[Image and article abstract from BBC News Magazine; See link to full article below.]
A prize-winning quantum physicist says a spiritual reality is veiled from us, and science offers a glimpse behind that veil. So how do scientists investigating the fundamental nature of the universe assess any role of God, asks Mark Vernon.
The Templeton Prize, awarded for contributions to "affirming life's spiritual dimension", has been won by French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat, who has worked on quantum physics with some of the most famous names in modern science.
Quantum physics is a hugely successful theory: the predictions it makes about the behaviour of subatomic particles are extraordinarily accurate. And yet, it raises profound puzzles about reality that remain as yet to be understood.
Read more of this BBC News Magazine article, including the points of view of an atheist, a sceptic, a Platonist, a believer, and a Pantheist: http://tinyurl.com/markvernon.
I’ve always loved dolls, other imitation people, and imitation people parts: puppets, clowns, ceramic and wooden faces, mannequins, dummies. I’m not much of a collector, but I have a small family of Mardi Gras masks and harlequins. I have one of those ceramic hands, too, which qualifies, I think, as a part. I’ve always wanted a life-size mannequin, but fear holds me back. What if I walk past her and she winks? Or I just think she winked? Or I’m alone in the house and someone clears her throat, and that someone wasn’t me?
About dummies: Though I never met him, Howdy Doody used to be my neighbor! Television pioneer Buffalo Bob lived just a few doors down from me, and he kept Howdy Doody in a glass case suspended from the ceiling. After Buffalo Bob’s death, a custody battle over Howdy got going, and Howdy had to live for a while in a bank vault, but that’s another story for another day. Why am I telling you this? I guess because living near Howdy Doody (who lived in the house Buffalo Bob called “the house that Doody built”) was one of my few brushes with celebrity, and I wanted you to know about it. Why else?
I can also claim I got a peep at editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow at the World Fantasy Convention several years back. If you read any of the fantasy-related genres, and if you aspire to write in that area, you surely know about Ellen Datlow’s annual series THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR, in recent years co-edited with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, as well as her innumerable anthologies of ghost, vampire, fairy, and trickster tales. In POE: 19 NEW TALES INSPIRED BY EDGAR ALLAN POE, "Publishers Weekly" says "she has assembled an all-star line-up and chosen inventive stories whose quality are certainly an extension of Poe's tradition of excellent weird fiction."
She’s won multiple World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, Locus, Hugo, and International Horror Guild Awards; the Shirley Jackson Award, as well as others too many to name, all recognizing her extraordinary contribution to the fantasy, speculative fiction, and horror genres. The Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool contains holdings of The Ellen Datlow Papers that include correspondence files from her days as fiction editor of "Omni Magazine," "Omni Online," and "SciFiction." Take a good long look at her website.
Ellen Datlow gathers the weird like a witch gathers the wind, so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn she collected weird dolls, doll heads, and assorted parts.
Take a look at the online photos of her collection: A doll’s head—one eye glassy and another one missing--springs up like a weird weed from a potted snake plant. See the rubber doll with three faces? Ellen has provided a separate page of same for all you three-faced doll enthusiasts out there. A Kewpie doll, pink little arms spread wide, stands yoo-hooing! in front of a sampling of Ellen’s many awards, as long-faced H.P. Lovecraft looks on. And you’ve got to love the chicken head lady! Look at her with that string of pearls around her neck. She’s holding a sequined purse, too. That snazzy chick is resting up, getting ready to step out tonight!
I contacted Ellen, and she agreed to tell me a little about her doll collection.
Sherry Austin: Ellen, I’ve always wanted to know why dolls have such a hold on some of us. I feel there’s some deep psychological or metaphysical significance there I can’t articulate, so I’m hoping you’ll do it and save me the effort. But first, do you actively search for your dolls and parts, or just wait for one to speak to you, to reach out and grab you? Where do you find them?
Ellen Datlow: I started out with a very few dolls of different types. I traveled to New Orleans a lot in the 80s (for conventions) and each time I went I’d buy a few interesting voodoo dolls. It seemed that each year, a different style would be popular. As you can see in my voodoo doll gallery, the dolls can be very elaborate.
I’ve always loved flea markets and antique malls and visit both whenever I can, out of town, especially in places I’ve never been before. One time in my wandering I found a plastic three-faced doll—that is with a head that turns by means of a knob on top and moves from a crying, sleeping, or awake baby face.
I hadn’t ever seen one before and didn’t know they existed but I thought it was just….so….weird. It was another few years before I found another—again in an antique mall—a little Eskimo girl, this one rubber, I think (or maybe plastic). Then I found myself looking for such dolls whenever I went antiquing but also on eBay—mostly the latter to see what was available. There really aren’t that many “models" of three- faced dolls around. I think I have the ones I want. I accidentally bought one on ebay that was a big cloth one about three feet tall—I gave her away –that’s not what I wanted at all.
I love bisque dolls and doll heads. I have a lot of them. I don’t find them creepy at all, but beautiful. Many of those I bought on eBay before they got too expensive. A few dolls or doll heads (or parts) have come to me as gifts from friends who know my taste.
The chicken lady gives writer Rick Bowes-- himself a bit of a doll collector but more an antique toy seller-- the creeps. He was with me when I found her. Her dress was covered in plastic fingernails—many have fallen off. Since I already have so many now, if I ever buy another doll or doll part, it has to be really special.
Sherry: I love chicken lady! Tell us the history of the dolls on your page.
Ellen: I bought the bird doll from Beth Robinson of strangedolls.net. He’s a chimney sweep.
At some point I started collecting Japanese Kokesha dolls (I think while visiting Eileen Gunn, who is into and somewhat expert in all things Japanese). For an example of what I particularly like, look at these.
In the 90s, a woman at the 26th street flea market (now defunct, alas) was selling a whole bunch of doll heads very reasonably and had some beautiful brown ones that I bought. Here’s one of them.
With that doll head above is a small plastic Japanese fisherman on his boat. I’ve found another Japanese plastic figure of the same type. They’re very detailed even though plastic, which is why when I’ve seen them cheap, I pick them up.
Spiderbaby is from Toy Story I think. I saw her at a friend’s house and coveted her. Finally found one cheap on eBay a few years later.
This lovely bunny was given to me by the friends who owned the spiderbaby I spied and coveted. It’s made of rusty metal baby doll hands, some kind of composite material, its legs are treebranches (you can’t see that in the photo), and it has little pink doll shoes on its feet.
These aren’t dolls but they’re figurines from occupied Japan (I collect a lot of those, too).
There are several sets of different animals playing instruments—you can see the monkeys—they’re about an inch high…there are others that are bigger but not as neat…I don’t collect the larger ones. When I see one cheap, I pick it up.
This is from Japan—it’s four heads set into cork--each head is the size of a thumbnail and the entire set is about 4 inches high.
A few of the doll photos are from shop windows or are not my dolls. I just realized it’s time to take some more doll photos—there are some interesting ones I’ve never photographed.
Sherry: You’ve received tons of awards, Ellen. For those who don’t know, describe the awards behind Kewpie.
Ellen: Most of the awards behind the kewpie (how can you not love kewpies? They’re so cute) are my Howards—the World Fantasy award named after and modeled after a caricature of H.P. Lovecraft created by Gahan Wilson. I’ve received 9 World Fantasy Awards for various anthologies I’ve edited and one special award—professional back in the mid-90s. Currently there are 7 on the armoire (where the kewpies are), one on top of a Japanese box on the floor (that I can look at regularly) and one that I’m still waiting for (since early November—it’s coming by camel from Canada! )
Sherry: What is the appeal of heads, of “parts”?
Ellen: I see them as art objects in and of themselves. No special significance.
Sherry: Well, dang! I was holding out for a long, convulted discussion! Of the many stories and novels you’ve read, do you recall any where the treatment of dolls was especially provocative, unusual or fun?
Ellen: Oh sure. There are lots of doll stories—in fact I’m hoping to edit a doll horror anthology at some point. Ramsey Campbell has written some doll stories: “Magic” by William Goldman, about a ventriloquist and his dummy. Richard Matheson’s story “Fetish,” about a fetish doll that comes to life with murderous consequences (made into a section of a movie as part of the Trilogy of Terror years ago).
Sherry: Why do you think some people are attracted to dolls, and others afraid of them?
Ellen: No idea. It’s never occurred to me that people are afraid of dolls. There are some very creepy baby dolls made to look as close to real babies as possible. I guess I find that kind of disturbing. Clowns now… I’m not afraid of them but I loathe them.
Sherry: What is it with you and dolls, do you think?
Ellen: No idea. I don’t think it’s dolls per se at all. A friend said that almost everything in my apartment has a face…he may be right. I mean not everything, but I do have a lot of critters (not just human dolls) with faces. I’ve got animal critters (the lovely chicken lady, the bunny sculpture on my wall, several other weird animal sculptures by my friend Richard). See here and here. And some gorgeous animal masks by his wife, my friend Mikey.
I also have a life mask of Howard Waldrop that I won in a charity auction many years ago, plus this wonderful bronze dodo by Clee Richerson, who also cast the Shrike for Dan Simmons.
But I don’t feel threatened by any of these things—maybe comforted?
Sherry: Yeah, I think I can see why. Finally, why do you think dolls have such enduring appeal? Is there some deep significance to doll collecting?
Ellen: I don’t think I’m your usual doll collector—I’m not into pretty dolls, just interesting ones. I just enjoy weird stuff.
Does this story by author Matthew Goodman not sound extraordinary? It's about an account of an elaborate hoax in New York City in 1835. The New York Sun published an incredible tale about a telescope you could look through to see the moon with its waterfalls, fields of poppies, unicorns, and man-bats who erected temples and fornicated for all the world to see (hopefully not in the same day!). The birth of tabloid journalism in NYC!
Read more about author Matthew Goodman's search for the Great Moon Hoax here: http://tiny.cc/YAcEC.
(Original artwork by Clifford A. Pickover. Click to enlarge.)
Entering Pickover's world is like falling headfirst into a turning kaleidoscope.
It's hard to summarize Dr. Clifford A. Pickover: Yale-educated scientist, futurist, inventor (over 40 patents), astonishingly prolific author of mind-expanding books (over 40 books) and mathematical puzzles, traveler to the extreme borderlands of science, promoter of strangely-wonderful sites and people all over the web, and keeper of shovelnose catfish.
He's an avid Twitterer and has suggested that "by 2075, Twitter will be used by disembodied spirits (e.g. dead people) to send messages to the living. These 'spirits' will be the minds of uploaded people who have died, live in 'Afterlife Chips,' and who will want quick, convenient communication paths to the 'living.' "
Whenever I feel I might lose my sense of wonder, I go to his writings to get medicine for my melancholy. It's impossible to come out of his bizarre bailiwick undazzled.
From his website: "His primary interest is finding new ways to continually expand creativity by melding art, science, mathematics, and other seemingly disparate areas of human endeavor," which you can tell from such titles as:
- The Mathematics of Oz: Mental Gymnastics from Beyond the Edge
- The Loom of God: Tapestries of Mathematics and Mysticism
- Sex, Drugs, Einstein & Elves: Sushi, Psychedelics, Parallel Universes and the Quest for Transcendence
- Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives Of Eccentric Scientists And Madmen
- The Stars of Heaven
- Dreaming the Future: The Fantastic Story of Prediction
- A Beginner's Guide to Immortality: Extraordinary People, Alien Brains, and Quantum Resurrection
Take a look at his answers to a few questions I asked him. (Note that I refer to him as Cliff, not Dr. Pickover. Though I don't know him personally, his internet presence is open, friendly, generous, and, for all his accomplishments, he comes across humble as a hound.)
I won't say a word at the end of our little interview because I want the last thing he says to resonate with you, as it did with me. When you're done, go over to www.pickover.com and pay him a long, leisurely visit. (Don't miss the side-trip to "Godlorica"!) You'll go away with your eyes newly opened to the extraordinariness of everything you ever thought ordinary.
Sherry Austin: Cliff, where are you on the God Question?
Clifford Pickover: Sometimes readers of my books ask me why I sometimes write on God, strange realities, and religious subjects. I tend to be skeptical about the paranormal. However, I do feel that there are facets of the universe we can never understand, just as a monkey can never understand calculus, black holes, symbolic logic, and poetry. There are thoughts we can never think, visions we can only glimpse. It is at this filmy, veiled interface between human reality and a reality beyond that we may find the numinous, which some may liken to God.
S.A. The most heartening promise of most religions is that somehow sorrow and suffering will end, things will be made right, that "we'll understand it better by and by," in the words of an old hymn. What do you think about the possibility of immortality?
Pickover: As I ponder the kinds of evolutionary processes that may take place on Earth and on other planets, I also enjoy thinking about the typical life-spans of space-faring aliens, if such aliens exist. American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake believes that any intelligent aliens we may someday encounter will be immortal. In 1976, he wrote, "It has been said that when we first discover other civilizations in space, we will be the dumbest of them all. This is true, but more than that, we will probably be the only mortal civilization."
Space-faring aliens will probably live for centuries because they will have solved the mysteries of aging or can repair any damage that might be caused by aging. Similarly, humans will soon achieve biological immortality for the same reason. Immortality is not such a rare thing -- many creatures on Earth are virtually immortal. As just one example, consider desert creosote plants in Southwest California, some estimated to be over 11,000 years old. Lichens can live just as long. In 1997, scientists in Tasmania discovered one of the world's oldest living plants, a 43,000-year-old Lomatia tasmanica, or King's Holly. People can read more about my views on immortality in my book, A Beginner's Guide to Immortality: Extraordinary People, Alien Brains, and Quantum Resurrection.
S.A. You have said: "By the laws of chance alone it is probable that replicas of our earth and configurations of atoms just like yours, or variants of you, exist somewhere else in an infinite cosmos…be happy." Does that make us happy because it is intolerable to think we won't live on? Do you think it is possible that the probability of infinity and parallel universes might actually be the answer to the previous question (about end of suffering, etc.)?
Pickover: We live in a visible universe easily encompassed by a sphere 100 billion light-years across, with a finite number of configurations for the matter and energy contained within. Let's imagine our visible universe as a gigantic bubble floating within our larger universe. (We cannot see infinitely far because the Universe has a finite age and because information cannot travel faster than the speed of light.) If our universe is infinite, as many modern physicists believe, then identical copies of our bubble must exist, with an exact copy of our Earth and of you. According to physicist Max Tegmark, on average, the nearest of these identical bubbles is about 10 to the 10100 meters away.
Not only are there infinite copies of you, there are infinite copies of variants of you. It is almost certain that right now you have red eyes and are kissing someone who speaks Etruscan with long fangs in some other bubble. If we accept the notion of an infinite universe -- which is suggested by modern theories of cosmic inflation -- infinite copies of you exist, altered in fantastically beautiful and ugly ways. Of course, the fact that a virtually perfect replica of you is likely to exist--in a state of absolute bliss--does not necessarily mean that you will be happy as a result of knowing this.
Only a few moments ago, I read Greta Christina's essay "Comforting Thoughts about Death that have Nothing to do with God," and felt depressed. After all, I'm a skeptic and unsure that an afterlife exists. Greta, a freelance writer, notes:
"The fact that your life span is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you... [this] can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands."
It makes me sad to look at my hands, eyes, and the eyes of my family members, and to understand that this will all be dust and ashes. Greta admits that she doesn't know what happens when we die, but she doesn't think this essential mystery really matters. She wants her essay to be upbeat as she reminds us that we should be happy because it is amazing that we even get a chance to be alive. We get to be conscious. "We get to be connected with each other and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about its possibilities."
I suppose her essay does end on a bright note as she enumerates items that contribute to her happiness, like Shakespeare, sex, five-spice chicken, Thai restaurants, Louis Armstrong, and drifting patterns in the clouds.
Sometimes I imagine connecting strings to make me happier. I call these strings "Calvino" strings after the author who wrote on these kinds of interconnections between towns and people. Imagine if we had Calvino strings following us wherever we go, from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Imagine that every molecule in our bodies had its own string. When you think about this more deeply, our Calvino strings never really begin or end. When we die, the Calvino strings of the molecules in our body keep going. When we are born, the Calvino strings of molecules from our mother coalesce into our embryonic form. At no point do Calvino strings break off or appear from nothing.
As we age, the molecules in our bodies are constantly being exchanged with our environment. With every breath, we inhale the Calvino strings of hundreds of millions of atoms of air exhaled weeks ago by someone on the other side of the planet. Thinking at a higher level, our brains and organs are vanishing into thin air, the cells being replaced as quickly as they are destroyed. The entire skin replaces itself every month. Our stomach linings replace themselves every five days. We are always in flux. A year or two from now, a majority of the atoms in our bodies will have been replaced with new ones. We are nothing more than a seething mass of eternal Calvino strings, continuous threads in the fabric of spacetime.
What does it mean that your brain has nothing in common with the brain you had a few years ago? If you are something other than the collection of atoms making up your body, what are you? You are not so much your atoms as you are the pattern in which your atoms are arranged. Some of the atomic patterns in your brain code memories. People are persistent spacetime tangles. It's quite possible that you have an atom of Jesus of Nazareth coursing through your body. Gilgamesh, the historical king who ruled the city of Uruk, is part of your brain or tendons or heart. An atom in your retina may one day be in the tears of a happy lunar princess a hundred years from now.
If you were to try to draw a boundary around yourself when viewed as a seething nexus of Calvino strings, you would find the boundary to be completely imaginary. As mathematician Rudy Rucker has noted, "The simple processes of eating and breathing weave all of us together into a vast four-dimensional array. No matter how isolated you may sometimes feel, no matter how lonely, you are never really cut off from the whole."
Subscribe to Strangeness by Email
"Where the Woodbine Twineth," an unusual episode of the already unusual "Alfred Hitchcock Hour," first aired in January of 1965. I didn't see it, though, until two decades later.
The episode was based on a David Grubb short story which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in February of 1964 and in the collection YOU NEVER BELIEVE ME, some years later. Grubb is best known for his novel THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, which was made into a movie by Charles Laughton. (This information via Ellen Datlow at datlow.com.)
"Where the Woodbine Twineth" takes place in the Deep South, in the dismal shadows of live oaks, in a grand old wedding cake house with tall columns fronting a deep front porch. It was strange even for a Hitchcock show: eerie, moody, and macabre, as most episodes were, but unlike most of them, it was crime-less, magical, and mystical.
I knew I wanted to write a story with those features one day. I'd set it in the Deep South because I'm acquainted with the darkly numinous qualities of that region. I'd give my tale a similar title, an almost identical one, as it turns out, because I liked wondering where it is--this place where the woodbine twines. Like the story on Hitchcock, mine would be true Southern Gothic, based on the definition of Southern Gothic that I maintain and defend:
Southern Gothic is naturalized gothic. Supernatural tropes are lacking altogether or only inferred. The strangeness in this brand of Southern Gothic arises like a miasma from the setting and situation of the old South, from its atmosphere of decay, its faded aristocracy, its dead or dying ways, its twisted, home-grown, extremist religion. Real Southern Gothic has a distinct grittiness and leaves the reader with a feeling of dis-ease she can't shake off.
With the exception of some of the stories in Mariah of the Spirits: And Other Southern Ghost Stories, the strangest work I've produced so far is Where the Woodbine Twines: A Novel. The simple cover image seems to draw people in like none of my other book covers. I had nothing to do with the design of the book jacket. It was all my publisher's doing. I did not see it until it appeared on the book and can take no credit for its peculiar magic.
I'm often asked what woodbine is. It's a kind of vine, one of the honeysuckles, I think, but in common usage any coarse vine might be called woodbine.
"Where the Woodbine Twines" is a folk saying--though not a common one--for where you go when nobody knows where you went. In my short novel by that name, I also suggest it as the place we all hope for, where everything is somehow made right. In the story, the narrator had a strange little friend who disappeared under very strange circumstances. The narrator grew up, haunted all her life by the memory of the disappearance of her friend. One cold, windy November, she is walking down the street in Myrtle Beach, SC, when she sees a woman she thinks just might be that long, lost friend, all grown up. Is it her mysterious friend or is it not? Do we find out? Why did the little girl haunt her so?
The scene at the carnival hall of mirrors where the lost girl appears over and over, going back, farther back, farther back, is my imaginative way of playing with the idea of infinity, and with the possibility that other realms really exist--places not dreamt of in our mythologies--where we really do go on somehow.
Dr. Clifford Pickover discusses this with us in the next post. Needless to say, Dr. Pickover, polymath, scientist, extremely prolific author, inventor, and modern-day-Da Vinci, talks about the concept with a whole lot more sophistication than I can, and we learn from him that the bizarre idea that we may all have multiple selves and endless variations of ourselves, is not just idle speculation.
Subscribe to Strangeness by Email
This is the third and final installment (well, semi-final, since several of his answers have opened up other questions) of my interview with author Jonathan Thomas.
There's so much Halloween spirit in his MIDNIGHT CALL, and it's all so off-kilter, and I'm so worn out with trying to think of how to explain it. You'll just have to go get the book and see for yourself.
Sherry Austin: Jonathan, tell us how you celebrate Halloween, if you do.
Jonathan Thomas: I keep it in my heart always.
S.A. You funny man!
J.T. Honestly, the authentic “ethnic Yankee” Halloween consists of pulling the shades, dousing the lights, and pretending not to be home so as to avoid a $5 outlay and grabby urchins begging for candy. Policy in this house has ranged inconsistently between “authentic” and accommodating.
S.A. Same in this house! On to something similar, but different: I love old graveyards. Do you?
J.T. My wife Angel reminds me: Graveyards must have something to do with how I turned out like this. When I was a kid, my grandmother drove me in her ’37 Ford to historic cemeteries, including some where I had remote forebears...
(S.A. interjects): I'd love to read a piece on that alone, maybe a nonfiction essay written in the memoir mode. In fact, I think Jonathan's gothic background--this thing with his grandmother taking him to graveyards (in her '37 Ford--how visual is that???) and with his father's making him think Dracula lived in the upstairs bedroom--would make a wonderful book-length memoir.
(J.T. resumes): Of course, graveyards aren’t as melancholy when you’re much younger; they’re more like open-air museums. But I still enjoy them as de facto “museums” of folk life and sentiments, and I always take guests to Saint John’s churchyard off Benefit Street for the pleasure of tromping around on a piece of land frequented by Poe, and Sarah Helen Whitman, and Lovecraft.
S.A. I'm thinking I need to know about Sarah Helen Whitman, and I don't.
S.A. Jonathan, tell me what makes the spooky spooky.
J.T. My opinion: “Spooky” is the lightheaded, ominous feeling in the face of perceived para-normality.
S.A. Good explanation. Your work is plenty spooky, but deeply rooted in mundane reality. Why?
J.T. Uh oh—I think that’s already covered in the question about naturalism.
S.A. That's right. I'm bothered myself that my questions don't seem to have a nice, logical progression, but if I did that, I'd never get them asked!
S.A. I’m interested in the origin of the sinister Mr. Finster. Is it just coincidence that I hear Munster in the name?
J.T. I hope so! I always preferred The Addams Family. [I think Jonathan means to The Munsters. Me too.] But when I was a kid, there was a short-lived sitcom called "I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster," and when that popped back into my head, I thought, "Oh no!" But if memory serves, the name “Finster” was a mere outcome of a lot of mumbling on autopilot till something sounded right. As for the man himself, his image sprang up for no plain reason while I was on a ferry between Ocracoke and elsewhere in the Outer Banks during a vacation with Angel’s family, except at first thought, the situation involved a haircut rather than a portrait. [A portrait figures hugely in the story.] There was also a nightmare some years before that, in which I was on the grounds of some nursing facility where the residents were alive but severely decomposed, like abandoned Mexican mummies, and an ex-girlfriend kept urging me, “It would mean so much to them if you just said hello.”
S.A. Haaaa! You're killing me. The story about the nymph in the water cooler. I can’t forget her. Can you tell me why? (Which story was that?)
J.T. I can see how a nymph in the water cooler might lead to uncomfortable questions of what the hell else has been in there all along. Tap water and a Brita filter—problem solved, carbon footprint reduced! (The story was “An Office Nymph.”)
S.A. Ha! I never thought of that. Actually, I think my fascination with the nymph in the water cooler has roots in my--in all our?--inner mermaid. Something archetypal, I suspect. But I digress. Define “weird."
J.T. A departure from reality, into the shadows? With or without connotations of the supernatural.
S.A. Oh, absolutely without connotations of the supernatural!
J.T. Without formal warning. Just a non-scholarly guess.
S.A. I think you really hit on something when you said "without formal warning." There are few, if any "formal warnings" in your stories. As I said in the review of MIDNIGHT CALL in S.T. Joshi's "Dead Reckonings," the reader feels like she's going to Sears and then ends up in a black hole, or something like that. Not that either Sears or black holes are mentioned in your work, not that I can recall! Again, I struggle to explain your work, which might suggest it has the seeds of greatness. Tell me why you think we like to dwell in "the weird"? What is it?
J.T. Maybe, to crib David Thomas’ lyrics about dinosaurs, “The mind’s eye does need to see… a world not like the one we see”? A form of recreation? A cleansing of the senses’ palate, like any other escapism, a bowl of “weird” sherbet between courses of bland or bitter routine?
S.A. I love that. Do you sometimes wonder what's the good in what we do, i.e., writing weird stories?
J.T. Well, if an arguable purpose of life is to reduce the total amount of suffering in the world, then we’re not good for much. But via weird tales, people who otherwise “know better” can enjoy a vicarious spiritual life for the duration, where possibilities (for better or worse) are more open-ended, and maybe cultivating that openness is healthy in itself. As long as it doesn’t lead to the New Age or a cult.
S.A. I strongly agree with that statement. Do you think, as I do, that we evolved imagination for survival purposes?
J.T. Sure, I assume it’d have survival value in the chaotic, unpredictable world of Homo erectus, in terms of anticipating danger where none was yet apparent, which would make imagination a function of rationality. Obviously there’s also a potential for guessing wrong, but I wouldn’t insist that a ghost is necessarily a misperception of “natural” phenomena, while it’s equally apparent that a ghost couldn’t be responsible for everything of which a ghost has been accused.
I’d also credit imagination with practical innovations from prehistory on, even in terms of exploiting lucky accidents—like the Cro-Magnon realization that the stone-and-bone toolkit of the last 10,000 years could be altered for specialized purposes, though changes in that toolkit likely spanned numerous little acts of the imagination over centuries. Maybe human cultures couldn’t exist without imagination?
S.A. Perfectly stated. And I can't wait to ask S.T Joshi what he thinks. Tell us how you met him.
J.T. Well, S. T. Joshi has been a lifesaver! As was another friend,Paige, who let me know that S. T. had a lecture coming up in Providence. I’d read S. T.’s H.P LOVECRAFT: A LIFE (come to think of it, Paige also gave me my copy of that) years earlier, and wanted to hear S. T. speak, and at the last minute gathered the nerve to bring some chapters of a novel to inflict on him, with trepidations that it might be a profoundly annoying thing to do, and that he might be inaccessible within a big post-lecture posse. And so he was, but when I asked his lovely wife Leslie for his business card, she not only took the chapters off my hands, but insisted I meet the man himself. That night, I gave in to some afterthoughts and tromped through a snowstorm to hand him some short stories at a symposium he was leading at Ladd Observatory, which ended up being the right thing to do because he got around to reading those in the next couple of weeks and liked them enough to ask for more, until he had read what amounted to the entirety of MIDNIGHT CALL, which he presented to Derrick Hussey at Hippocampus Press with the recommendation that I might be worth a shot. So, after a decade of bad breaks and dead ends, I have S. T. and Leslie to thank for ending the drought.
S.A. What writers or artists of other media have influenced you? TV? Film?
J.T. A question too seldom asked, considering how many movies and how much TV anyone born after 1950 has seen, versus how many books the most devoted reader finds time for.
One extremely early memory: my parents arguing over letting me stay up to watch Boris Karloff’s "Thriller" or not, because I’d be too scared to go up to bed afterwards. Which I always was. This debate went on for months, remarkably. First movies I ever saw (thanks, mom!) were "Angry Red Planet" and "The Mysterians," and at different points in my life, I was into the original "Outer Limits," "The Avengers," "The Prisoner," whatever horror and sf were on tv (multiple viewings of "King Kong," "Forbidden Planet," "Day the Earth Stood Still") or at the movies, and on into “adulthood” with tons of film noir and Jacques Tourneur and Fritz Lang and David Cronenberg, and many more that I should remember, but that drawer’s stuck right now.
Then there were comics—at a very early age, Kirby and Ditko monster titles like "Tales to Astonish" (in a failed quest at first to find a comic-book version of "Angry Red Planet") before Marvel reinvested in superheroes, and eventually reprints of ECs, and the undergrounds like "Skull" or "Insect Fear." Plus a lot of inspiring music: more “Gothic” prog like Univers Zéro and Art Zoyd and the more surreal input of early Soft Machine and Syd Barrett and Peter Hammill and Incredible String Band. And ad infinitum into the grey zone between what’s an influence and what you’re listening to when you happen to be productive. Musical references are squirreled away into stories as they occur to me, but I tend to bury and forget about ’em.
S.A. Jonathan, in our three part interview, I have found at least twenty topics that we can "explode" into full-blown discussions. Even though our conversation has been long, we've just started. But I guess we have to wrap it up so you can stop answering my off-the-wall questions and get back to doing what you do best: writing weird tales that take us all to someplace Other.
So, just a few more questions: What is your net worth? Your social security number?
J.T. Sorry, no blood in this turnip! I like your optimism, though.
S.A. Your work is quirky. Would you, therefore, call yourself a quirk? Kidding. I'm feeling punchy.
J.T. I’m sticking with “weirdo,” thanks.
S.A. Jonathan, tell us what we can expect from you next?
J.T. Well, after that first jolt of encouragement by S. T. Joshi, the writing started happening again (the first result of which was “Ariadne’s Hair”), and in the year and a half since, I’ve produced another book’s worth of novellas and some shorter items, and if Derrick at Hippocampus is amenable, maybe they’ll see the light of day in 2009 or 2010.
S.A. Jonathan, we'll be watching to see what you do next.
That's all folks. I hope you'll give this remarkable, innovative writer a try. If you're a writer, you can learn from his quirky craft and clever use of language. We've talked about art, but publishing is a numbers game and writers simply can't continue without your support. Check your local independent bookstore or order MIDNIGHT CALL directly from Hippocampus Press, if you can. We both thank you for listening to what we've had to say here.
In the second installment of my interview with writer Jonathan Thomas of the recently-published MIDNIGHT CALL, I asked him...a bunch more questions! If you are a fan of the weird in literature, and especially if you are writing or hope to write in any of the related genres, please pay particular attention to what he has to say in this post. Here we get a hint of the depth and breadth of his reading in all genres, and we begin to see how the gothic sensibility pervades much of naturalist literature and vice versa. But most of all, we're going to get to know Jonathan Thomas, and as you'll see, he and his work are well worth getting to know.
Sherry Austin: Jonathan, in the last questions, I asked you what you did for a living. Now I'd like to know what you wish you did for a living.
Jonathan Thomas: When people ask what I do, as opposed to what I do for a living, I tell ’em I write horror stories, and the 5-year plan is to make the first question redundant. Likely just a dream of glory, though.
S.A.: Yes, it's getting mighty tough out there in the writing world. Mighty tough. If people don't buy books, books don't survive. Same with music, of course. Tell us about your work/writing environment. What do you see outside your window, if you have a window? (And if you can see out of it.)
J.T.: My computer and my wife’s computer have windows behind them onto the sun porch, and the sun porch overlooks tree limbs and houses across the street—no real view to speak of. But the computers are only for revision. First drafts are always in longhand because I need the flexibility to write anywhere—walking down the street, out in the backyard with the dogs, sprawling on the couch in front of the tv. Even a laptop would be a nuisance in most situations, versus scrap paper and a pen. So I guess you’d have to say my work environment is the environment.
S.A.: Give us a handle on who you are, where you’re from, and how place and environment might have shaped your work.
J.T.: I was born in Providence, at the old Lying In Hospital, but grew up in Woonsocket, voted “Most Foreign Town in America” two years in a row by readers of Life Magazine in the 1930s. I was among the non-Quebecois 10% of the population, and in the mid-’60s the Catholic primary schools were still enrolling some kids who spoke no English. Woonsocket was textbook postindustrial: vacant mills, a Main Street in collapse, few souvenirs of the old prosperity except for the third most polluted river in the country. Excellent breeding ground for cynicism and bad attitude generally! Earlier in the present century, decades since decamping for Providence, I guided a carload of friends to the widely praised Salvation Army in Woonsocket, but after half an hour within the town limits, everyone was depressed, and the consensus was that we were in a place where the Colour Out of Space was the high-school mascot. The old haunts haven’t lost their touch!
On top of all that, come to think of it, I grew up in a haunted house, sporadic clairvoyance runs in the family, and I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 when my father amused himself by telling me all about Dracula, and insinuating that he was hiding somewhere upstairs. This backfired on him when I refused to sleep in the spare bedroom at the time my parents thought they’d be having a second child, because I had concluded that Dracula had to be in that bedroom.
S.A.: (Another one of my asides): I'll have to hear more about all this. All of it! "The Old Lying in Hospital"? And I'd love to hear more about that dad. I've lived among the Quebecois, too. So much to ask Jonathan!
S.A.: Are you in your twenties, thirties, forties, or on your last leg like me?
J.T.: Ye gods, you’re decades away from my point of galloping decrepitude--
S.A.: (aside #2) Not.
J.T.: continues: In regard to which, (his age) I can remember being weirded out at age 5 by presidential debates between JFK and Nixon because, as I knew damn well from seeing Eisenhower and Kruschev on the news my whole life, world leaders were supposed to be old bald guys, and the two candidates looked all wrong.
S.A.: In my review of MIDNIGHT CALL for S.T. Joshi's "Dead Reckonings," his journal of weird literature, I called you the Prince of Titles and said your titles were like tweets for the Twitter age. They are little germs of promise. That sounds hokey, but I don't know how else to say it. How do you conceive of your titles? What do you whittle away to make them such teasing little gems?
J.T.: A lot of times they’re phrases culled directly from the text of a story. Or else they’re an attempt at a précis, with alliteration if possible, and humor if I’m lucky. In any case, thanks for the elevation to royalty!
S.A.: How do your stories come to you? In dreams, daydreams, visions? Do they start with a character or a situation?
J.T.: The germ’s often an image or a sentence that occurs to me when I’m out walking around. Or sometimes a “what if” proposition comes to mind in the middle of mental riffing about something, be it the news or whatever I’m reading. “Damn the Wheelwright” came to me after struggling through a pretty arid book about Neolithic Denmark, which leads me to posit that a dull read can still be a worthwhile read. “Dappled Ass” was an answer to the rhetorical question of what could be more obnoxious than the bicycle messengers who were recklessly endangering the pedestrians of Manhattan. Perhaps I’m proposing the oyster theory of inspiration here: irritation makes pearls or kills oysters…
S.A.: Tell us about your interest in pagan holidays. You seem awfully knowledgeable.
J.T.: I’m not, really. Wish I were. A lot of reading just sinks like a stone below conscious reach. But I went through a phase of centering stories around Celtic holidays as part of an old, arbitrary fascination with the Dark Ages and other “underlit” portions of our past that still play some role in how the world looks to us…
S.A.: One day we'll have to explore that subject in depth. Is there a reason that you can articulate why certain mythological beings appeal to you?
J.T.: I’m less interested in certain mythological beings than in certain whole mythologies. Though I love the Greco-Roman myths, it seems kind of ingenuous to treat them as part of my (and most people’s) cultural background, as opposed to the myths of my actual remote forebears, i.e., Welsh or Irish or Norse. Or at least those myths that survived the adoption of Christianity and the illiteracy of my forebears. None of whom were, as far as I know, Greek or Roman. Anyway, the myths from that part of the Mediterranean are based on thinking no less “foreign” to us than that in the Táin or the Prose Edda. It’s too bad those diverse “Northern” myths aren’t better known in this country. Whatever they may say about laws, customs, and mental habits to this day, they’re also really entertaining. But the ideal (along with the 30-hour day) would be to grow up learning something about every culture’s mythology, with emphasis on whatever contains more personal appeal...
S.A: I love that idea. Are there any aspects of the supernatural or paranormal you think are possible?
J.T.: It’s a big universe. Or is it a multiverse? One way or another, there may be room for whatever anyone cares to imagine, so I believe in pretty much everything on principle, but I’m skeptical of specific reports about anything—I mean, is that old footage of Bigfoot a hoax or not? Depends on which show on the Discovery Channel makes better sense at the moment, at least until someone admits fraud or a Sasquatch is caught on camera scrounging in a dumpster. I think this applies to religion, too. Your religion, whatever it is, will be literally true if you’re living in the right universe; unfortunately, most of us are living in the wrong universe. And human brains and senses are woefully inadequate for determining which universe we’re really in. With “faith” a cipher here, since adherents of every religion fall back on “faith” as validation.
S.A.: Very interesting. We'll have to talk more about this someday. Many writers of the weird, the supernatural, the speculative, actually have a naturalist point of view. Tell us where you are in all that.
J.T.: To impose an effect or suspend disbelief, I think it’s helpful to start on the common ground shared by the reader and the writer, and steal off from there. By the same token, in an “exotic” or historic setting, the characters still have their own version of an everyday life (even if its baseline expectations include pirate attacks or epidemics of dysentery), and understanding that, and establishing it as something detailed and believable, should be just as important when building toward the “uncanny” as when a story takes place on the street where you live. A matter of fooling readers into thinking they know where they are.
S.A.: (Aside) And he does that very, very well.
J.T.: But if by “naturalist” you mean the more technical aspects of what Stephen Crane and colleagues were up to, I think their notion of an unfair, indifferent, incomprehensible world is plenty scary and horrible, and has its roots in the 18th century Gothic that was part of every 19th century reader’s “background radiation” (Charles Brockden Brown’s WIELAND might be an example? Also, in terms of how far the apple rolls from the tree, Crane’s "Face of Fire” is very much Gothic under the naturalist surface…), and that idea of the world was reappropriated by Lovecraft, as embedded in the “C’thulhu mythos.”
S.A.: Well, Jonathan, you've certainly given everybody who has read this a lot to think about--and we're not done yet! I can foresee coming back to any number of these topics in the future, to explore them more fully. We could take that one topic of "Gothic under the naturalist surface" and really have at it. Meanwhile, we have the final installment of this three-part interview to look forward to. And the book, everybody out there, is MIDNIGHT CALL.
Till next time, "that's all folks," as the bunny said.
MIDNIGHT CALL by Jonathan Thomas.
I first "met" fiction writer Jonathan Thomas through the kindness of S.T. Joshi, the H.P. Lovecraft scholar and critic of weird fiction, the man to whom so many of us who dabble in the literary weird are indebted. (A subject for a later post, which will include an interview with S.T.) I say I've "met" Jonathan, because our meeting was in cyberspace, as was my only meeting with S.T. Joshi, by the way. So many acquaintances are made that way in our digital era, and I don't know what we are to make of it.
Anyway, I doubt I'll ever see Jonathan Thomas face to face unless I can hog tie him and drag him down to Dixie. He might enjoy a visit--our weirdness here is uniquely organic--but I don't know why he should go anywhere, even to the corner store, when he can amuse himself while strolling the street bazaar of his own amazing brain.
I'm at a loss to describe how original his stories are, but I feel compelled to try. Okay, I'll try: Reading his stories, you feel as if you have walked down an aisle at Ace Hardware and ended up in the Outer Limits. I'll try again: Reading his stories, you feel as if you are walking down a dark street in a bad neighborhood, trash scuttling across the pavement, cats yowling, when suddenly you are chased by a shadowy other who turns out to be the paper-sack-headed Unknown Comic from the old Gong Show. Once more: Reading the stories in MIDNIGHT CALL, you get the sense you're skipping along a yellow brick road down a rabbit hole to a subterranean Canterbury. Now, none of those scenes occur in MIDNIGHT CALL. I'm just struggling to explain how his work can tickle your cognitive function.
Of course, you should discover it yourself. Tell me how you can resist tales with titles such as "The Weird Old Hole," "Subway of the Dead," "The Judgment Birds," "Graveside Friday Night," "Tendrils in Formaldehyde," "The Christmas Clones," "McEveety Among the Leisure Elect," and the above-mentioned stories, "An Office Nymph" and "Dappled Ass"? I mean, really.
And Jonathan's stories are not, as is some work in the genre--particularly the subset of weird literature lately called "bizarro"--weird for weird's sake.
Now, Jonathan Thomas himself might be weird for weird's sake. So, I thought I'd approach that subject with him in the following interview:
Sherry Austin: Jonathan, are you as weird as your stories make you seem?
Jonathan Thomas: I write weird tales, so it follows I’m a weirdo. But then, not every weirdo writes weird tales, or what a crowded field that would be.
S.A.: I do admire your logic. On another note, your prose style is exceptional. I can’t describe it. Can you?
J.T.: Thank you kindly—basically just an effort to come up with a convincing narrative voice that sounds good when read aloud.
S.A.: I can hereby testify that it does sound very good when read aloud. You've written some real ear ticklers. Do you like the process of writing or do you like writing only after you have written?
J.T.: Depends on the story or my mood or the phase of the moon—sorry, too many variables to give you a straight answer! Some frustrating days, some fulfilling days, with no bearing either way on quality of the output. When I figure out a difficult piece of phrasing or how to get past a kink in the plot, it feels as good as any other form of problem-solving. On the other hand, youthful satisfaction at putting down the pen after finishing a draft has been severely compromised by an old-geezer awareness of how much revision is always ahead, and then the awareness that some way to improve the wording will always crop up in 2 months or a year or 5 years, such that nothing is ever really finished. A triumph of obsession over ego?
S.A.: (An aside to readers of this interview): I'm curious why Jonathan has used the term "old geezer" when I assumed he was much younger than I am. I'll have to follow up with him on that point!
J.T. continues: Then again, after I’d started “Ariadne’s Hair” (a story in MIDNIGHT CALL) and had arrived at a productive routine (“routine” in a good sense, for once) of going out on the front porch and pouring a beer and stretching out on an old chaise lounge with a pen and some paper, I realized I was happy for the first time in a long time. Unfortunately, that idyllic “routine” couldn’t last—between season, weather, and all those other variables…
S.A.:(Another aside): I can't help but wonder if the source of Jonathan's happiness at that moment was due to the setting, the act of writing, or simply the beer.
S.A.: Tell us about your first book.
J.T.: Everything in it could stand a lot of revision!
S.A.: Don't we all say that! (About our own work!)
J.T.: Anyway, its title was STORIES FROM THE BIG BLACK HOUSE, and its contents date from between 1986 or so and 1992. It was the sole venture by a Providence literary ’zine editor, Brian Gallagher, into book publishing. But distribution or even reviews in the local paper proved impossible at the time. A sorry lesson in commerce. I think Brian still has copies for sale. Some of the stories were written after I got married (to the singer and visual artist Angel Dean) and moved to Manhattan, while others did originate in the “big black house,” a Victorian triple-decker, and the initial premise was to divide the book into “apartments” for my stuff and that of another writer (Chris Pierson) in that building, but he had to bow out for reasons unclear to me. Hence I ended up “single occupant” of the book, and as for the cover photo’s gargoyle-like model crouching on the porch railing, that’s Brian, in maybe the most intrepid act of editorship ever. Five stories from BIG BLACK HOUSE also appear in MIDNIGHT CALL.
S.A. (Aside): I have listened to Angel's work and it is awesome, on several fronts. We'll have to interview her here, too.
S.A. What are the differences between the first book and MIDNIGHT CALL?
J.T.: A lot of BIG BLACK HOUSE relied on a more colloquial voice and more sui generis story ideas, whereas from the mid-’90’s on, I resorted more to revisiting “old school” Gothic, and that sets much of the tone for Midnight Call. The point of view isn’t more conservative or retro, but the style and framing may be more traditional.
S.A.: How would you classify or describe your work? Would you call yourself a New Wave Fabulist or a writer of the New Weird? Or what?
J.T.: I join Ramsey Campbell in saying simply, “I write horror stories.” But is a horror story ever simply a horror story?
S.A.: We'll have to discuss that. This is not the first time I've found myself confused about what is and what is not horror. I'm always stunned when my own work is classified as horror. I don't think it is, and by my understanding of horror, I wouldn't say yours is, because it doesn't horrify me. It delights me. Maybe I need some re-educating on the subject! Let's drag S.T. Joshi into it, shall we? We'll get to that in another interview. Do you work in any other art form?
J.T.: At the invitation (or dare?) of friends Rick Brown and Sue Garner around 1989, I tried writing lyrics for their band, Fish and Roses, and that branched out into writing lyrics for Angel Dean and my bandmates in New York and some Swedish friends for their band scumCrown. And in 1990, a couple of Providence friends, Alec Redfearn and Rick Massimo, launched a band, Space Heater, wherein I played my grandmother’s flour tins and some scrap metal salvaged at a waterfront party in Brooklyn. The collection of kitchenware and miscellany expanded in a post-Mofungo lineup in New York that changed its name every three weeks (they’re currently Escape by Ostrich), and then I was back in Rhode Island with the Amoebic Ensemble and Panic Band (both defunct) and my own ongoing project, Septimania.
S.A.: Well! As Popeye used to say: Blow me down! Or, as several of my now-departed elders used to say, "Shut my mouth!" The Angel Dean CD I own has given me a taste of the kind of "out there" music you describe. I honestly don't know what to call it, but I love it. Brain astringent, that's what it is. What do you mean for the title “Midnight Call” to suggest?
J.T.: Just my way of saying hello.
S.A.: Well, shut my mouth. Again. What do you do for a living?
J.T.: Since 1994, I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for occasionally gruesome medical or scientific journals. You’d be appalled at the number of shotgun accidents in Turkey and Egypt… Not that one shotgun accident anywhere isn’t inherently appalling… The upside is that as far as icebreakers go, “I edit Prostate magazine” is up there with my briefly legit claim in the ’70’s that “I write for Creepy magazine”…
S.A. You pull my leg! "Prostate Magazine"?! (I next asked Jonathan what he WISHED he did for a living. I'll save his answer to that one for my next post! Meanwhile, go grab a copy of MIDNIGHT CALL. You won't be sorry.)
Why would more people believe in ghosts and aliens than in God?
Let us count the ways:
(1)Belief in God is scary. What if he's got a bullet with our name on it. ?
(A)But most people who believe in God don't really think that; they think God will protect them, the true believers. Right?
(2)If there is a God, he's a pretty callous, scary entity, considering all the evil that goes on in the world unabated. ?
(A)But then most people who believe in God believe that he'll see to it that good triumphs someday, somehow. ?
(3)Any claims by mono-theistic religions that God will save us are starting to seem pretty goshdarn lame to some of us. ?
(4)Aliens, on the other hand, might--might--come from afar and save us?
(A)But then, most reported encounters with aliens are not exactly benign, are they?
Perhaps aliens are modern-day fairies. ? Not a new idea. Whitley Strieber suggested the same thing in his book COMMUNION some--what?--twenty years ago? Not so long ago, ordinary people claimed to have endured the nighttime meddling of beings from somewhere other. They were pinched, abducted, "witch ridden." They awoke paralyzed. Is it possible that we explain what we now know is an occurrence with a physiological cause--sleep paralysis--by the prevailing supernatural belief of our time? When belief in fairies and witches was commonplace, we blamed fairies and witches. Now we blame invaders from outer space, which sounds much more plausible, more "scientific." ?
I don't claim to know. I'm just asking. I do know that people who claim nighttime visitations by aliens are not nuts, but then, the power of the mind to transform an inexplicable experience into one with meaning--well, that power alone is amazing enough to me. And that's what interests me most.
A few years ago, I attended a meeting of a group called The Blue Ridge UFO Investigation Society. The people in the group enjoyed showing each other the scoop marks on their kneecaps--little indentations that seemed natural enough to me, but that they really believed were evidence that aliens had scooped out their tissue during a post-abduction examination.
The power of belief, of the need to believe, fascinates me endlessly. It's my great love.