"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

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Monday, October 13, 2014


I was eight when I first read Dracula.  I can be specific about that because it was the year Frank Langella played the Count on the silver screen.  My father, as an apology of sorts for a particularly nasty bout of drinking and coming home to throw furniture around, brought me to see it.  In retrospect, he must have been feeling particularly guilty.  We didn't do "father-son" stuff, and when we did, it was usually him trying to get me to throw a football around rather than stay in my room with my horror comics.  Taking me to Dracula was almost sorta kinda like actually condoning my weird tastes.

Whatever else might be said of my father, he was a reader.  A voracious one.  He devoured books the way the Count went through English virgins.  He also had a gift, and I have been frustrated all my life that I didn't inherit it, for remembering every word he read.  Right down to the page it was on.  So over a burger and fries after the film, he mentioned to me that Dracula was a novel.  A classic.  Maybe, he suggested, I should read it.  Again, this was mind-blowing.  Dad was always trying to get me to read, but books about Babe Ruth and Sitting Bull.  This was Dracula.  My interest piqued, he then took me to the bookstore to pick up the paperback.

I didn't go for the movie tie-in one, with a blow-dried Langella on the cover looming over a woman clearly in the midst of a massive orgasm (not that at eight I picked that up, mind you).  No...I was intrigued by the one beside it, showing a pale, balding old man with white hair, a mustache, and fangs.  "That's what he really looks like," my father told me.  "The movies all get that wrong."

Those words were magic to me.  It meant that my father had actually read Dracula in the past, something inconceivable to me at that stage of our relationship.  But the wording, what he really looks like, was more magical still.  It meant the Counts in the movies were just actors; the real Dracula was out there somewhere looking like an old man.

I went home with that edition.

Stoker's novel is nothing like any of the film versions.  No, not even Coppola's over-the-top exploration of Catholic guilt or Louis Jourdan's dark European nobleman come close.  In modern terms, the Count is Hannibal Lecter.  He is brilliant, sophisticated, and Old World.  He also happens to be a remorseless killer that eats people.  Yes, there is sexual tension there, but we all know there was a bit of that between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster too.  It doesn't make Lecter a Byronic hero, and neither should it make Dracula.  But with the exception of Murnau's Nosferatu, film makers seem obsessed with the sex.  It has gotten so bad that these days vampires even sparkle.  But I digress.

The point is, of course, that Stoker was writing about a monster...not a man looking for the reincarnation of his lost love (a part of the Dracula myth stolen from Karloff's The Mummy via Barnabas Collins), not a man who surrenders his humanity in a heroic bid to save his land (as per the plot of the new Dracula Untold).  A monster.  Giving him a sympathetic backstory makes as much sense as giving the shark in Jaws one.

But of course, this is something that plagues horror in general and Dracula in particular.  Uncomfortable with the idea that we get off on the sick little thrill of being afraid, we keep looking for ways to make horror intellectual.  "Dracula," an English teacher once informed me, "was about Anglo-Saxon England's fear of the Eastern European.  A dark and swarthy aristocrat comes and rapes Lucy Westerna, whose name means 'light of the West.'"  Then she sneered when I told her I thought it was about 'a vampire.' 

Dracula lends itself to this sort of thing because Stoker wrote a four-hundred page Rorschach blot.  The master stroke of the novel is that we barely ever see Count Dracula at all.  Again, like the damn shark in Jaws, he only pops up when it is time to feed.  But we feel him.  His presence saturates every page.  And these days, when people keep going on about Gone Girl and the novel's use of the unreliable narrator, it is useful to point out this is exactly what made Dracula work.  The novel is told through diary entries and newspaper clippings, and half the time the narrators are writing about things they don't understand the significance of.  Stoker's book is the equivalent of rounding up witnesses to a crime...each of whom gives a slightly different account.  It is so easy to reinterpret Dracula because none of the book is admissible in court.  Every word of it is hearsay.

What does Dracula look like?  Old?  Young?  Is he clean-shaven or does he have a pointy black beard?  What is he doing in London, really?  Does he kill Lucy or is it that quack Van Helsing, who is a "devout Catholic" despite having no problems desecrating the Host, is a "polymath linguist" who can barely speak English, and gives his patient dozens of transfusions from multiple donors despite not knowing the first fucking thing about blood types?  This is why there have been 170 film versions, countless TV appearances, and hundreds of literary retellings.  Because we don't know any of the answers.  Alongside Jack the Ripper, the Count remains Victorian England's grisliest unsolved mystery.

We don't even know if he is dead.  After painstaking reams of vampire lore are poured on us by Van Helsing, all telling us how difficult Dracula will be to kill and how he needs to be staked in his grave, his head cut off and mouth stuffed with garlic before burning the body...he is dispatched by getting stabbed with a knife.  Maybe.  At sunset his body vanishes into a cloud of dust, and the vampire hunters celebrate.  But Van Helsing told us the vampire can shapeshift at sunset, midnight, or sunrise (not at will as in the movies), and witnesses have already seen the Count turn into motes of dust before.  Has Van Helsing suddenly acquired Alzheimer's and forgotten all his lore?  Have they all?

It is these cracks, these plot holes, that Dracula achieves greatness, because everyone fills them in differently.  It is why we can keep going back to it.  While each retelling seizes a shadow of the story and rides it, the original is a whirlwind of uncertainty.  And nothing scares like the unknown.

Sunday, May 25, 2014



Imagine you took a stack of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books, a few of the old school TSR "basic" D&D products, and a heap of indie games like FATE and The Burning Wheel and tossed them all in Seth Brundle's teleport pod from The Fly. Once the smoke cleared, and all the DNA was scrambled up together, you would have a copy of The 13th Age sitting there.

I was a very vocal critic of the d20 system when 3rd Edition D&D first reared its ugly head. Mechanically it was just a rehash of Jonathan Tweet's Ars Magica with all the good stuff taken out and a d20 shoved in. D20 was a love letter to the obsessive rules lawyers I have kept from my gaming table for over thirty years, and with the revised version's insistence on moving miniatures around and counting squares it went from bad to worse. Despite this, I knew the game would succeed because A) it had the D&D name and B) they very cleverly made the rules public so that everyone could adopt it and cash in on the D&D name. When the 4th Edition appeared, it became painfully clear to me Hasbro wanted a miniatures battle game instead of an RPG. The system had migrated as far from the spontaneous, free-wheeling fun of the original game as you could possibly get; everything was options from a menu rather than player contribution.

So when I heard that Tweet (the lead designer of 3e) was teaming up with Rob Heinsoo (the lead designer of 4e), I expected more of the same. Instead, I got a new d20 fantasy RPG that was dead sexy.

Let's be clear; this is another Dungeons & Dragons. There are Clerics and Fighters and Barbarians, there are Chromatic Dragons and Owlbears, there are levels and hit points and feats. And Drow. These days you gotta have Drow. And since this is basically a game that takes 4e, strips it down, and runs with it, I am not going to linger too much on the rules except for what The 13th Age brings to the table.

Let's start with the Icons.

The game has a very loosely described setting (the Dragon Empire) populated by 13 loosely defined uber-NPCs known as Icons. Their names read like a Tarot hand; the Elf Queen, the Archmage, the Prince of Shadows, the Lich King, etc. In a sense, these are the Elminsters and the Gandalfs and the Elrics of the setting. But they aren't...they really aren't. First, they are loosely described so that the GM and the players can define them for the kind of world they want to play in. Your Dragon Empire could be Asian and the Archmage could be Quan Li the Emerald Seer. Or it could be faux Roman with the Archmage as Ipsissimus Magnus. It's your world. Second, the Icons exist solely for the purpose showcasing the player characters and giving them adventures to play in. Here's how;

During character creation, PCs get 3 relationship points to assign to the Icons of their choice. They could assign one point to three Icons, or three points to one, or one to one and two to another. They also get to decide if the relationship is Positive, Negative, or Conflicted. Each point represents a d6, and these relationship dice are rolled at various times to see if the players and Icons cross paths somehow (directly, through influence, or minions). A roll of 1-4 means no interaction, a 5 means an advantageous interaction with some complications, and a 6 is a beneficial interaction. Usually these dice are rolled at the start of a session.

What does this mean? Think of Bilbo in The Hobbit. He starts off with a relationship with Gandalf (aka the Archmage). This relationship exists solely to get Bilbo into adventure. Gandalf isn't there to steal the scenes and be the hero, he's there to make Bilbo the hero. Likewise, Frodo starts off with a relationship with Gandalf (the Archmage), Aragorn (the Emperor), and Sauron (the Lich King) and they all exist solely to propel him through his epic quest. The Icons are plot engines that connect the characters to the world and the story. They tell the GM what kinds of stories they want to play based on the Icons they pick. Do players ally with the Priestess and against the Crusader? The campaign might be a conflict between the gods of light and dark. Do they ally with the High Druid and against the Lich King? A sage of life versus death. With the Emperor and against the Orc Lord? Civilization versus barbarism. The Icons help the players define their tale.

Second, on top of picking a race and a class and all the d20 standards, PCs pick a One Unique Thing. This is something that makes the character special. It can be anything, but if it is a power it has to be something interesting and non-combative. It can even be something that changes the setting. "The stars sing to me and sometimes whisper the future," is an example of an appropriate power. "I have a clockwork heart forged by dwarves," is an interesting feature that may be explored down the road. "I am the last of the Dark Elves" is one that changes the entire setting. This is another way that character creation makes the world the players'.

A final way character creation empowers players is the abandonment of skills from a list in favor of Backgrounds. Players don't put points in Athletics or Stealth or History, but create backgrounds they can assign points to. A Fighter with "Emperor's Elite Guard +3" would be able to use that bonus for a range of things, from etiquette to area knowledge of the capital city. A Rogue with "Iron Sea Pirate +5" knows how to sail, but also uses his bonus in dealing with other buccaneers. The players create and name these backgrounds, and again shape the world. Did we know the Emperor had an elite guard? Now we do. Were pirates common on the Iron Sea before? They are now.

This flexibility runs throughout the entire game. The setting is left vague, waiting to be filled in. The races and classes have mechanical functions but are again left open to be fleshed out. There are Clerics, but we know nothing about the gods. There are Dark Elves and Wood Elves and High Elves, but we don't know what separated the races (or in a strange twist, why they still all bow before the Elf Queen). All this waits for you to decide.

I don't want to get into classes too much, but I should point out that every effort has been made to step back away from 4e, where every class was essentially the same, with at-will, once per battle, and once daily powers. Elements of this remain, but now playing a Barbarian is a very different experience from playing a Wizard. Every class has feats, but they also have unique features and mechanical differences that set them apart. I mention the Barbarian and the Wizard specifically because they are at opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. Barbarians have talents that enhance their ability to do and take damage, Wizards have spells and cantrips that cover a wide range of possibilities, and these are flexible enough that they can be tinkered with or altered on the fly. Play a Wizard if you want a wide range of choices in combat and like improvisation. Play a Barbarian if you just want to hit things. Each and every class has a unique "thing" or two, a clear rejection of 4e's design philosophy.

Combat is also retooled. The grid is gone and minis are optional. It's a role playing game again, not Warhammer Fantasy Battle. You are now engaged or far away, intercepting, in front, or behind, the way D&D used to be. There are still 4e elements, like being "staggered" (bloodied) at half your hit points and having "recoveries" (healing surges), but battle is faster and more fluid. In part this is because player's do more damage; weapon damage now scales up (a d8 weapon does 3d8 damage in the hands of a 3rd level character and 8d8 in the hands of an 8th level). But the real cause for joy is the escalation die.

The escalation die is a d6. It is set on the table during the second round of combat, showing a "1." That one is added to all the attack rolls of the players (only the most powerful and lethal monsters, like dragons, receive a bonus from it). Each round it goes up by one, so that in round seven forward players receive +6 to attack rolls. This does all sorts of things. For example, casters who opened up early with the big guns like "fireball" in older d20 games might now play for time to get the bonus. Second, the way monsters are now weighted they start with the advantage at the start of the battle, and the heroes slowly rise to the challenge. There are all sorts of powers--on both sides--that old get activated by certain numbers on the escalation die. It adds a dramatic arc to the game.

Speaking of monsters, there have been innovations there too. The game now includes mooks, a bit like 4e minions. Basically the mook version of a monster is now a swarm of five. For example, a Dire Wolf has 80 hit points; the mook version is a pack of five Dire Wolfs with a combined total of 80 hit points. Every sixteen points of damage kills one off. Another innovation for the GM is that special monster attacks are "triggered" by the attack roll, rather than being chosen. Take the Chimera, for example. The Chimera has a fang, claw, and horn attack that does a certain amount of damage, but on an attack roll of 14-15 the target is also dazed by a head butt from the goat head; on a 16-17 extra ongoing damage is inflicted (bleeding) by the lion's raking claws; on an 18-20 it gets an additional fiery breath attack from the dragon head. GMs don't have to chose tactics, and the monsters play themselves.

A final point to be made is how The 13th Age handles experience. Experience is a potent tool because it motivates player behavior like nothing else. In D&D variants were most XP comes from treasure, players will practically crawl over each other's bodies for a gold piece. In versions were most experience comes from killing things, player characters will pick any fight they can. Numenera, Monte Cook's latest RPG, rewards XP for discovering relics of lost worlds, making exploration the focus of the game. The 13th Age has a novel approach as well; it doesn't offer experience. There are no experience points in the game. Players level up automatically after completing stories, or reaching a dramatic pause in an ongoing tale. 

This is very much in keeping with the spirit of the game. Players are free to pursue their own agendas and stories without having to focus on killing things or grabbing treasure. A character can do these things, but a PC can be a Cleric or Monk with a vow of poverty or even pacifism if he or she wishes and still level up. 

So in closing, if you had asked me awhile back what I would think of about a game designed by Heinsoo and Tweet, "sexy" would not have been my response.

But hot damn it is now.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

GOTHIC and GOTHICKA: A Look at Victoira Nelson's New Book

Gothic [ˈgɒθɪk]
3. (Literary & Literary Critical Movements) (sometimes not capital) of or relating to a literary style characterized by gloom, the grotesque, and the supernatural, popular esp in the late 18th century: when used of modern literature, films, etc., sometimes spelt: Gothic

For the last twenty-five years of my life I have been playing with a dark jigsaw puzzle.  Perhaps you have seen the pieces strewn across the entries of this blog; religion, occultism, dreams, horror, imagination, the fantastic, the macabre.  I've never met Victoria Nelson, but having just finished her fascinating new Gothicka (Harvard University Press, 2012), it is clear that she has been playing with the same puzzle.  Gothicka shifts back and forth between literary criticism and spirituality, tracing the origin of "Gothick" (her spelling) as a post-Enlightenment genre of fiction and following its shadowy trail through Western society into the present.  She leaves no stone unturned as she tries to understand how the genre came to be, how it has grown into a thriving subculture, and where it might be leading us.     

Generally said to have all started with Horace Walpole's 1764 The Castle of Otranto, Gothic fiction is the precursor of the modern horror tale.  Like all genre fiction it is littered with certain tropes; the innocent young heroine, a dark and menacing stranger, grim family secrets, brooding and ancient architecture, and the power of the past to act upon the present.  But the black heart of the Gothic isn't these trappings.  It is about the intrusion of the supernatural into a rational and ordered world.  I think it is important to emphasize this because it is what separates Gothic from fantasy fiction.  In fantasy, the supernatural belongs.  It is part of the fabric of the setting.  In the Gothic, the supernatural is the iceberg and rational reality the Titanic.

Nelson clearly places the Gothic into historical context.  It appears during the Enlightenment, a period in which the earlier, medieval view of the world--a supernatural hierarchy ruled by God, administered by angels, and seeped in magic and miracles--has by and large been shattered.  To the medieval mind the world was supernatural and mysterious; to the minds of the Enlightenment it was something ordered and rational.  Reality could be studied and understood.  The Gothic emerges to preserve that earlier world view.  It seems to suggest that maybe we are wrong...maybe the world is irrational after all.  This is why we call it Gothic, a name that conjures up the Dark Ages.  In the Gothic story, scratch the surface of the modern world and the medieval is there looking back at us.

Which, of course, explains the disproportionate presence of Catholicism in the Gothic tale.  Roman Catholicism and medievalism are inextricably linked in the Western mind.  The Church dominated that era.  Thus whether it is The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring, The Rite, The Exorcist, The Last Exorcism, or even the classic vampire tale ('Salem's Lot, Fright Night), it is to Catholicism and the trappings of Catholicism that people automatically turn in the face of the supernatural.  When was the last horror film in which you saw a Baptist minister summoned to cleanse a haunted house?  A Lutheran pastor?  Deep inside, we understand that these newer protestant sects have no power over the intrusion of the Dark Ages back into our lives.  It has to be the Church that was there.

Gothic fiction thrived in the 19th and 20th centuries in the vacuum created when the supernatural was banished from daily life.  People now continued to experience the supernatural in the pages of fiction or on the silver screen.  But as we drew closer to the 21st century, something unexpected began to happen to the Gothic, and this is the core of Victoria Nelson's book.  Since the 1960s the monsters have been undergoing a transformation.  The Witch became the beautiful Samantha Stevens, the feisty Willow Rosenberg, the ladies from Charmed.  The Werewolf became sexy hunks like Jacob Black and True Blood's Alcide Herveaux.  And the Vampire, from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries and Twilight, is the brooding heartthrob.  And across the board they all had one thing in common...the transformation of the human being into something larger, greater, "higher."  The monsters of Gothic fiction stopped representing states of damnation and became instead paths to ascension.

None of which is as strange as it seems.  Again, we must remind ourselves that in the medieval imagination nothing, not even Satan, was as terrifying as God.  It was God who sent the Black Death, it was God who watched you at all times, it was God who would punish you if you disobeyed.  God, as the ultimate representative of the supernatural was terrible, awful, and inexplicable.  It was wise to be "God fearing."  But at the same time, God was the gateway to the numinous, to transformation, to becoming something greater than your self.  Horror and awe go hand-in-hand.  

Modern religions have been increasingly about the evolution of the self into a state of godhood.  The doctrine of salvation from above has become one of self-transformation.  We see this in Scientology, Mormonism, and Christian Science.  We see it in newer occult movements like Thelema, Satanism, or some schools of Wicca.  And we see it happening in the heart of the Gothic.  The shock and terror of the supernatural breaking down the walls of ordered reality has given way to possibility...to the notion of escaping the rational world into a higher state of potential and power.  Where once the Vampire was the ultimate state of damnation, cast forever from the grace of God, in the absence of God he becomes a transformative savior figure who offers liberation from human frailty and death.

It is clear that in the Gothic genre and the subculture it has spawned, Nelson sees a kind of emerging spirituality.  Though she mentions Anton LaVey several times in the book, in many ways she echoes exactly what he envisioned.  This is particularly the case when she discusses "Primary Believers" (religious practitioners who inhabit an ultimately supernatural world) and "Secondary Believers" (people who suspend disbelief and enter into a supernatural world temporarily).  This is exactly what LaVey believed his new religion to be, a society of Secondary Believers who experience the supernatural as self-created and self-transformational psychodrama.  I suspect the Church of Satan is a precursor of the kind of experience she sees Gothic heading for.

There is a lot going on in this book, too much to sum up here.  For me, reading it was a sort of validation for things I've been trying to express for years.  I would strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Gothic, in horror, or the supernatural. It was a gripping, highly informative and provocative read.              



Friday, August 2, 2013

ZEALOT: Some Thoughts on Reza Aslan's Book

It would have been impossible to have written a book like Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, without it generating a bit of controversy.  For starters, there is that title.  Today, we hear the word "zealot" and think of Osama bin Laden.  It has landed in the same category as "fundamentalist," "fanatic," and "extremist."  Sure enough, the dictionary tells us a zealot is a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.  If you read a bit further down, however, you come across the older, original meaning of the word;

a member of an ancient Jewish sect aiming at a world Jewish theocracy and resisting the Romans until ad 70.   

Hmm.  Someone advocating a universal "Kingdom of God" who challenged the might of the Romans.  Sound like any biblical figures you know?

But here is where it gets really controversial...for some people, at least.  Aslan's book is a meticulously researched, highly readable study of 1st century Roman Judea and the historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth.  It is not, however, about Jesus the Christ.  This is not to say that Aslan sets out to prove Christianity is all wrong or that Jesus was just an ordinary man.  He is very careful not to do that.  Rather, he is trying to write a modern history of Jesus, a concept that did not exist when the Gospels were written.  He points out that the authors of the Gospels had no intention of relaying historical facts, but rather were attempting to convey spiritual Truths as they understood them.  The question of his birthplace is a good example.

All four Gospels call him "Jesus of Nazareth," and agree he was a Nazarene.  It was common practice in an age when people lacked surnames to specify your birthplace in this way  to avoid confusion (in fact, of the many 1st century charismatic leaders in Judea who claimed to be the messiah there was even another "Jesus," Jesus of Ananias).  The author of Luke, however, tells us Jesus was actually from Bethlehem, and concocts a story that his contemporary readers would all have known was absurd.  In this tale, the Romans call for a census that requires families to uproot and return to the place where the head of the household was born to wait there and be counted.  It is ridiculous of course, and the Romans never did anything of the sort (how can you take count of persons and property when the property was left behind?).  But the point is Luke's Roman audience would have known it was not factually accurate, but it did explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem in fulfilment of prophecy (Micah 5:2).  Matthew goes even further and adds another absurdity, having the family flee soon after into Egypt to escape Herod, who is killing infants in the area.  This also never happened, but in fulfils yet another conflicting prophecy that the messiah would come out of Egypt like Moses (Hosea 11:1).  Contemporary readers would likely have also known this was not a description of real events, but the ancients were not as unsophisticated as we like to think.  They understood that something could be inaccurate but also reveal a Truth.

Aslan's book, then, is not an attempt to reveal that Truth but rather to be factual accurate.  It is not debunking the biblical narrative, but relating the facts as we known them.  There is the Jesus that people accept as Truth--the Son of God, the peacemaker who died for our sins--and there is also Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who existed before Christianity, and of whom all written accounts we have come from decades after his death.  By sticking to the facts that all accounts agree on, and comparing them to what we know of the period, a very interesting figure emerges.

1st century Roman Judea was a volatile, violent place about to be completely and literally wiped off the map in 70 C.E.  Under the Roman occupation, the local peoples saw their culture and values under assault by foreigners and foreign ideas.  Essentially a theocracy (the word was actually invented to describe the ancient Jewish state), it was a land divinely ordained, giving to the Hebrews by their God.  How then could something ordained by God be taken away from them?  The answer was, it couldn't.  A messiah would emerge and drive the Romans out.

Interesting word, that.  Messiah in ancient times meant a "king."  David, for example, was a messiah.  Under the Roman occupation it came to mean the "true king" rather than the false puppets the Romans had installed, a king anointed by God who would restore the old Jewish state (the "Kingdom of God").  Under Roman rule there were literally dozens of men claiming to be that messiah, and nearly all of them met with the same fate.

It is a simple fact that the Romans reserved crucifixion for one crime and one crime only; sedition or treason.  It is also a fact that they placed a sign over the victim's head to announce the nature of his treason.  Though the English translation for those who died alongside Jesus is "thieves," this is in fact a mistranslation.  A closer word would be "bandit," and it meant people who hid in the hills like modern Al Qaeda fanatics, robbing passerbys to fund their campaign against the state.  The Romans never crucified simple "thieves."  Nor was the charge levelled against Jesus a joke.  To the Romans, at least, "I.N.R.I" was his crime.  He had claimed to be King of the Jews.

Given that fact, it becomes clear that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans for the crime of defying Caesar.  The bit about Pontius Pilate being reluctant to kill Jesus and forced into it by the Jewish establishment is almost comical.  The historical Pilate had nothing but contempt for the Jews and ordered hundreds of crucifixions, and actually had to be scolded by the Emperor Tiberius for going out of his way to antagonise the Jewish people.  He was eventually recalled for his treatment of them.  After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., however, Christianity was fast becoming a Roman religion, and it became necessary to soften the Roman involvement in his death.

Looking back at Jesus as one of the men crucified for the crime of claiming to be the messiah, Aslan examines his life and doings in this light.  What emerges is a fascinating picture of a revolutionary, quite possibly a disciple of John the Baptist who would eventually take over and expand his movement after John's arrest.  From his birth (possibly as an illegitimate child--when he first returns to Nazareth the locals call him son of Mary, which meant only one thing in a culture where "son of" was followed by the father's name) to his terrible death, Aslan retraces his steps, and it is a gripping account.

In the end, the most controversial thing about Zealot is how uncontroversial it really is.  There is little in this book that I was not taught twenty years ago studying the history of early Christianity. It does disturb some sacred cows, but doesn't attempt to butcher them as Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens night have.  Aslan is not out to rob you of your faith.  He simply presenting the facts as academics have done time and time again before him.  But Aslan has a knack for breathing life and passion into what otherwise might be dry and dusty history, and Zealot is a surprising page turner.  Further, its theme--a fundamentalist religion that feels it is under attack by foreign influences and changing times--is as relevant now as it was twenty centuries ago.

Highly recommended for those interested in the historical Jesus, believer or non-believer alike.     


Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I have this adorable green Cthulhu plush toy; well, two actually.  One is a proper stuffed animal, with floppy wings and the cutest little face feelers.  The other is a large, soft pillow shaped like the Great Old One's head, complete with tentacles.  What Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) would make of his most famous creation--a titanic mass of world-destroying alien horror--reduced to something that elicits the same response as puppy dogs and kittens, I don't know.  But he is certainly in good company.  Bram Stoker's arch-vampire helps children learn to count on Sesame Street, and Mary Shelley's manufactured monster is now a berry-flavored breakfast cereal.  Lovecraft has joined a rather curious pop culture club.

How do old monsters go from horrifying to huggable?  Part of the problem might be overexposure.  When Stoker penned Dracula in 1897--or when Le Fanu wrote Carmilla a quarter century earlier--readers must have been terrified by the notion of beautiful young girls mysteriously experiencing blood loss and wasting away.  Today, however, there is hardly a single person out there who wouldn't immediately know to stock up on garlic and religious accessories at the sight of two puncture marks on a victim's neck.  Vampires (or more politely, as Buffy put it "Undead Americans") are as common as the common cold.  If fear of the unknown is the greatest terror humans can know, how could we expect vampires to still be scary?  Lovecraft's monstrous alien thing is in the same boat.  We've seen him in comics and video games, RPGs and CCGs, and he's been Cartman's best friend in a Totoro-inspired South Park.  He's become so well known that every four year he runs for President on the slogans "No more years" and "Why vote for the lesser evil?"

But there is something deeper going on here.  In Danse Macabre, his brilliant analysis of the genre, Stephen King described the work of the horror writer as 'psychic judo,' seeking the psychological weak spots of the reader and striking at them.  The problem is, weak spots change.  Sometime towards the end of the 20th century for example, vampires stopped fleeing from crosses.  Then they stopped being 'evil.'  They became sex symbols.  And having eventually lost all credibility they started to 'sparkle.'  This is because society changed.  For the Victorian reader, the most horrifying thing conceivable was being eternally 'damned' and denied the grace of God.  They didn't see vampires as 'immortal,' but rather forbidden from ever entering Heaven.  But if you remove God, damnation, and the soul from the equation, vampires suddenly become attractive.  They sleep all day, party all night, and live forever.  There is no longer a downside.  In an age of Botox, plastic surgery, and endless hours in the gym, who wouldn't drink a little blood to look like the cast of The Vampire Diaries?

Frankenstein is a similar case.  In 1818, the idea of man playing God was radical.  Nearly two centuries later we've split the atom, walked on the moon, and mapped the human genome.  Playing God?  Been there, done that.

And then there is Lovecraft.  In his youth, Howard lived in a universe consisting of a single galaxy, still run by a benevolent God, and following the nice and tidy laws of classical physics.  The world was widely considered a few thousand years old.  In his lifetime, Einstein and his ilk turned Newton inside out, Heisenberg completely reshaped what mankind knew or was even capable of knowing, the world became millions of years old, the universe billions, and our galaxy was just one of countless others.  We went from being God's favorite ape in a neat and tidy cosmos to a microscopic speck of dust in a universe run by chance.  Well...at least that is how it seemed. Lovecraft's weird stories zeroed in with laser-like intensity on all this uncertainty.  He wrote of man's insignificance, of the immeasurable age of the cosmos, of our civilizations being just brief blips in the endless Aeons of time.  This was heavy stuff for its day.

The problem is, most of us have gotten used to these ideas.  There are still flat-earthers who--like four-year-olds covering their ears and chanting "I can't hear you"--deny science and try to live in fantasy land, but reasonable people far outnumber them.  We know the universe is billions of years old and bigger than we can wrap our heads around.  We know the planet was not created for our benefit and just as there were dinosaurs before us there will be something else after.  We've digested this.  And because of that, Cthulhu doesn't pack the same existential wallop.  Hermey the wanna-be-dentist had pulled the Abominable Snow Man's teeth, and now he plays nice with Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, and the gang.

Ironically, the stuff in Lovecraft that still 'works' isn't the cosmic horror, but the nasty stuff critics have always condemned him for.  The underlying racism and xenophobia common in his work continues to be a psychological sore spot for people today.  In both Europe and America, a fear of invading "primitive cultures" (we politely call them "developing countries") undermining our way of life still exists in the hearts of many people, a fear that Lovecraft would have merrily responded to. And while few people continue to advocate racial purity--as Lovecraft did--the Westboro Baptist Church and Justica Scalia's "argle bargle" of a dissent show that a pervasive fear of "unnatural" and "deviant" sexuality still abounds.  This is yet another area of discomfort Lovecraftian fiction exploits.  And most obvious of all, Lovecraft's fear of religious mania and zealotry remains as pertinent now as ever.  Millions of people live daily with a deep seated fear of foreign religions, and we have all seen the extremes that belief can drive people to.  For all these reasons stories like Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, an insane basket of xenophobia and sexual deviancy and alien religion, continue to push our buttons, even if The Call of Cthulhu does not.

These themes in Lovecraft, mixed with more common ones such as nihilism, body horror, and fear of death, continue to strike those psychic pressure points.  Yog-Sothoth and Shub Niggurath and Great Cthulhu may have lost their original punch, but it is hard to match the degenerate shock and horror of The Rats in the Walls.  There is still gold in them thar hills of Lovecraft country, if one knows how to pan for it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

THE WHOLE OF THE LAW, Some Observations on Thelema

Here is the official story.  Do what you will with it.

While on honeymoon in Cairo, the young bride of one Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) fell into a sort of trance, and started telling her husband that the god Horus was trying to get in touch with him.  Crowley had been, prior to all of this, l'enfant terrible of a magical order known as the Golden Dawn, but he had retired from the magical arts and was at the time a practicing Buddhist.  His wife, by contrast, had no esoteric background or knowledge, and he was understandably irritated by her ramblings.  He took her to a museum and challenged her to point out who was trying to reach him, sneering to himself as she blindly walked right past all the well known images of Horus.  But straight she went to a small, painted funeral stele, and pointed excitedly.  Sure enough, it displayed Horus (Ra Hoor Khuit), as well as two other deities, the Egyptian star goddess Nut (Nuit) and Behdet (Hadit) the winged solar disc.  She insisted this was the source of the voices calling to her, and Crowley, who had been raised in a strict Christian sect and had been called by his mother "the Beast" and "Antichrist" for his rebelliousness and rejection of her faith, couldn't help but notice that the museum exhibit number of this little wooden item was number 666.  It was enough to convince him to listen to her.

Following her instructions, Crowley locked himself in his bedroom between the hours of noon and one o'clock on three successive afternoons, April 8th, 9th, and 10th.  There he sat down at his desk, pen and paper ready.  And there, the story goes, a voice dictated to him Liber AL vel Legis, also known as The Book of the Law.  He always insisted it wasn't in his head.  He heard it from over his left shoulder, from the corner of the room.

This book, and the message it contains, is absolutely central to my world view.  Though I dislike the word "religion," and agree with Crowley that it has no place in discussions of Thelema (the philosophy arising from The Book of the Law), if I had a religion this would be it.  But part of the reason I call myself a Thelemite is because it asks me to believe nothing, including the origin story I just shared with you.  Did the gods reach out and dictate this book to Crowley?  I don't know.  I do know, however, that he himself was convinced of this.  Crowley was a skeptical polymath, relentlessly self-critical, and kept meticulous diaries.  It is clear from them that he rejected The Book of the Law, and was initially dismissive of its claims.  He refused the role it assigned to him for years.  But the more he studied the book, the harder he tried to reduce it, the more convinced of its authenticity he became.  It became crystal clear in his mind that The Book of the Law had been dictated to him by an intelligence greater than himself, and it was his firm conviction that his life mission was to bring the new law to all.  I for one and glad he did.

So what exactly is in this book?  For starters it is divided into three short chapters, each dictated over the space of one hour as Crowley furiously scribbled them out.  We know this because those pages are preserved, and photos of each one are included in every copy of The Book of the Law for all to examine.  These are not the golden tablets of Joseph Smith, conveniently whisked away by angels after he translated The Book of Mormon from them.  Each chapter was dictated, through a messenger named Aiwass, by a different deity.  Like the Christian Trinity, however, these three gods are part of a whole.  The first is Nuit, the goddess of infinite space.  The second is her counterpart Hadit, the tiny spark of the infinite within each of us.  The third is Ra-Hoor-Khuit, the Crowned and Conquering Child of theirs who governs the space between them.  Think of Nuit as the circumference of a circle, Hadit as the center, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit as the radius and the area (everything in The Book of the Law is intensely mathematical, and it is riddled not only with mathematical conceptions but hidden codes and encryptions).  Another way to regard them is with Nuit as the Universe, Hadit as our own individuality and consciousness, and Ra-Hoor as how we interact with the world around us.

Aside from this cosmology, which is in itself actually key to the rest of the message, The Book of the Law is declaring a New Aeon and a new Magickal Formula for humanity to live by.  That takes some explaining.  For starters a "Magickal Formula" is simply an observation of reality and a prescription of how to interact with it.  "The early bird gets the worm," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "E=MC2," and "pi" are all examples.  They reflect our understanding of how things work, or how they should work.  Thelema postulates beyond this that there are bigger, all-encompassing Magickal Formulae that govern entire stages of human development, also known as "Aeons."  Crowley discusses three of these, and given the Egyptian origins of Thelema, he uses Nile gods to label them.

The Aeon of Isis governed human prehistory.  It was the time of our hunter-gathering ancestors, and its chief Magickal Formula was the Great Mother.  Chiefly concerned with "where does life come from," the answer seemed to be from women, and the earth.  Women appeared to spontaneously bring forth life, as did the land itself, and both produced food from their bodies.  Archaeological evidence abounds demonstrating this ancient cult of the mother, from massive breasted fertility figurines to skeletons buried in the fetal position as if returning to the Great Mother's womb.  

With agriculture came a new formula, and a new Aeon.  Crops were produced by the seed, incubated in the soil.  This led to the conclusion that the male seed, semen, was the source of human life as well, with women merely as the incubator.  This was an idea that lasted well into Roman and medieval times.  Further, the importance of the sun in the cycles of nature and the growing season moved the focus from Terra to Sol.  The new formula was God the Father, Lord of Light and Life.  Believing to have the mystery of where life came from solved, attention turned sharply to "what happens after death."  The answer came from the Solar Father; the sun dies each night and rises reborn.  This became the formula of the Father God cult.  By obedience and worship to God the Father, like him we will rise from the dead.  This was the central teaching of scores of antique mystery religions, from Osiris to Christ.  Crowley chose to name this Aeon after the former.  With this Aeon of Osiris authority moved from matriarchal families and tribes to patriarchal states.  It lasted until the dawn of the 20th century.

The Book of the Law initiates the Aeon of Horus.  For the egyptology-impaired, Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, and just as the first Aeon was the Mother's, and the second the Father's, the New Aeon is that of the Child.  Humanity is no longer ignorant of the facts of life; we understand conception requires both egg and sperm equally.  The union of opposites becomes  an essential Magickal Formula of the Age.  We no longer believe the sun dies and is resurrected; we know it is always there, and that the rotation of the planet creates the illusion of solar death.  Thus we can discard all this resurrection nonsense; even "death" can be dismissed.  Nothing "dies," and the molecules of our bodies--forged in the hearts of stars countless millennia ago--are simply translated into something else.  Death comes from the erroneous conclusion that we are separate from the Universe.  The end of bodily life does not erase suddenly the role we played.  The effect we had upon the world endures forever.  We are part of the fabric of being and this never ends.

Dispensing with the question of birth and the fear of death, Thelema asks us to focus on the most important spiritual question; "how should we live?"  It provides us with an answer, the new Magickal Formula of the Aeon of Horus.  "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."

Perhaps nothing else in Thelema is as poorly understood, or as central, as "do what thou wilt."  Thelema is the Greek word for "will," and the very definition of a Thelemite is one who seeks to discover and do his or her will.  By "will" we mean True Will, and it is nothing less than what you are meant to do with your existence.  Will is not assigned to us by an external God; we are not to do God's will but our own.  The time of the Father, like the Mother, has passed.  We are to take responsibility for ourselves now and move out on our own.

For the Thelemite, "every man and every woman is a star."  We are each the center of our own solar system, the source of our own light, the sole sovereign of our own existence.  But at the same time we are clustered into galaxies, and each of us has a trajectory we are moving on through space.  Your Will is that trajectory, determined by your position, composition, and disposition.  It is always natural to you.  You are drawn to it, you are good at it, it comes naturally and feels right.  It is not a chore, though it may not be easy.  The Thelemite works to find his or her Will and then do it as best as they can.

But there is a corollary to this Law of perfect freedom; "...thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay."  The Law does not say "do whatever you please." You are required to do your Will; if you are gay it is wrong to try and force yourself to be straight.  If you are a gifted painter it is wrong to force yourself into accounting or medicine to please your parents.  Trying to make your life easier by not doing your Will violates the Law.  Further, no other may say "nay."  The only sin, The Book of the Law tells us, is restriction.  Any action that restricts another person from doing his or her own Will is "evil."  Rape, as a violation of another's sexual Will, is evil.  Theft, as a violation of a person's livelihood and therefore ability to do their Will, is evil.  Murder, the greatest violation of Will imaginable, is evil.  It may be that on some occasions, stars collide when following the course of their Wills, but in general the evils of the world arise from people not doing their Will.  It is no one's Will to walk into a classroom and murder innocent children.  It is no one's Will to force themselves on someone.  We must do our Wills and leave others to do theirs.

Connected to this concept of individual sovereignty and individual Will is that of individual deity.  This brings up the debate whether or not Thelema can be called a "religion."

The three chief divinities of The Book of the Law are not properly objects of worship in the way that Yahweh or Allah or Vishnu are understood to be.  Nor do they answer prayer.  Indeed they are not even objective entities so much as personifications of concepts.  Hadit is the spark of consciousness and individuality within us, and Nuit is the manifest universe around us.  They are "divided for love's sake," for the joy of reunion.  We are meant to intact with each other and the world as we might with a lover.  The "worship" of Nuit then, is to live joyously, and Hadit is in reality the "worshiper."  Ra-Hoor-Khuit, the product of the interaction between the self and the world, is the embodiment of Thelema.  He embodies how we are to live, and is not to be worshipped, just followed.  

But the notion of a personal god is not entirely absent from Thelema.  In fact, Thelema takes the word "personal" quite literally.  Rather than the individual forming a "personal relationship" with a single divine being, as worshipers do with Christ or Krishna, the Thelemite has his very own "personal god," a link between the self and the ultimate level of reality.  This is not unique to Thelema; it is an extremely ancient and widespread concept.  The Greeks believed everyone had their own god, or daemon.  The Romans called it the genius.  Thelema includes this type of being in its cosmology as well, calling it the "Holy Guardian Angel." There is no clear consensus on what exactly its nature is, however, and even Crowley went back and forth when trying to pin it down.  He would at one time call it the "Higher Self," only later to insist that it was not that, but a being in its own right.  For example, he came to think that Aiwass, the intelligence that dictated The Book of the Law to him, was his own Angel, and possessed intellect and awareness far beyond his own capacities.  Fortunately, the Thelemite is not required to have any preconceptions concerning the nature of this being, he or she is only required to seek it out and form a union with it.  This is perhaps the closest Thelema drifts towards religion in the conventional sense, but there are so many other facets of the system at odds with religious conventions it is hard to feel comfortable using that word.

Aside from the absence of communal prayer or a shared deity, it is forbidden for any Thelemite to attempt to interpret The Book of the Law for anyone else.  One must read the book and interpret it for oneself, period. This makes any sort of church or congregation, wherein uniformity is encouraged, problematic.  Further, nothing is to be taken on "faith;" Thelema insists on a policy of scientific illuminism wherein the "method of science" is put towards "the aim of religion."  If there is any truth to mystical experience, it is argued, then it must respond to the application of the scientific method.  Mystical states must be reproducible by anyone using the correct formulae, regardless of ideology or "belief."  Crowley wrote in his kind to students, Liber O;

"In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them."

This system of scientific illuminism, which Crowley termed "Magick," is closely intertwined with the philosophy of Thelema in a way religion is not.  The Book of the Law refers to magical rites, but refrains from using the word "religion" at all.  So while Thelema does indeed occupy the psychology space in my being that religion might occupy for others, I am more comfortable referring to it as a "path" or "system" than a religion. "...our system is a religion," wrote Crowley;

"...just so far as religion means an enthusiastic putting together of doctrines, no one of which must in any way clash with Science or Magick...call it a new religion, then, if it so please your Gracious Majesty, but I confess I fail to see what you will have gained in so doing, and I feel bound to add that you might easily cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and work a rather stupid kind of mischief."    

The question, ultimately, resides with the story back in Cairo.  If you think Aiwass was an objective being, if you think Ra Hoor Khuit really has taken his seat on the throne of the gods, if you think Crowley really was chosen to deliver a divine mandate to mankind, you are very likely to look at Thelema as a religion.  Indeed, I have known many Thelemites who do.  If you tend to think as I do, that the elementals, gods, demons, and angels conjured by Magick all dwell as disparate facets of our own psyches, one is less inclined to regard it as religion and more as a system for psychological development and a guide for living.  In a way it all depends on the question of Aiwass.  As psychologist, occultist, and former secretary to Crowley Israel Regardie wrote in The Eye in the Triangle;

“If Aiwass was his own Higher Self, then the inference is none other than that Aleister Crowley was the author of the Book, and that he was the external mask for a variety of different hierarchical personalities… The man Crowley was the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, the outer shell of a God, even as we all are, the persona of a Star… He is the author of The Book of the Law even as he is the author of The Book of the Heart Girt with a Serpent and Liber Lapidis Lazuli, and so forth. …these latter books reveal a dialogue between the component parts of Crowley. It seems to me that basically this Liber Legis is no different.”

I am inclined to side with Regardie for several reasons.  The first and chiefest is my own thirty years of dealings with Magick and twenty with The Book of the Law.  I know full well how real these entities all can be, and frequently they do demonstrate knowledge and power that I would consider beyond my own capacity.  Indeed, the summer I retired from the world to perform the Abramelin Ritual (the operation to achieve the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel) very nearly tipped me the other way into believing full on that I was dealing with discarnate entities independent of my own mental processes.  This experience was intimately connected with The Book of the Law, and like Crowley I teetered on that line between skepticism and belief.  I have been struggling the subsequent eight years to put that summer into words, but suffice to say it was Crowley--and Liber AL vel Legis--that talked me off the ledge.  The first was the quote from Liber O I mentioned above, the second was Crowley's commentary on one of The Book of the Law's most inspiring verses; "Every man and every woman is a star.  Every number is infinite; there is no difference."  Crowley wrote of this in The Law is for All;

"This is a great and holy mystery.  Although each star has its own number, each number is equal and supreme.  Every man and every woman is not only a part of God, but the Ultimate God.  'The Centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.'  The old definition of God takes new meaning for us.  Each one of us is the One God."

If we are stars, then, all the spirits would seem to be the planets and moons and comets that compose our systems.  They are independent to a degree, but dependent on our gravitation and light.  This is not to say that our common, daily consciousness is the "star" either.  In fact I think it is probably our Higher Self that is the true center, and that the idea of ourself we have constructed from experience and cultural inheritance is just more debris in orbit around that center.  Magick, and Thelema, is about shifting the seat of your consciousness from those moons to the actually sun.

For this reason, I hold the view that in that Cairo hotel suite Crowley did indeed experience a revelation from the deepest center of himself, not a religion, but a liberation from religion.  "It is our Work to overthrow the slave-gods," as Crowley wrote.  

But does this make Liber AL vel Legis more or less remarkable?  Obviously I side with "more."  If Crowley's New Aeon was not, in fact, yet another dictate from yet another god, it was something all the more amazing: the deepest parts of a young man in 1904 who somehow saw the entire 2oth century spread before him.  For the Book accurately predicts wars on a scale never seen before as the old ways of kings and gods and faiths clash with the new way of freedom, personal responsibility, and independence.  It predicts the rising equality of the sexes and the acceptance of personal sexual preferences.  It sees a massive redefining of what religion means.  And it calls for a spirituality that in no way clashes with reason or science.  If Crowley was not the message bearer for yet another god, he was a visionary.  And in that there is the promise that we can be too.  So I close with a quote from his Confessions;

"I admit that my visions can never mean to other men as much as they do to me. I do not regret this. All I ask is that my results should convince seekers after truth that there is beyond doubt something worth while seeking, attainable by methods more or less like mine. I do not want to father a flock, to be the fetish of fools and fanatics, or the founder of a faith whose followers are content to echo my opinions. I want each man to cut his own way through the jungle."