Wheatley’s Catalogue of Ceremonies, Curses, and Cultural Myopia

Think of Dennis Wheatley, and you think of the Devil. That may not be wholly fair; of the dozens of trashy adventure and thriller novels Wheatley churned out over the course of his career, only a minority actually deal with the occult. In fact, that’s true even of his series about the Duke de Richleau, despite that series including the most famous of his Satanically-themed novels, The Devil Rides Out.

Nonetheless, whilst most of Wheatley’s output has largely been forgotten, his occult-themed stories are what his name is largely associated with. It probably helps that the Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out is, for all its faults (most of which arise from it being too true to the original book), one of the more enduringly-fun Hammer releases. Another factor might be that Wheatley’s views on the occult were absolutely bizarre, tied in as they were with his hyper-conservative views, with the result that they stand out all the more.

Whilst often you can glean aspects of an author’s worldview from their fiction – sure, people say you should separate the writer from the material, but if someone consistently, over the course of their entire career, writes women like trash and shows no sign that they are using techniques like unreliable narrators or whatever which means we shouldn’t take the narration at face value, you can draw a few conclusions from that. In the case of Wheatley, however, we don’t need to speculate about his actual beliefs on the occult: late in his career he write The Devil and All His Works, a coffee-table book combining his views on the subject and on spirituality in general with a fantastic collection of photographs (including the standard mildly titillating nudity expected of books on witchcraft from the 1970s).

Continue reading “Wheatley’s Catalogue of Ceremonies, Curses, and Cultural Myopia”

Connecting the (Demonic) Dots

Toyne Newton’s 1987 The Demonic Connection isn’t quite a psychic questing book along the lines of those written by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman or Andrew Collins, but it’s regularly cited in Collins’ early work and has much the same atmosphere about it, largely because both The Demonic Collection and the various questing books have similar preoccupations with occult conspiracies at work in the English countryside.

The major difference in approach is that whilst the likes of Phillips or Collins’ questing books go into detail about the little adventures the authors and their colleagues have as they go using the powers of the mind to uncover various mysteries, Newton is much less interested in reporting methodology; with some exceptions, he just dumps the results of his research on the reader, which means it’s unclear to what extent psychic or other unconventional research methods figured into his work.

However, what The Demonic Connection lacks in adventure, it more than makes up for in the sheer scope of its theories. Another commonality it has with the psychic questing books is this tendency to take some local landmark in the English countryside, investigate its alleged mysteries, and thereby spin a yarn which puts that otherwise nondescript locale at the heart of a cosmic conflict.

Continue reading “Connecting the (Demonic) Dots”

Weer-ed Tales From Wolfe

Alden Dennis Weer is alone, rattling about in a house built from his memories, with nobody living in any close proximity to him, the little town of Cassionville having fallen into terminal decline over his lifetime. At first we think he’s sick – he had a stroke recently – but as the recently-deceased Gene Wolfe’s Peace unfolds, one of the more obvious secrets it gives up is that Weer is in fact dead, his house being the sort of “memory palace” built from his experiences.

But with close attention and further readings – for what Wolfe story ever gave up all its treasures on a first pass? – the situation seems even more disturbing than that. Take the matter of little Bobby Black – who falls down the stairs at Weer’s fifth birthday party, eventually dying of his injuries, prompting a certain amount of social awkwardness which nudges Weer’s parents into an extended overseas excursion, with Weer left in the care of his aunt Olivia, who we can detect in the prose a certain incestuous affection for which might have been reciprocated. (If it were not, it’d be certainly odd for Olivia to have Weer as a teenage boy attend on her whilst she’s bathing.)

It’s very easy to miss it on a first reading, but Weer mentions struggling with Bobby at the top of the stairs – and mentions doing this because he knew that if Bobby were allowed into the upstairs room he’d throw an apple and spoil an old painting and Weer would take the blame for it. This is an astonishingly specific thing for a five year old boy to anticipate – but is, perhaps, the sort of thing you might expect someone looking back over the course of their life and gifted not just with the knowledge of how it went but how it might have gone to be aware of. And since Weer shows some capacity to step into and take control of his past selves – he uses this to try and get his favourite doctor’s advice on his stroke a decade or two before he has the stroke – the mind-boggling possibility arises that, far from resting in Peace, Weer is extraordinarily active, directing the course of his own life from his private afterlife to direct it to the end he desires.

But if that were the case, what are we to make of the terrible culmination of Weer’s life – as corporate overlord of an industry which is sucking the life out of the very soil around Cassionville, and (it is implied) ultimately makes the town vulnerable to a disaster which prompts everyone to leave? What are we to make of it that Weer is so frequently around death? If this is the life that Weer has chosen over all alternatives, is he really the sweet, charming Midwestern soul he presents himself as, or is he a silver-tongued devil, the entirety of Peace a bid to persuade the reader to overlook Weer’s crimes even as it also acts as a sideways confession?

Continue reading “Weer-ed Tales From Wolfe”

An Alien Aesthetic

As you might have gathered from some of my past articles on the subject, I’m more interested in UFOlogy as a cultural phenomenon than as anything objectively happening in our skies, and read UFO books more for entertainment than for information. There’s a certain joy to be had in delving into this rabbit hole without being too invested in the truth of anything you encounter, and I’m gratified to know I’m not alone in this, since much the same approach seems to be taken by Jack Womack, who over the years has obtained quite the collection of UFO books.

Womack offers us a guided tour through his library in the coffee table book …Flying Saucers Are Real!, which combines some brief writings on the subject from Womack with a range of delightful front covers, photographs, illustrations and textual extracts from the books under discussion. Womack convincingly argues that the UFO flap was essentially an evolution of the Shaver Mystery of prior years – a bizarre craze in which the claims of one Richard Shaver that he’d intercepted and decoded secret messages from fallen civilisations and evil BDSM robots from the Hollow Earth became unaccountably popular on a commercial level. Pioneering science fiction editor and shamless huckster Ray Palmer not only turned the Shaver Mystery from a lone man’s delusion into a minor pop cultural phenomenon; he was also instrumental in early publicity for Kenneth Arnold’s infamous 1947 sighting which kicked off the modern UFO meme – a meme whose evolution and mutation Womack traces across the rest of the book.

The bulk of the material here hails from the 1950s and 1960s, with a few exceptions – such as the cover of the 1989 edition of Space Aliens From the Pentagon by William Lyne and other such pieces with a particularly exciting aesthetic to them. This makes the volume a charming portal into an era when book covers were garish and gaudy, UFO photos were blurry and lampshade-ish, and contactees like the Unarius Institute’s Ruth “Uriel” Norman dressed fabulously and told us that space Aryans just wanted us to love each other. Whilst the book will offer little if you want to argue for the objective reality of UFOs and alien visitors, it offers a striking visual history of the way we talk about the subject.

Vallée of Mystery

Of all the big names in UFOlogy in the late 20th Century, Jacques Vallée might be the most interesting. A physicist and computer scientist by training, he believed that there was some form of physical reality behind UFOs, but was reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they were necessarily nuts-and-bolts spacecraft from other worlds. In the late 1960s, his classic Passport To Magonia aired his personal theory that if there was any truth to stories of extraterrestrial visitors at all, they seemed more consistent with visits from other dimensions than from distant space – and that the phenomenon had direct parallels with folkloric encounters with angels, fairies and similar.

1979’s Messengers of Deception came about after Vallée decided to turn his attention from the witnessed aerial phenomena themselves to the people who claim to have witnessed them – and, in particular, those who insist they have met the occupants of interplanetary craft. His initial reason for doing so was a hypothesis that UFOs are a real physical phenomenon which has psychological or neurological effects on witnesses, and so by looking to said witnesses it might be possible to find evidence of this.

Continue reading “Vallée of Mystery”

Offutt’s First Effort As Editor

While I don’t quite buy John Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces theory, I do think that there are certain basic frameworks that stories can (but never must) follow, and which can yield a nigh-infinite variety of different permutations of the same basic ideas whilst leaving room for the author’s own themes and personality to shine through. The Hero’s Journey is one such case in point; another one, which through an act of epic pretentiousness I’ll dub the Traveller’s Intervention, was fleshed out by a number of authors in the early 20th Century and goes a little something like this:

A hero, often itinerant, almost always foreign, finds himself called upon to intervene in a dilemma which frequently involves the ambitions of one or more powerful individuals. Often the hero will have his or her own ambitions, which will usually involve some form of personal advancement; occasionally the hero will be unwilling to intervene, but find themselves compelled to, either by external force or their own conscience. Eventually one side or the other in the dilemma will turn out to be in the wrong; sometimes the true villain of the piece will prove to be a raging, instinct-driven beast, whereas sometimes it will turn out to be a manipulative individual who believes that they are invested with the right (whether by tradition or by occult means or by virtue of their special qualities) to do as they please to whom they please; in the latter case, this could turn out to be the person who requested the hero’s intervention in the first place. The hero eventually discerns the correct course of action and defeats the villain, and usually endures physical danger and occult menace in the process; in most cases the hero will win through by virtue of his or her wit and skill. The situation having been resolved, the hero will normally move on, although not without a certain reward for his or her efforts. The hero, in this model, is an agent of societal change, whose intervention has the effect of either breaking a stalemate or championing the underdog, but is not a part of society but exists externally to it.

This is the formula which once refined by Robert E. Howard (with the aid of such precursors as Edgar Rice Burroughs) became the seed of the sword & sorcery subgenre of fantasy, with authors as diverse as Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock making important contributions to it. As with the Hero’s Journey, of course, the above outline is only a loose and ridiculously broad framework, and most authors (including Howard) produced works that diverge from it radically, but even then it’s notable as a departure from the standard format. (For example, the Elric series by Michael Moorcock centres around a weak-willed cripple who wins his Pyrrhic victories by virtue of his soul-stealing magic sword, but aside from this the original novellas fit the above formula surprisingly well.)

A limitation of this particular monomyth is that it appears to be more suited to short stories than to novels; whilst there are a few examples of excellent sword & sorcery novels (including much of Michael Moorcock’s output from the 1960s and early 1970s), most of the foundational works of the genre are in the short story format. This may in part be due to the framework I’ve described covering only one incident of many in an individual’s life, whereas the Hero’s Journey tends to describe the most important and valuable thing the protagonist is ever likely to do. (This may be why the quest narrative is so popular in high fantasy); I think it is also due to this sort of story working best when it has a nervous, energetic, Howard-like intensity to it, with fast pacing and lightning-fast action; this is a mood which is decidedly sustainable over the course of, say, a novella, but is difficult to maintain for the duration of a novel.

Of course, another factor has to be the origins of sword & sorcery in the first place: whilst high fantasy has its roots in novels by the likes of William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and of course Tolkien, sword & sorcery sprang from the pages of 1930s pulp fiction magazines, with a few antecedents in the form of the short stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lord Dunsany. The fact that the framework seems especially well-served by the short story format probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was devised for the short story format in the first place. But with the waning of the short story magazines as forces in SF/fantasy publishing, and with the audience’s tastes spurning most epics shorter than, say, Dune or Stranger In a Strange Land, the genre found itself in trouble in the mid-to-late 1970s. The apparent intellectual vacuity of the subgenre probably didn’t help, and neither did its undeserved reputation for misogyny and racism; both of these image problems may have resulted from oversaturation of the market by Robert E. Howard’s work, posthumously-completed Howard stories, and people writing lazy Howard pastiches. But the genre does not deserve to be written off as the disreputable legacy of an anti-intellectual, racist bigot from rural Texas, and it didn’t deserve that in 1977; luckily, a lone hero sallied forth to save the day, that hero being Andrew Offutt, editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.

Anthologies of all-original SF/fantasy stories (as opposed to mere compilations of the year’s most notable output) such as Swords Against Darkness were all the rage in the 1970s and 1980s, having somewhat supplanted SF magazines; sure, if you were good with a typewriter you could get into the magazines, but if you were a real hotshot you got picked for the anthologies. The craze probably started with Harlan Ellison’s seminal Dangerous Visions, although apparently many of the all-original anthology lines of the era abjectly failed to turn a profit, and the petering-out of the Swords Against Darkness series may be a consequence of this; though Offutt would produce five such anthologies from 1977 to 1979,

Continue reading “Offutt’s First Effort As Editor”

Mini-Review: It’s Grim and Dark For Kids 2

So at the end of Attack of the Necron, Zelia, Mekki, Fleapit and Talen found themselves stranded on an ice planet; for the purposes of Claws of the Genestealer they spend most of the book stuck on the planet trying to avoid the titular beastie, until eventually someone comes along to evacuate them.

In terms of actual plot developments, then, this is a filler episode; on the whole, the book is less concerned with advancing the party’s search for the mysterious locale known as the Emperor’s Seat (where Zelia’s mother has promised to rendezvous with them) so much as it is Cavan Scott taking a moment to make sure he’s got the interpersonal chemistry within the party clearly worked-out and communicated. It’s a fun episode, but I expect more significant developments will come in the followup – Secrets of the Tau – due in August.