Imaginal Landscapes and Wyrd Truths: An Interview with Andy Sharp of English Heretic

Andy Sharp is a writer and multimedia artist. His English Heretic project has released ten albums and magazines since its inception in 2003. Andy Sharp is also a scholar of neuroscience, a translator of coded landscapes, a playful humourist, a practitioner of mimetic magic, a reflective fanatic, a subterranean explorer and a creative mythologist. His most recent work The English Heretic: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography is published by Repeater Books. Part countercultural history of England, part ghost story and part magickal psychogeography it has been hailed as a ‘tour de force through contemporary occult and popular culture, a madly spinning windmill of the mind’ (Marcus Williamson). It is this extraordinary publication which provides the point of departure for inquiry by John Pilgrim on behalf of Folk Horror Revival.

JP: The English Heretic Collection has been described as ‘a visionary field report based on fifteen years of deep-vein travel to England’s strangest landscapes’. The introduction by Dean Kenning describes your book as the setting out of ‘magico-creative devices’ illustrating your creative intent ‘to make meaning in search of imaginal truth’. This latter description seems to lie at the heart of your work. What are the formative influences in your life which have led to this inter-twined fascination for curious landscapes and their imaginal re-making? And how has your life path been shaped as a consequence over the decades?

AS: In terms of formative experience of curious landscapes, it really comes from my memory of childhood play and that even the most mundane streets could be transformed into TV and film stage sets. I distinctly recall playing in our front garden with other kids, one particular May evening in 1974, following an episode of Dr. Who called Planet of the Spiders. I remember getting the other children to sit around and chant the Buddhist mantra that the sect in Dr Who were using to invoke the spider goddess from a distant planet. This memory conflated with my adult life in the early 2000s, when I was raising a young family. Weekends would invariably involve visits to all these commercialised ruins curated by English Heritage. I was interested in a way to subvert our leisure time (inspired by the anarchist writer Bob Black) and also to invoke the transcendent childhood capacity for suspension of disbelief.

As I guess my adolescent imagination developed, I found myself attracted more to the placement of uncanny, explicitly baroque or ancient within the mundane landscape. I did my degree in Liverpool, and I used to go past Mackenzie’s pyramid every day in the middle of the city. I was always thinking, “something needs to be done about its imaginative possibilities…”, Egyptian yet sci-fi, definitely a stargate to somewhere. English Heretic was very much an explicit attempt to trespass through these kind of portals.

From an intellectual perspective, obviously the imaginal focus comes from the psychologist James Hillman and visionary writers like Ballard. Into this brew, there’s the French alchemist Fulcanelli who read all kinds of hermetic signs from the carvings on Notre Dame Cathedral. His book The Mystery of the Cathedrals is full of erudite punning and linguistic chicanery, and that inspired my mercurial approach to all these exoteric signs and augurs.

Durham Cathedral

My life path has been radically altered by the last two decades of creativity. I had planned for the English Heretic project to be a gateway of cursory research to fecundate a season of fiction based on the places I was visiting and “interacting” with. But the metafictional approach took over and the result has been these weirdly dream-like documentaries — kind of like an occult World in Action. The anthology I hope reveals the organic trajectory, and somewhere I say I seem to be now inhabiting the interstices between Cielo Drive, the witch houses of Suffolk and the false corridors of Rosemary’s Baby. So that’s the consequence, I now transmit from a countercultural nightmare of the idyll.

JP: The Blood on Satan’s Claw is well known as one of the unholy trinity of original folk horror films. Your chapter A Black Plaque for Angel Blake: Murderous Coven Leader explores several twisted aspects of this film and will naturally be of keen interest to Folk Horror Revivalists. The introduction to this chapter includes a line of particular resonance in relation to the continuing dark fascination of Blood on Satan’s Claw – and indeed, your own work more generally: ‘The sinister and the absurd often shadow each other when we follow those private contours to the most desolate geographies of our obsessions.’ Perhaps you could entice readers with a précis or your thinking here in relation to Angel Blake and your own research?

AS: I follow and conflate two threads in the chapter on Angel Blake. I visited the locations for the film back on May-eve 2005. A very atmospheric valley and woodland called Bix Bottom, nestled between the Chilterns. I used the date and the ceremonial scenes film in the ruined church as a superimposition of May tree cults discussed by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. There’s a chapter in that book called The Triple Muse, which is a brilliant occult rendering of Robin Hood, Maid Marian and mock May marriages. Graves sees these figures as the black ram and pucelle of a coven. It struck me that, presumably entirely unconsciously, the mock marriage in The Blood on Satan’s Claw was a perverse mirror of Graves’ speculations.

St. James’ Old Church Bix Bottom

Secondly, Robert Wynne Simmons the scriptwriter of BoSC, consciously overlaid the case of Mary Bell as a then contemporaneous parallel to Angel Blake. I took these threads to their absurd, yet terrifying conclusion, suggesting that there are lethal pagan neuro-programmes buried in our cortical substrata, that might be awakened – by trauma .. or overheated psychogeographical excursions. This conceit itself being an occult riff and satire on John Lilly’s LSD/Ketamine research in floatation tanks, where he ‘discovered’ similar lethal programs. Mary Bell murdered one of her victims on Lammas eve and left a note on a school blackboard – “I muder [sic] that I May come back”. I play on the idea that was a hint at some sense of pagan reincarnation – sinister and absurd, obviously.

St Mary’s, Hurley, the location of the graveyard scene in BoSC

The Black Plaque scheme was really an organically evolved series of rapports with various tragic biographies. Certainly not a curated list of eccentrics, but more a sense of intrusion by restless spirits – clown demons on the periphery of a magic circle of my consciousness. In a sense a coven of obsessions. I see Angel Blake as the kind of high priestess of this inner cult.

JP: You have previously said that the important point about myth is we don’t know we’re living in it at the time. Your book maps out the working of a dazzling array of myths: classical, folkloric, occult, urban and otherwise. Now that your book has been published and you have the luxury of documented hindsight, which myths would you say have been most meaningful to you personally? And, if I may nudge this line of inquiry a little further, are there any myths which you think have particular resonance to where we now find ourselves as a society?

AS: I think the most evolved myth in the book revolves around the world immediately in the aftermath of the JFK assassination, but viewed from a medieval perspective. It’s very much already a gold standard of the killing of the corn king. By looking at the synchronicities around the day of his assassination – both Aldous Huxley and C.S Lewis died on the 22nd of November within hours of Kennedy, along with other pop culture phenomena – The Beatles’ world conquering second album also released on that day, all these explosions of significance created a whole new potential story. Moreover, we also saw the emergence of the camera as a tool of necromancy in the forensic spiritualism at Dealey Plaza. The dark room as a séance room parlour to discover all these spectres along the grassy knoll – the badgeman and all the other phantoms of our search for truth.

I think one of the overarching myths that dominates social media is that of Narcissus. This whole idea of pathological narcissism maybe needs revisiting from a more sympathetic perspective. It’s a pity James Hillman isn’t around, as I’d be very interested in his take. He was always adamant that the “Gods are in the disease”. We could say that the whole notion of posting selfies at fun and exotic locations might not actually be such a vain thing. It might be an attempt via technology to ensoul us in the world, or ensoul the world in our image. A more sympathetic view of our mythic foibles might prevent them emerging in a toxic light and subsume them as part of the whole human condition.

JP: JG Ballard is clearly a writer of great significance for you. What do you think he would have made of the viral world in which we are now living? More generally, I wonder if you have any thoughts on how the current pandemic might amplify or change the course of some the currents which you have been writing about?

AS: Ballard’s final two books Millennium People and Kingdom Come were concerned with what he called fascism light, these odd cults of the radicalised middle class. He was definitely onto something that’s manifested in the anti-vaxxers, anti-mask marches and the burning down of G5 transmitters, so I’d imagine that would be his interest.

There’s the story “The Intensive Care Unit”, that he wrote in the 70s, about a family that had never actually met each other. Their whole lives were mediated by television. I mean this is basically government policy in 2020. And when they did meet they killed each other. I think that is very much a warning of the fall out of these very necessary privations, that they’ll be an epidemic of social malaise and real difficulties readjusting following the pandemic.

But there’s also an emancipatory desire that we are less inclined to admit to… that we don’t actually want to be part of the capitalist machine, you see this in his story “The Enormous Space”. Could it also be that there might be an egalitarian epiphany against the machine as a lingering side effect of the lockdowns?

In terms of my own currents. I was actually reading a whole bunch of British Dystopian fiction in the lead up to the first lockdown. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass was frighteningly relevant. I’ve had to postpone a lot of travel plans across the UK this year, but have been exploring a lot of London locations. The city emptied, creates something like 28 Days Later for sure. Again, it’s spotting the small dislocations in the landscape that provide the germ for more hyperbolic visions. I was walking near Tottenham Court Road in the summer, absolutely deserted apart from a gaggle of Deliveroo riders. I checked out some locations and walked up to Warren Street, only to see one of the Deliveroo riders taken out at a junction by a massive black BMW, with blacked out windows. Immediately you’re in a cross between Death Race 2000and one of Ballard’s final novels… where the only sport available is to cruise about in your car looking for hapless delivery people, the only people out and about in the lockdown world. I’d imagine that BMW was probably remote controlled from a Wii console by a gleeful family in a living room nearby. Thankfully the rider was OK though, and I’m sure it was an accident, but…

Memento Mori at Anwoth Kirk

JP: The act of writing is an inherently creative activity in which the writer creates new worlds: both imaginary and, potentially, real. Similarly, through the act of composing and performing music composers and musicians also enable new experiences and ways of being. Magick of course has been defined by someone who might know as the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will. Through the English Heretic project you have been actively engaged in creative practices across all three of these domains. Reflecting on your own your experiences, including those in your book, what reflections do you have on the similarities and points of connection between these different facets of creativity? Do you see yourself as ploughing a deep and largely solitary furrow or are there writers, musicians and practitioners who you see as kindred spirits in a shared endeavour?

AS: I always had a tendency toward creative synaesthesia, where one working in one medium inspires another. A piece of writing suggests a soundtrack, or a collage provokes some literary idea. English Heretic’s been a complete exhaustion of this tendency, and as I wrote in a recent mail out, the music and writing are undergoing a period of conscious uncoupling… I think I’ve taken this heavily codified creative form as far as I want to. To a degree, the mixed media format approach has made me appreciate more the discreet differences between music and writing. That they operate best when playing to their strengths. Music being a constellation of fractured phrases and irreducible emotions.

With regard to magic practice and fiction, they are so intertwined in my experience, that they might well be the same operation. The kind of writing employed in English Heretic is fuelled by disciplines such as astral projection or active imagination. Together with the physicality of place that has definitely given me access to this uneasy “dangerous archetypal reality” that Artaud called for. Dangerous not in some kind of morally or politically transgressive way, but certainly in a psychic way. The precipices here are marked – “Danger of paranoia and madness”. Luckily though, there’s a touch of Garth Marenghi about all “these dangerous archetypal realities” to break the fall.

In this sense that leads me onto kindred spirits – not so much in the writing, it feels like a private and idiosyncratic world view, eccentric but in a sense sublimating all the potentially overwhelming signals. That said, though the approach might be different, there’s the US website We Are The Mutants that I feel taps into a kindred critical perspective on Cold War pop culture. A serious attempt to look at the midden of the 70s without the rose-tinted spectacles of comfy nostalgia. That there is really para-political half-life in this radioactive material.

In terms of music, I tend to feel kinship with records that achieved results that I’ve tried and by my own reckoning failed to achieve. A couple of standout examples:

Mount Vernon Arts Lab – Seance at Hobs Lane. I am still astounded at how this record manages to create these perfect psychogeographic soundtracks. Pieces like “The Black Drop” and “Warminster IV” absolutely execute that sense of creative synaesthesia. I think Drew’s skill was not to rely on a heavily codified take on the people and places he was scoring.

Justin Hopper/Sharron Kraus – Chanctonbury Rings. The whole package here with Ghost Box achieves something I never feel like I’ve been able to execute. Obviously Julian House’s artwork creates part of its hermetic appeal, but the call and response between the spoken word and the musical annotations is very poised, neither tread on each other’s toes, and it creates a completely convincing radio documentary broadcasting in the early afternoon on a Bakelite radio in a sun suffused Belbury kitchen.

JP: In one of your chapters you refer to Peter Carroll’s book on chaos magick Liber Kaos and introduce his concept of an imaginary time dimension known as ‘shadow time’. You quote Carroll’s dictum: “If you can convincingly alter your own creative memory then you will modify your future creative actions as a consequence”. There’s a fair degree of complexity to this, but perhaps you could share a fairly straight forward example of how this thinking has played out for you in relation to your English Heretic project?

AS: This quote was actually an adaptation of Carroll’s dictum: “If you can convincingly alter your own memory then you will modify your future actions as a consequence”.

I’ve never really been into magic to fulfil personal desires, whether cursing or seducing, this always feels a bit creepy and stalkerish. Pretty early on, I felt the real use of this kind of “results magick” was to hack our own subconscious for purely creative purposes. So here, I am saying – we have our creative memory of influences, but what if we “hack” those, how would this change our creative output “now”. An example might be: say you want to make an album but instead of creating a playlist of music that you want to inspire the sound, write a set of songs as an imaginary playlist for your work. Keep this private, thereby holding the tension of creative sacrifice, and listen to it solidly for a couple of years, before making your new music. That said, I’ve never had the time to do this, explicitly for the project!

During EH, it’s been more a process of creatively hacking the present, rather than an imaginary past. I did a fake pathworking based on text abstracted from Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds that really did achieve some weird hack and took the project on a massive detour into WWII hauntings. I think this is the closest to that dictum I’ve strayed. I am interested in using occultism within fiction and metafiction. I’ve recently re-read Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night and his use of the Picatrix in that book is fascinating. Basically, the cities are an invocation for lucid dreaming from the PicatrixCities of the Red Night is fuelled by very hyper-realised rituals, all that sex magick that Clem Snide does, that are not just fiction but magickal operations in the process of writing the book.

JP: One of the locations which you document in your book is Orford Ness in Suffolk. Having been there myself I can entirely understand why this place should exert such an influence on your imaginative experience. Other writers and artists too have documented the Ness in recent times including Robert Macfarlane, Adam Scovell and Drew Mulholland. For those who aren’t familiar with Orford Ness, could you give us a flavour of what they might encounter here and how your imagination and the physical location have intertwined?

AS: Orford Ness feels like a massively “coded landscape”, a term Ballard uses a lot; very much like some of the terrains described in The Atrocity Exhibition. The buildings, angular, like dolmens or Buddhist cemeteries, their names cryptic and threatening, “The Black Beacon” etc. All these situated on a sparse shingle spit. They are like chess pieces in a dangerous game.

Bridge at Orford Ness

So very interesting from a military psychological perspective, but I also play on the place as a power centre of destructive occultism – what Robert Anton Wilson describes as illth – vast technological investments to bring about annihilation. Orford Ness was where they tested the detonators for the British Atomic bomb project. So conceptually, I’ve fused a Ballardian reading of the place with that of the occultist Kenneth Grant, who was obsessed with the Qliphoth – the shells of humanity’s progress and dayside.

My friend Agnes Villette recently introduced me to the idea of nuclear semiotics, the need to preserve a cautionary folklore against nuclear facilities that store radioactive waste. I am kind of doing a similar thing with Orford Ness, looking at its occult purpose from the far future, what these bizarre buildings might really mean – the stone pagodas that absorbed the detonation shocks will one day look like the temples of a concrete animism, because that’s what they are… future memories of an innate belief in a martial religion.

JP: My final question is ‘Where next?’ for English Heretic? What would you like to achieve and what are your hopes for how people might engage with your work?

AS: Well the anthology closes English Heretic, the offer of doing an anthology came from Tariq at Repeater, at probably just the right time for me. I had just left Suffolk to live in London, the whole notion of Englishness was something that had soured with Brexit. I’ve always been a massive Europhile. But I am busily writing the end papers for the country. I had intended to do a final zombie apocalypse for the project but have decided to write under my own name. There’s the first draft of a duology completed.

As for music, I’ve been working on a project called Nightmare,a subversion of Max Richter’s Sleep, for about three years. That might get released in 2021, though I am not hurrying it, obviously! I am doing some music with Grey Malkin, a couple of singles, we hope, but there won’t be any more English Heretic music. I’ll keep the site and name on the web as a place to keep folk updated on new work. In reference to the question about “shadow time”, I am really looking forward to seeing the vines and moss grow over and around English Heretic, because I am sure there will be new and horrific spores waiting in the creative soil of its decay.

I really hope folk find the work “psychedelic piracy on the high seas of history” as I mentioned in the book somewhere. That these are dream documentaries from an occult parallel – Panorama. That satire can be libidinal, satyre with a “y”. I also hope they enjoy and appreciate the writing style as that is as important and as crucial to the magickal formula to me as the content.

JP: Thank you so much Andy for your generous engagement. On behalf of Folk Horror Revival, we wish you all the very best for the future.

John Pilgrim with The English Heretic Collection

***********

The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magical Geography is available from https://repeaterbooks.com

Andy Paciorek’s review of The English Heretic Collection for Folk Horror Revival: https://bit.ly/38pjSYm

The recordings of English Heretic are available at https://englishheretic.bandcamp.com

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