Sunday, October 29, 2017



That's what the billboard says, anyway. If you travel southbound on I-65 in Indiana, just south of Merrillville you'll drive past the sign. I used to see it all the time. Then again, you really can't miss it.

Hell has been on my mind for several months now. As Halloween approaches, I'm thinking about Hell from the perspective of a writer. You see, horror fiction, like many other genres of writing, seems to go in cycles. Right now, you can't swing a dead bat without hitting an old and tired zombie trope. In the 1990s it seemed like vampires were everywhere. What many forget though is that 1970s horror fiction belonged to Hell. Hell and it's most famous resident, Satan. The centerpiece example of this is quite likely William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. So much has been said about that book and the ensuing monumental film that I'm going to devote my attention to other texts.

How long have we been writing about Hell?

Long before the Bible was ever composed, Gilgamesh journeyed to the underworld of the dead, a Hell of its own sort. Odysseus crossed the River Styx in The Odyssey and Aeneas, shocker, did the same thereafter. The Hell of those traditions comes off as a dark place of death but with not much going on in it. That's bad enough, but then Bible comes along with, among other descriptions of Hell, the "lake of fire" from the Book of Revelations. It's from this source that Western tradition comes to view Hell as a place of burning and flame and great suffering.

John Milton seized upon this image for his epic poem, Paradise Lost. In it, Satan leads an army of rebel angels against God...and loses badly. The insurrectionists are cast out into the newly created pit of Hell, where Satan and his fallen angels build Pandemonium amid the lake of fire. "Far better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," Satan promises his followers. Hell's gate is guarded by Sin, Satan's daughter. In Book 10 a bridge is built from Hell to Earth by Sin and Death after the Fall of Man, which has been caused by Satan, while the fallen angels are turned into snakes.

Long before Milton, however, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. It's first of three acts, The Inferno, is probably the most famous and widely-read of the text, suggesting that readers are far more interested in Hell than either Purgatory or Paradise, but that's a whole 'nother matter. Inferno also is something of a departure from the standard, "everything is burning" depiction of Hell. In Inferno, Dante offers a sophisticated and judicious arrangement of eternal suffering. Hell is systematically divided in thematic tortures for crimes of the same nature in its Nine Circles, for example people who were violent against others are trapped in the Seventh Circle of Hell in a boiling river of blood with centaurs firing arrows to keep them in their place.

Then there's Ulysses by James Joyce. While Joyce's depiction of Dublin is in no way connected to Hell, I have recently spoken with a scholar of English Literature who insists that the very experience of reading this book should be listed in any description of Hell. As I am still intimidated by this book and have yet to fully dive into it, I cannot endorse that interpretation of the text. However, the professor does not appear to be a lone wolf in the wilderness on the matter, either. Joyce's long-regarded masterpiece is complicated, twisty, and at times nonsensical.

Joking aside, all of the above has accumulated into a sort of "communal perception" of what Hell must be like, should it exist. As for my own image of Hell, well it's a complicated amalgamation of my Catholic upbringing and album covers from my youth, To wit:

Naturally, it seems that writers are far more taken with Hell's ruler than with Hell as a physical landscape and more has been written on the former than the latter. Why not? Can you find a more powerful, more menacing antagonist for your hapless characters than Satan? Dennis Wheatley didn't think so. Wheatley was prolific writer of fiction dealing with black magic and the occult. His book The Devil Rides Out features English gentry discovering that one of their own is a Satan worshiper. This results in a black mass on the Salisbury Plain and later a country house besieged by demonic forces. There was also To the Devil a Daughter, wherein a writer (we're always the good guys) fights to save the soul of a young girl kidnapped by a Satanic cult headed by a former priest. Both of these books were made into films in the 1970s by Hammer Studios and both starred the inimitable Christopher Lee.

As I said, the 1970s were a time of renewed fear of, and honestly fascination with, Hell, psychomancy, and demonic forces. Aside from the crown jewel, The Exorcist, The Omen is probably the greatest example of this fascination. It stars Gregory Peck as the American ambassador to England who gradually puts together the fact that his son is not really his son, but the Antichrist.The aforementioned Hammer Studios even got their version of Dracula in on the scene. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula. a Satanic cult seeks not to summon the dark lord of the underworld, but Dracula instead. Comic book writers were quick to cash in on this trend as well.

The character on the cover of that collection is Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan. The moniker pretty much says it all. He hates his father and works against him, leading to one of the premiere explorations of "daddy issues" in the comic book medium.

Of course many of the more interesting explorations of Hell are those that are said to have actually happened. These include numerous accounts of paranormal activity, such as demonic possession. One of the more famous cases is likewise firmly cemented in the pop culture of the 1970s. The Amityville Horror case spawned both a book and a movie of the same name. The case is pretty much the quintessential, "get out of the house" haunted hose story, only there are pig demons involved plus a gateway to hell in the basement. Though based on a true story, this narrative has been widely discredited by many investigators. When "paranormal investigators" Ed and Lorraine Warren are involved, you can pretty much bet the whole thing is a hoax.

Then there's this old chestnut: geologists working in Siberia drilled too far and punched a hole right into Hell. Temperatures read in the range of 2,000 degrees and microphones recorded the screams of the tormented and the damned. I've heard these recordings and they are most unsettling. Good thing it's all a hoax. Although I do like this tidbit from Snopes:  "The legend of the “well to Hell” is one that particularly appeals to some Christian groups as offering confirmation that Hell (and therefore God) exists. Popular endings to the story have it that scientists (the symbols of atheism) ran screaming from the site in terror when confronted with such proof, or that since the discovery of Hell conversions to Christianity began occurring at an unprecedented rate."

Let us not forget the Jersey Devil, a "crytpid" said to lurk the wooded marshlands of New Jersey. There have been several sightings but no convincing evidence as to the veracity of this creature.  Paranormal lore states that the thing was actually born of woman in the 18th Century, a poor woman who while having her 13th child, cursed it in her pain and gave it to Satan. At least the deformed kid has a hockey team named after him.

If you want to read truly good nonfiction on the subject of Hell, check out American Exorcism by Michael Cuneo. It's a fascinating read and it will leave you thinking that demonic possession either is a complete falsehood or that it happens all the time.

So is the billboard right? Is Hell real? If our literary imaginations have any bearing on our perception of "real" then I would have to say yes. In fact, Hell may be purely a descriptor for a state of being.

After all, I've been in Hell for months now.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dollhouse diorama crime scenes

Above you will see a work of art by Frances Glessner Lee.

It also happens to be a perfect depiction of an actual crime scene...right down to the last detail.

Lee is known as "the mother of forensics." She grew frustrated that professionals often acted on hunches and neglected to take in every available piece of evidence at a crime scene. This was due in part, she believed, to a serious lack of training tools. To rectify this, she applied her unparalleled skill at creating miniatures and created replica dioramas for real-life crime scenes.

Over at Atlas Obscura, you can see for yourself just how amazingly detailed these dioramas are. There are tiny pegs for hanging coats, there are magazines and newspapers with small but still readable print, there are wedding photos on display and the like. Even more amazing is the fact that the features on the furniture and such actually work. Drawers can be pulled from dressers, a rocking horse rocks, and locks on doors are fully functional. Not one bit of deadwood. No detail could be spared, otherwise how else were budding forensic specialists to learn? From Atlas Obscura:

"According to Kimberlee Moran, Director of Forensics at Rutgers University, both the level of detail and the form are fundamental to teaching necessary skills. “With dioramas fortunately you can’t move things around and mess things up like you could an actual scene or a staged scene, so they’re teaching documentation skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and observation.” "

I've written before about my odd fondness for dioramas and I'm certainly fascinated by Lee's. At the same time, however, I do get a grim sense in my head and a queasy feeling in my gut for I know what they represent. No matter. Lee was doing a great public service. Not purely for advancing forensic science, but the pure act of fostering critical thinking and deductive observation contributed much to academics. And my goodness, the sheer level of her skill present in painting, sewing, and so many other creative talents. Additionally, keep in mind that Lee achieved all of these accomplishments at a time when women were expected to remain in purely domestic roles.

She serves as an inspiration to contemporary artists, academics, and forensics alike.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Total body replacement

On a rainy Saturday in a university library, my reverie went astray.

What if I, somehow. became fully posthuman? What would life be like?
A few parameters for what I'm about to write:

First, there are few books you should eventually read to get the most out of what I'm about to describe. The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil and The Transhumanist Reader edited by Natasha Vita-More and Max More are both essential reading on the subject.

Secondly, this post is not entertaining "Wellwhatabouts" and "What ifs." Naturally there are many and I've never shied away from them. Heck as I'm blogging this, TCM is showing The Curse of Frankenstein. A warning or just seasonal fare? Anyway, I'm not interested in any contrarian sparring at this moment. I'm trying to provide positives before a successive post on the negatives.

As I've said many times before, this is nothing new. Gilgamesh searched an elixir that would allow him to overcome the greatest of human frailties: death. Dante used the term transumanare in The Divine Comedy to mean, "to pass beyond the human." While he didn't mean by the application of technologies, Nietzsche saw humans as something to be overcome, asking "What have you done to overcome him?" That latter point, to my way of thinking, is the purpose of posthumanism. To overcome. More on that in a moment.

In his essay, "Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up," Max More identifies three categories of the human condition to consider:

1. Healthspan. This means being fully active, healthy and productive mentally and physically.
2. Cognition. The capacity to remember and to analyze.
3. Emotion. The capacity to react and enjoy.

Posthumanism is the ability to go beyond what is humanly possible in any or all of those categories. To me, it means overcoming the inherent limitations and to finally have control. It is my life, my body, and my mind. If the means exist, why should I not have the right modify what I am to my own desires? Sure, you can argue that we do have control through practices such as diet, exercise, medicine, meditation, and all that rot. But they are inefficient and in the end they are illusory. I don't care how many weights you lift and how much kale you stuff down, you will eventually meet your end. It just takes the right disease or injury or the mere ravages of time. You think you have control, but I'm sorry. You don't. On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

I then began to contemplate how my life would be different if I did have complete and total technological replacement in these three domains.

1. Physically. After the library last Saturday, I got my hair cut. They placed a black, vinyl shroud over my midsection and all I saw was gray hair falling upon it. It sickened me. What could I do to stop it? I mean truly eradicate it? Biosculpture. Better yet, mind upload into an artificial body. No more stomach problems. No more inefficient wastes of time as I brush to keep my teeth clean and my breath fresh, or swabbing skin and applying creams to fight off acne and wrinkles. I can at last eradicate my awful flaws. Want to fire me? Fine. I don't need to eat. I don't need shelter. I don't get cold. I don't get hungry. I don't get tired. I don't get sick. Something broke down? I simply replace it with a new component.

2. Mentally. This is the most tantalizing to me. I nearly salivate at the idea of rapidly correlating vast amounts of information and seeing patterns my meat-brain is currently incapable of. No more data corruption of memory with age. I was saying today that I feel I have long since lost my creativity. It's almost a foreign concept to me. With an enhanced mind, I wonder if I could reclaim it and then some. Which leads me to...

3. Emotionally. I realize that creativity is connected in several ways to emotion. "You need suffering for your art." Perhaps. Even so, I covet the ability to switch off emotions. To feel nothing, especially after the past ten month, would be a complete and total sense of relief. Inhuman you say? Posthuman I say. Laugh all you want about the Vulcan mentality but to me it sounds like bliss of its own kind. At this point I just want the option. I want control. If I must have this body and this mind, I at least want my hands on the source code to decide what I want to do with it.

I am not even considering any of the "superhuman" add-ons that might be possible. For the time being I would be satisfied with total control.Why be confined to an outdated and purely philosophical notion of what "humanity" should be?

I say it can be anything we want it to be.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 12, 2017

DeLonge, Disclosure, and Doubt

There has been a bit of excitement in the UFO community.

Yesterday saw the market debut of To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTS/AAS). Leslie Kean, an investigative journalist who deserves every little bit of respect she gets, covered the event for the Huffington Post.

“We believe there are discoveries within our reach that will revolutionize the human experience,” says company President and CEO Tom DeLonge.

Yes. That guy from Blink-182.

Most of the buzz was due to the fact that former members of the U.S. intelligence community were present at the debut. One of them was Luis Elizondo, a man who has worked for the Department of Defense, the National Counterintelligence Executive, and the Director of National Intelligence, and an arm-long list of other intelligence posts. He is also the former Director of Programs to investigate Unidentified Aerial Threats for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. What exactly did that latter post entail? He said he ran “a sensitive aerospace threat identification program focusing on unidentified aerial technologies.”

As reported by George Knapp, a legendary UFO journalist in his own right, Elizondo said: "I ran a sensitive aerospace identification program focusing on unidentified aerial technologies. It was in this position that I learned the phenomena is indeed real."

Chris Mellon, a longtime Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, was also there and related an account of an alleged 2004 UFO encounter involving the USS Nimitz carrier battle group:

" “Two F-18s approach, the four aviators see that the object has no wings or exhaust — it is white, oblong, some 40 ft long and perhaps 12 ft thick”, he said. “One pilot pursues the craft while his wingman stays high. The pilots are astonished to see the object suddenly reorient itself toward the approaching F-18. In a series of discrete tumbling maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics, the object takes a position directly behind the approaching F-18.”

"The lengthy event occurred in broad daylight off the California coast, and gun camera footage was taken. At one point the object went from hovering at 80,000 feet to dropping at supersonic speeds, and came to a complete stop at 50 feet above the ocean. “More F-18’s are dispatched but with similar results,” Mellon stated. “The secret machine easily evades the F-18s. Dozens of military personnel aboard the various planes and ships involved are privy to these interactions.” "

Sounds familiar. 

In the wake of the event, Kean posted the following to her Facebook page:

"A MESSAGE FOR MY FRIENDS HERE: Folks, I'm concerned that some of you are missing the point. The head of a secret UFO program at the DOD has just come forward to confirm the existence of that program. Based on the work of this official program, he has stated for the world to hear, that UFOs are unquestionably real. He left that program less than 2 weeks ago. This is as close to official "disclosure" as we have come since the close of Project Blue Book. It's big news."

Indeed, many were jumping up and down and crying "disclosure at last!"

Yeah, I don't know.

Leslie Kean is quite level-headed, so to see her getting so excited does give me pause. I don't doubt the credentials of the men involved and I certainly do not question their knowledge or their service. The problem is that, yet again, what we have amounts to a collection of stories.

Anecdotal evidence, no matter who it's from, is not evidence.

Nothing physical, either biological or metallurgical, was presented for peer-reviewed study. The group promises to release photos and videos of UFOs that have been supposedly been kept under wraps. It's hard to see how this could qualify as evidence either as we live in the era of Photoshop, After Effects, and any number of other digital video FX applications. In the end, the world must see physical evidence or peer-reviewed data, such as astronomers announcing they've detected life on another planet.

Additionally, this whole thing just seems to be a way for DeLonge to kick off his business. The following was posted on his Facebook page:

That's right. The former guitarist/vocalist of Blink-182 is building a vehicle that will utterly defy the laws of physics and you are lucky enough to get in on the ground floor if you "INVEST."

Folks, when someone involved in Ufology starts begging for your cash, be wary. I know I am. It's just more reason why many view Ufology as laughable and moribund.

Speaking of exotic technology, that appears to be the focus of this new business as well as DeLonge's media franchise, Sekret Machines [sic]. I find it puzzling that there is more interest in the engineered devices (if they indeed be physical realities and not something more in line with Vallee's theories) than in who actually constructed them and why.

The testimonials intrigue me and Kean's endorsement, as I said, does give me pause. But this should be all about tangible evidence.

So far, DeLonge has yet to offer any.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 9, 2017

Before you dismiss fan fiction, consider this...

"It's like someone writing Star Trek fanfic."

That quip is from the comments section on an article about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery. Now in all fairness, I have not seen the show so I cannot speak to its quality or perhaps lack thereof. What's prompting me to blog tonight is that comment. Its author did not mean it as a compliment (shocker.) In a hurry to gleefully rip the new show, he tangentially smeared an entire genre of writing.

Fan fiction, I believe, actually serves an important cultural and rhetorical function.

Fan fiction, or "fanfic" as it is often abbreviated, is any writing based on an already established work of fiction, most often movies or TV. Stories based on properties such as Star Trek or Star Wars are probably the most prevalent, but you can find fanfic derived from the most obscure fictional universes. I personally have written fanfic based on my favorite b-movie, Green Slime...something maybe three other people in existence might be interested in. This kind of writing has been around for a long while, but the Internet given access and connection to so many writers and readers of the genre that it has almost become commonplace.

Exploring all the various flora, fauna, and subgenres of fan fiction, such as fusion, episode fixes, slash, wish fulfillment, and so on, would take multiple blog posts. I hate linking to Wikipedia, but if you want to know more about these subgenres, check out this rundown. Better yet...go read Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins and The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context by Sheenagh Pugh. They are probably the finest Comp/Rhet scholars on the subject.

Fan fiction is much maligned. It has the reputation of being truly awful writing done by slovenly types who still live in their parents' basement and sit behind their computers, either writing self-indulgent works rooted in their own favorite commercial properties or posting nitpicking comments on someone else's writing, attempting to act as a gatekeeper or "genre constraint enforcer" by schooling the author on what is and isn't "canon." Obviously there's some of that. The Internet is an inherently democratic medium and any time you open the gates that wide, you're going to get a fair share of trash. You are also going to get good work as well. Axiological arguments don't matter to me, though. That's because I believe there are two far more important things happening when people write fanfic.

First of all, people are writing. I mean, they are actually choosing to write. As a professor who has sometimes struggled to get students to string two words together or has lamented the devaluation of the written word, I think this is extraordinary. No one sits down to write unless they feel exigency. There is something inside them and they must get it out through writing. What's more, they are doing it without any realistic hope of attaining those two most American goals: fame and fortune. They're doing it simply because they want to. I don't care what is prompting someone to write this way. I'm just glad that it's happening. When I taught at St. Joe, I heard tell of a small underground of Harry Potter fanfic writers and the thought of it always made me smile.

Secondly, there is something so human going on. People are reclaiming their agency, their authority, their right to contribute to myth. Here's what I mean.

Someone could tell an assembled audience that they are going to read their own version of Jack and the Beanstalk. The storyteller might get a couple arched eyebrows, but likely nothing more than that and would be permitted to read on. If that same said storyteller were to say "I am going to read you my Batman story," the reaction might be different. "How are you qualified to write Batman?" "Do you work for DC Comics or Warner Brothers?" "That's a copyrighted property, you know. It doesn't belong to you."

Myths did not used to belong to only select collectives of the population. Everyone was involved in creating them. Everyone. It was an organic occurrence, involving everyone who either told the stories as oral tradition or wrote them down. The idea that someone had ownership over them would have seemed almost laughable in ancient Greece or Rome. Once business got more and more involved, that all changed of course.

Fan fiction takes away that spurious requirement of being "credentialed" before you are free to write a story. Selling the story and profiting from what began as someone else's creation, well that's something else entirely in our day and age and it really isn't a good idea. The pure act of writing the text however, that's something fundamental to our nature and no external authorities can keep that down for long.

You want to write a Harry Potter story? Do it. And do it in any way that you want to do it. Feel bad because it's not "your own?" Don't. Here's one comment I saw from a fanfic writer that really puts the matter in perspective:

"Sometimes I think I should be doing my own writing. Then I remember...I already am."

By the way, I once wrote a paper on myth and fanfic. Even presented it at a conference. I thought about expanding the paper and trying to publish it, but honestly there's nothing I could say that Jenkins and Pugh haven't already.

Why bother?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

We can forget it for you wholesale

What would you forget?

Neurologists have found that memories stored on the same neuron can be selectively erased. 

In snails, anyway. You may be balking already. Keep in mind that such experiments are conducted on simpler lifeforms as a sort of "proof of concept" and come's not like there haven't be other eyebrow arching neurological studies. Yes of course the human brain is magnitudes of order more complex than a snail's. For perspective, let's go to Michio Kaku:

The human mind as the most sophisticated object in the known universe, more powerful than any of our current computers. Factually inarguable, despite all the stupid things we do.

Point being, would the erasure of selected memories even be possible with something so complex? Unknown, but the procedure in its most basic form does work. One of the more interesting findings of the study is that the erasure of selected memories does not affect the other memories stored on the same neurons.

Imagine it. Erase the bad and leave only the good.

Why not forget your phobias and irrational fears? Erase your fear of heights and rent that deluxe aerie downtown. Pass sites of traumatic experiences with no stress or fuss. Be haunted no more by your mistakes of past shame. Think of what this could do for those suffering from PTSD.

But what of the consequences?

Despite how sexy a new development of this kind may sound, prudence dictates that we examine the potential pitfalls. Science fiction certainly has. Upon reading the above linked article, I immediately thought of Philip K. Dick. His short story "Paycheck" is about an electrical engineer who is contractually obligated to have his memory erased after working on a secret project. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the short story that became the film Total Recall (a favorite and probably Schwarzenegger's best) is about implanting memories, but not without its share of dire consequences nonetheless. Then again it begs the question: if you can erase, could you not implant?

That would likely be more difficult. As the study points out, the bad memories could be erased through a designer drug. For anything beyond erasure, it would likely require a direct brain-computer interface. Transhumanism once again.

Would you do it? Do you at last want to silence those ghosts and their screaming? Or do you need your pain? Does it guide you, inform your decisions, maybe even provide a sick sort of comfort?

I would argue that there are memories that deserve to be erased. I know exactly which ones I'd select.

Oh blissful amnesia...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets