An Essay by Bill Ectric on Steve Aylett’s Shamanspace
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
“Of making many books there is no end,
and much study wearies the body.”
– Ecclesiastes 12:12
Ecclesiastes is unique among the books of the Bible. It boasts no giants, no flaming chariots, no Satan, and people all go to one place when they die – into the earth. Just the fact that this book is included in the Bible is a miracle in itself. Ecclesiastes is a mirror image to the rest of the canon because its viewpoint is mortal and earthly as opposed to divine and celestial, and that is why I thought of it while reading Steve Aylett’s short novel Shamanspace, with its symbolism of the “mirror book,” introduced early in the story and reappearing at regular intervals.
In Shamanspace, two rival factions, the Prevail and the Internecine, want to assassinate God. They are angry and indignant about all the suffering. The Prevail believe that if God dies, the universe will continue to exist, separate from the creator. The Internecine believe that upon God’s death, the universe and everyone in it will be no more, and they consider that outcome “a small price to pay” (Aylett 119). Both factions have agents/assassins called “edgemen” who are capable of leaving their bodies and merging into matter, travelling as atom swarms along the planes of surfaces like buildings, roads, and even air. Entering higher dimensions through hidden “angles” in the fabric of the universe, they move through cities unseen, like stealthy noir detectives. Edgemen can also enter other people’s bodies and disguise themselves in “shell bodies” to go undercover in the normal world. People born with the DNA for edgework are detected, selected, and recruited by either the Prevail or Internecine for training.
The origin of the edgemen is explained in an Appendix at the end of Shamanspace. Aylett mixes actual history with his own fabricated events and characters, tracing an authentic-sounding timeline of religion, alchemy, astronomy, physics, secret societies, and intrigue. In a way, it reminds me of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum or Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, but, in classic Aylett style, condensed into a few pages and punctuated by sardonic humor. The Appendix contains just enough truth to seem logical, to give one the impression of discovering a secret history. “Slavers cross-fertilized Yezidism with toxic wicca during the Roman conquests, resulting in angry faces all around” (115), “…see Basil Valentine’s ironically codified text The Triumphal Chariot, in which cypher generates the request ‘Just kill me’ more often than the number of words in the manuscript” (117).
Some readers will be appalled by the idea of “killing God” and may prefer to see Shamanspace as metaphor for the suicidal urge (more on that later) or a commentary on the arrogance of deluded mortals. As always happens when I read Aylett, several thoughts went through my mind almost simultaneously. I thought of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” spiel, and how one of my high school teachers tried to play it down by saying that Nietzsche was only commenting on the growing trend toward atheism. In that regard, she was correct; Nietzsche did not believe God was dead because he did not believe in God. His message was that when people realize they no longer have God as a standard, they either become stronger and take responsibility for themselves, or become nihilistic and open to despair. Of course, you don’t have to lose your faith to be nihilistic. The author of Ecclesiastes moans about “all the days of his meaningless life which he spends as a shadow” (Ecclesiastes 14), but he does seem to rally in the last chapter and ends on an encouraging note. Shamanspace also reminded me of Greek mythology; specifically the story of how giants tried to overthrow Zeus, throwing rocks and flaming trees at him. Zeus turned to Heracles to help him defeat the giants. But let us return to the immediate plot.
The book’s Preface introduces two “edgemen” as they navigate South London, flowing through angular dimensions of “otherspace” on a quest. One of them is Sig, a trainee, young and inexperienced. The other is Melody, a French girl and a well-tuned veteran. Their goal is for Sig to meet Alix, a “living legend” among their kind, for Sig to glean whatever information or advice he can from the damaged hero. Alix had been a brilliant edgeman. “They said Alix could enter the face of a guitar without making a sound” (Aylett 14), but now he was burned out. “(Alix’s) eyes were turns of liquid gold, glistening and unseeing” (16). Eyes like liquid metal is a recurring characteristic of edgemen who have gone off the deep end.
Aylett’s vibrant prose makes the action super-vivid. Sometime I followed the literal plot of the story, but there are impressionistic passages I cannot quite put into words. Some of the impressions I will share in this essay may or may not reflect Aylett’s intended meaning.
Legendary Alix tells young Sig his story, beginning in Chapter One. He recounts how he once entered a bar, disguised in a shell body, “self-brainwashed so that a mind-reading enemy would still be fooled” (Questions). In the bar, he meets a girl, also a disguised assassin, and a doomed relationship begins. He is Internecine; she is Prevail. Spy and detective stories are brimming with men and women from enemy camps getting together for a tangled mix of attraction and espionage. “We went up in a cage elevator somewhere. Her hair hides the phone. After that I lost track of time for a while” (Aylett 22). He wakes up in someone’s apartment. Alix is so deep undercover he has forgotten who he is. He’s been “washing one drug down with another” (21), but a vague memory stirs an instinctive impulse. There is a smudged stamp on his wrist – the kind they stamp on you when you enter a bar – and Aix slits his wrist at that spot.
It is here that we examine the parallel meanings in Aylett’s work. I’ve written before about Aylett’s work having at least three meanings at once. On one level, Alix could be a weary man, tired of living in the fast lane, wanting to end it all. On another level, maybe he is using the knife blade to “wake himself up” or shock himself back to the reality of who he is. Think of the lyrics by Trent Reznor, “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel” (Nine Inch Nails). Perhaps he needed to cut an exit wound to leave the shell body behind. All these things can be true at the same time. It’s like the Interzone concept of William S. Burroughs, as distilled by David Cronenberg in the film Naked Lunch: Bill Lee may be an Inspector on a mission in the Interzone to track down members of the Nova Mob, or he might be a drug addict moving through the streets and alleys of Tangier, Morocco to track down smack. Or both, simultaneously.
Alix gets his bearings and finds the girl asleep in a back room, suspended in a “biomechanical bag, like a cocoon or a closed hammock, which she uses to maintain herself” (Questions). She is an undercover assassin (so is he). He slices open the cocoon and accesses her brain for secrets, any intelligence she may have gathered that would facilitate the mission of locating and assassinating God. In the process, he picks up memories of her childhood, of getting ostracized for being different, able to see things that were invisible to ordinary people: “structures in events…armatures of human need and fantasy anglepoising between the people, linking them in a jagged scaffold” (Aylett 24), her dreams crushed, scooped up by the Prevail as a trainee, and something else: Alix recognized her as a human being. “Something of herself was left, a miniscule mischief which rifled a secret and took it away. Sacred telemetry” (25). The girl dies as her secret thoughts rush into Alix’s brain. It is not clear if this was intentional on his part, and Alix is racked with sobs. He had seen her beauty, identified with her pain, his guilt and sense of loss. It’s interesting that in one sentence, there seems to be a moment of shared thought. We look at the words, “Something of herself was left, a miniscule mischief which rifled a secret (25),” so her mischief included rifling secrets, as if a secret loaded into a chamber ready to fire; or, rifled as in vigorously searched, just as he is rifling secrets from her, and for a brief moment, the middle of that sentence applies to both her and him simultaneously. This is how he obtains the coordinates to the heart of God.
Back at Internecine headquarters, known as “the Keep,” Alix needs some recovery time. Exercising one’s power as an edgeman takes a toll on a person. Physical and emotional. “I was ghostburnt, in mourning and voiding lumps of the cover personality” (29). After a few days, he is sitting in the office of his boss, Lockhart, who is like a father to Alix, for a kind of debriefing. Lockhart tells Alix that Melody is in France, spying on the Prevail headquarters there. They wonder, if the Prevail know the location of God’s heart, why haven’t they made the “hit.” Is it pity? Procrastination? Are they afraid of failure or afraid of what will happen if they succeed? Lockhart wants Alix to visit Quinas, a veteran “has-been” edgeman who is kept in a cell under guard because he is insane. Alix does not relish this suggestion. “I’ve met shamanic burnouts. Some shivering leftover with weird eyes? I haven’t got the patience to hear about some gold-rimmed yesterday” (33). But Alix acquiesces and goes to see Quinas:
I went through the ivied gate to the locked quarters, a guard allowing entry. Quinas was meant to be batshit crazy and acquitted himself well. He sat at the center of his cell like an albino frog, working on some obscure cabbalistic grid, probably a malice puzzle. Proceeding around him was a polychrome exchange, the walls trancing with sickly refractions. His head was sprouted with white death-hairs, and when he turned my way I saw his eyes were liquid mercury, the surfaces flowing like oily water (39).
Alix meeting Quinas can be seen as Alix looking at a mirror image of what he might someday be, just like Sig meeting Alix in the preface of the book.
Quinas suggests that if God is everything, and we are a part of God, then we are God’s suicidal impulse. He tells Alix, “God made us conscious for a reason. It knew that when its cells became self-aware, they’d experience a pitch of pain that’d send them for revenge. We’re nano-assassins” (45).
Quinas gives Alix a book as a going-away gift. It is a book of mirrors called Acqueville’s Flightless Land Without Clouds (46). As Alix is leaving with the book, he stops just outside the door and glances back to see Quinas flickering and fading from sight. Quinas then emerges from the mirror book as a red electric outline and escapes into the city.
Alix track Quinas to Paris, where the Prevail headquarters is located. “This suggested (Quinas) had some business with the Prevail,” says Alix. “I should have known when he referred to the world as God’s ‘moulted material’ – Prevail philosophy” (51). Alix joins Melody in a safe house in the Rue Fromentin. With his edgeman-heightened awareness of connections between essence and matter, he is unnerved by the “left-handed landscapes and cathedrals brittle as candy” (51). The cathedral description is apt – if you look at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice, or the Metz Cathedral in Lorraine, they do have a cake-decoration-confectionary-sugar delicacy. The “left-handed landscape” comment is a little less clear, an example of Aylett’s impressionist style. To me, it brings to mind the Left Bank of Paris and the traditional “otherness” often attributed to France. The Right Bank of the Seine River is where one finds big businesses and professional buildings, an environment closer to the cityscape of Alix’s exploits in London. The Left Bank is traditionally for bohemian artists and writers (to overgeneralize).
Alix asks Melody for directions to the Prevail motherhouse (headquarters) and:
She pointed in the 9th direction. I took a very deliberate half-turning step which tilted an edge in the air, showing me a dense cross-section of several etheric miles. I raised an arm toward it, the funhouse-mirror limb stretching to infinity, and let it draw the rest of me into subspace like an elastic band (52).
At the Prevail motherhouse, an invisible Alix sees Casolaro, head of the Prevail, talking to Quinas, the turncoat, consorting with the enemy. As they talk, a young edgeman, Moon, senses Alix’s presence. Alix retreats as Moon crosses over into the etheric zone in pursuit. A splendid chase ensues.
Passing the mouth of an alley, I folded down to a single element and streamed sideways into the architecture…Moon sifted in also and we were fleshtones flushing through the walls on either side of the alley – branching up into roofs and undoing bundles of air before dipping into masonry again (57).
I won’t describe the entire chase, but it ends when:
(Alix) slammed to a stop inside a car, slipped upward through the roof and apported, jumping down to the tarmac. Moon materialized too fast, merging with a Volvo – the windows were instantly painted red from the inside and shattered as metal warped out (58).
After resting up in Melody’s hotel room, Alix decides to take his mirror book to a nearby antique bookshop. Alix is saying goodbye to his world before carrying out the hit, and his love of books is evident. I never tire of Aylett’s descriptions of books, bric-a-bac, and curiosities.
Here and there were books produced by cabinet-makers, passwords under the blurbs… Spreading the mirror pages to those of the old books, reflections showed the snail trail left by the author’s bile, invisible behind the print. ‘Our secret broken law,’ a law so irretrievably broken it had to be retroactively denied. Medicine is the Slightest Species of Magic, the true title of a treatise on the Napoleonic wars…tasting hidden chapter names behind the visible…(62-63)
Alix reflects on his life, possibly for the last time:
Picking up history like coloured flavors… railway furnaces, chestnut anciency, pistol cloaks, hooded horses in a dark tunnel, a symphony of something through long corridors of wide avenues… a seat by the shore… chairflap beaches of afternoons… children at a distance change, yellowing, momentariness (63-64).
He returns to the hotel, where he and Melody inject tears into their arms to experience hallucinogenic ecstasy. Blissful intimacy. When Melody is asleep, Alix prepares to enter the heart of God for the kill, aided by directions he pilfered from the girl in the cocoon back in the first chapter. But before he can take off, someone strikes him from behind, knocking him unconscious, and he is kidnapped by the Prevail.
He wakes up on a Prevail sub called the Bluetooth, confined in a sarcophagus-like box that blocks his power to flow through matter. The sub brings him back to England. I won’t recount his escape, but suffice it to say, he ends up back at the Internecine headquarters – the Keep. He finds Lockhart, his boss, who seems strangely uncomfortable. Alix talks about the irony that both factions, Prevail and Internecine, want to assassinate the same target, yet they continually delay one another. He has a theory as to why this stalemate exists. “(The Prevail) think we’re out to stage-manage the death of the universe,” he tells Lockhart, “whether it ensues naturally from God’s death or not” (77). He is correct about the Prevail’s concerns, but his theory hasn’t gone far enough. Apparently the Prevail have persuaded the Internecine to see it their way. Alix is shocked to see Casolaro, the Prevail leader, enter the room, soon followed by Quinas, and someone named Dreva, “a young Prevail techy and strongarm” (82). It seems that Lockhart, the Internecine leader, has joined forces with Casolaro and Quinas behind Alix’s back. Quinas no longer seems like a burnout, “looking smart and healthy in a white leather coat, his death-hair slicked back to the skull” (82, 83). Weakened from his recent exertion, Alix is unable to prevent them from fastening him to:
an upright aura-rack at the far end of the chamber. The motherhouse basement was an etheric runway. The old ascension containment cross had been dragged out of storage and stood on the cocoon platform between amplifier housings. The cross was an ancient but effective trip preventer which worked in part by keeping the subject spread and unable to focus inward – like trying to sing low with your head high. An electrostatic discharge closed the etheric airlocks and threw me back against the main spar. It was Saturday morning (82).
Obvious imagery of Jesus on the cross here. It’s possible that the mention of Saturday morning is, if not merely one of Aylett’s non sequiturs, a way of saying Alix was poised halfway between Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified, and Easter Sunday, when he was resurrected.
“You think it’s coincidental,” asks Quinas, “that at precisely the time that the greatest number of people feel indignant at God’s works, the fewest ever people believe in it?” (86)
Alix realizes that his captors aren’t so much worried about the world ending as they are simply “bone scared” (86) of making God angry.
“We’re reduced to stupid intrigues,” chides Alix, “hitting each other around the head in hotel rooms – the First Mystic Renegades would be ashamed” (87).
Melody enters the room, apparently part of the betrayal.
Casolaro approaches Alix with a hypodermic containing a fatal dose of poison.
Melody hands an old book to Quinas.
Quinas opens the book with casual curiosity.
Melody had put the mirror book into an old cover. A scream tore in half as Quinas was drawn eyes-first into the object, a cloud of blood sizzling across the floor and ceiling, drenching the onlookers. Casolaro looked back as Melody whacked down the generator switch, breaking the current to the rack (96).
It is interesting that the etheric containment device is referred to as both a rack and a cross. Ironic that Medieval church states employed the rack to compel heretics to confess.
With the containment device disengaged, Alix quickly launches his etheric essence free from his body and into higher dimensions, hurtling into God’s domain to carry out the hit.
Alix finally approaches the heart of God, within striking distance.
He is horrified:
But when the thing grew near, it precipitated from all directions in a vastness of intricate, nonrepeating evil. A slow spectacle of dark vanes and complex underside…(103)
Several interpretations went through my mind as this passage unfolded, much quicker than it will take to write about them.
The first interpretation is simply that Alix is looking at God, and if that is the case, then the Almighty is god-awful:
a titanic black insect floundered on its back at the center of an infinite nerve net, fiddling a millions legs amid the ferocious stench of vomit and scorching wires (103).
In 1976, psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed the theory of the bicameral mind. He believed that up until a few thousand years ago, when one side of our brain ‘spoke’ to the other side, early humans did not recognize the thoughts as coming from their own mind. After reading Jaynes’ book, Rabbi James Cohn wrote The Minds of the Bible, suggesting that Old Testament accounts of people “hearing the voice of God” are explained by the bicameral mind theory, and that is why we rarely hear of this phenomenon today (except in the case of schizophrenics). In this light, one could infer that the mirror imagery in Shamanspace is symbolic of Alix looking deep into his own monstrous psyche.
Its mouth rimmed with lashes like an eye, biting in space at an end, it was eternally frantic in its convulsions, evils tangling and stretching about its mindless ratcheting (103).
Or, maybe both things are true, that God is our mind but is also a god who exists separate from each individual, in a “wave or particle” construct. Carl Jung coined the term “collective unconscious” as a way of saying all people share universal symbols, or archetypes, in the DNA of our subconscious minds. But it goes further than that. Some researchers have applied Erwin Schrödinger’s unified field theory to the functions of the brain, based on the generally accepted fact that our thoughts generate from a physical process of chemical and electrical synapses. In this way, our minds are truly connected, not just by sharing the same unconscious archetypes, but joined in a quantum grid along with space, time, and mass. This may be what we call God, living inside and outside our brains at the same time.
Shackled by its own influence. Seeping cold corrosion in a night of oceanic tragedy. No cure ever, a constantly breaking heart. And before this thing I felt the blossoming of total exposure. All resolves atomized by horror. One particle of poison in a sea of poison. No guts in a zero. No hero. On the cross, my eyes turned to gold (103).
A mirror image of Christ, perhaps? Christians believe God came to Earth and allowed us to kill him. Alix went chasing God. Both ended on a cross. Both were still alive at the end of the book.
I emailed Steve Aylett, asking, “When Alix finally sees God, is he simply too appalled to kill it? Or too anguished or broken-hearted, with the brokenness feeding back into him?”
Steve’s reply was, “Yes, Alix is overwhelmed by the horror of that vision, and the fact that the god insect seems to be tangled and caught in its own horror. Alix experiences a universe-sized depressive breakdown” (RE: Questions):
And his eyes turned to gold, like the others.
Alix finishes his story in tears and Sig is awestruck, saying, “But you are sort of a hero. You found the heart despite everything, everyone.”
Alix tells Sig:
You don’t get it…the whole thing was stage-managed. The whole deal had been to send me off with passion. My friends. To save me from being a mere dry aeronaut, easily turned. Quinas knew he’d get it in the neck – but he welcomed it as a burnout. He had more mischief in him at the end than a lot of us start out with (107-108).
But Sig doesn’t quite believe it. He is a young gun with stars in his eyes, chomping at the bit for front-line action, to take on God and finish the job.
Melody stands in the doorway and Alix, now blind, senses her presence. He tells her, “I know it’s you brings the flowers” (109). This is a touching scene and makes me lean toward the theory that Shamanspace is a metaphor for a suicide attempt. Waking up in a hospital room.
But, no. I’m with Sig. I want to believe in super-powered edgemen flowing through matter and into other dimensions.
Peter Wild, in his review of Shamanspace on Bookmunch, compares the end of the book to “coming down from a trip” (Wild), and I agree. The book enthralled me, heightened my senses, and although nothing had changed, I felt different when it was over. I think of the old Zen axiom, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”
Aylett told me, “It’s understandable that Shamanspace is hard to understand at times, Bill – it’s my most obscure and tortuous book, all meaning and no jokes. It’s sort of the opposite of The Inflatable Volunteer, which was all jokes and no meaning. It’s informed by total agony and despair” (RE: Questions).
“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”
– John Lennon
Aylett, Steve. Shamanspace. UK: Codex Books, 2001.
Ecclesiastes, or, the Preacher. The Pocket Canon Series. New York: Grove Press/Atlantic, 1999. Print.
Lennon, John. “God.” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Apple, 1970.Vinyl record.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Trans R. J. Hollingdale. UK: Penguin Classics, 1961. Print.
Nine Inch Nails. “Hurt.” The Downward Spiral. Nothing/Interscope Records, 1994. CD.
“RE: Questions about Shamanspace.” Message to Bill Ectric. 10 June 2015. Email.
Wild, Peter. “Books You Should’ve Read By Now.” Bookmunch. 19 June 2016. 20 June 2016.
Welcome to a little soirée that’s long overdue: a celebration of the life and work of Hugh Walpole. Immensely popular in the first half of the twentieth century, Hugh Walpole was a prolific bestselling author who was equally adept at historical fiction, thrillers, the supernatural and macabre, and children’s literature. A protégé of Henry James and appreciated by Joseph Conrad, Virginia Wolf, T. S. Eliot and John Buchan—to name a few, Walpole was a natural storyteller who inspired many young writers of the day.
Great reading over at a blog called Multo! Note: I did not write this – I am reblogging it from Multo…
Earlier this year I got quite interested in the short stories of the Uruguyan author Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), and I started translating and posting some of his stories. One of Quiroga’s literary influences was Edgar Allan Poe, with whom he shares a morbid fascination with death and madness. I’m sure Quiroga’s frequent themes of addiction and illness are also partially influenced by Poe, as well.
Horacio Quiroga, circa 1900. Source: Wikimedia
Quiroga published his breakout collection Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte (Tales of Love, Madness and Death) in 1917. By then, his voice was coming into its own, merging Quiroga’s love for Poe with other literary interests, in particular de Maupassant and Kipling, along with Quiroga’s own life experiences living in the jungle province Misiones, in Argentina. But his earlier work shows Quiroga’s love for Poe much more strongly. Several of the stories in his 1904…
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Great Mysteries of Aviation
By Alexander McKee
Published by Stein and Day 1982
This edition of Bill’s Bookshelf is a little different. It’s a tribute to my father, Billy Keith King. He was a pilot and collected books on aviation. I usually feature books of weird tales in this space and the closest I could find in his collection is Great Mysteries of Aviation by Alexander McKee.
Dad was a pilot during World War II, flying supplies to South America. After the war he became a machinist at the Radford Arsenal, fixing typewriters, calculators, and other office machines. When I was about seven years old, he brought home an old Royal typewriter that his employer was discarding. Soon he was letting me use it, until at last he gave it to me and bought himself another one. Dad kept his pilot’s license as a civilian, occasionally renting a small airplane from the Virginia Tech airport to go flying for an afternoon. He also volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol, training cadets in search and rescue missions.
Great Mysteries of Aviation is written in a matter-of-fact but entertaining, conversational style. The author, Alexander McKee (1918 – 1992), wrote a total of 27 books. He was a historian, journalist, and scuba diver who, in the late 1960s, was instrumental in finding and recovering the Mary Rose, an English Tudor warship of King Henry VIII that sank in 1545 near the Isle of Wight. McKee’s knowledge of aircraft and flight procedure is quite evident.
Naturally, the book includes the disappearance of Amelia Earhart as well as two incidents that became cornerstones of the “Bermuda triangle” legend, while downplaying the paranormal aspects of the latter. Also discussed are airplanes that continued to fly without pilots, including two documented instances of planes landing without pilot or crew, skidding along the ground without lowering their landing gear, but otherwise undamaged.
The ghostliest story in the book is about the apparition of a bomber pilot who crashed near a farmhouse on the Isle of Wight during WW2. On several occasions, beginning around 1975 or 1976, members of the household reported seeing a spectral man wearing a leather flight jacket standing on their lawn. His face was described as “blank.” The sightings were usually preceded by the overhead buzzing engine of an old-fashioned bomber plane from the 1940s, as well as an eerie stillness and chill in the room. Their young daughter had once actually seen the airplane. McKee prefaces this story by two personal accounts of seemingly strange phenomena. One account reminds me of something that happened in my own childhood. McKee says that during WW2, he dreamed of seeing some burned-out houses while walking along Burgoyne Road in Southsea, a seaside resort in Hampshire, England. Two months later, those same houses, and only those, were burned in an air raid. My personal experience was this: When I as a kid, I dreamed I saw bones on the creek bank beside the road. The next day I rode my bicycle to the creek and, sure enough, there was an old burlap sack, stained with dried blood, with some bones spilled halfway out of it! They turned out to be pig bones from the butcher shop in Kroger’s Grocery Store. Someone had probably tossed them at the dumpster behind the store, missed, and maybe a dog had dragged the sack to the creek bank. My father said I must have already seen the bag of bones, earlier in the week, and it registered in my subconscious mind, so I dreamed about it. I didn’t think so. I suspected it was precognition. My father probably read McKee’s account of the burned-out houses in the 1980s, and I didn’t read it until years after that. I wish he and I could have discussed it, just for fun, before he passed away in 1993. McKee also recounts an incident in which he was flying through dense fog and running low on fuel. His only hope was to land at Heston airbase in England, but the fog was so thick he could not get his bearings. Miraculously, he says, “I received a command: ‘Turn now.’ I didn’t exactly hear a voice. I certainly did not have a premonition, or a hunch. On the contrary, I was told, by something or someone outside me, that now was the time to make my turn” (McKee, 176). Needles to say, he made the turn and landed safely at Heston. This account reminds me that another aviator, Charles Lindberg, once said that spirits “accompanied him during flight” to comfort him and keep him awake, although he conceded that they may have been “hallucinations caused by lack of sleep” (Gray 82).
Several of the mysteries in this book involve accidents that investigators have never been able to conclusively explain, such as the death of Joe Kennedy, Jr. and Wilford John Willy in a 1944 explosion. These two lieutenants volunteered for Operation Aphrodite, in which large bomber planes, Boeing B-17s and PB4Y-1 Liberators, were filled with tons of explosives and guided like drones by radio control to crash into enemy targets. The aircraft could not take off safely without pilots, so a crew of two would get the planes into the air, arm the detonators, and then parachute out so the planes could be guided by remote control to their targets. For some reason, the Liberator flown by Lieutenants Willy and Kennedy, Jr. exploded in the air before they parachuted to safety. Historians tell is that Joe Kennedy, Jr. was his father’s choice to groom for a future presidential campaign. After his death, the responsibility fell upon John F. Kennedy, who was elected in 1960, only to be assassinated in 1963.
My name is Billy Keith King, Jr. When I published my first book, I decided to use the pseudonym “Bill Ectric” because I wanted a name that would stand out when searched on the internet. I’ve thought about reverting to my given name, but I’ve published enough material under the pseudonym that changing it now would lose whatever momentum I’ve achieved. As a compromise, I use “Bill Ectric King” on Facebook. Dad wouldn’t mind.
About a year before my father died, my brother Jeff gave him a very special Father’s Day present. I’ll end this article by reprinting a letter about it that my father sent me (click to enlarge):
Gray, Susan M. Charles A. Lindbergh and the American Dilemma: The Conflict of Technology and Human Values. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
Swan River Press has been around for a while, but I just recently discovered them. I ordered a back issue of The Green Book (Issue 6, 2015) because it contains a previously forgotten ghost story by Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The Bram Stoker story is only the beginning. The entire book is chock-full of writings on Irish Gothic, supernatural, and fantastic literature. I highly recommend it!
The writings of Jacques Derrida, and his strategy of deconstruction, have fascinated me for years, even though I’m not sure I completely understand all of it. Derrida’s deconstruction poked holes in a reality that we have all taken for granted. By “we” I mean Western philosophy from Plato on down. The clearest explanation I’ve found is on this site called Derrida the Movie, which says in part:
Plato was saying that there is such a thing as ideal forms. These things are real, regardless of how we express them . . . for example, the idea of a cat is going to remain pure and unchangeable . . . the problem here is that it relies on the logic created by the power of symbolism. In other words, the logic is only as good as your ability to communicate it through the symbols. Derrida destroyed the symbolism, or at the very least called into question.
And elsewhere on the site we read:
Plato pretty much laid the groundwork of how Western people viewed reality, constructed it and, most importantly, expressed it in terms that everybody else within that same culture would understand . . . Derrida enters the scene and says that Plato is essentially just one reading of reality.
Marxists and other social critics, understandably, were happy with what Derrida did because he called everything into question. It’s as if the whole Western philosophical and academic infrastructure was like the Emperor in the familiar tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Now, here is a paradox: Western thought puts a high value on capitalism, but Marxists call capitalism into question. This website is promoting a film about Jacques Derrida, so it is important for them to be as clear and accessible as possible. To sell a film about Derrida, they have become the best teachers on a philosophy that points out flaws in the capitalist system!
This is not to say that you must oppose capitalism to appreciate Derrida. I just thought it was an ironic twist.
I’ll be learning more about Derrida during my Fall semester graduate course in literary criticism at the University of North Florida, starting next week.
Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) by Looking Glass
The song Review by Bill Ectric originally appeared on the website of The King Tut Vintage Album and Cassette Museum of Jacksonville
I’ve been saying for years that my favorite song is Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl), released by the band Looking Glass in 1972. If you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, you heard the character played by Kurt Russell call the song “possibly Earth’s finest composition.” So now, in the spirit of not wanting other people to get all the credit for saying things, I believe it is high time to present my thesis to the King Tut Vintage Album and Cassette Museum of Jacksonville.
Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) is my desert island song. It is almost impossible to pick one favorite song among the countless choices, but in this thesis, I will explain how the lyrics, vocals, beat, and instrumentation, all combine to make Brandy the perfect song for me.
The members of Looking Glass when Brandy was released were the “classic line-up” of Elliot Lurie (guitar, vocals), Jeff Grob (drums), Larry Gonsky (piano, backup vocals), and Pieter Sweval (bass, backup vocals). According to Wikipedia, the recording also featured James Giampa on congas, Chuck Connolly on backup vocals, and horn arrangements by Larry Fallon.
Let us start with the beginning of the song.
I like electric guitar, be it clean or distorted, blues, jazz, psychedelic, or rock & roll. With that in mind, one might assume that my favorite song would explode with flailing lead solos, and if I could choose more than one song, I’m sure one of them would. Brandy has only a few subtle guitar licks, done tastefully, but that is enough to satisfy my requirement. After all, an exhibition of show-off guitar pyrotechnics might get old if listened to constantly. After Cream disbanded, Eric Clapton told Darrin Fox in an interview, “I had gotten so tired of the virtuosity – or pseudo-virtuosity – thing of long, boring guitar solos” (Fox, Darrin, June 2001, Guitar Player magazine, p. 108).There are at least two versions of Brandy available. The one that was released as single 45 RPM record has a little more guitar than the album version. The single is also a little bit faster. Both versions begin with a couple of lilting string bends, but the single version extends the guitar “licks” for a couple more measures into the intro. Lurie repeats the same, or similar, guitar flourishes throughout the song, playing chords the rest of the time. The difference between a lick and a riff is this: A riff is usually a recognizable series of notes. When you hear the intro to Smoke on the Water or Sunshine of Your Love, you know what song it is. A lick is more generic and usually consists of fewer notes. Bending a note on a particular fret of one string and then plucking the same fret of the next string is a lick. Guitarists use many standard licks, and create new ones, without necessarily sounding derivative. The guitar intro in Brandy is a series of licks which, taken together, could almost be considered a recognizable riff. And it’s enough to meet my requirement for electric guitar.
Guitarist Elliott Lauri wrote Brandy and sang the lead vocal on the record. His vocal timbre is perfect for the song. Consider Lurie’s contemporaries. Since Brandy was released in 1972, I will stick mainly singers from that era. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant could really belt it out, but that high wail would get old if that’s all there was to listen to. For that reason, I must rule out any song by Zeppelin, Rush, AC/DC, and the like, even though I like them. There are more technically gifted singers than Elliott Lurie, like Billy Joel or Michael Buble, but Lurie’s voice is perfect for this song. He is not self-consciously crooning, nor is he trying to “belt it out.” He sings it very naturally and comfortably. His voice has an “everyman” quality that would not be out of place in grunge music. Other singers possess the same vocal qualities of Lurie, but only Lurie sang Brandy. We will discuss the other musicians later in this essay.
Love, romance, physical attraction, and longing are classic universal themes in popular music, possibly the oldest themes in storytelling. The lyrics of Brandy tell the story of a woman who falls in love with a man, and although he seems to like her too, he can’t stay. He has to go away. The story unfolds like a good novel. The words evoke images that range from the familiar to the profound. The first two verses:
There’s a port on a western bay
And it serves a hundred ships a day
Lonely sailors pass the time a way
And talk about their homes.
There’s a girl in this harbor town
And she works laying whiskey down
They say ‘Brandy fetch another round’
She serves them whisky and wine.
The sailors say Brandy, you’re a fine girl,
What a good wife you would be,
Yeah your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea.
Jewelry figures prominently in countless love songs. This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, sung by Elvis Pressley and written by Russell Moody and Bert Carroll, Diamonds and Pearls by Prince, and in Brandy we find:
Brandy wears a braided chain
Made of finest silver from the north of Spain,
A locket that bears the name of the man that Brandy loved.
The historic Silver Route in Spain, built by the Romans in ancient times, runs from the inland river port of Seville to the Northern coastal seaport of Gijón. Merchants transported silver, along with many other products, along this trade route. Much later, in the 16th century, Spanish ships brought gold and silver back from the Mexico and Peru, risking pirate attacks along the way, delivered their goods to Seville, where traders then carried much of the precious metal along the Silver Route to Gijón. Tourists can now travel along this road.
The songs then tells us:
He came on a summer’s day bringing gifts from far away
But he made it clear he couldn’t stay
Bluesman Robert Johnson sang, “I got ramblin’ on my mind.”
The Temptations lamented that, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant explained, “I must be travelling on now, ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”
And Brandy’s sailor made it clear he could not stay because
No harbor was his home.
The bridge of the song may just be my favorite part:
Brandy used to watch his eyes when he told his sailor stories,
She could feel the ocean fall and rise
She saw its raging glory…
Those lyrics have a literal meaning about adventure on the high seas, and they also surge with raging hormones. I know both sensations. Now, I am not a seasoned seafarer by any stretch of the imagination, having virtually no nautical skills, but I do have some ocean-related events etched in my mind. When I was in the Navy, I spent two years on the coast of Spain and did two brief stints aboard aircraft carriers. On shore duty, I towed jet aircraft in and out of the hangar. Out on the Mediterranean Sea, on the USS Independence, and later the USS Lexington, my job was to walk beside the jets while someone else towed them. After the pilot shut down the jet’s engine and climbed out of the cockpit, I hooked up a tow-bar to the front of the plane and the tractor driver towed the jet from the flight deck to an elevator on the side of the carrier. I fastened a tie-down chain to the plane, near the landing gear, to keep the plane from rolling, while someone else did the same on the other side of the plane. The fun part was riding the elevator down to the hangar deck when the sea was rough. Waves crested over us and soaked us as we knelt by the tires, gripping the chains to keep from washing overboard. The ocean stretched as far as the eye could see, on both sides and behind me, and I found it exhilarating.
At one point during my time on the carrier, we docked in Athens, Greece and I visited the Parthenon, but most of my time stationed in Rota, Spain was shore duty. When not working, my friends and I travelled around Spain, flew to London, and took a ferry to Tangier, Morocco. Parts of my novel, Tamper, are based on true events. For example, this excerpt from the novel:
We camped out on a beach in Algeciras, Spain. Under the black, star-cluttered fabric of night, we looked out in awe at the mystical, mythical ocean, where the dark silhouette of the Rock of Gibraltar sat covered with its own stars, which were really lights from windows of houses, hotels, offices, or restaurants — distant civilization. A song by WAR called Four Cornered Room zoomed and whooshed and wailed from our battery-powered cassette tape player, blended with the wind and circled our heads with profound transcendence, while Jim passed his pipe around. Our scalps tingled as the ocean-as-biggest-thing-in-the-world swelled outside and inside us, DNA swimming through an electric womb sea.
After two years in Spain, the Navy transferred me to Cecil Field, a Navy base in Jacksonville, FL, where I finished out my four-year enlistment. For some reason, didn’t think much about those times overseas – they seemed like something from a past life. But when I got out of the Navy, I stayed in Jacksonville and went to college on the G.I. Bill in Jacksonville. In a literature class at Kent Campus of FSCJ (formerly FCCJ), we read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. The feeling of awe and exhilaration raged back into my consciousness like a flood. around this time I really listened to the words in Brandy:
Brandy used to watch his eyes when he told his sailor stories,
She could feel the ocean fall and rise
She saw its raging glory
In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses has grown old, but he still longs for adventure. I won’t quote the entire poem, but he says, in part, “I cannot rest from travel . . . always roaming with a hungry heart . . . Much have I seen and known; cities of men, and manners; climates, councils, governments, myself not least . . . I am a part of all that I have met. . . Some work of noble note may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. . . Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. . . There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: There gloom the dark, broad seas, my mariners, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Also, notice that Brandy watched the sailor’s eyes. There are many songs about eyes, looking into someone’s eyes, hungry eyes, beautiful eyes, far-away eyes. The eyes have it.
Another thing I like about this song is that it’s not mean-spirited. Nobody sets out to cheat or hurt anyone. If I could only listen to one song, I wouldn’t want to hear “you’re a cold-hearted snake!” over and over again. The next lines of Brandy are:
But he had always told the truth lord he was an honest man
And Brandy does her best to understand.
Then, we have another great scene. A picture painted with words:
At night when the bars close down
Brandy walks through a silent town
And loves a man who’s not around
She still can hear him say,
She hears him say Brandy you’re a fine girl
What a good wife you would be
But my life my love and my lady is the sea
The musicianship is top-notch all around. The first thing you hear is Larry Gonsky’s sparkling Fender Rhodes electric piano. A little reverb gives the piano an ethereal quality, but not too ethereal – the piano is still solid. The bass and drums really move, propelling the song forward, not at break-neck speed, but certainly at a healthy clip.
On drums, Jeff Grob demonstrates a tasteful quiet/loud dynamic, steady during the verses and dramatic during the choruses. Darren Ronan, of the Ronan School of Music, says, “This is a well-constructed drum part. It moves the song forward by using standard drumming ideas such as a cross-stick rim shot in the verses to make them feel quieter, then switching to the snare drum for the chorus and bridge, which brings the energy up. The drummer did a good job of catching the accents in the song and vocal part by using his hi hat and cymbal crashes. Technically, the drum part is not overly challenging, but as the best drum parts do, it supports the song without calling attention to itself.”
Pieter Sweval’s bass line doesn’t exactly walk – it dances upward for a couple of notes and then back to the root note, just enough to give the music a groovy feel. Michael Hogan, bassist for The Philters and Sidewalk 65, describes the bass technique in Brandy as “solid from start to finish, melodic, and very much supporting the great vocals. Sweval’s bass provides a nice, subtle lift during the verses, when Lurie is singing in the lower ranges. It’s bouncy, pop/jazzy with perhaps some Latin influence typical of the era.” Even though the average listener may not focus on the bass it when the song plays on the radio, it played an essential role in the recording’s success.
Brandy was the number 1 hit single for the week of August 26, 1972. Looking Glass also had a Top 40 hit in 1973 called Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne. Over the next two years, as is often the case, band members came and went. The group changed their name to Fallen Angels, then to Starz. They never had another big hit.
Looking Glass began as a New Jersey band. They wanted to play hard rock, not adult contemporary. As of 2002, according to an article written by Lisa Rose in the Sunday Star-Ledger (New Jersey’s largest local newspaper), Gonsky was the choral director at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township, New Jersey. Grob was a landscape architect in New Providence, New Jersey, but he still performed in clubs as a singer/songwriter. Lurie had written soundtracks for several films, including the I Spy movie starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson and the Disney kids’ show Lizzie McGuire. Bassist Pieter Sweval died of AIDS in 1990.
The article quoted Lurie as saying, “The thing that was limiting the success of the band was this disparate sound. The albums had tracks back to back that didn’t sound like they were the same band, so there wasn’t anything for the audience to latch onto. Is this a pop band or is it a rock band? Is it strings and horns? Is it a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll? Is it lead singer A or lead singer B?”
The answer to Lurie’s question is: all of the above.
Since Maud Newton recently “resurfaced” on Facebook, I thought I would repost this article that originally appeared here at Bill Ectric’s Place on June 7, 2009.
Maud Newton Soars
Narrative Magazine has an excerpt from Maud Newton’s novel and it is top notch! A combination of light-hearted snark and Poe-like dark, which is exactly what most real childhoods consist of.
When I say Poe, I’m thinking of “The Black Cat.” When the protagonist killed the cat, I simultaneously cringed and identified with him. Not that I ever killed a cat, but I know that feeling remorse after doing something in anger. I think most kids do.
That one morbid thought aside, this is primarily a humorous and heartfelt hoot of a tale. I was cracking up over the daughter’s reactions to her mother’s weirdness. Again, just like real life.
The name of the excerpt is When the Flock Changed. Check it out:
My mother was a preacher until the cops shut her down. Well, okay, she kept at it halfheartedly in our living room for a while, but the fire had wiped out not just her warehouse church and the halfway house she ran out of it, but her passion, her commitment, and maybe even, deep down, her belief. All those years of serving the Lord, of taking to the streets to let the homeless and addicted and just plain lonely know what a friend they had in Jesus, and now she had no proper house of worship, no sea of folding chairs or repository of sermons on tape. She was practically a layperson. Worse, her flock knew it and was slipping away.
The church ladies saw the blaze as a sign of God’s disfavor. Mom had created a makeshift dorm in the sanctuary, a commercial space, and one of the guys had fallen asleep with a joint still burning. Maybe she shouldn’t have spent so much time ministering to the riffraff when there were perfectly normal people’s problems to attend to. Our Heavenly Father wouldn’t have let the church burn down if she’d been in tune with Him and His Word. So the flock was saying.