Blog, folk horror, folklore, Hellebore, History & Archaeology

Interview in

French journalist, screenwriter, and producer Laurent Coureau interviewed me about Hellebore and folk horror for the veteran e-zine LaSpirale.Org. You can read my interview (in French) here, or the original Q + A (in English) below.

The Iberian Peninsula has its fair share of ancient cults, folk horror and the occult, more often than not in remote rural areas. What brought you to move to Britain in the first place?

As a child I very much lived in a world of my own that seemed very far removed from the beach and the sunny streets of Málaga, where I lived. There was a longing I can’t describe, but reading certain books and watching certain films and TV series filled a void. Most of these were English, concerned with landscape, history and archaeology. Eventually, when I finished my degree and my first job came to an end I thought it was time to move somewhere else, and the answer was very obviously England. I didn’t necessarily think I’d stay, but it’s been 17 years.

In previous interviews, you have mentioned your dad’s books on anthropology, mythology, archaeology and ancient history. What type of cultural environment did you grow up in?

I come from a traditional Spanish family, Catholic on both sides, though not overtly practising. I went to a convent school, where what we read and thought was very closely monitored. The idea of the Devil used to terrify me and keep me awake at night. You’ve also got to consider I was born only a few years after Franco’s death; we’d just come out of a dictatorship. Most of my classmates came from families that were either very right wing or actively Francoist and proud. My parents, on the other hand, have always been socialists (my maternal grandfather was a coalminer in the north), so I was definitely an outcast.

Before me, no one in my family had pursued arts and humanities as a career, and in fact, only my aunt had the opportunity to go to university. But they all enjoyed reading. My mum was a bit of anglophile, and my dad, who worked in a bank, was fascinated by mythology, anthropology, and ancient history, and it inevitably rubbed off on me. He kept little notebooks where he wrote lists for his own reference, so my party trick when I was 5 or so was to recite the Roman Emperors, the Goth Kings, the Greek Muses, the Labours of Hercules and so forth.

My parents always encouraged me to read and write, and I used to make my own magazines and write my own stories, but it was something I did on my own, because I didn’t really know any other kids who liked the things that I liked. Then, when I was 16, I went to study Latin and Greek with a group of seven or eight other students, still in the same school. We were pigeonholed as weird—but this really was the gateway to more meaningful connections for me.  

Re-enchantment seems to occupy a central position in your work and of course within Hellebore. Would you mind going further in-depth with this concept? How we could re-engage with nature and imagine better alternatives though « re-enchantment » ?

We live in late stage capitalism, and the system crushes any ideas that don’t conform with it. Alternative ways of being are often deemed utopias—Mark Fisher called it “capitalist realism”: capitalism seems unescapable, but, in the words of Ursula K Le Guin, “so did the divine right of kings”. It’s important to keep the hope, to think outside the box. By learning about our past and our culture through a critical lens we can imagine alternatives to the system. I believe that the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, are crucial. We are not what capitalism wants us to be, we’re not merely servants of Moloch. Stories shape us. A zine isn’t going to change the world, but it’s part of a larger group of things that can have an impact on people, and therefore on society at large. Capitalism is driven by the pursuit of individual means, and by a profound sense of alienation; but re-enchantment means finding a spark that makes us feel closer to others, and cultivating it. Alone we feel powerless, but if we feel we’re part of a community who share something that isn’t dictated by the system, that isn’t a commodity, we might find hope, and maybe start looking at things differently. Change starts with the stories we tell. We have to keep the fire alive. Telling these stories is a way to resist.

You’ve said you consider Hellebore as a political statement, an act of resistance in face of the current political situation. Which is the reason why you asked David Southwell to write about the political meaning of landscape, and about the role of folklore in fighting fascism. Through mainland Europe, right-wing extremism has been trying to monopolize local traditions and folklores for decades, especially when it comes to ancient cults and the occult. How do you explain this difference between the British Isles and the rest of Europe?

There is definitely a right wing faction here elbowing its way into the folklore revival too, but I think the resistance faction is larger, or at least more vocal—and this opposition, this reclaiming of spaces was certainly one of my aims with Hellebore. In 1970s Britain, the folk and occult revivals were very much linked to countercultural movements and to the emergence of Wicca—which, according to Ronald Hutton, is “the only full-formed religion which England can be said to have given the world”. To me, this kind of counterculture has a very distinctive British flavour, which isn’t to say that similar movements didn’t appear in other countries, but I definitely believe it had a larger prominence here, and a larger cultural impact that is still felt now. The current revival is concerned with other issues that are very much about our relationship with landscape and nature—late stage capitalism, housing, climate change, and so forth.

The beautiful mix of surrealism and psychedelia, the grainy finish of old school zines, the 60’s and 70’s occult magazines and film posters references give altogether a very unique graphic flavor to Hellebore, which seems to resonate through people’s mind these days. Do you feel you’ve touched something of the « zeitgeist », the deep spirit of our age? Something lacking in mainstream culture, lying under the curtain of pop culture?

That’s a very kind suggestion. I can’t claim I’ve felt this way. However, I can’t remember where I first encountered this notion, the idea that when we’re creating something we’re just instruments of something bigger than us, and that we need our self-doubt and our fragile egos to get out of the way in order to truly channel this energy. This is how I feel when I approach something creatively—it never is about yourself, it is about something else. This is why I love the concept of “zeitgeist”, which contains the term “geist”, or “spirit”, because it truly feels like something supernatural and sacred.