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The Horror Of It All:
Savoy, David Britton
and Lord Horror
b y D a v i d M i t c h e l l
Beyond Magazine. Left: Swords of the Necronomicon by John Coulthart
Left: Swords of the Necronomicon by John Coulthart
|FOR THE LAST TEN YEARS, Savoy books and records have been stirring up the mud. David Britton, Michael Butterworth, Kris Guidio, John Coulthart and others have been performing the dangerous and thankless task of showing us (through their books, comics and other products), the true face of the Beastruthlessly and mercilessly slicing away at the powdered mask in the vomit-stained mirror to expose the wriggling grub of fascist hate and emotional emptiness at the heart of British (and Western) culture. No prisoners are taken in their onslaught, no heroes unslain, no icons left standing, no altars left unbesmirchedfor we are, after all, living in an age where there are more idols than realities.
Their pedigree has been impeccable. They've published many incredible books, several of which have attracted a fair degree of controversy in their own right, including Samuel Delany's Tides Of Lust and Jack Trevor Story's Screwrape Lettuce. But the real shit started to fly in 1989, when Savoy published Dave Britton's own surreal and picaresque book Lord Horror, a Burroughsian, Swiftian satire recounting the exploits of various persons in the form of distorted caricatures of actual historical persons such as Cosimo Matassa (who ran the New Orleans studio where all the great black Rock'n'Roll records of the '50s were cut: Little Richard, Fats Domino, etc.), Hitler, and the eponymous British wartime traitor 'Lord Haw Haw'William Joyce, here embodied as Lord Horror.
The acrobatic and pyrotechnic prose contains savage and obscene flights of sadistic excess and surreal passages of lyrical brilliance comparable in effect to Rimbaud and Lautréamont. The most controversial element, however, has been the racist dogma spouted by the book's characters. Reading it now, long after the initial fuss and furore has died down somewhat, I'm amazed at the hysterical reactions to the book by both right-wing upholders of 'decency' and by the liberal defenders of human rights and freedom of expression who were offended by the book's politically incorrect or unfashionable elements when taken out of context.
To the discerning reader it should be obvious that neither the book, the publisher, nor the author and editor endorse or encourage any of the racist, pro-fascist hatred articulated by any of the novel's characters. One should remember that Savoy grew out of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds stable in the '60s and evolved in the company of writers such as M John Harrison, JG Ballard and Samuel Delany. Savoy was born from the period of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, Philip José Farmer's Image Of The Beast, Blown and, more importantly, The Jungle Rot Kid On The Nod (stylistically, content-wise and intent-wise), Philip K Dick's psychotropic nightmares and other books such as Norman Spinrad's Men In The Jungle, The Iron Dream and the intensely disturbing Bug Jack Barron, which Savoy acknowledge as a predecessor of Lord Horror in terms of the controversial status the novel achieved outside the Houses of Parliament.
From the first ten pages alone, one can see that Lord Horror is an SF novel of an 'alternative universe' where all the events, characters and scenes are metaphorically playing out philosophical and metaphysical abstractions in a sequence of symbolic forms. This is Dave Britton's Pilgrim's Progressor at least his Childermass.
In a manner similar to the discourses of De Sade's Philosophy In The Boudoir, the dialogue consists of contrived argument and counter-argument, encapsulations of every major train of thought and belief that has made the 20th century the horror we see todaythe characters voicing all the insane dialectic which has fuelled the nightmare of Western culture. Lord Horror himself is an extreme aesthetea psychopathic/neuropathic dreamera cross between Des Esseintes and Darth Vader. He is here likened, in this respect, to Hitler, who also (the book suggests) dreamed of higher things, of beauty, purity and glory divorced from reality. Horror is the epitome of Hitler's version of the Übermensch amoral, physically powerful and ruthless, agonisingly hypersensitive and mystically inclined, with a violent scorpionic sexuality. He is a Byronic anti-hero, his goals superhuman, his actions subhuman.
The exaggerations, the surreal imagery, and the distorted misappropriation of historical characters actually define a vision closer to the truth than mere 'social realism' would ever be able to, revealing the corrupted inner life of characters, things and eventsthe dreaming reality of the historical process. The dialectic gets under the skin because the nightmares put on display are shared, common to us all.
'Fascinating Fascism' (as Susan Sontag termed it) has an appeal which originates in the atavisticthe beserker animal, the werewolf. The Nazi mentality is sado-masochistic. Hierarchies of degradation, as in a Bosch painting, tier upon tier of trapped bureaucrats each shitting on the tier directly below them, until the shit stops at the bottom on the socially despised racethe Jews, niggers, spics, gypsiesall those most reviled by 'pure' society (and those most secretly desired). Annihilating sex! A body without emotions, fucking itself until it bleeds to death; Reich's personality armour, cranked so tight that the inner life has strangled and rotted away! When that sexual core, the feeling, human centre, has gone bad, all the manifestations become cold, extreme, brutally destructive and violent. Rockabilly would be the ideal muzak for death camps.
The two polar extremes of Western schizoid mentality led ultimately to the death camps, unable to resolve the contradictions inherent in their existence. Extreme analytical discourse, whether couched in psychological, political or sociological textbook talk, or even in the glib, easily digestible pseudo-analysis of women's magazines, encourages people to become more and more out of touch with their emotional core and deep inner convictions. On the other hand, visceral spontaneity as displayed by the 'human' herd leads to the abandoning of any form of genuine conscience and the blind following of animal impulses which arise through mere biological friction. Both extremes lead to and embody ultimate nihilism.
Lord Horror was followed by the comic book exploits of the character in Hard Core Horror issues 1 to 5, the first four issues being drawn by Kris Guidio and executed in a Beardsleyesque 'yellow' mannershowers of blood and offal mingling deliriously with art nouveau backgrounds; eroticism and elegance merging seamlessly with ultraviolence and sadism. The key point in the series occurred in issue 5, illustrated by John Coulthart, where bleak and rigid depictions of death camp architecture are both terrifying and beautiful, the lines and planes of the Art Deco designs shouting repression and annihilation. After several pages of beautiful Maldororian prose from Dave Britton the reader is confronted by shocking photographs of dead bodies, murdered children, and we realise that we've reached the bottom line! This is where all the rhetoric and philosophy has led us.
On Friday 2nd April 1993, David Britton was jailed for four months under the Obscene Publications Act in Manchester. This was a result of the seizure in 1989 of Lord Horror by Manchester Police. An attempt was made to ban it but at a Crown Court appeal 31st July 1992 (brought by Savoy), the order for its destruction was overruled. An issue of the comic Meng & Ecker was, however, found obscene and bannedthe first case of this happening to a comic in the UK For reasons that they failed to make clear, the police continued to mount raids on both the Savoy office and a retail shop owned by David Britton. As a result of this harassment Britton was convicted for material sold from his shop and, by a strange coincidence, the raid was conducted three days after the initial ruling that Lord Horror was obscenethe search warrants signed by the very same magistrate who had originally adjudged the comics obscene. Savoy's case elicited some respectable, though cautious, response from the mainstream press but we've seen no repeat of the public outrage at the Salman Rushdie incident. Mr Rushdie, after all, was attacked by a culture other than our ownone with which we do not feel immediate complicity.
Despite these tribulations, 1994 saw the launch of a 'New Wave' of Savoy materialpivotal to which is the comic series Reverbstorm, which develops the current started by the Lord Horror novel and comic. Most of the art is by the brilliant John Coulthart, with Kris Guidio contributing picaresque panels as contrast to John's dark intensity; the result is a rollercoaster ride to the end of our collective night, a delirious, erotic and unbridled display of literary savagery and artistic terrorism. Reminiscent of all the darker works of the Western imagination that have wound their way to the present via the likes of Bataille and Artaud.
The concerns for the future of this comic hinge around the possible misinterpretation of its inherent message by potential readers. As in the previous works there is no clear-cut political code or ethical interpretation, because Savoy is leading us, as usual, into frighteningly unfamiliar waters. Reverbstorm certainly displays none of the vulgar Viz-style humour of the Meng & Ecker comic (and Hitler is conspicuous by his absence!), yet there is a strong misleading and dangerous element now present in the seductive form of Rock'n'Roll.
Rock has always been a double-edged sword; one capable of liberating the mind and emotions, but equally of dulling the intellect with vapid and superficial sentiment, glossy sexual hedonism and self-aggrandised egocentric bigotry. The traditional 'rock' lifestyle, for instance, consists of a futile stimulation of libidinous and materialistic desires in a way which can never be fulfilled. The resulting cynicism and frustration more often than not lead to self-destruction. Rock's message enters the awareness below the navel, side-stepping the intellect, giving it instant mass-accessibility and thus making it the ideal propaganda device. Reading Reverbstorm, one remembers the Nazis' condemnation of jazz and blues as degeneracy, Kubrick's appropriate choice of classical music as the backdrop to the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange, and wonders at this strange juxtaposition, in the new Savoy oeuvre, of what was essentially black music, with fascist ideology. Of course, on examination one can see that rock has always followed two divergent paths since its birth at the hands of poor blacks in Americaone of liberation and love, the other of cynical dominance and unbalanced power. Since Elvis hijacked the sexual core of rhythm and blues music and hung a sneering face of white power on it, that whiteness has prevailed through the 'sex and drugs and kicks' lane of rock, right down to heavy metal, 'New Order' and the lobotomised, jack-hammer pulses of rave. There is a definite link here with the point in the Lord Horror novel where Future Time expounds Hitler's advocation of kitsch as the natural culture of the massesthe best way for totalitarian regimes to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Avant-garde art, literature and music being too difficult to be conveyed by propaganda techniques is therefore, by its very nature, subversive to the control machine.
Rock mentality eschews analytical processes, reviles introspection as weak and irrelevant... popular Volk music now has no need of intent or contentrave music for instance being produced on computers by company executives with no need to consider the intentions of artists or the dignity of the publica far cry from the idealistic aspirations of early acid-house as a spiritual and psychic liberation from cultural conditioning.
Lord Horror embodies Rock'n'Roll (white Rock'n'Roll, that is). The white power rock spawned by Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and carried down through a long line of 'hard-rockers' ever since. No wonder Savoy have 'adopted' PJ Proby. Power music! Imperialism! De Sade showed us the corrupting nature of sex and power and the interplay between the two and, like David Britton, he was persecuted and misunderstood. Mr Britton asks us to stare into the sun with him. Some of us do and, after winding our way through the tortuous labyrinth of western philosophy, rhetoric, and political, artistic and scientific theory expounded in the text (theory with which our culture feels so self-satisfied), we finally confront the minotaur at the centre, crouched atop a pile of human skulls, and recognise ourselves with a sudden, jarring shock. David Britton does not point his finger and say "those are the guilty ones," he says "yes, we are guilty!" and it is this accusation of complicity which hits the nerve and stirs up so much shit!
Reverbstorm, like Lord Horror, displays an absence of feeling-tonea kaleidoscope of gruesome and coldly beautiful images and texts, presented clinically in a similar way to that used by Ballard, Burroughs, Selby and Warhol. In the first issue we are wheeled through scenes of Lord Horror butchering policemen, as lover of Jessie Matthewsimages guaranteed to appeal to disaffected youth, drawing them into a feeling of gratified complicity, only to reveal at the end that their anarcho-fascism leads to no goal but a sterile nothingness.
We can also expect more issues of the vile Meng & Ecker comic, which recounts the misadventures of the mutant twins of Dr Josef Mengele. Gross (but not obscene) and warped (but not corrupting), each issue seems to wind in and out of a timeless realm of metamorphic incidents. The twins wreak havoc and carnage, indulge in impossible sexual exploits and throw out hilarious one-liners all the more hysterical for their nihilistic gratuitousness and political incorrectness. The extravagant rhetoric of Lord Horror is replaced here by the crude vulgarity of the Volk. The danger with this comic is its accessibility. Lord Horror was admittedly a difficult work, whose philosophical content and postmodernist format demanded a certain amount of intellectual muscle even to read it at all. One was already automatically on guard. Meng & Ecker, on the other hand, is dangerously disarming and easier to read, even passively. Although irony is still the most important element, it could here be misconstrued as gratuitous slapstick.
This comic was said by the appeal judge to be likely to upset "right-thinking people", yet in a High Street newsagents I recently counted no less than seven magazines, on the bottom shelf, devoted to serial killers and gruesome murder. In one was a 'whodunnit' quiz based on a real murder, with real-life victims. A scratch-away panel revealed the name of the killer.
Another publishing milestone for Savoy is the launch in 1995 of the new Meng & Ecker novel, demurely entitled Motherfuckers: The Auschwitz Of Oz. The novel differs from the M & E comics in several important ways. Firstly, the characters are depicted as having an interior lifetheir thoughts are revealed to us directly, and the bleak motives for their actions make them simultaneously more sympathetic and less superficially attractive. The crude 'splatter' violence of the comic is replaced by a harrowing and degrading horror which depicts the misery of the victims, whom the comic relegates to the stance of cardboard cut-out props for the twin protagonists. The humour is blacker, and more surreal in its juxtaposition with the events occurring.
Meng is still a ludicrous figure but is here more lethal, destructive, deranged, and yet in some strange way pitiable because lost to himself. Ecker, although less destructive, is equally lost. The sadness he feels at the carnage surrounding him is cerebral, aesthetic and schematic. He has become inured to the unspeakable, hence is more horrible. The twins are metaphors for the two poles of human alienationequal halves of the same single being, forever bound to each other, yet unable to become whole, they remain emotionally uninvolved with their environment.
Through the most despairing of landscapes and shocking of visceral scenarios wander incongruous cartoon charactersFudge and Speck, Mickey Mouse, Mr Toad from Wind In The Willows. We encounter the 'Afreet of Dachau' who turns out to be Elvis Presley, delivering an incredible monologue to Herbie Schopenhaueran intelligent Volkswagen Beetle. These characters appeared in the comics, but only as wallpaper. Here they partake actively in the atrocities, perpetrated mainly against Jews. The grotesquery reaches a peak in the chapter 'Oi Swiney', which must be seen as David Britton's personal vision of Helllike a Bosch painting animated by Merry Melodies. All the psychic debris of our doomed culturethe idiocy, the hate, the banalityamalgamated into a dreamlike post modern bardo. Dave Britton's Book Of The Dead. And we are the dead; the writing is on the wall.
Perhaps, with this book, we will see a reappraisal of Mr Britton's work and Savoy's publications in general. Doubtful, but we live in hope.
Meanwhile, Savoy continue to produce CDs. The amazing Savoy Wars will be followed by another collection of the early Savoy PJ Proby recordings originally released on vinyl. Also to look forward to are T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land read by Proby with a musical accompaniment, and a reading of Lord Horror by (you guessed it) PJ Proby.
Only death can stop them. •
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