Review: ‘Discovering Scarfolk’ by Richard Littler

Ebury Press 2014, ISBN 9780091958480

Britain in the 1970s was a very strange time and place. Caught in the brutal come-down after the Sixties yet still retaining more than a hint of pagan mysticism in the air, Britain had a distinctive otherworldliness underlying the economic woes, ever-present threat of nuclear war and public service films warning children that horrific death lurked in every field, every street. Both grubby and garish, represented equally by Abigail’s Party and Children of the Stones, Albion seemed caught in an awful liminality. There was nothing quite like living through that strange time, in that weird place.

Nothing, that is, except for Scarfolk.

The invention of Richard Littler, Scarfolk is a fictional town in the North-West of England which is perpetually trapped in the 70s. Littler’s pastiches of the advertising and cultural symbols of the time, filtered through the paranoid occult and technological fears then present, became an immensely popular blog series over the past couple of years, drawing praise from writers as diverse as Ian Rankin, Caitlin Moran and Warren Ellis. The clever perfection of the parody images, combined with the Pythonesque word play and riffs on the stranger aspects of British culture, are a masterpiece in absurdist horror.

Although there are some parallels to other fictional towns draped in the Weird, Scarfolk is very much its own thing. Comparisons to the Welcome To Night Vale podcast are commonly made, especially when trying to explain Scarfolk to Americans: but whereas Night Vale has a folksy cute-weird inclusive charm that might tempt the fan to consider living there if it existed, nobody in their right minds would want to visit Scarfolk, let alone live there... it makes Royston Vasey seem positively inviting by comparison.

Now, Scarfolk has made the transition from blog to book, and in the process has both gained and lost something in translation.

The book contains most of the classic images Littler created for the Scarfolk site - favourites such as the controversial fake Penguin Books cover “Children And Hallucinogens”, which went viral last year, convincing many that the book had once existed (including, so rumour has it, several concerned Penguin executives). They are surrounded by a two-layered, almost Lovecraftian-styled framing story: the book purports to be a professor’s reconstruction of a found text, telling the tale of one Daniel Bush. Bush, while moving home after the death of his wife in a bizarre Morris-dancing related accident, is trapped in Scarfolk following the disappearance of his twin sons. Recovering from the brainwashing inflicted on him for ‘his own good’ by the residents, he wanders the town, trying to understand his surroundings and find his children.

Though that storyline itself is interesting (and draws heavily on other great British cultural influences such as The Prisoner and The Wicker Man), it doesn’t flow well: mostly because it’s continually interrupted by both the pictures and a lot of footnotes - the readers attention is being continually split. Each element of the book - the art, the story and the footnotes - don’t quite gel together... but each is thoroughly enjoyable in their own form.

The footnotes contain some of the best, most horrific writing in the book, I think: such as,

The ice-cream van man came between 3 and 4 a.m. His van blared out the haunting Swedish Rhapsody numbers station. The ice-cream van man wore a clown mask to disguise the horrific burns on his face because he didn't want to frighten the children. It didn't work. He used clothes pegs to hold the mask on because he was missing an ear. He lived in a nondescript building in an electrical substation and no one knew his name.

As an artefact, the book feels like it has fallen out of some grubby wormhole: the pages are faintly faded, the whole thing almost seeming to glower at the reader. The cover looks like a pre-battered textbook from a barely-used library, its recollection of the publishing tropes of the time a pastiche so perfect that it verges on the hyperreal. Sadly, this finish actually obscures some of the finer details of the illustrations; in one of my favourite pictures, the relabelled diagrams of the male and female genital anatomy, several of the terms are too blurry to be read easily.

(EDIT: Richard Littler contacted me after this review aired to note that the blurring of the pictures was a printing mistake and not intentional. Though that accident adds to the grimy air of this version, I am glad later editions will allow readers to fully see a woman's malteser and a man's battlestar galactica in all their glory.)

Despite these drawbacks, Discovering Scarfolk is a pleasure, if a disturbing one: you’ll never read or hold anything else quite like it.

For more information, please re-read this review.

Link: Discovering Scarfolk on Amazon UK

Comments

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 16 hours

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wicker...

I wasn't familiar with the cult classic movie "The Wicker Man" until I happened to catch it on late night TV about a month ago. It was creepy, but really it was as funny as it was creepy - unintentionally funny. It has all the mannerisms of 70's films - and lots of filmic cliches you can see coming a mile away. The nude dancing scene of one of the film's female leads, Britt Eckland, must have been quite something for 1973 cinema. To be fair though, for 1973 it must have had quite an impact on the average film-goer's psyche.

red pill junkie's picture
Member since:
12 April 2007
Last activity:
22 hours 42 min

I just spent a few minutes checking out the Scarfolk's blog. It's graphic brilliance in turning a typical 70's era propaganda piece into satire --by just tweaking the original garishness just a little bit more-- reminds me a lot of why the best news programs to-date are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report: Because they are like a House of Mirrors in a carnival show projecting out the messages of society, but since those messages are ALREADY distorted by financial interests and political manipulation, the 2 distortions cancel each other out, and the resulting image is the most honest view to Reality one can find nowadays.

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 16 hours

Very well said.

How ironic is that the USA is in a predicament that mirror's Great Britain in the 1970's when its economic clout was dwindling. I often get the feeling as well that the general standard of living now in the US is slipping back to that of the 1970's, or maybe that will seem to be a halcyon time if the US continues retracting and retrenching. There is certainly an overwhelming sense of dread and paranoia on current US TV though.

Cat Vincent's picture
Member since:
24 April 2008
Last activity:
30 weeks 1 day

Thanks. And yes, the US parallels to the UK 70s (and, for that matter, aspects over here... especially re. xenophobia and economic strife) abound. The one good thing about such hard times is that they often produce remarkable acts of creativity.

Cat Vincent

Home: catvincent.com
Twitter: @catvincent

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 16 hours

Certainly the explosion of rock music from England in the late 60's and 70's bears that out. Is there a creative rennaissance happening in the US right now? Perhaps.

red pill junkie's picture
Member since:
12 April 2007
Last activity:
22 hours 42 min

Well crap, maybe I'm too old to notice it by now, but IMO the renaissance is rather absent in today's music :-/

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

Charles Pope's picture
Member since:
23 October 2009
Last activity:
2 hours 12 min

Even at my "advanced age" I still find much that is interesting in the new music. I'm a 70's child, but prefer the music now. I really like the fusion of pop, rap, rock, club, latin, etc. that is going on. Not sure what that has to do with economic decline though. By the way, I just heard that there was only one Platinum album this entire year, the sound track to Frozen! But, that may have less to do with disposable income than the change in music culture (from buying CD's to individual tracks).

Also, it's now possible to make great music with a microphone and a Macintosh. Unthinkable in the 70's. And Scarfolk (much less "The Wicker Man") was not something I would have watched in the 70's (if it had existed). I was too young and brainwashed to appreciate such works. I was "comfortably dumb" and thought the world was almost perfect in the 70's (in the USA)! I absolutely marvel that a movie like Dr. Strangelove could have been made in the mid-60's. But at least I totally dig The Daily Show, Colbert Report and South Park today. Better late than never.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 16 hours

My daughter is a musician. I get the feeling that we are in a period of intense incubation drawn out longer than usual by the glut of choices. There probably will be another artistic eruption similar to that of the 60's eventually and perhaps accompanied and energized by social unrest too.

Charles Pope's picture
Member since:
23 October 2009
Last activity:
2 hours 12 min

Not sure if Americans are capable of unrest anymore. A little unrest would be refreshing, if for the music alone, but the country is pretty much on lock these days. If there is some kind of crisis, it will be a manufactured one.

My Mom still listens to Evangelicals on TV. She told me just this week of a prophesy that there would not be a 2016 Presidential election if Christians don't start praying!

I primarily study the ancient world. I only live in the modern one! Ancient rulers were heavily into "sacred" roles and patterns. These took the form of rituals, at first to help remember, but later because the underlying science/knowledge associated with those patterns/roles was for the most part forgotten. However, even the rote repetition of traditional roles and patterns produced predictable results. This must be why we are so reluctant to discover the origins of our belief systems. It's not much, but it's all we've got. Superstition is preferred to chaos, and those that rule the world exploit it to the max. Enlightenment of the masses is not the policy of the upper classes! Peace in the 3rd World is not the "foreign policy" of the 1st World.

The tune of the pied piper is always a simple, hypnotic one.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 16 hours

Look at Ferguson, MO. That sort of thing could easily go viral. Once the middle class is demoted to the lower class anything could happen socially. That becomes a lot of pissed off people.

Charles Pope's picture
Member since:
23 October 2009
Last activity:
2 hours 12 min

I haven't paid a lot of attention to the Ferguson situation. What I gather is that this was a case of police harassment/brutality that had festered for years or even decades and finally boiled over. Some people are coming in from other areas to get involved (or just cause trouble), but that's about it.

I don't see freedom-loving, principled people in the American workforce anymore. I see very soft people that are scared to say or do anything that will jeopardize their employment. And I see very short-sighted companies that don't want their employees to take initiative, but screw the customer over at every opportunity. America can only be saved by people who still have an immigrant mentality of starting new business, working weekends and making sacrifices (like giving up their Fantasy Football team, haha) in order to be successful.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
1 day 16 hours

There are factors that could be plugged into the present situation that would stimulate unexpected reactions - such as a collapse in markets. You can't tell how the masses will react when pushed to their limits. Every day I give a little prayer: "please God let the house of cards keep standing."