Adam Nevill and Hari Kunzru meet the Process Church Uptown

Aliens, America, Fiction, Horror, Literary, Novelists

Noted 60s cultists the Process Church of the Final Judgement seem to be popping up all over the place just now.

I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.

First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:

Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…

And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.

Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.

‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.

Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.

Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.

But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.

That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.

In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.

And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.

And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.

Tracking down the Mirage Men

Aliens, America, Modernity, Non-fiction, Space is deep, UFOs

Mark Pilkington is one of the few people I know who can genuinely say that they’ve broken people’s religions. He was an active crop circler in the late 90s and early 00s; his calm and careful descriptions of the truths of circle making has disrupted the reality of more than one person who’s built belief systems around either the supernatural or superplanetary origins of the phenomenon.

Now, he’s doing the same for UFOs. His new book, ‘Mirage Men’, documents his journey into the heart of the tangled web of information – and disinformation – that surrounds the saucery folk who’ve spent the last fifty years or so mysteriously invading our airspace. Without any trace of cynicism or negativity, it at once challenges the UFOlogical world’s more optimistic excesses, and highlights some fascinating mysteries of its own.

At heart, ‘Mirage Men’ is a history book. However, it doesn’t record UFO appearances; rather, it’s an exploration of the growth of the mythology that encounters with UFOs have created – a subtle but important difference. The question that drives the book is ‘cui bono?’. Rather than seeking to establish the truth – or otherwise – of UFO encounters themselves, Pilkington seeks to understand the uses to which UFO mythology has been put, and the extent to which those uses have defined its shape and development.

His answers are enthralling and disturbing in equal measure. The book traces the very direct involvement of various US intelligence agencies with the development and dissemination of UFO mythology, from World War II to the present day. It sets that involvement within the context of political struggles between intelligence agencies and the various arms of the armed forces; it describes various documented yet under-publicised technological advances that provide convincingly earthbound explanations for many classic UFO events; and it successfully redefines much UFO activity and mythology as a kind of spook theatre, deliberately designed to deflect hostile attention from highly secret flight testing and espionage activities.

These wider histories are set against a variety of more personal narratives. Accompanied by documentarist John Lundberg, Pilkington meets and explores the histories of various key figures stationed at the borders of the cosmic and the top secret. These range from charming arch-manipulators to tragic disinformation victims. The role of each within the development of wider UFO narratives is carefully explored, bringing to the advantages, motivations, and hazards of involvement with the UFO phenomenon very personally to life.

And of course, by observing, Pilkington himself becomes an actor. At one point, certain sections of US UFOdom become convinced that he’s an MI6 agent; at another, US intelligence operatives seem to be actively trying to recruit him. And of course, one fascinating question underlies much of the information that the book passes on; to what extent is Pilkington himself being used to manage the UFO myth, and move it in useful new directions?

Room is also left for a healthy dose of awe. Pilkington convincingly demonstrates that modern UFO myth cycles have been developed and directed by very specific groups of people, to achieve very specific goals. However, summoned or not, the god will always be present; here, too, traces of the genuinely inexplicable linger. ‘Mirage Men’ does an excellent job of bringing UFOs down to earth; but, in the final analysis, it is also open-minded enough to admit that room for the impossible remains, and that genuinely astonishing, paradigm shattering truths may yet remain to be discovered out there.

In summary, then, it’s a great read, and well worth checking out. For more information on it, visit the book’s blog here – and to pick up a copy, go straight to amazon. For more on Mark’s activities as a publisher, here’s the Strange Attractor site.

Edward who?

America, Photos

Well, another day, another blog – and, between the jetlag and the new job, I’m completely shattered just now, hence the lack of hot posting action. So, a favourite Hopper fuelled picture from the recent trip, of New York morning light and someone crossing the road.  Taken at about 9am, the sun blazing down the canyon roads…

Unarius dove release

Aliens, America, Doves

Well, I wasn’t going to post again before I went away, but sometimes you find things that the world really needs to see. And today is one of those days.

I like doves. I like UFOs. I like white suits. I like Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. But I never thought I’d see them brought together – never, that is, until now, and never with such nutty ceremonial aplomb.

So, thanks to the Fortean Times, some essential footage from the Unarius people, as they continue their ongoing quest to bring peace and understanding to the cosmos by releasing a flight of doves from a model UFO. Go – BEHOLD! – and stand in awe…

Eyes wide shut

America, Fantasy, Politics

Been going back through the notebooks, wondering what to say today, and I lighted on an entry from a while back. The papers had been full of descriptions of Blair and Bush’s relationship in the run up to the Iraq War. Determined to be involved, Blair kept close to Bush and took his assurances about post war planning, etc, as truth.

This led to a confidence in the efficacy of the invasion and conquest of Iraq as a means to establish democracy that was, in retrospect, misplaced. ‘Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it, does he?’ commented Blair after a meeting with Jacques Chirac. But in fact Chirac did get it.

‘[Blair] discovered too late that Bush was only nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraq enterprise. A stark picture emerges of Bush making promises and giving assurances to Blair, which were not delivered because Iraq was being run by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, neither of whom were very interested in their junior British ally.’

Quite apart from the way that this exposes two key Western leaders as wilfully out-of-touch fantasists, it’s interesting because of what it says about the relationship between knowledge and the particular kind of fantasising that they indulged in.

Unlike early Middle Eastern warrior T. E. Lawrence, who saw himself as a ‘dreamer of the day’, one of a group of ‘dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible’, Blair and Bush were dreamers of the night. They dreamed with their eyes closed, privileging inner certainty over external truth.

So, they dismissed those with external knowledge as being at best pessimists, at worst misguided. ‘He just doesn’t get it, does he?’. And that’s one of the great ways of exposing this kind of fantasy.

Poke it with the stick of subjectivity, of hard rational truth; if its defence is either just to dismiss the stick, or hit back with an argument built on an entirely internalised logic structure that takes no account of the external world, then you know you’re talking to people busy dreaming with their eyes shut – and that someone else is probably doing the real work, somewhere else entirely.  

Mondrian in New York

Abstraction, America, Art

Rushing around today, so here’s a notebook entry from when I was lurking in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was a very exciting wander – and particularly exciting was seeing Mondrian’s various late New York paintings. So, I sat in front of them and pondered.

Composition in Oval with Colour Planes

‘The geometry of this composition is partially based on sketches of partially demolished buildings.’ The artist as a maker of partially demolished buildings – paring back to the fundamental structures, destroying as he / she goes, creating something that explains and defines but can never be lived in – or at least, occupied only by the mind, the imagination, the viewer recreating a personal whole from the objective part and then moving into it as an inhabitant. ‘What would it be like if I lived there?’ The great question of the viewer / reader of art. The impossibility of ever finding out.

Solomon Kane 2007

America, Fantasy, Politics, Short stories

It’s an odd thing, but when Robert E. Howard (yup, the Conan bloke) wrote his Solomon Kane stories, he provided an uncannily precise analysis of a certain kind of American exceptionalism.

Solomon Kane is a sixteenth century Puritan with a thirst for justice, who travels the world righting wrongs. He’s occasionally assisted by an aged Voodoo priest; he carries (the original) Solomon’s wand, introduced in a wonderfully offhand way; and he always fights evil, and he always wins out.

At one point, in ‘The Moon of Skulls’, Howard gives a very interesting description of Kane’s character and motivation. Here are the key elements:

‘He never sought to analyse his motives and he never wavered, once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings… A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, and avenge all crimes against right and justice.’

The contrast between the universality of Kane’s goals and the limitations of his methods is fascinating. Implicit in his character is a lack of a need for knowledge, a sense that by just acting he’ll be right.

You can read that as an illustration of Nietzsche’s ‘noble morality’, whereby the strong perceive any action they make as being by-definition right – but it comes alive politically when you compare it with the famous ‘reality based community’ quote.

Journalist Ron Suskind, interviewing an unnamed White House insider in Autumn 2004, was told that:

‘guys like [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which [the insider] defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”’

Here, too, is a rejection of a judicious, empirical study of reality – ‘cold and logical reasonings’ – for something far more impulsive. It’s implicit in the rhetoric, which neatly separates thinking from doing: ‘we’re history’s actors… and you… will be left to just study’.

It’s the Solomon Kane ethos writ large, expressed at the level of empire rather than person. I’ve always felt that much US pulp fiction is America dreaming about itself – but who’d have thought that Robert E. Howard could ever have dreamt of the Neo-Cons with such force and precision?

Scott of the Rantarctic

America, Essayists, Novelists, Rants

Well, despite a bacon, mushroom and brown sauce sandwich, and a rather nice cappuccino, I’m still hungover, so I’m just going to rant a bit, releasing my inner literary Richard Littlejohn (for non-UK readers, a noted right wing ranting journalist / loon) on the world.

We’re going to hell in a handcart!

If there’s one thing that winds me up, it’s the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that ‘there are no second acts in American lives’ is taken to mean that there are no second chances in American lives. You see it quoted all over the place – such-and-such has returned triumphantly from failure, ‘disproving FSF’s famous dictum’, somebody else falls into obscurity, ‘proving FSF right’.

You couldn’t make it up!!

But – if you think about what the term ‘second act’ actually means in a narrative structure context – you realise that’s not what he meant at all! Classically, in the First Act you establish a goal for your protagonist, in the Second Act you create obstacles to the achievement of those goals, and in the Third Act you show what happens when those goals are finally achieved.

It’s Political Correctness GONE MAD!!!

So, when FSF said that there are no second acts in American lives, what I think he really meant was that there’s an expectation that there should be no barriers between the desire and the fulfilment of the desire. And that’s a very intriguing comment, perfectly describing the promises that much of modern consumer culture makes to us all. You want it? You got it. No effort needed, because there’s no longer a second act.

Now that’s much more interesting than no second chances.