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

28/06/2019. On the turn-in there was a familiar figure strolling through the village. Recognized 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 Picknett’s The Stargate Conspiracy (1999). 

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. It's 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. 

Black Box Text

Related image

[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.