WHY I WROTE A BATTLE OF SORCERERS

Thomas Edison once said that 999 out of a thousand experiments are failures. I think he was specifically talking about his search for the right filament for the electric light bulb, which, of course he finally found.

Check Amazon and you’ll find sword and sorcery novels by the hundreds. They are as popular as popcorn. In them wizards send dragons to fight stableboys who aspire to knighthood, or damsels who are also pretty good with a sword. A Battle of Sorcerers is not one of those books.

There’s another category of sorcery books, the non-fiction experiences of students of shamanism. This started with the twelve books of Carlos Castaneda, and those of his students, Florinda Donner, Taisha Abelar, and Felix Wolf. There are others by people who claim to be students of Castaneda’s teacher, don Juan Matus. These include books by Merilyn Tunneshende, Ken Eagle Feather, and others.

There’s another category of books by don Miguel Ruiz, and his sons and students, which are not autobiographical, but more in the category of self-help books.

So most of the stuff about European magic seems to be fiction and most of the stuff about American magic seems to be “non-fiction”, though there is another whole sub-genre of literature devoted to the proposition that Carlos Castaneda is a fraud.

It should come as no surprise that Castaneda incorporated fictional elements in his non-fiction books, because he admits that up front, as a means of hiding the identity of his characters. Don Juan’s real name, if he ever actually existed, was not Juan Matus, and he may not be Yaqui and he may not be from Sonora. Personally I don’t care about any of that. The techniques work, and that’s all I care about.

But it seemed to me that incorporating those techniques into a fictional adventure story would make for exciting fiction, and might lead some folks into investigating knowledge that could improve their lives in amazing ways, and be a lot of fun in the process.

I’m not the first to have this idea. Robin Rice, who practices and teaches shamanism has written several shamanic novels, starting with the wonderful A Hundred Ways to Sunday. A friend and fellow Special Forces veteran, James Morgan Ayres, who got his spiritual training through the Chinese martial arts, but also has a lot of experience with archeology in Mexico, wrote a novel that kept me entranced, the Jaguar’s Heart.

But none of these has achieved a wide readership, and A Battle of Sorcerers is not off like a rocket either. So the jury is still out on whether this is a good idea or not.

The original idea that finally morphed into A Battle of Sorcerers started fifty-seven years ago when I was nineteen. My grandparents had taken me to a tent revival meeting in Ava, Missouri when I was eight, and that guy’s hellfire and brimstone sermon haunted my dreams for years. The upside was that it started me thinking about esoteric matters. I got this vision that people are extensions of God, like fingers, and that still seems valid to me. The hellfire thing didn’t seem right, but every authority figure in my life professed to believe in it, and acted like they did not. Most confusing.

Then at twelve I encountered the word “agnostic” in a science-fiction story and looked it up. From that I realized that there were plenty of people who did not buy the worldview of Protestant Christianity. Immediately I became an atheist, though I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut about it. There’s no record of Baptists burning anyone at the stake in Oklahoma, but why risk it?

When I was nineteen, still angry with fundamentalism, I got this idea of writing a scathing satire of the story of Jesus. I was nowhere near ready to write it, and there were many subjects I wanted to address first, but it was always in the queue.

I had some problems after the army and Vietnam. Let’s put it this way. I was leading a disordered life after a period of traumatic stress, though if you’d suggested I had post-traumatic stress disorder I would have hurt you. Two things helped me out of that, the Toltec training called The Warrior’s Way and a former airborne first sergeant who had become an Assembly of God preacher in Mustang, Oklahoma. Each of those played off each other in ways that started bringing my life together. I read the Toltec stuff, but also the Bible, four times in three different translations, not cherry-picking verses to reinforce my prejudices, but all of it, to get the whole scope of it.

Boy, taken all together that’s some book.

And I became a believer, not in traditional Christianity, but in the idea that Jesus was a cool guy who had given the best advice ever. I still wanted to write that satire, but now the goal was not to debunk, but to illuminate. I had decided to frame it from the viewpoint of the Centurion who gets his daughter healed by Jesus. It sucked.

Some years later I was visiting my friend Julia Ross in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, when she told me there were so many FBI agents investigating the finances of the Cherokee Nation that they had to build them their own Holiday Inn. That cracked me up. But it occurred to me I could make my novel work if I made my messiah a Cherokee medicine man. The Pharisees became the Keetowah Society and the FBI the Romans. The story wandered from the Biblical account, but that was the idea.

Now, understand that the Apostle’s Creed is no part of my Jesus story. Jesus’ divinity was a Roman idea, and the Romans made gods of Augustus Caesar and Caligula. To my mind Jesus is divine because everybody is, which is a Toltec notion. There is a tradition in India that Jesus spent the missing years there, which may or may not be true, but it’s a fun idea to play with. There is plenty of documentation of Indian fakirs slowing their breath and other bodily functions to an undetectable level and coming back later. That could explain the resurrection. In the story in my mind he did this not as a sacrifice, but as an example that if you do the right thing and hang in there with it you will prevail, even through death.

That wasn’t the resurrection technique John Sky used in A Battle of Sorcerers; he used something I took from Castaneda, but no matter. India wouldn’t work for my novel, but Mexico would.

The rest of it is all shamanism, Toltec and Cherokee. The bad guy, the Raven Mocker, is a character from Cherokee mythology, and my “Centurion”, Dave Perry, prevails through a combination of Toltec and Cherokee shamanism.

It’s hard to explain how much fun it was to write that book. I can only hope it’s as much fun to read it.

Vampires, Zombies, and Harvard MBAs

Recently a thing has happened which has greatly and adversely effected my time. I have discovered that I can watch TV shows that I’ve missed on Amazon Prime. Very quickly after making that discovery I gobbled up all of Justified, the first two seasons of Game of Thrones and most of the first five seasons of True Blood.

Game of thrones uses supernatural themes somewhat sparingly, and True Blood depends entirely on them. This set me to musing as to the psychological reasons behind the popularity of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the like. I’ve always liked vampire themed stories. For a long time my favorite television show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I loved for Joss Whedon’s terrific dialogue, and the depth and accuracy of the characterizations. I decided that vampires were popular because they represented a personality type that is rife within the general population, but what was it? I considered psychopaths, then decided that psychopaths were maybe a bit too crazy. But sociopaths fit the vampire legend to a T.

Sociopaths pretend to be normal people, and really are pretty close to normal, but they thrive by sucking the life force from others with not a care for their victims’ well-being. They hide, not in the night, but in the shadows; that’s close enough. They don’t live forever, but the type does. Spiritually the type is close enough, with spiritual parallels for every aspect of the vampires’ physical life.

Werewolves are easy; emergency rooms fill up on full moon nights. Clearly some people become bestial when the moon is full.

It’s a fairly good guess that the legends of fairies are based on the gay. It’s even a nickname. I think there’s more to that legend than that, but what that more is does not come readily to mind. But when cultures as diverse as the Irish and the Cherokee both have legends of “little people” that live in dimensional portals built into hillsides then there is something to it, though what is still an open question.

But what really puzzled me were the psychological and sociological underpinnings of the zombie legend. Zombie movies have become an important sub-genre in the last twenty or thirty years. Sure, that legend comes from Haiti and voodoo, and some recent analyses have explained it as some sort of drug that voodoo priests use to bend somnambulant victims to their will. But why the sudden popularity of that legend in our culture?

Then it hit me. I have read that morticians report that there are so many preservatives in our food that American bodies are decaying more slowly than in years past. So, preservatives in food, rampant overprescription of drugs with varying and interlocking side effects, GMO foods (Frankenfoods), truly this is the night (and day) of the living dead. Look around and you see a landscape full of people with unhealthy bodies and diminished capacities, and an absence of will. People get that, and they see what’s being done to them, and to those they love. They are being turned into compliant automatons. They don’t eat other people, but they are destroying the planet with the same chemicals and perverted genetics that are turning them into zombies.

Most people can’t face this head on, but they sense it subconsciously, and the myth structure of our society increasingly reflects it.

Perhaps the myths can figure in a solution to these societal trends. The good guy vampire who is trying to resist his awful urges is increasingly featured in these stories, Angel in Buffy and later in his own show, Vampire Bill and Eric in True Blood.

Zombie flicks are something I hate and have always avoided, but judging from trailers on television they are increasingly being played for laughs, with more self-aware and funny zombies.

The Wall Streeters who caused the financial meltdown are a perfect parallel to the vampire legend, but hopefully there are more and more people in the financial world who realize that eating the seed corn is not a viable economic model.

And zombies are a perfect match to the average consumer, which consumer is hopefully waking up to that fact.

I sent the foregoing to a friend, Kater Cheek, who writes a couple of great fantasy series on Kindle. Her mom, Helen Pratt, is one of my Toltec buddies, and a few years back she asked me to read an unpublished novel by her daughter. As you can imagine I get a lot of requests like that and I wasn’t wild to do it, but I like her mom a lot, so I said I would.

I gobbled it up the first night I had it and begged for more. If you like that kind of stuff what I read was the Kit Melbourne series, which is ongoing, available on Kindle, and which I am still reading with great pleasure. Here is her reply:

“I’ve heard the theory that psychopaths are vampires. I think it’s a fairly solid one. In Romania, vampires are closer to zombies. They’re relatives who rise from the grave and try to feast on blood.  Ever see “The Vampire Diaries?” it will make you hate vampires. Bunch of whiny, spoiled, self-absorbed pretty people. Thirty seconds of that show makes me want to stake the lot of them.  Seriously. the only things that inspire faster violent hatred in me are anime bunny girls.

“I’ve heard some people say that people act weird during the full moon, and I understand the connection with werewolves, but why are werewolves mostly men, then? You’d think women would be more likely to have beast-human-beast changes depending on the moon phase. I like the theory that the werewolf legend comes from rabies.

 

“My favorite theory about fairies comes from the notion that fairies are Neanderthals. I read recently that it’s likely that Neanderthals didn’t ‘die out’ so much as ‘breed in’. Some have espoused the notion that red hair indicates Neanderthal ancestry. That’s far fetched, but a book on genetics I read recently says that people of Northern European extraction are the ones most likely to have Neanderthal DNA. This works with ‘living in the hills’ ‘little’ and ‘iron’ things, as Neanderthals didn’t have any iron working. They’re like humans, but they aren’t humans, and they sometimes breed with people. It also works that the place where you have the strongest fairy legends are Ireland and Scandinavia, where the Cro-Magnons came latest.

“I remember finding out that zombieism was a real thing. Papa Doc’s henchmen would put blowfish powder in your shoes, and you’d go into a coma. They’d bury you shallowly, and when you came out of the coma, you’d be brain damaged and tractable. Horrifying!

“My personal theory is that the reason zombies are popular is that they let people get their survivalist/warrior/hero on without the moral conflict of killing an actual person. You get to kill people, but they’re already dead, so it’s okay.

“Personally, I find zombies totally icky, even though they have been good for my career. Unless they are super-cute, like in Plants vs. Zombies, I avoid anything with zombies in it.”

I like most of her ideas about as well as mine, and they both reinforce the idea that supernatural beings in myth are markers for real trends in society. Except, I like my zombie theory better because it opens it up a reason to rant against things I don’t like, such as GMO foods and overmedication.

Probably the reason werewolves are thought of more as male is that when guys go crazy under a full moon they put people in the emergency room, whereas women just get bitchy.

So, maybe all of our lives are templates for horror series. For myself I’d rather live in a Joss Whedon series than a Wes Craven series.

Generations

An advantage of age is that one gets to see several generations go through similar experiences. I’ve seen soldiers come home from five wars, and those homecomings were very different.

I was eight when World War II ended, and something like twenty million guys came back, pretty much all at once. There was PTSD aplenty in that generation, though in those days it was called shell shock. The first returning GI I met took the time to familiarize me with his .45, which is perhaps not something a guy would do with a seven year old boy today. I still remember the weight of it, and the beauty. I had never seen anything so efficiently designed to perform one function.

The next GI I talked to lived down the street, and today he would be recognized as a poster boy for PTSD. He was a nineteen-year-old former Marine. In those days Marines wore shoulder patches like the army, and he gave me several of them, FMF-Pac patches, which I was glad to have. He also spent quite a while telling me about shoving piles of Japanese bodies into a slit trench with a Caterpillar tractor while eating a Baby Ruth candy bar. He gave particular emphasis to the smell, and this is not a story I would tell to an eight year old today.

But the thing that set the WWII generation apart from subsequent generations of returning GIs was that they were lionized. They had saved the world and everybody knew it. Older guys who had not fought were fired to give them their jobs back. If you hadn’t fought you weren’t as likely to get promoted, or elected, should you decide to run for office. Civilians practically worshipped those guys. Lately they have come to be known as The Greatest Generation, and they’re still lionized. I don’t want to take anything away from what they did, but the truth is they didn’t do anything that subsequent generations of GIs did not.

Much has been made of the fact that they were in for the duration; if you were in at the start you were out when it was over, if you still lived. And that is true. But those guys seldom spent more than three months in the line during a campaign. One was more the norm. Whereas a kid in an Infantry unit in Vietnam ran combat patrols almost from his first day in country until the last. He could spend more time in combat in one year than a WWII soldier did in four.

Guys coming back from Korea weren’t lionized, but they had a lot of residual respect. Then came Vietnam, and we all know how the Vietnam vets were treated. The war was unpopular, and in many areas the guys who fought it were unpopular too. These were guys who had done the same jobs and taken the same chances as the WWII guys, and were taunted and abused for it. I’ve known guys who went back to Vietnam, just to have somebody to talk to, and got killed as a result.

I came back to Oklahoma, a conservative state which supported the war, even if its college students did not. We had plenty of anti-war demonstrations at OU, but I experienced no overt hostility to ex-GIs. I was one of the organizers of a veteran’s teach-in at OU, and I said in my opening remarks, “Look, we’re not going to change anybody’s minds about the war here tonight. What I’d like to establish is that we are decent people operating from decent motives, and if you’ll give us credit for that we’ll do the same for you.” And that approach worked pretty well at OU. I made friends in the anti-war movement that I’m still friendly with when I meet them.

But I have friends who came home to less friendly campuses, and you can believe me when I say that they are still traumatized today, more by the experience of homecoming than by the war itself. They are bitter, and they have a right to be bitter. My goal is to convince them that their bitterness does not serve them, and that it should be replaced by a more generous understanding. If that seems saintly to you, well, yes it is,

By Desert Storm the country had taken stock of what it had done, and the mood was, hate the war, but love the troops. They got their parade. Me, I’ve marched in about 500 parades and I’d just as soon skip the parade and have a beer. The parade was a nice gesture, but there was not a lot of understanding that went with it. Without understanding there is no fellowship, and without that there is no integration. The vets were still apart, and not in an elevated way like the WWII vets. No one was angry with them, but they were watched carefully, just to make sure of … something.

The difference between the Desert Storm and Iraq/Afghanistan War vets is not so much the difference in the respect they received but in the understanding. They get respect for what they did, but nobody really knows exactly what that was. The point I’m edging toward here is that the experience of coming home has a lot to do with the severity and experience of PTSD. You can go through a lot of awful stuff, but, if when you come home you are respected, and the people you meet are grateful for the sacrifice you have made, that makes a tremendous difference.

Nobody was afraid of the WWII vets when they came home, though what they went through was just as stressful as later generations. They were expected to be superior people, and so they reacted by doing superior things.

When you come home and everybody expects you to be destroyed by the experience, or you get pity instead of respect, that makes it hard to realize your full potential. If people think you’re crazy, and react as though the things you think and do are crazy it’s hard not to be crazy.

Veterans and Toltec Stuff

Here it is, the long awaited (by me) website.

For a long time I thought two would be needed, one for my soldier boy stuff and one for the Toltec stuff. What I was known for was my writings about Vietnam and the guerrilla wars of the eighties, and I figured the audience drawn to that wouldn’t be interested in what I was into now.

What changed was involvement with veterans who were having a hard time with the aftermath. The fact is everyone has a hard time with the aftermath. Either they’re driven nuts by the stuff that happened in their wars (and there have been so many), or, after all that excitement, they find civilian life so boring that it can only be dealt with by a combination of violent behavior and substance abuse.

Well, like everybody else I led a disordered life after (post) a period of traumatic stress, and sometimes my thoughts on the matter were unpleasant. What got me out of that, mostly, was the spiritual toolkit I found, initially in the writings of Carlos Castaneda and later in training with don Miguel Ruiz and his former apprentices.

Toltec wisdom is one approach to spiritual matters, one that is especially suited to the needs of warriors. It’s not the only one, and modern Toltecs aren’t shy about picking up practices from other traditions, from Tibetan Buddhism to Pentecostal Christianity, with side journeys through clinical psychology and Indian (both kinds) mysticism. Whatever works, use it. The object of the game is to live a happy, productive, useful life, connected to Spirit. This is personal power and freedom.

This Toltec stuff has changed my life. It may not be right for you. But something is. Find it and work it.