Ghost Story

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ghost Story [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Straub.

Straub Ghost Story

Ghost Story was Peter Straub’s breakout novel in 1979, and I remember seeing it in the “new” section of my local public library at the time. The publisher flogged it as a supernatural horror book with literary merit, and it was a fair boast. Straub was an admirable prose stylist, and his monsters have come a long way from their folklore and pulp origins. I found precursor comparanda in some of Seabury Quinn’s semi-traditional creatures and most especially Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. Straub, who would eventually edit the two-volume American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny for Library of America, consciously adverts to his more literary antecedents Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, even going so far as to name two central characters Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James.

It’s a big book, with the storytelling heft of, say, a full season of the Stranger Things television horror drama. Like that show, it is multigenerational in scope, although Straub’s key ensemble is geriatric rather than adolescent. And Straub’s imagined town of Milburn, New York provides the Hawthorne-to-HPL New England sense of a lost frontier buried deep in the unconscious, rather than the vulnerable bucolic Midwestern sensibility of Hawkins, Indiana. All sorts of characters are powerfully drawn, with relationship tensions extending in every direction.

The body of the book provides several layers of background for the frame story focused on the horror novelist Don Wanderly. There is naturally some metafictional positioning that results, both from Wanderly’s metier and from the ghost-storytelling preoccupation of the Chowder Society, the clique of old friends around whom most of the novel is constructed. The climax takes place in late December, thus attaching the book to the English tradition of the Christmas ghost story, for which those of M.R. James are paragons. While there was less metafictional meat here than in Straub’s later book The Hellfire Club (i.e. Wanderly’s The Nightwatcher is neither so well-developed nor so pivotal to the story as Hugo Driver’s Night Journey), it still put a shine on the writing.

I have not yet seen the 1981 movie which was “loosely based” on the novel, but the book itself gives more than a little attention to cinema. Attorney Ricky Hawthorne is a movie aficionado given to describing people in terms of old screen icons, and he is friends with the proprietor of the local picture show. A key background character Eva Galli was a film actress, having appeared in a single silent film China Pearl (1925), and there is also important business involving a more recent actress Ann-Veronica Moore. The film of Ghost Story turned out to be the final screen appearance of Fred Astaire (in the role of Ricky Hawthorne), and Astaire is actually name-checked in the novel: “… Clark Gable in a bush jacket turning into Dan Duryea in a gangster’s nipped-in-suit turning into graceful, winning Fred Astaire in a Chowder Society tuxedo” (465).

My copy of this book is the first edition, which has a feature of interest extirpated from later re-issues. The chapter “Alma” (181-221) details Wanderly’s previous marital engagement during a brief university gig in Berkeley, California. By way of making the Alma character mysterious and creepy, Straub associated her with something presented as more dreadful than “California lunacy at its worst,” to wit: “O.T.O. … Ordo Templi Orientis … raw material for nightmares” (194-5). Some incidental details demonstrate that Straub’s awareness of O.T.O. was almost certainly based on press coverage of the Solar Lodge pretender organization. In any case, he never presents any specific characters or activities as being part of O.T.O., he just uses the allusion for nebulous menace. Since the actual O.T.O. was operating in Berkeley in 1979, they felt a bit slandered and reached out to Straub, who graciously apologized and made an edit for later printings to change the name to an occult order of his own invention: Xala Xalior Xiati.

The rich character development in this book is the feature that makes it most effective as supernatural horror, in my opinion. You can’t be very afraid for people you don’t care about. On the other hand, there are doubtless adrenaline junkies for whom the pace of this novel with its nested retrospection is just too slow to keep them engaged. (I’ve certainly read complaints to that effect online.) It continues to find a place in “best of” horror indices, and it deserves one.

Z Is for Moose

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Z Is for Moose [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Kelly Bingham and Paul O Zelinsky.

Bingham Zelinsky Z is for Moose

Sure, kids find this book funny. But it combines a sort of capitalist precarity of labor with anxiety about the arbitrariness of semiotic identities. Fortunately, the solution is solidarity. The revolutionary pages N and O are the most engaging part of the story.

Mind and Nature

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Gregory Bateson, forewords by Sergio Manghi and Alfonso Montuori.

Bateson Mind and Nature

Mind and Nature is Bateson’s last book, although two followed it posthumously, and in the colloquy with his daughter that closes Mind and Nature he discusses his ambition to write a volume called Where Angels Fear to Tread that would more directly treat concerns about consciousness, aesthetics, and the sacred. Mind and Nature is preliminary to that latter book (which became Angels Fear), laying out the epistemology and notions of organization and change that would underlie it.

This book treats the features that human thought (i.e. perception, ideation, logic, and explanation) has in common with biological change in individuals and populations (adaptation and evolution). Bateson characterizes these two fields (the “mind” and “nature” of the title) as the “Great Stochastic Processes.” Beginning with an emphasis on “the pattern that connects,” he introduces a kit of ideas with putatively universal application in what he calls — taking a cue from Jung’s usage in Septem Sermones ad Mortuos — the Creatura. He uses contemporary biology for his understanding of nature, but he uses philosophical materials and cybernetic theories in preference to the products of academic psychology.

I found this book a fast read, but it is not for the intellectually lazy. Although there is a glossary of particular words Bateson felt his readers might find alien, his general lexicon pulls no punches. He makes great hay out of Russell’s theory of logical types, metaphorically expanding its application to the whole panoply of hierarchical phenomena and systems. Most of the text is organized into long chapters containing sets of numbered theses, each treated in a few pages of discussion and example.

In some respects, the part of the book that most excited me on this re-read was the appendix “Time Is Out of Joint,” a memorandum circulated to the University of California Regents (of whom Bateson was one). In less than seven pages, Bateson sums up his most important arguments from Mind and Nature and applies them to the difficulties of governing an educational institution. The result is startlingly similar in content, if not in form, to Aleister Crowley’s early essay “Thien Tao: Or, the Synagogue of Satan.” Bateson and Crowley alike try to communicate the need for human striving to comprehend complementary poles, in order to progress by dialectical transcendence. It is a matter of enantiodromia, rather than compromise: not to say, “Light — Darkness — I am the Reconciler between them” like the officers of a Golden Dawn Equinox ceremony, but rather to say, “I am Light, and I am Darkness, and I am that which is beyond them” like the Crowned and Conquering Child in the utmost aire of LIL.

Their wider scope,
        Limitless Empire o’er the world of thought,
            Help my desires to press
    Beyond all stars toward God and Heaven and Hope;
        And in the world-amazing chase is wrought
            Somehow — all Happiness.

Aleister Crowley, “Dreams” in Mysteries

Hermetic quote Crowley Dreams Mysteries wider scope limitless empire world through help desires press beyond all stars god heaven hope chase wrought somehow happiness

The Doctor Is Out

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange: The Doctor Is Out [Amazon, Hoopla, Local Library] by Mark Waid, Emma Rios, & al.

Waid Rios Doctor Strange The Doctor is Out

Although I came to it without high expectations, Mark Waid has provided the best Doctor Strange story I’ve read in many, many years. He has opened up room to reinterpret the character by centering the story on Casey, his new apprentice. Things have not been going well for Strange since he is no longer Sorcerer Supreme, and his broody attitude seems more justified than it has been in the past. He doesn’t have the use of much of his accustomed magical ability; the damage to his hands has returned as a kind of stigma.

While a previous Strange title (based on the unrealized movie script) reconstructed Doctor Strange’s origin story along the lines of The Matrix, the narrative device of the new apprentice’s perspective makes this one feel quite a bit like an occult version of Doctor Who.

The art by Emma Rios is really excellent. Although I was not seized by it at first — mostly because of the overpowering floral colors (never have I seen so much fuschia in an occult comic!) — a few pages of reading showed me that she could really tell a visual story. Her Doctor Strange is more worn and expressive facially, and he largely keeps to street clothes rather than the ceremonial/superhero getup. Rios noticeably incorporates some of the stylistic traits of Ditko and Colan’s classic Strange art, and she acknowledges their influence in a brief interview appended to the comics. In fact, the off-putting element for me (other than the palette) may have been a sort of extreme “looseness” of composition that I also associate with Colan’s work.

Most importantly, Rios draws the magic well! While keeping some continuity with the Ditko and Colan representations of sorcery, she develops her own graphic idiom for the purpose to good effect — entirely distinct from, but comparable to P. Craig Russell’s past turns on Doctor Strange. This book is also full of nonhuman spirits (yeah, demons), and Rios offers persuasively outre and varied forms for these.

This volume, despite collecting four individual comlcs, reads like an integral graphic novel because they were a “limited series.” It does provide a very conspicuous opening for a sequel, and I would certainly be interested if the creators of this one were to fulfill that.

Kalle was burdened with an intense pain located about a hand’s breadth below his right collar bone. No, there was no tumor or anything of the sort there, he had had it checked, but it was exactly there that it started to hurt whenever life got to him. A black heart pumping despair into his body.

John Ajvide Lindqvist, trans. Ebba Segerberg, Let the Old Dreams Die: Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic-quote Lindqvist Let the Old Dreams Die burdened intense pain no tumor exactly started hurt whenever life got him black heart pumping despair into body