Gazelle Amber Valentine is one half of sludge / doom / death metal two piece Jucifer, formed in Georgia, USA in 1993. For more than seventeen years Gazelle and her bandmate (and husband), drummer Edgar Livengood, have adopted a nomadic lifestyle. The pair live, tour, rehearse, and sometimes even record in their Winnebago, towing the literal wall of amplification Valentine utilises on stage in a trailer behind them. The duo describe this life as an endless tour, and they can easily find themselves playing live shows in twenty or more countries in a single year.
Jucifer's music can be (and usually is) harsh, aggressive, and loud, but its subject matter and lyrical content are not necessarily what people might expect. 2008's L'Autrichienne was a concept album based around the French Revolution accompanied by extensive historical notes, while 2013's За Волгой для нас земли нет ("There is no land beyond The Volga") dealt with the Soviet Union and WWII. Equally though, there is a strong sense of Americana embedded in much of Jucifer's music and lyrics; dark folk sounds and sensibilities; finger-picked banjo and violin strings, and dissonant, melancholic melodies. Nowhere is this side of their work more apparent than in Gazelle's solo album Devil's Tower I, released in 2013.
All of this - the nomadic life, the artistry, the power and intelligence of her writing - made Gazelle Amber Valentine someone I was very keen to approach as a contributor to Spirits of Place. Her essay, entitled "I Have Trod Such Haunted Land", ended up being the first in the book and remains one of my favourites. Even though her internet connection can be intermittent as she and Edgar continue their never ending tour, Gazelle was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the book and her contribution to it.
John Reppion: You and Edgar have lived a nomadic life for seventeen years now, how much of an influence do you think that lifestyle has on you creatively?
Gazelle Amber Valentine: The main thing I believe our nomadic existence has affected is our capacity to see all places with equal passion and simultaneously, equal dispassion. Delineation between 'home' and 'away' and between 'us' and 'them' becomes forever blurred in context of such a life. In every capital, one sees all the lovely decorations of propaganda and state fantasy, so impressive yet unable to conceal rote greed, violence and inequity. In every dwelling one imagines life and family; death and suffering and redemption. For natural empaths like us, the universality and futility of humans is enhanced almost unbearably. So although we always felt deeply about our art, I think it becomes wiser as we go farther on this path.
Other than that, our way of life has made us even less respectful of conformity and pandering than we were to begin with--- which wasn't very, haha. The immediacy of survival requires enshrinement of integrity, and of the bonds with your life partner. No room for falseness.
JR: Home for you is obviously the van, but are there places you feel anchored, or connected to no matter where you are?
GAV: Yeah, we both feel that certain places live inside of us wherever we are. For me some of these still exist and are physical, others are stories or memories, and still others are dreams which feel like memory.
JR: Have you encountered different cultural attitudes to place when travelling? I assume people are always asking you about the nomadic life and that opens up all kinds of discussions. Is there any particular country or city where you've felt that their sense of place, and relationship with it, was very different to your own?
GAV: I've felt that place affects people's customs and very subtle mannerisms in that people living in large countries (US, Canada, Russia, Australia) share more commonality along those lines than they do with people living in countries having comparatively small land mass. Although one can find xenophobia and competitiveness anywhere, there is a certain subconscious isolationism that's possible when 'foreigners' remain far away. For this reason and many other, perhaps unnameable, nuances which seem attributable to nation size, I've felt for example that Russians are more similar to Americans than are English folks --- despite origins of the US and despite most Russians having likely had more contact with people from the UK.
Beyond that observation, I've found that my personal attitude towards place seems replicated in different ways almost everywhere. Most countries, cities and neighborhoods have some kind of reverence for their history, albeit always threatened by forces of modernization and gentrification. If I were to make a worldwide guess, I'd assume that in every place, indigenous communities are most in touch with the importance of connecting to place and to its past. Colonists in every region only profit by obscuring historical connections (at least ones that predate their own) while indigenous peoples maintain their own families, nations and traditions by constant awareness of such links. Regardless of location and manner or conception of ownership, whenever people care about place it seems based on an idea of belonging. This is universal, and applies even when current inhabitants don't historically belong.
JR: What's your take on the Spirits Of Place core premise about stories being physically embedded in a place or landscape?
GAV: I said something in my piece about the fact that my personality combines skepticism and gullibility in a satisfactory ratio. This plays into my feelings about genus loci. On some (curmudgeonly) level the concept seems unscientific. Conversely, there is science that supports the possibility for kinetic transmittance of thought and its ability to accrue and manifest physically. Namely, that thought is electric and that electricity travels and accumulates.
Spirits of Place is available in digital, paperback, and limited edition, signed hardcover from www.spiritsofplace.com
HBO, 2016ce, 117mins.
Director; Irene Taylor Brodsky. Broadcast 23 January 2017.
(Art by Joe Coleman)
There is a concept in the consideration of supposedly ‘non-fictional’ presentations, a vital one in these times of ‘fake news’, called Gell-Mann Amnesia. The term comes from a comment made by the late science fiction author Michael Crichton, creator of the original Westworld, in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. He describes it thus:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behaviour is amnesia.
This is not a concept I wanted to have to consider in the first full-length documentary about the Slenderman phenomenon.
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO documentary has been heavily publicised, some reviews suggesting that it could become ‘the new obsession’ for true-crime fans of recent explorations of the genre in the podcast Serial, among others. The focus of the documentary is, inevitably, upon the 30 May 2014 knife attack in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where two twelve year old girls named Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier lured a classmate, Peyton ‘Bella’ Lautner, into the nearby park, knifed her 19 times and left her to die, in attempt to gain the attention of Slenderman and become his ‘proxies’ - mind-controlled servants.
Brodsky’s previous documentaries have focussed on parent/child relationships, often in relation to trauma, and personal struggles with harsh circumstances and disaster: she clearly has a rapport with parents in trying times. The film has an unprecedented level of access to the parents of Geyser and Weier (understandably, Lautner’s parents were not involved: the only appearance of ‘Bella’ is a video of her giving a school presentation). The majority of the film is made of court footage, home movies, police video of the assailant’s post-arrest interrogations and lengthy interviews of the parents from as early as two months after the incident, showing their struggle to both support their incarcerated children and attempt to get on with their lives: there are many heart-wrenching scenes of the parents (mostly Geyser’s mother and Weier’s father - a late appearance of Geyser’s father is significant).
It isn’t until about 25 minutes in that the film focusses, after several tantalising hints and pieces of spooky footage, on the origin of Slenderman itself, employing a series of Skype interviews with people associated, if sometimes tangentially, with the phenomena (including a surprisingly good section with Richard Dawkins explaining meme transmission theory and how it relates to the fast spread of Slendy’s influence).
It is here that everything, for me, goes very wrong.
The early origin story is told by Brad Kim, an editor at Know Your Meme. He briefly talks about the original 10 June 2009 Something Awful ‘make a supernatural monster’ photoshop thread where Slenderman was created by Eric Knudsen aka ‘Victor Surge’. But then he goes on to say that Slenderman’s spread to the wider internet came first via the games associated with him - the Slender first-person horror game and the Minecraft Enderman character, and from there to YouTube videos and blogs. This is, to be blunt, completely inaccurate.
The first Slenderman mythos YouTube video, Episode One of Marble Hornets, aired on 20 June 2009, only ten days after the original Surge post on Something Awful. Minecraft was not published until November of 2011 and the Slender game did not appear until June of 2012. (My own interest in the phenomenon occurred during its first year of life, directly as a result of hearing about Marble Hornets.)
At no point in the filming and editing process was this fundamental error caught and corrected. Its presence implies the film-makers simply did not do their homework. The fact that Dr. Shira Chess, an acknowledged expert on the phenomenon and author of a fine book on the subject, is credited as ‘Research Consultant’ makes this all the more puzzling.
The time devoted to the actual Slenderman phenomenon itself is mostly video clips, with the occasional piece of commentary (the best of which comes from digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank). Vital and relevant parts of the mythos’ development are simply not mentioned - for example, the tendency for many blogs and video series to be told in a factual-seeming form from the point of view of Slenderman proxies themselves (and the resulting, highly connected set of linked blogs grouped together under the heading of Core Theory): something you would think was worthy of note when the core of the case is that the assailants believed Slenderman was real. The film actually devotes less time to the known origins of Slenderman than it does to a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
And, shockingly, the word Tulpa does not appear once.
The lack of any discussion of tulpas - the concept that Slenderman is a ‘thought-form’ created by the belief of his enthusiasts, which has been core to the mythos since the very same day Marble Hornets first aired - is especially interesting, considering the focus of the latter half of the film; in fact, it may have been deliberately left out.
A great deal of time is devoted in the latter half of the film to Morgan Geyser’s court-supervised schizophrenia diagnosis, including a moving Act 4 revelation that her father also had schizophrenia. By focussing on this aspect and avoiding any mention of tulpas (even merely as an influential-if-fictional aspect of the mythos), the emphasis on Geyser’s illness - she reported being pinched by ghosts’ and talking to an entity she called The Man from as early as 3 years old, as well as her belief that she communicated with other fictional entities, such as Severus Snape - makes a clear statement: this was all just a schizophrenic kid getting another child in a folie à deux, leading to tragedy. Those damn kids and their internets.
Nothing weird to see here. Move along.
(It must also be noted that there is far less discussion of Anissa Weier’s mental health: especially as Geyser was transferred to a hospital facility while Weier, who, though she was first to discover Slenderman online did not perform the actual stabbing, is still in juvenile detention.)
The film itself is strikingly beautiful: the combination of Benoit Charets’s score and the cinematography of Nick Midwig providing a haunting, but not too spooky-cliché, atmosphere.
If anything, I would say the film is too beautiful for its own good: there is probably a tighter and more compelling 90 minute version of the film to be had simply from losing 90% of the drone aerial footage of the Waukesha area. And even then, knowing that key elements of the story are simply incorrect, the overall film in any form must be taken with a large pinch of salt.
(It should also be noted that the many clips from YouTube videos and other artworks were used in the film without credit or payment. A Reddit discussion started by one of the creators includes the form reply HBO sent them regarding ‘Fair Use’. The various interviewees are credited; The Pied Piper animated footage is credited. The actual creators of the Slenderman mythos, from Knudsen onwards, are not. Whatever the legal position, choosing not to thank the creators who make the mythos so interesting and powerful is, at least, unkind.)
Style over substance; alternating shallowness in some areas with intimate depth in others; dealing with a story full of supernatural overtones by reducing it to a tale of tragic mental illness and online enthusiasm - Beware The Slenderman is, accidentally, a near-perfect summation of our modern relationship with fact and truth.
The essay below is taken from the new anthology Spirits of Place, which features the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Iain Sinclair and many others taking us on a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, or even consulted with, 'spirits of place' - " the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse."
More information, and links for ordering Kindle, paperback and hardcover editions, can be found at the Spirits of Place website.
The Palace Built Over a Hellmouth
Only a king or a queen has the power to move the capital of their kingdom to their preferred location. For King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), this place was at the very centre of the Iberian Peninsula, not far from the city of Madrid, in an area called El Escorial on the southern slopes of Mount Abantos. Here he vowed to build his life’s plan: a royal residence that would also be a pantheon, a monastery, a library, a museum and a centre of studies. To bring it to life, he hired a group of architects, experienced masons and theologists, who evaluated the terrain positively but, given the monarch’s interest in esotericism and alchemy, probably warned him of an ancient legend: that the Devil himself had lived in a cave at the foot of the mountain, after he was expelled from Heaven and before he opened up seven doors to enter his new abode in the Underworld. The location of one of these doors was El Escorial.
The locals whispered stories of monsters, visions and curses, of frequent electrical storms with lightning constantly hitting the area. Nevertheless, on the 30th of November 1561, the king’s experts travelled to El Escorial to make a final decision. Their official chronicler, Father Sigüenza, describes how the group was stricken by a gale that “didn’t allow them to reach their destination”, which the friar interpreted as the Devil trying to dissuade them from erecting a religious complex over what was rumoured to be a Hellmouth. But the king dismissed the ominous signs in a letter to his men, noting that there had also been a tempest in Madrid. And so the works started a year later, after the court was moved to Madrid, and lasted for over two decades. The complex remains the best-known symbol of Spanish royalty, with its rows of kings and queens resting in the Pantheon. But, in spite of Philip II’s Catholic fervour, it seems as though the chthonic currents managed to seep through the soil and leak into the rich marble and gold, into the silver crosses, statues of saints and reliquaries, playing with the senses of the palace’s inhabitants, driving them to madness and perdition.
To me, the centre of the Peninsula has always felt suffocating. I grew up on the south coast, in a luminous, heavily-built Mediterranean city where my dad was also born. My mum came from a small village in the north, all high mountains, coalmines and fog. They met in Madrid, almost exactly halfway, when Franco was still alive, and moved to the south after they got married. In the summers, my dad would drive us to the north in his rumbling Renault 14. It was a long journey, and it helped to think of it in two halves: before and after Madrid. In those days there was no seat belt to be worn, so I wriggled in the back seat, kneeling and twisting to catch the best sights on the way. One of the most intriguing was an enormous cross on the horizon, silhouetted and looming over its surroundings: the so-called “Valley of the Fallen”. Once I said I’d like to see it up close, and my dad frowned: “That’s where Franco and his pals are buried. We’re not going there.” I didn’t know much about the Civil War then, but I knew enough to find the sight disturbing, like a monstrous shadow of the past creeping over us, triumphant. Perhaps on the same trip, or on a different one, I was also told about the most powerful king Spain ever had, who built a huge palace-monastery, not far from that cross, many centuries before the bones of the Fallen had been buried in that soil.
I never liked that central part of the journey – the flat, monotonous roads, the merciless heat, the strange absence of the sea on the horizon, still too far from the fresh green meadows of my mum’s homeland. Travelling to the centre of the Peninsula in the summer was like slowly descending into a pit of burning coal, a journey to the centre of the Earth, from which one could only exit either side.
For many centuries, the Spanish court was itinerant and the capital city changed depending on where the monarch was established. Before Philip II’s decision, the honour fell on Toledo, a centre of tolerance and cooperation between Christians, Jews and Muslims until the establishment of the Inquisition brought turmoil. By the 16th century, the city was the focus of civil revolts against Philip’s father, King Charles I, but it also had one of the most important archdioceses in the Catholic world, second only to Rome. In contrast, Madrid was only a relatively important city, with no ports nearby and no navigable rivers. There was nothing there that could overshadow the king: barely any local aristocrats; no significant religious power. Perhaps he saw this relative isolation as an advantage, as a clean start in the exact centre of the Peninsula, an area with good terrain and benevolent climate.
Philip lived in the shadow of his father, Charles I, powerful warlord, cosmopolitan adventurer, silver-tongued speaker. It must have been a heavy burden to bear, especially because their talents were so different. Philip, the sole male heir, wanted to build a suitable place to bury ... Read More »