For many years I've been gestating on a correlating various visionary interpretations on red deserts; a conflation of Burrough's Cities of the Red Nights; Ballard's Vermilion Sands, Lovecraft's crimson Desert and Kenneth Grant's mauve zone. Grant's mauve zone might be a slightly off colour vision; that said, his pulsating oracular portal must be construed as tantric metaphor given the domination of menstrual themes in his work. Such a reading draws in Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle's 1975 book The Wise Wound, a text that Grant uses as an anthropological marker for his wilder speculations. The desert at dusk in Grant's imagination populated by blood of the moon devouring hyenas.
Redgrove and Shuttle's The Wise Wound contains a fascinating deconstruction and menstrual reading of The Exorcist. It stresses the importance of Captain Howdy's obscenity, “the sow is mine...” It struck me recently that the mention of the sow has a fascinating ripple across the visionary and more particularly, the pestilent desert. Blavatsky envisioned Chozzar as a pig god of Atlantis and the name has been appropriated by the cults of Choronzon linking it Pazuzu. Of course literalists have debunked the speculative gematria that occultists apply to Pazuzu and Choronzon as evidence of their synonymity, but equally so, we are not in the realms of the literal – we are in the realm of twilight language, image and association the misrulers of its grammar. The important thing is to notice the appearance of the psychopomps – desert dogs and pigs.
For the gigs I played last October, I used a new unrecorded piece "Shugal-Choronzon". It was designed to be the theme music for a metafictional Western set in this visionary red realm. For the video backing I used the opening scene from The Exorcist, the unearthing of Pazuzu. It's one of my favourite pieces of cinema and a scene I would like to live in and maybe I do: a hyperventilating amateur archaeologist surrounded by omens. It struck me introducing the scene into the visionary equation more tightly tied the desert to a places of possession. Crowley's encounter with Choronzon in Algeria is perhaps his father's Plymouth Brethren bible coming back in Enochian; the last temptation of Anti-Christ.
John Waters once said his favourite actor was Wilhelm Defoe, 'a man who could play Manson and Christ with equal plausibility' to paraphrase Waters. Inevitably the dune buggy apocalypse of Spahn ranch races into this Western. Ballard cast Manson in Hello America as a desert borne leader. Seemingly though Ballard's Vermilion Sand stands out of the equation of a demonic reading, but I think it's important to trace the changing psychological terrain of this author's deserts. Vermilion Sands is a timeless and slightly decadent shangri-la. The people who inhabit Vermilion Sands are disaffected and parasitical, but not yet fully blown, giant cocked, leering Pazuzus. That would manifest in the suburbs, first with Vaughan and then in the form of shamanic priapus Blake in Unlimited Dream Company- a psychedelic death demon, the anti-christ neighbour of Sir Stanley Spencer's Cookham. If Cookham high street is a bucolic bethel then the prostitute causeways of the Heathrow approach are Chorazain.
One can also read Ballard's suburbia as desert, inert as sand, breeding grounds for tomorrow's psychopaths. Sand as a constituent of concrete. If in biblical doom say we return to dust and ashes, in the secular brutal realm we will return to sand.
Ballard's sands morph suddenly with The Terminal Beach into a considerably more pathological realm. The Terminal Beach was written in 1964, just after his wife's death (on holiday on the Spanish coast). It's undoubtedly a roman à clef, but also the point of some breakdown, where he introduces the condensed chapter fractured form.
By bringing the idea of the sea-less beach into the imagery, we can begin to see some very interesting and less obvious chimeras. At the more exotic end, the phantom form on Dali's paranoid beaches and in England, the demon spheres of M.R James' sands: of Oh Whistle and A Warning To The Curious. As I discovered a while back, Robert Graves alludes to the Latin riddle in The White Goddess and draws in a very intriguing connection to ritual whistles as well as is own short story The Shout, all of which add to the pestilential geographic. To briefly summarise, Graves explores the symbolism of the Marjorcan clay whistle called the xuirrell. The xuirrell can be cast in a number of anthropomorphic shapes: a mermaid, a bull-headed man, a coiled serpent or pregnant woman. Each of these forms signify a role in a harvest festival at the Autumn Equinox. The festival calls in the winnowing North East wind to soak the winter wheat planted earlier in the month. This is the only time whistling is permitted, at other the times the wind is feared like the devil and is ruinous to the agricultural year. Graves quotes Oh Whistle's dictum “furbis, flabis, flebis” as a warning; “whistle shrill weep long”.
In all this we begin to construe the possibility of our own supernatural sands and their relevant demonic conjurations through sound. The beaches of Norfolk were used to great effect in the 60s' and 70s' adaptations of MR James stories. The dunes of North Devon are the setting for The Shout (both the original story and the film adaptation). Crowley and Neuberg's Arabian nightmare returns to its Devon brethren, though the vision of Graves. The ripples of the exotic have local mirages for us to fantasise upon. Jerzy Skolimowski's 1978 adaptation of The Shout made use of Staunton sands – the largest dune system in England. The psassomere eats away at the marram grass to create a particularly jarring collage of landscape. Staunton Sands was used as a simulacra of Omaha beach for training in preparation for the D-Day invasions. The ciphers Omaha and Utah are employed throughout Ballard's most brutal period of writing as icons of the terminal beach. These are subtle doubles of a fever dream, encroaching stains on England green.
It's not an arbitrary decision that Graves' narrative of the wondering shaman takes place during a cricket match in the grounds of a lunatic asylum. This is the pagan astral of Summerland, invaded by the perverse ceremonies of those liberated from sanity. The character of Charles Crossley has learned how to kill with a shout. He has learned this power during his years in the Australian desert living under the tutelage of aborigines. By a strange coincidence Blake in Ballard's Unlimited Dream Company performs an aboriginal mating ritual with the hole left by a cricket stump on his school playing field. In some ways The Shout parallels Ballard's suburban sperm festival; a nomad priapus copulating with the sanctity of village mores. Crossley seduces Richard's wife by stealing a buckle from her shoe. A trivial possession in the hands of the magician allows him to capture her soul.
As with M.R. James' stories Graves' The Shout is allusive of its author's erudition; the piece is a fictive riddle with carefully placed clues and keys to a deeper gnostic mystery. When Crossley asks Richard if he is aware of a magic that causes death by means of a shout, the hero replies with an intriguing hint, that he has read of a dragon cry heard at May-eve.
Here Graves deliciously opens a Chinese puzzlebox to further apparitional realms. The shriek he mentions comes from a story in the Mabinogion. After Llud inherits Britain as his kingdom it is devastated on three occasions by plagues. The second plague is precipitated by an endless sky battle between two dragons, one white, one red. The shriek of the combat is heard on May-Eve. It causes women to abort their foetuses. Llud is instructed by his favourite brother Llefely how to cure this plague. The cure is clearly an overtly alchemical formula. He must gather the finest mathematicians to survey the land exactly and find the very centre of the country. At this point they must dig a pit and place a cauldron of mead within it. The cauldron is to be covered with a silk cloth. On doing this, the prospectors will be able to see the dragons fighting in the sky above. The dragons will eventually fall exhausted into the pit – no longer in the form of dragons but as piglets. They will drink the mead and full into a stupor, to be wrapped in the silk cloth, enclosed in a stone casket and buried beneath the strongest fortress in the kingdom.
What's also interesting with Llud's dragon war is that it contextualises The Shout with a key concern of Graves' The White Goddess, the May-Eve fertility rites of Northern Europe. The more one explores The White Goddess, the more strange its structure appears – it's a baffling construction, but always compelling – it's also non linear and deeply set in dream time, a smithery of word reverb. It belongs a library of the waking dream, a speculative grimoire of bardic gnosticism. The truth is tantalisingly just out of reach like a levitating grail vessel or a castle in the sky.
In Skolimowski's adaptation of The Shout, Crossley, played by Alan Bates, gives Anthony (renamed from Richard in the story) a demonstration of the efficacy of his killing cry. It blights the immediate terrain, dead sheep fall from the marram grass down the dunes. The scene is curiously reminiscent of Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana, his 1968 documentary in search of Saharan desert mirage myths. In one famous scene the camera pans across the carcasses of cattle. I used this scene a few back as video back drop for a live version of The Dagger Of Bou Said, a track based on Crowley's cry of 10th Aethyr. Crossley in The Shout is the archetypal itinerant charlatan who feeds on scholarly naïveté and steals his muse. Think again the menage a trios between Kelly and the Dees: Dee trades his wife for an angelic language. Of course the overarching theme of The Shout is Graves obsession with the single poetic theme - the relationship between poet, muse and wyrd as a metaphor for the life, death and resurrection of the spirit of the year.
It appears that Oh Whistle served as a premonition for James during a poignant but platonic relationship with the widow of his friend James McBryde. James was, as ever, an asexual wyrd. What's often overlooked is the significance of the location of Parkin's' discovery of his demon whistle and its archaeological and anthropological possibilities. The whistle is inscribed with two phrase “QUIS ESTE ISTE QUI VENIT” and the aforementioned “furbis flabis flebis”. He unearths it at the remains of a former Templar preceptory. Though the fictional location of the Burnstow is based on the Suffolk coastal town of Felixstowe, the Templar preceptory of his imagination seems to be a premonition of another one situated at Garway on Welsh border. Following the death of James McBryde, the author was frequent visitor to Mcbryde's widow Gwendolene, who lived in Herefordshire. In a letter from 1917, it seems they had an unsettling visit to the Templar church at Garway. Of this visit James writes,
"We must have offended something or somebody at Garway I think: probably we took it too much for granted, in speaking of it, that we should be able to do exactly as we pleased. Next time we shall know better. There is no doubt it is a very rum place and needs careful handling."
The church adjoins a farm also built by the Templars. The farmyard houses a huge dovecote also built by the templars and with a sinister qabalistic architecture. The dovecote contains exactly 666 windows. A tocsin shrills long across our desert. Crowley and Neuberg successfully summoned Choronzon by merely sacrificing three pigeons in the Solomonic circle at Bou Saada. God knows what entity the Templars might have been energising with a 222 times more powerful formula of blood sacrifice.
QUIS EST ISTE was spawned from a verse in Isaiah, “who is it who is coming from Edom, wearing the red garments of Bozrah”. What's very curious given Graves' mention of “furbis, flabis, flebis” in his chapter Gwyion's Heresy, is that he then proceeds to riff on the qabalistic cipher of Adam and Edom. He refers to Adam as “the red man” and states that Edom and Adam are one and the same. Graves draws on a record in the Talmud concerning an heretical sect known as the Melechizedekians – essentially an oracular cult that consulted with the shade of this “red man” in a Hebron cave. What can only be speculated is that somehow Graves' assertions occupy the same mythic headspace as Oh Whistle; and that possibly the whistle unearthed by Parkin was employed in the same Eleusinian mysteries that obsess Graves. Jesus as the corn king, calendrical ceremonies to honour his birth, death and resurrection. Gwion's heresy is that we have literalised our relationship with the mill of fate, that we are above nature, and in control. A whistle to propitiate the harvest wind blown at the wrong time would have the adverse effect of invoking a malevolent wind and its consonant murderous siren.
In the metafictional shimmer of overheated connectivity, our occult Western takes the form of a gnostic magnificent seven. Replace the bloody duels and sun glints off spinning pistols with killer sigils: of biblical curses on demon whistles.