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.

Continue reading “Jonestown, White Night, and What Scientology Could Have Taught the People’s Temple”

Dissecting Lovecraft Part 6: From Providence To Antarctica

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.

After the burst of fiction-writing which followed his return to Providence, Lovecraft would take the summer (and a good chunk of the spring) of 1927 off, though he was by no means idle. Stepping back into the world of amateur journalism, he offered up A Matter of Uniteds, his most even-handed account of the schism of 1912 and the two UAPAs that were born from it. His diplomatic stance and repudiation of inter-faction mud-slinging was a far cry from the more stalwartly defiant pose he’d adopted a decade earlier, but then again the circumstances of both UAPAs had greatly changed since then, with both factions suffering a crisis of low membership and limited output. (In fact, at the time of writing Lovecraft’s UAPA had basically collapsed.) Lovecraft candidly acknowledges that the Uniteds are in trouble, and urges a reconciliation to ensure the continued existence of an APA dedicated to prioritising actual writing over socialisation.

Not that Lovecraft had become a homebody again – quite the opposite. Whilst theoretically based once again in Providence, his unhappy experiences in New York and inability to visit England did not dissuade him from undertaking what travels he could, and for all that he claimed to be a hermit more interested in topography and architecture than people he certainly had plenty of friends that he spent much time visiting. Having already written a lot of accounts of his travels in letters to his aunts, in mid-1927 he began, with the brief The Trip of Theobald, to commence writing travelogues as standalone essays, opening up a new strand in his writing. Naturally, he would quickly mar this body of work with his racist rants; Vermont – A First Impression kicks off with an ugly tantrum about foreigners and dark-skinned people and industrialisation wrecking the southern portions of New England. (I mistyped that at first as Jew England and heard a distant howling from the general direction of Lovecraft’s grave.)

That said, it can’t be said to be a waste of time, even if the essay does mostly consist of gushing about how pretty Vermont is, if it helped Lovecraft get a feel for the local landscape he used so effectively in The Whisperer In Darkness. Some have bemoaned the amount of effort Lovecraft put into his travel writing, wishing he had produced more stories instead, but I am with Joshi on this one in thinking that Lovecraft’s travel writing was an important part of him assimilating and processing the impressions he had picked up on his journeys – and since those selfsame impressions ended up feeding into his stories, then writing about them was arguably a necessary part of the creative process that yielded them. The travel writing was doubtless useful to Lovecraft, but by goodness it makes at best utterly tedious and at worst infuriatingly narrow-minded reading, and out of all the volumes in the Collected Essays I would say the travel one is by far the least interesting.

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