This Halloween, Dr Naomi Booth, Associate Professor in the Department of English Studies and award-winning fiction writer tells us about horror writing and the Boggart, a forgotten folklore monster.
Q. Please can you tell me about your research for the HAG project?
A. HAG was a project devised by Audible, and then taken up by Virago Press, which asked contemporary female writers to re-imagine folktales from the British Isles. The tales were selected by Professor Carolyne Larrington, an expert in folklore, and she chose stories that were once common oral currency in particular regions but are at risk of extinction. I was asked to re-imagine the folklore of the Boggart, a mischievous creature thought to inhabit rural locations and farms in Lancashire and Yorkshire. I worked from a tale that was recorded in the 19th century, in which an ‘honest farmer in Yorkshire’ tries to escape a Boggart (unsuccessfully). I became interested in the core idea in this version of the story of the inescapability of certain things that torment us which is treated with grim humour. I also researched different accounts of the Boggart and the eerie locations that are named after him: the Boggart Stones on Saddleworth Moor, for instance.
Q. Can you describe the Boggart?
A. In the source version of the tale that I worked with, the Boggart would ‘never let himself be seen’: he plagues the farmer and his family with the force of a poltergeist—shaking them in their beds, pressing down on their chests until they almost suffocate. When they try to leave, the Boggart travels with them inside their own butter churn, from which they hear his taunting voice. I was also inspired by descriptions of boggarts in other sources, which give them various physical characteristics, often related to animals. The boggart is described as squat and hairy, sometimes cloven-hooved; in one account he’s shaggy as a calf, and in another, he stinks of dead meat.
Q. What sparked your interest in horror fiction?
A. Many of the books that I first read and loved were gothic fiction, and I’ve always been interested in literature that unsettles the reader, that draws us in to a predicament and/or a world that is uncertain. I tend to be more compelled by work that skirts the edges of horror—that’s uncanny or horrible in an unpredictable way. I often think about Clarice Lispector’s description of a horrifying vision in her work The Passion According to G.H.: she describes an encounter with a dying cockroach, telling the reader that she needs to show them what she has seen, to share her horror. But then, the narrator suggests, after sharing her vision, she is the one who will take the reader’s hand and comfort them in the wake of the encounter. I’m intrigued by the idea of horror revealing something that it’s difficult to bear alone, and the writer and reader mutually supporting one another.
Q. What makes a good monster?
A. Something glimpsed from the corner of your eye. Something you can smell, or feel, or sense, but never quite catch hold of. Something that keeps returning, no matter how deeply buried it is. Something that speaks to you in the quiet of the night, in your own voice, when only you can hear it.
Q. Do you have any tips for anyone trying to scare people through their writing?
A. I often recommend that students explore versions of the uncanny, especially Nicholas Royle’s account of it, if they’re trying to write something frightening. Royle shows how uncertainty about the nature of what is being experienced in literature can be profoundly disturbing—something flickering at the edge of our senses, that causes a glitch in the way we see and experience the world. Depictions of ‘scary’ things that are explicit or straightforward often fail to really scare us.
Listen to an extract from Sour Hall, a tale inspired by her research on the Boggart, from Naomi Booth’s collection of short stories ‘Animals at Night’
Find out more:
For the full story of Sour Hall and other short stories, read Naomi's latest collection of short stories Animals at Night
Read more about HAG
Find out more about the Department of English Studies