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.
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.