Category Archives: Hermetic Library Reading Room

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism in a broad sense, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

The Dragonslayer

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: The Dragonslayer [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 4 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone The Dragonslayer

Phoney Bone is the primary actor in this segment of the Bone story, although for all his scheming, he is out of his depth, as usual. It is unclear until the end of the volume, whether he is accidentally helping the heroes, or unwittingly harming them. Thorn advances toward maturity and purposefulness, and not a minute too soon. On the whole, this stretch is somewhat tense and plot-heavy.

War in Heaven

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War in Heaven [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.

Williams War in Heaven

I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater TrumpsDescent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read. 

The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)

I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey. 

First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.

To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)

The Last Ritual

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Ritual [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by S A Sidor, cover by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Coulthart The Last Ritual

The Last Ritual is the second of a series of novels set in the Arkham Horror game milieu and published by Aconyte Books. Like the first, it features a protagonist who is not one of the stable of player character investigators from the games, along with important cameo appearances from established investigators–in this case, Preston Fairmont, Calvin Wright, and Norman Withers. The principal character of The Last Ritual is artist painter Alden Oakes, a scion of the French Hill Arkham elite.

This tale is set in the 1920s, and the prose offers no howling anachronisms, but the telling shows influences of more recent horror fiction. At the same time, the imposition of a frame story in which Oakes narrates his horrific experiences to a cub journalist put me in mind of 19th-century horror greats Poe and Bierce. Although Oakes starts his tale in France, the bulk of it revolves around a modest number of locations in Arkham, Massachusetts. The charismatic Surrealist Juan Hugo Balthazarr serves as a focus for enigmatic menace.

The mood and pacing of this novel is very different from its predecessor The Wrath of N’Kai. Where the earlier book had a real pulp adventure feel, despite its supernatural elements and shady settings, The Last Ritual is definitely weird horror through and through. Oakes is no hardened he-man, and his epistemological inadequacies lead to vacillating personal loyalties as well as profound fear and confusion. Author Sidor resists clarifying for the reader any number of the painter’s strange experiences, and the outcome of the story is not at all like the one in the other book.

Incidentally, you might think from seeing online images of the excellent cover art by John Coulthart that the cover is a shiny foil affair, but it is in fact a flat matte cover with clever art deco styling in suggestive hues. The building that dominates the cover is the Silver Gate Hotel, around which much of the story revolves.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and found it to be one of the best in the various Arkham Horror fiction series.

Mere Christianity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mere Christianity [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by C S Lewis.

Lewis Mere Christianity

Mere crap. 

A copy of this book was loaned to me by an Evangelical Free Church member who had come to visit my parents when the latter were shopping for a new congregation. The fellow was a Biblical inerrantist conspicuously lacking in social perception. Lewis’ book shows the author to be a comical bigot–certainly more intelligent, but not a whit wiser than the man who loaned it to me. I returned the book to its owner along with a long written critique, which I’d be happy to reproduce here, but I didn’t keep a copy. All this transpired many years ago. 

If you’re an intellectually underfed Christian looking for some blithe arguments to justify your existing biases, then this book is for you. Others may read it for a sad demonstration of the sort of rationales such people adopt.

A Circus of Hells

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Circus of Hells [Amazon] by Poul Anderson.

Anderson A Circus of Hells

I had read some of author Anderson’s fantasy novels before, but never his science fiction, and I note that A Circus of Hells is the second of a series of something like ten Terran Empire novels with the protagonist Dominic Flandry. I was motivated to pick it up by the jacket copy, which described an “infernal chess game on a forsaken moon” with pieces that were “strange, inhuman creatures…controlled by a deranged and brilliant computer brain.” I was hoping for a further spin on the living chess trope that is central to ERB’s Chessmen of Mars, and stems originally from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Unfortunately, the chess adventure was over by the end of the eighth chapter out of twenty. 

Far more important than the AI-driven robot chess game were the various intrigues with the human-rivalling Merseian race, and the exotic climate and native intelligences of the far-flung planet Talwin. The scenario and various emphases of the narrative reminded me of the SF role-playing game Traveller, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson’s Terran Empire books were inspirational for the game authors. 

While a lot of the astronomical information seemed pretty up-to-date for science fiction written circa 1970, and the xenobiological ideas were fairly inventive, the galactic imperial setting was much like many written twenty years earlier. I was especially disappointed to find Anderson assuming the survival of Roman Catholicism basically unchanged into humanity’s interstellar far future. The conventional Christian piety of the prostitute Djana was an element I found difficult to credit, and it was quite integral to her character and her role in the progress of the story. 

In any case, I found the book as a whole short and quick-moving, but insufficiently interesting for me to seek out any further volumes.

Dark Revelations

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark Revelations [Amazon, Publisher] by Amanda Downum, part of the Arkham Horror Files universe, and “includes four promo cards for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, featuring a new investigator—the writer, Gloria Goldberg.”

Downum Dark Revelations

Other than the 1920s Arkham setting and the conceit of a forbidden tome, Dark Revelations is relatively free of the tropes of Yog-Sothothery. It is an altogether more traditional sort of supernatural horror story. As well as disdaining Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, this tale is mostly at a remove from the the sort of pulp action tone that sometimes informs the literature for the Arkham Horror games. There are a number of features that brought this novella closer to the jauniste vein of The King in Yellow than to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. The main characters are creatives rather than academics or researchers, and there is a connection to medieval France.

The protagonist is author Gloria Goldberg, one of the investigator characters from the games this book was written to support. Gloria is a widow from New York who ventures to Arkham when called on to help with the literary estate of a recently deceased colleague. There are italicized passages throughout the book, and it can be difficult to tell from context whether these are passages that Gloria is reading, ones she is writing, or some other sorts of dreams or visions. As the story proceeds, it invites the reader to discard distinctions among these categories.

The book includes a set of about a dozen glossy color pages at the end, featuring news clippings, fragments of manuscripts, and pages from reference books relevant to the novella. This appendix section is a standard feature of this book series, and the contents in this case are entertaining enough, without any of the clinkers I’ve seen in the other novellas.

Dark Revelations comes with a set of cards debuting the Gloria Goldberg character for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. She is a flexible mystic-class investigator with a special ability that helps her to manipulate the encounter deck. Her alternate signature cards unique to this release are the ally Ruth Westmacott, a book illustrator whom Gloria befriends, and the treachery weakness Liber Omnium Finium.