Tag Archives: book

Our Lady of Darkness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber.

Leiber Our Lady of Darkness

This book is one of those that I first read in adolescence and liked–but coming back to it decades later, I can only wonder at what I thought I understood about it. Our Lady of Darkness teems with explicit allusions to other fiction and to occult history that I could not have possibly appreciated on my initial read of it. The protagonist is fairly autobiographical (a horror writer named Franz) and the San Francisco setting is in every way integral to the plot. 

As a horror novel, it’s middling, not especially scary. But the theories of modern occultism initiated by Leiber in this book are important and influential. His notions of megapolisomancy (i.e. thaumaturgical urban psychogeography) and paramentals have persisted beyond this book, and are in fact scarier with each passing decade. Possible effects of the 5G network presently being built out far exceed the direst anticipations of Leiber’s chiliastic sorcerer de Castries. 

I re-read this book on my way to a conference in Barcelona at which one of the presenters was scheduled to speak on megapolisomancy. That whole conference seemed to be absorbed by the events of the book. At the end, I missed a flight connection, and I was re-routed through Oakland (the airport closest to downtown San Francisco and the landmarks given in the story). I joined up with a fellow passenger in London, where we were briefly stranded. He was a Mexican who works on construction in Chicago. His English was almost as bad as my Spanish, and we played chess in lieu of conversation. The synchronicity with events at the climax of the novel was a little disturbing.

Agents of Dreamland

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R Kiernan.

Kiernan Agents of Dreamland

The “Agents” of the title are presumably the espionage operatives for different agencies who provide the primary viewpoints in this short novel: the Signalman fatigued by his encounters with Things Men Was Not Meant to Know, and Immacolata Sexton exalted as a time-loose spectator. The latter seemed a little awkward to me; she was not really mysterious enough considering how unexplained were her superhuman abilities. I wonder if she features in other stories by Kiernan.

Still, the real meat of the book is in the business being investigated: Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” meets Charlie Manson and the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult in a southern California nightmare. The tale pulls that off very well, and I wonder–are these cultists really the agents? In that case “Dreamland” is Yuggoth. It’s certainly not the Dreamland of Lord Dunsany and HPL.

Totalitopia

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Totalitopia by John Crowley.

Crowley Totalitopia

Totalitopia is the title of a John Crowley essay featured in this slender eponymous collection of articles, stories, and an interview. The one story most likely to stay with me is “Gone,” which is framed with a science fiction conceit about extraterrestrial contact along the lines of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, although in every way smaller and cosier. The critical essay regarding the fantasy work of Paul Park was my first exposure, albeit at secondhand, to this author, and I’m now quite interested. The interview with Crowley by Terry Bisson is quite good.

I took this book along for reading on a long trip by airplane, and it fulfilled its purpose admirably.

King Dragon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews King Dragon by Andrew J Offutt.

Offutt King Dragon

Offutt’s dedication for King Dragon claims for its predecessors the Lost World novels of Haggard, Doyle, Burroughs, Wells, and Howard. His world is “lost” by being remote in space, and he has populated it with a jungle and megafauna from a variety of prehistoric and prehuman ages of earth. Besides anachronistic animals, there are a lot of fanciful plants. It is all the result of long-ago terraforming and breeding by an eccentric tycoon who came to see himself as God. The religious background of Offut’s interstellar future is Muslim, which makes for a little different flavor than most science fiction written circa 1980. 

The male protagonist Jimajin Allayth is an aspiring scholar who has journeyed from Earth to explore this isolated and mysterious world. In parallel with his arrival, there is the story of Joharah, a savage inhabitant of the world who becomes an outcast from her tribe. Eventually, the two meet as captives. Once the full narrative frame is in view, with Jim and Jo together fighting against the pterodactyl forces of the backwater world’s senile demiurge, the plot wraps up with blinding speed. Death Star explodes, everyone calls it a day. 

The book is shorter than it looks, with many pages occupied by black-and-white art from Estaban Moroto, who draws an excellent mostly-naked sword-and-planet babe in the Frazetta tradition, as well as suitably scary dinosaurs. Unfortunately, not all of the illustrations are unique; many of them are merely different enlarged details of the same original drawings. The cover art of a chained Joharah contorting below a descending dragon is by Rowena Morrill, and is actually a little more lurid than the book deserves. The pictured scene does not occur in the text.

In the Pronaos of the Temple of Wisdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Pronaos of the Temple of Wisdom by Franz Hartmann.

Hartmann In the Pronaos of the Temple of Wisdom

This short book is an early work (ca. 1890) by the physician who went on to serve as a Secretary General of the German Theosophical Society and a founding member of Ordo Templi Orientis. The “temple of wisdom” at issue is the Temple of the Rosy Cross, understood by Hartmann as the body of hidden chiefs or secret adepts, after the manner of Eckartshausen’s Cloud Upon the Sanctuary. Hartmann is generally contemptuous of modern Rosicrucianisms, writing for instance (in unfriendly allusion to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn): 

“The true brothers of the Golden and Rosy Cross were and still are a spiritual society, and therefore the effort made [during the Middle Ages] of finding a real and living, indisputably true Rosicrucian, were as unavailing as was at a more recent period the effort made by a certain London society of proving the existence of real and living Adepts.” (36)

After some introductory perambulation, the opening chapters address the esoteric tradition in antiquity and the Middle Ages through such exponents as Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Malchus Porphyrius, Iamblichus, Proclus, Hierocles, and Cornelius Agrippa. Then Hartmann discusses legends of adepts and alchemists from the late medieval and early modern periods, progressing to the Rosicrucian “Orders” (his scare quotes) stemming from the manifestos of the 17th century, and this latter chapter culminates with a useful bibliography of the Early Modern “Rosicrucian Controversy.” 

Chapter Six was for me the highlight of the book, supplying an overview of the 18th-century competition between Rosicrucians and Illuminati. In Hartmann’s telling, the Rosicrucian orders of the period are obscurantist “impostors and fools,” while the Illuminati pursued a virtuous bid for rationality and freedom. This short account was possibly the most useful reference on its historical topic until the publication of McIntosh’s Rose Cross and the Age of Reason more than a century later in 1992.

The final two chapters reproduce historical Rosicrucian, alchemical, and Hermetic materials with Hartmann’s commentaries to them. He says in his foreword that these “will be incomprehensible to the would-be wise; while those who are unsophisticated will find therein a great deal of wisdom” (6), but such “unsophisticated” readers will still find it useful to be able to read Latin and to recognize biblical allusions and traditional metaphors.

Love and Other Games of Chance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Love and Other Games of Chance: A Novelty by Lee Siegel.

Seigel Love and Other Games of Chance

It is an unusual thing for me to review a book without having first read it cover-to-cover, but Love and Other Games of Chance is an unusual book. It is a piece of Lee Siegel’s para-autobiographical fiction project that comprehends Love in a Dead Language and Who Wrote the Book of Love?, and it details the life of “Siegel’s” alleged genetic father, who was raised in a circus family in California, advancing from snake-boy to sharpshooter, traveled the world from India to France, and recounted his many loves in a manuscript that this book purports to publish. 

The book is in 100 short chapters, keyed to a board for a game of snakes & ladders. The overt implication is that a reader might use a conventional die to “play” through the book. After reading Chapter 1, roll the die and move on the included board, suffering the effects of any ladder or snake thus reached. Then read the chapter for the resulting space, and continue. So I did. I probably read thirty to forty chapters in this fashion, mostly in an ascending sequence on a first rapid pass up the board before I encountered my first snake. 

Although I enjoyed everything I read, the book did not benefit from the lack of narrative continuity introduced by my reading procedure. As much as my attempt was in the spirit of the book, I would not recommend this method to other readers. After several months of intermittent engagement with the book, I’m shelving it to await a more conventional reading in the future.

Story of O

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Story of O by Pauline Réage.

Réage Story of O

Story of O is certainly a seminal novel of its type, supposedly the first book to be written by a woman in emulation of de Sade’s novels. Despite the subjugated female protagonist (typical of de Sade), the focus has more in common with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, where there is no sadistic sermonizing from the dominating characters, just unembroidered imperatives. The sense of contract and continually rising stakes are vivid. De Sade never lets the reader lose sight of his ideological preoccupations, but I found any such message here to be ambivalent at best. Réage does little to manage the reactions of the reader, who may be titillated, engrossed, or horrified by the sequence of events. 

Other readers seem to have made more of the character René than I was able to find here. He is important in that O’s affection for him serves as a principal motivation in the first parts of the book. But she does indeed transcend that affection through her experience of her “condition.” And it’s hard for me to imagine any reader being seriously sympathetic to O’s initial devotion to Rene. He is drawn sparsely and unflatteringly. 

There is little in the way of graphic detail regarding the many sexual acts in the story, so that the reader’s imagination is enlisted in the erotic effects. What particulars of sex acts there are mostly fall in the early parts of the book. Reviewers often accordingly judge the middle and end to have become “slow.” And yet I found that they tended to accelerate in terms of the shifting of personal relationships and the psychological transformation of O. Few readers seem to remark the somewhat predatory lesbianism of O, which is so pivotal to the central sections of the book, although hardly any fail to react to the body modifications of corseting, piercing, and branding. 

The end of the book is abrupt and unconventional. A metafictional epilogue glosses two versions of a “suppressed” (unwritten, I surmise) concluding chapter which would have completed the plot. But “The Owl” which serves as the actual last section is unconcerned to resolve any of the tensions developed in the book. Instead, it sets them on a pedestal for a final appreciation.

Église Gnostique

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Église Gnostique: History, Sacraments and Teachings by Jules Doinel, edited and translated by Rune Ødegaard.

Doinel Ødegaard Église Gnostique

This book from a small Norwegian press collects a variety of texts from the 19th century, chiefly by Jules Doinel, the founding patriarch of the Église Gnostique (or “Church of the Paraclete”). Editor and translator Rune Ødegaard apologizes that he is not a native French speaker, and invites correction regarding his understanding of the texts (16). Alas, on the evidence of spelling, grammar, and typographical errors, he is also not a native English speaker, and this book would definitely have benefited from further proofreading. 

The Église Gnostique was autochthonous, so to speak, emerging from Doinel’s antiquarian researches and his experiences in the seances of Lady Caithness’ circle. Its liturgy was chiefly an effort at Cathar revival (though admittedly less rigorous than the medieval original) and its doctrines drew on what Doinel and his fellow bishops were able to discover about the ancient Gnosis of Simon Magus and Valentinus. The valorization of the divine feminine was a chief mission of the church. Deacons and Deaconesses had complementary functions in ceremony, while male Bishops and female Sophias (“Sophials” in this book) were of equal rank in their sovereignty over congregations. 

Ødegaard supplies an original biography of Doinel and history of his church up to Doinel’s death in 1903. The historical primary documents which make up the remaining two-thirds of the book include creeds, catechisms, sacramental liturgies, homilies and other articles. Much of the doctrinal material was familiar to me from previous study, as were the main ceremonies. This reading did provide my first encounter with the (ultimately unproductive) chivalric component of Doinel’s organizing: the three grades of the Order of Knights of the Dove and the Paraclete. 

Latin hymns and prayers in the liturgies are largely untranslated. Ødegaard claims to have drawn on the archives of the Martinist Ordre Reaux Croix in Oslo for the basis of much of the book’s content, but individual items are not given source citations, and the “Main References” in the end matter specify just three further books, along with an “outdated online mms” regarding Gnostic Church History. Despite the book’s apparent scholarly weaknesses, it is a helpful digest of material from the early history of the modern Neognostic movement.

A preface consists of friendly impressions from an anonymous attendee at a 21st-century Gnostic service among Norwegians working in a filiation from the Église Gnostique. Ødegaard’s afterword laments the later shift of the Neognostic movement to emphasize apostolic succession and high-church liturgies, while downplaying Doinel’s work and visionary experiences. I am curious about what sort of “Sethian” Neognosticism is represented in the other books under Ødegaard’s independent byline.

The Last London

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City by Iain Sinclair

Sinclair The Last London

I know I once read, and I suppose it may still be true, that London is the most surveilled city in the world, based on the number of CCTV cameras per person. An awareness of this reality is one of many that hovers in the margins of Iain Sinclair’s Last London, but the lines of the pages are Sinclair’s own indefatigable observation, overhearing, trailing, tailing, and cultural auditing, as he orbits through Olympicopolis, “Shardenfreude,” and a variety of other psychogeographical states and locales. The text combines his own stream-of-consciousness flâneur experiences with kledomancy, graffiti transcription and exegesis, literary anecdote and gossip, and historical research.

In the 1925 story “He,” H.P. Lovecraft wrote of New York City “the unwhisperable secret of secrets—the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.” In the twenty-first century New York’s unlife has since spread to cities throughout the United States, and through the neoliberal metastases of capital it now spans the world, infecting even the London and Paris that Lovecraft used to supply a contrasting sense of durable urban vitality. (Not that HPL himself ever visited either city.) Arriving at this conclusion independently, Sinclair seeks in this book to preserve his observations of the “last London” as it succumbs to the virus.

The press of gentrification, speculative property redevelopment, and globalized real estate investment all contribute to the sense of expiration here. It’s the sterility and expropriation that are so fatal, not the decay and mutation. The book’s not sad, though. “I love it,” Sinclair writes of the “panoramic edgeland vista” he encounters in his effort to walk to Barking, under the spectre of the US Presidential election of Donald Trump (241). The final chapter is festive in a manner that might take less artistic people 20 to 40 micrograms to achieve. Also notable throughout is Sinclair’s network of fellow creatives, who accompany him and serve as rests, termini, and haunters of his walks. 

Many allusions to contemporary literature, politics, business, and so on are made at a rapid pace with little assistance to the reader’s comprehension. I guess that’s what search engines are for, when it seems important. The book is longish for its style, but Sinclair’s elliptical rants and musings all add up to a worthwhile read. He’s an author I’ve been curious about for many years, and I’m glad to have finally gotten around to reading this very current work.

The Mystery of Numbers

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystery of Numbers by Annemarie Schimmel.

Schimmel The Mystery of Numbers

The Mystery of Numbers was developed by Annemarie Schimmel from an earlier text in German by Franz Carl Endres. Presumably, Schimmel’s version (for publisher Ulf Diedrichs) was originally in German also. No translator is credited here, but Miriam Rosen was the editor, whether in English or German is unclear. Schimmel uses “components” (e.g. on page 14) to mean factors, which is a little confusing in US mathematical idiom, and possibly an artifact of translation from German. German folklore and poetry does loom a little large in a book that on the whole makes serious efforts to be a wide-ranging cross-cultural survey. 

There are seven chapters of “Introduction” discussing the history of number systems and evolution of number symbolism. Generally, depth is sacrificed for breadth, in an effort to touch on systems throughout Western history, and also in Asia and pre-Columbian America. The historical essays are followed by “A Little Dictionary of Numbers,” organized in numerical order starting at 1. The highest value to receive an entry is 10,000, but even below 50, many numbers significant to me are not represented with their own articles, such as 23, 31, 34, and 44. 

On the whole, the book is a decent introduction to its topic, and it can be a useful supplement to other more specialized treatments.