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.

Then I am alone, he told himself. I am the last of the Jedi. He seemed to hear Ben’s voice, faint and indistinct, as if from a great distance. “Not the last of the old Jedi, Luke. The first of the new.”

Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire

Hermetic quote Zahn Heir to the Empire first of the new

The Star-Crowned Kings

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Star-Crowned Kings by Robert Chilson.

Chilson The Star-Crowned Kings

This old gold-spine DAW paperback faked me out with its packaging. The jacket copy on the back cover uses chess as an extended metaphor to the point where I thought that it would be an ingredient of the novel itself, and I was thus hoping to add this book to my survey of “living chess” in fantasy and sf literature. The Kelly Freas art on the cover shows a gigantic (scale supplied by a passing spaceship) naked girl in golden manacles and chains on a starry background, which suggested that the book might be one of the salaciously-inclined sword-and-planet titles of its era. But the art was also a false cue.

The novel is set in a far future after widespread interstellar colonization by post-terrestrial “Starlings”–a speciated mutation of humanity whose telekinetic abilities form the basis of faster-than-light transport. “Mere” humans continue to outnumber Starlings and have been settled on the colonized worlds as a subordinated workforce. The protagonist Race (his name, “Race”) is a supremely rare human “latent” who develops Starling powers at adolescence, and the book concerns his struggle to rise above his inherited human station.

It’s not a long book, and it’s a fairly fast read. It does end without resolving many of the dilemmas in which the author had placed the main characters, and there may have been some unfulfilled intention to issue sequels. Characterization isn’t very sophisticated, and an awful lot of attention is spent inside Race’s head as he worries about his problems. The main merit of the book is its world-building. But it wasn’t such a fascinating setting that I’d recommend it on that basis alone.

Vineland

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Vineland by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Vineland

I guzzled this then-new novel down with fascination and delight in a period of less than forty-eight hours during my senior year as a college student in 1990. (Was there chemical assistance in this herculean reading effort? I suspect that there was.) At the time, it seemed like a thematic sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. It also set up a lot of tropes and themes that I was happy to see Pynchon revisit in his later books.

Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes: The Initiatory Teachings of the Last Supper by Mark H Gaffney.

Gaffney Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes

Despite the subtitle, the “Last Supper” does not loom large in this book, which professes to offer an exegesis of the Naassene teachings disclosed in the fifth chapter of Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies. In particular, the significance of the paradigmatic Eucharist is reduced to a demonstration of divine immanence, and this point is accomplished in the first half of the book. Later digressions about grail mysteries and subtle human anatomy do not add markedly to this understanding.

On the whole, the book is entertainingly wide-ranging and makes decent use of its sources. These run from very mainstream works in biblical source criticism and the history of Gnosticism to a mix of provocative and “alternative” writings like those of Graham Hancock, Peter Tompkins, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Author Gaffney’s relationship to Jungianism is a little peculiar, in that he professes to be “a Jungian,” and yet he thinks that the psychologist is being “dismissive” when Jung characterizes Gnostic doctrines as deriving “from the unconscious” (142-3), which surely shows a misunderstanding of Jung, whatever Gaffney’s appreciation of Gnosticism. The historical value of this book is chiefly limited by Gaffney’s axiomatic acceptance of the empirical reality of the savior god “Jesus Christ” as a historical human being and his reluctance to compare primitive Christianity to the other (“pagan”) mysteries of late antiquity. The latter of these faults is especially galling in light of the extent to which this issue is raised explicitly in the text of Hippolytus that the book uses for its touchstone.

Gaffney includes as an appendix the text of “The Naassene Sermon” from Hippolytus, in an edition that he has composited from the translations of Birdsall, MacMahon, and Legge, with interpretive influence from G.R.S. Mead. It is valuable to include this material for reference, but some of the editorial choices are questionable. In particular, Gaffney retains the source notations introduced by Mead to distinguish a pagan syncretist source (S), a Jewish mystical commentator (J), the Naassene Christian scribe (C), and the heresiological anthologist Hippolytus (H). Gaffney rightly questions the value of dividing J and C, yet he not only keeps these ubiquitous symbols, but does so as simple in-line capital letters that are ubiquitous throughout the text, impairing its readability. (The letters could have been superscripted, or better yet, omitted with italics used for H passages and underscores for S.)

Gaffney’s eventual position in this book is one that fits comfortably within the range of post-Theosophical occultism, complete with invocations of Vedic mysticism. For this latter topic, he is conspicuously reliant on the 1980 volume Layayoga by Shyam Sundar Goswami, albeit with a well-articulated appreciation of the Western reception of this tradition since the 19th century. Other than a general affinity for “New Age” ideas, this book represents no coherent neo-Gnostic school. The aspects of the book I found most novel and interesting involved the study of hydraulic Hebrew mysticism: a set of tropes regarding the magical manipulation of rivers and other waters throughout various biblical texts and related traditions, viewed in terms of mystical attainment. While I don’t endorse all of its conclusions, I appreciate its spirit, and I think it is an engaging and helpful excursion for readers investigating the re-interpretation of Christian origins and Gnostic mysticism.

By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.

Akira Kurosawa, & al., Seven Samurai

Hermetic quote Kurosawa Seven Samurai protecting others save yourself

But an emptiness filled my spirit, not forceful enough to be labeled depression. “Malaise” fit the bill nicely. When night settled in, I felt grateful. Sometimes sleep is the best way to surf time.

Rajnar Vajra, Her Scales Shine Like Music

Hermetic Quote Vajra Her Scales Shine Like Music malaise

Dance on Saturday

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dance on Saturday: Stories by Elwin Cotman, due August, 2020.

Cotman Dance on Saturday

The stories in Dance on Saturday were my first exposure to the work of Elwin Cotman, although some have evidently been previously published elsewhere. They range from a gritty magical realism (as in “Seven Watsons,” a story set in the Pittsburgh Job Corps) to a surreal mythic high fantasy (“The Son’s War,” featuring magically incredible craftsmanship). The longest of the stories in this collection is the titular “Dance on Saturday,” which treats a coterie of immortals in contemporary Pittsburgh, wearing the identities of a black church congregation.

Most of these tales have black protagonists, and the African-American experience furnishes notable and sophisticated inflections of Cotman’s fantasies. The unusual exception is the story “Among the Zoologists,” where the narrating character not only fails to signal a racial identity, but deftly avoids claiming a gender over forty pages which incidentally feature some hair-raising sexual escapades. That story also left me with an enhanced appreciation for Cotman’s work, because it demonstrated his intimate fondness for the 20th-century canon of pulp and comic-book fantastic literature, and thus his own writing’s remoteness from its conventions signals his active creativity and independence of mind.

He is a capable stylist as a writer. These six stories tended to be too long for me to finish in a single sitting, and I was consistently glad to pick up the book again at the earliest opportunity. The ends of his stories often break the narrative frame that he has established or transform its context. Each of the tales in Dance on Saturday is memorable for a different reason, and I’m glad to have read them all.