Here’s my slot on The Spirits of Six Minstrel Run Blackthorn Book Tour.
AboutThe Spirits of Six Minstrel Run
A move to the small town of Spring Falls, New York, is the perfect cure for Mia Gartner’s horrid commute. However, her new home isn’t quite empty.
She adored working in fine art restoration, but a two-hour ride each way got old fast. When her husband found a house for sale at a suspiciously low price, they jumped at it. Mia expected chemical contamination, a fixer-upper, or termites, so when the problem turned out to be persistent rumors of haunting, she set aside her worries. Adam hoped the place would propel his parapsychology hobby into a career.
Upon first sight, the innocuous suburban house filled Mia with dread. Adam had long maintained she had a psychic gift, but if she believed him, that would mean something terrible and dark once happened there.
Soon after their arrival, unexplained events prove the rumors are more than wild stories. A childlike spirit attaches itself to Mia, seeming harmless and so very lonely.
Alas, she fears the ghost may not be as innocent as it seems.
This straight ahead haunted house novel opens with Adam and Mia heading to their new home on Minstrel Run. Adam is an academic taking up a new posting at Syracuse in the psychology faculty. Mia is a painting restorer with a spooky past. Adam has a special interest in the paranormal and believes Mia has special psychic abilities she’s in denial of. He knows Six Minstrel Run is haunted and buys the house no one else wants as a kind of twisted experiment. He is as keen as mustard. Mia is, from the very first moment, terrified, even as she battles with her fear and summons enough courage to get on with the normal routines of domestic life. Yet even before she crosses the threshold and enters the house, she is consumed by dread. It is Mia’s terror that permeates the narrative and makes this novel utterly convincing and really very spooky. Throw in a local clergyman who comes knocking on their door offering his assistance and protection from the truly evil spirits lurking in their new home and you have the perfect set up.
I enjoyed the steady plotting, the twist, and the unfolding of the characters, their interesting lives, thoughts and motives, the plethora of scary scenes rising in intensity and escalating to a heart-pounding climax. Mia is a strong female lead, intelligent, resilient, courageous. The narrative has a strong forward drive, not overly weighed down by back story and exposition, the reader given just enough explanatory detail to provide context and setting. In all, The Spirits of Six Minstrel Run is a well written, traditional supernatural horror novel for those who want to be truly terrified. Not to be read alone in the dark in a big old house with creaky doors and attics and cellars. Cox has penned a classic.
About the Author
Originally from South Amboy NJ, Matthew has been creating science fiction and fantasy worlds for most of his reasoning life. Since 1996, he has developed the “Divergent Fates” world in which Division Zero, Virtual Immortality, The Awakened Series, The Harmony Paradox, the Prophet of the Badlands series, and the Daughter of Mars series take place.
His books span adult, young-adult, and middle-grade fiction in multiple genres, predominantly science fiction, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, and fantasy.
Matthew is an avid gamer, a recovered WoW addict, developer of two custom tabletop RPG systems, and a fan of anime, British humour, and intellectual science fiction that questions the nature of humanity, reality, life, and what might happen after it.
He is also fond of cats, presently living with two: Loki and Dorian.
Isobel Blackthorn is the author of a Canary Islands Mystery series, including A Matter of Latitude, Clarissa’s Warning and A Prison in the Sun. The Drago Tree serves as a prequel. Find her author page and easy access to her writing here author.to/IsobelBlackthorn
The harrowing saga of Nicky Negron’s tortured soul continues as the inner and outer demons shadowing Newark, New Jersey’s undead vigilante have no intention of letting him rest in peace. Knowing his paranormal existence can only lead to complications, Nicky tries not to draw too much attention to himself. This becomes difficult as he learns that he has captured the interest of an unrelenting federal agent. Suspected of being an assassin for a South American drug cartel, Nicky finds himself dealing with the exact kind of scrutiny he’s been trying to avoid since he was turned almost thirty years ago. It complicates matters even more when Nicky is confronted with another undead presence that is threatening to commit atrocities to the children of a friend Nicky had sworn to protect. This pits the foul-mouthed night stalker, Nicky Negron, against the most horrifying monsters – both the human and non-human variety. An absolute rollercoaster of a novel, Sangre: The Wrong Side of Tomorrow delivers even more suspense, insight, laughs, and emotional wallop than its predecessor. Nicky is back! See you on the other side…
After a newspaper clipping relating a spate of beheadings in Brooklyn, including a drug dealer and a domestic abuse suspect – the reporter noting a new trend in gangland murders across the USA – Sangre: The wrong side of tomorrow opens with a scene on a public bus in New York on a hot August day in the 1960s as a young Nicky Negrón observes his surroundings and reflects on his life. Nicky is off to Alexander’s department store; he’s missing his little sister, Dani, and his relationship with his mother in the protracted aftermath of Dani’s death.
Skip forward to Nicky as he is now, as his genetically resistant undead self, having battled the evil vampire, Simone, in the first Sangre novel (if you have not readSangre: The Color of Dying do so now because you are missing out on a terrific read. Although Sangre 2 can be read as a standalone) Nicky finds himself having vivid memories that could only belong to Simone, who he believes he had slayed. Apparently not. Terrified she is out to take full possession of him, he seeks the help of Dr Gunder, an epidemiologist turned vampire researcher and investigator, a doctor seeking to avenge the death of her son. What unfolds is so thoroughly entertaining it can be read in one sitting.
The story jumps back from time to time to Nicky’s past, providing a rich insight into the motivations and depth of his character. A deft catch up of Sangre 1 and Colon dives straight into the action. The attention to fine detail and small observances – the sweat, the smells, the settings – while never overplayed evoke in the imagination a gritty, urban vibe of working class life, especially for the Hispanic community: Nicky’s family are from Puerto Rico. The pace is fast in a four-to-the-floor read, slowed only by the reflections of the main character as he wrestles with his one inner nature and attempts to justify his less noble actions. I really enjoyed Colon’s utilitarian take on morality – the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or in this case, the least harm to the least number – as Nicky is compelled to feed on the blood of others. The author’s empathy for Hispanic culture shines through, as does his understanding that good and bad is never clearly defined, that life is filled with compromises, that sometimes a purely good choice is not an option and that forgiveness is possible. The novel is enriched by the theme of mothers and their bond with their offspring. A theme that plays out through the juxtaposition of Nicky’s own mother and her attitude to him, with the other mothers in the story.
In all, a thoroughly pleasurable and intelligent read with broad appeal that reaches beyond the confines of the horror genre. Highly recommended.
What Are You Afraid Of? – Podcast with T Fox Dunham and David Walton
NEW EPISODE 115 – CURSE OF THE BLACKTHORN
“Author T. Fox Dunham interviews Australia’s noir and horror writer, Isobel Blackthorn. Isobel answers questions about her writing, the state of women authors in the industry, her thoughts on crafting and shares some insights for new authors. In addition to her interview, she sent the show a haunting tale of an aggressive entity that haunted her in the Cockatoo house, narrated by David Walton. Fox also plays an excerpt from her noir fiction, “Lacquer”, which is featured in the anthology A Time For Violence: Stories with an Edge, available on May 1st from Close to the Bone. It is an anthology of noir and horror stories featuring the best in the industry for 2019.”
Is a book tour worth the effort and the expense? This is a question on the minds of many authors as we think about ways to promote a new release. I have nine novels and a short-story collection under my belt so far, and after struggling for years to find reviewers, I am turning more and more to Book Tour service providers.
It is not uncommon for me to send out two hundred individual email requests for one title. Each of these reviewers I source using online databases and then scrutinise to see if they are available and a fit. Usually, I get a 10-15% take up rate and half of those do not follow through. It is a risky process too, because you may end up with some poor reviews and even one or two DFNs – Did Not Finish – from book reviewers who simply did not like your book, or worse, have no qualms trashing your creative output.
When it comes to Amazon, the idea is that customers leave reviews, but how many readers will do that? Many or most will not be all that confident leaving a book review, even in this age when everyone has an opinion and every company wants your views on their product or service. Only verified purchase reviews count in the algorithm, but all reviews count towards Social Proof that your book is worth buying. This is why us authors are always on the hunt for more reviews. Authors please note not all book bloggers are able or willing to share their reviews on Amazon. If you are looking exclusively for Amazon reviews, you might think twice about a book tour.
I can happily say Rachels Random Resources takes the pressure off tired authors. Her service is excellent, she is highly professional and her reviewers are gracious. I am so impressed, have signed up as one of her reviewers. Below is a list of review highlights from the Clarissa’s Warning book tour. (copy and paste the urls to view the whole review)
“It’s nice to see the gothic genre given a more modern take. Gothic fiction combines mystery, horror, death and romance, traditionally in the setting of a building of Gothic architecture i.e. medieval, but any old, large imposing building will do. The heroine is generally unassuming, naïve but no sissy, and likeable. Claire Bennet from Colchester fits the bill perfectly. She’s had a lottery win and is using that money to buy a wonderful old building on the island of Fuerteventura which she’s admired every year during her summer holidays. It is probably a foolish thing to do, as the house needs a lot of work and it’s a huge leap for an ex bank-employee to take, but Claire is game. She’s even prepared to ignore a warning from Aunt Clarissa who informs her that the astrological and other psychic signs aren’t favourable to this rash venture. However, her warning comes too late. Claire is committed and so ignores anything she doesn’t want to hear.
She embarks on her plans, encountering some pleasant locals and some less so, and slowly her house becomes habitable. She’s forced to move in a little sooner than intended, and some inexplicable happenings began to occur. Claire is rattled, but she’s made of stern stuff and begins to investigate what might be behind it all. She’ll make some alarming discoveries, but also encounter true love.
This book is rich with description and thus we can conjure up the appearance and atmosphere of Fuerteventura in vivid detail in our minds. We quickly get to know Claire by sharing her wry humour and down-to-earth approach as we share her space, mental and physical. Aunt Clarissa is a colourful, eccentric figure but something of a cornerstone in this book, and Paco is another.
It’s an enchanting, exciting read and definitely has you considering whether there’s more than meets the eye in this world of ours.”
“Isobel Blackthorn stole my heart, after she made it drop to my stomach. Her capability of amalgamating horror, romance, mystery and travel had me floored.
The language and presentation of the plot has all the makings of excellent story telling.
I am not saying that it is a story unlike any other. Most haunted house tales do follow a certain line of story development. Despite that ‘Clarissa’s Warning’ is not predictable. The suspense was steadily built throughout the book and the ending was completely out of the blue.”
“This is a suspense filled, spooky story with legends, rumours, danger and romance all playing an integral part in events. If you’ve never been to Fuerteventura, you’ll probably feel like you have after reading this and if, like me, you’ve already visited, you’ll have memories of visits rekindled whilst reading it. The whole community and Claire’s integration into it are shared, as her friendships and even a romance develop alongside the restoration of the property. It is an engaging read that you’re never quite sure just who will survive to the end! The research into the previous occupants of the house, the steps taken to protect herself and the peril she faces make this a story that I enjoyed reading and have no hesitation in recommending to anyone who enjoys a suspense filled paranormal mystery and romance.”
“I liked Claire’s character and was really pleased when she wins the lottery and becomes a woman of great means!! I loved the way that despite not having to watch the pennies, she still does! I also felt quite sorry for her at times as she had no belief in what her Aunt Clarissa had told her, but the local tradesmen obviously knew all about the old ruin and this meant she had great difficulty in getting anyone to work on it without really knowing why!
The story built up slow and steady, giving you plenty of time to take in the other parts of the story, such as Claire’s difficult relationship with her father and her relationship with her Aunt Clarissa. The supernatural part of the storyline was done really well and I did enjoy the spooky things which were happening. I loved the setting of this book, having been to two of the Canary Islands but never to Fuerteventura. The history behind the ruin and the local opinions were really interesting also. A suitably spooky story which was enough to make my hair stand on end and I did love the ending, although I won’t tell you what it is because it will definitely spoil the whole book! Would recommend!!”
“The backdrop of Fuerteventura for this story was just exquisite, with the local cafes, the volcano and the heat. All descriptions adding to this story building a wider picture of where Claire is and the history. To mix it in with the supernatural too was just delicious and cleverly done and adds a lot of tension in the book because it was so contrasting….This is my first read of Ms Blackthorn, but after reading this, getting a taste of her writing, I can safely say it will not be my last outing!”
“This is a fantastic paranormal thriller. You are kept guessing at the person out to get Claire and the haunting.” jbronderbookreviews.com/2019/03/20/clarissas-warning/
“Apart from possibly the ghosts this read like a beautiful love letter to Fuerteventura. I could capture so much of the island reading this even though I’ve never been. I now want to. There is so much attention to detail in this book, not just with the island but the history of the house being renovated and the people linked to it. Also though the renovations themselves. You could really imagine the restoration as it happened over the time period in the book. Everything is just so beautifully written.
It’s a slow burner which isn’t something I normally enjoy but I think possibly because it’s so descriptive I found it easy to follow and allowed myself to be swept along with the story rather than wishing it would hurry up and get to the action. Again credit goes back to the writing to be able to keep my poor attention span involved in the book.”
“While this is a slow paced read, it has depth and detail and triggers imagination. It is vividly descriptive….If you have any interest in history you will appreciate this book.” – Dog’s Mom Visits book blog
“The author had a way of bringing even the smallest character to life, the picturesque detail lets you easily imagine the locals and you get to find out as much about Gloria who run the local café as you do about Claire…This is a gentle slow-paced mystery, which I read fairly quickly. With its mixture of genres, this has got something for a lot of readers. This is the 1st book I have read by this author and checking my kindle I am glad to say I have some more of their books to read.” –
“This was a fun and easy read. It’s not particularly a scary book, and there is nothing that will make you jump. However there is an underlying menace throughout the story that gradually builds up as the tale progresses and Claire becomes in more and more danger… You got a sense of how isolating it would be to move to a strange country all on your own and try to complete a project like this.
Within the novel I especially liked the way the story mixed up descriptions of the island with some history and some supernatural events yet kept things grounded with the detailed paragraphs about the restoration work. By the end you felt as invested in wanting it all to work as Claire did.
All in all this was an easy and enjoyable story that almost needs a category of its own of ‘Cosy Ghost Stories to read by the fire on a cold winters night’ Even if the story doesn’t make you jump the descriptions of the Island will certainly warm you up!”
Living in a small town like Woodvine, North Carolina, means everyone knows everything about everybody. The same goes for seventeen-year-old Leath Elliott who can’t seem to escape her tragic past and the loss of her father. Her only break from reality is through recurring dreams where she’s spent a lifetime growing up with a boy she’s never met.
When a stranger shows up in the form of James Turner – a mysterious boy with a dark past – Leath begins to wonder if her dreams might be coming true. Literally.
Things get complicated when Leath finds out that James’ sudden appearance in her small town is anything but a coincidence. Demanding answers, Leath confronts James, but nothing could have prepared her for the truth he tells her.
Now, the future she once saw in her dreams and the boy she’s falling for is fading fast and Leath must make the ultimate decision between giving up her freedom or giving up her heart.
Fading is a charming story of teenage love and longing narrated with much warmth and sparkle. Leath, a seventeen-year-old high school student, has fallen out of love, if she ever has been in love, with Victor, a Spanish boy and longterm friend devoted to her. Leath is searching for fulfilment, in whatever form that comes. Then a new boy, James, starts at the school and Leath falls in love. James has lost both his parents, Leath has lost her father. United at first by a shared grief and a deep attraction, as Leath gets to know James more and more, all is not as it seems. Meanwhile, Leath is torn between her love for gorgeous and mysterious James and her lingering attachment to soft and reliable Victor.
As the story unfolds and the mystery of James is revealed, the story slips into the paranormal, building to fascinating otherworldly revelations.
Fading is very well written with good pacing and excellent characterisation. Cipriano gets under the skin of her protagonist, right to the heart of her fantasies, dreams and feelings, her confusion and sensitivities and hurt as she searches for real love. Enchanting, sad, touching, and evocative of all the fine feelings of youth, Fading is very hard to put down.
It happens every year. A select few disappear, never to return.
From The Falkland Islands to the Himalayas, Puerto Rico to England – people are vanishing without trace or explanation. A young man who’s lost everything stumbles across an ancient secret.
Can he unlock the mystery? Will he find those who need him?
…can he escape the Unknown?
I rarely read fantasy/horror, but when I stumbled on The Unknown I decided to try it out. I was surprisingly entertained and even didn’t mind the vampires, which is a real credit to Price as I would normally stop reading the moment they appear. Writing with exceptional imagination, Price has a knack for luring his readers into his story world.
There can be no doubt Price ticks all the boxes of the genre. Strange and spooky happenings in far flung lands. A preternatural child with glowing yellow eyes. Vampires. Doors into other worlds. A looming sense of dread. And a black cross edged with silver on a black rope chain. The scene is set for a seriously creepy read.
Good characterisation, and Price is at pains to endear his protagonists to his readers. Effective world building is critical in the genre and Price has crafted a realm that is at once enchanting and menacing and convincing. I certainly lost myself in it.
After an engaging set up, The Unknown is filled with dramatic tension, with new plot lines and twists and plenty going on to hold the attention. Very well thought out, The Unknown is a visual feast and a gripping read. I would recommend to all who enjoy dark fantasy.
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.