I was blown away by Lip Hook: A Tale of Rural Unease from writer David Hine and artist Mark Stafford and wanted to know more about this outstanding original folk horror graphic novel from Self Made Hero. Thankfully, it didn’t require the summoning of spirits or the ritual sacrifice of any virgins, but a simple email correspondence between the two. Enjoy the interview below and do think about picking up one of this year’s most enjoyable original graphic novels.
Olly MacNamee: Gentlemen, the influences on this book are from a very British type of sub-genre isn’t it? Some would call it “folk horror”. Is that a fair assumption to make?
David Hine: Yes, I grew up seeing things like Penda’s Fen and Robin Redbreast which were made for the BBC’s Play for Today, and the Christmas Ghost Stories adapted from MR James’s short stories. We really don’t have anything quite so unselfconsciously weird on public TV any more. Even TV shows like The Prisoner and The Avengers had these elements that drew on the sense that strange things happened under the surface in obscure corners of the British Isles, often at the end of winding country roads. Mark has a far greater knowledge than me of such things and often leads me to new oddities.
Mark Stafford: Lip Hook was a long time in development, and during that period we sent a fair few links back and forth each other of all kinds of stuff, Penda’s Fen, Robin Redbreast and creepy old TV plays and the like. Obviously I’ve seen the handful of films that the label ‘folk horror’ seems to consist of, but I tried to avoid too much Wicker Man schtick when it came to the actual pages. Though there’s a nod or two to Nigel Kneale (The Witches, Quatermass And The Pit). Thinking about it, the biggest influence on the book was probably my childhood in Dorset. I seemed to spend a lot of time as a kid being bundled into the back of a Morris Traveller and let out somewhere else to scramble over iron age earthworks or stone circles or boggle at some weird old ritualistic celebration or other that all the bitter-swigging adults seemed to understand. I never knew what the hell Morris Dancers were up to, or why the local rugby club were suddenly plastered in green make-up or fake beards or whatever. There was all this unexamined weirdness underneath a quite conservative society. Which is Lip Hook in a nutshell.
OM: What is it about such films that can still send a chill down a person’s spine, do you think?
DH: It’s the fact that the settings seem to be so normal on the surface. I have visited locations like these. When I was in my teens, I went with friends to a party in a country house in a village in Dorset. As in Lip Hook, the village was at the end of a country road that seemed to stop there and went no further. The bus dropped us off and we went looking for the village pub. A helpful local pointed us in the direction of a cottage with no sign to indicate it was a public house. We were told to go in through the back door, where we wandered through a kitchen and into a darkened room with a bar and several ancient locals supping beer in the shadows. It was very much like The Hanged Man tavern in Lip Hook. Nothing horrifying happened, but there was a sense of menace and I for one was very aware that no one knew where we were. We could just disappear off the face of the earth.
MS: I think the best of them suggest that the world is working to rules you don’t understand, patterns that have existed long before you got here. It’s kind of a variation of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, the feeling that the landscape itself is this ancient thing, indifferent to your concerns, that makes people go through circles of ritualistic behaviour. Any new iconography is going to be creepy through its unfamiliarity, and ‘folk horror’ has added a new flavour to a lot of recent horror films. There comes a point when it loses that unfamiliarity though, and all that goat horns and animal masks stuff will lose its power. That point was probably a couple of years ago. Still, love that VVITCH.
OM: Mark, stylistically, you breathe a certain sense of creepiness into every page. How have you come to develop such a unique style over the years? It’s a style so apt for this kind of story and your past collaboration with David on The Man Who Laughs.
MS: I’m not sure, to be honest. Style tends to creep up on you. It’s something you end up with rather than something you actively pursue. You make a bunch of decisions whilst rendering stuff, and here you are: The guy who draws funny/creepy. There are worse things to be.
The thing is, I absolutely love a lot of cartoonists whose styles are completely incompatible with each other, Crumb, Munoz, Mattotti, Tardi, Moebius, Panter, McMahon, they’ve all obsessed me at different times and they’re all in there somewhere. I’ll be inking an eyebrow or a cheekbone and thinking ‘I nicked that shadow from Brian Bolland.’
For Lip Hook, I wanted to emphasise the British character of the whole thing, and took advantage of The Cartoon Museum to mainline Ronald Searle, and Pont and Giles, all humour cartoonists who could render a pub or a windswept village green like nobody’s business. There’s a whole sequence of Cal and Falcon walking along train tracks and beside a canal where I realised I was channelling The Perishers. Might seem an odd decision for a dark book, but I think it works . For The Man who Laughs I was mainly using brush, for this one it was mainly dip pen. And Photoshop 7. I’m old school.
OM: Now, on first glance this sees to offer up familiar conventions and tropes, but you find interesting new ways of approaching these well trodden elements of folk horror. For example, the pagan past of Lip Hook is not as menacing as you would imagine…
DH: I wanted to be respectful to Wicca, which is the religion most obviously alluded to. Wicca is very much about women working with Nature, seeking self-empowerment, rather than power over others. Although things go badly wrong, the female characters who represent the cult of Elen, the Horned Goddess, are very positive forces who emphasise the Wiccan philosophy that everyone should be allowed to follow their own path as long as they do no harm to others. That’s a philosophy we can all learn from.
OM: It seems to be set in the bygone era of England post WWII. An England in which we did produce such films as Village of The Damned, The Wicker Man, The Witches and the like. Was this intentionally done to evoke such a golden era of rural horror?
DH: Yes, this is when I grew up, so for me it’s inextricably linked with my childhood. I’d be interested to know how the reaction of young people reading this would differ. What is in some senses still “contemporary” to me must seem like ancient history to people in their teens and twenties now. The biggest difference between this story and any modern story is the absence of mobile phones, computers and access to news coming from multiple sources. We lived in a smaller world and one that seemed claustrophobic and repressive. There are conservative elements that look back on this period as some kind of marvellous golden age when we all knew our neighbours and everything was rosy, but that isn’t the way I remember it. Judging by all those movies being made at the time, I wasn’t the only one.
OM: The book is set in the past, but it also deals with some fairly contemporary issues such as female empowerment and patriarchal big business pollution, right?
DH: Our story was loosely based on a series of real-world events in Mexico in the early sixties. The story of the Magdalena Solis cult is almost beyond belief. It’s basically the story of a group who set up a cult in a small town in Mexico, persuading the locals that a young prostitute was the reincarnation of an Inca goddess. Mark brought this story to me and we decided to transpose it to England and see where it led us. The story was great, but I had to ask myself what I wanted to say with it. As the plot gradually mutated and other strands came into the narrative, I realized that this had to be the story of women revolting against a male-controlled community.
I wanted the story to reflect the damage that centuries of patriarchy have done to both women and men. Our female characters come together to set up a quasi-religious cult to regain control of the village. But I didn’t want to make it a simple story of women overthrowing the patriarchy and setting up a Utopian society. Things are never that simple. So we see how things go horribly wrong as our two lead characters, the teenagers, Falcon and Cal, observe the chaos around them and try to make sense of things. Their confusion, particularly Cal’s, reflects my own attempts to make sense of feminism and gender politics when I was a teenager and reading books like The Female Eunuch for the first time.
MS: It took us a while to settle on the time period, or the lack of one. We knew it was set nebulously after the war, but exactly when that extended to, setting-wise, was a bit of a wrangle.
I kind of had it in my head that all the locals should look a bit Ealing Studios 1940’s/50’s, That Sophia and Vincent should look a bit European new wave 1960’s , and Cal and Falcon were edging into the Public Information film 1970’s.
I think the general theme of questioning who holds power in the world, and how much you believe what they want you to believe, is pretty eternal. Different belief systems are mooted at different parts of the book and I’m not sure how much any of them are worth. Then again, I’m pretty godless, and suspicious about any political system that posits people as heroes or villains. At the end of the day I’m a cartoonist. Which means that it’s my sacred calling to take the piss out of anything and everything. Including your mum.
OM: And finally then, to you both: what draws you to such macabre stories such as Lip Hook and your previous collaboration, The Man Who Laughs?
DH: That’s something I often ask myself. Most of my work goes to some very dark and often depressing places. I can only think that I have a basic need to confront the issues that trouble me. That may be as simple as fear of death or disease, loss of family and friends, or wider issues like xenophobia and intolerance. Without wanting to be overtly moralistic, I think my own ideas and attitudes do come through and hopefully have some influence on the readers. But I have been wondering recently if it’s not time to let a little more light into the work. Mark often brings an added touch of humour, but frankly it’s a kind of humour that scares the crap out of me.
MS: Some ideas just immediately sing to you and suggest possibilities. You begin to picture them. I remember standing in The Royal George listening to Dave enthusing about the Victor Hugo book he’d just read and thinking ‘I want to draw that’, the notion that we were going to do it as a book with Self Made Hero seemed to be almost a foregone conclusion. With Lip Hook the progression was much more gradual, I told Dave about the Magdalena Solis murder case, which I’d read about as a teenager in The Encyclopedia of Modern Murder (blimey I was a ray of sunshine) and kind of carried around in my head for decades. I thought we could take all that extraordinary Mexican weirdness, and relocate it in….Devon, or Somerset or somewhere rural in the British Isles. That sounded like such a ridiculous idea we had to make it happen. I started sketching and Dave started pondering, but it took yonks for SelfMade to say yes this time, which gave us loads of time to throw stuff back and forth and assemble our cast and argue about the ending and such. We actually did all 102 pages of The Bad Bad Place for Soaring Penguin Press’s Meanwhile anthology in the time before Lip Hook finally got the go ahead.
I don’t know if everything we do together will be in this tone. Dave was saying last night, thinking about our next one, that he wouldn’t mind doing something a bit more uplifting. So we’ll see. But don’t expect bouncy castles full of kittens. Or at least expect the kittens to look a little weird.
You can read our review of Lip Hook: A Tale of Rural Unease here.