Bone Harvest isn’t afraid to start at the beginning. Part one of James Brogden’s latest folk horror novel is entitled “prepare the ground”, and the cultivation metaphor – cycles of growth, reaping, ploughing-in and lying fallow – also dictates the author’s approach to his story.
From the vividly painted trenches of WW1 to a peaceful village allotment in 2020, Bone Harvest spans both time and space, with the use of flashbacks and dream-sequences mirroring the growing disorientation of Dennie, a tough-as-nails allotment tenant with early-onset dementia. Part of the joy of a novel like this is seeing how the writer marries the trappings of a 1920s folk horror cult with the modern world: I thought this was done particularly successfully, taking the mythology right up-to-date in its latter pages with a police interview video going viral for its eco-rant about over-consumption of the natural world.
The first protagonist of Bone Harvest is “the deserter”: we never find out his real name, although he later calls himself Everett. He inhabits a nightmarish world somewhere near the Western Front, full of shelling, decay, and screaming. It’s a refreshingly different place to start a story about a rural English cult, and Brogden makes the most of all the horror of this setting (I particularly liked the image of the shell-crater in which rats “cruis[ed] the crater’s waters like miniature destroyers, graceful in their element”). We’re introduced to the trench mythology of the “Grey Brigade” – a battalion of deserters surviving in no-mans-land by eating the flesh of the dying or recently dead – and one of their members who seems impervious to wounds, telling Everett that he’s favoured by Moccus, a boar god worshipped in the Shropshire hills. Everett leaves the trenches, but can never really leave their horrors behind, as Brogden is careful to thread Everett’s wartime experiences throughout his narration. A neat explanation is offered for why a (mostly) benign god of the hills and woods would come to demand human sacrifice, rather than its usual ritually slaughtered swine: it’s Everett’s own taste for human flesh which infuses the body of the resurrected god.
If I had one criticism of Bone Harvest’s framing, it’s that this opening section – particularly Everett’s time amongst the Farrow – seemed to drag a little. Anyone reading the cover copy will be expecting to meet Dennie, who’s such a likeable and interesting protagonist, and it’s partly as a result of these expectations that I felt Brogden had a tough job making Everett relatable. Although given really interesting flashes of interiority – “he’d never begged for anything as far as he could remember; begging was simply an invitation to be kicked in the face” – I found it hard to invest in him as a protagonist/antagonist, despite the freshness of his cannibalistic, shell-shocked backstory. I felt we spent a little too much time with Everett; he (and his lover/cult leader Ardwyn) were handed the narrative baton from time to time during the novel’s ‘main story’ as well. Sometimes, unfortunately, I felt this created scenes in which the pair explained (in gloating dialogue) something the reader could easily intuit from the preceding scene.
My feelings on this, however, were undoubtedly coloured by just how vivid and emotionally compelling Dennie was as the novel’s main narrator. When we first meet her, she’s sleeping in her shed with her enormous dog Viggo (who is, pleasingly, a character in his own right) and listening for the “thieving shitbags” who’ve been breaking into the allotments at night. The reader warms to her practicality and resilience straight away, but there’s a heartbreaking sting: sleeping in her shed is also easier than sleeping in her own house, “wandering around like a madwoman, convinced that she’d heard something in her children’s bedrooms, or the kitchen, or the study, or any one of a dozen other places”. There’s a particular kind of echo to her (grown-up) children’s empty rooms which unsettles Dennie, and it’s a credit to Brogden that he deals as well with this sort of fine emotional brushwork as with the trenches of WW1 or the frenzied ritual sacrifice/orgies of Moccus. All the characters at Briar Hill allotments are well delineated and recognisable, which makes the intrusion of the horror elements (with the arrival of the outsiders) particularly unsettling: Everett and Ardwyn are adept at manipulating people and discrediting Dennie, and her vulnerability grows in the mind of the reader as the novel progresses.
Fittingly for a folk-horror writer, Brogden excels at his depiction of place, and also his control of narrative time through the changing seasons. For a large part of my childhood I lived in a small hamlet tucked away in the Shropshire hills, and the depiction of that countryside really resonated with me: Church Stretton backed by “a succession of grey slopes looming out of the drizzle like waves of a cheerless sea”, Roman ruins and Celtic hill-tribes, villages only accessible through gates or called ludicrous things like “The Bog”. The Staffordshire village where Dennie lives was also instantly familiar, with its gently deteriorating market-town feel, and a pleasingly diverse cast of characters up-ending some of the subconscious expectations of folk-horror. This is a place aware of ‘county lines’ drug dealing; where Brexit looms; but it’s also a place where April comes “in a tumbling cloud of blossom and gauzy sunlight” and on the allotments, bean poles and netting are going up and tomatoes are being planted out. This is a very rich book for anyone who’s ever fantasised about owning an allotment, but Brogden manages to neatly side-step the danger of making any of these portions the least bit twee.
There’s a lot of very compellingly drawn horror underpinning Bone Harvest’s narrative, not all of it relating to Everett’s plot to draw the village into a new cult of Moccus. I was particularly interested in the side-plot surrounding Dennie’s friend Sarah – imprisoned for killing her husband and burying him on the allotments – with its very nuanced take on domestic violence and the choices made by bystanders. Sarah stalks Dennie’s memories and eventually her waking life; while I was unconvinced by the addition of a childhood doll which seemed to confer psychic abilities – Dennie was already enough of a complex/unreliable narrator – Dennie’s involvement in Sarah’s tragedy remained a compelling mystery throughout. Brodgen also cleverly subverts reader expectations of an all-powerful warrior god: his Moccus is ancient and frail, reminiscent both of the horrific senescence of the attic-people in Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, and the sense of betrayal felt by Dennie (and other viewpoint characters) when confronted with sickness and the ravages of time. This body horror is also echoed in the “other” of the Recklings, Moccus’s forest children. While there’s certainly a place to interrogate folk horror’s frequent location of the monstrous in the deformities resulting from “tainted seed”, Bone Harvest gives this idea some nuance in Sus, a young woman “not entirely human”, who certainly has both intelligence and agency. Towards the end of the novel, she bands together with one of Moccus’s newest adherents in a glimpse of what that cult’s future might have looked like: perhaps an overcoming of othering.
Fans of folk horror and the rural gothic will find a lot to love in Bone Harvest, and the WW1 survival cannibalism introduction really does deserve a novel in itself. Brogden gives us a sweeping narrative which frequently passes the baton between different point of view characters, and it’s testament to his skill that this is deftly done, even if I’d have preferred less time with Everett and Ardwyn once the necessary backstory had been shaded in. The world he paints is cyclical – in tune with the seasons – and it’s no surprise that the idea of no-mans-land (and the consumption of flesh as sacred and profane) comes up again and again, addressing the growing circles of insiders and outsiders, and Dennie’s own heartbreaking positioning between independence and vulnerability. She’s an unforgettable narrator: and no, the dog doesn’t die.
Bone Harvest by James Brogden is published by Titan Books.
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