The Occult Triangle Lab Reading List Vol 4: The Mind of a Psychopath

This is Vol. 4 of the Occult Reading List, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week. Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

This is a special edition of the Reading List that deals with building a picture of a psychopathic mind. This is not the clinical definition of a psychopath, as defined by the DSM–this is the popular idea of a psychopath. I’m working on a new story that deals with a Mephistophelean character who’s a liar and master manipulator, and I wanted to delve into some material that could flesh out his mindset and worldview. I also asked my friend, Joel Clapp, to help compose a sketch of Yute based off the infamous photo of Charles Manson:

No one should romanticize real-life serial killers or cult leaders, but there’s something fascinating and deeply disturbing about delving into the mind of a psychopathic character. Trying to capture the essence of that sort of person ended up leading down interesting paths, especially ideas about the self, including Zen, Jungian archetypes, and German philosophy.


The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers

Reading the highlights of this book was like finding the Cliff’s Notes for American Psycho. Written in 1998 after observing the behavior of Hollywood’s power elite, the book is a apparently a big hit among celebrities, prison inmates, and corporate Machiavellian types, the kind that read The Art of War in order to get an edge in the boardroom. Some of the laws include things like “Court Attention at all Cost”, “Keep Others in Suspended Terror”, “Think as you like but Behave like others”, and the best one of all, “Assume Formlessness”.

Despite supposedly being a guide to the laws of power, the central tenets of the book revolve around the idea that appearances, not substance, are what really matter. You are who you appear to be, and your reputation is the most important thing you have. It really is a new Machiavellian handbook, and the worldview it espouses closely resembles nightmarish, uber-wealthyworld that Patrick Bateman inhabits in American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman is going to be an ongoing touchpoint for the reading in this week’s list, and the video above gives a great interpretation of his fictional character. As for the character of Yute, The 48 Laws of Power offers the bedrock for a master manipulator’s view of the world and his relationship to the world: everything is illusions, and the world is a zero-sum game that must be played every waking hour.

The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook

Everyone knows there’s a certain way to frame a conversation so that you’ll always win in the end. For police interrogators, the key is following certain techniques, like the Reid Technique, which consists of seven (sometimes nine) steps. All of it’s based on psychology and the mental stress of a guilty conscious (and imprisonment). At the same time, reading through the book made me realize just how much police offers can deceive you, trick you, and abuse your rights in order to get a confession–one passage essentially says “don’t remind a suspect of their Miranda rights against self-incrimination” and encourages the officer to keep the suspect away from a lawyer. It’s all about pressuring someone and manipulating their emotions to break down their will, which is disturbing.

At the same time, the methods and techniques in the book offer a good primer on how to structure dialogue and character dynamics in a story, especially when someone is being subtly (or overtly) pressed to reveal something they don’t want to. For the story I’m writing, it offered a body of knowledge to draw upon when trying to show that a character was an accomplished liar.

The Matrix and Meaning of Character By Jacqueline J. West and Nancy J. Dougherty

I read the first chapter of this book, titled “Schizoid character structure:
Encapsulated in ice”. I’ve never had any love for psychoanalysis in practice, but as storytelling inspiration, it’s a great resource. I actually came across the idea of the “schizoid” in Emmanuel Carrere’s biography of Philip K Dick:

“The source of all evil, he thought, was withdrawal in the self, into one’s shell—a symptom, in psychiatric terms, of schizophrenia…A schizoid thinks more he feels. His comprehension of the world and of himself is purely intellectual and abstract, his awareness an atomistic aggregation of a number of disparate elements that never cohere into an emotion or even truly into a real thought…”

This idea is expanded in the text of Matrix and Meaning:

“The schizoid patient experiences a terrifying emptiness, a nameless dread, an inner landscape unpopulated by human figures. She frequently turns to endless dreams and fantasies, which may be rich, symbolic, and mesmerizing. She may find solace in a well-developed intellect and develop an internal crystal palace in which she lives alone, safe but frozen. However, she may also find dangerous depths, unpredictability, and deadly horrors.”

It’s a fascinating idea, and good insight into what a twisted mind might look like. One of the most uncanny and frightening things about psychopaths or serial killers is that they appear to be normal people, but their minds often seem completely alien to “normal” people. It evokes the title of one of the most famous books on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey M. Cleckley.

Hegel’s Theory of Self‐Consciousness: Deducing the Necessity of Inter‐Subjectivity by Julia Batty

This was an honest-to-god MA Philosophy thesis from the Universiteit van Amsterdam that I found online, published in 2009. It’s on Hegelian phenomenology, the most complicated, confusing, and absolutely unintuitive brand of German philosophy possible. I studied some of it college, and it turned out to be not as bad as I remembered, though it was still a labyrinth to read.

The central idea of the essay (and intersubjectivity) is that “the self only becomes fully self‐aware by seeing oneself through the eyes of another in mutual recognition…” Subject-object relationships are the big thing for Hegel, where the self is the “subject” and everything else is an “object.” The problem arises when the self tries to examine itself–who is the little voice in your head talking about your thoughts? Well, that must also be you. When you examine yourself, you make part of yourself into an observer and part of yourself into an object of observation, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to “get outside yourself” and see everything.

This is supposedly solved by viewing yourself from the perspective of another person–but, as the essay says, you can never understand anyone or anything except in your own terms:

“…Hegel’s interpretation, consciousness is never in direct relation to an object, but in relation to an object only in a self‐relation.”

If “man is the measure of all things,” then each person is their own measure of the world, and of themselves. When we see other people, we aren’t really seeing them, we’re seeing aspects of ourselves. Strangely enough, a great articulation of this idea comes from American Psycho again, in his monologue on Whitney Houston.

Hegel doesn’t seem to be too troubled by this infinite loop of the self seeing the world as reflections of itself, but it raises some terrifying questions, especially when it comes to the ego-driven world of the psychopath. The whole subject-object relationship Hegel puts forward reminds me of the 48 Laws of Power, and how much emphasis it puts on the self being totally dependent on other people–not just socially, but existentially.

Alone Down There by Modest Mouse

This is the song I’ve been listening to while writing this new draft with Yute. The lyrics fit the story scarily well, especially this one:

The Devil’s apprentice he gave me some credit
He fed me a line and I’ll probably regret it

It speaks to the Mephistophelean nature of the character: the lyrics “fed me a line” can refer to both a line of credit, which is a great tool for putting someone in debt, and the line of a fishing hook, which catches someone in a trap. The lyrics “I don’t want you to be alone down there” makes me think the song is talking about Hell, and that the singer is trying to make sure he fills Hell with plenty of victims so they won’t be alone.

On top of that, the song’s lyrics are sung in a sort of seductive lilt, while the chorus is shouted, which makes it sound more abrasive, desperate. It sums up the story and the character well.

Alan Watts: The Void Pt 1

Zen is a constant inspiration for my writing and my worldbuilding. A lot of my stories start from ideas about self, illusions, reality, eternity, and the human relationship with the universe, even if those ideas aren’t explicitly brought up in the course of the plot. When thinking about the character of Yute, I realized that The 48 Laws of Power and Zen Buddhism both share a central tenet: formlessness, or the Void. The Zen idea of the self is mu, or emptiness, as explained in the video. There is no innate self, according to Zen, and the experience of realizing mu is the feeling of annihilation. Upon the annihilation of the self, one experiences enlightenment, which is the realization that one is not an identity–one is the universe.

So formlessness can be the birthplace of a manipulative, psychopathic mind that consumes and tricks people to further itself, like The 48 Laws of Power, or it can birth a mind that sees no division between itself and the rest of the universe, where any injuries it inflicts on others are really injuries to itself. This ties into intersubjectivity, and the idea that your sense of self is inseparable from those around you.

Patrick Bateman and the DAO of the Psycopath:

I think psychopathic characters, like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman, are fascinating because their internal world is so foreign and alien to other people that they end up functioning like broken mirrors on humanity. You get a sense of vertigo when you read them, like you’re looking through a window into another world. That’s the heart of the uncanny attraction, I think. But what makes them frightening, in an existential sense, is that it may be a thin line between ego-driven, manipulative madness (like Charles Manson) and transcendental enlightenment (like Zen Buddhism).

The difference, I think, is one’s perception of oneself and one’s relationship to the world, which is where phenomenology comes in. Hegel seems to say that we can only truly understand ourselves through the eyes of others, but can anyone really see into the essence of someone else? Can we even see into our own essence? As Patrick Bateman claims in the chilling ending monologue of American Psycho, the “inside” of people, the substance or essence, may be of no consequence–an absurdity.

According to the Hegelian view, the self is only beholden to the beliefs and bounds it submits itself to, and it decides what it should submit itself to. With nothing guiding the self but itself, self-defintion becomes an ouroboros–your definitions of the world and yourself may be completely incomprehensible and unintelligible to anyone else, and what you perceive as your “self” may be a bunch of incoherent babbling with nothing at its center and no meaning, even to you. Self-examination may be a futile exercise, since there’s nothing to know or understand that you didn’t already know on some level. This is what Bateman may be expressing when he says “I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”

So what is at the heart of a person? What makes their identity? Bateman says early in the movie:

“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.”

This would be a profound and positive realization for a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, but for anyone else, it’s absolutely alien. Of course Patrick has a self–who’s talking, if not Patrick Bateman? It’s a similar question to the one the Emperor of China asked Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism: “Who is speaking before me?” Bodhidharma’s answer was “I don’t know.”

If you’re a Zen Buddhist, having no self is the gateway to enlightenment. And there is a name for a person that comes back from the self-annihilation of Nirvana and tries to enlighten others: a Bodhisattva. It’s the highest good you can achieve in the Mahayana view of Buddhism, and it all starts with mu, the Void. But this sense of no-self, of emptiness in the soul, can lead to the opposite: someone who desires to inflict suffering and anguish on anyone and everyone, with no reason beyond the fact that there are no reasons not to:

 “My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.”

I think when anyone writes a “psychopath” character, they’re only making their best guess. But even if those characters are only simulacra of the minds they’re supposedly based on, they can still cause us to ask difficult questions about what it means to be a human. It’s unsettling that, of all questions, that one has never been settled.

One of Joel Clapp's initial sketches of Yute, based on Charles Manson



THE OCCULT READING LIST VOL. 3: Three Body Problem, Language as Magic, and New Retro Wave

This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.

Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.

Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.

“It’s like people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad.”


occult triangle lab three body problem fantasy sci-fiTHE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.

On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.

occult triangle lab tor fantasy magic language7 Different Ways Fantasy Has Used Language as Magic

This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.

I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”

So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!

occult triangle lab V.E. Schwab darker shade of magicNo Mother Tongue: Language in the world of Magic

This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”

Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”

Fuck that noise.

Thoughts on Nomenclature in Fictional Worlds

This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:

“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”

Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.

“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics

One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My ComputerIt’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”

“The Glory” by Reapers

The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.

Like me.



The Occult Reading List Vol. 2: Quantum Computing, Alchemy, and Cicada 3301

This is Vol. 2 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.

Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.

elements of murder occult triangle lab chris mahonThe Elements of Murder by John EmsLEY

If you look carefully at the entrances to university chemistry buildings, you’ll sometimes see strange symbols above the doors. These are alchemical symbols, and they come from the mystical pursuit of gold, enlightenment, and the secrets of existence. Despite being primarily historical true crime, The Elements of Murder delves into the connection between alchemy and science, showing how mercury, sulfur, and salt became the basis for a tradition of mysticism that transformed into what we call chemistry.

Each chapter is devoted to a different deadly element or poison and collects the most famous cases involving each. My favorite is the story of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, who died from ingesting copious amounts of mercury, thinking that he had found the elixir of life (Huang’s city-sized mausoleum is the famous one filled with the life-size terra cotta soliders). According to legend, a miniature model of China’s river systems was constructed in the tomb, using mercury instead of water.

funerary violin occult triangle lab chris mahonAn Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin By Rohan Kriawaczek

This books is an account of the lost Romantic musical genre called “funerary violin,” practiced in early modern England after the Protestant Reformation. The art was almost wholly improvisational and unwritten, and performed solely at funerals for the family of the deceased. According to the author, funerary violin was almost totally wiped out by the Church, which wanted sole influence over matters of life and death. Banned as heretics and struck from the records, their names, compositions, and guild fell from public eye, though famous composers of the day liberally borrowed (or even plagiarized) their sorrowful melodies. The author tries to reconstruct the lives and music of these violinists in order to keep the tradition alive. Only one problem:

The whole thing is a hoax.

There was never a musical tradition called funerary violin, and the Guild and names the author lists are all fictional. The New York Times ran a great piece on how the whole thing turned out to be a fraud, despite being “a sprawling 208-page volume complete with detailed biographies, black-and-white photographs and elaborate musical scores.”

The Revolutionary Computer That Might Not Be Quantum At All, Wired Magazineoccult triangle lab quantum computing chris mahon

I read this article in Wired Magazine back in 2014, but now that China has launched a satellite into orbit with the goal of uncrackable quantum communication, I went back and re-read it. It’s still a fascinating piece, partly because it explains (at least superficially) how quantum physics is meant to work. But most fascinating of all were the two central problems of the quantum computer featured in the article (called D-Wave).

First, the insane physical conditions that must be met to enable quantum computing: temperatures “1500 times colder than the depths of space,” insulation from all interference, including light and air molecules, and a chip made from tiny niobium loops. I’ve spoken in the past about how the tiny chaotic elements can result in imperfections in origami, and that no matter how good you get, there’s always a margin of error. In the case of the D-Wave, conditions must be perfect in order for quantum computing to work. This is where the practical, physical world meets the absolute, ideal world of physics and mathematics, and the boundary is fascinating to me.

Second is the whole idea of the qubit, the basic unit of quantum computing. Instead of a regular bit, which is either 0 or 1, a qubit can attain a state called “superposition,” something that is both a 0 and a 1. This goes back to my piece on using binary as magic and Leibniz’s fascination with the I-Ching: if the world is just a series of 1’s and 0’s, a whole system could be construed to express the world using just logic. And we did: computers. But now that superposition has been shown to be real, all of that is obsolete. In fact, the world starts to look more like the philosophy described by Zen, which attempts to transcend dualism by finding “the higher third,” which transcends dualism.

The Beatles Acid Test: How LSD Opened the Door to Revolver, Rolling Stone Magazine

This was a great article in Rolling Stone about how LSD led directly to the Beatles’ creation of Revolver, one of their most experimental albums. It describes how the drugs got George Harrison and John Lennon interested in Hinduism, which led them to read The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. The ideas from that book were expressed in Tomorrow Never Knows, which was meant to be a sonic representation of an acid trip.

The Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead) has been a long-time fascination of mine, so it was cool to see how it tied in with drugs, the counterculture, and this unique music that ended up breaking a lot of barriers.

Cicada 3301

cicada 3301 occult triangle lab chris mahonCicada 3301 is my new obsession. Combining cryptography, anonymity, and strange ARG puzzles with mysticism and occult trappings, these bastards are probably the real-life Knights of the Eastern Calculus. I haven’t read too deeply yet, but once I do I’ll write a post just about them. If you’re not familiar with the work I did on The Rats in the Walls ARG, you should check that out here.

Here are the Cicada’s webpages:

Wikipedia Page


Liber Primus

By this River by Yoshida Brothers

There are a couple guys in the New York Subway system that play shamisen on the platforms, especially Union Square and Canal Street. They’re all very old Asian guys, and they sing very sorrowfully. This song has a different kind of melancholy to it, one that’s soaked in nostalgia. It’s a beautiful piece, and the vocalizations are so haunting.

Eclipse by Perturbator

Besides being one of my favorite musical artists, Perturbator has an aesthetic that hits all my favorite shit: cyberpunk, horror, the occult, and sweet, sweet retro 80’s visuals . One of my favorite songs of his is Eclipse, partly for this monologue at the end:

“We live in a era where our cities are armed with steel and concrete. Computers and electronics barricade our minds. It doesn’t change the fact that there exists a lot of strange phenomena, bizarre beyond reason or logic. Most folks just don’t see them. That’s because we cling to order, to any tiny happiness that comes our way, and we bust our humps to blind ourselves with our desires and our pleasures. There’s a world of darkness out there. Beyond time or space. A world filled with evil that is undeniably real, and in that world there are things that run wild.”

This is essentially H.P. Lovecraft’s thesis in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” updated for the modern era and delivered in a voice like Rod Serling’s. Tenouttaten.

The Occult Reading List Vol. 2: Quantum Computing, Alchemy, and Cicada 3301