A review of C.W. Blackwell’s Song of the Red Squire
By Chris McGinley
There’s a renewed interest in folk horror out there! In literature, film, and television, artists are resuscitating the sub-genre . . . or maybe it never left us. Either way, it’s popular again. Like any genre, there will always be debate about what qualifies, and what doesn’t, about who does it best and who fails.
But there’s no place for all that here. And, in fact, I’m not qualified to say. However, I will say this: C.W. Blackwell’s new novel, Song of the Red Squire (Nosetouch, 2022) is a creepy page turner, a short book that captivates in the first pages and continues to disturb and enthrall until its haunting and violent conclusion. This book is unique not only for its imaginative premise, but for the fact that it’s set in the mountains of North Carolina, 1949—something we surely don’t see much of with respect to folk horror.
Here’s the story: Charlie Danwitter is an agricultural inspector for the USDA, out to collect specimens and information on heirloom apples in Appalachia. But the locals are rightfully wary of government oversight, and Charlie has a tough time of it. (Lest you think the premise is far-fetched, the truth is that federal farm programs have long exercised influence over the region’s agricultural output, for better or ill—though often ill.) Turned away by farmers left and right, Charlie accepts an offer to travel to a tiny village “off the map” where the residents speak an odd dialect and practice strange customs. The lure for Charlie is that they grow a unique apple cultivar, the Red Squire, and the USDA man simply cannot come back empty handed to his bosses.
But before Charlie travels to the tiny hamlet, he encounters plenty of mystery and trouble in little Ashe County, where he first seeks out the farmers who rudely turn him away. By slow, even turns, Blackwell builds the tension. Odd events occur, including a masterful scene in which Charlie is in fact attacked in the old hotel where he’s staying. Blackwell renders the strange, terrifying event in a manner that suggests maybe Charlie himself is not fully possessed of all of his wits. Well, there’s actually ample evidence for that, too. Not many years prior, Charlie served in the war as a combat veteran. He suffers the trauma of it still, and the horrors he harbors inwardly tend to amplify (distort?) those he faces in the little Appalachian town.
Again, the attack itself is deftly managed. Blackwell cleverly portrays the assault of the “creature”–or at least that what it seems like to the high-strung Charlie–in a long passage both terrifying and eerie, violent and strange:
There was little time to process the figure running toward him—a man of green and orange lichen. A mouth that sagged taffy-like in a pink, toothless frown, with saliva driveling from the folds. From the eyes came pinhole pupils that cast about wildly atop two translucent stalks like on a snail. Veins pumped inside those appendages. He could see the ink black blood moving up and down the stalks from within. It looked like an amalgam of every orchard pest he’d ever seen, and it charged right into him.
But is this a man, or a folk-horror demon? It’s tough to tell. But the intentional confusion might have some basis in Charlie’s battlefield trauma. Then again, it might not.
Another fascinating element of the novel is the battlefield content. In one of Charlie’s “flashbacks,” Blackwell takes us into a war-torn German village, a place in which Charlie confronts the aftermath of a war crime. The scene is chock full of tension, and it effectively includes two separate endings—so cleverly managed and supportive of the larger narrative:
From the brambles of limbs, an arm reached out. Two eyes shined at him in the lamplight. It took a moment to make sense of it. A bearded face tilted from the pile like something animated from clay. A middle-aged man with a face full of blood. The arm beckoned Charlie closer.
Things only turn stranger when Charlie and a companion finally arrive at the tiny mountain community up in the hills, well away from Ashe County. There’s a harvest celebration under way, and the USDA man is relieved to discover a grove of fine apples, the Red Squire that he plans to document and curry the favor of his bosses.
But it’s not to be.
The village is an odd place, something out of both place and time. What seems quaint, it turns out, is anything but. Once again, Blackwell ratchets up the tension, developing the eerie place and people through a folk horror lens. He explores the relationship between humans and the organic life forms they tend, between the mystical and the earth-bound.
It should be noted that Blackwell also specializes in something else: scaring the hell out of us.
This is an eerie, carefully written book, a special species of folk horror that adds something great to the genre. Blackwell has managed to write a fine folk horror novel, one with an Appalachian twist, and one well worth your time.
Buy this book . . . if you’ve got the nerve.
Chris McGinley is the author of Coal Black (Shotgun Honey Books, 2019). He also writes for LitHub and other outlets. He lives with his wife in Lexington, KY, where he teaches middle school.