Category Archives: Hermetic Library Reading Room

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism in a broad sense, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

The Annihilation Score

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Annihilation Score: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross.

In my review of the previous Laundry Files novel I accurately speculated that “further volumes will see the role of narrator passed to some junior character.” I did not, however, expect that character to be Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, the wife of the protagonist of the first five volumes. Mo is Bob’s “junior” in the Laundry by a short while, although she is older than him and more intellectually accomplished. This book takes place during their “trial separation,” while their respective sorceries are behaving incompatibly. At first, I wondered if author Stross would sufficiently distinguish Mo’s narrative voice from Bob’s, given the peculiar combination of the Laundry environment: civil service, espionage, and soul-shearing horrors from outside of our universe; but he did succeed.

Where the comedic element of other Laundry books was largely supplied by Bob’s geeky sense of humor, this one managed to offer a wealth of absurd circumstances, centering as it did on an epidemic of superpowers, and the social consequences of villains and vigilantes in “pervert suits.” Unsurprisingly in a book narrated by Mo, the other chief concern was her escalating conflict with the diabolical enchanted violin which has been her professional tool and curse since the first stories of the series.

A key theme of the book is the differences between intelligence work and policing, with much attention paid to the formation of a police culture. Although the book is set in 21st-century England, this American reader could not help but reflect on the currency of the topic relative to our current spate of news about abusive and murderous police behavior. The public dialogue in the US could probably benefit from a conscious consideration of the “Peelian Principles” which have been foundational to the British Commonwealth’s conception of domestic policing since the early 19th century.

Stross is not quite as sharp here in his references to 20th-century occultism as he was in, say, The Fuller Memorandum. In particular, he invests both Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare with musical abilities that the men did not possess. But these are throw-away allusions not intrinsic to the plot.

With this sixth novel (and at least two more projected), have the Laundry Files earned the right to be compared to Harry Potter? Both are supernatural sagas in self-consciously British institutional settings. Rather than Voldemort, Stross presents us with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, an incipient “magical singularity” or thaumaturgical armageddon that is a growing threat throughout the series. When The Atrocity Archive was published, I think the idea of a screen version would have seemed pretty far-fetched. Now, I suppose that the BBC should be recycling half of the creative team from Torchwood into work on an episodic Laundry series.

The Witches’ Ointment

The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic by Thomas Hatsis, has arrived at the Reading Room courtesy of the publisher Inner Traditions, under the Park Street Press imprint.

Thomas Hatsis The Witches Ointment

“In the medieval period preparations with hallucinogenic herbs were part of the practice of veneficium, or poison magic. This collection of magical arts used poisons, herbs, and rituals to bewitch, heal, prophesy, infect, and murder. In the form of psyche-magical ointments, poison magic could trigger powerful hallucinations and surrealistic dreams that enabled direct experience of the Divine. Smeared on the skin, these entheogenic ointments were said to enable witches to commune with various local goddesses, bastardized by the Church as trips to the Sabbat–clandestine meetings with Satan to learn magic and participate in demonic orgies.

Examining trial records and the pharmacopoeia of witches, alchemists, folk healers, and heretics of the 15th century, Thomas Hatsis details how a range of ideas from folk drugs to ecclesiastical fears over medicine women merged to form the classical “witch” stereotype and what history has called the “witches’ ointment.” He shares dozens of psychoactive formulas and recipes gleaned from rare manuscripts from university collections from all over the world as well as the practices and magical incantations necessary for their preparation. He explores the connections between witches’ ointments and spells for shape shifting, spirit travel, and bewitching magic. He examines the practices of some Renaissance magicians, who inhaled powerful drugs to communicate with spirits, and of Italian folk-witches, such as Matteuccia di Francisco, who used hallucinogenic drugs in her love potions and herbal preparations, and Finicella, who used drug ointments to imagine herself transformed into a cat.

Exploring the untold history of the witches’ ointment and medieval hallucinogen use, Hatsis reveals how the Church transformed folk drug practices, specifically entheogenic ones, into satanic experiences.” — back cover


The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews Aleph by Paulo Coelho.

Paulo Coelho Aleph

Aleph by Paulo Coelho is the story of a famous author who travels across Russia, slowly revealing that he is a psychic vampire, and, while feeding off a particularly vulnerable and nubile young woman, discovers that he’s been an asshole across multiple lifetimes.

I made 69 highlights and submitted 3 corrections for this book.

Originally posted on my personal blog at Aleph

Terminal Café

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Terminal Cafe by Ian McDonald.

Ian McDonald Terminal Cafe

I think I prefer the American title Terminal Café for McDonald’s Necroville. It shares and supports the misdirection of the jacket copy and the opening chapter, to make the psychopharm/VR auteur Santiago Columbar the central character of this story. Like nearly all of McDonald’s novels that I’ve read, there is no sole central character. Instead, there is a dispersed ensemble, not united until the book’s ending. This one is unusual in that there is a clear prior relationship among the members of the ensemble from the outset: they are a former school cohort, now 27-year-olds (a “funny age”) who have been holding a reunion annually on the Day of the Dead at the Terminal Café in the necroville connected to Los Angeles.

This book was written prior to McDonald’s “New World Order” cycle of novels (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, etc.), and it does not seem to share any narrative continuity with them. It is, however, much closer to them in its sensibility and narrative style than it is to Desolation Road. Necroville is set in the (former?) United States, but it seems that the dominant language is Spanish. Former civil governments seem to have been reduced to suppliers of law on the open market, where corporadas are the dominating players.

The future setting might be in the twenty-second century. It doesn’t have a date other than November 1-2—the whole story transpires over a single twenty-four-hour period. Transformative nanotechnology hasn’t supplied “deathless immortality,” but the dead can be durably reanimated through “Jesus Tanks” that analyze them and then reconstruct them out of “tectors.” The supposedly foggy life-memories of the dead are, however, no guarantee of a subjective continuity of consciousness, so people are really no more inclined to die. What’s more, the dead are not recognized as having full human entity or legal rights to property; they are relegated to necrovilles when not performing services for the living.

The revolutionary struggle of the dead against their subordination by the living is the largest backdrop (and often foreground) of the novel. McDonald does not balk at references implying comparison of the situation of the dead to that of Africans introduced by slavery to the Western hemisphere. The “Freedead” have spaceships with names like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and the member of Santiago Columbar’s set who is most critical to the political events of the novel is named Toussaint.

In Desolation Road, McDonald had already established his ability to artfully advert to the prior canon of science fiction. In this book, the allusions seem predominantly Phildickian. The theme of epistemologically obscure resurrection connects Necroville with Dick’s UBIK. McDonald quietly name-drops at least two PKD novels, Man in the High Castle (177) and Galactic Pot Healer (214). And one of the major plot threads borrows more than a little from Blade Runner, the film based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, the dead of Necroville are in many respects not much different than the replicants of Blade Runner. Even the tyrannical demiurge’s name Tesler is not so far from Tyrell.

After more than twenty years, this novel doesn’t feel dated at all. I wouldn’t quite class it among McDonald’s few best, but those are a terrifically high standard. It’s very worth reading. [via]

The Conversions

Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews The Conversions by Harry Mathews.

Harry Mathews The Conversions

The Conversions begins with a group making preparations for an elaborate race between worms (yes, I said worms!) in the luxurious apartments of eccentric Grent Wayl. The winner takes home a curious prize, a ritual adze, covered in arcane figures and scenes that unravel in meaning as the novel progresses. When Wayl suddenly dies, a different race is on to decipher the adze and answer questions about it in order to win his sizable estate. Through a series of stories within stories that take him around the world, the main character seems to advance toward the prize, traversing the labyrinth of his own psyche along the way. He is beset by doubts as to the nature of what trails he is following, the interesting characters met along the way, and the overwhelming feeling that he has been tricked and that the whole journey is based on a hoax. In his first novel, originally published by Random House in 1962, Harry Mathews’ elegant prose and delight in the construction of the chase carry the momentum of the tale. There is a patchwork quality to the various stops the protagonist makes along the way, and in this you can almost see the author working behind the curtain even though we are told to pay him no attention. In The Conversions, and several of his other novels, Mathews is clearly indebted to the French writer Raymond Roussel, who taught him that what happens between the covers of a book is just what happens between the covers of a book, in other words, that a novel can be appreciated on its own terms and not necessarily on how it relates to the outside world. The novel is its own self-contained world, and whatever transpires through its storytelling supports its own logic, its own “reality.” This frees imagination to really do the work it intends from the outset, to create a work of fiction. In the words of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” [via]

Leo Strauss and Nietzsche

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Leo Strauss and Nietzsche by Laurence Lampert.

Laurence Lampert Leo Strauss and Neitzche

Leo Strauss is aptly characterized in this volume as an “elusive master of other men’s elusiveness” (130). Although he was vocal in his opposition to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of Persecution and the Art of Writing cannot be expected to have really held all of the opinions he professed, particularly when those opinions a) accord with popular prejudice, and b) are unaccompanied by a conclusive argument. Louis Lampert is able to go further, and reverse Strauss’ public opinion by pointing to his private declaration in correspondence:

“Nietzsche so dominated and charmed me between my 22nd and 30th years that I literally believed everything I understood of him.” (5)

Lampert also adverts to one of Strauss’ final writings, a dense but ultimately sympathetic presentation of Nietzsche in “Note on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.” This essay, originally published in the posthumous Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, is reproduced as an appendix to Leo Strauss and Nietzsche, and the second and longest of the chapters in Lampert’s book is an extremely thorough and conscientious exegesis of it.

This volume demonstrates abundantly that both Nietzsche and Strauss (and, I suppose, Lampert) viewed Nietzsche as Plato’s peer. In the third chapter, Lampert sums up Strauss’ actual view on Nietzsche’s role in the history of philosophy, insisting that Nietzsche “platonizes”—in the esoteric sense understood by Strauss as implementing a strategy to ensure the subordination of religion by philosophy. In the fourth chapter, Lampert foregrounds Strauss’ own contributions to philosophy, what Strauss found most valuable in Plato, and how Strauss and Nietzsche differed in their reactions to Plato.

Lampert’s final chapter is called “The Nietzschean Enlightenment,” and in it he seeks to judge between Nietzsche and Strauss, “Who reads the needs of our age with greater acuteness?” (168) His answer is clear: Nietzsche. And the Nietzsche presented here by Lampert is one which I find wonderfully credible and sympathetic.

This book was a good read for its own sake, but as much as I enjoyed its contents, I may have even had more to appreciate in the way that Lampert and Strauss sent me back to read anew in Beyond Good and Evil, to my repeated profit. [via]

Leaving the Atocha Station

Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

Ben Lerner Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station follows a young American man abroad in Madrid on a Fellowship to write a series of contemporary poems based on the Spanish Civil War. This project he divides into five parts we never see as we follow his inner journey fueled by obsessions with art, women, travel, social relationships, and general anxiety. His habit of embellishing things in order to observe what effect such behavior might have on those around him, to his amazement and frustration, effects him most of all. This emotional sleight of hand permeates the perspective—there is no “plot” per se—of the book, as the character finds that when one allows an Other the opportunity to also embellish their life story—in order to feign interest in them—this post-projection may or may not overlap with virtual version(s) of his own experience. Eventually, a many-layered dance of dual deception may result in the desired consummate act, which immediately disappoints the self, the Other, or both, or will someday, when it fails or falls short of the ideal that prompted a suspension of belief in the first place. Thereafter (if indeed the ruse has not failed prior to the act) by stages self-reflection reveals only pale shades of the deep coloration the imagined relationship originally promised. The juxtaposition of fantasy colliding and competing with reality runs right up against a random terrorist act that confounds the young man: should he participate directly in History as it unfolds, or simply abstract the event as he imagines it into an emotional response resulting in art as artifice, as he has attempted by way of idiosyncratic survival instinct in his personal relationships? This is the first novel by Topeka, Kansas born Ben Lerner, who has three previous collections of poems to his credit including National Book Award finalist Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon Press, 2006). Well written and evenly paced, this novel explores the psychological nuances of a gifted young person confronting the multitude of conflicting intellectual responses available to interpret the often confusing and unpredictable possibilities of human experience. [via]