Welcome to the Occult Triangle Lab

You opened the box, he came.

This is the Occult Triangle Lab, a blog about fantasy, trigonometry, and ungodly amounts of milk. New posts are below, but for new visitors, here’s a guide to some of the coolest projects on the Lab so far:

  1. Ergodica: Experimental Literature, Fractals, and Necromancy
  2. The Making of ANATMAN: Origami Books, Zen Buddhism, and Oroboro
  3. The Rats in the Walls: Graffiti, Lovecraft, and an NYC Alternate Reality Game

Other posts cover my fantasy world and short stories, including posts on worldbuilding, magic systems, and sketches from my stacks of notebooks. I also talk about books and articles I’m reading.

Welcome to the Occult Triangle Lab

Meow Wolf and the House of Eternal Return

This past week, I visited my old college roommate in Albuquerque and went on a road trip to Santa Fe to check out Meow Wolf, which is home to something called ‘The House of Eternal Return.’ The building contains a full-sized family house, complete with a living room, porch, kitchen, and bedrooms, but scattered around the house are books, planners, and pamphlets that give clues about the residents, including Lucius Fox, who is the founder of a Scientology-like cult called Positive Mechanics, which is concerned with travelling through dimensions. It’s essentially Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but built to scale, with a refrigerator that leads…somewhere else.

While wandering around the house, I found some interesting in-world texts, including a will, a PowerPoint presentation on a computer about Positive Mechanics, and a cipher for an unknown language, which allows you to decode a nearby message in a picture frame. Most interesting of all was a tapestry titled the ‘Technomancer Manifesto,’ which can be heard spoken aloud here.

Here are some of the pictures:

 

The House of Eternal Return is hands-down the coolest place I’ve ever visited, and not just because it’s a funhouse filled with occult B.S. It’s the kind of weird, incredibly ambitious project that you always hear people talk about as some ultimate goal, but inevitably never gets off the ground due to practicality. But Meow Wolf and the HOER is not only real, it exceeds all expectations and all goddamn definition. It really is a playground for the imagination, and mixes dark storytelling with mind-bending experiences and the sheer joy of exploring–anyone who’s been there knows the stuff I’ve described is only one-tenth of the experience. It makes me happy that a place like HOER exists, and it inspires me to do something just as weird and ambitious.

You can check out the website here.

 

Meow Wolf and the House of Eternal Return

I Have a New Monthly Worldbuilding Column at Fantasy Faction!

It’s called ‘Worlds Within Worlds’! The first article is an adaptation/revision of my OTL post on the Nokizi, titled “THE NECRONOMICON TO THE NOKIZI: CREATING TEXTS FOR SECONDARY WORLDS“. Here’s the banner for the column:

Worlds Within Worlds

Apart from giving the background on how I wrote the Nokizi, it gives some advice for writers looking to write their own secondary world texts:

  • Write out as much as you can
  • Always Write for Two Audiences
  • Pay Attention to Medium, Style, and Mode
  • Include References to Other Books, Events, and People

Check it out on Fantasy Faction!

 

I Have a New Monthly Worldbuilding Column at Fantasy Faction!

I’m Going to Be Moderating a Panel on Star Wars at Silicon Valley Comic-Con!

When I was a panelist on Outer Place’s “Science of Star Wars” panel last year, I thought that was going to be the high point of my nerd career for a while: I got to talk about sci-fi with a physicist, two PhDs in psychology, and professional Star Wars prop-makers. That’s me, second from the left.

Then I got to moderate a panel on robotics, AI, and sci-fi at Columbia University’s BRITE conference with a NASA astronaut, a PhD from the New School, a decorated fantasy/sci-fi author, and the director of the PKD Film Festival. Now, I’m moderating another panel at Silicon Valley Comic-Con. My editor and I are heading out to San Jose on the 20th to hit the show floor as press, then we’ll be presenting on Saturday. In short:

If you want to come see the panel, it’s on Saturday April 22nd, 2017, 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm, Room 211ABCD. The title is “Droids and Death Stars: The Science of Star Wars,” and we’ve got a kick-ass panel of experts lined up. I’ll be running the discussion and queuing the laser light show.

I’m Going to Be Moderating a Panel on Star Wars at Silicon Valley Comic-Con!

Highlights from GIFCON 2017 and my trip to Scotland!

Hey, so you probably heard I was asked to speak at the Glasgow International Fantasy Conference on my 2015 project, The Rats in the Walls. The talk went great, and I’ll be publishing the full text soon, but in the meantime I wanted to give some of the high points of the trip.

First off, while walking around Glasgow, I could catch a few glimpses of the Glasgow Necropolis, which was awesome. I’d never seen a graveyard like it, and the ‘skyline’ of monuments on the hill made it look like a true city of the dead. The giant doors in the hillside were especially cool–they made me think of the gates of a city, leading into the earth.

IMG_1913 IMG_1914

Second, the actual Conference took place in Glasgow University’s chapel, which was beautiful. The University is over 550 years old, and a lot of the passages still feel more like a castle than a modern building. The presentations, including Phil Harris’ talks on worldbuilding and game design, Rob Maslen’s lecture on the book as a fantastical object, and Julie Bertagna’s speech about her YA fantasy series, Exodus, were fantastic.

IMG_1922 IMG_1929 IMG_1943

Third, I ended up meeting some great people at the Conference, including professors, writers, and academics. It was great to hang out with fantasists, instead of having to expand the gathering to include the other SF genres, like sci-fi and horror. There’s a lot of things unique to fantasy, and for once I was able to talk with people who were familiar and excited by the ins and outs of fantasy worldbuilding without having to explain what it was or how it worked. Most surprising of all, I was surprised when I found out the University had recently christened a new Masters in Fantasy Literature program, and that many of the attendees were members.

Fantasy has been dismissed for decades as commercial, not ‘serious’ literature. Most people who get their writing degrees see a significant stigma attached to writing fantasy in a university setting, including the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, who I interviewed recently for Outer Places. It was good to see more attention and credit given to fantasy as a genre at Glasgow U. At the same time, I felt a bit uneasy when the time came to present papers: GIFCON did so much to accord itself with traditional academia, both in the topics that were presented (including a Marxist interpretation of Dark Souls) and the way people spoke about them. For example:

While listening to a presentation about using a psychoanalytical approach to the dreams and visions in Game of Thrones, the moderator asked the presenter if he had thought about alternate interpretations of the characters’ dreams, ones that didn’t fall in line with his thesis. The presenter responded that there were a lot of visions/dreams that didn’t match up, but he’d focused on the ones that did.

As someone who’s gone through a Bachelors Degree program and written a couple academic essays for Clarkesworld, I’ve slowly realized that academia, especially academic scholarship on literature, is primarily focused on viewing one tiny facet of a subject in one very specific light, then discrediting or ignoring anything else that contradicts it (or admitting the contradictions and claiming that you’re ‘grappling’ with a complex topic that defies even self-definition). I know I’ve been guilty of this–it’s hard to take a complex world and distill a consistent, meaningful pattern from it into writing, rather than just be selective about what you pay attention to and pretend that everything else falls in line. But that latter attitude encourages a very narrow view of any given topic, and the moment it’s presented outside of its very familiar (and tolerant) academic setting, it suddenly appears incredibly myopic and (sometimes) even indulgent.

The ‘indulgent’ element is especially galling. So much scholarship, when it gets down to it, seems to be initiated because the author thought it ‘interesting.’ Certain aspects or viewpoints on a topic are discarded because the author thought it would be ‘more interesting’ to explore what they wanted to write about. There’s also very little consideration for an audience outside other experts in the field, which means all this supposed knowledge will never reach anyone outside a small circle of people. These aren’t new concerns, but they are persistent, and it makes me wary about treading deeper into the academic sphere as a speaker or writer.

GIFCON was a great experience and I hope it grows over the coming years, but I hope that it takes a note from its popular audience and material and moves away from emulating contemporary academia. I don’t know. I’m certainly not advocating for anti-intellectualism, but at the same time, attending GIFCON and seeing fantasy taken ‘seriously’, it throws into sharp relief that there are deep problems in the way academia approaches knowledge and literature. Maybe there’s something to be said for being underground, unexamined, and mocked by the establishment–it means we don’t have to play by the rules.

IMG_1915

P.S. The milk in Scotland is delicious, cheap, and plentiful. 10/10.

 

Highlights from GIFCON 2017 and my trip to Scotland!

Four Rules for Building an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming GIFCON presentation speech on my Rats in the Walls project, which was a limited ARG that took place from March–May 2015. This part of the speech talks about the four guiding principles I used to structure the whole project.

kilroy rats walls tompkins invocation

What defines an ARG?

If you look at other ARGs, like the ones for the film The Dark Knight or the games Portal 2 and Halo 3, you’ll notice a couple uniting traits: these are multimedia stories, they allow audience participation, they pretend to take place in the real world, and they are actually essentially marketing campaigns.

Real-World Stories

“Real-world” means that ARGs have a lot in common with a hoax. A great example of an early alternate reality story is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the world of the story and reality became indistinguishable and suspension of disbelief was achieved to the point that Wells managed to cause a national panic. ARGs are identical to everyday life, but there’s a divergence from reality where the story takes place. Conspiracies and espionage stories do well because they take advantage of a hidden dimension that seems real.

Utilizing Multimedia

“Multimedia” means that you’re not constrained to work on a page. Using Twitter as a platform meant I could incorporate videos, pictures, text, hashtags, and reach people online and on their phones. Much of the work I did was live performances, chalking circles, walking around with a sign, and handing out flyers. I also worked with a friend of mine to create a promotional video for the project.

Since the project was meant for the Twitter Fiction Festival, much of the “narrative” aspect had to be communicated in a way that matched the medium. To create the “events” of the purely fictional parts of the story, like trains being abducted or the communications between Kilroy and Bill Bratton, I had to create a number of fake Twitter accounts that reported on events as if they were real people reacting to developments happening around them.

Audience Participation

On the other side was audience participation. ”Audience participation” means that you’re allowing people to take part in the story’s development. This is where the ‘game’ aspect comes in with an “alternate reality game”—the audience become players attempting to guide the narrative. In this respect, DMs, hypertext authors, and game designers have a much better handle on creating these narrative structures than traditional authors: you have to learn to create contingencies and alternate outcomes and plotlines, so that players’ choices have significance. Other aspects include being able to manage players, keeping them interested, and stopping them from breaking the game.

Marketing as Storytelling

The “marketing” aspect is interesting. With an ARG, your story is your marketing, and you gain your audience by catching people’s interest. ARGs, when done right, are really a form of viral storytelling, which means being shared and talked about is as important as the story itself, because that’s how you get readers. Publicity from ANIMAL New York, the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, and photographers like Daniel Albanese helped gain exposure through news outlets, but ideally, you’d want to make your ARG as shareable as possible. Tapping into specific communities and targeting certain kinds of people online or in real-life is essential.

Four Rules for Building an Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy

When people ask what I write, I usually say “fantasy.” From there, people ask if it’s like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, and I would go “Ehh, kind of.” I can name some of the books that influenced me, like Mountains of Madness or Wizard of Earthsea, but they aren’t good comparisons to what I write now. So I’m coining a new phrase: “neo-fantasy.”

I use the term “neo-fantasy” because nothing else seems to fit. The stories I’m writing are mythopoeic, but the label ‘high fantasy’ doesn’t work because these are the stories of individuals, not of empires, quests, or battles between good and evil. Dark themes like cannibalism, murder, and even outright horror appear in my writing, but don’t define it, like dark fantasy. Moral ambiguity and grittiness are often present, but my stories don’t rely heavily on them, like grimdark. Slipstream’s blending of science fiction, fantasy, and literary elements seems right, but the emphasis on cognitive dissonance and confrontations with reality doesn’t.

“Neo-fantasy,” as I see it, is a kind of hybrid between mythopoeic fantasy, literary fiction, and something like cyberpunk. These are some of the characteristics:

  1. Comprehensive worldbuilding. It is set in a secondary world with a fully developed history, cultures, magic, and setting. The realism, depth, and verisimilitude of each of these elements is especially important—the worldbuilding must be thorough and comprehensive.
  2. Magic is crucial. The use of magic is usually connected to the conflict of the story, and is often its solution. Magic is generally handled in a systematic, analytical way comparable to computer programming, but has a metaphysical dimension to it: magic usually represents a conduit to meaning, truth, or a greater reality. It is not reducible to a ‘science’, however.
  3. The conflicts in neo-fantasy always have a personal element. Emphasis is placed on internal struggles and an exploration of the characters.
  4. Neo-fantasy is essentially humanist. Humans are empowered to shape their lives and the world around them, and there are no limits to the power or understanding that humans may achieve. There are beings more powerful than humans, but they are either derived from humans or able to be surpassed.
  5. Neo-fantasy’s primary goal is to explore the sublime. ‘The sublime’ represents the extremes of wonder and terror within life. Reverence, awe, and despair are also key themes.

My short story The Crownless King is a good example of neo-fantasy: the story takes place in a world with a strong history and magic system, and the central conflict is whether the protagonist, the wizard Samal, will save his apprentice Iz or let the weight of his past crush him. They key themes of The Crownless King are despair, horror, and death, but against it all stands the small hope that the human spirit can survive.

The term “neo-fantasy” may never come into general usage, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as having a term that I can use to unite all of these thoughts under one umbrella and articulate them to people who haven’t read my work. Everyone wants to be part of something new, avant-garde, and fashionable, but the wars over genre and theory matter less than the stories themselves.

A Manifesto for Neo-Fantasy