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.


London’s Psychic College



*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.


Smiles, indeed…


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.




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!

The Falling and Ambiguity

I saw the new British film ‘The Falling’ the other night, which was by and large a worthwhile endeavour. In very general terms the film is about a mass fainting outbreak at an all girls school in the late 60s. Whether or not this outbreak is genuine illness or a self conscious act of rebellion is one thrust of the film, but there’s more going on too.

You see, the main character and possible ringleader of this outbreak (played by Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame) has a brother. He wears a pentagram ring, suggests they do some ‘magick, with a ‘k” and talks about ley lines running under the school. Add to that a kind of mystical sensitivity about the filmaking, from the drowsy music to lingering shots of the verdant parkland around the school and ritual-looking acts performed by some of the girls. Almost subliminally flashed images hark back to other depictions of magic like Kenneth Anger or more recently A Field In England and even Interstellar (which I mentioned here)

Is this all psychological, is it illness or is it magick? The film juggles this ambiguity very well, although for me it drifts away towards the end.

Rather strangely, it put me in kind of a very different film which would have been improved a great deal by some ambiguity: Season of the Witch starring Nicolas Cage.

Yeah, it’s not quite the same kind of thing, but bear with me! Nic Cage and Ron Perlman are former Templars tasked with transporting a supposed witch across medieval Europe to stand trial. Don’t ask, it makes perfect sense. Anyway, en route Nic starts to wonder whether this waif really is a witch at all or whether she’s simply being persecuted. Over the next few scenes our travelling band are variously set upon or near thwarted by the elements, only to somehow triumph each time with the help of the witch’s magical powers. Oh and she also warps one of the party’s mind and makes him kill a chum. So yeah, witch not waif.

Each time, our Nic is otherwise engaged and doesn’t see what happened. I can’t help but wonder if there is an earlier draft of the screenplay where we as the audience are kept guessing too. I think it would have made for a much more interesting film. Still would have been rubbish, but more interesting rubbish perhaps.

I love fantastical stuff in pretty much any medium, and am more than happy when weirdness is confronted head-on. That said, there’s a special power that can come from ambiguity when it’s handled well. The Falling did just that for the most part and could be worth a watch for that reason alone. The Craft it ain’t! Do you have any favourites that leave us in the dark as to what’s really going on?


Marriage As a Spell

Or, Magick In Unexpected Places

I’m working my way steadily (and swiftly!) through my thirties, so have been to a fair number of weddings over the last five or six years. Two friends of mine got married the other day, and a strange thought occurred to me as the vows were being said: essentially it’s just a spell being recited.

The registry officer says some words, the bride and groom repeat one by one, line by line and then place a totemic symbol on each others’ fingers. Hey presto, alacazam! Sure, there’s some signing of forms, but the bit that really makes you nervous, no matter how confident you are in your spouse (and I speak as a married man) is the repetition of the words and the ring on the finger. The rest of it, the forms and so on, don’t change you. The words, the ring, those are the things that the moment of change hooks on to.

What if you say it wrong? What if the registrar makes a mistake? Will it be like “Klaatu Barata Ni-cough cough cough” in Army of Darkness (alternate title is Captain Supermarket in Japan, fact fans) and the spell won’t hold? The registrar at this wedding seemed to say “fateful” instead of “faithful”, though the bride and groom got it right. Would it affect the outcome of the marriage spell?

No, probably not.

But imagine the ceremony being conducted in Latin by the registrar, with the bride and groom not fluent in the dead language. Then it’s really a repetition of mumbo jumbo and an exchange of symbols that suddenly means their lives are forever changed. Very spell-like. I’m reminded of Humperdink’s desperation in The Princess Bride for the Bishop to say “Man and wife”, as if the repetition of those words is the magick moment and nothing else matters.

Anyway, just a thought that occurred to me. I’m going to keep my eyes and ears peeled for other magick in unexpected places – let me know if you’ve spotted any!


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?


An Injection of Gothic

Or, Bela Lugosi’s dead…


Subtlety is not the gothic's strong point

I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo Hacks post that I visited the Gothic exhibition at the British Library recently. I’ve got some pretty strong gothic credentials as the first short story I ever wrote (the result of a school project many moons ago) was a Poe tribute – though I didn’t actually take writing seriously until a fair few years later – and for a couple of years in the late 90s I played keyboards in a band called Purity of Decadence who looked like this:


That's me on the left. Bloody loved that coat

The exhibition, called Terror and Wonder, is definitely a stop off if you’re into the weird or fantastical, and it’s worth picking up the accompanying book – it goes into a lot more detail than the captions could manage in their limited space – I’m going to have a very long reading list when I’ve worked my way through it.

Amongst the novels and images and artefacts was an object owned by Horace Walpole, the author of the first generally accepted gothic novel (The Castle of Otranto). A piece of polished obsidian, jet black in a darkened glass cabinet. It might have been quite easy to miss, there were certainly lots of other great images and objects tearing at the attention. Fortunately I was being thorough, because it turned out to be John Dee’s Aztec spirit mirror, one of his primary means for contacting the dead, either for his own ends or for Elizabeth I for whom he sometimes worked. I caught my reflection in it, but nothing more – I wonder how many visitors see something other than themselves in there?

What struck me about the exhibition was the way the idea of the gothic has changed as the centuries have rolled past, starting off with classic haunted medieval castles in novels that claimed to be translations of ancient manuscripts, through to burnt heathland, into fog-cloaked cities and even in to body mutation. What seems to be the linking factor is the idea of location and atmosphere, a pregnant sense of dread hanging over proceedings.

That’s something that I think I’m writing towards, but can definitely stand to bring further toward the front. The sense of location is quite important in the novels I’m working on – in A Calling-on Song it’s a calmingly familiar town whose charms start to rebel against the protagonist, and in Lord of the Dance it’s pretty much the opposite; a town which functions as a prison for my protagonist starts to reveal secrets that end up making the place alluring.

Or failing that I’ll stick an ancient Aztec spirit mirror owned by a long-dead mystic into my characters’ hands early on and see what happens. The exhibition is on for a while still, so pop along if you’re in London and let me know what you think.