If you’ve been spending any time online in the past few weeks, then chances are good that you’ve heard about Spirits of Place, the new book edited by John Reppion and put out into the world by Daily Grail Publishing. It’s caught the attention of the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Boing Boing, and Blair MacKenzie Blake of ToolBand.net and we’ve even discussed it in the Technoccult Newsletter.
Here’s the synopsis:
Stories are embedded in the world around us; in metal, in brick, in concrete, and in wood. In the very earth beneath our feet. Our history surrounds us and the tales we tell, true or otherwise, are always rooted in what has gone before. The spirits of place are the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse. They are the genii loci of classical Roman religion, the disquieting atmosphere of a former battlefield, the comfort and familiarity of a childhood home.
Twelve authors take us on a journey; a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, and consulted with, these Spirits of Place.
Contributing authors: Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, Vajra Chandrasekera, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kristine Ong Muslim, Dr. Joanne Parker, Mark Pesce, Iain Sinclair, Gazelle Amber Valentine, and Damien Williams. Edited by John Reppion.
And the cover by illustrator Pye Parr:
It is a truly beautiful book with an awe-inspiring writing lineup, and I am honoured to be a part of it.
I got the chance to do a tarot reading for John Reppion, the mind behind both the book and the event Spirits of Place. Beneath the cut, you’ll find his extremely detailed considerations on everything from magick, to art and creativity, to family, to work/life balance, and quite a lot of thoughts about how all of those things intersect.
0 — The Fool: Beginnings. How did you get the idea for Spirits of Place? What risks were necessary in getting it off the ground?
John Reppion: The Fool seems apt. From the very outset I didn’t so much feel like I’d had an idea as I’d discovered one. Calderstones Park is about twenty minutes’ walk from my front door and in recent years, with three young kids, I’ve spent a lot of time there. The park takes its name from The Caldestones—six stones which are the only remains of a Neolithic tomb that once stood on the site. They’re Merseyside’s oldest man-made monument and the most ancient of the weird spirals craved into their surfaces were engraved when mammoths still walked the earth. Whenever we visited the park, I’d drag the kids over to the greenhouse where the Calderstones have resided since 1964 so I could take a peek at what my eldest christened “the boring old stones.” I’ve had a bit of an obsession with them for a good decade or so now. In December 2014 I got one of the spiral designs tattooed in black ink on my right forearm.
Late last year I found out, quite by accident, that you could rent a conference space in the 19th century manor house at the heart of the park. I knew almost immediately what kind of event I thought should be taking place in that space and, within a month or so, I found I was organising that event. With creative stuff, there’s sometimes that weird urgent feeling you get when you realise that you’re on the cusp of something and that if you don’t do it, someone else will. This wasn’t like that. This was a loud and clear “you are the one to do this; you have to make this happen now,” and I honestly didn’t feel like I had much choice in it. I wanted to create something that was a hybrid of an academic conference and some kind of ritual or happening. Somewhere where everyone was channelling some kind of energy from the physical location so that it was truly about being there on that day and being part of something. That’s a big ask, I know, and I can’t remember how explicitly I’d spelled that part of the whole thing to any of the speakers—I just kind of trusted that it would all weave together. And on the day it really did. It was amazing; a really powerful, inspiring, and uplifting thing that even now I don’t feel like I can really take credit for.
Risks involved were really to do with everything being on me. Though the whole thing came together very easily really, there were definitely moments when I was worried about letting people down. Especially those speakers and attendees who were travelling hundreds of miles to spend their Saturday in this fairly innocuous South Liverpool park. Things started to get a bit more hectic as the day of the event drew closer, and I admit I found myself writing much of my own talk at the very last minute. My wife, Leah, helped out massively on the day, single-handedly catering for the entire event and ferrying stuff around. It’s all well and good to just trust that stuff is going to work out, but people helping you out is a huge part of that, of course.
You As You See Yourself — The Nine of Pentacles: Free-spending generosity. How much time and money goes or went into the preparations for Spirits of Place (both the event and the book)?
JR: When I first found out that the room in Calderstones Mansion was available for hire I made some enquiries and found out that it was not cheap. There was never any question of doing it somewhere else however, so I just had to make sure the event would cover the cost. I had no budget whatsoever—the whole thing just being one of those dreaded side-projects that gradually expand to take up more time and energy than your actual paid work—so I more or less just divided the hire cost by the number of seats. Again, this was a risk which could have left me owing hundreds of pounds that I didn’t have, but I was sure (most of the time) that it was all going to work out fine. And it did. I think we were two or three tickets away from selling out completely and all the costs were covered. I never set out to make any money at all from the event, I just wanted it to pay for itself, and it did that. Time wise, the event was something I managed to handle in the background of my main work for everything up to maybe the last month when it took over a bit. The day itself was incredibly draining, but in the best possible way. The closest thing I can compare it to is my wedding day in terms of those heightened emotions and overwhelming positivity coming off everyone.
Greg Taylor at Daily Grail had mentioned the idea of turning Spirits of Place into a book before the event had even taken place, I think. Then in April we started talking about it more seriously. As much as I felt like there was a way of turning that day into a book, I knew that would be too hyperlocal. The event was all about being there in that specific physical space at that specific time, and all us speakers were talking about why we were there. So I decided to go in the opposite direction and make it global instead. Basically, I felt like there was an easy path to take and I deliberately took a different, and more difficult one. One of the first people I contacted was a Japanese Urban Explorer but sadly that didn’t work out because I hadn’t really thought through the whole translation thing, how that might work and how much it might cost. That was really lesson one in putting the book together and made me realise it was going to be very different to doing the event. Getting the right contributors, and the right balance of topics, was more tricky and time consuming than I imagined it might be. Even though it’s only taken seven months to put together, the book has taken up a good chunk of my time during that period. I’m a naturally slow reader and it hadn’t really dawned on me until the articles started coming in that I, as editor, needed to read a whole book over a good few times.
Direct Influence — Page of Wands: New fire and creativity; initiation into magickal rites; a lack of secrets. In addition to Spirits of Place, how did you get started with your work in magick and the occult, more generally?
JR: I’ve not studied magic in any real sense; I’m very much an interested amateur in that just as I am in archaeology, folklore, and history, really. I’m pretty much a 21st century antiquary, to be honest—Jack of all trades and master of none. I’ve always been fascinated with what I call weird history—the strange stories that were attached to all these local places that everyone around me knew, but never seemed to question. The giant’s grave fifteen minutes down the road from my parents’ house, the ghost of the Grey Lady at the Tudor hall where a portrait of the giant hung, the phantom World War 2 planes that would fly over our school playground; all this was stuff I grew up with and accepted. When I began my career in the early 2000s I just started writing about all that, delving deeper into it, and making connections with similar stuff further afield. Urban legend and folklore become one at a certain point, conspiracy theory and occult history too; it all coalesces into one great big ball of weird.
I believe in magic, and I believe art is magic. Creating something out of nothing is magic. While I’m not a student of any particular school, I do feel that I’m a practitioner of a kind of magic. It’s maybe just one level above the everyday kind—the sort most people use without even realising they’re doing it—because I’m spending my time consciously creating and accumulating the materials to enable me to create. You have to be open to possibilities and you have to believe that words and intent have the power to shape realities.
My family has never been religious in the slightest, but there were always prayers in school when I was a kid and occasional trips to church for Easter and Christmas. I was always fascinated by all that. A school hall full of young children intoning the Lord’s Prayer gloomily in unison. A ritual in every sense. Walk down practically any road in Liverpool and there’s a church at one end of it. How can people say they don’t believe in magic when there are magic temples on every street corner?
Nine of Pentacles: It’s interesting that you mention the “Jack of All Trades” moniker, a couple of times, starting here. Both because the Jack and the Page are analogous cards, and because labeling yourself as such denotes a kind of stark self-assessment. What is it that makes you see yourself this way? As curious practitioner, but never true student, let alone Master?
JR: I think, as much as anything, it’s because I seem to know, or see, a lot of people around me who are masters of their craft. Or at least, who seem to be striving for mastery and are headed towards it. I’m not doing any kind of focused forging in one direction, there’s no one thing I want to know everything about more than any other. I’m just interested in stuff and I go where that interest takes me. I’ve been doing that for long enough that lots of these things seem to connect, and I end up having a bit of knowledge of a lot of different things. I don’t think that’s stark self-assessment, as much as just honest really
Your Goal — Two of Cups: Love and the blending of needs; balance and harmony. This card usually means between two people, but can also mean many. How did you go about choosing and blending the voices in Spirits of Place? Additionally, you’re known for your writing partnership with your wife, Leah Moore, whom you mention above; how does that partnership usually divvy up?
JR: Even though I don’t really like to use the word in association with the book, Spirits of Place shares some ground with what people might think of as psychogeographical writings. When you use that word you automatically come up with a list of “usual suspects” writing about certain locations… well, let’s be honest, it’s London, isn’t it? It always seems to be London. I’ve been to London less than twenty times in my entire life and at least half of those were for meetings. It’s two-hundred miles away from where I live, which in England means it’s pretty much a different part of the world (“Americans think one-hundred years is a long time, while the English think one-hundred miles is a long way“). I have nothing against London, but if I’m going to read about places I’m not familiar with, I feel like it’s time to give somewhere else a chance. I’m a white middle-aged Englishman and, again, these are the kind of people the P word is generally associated with. What I wanted to do with the book was to make sure there were a range of voices, experiences, and locations within. That’s not to say that there’s anything scatter-shot about it, and in fact I feel like we managed to get the balance so spot on that there’s more commonality in Spirits of Place than you might get in a book solely about London, or indeed any one location. Where there is overlap between articles it shows shared experience rather than repetition.
The collaboration with Leah just happened naturally. In 2002 we were already living together and she had started writing comics. She got the opportunity to pitch for a series and we started discussing ideas together. By the time the pitch was written it had my name on it too, and when it was accepted I was co-writer. It’s not exactly the best “how to break into comics” story in one sense, but in another “pitch something that someone wants to publish and then write that” isn’t all that bad a piece of advice. When we started out the collaboration was all about taking lots and lots of time discussing and shaping stuff. One person would write something then the other would tweak it then the first would tweak it again, and so on until we were both happy that we had it right. That’s fine if your rent is really cheap and you have no kids—take all the time you want! Now we have a mortgage and three kids, so the process is a lot different. We’re both a lot more experienced and confident in our abilities these days too, of course. We tend to employ a bit more of an “assembly line” type strategy to our collaborations these days, where one part of the job is done by one of us and then it’s handed over to the other so they can do their bit. It still varies from project to project though.
Recent Past — Ace of Swords: The start of a new way of thinking; clear thought about a source of conflict and pain. What recent problems and challenges have you had to cut through, in the past several months? What new challenges has this project provided you?
JR: Work/life balance is tricky with the kids and up until a month or so ago Leah has been fairly solidly busy for a long time with a project that’s required her do a lot a training and meetings away from home. That’s all just on going “real life” stuff that makes the job of sitting down to make stuff up that bit harder. As simple and easy as being a writer seems—and even can genuinely be at times—it’s not something you can just clock in and out of. There’s no point in doing a shitty job on something if you’re having a bad day, because that’s going to cost you future work. And people are going to see your shitty work.
Greg at Daily Grail has been amazing throughout the process of putting the book together and he’s done all the really hard work—spotted far more typos and errant punctuations than I have, done all the typesetting, and so much more—but I do feel like I’ve learned a lot. It’s interesting to have been an editor and to be the one sending those emails that I’m so used to receiving. Little things like sending people lists of proposed changes rather than docs with Track Changes on, because I find it really passive-aggressive when I get my work back covered in crossings-out. Like I said, just doing all the reading was a challenge that I hadn’t really thought through, and reading the stuff critically, with an eye on spellings and punctuations. You do that with your own work instinctively (although sometimes you skim your own stuff accidentally because you already know it), but you have to pay extra attention and be more focussed with other people’s work, I think. The whole thing has been a challenge, but ultimately an enjoyable one.
Four of Cups: Passivity; downtime; boredom; loss due to inaction. Between 3 and 4, it seems like SoP was not one of those projects were you and Leah collaborated, as such—like it was more of a solo project, for you—and there are obviously projects of hers on which you don’t contribute. For a collaborative team, and familial unit, how do you support each other, when you’re not directly involved in the work of the moment?
JR: Yeah, the book has been a solo thing for me, but me having the time to do that really stemmed from Leah’s involvement in Electricomics, which has been going on for a few years now. She’s been really busy with that doing training and meetings away and loads and loads of administrative and managerial stuff so there wasn’t much time for collaboration. That’s how it usually works; it’s we’re both free to do so then we do our collaborative work but if one of us is busy with something solo, the other will find something else to do. It all happens pretty organically (when it’s working well) but it can be tough with the kids and everything. Work/life balance is really tough when you have three kids under seven and you work form home, but we manage. Just about
Further Past — The Emperor: The Patriarch; structure; law and order. Your Father-In-Law is one of the most well-known public-facing magicians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. How far back does your magical influence on each other go?
JR: The Emperor of Ice-cream. Alan is a wonderful father-in-law (and a wonderful grandfather to the kids) but we don’t see him and Mel all that often. They’re down in Northampton and we’re up here in Liverpool. We have a big family holiday all together once a year, and maybe meet up three or four other times. I’ll speak to him on the phone now and again and we usually have a good chat, but I’m not in constant contact with him.
The first time I ever met Alan properly would have been when Leah and I had gone down to stay at his. Either I made the mistake of accepting the offer of a go on Alan’s joint, or else the tarry cloud of dope-smoke which fills his living room by the time evening rolls around just got to me, but I remember him telling some anecdote or other in quite a booming and expressive way which suddenly scared the shit out of me. He’s very theatrical when he’s telling a story, and I think it was that intensity coupled with the unfamiliar surroundings—all the ceremonial magical stuff, the Austin Osman Spare drawing that hangs on the wall, the Kaballah tree of life stained glass window behind his knackered armchair—that was all, suddenly, a bit much.
He’s been instrumental in my becoming a writer of course, albeit indirectly via Leah at first, and his idea of art as magic is, as I’ve said, very much one I subscribe to. Steve Moore, who I sadly only met once at Alan and Mel’s wedding, but emailed back and forth with a few times, was the person who taught Alan how to write comics and who he did much of his magical research and practices with. Again, indirectly, Steve is the person who made it possible, via Alan, then Leah for me to be a writer. Since Steve’s death in 2014 I don’t know how much ceremonial magic stuff Alan actually does any more. I think it’s more about working via his writing at this point—Jerusalem is an incredibly powerful bit of magic, of course.
One of the first ever foreign conventions I went to was in Lisbon. I was approached at the bar by someone who asked me “You are one of Alan Moore’s people?” Alan, of course, wasn’t at the convention, so it seemed a weird (not to mention oddly phrased) question. Now though, I’m quite happy to think of myself as “one of Alan Moore’s people”, in as much as I feel like the world he has created around himself and the one I have created around myself have a very significant amount of overlap. Not just in terms of family, but in terms of our beliefs, our interests, and our humour. He’s very funny guy.
Near Future— Eight of Cups: Emotional Excitement; movement and dynamic change. Does this moment feel stable, or like you’re on the cusp of something else? Like there’s something more to come very soon? Is this moment one of satisfaction at something you’ve built or of the itching anticipation of something building?
JR: I’ve almost passed through the short stage of intense satisfaction one gets when you complete a project (although in this case I’ll have a book in my hands in the next few days, rather than months hence, so that will probably cap that off nicely) and moved on to the exciting, yet worrying stage of wondering what people are going to think of it. I’ve got Spirits of Place, and graphic novel adaptation of M. R. James’ ghost stories which Leah and I have written as things which I’m very excited about and want to talk about and tell as many people as possible but, other than that, it feels like 2016 is kind of crawling towards the finish line. Not necessarily in a bad way. I just feel like the pressure is off now that December’s here. I’m anticipating some kind of fresh start in the New Year. New projects, new horizons, and all that.
Ace of Wands: Brand new Fire and Creativity. These cards are basically meant for each other. The reviews are in, and people are talking about it: How are you feeling about what you’ve constructed, and what are you inspired toward next?
JR: I’m very proud of the book. Very pleased, and amazed, that we managed to get such a good looking thing together in such a short time. People are saying nice things. Yeah, it’s all looking good. The idea of making this a multi volume series has always been there but that’s something sales will dictate really.
You As Others See You— Three of Pentacles: Mastery of Skill— Spiritual, practical, performative. Some would see this conjunction of book and public performance as the pinnacle of your art, a culmination of multiple cultivated threads of planning and action. What do you think this looks like? What is “mastery,” to you, and what would you say you have left to master?
JR: Ha, I refer you to my earlier comment that I’m a Jack of all trades and master of none. I don’t know if I feel like I’ve mastered anything. I’m genuinely struggling to think of something I’ve done where I thought “that was it! perfect!” beyond learning to ride a bicycle when I was a kid. Maybe that’s why I love riding bikes to this day; it’s the only thing I ever mastered. With writing I don’t think you ever stop learning. Every new thing you write teaches you something else, helps to hone and refine something. It’s possible to get a piece of writing absolutely spot on but that doesn’t mean you’ve mastered writing, just that you’ve perfected that one piece.
Public speaking is something I’d like to get better at. Like most people I don’t like the sound of my own voice much, but I like the idea of being able to transmit my writing aurally with my own intended nuance. So yeah, I suppose that’s something I could master in as much as I could perfect my public speaking technique. I should probably work on that.
What does mastery look like? Effortless is the word that comes to mind. When someone does something and makes it look like it took no effort at all. But things always do so, in a sense, I suppose mastery is the art of hiding your efforts and making difficult things look easy.
Further Future— Queen of Cups: Someone with secret wisdom; deep mystery. It’s hard to formulate a question about future mystery. What do you have hidden? What can you hint at for what comes next, after this iteration of Spirits of Place? Who is your keeper of mysteries?
JR: Right now, I suppose Colin J. McCracken is the keeper of mysteries in as much as he and I have one of these “secret” projects on the go together. It’s a deep, dark and mysterious topic we’re hoping to delve into but we’re still in the very early stages. It’s already got weird though with some unsettling co-incidences and incidents which seem to be linked to the idea. It’s one of those things where I have already caught myself wondering “is this something I should maybe leave alone?” But no I’m still thinking I’ll probably rush headlong like the fool off the cliff into it anyway.
In terms of Spirits of Place, I don’t really know. There may be another event. There’s certainly plenty of scope for that one way or another. A second book if this one does well? Only time will tell. It’s definitely going to go on in some form but the exact nature of it remains a mystery at this point.
Emotional/Mental State— Seven of Swords: Struggle. The Golden Dawn label for this card was “Unstable Effort.” What has been the most frustrating part of this process, for you? What more general frustrations have you had to overcome?
JR: Time. Just finding the time to sit down and focus is a challenge. As with the event I wish I’d had more time to put into my own contribution to the book too. Hardly anyone was late turning their articles in for the book and those who were kept in good communication and we were able to work around. Having written for anthologies before, that was the bit I was dreading; having to hound people for their pieces, or ask them to re-write stuff, but that didn’t really happen. So really, my own shortcomings are the only real frustrations. I suppose one of the problems with doing all these different things all the time is that although I’m learning and thinking “I know how I’d do that better next time,” I then move on to something different instead. Just call me Jack.
Ultimate Outcome— Knight of Swords: Questing; drive; pushing forward. Has this work tapped into a particular sense of purpose, for you? What new goals and projects do you see developing out of all of this? What do you see SoP becoming?
JR: Putting a book together is different to how I imagined it might be, but not quite so hard. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with making sure you’re working with the right people. So yeah, I think I might like to edit and organise other books in the future. Perhaps fiction, or even comics next time. Maybe.
I suppose one thing that Spirits of Place has taught me is that I can do whatever I choose to do. I don’t have to work within certain boxes. I don’t have to be “just” a comic writer, or a Weird Fiction author, or an essayist, I can do all of those and this other stuff too. However, does that really make sense with all the lack of time, mortgage to pay, and kids to support mentioned above? Maybe if just I picked one of these things and stuck with it I could master it and make my millions at last.
As I said at the beginning, I felt like Spirits of Place kind of picked me as the person to make it happen rather than it being an idea I came up with. I’m sure it/they’ll let me know what the next step is when the time is right.
The Sun: Simplicity, innocence, and joy; new perspectives. What is clearest to you, right now, at the end of all of this?
JR: Much of the writing I do is assigned, or done to order—people want something about a certain subject, or they want you to use a certain character, or type of character—but Spirits of Place has been something that’s grown purely out of personal interest. As such, there have been times when I’ve worried it might be some kind of vanity project, or too niche, but now I feel like it’s definitely something that has mass appeal. I suppose what that proves is that if you have an idea you believe in, it’s worth going for. That sounds pretty corny really and like a wishy-washy piece of advice, but in this context it’s true. Undoubtedly what made it easier to bring this idea to fruition was the involvement of Daily Grail from the start, but it was also all about setting parameters; deadlines and word-counts and all that. Actually turning an abstract idea into a series of boxes that needed to be ticked, jobs to be done, made it achievable and I definitely feel like that’s a good way to push forward.
Thank you again to John Reppion for taking the time to give such in-depth, considered answers to these questions. Spirits of Place is available, now, in three different formats:
- Limited Edition Hardcover (first 100 of a total run of just 200 copies) , signed by Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Joanne Parker, and John Reppion.
- Paperback edition, available on Amazon (and other online booksellers).
- Kindle eBook version.
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