White Death

We’re done with the religious apocalypticism for a while.

The thermometer was hovering around zero Fahrenheit last week, and that meant it was time to get out some polar related book.

Since this was in the review pile from LibraryThing, I picked up this one.

Review: White Death, Jack Castle, 2016.white-death

It’s sometime in the near future and something large and lethal is prowling Alaska.

After being dressed down at the Arctic Imperative Conference, by the President of Iceland no less, archaeologist Kate Foster slinks away in academic disgrace for proposing that beneath the Bering Strait are the remnants of a very old civilization.

But a shadowy employer decides she just the woman for a remote research station on an island off Alaska.

Too bad the entire crew at the base is murdered before she gets there.

Foster tags along with a group of Alaskan police investigators going to the crime scene.

Once on the island, we get something like John Carpenter’s The Thing crossed with one of my boyhood favorites, Alistair Maclean’s Night without End. Add some archaeology like something out of Graham Hancock, forteana, blizzards, monsters, ancient ruins, and mercs, and you’ve got a winner. Continue reading “White Death”

Poetry: “On Being Resurrected in Cleveland”

My series on the Worldwide Church of God ends with a poem that was partially inspired by my days in that organization.

Whatever you think of its merits, it was selected by Keith Allen Daniels for his 2001: A Science Fiction Poetry Anthology. There I shared the pages with, among others, Roald Hoffmann, 1981’s co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

On Being Resurrected in Cleveland

Never believed in you

The future of no end,

Man recomplicating.


Revelation has complications.

I stared into the abyss

And nothing happened.


Never a captain or capitalist,

Not a poet or poisoner

But always drunk on Wormwood’s apathy.


Thirty years I listened.

The Trumpet never sounded.

The Seals never snapped.

The Horsemen never came.


Barbed wire of phantom camps

Bound my ambition until I

Took a casual swim in a cryonic sea.


Apocalypse and Rapture

Synonyms for futility.

You stretched my time on telomeres

And brought me into eternity.


And you apologized for this morning

Of testy Turing machines in Turin

And killer bots in Calcutta

And brainbleeding agony from Burundi

With an asteroid on the way.


I’ve seen world’s end

A thousand times. I don’t mind

One more.


But I’ve got plans.

The World in Flames

My autobiographical reviews of books regarding the Worldwide Church of God continue.

Review: The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult, Jerald Walker, 2016.world-in-flames

It’s just possible that Jerald Walker and I ran into each other as boys in the 1970s in a building “as nondescript as an airline hanger, and probably larger” in Wisconsin.

We were both children in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) aka the “White Supremacist Doomsday Cult” of the subtitle.

I’ll confess that when review copies of this title came up on LibraryThing, I rolled my eyes. I am, at best, indifferent to things that smack of minority memoirs about the demon white man. At worst, my reaction is along the lines of John Derbyshire towards his bete noire Ta-Nehisi Coates: “blackety-blackety blackness”.

But, I do like reading about doomsday cults and, when I saw which cult Walker was talking about … well, I had to read it.

For a while, reading the open third, I cynically wondered if this was another bogus victimization autobiography along the lines of Rigoberta Menchú’s eponymous autobiography. Continue reading “The World in Flames”

The Fragmentation of a Sect

My next three posts are going to be autobiographical with the first two also book reviews.

Review: The Fragmentation of a Sect: Schism in the Worldwide Church of God, David V. Barrett, 2013.fragmentation-of-a-sect

It’s not often that I review books where I have some personal knowledge of the topic. I seldom read books outside of work that have anything to do with my day job. And who would want to read reviews of books about taxes and bankruptcy law anyway (though I do have one such review in the archive)?

For the first 20 years of my life, I was a “member” of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), the faith I was born into. (I say “member” because one of its doctrines was adult baptism which I never did thus I was never a true member.) At age 20, I stopped attending it. There were very various reasons, but the main one was love.

I met my future wife, not a member of the church, and marriage with non-believers was strongly discouraged. I was also tired of balancing strict adherence to the faith with attending college. It wasn’t one of WCG’s colleges, and, among other things, I was tired of justifying school choice to other members. I was even more tired of the pressure to socialize more within the church. I don’t like political or religious groups that try to set up their own subcultures and expect me to stay within them.

So, when I saw that David B. Barrett, sometime reviewer of science fiction books in the Fortean Times and also author of occasional religiously-themed articles in that magazine, had written a book on the WCG, I was intrigued.

Barrett actually has a long entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (as do I though mine is much shorter), but he’s not the only connection between WCG and science fiction. As I’ve noted before, both Michael Moorcock and Terry Pratchett alluded to that faith in some of their works. WCG also gets a mention in John Sladek’s non-fiction The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Science and Occult Beliefs.

And, I suppose, a childhood interest in science and science fiction caused me to question the anti-intellectualism of the WCG. How, on the one hand, could they brag about the technological innovations they boasted of using in “the work”, early adaptations of satellite broadcasts and sophisticated printing setups, while denigrating the science and the scientific method that led to those technologies?

Being interested in history at a young age, I was also not entirely convinced of the church’s dismissal of conventional historical timelines in the service of its prophetic predictions and accounts of biblical history. Reading Popular Science and The Plain Truth (the main publication of the WCG) led to some cognitive dissonance regarding dating techniques disparaged by WCG in defense of their version of history.

Science fiction works were alluded to in some sermons, but it was always of the dystopian sort because, you see, mere humans, without God, could never produce a worthwhile society. Technological innovations were always going to lead to worse problems.

There was also, as I’ve written about elsewhere, the science fiction-WCG connection of comic book artist Basil Wolverton. He did commercial work for comics and produced some memorable and apocalyptic illustrations for WCG’s The Bible Story series.

And there was the minister who liked to preach about things like UFOs and hauntings. Sure, the grade school me, who occasionally came across old copies of Fate magazine and read Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, liked the subjects, but even then I intuited the fallacy of the argument from ignorance: just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean there isn’t a rational explanation.

And then there was a sermon by the infamous Gerald Waterhouse (his name brings shudders in the various online reminiscences of ex-WCG members) in which I was told the canteen scene in Star Wars was the most demon infested thing he had ever seen. (There’s another WCG-George Lucas connection. WCG lawyer Stanley R. Rader sued Steven Speilberg and George Lucas for alleged plagiarism of the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Needless to say, he lost.)

I also get the sense, from a few things I’ve seen from ex-WCG members, that mine was not the only case of a love of science fiction being something of a psychological bulwark against church doctrines or a balm of sanity. For my own case, I think it led to a bit of minor league metaphysical questioning of church doctrine.

When I stopped my affiliation with WCG in 1983, I spent no time keeping track of it, so, when I heard its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA — the “W” being as meaningless as the “S” in Harry S. Truman), had died on January 16, 1986, it was only a point of minor interest. I was busy finishing up college and married.

But my first hint that things had changed was when I got a birthday card from my mother.

That was something of a shock.

Celebrations of birthdays, you see, were forbidden by the church. (What do you think Job’s kids were doing when God wiped them out?) However, my parents, not being totalitarian zealots, did allow me to attend the birthday party of a cousin and yearly birthday cards from my grandmother.

But a birthday card from my mother? “There have been some changes in doctrine” my mother’s accompanying note, anticipating my surprise, said.

And that was not the end of it.

Returning home in 1987, I found my parents were no longer members of the church, and copies of Ambassador Report, a newsletter started by church dissidents in 1976, were lying about the place. It was quite revealing of past church scandals, many new to me.

There also started to be the first of many publications from church splinter groups. WCG, like a hand grenade, had exploded into hundreds of fragments.

Religion was still something of a touchy topic with the family, so I didn’t ask for too many details about which sibling had went to which group and why.

That fragmentation and the history of WCG was why I picked up Barrett’s book.

Barrett, formerly trained as a sociology of religion, uses the history of the WCG to answer a question about what happens to faiths founded by one man when that man dies.

HWA founded an authoritarian and legalistic religion. When is a bit nebulous because he led a breakaway group from another church, but he was preaching by 1928.

What he was preaching was a faith that most definitely set its members apart from not only Satan’s world but mainstream Christianity.

There was the observances of Jewish festivals – though not necessarily on the same day that Jews did and Jewish dietary laws. (And you can never appreciate the power of food taboos if you’ve never lived by them. The last psychological vestige of my old faith was not eating pork.)

There was an emphasis on prophecy, an end time apocalypse, “pre-millenarianism”, the belief that the horrors of the Book of Revelations would be unleashed on the world, and Christ would return to the world and reign for a thousand years before the Final Judgement. This prophecy was fueled mostly by British-Israelism, the notion that “lost tribes of Israel” emigrated to Europe and can be identified with European nations. The notion goes back to 1590 but really took off after 1840 with John Wilson’s Lectures on Our Israelitish Origins. HWA lifted, without attribution (Barrett rightly says the exact mixture of deception and self-deception is unknowable), from Wilson while passing it off as the product of divinely guided study and revelation.

WCG’s day of worship was Saturday, the true Christian Sabbath, and to be observed by a strict sundown Friday to sundown Saturday refraining from worldly pleasures and labor.

Tithing was ordered, three tithes to be specific: ten percent to the church, ten percent to be saved for attending distant religious festivals, specifically the week long Feast of Tabernacles, and, in every third year, another ten percent to be used for the support of poor church members.

Christians are not saved by grace but by works. This was later finagled to be saved by grace but eternally rewarded by works.

Similar to Mormonism, though there is no evidence of any direct influence on HWA, WCG preached that “all resurrected and perfected mortals become gods”.

There was no “immortal soul” thus no eternal damnation to Hell. The dead were to be resurrected upon Christ’s return. The bad were to be destroyed forever. The good became those gods. (Isaac Newton, incidentally, believed in this idea of “conditional immortality”.)

Christmas and Easter and Halloween were deemed pagan holidays and not to be celebrated at all.

Last, but certainly not least, of its major deviations from traditional Christianity was a renunciation of the Trinity for binarianism, a belief in God and Christ as entities with the Holy Spirit being but an impersonal force. It was that belief, more than any other, that caused traditional churches to denounce WCG as a cult.

All this doctrine was delivered from HWG with no room for deviation. God’s true church, as HWA frequently reminded, was not a democracy. (Take that Presbyterians!)

Barrett’s book, like other Oxford University Press publications I’ve seen, is usefully and clearly organized with evidence followed by concise conclusions.

Barrett is impeccably fair. When addressing the most serious personal criticism of HWA’s behavior, a long term incestuous sexual relationship with his daughter by blood, he merely cites the evidence pro and con. (For what it’s worth, I believe the charge and some church leaders believed it too but tried to rationalize it away as unimportant in various ways.) Based on my own personal experience, reading Ambassador Report and Walter R. Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults: Major Cult Systems in the Present Christian Era, Barrett’s descriptions of church doctrine and history are accurate.

Barrett did a great deal of research into writings by and about the church. He also conducted extensive interviews with ex-members of the church.  (Virtually everyone is an ex-member here because that’s the whole point of the book. They all went to other churchs or started their own.) And, of course, being a sociologist, he has a questionnaire.

Barrett looks at how closely HWA matched traditional traits of the schizophrenic or a religious guru. His conclusion is that he was not a schizo, but he fits a lot of the traits of the guru.

WCG was already have problems in the 1970s. HWA’s son, the even more charismatic Garner Ted Armstrong, was once and for all “disfellowshipped” for sexual improprieties. In a high profile legal case, the State of California put the church into receivership. Garner Ted started his own church. But it was really on HWA’s death that the fragmentation began.

HWA’s successors tried to bring WCG more into the mainstream. But, when you’ve spent decades telling your members that God’s only true way is keeping the Sabbath, scorning the Trinity and Christmas, it can be tricky to get them to change their minds when you change yours.

The question Barrett is interested in is how did WCG members react to all this. Take the new dictates as new revealed knowledge from God’s apostles on Earth or decide the Church is corrupt and go elsewhere?

One theory, from religious sociologists Rodney Stark and Richard Finke, is that family and friends, “social capital”, is the main factor determining whether a person stays or goes in a reforming religion. Barrett disputes that, and my own experience backs that up. I was the first out the WCG door and not one of my immediate family members shares the same religion (though my brother and I are of the atheist/agnostic persuasion but not hostile to religion).

Barrett says that “moral capital”, adherence to religious doctrine, was the determining factor in the fate of ex-WCG members. Their schisms were doctrinal disputes. Barrett strongly disagrees with the notion that doctrinal disputes are just disguised schisms in social networks.

I agree. It’s hard for the non-religious to realize that these things are important to some people. They want to get right and keep right with God.

And the schism is still continuing.

A few months ago, I had occasion to talk to an ex-WCG member of my acquaintance from years back. Like everyone else I knew and kept track of from the WCG, he left. He told me of a church he recently joined that fragmented over doctrine.

It had six members.


Next posting I’ll look at an autobiography of an ex-WCG member: Jerald Walker’s The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult.


More reviews of nonfiction books can be found at the review index at the top menu.

The Crusade of Richard I

It’s been awhile since I read a full book on the Crusades.

I picked up an interest in the subject in college after studying the Knights Templar. This was before bookstore shelves sagged under the weight of dubious Templar histories in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (Though it was after the publication of Brown’s inspiration: Holy Blood, Holy Grail from Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.)

So, when I saw that NetGalley was giving away review copies of this old history, I picked one up.

By the way, whenever King Richard’s name comes up, Steely Dan’s “Kings” comes to mind:

Now they lay his body down

Sad old men who run this town.

I still recall the way

He led the charge and saved the day.

Blue blood and rain

I can hear the bugle playin’.

We seen the last of Good King Richard.

Ring out the past his name lives on.

Roll out the bones and raise up your pitcher.

Raise up your glass to Good King John!

Review: The Crusade of Richard I, T. A. Archer, 1898, 2016.crusade-of-king-richard-i

A good book, an interesting and very readable compilation of primary sources about the Third Crusade, what we would now call a sourcebook, and I’d recommend it to anyone curious about the subject.

This was part of a 19th century publisher to put together learned but popular histories for the English public, and Archer went on to write several entries in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Archer’s footnotes are valuable in annotating the confusing similarities of names and titles, providing alternate names for places, correcting mistakes in dates, and even trying to locate where certain settlements in Outremer were.

The famous stories from the Third Crusade are all here. Saladin (or his brother Saphadin) really did send Richard a horse after the king lost his at the Crusader assault on Jaffa. Richard did have almost 3,000 Moslem captives beheaded though both English and Islam accounts support the conclusion it was not gratuitous cruelty but impatience over stalled negotiations between Saladin and Richard. (They didn’t call them hostages for nothing.) A few noble emirs were kept alive because both armies were always looking to cash in with aristocrat redemption. Continue reading “The Crusade of Richard I”

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Five: Strange Angels


The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Strange Angels, Kathe Koja,

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: Strange Angels.

Strange Angels, Koja’s fourth novel, is something of a transitional novel, and the last of her early novels where characters go on a journey of transformation and do not emerge from the fire unscathed. Madness or death is the price paid for their obsessive quests. Continue reading “The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Five: Strange Angels”

Stepfather Bank

I actually am working on several new reviews, so I’m not going to start another series.

The first mention I saw of this book was a review of the hardcover, and it was rather hard, back in 1989, to find any copy of it.

Poyer started out in science fiction and has moved on to greener pastures.

Raw Feed (1989): Stepfather Bank, D. C. Poyer, 1987.stepfather-bank

One of the review blurb’s for this novel states it has a resemblance to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. That is true.

Monaghan Burlew, like Gully Foyle, is an uneducated, unintellectual, slovenly, gutter talking (his language is rather like Foyle’s) nobody who is transformed into an educated, driven agent of social change (and, like Foyle, there is something of a vengeance motive).

Like The Stars My Destination, there is a scene of physical transcendence when Burlew’s mind is transformed into a light signal that manipulates the sun itself to save the world.

The scene of Burlew’s death reminded me of Charles L. Harness’ The Paradox Men, a novel also somewhat reminiscent of The Stars My Destination).  Continue reading “Stepfather Bank”

Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol.2

This one got read as something of a fool’s errand to see if I could learn anything about Kathe Koja’s ideas about what constituted “weird fiction”.

Well, “the weird” means different things to different people. That’s the whole idea behind getting a guest editor for each volume of this series, now in its third installment.

Is it the best weird fiction of the year? How would I know? And if I did, there really wouldn’t be much point in me reading this.

Series editor Michael Kelly read about 2,800 stories and passed the best to Koja for the final decision on whether or not to include them.

Koja’s ideas of weird fiction and mine don’t match much. On the other hand, I have no idea what she had to work with for 2014.

Still, the book had enough good stories in it for me to recommend, and I will read other volumes in the series.

However, I read it almost four months ago, and I’m only covering the stories that stuck in my mind, weird or not. That’s why this is a . . .

Low Res Scan: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 2, eds. Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly, 2015.years-best-weird-2

For me, the only weird story in the book was its oldest: Jean Muno’s “The Ghoul”. First published in 1979, it got its first English translation, from Edward Gauvin, in 2014. Beautiful in imagery, it has a man walking a foggy beach. He encounters a woman in a submerged wheelchair. The mixing of time, a jump back to 20 years earlier in the man’s life, and language that may be realistic, may be metaphorical, was beautiful and memorable.

Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” is an occult take on a hard-bitten crime story. Narrator Jack runs a bookstore in New Orleans (with the really good and profitable stuff in back). Jack’s old employer, crime boss Eugene, coerces him into another job. Jack’s to take a thug with him and find Tobias who has not only ripped off some gambling proceeds but somehow gotten, from Hell no less, the thighbone of Eugene’s dead son. It’s off to the bayou and some weird stuff, and that atlas turns out to be something unexpected.

Siobhan Caroll’s “Wendigo Nights” has a setup similar to John Carpenter’s The Thing: a canister (from the doomed Franklin Expedition, no less – Caroll has done academic work on polar exploration) is retrieved from the thawing tundra. Mayhem ensues involving the wendigo – monster or really bad cabin fever that turns men into cannibal killers depending on whether you go with folklore or psychology. Continue reading “Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol.2”