Review of The Sign and the Seal by Graham Hancock

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The Sign and the Seal
by Graham Hancock
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1992, Trade
600pp, $14.00, Index, Reference Notes,
2 maps, 61 b&w photographs

A Review by Gene Stewart

Then a world economics reporter, the East Africa correspondent for The Economist, and author of several books about Africa, Hancock first visited Axum, Ethiopia in 1983, shortly after civil war died down enough to allow foreign nationals to visit again.  It was then he experienced his first tingle of interest in the mysterious, and mysteriously lost, Ark of the Covenant, the one mentioned in both the Bible and Indiana Jones movies.  This began a decade of searching for him, as he traced tantalizing leads, whispered hints, and decoded clues.  He admits he was led from his beaten path of prior success but to judge from the result, he chose wisely.

He began with surveying the Parzival and Holy Grail stories, reading up on King Arthur, the Knights Templar, and other old tales of powerful, god-touched artifacts and revealed hidden knowledge.  As patterns emerged, Hancock started piecing together a rational, if untested, time-line for the Ark, the core talisman of the Moses-led Jews, the Levites, the early Christians, and so much else, to have vanished without so much as a mention in the array of records.  How had such a thing happened, why, and where might such a holy relic have been hidden?

Hancock writes vividly of his dusty, exhausting experiences traveling in places, through conflicts, most of us would avoid.  He is excellent in his descriptions and compelling in his narrative; the book reads like an adventurous mystery novel, yet it’s reporting, not fiction.  Being open to new things, be they cultural or conceptual, allows Hancock freedom of action and logic perfect for unraveling this great mystery.

He wants to know.  How he goes about finding out, the scholars he consults, the places he investigates, and the discoveries he makes, combine into a cogent, trenchant work that cost Hancock much but gained him far more.  Example:  His marriage deteriorated during the grueling years of researching this book, done on his own ticket.  Example:  His first solo non-fiction work, The Sign and the Seal became an international best-seller and allowed him to continue expanding his life inwardly and outwardly, with further pivotal books on such topics as aqua-archaeology and ayuhuasca.

Intelligence shines from every page, his sentences being balanced and clear.  He presents information systematically and keeps the reader in context, with just enough reminder or nudge when called for.  We see the mystery as he discovered and unfolded it, sharing the thrill of making links and confirming them.

While he openly admits he is neither academic nor scholar, he demonstrates remarkably wide knowledge and knows how to delve deeply when the need arises.  These abilities add up to persuasive, rational argument awaiting only the picayune detail of scientific sifting, much of which already done by Hancock.

Definitive is a description remaining to be claimed but I know of no other work, scholarly or popular, that comes even close to The Sign and the Seal in regards to tracing the origins, aspects, and fates of the Ark of the Covenant.  What it was is understandable from reading this book.  How it may have worked is strongly hinted at, too.

Hint:  Not mentioned in this book, which was written long before they happened, are replication experiments performed by many engineers and college classes.  By constructing a replica using the exact specifications from the Bible, and they are quite explicit, one ends up with what is today recognized as a capacitor.  It builds up and stores electro-static energy which can release through the cherubim mounted atop the box lid.  It gave off sufficient volts and amperage to be fatally dangerous and college classes have had to dismantle their replica arks as a safety precaution.

Now imagine a powerful capacitor, decorated with carved gold, able to deliver fatal shocks, as happened to Aaron’s sons when they ill-advisedly got too close, imagine such a device’s supernatural qualities for people living 2000 years ago in the desert.  They’d be justifiably terrified and unable to explain it.

Fortunately, the man who built it, Moses, was steeped in esoterica and other hidden arts, having been raised as a Pharaoh’s son, which automatically made him a priest of the hidden orders.  He’d have learned the magic illusions he used to such good effect to keep his rabble in line for the forty years of indoctrination and training needed to whip a horde into an army, which then successfully challenged and conquered an established military.

Aaron, his son, was taught such matters, too, but his own sons apparently got cocky or had not yet properly been taught and so paid the price of being electrocuted by a huge discharge.

Add to all this electrical mayhem other evidence that the Ark also contained strong radioactivity and one can see how and why it was worshipped as a seat of a god, as a place where a god manifested — as the blue-white spark of degaussing electrostatic charge, perhaps?

Yet letting such an astounding item simply vanish from the records without comment is a mystery no one, until Hancock, has solved.  He sifts out reasons, then tracks down evidence to deny or support his speculations, always allowing the evidence to lead him.  In this way, he comes at last to gratifying steps and satisfying conclusions in this persuasive, rational book.

Along the way he even offers a reasonable explanation of why both the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Sumerian civilizations started at their apexes, only slowly to wind down, with no prior hint of growth before they suddenly appeared.  Both, he finds, are rooted in a third civilization, already at an apex with monumental architecture and world-class artistry, transplanted to the general Egypt/Sumer area by a catastrophe, very possibly a flood.  Yes, echoes of Atlantis without the crazy shouts of aliens; it’s even supported by much archaeological evidence, albeit considered fringe so far by orthodox, received-wisdom defenders.

In this book we also trace the Jewish diaspora, with strong evidence presented concerning where the oldest Jewish culture ended up, and remained virtually untouched.  To this day, practices long expunged by the Jerusalem-centered Jewish rituals continue unaffected, deep inside Ethiopia’s war-torn, shattered shadows.

If archaeological matters interest you, and if this kind of adventure of logic, hardship, and discovery appeals, then The Sign and the Seal is strongly recommended.  Make sure to get a new copy; mine’s burning up from age, an archaeological relic in and of itself.

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Review of Psi Spies by Jim Marrs

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Psi Spies:  The True Story of America’s Psychic Warfare Program
by Jim Marrs
New Page Books, 2007, $15.99
318pp, Appendix, Notes, Index
ISBN-13:  978-1-56414-960-2
ISBN-10:  1-56414-960-9

A Review by Gene Stewart

This book was suppressed from the summer of 1995 until publication in 2007.  In the interim, other books covering this topic came out, based on or rooted in magazine articles leaked by insiders or those with inside contacts.  Reasons for its suppression are many but boil down to military and government policy, politics, and procrastination.

Stupidity makes most conspiracy unnecessary.

///

In the interests of full disclosure, this:  In the 1980s, my wife was in the US Air Force and stationed at Ft. Meade, MD.  We had one car, so I’d drive her to and from work if I’d be needing it.  That day, after dropping her off, I drove through base and spotted a road leading off at an angle toward a clump of pine trees.  Thinking perhaps it was a camp, I turned onto the road to investigate.

It led to a dirt parking area beside two dilapidated Army barracks.  There were two or three cars parked under the trees.  As I pulled up, still thinking it might be a camp administered from one of the old buildings, three men in civilian garb, two lounging by a car in the trees, the other coming from the screen door in one of the barracks, waved to me and wandered over.  They asked what I was looking for.

When I said camp, they exchanged looks, then told me I’d have to go back to the main road because they knew of no camp grounds.  They told me to go ahead and turn around and just follow the same dirt path to the road, and I did.  Thought nothing much about it.

Turns out I’d met the Star Gate guys, who were at that time on Ft. Meade in those barracks doing remote viewing.  Maybe they’d thought I was a new recruit.  That none wore uniforms should have struck me more forcibly, perhaps, but I figured they were clearing out or refurbishing the old barracks.  Renovation was always happening on Army bases, most being from the WW II era or older.

///

Jim Marrs does a thorough, systematic job of explaining both how the military came to have its own psychic spies and the roots of what they labeled remove viewing, or RV.  (There’s that echo of camping again, on the edge of a definite wilderness, too.)  In nine concise chapters he introduces many of the key personnel who comprised the very small, elite cadre who developed working methods still used to this day.  Marrs also explains the method and recounts many of their successes, along with, at the end of the book, glimpses from what the RV’ers themselves called The Enigma Files.  Those are far-flung, wildly surreal experiences they’ve all had, opening eschatological, epistemological, and other philosophical and cosmological vistas.

That millions of dollars were spent on GRILL FLAME, STAR GATE, and other such programs featuring ESP is confirmed even in the federal records.  That these small programs, often fewer than a dozen people, moved from one host unit to another, finally going entirely dark, demonstrates how strong the reaction for and against such information-gathering techniques could be.  None could argue whether it worked, few could agree how to account for it.

It was ambiguity and indifference, along with the occasional religious hysteria, that drove the Remote Viewing programs that continue into the deniable realm.  As one officer put it, “If you have information from Remote Viewers, you have to act on it to confirm it, and that can require a lot more faith than many field commanders can muster.  Do you put people at risk on the say-so of people who saw it from an armchair or in a dream?”

Consistently demonstrated, and proven reliable, Remote Viewing refined itself as methods developed by trial-and-error.  Experience helped, too, along with adding coordinates from maps or using multiple RV sessions and people on a single target, say, a missing, kidnaped officer or a sunken sub or downed plane.

RV has since moved from military-only to the business world.  As the first generation of Remote Viewers retired or matriculated, some founded companies to teach RV, or to offer its revelations to any corporations that might pay for such insight, such as oil companies, mineral companies, and even law enforcement agencies.

Psi Spies is the best book I know for a solid, well-grounded overview of Remote Viewing.  Another book featuring a year-long well-funded free-descent deep dive into what the American government bubbles know, or think they know, or don’t know they know, is Out There by Howard Blum, 1990, which covers Remote Viewing among other outré topics.  For a more in-depth delving into Remote Viewing, go for Jim Schnabel’s 1997 book Remote Viewers, which rounds out what ends up being, among these three books, a thorough look at what is known about the attempt, which seems on-going, to put the ESP into espionage.

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Review of All Those Broken Angels by Peter Adam Salomon

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All Those Broken Angels
by Peter Adam Salomon
Flux/Llewellyn, 2014
227pp, $9.99 US
ISBN:  978-0-7387-4079-9

A Review by Gene Stewart

At age six, Richard hid his eyes and counted to a hundred while his friend, Melanie, scampered off behind him to hide.

She was never seen again.

Except… when he is 16, a new girl shows up at school, claiming to be Melanie.

Richard isn’t sure because, since she vanished, Melanie’s shadow has haunted him continually, a ghost able to enter his mind, flow on walls, floors, and in corners, and this shadow ghost is the jealous type.

Worse, he knows where bones are buried.  The shadow leads him there, to Melanie’s grave.  Or is it?

Desperate to find out what’s really going on, Richard and the living Melanie begin investigating and find themselves woven deeply into the fabric of at least a decade of serial murder.  Worse, this killer is still active, and now is after them.

This elegantly-written, concise YA thriller is eerie, well-informed about its people and places, and compels the reader toward a crescendo ending.  Although the protagonists are 16 and face typical teenagers’ challenges, this book works as a thriller to please any adult, too.  It evokes a place and the people vividly, never strays too far into the surreal, yet offers a lingering sense of a bigger, deeper world than we know, one that surrounds us with what many would call the supernatural.  Maybe it’s just us.

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From Behind as by Everett Bedford

IMG_1715Marla T., 30, slender, wearing a one-piece dress, her long dark hair loose, got onto the elevator in her building at the end of a long day of sorting legal briefs and doing research in the stacks for the law firm where she worked.  She barely noticed the man in the suit already in the elevator, wanting only to get to her apartment, kick off her high heels, and unwind with a glass of chablis.

The instant the elevator doors slapped shut the man pinned her face first against the wall.

She felt his erection pressing eagerly up under her ass, probing for entry.  Her body tingled as anger and outrage mixed with fear in her formless thoughts.  She realized, too, she was relaxed and surprised herself by saying, “No, wait.  Not here.”

“Where, then?  This is going to happen.”

“My apartment.”

“Sure, sure.  Where hubby’s waiting to brain me.”

“I live alone.”

He kept her pinned.  “You’d better.”

She heard the rustling of cloth, then felt something slip over her head and tighten around her throat.  She’d been leashed.  Noosed.

When the elevator stopped and the door opened, she felt him yank her, using a handful of her blouse’s collar and a clump of her hair that pulled the back of her neck.  Wincing, she let herself be pushed ahead and guided him to her apartment, feeling the cincture on her neck tighten.

“Keys.  Unlock it.”

She fumbled them from her clutch and unlocked the door, noting that her hands trembled.  Her face was hot now, from the blood pumping in her past the noose. Yet she felt calm.  This struck her as odd.

Once inside, he pushed her forward and made sure the door was shut and locked.  “Anyone here?” he called out.

Marla, knowing there was no one, smiled to herself.  She dropped her clutch on the sideboard, then bent, at the end of her leash, to lift her skirt and slip out of her underwear.  She let the panties drop.  She pressed herself against the wall now, her breasts and belly flat on the cool surface, and waited.

He was on her immediately, his cock if anything harder now.  He bunched the back hem of her skirt at the small of her back.  She felt cool air on her ass.  She trembled to her core now as he pulled the loop tighter on her throat, making her breath ragged.

His cock slipped between and down, searching for a way in, so she cocked her hips a little forward by raising herself onto her toes, by arching her back.  He found her warm wet welcome and thrust into her, at once going into piston mode as fast as he could.

He slammed into her repeatedly so fast and hard her body was overwhelmed and she realized she was having an orgasm without any of the savor.  She let it pass, feeling him spurt warm wetness into her, and this caused her to begin a deeper, better orgasm.  She gushed, dizzied, and when he felt her pouring down over his cock and balls he stiffened again at once and this time fucked her slower, his long out-strokes and longer in-strokes a caress that sent her into shivers of pleasure.

They both came hard again, her knees buckling, his elbow across the back of her neck holding her face pressed against the wall.

He slipped free from her and muttered something about a beautiful mess.  The noose stayed tight.  She heard him zip, then the door open.  It closed and he was gone, all but his spunk, oozing down the insides of her thighs, reminding her how much she’d taken, how sweet it had felt.  This prompted her to reach down and find the slick wet in her fur, where her fingers found her clitoris.  She made herself come again, like a burst of rippling fireworks all through a sky inside her still throbbing with the thunder of bigger explosions.  Only then did she loosen the cloth around her throat, to find it was his tie.  It smelled of his cologne.

Turning her back to the wall, she slid down to sit for awhile in the beautiful mess, not thinking, not feeling, just wonderfully alive and empty and full and solid and electric.

Her glow ebbed, the pool under her cooled and congealed.

With a chuckle she got herself to her feet, used her underwear for a token clean-up.  She cleaned the floor and a couple spurt stains from the wall, too, then went to take a shower.

Wearing her robe fresh from the shower, with the tie draped on the back of her neck, she lay on her couch and put her feet up.  The glass of chablis was cool and tart.

She wondered who he was as she breathed his hint of cologne.  She wondered if he lived in her building.  She wondered if he’d find her again and hoped so.

When her cell phone vibrated she held it against her crotch and let it go to voicemail, hoping it would be him, who ever he was.  She hoped, too, it was that shifty-eyed, cute newbie the law firm had hired, although a neo would not be able to afford her building.

She thought about being taken from behind and it aroused her all the more now that she’d experienced it.

Marla drifted to sleep with a half smile on her face, a hint of which smile stayed with her the whole next day.  No one met her eye or winked, even though she wore the tie knotted in the collar of a plain white blouse, so she knew her mysterious intruder was not one of her co-workers.  She hoped he’d come again soon, so she would.

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A Thousand Words on Ed & Sherlock

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Ed Gein’s cauldron came up for auction and Zak Bagans of GHOST ADVENTURES fame, or notoriety, bought it, to be used on his new show DEADLY POSSESSIONS, about haunted objects associated with death in some way.  Each episode he displays and discusses two items added to his cabinet of curiosities in Las Vegas.

He’s got commercial savvy, that’s for sure.  He gives good TV.  He’s also not strict about confirming provenance.  This cauldron comes with testimonials from a couple of Minnesota yokels whose grandparents once smelled Ed Gein.  Neighbors and such.

One told of his grandmother brandishing a shotgun while telling Gein to get and stay away.  Another told of relatives who helped clean out Gein’s garage and who had been in the house before it was destroyed.  He saw carnage beyond imagining.

One guy claimed his relative had helped render ‘hog fat’ in that very cauldron, which he recognized later in part because the hair on his body stood straight out.  Better than an art expert yapping about brush strokes, you’ve got to admit, even as we’re all thinking ‘long pork fat’.

It’s almost sure Gein was a cannibal.  He’s the original for Hannibal, Francis Dolarhyde, Jaime Gum, Norman Bates, and a host of other fictional serial killers.  Details from his endless atrocities are used singly because no fictional creep with all Gein’s excesses would be acceptable to an audience.  Too over-the-top.

No one knows all Gein’s crimes and perversions in part due to the police in rural Minnesota being reluctant to investigate such horrors, and in part because the house was burned by angry locals soon after the crimes were uncovered, before the scene could be thoroughly explored, let alone catalogued.  Much evidence was destroyed, probably including evidence of crimes we now will never know about.  This is a historical as well as a forensic loss; every detail could help us figure out these monsters and how to prevent them.

Outraged that he’d been among them, his neighbors burned the house one night, despite supposed police quarantine.  It is just this sort of peasant intolerance that blocked full strides in understanding aberrant criminality.  It keeps us stumbling like hapless horror movie victims, instead of letting us turn and confront such beasts.

It is questionable whether Ed Gein was even the worst serial killer known.  H H Holmes set up a literal murder hotel and killed an unknown number of people in nightmarish ways.  Jack the Ripper tore his way through Whitechapel in 1888.  Who was the worst?  Too many others vie for that despicable title.  Take Albert Fish, who ingratiated himself with families, stole their children away, raped, killled, and ate them, then sent taunting letters over the years to keep the pain sadistically alive in the hearts and minds of the parents and siblings.  He also inserted fish hooks (pun on his surname?)  and needles into his own scrotum and so on.  There are far too many others, but you get the point:  Ed Gein, digging up dead bodies, eventually murdering a woman, making furniture and clothes from the bodies, making a woman costume so he could dance in the moonlight as his mother, with whom he apparently had an incestuous relationship, cooking and eating the dead people, and so on, him doing those things only fits into a spectrum of sick human behavior, rather than defining him as anything special.  Serial killers are boringly dull.  Their solution to everything is death.

What is undeniable is how deeply affected many families are by Gein’s and others’ crimes.  Neighbors, relatives, and descendants of locals alive during the crimes all haunt Gein’s property and are in turn haunted by his horrors.  It seems never to let go, this dark energy.

Some young folks, raised in this era of ghost hunting as a popular pastime even on TV, visit Gein’s land to court his spirit, seeking to evoke his morbid energy.

One wonders if such shadow clings to, say, Dahmer’s apartment, if it still stands, or to John Wayne Gacy’s house, or to sites associated with Bundy or Shawcross, et alia.  Certainly the people directly affected, who lost loved ones, who lived through the fear, were harmed permanently.  They carried marks, and seem to pass them along for, is it seven generations?  Is it both the sins and the pains of the fathers and mothers passed down?

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I saw the film MR. HOLMES, about a 93-year-old Sherlock (Ian McKellan) retired in Cornwall with his bee hives.  His housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son (Milo Parker) are his main links to humanity.  It’s an excellent movie.  Side note:  Such gravitas from such a young actor as Milo Parker is rare to see.

There is in this movie, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, a conceit that Sherlock Holmes visited Hiroshima in connection to a case of a Japanese man whose son (Hiroyuki Sanada) blames Holmes for the father having abandoned the family.  This is in turn entwined with a case Holmes in his dotage is trying desperately to recall, involving a woman upon which had centered his last case, the one that prompted him to retire.

Intertwined with all this is a mentorship of the housekeeper’s son, who is without a father figure due to WW II, in which he, a pilot, was shot down on his first sortie.  The housekeeper is bitter that her husband was not content to ply his trade as mechanic and serve out his service in a motor pool.  “All his mates in the motor pool came home without a scratch,” she says at one point.

John Watson, whose face we never see, plays an integral if oblique role in a personal breakthrough Holmes makes, and the fact that he can still make them and, even better, act upon them for the sake of kindness, proves he’s still a viable character study.

This is not Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce dashing after the game afoot, nor is it a morose wallow in revanchism.  It’s a movie about aging, growth, and life, presented expertly and with great charm and heart, if also with British diffidence and aplomb.  Bravo and brava and hooray all around.

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Review of A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris

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A Wilderness of Error:
The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald
by Errol Morris
Penguin, trade pb, 553pp
Copiously illustrated, extensive notes, indexed
$18.99, ISBN:  978-0-14-312369-9

A Review by Gene Stewart

On 17 February 1970 Army Captain Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald’s wife and two children were murdered and he was stabbed.  He was blamed, tried, (in 1979, by the way), and convicted.  He remains in prison to this day.

This book proves conclusively he did not get a fair trial.  Not even close.  It also presents a preponderance of evidence pointing toward his innocence but guilt cannot be apportioned or assigned after all the years, all the obfuscation, and all the layered cover-ups, dodges, and outright lies.

As a consequence, this book, which is so thoroughly detailed, well-organized, and clearly presented as to be a prime example of how to investigate crimes and their aftermaths, ends up being about the so-called justice system.  From the ground up, character flaws, malfeasance, incompetence, and bigotry rule.

We learn that narrative counts more than fact.  Who ever tells the best story first wins.  In law it’s called a theory of the crime, in fiction writing it’s narrative.  Imposed, it’s structure on what are usually chaotic events that leave random, often-misinterpreted evidence.  A given fact marks the spot where people stop asking questions.  It’s shocking to see how fragile our sense of what’s real can be, and how malleable our memories.  History is a lie agreed upon, many cynics have observed.  It needn’t be a lie.  In many cases, it’s a misperception, or a limited angle of view, or just a false conclusion based on false impressions.

“We live in a universe of false leads,” Morris writes at one point.  As if the world seeks to mislead us.  As if anything BUT plain fact insists upon dominating our view of what we call our world.  Whose it is, and what it is, remains up for grabs, as A Wilderness of Error makes clear.

In this particular case, an Army Green Beret medical doctor serving on Ft. Bragg found himself accused of killing his family despite his story of being awakened by a group of what he called hippies attacking him.  An amazing amount of evidence was destroyed right off the bat by incompetent MPs tramping around the place, some actually moving things they came across.

Other evidence was kept carefully out of the case by a prosecution in collusion with a bent judge focused on convicting MacDonald.  It went so far as to exclude the repeated confession of a woman, Helena Stoekley, who kept telling everyone she’d been there and, although she’d been stoned, she remembered vivid details, many of which only a direct witness would or could know.

Maybe.

Blur was applied so thickly, for so many years, with participants literally remaining in office for 40 years in part to stonewall successive appeals, that no clarity is possible even for the sequence of events.  Much evidence has been destroyed by now.  Witnesses and participants have died.  DNA evidence was eventually processed but what usually takes six months took over eight years to make its way through a reluctant system.  Blocks were thrown up at every possible turn, and delays were built in.

Justice, turns out, is maintaining a corrupt status quo, not meting out sentences based on evidence and fair trials.

Like the recent HBO mini-series MAKING A MURDERER, A Wilderness of Error is not so much about an accused man’s guilt or innocence, but about how cops, prosecutors, and judges use the system for their own ends without regard to the ideals supposedly enshrined in a Rule of Law.

Errol Morris is a documentary film maker.  The Fog of War; The Thin Blue Line; Mr. Death; A Brief History of Time; The Unknown Known are all his work, with many others.  He’s won awards and has, in The Thin Blue Line, gotten a wrongfully-convicted man out of prison.

Not so here.  He did not find overwhelming evidence either way, but most of what was excluded without conscience from MacDonald’s trial was exculpatory, and as I’ve said, this book proves without doubt a fair trial was not conducted, not even the appearance of one.

You will also come away from A Wilderness of Error knowing how treacherous and disingenuous author Joe McGinnis was in his book Fatal Vision.  Yes, it’s that case, and in fact that book and subsequent mini-series made sure a false narrative was imposed, removing any chance of a fair trial while convincing most of us at the time that, oh, yes, of course that’s what happened, just another one of those types of things…

Morris, a film-maker, demonstrates in A Wilderness of Error a remarkable ability to sift, organize, and present a baffling array of evidence, claims, and conflicting testimony in a clear, readable way.  This is some of the best reporting I’ve ever come across.  The book’s layout helps, too.  Each chapter has but a single focus.  Quotations and excerpts are well marked.  Morris writes concisely.  He maintains admirable balance amidst dizzying swarms of accusation and dissembling.

If you like true crime, if you like intelligent analysis of criminal law processes and media frenzies, if you are interested in seeing how the muddle of life becomes selected, even cherry-picked history in our minds, or if you like philosophical existentialism presented without preaching using real world examples, this book will compel you.

Strongly recommended for those of us angry at the corruption.

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Review of Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

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Bellman & Black
by Diane Setterfield
Emily Bestler Books, Atria, Simon & Schuster
HC, 328pp, $26.99, ISBN:  978-1-4767-1195-9

A Review by Gene Stewart

A memento mori presented as the life of William Bellman, who makes the fatal error as a boy of killing a rook, an act which haunts him ever after.  We see his childhood, his adolescence, and his youth, then watch him apply remarkable ability at analysis to move from working at a fabric mill to running it to, eventually owning and transforming it.

Along the way we witness his hardships and struggles, his challenges, triumphs, and abject failures.  We see how hard life is, even for those we’d otherwise call successful.  We see how tiny influences have huge ramifications and consequences.

William Bellman is inclined to vertical integration.  Black is his color, once his main adult idea flocks to him.  An emporium focused on providing all the needs and wants of those in mourning, he realizes, will thrive because death is always thriving.  He becomes expert in black, aware of more variations of the color, and its absence, than the Inuit know of snow.

At this stage, the book brings to mind Selfridge’s store and success, without the man’s dissipation through gambling.  Bellman is all work, no waste, even as his daughter, terribly afflicted, almost wastes away until, somehow, she changes yet again.

Written crisply, with a focused, elegant, and concise prose both well-paced yet brisk, caring yet astringent, expansive yet telescoping, Bellman & Black rises from eerie mystery to literary soul-searching.  Epic living is presented in only 300 or so pages.  Life in all its circuitous, meandering, whimsical, and perverse layering comes alive for us in William Bellman and those around him.  There is not a false step.  Setterfield grants access to myth, too, and the plain magic of the workday world.  Occasional excursus pages of information about ravens, blackbirds, crows, and other corvids provide counterpoint reminding us of time passing and eternity motionless and watching it all.  The fall of a sparrow comes to mind, as does geological epochs.

The tone is unemotional throughout, often presenting gut-wrenching scenes with an almost placid precision that evokes eerie detachment, as if we’re seeing this all from above.  From, say, a bird’s eye view.

While there is no overt manifestation, the novel is infused with the supernatural.  Dark lurks, shadows influence, and people divert mysteriously into stretches of life or death that cannot easily be explained, yet that seem perfectly natural in the course of things.  Context matters.

Bellman & Black is a joy to read, to savor.   Beautiful sentences, scenes, and chapters are offered like gems on black velvet. Nothing strikes as ill-considered or ad hoc.  Woven tightly, life in Setterfield’s hand and eye is inevitable, even as it is surprising, at times shocking, and always comes with a touch of glossy dark whispery winged magic.

Strongly recommended for those poised for dark flight.

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Review of Helltown by Jeremy Bates

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Helltown / World’s Scariest Places:  Book Three
by Jeremy Bates
Ghillinnein Books, 2015, 1st
ISBN:  978 0997 096 067

A Review by Gene Stewart

A group of kids drive to an isolated town in Ohio to investigate legends of hauntings and other strange goings-on, such as a bridge under which a baby’s ghost wails in the wisps of mist, or the church with the upside-down cross on top.

Their investigation of the bridge proves a let-down but the wild ride that follows, featuring a game of chicken they lose, proves more eventful than any could want.  Their driver swerves away from certain head-on collision, only to lose control, leave the road into the trees, flip, then roll the car, and end up paralyzed.

What the reader knows that they don’t is terrifying:  A group of in-bred hicks with rape and murder on their mind, who refer to the men and women they hunt in their territory as Bucks and Does, wrecked them on purpose and intend on taking them to dungeons and worse.

Factor in a corrupt psychopathic shrink from a local clinic, a pair of anacondas, and the apathetic ignorance and corruption of local officials and things become really grim.

Bates writes focused prose that keeps things moving.  Always engaging, he does not scrimp on character.  Every scene is thought out so it works on many levels at once.  Every sentence works.

He seems to attribute a Downeast accent to some of these Ohio natives, which offers an off-setting note of dissonance to an otherwise-seamless narrative drive, but that’s minor.  Another cavil:  I nearly stopped reading when the hicks were introduced because I thought, Oh no, not that old trope.  The very next chapter redeemed my fear of cliché; he was playing with them more than slavishly following them, and this opened up the book to great effect.

Which clichés?  This book contributes to the legacy of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES and other such gruesome Sawney Bean tales.  Thing is, i’s a worthy addition, one recommended for those who like a wild ride full of twists, turns, surprises, shocks, and terrors presented on what seems to be familiar territory.  You’d be wrong to get too comfortable.

Like the second book in his series, this one is set in an actual place you can visit if you dare, and the events on which he hangs his tale are reported in news stories you can research.  It’s a great conceit for a series and so far he’s also covered Japan’s suicide forest, the Paris catacombs, and the Isle of Dolls in Mexico.

I’ve read Catacombs, the second in this series, and it, too, is recommended, not the least of which for its well-researched tour of the actual catacombs and the depiction of some of the denizens and urban explorers who are found there, sometimes dead and dismembered. The story itself is satisfyingly layered, with a solid resolution, and the characters are memorable.

Jeremy Bates writes better than necessary while delivering base-level shrieking horror at its best.  Can’t ask or hope for more.  Seek out his work and see if you concur.

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Review of nEvermore!

nEvermore!

nEvermore!
Neo-Gothic Fiction Inspired by
the Imagination of Edgar Allan Poe
Tales of Murder, Mystery, & the Macabre

Edited by
Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles

Edge, imprint of Hades Publishing
$15.95, 259pp, Bio section
ISBN 978-177053085-0

A Review by Gene Stewart

The cover shows a raven on a branch silhouetted by a full moon.  Its beak is open.  We know what it’s saying.  Yet here are echoes of the master, not silent evermore but very much alive influencing a wide range of writers and variety of stories.

Poe defined every current modern fiction genre to greater or lesser extent. His systematic approach to sensationalism, his insistence on form, structure, and “one thing happens”, have given literature goals to aim at, as time and again his stories showed how it was properly done, and why that way worked best.

Flaws and excesses haunted his work, yes.  We see in this anthology echoes of those, too.  It becomes an enhancement.

After a somewhat blurry set of remarks by Uwe Sommerlad, with the points of which I largely disagree, we get down to the stories themselves, where quality kicks into high gear.

Some are takes on actual Poe tales.  Some are surreal nods toward a clutch of Poe’s motifs.  Some relate to Poe in tone only, or by having been inspired by stains found in Poe’s shadow.  These tales span past and present, with settings high, low, and bizarre.  We find stand-outs like “Naomi” by Christopher Rice, or “Finding Ulalume” by Lisa Morton, or “Annabel Lee” by Nancy Holder, which appealed to my taste particularly.  We find literary gems and surprises, such as Margaret Atwood’s first attempt at a short story, or an excerpt from a David Morrell novel about the mysterious Opium Eater, who turns out to be Thomas De Quincy himself.

Old pros mingle with relative newcomers.  Each story stands on its own merits but together this anthology presents a persuasive set of strong arguments for continuing our celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s accomplishments, and to expand his work’s influence so it never ceases to enhance, enrich, and chill us.

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Review of The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

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The Colorado Kid
by Stephen King
Hard Case Crime imprint of
Dorchester Books, October 2005
Mass Market Paperback, 184pp
ISBN:  0-8439-5584-8

A Review by Gene Stewart

Written to help inaugurate an imprint of new pulp mysteries, The Colorado Kid is a mystery about the nature of mystery.  It’s meta-fiction, something more literary than most expect from King, a chronically under-rated and misinterpreted writer due to his amazing sales figures and intense popularity among readers.

Fact is, he’s much better than he’s generally credited to be, a mystery in itself until one remembers the howdy-neighbor narrative tone he achieves.  Since he doesn’t come off lofty and cerebral in tone, few pay attention to what he’s really up to, and so they miss how intelligent, well thought-out, and how, yes, literary is much of King’s oeuvre.

He’s like a seamless street illusionist, affable, approachable, and doing so many things you don’t see that you never know what hit you until later, if then.  This book brings that lesson home with a snap of the fingers and the dazzle of flash paper.

The Colorado Kid is a nickname given to a dead body found on a beach on an island off Maine.  We learn about the incident as two old newspapermen discuss it with a young colleague, an intern who is enticed away from grandiose dreams of journalism by the tiny paper and its place in its tiny community.  Along with the story of The Colorado Kid we receive much sidereal education about traditional values, how things really work, and what imposing a narrative means to both storytelling and to reporting.

Many felt cheated or let-down by this book.  They thought it had no resolution.  They resented not having had their hands held as they crossed dangerous thresholds.  They sulked about not having had every little thing explained to them.  They accused King of mystification for its own sake, and of being too lazy to work out a solution to the puzzle he poses.

King does not cheat, though.  It’s all there, right in front of you, clear as day, if you can manage to think.  That’s the true joy of this superb novella, it allows the reader a chance to snap awake to something that goes on all around us all the time.

After reading this, and enjoying it, I went to bed, and it was there that I lay thinking about how King had led me through a discussion of unsolved mysteries and why they appeal to us.  What elements they must have if we’re to return to them again and again.  Every detail of The Colorado Kid I thought back on fit, I realized, with growing admiration.  He’d not only avoided cheating, he’d done sleight-of-mind on me time and again, and had made it look effortless.

What a performance of writerly skills and literary awareness.

Good writing it not just what a writer comes up with but how it’s presented.

In this example, a lesser writer could easily have produced an extruded fiction product mystery novella good for a quick reading and instantly forgotten.  It might be expanded into hundreds of pages.  It could be compressed into a Jack Ritchie zinger or a sliver of Lawrence Block.

A blurb on the back drop the names of Dashiell Hammett and Graham Greene and specifically mention The Maltese Falcon.  At first I thought this was marketer’s razzle-dazzle, chiming on familiar names to sell a product, and sure, some of it is exactly that, but these referents fit well, turns out.  Think sharp irony, dangerously unreliable narration, and obliquely blunt fact that goes unrecognized.  The Human Factor home to roost with a vengeance.

The stuff dreams are made of, indeed.

We had to pay about five times cover price for this copy I read, and it came with a creased front cover, eye tracks, and so on.  If you can find a copy, definitely snag and read it.  Well worth the effort and it will, if you’re a canny sort of reader, elevate your appreciation of Stephen King’s work.

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