Fortean Melancholia and Paranormal Mourning

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Many thanks to Andrew Wenaus for his review of my novel, Tamper!

Tamper is like the Hardy Boys in that it is a kind of mystery novel in clear/concise language, and it is like (William S.) Burroughs in the sense that there is a presiding desire to break free of some kind of invisible system of control. Yet, the system of control in Ectric’s novel is not the oppressive and determinate force of language (as it is in Burroughs); instead, it is memory, nostalgia, and melancholia. “Tamper” is, in this sense, a coming-of-age novel that is unwilling to ascribe to the rigidity of the coming-of-age narrative. Whit, the central, character does mourn his lost past but continues to revolt against the loss of wonder, imagination, and the possibility that the strangeness of life is more nuanced than we are often enthusiastic to admit.

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Seeing Things! Strindberg and Kittelsen

Left: August Strindberg; Right: Theodor Kittelsen selfportrait

Alchemy, schizophrenia, sinister wizardry, religious fanaticism, and even a knowing wink of humor, The Inferno, by writer August Strindberg (1849-1912), is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. 

There is some disagreement as to how much of The Inferno is based on an actual nervous breakdown suffered by the author and how much Strindberg embellished and exaggerated his madness to make a better story (much like I did in my novel, Tamper). Having just finished reading Inferno, I have to believe that if Strindberg really went temporarily insane in the mid-1890s, he certainly recovered enough to write a delightfully macabre book about the experience.

 The main character of Inferno, presumably Strindberg himself, wanders from place to place in search of peace of mind, experiencing bouts of paranoia, hallucinations, apophenia (imagining profound connections in random coincidences), and pareidolia (seeing faces and other shapes in ordinary objects, like when someone claims to see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast).

A couple of brief passages from from Chapter 5, Purgatory:

The house is old, the rooms are low, the passages dark, and the wooden staircases wind and twist hither and thither as if in a labyrinth. There is an air of mysteriousness about the whole building, which for a long time has attracted me. My room looks out on a cul-de-sac, so that standing in the middle of it, one sees nothing but a moss-grown wall with two small round windows in it.

and later in the same chapter:

In my fireplace I burn coals which, because of their round and regular shape, are called “monks’ heads.” One day when the fire is nearly extinguished I take out a mass of coal of fantastic shape. It resembles a cock’s head with a splendid comb joined to what looks like a human trunk with twisted limbs. It might have been a demon from some mediaeval witches’ sabbath.

The second day I take out again a fine group of two gnomes or drunken dwarfs, who embrace each other while their clothes flutter in the wind. It is a masterpiece of primitive culture.

The third day it is a Madonna and Child in the Byzantine style, of incomparable beauty of outline. After I have drawn copies of all three in black chalk, I place them on my table. A friendly painter visits me; he regards the three statuettes with growing curiosity, and asks who
has ” made ” them. In order to try him, I mention the name of a Norwegian sculptor. ” No,” he savs, ” I should rather be inclined to ascribe them to Kittelsen, the famous illustrator of the Swedish legends.”

Upon reading this, of course, I had to look up Kittelsen. He was quite an artist. I’d seen his work before, a long time ago, and some of his illustrations could almost be used in the part of Tamper that purports to be the excerpts from Olsen Archer’s book on Richard Shaver:

In Labyrinths of the Damned, I have attempted to build on Mr. Shaver’s work and to integrate his theories on underground, cavern-dwelling humanoids with other related phenomena.

The Himalayan Yeti, known to Tibetans as the Demon of Kangchenjunga, seeking refuge deep in glacial ice caves.

First hand accounts of alien abductions and nefarious animal mutilations, in and around the underground Military Base in Dulce, New Mexico.

Evil Scandinavian trolls, hunched and deformed, creeping into rural towns at night to desecrate churches and steal babies. Under dark, moonless skies, they scuttled from one peat-roofed house to another, looking for an open window to a child’s bedroom.

The North American Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, sighted mostly in the Northern U.S. and Canada.

Scottish gnomes, those rumored descendants of the Picts, who, during the Dark Ages, took refuge in caverns to escape marauders, and left behind cave paintings and small quartz pebbles painted with symbols and wavy lines.

The so-called “mole people,” encountered deep in now-abandoned coal mines of West Virginia and in the extensive network of caverns the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia . . .

Just for fun, here’s a mock-up cover for Tamper using an illustration by Kittelsen called The Plague on the Stairs (this is not the actual cover of Tamper): 

Here is the complete text of Strindberg’s The Inferno,

and here is more on Kittelsen.

Raw Head and Bloody Bones!

Photo of Rhys Hughes book taken from Jeff VanderMeer's blog, Ecstatic Days. Images of human anatomy from a late 1950s edition of The Book of Knowledge, published by Grolier.

Talk about one thing leading to another!

When my brother and I were kids, we delighted in the scary stories our dad used to tell, especially the one about a fellow called “Raw Head and Bloody Bones,” apparently a revenant seeking revenge for being skinned alive.

Above: The house where I grew up. Around back is the door to our basement, where my brother and I were fairly certain several sinister creatures dwelled, including Dero mutants left behind by ancient alien astronauts, as well as the grisly Rawhead & Bloody Bones.

My wife and I spent Christmas at my mother’s house in snowy Christiansburg, Virginia (the small town where I grew up, and which the town of “Hansburg” is based on in my novel, Tamper). My brother, Jeff, and his family joined us for dinner at Mom’s house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t long before Jeff and I were imitating Dad’s deep, ominous intonation, “I’m Raw Head and Bloody Bones and I’m coming to get you . . . I’m on the first step . . . I’m on the second step . . .”

 I always associated Raw Head and Bloody Bones with the human anatomy illustrations in The Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that my parents bought in the late fifties. I started out tracing the pictures with thin tracing paper and eventually made my own little comic books. To my mother’s consternation, I drew skeletons, hung with gruesome veins and muscles, chasing terrified victims. This can’t be good, she probably thought.

I don’t know where my father first heard of Raw Head & Bloody Bones, but thanks to Wikipedia, I recently discovered that the legend goes back to 16th Century Great Britain and eventually spread to the United States. It can be found in the 1550 edition of the Oxford Dictionary and in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Cambridge University Press, 1902 edition, pg 117). Wikipedia doesn’t tell us if Locke was for or against using the tale for educational purposes.

In some stories, Raw Head is a pet hog owned by a witch. Someone steals the hog and butchers it. Outraged, the witch brings the hog back to life and sends it to seek revenge on the man who killed it. A version of that story, by S. E. Schlosser, appears on the American Folklore web site. At some point, it went from being a hog to a man, kind of an old-time Freddie Kruger.

Laurell K. Hamilton makes reference to the legend in one of her Anita Blake novels, Bloody Bones.

There is a book by Mary E. Lyons called Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural (Aladdin Fiction, 1995).

Most fascinating of all, to me, is the Rhys Hughes book, Rawhead and Bloody Bones & Elusive Plato (Tanjen Ltd, 1998), because Rhys Hughes writes the kind of refreshingly weird fiction that I am greatly interested in. Jeff VanderMeer describes Rhys Hughes as “a prolific Welsh writer of absurdist fiction who most closely resembles Italo Calvino and John Barth.”

Here, via The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic, is a good interview with Rhys Hughes by Jeff VanderMeer, in which Hughes says a lot of things I agree with.

Tamper in the Real World?

When I see the word “tamper” in the headlines, I’ve got to talk about it! The title of my novel, Tamper, is taken from an expression used by sci-fi writer Richard Shaver  in the 1940s when he claimed that the cavern-dwelling mutant descendants of ancient aliens were “tampering” with his mind.

 Maybe Lee Speigel knows about Richard Shaver, maybe he doesn’t, but he obviously knows about tamper. In an artcle for AOLNews called Former Air Force Officers: UFOs Tampered With Nuclear Missiles, Speigel begins,  “Former U.S. Air Force officers and a former enlisted man are about to break many years of silence about an alarming series of UFO encounters at nuclear weapons sites — incidents officially kept secret for decades.”

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Enter Shavertron

Some of you know I like to lose myself in arcane archives, looking for unexplained mysteries and secret histories. Enter Shavertron, a website created by Richard Toronto, and a major influence on my novel-in-progress, Tamper.

The following is a direct quote from one of Mr. Toronto’s many editorials:

The original Shavertron was a fanzine devoted to the Shaver Mystery and the life and times of Richard Sharpe Shaver and his editor, Ray Palmer. This leaves the playing field wide open since the Shaver Mystery is rife with UFOs,  a race of evil weirdos living inside the earth,   mind control, a high-tech Elder Race pre-dating our history, abductions, conspiracies and, of course, the sci-fi pulp zine scene of the late 1940s.

“The ‘mystery” began in a 1945 issue of AMAZING STORIES magazine with an article titled “A Warning to Future Man.” Editor Ray Palmer and writer Richard Shaver collaborated from there to bring Shaver’s unusual cosmology into the world of sci-fi pulp zine literature.

The Shaver Mystery gasped its last breath when Shaver and Palmer died within two years of each other in the mid-1970s. We stopped publishing Shavertron in 1992 since most Shaver Mystery readers were gone (mostly dead) with few leftovers to take their place.

Writers like Jim Pobst, Brian Tucker, Doug Skinner, Tal, Timothy Greene (Mr. UFO) Beckley , Mary Martin (The Hollow Hassle), Branton, Bill Bliss and Gene Steinberg did what they could to keep the Mystery going.

The scene eventually merged with water cooler chit-chat about UFOs, abductions and government conspiracies, all of which were a big part of the Shaver Mystery. Back in 1947, the Shaver Mystery was a bizarre topic of household conversation (probably at cocktail time). Today it’s obscure sci-fi history…though it is now being rediscovered by a new circle of oddity seekers and outsider art buffs (Here and Here – Bill). 

Notes on My Novel

Tamper strives to balance mainstream storytelling with some of the more modern conventions, sometimes called meta-fiction, without alienating fans of either style. This gives fans of both meta-fiction and mainstream fiction something to talk about. To borrow a phrase from Cory Doctorow, it “brings more people into the tent.”

 In his book, The Modern Weird Tale, S. T. Joshi describes “alternatives to supernaturalism” and cites Thomas Tryon’s 1973 novel Harvest Home, in which rural New England villagers practice pagan fertility rituals. In this grisly tale, as Joshi points out, when a skeletal apparition is revealed to be a disfigured man, it does not diminish the atmosphere of horror.  This is the same dynamic that gave me goose bumps as a child when I read Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the second or third time, even though I knew the morning light would find a shattered pumpkin on the riverbank near Ichabod Crane’s hat.  On a more ambiguous note, Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has generated endless speculation because it leaves the reader to decide if the ghosts were real or imagined, and for that matter, if the ghosts were delusional products of the power of suggestion, does that make them any less supernatural?        

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. To again quote from S. T. Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale, this time referring to Thomas Ligotti,  “One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales.”

Finally, one of the later chapters melts into stream-of-consciousness prose, albeit, more accessible than the dense work of James Joyce and William Burroughs. For people who are curious, but not used to, stream-of-consciousness, this chapter is a comfortable place to explore and still find your way out. It should also please the more serious fans of weird literature.