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. 

Black Box Text

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[Posting here the full text of a piece originally written in 2013 for the Literature / Technology / Media hub at the University of Cambridge]

Amongst volumes on Dali, Francis Bacon and Helmut Newton, J.G. Ballard’s library also contained The Black Box (1984) edited by Malcolm MacPherson. The book is a collection of transcripts taken from the Flight Data Recorders of aeroplanes involved in “air disasters”.  These ‘black boxes’, consist of a central recording medium (first wire, then tape, now currently digital matter) sealed in a steel outer casing that is robust enough to survive high impact, intense heat and immersion in water. The devices are typically installed into a plane’s tail assembly in order to record in-flight instrument data and cockpit dialogue. In the event of a crash the units can, in theory, be recovered intact from the wreckage in order to reconstruct the sequence of events – computational and conversational – that preceded the accident. 

The Flight Data Recorder has been an industry standard since 1960. Versions have been in use since 1939 but mainly in the aircraft research industry. It was first outlined for use in civilian aviation with a specific post-crash application in 1954 by David Warren, an aeronautical researcher at the Australian Defense Department. His paper, “A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents” streamlined the problematic photographic functionality of previous models and gave rise to the 1957 prototype, the Flight Memory Unit. At this point in the object’s history, ‘black box’ can be revealed as something of a misnomer: the devices were designed to be, and have remained, bright orange to facilitate ease of identification and retrieval on the ground. The term seems to have stuck due to journalistic shorthand and possibly as a residue of its initial photographic incarnation. Early models were essentially small, sealed darkrooms not designed with crash salvage in mind.

Although technically imprecise, ‘black box’ nevertheless carries accuracy as regards the imaginative significance invested in the device. In circuit design, ‘black box’ describes a component that is understood not on the basis of its mechanism but in relation to its input, output and processional characteristics, the manner in which the input changes as a result of its transfer through the device. Similarly, the Flight Data Recorder often occupies the interstitial position common to the symbolic reception of many recording devices: it hovers as an invisible mediator somewhere between operation and content. Frequently brandished for the press at the edge of an accident zone, the recorder is often taken as a talismanic marker that signals not the start of an analysis but the completion of an investigation. A solid state amongst the residue of the plane, the black box functions as a perfect synecdoche: one surviving part that at a human and material level, can reassemble the disintegrated whole. Once it is found, the external reportage can withdraw as the public narrative of the plane crash has, in a sense, come to an end. 

John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’ (1977) and later novel Millennium (1983) are both built upon this symbolism of holistic resurrection. In each, a black box is recovered containing a recording that analeptically opens out at an exponential rate. It narrativizes the crash central to each text, as well as a panoramic scenario of time travel and impending catastrophe. Varley’s box is a narrative engine that quickly disappears under the weight of its contained significance. For Ballard, his attraction to the device is also connected to its narrative results. Writing in a 1998 review of MacPherson’s second edition, he explains that his fascination with the transcripts lies in their presentation of slowly accumulating decline:

What stands out […] is how quietly catastrophe creeps up on its victims. A gradual fall in hydraulic pressure, an unexplained loss of fuel, a hint of smoke in a lavatory, are noted half an hour before the looming crisis.

However, what is also emphasised in Ballard’s account is the informational poverty that the neutral ear of the recorder necessarily retains. As Iain Sinclair noted when describing the myth of Ballard’s own archive, ‘nothing intimate survive(s)’:

[…] the transcripts convey only the sketchiest impression of the atmosphere in a stricken aircraft as the captain and crew wrestle with their controls. While one crippled system collapses on another, horns blare, lights flash and recorded voices shout: "Pull up! Pull up!"

Yet no one panics. Even in the final moments, as the doomed aircraft heads towards the ground at 400 miles per hour, only a stoical regret is sounded, like the simple comment, "We're dead", made by the co-pilot of a Lockheed cargo plane in the seconds before the end.

That final announcement encapsulates the (im) possibility of the black box. Along with examples such as Edison’s spiritualist hopes for his phonograph and Konstantin Raudive’s fascination with Electronic Voice Phenomena, the imaginative economy of the Flight Data Recorder helps to maintain the post-mortem fantasy associated with recording media. It seems to work against annihilation by preserving voice and experience in the aftermath of their destruction. And yet, what Ballard highlights is the skeletal, denotation of ‘the end’. It exists and can, of course, only exist as a statement of an impending event rather than a survival of the event itself. The investigative specificity of the Flight Data Recorder coupled with the nature of its most significant material foregrounds the operational reality that underpins the projected phantasy:  a capacity for re-play rather than mediumship.

Fortean Times / Cry of the Banshee!

Fortean Times recently published my piece on Banshees, twilight encounters and noises from the dark. The magazine included it in their Forum section. Very interesting text to write: based on a report of a wailing woman roaming the suburbs of Kirkby, Merseyside. The story first surfaced in July 2017 before additional reports came to light in September 2017 from nearby Tranmere, Rock Ferry and Beechwood. The stories suggest that the cries for help heard through letterboxes in the middle of the night were part of a strange burglary plot. Seemed to overlap with much older accounts of Banshees whose cries signalled some impending doom. 


Films on Vimeo

Still from Distress Signals

Still from Ghost Walk

I’ve recently put a selection of videos on Vimeo. These are short films I’ve made with a number of collaborators: David Ashford, Miriam Austin and particularly Evie Salmon. They feature footage originally shot in New York, Paris, London and other parts of the UK. Combining this ‘found footage’ with specially prepared voice-overs, the films variously look at ‘dead’ media (video formats), strange locations (London churches, coastal areas, military buildings, sites of literary interest) and the link between image and spoken word.

More films will be added to the Vimeo page in due course. I’ve been making videos for years and have a large archive of tapes to work with. Some of the films are old, some are ‘new’ based on ‘old’ material and others I’m in the process of shooting. The current selection includes:

Ghost Walk: a film made with David Ashford about the churches featured in Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975).

Distress Signals: a piece featuring footage of New York’s Coney Island, pre-Hurricane Sandy. Much of this area has now changed, almost beyond recognition. Some of these images appeared in an issue of the film magazine Vertigo.

The Bird: a video based on a performance piece by the artist Miriam Austin.

Territories: a video that tracks William Burroughs across New York, Paris and  London.

Codebreaker: a film about Bletchley Park, their coding machines and the peculiar corridors in the on-site huts.

Headlands, Trailer: a short trailer for the Headlands live show performed in Cambridge as part of the Festival of Ideas.  

Distress Signals, The Bird, Territories, Codebreaker and Headlands, Trailer were each made in very close collaboration with Evie Salmon. It’s her voice on the soundtracks. I shot and prepared the footage, she provided the spoken word element and the final composition of the finished films was a joint effort. These videos reflect and inform the live performances we do together which often involve spoken word, sound elements and film projections. Some of this material will be featuring in Territories, the upcoming book Evie and I are publishing via our friends at Contraband. As a multimedia artist, a brilliant writer and an interdisciplinary academic, Evie is a true polymath. It has been great working with her on these films and I'm looking forward to sharing the results of our current and future collaborations. 



Spaces of Conspiracy

Particular spaces generate particular events. Spaces gain significance from the happenings they harbour, but there are also set of invisible vectors that act as strange attractors. In the in-between of memory, history and architecture there is an excess that can sometimes, like ectoplasm, be caught when the light is right. 

1. Stairway: stone, rust, litter.  

'Original' event remembered from below, looking up. 

Vanishing chase to the bottom; a public argument; subsequent discussions indicate that the altercation was not all it seemed. Route now blocked. Reverb footsteps continue. 

2. Car park: concrete, white lines, engine heat. 

In the car, not pictured, as it and if it happened.

Argument across the flat space and stains on the car windows. Police trying to calm it down. Parking bays as crime outlines. Always accumulated bits. Broken. A hundred other incidents to be reconstructed. Workplace off in the distance. Gateway to a parade of offices, interlocking. 

3. River: Slate water, iron bridge, hole.

Follow this river to find a way out of the 21st century. 

Flecks of blue plastic in amongst the dirtied green. A sense of anticipation because it moves all the time. It looks more like a fuel supply than a water source. Channels like this all over the town. Most invisible though. That it should raise its head at this precise point adds another co-ordinate to the speculative map. 


London Month of the Dead / Voices of the Ether

I will be taking part in this year's London Month of the Dead. My talk, 'Voices of the Ether' will look at EVP, audio technology and a series of writers - including Iain Sinclair and William Burroughs - who have, in one form and another, attempted to have conversations with the dead. The event will be taking place in a wonderful venue: Brompton Cemetery Chapel. Details below. 


Stone Tapes, Electronic Voices and other Ghosts with James Riley
Saturday 27th October 2018 from 1:00 pm

Shortly after the publication of Lud Heat (1975), his visionary study of London’s Hawksmoor churches, the writer Iain Sinclair was interviewed by the BBC. Recorded in situ, Sinclair discoursed on the city’s resonant energies but upon playback - and much to the consternation of the BBC engineer - the tape contained no trace of their discussion. Instead, the creaking recorder yielded only malevolent sounding grunts and shuffles: unexpected séance noises and ghostly mumbles. 
The episode brings to mind Nigel Kneale’s drama The Stone Tape (1972) in which ghosts are the echoes of past experiences held by their physical surroundings, as well as Konstantin Raudive’s experiments into Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP): the appearance of ‘post-mortal’ voices on tape recordings made in silent rooms. Technical fault, ‘genuine’ visitation or creative embellishment: each of these encounters speaks volumes about the extent to which parapsychologists and artists alike seek to have conversations with the dead.  
Using Sinclair and other writers like William S. Burroughs as spirit guides to London’s haunted history, this talk will discuss EVP and the other ghostly voices that emerge when technology, creativity and the paranormal intersect.  

For tickets and full venue details, please click here

The 1960s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction

 Media of The 1960s
I was very happy to been invited to act as co-editor on the recent essay volume for Bloomsbury, The 1960s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction (2018). The book is part of the ongoing Decades series and brought together wide range of excellent essays dealing with various aspects of 1960s fiction. Topics included gay fiction, youth cultures, postcolonial writing, science fiction and experimental writing. I wrote on J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and 'The End of the Sixties'. My thanks to fellow editors Philip Tew and Melanie Seddon. The book is available now and Nick Hubble has written a guest blog post over at the Bloomsbury Literary Studies site about it and the previous volume in the series on the 1950s.