Gazelle Amber Valentine is one half of sludge / doom / death metal two piece Jucifer, formed in Georgia, USA in 1993. For more than seventeen years Gazelle and her bandmate (and husband), drummer Edgar Livengood, have adopted a nomadic lifestyle. The pair live, tour, rehearse, and sometimes even record in their Winnebago, towing the literal wall of amplification Valentine utilises on stage in a trailer behind them. The duo describe this life as an endless tour, and they can easily find themselves playing live shows in twenty or more countries in a single year.
Jucifer's music can be (and usually is) harsh, aggressive, and loud, but its subject matter and lyrical content are not necessarily what people might expect. 2008's L'Autrichienne was a concept album based around the French Revolution accompanied by extensive historical notes, while 2013's За Волгой для нас земли нет ("There is no land beyond The Volga") dealt with the Soviet Union and WWII. Equally though, there is a strong sense of Americana embedded in much of Jucifer's music and lyrics; dark folk sounds and sensibilities; finger-picked banjo and violin strings, and dissonant, melancholic melodies. Nowhere is this side of their work more apparent than in Gazelle's solo album Devil's Tower I, released in 2013.
All of this - the nomadic life, the artistry, the power and intelligence of her writing - made Gazelle Amber Valentine someone I was very keen to approach as a contributor to Spirits of Place. Her essay, entitled "I Have Trod Such Haunted Land", ended up being the first in the book and remains one of my favourites. Even though her internet connection can be intermittent as she and Edgar continue their never ending tour, Gazelle was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about the book and her contribution to it.
John Reppion: You and Edgar have lived a nomadic life for seventeen years now, how much of an influence do you think that lifestyle has on you creatively?
Gazelle Amber Valentine: The main thing I believe our nomadic existence has affected is our capacity to see all places with equal passion and simultaneously, equal dispassion. Delineation between 'home' and 'away' and between 'us' and 'them' becomes forever blurred in context of such a life. In every capital, one sees all the lovely decorations of propaganda and state fantasy, so impressive yet unable to conceal rote greed, violence and inequity. In every dwelling one imagines life and family; death and suffering and redemption. For natural empaths like us, the universality and futility of humans is enhanced almost unbearably. So although we always felt deeply about our art, I think it becomes wiser as we go farther on this path.
Other than that, our way of life has made us even less respectful of conformity and pandering than we were to begin with--- which wasn't very, haha. The immediacy of survival requires enshrinement of integrity, and of the bonds with your life partner. No room for falseness.
JR: Home for you is obviously the van, but are there places you feel anchored, or connected to no matter where you are?
GAV: Yeah, we both feel that certain places live inside of us wherever we are. For me some of these still exist and are physical, others are stories or memories, and still others are dreams which feel like memory.
JR: Have you encountered different cultural attitudes to place when travelling? I assume people are always asking you about the nomadic life and that opens up all kinds of discussions. Is there any particular country or city where you've felt that their sense of place, and relationship with it, was very different to your own?
GAV: I've felt that place affects people's customs and very subtle mannerisms in that people living in large countries (US, Canada, Russia, Australia) share more commonality along those lines than they do with people living in countries having comparatively small land mass. Although one can find xenophobia and competitiveness anywhere, there is a certain subconscious isolationism that's possible when 'foreigners' remain far away. For this reason and many other, perhaps unnameable, nuances which seem attributable to nation size, I've felt for example that Russians are more similar to Americans than are English folks --- despite origins of the US and despite most Russians having likely had more contact with people from the UK.
Beyond that observation, I've found that my personal attitude towards place seems replicated in different ways almost everywhere. Most countries, cities and neighborhoods have some kind of reverence for their history, albeit always threatened by forces of modernization and gentrification. If I were to make a worldwide guess, I'd assume that in every place, indigenous communities are most in touch with the importance of connecting to place and to its past. Colonists in every region only profit by obscuring historical connections (at least ones that predate their own) while indigenous peoples maintain their own families, nations and traditions by constant awareness of such links. Regardless of location and manner or conception of ownership, whenever people care about place it seems based on an idea of belonging. This is universal, and applies even when current inhabitants don't historically belong.
JR: What's your take on the Spirits Of Place core premise about stories being physically embedded in a place or landscape?
GAV: I said something in my piece about the fact that my personality combines skepticism and gullibility in a satisfactory ratio. This plays into my feelings about genus loci. On some (curmudgeonly) level the concept seems unscientific. Conversely, there is science that supports the possibility for kinetic transmittance of thought and its ability to accrue and manifest physically. Namely, that thought is electric and that electricity travels and accumulates.
Spirits of Place is available in digital, paperback, and limited edition, signed hardcover from www.spiritsofplace.com
HBO, 2016ce, 117mins.
Director; Irene Taylor Brodsky. Broadcast 23 January 2017.
(Art by Joe Coleman)
There is a concept in the consideration of supposedly ‘non-fictional’ presentations, a vital one in these times of ‘fake news’, called Gell-Mann Amnesia. The term comes from a comment made by the late science fiction author Michael Crichton, creator of the original Westworld, in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. He describes it thus:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behaviour is amnesia.
This is not a concept I wanted to have to consider in the first full-length documentary about the Slenderman phenomenon.
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s HBO documentary has been heavily publicised, some reviews suggesting that it could become ‘the new obsession’ for true-crime fans of recent explorations of the genre in the podcast Serial, among others. The focus of the documentary is, inevitably, upon the 30 May 2014 knife attack in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where two twelve year old girls named Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier lured a classmate, Peyton ‘Bella’ Lautner, into the nearby park, knifed her 19 times and left her to die, in attempt to gain the attention of Slenderman and become his ‘proxies’ - mind-controlled servants.
Brodsky’s previous documentaries have focussed on parent/child relationships, often in relation to trauma, and personal struggles with harsh circumstances and disaster: she clearly has a rapport with parents in trying times. The film has an unprecedented level of access to the parents of Geyser and Weier (understandably, Lautner’s parents were not involved: the only appearance of ‘Bella’ is a video of her giving a school presentation). The majority of the film is made of court footage, home movies, police video of the assailant’s post-arrest interrogations and lengthy interviews of the parents from as early as two months after the incident, showing their struggle to both support their incarcerated children and attempt to get on with their lives: there are many heart-wrenching scenes of the parents (mostly Geyser’s mother and Weier’s father - a late appearance of Geyser’s father is significant).
It isn’t until about 25 minutes in that the film focusses, after several tantalising hints and pieces of spooky footage, on the origin of Slenderman itself, employing a series of Skype interviews with people associated, if sometimes tangentially, with the phenomena (including a surprisingly good section with Richard Dawkins explaining meme transmission theory and how it relates to the fast spread of Slendy’s influence).
It is here that everything, for me, goes very wrong.
The early origin story is told by Brad Kim, an editor at Know Your Meme. He briefly talks about the original 10 June 2009 Something Awful ‘make a supernatural monster’ photoshop thread where Slenderman was created by Eric Knudsen aka ‘Victor Surge’. But then he goes on to say that Slenderman’s spread to the wider internet came first via the games associated with him - the Slender first-person horror game and the Minecraft Enderman character, and from there to YouTube videos and blogs. This is, to be blunt, completely inaccurate.
The first Slenderman mythos YouTube video, Episode One of Marble Hornets, aired on 20 June 2009, only ten days after the original Surge post on Something Awful. Minecraft was not published until November of 2011 and the Slender game did not appear until June of 2012. (My own interest in the phenomenon occurred during its first year of life, directly as a result of hearing about Marble Hornets.)
At no point in the filming and editing process was this fundamental error caught and corrected. Its presence implies the film-makers simply did not do their homework. The fact that Dr. Shira Chess, an acknowledged expert on the phenomenon and author of a fine book on the subject, is credited as ‘Research Consultant’ makes this all the more puzzling.
The time devoted to the actual Slenderman phenomenon itself is mostly video clips, with the occasional piece of commentary (the best of which comes from digital folklorist Trevor J. Blank). Vital and relevant parts of the mythos’ development are simply not mentioned - for example, the tendency for many blogs and video series to be told in a factual-seeming form from the point of view of Slenderman proxies themselves (and the resulting, highly connected set of linked blogs grouped together under the heading of Core Theory): something you would think was worthy of note when the core of the case is that the assailants believed Slenderman was real. The film actually devotes less time to the known origins of Slenderman than it does to a retelling of the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
And, shockingly, the word Tulpa does not appear once.
The lack of any discussion of tulpas - the concept that Slenderman is a ‘thought-form’ created by the belief of his enthusiasts, which has been core to the mythos since the very same day Marble Hornets first aired - is especially interesting, considering the focus of the latter half of the film; in fact, it may have been deliberately left out.
A great deal of time is devoted in the latter half of the film to Morgan Geyser’s court-supervised schizophrenia diagnosis, including a moving Act 4 revelation that her father also had schizophrenia. By focussing on this aspect and avoiding any mention of tulpas (even merely as an influential-if-fictional aspect of the mythos), the emphasis on Geyser’s illness - she reported being pinched by ghosts’ and talking to an entity she called The Man from as early as 3 years old, as well as her belief that she communicated with other fictional entities, such as Severus Snape - makes a clear statement: this was all just a schizophrenic kid getting another child in a folie à deux, leading to tragedy. Those damn kids and their internets.
Nothing weird to see here. Move along.
(It must also be noted that there is far less discussion of Anissa Weier’s mental health: especially as Geyser was transferred to a hospital facility while Weier, who, though she was first to discover Slenderman online did not perform the actual stabbing, is still in juvenile detention.)
The film itself is strikingly beautiful: the combination of Benoit Charets’s score and the cinematography of Nick Midwig providing a haunting, but not too spooky-cliché, atmosphere.
If anything, I would say the film is too beautiful for its own good: there is probably a tighter and more compelling 90 minute version of the film to be had simply from losing 90% of the drone aerial footage of the Waukesha area. And even then, knowing that key elements of the story are simply incorrect, the overall film in any form must be taken with a large pinch of salt.
(It should also be noted that the many clips from YouTube videos and other artworks were used in the film without credit or payment. A Reddit discussion started by one of the creators includes the form reply HBO sent them regarding ‘Fair Use’. The various interviewees are credited; The Pied Piper animated footage is credited. The actual creators of the Slenderman mythos, from Knudsen onwards, are not. Whatever the legal position, choosing not to thank the creators who make the mythos so interesting and powerful is, at least, unkind.)
Style over substance; alternating shallowness in some areas with intimate depth in others; dealing with a story full of supernatural overtones by reducing it to a tale of tragic mental illness and online enthusiasm - Beware The Slenderman is, accidentally, a near-perfect summation of our modern relationship with fact and truth.
The essay below is taken from the new anthology Spirits of Place, which features the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Iain Sinclair and many others taking us on a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, or even consulted with, 'spirits of place' - " the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse."
More information, and links for ordering Kindle, paperback and hardcover editions, can be found at the Spirits of Place website.
The Palace Built Over a Hellmouth
Only a king or a queen has the power to move the capital of their kingdom to their preferred location. For King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), this place was at the very centre of the Iberian Peninsula, not far from the city of Madrid, in an area called El Escorial on the southern slopes of Mount Abantos. Here he vowed to build his life’s plan: a royal residence that would also be a pantheon, a monastery, a library, a museum and a centre of studies. To bring it to life, he hired a group of architects, experienced masons and theologists, who evaluated the terrain positively but, given the monarch’s interest in esotericism and alchemy, probably warned him of an ancient legend: that the Devil himself had lived in a cave at the foot of the mountain, after he was expelled from Heaven and before he opened up seven doors to enter his new abode in the Underworld. The location of one of these doors was El Escorial.
The locals whispered stories of monsters, visions and curses, of frequent electrical storms with lightning constantly hitting the area. Nevertheless, on the 30th of November 1561, the king’s experts travelled to El Escorial to make a final decision. Their official chronicler, Father Sigüenza, describes how the group was stricken by a gale that “didn’t allow them to reach their destination”, which the friar interpreted as the Devil trying to dissuade them from erecting a religious complex over what was rumoured to be a Hellmouth. But the king dismissed the ominous signs in a letter to his men, noting that there had also been a tempest in Madrid. And so the works started a year later, after the court was moved to Madrid, and lasted for over two decades. The complex remains the best-known symbol of Spanish royalty, with its rows of kings and queens resting in the Pantheon. But, in spite of Philip II’s Catholic fervour, it seems as though the chthonic currents managed to seep through the soil and leak into the rich marble and gold, into the silver crosses, statues of saints and reliquaries, playing with the senses of the palace’s inhabitants, driving them to madness and perdition.
To me, the centre of the Peninsula has always felt suffocating. I grew up on the south coast, in a luminous, heavily-built Mediterranean city where my dad was also born. My mum came from a small village in the north, all high mountains, coalmines and fog. They met in Madrid, almost exactly halfway, when Franco was still alive, and moved to the south after they got married. In the summers, my dad would drive us to the north in his rumbling Renault 14. It was a long journey, and it helped to think of it in two halves: before and after Madrid. In those days there was no seat belt to be worn, so I wriggled in the back seat, kneeling and twisting to catch the best sights on the way. One of the most intriguing was an enormous cross on the horizon, silhouetted and looming over its surroundings: the so-called “Valley of the Fallen”. Once I said I’d like to see it up close, and my dad frowned: “That’s where Franco and his pals are buried. We’re not going there.” I didn’t know much about the Civil War then, but I knew enough to find the sight disturbing, like a monstrous shadow of the past creeping over us, triumphant. Perhaps on the same trip, or on a different one, I was also told about the most powerful king Spain ever had, who built a huge palace-monastery, not far from that cross, many centuries before the bones of the Fallen had been buried in that soil.
I never liked that central part of the journey – the flat, monotonous roads, the merciless heat, the strange absence of the sea on the horizon, still too far from the fresh green meadows of my mum’s homeland. Travelling to the centre of the Peninsula in the summer was like slowly descending into a pit of burning coal, a journey to the centre of the Earth, from which one could only exit either side.
For many centuries, the Spanish court was itinerant and the capital city changed depending on where the monarch was established. Before Philip II’s decision, the honour fell on Toledo, a centre of tolerance and cooperation between Christians, Jews and Muslims until the establishment of the Inquisition brought turmoil. By the 16th century, the city was the focus of civil revolts against Philip’s father, King Charles I, but it also had one of the most important archdioceses in the Catholic world, second only to Rome. In contrast, Madrid was only a relatively important city, with no ports nearby and no navigable rivers. There was nothing there that could overshadow the king: barely any local aristocrats; no significant religious power. Perhaps he saw this relative isolation as an advantage, as a clean start in the exact centre of the Peninsula, an area with good terrain and benevolent climate.
Philip lived in the shadow of his father, Charles I, powerful warlord, cosmopolitan adventurer, silver-tongued speaker. It must have been a heavy burden to bear, especially because their talents were so different. Philip, the sole male heir, wanted to build a suitable place to bury ... Read More »
Written by John Higgs
Wednesday just gone (18th of January) was the birthday of the late great American agnostic Robert Anton Wilson.
His books (and in particular, the Illuminatus! trilogy he co-wrote with Robert Shea) depict a bewildering world of conspiracies, half-truths, lies, fake news, incompetence and our inability to find anything resembling objective truth. Or to put it another way, it describes the world as it is now, ten years after his death.
Wilson was a leading figure in the counterculture project known as Operation Mindfuck. This was a form of western Zen. Seeding our culture with confusion, contradiction and mischief, it was thought, would jolt people out of their illusions. Operation Mindfuck kicked off in the 1970s and has never really stopped.
Operation Mindfuck, like the Discordian religion which embraced it, was typically politically neutral, or at least clear that the ideologies of both the left and right were equally valid targets. However, the ideas behind Operation Mindfuck have since become a tool for those with a lust for political power, most blatantly Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov, as explained in this short film by Adam Curtis.
It’s stating the obvious, but the vast majority of us are not enjoying this ‘post-truth’ world. It is not so much that the fake news is disturbing. The real gut-kick is when people confidently proclaim that we should return to the pre-post-truth world, and then think about how to do that, and slowly realise that not only is it impossible but that there was no pre-post-truth world in the first place. Think of Hillsborough, or Iraq’s imaginary WMDs. What has actually changed is that it is no longer possible to comfortably fall for our earlier illusions. As the saying goes, if you want to be certain, buy an encyclopaedia. If you want to be uncertain, buy two encyclopaedias. Our culture has bought a second encyclopaedia.
The rise of the Alt-Right, with their use of meme magic, conspiracies and disinformation, led to left-leaning Discordians thinking that Operation Mindfuck had been weaponised against them.
@BogusMagus The Right basically stole Operation Mindfuck from us, weaponised postmodernism. The Discordian response is evolving…
— Citizen Of Hookland (@catvincent) November 16, 2016
You don’t need me to tell you that this is currently grim as all hell. But if you take the long term, pragmatic view, it could be that the use of Operation Mindfuck techniques in this way are, essentially, a trap.
In his books, and most importantly in his autobiography Cosmic Trigger, Robert Anton Wilson talks about the psychological state where you have no way of making sense of what is happening, where all your maps have run out, and where you have no fixed point with which to orient yourself by. He called this place Chapel Perilous. This is where we are now as a culture.
There are only two outcomes from a visit to Chapel Perilous, Wilson tells us: paranoia or agnosticism.
Agnosticism – and here Wilson means not just doubt about God, but doubt about everything - requires an acceptance that you are not the only right-thinking person on the planet, and that it is not true everyone else should agree with you. It requires a ... Read More »
(Image by Chris Barker)
One year ago today, I was in Amboise, France, as part of the trip of a lifetime around Europe with my wife and children. Upon waking that rainy, gloomy winter's day, I absent-mindedly checked my Twitter timeline, and was snapped out of my daze when I read the shocking news that David Bowie had sadly passed away, after turning 69 just a couple of days previous.
It turned out to be a day filled with death. Our itinerary for the day began with a visit to Château du Clos Lucé, a small château that is famous for being the residence of Leonardo da Vinci in his final years - with one of the main 'attractions' being a viewing of the actual bed that the great Master was lying in when he took his final breath.
From Amboise we then drove to our next stay, an absolutely wonderful historical chateau not far from Rennes that we booked through AirBnB. On arrival, however, we were met not by the owner, but instead by their neighbour. As it turns out, the owner's husband had died that very day after suffering a heart attack, and yet she had amazingly taken the time and consideration to organise for her neighbour to come and greet us and make sure we settled into the place comfortably.
This 'day of death' finished with a bang as well - as we were eating dinner in the dining room of the old chateau that night, my wife suddenly swung her head around to look behind us. Nothing was there, despite, she recounted, the fact that she had seen someone walk behind us in the reflection from the window.
A year on, and it turns out not to have been so much a 'death day', but an entire year. From Bowie, to the massive loss of Prince in April, through to George Michael and Carrie Fisher at year's end - and a cavalcade of departed stars and personalities in between - 2016 as serial killer became a meme that many could relate to, along with the fervent hope that 2017 would be better.
The thing is though, I'm not sure that's going to be the case. In actual fact, I think 2016 might just be the herald for a new period that I (perhaps hyperbolically) refer to as the 'Great Dying'.
The 'Great Dying' arises from the confluence of three factors:
- In the 1950s and 60s the amount of 'famous people' increased dramatically with the advent of television, 'pop' music and mass-marketed professional sport. People who became stars at a yound age in those and following decades are now 60 to 90 years of age.
- Furthermore, the pressures of reaching and maintaining that celebrity status - especially in the last few decades, have pushed some performers and sportsmen to the limits physically and psychologically. Witness for instance the painkillers required by Michael Jackson and Prince, which ultimately resulted in their premature deaths. And both living with that celebrity status, and the emotional valley of slipping from that status, also have their deleterious effects on the human psyche and body. So there will always be a portion of stars who die at an earlier age than expected.
- Lastly, in the modern era of 24-hour news cycles and social media, we are hyper-aware of every celebrity's passing and 'grieve' as a community when that happens, sharing thoughts, quotes and tributes, and meditating on that person's passing more thoroughly than in the past.
Without wishing to start a dead pool, to illustrate point one consider the following list of movie stars who are house-hold names: Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery are 86; James Earl Jones and William Shatner are 85; Judi Dench and Brigitte Bardot are 82; Donald Sutherland is 81 and Robert Redford is 80; Morgan Freeman, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson are 79. In music, the (surviving members of) The Beatles, Stones and Led Zep are in their 70s, while Tina Turner is 77 and Aretha Franklin is 74. For the SF&F geeks out there, Ursula Le Guin is 87; Tom Baker is 82; Ian McKellen is 77 and Patrick Stewart is 76; Ridley Scott is 79. Anthony Hopkins is 79; Al Pacino is 76; Harrison Ford is 74; De Niro is 73. David Attenborough is 90.
That's just a quick listing off the top of my head, so you can only imagine how many well-known people are in what would be expected to be the final decade or two of their lives. And that doesn't include all those who might pop off earlier than expected, from cancer, heart attack, accident, suicide or other assorted causes (I've personally almost checked out after being stung by a wasp, of all things). This is perhaps what made 2016 seem so shocking - losing the likes of David Bowie at 69, Carrie Fisher at 60, Prince at 57, George Michael at 53 and Phife Dawg at 45. But given the number of celebrities out there, is this the new normal?
The Great Dying has begun. So it might be about time we addressed our in-built aversion to dealing with death and loss head-on.
Below you'll find John Reppion's "Editor's Introduction" to the new anthology Spirits of Place, which features the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Iain Sinclair and many others taking us on a tour of places where they themselves have encountered, and consulted with, 'spirits of place' - " the echoes of people, of events, of ideas which have become imprinted upon a location, for better or for worse."
More information, and links for ordering Kindle, paperback and hardcover editions, can be found at the Spirits of Place website.
Spirits of Place: Editor’s Introduction
by John Reppion
When I was a child I had a vision of fourth dimensional time; of paths trod by my own ghosts, past and future. My parents and my grandparents lived six houses apart on the same suburban South Liverpool street. In front of my parents' house (where they still reside) is a square of turf for kids to play on which we call “the grass patch”. A journey from one house to the other could be made one of three ways: diagonally across the grass patch; via the strip of pavement which runs round its front closest to the road; or on the pavement round its back, past the front fences of numbers 50, 48, 46, and 44, and then at a right-angle up the far side, past the garage at number 42. I was on my way home from Gran's at the age of perhaps seven or eight when I was suddenly struck by the thought that I must already have made the journey a hundred times, and that I would make it thousands more. I crossed over on to the opposite side of the road so I could get a better look at that strip of land where, I realised with a weird dizzy feeling, I had already spent a good chunk of my young life. I saw – imagined, I suppose, but with absolute clarity – at first just a handful, but gradually a crowd. The diagonal route across the grass was the most heavily populated, in spite of all those warnings about muddy shoes. There I was at the age of three, four, five, and as I stared longer, there I was at ten, at seventeen, at twenty, at thirty; infant, child, adolescent, and adult overlaid in a blur of bodies, limbs and faces. An entire lifetime of journeys between those two fixed points in a single image – an image I can still recall perfectly to this day. My younger selves dominate the picture, not because of nostalgia, but because I would walk the walk five or six or more times a day when I was a child, the frequency growing less and less beyond the age of ten. Gran died in 2010, Grandad followed her the next year, and their house – the house my mum was born in – was sold soon after. I couldn't have known that then, yet still there were (and are) very few, if any, versions of myself in that strange multi-exposure vision much past the age of thirty. For a long, long time after that mid-80s day, every time I made the journey I knew I was walking among, and with, and through all those other versions of myself. Versions which remain frozen there to this day – not just in my head, but in some very real sense. I've never discussed any of this with anyone – never even thought about it in any terms other than those which my younger self knew to be true – and in fact, I had all but forgotten about it up until just a few days ago.
How can I best define the concept of “Spirits of Place”? It sounds good, but what do I even mean by the phrase? These are some of the questions I was asking myself last week. You might well think I should already have answered them quite a while ago; before commissioning the twelve pieces for this book, or indeed organising the conference/ritual mash-up thing which led to its creation. But no. At least, not exactly. It's easy enough to give people a rough idea of what you mean about something, especially if you're trying to give them just enough to spin their own ideas out of it. So, let's backtrack a little here. Not as far back as the 1980s, but to the first quarter of this year.
Spirits of Place was the name I chose for a one day event I organised and put on here in Liverpool in April, 2016. The idea came about when I saw that there was a conference space available for hire in the former Manor House in Calderstones Park; a park which I've been visiting on a regular basis for most of my life. There you'll find a playground, the duck and goose crowded mini-lake, a café, an ice-cream parlour, ornamental gardens, a miniature railway, and the remains of a Neolithic chambered tomb.
The tomb stood just outside the boundaries of the park between 3000 BCE (give or take a few centuries) and 1804 CE, when it was pulled apart to make way for a house being built. All that survived of the tomb were six stones, each covered with curious spirals, circles, and other ancient engravings. These Calderstones – the origin of the name long lost now – were re-arranged into a rough stone circle under orders of lead shot manufacturer Joseph Need Walker in 1845. Standing at the South East entrance to Walker's estate – mere metres from the tomb's original position – the stones soon drew the interest of several 19th century antiquarians believing it to be their original “Druidic” location and configuration. There they remained until 1954 when they were removed under orders of Liverpool Corporation. Covered with more than a century's worth of moss and soot, the stones were cleaned and latex impressions taken, revealing details of carving which had previously been all but invisible to the naked eye. The first thorough survey of the stones was made based on these (now lost) moulds by J. L. Forde-Johnson and the results were published in his 1957 paper “Megalithic Art in the North West of Britain, The Calderstones, Liverpool”. In 1964 the stones were relocated inside the park which by now bore their name. There in a hexagonal glass house (known as “the vestibule”) which served as an entranceway to the Greenhill Greenhouses where a huge botanical collection was kept, the ancient, fragile Calderstones were set into grey slabs of quick drying concrete. The Greenhill Greenhouses were bulldozed in the 1980s following a strike by Liverpool council parks and gardens workers. The vestibule survived, standing alone; the Calderstones visible only to those who knew where to look, peering through the ivy and graffiti covered glass to see the sextet of standing stones holding their silent communion.
The first time I ever got to see the Calderstones up close was in 2007 on a Halloween tour of the park. The vestibule was warm and damp – electric heaters working against the foggy October air in an effort to shield the megaliths from winter’s chill. Fine spider’s webs, spun across the pitted surfaces of the menhirs, were frosted with moisture, glistening in the glow of the heater elements. The engravings shimmered fierily as if each stone had a core of liquid magma beneath its brittle sandy surface. Our guide hurried through a truncated history of the stones and, for a precious few moments, the assembled crowd stared at them in absolute wonder. But, all too soon, the spell was broken. The park ranger had no eerie tale directly connected to the stones to tell. By the time we left the vestibule, his latest off the peg ghost story had all but erased the circle of crumbling stones' brief, vague history from most people’s minds. With each step away from the dilapidated greenhouse, the illusionary fire within the ancient sigils seemed to dim. My own interest did not, however.
I became more fascinated than ever with the Calderstones and their history. How these man-made objects had been a permanent feature of the local landscape since mammoths walked the earth. Key elements of a tomb built before the Egyptian pyramids, marked with symbols which pre-date written language in this part of the world; their original meanings and purpose lost in the mists of time. In December 2014 I had one of these magical marks – a thumbprint-like spiral pattern from the Calderstone that Forde-Johnson designated as Stone E – tattooed in black ink on my right forearm. Although I have no way of knowing what it meant when it was carved, I know what it represents now. It is a connection between myself and the landscape; between the people who lived and died and left the mark here five millennia ago, and the life myself and my family live here now. A five-thousand year 4D snapshot of that crucial not-quite-a-mile of South Liverpool parkland would show the Calderstones as the only constant feature – the spiral patterns graven upon their surfaces an almost perfect map of their glacial, stop-motion meanderings around its narrow environs. The Calderstones physically anchor Calderstones Park to England's ancient past. They are the proverbial heavy ball-bearing on the rubber-sheet of Time; creating a pocket of deep history into which stories, and spirits, are drawn in ever-decreasing orbits. And that is why I decided that putting on an event in the park would be a good idea. An attempt at harnessing that energy, and raising those spirits; the Spirits of Place.
The core concept of the symposium became that of this book: stories are embedded in the world around us – in metal, in brick, in concrete, and in wood. In the very earth beneath our feet. Our history surrounds us and the tales we tell, true or otherwise, are always rooted in what has gone before. The event was structured like a spiral: the Calderstones as its centre, with nine incredible speakers spinning their talks out of that single point in ever broadening arcs. I wanted to make it almost like a kind of happening, or a ritual, crossed with a regular conference; a magical experience in a very real sense. And, it worked. Perhaps too well.
My own opening talk that day was entitled “Invoking the Spirits of Place” and served not just as a preamble, but as an explicit calling. My closing paragraph read as follows:
Today we call upon the spirits of this place; the spirits of those pre-English ancestors who moved and marked stones and mounded earth with their bare hands, not just to honour their dead, but so that we might know something of what they believed and knew. Upon the hidden race of fairies and elves which they later became in popular folklore and imagination. Vertumnos – god of growth and fruit and seasons, Ceres – goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood, Hercules – strong and powerful man-god protector of this parkland's gateway. The kodarna, the canoti, the wood sprites, boggarts, goblins, and pooka. We call upon the Lady of the Forest, upon the spirit of the ancient Allerton Oak. All of these spirits we invoke, and we ask them to show us, to teach us. To share with us their knowledge of this place – this small suburban green-space which is all green-space, which is everything. A slice of the natural world which we kid ourselves we have altered and mastered and tamed but which, in reality, is merely a fraction, a sliver of the true order of things. A tiny piece of the ancient green-land which waits impatiently for the moment when it might reclaim what is rightfully its. All across South Liverpool centuries-old roots ripple through tarmac, absorb railings and bow walls. Stop-motion brambles wind cunningly around fallen sandstone slabs, spider-walk through skull-socket knotholes, cascade over weather-worn fence-panel and post in a prickled, black-fruit foamed spray. The thin veneer of civilisation can be seen, almost heard, crumbling one driveway-fracturing dandelion at a time. This place does not belong to us alone, here our ancestors, our history, our folklore are all alive and waiting to be rediscovered. To reclaim and re-enchant this earthly realm.
So, I bid you welcome. Welcome to South Liverpool, to Calderstones Park, and to Spirits of Place.
On that day, standing there in Joseph Need Walker's Manor House in the heart of the park, speaking those words felt truly powerful, truly magical. A spell was cast, and though I had intended as much, I hadn't anticipated it to work in such a literal sense. If I had expected it, I would surely have thought to lay the ghosts – to release the spirits – at the end of the day. But I didn't. There was no dismissal, no formal farewell to the host of ancestors, thought-forms, and deities myself, guests, and attendees had spent six or so hours talking and thinking, remembering and imagining into life.
I'd made an attempt at recording the day's talks and that evening managed a very quick listen through to check the quality. It wasn't great, which I had pretty much expected. I only had two mics set up and most people were moving around a lot giving their talks. It was no big thing; it would have been nice if it worked out but didn't really matter that it hadn't. The only part that sounded okay was the last talk of the day which had been a sit down interview with Ramsey Campbell about his use of Merseyside, Liverpool, and even Calderstones Park itself in his fiction. I cringed, as many people do, at the sound of my own voice asking the questions, but otherwise it was fine. Exhausted then, I passed up the kind offer of speakers Cat Vincent, David Southwell, and Gary Budden to join them for a pint or three, and instead opted for a rare early night.
In my dream that night I was wearing my headphones, listening to my own voice on the recorder. It wasn't the interview with Ramsey this time though, it was my own opening invocation. The quality was better than I'd thought. Only, now I didn't recognise the words. I couldn't remember saying any of this. And then, as one does in dreams, I knew that it wasn't me I could hear; it was something else using my recorded voice to speak. I asked out loud who it was, and my voice answered with an electric hiss “the spirits in the wires”. It was the kind of nightmare that doesn't really make sense if you try to explain it, but those whispered words had me wide awake, heart pounding, drenched in sweat that night.
Night terrors notwithstanding, Spirits of Place was a success. Out of that success came the entirely unexpected offer from Daily Grail Publishing to put together a book based on the same idea. Almost immediately though, I realised a book would need to be handled very differently. The event was about being in that specific physical place on that specific day – about shared experience rooted, one way or another, in that landscape. The book needed to tap into more universal themes and ideas about the relationships between landscape, history, story, art, magic, and humanity. Once I realised this, I knew I had to look further afield than the U.K., and beyond those who might be thought of as “the usual suspects” when it came to this kind of writing. Well okay, maybe some of those usual suspects are here, but you may note that London and Northampton are barely mentioned, let alone visited, within these pages.
While its geographic spectrum may be broader than other books dealing with the topic of place, there is a huge amount of commonality between the essays within Spirits of Place. The way our identities and beliefs are embedded in our surroundings; the places we grow up, or live, or come from. Equally, how we interpret and re-interpret ourselves in certain places. How language can sometimes fail us when we try to express the dichotomy of personal experience and shared reality; of things we know to be true and things which we can prove, or explain to others. Things embedded in our culture, often at a hyperlocal level. This island, this town, this village, this dirt track, this house, this room; every one has its spirits. A blur of people, of experiences, of lives lived, dreams dreamed, of gods birthed, of loves lost, of deaths died, of journeys across the grass patch.
Stick the push-pins in the map, connect the dots with winding twine like every good movie detective knows you should. A pattern emerges. It is not a pentagram, not a star-sign or constellation, not an arrow or X marking the spot. It is a spiral.
Ryan Sprague is, as many of the people I admire the most in this field, a man who wears several hats: He's not only a professional playwright and screenwriter, but also has a life-long passion about the UFO topic, every since he had an impactful observation of a triangular object at the tender age of 12 years old.
Mind you, he's not a UFOlogist per se (at least, he doesn't like to use the label… another thing we agree upon!). Instead he prefers to present himself before the witnesses he interviews in his investigations as a 'journalist', and that is exactly the approach he used when he decided to write 'Somewhere in the Skies': Putting the witness at the forefront and let THEM tell the story of what allegedly happened to them in their own words; without any judgement, bias, or established agenda of what it is they exactly experienced.
Believe me, if this book was only about cool or never-before-published close encounters, I wouldn't have bothered in reading it in the first place --my days of getting 'a hard on' by consuming what my friend Greg Bishop calls 'UFO Porno' are long gone. Where 'Somewhere in the Skies' stands out among the rest, though, is twofold: First, it covers THE WHOLE GAMUT of otherworldly encounters, from the blissful to the totally terrifying and with people from all walks of life --even former military personnel-- showing how the response elicited by the phenomena can be as varied as the particulars of the witness itself; some of them may see something incredible that challenges all of their preconceptions about Reality or how the world is supposed to operate, and then move on with their lives; others may end up being so totally shaken up by the experience, it completely alters the course of their lives forever. Sometimes for the better... and sometimes for the worst.
It is the 'post-scriptum' of said experiences the second and most important part Ryan's research focuses upon. Yes, studying UFOs may yield us some new revelation in Physics, or even inspire us to conceive novel propulsion systems of energy sources --which is IMO what the great majority of 'nuts-and-bolts' UFOlogists' primary goal is.. that and being FINALLY vindicated by the individuals and institutions who have scorned them for so many years; but in dealing with such an elusive phenomenon thusly, the field has reprehensibly neglected that treasure trove of information which, unlike UFOs, tend to stay closer to the ground and for longer periods of time --the witnesses themselves.
Ryan decided to meet those individuals who are often relegated as a number on a graph by the 'just-the-facts-ma'am' researchers; he contacted them either via e-mail or by meeting them in person whenever possible, to see not only WHAT they experienced when being face to face with the Unknown, or HOW the experience impacted their lives (and that those closer to them); but also WHY they believe it happened to them in the fist place: Is it merely a matter of being in the right place and the right time, or are the witnesses being SELECTED somehow for some ulterior motive which escapes our comprehension? A supposition which seems more plausible, especially when dealing with the most extreme aspects of non-human encounters which are currently referred to as 'alien abductions'.
Some of the people Ryan interviewed have had years to process what they witnessed; decades even, for a few of them. Integrating such a transcendental experience into one's life is not an easy feat, and obviously some turn out to be luckier than others (perhaps because of their particular 'safety net' of strong social and family relations). But among the wide array of testimony Ryan gathered, there spawns a single commonality: The world of these persons cracked wide open all of the sudden, and grew bigger and more incredible than they had never suspected before.
Perhaps, just perhaps, that's just the whole point of all of this.
In one way or another, many whom I’ve interviewed in the
writing of this book described the very same thing: a spiritual
experience. Something just beyond the physical realm had
struck them as they stared into the sky, trying so desperately to
process the mysterious phenomenon before them.
Throughout Ryan Sprague's text, an overall sense of optimism was palpable. Optimism when he interviewed a few brave scientists who dare to study the phenomenon seriously despite the obvious peril to their careers. Optimism when seeing how UFO witnesses and experiencers are creating support groups and online networks which help them deal with what may very well be the ultimate social closet of the XXIst century --interaction with a non-human intelligence.
But most of all, Ryan's optimism seems to spawn from a hope that, whatever the hell may be behind the UFO phenomenon, and the reasons behind its bizarre way to operate, it will nevertheless help us move forward in our collective and individual evolution.
I too confess to share that optimism. And because of that, perhaps my only big caveat with Ryan's book lies in his choice for the title. Because the true key to uncover this mystery may not reside 'somewhere in the skies.' The key may be right here, with each and every one of us.
So let us find that key, and see what doors we may unlock with it.
Addendum: In order to entice those Grailers who may still be in the middle of a rush Xmas online shopping, into adding Somewhere in the Skyes on their Amazon list, Ryan and Richard Dolan Press were kind enough to grant the Daily Grail with an exclusive excerpt. Enjoy!
Being the sole patron in a bar can be liberating. Then again, it can also be depressing. I embraced the former.
“What’ll it be?” he asked.
Tyler, as I would soon learn his name, poured a generous dose of Kentucky goodness into a smudged glass. It was April 25th, 2013, and I was one of few patrons in this dive bar on the
Lower East Side, an area of Manhattan that I didn’t frequent often. But this was a special occasion and I needed something to calm my nerves. Within the hour, I was to take part in an
interview about UFOs. So it didn’t hurt to have a small bit of inebriated confidence.
As I took my first sip, something caught my attention above the two tiered shelf of liquor behind the bar. Hung rather haphazardly by a rusty nail was a billiards triangle rack. On one side of it was a smudged autograph, presumably from a celebrity pool shark back when this bar actually had a table to play on. I stared up at the triangle, its shape reminding me quite vividly of how my entire interest in the UFO topic had begun.
It was 1995, and I was twelve years old. My parents and I were on a weekend getaway to the Saint Lawrence River, a lengthy body of water situated between upstate New York and Canada. As I fished off a nearby dock at our motel, hoping to catch every perch and sunfish the lake had to offer, I noticed a reflection in the water of something in the pitch black above.
Naturally, my gaze veered upward. I spotted three white lights in a distinct triangular formation. While I could see no solid structure, the stars were blotted out behind the formation. These lights, constant, yet pulsating, were moving over the water in complete silence. I could then make out a hazy red light in the center. It seemed to burn brighter than the lights at each point. All I remember hearing was the water hitting the dock in its natural rhythm. I could feel a low vibration behind my ears, running down my neck and into my chest. I watched in awe as this formation slowly moved north toward the Canadian border. I called for my parents to come take a look. When they finally did, all they saw was what they assumed was an airplane fade out of sight. I knew differently.
This experience at such a young age terrified me. I became obsessed, taking out book after book from the public library, researching accounts of sightings, encounters, and even abductions. I would write essays to myself about them. It was clear that whatever I saw that night stayed with me for years to come, prompting me finally to seek out others who had found themselves tangled in a UFO web. I started to interview people in my hometown. I compiled local reports. I was essentially paving my way to finally branch out and begin writing for several alternative publications on the topic. And thus, my career as a UFO journalist had ostensibly begun. And while most days consisted of interviewing others, the proverbial pen (and camera) were now being flipped onto me.
My colleague Peter Robbins and I were to be interviewed by a research group out of Copenhagen, Denmark. Their focus: the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident which occurred near a military base in rural East Anglia, England. Over three consecutive days, U.S. military personnel witnessed a craft of unknown origin land in the forest that surrounded their base. One witness also stated that the craft had adversely affected nuclear ordnance stored in nearby bunkers. A strategic coverup was set in motion days after the events, keeping the entire Rendlesham incident under wraps for years to follow. Robbins had co-written a British best-selling book about the incident, along with one of the key witnesses and the original whistle-
blower, Larry Warren. The book, Left at East Gate: A First-Hand Account of the Bentwaters-Woodbridge UFO Incident, Its Cover-Up and Investigation, remains the best-documented account of this deeply controversial case.
My involvement in the case was peripheral, consisting specifically of a stage play I was developing at the time. The play would chronicle the ten year journey it took Robbins and Warren to write the book. Robbins, having a strong theatre background, embraced my endeavor with open arms. It was a match made in ufological/theatrical heaven. And I was very excited to share my own thoughts on the case.
“Brings ya down here, man?” Tyler asked.
“Being interviewed for a Danish television show,” I responded.
His ears perked. This clearly wasn’t the answer he was expecting.
“What’s the interview about?” he asked.
“An incident that occurred on a military base in England.”
“Heavy. What happened?”
“About eighty personnel witnessed some... strange stuff.”
He pressed on. “What was strange about it?”
I was cornered. I had no choice. What I said next would either make or break the conversation. I’d experienced this conundrum many times before, and I was ready to immediately be shrugged off.
“It was a UFO sighting.”
You could hear a pin drop. Rather impressive for lower Manhattan.
“UFOs. That’s uh... that’s...”
He was done. I went to take a sip from my glass when Tyler suddenly slapped his hand on the bar, a sharp echo bouncing off the empty brick walls, causing me to dribble the bourbon down the front of me.
He proceeded to throw down a coaster next to my drink, quickly rounding the bar and sat next to me.
“So are you like, a ufologist or something?”
I hadn’t lost him after all.
“Journalist,” I bit back. The term, ufology, had always rubbed me the wrong way. While it was indeed a topic of study, I never considered myself knowledgeable enough to stamp the “ologist” on my forehead. At least, not yet.
“Ever heard of the Phoenix Lights?” Tyler asked.
I had indeed. I had actually written extensively about the Phoenix Lights incident in past articles. The incident occurred on Thursday, March 13th, 1997, in and around the areas of Phoenix, AZ and Sonora, Mexico. Hundreds of individuals witnessed variouslights and v-shaped craft floating through the night skies. Their testimony was only strengthened when the Arizona governor at the time, Fife Symington, also came forward to say he’d witnessed the event. Not only had I written
about these events, but I had personally spoken with half a dozen witnesses who were directly involved. Tyler would now make lucky number seven. He went on to describe his sighting in great detail, a rush of excitement consuming him. I watched his eyes shut tightly as he tried recalling street names, his arms flailing like helpless ribbons taped to a desk fan. His wingspan
was impressive as he went on to describe the enormity of a craft, once again in a v-shaped formation, that hung silently in the Arizona sky that night. Every word seemed like a confes-
sion. Something he had pushed down so deep for so long. He began to sweat as he fell further into his own memory, living out every moment in great detail.
I couldn’t help but revel in this situation. I had walked into a random bar in a random neighborhood on a random day that a random bartender happened to be working, and this hap-
pens. In his incidental questioning of why I was there, Tyler had opened the floodgates to something he most likely hadn’t spoken of in years, if ever. He had sparked a conversation that
many had before but rarely admit to: experiencing something beyond his control. Beyond his concept of reality. Whatever happened in Arizona that night touched the lives of thousands
of people. And each and every one of those people had stories to tell.
Tyler told me to stop by the bar any time and we’d discuss his sighting in greater detail. But for now, I had to make way to my appointment. And as I left the bar that day, warm and fuzzy from the bourbon sloshing around in my empty stomach, I headed toward my destination invigorated by the serendipitous encounter that had just occurred. I walked toward the location of the interview to meet our interviewer, Frederik Uldall, and his wife, Ditte. Peter was already there,
dawning his usual brown leather jacket and Indiana Jones-like hat. He smiled brightly, conversing with Frederik. After a few hugs and handshakes, we headed upstairs to begin.
As Frederik prepared the camera, I looked over at Peter. He was making small talk with Ditte, who was playing gracious host for the day. Peter let out a sincere laugh that stood out to me. And for a brief moment, I thought to myself of how rigorous it must have been for both he and Larry to spend ten years of their lives on a single book project. The passion, blind faith, and sheer determination to bring to light not only a case they felt deserved it, but the fact that they had placed the UFO phenomenon prominently in front of so many people who had never thought twice about it.
I wanted that. I wanted something that I could bring to the table that would make people think. And in that moment, as I sat in my chair, feeling like I still had so much to learn, I knew I wanted to write this book. I wanted to write it for Peter. For Tyler. And for the hundreds of people I have
corresponded with throughout the years who all have stories to tell, but weren’t quite sure if anyone would listen. I hope, in some small way, that this book is evidence that there are those
who will listen. Who will relate. Who will think. And perhaps will feel compelled to come forward with their own experience.
Perhaps,reflecting back on that moment as Frederik pressed record on the camera, I didn’t quite know how crucial it was for these stories to be told. Not for some grand revelation or epiphany of sorts. But for closure. For those who have experienced something they cannot explain and feeling as though they were alone. So many others have had similar experiences, each more bizarre than the last. And perhaps they’d find closure in knowing that most would empathize the best way they know how: by listening, reading, and acknowledging that something far more complex is happening than just lights in the sky.
After about an hour or so of on-camera conversation about Rendlesham and various other UFO-related topics, Frederik stopped recording. He shied away from the camera, staring
straight at the floor. He shook his head. With a nervous laugh and a sharp Danish accent, he reacted simply with, “Unbelievable.”
And it was. Most of it. With each passing story, it never got easier to just believe. In fact, it was the complete opposite. As I ventured further and further down the rabbit hole of mystery, I would meet many different people on the way. Some would become close friends. Others would remain on the periphery, happy to tell their story, but going no further. And some would leave lasting impressions on my journalistic and personal life. And it began where most UFO sightings often did. With lights in the sky.
Excerpt shared with permission by the author and Richard Dolan Press, 2016.
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
(Printable typeset PDF available here)
On the 15th of February, 2013, a meteor tore through the sky above the southern Ural region of Russia at a speed of roughly 40,000 miles per hour. As it descended to an altitude of about 15 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, the massive air pressure being exerted on the 7000 ton object caused a spectacular air-burst – since estimated as the equivalent of a 500 kiloton explosion – that blew in doors and shattered windows in the city below.
We all believe that this incident occurred as described – not so much on the basis of 'hearsay' testimony from witnesses, but instead mainly because of the high number of Russian vehicles that now carry dash-cams. Unlike the Tunguska blast of a century previous – which remains an event shrouded in mystery – the Chelyabinsk fireball was filmed from multiple angles for much of its short but violent life, from its initial appearance to the later shockwave which threw amateur videographers to the ground in fear. What’s more, we also happily believe that a rock from space caused the incident, because through science we have come to understand and accept the fact that rocks from space, of various sizes and shapes, regularly bombard our planet.
It therefore comes almost as a shock to find out that the cosmic origin of meteors has only been an accepted fact in Western science for barely two centuries. Indeed, when Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman proposed an extraterrestrial source for a meteor that exploded over the town of Weston in 1807, Thomas Jefferson is famously claimed to have retorted “I would more easily believe that [a] Yankee professor would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” As it turns out, the exact quote may be apocryphal – an embellishment by Silliman’s son. But there is little doubt that, at that time, Jefferson was skeptical about the provenance of the Weston meteorite, writing that…
…a thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.
At the time, while sightings of fireballs streaking across the sky were common enough that they were accepted by science as occurring, they were believed to be a still-mysterious atmospheric phenomenon similar to lightning, unconnected to tales of rocks falling from the sky (indeed, the word meteor comes from the Greek word for ‘atmosphere’, hence the naming of the profession of ‘meteorologist’). One account attributed their appearance to “the fermentation of acid and alkaline bodies which float in the atmosphere…when the more subtle part of the effluvia are burnt away, the viscous and earthy parts become too heavy to be supported by the air, and then they fall.” Another theory suggested that meteors were “a collection of nitro-sulphureous and fiery vapors, into a sort of a rolling globe, or whirlwind of fire.”
Jefferson’s own leaning toward the ‘atmospheric’ assumption about meteors – and his skepticism that rocks could fall from the sky – is evident in a question he posed concerning the Weston meteorite: “is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?”
Jefferson’s view, however, would soon be a relic of the past. Just thirteen years before the Weston meteorite fall the ... Read More »
This may be one of the shortest movie reviews you'll ever read. Because to appreciate Arrival, a new movie in the 'first alien contact' sci-fi sub-genre, I think you're better off going in absolutely blind. Don't read reviews, don't watch the trailer, and don't read the short story it is based on. Just go.
Given the recommendation above, this 'review' will expand outwards from the most simple of statements, so if you haven't seen the movie I recommend reading as little as possible from the following. How far you read on should depend on how much encouragement or detail you need before going to see a movie. Obviously, the further you go down, the more spoilers are involved - so be warned.
So to start:
1. Go see it. Stop reading this now, and go see it.
2. Need more introductory detail about the movie? Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve - the guy behind the excellent Sicario and Prisoners - and is based on the acclaimed short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life. It stars award-winners Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Here's the synopsis, and trailer (there is also a separate international trailer). Note again though, I recommend not watching the trailers:
When multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team is put together to investigate, including language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Humankind teeters on the verge of global war as everyone scrambles for answers – and to find them, Banks, Donnelly and Weber will take a chance that could threaten their lives, and quite possibly humanity.
3. Need a feel for the movie? If you liked Contact, you will ... Read More »
I think we're property.
- Charles Fort
Spoilers for Westworld S01E01 to S01E05 follow.
In an earlier post I mentioned the Gnostic underpinnings of the pilot of HBO's new hit series Westworld. In episodes since, that broad theme has persisted - but perhaps more interestingly, it has also been overlaid with some distinctly Fortean themes.
Perhaps the most obvious came at the end of episode 2, when Maeve (Thandie Newton) - who is only familiar with the 19th century world she believes she inhabits - wakes while on the operating/repair table inside the futuristic, technologically-advanced Westworld HQ, with two figures standing over her and an incision in her stomach. Forteans would have immediately recognised the similarities to the archetypal 'otherworldly journey', a narrative that is present in stories told by everyone from shamans to 'alien abductees'.
For instance, ethnographers have collected testimony from traditional shamans in which they tell of being cut, or dismembered, by spirits during their otherworldly journeys. "I have five spirits in heaven who cut me with forty knives," according to one. Another said there were three 'black devils' who "cut his body to pieces" and threw "bits of his flesh in different directions". Another said the spirits "cut off his head, which they set aside."
One Australian Aboriginal initiate told how, during his trance, an old man...
cut out all of his insides, intestines, liver, heart, lungs - everything in fact - and left him lying all night long on the ground.
In more modern times, so-called 'alien abductees' have reported parallel experiences, but with futuristic aliens doing the 'surgery' rather than trance spirits. One of Harvard psychiatrist John Mack's patients told of seeing a spaceship shortly before blacking out, only to find upon waking that she was lying on a table, being operated on by two beings:
I was in a foetal position, my back to them. They were doing something to my spine. My entire spine was stinging and cold. It was awful! It felt as though they were going inside my body with some very sharp instrument and inserting it between my flesh and my skin.
Another abductee tells of being in a "shiny and metallic-looking" room that "contained what looked like equipment." Multiple beings surrounding him performed tests and inserted needles into his body.
(Given the scene were Maeve discovers the bullet hidden beneath scar-less skin, it's also perhaps worth quickly noting that both shamans and alien abductess often report that objects are left within them during these procedures - 'magic stones' for shamans, 'implants' for abductees. For instance, the Aboriginal initiate mentioned above told of how the 'old man' came back to him and "placed some more antongara stones inside his body and in his arms and legs".)
DMT-induced otherworldly trips appear almost as a mash-up of shamanic and abductee experiences. During his famous study on DMT, Dr Rick Strassman reported that one volunteer, as soon as they had been given the injection of DMT, described what happened immediately after with these words:
WHAM! I felt like I was in an alien laboratory... A sort of landing bay or recovery area. There were beings... They had a space ready for me. There was one main creature, and he seemed to be behind it all, overseeing everything.... I couldn't help but think 'aliens'.
Were the Westworld writers explicitly modelling Maeve's experience on alien abduction reports? It seems a distinct possibility when we consider the scene in which a doll is dropped by a Native American child, which appears to depict a Westworld employee as they often appear to remove Host's bodies from the park: dressed in a hazmat suit. This appears to be a reference to the (real-world) Hopi kachina doll tradition, which are said to represent "the immortal beings that bring rain, control other aspects of the natural world and society, and act as messengers between humans and the spirit world."
But 'ancient aliens' theorists have seized upon the strange representations of these 'kachinas' (and other odd-looking statues and sculptures around the world) as possible evidence that they were 'astronauts' that have visited our planet in the past. And the Westworld 'kachina' reinforces this aspect, given the similarities between a hazmat suit and an astronaut's space-suit (hey, if it worked for Marty McFly...). So it seems likely that the writers of Westworld are intentionally referencing tales of alien visitation and abduction - at least in part - in the storyline.
And this certainly fits within that Gnostic framework I mentioned previously, as well as the seminal Charles Fort quote at the top of this piece.
[T]here are some who can see them. It's a blessing from god, to see the masters who pull your strings.
Hector, in Westworld
I thought I was crazy...and *this* [pointing at sketched image of Westworld employee in Hazmat suit] was standing over me. And then it was as if it never happened.
- Maeve, in Westworld