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.