Sunday’s clean-up of the Greenway went pretty well. It pretty quickly became clear that most of the trash was not thrown down by people using the trail, but blown in from the dumpsters and back lots of nearby businesses. Lots of cigarette butts clustered where employees take their breaks. At least one transient campsite, with a jug of water stashed under a bush, which we did not disturb. With all the public water fountains shut down because of COVID, having something to drink is just one more challenge for those of the homeless population whose anxieties dictate they sleep away from other humans.
Lots of people thanked us as they were walking or biking past, as though we were veterans. “Thank you for your service,” is the standard phrase now. Not a fair comparison at all, in my mind, and one that always makes me uncomfortable. I heard the same thing when I was working for the Census last fall.
We’ll be doing another, slightly more ambitious stream clean-up, this Saturday the 9th at King’s Forest Park, 1501 Larchmont, starting at 10am. We have half a dozen pairs of gloves and grabbers, but if you have your own, please bring them.
As the first one of the month of October, the rest of today’s newsletter is a Halloween-themed piece.
Common Scaffolding Elements in Paranormal World-Building: Three Recent Examples
Believers of the desert religions especially tend to assume that their holy books were written by a single author (God), channeled through one or more human prophets at more or less the same time. They take any consistency as evidence of a single divine inspiration. Scholars, on the other hand, look at the evidence provided by the texts themselves, focusing on the differences between local political conditions and the personal concerns of the individual prophets. Consistency is seen as arising from later authors having access to earlier stories and deliberately responding to those stories through their own work.
Tracking these developments through fragmented historical records is difficult, but at least the modern scholar knows from hindsight that the religions in question have had important effects on our current culture. Their large populations imply that they will continue to have further influence for some time to come. Even after a religion formally goes extinct, its traditions and rites may ripple forward in other forms. Beltane, Samhain, and Yule — pagan solar holidays celebrated by the Druidic Celts — all became incorporated into the Christian calendar as Easter, Halloween, and Christmas, with some reinterpretations of their meanings.
It would be easier to follow the developments of religions as they were happening, if one knew which cults or sects would grow and graduate into formal religions. One clue is simply the size of the population involved, though “involvement” is tricky to define. Does buying a book count? Is attending an author’s talk more or less of an investment than reading a book? Does writing a book for money imply belief? How many authors are required to elevate a literary movement into a cult, or a sect, or a religion?
Before the mid-20th century, science fiction regularly included references to the occult and paranormal literature. It still does, the difference being that current self-identified occult and paranormal authors claim they are writing non-fiction, just as religious writers have always done. Below I review three recent works from three different media (print, radio, and television). All of them attempt to synthesize real and fictional events into grand mythological narratives. Only one of them claims to be true, although all of them play with the issue of truth by mixing historical fact into their fiction.
The Secret History of Twin Peaks
This epistolary novel is by Mark Frost, writer of the original broadcast TV series. It takes the form of a secret dossier compiled by “the Archivist,” and annotated in the margins by an FBI agent called TP (in a tiny orange font, which makes them really hard to read; fortunately they can mostly be ignored because they often say things like “Verified,” or “This is getting weird.”). Both of these secret identities are revealed in the last pages of the book, one of them a call back to the original series and the other presumably a teaser for the 2017 revival of the series on Showtime during its 25th anniversary year. The book’s release in 2016 was timed to build buzz for the sequel in the same way that The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer capitalized on the original show.
The book repeatedly makes a distinction between secrets, negative sources of fear and confusion which lose their power once they are revealed, and mysteries, which can never be solved and serve to inspire our sense of wonder. Many of the secrets revealed in this book are simply trivia from the history of science fiction, broadly defined to include the paranormal, which is also the history of the 20th century. It starts, however, with Lewis & Clark, who supposedly had supernatural encounters during their western explorations, possibly visiting the site of the future Twin Peaks, while on some kind of secret Masonic mission for Thomas Jefferson. Many tropes are mentioned, from giants to Bigfoot to secret government bases.
The majority is UFO lore, including artfully reproduced fake newspaper clips from the fictional Twin Peaks Gazette interspersed with material from pulp SF author and superfan Ray Palmer’s career. Palmer went from writing pulp science fiction to editing Amazing Stories, where he published “The Shaver Mysteries,” about a secret underground race with mind-control technology. He also claimed the stories were true to boost sales. When the pulp fiction industry crashed after World War Two, Palmer almost single-handedly created UFO culture through a set of magazines he published through the 1970s. Read Ray Nadis’s biography of Palmer, The Man from Mars, which is presumably where Frost got much of this information (uncredited, as is the novelist’s traditional prerogative).
There’s a long section that fills in the romantic soap-opera back stories of the characters from the show. Then the book returns to the historical narrative, making disgraced president Richard Nixon a doomed good guy and science fiction writer / Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard a bad guy. Magician Aleister Crowley and his Jet Propulsion Laboratory disciple Jack Parsons, who may have opened the gate that allowed the Roswell aliens into our dimension, are duly mentioned. The Masons and the Illuminati are somehow involved, too, though how is never made clear.
The original Twin Peaks was a phenomenon because it was funny and fresh — a parody of soap operas and a deep, dark picket-fence murder mystery at the same time. Its deliberately weird vibe came in part from leaving so many questions unanswered and in part from refusing to take itself too seriously. This stiff, formulaic book answers most of the questions, reveals most of the secrets, and at the end the only mystery is why anyone outside of a marketing department thought it was a good idea. Fans of the show, or of paranormal lore, may enjoy filling in the cracks of their gossip-knowledge, but the juicy tidbits do not add up to a good meal, or a good book.
I was disappointed in this follow-up to some great television. The sequel, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, which followed the TV revival and which I have not read, received better reviews.
The Whisperer In Darkness
This series from BBC Sounds has just finished the second of at least three planned seasons retelling classic HP Lovecraft stories from pulp magazine Weird Tales:
• “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (written 1927, published 1941)
• “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930, published 1941)
• “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936)
The conceit of the series is that the two investigators are working on a common, everyday true-crime podcast called The Mystery Machine when they accidentally get caught up in the Cthulhu Mythos. The Scooby-Doo reference is a clue to the feel of the series. It is more clever in its dialogue, more open in its breaking of the fourth wall by talking directly to the listener in podcast fashion, and more fun than any of the original source material. Lovecraft himself is never mentioned except in the credits, which is a departure from the Mythos, whose modern members love inserting their idol into their pastiche projects (including Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, where “HP Hatecraft” appears in one episode, alongside real-life author Harlan Ellison, in another fact/fiction mashup).
For those uninitiated, Lovecraft’s circle was an early experiment in shared world-building during the 1920s and 1930s. Authors like Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith would reference Lovecraft’s creations in their own works, and Lovecraft would return the favor. It was all good fun. This BBC series continues that tradition, rewriting three stories originally linked only by their themes and settings into a single narrative arc that encompasses many of the same occult and paranormal tropes as the book above, but with a Lovecraftian twist. The UFOs are not physical or technological starships but manifestations of vast, godlike interdimensional intelligences, continually being summoned to our world by madcap magicians like the historical Aleister Crowley and the fictional Joseph Curwen. There is the same kind of historical paranormal timeline being assembled; only the details of who is name-checked are different.
This is, in my personal opinion, the most entertaining of the three projects reviewed here. Season 2 ended with Kennedy Fisher on her way to investigate the tiny coastal town of Innsmouth. I plan to return for Season 3.
This final world-building exercise takes the form of a reality TV show, with a team of four ghost-hunters (plus the camera guy) receiving a random e-mail from a man being haunted by three-toed goblins in the hills of eastern Kentucky. This set-up, the mysterious call for help from an isolated stranger, is exactly the same as Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness.” However, the scriptures used in this series are occult, cryptozoology, or UFO texts like The Mothman Prophecies, not the Cthulhu Mythos — at least, not so far; Season Three may go there. A full list of texts mentioned is in the Goodreads link below in the References. As mentioned above, during the pulp era, underground aliens were as common in science fiction as extraterrestrial or interdimensional ones, and not mutually exclusive. Ray Palmer and Richard Shaver of “The Shaver Mysteries” are noticeably absent, as is HP Lovecraft.
The investigative methods in Season One are not hunting through newspaper archives or interviewing informants so much as driving around a decaying coal town with a camera and setting up camp in various atmospheric locations to attempt direct psychic contact with whatever entities might be involved. As the series progresses, more archival and occult material is introduced, including ley lines that connect various important sites around the United States and Aleister Crowley’s drawing of the summoned entity “Lam,” which has a big head and big dark eyes like a Grey alien (or a Talosian from Star Trek, or many Pokemon, or any number of other science fictional creatures). Any coincidence is labeled a “synchronicity,” a concept borrowed from psychoanalyst Carl Jung and taken to mean anything that fits meaningfully into the overall narrative being constructed by the team.
Hilariously, or sadly, depending on how you look at it, Season 2 ends as an almost-advertisement for a tiny museum of the paranormal in my almost-hometown of Somerset, KY. Unlike the other two properties, which are clearly labeled a novel and an adaptation, with cast credits, the crew of Hellier perform under their own names and never break character, though they often move in slow motion to a hip and rootsy soundtrack. They are not commenting on paranormal culture (wink, wink) while passively profiting from it; they are actively participating in it, while also profiting from it. The distinction is somewhat artificial, since the believers and the profiteers so clearly cross-pollinate one another over time.
The Bible was written by at least 40 authors over the course of 1500 years before being collected into several overlapping, competing and yet official versions of the canon. There are also non-canonical “apocrypha” and heretical texts that involve dozens or hundreds of other authors. Some of the decisions that led to current canon are documented, such as the Synod of Hippo in CE 393. Others are not, and may never be, absent some science-fictional developments in time travel or alien visitation.
A model for the process of religious evolution is happening before our eyes. The New Age canon is being busily assembled now, from texts both ancient and modern, factual and fictional. Although none of the three works above are shelved in the New Age section of bookstores for marketing purposes, all of them display the same systematizing urge found in much of that literature, through three timelines assembled selectively from the same overall pool of literature. Some authors like Aleister Crowley appear to be important in all three timelines, perhaps in part because their greater name recognition provides anchoring or scaffolding for the more idiosyncratic choices. Recognition is powerful. If we’ve heard it before, it must be true. The less famous faces like Jack Parsons or Ray Palmer conversely allow the people assembling the secret history to customize it towards their own concerns, and importantly to display their own expertise. The more obscure the source, the deeper one had to dig to make the connection, and the more impressive that connection becomes to the initiated audience.
None of the works reviewed above choose to focus on technologically advanced pre-human civilizations like Atlantis, Mu, or Lemuria, lost places beloved by other New Age authors of the “Ancient Aliens” persuasion, and by HP Lovecraft in other portions of his bibliography. The Secret History of Twin Peaks mentions giants (sometimes interpreted as leftover Atlanteans in other works), as it mentions Bigfoot and many other tropes, but it does not pursue those threads the way it pursues UFOs and interdimensional beings capable of phasing in and out of our reality at will. The BBC podcast jumps from ancient Babylon to modern England and New England. Choices have to be made for a work to have any semblance of coherence, or completion, or closure.
Two of the timelines above make small and scattered references to psychedelic drugs, for instance, but none of them make such drugs central to their narratives. Other cultural histories of the same time period do, such as the more chronologically dense (and more strictly factual) Welcome to Mars, by Ken Hollings. This 12-part radio series covers the ten-year period from 1947 to 1956, including the now-publicly-documented secret government programs testing radiation and psychedelics on American citizens without their knowledge. Another chronicler of similar secret programs, some of which are mentioned in the reviewed works above, is Annie Jacobsen, who generally works from declassified documents according to standard professional practice for journalists. Such people are not New Agers, but they are part of the same meme-pool from which the community draws its information and inspiration. Their more detailed works offer perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from such studies of weirdness and outliers, namely that history is fractal. No matter how much we zoom in or zoom out, it remains complex. There are always more outliers.
It took almost 400 years for Christianity to separate itself from Judaism and to define the boundaries of its identity, which continues to evolve and complexify despite the efforts of church hierarchies to maintain historical doctrine and their personal authority. Islam and now Ba’hai are undergoing similar processes, perhaps accelerated by the more advanced technology of their later start dates, perhaps not. Many small cults, such as the Shakers and Heaven’s Gate in America or the more numerous White Doves in Russia die out, while others such as the Mormons and Scientology go on to become legally protected, wealthy religions.
The New Age movement is so far a more scattered population of like-minded seekers, with no official doctrine and no universally recognized leaders. The intellectual and emotional infrastructure — the mythology — is in the process of being laid down, by people like the creators above. What remains is for the inevitable charismatic opportunists to take the reins. Whether that event will be for good or ill remains to be seen. A mystery.
REFERENCES / FURTHER READING