The Feathered Bough, a Review by Reggie Oliver

I’m very pleased to announce that my latest novel The Feathered Bough has been reviewed by the acclaimed author Reggie Oliver in his regular column for Wormwood (Issue 32, Tartarus Press;

“One who gets the balance between abandon and control triumphantly right is Stephen J. Clark in his novel The Feathered Bough. (…) Clark is perhaps as well-known as an illustrator and artist as he is as a writer and this book is an admirable collaboration of his two talents. Clark’s dark and sinuous designs do not so much illustrate as illuminate and elaborate his literary work: the two are seamlessly fused.

Feathered Bough_Clark

The story opens with Dr Rudkin, a therapist at the Colony Institute, studying a man who appears to think he is dead and has given himself the name of Gérard de Nerval. Whether he actually believes himself to be the suicidal poet maudit who kept a pet lobster is unclear: sadly, there is only a passing mention of crustacea in the story.

Nerval claims to have access to another world, a “paracosm” which he calls Hortus Palatinus, but also Featherbough. This world, of which we are allowed glimpses through Nerval’s accounts and illustrations, bears some relation to the Classical land of the dead. There is a Charon-like ferryman, a river of forgetting, and “the feathered bough” may well suggest the golden bough with which Virgil’s Aeneas gained access to the underworld. It is a place of “perpetual twilight.” But there are also other elements: some from Renaissance occult philosophy and alchemy, others more recent. A figure called Old Man Machen puts in an appearance; the presiding spirits are called the Great Rooks.

Rudkin is astonished by the richness and detail of Nerval’s world, as is the reader. Initially he sees it merely as a fantasy refuge into which his troubled patient can retreat from the horrors of reality; but he begins to believe that its description may be a way of leading Nerval out of his mental torment. Rudkin understands that “man can no more dispense with myth than he can with words.” But Nerval also has an agenda, and is luring Rudkin into his world by offering the prospect of an encounter with his dead wife.

Rudkin comes into conflict with Malfrey, the senior warden of the institution who is violently opposed to letting Nerval express his fantasy. He is for containment, suppression, and electric shocks. Though Malfrey is an unsympathetic figure, we come to see by the end that he may have a point. The conclusion is apocalyptic.

The Feathered Bough is an absorbing and richly imagined novel. Like all great stories it carries many interpretations and themes without insisting too heavily on any one of them. Zagava Press has produced Clark’s work beautifully and made of it a superb collector’s item and a very considerable work of art.”

Link to Zagava/ The Feathered Bough:






Publications to Date

The Bridge of Shadows, (Poetry collection, Surrealist Editions 2007.)

The House of Sleep, (Short story: Cinnabar’s Gnosis, Ex Occidente Press 2008).

Animals That I Have Scarcely Known, (Short story: Text’s Bones, Skrev Press, 2009).

The Satyr, (Novella, Ex Occidente Press 2010).

Foglass, (Short story: Supernatural Tales, issue 18, 2011).

The Bestiary of Communion (Collection of three novellas, E.O.P. 2011).

Salmacis, (Short story: Delicate Toxins, Side Real Press, 2011)

Behemoth’s Carnival, (Short story: The Master in Café Morphine, E.O.P. 2011).

The Vigil, (Short story: Supernatural Tales, issue 21, 2012).

The Great Ruins of Tomorrow, (Short story: This Hermetic Legislature, E.O.P. 2012).

In Delirium’s Circle, (Novel, Egaeus Press 2012).

The Satyr and Other Tales, (Omnibus of The Satyr & The Bestiary of Communion, Swan River Press 2015).

Lithe Tenant, (Novella: Soliloquy for Pan, Egaeus Press 2015).

Out of Bounds, (Novella: Murder Ballads, Egaeus Press 2017).

On the Edge of Utterance, (Short story: Nightscript 3, 2017).

The Figurehead of the Cailleach, (Novella: A Book of the Sea, Egaeus Press, 2018).

The Feathered Bough, (Novel: Zagava 2018).

Horror as Revelation | Some thoughts on Adam Nevill’s ‘Hasty for the Dark.’

While reading Adam Nevill’s collection of macabre tales Hasty for the Dark I was reminded of a conclusion I’d reached about horror fiction; that at its best it borders on satire and particularly that peculiar offshoot of satire; the Grotesque. Like the renowned masks of comedy and tragedy the tradition of satire has always had another face besides parody; for what makes us laugh is never that far from what also troubles us. Satire as a tradition also taps the rich vein of human monstrosity and pathos at the margins where sanity deserts us and life’s edges distort into absurdity, dream logic and nightmare vision. Being a mutation from the same roots as Grand Guignol, horror fiction holds up a distorting mirror to society and the human condition to show us in acts of revelation the nightmares hidden within. And it is these acts of revelation that partly characterise the genre in the sense that horror fiction can be a revelator of unsettling truths and also with the inference of revelling in defiance of life’s horrors. Perhaps it is horror fiction’s distasteful proximity to the carnivalesque and to visionary proclamation that leaves so many critics bemused and ruffled.

The opening story ‘On All London Underground Lines’ is rooted in allusions to labyrinths much older than that of its titular setting. While simply striving to reach his office one morning the protagonist senses that he’s becoming the plaything of a set of increasingly exasperating diversions. Is he right to suspect there is something more menacing at play behind the usual commuter grind? And what of his fellow commuters and the other inhabitants skulking in the subterranean system; are they somehow complicit in the ominous game that is being played out at the unnamed narrator’s expense? This story like those that follow suggest that the kinds of terrors we meet in Nevill’s writing are closer to Aickman’s games with allegory. The moral nuances are cut more finely here than facile binary stances of good versus evil, for the world and its inhabitants are envisaged as being far more mutable and ambiguous.

In probing the capital’s shabbier quarters in the story ‘The Angels of London’ we encounter the unseemly landlord Granby, one of Nevill’s characteristic grotesques emerging from a tenement’s gloom to confront Frank, our protagonist. Granby is a Dickensian swindler in casualwear; a living anachronism who doesn’t quite belong to the ordinary world Frank knows. However since entering the tenement, reality can no longer be trusted as easily as it once had; the world has become a place of unseen influences and disguises. The more Frank is drawn in the more he starts to suspect that the masters that Granby serves will demand much more than mortal debts. The environs are vividly described, with a mood reminiscent of the urban unease found in Ramsey Campbell, often hinting at some monstrous anomaly under the city’s skin. Nevill’s descriptions of inner city squalor are at times described with a poetic finesse.  Do these moments hint at a mundane world that might harbour revelations in the least expected places or do they serve as an ironic device too suggesting that corruption has reached much deeper than societal mores?

I’ve encountered themes and inhabitants like these before in Adam Nevill’s novel ‘Apartment 16.’  Horror, like the Grotesque, is nothing without its masks and the monsters of Nevill’s fictions are personifications of society’s fears and troubled desires as in a distorted mirror. Nevill invokes the painter Francis Bacon yet just as easily I find myself thinking of the venomous lines of the popular satirist Gerald Scarfe or the decadent ghouls that stare out of Otto Dix’s pictures when faced with some of Nevill’s denizens. Throughout his fiction we encounter human flesh and desire distorted into parodies expressive of latent tensions. In these tales the apparently desirable is often revealed to be repellent in the end. With mordant humour in ‘Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies)’ we find a protagonist participating in a tryst at a disused zoo. The events that ensue are reminiscent of Ballard or Aickman in that the apparently tranquil and humdrum surface of a suburban world is increasingly unsettled by dreamlike inferences until waking life is finally breached.

When Alone, 28.03.2014
When Alone, drawing by Stephen J. Clark, 28.03.2014

There’s a sense of confrontation and injustice running through the fabric of many of these tales that’s often expressed in biting black humour. In ‘The Days of Our Lives’ we have a lurid tale told via a feverish stream of consciousness; our masochistic narrator bears witness to his wife transforming into something that may be a serial murderer or perhaps something far stranger. We can’t be sure, for the voice we want to believe and rely upon is gradually subsumed into a nightmare whose monstrosity only increases with its momentum, infecting and warping everything it comes into contact with. If the narrator’s voice is feverish then his story is a contagion.

With ‘Always in Our Hearts’ we encounter a taxi driver who, through a hit-and-run incident becomes embroiled in the progressively sinister stages of a ritualistic errand until his own duplicity distorts the world around him and from his own actions a punishment arises.

In keeping with this idea of a ‘satire of the macabre,’ and through writing that is by turns subtly elliptical and allusive or brutal and nightmarish Nevill hints at a cosmic joke being played out. So out of quite ordinary circumstances Nevill’s protagonists face extraordinary dilemmas. They seek to extricate themselves from the momentum of nightmarish events before they too are changed or corrupted into another form. Yet in these fictions we confront monsters too that are only grudgingly human and wish at each available chance to gladly drag the protagonist down with them into an existence ruled by bestial urges or parasitic cravings. Yet there’s no easy division of the innocent and the damned in these stories and even in unspeakable moments some semblance of vulnerability often emerges as evidence of a further absurdity or complexity beneath the apparently simple and accessible surfaces of these tales.

And in a way it’s the cosmic joke we turn to again in the story ‘Hippocampus’: an omniscient narrator hovers over and delves into the evidence left in the wake of a tragedy which has left a vessel stricken on the high seas. No one is left alive on board and we find ourselves tricked into reconstructing the terrible sequence of events with deft cinematic descriptions. Indeed there appear to be other filmic and iconic allusions at play here; are we witness to an expedition gone wrong; the consequences of trespassing on some primal shore or mountain? Savage artefacts attest to a curse. Did I trace a hint of Stoker’s Demeter in this ship that augurs a greater tragedy still to come, or a greater game played out by a cruel demiurge or trickster?

The sweep of that epic tone carries into ‘Call the Name’ – a long Lovecraftian tale of millenarian prophecy and ecological disaster – the falling apart of the modern West is paralleled with dementia and a new evolutionary era. While adeptly conveying the story’s conservation themes we also come to empathise with the many women who inhabit its world; daughters and matriarchs alike are caught in the story’s web which balances rumours of mutation and rising cults with a subtle handling of human vulnerability.

‘White Light, White Heat’ –  in a piece that’s possibly influenced by Ligottian ‘corporate horror’ we find Nevill’s distinctive eye for grotesque parody raise its ugly head again in the blackly humorous descriptions of the executive monsters which the protagonist encounters on his journey from commercial publishing to zealous murder. As with ‘The Days of Our Lives’, Nevill shows his skill again for warping the parameters of his story, taking the reader from the disenchanted concerns of an office executive to the vision of a dystopian future.

The final tale confirms that Adam Nevill is a writer with a distinctive and refined vision. In Little Black Lamb subtle accounts of quiet domesticity are gradually eroded by hints of mortality. A husband and wife begin to experience strange disturbances in the equilibrium of their lives. They undergo medical examinations that fail to pinpoint causes yet the psychic disturbances persist and what were at first suspected as delusions brought about by dementia find corroboration in actual places, events and the unearthing of a suitcase. The line between obsession and possession blurs as an ominous momentum builds with the inference of a greater conspiracy waiting in the wings.

With Adam Nevill’s ‘Hasty for the Dark’ we find an imagination at work that, through subtle and refined writing not only reinvents familiar horror fiction tropes but creates a vision of his own that enriches that genre, broadening its symbolic and emotional range.


Stephen J. Clark, Horror as Revelation, March 2018.


Thresholds (On Drawing) | Stephen J Clark

Perhaps we can no more dispense with myth than we can with words. In dreams we are carried in the currents of myth. Mythic forms persist as binding and constitutive elements within language and culture; through the imagination they can be invoked or awakened from their latency within memory, within the unconscious.
A key desire in my art is exploring where an image will take me; how it will unexpectedly evolve, leading me on the secret pathways of untold stories. As unforeseen associations and recurring symbols are revealed with each drawing, I find myself obsessively unearthing and piecing together a mythology that curiously knows how to speak intimately to me, and like an imaginary childhood friend takes the shape of my fears, my wishes and my memories.
A prevailing assumption envisages human experience in Cartesian terms, wrongly de-limiting the unconscious as if it is sectioned from the conscious mind, the body and the world, reducing the unconscious to an estranged shadow within. Yet the unconscious is not only a repository, is not only something that contains, conceals or confines but can be responsive, becoming a way of reaching outwards to grasp, unveil and enchant the world we experience. In a sense the unconscious surrounds us, waiting in the world’s forms and in our encounters with others.
For me, drawing has become a process of revelation that is essentially to do with memory and the unconscious mind; my interest in drawing began in childhood with a love of comics and a fascination with monsters and mythology. As a child I recall chancing upon visionary and apocalyptic paintings by Bosch and Brueghel in an encyclopaedia with the sensation of having crossed a line, trespassing on forbidden territory. Perhaps in childhood play there was the kernel of revelation I was to nurture later, in the poetry of the image.
The poetic image is a threshold where unexpected forms appear like messengers, leaving us speechless. This experience of seeing is often one of being silenced. In the gaze that ruptures speech signs take shape before us as seductive apparitions, curious interlopers or unwelcome guests. There is a dialogue, a dialectic communion, an exchange of glances between the visible and the invisible, between the present and the absent, the conscious and the unconscious. When we experience, we imagine.
Somewhere between reflection and chance the image emerges. A face is slowly coaxed to surface from the patterns of an ink wash. The image is a mirror; we find ourselves changed in its flickering contours. The act of drawing is a form of gnosis, of self-knowledge, of scrying into patterns, peering into hidden facets, a kind of meditative dream while awake. In drawing I’m lured into the image’s circle of influence, witnessing and participating in its transformations.
thresholds image for blog.jpg
Affinities with alchemical and magical ideas and images have inspired and informed my understanding and process. In these drawings as in dreams mythic forms emerge through memory and as we remember we in turn cross thresholds, we take on different forms, wear other masks. On the other side we glimpse monstrous lives, encounter spectral doubles, phantoms of resemblance roaming lost margins steeped in fog or shadow. The personae and encounters in these pictures act out dramas on the stage of an inner theatre, a microcosm of the page where Faust enters to converse with his shadows. So the image becomes a hermetic riddle and the act of drawing a method of unravelling its many threads; a visual poem, a disturbance in habitual thinking where time is transmuted and the image stirs into life.
All images are copyright: Stephen J. Clark (2013, 2014, 2015). Text copyright Stephen J. Clark (2017).

Lovecraft’s Myth | A Poetic Response to Alan Moore’s Providence | Stephen J. Clark

‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.’

This opening sentence from H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature almost sounds like a decree, echoing through everything else that he said. It encapsulates his relentless style, relishing human vulnerability, overwhelming emotional nuance with a scrutinising gaze while invoking the primordial to deny any hope of contradiction. It is perhaps telling that fear and not desire, for instance, is identified as mankind’s seminal emotion. Or if not desire, then why not ecstasy as Arthur Machen might have suggested?

Alan Moore’s Providence is an exploration of the modern mythologies of fear, tracing its many apparitions in the lineaments of Lovecraft’s vision. It is a subterranean voice reverberating through endless tunnels. It is Lovecraft’s imagined Looking Glass. Behind the distorting mirror the cosmos yawns, populated by Science’s nightmares, promising infinite fascination. It’s the fascination of the child who braves the cold to wonder at the stars. For the fear that permeates Lovecraft’s writing is not simply dread but is compelled by this fascination. Providence captures the perversity at the heart of Lovecraft; the fact that there is a suggestion of seduction and pleasure in unearthing the forbidden, of being led inexorably into unreason, descending the revelatory spiral to finally commune with and be unhinged by alien intelligences deep below.

A subterranean body stirs. After his lover’s suicide a reluctant hero sets out on a journey, however is he a detective or a somnambulist, a self-hypnotist perpetually returning to or searching for the scene of a crime? Yet what kind of crime could have been committed? A book threatens to be written. Secret societies linger like dormant contagions. Corrupted lineages hint at impossible couplings and births. Boundaries are unwittingly trespassed upon. Taboo and Transgression, the thresholds of both gods and demons haunt the margins of the protagonist’s initiation.

Is it a dream of finding love that lures our protagonist into his own Underworld again and again, descending the cellar stairs as in a recurring nightmare to speak with the custodians of the outer thresholds?   Is it love that he hopes to salvage from fear, and through fascination transform fear into love, and death into life, in an act of forbidden alchemy, a homosexual twinning and doubling? We find a double of the waking world in dream’s mirror. The Other distorted within the glass. And what if we find that the mirror turns and keeps turning back and forth? Providence itself is a dreamt double of Lovecraft’s vision, refracting through geometries of alien memory, opening up ironic parallels and cosmic ironies. Space is folded by analogy, the chapel on the horizon suddenly encroaches and the dimensions of memory are warped. A star has fallen and contaminated the land.

Providence is also the memory of a land imagined and dreamed. Providence is the mapping of a myth … the geology of accursed and hidden strata. A land imagined as nightmare. This nightmare, this unease is traced in the land’s history, the lacunae and concealed ancestries of a space, of trees branching into mutations, hybrid embryos stirring in the fruit of the boughs, roots writhing beneath our feet. Here Lovecraft’s women are bestial creatures stalking caverns. Here witches cradle infant familiars and inhuman intelligences are accidentally awakened. Yet the bestial in that land is a sign of something returning; an atavistic remembering where fear can become a form of knowledge … of gnosis … of finding in fear’s heart a secret fascination; a mirror that turns from dream into waking if we dare touch it, for in dream the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is love, and the oldest and most secret kind of love is love of the Other.


This text copyright 2017 Stephen J. Clark

The River Dreams of Ruins | Stephen J. Clark

Satyr Cover

A 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.

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.

River Dreams of Ruins

“The River Dreams of Ruins” (Art by Stephen J. Clark)

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.

On The Satyr and Other Tales:

“Stephen J Clark is not only an original visionary artist, he is a writer of strange romances in the decadent macabre tradition of the Yellow Nineties: elegant, bizarre, full of curious occult learning and louche bohemian characters. He is a modest gentleman, otherwise his work would be blazing more brightly in the literary firmament. This book will adorn your shelves, where it will be at ease in shadowy converse with your copies of A Rebours, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great God Pan.”

– Mark Valentine, author of The Collected Connoisseur and The Nightfarers.

The Satyr and Other Tales is available to buy from: Swan River Press

All artwork and text copyright 2017 Stephen J. Clark