I'm Cat Vincent, your new Daily Grail contributing editor. Some of you may know me from my Slenderman piece in the new volume of Darklore.
Greg kindly invited me to join the team here, and I thought it would be a good idea to start out by talking a little about my perspective on matters Fortean. If there is one tendency I have noticed in my life as a Fortean and occultist, it's that certainty is... problematic, at best - and that the very best Fortean thinkers are those who are least certain of their personal theories.
Sadly, this is the exception in the field, rather than the rule. Gods know there are plenty of folk in various streams of Fortean thought who are utterly certain of their theories, that their model of whatever odd experiences they have had is both accurate and complete. And, amusingly, those among the skeptical 'elite' feel pretty much the same way about their model of the Universe. This is why conversations about what I've tended to generally call Weird Shit between opposing zealots of whatever flavour rarely end well.
My own experience (starting out around age 7 with some scary strangeness, teaching myself magic & meditation & reading the heaviest Forteans I could find before reaching double figures, all as a survival mechanism) tends me to be far less certain about any version of The Truth I am offered. This perspective (some might call it Model Agnosticism after Robert Anton Wilson, others might compare it to Marcello Truzzi's Zeteticism) allows, I think, the possibility of honest doubt, for one's own theories as well as those of others.
Without this Place of Maybe, this position of indeterminacy, absolute certainty can slip in and ruin perfectly good theories. The end result ranges from those endless pop-science articles which declare "Physics Professor Shows Universe Runs On Physics", "Maths Guru: World Is All Math" etc etc, to outright persecution of those whose views are classed as 'lesser' by their adherents.
Perhaps such oppositional tactics are inevitable. Human minds do crave certainty, and our egos rarely let us admit we are wrong (especially if we don't feel like we are... the most common reaction to hard evidence disproving our beliefs). Maybe we will eventually use this tiresome dialectic to find a true middle ground. But for me, I find it better to start in the middle ground in the first place.
The other thing that's influenced my views on the Weird is the immense importance of story, myth and outright fiction to how we deal with such. There's no denying the printed word, the recorded sounds and images of TV and film, carry immense weight in all our minds. Often, such tales are the best tools we have to interpret the strange and unusual. I've talked and written a lot about this over the years - most notably in my Mason Lang Film Club (on treating certain films as having coded information for the mystically inclined), my posts at the Modern Mythology group-blog (such as this piece on classic Star Trek) and my attempts to explain my occult praxis in the Guttershaman series.
All of these - and whatever I write here - should be taken with as much salt as you need. I believe what I say, as far as I can... but I'm not certain what I say is the whole truth.
And my best advice is - don't trust anybody who says they are. Including yourself.
"Which path do you intend to take, Nell?" said the Constable, sounding very interested. "Conformity or rebellion?"
"Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity."
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.
This is quite lovely: over at Boing Boing, Mark Fraunfelder has announced this week will be a celebration of the life and work of Robert Anton Wilson. There's already a number of posts, including this spot-on assessment of RAW's influence by Gareth Branwyn, which I'm sure many Grailers will relate to:
There is so much to Illuminatus!, an almost fractal density, that you have to unhinge your mind (like a serpent would its jaw) to fit it all in... There are few works of art or pieces of media that have altered my nervous system to the extent that Illuminatus! has.
In 1976, I was this awkward, alienated Wiccan teen, a restless seeker. But I was also a science and space nerd. I could never reconcile these two and constantly switched between them, rejecting one for the other, at least for a time. But here was a world where these points of view were not mutually exclusive, a playfully plastic world where open curiosity, creativity, absurdity, and skepticism leavened all explorations, whether religious/mystical/artistic or scientific. It was Robert Anton Wilson who turned me onto the concept of “hilaritas” (what he described as being “profoundly good natured”). These books (and all of RAW's oeuvre) are steeped in that spirit.
...I've gone through many intense changes since that 18 year old kid scammed free reading material, and my belief systems (or “BS” as RAW called them) have oscillated wildly, but most of my takeaways from Wilson have remained. His basic approach of being “open to anything, skeptical of everything” is how I've tried to live my life. This allowed me to finally embrace both parts of myself, the part that wanted to be open to magick and spirit and the part of me that needs extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.
...At one point in Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything, the interviewer asks Bob why he's so into conspiracy theories. He'd spent the better part of his life studying them, writing about them, but he doesn't seem to actually believe any of them. So, why the intense interest? Bob thinks about it for a moment and replies: “It keeps the mind supple.”
Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for pulling an uptight, overthinking teen out of his constrictive reality tunnels and for a lifetime of “keeping the mind supple.”
If you want to keep up with the RAW posts throughout the week, keep checking in at the dedicated page over at Boing Boing.
Speakers at the Fortean Times Uncon know well that there's nothing that titillates a fan of the Fortean more than a choice new morsel of unlikely freakishness, and they seldom disappoint.
Jon Ronson was on excellent form introducing the topic of his latest book 'The Psychopath Test' (Amazon US/UK), exposing insanity at the heart of psychiatry, from the dangers of faking madness too well, to the natural affinity between corporate capitalism and psychopathy, via 24-hour naked 'crotch eyeballing' sessions for psychopaths on acid.
Brian Regal, warming up to his main theme, 'Science and the Sasquatch', a review of the career of physical anthropologist Grover Krantz, mentioned in passing the dog-headed origins of St Christopher and Linnaeus' category for cryptic species called the 'Paradoxa' and treated the audience to a medieval depiction of various monsters in speedos. While Krantz never achieved his goal of proving the existence of the Sasquatch, there's no shame in the trying.
Next up, David Clarke reported on his investigation into a Sheffield woman's death caused by her sighting of a ghostly apparition in an early example of spiritualism in 1855, a year which also featured many Fortean phenomena including Devil's hoof-marks in snow.
When speaking on his chosen topic of talking dogs and canine intellectuals on German TV, Jan Bondeson (Amazon US/UK) drew complaints from viewers about his lack of respect for Hitler! Jan, with his delightfully dry wit, served up various canine personalities including a reincarnation of Pythagoras, a dog taught to say 'How do you do Grandmama' by Alexander Graham Bell and a talking dog named Don, who won over a hostile priest by offering up the word 'Hallelujah'.
Struggling with his technophobia, the CFZ's Richard Freeman gave an update on their latest expedition gathering data from local inhabitants in search of the yeti (stumbling upon stories of giant snakes along the way) and the orang pendek. While it must require extraordinary tenaciousness to maintain the slow but steady progress of cryptozoological research, it's also a challenge to fill an hour's talk with your latest findings. Who knew that false vampire bats taste like rabbit?
Day one's talks concluded with Sarah Angliss building on the apparent theme of the weekend - talking animals and voices of the dead - treating us to a spooky 1890 recording of Florence Nightingale (although Otto von Bismarck singing a cowboy song might have been more fun), the New Jersey accent of Hoover the talking seal, and giving an audience member the chance of vocal immortality via the wax cylinder of an Edison phonograph. For her finale, Sarah treated us to the music of the aether, a performance on Theremin accompanied by a ventriloquist doll/automaton, inspired by John Logie Baird's doll Stooky Bill, who featured in his early televisual experiments.
Day 2 kicked off with Christopher Josiffe's account of a mysterious phenomenon which gripped the Isle of Man in the 1930s - Gef the talking mongoose - who took up residence in a remote farmhouse, but in his own words "knew a hell of a lot", including all the gossip from the bus garage in Peel. Josiffe's impersonations of various choice quotes from the creature were a highlight!
An allegedly cursed (but recently-carved) stone head joined David Clarke and Andy Roberts on stage as they entertained with examples of ancient and more modern rock-based lore, from Tigh na Cailleach, believed to be the oldest known pagan shrine in continual use, home to a stone family who watch over livestock during upland summer grazing, to the Hexham heads of evil repute, eventually discovered to have been cast in concrete as a father's demonstration of his occupation to his daughter.
This was followed by best-selling authors Picknett and Prince. Lynn put a Hermetic spin on the origins of science, explaining that its pioneers (Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Bacon, Kepler, Tycho Brahe) were all inspired by the occult. Clive followed up with the provocative conclusion that modern physics supports the idea of 'intelligent design'. Their book, The Forbidden Universe is available from Amazon US/UK).
In Ted Harrison's history of apocalypse-prediction, he shared just some of the stories behind the apparently 250 predicted apocalypse dates which have already passed, from one found on an Assyrian clay tablet from 2800BC, to Harold Camping's more recent attempt (which thankfully didn't dissuade Ted from preparing for his talk). Those seeking further information on the coming apocalypse might wish to refer to the Rapture Index.
Gail-Nina Anderson gave an amusing account of the mummy in popular culture, charting its appropriation and distortion by horror flick and comic book to the point where it has become a comical (and easily-dodged!) monster figure.
As a finale, we were treated to a screening of comedienne and ventriloquist Nina Conti's film tribute to her irrepressibly eccentric mentor Ken Campbell, who left his vent dolls to Nina in his will. The film follows Nina as she travels to a ventriloquist's convention, and to Vent Haven in the US (a museum-cum-rest home for bereaved vent dolls). Movingly funny and disturbingly odd.
I must try to make it to the evening event next year. Highly entertaining by all accounts!
Previously on TDG:
Wired has a very interesting profile piece on the 'hacktivist' group Anonymous, in which the author uses the Trickster archetype to try and understand them better (with mentions of Robert Anton Wilson and Alan Moore to boot):
Hacker culture, and almost all of computer culture back in the day is shot through with the Discordian edge of 1960/1970s counter-culture and Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus. So from there it’s the yippies, Andy Kaufmann, and the Situationists we need to first comprehend. Or do we head back to early 20th century absurdists of Dada? Or maybe we venture all the way to that olde booke of epic trolling lulze, Tristram Shandy?
Like Alan Moore’s character V who inspired Anonymous to adopt the Guy Fawkes mask as an icon and fashion item, you’re never quite sure if Anonymous is the hero or antihero. The trickster is attracted to change and the need for change, and that’s where Anonymous goes. But they are not your personal army – that’s Rule 44 – yes, there are rules. And when they do something, it never goes quite as planned. The internet has no neat endings.
The trickster as myth proved so compelling that the network made it real. Anonymous, the net’s trickster, emerged like supernatural movie monster out of the misty realm of ideas and into the real world.
Previously on TDG:
Lovers of Forteana and high strangeness take note: the world-famous Fortean Times UnConvention will this year be held on the 12th and 13th of November, at the Camden Centre in London. Among the speakers confirmed thus far are Jon Ronson ("The Psychopath Test"), Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince ("The Forbidden Universe"), David Clarke ("Scared to Death") Richard Freeman ("All Ape-men Great and Small") and Gail Nina-Anderson ("A Popular History of the Mummy").
After the huge success of last year’s event, UnConvention is back in 2011 to bring you a wonderful weekend of high strangeness and full-on fortean fun.
Once again, we’ll be presenting a wide-ranging, two-day programme of talks and events devoted to the odd, the intriguing and the inexplicable. We’ll be bringing you the world’s most exciting speakers and scholars from every realm of forteana, from cryptozoology and conspiracy to parapsychology and ufology – not to mention dog philosophers, cursed stones and a certain talking mongoose called Gef…
We’ll be holding UnCon 2011 in the Camden Centre, a central London location opposite King’s Cross station, ideally situated for transport links and providing a fully licensed bar and café.
Visit the UnCon page for links to the speaker list, ticketing information and more. And follow @ForteanTimes on Twitter for regular updates.
You might also like...
- Perceval's Daily Grail review of last year's UnCon.
Most people who research paranormal phenomena choose a side in a war of competing beliefs and disputed evidence. Hilary chose instead the side of scholarship, backed up by the massive home library that he donated to the Archives for UFO Research in Sweden – all 5.5 tonnes of it. His measured approach focused on social and cultural context and human psychology, as he believed that understanding extraordinary phenomena required understanding the person who experienced them. That is not to say he never drew conclusions. He was scathing about alien abductions, for example, a belief he (wrongly) predicted in the late 1980s would never take hold in Britain because people there were too sensible.
The range of his scholarship through time and across phenomena meant he was able to see connections no one else could. In books such as Intrusions: Society and the Paranormal (1982), Visions, Apparitions, Alien Visitors (1984) and Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians (1987), he drew a direct line from, for example, folktales of fairies and leprechauns to modern-day accounts of extraterrestrial visitors. His later books included Outbreak! (2009), which examined cases of mass hysteria, and Sliders (2010), which covered street-light interference, the belief by some people that they turn off street lights as they pass by them. Failing eyesight prevented him from writing down his next book, which he had ready in his head.
The obituary is written by Wendy Grossman, founder of The Skeptic magazine. Note that John Rimmer has a really nice write-up of his memories of Hilary over at the Magonia blog as well.
Both Cryptomundo and Magonia (latter recently updated with more complete post) are today reporting that Hilary Evans, a pioneer of Fortean studies, has passed away. Writes Loren Coleman at Cryptomundo:
Hilary Evans, who was born in 1929, passed away this morning, July 27, 2011. He was an intellectual British pictorial archivist, author, and researcher into cryptozoological, Fortean, ufological and other undiscovered phenomena.
Evans was born in Shrewsbury, United Kingdom. In 1964 he and his wife Mary Evans founded the Mary Evans Picture Library, an archive of historical illustrations. In 1981 he co-founded the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena.
Evans was an exponent of the Psychosocial Hypothesis of UFOs as culturally shaped visionary experiences.
The fourth instalment of the wonderful Strange Attractor, edited by our good friend Mark Pilkington, is now available for sale. As with previous releases, the topics and authors in Strange Attractor Four are enough to get any Grailer salivating:
From Haiti and Hong Kong to the fourth dimension and beyond: discover the secrets of madness in animals; voodoo soul and dub music; ancient peacock deities; Chinese poisoning cults; the history of spider silk weaving; heathen mugwort magic; sentient lightning; Jesuit conspiracy theories; junkie explorers; Dali’s Atlantis; the resurgence of Pan (in London’s Crouch End); anarchist pirates on Madagascar; an ancient Greek Rip Van Winkle; French anatomical waxworks; Arthur Machen’s forgotten tales and the full text of Alan Moore’s unfinished John Dee opera.
Featuring written and visual contributions from
Richard Barnett, Mark Blacklock, John Cussans, Erik Davis, Paul Devereux, Roger Dobson, Joanna Ebenstein, Stephen Grasso, Gyrus, Ken Hollings, Mike Jay, Phil Legard, David Luke, Eleanor Morgan, Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Michael Neve, Andy Sharp, Robert Wallis, Sean Walsh.
You can pick up a copy of SA4 from Amazon UK or direct from the Strange Attractor website, which also has some sample PDFs showing off the full list of contents and the journal's always-wonderful presentation.
Boing Boing has posted a fascinating feature article by Jeff Kripal (Authors of the Impossible) titled "Psi-Fi: Popular Culture and the Paranormal". It continues Jeff's exploration of the topic, bridging the gap between his current book (which discusses the work of researcher-writers such as Charles Fort and Jacques Vallee) and his upcoming book on "some of the extraordinary ways that the paranormal experiences of artists and authors have helped inspire pulp fiction, science fiction, and superhero comics."
These paranormal patterns were so strong in the 1950s and 60s that sci-fi fans began speaking of Psi-Fi. Think pulp editor Ray Palmer's use of his colorful clairvoyant dreams to write short stories. Think sci-fi master Philip K. Dick's mind-blowing experience of "Valis," that Vast Active Living Intelligence System that zapped him with its bright pink light in the winter of 1974 and led him to believe that his earlier novels were predicting, intuiting, leading up to this. Think legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby absorbed in the ancient astronaut theory and playfully predicting a Spider-Man cult in 2450 in the editorial pages of The Eternals. Or think the famous comic strip writer Alvin Schwartz writing two metaphysical memoirs that draw on Tibetan Buddhism to understand the synchronistic ways that Superman and Batman functioned in his life and work—like Tibetan tulpas, it turns out. With the Wat Rong Kuhn temple, we don't quite have Kirby's Spider-Man cult (but, hey, it's only 2011) or Schwartz's Buddhist Superman and Batman in Tibet, but we do have Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man in a Thai Buddhist temple.
And remember that we posted an article late last year from Jeff, excerpted from his current book: "Jacques Vallee: Author of the Impossible". There is also a documentary in the works for that book, which I'm really looking forward to seeing.
Previously on TDG:
My first experience of the Fortean Times Unconvention was sprung on me this last weekend after Greg offered me a press pass out of the blue. Once domestic leave was negotiated, I couldn't possibly refuse it - the central London venue of the University of Westminster being a mere hour's journey from my home counties base.
With simultaneous talks in two lecture theatres (one a little too big and the other a little too small), one was forced to make difficult choices at times. Thankfully though, having heard veteran researcher and Daily Grail blogger Paul Devereux speak earlier in the year, on the topic of 'Magical Mindscapes' - the investing of spiritual meaning in the landscape - a favourite topic of mine, mind you, and the subject of his latest book Sacred Geography: Deciphering Hidden Codes in the Landscape (Amazon US/UK), he was not too offended when I opted to attend Mark Pilkington's talk instead!
With the word 'Rendlesham' in the titles of no less than three of the weekend's talks, and another talk on the Berwyn Mountain UFO case, Mark, with his recently-published Mirage Men: An Adventure into Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs (Amazon US/UK) , was hard put, in his talk on The Abuses of Enchantment - looking at the use of weapons of mass deception, to avoid the UFO topic in an effort to maintain some balance.
While it's good to see the results of quality research into UFO cases, and it's arguably not the fault of open-minded researchers (like mythbusting 'Rendlesham botherer' Ian Ridpath) if the ETH turns out to be largely unsupported by the evidence in the cases they study, the dominance of the UFO sceptic theme in this conference was somewhat unfortunate. Having said that, the individual presentations on this theme (that I attended) were all excellent.
Beyond the Ufological, Jan Bondeson's talk on the Bosom Serpent and its parasitic relatives, and Jeremy Harte's investigation into the trope of ghostly 'headlessness' were highly entertaining forays into the pre-scientific mind, both facilitated by the comic delivery of a moustachioed eccentric. I'd personally like to have seen more of an emphasis on how the symbolic significance of serpents and heads might lie at the root of these traditions though.
Charles Foster, speaking on the topic of his latest book Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience (Amazon US/UK), gave a survey of attempts to explain away spiritual experience by reference to neurobiological research, before exposing the weakness of such reductionist arguments and concluding that correlations don't imply causes.
Gordon Rutter's talk on A History of Talking to the Dead did what it said on the tin, although largely focusing on the 19th century to the present day.
Feeling a bit under the weather on day 2, Ian Simmons' account of Fantastic (or is that bad taste) Taxidermy left me feeling rather worse for wear. Walter Potter kitten tableaux and Gunther von Hagens' plastinated bodies galore.
My powers of concentration impaired, I paid less attention to the Sunday afternoon offerings, although to be honest, they were of less personal interest to me than many of the other talks. Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham discussed their research into several cases of military and government interference in Hollywood. Authors Mark Chadbourn, Natasha Mostert and Adam Nevill discussed Forteana and Fiction, and Peter Brookesmith, David Clarke, Nick Pope, Ian Ridpath and Paul Devereux looked ahead to Ufology in the 21st Century.
While the Unconvention has not maintained a yearly presence, I look forward to the possibility of next year's event.