Occult Humanities Conference 2017


I headed down to the city on a day that started out dark but became rather lovely. I saw the lovely Katja and her kitties: she’s the hostess with the mostest. We had a lovely dinner at Veselka, too. I saw a couple of the Ai Weiwei installations too. There are always sights to see in NYC including the 777 exhibit by Jen DeNike & Damien Echols and of course there was the third Occult Humanities Conference, which proved most inspirational in all kinds of ways. More photos on the ‘book — I’m thinking of trying Instagram: pros or cons you care to offer?

Make note: next April the 100th anniversary celebration of Leonora Carrington in Mexico City. I may need to get to that. Road trip, anyone? I’ve not been there before. Only along the border.

I forgot to take pictures of the lovely exhibit by Tin Can Forest, but you can see a lot of their art online. They did the fabulous What is a Witch with conference co-host Pam Grossman.

Tomorrow I’m talking on medieval charms at ISATMA. Free and open, including the concerts honouring the late Pauline Oliveros.

Salem: It’s Alive

I finally joined my gals’ annual Salem jaunt. A tough time of year for me to get away, but I promised them this year I would go. We had a lot of fun and good eats, and there was a fantastic exhibit on at the Peabody. More pics on the ‘book.

Film for a Friday: Woman Who Came Back

Yes, it is written like that in the title card: no article on Woman. Low budget offering from Western Television, Woman Who Came Back (1945) offers a tale of the past invading the present in the form of a witch burned at the stake who wants revenge. In New England — where of course no one was burned as a witch.

Criminy people: witches were not burned in the US, they were hanged (and occasionally pressed). Also EARLY MODERN ERA was the time of the  wild witch crazes: you needed the print era to really get propaganda going on a massive scale.

Anyhoo: this is a fun little no-budget film. Including great creepy vintage Halloween costumes.

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The story is simple: Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly) on a bus returning to her hometown and the man she ran away from at the altar meets an old woman who claims to be Jezebel Trister (Elspeth Dudgeon – best name I’ve heard in a while), the witch who had been condemned by Lorna’s great grand pappy. Of course she’s back to curse his progeny and the bus crashes killing everyone except Lorna and the old woman’s dog who haunts her the rest of the film.

Her paternalistic head-patting fiance (Now Voyager’s John Loder) assures her everything will be fine and the epically old guy pipe-smoking Rev. Jim Stevens (Otto Kruger) agrees. Let’s just all forget this bus full of dead people and get on with our charming New England lives of small town paranoia: Shirley Jackson meets Grace Metalious.

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Of course weird things happen: everything Lorna touches dies and it spooks people, like Expositio her housekeeper (okay, her name’s not really Expositio but she does explain a lot of back story before giving notice presumably because the windows won’t stay shut and the curtains billow mysteriously in the ever-present wind).

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Naturally, Lorna discovers the truth about her curse from a volume in old grandpappy’s study that just happens to be in a mausoleum in the crypts under the church. The townfolk don’t like these goings on especially when her fiance’s niece falls ill and they react accordingly.

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Will they gather into an angry mob or will clearer pipe-smoking heads prevail to show they’ve all been Scooby-Doo’d? It’s only a little over an hour so you can watch and find out for yourself. Hardly a masterpiece, it’s nonetheless fun and goes on my list for the course on witch films I’m thinking about doing sometime in the near future.

I learned about this film from a terrific piece on the folk-horror of Powell & Pressburger’s Gone to Ground.

Free – Hard-Boiled Witch: Abra Cadavra!

Free now through Saturday on your local Amazon while I’m working on episode 5:

HBW 4 Abra Cadavra

When a new burlesque club opens in Dundee, the owner calls on Hecate Sidlaw to deal with some strange attacks — by a skeleton! She and her familiar Henry need to get to the bottom of the magical threats, if she can get him away from the performers long enough to investigate. Looks like they need someone with expertise in calaveras…

Enter the dark streets and weird magic of HARD-BOILED WITCH and your life will never be quite the same.

This 28-page ebook single is the fourth in the series from the author of WHITE RABBIT, UNQUIET DREAMS, DREAM BOOK, OWL STRETCHING, and the CHASTITY FLAME thriller series.

“Laity has been proving for quite some time now that her noir prose ranks right up there with the likes of Meg Abbott, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Sara Paretsky.”
~ Vincent Zandri

Many thanks to Bertie for mailing me my series notebook >_< which I forgot!

Supernatural Scotland

Charles I Angel as charm

Angel of Charles I, the last minted for circulation © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Friday’s voyage to Edinburgh was a delight. I attended the IASH workshop ‘The Supernatural in Early Modern Scotland’ (thanks to Cailleach’s Herbarium for the alert). It was a bit tricky finding the Institute due to both construction and its rather hidden corner, but I only missed the very beginning. I thought I might feel a bit of an interloper as a medievalist in their midst as well as a stranger but I must say people went out of their way to be welcoming all day.

The event kicked off with the esteemed Julian Goodare (if you don’t know him, you might know the database he helped create) who spoke about the emotional relationships between humans and spirit guides. The history of emotions is an emerging field so it was interesting ground to tread, looking at the ways people engaged with the spirits or fairies whether it was a patron/client relation or something more close (many reportedly had romantic relationships) and looking into their backgrounds for evidences of trauma.

Liv Helene Williumsen explored the tale of the ninety-nine dancers of Moaness in Orkney. The geographical location suggested a remoteness well within sight, while the number suggested that the whole village must have been there, but the influence of ‘stark aill’ (strong beer) was blamed for whatever did happen.

Lizanne Henderson opened up the topic of supernatural animals in the period as everything from familiars to spirit guides to shapeshifted humans (is a human who’s shifted to animal shape still human or animal?). She brought up a variety of strange stories of animals and the supernatural, including the pig put on trial for murder (I had to mention to her the Colin Firth film The Advocate/Hour of the Pig which portrays that story).

After lunch coordinator Martha McGill presented a lot of material on angels in folk culture, including the angel coins pictured above and worn as protective charms. She touched on the unfortunate effects of the Protestant Reformation in destroying so much of the art history of Scotland though angels had been as plentiful as ‘brambles’ despite the kirk’s disapproval.

Michael Riordan focused on ‘The Whole Prophesie’ of Thomas Rhymer which had a variety of uses in the early Modern period and linked up everything from Jacobites to Rosicrucians and Masons. If you’re familiar with Thomas the Rhymer who met the Queen of Elfland, it’s the same one. I was most inspired because I think this will play into my Raven King paper for next month, so now I’m reading up on this.

Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart looked at the cultural contexts of second sight in the islands and Highlands. As in the Icelandic medieval stories, this wasn’t about seeing ghosts but seeing the fetch of a living person and knowing what would happen down the line. It was interesting to hear that novice seers would have to defer to older and more experienced practitioners, perhaps to exercise a kind of community control over the nature of the experience.

Before the roundtable discussion Hamish Mathison spoke on the nature of the supernatural in Burns’ Tam o’Shanter. He argued that Burns offers a nuanced balance of the ‘wild’ and the ‘domesticated’ in the landscape of the ruined church, a mixture of the comic and the Gothic which makes for a certain discomfort. It was a great note to end on.

If you’re wishing you could have been there, it may comfort you to know that there is a forthcoming collection of essays with a few additional folk who were not able to be there. You’ll want to pick that up.

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Tam o’Shanter by Thomas Landseer

Walpurgisnacht Freebie

As usual, I’m giving away my much reprinted story ‘Walpurgisnacht’; click the link on the name if you’ve not read it yet and you can download a PDF of the tale. And watch out for witches flying off to the mountains tonight!

Walpurgisnacht Hirsch

Witches: September Gallery

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September Gallery via their Facebook page

Sometimes living in hipsterville has its benefits: September Gallery is definitely one of them. They only opened last year but they’ve already won a fan in me with this show. Witches brings together a variety of powerful works by women. Marjorie Cameron‘s name drew me in, but there were other pleasures to enjoy. It was wonderful to see her drawings up close and marvel at her fine lines and free compositions. Stunning and powerful.

Her work was surrounded by contemporary artists animated by the same questing spirit. Laurel Sparks describes her work a kind of sigil magic, overlaying a dizzying array of colours, textures and materials in her Magic Square series. They sparked some ideas in me. Rosy Keyser’s work likewise mixes materials and colour but in a more abstract way. I loved her Terrestial Mime which hangs materials on a wooden grid with wild layers of paint. It feels like the work behind a painting made visible, a sort of swirl of anarchic energy summoned.

Marianne Vitale’s Very Fine Gander has a whimsical charm, like toys made giant — but charred, too. So there’s also a feeling of something horrible gone wrong. There’s a great description of it in the exhibit essay by Susan Aberth (who wrote that fabulous book on Leonora Carrington — but argh! ‘The Burning Times’ and the Middle Ages are not synonymous. The height of the witch hunts was the 16th-17th centuries: the Early MODERN era).

I was absolutely bowled over by Anna Betbeze’s untitled sculpture of burnt objects on a rug. It felt like an artefact from the past, like a fire that consumed the witch who summoned it or what was left of the village after a curse. Like her piece Howl the literalisation of burning anger feels great.

“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.” ― Maya Angelou 

Best of all, the show culminated in a performance night last Saturday. I arrived to find the place in darkness as it had already begun (so much for being fashionably late). Melinda Kiefer led the audience in an opening ritual “to create [a] sacred yet wacky” atmosphere. Then the fabulous Pam Grossman (who probably alerted me to this show via her blog Phantasmaphile) gave a short version of her talk on the image of the witch in art. She was the organising genius behind the Occult Humanities Conference and exhibit last year that’s still resonating loudly in my head. I was glad we had a chance to chat afterward.

Shanekia McIntosh gave a wonderful performance with amazing code switching in a story about her family and the power of premonitions. There was an interesting Sonic Sigil piece, an invocation and prayer to Hecate by Sarah Falkner, Rebecca Wolff and Jonathan Osofsky (I liked the use of flags). The band Dust Bowl Faeries performed and wow! I was sharing pictures from their show with the Folk Horror Revival group because I knew people would dig it:

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They’re playing Helsinki Hudson on the 7th of May. Be there!

Laurel Sparks wrapped up the evening with a performance that had us back in the dark while she paced a circle around us, reading from huge slabs and then painting herself in dayglo colours with a kind of ritual precision that managed to be both humorous and compelling without ever giving in to the over-seriousness that performance pieces can fall prey to. All in all a fantastic evening.