Monday, 25 April 2016

The Innsmouth Tarot, Part 1 - The Major Arcana 1

Much speculation has arisen over the nature of Captain Abner Exekiel Hoag’s connexion to the religious inner life of the South-seas Islands, particularly of the Carolinas. As well, commentators have discussed the captain’s relationship with his “servant” Yogash. Not a lot of discussion has been entered upon concerning his grand-daughter, Beverly Hoag Adams, but perhaps the time has come to open that Pandora’s Box and to see what lies inside.

The spur for such an investigation arises from several discrete collections in the archives of the Miskatonic University English Department and of the Anthropology Faculty which – until recently – have not been placed together and examined in context. These consist, in the main, of several small chapbooks – recipes and collections of home cures for various illnesses – written in manuscript by various New England “cunning folk” who plied their remedies in lieu of a ready availability of medical personnel.

Most of these books date from the mid- to late-1700s onwards, up until the early Twentieth Century. While many of the superstitions and ritual lore contained within their pages is typical of that which proliferated along the Eastern seaboard of the United States at that time, there are undertones of a distinct tradition localised in the New England nexus, which cannot be ignored.

The main focus of this tradition lies in collections of small squares and rectangles of card which have been found throughout the region. These – often re-used – pieces of paper and cardboard are inscribed with certain descriptions and are generally illustrated, mostly in a quite crude fashion. The discovery of 17 of these cards, partially burnt and hidden beneath the floor of the Kester Library in Salem, has linked the phenomena, however tentatively, to Beverly Hoag Adams and her efforts to place the discoveries of her grandfather into the public domain.

With the correlation of these collections and an examination of the iconography and the information contained in the “cunning books”, it has become clear that a tradition of divination using cards – often called “Tarot cards” – proliferated throughout the region, probably in tandem with the surreptitious circulation of Captain Hoag’s manuscript version of The Ponape Scriptures.

Many of the card images are lost to time, as there are gaps in the available evidence. However, the intent of the authors’ can be reconstructed from written descriptions of the cards within the chapbooks and also from a set of well-used cards which were unearthed in Newburyport, where the owner had eschewed artistic depictions for simple written descriptions.

The Miskatonic University Press has proudly championed the investigation of this native folk-art tradition from its home region and, using the skills of the various faculties involved and the talents of various Arkham-based illustrators and artists, has issued its own set of these fascinating cards for the edification of folklorists and local historians. We hope you enjoy that which we have entitled,

The Innsmouth Tarot


The Major Arcana:

Card 0 – The Deep

Within the extant versions of the cards which have been discovered, there are various methods of portraying the nature of this card. The Newburyport Set simply writes the name of the card, along with the Greek symbols for Alpha and Omega; the Kester Library Set uses a fairly specific hieroglyph (see below) while other cards and some of the books use a simple wavy line to indicate the surface of an ocean.

The purpose of this card is to represent the notion of a beginning, or of an emerging force or presence: the depths are unknown and unknowable and are the start of many phenomena or processes. The sense of this card is that of the Questioner being on the edge of something new; at the beginning of a new life phase. Things are uncrystallised and not yet formed, but soon all will be revealed.

Inverted: The inverse meaning of the The Deep, is unpreparedness, or folly; fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to change, or to commit. The depths are hazardous and to brave them without adequate preparation is madness. In this sense, the beginning is also, often, the end.

Card I – The Wizard, or Metaphysician

Having recognised the imminent emergence of a new force or presence, the Questioner becomes prepared. Burdened with knowledge, weapons and arcane skill, the Questioner makes ready to do battle, or to understand. There is a sense of limit to this card: the Wizard may be lord of that which he surveys, but his scope is narrow, restricted to his home ground. His knowledge is highly focussed, not wide-ranging; useful in certain engagements but not all. Good at what he knows, his skill may seem impressive to the novice; but it will not serve in the long term.

Until the connexion was made that these cards were a means of divination, one of them languished in small chapbook held in the Newburyport Historical Society and was long thought to be merely a bookmark. It depicts a man in the clothes of an Eighteenth Century judge of the Puritan type. The image was thought to be a possible likeness of Cotton Mather; however, we now know that it represents a metaphysical practitioner, or wizard, and once was part of a larger set of cards, now lost.

Inverted: When upside-down, the Wizard is a charlatan, one who preys on the innocence of others, an impostor with false knowledge. He represents insecurity and unwise counsel.

Card II – The Witch

The Witch represents a state of acceptance: whilst the Wizard merely manipulates the framework of the cosmos, the Witch realises her place within that scheme and acknowledges her part in it. In this sense, she is a greater – although still a novitiate – part of reality. Her insight is greater and her belief is stronger: she represents not only her own goals and desires, but also those of a wider community.

When upright, this card represents artistic inspiration, a positive feminine influence, or the gaining of spiritual insight. In some instances it can indicate celibacy or a state of impatience.

There are no extant cards which depict or describe the iconography of this card, although several of the grimoires make mention of it. As Cotton Mather and the other puritan judges of the Salem witch trials seem to have been an inspiration for the Wizard card, it has made sense to have this card portray one of the victims of that series of legal aberrations.

Inverted: The inverted meaning of this card is passivity; egoism, ignorance and incomprehension; an erroneous judgement. It can also indicate a change of profession or of falling under a negative feminine influence.

Card III – Mother Hydra

In the mythology of the Innsmouth tarot, Mother Hydra is represented as the unseen presence behind Father Dagon, the yin to his yang. The inspiration for this card and its partner (Father Dagon) comes directly from the Kester Library Set which shows the pair as unambiguously alien, although pelagic, beings. This image heralds the beginning of the more bizarre, alien and monstrous beings which comprise this cycle of lore.

Fundamentally, the meaning associated with this card is intelligence. In some readings it may indicate the presence of a mother, sister, or some other female figure of influence, but the association is always that of an advisor, or source of knowledge. The intention of the card is not a passive one: this is sagacity put to some purpose; an ideal, or course of action; it also suggests fecundity, or the realisation of a goal.

Inverted: Upside-down, this card represents poverty in all senses – material, emotional, spiritual and intellectual. Its presence signals anxiety and hesitation, the inability to make a decision or to take a course of action. It can also indicate a coquette, or false flatterer.

Card IV – Father Dagon

The twin card to Mother Hydra is her mate, Father Dagon. Dagon is best known to the wider world from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

“Dagon his name, sea-monster, upward man
And downward fish; yet had his temple high
Reared in Azotus, dreaded through the coast
Of Palestine, in Gath and Ascalon,
And Accaron and Gaza's frontier bounds...”

The image of Dagon in the Kester Library Set accords strongly with this description and indicates the degree of antiquity which is associated with this lore.

Father Dagon primarily symbolises energy, or power. Mother Hydra represents the ability to channel, or direct, energy; Father Dagon embodies the power itself. Paradoxically, while this card represents earthly power and a combative force, it also stands for security and protection, the maintenance of stability. Depending upon where the card appears in a reading, it can represent the presence of a father, son, or some other masculine influence.

Inverted: When inverted within a spread, Father Dagon stands primarily for a lack of strength. However, it can also symbolise power used immaturely, or with a lack of conscience and consideration. In some instances, it represents a malicious, or cruel, man.

Card V – The High Priest

The High Priest is the flip-side of the Witch. While the Witch is intrinsically involved in the true nature of the world, the High Priest actively engages with it in an exoteric sense. Put simply, the Witch is being while the High Priest is doing.

The Kester Library Set has an image of a kneeling figure in the midst of some ritual event which provides the basis for this card’s iconography. The Newburyport Set contains a short written script, a familiar piece of doggerel found in the Invocations to Dagon and other similar sources:

“O Great Kutulu, Dreamer in Rillye
I am Thy priest and adore Thee.

This card represents the adoption of a disciplined lifestyle either religious or possibly scientific; it may represent counsel, assistance of information received from such a quarter. Either way, it betokens wise and sound advice and, above all, mercy. The High Priest also symbolises strong emotions, free of sentimentality. It can foreshadow a ritual observance or a secret revealed. It indicates that the Questioner has or is about to gain an insight into Destiny.

Inverted: When placed upside-down, the High Priest symbolises a digression from the true path, either through a sudden loss of faith or an inability to clearly see the way forward. It speaks of unwise counsel and decisions made without a full weighing of the circumstances. It reveals powerlessness and a loss of forward impetus, causing weakness and a slide into decadence. A loss of faith or vocation.


To Be Continued...

Ironfest 2016

I’ve been going to this local event for a few years now and it always rewards attendance – there’s always something spectacular happening, something kooky, or something very cool. In this regard, this year’s offering – themed “The Holy Grail” – didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, there were other reasons for my chagrin.

From the first time I wandered through this community of creativity, I’ve always thought that it would be fun to be a participant instead of just an onlooker, and this year I made definite steps towards achieving that goal. Accordingly, I convinced my boss to join forces with other bookshops up here in the ‘Mountains and stick our toes in the water in no uncertain terms. The reasons for teaming up were manifold and included many sub-headings including access to equipment and adequate insurance; but the main reason was to test the saleability of the widest range of goods, from new and commercial to secondhand and antiquarian. It turned out that stock wasn’t an issue.

We haggled to get a spot inside the pavilion, beating off an attempt to place all the booksellers into a “book ghetto” alongside the showground – our merchandise ranged from the relatively inexpensive to the wildly unaffordable, and we weren’t interested in exposing any of it to the elements. Being inside was our best option: the only other bookseller who shows up to the event sources his wares from the local charity shops and, in past years when it’s rained, I’ve seen him just shrug his shoulders as the damp penetrated his tent and turned his stock to papier machĂ©. Of course, well-thumbed books aren’t the only things that he sells and so he prioritises the books very lowly.

The event covered three days (or rather, two-and-a-half) from Friday through to Sunday, so we figured, what with the changeable nature of Autumn in these parts, we might have days when the weather kept the punters outdoors and days when the weather drove them inside – the experiment demanded that we cover all eventualities. As it turned out we saw the results of a range of meteorology. Myself being the only driver in our crowd, I spent much of the weekend in the car driving to and from Lithgow, hauling stock about the landscape. There were early mornings (where the only coffee options were of the McDonald’s variety – shudder!) and late evenings and I’m still working off my sleep debt.

There was only one thing which we hadn’t counted on – greed.

In past years, I’ve noticed the slow incremental climb of the admission charge imposed by the organisers – last year’s entry fee almost had me baulking, but I’d dragged friends from Sydney so backing out wasn’t an option. This year my admission was free as part of our stallholder’s levy, but as the event unfolded, I soon heard much grumbling from the attendees. As it transpired, the gate charge had jumped again and there was also a surprise $5 parking fee for anyone who’d had the temerity to drive to the event. The family entry price had become regulated – no more would it cover a handful of adults with a bunch of kids in tow; now it only applied if you were two adults with two kids: dads taking their sons out for the day to see the tanks were in for a rude shock. Essentially, if you took your family to Ironfest this year, getting in the front door would be an outlay of at least $100. And that’s before you start to think about food and drinks or the petrol you spent getting there.

I talked to many people across the three days: stallholders, punters, re-enactors and event staff. Numbers were up: more people came through the gate than had ever attended previously; no-one however, was buying anything. I shifted gears into “hard-sell mode” and practically drove people into our stall to examine the books; at the end of the weekend, we covered our stall fees and very little else with a pitiful number of sales. Once every potential purchaser had had their wallet hoovered at the front gate, there was very little reason for anyone to try and sell them their merchandise.

It was crazy. I had people sighing over books I was offering for sale at prices no-one would think twice about paying and putting them back down. No-one could afford to cough up $10 for a 1910 copy of Wells’s The Invisible Man, let alone $1,000 for a limited edition luxury printing of Le Morte d’Arthur, illustrated and decorated by Aubrey Beardsley. In past years I’d seen people drop $2,500 on a whim for a suit of metal armour; nothing doing this year.

I should have predicted this: in the weeks leading up to the event I sounded out random people I encountered, checking their ideas about Ironfest and what they expected from it. The first thing I noticed was that no-one realised it was on, and – truth be told – there was very little going on in the way of advertising in the local community: a few handmade cardboard signs tacked up alongside the Great Western Highway cannot seriously be called “advertising”. More professional signs and brochures materialised in the last few days before the weekend but it all seemed to be a case of too little, too late. Some few folks I spoke to seemed keen to check it out; mostly, the response I got was “Ironfest? That’s very expensive, isn’t it?”

I assume the organisers of Ironfest live large off the annual earnings of the event and see the yearly gate charge as simply being in line with the CPI or some other theoretical economic construct. If so, then more strength to them: Lithgow is by no means an affluent part of the world and the paltry sums that they spent on advertising in the lead-up to this year’s event show just how little they’re prepared to relinquish of their hard-earned. However, they appear to have reached, and surpassed, a tipping-point beyond which things will start to go backwards for them. I’m willing to bet that next year’s numbers will be well down on this year’s.

As for our experiment, all the stores involved will necessarily look upon this as a misuse of resources and a waste of time and effort. We all agreed, going in, that it was a case of “suck it and see” but nothing we unearthed could impel us to repeat the exercise. At best, it was a weekend of free promotion, so there’s that.

On the morning of the second day, I left the pavilion before the gates opened to try and rustle up last minute coffees. I was about to take a photo of my fellow stallholders setting up when I noticed a small gathering of people on the lawn in front of me, engaged in a solemn moment. I decided not to snap them until I could work out what they were doing and I’m glad I did. It turned out that they were scattering the ashes of a friend who had found their spiritual raison d’ĂȘtre at Ironfest. I think it was at that point that I knew the event was doomed. I was saddened by the fact that the organisers had slaughtered their golden goose and that this community of believers - along with many others - was about to be cast into the wilderness for tawdry economic concerns. Several people mentioned that there were other “steampunk-themed artisanal events” opening up around the country in the wake of Ironfest’s success, particularly in Goulburn at an old Victorian-era water pumping station there; I assume that the recreationist community will be pushed to these ever more minute and far-flung happenings as the bigger events bog down in monetary concerns, as they always have in the past. Ironfest has become an indicator of what’s possible; mismanagement seems to have driven it right off the rails.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

“PRESTON, Lincoln”, The Cabinet of Curiosities, HarperCollins Publishers Pty. Ltd., Pymble, NSW, Australia, 2003.

Octavo; paperback; 464pp. Rolled; mild wear to the covers; spine creased; text block edges toned. Good.

Whenever I want to snuggle down for a comfy evening, my movie of choice is “The Relic”. As I’ve said before, it’s a well-written flick that benefits from having a solid architecture. The performances vary considerably but I’m prepared to overlook a lot for the sake of a film that puts substance before spectacle. I’ve never been able to find a copy of the book that this film was based on but I’ve met a fellow fan and Scott has kindly lent me a copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities by Lincoln Preston and I’m now getting an insight into the very genome behind “The Relic’s” phenotype.

Let me just reveal an interesting factoid before we continue: ‘Lincoln Preston’ is not a single individual; it’s two authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child writing as one. The ability to do this has always intrigued me: a collaborative effort requires a lot of give and take and I’m not sure that I could work with someone else to successfully pull something like this off. I’ve had opportunities (which unfortunately came to nothing early on) and I’d like to think that I’m open to the creative process, but it’s never really happened. So, kudos to these two guys for making a go of it! (I’m wondering how they decided whose name would go first...?)

As is typical in transferring any printed story to celluloid, there are excesses which get trimmed. One of these is an FBI investigator called Pendergast who is just too corny to be true. The other is an annoying reporter called Smithback who is a consummate knob. My discussions with Scott inform me that they’re both in the print version of The Relic and I’m so glad they were relegated. Nevertheless, here they both are in Cabinet and I’m having to deal with them...

Pendergast is that worst type of fictional literary character – a tricked-out blank slate ready for anything to be assigned to it. On the one hand, he’s glaringly obvious – white skin, hair, and eyes, in a black suit, driving a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith in New York (!) – but we never know anything about him. Why the hell doesn’t one of the other characters call FBI headquarters and get an explanation as to what he’s doing?! Because that would be too easy and the authors don’t want us to go there. He’s just too cool for school and he grates – he has the inside track on everything and he never tells anyone anything. Frankly, if I was one of the other characters in this tale I’d tell him where to get off: people like this don’t exist, and I wonder what made the authors think he was a good idea?

In detective fiction, many authors assemble their chief sleuth from a range of tics and mannerisms which they feel their readership will find interesting: Poirot has a symmetry issue; Alleyne has a name which no-one can pronounce; Campion is a pair of spectacles in front of a myriad bizarre twitches that leave him barely human. Generally, these extremes calm down into something workable after a few turns around the block. Not so Agent Pendergast: he’s a non-albino albino in a black suit with a hatred of bureaucracy, and yet working for a Bureau, who always seems to know what’s going on while no-one else has a clue. His metatextual premise is shaky and it’s easy to see why he got the chop.

On the other hand the reporter is a complete buffoon. Each time he uses his ‘journalism powers’ he gets nowhere; whenever he climbs over, or up, something to access information he sends everything pear-shaped. While he is referenced as a major player in the novel version of “The Relic”, he’s a walking target in this story: his journalistic strivings earn him the hatred of his girlfriend, his boss, his fellow journalists, the public at large, and they finally get him (almost) killed.

What that leaves us with is a story remarkably similar to “The Relic”. It’s set in a natural history museum; there are a bunch of scientists competing for a very small pool of funding in an institution increasingly focussed upon box-office draw; there is a female scientist annoyed at the fact of her life’s work being sidelined by cash-flow issues; there is Victorian-era architecture facilitating present-day mayhem. I hate to say it, but Lincoln Preston seems to be a one-trick pony at bottom. They manifest some interesting premises but they all seem to be overlain on the same fundamental substrate.

Nevertheless, there is some fascinating research on view. The Victorian notion of ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ – private collections of natural history material amassed by gentlemen collectors without formal education (for the most part) – is quite interesting, along with the notion that these collections were all bought up by the Natural History Museum of New York after that free institution was established. The parade of freaks and curiosities lends a pleasing tone to the narrative.

However. The Relic is a story about a monster loose in a museum. The Cabinet of Curiosities is a story about a serial killer loose in a museum. There’s a pattern here - same-old, same-old - but one which the authors nevertheless utilise well.

What bothers me is that between The Relic and The Cabinet of Curiosities is another novel – The Reliquary. Surely they can’t do the same gag three times? From what I’ve been able to ascertain, I’m thinking that maybe they can. And that they did. Maybe it’s because we all live in an era where readers don’t want ‘new’ as opposed to ‘more’; ‘new’ Poirot tales are being written (despite the fact that Agatha Christie killed him off so that there would be no more Poirot). But even if the premise is engaging, to my mind it shouldn’t be used over and over again.

Perhaps this is a case of writing what you know. These guys know museums – how they’re funded, how they’re organised, what makes them tick. They also know human anatomy, since every corpse or other instance of gory revelation is buried beneath a mountain of medical jargon (in a good way!). Reading some of these descriptions, I had a flashback to the movie and the scene with the coroner giving a technical description of the mutilated security guard’s body – she’s my favourite character in the film, by the way. The minutia of technical detail in these descriptions lends a detached and chilly atmosphere to them making them somehow more terrible and thus, more effective.

The Cabinet of Curiosities involves a search for a serial killer who likes to surgically remove the lower spine of his victims while they’re still alive. It transpires that he uses part of the anatomised material to make a substance which – he feels – will indefinitely extend his lifespan with regular applications. As the evidence unfolds, it becomes a distinct possibility that the killer has been at work for about 130 years and isn’t slowing down at all. Our heroes try various methods to try and unearth the criminal – including Pendergast’s ability to ‘super-saturate’ himself with historical facts and mentally recreate in his mind an exact replica of 1890s New York wherein to unearth clues (!) – and almost all of them are successful, whereas the stalwart police force turn up squat. The final chapters are a fevered chase through an eponymous cabinet of curiosities, trying to defeat the killer while not being broken down for parts.

The execution of all this is handled deftly but unimaginatively, plodding through to the bitter conclusion. In a way, the authors shoot themselves in the foot: they want the cops out of the way at the end, and they want the reader constantly guessing who the villain will turn out to be. To this end, they make every policeman and likely candidate for Bad Guy as unpleasant as they can: in the final analysis, I was hoping they’d all die – my sympathies were with nobody. On the heroes’ side, what with the officious FBI cipher and the journalistic no-hoper, the team consists of Dr. Nora Kelly who spends her time being annoyed and cranky, and O’Shaughnessy a New York Irish cop who gets killed. Horribly. This last guy is such a lazy stereotype that it’s embarrassing: no quantity of background characters saying “who’d believe it? An actual Irish New York cop?” can take the curse off this. The irony lies in pointing out the attempt to be ironic.

(As an aside, I’ve noticed that these guys have a trick when sketching out police characters. They make these characters ‘a policeman who...’ In “The Relic”, there are the ‘coffee cops’ – ‘policemen who like lattes’; in this book, there’s O’Shaughnessey, a ‘policeman who likes opera’. See? It’s easy, and almost writes itself...!)

Anyway all of these unlikeable characters wend their tortuous way towards the finale and it’s a relief to be at the end at last. I had flashbacks to Patricia Cornwall – at some point her plots became so insanely and pointlessly byzantine and unbelievable that just turning the page to feel the mechanical effort of moving towards the end was its own reward. Like James Herbert writing ghost stories about ghosts hiring psychic investigators to help them haunt other ghosts, the whole thing just becomes too overwrought and highly-strung. I have the distinct feeling that I’ve come in at the end of a highly developed plot-line and that I’m missing the point – like jumping in to “Game of Thrones” at season six. Although I now realise that it’s going to be just an airport potboiler, I’m still keen to read The Relic; this exercise has shone a light into the inner workings of one of my favourite films but I’m less keen to track my way backwards to The Reliquary. Maybe if I have a day or two with absolutely nothing better to do...

Two Tentacled Horrors (sorry Scott!).