An image dredged from memory came to me the other day: a degenerate being, a creature monstrous and hungry, doll-like, like a beakless platypus with tendrilled hair. I dated the image from sometime in the early nineteen nineties, in Kent near the waters of the Hollow Shore. The misty time of childhood. The creature was opening its wide maw displaying a row of carnivore’s teeth; it lurked in the depths of a murky lake. It wasn’t the Jenny Greenteeth that fascinated me, not quite, not a Peg Powler or Meg Mucklebones. The thing I remembered, and had once seen, was similar to Russian vodynaoi, Japanese kappa, a squat water mole (they call them desmans). It was sleek like an otter, and I discovered later, was similar to the grindylow in the Harry Potter universe, creatures nicked from Yorkshire and Lancashire folklore.
It was of little surprise that I started seeing these creatures again: only natural, at a time when I was delving back into the waters of folklore and mythology, and at a time when I could feel the past weighing heavily on me with increasing frequency. The stories seemed burning and relevant again, and in vain I searched for a book I knew I had once possessed, a large umber hardback titled simply Around the World Fairy Tales. Stories of insatiable otesanek in Czech forests, blind men left to die in Arabian deserts, fish brides, star brides, and so on.
Eventually, bless her forever, my mother would find the book for me on a second-hand bookseller’s website and present it to me as a gift for the second time in my life. I don’t think she will ever realise how much that meant to me; so thanks, mum. But the murky water thing with its sharp grin wasn’t to be found inside the book’s pages.
It is absurd for a man in his mid-thirties to feel crippled by the weight of time, but I do feel it all the same. I am often ridiculous. I remember John Cusack in the film-adaptation of High Fidelity (watched in a cinema in Dublin in 1999 with my longtime friend, Kit Caless of Influx Press): Only people of a certain disposition are sure they're going to be alone for the rest of their lives at age 26. I was of that disposition.
I’d always had a melancholy relationship with the idea of the past; as a young child, old wedding photographs and other family photos were prone to trigger distress in me. ‘Weird kid,’ people must’ve thought. Not appropriately boyish or masculine. Men of my age, and for generations before and after, were taught to fight such feelings, push them down or away to places where they were left to rot and curdle. I am lucky, I think, in that I found an acceptable outlet for these feelings in my writing, an opportunity that would have been unthinkable for the earlier generations of my family.
To this day, an old creased polaroid has the ability to punch me in the chest with a feeling of missed potential, the blunt cruelty of time and ageing, and the sheer beauty and pointlessness of it all. If it’s faded and sepia-toned, all the better. The effects we give to images to create a sense of moments lost fascinates me. The world was never sepia, never black and white or soft focus or blurred. Yet the feelings these effects create are real; and those feelings are a reality in themselves. The yearning for what never was.
When she read some of my first published stories, my mother said to me with good-natured amusement, ‘You’re a sensitive lad aren’t you?’ Yes mum, I suppose I am. There have been moments in my life where my feelings towards certain subjects threatened to overwhelm me, the constant running conversation in my head never quieting down, like a raging fucking river sometimes, a sense of infinite hugeness to the world there to be perceived but not ever fully comprehended. I knew there were things I would never know, never could know, but I knew they existed. How cruel was that?
The awareness of this led me to weird fiction and cosmic horror. This idea that there is something beyond the veil, that we can encounter the Great God Pan and attain true knowledge if only we are able to comprehend. But no; humankind is only smart enough to be aware that there are things it will never understand. There is a perversity to that, and a humour too. A cosmic joke. Read writers like Thomas Ligotti and you’ll find as much black comedy and absurdism as you will nihilism and depression.
For a long time, I coped, as many people do, by muffling these feelings, or trying to enjoy them without pain and anxiety. The standard clichés of alcohol and drugs and a raging commitment to smoking. If you were involved with the London punk and squat subcultures, as I was, these things were everywhere and not only easy to find but actively encouraged. I feel it’s worth mentioning. I don’t mean to glamourise or lament, but only to try and tell the truth here:
The lift out of myself a chopped line of powder or a chalky pill could give me. Just please let me escape myself.
Infinite late nights, brutal early mornings.
Waking on a doghaired sofa in Bruce Grove feeling all hope and joy drained from me. The walls closing in. Spent serotonin, a strong desire to listen to Arab Strap and Nick Cave and the Tindersticks.
Lungs like blackened toast put in at the wrong setting.
Dried sweat, tobacco ash rubbed into denim, the sugars left from dried cider, once or twice blood, clinging to skin as I avoided the eyes of people on the London Underground as I made my way home.
There were times at the edge of oblivion where everything seemed possible. They called it ecstasy for a reason; ex stasis, to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere. That’s all I wanted.
The after effects would invert the world; now the world had no meaning. All was pointless, futile, a cruel joke. I wondered if writers like Lovecraft had been caught in one endless racist comedown. I’d picture the Comedian from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, weeping at the beginning of the maligned film version (that I enjoyed) crying and laughing and repeating, ‘It’s a joke’. Even a fascist could come to that conclusion.
At those times, I would look at us, at human beings, as insects with delusions of grandeur, scrabbling away like dung beetles to survive, only with an enough fleeting consciousness to sometimes comprehend our predicament. It was at that those times that the whole world came crashing in. What goes up, must come down.
When I was in my early twenties, working at the British Film Institute shop on London’s Southbank, I devoured huge amounts of world cinema. I’m glad of that time and what it offered me; I feel I can adequately discuss Italian neo-realism, the various new waves, British experimental landscape cinema, Czech surrealism where I encountered otesanek again, and many other unusual and unique takes on reality.
There was a Japanese director I liked, Shohei Imamura, who had made films such as Pigs and Battleships, Vengeance is Mine and my personal favourite, The Ballad of Narayama. He directed a film titled The Insect Woman, that followed a lower-class Japanese woman born in 1918 following her life through the calamities of the twentieth century. Despite everything she suffers, she struggles on and on and keeps going. Why is never fully explained.
Finally, I worked it out: the doll-thing that grinned underwater was something called a tolosh, from the second issue of a series called The Ancestral Trail, ‘Tolosh of the Garoon’. The subtitle was 'Mortal Danger in Enchanted Waters'. The tolosh were meat-eating beings that lured the unwary to the waters with mimic’s voices before devouring them in a piranha-like frenzy. They looked like a merge of the monsters from eighties horror film Critters, otters and lemmings. The series ran from 1992-93; the art and general hazy melancholic and mythic feel of the series stayed with me for a very long time. The sense of something lurking beneath the water, ready to drag people down. The sense of going under. Oblivion. These are themes and motifs I return to again and again in my work – I make no excuses for my fascination with my grandfather’s death in the river Thames, a great uncle torpedoed at the age of seventeen in the Irish sea during the second world war. Submersion is attractive to me. I enjoy swimming; I could splash and dive in the estuary waters of my home for long after my brother and my friends had tired of the salt and chose to sun themselves on the shingle. The beings from folklore that most intrigued me were water dwellers, often malevolent.
When I dredge my memory I see a summer day dappled with the green light of the trees, outside of the Swalecliffe Primary School. I think there is another family there and they have brought their dog, a Gelert of an animal, an Irish wolf hound that towers above the younger children. I am collecting The Ancestral Trail; school has finished and I’ll buy the latest issue at Macgregor’s newsagents in Tankerton. I am looking forward to the latest episode of The Animals of Farthing Wood, an animated series chronicling a band of animals fleeing a woodland destroyed to make way for human housing. My mum walks us home every day. There’s a house we pass, its front garden full of miniature castles other faux-medieval buildings.
The Ancestral Trail and The Animals of Farthing Wood were released on Wednesdays in 1993. The memory must be from the first months of the year, when winter still had its grip on the Kent coast. I know this by matching publication and broadcast dates using what Wikipedia tells me. It feels too easy but I can’t complain about information being easily accessible; though I wonder how much it has helped us. I realise the memory of sunshine must be false.
There are moments, when I am sat on an uncomfortable seat on the old trains running between my current home in Enfield Town in the outer reaches of north London to Liverpool Street, where bad memories will pin me to my seat. I know where they come from, but I do not know why. So many humdrum, ordinary horrors that so many of us have experienced and live with. It’s at times like that that I yearn for oblivion, or to be far away in an impossible forest watching treecreepers and lesser spotted woodpeckers and crossbills. To run to places I consider to be wonderful or sacred; the island I stayed on in the Swedish-Finnish archipelago and felt something approaching peace; the repurposed Yugoslavian naval barracks in Pula in Croatia, host to a famous anarchist punk festival, where I gave a reading in 2017; the swaying reeds on a breezy day at Stodmarsh near Canterbury; to a forested gorge in the Tatras mountain in Slovakia, near the town where Nina and I encountered neo-Nazi skinheads drinking merrily in a bar.
I loved The Animals of Farthing Wood, both the series and the original books by Colin Dann. I loved works of animal mythology, anything that anthropomorphised and recalibrated the animal kingdom into something akin to the human world with all its wars, conflicts and disappointments; its great loves and passions too. I recall one of my first moments of sheer horror reading the first Duncton Wood novel by William Horwood. Robyn Jarvis’s tales of the Deptford Mice, with that terrifying demonic cat Jupiter, the nightmarish skinners, and so much more eye-opening imagery. Brian Jacques and the long series of Redwall books.
The badgers and their ancestral home of Salamandastron still sparks my heart to this day. And, of course, like many people of my age, I loved and feared the 1978 animation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down.
I never read the novel until I was in my twenties, thinking it must be something for children, something lesser. By that point I was proudly and smugly a reader of literature, a part of global DIY punk culture, and the thrills of The Ancestral Trail and talking animals were part of a naïve past that I had no need of. But that global DIY punk culture would lead me back to Richard Adams, to the animal mythologies of my childhood, reawakening the idea that the worlds of the imagination and the fantastic needed to be re-entered.
Fall of Efrafa, who existed between 2005 and 2009, were a strange thing. An explicitly anti-fascist, atheist, vegan, animal rights crust band from Brighton whose work was conceptualised around the mythology present in Watership Down. In Adams’ novel, Efrafa is the rabbit colony ruled by a dictator, who oppresses any dissent via his elite police force via his elite police, the Owsla. So, it’s pretty obvious why this might appeal to people possessing punk and anti-fascist politics. Fall of Efrafa released a trilogy of albums known as The Warren of Snares: Owlsa, Elil and Inle, influenced by bands like Agalloch, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Discharge, His Hero Is Gone and Neurosis, a crushingly heavy mix of crust, post-rock, doom metal and hardcore punk. Sonically, then, not for everyone. But perfect for me, someone who was always interested in the more extreme and passionate forms art could take. I love heavy music (though I’m not much of a metalhead). I love the raw energy of the best left-wing hardcore and crust punk; it’s able to give me a genuine thrill, and can lift me out of myself. It helps me achieve, at times, a kind of connected oblivion.
What grabbed me, and fascinates me still, was a group possessing the politics I sympathise with framing these ideas not through the standard punk form of blunt political diatribes, but in a form that would appeal to fans of animal mythologies, of black and doom metal, the fantastic and weird horror fiction; something that could appeal to a boy reading The Ancestral Trail and watching The Animals of Farthing Wood on a Wednesday afternoon in Kent in 1993.
It was clearly connecting in some way with an idea of a mythologised countryside, an environment under threat, something that always felt to me very English (it’s those voices in the film that do it, Nigel Hawthorne, John Hurt and Richard Briers). But this imagined countryside was a place of vicious battles against established power structures, against brutal tyrannies, against organised religion, against the crush of totalitarianism. Not a bucolic imagined space of peace and happiness removed from modernity, but a place of intense ideological conflict. This was something I recognised.
In the closing song to Owlsa, ‘The Fall of Efrafa’, there is a sample of Richard Adams reading from the book. ‘The fields; the fields are covered in blood,’ he says again and again.
It was through the oblivion of the London punk scene that led me to these extreme forms of anti-fascist music. Music and ideology that was in dialogue with mythologised ideas of the nature and landscape; epic, intentionally harsh and heavy, willing to state its political opinions boldly whilst still operating in the realm of art and metaphor. This music directly fed into the concept of ‘landscape punk’ that I have a written about frequently (such as my piece in The Quietus last year, which has been recently dug out and quoted by a few people in the wake of the Paul Kingsnorth ‘Elysium Found?’ furore). In oblivion I found clarity.
I write this at a time when dividing lines are being drawn among writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers about the contested ideas relating to landscape, national identity, belonging, folk culture, and connections to ‘the land’. People get labelled fascists so quickly (I fall foul of that myself); there’s talk of internet mobs shutting down free speech when no such thing has happened. These are strange times. It makes me want to block it all out sometimes, to hide again in oblivion. But I don’t consider that an option any more.
The past is murky, history is a messy thing, and a place is really what we choose to imagine. Below the surface of these dangerous waters are beings that mimic the things you love, they call out to you and stir your heart, but if you are not wary they will pull you under and rip you apart. If you fall for the lie of the past, they will devour you.