biweekly links 10-11-2017

Sylvia Plath and the Occult: Interview with Julia Gordon-Bramer: I leave it to the experts to determine how serious Plath was about tarot cards but to my inexpert mind Gordon-Bramer may be onto something.

New documentary is a magic portal into a weird and wonderful library: this 90 minute doc on the Ritman Library explains what they mean by “western esotericism” with abundant gorgeous shots of historic tomes from their collection. Available free through Amazon Prime (at least last week) if you love magical history and/or illustrated manuscripts, check it out. Should I ever get to Amsterdam this library is on my list of must-sees.

Borley Rectory animated documentary: the trailer evokes early horror films and steampunk but I’m willing to see if it winds up being more substance than style. As this “most haunted house in England” burnt down in the 1930s, I wonder what the most haunted is now?

writing on wall:
Ghostly(?) writing from the wall of Borley Rectory. I always found this image deliciously eerie. Courtesy Tumblr.

You Can Now Visit a Witch Museum in Cleveland: the Buckland Gallery of Witchcraft and Medicine has bounced around the states for years and is currently (permanently?) attached to a record store. Advertising is minimal (they’re concerned about how they’ll be received) but open during some regular hours and by appointment.

the stupidest Slytherin

I’ve been re-watching the Harry Potter movies of late. I find myself still impressed again at how engaging the saga is and how the stories grow up with the characters: as they mature to into a more nuanced, less black and white outlook the stories gain complexity as well. And damn if she doesn’t know how to world-build!

And I got to thinking about The Book (hell, I’m always thinking about The Book). Rowling rolled at least one historical magician into the Potterverse (are there more I’m forgetting?) so surely there are others. So:

If John Dee were any more Ravenclaw he’d live in a library OH WAIT. He certainly embodies wit, learning, and wisdom, even if he’s a bit gullible. What do you wanna bet his wardenship of Christ’s College Manchester was just cover for his real trip north for a Hogwart’s fellowship?

Edward Kelley may have all the ambition of a Slytherin but he’s not together enough to carry out his wildest schemes…or is he? I think the Snapes and Malfoys of the world would disown him if he didn’t get himself kicked out of Hogwarts outright.

Jane Dee is a muggle, period. She doesn’t approve of all this magical nonsense–it’s dangerous and unseemly besides.

I imagine Kelley’s brother Thomas is clearly Hufflepuff. He’s loyal and patient to though Kelley often doesn’t deserve it.

Joanna Kelley may well be the only Gryffindor. She’s got to be brave to see all of their continental travel as an adventure rather than a hazard, and she’s determined to put a bright spin on everyone and everything.

Elizabeth Jane Weston (Lizzie), Joanna’s daughter? She’s about four years old during the story – too young to sort, certainly. But she’s definitely got some of her mom in her.

The spies Sledd and Pucci are Slytherin through and through. Sledd would make a stone-cold Death Eater but Pucci would be a toady like Peter Pettigrew and possibly less competent than Kelley.

Draco Malfoy sitting under the sorting hat
Pucci would make Draco Malfoy look strong willed. Courtesy Giphy.

Of all my characters Joanna is possibly the only truly likeable one of the lot (but are there any unlikeable Gryffindors?). But at least my less-than-savory characters aren’t dull.

How do your characters (or your favorite fictional characters) sort out?

biweekly links 9-27-2017

Bess of Hardwick in spotlight of new play: about time! Perhaps best known as the woman who kept Mary Queen of Scots under house arrest, she became the second richest woman in Elizabethan England through both strategic marriages and shrewd business dealings. Definitely worthy of her own play. Her stately Hardwick Hall still stands.

How Renaissance Painting Smoldered with a Little Known Hallucinogen: Not THAT unknown. Short version: some artists were heavily influenced by ergot poisoning, either by their own experiences or from observing others in the throes of “St. Anthony’s Fire”. I’m unsure what to make of this – on the one hand artists must get their inspiration from somewhere, on the other it suggests lack of creativity if  they were just depicting their hallucinations to the last detail. Full disclosure: I love Bosch’s work and prefer to think he was just that inventive. Thoughts?

Painting of man in throes of agony, covered in pustules.
LSD may be derived from ergot fungi but St. Anthony’s Fire looks like a bad trip to me. Painting by Matthias Grünewald of a patient suffering from advanced ergotism from approximately 1512–16 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Books Discovered Once Again is a Czech-Norwegian project dedicated to identifying, cataloguing, and returning to original owners/libraries non-Bohemican volumes found in the Czech public libraries. Related: According to the historians on this project, the “Himmler’s occult book stash found in Prague” story I linked to last year isn’t true. Thus far they’ve found “common philosophic literature, yearbooks of lodges, some Masonic poems collection and so on” but nothing explicitly occult. Old news offered belatedly and borrowed (thanks Astonishing Legends) but I don’t want y’all running around with the wrong info.

just the right amount of fear

I have an uneasy history with horror.

On the one hand it’s unbearable. I hate jumping at every damn thing just because of words on a page. At the same time elegantly creeping horror is impossible for me to put down.

I admire Stephen King – I know it’s cliché but he really is a master of subtle terror. Having said that, I’ve only ever read “Pet Sematary”. Even though it stole two weeks of sleep during my teenage years (with the help of the family cat), I remember renewing my library checkout for it anyway.

Whitley Strieber’s “Communion”, however, casts the longest shadow. Before the first page you’re treated to this:

Painting of gray alien with huge wrap-around eyes an an enigmatic smile from the cover art of
Makes me flinch but I can’t look away. Courtesy Tumblr.

Then the story starts, and though Strieber’s claim that it’s contentious to say the least it’s damn near perfect horror. I started to imagine I’d see one of these every time I turned around, and that they could and would get at me no matter how much security I had or how many friends I surrounded myself with.

That ability to compel someone to keep reading despite their fear is power, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that power for myself. While I don’t necessarily want my readers to lose sleep I’d love it if I can make the hair on the back of their necks stand up when Edward Kelley first hears voices, or look over their shoulders the first time one of his “spirits” materializes.

I’m just afraid it’s over my pay grade, so to speak. And I’m too terrified to do the necessary homework (i.e. read King’s entire back catalog and brave “Communion” again) to learn by observation.

What about you? What books or genres do you find utterly impossible to put down though they make your skin crawl (in fear, disgust, or something else)?

biweekly links 9-13-2017

Sally Quinn’s Next Act: how have I never heard of this woman? Journalist, tv presenter, and fixture of DC “salon society”, she now reveals her belief in the occult in her new memoir. Sounds a bit sensationalistic, but I’m curious how one goes from atheism to casting hexes on enemies (yes, she claims she did that).

Have you got the nerve to take on this spooky tour through creepy cellars and centuries-old cloisters?: The house of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer) is open for “spooky” tours October 18 through 31. Fun fact: Burghley tried to lure Edward Kelley back to England from Prague to share his secret of gold transmutation. Kelley declined because Rudolf II gave him so many lands and titles that it wasn’t worth his time. He wound up in several of Rudolf’s prisons for failing to make gold when requested–though interestingly, he was never accused fraud.

JFK Conspiracy Theorists Are About to Receive the Motherlode: the remaining classified 20% go public on October 26. Though there are as many conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination as there are conspiracy theorists I’m still curious to know what we’ve been missing for ~50 years.

Tweet from John F. Kennedy:
Too soon? Courtesy Tumblr.

The Museum of Witchcraft & Magic In London Opening: November 2, if you’re in the area. Put together by the Last Tuesday Society, a group that’s been in London since 2006 and is “dedicated to subverting life, the universe and everything bored of the life and world it sees around it seeks to create a new world filled with beauty, wonder and the imagination”. Could be a barrel of fun. Ah, to be in Merrie Olde…

technical issues

I’m typing this with my heart in my throat.

Captain Jack Sparrow, screaming
courtesy Giphy

Well, maybe not quite. Still, after six years my trusty laptop ain’t so trusty. It’s not failing completely, just lags for a stretch at unpredictable times. Right in the middle of a brainwave, no less.

So I spent most of this weekend troubleshooting the spinning beachball of death and it’s fixed–or as fixed as a six-year-old laptop can be. Even so, I look on every character I type with suspicion: will this be the last one before it freezes on me again?

Which is less than awesome as it’s my go-to tool for not only the book but pretty much everything else in my life. Additionally most of my research is on this chunk of plastic and metal; I seldom print anything out.

So how did this affect the Great Work? I didn’t get much writing time until yesterday. And I developed some contingency plans:

  • Save. As I work, hit ctl-S every ten minutes or so. Just in case.
  • Back up. Back up early and often. Think you’ve backed it up? Back it up again. Even when the screen was frozen my external drive worked. I’m making damn sure to do it more often than I have been!
  • Store offsite. Related to backup, my Zotero serves as a research holding area.
  • Speaking of research, remember that physical books exist And I do have some–not everything is a PDF of some academic article.
  • Write with pen and paper. Not optimal as my wrists don’t like it and I add to what’s in Scrivener but it’s better than nothing. At least I can spitball plot issues and get general notes down.

So how was your Labor Day weekend?

biweekly links 8-20-2017

I spent the eclipse with Asheville’s witches: I know Asheville mostly as the home of Biltmore House and former home of Moogfest, and while it seems an artsy, crunchy granola college town I didn’t know much about their pagan community. They seem fairly large but their interpretations of the eclipse are as varied as the pagan community itself. (Additional weird resource: Asheville Raven & Crone. No online shopping but a decent overview of their stock, plus event calendar).

Keeping secrets in sixteenth-century Istanbul: Holy Roman vs Ottoman Empires with ciphers and invisible ink! Of interest to me because Rudolf II managed his war with the Ottoman Empire so poorly that the rest of his family switched their support to his brother Matthias, thus beginning the end of Rudolfine Prague’s moment as art/occult capital of Europe.

Make America Ghostly Again: The Demon Cat of Washington D.C.: one of my favorite ghost stories ever! Said to have predicted both Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations, the cat also evidently enjoys scaring people to death (which, let’s face it, all cats would do if they could).

Orange cat sitting in cardboard box
Spice, the demon cat of my household, is bigger and scarier than her DC counterpart. She is very certain of this. Author’s own.

Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept Them as Pets in the Middle Ages: but did they get along with the witches’ cats? Seriously though, this myth says more about the witch-hunters than the witches. Link includes possibly NSFW medieval penis-tree imagery, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

a sliver of optimism

It’s been a rough couple of weeks.

Like almost everyone else I’m disgusted and sadly, surprised by the outrages in Charlottesville. I say “sadly” because it’s not surprising that Trump’s pandering to racists throughout his campaign emboldened them. The violence in Charlottesville was all but inevitable. And now we all know that we have a Commander-in-Chief who won’t outright condemn white supremacy.

I don’t know about you, but I used to live in a country where every thinking person–liberal and conservative–could agree that Nazis and the Klan were bad. Realizing I don’t anymore has been a shock to the system.

And then I got a ray of light.

orange sliver of the sun obscured by the shadow of the moon.
I tried smartphone + eclipse glasses, but ultimately NASA takes the good photos.

No, I don’t think the eclipse was some sort of astrological “good portent”, but the way it changed mood and focus was a delight. People of all sorts were excited. Joyful. Curious. Delighted to share their glasses and pinhole cameras, gathering in parks and fields and parking lots to point and smile. The constant CNN feed in my office turned away from the national shitshow to focus on this simple, if rare, natural marvel.

It’s over now. While I enjoyed it, I can’t stare at the sky forever–with everything going on in this country I can’t afford to. But the excitement generated by the eclipse, the wonder, the interest in science and astronomy, however briefly, by those who don’t usually consider such things (like me–I’m hardly a star-gazer) was a reminder that the world will keep spinning long after we’re gone.

Did you see the eclipse? What did you think?

biweekly links 8-16-2017

Major archaeological finds at Greenwich uncover lost Royal palace: archaeologists have found part of Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I, her sister “Bloody” Mary I and her dad Henry VIII were born. All they found were the kitchens, but in its time Greenwich was comparable to Hampton Court Palace in size and splendor.

August 7, 1620 in crime history: Katharina Kepler Arrested for Witchcraft in Germany: not a typo, that is astronomer Johannes Kepler’s mom. He defended her himself and did get her released, but this is a stark example of the way superstition persisted in the early years of what we think of as modern science.

Two Massive ‘Sea Serpent’ Oarfish Wash Up on Beaches: if you’re squeamish about the sight of filleted raw fish don’t look, but… take a look at these things! Huge and silver and serpent-like, I find it entirely believable that oarfish are mistaken for sea serpents from time to time.

old fashioned engraving of a sea serpent reared up and blowing water out its mouth like a fountain
The Great Sea Serpent (according to Hans Egede. Courtesy the New York Public Library.

How America Lost Its Mind: from The Atlantic, no less. Much to unpack here: did unfettered intellectual freedom lead to the current climate of subjective feelings trumping measurable fact? And is this relativism run amok a peculiarly American thing?

every girl remembers her first space probe

Forty years ago this month, the first of the two Voyager spacecraft launched. And one of my first memories is a book of the first images sent back.

I was about five, but it wasn’t a kid’s book. No, it was my dad’s beautiful coffee table book high-resolution color photos. I’d look at Rainbow-hued Saturn and Jupiter and its moons, the tiny black and white image of Death Star-inspiration Mimas, and Io’s volcanoes for hours on end. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the book, but I do remember those photos. Over the years I developed an appreciation for the sheer technological achievement of Voyager 1 and 2. I still marvel that I live in a time when such things are possible.

And then there was the Golden Record, which became even more interesting as I became a record-collecting teenager. Though I didn’t like half the music (hell, I doubt I knew the tracklist), it still struck me as The Ultimate Artifact: the first sounds any alien will hear of earth, assuming there are any to hear.

Picture of man and woman and diagram of the solar system as depicted on Voyager 1. Commentary: maybe aliens don't talk to us because we're creepy. i mean we send them weird mix tapes and we keep trying to find out where they live. Additional commentary: And we sent them some unsolicited nudes with directions to our house
Mind, the aliens might find the sleeve art off-putting. Courtesy MeMe

Imagine my thrill to discover the Voyager Golden Record project (full disclosure: I participated in the Kickstarter). Now on the 40th anniversary there’s this beautiful boxed set of the remastered disc (vinyl or CD) with a new book of even more gorgeous photos.

I know what’s on my Christmas list – for myself and as gifts for others.