Review: Eloko by Mike Buckingham
The Wentwood Tales, a series of individually published short stories inspired by or influenced by the writing of the Caerleon- born Arthur Machen concludes with “Eloko,” a suitably dark story about a terrifying creature living in the midst of the trees.
It’s an atmospheric setting, that’s for sure. As Machen himself put it, there is ‘Something strange in the shape of the wild Grey Hills…something outland in these greeny dells of Wentwood.’
Wentwood is a suitably outlandish setting for the the story, being a part of the largest block of ancient woodland in Wales and a remnant of a continuous forest that once stretched from the River Usk to the Wye.
It is mentioned in ancient texts, such as the 12th-century Book of Llandaff and during the 15th century, it was the haunt of outlaws following the Welsh revolt against English rule, led by the prince, Owain Glyndŵr.
In 1584, a forest court known as the Speech Court of the Forest of Wentwood was established at the Foresters’ Oaks, two huge trees which no longer remain.
The trees that do remain in Wentwood such as oak and birch, ash and western hemlock make for a fine mosaic of wildlife habitats, where can be found the hazel dormouse, muntjac and fallow deer, goshawk and long-eared bat.
To this fine array of woodland species Mike Buckingham adds a very different kind of animal altogether – one to raise the hackles on the back of your neck and cause your sweat to run icy-cold:
It was a living thing, so horribly mis-shapen that its spine rose in a series of lumps and knots an inch above the trunk to which it was attached by thing buttresses of bone and gristle, leaving gaps between the vertebrae large enough to admit a finger.
The creature, with its head concluding in a ‘kind of gristly skirt or rim running down to the horrible spine’ is the eponymous Eloko of the story’s title, spotted by a member of the Home Guard as he visits a secret, underground supply store in the forest.
He’s a member of a ‘Secret Army’ of the Second World War, primed to resist German invasion should it ever happen. It’s the same covert force that features in Owen Sheers’ 2008 novel ‘Resistance’ which is set only a short way away from Wentwood, as the raven flies.
The true, if perplexing identity of the mysterious creature – presumed to be a deformed runt of a pig’s litter, or even an exotic animal escaped from a city zoo – is revealed by an Oxford anthropologist who suggests it was originally found in the forests of Africa, as if it has been displaced by climate change, or wandered in from some completely different story.
The tale of the various encounters with the Wentwood beast is suitably atmospheric, chill and creepy, as befits any work that finds its departure point or spring board in the fiction of Arthur Machen, who has duly inspired a range of authors over the years such as Stephen King and Clive Barker.
Along the way there are plenty of other real-world horrors, those of the war itself, with its relentless butchery and savagery, stories of massacres in Belgium, murderous hot-blooded combat, suicide squads and prisoners of war clubbed to death with rifle butts.
It’s no coincidence that Buckingham has written extensively about war in other books and served himself in the Royal Air Force, in which he served both in Europe and the Middle East.
This gives his writing about division in the ranks and the chatter among the men a solid spine of authenticity. But he also writes about deeper matters, such as bloodlust and the way in which soldiery can feel like a sublimation of an old, old instinct for hunting.
Mike Buckingham therefore closes the series of Wentwood with a tightly-wrought fiction that, one imagines, devotees of Arthur Machen’s own spine-chillers would relish.
It’s a tale for the late hours, when darkness wraps itself around the trees and when the candles threaten to gutter in the draughts, when the strangest creatures are abroad and snuffling for blood, when it would be a very foolish thing indeed to wander down to the woods, where the shadows darken to a terrible, suffocating black.
Go there if you dare. Go on.
Eloko is published by Three Impostors and you can buy a copy here.
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