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FIONA MA­HER spoke to David South­well about the im­por­tance of place and how he brought a spooky and ‘for­got­ten’ English county back to life through Twit­ter...

Fortean Times - - Contents - Find Hookland and David South­well on Twit­ter: @Hook­landGuide and @cul­tau­thor FIONA MA­HER is the au­thor of The Last Changeling and the Hor­ror in a Hurry series of novel­las. She is the or­gan­iser of The Leg­endary Llan­gollen Faery Fes­ti­val.

FIONA MA­HER ex­plains how a spooky ‘for­got­ten’ Bri­tish county was brought back to life through Twit­ter.

In 1980, as part of their ‘Strange Eng­land’ series, Phoenix Garages pub­lished their guide­book to Hookland. Six years later, as a vic­tim of Mar­garet Thatcher’s re­def­i­ni­tion of Bri­tain’s county boundaries, Hookland van­ished.

With its ‘corpse lanes’ and ‘cun­ning folk’, Hookland was a county that was of­ten de­scribed as ‘lim­i­nal’ or ‘eerie,’ and has since slipped through the cracks in our col­lec­tive mem­ory. All that’s left to show that Hookland ever ex­isted is ephemera such as The Phoenix Guide to Strange Eng­land... None of the above is true. Hookland snags the imag­i­na­tion with sig­nif­i­cant de­tail and fools the un­wary. It is the con­ceit of writer David South­well, and is as thor­oughly trick­ster­ish in na­ture as you might ex­pect from some­one who pre­vi­ously wrote non-fic­tion books about true crime and con­spir­acy the­ory. By 2012, South­well was look­ing for a new di­rec­tion. In a chance con­ver­sa­tion with JG Bal­lard a decade ear­lier, he had been ad­vised to con­cen­trate on writ­ing about place:

I wanted to do some­thing that dealt with the ghost soil of Bri­tain – all the folk­lore, all the high strange­ness that grew and bloomed in the glo­ri­ously strange TV, film and books I grew up with as a child in the 1970s. I wanted to put the weird­ness back. I strongly be­lieve that re-en­chant­ment is re­sis­tance and even back in 2012 you could see how the fight for the na­tional nar­ra­tive was go­ing and how the ghost soil voice needed to be heard more strongly within it.

The idea of a county that never ex­isted was born when South­well cre­ated its map. That rough sketch, cre­ated in just a few min­utes, sug­gested so many pos­si­bil­i­ties that he knew he had found some­thing spe­cial. It suits the odd­ness of South­well’s cre­ation that he be­gan re­veal­ing it on Twit­ter. Over the past five years, lay­ers of his­tory have ac­creted around the cen­tral idea and Hookland has been re­alised in 18,500 tweets. Many peo­ple be­gan fol­low­ing @Hook­landGuide af­ter see­ing South­well’s con­tri­bu­tions to #Folk­loreThurs­day. Us­ing Twit­ter means South­well hasn’t the word count to ex­plain his enig­matic posts. The re­sult is a light­ness of touch that makes Hookland es­pe­cially com­pelling: be­cause ev­ery­thing is sug­gested, it’s up to the reader to fill in the gaps. This de­cep­tively sim­ple de­vice has gar­nered grow­ing num­bers of loyal fans. Any­one with an in­ter­est in folk­lore or English Eerie will find this co-cre­ation de­li­ciously ad­dic­tive.

South­well cred­its lis­ten­ing to the news as a child in the 1970s as a ma­jor in­flu­ence:

The news was dystopian prophecy man­i­fest­ing: oil crises, killing fields, three-day weeks – as if our time it­self was be­ing stolen – Black Septem­bers turn­ing to Cold War win­ters of dis­con­tent. Yet the high strange­ness of the times meant it would cover UFO sight­ings, poltergeists and cryp­tids with ex­actly the same ed­i­to­rial voice of se­ri­ous calm. The news treated the weird as nor­mal and hor­ror as ev­ery­day… I wanted to write some­thing where I could put back all of the weird­ness that has been edited out of cul­tural di­a­logue.

Hookland in all its strange­ness is warped even more by the blend­ing of sci-fi into its land­scape. The Chil­dren of the Hum are a cult of elec­tric­ity py­lon wor­ship­pers, whilst another cult, the Aethe­ri­ans de­stroy py­lons, be­liev­ing they in­ter­fere with ley lines and are a cos­mic mag­net for UFOs bent on tak­ing over the planet. Hookland was hit by a Mid­wich Cuckoo style event when, in 1969, chil­dren at a vil­lage school all be­gan chant­ing: “Pavel Mikoyan is scream­ing on the Moon”. Within 48 hours, identical in­ci­dents were re­ported and all schools were tem­po­rar­ily closed: Pavel was seem­ingly a lost cos­mo­naut. It is weird, fortean strands like this that el­e­vate Hookland from other folk hor­ror re­vival ma­te­rial.

The county is peo­pled by an ex­tra­or­di­nary cast. Where did South­well find their unique voices:

The pop­u­lar De­tec­tive In­spec­tor, Roger ‘Cun­ning’ Cal­laghan, who in­ves­ti­gates any­thing with a whiff of rit­ual or the oc­cult is based on a se­nior ex-Vice and Drug Squad de­tec­tive who was this won­der­ful mix of spir­i­tual in­sight and a polic­ing-with-your-fists 1970s cop­per. My pas­tiches of John Bet­je­man’s non-ex­is­tent BBC TV series The English Al­pha­bet even drew an­gry let­ters to the Beeb and to me from one Amer­i­can Bet­je­man scholar. How­ever, some things are sa­cred to me, be­yond pas­tiche, and Arthur Machen is one of those. I wanted a Machen­like voice in Hookland and so that led to the cre­ation of CL Nolan, an Ed­war­dian writer of strange sto­ries.

The haunt­ing tweets quot­ing CL Nolan are of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by dra­matic mono­chrome shots of bleak land­scapes, tilted at ex­pres­sion­ist an­gles. Nolan’s words are po­etry:

I shunned the church with its bru­tal, fort-like tower for the ser­mon of blos­som fall­ing like soft rain.

Evoca­tive images match al­most every tweet, from clev­erly ma­nip­u­lated book cov­ers per­fectly in keep­ing with the time they were al­legedly writ­ten, to old Bri­tish Rail posters, to al­bum cov­ers by Hookland bands. So why present it as a guide­book?

I have of­ten said Hookland is partly a love-let­ter to Paul Nash and it re­ally is. I chose to tell many of the sto­ries of Hookland through a guide­book for­mat not only be­cause of a child­hood love of guide­books, but be­cause it let peo­ple cre­ate their own joined-up nar­ra­tives from small glimpses. How­ever, that choice was also a di­rect trib­ute to Nash’s 1935 Shell Guide

“I be­lieve that re-en­chant­ment is re­sis­tance... the ghost soil voice needs to be heard”

to Dorset. Nash was this in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful artist who un­der­stood and cap­tured the strange­ness stored in the English land­scape. He had this in­cred­i­ble abil­ity in his paint­ings and pho­tog­ra­phy to play­fully con­nect the past and present through place, man­i­fest­ing not just in folk­lore, but a sense that even dis­tant di­nosaur eras could still be felt in the stones: a sense that pro­found prim­i­tive mys­ter­ies could be glimpsed in dead trees and the plough-bro­ken bar­rows. He di­rectly in­spired me to en­sure that Hookland had a sense of per­sonal mythol­ogy and an­cient Al­bionic mys­tery man­i­fest­ing through place, through an en­vi­ron­ment that ev­ery­one could recog­nise as their own. That ever-present sense that the land it­self is in us, that we en­joy a con­stant re­la­tion­ship to it.

South­well has cre­ated a Hookland ‘bible’ to keep track of the mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters, places and sit­u­a­tions, and its scope is breath­tak­ing. It lists the set­tle­ments of Hookland, down to the drifts, a lo­cal word for those tiny rows of two or three houses of­ten seen on coun­try roads. Ev­ery­thing has been con­sid­ered, from the po­lice author­ity to food. The county pro­duces two cheeses, Stink­ing Tom and Burnt Bishop and a lo­cal del­i­cacy is plate pud­ding and scrap, an elab­o­rate toad-in-the­hole. Thirty va­ri­eties of ap­ple orig­i­nated in Hookland and the lo­cals have a pref­er­ence for pork over any other meat.

This pro­saic de­tail makes a per­fect foil for the over­lay of weird­ness that South­well cre­ates. One tweet speaks of “doomed archæol­o­gist Copeland Blight”, the word doomed con­jur­ing up every cursed arte­fact story you’ve ever read. He wrote this about Hookland’s canal net­work:

The cut has a ma­lig­nant grav­ity that seems to pull un­set­tling sto­ries to it. Drowned ba­bies, eel-eaten corpses found float­ing, strange knocks on the un­der­side of boats at night, all lead­ing CL Nolan to say in a 1933 BBC ra­dio talk: ‘The canals are veins furred with trauma”.

In the oddly but plau­si­bly named vil­lage of Finch­ford Dig­nity, the Black Frog pub boasts a haunted grand­fa­ther clock of which Nolan writes:

There were souls trapped be­tween the tick and the tock. Souls he could hear whis­per just be­fore the chime.

This en­chant­ing ob­ser­va­tion of a clock ‘draw­ing breath’ be­fore strik­ing is sup­ported upon foun­da­tions of com­pelling de­tail; the Hookland ‘bible’ adds that one Ti­mothy Tidy be­queathed the clock to the pub in 1876:

Reg­u­lars will retell the clock’s tale and if a glass smashes, a shout goes around the bar of: “Care­ful Ti­mothy!”

I’ve never heard this in an English pub, but it’s pitch-per­fect; a typ­i­cal lo­cal odd­ity no one pays much heed to any­more but which a vis­i­tor might ask about. Whilst al­most ev­ery­thing is cov­ered in South­well’s com­pre­hen­sive guide, there’s one ob­vi­ous omis­sion: Hookland’s ex­act lo­ca­tion:

It is about 90 miles from [[REDACTED]], a jour­ney that takes two hours and five min­utes on the fastest train and about two and half hours in a fast car if the gods are with you.

Fa­mous peo­ple have been there – Aleis­ter Crow­ley and Sir John Bet­je­man among them – and you can go too, for Hookland is com­mon land and open for any­one to en­joy. South­well isn’t pre­cious about his cre­ation: you can bor­row what­ever parts of it suit you best. You can take what you wish and make of it what you will:

Mak­ing it open means peo­ple can use it in any way they want, which throws up such won­der­ful, un­ex­pected di­rec­tions. I didn’t ex­pect peo­ple to write mu­sic in­spired by it. I didn’t ex­pect some­one would have writ­ten a novel set in it even be­fore I’d fin­ished my own pub­li­ca­tions on the county. I’m glo­ri­ously de­lighted when some­one asks if they can use a CL Nolan quote in a book or men­tion the county in a hor­ror film they are mak­ing. I’m over­joyed when some asks for a vis­ual guide be­cause they want to do Hookland-in­spired graf­fiti or paint por­traits of cun­ning folk that pre­vi­ously only ex­isted in their mind, but that they hadn’t re­alised it till they be­gan walk­ing in the county. I never ex­pected to be in­ter­view­ing peo­ple play­ing their own fic­tional cre­ations that re­side in Hookland be­fore live au­di­ences or sell­ing hand-drawn maps of the county to peo­ple liv­ing in Hol­ly­wood. Hookland is one imag­i­nary place where no one evicts you when you try to build a home there and where no-one ever tells you that there are plan­ning reg­u­la­tions. The only de­cent imag­i­nary places are those that es­cape from their cre­ators and I’m pleased that Hookland is well on the way to that al­ready.

If you re­cip­ro­cate with the same open­ness and al­low oth­ers to build upon your con­tri­bu­tion, it will be­come canon and you will have made your own, last­ing mark upon Hookland. The ‘bible’ runs to around 60,000 words; with all this ma­te­rial, I asked South­well if he’d ever thought of get­ting it pub­lished. There will be at least two lim­ited edi­tion Hookland mini-books out this year fea­tur­ing a mix of orig­i­nal fic­tion, es­says and comics strips as well as a set of the Hookland Hor­ror folk­lore of the county play­ing cards by Maxim Griffin and my­self. There is an an­thol­ogy of other au­thors’ tales set in Hookland in the works al­ready, but the things I re­ally hope to find a pub­lisher for are the Bible and The Guide. Of course, if any­one wants to pub­lish an 80,000word di­alect dic­tio­nary from a county that doesn’t ex­ist, they can have that as well...

I ‘found’ a guide to Hookland in a junk shop in Shrews­bury, and went there to re­search the in­fa­mous Mor­dant fam­ily; lo­cal aris­to­crats who had con­tact with the realm of Faerie long ago. I suf­fered satnav mal­func­tion, be­came hope­lessly lost and dropped my phone so it only took moody, mono­chrome pho­to­graphs. At the time @ Hook­landGuide retweeted my plight with the un­set­tling ob­ser­va­tion: I have a ter­ri­ble feel­ing this will not end well.

I es­caped, even­tu­ally, but Hookland left its mark.

David South­well’s cre­ation has a way of bur­row­ing deep into your psy­che and res­onat­ing with la­tent mem­o­ries; set­ting up a ten­sion that’s dis­turb­ing and com­fort­ing, like stroking an old scar. I doubt I’ll ever be free of Hookland. Then again, I don’t want to be.

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