Goldwag: Books that inspire me

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Guestblogger Arthur Goldwag is the author of "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more" and other books.

Pesco requested that I write about some of the books that inspired me as I was writing CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES. I'll need to ask for your indulgence, because I'm going to flash back to my boyhood. When I was in the sixth grade, I came across a mass market paperback called IMPOSSIBLE: YET IT HAPPENED, which, I just learned from the magic of the Internet, was written by R. Dewitt Miller in 1947. It was a prime exemplar of what is sometimes called Forteana, after Charles Fort (1874-1932), a failed novelist, close friend of Theodore Dreiser, and avid collector of news clippings about the eerie and the unexplained--he also gave his name to the magazine The Fortean Times (its cover story this month is about Masonic symbols in Washington, DC). Miller's yarns about spontaneous human combustion, ghosts, premonitory dreams, ESP, apparitions of air-born crucifixes in the smoke-filled skies over World War I battlefields, a fortyeight hour-long midnight that enveloped Colonial New England and I don't know what else, scared the living daylights out of me--but at the same time, I couldn't stop reading it, especially at night, by flashlight. It was an addiction and I eventually had the wisdom to go cold turkey, by giving the book away.

Or maybe I should go back even further, to when I was in the third grade, and we all trooped down to the school gym to look at the slides of ruins that a local character--a magician named James Randi--had snapped on his recent trip to the mountains of Peru. I can't remember exactly what I found so interesting about his lecture, but it made a huge impression on me. Maybe he did some sleight of hand tricks. A couple of decades later, Randi embarked on a second career as a Houdini-caliber debunker of psychic frauds. His take-down of Uri Geller on the Tonight Show is still devastating to watch.

Sometime during my adolescence, when I was an omnivorous consumer of Erich Van Daniken books, Edgar Cayce-inspired accounts of Atlantis and Lemuria, and Robert Heinlein novels about Ascended Masters (LOST LEGACY) and religious cults (STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND), I picked up a paperback about the Bermuda Triangle at a newsstand in the Port Authority bus terminal--LIMBO OF THE LOST by John Wallace Spencer. I stayed up late that night reading it, until I was brought up short by an account of a tragedy that I could actually remember reading about in the newspaper. I hope I'm getting this right--memory is a tricky thing and this happened a long time ago--but I think the story was about a fishing boat that had inexplicably disappeared off the Jersey Shore on a cloudless, windless day (Spencer's "limbo of the lost" was a lot bigger than the original Bermuda triangle). Did it sink? Or was it...transported somewhere? Only like I said, I had read about the incident when it happened--and what Spencer left out was that it occurred during a violent storm. It was a real epiphany for me, this discovery that some of the sensational things you read about in books aren't precisely true. Soon afterwards, I read my first book by Philip Klass--it must have been UFOS EXPLAINED--and discovered that science is more interesting than pseudo-science, that while it can be fun to indulge one's credulity from time to time (we humans seem to have an innate need to scare ourselves and stimulate our sense of wonder), critical thinking is infinitely more satisfying.

It was probably because of all those Frank Edwards books that I read as a kid that I devoted as much of CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, AND SECRET SOCIETIES as I did to UFOs, abductions, cattle mutilations, recovered memory, Satanic ritual abuse, and the like. I'm not comparing myself to the great Martin Gardner, the author of FADS AND FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE, who passed through a Fundamentalist Christian stage as a teenager before he became the dean of Skeptics (Michael Shermer, the editor of The Skeptic and the author of WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE WEIRD THINGS was also raised as a Fundamentalist--he started out as a Christian theology major in college) but my youthful indulgences in books about the paranormal made me more attentive to that side of things than I might otherwise have been.

There's this band of trolls camped out on the Amazon page for CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES who've seized on my "confession" that I used the Internet as one of my resources and made it a headlined feature of their one-star reviews. I scandalized some Masons the other day when I admitted that I'd had the presumption to write about Masonry without being a member. At the risk of providing more fodder to my enemies, I'm now going to reveal that a lot of my thinking about conspiracism has been influenced by works of the imagination. Since I haven't belonged to any secret societies or cults, or personally participated in any global conspiracies (some 9/11 Denialists would argue that my stance on their movement makes me complicit in the biggest conspiracy ever, but I won't go there right now), I turn to literature for insights into what I've called "The Conspiratorial Frame of Mind."

Vladimir Nabokov's PALE FIRE is a tour de force of oblique storytelling and its narrator, Charles Kinbote, is one of literature's most memorable madmen. Grandiose and delusional, his world is a reflection of his own obsessively-imagined conspiracies. Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN is many things--an epic of race and radical politics in Depression-era America--but it is also the story of a Kafka-esque conspiracy. The hero of Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN believes that the history of post-Independence India was enacted on his own body--and that his mind is a radio transceiver, through which he communicates with a secret underground of misfits and pariahs. Strangely enough, Rushdie became an artifact of world history himself, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a Fatwa calling for his execution.

Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's THE ILLUMINATUS! TRILOGY: THE EYE IN THE PYRAMID, THE GOLDEN APPLE, and LEVIATHAN is a wildly erudite, unabashedly trippy immersion in a world that's bound together by occult, philosophical, and political conspiracies--it's as paranoid as Philip K. Dick's VALIS, but much, much funnier. Thomas Pynchon's THE CRYING OF LOT 49 is a classic of conspiratorial thinking, about a private postal service that secretly influences the world. Just before I started writing CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, AND SECRET SOCIETIES, I read Umberto Eco's FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM, which is at once a brilliantly constructed thriller and an astonishingly erudite encyclopedia of esoterica--from Templar mysteries to Theosophy, from Kabbalah and alchemy to shamanism and right-wing synarchism. A Borgesian diversion on a grand scale, Eco's novel is also a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to make too much sense out of the world. I used this line from it as an epigraph for my own book: "Now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."

The afternoon of September 11, 2001, I walked to the Red Cross blood center in downtown Brooklyn to donate a pint of blood. I was listening to the radio on headphones as a news reporter was opining that the fact that the day was the twenty third anniversary of the Camp David accords provided a key clue to the perpetrators' identity (I just fact-checked this and learned that while the agreement was reached on the 11th, the documents weren't formally signed until the 17th). Scraps of charred paper were drifting down from the sky; the passerbys faces were ashen and exhausted. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had walked into the pages of a Don DeLillo novel--into a world that had been upended by an Airborne Toxic Event. (DeLillo did eventually write his 9/11 novel--FALLING MAN).

LIBRA, DeLillo's fictional reconstruction of the conspiracy(ies) to assassinate President Kennedy, is so convincing to me that every time I reread it I have to remind myself that he made it up. Oswald's self-effacing grandiosity, his mother Marguerite's exasperatingly endearing neediness, Jack Ruby's glad-handing insanity, the rogue CIA man's despair--all of them feel so true-to-life. The book also contains a much-quoted passage that explains why conspiracy theories are so irresistible:

"A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It's the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us. We are the flawed ones, the innocents, trying to make some rough sense of the daily jostle. Conspirators have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act."



  1. Illuminatus! and The Crying of Lot 49 are two of my favorites. I read Iluminatus! when I was 16 and it completely warped my brain, but in a good way.

    1. I miss Robert Anton Wilson a lot. He was a big influence on me and was also a contributor to the original bOING bOING ‘zine. He’s one of BB’s patron saints! Fnord!

  2. Thank you for reminding me of Frank Edwards; my collection of his books mysteriously disappeared sometime in the early 1970s. (I blame armies of telekinetic ants.) I still have all my Velikovsky, however.

  3. Who doesn’t miss Bob. Seriously, he would have loved everything that’s going down these days. And I’m quite sure he’d have a great deal to say about it.
    Hail Eris.

  4. I had definitely been opened up to the ideas of the Illuminatus! trilogy before I read it, one empty finals week in college. It really made everything click into place, though. Not in a ‘we’re surrounded by conspiracies’ sense, but more in a ‘things happen’ sense. I’ve liked to say I was an atheist taoist discordian ever since.

  5. neat article! thanks! I’m glad you mentioned Pale Fire…untrustworthy narrators are a gem in fiction. Johnny Truant’s untrustworthiness is called into question several times in House of Leaves. My personal favorite “questionable narrator” is from John Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure; it reminds me of Pale Fire quite a bit.

  6. You and James Randi share a ‘hood? That’s too fantastic a conincidence to be explainable by conventional physics.

  7. The title IMPOSSIBLE: YET IT HAPPENED! reminds me of another book that fascinated me in grade school, STRANGELY ENOUGH! by C.B. Colby. Relatively recently I learned that the book was a Scholastic Abridged version of a larger book from the 1940s. I’d like to hunt down the longer version.

  8. “Conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant.”

    Per Wikipedia the author of that quote, Richard Grenier, was a neocon best known for bashing Gandhi in a film review, but he said at least one smart thing in his life. This remains the single most insightful and concise statement I have ever read about this kind of thinking.

  9. The world just gets smaller.

    I logged onto this thread to expound a bit on William Corliss & the Sourcebook Project, a must-visit site for anyone interested in anamolies, & out pops the name of Richard Grenier.

    I was Richard Grenier’s literary agent for a time during a much earlier phase of my life. I tried to sell a novel of his about westerners making a movie in the Arab world. It was prescient (which I didn’t realize at the time), completely politically incorrect & wickedly funny. No one would touch it in the 1970s.

    I just did some googling, & a version of the novel seems to have been published as “The Marrakesh One-Two” some years after my efforts with it.

    Richard was a warm, smart, funny man. We were politically opposed in many areas but I enjoyed every conversation we had. He was the kind of guy who could use his wit & intelligence to make you consider his point of view. I’m saddened to see that he left this world in 2002.

    Sorry for wandering off topic, but seeing his name brought back a flood of memories.

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