Grappling With History

Written by Aubrey Sitterson, host of the Straight Shoot podcast, and illustrated by Chris Moreno, The Comic Book Story of Professional Wrestling is an almost 200 page history of what the book calls the One True Sport. This is a title Sitterson bestows because of, not despite, the fakery intrinsic to the format, which he makes a case for being a strength of the form rather than a liability. Clueless non-fans love to point out to wrestling fans that it’s fake, as though any wrestling fan didn’t know that. (Despite fan myth suggesting that “kayfabe” – the pretence of reality – died in the 1990s, the history notes that actually the lid was blown off the business by a renegade promoter airing his grievances in the press back in the 1930s.) What they don’t get is that the fakery liberates wrestling from any consideration aside from providing an entertaining spectacle and emotionally engaging stories to the audience. Football teams, athletes, and so on are supposed to be concentrating on winning first and foremost, entertainment second; Vince McMahon’s infamous “sports entertainment” phrase really sums up how wrestling inverts that, since it’s an entertainment which uses the trappings of sport as its aesthetic and premise.

To my eye the length of the book is just about right; it’s short enough to provide a good introduction to the field that isn’t off-putting in its length but long enough to be meaty and go into sufficient detail that it can also teach fans a thing or two. Sitterson has a knack for condensing his text down to a point where he’s delivering a lot of information in a short amount of text without becoming so terse that he fails to adequately explain crucial concepts; Moreno’s artwork not only fits the superheroic world of wrestling neatly but also works well to support and convey Sitterson’s points.

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Jonestown, White Night, and What Scientology Could Have Taught the People’s Temple

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

If anything, Tim Reiterman was even closer to the events recounted in Raven than Bugliosi was in Helter Skelter. Whereas Bugliosi only arrived on the scene after the fact in Helter Skelter and can only directly attest to what went down in the trial, Tim Reiterman was part of the team of journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan’s doomed visit to Jonestown, and was wounded in the People’s Temple attack on the party (and the group of Temple defectors they were trying to get to safety) at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

Horrifying as it was, that attack was a mere foretaste of the carnage that Jim Jones was simultaneously planning in Jonestown, as he led his people in a carefully rehearsed process of murder and mass suicide that was, at least as Jones explained it, intended to act as the ultimate protest against a capitalist world that wouldn’t leave them be. There is room for debate in terms of how serious he was about this motive – his claims that “mercenaries”, the Guyanese army and other hired guns of capitalism were out to invade and destroy Jonestown were backed up by faked assassination attempts, just as earlier in his career his claims of healing powers were backed up by faked faith healings, so there is every chance that he didn’t really believe his own rhetoric captured on the infamous “Jonestown death tape” about how soldiers were going to swoop in and torture and kill all the town’s inhabitants.

What is not in doubt is Jones’ commitment to mass suicide as an exit strategy: as well as the famous “White Night” drills that prepared the inhabitants of Jonestown for self-destruction, Raven documents how Jones was running hoaxed suicide drills even when he was headquartered in the United States, years before Jones’s spiralling paranoia, increasing legal and journalistic scrutiny, and a string of defections from the People’s Temple prompted his retreat to his Guyana hideaway. Given the Temple’s vehemently (and often counter-productively) aggressive responses to even a hint of journalistic curiosity or law enforcement interest, an arguable case could be made that what Jones was really doing on that final White Night was fleeing the consequences of his actions, his pride rendering him unable to face either the criminal charges that would have inevitably followed the attack on the Ryan party or the exposure of his secrets that would follow.

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Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

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Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.

It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.

A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 1: Juvenile Racist Pagan Sleuth At Large

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

A while back I wrote a string of Robert E. Howard articles which attracted a certain amount of complaining and griping from Howard fans, upset that I had written their hero off as a bigot whose bigotry was so thematically and structurally integral to his work that I can’t really recommend his work to anybody unless they were looking deeply into the history of the fantasy genre. One of the complaints raised was that I was condemning Howard whilst letting his pen-pal Howard Phillips Lovecraft (who I affectionately think of as “Creepy Howie”) off the hook for being just as offensive, if not more so.

Now, I’m a self-confessed Lovecraft fan, but I like to think I am not an uncritical one, and I honestly don’t think I was being uncritical in the previous articles. Nonetheless, I’ve been acutely aware that it’s been a while since I read Lovecraft. Over the years I like to think I have become more socially aware, particularly when it comes to issues of privilege and marginalisation, and perhaps some evidence for this process having happened is the way my assessment to texts I had previously uncritically loved have changed. Believe it or not, when I started my Conan article I didn’t intend it to be the brutal hatchet job it turned out to be; I genuinely expected that I would reread the stories, criticise the more egregious instances of bigotry, but also praise the stories which remained genuinely praiseworthy. I was surprised to just what extent I found the stories shockingly offensive; it’s like I was reading them with brand new eyes, finally taking onboard matters which I was only too happy to overlook for the sake of a fun adventure story in my younger years.

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Clotheslines and Cautionary Tales

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Professional wrestling isn’t a sport; Vince McMahon, overlord of WWE and therefore the most powerful person in the industry, calls it “sports entertainment”, and the kindest and most accurate way to describe it is as a performance art in which masquerading as a sport is part of the performance.

Part of the magic of “kayfabe” – the illusion of spontaneity and competition surrounding pro wrestling – is that when you are little your wrestling heroes are just as cool and superhuman to you as Father Christmas is, whilst when you see through the illusion it becomes possible to appreciate the form on a whole new level. Kayfabe jargon refers to “smarks” or “smart marks” – fans who know that the whole deal is fake, but enjoy and pay for wrestling products and shows because they appreciate the combination of athleticism and sleight-of-hand necessary to pull off complex stunts in the ring, or because they like to follow along wrestling storylines even though they know it’s a story.

Smarks and the Internet are a match made in heaven. The very subjects that smarks are interested in or get worked up about – which old acts still have it and who needs to retire from the ring before they embarrass themselves or destroy their health entirely, which new acts are the most exciting, what scripting (or “booking”) decisions have captured people’s imaginations and which have fallen flat, and so on – are precisely the sort of fodder which drives internet conversations and flamewars in any fandom. Booking and other backstage matters are a matter of particular interest to clued-in wrestling fans, and it’s natural that that should be the case: after all, the bookers plan out the matches based on behind-the-scenes business decisions made concerning which wrestlers need to be promoted as the major faces of a promotion and which wrestlers are out there mostly to make the major players look good.

It’s also natural that smarks should believe that they can do a better job than the professional writers. Part of this is just the sort of smug armchair quarterbacking endemic to fandom; part of this comes down to even major promotions making a range of incredibly foolish, self-defeating, and damaging booking decisions over the years. Bryan Alvarez’s Figure 4 website is a well-established online “dirtsheet” (a zine produced to give the inside behind-the-kayfabe news about pro wrestling), and RD Reynolds’ WrestleCrap was one of the first to dedicate itself to covering the worst in wrestling. In The Death of WCW, Reynolds and Alvarez form a journalistic tag team to take a well-researched and bitingly sarcastic look at the destruction of the only wrestling promotion to remotely approach the size of WWF/WWE during the 1990s.

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An Influential Delusion

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Mike Jay’s recently-reissued The Influencing Machine (previously known as The Air Loom Gang, known in the US as A Visionary Madness) is difficult to categorise. For the most part, it is centred on the incredible figure of James Tilly Matthews, perhaps the most famous of the many inmates of the Royal Bethlehem Hospital from back in the bad old “Bedlam” days. Matthews is notable mostly because he was the subject of Illustrations of Madness, an account by Bedlam’s resident apothecary John Haslam of Matthews’ case. Illustrations vividly describes Matthews’ delusions concerning the Air Loom, a mind control device operating on magnetic and pneumatic principles operated by a sinister gang populated by such colourful characters as The Middleman, Bill the King, and the Glove Woman.

The account remains regularly cited in psychological and psychiatric literature for two reasons: firstly, it is one of the first academic accounts of a case which could, if you squint at it in the right light, be something along the lines of what we call paranoid schizophrenia in the modern day. Secondly, it is the earliest known instance of a delusional patient claiming that their behaviour is being controlled by what is these days referred to as an “influencing machine” – rather than being possessed or controlled by demons or angels or other supernatural agents, Matthews seems to have been one of the first people in modern history to believe that they were under the control of a scientific device. Mind control implants and rays operated by intelligence agencies, the military, secret societies, or aliens are now widely cited; you can find plenty of people claiming to be victims of such things, many of whom aren’t confined to mental hospitals.

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