High John the Conqueror, the latest novel by Tariq Goddard – author, founder of Zero Books and Publisher at Repeater Books, is a strange brew – in large part a gritty British police procedural, partfolk horror / urban wyrd, political commentary and psychedelic trip-literature.
Set in Wessex in 2016, the book follows a team of detectives as they investigate a series of teenagers going missing from council estates in a provincial city and pursue a rumour that wealthy individuals are kidnapping the youths as sex-slaves and perhaps even sacrifices for orgiastic rituals. This premise is fed by Goddard’s political reflections as is a factor of numerous Zero and Repeater books. The debate of class divide and exploitation of the poor by the privileged is pertinent to the book’s plot and for the most part, the political message is delivered without preachiness, but I do question whether the prolonged discussion between a police investigator and a wealthy, powerful suspect is a realistic conversation but it does serve a purpose of exposition. Otherwise the book, which is led by a lot of dialogue paints believable characters. One issue I had with it, which may not bother most readers is the names of the police officers. Though I think it’s fine to pay tribute to inspirations in naming characters, for me the nomenclature of the individual coppers was too much. I visualise books strongly, and once a worm has burrowed into my brain I find it difficult to dislodge and as the officers were named after cult musicians – in one scene featuring a number of cops I pictured members of Coil, Psychic TV and the Banshees all dressed up as police officers. It does add to the surreal aspect of the book I guess, but alas for me was difficult to dislodge the image from my mind which distanced me a little from the story.
The combination of neo-noir police procedural and folk horror evokes thoughts of The Wicker Man and David Pinner’s Ritual, and other elements of the book reminded me of the Ben Wheatley films Kill List and IN THE EⱯRTH, but High John the Conqueror is also its own beast. The High John of the title referring to a natural psychoactive substance that only grows at lengthy intervals and when it does demands attention. This powerful drug is deeply entwined with the disappearance of the teens, but is far more strange and sinister than any recreational drug being peddled on the streets and across county lines.
Hallucinatory yet gritty, Goddard’s novel is a genuine portrait of Britain’s shadowy underworld but intensified to a psychogenic peak. Scattered throughout are scratchy, flowing line drawings which have a feel of automatic art to them. As a big appreciator of books featuring illustrations, I approve of this – actually I’d have liked it to feature more drawings, but kudos to the inclusion of book art.
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/