The Painted Skulls of Hallstatt

June 30, 2018 § Leave a comment

HallstatterseeThe Austrian town of Hallstatt is beautiful. Slightly touristy, but still beautiful. It sits on the edge of the Hallstattersee, where pleasure cruisers entertain the holiday-makers who haven’t ridden the funicular up to the salt mines that pock-mark the looming mountains.

As evening falls the tourists leave, their coaches heading onwards to Salzburg or Vienna. A few of them, perhaps, will have walked to the edge of town, to the Chapel of St Michael and the small building that sits beside it with the word ‘beinhaus’ written in stark, black-letter text above the entrance.

I arrive in Hallstatt later than expected so have to rush along the single main street, against the flow of tourists heading back from the closing shops, to get to the church grounds before it is closed to visitors. The church itself is an angular building but I have time to do little more than glance up at its white-washed walls and black slate roof as I crunch along the gravel path to the beinhaus, the ossuary. The door is guarded by a stern-faced, middle-aged man who glares out from above an impressively Teutonic moustache. The clock hasn’t yet struck six so I chance my luck. “Fünf minuten, vielleicht?” I ask him. “Nur zwei,” he replies. It seems unwise to haggle further so I nod and duck into the small, stone building.

I’ve been to ossuaries before, many of them in many parts of the world. They all have their own impact; some stern and cold, simply collections of bones rendered meaningless by quantity, while others, like the Sedlec ossuary near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic, have a humanity to them that is almost comforting. The ossuary of the Chapel of St Michael, small as it may be, is beyond any of this. I gasp as my eyes adjust to the candle-haunted gloom.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

A Visit to the Sime Gallery, Worplesdon

June 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’ve been a fan of Sidney Sime’s art for a long time, since having first seen his fantastical illustrations for Lord Dunsany’s ‘The Gods of Pegāna‘, but it wasn’t until I started research for my essay on three of Sime’s paintings, an article which was eventually published in Dead Reckonings 22, that I realised how hard it was to find any information on him beyond the scant biographical details on his Wikipedia page and the single easily-acquirable book about his life, Simon Heneage and Henry Ford’s ‘Sidney Sime, Master of the Mysterious‘.

What I did find, however, is that a small band of devotees keep Sime’s memory alive at the Sidney Sime Gallery in Worplesdon, Surrey. Worplesdon has a great connection to Sime – he lived there after buying the still-extant Crown Cottage in 1904 and, after his death in 1941, his remains were interred in the graveyard of Worplesdon’s St Mary’s church – so it is a more than fitting place for his memory to linger.

Still, Surrey is a long way from my own home in Edinburgh…

« Read the rest of this entry »

‘Undead, Forever’ – Ravenloft and the Gothic in D&D

April 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

This paper was initially presented at the Gaming the Gothic conference, held at the University of Sheffield on April 13th 2018. The intial CFP is available here.

This is a transcript of the presented paper, edited with some last-minute changes made during the presentation itself and, where appropriate, links to external material.

Ravenloft - Presentation.001

So begins our journey into the Dungeons & Dragons adventure of ‘Ravenloft’ where Strahd von Zarovich, a centuries old vampire-prince, rules his terror-haunted realm without pity or remorse. ‘Ravenloft’ is riddled with deeply gothic imagery from the flying buttresses of the eponymous Castle Ravenloft to the tortured, endless nature of Strahd’s vampirism. Yet, like all gothic fiction, there is more to ‘Ravenloft’ than simple theatrics. There is a deep sense of horror that comes not just from the story but from how the story is told and, crucially, how it is not told.

« Read the rest of this entry »

The Myth Of The Sunken City

April 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

There is something about the myth of a sunken city that seems to call out, siren-like, to our collected subconsciousness. They come in many shapes; the hubris of Atlantis, the horrors R’lyeh and the decadence of Ys. Even Tolkien subsumes the idea into his own mythic cycle of The Silmarillion when he has Beleriand flooded after the War of Wrath. We can see quite clearly the dappled columns, kelp-wrapped and silent, and the shoals of darting fish that move between them. Abyssal canyons are populated with immense spires, outlined dimly by glimmering bioluminescence and haunted by vast, lumbering shapes. Those of us who have lived by the sea will have heard tales of forlorn church bells that ring out from under the night-time sea, pulled into life by the ebbing Spring tide or turbulent storm-waters. Perhaps we have even heard the bells ourselves…

Flood

Woodcut representation of the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607.

What is it that makes this myth so forceful and we so ready to believe it? There are two strands to this answer.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Are You Lena? – Self and individuality in Annihilation

April 4, 2018 § 1 Comment

This isn’t a review of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, mainly because, to a large degree, I didn’t think it was particularly good as a film. The characters felt inconsequential and poorly portrayed, particularly Jennifer Jason Leigh’s unhinged leader Dr Ventress, as opposed to the specifically blank canvases in the original book. It also delved overly-long into needless flashbacks, long after any normal viewer had got the full point of those sojourns into the past, when the book made them part of a fluid and bewildering timeline.

I’m also, despite those two cross-media comparisons, not particularly interested in delineating the differences between book and film, something I think is often required in movie adaptations.

What I do what to talk about, however, are some of the concepts the film itself whispers about behind the scenes of the apparent narrative. Who we are and who we were. How we think of ourselves and others. What happens when those distinctions begin to break down.

Annihilation 1

« Read the rest of this entry »

Laughter in the Void – Chaos Magic for Personal Defence

March 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

In the introduction to Psychonaut, his seminal collection of essays on the practice of chaos magic, Peter Carroll wrote these words:

Whenever history becomes unstable and destinies hang in the balance, then magicians and messiahs appear everywhere. Our own civilisation has moved into an epoch of permanent crisis and upheaval, and we are best by a plague of wizards.

PsychonautThis statement seems apt in today’s socio-political climate but, given that it was written slightly over thirty years ago, the sentiments are actually distressingly prescient.

This short essay will be less a review of Carroll’s twin introductory works of Psychonaut and Liber Null, you can read the book for that, and more of an attempt to explain why there has been no better time to understand the workings of chaos magic by showing how chaos magic, in theory if not in spirit, is already being used against every one of us every second of every day by our world’s power systems.

The First Truth of Chaos – Everything is in flux, flux is in everything.

In Carroll’s work, chaos magic is less about actively transforming the external universe by force but transforming oneself and, through that transformation, achieving a metamorphosis – a sleight of mind – that allows the chaos magician to flow with the currents of reality, accepting them all as useful. The chaos magician should be able to eradicate old habits and adopt new ones freely, without the inertia or distress this often brings, to adapt to any situation that faces them.

Liberating behaviour is that which increases one’s possibilities for future action. Limiting behaviour is that which tends to narrow one’s options.

Lamplighter Lighting Gas Street LightModern power systems, perhaps through a process of sheer animal cunning, exercise this chaotic process on a daily basis. Few of us are surprised by a political u-turn or explanation of how an apparently sincere policy decision was ‘misspoken’, yet if a friend or family member suddenly denied previous actions or statements, ones that can be evidenced to have happened, we begin to doubt their sanity. Where the chaos magician uses this fluidity to slip through the corridors of reality, power systems use it to disorientate and confuse those they wish to dominate. The concepts of ‘gaslighting’ and ‘fake news’, confusing the victim by making them doubt the solidity of their assumptions, are prime examples of chaos magic theory being used as a tool of suppression.

A politician, or any other individual for whom power is the ultimate goal, will always look to increase their possibilities for future action. Even the language of politics – of it being a game, constructed of manoeuvres – makes this explicit; a game where no possibility remains is no longer a game.

The Second Truth of Chaos – The sigil is the eye of power.

To formulate a desire makes it vulnerable to external forces and, perhaps most importantly, the inner enemies lurking in the magician’s own mind. Taking the articulation of that desire and rendering it down to its most meagre parts, either by deconstructing it in its written form or creating an abstracted image from a picture of its outcome, creates a ghost of desire that can drift through the nets of doubt, of fear, of fatigue. The desire becomes insidious, pervasive. By this method the chaos magician performs a near-Buddhist form of ‘unwanting’; the desire is poured into the sigil, empowering it as an avatar and releasing it from the frailties of the magician.

Sigils work because they stimulate the will to work subconsciously, bypassing the mind.

Again, though, the flip side of this technique exists as a cage around us. The Newspeak cant of business language, and the euphemistic military terminology it is derived from, are a combination of chaotic sleight-of-mind and sigilisation. Apparently positive words (surgical, precise, enhanced) are used to described negative events, blithely waving away any contradiction. Equally, corporate logos are distilled and abstracted through a form of sigilisation to imply dynamism, progression, strength, power. The Nike swoosh tells us nothing about what Nike do as a company, yet we would all recognise it and its sense of athletic agility. The McDonald’s logo is no longer simply an M, it is a pair of golden arches leading to somewhere better. Meaning is obfuscated and ultimately forgotten, replaced with a vague, bland hint at what is actually meant.

Hourglass

Animation showing the abstraction, or sigilisation, of an hourglass into a logo form

High-end advertising is the synthesis of this corruption of language and imagery. Few perfume adverts, for example, talk about the essence of what they are selling, the smell of a liquid. They remove meaning from their message so it becomes abstracted, too vague to catch hold of. Sigils become blended and self-referential; Perfume X is desirable because it is worn by Celebrity Y, Celebrity Y is desirable because they wear Perfume X.

The Third Truth of Chaos – Every word of it is a lie.

Chaos magic is not magic. It invokes no external powers, calls to no spirit nor demon. It needs no incense or flaming oils beyond those that theatricality demands. Even the eight-pointed star, hyper-sigil of chaos itself, is merely a logo created by the writer Michael Moorcock sometime in the 1960s.

glossarychaosstars

Chaos magic is simply the will of the magician imposed upon themselves and, in that, it is the most democratic of magics. The chaos magician is not the haughty king but the smirking jester, not part of an elite born to power but one who has found power within themselves by becoming aware of how little what is often thought of as ‘power’ truly matters. Those who cling to political or economic power for its own sake will find themselves lost, chasing their own tails for ever-decreasing rewards, whilst the true chaos magician, standing silently to one side, looks on with a wry smile.

In trying to develop the will, the most fatal pitfall is to confuse will with chauvinism of the ego. Will is not will-power, virility, obstinacy, or hardness. Will is unity of desire.

This gives us a defence against the psychic war being waged by the complex of power systems around us, using corrupted forms of chaos magic; laugh at them, show them up for how absurd they truly are. Laugh at the pomposity of petty egos, laugh at the manufactured needs that capitalism blinds us with, laugh at your own insignificance in a void that rings with laughter.

And then you will be free.

Laughter is the only tenable attitude in a universe which is a joke played upon itself. The trick is to see the joke played out even in the neutral and ghastly events which surround one. Seek the emotion of laughter at what delights and amuses, seek it in whatever is neutral or meaningless, seek it even in what is horrific or revolting.

Laughing_Fool

Laughing Jester, possibly by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen

In the graveyard, only silence

March 1, 2018 § Leave a comment

In the graveyard, only silence
And the shadows of the stones
But beneath the frozen soil
Muttered voices, restless bones.

Graveyard