I have really mixed feelings about rural gothic stories – on one hand I love much of it as a reader/viewer. But I do worry about how it impacts on people’s feelings about wild places. In rural gothic stories, the landscape itself tends to seem hostile and threatening – trees and forests especially. The darkness beyond the human settlement can only be a place for horrors. These aren’t the stories I most enjoy.
The best known rural gothic tales concentrate on the big house in the middle of nowhere (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights etc) – in these the role of the natural world is often simply to provide remoteness, with the fear of it a force for isolation and a lack of humans to help, witness or explain. In the gothic house in the middle of nowhere, the horrors are all human – living, dead, mad, murderous, guilt ridden, incestuous and so forth. The landscape may initially take some of the blame. The subtext in such stories is often that, without other humans to keep an eye on them, some humans go very wrong indeed.
My preference is for tales where the main characters are not the massively rich inhabitants of manor houses, and the countryside is not absolutely hostile. I’m very happy to have some creepy landscape features – some landscapes are, after all, rather creepy. Just the one sinister tree in an otherwise benign forest. Just the one haunted landscape feature, or the one location for the malevolent dead, so that wild places can be a mix of the dangerous and the restorative. Marry Webb does this very well indeed, and it’s also there in Daphne De Maurier’s work and Sabine Baring Gould.
The Blair Witch Project is for me a fine contemporary example of a story that takes the landscape horror too far. That whole landscape is presented as hostile and dangerous. It becomes banal after a while. How much more powerful would the film have been if the landscape also held beauty and promise, so you could never be sure if you were safe or not, or what was imagined and what was real. And really, what are we doing telling each other to be afraid of woodlands when in practice, trees are incredibly benevolent beings who do us massive amounts of good?
Fear of the wild places is a very human response, but in practice, as well as in fiction, what we might reasonably be afraid of are the choices of the unwitnessed human, not the landscape itself.