Cover: Kirsty Stevens – Charcot Brain Skull, 2016
The Call is a new zine project that I started publishing just this week, both as an A5 stapled together risograph printed paper version and also online as a WordPress designed website. The zine is devoted to art and speculative literature, a genre that can mean different things to different people. In this first issue I ask a few artists and writers for their own definition of this somewhat nebulous term. I personally take “speculative literature” to mean anything that deals with a kind of unreality that could never happen in the so-called “real world”, but then I also argue that even this definition can be fucked around with as any artist or writer might see fit. The Call brings together some of these selected creative types and also invites correspondence from anyone with artistic or literary interests. Please send anything, however relevant or otherwise, to firstname.lastname@example.org
“IF THERE IS A GOD, GOD IS DISJUNCTION AND MADNESS.”
– Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School
A mirror is smashed into a thousand glittering pieces that each reflect our psychic environment. It is the contention of The Call that the genre of Speculative Fiction might show reflections from far beyond the cosplay and role play addled world of received ideas. Beyond sci fi, fantasy or horror, the form should be ever prepared to take on those subjects whose very existence remains beyond our collective ken. We hereby present our inaugural issue as an attempt to gather together a few scattered shards, thus glimpsing what the realist majority cannot ever hope to see. The view outside our window may be dismal and grey but there is another world inside the head that contains infinite wonder. The Call is but a neatly folded and stapled together map of this fractured land.
Ben Robinson, editor
Jim Colquhoun – The Psychomorphologists, 2019
ENTROPY WITH PINES, WATER AND MONUMENTAL INACTION
I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness, an entropic mood of decay, systems running down to disorder and finally a numbing sameness, as my thoughts, which a deep and apparently dreamless sleep had dissolved, began again to resume crystalline forms, the strange events of the foregoing day presented themselves anew to my wondering consciousness.
“It is a very strange place, but I scarcely know how to convey the impression it made upon me. It will all sound so simple and ordinary. There is nothing but disordered pines and shaggy moss-covered boulders. The stream running slowly, and more slooooowwly, forms a stagnant pool there of some considerable extent, from which some sickly-looking trees seem to fling themselves backwards, as if unwilling to approach it, a dead willow leans above the pool, tangling its wan skeletal reflection with the green scum that mottles the pond.”
Cracked, broken, shattered the walls threatened to come crashing down. Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration, rock creep debris, mud-flow sliding to avalanche everywhere in evidence. The grey sky seems to swallow up the trees as fractures and faults spill forth rotting debris. It is a drowned region, heavy with rot and an infinity of surfaces spread in every direction, a chaos of conglomerates attempting to engulf us.
Then, as an eliding light slurs down to mossy wet oblivion and dishevelled figures stumble around like tranquillised Antelope a scurf of detritus invades this lost forest – a rim of plastic, styrofoam, nylon thrown up by ominous tidal surges, deeper in there is only brown green dank, a catastrophe of blown-down pine’s, a post-apocalyptic vacancy filled with twittering, cawing and a distant booming rumble. It is bigger on the inside this place, big enough to swallow up these tiny figures and everything they represent. They gather in a glade cum swamp and divest themselves of their clothing, their bits and bobs and unencumbered they move into the interior, pale beacons illuminating the gathering dark.
O.B. De Alessi
I didn’t really have a definition of speculative fiction until you made me think about it. I could say that, to me, speculative fiction is any fiction that is created when its author wants to answer questions which can’t be answered in the factual world. Thus, the author has to go somewhere beyond the realm of the factual to find the answers. I keep thinking that it is a process that is rooted in belief. One doesn’t necessarily have to believe in ghosts to write about ghosts — but while writing about them, one has to create a special place where ghosts do exist.
I’ve gravitated towards horror and fantasy fiction since I can remember. It’s a territory that I feel at home in and that I keep coming back to, sometimes unconsciously. There’s nothing like being completely immersed in a horror book and letting yourself truly believe what you’re reading. There’s nothing like experiencing that kind of fear — which is very real, as it is felt in your guts — but it is also pleasant, comfortable and, looking back at it, incredibly inspiring. It’s something that happens often when you’re a child, less so as an adult. I think this is what I find most inspiring about speculative fiction. That it offers to take the reader or the viewer on a journey to worlds where anything can happen and where, for this reason, one can feel much freer. It’s a bit like dreaming. Without the filter of reality imposing over them, emotions are channeled in a much more extreme and creative way.
One example of speculative fiction that has changed my way of thinking would definitely be Dante’s Divina Commedia. Apart from just being an incredible work of literature — and I will assume you all know what it is about —I find it incredibly inspiring on a structural level. Speaking of books that take you on a journey, this narrative epic poem definitely accomplishes that on so many levels. There is an illustration that describes the way the Inferno is laid out. When I’m planning a new project, I seem to have this image almost constantly in my mind. If you haven’t read it, read it (and not just the Inferno!)
As a child one of my favourite activities was to make up characters around which I would create narratives that I then acted out through pretend playing. These characters were often inspired by fictional characters I had either read in books or seen in films. Often, the books or films I was inspired by were of the fantasy or horror kind, as I liked my characters to have some kind of supernatural power.
Sometimes I liked them to not be human at all. As an adult, I sort of kept doing the same thing except that I moved on from pretend playing to similar activities that are considered more acceptable for a grown up — such as performance art and film. In my performative work I continued creating characters and worlds that reference — and sometimes even directly quote — other characters and worlds from literature and film. The space that I create through performance art is very fluid and so are my characters — they time travel, space travel, they are gender fluid. In a way, my performative pieces are themselves works of speculative fiction.
Speaking as a filmmaker, my work is incredibly, and probably very obviously so, inspired by speculative fiction, also considering that both of my films, Kuo’s Eyes (2017) and MUDMONSTER (in pre-production) are of the horror/dark fantasy genre. I don’t want to give too much away as the film hasn’t even been shot yet, but especially in the latter there are very specific literary references inherent to the plot all the way through. Still, these days I am actually very much influenced by reality. I love watching documentaries and I always read the news. I actually find that reality is very often crazier and more frightening than fiction.
I would recommend anything by H. P. Lovecraft but it’s highly likely that my friend James Champagne has already covered that area. So I’ll recommend J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904), which is actually a play. I know most people will probably think, ‘Peter Pan, how boring!’ I invite these people to pick up a copy (there are actually several Peter Pan books, and all of them tell remarkably different and interesting stories — the play is the closest to the story we know from the various film adaptations) and read it. It’s an incredibly dark, allusive, crazy story. Definitely not for kids only. Plus, he can fly! I also recommend Jules Verne’s work in general but especially Journey to the Centre of The Earth (1864) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870). I will also recommend The Sandman comic book series by Neil Gaiman. I have not read a ton of comic books, though I like to make my own comic books occasionally, but this one is truly great. One last book, which again can be labelled as mere ‘children’s literature’ but that I think everyone should read at least once in their lives is Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972). It’s amazing how a book about rabbits can be so emotional, sad, angry and make you think so much. The end is devastating.
David Reid – Desire Eyes, 2016
I think I can sum speculative fiction up in one word: adjacent. It’s a wonderful, somewhat clinical word I’ve noticed shooting up the last few years. It tends to describe a thing that is like something else, but not alike enough to pass without comment, and not unalike enough to merit a full description. I don’t know how it made the leap from mathematics to common usage – if I was to guess I’d say via political discussion, to describe ideologies that’re distinct in their own ways but in the wider context blend into each other. Left-wing and left-adjacent, right-wing and right-adjacent. It’s such a useful shorthand, because if you know the context of the discussion, you know exactly what it means, while still allowing for vagueness. I use it constantly now, and rarely with a straight face. My fries are burger-adjacent. My network of friends of friends is friends-adjacent. Speculative fiction is as if instead of facing North, South, East or West, you turn your mind in a completely new direction at right angles to how things really are and ah, well, oh no, oh dear. Something’s happened. Things are exactly as they were, only they’re very exactly not; they’re reality-adjacent.
The flexibility you have when you’re a writer dealing with speculative fiction is tremendous. Because the reality-adjacent is by default more vague than genre writing, which comes with its own genre conventions and tropes. That’s not to downplay genre writing, by the way – conventions and tropes lay down familiar ground so the writer can take the reader into unfamiliar territory, but they can also border off that territory. You can write a horror story with an unexpected hero, but the unspeakable monster must always be the antagonist. You can write a classic sci-fi alien invasion, but without enough hard science to back up your fiction, you break the strong and credible ties to reality that gives that genre its appeal. Whereas with speculative fiction, the unspeakable monster can also be a regular joe going through a rocky relationship break-up, and what ties your story to reality isn’t necessarily going to be how likely it might someday be, but how the sheer unreality of the situation allows for new approaches to familiar emotions.
What is an example of this genre that changed your way of thinking?
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series rewired me from top to bottom. Many people would argue it’s too blatantly part of the fantasy genre to fit into what I think of as speculative, and it certainly has its fair share of traditional fantasy tropes: trolls, witches, dwarves, duelling gods and quests, all the rest. But Pratchett’s first dabbling with the Discworld idea took place in his sci-fi novella Strata, an irreverent piss-take of space operas, and the series proper began as an irreverent piss-take of dungeons-and-dragons fantasy. So right from the beginning he wasn’t necessarily writing reality-adjacent work, but he was definitely writing genre-adjacent work. And as the series progressed and the recurring characters broke free of their trappings, the Discworld became more and more like our own world, narrowing that gap between reality-adjacent and genre-adjacent. Near the end, it was even possible for him to write the Science of Discworld books, in which a group of wizards accidentally create our reality, and in doing so learn about the hard science that governs our universe – effectively reversing how Discworld was created in Strata, without once breaking the internal rules of this world he’d created. So the wonderful thing about the characters in Discworld is, they’re all ridiculous fantasy aliens with increasingly human minds and hearts, governed not exclusively by science, magic or gods but ultimately by the stories we tell ourselves. That fluidity and flexibility with genre and our subjective relationship to reality cracked open what I thought storytelling was. And at such a young age. Far too young, probably.
Explain how speculative fiction has informed your own work.
It’s nigh unreadable. I jest! But it does alienate some folk (hi mum!) who prefer their fiction on the believable end of the spectrum. But for others, I hope it expresses and connects feelings or ideas they’ve not seen expressed quite so, elsewhere. For me, I guess, it makes it fun to write. If you asked me to sit down and write a three-thousand word story about a love triangle, I wouldn’t make it beyond the first page without fucking with it somehow, a supernatural mystery or a parallel dimension or a literal sentient triangle looking for The One. Or if you asked me to write a trilogy about elves, by the end of the first paragraph they’d be ditching the swords and sorcery to run a scammy start-up selling their mystical jewellery on the dark web.
And they’d all be queer. That has less to do with the genre and more to do with me, but you bet if I wrote a story about ordinary humans living their ordinary lives and every single one of them is queer, you’ll get people complaining that’s unrealistic when it’s really not, it’s just a decision of where the writer wants to direct your focus. Whereas if those scammer start-up elves are all queer, well, they’re fairly fey to begin with, so you’re more likely to slide queer themes under the radars of folk who might be unresponsive to that.
Ultimately, speculative fiction lets you do whatever you want, in whatever genre you want, and the only restriction is you have to take the reader with you. It’s difficult, it’s risky, it’s often very ludicrous, but that’s the most important thing about this sort of storytelling – using reality-adjacent ideas to push at the edges of what we know we can feel, and feel we can know.
What examples of speculative fiction would you recommend to readers of The Call… or to anyone else for that matter?
Terry Pratchett, of course – if you don’t fancy devouring the entire Discworld series, his standalone book Nation distills all his ideas on fantasy, theology, science and storytelling into an alternate reality shipwreck story, and what I consider his best work. And anything at all by Ballard, who was such a genius he invented his own personal tropes and figured out how to recycle them across all of his works – but The Drought is perhaps my favourite because of a particularly wild turn at the midway point. All the classic dystopias – 1984, Farenheit 451, Brave New World – are fine but as time goes on they’re increasingly a bit fuddy-duddy, like your uncle with the questionable politics going on a rant after reading too much Reddit. So as a counterpoint I’d recommend Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston and Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing. Every single one pushes at what’s possible within genre writing, whether ideologically or emotionally.
Amy Jones – Rock Hard, 2017
How old are you? Twenty-one. Ah, beautiful. How old are you? I asked. Thirty-five, he said. You’re going to Chicago? Yes, to visit a friend. Come home with me. You can get a cab to your friend’s later. Where does your friend live? Evanston, I said. Ah! I live there, too. When he placed a hand on my leg, I flinched. Don’t worry, he said, I don’t bite. When I came to the next morning, naked and wrapped in expensive high percale sheets that were not mine, my clothes hidden as if in a movie from the 1940s, where the boy gets the girl by wit and subterfuge, there was a curious taste in my mouth, the taste of copper. Digging around in my mouth with a dirty finger, my nails crescented with working class dirt, it only took a moment to determine the blood was my own.
To me life in general seems to be very, very strange, and in the course of one’s span on this mortal coil it’s not uncommon to experience all manner of odd, uncanny and inexplicable events and phenomena that make a mockery of scientific logic and defy all rational explanation (this is especially true for those who dabble in the occult or who partake in religious practices). “The Universe is a Haunted House,” to quote a Coil song title. I suppose a pat answer would be that as far as I’m concerned “Speculative Fiction” is just an honest realism, or an effort to capture existence (human or otherwise) in all its eldritch and hydralike complexity (as opposed to Naturalism, which mainly concerns itself with a rational and Apolline portrayal of reality). Actually, I almost think that Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classification of a “Spiritual Naturalism” is a term that fits the genre better than “Speculative Fiction,” but that is, of course, a matter of personal opinion.
Many of the figurative veins that Speculative Fiction taps into and channels are Surrealism, the Irrational, Dreams and the Oneiric, Plutonian Mysticism, Depth Psychology, Angelic Chaos, the Astral Light: all emblematic of Creativity, Imagination, and Dionysian Ecstasy. It’s only natural that a sensitive and aesthetic dandy such as myself would be drawn to this particular medium of artistic expression!
I suppose the most natal influence would be the Holy Bible, or the bits and pieces that got transmitted to me during the church services of my childhood; virgins giving birth, water changing into wine, women transforming into pillars of salt, seven-headed dragons rising from the ocean like something right out of a Saturday afternoon Japanese monster movie, all of these things and more captured my imagination as a child and somewhat molded me into a vessel receptive to such influences from the Beyond. In a way the Bible was humankind’s first great Surrealist work of art. Around the same era I also read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the first time… actually that was one of the very first books I ever read, which probably explains a lot. It seemed to me to be a more accurate portrayal of what the world was really like than most so-called “realistic” works of art.
Many of my books and stories, even those set in what we think of as the real world, often feature a sort of bleedthrough between dimensions, in which the rational waking world is invaded by the inhabitants of the Realms of the Unreal (to nick a phrase from Darger). As Arthur Machen wrote at the end of his story “N,” “I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration. It is possible, indeed, that we three are now sitting among desolate rocks, by bitter streams … And with what companions?”
In terms of dead writers (on the horror side of Speculative Fiction at least) I would cite H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, John Bellairs, Poe (for the science fiction side you could say J.G. Ballard, Octavia Butler, William S. Burroughs, and sundry others)… regarding living writers working in the realm of horror, I think the Big Three are Thomas Ligotti, Ramsey Campbell, and Caitlín R. Kiernan, though I also rate very highly Mark Samuels, Reggie Oliver, J.R. Hamantaschen and Daniel Mills. Other living writers who work in the uncanny (be it horror, science fiction, fantasy, or just the generally unclassifiable) who I would recommend would include Stephen R. Donaldson (best known for his Thomas Covenant fantasy series, but I think his lesser-appreciated Gap Cycle is perhaps the greatest science fiction space epic ever written), Samuel R. Delany, Justin Isis, Quentin S. Crisp, Brendan Connell, Damian Murphy, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Junji Ito and various others who I’m sure I must be forgetting.
Mairi Lafferty, I Create As I Speak, 2010 8mm film, silent (film still)
I like what Margaret Atwood said about speculative fiction, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen”.
I see it as fiction that reaches out past imagination to tap into something fundamental, something real, but for which there is no clear articulation. For me, speculative fiction supposes that the same things happen over and over again; that we don’t learn; that we are not alone and that there are other beings, forces, elements out there that are imbued with the same baffling polarities as we are. Under the Skin by Michel Faber is a great example of this – not destruction for destruction’s sake (good vs evil), but the pursuit of luxury, the opportunity to grasp it and the lack of any sense that it is wrong to destroy things in the process. A perfect description of humankind.
I like that there is often no boundary between science fiction and the supernatural within speculative fiction – that they often exist within the same narrative. These two things are from the same root, what we call science now was often God or some spiritual event or action in the deep dark past. We are storytellers, it’s how we construct memories, how we process the everyday (think of dreams – the process and how we remember them). As artists, we deal in narrative all the time, either to illuminate the process by which we make our work (the transformation from material or idea into artwork), or because the narrative is the artistic process itself. When faced with things that make no sense to us – which cannot be explained – we will always resort to creating a narrative.
That we often discard these once we understand that theoretical or physical explanation is a shame – it’s happening again, with the digital world… look at the rise of narrative content.
I am not sure that speculative fictiont has ever changed my way of thinking, it has given me an outlet, a legitimate way to explore ideas of parallel realities, of spirituality and science as an observer rather than a participant. This has been invaluable, especially in my most recent project, Tongues. There is something deeply recognisable in speculative fiction for me. I grew up in a spiritual household, so I have a language for that and the supernatural. Speculative fiction gave me a way of applying that knowledge and those techniques across my creative practice.
I find a great comfort in the cyclical nature of things. Speculative fiction deals in cycles, in the reoccurring nature of things in different contexts and there is something fundamentally human in it. Our human phycology is cyclical, and our natural cycles. Our human-made systems are cyclical, based on and interacting with the natural world’s cycles. Speculative fiction takes this thread and winds it through our world and out into myriad potential others.
I remember a tutorial when I was studying for my masters. I said that I felt I didn’t know enough about the subject I was looking at for a project, “I could do a degree in this, then I think I’d know enough”. My tutor challenged me, why would I want to do that? Surely the most interesting thing about my making work on this is that I don’t know about it? What would my being an expert in this field bring to the project that would make it any better as an artwork?
This sums up the ways in which it informs my work. I don’t have to know the future or the past, I can imagine it, I can draw a line from this point to that point and start building out from there. It has provided a confidence to create, building on what I know, and then out into what I don’t.
A speculative fiction list by Mairi Lafferty:
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Under the Skin by Michel Faber
The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood (assuming you’ve not read the Handmaid’s Tale)
La Dame Ovale by Leonora Carrington
Though not speculative fiction, I would suggest Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future
Kirsty Stevens is a designer based in Falkland, Fife, and is the founder of Charcot, a surface pattern design label inspired by Multiple Sclerosis. Brain Skull was designed using an MRI scan of her brain showing lesions caused by MS.
Instagram & Twitter – @charcotstudio
Jim Colquhoun is an artist and writer. His work seeks to negotiate the boundaries between art and life, waking and dreaming, fiction and fact. To this end he produces drawings, installations, performances and texts.
O.B. de Alessi is a visual artist, director, writer and actor from Italy. Her films include Kuo’s Eyes and the forthcoming MUDMONSTER.
David Reid is a visual artist based in Edinburgh, where he creates drawings, paintings and miscellaneous art objects.
Ryan Vance is a writer, editor, proofreader and general literary busybody based in Glasgow. He has a penchant for speculative fiction and queer representation.
Amy Jones is an artist, curator and co-founder of the Dundee Print Collective. She is interested in collaborative practices as a way of making, often creating opportunities to explore ideas in dialogue with others. Her approach is underpinned by utopian principles of camaraderie and co-operation.
James Nulick is a writer based in Seattle, Washington USA. He is the author of Distemper, Valencia and the forthcoming collection Haunted Girlfriend. OUT Magazine once called him “a mashup of Nabokov and Larry Clark.”
James Champagne is a writer of weird fiction. Based in Rhode Island USA, he is the author of Confusion, Grimoire, Autopsy of an Eldritch City and the recently published Harlem Smoke.
Mairi Lafferty is an artist working with moving image and sound. With roots in folklore, the mystic and the mythic utopian ideal, her interest is in pattern, code and gesture as a way of building destructive and untrustworthy narrative.
p.s. Hey. It’s with excitement and honor that the blog transforms itself this weekend into a red carpet leading to Ben ‘Black_Acrylic’ Robinson’s brand new and fascinating zine ‘The Call’. Among with its many beckoning calls are words and work by some artists that this place is proud to call community members: O.B. De Alessi, James Nulick, and James ‘Sypha’ Champagne. Please spend your local time this weekend exploring the zine’s tempts, and please do speak to Ben/_B_A in the comments about your thoughts and discoveries. And snap up a physical copy while you’re at it. Thanks very much, and the mega-est thanks to you, Ben! ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey, my pleasure. Cool re: the Eurovision post. I did do a post on Ryan Trecartin several years ago. I was going to restore it, but his current gallery seems to have made him remove almost all of the videos he had online, so the post was irretrievably kaput. But Ryan is one of my very, very favorite video/filmmakers and artists, and I think he’s a genius. So either you can do a post on him, if you like, or I will see if I can put together a new post using what’s out there. I don’t know Bob Wade. Let me help you ask the assembled. Everyone, A question from Corey. Can you help him? Corey: ‘[D]oes somebody here know or know of film editor Bob Wade? I saw his name in the credits of several Robbe-Grillet films but I can’t find anything about him (or her? is it a pseudonym?) online besides a bare-bones IMDB page. That stand-still video/thing is interesting. I can’t think of a single instance of that ever having happened in the US, nor can I think of anything that everyone there would that much care about. Tel Aviv looks weirdly like Glendale, California in that video. To me Memorial Day was always just, ‘Is the supermarket open today or not?’ ** David Ehrenstein, I know of that Ludlum play, but I don’t know it personally. I did get to see three Ludlum works starring him in the early 80s when I lived in NYC. When you were in New York, did Ludlum have that great little basement theater in the West Village where he performed his pieces? There should be a documentary film about Ludlum. What a great! ** Steve Erickson, Oops, I hope the interview still happens. I remember ‘Our Son’, or I remember seeing posters for it around when it was playing here. I don’t remember hearing anything about it. Hope it’s a nice surprise. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hey, Ben! Thank you so much again but ‘in person’ this time for the stellar and so welcome post! And as for ‘The Call’ itself, the world is now a better place. ** Okay. You already know about the weekend’s gift and drill. Have fun. Hit those keyboards and -pads. See you on Monday.