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!

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Is Genre Fiction Reaching Critical Mass?

"...all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination..."

“…all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long – my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination…”

Interesting things are happening in SFF and other ‘genre’ fiction right now. Having been looked down on for decades (centuries?) it’s increasingly looking like mainstream cultural and critical acceptance is on the cards. Why do I think this? And why now?

The last two ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions at the British Library were devoted to comics/graphic novels and Gothic fiction. The BFI have a sweeping Sci Fi season on at the moment. The BBC are getting in on the act and have sci fI documentaries playing right now. And then there was this speech from Ursula K Le Guin (and if you haven’t read her Left Hand of Darkness I suggest you stop reading this right now and get a copy).

I’ve written briefly about Interstellar already and, whatever you may think of it, there’s surely no denying it’s great to see a slab of grown up sci fi reaching a wide audience – not just robots slugging each other in the face for once. And on TV Game of Thrones has become the one to rule them all.

That’s why I think it’s happening now, but where has it come from? What’s driving it? I wonder if it’s not linked back to the phenomenon that is/was Harry Potter. The generation that were kids when the first book came out are grown up now. And through their teenage years and into early adulthood they followed Harry’s saga, with Lord of the Rings punctuating it on the big screen (along with the Potter adaptations themselves of course). It was an adolescence defined by fantastical fiction, some of the most successful ever, and it has led to an fantasy-literate adult audience broader than ever before.

That’s my theory at any rate, and I’m sure there are many other ways to spin it – capitalism following one genre success to make more money maybe, or the internet uniting disparate fantasy fans into a collective force, or something in the times we’re living through making fantasy and sci-fi appealing as either carriers for metaphor or escapism from the global recession.

I’ll post something more about Harry Potter soon, but what do you think? Do you think genre fiction is ascending to its rightful place alongside ‘literary’ fiction? If so, what’s your theory?

@BornToPootle

An Injection of Gothic

Or, Bela Lugosi’s dead…

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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:

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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.