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An Interview with Stephen J. Clark

Conducted by John Hirshhorn-Smith, © June 2015

Portrait photoStephen J. Clark was born in County Durham. Since first emerging in surrealist journals and exhibitions throughout the 1990s his fiction and illustrations have appeared in publications by Fulgur Limited, Ex Occidente Press, and Side Real Press among others. Regular collaborations with Tartarus Press have notably featured cover illustrations for a complete series of Robert Aickman’s strange tales. In Delirium’s Circle, the author’s debut novel, was published by Egaeus Press in 2012.

John Hirshhorn-Smith: Your visual work is more overtly surrealist than your written. In what ways do you see them inter-relating?

Stephen J. Clark: Drawing for me tends to be spontaneous, whereas my approach to writing requires far more effort and reflection. However, both my writing and visual work serve a similar aim in attempting to engage with “unconscious currents” drawn in part from actual dream memories and also applying a form of associative poetic play. Both in their own differing ways are methods for me to develop a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. I think of my approach to writing and drawing as a kind of waking dream, comparable in some ways to solving a riddle or perhaps closer to play, drawing on memories and desires as raw material in the game.

In fact one of the main motivations for me in my writing is exploring where a certain image will take me, how it will evolve into something unexpected, unearthing unforeseen associations and revelations. I don’t necessarily refer to automatism here exactly as there’s more selection and refinement involved than that. It is the development of a form of thought IMG_0022along analogical or magical lines. In my art and writing, for the last twenty-five years or so, I’ve found myself exploring a kind of private mythology in a sense, with recurring motifs and symbols. Both activities of drawing and writing can have intrinsically magical qualities in that they possess the capacity to enchant, influence and reveal hidden or neglected aspects of experience.

For me what we call the unconscious isn’t just a repository in the human mind, but exists in dynamic relationships between the subject and their language and culture. I’m talking here about things lying dormant or forgotten or latent within language, within memory that can be triggered by certain words or images. So in a sense the unconscious doesn’t only come from within us but also surrounds us, in the world’s forms and in our encounters with others.

JHS: The Satyr’s unseen but central character is the artist Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956). What was it in particular that drew you to him?

The SatyrSJC: Spare is described as appearing only briefly in The Satyr, however he informs the whole novella. The character Marlene’s adoption of the persona of a femme fatale is a key to some of the magical themes played out in the undercurrents of the story. For me Spare tried his whole life to tap and explore the unconscious currents running throughout language, history and culture that influence human behaviour. In some ways it was an affinity with this preoccupation that drew me to his art and writing. Inseparable from that too is discovering his life story, revealed for example in the stories related by his friend Frank Letchford in his book Michelangelo in a Teacup. I’m not interested in viewing Spare as a demigod as some do, but as a fascinating human being who turned his back on an elitist art world to follow his own path. I think there’s a danger of projecting too much of a heroic image onto that story as later on Spare in some respects retreated from life, using his art and writing, his magic, as a way of coping with isolation. At least that’s how it seems to me. I’ve noticed how some people who’ve appreciated Spare for many years discuss him not in terms of reverence as if awestruck, although his art remains striking — no I find they speak of him with fondness as if imagining sharing the warmth of his company over a few pints. There’s a warmth, mischief and humour about Spare that isn’t always acknowledged.

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The River Dreams of Ruins by Stephen J. Clark

satyr23A book’s creation is a story in itself. Perhaps when The Satyr was first published in 2010 there was something in the air at the time, as coincidentally “Austin Osman Spare: Fallen Visionary”, an exhibition at the Cuming Museum in London, opened later that year. A prominent retrospective, it brought about a welcome re-examination of the artist’s work. At the time commentators such as the publisher Robert Ansell (of Fulgur Limited) and the author Alan Moore emphasised the importance of thinking of Spare’s work in relation to his beliefs, ideas and methods, as one might of William Blake or Arthur Machen. It was indicative of a resurgent interest in tracing the links between art and magic, and a re-evaluation too of a tradition within British cultural history, neglected in contemporary criticism, of the supernatural and the imaginary.

Since its release by Ex Occidente Press I’ve felt that The Satyr deserved further development than the original publishing schedule allowed, having agreed to write and illustrate the book within a month. So when the suggestion of this omnibus arose it offered the opportunity to refine the novella, not only in a stylistic sense but in a way that resonated to a greater depth with Austin Spare’s life and ethos. Rather than applying Spare’s ideas with any didactic intent I wanted to discover and explore them in the process of imagining the story, giving its poetry the chance to ferment.

As a result I’ve finally been able to provide a solid conclusion rather than what, in the first edition, I felt amounted to a rushed sketch. I’ve developed other aspects to the story too that I always thought were there all along, that were latent, waiting to be explored, so there are additions that resonate with Austin Spare’s mythology further, making for a richer reading experience. These changes, as a consequence, alter certain emphases and help to integrate and consolidate the themes that run throughout the sinews of The Satyr.

The Author in Tynemouth

Rather than perpetuating the idea of the artist as a supernaturally-gifted genius I preferred in this homage to remember the human being behind the legend by implying his flaws and thereby celebrating his uniqueness and humbleness. While intersecting with recorded events in Spare’s life the story also engages with the mythology of a time and place, tracing its own secret poetic life through that ruined history.

A new edition required fresh illustrations and I executed the drawings in bolder lines to lend emphasis within the tighter frame of this book, superseding the landscape format of the earlier version. In some ways, as the style of drawing differs from the approach I would instinctively take it seems fitting that it is supposed to be the work of another, the sorceress Marlene.

The Bestiary of Communion followed in 2011, having again agreed to complete it to a demanding schedule. The closing story “My Mistress, the Multitude” was published in a rough form as a consequence, so I welcome its replacement here with the definitive version entitled “The Feast of the Sphinx”. While “The Horned Tongue” and “The Lost Reaches” have had minor stylistic improvements here, ‘The Feast of the Sphinx’, has not only been renamed but largely rewritten too, substantially developing a character that originally appeared only as an impression on the margins of the drama. As a result the focus of the story has shifted considerably, delivering the conclusion I always felt the story deserved.

"The River Dreams of Ruins"
“The River Dreams of Ruins”

While working on “The River Dreams of Ruins”, the art for the book’s boards I’d intended to focus solely on the motifs of The Satyr, yet as the painting progressed I realised it had begun to echo the entire collection. The partly-concealed female form that adorns the book’s spine could just as easily be the Countess from “The Feast of the Sphinx” as well as Marlene. And the host of faces that emerge from the flames on the rear panel may be any of the migrant spirits that pass through the tales in these pages. The river depicted could be the Thames of Hughes’ apocalyptic visions, the Danube of Marlene’s dreams or the Vltava that runs through Nemec’s nightmares. There are ruins and dreams and rivers running through all of these stories.

While The Satyr and Other Tales partly serves to salvage these stories, I feel bringing them together in one volume has proved rewarding in another sense, inspired as they all are by shared themes and settings rooted in a mythology of both World Wars.

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