Mini-Review: World of the Unknown – Ghosts

Usborne’s World of the Unknown: Ghosts was the first book the nascent children’s publisher put out, back in 1977. Penned by Christopher Maynard, it was a lavishly illustrated introduction to the subject that took up a slim 32 pages. Despite the brevity that format forces on him, Maynard is able to go into surprising depth – offering a range of ghost stories ranging from the well-known to the surprisingly obscure, along with an overview of ghost-hunting practices and sceptical explanations of significant hauntings.

As the first release from a new publishing house, it’s not a bad choice – you’ve got exciting subject matter, you’ve got a vivid presentation of said subject matter, and you have a larger form factor which makes it stand out. Compared to, say, the twee and tame subject matter of the Ladybird series, and you’ve got the Usborne difference as it was at the time perfectly expressed: whilst some children’s publishers took the view that kid’s books should be soothing and charming (at the risk of being boring), Usborne’s material was often a bit more exciting.

Arguably, in fact, Ghosts was basically a pre-teen’s equivalent to the sort of occult coffee table books that I’ve covered here before from time to time – and when you pitch it that way, I can’t imagine other publishers from the era putting out something similar. The World of the Unknown books were some of my favourites in the library at school, and it’s delightful that Usborne have reprinted this first volume for new generations to shiver over, with an introduction by Reece Shearsmith being the only new addition over the basically can’t-be-improved-on original.

Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 3: The Reptoids of Wonderland

The story so far: after embracing an overtly New Age, Theosophical and Gnostic-tinged worldview in an extremely public manner, David Icke finds himself the subject of widespread ridicule. In the mid-1990s he doubles down on this by blending his homebrewed cosmology (cobbled together as it was from other people’s ideas) with his very own Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory of everything (which he largely stole from The Gods of Eden and Behold a Pale Horse, and then sprinkled a heap of material from other conspiracy researchers on top of that mashup to obscure the seams).

Meanwhile, Icke’s personal life continued to take twists and turns which ordinarily I wouldn’t touch, except that they have a significant impact on his work. During his early New Age-focused phase, Icke would commence a polyamorous relationship in which he was still with his wife, Linda Atherton, but was also seeing Mari Shawsun, one of the psychics who was guiding him in the process of his spiritual development. Icke’s autobiography, In the Light of Experience, ends up giving the impression that the relationship wasn’t begun with Linda’s prior consent but was simply presented to Linda as a fait accompli.

After Shawsun was expelled from Icke’s circles, Linda and Icke remained married legally speaking. What’s perhaps more significant at this stage, though, is less their romantic partnership and more their business partnership, for Linda and Icke’s children by her would, to this day, be the main movers in Icke’s UK self-publishing company. The company – originally called Bridge of Love so as to leverage its way into the New Age market, then rebranded as David Icke Books, then rebranded as Ickonic for Icke’s latest book (The Trigger) – was a necessary platform for Icke after he was disowned by his previous publishers, the New Age press Gateway.

Gateway had good reasons to drop Icke; in his first major conspiracy theory tome, The Robots’ Rebellion, he’d claimed that the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was a real blueprint for world domination, following the lead of Bill Cooper and Stephen Knight in claiming that the secret society behind the global conspiracy had done a cheeky find-and-replace job on the Protocols to incriminate Jewish people.

Whereas Stephen Knight had broadly gotten away with this and Bill Cooper, whilst not exactly getting away with it, was lucky enough to have a publisher who simply didn’t care about denunciations of Behold a Pale Horse (particularly when Behold a Pale Horse was making them significantly more money than anything else on their catalogue), Icke was unfortunate in that Gateway operated at a very specific level of editorial sloppiness. Specifically, they were editorially lax enough to let the book come out citing the Protocols in the first place, but had enough concern for the impact on their bottom line to stop putting out Icke’s stuff after the inevitable backlash.

Icke’s income would now be based on two things: his books and his lecture tours. It was in the course of a lecture tour of the Caribbean that he would encounter Pamela Leigh Richards. Icke had shortly before had been primed by cold reading scam artist Derek Acorah to expect to meet a new woman in his life, and Icke and Richards were soon an item, with Icke divorcing Linda and marrying Pamela in 2001 (apparently amicably, or at least without sufficient rancour to persuade Linda to walk away from owning and operating Bridge of Love).

Through Richards, Icke met Royal Adams, a US-based businessman. By the end of the 1990s, Icke and Adams had reached an agreement: Adams would set up Bridge of Love US and take responsibility for distributing Icke’s books in the USA, and in return Adams would get a cut of the profits. Having someone in the US dedicating their time to cracking the market would be advantageous in any publishing field, but in addition the “paranoid style” has never quite gone out of style in American politics; the States was perhaps the hungriest market in the English-speaking world for the sort of conspiracy-peddling that Icke was engaged in, and cracking that market would be the next major step in promoting Icke’s ideas.

It’s quite fortuitous, then, that the beginning of Icke’s deal with Adams would coincide with a major new dimension entering into his writing. The first book distributed under the deal, The Biggest Secret, was in many ways Icke’s big break in the US, as well as his major claim to continued infamy; if you haven’t heard about David Icke from his infamous Wogan interview and earlier controversies, odds are you know him for some of the ideas he espoused in the book. The text managed to become a big hit in the conspiracy world through a simple technique: taking a major recent event, explaining it through a conspiratorial lens, and tying this in to an eye-catchingly bold claim. The recent event was the death of Princess Diana. And the bold claim?

Lizard people, dear reader.

Continue reading “Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 3: The Reptoids of Wonderland”

The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks

Cerebus the Aardvark, or simply Cerebus for short, is without a doubt one of the most ambitious and important works in the field of comics – especially independent comics. It began as a simple, funny parody of sword & sorcery comics, made funny in part by casting as its central hero a diminutive, grumpy aardvark (“the Earth-Pig born!”, as the narration in early issues was fond of proclaiming).

With the passage of time, it increasingly took on more serious themes, with artist-author Dave Sim shifting gear from telling short stories over the course of a single issue to telling two-to-three-part stories to, eventually, producing enormous novel-length series of dozens of issues. Sim declared his intention that the series would run for 300 issues, culminating with Cerebus’ death. Following on from its debut in 1977, the series ultimately put out its 300th issue and bowed out with issue 300 in early 2004, at the end of which Cerebus did indeed die.

In the intervening 27 years, the series managed to spearhead a major shift in comics publishing; not only was this the first time anyone had attempted a work of this scope within indie comics (or, for that matter, within comics in general), but Sim kicked all this off in a time when reprints of individual comic book issues or collecting comics into trade paperbacks was not the industry norm; the rise of the trade paperback can, in fact, be linked in part to the early commercial success of the so-called “Cerebus phonebooks”, compilations of the aforementioned novel-length storylines which ended up being literally phonebook-thick.

Continue reading “The Short and Episodic Origins of Apocalyptic Aardvarks”

Same Title, Different Spirit

What’s in a name? Sure, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but if you called roses “roses” and called turds “roses” you’d have an enormous amount of confusion on your hands. A little while back on a folk-horror themed Facebook discussion I was in, there was a bit of confusion about the existence of two books bearing the utterly badass title of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology – one a credible academic text, one a silly coffee table book from the 1970s which I and others had fond memories of seeing in our local libraries as late as the early 1990s. As it turns out, both books have merits – one is good, one is so bad it’s good – so I thought as a public service I’d offer a bit of disambiguation here as well as reviewing them.

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (Robbins Version)

Originally published in 1959, Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology is a rigorously researched and sourced text, offering a massive resource for anyone researching the specific flavour of witchcraft under the microscope here.

See, when Robbins refers to “witchcraft” here, he’s really talking to a very specific cultural phenomenon. He doesn’t mean the practice of magic or occult arts, or the concepts in cultures beyond Europe and the European colonies in North America which could be translated as “witchcraft” if you wanted to. He refers, instead, to the very specific belief, prevalent in Europe and North America from the late 1400s to the 1700s, that there was a type of person out there called a “witch” who would make a pact with the Devil to deliberate cause hardship and misery within the community, and who, precisely because they derived their powers from a pact with the Devil, should be treated as a heretic rather than their crimes being handled by the secular courts.

Continue reading “Same Title, Different Spirit”

3 Alternative Takes On Alternative 3

One of the more interesting categories of conspiracy theory that circulate these days is the set which deal with the concept of “Breakaway Civilisations” – the idea that the conspiratorial elite have access to a bunch of technologies and scientific knowledge which they haven’t shared with us proles, to an extent that our civilisation has essentially bifurcated, with the privileged few living a sci-fi life of leisure – often swanning about in outer space – whilst the less unfortunate don’t get any of the benefit of these technologies. (People who promote these theories seem prone to not noticing that this is actually more or less true of life on Earth, save for the space travel stuff.)

One of the things which is interesting about such theories, aside from the sheer sci-fi imagination involved with them (if you listen to them you could imagine that the action of Star Trek is already unfolding somewhere out in deep space, with crews of humans from Earth having adventures as part of the Illuminati’s space force), is the fact that they’re largely riffs on one iconic conspiracy theory, a shaggy dog story that’s some four decades old but which still manages to fool some credulous folk into thinking there’s something to it. Let’s jump in and explore the strange universe of Alternative 3…

Continue reading “3 Alternative Takes On Alternative 3”

Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 1

Sure, Clark Ashton Smith’s stories are readily available online, it’s still nice to have hard copies of his works. When I originally read them it was in the Panther reprints of his Arkham House collections, which retain some tampering and revisions and censoring by various hands. When William Burns tipped me off on my previous article that Night Shade Books’ Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith series had presented the definitive versions of his short stories, restored as closely as possible to his intended texts by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, I decided to retire my Panther paperbacks – which by now are a bit tatty – and pick up the new line to reintroduce myself to Smith in a whole new way.

Connors and Hilger arrange the anthologies in as close to chronological order of composition of the stories as they can attain. This is a bit of a break from previous attempts to anthologise Smith, which have tended to collect the stories from his various fictional settings like Hyperborea and Zothique into little clumps, but it does mean that we get to see Smith’s writing evolve over the span of time presented.

It’s not exactly amateurish to begin with, mind. Connors and Hilger don’t include Smith’s juvenilia in the main run of the series – what was available at the time was collected in Miscellaneous Writings, a companion volume, and other early prose fiction from Smith has been rediscovered and reprinted by Hippocampus Press. Instead, volume one – The End of the Story, picks things up in 1925, when Smith – encouraged by his pen pal H.P. “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft – decided to try his hand at it.

Continue reading “Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 1”

Mini-Review: Just Say No To the Greater Good, Kids!

Cavan Scott’s Warhammer Adventures: Warped Galaxies series of Warhammer 40,000 novels for kids continues with its third episode, Secrets of the Tau. The kids have finally managed to get off the freezing, Genestealer-infested world they were stuck on since the closing sections of Attack of the Necron, having hitched a lift with Amity, a mysterious Rogue Trader who is very keen to avoid questions about why she has no crew left beyond the servitor Grunt.

Zelia, Talen, Mekki and their jokaero friend Fleapit still don’t really have a plan for what to do with themselves beyond rendezvousing with Zelia’s mother at the mysterious “Emperor’s Seat” – and checking Amity’s star charts revealed that in the course of their adventures they’ve ended up inadvertently flung to the other side of the galaxy entirely from where they started out, more’s the pity. Taking pity on them – and perhaps taking into account the potential archaeotech reward from Zelia’s collector mother – Amity takes them to Hinterland, an independent space station where humans and xenos rub shoulders in an uneasy truce, and where a cartographer friend of Amity’s just might have the information on where the Emperor’s Seat is…

Continue reading “Mini-Review: Just Say No To the Greater Good, Kids!”