Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Scarfolk. That name! One to be uttered alongside Derry, Maine. Or R’lyeh. A place where that creepy clown from the television test pattern lives. A place where brutalist architecture never died, where clothing is all artificial material, everything has a fried egg in it, and the world is viewed through builders’ tea, smeared glasses and an obsidian doorway into another world.
It’s a pretty appealing place, and one that’s been charted over here since 2013. It’s the sort of place Morrissey would sing about, and it mines the same sort of creepo-nostalgia vibe that powers the Ghost Box record label: something that’s so enmeshed in 1970s almost-crap culture, but given a spin into the uncanny. It’s culture jamming in the vein of Spiritualized’s cover for Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was – it wears enough of the skin of its target to cover the fucking weirdness inside.
What Littler creates is genuinely unsettling: repurposed book covers with a Satanic bent, self-help pamphlets with only terror at their core, and community announcements reeking of woe. Their design is perfect, and seems familiar somehow, albeit from a world where harshness is endorsed, rather than hidden from view.
The problem lies not in the design, but in the rest of the book. Littler’s graphic work conjures so effective a world that the presentation of a story to justify the graphic elements seems to work against that world-building aim. The narrative of capture and The Prisoner-style drugged confinement seems weaker than the visuals which accompany it. Rather than continuing the eeriness already established by the Scarfolk the Internet’s come to love, the story in these pages seems to veer a little far into knob-joke silliness.
I still enjoyed reading the book, but I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the copy is at cross purposes with the terrifying book covers and weirdly omniscient council. Seeing some jokes crop up again and again also diminishes the impact. It’s a shame, because I desperately wanted to love this book, and I found I didn’t. I guess it’s difficult for the author: there has to be something to draw a line through the collection of information within – but I found the characters written about here were of less interest than the shadowy bodies whose pronouncements papered the town’s walls.
Maybe the next Scarfolk book will be a collection of the graphic work presented on its own, with no extra sauce. It’s that – the just-off-station blip, the ghost in the TV signal – that makes the subject appealing. It doesn’t need jokey names or a half-cooked plot. It just needs to exist: the mind of the reader will do the rest.