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Monsters, marvels, lore, and legend: Jill Tracy on the persistence of mystery

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.

More: “I’ll hold your hand while they drag the river: An Interview with Jill Tracy

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.”

More: “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

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Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

Melmoth_the_Wanderer

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.

MORE:
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.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the dark-mythic summer of 1816

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).

 

Teeming Links – July 9, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The presiding reflection for today’s offering of recommended and necessary reading and viewing comes from British novelist and essayist Tim Parks, who elicits an important truth about the silence that so many of us seek, or say we think we seek, amid a culture of clamor:

Arguably, when we have a perception of being tormented by noise, a lot of that noise is actually in our heads — the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue that for much of the time constitutes our consciousness. And it’s a noise in constant interaction with modern methods of so-called communication: the internet, the mobile phone, Google glasses. Our objection to noise in the outer world, very often, is that it makes it harder to focus on the buzz we produce for ourselves in our inner world.

. . . Our desire for silence often has more to do with an inner silence than an outer. Or a combination of the two. Noise provokes our anger, or at least an engagement, and prevents inner silence. But absence of noise exposes us to the loud voice in our heads. This voice is constitutive of what we call self. If we want it to fall silent, aren’t we yearning for the end of self? For death, perhaps. So talk about silence becomes talk about consciousness, the nature of selfhood, and the modern dilemma in general: the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self.

. . . What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art. So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

— Tim Parks, “Inner peace,” Aeon, July 26, 2013

* * *

Taken (The New Yorker)
Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes. Is that all we’re losing?

Big Banks Conspiracy is Destroying America (Paul B. Farrell for Marketwatch)
How market manipulation is now standard policy as all banks have become Goldman wannabes. “Goldman Sachs has become just another second-stringer in the new global Big Banks Conspiracy as capitalism appears about to self-destruct Adam Smith’s ideal and trigger the third major market crash of the 21st century, followed by a collapse of the economy, driving America and the world deep into a new Great Depression. Be prepared.”

“Organic stories” (The New Inquiry)
Thoughts inspired by Facebook’s recent tweak of its News Feed algorithm. “Facebook is like a television that monitors to see how much you are laughing and changes the channel if it decides you aren’t laughing hard enough. It hopes to engrain in users the idea that if your response to something isn’t recordable, it doesn’t exist, because for Facebook, that is true. Your pleasure is its product, what it wants to sell to marketers, so if you don’t evince it, you are a worthless user wasting Facebook’s server space. In the world according to Facebook, emotional interiority doesn’t exist.”

Arthur Machen’s Stories: What Nightmares Are Made Of (The Wall Street Journal)
“Machen’s fiction calls not for debunking but for the willing suspension of disbelief.”

henry-fuseli-the-nightmare-1781Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (Tate)
“Gothic Nightmares explores the work of Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) and William Blake (1757–1827) in the context of the Gothic — the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. Featuring over 120 works by these artists and their contemporaries, the exhibition creates a vivid image of a period of cultural turmoil and daring artistic invention.”

We all have dreaming minds, and we are all capable of being terrified (Tate Etc.)
A conversation between novelists Patrick McGrath and Louise Welsh, held in conjunction with the above-linked Tate exhibit, about horror, gothicism, Fuseli’s “Nightmare,” and the way the dark-dreaming mind has given rise to a genre that has attracted writers, filmmakers, musicians and artists across the centuries.”

‘Angel’ priest visits Missouri accident scene (USA Today)
A pointedly Fortean or Harpurian (think Daimonic Reality) incident that has achieved shocking media prominence in the past couple of days. “Emergency workers and community members in eastern Missouri are not sure what to make of a mystery priest who showed up at a critical accident scene Sunday morning and whose prayer seemed to change life-threatening events for the positive. . . . Even odder, the black-garbed priest does not appear in any of the nearly 70 photos of the scene of the accident in which a 19-year-old girl almost died.”

 

 

Recommended Reading 40

In this installment: A report on the new type of futurism that’s being spearheaded by highly regarded scientists and scholars for the purpose of studying the reality and scope of existential threats to human survival. The triumph of fear as a central motivating reality in contemporary geopolitics. The global plague of feral pigs. Renowned author George Saunders on what the Internet is doing to his brain. How writers pursue their passions for other activities as a means of inflaming and enriching their creative authorial inspiration. Why the real-world “bestiary” of extraordinary life forms on earth rivals or exceeds the wildest imaginings of fantastists. The Gothic as a “sublime contagion” compelling us to explore boundaries and transgression. Read the rest of this entry

Book Review: Wiley-Blackwell’s ‘The Encyclopedia of the Gothic’

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

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