What Screams May Come: Master of Rods and Strings by Jason Marc Harris

banner What Screams May Come by Rick Hipson

Master of Rods and Strings by Jason Marc Harris
Crystal Lake Publishing
January 12th, 2024

The synopsis:

Jealous of the attention lavished upon the puppetry talents of his dear sister—and tormented by visions of her torture at the hands of the mysterious Uncle Pavan who recruited her for his arcane school—Elias is determined to learn the true nature of occult puppetry, no matter the hideous costs, in order to exact vengeance.

cover of Master of Rods and Strings

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: While this is considered your debut book, it was originally published by Vernacular Books back in 2021. What can you tell us about its journey from then to now with Crystal Lake Publisher, its new polished look, and what the evolution of its publication means to you?

JASON MARC HARRIS: Vernacular Books unfortunately closed the next year in 2022—as far I understand, life loaded up too many simultaneous responsibilities for the publisher, who agreed to allow rights to revert back to the authors. I’m very grateful to Vernacular Books for having first picked up the book for publication and to Joe Mynhardt of Crystal Lake Publishing to have given this book a new lease on its life of weird horror. Greg Chapman did the new cover, and he was very patient communicating with me about suggestions while also offering his unique vision, so thanks again to Greg for that great cover! The puppets are excited to return to the stage and Elias and Virgil are eager to guide many new readers on their strange dark journey through the world of occult puppetry.

Always the sucker for a good origin story, what can you tell us about the initial seed for this strange tale, and of the process of fleshing out into its eventual final draft?

My mind had turned to uncanny puppets partly because of reading the works of Thomas Ligotti. I wrote a paper, “The Smile of Oblivion: The Clown and Puppet as a Fantastic Figure of Madness, Death, and Diabolism in the Writings of Thomas Ligotti,” which I presented at the 2008 annual conference for the Midwest Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association. This eventually got published in The Journal of Popular Culture. Ligotti’s story “The Clown Puppet” especially stayed with me because of the fascinating mysteries of that puppet and what pulled its strings, and where its hapless victims disappeared to when the clown puppet came for them. 

When I entered the MFA program in Fall 2012 for fiction writing at Bowling Green State University, I made a few notes here and there about a supernatural puppet story I might tell. For instance, in March of 2013 I had speculated about a man obsessed with puppets and how the “puppet personality gains control and takes his flesh.” In August of 2013 I had made additional notes for a potential story called “Lost Art of Puppets” and this included the idea that a particular character could craft puppets “known by the alchemical traditions to carry the vessel of not only the soul but the soulless—and those are the hungriest for the living but also know the secrets.” 

Eventually the desire to write a puppet-related story with these secret supernatural elements and an obsessed protagonist became a fiercer and fiercer pressure in my mind till Elias burst out with “I will not deny that I have always been fascinated with puppets.” From there his voice kept going and I plotted out the story, researched a wide range of traditions of puppetry, and went right ahead. I tried short and long versions of the story, and gradually realized that the longer versions (my thesis chair at BGSU—Lawrence Coates—told me he liked it better long while I was in the program there) offered more depth of development that would make the overall character of Elias and his uncanny adventures all the better. I made edits on phrasing all the way through the process of preparing the book for publication for Vernacular and now Crystal Lake.  Even got the French fixed up because of a Comparative Literature professor (my dissertation Chair, Marshall Brown) I had back at the University of Washington who pointed out a few errors from earlier! 

Considering the heavy themes of the occult running through this story, what are your own experiences with the occult as far as research for this book is concerned and what intrigues you most about the world of the occult?

I don’t have any deeply compelling anecdotes of diabolic compacts and reliable curses. However, I’ve always appreciated the divergent possibilities that the occult offers—at least to the imagination in the context of fiction and to some degree in the enthusiasm of ritual enactments: spells, prayers, curses, candles, wishes, seances, legend trips, and various other attempts to connect with the numinous speak to a kind of optimism and enthusiasm that spirits might lend an ear if you chant the right incantation. I’m not that optimistic about the responsiveness of the invisible world, but I sympathize with the inclination and have studied a bit of some of the methods and beliefs from various cultures. 

The occult to some degree intersects with folk beliefs, and my interests in a range of non-official beliefs has led to some academic avenues as well as fictional: I’ve done fieldwork and have published folklore articles as well as works of literary criticism that include folkloric perspectives.  

But back to the occult, I’ve heard from a decent amount of people who have told me firsthand of their encounters with ghosts, psychic experiences, angels, demons, Ouija Board mysteries, and even fairies. So, I keep an open mind as to what may or may not be the mind’s power or in fact perhaps some thin fabric between our world and others that at times may be thin enough to elicit some wonderful or terrible marvels.

photo of author Jason Marc Harris
Jason Marc Harris

My mother was both an eclectic reader and occasional practitioner of the occult, so I inherited some of her penchant for quality horror literature and metaphysical explorations.  She told me about meeting Samuel Weiser (Weiser Antiquarian Books) and how he granted her access to the more restricted titles in some back room. She also once met the mistress of Edgar Cayce—a psychic as well—and she offered an intuitive reading and claimed that my mother in a past life had been the Queen of Atlantis.  Sure, no one can prove any of that, but you hear enough mysterious anecdotes, tales, and legends, and it all helps inspire an interest, no doubt. Most impressively, at least for me, I discovered that in one version of the Egyptian calendar that my birthday falls on is the same exact day of that of a goddess my mother had appealed to for ensuring a productive birth. She hadn’t even known of that calendar revelation till I pointed that out to her during my college years after purchasing a book that showed the Egyptian calendar that included the birthdays of the gods which follow the 12 months.

A fear of puppets, aptly known as pupaphobia, is not completely an uncommon fear. Where do you think this fear stems from for a lot of people?

Basically, though they may look beautiful or hideous and move gracefully or freakily, they are too close to human for comfort but also irreducibly different. Like the uncanny valley that’s been argued as a source of disconcertion for humans when looking at robots and other simulacra of humanity, mannequins and puppets too—whether they resemble the human form or something animal or otherwise—offer a semblance of life while being objectively inanimate.  And then there’s the whole matter beyond appearance: how is a puppet animated into a personality that we come to associate with a particular character? 

Do you think of the puppeteer with Kermit the Frog? No, you believe in the voice and those floppy movements and the manic bobbing of Kermit’s head when he leans back in either exasperation or manic humor and goes a bit bonkers, his tongue lolling open and his head for a moment reduced to a crevice, much like the angular snout of a paper cootie catcher or cat’s cradle. Consider Gonzo too—and his lugubrious elephantine nose—you accept that this purplish thing-that-should-not-be with an impressive proboscis capers around and when you learn he came from another planet, it’s hardly stranger than the irrational complacency and simultaneous sense of unease with which you watched him already perform.

And where do you stand with your own personal fondness or lack thereof for puppets? Any creepy encounters you’d like to share?

I remember discovering my parents had a couple marionettes that were off limits to us kids and hidden behind a cupboard in the utility room. They sold them soon after, and I never found out to what degree my mother had learned the art of puppetry. She also had a cute little white wolf hand-puppet, which she gave me when I was around eight or so. Cute puppet that I called ‘Wolfie.’ I have him around somewhere, and I had a boxing devil puppet.  Still have a gargoyle puppet too.

Although this may be your debut book, can I assume this one has been either long in the making or that there have been other manuscripts you may have worked on before finding success with Master of Rods and Strings?

Right, definitely long in the making since started back in 2013 but my thinking deeply on puppets preceded that by several years. I have a collection of short stories I’m hoping to get out into the world, and I have a couple of novel manuscripts—one in particular is ready for agents and beyond. 

As both an author and a creative writing teacher with a PhD in English, if you could put your finger on one (or two if you must) eye opening barriers separating a writing who writes and a writer who publishes, what would it, or they, be? I mean, I can only imagine it must be a bit of a juggling act to be immersed in teaching your students to write while reading, grading and supporting their creative process while working on your own. How do you navigate between the two roles? Does this duality benefit more than it challenges?

Definitely a challenge, but also I get to encounter wonderfully imaginative new work from my students and in the act of helping them to problem-solve various creative challenges, I too continue to develop insights that can reflect back on the process of writing my own stories.  Time is a problem for sure—and of course it’s a common complaint, but I’m trying to do something with my writing each day and then go on a writing binge where possible. The scales just have to periodically tip one way on a given day. Perpetual misery over missed goals perhaps, but you keep on going, gestating and spreading that creative project like a colony of tenacious slime molds.

I can’t help but think how there are so many instances in literature, in cinema and hell, in real life, where characters and real people alike freely give themselves over to one whom they know will pull their strings any way they wish. This usually doesn’t end well, but often the character or person find themselves at the mercy of their puppet master without any plausible escape. Be it addiction, promise of riches they could never acquire on their own, or something as sinister as everlasting life and a place at the throne, depending on the trope. Do you think this infamous cycle of promise and struggle between manipulator and vulnerable victim plays into both our fear and fascination with puppets? 

 I also wonder if there can be understanding found in the mythos of puppetry come to life that we can use to better understand what goes into the cycle of manipulator vs victim as far as better understanding why it’s so prevalent and what it may take to stop the cycle or prevent it altogether?

There definitely is in the conventional hierarchical model of puppeteer and puppet a power dynamic that fits the binary model of manipulator and victim. In Nightmare on Elm Street Three: The Dream Warriors, we get a disturbing yet wonderfully vivid horror vision of the puppeteer as sadistic manipulator when Freddy lacerates the teenager’s arms and legs and uses his ligaments as strings—jerking the hapless sleepwalker forward like some mindless marionette.

In the interpersonal psychological realm I suppose some of the drive towards the willingness to be manipulated is for some a sadomasochistic desire, but for others it is perhaps the confusion of being cared about with being controlled—an almost religious submission to a greater power, or to a person within the position of greater power, who has a desire to control the “vulnerable victim” as you say. “At least this person cares to be connected to me,” a lonely and desperate or naïve soul might think.  How soon does Stockholm syndrome come on? And abusers can be charming and seductive. A predatory manipulator may convince the victim that the best path forward is to give up some power—financial, political, professional, sexual, spiritual, physical— to those more confident and ready to wield it. They often profess to know best. To have the best interests of the victim at heart. To offer to be a guide. A teacher. A guru. A sentinel. A watcher over the heart or purse strings.

 Ultimately, like addiction, this can be irrational power that the manipulator offers, and that is after all the most intoxicating. Our passions are the reins—the strings—pulling us in any direction. Over the cliff. Into the fires of hell. Into unrepentant pleasure and pain.

Moving beyond the personal dynamics of manipulation, we often get as well the rhetoric of “puppet masters” in conspiracy theories. Those overseers of complicated political intrigues—manipulators of secret power under cover of the deep state—pulling the strings of the figurehead politician and the civilians who can’t see past the spectacle of puppetry.

And then there are those tropes related to the willing sacrifice of autonomy, which you alluded to: the promises of riches or eternal life. Such tropes remind me of the Faustian bargain: losing the soul for the sake of temporary attainment of pleasure and power. It’s a vampiric exchange. And the vampire makes its victim something of a puppet—the master over the minions. But Goethe’s Faust—before he is manipulated by Mephistopheles—is arguably rather lofty in his sorcerous activities because he first desires cosmic knowledge. He wants to know the macrocosm. But he quickly gives up that seemingly unattainable goal of cosmic knowledge and settles instead into a diabolic exchange for temporary earthly desires. Faust is also something of an everyman who cedes self-control and ideal spiritual essence to the punitive bureaucrats of heaven and hell. But at least he gets to party it up on weekends, right?

 And that’s where your insightful suggestion that the dynamic between manipulator and victim “plays into both our fear and fascination with puppets” really resonates. Because everyone has these impulses.  To play the predator. To play the victim. To enter into a willing servitude if the gain is sufficiently tempting—erotically or financially or spiritually. Let Jesus take the wheel.

Thomas Ligotti gets into this in his philosophical book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. We ultimately don’t have free will because we don’t choose our impulses and appetites. We don’t choose hardly anything really.  A Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky has recently been making a similar argument: “We are nothing more or less than the sum of that which we could not control – our biology, our environments, their interactions.” And whether or not this is objectively true, it can certainly feel that way. And if you supernaturalize that feeling, you can imagine you’re pulled by the whims of some higher power. You’re on the chessboard of the pantheon of who knows what entities. Or the aliens or the simulation or the New World Order is screwing with you. Whatever the expression of that vision of frustration, it boils down to feeling we don’t have sufficient free will or the freedom to be effectual enough.

 So that’s the conventional hierarchical model of puppetry.

cover of Master of Rods and StringsIn Master of Rods and Strings that is part of what I’m writing about, but the book is also presenting what I call the symbiotic model of puppetry. And in this framework of being, the puppeteer recognizes an affinity between the puppet and the puppeteer—it is not about superiority of power but about connection. We are fleshly vessels of thoughts and impulses and so too are the puppets. The border erodes then between the consciousness of the human and the puppet. And furthermore, the puppet may already be a vessel of a consciousness with its own personality distinct from the puppeteer.  In the intimate practice of puppetry, the two entities share a space of time and being that can be powerfully revelatory.

 And as that border of ego division breaks down—and human chauvinism dissolves—so too the border between the animate and the inanimate thins.  It has been argued that consciousness itself may naturally arise from physical laws of the universe and that there may not even be a clear boundary between the living and the inanimate.  Religions and myths have explored some of these ideas before, and the occult puppetry that Master of Rods and Strings definitely picks up some of these primeval threads of narrative.

 Connecting with universe is not necessarily a wonderful transcendence of elevated spirituality: look at how the universe treats life as we know it; look at how the universe treats itself.  All the lights go out, worlds burn, get pummeled to bits by asteroids etc. What sort of consciousness lurks out in the cosmos if it is indeed conscious?

 So, panpsychism has been back in some popular science news, and sure one might ooh and ahh over how marvelous that might be to meditate on your union with the great being of everything, but also consider a moment—if you take the proposition seriously—what a miserable sentence it is for the one condemned to be a rock or a particle or whatever it might be. Loneliness beyond comprehension with impotency to boot! But perhaps free from the pain of physical human suffering? And if you give yourself up to the cosmic strings of being? What then?  In Master of Rods and Strings Elias comes to know something of the Great Will. Is he elevated or corrupted by this epiphany?

So to return to your final consideration: can the “mythos of puppetry” perhaps end or prevent the cycle of “manipulator vs victim”?

 I would argue that a shift from the conventional hierarchical model of puppetry to the more symbiotic one at least allows for the possibility of greater autonomy and a broader scope for contemplating identity. Even if it ends up being an illusion. Perhaps a subtler entrapment in a cosmic web of doom?

 To close the contemplation here, I would like to mention that Elias and his puppet Virgil perform a number of macabre and dangerous dances together. Thus, their very movements in sync and cooperation help to express their symbiosis. One is not fully the master of the other. But together they are learning and growing stronger.  To feel the paces of the dance—maybe that is part of the answer to break the cycle of manipulator and victim.  Puppet and puppeteer both contribute valid roles. Magic aside, the puppet is after all a supreme work of art, while the puppeteer is a sentient work of nature; art and nature combined together offer a higher consciousness than merely one or the other. The very practice of being a puppeteer melds the sentient with the inanimate—and suddenly they both are unified in an expression of movement, song, and dance. From their symbiosis may come apotheosis. To inhabit another thing is to know something of the mind of a god. Or demon. Or parasite. God, demon, parasite—a trinity that speaks to the essence of occult puppetry perhaps. Possession and obsession. Infatuation. The infernal fever of endless fascination.

Do you have any other stories you’re working on or expecting to unleash on us in the near future?

I’m writing a sequel to Master of Rods and Strings. Two sequels actually. And I have a novel I’m hoping that an agent will help with. And I have a few stories I’ve been polishing up, and a few others I’ve been sending off to some magazines. Will see what happens.

And finally, what impact do you hope Master of Rods And Strings will have on readers who choose to go along for the ride and allow you to pull their strings?

I hope that readers will never look at puppets quite the same way. I hope the story will tug open the veil to other worlds—that readers will glimpse something in the dark corners of this uncanny stage of obsessed and passionate puppeteers that is compelling, albeit disconcerting. The story isn’t merely about puppets having the potential to be weird and scary but is meant to conjure a more innovative and disquieting vision that engages the ritual origins of puppetry: the profound potential of symbiotic magic and the transformation of identity as the adept gains a fuller consciousness of the cosmic horror and ecstatic sublimity of occult puppetry.

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