Interview with Don Webb
Art, Mystery, and Magic
Conducted by Richard Gavin, May 2013
Don Webb is many things: magician, philosopher, teacher, literary critic, writer in a dozen different genres, proud Texan. He is the author of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated tale “The Great White Bed” (2007), the mind-bending mystery novels The Double: An Investigation and Essential Saltes: An Experiment, and the double title The War with the Belatrin: Science Fiction Stories / A Velvet of Vampyres: Tales of Horror. His non-fiction books include Uncle Setnakt’s Guide to the Left Hand Path and The Seven Faces of Darkness.
Don has also been a friend and collaborator for many years. For Echoes from Hades, he graciously agreed to settle in with me for a fireside chat in which he waxed eloquent on art, magic, love, and all things in-between.
I appreciate your taking time out of your staggeringly busy schedule to chat with me, Don. Let’s start with a basic question: What first sparked your interest in writing fiction?
I struggled during my first couple of passes at college. At Texas Tech I took a class in “Writing the Science Fiction Short Story.” It was an A if you wrote the story, or you could write a ten-page research paper. Although I was a massive consumer of fiction — everything from Lovecraft to Pynchon, Ovid to Joyce, Edgar Rice to William S. Burroughs — the idea of writing had never occurred to me. I whipped out a Lovecraftian pastiche set in Palo Duro Canyon (in Texas) over a weekend. Many of the students chose the research route, finding writing too hard. I sent the story off to a new magazine, Spectrum Science Fiction. An acceptance occurred at once, with the letter telling me that in the first issue I would share print with Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin. I quit college immediately and wrote my head off. Months went by and no Spectrum Stories appeared in my mailbox. I called the editor. He did not have phone privileges that day. He was in a private psychiatric home. Among his delusions was that he was the editor of various pulp magazines — SciFi, horror, detective etc. By that time I had picked up the ugly habit of writing.
What writers do you consider your primary influences?
Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, Zulfikar Ghose, P. K. Dick, Ovid.
Describe your typical writing process. Do you have any particular habits, such as writing at set times of the day or giving yourself a minimum word-limit, etc.?
During the school year I try to pound out at least five hundred words a day. During summer a couple of thousand. I write better in the mornings or when everyone is asleep.
One of the remarkable qualities of your work is the way in which you weave so seamlessly from genre to genre. Whether the piece is a space opera, a murder mystery, or a tale of cosmic horror, the Don Webb “voice” is instantly recognizable. Is this something that occurs naturally, regardless of what type of fiction you are writing, or do you find that you have to scope out a particular subgenre until you find that “Webb-like element” that you feel you can work with?
I have three big interests: wonder (the universe is strange and beautiful), humor (the world is a much sillier place than we give it credit for), and a sort of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” love of odd facts.
For as long as I’ve known you, you have always been involved with teaching, particularly in the field of creative writing. What benefits does the teaching process have for you as a writer?
Since I began writing in a classroom environment, I associate writing with teaching/learning. When helping students with their novels and short stories, I am constantly thinking about narrative, about what makes writing interesting, about what a story is. This has no doubt meant that I’ve spent too much time on short stories instead of novels, because I like to try various experiments. I teach frequently for UCLA Extension. Look on their web page for an occasional science fiction writing class.
What role does fear play in your fiction?
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I heard a guy say that once. I think it was in a gas station. Fear brings two very strong things to perception. First, your character will strive to pay attention to everything — a creak in the house when the wind blows, a passage in an obscure text, words overheard at a party. Secondly, fear demands that everything by examined in a new light. Consider how much you start thinking about your car when the “Check Engine” light comes on as you speed down a highway at night. Fear, lust, and love all work this way.
I’ve noticed that love is an important and recurring element in your work. I’m thinking in particular of novels like Essential Saltes and Endless Honeymoon. What is it about love that you find artistically inspiring?
If you love someone three things happen. First, you wish to improve yourself for them. Characters become introspective in a positive way. Second, you strive to see the world as a place you can use to please your lover. Whether it’s buying the lover a rare gift or pointing out an owl in a tree, all things are scanned for the possibility of bringing joy. Thirdly, love motivates. I will risk my life for my wife in a heartbeat. The character in love is willing to do any fool thing the writer conjures up for him or her to do. I also write more when I am in love.
What influence, if any, does your home state of Texas have on your work?
Texans love their eccentrics. If you doubt that, watch the documentary Plutonium Circus, about the plutonium industry, Stanley Marsh 3, the Cadillac Ranch, and more. (If you just want to see my part in it, skip till minute 56). Texas loves story-tellers, and I came from a family where one’s status depended on being able to tell great stories. My mom (the lady standing next to me in the film I just cited) is an excellent storyteller at age 90. One of my biggest brags is that I’m in the Norton Anthology of Texas writing, Lone Star Literature. I was born in Amarillo, the home of barbed wire, the world’s largest helium storage dome, and the Big Texan restaurant, where if you can eat the 72-ounce steak and all the trimmings in one hour, it’s free. To understand my hometown look at this. Texas is like Dr. Who’s TARDIS. It’s even bigger inside our minds than in the objective universe.
On the topic of Texas, your fictional town of Doublesign is one of my personal favourites in contemporary weird tales. Can you describe the process that brought this offbeat town into being?
Doublesign came into being when I heard a little Texas described as “One of them double sign towns” — the “Now Entering” and “Now Leaving” sign are on the same pole. It was modeled after Tyler, Texas, where I used to shoot fireworks professionally. In a small Texas town, everyone’s weirdness is right in your face. Since we are an armed society, there’s a lot of tolerance for weirdness. Various Doublesign businesses, like the Kuntry Kafe, are real Texas businesses given home in my mind. Remember Texas invented Buckminsterfullerene, which is the Texas state molecule, and Deep Fried Butter.
It is hard NOT to write Weird fiction here.
“True mysteries give more energy, more questions every time you find an answer. I truly think that searching after mysteries is the source of the immortalization of the human soul. If I ever write anything that makes someone consider that maybe they don’t know everything about everything, then I have succeeded.”
All your fiction has an air of otherness to it, a sense of the Mysteries. Do you consciously strive to evoke a general sense of wonderment, or are your tales laced with more specific “teachings” in regards to how you view the universe?
John Fowles said it better than me: The great source of human energy is the Mysterious. True mysteries give more energy, more questions every time you find an answer. I truly think that searching after mysteries is the source of the immortalization of the human soul. If I ever write anything that makes someone consider that maybe they don’t know everything about everything, then I have succeeded. As soon as a mystery is explained, it ceases to be a source of energy. If we question deeply enough, there comes a point where answers, if answers could be given, would kill. We may want to dam the river, but we dam the spring at our peril. In fact, since “God” is unknowable, we cannot dam the spring of basic existential mystery. “God” is the energy of all questions and questing, and so the ultimate source of all action and volition. So it might be seen that the mystery of unknowing lies behind (and before) all motion or dynamism.
Let’s move on to the other area for which you are renowned: magic and the occult. What first kindled your interest in the esoteric?
Hmm. Hard to say. As a child I loved Dark Shadows, as a young adult I was attracted to the neo-shamanism of Carlos Castaneda, but most occultists struck me as being more asleep than even the poor fools around them. A “chance” meeting with Dr. Stephen Flowers showed me that sane and intelligent research into the esoteric was possible. Flowers introduced me both to the Temple of Set and to the Greek Magical Papyri. I did fairly well with both. Seven year after joining the Temple of Set, I was their High Priest. I later wrote a book about Set-Typhon in the magical papyri, The Seven Faces of Darkness.
Your non-fiction work has always been entrenched in the Left-Hand Path branch of occultism. This is something of a loaded term for many people, so how would you define the Left-Hand Path as it is explored in your occult books?
The Left Hand Path is the path of Non-Union. We do not seek to be at one with God or the Goddess or the Tao. We seek to exist as immortal separate essences, potent and powerful in the Cosmos. The LHP breaks with the symbol systems that cause the soul to be subservient and seeks to verify the existence and strength of the soul through the art of magic.
A symbol of the Setian Cosmos is the Pythagorean inverse pentagram in a circular field where the points of the pentagram do not touch the circle’s edge. Now the Pythagoreans thought (see, for example, Apollonius of Tyana in On the Sacrifices) that god was the supreme intellect/Nous of the Cosmos. The supreme intellect did not require prayer or sacrifice; what could a mind do with a burnt cow? But by exercising one’s own Mind/Nous/Buddhi, one couple do get to know, and hence be, like god. What better Symbol than the pentagram? The inner symbol shows the radical way thought may change (angular rather than smooth curves) and the phi ratio of the pentagram’s lines show a symmetrical and intelligent self-ordering. The five-foldness of the pentagram reveals a principle beyond the simple three-foldness of time (beginning, maintaining, passing-away) or the four-foldness of space. The pentagram (psyche) is isolated from the circle of nature, and its upstanding points exalt creation and change over the central ruling of stasis.
Silly movies like to show the LHP with the inverse pentagram, but behind the Halloween mask there is a path of spiritual dissent echoing through the millennia.
What do you consider to be the merits of the Left-Hand Path? Conversely, what are its pitfalls?
For some humans the desire to leave the campfire and search out the big, bad dark is their strongest desire. They burn with a black flame that is as intense as another’s wish for gold or sex. The Left-Hand Path gives them a chance to be themselves. But searching a path doesn’t imply success. The Left-Hand Path can lead to arrogance, delusion (“I am God”), or intolerance (“I hate fluffy bunny White Lighters!”). If approached in ignorance, it can lead to non-critical thinking, and even to superstition. Most books on magic tell you that 1) the magic is natural and 2) it is easy to do. It is neither of those things. Magic is the hardest thing to do well. It should be a complement on the rest of your life. Dr. John Dee — spy, set-designer, writer, creator of the term “British Empire” — is a good example, as his magic caps a real life full of real accomplishments. This is very different from some apartment-dwelling sorcerer with his paperbacks, crying out his spells before one o’clock so as not to bother the neighbors. As far as the “unnatural” aspect of magic, Arthur Machen put it rather well in “The White People”:
It appears to me that [sin] is simply an attempt to penetrate into another and higher sphere in a forbidden manner.” You can understand why it is so rare. They are few, indeed, who wish to penetrate into higher spheres, higher or lower, in ways allowed or forbidden. Men, in the mass, are amply content with life as they find it. Therefore there are few saints, and sinners (in the proper sense) are fewer still, and men of genius, who partake sometimes of each character, are rare also. Yes, on the whole , it is, perhaps, harder to be a great sinner than a great saint.
Building upon this, I think it’s safe to say that many of the publications that claim to be Left-Hand Path seem more interested in giving off a whiff of blasphemy and brimstone than in dealing with principles or philosophy in any meaningful way. Given that, what books do you consider worthwhile primers for a novice who feels drawn toward the darker side of occultism?
Well, this is a tad self-serving, but I would recommend my own Uncle Setnakt’s Essential Guide to the Left Hand Path. For readers with an interest in Crowley and the LHP, I would point them to my new (forthcoming) book from Inner Traditions, Overthrowing the Old Gods. Two other good introductions are The Left Hand Path by Tapio Kotkavouri and The Black Ship by Malphas. These books are balanced by rational thought and stress the importance of seeking self-knowledge as the first and wisest step in immortalization of the soul. For readers interested in an historical survey of the Left Hand Path, Dr. Stephen Flowers’ Lords of the Left Hand Path can’t be beat. Flowers covers the LHP from its earliest forms in Greece, Egypt, and India through the ages and ends with an analysis of the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set. If anyone would like to listen to an interview on the topic, I talked about it in conversation with Robert Price on the Point of Inquiry podcast. See “Don Webb: Devil’s Advocate.”
Do you consider fiction — either your own or that of other authors — and magic to be connected? If so, how?
The Gospel of Thomas has some nice things to say on the subject: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Magic is the art of changing the subjective universe so that a proportional change can occur in the objective universe. Any work of fiction that changes you is an act of magic. Some writers are able to bring the notion of the vastness and strangeness of the Cosmos deeply into the psyches of their readers. Having read them, you are changed, and are now open to drawing from the Unseen world. The writer himself need not “believe” any of it. Lovecraft, for example, was a staunch materialist, but he opens cosmic vistas to his readers. William S. Burroughs does a fine job of this as well. So does Thomas Ligotti. Leonara Carrington and C. L. Moore and are two female writers whose hems I am unworthy to touch, so great is their spell. I assembled a group of such writers for a round robin story in Fantasy and Science Fiction a while back: Walt DeBill, W.H. Pugmire, Robert M. Price, Jeffrey Thomas, and of course yourself. I’ve been a fan of your writing for some years.
Thank you. The admiration is mutual. Now, magical operations, by which I mean actions and utterances that take place under ceremonial conditions, are clearly something you’ve found beneficial. Do magical Workings act as a medium for experiences you otherwise might not have had? What would you say are the primary benefits of practicing ceremonial magic?
Ceremonial magic is about the training of the mind, the will, and the heart so that they all move together. Its strength does not lie in learning lists of strange words, drawing eldritch sigils, or burning incense at midnight. Its strength lies in creating a total environment that allows the subjective universe to change. I have performed many magical Workings and have been the author of the Conclave Working for the Temple of Set fourteen times. Ceremonial magic — like writing — is based on finding the right symbols to bring forth what is within you, a mixture of both the Known and Unknown parts of yourself, and then allowing these things to add to and shape the unfolding of the Cosmos.
“Any work of fiction that changes you is an act of magic. Some writers are able to bring the notion of the vastness and strangeness of the Cosmos deeply into the psyches of their readers. Having read them, you are changed, and are now open to drawing from the Unseen world. The writer himself need not ‘believe’ any of it.”
You and I have talked before about art and magic being dual methods of consciousness exploration. How do you define consciousness?
Consciousness is a rare thing in the universe. If you look around at your fellow humans, you will find it rarely. It is a self-reflecting, unseen power that is forced to view the physical world but also allowed to turn in on itself and create innumerable worlds of love, wonder, or terror. Consciousness brings dissatisfaction and even hatred against the galling laws of time and space. But it also brings meaning and beauty to the Cosmos. Consciousness begins the moment it becomes aware of its own responsibility: “I am driving the bus!” And it grows whenever it is sought out. Some actions, such as Art and Magic, bring energy to consciousness by allowing it space to Play. Other actions — boring jobs, mind-deadening TV, most drugs — draw energy away from consciousness. There are forces in the universe that are on the side of consciousness, but they look a little strange to the average Joe. The Trickster gods are always there to turn our consciousness up a notch.
What role do dreams play in your life, both as an author and a magician?
As a writer I have found plots and phrases in dreams. As a magician I am aware that dreams are the psyche’s way of analyzing/researching/modeling what is happening in the world. Most humans never learn to remember their dreams, and so they’re ruled by them on a daily basis. They wake up happy or sad and then live out their lives according to that script. If your readers would like a particular lesson in dream magic, they can do the following.
For four days, as you go about your daily life, ask yourself frequently, “Am I dreaming or is this waking?” Follow this by asking, “How do I know?”
Each night before going to bed, light a red candle with the name “Hypnos” carved into it in English or Greek, and view yourself in the mirror. Drink a large glass of water and say these words: “Hail Hypnos! I call you from the outer edge of infinity. Frolic with me this night. I will remember my Wyrd dreams, learn wisdom, and bless my friends!” Extinguish the candle. If you awaken anytime during the night, think about what you have dreamt. Write it down in the morning as though this is just as serious an activity as getting ready for work. If the dreams do not come during the four days, they will show up in the next week. Then learn to compliment yourself when you have an interesting dream.
If you were to recommend your own work to a new reader, what work of fiction and what work of nonfiction would you suggest they start with?
I would start with the novel Essential Saltes. It’s out of print and cheap. Back Brain Recluse will bring out my mystery novels as e-books soon. I have a Wildside Double out, The War with the Belatrin/A Velvet of Vampyres, that’s half space opera and half vampire fiction. I am trying to sell a large collection of my Lovecraftian fiction, which is pretty cool. Of my nonfiction, I am very happy with Overthrowing the Old Gods, and I enjoy my aforementioned book on the Greek Magical Papyri, The Seven Faces of Darkness.
If you’re interested, you can hear me performing magical work here.
As usual, Don, you have given us much to reflect upon. Thank you for these gifts.