London’s Psychic College



*Ominous creaky door noise*


In my last post I flagged up a couple of events coming up that seemed like they might be quite interesting; last weekend I managed to toddle off and enjoy one of them, so I thought I’d share the experience.

The London College of Psychic Studies turned 90 at the weekend, or their residency in their permanent home in South Kensington did, at any rate. To celebrate, they opened their doors to all comers, putting on a display of art and artefacts that have been collected over the years.

The college itself is in a tall, but narrow house sandwiched into a standard Kensington terrace. A few doors down is a casino, lurid lights spilling out on to the street – at a glance Mrs Pootler wondered whether that was the college, but no: the college has a more down-to-earth approach to its particular niche. Hogwarts, it ain’t.

I explored the college from the basement up (looking for, but not finding any hidden passageways). The first room was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, president of the college in its early days when it was still directly connected with the Spiritualist church. Archive footage, books, photos and newspaper clippings were the order of the day. Similarly, the next room was dedicated to newspaper clippings from various spiritualist papers.


Smiles, indeed…


Take that, Scotland Yard!


A stuffed library and reception area on the ground floor gave way to a further three floors of rooms resplendent with photos and artwork – some of the art was ‘automatic’, drawn or painted when in a trance state or whatnot. Here are a few further snaps I took (note: the pallid, reflected face you can half glimpse in some of the photos is either me or Mrs Pootler, not a ghost):

A favourite quote to end on, from a poster advertising Spiritualist lectures (capitalisations intact):

The Priest offers you a Book and Dogmas. The Occultist offers you a Key and Facts.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’d take imagination and art over either, but it’s nice to paddle around and get different perspectives.

If you’ve got some favourite esoteric haunts around London, let me know in the comments and I’ll check them out.




Upcoming Esoteric Exhibitions

John Dee_0

A little while ago the British Library had a barn-storming exhibition devoted to Gothic. I wrote about it here. For fans of the esoteric it was a particular treat, with John Dee’s spirit mirror being one of the exhibits. At their Comics Unmasked exhibition one of the stand-outs was a recording of Aleister Crowley reading John Dee’s Enochian writings. It played on a loop. In a building full of ancient manuscripts. Have they never seen The Evil Dead?!

Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve written about an exhibition, but that may change soon – two have come along at once. Keeping with the John Dee topic, the Royal College of Physicians have just launched a 6 month airing of some of his books.

A lot of Dee’s library, once housed at the impeccably named Mortlake, was nabbed or destroyed. It seem that after passing through a couple of pairs of hands much of the remainder was gifted to the Royal College of Physicians in 1680. Lots of alchemical scribblings and Enochian doodahs abound in the margins, so I fully expect to come away from it able to turn lead into gold (which, now I think about it, is what Games Workshop did in the 90s).

The second exhibition is actually more of an open day. The London College of Psychic Studies is opening its doors this Saturday, on its 90th anniversary. I’ve not been there before, so it seems like a good excuse to have a poke around and see what really goes on behind its doors. Spoiler: it seems like collecting snazzy art may be one of their hobbies. But I’m sure there’s much more besides.

I’ve long been fascinated by the college. It sits happily in an affluent area of London rather than, as my imagination would prefer, being tucked away down a twisting alleyway that’s never the same twice. I’m sure it keeps all its oddities on the inside, and the façade is just to throw off the scent…

You can read more about the Dee exhibition here, and the College of Psychic Studies here.

I’ll report back once I’ve been along. Let me know if there’s anything else going on that I should be aware of!

Treat Yourself to Crimson Peak This Year

Halloween Ideas

It’s not a trick, honest.

If you’re heading to the cinema this weekend there’s only one film I’d recommend for the perfect Halloween: Crimson Peak. Yeah, the title gave that away didn’t it?

This isn’t really a review of the film per se, but as I’ve read a few articles about its disappointing performance at the box office I feel duty bound to give it a plug.

Why’s it perfect for Halloween? It’s gothic. All of the Gothic. If it was a person it’d be wearing a black frilly shirt, have kohl-smeared eyes and be listening to Sisters of Mercy on repeat on its iPod (I know they claimed not to be goth, but their audience begged to differ) while doing the change-the-lightbulb two-step.

I wrote a while ago about the Gothic exhibition at The British Library. Now I’ve had time to mull it over I think it’s probably the best exhibition I’ve been to. But for the purposes of this post there’s one thing which stands out. There were various attempts to define the genre, the best of which was from Neil Gaiman. I’m paraphrasing, but here goes:

If the cover could be a picture of a young lady in a nightdress, holding a candle, running away from a castle which has one lit window high up, and in that lit window is the silhouette of someone watching, then it’s gothic.

And that could definitely be the poster for Crimson Peak. In fact it sort of is one of them. See above!

It revels in gothic. It’s gleeful about it, but never falls into camp. Starting with a well-executed Nosferatu homage (so often done poorly) the film bathes, Elizabeth Bathory-like in the blood of its genre-kin.

My personal favourite moment is when Mia Wasikowska’s protagonist (and how about that cast – Wasikowska, Tom Hiddlestone and Jessica Chastain) arrives at the ruined mansion (standard) to find blood red clay literally oozing up out of the floorboards with every step she takes. This is a film that knows how to have fun with foreshadowing.

There are a few jump-scares, but the film doesn’t rely on them. Guillermo Del Toro understands the genre so knows that’s not all horror is. And there’s gore too, which certainly surprised most people in the screening I went to. But look back at his most lauded film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and it’s clear Del Toro is fond of viscera.

Crimson Peak is a visual feast and designer’s dream. My wife is something of an amateur costume historian and in museums can always date an outfit to the right year (for fashion from 1700 – 1950 at any rate). She raved about the accuracy of the costumes – some of them self consciously behind the times, others bang on trend for the year.

Heck, even the sex scene (of course there’s sex, that’s what gothic is all about) lets us ogle more of Tom Hiddlestone than Mia Wasikowska – how grown up!

It’s a film that clearly loves its genre. That loves horror and, most importantly,  respects it. If it’s still showing near you go and see it.

If it’s a night in you’re after, but still fancy something gothic I’d recommend Stoker (which also starred Mia Wasikowska) for a slice of modern-set but no less genre literate cinema.

Those are my picks for a night out or in this halloween. What are yours?

London Book Fair 2015

Or, A Drop In The Ocean

One of the earliest posts on this blog was after my sojourn to last year’s London Book Fair.  Well it’s that time of year again, only this time I popped along to all three days rather than just the one.

Held at Kensington Olympia, it was a wonderfully maze-like expanse of beautiful beautiful books (none of which were on sale to the likes of me – it’s an industry fair after all). Here’s the best cover I spotted:

Enough from Burt? Never!

Enough from Burt? Never!

Like last year, there was a dedicated ‘Author’ area slap bang in the middle of the labyrinth (where the minotaurs roam). Each day saw a series of 45 minute seminars and panel discussions on topics like tips on getting an agent, success stories from published authors and more general discussions on how authors are changing their writing to suit newer forms like Twitter.

I only went to the seminars I was most interested in, but that was still a hefty ten or eleven. There was a little variation in quality, but on the whole they were very well presented. I found a couple were either slightly mis-named (or perhaps they veered off topic at the beginning and didn’t recover) and one or two came across as marketing pitches for one or other e-publishing services. I suppose that’s the nature of this kind of event. There were great talks from representatives from The Bookseller and various agents, publishers, journalists and booksellers though, and served to give an interesting overview of a few different parts of the industry alongside decent practical advice.

I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities to network with other authors – just by hanging around and chatting with others at the Author HQ for example – but being an obtuse sort I used gaps in my schedule of seminars to meet up with a couple of editors I know of old and take foolish selfies.

A professional demeanor is key at these events.

A professional demeanor is key at these events.

Worth going to? Absolutely. I think a lot of what was covered in the seminars needs further research and, arguably, could be gleaned by decent research online in the first place, but I can put a few industry names to faces now, met a couple of other novice authors I’m going to try and keep in touch with and drank a fair bit of (pretty decent by exhibition centre standards) coffee. A good rebaptism into the publishing world, having had a couple of months of self-doubt. I’ll come on to that next time, but did you go to the Book Fair? Anything stand out particularly for you?


An Injection of Gothic

Or, Bela Lugosi’s dead…


Subtlety is not the gothic's strong point

I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo Hacks post that I visited the Gothic exhibition at the British Library recently. I’ve got some pretty strong gothic credentials as the first short story I ever wrote (the result of a school project many moons ago) was a Poe tribute – though I didn’t actually take writing seriously until a fair few years later – and for a couple of years in the late 90s I played keyboards in a band called Purity of Decadence who looked like this:


That's me on the left. Bloody loved that coat

The exhibition, called Terror and Wonder, is definitely a stop off if you’re into the weird or fantastical, and it’s worth picking up the accompanying book – it goes into a lot more detail than the captions could manage in their limited space – I’m going to have a very long reading list when I’ve worked my way through it.

Amongst the novels and images and artefacts was an object owned by Horace Walpole, the author of the first generally accepted gothic novel (The Castle of Otranto). A piece of polished obsidian, jet black in a darkened glass cabinet. It might have been quite easy to miss, there were certainly lots of other great images and objects tearing at the attention. Fortunately I was being thorough, because it turned out to be John Dee’s Aztec spirit mirror, one of his primary means for contacting the dead, either for his own ends or for Elizabeth I for whom he sometimes worked. I caught my reflection in it, but nothing more – I wonder how many visitors see something other than themselves in there?

What struck me about the exhibition was the way the idea of the gothic has changed as the centuries have rolled past, starting off with classic haunted medieval castles in novels that claimed to be translations of ancient manuscripts, through to burnt heathland, into fog-cloaked cities and even in to body mutation. What seems to be the linking factor is the idea of location and atmosphere, a pregnant sense of dread hanging over proceedings.

That’s something that I think I’m writing towards, but can definitely stand to bring further toward the front. The sense of location is quite important in the novels I’m working on – in A Calling-on Song it’s a calmingly familiar town whose charms start to rebel against the protagonist, and in Lord of the Dance it’s pretty much the opposite; a town which functions as a prison for my protagonist starts to reveal secrets that end up making the place alluring.

Or failing that I’ll stick an ancient Aztec spirit mirror owned by a long-dead mystic into my characters’ hands early on and see what happens. The exhibition is on for a while still, so pop along if you’re in London and let me know what you think.