Saturday, October 24, 2015

Vintage Halloween postcard: Running away from the ghosts

Here's a Saturday night quickie, one week out from All Hallows' Eve. This undated vintage postcard shows a well-dressed boy fleeing from a pair of ghosts/spirits/specters/phantoms/wraiths that have popped up from behind a trio of huge pumpkins and startled him. Won't he have a whale of tale to tell the folks back home? Think they'll believe him?1

The postcard was never mailed, but it was addressed to Moreau Morris (1894-1945) of Newburg, Iowa. The short message states: "Dear Friend, I wish you a happy Halloween. Cecil."

1. Have you ever seen a ghost? If so, tell us all about it in the Comments section below.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Kitsch Bitsch serves up silly and creepy content for Halloween

It you are, like me, a member of The Facebook and if you are, like me, a big fan of gelatin molds, 1970s fashion crimes and things that are so tacky they become transcendent, then you should definitely be following The Kitsch Bitsch for your daily dose of jaw-dropping, gut-busting and, sometimes, horrifying images.

For example...

(Note, among many other things, how the cat is trying desperately to disappear into the background and avoid association with this nonsense.)

An additional reason to follow The Kitsch Bitsch on Facebook right now is that it's bringing its A+ game for Halloween.

Some of the the posts are pure silliness — smiling heads on platters, racy witch costumes and such. But mixed in (cue Vincent Price voice) are some mildly disturbing vintage photos from Halloweens past. For example:

Still there? And that's only half the fun. The other half comes when you dive into the comments, where snarkiness and one-liners rule the day.

So do yourself a favor and spice up your Facebook feed by adding The Kitsch Bitsch alongside Uncle Melvin's political rants, Aunt Judy's cat memes and those daily photos of the children of that woman you worked with for three months in 2009.

Illustration: The Royal Mounds at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden

Here's a Postcrossing card that just arrived in my mailbox this week and seems like a great fit for Mild Fear 2015. It's a painting, titled "Uppsalahovet," that was made in the late 1850s by Swedish artist Carl Johan Billmark (1804–1870).

Gamla Uppsala ("Old Uppsala") is an ancient parish and a village in eastern Sweden. It was the home of the Yngling dynasty of Swedish kings (some of whom were real and some of whom were mythical).

The Royal Mounds date to the 5th or 6th century. Here's a bit more about them, from Wikipedia:
The Royal Mounds (Swedish: Kungshögarna) is the name for the three large barrows which are located in Gamla Uppsala. According to ancient mythology and folklore, it would be the three gods Thor, Odin and Freyr lying in Kungshögarna or Uppsala högar (from the Old Norse word Haugr meaning mound or barrow; cognate English Howe). In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were speculated to hold the remains of three kings of the legendary House of Ynglings and were thus known by the names Aun's Mound, Adil's Mound and Egil's Mound. Today their geographical locations are instead used and they are called the Eastern Mound, Middle Mound and Western Mound.
On the postcard, sender Natalia writes of Gamla Uppsala: "One can see these old mounds there and this beautiful medieval church. There is also a museum dedicated mostly to Vikings, it's very cool. There are also some buildings which form a small ethnographic museum."

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Kind witch and little pumpkinheads: 1922 Halloween postcard

Here's a Totally Not Scary Hallowe'en postcard with the following greeting:

A bat and a cat, green-
eyed pumpkins, too,
A nice crawly mouse and
best wishes for YOU

The "bat" in this case is the kind-looking old witch in a red cape. We also have, as described, a black cat, a caught mouse and a group of little pumpkin creatures with faces, sprouting from the ground. (It's not clear if they can move or if they are rooted, literally, to their spots.)

The pumpkin creatures look happy and friendly, except for the one to the right of the witch, who seems — and I'm surely reading too much into this — to be concerned for the welfare of the mouse.

The card was published by Whitney Valentine Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts, which was in business from 1858 to 1942. (Read more about that company's history at

The card was postmarked on October 28, 1922 and mailed with a one-cent green George Washington stamp to a woman in Louisville.

As best as I can tell, the cursive note reads:
"Dear Sister
Just a few lines to let you know that we are well and hope you are the same. How is the folks getting along these days. I talked to Elsie a few days ago on the phone and she said She was not mad at me and She invited us to come down to her new house. Hoping to hear from you soon. With love to all.
41 Longwood Ave.
Roxbury, Mass."

(Anyone else think Elsie was mad and was setting a trap?)

Spooky '70s title for kids from Scholastic Book Services

This time last year, I was in the midst of putting together a countdown of my 25 favorite Scholastic Book Services covers (among the ones I had ones I had on my shelves).

There were some amusingly haunting ones along the way — #17 was Mystery of The Haunted Pool, #14 was Carmilla, #13 was The Witch House and Other Tales Our Settlers Told, #11 was Nine Witch Tales, and #2 was The Ghost that Came Alive.

Now I have a few more spook-a-riffic titles on hand, and I will be weaving them into the Fortnight of Mild Fear.

First up is A Ghost a Witch and a Goblin, which is the comma-free title of a 48-page paperback first issued by Scholastic in 1970. (The fifth printing, from 1973, is shown here.) This is a very fun cover! Like Sunday's postcard, it includes a tree with a face and some red mushrooms. Add in a ghost and an owl and you have a dandy October book for schoolchildren.

The illustrations were done by Rosalind Fry, and, sadly, I can't find any confirmed biographical information about her online. ("Mystery artists" were an all-too-common theme during last year's Scholastic Fest countdown.) I did find a Rosalind Betty "Roz" Fry, who lived from 1915 to 2013, but that short obituary mentions only her church office work and that she was "very active with the craft fair." There are no mentions of being a published, professional illustrator. So it's not clear whether that's the Fry we're looking for.

Fry's books were published in the 1960s and 1970s. Her other titles include Three Giant Stories, Lost at the Fair, The Three Wishes, Tree for Rent, A Baby Starts to Grow, and Is This My Dinner?

The book's three folk tales, meanwhile, are reworked versions from other sources, likely making this a very inexpensive production for Scholastic. (I hope Fry received a nice check!) The last page of the book lists these sources:

  • "The Ghost Catcher" is based on "The Ghost Who Was Afraid of Being Bagged," a story from Folk Tales of Bengal by Lālavihārī De, published by Macmillan, London, 1883.1
  • "Baba Yaga" is translated and adapted by permission of Flammarion et Cie from BABA YAGA (a "Père Castor" book), retold by Rose Celli, copyright 1932 by Ernest Flammarion, Paris.
  • "The Goblin and the Tailor" is based on "The Sprightly Tailor," in Joseph Jacobs' collection, Celtic Fairy Tales published by David Nutt, London, 1892.

1. The "modern" English spelling of Lālavihārī De is Lal Behari Dey. He lived from 1824 to 1892 and was a a Bengali Indian journalist and Christian missionary.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Questions, answers & mysteries with Hookland's David Southwell (Part 2)

Reprinted with permission. From the September 13, 2015, @HooklandGuide tweet: "Mr. @maximpetergriff and I are trying hard to get this rare title back into print."

Read Part 1 of the interview

Before we dive headlong into Part 2 of the Q&A with author and Hookland creator David Southwell, I want to revisit some of his quotes from Part 1 that resonated with me. It's my personal list, of course. Everyone will mine something different and precious from the in-depth thoughts, memories and stories that David has been kind enough to share.

  • "The 70s were a high-water mark for weirdness. A strange, febrile time to be a child exposed to the psychic chaff of the mass media."1
  • "The core concept of using a travel guide as a format to tackle landscape, memory, folklore and the rest of territory I wanted to cover, most of the nomenclature, it all came out in an intense 16-hour burst of work."
  • "Writers tend to carry ideas in the neglected pockets of their mind for years, if not decades. We walk along, pick up shiny pebbles of fact, glinting impressions of where we have been — stuff them into those pockets where they jostle and tumble with our imagination and then pull out these mad concepts."
  • "I grew up in this whole cycle of folklore linked to the landscape of the castle ruins, the woods, the alley behind the grand houses."2
  • "You don't need fancy intellectual words and concepts by dead French theorists to engage with place. Landscape punk is a DIY, screw-the-over-intellectualism and just heed the call-response nature of landscape."
* * *

You mention Arthur Machen at times. What other authors are favorites who have influenced you, especially as it relates to telling the tale of Hookland?

As soon as you do anything which is looking at the unreality of literature, which uses a series of short stories interconnected by common themes, anything which could be said to be magical realism, then you have to admit the influence of Jorge Borges. So Machen and Borges are in the mix of influences. As is Angela Carter for that glorious sense of gloomth which shaped me as a teenager.3 Hookland also owes a huge debt at some level to both Robert Aickman and Alan Moore. Though, there is one writer who without their influence Hookland in the form of a travel guide would certainly not exist and that is Paul Nash. He is one of the key artists, photographers and writers in terms of my influences. Alongside John Betjeman and others, Nash wrote travel guides for Shell in the 1930s. His guide to Dorset was a direct leaping off point for me creating The Phoenix Guide format as a way of painting the invisible of Hookland. Even if you have never visited Dorset, his guide is creates a powerful, lyrical sense of it in that guide. It is one of my favourite books.

Maxim Peter Griffin seems to be an individual with a very particular set of skills. How did he get involved with the Hookland project, and how does he manage to come across such amazing finds?

If I talk about Maxim Peter Griffin, I am going to say things like genius and one of the big pleasures of the whole Hookland ride so far. Everything I hope Hookland is — a playground, an adventure, a motor of the imagination fueled not by Phoenix gas, but the uroboros action of fiction eating the tail of memory, memory eating the tale of fiction — he gets and responds to.

Aside from our totally unplanned and off-the-cuff collaborations within the boundaries of Hookland, I hope that he and I will work on a landscape punk comic at some point. I'm not qualified to speak about him on his behalf so, in his own words:
Stonemason - time served
Painter - sometimes I sell things - I give a lot away
Illustrator - published
some cartography - in public places on signs on walls
typography ( lump that in with masonry )

I am interested
and I like to play
play is important

( don't bother with the ideal - eat the apple with the peel - Kurt Schwitters )

I'm a little younger than Mr Southwell but I know where Hookland is.
You can find Hookland in your local charity shop quite easily.

Hookland is a good idea.
It is a memory brew.

when I was a student I was a cleaner at the college and I had keys
-but there was a cellar at the art college that had been forgotten - it was full of every skeleton imaginable
cases full of butterflies and spiders - medieval pottery - worked flints - all sorts - for life drawing - but stuffed in this room now and forgotten -no one knew it was there - no one ever mentioned
it was just there - waiting , if you like - I spent hours in there - rooting through stuff - a mounted bat skeleton in an archive box full of lead musket balls - you can't make that sort of thing up -

That room was a fragment of Hookland, elsewhere.

Hookland is an actual place
Everything in the archive already exists
It is a matter of being there when it is found

You have talked about how Hookland is becoming its own shared universe (perhaps, in a way, like the Wold Newton Family). What are some of the mentions it has received elsewhere?

In many ways Hookland is the reverse of the Wold Newton Family. That approach — trying to retrospectively link together existing fictions in a web of continuity their creators never intended — is fun at some levels, but to me in that case, ultimately reductionist. Past the joy of geeking out by creating continuity, it doesn’t enrich. Unlike the deepening of say taking the Cthulhu Mythos as a continuity, I actually think Wold Newton diminishes the achievement and intents of Maurice Leblanc, Robert E. Howard, Dashiell Hammett and others. Their characters are wonderful enough as first imagined and written. For me, they do not need, nor in many cases benefit from, being part of the Wold universe.

Hookland was always about creating this haunted space that anyone could play in. As authors we often create spaces where we want others to feel they have lived in, but then deny them permission to stay. Permission to build and explore in their own way. It is not about continuity like the Wold Newton Family, but about giving others a pre-charged landscape to use as either leaping off point or background.

I have tried to create a space where others can walk inside, take what they want, but not be constrained by having their take on Hookland as tied up to part of a bigger story. There are bigger tales working through the entries in The Guide — stories that not so much just cross-reference each other, but cross-hatch to form bigger narratives — but someone using the shared universe of Hookland can happily ignore them.

The Guide functions as a bit of a bible for Hookland. If it says that C.L. Nolan died in 1937 or the Electric Messiah was lost in 1855, that is the fact that it makes a mess to contradict. However, in Hookland, facts are always there to build fictions on.

It is slowly starting to be used as a shared universe. There's a British horror film in production in the moment that uses Hookland as a fictional county merely as a layer of background in dialogue. Authors like R.J. Barker and Gary Budden have used Hookland as setting in short stories and author Tim Dedopulos is currently writing a detective novel set in the county — a glorious affair, like a 1970s occult Inspector Morse. It has been used as inspiration for tracks by musician David Padbury. I am getting a lot of requests now to use Hookland, so I’ve actually had to create a small document to answer questions that writers want to know, even if the answers are not given directly to readers. Questions like how many hours on the train is Hookland from London and what is the origin of the county’s name.

Here is an excerpt from that Hookland document, its bible, that Southwell provides to authors and creators and has agreed to share here:
What is in the name of Hookland?
Hookland if you look in an obscure legal dictionary is defined as "land sown and ploughed every year." This felt right to me. It's redolent of the English pastoral landscape, it resonates with the Old English language and its link to land and place. To me it also summons the image of ghost soil — place ploughed and sown by the cycle of birth and death. Of course, it has Hook in it. Given Hook is the name of a village in every part of England, it becomes and everywhere. There is also the oblique reference to the word hooky — to play truant — and the phrase hooky street — the place where one buys counterfeit goods.

What are your hopes regarding the culmination of your work on Hookland? A new book? Re-publication of The Phoenix Guide to Strange England? BBC series?

Hopes for a project always fall into two camps — there are the actual manifestations of the project you would like to see and then there is the way you hope your work connects with its audience. In terms of the latter, I wanted to create a guide to Hookland that not only led you into county, but into the neglected areas of your own memory. In many ways, all fiction is a magical act and Hookland is very consciously an act re-enchantment. My hope is that for readers it opens up a sense of uncanny in their engagement with landscape. That it connects them with a sense of weirdness that has been edited out of our cultural dialogue in the last few decades. If Hookland restores mystery to our anyone's sense of place, then it has done its job.

In terms of manifestations of the inside of my head, I always had the idea that Hookland would be more than a book. From the start I wanted it to be a shared universe you might get a postcard from or some other form of souvenir. Items from the Hookland Museum of Curiosities gift shop. An unreal place producing the sort of objects and ephemera we use to reinforce belief in the existence of places that we have never been to. I've never been to Boston, but I have a Boston Celtics T-shirt someone who went there sent me as a gift that makes me think they actually made a journey to see a game at The Garden. Leigh Wright and I have started to think about an album of Hookland music. Radio signals from the past that bounce back and can be picked up on an AM car radio if you drive down to where the cliffs at Nook struggle with the sea. Snippets of jingles and shows from the pirate radio stations that used to operate from the abandoned Maunsell forts just outside territorial waters and tracks reflecting the county's musical heritage between 1963-1979. From the Mod Psych and Freakbeat of the 1960s to the proto-ambient Darkscape and punk of the 1970s — I've fictional band biographies and liner notes ready, but getting that sort of project together musically is a mammoth task, so it's not imminent.

Ideally The Phoenix Guide to Strange England will manifest as it always was in a parallel dimension — a traditional travel guide you can browse at your leisure. However, I'm told it is too experimental to be published, so it might be a hard slog and a long season before it happens. I am hoping that I will be publishing an anthology of short stories written by other authors set in Hookland next year and if there is interest, I would like to put out a small volume of C.L. Nolan's work, a Hookland miscellany. If I do, it will never be an e-book, but a very limited, pre-ISBN, pre-Amazon artifact — a copy or two of which I will slip surreptitiously onto library shelves.4

I hope there will be some more collaborations. I would be heart-broken if there isn't a full set of Maxim Peter Griffin's Hookland Horror cards at some point. I'd love to see a Hookland comic book. I am open to any collaboration, open to anyone manifesting the county in a creative, playful or unsettling way. If someone wants to make an audio drama based on it or read the stories, I'd support that in the way I'd support anyone playing with material I am putting out. Hookland is so informed by the visual culture of strange documentaries, odd folk horror films of the late 1960s/early 1970s that I grew up with that I would love to see it become a basis for a fakelore documentary or a film, but in the end, others always make a decision on whether you work deserves to make that sort of translation.

Is there anything you can tell us about when Mrs. Dribbage might finally get the online gift shop up and running? Some of us, who shall remain nameless, are especially intrigued by the idea of Hookland postcards.

I am the lowest of the lo-tecs. I have an Edwardian soul. I surprise myself that I can manage Twitter. I am primarily a writer and I lack the skill sets to set up an online shop or even a decent Kickstarter. I know words, I know editing and making anything written better. It is my only barterable skill and I'd be happy to exchange it for firewood, Jura Superstition or some decent Tex-Mex ingredients, but while it gets books written, it doesn't help make Mrs. Dribbage's online version of the Hookland Museum of Curiosities gift shop happen. This means at the moment all you can get from the gift shop are hand-drawn maps of the county, bags of bay leaves from Cunning Mundle's tree or fudge — all real items if anyone wants to email me and barter something for them. I am delighted to say that I recently sold a map of Hookland to someone in Hollywood. I love the idea of hand-drawn map to a fictional English county being on the wall of Californian den. When I did a talk about Hookland and landscape punk at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival earlier this year, I think people were totally mystified by there actually being free Hookland fudge, but everyone who got some will provide testimonials that it tastes fabulous.

The idea for postcards was originally to turn some of the images into actual postcards and to send them out, complete with a Hookland postmark and a short twitter-esque line or two to those who bought them. I'm not sure there would be enough interest to do this though. I've even investigated producing playable postcard — like the old flexidiscs, but made from record-player playable cardboard — but again, I'm not sure there is enough interest to justify that sort of glorious ephemeral madness just yet.

The ultimate manifestation of Hookland for me in some ways would be to recreate part of its mythical Museum of Curiosities in an actual museum and gallery. A raft of objects and artworks, film screenings and talks representing and telling the strange stories of the county and through that telling the story of the strangeness of the 1970s, the richness of the ghost soil of English folklore. It would of course come complete with things you could actually buy in the host museum's gift shop. I cannot see it happening, but there might one day be a Hookland LitFest — a literary festival for a place that doesn't exist. The responses by other writers to Hookland have been so impressive I'm inspired to actually try and put an event like that on. After all, I never thought there would be a real, drinking in a London pub, C.L. Nolan Appreciation Society every two months. Hookland leaks in odd ways. Fiction has this wonderful way of making reality.

Finally, is there anything I haven't asked that I should have? Anything specific or important that you'd like to convey to those who are learning about Hookland for the first time?

You probably should have asked about the influence of Doctor Who, Quatermass, Nigel Kneale5 and children's TV in the 1970s such as The Changes and Children of the Stones. About physical locations that directly inspired parts of the landscape of Hookland. About how a car ride with J.G. Ballard was the turning point in my engagement with place. About who I would most like to see play in the Hookland universe. You should have asked about The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories.

I suppose the only thing can I add is how some of the best response I have had to Hookland is from those who send me angry, scalding emails railing against me for making "dishonest stories" (as if there is any other kind), making bits of Hookland so convincing I make them "waste time" trying to find C.L. Nolan books. For a word spiv, a missive from a U.S. academic resorting to CAPITALS to tell me off for inventing Betjeman quotes "about a place that doesn't exist" suggests I might just be doing something right with my version of weird Albion.

* * *

Indeed, I clearly did not ask enough questions! Perhaps there will have to be a Part 3 with Southwell some day, delving into some more of these great and mysterious and nostalgic topics.

I'll leave you with this video from the aforementioned 1977 series Children of the Stones, a fitting way, I think, to wrap up these two posts.

Find out more about Hookland County
  • Hookland's Twitter account — @HooklandGuide
  • Southwell's Twitter account — @cultauthor
  • Wyrd Daze — the multimedia zine of speculative fiction + extraordinary music, art, and writing
  • Hookland website (still a work in progress, but with some fascinating morsels)

1. Two words: Hans Holzer.
2. Which is why kids need to get outside more these days. And helicopter parents need to let them.
3. Gloomth is a great word! It was apparently coined by Horace Wapole in the 18th century.
4. This makes me very happy. See the 2013 post "Eight awesome things you'll never find inside e-books."
5. At this point, given how many shared interests there are between Southwell and myself, it probably will not surprise anyone to learn that Five Million Years to Earth (originally titled Quatermass and the Pit) is one of my favorite science-fiction movies.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Questions, answers & mysteries with Hookland's David Southwell (Part 1)

David Southwell photo. See original tweet from October 2, 2015.

OK, readers, I have a big treat for Fortnight of Mild Fear — an interview with author and Hookland creator David Southwell.

Today and tomorrow, you can learn all about the strange (yet ... familiar) place that is Hookland County. It is not, perhaps, a place you can stumble upon by specifically seeking it out. Sometimes, Hookland County finds you when you aren't even looking for it.1 For me, it was an unexpected, but not unwelcome, stranger that popped into my Twitter feed (perhaps on a "psychogeography" search) over the summer. Thus intrigued, I became hooked by Hookland.

Southwell, at 44 the same age as me, first introduced haunting Hookland County to readers in Leigh Wright's Wyrd Daze, a "multimedia zine of speculative fiction + experimental music, art, and writing," two years ago. He is its primary creator, the architect of the land's history and mythos and photography.2 But, already, other authors and artists are tapping into Hookland as a "playground" for their own creations, much to Southwell's delight.

Even though we were raised on opposite sides of The Pond, Southwell and I (and many, many others now in their 40s) grew up in the similar, strange culture of the 1970s and early 1980s. That's part of what he's tapping back into with Hookland.

"Hookland is in huge part a response to the weird, the paranormal content in culture when we were growing up," Southwell writes. "In many ways I look at Hookland as an act of re-enchantment, a putting back all the weirdness edited out by the modern world. We grew up caught between space-age dreams and the fag-end (in English terms, the end of the cigarette) of hippy culture. A point in time before the blooming of right-wing Christianity. I grew up with the main BBC news moving from reports of IRA bombs to reports of UFOs or poltergeists. Where documentaries about ancient aliens (if you've seen me on that awful bloody TV show Ancient Aliens you'll know how dismissive I am of that genre), UFOs or witchcraft were shown on prime-time without sneering. The 70s were a high-water mark for weirdness. A strange, febrile time to be a child exposed to the psychic chaff of the mass media."

Southwell very graciously took the time to answer more than a dozen questions about Hookland that I sent his way earlier this month. Here is Part 1 of those questions and answers, along with some images from the @HooklandGuide twitter feed.

* * *

I suspect that the Hookland County project had a long incubation period before you first published anything online. How long had you been thinking about it, and what compelled you to finally launch it?

In many ways Hookland had an apparently short gestation period. Leigh Wright asked me to contribute something to Wyrd Daze that was not only about place, but about the things I used to write bad books about — conspiracy, true crime. Within 24 hours I had drawn a map of the county with 200 place names, each representing a story from the landscape that I wanted to tell, and gone back to Leigh saying I think I had something interesting to contribute if he was up for my idea of attempting to explore the psychogeography of a place that didn't exist. The core concept of using a travel guide as a format to tackle landscape, memory, folklore and the rest of territory I wanted to cover, most of the nomenclature, it all came out in an intense 16-hour burst of work.

Of course, the actual gestation period is several years of wanting to make a haunted space anyone could play in. Several years of wanting to create a fictional landscape that you could not only walk inside in terms of words, but would manifest in photographs and other objects. Several years of wanting to write a fiction based on what I knew to be the fiction of my own memory of a 1970s English childhood. A replication of deliberate inaccuracies within what was already a blur of fact and fiction, history and myth. Several years of wanting to graft half-memory of actual places onto a non-space, to make a book that felt as if it was an artifact that had fallen through from a parallel universe.

Writers tend to carry ideas in the neglected pockets of their mind for years, if not decades. We walk along, pick up shiny pebbles of fact, glinting impressions of where we have been — stuff them into those pockets where they jostle and tumble with our imagination and then pull out these mad concepts. Writers in the end are word spivs. We are trying to sell our readers the inside of our heads, to translate the electrical storms of our thoughts. We pull stuff from those pockets and try to polish it up enough to convince you to take interest. Hookland had been in the pocket for years — especially the element of wanting to put back all the cultural weirdness from my childhood that has been edited out of modern life.

The Hookland project has so many facets — a Twitter account, a website, The Phoenix Guide to Strange England, C.L. Nolan. Did you know from the start that all of these things would be part of the journey and discovery?

The core of Hookland always has been and always will be The Phoenix Guide To Strange England County By County: Hookland. I envisaged it as a guide book of the sort that they used to give away as petrol stations in the 1970s in the weeks when it wasn't tumblers, commemorative medals or Smurfs. Wyrd Daze gave me a chance to serialise the work as I wrote it. I hoped that at the end of the process there would be at the very least The Phoenix Guide to Hookland in a form that could eventually exist as a book in itself. I hoped that, if nothing else, that book could act as a gateway for others to enter the space I'd created and play with it themselves.

C.L. Nolan was always a voice I knew would be in the guide. I was happy to pastiche John Betjeman, Charles Fort, et al, as writers who had traveled through the county and left words about it behind, but I did not want to pastiche Arthur Machen. Therefore I needed a suitable substitute and that was Nolan — who pretty much shook himself out of my head fully formed as a friend and contemporary of Machen with his own fully developed backstory.

Twitter came six months into the project and was a way of adding extra layers of narrative to Hookland and trying to create maps in 140 characters and pictures that people to could project their own stories onto. It was also a chance to let people see the fiction in an unfinished state, to give an X-ray of the creative process. I was hoping that by taking it onto to Twitter, the shared universe aspect would begin to blossom and I've been overjoyed that it has. The responses to Hookland on Twitter have really brought the project alive.

There is a blog, but to be honest it is not much more than a place-marker at the moment. I'm something of an incompetent when it comes to HTLM — like C.L. Nolan, I have an Edwardian soul — and I'm a little stalled on how to take it forward. The blog, like other facets of Hookland I'd like to develop, will probably go forward at a point when I've written more of the guide.

How would you describe Hookland County, in a couple of sentences, to someone who knows nothing of it?

I'm not sure I can even explain it to myself in a couple of sentences. However, I often say Hookland is the psychogeography of a place that doesn't exist. It is a project that attempts to restore mystery to our sense of place and promote a sense of the uncanny when engaging with landscape. It's also an attempt to reconnect the reader to a sense of cultural weirdness edited out of most of our memories of the past.

You grew up in England in the 1970s. What part of the country? What childhood memories and experiences still resonate with you today, especially when it comes to your interest in Hookland County and its history and folklore?

My father deserted our family when I was 4 and so when my mother became ill later on, my brother and I were often nomadic. We were sent out to friends or relative in different parts of the country for months on end, a pass-the-parcel existence. The bulk of my childhood was spent in Essex, but we also had significant periods in London, Kent, Cornwall and Hampshire. Even a terrible spell in Norfolk. While the Essex estuaries of Blackwater, Roach, Colne and Thames carved maps of tidal mud and salt kisses onto my bones, the landscape of other counties bled into me.

When I am talking about Hookland before a live audience I often joke that I grew up in peak English seaside weirdness. The closest town to me in my earliest years had a row of properties owned by the Kray twins, abandoned when they were sentenced to life imprisonment; the mystery of dolphins disappearing from the local casino3; a torture waxworks which advertised on the seafront by mechanical tableaux of Spanish Inquisition laceration; the world's longest pleasure pier, which had been cursed by a gypsy and was always burning down or having oil tankers crash through it, a sunken wartime ship that was exposed at each low tide which contained enough rotting explosives to smash windows more than 30 miles away in London, UFO reports ... and a mystery from the 1920s when nine people had apparently vanished in plain sight while walking down a street. A constant paranoia about IRA terrorists targeting nearby oil refineries. This was just in the small seaside near to me. It was a ridiculously febrile place for a child's imagination to be inspired by and project onto. In retrospect, I don't think Southend was egregious in terms of strangeness for the time.

The suburbs village I spent most of my childhood in was home to rich ghost soil. When the Witchfinder General came to it in the 17th century on his campaign of terror, the locals were so fond of their witches and cunning men that they stoned him out of the village. We had ghosts, corpse lanes, shucks and people you were warned against offending on the basis of their moon gardening and herbalism, [which] had them marked out as being of the cunning ilk. I grew up in this whole cycle of folklore linked to the landscape of the castle ruins, the woods, the alley behind the grand houses.

When we traveled just a few miles down the road, that cycle would be completely different. Still all this rich folklore and story linked to landscape, but with their own specifics of site. Everywhere had its store of stories. In the Internet age, a lot of this localism of story has been eroded. Something like the black-eyed children legend spreads everywhere. A ghost story contagion that often seems to overide the sense of local lore by its conforming universality. In a way, Hookland is an echo of that folklore environment where the universal themes and archetypes of mythic culture would manifest in very specific ways in the landscape around you. It is also reflecting that pre-Net age where information was acquired through reading books, library research and sending out letters. A pre-cut-and-paste sense of the weird and uncanny. Slender Man is all fine and dandy as a bogeyman, but the creepypasta nature of it means that whether a story happens in Texas or Volgograd, there no real sense of place — something I demand from my fictions.

The other big aspect of my childhood is that I grew up in an England, where the cultural static was full of weirdness. The BBC news would move from reports of IRA bombing in London to footage of a UFO sighting without missing a beat — both stories treated with the same level of seriousness. Our nightly news magazine shows would happily devote 15 minutes to a poltergeist investigation or a look at modern witchcraft. National treasures such as Sir David Attenborough would present documentaries about monsters. The strange had currency, had acceptance in the popular culture of 1970s — not just at the level of the TV shows and films it inspired, but in terms of the way it was treated by journalism. Hookland is inspired by that period and is, on its own terms, an attempt to put back into our dialogue with that time all of the weirdness that has been edited out.

Part of Hookland is based on my own personal experiences of the weird. In that febrile landscape of the 1970s, a few times I witnessed things that I still cannot provide easy answers to and that leaks into the stories. I hope there is also a sense of the cultural paranoia that was part of my childhood background. When I was 10, the four-minute warning was accidentally given when the sirens in the local woods misfired. I remember teachers screaming, puking, crying. Running out of the school. The adult world reduced to panic. You never fully escaped the fear of nuclear apocalypse after something like that, but even at that age, I found the way newspapers didn't cover the panic, the way adults didn't want to talk about it as profoundly significant. That sense was only heightened by my curiosity about a strange tower in the woods. Years later it would be revealed as a microwave relay station, part of Backbone — the secret military communication network planned for a post-nuclear war — but growing up it was a source of mystery. No adult, not a single teacher, librarian or politician had a clue what it was and as a child I observed how they were able to gloss over its existence, not engage with this black metal spire that grew taller than the trees. I could see how adults didn't want to engage with anything that they felt was somehow related to the military, to the "secrets that keep us safe."

Aside from the sense of the uncanny that was so much part of my 1970s, Hookland is also an attempt to journey into the both the sense of awe and the dark dread which were intrinsic to my childhood through the prospect of places you could actually visit. Aside from Paul Nash, another inspiration for the travel guide format was the ritual of, before being sent out to relatives we didn't know or going on holiday, looking up the area in a travel guide. The visit to the library, that sense of looking in a book and whatever you found being true, pre-Wikipedia, that was not only an intense pleasure, for me as a child it gave a small sense of control through that power of believed knowledge. That element of pure autobiography is in The Guide.

We still seemingly know very little about C.L. Nolan. What is your personal sense of him? What are the mysteries from his life that you'd most like to unravel?

When writing I work from a obsessive level of internal, imagined detail. I tend to know everything about the places and people I am creating. You tend never to show it in what you write, but I like to know everything from a character's favourite meal to when they first had their heart broken. When the voice of C.L. Nolan began speaking in my work, it came with almost everything about him. I know when he was born and when he died. I knew his views on writing, what had forged his love of folklore. When and why he had run away to sea, his friendships with other existing authors, his period of ether addiction and his fascination in later in life for motoring. It took me a year to find and then own an image of him that looked exactly as he did in my head, but finding it was a glorious moment. Even to me, he felt real in that instant.

My constant sense of him is not only as an Edwardian writer of strange stories, but as a man engaged with the landscape of Hookland, feeling the stories stored in place coursing through him as he walks the county. If I focus on him at different points in his life, the sense changes. The later years, harrowed by loss and old age, slowly losing his sight and his ability to work with words in harsh contrast to his swagger and momentum in youth. I'm currently working out a chronology of his life to share with another author so they can make use of him in a story they want to write, so that sense is being turned into hard, scratched facts on the page. I felt emotional when sharing the names of his children, the dates they died. While Nolan is often a substitute for Arthur Machen and also at times my own voice within Hookland, he has become a creation that goes way beyond those practical concerns of an author.

As Nolan himself would say: "I believe as a writer and as a man, it is often better to dance with mystery rather than to dissect it," so I am not entirely convinced people want the mysteries of Nolan's life solved. However, I would like to channel some of his short stories and essays. I'd also like explore some key elements in his life — whether they are his days at the Ether Club, his family picnics ... or being one of the first people to drive an automobile in Hookland.

Related question: What is your favorite C.L. Nolan quote?

My favourite Nolan quote is probably: "Folklore is psychic shrapnel embedded in the landscape."

Everyone seems to have their own definition of psychogeography. How do you define it?

I like to keep things simple. To me psychogeography is: "How place makes you feel."

And then there's "landscape punk." Is that different? What is meant by that?

Landscape punk is my and others' like Garry Budden's reaction against the way psychogeography has become almost a literary commodity. The way it has become an academic subject. You don't need fancy intellectual words and concepts by dead French theorists to engage with place. Landscape punk is a DIY, screw-the-over-intellectualism and just heed the call-response nature of landscape. My career-changing moment as a writer came in a BBC car travelling with J.G. Ballard through west London. He told me: "Concentrate on place. Nothing without a sense of it is ever any good." That's the moment I stopped writing bad books for money and began to focus on place in my writing. Landscape punk is my way of expressing that focus without having to dress it up in academic theory or a faux-occult ironic language which excludes those who don't use it.

Read Part 2

1. Discovering Hookland is similar, perhaps, to finding Ultima in the old Choose Your Own Adventure book Inside UFO 54-40.
2. Regarding his wonderful photos, Southwell adds: "All the photos are taken by me on a broken iPhone 4. My deep worry is that the phone is going to die, I won't be able to afford to replace it and the photos will stop. A lot of the filters on the photos are very low-tec — coloured boiled sweet wrappers pulled across the lens to polarise the clouds et al."
3. I didn't follow up on this. Southwell might be referring to the Peacock Theatre in Westminster. According to Wikipedia:
"The Peacock Theatre is most noted as the home of one of the West End's most unusual ghosts, a dolphin commonly known as 'Flipper.' An urban myth has grown up that, during one of Paul Raymond's revues at the theatre in the 1970s, a dolphin was kept in a tank beneath the stage, where it lived permanently and later died from neglect. In fact, this is not true. Two dolphins called 'Pennie' and 'Pixie' were indeed kept in a tank at the theatre for three months for a show called 'The Royalty Folies,' which was later renamed 'The Great International Nude Show.' However, neither of these animals died while at the theatre and at the close of the show the animals were moved to a dolphinarium in the far east. The remnants of the tank and its lifting equipment still remain below the stage and numerous visitors to the theatre claim to have heard in the vicinity a spectral squeaking, not unlike a crying baby. One possible explanation is that the London Underground passes very close to the sub-stage areas of the theatre and it is noise from the tunnels that creates the sound."

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Joyful Hallowe'en: Mild Fear 2015 begins with a vintage postcard

The sun has set. A decided chill is in the air. It's time for the launch of Fortnight of Mild Fear — 14 days of spooky ephemera and other haunting posts that would have made ghost-story writer Sheridan Le Fanu proud, if he hadn't up and died 121 years before the invention of blogging.1

The above Hallowe'en postcard has never been used or written upon, which is a shame.2 There is no date or publisher listed on the front of back. And neither the Internet nor my scrying mirror is any help. So it's a bit of a mystery.

The illustration, though, is pretty fabulous: A frightened boy in the forest, surrounded by smiling trees, smiling mushrooms and a very large frog. It's very possible that he's tripping. Plus, a carved pumpkin and a black added at the bottom, for good measure.

Some thoughts:
  • These trees look far friendlier than the Fighting Trees of Oz or the bone-crunching, flesh-munching trees in Sarah's Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition videogame.
  • Public service announcement: While these mushrooms look quite peaceful, many red mushrooms are poisonous. Also, you should probably never eat a mushroom that has a human face.
  • The frog looks harmless, but that's only because it's still full from eating Ray Milland.
  • The boy is actually, by far, the scariest-looking thing in that forest.

1. Per A Brief History of Blogging: "It's generally recognized that the first blog was, created by Justin Hall, while he was a Swarthmore College student in 1994. Of course, at that time they weren't called blogs, and he just referred to it as his personal homepage. It wasn't until 1997 that the term 'weblog' was coined."
2. As I've often stated, postcards are meant to used. They should not remain blank, inside albums and plastic sleeves and boxes. After they've been mailed, of course, it's OK to stick 'em in a safe place, so that alien beings can find them when they visit our barren planet in 31,275 A.D. and wonder what the heck we were all about.