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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Iron Age Oddities

If I can’t think of anything else to write about, I can always dig into my collection of photographs taken in various museums. I’ll start with two that show very similar-looking objects. The one on the left was taken in the British Museum last week; the one on the right was taken a few years ago in Lyme Regis Museum. They look so similar they might even be the same object... and in a sense they are.
The object in the British Museum is a bronze mirror that was unearthed during excavations at the Roman villa at Holcombe, a few miles from Lyme Regis. Although it was discovered at a Roman site, it actually dates from around 50 BC, about a century before the Roman invasion. That period of British history is referred to as the “Iron Age”, which makes it sound primitive and unsophisticated – but it clearly wasn’t, if they had fancy decorated mirrors like this. The mirror is displayed face down, to show the intricate engraving on the back – the other side would have been polished smooth to produce a reflective surface.

The mirror on display in Lyme Regis is simply a modern replica of the one in the British Museum. It looks a completely different colour, but at least part of this may be due to the different lighting conditions. Apart from that, however, the replica is astonishingly accurate. If you open the image full size, you can see that not only has the fine engraving been reproduced exactly, but so has the seemingly random pattern of corrosion on the metal!

Actually, I’d be more interested to see a replica of what the mirror looked like when it was new. One of the reasons people insist on thinking of archaeological history as “primitive” is because objects are in such a poor state when they’re dug out of the ground. I’m sure the mirror’s original owner would have thrown it out of the house if she’d seen it in this condition!

Bronze mirrors were popular high-status items in a number of ancient cultures, and dozens of other examples have been found at Iron Age sites around Britain. But there’s another object on display in the same room at the British Museum which is virtually unique. It’s the horned helmet shown below. This was found near Waterloo Bridge in London and it dates from the same period as the Holcombe mirror, or possibly even earlier.

I have to admit I’d never heard of the Waterloo helmet until I saw it last week, although I see now that it’s important enough to have its own Wikipedia page. Like most people I tend to associate horned helmets with the Vikings (even though the Vikings didn’t really use them that much)... but with an estimated date of 150 to 50 BC, this one predates the Vikings by a thousand years. Its purpose was almost certainly purely ceremonial – the thin bronze wouldn’t have given the wearer much protection against a heavy iron sword!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Promethean Galaxy

The Promethean Galaxy was the first book I ever wrote, way back in 1990. In fact it was the first non-fiction I ever wrote, apart from scientific papers. I tried it on a few publishers at the time, but they all said the same thing – that it didn’t fit into any of their categories. The book wasn’t popular science or philosophy or literary criticism or popular culture, but a weird mixture of all the above. It was a bit like this blog, in other words!

The original version of the book was 30,000 words long, but I tightened it up to 18,000 words in 2004 and self-published it as an ebook. I noticed a few days ago that some kind and discerning person just bought a copy from Amazon, which is what brought it back to mind. Who says self-published books never sell?

“The Promethean Galaxy” is a quote from a comic book – Jack Kirby’s New Gods #5, from 1971. Although I was a 13-year old comic reader at the time, I didn't buy that particular issue, or any of Jack Kirby’s 1970s titles for that matter. I didn’t want to be seen with them – they looked childish and old-fashioned to my sophisticated teenage tastes! It was only in 1989 that I bought a complete set of New Gods reprints and decided they were really very good. So it was all fresh in my mind when I sat down in front of my very first PC to write The Promethean Galaxy in 1990.

I managed to squeeze a lot of other cool stuff into the book, too, and then added a few more items to the mix when I revised it in 2004. Here is a list I made on the latter occasion:

...... Astounding Science Fiction and Isaac Asimov ...... Astral travel and astrology ...... Charles Fort and Erich von Daniken ...... Einstein and General Relativity ...... Jack Kirby and The New Gods ...... Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Jung ...... Linguistic relativism and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis ...... Parapsychology and UFOs ...... Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism ...... Quantum entanglement and emergent phenomena ...... Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard ...... Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton ...... Star Trek and The Matrix ...... Tennyson, Shelley, Voltaire and Wagner ...... The Many Worlds Hypothesis and hyperspace ...... Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts ...... Warp drives and wormholes ......

– or as I said a moment ago, pretty much like this blog!

Let’s see if I can keep the ball rolling and sell more than that one copy. Here are a few links so you can choose your favourite format:
... and here is the book’s blurb:
Planet Earth is a constituent part of the Galaxy, but only a microscopically small part – a tiny chunk of rock. Like Prometheus, we are chained to this rock, and constrained to view the Galaxy from this one perspective only. Why should we be interested in the Galaxy in the first place, and – with such a restricted viewpoint – how can we ever hope to learn anything about it? These questions are addressed in this book, which draws on an eclectic heritage of science, philosophy, mysticism, poetry and fiction.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Hitler's Astrologer

It’s said you can boost the sales of any book by putting Hitler on the cover, but in the case of the book pictured here they’ve done just the opposite – they’ve removed Hitler from the cover. The book’s full title is The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer. Written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Michael Kaluta, it was originally published by Marvel Comics as a graphic novel in 1988. This new “remastered” edition was produced in December last year by Dynamite Comics.

Dynamite Comics is a great invention for people like me with a penchant for things that used to be fashionable but aren’t any more. They’ve got Dan Dare, the Green Hornet and Magnus the Robot Fighter. On the distaff side there’s the Bionic Woman, Dejah Thoris, Red Sonja and Vampirella. Then there’s the weird stuff Jack Kirby produced during his “Rattling Gonads” period, like Captain Victory and Silver Star. And there are all the classic pulp heroes – the Spider, Doc Savage... and the Shadow.

Most of Dynamite’s output is newly created, but they’ve also put out a few reprints such as the ex-Marvel book pictured above. This is great, because Marvel themselves don’t seem interested in tapping the nostalgia market.

The Shadow was the first of the classic pulp heroes, created in 1931 by Street & Smith. I have to admit I’ve only read three of the original Shadow novels – the character doesn’t interest me as much as Street & Smith’s other great hero, Doc Savage, or the Shadow’s counterpart from a rival publisher, the Spider. Having said that, I see that JMS Books have put a distinctly Shadow-like character on the cover of my next ebook!

Notwithstanding a certain indifference toward the Shadow as a character, the presence of Hitler’s name in the title (it’s on the spine, trust me) was enough to swing it for me. I bought the book on a visit to London last month, and I’m glad I did. The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer is a brilliant story. It hangs together better than most pulp novels I’ve read... and better than most comic books for that matter.

I was surprised to see the book doesn’t get an outstanding rating on Goodreads. I guess that’s because it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to appeal to casual readers. Not only is the story set in 1941 (which is as distant to a 16-year old today as 1901 is to me) but it assumes you’re at least vaguely familiar with the major events of 1941 – such as Operation Barbarossa and Rudolf Hess’s bizarre flight to Scotland.

The book also defies the comfortable stereotypes people expect from WW2 stories these days. The villains are Nazis, of course, but the most evil people in the book aren’t Germans. And despite having his name in the title, Hitler barely makes an appearance – instead he’s portrayed as being surrounded by schemers who are trying to manipulate him. Some readers won’t like that.

The astrologer of the book’s title is a purely fictional creation. Nevertheless, claims have often been made that Hitler and other leading Nazis really were obsessed with the stars. This may have been true, or it may have been propaganda, or it may have been deliberate disinformation. The British authorities certainly used astrology in this latter sense, when they claimed that intelligence information obtained by Bletchley Park code-breakers was actually the result of astrological predictions!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Patterson-Gimlin Film: Fake or Fact?

The subject of Bigfoot – the existence or non-existence thereof – is a complex and thorny one. It’s also a highly emotive subject, as last week’s BBC documentary demonstrated. It’s an emotive subject in Bigfoot’s home territory of North America, anyhow. The strongest reason for believing in something is having seen it with your own eyes... and thousands of Americans say they’ve done just that. People who haven’t seen Bigfoot – and that includes most people on this side of the Atlantic – are more likely to be skeptical: “If you can’t produce physical evidence, then it doesn’t exist.” Personally, though, I prefer to keep an open mind.

Of the few things that come close to providing “physical evidence” of Bigfoot, the Patterson-Gimlin Film (PGF) from 1967 is among the best known and most thoroughly analysed. I just read a new ebook on the subject – Patterson-Gimlin Film: Fake or Fact? by Larry Jaffer. I hadn’t come across Larry Jaffer before, but he’s written several of these short ebooks under the general heading of “Cryptid Casebook”. Other titles in the series include Bigfoot in Michigan, The Beast of Bodmin and Marozi: Africa's Spotted Lion. These ebooks are short (equivalent to 20 – 30 pages of a printed book) but astonishingly cheap – less than a dollar each!

I found Patterson-Gimlin Film: Fake or Fact? to be intelligently written and thought-provoking. The title, of course, goes right to the heart of the matter. While many of the other video clips purporting to show Bigfoot may have innocent, down-to-earth explanations (e.g. a bear), that simply isn’t the case with the PGF. The footage either shows an unknown bipedal primate, or it shows a human being dressed up in a costume.

There’s an awful lot that Larry Jaffer could have put in his ebook but didn’t, presumably for reasons of space. There’s only a brief mention of the numerous detailed analyses of the video that can be found on YouTube and elsewhere. There’s nothing at all about the various claims, made long after the film itself, by people who allegedly helped Patterson and Gimlin stage a hoax. So if you’re looking for a complete, up-to-the-minute account of the entire PGF saga then this little ebook is going to fall short of your expectations. The author’s aim is more limited than that – but what he does do, he does very well.

Essentially this is a book about circumstantial evidence in and around the “scene of the crime”. It doesn’t concern itself with things people may have said decades later, or with state-of-the-art image processing techniques. It just looks at the facts of the case as they unfolded at the time, and asks “Is it likely that things would have happened this way if Patterson and Gimlin had set out to perpetrate a hoax?”

I don’t like giving out spoilers, but I was sufficiently surprised by Larry Jaffer’s conclusion that I’m going to repeat it here: “So far as this writer is concerned the circumstantial evidence surrounding the Patterson-Gimlin Film indicates that it is not a fake nor a hoax, but is a genuine film of a Bigfoot.”

What makes him say that? You’ll have to splurge 99 cents on his book if you want to find out!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Phallic Obsession

Around this time last year I decided to try my hand at writing a horror story in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. What does that mean, exactly? The most obvious characteristics of Lovecraftian horror are an adjective-laden prose style and plentiful references to the Cthulhu mythos. I wanted to avoid both those things, partly because they’ve already been done to death by better writers, and partly because there are other aspects of Lovecraft’s work that interest me more. There’s a bookish, first-person narrator nervously recounting past events that had a shattering effect on his nerves. There’s the fragile line that separates madness from reality. And there’s Lovecraft’s central conceit – almost unique in horror fiction – that the ultimate horror lies in the realization of the total insignificance of the human condition.

The most horrifying form of madness is the paranoid delusion – for example the not-uncommon notion that the upper levels of human society have been infiltrated by reptilian shape-shifters. I don’t mean that it’s horrifying because it might be true (although some people might feel that way), but because it’s absolutely impossible to convince a deluded individual that their delusion isn’t true. The safest way to preserve your own sanity is to have nothing to do with people expounding such views.

But what if the person in question can give you something you want? I pictured the story’s villain as a female academic who – after “discovering” the existence of the reptilians and consequent pointlessness of human existence – dedicates her life to sex, drugs and a museum full of penises (this was around the time I wrote the blog post about Phascinating Phacts). The narrator would be a naïve young heterosexual male who was chasing after the woman for... well, for obvious reasons.

That was the way I wrote the first draft, but I wasn’t really happy with it. The fact that some scenes had the hero lusting after the villain diluted the horror of his situation. The breakthrough came several months later when Chinese Alchemy was accepted by JMS Books, and I started wondering what else I could send them. They’re specialists in LGBT fiction, so I couldn’t send them “Madness in the Museum” (as it was called at the time) because the hero wasn’t gay. Or was he?

Suddenly it all came together. If the hero was gay, and drawn to the female villain because of a mutual interest rather than sexual attraction, it would avoid the emotional U-turns that messed up the original version. It also added an extra dimension to the “Phallic Obsession” that became the story’s new title. And it allowed me to introduce a few humorous scenes into the story, as well as a much more dramatic climactic scene. The final published version is quite short (7500 words), but I think it hangs together pretty well. And they’ve given it a brilliant cover!

Phallic Obsession is a mere $2.99 from Amazon and other ebook retailers. British readers can get it from the UK Kindle store for just £1.85.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Lost Tomb of King Arthur

Glastonbury in Somerset is a town about which many fascinating claims have been made. In previous posts I’ve mentioned its reputed connections with Psychic Archaeology, the Knights Templar and even Saint Patrick. My book Bloody British History: Somerset has no fewer than 18 references to Glastonbury in the index. Not all of these are literally “bloody”, although many of them are. There was the group of Irish pilgrims who were massacred while visiting the shrine of Saint Patrick in 708 AD. There was the first Norman Abbot of Glastonbury, who dealt with a group of unruly monks by having them slaughtered at the altar of the church. And then there was the last Abbot of Glastonbury, who was hung, drawn and quartered on the orders of Henry VIII in 1539.

Some of the Glastonbury stories in the book are not so much bloody as mysterious. An example is the supposed discovery of the bones of King Arthur in the grounds of the Abbey in 1191. In my brief account of this, I took the standard modern-day view that it was just a cynical publicity stunt, aimed at luring pilgrims to the Abbey when the monks were short of funds to rebuild it after a disastrous fire. But was it really that simple? I’ve just read a short ebook on the subject, The Lost Tomb of King Arthur by Oliver Hayes – and now I’m not so certain.

I reviewed another of Oliver’s ebooks last year – The Papal Prophecies. That book, although it was a fascinating story, showed signs of having been put together in a hurry to coincide with the election of the new Pope. In contrast, The Lost Tomb of King Arthur appears to be the end result of long and careful research on the subject. It’s part of a series called Celtic Twilight, which seeks to demystify some of the semi-legendary events that took place in the British Isles during the early Middle Ages.

King Arthur, of course, is as semi-legendary as they come. Different parts of the country have their own views as to who he was, when he lived, and what he did. Down here in the south-west, the prevailing opinion is that he was the King of Dumnonia around 500 AD, a century or so after the departure of the Romans. Dumnonia roughly corresponded to modern-day Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, which remained resolutely Celtic while Wessex to the East (Dorset/Wiltshire/Hampshire) adopted the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

If it’s true that King Arthur really existed, then he must have been buried somewhere. To be honest, this blindingly obvious fact never occurred to me until I read Oliver’s book. Putting all the myths and legends to one side, where was the most likely place for a king to be interred? People have always buried their important leaders in important places. In Christian times, that generally meant a major religious establishment. If Arthur was King of Dumnonia, it makes perfect sense that he would have been buried at Glastonbury. The monastery there was an important centre of the Celtic Church, and it lay within the boundaries of Dumnonia as they existed in the 6th century.

For Oliver, this is just the starting point. The focus of his book is not on Arthur’s burial in the 6th century, but on the supposed rediscovery of his remains in the 12th century. Did Glastonbury monks really unearth his tomb in 1191, or did they fake it? Oliver’s surprising answer is... neither of the above! I won’t spoil the fun by giving his argument away, but it’s ingenious and persuasive – and it may even be right!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Post-Fortean Meta-Complexity

This is yet another nostalgic post about something that no longer exists – although in this case it only ceased to exist last week.

I originally set up my website www.andrew-may.com in 2001, long before blogs and social media took off. In those days, a personal presence on the web took the form of a “home page”. These were often very opinionated and idiosyncratic – or mine was, at least. I realized some time ago, soon after I started this blog, that online fashions have changed. A blog is a good place to be opinionated and idiosyncratic, but a personal website – for people who still need one – ought to be slicker and more professional-looking.

I put off making the change as long as I could, but last week I was migrated from my old Windows server to a new Linux host, so I took the opportunity to do a complete overhaul. Hopefully the new site looks more serious and less cranky than the old one. Essentially it’s just an online bibliography now, although there are some links to older stuff in the small print at the bottom.

One of the things I’ve ditched is the name of the old site, “Post-Fortean Meta-Complexity”. This was meant to be a pastiche of the numerous postmodern academic disciplines that were trendy at the time. I thought it was a really good title (and I still do), but it sounds rather dated now. The name wasn’t just random – it actually meant something. If “Fortean” means taking a non-judgmental interest in offbeat facts and occurrences, then “Post-Fortean” applies the same approach to offbeat theories and ideas!

With the help of the Wayback Machine, I had a look back at some of the earliest versions of the website. The screenshot above isn’t from the very first version, but it was the first version that looked the way I wanted it to.

Some of the early content is still there on the website if you dig deep enough. Down at the bottom of the current site there’s a link that says “Archive” (there are also links to two other old sites of mine, Zen Dynamics and Astounding Science Fiction). Most of the early stuff is about Buddhism and Philip K. Dick, for some reason. There’s an interesting list of Metaphysical Quotations from the novels of Philip K Dick that I’d forgotten all about. There’s also an article that touches on the connections between PKD, the Buddha and Richard Wagner!

I had a few problems with case-sensitive filenames and encoding errors (apostrophes and hyphens not rendering correctly) when I moved to the Linux server. I think I’ve cleared these up now, but let me know if you encounter any problems with the new site.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Cult TV and Autoerotic Asphyxiation

I bought this lot of three Man from U.N.C.L.E books on eBay last week (I’ll explain why later). It was a very popular TV series in the 1960s – I’m fairly sure it was the first show I ever watched, back when I was 8 or 9, that wasn’t aimed specifically at children. The plots were over my head, but the U.N.C.L.E agents had some really cool guns and gadgets (which I also had, in toy form).

These tie-in novels were all written by different authors. The Doomsday Affair, by Harry Whittington, is by far the best. It’s about a plot deep within the U.S. government to drop an H-bomb on Washington D.C. as a ruse to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. That’s really quite a Fortean idea – or at least, it’s the sort of thing Conspiracy Theorists are always going on about.

The other two novels have Fortean elements, too. The Copenhagen Affair by John Oram is about man-made flying saucers being constructed in an underground Nazi factory in Denmark. That sounds promising, but the novel is appallingly badly plotted. The Vampire Affair by David McDaniel is somewhat better, and contains a number of science-fictional in-jokes – including a cameo appearance by Forrest J Ackerman (the man who invented the term “sci-fi”, and never showed any remorse for doing so).

The Vampire Affair was the reason I bought the books in the first place – because I wanted to sample David McDaniel’s writing. I first came across his name when I was researching my recent post about The Geek by Alice Louise Ramirez. In her Amazon review, she mentions that McDaniel was one of the weed-smoking hippies who helped her come up with the concept for The Geek in the first place. She doesn’t refer to him by name, but she mentions a Man from U.N.C.L.E author who “died after slipping in the bathtub”.

After a bit of research, I realized the person she was talking about was David McDaniel. Not because David McDaniel died after slipping in the bathtub, but because that’s how his family said he died at the time. Actually he was found hanging in his bedroom, in circumstances suggestive of autoerotic asphyxiation.

You can understand why his family didn’t want this to become public knowledge. Any death is a tragedy, but it’s even more of a tragedy if people roll on the floor laughing when they hear about it.

“There are worse ways to go, but I can't think of a more undignified way than autoerotic asphyxiation.” That quote comes from “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, the fourth episode of the third season of The X-Files, first aired in 1995. The words are spoken by the title character, Clyde Bruckman, to UFO-obsessed FBI agent Fox Mulder. In the story, Bruckman is supposed to be able to foresee people’s deaths, so this may be his way of telling Mulder that’s how he’s going to die. Or maybe he’s just trying to freak him out.

It’s true there are more dignified ways to die than autoerotic asphyxiation. Being felled by the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, for example – which is how David Carradine’s character dies at the end of [spoiler deleted]. In real life, however... well, some people think Carradine was murdered – but if so, the perpetrators made it look just like autoerotic asphyxiation.

For people in my age group, David Carradine’s most famous role was as Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu. That was just as much of a cult phenomenon in the 1970s as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was in the 1960s or The X-Files in the 1990s.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Satan, Sin and Death

The dramatic scene depicted above is the work of the 18th century painter and engraver William Hogarth. This particular engraving is based on a painting he produced circa 1735-40, but it’s easier to see what’s going on in this black-and-white version. It’s a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Satan, en route from Hell to Earth, encounters two strange figures guarding the Gates of Hell:

Before the gates there sat on either side a formidable Shape. The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair, but ended foul in many a scaly fold, voluminous and vast – a serpent armed with mortal sting. [...] The other Shape – if shape it might be called, that shape had none distinguishable in member, joint, or limb. Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, for each seemed either. Black it stood as Night, fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, and shook a dreadful dart.

The first figure is the personification of Sin, while the second figure is Death. It’s interesting that Satan himself is portrayed in relatively heroic form, although his facial features look more monstrous in the original painted version than in this engraving.

“Satan, Sin and Death” is an unusual departure for Hogarth, most of whose works are satirical in nature (see for example Paranormal investigation, 18th century style and Another historical myth-conception). Hogarthian satire was pretty gentle stuff, aimed at broad social classes rather than at specific individuals. By the end of the 18th century, however, all that had changed – and political caricatures were every bit as viciously ad hominem as they are today.

James Gillray (1756 – 1815) was one of the first great political cartoonists. His own variation on the theme of “Sin, Death and the Devil”, dating from 1792, is shown below. Death is represented by the Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt the Younger, while the Devil is Pitt’s Lord Chancellor, Baron Thurlow. They are separated by the figure of Sin in the person of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. Even today, the depiction of the present Queen in such an unflattering way would be frowned on in some quarters (although Conspiracy Theorists might detect a resemblance between Her Majesty and Milton’s personification of Sin, in that both of them are half reptilian).
William Blake (mentioned previously in A 19th Century Contactee and Reinventing Ezekiel's Wheel) was born the year after Gillray. He had something of an obsession with Milton’s Paradise Lost, producing at least 30 illustrations based on it. The earlier of Blake’s two versions of “Satan, Sin and Death” (circa 1807) is depicted below. Like Hogarth, Blake makes the figure of Satan look surprisingly heroic... while his version of Death is a semi-transparent ghost.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Monsters, Mystery and a Monkey

I can’t think of anything to write about this week, so here are a few more interesting paintings I saw in the Louvre Museum last summer. The photos are a bit blurry because they’re my own, but I’ve included links to better images.

The first picture was painted by Raphael around 1504, when he was just 21 years old. It depicts the story of Saint Michael and the dragon from the Book of Revelation, which I mentioned in a previous post (Dragon Symbolism). The dragon in question was Satan himself, although Raphael’s version doesn’t look much like the traditional depiction of Satan... or the traditional depiction of a dragon, for that matter. It looks more like one of Hieronymus Bosch’s demons, as do the various monsters in the background. They’re easier to see in the Louvre’s own picture – Saint Michel terrassant le démon. With the exception of the figure of Saint Michael himself, there is quite a striking resemblance to Bosch... who after all lived at the same time as Raphael.
The second picture is one of the most Fortean of all paintings – Les Bergers d’Arcadie by Nicolas Poussin, dating from around 1639. The title means “The Shepherds of Arcadia” – Arcadia being a place in ancient Greece. That doesn’t sound very Fortean, except that many people (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, as far as I can make out) believe the picture really depicts the tomb of Jesus Christ near Rennes-le-Chateau in France. I would really like to go back in time and tell Poussin that’s what people in the 21st century think the painting is meant to depict. He would probably laugh quite a bit.
The last picture is by a French painter named Jean-Siméon Chardin, who is nothing like as well known as Raphael or Poussin. But I still think it’s a good picture. It’s called “The Antiquarian Monkey” (or in French, Le Singe antiquaire), and it was painted around 1726. It depicts a monkey trying to look like the kind of refined, educated, middle-aged gentleman that I try to look like. Except the monkey does it better.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Pulp Forteana

The current issue of Fortean Times (FT311, February 2014) has an article by Bob Rickard about the British science fiction writer Eric Frank Russell (actually it looks like it’s the first of several articles about him). I got quite interested in Russell in the 1990s, and read as many of his books as I could get hold of – as seen in the above photograph. I think all these books were bought second-hand, since they were pretty much out of print by that time.

More recently I bought John L. Ingham’s biography of EFR, “Into Your Tent”, which Bob Rickard mentions in his article. The book’s odd title is taken from one of Russell’s short stories, and I don’t think it was meant to refer to his preferred direction of urination. But it’s apt, anyhow. From the point of view of the mainstream SF community, EFR was always an outsider pissing in, not an insider pissing out.

On top of the biography in the photograph is the only non-fiction book of Russell’s that I own – a compendium of Forteana called Great World Mysteries. Amongst his fiction, the most explicitly Fortean novel is Sinister Barrier, which I wrote about on a previous occasion (The First Fortean Novel). As you can see, I own two copies of this – which I bought on the same day, in two different shops in London (both of which sadly no longer exist).

My first stop was the late lamented Fantasy Centre in Holloway Road. That’s where I bought the original issue of Unknown magazine (March 1939) in which Sinister Barrier first saw print. This cost me £25, which is more than I would normally pay for a book, but I didn’t think I was likely to see another copy for sale (this was in the days before internet shopping). I then proceeded to London’s other specialist SF shop, New Worlds in Charing Cross Road, where I saw a later edition of Sinister Barrier for a tenth of the price I’d just paid – £2.50! I bought that as well (after kicking myself a few times), because it was a significantly expanded version of the novel compared to the original.

The copy of Unknown in the top middle of the photograph is a typical pulp magazine. This term is often used loosely (by me as much as anyone else), but this really is one. It’s printed on thick, wood-pulp paper, and it measures approximately 7 inches by 10 inches (similar dimensions to an American comic book). Pulps were enormously popular in the 1930s, and hundreds of titles were published every month. Bob Rickard’s article describes how the young Russell’s “reading graduated from early British comics to all kinds of pulp fiction”.

Pulp fiction is a widely misunderstood term. Many people think it refers to a genre, when in fact it refers to a medium. Pulp fiction was churned out very quickly, for low rates of pay, and sold in huge quantities to a lowbrow audience that would have preferred to watch television or play video games if such things had existed in the 1930s and 40s. To confuse matters further, the majority of young people nowadays first encounter the term in the context of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, which deliberately inverts many of the traditional elements of pulp fiction (an easy-to-follow plot, a righteous hero, villains who get what’s coming to them and the careful avoidance of profanity). The confusion doesn’t stem from Tarantino, of course, but from the fact that so many people fail to recognize irony when they encounter it.

Science fiction started out as one of the genres of pulp fiction, and one of the least sophisticated. By and large, the SF of the 1930s is pretty juvenile, shoot-em-up stuff – and to be honest, Sinister Barrier (which was Russell’s first major work) falls into this category. In contrast, other genres of pulp fiction published at the same time were far more sophisticated in their plotting, writing style and characterization. Perhaps the most sophisticated genre of all was the “hard-boiled detective story”. The genius of Eric Frank Russell was to take the style, pace and language of hard-boiled fiction and apply it to SF. This can be seen in more or less any of his post Sinister Barrier writing.

My all-time favourite EFR novel – and one of my all-time favourite novels by any author, in any genre – is Dreadful Sanctuary. This masterpiece of paranoid fiction was serialized in three parts in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1948. I mentioned it quite recently in Precog Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself here.

My second favourite Russell novel is With a Strange Device – another work of paranoid fiction, featuring the implanting of false memories in people’s brains. Like all the best science fiction, it almost isn’t SF at all. Apart from the eponymous “strange device”, it’s a straight mystery novel. It originally appeared under the title “Run, Little Men!” in the June 1956 issue of a pulp magazine called Famous Detective Stories.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Chinese Alchemy

In a second-hand shop a few years ago I picked up a large-format book called Ritual and Magic, which consists of material recycled from Peter Brookesmith’s partwork The Unexplained from the 1980s. It’s really very good, and full of things I’ve never seen mentioned elsewhere. Here’s an example from the very first page of the first chapter:

“Sexual symbolism was in common use among alchemists and some of them interpreted such symbolic phrases as the marriage of the Red King and the White Queen not only chemically but also sexually. Some went so far as to attempt to manufacture the philosopher’s stone – the mysterious substance that would transmute base metal into gold – from human semen. Thus 18th century German records tell of an alchemical group that engaged in experiments of this sort. The leader of the group, an officer of high rank in the Austrian army, collected the raw materials for this curious research by paying soldiers to masturbate. The soldiers under the officer’s command were so enthusiastic to supplement their meagre pay that they neglected their military duties in almost incessant masturbation.”

The idea of collecting semen for use in the transmutation of metals seems a bit far-fetched, to say the least. But there was another side to alchemy, which was concerned with the prolonging of human life rather than the production of gold. In this context, the use of semen – as the basis for an elixir of life – makes a lot more sense. Enough sense for a work of fiction, anyway.

There’s just one problem with the scenario. Without going into gratuitous detail, if the secret of eternal youth simply involved the consumption of human semen, someone would have noticed by now. So there has to be some gimmick that makes the elixir of life really difficult to synthesize in practice.

Something else that’s been on my list of potential story ideas for ages is Chinese five-element theory. The topic has fascinated me ever since I first came across it in the 1990s – particularly as it relates to the interaction between different personality types (as illustrated in simplistic form in the accompanying picture). I produced my Zen Dynamics website more than 12 years ago, but I always thought the five-element cycle would make a good framework for a story as well.

Chinese element theory comes from Taoism, and the Chinese form of alchemy also comes from Taoism... so things were coming together. Taoism even makes a big deal about semen (see Wikipedia if you don’t believe me)... but it’s all about the retention of semen, not its collection. Needless to say, semen retention doesn’t have the same narrative potential that semen collection does. The great thing about fiction, however, is that you don’t have to tell the truth – in fact the whole point is that you’re supposed to make things up. So I made up my own form of Chinese Alchemy.

Chinese Alchemy (ISBN 978-1-611529-69-2) is available in Kindle format from Amazon.com and Amazon UK, and in other ebook formats direct from the publisher JMS Books – and hopefully from other retailers as well. Here is the blurb:

The secret of eternal youth is known to few, and attained by even fewer. It involves the preparation of an elixir, made from the sperm of five copulating couples, under conditions that make the undertaking all but impossible. The couples must represent specific physical and personality types, and ethical constraints rule out all the more obvious approaches to the task. Horny young bisexual Kelvin stumbles across the secret and decides to embark on the quest that has defeated so many before him. A fast-moving romp with a bizarre cast of characters, ranging from students and professors to porn stars and Satanists.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Thought-forms and Wormholes, 17th century style

I recently came across a couple of interesting old book illustrations. The first (above) appears to show four men mentally projecting the image of a dragon, a bit like a Tibetan tulpa or thought-form. Or maybe it’s a real dragon, and they’re fighting it off with Cyclops-like eye-beams.

Actually the picture comes from an optics textbook by Johann Zahn called Telescopium, which was published in 1685. The dragon appears in Figure XXIII near the end of the book. The text is in Latin, but as far as I can make out it’s an illustration of the light rays running from an extended object AB to observers C, D, E and F. Why object AB happens to be a flying dragon, I’ve no idea.

The second picture (below) appears to show some kind of huge vortex or wormhole opening up in the sky. That’s the kind of thing I always wish would happen, but it never does (except in movies). Actually the picture is an illustration from a book called Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, by Bernard de Fontenelle. It was first published in French in 1686, the year after Zahn’s book, although this picture may be from a later edition (the clothes look 18th century to me).

The picture is meant to be a symbolic depiction of a man telling a woman all about the structure of the Solar System. If you look carefully, you can see that the circles depict the six planets that were known at that time, as well as the Earth’s moon and some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. According to the Wikipedia article on Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, it was one of the first ever popular science books (i.e. not written in Latin). It explains the heliocentric theory of the Solar System, which was still quite a novelty at the time, and “muses on the possibility of extraterrestrial life”.

A few months ago I started a Tumblr picture blog called Amazing Visions, which I post to when I think about it (mostly reblogs of other people’s posts, to be honest). When I’ve published this post I’m going to post the two pictures to Tumblr as well. I haven’t got many followers, so do check it out if you’re into Tumblr.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Two Geeks, a Chicken and Bigfoot

The Geek by Alice Louise Ramirez was originally published in 1969 by Essex House – a short lived imprint that specialized in pornographic science fiction. It sounded like something I ought to read. I’ve got a professional interest in pornographic SF stories featuring geeks, since I just wrote one myself (it’s called Chinese Alchemy, and it's published by JMS books). The original edition of The Geek is an expensive collector’s item, but I managed to get hold of the 1995 reprint pictured above (for some reason this edition gives the author’s name as “Tiny Alice”).

It wasn’t what I was expecting. I’ve belatedly discovered that the word “geek” is really just a synonym of “freak”, and it used to be applied to sideshow performers. The Geek in this novel is a kind of sword-swallower, but as well as swallowing a sword his act also entails swallowing a chicken. This might not sound a big deal – except that it’s a live chicken, that goes all the way down and comes all the way back up again... and lives to perform the same act day after day. This requires considerable skill on the part of the Geek, but even more skill on the part of the chicken – who is the real hero of the novel, and its first-person narrator.

The book has a testimonial on the cover from Philip José Farmer, and a dedication inside “To Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad who thought of the Geek”. Farmer, Ellison and Spinrad were three of the biggest names in science fiction at the time the book was written. Its communal genesis is described by Alice Ramirez herself in her Amazon review of the book.

If the author’s recollections are anything to go by, the story was concocted by a group of horny youngsters who were stoned out of their minds. Having read the book, that’s easy enough to believe. Most of the action takes place on a tiny Pacific island occupied by a group of sado-masochistic lesbian nudists. Considering the story is narrated by a pink chicken (I should have mentioned that this particular chicken is dyed pink, for symbolic reasons) it isn’t that bad – but it isn’t that good either. The surreal humour of the novel probably seemed a lot funnier in the drug-addled sixties.

While I was researching the book’s background I came across a strange coincidence. A film with the same title – The Geek – was released two years later in 1971. But as far as I can tell, it’s completely unconnected to the novel – the “geek” in the movie is a wild Bigfoot-like creature with a penchant for human females. Unlike the book, the film is important enough to have its own Wikipedia article. Loren Coleman also wrote about The First Bigfoot Porn Film on his blog a few years ago... although Loren was talking about a shortened 15 minute version released in 1981.

The 1971 original was 45 minutes long, and after a bit of Googling I found an uncut copy on one of those “adult” versions of YouTube. I really needn’t have bothered. The first 35 minutes is completely plotless – a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a group of horny young hikers. Bigfoot – or rather the Geek – only turns up in the last ten minutes, and his scenes mostly consist of simulated sexual activity. I couldn’t work out if the film was a cynical attempt to make money, on the basis that anything with copulation in it will sell, or if it was an experimental art-house film in the “Blair Witch” mould. It doesn’t really matter, since the effect is pretty much the same either way.

The most interesting thing, of course, is the synchronicity of a 1969 pornographic SF novel called The Geek, and an apparently unrelated 1971 pornographic SF movie called The Geek. It may just be a coincidence – but if so, why was the film called “The Geek”? If they wanted people to go and see it, why didn’t they give it a more commercially eyecatching title like “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch”? Another possibility occurred to me – admittedly on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Maybe the film-makers were such big fans of the novel they told everyone they were going to make a movie of The Geek – and then realized it was totally unfilmable within their budget. So they decided to make an easier movie with the same title instead.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Waste Land

When T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922, it was one of the most avant-garde poems in the English language. It’s also a long poem – about 3000 words, divided into five sections, and followed by more than 1500 words of detailed endnotes. Both the text of the poem and the notes are packed full of quotations and allusions on a wide variety of themes, some of them distinctly Fortean – the Holy Grail, Eastern mysticism and Tarot cards among them.

The poem is Fortean in its structure as well as its content. The concatenation of seemingly unrelated fragments, in different styles and sometimes even different languages, is reminiscent of Charles Fort’s own writings, where he strings together quotes from newspaper clippings. Eliot wanted to produce a similar effect in the poem – a fact that would be clearer if the work was still known by the title he originally gave it.

The poem’s actual title, “The Waste Land”, is a reference to the desolate area surrounding the castle of the Grail in Arthurian legends. However, during the early stages of composition Eliot’s working title was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. This silly-sounding phrase is a quotation from a novel by Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, in which a woman describes how her son reads newspaper stories out loud. Eliot’s use of this title suggests he conceived The Waste Land as a Fort-like compendium of press clippings – something that was apparently more obvious in earlier drafts of the poem than in the final published version. The critic M. C. Bradbrook wrote: “The original title, He Do the Police in Different Voices (applied to reading newsprint in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend) would be applicable to some of the excised stories; the riotous scene in Boston might have fed a newspaper column, the heroic deaths of the fishermen certainly would; and the lady Fresca must have featured in gossip columns.”

Eliot’s notes to the poem are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and he deliberately overstates the Grail connection: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance... Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do.” Besides references to the Grail and the Arthurian “Fisher King”, the poem includes quotations from Tristan and Isolde (“Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du?”) and Das Rheingold (“Weialala leia Wallala leialala”). In Wagner’s opera, the latter words are sung by the three Rhine-daughters – in Eliot’s poem they are attributed to the three Thames-daughters!

The Waste Land may be one of the few works of mainstream English literature to feature that New Age favourite, the Tarot pack. “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant, had a bad cold, nevertheless is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, with a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor... Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, and here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, which is blank, is something he carries on his back, which I am forbidden to see. I do not find the Hanged Man.”

In his notes, Eliot says “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later... The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.”

The hooded figure that Eliot refers to is an interesting Fortean phenomenon in its own right: “Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together but when I look ahead up the white road there is always another one walking beside you. Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded, I do not know whether a man or a woman—but who is that on the other side of you?” In the endnotes, Eliot explains that these lines “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”

Two of the poem’s five sections take their titles from works of Eastern mysticism – again, not the usual subject matter for works of mainstream literature at the time. Part III is called “The Fire Sermon”, after a sermon of the Buddha which Eliot says “corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount”. Then Part V is called “What the Thunder Said”, in reference to a fable from an ancient Hindu text called the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad. Eliot even includes a Sanskrit quote from the work: “datta, dayadhvam, damyata”, which he translates in the notes as “give, sympathize, control”. Then he concludes the poem with another Sanskrit word, shantih, repeated three times, which he describes as the formal ending to an Upanishad.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Fortean Fiction of Robert E. Howard

For many people, the work of Robert E. Howard begins and ends with his most famous character, Conan – seen here in Savage Sword of Conan #7 (I dug the magazine out intending to photograph the classic cover by Boris Vallejo, then I decided I liked this frontispiece by Vicente Alcazar better). However, Howard’s Conan stories only represent a small fraction of the fiction he published in his lifetime. He contributed to numerous pulp magazines, but his most distinctive work appeared in Weird Tales between the late 1920s and late 30s... the very period the same magazine was publishing the most distinctive work by Howard’s slightly older contemporary H.P. Lovecraft. Although the writing style of the two men was very different, some of their preoccupations were surprisingly similar, and bordering on paranoia (a word that is often used as a pejorative, but we Forteans know better).

“Man was not always master of the earth—and is he now?” That’s a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s fiction, but the quote actually comes from a short story by Robert E. Howard (“The Black Stone”, which I’ll get to later). The same idea is at the heart of much internet paranoia today, particularly the kind that talks about shape-shifting reptilians infiltrating the corridors of power. That idea became widespread in the 1990s, but it’s present in fully fledged form in Howard’s novelette “The Shadow Kingdom”, published in Weird Tales in August 1929. This features a predecessor of Conan named Kull – an Atlantean warrior who becomes king of an ancient country called Valusia. He soon discovers that the Valusian court is riddled with non-human shape-shifters called Serpent Men, who are surreptitiously killing key officials and taking their place: “For as he watched, Tu’s face became strangely dim and unreal; the features mingled and merged in a seemingly impossible manner. Then, like a fading mask of fog, the face suddenly vanished and in its stead gaped and leered a monstrous serpent’s head... He plucked forth his sword and gazed more closely at the nameless thing that had been known as Tu, chief councillor. Save for the reptilian head, the thing was the exact counterpart of a man.”

The idea of an ancient race of malignant, humanoid reptiles (possibly the remnants of those from “The Shadow Kingdom”) appears in another story by Howard set in much more recent times, during the Roman occupation of Britain. This is “Worms of the Earth”, from the November 1932 Weird Tales, which August Derleth considered to be Howard’s best story. By this point the snake-like reptiles (“worm” is used figuratively) have withdrawn from human contact and live in underground caves. In a series of bizarre episodes the hero, a Pictish leader named Bran Mak Morn, tries to force the “worms” to do his bidding by stealing an object they worship called the Black Stone.

This isn’t the same Black Stone as the one in the story of that title I quoted from earlier. The latter, published in Weird Tales in November 1931, is one of Howard’s most Lovecraftian stories. It’s set in the present day, and the first-person narrator is a bookish academic – not Howard’s usual musclebound protagonist! However, rather than being set in New England, like most of Lovecraft’s own fiction, “The Black Stone” takes place in a part of Hungary that was invaded by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century... where the narrator encounters “a curious legend of a strange deity which the witch-people of Xuthltan were said to have invoked with chants and wild rituals of flagellation and slaughter”. As in any Lovecraftian story worthy of the name, the deity in question turns out to be a surviving representative of an ancient, inhuman race.

In “The Black Stone”, Xuthltan is the old name of a village in Hungary where unspeakable goings-on used to go on. But that’s not the only Xuthltan. In “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”, set in the modern-day Middle East, Xuthltan is described as having been “a magician at the court of Asshurbanipal” (cf. From Sardanapalus to Ashurbanipal), who acquired a gemstone of terrifying power that had its origins in the very depths of Hell. This story was published posthumously in Weird Tales in December 1936, six months after Howard shot himself (and I really wish he hadn’t done that).

Most of Howard’s stories have exotic settings – usually foreign countries, and often distant times in the past. But some, like “The Black Stone” and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” are set in his own time, and a few are even set in the southern United States where he lived. Another posthumous story, “Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales May 1938) is a good example of this. Despite the silly-sounding title, it’s one of the best stories in the “voodoo” subgenre of horror fiction that I’ve ever come across.

Another Fortean theme that Howard returned to on several occasions is the “were-creature”. An intriguingly non-supernatural version – in this case a were-leopard – can be found in “Black Talons”, from the December 1933 issue of Strange Detective Stories: “A leopard man! I learned of them when I was on the West Coast [of Africa]. He belongs to a native cult which worships the leopard. They take a male infant and subject his head to pressure, to make it deformed; and he is brought up to believe that the spirit of a leopard inhabits his body.”

Another story with a cryptozoological twist is “Rogues in the House” (Weird Tales, January 1934), one of the more light-hearted of the Conan stories. The villain is a pet-gone-bad called Thak, whose erstwhile owner says of him “Some would call him an ape, but he is almost as different from a real ape as he is different from a real man. His people dwell far to the east, in the mountains that fringe the eastern frontiers of Zamora. There are not many of them; but, if they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years. They are in the formative stage; they are neither apes, as their remote ancestors were, nor men, as their remote descendants may be. They dwell in the high crags of well-nigh inaccessible mountains, knowing nothing of fire or the making of shelter or garments, or the use of weapons. Yet they have a language of a sort, consisting mainly of grunts and clicks.”

Sounds like a Yeti to me!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Crossword Exegesis

I don’t really know what an exegesis is, but people expect a crossword compiler to have a big vocabulary. What I mean is, on the other side of the following image are the answers to last week’s crossword and/or trivia quiz, together with an explanation of the various Fortean connections.

If you want to do the puzzle but haven’t done so yet, reading beyond this point will take you into spoiler territory. But if you’ve done the puzzle, or just want to see the answers, scroll on...


ACROSS

1. Author of Chariots of the Gods: ERICH VON DANIKEN. An easy one to start with! But EvD’s ideas weren’t as original as many people imagine – see Reinventing Ezekiel's Wheel.

9. First of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation: EPHESUS. A Turkish town and a major centre of early Christianity. It was also the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Temple of Artemis.

10. “Their weapons were no match for the Bossonian LONGBOW" (Robert E. Howard). This comes from the only full-length Conan novel that Howard wrote, The Hour of the Dragon (also sometimes published as Conan the Conqueror). Not a particularly Fortean story, although some of Howard’s other fiction is. I think I’ll make that the subject of my next blog post.

11. "Voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to EVADE " (Charles Fort). This comes from The Book of the Damned, a few paragraphs after the oft quoted “I think we're property” – the voyagers in question being extraterrestrial ones.

12. Yggdrasil, for example: ASH. Yggdrasil is the World Ash Tree in Norse mythology.

13. The world ends without this, according to T.S. Eliot: A BANG. From The Hollow Men (1925): “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.” Another Eliot poem from the same period, The Waste Land, is packed with Fortean themes – I’ll have to add that to my list of future posts as well.

14. Site of the Crucifixion: CALVARY. From the Latin Calvariæ Locus = “place of the skull”. The Hebrew equivalent is Golgotha.

16. "I had long hoped for a personal CONTACT with a man from a flying saucer" (George Adamski). A quote from Flying Saucers have Landed, co-authored with the far more interesting Desmond Leslie.

18. The queen of the fairies, according to Shakespeare: TITANIA. From A Midsummer Might’s Dream, of course. The picture (fourth image on top row) shows a detail from The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847) by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

21. Sayings of Jesus that are not found in the Gospels: AGRAPHA. This is an obscure one, but anyone who’s tried compiling a crossword will know that the more words you fill in, the harder it gets to find unobscure words to fit the remaining spaces! But Agrapha isn’t so obscure that it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page.

23. Max ERNST, German surrealist. Perhaps the most Fortean connection here is Ernst’s bird-man creation called Loplop, which was adopted as a kind of mascot by Jon Downes and the Centre for Fortean Zoology (see picture – third image on the top row).

25. URI Geller, Israeli-born psychic. Geller’s 1973 appearance on the Dimbleby Talk-In was one of my Fortean Events that Shook the World.

26. "Thus SPAKE Zarathustra", by Friedrich Nietzsche. Written in the 1880s, this philosophical work focused on two concepts more often associated with the 20th century: “The Superman” and “God is Dead”.

27. Lenape people living in New Jersey when the Europeans arrived: RARITAN. This is one of two grid entries where I just couldn’t find anything Fortean that would fit. There’s a modern-day city in New Jersey named Raritan, as well as Raritan Bay between New Jersey and New York.

28. "IMMORAL Tales" (1974), featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Erzsébet Báthory. The Báthory segment focuses on the historical countess, not the later legends that associate her with vampirism. So she doesn’t slaughter large quantities of female virgins and bathe in their blood in order to restore her youth. She just slaughters large quantities of female virgins and bathes in their blood because she enjoys it (see picture – first image on bottom row).

29. Britain's best-known cryptid: LOCH NESS MONSTER. In light of the upcoming Scottish independence vote, perhaps I should have worded this as “Scotland's best-known cryptid” to stay on the safe side.

DOWN

1. The building pictured [in last week’s post]: EXETER CATHEDRAL. Another non-Fortean one – I needed a 15-letter word or phrase beginning with E and ending with L, and this was the best I could do. The answer was actually written on the image, if you can read Latin: Exoniensis Ecclesiae Cathedralis.

2. Eldest son of Abraham, according to the Book of Genesis: ISHMAEL. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Ishmael is less important than his younger half-brother Isaac. In Islam, however, Ishmael is the more important of the two, being a direct ancestor of Muhammad.

3. Herman HESSE, author of Siddhartha. According to Wikipedia, this 1922 novel “deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.... It was published in the U.S. in 1951 and became influential during the 1960s.”

4. The James OSSUARY is inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". If the inscription is genuine, it might constitute archaeological evidence for the Biblical Jesus... but quoting Wikipedia again, “most scholars hold the last part of the inscription to be a forgery”.

5. The DELPHIC Sibyl, prophetess of Apollo. The illustration (second image on top row) is from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

6. Professional assassin in feudal Japan: NINJA. I’m not sure if this is an easy one or not – everyone uses the word “ninja”, but do they really know what it means?

7. An esoteric branch of Judaism: KABBALA. When I compiled the crossword a few years ago, I convinced myself this was a valid spelling – although “Kabbalah”, “Cabala” and “Qabbala” are more common.

8. A type of hippie found in 1980s Britain: NEW AGE TRAVELLER. Again the spelling may look wrong to some people, but that’s how it’s spelled here in Britain. And hey, spelling rules are just another fascist conspiracy anyhow. If you catch my drift, man.

15. ANN Greenslit Pudeator, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. It was tragic, of course, that so many innocent women were accused of witchcraft in the 17th century... but really, with a name like Ann Greenslit Pudeator, what do you expect? She probably had a pierced nasal septum and wore black lipstick, too.

17. "Alles Vergangliche ist NUR ein Gleichnis" (Everything transient is only a symbol - Goethe). These words are sung by the Chorus Mysticus at the end of Mahler’s 8th Symphony (see The Curse of the Ninth).

19. "The Serpent Power: Secrets of TANTRIC and Shaktic Yoga" by Arthur Avalon. The author’s real name was Sir John Woodroffe, who derived his pseudonym from Arthurian mythology. Oddly, though, the book isn’t about Arthurian mythology but about Indian mysticism. Woodroffe was one of the first proponents of the New Age formula “if it’s old, and it doesn’t come from the Judaeo-Christian or Graeco-Roman tradition, then it must be good.”

20. Thomas AQUINAS, author of "Summa Theologica". Aquinas was a 13th century scholar who specialized in interpreting the works of Aristotle (that’s what scholars used to do in those days, in lieu of thinking for themselves). He was often depicted trampling on a rival Aristotle-interpreter named Averroës, as seen in the painting by Gozzoli in the rightmost image above.

21. Belief that all living and non-living things have a spiritual essence: ANIMISM. Closely related to paranoia: the belief that all living and non-living things are out to get you.

22. Generic term for Indian languages related to Sanskrit: PRAKRIT. Most mystical and religious Indian writings are in Sanskrit, although the earliest Buddhist scriptures are in a Prakrit language called Pali. “Karma” and “Nirvana” are Sanskrit – the Pali equivalents are “Kamma” and “Nibbana”.

24. The largest moon of Saturn: TITAN. One of the few bodies in the Solar System that astrobiologists believe may support alien life – thought probably not as advanced as the alien life envisaged by Philip K. Dick in The Game-Players of Titan.

26. SIMON Magus, a sorcerer mentioned in the Book of Acts. All the Bible says about Simon is that he became a Christian, but not a very good one. However, later writers describe him as one of the founders of Gnosticism, and presumably for that reason he’s one of the many highbrow figures namedropped by Philip K. Dick in VALIS.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Fortean Crossword

Apparently the crossword puzzle marks its centenary this month. A few years ago I put together a Fortean-themed crossword which I thought would be worth repeating here. You can either print it out or do it in your head... or just ignore the grid and treat the questions as a trivia quiz.

Answers next week – together with an exegesis of all the Fortean connections.
ACROSS

1. Author of Chariots of the Gods [5, 3, 7]
9. First of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation [7]
10. “Their weapons were no match for the Bossonian -------“ (Robert E. Howard) [7]
11. "Voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to -----" (Charles Fort) [5]
12. Yggdrasil, for example [3]
13. The world ends without this, according to T.S. Eliot [1, 4]
14. Site of the Crucifixion [7]
16. "I had long hoped for a personal ------- with a man from a flying saucer" (George Adamski) [7]
18. The queen of the fairies, according to Shakespeare [7]
21. Sayings of Jesus that are not found in the Gospels [7]
23. Max -----, German surrealist [5]
25. --- Geller, Israeli-born psychic [3]
26. "Thus ----- Zarathustra", by Friedrich Nietzsche [5]
27. Lenape people living in New Jersey when the Europeans arrived [7]
28. "------- Tales" (1974), featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Erzsébet Báthory [7]
29. Britain's best-known cryptid [4, 4, 7]

DOWN

1. The building pictured below [6, 9]
2. Eldest son of Abraham, according to the Book of Genesis [7]
3. Herman -----, author of Siddhartha [5]
4.The James ------- is inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" [7]
5. The ------- Sibyl, prophetess of Apollo [7]
6. Professional assassin in feudal Japan [5]
7. An esoteric branch of Judaism [7]
8. A type of hippie found in 1980s Britain [3, 3, 9]
15. --- Greenslit Pudeator, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692 [3]
17. "Alles Vergangliche ist --- ein Gleichnis" (Everything transient is only a symbol - Goethe) [3]
19. "The Serpent Power: Secrets of ------- and Shaktic Yoga" by Arthur Avalon [7]
20. Thomas -------, author of Summa Theologica [7]
21. Belief that all living and non-living things have a spiritual essence [7]
22. Generic term for Indian languages related to Sanskrit [7]
24. The largest moon of Saturn [5]
26. ----- Magus, a sorcerer mentioned in the Book of Acts [5]

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Rendlesham Magi

Here is a seasonal short story, loosely based on the Rendlesham UFO incident, that I wrote for the Christmas issue of a newsletter back in 2008:
Christmas 1980: a day I will always remember. St Dunstan’s College was almost deserted. The students were on vacation, of course, and the married fellows were at home with their families. That left just four of us in the Senior Common Room that evening: the three wise men and myself. At that time I was the youngest ‘don’ at the college, having been appointed to the post of Teaching Fellow in Asiatic History the previous summer. The next in age was more than a decade my senior—Don Hunter, a lecturer in Astronomy, with whom I was engaged in a game of Fortean supercheckers.

The other two sat by the open log fire, smoking cigars and talking earnestly to each other: Arthur Dodson, the ancient and venerable professor of Theology, and Otto Ziegler, a German professor who was visiting Cambridge for a couple of semesters during a sabbatical from his own university. I had never quite made out what Ziegler’s specialism was—some kind of abstract mathematics or higher physics. He was small and round, with a bald head and goatee beard—pretty much what you imagine when you hear the term ‘mad scientist’.

“Oh do hurry up, Justin!” Don Hunter ran a hand through his long, prematurely grey hair. “If you don’t make a move soon we shall be here all night.” He looked impatiently at his watch—the third or fourth time he had done so that evening. He said a few other things, muttering under his breath, that I didn’t catch. I got the general impression he wanted to get away and do something he considered Very Important.

It was true that I was having difficulty concentrating on the game. Part of the reason was the sheer effort (not made any easier by the imbibing of several festive brandies) of focusing my mind on a board with 1600 squares and hundreds of pieces. By this stage, if I remember correctly, I was down to less than 200 men while Don still had most of his original 360.

I shrugged and moved a piece at random. Don grunted in disgust and proceeded to take another fifty or so of my men.

There was another reason for my lack of interest in the game. I was listening with more than half my mind to the animated conversation over by the fireplace. They were talking, of all the hackneyed subjects, about the Star of Bethlehem.

“It’s all nonsense, of course,” old Dodson was saying. “The Star in the East is purely symbolic. A theological necessity, to demonstrate fulfilment of God’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers. To a good Christian, that is all that is needed. But materialists like yourself—and countless others going back to Johannes Kepler in the sixteenth century—refuse to be satisfied with the beauty of religious symbolism. You insist on looking for comets and supernovas and planetary conjunctions. But these theories are all discredited—totally discredited.”

Nein—nicht so.” Ziegler puffed excitedly on his cigar. “Not my comet—nobody discredits him.”

Dodson looked amused. “And what’s so special about YOUR comet, Herr Professor?”

“Ah, my comet—he travels backwards in time. Backwards! It is sehr unheimlich—it is very strange—but it is what the equations tell me. And equations, they never lie.”

“A comet travelling backwards in time? Where from? And why?” Dodson seemed mildly intrigued in spite of himself.

“These things the equations tell me. My comet, he is one of a pair—a time-symmetric pair created by a Fanthorpe singularity in the year 988 AD. One comet travels backwards in time, the other forwards. The two orbits are like mirror images, with aphelion in the Kuiper Belt and perihelion here, on Earth. For the backward travelling comet, perihelion was 4 BC...”

“4 BC?” Dodson looked up. “The year that Herod the Great died—generally accepted as the year of the Nativity. Well, that fits your theory, I suppose. What about the forward-travelling comet?”

“From 4 BC to 988 AD it is 992 years,” Ziegler said slowly. It was clear that he was building to something in the nature of a climax. “And from 988 AD another 992 years is... 1980! Christmas Day, 1980! Today!” He beamed triumphantly.

Whatever response Dodson was about to make was cut off by a cry from Don Hunter. I had made another disastrous move and he had promptly taken all my remaining pieces.

“Finished at last!” Don looked at his watch and jumped to his feet. “Sorry, gents—I’ve got to go now. Must keep my appointment with that new star in the East, you know.”

We all gaped at him.

“New star in the East?” Dodson and Ziegler spoke almost simultaneously.

“Yes—I’ll have to leave young Justin here to tell you about it. I’ve been chattering away to him all evening. First saw it through the telescope a couple of days ago—much brighter yesterday—should be visible to the naked eye by now. Rises just before midnight. I’ll have to rush off to the Observatory if I’m going to catch it.”

I have to admit this was news to me as much as to the others. Now I came to think of it, Don had been mumbling about something or other, but I hadn’t been paying much attention.

“We know all about your new star,” Dodson said. “Or rather, the Herr Professor here knows all about it. It’s a backwards travelling comet, previously known as the star of Bethlehem. If you can believe a word he says, that is.”

Nein, nein—this is the forward-travelling one,” Ziegler said. “But the rest—ja, it is essentially correct.” He turned to address the astronomer. “You have a physics background—you know the theoretical possibility of a Fanthorpe singularity. I say it is more than a theory—it is a reality that occurred in 988 AD. Your so-called new star is nothing but the inevitable mathematical consequence of this.”

Don shook his head uncertainly. “A Fanthorpe singularity? But that’s impossible—such a thing could only be produced artificially, using an immensely powerful nuclear reactor. It’s not possible today, and it certainly wasn’t possible in 988 AD.”

A sudden thought flashed into my head. “Maybe it was,” I said.

Now it was my turn to be gaped at.

“988 AD,” I stated flatly, “was the year that Zhang Tsu disappeared.”

There was a long pause in which they continued to gape at me.

“Let me explain,” I went on. “Zhang Tsu was the original rocket scientist. The Chinese had just invented what they called ‘fire arrows’—simple rockets they used in warfare. But Zhang Tsu tried a series of experiments in which he replaced the black powder in the rocket with red mercury. Many scholars believe this resulted in a primitive form of nuclear propulsion. The first few experiments seem to have been successful, but then there was a huge explosion and Zhang Tsu was never seen again.”

This time the pause was so short as to be imperceptible.

“For what do we wait?” Ziegler demanded. “To the observatory, schnell!”

Don Hunter needed no further encouragement—he had been itching to leave for several minutes. And I was all for it—it sounded like a great adventure. Only Dodson seemed reluctant to forego his place by the fire, but I managed to persuade him by pandering to his ego: “After all, we’re just an astronomer, a mathematician and a historian. We have our limitations. There are some situations that only a theologian can rise to.”

So the four of us were in it together. We rushed downstairs and piled into Don’s battered old Austin Mini. We decided he should drive because... I was about to say “because he was the least drunk”, but what I mean, of course, is “because he was completely sober”. He’d barely had a drop of liquor all evening. Which was a good thing, because if none of us had been fit to drive we would have missed the adventure of a lifetime.

* * * *

We pulled up at the observatory just on the stroke of midnight. Don let us into the deserted building and opened up the huge dome. The bright yellow star on the Eastern horizon was clearly visible.

“It’s altered significantly in the last twenty-four hours,” Don said, frowning as he adjusted the giant reflecting telescope. “There’s been a significant course change—there’s no doubt now that it’s headed for Earth. Let’s see if George can compute an impact point for us.”

‘George’ turned out to be the observatory’s state-of-the-art VAX-11/780 mainframe. It chugged and clicked as Don fed it the data.

“Impact point, eh?” Arthur Dodson chuckled to himself. “My money’s on Bethlehem, if history is anything to go by.” It was clear that he thought the whole thing was a load of hooey.

“Bethlehem? Nein—I think not.” Otto Ziegler, in contrast to Dodson, was taking the matter very seriously indeed. He bent over a globe and studied it carefully. “Theory predicts impact point is one hundred-eighty degrees from starting point. Starting point was somewhere in China, I believe?” He looked at me expectantly.

“Um, yes—I see what you mean,” I said. “Let’s see—Zhang Tzu’s experiments took place near the town of Huangshi in Hubei province, I believe.”

“You show me.” Ziegler indicated the globe.

With a bit of difficulty I located the place and pointed it out to the earnest-looking mathematician.

Ach, ja—approximately thirty degrees North, hundred-fifteen degrees East. So we subtract hundred-eighty degrees to get...” He rotated the globe carefully. “Thirty degrees North, five-and-sixty degrees West. Jawohl! Right in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. It surprises me not at all.”

“Bermuda Triangle, my foot!” Dodson scoffed. “You mark my words—this comet is heading for Bethlehem.”

A heated argument ensued, and might have gone on all night if it hadn’t been interrupted after a few minutes by a cough from Don Hunter.

“Sorry to disappoint you fellows, but George disagrees with you.” Don was standing at the computer, a slip of paper in his hand. “The impact point isn’t Bethlehem and it isn’t the Bermuda Triangle. It’s much closer. Just on the coast about sixty miles east of here. A place called Rendlesham.”

“And the time of impact?” Ziegler looked anxiously at his watch.

Don glanced at the paper. “0140 hours—just over an hour from now.”

“Can we make it in time?”

“We can if we’re lucky. Let’s go!”

Cramming ourselves back into Don’s little car, we tore off eastwards along the A14. All the time the yellow star grew brighter and brighter ahead of us.

“Follow that star!” I shouted.

The new star in the East!” Dodson added, chuckling.

“We’re just like the three wise men following the star,” Don observed.

Ziegler, the great mathematician, grunted. “Except that there are four of us,” he pointed out.

“Ah, but only three of us are wise men,” Don said. “Justin doesn’t count—he’s only 28. You can’t be a wise man at 28. It would be a contradiction in terms.”

I ignored the insult. “Maybe we’ll witness the Second Coming,” I speculated.

“Poppycock,” Dodson snorted. “The Second Coming is a purely symbolic concept, just like the Star of Bethlehem. Theology is about the world of the Spirit, not the world of superstitious nonsense.”

We drove at hair-raising speeds past Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and the sprawling lights of Ipswich. Just as we were passing through the village of Woodbridge we saw a huge, silent burst of brilliant yellow light ahead of us.

“The star’s gone!”

“It came down in the woods over there!”

We drove a bit further and came to a gate into the woods. A sign informed us that the place was called Rendlesham Forest, that it was the property of Her Majesty’s Forestry Commission, and that we were welcome to enter so long as we didn’t light any fires.

We left the car by the gate and went into the woods.

“I should have brought a flashlight,” Don muttered. “So much for foresight.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “There’s a light over there in the forest. Let’s head towards it.”

The light turned out to be an eerie yellow glow with no obvious source. We crept towards it and came to an unnatural looking clearing.

“I think this is where it came down.” Dodson was looking upwards, and our eyes followed his. There was an gap in the canopy of trees that was open to the sky. The ground beneath was littered with freshly broken pine branches.

“Some of the wood looks scorched,” I observed.

“You’re right,” Don agreed. “There must have been intense heat here.”

Ziegler was standing at the edge of the clearing, looking thoughtful. “Intense heat, ja—or intense radiation.”

Our thoughts were interrupted by the clamour of voices approaching. With a start we realized we were not the only ones in the woods that night.

“What the blazes?” Dodson looked around. “They sound like Americans. A large number of them! What are they doing here?”

Don snapped his fingers. “Americans—of course! We’re right next to a US Air Force Base. Woodbridge, I think it’s called. Top Secret atomic stuff—we don’t want to be caught snooping around here!”

The voices were getting closer.

“There’s someone out there, Sir!” one of the voices shouted. “What should I do? Finding that thing out here has made me mighty nervous.”

“Take no risks, man!” another voice barked. “Shoot the commie rascals!”

Actually the word he used may not have been ‘rascals’, but we weren’t paying much attention by that point. We were running as fast as we could back to the car.

* * * *

Well, that’s more or less the end of the story as far as my involvement is concerned. The ‘Rendlesham Forest Incident’, as it’s now known, has become quite notorious among conspiracy theorists. Many people are convinced that a UFO crash-landed in the East of England that Christmas Day more than thirty years ago—despite consistent denials by the UK and US governments. Another theory is that it was a Soviet nuclear powered satellite that came down. But an artificial comet created by a tenth century Chinese rocket scientist... a time-travelling twin of the Star of Bethlehem? Who knows? I may be the only one left who’s in possession of the full facts. Old Dodson died years ago, and Don Hunter is in a retirement home. I’ve no idea what happened to Otto Ziegler—he must be either dead or a very old man by now.

There is one curious postscript to the story. It appears that the remains of the reactor core—or whatever it was the US airmen recovered—was transported back to the States on board an aircraft carrier. It was then ferried by helicopter, slung underneath a giant Chinook, to NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas. And late at night, a few miles outside Houston on the 29th of December 1980, this strange phenomenon was witnessed by two local women returning from an evening out. The women—Vicky and Betty—were both devout Christians, and when confronted with this huge glowing apparition in the sky they could only draw one conclusion. To them, it was the Second Coming... and maybe, in a sense, they were right.