Panel 7.2 Fantastika Performances


Nik Taylor, University of Huddersfield, UK, “Strange Ceremonies: The Laboratory, Library and the Living Room; Creating Imaginative Spaces in Bizarre Magick”

The guests are seated in the study … if fortunate ‘the Horned God will grant them their inner most wishes.’ however, if their presence offends, ‘only the most hideous and frightful death will be bestowed upon them.’

This warning begins The Great God Pan (Raven, 1974) a performance magic piece aimed at transporting the imagination of the guests out of the magician’s study (where the piece is set) and into fictional realms of fantasy and horror.  This type of work is known as Bizarre Magick and is an underground form of performance magic initially pioneered in the 1970s by practitioners such as Tony Raven, Tony Andruzzi and Doc Shiels. The latter believing that bizarre magic should ‘authentically scare people’.  As such, many of the pieces in this genre borrow from popular horror fictions and seek to locate fantastika in everyday physical locations through the creation of a charged sense of space where illusion is played as real.

This paper will examine a number of these effects and how, through storytelling, intricate props, and often complex methods, practitioners were able to draw heavily on fictionalised histories of science fiction, horror and the supernatural to create site-specific ‘strange ceremonies’ (Burger, 1991) which might take place in, for example, the laboratory; H2SO4  (Masklyn ye Mage, 1983) in which ‘preternatural cognition’ allows the practitioner to avoid death from ingesting sulphuric acid, the library; The Stigmata of Cthulhu  (Minch, 1974) where a disturbed ritual leaves the guest bearing the mark of the great old ones, or even in the living room; Black Christmas (Shiels, 1988) where an intimate gathering is interrupted by a sacrifice to the ‘Lord of Misrule’.

As part of the presentation, a strange ceremony can be demonstrated.


Bionote: Nik Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Huddersfield.  He is co-ordinator of The Magic Research Group and co-editor of The Journal of Performance Magic.  Nik specialises in Bizarre Magic, Sideshow, Séance and Divination.

He is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and The British Society of Mystery Entertainers.


Neil McRobert, UK, “In the Land of Gods and Monsters: The Fantastic in American Carnival Narratives”

The American carnival is an inherently fantastic institution. Situated—in adherence to Todorov’s maxim—on the frontier between the uncanny and the marvellous, it forces its audience to temporarily confront the question of whether “the laws of reality remain intact” A site of uncertainty and contradiction, with its twin-nuclei of circus and sideshow, the carnival is defined by contrast: monstrosity and beauty, acceptance and exploitation. Moreover, the carnival presents fantastical excess whilst also performing as a key component of American social reality. The carnival is (or perhaps was) part of the fabric of American life and art, its connotations of familiarity working in paradoxical tandem with the outré nature of the spectacle.

Though the American carnival entered a decline in the second half of the twentieth century it retains cultural currency in contemporary film and literature. In particular, the carnival has re-emerged as a powerful canvas in twenty-first century culture. Television shows such as Carnivàle and American Horror Story: Freakshow continue to foreground the uneasy combination of gritty American realism and fantastical performance.

These modern evocations of carnival life differ from previous filmic representations, however, in their willingness to present the carnival as a site of true fantastika, in which the pretence of the marvellous disguises an authentic irruption of the supernatural. The haunting presence of Edward Mordrake in American Horror Story and Carnivale’s apocalyptic underbelly are just two examples of the carnival’s presentation of a ‘real’ fantastic amidst the performed spectacle. This development is emphasised by a comparison of American Horror Story and Todd Browning’s ur-text of carnival narratives: Freaks (1932). AMH continually references Browning’s film but augments its grotesquerie with moments of the true fantastic.

This paper will trace the carnival’s development as a fantastic medium, using Freaks and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes as pivotal text. I will then focus in detail on the above mentioned televisual examples to demonstrate how they combine conventions of magical realism, the weird and the Gothic to offers a particular and unique approach to the fantastic in contemporary American culture.


Bionote: Neil McRobert received his doctorate from the University of Stirling. His previous research has focused on the Gothic in contemporary postmodern literature and film. He has published recently on the phenomena of ‘found-footage’ cinema and the blurring of textual realities in digital media. His current recent, however, is focused on the cultural history of the American carnival and circus, for which he is hoping to receive a Leverhulme grant in 2016.


Mark Valentine, UK, “Supernatural Landscape in British Ambient and Drone Music”

A number of contemporary British composers and musicians working in the ambient, experimental, minimalist and drone forms draw their inspiration both from haunted landscapes and supernatural fiction. This pioneering paper will explore the largely unconsidered crossovers between this contemporary music, the literature of the fantastic, and the topography of eerie places.

Drone uses electronic and digital sources, treated instruments, and sound recordings of natural elements (wind, water, waves) and made noise (machinery, transport, public address systems) in works characterised by long, slowly changing structures which often induce a meditative experience in the listener. But the form can also be used to suggest a mysterious, unsettling or even sinister atmosphere. Composers and performers currently working in this field are exploring its potential to memorialise lost or remote landscape and to convey the numinous.

Brian Lavelle’s label Dust, Unsettled takes its name from a story by the leading 20th century writer of strange tales, Robert Aickman, while in another project, Fogou, he has recorded works inside an ancient Cornish subterranean monument.

Susan Matthews’ music has been described as “like being touched by a ghost”  and uses images of dereliction and desolation alongside fragments of voices and found sounds to create works of intimate dread.

Richard Skelton’s work includes recordings made on remote Lancashire moors and their deserted settlements, and, with Autumn Richardson, he also runs Corbel Stone Press, dedicated to the art, writing and literature of landscape and folklore.

But it is not only rural locations that have influenced this music. The duo Ghostwriter and Michael Paine have recorded a tribute to the enigmatic writer of macabre novels, Phyllis Paul, with her deceptively genteel settings in the Home Counties: the artist Dollboy’s Ghost Stations commemorates closed London underground stations, while Howlround’s recent Torridon Gate chronicles the creaking of a suburban garden gate.


Bionote: Mark Valentine is the author of supernatural stories, and biographies of the fantasists Arthur Machen and ‘Sarban’. He edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic, now in its twelfth year. He has written introductions to over thirty books. He also blogs notices and reviews of contemporary music.