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The Bitter Stillness of Jack Marsden

Richard Marshall reviews Steve Aylett‘s The Caterer.

‘Columbus, to arrive at a new continent, adopted the rule of absolute deviation; he cut himself off from all known routes, he entered into a virgin ocean, without taking into account the fears of his century; let’s do the same, proceeding by absolute deviation…’
– Fourier, Le Nouveau monde industriel et sociétaire (1829)

Some writers inhabit the hinterland of the perfectly dreading face, the strange long smile, the uninterrupted separation of the massacre from the hand cream where decoration ceases to be free from alarm. Where the uncanny and the uterine glissade, there Aylett writes, scripting passageways of morbid intoxication that are terrifying in their devices and offering absolutely no bromide. Spooky metaphysics become drained of the momentum that motivated them in the first place and instead become frozen in frames of fence abuse, jelly obsession and melancholic blinking. It’s an outsider art of genius blended with the epigrammatic mot juste of the idiot savant.


Dammit, where the gulf between the asylum twitch and the cabbage-field surveyor gets stored in the back-page lens of interior succession then someone has to record its farmyard pleasures. We’re all entertaining odd thoughts of existence and passing away innumerable ages without a style, annihilating every moment of every life in a time becoming polio, abstracting from each succession of ideas, each finite spirit — estimated by the number of ideas or actions succeeding each other in the same spirit or mind — so as to end up acknowledging the unravelable motives, unplumbable antecedent causes and unpredictable, inescapable consequences of this parade of wakeful incendiary fetish. As Chief Bayard puts it in this, Aylett’s latest, “I’ll need more than well-hidden limbs.”

Hence we require our script to always think or else it offers no incendiary inconvenience to the sawdust-bellied goats forbidden in this Boschian wonderland. And also we know the danger of where we attempt to abstract extension and motion from all other qualities and presently lose sight of them and run into great extravagances. In the moment between what is noticed and the next there is the potential for the very devil itself. Next to where everything is public and political there is another room where the coat hanger drills the bullfrog, fills itself with itself, swells out of boredom, abuse, fury and emerges into a constituency of the overlooked that runs the concrete distractions of détournement into the bitter stillness of Aylett’s protagonist, Jack Marsden.

Thus, away from these well-lit, well-signposted highways there is an infinite complexity that reroutes everything into a different web of associations, spectators and ceremonial orbit. Abutting the straight stuff of everyday presence there runs an alternative universe that skips to a kind of bewitchment arraigned against what a Thomas Carlyle might call those ‘bedroll of facts.’ We are in a world such as the one housing the secret name in the guitar of Melville’s Isabelle, “so secret, wholly hidden, yet constantly carried about it.” As in Melville’s Pierre, as in Magritte (think, for example, of his mysterious painting Invisible World of 1954 depicting a massive rock in a red-floored room by a sliding door overlooking the sea, a work which still deranges and confounds in its stillness, its quality of immovability) as in de Chirico even more so than Magritte, and Max Ernst in, for example, his chilly punning collage La Femme 100 Têtes where he takes images from nineteenth century illustrated novels and finds the erotic possibilities in each of them, there’s all that “era of inhumanism” and “absolute deviation” stuff rising again. Fourier and Baudelaire, the Surrealists and onwards. About time!

The Caterer is a spoof working at the level of a killing spree out of the copyrighted zone of the OC buckled to insane DC Universes such as that of the Green Lantern depicted on pages 126-7 of Jim Kruger’s, Alex Ross’s and Doug Braithwaite’s Justice (Volume 3, 2007). “This is an oblong gift to fans of 70’s pulp and of cult author Jeff Lint” is a strapline written by Aylett. The double gag deepens here; Aylett has already ventriloquised a biography of Lint as well as infamous Wikipedia entries and here he plays the role of cataloguer and archive dog, supposedly reintroducing us to a seminal moment of the Caterer oeuvre (Issue 3 which “includes the beginning of Marsden’s goat obsession, a fierce appearance by the ghostly Hoston Pete, a great example of the Marsden stillness” and no less than four classic Marsden hallucinations. The leaning Chief Bayard’s preoccupation with our hero results in the violent death of six people, and Jack delivers his infamous “lipstick for dogs” diatribe) referencing along the way The Fall by way of Tim Burton and Disney.

The preoccupation with archiving reminds us of the archiving preoccupations of Simon Ford who gathers catalogues on Situationists and The Fall to reignite new directions in misunderstanding, welcoming through his thorough excavations a tidy death-throes reanimation of the corpus. Aylett then, through reawakening his fictional Lazarus, storms the citadel of the surreal with the energy of high-concept fan bravura and lunatic obsessive disturbance. Drawing on a mythos sketched in his previous book, Lint, Aylett has produced a surrealist masterpiece disguised as a moron.

Beginning with a terrifying telephone sequence that kicks off with the freezing words “I need a coffee pot in the shape of my own severed head,” each frame builds a mental anti-narrative where horror, violence and phantasmagoria are rinsed out of the speech and thought bubbles that are themselves the objective correlatives of Jack Marsden’s catfish homily; “If you take a catfish by the whiskers and pull outward, it inflates into a life-raft”. The pictures and the words inflate and against all anguished hope a narrative does extend itself. This is Aylett’s discovery and the delight of the book. Whereas in earlier examples of detourning collage, such as in Ernst or the Biff cartoons (now so familiar through their extended use as birthday cards and the like for the smart and sassy, using fifties images of ‘straight types’ to set up an easily won wisecrack… ) there is a tendency for each frame to be both the beginning and the end of itself — connections between frames being at best arbitrarily stitched together offering no satisfying sequencing — but in The Caterer Aylett proceeds with such confidence and zest that each frame gathers momentum and gives the impression of linear narrative structure, almost conventional storytelling, as if each frame is a metal filliment pulled to the others by a giant magnet. That’s its brilliance: by stitching these red-ripped monsters of thought to the sliced up torso of 70’s style comic imagery we scream through what by the end has been a tour de force of mind-suck.


The violation is completed through a derangement of humour that leaves the removable throat as a rough reward for gourd survival. It’s a traumatic read. It reeks of the evil that men ought to do. It is as fierce a literature as any this century. It’s funnier than most, too. The jokes are thick on the ground and extend like a giant monkshood, each holding inside their hard, ghoulish brilliance the desire of the moth for the star. They extend to the letters pages and the intros.

An example in the letters page:
“Dear Pearl Comics, Why does Abscess Hound in Fantastic Belt look the same as the dog on page 20 of Caterer *1? (Dwight Palzer, 12 Wayne St/ Santa Fe, NM 87502)
All dogs look roughly the same, Dwight, which is something you’d know if you were honest with yourself.” That’s dry. The ads page is an equal desert: a frame showing a picture of a sleepwalking girl has the caption: “Empty vessel ? Passionless blank? Unable to originate anything? Only capable of choosing from options presented by others? Head full of stock footage? We can’t help you — You’re doomed.”

It’s the oldest cliché to call out the clown as a tragedian but truly Aylett’s work here seeps pain and anguish, a big cosmic heap of existentialism that buys its depth by seemingly gliding along on a surface breeze of incoherence and jest. But there’s nothing in this but the hard-edged desperation of the romantic in revolt at the state of a world “in which sacrifice has been redefined as the harm, inconvenience or death of others” and where the end of words is a long silence which puts fear in your pocket but isn’t distanced. It’s the opposite of cynicism; it’s rather the unbowed imagination finding resources at the other side of words, the other side of pictures, bursting the mind into a new ceremony of durables.

The creepy world of the comic resonates with the colluding nightmares of Lovecraft, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, TV’s The Outer Limits, David Lynch as well as the The House on the Borderland where grotesque pig creatures assault the barricaded house lying on the cosmic borderland of infinite time and space. In The Caterer, “Even the pigs have turned feral because of him. Pigs usually measure time by counting the number of tokens in the jar. The ones out here are too proud to count anything or to admit they’re wrong. Hmm…and they are wrong.” Worlds collide, or rather, a thin crack in reality appears from beyond dark gateways and something terrible comes through from the other side. That’s the element that combines in many of the great horror stories. Here, in The Caterer, Marsden is at one point facing down the Kodiac Bear in the snow that comes when “tatty curtains part on the true situation,” throwing “matches in the snow! All is equalised” whilst, “in reality” he is roughing up an old man with a cap with a screamed metaphysics of the empty word and an attachment to ears.

Marsden’s world is one invaded by alien forms, minds, rhetorical flourishes and mental responses. Its American setting, required to establish the veracity of the homage to American comics of thirty or so years ago, also enables Aylett to step into the rural old weird Gothic Americana settings that are also familiars of the horror genre, where hidden crank communities lie off the main highways and byways housing the ghoulish nightmares in bullfrog skins, fish scales and swamp pagans. Bodysnatcher nightmare, familiar though it is through film and stories such as the 50’s sci-fi horror film and its Donald Sutherland remake, X Files episodes, Svankmajer’s animated Faust, Marsh’s extraordinary The Beetle (recently reissued as part of the Penguin Red Read series) and T.E.D. Klein’s classic The Events At Poroth Farm all huddle down inside the exquisite corpse of the Aylett masterwork.

Set in rural New Jersey, Klein’s story involves a monster that invades other bodies and forgets to blink. The landscape is very Caterer-like, “The hills to the west, spreading from the southern swamplands to the Deleware and beyond to Pennsylvania, provide shelter for deer, pheasant, even an occasional bear — and hide hamlets never visited by outsiders: pockets of ignorance, some of them, citadels of ancient superstition utterly cut off from news of New York and the rest of the state, religious customs haven’t changed appreciably since the days of their settlement a century or more ago”. The sense of impending doom, the encroaching dread are caught in the dark utterings of Aylett’s strange stuff, as in when Marsden comments, “I thought the corner of wild stuff was a fingernail on humanity, but it’s more black ant constellations” or when he looks out at a “sea of blank faces” feeling gratitude and seeing it as “a station on the road to my disengagement. A miracle of gory corners, heaving around its strange scaffold of bones… flaring my gills …”. Of course that last fragment suggests Arkham and the sea ghouls of Lovecraft too.

As the sequence unfolds, we are given the hell visions of Marsden just as in the Klein story, just as in the Lovecraft of the Dunwich Horror, visions of creepy, slowly-realised horror where “cadavers peek from eggs” and the protagonists realise with growing helplessness the futility of their cosmic situation. The dream-like quality of the story, its nightmarish quality, to be frank, is also usefully contrasted with Alan Moore’s handling of the alien mind outgrowing the consequential limits of homo sapiens cognition as developed in The Watchmen narrative. There, the Dr Manhattan figure is given a peculiar Da Vinci-like perfection of male Caucasian form that, despite the blue pigmentation of skin, belies the increasingly unearthly, inhuman being that Manhattan has become. Marsden, as similarly inhuman as Manhattan, is both on a different planet (recall Manhattan leaves the earth to live in anguish on Mars for a while) and yet solidly here, on the American ground. The eeriness of this effect is greater than that of the Moore character who becomes more zen master than horror ghoul.


Interestingly, both Moore and Aylett use their fiction tellingly to expose a political agenda, threading back both The Caterer and The Watchmen universes to collide with the equally daunting monsters of their political, social realist world. So in The Watchmen Nixon is given a third term, Vietnam is won by Dr Manhattan, the Cold War is continuing apace and nuclear holocaust is the preferred end-game of social management. In The Caterer the politics are less direct, the targets more the soulless deformation of “the failings of municipal bureaucracy,” consumerist agendas of fashion and cleanliness and the cruel stupidity of denying imagination its time in the sun. Small, pinch-minded bigots who “smooth the cheeks of reality” are Aylett’s targets, those terrible bullies of the conventional and the traditional who stand “like a sentinel, an unnecessary truss on the bounty of nature”. Yet there are also references to Korea to remind us that none of those targets hang free from anything else, that such minds also hold the levers to power and its bombs.

Aylett has the sense that the very language of politics and power already distorts the world, makes its purported goals absurd and unnatural. He works clichés into the dada nonsense that he identifies as being the hidden parenthesis that follows any political statement. When Chief Bayard exclaims that he is “in pursuit and loving every minute of it,” Aylett writes out the secret parenthesis that undermines the clarity of the statement’s implications. “My love is universal, not particular. Reflecting my desire to kiss the eager upturned face of all….” The juxtaposition creates both a strange hilarity whilst at the same time sucking out the juice of the original, seemingly ordinary statement’s sentiment. Such love is seen only a few frames later when Bayard, pulling a boy out of the green swampy water thinks it “Pointless to save this stripy boy”.

Moore’s Watchmen story was written back in the eighties. Aylett’s is a product of a world where Bush Jr and Blair have operated their scams alongside the charlatan betrayers of Islam and his disgust is palpable. Blair’s lies and self-serving greed, his love of money and his disgusting posh-boy Lady Di doe-eye eye-fluttering demands a response that destroys the credibility of his version of everything. Indeed, for all of them, it is their formula of humanity and humane action that requires detonation, that must be dissolved. Blair could indeed be “made of cork… made of Cork and you don’t care. Made of cork, don’t care, silently staring. We all know the way”. Blair is the man who “had to make this tent out of human skin. So little time,” whose betrayal of the religious needs to be shot back at him and make him scared to turn off the lights at night, along with the islamists who abuse a mighty peace-loving religion to inspire killing and hatred. “Now seems a good time to tell you we will meet in a sky of flaming ash one day…”: this comic fights fire with fire, but throughout remembers that “approval is an imposition”.

So this is a work that is caught in the midst of our catastrophe, working out of that not our silliness but the damnation of our present condition. And that’s the awkward moment that contemporary sociological and psychological fiction has trouble reacting to without colluding with it in some awful way. Aylett’s response has always been to find out the profound contour of this situation that isn’t social and isn’t psychology either. His discoveries are about the way the unknown happens to us all the time, is discovered but not found by us. What he finds helps us seek it. Picasso said that we find first and then we seek and Bresson in conversation with Godard agreed, saying, “This is it: one must find … One must at first find the thing, and afterwards, one seeks it. That is to say: one must at first find it, since one wanted to find it, but it is by seeking that one then discovers it… psychology is too a priori… one must paint, and it is in painting that everything will rise … painting — or writing, in this case, it is the same thing — in any case more than a psychology…”.

Bresson is relevant here in his insistence that his protagonists do not return with a judge’s eye, and also that they cannot suffer from goodness or charity or intelligence but must suffer from what makes us all suffer. And Bresson’s attempt to purposely disengage from specific facts is similar to Aylett’s process by which he gives us the pure mental horror of Marsden and the rest without the usual significances. Marsden is Aylett’s donkey Balthasar.

Credit crunch times energise clearer perceptions of our damning idols. Money is the abominable visible idol. The things that really matter, questions of life, love and death, of why we are forever “arrested in guesses as usual,” as Bayard says, having missed Marsden in the graveyard, musing on the meaning of the disappearance whilst Marsden balances a ringed rattlesnake in the palm of his hand to the bewitchment of a pretty blonde, the same blonde perhaps who learns that “corn fries are dead baby angels in oil,” these are the real issues that now perhaps we can start to fumble towards. What is the horror that the “ominous spectre of a Kodiac Bear” fortells as it “looms over the library as the town stands idle”? This absurd question is also our most pressing one.

Aylett is finding the voices of the invisible verities and so the sentences are all strange and messed up so you can’t easily read them. Marsden comes from the dead “to tell you that you are all failures, a creepy spirit jangles overhead — not shimmering overlords or the enticing ascended but sky cancers, blonde fish and hammered metal hotels. You glory in a jet-wash of vomit from your sick masters.” The hopes of millions, cash and a managed world is reduced to the epigrammatical “lipstick for dogs” and the entrepreneurial heroics of capitalism are undermined fatally by the accusation that “people don’t mature they just lose interest”. Jack Marsden becomes a white-eyed and white-mouthed blank that signifies endless hunger, endless vision where “in Jack’s mind he is the scourge of the vampire classes”. Aylett’s central character reassures Gladys, the sexy redhead that “It’s ok to be scared. Something is near. Something is near” who in turn smashes his head in to a deep black plain whilst “Jack tells his vision to the gang. Used to his ways, they feel the familiar admiration and excitement tip into abject terror”.

The mental shift from placid acceptance of what was once familiar becoming strange is the motivation of Aylett’s devastating work. I’ve written about Aylett before and this new book confirms the momentum of his vision, its deadly corrosive humour blending perfectly with the pitch black hell of supernatural horror to frighten the complacency out of my reading habit. I’m writing this at the end of a week where a young German boy freaked out at something he’d seen crouched in the corner of his life and ended up shooting to death a whole bunch of schoolgirls, teachers and got shot himself. I can’t help but feel we’re all responsible for confusing this lad and frightening him into this terrible event. In Afghanistan troops bombard nomadic pastoralists in the snow from the skies. Mental killing is everything, hatred is preached by Mullahs and Christians and Darwinians and there seems less understanding, more weird confusions, just scared voices sounding more and more hostile, all shouting louder and louder. There are no ears.

Aylett was working in Brighton when I last saw him. There, the West Pier is falling into the sea and its ruin is photographed once a day from the same spot by one of his friends. She’s been doing it for years. The wind blows where it will. What is going on? There is a panic rising about what we are doing in the world. More than ever we need writers to help us in our confusion. Aylett’s one of our best. This is his version of the silence that we need to start to listen into. Stop shouting about solutions. We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know. But surely we all feel the fear rising. We need to settle down for a while, stop talking and listen. The voices here — Aylett’s voices of horror — these are our voices. As Marsden repeats, “Pick me up by my ears. Do it. Pick me up by my ears”.


Richard Marshall is back!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 21st, 2009.