Why I’m writing a Spanish Inquisition cop show

General grumpiness, Rants, Religion, Supernatural, Television, Utter bollocks

Well, I’ve only ever been able to see ‘The Exorcist’ as a comedy, and if you believe Martin Shaw in the BBC’s nutty new exorco-drama ‘Apparitions’, that probably means I’m possessed. Hey ho, we all have our crosses to bear (or rather, pitchforks). In my defense, the scene in ‘The Exorcist’ that first set me off is undeniably a bit nutty. It’s the one where the psychiatrists come and visit Regan. The bed’s levitating; a head’s spinning round; the wardrobe’s dancing; and the shrinks confidently declare that it’s all in her mind, with a positively surreal determination to deny reality that was really a bit too Monty Python for me.

Alas, ‘Apparitions’ – just watched on BBC iPlayer – wasn’t as entertaining. In fact, it left me feeling positively depressed. Martin Shaw is – as ever – elegantly smooth as an exorcist who bucks authority (in classic cop show style, his grumpy boss even demands his exorcist badge at one point – and of course Shaw pops up a couple of scenes later, exorcising away. I go my own way, dammit! Or, in his rather more priestly take on that particular cliche, ‘I can only promise to follow my conscience’.), in this opening episode dealing with a young girl, quite possibly the reincarnation of Mother Teresa (yup, that’s what seems to be going on), whose dad is possessed. And it’s the way that that possession is handled, and the show’s related condemnation of atheism, that left me feeling so bummed out.

So, let’s start with possession. Martin Shaw’s nemesis – the possessed dad – was, it transpires, taken ill in India, rushed to Mother Teresa’s hospital, and there baptised without his knowledge. This is the root of his problems; Shaw tells us that, if baptism isn’t followed by an acceptance of God, a void is created that demons rush into. And he backs this up with scriptural quotation, so we’re not just hearing this from him; we’re hearing it from the church. This isn’t opinion, the show makes a point of telling us; it’s doctrine. And, given that we’re told this by an experienced exorcist, in this dramatic context, it’s not just doctrine either – it’s fact.

So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s in a very reasonable objection that Possessed Dad raises. He asks about the Hindus and Muslims that are brought into the hospital, and is outraged that they should be forcibly converted. Of course, within the context of the show’s rhetoric, everything he says is false; presumably his outrage is intended to create in us, the credulous audience, a sense that in fact it’s rather good that these non-believers are getting forcibly Christianised. That’s well on the way to being rather offensive; but that’s not all. In the dramatic world that the show creates for us, the forcibly baptised are in fact empty vessels for demons. It’s unlikely that a Hindu or Muslim, unknowingly baptised, will then embrace a Christian God; and so they become the most fertile voids, wherein demons may dwell.

Ugh. And Ugh, too, to the show’s treatment of atheism. Earlier on, Possessed Dad’s daughter tries to convince a doubting Shaw that her dad is possessed. Her proof? Richard Dawkins books, ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ on the CD player, and so on. Atheism is here a direct path to damnation; thought independent of church dictat a sure road to destructiveness in this world (Possessed Dad ends the episode by nearly, it’s implied, raping and killing his daughter) and eternal flame in the next. Is this kind of boneheadedly authoritarian theology the kind of nonsense my licence fee is funding? I’m going to be on the phone to the Beeb tomorrow…

And I’ll have one final thing to complain about, too. Because this show really is putting across a theology of command, and that’s made very clear when we find out how Possessed Dad’s daughter was conceived. Her seed was sown on the day of Mother Teresa’s death; Possessed Dad and Mrs Possessed Dad were in Kensington Gardens, mourning the death of Diana. At least, Mrs PD was; Possessed Dad dragged her into the bushes for a quick one, ostensibly to celebrate Diana’s death but in fact to celebrate Mother T’s death. A fascinating moment, linking temporal and spiritual authority in a way not seen since the obsolescence of the divine right of kings.

So, all in all a bit of a waste of time, this programme. And (not wanting to rant excessively after the X-Files explosion below) I haven’t even mentioned the truly bizarre treatment of the show’s only gay character, an ex-leper who’s now almost a priest, until he’s cast out of the church and falls prey to the temptation to visit a sauna – ‘The Hot Room’ (because Hell’s, like, hot, and he’s going into somewhere like Hell! Good grief, I’m embarrassed to even type this stuff. Anyway…) – and as a result is flayed alive by a knife wielding demon who – we have earlier learnt – also hangs out outside the Vatican, selling the Italian version of ‘The Big Issue’. Hmm, casual – and clod-hoppingly literal – demonization of the homeless, too.

So, who’s this witless, propagandistic, two dimensional, utterly conservative nonsense aimed at? Well, certainly not people like me. I would say the deeply, narrowly religious, but I suspect that they’ll have turned off after the first five minutes, where we learn that -apparently – Mother Teresa spent the last few hours of life either under demonic attack, or actively possessed by demons. Right…

So I can’t see anyone really enjoying it (except, perhaps, for Martin Shaw’s mum, and she kind of has to), and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. So why have I even written about it? Partially, because this kind of unpleasantly subtexted nonsense should always be dissected and exposed for the offensive cobblers that it is, and partially because I still can’t quite believe that something quite as witlessly regressive as this is being serialised on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday nights. If nothing else, it should lay to rest the myth of the dominance of the liberal media – along with those other myths about intelligent media, challenging media, entertaining media and even just basically well thought through media.

And what now for me? Well, I’m off to get stuck into a script about a heroic crime solving heretic torturing demon fighting member of that wonderfully sympathetic organisation, the Spanish Inquisition – if I get it in front of whoever commissioned ‘Apparitions’, I’ll be a TV big shot before you know it…

Jesus wants me for a loyalty card special offer

Aliens, Fantasy, Religion, RPGs, Superheroes

Jesus called me yesterday and tried to sell me a 50% discount card, valid apparently at most of the best shops in the UK, including (He made a special point of telling me) Boots*. When I tried to find out more, He said he was going to put me through to His supervisor, at which point I rang off.

I can say no to Jesus without feeling too guilty – He is after all semi-human, and so gets that some of us might not actually need 50% discount cards, even if we do shop regularly at Boots – but I felt that I was risking lightning bolts etc if I turned down his boss, so thought it best to retire gracefully before this became an issue.

I do salute the practicality of His second coming tho’, and His very direct concern for those of us struggling in credit crash hit Britain. Perhaps I’ve also been misunderstanding all those robot phone calls offering me free holidays in Florida – could they be divine, too? Perhaps there is a frustrated choir of robot angels somewhere in Heaven, baffled as to why we persist in refusing their chirpily automatic munificence. Ah, the ingratitude of personkind…

Anyway, quite apart from religious visitations, I was – as regular readers will realise is completely unsurprising – going on about Ezra Pound the other night, having first been discussing the pleasures and miseries of being writing fantasy. But a fascinating comment from the person I was talking to. ‘Of course you like Pound’, she said, ‘you’re into D&D’.

Now that’s a really fascinating comment, because it reveals the previously unsuspected (at least by me) link between RPGs and certain Modernist / Post Modernist poetic strategies. Let me explain…

Key to much of the more interesting modern poetry is its demand that the reader becomes an active participant in creating meaning in it. The poem offers never quite enough information to finally resolve; the final decision as to any meaning(s) inherent in the text comes from the reader.

Remind you of anything? Yup, D&D and its ilk. RPGs aren’t narratives; they’re construction kits for narratives, a set of open fields, each demanding player participation to be completed, and each having no particular final meaning without that participation.

So, formally, there’s a really interesting comparison to be made there. And there’s another point of contact there too; RPGs and strange and strange and interesting modern poetry are very often sneered at in very similar terms.

They’re arcane; they’re esoteric; they’re the preserve of geeks; they have no real aesthetic credibility or worth, instead being little more than a self-indulgent waste of time that encourage flight from, rather than engagement with, reality.

Fascinating… and fascinating that a demand for action and engagement, rather than just passive enjoyment, on the part of the reader / player, should lead to such vituperation. Is not being told what to think by a text really so traumatic? Apparently so, at least for some.

As for me, pretty much all of the really interesting people I’ve ever met have either been dedicated RPGers or deeply into seriously odd and usually pretty incomprehensible poetry – so I know where my loyalties lie!**

*no, really, He did

** clearly if Jesus calls back and turns out NOT to be either an RPGer or a poetry geek, I’m screwed

Relating to Gandalf

Fantasy, Gnosis, Modernity, Religion

Well, it’s interesting times at Allumination Central, as at the moment I’m a full time writer. That – combined with Gary Lachman’s fascinating delve into 60s occult culture, ‘Turn Off Your Mind’, and related ponderings about Gandalf – has set me pondering self determination, external determination, and the relationship between the two.

It’s the self determination that’s difficult; fresh out of three years of pretty much full time employment, I’m finding it an interesting challenge to move back to a situation where – even for a short period – my time is entirely under my control, and my goals are entirely my own to define. And that’s a fascinating difficulty to feel.

It’s making me realise just how much responsibility for the direction of our lives we hand over to other people, and just how much personal goals can be externally imposed. 9 to 5, 8 to 6, or its equivalent is a lot of time; more than half of the most alive parts of our waking lives. Round about 60-70% of them, in fact, if you do the maths.

What’s interesting is not whether that’s a good or a bad thing – rather, I’m intrigued by what it says about us as a species, or at least about one of the basic norms of modern culture. We seem to have a deep need for hierarchy; a deep need to be part of an external structure that both shapes our lives and helps give them meaning; in terms of last week’s post, a structure that creates a quest or set of quests for us to both fulfil and use as a lens to look at the rest of the world.

I’m not sure what that’s a function of. Is it something biological? As social animals, do we need to be a part of a social hierarchy to be fulfilled? Is it something social? Given that it relies on group activity to hold it together, has modern technological society created a value set that demands our participation in ‘work’ to demonstrate our value to society, and therefore create a sense of worth in ourselves? Or is there something very basic here? Does the self need an external theatre space to define itself, a theatre that is usefully created by work?

I have to admit that – although I have my own theories – I have no sense of what the final answer is. What’s interesting is the kind of behaviour that that need for structure leads to – a behaviour that came very much to life during the 60s, as – as Lachman records – transparently nutty cults flourished on an impressively substantial, frequently bonkers and quite often surprisingly malign scale.

Seeking to escape the constrictions of straight society – in part, no doubt, of ‘work’ – and develop a truer version of the self, seekers after truth fled one set of structures to – it seems – leap headlong into other, often far more repressive and destructive ones. Crowleyan magicians, acid gurus, Satanists, new age masters and others found loyal sets of followers who thralled themselves to their spiritual leaders and – in the name of freedom and self realisation – rigorously and thoroughly did whatever they were told, for as long as they were told to.

Freedom is a scary thing; joining a cult is one response to it. Perhaps the rise of quest fantasy as a clearly defined genre in the 60s (sparked by the ascendancy of Tolkien) is another. Seen through the guru lens, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ gives readers in Gandalf a demonstrably wise, powerful and right leader, one who sets his followers a quest of very clear worth that produces both epic, psychedelic, world changing adventure and a final return to a re-secured, and for the most part very conservative, home. The innumerable Gandalf themed head shops, restaurants, etc, that sprang up back then point to both his ascendancy as a cultural figure and the attractiveness of the trip that he offered.

But – as previous posts have pointed out – there’s a problem with accepting a guru’s quest donation; you have to accept their worldview, too, and reject anything that challenges it – like, for example, your own personal experience of the world. So the problem still remains; how to reach a personal relationship with the world, one that acknowledges the needs of the self as much as the needs of the structures of which the self is a part?

Blind guru following doesn’t seem to be a particularly good solution; moving in the opposite direction, rejection of the world entire is (I suspect, never having done it) not very helpful either. No man is an island; pure solipsism leads to idiolect, the creation of a personal myth that exists without any relationship with or relevance to the structures of the wider world at all. Perhaps that’s the kind of solipsism that created all those flawed 60s gurus, people busy using their followers to shore up their own sense of self in the face of a determined assault on their worldviews from the realities each one rejected.

The real challenge seems to be to mediate between the internal and the external, acknowledging both the needs of the self and the needs of the immediate structures of the world. Perhaps becoming a person is neither about following nor leading, but rather is best understand as a constant negotiation between the two, allowing the two to co-exist productively. Neither seeking to be Gandalf, nor to be led by Gandalf? If I was aspiring to guru-hood, that would perhaps – at least provisionally – be my message. I suspect it wouldn’t get me too many gold plated Rolls Royces, which is on some levels a shame, but on the plus side it wouldn’t screw too many people up either, which can only be a good thing.

Crossing Lovecraft

Horror, Religion, Science Fiction

Today as it turns out is looking very hectic, and I’m out and about tonight, so instead of a long typed-in-the-evening post about Hal Duncan (I’m going to a talk on Norse Gods, etc), here’s a short rant about H. P. Lovecraft.

Not so much about Lovecraft, in fact; more about August Derleth’s misappropriation of the Lovecraftian mythos. I’m currently ripping through his pulpily enjoyable ‘The Trail of Cthulhu’ and was – unsurprisingly – enjoying it in a pulpy kind of way until I came across this:

‘ …the striking parallel which forced itself upon me, a divinity student, a parallel which could not be overlooked, was plain – the similarity between the tale of the revolt of the Great Old Ones against the Elder Gods, and that other, more universally known tale of the revolt of Satan against the forces of the Lord.’

Well, where do I start? At a stroke, Derleth breaks the fundamental nihilism of Lovecraft’s vision, replacing his driven obsession with the minute insignificance of humanity with a narrative that rescales human morality as a fundamental operating principle of the entire cosmos.

I’m not sure what puts me out more – the arrogance of the change in scale, or the casualness with which HPL’s entire worldview is discarded. Both are equally disconcerting – and both make me wonder if this is a book I particularly feel like finishing, now.

Becoming Norma Desmond

Escapism, Fantasy, Film, Literary, Religion

Out and about on Wednesday night (at an event run by the estimable Poet in the City, which everyone should know about – they do fantastic poetry events round the City of London), and, as it does in pubs, the conversation turned to fantasy and sf.

As it also does when you’re around people-whose-genre-is-literary, someone came up with the question – ‘why do you write genre fiction when it has nothing to do with reality, and therefore has no point to it?’

Of course this is a red rag to a bull for me; my answering rant went on for about half an hour. In fact, it only ended when I paused for breath and noticed that the bar staff were putting the stools upside down on the tables and everyone else had left.

One of the points I made was that modern literary fiction is a pretty late arrival on the literary scene, really only beginning in the 19th Century. Fantasy has been around forever, from Homer on.

But thinking about it, that’s not such a good point after all. Much of the writing that foreshadows or powers the modern fantastic – archaic Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse and other myth cycles, Christian narratives from ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, Renaissance magical tracts, and so on – were written as fact.

For their original creators and consumers, they weren’t fantasies at all; they were factual components of a coherent and internally consistent worldview. We use them as source material for fictions that know they’re fiction, but that’s absolutely not what they originally were.

The modern Western European worldview is a profoundly scientific one. So, it favours narratives that engage with reality in a way that’s based on quasi-scientific observation. Seen in this light, fantastic narratives can be seen as a hangover from an earlier, discredited way of understanding the world.

From this point of view, Fantasy writing becomes Norma Desmond; a glamorous, pointless relic. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, she’s a leftover from the great days of silent movies, eking out a ghostly living in the LA of the 50s.

And if we look at Fantasy like this, then Norma Desmond becomes a very relevant figure. She’s a useful index of how less conscientious critics can perceive the genre; and her personal trajectory is an incredibly potent warning against both bombast in general (‘I AM big. It’s the movies that got small’) and the specific genre sin of letting fantasising become an end in itself, rather than a mirror with which to confront the world.

And so, to conclude, here’s Norma herself in the final moments of the film, in all her deluded, tragic magnificence. Broken, maddened and desperately alone, a murderess about to be arrested, a haunted and futile relic of a forgotten world, she steps in front of the cameras and stops the show, one last, unforgettable time.

Breaking out of heaven

Fiction, Narrative, Religion

Non-realist writing is about the creation of transparently fictional, secondary worlds for the mind, imagination and emotions to play in. One of the joys of such worlds comes from the suspension of disbelief needed to enter them. Put simply, you can pretend that they’re real – a complex joy, but a joy nonetheless.

It’s easy to forget that we create fictions of the world around us in day to day life, as well. We build narratives around work, around play, and enter into them wholeheartedly. Here, too, there’s suspension of disbelief; we forget the wider possibilities of the self as we settle ourselves into the restrictive, consensual limits that daily life creates.

It’s when we forget that these limits are defined by a fiction we’ve created that problems happen. We come to believe that the story IS the reality, that we have no choices in a given situation; but that’s rarely, if ever, true. There is no story that cannot be reframed, no narrative that cannot be stepped out of.

There’s an interesting mythical take on this, as well. In the Christian narrative, we fell from heaven so we could have choice. Such a shattering birth has ensured that free will is a core component of our lives. We can never lose as much as we’ve already lost through exercising it; and so, we are absolutely free.

Matrices old and new

Fantasy, Film, Novelists, Religion, Science Fiction, Television

I’ve been pondering The Matrix movies lately. Key pieces of plot and character information were offered in animes, computer games, and so on. Back in the day, I thought this was lazy and exploitative. Now, I think I was wrong.

Narrative is getting old school. For thousands of years, the great public stories were built on mythology. Mythologies are inchoate tale masses, springing to life when the simply defined character traits of their protagonists encounter the rich complexities of life.

That narrative breadth was reflected in the variety of media employed to communicate those mythologies. Over the years, their stories were told orally, enacted ritually, depicted through sculpture, painting, illumination, even sung.

Narrative units were excerpted for use in churches or temples, in the house or workplace, or even just on personal amulets or altarpieces, giving a particular devotional emphasis as necessary.

By presenting a single story through multiple different media, that could be engaged with individually or taken together to form a whole, the Wachowskis were tapping into this very ancient set of narrative techniques.

They’re not the only people to do it. Throughout genre writing, this kind of multiplicity is being actively engaged with.

Take the Hellboy franchise, for example – now including comic books, novels, cartoons and feature films. Or the richly populated Star Trek universe, which can be explored through everything from the original episodes to fan fiction, boardgames to a (rather strange) small museum in Las Vegas.

What’s interesting is why it’s genre writing that’s working like this; and why (for a couple of centuries at least) fiction pulled away from this kind of multiple narrative.

Genre fiction’s always been at home with the episodic, the multiple; rooted in short stories, television series, radio serials and even comic books as much as in novels, it comes ready tooled for these kinds of story telling methodologies.

Over and above this, it’s enjoyed by a highly active – and very creative – fan base that’s very comfortable with reworking favoured narratives according to personal need.

And why did we step away from multiple narratives in the first place? For me, it’s linked to the rise of the literary novel as a discrete art form. Such novels are understood to present unique narrative universes, created by and under the control of single, named writers.

Only Dickens can write like Dickens; only Cervantes can write Don Quixote (tho’others tried and failed, as Cervantes successfully managed to defend his own turf against them). This kind of emphasis on individual, highly personal world creation militates against the kind of shared narratives I’ve been talking about.

So what’s going on? How to conclude? Really, by pointing out that genre writing is helping maintain a very ancient narrative tradition; and that literary writers are not the sole arbiters of what fiction is, and how it works.

The Archers and their target

Fantasy, Film, Religion, Supernatural

‘A Matter of Life and Death’ shows us two broken utopias. The most obvious one is heaven; a perfect machine that cares for all who enter it. Stress and shock are balmed on entry. Enmities are forgotten. Grief seems not to exist. There’s even cricket on the radio.

But it’s a fragile utopia; it can be broken by something as predictable as fog over the channel. Lost in the weather, a collector of souls misses his target, allowing the film’s protagonist to stay alive beyond his time, and fall in love.

As ever, it’s only when the utopia is broken that the drama can begin. The restoration of utopia means the breaking of hearts. How can the two be reconciled? They can’t, and so utopia remains perfect by admitting the possibility of its own imperfection.

What’s interesting is the implicit cause of that break. It’s the first mistake in a thousand years or so. Fog, one assumes, wouldn’t normally have such a catastrophic impact on the collection of the dead.

But, as the film tells us, this is an unusual night; there has been a thousand bomber raid over Europe – and, for every bomber, thousands upon thousands of deaths.

And so the film begins as the machineries of Heaven – overloaded by the vast quantities of souls they presumably have to capture – creak and break apart. The film presents as a comedy, but buried beneath it is buried vast tragedy; the dead lost to world war.

Utopia hasn’t been broken by a mistake. It’s been broken by us, pushing and pushing at it until that mistake becomes inevitable.

Oh, and what’s the second broken utopia? It’s this world, broken by loss – an emotion and an action that the film absolutely and rigorously represses.

Seeing the world

Fantasy, Ghosts, Novelists, Psychology, Religion, Supernatural

At Arvon last week I was ranting – as you do – about John Burdett’s ‘Bangkok 8’, the only psychedelic transvestite Thai reincarnation police procedural you’ll ever need to read (apart, of course, from its sequel ‘Bangkok Tattoo’).

And, if that whets your appetite for Thai mythology, there’s much else out there – S.P. Somtow’s short stories and in particular his rather lovely coming of age novel ‘Jasmine Nights’ deal very directly with Thailand’s unreal realms, while Graham Joyce’s ‘Smoking Poppy’ is a much more oblique and restrained take on intersections between fantasy and reality. And that’s just for starters…

What’s interesting is how many of the characters in these novels perceive the fantastic. They take visions of past lives, strange ghosts, practising magicians, exotic curses, and so on, completely in their stride. Reading about such things may be a form of escape for us, but for them it’s the everyday world.

Ostensibly, that takes these books into the realms of fantasy, where Frodo is completely unsurprised by Gandalf’s existence and behaviour because he knows that wizards are real. But there are no hobbits in these books. They deal with authentic worldviews, rooted in direct experience, held by entirely non-fictional people who – if you step on a plane – you can go and meet and chat to.

Commonly, fantasy writing is seen as a form of escapism, but this kind of work points to an opposite function. It understands fantasy to include ‘things unexperienced’ as well as ‘things impossible’, reminding us again and again that there are many more ways of interpreting and engaging with this world than the overly reductive, rationalising modes we so easily fall back on.