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.

Lords of Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lords of Atlantis by Wallace West.

West Lords of Atlantis

Lords of Atlantis supplies a science-fictionalized euhemerism to classical mythology, characterizing the Olympian gods as the final generation of the human elite in a prehistoric Atlantean empire established by colonists returning from Mars. The city of Atlantis is located in a dry Mediterranean basin isolated from the Atlantic by a dam at what would be the straits of Gibraltar. Their technology functions on the basis of broadcast power generated from radioactive “orichalcum” and transmitted from the “Tower of Bab El.” In the course of the novel, an uprising among the Atlantean vassal states leads to the doom of the empire and Atlantis itself.

The book offers a typical assortment of Edgar Rice Burroughs-style fantasy-adventure tropes, and the prose reads something like a superhero comic from the early 1960s (when it was indeed first published). The character interactions must have seemed “modern” to mid-twentieth-century readers, but now read as dated and provincial. Paleological megafauna feature in unpersuasive ways, as the Egyptians have pterodactyl cavalry, and saber-toothed tigers roam the Mediterranean wilderness.

Twenty-one numbered chapters and an unnumbered “L’Envoi” tempted me to consider whether the tarot trumps might have been used in some way to structure the story, and I concluded that they were not. Most chapters have epigraphs, about half of which are from Plato’s writings on Atlantis. These don’t really elevate the tone of the story or lend it any real sophistication, but they do make it seem as if the author was perhaps taking it a little more seriously than it deserved.

Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark: A Guide to Summoning Spirits, Divining the Future, and Invoking the Supernatural by Lucia Peters.

Peters Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark

Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark is a curious little artifact. It’s pretty in a way that one expects to be on offer at Hot Topic: a duodecimo-sized hardcover with black paper-coated boards, small black and red type, and red page edges. The “games” in the book are a variety of practices assuming or implying paranormal influences, but largely devoid of metaphysical assertions. Author Lucia Peters’ introduction situates these historically in a descent from 19th-century spiritualism through parlor games to “sleepover” activities. In the end-matter, she cites her sources, the majority of which are online. There is an undertone of anthropological folklore study to the preliminary descriptions of these practices, but the text is structured as rules for twenty-four games, with a uniform title page for each specifying its “Risk level,” “Objective,” “Additional Warnings,” and “Reward.” The diction throughout is cautionary and portentous, patently intended to spook the reader. The imperative mood predominates.

None of the “games” are competitive, beyond the basic I dare you sensibility built in to the social context of their transmission. Some must be played alone, some require collaboration, and some are flexible about the number of players. The best-known of them is given in full detail at the outset: “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board,” which Peters traces back to the 17th century. It is easy to imagine that this particular practice has been passed down among children from the Middle Ages onward, or even from antiquity. While the physical hazards of these games are usually quite limited, with candle-flame standing out as a common one, their “dangerous” character will tend to stem from the psychological (or psychic?) condition of the players.

The subtitle characterizes the book’s content with reference to various occult practices: “Summoning Spirits, Divining the Future, and Invoking the Supernatural.” But as I mentioned above, there’s really precious little metaphysical baggage involved. To the extent that these games might have whole-cloth applicability for occultists, they will likely appeal most to surrealists, practitioners of chaos magick, and other non- or anti-traditional schools. As post-modern society descends into epistemic closure, “the dark” that is the context for games like these looks temptingly like an operating system prompt allowing the experimenter to run routines outside of the quotidian program of reality. Those who manage to injure or frighten themselves with practices from this book might seek relief in the safeguards of more traditional occultism, or even the mind-closing sorcery of conventional religions.

The safest way to consume this book is as mere textual entertainment, simply imagining what it might be like for someone to play these games. Treated in this fashion, it is a fast read supplying access to the “weird, creepy things” for which Peters expresses affection. Left to sit unread on the shelf, it remains small and attractive.

Stations of the Tide

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick.

Swanwick Stations of the Tide

Features that seem to have put other readers off of Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide were all to the good for me. The protagonist is nameless throughout, an interplanetary “bureaucrat” who reminded me more than a little of Michael Cisco’s “divinity student,” in that he is a cog in an opaque hierarchical machine, and his transformation–eventually quite radical–is the real aim of the narrative. Comparisons I’ve read to the work of Gene Wolfe also seem fair, although I was more reminded of The Fifth Head of Cerberus than I was of Wolfe’s New Sun opus. Metafictional anchors include Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Stations of the Tide juxtaposes sorcery (pharmaceutical, ritual, and meditative), high technology, and espionage/crime trickery, with lots of ambivalence about which is responsible at any given moment for the difficulties being presented. A key element of the high tech is “surrogacy” by which humans achieve telepresence through androids intended to simulate them as well as to sense the remote environments. This mechanism–which seems almost inevitable given the availability of the constituent technologies–tends to undermine characters’ individuality in provocative ways throughout the book. Also important is the Puzzle Palace, a shared virtual environment where the bureaucrat’s Division of Technology Transfer maintains its functional offices for interplanetary operations.

The setting is the planet Miranda orbiting the star Prospero, where humans have been resident for centuries in a settler-colonist capacity. Miranda undergoes catastrophic flooding of major land masses on a recurrent long-year period, and the story takes place just as such a “winter” is imminent, with whole continents being evacuated in anticipation of it. Much of the indigenous life has the ability to adapt to such changes, transforming with the great “tide.”

This book is one that demands careful reading and active interpretation; it’s not genre junk-food. It does repay the effort in vivid images and rich ideas.

The Enticement of Cindy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Enticement of Cindy: A Heady Brew of Luscious Ladies and Delectable Indiscretions by John Colleton.

Colleton The Enticement of Cindy

This book marks the first time I’ve been able to read one of the fourteen Cloris & Amy books of John Colleton following on its immediate predecessor (The Delights of Anna, in this case). I was surprised to find that the narrator had changed! The other books I’ve read all had Bill Benton–actually absent and only occasionally mentioned here–as the narrator. This book is “written by” John Dellmore in the way that the others I’ve read have been by Bill. Other than a brief detour to New York City, it takes place entirely in Charleston, and it is centered on John’s relationship to his aunt Amy. John is back from Oxford and about to embark on an unpromising academic career, but he is drawn into the “charmed circle” of Amy, Cloris, and their lucrative and lubricious projects.

The story proceeds with the help of many embedded texts, primarily Amy’s diary, in which the reader is offered the frisson of seeing through John’s eyes Amy’s private accounts of her early encounters with him, as he both indulges his own curiosity and uses the content as material for a screenplay. The screenplay draft itself is another component. There is also a snippet from a Bill Benton book (one of the other Cloris & Amy novels?) and various pieces of media reportage. Colleton flaunts some esoteric erudition with throwaway references to the Hashishin and Jakob Boehme in rather surreal news reports (214, 218).

Colleton succeeds in giving John a different voice than Bill, and I think I preferred it on the whole. John is conscious of his own unfortunate tendency towards dry academicism and defeats it fairly well. This younger narrator is however no less preternaturally fortunate in winning the attentions and affections of the women in the story. The eponymous Cindy is a former competitive diver and Las Vegas dancer who is being groomed as a candidate for public office, but she doesn’t even get a mention until past the midpoint of the novel. As is typical for these books, a subplot (superplot?) makes hay out of moral hypocrisy in politics, and the ending is comedic with some incidental violence helping to tie up the loose ends. Published in 1981, it definitely reflects the US culture of its time on a variety of levels.

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.