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.

In the Company of Friends

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Company of Friends: Dreamwork Within a Sufi Group by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

Vaughan-Lee In the Company of Friends

Author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is very consciously speaking from within the Naqshbandi tariqa of Sufism, but the doctrinal aspects of his writing in this book are at least as much a function of Jungianism, where Self, Shadow, and Goddess are key figures. Still, it assumes a high level of somewhat conventional piety in the reader. There were points where I could have believed I was reading a more mainstream sort of post-Behmenist Protestant mysticism.

The subtitle “Dreamwork in a Sufi Group” denotes the context more than the topic of this book. It seems somewhat loosely organized, and the tone is that of sermons, each with one or two dreams that serve as exempla to discuss mystical aspiration and attainment. Several passages emphasize the value of group work to the essentially solitary mystic, as well as the value of dreams to the mystic attempting to awaken a consciousness of the divine. I think I most enjoyed the chapter “People of the Secret,” with its subheadings “Love’s Martyr” (i.e. Al-Hallaj), “The Nature of Longing,” “Sharing the Secrets of Love,” and “The Secret of Seduction.”

Although the essays have both descriptive and hortatory elements, they are not procedural in character. The text is not a cookbook of gnosis. At the same time, it acknowledges the importance of a “tradition” comprehending “rituals and practices”: “This may be through dance, or through prostrations, or through silence. It can be through chanting or pilgrimages, fasting or the sharing of dreams. … We are attracted to a path or lineage that is in tune with our soul, and whose practices will help orient ourself towards our true nature” (170-1).

Vaughan-Lee’s citations are mostly sources familiar to me: Corbin, Massignon, Schimmel, along with Sufi classics and the Qur’an. He received his authority in the Naqshbandi Order from Irina Tweedie, and he refers to her in this book without any explanation of her standing or background. Inspiring a curiosity about her work was perhaps one of the main benefits of this book to me.

Deep Roots

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys.

Emrys Deep Roots

Deep Roots is the third Aphra Marsh story of the mid-century US from the perspective of Lovecraftian “monsters.” While all these tales show a thorough acquaintance with and considerable affection for the whole Lovecraft oeuvre, they each have one or two signal stories to which they refer. In “The Litany of Earth” author Emrys is chiefly working in relation to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In Winter Tide she draws on “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” And Deep Roots takes its chief elements from “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

“The Whisperer in Darkness” is easily one of my favorite HPL stories, and a rarely-credited seminal tale of extraterrestrial invasion. When it comes to Emrys’ re-visioning of the Mi-Go who are the central menace of that source story, she totally nails it. The last time I felt such a vividly ambivalent attraction to a cosmopolitan alien intelligence was for the Multipliers of Ken MacLeod’s Engine City. Emrys’ treatment of the Dreamlands follows that of the recent Arkham Horror novella by Jennifer Brozek (To Ride the Black Wind) and the Dreamland-native Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. There are no cats in this book, but the ghouls are important and well-conceived.

I didn’t feel overwhelmed or distracted by new characters in Deep Roots, and it offered some satisfying development of the ones established in the earlier stories. I liked it more than Winter Tide, but I’m not sure how it would work as a standalone read. I think it needs its predecessor stories for proper appreciation. I continue to enjoy Emrys’ work in what has been alleged to be the “mythos” of yog-sothothery, which she more realistically terms a “sandbox.”

From the Legend of Biel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews From the Legend of Biel by Mary Staton.

Staton From the Legend of Biel

I found my way to this 1974 sf novel by way of a commendation in the occultist memoir In the Center of the Fire. The Legend of Biel was author Mary Staton’s first book, used as the re-launch of publisher Ace’s Science Fiction Special series.

The story is framed as a sort of Clarke-style hard sf involving the investigation of mysterious architecture on an exoplanet MC6, with difficult mission constraints and conflicting motives among the explorers. While this setup intimates a “first contact” scenario, the book never actually presents any non-human intelligence other than the possibly posthuman “Thoacdien.” There are however multiple human civilizations brought into view: the terrestrial humans of the frame story, the utopian telepaths of the Thoacdien Federation, and the indigenous Higgite nation of Thoacdien V.

The protagonist of the frame story is UN scientist Howard Scott, but the “Biel” of the title is the central character of the nested narrative, and she is a mutant child of the Thoacdien polity. Especially toward the end of the book, small sections are offered in a first-person voice from Biel, and she is the only character to assume this level of focus. Her story eventuates in a somewhat unsatisfying “and then she woke up” gimmick, which fails to account for much of the third-person detail supplied. Still, as an allegory of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (per Jim Wasserman’s reading) the “Legend” is provocative.

Issues of “racial” difference (in the US sociopolitical sense) are raised explicitly in the frame story and implicitly in the legend. David Hobart, the black African member of the UN research team “had paid his dues and was grudgingly admitted to the human race” (19). On Thoacdien V the Federation mentor characters are black, while the savage Higgites are conspicuously white.

The evolutionary advances of the Federation society include the obsolescence of viviparity and the removal of dominance and submission from pedagogy. The resulting picture reminded me more than a little of earlier science fiction such as Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X. The rather abstracted scenery of Thoacdien V drafted itself in my imagination in the style of Jean “Moebius” Griaud. Throughout the book there is typography that helps to flag various registers of the narrative, but it results in some infelicities like long chapters entirely in italics and often indulges in expressionistic passages of what looks to be concrete poetry.

I did feel that the resolution of the Biel plot was a bit clumsy, but I received the closing bracket of the Howard Scott frame story more warmly. While I don’t know that I can echo Wasserman’s appraisal of the book as “excellent,” I don’t regret having taken his word that it was “worth reading.”

Samalio Pardulus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Samalio Pardulus by Otto Julius Bierbaum, illustrated by Alfred Kubin, translated by W C Bamberger.

Bierbaum Samalio Pardulus

Samalio Pardulus is named after its principal character, a creature of transcendent decadence and misanthropy in the mode of the earlier Des Essientes of Huysmans or the later Fantazius Mallare of Ben Hecht. Like Huysmans, author Bierbaum was involved in the Symbolist culture that detached itself from Romanticism and contributed to Expressionism, although in this little book the Gothic elements are quite palpable.

Samalio Pardulus was a painter in medieval Albania. Rather than documenting him from an omniscient third-person narrator as in À rebours or through the medium of his own written journals as in Fantazius Mallare, Bierbaum places two narrative frames between the reader and the character. First, there is a “staid philistine” Italian painter Messer Giacomo, imported to instruct Samalio, whose journals form the purported documentary basis of the story in the form of extensive quotations. Then there is the anonymous archivist who introduces and comments on Giacomo’s account. Through the course of the book, this archivist outside of the quotes retreats to invisibility, having left behind only a suitable readerly suspicion regarding Giacomo’s perceptiveness.

Samalio himself is ugly, talented, and blasphemous. He is concerned with making objects out of his imaginings, and to the extent that this work tends to horrify his pious teacher, his explanations of it become theological, deprecating a cosmic demiurge and exalting his own “godly pleasure in the grotesque” (14). Beyond his inchoate gnosticism and solipsism, Samalio defines himself with incestuous ambitions for his beautiful sister. These eventuate in a numinous domestic apocalypse. The interrelation of the principal characters–Samalio, his sister Maria Bianca, their father the Count, an unnamed watchman, and Messer Giacomo–eventually becomes so outre that it awoke in me suspicions of allegory.

This first English edition is illustrated with many full-page charcoal drawings by Alfred Kubin that appeared in the original 1911 German edition. Some of these depict Samalio’s paintings, but most are scenes from the novel.

Omnium Gatherum: 23mar2020

An irregular hodgepodge of links gathered together … Omnium Gatherum for March 23, 2020

I hope you and yours are all doing well and weal in these times. I’m going to go ahead and make this particular Omnium Gatherum available for everyone, not just Patrons of any particular perk. Be safe and sane out there!

I wanted to mention that Crisis Text Line is an organization providing free, confidential support to people in crisis. Anxious about coronavirus? Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. In Canada, text 686868. In the UK, 85258. If you or anyone you know might be in need of someone to talk to about, about not just specifically about novel coronavirus, but other things that may be coming up right now, keep that number handy. I’m sure there are other resources available to you, but I know about that one and that is just a text away, in case you’re in need.

Here’s some things I’ve found that you may be interested in checking out:

What have you been seeing around and thinking about lately?! What have you seen that caught your eye? Thinking about something lately, or reading something interesting, or have a project you’re working on? Share your own Omnium Gatherum items in the comments for everyone else to gander at with you!