As one of the UK’s foremost writers and authorities on magic and the occult, Nathaniel J. Harris’s life has run the gauntlet of the ‘80s Goth explosion, goblins, creepy clowns, vengeful poltergeists and dodgy hippy festivals – an extraordinary existence that led to him being mythologised in the pages of 2000 AD comic. As he publishes Accidental Antichrist, the first volume of his controversial autobiography, we dabbed ourselves in holy water, entered his chamber and dared ask him a few prudent questions…
STARBURST: Why have you decided to tell your own story now?
Nathaniel Harris: I wrote Accidental Antichrist to reclaim my past after losing my family to an abusive mind control cult. As the process continued, it grew to become a book. Like its author, it was conceived by accident and acquired purpose as it went along. Plus, I heard it is almost impossible not to love someone if you know their life story, so it seemed like a good tactic.
Why is it subtitled ‘A Survivor’s Grimoire’?
I think the grimoire is an under explored literary art. If you make a study of the classics, like The Testament of Solomon, or The Black Raven, they read as much like dramatic novels as books of rituals. I've written a few theoretical and instructional works, but they're kind of abstract if taken out of context. For myself, magic was something I grew up with, coming from an old Essex witchcraft family and living in a place so rich in history and folklore. It wasn't a game, or something to be disrespected. If you wanted to learn the practice, and you didn't come from a hereditary lineage, you'd have to join a coven or an order. There weren't all the occult bookshops, workshops, and online courses there are today, and it wasn't something the middle classes took up as an interesting hobby. It was also my survival strategy. Many of those who come to me are also survivors, and we work together to reclaim identity and a sense of agency. The best healers often have to heal themselves first.
How did you come to know the writer Pat Mills and end up as a character in 2000 AD comic?
I met Pat's daughters in the street and they took me and my gang of teen punk friends round to meet him. This was in 1986. You can find us in Book Four of Nemesis – brothers Nathaniel, Ivan, Owain, and John, the renegade terminators. Pat was also in the early stages of creating Slaine, whose appearance was inspired by our spiked hair and tartan trousers. Our friendship has continued since then.
How has science fiction and fantasy influenced your writing?
Science fiction and fantasy deal with archetypes, at least when done well, and so does magic. Plus of course magic is allowed in science fiction and fantasy. They provide a space where the possibility can be discussed without anyone having to worry about whether they believe in it. The relationship between them often produces surprising hybrids, too. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, for example, inspired Kenneth Grant, and many other magicians.
Chaos Magic was massively popularised in 2000 AD comic during the 1980s - 1990s, which I am perhaps partly responsible for. Nemesis the Warlock made many references to it, and it was my idea to put Deadlock in charge of the ABC Warriors. I have appeared in it as a character quite a few times. I stopped buying it for a while, to my shame, and when I found it in my local newsagents, I was amazed to see the archangel Nathaniel, wearing armour stolen from Dr Dee, flying over East Anglia in Defoe, so got back in touch and haven't missed a Prog since. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison were also writing for 2000 AD in those early days, and both now openly admit to practising magic. Plus, my biological father, who you meet briefly in Accidental Antichrist, was a set designer and special effects man who worked on Superman the Movie , The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy [BBC 1981], and Knightmare [ITV 1987-94].
So, science fiction and fantasy has influenced me a lot, and been a big part of my life. My book The Neuronomicon deals with neuromancy, a term borrowed from William Gibson, although my theories draw from neurology, quantum physics, and noetic science, as well as traditional occultism. To some people it probably reads like Gibson's crossed with Lovecraft, with elements of Wilson and Shea's Illuminatus!, but while my style may be whimsical, I'm confident it's a genuine advance in the technology of magic, perhaps the first in 100 years.
Was revisiting your ‘70s and ‘80s childhood for this book, while living in 2019, a Dr Manhattan-like experience?
It definitely gave me a sense of being outside the circles of time. The places I write about are all kind of timeless, too. Rural Essex, the town of Colchester where Old King Cole and Humpty Dumpty come from, and the wilds of the Pyrenees mountains, these are places where past and present are simultaneously present, and I was writing in the present about my past. And, of course, it made a kind of psychic call to the people I had grown up with, many of whom I'd lost contact with over the years. It was amazing how many of them came back into my life. Getting involved with international occult conspiracies, alleged Illuminati orders, coven networks, and the voodoo underground, it can uproot your sense of self. But that's all for the follow up books, some of it I've written about already although not so descriptively.
You’ve had more than your fair share of run-ins this with black magic cults, what have they got against you?
I used to run a London-based temple of the Illuminates of Thanateros. I resigned in 2001 because I found Chaos Magic to be a cul-de-sac, which embarrassed them, considering my previous status. They've spread the worst kind of libel and tried to write me out of their history, but it hasn't worked. Chaos Magic's nihilistic ultra-relativist pseudo-philosophy seemed cutting edge in the ‘80s, but in my honest opinion, it was all over long before it got popular with nerds, and long before the IOT's leadership brought it to such shame. If one wishes to become one thousand, one merely has to attract enough zeroes.
After resigning, I wrote Witcha: A Book of Cunning, which I self-published in a hand-bound leather volume. This was before the craze for luxury occult books. And just before Owen Davies's Cunning Folk came out, the first academic study of the Britain's genuine magical tradition. This got me into a squabble with Andrew Chumbley, who was trying to pass himself off as the Magus of East Anglia. There were all kinds of rumours when he tragically died, which didn't help my reputation. I like to think that if he had lived, we would have gotten over our differences.
Shortly after I published the first edition of Witcha, Kenneth Grant encouraged a Pythoness of his Typhonian Order into attempting to seduce me to join. She was an author, and wrote an erotic novel with a character in it she said was based on me, and who ends up being horribly killed. I also have a flattering deconstruction of my name by gematria included in a letter Grant sent to her, which she cheekily photocopied for me. It didn't work, as I found the whole situation manipulative and sleazy. I mean, why not just write to me with an invitation?
Then there are the Satanists, with their big campaign to point the finger at anyone but themselves, so they don't like that I wrote about ritual abuse in The Neuronomicon. We've had a serious problem right here in this city where I live. That's not to say all Satanists are involved in brainwashing child sex slaves, but the case has similarities with others here and abroad that to my mind don't seem to have been investigated properly. I'm not up for defending anyone's image if it means covering up that kind of thing. And despite the protestations, it is well known that Jimmy Savile thought he was some kind of Satanist. It might sound like conspiracy theory, but it was right there in the paper and there is nothing the Temple of Satan can do to make this publicly available evidence go away. It doesn't make me popular when I point these things out. If I was the Devil, I'd be embarrassed by these people and would refuse to turn up to their rituals, so it's no wonder they're atheists.
So most practitioners of ‘real’ magic are just charlatans of one kind or another?
These days, most of what masquerades as magic, with or without a ‘k’, is just sleazy sex cults, or an excuse to abuse drugs and make believe you're some kind of shaman, or both. The same goes with witchcraft. The popular 'occult scene' here in the UK is riddled with dangerous charlatans and worse. As far as I can tell it’s the same in America. It's only those in denial of such uncomfortable truths that have any problem with me, plus the guilty few. Dupes, basically, like back when the Catholic Church could still deny its shameful side. Plus, there is money to be made. Call me arrogant, narcissistic, whatever, but that's been my experience. The sheep may be black but they bleat all the same.
So, I have a long history in magic, and have rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, but as far as I'm concerned, it's been for all the right reasons, even if my books are no longer in the major outlets. So thanks for asking. It's good to get all that off my chest.
Death stalks your story, with many participants dying or disappearing in mysterious circumstances. Would you consider yourself dangerous to know?
I hope not. I'd like to think I'm safe to know, and that I help to keep others safe. But not everyone I knew survived to the end of the book, not everyone I write about survived to see the 21st century, and one dear friend in the book read the manuscript but died before it was published. Life can be cruel, and death can be arbitrary…
Some readers may scoff at your tales of magical happenings. Others will read about your vengeful curses on people and fancy themselves to do likewise…
Yes, there is a lot of magical cursing in Accidental Antichrist. There were a lot of bullies in my childhood and curses were my way of dealing with them. I'm open-minded in my account, rather than making any definite claims, though. I was just a kid, and it was perhaps an immature reaction to my situation. And if any kind of magic might backfire, curses are it. I don't recommend anybody starts there. Moving forward with your life and doing well despite what others might wish on you, that's the best revenge, if revenge is needed. Why can't we all just get along? Which isn't to say that justice against transgressions should ever be denied or avoided. Justice means preventing further transgressions, not satisfying our bruised ego by committing further transgressions. More recently, I've been accused of cursing reviewers who don't give me five stars, but none of that is true. Promise.
A key figure throughout your early years was your violently abusive stepfather. How does any kid cope with that?
I had to. Psychologists might conclude my tough childhood explains my involvement in sorcery, assuming it is an overcompensation. Perhaps it was at the start, but as a survival strategy, it worked. I can't pretend I wasn't damaged, though, even if many people refused to believe my stepfather was anything but an easy-going hippy. Abuse during formative years hampers a person's whole life, but there are plenty of kids who have to survive much worse.
You quote Alan Garner who said “if you think where you live isn’t interesting enough to write a book about, take another look”. You have certainly taken another look at Colchester.
Every place has a history, and every person a story. It is often more about how the story is told than how important or famous a person or place is. Bukowski wrote a novel about being sacked from the post-office, a fairly normal story but told with style. With Garner, it was the way he explored the folkloric, magical elements of place that enchanted me as a child, and I hope I have managed something similar with Colchester. Garner and Bukowski were masters, I'm not comparing my style or skill to theirs but they are an inspiration. Colchester, the folklore of witchcraft and Black Shuck, the weirdness that went on, and the people who lived there in the time I write about, all deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
What’s up next for you?
I'm currently teaching a course in sorcery, 21st Century Urban Voodoo. I'm also working on a treatise of the Yi-King, relating it to Obi and Ifa, all at least 5,000-year-old binary codes, which I hope to have ready some time in 2020. It's a follow on from the Neuronomicon, essentially, but will also stand alone as a device of divination, capable of answering almost any question, like some kind of extradimensional Artificial Intelligence.
At the same time, I'm working on Book Two of Accidental Antichrist, but I'm taking that slowly. I have to wait for certain people to be prosecuted or to die, whichever happens first, before I can tell the whole story…
Accidental Antichrist: A Survivor’s Grimoire is out now