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Letting The Subconscious Do Its Job
Mark Chadbourn
interviewed by
Andrew Hedgecock
"We seem to be forgetting
how to use powerful images
to transfer information,
but in ancient society
a load of complex ideas
would have been tied up
in a simple image"
      Mark Chadbourn
Mark Chadbourn is a contemporary bard - a post-industrial Taliesin whose visionary novels are crammed with remixed mythologies, oneiric set pieces, potent symbols, unsettling imagery and an engaging fusion of genre elements. And the author's ambition is sustained by his invention: his work is distinguished by breakneck but brilliantly controlled plots, meticulous research, deft characterisation and a crisp, accessible prose style.
   The other striking characteristic of Chadbourn's books is their overt presentation of his values and convictions: his stories are packed with allegorical points of reference that reveal his pagan, socialist, environmentalist and psycho-geographical beliefs. His self-conscious exploration of these themes has brought him an enthusiastic 'counterculture' readership: many of the emails and letters he receives come from travellers, road protesters, environmentalists, witches, clubbers and paid-up members of the chemical generation.
   Chadbourn's life has been as multifaceted as his work. Born into a mining family in the South Derbyshire coalfields, he took a degree in economic history, worked as a fitter's mate, cleaned toilets, ran a record company, managed bands and toiled on the Marmite production line. But he's been a writer for many years: he's worked for newspapers (national and local), magazines and television; and his role as an investigative journalist has taken him to Birmingham, London, Florida, Los Angeles and the Arctic. In 1990 he sold his first short story, and his first novel, Underground, followed in 1992. Chadbourn is now a full-time author and has returned to his native Midlands.
   I meet Mark Chadbourn at a café in Moira, in the heart of post-industrial Leicestershire. And - as we chat over the clamour of half-term visitors to the restored Ashby Canal and Moira Blast Furnace - I ask what drew him back to the region.

I've always felt tied to the Midlands. It's not just about family and friends; it's very much a sense of place, feeling rooted to what's in the soil here. It's interesting: I've lived in lots of different places, but I feel part of something here that I didn't elsewhere. But the move back was also prompted by something more personal: my mum died and I moved back to help my dad get back on his feet. I just threw everything in down there - but it merely brought forward something that I was going to do anyway. They say "if you're tired of London you're tired of life," but I really was fed up of the travelling and the crime. I like going down to London now - for the restaurants and the nightlife - and I enjoy its history.
   What happened to London during the Conservative era made it an oppressive place to live and the whole yuppie thing was quite destructive. But the media and the political structures at the time idolised that way of thinking. I found it quite unpleasant down there: I realised I'd been pushed out to the fringes and there was nobody listening to what I had to say. And I was bored. So I wanted to get away from the whole thing and recharge my batteries.

But the social, political and spiritual developments that left Chadbourn feeling angry and jaded also provided the stimulus for some of his early novels.

Underground explored the way I felt about the death of the mining industry - the Tories closing down all the pits and the effect it had. Scissorman was a straightforward anti-capitalist allegory about the perversion of all the worthwhile values and the great things in life during the yuppie era. When I went down to London Thatcherism was in full swing: I'm a very political and spiritual person and it was in direct opposition to everything I felt and believed in. The book was a way of dealing with the raging capitalism I was surrounded by: I set up this character to be part of it - to buy into it - and then to have him realise exactly what was wrong with it all. He falls apart and so do all these beliefs that have no grounding.

Chadbourn is clearly committed to the idea that horror fiction ought to do a great deal more than scare the crap out of its readers, but does he see it as an essentially moral form?

It's all too easy to scare people and authors who stop at that point are doing themselves and their readers a disservice. You need to go beyond that, but I don't see why horror stories need to be moral parables. There are a lot of conservative writers producing the sort of story where people get punished for fornication, but the form can be used with much more intelligence. The thing I've always liked about horror is that it can be anything you want to make it. It can take you to places that other genres won't let you anywhere near; it can take you beyond the point of death. It lets you delve into spiritual concerns and - I hope this won't sound pretentious - the meaning of existence.

In his most recently published work, the epic Age Of Misrule trilogy, Chadbourn eschews allegory in favour of a complex symbolic structure - drawing on mythic archetypes as well as overt thematic concerns - but says his work remains strongly autobiographical.

All my books are stuffed with me. The only way I can work is to take apart what's crawling around my head at the time: when I write I churn ideas over for myself, try to address them and attempt to put them into some kind of framework that makes a story.

So a full appreciation of Chadbourn's work necessitates an understanding of the political and spiritual concerns embedded in his narratives.

Flinging off the bonds of cynicism
There's a long tradition of popular, radical and engaged writing in English that takes in work by writers like Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair and Robert Tressell. And some of the most inventive, intelligent and visionary writers of our era have illuminated the socio-political landscape: James Kelman, Iain Sinclair, Alasdair Gray, Jonathan Meades and Jonathan Coe, to name just a few. But few contemporary writers are willing to attempt the perilous literary high-wire act of using a popular form to actively promote their ideas to a mass audience. It's all very well wanting to share your ideas with the widest possible audience, but no writer who cares a jot about their craft wants to be accused of preaching. Chadbourn is no exception, but his enthusiasm for his ideas, his beliefs and fantasy as a literary form has made him determined to take up the challenge.

When I worked as a journalist I was taught that the best way to get an idea across is put it in a way that lots of people can understand. I don't see any reason why populist fiction can't deal with the same depth of ideas as literary fiction. The majority of literary books sell about 3,000 copies: you're preaching to the converted. If you have an idea you'd like people to consider and discuss, you want to try to reach as many people as possible. My aim is to create popular fiction with lots of layers - entertaining but not, I hope, disposable, high adventure stories that incorporate all the ideas I'm turning over in my mind at the time.
   But, [he adds diffidently] in the end it's up to the readers and critics to decide whether there's any depth to the kind stuff I write.

Chadbourn clearly doesn't subscribe to Samuel Goldwyn's (apocryphal) assertion that "Messages are for Western Union." The Beltane fires of the Age of Misrule books (World's End, Darkest Hour and Always Forever) blaze with meaning. The tale's magickal quest, symbols and myth archetypes lead us into the dark recesses of the British psyche. But what are the ideas Chadbourn wants to share with us? What would he like his readers to take from the books?

If there was one idea I was able to get out there, it would be that we should all fling off the bonds of cynicism and stop working against our natures. One of the worst things to happen in the last decade or so is the way politicians and the media have been able to define reality. People who think in different ways are pushed out to the fringes: they are made to feel embarrassed about not being cynical enough and not living in the version of the real world described by the media. The Age of Misrule trilogy was - on one level - a plea for innocence and so it was written in spirit of opposition to the prevailing cynicism. It would be easy for cynical people to take it apart and laugh at it, but I knew that when I was writing it. I wanted innocence raised up to be something of value. Cynicism eats away at you; it really is a cancerous thing. When I was working in the media everyone was cynical: I'm cynical too but I don't want it to be that way, I want people to be proud to be innocent. Maybe I should get some 'Proud to be Innocent' t-shirts printed.

Chadbourn laughs. The paradox of coupling his ironic self-mockery with a personal crusade against cynicism isn't lost on him:

I don't want to push it too hard: my aim is to bury the political themes so far below the surface narrative - in symbols and allegory - that many readers aren't aware of them at a conscious level. On the other hand there are plenty of people doing rabidly right-wing stories, so I might as well stick my own beliefs on the page and hope they counteract some of the horrible stuff that's out there. Politics has been a massive part of my life for a long time. Every thing you do is political in some way - every single choice you make. Writing a book is no exception: choosing the characters, choosing the settings, deciding what they do and working out how they will react.
   A lot of fantasy is about toffs, or some toff who's been taken on by a working class family only to discover they're a toff later on and accept their role. All the characters in Age of Misrule are working class or lower-middle class. Publishing is such a white middle class world that it's still a political act to write about gay characters or characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. And it's a political decision to have women characters that are treated in the misogynistic way they were in John Norman's Gor books. I've chosen to have people of different cultures and beliefs as central characters and to try to portray women as they should be portrayed. Simple things, but I'm convinced that people learn from stories - they do teach us at some level - even though we often deny it.
   I want to feel part of mainstream society, so I want my beliefs to be in the mainstream. And I want people to reconnect with what I consider to be the principle values of life. To connect with very simple things like friendship and love, and to have a very powerful value system that has nothing to do with cash, capitalism and materialism. To connect with things that you can get from life and nature itself. When I put it into words like that it sounds horribly hippie-ish, navel gazing and disconnected. But this is what I believe in.

It's rare for authors to be quite so frank about the didactic element in their work - even if the enlightenment on offer is wrapped in a tale as entertaining and deftly crafted as the Age of Misrule. But readers who have joined Church, Ruth and Chadbourn's other flawed heroes on their journey around a Britain teetering on the brink of eternal night - coping with the collapse of the technological infrastructure and the return of the dark gods of Celtic myth - will know that it works. And Chadbourn's knowledge of Britain's myths, sacred sites and ancient beliefs was crucial to the coherence and resonance of the story. I ask whether the impressive scholarship underpinning the stories was based on research carried out specifically for the project or reflected a lifelong interest in these subjects.

A bit of both. I did do vast amounts of research for it: I read loads of academic papers - not just about Celtic mythology - some of which are cited in the bibliography. I decided to use Celtic mythology because it uses archetypal images that speak directly to the subconscious. And I wanted to develop this over the trilogy. The idea was that the way you would respond to the books would depend on your experiences at the time of reading. I wanted to see how potent these ancient symbols and stories were today: long ago they were the main way of educating the population. Snow White is a lesson to young girls about dealing with awakening sexuality. Fairy tales use all those symbols and imagery to pass information in a way that textbooks and tutors couldn't. We seem to be forgetting how to use powerful images to transfer information, but in ancient society a load of complex ideas would have been tied up in a simple image in someone's mind. And they'd be able to revisit and explore the image - and its interpretation - throughout their lives. Celtic mythology does the same kind of thing: these ancient gods still represent something to us, even though we may not be aware of it.

I suggest that some evidence for the unconscious power of these images was provided by the fact that they had fed-forward into the very religion that claimed to have swept the old gods aside. Is the 'war in heaven' between the wise and beautiful Danann (the last generation of Irish gods) and violent, misshapen sea-dwelling Fomorii so different to Christian representations of the conflict between the angels and satanic hordes?

The early Christians looted loads of images from other religions. When they were trying to push the Christian religion in places where there were Apollonian cults, they just moved Jesus in as a Sun god. They did a great PR job - even down to icing the opposition: the old, horned god of the religion that existed before Christianity was turned into Satan, and witches have been demonised for 2,000 years. As it spread it seemed to sweep away most of what went before. But they were all dealing with the same sort of imagery - the original language of cultures all around the world. Now we have a written form of language, but it still responds very powerfully to imagery - and that was something I wanted to play around with in the Age of Misrule books. Maybe the images I've used tell a different story to the one set out in the words. It was very much an experiment from my point of view, but response I've had from readers has been amazing. Some of them picked up on ideas without realising what they were picking up on.

The Age of Misrule has met with an enthusiastic response from reviewers, but some have concentrated almost exclusively on the breathless narrative - a sort of magickal road movie - at the expensive of the dense imagery, mythic allusions and spiritual journey that Chadbourn also offers his readers. But he is sanguine about criticism:

I was really pleased with the reviews: there were a couple of carpers but I'm thick-skinned enough to cope with that. I hoped the fast-paced plot would drag people to the end of each book and, with a bit of luck; they'd pick up some of the wider ideas later. If you allow yourself to get underneath the plot you might find different things. But I've been a critic on national newspapers - and I've been an editor - so I know what it's like for reviewers: you get a vast amount of books to read, films to watch and records to hear all the time. You can't look for things below the surface when you're blinded by the sheer amount of work you have to get through. But there is a receptive audience out there. The trilogy has brought about 20 times more letters than I used to get with the horror novels and it seems I've been picked up by a counterculture audience - an audience that seems to be more open minded and more receptive to the imagery, symbols and archetypes in the books.

Standing up to the Rationalist Fundamentalists
The other aspect of Chadbourn's work likely to appeal to groups within the counter-culture is his interest in the numinous, ineffable and supernatural - not merely as metaphors, but as genuine aspects of human experience. It permeates his novels and a few years ago he wrote Testimony, a nonfiction work exploring the experiences of witnesses to the paranormal.
   Most of us are so mired in the application of the tools of the instrumental reason that powered the industrial era - logic, deduction, induction and dialectic - that it's hard to imagine the ways in which an alternative way of thinking would impact upon the way we live. Like his friend and fellow Midlands writer Graham Joyce, Chadbourn seems to be carrying out a literary guerrilla campaign against rationalism as the dominant mode of 21st century thought. There's a paradox here: these guys are persuasive advocates for a more open and intuitive mode of thought - an allusive and emotionally resonant alternative to the straightjacket of rational analysis - but it's hard to think of two people more skilled in the science of rational discourse. I certainly wouldn't fancy my chances in a conversational dust-up with either of them. So whatever the outcome of the current movement for a reassessment of the value of rationalism, with supporters like Chadbourn and Joyce we can be sure the movement is driven by something more compelling than a trend for 'sloppy thinking'. I ask Chadbourn what has inspired his own rejection of the rationalist mainstream:

An interest in alternative takes on reality has been a big part of my life for a long time. I'm very much a Fortean in the approach I take to the reality we see around us and I have a big problem with fundamentalist scientists like Richard Dawkins. I find them quite aggressive in the way they define the way the world works: for them, there is no valid alternative view of reality. I read their articles so I can laugh uproariously at their certainties. It's outrageous that these people say they have a handle on something as crazy and complex as reality. There are many people out there who can't explain events in their lives, from the simple to the life shattering. And it irritates me when they're treated to ridicule and pushed to the fringes because they don't buy in to consensus reality.

I struggle to dredge one of my favourite quotes from the Canadian author Robertson Davies from the murky depths of memory. Davies, another author deeply concerned with the spiritual side of human existence said: "The stench of formaldehyde may be as potent as the whiff of incense in stimulating a naturally idolatrous understanding." I put it to Chadbourn that scientific fundamentalism may be motivated by an inability to cope with the uncertainty we'd have to face if our models of the universe are wrong. He isn't persuaded:

I think it comes down to the basic human character flaw of arrogance. People convince themselves that a model works for their own lives and experiences. Then, for some reason, it becomes essential for them to ram it down everyone else's throat. I read recently that they no longer believe the speed of light is constant: scientific belief is as wrapped up in people's life experiences, career aspirations and workplaces politics as any other form. Philosophers and people from religious backgrounds - not that I subscribe to any mainstream religion - all have a different take that works for them. For them it's as vital and valid as any other way of looking at the world: how can any of us be so arrogant as to suggest our version of reality is 'the one'? I really don't believe you can define all the experiences of every person in the world with the science we have at the moment. It irks me because my personal belief is that we know nothing. It's beyond the tools and techniques we've invented to make sense of the world, so we're never going to get to the heart of the problem.

But doesn't the ability of writers like Chadbourn and Joyce to challenge the rationalist imperialists on their own turf demonstrates that it's possible for individuals to mix and match modes of thought?

It ought to be possible for us all to explore different ways of thinking, but the Age of Reason seems to have damped down the right brain - the side that deals with imagery, intuition and creativity. We need to get more of a balance in our thinking - in art, life and society in general.

Trusting the Process
I ask Chadbourn if there have been specific experiences that have brought him into collision with the ineffable. And - knowing of his interest in geomancy and psycho-geography - are there particular places that carry a psychic charge for him?

I come from a pagan perspective and I take a lot of inspiration from certain locations - and I'm convinced they have genius loci: I feel it in Avebury and on the Pembrokeshire coast. And there are other wild places with a strong sense of spirit, where I can't help but think there's more to the world than I'm seeing. Places that provoke an instinctive and emotional response.

I mention a particular location that carries a psychic charge for me: the Lace market area of Nottingham is a strange post-industrial 'interzone' where ancient structures have survived the erasures of the developers. I sensed it was a place of suffering before I read about its history of industrial exploitation, violent crime and execution.

It's fascinating the way places can soak up and transmit that kind of atmosphere. You know in your heart there's something there but don't necessarily trust your instincts. I've been to plenty of places where I've felt something quite overwhelming and later discovered the events that have happened there - and I don't think I'm a particularly sensitive person. I think a lot of people get these feelings but dismiss them because we devalue instinct in the Age of Reason. Because we can't unravel the process of instinct we see it as something valueless when it ought to be one of our most powerful faculties. It's something that could enrich our lives.

After an hour's discussion of some vast and complex themes it's clear that Chadbourn is determined to tip a kitchen sink full of ideas into every book. And it's also apparent that he takes great care in developing the multi-layered narratives that have to support them. But which comes first, plot or symbol? Are his symbol systems the result of sedulous planning or do they emerge from the surface plot?

I spent a long time thinking about the Age of Misrule books before I started writing, so there was plenty of time for the material to seep into the subconscious. When I started writing I plotted my books in great detail: there was no room at all for organic growth. But in my most recent work I've almost let my subconscious do the whole thing. And it works much better because the subconscious is where the deep symbols are located and where the deep meaning of what you're writing is buried. In the case of the book I'm writing now, The Devil In Green, I knew what I wanted to write about so I didn't plot it at all: I just totally enveloped myself in the basic idea and allowed my subconscious to do it's job.

New Departures
The Devil In Green is to be the first book in The Dark Age - a sequence set in the world after the devastating events at the end of Always Forever (the final book in the Age of Misrule trilogy). The first volume concerns a gathering of the remnants of the Christian church at Salisbury and the foundation of a new order of the Knights Templar in a desperate quest to re-establish the creed amongst a people whose world consists of gods, avatars and supernatural beings. I ask if the new sequence is to take the form of another trilogy.

Not a trilogy - there will be three separate but thematically linked books. In a way I wanted to do what Patrick McGoohan did in The Prisoner. Lew Grade only let McGoohan get away with The Prisoner because he thought he was getting a new Danger Man, but he proved it was possible to work in television without having to write down to the lowest common denominator all the time. One of his biggest achievements was to create a world and investigate some interesting aspect of day-to-day life in each episode. He looked at the health service, education and political system of his nameless village. Like McGoohan, I wanted to set something in a world that's like ours, but different: it has the same sort of people you see around you, the same geography and even the same towns. You'll still hear the echoes of the everyday world, but it will have elements in it that I can use to develop certain ideas. I'll take it away from the day to day world but still allow you to hear those echoes.

While he's been working on The Dark Age, Chadbourn has also delivered a novella, The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, to Peter Crowther at PS Publishing. The book (which will be published early in 2002) intertwines the stories of the idiosyncratic Victorian artist Richard Dadd and contemporary character on an obsessive quest to discover the true meaning of the painter's best known work, The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke. So what drew Chadbourn to Dadd?

I was fascinated by the symbols that are stitched into his life and work. He was a talented young artist who worked in established traditions and appeared to be heading for a fairly orthodox career. The he went to Egypt with his patron and became so wrapped up in Egyptian mythology that he believed Osiris was talking to him. His patron thought it was sunstroke. He was planning to kill the Pope and ended up stabbing his father to death in a quarry - which certainly fits in with the myth of Osiris. Dadd was a bipolar schizophrenic and spent the rest of his life in asylums. While he was in Bethlehem Hospital, 'Bedlam', he painted masterpieces like Crazy Jane and, of course, the Fairy Feller's Master Stroke. It's a mysterious painting that breaks all the rules: it's a scene from a visit to fairyland, a hallucinogenic vista crammed with symbols referring to aspects of Dadd's life. The subject of the painting, the axe-man of the title is about to split a chestnut before the fairy court. It's a simple act imbued with vast meaning. And the image is very mysterious. What does the nut represent? Why is the axe-man's face hidden? I'm fascinated by symbols and those in the painting connect with aspects of my life too.

Before I let Chadbourn get back to his novels, stories and role as co-editor (with Ariel) of the excellent Alien Online website ("bringing fresh perspectives to the coverage of fantasy, science fiction, horror and slipstream"). I ask which writers have entertained, obsessed or influenced him.

I'm an admirer of M. John Harrison. A short story he did for Prime Evil is the best I've ever read - The Great God Pan, his rewrite of the Arthur Machen story. I don't know why it connected with me to the depth that it did, but it's a brilliant story and it changed my views about writing completely. Alan Moore is a big influence. I've just read Little Big by John Crowley - hard going at first but absolutely the best fantasy I've read for ages.
   I read comics and watch films. I love Night Of The Demon, I really like David Lynch's stuff: I loved Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, but I didn't like Wild At Heart. I could watch film noir round the clock - Double Indemnity, Taxi Driver... After writing all the time it's nice to sit through visual communication. I don't really like TV: with most TV there's no depth - what you see is what you get.
Books by Mark Chadbourn:
Underground (1992),  Nocturne (1994),  Testimony (non-fiction, 1996), The Eternal (1996), Scissorman (1997).
Age of Misrule trilogy - World's End (1999), Darkest Hour (2000), Always Forever (2001).
   visit Mark Chadbourn's website
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