The Bad Trip

‘A history that makes perfect sense when the sky is falling down.’ – The Sunday Times
Very happy to announce here the publication of The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties. It's available now from Icon Books. It's been getting some really great reviews and I'm very pleased with how its turned out. Despite the dark and often disturbing content, the book was an absolute pleasure to write and I had a great time working with everyone at Icon. See below for details of the events I'm doing to promote the book. There's also a twitter account @EndofSixties that's covering all the recent media appearances and press coverage. 

Here's the synopsis: 

The Sixties, for many, was a time of new ideas, freedom, and renewed hope – from the civil rights movement to Woodstock. But towards the end of 1969 and the start of the 1970s, everything seemed to implode. The Manson murders, the tragic events of the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont and the appearance of the Zodiac Killer all called a halt to the progress of a glorious decade. At the end of the Sixties, the hippie dream died – or so the story goes. 
In The Bad Trip, James Riley descends into the underworld of the Sixties to reveal the dark side of the counterculture. He explores the seam of apocalyptic thinking that had lain hidden beneath the decade’s psychedelic utopianism all along. Moving between Britain and America, this is a magical mystery tour that shows just how different our concept of ‘the Sixties’ is from the reality of the period.  A brilliant and trenchant cultural history published 50 years after the action – drawing on interviews with key figures from the music, art, and film scenes of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US and UK. 

I'll be posting more texts here relating to the book in due course. 

The Bad Trip Live

The Dunwich Horror (1970). See Miskatonic event, 12th September. 

Following on from 'The Omega Men' show at Weekend Otherworld 3 and in support of The Bad Trip,
I'll be doing a series of events over the next few weeks. See below for details and links. All welcome.

12th September: Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, Horse Hospital, London.
Illustrated talk, 'The Bad Trip: Psychedelic Horror Cinema, 1967-1972'.

5th October: Ilkley Literature Festival, Ilkley Playhouse.
'In conversation' event and Q+A about The Bad Trip.

11th October: John Rylands Research Institute, Manchester
'The Artist of the Future Age: William Blake, Neo-Romanticism, Counterculture and Now',
Conference talk: William Blake, Iain Sinclair and the Visionary Poetry of the 1960s.

6th November: Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.
Reading from The Bad Trip, plus Q+A and book signing.


Weekend Otherworld 3: Summer is Over

Punishment Park

Great to be part the bill at English Heretic's Weekend Otherworld 3: Summer is Over at London's Five Years Gallery. Weekend Otherworld is English Heretic's ongoing series of screenings and talks that re-mix popular and occultural media. The first edition at Goldsmiths College was excellent, as was the second at the Cinema Museum. Summer is Over was no exception: a brilliantly curated day of film and talks linked to the idea of dystopia. There was a screening of Peter Watkins' stunning pseudo-documentary Punishment Park (1971), Agnes Villette reported on her stalking expeditions to the Zone of Chernobyl and English Heretic himself presented a mind-bending reflection on the power of nightmares

For my part I presented a talk / performance called 'The Omega Men'. This was based on sections from The Bad Trip that looked at post-apocalyptic fantasies in Nixon-era America. The Omega Man (1971) featured heavily as did Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and The Whole Earth Catalogue, circa 1969. Also included in the mix as were a series of long-held dreams notes about empty and abandoned cites. These played out to a soundtrack featuring heavily reverbed LAPD radio transmissions. 

Visuals from 'The Omega Men'.

My thanks to English Heretic for organising the day and having me on the bill. 


Fortean Times / Helter Skelter / Bad Trip


Really delighted to have written this months Fortean Times cover feature. The article is based on The Bad Trip and is an overview of the Manson case, its place within the occultural atmosphere of the late-1960s. Had a blast writing this and really pleased to see how it came out. My thanks to all at Fortean Times and editor David Sutton for such a wonderful layout and brilliant cover. 


The Copse

As seen on the return journey. 

28/06/2019. Been quite a while since the last trip. Parking up now and waiting. Across the road there’s a clutch of trees jutting out of the verge. The sun is high and is flickered by the branches. In the bleed the video shimmers as it struggles to pick out the detail.
Peter Whitehead’s The Risen (1994) follows three characters – a crystallographer, an actress and a sculptor – as they retreat to an isolated house in Cornwall. There they entangle themselves in a sequence of intense, shamanic rituals: initiatory processes that help them establish contact with John, the novel’s fourth character. John is a Syd Barrett avatar, a psychonaut who has vanished leaving only a set of coded messages behind. Throughout the novel he exists as an absent presence, an entity who haunts the text just as much as he haunts the characters. Reading like a smart-drug infused cut-up of H.P. Lovecraft and Jacques Derrida, The Risen unravels following the progress of these personalities as they intersect, interfere and entangle with each other, on numerous planes at once.
In The Risen, what happens on one plane of existence influences those that stand in horizontal and vertical proximity. The past and the present; the ‘real’ world and the afterlife; the textual realm and the digital; they each collide and intermingle as the novel gradually works its way into a mind-bending field of synchronicity and simultaneity. Whitehead called this structure holographic. He likened The Risen to a half-silvered mirror through which a laser is fired and which produces, in the spaces between, a ghostly, two-dimensional image that appears also to stand in three dimensions. 

Image result for the risen whitehead
1997 paperback edition 

28/06/2019. On the turn-in there was a familiar figure strolling through the village. Recognised the gait and stance. Time to consider my own. Head in to the place, down a path of heavy humming. Mixed feelings, most to do with the reasons for the absence. But this much said, such preparations are, and should be, for naught because – of course – it is not my day.
Whitehead wrote many novels, but during the time I knew him – first as a friend, then as a collaborator and then, for a while (2009-2014) as director of his archive – he consistently referred to The Risen as his touchstone work, a book that summed up how he wrote, why he wrote and what he wrote about. The novel had its origins in Nighttrip (1969) an unproduced screenplay about a long, mystical drive into the heart of an occult system. Other prose versions followed as Whitehead moved through the 1970s and into the 1980s via different countries and different lives: film-maker, writer, falconer. The version published in 1994 contained aspects of these prior iterations but it also drew on the heady underground atmosphere of the early-1990s, becoming in the process something of an unconscious lightning rod for the neo-counterculture of the late twentieth century. The cult independent publisher Creation Books initially had plans to issue The Risen, it was listed and is still carried by Midian Books and when published by Hathor it generated interviews and features in the likes of Esoterra magazine. Whitehead read from The Risen alongside Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit and Brian Catling at Disobey’s Subversion in the Street of Shame event in July 1994 and references to books like Robert Temple’s The Sirius Mystery (1976) – the kind of speculative Egyptology that reached a critical mass of popularity at the turn of the millennium – peppered the text. In short, it was exactly the kind of novel you could read alongside Clive Prince and Lynn Pyknnet’s The Stargate Conspiracy (1999). 

Risen, The: A Holographic Novel: Peter Whitehead
1994 hardback edition

Another important influence was Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic resonance, an idea he outlined in two Whitehead favourites, A New Science of Life (1981) and The Presence of the Past (1988). In short, morphic resonance describes a form of collective memory in which self-organising systems pass on information through patterns of repetition, cycles that appear able to extend influence across vast swathes of space and time. Sheldrake draws on plant sciences and an array of animal behaviour to explain this model of inheritance and to make a case for its significance as regards such doubted phenomena as telepathy. In The Risen, Whitehead used a similar concept to explain the psychic communication between his ‘earthly characters’ and the vanished, transformed intelligence calling itself John. He termed it ‘The R-Field’, the ‘R’ standing for ‘reincarnation’, amongst other things. For Whitehead, this described an aether-like medium in which the trans-dimensional and trans-temporal events of the novel take place. Whitehead also gave the R-Field a powerful symbol within the text, a location that the narrative obsessively returned to: a small inland clearing of trees within the Cornish landscape that he called, simply, the copse.
28/06/2019. After the Church, the plan was to drive back round the old haunts – the first house, then the car park island with its smattering of shops. Its full when I get there so there’s no photo. The house is also hard to find, even though everything seems a lot smaller than I remembered. The very first visit to the house had been a ghostly pursuit, the rest a kind of pupillage or initiation.
The copse is a thin space, a locus in which the various planes that flow through the novel converge into a point of intersection. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the copse is the place where John disappeared, or rather moved on. Initially, Whitehead’s use of the location recalls John Michell’s speculations on leys and ceremonial mounds as meeting places between men and gods. That said, for Whitehead, the copse does not relate solely to ideas from the Earth Mysteries scene. He offers it as an interstitial location, the novel’s holographic centre; a site at which one thing becomes another and in between a third space momentarily opens. As describes in The Risen, it is the letter ‘r’ which separates the word ‘corpse’ from ‘copse’. One word contains the other even when it is not articulated. So too with John’s progress in the novel. He’s not there, but neither is he entirely absent. His presence ripples through the text, felt and recognised but never fully manifest. There is no ‘return’ from the elsewhere but an increasing re-enactment on the part of those who remain; a growing awareness that their exploration of a set of interconnected texts is a re-plotting of John’s narrative. In the esoteric world of The Risen, this involuted unfolding of one narrative within the space of another is intended to describe nothing less than a system of reincarnation.
28/06/2019. Leaving the place, I’m circling: I’m driving round the same network of tight, overcrowded roads that used to lead from one of the houses to another. We worked at a few different locations dotted around the area and they formed a kind of circle around the town bordered by the vestigial countryside. New housing developments had ornamental lakes hewn out of the ground, pushing back the tree line. Going through the motions, other journeys come back like the time I drove there blind in thick fog. Others I spoke to reported appearances up and down the road. Signalmen at the crossroads jostling with phantom hitch-hikers. On more than one occasion, when driving with him, he would point to a gathering of trees and announce that it was the copse. He seemed to be in search of it. Seen from the moving car, these isolated alcoves blurred into strange shapes: static points in the landscape lost in flicker. Difficult to find on a return journey and even harder to capture in an image. The video would shimmer as it struggled to pick out the detail. 


British Literature in Transition / The Spiderhood

I was very happy to be involved in this new volume from Cambridge University Press: British Literature in Transition, 1960-1980: Flower Power. Edited by Kate McLoughlin, its an excellent volume featuring some wonderful essays covering the entire period. For my part, I wrote on psychedelia and psychedelic literature. Abstract: 

The Spiderhood: Psychedelic Literature, Literary Psychedelia and the Writing of LSD

With reference to Harry Fainlight’s ‘The Spider’ (1965), Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1968) and Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Drugs of the Mind’ (1970) (amongst others) this chapter explores the intertextuality of psychedelic writing and assesses the possibility of identifying a psychedelic literary discourse. Coined by Humphry Osmond and Aldous Huxley in 1957, ‘psychedelic’ was offered as an alternative term to ‘psychotomimetic’ and was intended to encapsulate the apparently generative rather than imitative qualities of LSD and mescaline. The word’s rise to cultural prominence during the 1960s mirrors a transition within the personal sphere as well as the surrounding political and economic macrocosm of post-war Britain. Literary psychedelia, the chapter argues, is writing that combines a particularized subject position with the rich cultural resonance that Huxley fed into the term in order to construct a formal structure reflective and interrogative of these wider social shifts.  

Key Words: Psychedelia, Psychedelic, hallucination, experimental, drugs, recording, the sixties, counterculture, underground literature. 



Folk Horror Revival: Otherworldly and Urban Wyrd


The good people at Folk Horror Revival and Wyrd Harvest Press continue to publish brilliant tomes based on their events and online activities. I was asked to contribute to two of their recent volumes: Otherworldy based on a live event at London's British Museum in 2016 and Urban Wyrd 1: Spirits of Time. I participated in the British Museum gathering and the volume includes a version of my talk: 'Sinister Networks'. This, in turn, was an expanded piece based on two previous posts here about canals, snakes and mythology. Urban Wyrd features 'Voices from the Ether', a text based on the talk about EVP, Iain Sinclair and ghost voices I gave at Brompton Cemetery as part of London Month of the Dead.  

My thanks to Folk Horror Revival for having me involved.