Jeff Phillips: God’s Least Likely Influences

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My recent novella, titled God’s Least Likely to Succeed, is an amalgam of odd fascinations I’ve never been able to shake. Chief among them: hallucinations and secret societies.

When I was a young kid, my family and I went to the movies to see The Bear. I have a vague memory of a scene in which an orphan cub eats a mushroom he comes across in the moist forest. Soon the cub is disoriented while witnessing shifting shapes and vibrant colors. The mushrooms he nibbled were apparently of the magic variety, and the subsequent montage I found beautiful. I was in a trance, curious as to what caused the cub, as if under a spell, to see things that weren’t really there. If I saw this movie near its release in 1988, that would put me at 5 years old, ignorant as to the nature of drugs, though in dreams I’d sometimes get close to experiencing a wild and picturesque delirium. Even the occasional fever would stir up a mild dose of the loopiness I imagined the cub felt. As I got older and went off to college, I dabbled on a few occasions with various hallucinogens. Each time I sought out such substances, there was this image of a bear, “tripping balls” in the woods, hovering and calling out for me to step into the frame, through a screen of nostalgia, and inside the bear to let the boundaries of my consciousness melt away.

I don’t have the nervous system to be a frequent user of hallucinogens, but I can sometimes get close to what I enjoyed about them through the rush of writing fiction. Knocking down the limits of perception, and alerting the senses to the inexplicable and unexpected, can be quite the treat.

Another image from my childhood is cemented with an urgent curiosity. An episode of The Simpsons in which Homer joins The Stonecutters, an elite underground organization, would surface in my daydreams. There was something alluring about being part of a club, steeped in an air of mystery, cloaked behind heavy curtains and illuminated by the glow of candles. This lingering interest in secret societies was stirred further when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in my early twenties, where new layers of weird eroticism heightened the apparent need for secrecy and cover-up by such organizations. I wanted to be invited to such a party, not necessarily for the nudity and pleasure, but the lavish mansion flickered with the intoxication of inclusion, of being offered a chance to wander on the other side of the engine of mysteries. I also felt the need to steer clear of such groups and rituals. Not only do they seem to kill anyone who could expose them, I felt a little dirty about being so intrigued by the sinister and the occult, that embracing it would put me in the category of evil. Nevertheless, in high school I was close to joining the Order of DeMolay, a fraternal organization for young men that re-enacted the death of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, at their meetings. But I was feeling like enough of a Boy Scout burnout at that point. I’d rather keep tabs on shadowy circles at a distance, and devour any reading material that talked of Freemasonry, the Illuminati, Skull and Bones, and the Bohemian Club. Maybe in a previous life I enjoyed their perks, maybe in another I’ll return to revel in their glory.

Hallucinations and secret societies; two things I had an innate hunch would be frowned on at school playgrounds, were stuffed away and suppressed, to unintentionally resurface later on the page.

When Dan MacRae and I embarked on our second volume of Zizobotchi Papers, a literary journal dedicated to the novella, which we co-founded in 2015, we agreed to challenge ourselves to a writing exercise. We each wrote 3 short stories, then swapped them. We would each choose one of the stories we were given and then expand it into our next novella. The only rule was we had to include the story we chose as a scene in our larger work, rewriting, of course, to make it our own. The story of Dan’s that I chose involved two men in the woods, about to make their way down a mountain. I was immediately interested in exploring what was at the bottom, and why one of the men seemed to be in a position of power over the other.

Soon into the first draft, I couldn’t help myself, that old urge to get delirious in the woods bubbled up, and so did that push/pull predilection toward secret societies. What evolved and became God’s Least Likely to Succeed mashed up hallucinations and the occult, peppered with secret agents and robots. In many ways, I imagined this story as a cartoon, as if the animators that brought to life those trippy Beatles cartoons, Spy vs. Spy, Beetlejuice: The Animated Series, and The Simpsons, collaborated on something wild that spirals out of control.

As writers, we are often in part the product of what we read. Some of the books I surrounded myself with while writing God’s Least Likely to Succeed include Acid Dreams: The Complete History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain to further research the role the CIA played in developing and weaponizing hallucinogens. I was also swept up by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 and in particular I found Inherent Vice to be a freeing experience. The book was crazy, it kind of felt like it was all over the place, unraveling into a chaotic mess, and at the same time it felt like a masterful weave. It made me feel like I could do anything, that I could allow myself to go nuts on the page. I read Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 across several over-caffeinated commutes. At times I felt like my brain was spinning blood, the architecture of my senses gutted and rewired, and it reminded me of the power literature can have on a mental state, and like the feeling you have after getting off a treadmill, of the world still rushing past you, or green blobs pulsing in your vision when you’ve looked directly into a light bulb, such after-effects are worth striving toward. In Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, a crew lands on an alien planet. The shifting reality made up of projections from the scientists’ subconscious makes this one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. I became motivated by the idea of tearing apart the laws of physics, while maintaining a narrative you could buy into and run alongside. Lastly, I must give a nod to H.P. Lovecraft. Bingeing on his complete works, such as The Shadow Out of Time, The Dunwich Horror, The Colour Out of Space, The Dreams in the Witch House, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, among others, I was completely engrossed as the cosmic became tangible, and burned me with a seemingly unanswerable question, how do monsters come to be?

That question carried over and infused itself into various drafts of God’s Least Likely to Succeed. Could it be that man has a role in the development of cosmic horrors, and is this what secret societies truly wish to keep veiled? Are hallucinations a mental distraction, that can be used for a manipulative purpose, or are they also glimpses into something on another side of reality? I hope you’ll humor me, open up the pages of our recently released of Zizobotchi Papers: volume 2, fall, 2017, and see if we can scratch the surface of my curiosities.

Zizobotchi Papers is a literary journal dedicated to the novella. Think double feature of long form fiction, with a paperback spine instead of a marquee. Purchase copies of volume 2 here, preview it below: 

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