Sunday, October 31, 2004

Gold in them thar hills?

There was a listing in a sale catalog for a book about a Southern secret society that hid gold after the war in expectation of a revival of the Confederacy. It sounded fairly interesting--despite the instant suspicion aroused by “secret society” you know somebody somewhere did this--and was in my library so I checked out Warren Getler and Bob Brewer’s Shadow of the Sentinel: One Man's Quest to Find the Hidden Treasure of the Confederacy.

It looked solid enough: a mainstream publisher, one author an investigative journalist, plenty of source notes. But then flipping through I noticed that the authors approvingly mentioned the whole Rennes le Chateau/Holy Blood nexus which was not a good sign. In fact the book’s story collapses almost immediately. It’s told in alternating chapters, one thread about Brewer’s personal treasure hunting adventures, the other a supposedly historical reconstruction of the background.

The premise centers around the Knights of the Golden Circle, a genuine and well-documented secret society that operated in the South before and during the War. The KGC appears to have been a fairly vague, low-level group with some espionage ties, almost the sort of thing you would expect to see Barney Fife’s ancestors running. In Getler and Brewer’s account the KGC was something completely different. It was a vast, rich, well-organized group that helped get Lincoln elected because it knew that would lead to the South breaking apart from the Union. At the end it may have helped assassinate him (one of the rare times Getler & Brewer back off from dubious claims is when they say perhaps the KGC wasn’t involved or perhaps Booth expanded on his instructions). Rather than disbanding during the War, the KGC lasted much longer, at least until the 1950s and possibly even until today. It hid millions of dollars in gold from Georgia to Arkansas to Arizona and left sentinels to guard them and astonishingly complex maps to mark the spots. Oh yeah, the KGC created the Ku Klux Klan to draw attention away from their postwar activities, Jesse James was one of their operatives (and even faked his death, doing their work until the middle of the 20th century), the Lost Dutchman Mine was actually a KGC storehold and the whole thing masterminded by Masons. Somewhere in Foucault’s Pendulum somebody says that the true test of kook literature is when they mention the Templars and in fact Getler and Brewer bring the Templars into the story. What possible connection could they have to Confederates? Well none but that’s why this book is pretty much fiction and not history.

Throughout Shadow of the Sentinel Getler & Brewer mention something as a possibility and then afterwards act as if this possibility had been proven. For instance, they bring in Albert Pike, a key figure in the development of American masonry, and while they do point out that Pike had no documented connections to the KGC or anything related to it, they afterwards mention him in the story whenever possible. This location, they might say, is actually just a short hop from someplace Pike stayed, this event occurred when Pike was meeting secretly in Europe, etc. Pike is just one of the more obvious examples; most of the time they try to hide this even more. One sample (p72): “There can be little doubt that the hidden KGC spawned the original KKK. Ample circumstantial evidence supports this. There is the ever-important symbolic trail and the persistent whiff of a familiar modus operandi.” Just a wild guess that despite the little doubt almost no historians have heard this idea before.

In fact Getler & Brewer don’t even bother to bring up evidence for most of their key points. One of the schematics reproduced to show how the KGC buried huge supplies and treasure was apparently just written by another treasure hunter. There’s nothing to support the idea that sentinels guard the treasure spots (Brewer’s great-uncle hinted to him when he was younger about treasure around their town but the rest is pure invention). There’s nothing to connect the Lost Dutchman to the KGC, the Confederacy or even really to much gold. And so it goes.

In fact Getler seems to have done some sloppy background research. He does source some material in the National Archives and from academic journals but my library has four entire books on the KGC (not counting this one) as well as a microfilm with the by-laws of a KGC chapter. Getler mentions none of these sources which is odd if he’s trying to claim that conventional historians have ignored the KGC. Then again who knows what he might have done with them. For example, on page 51 he writes “According to authoritative reports, the KGC could call on 100,000 trained and armed men by late 1860.” Follow the footnote and you’ll see that Getler’s source is an anonymously written pamphlet which is hardly either authoritative or “reports” plural. Getler even helpfully quotes the pamphlet since it’s unlikely any of us will see it (though the Kansas City Public Library has it on microfiche): “At no time previous to the bombardment of Fort Sumter was it presumed that the number of men to be counted on from the North would fall below 100,000.” As you can see no mention of these men being trained or armed or even that they existed just presumed to exist. It’s not even clear what the point is since the KGC obviously never fielded such an army and using even a fraction behind the scenes would have left more documentation.

He’s not the only one; take a look at what Brewer did with a treasure map. Like the bulk of the material in the book it’s of dubious provenance (some of the other items even Getler & Brewer admit they don’t know the source; for most of us that’s a red flag, for them just support that a secret society is operating). Anyway, the map takes Brewer “over 1000 hours” to decode and this is what he does. He wants to come up with the letters that will anagram out to a word. So he finds the first letter clear enough at the bottom. The second letter he claims was hidden behind another (it doesn’t look like that to me but on the map reproduction it’s in the center of the gutter so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt). The third letter is on the opposite side of the map, sideways and in a different case. The next letters are also upside down in different parts of the map (which by the way is dense with letters, numbers, figures and general scratches so there was a lot to choose from and creatively reinterpret) though they look more like scribbles. The last two letters? They don’t appear to exist so Brewer “finds” them by using a Confederate secret code! All this is only a portion of the solution (which involves more anagrams and old surveyor’s maps and symbols and such) which makes me think it would have been easier to just memorize the treasure location than the key to the map.

After all that work, Brewer does in fact determine the precise location for the KGC treasure. Except that, well, he doesn’t. He finds no treasure and no evidence that there ever was any. This is all explained away by another duplicitious hunter that he implies stole the location and schemed with the land’s owner but then this is just a story. The simple fact is that Brewer’s solution reveals nothing, not even that it wasn’t some wild concoction. Conveniently the other location that Brewer determines is on Federal land and can’t be dug up.

You do have to wonder about the picture Getler & Brewer create of the KGC. Supposedly it’s a group in this for the long haul but the key signs for their hidden treasure include inscriptions in bark, deformed trees and assorted bric-a-brac like axe heads oriented in precise directions. Maybe for gold you’re coming back for in a few months but what kind of geniuses use such easily distorted or destroyed markers for something they know might be years or even decades later? And what kind of masterminds come up with maps so complex that their own people apparently can’t remember how to use them? Or set up generations of hillbillies and poor white trash to guard millions of dollars? Or for that matter never even bother to use the money?

Oh, I’ll have to admit that Shadow of the Sentinel is continually amusing but then I also love all those Templar/Holy Blood books even though they’re obviously lies or at best true paranoia (defined by the PDR as “systemized delusions”). It is kinda fun to think that Poussin was busily encoding his paintings with secret information or that Cocteau, who led one of the most heavily documented lives ever, still managed to head a secret society. To be fair to Getler and Brewer (though there’s probably no reason to do so) I can easily imagine some dinner table of former Confederate movers and shakers convincing themselves that they’re part of a larger and still active conspiracy. They might have even hidden some gold. But that’s not what Shadow is about.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Bumper Sticker of the Month

Cthulhu for President 2004

Don't Settle for the Lesser Evil

you think publishing is easy?

Jeff VanderMeer wrote a piece about the difficulties writing and publishing City of Saints and Madmen. Though I've been hearing about him for a while now I've never read anything of VanderMeer's and have to confess that this piece, fascinating as it is, doesn't make me want to rush out and find anything. Apparently Bantam is publishing much of his work over the next couple of years so that maybe that will be time to pick them up.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Word Freak

Put it down to vagaries of personal taste but I had no interest in the spelling bee documentary Spellbound though was excited by the idea of Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (2001). Maybe I just didn’t want to watch a film about kids no matter how human the interest or maybe the book just promised more substance.

In any case the book was something of a disappointment so maybe I should check out the film in case my mind has led me astray on that as well. Word Freak just shows too much the work of a journeyman sports journalist (except maybe for concision: it runs at least 60-70 pages too long). I’ll admit that probably the play-by-play descriptions just will never interest me but otherwise there’s not much from the title in the book. “Heartbreak” pretty conventional, “triumph” pretty much just winning a Scrabble game, not the slightest trace of “genius” but there is admittedly a whopping lot of “obsession.” Maybe a third of the way through it becomes apparent that Fatsis has chosen the obsessive, dysfunctional characters for their color (that journalist eye) and ignored the bulk of Scrabble players. Towards the end he even admits this and includes a brief interview with three women players that’s almost condenscending (he won’t come out and say there are so few competitive women players because of biology but that’s what he’s tiptoeing around) and perhaps intended to make up for some quasi-misogynist remarks earlier.

There are other issues. The front cover quote from the Los Angeles Times promises it “dances between memoir and reportage” (like that’s supposed to attract readers: “Hey honey, here’s one that hasn’t settled into solid memoir. Let’s get it.”). And much of the book is indeed Fatsis trying to become a champion Scrabble player as judged by the official rankings. But he reveals way too little of himself to be effective as memoir and is just too pedestrian a writer for the sort of craziness or insight or detachment that’s needed. Clip out a few sentences and Word Freak could pretty much have been written by anybody, something that couldn’t be said for other subcultural trawls like, say, Jeff Greenwald’s Future Perfect : How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth or Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

The problem with writing a review in this fashion is that it gives the impression that the book is worthless which is not the case. Word Freak is fairly entertaining; I just expected something more substantial. Moving back to taste, most interesting to me were the sections on how various players broke down and analyzed the game, figuring out methods and strategies to maximize scores, creating word lists, arguing about acceptable usages, etc. And so it goes.

beyond satire

Republicans Urge Minorities to Get Out and Vote on Nov. 3rd

for film buffs

There's a very good interview with George Feltenstein from Warner Home Video about restoring classic movies and releasing them on DVD.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Greg Shaw too

Guess if you're not a famous Brit you don't get a lot of news coverage. I interviewed Shaw once around ten to twelve years ago (for Goldmine perhaps?) and he came across as a very nice and patient guy even though I know some of my questions were rehashing old material.

RIP John Peel,,2-1330563,00.html

Most of us in the States only encountered him second-hand (though a local college station syndicated his show for a couple of years and it was unlike anything I've heard before or since) but there aren't many people that you can honestly our culture would be completely different if not for them. And the man worshipped The Fall.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

in the company of reality

I had the TV on while cooking, probably either The Simpsons or Seinfeld, and one of the commercials was for an upcoming or possibly just-past reality show where a guy revealed to some woman that he was not in fact whatever she thought he was--a millionaire, landed gentry, a software designer--and that he and the TV producers had been deceiving her for however long they had been deceiving her. Sound familiar? It reminded me exactly of the revelation in In the Company of Men (probably the only time I've heard actual gasps from a movie audience). I don't know if this means reality show audiences would think the In the Company of Men men are actually just OK Joes since that's more or less the premise they've learned to love as entertainment. While I'd like to say that it exposes the gossipy cruelty of reality shows as the reason I don't watch them, the reason is actually much simpler: they're boring. Oh, perhaps if I took some faux-Cagean approach and sat down with hours of Survivor I'd learn to move past that boredom but then again why bother? Maybe if there were verite-styled shows following, say, a rancher or a Congressional aide or a philosophy professor or an airline pilot for a few weeks then I'd watch. Maybe when serious narrowcasting becomes a reality.....

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Overheard at the Greek restaurant

"There's no American letter for it."

Saturday, October 9, 2004

Self Deception

Joe Quesada recently told Newsarama: "Speaking of which, we haven't even talked bout how Marvel is the only publisher really creating a significant amount of material to reach the kid's market right now and in a significant way. I'm very surprised that this hasn't been more openly discussed across the boards or within the net news community. I mean we could talk Avengers and Spidey all day, but Marvel Age is really the most important news of the year."

The very day I read this I also heard a father ask the clerk at a comics store if a Marvel Age title was appropriate for his young son. Obviously the Marvel Age series--like much of Marvel's product in general--isn't well marketed. Any of the DC kid-friendly superhero titles are immediately recognizable as such by their cartoon design.

Even worse is that Marvel Age shows Marvel at its most cynical. DC at least comes up with new stories for its kids books but Marvel can't do anything but recycle its past in things like the increasingly superfluous Ultimate line and now the almost completely mindless Marvel Age. (Though this may be a snap judgement since I've only read a few M.A. issues and thumbed through some at the store. Still, the press releases show Marvel bizarrely proud of not doing anything remotely original with M.A.)

But Quesada's statement is just ridiculous (actually "a lie" might be more appropriate) when you consider that DC for years has published clear-cut kids books, usually Cartoon Network tie-ins but the ones I've read have all been quite respectable. Or is it just that like so many fanboys Quesada thinks comics begin and end with superheroes? When Wizard recently ran a Marvel vs. DC story it completely left out this aspect. So who has consistently published children's comics? That's DC. Which one publishes crime, fantasy and horror titles? DC. Which one constantly experiments with non-superhero titles? DC. Which one publishes manga? DC (though they're admittedly playing catch-up but when Marvel decided to do manga they merely stuck superheroes into a manga style; DC is doing the real thing). Which one is publishing actual British and European comics? DC again.

The point is that Marvel is so firmly tied to superheroes that it's starting to look more and more anachronistic. At the same moment that they're putting their characters back into costume and promoting cross-book tie-ins, the rest of the comics world increasingly moves beyond superheroes. If Tomine or Ware ever wanted to work for the Big Two (though since Ware published Jimmy Corrigan through one of the largest publishers in the world he might not be interested) it's almost certain that Marvel would only have them doing guys in tights but DC could at least offer the possibility of doing something else.

RIP Derrida

I highly recommend the documentary Derrida:

Thursday, October 7, 2004

some links

William Boyd on the short story

David Thomson on Rivette

Oklahoma messes up travel brochure

Anthony Grafton on campus fiction

not surprised about Americans who think The Da Vinci Code has any substance

Douglas Wolk on Fantagraphics' Top Ten

my list of October DVD releases

Senses of Cinema (no particular article, just more people should know about this site)

A Nation of Grad Students?

Yep, you've heard it mostly before but this is a decently amusing piece about how the long-lived American mania for self-improvement [insert Tocqueville quote here] is faring in the age of DVDs and trade paperbacks.

A few remarks:

1. Shouldn't it be "Zeno"? A web search shows significantly more hits including listings in philosophical dictionaries.

2. I read that Walkman piece too. It was by continual nay-sayer Norman Lebrecht and made some sense but, er, yawn.

3. I'd point out that apart from DVDs, most of his other examples aren't that widespread. Paperbacks with attached reading guides are uncommon and CD box sets rarely hit the charts.

4. The reading guides "revived literary deduction"? Shouldn’t that be “interpretation”? What are they supposed to be deducing?

5. I’ve heard about two dozen DVD commentaries and excerpts of easily triple that number but have never heard any filmmaker describe either “their own dazzling technique” or anything shot-by-shot. Of course most commentaries are complete wastes of time, one reason I don’t listen to them in full.

6. What is the possible connection between flatulence and being a film geek? For that matter why is being interested in art geeky? You can almost imagine: “Just a few years ago nothing would have seemed more recondite than reading Henry James’ collected prefaces, an idea that would interest only the most odorous book nerd.”

7. I miss Spy magazine.

8. Legally Blonde 2 and a Cody Banks film are easy targets.

9. Did VH1 actually show an NWA video? The channel has become such a celebrity shrine that I can’t watch it, something made only worse by “irony” that only points out how completely serious they are about celebs.

10. The end of trash culture would indeed be worth mourning and there are signs. I own a Herschell Gordon Lewis box set complete with commentaries, something unimaginable when I first had to book 16mm prints of his films and track down obscure VHS copies. Then again there are many more Jess Franco films on DVD than Ozu and Bresson combined which is definitely a disgrace. Don’t know that I have any point to that.

11. The Amadeus director’s cut came out in 2001, a decade after claimed in the piece.

12. I can’t imagine joining a reading group.

Fast Company,,83656,00.html

My review of Cronenberg's Fast Company.