One of the weirdest things about the writing world is how things take such a crazy path from idea to publication, however. In the case of this particular article, it started as a pitch I made to Cracked’s Personal Experience team about how I moved from the big city (Nashville, where I lived since I was born) to poor, rural Eastern Kentucky, and how much weirder life was in general here.
It wasn’t quite right for Cracked, though, because it was hyper-focused on the particular area of Kentucky where I live (I only really mention a few specific counties) and it was written entirely from an outsider’s perspective, while they wanted to see a mix of that and the perspective of someone who had lived there their whole life.
In between the pitch and the refocusing, I mistakenly thought they wanted me to move on to the writing phase, so I ended up writing a draft of an article that went unused. (My quotes in the article from last week are actually directly from that draft.) I asked the editors at Cracked if I could post the draft here because I thought the info was still interesting, even if it wasn’t what Cracked was looking for. They gave me the go ahead, so here it is. Consider it further reading about the weirdness that is Appalachia.
I’ve got old episodes of The Twilight Zone playing in the background while I’m working and I’m super in love with a particular episode called “I Shot an Arrow into the Air”, and for a specific reason.
In the episode, some proto-astronauts (the episode aired in 1960, 9 years before Apollo 11) land on an alien landscape and quickly devolve into Lord of the Flies shit, but (spoilers for a 55 year old TV episode!) it’s actually Earth all along. They never even escaped the atmosphere. They just landed in the desert somewhere. Not exactly mind-blowing, but they weren’t all winners.
The reason I love the episode is because of the title, plain and simple. “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” has a secret hidden in it and when you realize what it is, that’s more mind-blowing than the episode itself. What happens when you shoot an arrow into the air?
It comes back down. The twist is right in the title.
Such a small, but clever detail. It’s very Serling.
Arthur Machen (1863-1947) once wrote this amazing novella called The Great God Pan. Stephen King has lauded it as one of the greatest horror stories ever written in the English language. I don’t know if I’d go that far (it holds up reasonably well, considering it was originally published in 1894, but even by that standard, it’s still pretty clunky), but it influenced several major horror authors of the 20th century and, along with The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers,published a year later, does a stupendous job of capping off the 19th century of horror and ushering in the 20th.
Both were massive inspirations for a guy who, himself, has influenced probably more 20th and 21st century horror than anyone else: H.P. Lovecraft. While that’s fascinating, it’s not what I want to talk about today because everyone and their grandmother has talked about Lovecraft’s forgotten influences who don’t get enough credit for creating Eldritch horror. Those are fair points, just not what I’m looking at in this particular post.
No, what I want to talk about is how Arthur Machen was maybe accidentally psychic. But before I get into that, let me give you a brief synopsis of the first section of The Great God Pan. There are spoilers, but only for that section. There’s still plenty more if you want to read the whole thing. (NB: It’s in the public domain in the U.S., so it shouldn’t be hard to find free copies of the text.)
In Pan’s opening section, we’re introduced to Dr. Raymond, a scientist who is attempting to open up the human mind to be able to perceive a world beyond our own, one to which ours is merely a substratum. He calls this “seeing the great god Pan.” It’s almost like that’s the same as the title of the story! I bet it must be important!
Now, keep in mind that in a historical context, the god Pan was associated with ferocity, lust, the id, the baser human nature. Pan was our animal side, truly the Satyr. Think of him more as the co-opted medieval Satan figure than the actual Greek deity.
So, Dr. Raymond figures it out. All that’s necessary to unlock the human brain’s ability to see the world beyond/beside ours is a minor (unexplained) bit of brain surgery. And he’s got a subject, Mary, who’s totally up for doing it. (Why? Who…? Never mind.) He performs the surgery on Mary, she briefly sees the other world… and then instantly goes insane. Whoops.
Now, from there, Dr. Raymond’s associate, Clarke (and a few other stodgy British gents that Clarke is acquainted with), slowly pieces together what actually happened to Mary. Sort of. That’s all stuff you can read in the novella if you like. Or if you just want to spoil the rest, I guess e-mail me or check Wikipedia or something. Fuck it, I’m not your dad.
Now, here’s what’s fascinating about Dr. Raymond’s experiment and The Great God Pan. It turns out, there is totally a real life corollary in science: The God Helmet. I’m a big fan of the God Helmet and I’ll tell you why: It’s one of the most fascinating ways, not to discover what lies beyond our world, but what happens to our brains when you mess with our sense of self.
The God Helmet, developed by inventor Stanley Koren and neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger, essentially short-circuits a part of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction. Why would anyone do that? To see the great god Pan, of course. The temporo-parietal junction controls the parts of the brain associated with identity of the self and identifying outsiders. When you mess with the TPJ, subjects frequently experience visual hallucinations of someone else in the room. Someone who’s not actually there.
Damage or shock to the TPJ is believed to explain a number of vaguely paranormal phenomena, like the third man phenomenon (where people in dire survival situations will hallucinate a non-existent companion who helps them), out-of-body experiences, and even shadow people. Oh, I’m going to bust out one of my all-time favorite images here. Hold on.
This is a diagram from a study where researchers took an epileptic patient and applied an electric shock to her TPJ (fig. a). While it didn’t do much for her seizures, it did do a lot for scaring the shit out of everybody (fig. b-d).
What they discovered was that as long as the current continued to be applied, their patient sensed another presence in the room. That’s what that shadowy thing caressing her from behind is. She thought another person (specifically, she identified the presence as a man) was in the room, touching her, standing behind her, even telling her what to do. At one point, the researchers asked her to read a card. She told them, “He doesn’t want me to read.” Jesus Christ, right?
And that’s where The God Helmet comes in. Jesus Christ. Koren invented his helmet to intentionally cause these sorts of events in people who wore it, so they could experience a sort of religious experience. To create an ephemeral presence. Supposedly, anyway. Apparently the helmet is kind of spotty.
But it’s fascinating that, in a fashion, Arthur Machen accidentally predicted these things. This human desire to see the other. To experience an inhuman presence, whether menacing or beneficial. To see the great god Pan.
PS – What got me thinking about all this was a short film called The Brain Hack, so if you don’t have time for all this other shit, just watch and enjoy this similarly-themed and entertaining film.
So I moved. This blog used to be on Tumblr, but I decided to to bring it over to WordPress.com. Mostly because, uh, I work here now.
I’ve been kind of quiet for a while, so let me catch you up. Up until May, I was working for the feds, doing work for HealthCare.gov. It was okay, but government work wasn’t my favorite.
My buddy Dennis, who I met writing at Cracked.com, recommended I apply for Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. I gave it a shot because it sounded like a great job, but, frankly, I wasn’t sure if I had much of a chance.
Then, I got an e-mail. They wanted to talk to me! And then they wanted to do a follow-up. And then they offered me a four to six week trial. And then they asked me to stay on full-time.
So now I work here, and it made sense to move my blog over and try to work more from the user side as well as the employee side. (Weird Shit Blog is staying on Tumblr because I’ve got way too many followers to ditch that.)
As for writing stuff, I’ve put my freelancing on hold to focus on the new job. I’m still working on my short story collection, Other Gods. Did you know that writing fiction is super fucking hard when you haven’t done it for a couple of years and people have been paying you to write non-fiction instead? Because it is.
I wanted to finish Other Gods for Weird Shit Blog’s fifth anniversary (7/6/15). That’s looking super unlikely, unless I somehow find a way to go back in time. (Believe me, I feel like a huge asshole for not having it finished yet, especially because some people have already paid me for it.)
I’ll be writing here, though. I’m thinking of bringing back my “I’ve Never Seen…” series that I was doing at Film School Rejects. It didn’t bring a ton of traffic, but I ain’t give no fucks ’bout traffic round here. I watched the second Indiana Jones movie a few weeks ago (for this column at Cracked) and had Thoughts (tm) about it.
I’ve got some other ideas I can dig back out, too. Things that felt too long for Tumblr, but would work fine here. Terrible, disgusting things. Okay, probably not. But maybe?
One thing that I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about in my writing career (outside of a few short pieces here and there) is how much I enjoy technology and gadgets and shit like that.
There’s something about electronic bits and bobs that wakes up my nascent inner engineer. I start thinking of ways I could cobble them into my workflows and make my life easier. It rarely actually works out that way. I went through three tablets before I finally figured out that I absolutely have no use for them other than occasionally reading books. (Weirdly, I don’t find reading on an actual ebook reader enjoyable, only tablets.)
But one purchase I’ve been exceptionally happy with is the smart watch I got for Christmas in 2013. I bought a Pebble and it’s been a major difference in my work and leisure. (Please imagine that I said leisure in the British way, but with a shitty French accent, because I did that in my head.)