Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Advance Teaser from 'The Bones Would Do' Book Two in the Christopher Penrose Novels

1

The morphine fog gave way to a dream that came on cat’s paws. Soft, and so eerily quiet was its coming, leaving only ghost-prints across the surface of Christopher’s soul, that he never heard or felt it till it pounced. When he slid out of his hospital bed, stood up and wasn’t attached to a drip stand there was a moment of confusion, but it passed rapidly. There was something that he had to do, something so full of hot urgency that reason itself evaporated.
Christopher got down on both knees and pulled an empty box out from under his hospital bed. Gods … there’s metal everywhere. How am I going to get rid of it all? In a hospital so full of instruments, metallic beds and machines with an iron content, his mission barely seemed possible. Despite this fact the thought of giving up never occurred to Christopher. This is our war against heaven, he told himself, as he frantically boxed up everything made of metal he could lay his hands on. These are our champion deeds done beneath the sea … There were scalpels. There was a drip stand that Christopher somehow managed to take apart and pack away into the box.
When everything in the room was hidden in the box, Christopher pushed the bed itself away towards a large cupboard at the side of his room. He began to stow everything metal in that cupboard, which, like the box, seemed to be bigger on the inside than the outside. Even while he did this Christopher couldn’t understand the mania he felt to get rid of it all. True, recovery had turned out to be so much less romantic than injury. But the modern world that he had so consciously rejected, this sterile world with all of its metal and plastic, had put Christopher back together, replaced and removed his fluids and prevented his infections. For a time its machines had breathed for him; its intravenous drips had replaced his lost blood, hydrated and fed him. Why this sudden new vendetta against it? Not knowing the reason didn’t prevent what happened next.
Christopher frowned as he felt the strange rumbling sensation in the floor. The door was blown open by a feral wind that rushed into the room as if it were in a hurry to claim him as its own. Taking a few cautious steps toward the open door, Christopher peered through into the exposed hallway. There were no moving nurses, no visitors talking and moving, only the eerie whistling of the wind in the corridor. Then Christopher spotted something moving along the walls, something green and spreading. It wasn’t until it got closer that he saw it was moss. Moss that was growing along the walls at impossible speed, ivy that was claiming the walls and invading the masonry.
The invasion of the green was subtle at first but then trees were tearing up the floor as well and the hospital corridor itself was being swallowed by a forest on the march. When the tangled green parasites and invasive grass reached Christopher’s feet he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He knew this feeling … He had no words for it, no way to wrap his logic around it, yet he recognised this feeling in every pore of his skin. When something moved and peeked out its head from behind one of the ancient oaks that had ripped through the tiled floor, Christopher’s breath caught in his throat.
“Eugene,” he whispered.
He could only see half of Eugene’s face, only one of his strange eyes that regarded Christopher from behind the oak with one of his expressions that Christopher could never fathom. A deep sense of Otherness prickled its way across Christopher’s skin but his heart was beating too hard with excitement for it to become a cold sweat of fear. Eugene didn’t reply or even smile but his eyes remained locked with Christopher’s. Very slowly, he raised one hand with his index finger extended and made the gesture of silence across his lips.
As soon as Eugene had made this signal he disappeared, and Christopher made a quiet sound of protest and sorrow. The frustration almost woke him. But just as he became aware for a moment of his physical body tossing and turning on the hospital bed something heavier seemed to enter his awareness, rooting him deeply into the dream.
On and on throughout the half-trance of blood-loss and morphine, Seth had been a constant presence throughout Christopher’s recovery. Of course Seth was here now; it seemed only natural. It was, after all, one of those friendships that felt like it had always been there. It was impossible to measure in months the time they’d spent together, two orphans of civilisation, two vagabonds of modernity, huddled together in a threatened patch of wilderness, trying to find a space of quiet quiet enough. Trying to find a patch of darkness dark enough, deep enough, that they could fall into it and stumble onto something real …
“I owe you an apology,” Seth’s deep, gravelly voice intruded on the eerie green world around Christopher with a new sense of shadow and mass that hadn’t been part of the vision until then.  “I told you that magic would break your heart. I told you that hearts break like the waves of the sea, again and again in endless motion. Maybe I lied. Maybe the birth of the witch inside is a deathblow no one ever really recovers from. Because once you’ve seen what’s out there, over the hedge and out into the wilderness beyond, the world inside its borders and boxes will never satisfy you again. You’re stuck in between now. You don’t belong in the ordinary world and yet I haven’t made a full witch of you yet.”
“It never satisfied me anyway, the ordinary,” Christopher replied. “From the moment my eyes made contact with Eugene’s in the classroom that day the extraordinary had a hold on me. It wasn’t your fault.”
He wanted to ask where Eugene had gone but somehow he sensed that even Seth couldn’t bring Eugene back unless Eugene chose to appear.
“It’s more than that. I’ve failed you as a teacher. Sometimes I feel like you’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching you … There’s other stuff I should have told you but I didn’t. I’m not proud of myself.” 
Here there was one of those pauses that Seth would so often make, of the sort that Christopher associated with the indrawing, holding and releasing of smoke from his cigarettes. Christopher watched Seth leaning casually against the ghost oak that Eugene had only so recently peeked out from behind. There was an earnestness in Seth’s pitchy eyes that disturbed Christopher.
“But here it is, anyway, the bastard truth in all its rags of finery. I wanted you. I wanted your light like a drowning man wants the log he’s holding onto. I offered you the Art to bring you to me. Eugene was right about me. I brought you into my darkness and made you a part of my nightmare. Then I let you turn a light on inside me that I’m still dazed by and reeling. I even let that little beast at you and brought all of our disasters roaring into focus.”
“Eugene isn’t a little beast,” Christopher replied quietly. This topic had always been an ongoing dispute between them. 
Even though Christopher’s voice sounded quiet to him, Seth seemed to have no trouble hearing it. “Still harbouring illusions about your kid-guardian-angel-from-Hell? Even after he drained you almost to death?”
“They’re not illusions,” Christopher said, and then after a while he smiled. It was only a brief smile, and sadness lingered around its edges. “You taught me that I need to trust what I know in my guts and bones, and this is what my bones know to be true. When I was standing between here and there and Sophia was trying to bring me back, Eugene let her take me back to my body.”
“Even after he took you to the land beyond the mist you still don’t know what he is, do you?” Seth demanded, his arms folded and his eyebrows raised.
“I know what he is.”
“Tell me then?”
“I don’t have words for it. But I know in the pit of my stomach … he’s not like other people. I’ve always known that. I know what he is.”
“Well, people have words for it,” Seth muttered. “We just try not to use them in case it encourages Them to show up.”
“He saved my life. Sophia admits that. She says it was his power not hers that got me back in my body, and that he did it because he loves me.”
Seth grunted softly in acknowledgment.
“Hmm, the boy-succubus has feelings huh? I can’t say as I can tell; all their expressions look the same to me. I’ll have to take your word for it. Well, a good teacher can admit when he’s wrong … But I’m not a very good teacher and I’m probably not wrong, so fuck that. Everything I know about Them tells me they are dangerous as all Hell, unfathomable in their motives and not to be trusted.”
“I trust him with my life,” Christopher murmured, his eyes lingering over the place where the green-clothed apparition of Eugene had appeared.
Seth snorted with something between amusement and disgust. “Yeah we all saw that, mate. Have I told you lately you’re a pain in the arse? Anyway,” Seth said, holding up his hands. “This was meant to be me apologising to you for how much I suck, so here goes. I was wrong. I knew what you wanted the Art for, that you were driven, that something was eating you up, gnawing at your guts from the inside. As your mentor, as your friend even, I shouldn’t have encouraged it. But I saw my own obsession mirrored in yours. And my obsession sung with new power in the light of yours. I should have been trying to save you, but I brought you into all of this to save me.”
“And how’s that working out for you?” Christopher asked sarcastically. If he’d been able, the faint smile on his lips would have been laughter. But for some reason he didn’t feel like his face was able to move enough to laugh.
Seth did laugh. “Oh, look, I don’t know. It’s been something, all right. Whether it’s salvation or not I don’t know; not sure if I’d know what salvation looked like if it bit me on the arse. But it’s been real. And Hell, that’s good enough for me right now. Nothing has felt real since Lucrece died, so I can only thank you. Plus there’s still time, ‘time for you and time for me before the taking of a toast and tea’.’”
“Feeling like disturbing the universe?” Christopher enquired.
Seth grinned.
“I think I’m fast losing that arrogance, my friend, to believe this great and terrible mystery with all its black holes and supernovas is disturbed by anything I do. But I think I still have to make it up to you for everything I did and didn’t do. Not sure what the going rate for opening your sister’s jugular vein is but I’ll do my darnedest. Then maybe afterward you can save me?”
“I don’t know if I’m in the position to save much of anything right now.” Christopher had to admit, there was something about experiencing your own physical vulnerablity, mortality and helplessness that really pushed along the growing up process.
“What? Have you got somewhere you need to be? I don’t think you’ll be keeping many appointments while you’re still taking a piss in a plastic bag. You just lie there and respirate.”
As soon as Seth said the words ‘lie there and respirate’ Christopher became aware of his body and his breathing. He became aware of the drip he was attached to and wanted to point out Seth’s factual error in that he no longer had a catheter, but he couldn’t speak. It was like sleep paralysis. He could hear everything Seth said but he couldn’t move.
“When I told you I learned the Craft from my father that was a half-truth. I learned a lot of folk practices and superstitions from him but that wasn’t really where it started. See, this is the problem when you try to tell a story; the story tells you and the real place you need to start is never the beginning. It’s usually somewhere around the end.”
“Then start at the end. Tell me everything and anything that really matters and nothing that doesn’t, like always.” Christopher was fascinated to hear words in the air that came from his own mind, when he hadn’t even moved his physical mouth.
“I never told you anything real about how I found the Craft, or how it found me, because mystery is half of magic. Or maybe that’s bullshit I told myself. I wanted to create a kind of magic for you that would be what you were searching for. You weren’t looking for origins or lineages when we met. You were looking for a dead boy, for fallout fragments of your broken heart. You were looking for a human explosion that would set your comfortable little world on fire. Well, you got that. Between Sophia and I we’ve emolliated every bit of predictability, comfort or normality in your life. -Don’t say I never get you anything.
“Now I wonder, if I’d given you my origin story right from the start, would you have found what I had to offer greater or lesser? You knew full well that the real Art wasn’t for sale in the crystal shops. You knew I was the real oldschool deal. But it wasn’t like the 17th century coughed me up whole into modern day Salisbury. I watched TV as a kid like you did. It was my dad who first realised I was different. But it wasn’t some quaint woodsman’s intuition that tipped him off to what was going on. He’d seen it before. Seen others like me. When he worked it out he made some phone calls. That was when my mentor came along.”
“I really want to hear all of this, Seth. But why feel bad about not telling me?” Christopher asked. “Maybe it was me that should have asked more questions. I was so na├»ve and wide-eyed when we met … I think I did feel like the 17th century coughed you out whole into my world.”
Seth laughed but when he stopped laughing his voice came out sounding slightly grim. “I’m telling you this now for a very good reason, because you are right on the verge, and the witch that you are is probably about to explode into your life in a way you aren’t prepared for. Some people go through an illness or emotional trauma when their initiation hits. They dream of being dismembered and taken apart by spirits and something, some familiar spirit or god, puts them back together again, stronger than before. They wake up a witch. They wake up already one of the dead, someone who has died before they die and glimpsed what lies beyond. You just did yours in a bit more style than most people and got yourself shot.”
“So what I just felt, that sense that I’d never breathed before, all that giving up and giving over and then deciding on life again … that was my initiation?”
“Uh huh. Shit is about to get real, my friend.”
Christopher wanted to laugh again. If shit hadn’t been ‘real’ before he knew he should probably be terrified to see what it getting real was going to look like.
“Okay … Well, could you tell me whatever you think I need to know to be prepared?”
“Yeah,” Seth muttered. “Of course, it’s my job as your teacher.” But Christopher could sense the reluctance in Seth’s voice. “My mentor was a man with a vision for people like us. He had a vision that I’ve never really stepped outside the long shadow of. I’m not sure I want to. It haunts me. I know there’s unfinished business for me at Winthrope. I’ve known that for a long time but I guess I didn’t want to poke it too much, didn’t really want to know. I also know I need a lot more time with you. The key to our going forward lies in Vincent’s vision. But the thing is, my friend …” Seth’s voice trailed away for a moment then, as though he were not really sure he wanted to continue. “I’m afraid of his vision, truly afraid, as I’m not of many things.  I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m afraid of what it will do to us when you know of it. You may yet drive me out of the hedged and fenced places with a stake in your hand and a flaming brand. But knowing that as I do, valuing your friendship above all living things, and even knowing how close we already came to this blowing up in our faces, I can no longer excuse keeping silent.”

Sophia stopped walking quite suddenly. The styrofoam cup in her hand steamed and her sudden halt caused her to spill some coffee on her hand. She didn’t flinch much. The figure standing outside the door to Christopher’s room concerned her far more than the minor burn. As was always the case with Sophia’s second sight, she thought at first that a living man was standing by the door to Christopher ward. But then she’d realised he was naked, which made it far less likely that he was alive.
She held her breath. This was why she hated hospitals. Few places had so many revenants as hospitals. But the fact was, it wasn’t what he was so much as who he was that sent cold chills running all the way to her extremities. Even after being able to see ghosts all her life, Sophia had never really worked out what it was about her that caught their attention. Could they tell somehow that she could see them? Was it because she was staring and everyone else was looking right on past them? Or did they somehow sense her fear? She had a cold sort of sensation that it was probably the latter.
The shade turned to her. Sophia hadn’t needed to see the gruesome neck wound to know it was Josh. The insidious truth was that she recognised his naked body from the days when they were intimate. His deathly appearance made that fact seem somehow macarbe in retrospect. With an effort of will she tried to stop her breath coming faster. If any nurses or patients walk past they’re going to think I’m balmy! Sophia jumped when her new mobile phone started going off. Immediately Josh’s revenant began backing away from the noise.
“And Seth wonders why I love phones and gadgets and lights so much,” she muttered to herself as she took out her phone. Like so many other confused spirits that had died violently or suddenly, Josh would just be another one that she would walk away from when she left the hospital, she told herself. She watched him shamble away down the corridor out of sight. And yet, even as she told herself that that was his fate, something in her felt this was incomplete. Surely that isn’t all I have to do? Let Christopher and Seth kill him for me and then pretend I can’t see him? Let the problem wander away down the hall because someone’s on the phone …
For a moment she almost didn’t want to answer the call. As though answering it was tacitly saying that she rejected the witch she was becoming in favour of distractions. But then she saw it was her father.
“Hey, Dad,” she said, wedging her phone between her ear and her shoulder so she could talk to him and drink her coffee at the same time.
“Just checking up on you, Pumpkin. Even though that bastard’s gone now you must know how much you scared your mother and I?”
Sophia smiled with reluctant affection for her father, but then had to bite back a sarcastic remark about how her mother had a funny way of showing it. Today she didn’t let it annoy her that her father always said ‘you scared your mother and I’ whenever something bad happened to her, as though it was her fault rather than her stalker ex-boyfriend’s.
“I’m fine, Baba.”
“How’s Christopher?”
Sophia smiled again. She had never known her parents to like any of her boyfriends so much as they seemed to like this one. Maybe it had something to do with Christopher having saved her life and not being a sleaze or a thug, she thought.
“He’s fine too. Well … he’s coming along okay. It’s going to take time but the doctors are happy with his progress. Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you back. Love you.”
Sophia ended the call and put the phone in her handbag as she headed into Christopher’s ward. When she noticed Seth she didn’t jump at all. His presence was no surprise to Sophia. He had been at Christopher’s side almost as often as she had.
She closed her eyes because she didn’t want to see Seth so much as feel him. Her sleeping and waking hours were haunted by the shapes and sounds of dead men. Her mind was a place that straddled worlds, however much she’d tried to deny this fact all her life. It was only now that she was trying to refine how she used this extra sense, trying to work out if there was a difference between this spectral image of Seth and the visitations of the dead. She also wanted to know words for why the apparition of Eugene looked different again to Josh’s shade. There were so many questions …
As she sat beside Christopher’s bed it seemed that normality was something she no longer cared to cling onto. The fear that had driven that urge had mostly fallen away. Ever since Christopher had first taken tight hold of her and told her, ‘everything is going to be alright,’ the dreams where she was slamming and locking doors had stopped. She had felt his strength, not just the man’s strength in his body and hands, but something that came from belief, from conviction. Maybe it was a form of insanity to be as certain as Christopher was of some things ... Sophia had never felt certain about much of anything; she only knew that he had chased away those dreams when nothing else ever had.
Sophia remembered the dreams. She had spent her whole life running, both in her mind and with her body. Always closing doors and bolting them, slamming gates, or frantically patching up holes in walls or hedges by stuffing them with handfuls of grass. There were always too many holes, though; the wind would blow through, covering the lawn with the debris of the forest. The dead would poke their pale, clammy hands through those holes like so many dead leaves and grab at her ankles as she ran. The dead were a pervasive rising damp.
Christopher and Seth had come with their own ghosts. But they, at least, had understood. Christopher looked upon what happened to her, this thing that she could do, or was, as a thing of wonder rather than terror. She could never forget how he’d looked at her when Seth first revealed that she had the Sight. It was like I was something wonderful rather than just some crazy bitch.
There had been a terrible fate waiting for her. She could never decide exactly how it played out. Had it been Josh with his gun, coming for her as he had that day, and perhaps killing her if Christopher hadn’t intervened? Christopher seemed to have this power to change the course of bullets that had been marked for her long ago, to attract them to his own body and to close up the wound of fate’s gaping maw, leaving things changed and rearranged. He seemed to disrupt things, to throw a wild-card of chaos into the fateful weave of things.
Or was the true doom that had awaited her at her own hand? She pondered. Sometimes in the past, she had pictured herself at the end of a long pursuit, fleeing from her own shadow. She was alone, wet, cold, teetering on a rocky outcrop near the coast, swaying, waiting, and trying to find the resolution to jump. Afraid of falling and yet more afraid of leaving the sanctuary offered to her by the dizzy drop below. To let go was unimaginable in its intensity and finality, but to step away … to allow the pursuit to continue, that was unthinkable. Sometimes that image was so clear it was like a memory, as though it had really happened to her. In her imagination she actually felt the crumbling rocks under her fingernails as she held onto the sheer cliff-face and wavered.
“You saved me, one way or another,” she muttered aloud.
It seemed certain that if Christopher hadn’t come, and Seth too, that she wouldn’t be there to stand by this strange young man’s bedside as he dreamed fitfully. Even Seth, who at first had made her feel as if spiders were crawling on her skin, him too she felt a kinship with. Sophia knew they were exiles together. Creatures of the other-side of the crumbling stone walls, the hedges, and the bolted doors…
If the darkness inside Seth that yawned and came out roaring, seeking to be fed at times, beyond the confines of the frontal lobe and all social rules, if that darkness chilled her inside, still she couldn’t help but recognise herself in him. So, knowing that he was there in the room, speaking with Christopher, she didn’t need to suppress a scream as once she would have. Making a conscious effort not to eavesdrop on their conversation, she occupied herself with a magazine until Seth’s ghostly voice fell silent. When she couldn’t hear him but could still feel him, Sophia got up and went straight to where she felt him in the room. She pressed herself deep into that cold patch in the room as though she meant to embrace him.
“Seth, what do I do now?”
“Tell Christopher he can’t help me yet. It’s not time. Get him well; get him out of this place.”
His words felt like a movement of chill draft on her neck.
“Are you going to die?” she whispered.
“Don’t know if I’m going to get that lucky. Let’s wait and see, huh?
“Okay.”  At that she felt his presence begin to fade out. “Seth!”
“Yes?”
“I trust you. Despite everything … I trust you still. I need you to know that.”

Seth merely inclined his head in a shallow bow and was gone. Sophia was left with a strong feeling of relief. There was something partial, something more like the shade of a dreamer or a witch in flight about Seth’s ghost. It didn’t feel as potent as she’d have expected Seth to feel as a dead man. Maybe he will still wake up. Sophia formed a wordless sort of prayer to the old gods of Artyn and Catrin’s people, for Seth to come back to them. Without him Christopher and I are magical orphans. Without him I have no idea what comes next, and no words to give to the shadows that follow me.

 © 2014 -Lee Morgan

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ancestral Home Calling


'It will be forever
my sea bird turn
and dip
horizon call
in cold air that
fossilises the ossuary
of my mind
like old seaweed,
chalk boned, this land,
hag-stone hearted,
just a taste
on my ancestor's tongues
dissolved, like salt,
into my tongue
till I am saliva-rich
with all their dead tastes.
A ninth wave carries
pebble song,
sea-grit,
half-remembered gods,
worn smooth glass,
lost hairpin,
dreams.'

-Lee Morgan, 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why Call It 'Traditional' Witchcraft?

I know, it sounds weird to anyone who knows me, right? We don't really come across as 'traditional' people in the normal sense. I've had a lot of questions about why I still use the term 'Traditional Witchcraft' so I thought I'd explain.

Most people associate the term 'traditional' with traditional values. But I keep the term 'traditional' because I believe our link to the past is more complicated than past = conservative, future = liberal. I don't see our world as some kind of straightforward evolution toward perfection as the term 'progressive' would suggest. Many of the values of indigenous cultures, for instance, would appear very 'radical' by comparison to today's mores and yet they existed deep into the past.

 I believe there are positives and negatives to the past, just as there are with the present world. Some things we have to learn from the past and some things are better today. The problem is that the past is often high-jacked by people with a conservative agenda.

Conservatives like to think of themselves as 'conserving' the best of the past but most conservatism isn't actually like that. Instead it serves to protect entrenched patterns of privilege that protect elites but do little to support the ancient folk-ways and traditions that could be seen to carry many of the wisdoms of the past.

I believe folk-wisdom from the past to be highly valuable. I see in it a kind of collective wisdom that belongs to no one person but is the accumulated wisdom of many generations. In our highly individualist Western society (once again, individualism has both positive and negative manifestations in our world) we usually come to everything from the past with an unconscious kind of arrogance about us. An assumption that we today represent the pinnacle of knowledge and wisdom that mankind has ever obtained too and everything that came before exists solely to be ransacked for our use before we've taken the time to understand it. I don't believe that traditional magical practices should be encountered on their own terms (at least initially) because I believe that a magic worker from the past was necessarily better at what they did than I am, but because I believe that all the accumulated wisdom behind a practice passed down for generations knows better than I do!

This is why I believe in taking time to study before jumping into a practice. It isn't because I believe that intellect trumps experiential immersion or intuition, it's more because I see this as a way of paying respect to the material I'm working with. Studying the magical practices and beliefs of the past is my form of homage to that collective wisdom. Yes, I have some pretty revolutionary ideas when it comes to current politics and social values, no I don't think that my ability to use the internet and read lots of books makes me a stronger sorcerer than someone born into a culture who had a fully reddened magical practices passed down to them at their parent's knee which carried the accumulated, unbroken wisdom of countless generations! And let's face it, even if it did turn out that we 'knew better' it wouldn't do most of us modern Westerners any bloody harm to have engaged in that exercise in humility.

This of course doesn't mean that I think everything was better in the past. Now is certainly the best time to be a woman, queer, or one of numerous racial groups that are looked on far more positively in the West today. It may occur to some people to ask why we should expect 'wisdom' from people that held all these other unenlightened views, beat their wives with sticks (no bigger than the thumb for the Victorian lady, thanks) executed homosexuals and owned slaves. A good question if you asked it! To which I have two main answers.

One is that power abuses primarily belong, in any era, to the groups in power. The folk magic practices that find their way into my 'Traditional Witchcraft' were seldom developed by the groups actually engaging in creating that world or benefiting from its spoils. They themselves were usually the rural poor and often used magic to try to gain some power in a world where they had little. But! (I hear you say) there is a significant contribution from learned magical traditions in modern Traditional Witchcraft, what about them! Why are they so wise? Well, to be honest, I don't think that the same generalisations I've made about folk magic can be extended to a tradition once it is passed through books. I am primarily interested in the learned material that filtered back into folk magic, the little snippets of grimoire magic that were absorbed into cunning practice. If it didn't filter into folk magic and remained in a grimoire I tend to class it as 'ceremonial magic' rather than witchcraft or cunning craft. This being said, the question still must be addressed.

Although I do believe our views on these matter are better and more humane than those  held a couple of hundred years ago, I don't believe that this is due to any fundamental superiority on our behalf. Our forebears led much tougher lives than we do today, most of us can't even imagine what it would be like to live so near the knife's edge as many did and I think it's pretty clear that living a gentler life, not being brutalised yourself, helps in the development of compassion. If ever since childhood you were witnessing hangings and knew that you could starve at any time and there'd be no welfare to help you out, then that would significantly effect how much you felt you had the luxury to care for others. And I do think luxury is the right word. Today we feel secure enough in a lot of places to put thought into how people are doing in other parts of the world. Some of our ancestors had enough to worry about on the home front. They might not have started rallies over in Wales to end slavery in the Americas but they didn't have the TV and internet and they probably did far more to help out their neighbours than most of us do today.

It is also noteworthy that today we do a good job at tolerating inhumanity in return for comforts (just as our forebears did) as long as it's kept out of our line of sight and perpetrated in the Third World. So, in a nutshell, our ancestors weren't perfect and neither are we, but I believe the very harshness of their reality by comparison to today is precisely why they knew their shit when it came to magic. There are also plenty of things about the way magic was practiced traditionally that have their own radicalism about them when compared to today's culture. Let me explain...

History, as we know, is written but he victor. Groups that have power use narratives of history to hold onto that power. Conservative viewpoints will choose a highly selective vision of the past to cling to when they push their 'traditional values'. My vision of what classes as 'traditional' in witchcraft is just as selective. The only difference is that I'm not exactly part of a dominant power elite and I am also entirely self conscious and honest about what I'm doing. Yes, I select aspects of the past I wish to honour as 'traditional', such as the magical culture, and reject others, such as the persecution of homosexuality. No problem getting that out there at all.

It is acknowledged that history is written by the victor, but we seldom acknowledge how every group, ideology or religion does its own myth making. We all need myth. Myth is part of what gives life meaning. It's only bad if we pass it off as history and thus deny alternate stories.

I've often heard Traditional Craft be accused of a kind of 'mythic history', because some people claim that 'witchcraft' was always a negative and that even Cunning Folk would reject the association with this pejorative word. So, therefore, any association with the word is by nature modern rather than traditional.

I have a couple of problems with that argument. One is that, yes, witchcraft was a word that described a capital crime in the past. So it's almost a no-brainer to say that people weren't all lining up to have that word associated with them. To give so much priority to whether or not they owned a particular word is to ignore the richness of the myth that goes with the word. I would be more interested in who was sending the fetch, going to weird spirit meetings with animal and part-animal others, meeting spirits at crossroads stiles and wells, casting spells, collecting bones and brewing potions and consciousness altering ointments and prophesying events, and entering the Hollow Hills to commune with the faeries, rather than who was brave (or stupid) enough to slap the word 'witch' on what they were doing.

My second problem is I think this argument can potentially ignore the fact that all history is to some extent mythic and creative. The history that is accepted by the establishment is always a partial picture, as is the history accepted by the fringe-dwellers like myself. This is inevitable because we only ever have partial records and the vast majority of actual truth is lost to time. What aspects we choose to emphasis will always make a big difference to picture that emerges. As witches, however, we are often more self-aware when it comes to the Stories that define our lives. We need myth as much as we need history, but we cannot afford to let someone else pass myth off as history without our awareness.

In summation, I use the term 'traditional' because I believe that we have things to learn from the magical practices of our forebears. I believe this to be the case because these people lived close to the land, they lived generally in one land all their lives and were born into connection with place and people, the practices and even just the beliefs about the spirit-world they were passed is not just the wisdom of one or two people but of potentially thousands and these people often had to rely on magic for life and death matters. I don't believe that people who were living so close to subsistence would have wasted time on practices that didn't get them immediate practical results. This stuff was tried and tested in the fire of immediate human need. 

This even goes for the use of Christian or heretical Christian motifs and symbols. I believe they used them because they worked for them in some way, or that those ideas were close enough to something older that it made an appropriate gloss. Before I reject something outright from a knee-jerk response I'd rather respect it enough to try it and see why it was used. I don't believe they were stupid and impressionable or didn't know what they were doing when semi-Christian folk magic developed in Europe. I think they were instead a pragmatic and omnivorous magical people/s who absorbed useful things but at a much slower and steadier rate than modern cultural appropriation and eclecticism.

I use the word 'witchcraft' in there with 'traditional' because I believe it's the best word in English to convey what we do. I believe it conveys the sense of the ecstatic, night-flying, spirit-walking, animal-turning, hedge-crossing, spell-casting, spirit-talking, dead-seeing, curse-throwing, root-working, herbal healing, magical practitioner. Whether or not people wanted to avoid getting killed and might not have used it in the past doesn't erase the whole picture of the history of the word and what it's come to mean today, and I think that whole picture is important.

Images from: http://www.templeilluminatus.com/group/the_witches_kitchen?groupUrl=the_witches_kitchen&xg_source=activity&id=6363372%3AGroup%3A1747624&page=3




Monday, September 2, 2013

Can Witchcraft be Revolutionary?


Today I want to ponder a question that to some people might seem too obvious to require much pondering: can the practice of witchcraft have revolutionary potential?

I have usually been of the opinion that there is something inherently 'revolutionary' about witchcraft, in the sense that by its nature it is always of the outside, the Other, something that stirs up and makes breaks in the status quo. Unless one saw some kind of value in disturbing the balance of power, what would be the point reclaiming a word that has traditionally had negative connotations? In claiming the word 'witch' there exists an inherent willingness to challenge the validity of that negative and question powerful people and institutions who gave the word those connotations.

This being said, considering we are talking about the 'owning' of a word that very few others have wanted to own historically we must be open to questions. Religious witchcraft (as in Wicca and other witchcraft traditions that class witchcraft as a religion) has built up such a strong mythos around the idea of the witch as a sympathetic rebel figure that it seems initially difficult to argue with such a premise. But because I think the topic is worth discussing I will start by tableing my own assumptions and premises.

When it comes to the way something like witchcraft and politics (and by that I mean power relations of any kind) intersect I believe three things very strongly:

1. Forces that many consider 'unseen' or even 'subtle' (though both these terms could be contested) have a real and tangible effect on events in this world.

2. Whilst these forces and powers that might be deemed 'beyond reason' are potent and real, ideas also matter intensely. Ideas do not just occupy a cold, calculating space, they are capable of inflaming the whole person when engaged with dynamically.

3. Massive and unprecedented change/evolution is always possible at any time no matter how late in the game. Possibilities are infinite and sorcery attempts to increase the odds in a particular direction.

Now as these are my beliefs on the matter they are also the 'premise' behind which I come up with my conclusions. I point this out because a great deal of argument goes on via the inter-web, some of it very self defeating and defeatist where people reach the conclusion that nothing positive can be done to affect the direction in which the world is heading. Of course those conclusions are influenced strongly by an unspoken premise. If your premise is that possibilities are limited by what you yourself have witnessed during your life time then your ability to reach any other conclusion is severely limited. Your ability to sorcerously exploit possibility is also curtailed.

So, in a nutshell I am not an optimist, I'm a sorcerer. And I don't like to mentally close down an avenue before I've even tried to exploit it. It's just not good business.

With those facts about me noted we return to the original question, a question that I believe contains two sides. One is whether witchcraft is inherently revolutionary and the other of whether it has the potential to be revolutionary.

To begin with point one I think the answer will largely depend on what we mean by 'revolutionary' and by witchcraft. If by revolutionary we mean something that can be directly shown to contribute to fomenting revolution and overthrowing power structures, then probably not. Witchcraft by its nature is not something that works in the open or creates causal evidence that can be studied by historians. Historically speaking witchcraft was malefic magic, that is, the practice of sorcery that was deemed evil. Now I include the word 'deemed' advisedly because the difference between an act of evil, an act of self defence, an act of vigilantism or even political overthrow (I'm thinking here of the North Berwick Coven's attempt to sink King James' ship) is pretty much which side you're on. The definition of 'evil' as 'to do harm' is frankly ridiculous in a time when accused witches were routinely being executed and all manner of legal harm doing was openly tolerated. There were in that era, as there are today, forms of harm doing that we consider positive and socially acceptable. Who gets to define what kind of harm will be considered evil and what will be considered positive depends very much on who is in power.

For instance, a cunning man who strikes back or out at another magical practitioner deemed a witch, is seen as engaging in 'curse reversal' or 'curse breaking', although there are many stories of those acts doing harm to the witch they are seldom classed as malefic, because by nature of being classed as absolute evil harm done to the witch is placed in a different context socially. What classes as maleficium and therefore what classes as a witch is highly relative to the power structure in that society.

So in short the definition of witch as a performer of evil magic and cunning folk as being those who counter-curse and cure, very much rests on structures of power that are used to organise harm-doing in a society and regulate when it is acceptable. To be a witch was to immediately fall down on the side of 'any harm you do to others is unacceptable by nature, any good you do to others cannot be defined as good and any harm done to you does not class as  harmful.' This is the ultimate position of non-privelege!

Could occupying that place in society in the past have been a revolutionary act? Well, other than the North Berwick Coven's attempt on the King's life and Isobel Gowdie's claims to have struck out at the family of the local Lord there aren't many examples that come to mind of revolutionary behaviour in historical British Witchcraft if you take the macro vision of revolution. But if instead you think of 'revolutionary' in terms of regular, small but perhaps potent countering of the dominant ideology through one's daily behaviour, then many people accused of witchcraft and even a lot of cunning folk would qualify as revolutionary in some of their actions. They would be so simply through offering an alternative to mainstream medicinal and religious consolations.

The degree of 'revolutionary' content to being a witch in historical times would have to be said to increase dramatically if someone actually owned the word 'witch' for themselves. At the very moment of doing so they were implicitly questioning the basis behind who gets to decide what harm-acts are harmful, who gets to decide who and what is evil, and placing themselves outside of the dominant paradigm of their era.

Which leads us to the question: how revolutionary is claiming the word 'witch' today? I personally claim the word for a host of reason even though I'm aware that many of my magical practitioner forebears may have rejected the term for obvious reasons. I claim the word because I believe it would have been applied to me in the past and because I question the basis upon which harm-doing was given value or negative value in the past. I also claim it because I believe that mythic symbols of great power and resonance still exist behind the figure of the witch and all the things associated with witchcraft in the popular mind. I also believe that it is right that the word still carries some discomfort with it, I believe that true hedge riding between the worlds ought to make people uncomfortable. It ought to come along with such a feeling of ambiguity that one isn't sure whether that person ought to be trusted due to our difficulty with classifying them - these to me are signs of power.

To claim the word 'witch' under those circumstances I therefore believe is a revolutionary act. But to claim the word but try to make it acceptable is simply to pull it within the hedge and make witchcraft mainstream rather than radicalise anything. For this reason I do not believe that witchcraft forms the suitable basis for a mass movement. But if you return to my premises above you will see that I don't believe one needs to organise a mass movement of visible individuals to affect outcomes in this world, I believe in the power of unseen forces and ideas and in those areas occultists can be very powerful. Though few will ever recognise or be able to quantify our influence.

Making a group Other in some way, is always a system of control, it allows what is Same to exist, without the Othered group there can be no Same and so human social cohesion has tended to rest on this brutal process of exclusion. I don't think this is something that can be changed at its heart, every civilisation will always put certain behaviours or people outside its walls. It could be said however that the measure of a civilisation is how many things it feels the need to Other, how it treats its Other and how we manage our fear in relation to it. It is natural for humans to fear what is Other, but it is us as a society who decides how we will respond to that. So in this sense I certainly don't want to be persecuted for being a witch, but nor do I want the word to conjure images of unicorns, glitter and group hugs, because then it will have lost its revolutionary edge and jumped inside the hedge of the acceptable.

It could be said that we live in an era that needs its witches and its occultists, because what we need now is ideas and unseen forces to move the hearts of men and women towards change, ideas and experiences that catch the human soul on fire. I believe that witchcraft can still be revolutionary today, not because I think it should be a mass movement where lots of people become witches, but because the ideas, the art, and the seeming intangible influences that come forth from the shadows have always had their part to play in questioning and challenging (implicitly or explicitly) the dominant ideologies and power nexus and the all important perspective of providing a glimpse of the world as seen through the eyes of the Other. What if we could give the forest guardian or the faerie who lives inside an ancient oak scheduled for destruction a voice in this world? We would of course be laughed at and mocked in the same way the very concept of faeries has been trivialised ever since our post-industrial minds stopped feeling healthy fear of Nature. Mockery is simply another form of Othering which often today takes the place of hatred, when we attempt to give voice to that which is silent from the perspective of the majority.

That nexus is more complex, the forms of Othering inflicted on those who attempt to step outside that consensual reality nexus are different from the past, yet insidious, but as sorcerers I believe we have all the tools to see through them to the core of their nature and combat them. I believe our ability to act and the partially hidden but still revolutionary nature of the calling of witchcraft remains undimmed.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Haunted Books



When I first set out to write ‘Wooing theEcho’ I thought I was just writing a simple book. My conscious aim was to write a book about magic that would leave people wondering: could this really happen? I wanted the kind of magic that the book would deal with to be the kind that an occultist would recognize as within the realms of ‘radical possibility’. Rather than escaping to a world where the impossible happens, I wanted the reader to come away finding reality itself more magical.

The story was meant to be about a young man struggling with a haunting, trying to understand his ghosts, and finding magic, real magic, as an antidote to his feelings of alienation. Over several books the story would chart his growth and development as a person and as a student of the occult arts. Kind of like a much more adult version of Harry Potter, -except with magic that would border more closely on being ‘believable’. So of course I drew on real esoteric traditions, including folkloric witchcraft to create this suspension of disbelief. There are a lot of modern movies and books about witches, werewolves and vampires but all of them so fanciful they are not meant to encourage the audience to believe they are meant only for escapism. Not only that, most of them have lost touch with the richness of our true folkloric heritage.

In short I wanted to write a very adult faerie tale – taking us back into the deep roots of European folkloric traditions of witchcraft and away from the twee quality that the supernatural genre has acquired of late.

Throughout the books there are numerous descriptions of magical workings and rituals, including scenes where various gods and spirits appear. As I went along I began to link certain characters to the witchcraft gods such as the Witch Master, Dame Fate and the Rose Queen. Quite soon something began to happen a little reminiscent of the uncanny incidents ascribed to the ‘Scottish Play’. The events in the books began to impact events in this world. My experience with writing these books has opened my eyes to the space of the uncanny that stories occupy in our lives everyday, like water to a fish we are swimming in stories every day and we forget to notice them. Narrative interpenetrates every aspect of our lives and all forms of real magic depend on it or utilise its power. 

It wasn’t long before the story, its characters and underlying mythic themes came to life in very tangible ways for me. Not only did I start to dream about the characters who would inform me of what their ‘future’ should hold, but other friends dreamed about them and sometimes it wasn’t easy to tell if they were the character from the book or being ‘gloved’ by a spirit or god they were aligned to mythically in the book. The characters have become what is known in the western Occult tradition as ‘egregores’ or thought-forms.

 Many of the rituals in the books come from real life witchcraft and all of the content is drawn from genuine folklore so I guess it’s hardly surprising that these books are haunted. Since I began writing them we have experienced people turning up with the same name and fetch animal as one of the characters or spontaneously revealing the same secrets as something that no one else had read which I’d already written. The synchronicities have kept on coming for over a decade now, as these thought-forms have continued to gather power. It is now time to share these stories with a wider audience.

Recently a friend experienced a semi-initiatory vision of great importance brought on by a response to reading something that occurred in one of the books in this series. It seems that I have knocked at a door, offered an egregore-mask of types to spirits and they’ve answered, driving the direction of the story to their own ends. It is an exercise in what I call 'story sorcery'.

All I can say is that I realize now that the Christopher Penrose books are haunted. I have a lot of experience as an occultist but I’ve never done a working of this scope, a working that has so far spanned over a decade, beginning when I was twenty-one and stretching into my thirties. When book nine comes to its conclusion I don’t even know what shape it will take, but I do know that whatever it wants to be is happening through me in the same way that children happen through you, you don’t get to control them or create them in your own image. You just have to hold them and provide for them and then step back to let them flower.

This is my statement about the kind of 'story sorcery' that this series of books represents:

As an artist what you aim to do is loosen parameters so that you can show your audience into the antechamber of a new way of being. You aim to induct them, slowly at first, into new ways of being so that their scope of ways of knowing joy is made wider. You don’t do this in a shy or inhibited, cynical manner, you do it with gusto and an open heart. Or why do it at all?

We The Artists, those of The Art, are not here to change and replace your ways of being or your modes of pleasure. We are here to show you all the options, the many shades of delights tinged with agonies that exist around the edges and the shadows of things. Without us and the pleasures and dangers of genuine Art our society will lose its colours and subside into beige shades of mass-produced twee.

This is my invitation to you to come and sample The Haunted Books of the Christopher Penrose series. 

Photograph by Rebecca Flynn