One of the joys in writing historical fiction is the research needed to create the world in which your story will take place. Though that recreation does not need to be exactly historically accurate, plot issues come first, the world needs to ring true to the reader. For two projects in different stages of progress (one in 1888 and the other in 2016), I have been researching Tibet with its mysterious lamas, monks and priests against its staggeringly beautiful mountains, some of which are sacred in themselves.
Research also brings the fun of the unexpected, and often the entry of new people into your newly enriched life.
I’ve just finished Theodore Illion’s In Secret Tibet, 1937, and am moving on to Alexandra David-Neel, Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, 1931. David-Neel is herself a legendary figure in any study of Tibet, with her portrayal of her amazing experiences coming under attack as falsified and other negative statements. However, as remarkable as they are, all evidence indicates that all of her stories are true.
Both books speak in awe of the lung-gom-pa, the flying lamas who can travel indefinitely at about 15mph over the countryside, their arms and legs moving in pendulum fashion, their faces reflecting a deep trance state, and never running out of breath.
And the Ngagspa, the lama magician, whom both authors claim could cause death at a distance. Unlike the opening scenes in the pathetic 1994 movie, The Shadow, where a lama can apparently send a dagger anywhere with only his mind; what actually is described is that a dagger is blessed by the magician, given to a messenger who places it near the target. At a distance then, up to perhaps a mile or two, maybe more, the Ngagspa mentally directs the target to pick up the dagger and kill himself, which he does. According to legends and interviews collected by the two authors, this has happened.
And, of course, the origin story of The Shadow (and the Green Lama, another crime fighter of the 40’s) of a wealthy gentleman traveling off into the great mountains of Tibet, to a secret lamasery where an aged hooded lama teaches him how “to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him”, etc., and then he returns to the Western world to courageously use his gift against evil. That is where the research gets interesting, because the answer in this case is: maybe.
I had the great joy of knowing Walter B. Gibson who wrote 286 Shadow novels (two a month!). Walter’s Shadow, however, never went to Tibet and was not invisible. He was everything else however, as Walter knew the worlds and the people of conjuring and the occult in serious depth, and utilized that knowledge throughout his Shadow novels. He was himself a skilled magician, and a close friend of Houdini and other major magicians of the day. Walter wrote under the Street & Smith company name of Maxwell Grant (if you asked him for his Shadow autograph he would write Walter Gibson and Maxwell Grant in a single signature. He would always ask which signature you wanted, Shadow or magic. Maxwell Grant was a combination of the names of two major magic dealers in the 30’s: Maxwell Holden and U.F. Grant.)
And, of course, those who have gone deeply into The Shadow canon know that the Shadow’s real name was not Lamont Cranston as it was on radio and in the ’94 movie, but Kent Allard, who in turn used Lamont Cranston as an identity whenever Cranston was traveling out of the country. One of Walter’s novels had the inevitable plot issue of what happens when the real Cranston encounters the Shadow’s Cranston.
When the radio show with Orson Welles as the first Shadow was launched, the Shadow character could not only be invisible, but could also read minds. With such dual capabilities, the only thing between the bad guys and being arrested were the commercials. To heighten the tension of the stories, the Shadow’s mindreading was eliminated in favor of Margot Lane, a definite improvement. However, Walter’s Shadow did not have Margot Lane. When I asked him about Margot, Walter laughed. With the growth of Margot’s popularity on radio, pressure grew on Walter from his readers to put Margot into the novels. He shrugged. “I finally had to do it,” he said. And so Margot Lane entered the world of the “real” Shadow. Walter also told me that all of his scripts for the radio show were rejected by the producers.
The interesting thing is that while there is marginal evidence about any lamas clouding anyone’s mind, there was evidence of some lamas having the ability to sense the thoughts of others. Before the destruction of Tibet by Communist China, about 20% of Tibet’s population was lamas, monks, and priests, who were then supported by the other 80%. No one knows the actual population of Tibet at any given time, but it was estimated at about three million up through the 40’s. Of all that 20%, less than 1% could actually do any of the legendary feats of flying, killing at a distance, or thought reading. The one percent was looked on as the holy ones, who would appear and then disappear after aiding someone. They never claimed to be holy, as the other 19% were always eager to do in order to gain more offerings from the oftentimes terrified people. The holy lamas/hermits never asked for an offering — and never utilized the “music hall magic tricks” as Illion calls it in his book, of the others.
And then there is the story of the great white dog without a name, from The Golden Doorway to Tibet, Nicol Smith, 1949, which I utilized in the first volume of my Adventures in Second Sight series, Revelations of the Impossible Piddingtons.
And more Tibet awaits. The fun part of the research is that it can change the plot, and sometimes, even the characters.
If you are interested in mystery novels set in modern Tibet, then I would certainly recommend the five novels by Eliot Pattison and his detective, Shan Tao Yun, beginning with The Skull Mantra.
Remember, too, according to Tibetan beliefs, each time you recite the six sacred syllables:
Om Mani Padme Hum
one thousand of your sins will be forgiven.