The Arcanum

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler.

Wheeler The Arcanum

The Arcanum is an occult thriller centered on historical personalities, and set in New York City, 1919. The team of protagonists are brought out of retirement following the assassination of the adept who had first organized them. The heroes themselves are portrayed with varying levels of fidelity to historical detail: Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Marie Laveau, and H.P. Lovecraft. 

Of the four, Lovecraft gets the roughest handling from author Wheeler: the rationalist skeptic is represented as a credulous “demonologist.” This portrayal is in contrast with real HPL, who expressed his perspective in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.” (1932) Or his blunt remark in even earlier correspondence: “The Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE.”

In fact, the occultism of The Arcanum is very non-Lovecraftian; it is centered on a quasi-Biblical sort of Nephilim mythology of the sort often found in comic books or horror movies. Add a dash of Ghostbusters: the “Eltdown Shard” contraption that serves as a convenient demon-detector operated by HPL is made of steampunk fail: it is steam-powered and transistorized, and spits out little Matrix-like glyphs and symbols. The demons and angels which are so central to the story are haplessly corporeal creatures with no real whiff of externality about them. 

Naturally, a tale of the occult set in 1919 New York includes a few appearances by Aleister Crowley. The Beast isn’t exactly treated sympathetically, but he’s not really a cardinal villain either. To the extent that he is relevant, he actually helps the heroes. Wheeler makes Crowley tremendously intelligent and inscrutable, and the only misplaced details are the repetitive description of his “bulging eyes,” and people addressing him familiarly as “Aleister” (rather than “AC”).

This book is the first novel of an experienced screenwriter, and it certainly shows. Nothing in Wheeler’s text could not be done more efficiently and effectively on a screen. That applies especially to the train-centered chase episode near the book’s end! All of the supernatural elements are described as if to provide specs for effects engineers. Still, keeping to such conventions certainly makes the narrative accessible and fast-paced.