In light of yesterday’s awful mosque attacks in New Zealand, I feel led to start with this except from a 2003 PBS interview with Thich Nhat Hanh. After an extensive conversation about Buddhism, Christianity, mindfulness, and other such matters, and their relationship to gritty large-scale matters of war and violence, the interaction ends with this:
Q: What is so tantalizing about talking to you is the wonderful promise of your teachings at the personal level, and the frustration of not seeing how it can change the policies of big institutions, such as government.
A: It is the individual who can effectuate change. When I change, I can help produce change in you. As a journalist, you can help change many people. That’s the way things go. There’s no other way. Because you have the seed of understanding, compassion, and insight in you. What I say can water that seed, and the understanding and compassion are yours and not mine. You see? My compassion, my understanding can help your compassion and understanding to manifest. It’s not something that you can transfer.
Are you burned out on collapse? According to a recent article on “the hidden psychological toll of living through a time of fracture,” you’re not alone. As the writer astutely observes, “When reality itself has turned into something like a grotesque, bizarre dystopia, then just making contact with it is deeply psychologically stressful.”
Douglas Rushkoff has offered a brief and typically insightful reflection on the deep cause and possible cure for our culture of doom and collapse: the Internet is acid, and America is having a bad trip. (Seriously, his thesis is profound.)
Meanwhile, journalist and author Nick Bilton writes in Vanity Fair that “No One Is at the Controls” as “Facebook, Amazon, and Others Are Turning Life into a Horrific Bradbury Novel.” It occurs to me that his thesis — that the Internet now runs itself, that “nobody is behind the curtain” of our digital dystopia — resonates with the horrific discovery of the empty movie theater projection booth in Lamberto Bava’s Demons. The characters storm the booth after the horror movie they’ve been watching comes to life and fills the theater with raging, murderous demons. But their horror is compounded when they discover there’s no projectionist. In other words, nobody is responsible. Nobody is making the nightmare happen. The equipment all just runs on its own. As one of them fearfully observes in a line of dialogue that resonates with overtones of cosmic nihilism, “Oh, God, then that means no one’s ever been here!” (Watch the scene.)
By contrast, this is quite lovely: Composer James Agnelli created music by using the position of birds on electrical wires to represent notes. Then he facilitated the production of this short film about it. Also see the brief explanation of further background at The Daily Grail.
In his recent commencement address to graduates of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Vermont’s Bennington College, poet and author Garth Greenwell communicated some riveting advice and wisdom on living the writer’s life: “To write a story or a poem or an essay is to make a claim about what we find beautiful, about what moves us, to reveal a vision of the world, which is always terrifying; to write seriously is to find ourselves pressed against not just our technical but our moral limits. . . . That intimate communication between writer and reader, that miracle of affective translation across distance and time, is the real life of literature; that’s what matters.” His words on the place of literary awards and sales figures are particularly astute: “The soul one pours into a novel or a collection of poems, the years of effort a book represents — what possible response from the world could be adequate recompense for that?”
This explain a lot: A secret brain trust of scientists and billionaires, unofficially headquartered at Silicon Valley, has embraced belief in UFOs as a new religious mode.
And then there’s this: “The British military is recruiting philosophers, psychologists and theologians to research new methods of psychological warfare and behavioural manipulation, leaked documents show.” Apparently the project comes with a communications campaign to help manage “reputational risks” for participating academic institutions. Quoth one Cambridge scholar interviewed for the linkedGuardian piece, “Now I don’t want to be too academic about this, but it’s very striking that a programme designed to change people’s views and opinions for military purposes would spend some of its money changing people’s views and opinions, so that they wouldn’t object to changing people’s views and opinions. See what they did there?”
An essay at The American Scholar titled “The Sound of Evil” provides an interesting cinematic-cultural-sociological analysis of the avenues by which classical music in movies and television have become synonymous with villainy
A free symposium titled “Detecting Pessimism: Thomas Ligotti and the Weird in an Age of Post-Truth” will be held this June at Manchester Metropolitan University’s 70 Oxford St. The announcement explains that “Ligotti is increasingly seen as one of the key literary horror and weird fiction writers of recent decades whose works present a unique, bleak and controversial portrayal of both human existence and society.” The symposium “will comprise of [sic] two panels with papers delivered by staff and students on Ligotti and the weird mode, and will include a keynote delivered by weird expert Professor Roger Luckhurst. They will explore the works, philosophy and influence of Ligotti within a diverse range of contexts, from philosophical nihilism and pessimism, weird fiction and horror to his impact on film and television.” (Tangential side note: About half the presenting scholars were involved in my Horror Literature through History encyclopedia.) Even if you, like me, will sadly be unable to attend, you can still read this piece containing brief interviews with some of the participants about their thoughts on Ligotti and his work.
While the rest of the US raves breathlessly on about AOC and Wells Fargo or whatever, I much prefer to slow down and savor a delicious interview with Whitley Strieber about his outlandish experiences and the way his career as a major and still-rising horror novelist was derailed when he became America’s most prominent paranormal lightning rod.
December saw the publication of Peter Bebergal’s Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural. Teeming Brain readers will recall that Peter was one of the panelists on the Teeming Brain podcast “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror.” His new book offers “a journey through the attempts artists, scientists, and tinkerers have made to imagine and communicate with the otherworldly using various technologies, from cameras to radiowaves.”
T. E. (Ted) Grau, who produced a handful of fine articles for The Teeming Brain a few years back, is presently on the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Award for his novel I Am the River. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying that “Grau’s poetic prose and stunning evocation of time and place, from the killing fields of Vietnam to the haunted alleyways of Bangkok, form a fever dream of copious bloodshed and many shades of gray.”
Speaking of horror, the crowd-funded documentary In Search of Darkness is in its final stages of production. I only learned about the project recently via a tweet from long-time Teeming Brain friend and fellow religion/horror adept John Morehead. Here’s the official description, followed by the official trailer. The description reads like a feast, while the trailer feels like a time warp to my misspent, VHS-saturated adolescence.
Featuring compelling critical takes and insider tales of the Hollywood filmmaking experience throughout the 1980s, In Search of Darkness will provide fans with a unique perspective on the decade that gave rise to some of the horror genre’s greatest icons, performers, directors and franchises that forever changed the landscape of modern cinema. Tracking major theatrical releases, obscure titles and straight-to-video gems, the incredible array of interviewees that have been assembled for ISOD will weigh in on a multitude of topics: from creative and budgetary challenges creatives faced throughout the decade to the creature suits and practical effects that reinvigorated the makeup effects industry during the era to the eye-popping stunts that made a generation of fans believe in the impossible. In Search of Darkness will also celebrate many of the atmospheric soundtracks released during that time, the resurgence of 3-D filmmaking, the cable TV revolution and the powerful marketing in video store aisles, the socio-political allegories infused throughout many notable films, and so much more.
Finally, a recent piece by Glenn Greenwald deserves to be read by everybody of all political persuasions: “NYT’s Exposé on the Lies About Burning Aid Trucks in Venezuela Shows How U.S. Government and Media Spread Pro-War Propaganda.” It presents an utterly damning account of collusion between the U.S. government and U.S. corporate media to foment Venezuelan regime change through brazen lies, thus perpetuating a long and sordid tradition in America’s international relations.
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.”