The Lay of Old Hex: Spectral Ballads and Weird Jack Tales by Adam Bolivar
Hippocampus Press (October 2017)
328 pages, $20 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Adam Bolivar is a Romantic poet, specializing in the composition of metered and rhymed balladry, a traditional poetic form that taps into haunted undercurrents of folklore to produce spectral effects seldom found in other forms of writing. His poetry has appeared on the pages of such publications as Spectral Realms and Black Wings of Cthulhu VI, and a poem of his, “The Rime of the Eldritch Mariner,” won a Rhysling Award for long-form poetry. His collection of weird balladry and Jack tales, The Lay of Old Hex, was published by Hippocampus Press in 2017.
The Lay of Old Hex is primarily a collection of Jack tales. Jack tales focus on an archetypal hero, Jack, who is often portrayed as lazy or idle, but triumphs through wits, trickery, and occasionally magic. He has been compared with various trickster figures in folklore. These tales originated in England, and were transplanted to the United States, primarily in Appalachia. They were famously collected by Richard Chase, and have since been examined and studied by other folklorists.
Bolivar’s collection takes the Jack tales, and updates them for a modern horror audience. While many of his tales feature the typical folkloric characters and plots, there are also ghosts, demons, ghouls, as well as nods to Lovecraft and other horror greats. Bolivar primarily writes in a ballad style, which adds another layer of folk tradition to these tales. It’s very interesting for readers, especially readers well versed in folklore, to see how Bolivar constructs his narrative using classic folkloric tropes, but then manipulating them to add elements of eldritch horror and weird fiction. When these poems work, they work well, and are very successful.
Bolivar intersperses his poems with bits of prose, so that this book reads as a hybrid text. The prose is accessible and written well enough, and leads the reader into the next ballad successfully. At times, the language of the prose, especially that written in dialect, becomes burdensome, but patient readers will be able to muddle through. In the same way, Bolivar’s adherence to the ballad form is as much a weakness as a strength. At times, he is so intent on pursuing the plot of his ballad that he loses the descriptions and imagery that make for good poetry. Also, as with a lot of formal horror poetry, there are times the form takes precedence over content, and the lines are wrenched around unnaturally to maintain a rhyme scheme.
Overall, The Lay of Old Hex is a solid amalgam of classic folklore and modern horror. The combination of the Jack tales with elements of horror and weird fiction works well, and Bolivar makes the two seem like a natural fit with each other. It’s a fun, enjoyable read that horror and fantasy readers are sure to benefit from.