Thursday, September 18, 2014

Michael Moses Pottery and the Lovecraft Cthulhu Box

The stars are right!  Here’s a ceramic piece that mixes Georgian era mourning themes, H. P. Lovecraft, and Chinese styles in an eclectic production worthy of its own inclusion in Weird Tales. 
An old friend of my mine, Michael W. Moses the art ceramicist had just gotten a new piece of ceramic out of the kiln the other day.  He allowed me to photograph it in a little tableau that sets off its complex mood and little surprises quite nicely.   The body of the box is just over four inches at its widest and varies from just over one and a half inch deep to over two and a half inches deep.  The lid is five and a quarter inches wide and under an inch deep.  Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the fun.
This offering is a cylindrical lidded box with an asymmetric cant to the rim so it’s not a perfect cylinder, but bent slightly.  It’s painted in a type of blue-and-white ware that is evocative of 17th and 18th century Chinese export ware as well as period Continental imitators (such as Delftware) of this type of ceramic.  The box has been meticulously hand-painted all over and I mean on every surface!  The style is not in the typical heavy, solid blue, but in a softer watercolor style, which is semi opaque due to the underglaze paint being applied directly to the bisque body in delicate layers. 

The top of the lid features a classic, misty Georgian mourning scene with the iconic urn and weeping willow, but it is perked up with a little Japanese pine tree in the right.  Notice also on the far left, in place of the typical obelisk, there is a strange stone menhir beside willow.  Setting off the vignette there is a wide border of white nothingness that frames the image – again very Japanese with the effective use of white space.

The outside of the box is an interpretation of a cyclopedian wall, which could well be from Machu Picchu or R’lyeh.  Actually, the wall could also be in the mood of an abstract Japanese or fabric ceramic pattern as well.  This wall echoes the Georgina themes as the wall around the graveyard, yet is much more ancient.  If you look closely at the wall, you will see curious little things on it:  creatures, mazes, and even scenes of other places or times. 

When you open this box you find a bit of a surprise inside because it has a fully illustrated interior.  The inside wall of the box has a lot of curious plants growing around it.  Is it undersea life?  Is it alien plants from another planet or are they actually animals like corals or crinoids?  I do know that each plant unique, individual and there are about 40 of them.  We’ll probably never know their origin or names.  Notice how the plants fade in an out slightly as if they were underwater or showing through another dimension or in a slight fog from a moor.  The bottom of the interior has a polyhedral tile set into the floor with a very long inscription in an unknown language; it’s not even possible to determine the orientation of the text.
Do you think that’s the end of the surprises?  Nope, flip the lid over and get a view of H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu (Cthulhu Pantocrator? Phagiomundi?) with yellow eyes (the only other color on the whole piece).   You see that that Dread Cthulhu, surrounded by impressionist stars,[1] and is peering at you from what might be the porthole of a ship, from the bottom of a well, or from the viewer of a Tillinghast Resonator[2].  Note that the rim of the inside lip has a jaunty dash decoration. 
OK, one more bit hidden joy is found on the bottom of the work.  Along with Michael W. Moses’ inscription and signature, is a pretty unknown type of winged arachnid within a border, it may be cryptozoological, but it probably isn’t poisonous or going to lay eggs inside you, probably.  Note that the roundel is glazed but the rest of the bottom of the box is bisque, which gives a different texture.   

Mr. Moses has layered on historical styles, periods and interpretations all on one box.  Each design is original, unique, and hand-painted.  It is not transfer ware or machine made.  This is part of his second line of pottery where he uses a commercial blank rather than the typical hand-built body you see in his works.  He says the great thing about pottery and ceramics is that they can survive for thousands of years, unless a glacier in the next ice age grinds it up.

Michael started making blue willow type porcelain about 30 years ago and it has resurfaced in his work again in his new series of Delft-like wares.  Unlike Delftware, this ceramic is no base coat of white tin glaze, instead the bisque body is already snowy white.  The blue is painted directly onto the bisque using an underglaze paint and then a clear overglaze is applied over the whole.  The whole thing is fired to cone 7 or so. 
This art design is copyright Michael W. Moses 2014.  Go to his blog to see this work in progress before the final firing.  You might be surprised that the false colors end up blue and the green as clear.  Each piece of his work is individually serial numbered, but note that when I got there and photographed the piece before the serial number was written.  For that matter, he hadn’t even finalized the name of the piece yet.
After I took the initial photos, I got playing around with the Cthulhu Box and put together some tableaus to show off what a good decorator it would make.  I added in a few props such as a candlestick from the late 1600s, a brass late Ottoman pen & ink set, a pair of 1840 double lens “D” sunglasses and case, some Star Hibiscus seed pods (because they looked interesting) and the interesting water glass is actually just a modern green bubble glass.  I didn’t realize that the picture would be a little distorted, but in the end, but I can always claim I meant for that effect.

Another blue and white work
So if you need a stealth creepy piece of art for your study, beside table, boudoir, or just a collector of art, this box should fill the bill.  It’s a unique hand-painted work inspired by a mélange of historical ideas and artistic styles.  Michael W. Moses’ pottery can be seen on Etsy, and his blog on line.  All you have to do is Google “Michael Moses Pottery” to get a large number of image hits.  You’ll enjoy his cryptozoological plant/animals and other works of his fertile mind. 

  [1] The Tillinghast Resonator is a lab device from the H. P. Lovecraft story, From Beyond, pub. 1934, which allows the unseen world to be revealed.  Read the story here:
  [2] The star background behind Cthulhu really puts me in mind of Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night,

Links of interest
Michael Moses’ blog article featuring this piece:
Another Michael Moses piece, featured on Propnomicon back in 2011:
Plant symbology was important in mourning iconography:

For those of you who made it this far, a little movie:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

John Hamish Watson, MD or The Mystery of the Carried Gun

Among readers of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, there has always been speculation about the identity of Dr. Watson’s mentioned but never named “service revolver”[1] and that has dovetailed with my interest in Victorian armament.  So I have put together a list of possible suspects.  Let me say I am by no means a sage on Holmesian literature and the study of British firearms of the Victorian period is a tangled web at best.  Further, the study of British 19th century cartridges and manufactures is even more fraught with confusion.  But first, let me set out some pertinent information about our esteemed Dr. Watson.  Self-depreciating, Watson seldom talked about himself outside of the chronicled adventures with Holmes, so we have do a little detective work ourselves. 

We find out in A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle (written 1886, pub 1887) that Watson got his medical degree in 1878 and at some point afterward he joined the British army (rank unknown), at some time and then attached to the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot (no doubt in the capacity as doctor).  He was wounded during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War at the Battle of Maiwand (27 July 1880).  Doyle may have also lumped the catastrophic retreat to Kandahar into the action, but probably not the subsequent  Battle of Kandahar and the relief action itself.  Dr. Watson survived the battle and his wound, and he recuperated for a few months (presumably in India or possibly South Africa) before returning from overseas to London and leaving the army.  That would make it at least 1881 or so, (with travel time added) that Watson meets Holmes in London, presuming they met fairly soon after his arrival.  Another indicator of the time frame is that the ever-perceptive Holmes did not comment on Dr. Watson’s wound so it must have fully healed, nor did Watson suggest it slowed him down in the least during A Study in Scarlet, indicating a full recovery.

As a side note, Dr. Watson was not the bungling second-rater or stooge as depicted on the stage and in later films[2], but a battle-hardened veteran and combat doctor, exposed to the grueling life on the frontier as well as having seen (and treated) casualties and a horrific battle, retreat, siege, battle again and relief, not seen since the Sepoy Mutiny (or the earlier 1st Afghan War) just a generation previously.  He survived a wound and was willing to go on to adventures with his new-found friend and later roommate, Sherlock Holmes, about a year after these traumatic events.  Watson’s toughness, resourcefulness, and overall pluck were overshadowed by his reluctance to put himself forward when writing these stories.  Consider that Watson never put himself forward in the Holmsian screeds nor even wrote a memoir about horrific the Battle of Maiwand, so that you never see the real Dr. Watson.  But if you read a bit about the battle and the 66th you might get the idea of the level of carnage and bravery of the action.
Back to our story.  If you presume that Watson carried his standard issue pistol from Afghanistan in at least the first few adventures, then it would probably be the approved and issued Adams Mk III in .450 caliber.  It was a large-framed, bulky military holster revolver and not conducive to concealed carry necessary for a detective, nor would it fit well into all but the largest overcoat pocket.  The Mark III was directly descended from the venerable percussion revolver of Sepoy Mutiny and Crimean War fame, with numerous upgrades such over the years such as the action being modified from double action only to a double action/single action mechanism and to take metallic cartridges.  This much-modified product of years of tinkering and the final product, the Adams Mk III was finally declared obsolete for the British Army in 1882.  The replacing gun was nearly as bulky, the Enfield revolver in 1882, which was replaced again, this time by the Webley Mk I in 1887, a much more compact and modern gun.  The Webley series of revolvers continued to serve Britain for decades. 

However, because many British officers had the option to choose and purchase their own pistols, it might have been another weapon than the official Adams Mk III.  Also, seeing that Watson, having been an ex-military man and a modern detective, he might have just purchased a newer, more state-of-the-art gun every time a useful new model came out to keep up with technology.  So it would not be a single gun, but a suite of revolvers suited to specific purposes (like concealment) used by Dr. Watson over the years, such as the Webley R.I.C or a Webley Bulldog, which were not British military issue service guns, but quite popular officer purchase weapons and for carry with police and private individuals.  The Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) was a popular British police issue gun and there were and many copies were made on the Continent as well.  Yes, London Police carried guns and they had been armed off and on since 1883, with 821 receiving firearms instruction that year.   Even earlier, police were irregularly armed over the previous decades and even earlier they carried a light sword as well as a brace of flintlock pistols, but that is beyond our story.
I have handled a number of guns listed here over the years such an early Adams models, a number of Bulldogs, both British made and popular Belgian copies as well as the time-honored Webley Mk I through the Mark VI.  Excluding the Adams because of its great size, they all are sturdy and functional, moderately concealable, eminently carryable on the person without a holster and had stout, heavy cartridges for close work and very popular in their day.  The Adams traces its origin back to the muzzle loading, percussion cap era of the early 1850s with constant updates, while retaining the same large frame, with a rather weak cartridge but was the standard service arm of the British army for a long time.

To further muddy the waters, the author himself (Doyle), was apparently not well versed in arms or weapons terminology and made a few errors himself:  Referring to an Eley’s No. 2 (a large bore rifle cartridge) when he might have meant a Webley Revolver No. 2 in .440 rimfire or possibly a Webley R.I.C. No. 2, which would have a variety of loads from .450 to .320  (The Speckled Band, 1892).   The Eley Brothers made and imported cartridges of all types but they never made firearms.  He also mentions Boxer cartridges, which refers to a type of patented cartridge primer system, not to any particular cartridge and certainly not to any specific gun (Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).  Given number of gun references in Watson’s narratives, apparently firearms were lying all about the apartment and certainly daggers adorned the walls.  I’m sure they shared guns or had a common arsenal. 

The true answer to this gun quandary is that the Ely Number 2 references was probably to a cartridge very similar to a .22 CB cap [7] and fired from a variety of small guns (single shot and revolver) made for indoor target shooting much like a gallery or saloon gun.  The Number No. 2 Ely cartridge had no propellant powder and the bullet was just sent down the barrel by the power of the primer only.  I told you it was confusing and Doyle’s unfamiliarity with firearms and cartridges of the late Victorian  period just muddies already murky waters. The only other alternative is another Eley No. 2 (headstamped such, see illustration) for an express rifle and 4 ½ inches long – clearly not a pistol round and not for shooting indoors, at least I wouldn’t do so.   See footnotes [3] [4] [5] [6]

So what we have here are probably several guns used by the good doctor (and his partner Holmes as well) over a period of years.  The first of the bunch being the pistol that Watson carried in Afghanistan and in the first adventures.  Later he probably procured smaller, more modern pistols as his career continued through the decades.  Some of the best guesses for later guns would be the Webley R.I.C. or Bulldog (and copies) and possibly later than that, the venerable military issue Webley Mk I (adopted 1887 and available as a civilian purchase model).  All of these later guns are somewhat compact and have powerful cartridges.  But ultimately, there is no proof positive of any particular gun being used by Dr. Watson in his adventures beyond the shadow of a doubt.  With this final Holmesian mystery about which gun(s) Watson might have carried, I leave the reader with the admonishment that it is indeed not elementary at all.

I actually originally wrote the bones to this article about three years ago, mostly in response to a Propnomicon post about a cased prop Watson gun, but let the article languish uncompleted.  Once I came back to the subject, I found that a few others had attempted to figure out the Watson gun question, so I decided to polish up the article and publish it finally.  I had intended to also produce a second Holmsean weapons article about the air gun used by Col Moran in the Adventure of the Empty House, but it didn’t go much beyond the outline stage.  Hopefully I’ll get that article put together.

Footnotes (of course)
[1] "I have my old service revolver and a few cartridges."  Dr. John Watson to Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.

[2] Early depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Watson have actor William Gillette set the stage in his interpretation of Holmes and the associated clichés.  Most notably, Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce followed the Gillette formula in film.  Lately some of the caricatures have been rehabilitated and the clichés have finally been retired.   See also

[3] Because of this confusion on gun loadings, many guns had the calibers stamped on the barrel, often with specific manufactures recommended or mandated.  Many novices mistake the cartridge attribution information stamped on the barrel or frame for the model of the gun.  The danger of using the wrong loadings has only increased with time as more powerful smokeless cartridges might be used in more fragile black powder frames with dire consequences.

[4] There was an article published in the magazine Black Mask:  John Stanley attended several gatherings of the Baker Street Irregulars and even authored a monograph on the handguns used by Holmes and Watson that appeared in the July 1948 issue of Black Mask.  Vol 31 No 4.  The cover was by Peter Stevens, "Leave Killing to the Cops" by Curtis Cluff.  I haven’t been able to find a copy, but this might lead somebody to put the article on line. 

[5] In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he has Holmes emptying “five barrels into the creature’s flank,” he undoubtedly meant five chambers as I doubt Holmes was carrying an obsolete pepperbox revolver.  In The Musgrave Ritual (1893) Holmes says, ... ”I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an armchair, with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.”  Again, Boxer is a primer system not a cartridge manufacturer.  Besides it was probably Eley No. 2s he was shooting with a saloon gun shooting CB caps, as anything else would have done more than just pock the wall plaster.

[6] A few additional gun-related quotes written by the good Doctor:
In The Adventure of the Speckled Band, (1892) Holmes suggests, “An Eley's No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel poker's into knots. That and a tooth-brush are, I think, all that we need.”  In The Adventure of the Dying Detective, (1913) Doctor Watson reveals that, “His [Holmes] occasional revolver practice within doors ... made him the very worst tenant in London.”  Apparently he wasn’t evicted for shooting holes in the walls back in The Musgrave Ritual.

[7] CB standing for Conical Bullet and BB for Bulleted Breech, but for our purposes they are about the same.  The term BB bears no relationship to our modern spring guns and airguns firing copper coated iron .177 cal “BBs” we are now familiar (You’ll put your eye out).  The CB cap was developed by Louis-Nicolas Flobert originally in 1845, one of the oldest self contained metallic cartridges, although it contained no powder, it just uses the power of the primer as the propellant.
Links of Interest

Notes on the arming of British police

Notes on saloon, salon, parlor guns and their craze.   
You can also Google the manufacturers Flobert and Remington for examples.


Friday, August 8, 2014

The First Female Pharaoh Nitocris, H. P. Lovecraft, and the Tennessee Williams Connection

If you like strong women, you have come to the right place. 

The Father of History, Herodotus wrote of a female pharaoh called Nitocris in his histories (which he finished circa 440 BCE) and the story was picked up by Lovecraft and Tennessee Williams four thousand years after her death.  That’s some staying power and some story: murder, revenge, mass killings, and suicide.  Her closest rival in that scenario would be Cleopatra VII and that is two thousand years later.  The pharaoh Nitocris was supposed to have ruled from 2148 to 2144 BCE, the last ruler of the 6th Dynasty and ended up on a barbeque. 

Herodotus says of the Pharaoh Nitocris:  (Book II, 100)  
" ... the name of the woman who reigned was the same as that of the Babylonian queen, namely Nitocris*. Of her [the Egyptian one] they said that, desiring to take vengeance for her brother, whom the Egyptians had slain when he was their king and then, after having slain him, had given his kingdom to her, desiring I say, to take vengeance for him, she destroyed by craft many of the Egyptians.  For she caused to be constructed a very large chamber under ground, and making as though she would  [make a] handsel [of] it, but in her mind devising other things, she invited those of the Egyptians whom she knew to have had most part in the murder, and gave a great banquet.  Then while they were feasting, she let in the river upon them by a secret conduit of large size.  Of her they told no more than this, except that, when this had been accomplished, she threw herself into a room full of [burning] embers, in order that she might escape vengeance."

Now Nitocris may have been the first female Pharaoh, but certainly not the last, click the links to find out more.

The 3rd century BCE Ptolemaic era Egyptian historian, Manetho says of her in his history of Egyptian rulers, Aegyptiaca, “There was a queen Nitôcris, the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time; she had a fair complexion, and is said to have built the third pyramid.”   The Greek version by Eusebius is a bit more expansive, “There was a queen Nitôcris, braver than all the men of her time, the most beautiful of all the women, fair-skinned with red cheeks.  By her, it is said, the third pyramid was reared, with the aspect of a mountain.”  Other versions, such as a Latin Armenian version says about the same, but if they were copying from each other and from the same text, you would expect it.  By those accounts, she was a looker.  There is a  possibility that she appears under other names or honorifics, which is common enough in Egyptian royalty.  Additionally, the Turin Egyptian King List also mentions her as pharaoh on a papyrus fragment, but that is now under question.+  Real or not, Nitocris has survived the centuries to be written about and we’ll just have to wait until the academic heavyweights thrash it out.  In the mean time we have some excellent fiction written in the early 20th century.

Now that we have established a basis for Nitocris by historians, let’s jump forward a few thousand years and on the other side of the planet.  When only 16, budding southern author Tennessee Williams (but born in Columbus, Mississippi, go figure) wrote a historical fiction short story, The Vengeance of Nitocris and it was published in the magazine Weird Tales in August of 1928.  This was his first published story, but not his last.  Tennessee Williams didn’t do much more with his weird fiction writing experience, but instead began writing his own weird tales of the 20th century about his view of America, families, and the south.  
As an aside, Robert E. Howard's story Red Shadows, the story that introduced Solomon Kane, which is the cover story of Weird Tales of the same edition that also had Tennessee William’s The Vengeance of Nitocris story inside.  As you may know, Howard also wrote Lovecraftian types tales.  See my previous blog entry:  The Sixtystone – A Web of Deceit and Illusion. 

H. P. Lovecraft ghostwrote a short story for Harry Houdini, which mentions Nitrocris.   It was originally published under Houdini’s name in Weird Tales in February 1924, as Under the Pyramids (AKA Entombed with the Pharaohs, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs).  But even before that, Lovecraft  had written a short story, The Outsider in 1921, (but published in 1926) with a reference to Nitocris in the story.   This early date shows he was aware of Nitocris  (maybe from Herodotus and possibly even Manetho) and had written about her rather early on and before he wrote Under the Pyramids. 

Part of this story has some synchronicity, with Propnomicon having recently published a blog post based on the story, Entombed with the Pharaohs and me just reading a short bio of Tennessee Williams, which mentions his Nitocris story.  Of course I quickly remembered the Lovecraft story and the Propnomicon blog entry, so it all began to fall together along with a bit remembered bits from Herodotus about Nitocris.  Well the entry just pretty much wrote itself with all the connections and coincidences jelling at once. 

Clearly there is something enticing about the Egyptian Nitocris story, which has kept it in circulation for centuries.  I have to wonder if there is any link between H. Rider Haggard’s novel about another strong beautiful ruler, She A History of Adventure (1886) and the two Nitocris mentioned in Herodotus?  Maybe, but I haven’t found proof of it yet.  Haggard’s first novel, King Soloman’s Mines was an instant hit and created the new fiction genre of the Lost World, but that’s another story for another time.

Bram Stoker (you know Dracula and all that) wrote a story called, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), about an attempt to revive an ancient Egyptian female ruler’s mummy (fictional Queen Tera), which makes me wonder if Lovecraft had read it and if the story had had any connection to Stoker possibly reading Herodotus.  I’m sure a Lovecraft scholar out there might know the answer. 

Well we can see that a four thousand year old queen, who may or may not be mythical, can still generate some classic weird fiction stories.  I hope that this blog entry wasn’t too long or too serious, but I felt that the information was far too interesting to leave out of the article.  There are probably some that feel it was too much and other too little information.  But I sincerely hope that it has piqued your interest and you will download some of the cited stories.  Additionally, you prop makers out there ought to be interested in the two historical rulers named Nitocris, the weird fiction stories spawned, and the possible earlier association with H. Rider Haggard’s She, who gained her immortality in flames, rather than killed  For you writers and prop makers, there should be some good ideas in all this.  Good reading to you all.

* There is another queen called Nitocris (6th century BCE, daughter of Nebuchadnezzer II, who made the Hanging Gardens) and also mentioned by Herodotus, but this other one is Babylonian and 1,500 years later, but just as crafty.  She also had a flair for architecture, especially her tomb.  Go to the bottom of the article to find out about her according to Herodotus (Book II, 185), if you have any interest.  Nebuchadnezzer is also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, during the period of the Babylonian Captivity, but you'll have to look that one up yourself.

+ See Kim Ryholt’s article, The Late Old Kingdom in the Turin King-list and the Identity of Nitocris, ZAS 127 (2000) pgs 87-100.  It’s a little involved, but also sheds light on the difficulties in reconstruction of damaged ancient records.


Download Herodotus’ history in English:
A smaller 1464k text-only version is available for download

Download Mantho’s book of Egypt’s history, Aegyptiaca in English*.html

Article on the Lovecraft/Howard axis

Blog article about archeology in H. P. Lovecraft

Download Tennessee Williams’ story, The Vengeance of Nitocris

Download H. P. Lovecraft’s story, The Outsider  and Imprisoned with the Pharaohs

Download Bram Stoker’s story, Jewel of Seven Stars

Now for a bit of lagniappe, some information on the Babylonian queen Nitocris:   An absolutely outstanding article about the Babylonian Queen Nitocris by Robert Lebling on his blog, A Strange Manuscript  and some obligatory Herodotus.
What Herodotus says this about the Babylonian Queen Nitocris (Book II, 187):  
 "This same queen [Nitocris] also contrived a snare of the following kind: - Over that gate of the city through which the greatest number of people passed she set up for herself a tomb above the very gate itself.  And on the tomb she engraved writing which said thus: "If any of the kings of Babylon who come after me shall be in want of wealth, let him open my tomb and take as much as he desires; but let him not open it for any other cause, if he be not in want; for that will not be well."  This tomb was undisturbed until the kingdom came to Dareios [Darius]; but to Dareios it seemed that it was a monstrous thing not to make any use of this gate, and also, when there was money lying there^, not to take it, considering that the money itself invited him to do so.  Now the reason why he would not make any use of this gate was because the corpse would have been above his head as he drove through.  He then, I say, opened the tomb and found not indeed money but the corpse, with writing which said thus: ‘If thou hadst not been insatiable of wealth and basely covetous, thou wouldest not have opened the resting-places of the dead."
^I’m guessing she was not actually buried with her treasure or that it was pilfered long before Darius shows up.  Her impressive architectural exploits start at 185, but the above concerns the tomb alone.
If you are interested, you can download Herodotus in English:   or

Monday, July 28, 2014

Centenary of WWI – But Not Many Lessons Learned

This first of August 2014 is the centennial of the start of the Great War.  

 The road to The War to End All Wars was a long one and although not compeletly inevitable, but became more certain as the military and political lines hardened.  I am going to take a different track in looking at this misunderstood conflict and use the perspective of the timetable, (which is how the general staffs of the belligerents looked at it) and less at the classic timeline and battle approach.  But a timeline is also important to get the facts in their correct order. 

As every school child knows, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a terrorist group on 28 June 1914, one month before the start of the war, (see the July Crisis) began the final (and probably inevitable) sequence leading to a world war.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on little Serbia and the whole series of patched-up relations and entangling treaties between European powers began to unravel.   I won’t go deeply into the causes, because it’s pretty involved, but I am sure that the TV entertainment powers will jump onto bandwagon and we’ll have endless rehashes and revisions and finger pointing, all with commercial interruption galore.  One thing I will talk about is timing, but more on that a bit later. 
The regional war that started in the Balkans on the 28th of July 1914 became a world war by the 1st of August, when some of the world powers declared war on each other.  Note the world war starts when the big power war declarations fall on and just after 1 August.   America manages to hold off from joining in the war until 6 April 1917. 

On a personal note, for those of us folks who can remember the centennial of the Civil War, the bicentennial of the American Revolution, the Centennial of WWI is a sobering thought if nothing else, due to the passage of time and how few lessons have been learned.  Years back I had met a small number of WWI vets from different of countries and they are all gone now.  It’s made me to reflect and I have to wonder about what the world will look like by the time of the Centennial of the Gulf War.  If I don’t miss my bet, it won’t look any better and people won’t be any smarter.  See also, “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” with the coda that “the rich get richer”.  Sounds kind of jaded, doesn’t it, but it rings true regardless of your political affiliations. 

OK, back to timing.  One thing that most modern people fail to realize in this age of large standing armies, is that previously, a military mobilization was generally felt to be an act of war.  Mobilization was a key part of warfare in a time of small standing armies.  Europe, while keeping small but professional armies, had wide-spread conscription and a complex and in-depth system of reservists and national service.  In the US the system was a bit different.  They augmented their very small standing army with state militias (later national guard units) along side conscription of raw recruits.  In this way, countries could have both a large and small army at the same time.  In times of national emergency, you mobilized your reservists, who then went to their local depots, drew their war fighting gear and then under a war plan, were either set in a defensive stance or as a combat reserve in pre selected locations or went to marshalling areas to be sent on the offensive and meet the enemy in battle.

Here’s how the dominoes fall:  On 28 July, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia (Russian ally) and the Russians begin mobilization on 1 August, the French order a general mobilization, and the Germans mobilize also on 1 August.  The world war has started.  The actual declarations of war follow swiftly with Germany declaring war on Russia (and its allies by way of interlocking treaties), on 4 August the UK officially declares war on Germany (and its allies), and France declares war on Germany somewhat belatedly on 11 August.  Note that it is the mobilizations that start the war and the declarations are somewhat beside the point. 

So you see how this works?  It’s like launching missiles in this day and age, they may be armed or they may not, they may have nukes and they might be filled with flowers.  You launch we launch.  You mobilize, we mobilize.  Guess what, a war has just broken out.  To follow the analogy, a country calling a mobilization in 1914 equals launching rockets in the Cold War or today.    In the next few days in the summer of 1914, things get uglier as the great powers unlimber for war and declarations fly fast and furious and it all goes downhill from there.

As a quick aside, one myth about WWI is that it was a war completely tied up in trench warfare.  The truth of the matter is that it was only the portion of the world war, located in Western Europe that eventually devolved into defensive trench warfare. The war in Eastern European theater was one of classic maneuver as was the war in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.  It’s a world war remember, not the war of Western Europe. 

Let's return to the timetable.  The clock was ticking for a war by the fall of 1914:  Military theorists of the time held that seizing the offensive was extremely important. Timetables were paramount and starting your war by the end of the fall harvest had been part of war ever since there were agricultural civilizations.  This theory encouraged  belligerents to start their was as early as possible after harvest and strike first to gain the advantage.  If you mobilize when the harvest is over, releasing your agricultural workers to fight, who at this time are over half the population, you then have at least 150 days of decent weather to fight.  Once you get northern European snows, wars bog down and movement is pretty much over in this period, so you have a limited time to get your work done, mobilize and fight your war before winter sets in.  If you get caught, then you have to wait for the spring thaw and the inevitable mud bogging your down your spring offensive.  So the fall timetable works best if you want a quick war.  See how the timetable works?  The ultimate application would be the blitzkrieg (a later term, but quite succinct), whose roots were in the Franco Prussian War, was the prime ideal for rapid employment and a quick war, but not drawn into full fruition until WWII by the Germans.  Practice makes perfect.

So if you could field your army first while the other countries were still trying to muster, you would have the field and the initiative.  If the other guy fails miserably in mustering their army, they probably will lose or at the very least, be dangerously on the defensive as they flounder.  The French found that out in the Franco Prussian War.  To misquote Confederate General Forrest of American Civil War fame, you will “Git there fustest with the mostest”.* 

The actual conduct of the battles in the World War is not within the purview of this brief blog post so I’ll fast-forward a few years and a few million casualties later to 1918.  After years of fighting and with casualties in the millions, the fatigued belligerents signed an armistice on 11 Nov 1918 at 11 a.m., the famed 11, 11, 11.  It put the war on hold, stopped the fighting, but did not actually end the state of war.  That happened on 28 June 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was hammered out.  But military actions continued, such as on the Russian front with an allied invasion of the Bolshevik held portions of Russia, but that’s another story for another time.  There was plenty of unfinished business and lots of new bad business created by the Treaty of Versailles.

The general reaction once the war was over, was to try forget as much as possible for some, to marginalize the event for others, and a movement towards pacificism (and even pacifism)+ and isolation for the US.  Victorious allies heaped indemnities upon Germany through the Treaty of Versailles, which also dismantled the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and carved up Asian, African, Pacific, and Middle Eastern colonies of the losing side for the victor’s own benefit.  In general setting up the world for more problems in the following decades, not the least of which was another world war.

Here are some “didja knows” for your next cocktail party’s awkward moment:  Italy and Japan were on the side of the Allies in WWI, with Japan declaring war on 23 August 1914.  The Dutch were neutral.  Mexico was supposed to be neutral, but that didn’t stop them from being part of casus belli for getting the USA into the war, see also the Zimmerman Telegram.  Brazil declared war on Germany on 28 October 1917.  China declared war on Germany 17 October 1917 – it might be of note that Germany had colonies in China, something previously noted by Japan, who wanted Port Arthur and other German areas.  They ended up with a number of German owned Pacific islands as war booty.  See my previous post about early Japanese aircraft.  That those factoids should get you disinvited to the next soiree.   

For those of you who come to my blog for reasons other than an interest in history, e.g. H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and movies, there is indeed some link to this post and horror writings (other than the obvious).  In a previous post I wrote about Arthur Machen Angels of Mons becoming folklore and in a post about author William Hope Hodgson, that was killed in WWI, who was a major influence on the writings of  H. P. Lovecraft.  Further you might check out the movie horror series Hellraiser and the origin of Pinhead, Capt Elliot Spencer, who turns out to be a disillusioned WWI vet in his own private hell.  Along with rank and file, WWI ate up company grade officers at a phenomenal rate as they were expected to lead their men personally.  If kings, dictators, generals, and presidents were obligated to lead charges, there might be less wars. 

WWI even had literary repercussions in such innocuous works as Herge’s Tintin books in the person of war profiteer and all around badguy, Bazil Zarahoff, AKA Basil Bazarov in the Tintin adventure, The Broken Ear.  Herge even drew the fictitious Bazarov exactly as Zarahoff to make the point clearly.  Another pop culture post WWI reference to war profiteering was in the person of  Little Orphan Annie’s adopted father, Sir Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, a steel industrialist.  Sadly, despite eventually inheriting a fortune, Annie never got eyeballs.^

In ending, I hope that some of you out there, up-time from us won’t be observing the Centennial of a future WWIII.  If you are, swill your grog from the skull cups made from your enemies and enjoy the Dark Ages, if the lord of the castle allows.

If you are actually interested, but don’t know much about WWI – read a book or two, there are quite a number of good ones around.  I don’t mean that facetiously because this is far too complex and involved for a short treatment on television or on a blog. If the subject is too big to eat whole (and it is), take it a bite at a time, starting with what you think you know and try to expand your knowledge base from there.  Good reading to you.

*This misquote first appeared in the New York Tribune (a Northern publication, mind you) “written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals” (no date to the NYT article provided) from a Wikipedia article about Gen Forrest.  I would appreciate somebody finding the date of the NYT misquote, if they would and possibly a scan. 

^She died Sunday 13 June 2010 at the age of 97, unrepentant and in the hands of a Guatemalan kidnapper. 

+For the distinction  between the two, see this article

Links of interest:
Newspapers of the era:  declarations of war 

WWI timeline of causes

Detailed timeline for WWI 

On the lighter side, a blog post about Turkish delight, WWI and the Crimean War

A Quotable quote not used in this blog article:
“Violence” came the retort, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.”  Isaac Asimov, from The Encyclopedists as originally published in Astounding magazine in May of 1942.  The story was published as a whole as the novel, Foundation the first of the Foundation Trilogy in 195.  The quote was just too good not to use somewhere.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sixtystone: A Web of Deceit and Illusion – Arthur Machen, the Black Seal, and the Nesting Story of The Three Imposters

The background of the short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a lot older, a lot weirder, and a lot more fun than I expected.
Arthur Machen is not as well known now as he was originally, but he was a highly influential author of the Weird Fiction genre.  His important short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a portion of an elaborate overstory or nesting novel, The Three Imposters, published in 1895.  I’d like to leave the rest of the book alone and focus on just one story, The Novel of the Black Stone in this blog article.  

My first exposure to the Machen’s book, The Three Imposters was from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of books when it released an affordable reprint in 1972.  The series was a real boost to average fans that wanted above average fantasy books but couldn’t afford or find costly, rare editions.

Arthur Machen’s works have had a powerful influence on many writers and quite strongly on H. P. Lovecraft, who cites Machen in his Notes on Writing Weird Fiction as a great author along with Lord Dunsany, Edgar Allan Poe, Montague R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.   

As you will note in HPL’s Notes on Weird Fiction, he states:
One cannot, … present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.”

The careful placement of the “single marvel” in this particular story (which is part of a larger story) is a small black stone, which cannot to be taken casually by any means.  One way to do this is to embed your single marvel, in this case a seal stone of great antiquity and evil, into the fabric of reality and history by having it written about by previous authors, preferably real, but they can be fictional as well.  In some cases, the reference book itself is the marvel, such as the Necronomicon.

The Sixtystone or Black Seal in the story is very masterfully borrowed from the 2nd century Roman writer Solinus, who refers to a stone called the Hexecontalithon in his writings.  Machen carefully misquotes the original work, Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi to add depth and to move locality of the story from Libya to England.  This embeds the historical cited Sixtystone with accompanying text and author into Machen’s universe quite deftly.  Machen makes no secrecy about the lifting, giving the original author’s name and the source.  It’s all in good fun anyway.*

Machen’s rework of Solinus is quoted from The Novel of the Black Seal:
 "This folk," I translated to myself, "dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name; which is Ixaxar."

Along with the Sixtystone being taken from ancient writings, the title of the main book itself, The Three Imposters, may be a direct reference to another book of great age, the Treatise of the Three Imposters, itself a hoax book, which (in many modified forms) has been circulation for centuries.   Both Solini de Marabilibus Mundi and The Treatise of The Three Imposters had been in circulation for centuries and available in a number of print editions in England.  I have to wonder if anybody sees the possible connection between the two books called The Three Imposters, one published in 1895 and the other circulating in manuscript form since at least the 1200s. 

Did Machen use the title The Three Imposters as a nod to the earlier esoteric book of the same name?  It certainly looks likely, although I have not downloaded or read the medieval version of The Three Imposters.  Like the Necronomicon, The Treatise of the Three Imposters is considered an imaginary or spurious book in a blog post at

While considering all the in jokes, the transparent borrowings, and the scholarship required to spot them, consider that the Sixtystone is referred to as a black stone by Machen, but not Solinus – which may be an oblique reference to another black stone, which is real and located in the Middle East.  But also consider it may be a play on the name of a contemporary writer of weird fiction with Machen (and also cited by HPL in Notes on Weird Fiction) Algernon Blackwood.  It’s hard to say for sure, but it is interesting to note the multiple use of layers in Machen’s The Three Imposters, especially looking at the stories within The Novel of the Black Seal.  It’ll certainly take a some scholarship to unravel the puzzle. 

Consider also that IXAXAR, may be a play on ΙΧΘΥΣ (fish in Greek) which was a secret symbol from early Christianity, dating to the first century, the same period as Solinus wrote.  But I don’t want to jump too deeply into religious waters for concern about offending and a lack of serious scholarship on my part in this matter.  Machen would appear to be both serious and playful at the same time.  Another idea that may just be coincidental is that there are sixty stones at Stonehenge.  Once you start the association game, it’s hard to stop.

Another anchor into history for the story and the Sixtystone is the Sumerian’s and later the Babylonian’s use of a sexagesimal, (base 60) numeral system.  This works well linking the Sixtystone into another culture and body of researchable data.  Interestingly, we still use many of the Babylonian’s base 60 concepts like the 60 minutes in an hour & etc.  Solinus would have been quite familiar with the system himself.  The great thing is that with a well-imbedded artifact is that the more you dig, the more associations or coincidences you find.  The accidental associations weave themselves automatically into the body of works, supporting the whole, even though the author may not have been aware of the association.  Coincidence can be an author’s friend, as long as it doesn’t become a forced literary cliché.+

As a side note, Robert E. Howard did a short story called the Black Stone (pub Nov 1931), which is supposedly set in the Lovecraftian universe.  So everybody has had a shot at the title.   For Howard fans, here’s a nice article about Howard’s debt to Lovecraft.

Certainly Machen’s association with mysticism, theosophy, and neo-romanticism and it’s associated interest in pagan and pre Christian beliefs lends some credence to these theories of literary association.  Eventually, Machen purposeful mistranslantion of Solinus’ work made its way into texts of modern esoteric teachings, bringing the farce full circle.  It’s much like Lovecraft’s imaginary Necronomicon becoming esoteric canon.  See the article by Christopher Josiffe in the links section at the end of this post for more information.

One more quick aside:  If you are still following this, you prop making fans might check into the Cyrus Cylinder, as fodder for thought, although that is clay not stone.  

The power of Machen’s mythmaking power is quite evident in his creation of The Angels of Mons from a 1914 story, The Bowmen, later released as a book of short stories, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War.  Machen explained the story was fictional, but the more he protested, the more people believed it was real.  I have to wonder if there is a link between this WWI story of ghostly protectors and the raised dead protecting Britain from invasion in WWII in the movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks of 1971.  But that’s for someone else to ferret out.  Additionally, see this article on about Machen’s mythmaking and the Angels of Mons:  

What really got this whole thing rolling was a Sixtystone prop posted on Propnomicon’s outstanding Cthulhu Mythos prop making site a good while back.  It got me interested again in Machen and rekindled my old interest in cylinder seals.  I did a little digging and as usual, things got wonderfully out of hand.  The result is this blog article.      

Arthur Machen’s writing prowess continues to influence readers, writers, makers of props, and esoteric authors.  His works influenced writers from Lovecraft to Steven King, as well as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and James Branch Cabell.  By the way, most of these authors had stories and books appear in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  Machen also influenced other authors outside of the genre such as Jorge Luis Borges with his magic realism and even writers of mysticism Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Grant owes a debt of gratitude to the writings of Machen. 

Machen was also an originator in what would be later called psychogeography,^ due to his writing about the interconnectivity between landscape and imagination.  Along that line, you might also check out my previous post on William Hope Hodgson who was another influence on Lovecraft and his Dreamlands.  The problem with imaginary lands is that you introduce the great possibility of unreliable narrators, in which The Three Imposters is rife at multiple levels.  But that's part of the fun.

Hopefully this information dump will make you want to follow the links and enjoy the ride or do some follow-up work in places I have only touched.  Many of these referenced authors were contemporaries and friends so cross pollenization is inevitable.  They certainly influenced each other and molded our ideas about fantasy and horror today.  I hope you will be intrigued to enough read a few of the different cited authors’ works.  The great thing is that many of them are available for download for free.  See the links below.

*More contemporarily, take a page from NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ Rulebook:  Rule 7, "Always be specific when you lie.”  
+(Op Cit) Keep in mind Gibb's Rule 39 and of course, while writing Weird Fiction, remember his Rule 45 also applies.  Good detective work has much the same rules as being a good writer. 
^Psychogeography has strong links to ley lines, earth mysteries, and chaos magic.  It also is linked to magic realism and other techniques used in fiction writing. 

          Additional links of interest
Download these books for free from Project Gutenberg by Arthur Machen
The Three Imposters, (1895) which contains the story The Novel of the Black Seal
The Great God Pan (1894)
The House of Souls (1906)
The Hill of Dreams (1895, pub 1907) 
The White People (1899, pub 1904) by Machen
Also Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921) with Machen stories inside 

An article about Machen in the Spanish language

A link to a good article by Christopher Josiffe is just below, about the Sixtystone and Machien’s use of Solinus’ writings.  Josiffe’s makes use of Arthur Golding’s English translation of Solinus from the late 1500s makes for really good reading, but also note in this article, tracing of the Machen of Solinus mistranslation making its way into modern esoteric writing.   Fun stuff.  or 

A Latin language downloadable copy of the 1847 edition of Solinus’ Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi  The part you want is XXXI for the Sixtystone hexecontalithon reference used by Machen.  Prop makers, this would be a great source for text for your prop books and documents.  Alas I could not find the Arthur Golding late 1500’s English translation quoted so colorfully by Christopher Josiffe in the above article.  

For those interested in a 1904 English translation of the 1716 French edition of De Tribus Impostoribus, (1230), AKA The Three Imposters, a download is available here:

Robert E. Howard's The Black Stone, available for free download: