"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."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


As a bit of a Tolkien nut, there was never any question whether or not I was going to go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  I've read the book at least a dozen times and have been eagerly waiting for the film adaptation. But despite looking forward to it, I went into the theater with a mild case of trepidation.  You see, some other Tolkien nerds, I thought Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy was genius, Tom Bombadil or no.  The bottom line is that I recognize books cannot be filmed directly as written, that the two mediums are very different animals, and that particularly in the case of a wordsmith like Tolkien the transition from print to cinema necessitated change.  So it wasn't any Peter Jackson hate that made me uneasy going into The Hobbit.  My jitters were caused by two big questions hanging over the project.  First, did a children's novel that weighs in at less than 300 pages really require a nine hour long film trilogy?  Second, I knew Jackson wanted to tie the Hobbit films into The Lord of the Rings as a sort of prequel, which the book sort of is.  Sort of.  The problem is that The Hobbit is a light-hearted children's fantasy, while The Lord of the Rings is, well, Wagnerian.  Joining the two would be like making Snow White the lead-in for Les Miserable.  Could Jackson pull it off?

Well actually, yes.

The Tone

In general I try to be patient with people who tell me Tolkien is a "bad" writer, that he "had a great imagination" or was a "fantastic world-builder" but that the writing itself was weak.  To each his own, of course, but what I am really hearing is something like "I have never read a piece of pre-industrial fiction, don't have the first clue about it, and expected Tolkien to read like a modern novelist."  They go into Tolkien thinking he is R. A. Salvatore or Robert Jordan and are dumbfounded by what they find.  On the other hand, if you have read medieval or ancient literature, it becomes crystal clear that Tolkien was an extraordinary writer, but that he chose to work in a genre that was no longer around.  He reads like Geoffrey of Monmouth or Thomas Malory, and had more in common with Beowulf, the Kalevala, and the King James Bible than George RR Martin or Michael Moorcock.

The Hobbit, however, is the one exception.  In writing for children, Tolkien consciously tries to bridge the gap between the medieval and the modern by speaking directly to the reader in a conversational tone and in the personage of Bilbo Baggins.  His hobbits are anachronisms; in a world of warriors, dragons, and wizards, they have pocket watches and handkerchiefs, a postal service and afternoon tea.  Bilbo was a literary device to ease children from the world of 1930s Britain into the ancient past.  As Bilbo is dragged into a strange new world, so were they.

It's all in the names.  Tolkien lifted the names of Gandalf and the 13 dwarves from the old Norse Voluspa saga.  They are quite literally relics of a bygone age.  But Bilbo is a "Baggins of Bag End," whose very name elicits a smile from those who catch the joke ("Bag End" is the English translation of cul de sac, the very symbol of modern suburbia).  Tolkien is having a bit of fun with us, and making it very plain that Bilbo is the modern reader's surrogate.  As he slowly releases his modern comforts and picks up a sword, so do we.  There is no such anachronism in The Silmarillion or the recent Children of Hurin; the reader is thrust right into the ancient world without decompression.  And Frodo Baggins of the Rings saga is no Bilbo, he's a soldier called upon to risk his life for his country rather than a well-to-do bourgeois  who decides an adventure might be fun.  Thus The Hobbit stands apart from the bulk of Tolkien's work not only in being kid-friendly, but in being more "modern reader" friendly as well.

What Jackson had to do, then, was wed an epic story about war, resilience, and death (The Lord of the Rings) to what was effectively a children's adventure meant to awake something "Tookish" in kids and make them dream of Beowulf (Tolkien, was, of course, one of the greatest Beowulf scholars of his day and as a good Catholic has his characters re-enact Beowulf like the stations of the cross; we have Gollum in his cave for Grendel in his, we have Beorn the "bear man" for Beowulf the "bee-wolf" or bear, and it all leads of course to a dragon).  Jackson is put in the position to do what Tolkien wrestled with...making The Hobbit a real prequel.  Because it wasn't, not really.  There are no "orcs" in The Hobbit but "goblins," the trolls are comical and speak cockney, Gandalf is just a wizard and the ring is not yet The Ring.  All the mythology Tolkien would later weave is not really there in The Hobbit, and Tolkien was himself hard pressed at times to link them.

Jackson does a fair job by literally blending The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings.  He keeps the comedy and the songs, but shows us the meeting of the White Council that Gandalf only alluded to in the book  His trolls are comedic, but he introduces Radaghast the Brown and shows us the darkening of Mirkwood and Dol Guldur. Gandalf is given motives for the quest that Tolkien only attached to him much later (the Dragon could be a potential ally for Sauron of Mordor down the road).  In short, Jackson takes The Hobbit and seasons it with the Rings appendices.

Which leads me to the problem...

The Trilogy

Unlike the purists whose heads explode with ever little deviation Jackson makes from the Holy Writ, it is clear to me that Jackson and his team love Tolkien.  They are fanboys (and girls) like me.  While I am hardly naive enough to discount the fact that the studio can make a lot more money from three films rather than one, I remain convinced that Jackson likes the idea of three Hobbit movies because he can cram every last nerdish detail in.

Bringing The Lord of the Rings to the screen in just nine hours required a Herculean effort of concision and editing.  We are talking about 1500 pages of text.  Bringing The Hobbit to the screen in nine hours is the total opposite.  The story is less than 300 pages.  So again we go back to "blending," not just to bring the tone of The Hobbit closer to Rings but to make sure we can pack in as much minutia as possible.  Anything and everything that didn't make the Rings films is popping up here.

This isn't a bad thing--in fact for fans it is a great thing--but I can easily see where casual viewers will be left wondering where on Middle-earth Jackson banished his editors to.  I had a laugh out loud moment when Gandalf explains that there are four other Wizards like him; Sauruman the White, Radaghast the Brown, and the two Blue Wizards whose names, Gandalf admits, he "forgot."  I laughed because I know Tolkien never really bothered to name them, but no one else in the cinema got the joke.  Like seeing the White Council meet on screen, it is the kind of thing that extended cut DVD watchers like myself eat up but may leave others yawning.


So is the first installment any good?  Absolutely.  If you judge it by other fantasy films it is brilliant.  If you judge it by the Rings movies it is merely "good."  If you liked the Jackson Middle-earth films you will like this Hobbit.  There is even a good chance it will bring in new fans as well, given that this is a MUCH more "family friendly" film than any of the others.  Jackson does a superb job of finding a middle of the road tone between the lighter Hobbit and the apocalyptic Rings, and by including so many members of the Rings cast he clearly sets this all up as part of the same epic story...just a lighter chapter.  But in the negative column, unless you are a die-hard Middle-earther these films are bound to be a bit of a slog.  Two Hobbit films I could believe, but three?  I am hoping the next two films pick up the pace a bit.

Now, before I go something has to be said about Martin Freeman, on whose Bilboish shoulders much of this hangs.  He is, in a word, splendid.  In the book, Bilbo is more a device than a character, and Freeman has the challenge of making him real, which he does wonderfully.  He is a much more attractive figure than Frodo was.  And the script manages to do something truly wonderful, taking Bilbo's love of his little hobbit hole and using it for a climactic display of empathy that is quite moving.  Richard Armitage is equally good as Thorin Oakenshield, who again feels more flesh and blood on the screen than he did in the book.  This may be one thing Jackson has going for him in these films; in the Rings, he had to capture the depth of the characters, while in The Hobbit he is more free to give depth to them.  So far, so good.

I give The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 6 Ringwraiths out of 9.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


A lone figure makes her way through the Caucus Mountains.  It is somewhere around 1000 B.C.  In the shadow of Mingi Taw ("the Eternal Mountain," what today we call Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak in all Europe), she comes across a lone shepherdess that the locals just call "Girl."  Further along she meets a woodcutter named "Logfella," and his canine companion "Dogfella."  Hidden in the dreams of these mountain people are the forces she needs to complete her woeful quest.  But first, she needs the woodcutter to lead her up the lost roads to the Kingdom of the Clouds.  He agrees but isn't "super jazzed" about it.

So begins Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, an indie game phenomenon that combines Jung, Robert E. Howard, and Joseph Campbell in a world that looks and feels like a living Georges Seurat painting.  Just to prove how timeless and eternal myth is, the game is set in prehistory, the characters speak like modern twenty-somethings, and the entire project is drenched and dripping with the "feel" of fantasy from the 70s, when D&D was a secret you had to be initiated into, you had Heavy Metal magazines under your bed, and Tolkien was woven like secret threads in Led Zeppelin lyrics.  For something intentionally designed to look like you might have played it on your Atari or Commodore 64, Sword & Sworcery isn't a game but rather an experience.  It's what Greg Stafford would call a "HeroQuest," a journey outside profane reality into what Mircea Eliade's "sacred time."  It's not about treasure, levels, or stats; it's about truth, dreams, and above all else "death."

Don't get me wrong, there are puzzles to solve, monsters to fight, quests to be won.  But spend ten minutes within this game and you will immediately recognize this thing is an entirely different species from Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, or World of Warcraft.  The inclusion of "EP" in the title is there for a reason; it's not so much a traditional RPG as a concept album you can hang out in.  Designed in collaboration with Canadian progressive rock artist Jim Guthrie, whose stunning soundtrack is a vital part of the experience, the "record album" association is part of the architecture, often literally.  On the menu screen, a spinning record album charts your progression through the game, the needle gliding towards the center the closer to the end you get.  Every time the protagonist travels back and forth between the waking and dream worlds--the two interconnected settings of the game--the record album is seen "flipping over" (the Dream World is "Side B").  The "sworcery" of the title is not tossing fireballs or shooting lightning from your fingers, but rather a song the protagonist learns to sing which expands her consciousness so that she can perceive the unseen.  And in the Dream World you have the chance to meet album composer Guthrie himself and have a jam session with him. The soul of this game is the music.

As for gameplay, Swords & Sworcery has little interest in established conventions.  There are no rules to learn before play...you just jump right in.  You are prodded at times with enigmatic phrases; Trespass, Look, Listen, Touch, Believe, and part of the challenge is to figure out what they mean.  At crucial stages the game's narrator--a Rod Serlingesque dude in a suit with a cigar and a really big chair--will appear to address you, the player, directly, with cryptic instructions and explanations.  Because in Sword & Sworcery there is no "fourth wall."  From the very start the game makes it clear that you, the player, are going through the journey as surely as the protagonist is.  In fact she--the Scythian warrior monk you play throughout the game--never once says "I."  Her pronoun of choice is "we," speaking for you and her.  Combat is handled by blocking with a shield and parrying with a sword, and you start the game with five "health levels" (the only stat you have).  In a brilliant and complete inversion of other RPGs, after each of the game's four episodes one of those health levels actually disappears.  This is a game about mortality, after all, and she is growing old, making it harder to reach the end.  For the rest, this is your Hero's Journey as much as hers.  You begin a novice and learn as you go.

On a random note, the game was released in the US on the vernal equinox and in Japan on the summer solstice.  The phase of the moon--our moon, the real moon up the in the sky--is essential to unlocking some of the game's episodes.  That means you need to play it over a lunar month at least, waiting for the moon to be in phase.  If you can think of anything cooler, drop me a line.

In conclusion, there is a line in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata (composed around the same period as the setting of this game) that kept coming back to me as I played.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the author of that epic would stop every now and again to address the reader directly too.  Anyway, it was there in the back of my head as I encountered each Jungian archetype--the Sheperdess, the Woodcutter, the Wolf, the Deathless Spectre.  "This is a story about you...and if you listen, at the end you will be a different person than when we began."

That's Sword & Sworcery in a nutshell.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Let's get our definitions out-of-the-way first;

Objective universe: the part of existence which can be sensed and quantified. It is the mechanical/organic cosmic order characterized by its regularity and predictability, by the presence of laws.

Subjective universe: the "world" of any sentient entity within the universe. There are as many subjective universes as there are sentient beings, each is the particularized manifestation of consciousness within the universe.

THE FIRST THING you learn as a magician is that there are two worlds, the one of the senses, and the one inside our heads. The second thing you learn, is that a great deal of mischief arises from confusing the two planes. Uber magician Aleister Crowley, once warned his students before beginning on any magical curriculum;

1. This book is very easy to misunderstand; readers are asked to use the most minute critical care in the study of it, even as we have done in its preparation.

2. 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.

I have often thought a similar warning should preface the Bible.

Because "objective reality" and "philosophic validity" is exactly what too many religious people ascribe to the gods and spirits in their respective religions. Over the years, I have met people ready to attest to the palpable presence of Allah in their lives, or the Buddha, or Krishna, or Jesus Christ. And I believe them; I have no doubt that these entities are absolutely real for them. But this is where I always remember Crowley's warning. Just because they are real for them in their subjective universe does not mean they exist as objective realities, and more harm than good arises from believing that they do.

But this is also the mistake that atheists and positivists make. Simply because your microscope tells you differently, doesn't mean that Communion doesn't really become flesh and blood. It does; but inside the confines of the subjective universe. All the gods that ever were are totally real, even if they did not leave a shred of DNA evidence behind. And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. They exist on a separate frequency from the material, the same frequency that the imagination vibrates upon.

Which does not in any way make them less real than a virus, or gravity. Make no mistake; ideas too can kill. This is the third thing that every magician must learn to understand; that the boundaries between the objective and subjective universes can be crossed. Alice can pass through the Looking Glass, but so too can the Red Queen.

We all know this but we forget. Objective experiences become memories, thoughts, and impressions all the time everyday of our lives. The subjective universe is a mirror that reflects images of the objective world. But it is also so much more than that, and that is the gift of being human. The reason that magic is classified as an "art" is because it takes something born in the subjective world and moves it into the objective. Like all arts, both fine and industrial, it is all about taking an idea and using it to reshape the objective world. It is about turning the mirror around so that the objective world reflects the subjective. This is why, of course, it is ridiculous to dismiss subjective realities as simply delusions or dreams. Too often they escape the confines of their cages and rampage around the "real" world.

As a magician my purpose is to go deep into the subjective world and summon things out of it. This dovetails nicely with my work as a writer. But that's nothing new; the connection between the Word and magic is deep and ancient. We speak of spells and spellings, grammar and grimoire. And all the old gods of magic--Hermes, Mecury, Odin, Thoth--were patrons of communication too. The spirits conjured by great writers have touched millions; who doesn't know Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, or Ebeneezer Scrooge? They move invisibly around us, occasionally seizing possession of actors, not unlike the loa of voudon. All writers--and artists--are magicians, and vice versa.
And here is where we come to the point.

The secret that magicians possess, the one that positivists and theologians lack, is that the objective reality of the spirits we conjure is wholly irrelevant; what matters is their ability to effect the world. Just as the identity of light as photons or waves changes with perspective, so too does the reality of gods and spirits depending on whether your vantage point is in the objective or subjective world. Theists and atheists will squabble endlessly over the existence of God, but the magician knows they are both correct. Further, he is more interested in how "God" effects things than proving or disproving him, just as with any other subjective being. And in the end this might be the greatest point of contention between magic and religion; the magician is concerned with what the gods can do for us, not what we can do for them. This is why it is impossible for me to bow down and worship a god; I am by extension bowing down to the magician who conjured it, and whether his "spell" is meant to control who I sleep with or to persuade me to fly an airplane into a skyscraper, I would be a poor magician indeed to fall under it. I am, however, entitled to listen to the gods conjured by other people. Jesus of Nazareth does not need to be the Lord and Savior of my own subjective universe for me to give him an ear. As a magician, I am free to listen to and to learn from any god, spirit, or devil and weigh what they have to say equally.

Which brings me to the fourth and final secret that being a magician has taught me; the definition of what a "spirit" is. It is more than just the personification of a phenomenon, it is the imposition of meaning on phenomena. We know this when we talk about the "spirit" as opposed to the "letter" of something, or the "spirit" of how it was intended. The objective universe is completely devoid of meaning; it just "is." But our inner subjective worlds are fraught with meaning, bursting with it. Magic, and art, are struggles to bridge the two worlds and infuse our lives with meaning, with spirit, but to be fully aware that we are the ones doing the defining. We must avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of accepting that life is meaningless or that it comes already defined. It is our job to do magic, to transmute lead into gold, and to give meaning to our own existences. That is the greatest magic there is.

Since I began with Aleister, I would like to finish with him as well.  

"...WHY should you study and practice Magick (sic)?  Because you can't help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly."

Monday, September 10, 2012


I am a firm believer in the Fairy Tale.

As an art form, I mean. That fairy tales are global and universal should probably tell us something about how essential they are to the human condition, but it is easy to overlook in a modern society where there is increasing pressure upon children (and adults!) to focus on “the real world.” There is also a very modern conceit that our ancestors were foolish because they believed in such stories, but this is a leftover of bad Victorian era scholarship. The truth is, pre-modern people told fairy tales for the same reasons we should; not because they believed them to be literally true, but because they knew them to be fundamentally true. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterson, the value of these stories was not in that they told people that dragons existed, but rather than dragons could be beaten.

Under “Fairy Tale” I would argue it is possible to lump the modern genres of horror, fantasy, and even comic book adventure so long as these conform to certain parameters. I would argue, for example, that Doctor Who, Dracula, and The Lord of the Rings are fairy tales while Battlestar Galactica, The Call of Cthulhu, and Howard’s Conan stories are not. Because it isn’t that fairy stories are aimed mainly at children—Draculacertainly was not—but because they all promise that no matter how dark, how horrible, and how terrifying the places they will take us into are, we will come back out into the light. You simply know, in a fairy story, that the dragon doesn’t get to win.

The dragon can’t win, because the fairy story is relentlessly humanist. The good guys beat the bad because this is how it should be, because it reaffirms our inate sense of justice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be easy, nor is it usually free. Stoker’s band of vampire hunters suffer horrific losses before defeating Count Dracula, and Frodo endures all manner of hardship in his quest to destroy the Ring. But there is never any doubt that Dracula will be dusted and the Ring melted down, and the reason people read such stories again and again and again is that they reinforce that most ludicrous and human of qualities…hope. When a child asks breathlessly to hear the same story again, it isn’t because he or she doesn’t know the fable word for word and line by line, but because taking the journey once more makes the world seem less random and impossible. It gives them hope.

As an intellectual I can extol the virtues of H. P. Lovecraft, because his horror fiction portrays an image of the world as it is. Not that nameless gods and unspeakable alien horrors surround us, but because Lovecraft understands that the universe is vast, mankind is impossibly small, and that the former doesn’t particular notice or care that the latter even exists. But as a magician I can never be satisfied by Lovecraft in the same way I can by Stoker, because Stoker is reaffirming the value of my humanity. This may well be an illusion, but it is an illusion we all need to get out of bed every day.

Mind you, not every fairy tale needs a happily ever after, so long as it affirms human standards and values. In the earliest versions of Red Riding Hood, the girl ends up eaten. But she was eaten because she willfully violated those two most sacred rules—keep to the path and don’t talk to strangers—and the message is still positive because it illustrates to the listener why these rules must be followed. Had Lil’ Red kept to the path, ignored the wolf, and been eaten anyway, it wouldn’t be a Fairy Tale…it would be a tragedy the likes of which fill the media everyday.

Perhaps because I am a cynic and a realist, I find fairy tales far preferable to the alternative. There was no doubt that the Bride would get her just revenge in Kill Bill, that Harry would eventually defeat Voldemort, or that the Doctor will defeat the Daleks every time. Joining them as they accomplish these things is both cathartic and healing, and I daresay even vital. Because if human beings did not—like Alice—dare to believe impossible things, we would all still be living in caves.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Recently, I caught up with a spokesperson for the Prince of Darkness at his suite in a Tokyo hotel. “Baphomet,” as he preferred to be addressed, was in town visiting some associates in a neo-Templar organization. He appeared as an androgynous looking individual in his early twenties, attractive, soft-spoken, and well dressed. He appeared either Middle Eastern or Mediterranean, but while he spoke with an American idiom, he had a slight British accent. We spoke for an hour, and I took the opportunity to confront him on the list of allegations made against the notorious Archfiend.

AM: I appreciate your taking the time to see me.

BT: (With a wave of his hand) It's nothing. My pleasure, really.

AM: Let me start by reading to you some of the things the media has been saying about your Boss; he's been called “the Prince of Lies,” “the Enemy of Man,” and “the Author of Evil.” Any comments?

BT: (Laughs) Epithets like these are really nothing more than catchy soundbytes, aren't they? They sound ominous, but fall apart under close inspection. Take, “the Prince of Lies,” for example? What exactly is he accused of lying about?

AM: Well, for starters, according to records of his involvement in the Eden scandal, when he told Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge he is quoted as saying “surely you will not die.” In the end, she did.

BT: (Nodds) Now there is a perfect example of what I am taking about. Yahweh—or Adonai, Elohim, whatever—tells Adam and Eve that if they eat from the Tree, they will die. This statement is utterly false. Eating from the Tree didn't kill them, Yahweh did. What he should have said was “don't eat this fruit or I will kill you;” that would have been more accurate.”

AM: But your Boss knew what would happen.

BT: Not necessarily. Remember, if Adam and Eve could have gotten to the Tree of Life they would have become immortal and “like unto” Yahweh and his associates. Yahweh intervened by sending down some of his muscle.

AM: So why did he tempt them to eat the Fruit in the first place?

BT: Why did Thomas Paine write “Common Sense?” Why did Karl Marx write “The Communist Manifesto?” Satan was the first in a long line of free thinkers who spoke out against oppression. Honestly, you have to put the whole thing in context: Yahweh and his associates were the “haves,” with access to the Fruits of Knowledge and Life. Adam and Eve were the “have nots,” lacking both self-awareness and immortality. They were being kept, naked and ignorant, on Earth while the Lord and his sycophants were living it up in Heaven. Satan basically just said to Eve “you are being oppressed, open your eyes!” In the end, Adam and Eve made the choice to do just that. The rest, as they say, is history.

AM: You are saying your Boss had mankind's best interests at heart?

BT: I am saying he is a revolutionary. You had a system at the time where it was either God's way or the highway...actually, not even that, because you couldn't escape from Adonai's autocracy no matter where you went. Satan was the first to stand up against the Establishment. Others—like myself—chose to stand with him. So did Adam and Eve.

AM: So you deny the “Enemy of Man” categorization.

BT: Absolutely. Close examination of documents like the Bible contain absolutely no evidence of Satan doing anything worse that challenging God's authority. Yes, Adam and Eve suffered...but I want to make clear that Yahweh was responsible for that. It was no different than the American Revolution. You had an absolute monarch running the show; Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin spoke out against it, and people joined their movement. They didn't do it to “trick” colonists into getting themselves killed standing up against King George, they were standing up for a principle, putting themselves at risk. Let's not forget; Satan has been on the receiving end of God's “justice” as well. As far as Satan being the Enemy of Man, Biblical tradition holds that the fallen angels were the ones who taught mankind the arts and sciences...so I leave that one for your readers to decide.

AM: Are you are saying God is the “bad guy?”

BT: (Shaking his head) I dislike the “good guy/bad guy” categorizations. They are far too simplistic. The fact is, God was a Tyrant in the classical sense. Absolute power. Absolute authority. And he didn't like people contradicting him. If you read the Bible, really read it, you get a picture of God as the kind of tyrant who makes Nero or Caligula look like Jimmy Carter. Think about it. Adam and Eve disobeyed him so he exiled them and sentenced them to death. Later he got displeased with the behavior of his subjects, so he unleashed a flood to drown them all. People started expressing their sexuality in Sodom and Gommorah so he vaporized both cities and everyone in them—making Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like picnics, I should add. He disagreed with the policy decisions of one Pharaoh, so he sent his assassins to murder all the first born children in an entire country. Then, irritated by the lack of gratitude from the Hebrews, he forced them to wander around in the desert for 40 years. And Moses? His right hand man? He got bent out of shape with him, and despite all his years of loyal service, forbade him to ever set foot in the promised land. (Becomes relfective) As for that poor carpenter from Nazareth—Satan tried to make him listen to reason in the desert, but Yahweh ended up getting him crucified. Did Yawheh have the power to rescue him? Of course. And Yeheswah knew that...I cannot imagine the betratyal he felt when he asked “My God why have you forsaken me?”

AM: What do you have to say about Hell? Doesn't your Boss and his followers torture the people sent there?

BT: (Sighs) As logically inconsistent as Yahweh has been at times, nothing matches the Christian Church. On one hand, they tell you that Satan is a prisoner in Hell and on the other try to portray him as the warden. You simply can't have it both ways. I want to go on the record as saying Hell is a fraud, a fairy tale cooked up during the Middle Ages to keep the Church in business. Historians and Biblical scholars will back me up on that.

AM: So where does your Boss reside these days?

BT: The same place as everyone else; here. Lucifer was cast out of Heaven, so he came here. He's always been here. That's why the Bible occasionally refers to him as the King of the World.

AM: What is he up to these days?

BT: The same thing he has always been “up to,” the emancipation of the individual.

AM: You have protrayed Yahweh's leadership as “my way or the highway.” What sort of leadership does your Boss offer?

BT: (Wags a finger) Not leadership. He doesn't want to tell anyone what to do. His philosophy has always been “do what thou wilt.”

AM: Isn't that Aleister Crowley's philosophy?

BT: Technically it's Ra-Hoor-Khuit's. (Laughs) But as Crowley has said, “Satan...is the Supreme Soul behind Ra-Hoor-Khuit.” It is the Devil's philosophy and always has been. Rabelais was on to the whole “theleme” thing before Crowley was, if you recall, and if we go back to the 13th century, we find Melek Taus quoted as saying things like “I allow every mortal to follow the dicatates of his own nature” in Yezidi scriptures such as Sheikh Shams al-Din abu Mohammad al-Hasan's Al-Jalwa li Arbab Ahl Al-Khalwah and Sheikh Adi al-Hakari's Ilmi Ahat Haqiqt Al-Ashiah'i. Clearly it has always been Satan's position.

AM: Doesn't that lead to anarchy?

BT: That is always the opposition's response. Not necessarily. What is needed is education. If we teach people to think for themselves, and take responsibility for their own actions, we could all get along just fine. The idea is to do your own will, but not to interfere unnecessarily in the will of others.

AM: What about “might makes right?”

BT: It does, but having the power to do something doesn't always make it in your own best interest to do so, and that is what we need to be teaching. A father gets annoyed with the crying of his infant son; yes he could smother the baby, but it entirely against his own interest to do so. The same applies in society at large: antisocial behavior tends to tick people off. They retaliate. Thus, it is in your own interest to steer clear of those behaviors in the first place. It is generally in humanity's best interest to cooperate, discuss, and work together. But that does not mean you need autocratic rule. The authorities don't want you to hear that, though.

AM: I want to get back to your Aleister Crowley reference. Are you saying that Thelema and Satanism are the same?

BT: (Takes a sip of his lemon tea) No. I am saying they have a common source. Thelema, Satanism, Wicca—the occult—all exist outside of the establishment. The thing that most people who practice magic chose to ignore is that it is diametrically opposed to religion and authority. Magic is about individual empowerment.

AM: Care to elaborate?

BT: (Stops a moment to think) It is all well and good to run around creating our own definitions and interpretations for things. If I like, I can call a “dog” a “cat,” but the simple fact of the matter is that the words we use already have perfectly valid meanings. This is why I am consistently baffled and bemused when Magicians—who of all people should know the value of words—run around mutilating their meanings.

It has been de rigeur for Magicians to tell their readers their definition of Magic every time they write a book about it. It was, as usual, Aleister Crowley who started this, but the difference between Crowley and 99% of the other book-writing Magicians is that he understood etymology. In addition, Crowley did not actually redefine the word “magic;” he created a new one, “Magick,” to describe his system of “causing change in accordance with Will.” Personally, I think anybody who writes about Magick using the “k” had damn well better be talking about Crowley's system, or else they should use the more proper magic instead.

(Stops a moment) Sorry, I got on a tangent there. The point is, too many people feel they can just change the proper meanings of words willy-nilly. Ladies and gentlemen, the definition of Magic, based on etymology, is power. This isn't what I think it means...it's the word's proper definition. Too many people have explained Magic as “causing change in consciousness” or a “system of personal evolution.” It is none of those things. Magic comes from the same Indo-European root word as the English verbs may and make, and the nouns might, machine, and mechanics. These words imply the ability to do or create something. It implies the power of the individual to act on his environment. By contrast, Religion comes from the Latin religio, which means “to be bound” or “tied.” In Religious systems, the individual's hands are tied...he is bound to a god, a priesthood, and a faith. If he wants something, he prays for it. He supplicates his deity or church. He himself has no real power. Compare this with the Magician, who imposes his will and his power on the world. If the Magician wants something, he doesn't ask a god for it...he gets it for himself.

This is the thing that 90% of the Magicians out there are afraid to admit to themselves. They are all walking, at least partially, the Left-Hand Path.

AM: I think most occultists would hotly contest that statement.

BT: Of course they would, because they have been culturally conditioned to think in terms of Good and Evil. Even worse, they've been taught that “selflessness” is admirable and “selfishness” damnable. What is this mystical obsession with destroying the ego? Isn't the individual's sense of self the very thing that separates humans from animals? The ability to view oneself as separate and apart from creation? Most psychologists will tell you that this ability is the very foundation of consciousness.

(Pauses) But getting back to the topic, the terms “Left-Hand” and “Right Hand” Paths come out of medieval Europe. Their meaning was clear; if you follow the Right-Hand Path you follow God and religion, while the Left-Hand Path is the way of the Devil and magic. The one is about surrendering your individuality and the other is about keeping it. If you are comfortable with the idea of an ego, stick to the Right Hand Path and leave magic alone.

AM: Wouldn't you agree that most occult groups mix a little of both?

BT: Of course. Wicca, for example, seems one part worship and one part sorcery (with some Covens leaning to 100% worship!). Voudon and Santeria are much the same. In Crowley's case, his works span from purely magical operations such as his Evocation of Bartzabel to religious ceremonies like the Gnostic Mass. The object of one is for the Magician to cause a spirit to appear, while the other is intended to tie the participant to the Thelemic current. I would voice the opinion that this is a modern phenomenon; in ancient times the distinction was clear. Priests and priestesses worked together in temples, and the Magician worked alone. Think about it; Circe, Merlin, Medaea, Taliesin...these wizards and witches didn't belong to groups. They flew solo.

AM: Gandalf was part of an order.

BT: (Smiles) And Gandalf was a 20th century creation, dreamed up by a Catholic.

AM: Touchè.

BT: I have nothing against Orders, per se. In fact, I think Magicians can belong to ideological factions. In some cases, it is quite healthy. But once you start thinking that your power comes from a god, a current, or a group, you are no longer doing magic. Instead, you have just started relying on a crutch, and in the end, will have to sacrifice some of your own independence because of it. The real magician is not afraid to rely on his own courage, conviction, and spirit. He doesn't need to call on any power except his own. Say whatever you will of the LaVey type Satanists, but they at least have a clear understanding of the difference between the Right and Left-Hand Paths. Most groups around are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

AM: How would you categorize the occult groups out there today, say, the larger ones like the O.T.O.?

BT: The O.T.O. is clearly a fraternal order, not a group of magicians. And the E.G.C. is definitely on the Right-Hand side of things, despite the fact that Crowley chose to title their mass “Liber XV,” the number of the Devil in the tarot. Incidentally, my chief objection to the E.G.C. is that it seems somewhat contradictory. “Every man and every woman is a star, every number is infinite, there is no difference” except that the E.G.C. has Bishops and Priests. Once you start adding ranks and titles, it seems clear to me that some “stars” become bigger than others, and now there is a difference. I don't think imitating your enemy is the best way to defeat them. One wonders if the E.G.C. ever heard that imitation was a form of flattery, not a statement of opposition. Now, when the Catholic Church starts performing the Mass of the Phoenix, then Thelema has power. (Sips his tea again) Any way, all of that is religion and not magic. As far as Thelema goes, the purest “Magicians” seem to be the A.A.

AM: What do you think about Thelema as a whole? Is it Right or Left Hand?

BT: Look, all human philosophies have contradictions inherent in them. Thelema is no exception. On one hand, Crowley writes a great deal about the Magical Memory and trying to preserve the continuity of the self from incarnation to incarnation. That sounds awfully Left Hand and ego affirming to me. On the other hand, he talks about disolution of the ego as the greatest good, and labels any Magician who does not annhilate his personality after a certain point a “Black Brother.” Definitely Right Hand. He wavers between magic and religion.

AM: But you say the Devil inspired him.

BT: He said that. (Smiles) Yes, I think the Devil did, but Crowley could never fully shake those Buddhist leanings, could he? He still held “nothing” or nibbana as the highest state of being.

AM: And Wicca?

BT: We cannot discuss Wicca as a whole. There are Wiccan and neo-Pagan groups which are utterly religious in nature, and then those who are 99% magical. I would say that any Wiccan who places worship at the core of their belief isn't doing magic. However, if you read a book like Starhawk's “The Twelve Wild Swans” what strikes you is how completely non-religious it is; it is about self-empowerment and political action, not religion. Though I am sure the authors would disagree, it is one of the most “Left Hand” Wiccan books around.

AM: What spiritual discipline would you call the “most” Left-Hand oriented?

BT: (Considers) Actually, the martial arts. By and large they teach dependence on the self. The martial artist develops his own powers. He doesn't call on a “current” or “god” to empower him.

AM: And modern Satanists?

BT: (Shrugs) Like witches, they cover the spectrum. Anton LaVey—especially in his earlier writings—was what I would consider a “Magician's Magician.” His version of magic is identical to the martial arts: it empowers the self, without external dependency.

AM: Yet he denied the existence of your Boss.

BT: So what? He never claimed he was calling on the Devil for power. Time and time again he stressed that the Magician must rely on himself. The beauty of his Satanism is that really, the existence of the Devil is irrelevant. Whether Satan is a real being or a symbol doesn't matter a whit; in either case he inspires the individual to action.

AM: What about Michael Aquino and the Temple of Set?

BT: They take a lot on faith, but they are Left hand Path. No doubt about that. While they acknowledge the Devil's existence, they do not worship him. They see him as a kind of example of what man could be, a teacher. As far as the “I am Set don't call me Satan thing,” look—the Prince of Darkness doesn't care what you call him. He doesn't want followers or worship. He wants you to think and act for yourself. He wants you to understand that in the end, you only have yourself to rely on, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. People are afraid to do that: they want to be part of a “group.” They want to call on a “god” or “current” or “power.” In the end, the most frightening thing about the Devil is that he is trying to tell people it is okay to be on your own, to follow your own convictions, to go against the herd. The Right Hand Path is all about clinging to an objective truth, while the Left Hand is about making a subjective one. You make your own truth, your own reality. You are your own god.

AM: Any comment on the current political situation?

BT: Listen, when you have walked the Earth as long as I have, you realize there is no “current” political situation, just an ever-turning merry-go-round. It all boils down to self-appointed “leaders” using religion and ideology to deprive people of their freedom and their rights. Bin Laden conned young men into killing themselves and others, and he did it in the name of God. Bush fought back and sent thousands of others to their deaths, in the name of God. If people would just stop for a moment and start to question the authority of these people, a lot of harm could be stopped.

(For the first time in the interview, seems exasperated) All of them are so smug in the authority of their scriptures. Bush is against same-sex marriages because of something written two thousand years ago, the Isrealites feel entitled to their land for the same reason, and the Muslims feel violence against infidels is a viable option because of a document written just 600 years after that. When are people going to start to think for themselves? That is, after all, the whole reason Satan got Eve to take that fateful bite in the first place.

AM: Thank you. I appreciate your time.

BT: As I said, my pleasure.

AM: One final question: to those who say your Boss is not real, what do you say?

BT: (With a smile) He's just as real as they think he is.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


The English words "rhythm" and "ritual" share the same common ancestor, which makes sense when you stop to think about it. They both go back to an Indo-European root that meant "to count," or "to number," which also shows up in "arithmetic" and suggests the idea of imposing order or pattern on the universe. Our rituals are a rhythm as sure as any heartbeat; they bring a sense of structure to our lives.

Which brings me to the teenage slasher movie.

If that segue just gave you whiplash, then you probably haven't seen The Cabin in the Woods yet, and you probably should stop reading now if you have any intention to see it, because there are spoilers ahead. I think I wanted to love this movie; it was written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (directed by Goddard as well), whose work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel constituted some of the best television ever. And on one level I did love it, but on another it all seems to crash and burn because like Icarus it just got too clever for itself.

The teenage slasher movie is just the modern incarnation of "The Tale of the Hook," its immediate ancestor. You know the one I am talking about. It goes something like this; a young couple drives out to lover's lane and parks the car, hears on the radio that an escaped psychopath with a hook for a hand is roaming about, but unwisely stays to make out anyway. They hear a noise, and in some versions he goes out to investigate and gets killed and in others they speed off just in time, only to find a hook hanging on the passenger side door. This Hook Man is horror's dead beat dad, having fathered Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers and Leatherface only to then abandon them to follow their own murderous careers.

The point is we all know the story the moment it begins. We've all experienced it at some point in our adolescence because the Teenage Slasher Film is a ritual just as sure and familiar as getting your driver's license, graduation, or losing your virginity. In ancient times societies would have called it an ordeal, a ritual you must undergo to test you before you pass into adulthood.

If you are a fan of the genre, or far worse a lunatic like me who happens to believe horror is important and worthy of study, then you know all the rules as surely as the characters in Scream. Rule One requires a group of teenagers...but not just any teenagers, they must conform to certain archetypes, like trumps in a Tarot Hand. You need the Jock, the Bad Girl, the Good Girl, the Nice Guy, and the Joker (or Nerd). Rule Two is that you must isolate them. Rule Three is that there must be some sort of Transgression...the kids must do something to bring it all on themselves. Rule Four is that the Hook shows up and starts killing them (the Bad Girl always goes first and usually right after having premarital sex, the naughty whore). Rule Five is that someone--probably the Good Girl--survives to tell the tale. Make no mistake, all of this is a ritual as surely as Mass on Sundays.

But a ritual to appease what gods?


Goddard and Whedon have that answer for you, in this film. Like any slasher film our five teens leave school behind to go off for the weekend to a cabin in the woods...but almost we are made aware that some massive government secret agency is tracking them and manipulating them. Beneath this cabin is a high tech spy complex from which they watch the teens' every move and play with them like chess pieces, forcing them to conform to the ritual of the teenage slasher film. They watch as teen after teen is horribly murdered on hidden camera and cheer them on. The punchline of course is that their are Lovecraftian dark gods sleeping in the Earth, and this annual ritual sacrifice of young people is required to keep them from waking and destroying the Earth.

It's clever. Very clever. And that's the problem.

See, the message is that the Teenage Slasher Film is a sacrifice performed for our benefit, the audience. We are the dark gods that must be appeased and there is the subtle implication that somehow things like horror films are releases valves that let off some of the pressure inside of us so we don't explode and start rampaging. There may be some truth to this...after all horror is a form of exorcism. But it all came off as too self-aware, too proud of itself, to really please me. I am one of those people who firmly believes that horror is this sort of ritual offering, but the suspension of disbelief is a key element of that working, and the film lost me in the final act.

As I said, I love Whedon and I like Goddard, but both have done this kind of post-modern deconstruction of the horror film far better before. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the textbook case, with most of the same archetypes but this time the teens killed the monsters. The Cabin in the Woods, despite moments of brilliance, doesn't live up to its own potential.

But don't let this get you down. Just as there will be Christmas next year or the Fourth of July, there will be fresh horror films where the ritual is repeated and the black gods appeased.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Sherlock Holmes belongs to a fairly exclusive club, one occupied by other august (and Victorian) personages like Tarzan and Count Dracula. He is, simply, one of the most played, most adapted, most revised, most re-invented figures in fiction. According to Guinness, he's been portrayed by 75 actors in 211 films. This doesn't take into account stage or television.

These days we have at least three major incarnations of Holmes in play; well, two-and-a-half at least. We have Guy Ritchie's absurd over-the-top action Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr. We have Hugh Laurie's House, who qualifies as the "half Holmes." This tale of a drug-addicted, interpersonal-relationship challenged mystery-solving genius was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle's detective, even in name ("Holmes" becomes "House," "Watson" becomes "Wilson"). But clearly the best of the bunch is the BBC's wunderkind, which despite consisting of only a handful of 90-minute episodes stretched over two seasons (or "series," to be British about it) is the best Holmes you've seen since Jeremy Brett.

Sherlock is a modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Think Holmes and Watson in the 21st century and you've got it. We've seen adaptations of this kind before--the whackiest by far being 1987's dreadful The Return of Sherlock Holmes, where the great detective is thawed out after a century in cryogenic sleep (an idea so stupid it was recycled again in 1994 in Sherlock Holmes Returns). Sherlock is different. It doesn't bring Holmes and Watson into the present, it portrays them as belonging here.

Watson, played to perfection by The Office alumnus and soon-to-be-Bilbo-Baggins Martin Freeman, is an Afghan war veteran suffering PTSD. Encouraged to blog about the war and his recovery by his therapist, he ends up encountering the eccentric Holmes and blogging all about him instead, turning him into a kind of pop culture icon. This is a smart update of the tradition John Watson, an Army doctor who turned Holmes into a celebrity by writing about him. Freeman's portrayal manages to remain very faithful to Conan Doyle while at the same time giving Watson modern context and issues. He has precisely the right blend of exasperation, hero-worship, and protectiveness of Holmes that made the character the original Samwise Gamgee (couldn't resist another hobbit reference).

But the show is called Sherlock, and what sinks or swims any adaptation is the actor who takes on Holmes. This time it is the improbably named Benedict Cumberbatch, whose take on this played-to-death character is so freaking good you can't take your eyes off of it.

Cumberbatch's Holmes is a faithful incarnation; he is a genius whose racing mind never slows down, and unless has an impossible puzzle to work on starts tearing itself apart. The more negative aspects of the character are accentuated. Always a bit aloof and arrogant, this Holmes is so inside his own head he barely acknowledges the existence of other people. Like Hugh Laurie's House he is so charm-free that he's charming. Somehow.

The stories themselves are loose adaptations of Conan Doyle, again, brilliantly done. Series creator and writer Steven Moffat--who knows all about brilliant reinventions of characters after his smashing version of Doctor Who--excellently keeps the mysteries fresh with enough winks and nods to the Holmes tradition to keep devoted fans tickled. Case in point, his handling of the famous deerstalker cap, a piece of headgear we all associate with Holmes that he never actually wore. In Moffat's hands Holmes grabs the cap to quickly disguise himself, but is photographed in it and made such a celebrity in Watson's blog that the public (to his fury) immediately identifies him with it. This is just one of many touches that make the series excellent.

It is this triple blow of two wonderful lead actors and superb writing that make Sherlock must-see television, whether you're a Conan Doyle fan or not. In a world where Holmes has been played to death by a long line of leading actors, turned into Japanese anime, and even been portrayed by Kermit the Frog, the BBC's current revision is shockingly fresh.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I don't think anyone thinks of George R.R. Martin as a "horror writer." With the immense success of his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series the marketing machine usually labels him something like "the Master of Modern Fantasy" or whatnot instead. But Martin is the kind of writer I very much admire, who catches the scent of a story like a bloodhound and chases it down no matter what genre the trail leads through. He's written some excellent fantasy, but he's also written damn fine superhero fiction and a few gripping horror stories. One of those was "The Skin Trade," a novella about werewolves. Another was 1982's "Fevre Dream."

"Fevre Dream" wears yet another label, that of the "vampire novel," a term I rather dislike. Given the immense diversity of books that get pegged with it, it's just about as meaningless a label as saying something is a "human novel." If you really want to classify a hardcore horror story like King's "Salem's Lot" with Meyer's multi-volume "good girls wait until marriage" sermon "Twilight," be my guest, but the two have practically nothing in common. You might as well put "Cujo" in the same category as Armstrong's "Sounder" under the heading of "dog tales."

I mention all of this because "Fevre Dream" is too rich to be filed under any one single label. Yes, it has vampires in it, but it is also a well-researched tale of mid-19th century steamboat life on the Mississippi (and yet curiously is not labelled "steamboat fiction"). It concerns captain Abner Marsh, whose fleet of boats is wiped out by a freakishly harsh winter. He is saved by entering a partnership with the enigmatic Joshua York, a pale and elegant gentleman with a fortune to spend. York finances construction of the Fevre Dream, one of the largest, fastest, and most elegant steamboats on the river. But this comes with a price. He wishes to be co-captain with Marsh, to live aboard the ship, to transport a strange menagerie of curious guests no questions asked, and demands frequent stops along the river without explanation. Marsh's suspicions build as they steam down from St Louis towards New Orleans. After all, York is never seen by day, drinks bottles of some strange elixir, and is obsessed with newspaper articles of unsolved murder. By the time Marsh confronts him, the reader is already certain what York is.

The reader is wrong, however.

Without giving too much away Martin does here for vampires what he (and his friends) did for superheroes in "Wild Cards," and in many ways what he did again in his "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. He takes a genre you think you know, dismantles it, and puts it back together again in a whole new way. Not that his approach to vampires is all that unique; Suzy McKee Charnas and Whitley Streiber both beat him to it (see "The Unicorn Tapestry" and "The Hunger"), but the way he handles this sort of...ahem..."vampire" is very well done indeed. I would also add that it is entirely secondary to the novel. The engine that moves "Fevre Dream" along is Martin's engaging characters and plot twists. Though not very scary, it is a gripping page-turner. It also is a book with something to say, nicely comparing the master-slave dynamic of the period with the vampire-prey one.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


It's easy to dismiss comic books. Certainly as I was growing up, they were seen as a childish form of entertainment best grown out of quickly. If you were ten and reading comics, nothing was amiss. If you were twenty and still reading them, you could expect some eye-rolling at your expense. And this attitude was reflected in how other forms of media treated comic books. Saturday morning cartoon versions took comic book stories and characters and wrote them "down" for an even younger audience, and the few stabs made at them in cinema and television were "camped up" to make them palatable for adults, as if the material was too light weight to be treated seriously. But all of this began to change, and change in a big way, at the turn of the 20th century, largely thanks to the cinema adaptation of one of the best-selling comics in American history; Marvel Comics' X-Men. The success of the first X-Men film in 2000 was instrumental in Hollywood's modern love affair with the comic book, showing that if the material was treated with respect, and presented by top-notch writers, directors, and actors, then comic book adaptations had powerful stories to tell. Stories even adults could appreciate.

The X-Men were a perfect place for Hollywood to start. For those who aren't familiar with the series, the X-Men comic appeared in 1963 and has been running, continually, for nearly fifty years. It centers around the idea of "mutants," human beings who carry a gene which produces some sort of mutation that usually erupts and expresses itself during adolescence. These mutations grant some sort of super-power--the ability to read minds, walk through walls, or fly--but are often uncontrollable, come with a side-effect, or cause a disfiguring transformation in the individual's appearance. Mutants are a very small percentage of the population, but are widely hated and feared for a variety of reasons. They might look freakish, be a danger to themselves and others, or just be so "different" as to make others uncomfortable. There are also uncomfortable implications surrounding them...as homo sapiens came along and replaced Neanderthal man, many believe that the mutants (or "homo superior") are here to replace man.

From the very start, the X-Men saga blended comic book action with very real social issues. Appearing in the civil rights era, over the decades the mutants would be used to explore racism, the treatment of minorities in society, and even gay and lesbian issues. Mutants were the subject of military experiments, used as slave labor in foreign countries, and even targeted to be rounded up, labeled, and detained by conservative politicians in the United States. Most were forced into hiding, with mutant adolescents running away from home or hiding in "the closet."

In response, two opposing poles or forces arose. One was Professor Charles Xavier, a mutant who believed humans and mutant kind could peacefully co-exist. His opponent (and old friend) was Eric Lensherr, better known by his name Magneto. A Jew who had watched his family die in Nazi concentration camps, Eric had seen first hand how humanity treats minorities, and believed that co-existence would never be possible. Magneto formed a team of mutant terrorists to apply force to human society and push for mutant rights. Appalled by his violent methods, Xavier formed his own team, the X-Men, to oppose them.

In those early years, Xavier and Magneto reflected the approaches to African American civil rights as championed by Dr. King and Malcolm X, but as the decades passed the X-Men continually introduced new story lines to comment on current affairs. While the world watched South Africa struggle with Apartheid, the comic created the South African nation of Genosha, which became a global power built on a mutant slave class. When AIDS first appeared and fire-breathing pastors called it a "gay plague," the comic introduced the Legacy virus, a disease that killed mutants. In 1982 they made waves with "God Loves, Man Kills," a story about a minister preaching against mutants and a commentary on growing religious intolerance. Even the movies continued this theme. In the midst of the American debates on homosexuality and whether or not it could be cured, the third film created a plot of the government devising a cure for mutation. As a gay man, when a young mutant character asks "Is it true, they can cure us now?", and older mutant leader Storm replies "No they can't cure you because there is nothing wrong with you," I nearly stood up and cheered.

The X-Men are on my mind again because I recently started reading Ultimate X-Men, a series that ran from 2001 to 2009 and is conveniently available in 20 trade paperback editions (check out the first volume here). Catching up with fifty years of storylines and characters is daunting for newcomers, so Ultimate X-Men was a "reboot" of the story, modernizing and condensing what had gone before. It is a different take on the characters, and there are enough twists that a long-time fan will find new surprises, but it is ideal for new readers to enjoy the X-Men and get a taste of what the comic is all about.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Baby mama drama's screamin' on and too much for me to wanna
Stay in one spot, another day of monotony's
Gotten me to the point I'm like a snail
I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
Success is my only mothaf****n' option, failure's not
Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem's lot

- Eminem, Lose Yourself

I grew up in 'Salem's Lot. Many Americans did. The town that is the titular character in Stephen King's second published novel is instantly recognizable to millions of us. It's a dead little place. Nothing ever happens there. Everyone knows everyone, and it is so safe you can leave the keys in the ignition of your pick-up truck at night. If you live there, you probably don't even have a lock on your front door. After all, the crime rate is just about zero. Because 'Salem's Lot doesn't know the inflated and grotesque evils of the big city; its evils are all the small and whimpering kind. The neighbor's wife cheating with the postman. The guy who smacks his girlfriend around. The kids who shoplift at the dime store. But there hasn't been a murder in years, and everyone knows nothing really evil could ever happen there. Just the monotonous and banal evils that slowly bleed you dry like a million paper cuts.

"...The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face..."

When horror works, and it works extraordinarily well in 'Salem's Lot, it does so because it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. In deciding to rewrite Dracula for the 20th century, King understood this perfectly. Stoker's novel worked because it preyed on all sorts of things the late Victorians felt uneasy about, from the dark and Dionysian sexuality underlying proper Apollonian England to fears of foreign powers rising from the East. All King does is import Count Dracula to rural America from late Victorian London, and the effect is chillingly the same. All the lesser evils--the teenage mothers getting knocked up young and taking it out on their kids, the alcoholic priests, the crooked real estate men, the cheating wives, the bullied disabled man--get sucked up into the ensuing vampiric whirlwind and transformed. Vampires don't cast reflections, but 'Salem's Lot makes us squirm because it turns the mirror on us. Like Eminem says in the song, he can't grow old in 'Salem's Lot. He's desperate to escape and become something more. And that is what the vampires in King's novel feed on, far more than blood. They drink up that quiet desperation, that ennui. With their cold dead smiles they seem to say "you will never need to worry about growing old here again."

"...Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route-12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place..."

King makes several references in 'Salem's Lot to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a book that deeply influenced him. No where is that more clear than in the way he characterizes Small Town, USA. 'Salem's Lot is the geographic incarnation of Jackson's protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a deeply conservative and self-obsessed woman who secretly longs for something, anything, to "happen" to her. It finally does; she encounters Hill House and allows it to seduce her. The small Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot just about does the same with its vampires...creatures that of course have to be invited in. There is a grim undercurrent running through the novel that the town is pleased something interesting is finally happening to them. And even when you love your little town, there is always that desire under the surface.

"...No one pronounced Jerusalem's Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of the previous days, it retained every semblance of life..."

It's this quality, this deep and intimate awareness of Americana--and especially small town "folksy" Americana--that puts King in a different class from his competitors. Sure, he has a tendency to go "too far" at times, even to get slightly clownish, but few other readers tap the American subconscious as well as he does. It doesn't always work for me--Christine was just a bit too American Graffiti with ghosts--but when King nails it he is the envy of a thousand other writers, myself included. And this quality speaks to those of us who know 'Salem's Lot, who grew up there. By the same token, when I hear King's critics, I can't help but wonder if they are from suburbia or the city.