Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Inn of the Two Witches, Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) is a brilliant author of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. "The Inn of the Two Witches" (1913) is a good short story that can be found at numerous sources such as This copy, however, comes from I have downloaded many books from that source, but a detractor, at least for this short story, is that the tabbing function doesn't work at all.

Conrad begins the story by means of an interesting introduction which tells of how he found the tale. It reminds me a bit of how The Twilight Zone often opens:

The Find was made in a box of books bought in London, in a street which no longer exists, from a second-hand bookseller in the last stage of decay... (the story is) A litter of loose pages at the bottom of the box excited my curiosity but faintly.

I don't know if this was written by him or not. Such casting off of credit is a frequent enough occurrence that it puts authorship in doubt. Most recently, Don Quixote was written by a man who said the entire tale was stitched together from a few different sources. Perhaps for Conrad, this was an attempt at deepening the mystery behind the story. Much of the story is condensed and many details left out that he considers trivial. Perhaps it's a true story rewritten by the master. For, he writes, it's written in a fashion as dull as an inventory manifest.

The story is about a journey in Cuba. Two young men, Edgar Byrne  and Tom Crobin (Cuba Tom), go on this journey, one before the other. On the journey, both come onto a hut which houses three witches: one beautiful (but evil looking) and two ugly and very old. Edgar, as he approaches this cabin, hears the voice of his friend and shipmate giving him warnings, close at hand.

He goes into the house and is told that he can stay there. He's fed some food and then lead to his room. He keeps hearing Tom warning him about something, but he cannot see him anywhere until he searches the armoire. There is Tom, stone cold dead. He examines him as best he can, and cannot find a reasonable cause of death. Just a simple bruise on his forehead and the suggestion that Tom was trying to punch someone or something.

He puts Tom in the bed meant for him, and then watches the top of the bed lower down and basically crush him. After this is done, someone comes to his door. But it is not one of the witches, it is someone who has come to help him. They discover that the reason the young witch was killing people was for the buttons on their jackets.

It's a nice little horror story, perfect before going to bed. Sweet dreams!

The Cult Next Door, Elizabeth R. Burchard and Judith L. Carlone

I got this book for free. It was in the free bin a few weeks ago, and there were enough stars on it that I decided to give it a go. I love horror, Gothic, and other genres/subgenres of that kind. So, I picked it up and started reading it. It can be found for about $5.02 (Canadian $) on

The moment I started reading it, I thought about tossing and deleting it. It has nothing to do with the type of cult I had in mind. It's a different cult altogether. But, to the credit of these authors, I didn't put it down. It was just interesting enough to keep me going.

This is a kind of horror story in itself, but the kind that may have happened. On the cover is written "A True Story of a Suburban Manhattan New Age Cult." So, it would seem to be autobiographical.

George, the antagonist, starts off as a kind of new age energy pseudo doctor. With his machine and some crazy ideas about metaphysics, he is able to rope in Elizabeth and her mother. His tactics reveal a man who is deeply narcissistic. As time goes on, he develops an ability to suck more and more people into his cult. As it grows, so too does his sense of worth and he begins to see himself as a kind of messiah.

As they say when it comes to abusive relationships, as time goes on the abuse does not lessen or change into something positive, it simply gets worse. So too does the abuse in this cult. Elizabeth's instincts seem to scream at her, but she refuses to listen to them.

Many of the members experience induced illusions. They start shoveling more and more money into George's pocket. The few people who try to get away often come back begging for more.

As the story progresses, George gets worse, and more powerful. But he is never able to move beyond the physical constraints that he has placed on himself. The house that he holds his meetings in can barely manage to contain the group. Had he expanded his room, perhaps he would have grown the following. But, fortunately for everyone, he never does.

They get into politics, business, but at every venture pretty much fail. The only person able to succeed at all is Elizabeth. But she is often brought down by allowing herself to be surrounded by George's daughter who takes over the business.

The break seems to be coming from a lady named Judy (my guess, Judith L. Carlone). But the irony here is kind of funny. Judy has her own delusions. But her delusions are in a far more mature cult: the Catholic church. She believes in god and all that mythology, and has her own 'energy' thing going on. While Catholicism has had its ultra violent past, by the time Judy gets to Elizabeth, the Catholic church is far less fanatical (though there are regions where people are still whipping themselves).

Elizabeth shows signs of moving over to her new friend, Judy, but in much the same way as she was brought into George's control. That is to say, there's this 'energy' and she has early signs of gravitating towards her in the same way.

That said, Judy is most likely a vast improvement, and choosing the Catholic idol over the idol of George is probably going to be a positive change.

The story has taken on Judy as an alternating narrator. Though, the story is still largely told by Elizabeth.

Some of the similarities between the beliefs of Judith in her religion and Elizabeth in hers are remarkably similar: where George's symbols are rocks, Catholics use the cross. Where prayer can heal, George's energy can heal. The difference between the two is that George is alive, while Jesus is dead. There is no opportunity for Jesus to do anything at all or say anything to anyone. Everything is individually made up in the minds of his 'followers.' By contrast, George is able to rant and rage, manipulate, belittle, etc., his followers. Judy even notices some similarity between her religion and that of George's. George tells his followers that they will be rewarded for their giving to him by getting something back in 'some other way.' She calls this 'the spiritual Law of Reciprocity for his own benefit.'

The similarity between Judy's beliefs in Jesus and Elizabeth's beliefs in George are later expounded when she writes, "...(George's) goal to become a Messiah endowed with powers of miracles, healing, and the ultimate--resurrection." This gives me pause for thought: the difference between the two cults can be suggested as: the one who believes in Jesus refuses to believe that anyone else can do it, sheltering that person from further frauds. On the other hand, there are many Christians who still believe in frauds purporting to be speaking and acting on behalf of Jesus and god. So, perhaps this difference isn't really very different.

Judy makes a few mistakes in her study of George when she finally decides to investigate the cult. She ends up blaming George's abusive mother. But, where did she get the information that George's mother is abusive? Does she discard all the other lies but believe in this instance that this is the truth? There is no way to verify that George was abused and that his craze has any justification. In fact, as she writes, "He hates any kind of nurturing or feminine behavior and demands that the women eliminate all expressions of love and affection by convincing them that this is 'mothering' and part of the destructive 'female game' whose sole purpose is to manipulate men." However, this sounds more like the complaints of the father about the mother. I'm curious about the truth of George's past, and am inclined to hypothesize that his mother left his father and that he didn't have a mother at all, and that the father beat up the memory of the mother in such a way that George may have believed the things that were related to Judy.

Eventually, George, her mother, and the other older members of the group die. The group dies with them.

At the end of the book is an interview with George. Some of what he says makes sense, and doesn't really seem to make him hypocritical. That is to say, he preached selfishness, and he lived it. He believed he was god and immortal. He believed he didn't need money, but took probably millions from his followers. Yet, he didn't spend the money as far as I could tell from the book.

The references to George and his cult I couldn't find. The novels that his daughter, Serena, published, I could not find. I think that the names are changed, while the authors may be true. The flash cards that she writes about are on sale on Amazon.

Some introspection: the whole idea about faith. How we believe in things... I'm at a moment in my life where I am losing faith in myself and in whatever positive destiny I might have believed in. I don't follow any religion. I don't believe in gods or goddesses or anything of that sort. Yet, I do not claim to know anything about spirituality. I don't know if the end is blank, or an empty space, or if there is anything worthy of mentioning, or if our 'souls' get recycled back into another life. But I do believe in essence that I am god. Not that I believe that I created the world or the universe, but that without me to hear it, see it, taste it, or otherwise sense it, from my point of view, it won't exist at all.

There is a questionaire at the back of the book. I don't know if she's really asking readers to comprehend the story or if she is wondering if anyone has answers that might help her with understanding them herself. They seem more like questions for herself than for anyone. I will try to answer some of them for her. Some of the questions are abbreviated for purposes of respecting copyright:

Search for Spirituality

1. What is a cult.

A cult is any religion. People have faith in some kind of mythology and seek answers to questions that cannot be answered.

2. What can one find in a cult.

People who believe and have faith in something or someone. Catholics refer to their own religion as a cult.

3. What does 'spirituality mean' to you.

Spirituality is what people try to understand about the ethereal world. It attempts to connect to the unseen and unknown.

4. Compare and contrast spirituality to religion.

Religion is a full doctrine of myths and symbols. A single religion might be a collection around such things. Spirituality would be the personal feeling-connection to the ethereal world.

My Past

1. Describe Elizabeth's relationship with her mother.

Elizabeth is always looking for a nurturing person. But, her mother doesn't know how to. She herself, perhaps, never had that nurturing person to show her what it meant or how to show it.

her father

Her father might have given her the seedlings of care and love. When he died, and was left with the mother who could not give her those things, it left her open to a world where those feelings were not nurtured. However starved that tree was, it never died.

2. What caused Elizabeth's vulnerability?

Everyone is vulnerable. The problem is that there were profiteers who prayed on her vulnerabilities and exploited them for various reasons, mostly money and their own ego.

3. Why did her mother and others need gurus?

A guru is a kind of spiritual teacher. The word is associated with Indian spirituality, or the Americanization/radicalization of the word. I am sure some are well intentioned with some doing good and others evil, while others are not well intentioned and simply use it as a means of control and profit. In the case of George, I don't think he meant to do evil or to exploit people. He was really crazy. He believed his own lies.

Jan-Dec 1980

1. Was George professional in his first meeting with Elizabeth.

Define professional. He did not belong to any association. He made a ton of money off of it and made a lot of people miserable. As I said before, he probably believed his own rhetoric. He was crazy, and brought people into his craze.

2. George's agenda with Joe

George probably thought he was doing the right thing. It wasn't his fault that Joe got hit by a train, no matter how distracted he was. He caused him emotional pain, and he can be faulted for that. But clearly Joe was the man standing between him and having control over a young and impressionable prospective member.

3. Joe's death effect on Elizabeth's connection to George.

Absolutely the death of Joe has an effect on her connection to George. Would she have gone the same way without Joe's death? It's hard to know. But I know that a close death has a profound effect, making people vulnerable to answers to their questions (which, in this case, were very harmful). If she hadn't been depressed, surely her reaction would have been different, one might suppose. However, there were other women in the group who seemed to have good families who were nonetheless sucked in. So, it's really hard to say.

4. How did George create dependency?

George was a master manipulator. He found people who were at hard points in their lives seeking answers. He provided answers that made them feel good. Then, when they began to depend on him, he would have control over them. He then trained them mercilessly.

5. Is there any truth to his program, state of society, social conditioning?

I'm sure there is a lot of truth to much of what he says. We are harming our planet. Our methods of living are causing serious problems. We do have problems with our society. We are socially conditioned. However, the details in his analysis, not to mention his conclusions, are problematic. The worst, of course, is his answer on how to overcome these challenges, which is how he distinguishes himself as being absolutely bonkers.

6. How is his (sic) rational logic hypocritical.

I don't think he's as hypocritical at the core of his philosophy: the me, I'm everything, I'm god, I control all, I am immortal. He seems to believe these things. When they fail, it's someone else's fault. When there's any delusion of success, he believes it was his 'energy' that enabled it. While his demands of his followers are different from his demands of himself in many ways (health insurance, taking his kids to the doctor), he can be also seen following his own rhetoric: he doesn't see the doctor about his leg. While Burchard doesn't mention this, I infer that his wife probably compelled him to do things like buy health insurance and that he himself probably would not have. The death of the dog after her leaving him would be evidence to support my hypothesis.

7. George's childhood and its affect on personality and his goals.

I talked about this already a little. Clearly something happened, but I don't believe that his mother was responsible. Him blaming his mother is consistent with his blaming everyone else rather than taking personal responsibility. I feel it more likely that he got this attitude from his father. Where were his parents throughout the book? We never see or hear from them at any point. Only Judy alludes to his mother controlling him. But she doesn't know this and I think her beliefs are based on lies that she got from someone else who'd heard it from him. If I had any guess at all, it would be that his father blamed his mother for leaving them or for anything else. As Judith mentions about her own childhood, she witnessed the abuse of her mother, which was not at all unusual since there were screams like her mother's all around her neighborhood. Blaming women is an old game. Some women, I'm sure, deserve it. But I don't think that's the case for George.

8. Why the headshaking and was that a form of hypnosis?

I think George believed in it. If he was faking... what actor shakes his head for hours a day to fake it? He probably damaged his brain from doing it. Did it hypnotize? That's a good question. Was his head like the shiny watch at the end of a necklace swinging like a pendulum? Whatever it was, it identifies him as being 'special' and 'unique.'

9. Define hypnosis. What other ways might someone induce hypnosis other than the watch.

Fasting lowers mental resistance. Eating is mentioned several times as something unnecessary. Sleep deprivation is another. So, clearly there were several factors helping in this group delusion. Herd instinct would also contribute: people want to belong in a group. They see others who believe, then they themselves believe. The story about the foolish naked emperor comes to mind.

10. Why do cults ask members to give up family and friends?

This is definitely a staple of the cult mentality. It can also be seen in religion. They are tempters of the devil while those in the cult are the only ones who know. Family and friends may lead one 'astray.'

There are a lot more questions. I'm not going to spend another few hours trying to answer all of them.

It's a good book and it has definitely given me some things to think about. The irony, however, is that Elizabeth has merely replaced one cult for another. But, rather than following the ramblings of a madman, she is exploring her own internal sense of spirituality. Her friend is nurturing rather than destructive. I'm sure she is leading a much better life with her new cult than her old.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of the Four (1890) is the second book of the famous Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (It can be found for free at It is a relatively short read and easy enough to read.

The story is split into two basic parts. There's the murder, which Holmes is to solve, and the back story, which is a story of revenge. A woman asks for Holmes to help her solve the mystery of her father's disappearance. She has a letter and an invitation which leads Holmes, Watson, and herself to the scene of a freshly committed crime.

Some interesting facts about Sherlock Holmes' weakness comes to light in this case. He is addicted to cocaine, and injects himself in times of boredom. He is easily bored, and as he says, "...'there are in me the makings of a very fine loafer and also of a pretty spry sort of fellow.'"

With some clues and gross generalizations, Holmes is able to stitch together enough of the puzzle to get onto the trail of the murderer. After some frustration, they succeed in catching the criminal and getting a full confession.

There is the problem of racism in this story. The Indians from Andaman Islands are described in quite a nasty fashion:

'They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features. Their feet and hands, however, are remarkably small. So intractable and fierce are they that all the efforts of the British official have failed to win them over in any degree. They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining the survivors with their stone-headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast.'

To be fair, however, this is from a book describing these people rather than a verifiable opinion of Doyle's on the aboriginals of this island.

I have recently read some excellent books. It wasn't really painful to read, but it wasn't particularly stimulating, either.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is often referred to only as Don Quixote. This is a classic piece of literature. In the past, I have made two attempts to read it, but due to its length and other factors, I never got around to finishing it. I started reading it again from the beginning and this time have completed it. There are numerous free sources online, I'm sure. My copy comes courtesy of

The novel is widely regarded as the first modern novel. Where there are famous novels, great popular works of literature, whose titles most people know of even if they have never read them, and even if those works are better known, Don Quixote is legendary. It is a ground breaking exploration into a new art form which remains one of the most popular and integral to basic education.

I have a set of mixed feelings about the central character, Don Quixote. There are certain parallels between his character and mine which are similar. Don Quixote has decided to become a knight errant, believing in the fictional universe which the books of knight errantry, a popular form of fantastic literature of the time, including the fantastical elements.

The scene between Don Quixote and the windmills wherein he mistakes them for giants, is comical, to be certain. In the literal sense, I laugh because of the physical comedy. But looking at it allegorically, Wikipedia has an article about the idiom, 'tilting at windmills', which means to attack an imaginary foe. Although I am wondering about the implacability of the windmills. Quixote cannot even begin to dismantle or really damage his foe, imaginary or not. The windmill does not react to his attack, but rather a quirk of the wind turns the wheel and the blade of the windmill defeats him. How often, I wonder, does one come against a foe such as this in another form? Imagine for instance a government who goes on undamaged, but the mere whimsy of the wind suffices to destroy the attacker. 

The writer writes, and the characters submit, and even Quixote decides, that it was the books of chivalry which caused him his madness. However, today we might call it dementia. In those days they called it humoral theory: "not sleeping adequately — because he was reading — has caused his brain to dry." (wikipedia) But in some ways his particular dementia is a kind of gift. This creates the contrast of the beauty which he sees and the common ugliness that most of us exist and live within. The description of the Asturian lass goes as follows:

... a broad face, flat poll, and snub nose, blind of one eye and not very sound in the other... (later described as a dwarf of short stature and broad shoulders).
Later she goes to his bed thinking that it is her lovers, and the contrasts between his vision and the so called reality becomes clear. I say so called reality, because reality itself is common perception. It's a kind of loose agreement between perceivers what the definition of a certain thing is based on its looks and or attributes.

He (Don Quixote) then felt her smock, and although it was of sackcloth it appeared to him to be of the finest and softest silk: on her wrists she wore some glass beads, but to him they had the sheen of precious Orient perals: her hair, which in some measure resembled a horse's mane, he rated as the threads of the brightest gold of Araby, whose refulgence dimmed the sun himself...

The beauty he sees, and the fineness of the textures, are what most of us have and see except in the twinkle of youth. He is blind, but his blindness is sweet.

There is a grudging kind of respect for the Moors whom the Spanish had recently (before the time wherein is the setting). And, though it is a single line throughout the book, the anti-semitism is quite remarkable as Sancho declares "... I am a mortal enemy of the Jews..." It is a kind of anger against the Jews for killing Jesus that has fuelled this long lived hatred. What irony it is, since Jesus, his apostles and mother, are all Jews. How fortunate for me, the reader, that this hatred resides in just this one line.

But as I go through the many trials of Don Quixote, many of which were unnecessary, I found myself coming to admire him. Though he sees common inns as castles, common beauties as profound, and his own abilities with arms the equal of any in the popular fictions of his day, he is experiencing a grand life of adventure and displaying a level of courage that he probably never felt or gave in his lifetime.

The second book of this two part story brings home an empathy for the central character. I hope for him victory, love, and success. But he is made into a famous clown by those around him. A duke and duchess discover him, bring them into their castle, to make plays and mockery for their entertainment. They turn Sancho into a pretend governor, who governs so well that they say of him that he was their best governor and made changes that at least until decades later in Saavedra's day, are still in place. Nonetheless, the people must keep playing their tricks on him: forcing him to starve, pretending an invasion in which he gets beaten badly. But, the treatment makes him realize that it is better to be a free man than a governor. He shows his true intellect here: uneducated, but of a stout wisdom. My favorite display of his wit is when he resolves disputes, and one in particular involving one man who loans to another some money but does not want to return it but says that he has. Sancho has him swear that he has given the other his money back, which he does. The trick is that before swearing he gives the other his staff before swearing that he has given it to him. Having done that, he asks for it back. Sancho then takes the staff, breaks it open, and there is the money which was owed. There are many other little trials, but this was the best and made those who watched him marvel and perhaps regret having to deceive and treat him so poorly. 

The end comes from a friend. His neighbor defeats him in combat, and demands that he return home to give up knight errantry for one year. The way back home, they are subjected to further trials. But Quixote is done with fighting as he has sworn not to any more. He is slowly coming to realize how people really perceive him. When he gets home, his melancholy quickly kills him. When he approaches death, even those who had contrived to bring him home back to his senses would rather him go back to his madness. But by then, the blinders that had been on his senses have been removed. He makes out his will, commends himself to his religion, and perishes. But truly, he was the most heroic, most chivalrous knight errant ever to grace the literary kingdom. 

Reading this book was at times a trifle difficult for all the side stories. But I did enjoy it, and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a monumental work of literature.