Film review: November

November is a 2017 film by the Estonian director Rainer Sarnet, based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk. The film is notable – and of interest to me – for its portrayal of Estonian folklore. It has been classified (wrongly, in my view) as folk horror, a genre that has developed in the Anglo-American world and has limited relevance to Baltic cinema. There is nothing in the film that an Anglo-American audience would recognise as horror. The best description for the film’s style is, instead, ‘magical realism’, because the viewer is plunged into a world where everything in Estonian folklore is viscerally real and, indeed, just a part of life. Peasants really can assemble their farm implements into a kratt, animated by a pact with the devil; the dead really do return and feast with the living on All Souls’ night; people really can transform themselves into wolves; the devil is a grotesque, clown-like trickster.

Films based on folklore are always faced with a dilemma; to what extent will the film suggest that everything in folklore is real? At the two extremes are folk horror (where folklore is often a motive for extreme and horrific human behaviours rather than corresponding to any preternatural reality) and magical realism, where everything in folklore is real. In the middle hover those films that try to create some doubt in the viewer’s mind about the reality or unreality of preternatural beings. November works so well because it is firmly in the magical realist genre; there is no ambiguity. This world is real. And this, indeed, reflects the feel of Estonian folktales, which rarely present the preternatural in ambiguous terms. If you go into the sauna at the wrong time, you might well be flayed alive by murderous sauna-spirits (although the sauna, interestingly, makes only a passing appearance in November).

In addition to the film’s unabashed magical realism, something else I appreciate about November is the avoidance of a paganism/Christianity dichotomy. Such a dichotomy is a frequent trope of the folk horror tradition, precisely because that genre is grounded in Anglo-American cinema and therefore in a culture where such a distinction has been consciously constructed, with folklore stereotypically interpreted as ‘pagan relics’. In Estonia, by contrast, scholarship on folk religion has tended to approach it as a form of popular Christianity with local characteristics; Estonia was, after all, formally Christianised much earlier than its Baltic neighbours, in the early 13th century. And yet, as becomes clear over the course of the film, this popular religion is really neither Christianity nor paganism, but something else: a third, creole construction composed of elements of folklore and half-understood Christianity, itself like a kratt made of old tools and brought to a kind of life. There is a memorable scene where the entire congregation spits out the hosts they have received at Holy Communion in order to make holy bullets, and by the end of the film the priest’s housekeeper has bewitched him with the help of a local witch, leading the old man about on a lead in order to perform his sacred duties. But, crucially, those duties are still considered necessary. The horror lies not in paganism overtaking Christianity; rather, the colonial Christianity imposed on the Estonians is a weak, feeble thing unequal to the task of holding the people’s hearts and minds, so they turn it to their own wills.

November is set at an unspecified date in the first half of the 19th century – a significant period, since Estonia’s peasants had already been freed from serfdom but remained under the rule of a German Lutheran aristocracy who were given a significant degree of autonomy within the Russian Empire. There are hints in the film of a coming Estonian national revival, but for now the peasants remain in a degraded state; cowed by yet also rebellious against the decadent aristocracy, who are taken for fools by their own servants and tenants.

Clearly, there are certain themes of the film that hark back to a shamanistic Finnic past, such as Liina’s real or imagined transformation into a wolf in some sort of trance state; but these are not overplayed as ‘pagan survivals’, perhaps because the film is told from the perspective of peasants who are unaware of the origins of any of their customs – they are just things they do, just things that happen. The film avoids self-consciousness to an impressive degree; most importantly, it offers a plausible experience of the world-view of a 19th-century Estonian peasant – indeed, perhaps one that is more plausible than anything a purely realist film could offer.


Review: Ten Cathedral Ghosts by Nicholas Orme

Nicholas Orme, Ten Cathedral Ghosts (Wick: Brown Dog Books, 2022), 134pp.

The antiquarian ghost stories of M. R. James have many imitators, to the point where the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ might be said to be a sub-genre of ghost stories (or supernatural stories) themselves at this point. The antiquarian ghost story is ostensibly so called because its protagonist is often an antiquary or other academic knowledgeable about the past, or because the story features some sort of antiquarian investigation or discovery. But James was also an antiquary himself, and thus a strict interpretation of the antiquarian ghost story might require that its writer should be an antiquary as well, because antiquarian ghost stories are a genre of supernatural tale that emerges from the work of the historian, the archivist, or the archaeologist. It is certainly the case that many ghost stories with antiquarian themes attempted by writers with no experience of actually working with the remains of the past often miss the mark and feel like ill-judged mimicry.

Nicholas Orme is among the most eminent historians of medieval Britain alive today, and therefore his slim volume of ghost stories certainly fits that strictest definition of the antiquarian ghost story. Orme knows of what he writes. The conceit of the collection is that they are all set in the same place – the cathedral and cathedral close of the fictional cathedral city of Acester – and recounted by Orme as both a narrator and, in some cases, a participant in the story as the cathedral’s historian. Orme is, of course, the historian of a real cathedral: Exeter Cathedral, on which he wrote a book in 2009 to celebrate its millennium. Whether Acester is a thinly-disguised Exeter is for the reader to decide.

Each of Orme’s stories is capable of standing alone, but they are also linked together by the same location and some of the same characters, such as the vague, hapless and trendy Dean and the caustic, old-fashioned yet spiritually astute Canon Caliver. Having lived for years in the equivalent of a cathedral close myself (The College at Ely), I can say that Orme’s portrait of life in the curtilage of a great cathedral rings true – and the very idea of setting a book in a fictional cathedral close is, of course, a literary nod to the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope.

As for the ghosts themselves, the first one we encounter (in ‘It Came Upon The Midnight Clear’) is a rather terrifying and malevolent poltergeist-like being that tries to engineer Canon Caliver’s death. The remaining ghosts are rather less threatening than this, even if the grinning skeleton of ‘The Ace of Hearts’ is rather unsettling; and some, like the Victorian lady of ‘Through A Glass, Darkly’, are positively benevolent. Perhaps my favourite trope of the antiquarian ghost story is the role of old documents in uncovering the story, giving insight into the work of the historian; and Orme does not disappoint. Archival work plays a role in ‘The Second Echo’, while an obscure antiquarian volume sets things going in ‘On Matthew’s Day at E’en’. A medieval book is at the centre of ‘The Devil’s Epiphany’, even if it has now been emptied of its sinister import. The restoration of an ancient artefact is at the centre of ‘The Limping Imp’, perhaps the strongest story in the collection which manages to be comic and menacing in equal parts.

Ghost stories written by antiquaries – as opposed to mere ‘antiquarian ghost stories’ in the sense of fitting a Jamesesque genre – are always interesting, speaking as they do to the sometimes unnerving experience of immersing oneself in the past and its documents or relics, day after day. The past has a tendency to become more real than the present; the dead seemingly assert themselves, clamouring for recognition. Furthermore, anyone who spends enough time in an archive is sure to encounter some strange things along the way – peculiar stories, enigmatic yet suggestive inscriptions, unsettling uses of language. All of these are fuel to an imagination already predisposed to detect the uncanny.

Nicholas Orme’s Ten Cathedral Ghosts are well-crafted stories in the tradition of M. R. James’s ‘pleasing terror’, moving from the comfortable, the banal and the familiar into altogether more unsettling realms. They work well together as an ensemble, and we are left with an impression of the community of the cathedral close, both living and dead, which adds another layer of depth and texture to the stories. A book of ghost stories by a historian is always a treat – for when it comes to the power of the undead past to intrude into the present, historians know whereof they speak.


Short story published in Ghosts & Scholars

© Corinium Museum

My short ghost story ‘To The Unclean Spirits’ was published recently in volume 43 of the supernatural fiction magazine Ghosts & Scholars, guest-edited by Helen Grant. Set on Hadrian’s Wall, the story features a sinister Roman altar, some illicit archaeology, and the discovery that some beings honoured in Roman Britain are just waiting for a little attention to awake and seek refreshment…


Article published in British Catholic History: ‘Surveying a Field Come of Age’

My review article ‘Surveying a Field Come of Age’ has just been published in the journal British Catholic History. The book is a review of Robert E. Scully and Angela Ellis’s Companion to Catholicism and Recusancy in Britain and Ireland, but also goes beyond that to take stock of the historiography of early modern British Catholicism and the field’s recent evolution. The appearance of summative companions like Scully and Ellis’s is an indication that the field is approaching, or has attained, maturity and is seeking ways to define its identity and communicate it to scholars in other disciplines as well as to the wider public.


Katharine Briggs Award 2022

This evening the Folklore Society hosted the Katharine Briggs Lecture and Katharine Briggs Award at Conway Hall in London, where the judges pick the best book about folklore published in Britain and Ireland in 2021-2 from a shortlist of seven. That shortlist included my book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic.

This year’s Katharine Briggs Lecture was given by Katherine Langrish, entitled ‘Fenrir’s Fetter and the Power of Stories’. Afterwards, Folklore Society President Prof. Owen Davies read out the judges’ comments on the seven shortlisted books. The judges described Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic as:

A thoughtfully curated collection on a hitherto little-covered topic, amounting to an impressive academic study. It is a beautiful example of how scholarship–expert, dedicated and precise scholarship–speaks to bigger historical and geo-political themes.

The runners up for the prize included Simon Young’s The Boggart, a book for which I wrote the index.

This year’s winner was Prof. Marina Montesano with her book Folklore, Magic and Witchcraft: Cultural Exchanges from the Twelfth to Eighteenth Century.

This was the third time one of my books has been shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Award, having been shortlisted for Peterborough Folklore in 2018 and Suffolk Fairylore in 2019. My book Magic in Merlin’s Realm also featured in the display at this year’s Katharine Briggs Award, as it was one of the books submitted but not shortlisted.

As always, it was wonderful to meet fellow members of the Folklore Society in person!