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Is this an occult novel?

Despite the horrific (awesome) cover, I wouldn't say this fantasy story fits in the horror genre. But it does include Onquerol, demons who may be bound in books to cause mischief and trouble the mind, so we can't be too careful.

When I was sixteen, I was heavily influenced by Simon Bisley's rendition of Slaine: The Horned God. It features the drune religion that looks forward to the arrival of the great worm Crom Cruach, "a macrobe, a creature from the macrocosm that emerges through the worm-holes in time to suck the life-force of humans as food for the Dark Gods".

Simon Bisley - Slaine: The Horned God

The story also features a bloodthirsty spear, the gae bolga, whose wound none can recover from, which allows Slaine to kill the deathless villain, Slough Feg (this is an inspiration for the sword Soul Drune in which Simnem is imprisoned, thirsty for blood, used to kill the half demon Kotako). When the full version of Bisley's Slaine appeared in Heavy Metal magazine, I asked my mother if I could buy it, and she reluctantly agreed, asking the shopkeeper if it was suitable for kids. The shopkeeper shrugged. A comic is a comic.

Later, I found a used book store that had boxes of old Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) comics right back to early editions with Mobius stories. I bought them all, thanks to New Zealand government's student loan allowance. In one issue, there was an ad for special editions of H. R. Giger's Necronomicon. Volume 2 starts with a brilliant passage about Abduhl al Azred, who wrote the book of the dead (before or after he went mad isn't clear).

In the City of the Devil, Belet el Jin, he performed rituals to become familiar with evil spirits and discovered obscure, frightful mysteries about a race older than mankind. In 738 AD, Abduhl al Azred died a horrible death. Witnesses reported that, in broad daylight, he was torn to pieces by invisible claws.

I was so impressed by this short passage I refer to it, many years later, in the description of the Demon Parade in The Wizard's Harvest Table:

Adorned with Fellmark, you could walk down the street at midnight surrounded by the terrors of the deep underworld and the ash would render you unsavoury to taste, or so the popular view went. There were other theories that it made the demons think you were one of them, disguised in their stink.

While surrounded by the contributors to the worst of his nightmares, he tested his nerve and endured the frightened cries from all directions. He gambled on staying awake, to ensure he did not rub the caked ash away and leave himself exposed, to be torn to pieces by invisible claws.

I also had this passage in mind when describing Kelmak the Wild, the wizard to whom the harvest table is attributed and who was subsequently tortured by demons until driven mad, before he died, finding peace in the necropolis.

I kept my H. R. Giger books in a box for years afterwards, worried that if I threw them away I might incur some kind of bad luck, but also worried that keeping them might also affect my life somehow. In the books of Lovecraft I subsequently read, trying to find out more, I felt disappointment, though I suppose there is one Cthullu-like feature in the Wizard's Harvest Tasble: an Iderthorn begins to escape its prison hell when the demon Sel, Groshial's portal warden, seeks to trick the Night Offensive as they try to escape. The Iderthorn emerges so aggressively that it threatens to engulf everything, so Sel must let the Night Offensive go in order to avoid being consumed by it himself.

From the portal fog, a tentacled monster was picking its way upward, black skin bristling with florid spines and glassy sacs of milky poison.

It did not so much emerge from the portal as flood it, and it began to permeate the shaft, spreading like a plant, a voracious vine. Entangled on itself, the overgrowth sought its way upward with mounting energy. Like cilia, its wavering tendrils covered the shaft walls, allowing towers of flesh to extend until it reached the ship’s shield and withered.

In opening the portal to entrap the ship, Sel had perpetrated an error and soon realised it when the enveloping growth began to assert its claim to Groshial’s palace, impervious to the golems and gargoyles it absorbed and crushed as it encroached over the lip they encircled. The ship’s wobbling blue ball envelope and Sel’s jet black shell hung like opposed components paired in a cellular nucleus while the monster bristled around them, indifferent to their presence within it.

The Iderthorn represents a hint of a nastier underlying world, in the way that Lovecraft proposed humans are only aware of a thin shell of experience over a darker reality, inimical to humanity. To me Lovecraft (and Edgar Allen Poe) stories feel too much like Sherlock Holmes episodes, published for a dime paying audience, and Lovecraft was frank about the imaginary nature of his work in letters replying to his audience: "As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, and supernatural themes — in all truth they don’t amount to much. That is why it’s more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon."

This image by Nicolas Fructor, showing Lovecraft in a tentacle-filled helmet, captures the recurring image of a space helmet in The Wizard's Harvest Table, which relates to the drowning of Rastarian when he is possessed by the star-faring Lapis, and driven to a suicide, filling Lapis with remorse.

There are several sequences that mention the helmet (they became subject of many edits and revisions because the details of space or science-fiction related elements in this story became somewhat associated with dreamlike passages).

After writing the scene where Modest is at the bottom of the ocean, wearing the helmet, I started stumbling upon images with helmets in unlikely situations, such as this cover for CH. & N. Henneberg's Démons et chimères (Demons and chimeras).

The image above is by the very talented and moody Kim Myattt, @Ysvyri (Patreon

Actual, historical 'occult' works like the Tibetan Book of the Dead (and the Egyptian Book of the Dead) are fragmentary and obscure, and to me seem like an Eastern vision of what the living really know nothing about.

“Did you know that many believe our existence is like a mirror image, a pale reflection of the real world?” Rastarian asked. “Just as we may be taken in by a dream, despite it being no more than a figment briefly generated in the mind, could it not be that everything around us is a ghostly echo of a truth we cannot touch?”

Yuzz smiled. “I am dead, but no authority on ghostly truths. As to dreams, wise as you are, to talk of the dreams of the dead is beyond your experience.”

Although The Wizard's Harvest Table features a tomb world, where the dead are interred, and many are awoken by demons to fight as undead in their incursions, in my view, the afterlife isn't something the living present any authority about, if there is one at all. That may sound very pragmatic and perhaps blinkered to those who like to believe in esoteric arts and powers, but I've certainly had dreams from time to time where the vivid horrors of a gruesome afterlife feel not only plausible but suspiciously realistic. But my dreams are so random and haphazard I've learned to ignore them. When I was a young child I dreamed of being chased and bitten in the back by the big bad wolf, and would wake with a harsh physical pain, arching my back and unable to sleep. Later that pain came in a dream of being shot in the chest, but I decided not to wake up and instead drifted what felt like an eternity, looking back as I glided along, until I decided to turn and see where this was leading, upon which I woke. This disturbed me profoundly, but mostly I was frustrated that I did not learn what lay ahead. Modest experiences this sensation in the dream in which the demon Ilsov Kashprav lances him through the chest. I don't believe there is a deeper, sinister 'meaning' to this dream; it's just a personal memory that gave me an idea for the event in which Modest's and Kashprav's fates are linked.

When I was training as an artist, I came across a San Francisco company called Massive Black, who do concept art for the entertainment industry, and their stable of artists have incredible portfolios. One in particular struck me, the personal work of Justin Kaufman (El Coro) with scenes of everyday life overrun by unseen parasites and creatures weirdly affixed to unassuming passersby. There's a ton on his website : This image stuck with me since I first saw it, a decade ago perhaps, and instead of bug-filled Cthullu dimensions, I would be more ready to believe there are unseen things in the natural world that inform our daily life.

Justin Kaufman : The Truth

When Doctor Foss attempts to explain auras to Modest, he refers to the nervous system as the source of human energy, the roots of the brain, providing the impulse that quickens our flesh and blood. As a physician foremost, and a wizard second, he has an animistic view of magic. Whereas Balkan, informed by Lapis who possessed him (and Rastarian long before), is concerned with metaphysics, what holds the world together, and the powers of demons to unravel things. Another wizard, Arun the Pale, teaches Prince Rastarian arcane arts, which Modest experiences as a dream. informed by shared memories loosened by drugs. Arun the Pale's views suggest he thinks magical things, present but unseen, are as natural as a dog sniffing a tree.

In a drug-distorted dream, familiar features of the ship and its crew teased at Modest’s mind until he realised Inders was still among them and Debron able to walk and Yuzz was jibbering in the corner at which point Modest shouted to them all, “I am dreaming!” He expected to wake at that point, but his slumbering stumble set him on another course in which the ship appeared to possess a great reading room packed with books, maps, scrolls, and ornate curios in glass cabinets. He found Balkan, covered in dust, reading a tome so thickly encrusted with age that the pages and the dust were indistinguishable. Balkan sat at one end of a long, rug-covered table littered with ancient texts. At the other end was a chair into which Modest folded. He began to read a book, thinking that in a dream his own mind was constructing the story he had happened to pick up. He muttered this to himself but still he did not wake, and he absorbed the spurious story as though dragging his face across the paper, his eye a lens, making of each letter a mystic rune.

In the story he was a prince in a mighty and vast kingdom. His name was Rastarian, and he spent a great deal of his time learning magic under the patient tutelage of an arcanist called Arun the Pale in chambers lined with scrolls, relics, and murky glass bottles in which small creatures were fixed, their eyes sightless, but nevertheless watching the scholar and his royal pupil. His tutor really was as pallid as milk and merited the name he’d been given by the court, who found him charming and gracious. By the door waited a guard, professionally inured to the macabre setting. The prince Rastarian was impressionable and eager. He would have loved nothing more than to have been there to see the dreaded devil lord Tseudon vanquished.

“Braver than I then,” Modest chuckled to himself, engrossed in his own tale, surprised by its details and yet somehow familiar with the story, as though he’d read it before and had just forgotten the plot turns and pages of dialogue as the prince discussed magic with his tutor. “This is Lual. It is not my dream but Balkan’s. This is Lapis.”

They poured over a map cube parcel-gilt along its edges in silver. “How do you divine the location and destination of portals?” Rastarian wanted to know.

“Why, it is just a matter of following steps by rote. Some portals certainly are random and unknowable, but most fall into a pattern. Do you never wonder how birds and insects find their way in the vastness of the world? They can sense things men cannot. Astral curves in the sky, navigation lines, and poles of influence. Dogs and cats mark their passing in a territorial manner, using scent. That is entirely fitting to their nature, having strong noses. Portals also leave a trace of their coming and going.

“Nature produces portals according to its own rules, and certain pressures between worlds force her hand. The challenge is that for us a portal has no signature that we can see before we stumble through it. To overcome this, a mage calls upon the shared lore of his peers and forebears.” Arun held up a book with very fine letters. “Theories such as Gird’s Thaumoscopic Scale attempt to point the way to a portal or disclose its stability. In some worlds men have, or once had, craftsmanship to construct machinery to map an entire world, in communication with the light energy of the sky and stars, but in our case, we must use lists and send out journeyman mages to patrol the field, as it’s referred to.”

For further comparison, see my earlier post Science Entangled in Fantasy.

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