Thale: A Norwegian Dark Fantasy “Tail”

Thale poster
Photo from imdb

Folklore shows its dark side with an interesting blend of fantasy and horror in Thale (pronounced “tall-ay”). The plot centers on two unsuspecting crime scene clean-up men who get more than they bargained for when called to the scene of a days old incident at a remote farm. At the crime scene, our heroes, Elvis (Erland Nervold) and Leo (John Sigve Skard), discover a naked, shivering girl, Thale, who doesn’t appear to be able to communicate. Through several recordings on cassette tapes left by the old man who cared for her and a series of flashback memories transmitted by touch, we learn Thale’s history. Soon, it becomes clear that Thale is not the only surprising encounter that our heroes will have, and while they try to protect this clearly fearful girl, they slowly come to realize that she herself may actually be something to be feared.

Huldra showing back
Photo from th08.deviantart.net

Thale is based on a creature from Scandinavian folklore called a “huldra”. These creatures were said to appear as beautiful women from the front, but from behind their bodies were hollowed out like a rotten tree trunk. The creatures also had a tail — either that of a fox or a cow — and many images and tales integrate the identification of these woman in some way with the appearance of this tail. Information on whether these creatures were to be feared is sketchy. Some tales say that men took them as wives, but others say that the huldra took men off into the forest and killed them. It seems, that like any fey creature, their intents and actions were unpredictable at best.

I’m a sucker for good foreign fantasy, and I liked this movie because it was interesting and different from standard fare. There is a not really a lot of blood and gore in the movie (most of it is during crime scene cleanup), and it focuses more on the frightening aspect of the unknown. The woods hold additional secret creatures that play a part in the film, and there are some very well crafted creepy scenes. The mystery of where Thale comes from is handled in an interesting way. I was left wanting even further explanation, but that lack also leaves room for further speculation and consideration of the story. Many foreign films don’t feel the need to tie up all the loose ends for viewers, and I often enjoy this over the American way of tying up everything with a bow.

Thale doesn’t speak, and most of her communication is done via facial expression and movement. I think this would be pretty hard to pull off as an actor, but Silje Reinåmo does a great job. Interaction between Elvis and Leo creates an interesting realistic background off of which to play the fantasy elements. Their conversations are the typical minimalistic exchanges that make up so much of everyday life, and their reactions when faced with the situation at the farm ring true in a humorous way. This blending of humor and horror is tricky, but Thale does a pretty good job, and it kept me interested until the end. Thale is available for rental download or purchase at Amazon.

Laird Barron: A Unique Voice in Horror

Occultation and Other Stories book cover
Occultation and Other Stories by Laird Barron

If you like the kind of horror that is atmospherically influenced — say by dark, cold woodland nights, or eerily deserted farmhouses, or maybe ancient, overlooked ruins and caves placed far out in the wilderness — if you like all of these things then you will love Laird Barron. If you enjoy horror stories where people become utterly stranded in areas that don’t seem that far off the beaten track at first, but end up being a whole world away from reality, or where a dark night hunting in the woods opens onto scenes of creatures and actions that would break a man’s mind forever, if he lived to tell about it — if you also enjoy all of these things, then you will want to get your hands on something by Laird Barron.

I found out about Barron thanks to Stephen Graham Jones, and I don’t remember now whether it was in an intro to one of Graham Jones’ books or one of his articles or blog posts, but I definitely do remember that it is to him I owe the gratitude. The first thing I picked up was, Occultation and Other Stories. The first story, “The Forest”, starts:

After the drive had grown long and monotonous, Partridge shut his eyes and the woman was waiting. She wore a cold white mask similar to the mask Bengali woodcutters donned when they ventured into the mangrove forests along the coast…The woman in the white mask reached into a wooden box. She lifted a tarantula from the box and held it to her breast like a black carnation. The contrast was  as magnificent as a stark Monet if Monet had painted watercolors of emaciated patricians and their pet spiders.

Barron’s prose is elegant, a long, dark dream, but interspersed with real and minimalist modern clips that create an overall impression that is unmatched. He also has a knack for conversation, usually between couples, that somehow manages to combine daily reality with the slightly off center world in which his characters live:

–Holy shit, what’s that? he said.
–Coyotes, she said. Scavenging for damned souls.
–Sounds fucking grandiose for coyotes.
–And what do you know? They’re the favored children of the carrion gods. Grandiosity is their gig.

One of my favorite stories by Barron, “Blackwood’s Baby”, appears in a collection, Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense. This is the ultimate hunting trip gone wrong. It comes complete with a creepy, old-money style hunting lodge back in the rural hills of Washington state and an assorted selection of the world’s best hunters, all gathered for the annual attempt to take down a stag rumored to be the spawn of the devil. Barron uses a familiar setup in this story, but his prose and imagery spin this into a completely different tale than what is expected, and it’s a story that I simply can’t get out of my head. I’m happy to see that this story will also be included in his upcoming book (see below).

The Croning book cover
The Croning by Laird Barron

Most recently I read his full-length work, The Croning. In this work, Barron explores a combination of fantasy, mythology, and concepts within a relationship. Question come up, like, how well do you really know your significant other? What’s the real reason their family doesn’t come to visit? And, what in hell actually happened on that trip to Mexico?

The book starts with a modified recounting of “Rumpelstiltskin”, which sets the stage for the underlying evil. We are then introduced to the main characters of the book, Don and Michelle, who are both academics with a long history of secrets, strangeness, and the compromises that come with any long-term relationship. However, when they move to Michelle’s family house out in the countryside, things begin to come to head in a big way. The house and surrounding area are revealed to contain mysteries that Don hasn’t let himself think about for many years. There are some really well done creepy passages in this book. Take for example Don’s memory of one night when he heard a strange noise:

He’d sat up to investigate, when Michelle gripped his wrist. Her hand was cold, wasn’t it? Like it had been in a meat locker. How unreal the white oval of her face hanging there in the gloom. Her hair floated black and wild and her fingers tightened until his bones gritted. A purple ring puffed his wrist the next day.

Honey, don’t, she’d said in a soft, matter-of-fact tone, and pulled him against her breast. Don’t leave me. The bed is cold.

No, she was cold; her hands, her body, frigid as a corpse through her thin gown. Yet he’d streamed with sweat, his chest sticky, his pajamas drenched and he’d been breathing like a man who’d run up a steep hill.

As a reader, we spend the book, along with Don, trying to figure out what exactly his wife has been up to all these years on her research trips. The answers are not pretty.

I think I’m a little addicted to Baird’s unusual style and ideas, and am eagerly awaiting the next installment of his writing, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, which is set to release on August 13, 2013. Read an early review here at the Agony Column.