By Ben Arzate
“The kernel of this necropolis is a cell where Gille de Rais is enthroned, a banished monarch bearing astrolabe and caduceus of vitrified memory. Dirty iron light shudders from a fulminating althanor fired by carbonized embryos, flanked by catafiques laden with lymphs, bile phials, pederastic essences, bottled catatonias, a panoply of pharmaceutical arcana, ichors and drugs to oblivionise, hermetic grimoires and profane blue velvet bibles.”
The story of this strange little prose poem novella begins with the UK record label Creation Records. The label, focused mostly on alternative rock, found itself bringing on James Williamson as both an artist and the head of its new book publishing arm, Creation Press, later to be renamed to Creation Books, in 1989. Its first book was part of an ambitious, multimedia vision by Williamson, under the name James Havoc, which included not only the text itself, but an album, a short film (NSFW), and a comic book.
Creation Books would go on to be a prolific publisher of unusual books. Some of its authors included Alan Moore, Ramsey Campbell, Boyd Rice, and Kenji Siratori. It published the first edition of Matthew Stokoe’s infamous Cows, it released the first English translations of Pierre Guyotat’s novels, and was Peter Sotos’s main publisher for many years.
Despite all of its accomplishments in bringing strange, underground, and transgressive literature to the world, Creation Books ceased as a business in 2012. Amid accusations of unpaid royalties, selling translation rights without permission, and cutting corners in producing books, Williamson closed the imprint. Now most of its catalogue is out of print, with the exception of a few still available as ebooks.
I give all this background to say that Raism, while not terrible, is far more interesting for its background and its place in the publisher’s history than it is on its own. Maybe it’s unfair to look at this book as a single piece of work, given that it was part of a larger project, though Havoc clearly intended this novella to be the center of his vision.
Raism, as the name implies, is based on the infamous child murderer, alleged occultist, and one-time companion of Joan of Arc, Gille de Rais. The book, and the project as a whole, act as if de Rais were a Satanic, libertine saint. He’s treated here with demented words of praise in a surreal mix of vignettes, poetic statements, and demonic artwork. There’s a short introduction giving historical context, but which takes the worst accusations against him at face value, despite the questioning of them by some historians.
As the excerpt above shows, the prose is incredibly dense. It’s meant to invoke mood and imagery more than tell a story, and what it evokes is pretty horrific. While it too often uses obscure words, which comes across as an amateurish attempt to appear smart or deep, the scenes of mass murder and child rape still hit. It even comes up with some great turns of phrase at times. The image of “lips curling like a scimitar” still remains in my head. The artwork, by artist Jim Navajo, that accompanies the text is also fantastic and genuinely very creepy. I was a bit disappointed when I couldn’t find any information on the artist in my research.
In spite of all that, the book has a slight stench of juvenilia about it. It’s trying very, very hard with its five-dollar words, its images of Gille de Rais shitting into skulls, and the way it wears its influences on its sleeve. It wants very much to reach the heights of Georges Bataille, Comte de Lautreamont, and the Marquis de Sade, but it unfortunately doesn’t come close. Williamson as Havoc apparently refined his style in later works, and Raism does pique my curiosity. There’s clearly potential here, despite the problems.
A truncated version of Raism is in Havoc’s later book Satanskin, which is available as an ebook and is likely a better starting place for his works. The novella in full was re-printed in a collection of Havoc’s work, The Butchershop in the Sky, but that one is also out of print. I’d say if this were to come back into circulation, it deserves to come back as part of a collection of Havoc’s works and not as a standalone book.
Or, hell, maybe James Havoc should just go all in and try to bring back Raism as a real religion.
“Pleasures pave sewers. Who belong dead, follow.”
Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, IA. His articles, reviews, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various places online and in print. He is a regular contributor to Cultured Vultures and is the author of two poetry books (the sky is black and blue like a battered child and dr. sodom and mrs. gomorrah, feel bad all the time), one book of short stories (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye, NihilismRevised), and two novels (The Story of the Y, Cabal Books and Elaine, Atlatl Press). Find him online at dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com.