REVIEW: Evil Archaeology by Heather Lynn

I’ve written before about the way that certain cultural spaces back-onto each other and how the varying proximities of different cultural scenes results in changes to the scenes themselves.

In the case of roleplaying-games, the scene started out backing-onto the world of wargames before drifting a lot closer to the world of literary SFF before moving closer to the world of computer RPGs and board-games. Each set of proximities shaped the internal culture of the RPG scene and each change in cultural proximities resulted in changes to how people made games, thought about games, and experienced games.

Similarly, science-fiction started out as adjacent to scientific non-fiction magazines before drifting closer to mainstream literature and then much closer first to Young Adult fiction and then to Romance. This isn’t to say that entire genres and marketplaces change overnight, just that smaller, less-stable marketplaces will often find themselves trapped in the gravity well of much larger cultural scenes that will inevitably result in people from the larger scenes crossing over as well as people from the smaller scene trying to connect with the larger marketplace.

The same dynamic is also at work in the world of what might be called paranormal non-fiction. Anyone who visited Forbidden Planet in the 1990s and 00s will remember that, despite focusing on SFF, comics, and nerd tat, Forbidden Planet also used to have a section devoted to books about UFOs.  That section was a product of a time when stuff like The X-Files saw the worlds of genre media and SFF drifting closer to the world of UFO literature.

While UFO literature has flirted with the mainstream a number of times (most recently in the 1990s), it tends to orbit a gravity well best referred to as ‘woo-woo bullshit’. The thing about woo-woo bullshit is that the gravity curve is very steep: You start with books about UFO sightings, then you start speculating about what these UFOs might be, then you start suggesting that the government is lying about the existence of aliens, and then you’re off to the races with the idea that the Earth was actually colonised by aliens and their cities are buried under the ice of the Antarctic. Venture any further down that particular slope and you get into talk of new age magic, and conspiracy theories involving lizard overlords. It’s all good fun but if you’re not careful you’ll start out reading works of speculative history like Fingerprints of the Gods and wind up reading about creationists debunking the fossil record. One of the best things about John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies is that it starts out as a book about a series of cryptid sightings and then descends into what can only be called paranoid woo-woo bullshit.

Heather Lynn’s Evil Archaeology is like the creepy space station at the beginning of the 1970s science-fiction film The Black Hole in that it seems to sit far enough from the event horizon that you feel like you can engage with it without getting sucked into the swirling vortex of bullshit that lies just beyond. You might even read the first few chapters and start to feel that this is a pretty solid work of popular scholarship but then the standards start to slip, the subject matter starts to drift and the book gets progressively sillier until you find yourself hip-deep in weird Christian nonsense.

Evil Archaeology opens with a variation on one of my own favourite riffs about ghosts. The approach Lynn takes is to lower the bar on something being ‘real’ until she reaches the point where clearing the bar becomes a mere formality. In other words, she starts out by asking us to consider the possibility that demons might be ‘real’ and then immediately backs away from the kind of hard ontological commitments you would usually expect from something possessing the property of realness.

When I am looking to be provocative, I will often say that I believe in hauntings only to then clarify that when I say that hauntings are ‘real’ what I actually mean is that they serve some kind of symbolic purpose and talking about ghosts is actually just a fun way of talking about stuff like trauma and memory. Lynn pulls a similar trick with the idea of demons being real and the introduction of the book suggests that she might be working towards some kind of post-modern paganism where demons and gods are used to express truths about our psychological states.

Having raised this interesting possibility, Lynn then disappears into a historical thicket as she walks us through the evolution of the concept of demons and how minor Sumerian deities like The Exorcist’s Pazuzu got sucked into Christian myth and wound up being re-cast as fallen angels. This is arguably the strongest section of the book as Lynn moves smoothly from one mythical system to another, using broad structural similarities to hop from one mythos to another like a penguin on a series of melting icebergs.

From there, we move onto more detailed accounts of how different cultures dealt with demons before moving onto the idea of cursed objects and then more routine ghost stories and memorably unsettling burial practices. Each step takes Lynn further and further from the subject of her undergraduate studies and you can feel both the freshness and the erudition drain from the book with each passing chapter. We may start out with Freud and the ideas of Julian Jaynes but we end with the same overly familiar ghost stories as every supposedly factual account of supernatural phenomena. The results are somewhat surreal as you can feel the entire tone of the book shifting under your feet and the result is a book that feels padded and underwhelming despite starting out with some real energy.

Evil Archaeology is not a bad book… anyone looking to run horror RPGs will find loads of inspirational material here as the book covers everything from cursed items and ancient gods to haunted houses. Just don’t expect anything of real substance.

Like a lot of works of woo-woo bullshit, Evil Archaeology is positioned to appeal to a number of different markets: the introduction positions it as a somewhat new-age work of psycho-cultural analysis while the first chapter contains stuff that might appeal to fans of ancient myth and apocryphal archaeology like Fingerprints of the Gods. Then, as the book progresses, we shift closer to traditional ghost stories and the clever-clever ontological positioning of the introduction is soon replaced with a more straightforward belief in demons that might appeal to fundamentalist Christians.

The book then loops back around to that lowered bar on realness as Lynn marches us through the weirder bits of the sociology of science before concluding that because truth is inaccessible and rational beliefs are impossible, we might as well just believe whatever it is we want to believe and thus demons are real and so is Christianity.

As someone who studied philosophy and also used to belong to a number of atheist societies, I am amused by the way that the strategies of Christian apologists have changed with time. Back in the day, the likes of Thomas Aquinas used to argue that belief in God was not only rational but literally the only rational belief available to us. However, as scientific thought became more sophisticated and the contents of scientific thought began to overlap with the content of religious thought, Christianity has reacted in a number of different ways: Fundamentalist Christians have refused to abandon the idea that the Bible is a literal description of the world and so have developed their own weird parallel version of science where people from Christian universities spit out papers ‘proving’ that the Earth is actually only a few thousand years old. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, have taken Stephen Jay Gould’s advice and abandoned the idea of Biblical literalism in favour of pushing the allegorical content of Christian teachings. Then you have a third approach, which is basically a form of radical scepticism in that it takes all of the ideas about the social construction of knowledge and concludes that because knowledge is impossible, you can believe anything you want. What amuses me about this is that I doubt very much that Thomas Aquinas would be cool with the idea that it’s rational to believe in God because everything goes and what even is belief anyway?

There are people called Otherkin who believe that they are the souls of cartoon characters wrapped in human flesh. They believe this because those beliefs make them feel good and helps them to make sense of their actions. I really like and respect Otherkin, because I understand that their conception of truth is extraordinarily localised. I would be more than happy for Christians to place their beliefs on a similar ontological footing but the system starts to fall apart when you want to do stuff like criminalise abortion or gay marriage. It’s one thing to make abortion illegal because your religion is the literal word of God but it’s quite another to try and enact legislation on the basis that knowledge is impossible and all truths are equally valid. This type of radical scepticism may allow you to say that ‘Demons exist’ and ‘Christianity is the True Faith’ but when you devalue terms like ‘existence’, ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ to the point where they apply only to you, you lose the ability to lean on those truths and impose them on others. In other words, if everything is true and nothing is false then it means absolutely nothing to say that demons are real or that God loves you.

Setting aside the dodgy philosophy, Evil Archaeology is actually a pretty useful compendium of old religious lore, weird legends, and gruesome images. It would make a great addition to the library of anyone looking for inspiration for horror games… but you really need to have a high tolerance for nonsense in order to get to the gold.

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