By Marty Mulrooney
Spirits of Place is a new book featuring essays from twelve authors – Alan Moore, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Iain Sinclair, Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kristine Ong Muslim, Mark Pesce, Dr. Joanne Parker, and Damien Williams – that is edited, curated, and introduced by Liverpool author, Fortean essayist and Weird Fiction writer John Reppion. Today, AMO is proud to present an exclusive online interview with John where we discuss this fascinating project and the ideas behind it.
Hi John, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online!
No problem, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your career so far?
I’ve been writing full-time for 13 years now. Comics are the backbone of my work really, and I write those with my wife, Leah Moore, but I do write a few other things. The first thing I ever had published was an article for Fortean Times about The Childe of Hale – a 16th century giant – who is buried in Hale church yard, not far from where I grew up in South Liverpool. I’ve always been fascinated by what I call Weird History, which kind of crosses the boundaries between archaeology, folklore, Forteana, and fiction. All those things tend to be a part of whatever I’m writing, be it factual or otherwise.
Spirits of Place was recently released in the UK by Daily Grail Publishing. It’s a collection of essays by twelve different authors that you edited. What is the meaning of the title and how does the idea behind it serve as a common theme?
In classical Roman religion, a genius locus was the protective spirit of a place, but the term has also come to be used to describe the particular quality or “personality” of a location. It’s an idea that marries up with the Weird History thing; describing the way stories and events become not just linked to a place but also colour how people think and feel in that place. Some people might think of them as ghosts, some just as a kind of cultural residue, but most would agree that they’re there.
How is the book connected to the event of the same name that you organised in Liverpool earlier this year?
The event was something that grew very organically out of my seeing that a conference space was available for hire in the mansion-house in Calderstones Park, Liverpool. The park is home to the remains of a neolithic passage grave (the stones giving the park its name) and I started to think about an event that would discuss the relationship between the ancient monument and its surroundings. We ended up with ten speakers including myself discussing everything from Prehistoric Rock-art in Urban Places to the Wirral peninsular as liminal landscape to Ramsey Campbell’s use of Merseyside in his work (a full report can still be read at www.moorereppion.com/spirits-of-place).
The book grew just as organically out of the event but I knew early on that I’d have to approach it differently. There’s no point bringing out a book about one specific location (wonderful, and fascinating as that location may be) unless it’s a place that people are at least peripherally aware of. The book therefore turned into something much more global, with lots of different people offering their own perspectives on different places.
My parents recently visited Auschwitz in Poland and described the experience as extremely humbling, upsetting, haunting and sad. Do you believe the power of the human mind is the only contributing factor to the strong emotions we feel at such historic locations? Would we feel the same way if we didn’t realise what had occurred there?
That’s a very interesting question. In one of the essays in the book Gazelle Amber Valentine writes of playing a show with her band Jucifer in an East German squat on the former grounds of the Topf and Sons incinerator furnace company. She writes that she felt a strange unease in the place but couldn’t fully understand why until it was revealed that Topf’s furnaces were the ones used in the extermination camps in WWII. Years ago when I was writing a book about Liverpool ghosts I had a strange thing where I found I had two accounts of people having seen a ghostly Cavalier within the same area which had no English Civil War history whatsoever. Eventually I found one piece of evidence that the Cavaliers had passed through this tiny village only once, and that they had raided the place as they did so. I am positive that neither of the people who told me their little personal ghost stories knew this obscure bit of history.
Different locations certainly have their own atmospheres, I think that’s undeniable, but yes, I also believe that stories can be embedded in a place or an object in a very real sense.
How did you go about selecting and commissioning authors for this project? Was it a difficult process?
It was more difficult than assembling the speakers for the event, certainly but no less enjoyable. Although I wouldn’t call Spirits of Place a psychogeography book myself, I’m sure others would (and they are very welcome to do so). When you hear or read the word psychogeography certain things come immediately to mind; firstly a small collection of authors who are almost exclusivity white Englishmen of a certain age, and secondly literary explorations of London and its environs. I wanted this book to have a bit of a wider agenda than that. I needed to look for people who weren’t necessarily writing about this kind of stuff already, but who it was clear would have something insightful and interesting to offer on the subject. Also, I wanted less familiar places and subjects to be covered, so even in the case of someone like the wonderful Iain Sinclair contributing, the reader is seeing some different ground covered.
Do you have a specific location that particularly encapsulates the spirits of place for you?
The Calderstones and the park are really where I’ve made my deepest personal connection, but there are lots of other spots in and around South Liverpool which I feel very attached too. Places I have a history with, but where I also feel like I connect with a deeper history. There’s that strange skewed geography we get in dreams where certain roads lead to places you know aren’t actually connected so easily in real life. In my dream version of my home town, all these disparate places are stitched together on the same map.
Which essay in the book is your favourite and why?
It’s very difficult to pick a favourite because each and every one genuinely exceeded my expectations. Gazelle Amber Valentine’s piece turned out brilliantly, not just because she’s such a talented writer, but because she’s had a pretty unique life-experience; touring non-stop as Jucifer with her husband Edgar, and living nomadically for more than fifteen years. Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir’s piece about Icelandic elf-belief, and the ways in which other cultures perceive it is truly fascinating and, again, offers a unique perspective. So yeah, they’re both high on my list… but I’m struggling to stop there.
What’s next for you John?
Christmas. Three kids to buy presents for and thirteen days to go as I type now. Christmas (and the aftermath) is pretty much all I’ll be thinking about and doing now until January.
In the new year there will definitely be new comic series (one for Dark Horse that I’m very excited about), and there are already rumblings of a second Spirits of Place event. Not here in Liverpool this time, and not run by me, although I’m hoping to be involved as much as possible. All in all I’m looking forward to a fresh start in 2017 and seeing what it brings.
Thank you for your time!
Thank you very much for talking to me, Martin. All the very best to you and yours!
Stories are embedded in the world around us; in metal, in brick, in concrete, and in wood. In the very earth beneath our feet. Our history surrounds us and the tales we tell, true or otherwise, are always rooted in what has gone before. The spirits of place are the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse. They are the genii loci of classical Roman religion, the disquieting atmosphere of a former battlefield, the comfort and familiarity of a childhood home.
Twelve authors take us on a journey; a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, and consulted with, these Spirits of Place.
Find out more by visiting: www.spiritsofplace.com