I finished a couple of books this week that while very different on the surface, ultimately both concern memory.
The first was The Sussex Devils by Mark Heal, former musician and frontman of Cubanate. Although it reads like a novel, it is half a historic investigation into a manifestation of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. Mark discovers a newspaper clipping while digging through some old tapes about a man called Derry Mainwaring Knight who managed to convince a group of well-to-do evangelicals (led by the Reverend John Baker) that he was a high-ranking “Satanist” in the Ordo Templi Orientis. The Reverend not only tries to save Derry’s soul through exorcism and prayer, but raises staggering amounts of money for Derry to buy OTO paraphernalia to be destroyed, thus defeating the Satanists. Derry was eventually jailed for fraud. But around this narrative is Heath’s own story, memories shaken loose by Derry’s story – starting with his parents’ involvement with evangelicism, his severe panic attacks and eventually alcoholism. Heath’s descent into panicked neurosis and eventual recovery mirrors the descent of the UK (and US, South Africa, Australia…) into conspiratorial and supernatural witch hunts – not only Satanism but Ritual Abuse and Alien Abduction. Although the conclusion was rather platitudinous, with its “we all need something to believe in” message, I enjoyed the book overall a good deal. Heal’s writing is evocative, heartfelt and readable.
Moreover, the book was published by Unbound, who use a form of crowd funding to produce their books – a model that might suggest a way forward for small press publishers.
The Aztec UFO Incident by Scott Ramsey, Suzanne Ramsey and Frank Thayer was far less engaging. Subtitled “The Case, Evidence, and Elaborate Cover-Up of One of the Most Perplexing Crashes in History”, it is an investigation into the second-best-known crashed saucer story, in Aztec, New Mexico, in 1948. Alarm bells started ringing quickly – the back cover declares that “Roswell is no longer the only proven flying saucer recovery we know about”. Proven? Really? Even allowing this to pass, that’s terrible writing – how can a crash be proven if you don’t know about?
If you’ve read my book, you’ll recognise several familiar tropes: husband-and-wife team; a story re-discovered decades later; government cover-ups obscuring the evidence; and importantly, a heavy reliance upon eyewitness testimony. There is almost no physical evidence presented – rather, the authors build their case from eyewitness testimony, usually after decades, or worse, recounted by children of the witnesses after decades. There is no acknowledgment of the problems with such testimony, quite the opposite. Testimony is described as reliable as it “draw[s] from 50 years of memories” (22). The initial story is exciting, but it’s clear we are dealing with a sort of fairy-story. The book soon descends into an impenetrable series of critiques of minor characters in the story, like early promoters and challengers of the tale. Ironically, but not surprisingly, they often dismiss these accounts for the same reasons I dismiss theirs – but only when the sources disagree with their central thesis, of course.