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John Harrigan is a writer, director and performer. He is a founder of FoolishPeople and is one of the earliest pioneers of immersive theatre. Harrigan’s work centres on the creation of film, ritual theatre, and installation art. Its aim is to raise a numinous experience within the witness. He has performed at the ICA, the Horse Hospital, Arcola Theatre, and throughout London and the UK. His work has been presented internationally in the United States and Netherlands.
The award-winning film Armageddon Chronicles has recently been released on Apple TV.
Refugee gods, transposed to flesh and blood, wash ashore to rouse the myths of ancient England, half-drowned in a forgotten past. They disperse through shifting realities to awaken the giant Albion and find the holy grail in a ritual to save England from the rot of darkness and hatred that’s strangling its soul.
An uncanny harmony of visceral and noetic experience, Armageddon Gospels is an extraordinary work of re-enchantment.
What inspired Armageddon Gospels, and what does it hope to inspire?
Death was the inspiration for Armageddon Gospels. Death in all its guises, as a potent form of transformation.
My mother’s death was ground-zero for the film. Joyce Rose Harrigan passed away after a long battle with dementia, I was her sole carer for six years, while trying to continue to work and raise a family.
In 2016 my mum declined, she refused to eat and was eventually hospitalised.
Witnessing someone who defined the landscape of your childhood slowly starve themselves to death leaves a lasting imprint, it’s a terrible form of hell.
The final stages were a period of late night hospital visits, listening to Bowies ‘Black Star’ on the journey to and from seeing my mum. After one night when I thought we would lose her and I expected to wake to bad news, my phone was filled with the news that David Bowie had died, it was one of the strangest experiences. In this moment, the loss of Bowie became a powerful augury and omen for the following events.
My mother slowly faded away, and then the Brexit referendum occurred a couple of months after.
These three monumental events. Bowie’s death, the death of my mother and the referendum result were the three key experiences that in turn inspired the screenplay.
The basis of my work is in ritual, it’s how I engage with the world. One of the most difficult aspects of this period was not having the full ability to express my experiences through ritual. Strength and time had been drained from me.
I knew that a ritual was how I would survive what I had experienced over those months and that ritual was ‘Armageddon Gospels’.
Even a personal Armageddon can eventually offer faith and hope. This is what I hope the film inspires. The strength of hope in the face of Armageddon.
Six refugee gods wash ashore the south coast of England to awaken the giant Albion and find the Holy Grail. Who are these gods? (Is Pearl a manifestation of “Grail Bearer” Elaine of Corbenic?)
The quick answer is yes. If Pearl appeared as Elaine of Corbenic, then that is indeed who she is. Pearl is a formulation of many different stories and Gods. When you invite others into a Ritual their experience is critical to how the story is shared and grows.
Percy is inspired by Percival from the earliest grail rituals, Dianna is based upon the moon archetype, Aradia the witch within us all and Robin is the child who never grew up.
In what ways did the alchemy of vision, writing, acting, music, location, cinematography and production synchronise toward the making of this film?
These are the types of questions you dream of as a practitioner of ritual.
Alchemy is the key to ritual. You’re right that all these elements comprise an alchemical event, that produces an experience; a film.
One of the important things I’ve learnt in ritual is that each element of the ritual is of equal importance. The key aspect is that they must combine to create a landscape where the sacred can exist. A landscape and space for the miraculous.
What is the importance of harnessing archetypes, myth and folklore in the telling and understanding of story?
It’s very hard to give this question the honour it deserves, it’s critical, I’ve been creating stories for most of my life and I think I’ve internalised these tools. They’re part of how I think and see the world, they’re organs in my body. They’ve created calluses on my soul.
They’re the fundamental tools of storytelling and they were used to build all forms of communication.
Now, having said all that, all good craftsmen know that you need to be willing to adapt the use of your tools, to the task and challenge at hand. So myths and archetypes are only as important as the ability and freedom to interpret them in your own way.
Why is nostalgia the most peculiar of emotions?
The experience of nostalgia can often feel like it’s based outside of our bodies.
Personally, nostalgia feels like it’s a form of emotional time travel. Back to memories and events that have informed our personal stories. And we then relive them at a distance, inside our narratives. At different moments, throughout our passage through life.
The landscapes we exist within change with us and when we return to a place or space that has been important to us, they overlap or overlay our experience and this can be painful and illuminating.
Just feeling nostalgia at a biological level feels really odd, and I think nostalgia can be as dangerous when used as a form of emotional propaganda.
Armageddon Gospels manages to be both a visceral and noetic experience, affecting instinctive feeling whilst stimulating the intellect and spirit. Why do you think this is?
Thank you. We all experience loss, we’re all haunted by what exists beyond the realm of life. Death is a visceral and noetic experience that affects both the spirit and intellect.
The film deals in myth and ritual and magic, and as humans we all have a relationship with how these inform the story of our humanity.
Armageddon Gospels attempts to explore the particular time we’re all experiencing through the lens of myth, ritual and folk-tales.
My central partner in making the film was a landscape. The South Downs National Park and the long man of Wilmington. A sacred landscape, that operated as a portal to a particular set of ideas on how the gods and goddesses might view this moment in the history of Albion.
It’s also about the sacred nature of our audience, the role they play as witness to the ritual. Unique individuals such as yourself, taking the baton and being willing to enter and play their part in the ritual.
The team who came together to make Armageddon Gospels was a brilliant and unique group of artists and individuals that offered their spirit and soul to realise this story and film.
To what extent did a sense of place affect the making of Armageddon Gospels?
It was the key to the ritual. The leading performer in the film is landscape. Landscape and weather shaped everything we shot, to the extent I adapted aspects of the story as our relationship with the landscape developed over the course of the ritual.
A Genius Loci was my co-director.
Can you tell us of any personal transformative processes that occurred during the making of this film?
There was a form of communion between grief and creation. I died and was reborn. I grieved the loss of the portal through which I entered this world. My mother. The landscape grieved with me, offering me solace and a mirror for the story I was telling.
Landscape is reactive to ritual, so many times we can state it’s coincidence or luck. A psychological trick of the mind and imagination. I choose to believe that the landscape and weather appeared sentient and played an active role in our ritual. The communication I had with Albion changed me as an artist and human.
What does the Bone King represent?
Nostalgia and the parasitic nature of negative space. How negative thoughts breed further negative thoughts. The aspects of culture and society that would like us to believe our dreams and hopes of love and communion are meaningless.
The endless chatter of the mind, informing of us how we will never be good enough.
The Bone King is built of grief and decay. Hate and facism. It is the tyranny of time.
One of my favourite quotes from Armageddon Gospels is my next question: “How can you save a landscape that exists only in your imagination?”
Quite possibly we shouldn’t even try.
Especially if it’s haunted by nostalgia and constructed of lies. The idea of what a country can be is dangerous. When we’re told a place must represent a certain ideal. To whom? Everyone? For what purpose? Because we all have different memories of the land we live within. If a landscape has been sacred to our ancestors, then we enliven it through art and ritual that offers the possibility of evolution into new forms. Ultimately, we can only save these landscapes by witnessing their wildness and sharing how important they are to us, through art and song and storytelling.
What is the significance of Robin not returning to the waters with the other five refugees at the end of the film?
Well spotted. It’s very significant. He can’t leave. How would he help the Arcadians ashore next time….
As the ritual of Armageddon Gospels continues to play out as people experience it, what are some of the transformative effects you have noticed in the world at large?
That’s very difficult to answer. I do see transformative effects in my own existence. I see a return of wonderment. I now teach a weekly class outside in the landscape I live in. This is directly linked to the relationship I developed with Albion whilst making the film.
Are there any other stories about the making of this film that we should know?
Meeting the composer for the film, while shooting the final scene is one of the stories I’m most proud of. Jo (Burke) heard the ritual taking place at the foot of the Long Man and was called forth like a spirit. She’s the only person who had the knowledge and skill to do the job right, the landscape called to her.
There is no one else who could create such a perfect score.
A Year In The Country is a set of year long explorations of an otherly pastoralism, the undercurrents and flipside of bucolic dreams. It is a wandering amongst work that takes inspiration from the hidden and underlying tales of the land, the further reaches of folk music and culture and where such things meet and intertwine with the lost futures, spectral histories and parallel worlds of what has come to be known as hauntology. Those explorations take the form of a website hosting essays, discussion and artworks, as well as music and book releases.
In the recently released second book from A Year In The Country: Straying from the Pathways, Stephen Prince explores the wider realm of “otherly pastoralism” and its intertwining with the lost futures and parallel worlds of hauntology. It examines such varied and curiously interconnected topics as the faded modernity and “future ruins” of British road travel; apocalyptic “empty city” films; dark fairy tales; the political undercurrents of the 1980s; idyllic villages gone rogue; photographic countercultural festival archives and experiments in “temporary autonomous zones” – (introduction from the A Year In The Country website).
What is “otherly pastoralism”?
I tend to use the phrase “otherly pastoralism” to refer to an atmosphere, work etc that explores the undercurrents or flipside of more conventional views of rural and pastoral areas, folk culture etc. It refers in part to a sense of alternatives to bucolic views of the countryside, although related work can sit alongside and at points intertwine with such more idyllic work.
There isn’t really one overarching name for the loosely interconnected subculture that has flourished since around 2010 which explores such things. “Otherly pastoral” is a phrase that I have used to try and convey a particular related atmosphere – a sense of the hidden or underlying tales of the landscape. In some ways I use it in a similar manner that the word “wyrd” is sometimes used.
What motivated you to begin A Year in the Country?
For quite a number of years I had lived and/or worked in often quite central, busy urban places and worked in subculture and left-of-centre pop culture. A lot of urban orientated subculture etc had started to feel as though it had been very thoroughly explored and harvested and I found myself being drawn to more rural/folk orientated culture and accidentally came across (or sometimes revisited) its more subcultural aspects. At that time there seemed to be more space within such work, more overlooked nooks and crannies.
Also there wasn’t so much work that explored such areas and I found myself essentially thinking about and planning a website, project, music releases etc that I would want to find and explore myself.
You explore a strange confluence of interests that may initially seem disparate to a curious observer. Even within a single explored medium there is a diversity of style. Have you come close to a divining and defining a common spark that binds and guides this confluence?
I think one of the underlying things that connects say the initially disparate seeming areas of otherly pastoral/wyrd folkloric culture and that of a hauntological nature is a sense of loss; in hauntological culture that is often a sense of post-war lost progressive futures, within otherly pastoral/wyrd folkloric culture that may be a sense of a form of lost Arcadian utopias or idylls.
The two areas may have quite different surface aesthetics but they appear to be connected by a similar exploratory, visionary or utopian spirit and, as I say in the A Year In The Country: Straying From The Pathways book, they have come to “shadow and inform one another’s journey’s within an alternative cultural landscape”.
There is also a sense in both of allowing space for the hidden, semi-hidden or not fully explained – which I think can be appealing in contemporary times when that is often not the case.
What are some of your favourite discourses and discoveries from Straying from the Pathways?
I don’t know if I strictly speaking I have favourites, although there are certain things that have particularly stuck with me.
One of those is Andy Beckett and Roger Luckhurst’s observations in The Disturbance (a booklet published by Texte und Toné in which they discuss The Changes television series) in which they draw comparisons between the mid-1970s and the state of flux that British society was in at that time and contemporary unsettled times in Britain. They suggest that because of these similarities the worries, catastrophes etc in the likes of television dramas such as The Changes, The Survivors and the final Quatermass series, the spectral supernatural occurrences of The Stone Tape and films which have been retrospectively labelled as folk horror such as The Wicker Man fit our times much better than they might have done previously.
To be honest, the majority of the things I write about in Straying from the Pathways could be considered favourites; that’s why I wanted to put them in the book (!)
From the phantasmagoric tales of Prince of Darkness and Halloween III to the beautifully produced Texte und Toné releases, via considerations of the faded modernity of British road travel in the book In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway, the hidden subterfuges of Edge of Darkness and the spectral audio of The Ghost in the MP3 and much more – I find it all intriguing and inspiring work.
The first year of A Year in the Country in particular felt like a ritualistic experience, with a new blog post every day, and regular physical releases in the form of prints, badges, stickers and CD’s. How much of the first year was planned, and how did this ritual effect you?
I had a loose plan in place before I started the first year, although I left space within it so that, for example, if I came across something that I found particularly interesting I could write about it.
How did it effect me? I think by the end of that year I was physically and mentally somewhat tired (! again).
At the same time, I was glad to have completed it, to have been able to see it through. I had written about most of the subjects I wanted to at that time and much of what I thought of back then as my core areas of interest and inspiration in this loosely connected culture, which had been one of the aims of that year.
The A Year in the Country musical releases are often collaborative concept albums. Tell us about the idea and evolution of these wonders.
Sometimes with the themes/concepts of the albums they will come to me very quickly and largely fully formed. Sometimes it’s just an inkling of an idea and they will slowly develop over time.
It’s similar with the artwork and packaging design. At times it will all fall into place quickly, other times it will slowly evolve and be honed down over quite a period of time, with the atmospheres of the music by the different people often influencing the artwork that I create for them.
The themes of the concepts draw from quite a wide area but at their core they are generally inspired by the intertwining of otherly pastoral and spectral hauntological ideas.
In terms of the other people music which featured on the albums, their previous work is often something that I have discovered and found myself returning to over time, people who’s work I appreciate and would like to hear more of – which is one of the things the albums do, they help to put such work out into the world.
A Year in the Country is now approaching the end of its fifth year. Did you expect to be still wandering spectral paths at this stage?
Ah, good question. I think initially I just thought about the first year of A Year In The Country but then once that was done I realised that there was much more in this “otherly” cultural landscape that I wanted to explore – the ongoing years of A Year In The Country give me space to do that.
The Gutter Prayer is quite possibly the most exciting and extraordinary fantasy novel of 2019, and is certainly a favourite for us here at Wyrd Daze.
The city has always been. The city must finally end.
When three thieves – an orphan, a ghoul, and a cursed man – are betrayed by the master of the thieves guild, their quest for revenge uncovers dark truths about their city and exposes a dangerous conspiracy, the seeds of which were sown long before they were born.
Cari is a drifter whose past and future are darker than she can know. Rat is a Ghoul, whose people haunt the city’s underworld. Spar is a Stone Man, subject to a terrible disease that is slowly petrifying his flesh.
Chance has brought them together, but their friendship could be all that stands in the way of total armageddon.
As a game designer you’ve worked within many fiction universes, including Traveller, Paranoia, Babylon 5, The Laundry RPG, 13th Age, and various Lovecraft-themed systems. Can you tell us about some of your favourite pieces of writing and game mechanics that you’ve produced throughout your career?
Career highlights? Hmm. The Dracula Dossier (with Kenneth Hite) is probably the best thing I’ve done, and certainly the most ambitious. We took Bram Stoker’s Dracula and turned it into an alarmingly plausible spy story spanning more than a century of intrigue and horror, a campaign that’s both entirely player-driven and leads towards a single climatic confrontation with the man himself…
Getting to write in Middle-earth on Cubicle 7’s The One Ring was also a joy, telling tales of Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain, of Moria and Minas Tirith. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since my mother introduced me to it at age eight.
PARANOIA was a chance to work on a much-loved property, one that’s terrifying relevant to the present day. I’m very proud of some of the missions I wrote for that line. Really, though, you have to find love in what you’re doing when you’re a freelancer, to find that spark of excitement and nurture it.
How did you start your career as a game designer?
I’d done a little freelancing as a hobby, while working in a Real Grown-Up Job as a programmer. Then the company I was working for downsized, and I thought I’d try freelancing until my savings ran out. They haven’t, yet. I didn’t plan this as a career, certainly.
How has your experience in game design shaped you as a writer?
Some skills cross over perfectly. World-building works the same way in both fields; ditto descriptive prose. Supporting characters, too. The big differences are in plotting and characterisation. In a game or adventure, you want to have multiple paths through the story, lots of options for the players to take, places for the players to add to the story. In a piece of fiction, you want the most compelling, dramatic path, which isn’t the same route at all. And in a game, the players provide the protagonists and you build the story around those constraints. In a novel, it’s all up to you.
What advice concerning story structure/plot and character design would you give to aspiring writers or game designers?
You know, I suspect open-ended questions like that always end up being prompts for the interviewee to write about what’s currently pre-occupying them. For example. my current answer is “don’t be afraid of simplicity – a compelling story doesn’t need tons of twists and revelations to be compelling”. I offer that as general advice, but I think I’m really subconsciously telling myself something about my current work-in-progress…
Are there any other fictional universes that you’d particularly like to write for?
I’d love to do something with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series.
Will there be a Black Iron Legacy RPG?
I think so, in some form. I don’t know if it’ll warrant a full-scale sourcebook, or a short supplement for D&D5E or some other open system, or just a free guide on my website. I’ll do something with it, certainly. It’s an obvious step!
The majority of The Gutter Prayer is told in the present tense. What drew you to tell the story from this perspective?
Partly, because I knew that a lot of the book would be about stuff that happened in the past of the city, and I wanted to contrast those deep dives into Guerdon’s history and archaeology with what was happening now. Partly because it felt comfortable. The prologue is second person present, which is the vernacular of a roleplaying gamesmaster – “you descend into the dungeon, and you see the dragon…”
What were your inspirations for the city of Guerdon?
The architecture of Edinburgh, the size and complexity of London, the ambition of turn-of-the-century New York, and – very roughly – the geography of Cork. New Crobuzon, Ambergris, Waterdeep. They’re all in there.
There are a variety of strange, wondrous and terrifying beings in The Gutter Prayer: Tallowmen, Gullheads, Ravellers, Singers, Saints, Crawling Ones, Kept Gods, and Fever Knights – were these all created from scratch for the novel, or have they been haunting you for longer?
Oh, it’s a mix. Tallowmen and Gullheads I originally wrote up for an obscure RPG supplement under different names. The Crawling Ones are straight out of Lovecraft. A lot of the others came name first, concept later. I threw the words Fever Knight down on a page, and he showed up a few chapters later.
The Gutter Prayer is set in the midst of armageddon, with the Godswar raging and the city of Guerdon teetering on the brink of a world gone mad. Who are these mad gods, and what happened to them?
There are lots of mad gods. The exact origin of the madness is obscure, but it’s sort of a viral idea or infection. In the world of The Gutter Prayer, gods cannot die – but they can be broken down to the point of almost non-existence. They’re not truly conscious, either – they’re more like magical patterns of thought and purpose that humans can tap into. The Godswar is another pattern, one that reminds the gods that there are other gods out there, and that their patterns are incompatible. The result is a lot of violent, paranoid, deities imperfectly channeling this pattern through human vessels.
Does the world have a name, and a map?
There’s a map, at least of the area around Guerdon. The world doesn’t have a name. I should probably get around to that…
As The Black Iron Legacy grows beyond the first novel, have you developed an overarching plot for the greater story, and do you have an idea of how many books there might be in the series?
If all goes according to plan, it’ll be five books. I’m trying to keep each book sort-of self-contained, although that’s proving trickier as I write books 3 and 4. The Black Iron Legacy keeps the focus on the Thay family, on Cari and Eladora. I could do more in the same setting, I suppose, if I went off and followed other strands of story.
What sparked your imagination when you were a youngling?
I don’t know if sparked is the right work. Often, for me anyway, imagination is more like a river. It’s always flowing – sometimes fast, sometimes slow. On a good day, you can just dip a waterwheel in and it’ll power whatever mechanism you attach. Sometimes, odd stuff falls into it and gets carried for a long long time until it finds its place. Some ideas have been lurking in the back of my head for many, many years, and are still waiting for the right place to rest.
To what extent does a sense of place affect your writing?
I think I come at place through space and function – all things had a purpose, once, even if it’s now been lost. I’m enchanted by digressions into the past, and by spatial relationships – and especially by spots where they cross over. Spaces are static – places are given meaning by the people who live there, and have lived there.
It strikes me, as I write this, that I’m talking entirely about artificial places, about cities and buildings and settlements. I suppose I’ve always lived in cities and towns, so my instincts are urban.
How do you handle unruly characters that want to do their own things or change the course of the story in unexpected ways?
Run with it. It’s the advice I’d give in roleplaying games, and it applies equally well here. Inspiration is always worth chasing, at least for a little while.
As someone who harnesses imagination for a living, do you have any philosophical or spiritual views on the serendipity of ideas?
Inspiration is basically banging rocks together and looking for a spark, so you need plenty of rocks. Especially in fantasy books, you can add all sorts of weird asides and quirks to your story without knowing how they’ll fit in later on. Often, you’ll solve plot problems by taking something that you originally thought was a minor bit of background flavour and promoting it to a fuller plot element. But you need that background flavour to begin with. So, don’t be afraid to scatter rocks in first drafts.
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is a writer and game designer. Originally qualified as a computer programmer, he took a three month break to see how “this writing thing” would go. More than fifteen years later, he’s still on that break.
The writing thing seems to be going.
Gareth has published more role-playing games and supplements than he can even recall, including the award-winning The Laundry RPG, Adventures in Middle Earth and The Dracula Dossier.
He describes writing as “the process of transforming tea and guilt into words”. His debut novel, The Gutter Prayer was published by Orbit Books in 2019.
Its sequel, The Shadow Saint is due in January 2020.
Gareth lives in Cork, Ireland with more dogs, children and fish than he ever anticipated.