I’m delighted to share this exceptionally warm and thoughtful review of The Legacy of Old Gran Parks from seasoned industry reviewer, Renier Palland.
“The Legacy of Old Gran Parks” by seasoned author Isobel Blackthorn is a droll, deeply satisfying and very understated horror novel published by HellBound Books. I’ve read some of Blackthorn’s work in the past and I haven’t been kind to her in a couple of reviews. Thank Buddha for her latest novel! “The Legacy of Old Gran Parks” is unique, extremely idiosyncratic and bathed in perfect prose. Blackthorn doesn’t just focus on “writing” a novel – she writes with such eloquence that one finds it difficult to critique her tempo and narrative techniques.
Blackthorn combines vengeance and wit to create a fictional world powered by strong plot machinations and a keen understanding of her characters. She injects her narrative with subtle symbolism and quasi-feminism. This amalgam forms an entirely new perspective on the revenge genre and its counterparts. Blackthorn deconstructs the novel like a set of Legos, then rebuilds both the plot and narrative to create a multi-faceted climax and denouement. This novel is much more than meets the eye. During my initial read-and-review process, I missed some of the finer details. Only after a secondary speed reading did I pick up on Blackthorn’s tongue-in-cheek satire.
The novel is billed as a dark comedy, but I disagree with this label. Blackthorn’s novel is a layered tour-de-force. The themes, although sardonic in their entirety, are actually much more insidious than Blackthorn imagined when she wrote the novel. There’s an element of darkness that broods underneath the hood, leaving you breathless once you actually delve deeper into the narrative.
Blackthorn’s characterisation is spot-on. The characters are perplexing, annoying (intentional) and they suffer from a derisive self-imaging machination. It’s as if the characters know Blackthorn, and they understand that she’s toying with them. This character/author intrusion is an intentional narrative device. Blackthorn poses the characters on an imaginary bookshelf and asks the reader, “So fucking what?” It’s a sign of a great author – someone who understands and knows what they’re doing with their characters and narrative.
Technically, Blackthorn didn’t make a single mistake. There was no verbiage, misused adverb or adjective techniques, or myocardial infarction of the plot. I didn’t have to restart the heart like I do with most novels. Blackthorn’s writing style flows like a river in a barren land. Unobstructed. Understated. Unequalled. As a fellow HellBound author (this does not affect the review), I notice just how great their editing techniques are. Unlike other imprints, where mistakes are made during proofing, HellBound delivers perfect editing. I’m not writing this to praise my own publisher – I’m merely stating my observations.
I once gave Blackthorn a 1 out of 5 rating for another book of hers. After a thorough editing process, I reviewed my critique and changed the rating. I was afraid that Blackthorn had to endure another less-than-average rating, but I am pleased to say that “The Legacy of Old Gran Parks” is her magnum opus.
It is definitely the best novel she’s ever written. And one of the best novels of 2018.
Writing the opening chapter of a novel is like starting the first sentence of a blog post: it’s all about the hook. You, the reader, will only keep reading, if I have grabbed your attention and given you a hint that contained below is something you might want to find out about. I’ve written eight novels to date, so you would think I would know by now how to compose the enticing first pages of a book. Here’s why I have failed.
This morning, dawning in my mind as I set to work on two works-in-progress is that they share the same problem. Both are set in the same location, both involve the protagonist arriving at that location from elsewhere, and both have draft first chapters that I now consider to be rubbish. How could I have managed to fall into every trap a novice writer falls into when they have no guidance or training or skills or experience? How have I managed to draft two first chapters, each with smooth prose and charming segues, that are packed with backstory and reflection, and lack conflict and an intriguing question? These are the four basic rules of crafting a first chapter and I have somehow forgotten them. A first chapter should be: light on backstory and reflection; contain a small conflict that reveals something about the character and what the story is about; and include some sort of intrigue or hook that keeps the reader turning the page.
I’m an embarrassment to myself. Before I started writing this post, I had to soothe my ego with comforting platitudes. There is so much to writing a novel that it is easy to overlook one element. All writers agonise over the first chapter and the story set up in general.What to tell, what to hold back, what order to reveal the backstory, what the reader needs to know upfront and above all, how to create a good beginning, these matters plague all authors. I wasn’t comforted. There had to be something about my approach to writing that is flawed.
I decided that I have overlooked the obvious rules of first-chapter composition because I am a pantser, not a plotter. I would call the ‘rubbish first chapter’ the curse of pantsing. Here’s why.
When an author writes as I do with the barest minimum of plot, flowing with their own creativity stream of consciousness style, allowing characters to form themselves and plot points to emerge naturally, allowing the narrator to take control, the result can be a mishmash. As the story develops, the writer can contain all the elements within and funnel the story in a logical fashion, directing their own outpourings and creating order. For example, the writer will recognise when a scene belongs in another spot. I find pantsing an enjoyable approach to writing and once I’m in the flow, me as writer and me as narrator merge and the story unfolds smoothly.
This sense of unity does not exist initially. At the beginnings of the story the writer is tentative and the narrator equally so. Neither knows yet what the backstory will be. Characters are yet to fully form. Sometimes, a unity forms very quickly and the first chapter ticks all the boxes without any effort. Other times, backstory collides with the present and as the character begins to form they tell the narrator who they are, which ends up as a lot of reflection. A tentative beginning will jump around a lot as the narrator starts to find their way. At this stage the protagonist can have far too much control of the story, rather like that annoyingly egocentric guy at a party who drones on and on about himself and the things he’s done and the people he knows. He thinks he is being entertaining. No one else does. This problem of protagonist dominance will arise more strongly with first-person narratives. The challenge for the writer is to force the protagonist to become a narrator, not an egomaniac eager to tell the reader all about himself.
In other words, for pantsers, the first chapter is more like an emergence of the sorts of elements the plotter would have had all figured out in a neat character bio.
Having just recognised that two of my works in progress are suffering from this same issue, I wanted to tease out the cause and share, as we are none of us too experienced to learn and sometimes we have to re-learn what we already know.
Fortunately, one of my works in progress is barely written and I can see straight away that the matter is easily fixed. The other work is almost completely composed and unpacking the narrative and restructuring the early part of the work feels like a chore. Yet it has to be done if I want anyone to read the finished work.
I’m delighted to share my latest review. I’m a fan of this author after reading a previous work, A Single Light, which inducted me into Urban Fantasy. Her latest, Keeper of the Way (Crossing the Line Book 1), is historical urban fantasy.
“After news of grave robbing and murder in Dún Ringall, the ancient stronghold of Clan McKinnon on the Isle of Skye, Rosalie realises it is time to share her family’s secrets. Descendants of the mystical Ethne M’Kynnon, Rosalie tells of a violent rift that occurred centuries earlier, splitting Ethne from her sisters forever and causing relentless anguish and enmity between ancient families.
Meanwhile, Algernon and Clement Benedict have arrived in Sydney searching for the lost relics of their family. They are driven by revenge and a thirst for power, and will take what they can to reinstate their family heritage. Their meddling with ancient magic will have far-reaching effects, as they fail to realise ther role in a far greater quest.
In the grounds of Sydney’s magnificent Garden Palace, danger grows as an ages-old feud of queens and goddesses heats up. The discovery of arcane symbols bring the distant past in a foreign land to Australia and will cause a profound struggle with tragic results, a surprising new recruit from an unknown world, and the complete destruction of the palace.
Set around stories and characters in 1882 Sydney, Keeper of the Way includes current affairs, people and buildings long gone, and gives a voice to people history doesn’t always listen to.”
From the opening scenes, Leslie takes the reader back to the ancient customs of the Scottish highlands while making full use of Scotland’s tempestuous weather as Lord Algernon Benedict sets off for the Isle of Skye to find out what happened to his great-grandfather who disappeared after reaching the shores of Loch Slapin. Three decades later, in Sydney in 1879, Rosalie Ponsonby wanders through The Garden Palace in the Botanical Gardens on the eve of an international exhibition. There she pauses to observe the statue of Queen Victoria. She’s the proprietor of The Garden Arms and she’s a witch.
Much of the action plays out in the The Garden Arms. Here, Leslie creates a homey feel, female and strong. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints, the reader sharing in the perspectives of Algernon, his son Clement, Rosalie and her daughter, Florentine. All the characters, major and minor, are well-crafted and convincing. The pace is slow but never falters. Sydney in the late 1800s is brought to life with evocative and sharply crafted descriptions. The writing style suits the era yet avoids flowery writing or laboured sentences.
“The Botanical Gardens were a forest of trees and shrubbery, drawn from England and forced into a lifetime of servitude on the other side of the world where winter was as summer in their homeland.”
Through such prose Leslie provides a portrait of the emergence of Australian society in Sydney, a bustling southern city delightfully tinged with decadence, receiving waves of migrants as its indigenous population is thrust aside. Leslie handles this transition with sensitivity and insight.
Descriptions of fantastical transfigurations are portrayed with equal finesse. The reader is lured into magical realism, the transfixed observer. Grimoires, incantations, invocations, sigils and demonic spirits infuse the historical narrative, as the ancient ways of witchcraft – healing and life-giving – are pitted against a male counterpart that is dark and destructive.
In all, Keeper of the Way is a pleasurable read from start to finish. I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, magic realism and urban fantasy alike.
Deep Dive for Continuum: Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction Convention
Delivered Sunday 10th June 2018
From vampires to sorcery and beyond: Representing the occult in fiction
Most of us, if we have any idea of the occult at all, associate it with select clubs, mysterious rituals, secret knowledge, special powers, and evil. If that is what you think, you are not wrong, but it is a partial understanding, not the whole picture.
I’ve had a long association with the occult. I have a vivid imagination, which is a prerequisite, I’m super sensitive and I seem to be able to see into people and situations. All of which makes me a bit of a basket case when it comes to the rough and tumble of everyday living. I always feel the need for protection. My entry into the occult was through a healing pathway. I stumbled on astrology when I was 26 and I soon found I had an instant aptitude when it came to understanding the ancient system. I seemed to already know it, in the same way that a gifted musician will pick up the guitar and with hardly any guidance, know where to place the fingers on the fretboard. Although that’s where the comparison ends. I didn’t want my particular gift. I saw no future in it, and I didn’t want the label attached to my name. I wanted to be normal and lead an ordinary existence. Well, sort of. I spent a year in a coven in a Perth suburb, under the guidance of a Priestess who went by the name Raven. I’ve studied and practiced some of the medicine ways of the Native American shaman, I’ve studied and applied to my life the teachings of one variant of Theosophy – an ancient wisdom tradition – and I’ve read the Tarot, dabbled in Palmistry, Numerology and read the I Ching and the Runes. I follow no creed and the only system that still holds an interest is astrology, because it always seems to yield something new.
Through various strange turns of events by 2006 I ended up holding a PhD in the occult. After that, I turned to creative writing. Here, today, I’m putting the two together, and exploring representations of the occult in fiction.
First, I’ll define the terms, hopefully lifting the veil on what the occult is. I’ll dwell briefly on how the occult is represented in popular culture in general before moving on to representations of the occult in fiction, dwelling on a few case studies, old and new.
What is the occult?
The ‘occult’ is something of a catch-all term that refers to mystical, supernatural or magical powers, practices and phenomena, all of them beyond the ordinary and every day. That is more or less a dictionary definition. Straight away this definition highlights a major difficulty in discussing this topic – explaining the obscure with the even more obscure. I could stand here all day defining terms. I won’t.
The occult intersects with spirit worlds, with ghosts and ghostly happenings, but for the purposes of this talk, I’m setting the topic of ghosts to one side, except to say that people who see ghosts, or feel or hear them, are tuning into a metaphysical reality, and such experiences provide anecdotal evidence that such a reality exists.
Associated with the occult are paranormal abilities including: clairvoyance—the ability to see the future; clairaudience—the ability to hear the spirit world, (the realm of mediums); and telekinesis—the ability to move objects using the power of the mind.
Magical powers include: astral travel—the ability to leave the body and move through the inner emotional plane; scrying—using a crystal ball to see into the future; summoning elemental forces; casting spells or enchantments; and hexing, or the ability to place a curse on someone. Above all, magical powers involve exerting power over another’s mind, body and will. Such powers are generally accessed through rituals, which focus the mind and direct the will.
Occult practices include divination systems such as numerology, palmistry, tarot and of course astrology.
It isn’t possible to talk about the occult without referring to esotericism. ‘Esoteric’ refers to hidden or secret knowledge. This knowledge has its roots in an ancient wisdom tradition spanning all cultures around the world, involving a holistic, interconnected, hylozoic (all matter is living) worldview. Such wisdom was usurped by the dominant religions, especially Christianity, and part of the reason esotericism is secret is due to the persecution of its believers.
Esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple, who must undergo a series of initiations (elaborate rituals) which reveal more and more of the hidden mysteries of the ancient wisdom. Esoteric knowledge involves complex symbolic systems depicting how a hidden inner reality functions. The occultist, or esotericist, (for at the level of identity the terms appear synonymous), operates in symbolic meaning, and all occult rituals make use of symbols, such as the four directions (north, south, east and west), the four elements (earth, air, water, fire). Objects such as the sword and the chalice, for example, are laden with meaning and association.
Esoteric knowledge is founded on a belief in the law of correspondence. Put simply, ‘as above so below’. It is a way of knowing that makes or sees associations between this and that. An eclipse augurs the death of a king. But nothing is simple in esotericism, and correspondence is a highly elaborate and metaphoric way of knowing or viewing the interconnectedness of all reality.
Esotericism is generally associated with esoteric orders such as Alchemy, The Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Illuminati. These esoteric orders use various occult practices. They live and breathe the esoteric as an alternate reality. The key idea behind esotericism is the ability to concentrate power through thought for the purposes of transformation. It has a light side, oriented to healing and spirituality, and a dark side, focussed on personal gain and doing harm to others. As every magician knows, esotericism as knowledge also provides the traps, the blinds, the veils and the illusions—the tests along the initiatory path. Esotericism is a way of thinking, understanding, seeing and interpreting. It is a lived reality.
A potted history of the occult
Esotericism has always existed in the shadows, as sciences and religion’s hidden brother, the third pillar of power and wisdom. Religion, esotericism and science share the same beginnings as ancient philosophers struggled to understand the world. Early evidence of humans seeking meaning from the movement of the heavenly spheres dates back at least 25,000 years. About 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, philosophers began to record the movement of the planets they could see against the constellations.
As other philosophers sought to explain the universe, particularly for the western world in ancient Greece, a trinity of approaches emerged. Science headed in the direction of empirical fact and proof, religion in devotion of deities, and esotericism occupied a curious in between world that places the creative power of thought to effect transformation at its heart.
Existing in and operating from the shadows, the occult has always invoked both awe and fear in outsiders. We are afraid of that which we do not, or cannot understand. We are afraid and wisely so, of hidden forms of power. The shaman is the most powerful of tribal figures. The witch is both outcast and wise woman healer.
A shift of attitude occurred in the mid-1800s with the emergence and growth of Spiritualism, a Christian denomination that believes that spirts of the departed can be contacted through intermediaries, or mediums. Spiritualism became popular partly as a result of war as a form of solace for the grieving.
Theosophy was founded by Russian aristocrat and Spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, which sought to embrace eastern mysticism and splice it together with western forms of esotericism. Along with New Thought and a plethora of other currents, Theosophy catered for a groundswell of spiritual seekers in North America and Europe.
In the 1950s, the New Age movement began to take root and before long the occult, along with many forms of spirituality was firmly out of the closet. By the 1990s, the New Age was commodified, spiritual seeking became a pick and mix shopping basket style. Occult orders, paranormal abilities and magical practices are all prone to trivialisation, and while many seek some kind of truth or healing, most receive shallow and even false knowledge.
Today, because of trends in popular culture, in postmodernism and the New Age, the occult is more widely accepted and toyed with than perhaps ever before, although often in highly diluted forms. It’s still shrouded in dark mystery, and now also in glamour, the glamour of Hollywood, and all aspects of the occult are there for exploration at a mouse click. Deep knowing still requires a long and arduous inner journey, there’s no avoiding it, but we can at least value and not shy away from this third source of knowing and understanding the world with live in.
The occult in literature: past and present
Poetry has a long association with the occult since both deal in symbols. For novelists, incorporating the occult is usually less subtle, and less a synthesis of an aesthetic with the esoteric. The occult appears in structural ways, in character, setting, theme and plot.
The moment fiction took a turn towards Gothic, the occult made its debut. Horace Walpole is thought to be the first Gothic novelist, making use of the supernatural in The Castle of Otranto in 1764, followed by Ann Radcliffe who used the supernatural in her novels in the 1790s, including The Mysteries of Udulpho. The Gothic novel has romance at its heart and it is this combination of romance and the supernatural that inspired Bram Stoker, whose famous work, Dracula was published in 1897.
As motif, the occult in fiction serves to evoke fear in the mind of the reader and create mood, atmosphere, suspense. The occult gives the author the chance to give their characters extraordinary powers, present apparitions and all manner of fantastic entities, and inform plots. A whole cast of possible characters present themselves, everything from witches and warlocks and magicians, to vampires, werewolves and Zombies. Secret orders, the paranormal, there is so much there for the picking to inform setting, character, plot and motif. Little wonder the occult is a fiction staple, informing visionary fiction, gothic fiction, magical realism and fantasy and horror.
Speculative fiction by its very nature extends the boundaries of the ordinary and every day. The occult is the fantasy author’s playground and provides an enticing jumping off point for the horror author seeking to lead readers down dark alleys all the way to the very end. Whereas a fantasy novelist might explore illusion or craft worlds that include various forms of magic, horror delves into the shadow world where evil lurks.
The occultist author
The first two authors discussed here are both known esotericists.
Bram Stoker was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric order founded in the late nineteenth century and loosely based on Rosicrucianism and drawing on Tarot, astrology, alchemy and the Hermetic Kabbalah. I had no idea of Stoker’s affiliation when I read his classic novel, Dracula. I had no idea of the story save what everyone knows, and I never bothered to see the movie because horror in film scares me too much. So when I was about two thirds into reading Dracula I experienced something of a revelation, and I thought I saw Stoker’s intention and why his book is important.
Stoker took an ancient, eastern European legend that grew around Vlad the Impaler, Vlad IV of Wallachia (1430-1476), and invented his antagonist in Dracula. Stoker uses the occult to inform character, theme and plot. He uses various gothic motifs including the lonely castle, the vulnerable female victim, the romance narrative arc, the hero protagonist forced to pit his wits against evil, and on the level of entertainment, with all of the action, plot twists and suspense, the work is a masterpiece. However, what I saw was something else. I decided Stoker’s presentation of Dracula carried a deep message about the use and abuse of power and that was the real intention of his book.
Dracula’s Undead, I decided, are soulless egos, little more than predatory automatons willing to do the Master’s bidding. Dracula’s invasion of civilised London, his enactment of supernatural destruction, the creation of a mysterious entity that can only be slayed by the use of ritualistic, esoteric methods and not by science (ie normal weaponry), through all these elements Stoker is commenting both on the power of esoteric masters to enact evil and, as metaphor, on the way that all society comes under the spell of its political masters, and that we can all behave in an undead fashion. Stoker was an esotericist and my insight is an esoteric one. Others argue he was simply making a statement about the limitations of science, which was busy at the time of writing, vilifying all things mystical and occult.
Vampire as a symbol resonates powerfully in the collective psyche, speaking of our vulnerability as much as the seductive nature of evil. Since Stoker, the vampire trope has been used in every imaginable form, to entertain and make social commentary. Most notably is Anne Rice. Another interesting example that takes the vampire motif out of the horror genre is Elizabeth Kosova’s The Historian, an elaborate gothic tale with its emphasis on ancient evil and its power.
One author who made no bones about being an occultist was Violet May Firth, or Dion Fortune, a former Theosophist and member of the Golden Dawn, and a free thinker, which means she went her own way. She set out to depict her own version of esotericism in fiction and inform her readers of the occult through her novels. In The Sea Priestess, published in 1938, Fortune uses the occult to inform character, theme and plot. Fortune’s protagonist is Vivien Le Fay Morgan, a scarcely disguised version of the powerful enchantress of Arthurian legend, Morgan Le Fay – a version of the Celtic goddess and healer central to Wicca.
In Fortune’s novel, Vivien Le Fay Morgan is a reincarnation of The Sea Priestess, a mysterious Initiate from Atlantis, who came to ancient Britain to save the land from rising sea-levels, in a ceremony involving much human sacrifice. Protagonist Vivian Morgan is a powerful adept, an Archetypal woman with magical abilities, not least her power to enchant men as the narrator, middle-aged real estate agent Wilfred, discovers. As with her other titles, Fortune’s novel carries a strong message, that it is through invoking the Goddess and her extraordinary power that women can heal themselves and, in the process, their men.
The next two authors may or may not have been esoteric practitioners at one point or other, but they both have a deep knowledge of the occult. Both John Fowles, The Magus and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum explore the psychological basis of the occult and its dark side.
In John Fowles’ The Magus, the hidden magician in the story seeks to exert power over the protagonist just as Fowles exerts his own power over his readers who may, like me, spend the entire novel mystified. Fowles uses the occult as a theme and to inform plot and setting. Ultimately, The Magus carries a similar message to Stoker regarding the use and abuse of power, this time the focus is on the nature of illusion and the nature of initiation, aspects of esoteric practice. The story itself is not only one of intrigue, it is an induction or initiation into the mysteries, one of the central features of esoteric orders. Yet when protagonist Nicolas finally receives this initiation, his own status doesn’t change. He is not welcomed into an inner circle of adepts. Instead the revelation is one where he realises there exists on earth a privileged elite who for generations have held onto enormous wealth and power. The world in which we live and move and have our being is simply their stage. The controllers are that most renowned occult group The Illuminati. This is what the protagonist discovers but is it what Fowles would have us believe?
Umberto Eco places an emphasis on hidden forms of power in Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel brimming with esoteric references to the Jewish Kabbalah. Here’s the book blurb: “Bored with their work, three Milanese editors cook up “the Plan,” a hoax that connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. This produces a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled―a point located in Paris, France, at Foucault’s Pendulum. But in a fateful turn the joke becomes all too real, and when occult groups, including Satanists, get wind of the Plan, they go so far as to kill one of the editors in their quest to gain control of the earth.” Sounds enormously entertaining, but the work is dense and serious and despite the off-the-wall plot, it is intensely intellectual, and not at all a gripping page turner. Eco sets out to inform and the message in Foucault’s Pendulum seems to be a warning. Don’t mess around with things you know nothing about. The occult is not a joke and not something to be ridiculed, not least because occult orders take themselves very seriously indeed. Eco also highlights the susceptibility of believers in the occult, who since they are prepared to believe in various forms of otherworldly knowledge, knowledge lacking empirical proof, are vulnerable to believing lies and being tricked. Eco also highlights the cornerstone of the occult, the quest for a hidden objective truth. Whoever finds that truth will have absolute power.
Another novelist who engages with the occult, although perhaps in a veiled way, is Hermann Hesse. The Glass Bead Game features an intellectual elite walled off from society in the isolated community of Castalia. The story incorporates aspects of eastern and western philosophy and the plot revolves around a game (the Glass Bead Game) that requires expertise in all fields of science, art, music, literature, history to win. There is an entire subset of Castalia that is solely devoted to perfecting their skill at the game. The rules are vague and complex and as readers we are not really meant to know the specifics other than that the game is complicated, beautiful and incredibly challenging. To win the game is akin to achieving a state of perfection or bliss – seeing the interconnectivity of everything in life. The main character, Knecht dedicates himself to the game, goes through many trials of faith and ultimately wins and then goes on to become Magister Ludi. Again, it is the secrecy and the exclusivity of the occult that concerns Hesse, the idea of intellectual elitism and privileged knowledge, there for a select few.
The occult in fiction is used in many other ways. In her Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling uses the occult as a box of tricks, bestowing special powers on a raft of characters. Rowling does not set out to invite her readers to become occult practitioners, as Dion Fortune did, or inform her readers of the occult, criticise or otherwise warn us off getting involved as Stoker, Fowles, Eco and Hesse seem to want to do. Yet in Harry Potter, the dark side of the occult is ever present, as is its power to ward off evil and save the day. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of how authors play on popular perceptions of the occult. First and foremost, Rowling uses the occult to create mystique. She invites readers into her world as though she is opening a curtain on privileged knowledge, and as we read we feel special, part of a secret club, privy to secrets known only by a chosen few. It’s a delicious feeling and it cannot fail to inflate us. At the level of entertainment, it’s triumphant.
Most authors use the occult to invoke either wonder or fear, and to create intrigue and mystique. Such authors may have little knowledge of the occult and merely view it as a useful device, one that serves another purpose. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries falls into this category, as it appears evident, to me at least and judging by her own statements, that the author is not an astrologer. Eleanor Catton’s huge neo-Victorian novel The Luminaries is structured according to some astrological principles. Each of the main characters is aligned with a star sign or a planetary body. Each of the novel’s 12 parts – there are 12 signs of the zodiac – opens with an astrological chart, depicting various heavenly influences. Individual chapters have titles such as “Mercury in Capricorn” or “Saturn in Libra” – indications of the influences and relationships that will be featured. The astrological scheme also controls the novel’s chronology. Catton’s elaborate astrological scaffolding holds the narrative together and provides both plot and motif, and for that ingenuity Catton must be applauded. However, the author has used an occult system to serve her literary purposes. In doing so, she adds nothing to occult discourse by way of understanding or deepening the reader’s awareness of what the occult is, how it works and why it should not be dismissed out of hand as trivial hocus pocus, the very mandate Stoker gave himself when he wrote Dracula.
Turning to some contemporary Australian authors, I chatted with Australian horror author Alan Baxter when I was composing this talk. Baxter uses the occult as a motif to provide darkness to his writing.
He told me that a lot of his work looks at magic, and usually the negative consequences of messing with it! “I use occult practice a fair bit,’ he told me. ‘One novelette, for example, centres on a guy who gets mixed up with Lilith via a bad ouija board experience. I have other stories where I co-opt various occult practices to put temptation or danger in the path of characters and explore what happens. I use these things because I think dark fiction is unrivalled in exploring the human condition and in horror, we can follow the rabbit hole all the way down. These practices, while often not dark in origin, have become dark in the popular consciousness. The idea of “occult” is inherently bad these days, which is strange, but it’s fun for horror writing.” The novelette he refers to, “The Darkest Shade of Grey” can be found in his collection, Crow Shine.
The next author used to be a committed occultist and he draws on the occult in some fascinating ways. Award-winning horror author Andrew J McKiernan told me he spent the decade before he became a writer as a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis — a quasi-Masonic group based on the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley. During his time with the Order he studied extensively in the fields of Comparative Religion; Tarot; Astrology; Yoga; Qabalah; and other other forms of Western Ceremonial Magic. He left it all behind 2005, and considers himself an atheist with no belief in religion, magick or the supernatural.
A number of McKiernan’s stories make use of the occult as a weapon, especially as it relates to the modern age. His novelette, “Daivadana”, is set in Tajikistan during the war in Afghanistan. The story relates to Zoroastrianism and a rebirth of the war between Ahura Mazda and the Daevas (demons or old gods) that he deposed, a history juxtaposed with the incursion of the Western World into the region to depose the influence of Muslim extremism. Everything about this tale — character, plot, theme, setting — revolves around the occult history behind Zoroastrianism. His story “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” is a thematic counterpoint to ‘Daivadana’. It is set in Guantanamo Bay and involves an occult based interrogation of a suspected terrorist. It pits the modern Western Esoteric Tradition of the interrogator against a more ancient magic involving stories from the Qur’an and various Hadith. As with Daivadana, the story displays ways in which the occult could be used as a modernised weapon. His stories can be found in Last Year, When We Were Young.
An example from the fantasy/visionary fiction genre, highlights how authors approach the occult for the purposes of spiritual enlightenment and healing. Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale, Book One of her Tales of Tarya series, is a book I was privileged to review and I would compare to an Ursula le Guin.
Nightingale uses the occult to inform character, plot, theme and setting. The story involves a seventeen-year-old Mina searching for her beloved older brother who disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again. Mina has a special gift for storytelling. She joins a troupe and learns that the players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality.
Harlequin’s Riddle is a story of illusion and a study of the nature of imagination and creativity. Coupled with these themes are ideas of spirituality and healing, the very quality we access when we transcend ordinary reality in creative imaginative acts, is also a powerful source of beneficial transformation and healing. This, for Nightingale is Tarya. It is what esotericists call the ‘inner planes’, and it is here that the deeper essence of Harlequin’s Riddle is apparent. Entering Tarya involves altering your state of awareness, undergoing an out of body experience, and engaging in astral travel. Tarya is the realm of the shaman, the magus, the trickster, the psychopomp. Here is a small taste of Tarya.
“A subtle buzzing of hidden energy surrounded her. She looked down on distant mountains, and nearby trees, and people, many people, and each shape glimmered with light, layer upon layer of light, blurring outlines of real objects. There were intricate spiderwebs laid across the whole scene, gold threads wrapped around and over everything.”
It is this effort to depict in language an unseen metaphysical reality that is the necessary gift of the fantasy author. Nightingale’s visionary presentation of Tarya is an attempt to grasp an occult reality, to understand it, not to make use of it as a literary device.
I’m an occultist author too and the occult features in almost all of my novels. The plot in Asylum is driven by a palm reader’s prophecy, The Drago Tree is peppered with New Age dabblings, The Cabin Sessions opens with a Blood Moon harbinger, and The Legacy of Old Gran Parks pivots on a supernatural curse.
I put the occult stage centre in A Perfect Square. This novel is based on my daughter, Elizabeth Blackthorn’s honours thesis in music. She was searching for an idea. I suggested she base a musical composition on the movements of the planets. I helped her track the movements of Jupiter through Pluto over a four-year period. We created a series of scrolls and she used them to inspire a narrative based on the various planetary interactions. Jupiter is expansion. Neptune is illusion or spiritual heights. Put the two together…and so on. She then used her narrative to inspire 45 minutes of Progressive Rock which she taught to her band and they recorded it. Meanwhile, I was busy having my own ideas.
We were both concerned with literal and metaphor ways of approaching the occult, something picked up on by leading scholar of Western Esotericism, Wouter Hanegraaff. I took this idea and created a mother, the eccentric synaesthete and artist Harriet Brassington-Smythe and daughter, pianist Ginny Smith, who are collaborating on an exhibition of music and art, nine paintings, nine songs. Harriet comes up with the idea of basing the exhibition on the cycles of the Moon. Here’s a taste:
“That ‘twelve’ signified completion was not in dispute. They both knew the symbology. Setting aside the Imams, Apostles and Tribes, of concern to each of them, mother and daughter in turn, were the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Yet all things ended at twelve and Harriet felt ill-disposed towards the containment the number implied. As if through it the cosmos had reached its limit of emanation and, duly sated, foreclosed on thirteen, a number doomed to exist forevermore as a mere twelve–plus–one.”
In A Perfect Square the occult dominates the plot—It’s a dark mystery, providing motive, cause, consequence and resolution. The occult is the main theme and also informs character and structure. The chapters follow Kandinsky’s famous essay, On Spirituality. My intention was to inform and invite the reader to ponder. No prior knowledge is needed, but for those who know a little, the story will be all the more entertaining. Because occultism intersects with conspiracy thinking, I include a sub-theme in a secondary narrative, one that involves another mother and her daughter.
Fiction and the occult meet in a variety of ways depending on the author’s intention. Sometimes the occult is used as a device to entertain. Sometimes it forms the subject matter. The occult can drive plot, and inform character and setting. The topic of the occult in fiction is vast. I hope I’ve demystified the terrain a little and provided some food for thought.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.
This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who…
Here’s my review of yet another terrific collection of horror shorts, this time from award-winning Australian horror writer, Andrew J. McKiernan.
“WINNER: 2014 AHWA Australian Shadows Award, Collected Work
‘Last Year, When We Were Young’ brings together 16 tales that defy conventions of genre and style, every one with an edge sharper than a razor and darker than a night on Neptune.
From the darkly hilarious “All the Clowns in Clowntown” to the heart-breaking and disturbing title story, this debut collection from multi-award nominated author and illustrator Andrew J McKiernan pulls no punches.
“A troubling collection of weird and twisted tales. Sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying; always clever, always disturbing. Highly entertaining!” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of CODE ZERO
“McKiernan’s stories are hauntingly dark, evocatively written and viscerally compelling. With little regard for genre boundaries, McKiernan creates utterly convincing characters who will take you on a journey through fully realised worlds, and every journey is more than worth it.” – Alan Baxter, author of Bound and Realmshift
“These clever, compelling stories explore the dark edges of human existence. Utilising deceptive, often colloquial prose and an array of startling imagery, McKiernan has staked his own claim in a dark corner of imaginative fiction. Start reading him now; this guy will go far.” – Gary McMahon, author of The Concrete Grove
“McKiernan is a magician. He performs magic tricks in every story, spinning us around, making us believe one thing before showing us we were wrong all along. His stories are pure magic, staying with you like an echo long after reading.” – Kaaron Warren, author of Slights & Walking the Tree.”
Last Year, When We Were Young contains some of the finest horror writing I have come across. Edgy, intelligent in conception, and delivered with poise in an easy and engaging literary style, McKiernan has penned a compelling collection of shorts brimming with darkness and menace.
My favourite is ‘Daivadana’, a story of Mark Reynolds, a son sent to Tajikistan to do his father’s bidding and discover what is going on inside a new high rise development in a city rebuilding after war. He meets Jahandar and his son, Kurshed and through each, learns of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, its power and particularly its propensity for summoning evil. Here is one of those perfectly balanced stories, containing all the elements of a well-written thriller with all the elements of well-written horror, at once elegant, stylish, intriguing and fast-paced. McKiernan displays a deep knowledge of his subject and makes use of that knowledge to full effect, peppering his story with insights:
‘He realised, what really matters is not what colours the players wear, but who gets to hand out the costumes in the first place.”
Throughout this collection, the reader will encounter the weird, the unusual, the grotesque, the disturbing and the tragic. McKiernan never slips into horror for horror’s sake. Instead he exercises restraint. Each story is unique and strong, the reader taken to a variety of settings, the collection diverse and rich and haunting. Highly recommended.
I’m delighted to share my review of this short story collection by Australian horror author, Alan Baxter.
“The dark fantasy collection features 19 stories, including the Australian Shadows Award-winning “Shadows of the Lonely Dead”; and original title story “Crow Shine” in addition to two other never before published stories.
“Alan Baxter is an accomplished storyteller who ably evokes magic and menace. Whether it’s stories of ghost-liquor and soul-draining blues, night club magicians, sinister western pastoral landscapes, or a suburban suicide–Crow Shine has a mean bite.”—Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase.
“Crow Shine, by Alan Baxter, is a sweeping collection of horror and dark fantasy stories, packed with misfits and devils, repentant fathers and clockwork miracles. Throughout it all, Baxter keeps his focus on the universal problems of the human experience: the search for understanding, for justice, and for love. It’s an outstanding book.”—Nathan Ballingrud, author of North American Lake Monsters.
“Alan Baxter’s fiction is dark, disturbing, hard-hitting and heart-breakingly honest. He reflects on worlds known and unknown with compassion, and demonstrates an almost second-sight into human behaviour.”—Kaaron Warren, Shirley Jackson Award-winner and author of The Grief Hole.
“Buy your tickets, step up, and enter the world of Alan Baxter’s debut collection, Crow Shine. Here fates are brutal, justice is swift and merciless, yet even the most ruthless characters are sometimes – just sometimes – strangely touching. Crow Shine will terrify, surprise, and stun you.”—Angela Slatter, World Fantasy and British Fantasy Award winning author.”
Alan Baxter has penned a collection of gritty, sharply written tales filled with dread. The horror seeps from every paragraph, often simmering just behind the scenes. Baxter creates a strong sense of place and atmosphere, drawing on both urban and rural settings in the USA and Australia. There are the satisfying twists readers of horror shorts expect. There’s the unwavering prose and moments of poetry indicative of quality horror writing.
The title story, ‘Crow Shine’ is an ironic tale whose antagonist, the crow, ever the watcher, will have its way. There’s an allusion to Mephistopheles selling his soul to the devil through the demon drink, when protagonist Clyde uses his grandfather’s recipe to make moonshine and thence is able to play the Blues.
‘Crow Shine’ sets the tone for the rest of the collection, Baxter in full control of his characters as they tumble into darkness, decadence and the pits of hell. In ‘The Darkest Shades of Grey’ David is possessed by demons after meddling with ouija, and drifts further and further into inner conflict and torment. Here, Baxter is concerned with the possible consequences of using the occult for entertainment, a warning to us all.
I would recommend this collection to all who enjoy good horror shorts and especially to those wanting to discover the best in Australian horror today.