Good evening ghouls and goblins! Welcome to the second installment of the Goat Lords podcast spotlight. This week we are showcasing a podcast that comes from all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and into Pennsylvania USA. It is The Strange Familiars podcast.
Strange Familiars is a podcast focused on the paranormal, unexplained and folklore and consists of interviews, discussions and on location recordings.There seems to be a particular focus on Bigfoot but that may be down to it being the host Timothy’s special area of interest. I must say that I enjoy the on location recordings. One of the first I listened to was of the hosts walking about a location having a relaxed conversation about the area and its history. Timothy is the main presenter and each episode he has a rotating set of co hosts. Chad, Jon, James and Alison the resident skeptic. Timothy is an illustrator, author, paranormal investigator and a folk musician. His band Stone Breath have released over a dozen albums and the music plays a big part in the show. His art often accompanies the albums and Strange Familiars logos and merchandise.
The episode I chose to listen to was episode 137: The Tunkall. In this a lady from Norway recounts her experiences with these Gnome like spirits called the Tunkall. I had never heard of them before so it was really interesting to hear the folklore behind these odd little creatures. Or are they ghosts? You will have to listen to find out more. Much like last week’s highlight we again had the relaxed interview format with no leading questions and instead a genuine curiosity to hear about this person’s experience. What was also great was being given some historic background to the story. A theme that crops up a lot in their episodes. The history of areas, sightings, people and so on are discussed and give good backdrops. There wasn’t as much music in this episode as I am used to hearing but it didn’t take away from the enjoyment. If you listen to earlier episodes you will hear segments being broken up with tracks and songs that are written specifically about the tales being told. That has to be quite an undertaking to do every episode so I can’t criticize them for not keeping it up as time went on. I haven’t listened to all their episodes though so I could be wrong.
Give them a subscribe, start from episode one and get lost in some strangely calming tales of strange events. .
FREE to Watch ~ Folk Horror Revival’s creator Andy Paciorek’s lecture – ‘On Witches and Wolves: The Historic and Folkloric Roots of Folk Horror’ As presented by Zoom to the audience at the Denmark 2020 Folk Horror Festival.
Divided into 3 sections – Hauntings, Experiments with Time and Ghosts of Futures Past; within this new work Merlin Coverley, embarks on a mission to seek out the roots and growth of the cultural phenomenon that is known as Hauntology. It is a walk that takes the author and reader down many diverse paths, foremost among them being Memory Lane.
Though it does explore the concept of hauntings and references numerous supernatural films and TV shows, this is not a book about ghosts in the traditional sense but a study of the concept of the cultural mode known as Hauntology. The word Hauntology was conceived in 1993 by the French political philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx as a portmanteau of Haunt and Ontology and relates to his concept that Marxism continues to “haunt western society from beyond the grave”. However, Hauntology has expanded far beyond its original meaning to encompass a certain aesthetic in music, media and art and beyond that a feeling. Hauntology is a nebulous creature, difficult to define but always recognised when encountered, at least on an emotional level. The wider concept of Hauntology as an art and thoughtform owes a lot to the writings of cultural historian Mark Fisher and here Coverley joins the dots between the Derradaian and Fisherian views.
Coverley notes the cultural importance of the 1970s as a fixed point in hauntological time. Notably lying within the formative years of Generation X (or what Bob Fischer has accurately described as The Haunted Generation, which is evident in the work of Scarfolk and Scarred For Life for example) the 1970s were abundant with weird TV, strange discordant library music and were politically hard times (a ghost of which resurfaced, I think in flashbacks of Thatcher and Foot, when May and Corbyn were the UK Prime Minister and opposition leader). But Coverley turns the clock back to the 1840s when Marx released the Communist Manifesto and Charles Dickens penned ghost stories. Centring on Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Coverley makes interesting comment on the ghosts and their repetition of the past not only within the story but within the cultural repeating of the tale by readers and viewers each Christmas. (This set me thinking of how Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman animation has now perhaps become a Christmas ghost – each year destined to be reborn and melted – an analogue ghost now haunting a digital house). The nature of haunting as a recurring point in time or a moment trapped in its environment lends itself to one of the Fortean themes to arise in the book, the theories of Charles Babbage, Eleanor Sidgwick, Edmund Gurney and most prominently in these pages of T.C. Lethbridge and the televisual drama The Stone Tape written by the recurringly hauntological explorer Nigel Kneale and first broadcast on Christmas Day 1972.
Other Fortean points of interest touched upon within the book’s meanderings include Pepper’s Ghost, J.W. Dunne’s philosophy of time, spiritualism and Alfred Watkins and John Michell’s ley-line explorations. Numerous other authors are encountered as we wind our way through the pages including W.G. Sebald, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and J.G. Ballard. As with Nigel Kneale, Coverley is most interested in their use of time – how seeming anomalies of time and events can cause a person or place to be haunted.
Memory and nostalgia are key to Hauntology, but as we delve deeper it is clear that the nostalgia of hauntology is not a simple fond reverie of bygone times but in using the 1970s as a strong reference point is something akin to mild trauma, yet with a strange streak of thrill. The ghost stories of Christmas, weird TV plays, folk horror films and public information film continue to haun us. But a pertinent point is that these aspects of attention are not simply daydreams of times past but a re- living of a history that has never left us. A past that has just been buried like the fiends of horror films waiting for a sequel. It is the memories of Tomorrow’s World predicting the future that is now our present – a world not of personal jet packs and happiness machines but a present where the grim ghosts of 1970s austerity, division and unrest not only did not go away, did not stay in the past , but are risen and with us again, haunting our past, present and future. This is of course reflected in artistic expression, Hauntology as a concept may have appeared in the 1990s but it is strangely a notable aspect of our current zeitgeist. We can see its past roots in a lot of contemporary writing, film and music that dwells on the outer edge of the mainstream, but it is not simply retro, it has its originality but is haunted by the past. A catharsis of demons still needing exorcised perhaps.
Coverley’s book is thought-provoking and although rather academic is engaging, but it is theoretically focussed and therefore is perhaps not the best starting point for anyone fresh to hauntology but for anyone already immersed and seeking to dig deeper into the subject it is a great addition to the haunted bookshelf.
Hauntology by Merlin Coverley Available now from Oldcastle and other book shops/ online stores
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 Picatrix. Cities 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.
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.
Since March of 2020 the whole world suddenly changed overnight and a great many of us all of a sudden found we had a lot more spare time than we ever had before. Podcasts have really filled that void for me and I’m sure for a lot of others too. Think of a subject and there is one out there (too many if you are into serial killers!) and Folk Horror is no different. It’s easy to get lost so we have decided to help all our loyal followers out by putting a spotlight on some we find ourselves and sharing them with you all.
In our first installment we have The Modern Fairy Sightings Podcast hosted by Jo Hickey Hall. Jo is a folklorist, researcher and social historian who is fascinated with the paranormal, the landscape and the oral tradition. She has a masters in History, is a member of the Folklore Society and runs a research project called Modern Fairy Sightings. Her podcast is an extension of this project where she interviews people who have had encounters with possible fairies. In the first episode we hear from a man who bumped into something while walking home one evening in Scotland.
As a storm closes in on the seaside village where I live in Ireland I wish I had waited to listen to this now. Even though it is quite a direct account and analysis of an incident it still cant help but have that atmosphere of strangeness to it due to the subject matter. It might just have a little to do with the eerie but pleasant soundtrack too. Both the guest and Jo keep the discussion grounded (well, as much as you can when the subject is the unknown) and I appreciated it all the more for that. No wild theories, questionable descriptions and leading questions. If this is a hint at the content and layout of future episodes then it is definitely worth subscribing too and I look forward to hearing more.
Gareth E. Rees is founder of the Unofficial Britain website and author of three books, Marshland (2013), The Stone Tide (2018) and Car Park Life (2019). His most recently published book is Unofficial Britain, a remarkably vivid exploration of a Britain that exists beyond the conventional and the prescribed. This is a book which peels by the layers of cultural conformity to reveal the previously hidden magic and strangeness of industrial estates, factories and pylons, motorways, ring roads and flyovers, hospitals and houses and housing estates. Noticing the strong connection to psychogeographic current which pulses through the veins of many members of the Folk Horror Revival, John Pilgrim took the opportunity to make some ‘routine enquiries’.
FHR: How have the towns and cities which you have spent time in shaped your identity and psychology – at the time and in the subsequent chapters of your life? Does the residue of place, especially the unofficial locations which you document live on in us?”
I’m half Welsh, half Scottish, with an English accent, and experience of living in Scotland, Wales, Northern England, London and the South Coast. Also I was born outside the UK. So I’ve been gifted with freedom from regional patriotism or prejudice. It means that in a book like this, I’ve been able to connect my own memories and experiences to many of its varied national locations.
The main thread of influence, particularly in my childhood, was that I lived in a threshold between countryside and city. Firstly, Kirkintilloch, just outside Glasgow, on the Forth and Clyde Canal. Then we moved to Glossop which is just east of Manchester, nestled in a landscape of old mills and factories beside the Peak District National Park.
The landscape of my youth was characterised by a mixture of industrial and rural, on the edge of things. When I eventually moved to Clapton in Hackney in my 30s, I began to walk the Lea Valley, London’s former East End industrial heartland, now a nature reserve. That was where my landscape writing began – the process which lead to Unofficial Britain.
In my first book, Marshland, I put my fascination with the marshes down to its evocation of my childhood landscapes. I believe that those early saturations of place stay with us for life – and they are valid and important no matter what that childhood environment was, be it deep rural countryside, suburban town, or urban council estate. Unofficial Britain is about looking at everyday places in which we live and acknowledging their place in our personal and collective memories.
FHR: In part, your book seems to be a challenge to the basis upon which traditional norms legitimise our experiences of the poetic and profound – is this right?
If you remove subjective notions of ‘ugliness’ and ‘beauty’, along with concepts like ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ and instead consider every object as having within it all the ingredients of the universe – then a huge world of possibilities open up, where a breeze block can be as interesting or meaningful as a rock, or where the undulations of the tarmac in a car park can be as fascinating as ripples on a pond.
FHR: Following on from this, you have said elsewhere that ‘everywhere is magical – everywhere is valid’. Pushing the logic of this a bit further it seems that this is both a personal invitation for a change in perceptions but also one which has cultural and political implications?
Yes, because it defuses this idea of an authentic pure ‘nature’ that must be revered (even though in a British landscape almost entirely reshaped by human activity since the Neolithic, it doesn’t really exist) while the places we all live are somehow sullied and unworthy. It also goes against this conservative, and often racist, idea that magic, folklore and myth belong in the rural past and to ‘proper’ British people (who also don’t really exist), because now we can see how imagination, storytelling and wonder continue in our contemporary world of industry, retail, housing estates and motorways.
FHR: Your book offers the prospect of an ‘urban reimagining’ – a chance to identify and connect to previously hidden aspects of our city environment. One example which I particularly liked was the role of roundabouts and your meeting with Stuart Silver in Glasgow and his call for urban paganism. Are roundabouts a good starting point in this respect? What are the roundabouts which you have known and loved?
Roundabouts are local lodestones in urban areas. They attract traffic from all angles then repel them in different directions. This gives them an undeniable power and influence. It is common for them to contain horticulture, sculpture, local advertising and other forms of local identity. So, roundabouts often have more to them than people think. Quite often they are situated on sites of importance – ancient crossroads, the sites of churches and prehistoric dwellings.
In the book I write about ‘the Urban Prehistorian’, Kenneth Brophy, who sees roundabouts as a legitimate fieldwork target for archaeologists. He gives the example of the Greenyards Roundabout near Bannockburn in Stirling, the construction of which in 2010 exposed post holes, Bronze Age roundhouses and evidence of agricultural activity. Sites like this offer an opportunity to peer through portals into the past. But it’s not only about looking back. Kenny believes that the roundabout has its own inherent value as ‘the latest aspect of the biography of this location’.
For an eye-opening roundabout tour, I recommend people visit Cribb’s Causeway Retail Park, just north of Bristol. It first appeared in my previous book, Car Park Life, but I make a return to it in Unofficial Britain. There are a series of roundabouts within the retail complex that have mysterious shapes and uncertain meanings – possibly relating to erogenous zones. I’ll leave it for people to get my book to find out more.
FHR: One chapter in your book draws out the terror and the anonymity of the hospital experience. Was it a therapeutic for you writing this chapter? And how might we encounter hospitals differently?
When I originally conceived of the hospital chapter, I was thinking primarily about the weirdness of the external areas – the seemingly chaotic jumble of disparate buildings, modern improvisations bolted onto the old, and the sometimes terrifying glimpses of the visceral reality – biomass chimneys burning tissue and bloody rags, tossed-away kidney dishes and signs for ‘blood letting units’. Beyond the grand facades of sliding doors and the smooth white interiors, there is a horror of sorts, in walking the back stage area. That stuff is in that chapter.
But then I bean to think about all the drama, horror, tragedy and joy that occurs within the hospital itself, which is rarely allowed to imprint itself on the disinfected and polished walls, floors and furnishings, yet which exists in the memory of those who experienced it. In moments of crisis, the hospital becomes the theatre set for the biggest dramas in our life – from birth to death – where we notice all the microdetails, the smells, textures and sounds. Then it’s all cleaned and packed away, leaving only this memory – which over time becomes a kind of fiction as we edit and shape that memory. In this way, a hospital interior is largely a psychological entity. Then when you think of the sheer volume of stories that happen in that space, it becomes an anthology of narrative that cannot be seen, but which does exist in the collective consciousness.
I don’t know if it will change the way we encounter hospitals, only that we maybe reconsider how weird they are – this non-place that is also fundamental to our family stories of birth, death, suffering and redemption
FHR: I saw that you were recently on television talking about your love of carparks. How might you persuade sceptics to re-evaluate the appeal of car parks? I personally find multi-story carparks to be quite sinister – is this your experience?
The appeal of car parks, for me, is that they are spaces in full public view, which many of us use daily or weekly, which are also unexplored as place in themselves. Why can’t a car park be as interesting as a wood? People use them to park cars and shop, but when you walk around them, poking into the corners, searching for clues, they reveal strange energies, weird juxtapositions and hidden stories. Google ‘car park + violence’ and you’ll see tales of horror, depravities, and a society with its wheels falling off. The heart of darkness might not be at the end of a river through the jungle, but in the space outside Tesco.
Car Park Life was specifically about chain retail store car parks, but in Unofficial Britain I explore the multi-storey, which are like crumbling Norman castles – one in almost every town and city. People find them beautiful but also sinister – in the book I talk about ghost sightings and experiences, as well as the creepiness of the decay inside these unique spaces.
FHR: In the book you share accounts of hauntings, often in quite mundane settings such as council houses. What is your own view of such things and how do they shape your philosophy of how we might broaden our experience of Unofficial Britain?
I wanted to get across the idea that the supernatural can seep into, and out of, every structure no matter how modern or seemingly mundane. Folklore and myth are not fixed in a halcyon past, but ongoing. They are carried in our hearts and minds, and therefore any place can be haunted – a 60s council house, a multi-storey car park, an industrial estate. We have lived for over 70 years in an urban landscape of council estates, shopping centres, motorways, pylons and cooling towers. They’ve been around long enough to become storied with love, loss, grief, violence, sexual awakenings and rites of passage. The book is an attempt to find some of the fresh shoots of future folklore as they burst from the concrete, seeking the light.
FHR: Can you say a little more about your literary influences. Clearly Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside provides an important touchstone for challenging what is considered to be of significance in our landscape. Are writers such as JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair important to you? What are the pros and cons of being influenced by other writers?
Neither of those writers are particularly important to me, although Ballard inevitably crops up in the chapter about motorway flyovers. I am mainly influenced by other people who I’ve connected to online, who are ploughing similar – or complementary – furrows. I made a conscious decision to hat tip all the influences in the book itself, so you’ll see mention of websites like Scarfolk, Hookland and Anatomy of Norbiton, artists like Maxum Griffin, Jane Samuels and Mark Hollis, writers like Salena Godden, Nick Papadimitriou and Gary Budden, academic practitioners like Phil Smith, record labels like Ghost Box and musicians like Mark Williamson. The bibliography even includes Folk Horror Revival. These are the sorts of influences I have, and I can’t see any downsides to that – they are a source of ideas and inspiration. What I produce is something very different to these projects, so I am not burdened by the pressure of trying to compete directly.
FHR: Why is it that there seems to be a growing appreciation of pylons across the country? You document your own experiences vividly in the book but there are others who are connecting to this current – Hookland for example and the cult of The Children of the Hum.
One of the themes of the book is the way that landscape features become engrained in both our personal memories and the public folk consciousness. This can happen with industrial structures in the same way as natural topographical features. For everyone alive right now, pretty much, pylons have always been there. They’re huge, imposing structures that transcend town and city. On top of that, they’re highly sculptural, with phallic and feminine qualities. Depending on their location they can be menacing, majestic, serene or terrifying. Beneath the surface there’s a lot going on with pylons, as I reveal in the opening chapter which includes Illuminati conspiracies, Egyptology and alien invaders.
FHR: You are a musician. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how music and sound can change our experience of everyday environments. What artists do you admire – for example do you have any affinity with Brian Eno, ambient music or the Ghostbox project?
In my first book, Marshland, I used what I call ‘soundchronicities’, which are walks where you also listen to music at a volume that doesn’t drown out the external noise, creating a unique DJ mix, never to be repeated. I used a lot of ambient and experimental electronic music for that, including Eno, but also Ekoplekz, TVO, The Psychogeographical Commission and Jon Brooks. This technique allows you to open up new interpretations of a place, influenced by the mood of what you’re listening to.
In Unofficial Britain, I didn’t use music in that way, but I do write about some of the ways that pylons, underpasses, power stations, motorways and other modern structures have been expressed in music, poetry and film. So I write a little bit about Ghost Box Records, and touch on other genres too – for instance, the M6 feature in multiple tracks by Half Man Half Biscuit, while the building of the M1 was subject of a radio folk ballad by Ewan MacColl.
FHR:Finally, what three unofficial places in Britain would you recommend visiting?
That’s a hard one to answer. The main point of the book was to avoid obviously extreme or interesting locations and show that there is fascination in the everyday. We all live in places that are full of magic, weirdness and stories, if we can just dwell in them a while, look closely, and allow our imaginations to roam. So really I wouldn’t recommend visiting three specific places in the map – but instead visit three types of place near you and see what happens. I’d recommend: an underpass (ideally beneath a roundabout); an industrial estate; and a multi-storey car park. Go there, wander, poke about, and get the feel of the place. See what happens. You never know.
A folk horror `zine series exploring the weird & unusual in Albion – reviewed by Jim Peters
I imagine that a fair percentage of you are, like me, a fan of the local guide to an area’s myths, legends and hauntings – the sort of slim publication you can pick up in the Tourist Information Centre, library or small local museum shop. Sometimes you can pick up a second hand copy which approaches the subject matter from a slightly different angle to a modern version and of these it is those from the late 60’s-70’s that are the most pleasing. There is something about this period that sets it aside as a high tide mark for all things folkloric, esoteric, occult and otherworldly and this is reflected in these wonderful little guide books. Written by people with local knowledge (“for local people – we’ll have no trouble here”) and a willingness to believe in the stories they heard as they were growing up, they present the most farfetched and dark tales with a non-judgmental innocence punctuated with groovy artwork, long lost fonts and, if you are lucky, a handful of adverts for local attractions and tradespeople.
Recently there has been a resurgence of self-published magazines which take a look at the same subject matters but do so in a studious, serious style for the already converted and while they are a refreshing sign of people’s changing tastes and the rise of folk horror and other dark topics in the public’s conscious they don’t have quite the charm of those small run local guides of yesteryear. Their production and the quality of the end product is very impressive indeed and makes for a thing of beauty but they look more like the coffee table read of Jerry and Margo than the 70’s charm of Tom and Barbara’s rustic kitchen table…..for that you need to visit Scaraby and pick up a copy of The Occultaria of Albion.
This charming, oddball publication is the brainchild of writer Richard Daniels and illustrator Melody Clark in which `the damned and dusty files of (the hidden, haunted Lincolnshire village) Low Scaraby are opened, releasing a howl of unsolved mysteries and oddities.’ The perfect size, length and subject matter to enjoy with your afternoon cuppa on an autumnal day.
Lower Scaraby was introduced us to in Richard’s wonderful short story collection Too Dead For Dreaming (previously reviewed by FHR) and each edition of The Occultaria of Albion focuses on a different aspect of the Folk Horror landscape and legends of the countryside around the village. We are treated to tales of a tiny model village with its own inhabitants and urban myths in the Isle of Drumgunnan issue, the portentous psychedelic summer gatherings at Wickstead House, Highway robbery and UFOs on the A2358 and all manner of other wyrd folk horror wonderfulness with hopefully plenty more still to come.
You can get your back issues and keep an eye on future releases on Richard’s Plastic Brain website:
And you can also support them through Patreon and get all manner of goodies for your time and effort…as it says on the Patreon page –
Come; step through the fog and the velvet drapes and into an Albion which has always existed, though only ever glimpsed in the shadows. If you become an OCCULTARIA of ALBION KNIGHT (OAK) means you are part of an exclusive group of men and women – yes, in centuries past you would have been burnt as a heretic but today, you are a seeker of truth!
Note: the OA Trauma Helpline has now been disconnected. You’re on your own.
It was through the music and spoken word of Andy Sharp’s English Heretic project that the writer John Alec Baker came to my attention. In his books The Peregrine (1967) and ‘The Hill of Dreams’ (1969) Baker treats us to nature writing that goes beyond the mere observation of the natural wild and into the realm of feeling and art in his lyrical visionary-bucolic prose. It was with great intrigue and little surprise in venturing into the pages of Sharp’s own book ‘The English Heretic Collection’ (Repeater Books. 2020) to find that his writing too is cloaked in many colours. Described as “a visionary field report based on fifteen years of deep-vein travel to England’s strangest landscapes – with a host of tragic players” the Collection is as much about people as it is about place. Like J.A. Baker, Sharp does not content himself with mere surface but digs deep into his own psyche and cerebral-emotive reaction to place and observation; but with his wider scope of subject matter, he digs further still – into the underbelly of people and deep down into the underworld of place and mind. For this is what this book is – a katabasis – a descent into the Underworld – whether it be the Asphodel Fields that classical Thanatologists pondered upon, or Вирій that lies beneath the tainted earth of the atomgrad of Pripyat or the very soil beneath our feet.
In his journeys both physical and psychical Sharp encounters numerous wraiths and shades – as diverse as Kenneth Grant, Fulcanelli, Robert Graves, Winston Churchill, CG Jung and HP Lovecraft yet there is one psychopomp whom even when not fully present can be felt persistently gazing over the voyage from the saturnine shadows. That watcher is the author and explorer of dystopia and experimentation- James Graham Ballard. And if JG Ballard is the spirit guide then his 1970 book ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ and its 1973 deeper investigation into a theme therein, ‘Crash’ are the travel guides. Yet whereas the many A to Z roadmap children of Breydenbach & Reuwich’s ‘Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam’ prepare us for the journey, ‘Crash’ is an atlas of the aftermath.
The literary terrain covered in ‘The English Heritage Collection’ lies between Graves’ ‘White Goddess’ and Ballard’s ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ – the physical land explored takes us from Boleskine House on the banks of Loch Ness (the accursed abode of figures such as the occultist Aleister Crowley, rock guitarist Jimmy Page and the sausage scammer Dennis Lorrain) to Orford Ness, the military atomic experimentation base in the shingled spit of the Suffolk coast. From Rendelsham Forest where the legend of UFO encounter or possibly psychological warfare testing persists within its roots and branches to the shrunken heads and other archaeological and anthropological hordes of the Pitts River Museum in Oxford. The train of thought takes us further from English shores also calling at stations such as Hiroshima, Chernobyl and the war-scarred jungles of Vietnam. Stops are also made at celluloid stations taking in films such as the folk horror classics 1968’s ‘Witchfinder General‘ and 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw’ – the latter drawing an interesting parallel with the strange and tragic Mary Bell murders of 1968. ‘The English Heretic Collection’ is as much of a mind trip as it is a gazetteer of the obscure and through the magical endeavours of Sharp has hints of a grimoire also. Covering as much ground as it does in its stream of consciousness the book is like a Ronnie Corbett monologue on acid – that is not a complaint. Sharp’s word-play is entertaining, part magical – part mischief. I enjoy his puns – the name English Heretic itself with its mission of dedicating black plaques to places obscure and people intriguing and other witty examples such as ‘Wish You were Heretic’ and ‘The Underworld Service’. And that is what the book is like – an Underworld Service transporting us the readers to strange destinations. Its meanderings wind and weave and remind me of intoxicated conversations with like-minded friends in pubs at the times before the pandemic and hopefully again after. And that’s another good thing. Sharp is very well-read and very well-educated holding an MSc in Neuroscience, so at times the book may dip into academic territory, but the diversity and spellbinding nature of the subject matter and Sharp’s wit and poetic word-craft ensure that ‘The English Heritage Collection’ is an entertaining rather than dry read. It is also very worthwhile checking out English Heretic’s musical output to add a further dimension to Sharp’s vision.
‘The English Heritage Collection’ is released on October 13th 2020 from Repeater books – repeaterbooks.com/
The Wulver’s Stane is a zine of folklore and forteana by Urban Wyrd contributor and FHR admin SJ Lyall. It features articles on folklore horror in punk, Edinburgh’s standing stones, Perth’s pagan rituals, woodwoses and an account of a roadtrip round some weird sites in the USA. Features cover art by Alex CF and back cover art by Graeme Cunningham.
Issue two currently in the works.
Copies are available here.
We think of folklore as taking place in misty moors and dark forests, but as ways of life changed and people moved from countryside to town, they didn’t stop telling stories or having unusual experiences. Instead these now take place in tower blocks or underpasses, crossroads are replaced by roundabouts and motorway junctions, and strange beasts are now encountered on the fringes on cities rather than deep forests. Unofficial Britain looks at the generally disregarded locations of the modern landscape that feature in people’s stories. There are chapters on the strangeness of pylons, urban geomancy, haunted housing estates, weird experiences on motorways and the non-places of service stations, and strange creatures and liminality in industrial estates. This features a look at the nightmarish Greenock catman, which sees the author go clambering through bushes behind Greenock bus depot in the hunt for him.
While the book documents a range of people’s experiences, it’s also a very personal book, taking us through the author’s life and the stories he told himself about the smokestacks and gap sites around him. It’s extremely readable and taps into an eclectic selection of sources- historical accounts, first hand experiences, urban druids and punk bands to name a few. Essential reading if you are interested in the urban wyrd and how folklore is mutating and developing in modern times.