Dark Matter


Some notes on Jake Fior’s new novel, Through a Looking Glass Darkly (2020).

In 2011 rare book dealer Jake Fior made a startling discovery. He came across a large wooden chessboard, dulled with age and decorated with sixteen ink and watercolour images. Carrying the monogram ‘JT’ the illustrations depicted scenes from nursery rhymes and fairy tales, talking chess pieces and strange young girls holding crowns aloft. At first Fior thought the board was an interesting Victorian novelty piece; the images were familiar, but he couldn’t quite place them. It was only when he compared the them to Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) that the board’s significance started to become clear. Not only were the pictures stylistically identical, they also carried the same monogram.

Realizing he might have discovered something rather special, Fior sent the board for forensic pigment analysis and got busy with research into the work of Tenniel, Carroll and their milieu. Both investigations yielded the results he was hoping for: not only did John Tenniel design the chessboard but what Fior had in his possession was in fact Tenniel’s own hand-painted creation. Tenniel, the designer of Happy Families, seemed to have produced the board as a piece of prototypical Carrollian merchandise soon after the publication of Through the Looking Glass – a novel in which chess has a significant role. Fior had not located a much sought after ‘holy grail’ of Carroll collectors, but an even greater rarity: a one-off; an artefact that no-one even knew existed despite its proximity to the now iconic novel.

These kinds of archaeological discoveries invariably have an impact upon accepted history. Origin stories have to be reassessed and the standard narrative has to be adjusted to accommodate the new element. In the case of Carroll’s novel, the impact of Tenniel’s resurrected chessboard, is similar to the effect of the novel’s central motif, the looking glass. Mirrors reflect and they also distort. They offer a glimpse of the self but also open a portal into the world of the double, the doppelganger and the daimon. This is the nature of the relationship between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass. Carroll intended for the latter to act as a continuation of and a reversal of the former. Across the two novels Carroll moves from summer to winter, from vertical images to horizontal, from cards to chess. Tenniel’s chessboard occupies a similar position in relation to the second novel. It points to the possibility of a parallel means of engagement with the text, one that is tactile as well as visual. It suggests that at one point in its history, Through the Looking Glass was intended not just as a book that could be read, but also a game that could be played.

Fior’s latest project continues with this mirror-logic. He has produced a contemporary version of Through the Looking Glass by re-writing Carroll’s original as a darker, more esoteric narrative. If Through the Looking Glass is Carroll’s mirror image of Wonderland, then Fior’s new novel, Through a Looking Glass Darkly (2020), is the mirror crack’d. In this text Alice is not the Victorian schoolgirl but a modern, streetwise incarnation, and the book’s illustrations - previously unseen Tenniel images - teasingly channel the character’s 1960s role as a psychedelic totem. Crucially, the titular looking glass of Fior’s novel is not a domestic living room mirror sat atop a mantelpiece, but a sorcerous magic mirror salvaged from a junk shop.

This re-imagining is complemented through the use of references to actual historical events including W.B. Yeats’ association with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Fior presents the occulture of the late nineteenth century as a blend of mysticism, conspiracy and artistic experimentation to provide Carroll’s existing references to numerology and mathematics with a texture of ritualistic significance. Carroll saw the chess structure of Through the Looking Glass as a formal exercise and a method of narrative organization. Re-contextualised in Fior’s specialized range of citations, this system becomes indicative of a much wider structure of allusion. His Alice doesn’t move through a landscape of play and nonsense but an occult landscape of secrecy and accumulative paranoia.       

Through a Looking Glass Darkly stands as part of the recent trend for literary re-engagement that has seen Joanna Trollope’s Austen pastiche and the continuation of the James Bond franchise by Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd satisfy a contemporaneous desire to revisit classic works. The Carrollian oeuvre is no stranger to this revivalism. The enduring popularity of the Alice novels is, in part, due to the extent to which they have been variously reinterpreted by writers and artists ranging from Alan Moore to Marilyn Manson. These variants usually combine a recapitulation of the basic narrative trajectory with a speculative reading of the Lewis Carroll / Alice Liddell relationship. As such, what often emerges is an uneasy mixture of authorial criticism and textual reverence. In contrast, Fior’s take on Carroll exhibits no such respect. It attempts to develop key characters and plot lines on the basis that the original novel is deeply flawed. The result then is a version of Through the Looking Glass that is something of a remix; an appropriation of the original’s most resonant features that seeks to forge a new narrative out of the old.

The comparison here to sampling is not intended as just a lazy musical analogy. Music is a creative act that’s as important to Fior as mathematics and chess were to Carroll. In the early noughties, he was instrumental in developing London’s guerrilla gig scene. After witnessing the intensity of hundreds of fans in a one-bedroom flat in Chelsea, Fior is aware of music’s enchanting power but, equally, he knows how readily an audience can also transform the music they hear. “The best songs,” he says, “are entirely ambiguous in meaning and therefore people can form connections to them in ways that are entirely different to the writer’s intention, but still no less valid.” In this sense, it is the misheard lyric, the listener’s half-remembered and thus re-imagined version of the song that often works as “a big improvement on the original.” Through a Looking Glass Darkly is Fior’s intentionally mistaken and re-cycled version of Carroll’s extremely familiar tune.

Fior is well placed to defend his detournement of Carroll against the inevitable criticisms of Alice purists. His explicit intention is to shock and offend such literary conservatism. In essence, this aspect of Fior’s project is a continuation of postmodern self-consciousness and motivated intertextuality. Although somewhat unwieldy, a more specific adjective to describe the project would be catoptromantic. Catoptromancy is the use of a mirror for the purposes of divination. As a magical technique it’s closely connected to scrying and it works on the basis that the mirror is a mediating device, one that communicates and shows something in excess of the user’s own reflection. The catoptromantic viewer does not see actuality but possibility; not that which is, but that which might be. Similarly, in re-writing Carroll, Fior is not preserving the essence of the novel through an act of reproduction. Instead he’s attempting to conjure the text that’s hidden somewhere in the margins of the original; the dark and mesmeric novel that Through the Looking Glass could have been. 

Driving into the Dark


Some notes in response to Andy Sharp’s The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography (Repeater, 2020).

Surprising things happen when you drive late at night. Free from the pressure of the usual traffic flow, familiar streets come at you with new clarity. Tiny details missed during the day – an old poster here, a strange shopfront there – can take up root in the mind with a not inconsiderable degree of resonance. Add music to the mix, and these night drives can easily turn into private films: external and internal journeys during which odd flashes of memory flicker across the windscreen and merge with the unfolding road.  Such soundtracks should be curated with care.

One night, in the late summer of 2017, I was driving back from the train station. It was the graveyard shift; the last train had emptied out and along with all the other passengers, I was starting out on the return run. This was a shortish, almost automatic drive that would always begin with me following behind a convoy of taxis. One by one, after snaking out of the station, they would split-off and head towards their own night-time suburbs until it felt like I was the only car left on the carriageway. Mine, it seemed, was the last stop after the last stop: a lurch through the city towards the countryside and then a final turn down a long road flanked by radio telescopes. A gloomy drive with sleep waiting at the end, it invited a certain kind of music. Something hypnagogic: propulsive enough to keep me awake, but dreamy enough to catch the mood. That night in 2017, the record I had on was English Heretic’s Wish You Were Heretic.

Among other pleasures, English Heretic albums always provide brilliant driving music. Indeed, Anti-Heroes (2013) is an album-length hymn to automotive psychopathology a la J.G Ballard and Psychomania. I used to listen to ‘Vaughan to Lose’, an intense re-working of music from Psychomania, as I drove round the commuter belt that bordered the M11. This territory of barn conversions and perfect churchyards is a picture of frozen wealth. Emptied of their history, these villages are estate agents’ brochures made fully manifest. Those who can’t afford to stay have gone into exile, while those floating on money from The City have moved in, eager to claim the security, satisfaction and superiority of quiet county life. With its occasional gastropubs and post offices converted into high-end delis, the atmosphere is boringly safe and chokingly smug. But, drive through this zone at a certain speed and a certain time and the car window will often reveal a series of more ominous vignettes. Round there, in the early hours, it’s not unusual to encounter active crime scenes and other nocturnal rendezvous; you can come upon police cars gathered among the remains of rural raves; black helicopters will sometimes fly low across unlit roads, buzzing the unwary and, once in a while, you might witness another driver – dumped off the last train, half-cooked maybe, cruising along the home stretch – suddenly deciding to play chicken with an oncoming truck. ‘Vaughan to Lose’ became my spectral anthem for these serendipitous excursions into the netherworld. It also came to mind one afternoon when I stood on the A505 slip road looking down at the shards of my own car lights, glinting in the sun like medallions.

Listening to Wish You Were Heretic, though, was an entirely different experience. Where Anti-Heroes amplified the ambience of a night-time drive, Wish You Were Heretic completely transformed it. The album’s psychic landscape ranged from sand dunes to murder sites, standing stones to sinister suburbs and across these it worked as something of an occult seismograph. The focus was placed not on the talismanic potential of ‘black plaques’, as in Anti-Heroes, but upon the convulsions and fissure points that extend across the deep histories of ‘actual’ and imaginary geography. Heavy stuff, for sure, but as I listened that night in late summer, things got seriously weird. When the album’s third track. ‘The Dark Glass’ came round I was nearly home, but as it got upto speed, something peculiar began to happen. The road before me faded away and I was taken somewhere else.

With its interwoven references to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970) and A Photograph (1977) as well as the historically twinned deaths of Harry Dean and Charles Walton, ‘The Dark Glass’ is an exemplary English Heretic track. It’s an awesome triangulation of folklore, occulture and landscape; one that worries away at the thin separation between this side and the other. For me, though, the real psychic jolt came from the use it makes of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896). Following an introit that samples Robin Readbreast, ‘The Dark Glass’ begins with actor Ian Taylor reciting one of Housman’s most famous lyrics, ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’. It’s a beautiful reading of a familiar but always affecting poem. Housman writes with clarity and disarmingly emotional power about the ‘noise of dreams’, the reverberance of lost childhood fields and the disappearance of an entire generation of young men in the Boer War. Taylor’s reading, backed by luscious strings and an insistent trooping rhythm, turns Housman’s luxurious melancholy into an incantation, as if he’s trying to raise the dead or otherwise access the landscape that Housman longs for. 

There’s something comforting about the unguarded sentimentality of Housman’s verse. Nearly two decades after its publication, A Shropshire Lad became famous as one of the books carried by soldiers through the trenches of World War One. Rightly so: there’s none of Rupert Brooke’s Officer-class Grantchester fetish. Instead, Housman encourages a sidereal step, the projection and exploration of an imaginary homeland. ‘The Dark Glass’ brings this aspect of Housman’s project fully to the fore. Listening to Taylor’s reading, ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, suddenly hit me with an uncanny and deeply personal sense of potency. It was such an affecting experience that I had to pull over and put my head back together. Stood at the side of the road, with darkness ahead and darkness behind, I gradually came out of the momentary fugue. As the car idled beside me, I was aware that I had been gripped – seized, almost – by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.


A churchyard in sunlight; white blossom; Sermon’s Day. Cut grass on the school field. The hilltop where we used to walk; the vertigo of its edge; paddling in the stream at the bottom: cool water over smoothed stones. When I think back to my childhood, its almost always summer. Such psychic anchorage no doubt has something to do with memories of holidays. It might also be the case that this is the essential colour of memory, thanks to the bright patina of photographs from the chemist, the overexposure of Super-8 sun, the distressed light filters of domestic camcorders. That’s to say, it’s likely that when I think back to these moments, I’m not remembering actual events, so much as a particular aesthetic. I’m conjuring a mood or feeling that has somehow come to frame these memories. The homesickness that gives rise to, and lies at the heart of, the nostalgic mode actively constructs these simulacra. That, in part, is why it’s such an underappreciated form of thought. Nostalgia is gleefully inaccurate; it propagates unreconstructed fantasy. To be nostalgic means to willfully misremember and to give in to the dubious pleasures of the rose-tinted lens. Nostalgia reminds us that we can’t go back, but at the same time it doesn’t let us move on. Instead, it compensates us with an offer of what we most desire: the past, not as it was, but as we want it to be.

In 2017 I was thinking a lot about nostalgia. I was thinking about its creative, if not radical potential, while also – for the usual academic reasons – trying not to give in to direct experience. The latter was increasingly difficult that year because I gradually found myself moving into a state of prolonged homesickness. I felt zoned out. Adrift. Exhausted, too, probably. In response, I could feel a distinct pull towards my hometown, my family and my childhood. These have, and remain, deeply important parts of my life, but the overriding feeling I had that summer, which I could not shake off, was an increasingly persistent desire to go back, not just ‘back home’, but back in time.

As ‘The Dark Glass’ progresses, Housman’s lyric is replaced with a more deliberate incantation. Taylor gives voice to Charles Walton, the murdered Warwickshire sorcerer who was found on 14 February 1945 on the slopes of Meon Hill with a pitchfork through his neck. Rumours circulating at the time suggested that Walton had been killed after he used ritual magic to poison the farmland. In English Heretic’s re-imagining we encounter Walton as he generates his spell. He comes equipped with a ‘small piece of coloured glass’, the ‘dark glass’ of the title, which it is claimed he used ‘either to absorb or reflect evil thoughts’.  Riffing on the existing folklore, English Heretic recasts this talisman as a veil-rending device of refraction, a lens that allows Walton to look through the ‘spectacle’ and see the ‘true customs beneath rationality’. For English Heretic, this magical working becomes an analogue to his own practice, an example of how ‘we can use imagination’s lens to see the age-old pagan psychodrama beyond the drab furniture of the present’.

‘The Dark Glass’ became my lens that night on the road. Housman’s imaginary landscapes had come to me at precisely the right time. My psychic defences were low, and in a moment of override, English Heretic’s stunning manipulation of this rich material went to work directly on the cortex. It was as if a curtain had been drawn back to reveal a passageway, one that lead to my own idle hill of summer. Obviously sentimental, obviously nostalgic, obviously utterly inaccurate, but irresistible, nonetheless. As the memories rushed in – real, imagined and somewhere in between – it felt as if I could simply step through into a better, safer, calmer place.

There’s a definite curative power bound up with the work of fantasy. It may well be a retreat from the world and the demands of its realities, but it’s also a ludic process that helps you to navigate them with greater ease. I guess this is what Housman had in mind when, living in Highgate in 1895, he projected his mind elsewhere. Not ‘home’ exactly, but towards an uncanny place that was far more beguiling. It is this territory that English Heretic has been mapping and surveying for more than a decade. These writings are his field notes and site reports. Taken together, The English Heretic Collection is a rich and powerful guidebook to the otherworld.  I got a shot of this hypnotic potency from my interlude with ‘The Dark Glass’. I’ve often told English Heretic how much I enjoy his work, but I don’t think I’ve ever thanked him for it. I hope my strange story goes some way towards redressing this. My gratitude is linked to the simple fact: I started my journey that night feeling utterly driven down, but thanks to the English Heretic project I finished it feeling transported. 


Peter Whitehead’s The Fall (1969): 50th Anniversary Restoration Screening

Poster at the ICA screening. 

07/11/2019. Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. I was asked to introduce a newly restored version of Peter Whitehead’s film The Fall (1969). I’ve added below a slightly revised, tightened version of the speech. My sincere thanks to Steve Chibnall and Alissa Clarke at De Montfort University and The Peter Whitehead Archive for the invitation to participate.

The screening marked fifty years since The Fall had first appeared at the ICA. The event also included a post-screening panel discussion moderated by Alissa Clarke and featuring Alberta Tiburzi and Sebastian Keep, two figures of great importance to the film’s final shape and form. I was delighted to share a stage with them. Our conversation ranged from the circumstances surrounding the making of the film to its enduring legacy. There was much time for reflection also, given Whitehead’s recent passing. Tiburzi remarked that this was the first time she had seen the film on the big screen since she originally collaborated with Whitehead during the period 1967-68.

My own link to The Fall was different but, in some ways, no less intense. As I briefly outline below, I worked with Whitehead on the large collection of notes he had amassed pertaining to the film. Between 2009 and 2014 we worked together, amongst many other projects, on the text he eventually published as The Fall Dossier. This gave me a detailed insight into Whitehead’s working methods: his approach to film-making circa 1969, his writing style and his archival practice. As the text below implies, The Fall Dossier was not just a ‘making of’ document. Whitehead saw it as a body of written work that stood in parallel to the completed film. The material also influenced much of his work that followed, particularly the novels he published during the 1990s. Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1999), Whitehead’s fictionalised account of the circumstances surrounding Wholly Communion directly cited the Dossier. In essence, the novel grew out of the diaristic techniques Whitehead refined during his time making The Fall in New York.

Between 2009 and 2014 I worked very closely with the film-maker and novelist Peter Whitehead. I acted as Curator and Director of what he termed The Nohzone Archive, a voluminous collection of his papers, artefacts and film materials. This collection dated from his early teenage years and documented his creative activities up to and including his last feature film, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts (2009). This material now constitutes The Peter Whitehead Archive held as part of the Cinema and TV Research Institute at De Montfort University.

The Nohzone Archive was very much an organic entity: Whitehead saw it as an active resource that he would add to and take from depending on the direction of a given project. It was nothing like the type of closed casket that Jacques Derrida describes in Archive Fever (1995). That said, just before I took on the role Whitehead asked me to read Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives (1984). I was not surprised to find that it was a fortuitous suggestion. In the years that followed, the day-to-day operation of running and organizing the archive occasionally strayed into the type of territory – both physical and psychic – that Malcolm described.

One tranche of material that Whitehead and I continually returned to during this period was the collection of texts, diaries, production notes, photographs and other ephemera connected to his film The Fall (1969). Although Whitehead kept diaries and notebooks throughout his life and also retained extensive production materials regarding each of his films, he placed special emphasis on the texts relating to The Fall. He came to call it The Fall Dossier. As we worked through the material – editing, transcribing, annotating, cataloguing, sequencing, speculating, sifting, processing – he would often speak of it as a kind of magickal corpus or grimoire. The Dossier was a text that seemed to hold the key to much of his work: a summation of that which preceded it, the origin point for much of what followed.

The diaristic content of the Dossier traces the period September 1967 to August 1968. It thus covers the period in which he was first invited to make a film about the ‘New York Scene’ to the point at which he finds himself deeply embedded in the editing process that eventually gave rise to The Fall. One entry from November 1967, made when filming had begun in earnest, reveals Whitehead attending a New York appearance by Presidential hopeful, Robert Kennedy. He writes:

It was a very moving experience, simply because Bobbie Kennedy was so obviously unbelievably sad and pathetic and tired and lost. He obviously has the cares of the world on his shoulders […] He looks as if he has started something he dare not and cannot escape […] I expect a lot of what he has to do is concerned with survival.[i]

It is an ominous start to what became a long, complex project, but it nonetheless set the tone very well. For much of the year that followed, Whitehead found himself wrapped-up in New York’s protest, underground and avant-garde cultures. He witnessed the repercussions of Martin Luther King’s assassination, he joined the occupation of Columbia University in 1968, he was beaten by police, placed under CIA surveillance, had film material stolen and in June 1968 found himself trying to buy a gun from his driver Angelo Mansraven. It was then that he felt things had gone too far, and he decided to return to London. Touching down at Heathrow he was immediately greeted with the news: Robert Kennedy had been shot and killed on the campaign trial. Whitehead found his earlier words echoing back to him: Kennedy hadn’t survived. ‘I collapsed’, he later wrote when reflecting on the experience, ‘I fell to pieces’.

It certainly was the case that Whitehead was wired and exhausted towards the end of 1968 and early 1969. That said, the reason these coincidences were so shattering for him lies in the intended subject matter of The Fall. Whitehead had originally planned it as a feature film about political assassination. He wanted an actor to play ‘Peter Whitehead’, a young film-maker in New York who commits an assassination as an act of political protest. In the extreme state he occupied in June 1968, Whitehead came to feel that he had not just predicted but had in some way conjured the death of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Editing the film in late 1968, then, became (by Whitehead’s own admission), a way of putting himself back together, of pulling away from this paranoid intensity.There is a healthy drop of self-mythologization here – something that very much goes with the territory when one deals with Whitehead’s work – but such elaboration does not detract from the power of the film that emerged from this period of personal and political crisis.

The Fall, as it stands, is not the thriller film that Whitehead initially envisaged. It is much more than that. It is an intense engagement with New York’s spectacular culture; a sharp-eyed analysis of the link between publicity and protest; a demonstration of the violence involved in image production and a thesis on how the gaze is power-laden when it comes to matters of reality, representation, gender and race. It is a massive cliché to say that a film was ahead of its time, but in the case of The Fall, I think the phrase is warranted. In 1969 Whitehead was living through strange and interesting times. Making The Fall became a way of finding a pathway through it all.

Now that we are struggling with the same curse and living through equally strange days, The Fall remains a useful, if not vital roadmap. It is a film about celebrity, images, simulation and what happens when the camera replaces the ‘I’. It is the perfect film for an era of fake news, focus group authenticity and politicians who are not promoting ideologies but are trying to control reality. I’m delighted that its back at the ICA because I see the film as contemporary art in every sense of the word. I hope you enjoy it and I hope, as Whitehead would have said, that you find a way to use it.


[i] For details of Whitehead’s time in New York and the making of The Fall see Whitehead, ‘The Fall Dossier: Extracts’, Framework 52.1 ed. Paul Cronin, James Riley and Drake Stutesman (Spring 2011), pp. 484-98. See also James Riley, The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties (Icon, 2019), pp. 103-39.


Girl on the Train

In 2013, while acting as Director and Curator of Peter Whitehead’s Nohzone Archive I worked on the publication of his novel, Girl on the Train. We were pleased to be working on this project with the great Jan B. Gordon, Professor Emeritus at Tokyo University, author of, among others, Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction: Echo’s Economies (1996). Gordon had previously written an afterword – or more specifically, a ‘Delayed Preface’, an active and intentional paratext – for Whitehead’s postmodern take on nineteenth-century British fiction, BrontëGate (1999). With a shared enthusiasm not just for the Brontës but also the likes of Thomas DeQuincey and Japanese modernism more generally, Whitehead and Gordon kept in touch following this first collaboration. When the time came to prepare Girl on the Train, a novel heavily indebted to writers like Yasunari Kawabata Whitehead was once again keen to have Gordon’s input.

We originally intended to bookend the novel with a foreword and an afterword, two texts that would frame and unpack the novel for those new to Whitehead’s Nohzone material. I was to write the foreword as an introductory and explicatory text while Gordon agreed to provide a responsive, impressionistic afterword. In the event, the text that Gordon produced – a long, magisterial ‘Shidai’ – carried out both tasks with aplomb. With the manuscript already text heavy and with the ‘Shidai’ more readily capturing the spirit of the project (as well as echoing BrontëGate's ‘Delayed Preface’) Whitehead and I decided to omit the foreword.

I’m now offering it here for the first time. It did the job, I think, of contextualizing and opening-up Whitehead’s rich but sometimes dizzyingly complex Nohzone project. Using Gordon’s ‘Shidai’ was the better editorial move, though. It suited the novel, while the foreword below is much more of an essay, better placed in the present context or similar. It was written from the same perspective as the introduction for the Terrorism screenplay and thus should be seen as part of the critical engagement with Whitehead’s work, rather than a literary supplement.

Whitehead sadly passed away last year. While his archive and his novels are well served, Nohzone.com is, at the time of writing, offline. I hope that this short text, along with the Terrorism introduction can work as an initial means of documenting that project and some of its intentions.


Girl on the Train is the third volume of Peter Whitehead’s Nohzone Trilogy. Along with the first and second volumes, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts and Nature’s ChildGirl was originally published online as part of Whitehead’s hypertext project Nohzone.com. This rhizomic constellation of interconnected (and interactive) fictions invites the reader to plot a non-linear movement through, across and between its posted materials. The three novels could be read in sequence, as with a ‘conventional’ trilogy, or alternatively navigated via a more intuitive movement facilitated by the digital context. By moving from novel to novel across a range of hyperlinks, links also connect the trilogy to a series of factual and fictional ‘satellite’ texts, the intention was for the reader to generate a ‘new’ text through each act of reading. One of the main ‘branches’ of Nohzone’s online ‘tree’ was the portmanteau text And Death Shall Have No Domain Name. This was offered as the ‘fourth’ novel of the trilogy and took the form of a re-organized sequence of extracts from the first three novels. In this respect, it was intended to add to, and demonstrate the operation of the site. It added to the overall narrative of the three novels, extending what was available to be read, whilst also instantiating one possible result of one possible movement through the material. And Death highlighted what could be produced in the user’s mind as a result of reading the texts. Overall, the Nohzone project was an exercise in textual verticality, a space in which, to quote one of the site’s primary maxims, “fiction becomes infinity”.

The overt experimentation of Nohzone.com was not merely stylistic. It was integral to the plot and thematic significance of the posted novels. It also amplified the concerns and formal devices present in much of Whitehead’s previous writing, particularly The Risen. Specifically, the Nohzone trilogy takes hypertextual productivity as its primary thematic focus. The basic plotline, established in Terrorism, is centered on the retrieval of a sequence of memoirs written by novelist and ex-MI5 agent, Michael Schlieman. Schlieman is one of Whitehead’s most important literary personae having previously appeared in Pulp Election and BrontëGate. He works as a signifier of the ambivalent overlap between fact and fiction, secrecy and disclosure; the compromised zones of novel and memoir.   

In Terrorism we are told that Schlieman has disappeared following his retirement and expressed intention to expose government secrets in his writing. The novel’s unnamed narrator, an ‘investigative journalist’ traces Schlieman’s steps to the rural nest of Cumbria, his childhood home and last known location. Here he begins to collate the numerous texts that Schlieman has distributed across a series of tumbleweed websites. This is of course exactly what the ‘external’ reader of Nohzone.com is also doing: accessing, exploring and connecting a series of ambiguous online ‘fictions’.

As the Nohzone trilogy develops what is revealed is not so much a set of ‘secrets’ as a narrative that shows Schlieman’s mind at work. The texts proceed via processes of overdetermination, condensation and associative non-linearity. The narrator gains access to an entire unconscious, as does the reader: both that of Schlieman and their own. Because the interactivity of the Nohzone site permits and encourages a pro-active model of reading, the permutation of the combined novels produced at any one sitting essentially works a map of that reader’s own associative mechanism. We read Schlieman reading us: everyone is involved, everyone is complicit.

As the third volume in the main Nohzone trilogy, Girl on the Train embarks on something of a detour from the setting and stylistics of the previous two novels. It outlines a further series of Schlieman texts but rather than continuing to detail the events of his Cumbrian sojourn, it ostensibly describes the character’s trip to an academic conference in Japan. ‘Trip’ is the operative word here. Terrorism, contains references to conferences and invited lectures as an allusion to the public machinery of academia. The device also facilitates the rhetorical dimension of Schlieman’s character as it allows the novel, particularly in its early sections, to be punctuated by a series of extended monologues. In Girl, the motif of the international conference works in a slightly different way. It provides a pretext for Schlieman to move into a hallucinogenic zone of cultural, textual and linguistic reference points vastly different to the Gothic and Romantic discourses informing Terrorism and Nature’s Child.

The subject of the novel’s conference is the Shishosetsu, “the so-called I novel”. This genre of Japanese literary realism operates as an autobiographical discourse in which the author assumes the role of the central protagonist. Such fidelity often gives rise to confessional material as in the case of Shimazaki Toson’s Haki (1906). In this respect the ‘I-Novel’ can be seen as an extension of the ambiguous intimacy of the pillow book. As Jun’ ichiro Tanizaki highlighted in his 1956 novel Kagi (The Key) the personal notebook or diary frequently occupies a liminal space between the private and the public. It ostensibly provides a forum for the composition of ‘self-writing’ but this idealized closed circuit is problematised as the material production of the private text either hypothesizes or becomes available to an additional addressee.

In Girl, Whitehead works within this literary mode whilst also thematizing its methodological implications. That is to say, the interior texts that constitute the Nohzone trilogy could be categorized as Schlieman’s own Shishosetu, a formal analogy that the explicitly Japanese literary and geographical context is used to cement. In addition, an important image used at the novel’s opening is that of Schlieman travelling by train and seeing his reflection in the compartment window. Developed further in Whitehead’s Terrorism film, this uncanny apprehension works as a depiction of the self-projection operative in the I-Novel. Within the context of the novel, it indicates how with Girl, moreso than in the previous Nohzone texts, Schlieman observes the conjured ‘I’ that his writings make manifest.

Within this specific literary framework, Whitehead’s primary point of reference is Yasunari Kawabata’s Yukiguni or Snow Country (1947), a sparse novel that narrates the brief liaison between Shimamura, a man from Tokyo, and Komako, a geisha from the rural and snowbound hot-spring town of Yuzawa. Girl repeats Kawabata’s setting, plot outline and basic character dynamics to the extent that, by Whitehead’s own admission, the novel becomes a creative plagiarism of the earlier text. As Pulp Election and BrontëGate have both highlighted, plagiarism exists as a point of fascination for Whitehead. Although it maintains the resonance of the ultimate artist’s taboo, his interest lies in the idea of appropriating and absorbing a pre-existing work. For Whitehead, the plagiarised novel exists as an intertwined caduceus in which two texts are entangled: the ‘original’ and its recreated ‘version’. The work of one author is articulated through the writing of another. When seen from this perspective, Whitehead’s extensive ‘borrowing’ of Kawabata works as an attempt to textually construct the type of intersecting ‘holographic’ structure described in The RisenGirl on the Train does not just make reference to Snow Country but it repeats it in the telling of its own story to the extent that the reader is presented with the interference of both Kawabata and Whitehead.     

It is on this basis of this distinct intertextuality that Girl on the Train can be seen, and is here presented, as a stand-alone text. Within the Nohzone trilogy it is something of a singular performance. While it is texturally connected to the other novels it simultaneously presents a specific dialogue with Kawabata and Japanese fiction that is exclusive to this volume. In saying this, the present form of the novel should be taken as a circumvention of the conceptual structure that underpins the Nohzone project. Terrorism was published in print form in 2007 and can thus be read alongside this edition of Girl on the Train. However, neither one negates the online presence or functionality of Nature’s Child. In fact, this form of dissemination should serve to intensify the interconnectivity of the Nohzone texts. Read and enjoy Girl on the Train as a novel in and of itself. Then read it with Terrorism and then read it with Terrorism and Nature’s Child. Each time you will be reading a different novel because while Girl has been carefully constructed in line with the architecture of its ur-text, its barriers are productively porus, open to penetration when brought into proximity with its parallel texts. Each part is reflective of the whole and yet each part carries a distinct, crystalline structure. With Girl on the Train you are permitted to explore a remarkable landscape, so enjoy it. But should you wish to explore further, there are other stations down the line.


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.