Weird Realism, Occult Parody, Counterfeit History
by Josh Mcloughlin
Repeater Books 427pp ISBN 9781913462093 £12.99
‘The imagination feeds on the essences of history, its rotting timbres, the stumps of its gibbets.’ That hungry, macabre mind belongs to Andy Sharp, a British writer, artist and the driving force behind English Heretic, a countercultural project formed in 2003 and inspired by occultism, folk horror, and black magic, all firmly rooted in England’s history and landscapes. As the name suggests, English Heretic is a parody of English Heritage, and that wordplay is the first sign of an obsessive and ironic punning impulse and a predilection for pathologically recursive thinking that run through Sharp’s writing.
Seeking an alternative to the ‘dry rendering of history’ on offer at England’s prim stately homes, manicured gardens and saturated canonical monuments, Sharp set up the English Heretic website, ‘a direct subversion of English Heritage's site at the time’, and went on to publish a yearly magazine and accompanying CD, paying homage to the occult magazines of the 1970s and 80s, such as Man, Myth and Magic and The Unexplained. The English Heritage Collection is the ‘definite anthology of this writing’ from the last 15 years.
Styled ‘part countercultural history of England, part ghost story, and part magickal psychogeography’, Sharp’s preface to the Collection clarifies its literary objective: ‘to fecundate a strain of visionary fiction from the animated exploration of landscape and history.’ Mapping the nation through a series of occult pilgrimages to sites haunted by the ghosts of dead writers, artists, and directors, abandoned military sites and the loci of crime, conspiracy, and mystery, Sharp turns England into ‘an arena’ for ‘an open-ended and ludic ritual in all dimensions.’ The result of this ‘visionary field report’ is a ‘counterfeit of history’: a diabolical Ordnance Survey that resounds with hieratic dirges, satanic hagiographies, uncanny connections, and eerie laughter.
‘The New Geography of Witchcraft: A Black Plaque for Michael Reeves’, supplies both an exemplary instance of the Collection’s ‘occult parody’ and a statement on Sharp’s doctrine and method. We begin in February 2005, with Sharp laying the ‘inaugural Black Plaque’, an English Heretic ‘subversion of English Heritage’s ubiquitous placements’, at the base of a tree in Ipswich Cemetery. Thirty-six years before, the ashes of Michael Reeves, the director who died from an overdose less than a year after the release of his shocking historical horror film Witchfinder General (1968), were scattered on the lawn nearby. The Black Plaque consisted of a CD case emblazoned with English Heretic’s sigil and wrapped ‘in transparent plastic bag redolent of memorials at family gravesides’. Sharp’s description is typical of the sinister, baroque language of the Collection:
The condensation that gathers in the bag acts like some kind of universal solvent, weathering and warping the contents — a spoiled forensic exhibit of secular mourning. The homage undergoes a bluish transformation, a moist analogue of the yellowing one sees in the sun-dried ancient stock of a seaside souvenir shop. A reminder of our return to earth: the kingdom of the nematode and the cellular simplicity of the mycological world.
From there Sharp proceeds through a series of uncanny associations centred on the Suffolk village of Lavenham, which supplied the backdrop to the infamous witch-burning scene in Reeves’s film. This ‘medieval Disneyland’ turns out to be a locus terribilis: ‘a cursed location for a number of directors and actors’. Ian Ogilvy, a friend and collaborator of Reeves who played the character Richard Marshall in the film, was informed that the burning scene had woken up ghosts in the village, with villagers reporting a ‘terrible, awful noise of wind, dreams, and moans’ the following night. We then learn that Lavenham was also the setting for Sharon Tate’s final film, The Thirteen Chairs (1969). In it, Vittorio Gassman discovers a means of miraculous hair regrowth: ‘crazy-eyed, wild black beard and hippy hair styling’, he ‘morph[s] into an uncanny doppelganger of Charles Manson’, a freeze-frame on which the film ends as Sharon Tate’s name scrolls into view. Tate would be murdered by the Manson ‘Family’ cult before the year was out.
In December 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to Lavenham to film Apotheosis 2, an art film in which a hot air balloon inflates and rises, first past the pair dressed in cultic black robes, then above the marketplace, the snow-dusted Suffolk countryside and finally into the clouds. The first Apotheosis is exactly the same, but the balloon flies over New York’s Central Park. ‘Lennon was of course assassinated outside the Dakota Building, close to Central Park, almost eleven years to the day after filming at Lavenham’, says Sharp, and so the Dakota ‘sits like some kind of house on the borderland of cultural paranoia, having been used as the location for Roman Polanks’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), that director’s precognition of [his wife] Sharon Tate’s cult murder’. We then find out that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales (1972) was also filmed in Lavenham: sure enough, its director was murdered in Rome three years later. Sharp announces that ‘the careering comedy of The Thirteen Chairs triangulates between these key locations: Lavenham, New York, and Rome’ and so:
A new geography of celluloid hexing emerges, where the spools of Pasolini, Tate, Lennon, and Reeves cross-fade into an absurdly terrifying continuum. Could it be that cinema, the magical act of interfering with space and time, can unwittingly serve as the means of creating a new psychodramatic landscape, one in which actors and directors become participants in a cosmic mystery play?
That ‘could it be?’ is Sharp’s catchphrase, a speculative tic that turns the interpretative decision-making, the final weighing of credulity, over to the reader. Sharp reveals that he originally planned to write out-and-out fiction but ‘by a curious inversion, my imagination forced me to stick with the research and the documentary route’. I can’t help but wish he had written the script and stage directions for a ‘cosmic mystery play’ starring Pasolini, Tate, Lennon, and Reeves, perhaps an occult epic along the lines of the York Cycle (performed in England 1376–1569) or a postmodern rendering of its most iconic episode, the Harrowing of Hell, a katabasis from Lavenham to a galactic Hades and back again via Penny Lane, Cielo Drive, and Piazza di Trevi. But the Collection, framed as a kind of literary parody or occult mockumentary of Dereck Acorah’s Most Haunted (2002 – 05), is perfectly suited to the aim of producing a tongue-in-cheek yet intellectually formidable ‘counterfeit [. . .] history’.
‘The approach I am adopting’, explains Sharp, 'is one of poiesis: an extemporisation, to make meaning in search of imaginal truth’. At first, this ironic pursuit seems a touch far-fetched, a ludic step too far beyond the boundaries of conventional critical thinking that jettisons insight in favour of parody. That is, until we remember that Walter Benjamin, another intellectual outsider, also developed a method in which the ‘thought-fragments’, the ‘gibbets’ of history, are gathered into ‘constellations’ that become more than the sum of their parts. Benjamin, like Sharp, insisted that ‘truth content can be grasped only through the most exacting immersion in the details of a material content’. The difference is that where Benjamin invoked an Angel as his melancholic figure who ‘would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed’ from the discarded ‘wreckage’ of history, Sharp opts for a mephistophelian alternative, powered not so much by ‘a storm [. . .] blowing from Paradise’ but a demonic hurricane from Hell.
By now we realise the importance of humour to the Collection, which vacillates between the playful and the deadly serious and back again. As Dean Kenning says in his foreword, this comic streak ‘rescues the entire area of occult mysticism both from sombre pretension and its more sinister aristocratic “blood and soil” myths of power and purity.’ In response to English Heritage’s preservation and mythologisation of aristocratic history, Sharp offers a ‘subterranean and demotic’ mythology of his own, dredged from England’s insidious nooks and crannies. Sharp’s method, a sort of occult bricolage, is also a form of juvenile play laced with deliberately bad jokes, inspired by his own children’s reactions to the nation’s listless heritage sites. Throughout, humour and irony are key: ‘As for my own angle on esotericism’, says Sharp in the preface, ‘I like to think this collection adds a vital formula, and a libidinally charged sense of humour to the study and practice of magick — most definitely Satyre with a “y”’.
Sharp marshals major figures in ‘weird’ art and literature, including H.P. Lovecraft, Salvador Dalí. J.G. Ballard, and Kenneth Grant, alongside a dizzying range of obscure literary, mystical, and psychological thinkers. The 1920s esotericist and alchemist known as ‘Fulcanelli’ said that ‘word play should guide our faith towards certainty’, a dictum followed religiously throughout the Collection. Sharp also invokes the French 1960s Oulipo collective, a gathering of writers who explored a variety of constrained writing techniques—or, as its founder Raymond Queneau put it, ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape’. The Qabbalistic concept of ‘qliphoth’—the ‘shells’, ‘husks’ or ‘diseased refractions of the Tree of Life’—recurs throughout, laced and interleaved with Greek myth, Norse lore, Vedic tales, medieval fables, and niche sci-fi conspiracies.
But amid the leftfield thinkers, avant-garde movements, and obscure religious mystics, all of which demonstrate Sharp’s voracious intellect and wide, if scattergun reading, there is a concept with a slightly more canonical origin that may serve as a torch to light the way for readers attempting to divine the runes and solve the temple puzzles of the Collection. Jacques Derrida’s portmanteau coinage ‘hauntology’ conflates haunting and being (the word is a homophone for the French ontologie, the concept that haunts Derrida’s entire oeuvre) to describe how the past returns to haunt the present. In Derrida’s famous example, Marx continues to haunt contemporary Western society and thought from beyond the grave:
This logic of haunting would not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being (of the ‘to be,’ assuming that it is a matter of Being in the ‘to be or not to be,’ but nothing is less certain). It would harbour within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular events, eschatology and teleology themselves. It would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly.
Just as Derrida describes European thought as structured by a ‘logic of haunting’, the English Heretic Collection is devoted to detecting the spectral presence of England’s dark pasts which linger and reverberate shadowy psychogeographical effects that chill the here and now with ghosts, ghouls, mourning and melancholia.
Given the hauntological streak of the English Heretic project, it is no surprise to learn that Sharp presented a paper entitled ‘Wyrd: In Poetry, Theory, and Practice’, reproduced in this collection, at the ‘Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Theory’ symposium organised by Mark Fisher, who did more than most to popularise Derrida’s concept, at Goldsmiths College in April 2007. Connecting the two, we might see Fisher’s posthumous work, The Weird and the Eerie (2016), as suggesting the importance of the ‘weird’ as a mode of ‘imaginal truth’, a deviant or wyrd ‘realism’ that just might supply an alternative to the ‘capitalist realism’ Fisher excoriated in his best-known work: Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009).
J.G. Frazer remarked in The Golden Bough (1890), his huge study of comparative mythology and religion, that magic is, at bottom, a belief in hidden associations between apparently disparate phenomena. This assumption underpins the Collection. Sharp conjures spectacular interpretative fabula and weaves incredible connections from threadbare, unremarkable and apparently unrelated locations and objects using his encyclopaedic knowledge of myth and enviable ability for verbal acrobatics. As Kenning says:
the paucity of evidence and information, the banality of the scene, the lack of spectacle [. . .] make the operation not less but more fertile for the occult geographer armed not only with a few scraps of knowledge, some tenuous connections, a passion for the contingency of historical events, and the necessary technical means [. . .]. Against the over-packaged experiences of preserved ruins and monuments, English Heretic insists on the potency of un-signposted remains.
Iain Sinclair’s perambulating psychogeographies and cultural topographies, especially London Orbital (2002), supply a more direct influence, and Sharp’s work can be seen as a satanic, nightmarish, surrealist version of Sinclair’s sharp and focussed socio-political critique. Sharp, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, proceeds by way of apophenia, mixing dark odds and ghoulish ends into his ‘charmed pot’, stirred with lashings of linguistic sorcery to transmute the everyday and the banal into a postmodern ‘hell-broth’: a ‘charm of powerful trouble’. Framed as a ‘visionary field report’ of the occult, The English Heretic Collection does not so much observe the supernatural as enact a Faustian summoning, casting spells that transform England into a pop-culture pandemonium stalked by the ghosts, aliens and demons of history. As with Marlowe’s notorious necromancer, exegetical power seems at first to lie less with devilish apparitions than with the ‘the minde of man’ itself. But where Marlowe is consumed by his demonic charms, Sharp reminds us of the illusion in a knowing aside: ‘the imagination is a master at retrofitting significance’. In ‘Volcano Adventures’, Sharp attempts to:
congeal linear history through the lysergic psychobiology of Stanislav Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrix. It asks the question of whether it is possible that culture, literature, and personal epiphany find their double in terrestrial trauma; that our seemingly random peregrinations, when scanned by a kind if psychoanalytic ultrasound, allow us to mayday our coordinates on the radius of the samsara.
The passage is typical in its density of ideas, quasi-baroque constructions and esoteric vocabulary. Grof is a contemporary Czech psychiatrist known for theorising ‘perinatal’ consciousness, an infant state of awareness before and during birth. He has plenty of respectable academic credentials — MD, PhD, a string of university appointments — but Grof also featured in the bizarre film Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within (2006). This enjoyably trippy but intellectually bankrupt ‘documentary’ attempted to stitch stock footage time lapses of nature through the seasons and exoticised Hindi-shrines with dodgy talking heads to weave a theory of an ‘enchanted cosmos’. The English Heretic Collection succeeds where Entheogen fails. By remaining staunchly parodic, ironic, and self-effacing throughout, it manages thereby to produce insights of real importance: demonstrating the value of wyrd as a literary method of producing ‘imaginal truth’; rescuing the occult as a comparative field by unmooring it entirely from sincerity; and writing a ‘counterfeit history’ of England that offers a genuine alternative to the sanitised monuments of upper-class history preserved by the gatekeepers of the anaemic tourist industry.
The English Heritage Collection is a work of diabolical poetry, if we invert Plato’s account of poetry as divine possession and see Sharp as an ‘inspired madman’ channeling demonic powers. Seen this way, we can appreciate the English Heretic project for what it truly is: a work of disturbing lunacy and visionary genius.