Phil Smith is an associate professor at the University of Plymouth. He is an academic researcher, writer and artist specialising in walking, site-specific performance, dramaturgy and mythogeographies. Because of COVID19 and much of the world being under quarantine, he decided to release his ‘secret’ work Bonelines in weekly instalments, bringing a Lovecraftian experience to walkers-at-home.
A couple of years ago, with ornithologist and DJ Tony Whitehead, I began to walk the Lovecraft villages; small communities in Devon, not far from Newton Abbot, where the ancestors of US ‘weird horror’ writer H. P. Lovecraft lived. We were searching for the Lovecraft heritage and a terrain that, via family memory, might have informed the cosmist vision of the writer.
We found both those things. But we also found just about everything else. In a landscape where ideas and shapes, symbols, stories and materials are woven together in webs.
Maybe everywhere has this kind of intensity if you know how to look. We did not particularly ‘know’, though both of us had been walking in our different hyper-sensitized ways for a while; however, the magic ingredient seems to have been a dollop of trauma for both of us.
We would later distil our experiences in a Guidebook for an Armchair Pilgrimage (Triarchy Press), a focused and disciplined conflation of our disparate experiences, while at the very same time, we abandoned discipline to pen a dark fantasy fiction, Bonelines, which rages around the Lovecraft villages, casting its net wide to catch the multiplicities at work there; conjunctions that, by their very waywardness, mark a way.
Our own way was performative. As ambulant researchers we played numerous roles: pilgrim, travel writer, social snoop. There were ethnographic and auto-ethnographic elements; we attended local events and public spaces in order to participant-observe, visited archaeology open days, pagan workshops, chatted with locals in pubs. We walked with and visited individual locals; recording their observations about their area. All the time we noted our own subjective responses to the route while observing its effects on others.
However, rather than accumulating data to support an interpretation or describe a phenomenon, we attended mostly to anomalous information; what Charles Fort called ‘damned data’. And we subjected that data to fictionalisation; in order to define the mythos of this place it was necessary for us to write a new mythos for it.
Such entanglement of documentation and intuitive creativity is a practice-as-research; findings being generated by the creative writing, adding to those arrived at by reflection and analysis.
To give just one example from many; the rich alignment in the village of Torbryan that includes a mediaeval church, a farm, The Old Churchhouse Inn, and a low cliff running about half a mile pitted with caves. One of these caves is named The Old Grotto by its original excavator, James Lyon Widger, and contains the remains of a medieval chapel. All these, according to drinkers at the Inn, are linked by a tunnel. (Aren’t they always?)
There is, surprisingly, no mention of this cave chapel in parish or diocesan records. This omission, and a suspiciously similar engineered rock fall blocking its entrance, led the archaeologist F. E. Zeuner to suggest that ‘The Old Grotto’ might be of similar nature to a contemporaneous chapel in the north of the county closed down by the church authorities for worshipping “proud and disobedient Eve and unchaste Diana”.
Inside the cave are limestone formations that look like tentacles.
A chapel in a cave with submarine connotations (a river once ran through it) and a possible link to unofficial worship of unusual female figures dimly chimes with the local Iron Age worship of Dumna, a goddess of the deep. An earth monument of the Dumnonii people on top of nearby Denbury Hill is framed in the mouth of ‘The Old Grotto’ if you strand in the cave and look out.
Mediaeval rood screen paintings in the parish church in Torbryan include Catherine who was prone to mystical “ravishment” during which she went stiff as a board; Margaret who was swallowed by a dragon; Ursula, a Dumnonian princess who, inadvisably, led 11,000 unarmed handmaidens against an army of Huns; Barbara who opened a portal from a tower to a mountain and turned a recalcitrant shepherd to stone; Elizabeth who opened her robe to reveal a vision of roses, and Helena who found the true cross under a Temple of Venus.
Opposite the church is the Old Churchhouse Inn, originally run to finance the building of the church from beer sales.
Given the theme of mutable female spiritual figures turned up by our wandering research method, it was incongruous but not surprising to find the pub sign comprised of a woman on a white horse in a long blue robe, carrying a sword by the blade so its raised handle makes a cross, making her way through water and mist; by a church tower not dissimilar to the one across the road.
A little hive-mind research on Facebook turned up the signboard’s origin; an approximation of cover art for an Arthurian fantasy novel The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley; though the inn sign conflates Camelot with Torbryan by adapting its castle to look like the village church. The figure on horseback is the novel’s Morgaine, a version of the Lady of the Lake, who defends her ‘Celtic’ religion against the introduction of Christianity, eventually conceding defeat, but recognising that a trace of the old beliefs will continue within Christianity; her goddess assuming the mantle of the Virgin Mary.
After months exploring Torbryan and its surrounding small villages, the faint possibility we had been repeatedly led to consider as we tramped the narrow green lanes, that some faint trace of the Dumnonian goddess, the lady of the deep, had survived through The Old Grotto and in the official magical female figures in the churches, was played out on a pub sign.
All that said, in Bonelines this story plays out very differently.
After publishing Guidebook for an Armchair Pilgrimage, Tony and I decided to keep Bonelines secret, the hidden ‘id’ of our venture. However, this time of virus has put many things into reverse. We decided to publish Bonelines in 12 parts, one episode released each Friday from March 27th onwards.
Bonelines is available for free at Triarchy Press.