Monday, April 10, 2006

Flashback to my occult roots - part 1

I'm in the middle of a nostalgia kick. If you've been reading since December you probably noticed my comment about Panzer Leader. This was the start of my nostalgia exploration. I recently purchased a copy of October War on eBay. This was the first wargame I ever bought back in 1975 (and which I somehow lost in the last few years). Last week I searched online for a set of three occult books I owned around 30 years ago. Surprisingly, they are fairly easy to obtain (though I haven't tried to buy them yet).

They say that there are none so devout as the converted. Alana thinks of me as her geeky skeptic. Most who know me today would be surprised to hear that I was once really into occult books.

The first occult book I read The Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz. I bought it in the first week of summer vacation. I think it was in 1975, but it might have been 1974. It was published in 1974 and became a bestseller so either year is possible. I have some very strong memories associated with this book. One of the chapters talked of the Mary Celeste, which was found drifting and abandoned near the Azores (which is actually outside the Bermuda Triangle, not that Berlitz was all that worried about accuracy) in 1873. One of the pictures in the centre of the book showed a couple of nasty looking pirates boarding a ship containing — among other passengers — a terrified woman. I distinctly remember the picture of a collier that disappeared in the Triangle in the early 20th century. This stuck with me because I had no idea what a "collier" was. And, of course, there was the obligatory picture of Avenger torpedo bombers, which represented the lost and famous Flight 19.

The series of three paperback books I mentioned above were volumes 1, 2, and 3 of This Baffling World, by John Godwin. Volume 1 had a purple cover with a picture of a UFO and a sasquatch on it. I believe book 2 was orange, though it may have been red. On the cover was a ship I believe was the Mary Celeste and a bunch of coffins. Book 3 was green, and had on it Harry Hoodini hung upside down, and a flight of Avenger torpedo bombers. These books came out in 1973, but they were originally published in a single volume hardcover edition in 1968. I can even remember the store where I bought them (Classic Books in the east end of the Oshawa Centre mall).

This Baffling World was little more than short essays on a bunch of occult subjects. It was easy to get into, but offered little analysis. It was more of an encyclopedia of the occult than an in depth discussion. There were the usual stories about UFOs, bigfoot (bigfoots? bigfeet?), ghosts, and psychic phenomenon. There were three chapters that stuck with me.

One was about Kaspar Hauser, a teenager who appeared in the streets of Nurnberg, Germany in 1828. He could barely communicate, though he had with him papers asking that he be admitted into the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, located in town. The boy was taken in by locals. He eventually told of being locked in a cell until shortly before being released and escorted to the town. He claimed to have lived only on bread and water, and had only a wooden horse (or a wooden horse and a wooden dog, in some accounts) for toys. One day someone began teaching him to speak and to learn how to spell his name, then he was released. He was taken in by the locals, some of whom began to suspect he was the illegitimate offspring of a nobleman. An unknown assailant attacked Kaspar in 1829, apparently cutting his head with an axe. In December, 1833, someone apparently lured him into a park and stabbed him in the chest. He died three days later. The photo section of the book contained pictures of the boy's blood-stained clothing.

The second item I remember was a mausoleum, the Chase vault, on the island of Barbados where it is reported that a mysterious force or presence threw around the heavy caskets. The first two caskets were placed in an orderly manner side by side between February, 1808 and July, 1812. A month later another coffin was added. When they opened the crypt they found that the first two coffins were not where they were originally placed. A total of six coffins — most made or lined with lead — were placed in the crypt, and each time the crypt was opened the caskets were found in disarray. Noises were supposedly heard emanating from the mausoleum one night. The last coffin was added in April, 1819, and once again the contents were thrown about. In July, 1820 Viscount Combermere decided to put the matter to rest. He had the vault opened, after first determining that the seals were intact. Inside the coffins were thrown about more violently than ever before. The coffins were removed, and to this day the vault remains empty.

The third item is a piece of Canadian folklore: the Oak Island Money Pit. In 1795 a young boy supposedly discovered a block and tackle on a tree and circular depression underneath it on Oak Island just off the Nova Scotia mainland. He and his friends found a layer of flagstones. When they dug up the flagstones they found a pit with a layer of logs every 10 feet. About 8 years later The Onslow Company dug down to about the 80 or 90 foot mark, where they found a stone tablet with curious markings on it. The next morning the pit was filled with water. An investigation of the beach uncovered coconut matting — not exactly indigenous to Nova Scotia — that the company surmised was used as a wick to draw water. The predominant theory was that pirates had developed a complex pit in which to hide their treasure, including a complicated system for maintaining a vacuum and a tunnel that would flood the pit if the diggers did not first deal with it before breaking the vacuum. A team dug into the pit in 1849. They used an auger to discover what was in the bottom of the pit. The auger "passed through a spruce platform at 98 feet, a 12 inch head space, 22 inches of what was described as 'metal in pieces', 8 inches of oak, another 22 inches of metal, 4 inches of oak, another spruce layer, and finally into clay for 7 feet without striking anything else." Small links of gold chain were supposedly stuck to the mud on the auger, suggesting that the metal was gold coins and jewelry, possibly captured by pirates. A series of teams tried to excavate the pit from 1866 to 1965, including a team in 1909 that included future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. None were successful. The Money Pit often shows up in occult books, partly due to outlandish claims that suggest the pit may have been created by the Knights Templar and other 15th century diggers, and partly due to stores of mysterious lights on the island. Some have claimed the island is haunted.

In 1975 I bought a book about the Oak Island mystery. After some Googling I believe the book was Money Pit: the Mystery of Oak Island by Rupert Furneaux. I remember it because a girl in my grade 8 class and I discussed going to the island someday and digging up the treasure. We even came up with an ingenious scheme involving deep sea diving suits. I seem to remember getting the book on Oak Island after reading the account in This Baffling World. I'm almost certain that I read the Berlitz Bermuda Triangle book before This Baffling World. Furneaux's book came out in 1976, which fits as I graduated from Grade 8 in June of that year.

(By the way, this infuriating inability to remember the precise dating of this kind of thing is what drove me to start a blog in the first place. I tried writing a journal but I found that without some outside influence and purpose — i.e. readers — I never got into the habit of regular entries. At least with a blog I can go back and have an idea of what I was doing at a specific point in time.)

The next book was From the Devil's Triangle to the Devil's Jaw by Richard Winer (I recognized it thanks to Google). It came out in 1977. Winer's big premise was that there were at least 7 "triangle" areas around the world where ships and planes disappeared mysteriously. He duplicated some of the information in Berlitz's book (he had the same picture of a collier) but he went further, describing mysterious disappearances and events around the world. As much as I ate this stuff up as a young teenager, a part of me was skeptical. I mean, seven triangles (he may have even listed as many as 13; I can't remember for sure)? It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you start showing every major body of water as "mysterious" maybe there was no mystery. I found Winer less convincing than Berlitz, but I still remember enjoying the book.

One chapter was dedicated to the ship the SS Great Eastern, the largest ship built at the time of its 1858 launch. The ship, originally named Leviathan (the book explained how renaming a ship was supposed to be bad luck) was so costly that it bankrupted the company it was built for and sold to the Great Eastern Ship Company. The author repeated the assertion that a worker had been accidentally sealed into her double hull. The ship was a monster, propelled by paddle wheels, screws, and sails. Unfortunately, heat from the exhaust could ignite the sails, so she was never able to use the sails while the steam engines were going. She made only 13 knots. After a few passages and several accidents she was sold to another company which used her to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable. The book portrayed her as jinxed, even though technically she never sailed in the Bermuda Triangle (though she may have sailed in one of Winer's other "triangles") or disappeared, and as such inclusion in the book was somewhat dubious.

I read several other occult books in the following years. The last one involved nothing but UFOs and "men in black". I can't remember the name of the book, and I can't find it on Google (which is probably just as well...) The final chapter involved something about a weird guy claiming to be hunted by "men in black". The book talked about how the guy was constantly masturbating (I kid you not!). Eventually he disappeared, or died, I can't remember which. The whole thing just got very surreal.

This last book was weird enough that it started to provoke the skeptic in me. There's an ironic little tale from my childhood. I was reading that book at the same time as I was reading, The Making of Star Trek, a behind-the-scenes story about the making of the television series. My mother once warned me not to believe everything in The Making of Star Trek, apparently worried that I would believe the science fiction parts were real. She hadn't read the book, though, so she didn't know that it was real. There were some parts about the names of the other Constitution class starships and what not, but for the most part it told you exactly what was happening on the set of a television series. In other words, it was non-fiction. At the same time I was reading this surreal UFO book, but she didn't warn me about that.

I believed these books because I was young. I couldn't believe that people could get away with making things up. I assumed that someone — an editor or somebody — would have checked the veracity of the books. It said "non fiction". It was when I got to university that I discovered that people could write pretty much anything, that freedom of speech was double-edged sword. One of the best courses I took was Logic and Critical Thinking. I began to see fallacies in standard occult arguments, and I started to look at these things more critically.

I miss those days when the world was more mysterious than it really is. While the world is undoubtedly safer if there isn't some sort of vortex scooping up planes and ships just east of the Caribbean, it's also a lot less interesting. For years (while a young teenager) the idea of "things that go bump in the night" caused me to turn on my bedroom light before I walked into the room. I miss the fact that I can walk into a dark room or along a dark corridor without the hairs on my neck standing up.

In the second part I will debunk some of the things that I mentioned above.


Winter said...

I once read a book about monster living under the bed, I still do a flying leap every time bed time..

Winter said...

how about "Mosters"

Winter said...

Wow I could not type that day.. it was suppose to read:

I once read a book about mosters living under the bed, I still do a flying leap onto my bed..

There, it's in english now..

Allan Goodall said...

What's a "moster"...?

Winter said...

I do not use drugs. I promise. I just couldn't form complete words that day..