Book Review: A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields by Stephen Prince

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay
Publishing Info: A Year In The Country (2018)
Pages: 335

Publisher’s Summary:
Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology

A Year In The Country is a set of year-long journeys through spectral fields; cyclical explorations of an otherly pastoralism, the outer reaches of folk culture and the spectres of hauntology. It is a wandering amongst subculture that draws from the undergrowth of the land.

As a project, it has included a website featuring writing, artwork and music which stems from that otherly pastoral/spectral hauntological intertwining, alongside a growing catalogue of album releases.

In keeping with the number of weeks in a year, the book is split into 52 chapters which draw together revised writings from the project alongside new journeyings. Connecting layered and, at times, semi-hidden cultural pathways and signposts, it journeys from acid folk to edgelands via electronic music innovators, folkloric film and photography, dreams of lost futures and misremembered televisual tales and transmissions.

It includes considerations of the work of writers including Rob Young, John Wyndham, Richard Mabey and Mark Fisher, musicians and groups The Owl Service, Jane Weaver, Shirley Collins, Broadcast, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Virginia Astley and Kate Bush, the artists Edward Chell, Jeremy Deller and Barbara Jones and the record labels Trunk, Folk Police, Ghost Box and Finders Keepers.

The book also explores television and film including Quartermass, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, Phase IV, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, Bagpuss, Travelling for a Living, The Duke of Burgundy, Sapphire & Steel, General Orders No. 9, Gone to Earth, The Changes, Children of the Stones, Sleep Furiously and The Wicker Man.

A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields book cover (A Year In The Country, 2018)

A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields is a richly informative book on the links between pieces of media in the Cold War and 1970s eras and its links to folk culture and spectral lost futures and misremembered pasts, and can be very rewarding if you have cultural knowledge of this period. For those who may not have this depth in knowledge, the book can be interesting and well-detailed, but can also be repetitive and slightly inaccessible, which most likely stems from the original medium for the writings being isolated blog posts and not originally intended for publication in a book.

In his introduction to the book, author Stephen Prince informs the readers that A Year In The Country begun as daily website posts back in 2014. It has since grown to a website featuring text, images and music, as well as a growing library of music releases, prints and artwork – this book is described as drawing from the first three years of the site’s daily posts, as well as previously unpublished work. The book is split into 52 chapters, to symbolise the cycle of a year, and each chapter is an informative piece on the hauntological and folk horror elements of the works of an artist or musician, or of a film or television show. The introduction is a must-read part of this book, for the author uses it to explain the terms which he focuses his analysis on.

“… explores and draws from the undercurrents and flipside of the landscape, the further reaches of folk culture and points of interconnection and intermingling with what has come to be known as hauntology … work which explores and utilises a misremembered past, lost progressive futures and a conjuring of parallel worlds that are haunted by spectres of the past.”

A Year In The Country, Introduction, p.11

The author does reference hauntology and its links to folk culture in multiple chapters, so in order to fully access the analysis within said chapter, occasionally you may have to return to the book’s introduction to break down the jargon to the true meaning. When making comparisons with the central analysed piece in a particular chapter, the author also makes reference to previous chapters and pages, especially in the second half of the book. Therefore it is recommended that this book is read in physical form, rather than as an e-book.

Stephen Prince must be commended for the high quality of research and comparisons presented in each of the chapters, which one can tell is also reflected within the entirety of the A Year In The Country project – it is very clear that the author has a high amount of passion for the analytical pieces he is producing. Personal highlights for myself include Chapter 10: “The Wicker Man: Notes on a Cultural Behemoth”, Chapter 13: “From “Two Tribes” to WarGames: The Ascendancy of Apocalyptic Popular Culture” and Chapter 29: “The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids: John Wyndham, Dystopian Tales, Celluloid Cuckoos and the Village as Anything But Idyll”. The chapter on The Wicker Man is very well researched, focusing on aspects from its tumultuous production and release, to its recognition as a cult folk horror film with a lasting cultural impact in its soundtrack and visuals, to the multiple retrospective discussion essays and interviews with the film’s cast and crew. The above chapters stand out to me as I am either aware of, or have previously digested, the pieces of media being focused on. In a sense, this is a critique of the book – though the format of blog posts does suit the format of having a different piece of media focused on in each chapter, a book is read from A to Z and, though the author does provide an introduction at the start of each chapter, such as the summary of a television show or film’s plot, or a description of the sound or content of a musical track, it is harder to access the analytical content for pieces of media you are unfamiliar with. As a reader in his mid-twenties (at the time of writing) and who hasn’t got the greatest knowledge of culture and media in the 1970s, many of the chapters could only be understood on a base level, as in not being able to combine one’s own mental image of the media with the text. As a result, though the book doesn’t specify this, except from the examples of media looked at in the publisher’s summary, it does require a certain level of knowledge of the 1970s culture to fully comprehend and access the analysis in the text.

A highlight of this book is the chapter that focuses on the folk horror film The Wicker Man (British Lion films, 1973)

The media pieces are researched very efficiently when they are analysed in their own chapter, with the author looking deeper than just the final product and considering the production, individuals behind the pieces and their critical and cultural reactions. Comparisons are also made between the piece of media in focus and those focused in previous chapters, giving the whole book the feel of a well rounded and referenced text. It could be argued that the comparisons, though well thought out, are quite limited in the number of pieces referenced – the narrow timeline the author has chosen to look at has already been discussed but, even with that in mind, it does feel like the same few examples are returned to again and again, including The Owl Service (1969), Children of the Stones (1978) and Quartermass (1978). This may simply be another effect of these chapters being originally written for a blog-post medium, where readers are more likely to read one or two pieces in isolation rather than in the A to Z format of a book. This also may be an effect of having a relatively small timeline focused on in the book and, with comparisons mainly being made with pieces of media in a similar era, this makes the pool of pieces which to make a comparison with rather small. The repetition can occasionally impact on the enjoyment of reading, but doesn’t take away from the level of detail and quality of research within each of the chapters.

A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields is a well researched and highly detailed compilation of essays on pieces of media in the Cold War and 1970s periods and how they relate to the concepts of hauntology, otherly pastoralism and folk culture. If you have knowledge of the period in question and the pieces of media being discussed, this will be a highly rewarding read. However, as was the case with my reading experience, not having this base knowledge can make many of the chapters seem repetitive, in both the analysis and the comparisons to other pieces of media, as you are unable to completely access the analysis made. It is apparent that these pieces were originally made for a blog-post format and not for publication in a book. It was an interesting read, especially when the chapter was focused on a piece of media I had already considered, but probably needed a few tweaks and edits to its format and content in order to be fully accessible for newcomers to the subject.

Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Thank you for taking the time to read my review of A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields. For more information on the content of the book, along with information on how to purchase this book, the website A Year In The Country has created a companion guide, which can be accessed through the link below.

The A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields Book (External Link)

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The next book review will be of a horror classic, which also happens to be the debut novel of acclaimed author Stephen King – Carrie.

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