Jill Tracy’s Diabolical Streak has been a favorite album of mine for the past decade — see the video above for one of the many reasons why — and in this 2009 interview for Tor.com, the always-mesmerizing Ms. Tracy explains some of the philosophical-aesthetic worldview that informs her lush world of musical darkness:
We all want to believe in magic. It keeps hope alive. Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters. I think that’s why my music resonates with people on such a deep level.
I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. And I’d read about toads and frogs and blood raining from the sky. Or Count Saint Germain, who was recorded to have lived for hundreds of years. He said his secret to immortality was to eat oatmeal and wear velvet encrusted with gemstones. To this day, no one knows exactly who he was, where he came from and if indeed he was immortal.
Unfortunately, these days of internet and technology have murdered “the legend.” That breaks my heart. Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend — these are the things that make us feel most alive. The most wonderful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers. One of my favorite quotes is, “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.” Sadly, the world has gotten to a point where everybody’s demanding an explanation. But after the info, they’re still bored and unfulfilled.
I think it’s my purpose to perpetuate the long-lost magic, allow people to slip into the cracks, to pry up the floorboards and search deeply. Believe. Imagine. It’s so important to hold on to that childlike sense of marvel.
In line with these sentiments, also see Ms. Tracy’s appearance as an interviewee in a recent, and excellent, in-depth article about Ouija boards and other spirit-communication devices, where she offers some perceptive observations about Victorian Spiritualism:
Jill Tracy — a San Francisco singer and composer who, with violinist Paul Mercer, performs a touring improvisational-music show called “The Musical Séance” — says that Victorians were more open about loss of life and honoring the dead than we are now. At The Musical Séance, she and Mercer will spontaneously compose pieces based on sentimental objects the audience brings in — from antlers and dentures to haunted paintings and cremated cats to swords and a lock of hair from a drowned boy — not to call in spirits so much as memorialize the audience’s loved ones.
Tracy says even as a parlor pastime, Victorians had a sweet, romantic side to them. “A séance brought people together,” she says. “It enabled them to face their fears because it was being pitched to them as a form of group amusement, instead of a frightening experience where one sits in their house alone and tries to talk to a spirit. A séance was also sensually charged, the true definition of arousing the senses. Men and women would sit in the dark in close contact, often holding hands or touching, and they would have no idea what was going to happen. For Victorians, it was almost an acceptable moment of abandon.”
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.
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.”
I’m presently teaching a sophomore college course about horror and science fiction in literature and film. (You can view the syllabus online.) Yesterday’s class meeting was devoted to introducing Mary Shelley and Frankenstein by giving background on Mary’s life and describing the epic, shadowy, amazing, uncanny, utterly mythic summer of 1816, when Mary stayed with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Doctor John Polidori at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and both the literary vampire (leading directly to Dracula seven decades later) and the Frankenstein myth were born out of the group’s heady conversations about ghost stories and cutting-edge science that unfolded around the fire.
More specifically, these horror icons were born from the horror-writing contest that Byron suggested they undertake in order to pass their time during that eerie “year without a summer,” which was marked by Armageddon-ish weather, crop failure, famine, and epidemics in Europe, Britain, and America (with effects in Asian countries as well) as “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world” unfolded when Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and blanketed the atmosphere with an obscuring cloud of ash.
I’ve often thought this spontaneous nexus of events — a myth-level natural catastrophe coinciding with the philosophical and literary birth of two iconic/mythic figures in the gothic and horror field — sounds like a fictional tale of its own, something that someone might make up as a dark and fascinating horror story. Maybe that’s why the events surrounding Frankenstein’s birth have long been nearly as famous as the novel itself (a fact helped, of course, by Mary’s account of that summer and the book’s genesis in her introduction to the standard 1831 edition). It has been made into two separate movies — or maybe I’m forgetting that there are more than that — and referenced in partial form many more times, from the introductory segment to 1973’s not-bad television movie Frankenstein: The True Story to the segments involving Mary, Percy, and Co. in the not-bad 1990 film adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound to the charming prologue of director James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. The summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati and environs is like a living novel, a manifestation of fiction in history, replete with obvious, even glaring, symbolism, and planted firmly in the gothic horror genre.
And that’s really all I have to say in this hastily written post. I think I’m still riding on momentum from yesterday’s class session, where I did a brain dump about all of these things, leaving it to the PowerPoint presentation that I had put together ahead of time to keep me on something resembling a coherent path as I talked excitedly about a mega-subject that has kept me entranced with fascination for the past 25 years or so.
Add to that, of course, the fact that some people have interpreted Mary Shelley’s description of the “waking dream” in which she received the inspiration for Frankenstein as an episode of sleep paralysis — a supposition made all the more probable, or at least suggestive and evocative, by the fact that she and her family knew Henry Fuseli, the famous painter of The Nightmare, that master image of both the gothic horror genre and sleep paralysis studies, and by the additional fact that she actually gave a deliberate “quote” of that painting in the mise-en-scène of the moment when Victor Frankenstein bursts into the bridal bedroom to find Elizabeth flung backward, dead, across the bed while the monster leers from the window above. James Whale likewise quoted the same staging in his 1931 cinematic vision/version. The fascination factor, as we might call it, is unbelievably high here.
It was a total accident, by the way, and something I didn’t realize until three days ago, that I began teaching this literature course, with Frankenstein as the first assigned text, right as August 30 marked Mary Shelley’s 216th birthday and was being hailed as “Frankenstein Day” all over the Interwebs.
Here: watch these. They’re good medicine, all (especially the last two).
A couple of months ago I was invited to join the Reviewer Panel at the online New York Journal of Books. NYJB gives their official blessing and permission to reviewers who want to republish their reviews at their own sites, so that’s something you’ll start seeing here at The Teeming Brain in weeks and months to come. Books lined up for review by me include Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History by Richard Smoley, The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper, Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times by John David Ebert, and the forthcoming new edition of Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck.
My first assignment in this new capacity gave me the distinctly not-unpleasant task of reading and evaluating Wiley-Blackwell’s new encyclopedia of the Gothic genre that was published in January. My review of The Encyclopedia of the Gothic is now live at the NYJB site. For Teeming Brain readers, here’s an expanded version of it.
The Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by William Hughes, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. Wiley-Blackwell. Published January 22, 2013. 1152 pages.
Reviewed by Matt Cardin
Increasingly since the 1990s, modern technological societies have been profoundly informed and transformed by a popular culture that is oriented toward the fantastic, often in its darker, Gothic guise. In America, for example, film critic David Denby notes (with extreme disapproval) that fantasy motifs, themes, and storylines are showing up in all kinds of cinematic genres where they were formerly absent or rare, and at such a rapid pace that “In time — a very short time — the fantastic, not the illusion of reality, may become the default mode of cinema.” (See “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” The New Republic, September 14, 2012.) A similar situation exists in the book publishing industry, where apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and horror-oriented themes have seeped through the category boundaries of science fiction and horror to infuse a growing swath of literature at large.
Nor is this fantastic metastasis limited to books and movies. In fact, it’s not even limited to art and entertainment as such. Victoria Nelson — to name just one insightful observer — argues in her books The Secret Life of Puppets and, most recently and pointedly, Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural that the fantastic, especially in the mode of the Gothic (or “Gothick,” as she styles it), forms a kind of American sub-zeitgeist that stands in direct counterpoint to the prevailing secular-materialist culture, and that this has now burst the bounds of entertainment proper and increasingly come to resemble a new kind of sleek, chic, and pointedly supernaturalist spirituality, thus giving us a glimpse of “what a post-Christian religion in America might look like.”
In the midst of such a situation, the publication of Wiley-Blackwell’s The Encyclopedia of the Gothic can only be described as “timely.” Describing itself as “comprehensive and wide-ranging,” and containing more than 200 original essays produced “by leading scholars writing on all aspects of the Gothic,” this two-volume reference work is intended to “provide comprehensive coverage of relevant authors, national traditions, critical developments, and notable texts that continue to define, shape, and inform the genre. . . . From American Gothic and angels to Wilde and witchcraft, The Encyclopedia of the Gothic is the definitive reference guide to all aspects of this strange and wondrous genre.” Read the rest of this entry