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

April 15, 2018 § Leave a 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.

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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.

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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

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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

“We Who Haunt The Dead” – The Mourners of Philip The Bold, Duke of Burgundy

January 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

At the end of the late Middle Ages it wasn’t unusual to see a procession of mourners heading towards the funerals of the great and the good, even lingering about their tombs to offer up prayers to ease the souls of the dead. What is unusual about the mourners at the tombs of Philip the Bold and his son John The Fearless, both Dukes of Burgundy between 1363 and 1419, is that they are still there.
The Mourners

In 1381, with the foresight and eye for posterity common to all medieval nobility, Philip the Bold (Phillipe le Hardi en Francais) assigned his master-sculptor, Jean Marville, to “make [him] an alabaster sepulchre”. Work began on the tomb in 1384, at the Chartreuse de Champmol just outside Dijon in France, and it would still be ongoing at the time of Philip’s death, in 1404. Yet what a tomb it would be.

The iconography of a recumbent effigy with a procession of mourners is not new […], but rather reprises a tradition in use since the mid-thirtieth century, numerous examples of which can be found in the monuments to the French kings in the basilica of Saint-Denis. The innovation here is at the base, the space accorded to the mourner, who are not isolated and in semi-relief in their arcades, but instead seem to slip in and out of the cloister arcades. Each one expresses grief through facial expression, a gesture toward a neighbour, or the eloquence of the draperies.

The Mourners

These mourners (les pleurants en Francais), forty for the tomb of Philip and a further forty for the eventual tomb of John, are exquisite in their melancholy. The figures range in rank from the commanding pomp of the procession-leading bishop to the simple robes of Carthusian monks, a notably austere order, but their alabaster forms, a mere 16” tall at most, almost glow with universal piety; as Sophie Jugie, Director of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, says, they are “at once grief-stricken and serene”. They are almost alive in their intensity of emotion, yet they can never be. It is this liminal nature, this lingering on the edge of life and death, that adds a strange uncanniness to the figures that lingers in the living mind. There is something else in our world that endures in a permanent state of grief, something that maintains a disengagement from the world as much as it cannot yet quite bring itself to leave; something we have come to call ‘ghosts’.

When we think of ghosts we often think, perhaps even without realising it, of the accoutrements of mourning; cowled figures, muffled sobbing, inconsolable sadness, even the damp chill of the grave-side. Ghosts walk the same corridors, linger in the same places, trapped in a perpetual looping fragment of time. Yet this is not the experience of the dead. The dead go naked and silently, they have no sensation of the world whether it be emotional or physical. The dead have reached the end of their journey, and move on to wherever they are headed next.

The Mourners

What we are summoning when we think of ghosts are our own experiences, either direct or indirect, of mourning the deaths of others. We are thinking of how others will mourn ourselves.

“The main work of haunting is done by the living”

Judith Richardson, Possessions

mourners1 (1)This conflict between the serenity of the once-living and the fears of the still-living is contrasted most strongly in the tomb of Philip’s son, John The Fearless (Jean sans Peur en Francais). John lies in effigy alongside his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, atop a tomb designed in a similar style to that of his father. Unlike the monochromatic figures of the mourners, they are rendered in a naturalistic style, as if merely sleeping, and gaze up to Heaven with a placid reverence. They have left a world which, like our own, was bound about by chains of duty and care. In contrast, the mourners that process beneath them, lower in both social status and their physical connection to the earthly world, are contorted by grief; they wring their hands, labour with bent backs. They pursue the departing dead in an endless circle, a procession without start or end, like the souls who “sweep shadow-like around” Odysseus as he descends into Hades or the unbaptised dead who mourn their loss of Heaven in Dante’s Limbo.

Of the first circle that surrounds the abyss.
Here, as mine ear could note, no plaint was heard
Except of sighs, that made the eternal air
Tremble, not caused by tortures, but from grief
Felt by those multitudes, many and vast,
Of men, women, and infants.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno – Canto V

This is the two-fold moral told by the tombs of Champmol, a message that comes from the intensely religious life of the middle ages but which reflects a strangely positive view of death. Firstly, that the end of a life well-lived is not a time of misery for the dying but of closure and of reflection where the ending of a thing validates its beginning. Secondly, fall too deeply into earthly cares, into the cleaving-to of materialism and mourning and wallowing in grief, and you will become as unto a ghost yourself, drained of colour and hope.

It is not the dead that haunt us, but we who haunt the dead.

Dead Reckonings #22

January 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’m very pleased to once again be published in Dead Reckonings, this time the Fall 2017 issue, number 22.

Dead Reckonings #22

I talk about the nature of mystery and horror in some of the works of Sidney H Sime, an English artists most famous for his illustrations of Lord Dunsany’s fantastical work, and also cover Jeffrey Thomas‘s excellent collection of weird and eerie fiction, ‘Haunted Worlds

Death, exile and madness are all ultimate states of non-being that give the shape to our being. They are the black sea that define our islands of light and life. We experience them only at the very extremes of our lives, as we move from the obvious to the occulted, and it is impossible for us to truly imagine what that moment of transition will be like; before the transition we are as we have always been, afterwards we are fundamentally different.

Dead Reckonings is available directly from Hippocampus Press.

A Book, Or So They Say

October 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.

Neither large nor small it goes all but unnoticed next to more important volumes as its cloth cover fades slowly from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. Maybe not fading at all. The ghost of silver embossment lingers on its spine, indecipherable. A commonplace book in a common place of books, with nothing to mark it out beyond a slight smell of damp.

Occasionally, curious fingers will pick the book up and absently ruffle the yellowing pages that fall open at random to reveal their contents; mediocre poetry or tedious inventories of belongings, rambling short stories or blocks of impenetrable legal text, descriptions of rain-streaked foreign shores or the simple musings of lifeless repetition. Each browser sees something different, yet equally banal, and each will sigh with disappointment before replacing the book and moving to the next. The book’s cover fades slightly more from brown to green. Or maybe from green to brown. The faint lettering on the spine is perhaps less clear than it used to be. Perhaps not.10691829_602645936513035_1040051657_n

More rarely, the book is plucked from its resting place by an inquisitive reader and opened eagerly at the first page. They read the publishing details, curiously blurred, and then the typesetting information (“Set in New Lethean, 11pt”). Their eyes settle on the opening lines and from then on their fate is sealed. As they read, they become thinner and the story of their life unwritten becomes yet another fragment of the book. The frustrated novelist, the list-maker, the writer of unheard songs. All of them stretch into lonely silence until they become so thin they disappear, another tale of the everyday added to the pages of the book’s collection. A tutting librarian finds the book days later, dropped on the floor, and dusts it down before replacing it on the shelf. Nobody notices that the spine’s lettering is now perhaps less faint, perhaps a brighter silver.

Of the book itself we know little more, beyond its existence. It is where books are, where books gather, but where that is could be anywhere. All we really know is that hook, the opening words that snare the curious or the unlucky. And those words are these:

“There is a book, or so they say, that sits upon a lonely shelf.”

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