Friday, February 26, 2016

Hey Kids! This novel comes with a comic book

The Hamlet Special Edition comic flip-book was a very late development in the The Billionth Monkey’s production. Imagining all the tie-in websites (as discussed in this blog), I wanted to have a Hamlet Special Edition comic book cover over at Stanley’s Marvelous Comics. In speaking to a few artists about this idea, I found myself saying, “This art won’t appear in the actual book. It will be used on a website that only some readers will discover.” Eventually I started asking myself, “Why shouldn’t it appear?” That was when I imagined putting a fake back cover on the book. Alas, I couldn’t do that without some content to go with it…and so what started as an afterthought became a major part of creating The Billionth Monkey.
I decided to take Act I, Scene I, of Hamlet and script it as a bronze-age comic book with George Lucas-like additions of extra stuff to the backgrounds. Although this was parody, my intellectual property lawyer advised me to avoid doing anything that obviously copied Star Wars. This was disappointing, as I’'m a big fan who sees Star Wars parodies all the time; but I’m also a big fan of staying out of court. So we went Star Warsy instead. Nevertheless, fans will get what I’m talking about. The great Greg LaRocque—who has drawn everything from the Flash to Spider-Man—thought this sounded like fun, and agreed to do the art.

The first page begins characteristically with “A long time ago…” In addition to the mashup with Hamlet, we find a gag based on the “moose bite” sequence at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). My conclusion may sound like an echo from earlier in the same film where the animator suffers a fatal heart attack, but that final footnote is actually an exact quote from Aleister Crowley’s Sword of Song (1904; rpt. 1906), where he did this exact same ridiculous gag some seventy years before the Pythons.

In volume II of The Workd of Aleister Crowley (1906), the essay “The Excluded Middle" was among those appended to The Sword of Song (1904). The first footnote on the second page contains the gag quoted in Hamlet Special Edition.
[Image scanned from an original 1906 “Essay Competition Copy” printed on India paper.]
Page one shows us two moons over the castle Kronborg (rather than two suns setting on Tatooine). We also have some space-ships landing, suggesting the base on Yavin. The bottom panel recalls the first glance we got of Kylo Ren from The Force Awakens teaser, although the glowing sword here is more like Bilbo Baggins’ Sting than a lightsaber with side vents. The guard wears a uniform with a patch that is kinda-sorta shaped like the emblem of the Rebellion. The title “Revenge of the Kith” refers both to the title of Episode III, as well as the phrase “kith and kin” (Hamlet refers to Claudius as “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”)

On Page two, that first panel recalls the first glimpse we saw of Finn in the Force Awakens teaser. In the second panel, to go with the line “Not a mouse stirring” I asked for something in the background resembling a mouse droid …which Greg supplied albeit in ironically oversized form! Horatio is supposed to remind us of the actor who originally portrayed Jabba the Hut in the deleted scenes from Star Wars, i.e. before he was replaced with CGI. Again, we weren’t going for an exact copy here so much as an approximation.

Page three gives us a random lizard with rider, decidedly non-Danish structures in the background, and for no apparent reason a small flying robotic probe.

On page four, my idea was to have the first appearance of the ghost resemble the original force ghost of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, but we wound up going with something a little more generic just to be safe. We also have a weird critter in the background of panel 3.

Page five has a reference to my favorite scene in The Life of Brian (1979): the graffiti “Romanes eunt domus.” Why is this here? Well...while every word in the comic is Shakespeare’s, many lines had to be trimmed to fit Scene I into just six pages. At this point in the uncut play, Horatio says,
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun, and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Thus the “Romans go home” reference acknowledges this edited-out passage. When the ghost reappears in panel two, he’s not quite as dark and unpleasant-appearing but instead resembles the Special Edition force ghost of Hayden Christiansen. The pole-arm in the bottom panel has a blade that kinda-sorta looks like the Rebel emblem (but is also a standard blade design in medieval weaponry).

Finally, on page six we see Horatio holding what might be the One True Ring, but it’s also supposed to suggest a Stormtrooper examining a droid part on Tatooine. And positions in the last panel of Claudius, Hamlet, and Gertrude is intended to mirror Uncle Owen, Luke, and Aunt Beru in Star Wars.

The last panel of Hamlet Special Edition recalls this scene from the original Star Wars (1977).
When going to press, I discovered that while my hardcover printer was happy to do a flip-book according to my specs, CreateSpace flat-out refused to do it with the paperback. They said I could not print two books in one, and no amount of insisting that it wasn’t two books would get them to budge. We were faced with a last-second redesign of both the book and cover for the paperback edition. (Naturally this also applied to the eBook, as there’s no way to do a flip-book eBook.) As a result, on the paperback the fake back cover had to appear (mostly) right-side-up rather than flipped. In addition, because the comic book pages followed right-side-up after the end of the novel proper, that required me to include a grayscale version of the cover inside the book itself, It still works, it just wasn’t how I wanted the gag to work.

The dilemma was that this paperback reformatting left me with a blank page on the verso of the grayscale cover. Sure, I could have left it blank. Or put “this page intentionally left blank.” That would have been easy. But I don’t do easy. My wife suggested, “Put a fake ad there.” That suggestion sent me to my longboxes of comics, looking at the types of ads that appeared in bronze-age comics. I could have gone with sea monkeys. Or plastic soldiers. But instead I went with the classic bunch-of-crap ad instead.
Bronze-age comic book ads, like this one from American Seeds, were the inspiration for the "Hey Kids" ad in Hamlet Special Edition.
The next morning I licensed a bunch of retro clip art, dashed off captions for the imaginary products, and within an hour had a last-minute addition that is probably the single funniest page in the entire book. It makes up for the paperbacks not being the flip-book that I originally wanted. Sadly, this page doesn’t appear in the hardcover…so for the 100 of you who splurged, I’m sorry to say you need to get either the paperback or ebook to see this bonus page.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The other cover: Hamlet Special Edition

The back cover of The Billionth Monkey was designed to look like the cover of a comic book. The idea was to have a flip-book with what purports to be an excerpt from the "authorized" graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet Special Edition. It was the kind of gag that I would have expected from a Monty Python book.

Since it turned out that I couldn’t do a flip-book for the paperback or eBook versions (more on that in tomorrow’s concluding post), the cover appears after the acknowledgements in those formats. That is why we’re talking about it at this point in the walk-through. The eBook includes this "other" cover in glorious color, same as all the other illustrations. The paperback, meanwhile, reproduces it in grayscale but with the color version appearing on the back cover—just not upside-down. For the true flip-book experience, you’ll need to go with the limited-edition hardcover: but don’t wait too long: as of this post, only 15 copies remain.

This cover I pays homage to Marvel’s Star Wars treasury edition, which pretty much every kid I knew growing up had. But it also pays homage to the original Hildebrandt movie poster...which was the basis of the Marvel version. Artist Robert Randle loved the concept and ran with it, delivering a beautiful compromise between the two. Notice these artistic flourishes:
  • The Death Star becomes a moon (I know, I know: that’s no moon, but…)
  • The disembodied head of Darth Vader becomes the Force ghost of King Hamlet
  • We see the castle Kronborg in the misty background
  • Luke is transformed into a classic-looking Hamlet
  • Leia is Ophelia—or is that OpheLeia?—with her right leg extending into the absolutely brilliant adaptation on Robert’s part of the original pose 
  • C3PO and R2D2 become the grave digger and Yorick. 
The artwork is more Hildebrandt than 1970s Marvel in style, but that’s definitely an upgrade! I mean, who doesn’t love the Brothers Hildebrandt?

The cover of Hamlet Special Edition alongside its inspirations: the original Star Wars movie poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt, and the cover of Marvel Comics' Star Wars treasury edition.
If you like Robert’s artwork as much as I do, you can purchase it in various forms at his Redbubble page.

Aaron Tatum added the necessary graphics for that bronze-age comic book feel. The bar across the top is a Marvel convention from the era; Aaron went with red instead of the blue as in the treasury edition for maximum contrast. The Comics Code Authority seal was replaced with the Stanley’s Marvelous Comics seal (I really wanted to use the CCA seal, but my production deadline didn’t permit enough time to negotiate a license for using the image). We find the first issue published in February—consistent with events in The Billionth Monkey—for a price of 93 krone, the official currency of Denmark. This works out to be close to the list price on the paperback.The title at the bottom of the cover is done in a font that recalls Star Wars to drive home the three-way mashup.

I couldn’t have asked for a better realization of the concept: Hamlet meets Star Wars meets bronze-age Marvel. Plus all of this is in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 2016...which is why I thought the idea of an "authorized" graphic novel was funny: it’s not like Shakespeare is around to authorize it!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Page 253: Real literature > Genre fiction

The author standing under Washington Square Arch in Manhattan. Readers of The Billionth Monkey will understand why. Photo by K. Kurowski.
On page 253 of The Billionth Monkey we find references to lauded writers of literary fiction. These include:
  • Philip Roth, author of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) [not to be confused with novelist Veronica Roth, who wrote the Divergent trilogy…although since the author’s first name isn’t specified, you could read it that way if you really wanted to]; 
  • Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History (1992) and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Goldfinch (2014); 
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, whose debut novel House of Leaves (2000) enjoys a cult following for its visual or “signiotic” writing; 
  • and Thomas Pynchon, the reclusive MacArthur fellow and author of the celebrated novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973).
Thanks to my friend Robert, I have a signed copy of Tartt's The Goldfinch (2014).
King, Rowling, or Martin refer to popular genre fiction writers Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, and George R. R. Martin.

We also find references to the opening lines of classic novels:

“It was a dark and stormy night” are the opening words to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s purple prose novel Paul Clifford (1830). The full sentence has been both praised and derided to such an extent that an annual contest for the “worst opening sentence” is named after him. For the curious, here’s the full sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“Call me Ishmael” is the opening line from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), ranked by the American Book Review as the best opening line of any novel.

Finally, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) opens with the idiosyncratic words, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

245–249: Calvalcade of Nerddom

A whole lot of nerdy allusions are packed into these few pages. Most of them don’t lend themselves to a full post, so I’ve combined them all here in rapid-fire succession. If The Billionth Monkey is ever made into a movie, this section should run alongside the end credits. :)

Page 245
  • Georg Cantor (1845–1918) was a German mathematician who invented set theory, including the idea that infinite sets can be of different sizes and the existence of an “infinity of infinities.” Personally, I’m especially fond of Cantor dust.
Page 246
  • Goggle Glasses: This is a play on words for Google Glass, the wearable computer built into what looks like a pair of spectacles. Given that “Google” resembles goggle, I thought that Goggle Glasses was a funny, if redundant, name for its fictional analog.
  • Glycon was a snake god whose cult, according to the Greek satirist Lucian, was a hoax perpetrated with a hand puppet. After writer Alan Moore came out as a magician in 1993, he was attracted to the idea of a god that is fake except in concept and that currently has no other followers, and thus declared himself a devotee of Glycon. Here is Pagan Dawn’s brand-new interview with Moore, in which he elaborates on Glycon some twenty years on (along with many other interesting topics).
  • Hagrid about to ride Sirius Black’s motorbike: This references the flying motorcycle that Hagrid operates in the Harry Potter movies/stories. It is also a pun on the idea that once you put a pair of goggles on our hermit, he resembles Hagrid more than Alan Moore

Page 247

  • Tomb of Horrors was an early Dungeons & Dragons module, S1, written by Gary Gygax in 1975. It still ranks as one of the top D&D advantures.
  • Ewoks on the Galactic Senate: This dialog came from an actual dinnertime conversation between my wife and me. I may be a Star Wars fan, but she leaves me in the dust. Plus she has a great sense of humor. I am a lucky man.

Page 248
  • Mountain Dew: Along with Cheetos, it’s a staple of Dungeons & Dragons gaming sessions everywhere. For proof, I submit the following for your consideration:

  • Natural 1: In D&D, “natural” refers to the number resulting from a die roll without any modifiers, e.g. not counting for that +1 greatsword. With a 20-sided die, values of 1 and 20 are often given special treatment, and treated as “critical” roles. In these cases, a 20 would refer to a critical hit, while a 1 would refer to a critical fail…fumbling one’s weapon, the blade breaking, or some other extreme mishap.

Both of these memes joke about rolling a "natural 1." (Image source: IFL Role-Playing.)
  • p’tak: Also spelled petaQ, Pahtak, Pathak, p’tahk, etc., this is a Klingon insult or curse word that you would call somebody. And exact translation is unavailable.

Page 249
  • Andúril, or the Flame of the West, is Aragorn’s sword which was reforged from the shards of Narsil, the sword with whose stub Isuldur defeated Sauron by cutting the One Ring from his hand. A copy was available from Museum Replicas.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Page 246: The Gospel of Spurious Jesus

Back in April 2012, I actually had a dream in which someone came up with Spurious Jesus as a way to dismiss Gospel teachings that they disagreed with. “Spurious” in masonic lingo refers to fraternal groups that conduct the rituals of Freemasonry without proper authority: it may look like a duck and quack like a duck, but that doesn’t mean it is a duck. Therefore, anyone initiated as a duck can be dismissed as a non-duck if they were not made, passed, or raised as a duck in a duly recognized pond. “Spurious” can be thought of as a synonym for “counterfeit.” I had been doing a lot of research into obscure fraternal groups for my book Forgotten Templars (2012); somehow my subconscious melded these idea with Christianity and viola! A weird mash-up perfect for The Billionth Monkey was born.

Nicholas demonstrates his imperfect grasp of the Bible in his garbled references to the marriage at Cana, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the anointing of Jesus (tragically confused with Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s version in Jesus Christ Superstar, 1970).

The cover for the London cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970).
When it comes to the scary bits in the book of Revelation, commentators and pop culture pay a lot of attention to the Great Beast and the whore of Babylon. Less is given to ὁ ψευδοπροφήτης, or the False Prophet, mentioned in chapters 16, 19, and 20. As an agent of the Great Beast, this character has supernatural powers and is called the Beast of the Earth. The job of the False Prophet is to infiltrate the Church and deceive the faithful. Not much of a description is offered, other than having two horns like a lamb and a voice like a dragon (see chapter 13). It is the False Prophet who causes people to receive the Mark of the Beast.

Finally, The 666 Club is intended as a low-budget rip-off of The 700 Club, the long-running daily news magazine of the Christian Broadcasting Network. The 666 Club is only 95.14% as good as The 700 Club.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Pages 243-244: Brushes with celebrity

I didn’t want to name names when two scientists make a cameo on page 243 of The Billionth Monkey...but here’s a hint: these modern physicists are very famous--for physicists, at least! ;). If you haven’t figured it out, I’ll go no farther than to say their names rhyme with Neil deGrasse Schplyson and Brian Schplox.

Somebody has noticed a striking resemblance...
Speaking of celebrities, the last Tweezer update in the book, on page 244, contains just one numerological Easter egg: it is 477 (from 477 likes), which equivalent to ΣΤΟΥΑ where ΣΤ=6.* While I dislike numerological "monkey tricks" like colel, I’m not using this for any kind of exegesis; it’s simply because the normal values of Σ=200 and Τ=300 would have produced a sum larger than what I wanted at this point i the book (i.e., 971 likes). ΣΤΟΥΑ is the Greek transliteration of Stoya, the model whose photograph graces all these Tweezer status updates. This was my way, as we near the end of the book, to thank her once again for permission to use her photo. Thanks also to steve prue for taking the photos and for permission to use them, and to Dean Samed for the awesome Photoshop work! Sorry, no previews or spoilers here: you'll have to read the book to see what I'm talking about.

* Some systems of Greek gematria treat the letter pair ΣΤ as the obsolete compound letter stau, and enumerate it as 6. See, e.g., Frederick Bligh Bond and Thomas Simcox Lea, A Preliminary Investigation of the Cabala Contained in the Coptic Gnostic Books and of a Similar Gematria in the Greek Text of the New Testament, Shewing the Presence of a System of Teaching by Means of the Doctrinal Significance of Numbers, by Which the Holy Names Are Clearly Seen to Represent Aeonial Relationships Which Can Be Conceived in a Geometric Sense and Are Capable of a Typical Expression of That Order (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1917).

Thursday, February 18, 2016

240: Wicked movie roles

The following actors, listed on page 240 of The Billionth Monkey, have all played Satan or a similarly devilish character in major movies:
  • Al Pacino plays John Milton (Satan) in The Devil’s Advocate (1997)  [John Milton is named after the author of Paradise Lost.]
  • Robert DeNiro portrays Louis Cyphre in one of my favorite movies, Angel Heart (1987).
  • Jack Nicholson plays the devilish Daryl Van Horne in The Witches of Eastwick (1987).
  • Before he was Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen was Lucifer in The Prophecy (1995).
  • Tim Curry played the decidedly devilish Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985).
  • Elizabeth Hurley plays the Devil in the 2000 remake of Bedazzled.
Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Frasier in Bedazzled (2000). Image source: Tumblr.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Page 234-240: Haikus and Easter eggs about science

On page 234 we get in haiku form the well-known Higgs boson joke captured by this meme:

Turns out the particle has been the subject of an awful lot of jokes. There was plenty of talk about the Higgs boson in 2012 (approximately when The Billionth Monkey takes place), as on July 4 of that year CERN announced that it has detected a particle consistent with predictions of how the Higgs boson would behave.

In the Tweezer post on page 239, we find a representation of the numeral 1.239841930 x 10-6, a fundamental constant in physics which is derived from the Planck constant, h, and the speed of light, c. It is known as the inverse meter-electron volt relationship as expressed in Ev units. There is no particular significant to my use of this constant: it was simply one whose digits fit my needs for this Tweezer post. Plus SCIENCE! The number repeats in the post on page 240, where we also pick up the number 1028...which, much to my chagrin, was a typo. I meant to use 1024, the number of values in a 10-bit binary word or 210. But much like the Planck constant, it didn't signify anything other than my desire to sneak in an interesting number.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Page 233: Creatio ex nihilo

Creatio ex nihilo is Latin for “creation out of nothing,” and occurs primarily in philosophical, metaphysical and religious discussions. It often refers to the Biblical doctrine that God created the world out of nothing by simply uttering the appropriate words, e.g. fiat lux (“let there be light”). This contrasts with Parmenides’ maxim ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing is made.” Or as Rush sings, “You don't get something for nothing”:

Creatio ex nihilo can be used in other contexts, as Nicholas does in his cooking metaphor. His remark fiat lunch is a pun on fiat lux.

An early draft of the manuscript also had Nicholas saying “And when it comes to charcuterie, saltpeter is my rock.” While it isn’t used so much these days, saltpeter or potassium nitrate has been used for curing meats. In this context it’s also a pun on Matthew 16:18 (“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”). The Greek name Peter (Πέτρος, Petros) comes from the word πέτρα, petra, which means “rock.” This wordplay would have been obvious to Matthew’s readers, as the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. It’s kind of like writing a story about a wealthy boy and naming him Richie Rich. In the end, I decided to cut this line because I thought the joke was weak, and the dialogue punchier without it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Page 232: Bill Gates—Antichrist?

From the Omen trilogy (1976–1981) to the Son of Satan comics, we read on page 232 a list of ways in which the legend of Satan (and those presumably allied with him) has become positively epic in popular culture. One of the more obscure references here is to the notion that Bill Gates is the anti-Christ, based on the observation that his name—when the letters are translated into their corresponding ASCII values—adds up to 666:
B = 66
I = 73
L = 76
L = 76

G = 71
A = 65
T = 84
E = 69
S = 83

I = 1
I = 1
I = 1
= 666
Check the math, it works.

Is Bill Gates the devil? Or at least Keyser Soze? Not so fast!
[Image source: here. This image appears on several blogs, but none give a photo credit.]

There are a few problems here, of course. To arrive at 666 we are forced to use not “Bill Gates” (as he is best known) but “Bill Gates III.” As opposed to “William Gates,” “William Henry Gates III,” or any other variation on his name. Also, there’s a problem with that “III” part of the solution: There is no ASCII symbol with a value of 1; that value is reserved for the SOH (start of heading) character. The numeral 1 has an ASCII value of 49, while the Roman numeral I (or capital i) has an ASCII value of 73…as we see in “BILL.” As you can see, numerology frequently proves some point through the use of elaborate contortions and tortured logic that would leave Ockham twitching.

It reminds me of one of Aleister Crowley’s lines from “Ascension Day” in The Sword of Song (1904), whereby one:
…by all sorts of monkey tricks
Adds up my name to Six Six Six.
[Does that make this a #MonkeyReference?] Crowley, of course, was guilty of such monkey tricks himself. The back cover of The Sword of Song transliterates his name as אלהיסטהר ה כרעולהי or ALHYSTHR H KR’VLHY. While not a bad transliteration, red flags rise with the use of the letter ayin for “o” and the presence of the middle initial “E”...which is actually from his first name, Edward; Aleister is the Gaelic form of his legal middle name, Alexander...and never mind that, except for this one book, he never signed himself Aleister E. Crowley. Granted words are often transliterated or translated into Hebrew multiple ways: for example, Google Translate suggests קראולי for “Crowley,” but that throws off the math. At least AC warns you in plain English that his is a monkey trick. One might even call it a cynocephalus stunt. ;)

And don’t even get me started on the practice of colel, an optional ±1 so that if the number you get isn’t to your liking, you can use one of its neighbors instead if that’s better. Gematria can—and has—been used as a tool for exegesis, meditation, or even just plain fun (as I’ve done throughout The Billionth Monkey). But it’s far from an exact science. As we see with the above example, it frequently gets seriously abused and needs to be taken with several grains of salt.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Page 230 – 231: Blond villain trope…literally!

Casting blond actors as villains is a well-known trope. The examples that Nicholas Young rattle off on page 230 of The Billionth Monkey are: the despised boy-king from Game of Thrones; the emo affluenza-teen from the Harry Potter books/movies; Baron Harkonen’s feisty nephew from Dune (portrayed by Sting in David Lynch’s film adaptation); Rutger Hauer’s fantastic villain from Bladerunner; and Leonardo DiCaprio’s villain from Django Unchained (although he’s more of a dishwater blond).
Gratuitous photo of Feyd Rautha (Sting) wearing nothing but a fancy codpiece in David Lynch’s 1984 big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune.
The discussion of “literally” on page 231 refers to the ballyhooed August 2013 news item about Merriam-Webster and Cambridge added to their dictionaries a new definition of literally that means “not literally true.” The explanation was that the definition should reflect the fact that so many people today use the word this way (i.e., incorrectly). By this logic, “supposably” and “irregardless” will undoubtedly be added to the dictionary, and plurals should end with an ’s. And you kids get off my lawn! (figuratively)

However, as National Geographic points out, the non-literal usage of “literally” has a two hundred-year history in the English language. So arguably these dictionary definitions are simply catching up with the Oxford English Dictionary, which has listed the secondary meaning of “literally” since 1903 without any blow-ups, literally or figuratively.

Speaking of literally…the Bible is a text that many people read literally (either definition of the word may apply). The mention on page 231 of the number 144,000 refers to the last book in the Bible. Revelation makes two references to this number: In chapter 7, 12,000 members of each of the twelve tribes of Israel (12 x 12,000 = 144,000) are sealed, saved or redeemed from the tribulations visited upon the earth. Then in chapter 14, we hear of 144,000 who are sealed with the name of God upon their foreheads, and who sing a new song before the throne. Naturally, opinions differ as to whether this number is to be read literally.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Page 229–230: Bad Science and Bad Angels

The line “Erg, I’m dyne!” on page 229 is a bad science joke dressed up in a Scottish accent. In physics, an erg is a unit of energy equal to 10-7 joules. A dyne is a unit of force equal to 10-5 Newtons. Together, “An erg is the amount of work done by a force of one dyne exerted for a distance of one centimeter.” This is quite possibly the biggest groaner in The Billionth Monkey...but in my defense I didn’t invent the joke; it’s pretty well known among science nerds.

When Nicholas Young remarks “You monkeys really are incredibly stupid” (page 230), it isn’t just an obvious #MonkeyReference. He’s using the same disparaging term for humankind that we hear from Christopher Walken (the archangel Gabriel) and Viggo Mortensen (his unlikely ally) in the movie The Prophecy (1995). In fact, at home “monkeys” is how my wife and I imagine our cats refer to us when plotting to overthrow the household. Finally, Stoop!d Monkey is the production company of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, which is involved in the Adult Swim program Robot Chicken...which, like The Billionth Monkey, is also a cavaldade of pop culture references.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Page 223: Another numerological Easter egg

Destiny Jones’ Tweezer post on page 223 of The Billionth Monkey packs a pun into its numerological Easter egg:
  • 61 (from 61 likes) = אין, ain, nothingness.
  • 61 also = בטן, beten, belly.

Ain is one of the "Three Veils of Negative Existence" in the Western esoteric Tree of Life.
(Art by Frater Ash, image from Thelemapedia.)
Therefore Destiny has an empty belly and wants to eat something. Badum-tish! [See also the related blog post for page 111, "Fun with Numerology."]

Fat Bastard from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) spawned his own meme.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Page 222: What’s in the box?

There are only two acceptable answers to the question, “What’s in the box?”

One is the oft-quoted scene from Dune (1984), in which the inquirer is Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachhan):

The other is this scene from the classic finale of Seven or Se7en (1995):

Don’t click play on the YouTube video below if you haven’t seen the movie, as it’s well worth seeing in its entirety. If you know the film, then press play and reread this scene in The Billionth Monkey for all the little details included in my little homage. (Belanger’s injuries and elastic plasters at this point in our story even match those of Brad Pitt.) It’s one of many reasons that my wife often teased that I was actually writing a screenplay.

OK, I suppose there is one other answer to our titular question… (excuse the subtitles, this is the only version I could find on YouTube):

Who knows? Perhaps The Billionth Monkey has added another acceptable answer to the list.

Trivia:What’s in the box?” is also the title of a classic 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Pages 212–220: Reference List

As The Billionth Monkey rockets toward its conclusion, the pop culture references come fast and furious. None on pages 212–220 qualify for a dedicated post, but here’s a breakdown of what you’ll encounter:

The Tweezer post on page 212 contains only one numerological Easter egg: 121 (from 121 likes) is the valuation of “play” transliterated as פלאי.

Next up on page 214 is the topic of Flemish self portraits, which refers to Nina Katchadourian’s series of cell-phone selfies which she calls “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.” It was all the rage on social media when I was writing The Billionth Monkey, so it found a happy home in this scene.

The Fortean Times (page 217) is the glossy British magazine devoted to documenting the world of strange phenomena since 1991. Its namesake is American writer Charles Fort (1874–1932), whose books documented anomalous and unexplained phenomena such as rains of frogs, spontaneous human combustion, ball lightning, UFOs, and teleportation (a term coined by Fort). The magazine’s circulation is approximately 14,000 copies, or 1/28th of the London Times.

This issue of the Fortean Times (#337) just went on sale February 4.
The line “It’s an alien!” (page 217) comes from a gag in BBC’s Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood. In the episode “Something Borrowed,” Gwen (Eve Myles) remarks “Look. One bit me last night. Don’t ask me to explain. I can’t. I’m pregnant, Rhys isn’t the father, it’s an alien.” Then, pointing to her belly, she reiterates, “It’s an alien!

“It’s an alien!” as seen in the Torchwood episode “Something Borrowed.”
“Mr. Undercover” on page 218 is a reference to the famous Tolkien parody, Bored of the Rings. In that book, Frodo’s alias at the Prancing Pony, “Mister Underhill,” becomes “Mister Undercover.” Rather than going with a straightforward Tolkien pun here, I decided to go more obscure!
A rare first edition Bored of the Rings that has not been dog-eared, resin-stained, and turned into a bong.
“No sir, I’m a professor” on page 220 references a classic scene from The Blues Brothers (1980). When the brothers are asked if they’re the police, Elwood replies deadpan, “No ma’am, we’re musicians.”

Before seeing the premiere of the Blues Brothers back when I was a wee nerd, my buddy and I dressed up as Jake and Elwood, went to the mall, and had bogus photo IDs made. I am told that the clerk quit shortly thereafter, saying “Now I’ve seen everything.” On the way to the theater we stopped for White Castle. When the cashier asked, “Are you guys serious?” without skipping a beat I replied, “No, ma’am, we’re musicians.”

Friday, February 5, 2016

Page 210–211: Name-Calling: Who are Larry Talbot and Holmes & Rahe?

Destiny Jones shows off her geek-fu when she refers to Nicholas Young as “Larry Talbot” (page 210). Lawrence Stuart Talbot was the title character in the 1941 monster movie The Wolf Man…along with subsequent sequels such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). He was portrayed in all these films by the great Lon Chaney Jr. This reference is Destiny’s way of connecting Nicholas to her college paper about classic movie monsters.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) in Wolf Man form, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, Universal International Pictures; identifies it as being public domain.)
The Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale (page 211) is a colloquial term for the Social Readjustment Rating Scale developed by psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967 based on the idea that stress predisposes one to illness. The measure consists of 43 stressful life events such as job loss, moving, death of a loved one, etc. Each of these is assigned a predetermined number of “life change units”; in this scale, even positive events like marriage are considered to be stressors. A respondent’s score is based on the number of these events which have occurred in the past year, and the total number of life change units associated with them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Page 209: Charles Staniland Wake

Staniland Wake (mentioned on page 209 of The Billionth Monkey) was an actual person, but you won’t find much written about him on the Web; Oxford Reference says “little seems to be known about his life.” The following paragraph about Wake is a previously unpublished outtake (cut for length) from my paper “Continuing Knowledge from Generation unto Generation” in the Oxford University Press anthology Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism (2012):

Charles Staniland Wake (1835–1910) was an early anthropologist who published widely on phallicism and various other esoteric subjects.  He presented his researches not only to the Anthropological Society,1 but also contributed to several journals including the Journal of Anthropology, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and American Anqituarian and Oriental Journal.2 He published a number of key books in the literature on phallicism, including Serpent Worship and Other Essays (1888) and, with Hodder Westropp (another member of the Anthropological Society), Ancient Symbol Worship (1875). Several of his papers were collected in the posthumous Sacred Prostitution and Marriage by Capture (1929).3 His other books include The Origin and Significance of the Great Pyramid (London: Reeves & Turner, 1882) and Vortex Philosophy, or the Geometry of Science (Chicago: the author, 1907).
Some books by C. Staniland Wake from my personal collection.
1 In 1871, the Anthropological Society of London and its old rival, the Ethnological Society, merged and formed the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

2 Wake, C. Staniland, “The Influence of the Phallic Idea in the Religions of Antiquity,” Journal of Anthropology 1 no. 2 (1870): 199-227.

Wake, C. Staniland, “The Origin of Serpent-Worship,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 2 (1873): 373-90.

Wake, C. Staniland, “The Suastika and Allied Symbols,” American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal 16, no. 1 (1894): 41-3.

3 Wake, C. Staniland, Serpent Worship and Other Essays, with a Chapter on Totemism (London: George Redway, 1888).

Westropp, Hodder M. & Wake, C. Staniland, Ancient Symbol Worship. Influence of the Phallic Idea in the Religions of Antiquity, with an Introduction, Additional Notes, and an Appendix by Alexander Wilder, M.D.  Second edition (New York: J. W. Bouton, 1875).

Wake, G. (sic) S., Sacred Prostitution and Marriage by Capture (privately printed, 1929).

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Page 202–208: A Miscellaney

On page 202 of The Billionth Monkey, Argo refers to the fake Canadian sci-fi movie that was used as a cover for a rescue team to enter Tehran and rescue six American diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis…a story that was made into a 2012 film of the same name. Interestingly, the storyboards for the movie were taken from concept art that the great Jack Kirby drew in collaboration with Barry Geller for an unmade film adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s Hugo-winning novel, Lord of Light (1967). You can read all about this fascinating tale here and here.
Jack Kirby's Lord of Light concept art—repurposed for the Argo cover story in 1979—was recently published for the first time by Heavy Metal magazine. [Barry Geller very kindly signed this copy for me.]
On page 206, the term “ass monkey” is a fitting #MonkeyReference.

On page 207, Nicholas Young’s remarks about Lilith are culled from midrashic literature. Lilith wasn’t technically a single mom but Adam’s first wife prior to Eve, made of the same clay as he was. The couple quarreled and split over whether she should be equal or subservient to Adam. Her children were not human but demons (hence Nicholas refers to them as having “massive birth defects”). The idea of Adam being a “deadbeat dad” who dumped her and started a new family with a younger model (i.e., Eve) struck me as an amusing way of telling Lilith’s side of things. Nicholas calls him a “dirt bag” because in Hebrew, אדמה, adamah (from which comes “Adam”) means clay, red earth, or soil. His “no sense of right and wrong” refers to God’s prohibition in Genesis 2–3 against eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.

On page 208, Nicholas Young’s comment that “I can only influence the weak-minded” alludes to the scene in Star Wars where Ben Kenobi tells Luke that “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.”

On page 208, Bruiser’s outburst “I like Quasimodo!” is a pop culture twofer. In the classic holiday movie A Christmas Story (1983), a determined Ralphie waits in line to meet Santa Claus and has no little patience for the weird kid in line who remarks, “I like the Tin Man.” He is known only as “Kid with Goggles” in the credits.

For the same reasons that this non sequitur is so hilarious and endearing, so did the Internet take a shine in 2007 to the Zombie Kid Who Likes Turtles. Not only did the video go viral, but it also spawned its own meme.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Page 200: The "VW Bug smash" urban legend

When two semi trucks collide so hard that they are hopelessly stuck together, they are towed to the junk yard in one piece. Only later, when the cabs are separated for salvage, is a Volkswagen Beetle found crushed between them, its passengers also gruesomely flattened. This urban legend was popular in the 1970s, a time when the Volkswagen Beetle was also a popular car (remember Disney's 1968 film The Love Bug?).

In some versions of this legend, a bad stench emanating from the conjoined cabs is what prompts the salvage workers to separate them, thus leading to a horrible discovery. In a slightly different variation, a semi truck hits a VW Beetle but, because the car is so small, the truck driver doesn’t even notice it stuck to his grille until hours later.

Playing on fears surrounding the disproportionate size difference between vehicles on the road, a modern-day equivalent might pit an eighteen-wheeler against a Smart FortwoAs someone who was T-boned and pushed across the road by a big rig (curiously enough during the time I was working on The Billionth Monkey), I can assure you the fear is not unfounded. And I was driving a car considerably larger than a Beetle!

The Smart Fortwo would be the modern-day equivalentin the "VW Bug Smash" urban legend.
[Image from pointy-haired-dilbert’s photobucket page, where it is available as prints, cards, etc.]
Neither of these two variations on the urban legend has eve actually happened, although there have been instances of apparently abandoned vehicles being towed away with the body of the driver still inside. See, for example, this North Carolina news story from April 2, 2013.

Such is the urban legend that is referenced on page 200 of The Billionth Monkey.


Jan Harold Brunvand. “The Smashed VW Bug.” In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 391.

Jan Harold Brunvand. “Big rigs can squash cars like a Bug.” Spokane Chronicle, July 22, 1987, C1.

Anonymous. “Crushin’ Roulette.” January 28, 2009.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Page 196: Mothman

The Mothman is a cryptid which, according to Deborah Dixon, is “one of Forteana’s key figures” (195–6). One night in November 1966, two couples driving through a remote area north of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, spotted what appeared to be a man with wings hobbling along the road. Although they drove off frightened, the thing flew after them and chased the car down Route 66 at speeds topping 100 miles per hour.

Over the course of the next year, local residents reported UFOs and more sightings of the mysterious figure, which the media dubbed “The Mothman.” John Keel, a researcher of the unexplained, visited the town and conducted interviews with the eye-witnesses. The results of his investigation—along with his own theories about UFOs, Men in Black, etc.—became the basis of his book The Mothman Prophecies (1975), which was turned into a movie in 2002. By this point, the film bore little resemblance to the original sighting, with the Mothman transformed into an omen portending death. As Dixon notes, the character of the Mothman changed and deviated further with each step of its legend, from the original eyewitness accounts, to the police, to the media representations of the story, to Keel’s interpretation via his theoretical perspective, to the motion picture.
Not The Mothman Prophecies (1975), but The Eighth Tower (1975) is my favorite of John Keel's books.
The release of the movie coincided with the first annual Mothman festival in Point Pleasant. The following year, a twelve-foot tall metallic statue was installed in town.

The Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, WV
[photo by Jimmy Emerson  under Creative Commons]./td>
As with the other legends in the book, I had a lot of fun re-imagining this venerable character for The Billionth Monkey. Making the character female also struck me as a fun and unexpected twist on the gender presumed by the name “Mothman.” And The Billionth Monkey is all about fun.


Deborah Dixon. “A Benevolent and Sceptical Inquiry: Exploring ‘Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman.” Cultural Geographies 2007, 14(2): 189–210.