Author Archives: John Griogair Bell

About John Griogair Bell

My name is John. I'm the enigmatic super villain, known only, to some, as the Librarian.

Isis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Isis by Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, translated by Brian Stableford.

de Villiers de L'Isle Adam Stableford Isis

The proto-decadent short novel Isis was the first published prose composition of Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and has only recently been translated to English by Brian Stableford. Although the author’s dedication claims that the title “is the collective formula of a series of philosophical novels” projected to be written, none further followed, and “Isis” clearly alludes to the principal character Marchesa Tullia Fabriana.

It is noteworthy the extent to which this nineteenth-century work (set in the late eighteenth) anticipates and rehearses the tropes of the eventual modern superhero formula. Tullia is preternaturally learned, mystically initiated, and a superlative swordswoman. She has a trusty assistant/protege (recruited from orphaned destitution) and a secretly splendid headquarters. She routinely journeys out at the dead of night to aid the afflicted and heal the sick, under the anonymizing cover of a mask and specially-designed armor.

Unlike later crime-fighting capes tales, this book seems mostly unconcerned with plot, or at least fails to advance one very far. Short as it is, it indulges in some fine architectural description, anatomies of altered states of consciousness, and philosophical digressions. The style is reasonably abstruse, and its matter should be welcomed by those readers willing to tackle and appreciate classics of occult fiction such as Zanoni and Seraphita.

In the traditional Rosicrucian grade system, Tullia seems to be a rather accomplished Exempt Adept, perhaps a Babe of the Abyss. Her advancement to the grade of Master of the Temple in these terms would then be bound up with her encounter of the main viewpoint character Count Strally, a promising young man of parts who seems ready to accept her guidance.

Burning Bright

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier Burning Bright

The historical novel Burning Bright is set in London 1792-3, and features the factual persons of William Blake and Philip Astley. It centers on a family from Dorsetshire transplanted to the (to them) alien urban setting. Although I’m no specialist in the period, I’ve taken away a favorable impression of author Chevalier’s research and verisimilitude. Her characters’ words seem authentic and her narration incorporates their speech and their world smoothly. The device of the country Kellaway family learning about city life is an effective method of developing the setting. The Kellaway paterfamilias has come to London to work for Astley’s circus, and the Kellaway children become acquainted with their neighbors in Lambeth at Hercules Buildings, the Blakes. The innocent Kellaways are also juxtaposed with an experienced London underclass family, the Butterfields.

I would tend to class this story as a “comedy” in an old-fashioned sense: its principal focus is on lower-class protagonists, and the plot eventuates in an upbeat manner–though there are certainly elements that could be taken as subversive of the genre. It’s not overflowing with wit or slapstick, although there are some surprising turns.

Chevalier has developed her characters with generous sympathy, except for a few plain villains. The book reads quickly, with largish chapters named after the months of the period, and numbered subchapters to define digestible episodes. I came to this novel hoping to get a more vivid, storybook sense of the lived context of William Blake, and I think it did its job well. From the title onward, there are many opportunities seized to artfully incorporate Blake’s own words into the substance of the novel. Chevalier also provides a bibliography and overview of her historical sources in a helpful appendix.

Audience of One

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America by James Poniewozik.

Poniewozik Audience of One

James Poniewozik was one of the first writers whose columns I actively followed on the Web, back in the 1990s when he wrote for Salon. Since then, I had lost view of his work as he graduated to more prestigious positions at Time magazine and The New York Times. I was happy to return to his punchy prose and incisive observations in this book on the symbiosis between Donald J. Trump and the American media landscape.

Poniewozik treats Trump’s long history as a media figure as central, not incidental, to his electoral identity and success. Trump was coeval with television itself, and neither of them have been unchanging. The author protests that he is not writing a biography of the human being Trump so much as a history of the character generated and inhabited by Trump as a television personality. The larger thesis and structure of the book he eventually sums up thus: Trump “watched TV, and then he courted TV, and then he starred on TV, and then he became TV. He achieved a psychic bond with the creature, and it lowered its head, let him climb on its back, and carried him to the White House” (236). The narrative of this progress through “businessman” celebrity, reality TV hosting, cable news pugilism, and Twitter demagoguery is filled with astonishing anecdotes that tie the whole thing into a single hyperreal composition.

This book is not about policy, and it is about politics only in the broad cultural sense. Alas, no one today can afford not to give a damn about Donald Trump, and that is the measure of his crowning achievement to date. “To live in America post-2016 was to live inside the rattled mind of a septuagenarian insomniac cable-news junkie” (270). Stories of regulatory capture and accelerating ecocide, concentration camps for refugees, egocentric foreign policy, and evisceration of Constitutional norms (beyond the long-abused Bill of Rights) are strangely outside the scope of the present treatment, which–like its subject–sees them mostly as means to an end. That end is an agonistic hypostasis: the “gorilla channel” where every actual problem is just fodder for the virtual conflict that ravenously consumes mass attention.

I recommend Audience of One as a fast, nearly compulsive, read, holding up an unflattering mirror to our reality-TV political culture.

For the Chance of Union

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews For the Chance of Union: Proceedings of the Eleventh Biennial National Ordo Templi Orientis Conference, a selection of papers from the eleventh biennial NOTOCON of the United States Grand Lodge, in Orlando, Florida, 2017.

Ordo Templi Orientis OTO For the Chance of Union

This slender sixth collection of papers presented at the National Conference of OTO USA includes facsimiles of the program materials for the conference and full texts of about a third of the presentations. The ones that are included are a diverse bunch, covering Thelemic culture, occult history, ceremonial ritual, and magical technique, among other topics. There are two papers on Enochian angel magick, one on the editorial history and infrastructure of the Goetia, the Grand Master’s address with reflections on religion and contemporary society, the Deputy Grand Master’s talk on the nature of “success,” Thelemic songs, theory of “magical gender,” and a review of the Crusades relative to Thelemic chivalry. The quality of content here is on a par with previous years, even if this volume has a lower page-count than average.

Delirium’s Mistress

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Delirium’s Mistress by Tanith Lee.

Lee Delirium's Mistress

I am not the only one to have remarked the Arabian Nights quality to the nested and proliferating stories in Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth books. But by this fourth volume, the use of biblical tropes seems to have increased to the point where they help to inform the content as much as Scheherazade does the style. Always subverted in the amoral otherworldly context of Lee’s fantasy, incidents in Delerium’s Mistress include her versions of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain (i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah) and the tempting of Jesus in the wilderness, among others.

Earlier books in this series have not lacked for sexiness, but wow. The coition of the undersea prince Tavir with the witch goddess Azhriaz is quite a textual achievement (281-3). This book also plays up the cosmic in impressive sequences like the creation of the three avenging angels (207-12). On the whole, it is the least capable of standing alone among the books of its series, being especially dependent on the events of Delusion’s Master and also often referencing the other two prior volumes. In fact, it knits together the various threads of previous stories so well, that I wonder if Lee can have had this book, centered on the half-mortal daughter of one of the Lords of Darkness, as a planned destination all along.

My suspicions in this regard are also informed by the strong resonance of Delerium’s Mistress with Lee’s first-published novel for adults, The Birthgrave. There is a shared scale and narrative sensibility, and the parallel roles of the protagonist seem to run in a reversed sequence. The philosophical outcomes are much the same, although a significant maturation of perspective is also present in this later book.

In addition to the attractive and appropriate cover art from Michael Whelan, this original paperback edition includes a handful of interior illustrations by Lee herself.

The Investigators of Arkham Horror

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Investigators of Arkham Horror: Tales of Adventure and Madness by Katrina Ostrander.

Ostrander The Investigators of Arkham Horror

I have argued (unsuccessfully, via a database submission at BoardGameGeek) that this book should be considered a game accessory. As a collection of weird fiction, it is passable at best. But as a “bootstrapping” instrument to orient players to their characters in the Arkham Files games, it is excellent. Each investigator has a vignette, typically four or five pages in length, to supply them with psychological orientation and biographical details. The book is huge, full of art reproduced from the games at a more generous scale on glossy paper, with a sewn binding to keep the thing together. (It’s so heavy that glue binding would surely break in short order.) The cover art is beautiful, but there’s no dust jacket.

Maybe you wouldn’t bother to read four pages of character background for an evening’s play of Elder Sign or Eldritch Horror. But for the multi-session campaign play of Arkham Horror: The Card Game (which requires out-of-play time for deck construction anyhow), the sort of extra consideration given here to individual investigators is terrific.

This book is obviously intended to provide the framework for a narrative canon, and several of the episodes here have provided points of departure for the subsequent novellas. I was especially gratified by some of the stories for investigators who have had little exposure in other Arkham Files fiction, such as Minh Thi Phan and William Yorick. I think my favorite story for the story’s sake out of the dozens here was the one about the prestidigitator and occultist Dexter Drake.

Hermetic Library Reader’s Theatre 1dec2019

For Hermetic Library Reader’s Theatre on 1dec2019, I read Liber B vel Magi sub figûra I.

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This is a presentation of Hermetic Library — Archiving, Engaging and Encouraging the living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema for over 20 years.

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