The perils of literary shamanism and the gothic horror of ‘Melmoth’


In a fascinating article from 2008 at The Daily Grail, Aeolas Kephas (a.k.a. Jason Horsely) reflects at some length on the roles of Whitley Strieber and Carlos Castaneda as literary shamans whose dedication to sharing their paranormal experiences, encounters, visions, and insights brought them much trouble:

Both Castaneda and Strieber were apparently singled out by mysterious parties to undergo an extraordinary initiation process and bring account of it to the world. Without the intervention of don Juan Matus and his party of sorcerers, it’s doubtful we would ever have heard of Castaneda, and the same holds true of Strieber. Although he was already a best-selling author (of horror fiction) before his alien encounter of 1985, it was only with the publication of Communion, in 1986, that Strieber established himself as one of the most puzzling and original writers of our time. In the field he has chosen — or been chosen — to write, that of UFOs and alien visitation, Strieber is probably the current leading exponent.

. . . Caught between a strange and deeply threatening new reality and an old reality that no longer offers comfort or assurance, that seems increasingly hollow and illusory, is it any wonder if both Strieber and Castaneda took refuge in writing, and in the grand gestures of prophet-gurus?. . . The very gift for which they were chosen as conveyers of forbidden knowledge would make Castaneda and Strieber outcasts, both in the world of men, and the realm of sorcerers and “aliens.” Like Mercury, the price of being granted free passage between the realms meant that they belonged to neither. Intellect, like the messenger, like language itself, is a means and not an end; it has no place in the primal realms or the supernal spheres: the one is beneath it, the other beyond it. This is the comedy and tragedy of the word, and why a day comes in the life of every writer when he or she is forced to choose between the illusory control of the written word — being the messenger — and the power and freedom of direct experience: becoming the message. He who lives by the pen, dies by the pen.

Carlos Castaneda, Whitley Strieber, and the Perils of Literary Shamanism

But of course such dangers, and the existence of people who willingly court and/or accept them by taking on that literary shamanic role, are nothing new. Case in point: Charles Robert Maturin, author of the towering Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820. Melmoth is a novel that, with its distinctly Faustian plot of a man who sells his soul to the devil and then spends 150 years trying to undo the deal, has long been recognized as one of the greatest and, as it so happens, appallingly darkest novels of its kind. No less a light than Lovecraft described it as a masterpiece “in which the Gothic tale climbed to altitudes of sheer spiritual fright which it had never known before. . . . No unbiassed reader can doubt that with Melmoth an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale is represented.”

Apropos to Kephas’s words about Castaneda and Strieber above, Maturin’s masterwork gains a resonance that’s all the more riveting when considered in light of the following words from one of his biographers, Robert E. Lougy, who notes that Melmoth arose out of a very real and very deep psychic well of darkness that very nearly undid Maturin when he assented to its opening:

[O]ne has the feeling that Maturin, in writing Melmoth, calls forth a reality that is so powerful, yet so grotesque, so cruel, and so foreign to Maturin’s daily existence, that the dividing line between genius and madness is throughout it very thin. (Indeed, a contemporary account of him during the time he was writing this novel suggests that he was virtually obsessed with his creation.) And Maturin himself frequently alluded to his own creativity in terms of witchcraft — of how he wanted his reader to “sit down by my magic Cauldron, mix my dark ingredients, see the bubbles work, and the spirits rise.” The danger, of course, in evoking spirits is that one can never be certain whether he can control them or of the price they will demand from him. The dangers would appear to be multiplied when one calls upon the spirits in their own territory, as Maturin seems to have done in Melmoth.

For to write such a novel is to probe those areas of knowledge, both “the visions of another world” and the darkest recesses of the human psyche, which strain the endurance of the mind, and to cross, perhaps irrevocably, forbidden boundaries. The writer then becomes isolated from the world around him, having used the incantatory power of the world to bring forth a reality that borders on the irrational and the insane. He is at once the possessor of secrets he will share with those readers who dare to sit down by his “magic Cauldron” and also possessed by those demons whose presence his art will reveal.

For a lengthy excerpt from Lougy’s 1975 monograph that includes this very passage, see the entry on Maturin in Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion.

For more on the same general theme, see “Shirley Jackson: Witchcraft, madness, and the uncanny dangers of writing.”

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 22, 2014, in Arts & Entertainment, Psychology & Consciousness and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Yet another excellent post Matt; thanks. I’ve been keeping tabs on Jason’s work since I got an internet connection in 2008 and think he’s one of the most interesting writers I’ve read.
    I haven’t read Melmoth. I would love to, in a way, but am too scared after what you’ve said here.
    I bought the Necronomicon in my youth, but read only a few pages before slamming it shut and stuffing it under clothes in a drawer, terrified that the mere articulation of the Old Ones’ names in the reading of it reading them would unleash their baleful influence. I still haven’t read it.
    Dark shaman Clif High says, “Poke at the abyss and it pokes back-hard”

    • Sharon, book recommendations:

      Vietnamese culture and religious traditions place the utmost importance on dying well: in old age, body unblemished, with surviving children, and properly buried and mourned. More than five million people were killed in the Vietnam War, many of them young, many of them dying far from home. Another 300,000 are still missing. Having died badly, they are thought to have become angry ghosts, doomed to spend eternity in a kind of spirit hell. Decades after the war ended, many survivors believe that the spirits of those dead and missing have returned to haunt their loved ones. In War and Shadows, the anthropologist Mai Lan Gustafsson tells the story of the anger of these spirits and the torments of their kin.
      Gustafsson’s rich ethnographic research allows her to bring readers into the world of spirit possession, focusing on the source of the pain, the physical and mental anguish the spirits bring, and various attempts to ameliorate their anger through ritual offerings and the intervention of mediums. Through a series of personal life histories, she chronicles the variety of ailments brought about by the spirits’ wrath, from headaches and aching limbs (often the same limb lost by a loved one in battle) to self-mutilation. In Gustafsson’s view, the Communist suppression of spirit-based religion after the fall of Saigon has intensified anxieties about the well-being of the spirit world. While shrines and mourning are still allowed, spirit mediums were outlawed and driven underground, along with many of the other practices that might have provided some comfort. Despite these restrictions, she finds, victims of these hauntings do as much as possible to try to lay their ghosts to rest.

      Another book,
      Ghosts Of War In Vietnam by Heonik Kwon,

      “The voices of Americans lost, dead, maimed physically or psychologically, fill the bookshelves. For the most part the voices of Vietnamese, living or dead, are unavailable. In his powerfully moving and beautifully written book, ‘The Ghosts of War in Vietnam,’ Heonik Kwon enables those voices to be heard. The ghosts of Vietnam’s wars are not metaphorical but vital presences through which Vietnamese understand their recent history, reflect on all that has happened since and attempt to resolve the contradictions of the present. These are ghost stories that will haunt you. No other book I have read about contemporary Vietnam so thoroughly, painfully, and intelligently illuminates both the country’s past and present. Ghost of Vietnam is an indispensable book.”
      – Marilyn Young, New York University

      “Through a rich, supple and creative analysis of what the author persuasively argues is the omnipresence of ghosts and ghost stories in wartime and postwar Vietnam, Ghosts of War in Vietnam addresses the complexities of war and memory in Vietnam in ways that will undoubtedly have a transformative impact on the study of the American war in Vietnam, the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War and the nature of historical memory in the post Cold War era. It will without question become one of the indispensable works on war and memory in the modern era.”
      – Mark Philip Bradley, Northwestern University

      “Heonik Kwon has written an outstanding book: Part history, part anthropology, part literary study, it opens up the study of the Vietnam War in a way that no other work of scholarship has done. By giving ghosts of many forms the place they deserve in the Vietnamese tragedy, Kwon tells us much that we need to know about the war, its aftermath, and about issues of death, displacement and commemoration in today’s Vietnamese society.”
      – OA Westad, Cold War Studies Centre, LSE

      “In this extraordinary work Heonik Kwon provides a deeply compelling and consistently insightful account of the attempts by ordinary Vietnamese to free the ghosts of war and offer them a place of habitation. It is at once a powerful and highly original intervention in cold war studies and one of the very best accounts of commemoration as moral and creative practice. A marvelous, virtually pitch-perfect exemplification of anthropological sensibility, this is a book that will be widely read and taught.”
      – Michael Lambek, Department of Anthropology, LSE

      “Highly recommended” -Choice

      ‘unique and revealing’. -New York Review of Books

      “Ghosts of War in Vietnam is anthropology at its best. It will without doubt become a classic text of anthropology, and I hope one that is crucial to international relations, religious studies, sociological theory, political science, cold war studies, and conflict, war, and peace studies.” -Alpa Shah, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

      • This reminds me of the great Korean horror flick, R-POINT. Highly recommended, its one of the few “war ghost” movies that’s worth watching, and deals with a lot of ideas about sacred and unholy “ground”, the ghosts of Vietnam (both American and Vietnamese) and the lingering effects of war on the present.

        • That sounds like a movie that I will enjoy. thank you . If you’ve never seen their television series before I recommend The Master’s Sun, and The Moon That Embraces The Sun . A more recent one is Bride Of The Century but isn’t as strong as the other two that I recommended. All three have sleep paralysis, hyperborean enlightenment, shamanism, gnostic christianity and so on. You can watch their television for free using and stream to your tv using a device like roku . Their television is as good as their feature films.

    • Oh, another great book on the issue you’re talking about and probably the most widely read exponent of the idea,

      Dreamtime: Concerning The Boundary Between Wilderness And Civilization by Hans Peter Duerr

      Truth is outside of the self . Understanding begins from reconciliation.

  2. Good call Sharon, but in my experience I’ve been extremely disappointed and disillusioned that there aren’t tomes of forbidden knowledge as Lovecraft so artfully peppered his fiction with. The closest I’ve found is Ligotti, and funnily enough his work mirrors the dissatisfaction I feel when confronted with a world absent of real unholy tomes. Perhaps this Melmoth will remedy my affliction.

    • I’ve seriously met several people in real life who had a psychotic spiritual emergence psychosis following the reading of and experimentation with Simon’s Necronomicon . I also had one although it wasn’t from a reading of Simon’s Necronomicon, regardless it was practically the same thing . I’ve also heard of people summoning demons and shit from the Goetia. I have no idea what that is . Honestly . Anyone who would recommend me forbidden books to dial up demons just let me know I will call a few and enjoy that a lot .

      • I think its appropriate to bring John Dee into this conversation. John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature by Deborah Harkness is a book I’m eager to read, being only familiar with him through the BBC documentary (with music from Coil!). I think its telling that a man of such towering intellect ( he was a navigator, mathematician, and spy) was ultimately toyed with and undone by his “angels”. I’ve experimented with some rituals in the Western magickal tradition and launched myself into meditative states that I wasn’t prepared for, similar to people who take psychedelics with little planning or care. I learned that Im too stupid to be a magickal practitioner, so I just meditate instead.

        • I kind of understand where you’re coming from. Practicing spirit communion isn’t rocket science though and you just need to change your ontological perspective a bit on reality. We not only imagine clouds and rock faces as people, but the world is in communication with us, and us with it. Being in harmony with the world around you comes with an inner harmony but also an unwavering reverence and respect to the outside world. A great book on this paradox is James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found In A Copper Cylinder . It deals with this question with how low you need to abase yourself in order to commune with powers greater than yourself. The comedy and the satire in the story comes from the rational solitary ego mind perspective of the protagonist Adam More who gets faced with this different view of the world and total inversion in understanding cultivation of personal power . The ones with the greatest spiritual wealth in the story are the ones who have given the most away, materially and spiritually, and they get the most reciprocation of mana.

  3. Over the years I have become more and more skeptical of the objective reality of Castaneda’s stories, though I still admire them for their style and the ideas. I just don’t think Carlos experienced all of the things he wrote about, and I’m not entirely convinced Don Juan was real. But as philosophical/metaphysical fiction they hold up, and they were certainly influential in the enormous number of people who were drawn to investigate shamanism.

    Strieber, on the other hand, I am convinced is not lying about his experiences. I have a writer friend who knew him before he wrote Communion, and Streiber would call my friend, waking him up in the middle of the night, to freak about something that had just happened to him. And his constant changing beliefs about the Visitors is refreshing to me because it shows he is not pushing an agenda—rather, he seems to be like many of us who are confused by our anomalous experiences and unwilling to form solid conclusions without proof.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.