In September of 2016, I spent a pleasant evening chatting with Alan Moore while he was promoting his novel, Jerusalem. In the end, we gabbed on for so long it generated 8,000 words for a 1,400 word slot in the Irish Times, which also had to fit in loads of biographical information for the casual reader. Obviously, there was a lot spare so I transcribed the full lot and stuck it on my site, and then I stopped maintaining my site because who can be arsed, and decided I’d stick it up here, in its original Q&A format, because people ask about it every once in a while, and all the links to my old site are dead.
I’ve read a lot of interviews with Moore over the years so I tried not to be the 1,000th person to ask him certain questions — what he thinks of superheroes, why he hates movie adaptations of his works, what magick is — although some of those issues do come up here and there.
Running to just over 90 minutes, our chat began with talk of Jerusalem, but we almost immediately began taking extravagant detours through topics as diverse as early 20th century Sunday cartoon strips, the influence of Modernism on pop culture, as well as his thoughts on Joyce and Flann O’Brien. We also have a lovely dollop on horror — from the weird fiction of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, to the grisly, brick-sized paperbacks of the seventies — and tied up with a mutual love-in for The Wire. Something for everyone.
Please note: I have incorporated loads of links to certain things mentioned, not least places you can read or buy the many books, stories, comics and periodicals that come up. I’ve also incorporated some images to illustrate certain points made throughout the interview. I give full credit to artists and sources, and claim no right or ownership over them, etc etc.
So I’ve been blown away by Jerusalem so far.
Oh thank you very, very much man.
I can’t claim to have finished it, as I’ve had a bit of work to do but I’m 250 words in so far
[Laughs] Sure, sure. I know it’s a big commitment.
As a fan I’ve been following things you’ve said in interviews over the years, first thing I’d ask is — if you’ve taken ten years to write a book of this scale and scope, how do you know when it’s actually finished?
Well, it helps if you’ve got a reasonably rigid blueprint right at the start. This helps to contain a book which is about eternity and which I understood right at the beginning could end up being infinite, if I wasn’t very careful. At the very beginning of the process, when I’d only got the most amorphous idea of the kind of novel that I’d wanted to write, I started to think it was going to be a very, very big novel. I thought, maybe if I started writing down smart-arse chapter titles, or titles that seemed to resonate with the numerous subjects I wanted to talk about, that would be a place to begin. So, I ended up writing down the titles that seemed to have room for everything I wanted to discuss. I got to 35 and then I worked out that would make a prologue, an epilogue, and the remaining 33 chapters divided into 3 books of eleven chapters each.
This is all fairly anally retentive and probably boring and unfathomable but it was just that I needed that seemingly arbitrary ground plan before I actually buckled down to the work. Having got that, and having arranged so that these titles would work best in the first book, these in the second book and so on, I eventually got them into some sort of intuitive order, and then I simply started with the prelude and worked my way over that ten years, with perhaps eighteen months off in the middle doing Dodgem Logic. At that point, I was satisfied that everything I’d wanted to discuss was tied up somewhere in there, and so that was the point at which I was released from my servitude to Jerusalem. I’d fulfilled my part of the bargain.
It sounds like a very committed way to work
Well, it seemed to be necessary. I’d never actually had the impulse to write a book that was as big as this in every sense, and I understood fairly early on that I was going to need a lot of new tools and new ideas to actually navigate a book of that size. I mean plotting, simple things like plotting, become a difficulty, especially with the multiple plots that run through Jerusalem, when you’re expecting a reader to remember an incident on a certain page of a novel hundreds and hundreds of pages later — perhaps weeks in their actual life. You’ve got to sort of think about that and plot the novel differently so that certain things are reminders, or are underlined at certain intervals. It’s more or less stuff that I was working out as I was going, but it is a fairly committed way of doing it, as you say.
A lot of the themes that are coming up, I’m on page 240, 250, are working class areas, depressed areas, misdirected anger and wasted time, there are evocative passages about unemployment, and the corporatization of Britain. Looking at things that have happened since, the recession, austerity, the protest vote inherent in Brexit etc, even though this book took ten years to write, a lot it seems incisively timely.
I would say, when I commenced this work I wanted specifically to talk about the Boroughs, to talk about my family’s history there and to talk about the general history of the place. But obviously, as I started to discuss these things, I started to realise you can’t really talk about the Boroughs without talking about poverty, and you can’t really talk about poverty without talking about wealth and economics. All of these things expanded and, yes you’re right, when I started this book in 2006, 2005, I had no idea what kind of world it would be when I finished it and yet, you can only trust your instincts that the thing you’re doing will be timely. Indeed, after the financial collapse of 2008, with the introduction of austerity as a buzzword by which most of Europe appeared to be governed, I realised that this was going to have considerable relevance. Considering the position of the Boroughs as an area of particular deprivation — I believe it’s still in the top 2 percentile in terms of deprivation in the UK — I realised that this was a kind of condition that recent policies have almost universalised. I’ve put in an interview I did with one of the local papers; for a long while people were reluctant to visit the Boroughs, but in our current economic climate it seems as though the Boroughs will be coming to visit them, wherever they are.
This is a thing that does seem incredibly timely, but then a lot of things have them about them. You just do these things and there is something eerie about the way they seem to be catching intimations from the future, but you more or less have to ignore that and get along with the work.
You once wondered aloud if David Blunkett ever got hold of a braille edition of V For Vendetta, and used it as a blueprint for the British surveillance state
[Laughs] Well, I was just thinking, I have said in the past that the boundary between fact and fiction does seem incredibly porous. I think of when Iain Sinclair brought out Down River, which was a kind of curse upon the Thatcher regime, and she had been out of office for two months by the time it came out, prompting the late, and very great Angela Carter to say in a review that it was a tremendous book, but in terms of being a prophet, Iain Sinclair scored “about as high as his idol, William Blake”. Iain actually wrote her a letter thanking her for the review, but taking issue with her over the point of prophecy. He was saying, it’s not really the job of the prophet to actually predict the future; it’s more the job of prophets to make that future happen.
I’m not sure myself, I’m not sure if we sometimes get into what’s coming up, or whether it is the other way round; that our ideas get out of us and actually escape to make that future. Anyone’s guess, I can say.
Well, you have a particular example in that remnants of your work have made their way into the real world, as with Occupy or Anonymous using your V mask, or the Watchmen logo being used in the acid house movement; something you’d made escaping its own context and being spread, many years later, for different reasons, in different contexts
Yeah, well in each of those cases you mention, there was actually quite a long delay between me writing those works and what they eventually blossomed into. So, what I’m saying is, at the time of writing those works, I was not really aware of the process involved by which things do seem to start from fiction and blossom into reality, it was something that was just done intuitively. These days, I’m much more conscious of it, and have had specific examples, like the ones you mentioned. These days, I’m doing the work perhaps more consciously, to take advantage of that process. Perhaps not in Jerusalem, but the film work that I’m currently involved in with Mitch Jenkins, the Showpieces, which is looking good for the continuation of that as a feature film called The Show.
Any idea when that might materialise?
Well, the screenplay is written, if all goes well then we might be going into production, if all goes well, sometime early next year but with the film industry, I’m finding out, there are often sudden reversals so we might not. At the moment it’s looking good, in the context of that, I am very consciously trying to exploit some of that principle by which you can create something in the realm of the imagination and then somehow export it to the material world we are all living in, but you do become aware that there are ripples spreading out from particular works that seem to travel quite a long way further than you could have originally predicted.
As a big fan of Joyce myself, his influence is fairly clear on the themes and style of Jerusalem, and his daughter even makes an appearance, so can I ask about your interest in Joyce and Modernism?
Well my admiration for Joyce, and Modernism in general, is a thing that has been with me since the 1980s, I mean in the context of Jerusalem, one of the strands of it is the evolution of English as a visionary language, it talks about John Wycliffe’s translation of the bible into English, which came just before Martin Luther nailing his edicts to the church door, and which facilitated that. A lot of artists that sprang up around John Wycliffe, many of whom converged upon Northampton, the people writing hymns after chanting Latin psalms for generations, many of those hymns which were first sung in Northamptonshire, John Bunyan and the fierce visionary stuff in Pilgrim’s Progress.
Oh, I’ve heard of that but don’t know it well.
Yeah, weird little early English recursive hymn about the massacre of the innocents, from your neck of the woods
Yeah, Coventry is just up the road, just along the Luftwaffe flight path, as it were. But yeah, I was thinking about Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress and what he did with that. He was serving as a Roundhead soldier just up the road in Newport Pagnell during the civil war. He visited Northampton a lot of the time, and it was him who, in his book Holy War, gave Northampton its name ‘Mansoul’, which I use a lot, particularly in the second part of the book. After Bunyan of course, Clare, Blake, all of these people they kind of expanded what the English language could do, and then you get the Modernists, of which there is a fortunate link in that John Clare was at the same asylum, though not at the same time, as James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. That enables me to continue tracing this visionary strand up through the Modernists and, during the later parts of the Lucia Joyce chapter, through the agency of Dusty Springfield — which you won’t have gotten to yet, and since that’s the chapter with all the impenetrable sub-Joycean language, you may even miss it — I was suggesting that once Modernism absorbed all of the romantic writing, it went onto connect with pop, basically. During the 60’s you have a fusion between modernism and the popular which perhaps leads us to where we are. One of the things that writing the Lucia Joyce chapter taught me — well, firstly, it was never do that again. [Laughs] I mean that writing that was what led me to take 18 months off to do Dodgem Logic, just because I was exhausted, intellectually after that chapter, and it still isn’t a patch on Joyce.
It’s sub-Joycean, I was reading a bit of Finnegans Wake, only a few sentences because the majority of people who say they’ve read the whole thing are lying. I mean there are, of course, people who’ve read it but you can just read a few sentences of it and understand why it’s a work of genius. In the introduction to a Robert Anton Wilson book I was doing recently, I was referring to Joyce’s phrase “it’s as semper as oxhousehumper”. Semper sounds a bit like simple, but of course means eternal, whereas “oxhousehumper” is the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet; aleph which means ‘ox’, beth, which means ‘house’, and gimel, which means ‘camel’ so; ox-house-humper. I mean, that’s just a phrase picked at random, but the way that it unfolds so beautifully! I understood when I was going in the door of the Lucia Joyce chapter that this was only ever going to be a distant approximation of Joyce’s language, but it’s still probably the most accomplished piece that I have managed.
You’ve kind of reminded me of the angel-speak that John Dee was trying to discover, the ur-language of all Earthly languages-
Oh, yes Enochian! Well, in Jerusalem, by the time of the Lucia chapter, I hope the reader will have been primed, to a certain degree, for the way that words are used in that chapter by the dialogue of the various “angles”, or builders, or angels that turn up in the narrative who speak this kind of exploded language, which is some form of fourth-dimensional realisation of the English language. Along with the almost impenetrable Boroughs dialect that some of the characters are speaking, these are all different forms of English. In some ways, the Angelic language, though not exactly as it was transcribed by John Dee and Edward Kelly, I think it would certainly apply to John Clare, William Blake or James Joyce.
You’ve previously said that, when writing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [which creates elaborate adventure universes entirely made up of fictional characters from a variety of eras, from the late Victorian to modern day] you found a relative poverty of memorable or quality literary characters as you moved through the 20th century and beyond. When writing League 2009 — which incorporated characters from sources as diverse as JK Rowling and Aaron Sorkin — you said you found that the pickings were not nearly so rich as times previous. Would you still stand to that, or do these things just take a while for to shake out?
I’d say yes to both parts of your question. I would still stand by read the very critical, probably cranky, reading of culture that was in League 2009. I mean, with that we were saying that looked at from a point of view of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weil in 1910, Donald Cammell’s Performance in 1969, yes the current era does look a little impoverished.
Having had more time to think about that, I would say that something happened to, us as a culture, in the early to mid-1990s. This is something very well expressed in my friend John Higgs’ book about the KLF — it’s called The KLF: Chaos, Magic & The Band Who Burned A Million Quid. It’s a brilliant insight into what was happening during that time, and I’m not just saying that because it does have a very beautiful and windswept image of me in it somewhere. Jimmy and Bill were terrific. John is pointing out in his book that when they left that dead sheep on the steps of the Brit Awards and announced the KLF had left the music industry and deleted their back catalogue — which, incidentally, cost them a great deal more than a million quid — this was around about 1990. That was signalling the end of rave and dance, yes it would still trail on for a while after that but it was pretty much over.
So, as a culture, we waited until there would be another counter-culture, another movement, following the pattern that was established after the Second World War; that there’s always a new music movement, a new culture, a new counter culture, every few years; a new way of dressing, a new sound. 1990, we waited and we waited and in 1995 we got Britpop, which was not any kind of authentic musical movement, it was something imposed from the top down and was already a sort of regurgitation of the British pop bands of the 1960s and the 1970s, and just in time for Tony Blair, and New Labour and Noel Gallagher shaking Blair’s hand in Downing St. And we haven’t had a counter-culture since then, it seems like we’re no longer allowed them and I am starting to think that counter-culture is an inseparable part of culture, that’s the way it works.
Last November we had a day of counter-culture up at the local college which was called Under The Austerity, The Beach. We had various people, Francesca Martinez, Robin Ince, Grace Petrie, Josie Long, Scroobius Pip, me and Melinda, and talking with Scroobius Pip about counter-culture, he said that counter cultures always fail, which is true. The thing is, counter cultures are assimilated by the prevailing culture, but obviously if you assimilate anything, if you eat anything, it’s going to have an effect upon you, and if you can make a counter culture that is either toxic enough or psychedelic enough, then the prevailing culture is going to be altered by ingesting it. And I think this is the way that culture works, this is the way it changes, and renews itself.
I would say that where we are now, 2016, is more or less where were in 1916. At that juncture of the 20th century, the modern world was about to happen. There was the First World War, arguably the first modern war, where you had prototypical tanks alongside bows and arrows. In Lost Girls, me and Melinda incorporated Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which was completely changing our perception of music, at the same time Einstein was completely changing our perception of physics, you had the modernist writers starting around then, Eliot writing about a broken country during World War 1, Joyce — all of these people, they emerged around then. I would hope that there is where we are in our current culture because it seems to me, that after skipping hurriedly through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with our automotive tail fins that looked like rocket ships, with our science fiction, we were kind of hurrying through those decades trying to get to this promised, Jetsons future and then, around 1990–95, when the internet was starting to become a reality, we suddenly realised that we had arrived, and this was now the future and we froze.
As a culture, we froze, we had no idea what would be appropriate to this new era that we found ourselves on the brink of. So culturally, we decided, it seems to me, to mark time. We marched upon the spot. We started recycling the culture of the previous era that we were most comfortable with. Obviously that’s a sweeping generalization, there’s always committed artists and musicians and writers who are trying to break into new territory, of course there are, but the dominant mainstream of culture seems to be paralysed and anxiously repeating itself because it can’t think of what else to do; it can’t think of a culture that would be adequate to this new century.
I’d say that in cultural terms, the 21st century hasn’t started yet. We are hopefully seeing its beginnings in this current period of turbulence that we’re going through, just as they were going through a considerable period of turbulence a century ago.
You mentioned in the broader sweep, that culture eats itself. Specifically within comics, you’ve spoken about this happening in relation to your own work and that of others within comics in the 1980s
Well, the comics medium back when I was first making my entrance into that field, this would have been published in Sounds, and at that point was still imagining myself as a writer and artist which I had that beaten out of me very quickly when I realised I couldn’t draw anywhere near quickly enough to actually make any sort of career out of my drawing ability. But the impulse was coming from an Arts Lab background where my basic agenda regarding art was all formed during that Arts Lab period, where I would be encouraged to try different things, different fields, different media that I had no experience with, songwriting, doing a little bit of cartooning, writing poetry, performing, and I found that I actually liked all of them. So, back then in 1978 there was a toss-up, quite frankly, as to which one of these fields I might have entered into. But as it worked out, comics seemed to present itself, and the work appeared to go quite well, I obviously had a flair for the medium.
At that time, comics were completely ignored and disregarded as a field for serious narratives. There had been a few precious things like Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, which was — it’s not really a graphic novel, and I don’t really like that phrase anyway, but it was a great short story collection utilising the comics medium. There were a few things, there was some of the work of some of the underground cartoonists, there were the brilliant artists of the early American newspaper strips, Windsor Mackay and Frank King-
Oh, I love Gasoline Alley
Well, I mean some of the Sunday pages on Gasoline Alley were absolutely astonishing.
I saw a connection there with Big Numbers Number 2, the famous splash page around the table?
Oh there was certainly a connection there, in that I was looking at some of those people, like Frank King, in some of those pages you had a narrative that ingeniously moved from panel to panel, where you could see the whole page as one big picture, but moving around the panels naturally it broke it up into separate moments. It was a really interesting use of the comics page, and I’d never seen anyone take that to its logical conclusion.
So yes there was that page in Big Numbers where I did that, and then later in Lost Girls, there were a couple of pages where we used the same, or a variation, of those pages. You never want to actually repeat something, but there are ways you can break down a whole page in a logical way into separate panels in a continuing narrative, and that does give a certain unique effect.
But, yeah, I mean there was all this stuff that had happened in comics but the medium, like I say, was ignored. Nobody seemed to be particularly aware of it, apart from that relatively tiny number of people who were interested in comics as an art form. I suppose this would have been early comics fandom, as inaugurated by my late, great friend Steve Moore, among others, who organized the first British comics convention in 1968, I believe, and who did an awful lot to actually create the entire comics scene. He kind of set a progressive agenda for what comics fandom was at that time. Yes, comics should be advanced, comics should progress and talk about more adult things, should experiment. They should be able to use these unique things that comics have to offer and do so in new and interesting ways. So, entering that field back in 1978, that was my agenda; try to think of new ways to tell stories, try to think of new stories to tell. This came right at the end of the 1970s, which I would say was one of the bleakest eras for mainstream comics. There were exceptions like 2000AD, occurring in 1976 or something, but certainly in the American field, mainstream comics seemed to have become particularly moribund after all the excitement of the 1960s. With a few exceptions, but generally.
So that actually was quite an interesting landscape for someone like me. There was a lot still to be done with the medium; there were a lot of areas that could be usefully expanded into. And that, along with the other people I was with, created an incredible sense of energy that ended up contributing greatly to the transformation of the comic industry. I think, unfortunately, what happened, if you look at my early superhero stuff- this is all stuff that I’ve disowned, incidentally, the stuff that I don’t own I don’t want anything to do with, it’s too painful to even look at or to have copies in the house — back then it was my intention to push all of these things as far as they could usefully go and, like I say, there was this tremendous exhilarating sense of energy and possibility but I realised that, actually, my ambitions at that time were probably naive.
I assumed that, say, having done something like Watchmen, this would suggest to the other people working in the industry that, yes, there were different possibilities for comics, yes there were all of these storytelling techniques that could be exploited; genuinely new ways of conducting a comic story, I naively assumed that if you set an example that there’ll be lots of people who will respond to that and will start doing brilliant exciting stories of their own. But throughout the mainstream industry, it seems like a work like Watchmen — which was intended, like Marvelman [aka Miracleman] before it, to be critical of the superhero genre — what the majority of publishers seem to have taken from that was: violent and more sexually explicit comics sell better. More depressing comics sell better. Comics that are more difficult to understand sell better, as long as they’re violent and grim and more sexually explicit. And this seems to have become the default position of comics since these times, which I don’t think has helped the industry or the genre a great deal.
At the point I was getting out of the mainstream industry, ten years ago or more, I was saying that comics, seemingly, had become a kind of pumpkin patch to grow movie franchises. People weren’t doing things for the medium itself, they weren’t trying to explore the medium, they were more interested in coming up with a character or a concept that might translate to the movies and make them a lot of money. That is a blight which is not just contained within comics, that is one that applies to pretty much all of culture. All of culture seems to think that it has to realise itself upon multiple platforms, as I believe the phrase is, which ends up with movies that are trying to be lunchboxes.
Or theme park rides and board games becoming movie franchises?
Yeah, all of this, it’s stupid, makes no sense at all and I say, cranky or not, that it actually damages the integrity of the central work, the idea that anything can be adapted into anything. I think we had somebody suggest at some point, why don’t we do Lost Girls: The Musical? We’ve also had people say why not do Lost Girls: The Movie or Lost Girls: The Animated Movie? And we had to explain why not; that it was a work that could only be realised in comics. It wouldn’t work as a movie. It wouldn’t work as a stage play. It wouldn’t work as a musical. [Laughs] It particularly wouldn’t work as a musical.
You mentioned the term Graphic Novel, I actually find that none of my comic-reading mates call them that, it’s people who don’t read comics and think they’re giving me a soft landing.
Yeah, they’re trying to be polite
Like calling your stash of porn mags Gentlemen’s Literature, as if comics are a lesser art form — whereas a lot of the advances made by you and your contemporaries really showed the scope and flexibility of the medium, I think of your Promethea Issue 12, for example, with the interlocking Tarot cards and 21 different anagrams of “Promethea”.
That was clever.
Do you still see things in the field that excite you in that way now?
Well I’ve gotten very distant, but I do still have a few friends in the industry whose work I enjoy and who are doing great, fantastic work. The colleagues I have at Avatar. But generally I’m moving away from comics. I’m enjoying the work I’m doing but there’s probably 200–250 pages of that before I won’t have anything planned, because as I was saying about my Arts Lab days, I have always wanted to do lots and lots of different things. Throughout my comics career I’ve released seven or eight albums, which is more than many bands manage, I’ve done a couple of novels, loads of performances, I’ve done a little bit of crappy illustration, I’ve published an underground magazine. I’ve done lots of the things I originally enjoyed doing in the Northampton Arts Lab, and since we’ve built a new Northampton Arts Lab since the counter-culture conference in November that I’m having a great deal of fun working with, this is what I’m looking forward to doing now. My approach to any medium is like the first I ever worked with as a child, clay or plasticine; the thing to do is play with it, see its possibilities and feel it in your hands, see what shapes you can make from it. And that is basically how I approach any medium. It was how I approached comics, magic, how I approach everything, and that is the fun for me, is that play, that exhilaration, seeing all the new things that can be done with that specific medium.
So, with the film work, I am trying to have that same sense of inventive fun in the film medium, and with the case of Jerusalem, trying to bring that to the novel. Yes, I have said that one of the great beauties of comics is that anyone with a pencil and paper can make a comic strip, however, I’d have to say that while that is still true, unadorned English prose seems to be more miraculous still, in that there are no pictures. 26 characters and a peppering of punctuation, and from that you can do anything, you can describe anything in the conceivable universe. One of the things about Jerusalem is that I suspect it will read very much like someone who has been working for many years in comics and is suddenly doing something without an illustrator.
Enjoying the challenge
Having to compensate! And all of that prose that would have originally gone into panel descriptions for the artist — although it would have been much more rough-shod and functional and practical, I have tarted it up significantly for public presentation — but all of that prose has to go into the book itself. Everything has to be described. You can’t rely on an artist to put things in the background. You have to tell the reader everything or that thing does not exist, so I think that Jerusalem is a very visual book, and that might be one of the things that contributed to its length. Yes, I was having to visualize everything in it more intensely than I would if I was writing a comic strip, and in some ways I think Jerusalem is a very graphic novel.
That’s one of the things that I’ve been enjoying about Jerusalem, those simple things, like Ern mixing the paints in the first chapter — you’re choosing quite difficult things to describe, a colour for example. I loved how Lovecraft tried to do that-
And which he did managed to do wonderfully by saying “it was an only a colour by analogy”! So what was it, then? A texture? A smell? But, yes, that thing from the first chapter it was very useful sharing a house with Melinda, I was able to go into if you were doing human flesh what would be the colours to mix? Or checking up whether those modern colours actually existed in the days the story was set, and making some adjustments, because a lot of colours were only just coming to existence in the 1860s. Because I was talking about some quite extraordinary things, I wanted to make the writing as approachable and vivid and tactile as possible. Like, my first book, Voice of the Fire began with a chapter called Hob’s Hog, which was kind of an invented Neolithic dialect with a limited vocabulary of 450 words or so. A lot of people found that a very impenetrable entry into my prose, I must have put a lot of people off, which was probably my intention. I mean, when I was asked about it by previous people, why I did that for your first chapter of your first novel, I always said, perhaps lightly, “to keep out scum”. That is a bit blunt, I will allow, but I do appreciate the concept of literary difficulty, which is were you alienate a certain section of your audience knowing that those who remain will be forced to engage with the text on a deeper level.
Stewart Lee has a similar approach
I think he does, he stole it from me [laughs]
He likes to thin out the herd — I’ve enjoyed your interactions with him over the years, particularly your Chain Reaction interview
Oh Stew is fantastic, certainly to my mind probably the most brilliant, progressive comedian the country has ever seen. That’s perhaps over-egging the pudding but not by much. The bloke is absolutely extraordinary. I just wish there was some way I could steal what he does and try and apply it to what I do. But you can’t really do that, because the only thing you could apply that to is performance and you’d only end up sounding like Stewart Lee. He’s remarkable.
Well, speaking of stealing, we mentioned Lovecraft earlier and he has those remarkable letters professing his woe of being derivative, “I have my Poe pieces and my Dunsany pieces, but where are my Lovecraft pieces?”
He didn’t realise his Lovecraft pieces were all around him.
He gets that “-ian” after his name, after all
Well, in my estimation, I mean, although he appeared to hate the Modernists-
Along with a great deal of other things
Yes, along with foreigners
The Jews, the lower classes and people like that. Some of which he adjusted his opinions on, some of which he didn’t. Now, he hated the modernists. He actually did a brilliant parody of Eliot’s Wasteland called Waste Paper, which is actually really skilled; I mean it’s quite a good poem. He didn’t appreciate Joyce or Gertrude Stein or any of those people and yet if you look at Lovecraft’s work, you can see that he himself was a kind of closet Modernist. He was using stream of consciousness, he was using glossolalia, he was using interesting techniques by which he would tell you the colour out of space as only a colour by analogy, or how he would tell you three things that Cthulhu doesn’t quite look like.
He is constantly describing things that are almost impossible to visualize, like those sea cucumber things in At The Mountains of Madness.
Or when he describes the decomposing flesh of [The Dunwich Horror’s] Wilbur Whately in Dunwich Library, his description is actually describing all the different surfaces of Wilbur’s body, all these radical different textures, and it’s actually quite impossible to fit them all into a coherent picture. I think that this is deliberate. I’ve often said that Lovecraft’s over-description is not a fault, it’s a technique
Yeah, “the eldritch, gibbous, squamous” etc
You’re trying to overload the audience’s comprehension to the point that they actually get this disturbing sense of otherness because they can’t fit these different textures and colours into a coherent picture, they can’t imagine what a colour by analogy might be. It’s one of the days he alienates and unsettles his readership, and it’s very sophisticated. It’s a Modernist technique. So, I think I could make a case for Lovecraft as a closet Modernist, and of course he does turn up as one of the three opening chapter epigrams. The first one is Wittgenstein, then Lovecraft, then Einstein.
Was horror something you were devouring as a kid?
To describe my interests in art when I was a kid, it would mostly fall under the genre of “things that didn’t happen”. So that would include science fiction, fantasy, myths and legends, superheroes, horror. Once I discovered horror, I began to seek it out ravenously and, from the age of about 7 or 8, I was reading at least mild horror and ghost stories as well as a few of the pre-code horror comic book stories that would show up in the old black and white English reprints. And when I was around ten, eleven, twelve, my tastes started to zero into things that I’d heard about — Dracula, which was a fantastic book and still a very modern read. Frankenstein I did less well with, I was too young for it.
What age was this?
Still around ten or eleven. Also for about a year when I was say, eleven or twelve, I had a brief infatuation with the works of Dennis Wheatley. As Iain Sinclair has said, and I’d agree, that is about the only age when you can take Wheatley seriously. That’s the age before you notice all the creepy right-wing stuff, but that was part of my reading. Around about the same age as I was getting tired of Dennis Wheatley, I discovered Lovecraft, I forget exactly how, but I had seen books by him and I think that I’d read somewhere a brief description of his work that made him sound fascinating. I can remember picking up the Panther paperback edition, with the ugliest cover that I’ve ever seen, of At The Mountains Of Madness and the first book I read, I flipped through until I’d found the shortest one, which was The Statement of Randolph Carter which absolutely stunned me. I went on to read the whole rest of the book which I think included Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature essay, a brilliant guidebook to all of these authors I’d never heard of before; Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith — all of them, the whole bunch. It was a history of great supernatural and weird writing and that gave me a reading list that would take me through the next couple of years until an enthusiasm for the sword and sorcery of Michael Moorcock. That led to me picking up a copy of New Worlds when I was about 14, assuming it was going to be the adventures of Elric of Melniboné, and opening up instead to, I think, the first chapter of A Cure For Cancer with Jerry Cornelius, who at that time had black skin, black teeth, white hair and was a woman for at least part of the narrative.
The same issue had a brilliant essay by JG Ballard and I was instantly hooked on a new drug. That was my introduction to Modernism, which is what Mike Moorcock was trying to do with New Worlds. He liked Modernist writing but realised that there weren’t really any vehicles around for it, and he looked upon the science fiction genre as a potentially useful vehicle that didn’t seem to be serving any real purpose.
So, in the pages of New Worlds, along with JG Ballard, M. John Harrison, John Sladek, Hillary Bailey and all those people, he kind of reinvented what science fiction could do. He reinvented science fiction as a movement for Modernism. So, probably my relationship with horror, specifically, would have faltered in that time and it only picked up again with the new generation of horror paperbacks that were emerging in the 70s, where you’d got the magnificent Thomas Tyron, first with The Other and then with Harvest Hope. Big, thick horror paperbacks. Then, in the wake of that there was of course the book of The Exorcist, which was enjoyable.
I’ve actually never read the book of the Exorcist
I haven’t read it for a long time but I remember it being better than the film. Then after that there was the emergence of Stephen King, perhaps inspired by these new big, thick horror books that had over the previous couple of years, and I was interested in King’s work at the time, for a few books there.
He has his detractors, perhaps because he’s so prolific
I enjoyed them at the time. I noticed that it in a lot of it, it seemed to me, there was something missing in the endings and there was a possibility of formula creeping in there. But, there again, he’s done some remarkable works that have avoided that, so the thing is, Stephen King kind of kicked off a wave of horror writers trying to ride along his popularity and they were generally much, much worse. Obviously, there are huge exceptions, I mean Ramsey Campbell is one of the finest horror writers in the world. Full stop. Again, my tastes in the seventies, I actually was thinking a lot of the time, some of the Modernist literature that I was getting in Picador books seems more genuinely frightening. I think there’s more horror in Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman-
That’s literally my favourite book of all time
Probably mine too, or at least a strong contender.
I often have conversations with people who aren’t from Ireland about our perceived ability to punch so far above our weight with literature
You certainly do!
Yeah, well, in the midst of Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, I always try and sell O’Brien in those conversations. I always compare it to when they translate some scurrilous graffiti in, say Pompeii or something? If it’s funny, it strikes you as weird, because comedy seems so changeable and foreign even decades, let alone millennia later. Flann O’Brien is one of those few exceptions where you read a book that’s nearly a century old and think “this was written next year”.
Yes, and it’s timeless because it’s brilliant, original writing, which will be as good, and the ideas as strange, whenever you happen to read them. In many ways, culture still hasn’t caught up with O’Brien. I’d be looking at his stuff, and thinking that yes The Third Policeman is really funny, but it’s also a really frightening supernatural horror. Many people that I know find it difficult to read because they get to the bit where one of the constables is showing the infinite regress of tiny little dressing tables that are inside the drawer of a bigger dressing table. They’ll get to that point and feel vertiginous and a bit sick. I can completely understand that. It’s actually mind-warping stuff. But at the same time, I was reading other books during the seventies. Sadegh Hedayet’s The Blind Owl, which is absolutely terrifying. It’s this recursive fable that keeps going round and round and round. It’s completely different to the Third Policeman and yet you get that same chewing touch of infinity that really gets you in the bone marrow.
So, it was thinking about things like this that made me think that surely it would be best with horror stories to put other elements in, other than just horror. Try and make the horror do something different. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that using it to talk about something else is probably the only serious use of genre but a detective story that is just a detective story is not really something I’m interested in.
You’ve voiced similar sentiments in relation to the Killing Joke
It’s not about anything. Again, another disowned work. This is the reason I have to disown these works, because if I don’t own them then the people who own them can do anything with them, they can make them into an entirely inappropriate cartoon. It’s something I never liked in the first place because it isn’t about anything. It’s about completely invented characters that you’ll never meet an analogue of in the real world. You look at, say, most police dramas, they’re not about anything, they tell you nothing about the world you’re living in, they’re just working through the logic of the various cases, sometimes catching the bad guy. Whereas, you look at something like The Wire by David Simon and was it Ed Burns?
Yeah, David Simon and Ed Burns but then they brought on people like Richard Price, George Pelecanos,
Loads of very good, American crime-writers.
Yeah, and the guy who did Mystic River?
Dennis Lehane, and funnily enough they were all novelists, not TV people
Yeah, not screenwriters; novelists. And they’d obviously been picked because what David Simon was essentially doing with The Wire was, yes, he’s selling it as a police drama but he’s using it to talk about something else. He’s talking about Baltimore, and ultimately about how all communities have all these different vectors at play in them; education, dockside politics, city hall, the criminal sphere, the police. He gave us a picture of a modern community. This is why I say that genre, if it can’t be avoided altogether, its best use it to talk about something else.
The Wire also speaks to something you’ve said earlier about the medium, just as Watchmen doesn’t need to be used as a film, The Wire wouldn’t work as a worthy, Oscar-winning 3 hour movie
No, it wouldn’t. It’s something you need the real long-form and I suppose that this was, to some degree, why I reference The Wire briefly during Jerusalem
Isn’t there a tiny little reference in League as well?
Yes there is. In one of the text pieces there are references that tie in characters from Homicide: Life On The Streets, The Wire and Jules Verne’s Baltimore Gun Club. But in Jerusalem, the reference was made, not just because I was a fan of The Wire, but because I could see similarities. That, if you’re talking about an impoverished community, which David Simon and me both were, then if you’re intelligent you realise how big the story is in these little, neglected areas, how much space you need to tell that story competently, without editing out any of the most interesting stuff. You need something that is the length of Jerusalem or the length of The Wire. Something that’s at least 60 hours long, in terms of time spent immersed in it.
When we unpack these places, these impoverished and disenfranchised places, it’s always a surprise how much is in there.