Today’s blog features the first excerpt from The Spooky Perambulator novel, as I dissect “Picture This: Butcher Boyz” from Chapter Two – with some help/ hindrance from the bold Spooky himself.
A beam traverses the roof space, pulling the light down towards the scene below; at first it appears innocuous, a tableaux of thirteen working men caught in the execution of their duty, have rearranged themselves into something less relaxed, more stilted, more defensive it seems. Directly ahead, centred both vertically and horizontally, a high-collared, be-suited youth stands astride a clean chalk line of unspoken demarcation – he holds a bulky folded document, a plan of attack, the logistics of death; an older man in similar garb, stands isolated towards the rear, drifting in the direction of the darkened exit point, upstage left. The remaining men wear butchers’ aprons and are tooled up with a menacing array of cutting implements: cleavers, filleting knives, stilettos, scalpels with which to slice and slash, hack and amputate, dismember and dissect. A backstreet gang of serial slaughterers, poorly paid assassins, proper butcher boys, they stand defiantly with hands on haunches, or folded resolutely, impatient to get on. The foreground is splattered with darkened patches, which clot the sawdust, underlining the perfection of the killing floor. Two wooden barrows – one facing towards the front, the other the rear – overflow with severed limbs; the whitened flesh of the pile of corpses reflects the brightness from the skylight almost directly overhead, dazzling the viewers eyes to darkness.
The Spooky Perambulator Chapter Two
Notice first of all how the narrator describes the scene, distancing him or herself from the action or inaction. Almost. Peel back the veil of seeming neutrality, the attempt to describe without becoming involved, and the truth is revealed in the dark diction employed in a matter of fact way. Towards the end of the first sentence we stumble across the phrase ‘execution of their duty’, the negative significance of which is amplified by the list employed to describe how the thirteen working men actually execute their duty – they have become ‘something less relaxed, more stilted, more defensive’, perhaps in deference to the intruding lens, or perhaps in reaction to having been caught in the act. There definitely is something unnatural here – whether it is the act or the intrusion is unclear. And note that there are thirteen ‘working men’; but for the fact that the narrator is describing an actual photograph, we may have dismissed this as a clumsy play on the negative reputation of the number thirteen, the origin of which has been linked to the Biblical Last Supper where Christ sat down with his twelve disciples, with Judas Iscariot the betrayer being the last one (therefore the thirteenth) to take his seat. 1
Salvador Dali The Sacrament of the Last Supper [courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington]
In fact this was not the first case of an unlucky thirteenth guest at a dinner party. In ancient Norse lore, evil was introduced to the world by the trickster God Loki, a gate-crasher at a feast in Valhalla which already had twelve quests; in contrast, thirteen was viewed as a lucky number by the Ancient Egyptians and is still welcomed as a bringer of good fortune in Italy, China and India. It may well be that the pre-eminence of the number twelve – the number of the twelve main gods in Greek mythology, the number of Odin’s sons in Norse mythology, the number of of Christ’s disciples in Christianity, the number of Imams in the Twelver Shia Muslim tradition, the twelve gateways to heaven in the Book of Revelations, and in folklore and mythology the twelve entrances to the underworld, the months of the year – brought about the inferiority complex suffered by the number thirteen. Indeed, the rise of twelve to its predominant numerological aspect may well have initiated the fall of thirteen, mirroring the fall of Lucifer from Heaven – Lucifer’s self belief in his superiority to God resulted in his being cast down and thirteen’s disrespect in being one more than the perfect number revealing it as the imperfect, flawed, corrupt anti-perfect number.
Michael casts out rebel angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré for John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Thirteen also stands against twelve in the world of witchcraft and magick. Traditionally the number of witches in a coven is thirteen; but for how long this tradition has been running, and when and why it was established is open to debate. In her 1973 An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Doreen Valiente identifies thirteen as the number of witches needed to form a coven, “ideally they should consist of six men, six women and a leader.” She argues that the number thirteen “has long been regarded as having peculiar magical properties[…] reflected in the cult group of twelve people and a leader.” The evidence she provides includes:
“in astrology […] we have the sun and the twelve signs of the zodiac; thirteen lunar months “an older time measure than the twelve calendar months we know have”; thirteen full-moon Esbats to each year, as celebrated by witches”; the Danish hero Hrolf, “followed by his twelve berserks”; In Arthurian legend, Arthur’s Round Table consisted of the king and twelve of his principle knights; and the “Thirteen Treasures of Britain, which Merlin the wizard took with him when he vanished from among men”.2
Anyhow, this digression on the number thirteen may well be better placed in a separate discussion of its own, and so it shall be, but for now back to the narrative. The “bulky document” held by the youth in the suit is described as “a plan of attack, the logistics of death“; no figurative language here, this is more of the matter of fact description included to apply a subtle influence designed to deceive. A hint at the staged element of the photograph is made by the theatrical stage direction ‘ the darkened exit point, upstage left’. This also suggests movement as the older man is said to be ‘drifting’ already, perhaps in his thoughts, planning and preparing, wanting to get out before the action begins – the teller, not the doer, the director of this dark tableau.
The actors, the doers, are easily identified by the costume which they are all described as wearing: the ‘butcher’s aprons’. Without the source photograph to check, this detail may seem to be an over-dramatisation – the assumption made from the text alone would be that the group were not butchers – indeed the author goes to some lengths to hide the true fact of the matter from us. Consider the list of cutting implements: “ cleavers, filleting knives, stilettos, scalpels”, a strange mix – the first two being the main tools of butchering, then a gangland weapon and a surgical instrument. The actions to be performed “slice and slash, hack and amputate, dismember and dissect” follow the same occupational blueprint. The veil which seemed to be drawn back to aid identification has now been let drop; but we can still see darkly through the gauze – our gaze directed (or misdirected) to view them as something which they may or may not be, an imperfect vision, deliberate obfuscation or the truth revealed in a telling phrase? Or two?
As in each and every one of the Picture This interludes which form the backbone of the novel, the narrator habitually misguides us under the guise of honest description. He [this identification of gender is based on the placement of the recurring Picture This interludes in the novel where it is suggested by the flow of the narrative that it is the narrator who provides the descriptions- even here there is an ambiguity as we dangerously assume the gender of the narrator as it is more implied than explicit in the text] reads the images through an already dark tinted and progressively darkening lense – this is in itself a warning to the reader to tread carefully with any assumptions of reliability concerning the narrator.
Partially hidden in the rising tide of tangential reference to exaggerated violence there lies a hint of the location of this dark ensemble in the collective descriptions of the group as “a backstreet gang of serial slaughterers” and “proper butcher boys”, both references drawing us towards a specific time and place: Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Between 1975 and 1982, the Shankill Butchers, a loyalist murder gang of ‘serial slaughterers’, kidnapped, tortured, and executed their victims using meat-cleavers and butcher’s knives – stolen by a member of the gang who had worked for a time in a meat-processing factory. There is also a sideways glance at Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel The Butcher Boy which is set in Ireland in the 1960’s and features a slaughterhouse, butcher’s knives and the bloody slaughter of ‘long pigs’. We are now caught up in the terminal momentum of the dark, deliberate ambiguity which carries us rapidly to the clotting of the sawdust on the ‘killing floor’ by some unspecified fluid and to the body parts heaped onto the wooden barrows, placed deliberately by the photographer and the narrator to the forefront of the image, so as to be the last things we gaze upon before are eyes are dazzled by the dramatic white-out.
To conclude this rather rapid dissection let us pick up and examine the term ‘killing floor’, deliberately discarded by the narrator, eclipsed as it is by all that is to be found on it: the splattered fluid, the clotted sawdust, and the contents of the barrows. In 1964 Howlin’ Wolf released the single “Killing Floor”, where the depression of the narrator following his treatment at the hand of his lover, is emphasised by linking it to “the filthy, bloody floors of Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses, where many African Americans who migrated North from the Delta found employment during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s”.3 There is also the suggestion, made by Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist providing the legendary licks on the recording (identified by many as the building blocks of electric blues guitar), that Wolf was referring to an incident when he was shot by a jealous girlfriend. Led Zeppelin combined “Killing Floor” with Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues” to create “The Lemon Song” on their second album: a sex and death epic with hints of murder ballad – the album was released in the UK on Halloween 1969. The darkness surrounding the term is deepened by both Johnson’s supposed deal with the devil (to improve his guitar technique) and Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s actual involvement with the darker side of magick [he bought Boleskine House on the southern bank of Loch Ness in the early 1970s, driven by his long interest in the work of Victorian occultist and ceremonial magician, Aleister Crowley, who lived there in the early 1900s] – a connection I suspect that the author hopes we will make.
Jimmy Page outside Boleskine House early 70s
That’s all we have time for at present, as Spooky is keen to “partake of a libation at the local hostelry”. Join us next time when the promised follow up to last time’s Van Morrison piece will put in an appearance; following that we will be taking a deep derive through the Uncanny Valley where we will encounter androids, replicants and electric friends – and hopefully get answers to the questions: ‘Is there anything more human than human?’ and ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’
Further Down the Rabbit Hole
The Spooky Perambulator will be published in paperback by Wyrd Wolf Howl Press late Spring/early Summer 2022.
- The original photo appears in the deluxe edition of The Spooky Perambulator. The original edition was not illustrated. It was also used in the performance piece A Spooky Perambulation Through the Weird and Eerie where an actor read the description as the photo was projected onto a screen upstage – the projection started from a black screen, gradually fading in as the narration progressed. On the final word ‘darkness’ the screen was whited out.
- Valiente, Doreen: An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Robert Hale: London 1973 p69
- The Language of the Blues: Killing Floor, Debra Devi https://www.americanbluesscene.com/language-blues-killing-floor/