INTERVIEW: Gareth E. Rees

Kelly Wilkinson (Cover Photo Credit)

Gareth E. Rees is the founder and editor of the website Unofficial Britain, a hub for alternative histories, imagined pasts, forbidden zones, secret trails, unreliable narrators and hallucinatory visions of these weird isles. His first book, Marshland; Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London (Influx Press, 2013) was a psychedelic, psychogeographic exploration of East London’s marshes, combining weird fiction, cryptozoology and alternative history. It was longlisted for the 2014 Gordon Burn prize.

His latest book,The Stone Tide,is a follow-up, of a kind, to Marshland, continuing the same unconventional blur of genres, cross-dimensional travels and dark humour. This time a beleaguered Rees, stricken with pain, wanders the south coast as climate change wreaks havoc. He becomes haunted by the folklore of the locale and by memories from his past, fuzzy and unreliable. Combined, these dark forces threaten to destroy his entire world.

Rees’s previous stories and essays have featured in Anthology 10 (Unthank Books, 2018), An Unreliable Guide to London (Influx Press, 2016), Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and Mount London (Penned in the Margins, 2014) among others. His story ‘We Are the Disease’ appears in The Shadow Booth: Vol. 2, currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Show your support by ordering a copy here.

The Stone Tide mixes genres, formats (including the graphic novel section), and even blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. What interested you about approaching a book in this way?

It wasn’t a deliberate choice. This mashed-up style came about after I began blogging about the Hackney Marshes in 2011. As it was a personal blog with no limitations or requirement to make money (or be popular) I wrote about the landscape in any way I deemed appropriate in the moment – using weird fiction, horror, wild speculation to express a weirdness about the place that naturalistic writing couldn’t quite capture.

When Influx Press asked me to turn the blog into a book, I took the essays, whimsy and weird fictions, fleshed them out them then blended them together to created Marshland. Readers seemed to like the fusion. When a review in the Londonist declared “one day, all books will be written like this” I realised I was onto something, so when I moved to Hastings in 2013, I continued my multi-genre approach to place writing.

What interests me as a writer is that zone between what you see and what you imagine, a flickering liminal dreamscape that’s rich with emotion, limitless in scope and occasionally terrifying. When I see a memorial bench I don’t just see the inscription, I imagine the person depicted. When someone points out a haunted house, I don’t just see the house, I imagine the ghosts. When I smell a gust of salty sea air, I remember the places, people and feelings connected with that smell across time and space.

To write about the effect a place has on you, you need to factor in memory and imagination. These are as real to me as the things I can see and touch. I am both cursed and blessed with a vivid, macabre imagination and I’m constantly intruded by bad, weird, horrific thoughts. Any memoir I write must include this life of the mind.

Really The Stone Tide is non-fiction, but it uses fiction to express my reality. A place is made from stories as much as it is from rocks, bricks and organic matter. To express the nature of a place, you need to tell those stories. The job of fiction is to tell the truth by telling lies.

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You can read our review of The Stone Tide here reviewed by Nick Garrard

There’s also some very personal material in there, including the death of a close friend and the breakdown of your marriage. Do you have any concerns about revealing so much of yourself, especially in a book that’s partly fiction?

On the contrary, a book that’s partly fiction allows me to reveal myself with some amount of protection. The “I” in The Stone Tide is an unreliable narrator. As the book progresses, you should become unsettled by the behaviour and attitude of the person telling the tale, especially since that this person is also, unabashedly, the author. You should wonder how much of what is happening is really happening, a little bit like the narrator himself, who is ensnared in a web of fantasy, paranoia and hypochondria.

The Stone Tide is about the stories we tell to make sense of the world – the necessary fictions – these as much about self-protection as they are about revelation. While the story of Mike’s death and my marriage ending are both true, they’re not the whole truth.

Saying all that, I am horribly exposed in this book and I shouldn’t really have written it. I was trying to write another Marshland but it didn’t work in Hastings. Instead I opened up an occult can of worms and my personal life turned very ugly. Writing this book ruined me. Since I completed it I have spent many sleepless nights, lying in a cold sweat, terrified of people judging me and panicking about what Mike’s family will think and about what my family and friends might think about it.

However, since it came out, some people have contacted me to say that I’ve expressed thoughts and feelings that they’ve not dared to express themselves. Not just middle-aged men either. The book resonates with anyone who suffers the relentless intrusion of negative thoughts, or feels burdened by melancholy.

When did your interest in Aleister Crowley start? Did you do much research into his life?

When writing about Hackney Marshes, I became obsessed by the phantom bear which has been seen on multiple occasions since the 1970s. It’s a piece of local folklore that tells so much about the nature of the place – its wildness and mystery. In Marshland, the bear becomes as a recurring narrative thread. In Hastings, the same is true of Aleister Crowley. The story of Crowley is as much a part of the fabric of the town as the architecture and topography. He lived here for the last few years of his lives and is said to have cursed Hastings. It’s not true, but the legend persists, which says a lot about the place, a hub for occultists which saw its fortunes decline after Crowley’s death. Magic, madness and death pervade every nook and cranny.

I was quite into Crowley in my 20s and had copies of Book 4 and Diary of a Drug Fiend. This interest was renewed upon my arrival in Hastings. As well as reading a biography about his life, I did a lot of online research – for me the hype, gossip and nonsense is as important as the biographical facts. I am interested in the cultural impact of Crowley more than the man himself. In The Stone Tide my encounter with a biography of Crowley’s last years, Netherwood, by Antony Clayton becomes part of the narrative, in which I ended up bleeding onto the book. Writing about Crowley’s curse became my curse, and that of the illustrator, Vince Ray, who drew the graphic section of the book. On the day after he drew the first panel depicting Crowley, he was rushed to hospital with an illness. It’s best not to mess with this kind of stuff but we did it anyway.

Your story in The Shadow Booth: Vol. 2, ‘We Are The Disease’, feels more like sci-fi/speculative fiction than much of your work. Does this mark a change of focus?

There was some sci-fi and speculative fiction in Marshland. The blog that preceded it was called The Marshman Chronicles, which was a riff on The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. There is less of it in The Stone Tide, although there’s an eel with a head the size of an armchair, a speculative fiction about John Logie Baird meeting Aleister Crowley and a final chapter that takes place during an imagined meltdown of Dungeness nuclear power station.

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When it comes to short stories I prefer writing ghost stories, horror and weird fiction than psychogeographic accounts, biography or memoir. When I finished The Stone Tide I had some time to work on short fiction, which led to ‘We Are the Disease’, a tale that speculates about what might happen in the coming eco-apocalypse. It’s based on truth – there really is a bloom of algae beneath the thinning sheets of Arctic ice where sunlight is reaching the water for the first time. Whether that algae will infect humans and send them stark raving mad remains to be seen.

There’s also a very real concern about the environment and climate change that has surfaced in your stories before. What interests you about this as a theme?

I’ve been reading a lot of dark ecology by Timothy Morton and the collective behind the Dark Mountain project. The world as we know it has ended and climate disaster is inevitable. Peak oil will bring about the collapse of capitalism. We will descend into riots, chaos and murder. Global warming is irreversible. Floods and freak weather will reshape our coasts. Wars will break out over dwindling resources. Plagues will ravage the population. Instead of dealing with this unfolding disaster, we have turned to racism, fascism and bigotry. We have Trump and Brexit and The Daily Mail.

In short, we are fucked.

Every day I wake up coated in the slime of apocalypse. It sticks to everything I do, every waking thought. Turn on a tap, open the fridge, eat a sandwich, switch on the TV, turn the key in the ignition of the car – every act you carry out is contributing to your imminent extinction. The world is ending right now and hardly anyone seems to notice. We should all be running around screaming like in Krypton at the beginning of Superman. I have no idea what people aren’t experiencing the same sheer panic as I am. For me, it’s not possible to write anything that isn’t infused with the horror of the 6thgreat extinction.

What are you reading at the moment? And what were the last few books you bought?

I’m reading The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, sci-fi about a relationship between a capitalist planet and a breakaway anarchist society who live on its moon. I recently bought Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith, which is about the octopus and the deep origins of consciousness. Also The Fish Ladder by Katherine Norbury – a book about her travels to the origins of rivers and her attempt to discover her own origins as an adopted child, and Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

 

The Shadow Boothis a new journal of weird and eerie fiction edited by Dan Coxon. Volume 2 is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo until 18 May, and includes stories by Aliya Whiteley, Mark Morris, Kirsty Logan, Gareth E. Rees, Chikodili Emelumadu, Johnny Mains, Anna Vaught and many more. Please show your support and order a copy by clicking here.

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