Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why should good deeds fade like mist?

The haunted place--marked by foul deeds that have left their residue to linger until their hold is broken--this is a common trope in supernatural fiction, drawn no doubt from myths, legends, and speculation about actual experiences that are difficult for the materialist to explain.

I offer here for your reflection an excerpt from Secret Worship by Algernon Blackwood, where his occult detective named John Silence is speaking with a man whom he has just rescued from an encounter with a haunted place.
"Devil-worship! Here—!" Harris stammered, aghast.
"Yes—here;—conducted secretly for years by a group of Brothers before unexplained disappearances in the neighbourhood led to its discovery. For where could they have found a safer place in the whole wide world for their ghastly traffic and perverted powers than here, in the very precincts—under cover of the very shadow of saintliness and holy living?"
"Awful, awful!" whispered the silk merchant, "and when I tell you the words they used to me—"
"I know it all," the stranger said quietly. "I saw and heard everything. My plan first was to wait till the end and then to take steps for their destruction, but in the interest of your personal safety,"—he spoke with the utmost gravity and conviction,—"in the interest of the safety of your soul, I made my presence known when I did, and before the conclusion had been reached—"
"My safety! The danger, then, was real. They were alive and—" Words failed him. He stopped in the road and turned towards his companion, the shining of whose eyes he could just make out in the gloom.
"It was a concourse of the shells of violent men, spiritually developed but evil men, seeking after death—the death of the body—to prolong their vile and unnatural existence. And had they accomplished their object you, in turn, at the death of your body, would have passed into their power and helped to swell their dreadful purposes."
Harris made no reply. He was trying hard to concentrate his mind upon the sweet and common things of life. He even thought of silk and St. Paul's Churchyard and the faces of his partners in business.
"For you came all prepared to be caught," he heard the other's voice like some one talking to him from a distance; "your deeply introspective mood had already reconstructed the past so vividly, so intensely, that you were en rapport at once with any forces of those days that chanced still to be lingering. And they swept you up all unresistingly."
Harris tightened his hold upon the stranger's arm as he heard. At the moment he had room for one emotion only. It did not seem to him odd that this stranger should have such intimate knowledge of his mind.
"It is, alas, chiefly the evil emotions that are able to leave their photographs upon surrounding scenes and objects," the other added, "and who ever heard of a place haunted by a noble deed, or of beautiful and lovely ghosts revisiting the glimpses of the moon? It is unfortunate. But the wicked passions of men's hearts alone seem strong enough to leave pictures that persist; the good are ever too lukewarm."
This last reflection offered by John Silence struck me and I instantly asked myself, why?

Why should evil deeds leave lasting marks behind and good ones fade like mist?  Christian reflection of the sort offered by N. T. Wright indicates just the opposite--that every activity, large or small, empowered by the Holy Spirit and undertaken as an act of worship offered to God is the only stuff of this world that will indeed last.

Then why the mythology?  Is it merely that we've been told these kinds of stories and not the kind where good deeds "haunt" places to the enjoyment of those who stumble onto them?  Do such stories exist and I just haven't seen them?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Hymn of Consola: a short story by Jason R. E. Campbell

As of August 20, 2012, I am now a (self) published author.

The Hymn of Consola is a short story that I conceived of more than a year ago. Its chief influences are H. P. Lovecraft, Gene Wolfe, and Lord Dunsany, perhaps with a bit of Graham Greene tossed in for good measure. In terms of genre, it belongs with weird tales as a sub-genre of fantasy.  Weird tales have an aim of unsettling the reader, but unlike most of the so-called new weird, I'm hoping this story will leave you unsettled in a good way.  If I may borrow from the estimable C. S. Lewis, I might call it "numinous".

Now that I am swimming the waters of self-publishing (thank you James Wood for your invaluable assistance and encouragement!), my plan is to forge ahead with another four published short stories by year's end.  You can expect more of the same sort of genre mixed with some adventure fantasy I've been working on for the last few months.

Then it's off to try my hand at a novel. But for now, for your reading pleasure, the opening lines of The Hymn of Consola:
To what lengths will you go to spirit yourself away from the agonies that flood this decaying world? What if there was a place to which you could escape into a perfect peace that nothing could touch?

Don't misunderstand me. I am not speaking in some mystical or metaphysical sense, as if by mental exercise or self-delusion we might convince ourselves that the pains of this world are somehow unreal. Neither am I speaking via poetry or metaphor of death, for only a fool believes that death leads always beyond suffering. No, I speak of a tangible place, a haven tucked away out of the ordinary paths of the world, a place (and perhaps time? I do not know) where one might rest in perfect peace.

You do not believe me. Of course you don't! How would you know of such a place except by extension of the vestigial hopes of childhood lost in the forgotten vaults of your mind? You can be forgiven for doubting. I was chief of doubters until I found my way accidentally to Adportam Hospital.

In the interest of telling the whole truth, when I was admitted, I was unwell both in body and spirit. All that I loved—all that I was, in fact—had been ripped from me by a tragic accident (though there are no accidents, only the angry skein of wills we cannot fathom). I wandered for a time, in and out of my mind, in the care of faceless doctors and nurses, my body a misshapen prison of gnarled flesh.

But with the passage of time, I was well enough to return to my home—or my house rather, empty now as it was in the wake of the event. I sat alone with my anguish for days and nights, venturing out only when great hunger threatened or some other flicker of earthly desire drew me forth to quench it.

On some such foray, in desperate search of companionship, I ventured into one of those dimly-lit places that draw haunted souls from the highway late at night. Among its patrons, I'd thought I'd found respite in the whispers of a willing lover. She beckoned me to follow her into the hills along a narrow track far from the city. I followed, though the pains of my body continued unabated, fueled by the greater agonies of my soul. I remember striving, straining to lose those agonies in the pursuit of her along that overgrown track, fleeing from the pain which anchored me in a fiery past that would not let me go.

At last we emerged onto a high hill of wind-bent grasses. Dawn broke all around us and laid wreaths of brilliant gold on a vast alabaster edifice that towered like a crown on the brow of the hill. Miles of rustic farmlands stretched from us in all directions, here and there punctuated by stands of fearfully ancient pines of enormous size. Animals and broad-shouldered men labored in the fields. I noticed the men's faces seemed always hooded against the threat of storms.

My eyes drank in the sight of that magnificent edifice. Though its architecture was richly ornamented, reminiscent perhaps of the ancient world with its colonnades and porticos, upon close consideration it seemed older still, as though the palaces of Minoa or Babylon had thought to imitate its enigmatic appointments. Strangely, only the highest floors had windows, as if one had to ascend great heights before being permitted to gaze upon the wild and dangerous world outside.

Lush gardens of gnarled oak, strange, drowsy flowers, and richly laden fruit trees of genera unknown to me sheltered in its watchful, paternal shadow. It seemed the place stood on the high hill like an old weathered traveler, resting for a moment, surveying the curve of the world with determinative gaze, as if deliberating on whether to turn and make for fields beyond the ken of mankind.

The woman I had pursued named the place Adportam and bade me come inside.

Foolishly, I followed.
If you are so inclined, you may purchase the whole of it for $0.99 at

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Short Review of The Voice in the Night, William Hope Hodgson

William Hope Hodgson writes Lovecraftian maritime fiction.  Only that's a crass, anachronistic statement since Hodgson, writing as early as 1904, was a significant influence on Lovecraft.  Hodgson knows his maritime stuff, having spent much of his career as a sailor and finding his death in a naval battle near Ypres.  And Hodgson knows how to write a weird tale.  The Voice in the Night is not about sea monsters, for not all that lurks in the world's faceless oceans kills with teeth or tentacles:
“Put away the light.”
“I’m damned if I will,” I muttered; but Will told me to do as the voice bade, and I shoved it down under the bulwarks.
“Come nearer,” he said, and the oar-strokes continued. Then, when apparently some half-dozen fathoms distant, they again ceased.
“Come alongside,” exclaimed Will. “There’s nothing to be frightened of aboard here!”
“Promise that you will not show the light?”
“What’s to do with you,” I burst out, “that you’re so infernally afraid of the light?”
“Because ——” began the voice, and stopped short.
“Because what?” I asked quickly.
Will put his hand on my shoulder.
“Shut up a minute, old man,” he said, in a low voice. “Let me tackle him.”
He leant more over the rail.
“See here, Mister,” he said, “this is a pretty queer business, you coming upon us like this, right out in the middle of the blessed Pacific. How are we to know what sort of a hanky-panky trick you’re up to? You say there’s only one of you. How are we to know, unless we get a squint at you — eh? What’s your objection to the light, anyway?” As he finished, I heard the noise of the oars again, and then the voice came; but now from a greater distance, and sounding extremely hopeless and pathetic.
“I am sorry — sorry! I would not have troubled you, only I am hungry, and — so is she.”
The voice died away, and the sound of the oars, dipping irregularly, was borne to us.
“Stop!” sung out Will. “I don’t want to drive you away. Come back! We’ll keep the light hidden, if you don’t like it.”
This is the best Hodgson tale I've read so far, short or long form.  It reveals its mysteries slowly and leaves the reader with a lasting image of sorrow.  Highly recommended for fans of Lovecraft and the old-fashioned maritime tale.

Read The Voice in the Night online here for free.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Short Review of The Red Tower, Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been unsettling people with his weird and horror fiction for some time now.  The example I am reviewing here is one of the very best weird stories I've ever read, matching anything Lovecraft and the other masters have ever accomplished.

Ligotti's deranged narrator describes the non-place that is the Red Tower, nestled in a non-scape that is nowhere and everywhere.  The things which can be glimpsed by this mad narrator are not horrifying in the usual sense of the term; I would not classify the tale as horror (though that is where you will find Ligotti's work shelved).  But such glimpses as we are offered will unsettle you.  Is it madness or extraordinary perception that enables one to see the domain of the Red Tower?
The ruined factory stood three stories high in an otherwise featureless landscape. Although somewhat imposing on its own terms, it occupied only the most unobtrusive place within the gray emptiness of its surroundings, its presence serving as a mere accent upon a desolate horizon. No road led to the factory, nor were there any traces of one that might have led to it at some time in the distant past. If there had ever been such a road it would have been rendered useless as soon as it arrived at one of the four, red-bricked sides of the factory, even in the days when the facility was in full operation. The reason for this was simple: no doors had been built into the factory, no loading docks or entranceways allowed penetration of the outer walls of the structure, which was solid brick on all four sides without even a single window below the level of the second floor. The phenomenon of a large factory so closed off from the outside world was a point of extreme fascination to me. It was almost with regret that I ultimately learned about the factory’s subterranean access. But of course that revelation in its turn also became a source for my truly degenerate sense of amazement, my decayed fascination.
Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates the dark corners of fantasy or weird fiction.  It doesn't get much better than this.  Read it online for free here or pick up the collection where you'll find this story.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Short Review of Casting the Runes, M. R. James

M. R. James is universally acknowledged as the grand master of the English ghost story who strongly influenced H. P. Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King. James is subtle, introducing supernatural elements slowly and carefully, often leaving unanswered questions about the reality of his characters' experiences. Many of his stories remain genuinely creepy today.

Casting the Runes is a short story about a man plagued by an occultist who may or may not be drawing on dark powers to bring about the doom of those who cross him. A sample of the deeds of the nefarious Karswell:
Now, Florence, listen to this. The first winter he was at Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of his parish (he's not ours, but we know him very well) and offered to show the school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new kinds, which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather surprised, because Mr Karswell had shown himself inclined to be unpleasant to the children--complaining of their trespassing, or something of the sort; but of course he accepted, and the evening was fixed, and our friend went himself to see that everything went right. 

He said he never had been so thankful for anything as that his own children were all prevented from being there: they were at a children's party at our house, as a matter of fact. Because this Mr Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then, Mr Farrer said, the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out: and he said Mr Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance, which was the most gruesome thing he had ever heard. All the slides he showed, Mr Farrer said, were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked them he could not imagine. 

Well, the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park--Lufford, I mean--in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn in pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must have meant to the children doesn't bear thinking of. Of course this was too much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr Karswell, and said it couldn't go on. 

All he said was: 'Oh, you think it's time to bring our little show to an end and send them home to their beds? Very well!' And then, if you please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of them were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don't suppose one of them closed an eye that night.
Recommended for anybody who likes classic ghost stories, especially with the prose and style of 19th century novels.  Read Casting the Runes online for free.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

You fasten your seatbelt. The plane is landing.

You fasten your seatbelt.  The plane is landing.  To fly is the opposite of traveling; you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you vanished.  Meanwhile, what do you do?  How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world and of the world from you?  You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and the other, because beyond the page there is the void, the anonymity of stopovers, of the metallic uterus that contains you and nourishes you, of the passing crowd always different and always the same.  You might as well stick with this other abstraction of travel, accomplished by the anonymous uniformity of typographical characters: here, too, it is the evocative power of the names that persuades you that you are flying over something and not nothingness.  You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation; or perhaps this demonstrates an invincible tendency to passivity, to regression, to infantile dependence.  (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)
This is the opening paragraph of chapter 9 of Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler", whose books are much like the crowd in the above paragraph:  always different and always the same.  If you want to read something beautifully strange, pick up something from Calvino.  Each of his works is a rewarding journey.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Short Review of The Ugly Chickens, Howard Waldrop

Thanks to John O'Neill, editor of the fantastic (in every sense of the word) Black Gate Magazine, I ran across a gem of a short story called "The Ugly Chickens" by Howard Waldrop. Mr. Waldrop won the Nebula award for best novelette with this story of a man who learns that the dodo did not quite go extinct quite as early as the histories indicate. This is the kind of prose you can expect from this fast-paced yet ruminative tale:

Think of the dodo as a baby harp seal with feathers. I know that's not even close, but it saves time.
Waldrop's tale is very straight forward and depends on the lightest touch of alternate history or might-have-happened to produce his effects. "The Ugly Chickens" might fit loosely alongside Ballard's Drowned Giant. Combined with the very slight tone of humor and the headlong pathos of the narrator, the reader is left to ponder the many slight revelations along the way, somehow coming away with a sense of distant sadness exactly appropriate to its subject. Masterful.

Read it online here for free.  (Update:  looks like the folks took the page down; no doubt the volume of estimable readers of Black Gate swamped them!  Unfortunately, can't find it anywhere else.  Given the subject matter of the short story, I suppose it is ironically appropriate).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Different Kinds of Sermons

I'm preparing for a sermon series starting on January 15th.  I've preached a few times since Cascade Hills, but it's been a while since I've put this much into a single run of preaching.

I'm remembering that there are a few different kinds of sermons in terms of how they "feel" to put together and deliver.

There are the textual sermons, driven solely by the content of a particular Biblical text and then contemplated in the context of a particular dimension of congregational life.

There are topical sermons, a particular idea on the congregation's mind upon which the biblical witness is brought to bear.  I don't do a lot of these, but some of the ones on marriage, friendship, and financial matters have been challenging to put together.

There are the medicinal sermons, words of hope and comfort spoken directly to a major event in the life of the congregation, where we acknowledge the excess of feelings in the room and allow God's Word to do its work in comforting and drawing us forward in the midst of that experience.

There are of course the rallying cry sermons that call for a specific action on the part of the congregation, preached sparingly but earnestly to move toward some desirable goal or change.

This week, I'm preparing a series of what I'd call stirring the pot sermons, broad-reaching treatments of biblical themes that help put individual texts and topics in their place.  I'm approaching the inexhaustible, mysterious, prevailing, astonishing Kingdom of God.  Pray that I make much of the Kingdom and Her King.

Monday, January 2, 2012

MI4: Three Things They Nailed

Mission Impossible 4 is a Hollywood first for one very important reason.  Never in the history of cinema has the fourth installment in a very tired series been leagues better than all its predecessors.  In fact, I'm looking to buy tickets now for MI5 because of the trend (1 = terrible, 2 = really bad, 3 = barely watchable, 4 = quite good, 5 = ?).

The filmmakers got three things right in this movie:

Bad Guys are bad guys, but physics is much, much worse

There are busloads of bad guys in this movie. You've got Russian prison inmates, foreign police with automatic weapons, arms dealers, femme fatale assassins, body guards, rogue agents, and the list goes on.

Aside from the obligatory strung out fight scene with an old dude who shouldn't be able to fight his way out of a paper bag, the fight scenes and gun battles are very short and very deadly in this movie. Every single agent who gets into a fight finishes it in a few seconds and races to the next challenge. There is only one occasion when someone is "grazed" and it puts her out of commission for the rest of the movie.  Everybody else who is shot dies, painfully and badly.

As usual, the agents are godlike in their martial prowess. No foe (again, except for the old dude at the end) stands a chance against these superheroes. The foes the script throws at them are at best speedbumps burning up precious seconds while the agents race to stop the Big Bad Guy's plans.

While the fight scenes are excellent, they are nothing we haven't seen before. Yet the film reminds us again and again that these superheroes--while unfazed by mere human antagonists--did not stand a chance against ordinary physics.

There is a scene where Tom Cruise is standing on a ledge a measly three stories up looking down into a dumpster filled with large trash bags, while his pursuer looks at him from the window and shakes his head. "Not a good idea." To our amazement, Tom looks down, realizes that if he jumps, he's dead. And he carefully works his way back down the ledge. In any other MI movie (or most anything else churned out by the Hollywood machine these days), he would have jumped, limped for a few steps, then been on his way to the next scene.  We see the look on his face and we know the rules are different here.

Ropes break, gear fails (sometimes spectacularly), debris from explosions actually causes damage, guys who jump out of moving cars limp until they get medical attention. A car's side mirror makes the audience wince when it catches the supposedly invincible protagonist in the face while he's falling.

This went a long way toward making an otherwise throwaway action movie so much more enjoyable. These agents aren't invincible. Somehow, they got me to believe they lived in the same world I do.

You can't account for stakes this high

Mission Impossible is a story franchise that was once built on the premise that guys this good don't need guns.  They are so adept at controlling the environment and planning for every eventuality that they can get the results they want with a minimum of chaos or bloodshed.

MI4 is a major break with this tradition.  Unlike most of the rest of the breaks made earlier in the series, this is one that makes for much more compelling drama.  The movie plays out a mini-script over and over:
  1. Dire situation crops up.
  2. Canny, ultra-capable agents with magical gadgetry set up their plan in an attempt to avert disaster. 
  3. Something unexpected ruins the plan.
  4. Canny agents pull off superhuman alterations to the plan in flight.
  5. Everything STILL goes wrong.
  6. Rinse and repeat.
At this point, sometimes the entire plan fails and somebody dies.  Sometimes the plan turns out not to matter.  Sometimes, they manage to adjust enough so things don't fall completely apart.  The chaos factor is a major appeal in this kind of movie.  No matter how good you are, you have to deal with reality on the ground and with stakes this high, bad things happen and you simply cannot stop all of them.  This turns out to be one of the main themes the filmmakers set out to explore (see below).

It's not about you, Tom Cruise

When the series of Mission Impossible movies first came out, many fans of the original series complained that the movies failed to capture the criticality of teamwork.  As the movies went on, they added a sort of "team", most of which was there in a support role (or worse, as comic relief).

This film centers around the action of Tom Cruise's character, but makes it abundantly clear that if Cruise loses his team, the mission is over.  Not merely at the climax of the film, but at several important junctures, Cruise attempts to jettison his team, partly because he doesn't trust one of them, partly because he doesn't want to further endanger them.  But in each of these cases, he runs into a brick wall.  He simply cannot function without his team.

Gadgets fail.  Plans derail.  All you've got are the people with you, and they aren't perfect either.

The filmmakers even managed to give each of the other agents subplots and interesting roles to play, even while Cruise gets the best action sequences (which also means he takes the biggest beatings, see above).  At the end of the movie, when the dust has settled, Cruise comes out and says it.  "Nothing went right during any of our missions.  In fact, the only thing that did work properly was this team."

Good stuff, Hollywood.  If you can't come up with anything original, then I suppose I'll take this instead.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quote: G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

From G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.