempts to survive and thrive as women of two different classes, and I’ve always found that a compelling theme. I like writing about difficult, sometimes unpleasant characters, and “We, the Folk” is no different.
Dot’s response to creeping fear and dread, in the end, is to write. How much of her process is your process?
Not much! (For the record, I’m answering this during the coronavirus lockdown in the UK, where there’s plenty of fear and dread and very little writing getting done.) However, I do identify with the fact that what prompted her to start writing something new was a change of scenery; nature. At one point, she says it’s good to get away and breathe unfamiliar air, to learn what it’s like to be you, and I find I write best after a walk where I can kind of forget myself.
She didn’t always pick up a pen in the last scene. That image came very late in the drafting process. But it occurred to me that writers are nothing if not persistent, and at that point, Dot really, really wants to prove—to herself as well as the Ooser—that she’s changed.
What are can we look forward to next from you?
I have a contemporary ghost story called “Hearts in the Hard Ground” forthcoming in Tor.com! It’ll be available for free online and as an e-book in September.
Spread the word!