Stephen J. Clark’s The Satyr & Other Tales is an anthology of his earlier book releases The Satyr (2010) and The Bestiary of Communions (2011) now released as a paperback edition.
Uniting the 4 tales in a single anthology is a good move as the tales compliment each other and are united not only by all the tales being set around the times of the two world wars but there is also a thread of artistic significance that weaves through all the stories.
Beginning with the book’s eponymous tale The Satyr, we the readers, are taken into the world of the great artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare. Although familiar no doubt to many Folk Horror Revivalists, Spare’s star as one of Britain’s greatest lost artists has begun to deservedly shine more in the last decade, he is still too unknown a quantity in the wider public consciousness. Though he was accepted into the Royal Academy whilst still a teenager and reputedly asked by a pre-war Adolf Hitler to paint his portrait (which Spare refused), he faded into semi-obscurity living almost a hermitic (and hermetic) life, reportedly paying for beer with paintings and taking care of a clowder of stray cats in his small London home. Being a somewhat enigmatic and eccentric character in real life, he is suited to be cast as a character within fiction. For me however there is always a sense of reticence upon beginning any fictional tale that features real people – what if their characterisation is ill-fitting and totally alien to how I imagined that person? In this case my fears are unfounded, Clark’s personification of Spare is well crafted. For the most part Spare is represented by reputation within the tale as the mysterious ‘Borough Satyr’ but when we do get to meet him in person as it were, Clark’s portrayal of him is very much how I’d envision the nature of Spare. The main characters of the story however are an ex-con called Paddy and a strange visual artist he has took up with, who (her own name being unknown), is referred to as ‘Marlene Dietrich’ and her pursuer, a psychiatrist named Doctor Charnock. The story unfolds in WWII London during the aerial blitzkrieg as Marlene seeks to find Austin Osman Spare through the bombed out rubble of the nation’s capital and show him her portfolio of strange esoteric drawings and of Charnock’s endeavours to seize those drawings for her own purpose. A difference made by Clark and his publisher Swan River Press to the anthologised edition is the inclusion of Clark’s own drawings in the style of Spare. I am biased as I approve of illustrated books and I like it when authors illustrate their own work as it gives a greater insight into the original creative vision of the piece. Clark does this justice. The art certainly emulates Spare but not only does it illustrate the story, it is suggestive of what Marlene’s own portfolio would look like. The tale itself is an esoteric adventure of crime, war and occult drama.
Unfortunately Clark has not illustrated the second half of the book, the trinity of novellas that make up The Bestiary of Communion. It would have been interesting to see the tales illustrated in the author’s own hand or if he can evoke (invoke?) other artists as well as he has Spare, then illustrations in the manner of Bruno Schulz, Nicolai Kalmakoff and Marie Čermínová would be fitting as probably would be a style befitting Alfred Kubin, Hugo Steiner-Prag, the New Objectivity movement or others of that era and ilk. It is curious that earlier authors that came to mind in reading The Satyr, literally made their presence more apparent in the triumvirate that followed.
In the first of the Bestiary Tales, The Horned Tongue, a bookseller in Amsterdam, comes to learn that there were secrets about his late wife that he would never have imagined. My mind had flitted to the Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, upon the introduction of a key character and it becomes apparent that readers familiar with that book are intentionally led down that path. I found this theme that recurs of having real creative luminaries inspiring and influencing the texts intriguing.
The Lost Reaches is the next tale and possibly the one that sidesteps most from early 20th Century European gritty post-decadence into the world of surrealism as refugees take sanctuary in an art-house nestled in the Carpathian mountains. Again another author whom passed through my mind in reading Clark’s work first came to mind and then manifestation. This time the remembrance of Bruno Schulz makes an appearance. Schulz, a Polish-Jewish artist and writer, whose work has been brought to the screen and a wider audience by both the visionary film director Wojciech Jerzy and the master animators The Brothers Quay, was tragically murdered by the Nazi regime during WWII.
Finally in a re-working of his novella My Mistress The Multitude, now renamed The Feast of the Sphinx (personally I preferred the first title, but I appreciate the name change in differentiating the versions) takes us to Prague whereby a strange chimeric Countess becomes the focus of attention and obsession in a time where the imminent arrival of invading Germanic troops into the city is a cause of profound dread.
These collected tales of Stephen J. Clark put me in mind of several notable authors – in addition to those mentioned above I perceived shades of Franz Kafka, JK Huysmans and Gustav Meyrink. That is not a complaint but a compliment. Clark’s writing is not derivative of these authors, his work is not a pastiche – it is just a case that his vision and settings are evocative of those times and souls and this book can stand alongside the works of these authors on its own merits. The Satyr & Other Tales may very well then be of interest to folk who like that strain of weird fiction that rose from the bones of Fin de Siècle decadent Europe, through secessionist expressionism and entartete kunst to interbellum and post-war surrealism. But how would it fare to the general reader? You do not need to be familiar with the artists and writers that cast a spell upon Clark’s tales – indeed his stories may be the gateway to discovering those creatives if previously unfamiliar with them and your curiosity piqued. But the tales need the reader’s attention, they are likely not suitable for a light summer holiday read but would suit dark nights and long rainy days.
Intriguing work, unknown to me upon its original release but that I’m very pleased to have caught The Satyr & Other Tales this time around.
Having previously reviewed John Towlson’s wonderful Candyman monograph from the Devil’s Advocates series from Auteur books, I was delighted to receive another two books from the collection with some serious folk horror credentials. The books in question are David Evans-Powell’s monograph of The Blood on Satan’s Claw and Brandon Grafius’ treatment on The Witch.
The Devil’s Advocates range is aimed at exploring the classics of horror cinema, and the contributors are generally firmly entrenched in that world via careers in academia, journalism or through their own contributions to the literature of horror. What is evident from the very beginning is that those who have been asked to write these books are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject matter and whilst the books have a certain academic quality to the writing they are never overly wordy or impenetrable.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw by David Evans-Powell
One of the unholy triumvirate of films that are deemed the very cornerstones of the Folk Horror movement, Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) is a supernatural horror movie set in a small rural English village in the 18th century. After the discovery of a sinister looking skull in a freshly ploughed field, a series of bizarre occurrences take place among the village’s young people culminating in a ritual rape and human sacrifice. In recent years the film has become a classic of the Folk Horror genre and David Evans-Powell’s monograph is a thorough and interesting delve into the film’s history, looking at its position within the Folk Horror oeuvre, its relationship to the landscape and nature, and its socio-political message, particularly its relationship to the late 60s and early 70s counterculture.
The book is divided up into series of different sections, the first provides a brief synopsis of the film and an introduction that places the film within the context of the time it was made, and in relation to other films of the time. The next section looks at the film’s production and reception, this introduces the reader to some of the key figures involved in making Blood on Satan’s Claw such a runaway success. There are sub-sections on cinematographer Dick Bush, director Piers Haggard, composer/musician Marc Wilkinson and screenwriter Robert Wynne-Simmons, as well as the film’s production that provide a lot of valuable information about the film’s genesis and how it all came together. The next couple of sections deal with the importance of the landscape and how it is used in the film, as well as looking at nature and the way the setting juxtaposes the simple superstition of the rural setting with that of the rational, enlightened city (London).
Beyond that Evans-Powell delves into ideas about a past the refuses to be forgotten, the concept of “reviving forgotten horrors” to paraphrase the great Patrick Wymark in his role as the judge. This section is interesting and provides some fascinating and detailed discussion of our pagan past. The final section is called Anarchy in the UK and features a fairly in-depth discussion of the film’s relationship to the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s, particularly the darker side of that movement with a focus on the Manson murders and English child murderer Mary Bell.
Evans-Powell has written a powerful and fascinating monograph that is very readable. He manages to cram a lot of intriguing detail into such a short book yet it never feels as though the reader is overloaded with information, and it always feels relevant and interesting.
The Witch by Brandon Grafius
The second of our two books is a monograph based around the Robert Eggars film The Witch. Much like Blood on Satan’s Claw the film has become synonymous with the Folk Horror movement and has achieved a similar status as a classic of the genre. If Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General are the classic unholy triumvirate, The Witch is one of the titles that fits the bill as their modern equivalent, alongside films like Kill List, November, In the Earth and Midsommar it sits at the forefront of the Folk Horror revival.
Brandon Grafius is a Professor of Biblical studies at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, and is well noted for his writing on the subject of religion and horror. The book is heavy on facts and Grafius provides some tremendous background information about the time in which the film is set. Eggars himself spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on researching the period in order to bring the film a realness. Grafius does much the same for the study of the film, and after delving into New England’s puritan past and considering the context of the witch trials that took place in the late 17th century, he takes the reader on a whistle stop journey through the realms of literature, cinema and folklore in order to place The Witch within the context of what we call folk horror. The sections on The Witch as folk horror and the folklore associated with the film and witchcraft in general are excellent, well researched and kept me hooked in. These are followed by a section discussing the film’s main characters, that features some interesting analysis of not only the family and their flawed existence but even Black Philip himself.
Much like Evans-Powell’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Witch is a well-researched and beautifully written monograph that provides a fascinating and in-depth study of a classic film in around a hundred pages. As with the previously reviewed Candyman it has be said that Auteur have really come up trumps with this wonderful series of short monographs looking at the classics of horror cinema. I have already started to build a list of the other titles in the series that I need to check out.
It’s grim up north … actually it’s not entirely. There is a lot of beauty in the north but as Glen James Brown’s debut novel illustrates there is a bleakness to that beauty – the north has a shadow self and certain areas dwell in the shade that is cast. Places such as the Burn Estate, the central location of Ironopolis.
This is not a new book. It first hit the shelves in 2018, so it isn’t an old book either, but we are not ageist here at Folk Horror Revival and Urban Wyrd Project, we’ll happily review media of any vintage. Ironopolis missed my radar until now but here it is better late than never.
Why is it here? Is it Folk Horror (whatever that is)? It is all set around a rundown council housing estate in Teesside, so hardly … yet there is an element of connection (connection being the overlying arc of this novel) to which we’ll come. Does it then relate to our other main point of interest here, the mode of urban wyrd? Most definitely. Its name harks back to the area around Middlesbrough in the north-east of England- a region built on the back of iron and steel, on hard graft and rivulets of molten sweat. An area that was left to pick up the pieces when the arse fell out of these heavy industries. So yes, this book is an epitome of urban. The root of the word ‘wyrd’ relates to fate to destiny and within this weaving novel we see the threads of connectivity between numerous people of different generations associated to the Burn Estate, the hub of the tale and the heart of the characters we meet, some of which consider it a dark heart that beats to the rhythm of a heavy iron drum.
Set in different time periods and told in varying formats – letters, interviews, first and third person narrative and even pages from a prison diary, lives and deaths interconnect. The Burn Estate connects them and is a character in itself, albeit a senescent dying character that for much of the narrative is in a state of demolition and waiting for rebirth and regeneration – new buildings, new lives. Those that still live on the Burn in its dying throes alternately cling on to life there as long as they can or eager to leave take the offers made by the development company, sometimes uncertain of whether they will or whether they want to return to the place after it has been reinvented. But memories remain, as do lies and secrets … some very dark secrets.
Yet there is more than simply the interconnection of living jowl to jowl that binds the characters of this web of stories but something … someone… else that melds their lives. A presence older than the tower blocks and bedsits. It is this someone who takes us from the gritty social realism of the tale into the territory of magical realism. But do not be blindsided by the word ‘magical’ – the supernatural element is not some fairy godmother nor are there summery uplands to escape to. The grit sticks to sweat and blood spills and stains. The presence that haunts the locale of the Burn Estate and the minds of some of its troubled inhabitants is both weird and wyrd.
We first encounter the presence through the paintings and memories recalled of a teenage girl Una Cruickshank who lived in Loom Street on the estate in the 1950s. Coming from a difficult home, Una found some escape and expression in art. Continuing into adulthood, she became known for her paintings of misty riverbanks, lonely and quiet yet in some pictures vague figures may be present. In one picture entitled The Green Girl, this figure is perhaps more manifest. This strange female was not the invention of Una. she was known to the grandmother of Jean Barr, Una’s friend, and to many before her, yet is was an entity that Una became obsessed with as she talked to her … and not her alone.
The mysterious creature in question is known to folklorists and folk horror fans as Peg Powler. An entity I know personally from lore local to me for she is the spirit of the River Tees, one of the rivers that runs through my home county. Like Jenny Greenteeth and the Grindylow of Lancashire and Yorkshire (as well as Nanny Powler of the Skerne, a tributary of the Tees in the Darlington area), Powler is a water witch (known as Groac’h by the Breton people) – a green-skinned, pond-weed strewn hag who lures children to the edge of the river, then grabs their ankles and pulls them in to a watery demise. The disappearance of young girls is a thread that winds through the book- another haunting aspect of the novel’s locale. In Ironopolis though, Peg Powler does not exist simply in relation to the leafy green banks that nestle the Tees in its winding from hill to sea but also within a large pipe leading to the sewers beneath the housing estate and she dwells even below one of the toilets in an old folks’ home. She also at times lurksv at the bottom of a well situated on the derelict waterworks near the Burn estate. The waterworks are an urban wasteland, an edge-land where kids go to play (on one instance resulting in a bullying prank gone horribly wrong), where teenage Una used to go with men and where decades later an illegal acid house rave which did not proceed as well as hoped was held.
As the stories unfold, we meet a host of characters – Vincent, a garage owner and local gangster who has more going on in the work-pits of his motor shop than automobile repairs, his awkward, nervous son, a hairdresser with a gambling problem and her disfigured brother who falls under suspicion of being the child abductor. We meet a man who lives in a shed, another who lives in the past (a Footy Casual who obsesses over rare Adidas trainers) and an elderly Teddy Boy who used to drive a mobile library van. These details also bring the book into a phase of nostalgia, which links it to Generation X hauntology, but Ironopolis is so much more. It is kitchen-sink and gritty crime and at times is darkly humorous (the scene with the birds of prey in the retirement home had me laughing out loud). And at times it is a horror story of sorts, though the brutality of it is in human actions, the strange Great Darkness of 1968 features – a real-life event, whereby weather conditions combined with the petrochemical and industrial emissions of Teesside resulting in midnight gloomth falling at midday in combination with wild storms. (The chemical industrial landscape of Teesside, whilst producing some unsavoury pongs and earning the locals the nickname -Smoggies, has also provided inspiration for the cinematic luminaries David Lynch and Ridley Scott.) And of course there is the subtle yet unsettling presence of Powler, like a whispering manipulative genius loci lingering under each turn of the page adding another element to the work that helps this excellent debut novel get under your skin.
Ironopolis is a well crafted novel that deserves to be far more widely known. Highly recommended to folks who like their ‘urban wyrd’ fix of a flavour akin to films like Dead Man’s Shoes and Kill List. I look forward to reading more from the pen of Glen James Brown.
Both Brotherstone and Lawrence’s Scarred For Life books and Simon Matthews’ Looking For a New England cover the same period of television and cinematic history in Britain, covering some same ground they come at it from slightly different angles, but both are very aware of the culturally powerful and distinctive time of the 1970s and 80s.
When I first heard about the Scarred For Life project, a voyage of discovery into just what haunted the formative years of Generation X, my reaction was ‘oh bugger’ as I had been considering creating a similar work. However, upon seeing their first book I was pleased that they had done it rather than me as their enthusiastic expertise for the subject is enlightening and infectious. Whilst Volume 1 covered the whole gamut of macabre and frightening stuff that beset 1970s children from spooky-themed ice lollies to folk horror TV shows to bizarre board games, Volume 2 takes a narrower focus concentrating on weird 1980s British TV. They’re not caught short for material there by any means. They kick off proceedings with Noah’s Castle, a tea-time drama for kids, based on John Rowe Townshend’s novel, about British families hoarding food in a time of economic desperation. With reference to crime, violence, a precarious situation for family pets and the implication of teenage girls selling their bodies for food, this grim scenario is haunting in these times of Brexit and Covid. Bizarrely it was originally broadcast directly after The Sooty Show! From dog-puppet Sweep’s squeaky mischief to economic dystopia in the space of an advert break.
Things don’t really get any lighter on our stroll down televisual memory lane subsequently as those of us of a certain age are reminded of our childhood traumas of viewing Jigsaw’s Noseybonk or Salem’s Lot (I shared a bedroom with my elder brother as a kid and during the night he would make scratching noises claiming that Danny Glick was at the window!) or being subjected to PIFs (Public Information or rather Panic Inducing Films) telling us that if Rabies did not get us it could be cigarette induced lung cancer, AIDS, or heroin (Just Say No Zammo!).
Scarred For Life does not need to be read cover to cover but can be dipped into randomly. I first sought out the things that personally resonated most with me – John Wyndham (the adaptations of Day of The Triffids and Chocky), Tales of the Unexpected (The Fly Paper episode which freaked me out the most, seemingly being one that many remember with a shudder), the birth of Channel 4 (its offbeat edgy early days being very vivid in my memories), ghostly dramas and odd TV plays. Strange figures on the edge of our memories return to haunt us such as the Weetabix skinheads, Murun Buchstansangur and the Chockadooby Kinder egg man (I was blocked on Twitter by politician Iain Duncan Smith for comparing him to an evil doppleganger of the latter). But there are so many more engrossing rabbit holes to fall down within this book and there are more to come. In Volume 3 we are promised a closer look at the nuclear war paranoia of the 80s and more Fortean fare such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and The Unexplained magazine.
Whereas Scarred For Life may be seen as exploring the effect that certain films and TV shows have had upon viewers, Simon Matthews’ Looking For a New England looks at how the political-social culture and music of the era affected film, and for a big part how punk rock stamped its DM boot print on media output.
A New England does mention Fortean Times in passing, but its attention to Fortean and folk horror subject matter is peripheral and mostly in relation to edge-land figures such as Ken Campbell, Derek Jarman, Genesis P Orridge, John Michell, Nigel Kneale, Mark E Smith and a whole chapter on David Bowie. Like Scarred, New England also brings attention to Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (both the film and the earlier television play). Potter sometimes seems rather forgotten in the annals of nostalgic televisual revisitation but this tale of the devil visiting suburbia and ‘babysitting’ a disabled catatonic woman is surely one of British TV’s most powerfully disturbing moments. Unsurprisingly the permanently disgusted Clean Up TV campaigner of yester-year, Mary Whitehouse, can be found wandering through both books like a froth-mouthed rabid beast.
A New England does have a chapter dedicated to Dystopia covering a host of dark dramas such as the Sheffield-based nuclear devastation TV film, Threads, the mini-series Edge of Darkness and The Quatermass Conclusion but does not delve into horror particularly. Matthews clearly knows his stuff, which sometimes feels like a machine-gun barrage of names and dates, but when the pace slows and he centres in on specific films it is very informative & engaging, suggesting that the book could have benefited from having more pages and film lists covering specific themes at the end of each chapter.
When I read fiction, my mind’s eye tends to play out the unfolding narrative as a film. In the case of Lucie McKnight Hardy’s novel ‘Water Shall Refuse Them’ the setting and style adapted itself on the cinema screen behind my eyelids in the manner of a 1970s Play For Today or similar. That is far from a criticism – BBC plays such as Nuts in May, Brimstone and Treacle, Our Day Out, Blue Remembered Hills, Red Shift, Abigail’s Party and Penda’s Fen are high water-marks of British telly.
Anyway like Ronnie Corbett, I digress. Hardy’s debut novel concerns itself with a married couple, their teenage daughter and their mentally impaired infant son taking a holiday at a rural Welsh cottage in the bid to try and deal with the aftermath and trauma of a family tragedy. They discover that the locals are not exactly the most welcoming or friendliest bunch and instead find solidarity with a teenage boy and his mother, who also being incomers to the village are not held on the best terms by the parochial families either. Indeed the mother Janet is regarded as a witch by the villagers; an accusation she does little to dispel.
Her son Mally develops a close and strangely bonded relationship with Nif, the 16 year old daughter of the troubled family vacationing in the Welsh valley and protagonist of the book. Nif is an individualist who is governed by her own rituals and way of seeing. In discussion about the book on a Twitter post, the author Dr Miranda Corcoran drew a comparison between Hardy’s debut and Shirley Jackson’s classic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. For me these are big footsteps for it to walk in as We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite novels. I can see the parallels between the works and furthermore without giving too much of the plot away, I think comparisons could also be drawn with that other fine example of Dark Americana /American Wyrd – Thomas Tryon’s The Other. Water Shall Refuse Them does however have a very British personality.
One of the points of comparison between Hardy’s and Jackson’s novels is the presence of an unconventional and troubled young woman as narrator and therein lies a personal feeling and also intriguing topic of thought in that whilst I like Jackson’s protagonist Merricat Blackwood, I just don’t like Nif. Yes she is an intriguing well-written character but I don’t warm to her at all. But do I need to like the main personality to read the book and enjoy it? Or any book? I think personally the answer is sometimes. For instance, I gave up on reading Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game quite soon into it as I disliked the protagonist and her husband so much. In the realm of film really disliking the central family in Hereditary and the child in The Babbadook are part (not the whole) of the reason I don’t like those films much at all. But then again I did not like the principal characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut or Misery (book and film) yet I appreciate those works overall more. Does it matter if you don’t like the characters who you will spend much time with? They don’t have to be likeable for a work to be a success – Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is a prime example of that.
As Water Shall Refuse Them progresses I like Nif less and less. I don’t know if that is a matter of concern with Hardy, whether it is of any importance to her whether the reader likes her main character as a person. And it could just be me – other readers may feel sympathy or empathy towards Nif, but she leaves me cold from the offset. It could be the case that that she is meant to. As the story develops, without saying too much, Nif (and in some instances Mally, whom I never warmed to either) do some rather unpleasant things; so it is perhaps an intention of Hardy for the reader to question how they feel about chief characters instead of just easily slipping into a comfortable synch with them.
In regard to Nif’s actions, as someone who has immersed themselves in ‘horror’ fiction since a child it is possible to become numbed or desensitized to all manner of fiendish happenings, but there are scenes in the novel that did leave me feeling disturbed. This is a credit to Hardy’s writing as these scenes are generally quite underplayed, there is no great crescendo of gore but subtlety delivered, small yet in their way powerfully resonant occurrences that get under the skin. These traits do foreshadow the great reveal, which is not the most unexpected (though I do tend whilst reading fiction or watching films automatically ponder how I would end the narrative were I the writer of it , so do quite frequently see the ‘twist’ coming and wonder if my mind were wired differently would more fiction catch me off-guard) but the resolution of the end happenings does however throw in another swerve ball.
It is not my place nor intention to issue ‘trigger warnings’, but it must be noted that some scenes may especially upset some readers and perhaps provoke them to ask whether they were necessary or at least whether they needed to have occurred several times. That is not a question for me to answer but perhaps for the author to address and certainly for individual readers to make their own judgement upon.
So these points have caused me to mull over the book and would have even if I were not writing a review of it, so it did get under my skin and that is a credit to it. Did I like it? That I need to think over more – I didn’t dislike it, of that I’m sure. I would read it again and I don’t say that of all novels. But it is one that I will need to contemplate more as to my deeper, long-lasting impression of it. Is it a good book either way? Yes I think it is; it is a intriguing debut that makes me curious to investigate Hardy’s future works, so that’s a job well done there. It is a book that reminds me somewhat of some of Benjamin Myer’s novels – scenarios which are simple but effective and hold some moments of strong, sometimes brutal or harrowing but not overworked significance. aving grief, loss and trauma at its heart it also is reminiscent of Will McClean’s The Apparition Phase (recently reviewed on this website Here ). The themes unearthed in Water Shall Refuse them are pertinent to the bucolic uncanny and it is a worthy addition to the folk horror fiction shelf, though because of events described within may indeed be contentious with some readers.
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy is available to purchase from HERE and other book stores.
To discover more about the writing of Lucie McKnight Hardy visit HERE
In art history discussions British Surrealism is often an under-represented topic as is one of its most important pioneers – Ithell Colquhoun. But there is more to and more to say about Colquhon than her on-off relationship with Surrealism as Amy Hale makes strongly apparent in her biography of this intriguing artist. Born in India in 1906 and apart from a period residing in Paris, Colquhoun spent the majority of her life living and working in England with most time spent between London and Cornwall. Cornwall in the 20th Century was known as something of a haven for British artists particularly the Newlyn, Lamorna and St Ives schools. Despite treading in art as well as magic circles, Colquhoun largely followed her own path. Hale divides this path into 3 areas; those being Surrealism, Celticism and Occultism and she takes us to these destinations via a non-linear route. Hale states that anyone hoping for a solid art-historical approach from her book will be sorely disappointed – I don’t think they will be. The art-history aspect of the book is built on as solid ground as that of many purely art-history tomes. Hale’s pedigree as a folklorist and anthropologist, as well as her clear enthusiasm and curiosity for Colquhoun as a subject, enrich the discussion of the art and what influenced it.
Colquhoun was a graduate of the Slade School of Art, so had a history of training and was not an Outsider artist as such but she was largely self-taught in her methods and independent in her creative aims. Her relationship with Surrealism was always destined to be hit and miss as it was a notoriously fractious movement with Andre Breton steadfast in his vision of the intentions and character of Surrealism which would at times clash with artists whose own inherent drive would at times veer from his routed roadmap. A point of interest shared between Breton and Colquhoun was Automatic Art – the main feature of this trinity of book reviews. For Breton it was an art that sprung solely from the subconscious of the executor, but for numerous others it was seen as being produced by discarnate spirits, namely the dead, working through a living channel thus combining the corporeal artist and their materials truly as a medium. From within or without, Colquhoun was not content to be simply a conduit as from her painting, collage and writing we can see a very inquisitive mind and this led her to create art in relation to her spiritual and intellectual interests and indeed to create art as part of magical practice.
The roots of tradition can be a considerable factor in certain magical paths and for Colquhoun living in and inspired by Cornwall, Celticism was an obvious avenue to explore. Her deep regard for the visionary poet and chronicler of Celtic folklore William Butler Yeats further bonded her to this path. A problem with traditionalism and indeed some magical / religious avenues is that of nationalism, which in itself could be benign but as is all too sadly evident even now in the second decade of the 21st Century can develop into something discriminatory, malign and ugly. Hale does not dwell long on this point but neither does she ignore it.
As Hale notes, in the 20th Century there were numerous occult societies and orders active and it seemed like for some people membership to them was something to be collected like esoteric stamps or mystical train numbers. Colquhoun herself passed through numerous doors, but it really does seem that this was due to her quest for knowledge and perhaps kinship – that she was exploring all available paths to find the one that best suited her, rather than feeding the ego with membership titles. But a mystery seems to remain, did she find her right path, her true spiritual and magical home or at the point of her death in 1988 was she still seeking? Hale digs deep and unveils a lot about Ithell Colquhoun, her sexuality, her artistic endeavours, her magical questing but yet Colquhoun still seems something of an enigma. Whilst more of her has been brought out of the shadows by Hale’s very impressive detective work, it is perhaps a right balance found – enough of Colqhoun revealed to further engage both art aficionados and occult scholars but not so much as to pick her bones clean and stripped of the intrigue that captivates.
The quality of the artwork featured in the book is very good and left me greedy to see more of her work . Fortunately Fulgur Press have released Colquhoun’s Taro in Colour in book format – this would serve as a fitting companion to this volume as would indeed the biography of Austin Osman Spare written by Phil Baker, also published by Strange Attractor Press.
To purchase Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of the Fern Loved Gully by Amy Hale and to see more information on the title visit -> HERE
Taro as Colour focuses on Colquhoun’s work in 1977 / 1978 whereby she pared down the traditional idea of Tarot divinatory cards, stripping them of the usual figurative imagery and symbolism and instead presented as 78 images of vivid colour and abstract expression. They do still retain relation to the Tarot tradition. Presented with new titles and divided into elemental sets of Earth, Air, Fire and Water as well as ‘Trump’ cards. The works actually have a profound resonance. They may derive from Colqhoun’s long exploration of automatic art but they also pay heed to magical colour tradition as followed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. As could be said of much (but not all) Abstract Art there is scope for personal interpretation and I found whilst looking at the cards that I would ‘see’ things. I think it goes beyond pareidolia and is more associated to Rorschach psychological tests whereby the subconscious becomes visible. Furthermore I could see these cards being useful for both meditative and scrying purposes.
It would have been good for the book to come with a set of cards as it is not the cheapest purchase by any means. But you have to take into account that this book is a limited edition – 1200 copies in runs of 300 different cover designs. Each pertaining to one of the elemental suits Earth (indigo) Air (yellow) Fire (Red) and Water (Blue) – make sure if ordering to make preference in the notes on order box at checkout and subject to availability that will be fulfilled. I did not read that part so ended up with a colour I wouldn’t have picked, but don’t mind as I see the colour that fate ended up giving as interesting in itself like the ‘random’ selection of a card. And the book is very nicely presented. Each card gets its own page – off which they sing with vibrancy. The book also is mainly visual. There is no textual interruption save for card title and division of suits within the book but it is opened with a great introduction, again penned by Amy Hale. Ithell Colqhoun: Taro As Colour is available to purchase from – Here
Not Without My Ghosts : The Artist As Medium – various artists and writers
Ithell Colqhoun is one of the artists featured in this charming little book (with a quote from Amy Hale in reference to her) that marks the touring exhibition of that name curated by The Hayward Gallery and The Drawing Room. Concentrating on art created through or in relation to spiritualist channeling, automatic and trance state composition the show featured work from William Blake; Cameron; Ann Churchill; Ithell Colquhoun; Louise Despont; Casimiro Domingo; Madame Fondrillon; Chiara Fumai; Madge Gill, Susan Hiller; Barbara Honywood; Georgiana Houghton; Anna Mary Howitt; Victor Hugo; Augustin Lesage; Pia Lindman; Ann Lislegaard; André Masson; Grace Pailthorpe; František Jaroslav Pecka; Olivia Plender; Sigmar Polke; Lea Porsager; Austin Osman Spare; Yves Tanguy and Suzanne Treister with The Museum of Blackhole Spacetime Collective: therefore spanning time from the Victorian period to the present day. A lot of the older art however looks ahead of its time. This is particularly true when it comes to works of an abstraction style.
Though Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) has oft been credited as the pioneer of Abstract Art, it is clear from the earlier works of artists such as Georgina Houghton (to whom we will return in greater detail shortly) that this isn’t the case. Because women featured significantly within the earlier creation of abstract art it must be asked whether their gender is the factor in them remaining largely unknown until now and this is a matter broached within the essays featured in the book, those being Spiritualist Sisters in Art by Simon Grant, Spirit Voices, Women’s Voices: Art and Mediumship by Susan L Arbeth and Infinite Redress: Politics in Spiritualism and Medium Art by Lars Bang Larsen. Within a lot of Victorian opinion, women were perceived as being more generally ‘sensitive’ and therefore often more prone to hearing spirit voices and more ‘passive’ therefore more suited to being used as a channel for the dead to communicate with the living through art – so a question arises as to whether such clairvoyant conduits can be considered the creators of these work or merely the channels for the true dead artists.
Some such as Madge Gill (whom is most often categorised as an Outsider Artist) credited her work to the spirit Myrinerest whom would ‘possess’ her. Notably the name Myinerest comes from ‘My Inner Rest’ which for people like-minded to Breton, whom attributed Automatic Art to the inner subconscious rather than the influence of spirits from outside, can give cause to consider the works of interest and study and not just to sceptically disregard them if they feel uncomfortable with notions of the occult or supernatural. Gill is probably most widely known for her renderings of haunting faces caught within swirling monochromatic maelstroms of patterns or scrawls, but an image of hers displayed within this book shows an abstracted rendition of plants executed in a mix of earthy and rich deep colours. Stylised botanical specimens, swirling patterns and strange faces are well represented within this book.
For further information and to purchase a copy visit -> HERE
World Receivers: Georgiana Houghton. Hilma Af Klint. Emma Kunz
The third of the books reviewed here today, World Receivers, takes a closer look at 3 mediumistic painters and also 3 experimental filmmakers whose work draws association to the spirit-influenced art-forms via the essays and editorship of Karin Althaus, Sebastian Schneider and Matthias Mühling in relation to a 2018/19 exhibition at the Lenbachaus gallery in Munich.
Before Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian who all recognised a spiritual aspect within the abstract painting they were long credited with creating in the 20th Century, there was Georgiana Houghton, born in England in 1814. Houghton did receive some artistic training but the details of which are not known. Whatever she learned at art-school will have been at odds with what the spirits guided her hand to do. Following the death of her sister Zilla in 1851, like many people within the Victorian and later Edwardian period Houghton turned to Spiritualism for guidance and comfort through their dark journey through grief. By 1860 Houghton was a practicing medium herself. Initially using a planchette (a wooden wheeled device into which a pencil can be placed and guided by unseen hands enable the medium to render art or writing) Houghton requested that the spirit of her sister Zilla or her deceased brother Cecil guide her hand but neither could apparently do so. However Houghton testified that the spirit of a departed deaf and dumb artist by the name of Henry Lenny was able to work through her. The work created was of a vastly different manner to the precise and naturalistic representative art of the 19th Century. Resplendent in kinetic swirls, sweeps of colourful energy and only sometimes depicting instantly recognisable forms such as faces or flowers, the art of Georgiana Houghton was radically different for the time and even when Kandinsky first experimented with abstraction nigh on half a century later, the disintegration of form into shape and colour would still be too avant-garde and beyond comprehension for many observers. In 1871, Houghton exhibited her work at a personal financial loss to, beyond the more sympathetic fellow spiritualist observers, a rather bemused, sometimes indignant audience. Not until the 21st Century has her work gained greater attention suggesting that whatever her spirits had to say was ahead of her time.
Hilma af Klint (1862 -1944) is another Spiritual Abstraction painter whose light has finally glowed stronger, years after her own passing over. This is however largely of her own doing, requesting that her spiritual works be kept secret until at least 20 years after her death. A graduate of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, Klint created accomplished pieces of more traditional art for commercial purposes but her hidden work was something else entirely. As with Houghton, the death of a sibling, Klint’s sister Hermina, proved the catalyst for both her spiritual and artistic development in 1880. Her growing interest in Spiritism, Theosophy and after a meeting with Rudolf Steiner, the esoteric philosopher and clairvoyant, his Anthroposophical Society was to have profound influence upon her artistic oeuvre. Bold colours and geometric shapes were common motifs of her Automatic paintings. It wasn’t until her aptly named ‘Paintings For The Future’ exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2019 that the light of Klint burned with a stellar intensity. Proving to be one of the most successful exhibitions hosted there to date, perhaps in these strange days the strange art of Hilma af Klint has finally found its right audience.
Emma Kunz (1892 – 1963) the third of the Spirit artists showcased in this book had an intriguing manner of working. Going into a trance state she would swing a pendulum over large scale graph paper and plot dots along her momentum and then in single sessions which could last through the night she would join those dots. The results were spectacular. Like a human Spirograph, Kunz would create stunning geometric designs. Sometimes she read her pictures as answers to spiritual questions but sometimes they served another unusual purpose. The pendulum of Emma Kunz was not used only to guide the creation of art but as a tool in the treatment of ailments for as well as being an artist and clairvoyant, Emma Kunz was a healer. The book World Receivers features a fascinating short piece by Peter Burri who recounts how Kunz saved his life as a child after he had become badly poisoned by iodine consumption.
The book World Receivers culminates with essays and images on and from the experimental film artwork of John & James Whitney and Harry Smith, but it is the work of the 3 female artists of the spirit that carries most weight and focus and is presented with great care and respect in this lovely large book which can be obtained -> HERE
The trinity of books reviewed here compliment each other very well and all are great additions to both the Occult / Spiritual and Art bookshelves.
The ‘X’ in Generation X (those born roughly between the early 1960s and late 70s/ early 80s) must surely refer to the X certificate formerly bestowed upon horror movies or ‘X’ as in X Files in relating to spooky paranormal mysteries. The other title bestowed by writer and broadcaster Bob Fischer upon the folk born of these times – ‘The Haunted Generation’ would seemingly confirm this. Maclean’s novel, ‘The Apparition Phase’ is set in the 1970s and pays homage to the creepy things that deliciously traumatised those of us of a certain age. Told from the viewpoint of Tim Smith, reminiscing on his teenage years in that era, we see that as with the title of Dave Lawrence and Stephen Brotherton’s excellent encyclopedic work about those times, our narrator is indeed ‘Scarred For Life’. The tale begins with Tim and his twin sister Abi plotting to fake a photograph of a ghost. Their inspirations for this experiment / prank are the photos that I would flick past fast and then slowly sneak back to look at in Usborne’s ‘Mysteries of the Unknown: Monsters, Ghosts and UFOs’ (despite my Catholic education and unbeknownst to the nuns, the true bible of my youth) – those being the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (a semi transparent figure descending some stairs), the Spectre of Newby Church (a tall, skull faced monk near an altar) and the one that possibly freaked me the most, the Chinnery car (the dead mother-in law in the back seat). In creating this hoax, they stir up more than they can ever expect when they show their creation to a girl at their school who, unknowingly to them, is sensitive to otherworldly happenings.
As the story progresses (through events I will not spoil for you) we are taken to a paranormal investigation conducted in an old large house in the countryside. This aspect of the book is very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and Richard Matheson’s ‘Hell House’ novel and subsequent cinematic adaptations. But despite this familiarity, Will Maclean does mark the proceedings with his own voice and creates a page-turning tale that will evoke nostalgia in many of us Generation Xers but would also likely appeal to young adult readers now as its themes of ghosts, grief, haunted minds, mystery and coming of age are timeless.
The Apparition Phase by Will Maclean Publisher : William Heinemann (29 Oct. 2020) Language : English Hardcover : 416 pages ISBN-10 : 1785152378 ISBN-13 : 978-1785152375
For a clearer picture of this book you need to look at the subtitle ‘ Tales From The Darkside’ as it may be presumed from the main title and the the pentagram design on cover that the book may be a history of discourse on the occult traditions of witchcraft, ‘alternative religion’ and ceremonial magic. This is not the case as the book is in fact an anthology of classic and lesser known short tales of the supernatural and psychological. It takes the term ‘Occult’ in the wider sense of being hidden or secret; of being occluded. In the more common usage of the term to denote dark magic, only a few of the stories peripherally allude to this and I wonder whether the name ‘The Repeater Book of the Uncanny’ would have been a more apt description of the greater tone of the contents. Nomenclature and cover aside, the book will still likely be of considerable interest to many Revivalists.
Each story is selected and prefaced by writers who have penned works for the Repeater publishing house and I found these introductions to be most interesting. It is intriguing to discover why they selected the particular stories they did and also the commentary on the lives and mindsets of those that scripted the strange tales. I also approve of each story being preceded by an illustration.
Included within the volume are two stories from the pen of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu ~ ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ and ‘Green Tea’. Squire Toby’s Will concerns itself with a family feud between two brothers regarding inheritance upon the death of their father and the dark emotions and vices that arise from greed and bitterness. The other tale featured ‘Green Tea’ is the more well-known and I think stronger of the two. Its premise revolves around the popularity of Green Tea a beverage that was popular in the time of the Romantic and Gothic poets and the story’s strength is bound not to its narrative, which really doesn’t go anywhere, but its hallucinatory energy. Within the tale the drink is in part demonised as a psychotropic that causes the decline of mind of the character Jennings who drinks lakes of the stuff but in another aspect it is seen as a key to opening the mind. Jennings was also a reader of the works of mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (providing the book with one of its stronger associations to the Occult in the narrower sense) and had earmarked a passage about opening the inner eye. Alas for Jennings, the opening of his mind’s eye released madness or something perhaps worse – an actual manifestation of his shadow self. A malevolent alter-ego that appeared in the guise of a grimacing, muttering monkey. Now this may sound absurd, but consider if you were haunted by such a beast, disturbing your peace and even urging you to commit suicide! I wonder personally whether Le Fanu should have only had one story within the compendium as with the other featured authors, and another writer to have been featured in place, but as the book revolves upon the choice of Revolver writers in selecting stories that spoke strongly to them, then it is understandable how one storyteller could feature more.
In keeping with simians and also another story with a stronger occult theme, the classic WW Jacobs’ tale The Monkey’s Paw also features in the compendium. As is the case with the author Carl Neville who selected it, this is a story that has been with me since childhood. Basically it is a moral of being careful what you wish for. A family come into the possession of a taxidermy piece – a preserved monkey’s paw that can bring desires into fruition. Sounds like a blessing but the mitt reveals itself to be more of a curse. It is a simple tale but in its telling of what lurks beyond the door of grieving is a powerful piece of horror writing.
A short segment of contemplation by the author Mary Shelley ‘On Ghosts’ is short but sweet and had space permitted I would have been interested to read more writers’ musings on supernatural matters and delivering anecdotes of creepy tales they’d heard.
Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Haunted House’ is another brief inclusion that also serves to make the book something a bit different. It is more a reverie, a daydream, a description of sensations of being in a house that may be haunted – more perhaps a prose poem than a short story as such, but it continues a mood whilst also acting perhaps as an interlude in the book.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of the more well known stories in the book, but deserves to be known more widely still both in horror literature and other circles of discussion. Brave and ahead of its time (when I first read it as a teenager, I thought it had been written well into the 20th Century, rather than in 1892 and actually still upon reading it as the images play out like a film in my mind, I visualise it not in Victorian fashions but those of a later date). This is certainly due to both its timeless quality, its courageous questioning of womanhood and postnatal depression in that patriarchal era and the spectre of ‘hysteria’ that cast like a shadow over women of the period. The horror in it is not explicit – we are not told this is a definitely demon,a ghost, a vampire doppleganger or whatever but left to consider that it may very well be an inner demon manifest as a woman virtually imprisoned in her room obsesses over the yellow wallpaper in there and begins to see it take on a life of its own. Either way its build-up of dread and strangeness as the tale progresses marks it as horror as well as being an important piece of literature in other ways.
A more obscure gem in the book is Marlene Dotard’s ‘Par Avion’ from 1928. Taking as its premise the spirit communication between a living lover and one who has passed over. It does however introduce the unsettling suggestion of how malady – a virus is transmitted from the world of the dead into our world by mediumship and spreads through time. Interspersed within passages of the tale are shots of lyrical description blending scientific processes with an almost feverish mystical beauty.
A more well-known author Mark Twain, broaches contagion also in his tale Punch, Brothers, Punch’, befitting this Covid age. It is a peculiar witty story, that preceded the book and film ‘Pontypool’ by many decades, and though a beast of different tone deals in the same territory of language of words becoming viral. Tristam Adams’ introduction to his choice of tale, also struck a chord with me beginning as he does with talk of INMI (Involuntary Musical Imagery) – i.e. Ear-Worms! Because at the time of reading and for too many days surrounding I for some unfathomable reason was dealing with the song ‘Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon)’ on a constant loop in my head. It’s a good song but damn, it got a bit much! He also speaks of another subject close to my heart (hopefully not literally) – Parasites! When working for The Wildlife Trusts in a past life, in doing environmental education activities when school groups visited the reserves, one of my perks of the job (which I must say the vast majority of kids seemed to enjoy) was telling them about the weirder, grislier, grosser wonders of nature. I must admit that in talking about the world of parasites my skin would crawl too, but damn (again) they are really fascinating creatures. And that is a joy of this book, the peculiar twists and turns the selecting writers take in the delivery of their story of choice.
Bizarre creepy-crawlies and the apparent dissolving of ‘reality’ into a psychotropic nightmare are again themes that reoccur in Francis Stevens Unseen -Unheard and again why I question if this work should perhaps have been called The Repeater Book of the Uncanny, as many of the stories seem to dwell in the moments where something happens or something encountered is not quite right and then becomes increasingly wrong.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat is more familiar territory though for readers of horror short fiction. The classic tale of whereby a man’s cruelty and callous arrogance come back to bite him or rather in this case incriminate him for woeful wrongdoings.
The book ends with the brooding novella The Willows by Algernon Blackwood. This tale of being at the mercy of nature is apt in these days of Climate Change and is an eerie, atmospheric classic of folk horror / weird fiction in its own time and own right. The author Algernon Blackwood was himself a scholar of Rosicrucianism and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and I wonder whether perhaps a chance was missed here as other authors of supernatural material such as Arthur Machen, WB Yeats (who wrote extensively on folklore as well as being a great poet) and even E. Nesbit were members also of The Golden Dawn. As was notoriously for a while Aleister Crowley – though certainly not the best writer (and definitely not the best poet) he did pen some short fiction and his life is certainly an interesting topic, regardless of whether your opinions on his character or literary ability are foul or fair. Perhaps should an extended edition ever come about more tales by writers actively involved in the occult in their own lives could be a factor.
As it stands, The Repeater Book of the Occult: Tales From the Darkside is a solid enough anthology of short horror, that combines some well-known classics of the tradition with some unfamiliar and offbeat fare and is enriched further by each tale being preceded by diverse and intriguing introductions and also by illustrations.
Publisher : Repeater Books; New edition (9 Feb. 2021) Language : English Hardcover : 350 pages ISBN-10 : 1913462072 ISBN-13 : 978-1913462079
Demetrio Paparoni’s The Art of the Devil and S. Elizabeth’s The Art of the Occult are two richly illustrated collections of visual imagery dedicated to dark and hellish subjects and both are great additions to the weird / wyrd art bookshelves. Both feature a fascinating array of images dating from centuries past to contemporary representation and therein lies a slight bone of contention for me with both books. For the art of bygone times I have no issue but raise an eyebrow at some of the choices for modern inclusion. For instance upon recieving The Art of the Devil I opened it at random and was presented with a full-page photo of popstar Robbie Williams adorning a pair of devil horns. For one, it being a personal thing and knowing that someone should not be judged by their looks, but I’m sorry I just don’t like Robbie William’s face. It could be that he frequently looks smug but whatever the reason of dislike, his smirk is not what I expected or desired to be presented with upon opening the book. Secondly there is ample choice for modern representation of devilish beings, many of which are depicted in the book, from the devil of the Legend film to Hell Boy, that a former boy-band singer seems a very weak choice for inclusion. The nearest he has probably come to the devil is living next door to the occultist musician Jimmy Page! That aside there is some excellent art included in the book with a high quality of reproduction and both The Art of The Devil and The Art of the Occult score fairly well in my book for being relatively light on text. My personal preference for art monographs, exhibition catalogues and visual anthologies is large quality illustrations with a minimum of textual content.
On this score I would’ve preferred the dimensions of The Art of the Occult to have been a slightly larger format. Again I question some of the choices of contemporary artists included. I will mention no names but leave it for readers to make up their own minds, as they may very well disagree with me but it just seems that some totally sit comfortably with the representations by old masters featured and belong to that tradition whereas others have featured occult or devilish themes apparently on a passing whim without any deeper association or interest in the subject matter. Regarding past masters of occult art, sadly due to usage rights not being made available to the author and publishers the book alas does not feature Austin Osman Spare or Rosaleen Norton – two of the most important and powerfully impressive artists in the field. Also missing is Norman Lindsay, whose work is sublime and exquisitely crafted, but whose own contentious and unappealing opinions and ethics in life may very well have tarred him with his own brush, making it unsurprising why publishers may choose to give him a wide berth. Aside from certain unavoidable omissions and some perhaps questionable inclusions (which as in much of art is personal taste), for the most part both books do include some glorious and grotesque powerful and intriguing works and are worthy additions to any library of the strange and wondrous.
This book really makes you think, at least it made me think. Following on from my recent reading of Peter Laws’ The Frighteners (review here) where in wider terms questions and considerations are made regarding as to why some individuals are drawn towards macabre subjects; H.E. Sawyer takes this enigma into a more specific territory – not that of fiction but in the physical visitation of real life sites of tragedy and trauma.
H.E. Sawyer is a Dark Tourist, his time and money is spent upon excursions to places such as Hiroshima, New York’s 9/11 Ground Zero, The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Chernobyl / Pripyat atomgrad (see also) and even deep sea diving to explore shipwrecks that lie among the fishes on the ocean floor. Within his book and visits – he questions what it means to be a Dark Tourist and the motivations and morals of such a pursuit. To some people Dark Tourists may seem like glorified ambulance chasers – sick ghouls seeking pleasure from the pain of others – Some probably are and some are perhaps shameful in actions of naïveté, as pointed out by Sawyer in his observations upon people taking less than respectful selfies at Auschwitz and other areas of mass death, but humankind is a complex race and the aspect of Dark Tourism is multi-layered and diverse in its individual motivations.
Some people maybe think it is wrong to visit such sites, that it is disrespectful to the dead and their families, but could it be a case that they just feel uncomfortable themselves at facing death and would rather not dwell on such thoughts and such places? Perhaps in some cases, but not all as individuals have different motives, intentions and expectations and Dark Tourism is a complicated business. ‘Business’ being an operative word – places like Auschwitz and the World Trade Centre memorial facilities want you to visit and want you to even buy mementos. Their motivations however are not simply dark capitalism as they want to educate people about what happened, they want people to remember and not forget and like the Hiroshima and Nagasaki rememberance centres to influence people to strive for a more peaceful world.
Like it or not, as a species humankind does have a death obsession – watch a day’s TV and see how much threat to and loss of life is covered in the news bulletins and how many lives are lost in the fiction of films and TV shows. Death is an everpresent fact of life and Dark Tourism is an aspect of that. It is not unnatural for people to be fascinated by large traumatic events that have left a mark on our collective psyche and history. Some places where tragedy has struck encourage people to come visit but others such as the Aokighara ‘suicide forest’ in Japan want tourism but promote the great natural beauty of the place as the lure rather than the fact that it has gained notoriety as a place where many people have chosen to end their own lives. Aberfan in Wales, the small mining village that in 1966 found greater prominence on the map when a pit spoil collapsed causing a flood of slurry and stone to cascade into dwellings below; most notably the local primary school, is also a matter of great consideration. The disaster claimed 144 lives; 116 of them children. Though half a century has passed, the grief is still very intense and the village seeks privacy to mourn. With other sites particularly the ones that seek visitors, the feelings of the victims’ families may be mixed; but places such as Aberfan cause Sawyer to question whether he is right and whether he has any right to visit places where the mourning is more insular.
Motivation and action are key factors in the consideration of Dark Tourism both for the individual traveller and to those looking upon them and forming their own views on the practice. Why are you going? What will you do there? What will you do upon your return? With Aberfan, Sawyer reveals that upon hearing the breaking news of the tragedy as a child, it alerted him to the fact that death may not be far away from anyone and that children are by no means immune. That moment stuck with him and though he knew nobody personally affected by the disaster it may be said that he feels a connection to the tragedy. Whilst there he mostly kept his head down, visiting the place of rest and laying flowers upon the grave of one child but in the heart intended for all. He spent time at the local library there, learning about the disaster – its cause and effect and how it was reported to the wider world. It seems that Sawyer educating himself not only about Aberfan but about all the sites, is not simply for the book – though the knowledge he shares about each location is extremely fascinating and captivating – but because he seems to feel it is right to know and understand the place, the devastating event and the people both alive and dead that it affected as best as he possibly can. He is not simply there to take selfies.
From his travels he has brought back a book – a very good book, that informs about these locations and the tragedies that befell them but also that openly questions his own motivations and his own life-experiences that may have inspired him to specifically seek out and visit sites of tremendous sorrow and death. In reading this book, it may cause others , like it did me, to question themselves as to how they really feel about such matters as Dark Tourism and if they too perhaps share a saturnine, even morbid interests, then why this may be.
But Sawyer is also honest and witty enough to to share his opinion of the cafes and facilities (including the toilet facilities) and his interest in purchasing souvenirs from the sites that sell them. He is a tourist after all – He is the dark tourist.