John Dies at the End

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews John Dies at the End [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by David Wong, part of the John Dies at the End series.

Wong John Dies at the End

The professedly unreliable narrator of John Dies at the End uses a lot of profanity. In the added apparatus for the 2020 reissue that I read, it is revealed that the “bad words” had been a source of consternation among the reading public. I don’t know–when limbs are getting ripped off, you accidentally get dosed with some unidentifiable tar-like street drug, and swarms of extradimensional bugs are making people explode, I think it’s fair for the interjections to go beyond “oh dear” and the modifiers well past “rather.”

There are a couple of direct invocations of Lovecraft, along with the sort of cosmic indifferentism (universally pervasive “apathy” as Wong would have it) that some critics attribute to Grandpa Cthulhu, but the pacing and resolutions of this story are more along Robert E. Howard lines: resilience in the face of bizarre menace, heroic dismemberment of foes, and the virtues of action over paralyzing reflection. But it’s not a pulp-retro tale at all. The setting is the 21st-century de-industrialized US Midwest with aimless 20-something protagonists thrown into a kind of post-punk Ghostbusters scenario.

Is it scary? Sort of, in the too-recognizable way that the narrator relates his epistemological uncertainty and self-loathing. Is it funny? I may not flatter myself to admit it, but I did laugh out loud at many points, whether because of the absurd events, the narrator’s deft turns of phrase, John’s dick jokes, or whatever it was. It’s buried pretty deep in the feces and wads of bloody meat, but there is even some genuine moral reflection that applies to all of us in our humanity-devouring circumstances of neoliberal overreach and ecocide.

So … recommended? I’m just not sure to whom. I own a copy of the sequel, and I might read it before the plague takes me down.

Wrath of N’kai

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Wrath of N’kai: An Arkham Horror Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Josh Reynolds, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Reynolds Wrath of N'kai Arkham Horror

Wrath of N’kai is the first of a new series of licensed novels from publisher Aconyte Books set in the Arkham Horror game milieu. Unlike the recent investigator novellas from the game publisher Fantasy Flight, this one is at full novel length. It also lacks an established player character from the game for its protagonist. Instead, it has international adventuress and “gentlewoman thief” Countess Alessandra Zorzi as the principal investigator of the story. She is assisted by plucky trans-man cabbie Pepper Kelly. Neither of these have appeared in the games as far as I know. But the setting is unmistakably the Arkham of the games: various player characters do appear, such as Harvey Walters, Preston Fairmont, Tommy Muldoon, and Daisy Walker. Organizations like the O’Bannion gang and the Silver Twilight Lodge are also important to the story, which takes place entirely within the city limits of Arkham, starting with Alessandra’s arrival by train.

Despite ample stigmata of the Arkham Files universe, the narrative continuity of this story has in one case been better conformed to the original pulp-era literature. The underearth kingdom of K’n-yan is here given as lying beneath Oklahoma as it does in “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop and H.P. Lovecraft. The game designers had transferred K’n-yan to Mexico in the adventure “Heart of the Elders” for the Forgotten Age cycle of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. The plot of Wrath of N’kai centers on a scrimmage for a mummy recovered from K’nyan by a Miskatonic University archaeological expedition.

Author Josh Reynolds is a veteran at writing fiction for game universes such as the various Warhammer worlds, and he has also written some occult adventure in his “Tales of the Royal Occultist” novels. His reading in the relevant literature is signaled by clever allusions like Alessandra’s mentor Nuth (lifted from a story by Lord Dunsany). Wrath of N’kai has a lively pace, and I often read multiple short chapters at a single sitting. It is definitely more pulp adventure than weird horror, despite the Lovecraftian praeternatural elements. The prose isn’t highly polished, but it is engaging. I enjoyed it, and I would be willing to read a sequel about Alessandra’s adventures beyond Arkham.

Hasan-i-Sabah

Hasan-i-Sabah: Assassin Master [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by James Wasserman, introduction by Tobias Churton, from Nicolas-Hays and Ibis Press.

James Wasserman Hasan-i-Sabah Assassin Master Ibis Press

This publication includes the first English translation of the 1310 biography of Hasan-i-Sabah by Rashid al-Din: The Biography of Our Master (Sar-Guzasht-i-Sayyidna)

Hasan-i-Sabah was born in northern Persia around 1050 and died in 1124. He was an Ismaili missionary (or dai) who founded the Nizari Ismailis after the usurpation of the Fatimid Imamate by the military dictator of Egypt. It may be said that Hasan founded and operated the world’s most successful mystical secret society, while building a political territory in which to maintain his independence. The small empire he created would be home to him, his followers, and their descendants for 166 years.

Today, under the leadership of the Aga Khan, the Nizari Ismailis are one of the preeminent Muslim sects in the world, numbering some twenty million members in twenty-five countries.

The medieval Nizaris were also known as Assassins or Hashishim. They became embedded in European consciousness because of their contact with the Knights Templar, and other Crusaders and visitors to the Near East. Several Europeans reported back with strange (and largely false) tales of the Assassins. In the fourteenth century, they were widely popularized by the famed Venetian traveler and writer Marco Polo in The Travels of Marco Polo. He added a whole new level of myth in his account of the sect (included in this volume along with extensive commentary).

Of greatest interest is the idea that the Assassins were the spiritual initiators of the Knights Templar. If this is true, Hasan-i-Sabah would be in part responsible for the European Renaissance that would reclaim the spiritual centrality of the Hermetic writings and the Gnostic/Esoteric trends that continue to this day.

Essential reading for an understanding of modern esoteric secret societies and today’s headlines coming from the Middle East.

About the Author

James Wasserman is a lifelong student of religion and spiritual development. His writings and editorial efforts maintain a focus on spirituality, creative mythology, secret societies, history, religion, and politics. He is a passionate advocate of individual liberty. An admirer of the teachings of Aleister Crowley, he has played a key role in numerous seminal publications of the Crowley literary corpus. A book designer by trade, Jim is the owner of Studio 31. He has appeared on The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Coast to Coast Radio and numerous podcasts, and has addressed National Press Club.

Torah and Nondualism

Torah and Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by James H Cumming, from Ibis Press, arrived at the Reading Room, courtesy of the publisher.

James H Cumming Torah and Nondualism Diversity Conflict Synthesis Ibis Press

Torah and Nondualism is a commentary on the Torah, or Pentateuch, meaning “five books,” written in the form of five essays―one for each book. It reconciles modern biblical scholarship with the Jewish hermeneutical techniques recorded in the Zohar and shows that the meanings these interpretive techniques reveal are so consistent and illuminating throughout the Bible that they must have been intended by its redactors. By combining these traditional methods with modern insights, the book uncovers hidden themes in the Bible that other commentaries have overlooked.

Specifically, Torah and Nondualism discovers a syncretistic subtext in the Pentateuch aimed at reconciling two religious cultures: one rooted in Egyptian esoteric tradition and the other in Canaanite mythology and practice. In later times, these two religious cultures corresponded roughly to two rival kingdoms, Judah and Israel. The Torah ingeniously harmonizes this spiritual and political rift. When this subtext is fully appreciated, it is recognizable in all the Torah’s most obscure rituals. Even those priestly rites associated with temple worship are understandable. The bitter rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership is presented in terms of the Torah’s effort to harmonize conflict, sometimes by demanding great personal sacrifice.

Illustrated to make the complexities of scribal hermeneutics readily accessible to the nonexpert, Torah and Nondualism requires no prior knowledge of Hebrew and introduces the reader to an esoteric level of Bible interpretation previously known only to a small group of trained Hebrew scribes. Its intelligent and well-supported analysis promises to change the way you think about the Bible.

About the Author

James H. Cumming received his BA from Columbia University and his JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, graduating magna cum laude. His religious scholarship began in 1981 with Kashmiri Shaivism. In the 1990s, his studies included the Mahabharata and the Upanishads. In the 2000s, he taught himself to read Hebrew and undertook a comprehensive study of Jewish mysticism that included the multivolume Zohar and the leading texts of Lurianic Kabbalah. After studying Hebrew scribal techniques, he closely reread the Hebrew scriptures, applying the hermeneutical methods described in the Sifra di-Tzni’uta and the Idra Rabba. He lives with his wife and two sons in Berkeley, California. Visit him at Freedom Scribe.

On the Sociology of Islam

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews On the Sociology of Islam by Ali Shari’ati, trans. Hamid Algar.

Shari'ati Algar On the Sociology of Islam

This collection of eight lectures and articles is offered as a representative glimpse of the work of Iranian intellectual Ali Shari’ati. A Western-educated Islamist, Shari’ati was enthusiastic about the prospects of revolutionary Iran, but never endeared himself to the resulting theocratic establishment. Throughout this volume the reader can observe Shari’ati’s efforts to regenerate Western academic disciplines on the basis of a profoundly Muslim perspective. These pieces are essentially philosophical discourse attempting to lay a groundwork for sociology, anthropology, and historiography framed by distinctively Islamic premises. 

Shari’ati construes his anthropology on the basis of a “bi-dimensionality” that struck me as having an unwonted affinity to the ancient mysteries. He emphasizes the coordination of opposed principles in the human constitution: “God and Satan, or spirit and clay” (89, c.f. 74, 93), like the Dionysian and Titanic components of the Orphic man. He also uses Eve as a symbol of love–rather than life in accordance with her name–and Satan as a figure of the intellect (95, 124). This latter choice seemed odd and muddled to me, considering that Shari’ati makes Satan the inherently anti-divine impulse in humanity, and yet the project represented in these writings is one of putting the intellect in service of a divine mandate.

His historical theory, which comprehends a political philosophy, is a sort of dialectical materialism distilled through the narrative of Cain and Abel, in which Cain represents the spirit of exploitation and alienation that arose at the beginning of agriculture and has mutated and developed ever since, while Abel is both the perspective of the Edenic communism of primitive hunters and herders, and the striving for a future condition in which the Umma reaches its destination as a classless society.

The sociology that he outlines transposes the Muslim distinction of tawhid and shirk from a religious criterion to a social one, valorizing the unity of society. Likewise, he elevates the hejirah from a historical episode to an interpretive principle, viewing migration and displacement as the critical factor in all social evolution. In his effort to identify the distinctive characteristics of Islam, he engages in some comparative theology, advancing a claim that the Quran alone among prophetic writings addresses itself to the entirety of the people rather than an elite. Shari’ati stresses the allegiance of Iran to the school of Ali, but laments the national ignorance of positive history regarding Shiite origins and early Iranian Islam, and he derides the Shia theory of the imamate (94). He is opposed to Sufism (68, 85), and his glosses of non-Muslim religions (mostly on page 79) are unimpressive. 

With a few exceptions, these selections show Shari’ati engaged in a highly coherent and impressive project of intellectual reframing. It is a short book, but a non-Muslim reader attempting to do justice to its contents will probably find it slow going.

Modern Ruins

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region by Shaun O’Boyle, introduction by Geoff Manaugh.

O'Boyle Manaugh Modern Ruins

Modern Ruins consists principally of four visual essays photographed by Shaun O’Boyle. The subjects throughout are buildings in Pennsylvania and New York that have been untenanted and untended for one or more human generations. 

The “Institutions” of the first essay are views of ruined mental hospitals and penitentiaries, which would seem to have a liberatory undertone, if it weren’t for the knowledge that these bygone institutions have been largely replaced with neglect on the one hand and more efficient facilities on the other. I was surprised at the amount of color among these photos.

The second essay “Steel” shows plants and foundries, mainly the Bethlehem Steel facility, a picture of which is also on the cover of the volume. I was struck by a certain organic quality to the images, as well as the sort of ecclesiastical spiring of the architecture. The Bethlehem Steel plant through O’Boyle’s lens looks to me like an H.R. Giger cathedral.

The “Coal” essay is as focused on the ruins of communities associated with the moribund Pennsylvania anthracite industry as it is on industrial structures themselves, but offers some images of the great “breakers” buildings that were used to process the coal. 

The final essay is “Arsenal,” treating Bannerman’s Island on the Hudson River. This site was the commercial and residential home of a premiere arms merchant in the early 20th century, and the architecture embraces a Scottish Gothic conceit, putting me in mind of Macbeth taking a summer holiday with his family. 

Each photo essay is prefaced by a text from a different contributor, offering historical backgrounds on the sites photographed. I read the volume in slavish obedience to the pagination, front to back; but especially after reading the interview with O’Boyle that concludes the book, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to read the historical texts after viewing the photos, so that the images could provide the sort of lure of the unknown and sense of mystery that the photographer claims to prize in his own effort to capture them. 

The book also includes an overall introduction by Geoff Manaugh, which reflects on the entire photographic genre of ruined modern architecture, and the nature and sources of its allure for 21st-century viewers. The entire package is relatively compact, with only about 120 pages all told, of which fewer than twenty are text, but it deserves to be taken in at a slow pace over multiple sittings.