It was a rather grim afternoon in Blight today, so there was no better time to sit down and read the new tense horror graphic novel, Lip Hook by writer David Hine and artist Mark Stafford. And I’m so glad I did. Putting on The Wicker Man soundtrack on in the background may have been an inspired choice of music to read this particular book by as well, as it’s a read that has its roots firmly set in the fine tradition of such rurally-set horror films that us Brits have produced over the years. Stephen King can write all the stories he wants set in isolated American rural communities, but there’s no creepier a setting for such tales that an English country village or hamlet, particularly one enveloped in the murkiest of fogs. Its clear that Hine and Stafford are fans, like me, of such very British folk horror, but this is very much its own beast.
Lip Hook, the eponymous town of the book’s title, is a grim, horrific town with an equally grim and horrific history. I mean, the local pub is called The Hanged Man! Well, not all of the past is paved with tragedy and pain, but there’s enough to inform the present with the Lord of the Manor, Lord Huxley, at the top of the table and only too pleased to let everyone know whenever he can. It’s a countryside town, with traditions that date back centuries. Traditions that only seem to reinforce the hierarchical class system of Britain, felt most keenly in such rural settings. There are many places like that even today here in the UK, believe me. And, being a city-slicker, there is a power in the British countryside that can be palpable sometimes. And that power is not always pure. Its a world of old money, haunted mansions and barbaric blood sports. Not my cup of tea really, but a great place to set a story like this one.
At the heart of Lip Hook’s pagan past, however, is some glimmer of such purity. But with fleeing felons, Sophia and Vincent, running across Lip Hook by accident and then the aforementioned femme fatale, Sophia, becoming something of the influencer around and abouts, any good that was left here has soon curdled like milk left in the hot summer sun. It looks like it’s up to two childhood friends, whose family are enemies of sorts from many moons ago, Caleb Isherwood and Falcon Huxley, to solve the mystery and save the day. Meddling kids.
Mark Stafford’s beautifully ugly characters and creepy details are another element of this outstanding book that had me hearken back to a bygone era of British films, with their wonderful array of craggy, salty, earthy character actors such as Sid James, Alistair Sims and Alec Guinness. But then, it is set in such an era, which adds deeply to the affection I felt while reading this book. His colours – swampy, mirky, muddy – add to the encroaching, dark tone of the book as the townsfolk scurry around the town in gas masks that have more than the odd animal-like qualities about them, only adding to the sense of horror in a community that, actually, just wants to get on really. The flourishes of pagan symbolism you notice in the local church and elsewhere, alongside the rustic antiquity of such country communities, with their “olde worlde” wooden paneled pubs, medieval churches and stately manor houses, only further sustain a sense of unease in both the reader and the villains.
It’s a quintessentially British folk horror that wears its influences proudly, just others have before them, and Hine and Stafford offer the reader an experience that is full of tension with a healthy dash of paganism and rural secrets. But, its something more, too. There is more than a little smattering of social satire aimed at the British Ruling Class. It’s also a social satire on patriarchal societies, albeit on a microcosmic scale, and a fair commentary on female empowerment, historically and contemporaneously which, I do hope, will have people wondering about the positive power of some of the more ancient matriarchal Celtic religions once practiced on these shores.
It’s a fascinating inclusion that does well to infect the tropes of such gothic stories and turn them on their head. It’s what makes this so original, and not just another whimsy. What we think could be the true menace seems never to have been the case, and Hine keeps you on your toes as he plays with your preconceptions, holding a fractured mirror up to our own foibles. Seems we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past when one has money, power and privilege. That’s maybe the true horror as we continue to treat women as something less that equal, pollute the world, and rule with a privilege some never earned. Viva La Revolution, right?
Lip Hook is available from Self Made Hero and online.