The Most Unsettling Thing I’ve Ever Read

I’ve lost a little bit of my writing mojo of late, probably for a few reasons – I’m working in two different jobs so it’s harder to get into a routine of writing; my commute has changed and is less conducive to writing; I’ve been learning Japanese which has taken up a part of my brain that I think writing used to take up… and there are probably more reasons besides. Anyway, to try and get back in the groove I bought a couple of books on esoteric subjects. Most of my stories revolve around magickal goings on in an otherwise ordinary setting, and there’s nothing like having a read of people actually doing (or thinking they’re doing) that stuff to help get inspired. But I discovered something really horrible.

Previous contenders for ickiest things I’ve read are probably sections of Timothy Taylor’s incredible The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (well worth reading as long as you have a strong constitution) and, in fiction, Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (less worth reading). I used to keep a copy of the latter in my bag at school and try to get my friend Barry to read a section where a serial killer scoops out the lungs of a victim described in erotic detail.

For the new batch of books I went to Treadwell’s, an esoteric bookshop near the British Museum (so close to where John Dee’s scrying mirror, amongst other things, resides).  I came out with two slim volumes: a primer on chaos magic rituals, and a sort of autobiography of a ghost healer. It’s the latter that has caused me concern.

Autobiography isn’t quite accurate, it’s actually a series of short recountings of times the author investigated or healed ghosts. He was a man of the cloth, and his healings involve performing a Eucharist.

Some of the healings are on the vague side – in one case the author sits down in a cottage that keeps having its electrics turned off, and thinks with the homeowner about who might have lived there in the past. Maybe someone used to sit out the front (where the electrics are), and maybe they were an elderly woman and maybe people thought she was a witch. Just to be clear, this wasn’t researched, they just thought about it and extrapolated. And then performed a Eucharist for the imagined witch, and lo, all was resolved. Others are more detailed though and based on reportings of historic happenings.

And then I came to the anecdote in question. A military base. Some Satanic goings on. The chaplain had been arrested because two young girls had reported him for spanking them. What then follows is, in a nutshell, a confession from one of the girls that she was sexually abused by her father and the Chaplain. And the author smugly recounts how he was able to quash her story as a fabrication.

It’s told so briefly that there’s next to no reasoning given for the outcome. Simply that the second girl couldn’t corroborate her story. Given that the perpetrators would be likely to try and cover their tracks, that’s not the sturdiest reasoning. The anecdote ends by saying that the Chaplain in question was moved elsewhere 6 months later because of all the ‘tittle tattle’ about the case. Moved on, covered up, and free to continue.

And that’s it. There are no horrendous details of what went on. Just the impression that the author helped abuse continue. It’s really shaken me up. Perhaps at some point it’ll provide the basis of a villain in something I write, but to be honest I’d rather not have it in my brain at all.

The book is Healing the Haunted by Dr Kenneth McAll, and based on my experience with it I would strongly recommend not buying it.

 

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Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.

@BornToPootle

Games as storytelling tools

I’ve written before about using videogames as storytelling tools – specifically Fable 2 and the awesome stories you can tell away from the main thrust of the game. Well, in addition the shorter narrative-centric games I mentioned in my last post, I’ve also just finished GTA 5 (as with Witcher 3 which I mentioned last week, ‘finished’ is something of a misnomer for games of this size) and it’s got some great tools for storytellers.

My love for Fable comes in part from the interactions you can have – you can get married, go off on a quest and then find that your wife has left you. What you do then is up to you; it’s not important to the ‘proper’ plot, but if you want you can decide how your character would respond. Go to the local tavern, get roaring drunk and pull a barmaid? Give up adventuring for a while to live a life of celibacy and wood-chopping? Have a breakdown and start massacring innocents? Belch everywhere you go? It’s absolutely up to your own creativity.

GTA 5 is slightly different. Sure, when certain things happened to the main characters I updated their outfits and hairstyles to better suit their mental (and financial) states. I made sure they listened to the radio stations they liked rather than my favourites all the time. But although there are myriad things to do in the main GTA 5 game, the way you actually interact with the world doesn’t give that sense of creative freedom…

…until unleashing the director mode and Rockstar Editor. And it’s utterly brilliant.

In director mode you can select from hundreds of different characters in the game (including animals after a bit of unlocking), as well as your own customised characters from the online game, and record them doing… whatever. With all manner of gestures and dialogue, as well as the ability to add props into the world, it’s creative paradise. Once you’ve recorded some action, you can then completely edit the hell out of it, changing camera angles, speed, adding music, splicing scenes together to create whatever you want.

My first foray into the editor was a simple ‘I wonder what I can do’ type scene. Playing to the cliché, I attempted to blow some things up and cause a bit of mayhem. Here are the results – ‘attempted’ is the important word.

That was fun to put together, but ultimately I fancied doing something non-violent. I’ve been a longtime GTA fan, but as games look ever more real I find some aspects more problematic than I used to. Strippers are paradoxically less fun to visit when they look like strippers rather than polygons. Weird, right? And while the blackly comic tone mollifies some of my qualms, not everything needs to come down to violence. So that’s where my next video came from.

Here’s the audition day for Los Santos Community Theatre’s production of Waiting For Godot:

I shan’t expect Hollywood (should that be Vinewood?) to call any time soon! That said, the latter clip only took a couple of hours of messing around, and I haven’t really dug deep into the tools available on the editor yet. I’m going to try a few more non-violent videos and see what I can come up with – no idea how it would work yet, but some kind of rom-com is quite appealing…

@BornToPootle

 

London’s Psychic College

 

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*Ominous creaky door noise*

 

In my last post I flagged up a couple of events coming up that seemed like they might be quite interesting; last weekend I managed to toddle off and enjoy one of them, so I thought I’d share the experience.

The London College of Psychic Studies turned 90 at the weekend, or their residency in their permanent home in South Kensington did, at any rate. To celebrate, they opened their doors to all comers, putting on a display of art and artefacts that have been collected over the years.

The college itself is in a tall, but narrow house sandwiched into a standard Kensington terrace. A few doors down is a casino, lurid lights spilling out on to the street – at a glance Mrs Pootler wondered whether that was the college, but no: the college has a more down-to-earth approach to its particular niche. Hogwarts, it ain’t.

I explored the college from the basement up (looking for, but not finding any hidden passageways). The first room was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, president of the college in its early days when it was still directly connected with the Spiritualist church. Archive footage, books, photos and newspaper clippings were the order of the day. Similarly, the next room was dedicated to newspaper clippings from various spiritualist papers.

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Smiles, indeed…

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Take that, Scotland Yard!

 

A stuffed library and reception area on the ground floor gave way to a further three floors of rooms resplendent with photos and artwork – some of the art was ‘automatic’, drawn or painted when in a trance state or whatnot. Here are a few further snaps I took (note: the pallid, reflected face you can half glimpse in some of the photos is either me or Mrs Pootler, not a ghost):

A favourite quote to end on, from a poster advertising Spiritualist lectures (capitalisations intact):

The Priest offers you a Book and Dogmas. The Occultist offers you a Key and Facts.

For the avoidance of doubt, I’d take imagination and art over either, but it’s nice to paddle around and get different perspectives.

If you’ve got some favourite esoteric haunts around London, let me know in the comments and I’ll check them out.

@BornToPootle

 

 

Upcoming Esoteric Exhibitions

John Dee_0

A little while ago the British Library had a barn-storming exhibition devoted to Gothic. I wrote about it here. For fans of the esoteric it was a particular treat, with John Dee’s spirit mirror being one of the exhibits. At their Comics Unmasked exhibition one of the stand-outs was a recording of Aleister Crowley reading John Dee’s Enochian writings. It played on a loop. In a building full of ancient manuscripts. Have they never seen The Evil Dead?!

Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve written about an exhibition, but that may change soon – two have come along at once. Keeping with the John Dee topic, the Royal College of Physicians have just launched a 6 month airing of some of his books.

A lot of Dee’s library, once housed at the impeccably named Mortlake, was nabbed or destroyed. It seem that after passing through a couple of pairs of hands much of the remainder was gifted to the Royal College of Physicians in 1680. Lots of alchemical scribblings and Enochian doodahs abound in the margins, so I fully expect to come away from it able to turn lead into gold (which, now I think about it, is what Games Workshop did in the 90s).

The second exhibition is actually more of an open day. The London College of Psychic Studies is opening its doors this Saturday, on its 90th anniversary. I’ve not been there before, so it seems like a good excuse to have a poke around and see what really goes on behind its doors. Spoiler: it seems like collecting snazzy art may be one of their hobbies. But I’m sure there’s much more besides.

I’ve long been fascinated by the college. It sits happily in an affluent area of London rather than, as my imagination would prefer, being tucked away down a twisting alleyway that’s never the same twice. I’m sure it keeps all its oddities on the inside, and the façade is just to throw off the scent…

You can read more about the Dee exhibition here, and the College of Psychic Studies here.

I’ll report back once I’ve been along. Let me know if there’s anything else going on that I should be aware of!

Always Talk About Your Novel

Or, the fine line..

This is probably the wrong way to go about it... Probably.

This is probably the wrong way to go about it… Probably.

I’ve found there’s a fine line when it comes to talking about my writing. There’s something in talking to people about it that helps drive me to carrying on – people ask how it’s going which is a great motivator. Too much though, and of course I become a prize self-serving nuisance and open to smug ‘no sign of that, er, that novel yet eh?’ whisperings.

I’ve just spent a few days with my Dad and his other half, and in due course my writing came up. In truth, I have hit a brick wall with one novel, but I have just started researching and plotting a new one while I let the older one unblock itself. I almost didn’t go into any detail about the general ideas and plot as it’s pretty early in the process, but decided it might help me firm it up. Lo and behold, something good came of it.

Though I’m not quite ready to broadcast the ideas to all and sundry yet, the important thing for this post is that the main antagonistic force is something (fictional) set in motion by John Dee or a fictionalised contemporary in the early 17th century. Turns out my Dad’s other half picked up a CD years ago that contains copies of various books by Dee and a lot of other esoteric writers from previous centuries. How cool is that? I’ve got various books about weird esotercism already, but they’re all either by modern esoteric writers or historians. Now I can connect to the source, and who knows what other bits of inspirations are buried in the ancient texts on the CD.

"Unless I've studied my Agrippa..." which I could now do

“Unless I’ve studied my Agrippa…” which I could now do

Has anything good happened to you after talking about your writing? Let me know what you’re working on in the comments, and maybe someone will happen by who can impart something useful!

@BornToPootle

London Book Fair 2015

Or, A Drop In The Ocean

One of the earliest posts on this blog was after my sojourn to last year’s London Book Fair.  Well it’s that time of year again, only this time I popped along to all three days rather than just the one.

Held at Kensington Olympia, it was a wonderfully maze-like expanse of beautiful beautiful books (none of which were on sale to the likes of me – it’s an industry fair after all). Here’s the best cover I spotted:

Enough from Burt? Never!

Enough from Burt? Never!

Like last year, there was a dedicated ‘Author’ area slap bang in the middle of the labyrinth (where the minotaurs roam). Each day saw a series of 45 minute seminars and panel discussions on topics like tips on getting an agent, success stories from published authors and more general discussions on how authors are changing their writing to suit newer forms like Twitter.

I only went to the seminars I was most interested in, but that was still a hefty ten or eleven. There was a little variation in quality, but on the whole they were very well presented. I found a couple were either slightly mis-named (or perhaps they veered off topic at the beginning and didn’t recover) and one or two came across as marketing pitches for one or other e-publishing services. I suppose that’s the nature of this kind of event. There were great talks from representatives from The Bookseller and various agents, publishers, journalists and booksellers though, and served to give an interesting overview of a few different parts of the industry alongside decent practical advice.

I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities to network with other authors – just by hanging around and chatting with others at the Author HQ for example – but being an obtuse sort I used gaps in my schedule of seminars to meet up with a couple of editors I know of old and take foolish selfies.

A professional demeanor is key at these events.

A professional demeanor is key at these events.

Worth going to? Absolutely. I think a lot of what was covered in the seminars needs further research and, arguably, could be gleaned by decent research online in the first place, but I can put a few industry names to faces now, met a couple of other novice authors I’m going to try and keep in touch with and drank a fair bit of (pretty decent by exhibition centre standards) coffee. A good rebaptism into the publishing world, having had a couple of months of self-doubt. I’ll come on to that next time, but did you go to the Book Fair? Anything stand out particularly for you?

@BornToPootle

Esoteric Books, or the Joys of Research

Silly, weird, scary and awesome. In equal measure.

Silly, weird, scary and awesome. In equal measure.

Sometimes I think that I’ve fallen into writing purely because it helps indulge all my other interests. In other words, I can do all the things I love while convincing myself that it’s purely for research. Narratives in novels, films and games are there to be analysed and extrapolated from, music is for inspiration not just for listening to. You get the idea.

I’ve become something of a magpie when it comes to odd books, picking up things which seem like they’ll be useful for something I’m writing, or seem like maybe one day they could perhaps be useful for something I might write in the indefinable vague mists of the future. Probably just an excuse to feed my bookshelves, but I’ve found some treats over the last few years. Here are my favourite five, in no particular order (I can’t pick a favourite, the other books’ll get mad at me!):

1. What The Apothecary Ordered

Purely recreational officer.

Purely recreational officer.

This was a present from my other half this Christmas. It’s a compendium of historical remedies ranging from Pliny the Elder in the 1st century AD to the early 1900s. As an example from the 1600s, a bleeding nose can be cured by taking a leather lace and tying it around the testicles, ‘and that will make the blood leave Mars and run to look after Venus.’ Or how about for your ears from the same century: ‘Make a strong Decoction of Sage in the Urin of an healthy man’, stick it in your lug holes and then shove the middle of a roasted onion in and stop them up with black wool. Definitely has to be black wool. White wool would just be silly.

It’s a brilliant book if ever I feel that something I’m writing is too unbelievable. A quick flick through the book will tell me that no, people will believe just about anything!

2. The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate

No Paul Daniels here...

No Paul Daniels here…

This is a fascinating and well written book that deals with everything from ley lines to Crowley to the resurgence in paganism and Wicca. It includes along the way loads of great interviews with practitioners and is definitely written as an introduction to the various different strains of magic that have, and still are, taken seriously by those who believe. There’s practical advice for finding ley lines or divining, for example.

The thing that struck me most was that in many of the chapters I’d find myself nodding along, thinking that the way the interviewees was talking about their particular craft made it sound sensible, reasonable and more like a different way of interpreting psychology, then something would flip and it would take that extra step into the inexplicable.

3. Book of Lies; the Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult

At least they admit it's not true...

At least they admit it’s not true…

This one’s nuts. I love it. There’s an article all about Pop Magic! by Grant Morrison, one about Hitler and the occult, another about the 60s psychic backlash, a couple by Genesis P-Orridge that I’ve read about five times and still don’t understand, discussions of Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson and the constant Occult War being waged. Sex and Chaos magic crop up a fair bit. It’s full of weirdly Capitalised Words, or ‘repeated uses’ of ‘inverted commas’, words like gnosis, godhead, atavistic and consensus reality turn up with surprising frequency.

A peek inside:

Blurred for your safety

Blurred for your safety

4. The Secret Power of Music; The Transformation of Self and Society Through Musical Energy

The day the music... turned everyone evil

The day the music… turned everyone evil

I read this for a novel I’m writing about musical magic. It’s utterly brilliant in its scope, looking at historic references to music being magical (ancient China using music to align itself with the cosmos) and used for evil (those pesky sex-rhythms of jazz and rock and roll). This is a good, and very mild, quote: ‘The dilemma of what is right and what is wrong in music is basically a moral question.’ It’s not about artistry, it’s about what music does to the mind and the morals. Fascinating and nuts. Not as nuts as the website I found which was discussing whether Elton John was head witch of the musicians, but not too far behind.

5. Burlesque Paraphernalia

That's not the kind of burlesque I've seen in Soho..

That’s not the kind of burlesque I’ve seen in Soho..

This is a reprinted catalogue of odd tricks and illusions from the 1930s, which was primarily aimed at Freemasons and the other fraternal orders. These things would have been used as part of ritual inductions or maybe just gags. There are trick guillotines, altars that skeletons jump out of, buckets of fake boiling lead and all manner of spankers, animal masks and trick chairs. Because you can never have enough trick chairs. I’ve not used this directly for inspiration yet, but I’m sure it’ll come in handy one day!

Those are my favourite oddities that I’ve added to my bookshelf so far. What’s the weirdest book you’ve bought, either for research or your own edification?

@BornToPootle