In December 2017, film director Duncan Jones, also known as David Bowie’s son, began the #BowieBookClub on Twitter.  Although we are in March, we at Culturised we believe it is never too late to jump on the great book club bandwagon!  Through this open monthly book club, which has already spawned a companion podcast, Jones is paying homage to his late father’s insatiable curiosity for knowledge retracing and retweeting some great literary reads, which have been selected from David Bowie’s 100 favourite books. Bowie described it as ‘a very powerful book, and quite scary’.  Interestingly, Hawksmoor is exceptionally hard to find in print outside of the UK.  Jones proposed Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor as an ‘amuse cerveau,’ which roughly translates to ‘brain appetizer’ for the followers of #BowieBookClub.

Hawksmoor (1985) is Ackroyd’s award-winning post-modernist detective novel that follows dual storylines hundreds of years apart on a dark journey into the occult psychogeography of London’s holy places.  Psychogeography, as defined by Marxist theorist Guy Debord in 1955, is ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals,’ specifically urban geographies.[1]  Additionally, Ackroyd was heavily influenced by Iain Sinclair’s poem Lud Heat, which focuses on the ‘mysterious cartographic connections between six churches in London [and] the notion of psychic heat as an enigmatic energy contained in many of its places’.[2]  Sinclair proposed that the English architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661 – 1736), had arranged several London churches to form a pentacle star.  Although, there are definite lines of interest between these sites, there does not seem to be an occult symbol.  Sinclair saw a ley-line geometry between mapped holy places, but also included major London monuments (see below). In Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, seven churches, six historical and one fictional, were built to create energy lines, strung out across London like a spider’s web, to catch child victims for ritual sacrifice on the stones.

 

Hawksmoor achieves its authenticity from its historical and architectural foundations.  It simultaneously traces the 18th century narrative of Nicholas Dyer’s ritual murders, alongside Nicholas Hawksmoor’s, the 20th Century detective tracking him through time, as the temporal dimension shifts between these two eras.  Dyer is tasked to rebuild seven London churches by Sir Christopher Wren under the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, following the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, 1666.  Dyer became an orphan when he lost both of his parents to the plague.  This led him to Mirabilis, the leader of a Satanic Assembly, who guided him to his apprenticeship: ‘You will build […] let Stone be your God and you will find God in the Stone’.[3]  Dyer goes on to ‘studdy the antient Architects […] there was some thing that waited for me there, already in Ruines’.[4]  After Mirabilis’ indoctrination is complete, he disappears, leaving Dyer to lead the Assembly.

Ackroyd’s famous post-modern novel is notable for its intertextuality and temporal distortion. This non-linear ordering of time is described by Will Self as ‘full temporal simultaneity’.[5]  The presumption of temporality is that time moves in a linear progression.  Ackroyd refutes this through the dialectic relationship between past and present, which fuse together in the final chapter as Dyer’s and Hawksmoor’s lives are interminably and devastatingly intertwined.  There is a ‘pattern of echo and repetition’ between characters, actions and descriptions of events occurring in both the 18th and the 20th centuries.[6]  Snippets of street songs are heard and the same events are endlessly repeating themselves in both time zones.  The concept of ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail to sustain life in an eternal cycle of renewal is the symbol of wholeness within the book.  The symbol is suggested by Mirablis in his indoctrination of Dyer who states: ‘Christ was the Serpent,’ before introducing him to the practice of child sacrifice.[7]  In the novel we see the same people living for a prescribed periods of time, become Dyer’s sacrificial offering to the foundations of his churches, then are born victims once again in Hawksmoor’s time.  Such ‘circularity of events is stressed by the same words’ or phrase at the end and then at the beginning of an adjacent chapter.[8]  Dyer’s notion of time underpins the structure of the narrative: Truly Time is a vast Denful of Horrour, round about which a serpent winds and in the winding bites itself by the Tail […] its end does begin again and never ceases to end: a beginning continuing, always ending’.[9]

Ackroyd acknowledges his literary influences and intertextuality most notably when he refers to Blake’s interpretation of Milton: ‘He was of the devil’s party without knowing it’.[10]  Blake was referring to the devil’s voice in Paradise Lost being vastly more poetical than his spiritual equivalent.  Similarly, Ackroyd’s 18th Century narrative, written from Dyer’s perspective is compelling and poetical, whereas the 20th Century chapters are somewhat underwhelming.  Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the New York Times: ‘Half the novel – its most energetic half – is related by Dyer himself’.[11]

Alfred Watkin’s concept of ley-lines, ‘routes, old paths, ancient roads, or “old straight tracks”’ on which countless churches and stone circles were built contributed to the theory of psychogeography that informed Ackroyd’s writing.[12]  During Dyer’s apprenticeship he persuades Wren to witness its geometry and alignments, but his ulterior motive is to marvel at the mysticism and dark ‘Magick’ of the stones.[13]  Wren himself commented on the construction of Stonehenge: ‘there is an Exactness of Placing them in regard to the Heavens [they] are arranged as to estimate the position of the Planets and the fixed Starres’.[14]  This is where the reader first connects energy lines, stone, architecture and sacrifice, which lead Dyer to his dastardly design.  Dyer states: ‘our Ancestors worship the Daemon in the form of great Stones’.[15]  Dyer’s seven churches are aligned with the stars to imbue some mystical power therein, so he can submit his will to the seven demons who control them.

Wren and Dyer represent polar opposites in terms of spiritual and theoretical beliefs and proclivities.  The Wren/Dyer dichotomy comes to a climax in a debate they have about mysticism and science.  Wren is a member of the Royal Society which heralds reason and experimentation as a means of attaining the truth.  Dyer’s beliefs are opposed to these methods, as he believes that his dark arts will take him to his truth.  Interestingly, it is only when the detective Hawksmoor stops relying on ‘chemistry, anatomy and even mathematics,’ he can catch the killer.[16]  After, Hawksmoor’s transformation into a sentient detective in the final chapter, the reader sees him come face-to-face with ‘The Architect’, Dyer’s reincarnated spirit, as they merge together.[17]  ‘[T]here was a light there was a shadow […] there was a sound there was an echo […] And when they spoke they spoke with one voice’.[18]  Thus, the fatalistic circularity of the serpent eating its tail, then renewing itself continues.

Ackroyd’s post-modern masterpiece retains a certain degree of obscurity at the close to allow readers the space to interpret and imagine the fatalistic and horrific real nature of the world.  The reader learns that there really is ‘no Light without Darknesse and no Substance without Shaddowe,’ the concept which underpins this novel (19).  In Hawksmoor Ackroyd presents us with a perverse symbiosis of stars and stone within a Satanist cult in the heart of London.  Dyer’s dark web of alignments ensnares victims as a sacrifice to keep its occult energy alive.  The recurring image of ouroboros in invoked as both murderer and victim are reincarnated to live out their fates, creating the perpetual repetition of sacrifice through the ages.

[1] Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Nothingness.org, 1955 [library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2]

[2] “Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets,” Amazon.co.uk, 14th May 2012 [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lud-Heat-Book-Dead-Hamlets/dp/19081162]

[3] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 60

[4] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 61

[5] Will Self, Introduction: Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton,1985): vi

[6] Edward J. Ahearn, “The Modern English Visionary: Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve,” Twentieth Century Literature, 2000

[7] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 21.

[8] Susana Onega: “Metafiction and Myth in the Novels of Peter Ackroyd,” Camden House, 1999: 46

[9] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 85

[10] William Blake, The Complete Poems (Penguin Books, 1977): 182

[11] Joyce Carol Oates, “The Highest Passion Is Terrour,” New York Times, January 19th 1986 [http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/06/specials/ackroyd-hawksmoor.html]

[12] Roger Crisp, Ley Lines of Wessex (Wessex Books 2008): 3

[13] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 75

[14] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 74

[15] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 69

[16] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 196

[17] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 239

[18] Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (Hamish Hamilton, 1985): 271