“There are some very scary things in Chimera, but Chapter 17 takes us to a truly hellish place. Running the gauntlet of the dismantlers is something from our worst nightmares, and Kyp seems to be caught between various horrible ways to die. The idea of being taken apart taps into some very deep seated fears in most of us, I think, but the dismantlers don’t care, they only have one job – well several really; they drill, grind, wrench, saw, cut, burn….argh, I hope Kyp, Jamie and Sir Regulus get out of there!”Phil Cooper, February, 2021
And we’re back! It’s time to rejoin Kyp Finnegan, Jamie Bean and Sir Regulus Ferric in the fantastical and perilous realm of Chimera, the world of lost things. It’s been a wee while I know, so listen again to Chapter 16 to remind yourself of all the most recent daring do! Many thanks as always to Dan Snelgrove, for finding the time to continue this adventure with me and all the other denizens of Chimera.
Another short story from the floppy disc archive, prompted by some real world moment of strangeness with an answering machine I can now only just vaguely recall. I realise this effort is something of a period piece, what with its twentieth century trappings – a landline, how quaint! In common with cameras and photographs, I’ve always found answering machines and voice mails to have an unheimlich quality to them, the way they arrest time and suspend moments, installing ghosts in the machine, and there is something of that at work in this sleight vignette.
Shirley Jackson’s 1949 short story, The Witch, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
A while back, I shared a short essay about our long-standing cultural antipathy for children, evidenced by the sorts of stories we tell ourselves about them.
Entitled Tomorrow Belongs To Me, I used Michael Hanaeke’s chilly, ambiguous The White Ribbon (2009) as the entry point into a broad examination of narratives in which children are deployed by storytellers for uncanny effect. If the cognitive mechanism of the uncanny requires the uneasy thing in question to first be a familiar thing, little wonder children serve this purpose so well. We were all children once, so know their universes intimately. We purport to be surprised, shocked even, when children are strange or wayward or cruel, but this can only be rank hypocrisy. We were all strange and wayward and cruel once, and I think we know this very well. Why else would these stories resonate so?
In Jackson’s The Witch, a humdrum scenario tilts suddenly towards menace, as a little boy, his baby sister, and his mother are joined in a railway carriage by a talkative stranger, an older gentlemen with white hair and a cigar. Horror follows the mother’s realisation that the avuncular stranger engaging her fearless young son is talking, no longer about lollipops, rocking horses or dolls, but about the time he murdered and mutilated his sister. Jackson’s ambitions are more complex than mining a mother’s fear of harm being done to her child by the attentions of a stranger. Certainly, the mother in Jackson’s story is afraid for her son, but as the story concludes, she is afraid of him too. She understands the boy is not afraid, enthralled instead by the stranger’s confession of spectacular violence, delighted by its savagery.
At the story’s end, with the white haired man sent packing and equilibrium seemingly restored, I think Jackson wants her readers to worry for the safety of the boy’s baby sister, the man’s story about separating out the body parts of his own sibling having produced an abstraction in the boy’s mind, turning all baby sisters into playthings, into unfeeling collections of bits. No, not produced, which suggests this abstraction wasn’t there before. I really mean ‘confirmed’ or ‘encouraged’ or ‘promoted’, for it is my experience of childhood and young children that it is the impulse against the pulling off the wings of flies that needs to be cultivated, not the instinct to dismember.
The last line of Jackson’s story has the boy wondering if the old man was ‘a witch’. This reader thinks not – not a witch, and hardly evil in some special way, but a grown-up made threatening by an act as simple as acknowledging the violent fantasies common to ordinary children. While the stranger on the train has white hair and smokes a cigar, he talks like a child. You need only look at his choice of language – ‘pinching’, not strangling – like a child who can envision the act itself, but lacks the apposite vocabulary to call it what it is. Consider the patent absurdity of the way the remembered acts of violence against the man’s kid sister escalate, suggestive at once of the way children compete with each other in the fabrication of ever more sensational details. Consider too, how the acts of violence themselves recall more convincingly the destruction, not of flesh, blood and bone, but of plasticky doll-parts and nylon plugs of hair. The horror here is not that the man on the train is a wicked old witch in a separate category of his own, malfeasant because he is different from the rest of us. The horror is that the old man’s wickedness returns us to the viciousness of children at play.
“I bought her a rocking-horse and a doll and a million lollipops,” the man said, “and then I took her and put my hands around her neck and I pinched her and I pinched her until she was dead.”
The little boy gasped and the mother turned around, her smile fading. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again as the man went on,
“And then I took and I cut her head off and I took her head—“
“Did you cut her all in pieces?” the little boy asked breathlessly.
“I cut off her head and her hands and her feet and her hair and her nose,” the man said, “and I hit her with a stick and I killed her.”
“Wait a minute,” the mother said, but the baby fell over sideways just at that minute and by the time the mother had set her up again the man was going on.
“And I took her head and I pulled out her hair and—“
“Your little sister?” the little boy prompted eagerly.
“My little sister,” the man said firmly. “And I put her head in a cage with a bear and the bear ate it all up.”
Something about The Witch puts me in mind of the quick moment of spite that ruined Mary Bale’s life, when she dropped someone’s cat into a wheelie bin – for no other reason except it took her fancy. Outrage ensued and a witch hunt commenced, Bale described as wicked, as evil, and as a menace to polite society, her act of spite suggestive of some uglier psychological dysfunction. While I am in no way defending Bale’s crimes against kittydom, I’ve never been able to muster the same levels of shock. If you’ve got siblings, you’ll know very well how it’s possible to hurt another living thing just because it comes into your head to do so. Is anyone entirely ‘ancedote-free’ when it comes to admissions of random cruelties – a kicked dog, a loosed barb, a vengeful thought? What we find objectionable about Bale’s actions is seeing the lawlessness of childhood resurfacing in an adult. This is what pulling off the wings of flies looks like when you’re big and ugly enough to know better. Mary Bale repels us because it is in our interest to feel repulsion; better that than kinship, better that than the sneaking suspicion we ourselves are as capable of similar spite. In this, Mary Bale is one of Shirley Jackson’s people. She lives on one of Shirley Jackson’s neat and tidy streets behind respectably white net curtains, and, in common with Jackson’s stranger on the train, Mary Bale isn’t a wicked witch either. Probably.
CCTV pictures of the moment Mary Bale dropped a cat into a wheelie bin
When I was young, I can’t remember how young, my mother and I went to a UK theme park on a day out. I remember the weather being sunless and cold, but not much else about why we were there. My big interest was in the theme park’s elaborate ghost train, and because the weather was sunless and cold, I was able to go on the ghost train many times in quick succession without the faff of queuing. The final time I wanted to ride the ghost train, my mother very reasonably refused to put herself thought it again, so I went unaccompanied. On this last trip through the haunted mansion, I was joined in my snug, two-seater wagon by a man I didn’t know. I don’t recall finding this odd, largely, I expect, because I was looking forward to the ride ahead of me, to its impressive vignettes of dancing Georgian corpses and giant spider.
Not long after the ghost train had lurched off into the strictly stage-managed surprises of its Grand Guignol interior, the man beside me began touching me – not sexually, but violently. I cannot now separate what was overwhelming about the ride itself, with all its phantoms, clanks and hoots, and what I must have surely felt at finding myself trapped on a ghost train with an adult man who was hitting me for no reason I could discern. More clear, is my memory of the moment the ride stopped dead and all the emergency lights came on, revealing the impressive vignettes of dancing Georgian corpses and giant spiders to be mundane and unspecial. I remember someone appearing suddenly to pluck the man from the seat beside me. I recall getting off the ghost train afterwards and being happy to see my mum, who, bored, cold and smoking a cigarette, was waiting for me outside. I don’t recall being particularly upset. I don’t recall telling my mum what happened on the ghost train – not then. I kept what happened a secret, which is the way of big strong boys everywhere I suppose. I don’t recall if we went and sat somewhere to eat an over-priced donut, the wind pilfering our napkins, but if we did, I suspect I sat as close to my mum as might be considered seemly in a boy of whatever age I was back then on that grey, sunless day.
When I read Shirley Jackson’s The Witch, I think about the man on the ghost-train, and I wonder if I met a monster that day, the sort of monster who once fed his own sister’s head to a bear. Years after our day trip to the theme park, my mother would admit her biggest fear for me, as a small boy, was I would be abducted, molested and murdered by one of those men in long rain coats famed for hanging around children’s playgrounds, their pockets sugary with sweets and wriggling with puppies. This is surely the primal fear of all mothers for their roughty-toughty boys made otherwise gamine and come-hither by dint of their credulousness and youth. Even so I’ve wondered since what it might have been about the exact configuration of my own face that should have made me so worryingly a magnet for lurking paedophiles. The little boy in Jackson’s short story is actively looking for witches. I was a child like that, going round and round on ghost trains, delighted. The little boy in Jackson’s story delights in every macabre detail of the old man’s story. I was a child like that, in so much as I never hid behind the sofa while watching Doctor Who. The mother in Jackson’s story is afraid for her child, as my mother was afraid for me. The mother in Jackson’s story worries a boy who goes looking for witches might find them, and also like my mother, worries some ineffable quality in her son invites them closer.
When you’re scrambling about in an old dark house trying to produce phantasmagorical effects on film using various Heath Robinson-style contraptions comprising light-sources and black elastic, not everything goes according to plan. My various hard drives are somewhat littered with ‘failures to launch’ – underwhelming photographs featuring unmagical moments. Some of these ‘off-cuts’ are not without interest and I return to them from time-to-time to see if the passing of time and a fresh pair of eyes can see what was missed the first time around. Usually, the answer is no, but occasionally I’m minded to dig one out, like today’s offering – a curious shower of electrical confetti manifesting in one of the large abandoned rooms of No. 351.
I wanted to engage with the most recent Kick-About prompt – the 5 Canons of Rhetoric – as it related to the idea of moving from an initial instinctive idea to something recognisably cogent and complete, and communicated successfully to others. I chose the pangram, ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog’ because, in its use of every single letter in the alphabet, I thought I could argue it was a single sentence encompassing every other English language idea possible; every book, every song, every poem, every philosophical treatise, every argument, and so on. As the animation goes on, you see different ideas vying for representation and moments of indecision, flashes of inspiration – helpful and otherwise – and a final resolution of the phrase we recognise collectively as ‘right’.
(There is some pesky pixelation due to compression in this Vimeo version: with a bit of luck, you’ll find the original video to view hosted here).
The Kick-About comes of age today, with Edition No. 21. Let me begin by saying how restorative, ordering and genuinely exciting I find our collective runarounds. Through your emails, comments and conversations, I know you value the Kick-About too, seeing it as an opportunity to make some new stuff, finish some older stuff, get something done, take risks, recreate, and get your hands dirty. It gives me great pleasure to host your work on here. Red’s Kingdom is lucky to have you. Long may we play together.
“The definition of rhetoric in the little Oxford dictionary is: art of persuasive speaking or writing; inflated or exaggerated language. Based on that (with a bit of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’) I’ve spliced together the opening lines of Barack Obama’s inauguration speech with a selection of Donald Trumps tweets (sections of ). Calm authoritative argument versus shouted ignorance (in my opinion!).”
“Each time we gather to inaugurate a president I WILL NOT BE ATTENDING THE INAUGURATION! we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution, THE ELECTION WAS STOLEN! we affirm the promise of our democracy, IT WAS A RIGGED ELECTION! we recall that what binds this nation together, SORRY LOSERS! is not the colours of our skin, or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names, WE’RE GOING TO BUILD A WALL! what makes us exceptional, what makes us America AMERICA FIRST! AMERICA FIRST! is our allegiance to an ideal articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; FAKE NEWS! that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; BULLSHIT! that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” STOP THE STEAL! STOP THE STEAL!
“The prompt this week made me think about the creative process, my creative process, something I don’t usually spend much time contemplating. What does my creative process actually involve? Which parts of the process am I good at, and which parts do I find uncomfortable and hurry past? What is my – and I recoil slightly from the earnestness of this word – practice? I’ve found stepping back and considering how I approach my work a useful exercise. For this Kick-About, I’ve tried to take a photo that includes some of the steps I might go through in making an image; there are sketches, with some of the quick drawings that are often the very start of the process for me, then painted papers I make to provide the raw materials for my collage work, a collaged blackbird taking shape, and also a finished image of a wintry landscape with a barn owl, plus reference books, poetry and other stuff I might find that sparks inspiration. Birds provide a good, if rather obvious, metaphor for this process; sometimes the idea flies, sometimes not….”
“I thought the five words evoked something mysterious, something unseen and a bit psychological. Mostly I was inspired by the patterns and colours MRI and CT scans produce as a way of visualising how our brains react to a specific emotional response or biological function. In this case, the triggers being inventio, disposito, elecuitio, memoria and pronuntiatio, and a very abstract visualisation of those words. I have my own ideas about which of these images represents each of the words, but in the end I thought I would leave it up to the viewer to come up with their own interpretation of the order.”
“Once I had got over my initial panic on reading the ‘5 Canons of Rhetoric’, I read a bit more on the subject and realised what was being described was a process – a process which could be applied to many creative endeavours. The stages may have different emphases for different types of creativity, but (it seems to me) the principles remain the same. I decided to test this hypothesis by applying it to a much humbler craft than oratory, but one that I know well. Below I have tried to show the 5 canons applied to the process of making a crochet blanket, from initial idea to finished piece.”
“My mind glazed over as I read through these rigid and formal ways of organizing communication. Of course the word rhetoric has multiple meanings, the first of which, is “(in writing or speech) the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast”. Something we all been over-subjected to of late. What is true of all the definitions is that rhetoric involves the use of language.
One synonym given particularly caught my eye: ” balderdash–senseless, stupid, or exaggerated talk or writing; nonsense”. The word nonsense immediately made me think of the surrealists. The surrealists felt that letting go of the need to control your creation would reveal deeper truths. This was true of both visual and written art. They rejected logic and reason. I often use surrealistic techniques for both my art and my writing. I’ve been doing Rorschach images for awhile: these little cards are done by dripping the leftover paint from my watercolors onto the card and folding it in half. Usually the layers are done in several sessions. I also compose comments for my images using words and phrases I’ve cut out of magazines and advertisements. I limit myself to what’s contained in one envelope for each card, and often spend quite a long time choosing and arranging them. I call it ‘the collage box oracle’, as it’s similar to using magnetic poetry. I was originally inspired by Claudia McGill, who is a master at this technique. I’m usually surprised by what appears. It always makes me think.
I first scanned in just the images, and then worked on the words. When I went to scan them, I realized I had changed the orientation of the image in half of them. Another unexpected surprise. Surrealistic Rhetoric has no pretense to being anything but a random arrangement of words, but somehow manages to incorporate at least 4 of the classical canons: invention, arrangement, style, and delivery. As to memory, well, canon #7 deals with that.”
The Eight Canons of Surrealist Rhetoric
Is there anything more archetypal than nothing?
Space is just energy deconstructing.
You expected evolving to be more complex.
Adventure awaits beyond the details of yourself.
Fools rush into the shadow of the projected image.
I was invented from the earth’s fertile surfaces– otherwise my unlimited nakedness would be alarming.
My plans are to forget to remember.
There was a window from the start—simple and mysterious– imagine looking through it to what is hidden between.
“I was intrigued to learn about the new archaeology regarding Stone Henge, whereby they have discovered that an ancient stone circle at Waun Mawn in Wales was the original prototype. I decided there must have been one farsighted individual who used his power of rhetoric to persuade his Neolithic mates to help him with this great project over 3,000 years ago. So…”
‘We don’t need to hide ourselves away in this Peat Moor as a second rate team. We could be top of the league! Let’s show them what we can do. You know those huge blue stones lying around the pitch everywhere? Well,why don’t we move them to Salisbury Plain! It won’t be difficult to get them there – it’s only a stones throw, of about 150 miles. We’ll get some of the local lads together and roll them there on timber sledges. No sweat! Then we’ll have a Rave – a Pop Festival – around Midsummer say. I’ll see if I can get some class acts like The Amesbury Archer or The Boscombe Bowmen. Those blue rocks have great accoustics! We’ll have a game, a few jars, a bit of stargazing and then watch the sun come up! They’ll be gobsmacked for years to come! It’ll be epic! What d’ ya say?’
“The Five Canons of Rhetoric. Well, that made me think about where I’m at! 1) INVENTIO – I have a passion for seed-pods. They are my inspiration. 2) DISPOSITIO – I selected 5 from my collection. Nigella Damascena, Physalis Peruviana, Wisteria Leguminosae, Magnolia Grandiflora, Entada Gigas. Five was overwhelming, and they all had a story to tell, and despite spending time drawing them, with real attention to their individual personalities, I kept being drawn to the shiny black pod in the middle that fitted so deliciously in the palm of my hand. When I looked it up, it was certainly of the pea Family. I found a clue online .. it could be a Sea-Heart, a pod that drifts across the world. It comes from a vine that scrambles through trees in tropical areas of vast size, the biggest and most extraordinary of the pea family, also known as the Monkey Ladder. I had to find out, so I rang the friend who had given it to me on a very special birthday a few years ago.
“Where did you find it?’ “On a beach in Donegal.”
Jackpot! 3) ELOCUTIO – I had discovered where it may have come from and where it landed: from the Gulf of Mexico, along the Gulf Stream’s warm currents, to land on the sandy, windswept dunes of Donegal on the West coast of Ireland. It’s an intriguing pod, beloved of sailors, who hung them round their necks when on a treacherous sea voyage to keep them safe, and also made into snuff boxes, and decorated in Africa with wonderful designs as a gift. So I took the story, took elements that suggested shapes suitable to travel from the other pods into its story 4) MEMORIA! The final piece is too sketchy for 5) PRONUNTIATO! but it satisfied my ever-growing wanderlust for returning to Mexico to see the Monkey Ladder growing!”
“I wanted to engage with the prompt as it related to the idea of moving from an initial instinctive idea to something recognisably cogent and complete, and communicated successfully to others. I chose the pangram, ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog’ because, in its use of every single letter in the alphabet, I thought I could argue it was a single sentence encompassing every other English language idea possible; every book, every song, every poem, every philosophical treatise, every argument, and so on. As the animation goes on, you see different ideas vying for representation and moments of indecision, flashes of inspiration – helpful and otherwise – and a final resolution of the phrase we can recognise collectively as ‘right’.”
(There is some pesky pixelation due to compression in this Vimeo version: with a bit of luck, you’ll find the original video to view hosted here).
“The subject matter has been in the back of my mind for a while, yet I haven’t had reason enough to do it, until now, so thanks Kick-About. The subject is myself (James Randall is owed credit here), organisation spans 1957-2021, clarity of intent seems to arrive through the preceding years, as things add-up, and delivery is through my favoured medium – oil on prepared paper, 20x20cm each.“
A final set of photographs from the scrubland at Saxon Shore. I went down into the basin, where the snow was lying thicker, and even though there were people walking their dogs nearby and a line of jolly beach huts just behind me, I knew the strange corrugations of the snow would produce ‘off-world’ spectacles if I effaced any obvious measures of scale from the compositions and pushed the focus into the very back of the image. Sure enough, I’ve ended up with a set of photographs strongly reminding me of slightly creaky establishing shots of alien planets in the oldest episodes of Doctor Who. They manage to seem both expansive – and tiny – at the same time, like miniature sets purporting to be epic terrains.
It snowed more heavily towards the end of this week, so I returned to the ostensibly unremarkable basin of grasses and bramble that had offered up such improbably cataclysmic and other-worldly imagery on my previous visit. This time, the sun was out and a thaw already underway, the bright light bouncing off the snow drawing attention to all the wonderful cross-hatching of the grass and the scribble of the brambles. Another section, where the snow was caught among the taller skeletons of some other wild plants, offered up visual rhymes with the waves only a short distance way on the other side of the sea wall.