Monday, June 27, 2011

The Great God Pan

It has been too long since I posted. I'm hard at work on my book, so some of the peripheral things (like this blog, sorry to say) have gone on the back burner. A few interesting things have happened since my last post, though, and I wanted to share those with you:

First, my "Labadie Mansion" post was featured by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, something that caught me completely by surprise and pleased me immensely. (I'm not even eligible to join SFWA, yet! You can see the entry on their website here.) It's probably one of the reasons I didn't update for a while--I didn't want to have to top my previous post. Eventually, I just decided I could either sit on my hands and enjoy the Labadie post forever (my sense of satisfaction growing more distant with every day that passed), or I could get on with my life and my blog, which is what I am doing now.

Second, my story "Fool" appeared in Brain Harvest in late April, and I was super excited to share it with people. (Its theme is strikingly similar to the song I'll be talking about later in this post) Read it if you haven't already; it's short and free.

Third, I'll be headed to World Fantasy Convention on October 26th, so if you're attending, shoot me an email. Maybe we can get a beer or something. Also, I'll be doing a little bit of agent hunting--my book will be complete by then--so if anyone knows somebody good ("good" being an important word), I would love to meet them.

Lastly, I had the opportunity to visit Joplin, Missouri a week after the tornado there. I took along my brother Paul to take photographs, and we spent the better part of a day walking around and talking to people. I had planned to write a blog entry on it the evening we got back, but the scope of the events were too huge, too immediate for me to feel like I had anything worth saying. That entry is still percolating in the back of my mind, and I think I will write and post it sometime soon.

The rest of this entry is a repost of a note I wrote on Facebook when my brothers and I release our album last year. Here is the song itself. I've always believed that a song with a story behind it is doubly powerful, and the effect of knowing the intent behind a work trumps any downside. So here they are, with complete transparency, my thoughts on "Great God Pan":


First of all, let's just get this out of the way. The title of this song is not "Great God Plan," as some people have mistakenly thought. While I'm not opposed to God having plan (I do wish he would share it with me), this song is definitely not about that. The title is actually inspired by the 1890's horror classic "The Great God Pan." In the story, two men perform brain surgery on a woman in hopes of opening her eyes to the spiritual realm, with the following result:

Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl's cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. ... They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight ... as she fell shrieking to the floor.

Three days later Raymond took Clarke to Mary's bedside. She was lying wide-awake, rolling her head from side to side, and grinning vacantly.

"Yes," said the doctor, still quite cool, "it is a great pity; ... However, it could not be helped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan."

--Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" 1890

When the woman's eyes were opened, she came to face to face with what lurked behind the curtain. In the world of the story, what poor Mary found behind our visible reality was, well, nothing good. Similar to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, the spiritual realm (and in fact, the whole universe) of Machen's story is a hostile place full of nightmarish pagan beings. The universe is not the work of a loving creator, but rather a place of deep, unknowable evil.

In our darkest moments, life can feel like this.

On October of 2006, my wife woke me in the middle of the night with a strangled scream. She was having a seizure, her first, and in the darkness of the room, it looked like she was fighting an invisible being. Like the character in the Machen story, "The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot." I was terrified, but somehow managed to switch on the light and keep her from choking on her tongue. I watched as she stopped breathing, and didn't breathe again for ten seconds. They felt like ten years. I cried and said the kind of movie lines you would expect: "No, no, no, Lynna. Lynna, please God, stay with me."

She survived that night; so did I. Then, 24 hours later to the minute (I kid you not--hearing this would trip my bullcrap reflex too if I hadn't witnessed it myself), she had another one, identical to the first. In the moments during the seizures, I understood why they are often mistaken for demonic possession. It is the most horrible thing to witness, and I hope none of you reading this ever have to go through it. It took me weeks to recover. I didn't even want to sleep in the same room with her, so I would sit up at night and watch over her, jumping every time her breathing changed. (And all this only months after going through a miscarriage.) During those days and weeks, it felt like something evil and hateful inhabited every shadow, every corner. It felt like we were living in a hostile universe.

Sometime later, Lynna almost drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. We were swimming in the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and coolly (stupidly) ignored the wooden warning signs posted every hundred yards or so on the beach. The waves were huge, dark, and rough, but it wasn't every day we got the opportunity to visit the ocean, and we really wanted to swim. Lynna wanted to swim out past where the waves were breaking. She told me she was fine, that she could manage on her own, but being the worrier that I am, I stayed close.

I remember how the mood changed. One moment I was asking her if she was okay, to which she nodded and said, "I'm fine." It seemed like only seconds later, the waves were smashing us both in the face, and Lynna's eyes were as big as saucers. We tried to swim back, but the undertow was carrying us further and further out. I remember when Lynna got enough air once to gasp, "Steve!" I told her not to panic, but I'm not even sure she heard me. I'm not sure I heard myself. I told her to grab onto my shirt (fat guys swim in a shirt; it's in the code), and somehow I got us back to shore. I knelt in the sand, shaking, and thought, "She's pregnant with our baby. I almost lost them both." To this day, Lynna gets very uncomfortable watching rough waves in TV shows and movies. (That's How to Develop a Phobia 101, people.) Again, the universe had felt like a murderous, indifferent place.

Fast-forward and Lynna is lying on a hospital bed, 13 hours into labor. She is in an enormous amount of pain in spite of the epidural, straining, looking at the ceiling with eyes that are not really seeing anything. Every time she has a contraction, the baby's heartbeat slows to a crawl. More than once, the nurse runs into the room when the "beep, beep, beep" all but disappears. I'm standing by the bedside, holding Lynna's hand, not able to do anything. I might lose my unborn daughter. I might lose them both. And all I can do is hold her hand.

That's all we can do, sometimes, when the world looks its darkest. Thick and thin, hostile or benevolent universe, everything aside, I was not letting go of Lynna's hand.

Then a miracle happened: my daughter came into the world. Our two became three. And although Lynna was still in pain, I realized I was seeing something beautiful. If what I had witnessed during the seizures was "The Great God Pan," the dark, hostile face of the universe, then now I was seeing nothing short of "The Great God" himself, the benevolent, merciful, generous being that had given me life, given me Lynna, and given me a brand new daughter. I was seeing things as they were meant to be. And I realized the "Great God Pan" I had feared was actually something quite simple: difficulty.

There is no escaping difficulty. One day, each of us will die. We will lose our parents and our siblings (or watch our siblings lose us). Dreams will go unfulfilled. Pain will wash over us in a way that will threaten to drown us. All we can do in those moments is hold on and be brave. Love without reason, without context. Love because you love, and hold hands, and when it is finally time, let go. Let go and be grateful. In the words of the Avett Brothers, give your body back to the earth and not complain.

In short (brevity doesn't come easy to me, you might have noticed), "Great God Pan" is a song about standing strong in the face of loss, or in moments where loss seems inevitable. There will be beautiful, "good" moments that vastly outweigh the horror you feel in the difficult times. Be strong. Survive, together. I guess that's what I wanted to say with this song.

You can read Arthur Machen's story, "The Great God Pan" in its entirety here.


Thanks for bearing with this very long post. After giving it a second read, I would have to say it is preachier than I had remembered, but it's still a good snapshot of that period in my life. I've been wanting to share it for a while, and I'm glad I finally have.