We are delighted that Simon Clark, award-winning British author and friend of Jeff ‘n’ Joys is our first guest blogger on the new website. Simon’s latest novel (published October 2015) is Inspector Abberline and the Just King – the second novel to feature Inspector Abberline. We have some signed copies available. For more information about Simon check out his website http://www.nailedbytheheart.com/home
One of my favourite authors, Arthur Machen (1863-1947), coined the phrase ‘occult territories’ for places that evoked not only a sense of awe but had the power to reach into our minds to either frighten, disturb or inspire. Machen found occult territories in the dramatic hills of his native Wales as a child. In adulthood he discovered them again when, as a fledgling writer, he headed to London to find his fortune.
England’s capital for him was an enchanted place. It was a love-hate relationship, however. He wrote about its splendour, comparing it to ‘fabled Babylon,’ but as he worked in his lonely garret he also demonized the city: ‘its immensities and its solitudes overwhelmed me’ then this alarming description: ‘London began to assume for me its terrible aspect. It was rather a goblin’s castle than a city of delights.’
I read Machen’s words in my twenties. I’d hardly ever visited London until then but suddenly my stories were beginning to sell. Editors invited me to that ‘fabled Babylon’ and I found myself crash-landing in a world that was alien, exhilarating and completely terrifying. Kings Cross is the station that doesn’t so much receive trains from my neck of the woods, but devours them whole in its jaws of brick and steel. That’s how it appeared to me as I left the train to find my way through the dizzying vortex that is the London underground. For outsiders London is an assault on the senses — all those exotic smells, sounds, exotic ethnic cultures, roads swollen with traffic that all of a sudden vanish as you turn into a lonesome alleyway in Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper stalked his victims — for all I knew his descendants might still be continuing the family business.
These days I’m a regular visitor to London (and a less nervous one now I’m getting to know the place). I’ve explored its secret hinterland with two fellow writers, DF Lewis and Mark Samuels (by the way, Mark’s novel The Face Of Twilight is a wonderfully dark evocation of the mysterious side of London; highly recommended). On our long walks, punctuated by refreshments at London pubs (including some frequented by Machen a century ago) we visited the huge Victorian cemeteries of Kensal Green and Highgate; we viewed a Knights Templar church, came across a tiny coffin lying on a woodland path (and I mean tiny; it was empty, obviously made for a mouse-sized animal and lined in crimson silk); we marveled at Egyptian mummies in museums, picked our way through Dickensian bookshops, and in it all glimpsed the unique spirit of London.
After so many visits to a metropolis that can trace its history back nearly two thousand years it fired-up my imagination. Most of my novels have rural settings but my first urban novel, London Under Midnight, had been growing quietly for years in my subconscious. In part it’s also a conduit for that sense of trepidation and awe I feel when I visit London — that occult territory, which Machen wrote about with such haunting lyricism. Yet for all the formidable descriptive powers at the man’s disposal he admitted he had ‘never seen London.’ Nobody has. Pay a visit; you gaze on extraordinary facets, glimpse veiled elements, but deep down the city keeps some parts of herself forever hidden from view.