The Great Secret

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Great Secret: or, Occultism Unveiled by Eliphas Lévi.Lévi The Great Secret

The two documents published together as The Great Secret were in all likelihood the final doctrinal work composed by the nineteenth-century French adept Alphonse Louis Constant, better known as Eliphas Lévi. They were written for manuscript circulation among Lévi’s pupils, and published only posthumously. Another prior section that makes of these two a set of three was published as The Book of Splendours. However, the content of that volume (on “The Hieratic Mystery”) is not strongly connected to the issues in this one (on “The Royal Mystery” and “The Sacerdotal Mystery”), and The Great Secret can be read to full benefit without prior reading of The Book of Splendours, which is chiefly esoteric exegesis of key books of the Bible. 

“Let it be well understood that we are not writing for the profane masses, but for the instructed of a later age than ours and for the pontiffs of the future.” (105)

Much of The Great Secret addresses theological issues, and in a most bewildering manner. Lévi, who had at one point trained for the priesthood, consistently professes himself to be a loyal Catholic, and to champion the Roman Church as the sole legitimate repository of magical power. At the same time, he relentlessly criticizes both doctrines and practices of the Church in his day, often proposing alternatives informed by advances in materialist science as well as comparisons with non-Abrahamic religions. Lévi’s occult terminology is generally straight out of the Mesmerist milieu of the early nineteenth century, with a great deal of attention given to “magnetism” in its various manifestations.

A highlight is the chapter on “The Magnetism of Evil,” where Lévi spends a lot more time describing and illustrating the likely (extra-)moral consequences of an objective view of the natural world than he does contradicting them with an orthodox theology to assert the solicitude for humanity by a sovereign ruler of the Universe. (In Jason Colavito’s blog, he has indicated this chapter as one with presentiments of both Lovecraftian cosmicism and “ancient astronaut” Nephiliphilia.)

“The present writer is a Catholic of the desert. However, there is nothing frightful about the Thebaid, and he has always preferred the Abbey of Thelema, founded by Rabelais, to the Hermitage of Saint Anthony.” (173)

The ante-penultimate chapter is itself titled “The Great Secret,” and the arcanum is one well-circulated among Thelemites today. “There is no part of me that is not of the gods” (Papyrus of Ani via Liber XV). Deus est homo. “I am clothed with the body of flesh; I am one with the Eternal and Omnipotent God” (Liber LXV I:53). There is no god but man. Lévi reached this conclusion in parallel to Ludwig Feuerbach in the same window of European history. Although they wrote for vastly different audiences, both men had difficulty making themselves understood. As Aleister Crowley would later remark, “An indicible arcanum is an arcanum that cannot be revealed.”

And then the figure, turning slowly round, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl. Angels of grace, protect me! cried Frederic recoiling. Deserve their protection, said the spectre.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

Hermetic quote Walpole Otranto deserve

For King, the condition of truth was to allow suffering to speak; for him, justice was what love looks like in public.

Martin Luther King Jr, The Radical King

Hermetic quote King Radical love

The Deep Gate

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Deep Gate by Chris A Jackson.

Jackson The Deep Gate

The Arkham Horror novella for “investigator” Silas Marsh teams up the alienated sea dog with Miskatonic University librarian Abigail Foreman. She’s in the throes of a manic episode trained on apocalyptic oracles in a sixteenth-century tome. Marsh is of course kin to the Innsmouth Marshes (of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”), and the Deep Gate of the title unsurprisingly proves to be at Devil Reef off the Massachusetts coast. 

Author Chris Jackson is an old hand at nautical storytelling and fantasy, but an admitted greenhorn when it comes to horror writing, and this experience base shows in the final product. While there are a few apt touches for purposes of horror and the yog-sothothery is all faithful enough, it’s more a quest-and-challenge sort of story than a genuinely creepy one. It is a fast read, as the books in this series generally are, and it does go a little ways to fleshing out Silas as a black sheep of the hybrid Innsmouthers. 

The full-color “documentary” pages at the back of the volume show as much variety as these have in any of the other books, including correspondence, news clippings, a medical report, a scientific abstract, and a page or two from the Prophesiae Profana. The correspondence, while designed with appropriate old fonts for manual cursive and typewriting, is all anachronistically set up with headers in e-mail format: “From: … To: … Subject: …” above the body text. Also, the pages from the old tome are in English, although the story described them as being in Latin. Still, all this material does provide some entertaining supplementary perspectives on the main story, particularly the Arkham Advertiser story commending the “fine citizens” of the Marsh family.

The Silas Marsh promotional cards for Arkham Horror: The Card Game introduce this character to the game for the first time. I expect him to be fun to play, and I have already designed a deck for him to join with Ursula Downs in my first go at the latest campaign cycle The Forgotten Age.

Our Lady of Darkness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber.

Leiber Our Lady of Darkness

This book is one of those that I first read in adolescence and liked–but coming back to it decades later, I can only wonder at what I thought I understood about it. Our Lady of Darkness teems with explicit allusions to other fiction and to occult history that I could not have possibly appreciated on my initial read of it. The protagonist is fairly autobiographical (a horror writer named Franz) and the San Francisco setting is in every way integral to the plot. 

As a horror novel, it’s middling, not especially scary. But the theories of modern occultism initiated by Leiber in this book are important and influential. His notions of megapolisomancy (i.e. thaumaturgical urban psychogeography) and paramentals have persisted beyond this book, and are in fact scarier with each passing decade. Possible effects of the 5G network presently being built out far exceed the direst anticipations of Leiber’s chiliastic sorcerer de Castries. 

I re-read this book on my way to a conference in Barcelona at which one of the presenters was scheduled to speak on megapolisomancy. That whole conference seemed to be absorbed by the events of the book. At the end, I missed a flight connection, and I was re-routed through Oakland (the airport closest to downtown San Francisco and the landmarks given in the story). I joined up with a fellow passenger in London, where we were briefly stranded. He was a Mexican who works on construction in Chicago. His English was almost as bad as my Spanish, and we played chess in lieu of conversation. The synchronicity with events at the climax of the novel was a little disturbing.

Summary for the week ending Jul 15, 2018

Here’s a summary of activity for the week ending July 15, 2018.

I’ve gotten Postal Exchange and Publication Subscription mailings out on Friday, and some Patrons have let me know they’ve already gotten theirs! I’ve also already started working on the next.

Hermetic Library Postal Exchange Publication Subscription July 2018

Don’t forget that I announced the call for submissions to Hermetic Library’s anthology album for 2018, Magick, Music and Ritual 14! The first submission has arrived, so it has begun!

Hermetic Library Anthology 2018 Magick Music Ritual Call for Submissions

Still looking for help and others to join me in a working community around the library, of course.

Lots of new pages and work on old pages on the site, which is pretty much every week, really. You can always check the front page of the site which shows the most recent changes and new pages, or check out the Recent Changes special page for a full list.

Want to join me on this blog and create new art or writing for Hermetic Library? Pitch your Idea.

Help get some conversations started over on the BBS and Chat.

Be sure to check out the actual Hermetic Library, and drop a buck in the tip jar or become a Patron.

Consider also checking out what I’m up to on my personal blog and at Odd Order.

Here’s a summary of posts on the blog from last month

Some top pages at the library

Some top posts on social media

Agents of Dreamland

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R Kiernan.

Kiernan Agents of Dreamland

The “Agents” of the title are presumably the espionage operatives for different agencies who provide the primary viewpoints in this short novel: the Signalman fatigued by his encounters with Things Men Was Not Meant to Know, and Immacolata Sexton exalted as a time-loose spectator. The latter seemed a little awkward to me; she was not really mysterious enough considering how unexplained were her superhuman abilities. I wonder if she features in other stories by Kiernan.

Still, the real meat of the book is in the business being investigated: Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” meets Charlie Manson and the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult in a southern California nightmare. The tale pulls that off very well, and I wonder–are these cultists really the agents? In that case “Dreamland” is Yuggoth. It’s certainly not the Dreamland of Lord Dunsany and HPL.

Totalitopia

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Totalitopia by John Crowley.

Crowley Totalitopia

Totalitopia is the title of a John Crowley essay featured in this slender eponymous collection of articles, stories, and an interview. The one story most likely to stay with me is “Gone,” which is framed with a science fiction conceit about extraterrestrial contact along the lines of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, although in every way smaller and cosier. The critical essay regarding the fantasy work of Paul Park was my first exposure, albeit at secondhand, to this author, and I’m now quite interested. The interview with Crowley by Terry Bisson is quite good.

I took this book along for reading on a long trip by airplane, and it fulfilled its purpose admirably.

King Dragon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews King Dragon by Andrew J Offutt.

Offutt King Dragon

Offutt’s dedication for King Dragon claims for its predecessors the Lost World novels of Haggard, Doyle, Burroughs, Wells, and Howard. His world is “lost” by being remote in space, and he has populated it with a jungle and megafauna from a variety of prehistoric and prehuman ages of earth. Besides anachronistic animals, there are a lot of fanciful plants. It is all the result of long-ago terraforming and breeding by an eccentric tycoon who came to see himself as God. The religious background of Offut’s interstellar future is Muslim, which makes for a little different flavor than most science fiction written circa 1980. 

The male protagonist Jimajin Allayth is an aspiring scholar who has journeyed from Earth to explore this isolated and mysterious world. In parallel with his arrival, there is the story of Joharah, a savage inhabitant of the world who becomes an outcast from her tribe. Eventually, the two meet as captives. Once the full narrative frame is in view, with Jim and Jo together fighting against the pterodactyl forces of the backwater world’s senile demiurge, the plot wraps up with blinding speed. Death Star explodes, everyone calls it a day. 

The book is shorter than it looks, with many pages occupied by black-and-white art from Estaban Moroto, who draws an excellent mostly-naked sword-and-planet babe in the Frazetta tradition, as well as suitably scary dinosaurs. Unfortunately, not all of the illustrations are unique; many of them are merely different enlarged details of the same original drawings. The cover art of a chained Joharah contorting below a descending dragon is by Rowena Morrill, and is actually a little more lurid than the book deserves. The pictured scene does not occur in the text.