In Deep League: A Conversation with B. Catling

Portrait of Brian Catling's Candleye by David Tolley
Portrait of B. Catling’s “Candleye” by David Tolley

Conducted by Timothy J. Jarvis

Peopled with richly drawn Dickensian grotesques and filled with bizarre and comical incident, Munky is as compelling as it is antic. Catling transports the reader to an interwar England in the throes of change. Part bizarre ghost story, part whimsical farce, part idiosyncratic literary experiment, it could be described as P. G. Wodehouse collaborating with Raymond Roussel, with a dash of M. R. James, if it weren’t so uniquely its own thing.

B. Catling, RA, was born in London in 1948. He is a poet, sculptor, filmmaker, and performance artist, currently making egg-tempera paintings and writing novels. He has held solo exhibitions and performances in the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Iceland, Israel, Holland, Norway, Germany, Greenland, USA, and Australia. His Vorrh trilogy and recent novel Earwig have drawn much critical acclaim. He is also Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford.


Timothy J. Jarvis: Munky is many things, a novella that covers a staggering range of modes and styles. But at heart it is a ghost story. Do you enjoy supernatural tales? Any favourite writers?

Brian Catling: Supernatural tales and all the enigmas of life, which get seen in the periphery of normal vision, are a great fascination to me and always have been. Poe is the base of all things. Then the rest of the usual suspects: Arthur Machen (do you know the compelling story of Tessa Farmer?*), M. R. James, Lovecraft, etc., and I have a fondness for Blackwood who I think is often under ranked.

[*Tessa Farmer is  sculptor who is Machen’s great-grandaughter, and whose extraordinary work, made from insect carcasses and other natural materials, depicts malevolent fairies that resemble in some ways those in certain stories of her forebear’s, though she was unfamiliar with his work when she started making them. – Ed.]

TJJ: Munky is also a comedy of manners, in a very British vein — there are some really memorable comic scenes, including one hilarious and acerbic treatment of the social and class niceties of the taking of high tea. What inspired you to bring together the two quite disparate modes of the ghostly tale and the farce?

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Landlord of the George Hotel

BC: I never plan my writing in any academic or system-based control. It is all a flowing out. Its momentum gathering images and bits of storage on its way. So to answer this question: I was spending more time in and around Dorchester Abbey, hearing the church and village stories about the living and the dead. Then I found myself face to face with the pencil drawing of the publican of the George Hotel, who claimed to be the heaviest publican in the UK, in the 1950s. Two pints later in the empty bar, the ghost monk walked in, and the story started. How else could it be anything other than it is? It’s England. Farce is only a separate subject when it’s French. And humour is staunched in the mouths of the American ghost writers until it reaches Ray Bradbury.

TJJ: As a follow-up — Pulborough, the setting for the story, is on the one hand a quaint English village of a recognisable type, and on the other, a place built on the banks of the once great river Tysmundarum and surrounded by ancient earthworks haunted by “elder brooding forces”, the influence of which the village’s abbey was established to ward off. What role does bringing together the mundane with the liminal and numinous play in this story? And in your work more generally?

BC: The liminal and the numinous are my natural haunts. Amplifiers to the imagination and buffers to the dreary description of everyday life. The very air buzzes in the space between them.

I feel it as a constant in most places that give you time to stop and listen. A village history (stories told backwards). Always seems more alive at twilight and dawn. When all the other animals walk abroad. Churches often become the resounding chamber for the very thing they are built to suppress.

TJJ: You often make use of figures drawn from history in your writing. There’s a certain resemblance between Munky’s “Ghost-Finder General”, Walter Prince, and the real-life ghost hunter, Harry Price. Is Price a figure you’re interested in? What led you to put him into your story?

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Harry Price, Ghost Hunter

BC: Harry Price keeps getting in. Have you seen the film of him talking his “lab”? A twitching, snobbish, born liar, whose own personal form of womanising removes him from a Carry On cartoon, into a grotesque Uriah Heep/Jimmy Saville hybrid. His books groan with inflated importance and wasted opportunity. The Return of Miss Stella C. and The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap being the most blatant. Most psychical investigators treat him as an embarrassment because how far he dragged down the credibility of the subject. He is a perfect and demanding character who will always have something else to tell me.

TJJ: The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap tells the story of the investigation into the Dalby Spook, the talking mongoose, Gef, who lived behind the wooden panelling of a farmhouse on the Isle of Man in the 1930s. I know you have a fascination for this phenomenon. Gef’s “haunting” was characterised by a puckish nature, not dissimilar to that of the ghostly monk in Munky. Are you drawn to mischievous spirits of this kind?

BC: Have you seen Vanished! A Video Séance, the Gef story Tony Grisoni and I made? A mischievous spirit seems to offer more than a terrifying one. Because it demands instant reflection between two worlds and hold its presence in comparison. We smile as much out of nervousness as we do out of joy. The transcendent entity also tests and illuminates the gateways of reality, which evolves our perceptions. Much in the same way that the Khidr, the Islamic green man, and the Celtic Trickster do. Its enigma is active in perversity and therefore not in the declaration of death.

Gef had a cameo part in my new book Hollow. But upstaged it to become an almost major character (I should have guest!). He shuffled in and out of a fleet of Bosch creatures that somnambulistically stumble into agreed reality to find out what they are.

Munky TeaserTJJ: There seems to be an enigmatic linguistic ritual behind the narrative of Munky that is reminiscent of the oeuvre of Raymond Roussel, a writer who has been a character in other work of yours. And your literary poetics has its roots in innovative and playful poetry. How does experimenting with language feed your fiction practice?

BC: Again, I am afraid it’s difficult for me to answer your question, because I am not conscious of literal and linguistic streams, and experiments in my writing. This must come from early dyslexia and an art school education, rather than an academic literary one (thank God). My poetry is constant and in deep league with my visual imagination. This much I know.

So the critical and editorial surgery always occurs after the accident of writing has happened, which might seem pathological. Raymond Roussel is a typical example. My first and significant influence came from the visualisation of the tableaux and machines he invented in Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus. Not from the convoluted experiments in the structure of language that he devised to create them. That was never my concern. When it comes to poetic language I grasp the opposite terminals of Beckett and Kipling to recharge my batteries. With bit of J. H. Prynne, Flann O’Brien, and Yeats thrown in to confuse the voltage.

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Image by Dave McKean

TJJ: Are there any other important precursors or contemporary influences on Munky?

BC: I don’t think Munky would have existed if I hadn’t read The Third Policeman and The White Hotel in my youth.

TJJ: Since you began publishing fiction, you’ve worked with publishers both large and small. How have you made radical practices work in the mainstream? And is there something freeing about working with small presses?

BC: I greatly enjoy working with presses of different size. Being given an agent was the only thing that shifted my writing from small presses to mega ones. I personally did very little to make that occur. And intend to continue working between the international and the intimate and love the quality of a press like Swan River.

TJJ: Is there anything you’re currently working on you’d like to share with us?

BC: Last year, Only the Lowly came out with Storr Books, a small press who wanted to do it as their second publication. And Earwig, which was published by Hodder & Stoughton, soon to be made into a feature film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic.

The final edit of Hollow has just gone back to Random House/Penguin, NYC, for publication next year. Think of it as Peckinpah meets Bruegel, on the snow-covered mountain which was once the Tower of Babel. With lots of escapees from Bosch paintings getting in the way.

And I am now working on a ghost story set in stone called Transi. Which is the name given to cadaver effigies, in tomb sculptures, in the late Middle Ages. Not a lot of knock-about comedy in this one.

TJJ: And lastly, I know that William Blake is an important figure for you. To what extent do you think a Blakean visionary approach to art is possible in the early twenty-first century?

hires_munky1BC: Blake is another Khidr, he won’t go away. It’s not his visionary approach that fascinates me. It’s his down-to-earth need to get things on paper. For me he is not a frocked dreamer wafting about and talking to angels. He is a grafter, a working man, whose small factory was crowded with other beings while he daily had to make crappy prints for other artists. His own work sandwiched between his bread-and-butter labour without ever becoming infected or diluted. For me that is a much weirder picture than the hippy poster of him. Gawd knows about his work in the art of the twenty-first century . . . I never understand or care to place art in those restriction. All my tenses are continually jumbled. A constant joy to my editors.

Order a copy of Munky.


Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, Uncertainties I, and The Far Tower, among other places. In 2020 he edited Uncertainties IV for Swan River Press. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. timothyjjarvis.wordpress.com

In Deep League: A Conversation with B. Catling

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4

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Uncertainties is an anthology series — featuring authors from Britain, America, Canada, Australia, and the Philippines — each exploring the concept of increasingly fragmented senses of reality. These types of short stories were termed “strange tales” by Robert Aickman, called “tales of the unexpected” by Roald Dahl, and known to Shakespeare’s ill-fated Prince Mamillius as “winter’s tales”. But these are no mere ghost stories. These tales of the uncanny grapple with existential epiphanies of the modern day, when otherwise familiar landscapes become sinister and something decidedly less than certain . . .


Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on putting together the fourth in Swan River Press’s series of contemporary supernatural and strange tale anthologies, Uncertainties. It’s the first time I’ve edited a fiction anthology and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in writing. It’s been great seeing the thing take shape — as it started to come together, it began to take on a life of its own. Brian J. Showers at Swan River was incredibly helpful throughout the process, sharing his wealth of experience. He pretty much gave me free rein, his only brief being that I bring in some writers who hadn’t featured in the series before, and who might be new to the press. It has long been my feeling that innovative writing can enhance the uncanniness of a supernatural tale, so I solicited contributions from writers who I thought would be playful and experimental with their tales. And as cohesion was really important to me from the outset, I also asked writers whose work I thought would share points of similarity. As the pieces came in, I saw this had worked better than I’d dared hope and that there were lots of potent synchronicities between the stories. But there was also a lot of variety, so I starting thinking about how certain juxtapositions might work and also how to ensure an overall flow. The tales are all experimental in some way, but run the gamut from melancholia, to outright horror, to comedy. I wanted to balance and shift between tones in a hopefully satisfying way. It took me back to the days of making mixtapes for friends, and thinking about flow, moving between moods, and setting up a kind of loose overall narrative from disparate parts.

This was an incredibly satisfying process. It was also really satisfying to work with the talented Swan River team of Meggan Kehrli, Ken Mackenzie, and Jim Rockhill, whose design and editing skills ensured the finished article looks superb. And it was a real privilege to have for the cover a powerful piece of art by modern surrealist, Brian Catling, from a series of paintings inspired by the writing of M.R. James — it mingles the ghostly and the bizarre in much the same way as the tales within.

The section below is taken from my introduction to the volume. I wanted to try to give a flavour of the stories and illustrate my thesis about the contemporary supernatural tale, and did so by relating a couple of incidents that had been much in my thoughts, and which seemed to me to show what I conceived to be the difference between the traditional ghost story and the tale of uncertainty.

Timothy J. Jarvis B&WI have twice, in the last year, visited a supposedly haunted site not far from where I live in rural Bedfordshire: Old St Mary’s, a derelict fourteenth-century church on a hill above Clophill, a picturesque village about thirteen miles to the north of Luton. Old St Mary’s gained a sinister reputation in the 1960s following a spate of desecrations — over a period of several weeks, on moonless nights, graves were broken open and bones disinterred, and the ruins were daubed with disturbing graffiti. It was thought to be mostly aimless vandalism, the work of bored young people aping, but the original violation apparently bore clear signs of a knowledge of the occult and of the practices of dark rites. That time, the skeleton had not been just scattered but deliberately laid out inside the ruin in a pattern associated with the Black Mass, and a Maltese Cross had been daubed on the floor in what was thought, from feathers found strewn about, to have been cockerel’s blood. Afterwards the place became a bugbear for locals, with teenagers from Luton daring each other to visit it at night. Now it is a heritage site and well maintained, but it still has a charge.

The first time I went up to the church, it was dusk, following a grey late autumn day. There were two of us out walking. As my friend and I approached the ruins they were thrown into stark relief when the sun, setting behind them, a ball of orange fissured with red, like the blood-threaded yolk of an egg, dropped below the cowl of cloud. The effect was Gothic. My friend and I wandered about the churchyard for a time, took in the views, then went back down the path towards Clophill. Between Old St Mary’s and the village, the path passes through copse, and as we walked under the canopy of reddening leaves, where all was gloom, my friend and I saw, out of the corners of our eyes, a hand reaching between us. We startled, looked round, but there was of course no one there.

The second time I climbed up to Old St Mary’s, there was a group of us. It was a warm summer’s afternoon, the sun bright and high in a clear sky, the only clouds frothy white streaks, like cuckoo spit. As we approached the top of the hill, a blue van towing a low trailer heaped with junk drove past and pulled up in front of the gates to the churchyard. Two nondescript men, one balding, the other tall, both middle aged and dressed fairly smartly in chinos and linen jackets, like stockbrokers in weekend attire, got out of the cab, leaving the engine idling, and began circling the vehicle. After some moments stretching their legs they wandered off among the graves.

As we neared the van — which spluttered on, the smell of diesel exhaust acrid in the air — we saw, atop the pile of broken things in the trailer, an old cathode ray television, screen smashed, with, in the body of the set, a Murano glass sculpture of a clown, of the kind popular in the ’70s, which now, as the generation that bought and cherished such things dies off, floods charity shops. The clown was set there in that wrecked TV like statues of the Virgin are in roadside niches in southern Europe.

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Rounding the van, we saw that the men who’d got out of it were cavorting strangely in the churchyard. The balding was flailing his limbs in some kind of jerky dance and the tall was darting hither and yon. Then he stopped running about and stood before a headstone. We realized a moment later that he was pissing against it. The other kept on dancing. We decided then, without a word between us, not go on up to the church. We were halfway back to the village again, just emerging from the copse, when we heard the van’s engine revving behind us, and it careered past, kicking up clouds of dust, forcing us into the ditch. As the trailer went by, I could swear the glass clown turned its head to look at me and grinned.

I’ve exaggerated some of the details here for effect (though not actually by very much). Two incidents that gave rise to the uncanny. But the first, closer in tenor to the classic Victorian ghost story, was far less disconcerting than the second, which has more in common with the stories of uncertainty found in this volume. We almost expect to see ghostly hands at haunted sites — there’s no real ontological rift. Preternaturally animated Murano glass clowns, we do not anticipate. The other key difference is that in the second story, the actual moment of the supernatural is not as important in creating the effect as the bizarreness of what led up to it — tales of uncertainty often show us a world always already off-kilter.

Buy a copy of Uncertainties 4.



Timothy J. Jarvis is a writer and scholar with an interest in the antic, the weird, the strange. His first novel, The Wanderer, was published by Perfect Edge Books in 2014. His short fiction has appeared in The Flower Book, The Shadow Booth Vol. 1, The Scarlet Soul, Murder Ballads, and Uncertainties I, among other places. He also writes criticism and reviews, and is co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen.

Thoughts on Uncertainties 4