Oroboro, Necromancy, and the Grinning Man

A couple months ago, I posted an article on necromancers and cool headwear, which culminated in some amazing sketches by my friend Joel Clapp of a nightmarish helmet I dubbed “The Grinning Man.” The helmet he and I came up with was meant for one character in particular, a necromancer named Oroboro, who is also the topic of Ergodica Part 2: Interdimensional Necromantic Blues.

Culaith helmet sketch Joel occult triangle lab

While trying to visualize the character, I took some inspiration from one of my favorite movies, Apocalypse Now. The beginning and ending music of the film was taken from “The End” by The Doors, who took their band’s name from a quote within Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception:  “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” I thought that strange string of connections between that movie, that song, and that quote should be incorporated into my stories, somehow.

The lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison, was one of the most charismatic and iconic figures of the 1960s. In 1967, he did a famous photo shoot titled “The Young Lion.” Here’s one of the photos from that shoot:

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As soon as I saw this image, I knew I wanted to base Oroboro’s physical appearance off of Morrison. I really liked the aesthetic of this photo: Jim Morrison isn’t a muscled guy, and in fact looks kind of emaciated and drugged out. He’s not a physically imposing person, but his gaze is very intense. His hair is also long and unkempt, which makes him look sort of like a madman or a serial killer.

I imagined Oroboro as looking similar, but with one distinction: he would have no cheeks or lips. After reading a graphic novel version of The Man Who Laughs, I was fascinated with the grotesque imagery of a death’s-head grin, where someone’s face hinted at the bone and blood underneath.

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Back in college, I took a course on Critical Theory and became interested in the concept of “the abject,” as described by Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror. The heart of the abject is the idea that there exist images and sensations that can destabilize a person’s sense of selfhood. This is where we derive our sense of the uncanny, the disturbing, and the disgusting: everything that evokes these reactions is a facet of the abject, and (according to Kristeva) represents an unconscious threat to our ideas about who we are, mentally and physically. I disagreed with a lot in Kristeva’s essay, but there were parts I resonated with, including one passage on corpses:

“The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.”

As I imagined it, Oroboro’s mutilation wouldn’t come from a sadistic group of kidnappers, like Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs, but rather from screaming so intensely that he dislocated his jaw and split his cheeks, so that all that would remain would be flaps of skin hanging from his upper and lower jaws. After shearing away these loose flaps of skin (and the rest of the skin around his jaws), he would have the appearance of a living corpse, the essence of everything horrible, uncanny, and disturbing.

The first sketch of Oroboro came directly from the reference photo of Morrison–this was Joel’s initial sketch of Oroboro’s unharmed, unaltered face:

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Next, Joel created a sketch to visualize the structure of the skull and the weaving of the muscles around the face and mouth:

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From there, Joel made the first draft, incorporating Jim Morrison’s face and his anatomical sketches. This first draft had the nose sheared off as well as the lips and cheeks. To Joel and I, this looked less like the aftermath of self-surgery and more like a zombie.

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In the second draft, Joel added his nose back in and made some finer touches. The end result is starkly horrifying: everything around the mouth is relatively normal, even attractive, but the mouth dominates Oroboro’s face in something not quite a grin or a grimace. It’s just a maw.

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The exposure of the character’s teeth is meant to evoke a lot of different ideas and feelings, but there was one in particular I had in mind when conceiving this character: cannibalism. As I mentioned in the previous post on this character and his helmet, Oroboro’s necromantic modus operandi is eating other people (or their souls/egos). So it’s appropriate that his appearance evokes an abject, monstrous set of teeth. Taken together with his specially made helmet, he resembles something like a Lovecraftian horror:

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The Occult Triangle Lab Review: I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrere

occult-triangle-lab-chris-mahon-fantasy-sci-fi-philip-k-dick-reviewThis past week I finished I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a biography of Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the inspiration for Blade Runner) and The Man in the High Castle. Dick won the Hugo Award in 1963, and ended up being the namesake of his own sci-fi award. I’d read Do Androids years ago, and it’s one of the few sci-fi novels whose ending made me cry.

With Dick’s reputation, I expected a biography soaked in the zeitgeist of the 60’s, with all the drugs, revolutionary fervor, and avant-garde intellectual chops that characterized Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, and the rest. Dick is part of the sci-fi canon, and canonical authors exist in a special limbo between our world and the Great Conversation of literature. So I expected a bloodless account of the ideas and influences of a great man.

But the book is not that.

The closest thing I can compare I Am Alive and You Are Dead to is a “walk-in,” where you are a co-inhabitant of Philip K. Dick’s mind. And the mind of Philip K. Dick is an existential and epistemological nightmare, a turbulent, labyrinthine house of mirrors where nothing is real. The most terrifying thing is that, as the book goes on, you learn that this is Dick’s normal operating procedure, from cradle to grave.

Madman or Mystic?

There have been all kinds of articles about Dick’s madness and eccentricities, hailing him as a mad mystic and visionary (including the recent follow-up article in PW for Kyle Arnold’s new 2016 biography), but the image of Dick portrayed in I Am Alive is perhaps closer to the human who lived and wrote and not the legend he became. It lays bear his self-indulgences, his immaturity, and his toxic string of relationships, where the casualties of his lust and boredom were often young women and his own children.

And as the book illustrates, Dick’s forays into “madness” and mysticism were always self-aware and self-reflexive–as he was experiencing hallucinations or alleged religious epiphanies, he was inspecting and analyzing them as someone who is aware that they might be products of chemicals or his own biases. No one was more skeptical of Dick’s legend and genius than Dick himself. While looking back on “Faith of Our Fathers,” his contribution to the self-professed cutting edge sci-fi anthology assembled by Harlan Ellison, Carrere describes his reaction as follows:

“‘Faith of Our Fathers’ is a horrific tale. While writing it, Phil felt a surge of pride. Reading it a year later, after the deaths of Jim Pike Jr. and Maren, he saw it differently. It was still horrific, but in a new and even more distressing way. All his tricks and hobbyhorses were on display: totalitarianism, the idios kosmo and the koinos kosmos, psychedelic drugs, Ultimate Reality, God. Here was the little world of Phillip K. Dick in one package.”

Dick was plagued with such Cartesian doubt that one of his chief anxieties was that he was not himself, but rather a doppleganger or someone who had replaced the real Dick, complete with false memories like Rachael in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Nothing was as it seemed. The Ultimate Reality, Dick’s ultimate object of contemplation, was always behind another layer of illusions, and there was no way to ever know if he had found it. For anyone else, these kinds of purely philosophical problems would be navel-gazing, something to ponder for an hour while looking out a window and then put aside to get down to the business to living. But according to Carrere, matters of reality, metaphysics, and perception were the operating questions of Phil’s life, forming the lens through which he viewed every aspect of his day-to-day life.

So you can see where the dueling claims of mystic and madman come from. But in truth (at least according to the book), both were stage roles that Dick played for the benefit of his observers, his ego, and his career. The “real” Dick, if there ever was such a thing, never found the inner tranquility or blissful ignorance that insanity or religious experience supposedly granted. He never transcended anything, never settled any of the questions that haunted him, and at the end of his life he realized that maybe all of his questioning and searching had led to less than nothing. Carrere characterizes Phil’s thoughts while working on one of his last projects:

“There’s nothing more pathetic than the mistrust of immediate reality by people who never stop splitting hairs over Ultimate Reality. They always think they’re getting to the bottom of things, whose surfaces they turn away from as unworthy of their attention; they end up never knowing the flesh of the world, the softness and resistance it offers to the touch. They manage to bypass their own lives.

The dialectic conversation between Phil and his own alter ego, Horselover Fat, provides an even more (to me) horrifying image of Phil’s life: solipsism.

“Since the day you were born you’ve been confined to the labyrinth of your brain. What you’re hearing now, all you’ve ever heard, and you’ll ever hear are the magnetic tapes of your own voice being played back to you in closed-circuit transmission. Don’t kid yourself: that is exactly what you are hearing at this very moment. It’s your own voice that’s telling you this. You sometimes let yourself be fooled by it, because the voice wouldn’t have been able to stand itself all these years without learning how to fake other voices, to echo them, to ventriloquize so that you think you’re speaking with other people. The truth is that you’re alone in there, just as Palmer Eldritch is alone in the world that he has emptied of its substance whose inhabitants all bear his stigmata.”

Someone (including Kyle Arnold) might be tempted to sort through Phil’s chaotic, ouroboros-like life and attempt to relegate everything to symptoms. Dick was suffering from schizophrenia, Dick was suffering from anxiety, Dick was suffering from paranoia. From an early age he met with a psychiatrist regularly (I believe it was weekly), and one of the key drivers of his fiction was the abuse of prescription drugs. He experienced hallucinations and amnesia. All of the symptoms of any number of diagnoses are there.

But the key question for me is this: if Dick was mentally ill, where was the line between himself and his disease? Did his schizophrenia give birth to his fascination with the ideas of idios kosmos and koinos kosmos (the difference between personal reality and shared reality, which Phil delineates in stories like Time Out of Joint)? Did his paranoia cause his obsession with ultimate reality and truth? Was mental illness the unconscious wellspring for Philip K. Dick’s stories and the source of his unhappiness, or was it his own thinking? I don’t know. It’s a Phildickian question. Maybe that’s the ‘genius’ of it all, the kernel at the heart of what makes him such an interesting person to read about: the most important questions about PKD’s nature are the ones he helped to define. Selfhood, simulacra, reality, truth…it reminds me of a quote from another android: “Who are you? Who slips into my robot body and whispers to my ghost?”

I recommend I Am Alive And You Are Dead. I don’t know if it’s the truth, or even the seminal portrait of Phillip K. Dick and his writing, but I think it’s worth reading as a cautionary tale for writers who romanticize the hermit-genius and the madman, and as a window into one of the most interesting, infuriating minds in sci-fi.

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrere

Hypnotica: New Short Story and Sketches from Joel Clapp

9 months after its inception, my new short story, Hypnotica, is out for submission to fantasy magazines!

If you want to learn more about the inspiration behind it and how I fleshed out the magic system in the story, you should check out the posts DREAMWAVE: FANTASY WRITING, QUANTUM THEORY, AND DAFT PUNK and NARCOMANCY: MORPHINE, LUCID DREAMING, AND BINAURAL BEATS.

If you want a taste of the story, I’ve included a short excerpt below, along with sketches from my friend Joel Clapp. Hypnotica is the story of dreamwrights, mages who use music to shape dreams into surreal raves, and the Yoshiwara, a ghost-city that exists at the boundaries of waking and sleeping. The sketches depict the setting of the story, a ruined city carved into the side of the mountain, named Ibiza. In the story, the protagonists, two narcomancers named GRIN and NO-FOOT, travel between Ibiza and its mirror reflection in the dream world, the Yoshiwara.

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“The Yoshiwara is a dream city, and there are breeds of magicians here that only exist between sunset and sunrise. The most famous ones, the ones only the Yoshiwara can make, are the dreamwrights, who play their music for the ghosts and the dreamers, carrying their songs in their bones.

Each night, the flesh-and-blood bodies of dreamwrights fill the coma houses in Ibiza like stacks of wood, and their sleep-selves find their way to the other Ibiza, the one that exists in dreams. That mirror-city is the Yoshiwara, whose streets and buildings match the waking Ibiza only loosely. The Yoshiwara is where they make names for themselves.

            These days in Ibiza, shrines and cults spring up around the celebrities, the dancers and the artists, and for a while their autographs are exchanged like gold for anything and everything. Invitations from the courts of the drug lords and architects flood in, and gold flows as freely as the liquor when they go out.

            But standing over all the petty celebrities, towering like the ruined buildings of Ibiza, are the dreamwrights and their names. DEKAY. OZO. ENAF. Their fans paint buildings with their names in the middle of the night, writing love notes in twenty-foot-tall letters. Their fans carve their names onto tables, wooden joists, scaffolding, tattoo them across the skin, weave them into robes and scrawl them onto the margins of menus in tea houses. The popularity of dreamwrights is measured by the ubiquity of their name. But for every one that makes a name, a hundred wither away into addiction, and no one remembers them.”

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Hypnotica: New Short Story and Sketches from Joel Clapp

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.

Besides my work on the Lab, my essays on fantasy have appeared in the Hugo Award-winning Clarkesworld Magazine.

THE KOAN OF THE OCCULT TRIANGLE LAB

Everything feeds into everything else, the world is a frightening and wonderful place, and when you dig deep enough, triangles lie at the heart of everything.

Welcome to the Occult Triangle Lab

My New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: Paradise Lost

Yesterday my new essay, Paradise Lost: A History of Fantasy and the Otherworld, was published online in the July Issue of the Hugo Award-winning Clarkesworld Magazine! This marks the culmination of a conversation that started four or five years ago, when I was standing in my driveway at night with my friend Joel Clapp.

We had just finished a game of D&D, and I was telling Joel about “the candlelit world,” a theory I had about what made the fantasy genre unique. I said that fantasy was defined by folktales and myths, which came from a world lit by candlelight. Humans lived within the flickering circle of their lights, and the great, unknown world loomed out in the dark. Looking up at the fifty-foot pine trees in the dark, I said there were two sides to that unknown world: horror and wonder. There were wondrous adventures to be had in the unknown, paradises to be found and treasures beyond imagination, but also nightmares, unspeakable horrors, and death.

I grew up in Washington State, surrounded by forests and the outdoors. There, the immensity of the world seems to hit home a lot harder than here in New York. The sheer vastness of it, the oldness of it, boggles the mind. There’s a sense that you could explore for years and never scratch the surface of it. It evokes Jon Krakaeur’s  Into the Wild, but what I thought of when I looked out into the rolling dark forests were the stories in Time-Life’s Enchanted World series.

The 2013 article I wrote for Clarkesworld was titled The Candlelit World, spoke about myths and the woods, but it only spoke about the horror and darkness–its subtitle was The Dark Roots of Myth and Fantasy. It drew heavily on H.P. Lovecraft and his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and It was the first chance I got to speak about my view of fantasy. Now, three years later, I finally get to tell the other half.

Clarkesworld Magazine is one my favorite fantasy short fiction magazines, and I’m so excited to have another piece go out to their readers (as well as you!). If you get a chance, read some of their stories and donate to Neil Clark and his wonderful team on Patreon.

My New Essay in Clarkesworld Magazine: Paradise Lost