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

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Where do you get those ideas?

Or, Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow.

Some of the books I've stolen from. I mean, 'been influenced by'.

Some of the books I’ve stolen from. I mean, ‘been influenced by’.

Welcome to the latest in my series about trying to get published for the first time.

I’ve been submitting my ‘finished’ novel to a few more agents over the last couple of weeks, and an interesting thing occurred to me. On many submissions advice pages on various agencies’ websites there’s something along the lines of ‘include anything that makes you an expert in what you’re writing about.’

Now, I’d sort-of assumed that was mostly there for non-fiction submissions but now I’m wondering if that’s not the case. Faced with my query letter, synopsis and novel extract, a prospective agent is, I imagine, looking for two things: material they really connect with and a reason to say no (given they’ve got unsolicited submissions coming out of the wazoo, wherever that may be). Or, perhaps it’s a default ‘no’, but they’re looking for a reason to say yes, something they can sell, some nugget they can base a pitch to a publisher around, something that lends credence to a submission.

I’ve not made much of an effort to disguise some of my book’s origins – it’s set in the town I grew up in, and the main characters work in a DVD rental store (possibly the last one!), which plays host to a number of important scenes. I worked in record shops in the town for four years between leaving school and going to drama school, so there are a fair few little quirks and tics that are directly based on those experiences. So far, so not-that-enticing – who hasn’t written something based on a re-imagined version of their home town? It’s far from an original idea.

But that’s just the setting. And there are reasons and ramifications for that setting, but it’s not the juicy part of the novel, it’s not necessarily going to hook anyone in unless they have some kind of affinity for the town. The real meat (or tofu-steak I should say, being a damn hippy) of the novel is in the folk tales that stalk my main character and that besiege him at every turn. It is, when boiled right down, about a young man discovering a deep connection to the traditional stories of these isles. And that’s where I’ve been underselling myself.

When I was 12 I joined a youth theatre, and the first play I performed in was a version of Robin Hood that reconnected the character to traditional folklore. It was an established play co-written (I think) by Toni Arthur, and we were lucky enough to have her directing us. Those of a certain age may remember her from the children’s show Playaway. She taught me most of the swear words I know. But she also, during the course of the play, taught me and the rest of the cast a few folk songs. And I’ve been singing them ever since. A few years later for a different production her ex husband, and former musical partner, Dave Arthur, taught me a few more folk songs. And then, a few years later still, in my mid twenties, I got interested in American folk and made the logical leap back into traditional British folk music. It really did feel like coming home.

Dave and Toni Arthur were part of the 60s/70s British folk revival that spawned the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who, along with Martin Carthy, I’ve been lucky enough to see live a number of times over the last few years). And they taught me folk songs which wormed their way into my bones and have wound up in my novel. So that is where the root of the idea comes from. And I think that’s a much more engaging narrative for my own journey to write the novel than the one I’ve been giving to potential agents.

What do you think? Is it worth letting agents and publishers know the truth behind the novel?

Crossroads

Dylan

I get to my patch nice and early. It’s barely gone eight and the sun is bruising across the sky still. From the crossroads at the top of town I can see the whole sorry mess splayed out below me, sparks of light flaring as people lose the game of chicken with the night. I strum a few chords as I wait, checking my phone impatiently every few minutes. The guitar’s not even in tune, but it doesn’t matter, that’ll come with time. When it’s my time.

It’s full dark now and I half-rise as a car crawls by, anonymous face peering out from the passenger window.  It’s a black Mercedes, which is what I picture him driving. But it carries on down the hill, trawling for something I’m not offering.

At ten past midnight I sling my guitar over my shoulder and start the slow walk back down through town. I pass the same familiar faces and we pass the same familiar conversation.

No luck, they ask.

Not tonight, I say. You?

Maybe tomorrow, they say.

Maybe tomorrow, I agree. And then we all stroll on home with our instruments and our souls.