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.

Blood of Baalshandor

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Blood of Baalshandor by Richard Lee Byers. [Note: the only place I currently find this in stock is at Miniature Market. But, presumably, it will show up in the usual places eventually, such as Amazon]

Byers Blood of Baalshandor Arkham Horror

After five Arkham Horror investigator novellas there was a hiatus, and the Dexter Drake entry Blood of Baalshandor is the first to appear for two years. In format it resembles its predecessors: a slender hardcover of about a hundred pages, with a color-illustrated appendix on glossy paper, and a little set of promotional Arkham Horror: The Card Game cards for the Dexter Drake character.

I had high hopes for this one, because the Dexter Drake chapter in The Investigators of Arkham Horror was my favorite from that book. Dex is a WW I veteran and a successful stage magician as “Drake the Great.” His childhood interest in magic has led him to both his career in legerdermain and an interest in actual sorcery. The Blood of Baalshandor centers on his relationship with his “lovely assistant” Molly Maxwell (“the Exotic Morgana”), with conflict generated by his coming out of the closet with respect to his occultist beliefs and the phenomena that she is then subjected to. The early part of the book has a nice Ninth Gate (i.e. Club Dumas) vibe, as Dex and Molly attend an underground auction of occult books and paraphernalia in Arkham.

The Blood of Baalshandor is the second Arkham Horror novella by author Richard Lee Bryers (the first instance of a returning author in the series), and I liked it better than his earlier entry Ire of the Void, although that one was pretty good. It furnishes a lot of subjective details about the working of magic in the Arkham Files setting, as Dex uses spells cobbled together from loose pages of the Necronomicon invoking the demon Yaztaroth. [ . . . (hover over to read this spoiler) . . . ]

The cards set Dexter up as a mystic-class character with additional access to rogue-class cards, and a special ability that enhances his use of assets. Besides the signature cards Molly Maxwell and Yaztaroth, the story also alludes to various established elements of the game, such as the level-1 rogue card Lockpicks, a natural part of Dex’s escape artist kit. I’m very much looking forward to trying out a Dexter deck soon.

Magic was just something people liked to believe in, something they thought they could feel or sense, something that made everything more than just mechanical certainty. Something that made them more than flesh and bone.

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust more than flesh and bone

The Natural History of Religion

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Natural History of Religion by David Hume.

Hume The Natural History of Religion

Hume’s Natural History of Religion is an early foray into comparative religious studies. As a professed partisan of “genuine Theism and Religion” (21), Hume shows his own implicit theological orientation to be an unsurprising Enlightenment Deism. The “natural history” element of his account emphasizes what he understood to be the chronological priority of polytheism to (mono-) theism, and the general rooting of religious behavior and identity in relatively base fears and appetites.

As editor H.E. Root notes, Hume’s primary historical data are rather incomplete and under-interpreted from the perspective of more recent studies of the same questions. His overall polemical fabric, is, however, nicely woven. While giving greater theological credit to the theists (evidently the Abrahamic religions), he also notes that their loftier virtues are reflected in more significant vices than pagan polytheists ever exhibited. The second major arc of the text is a series of comparisons between polytheism and theism on the counts of “Persecution and Toleration,” “courage or abasement,” “reason or absurdity,” and “Doubt or Conviction.” In this sequence of short chapters, the illustrations grow more and more amusing, climaxing with a series of jokes about the Eucharist in the question of “Doubt or Conviction” (55-7).

After the sets of comparisons, Hume moves on to a pox on both houses section, in which he castigates religions generally on grounds of “impious conceptions of the divine nature” and “bad influence on morality.” These are the most contentious chapters, and likely the ones that especially earned the alarm and reprobation of his contemporaries. But they are soundly argued.

In his “Editor’s Introduction,” Root understands the final gesture of Hume’s text to be one proposing that philosophy be a “substitute for religion” (20). But Root had already observed that Hume “did not believe that religion was a ‘primary’ constituent of human nature” (14) and thus it was in no need of a substitute if philosophers or others were to turn away from it. Root also neglects the intellectual history of the centuries leading up to Hume, in which theology and philosophy were often construed as mutually antagonistic efforts. An empiricist such as Hume could not help but be a partisan of philosophy in this contest, and such partisanship was perhaps the motive guiding this entire text.

Prophet Against Empire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Blake: Prophet Against Empire by David V Erdman.

Erdman Blake

Psychologizing and spiritualizing critics of William Blake’s prophecies have generally taken their giants and fairies as subsisting outside of the continuum of political and social history. At best, they have (like Northrop Frye) allowed a cultural context and a distinctive position in intellectual history for these sui generis and highly opaque texts. Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire is an impressive and effective effort to provide the immediate and evolving political context of Blake’s work as “a poet’s interpretation of the history of his own times.” It was first published in 1954, and the copy I read is the significantly revised and expanded second edition of 1969.

Many sections of Prophet Against Empire were somewhat illuminating to me for their picture of English history generally. Erdman observes some popular support in England for the American Revolution, with a significant presence of republican and anti-imperialist sentiment among the urban working classes. Even passing into Blake’s early 19th century, the militarism of the English government, the neglect of the laboring classes, and the suppression of dissent were themes that seemed up to the minute for 21st-century Imperial US-Americans.

Erdman treats Blake’s entire lifespan, visiting in its course the authorship of all the prophecies, and I read these in tandem with Erdman’s book. While it is certainly true that these texts do have spiritual and psychological dimensions beyond their political enthusiasms, I think it would be a loss to overlook, and a crime to ignore, the palpable political statements they contain.

The full significance of Blake’s “mythological” figures may shift and revolve through the course of the different prophecies, but Erdman persuaded me of such passing identities as Rintrah for William Pitt (202 etc.), Theotormon for John Stedman (230-33), Tharmas for Thomas Paine (298-301), Palamabron for Parliament (424-26), and so forth. The analysis here does not reduce the prophecies tout court to political allegories, but it lays bare the political roots and motives of different figures and tropes as part of the artistic whole, and no incidental part at that.

Decades later, when the eminent historian E.P. Thompson came to write his study of antinomian religion in Blake, he praised Erdman’s prior work to the extent that “On the directly political themes I have (no doubt to the surprise of some readers) little to add” (Witness Against the Beast, xiii). I doubt that Blake: Prophet Against Empire can be much appreciated without a firsthand experience of Blake’s prophecies. But anyone who has that experience can benefit tremendously from Erdmans’ research and conclusions.