Blog Archives

His Strange Confession: Self-help, natural philosophy, and what Napoleon Hill learned from the devil

The good man went into his chapel then to fetch a book and a stole which he put around his neck, and on his return he set about conjuring the Enemy. He had been reading the invocation for some while, when he looked up and saw the Enemy before him in such a hideous guise that the stoutest of hearts would have quailed at the sight of him.

“Thou dost plague me cruelly,” said the Enemy. “Here I am now. What is thy business?”

— from The Quest for the Holy Grail (13th Century – Anonymous)

Anomalous phenomena require grounding in an everyday plot. The transitional matrix of experience, from expected to unknown, from known to unexpected, acts as a conduit between material truth and imaginal construct. From UFOs set against the lull of rural life to small town stories of spirits and cryptids, anomaly outlines itself against a mundane background.

A potent confluence of the real and the imagined is found in some of the best examples of classic ghost stories from the more masterful littérateurs of speculative fiction. Storytellers such as Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, and Rudyard Kipling each mixed their personal experiences, and also stories they heard told as truth while traveling abroad or mingling in society, into select short fiction, thus creating works of fiction that, if they were retold as fact, would cause some to question the sanity of the teller.

Then there are authors Charles Leland, William Seabrook, and John Keel: poetic entrepreneurs playing journalist in the nightside of nature, in whose works the boundary lines are thrown out altogether. For these writers, the separation between autobiography and imaginal exposition is absorbed into a holistic vision of high strangeness that is often as weird and otherworldly as the best of Blackwood while being struck through with zigzag currents and unconventionally mundane angles that open up an entirely different atmosphere. These stories are told with a straight face, a wink, and a great deal of crafting, but all separation between fact and fiction is made ignoble by the refusal of the storyteller to do anything but recollect the story. Much of the skill in such a story lies in the author’s seemingly affectless manner of presenting what he heard and saw, with the author locating himself as a mere transitional device that leaves a core of the event untouched.

Leland, Seabrook, and Keel all began as journalists, pursuing crooked career paths in which their professional training was an enhancing element in their work rather than a prime focus. Their jobs in journalism brought them in contact with a wide variety of people on odd assignments, and their willingness to listen allowed them to assemble stories that would have otherwise slipped into the anima mundi uncollected. In all cases the market played an eager hand in shaping the nature of the story in its final form. Literate ghost stories are carefully crafted pastorals, genteel corruptions of the vulgar imagination, whereas poetic journalists hard at the hunt fall victim to the borderland’s subtle snares, reporting back with will o’ the wisp whispers and hints of possibility.

Read the rest of this entry