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.

 

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

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