My novel The Angels of L19 is a work of weird fiction set in an evangelical church in Liverpool in 1984 – a world I grew up in. Historically, the English novel has often presented religious belief and religious experience in negative ways: either as insincere, a pretext for self-righteousness; or as a form of delusion or madness. As one of my protagonists, Tracey, puts it to herself while watching Footloose:
“In films and books, no one ever believes something simply because it’s true. There’s always a secret, personal reason. Righteousness is hypocrisy; conviction is prejudice. God is a mask to hide behind. And the story strips the mask away.”
Tracey sees things differently: ‘We don’t hide from ourselves in God. He’s the secret that explains who we are.’
I wanted to write about characters for whom Tracey’s observation is true: people whose faith pushes them to become better people, not worse. But I also wanted to write about how the supernatural might manifest in their world.
In his book The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher describes the weird as an eruption or egress from elsewhere – from outside – into our world of something whose very existence disrupts our notion of reality. For Lovecraft, one of the founding fathers of weird fiction, this transcendental, alien outside was never supernatural, even if ignorant people sometimes mistook it for such. But even if we reject Lovecraft’s materialism, there is a larger problem in representing the Christian supernatural in these terms: because the invisible presence of supernatural beings is an accepted cornerstone of Christian belief. Even if few believers claim to have actually encountered an angel or demon, their existence is taken for granted. They are not elsewhere: they are all around us. We just can’t see them. As such, they are familiar, and their depiction in art and fiction is conventional – indeed, it often verges on kitsch (feathery wings, bulging muscles, luminescent pale skin and blonde hair, etc.). But this need not be so. The descriptions in the biblical books of Ezekiel and Revelation of multi-winged and –headed creatures covered in eyes are anything but kitsch: they are quite genuinely weird (even if some of this effect might be attributable to their origin in an alien cultural context). They are terrible in the same way that God is terrible. However, even these canonical descriptions are now familiar enough to lose some of their unsettling power if simply repeated verbatim.
What I tried to do in The Angels of L19 was to imagine entities whose manifestations were quite different to the descriptions in the Bible – to avoid triggering any sense of overfamiliairity – but that try to replicate some of their unsettling power. So this is how Robert, my visionary character, perceives the being he calls ‘the presence’ on its first appearance in the story:
Its body is ivory; at other times, wax. Always hairless, smooth. No articulations or openings, apart from a bubbled vertical slit in the centre of its head, like the line of glue on the wallpaper.
An egg. Sealed, but waiting to split.
Or here it is on its second appearance (it changes and evolves each time it appears):
Its ivory skin is translucent, but the white flesh has thickened underneath. Curds and whey. Fermenting.
Its head has an opening now. A dry circle. An inverted cone cut into this wet dissolution, positioned somewhere between where the nose and mouth would be – if it had a nose or a mouth. … The cone advances towards Robert, out of the head. It’s bigger than the head, even though it’s coming out of the head. And now Robert is inside the cone, which means he’s also inside the head. It surrounds him, like a caul.
The cone is black, and as it narrows towards the apex there’s a red disc. So the cone’s truncated. It doesn’t end in a point but in another, much smaller circle. The circle flashes: red, then black; red, black. No, that’s not right. More like it’s sliding in and out. Red, black. A diaphragm opening and closing.
He falls into the cone.
Eventually, Robert advances a theory about the presence: it’s an angel. But what is an angel? ‘A messenger, and also a technology for recording and transmitting the message. An archive.’ My attempts to dramatise the interventions of the presence are based on this idea – but what its message is and where it comes from are only revealed gradually (though certainly it originates ‘outside’). And Robert’s final revelation of its meaning is horrifying as well as transcendent. Indeed, this is one of my themes: horror as a kind of transcendence. An abject angel. For is not the Cross abject and horrifying too
There is also a second supernatural character in The Angels of L19, whose interventions are demonic and destructive, but she does not have fur, horns or a forked tail. Instead, she appears as a naked, starved pre-pubescent girl (but also, sometimes, as Robert, or even as Tracey).
The weirdness of these supernatural characters is inspired by Christian existentialism: its purpose is not to confirm the protagonists in their preconceptions, but to confront and challenge them. For Kierkegaard too, the God who speaks to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his only son is ‘weird’. He is the ordering principle by which all reality exists, but He is also, by definition, not what you expect, and His manifestations disrupt your cozy complacencies about your relation to that reality and your place in the world.
All this might suggest that The Angels of L19 privileges Robert’s weird visionary experiences over Tracey’s quotidian faith. But I don’t think that’s true: the weird always appears against a backdrop of the familiar, but here the everyday is not simply blotted out by the weird’s overwhelming otherness. Unlike Lovecraft, I tried to imagine the redemptive potential of the weird, but also the redemptive possibilities of the everyday. At the end of the book, it is Tracey’s faith that saves Robert, not the other way round.
ANGELS OF L19, BY JONATHAN WALKER
There’s more than one way to be born again. Liverpool, 1984. The teenagers at Garston Chapel are the same as the rest of us: The Smiths, U2, crushes, football, mates. The grimy, low\-down politics of the Thatcher era casting deep shadows in this proud and broken city, but the kids have got other things on their minds… Jesus Christ Our Lord for one. Almost normal kids, then. But Robert isn’t at all normal. Because Robert is visited by angels, if that’s what they are. He can’t tell a soul about his secret. All anyone can see is his strange behaviour as he desperately seeks to understand what they mean, what they want from him. As Robert’s two worlds merge, the real and the visionary intersect with increasing intensity and what is being asked of him becomes terrifyingly clear. The Angels of L19 is a moving and entirely original story of young lives at the confluence of faith and doubt, angels and demons, life and death. And where redemption is possible, even for those we think might be lost forever
Or purchase a copy directly from Weather Glass Books
I was shocked by the ending and you may wonder whether redemption is ever truly possible. Highly original, thought-provoking, personal, and undoubtedly one of the literary highlights of 2021.Read Tony Jones review of The Angels of L19 here
Jonathan Walker is the author of The Angels of L19 (Weatherglass Books, 2021), and two other books. He used to be a historian of Venice, and he has doctorates in history and creative writing. You can find him at jonathanwalkersblog.co.uk, or on Twitter as @NewishPuritan.