Richard Skelton: Interview and Review

Richard Skelton is an artist, musician and writer from Lancashire in northern England. His work is informed by landscape, evolving from sustained immersion in specific environments and deep, wide-ranging research incorporating ecology and geology, folklore, myth and language. He currently runs Corbel Stone Press with his wife, the Canadian poet, Autumn Richardson.

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Folk Horror Revival’s John Pilgrim recently caught up with Richard to make a few routine enquiries on matters of mutual interest and fascination. The responses set the scene for a reflective review by Foster Neville of Richard’s second novella ‘And Then Gone’.

FHR: Deepening the sensory connection with landscape is a central preoccupation in your work. How has your experience of landscape changed over the years and has it been different for you over the last year or so?

I’ve become increasingly interested in physicality — touch, weight, attrition, decay — and the internally transformative effect of contact. What you might call ‘contagious magic’. I’m also drawn more and more to the non-corporeal analogue of the physical. I’m not conventionally religious, but these lines from Paracelsus say it better than I can:

‘It is opposed to all true philosophy to say that flowers lack their own eternity. They may perish and die here; but they will reappear in the restitution of all things. Nothing has been created out of the Great Mystery which will not inhabit a form beyond the aether.’

As so much else has fallen away in the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to explore my local landscape more than ever before. Being restricted to a particular area has sharpened my focus, and I’ve been making more films and visual works as a result.

FHR: Please can you tell us about Corbel Stone Press – what is its purpose and how has it evolved over the years? Are there any publications or recordings which you would particularly recommend to those of a folk horror persuasion?

We publish books, pamphlets, music, artworks and editions that focus on landscape and the natural world. We’re particularly interested in the folkloric and mythical. ‘Reliquiae’, our biannual journal of prose, poetry and translations, might be of interest because, over the course of the past eight years, we’ve been trying to shed light on the other-than-human, primarily through the lens of world mythology. My previous novella, ‘The Look Away’, and its poetic companion, ‘Dark Hollow Dark’, might also appeal to your readers, as, like ‘And Then Gone’, they both present an immersion in the rural landscape that is far from bucolic.

FHR: You once buried and exhumed a violin. Can you say more about this and what you gained from the experience?

Yes, back in 2014 I interred a violin at Ouseburn, Newcastle, as part of a commission for the AV Festival. It was something I’d done privately before — albeit obliquely documented in my book, ‘Landings’ — and represents my most obvious experiment with contagious magic. I wanted the land to impart itself viscerally on the music that I was to create. It was a ritual surrender to telluric energies; an exchange with the genius loci.

FHR: We live in troubled times. Your work – whether sonic, written or visual – appears to offer a therapeutic aspect. Is this something which you have consciously developed?

It’s probably a truism to say that all artistic endeavour is therapeutic for the artist involved — so much so that for me it’s a compulsion. I feel ill at ease if I’m not working on something. But I don’t think about it beyond that. I try not to reflect on how a work might manifest whilst I’m working on it. In any case, much of what I create often doesn’t see the light of day. The process of creation itself is nearly always private. It’s a continual process, like an underground river that occasionally surfaces here and there.

FHR: What are your current projects and future plans?

I’ve spent much of the past 3 years researching a book that will be published on the summer solstice. It’s called ‘Stranger in the Mask of a Deer’, and it’s a kind of literary seance between the present and the Late-Upper Palaeolithic, some 15,000 years ago. This was the time when the land that became Britain began to emerge from the ice that covered northern Europe. I wanted to think about how humans of that time related to the land, and to plants and animals. It’s full of fear, violence and blood, but also a sense of equality and respect between humans and the other agencies of the natural world. There will also be an accompanying short film, entitled ‘Before Albion’.

Review of ‘And Then Gone’ by Foster Neville

Richard Skelton’s second novella, ‘And Then Gone’, charts the journey of a woman travelling back to her childhood home through a landscape which but for its lack of people would have been familiar to Northumberland poet Basil Bunting. The disaster which prompts this journey is never named but the protagonist’s ‘dense violent dreams/Dreamed with soul and body’ suggest perhaps the aftermath of a war; the woman returning like a ghost ‘to tell the story/Until the dawn command’1. Her special relationship with the emptied landscape is akin to a survivor and also that imagined of bog bodies, with their supposed deep involvement in the cycles of birth, death, harvest and renewal.

“In the country, where one can often see an entire parish from boundary to boundary, one can also often see one’s entire life. It is comforting – and painful”. (Roland Blythe, Divine Landscapes)

Just as the title itself works backwards from the last line, ‘And then gone’, one can profitably examine Richard Skelton’s book in light of its own back matter question: “Are our minds like the land? Bounded.” It is part of the deftness of touch evident in this work that the idea of mind as a narrative and the way such a narrative must break the rules of English sentence construction to communicate itself are allowed to shape this eloquent, poetical little book (205 pages of widely spaced ‘paragraphs’).

A cursory flick through the pages, a sensual pleasure not to be underestimated in this age of diminishing bookshops and physical contact, reveals beneath the thumb short, stanza-like ‘paragraphs’ which immediately made me think of ‘Vägmärken’ by Dag Hammarskjöld with its flashes of an inner history put into words. ‘And then gone’ however, is a work of creative fiction and therefore to be considered much more than a collection of pensèes. The reader, like a pilgrim, follows a path into a layered story which is very much concerned with flesh and spirit. It also has often a strong feel of initiation to it, together with the disorientation of the senses which accompany formal rituals. To understand this is the better to appreciate what comes next.

Picture a zoetrope, the vertical slits allowing only brief glimpses of images to give the illusion of the movement which is the definition of life. Between each slightly different image however, there is blackness, shadow. To slow down the movement of the zoetrope is to become more aware of the resonant space between. ‘And then gone’, as the title demonstrates, draws on the fact that there is no renewal in nature without loss; no light without shade. ‘And then gone’ also points to the erosion of things and how with that erosion come new stimuli. To continue a cinematic, or rather a theatrical analogy, the occasional Italics come across like stage directions: read in the wings and therefore contrasting the bright and thrilling light of the active stage. This is very fitting for a work which despite the fragmentary presentation (ambient sound – and the eerie silences found at old execution places, all manner of light and perfume), maintains dramatic development.

My old university tutor had a party trick, which was to take a copy of any book by Dickens and open it in the middle to show that here was to be found either the peak of action or the most telling point of the whole work. We were all quite convinced until later we discovered Dickens originally published in monthly parts, yet the habit to throw open a book in the middle and see what presents is hard to give up. Page 111 here feels like midway and we find:

His dreams now, full of her, her voice, the shape of her body. The longing of youth, a fire by the waters of adulthood. Revel in it, though it burns the skin.

The writing is never less than poetic. Rather suggestively, instead of the usual roman number IX – i.e. ten minus one – for nine, page 111 is preceded by a chapter/part marker of VIIII; breaking another rule, this time the rule of repeating ‘1’ more than three times being invalid. And this ahead of page 111. More ritual, more disorientation? But what I want to draw attention to here is why this is a particularly good book to read right now, because as of 2020 we have all developed skin hunger: we want the reassurance which comes only from human touch. As a book presented in stages, though leading to disappearance, this particular extract and where it appeared did make me reflect upon that brain surge which occurs at the ages of 14-17, and the connection to the next, higher brain level.

‘And then gone’, in spite of – or perhaps because of – its title is a far-seeing book. But it does not present a conventional way of looking any more than it presents a traditional way of laying out a book, or of organising words into sentences and those sentences into paragraphs. It is too easy to say the work is ‘impressionistic’, and in any case the details are always very clear and I have tried to emphasise that what one senses is less the light than the dark between. Certainly though there is landscape, there are textures. This is from the penultimate page:

The mist is thicker now. Rubbing at the shapes of things. Gathering about her.

And this is from ‘Vägmärken’ again:

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing”. – Meister Eckhart.

Truth, as I think most of us acknowledge now, is likely to be found at the edges of things. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say it is something we encounter at the edges of things, as to say ‘found’ is to suggest that such a truth could be possessed and somehow carried away from such a point with us (I’m conscious of straying into Damaris Parker-Rhodes territory here, and yet the pilgrim in us all should not be neglected and journeys are no longer the preserve of saints or great visionaries). Whatever our beliefs, we aspire to self-knowledge and to greater knowledge of the world about us; we seek places of revelation (Pendle, Lindisfarne) as we seek enlightenment. Our minds do appear to us a limited territory, to go beyond which means what many term madness. If we therefore can say our minds are bounded by sense, then by playing with that sense we can go beyond our minds to a different consciousness. The temporary dislocation from our normal perceptions and everyday world (close as that is to a working definition of Folk Horror; ) one could argue is an important part of the reading of any work of fiction, as it is of any ritual initiation ceremony.

What is it we encounter, once we move from our comfortable world? Field, hill, forest, river are sketched across with man’s symbols from earlier traditions. And not only his symbols. Were one to note all of the psychic happenings that have been recorded across England, there is not a single natural contour would be without a haunting of some sort. Telepathy has been suggested for that age-old phenomenon of the dying being seen by loved ones, often at great distances. Psychic happenings are all around us, and within us.

‘And then gone’ is available from corbelstonepress.com in paperback for £12.00.

Note:

1. ’Reveille’, Primo Levi, Translated Al Alvarez.

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