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All the Pretty Vampires

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All the Pretty Vampires

Since the cover reveal for my upcoming book, Conspiracy of Angels, I've gotten a number of questions about the series -- what's it about? have you stopped writing non-fiction? who's that hot gal on the cover holding the big knife? -- but the most consistent question has been about vampires. Specifically, Will there be vampires in this series? The short answer, of course, is yes.

I mean, how could I not have vampires in my series? I've spent over two decades of my life hip-deep in the modern vampire community, appearing on everything from the History Channel to CNN to talk about it. I've lectured at universities around the country on vampires in fiction, folklore, and pop culture. And I've written foundational works on the phenomenon of psychic vampirism that have helped to shape an entire generation of practitioners. Vampires are, as they say, my thing.

On the other hand, expressly because I have done so much on vampires since the early 90s, I didn't want to make vampires the sole focus of the Shadowside world. So, while Zachary Westland's world definitely includes vampires, they are not the only things my main character encounters, nor does that main character sport fangs himself.

Fans of vampires in fiction will, I think, be delighted and intrigued with my take on this immortal archetype. I've held off talking about the vampires in the Shadowside series until now, however, because I'm not so certain what the vampire community itself is going to think. As a writer who addresses paranormal and supernatural topics in both my fiction and my non-fiction, I'm aware that, for some readers, the lines between real life and the story might seem blurry -- but those lines are not blurry for me.

Vampires

Certainly, in crafting the world of the Shadowside, I have drawn upon my extensive knowledge of psychic phenomenon, occult practices, and paranormal events. The verisimilitude that drives the Urban Fantasy genre is part of its allure to me as a writer -- the technique that weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft called "supernatural realism." Simply put, with supernatural realism, a generous commingling of facts wedded to the fantastic helps to make the fiction that much more immersive and exciting.

That said, the vampires in Conspiracy of Angels and the later books of the Shadowside series are not based off of anyone in the modern vampire community. Satire -- even self-satire -- was not my goal with this series. The vampires of the Shadowside instead draw upon the vampire archetype as it has been expressed in the time-honored fiction that I love. They have fangs. They drink blood. They wear their sunglasses after dark.

They do not sparkle.

The vampires of the Shadowside are not the good guys. Most are right bastards. They weave skeins and skeins of intrigue, manipulation, and betrayal -- because any being that long-lived would have to -- both in order to survive as well as to alleviate the boredom of an endless march of nights.

There is a distinctly monstrous element to my vampires, and while they make an effort to pass as human, they absolutely do not function on human rules -- as main character Zachary Westland discovers swiftly and to his detriment.

Of course, Zack isn't exactly your garden variety mortal either. As he learns more about who he is and what this means for him, he discovers that, even against ageless, scheming vampires, he can hold his own.

--M

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Never Look Away

Dream from last night. Putting it here. Current events, obviously, have been on my mind. ----------------------------------------------------

I am, quite suddenly, inside a wrecked vehicle. Some kind of SUV. I am a visitor or observer to this tragedy. I am sitting/hovering over where the driver should be. I am not the driver. The driver is dead. I have a vague awareness of his body in the bucket seat beneath me (although I do not physically intersect with that body). The front of him is covered with blood. It is clotting and slick, so dark in places, it's more like black pudding than blood.

There is a woman in the seat beside him. She is also dead. Her head lolls to the side by the window. There is blood spatter across part of the window, and there is a hole in the window, with the safety glass starred around it. There is blood all down her face. I can only see her one eye -- the right one -- it's open and staring. Her eye is dark brown. Her hair is black. Her skin is a deep brown. She looks to be in her twenties, maybe early thirties. I realize as I stare at her that she did not hit her head. She has been shot. At least one bullet caught her in the head, and there are flecks of things that shouldn't be on the outside of a body spattered on the window and a little on the headrest of her seat.

There is a dog in the car screaming, trapped somewhere on the floorboards. I can't see the dog, but I know that it's hurt badly. It screams without stopping -- a panicked, agonized, ugly noise, so loud and constant, I almost don't hear the woman in the backseat weeping and moaning and gulping for breath.

I turn in the driver's seat and I see the backseat passenger. She is an older black woman. Heavy-set. Her hair in braids, and while the whole of her hair isn't dyed blonde, some of it has been lightened, and it makes a pretty pattern in the braids, the faded blonde woven together with the brown.

This woman's skin is a different shade from the dead woman. Ashen. Perhaps because she's in shock. Her eyes are wide and her mouth hangs open as she stares at the dead woman in the seat. She is wailing and close to hyperventilating. There's something wrong with one of her legs -- she's right behind the driver, and I think his seat has been pushed back on her. She's wounded, perhaps trapped, but what has gutted her and riveted her to that seat more than any physical pain is the horror of seeing that younger woman slumped over in the front seat, the one eye staring at some point under the dash.

I think the younger woman may be her daughter.

I -- I am there and not there, not a physical presence, but perceptible. This often happens to me in dreams, especially dreams like this one, where I seem called to witness a terrible event.

I reach back to where the woman's hand rests on the shoulder of the driver's seat (there is a police officer at the wreck -- more than one, but I only see the black officer when he comes up to the passenger side of the vehicle). He breaks the window, yelling to shut that damned thing up. It's a dachshund mix, its back broken so the animal looks bent in half. It's out of its mind with pain, cringing at the feet of the woman in the front seat. When he sees it, he shoots it.

I know now where the bullet came from that killed the woman. Bullets. I think there were several fired -- I don't know what killed the driver. I never turn around to see the state of the windshield in front of him. I get the feeling the air bag didn't deploy, because of the state of his chest -- like the steering wheel smashed all his ribs. But there is so much blood on him, around him, I suspect he also has been shot, and this is why the vehicle wrecked.

The older woman -- I want to help her, feel compelled to ease some of her pain. And if she keeps staring at the dead woman in horror, I'm afraid she's going to slip further into shock.

I reach out my hand to touch her hand. When my fingers cover hers, she can see me. Her eyes flick in my direction.

I say, "Look away."

I mean it to be soothing. I mean for her to stop looking at the blood and the flecks of bone and brain.

She doesn't take it that way.

She meets my eyes with a fierce, proud, and unyielding passion. Her eyes are hazel, tipping toward green. In a low voice rough with tears but wrapped around steel, she says, "Don't you say that to me. I will look. I will memorize what she looks like in this moment. I will never blink or look away. To look away is to deny her death. Not this day."

The officer starts getting a door open then. I have no idea why shots were fired. I have no idea what started this, or how it ended. At her words, so full of determination and anger -- anger that I would even suggest she look away -- I begin withdrawing, chastened.

The dream fades. I wake with her words still lingering in my mind.

I will look.

--M

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Octobers Past

While digging through my hard drive in search of material for a new collection, I stumbled across several old journal entries. One in particular leapt out at me, as it was penned nearly ten years ago during one of my whirlwind vampire-themed tours in the month of October. It's little more than a snapshot of a few moments of calm where I could actually sit and reflect on my work and my life. October 30, 2005 Los Angeles

I'm standing on the veranda of the hotel watching the cars speed by. To my right, over the houses, I can see the rising hills of Hollywood. There are palm trees between the lanes of the streets and little Spanish houses of cream-colored stucco. It looks just like the movies.

We stopped for dinner at a little French bistro. Perhaps predictably, the prices were astronomical, although I felt a kind of soothing familiarity in the rapid patter of French between the waiters. My appetite was hardly prepared for the exoticism of escargot, but they advertised a boulangerie. Everything was whole foods and organic, but the loaves were huge and were just what I wanted. The clerk, in contrast to the waiters, stared blankly at me when I asked for un demi-pain aux noix -- even though nothing in the place was labeled in English. After three or four tries, I finally got my half-loaf, and we headed back to the hotel. The bread was thick and hearty, rich with sunflowers, dates, and molasses. As I chewed thoughtfully, Don asked, will that be enough for you? And I nodded my head. This was a bread that could be a meal in itself, and after a couple of mouthfuls I was full.

We had a long time to wait before Hex started. I was exhausted from the plane ride from Ohio, and so I laid back on the huge king size bed. Although I was used to traveling to California and experiencing a temperature difference of 30 to 40°, for once Hollywood was not much warmer than Ohio. The air was almost chilly, and I regretted leaving my elegant velvet cloak at home.

As I laid back upon the stiff comforter of the hotel bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought, "this is what my life has become." Traveling to a different city every weekend, sleeping in a different bed from week to week, living out of a suitcase. When Jay called, we talked in wonder as he walked through Central Park and I stared out at the hills of Hollywood. I had been in New York with him just the previous day. What a strange life this is turning out to be.

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For Tomorrow We Die

This is not a ghost story – not exactly. It is a story about the living and what the dead leave behind. It is, I suppose, also a story of childhood and the end of childhood – because childhood ends in that moment when, regardless of our age, we are faced with the sudden, bitter, and inescapable reality of personal loss.

In the world of paranormal investigation, it is far too easy to depersonalize ghosts and hauntings. The spirits we seek in the field are generally reduced to phenomenon – blips on our meters, voices that whisper between the static of recordings. But if we accept that a ghost is a human being surviving in some form beyond the boundary of physical death, then we also must accept that a ghost at some point had a life. The ghost was someone’s spouse or sibling or parent or child, and maybe all of these things to several different people. In short, a ghost was a person – and if the ghost continues to exist after death, then that ghost’s essential personhood also continues to exist after death. So, meet one of my ghosts. It doesn't matter when I saw him. The real story is how he touched my life.

The story starts in second grade. That was when I met his son, Eddie.

We did not begin life as friends.

I was in Mrs. Hatton’s class. He was in Miss Patsy’s – which seemed like it might as well have been another world, being located not only down the hall but at the other end of a whole flight of stairs. The only time students in the two classes intermingled was recess – an activity which I dreaded. I was never one of the cool kids in school. Quite the opposite. And throughout grade school, I suffered the unfortunate combination of being one of the smallest kids in my class as well as one of the smartest. Small meant I didn’t defend myself very well, and smart meant there was often a need to.

I didn’t usually get the names of the kids who terrorized me on the schoolyard. But in one incident, I did – or at least, I thought I did. I knew his first name was Eddie, and while he was chasing me around throwing stones and other small objects at my head, I heard one of the other kids call out his last name.

Last names were magic. Last names meant I could actually tell the teacher which of the many little monsters rampaging on the schoolyard was responsible for my skinned knee that particular week.

Bloody and sniffling, I went up to the recess monitor to tattle on my tormentor. She asked his name, and triumphantly, I said, “Eddie Bitch.”

Yeah, that happened. I didn’t know any better. That was what I’d heard. After sitting in the principle’s office for a while, I eventually learned that his name was, in fact, Eddie Birch – and that other word was something I probably shouldn’t repeat again in polite company.

Did I mention in addition to small and smart, I was also ridiculously sheltered? That made me ever so popular in school.

I recount this now because, years later when the real meat of this story happened, I really didn’t know why I’d been chosen. Eddie and I were not close. Once we’d survived the cruel vicissitudes of the earliest grades, we were no longer active enemies. But aside from attending the same church, I didn’t know Eddie all that well.

So it came as something of a surprise when his father started encouraging us to hang out together. In retrospect, I understand what was happening – Eddie was, in his own way, just as isolated as me. And his family life was nearly as unconventional as my own – I was the child of a single mother in the early seventies, being raised by my maternal grandmother, her older sister, and their younger brother. Eddie’s parents were divorced and he was being raised by his single father. I can’t begin to describe just how unusual that was in those days. When parents got divorced – if they got divorced – the kids almost always went to the mother. That was just how things worked. But there was Eddie, with a last name easily twisted into a word that would land you in the principle’s office for an afternoon, not merely from a broken home, but being raised by his dad.

And did I mention his dad was a biker?

The most shocking thing, really, looking back on it all, is that my grandmother actually agreed to us hanging out in the first place. I suspect my Great-Aunt Rita, always the advocate in getting me out of the house so I could socialize with other kids, had some influence in the matter. And I know for a fact that the shared religious background was the cincher. But, as unlikely as the pairing proved for all the things normally forbidden in my world, I was allowed on several occasions to spend time over at Eddie’s house playing Transformers and G.I. Joe or feeding carrots to the horse named Kat stabled near the back of his dad’s property.

Back in those days, my family always bought season passes to a local amusement park – Geauga Lake. It was a grand old park in Aurora, Ohio filled with roller coasters and water slides and enough spinning rides to make you dizzy for days. I loved it. Eddie came along a few times and we would run around till night descended on the park, chasing each other down the Midway, challenging one another to Kung Fu games in the arcade, and generally having a blast. Those were amazing, sun-drenched days full of stuffed-bear prizes and cotton candy endings.

It was almost always my family taking us to the park. Eddie’s dad seemed to work all the time – I think it was some kind of factory work, but I can’t really say. I only know that the hours were long and Mr. Birch always looked ragged around the edges when I visited Eddie’s house, no matter how much seeing his son put a smile on his face. But one late summer weekend, Mr. Birch approached my family and asked if he could take me and Eddie to the park – not just for one evening but for a whole two days. Mr. Birch had friends near the park and they were willing to give us all a place to sleep for the night (neither my family nor Eddie’s dad were in a position to pay for a hotel, not even for a single night).

Astoundingly, my grandmother said yes. As the woman rarely let me out of her sight for more than a couple of hours, I suspect Aunt Rita had some influence on the decision. Knowing my grandmother, Rita probably had to cut a deal with the Devil to accomplish this. But at the time, I didn’t care what family politics were necessary to get me there – I was going to stay at the park until close. With my family, we’d often stayed until the sun went down, but rarely did we stay for very long once it got dark. I was enchanted by the idea of riding the rollercoasters well into the night, or going all the way up in the space needle to see a sky sparkling with stars.

The day came, and off we went. And it was a time like no other. As much as the season passes gave me access to the park throughout the summer, there were a lot of things that remained off-limits to me. I was being raised by people who relied on retirement funds and social security. They made sure we had enough money to make it to the park, but we packed our own lunches. We brought a cooler for our own drinks. If I played in the arcade at all, I only got a dollar’s worth of quarters – which was a great incentive to excel at the games and make them last. We never played the Midway games. We only bought – at most – one treat.

Eddie’s dad, for those two days in the park, indulged us in everything. Did we want to see him climb the pirate netting and win that massive pink unicorn? Of course we did. And he tried, and tried, handing over dollar after dollar and finally making it to the buzzer. Did we want salt water taffy and cotton candy and funnel cake? Did we want to pay the extra money to go on the special set of water slides? How about eating at that restaurant with the Wild West theme?

Whatever we wanted, he paid for it. I think we must have spent the better part of one afternoon just blasting away at Space Invaders and shooting up Centipedes in the arcade. We pumped quarters into game after game of skee-ball, collecting tickets for kitschy little prizes.

I was after these little colored glass bottles. I thought they would be neat to keep things in – tears, colored sand, little shells. One of them was caramel brown and shaped like an eagle’s claw grasping a sphere. Another was blue and shaped like a fish. None of them were more than two inches tall.

I still have both of those glass bottles. Through childhood and college and more moves than I can recall, I have cherished them to this day.

The time came that our weekend of summer magic came to an end. Mr. Birch loaded up his old station wagon with the pillows and blankets from the sleep over, my tiny suitcase with my swim suit and change of clothes, and with all the big, stupid, badly made stuffed animals that we’d won over the course of our adventures. And we started the drive home.

The park was only about thirty minutes away from Hinckley, where we all lived. But when you’re still a child, that thirty minutes might as well be an eternity.

While we were driving home, Mr. Birch started talking about things. Strange, unsettling things. Eddie and I both fell quiet because this wasn’t the kind of conversation adults usually had. Eddie’s eyes were wide and he looked pale where he sat half buried by the massive stuffed animal in the back seat.

His dad was talking about what Eddie should do in case he ever died.

Mr. Birch tried to present it casually enough. He pointed out that he rode a motorcycle, and that he wasn’t always as careful as he should be. He hated the helmet laws. He took risks.

I’m not sure if Eddie ended up crying at any point during this conversation. I’m not sure I would have noticed if he had – I was never good at noticing things like that -- peoples’ emotional states. My own internal wiring combined with my upbringing rendered me something equivalent to emotionally colorblind. Yet another reason why I was ill-equipped to forge and maintain friendships, yet another reason why being in that car in that moment was so improbable for my life.

If Eddie wept, he did it silently. I do know that he begged his father to stop. Strident, he told his father that he wasn’t going to die. That he didn’t need to talk about such things. That he didn’t want to think about burying his old man.

Mr. Birch glanced up at his son in the rearview mirror. He had brown eyes. They both had brown eyes, and if I’d known enough to recognize it, I’d have realized that Mr. Birch’s eyes were not merely weary – they were sad. Profoundly, achingly sad.

He met his son’s eyes in that mirror and said, “Just one thing. One more thing and then I’m done. If you ever have to bury me, bury me with my beanie and my jeans jacket and the keys to my bike. If you can manage it, bury me with the bike.”

And then it got to be too much for Eddie and his dad shut up. The car fell silent, and suddenly all the poorly stitched faces of the stuffed animals we’d won didn’t look silly. They looked sinister.

At a stoplight, some time later, Mr. Birch turned to me and said very quietly, “Promise me you’ll look out for my son.”

I wasn’t any older than Eddie. In fact, Eddie had been kept back a grade, so technically, I was the little one. I nodded – my little fingers clenched around one of the glass bottles I’d bought with my skee-ball tickets. The eagle-claw one. What the hell else could I do?

And then Mr. Birch stopped talking like he was going to die, and we drove home, and that was the end of it.

School started back up. The awkward conversation in the car became a distant memory in the face of new classes and new teachers and all the stress and excitement that came with a new year at school.

I think it was September when Mr. Birch died.

Our hometown – Hinckley, Ohio – is this sprawling, rural township filled with rolling hills and stony ledges and gorgeous trees. The gem of the town is a park – Hinckley Reservation – and one of the main roads going into the park is Route. 303. I loved traveling this road with my mother when she was still around, because she would indulge me at this one series of hills. I called them the rollercoaster hills. The road curves suddenly and then you’re zipping along on these three rapid, rolling swells of pavement. I’m sure they’re not actually as high as the first hill of a rollercoaster, but if you take them at forty or fifty miles an hour, they give you that same delicious fluttery feeling just under your ribs.

That’s a delightful feeling when you’re too young to realize just how hazardous that stretch of road really is. It’s only a two-lane road, and there are trees lining both sides. There are guardrails, but also a sharp drop-off on at least one side.

It happened at night. Mr. Birch was out on his motorcycle. I don’t know if he was wearing a helmet. He was probably just wearing his little knit beanie that he always rolled down over his head of curly hair. It doesn’t really matter – a helmet wouldn’t have saved him. He drove the bike right into a tree. He hit so hard, the front of the bike nearly tore him in half.

Mr. Birch – like everyone who lived in Hinckley – had driven that stretch of road before. Light or dark, he knew its hills, its sudden curves. It was a clear night. No rain. No other unexpected conditions on the road. Mr. Birch took the curve as fast as he could – and didn’t turn.

There was a lot of conjecture about his death. Hinckley was – and to an extent, still is – a very small town. One thing every small town loves is its gossip. Trouble with finances, troubles at work – I heard all of the rumors about Mr. Birch, but I didn’t care. What I cared about was my friend who, from all reports, had stood at the top of his driveway for hours waiting for his father to come back home. Waiting and waiting, when on some level, he had to have known. Mr. Birch had as good as told us – both of us – what was in store on that ride back from the park.

When he saw his mother’s car approaching to deliver the bad news, I’m told Eddie just screamed at the sky. Screamed and screamed in hurt and rage, until he fell to his knees on the winding, gravel drive.

The funeral home was rife with disapproving whispers when friends and family discovered Mr. Birch in the casket wearing not a suit but an old jeans jacket with a beanie pulled down over his head. That they were giving him a Christian burial after all the rumors wasn’t scandal enough to occupy their wagging tongues. No, now they had to hiss and whisper about his clothes – inappropriate, disrespectful, obscene. But Eddie stood by his father’s request. Mr. Birch had made it clear this was exactly what he wanted.

I still remember the awkward way the morticians had bent the man’s big, calloused fingers around the keys to his bike. I will probably never forget.

______________________________________________________

I have used real names here. If, perchance you see this, Eddie, and you disapprove, I apologize. The years have swept a gulf between us, and I've had no luck finding you to reach out. But it was surprisingly easy to find your dad: James L. Birch 1939-1985:

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Feeling the Rhythm: Meditative Dance

Learn about moving meditations and meditative dance in this article previously published in NewWitch/PanGaia Magazine For some people, dance can be a very powerful way of achieving a meditative state of consciousness. Dance combines a number of things that allow for a heightened experience of your body, mind, and energy. First, of course, there are the meditative basics of rhythm and repetitive motion. Dance encompasses both of these, but also ideally includes a focused awareness of your body, your breathing, and also your energy.

The motions of meditative dance do not have to be elaborate or even particularly graceful. Any motion that gets as much of your body as possible moving to the beat of some music can qualify as meditative dance. Even if you just stand in the middle of a room and spin around, letting the music flow around and through you, you’ll be in an august company of meditative dancers. The so-called “whirling dervishes” are a sect of Sufi mystics founded by the 13th century Muslim poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Rumi was a mystic and visionary who would dance around and around in circles – sometimes to a music that only he could hear – and dictate his mystical poetry. In the tradition of Rumi, the whirling dervishes achieve a meditative state through which they experience a sense of union with the divine by spiraling around and around in graceful circles.

In order to use dance as a pathway to the meditative state, the first thing you absolutely must do is become comfortable with the idea of dancing – even if you’re only going to be doing this in the privacy of your own home. A lot of people are terribly self-conscious about their bodies, and they can be even more self-conscious about how their bodies move. Don’t let a few bad experiences at high school dances ruin a very powerful tool of meditation for you. Forget about whether or not you look silly. Forget about the fact that you don’t think you can dance. Even if you feel like you have no sense of rhythm, a lot of that can change the moment you just let go and simply allow yourself to move.

To try your hand at meditative dance, pick a selection of music that appeals to you. It can be any type of music in any type of genre, so long as it has some kind of beat (personally, I find the electronic rhythms of EBM perfect for this kind of meditation, and there is a genre of music called “Trance” that gets its named from the tendency of its sounds and rhythms to induce altered states). Make sure that you either have several songs selected that will run continuously over a period of at least thirty minutes or one song programmed to repeat. You don’t want to just get into the groove with the dancing only to have the music suddenly cut out on you. While it’s possible to still maintain the meditative state even should such a situation arise, it still really kills the moment.

Set some time aside in your schedule where you will not be disturbed, especially if the idea of having someone walk in on you while you’re dancing makes you feel uncomfortable. Make sure you clear enough space so you can move around at least a little without knocking things over or bumping into furniture. Finally, make sure you put on comfortable clothes. In the case of meditative dance, “comfortable” may not mean clothes that are all loose and flowing. Put on clothes that you will feel most comfortable dancing in. For those of you with a traditional Pagan bent, this might mean dancing in your birthday suit. If you happen to be a Goth like me, “comfortable” might include vinyl pants and a corset, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with just jeans and a T-shirt. Others may not feel comfortable unless they’re in full belly dancer gear. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself focused and in the right mood, and then put the music on.

Once you have the music going, take a few moments to just stand still in the middle of the open space. Put your head down, close your eyes, and just listen. Concentrate all of your attention on the music. Let is wash over you and surround you until you can feel it seeping into your very flesh. Don’t break out in dance right away. Start by simply swaying to the beat of the music. Let your whole body feel the rhythm until the sense of it in your limbs is so contagious that you can’t not dance.

Once you have immersed yourself in the sound and feel of the music, start to move around a little more. Pick up your feet and step from side to side. Sway your hips. Move your hands in time with the music. Don’t think too hard about exactly what you’re doing. Instead, let the music move you.

The more you move, the more you will need to breathe, so take a few moments to concentrate upon your breathing. Make the rhythm of your breathing a part of the rhythm of the overall dance, just one more motion that your body is engaged in. Allow your consciousness to narrow down to just these few things: the sound of the music, the movements of your body, the rhythm of your breath.

There will come a point when you are dancing and you’re not even thinking about it any more. There will be a purity of experience that is just the rhythm and the motion and you and the sound, and this is your gate to the meditative state. At this point, do not stop dancing. Make every effort to let your body just keep doing what it was doing, without any special effort or strain. Let your body move around you while you take up a position of perfect clarity in your mind.

Take a few moments to observe what your body is doing, but don’t fixate on it. Let your body move naturally and retain this clear point of consciousness for other things. Feel the air as it moves in and out of your lungs. Be aware of how this rhythm acts together with the rhythm of your heart to carry life and energy throughout your body. Feel every particle of your being as it acts in unison to bring about this activity, dance. And enjoy the stillspace you have found within all this rapid activity. Hold it for several moments so you may fully experience it. Then slowly bring yourself back out of it, allowing your body to finish with the dance. Decrease the motion and intensity until you are again just standing there, swaying to the music. Then bring even that to an end and stand for a few moments, eyes closed, head down, body still, as you catch your breath. As you bring yourself fully back into your ordinary consciousness, experience the absence of motion with as much sensual acuity as you experienced the dance itself. With this balance between motion and stillness, you have achieved your first taste of meditative dance.

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What Defines a Religion?

 In the wake of the Black Mass controversy that unfolded at Harvard over the weekend, it may be time to re-evaluate what we think the First Amendment means about religion in theory and in practice.

When issues of religious freedom are addressed in the news, we tend primarily to hear about majority religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. There is an undercurrent of popular opinion by which time and familiarity make these religions more acceptable than less familiar practices. Up until the past several years, I'm not even certain I would have included Islam in the list of what the US considers "accepted majority religions" - and an argument could be made that it is still treated (at least in my country) as if it were some spiritual whippersnapper trying to muscle in like an unruly child to sit at the table with the adults. Legitimacy in a religious practice is equated, in most peoples' minds, with tradition: the age and popular establishment of that faith.

Of course, this whole attitude breaks down when you realize that the majority of US citizens look upon Hinduism and Buddhism both as strange, fringe anomalies that are neither as valid nor as socially acceptable as monolithic Christianity. Never mind that both of these religious traditions are, in fact, older than Christianity.

How is this even possible? Ignorance of a faith seems to equate, at least in some peoples' minds, to that faith being new and, therefore, strange. That's hard even for me to wrap my brain around, and yet I've encountered the attitude again and again. Familiarity -- and along with that, popularity (within one's own cultural group) -- become the measurement for legitimacy.

When most Christians - who tend to view themselves as the prime religion of validity within the United States - are still struggling to wrap their heads around Buddhism, Hinduism (and, let's be honest - Islam) as valid religions, that leaves a huge number of other, equality valid traditions, out in the cold - from Sikhs to Pagans to our knee-jerk tradition of the week, Satanists.

And I can anticipate a response to that, because I've seen those responses written across my social media. Satanism isn't a religion. It can't be! It's all about being anti-religious, so surely that doesn't allow it to qualify under that hallowed First Amendment right -- does it?

On a theoretical or spiritual level, we could argue over what defines a religion for days. However, it's fairly simple to outline that definition in the grand US of A. So enamored of its forms and filing and making sure everyone is counted and in their place, the legal definition of a religion within the United States revolves around paperwork. You want a religion that allows you to worship the Disney Princesses as a modern pantheon of Goddesses? Get your hands on the appropriate paperwork and file it. If you submit the proper form, and it is accepted, your Disney Pantheon is a religious group, with all the rights and privileges there unto -- from tax exempt status to the protection of your right to practice your sincerely held beliefs mandated by the First Amendment.

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It sounds silly when I frame it around Disney Princesses, and yet, with the system we have in place, Disney-ism, if filed and recognized, would be just as legally valid a religion as Christianity, or Scientology, or LaVeyan Satanism, or The Universal Life Church. And in the end, whether we personally agree with the beliefs and practices of any of the religious groups listed above, if we are going to enact laws to protect the rights of one, those laws absolutely must protect the rights of all. If we truly want to support religious freedom in this country, we cannot allow the discourse to devolve to something from Orwell's Animal Farm, where, out of one side of our mouths, we proudly state, "All religions are created equal!" and then, out of the other side, we add, "But some are more equal than others!"

 

--M

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Sympathy for the Devil

I know that more than a few of you who know me exclusively from my work on Paranormal State are baffled about my stance on the Black Mass that they're planning to perform at Harvard this coming Monday. For some of you, it's probably sounding like Captain America defending the rights of the Agents of Hydra to hold evil master-mind meetings to plot the control of the world. I mean, I help fight the big bad things, right? So why would I speak up and tell you that this Black Mass isn't necessarily the worst thing ever. One person: Chris Robichaud.

Some of you know I went to a Jesuit Catholic university. I'm not Christian by any stretch, but the Jesuits are amazing educators. I didn't exactly fit in, but I do not regret the education I received. Intellectually, I flourished at that school.

Chris was a year behind me at the college. We both took the same course on demonology. We both adored the professor, Dr. Joseph Kelley, who taught it, and we took as many of the classes offered by the brilliant man as we could.

If you've read my book, Haunting Experiences, and you were chilled and thrilled by the antics of whatever walks the place called "Whitethorn Woods," you have met Chris under a pseudonym. He was there, raising hell in the woods of Geauga County with the rest of us. He was a whipsmart, intense, and fiery soul then, and it surprises me not one jot to see that he has gone on to become a brilliant, outspoken, and influential teacher in his own right these twenty years later.

A Harvard ethicist, Chris was asked to speak before the performance of the Black Mass -- to give the event a little context. He's had people attempt to dissuade him from doing so, offering dire warnings that the controversy surrounding this event will tarnish his career.

True to what I know of him, that controversy has not discouraged him. He has a powerful message -- and getting those words out to people is worth more than any of the censure he might possibly face for being associated with some devilish spectacle.

They are words that you absolutely should hear yourselves, even if you would never venture within 100 miles of a Black Mass -- regardless of whether or not it was merely an "historical reenactment" of such a rite. Chris's message revolves around the possible existence of the Devil and whether or not something like a Black Mass might pose a danger with regards to that scion of evil:

I tell you this much. If Satan does exist, you're not going to find him at historical reenactments of black masses, or in the ouija board, or at the D&D table. You're going to find him, primarily, in every moment of indifference we have toward those who are suffering, an indifference that is only facilitated by an obsession with preventing inconsequential nonsense from happening, rather than directing one's energies toward addressing very real moral atrocities.

-- Christopher Robichaud, Harvard Ethicist

And this -- this is why I've picked the issue up, written on it, and spammed the hell out of that writing on my social media over the past few days. I'd spill ink across the whole of the Internet in order to help get that message out. Because real evil is never where you expect to see it. A rich man who makes his profits knowingly upon the suffering of others has done more to invite the Devil into this world than a bunch of college students in spooky black robes will ever be able to -- no matter how good they are at speaking the Lord's Prayer backwards in Latin.

--M

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Raising Hell at Harvard

This blog is normally reserved for samples and snippets of my fiction, but today I have something else to share. My life is often stranger than any fiction I could possibly concoct, and that became abundantly clear the other day when I learned that a good friend I loaned several of my demonology books to back in college happens to be one of the people involved in a highly controversial rite being held by a student group at Harvard this coming Monday.

They're doing a Black Mass.

Here's the skinny:

A student group at Harvard will be performing a Black Mass on Monday. After the performance, there will be discussion about the spectacle and what it means in a country founded on -- among other liberties -- freedom of religion.

For those unaware of the ritual, a Black Mass is an intentional perversion of the traditional Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, taking the whole sacrament and turning it on its head. It is offensive to Christians and specifically to Catholics -- and to be frank, it was designed to be that way.

Although, during the European witch trials, there were plenty of allegations that the wild worshipers of Satan were engaged in Black Masses (along with other awful perfidies performed at secret orgies in the woods), the real performance of a ritual like a Black Mass often came down not to Devil worshipers but to Atheists and Rationalists who were seeking to mock the religious fervor of their Christian peers in a time when they felt the devout masses should know better.

Yes, I'm suggesting the Black Mass is an outgrowth of the Age of Reason -- a loud, flamboyant and somewhat mean-spirited reaction to religious fundamentalism. Given the atmosphere in the US today, it should not be surprising to see intellectuals going to such an extreme. In a country where we pride ourselves on our liberties -- freedom of religion being a major one -- we recently had a member of the Hindu clergy more or less shouted down by Christian extremists when he attempted to lead our Senate in prayer. Notably, he was invited to do this. That wasn't good enough for the folks whose notion of our country has skewed from the Land of the Free to One Nation Under God -- a God who, apparently, must always be theirs.

The Black Mass then -- and in a similar vein, the Satan statue that's going up in Oklahoma -- is an equal and opposite reaction to this frothing extremism. It is a conscious spectacle of satire in the spirit of mock religions like the Church of Bob or the Internet religion surrounding the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is also -- though the utility of this remains to be seen -- an intellectual exercise intended to make people think about what it means to allow anyone to worship however they please.

Civil liberties are at the heart of many of our hot button issues right now -- with freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the thickest and nastiest parts of the arguments. The Black Mass at Harvard contains, by its radical satire of an accepted Christian rite, a powerful question in subtext: if freedom of religion means any religion (including no religion), where do we draw the line between one group's right to worship and the offended sensibilities of another, equally valid, group?

In a world that seems divided down the ranks of Christian, Muslim, and Jew -- while any people who fit into the "none of the above" category get caught in the crossfire, in a world where the science show Cosmos is threatened to be cut off the air in states that feel it should express, not science, but Creationist views, in a world where law-makers speak with horror about the possibility that Sharia law may creep into our legal system -- only to turn around and pass legislation blatantly based upon Biblical Christian values -- Harvard's Black Mass raises some damned good questions.

Where do we draw the line?

And perhaps it's an older question than we realize. It may surprise most of you, but Monday night's performance scheduled at Harvard hearkens back to the activities of at least one of our founding fathers. In his dealings with Dashwood's Hellfire Club, it is almost certain that Benjamin Franklin himself participated in mock masses inspired at least in part by that Age of Reason disdain for organized religion.

Something to think about -- and that's the whole point.

--M

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A Place for Fiction

So I've had some requests for my fiction. I indulge in fiction only rarely these days, as so much of my time and attention goes into non-fiction and related research. But I still write stories now and again. Perhaps my best fiction writing has gone into character histories for role-playing games. Most of these don't translate easily into a traditional short story format. They're often written in the second person, addressing the reader directly, and they are almost always in the present tense, to provide a sense of immediacy to the action so the reader better connects with the character in the tale. These are stories that will never make it to anthologies, not only for their formats, but also for the rights issues on the RPG worlds in which they are set. But I may share some of them here. Other bits and pieces will find their way here occasionally, stories old and new.

I rarely write anything PG-13. Gothic, horror, dark fantasy -- these are themes that have always appealed to me. There are some truly twisted recesses in my imagination. You have been warned...

--M

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