Archive 81: an Urban Wyrd Review

Archive 81 is a 2022 Netflix series developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine based upon the podcast of the same name created by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger (which I have not listened to as of yet, so cannot compare in this article).

Its premise follows the recruitment of Dan Turner (Mamadoudou Athie) as an electronic media conservator tasked with restoring fire-damaged videotapes shot by missing film maker Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi).

The show encompasses numerous elements of the Urban Wyrd. Apparently the term Urban Wyrd has caused confusion amongst some people, so it may be worthwhile to briefly explain the concept again here.
The Urban Wyrd designation was created and first contemplated by author & film-maker Adam Scovell on his Celluloid Wickerman website and was developed /investigated further in the pair of multi-contributor Folk Horror Revival: Urban Wyrd books published by Wyrd Harvest Press.
The Urban Wyrd is not ‘folk horror in a city’ though elements may sometimes be shared, and it was in reference and relationship to folk horror that the discussion first arose.

Urban Wyrd is not a genre, but a mode that relates to the incidence of the Uncanny, the Weird and the Eerie with specific relationship to the built-up environment, particular buildings, liminal edge-lands (such as motorway motels, service stations and sometimes suburbia) and/or to technology (including analogue and outdated forms).

The Urban Wyrd is frequently to be found where concepts such as Hauntology and Psychogeography occur on film, literature, music and art (both in the original academic remit of these subjects and in the development of their pop-cultural aesthetic).
The Urban Wyrd mode may therefore be applicable to narratives and/or imagery featuring haunted houses, uncanny urban geography & architecture (including transport stations and underpasses etc.) as well as haunted media (photography, digital, video etc) and also to supernatural, folkloric and/or occult excursions/infiltration into the modern world. Psychological relationships to the environment or technology may also be a factor. Concepts of time are also frequently a consideration.

(As with Folk Horror), ambience, aesthetic and that certain ineffable something that you may struggle to verbalise but know when you see, hear or feel it may also be apparent in items featuring modes of Urban Wyrd.
The concept of the Urban Wyrd is not a strict label or manifesto but more-so a feature or features that can be used to associate different films or media that share these similar themes, aesthetics or elements. Although it can be a topic for academic study, the designation of Urban Wyrd can and should be more widely and generally used as a handy way for people who like one film or book or song or artwork using the motifs described to find others featuring them that they may also enjoy.
Many of these elements just mentioned can be found in Archive 81.

Without giving too many spoilers away, a resume of Article 81 follows.
Dan is employed by a company named LMG to go to a remote complex to repair and restore a quantity of damaged video tapes filmed by Melody Pendras – a young woman who went missing in the 1990s following a fire at the Visser building, an apartment block built on the foundations (and history) of a former mansion belonging to the enigmatic Vos family. Melody is drawn there on a tip-off that her birth mother who abandoned her as a baby was a resident there. Family history plays a role within this drama which follows several different narratives apparently separated by time but united by people and place. As Dan delves further into his work he discovers a link to his own family and realises his task is far more than just being a regular job.

The show flits between found-footage and several story-lines occurring at different periods of time and also dream-narratives. The footage itself and its strange qualities is reminiscent of Koji Suzuki’s ‘Ringu’ (adapted to film in 1998 by Hideo Nakata and remade in 2002 by Gore Verbinski as ‘The Ring’) and whilst being quite a creature in its own right, Archive 81 wears its inspirations and influences on its sleeve. Rather than being derivative though a further meta narrative is added to the mix giving another layer for viewers and fans to mull over. We see references to movies as diverse as ‘Solaris’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Ministry of Fear’ and even ‘The Secret of Nimh’. Stephen King’s 1977 novel ‘The Shining’ is referenced and similarities can be drawn between the show and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 cinematic reworking of King’s book. The Visser Apartment/ Vos Mansion bears similarity with ‘The Shining”s Overlook hotel with its winding corridors, dark history, art-deco soirees and the feeling that the building is haunted not simply by the people that died there but by its own brooding character. Association can also be drawn to Ira Levin’s 1967 novel / Roman Polanski’s 1968 film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ with its mysterious apartment neighbours and occult ritual occurrences. Indeed there are elements of Polanski’s other Apartment Trilogy films ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and ‘The Tenant’ (1976) to be found in Archive 81’s make-up also.

There are also non-film associations that can be found in Archive 81 which will be of interest to those curious in the different aspects of the Urban Wyrd mode and also in wider aspects of the occult and paranormal outside of fiction.
The inclusion of Spirit Photography and Psychic Art works on both an aesthetic and narrative level. The name of the art group as Spirit Receivers and the examples of much the art shown seems strongly to allude to the book ‘World Receivers‘ which details the works of Georgiana Houghton. Hilma Af Klint and Emma Kunz – three artists of the 20th Century whose paintings were conducted through spiritual mediumship. (Another good book on that subject is Not Without My Ghosts and for Spirit Photography an excellent book is The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult).

In reference to pop-Hauntology (ie. that form associated to examples of popular culture as explored by Mark Fisher rather than the original political-philosophy form devised by Jacques Derrida) Archive 81 features strongly there both in aesthetic and topics covered. The attention to analogue technology, the literal ghost in the machine and genii loci – spirits of place; brings to mind ‘Ringu’ as mentioned previously, but also Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy’s 1972 TV play ‘The Stone Tape’ and the Electronic Voice Phenomenon {EVP} experimental studies pioneered by Friedrich Jürgenson, Hans Bender and Konstantin Raudive) have a strong hauntological quality as does the element of the movement of time that occurs within the unfolding tale. This is continued in the sound design brilliantly crafted by composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (one of the geniuses behind the Excellent Trip-Hop outfit Portishead). The combination of atmospheric music, drone and other aural invocations and evocations helps to induce a sense of unsettling perception – almost to the verge of inducing anxiety in the viewer (I myself have found myself ear-worming the prayer-song); this attention to sound likens Archive 81 to other films with significant Urban Wyrd content such as ‘Sinister’ and ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ (which also share the themes of uncanny elements within the actual media of film and video), and also to the works of David Lynch. The stilted slow dialogue also is reminiscent of the cinema of David Lynch and some of Stanley Kubrick’s work (‘The Shining’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’) however at times it does heighten the awareness of it being acted and therein lies a question as to how well the show was cast. There is another point however that lots of viewers have seemed to take issue with and that is the season’s finale. Again without giving away Spoilers, I personally don’t have a problem if that is how the show ends totally, although I do have a question /issue as to one of the character’s actions which culminated in that conclusion. The ending however does allow potential for the narrative to resume and develop further if Netflix decide to green light another season.

All in all, I enjoyed the series, it ticked numerous other interest boxes of mine and I was impressed by its techniques aimed to unsettle. Aesthetically I liked it, though for some of the special effects I personally would have opted for a more Less is More approach and it has inspired me to give the original Podcast a listen.

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

The Repeater Book of the Occult: Book Review

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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

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Reviewed by Andy Paciorek