Mediums, Psychics and other Fantasy Creatures

Recently I’ve been buying and reading some of the books in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, and have read ‘A Study in Sable,’ which features Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson (& Mrs. Watson) as characters. But what the book also features is Sarah Lyon-White, a medium, and Nan Killian, a psychic.

The disturbing part is that in the real world when we encounter someone who is labelled a medium or a psychic, we are encountering a con artist. Some of the ‘information’ provided by these con artists is the result of secret research— they know Mrs. Smith’s only son recently died, or that Mr. Terry has certain financial woes. Other information comes from the process of ‘cold reading.’ The psychic/medium guesses, ‘I see an older male spirit who wishes to speak to you,’ and they can tell by the subject’s reaction whether that’s what they are looking for. If the cold reader guesses wrong, he’ll say ‘No, not a older male, it’s a female.’ The subjects tend to forget the wrong initial guesses and say ‘that psychic was so great, she knew is was my great-aunt Felicity I wanted to contact and that she was an embalmer and had four children and a pet orangutan.’ Even though the cold reader guessed wrong two dozen times to come up with that info.

The medium character is used to place tired old Spiritualist ideas into the story, like the idea that ghosts surround us and can communicate, using the proper medium, that some of the dead stay because they don’t know they are dead or that they fear the ‘false’ idea of hellfire, and that other disembodied spirits have unfinished business like hidden finances they want to tell their widow about or solving their own murders.

These Spiritualist ideas are not backed by any scientific research. They also go against what Judaism and Christianity have taught about what comes after death. The problem with embedding these ideas in fantasy fiction is that some readers think that the author is endorsing the real-world Spiritualist viewpoint as true.

The medium and psychic characters are also referred to as having ‘gifts’— clairvoyance and telepathy, respectively. There is nothing in Judeo-Christian teaching which says having clairvoyance and telepathy are sins, but there is nothing in the Bible or in the Church Fathers to indicate that clairvoyance or telepathy were even known to the Biblical authors or the Fathers. And science has examined the ideas of telepathy and clairvoyance and not had any great success in finding people with these gifts.

‘A Study in Sable’ and books like it bring with it a moral problem. If some readers might be led astray into accepting mediums and psychics as real, we can’t honestly recommend the books to others. We probably shouldn’t be reading books like this too often even if we DO know better. Both from a scientific and a Judeo-Christian perspective, this book and those like it present a problem.

Now, I have been reading Mercedes Lackey books obsessively for years and I just presumed that Lackey was a neopagan or Wiccan  of some flavor, and had a low opinion of Christians that might be termed ‘hate’ if Christian-hate were considered bad like antisemitism and Muslim-hate are. But I have heard from a Christian writer that she met Mrs Lackey at a writing conference and that she says she is a Christian. Given the viewpoints in her books, however, one can’t term them ‘Christian fiction’ in any sense, and I don’t know if Mrs Lackey goes to a church that teaches historic Christianity or a ‘post-Christian’ church like the Presbyterian denomination I grew up in, the PC-USA (which is ‘post-Christian’ because it no longer requires members or clergy to believe/teach anything specific about Jesus Christ, like He is part of the Holy Trinity and the Son of God.)

I still enjoy reading Mercedes Lackey books in spite of content concerns, but I do not recommend them to teenagers, people in their twenties, or Christians who have not learned their catechism yet. You need a bunch of knowledge and discernment under your belt first, if you don’t want to be led astray.

 

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How To Dispose of a Dead Body

I must point out right away that’s I’m talking about fictional bodies here— if you have a real-world corpse around, the only solution is to summon the police immediately. Yes, even if you were the one that caused the corpse to be a corpse. Immediate police summoning is for the best. Imagine how much easier O. J. Simpson’s life would have been if he’d called the police as soon as he got done murdering Nicole and Ron. He’d have had to do a little time for manslaughter, they would have written it off as a crime of passion, and when he got out no one would have been mad at him but Nicole and Ron’s families.

Fictional dead bodies are a fact of the writing life. If you go in for writing murder mysteries, they are your bread and butter. (Or steak and salad, if you are doing Keto.) But almost any other type of fiction might have a murder or a murder mystery in it.

There are three basic methods murderers have used to deal with the corpses they make. I suppose there are a few other methods but they are for the most part a variant on one of the three themes. Except for that fellow who killed his mistress, stripped her corpse to the bones, and sold her skeleton to a medical school (H. H. Holmes.) Different types of murderer do different things with the body, depending on their personalities and what situations they are living in. Here are the main methods of body disposal.

Leave the corpse where it falls. This is the method famously used by Jack the Ripper. It served him well in the Victorian era when the police knew next to nothing about forensics. Modern let-‘em-lie killers have to worry about leaving any evidence behind with the corpse. In the modern age, it’s best for those killers who use a gun or who are efficient users of a knife or machete. You want as little contact with the victim as you can so you leave little to no evidence.

The problem for many types of murderer is that they want to do something to the victim that would lead to evidence. Murderers who sexually assault their victims before or after the murder risk leaving a sample of their DNA around where it will do the police the most good.

Keep the corpse around the house or yard. John Wayne Gacy famously hid his victims in the crawl space under his house. Christie left his backlog of corpses all over 10 Rillington Place. The advantage of this method is that you have the corpse someplace that you have control over. If you have a corpse in the downstairs loo, you needn’t allow your guests to use that particular facility.

The disadvantage, though, is that once the police take a look at your place, it’s hard to deny responsibility for the corpses they find. They are on your property (or your rented home) in any case. Who else could have done it? Mind you, Christie managed to blame a dead woman, her dead unborn baby, and her dead toddler on the woman’s husband, who was executed for it since the police didn’t do a thorough search and find the other bodies Christie had around the place.

Dump the corpse somewhere remote. This gets the corpse far away from the murderer and gives the body time to decompose before discovery. It’s the method used by Casey Anthony in getting rid of her daughter’s body— by the time it was discovered, the coroner could no longer say what the exact method of murder was.

The problem is that most of us don’t know of properly remote locations that are not connected to us. We may think of that wooded area we found on a deer-hunting trip, but not realize that it’s pretty close to the parking lot of a busy tavern, or that the dirt road that leads there is someone’s driveway.

Some people have used city parks as body dump locations. Thousands of people have access to these city parks, and so the location doesn’t point to any one person as murderer. If the park has some remote spots, you can even hope to not have the body discovered for some time.

Remotely dumped bodies can remain undiscovered for months or years, or can be found almost immediately— perhaps soon enough that witnesses can describe the murderer and his vehicle which were parked near the body-dump site. It’s a crap shoot, but even the most dim-bulb type of murderer usually thinks he can be clever in finding a good body dump site.

As a writer, it is up to you to decide how soon your fictional corpse gets discovered and what evidence may be found along with it. It all depends on what works in your story. For the main murder in a murder mystery, you are expected to make it a little more clever that real-life murders usually are. For example, don’t have your murderer dump the corpse right next to where his dad’s deer hunting cabin is. Fictional murderers need to be smarter than that.

Nominal Christians in Fiction and Real Life

Particularly for authors who are Christians of one sort or another, or authors who write for the Christian fiction markets, it is important to distinguish between Christians and nominal Christians.

In the United States, a person can follow any religion he likes, or no religion. And he can call himself a Christian whether or not that is particularly true. So there are a lot of people walking around with the ‘Christian’ tag on them who do not meet the normative definition of ‘Christian.’

Some Christians say that real Christians are ones that have had a ‘born again’ experience that they remember, or that have gone forward at a ‘altar call’ in Evangelical churches that have that practice. Other Christians say that being an active Christian can start at the sacrament of baptism, even an infant baptism, and can continue as a child is raised in a Christian home where prayer and church attendance are the norm.

A nominal Christian is a Christian ‘in name only.’ Why does he take the name of Christian? For some people, claiming Christianity as a religion is just another way of saying ‘my family is not Jewish.’ If they have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who were raised as Christians, they feel they are Christian enough— they are just not ‘fanatics’ about it.

Other people honestly think that if they believe in God and sometimes ask this God for stuff, like help in an emergency or a winning lottery ticket, that makes them Christian, unless their family was Jewish or they have taken up Buddhist meditation.

It does not help that in addition to the faithful Christians— Protestant and Catholic— who believe something that a Christian from 200 years ago would recognize as Christian, there are also very progressive Christians who make headlines. For example, some progressive Christians have blessed abortion centers and said that committing abortions is what Jesus would do. That reinforces a perception that in Christianity, anything goes and you can believe any old thing and it can be part of Christianity.

Nominal Christianity is not the same thing as progressive Christianity. Progressive Christians, as far off from the New Testament as their faith can be, are living a faith that they believe is the modern version of Christianity. Nominal Christians aren’t actively practicing any faith at all. They don’t usually know enough about Christianity to know there is something missing in their faith life.

In fiction, nominal Christians play a role in Christian fiction often by being an obstacle or a challenge to active Christians. In the ‘Left Behind’ series, the main characters included nominal Christians who became real Christians after the shock of the ‘rapture’ event.

In secular fiction, nominal Christians are often seen as sensible and non-fanatic Christians by those writers who know little. Though I’ve never read a book in which a man who doesn’t own a Koran, has never fasted for Ramadan, and who has never been to a mosque or said even one of the five daily Muslim prayers is named as a ‘non-fanatic Muslim.’ Muslims are expected to have some hints of their faith in their lives, both in fiction and in real life. Christians should have that as well. If they don’t, but still say they are Christians, we may suspect that perhaps they are nominal Christians.

Authors who know better should never present nominal Christians as ‘better’ Christians, any more than the no-mosque, no-prayer guy is a ‘better’ Muslim. Religions, both in the real world and our fictional worlds, have content. Nominal Christians, or nominal Muslims, or nominal Buddhists lack that content and so should not be representative of those faiths.

Is That Dragon Really Necessary?

One problem writers sometimes have is when they toss in a story element— such as a dragon in fantasy fiction— that isn’t really integrated with the rest of the story. It’s just something the writer happens to like in fiction, so he throws it in.

But story elements— whether dragons or robots or foreign spies— can’t just stand around looking genre-specific. They must be a part of the story. A dragon may be part of a hero’s quest— he might have to slay the dragon, or trick the dragon, or get the dragon to fall in love with his pet donkey (Shrek reference.)

Sometimes dragons are more than an obstacle for a hero. Think of the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, or the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, or the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and son— in all of these, dragons are central to the story. Without dragons, you couldn’t have these stories. Or, at least, they would be utterly different stories.

By now I’m sure I have some writers saying ‘that blogger wants me to take the dragon out and I won’t! I won’t.’ Well, you don’t have to. You just have to know how the dragon fits in to your story and your story’s world.

In some fantasy novels, facing a dragon can be part of a quest. The reader may go through chapters of the quest without knowing for sure there is a dragon in the book— authors don’t have to mention ‘here be dragons’ when they start a fantasy novel in a fantasy world. Now, if the dragon is in contemporary Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’d want to know why. Or if the dragon is a Packers fan. Or something.

Dragons can be central to some stories, as in the three series I mentioned above. Think of these stories as an endless ‘what if’ game. If they had dragons in the Napoleonic wars, how would the dragons be raised? How would they be trained? How would a nation have enough meat to feed hungry war dragons? And so on. Answering all the dragon-questions is almost like a game between author and reader.

Fictional dragons can come in many sorts. The dragons in the Dragon Jouster series are animals, and so cannot speak. Dragons in the Temeraire and Pern series do speak— the Pern dragons telepathically, the Temeraire dragons verbally. The dragons can have different abilities, be different colors, and be at different intelligence levels.

Christian fiction can have a problem with dragons. I have read that some Christians— both Evangelical and Catholic— look on a dragon as a symbol of evil as in the Biblical book of Revelation. But if that is a restriction on a Christian’s ability to write non-evil dragons, then what about writing about nice goats (as in Heidi?) The Bible does speak of the sin goat and separating the sheep from the goats. As a person who has kept actual sheep and actual goats, yeah, sometimes the goats are more ‘sinful,’ or harder to handle. But sheep can be that way, too. And I’ve never heard yet that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden means that a Christian author can’t write a character whose son has a pet snake. So, even though I am a Christian I feel perfectly free to include nice dragons, goats or snakes in a story.

I love dragons. I love stories with dragons. But if the dragon in your fiction doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story, you may have to make a choice— either lose the dragon, or change the story so the dragon bit of it fits in better with the rest. You are the author— it’s up to you to decide how that will happen.  Happy dragoning!

The Death Eaters were Right about Purebloods

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the bad guys prefer ‘pureblood’ wizarding families to half-blood or Muggle born wizards. And that makes them bad and prejudiced, according to the book’s author. But the plain fact is, the Death Eaters were right. Pureblood wizarding families ARE better.

Wizarding ability is inherited through the genes, and there is no clue in the series that the essential wizarding genes behave differently from other genes. When a wizard marries a ‘witch,’ the offspring can inherit magic from both sides. When he marries a Muggle (non-magical person), the children can only get magic from the one parent.

It is possible for a wizard to be born from Muggle parents, but that is very rare. One may assume, though, that in half-blood marriages between wizard and Muggle, there are a lot of non-Magical children born.

Wizards don’t want to die out. It’s clear that if most or all wizards reject the ‘pureblood’ prejudice and marry Muggles freely, the number of wizard-gifted children born grows smaller and smaller, and the Wizarding world might well shrink.

The prejudice against Muggle-born wizards may have its basis in facts. Do Muggle-born wizards have as many wizarding genes as the average pureblood wizard? Probably not! They are lucky to have any wizarding gift at all! They are a needful addition to the possibly-shrinking wizarding world, but they are more likely to have squib children.

Of course, these days wizards can figure out which genes are connected to wizarding, and figure out who has which genes. A marriage to a Muggle who has some wizarding genes isn’t as bad as one to a Muggle with no wizarding genes. And a pair of pureblood wizards might have very different wizarding genes and not be able to pass on the traits well, while a different pair might be destined to produce strongly gifted children.

They Won’t Tell You This About YA Fiction

YA fiction, or Young Adult fiction, is a weird category. First, the name. Not for adults, but for children. In fact, since the typical YA protagonist is 16, the category is clearly for kids younger than 16. (Kids tend to think they are more mature than their years. Kids that read usually actual are.) So YA is aimed at kids in the 12-14 year age group.

Also, for most fiction you have to ‘sell’ the book to the actual readers. In YA, there are other people you have to ‘sell’ it to.

For mainstream YA, you have to ‘sell’ the books to public school teachers and school librarians. Your book must have content that they approve of. These days, the YA gatekeepers talk a lot about ‘diversity’ and want gay and ‘transgendered’ characters, but that’s not the most important thing. Number one is that you must promote a positive attitude towards (public) school, learning, reading and the like. No books with lead characters who are suspicious of schools and literacy!

For Christian YA— Evangelical, Catholic or other— your job is to ‘sell’ the book not to the kids, but to parents and grandparents. Many of a Christian YA books’ sales come from parents and grandparents giving gifts. Some of these books will never get read by the actual child who receives it!

For this reason, Christian YA books must not only be Christian-wholesome, they must be perceived as such by parents and grandparents. If the grandparents are old-fashioned about things like minced oaths or about Christian characters dancing, drinking alcohol, or owning a pack of playing cards, those things must be excluded from your book for it to sell well.

But for a YA book to do really well, it must also be thrilling enough to get young readers excited when the book finally gets to them after teacher or parent approval. We can do that, can’t we?

“There is no Such Thing as the One True Way”

In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, the land seems to have a law or motto: ‘There is no such thing as the one true way.’ This is popular enough— I would imagine the typical neopagan reader interprets it as a hit against those hateful and hated Christians— but does it make any sense?

As a general rule, the motto, as it asserts that either there is no such thing as truth, or that it is unbearably rude to stand up for the truth when someone might have a contrary opinion, kills off any hope of scientific advancement or rational discussion.

Imagine the situation when someone who believes in a flat Earth (or Velgarth) meets someone who believes— or has personally observed— the roundness of Earth or Velgarth. Because ‘there is no such thing as the one true way’ neither can enlighten the other without breaking the law.

In our world, there are people who believe that autism is often caused by modern vaccines, and others who believe modern vaccines never cause autism. As a sensible person I believe the ‘cure’ for that is more research, and better reporting of adverse effects of vaccines. But according to the Valdemar rule, both sides of the vaccine issue have to keep silent because ‘there is no such thing as the one true way.’ Or a true answer to a dispute that could be solved with scientific research.

It’s obvious, though, that the Valdemar rule is aimed specifically at religions, or perhaps only at theistic religions. No religious group is allowed to claim that their religion might be true. What effect would that have on religions in the real world? Could a religious group pass on its faith to the next generation if they were banned from talking about truth or reality? Wouldn’t all religions tend to die out under such a law?

And the kingdom of Valdemar makes a lot of use of religions in order to provide social services at low or no cost to the state. In Haven, the capital, the schools not only have the task of educating the children, even poor ones, but they distribute state-provided free food to hungry poor children. A religious order was also used to wall up a woman who wanted a Valdemar Herald punished for killing her son. That story did not mention whether the sisters were to be paid for turning their convent into a jail.

But there is one religion that would be very comfortable with religions without truth. Not any ancient kind of paganism— they also thought their religions had truth on their side— but modern neopaganism.

Having actually been a neopagan and having read a lot of books about it, I know that there were a lot of people who embraced neopaganism and even started neopagan religions or Wiccan traditions who stated openly they didn’t believe it was true. They talked about neopaganism’s aesthetic value instead— in other words, it was a pretty lie. Some early neopagan leaders made claims about having a family tradition of neopaganism or Wicca, and later admitted that wasn’t true. They just said it to get attention and followers, and because others were saying similar things at the time.

How well does this non-true neopaganism work out in real life? Well, they sell ‘magick’ books. But have you ever seen a Wiccan or other neopagan temple being built in your town? They can’t gather enough people together to collect money to create a physical presence anywhere. And if they do manage to create one, will their groups last as long as a local Presbyterian church will last? Do neopagans who don’t believe their religion is actually true have the willingness to work and sacrifice and donate and attend services to make their non-true religion a reality in the world? Why would they care?

“There is no such thing as the one true way” may sound cool and anti-Christian to modern ears, but in the fantasy kingdom of Valdemar, it’s an expression of tyranny. If religions can’t speak about their faith’s claim to truth, and can’t transmit any evidence for that truth to their future generations, religions will die out. And Valdemar seems to depend on being able to use-and-abuse religions for the state’s needs.

Which is probably why the tyrannical law came into being. I would imagine that Valdemar looks the other way when priests or lay person surreptitiously whisper to children and new converts the evidence for their faith. If someone starts preaching it on the street corners— as the early Christians did at Pentecost— they will be punished, if only to keep the religions scared and obedient to the state. But I believe that the government of Valdemar is glad that the majority of their people don’t really believe ‘there is no such thing as the one true way.’