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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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

Games for Storytellers and Storytelling for Gamers

The happy game for happy people.

The happy game for happy people.

Storytelling as a game is not something new – it’s been around as long as there have been fires to hunch by on long, dark nights. From kids around campfires trying to scare the bejesus out of each other to improvising troupes taking it in turns to spin a yarn word by word, storytelling has led to games and games have led to storytelling.

For Christmas I received a lovely card game from my other half where the whole endeavour lives or dies on the storytelling element, and it got me thinking about my favourite games where creating my own story was either the point or the most fun part. So, in no particular order, here are my top three.

1. Gloom

This was the present I received. It’s a brilliant, gothy card game, very much inspired by Edward Gorey. The premise is that each player has a group of five characters, and by playing special cards on each character the player has to bring as much sorrow down on their heads as possible and kill them off. At the end of the game the player whose characters died in the most anguish wins. The storytelling fun comes from the nature of the cards – the events you play on characters (who vary from mad inventors to twisted circus-folk) are things like ‘trapped on a train’, ‘torn apart by weasels’, ‘chastised by the church’ or ‘plagued by the pox’. It’s up to the player to construct a story for each of their characters that links each event until their inevitable demise. Add to the mix that other players can play cards on your characters to cheer them up and swerve your story in a different direction, and it’s an awful lot of fun.

2. Storytelling dice

I bought a set of these for a friend’s child, but I think they’ll work for any age. It’s a set of nine wooden dice, with different symbols etched on each face of each one. The game is to roll the dice and construct a story based on the elements you roll, and there are magic/fantasy, pirate and space-themed sets to choose from. It would be interesting to use this as the basis for a pantsed NaNoWriMo novel if November comes around and I find I’m at a loose end. You can put the story together in any order you want, or in order die by die – trying to get it to fit a generic plot structure would give you an instant (if, possibly, rather odd) novel outline.

3. Fable 2

A slightly different beastie, this one. I love videogames and Fable 2 is probably my all-time fave. There are many reasons why, but prime among them is the storytelling capability. The humour and scripted quests in the game are compelling enough, though fairly standard, but it’s what you can get up to along the way that really made me fall in love with the game. The amount of different ways you can make your character express themselves, coupled to the reactions to those expressions really set this apart from other games, even the other games in the franchise, and it’s perfectly possible to construct your own narrative around your exploits. So, during the first part of the game you could find true love, get married and have kids, then (spoilerish alert) you get taken away for a while and traumatic things happen. Depending on how much you’d worked on your relationship before being taken away your wife might be waiting, or she may have vanished. So then you can do what you like – pursue your true love or go and get drunk, belch and fart your way through the next few days in a haze of drunkenness, shag half the town and wake up in a same sex relationship, or become a monk-like ascetic, swearing off relationships lest you hurt someone again. I tried the latter and then finally, having given in to temptation and found love with a barmaid, was leading her off to get married when we were attacked by bandits and she was killed. All of this is completely extraneous to the game itself and relies on the player to construct the narrative and put the work in themselves.

Those are my favourite storytelling games – none of them have directly led to any novelling inspiration yet, but should I ever run out of ideas then it’s great to have some ways of getting my storytelling brain kicked back into gear. Have you tried any of these? Or have you got other recommendations? I’d love to try some more!

@BornToPootle