Folk Horror

By Madison McSweeney

 

“I hope they’re as good as they used to be.”

The arena was coming into view ahead of us, a toilet bowl underneath a swirling grey sky. The clouds had threatened rain all day, and the atmosphere was heavy with unfallen condensation. All around us, the roads were teeming with pedestrians and vehicles, all doggedly congregating at the same unfortunately-located locus. Parking was going to be a nightmare.

If Nadia caught the ominous note in my tone, she didn’t let on. “They’ll be better,” she replied, flicking her turn signal on as she prepared to shift lanes.

 

“They’re just hitting their peak.”

“Their peak was when they used to play those shitty pubs on campus,” I corrected her. “This is when they start to stagnate.”

“You’re optimistic,” she replied, changing lanes and turning towards the parking lot. “We need ten bucks.”

“Sorry,” I said, popping open the glove box. “I just saw them for free too many times back in the day—it’s weird seeing them at a big venue like this.”

 

“You’re such a fucking hipster.”

 

I laughed in spite of myself. “Perhaps.”

 

I didn’t correct her because it was easier not to, but she was off the mark. I didn’t begrudge my favourite college band their success—after a decade of slogging their way through tiny local festivals and free campus gigs, they deserved it. And intellectually, I knew that this tour would show off the same bar band energy and populist heartstring-tugging of their early days, just with a better light show. But the transition was still fucking with my head. It reminded me of my own mortality.

The band who used to come to your school twice a year and eat tacos in the local dives are now bloated arena rockers charging a hundred bucks a ticket.

The girl who used to make out with you behind the graffitied stall doors of the sticky washrooms at the University Pub has a purse full of hand sanitizer so she can wipe down her arm rest.

The couple that used to stay out until four in the morning listening to this band is now debating leaving before the encore to beat the traffic.

“Besides,” Nadia was saying. “It’ll be a nice burst of nostalgia.”

 

Nostalgia, I thought. Great. Nothing makes one feel more alive than nostalgia.

 

“Your turn signal’s still on,” I said, evading the nostalgia conversation.

 

“I’m still turning. I’m about to turn into the parking lot. Did you find the ten dollars?”

 

I looked down at my hand. “I have a fistful of quarters and a loonie.”

 

She shook her head solemnly. “Glove boxes don’t spit out change like they used to anymore.” Somehow, the remark made me shudder. “Hurray up, will ya? We’re holding up the line.”

We idled in front of the toll booth as I continued to fumble for change, producing a pair of dimes and an empty pill bottle filled with pennies. The car behind us honked. “Cool your jets,” Nadia muttered. “The show doesn’t start for half an hour.”

“Who’s opening, anyway?” I asked.

“Some band called The Pines. From Oklahoma. The website says they’re a ‘five-piece indie/folk/rock project.’”

“Great,” I responded, out loud this time.

I’m always uneasy with those weird hipster-folk hybrids. At their best, they’re so crushingly good that you could swear off rock-and-roll forever; at worst, they produce pop fluff with banjos instead of synths. The worst part is that they inevitably manage to pump out a few songs catchy enough to be mistaken for good, before you realize that they’re completely void of substance—and by that point, you’ve already shelled out $1.99 for the download.

I wouldn’t have minded missing their set entirely (which we almost did, after conceding that we had no cash and doubling back to a gas station to use the ATM). Fortunately, though, we made it just in time; we settled into our seats just as the arena darkened.

The Pines were actually pretty good, or at least they appeared to be as they premiered their first few songs on the sparse stage, which would only be revealed in all its glory when the headliners appeared. More alt-rock than folk, guitars heavy on distortion, lyrics borderline incomprehensible with an edge of gloomy mysticism. They played without ornament, except for one: a symmetrical geometric design that hung starkly against the backdrop, glowing like a jewel under the stage lights. It was hard to tell if the structure merely reflected the lights, or if it glowed on its own accord, but nonetheless there was something hypnotic about it. Nadia certainly seemed taken with it, her eyes barely considering the scruffy musicians onstage below.

Put off in a way I couldn’t quite place, I averted my eyes and watched the ground instead. It seemed many ticketholders had been as ambivalent as I. From our seats in the balcony, we could see plainly that the floor section hadn’t filled up yet – not even close. The small crowd was clustered tightly at the foot of the stage, creating the sort of sardine-packed conditions that would have spawned a mosh pit, if this had been the kind of show where people moshed. The crowds were sparser elsewhere, and general admission was virtually empty except for two little girls dancing a few feet back.

The girls, who I could see barely beyond silhouette, appeared a tad too young to be into either of these bands. Brought by parents, I assumed—likely sisters, since the height differential was too great for them to have been close in age. The taller of the girls looked to be about twelve; the other, at least a foot shorter, could have been anywhere between eight and ten. They were perhaps bored, but made their own fun holding hands and dancing together—not to the beat of the music, which was dense and almost gothic in tone, but to some private jig inside their heads.

An image popped into my head of fairies frolicking in a field, arms locked, creating magic in their steps, their eyes peering into some other world within and beyond their glittering circle.

As I watched, the taller of the girls skipped towards the crowd and took a woman by the hand. Her mother, I assumed. The woman turned to face her and, after what looked like a beat of hesitation, walked with her over to where the younger girl was standing. Bringing her into the dance, I thought, just as the smaller girl raised her foot and delivered a strong kick to the woman’s knee.

The woman grabbed her leg as it buckled, her head thrown back in anguish. I grabbed Nadia’s arm. “Nadia , are you seeing this?” But she brushed me off. She was half-watching the band on stage, her eyes rivetted to the glowing jewel.

I glanced frantically down to where assault had taken place, thinking my eyes must have deceived me. The woman was on her knees now, seemingly helpless as the little girls continued to accost her with kicks and punches. She raised her arms to protect her head, and the tall girl seized her by the wrist, wrestling with her arms to pull her shirt off over her head. The woman convulsed in what looked like a sob as her bra was unclasped.

 

“Nadia—”

 

“Shush. I’m trying to listen.”

Onstage, The Pines were swaying, singing some stripped-down song that could have been a hymn or a lament, filling the air with gently swelling guitars. The audience was enjoying it, bobbing along the way our crowds do when they approve of something (as a city of bureaucrats , we don’t generally dance). Their gazes were entirely fixed to the stage. No one saw what was going on behind them.

When the woman had been thoroughly stripped, the beating continued. She wasn’t defending herself anymore; she was either too dazed, or she had given up. Flinching from the blows, she lay on the concrete floor, not even bothering to curl into a full fetal position. Merciless, the girls bent towards her, each taking one of her hands, and began to drag her towards the crowd.

Someone would help her now, I thought. Even if they’d missed the initial assault, they wouldn’t be able to miss this. At least, unless they trample her first. But the audience was too sedate even for that; every person in the crowd was standing perfectly still, heads raised slightly to admire the glow of the jewel as it pulsated to the atonal shimmer of the music. It was eerie.

 

I grabbed Nadia and shook her. “Nadia, look at what’s happening!”

 

“What, Harriet?” she snapped. “I can’t hear you over the music.”

 

I could barely hear her, now. The sound emanating from the stage was growing louder and louder, but it wasn’t music now, just a discordant droning that sounded like a mothership taking off. Nonetheless, the whole arena was captivated. You could hear a pin drop in the stands. Until, without any apparent provocation, the back row turned.

It wasn’t just one or two people who pivoted to face the girls and their victim – a whole row of standers suddenly twisted, their line pulsing like a slithering worm until the disturbance spread, turning the whole crowd into a shuddering blob. The villains stared them down unrepentant, the slack arms of the beaten woman still drooping from their hands.

I didn’t even try to get Nadia’s attention this time. I just watched, my heart scarcely daring to beat.

As the girls prepared to cross the threshold and wade towards the stage, the crowd parted for them, watching reverently as the concrete darkened with a trail of blood and bodily fluids. Above them, the strange ululating music still blared from the loudspeakers, but no one was listening anymore.

The band stopped when the girls reached the foot of the stage.

Finally, sanity, I thought. A security guard ran over to separate the woman from her assailants, lifting her body in his strong arms and cradling her as if she were a child. Just as I was heaving a sigh of relief, the guard turned to the stage and handed her to one of the band members.

“What the fuck?” I hissed, only for Nadia to shush me again.

Onstage, the lead singer had picked up his microphone and was half-singing, half-muttering some words that I’d never before heard formed by a human tongue. The guitarists were no longer playing, and the drummer was curled up silently behind his kit, rocking back and forth. The musician who had claimed the body was the keyboardist, and without a word he walked back to his instrument and set her down on top of it, her limbs hanging lifelessly off the edges, a sacrifice atop an altar. An awful discordance came from the instrument as every key was hit.

The singer increased his volume to be heard over the reverberations of the keyboard. At the back of the stage, the drummer staggered to his feet and began to root around a stack of guitar cases lying half-open near the curtain. When he finally stood upright, he was holding a very long, very sharp knife.

The drummer walked haltingly, his body shaking and jerking as if revolting against what he was about to do. But it was no matter. As soon as he was within arm’s reach of the woman, he plunged the knife into her stomach. The woman awakened then, sitting upward with a jolt. The piano chimed accordingly. The drummer passed the knife to the keyboardist, who shoved it once again into her body. Her scream was so loud, unamplified, that I could hear it from the balcony. The next wound, delivered by the guitarist, punctured her ribs. She made no more sounds after that.

The penultimate assailant was the bassist, who theatrically licked her blood from the blade before passing it to the lead singer. The victim, all but completely incapacitated, made one last attempt to jerk herself free, before the singer grabbed her by the hair and slit her throat.

The singer took the mic again, and with the sort of sheepish politeness of up-and-comers, said: “Thank you all so much for being such a great audience. This will be our last song. But first, we want to bring out a few special guests.”

And I watched, dumbfounded, as the five larger-than-life members of the headlining band, my favourite band, a band I’d seen dozens of times in venues small enough to see the sweat dripping off of them, emerged to take turns drinking the blood of the murdered woman. Once slaked, they headed back behind the curtain without a word, and the Pines began their final song.

It was a toe-tapper – a ukulele-flecked jig that I’m pretty sure I’d heard featured in a car commercial, and have had stuck in my head ever since. They bowed as they left the stage. Seconds later, a roadie ascended the stairs with a mop.

“They were pretty good, I thought,” Nadia was saying, holding my hand with her left and her cell phone in her right. She was tweeting a photo from the show.

 

“Great set by @The_PinesBand at @CDNEvntCtr. Not usually a big folk fan but these guys can play. Pumped for the headliner now! #datenight.”

 

I was numb. Was I losing my mind?  

Maybe it had all been part of the act, I thought desperately. A shock rock thing. I tested the theory. “Yeah. Reminded me a bit of Alice Cooper.”

Nadia looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head. “How so?”

“Just…their general vibe,” I muttered, craning my head to scan the faces of the gathering crowds. Had anyone seen? Did anyone understand? Why was no one fleeing the arena?

“You’re a weirdo,” Nadia said, and kissed me on the cheek. “Come on, let’s grab an overpriced beer. I wonder how long this intermission is?”

Everyone was so fucking calm. They patiently lined up for the bathroom and impatiently lined up for beer. They loitered around the arena stretching their legs and making idle chit-chat, all smiles, obediently returning to their seats just in time for the second half of the show. Nadia was in a fine mood. Everyone was in a fine mood. I wanted to scream, until that tyrannical normalcy descended on me and I found myself back at the balcony, sitting on top of my coat and sipping a Bud Light Lime, waiting for the concert to begin.

 

The headliners? They put on a great show. Incredible, actually.

 

Just as good as they used to be.

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