Tag Archives: books

Atlan

Atlan by Jane Gaskell

Atlan is the second (or third, depending on the series edition) book of Gaskell’s tales of the goddess-hostage-fugitive-empress-scullery-maid-exile-et-cetera Cija in an antediluvian world of feuding kingdoms, Atlanteans, dinosaurs, unicorns, and battle-birds. A preamble chapter “The Road” is in the voice of a new character, the rogue Scar, but the rest of the book is still Cija’s diary, increasingly unbelievable as a document transmitted intact from prehistoric times.

In this book, Cija becomes a mother, and sheds many of her youthful principles in efforts to survive. Perhaps two-thirds of the chapters might have been titled “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire,” as the imperial status that she attained at the end of the first book makes her a target for abuse and exploitation as often as it protects her. She frequently finds cause for reproaching herself, and her various associates, companions, and lovers all have a touch of ambivalence, but tend more to the bad than the good.

As the military and political situation in the Atlan capital heats up, Cija is sent into the continent’s interior to be sequestered at a half-ruined castle. The second half of the book, set within and around this castle, has a very gothic tone to it. The phenomenon of “Old Atlan,” which embraces humans, animals, plants, and even architecture in some unexplained genius loci becomes more active and important in this installment. The end of the book clearly concludes an episode of Cija’s saga, but has much less sense of resolution than the previous one, which delivered her to the throne of Atlan. I don’t have a copy of the next volume (The City), but I guess I’ll keep an eye out for it, without too much urgency. [via]

The Whispering Swarm

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus Reviews The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Last year I read the Oswald Bastable novels by Michael Moorcock, stories of time travel in which the author uses the documentary conceit common to 19th century fantastic fiction and many of the early pulps (especially sword-and-planet yarns from ERB onward): the story is a first person account from a manuscript that has come into the possession of the author. Moorcock’s use of this framing in his Bastable books at first involved his grandfather as an intermediary, and eventually brought “Michael Moorcock” himself closer to the strange events of the narrative.

The Whispering Storm is the first volume of Moorcock’s currently projected trilogy, “The Sanctuary of the White Friars,” and it is again fantastic fiction featuring time travel, but now the author’s identity has moved from the penumbra of the fiction into its full shadow. He has brought in so much autobiographical content that the book turns out to be a personal memoir with a fully-developed portal fantasy embedded in it. Set chiefly in London in the 1960s, it features “Moorcock’s” discovery of a secret neighborhood within London, isolated from the mundane world, and opening onto past centuries and perhaps other worlds rooted in fiction. His ability to travel to this Sanctuary and its tributaries marks him as having a native talent for sorcery, which is developed late in the book as events come to focus on a story of 17th-century London at the end of the English civil war.

Although I know that Moorcock is capable of deliberate, highly crafted, literary narrative (as well as genre novels cranked out in a day or two), that’s not what I read here. The book genuinely reads like a naive and somewhat rushed recounting, stumbling over sequences and sometimes revisiting details as if they had not been told before, because they all coexist in the teller’s memory. He is a genuinely unreliable narrator in the way that any memoirist must be, with that thrown into relief by the supernatural elements of his tale. He’s made public statements that some of the autobiographical details have been suppressed or altered in kindness to other people, but I had to wonder if the fantasy narrative was a screen for certain of his activities in the period, since his magic involvements seemed to have real consequences for his interactions with his mundane family, for instance. It’s not a blind for illicit drugs in any case, since he at first tries unsuccessfully to blame his experiences on acid, and later claims that his experience with drugs kept him skeptical about the phenomena of his strange travels.

The portal adventure uses concepts such as the “moonbeam roads” and “Second Aether” that Moorcock had developed in his later fantasies. If one suspends disbelief according to the account in hand, those would reflect a growing transparency on his part, in which his fiction increasingly reflected his genuine occult experience! While I do think that this book could be enjoyed by those previously unfamiliar with Moorcock’s considerable oeuvre, it definitely will be more rewarding for those who have read in his earlier work. The next volume is supposed to be titled The Woods of Arcady.

“We agree on fresh histories enabling us to take action. It is part of what makes us such flawed creatures. Creatures of narrative fiction creating cause and effect. … We are protagonists in our own novels” (362). [via]

The Delirium Brief

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Delirium Brief: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross

This book confirms the transformation of the Laundry Files from a series of novels into a set of book-length episodes within a multi-volume work. I would not recommend either this latest or the previous book (The Nightmare Stacks) as a point of entry to the series, and as a free-standing novel, I expect it would fail. However, as an extension of what has come before, it is extremely effective. It picks up threads left lying in every one of the previous seven volumes and their interstitial novellas, and weaves them into a truly horrifying fabric. To switch metaphors, it is very successful at leveraging the reader’s investment in the curious cast of characters that Charles Stross has developed over the course of the series.

The inconclusive finish of the previous volume involved the forced disclosure of the super-secret occult intelligence agency nicknamed “The Laundry,” as a result of northern England being invaded by an army of elves. The stakes in The Delirium Brief are certainly higher for the Laundry, and perhaps for England as a whole, while incidental remarks throughout the book suggest that in the US and elsewhere in the world, events are spiraling toward global magical catastrophe. I know at least one more book is projected for this series, and it certainly needs it, with precious little closure in this one. But I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.

The sardonic office humor of the earliest Laundry stories has grown in scope, to the point where what were pithy observations about bureaucratic organizational culture have grown into satirical critiques of neoliberalized Western polity. At one point, narrator “Bob Howard” disingenuously says he’s “not bitter or anything” about the corrupt privatization of government agencies and functions in general, since “The worst case … is that parcels don’t get delivered, buildings burn down … Stuff breaks, people die, maybe there’s a small nuclear war, boo hoo.” This flippancy is by way of stressing the comparative gravity of such corruption impacting the operation of “the Laundry or an equivalent agency” (121).

Bob has some relief in this episode, in that there is some progress in rehabilitating his hexed-and-vexed marriage to fellow Laundry employee Dominique O’Brien. However, the theme of instrumental dehumanization and compromised morals that has dogged all the protagonists throughout the series gets turned up to eleven here, and by the book’s end, while the reader may still like the characters, it’s no longer clear than any of them especially like themselves.

Despite (and sometimes because of) the grim context, there are many funny moments in The Delirium Brief. The combination of my interested familiarity with the Laundry Files and Stross’s zippy contemporary prose made this book read at a breakneck pace. The amazing thing is that it really doesn’t introduce any new threats or concepts. It’s just working out interactions and consequences from what has come before, and if you’ve enjoyed the earlier books, this one is necessary. [via]

My questions go deeper than that; they are doubts about my faith. I have only one certainty: there exists a parallel spiritual universe that impinges on the world in which we live. Apart from that, everything else seems absurd to me—sacred books, revelations, guides, manuals, ceremonies … and, what is worse, they appear to have no lasting effects.

Paulo Coelho, Aleph

The Gospel in George MacDonald

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings edited by Marianne Wright, with selections from MacDonald’s work, with “appreciations by C S Lewis and G K Chesterton”.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth-century Scots writer who was popular in his own day, although now fairly obscure. His fantasy novel Lilith was recommended to students by revolutionary occultist Aleister Crowley, and MacDonald was cast as Virgil in the Dante-dream of Christian bigot and allegorical fantast C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Having read and enjoyed a couple of MacDonald’s book-length fantasies, I was intrigued by this title: The Gospel in George MacDonald: Selections from His Novels, Fairy Tales, and Spiritual Writings.

Receiving the book as an early reviewer copy, I was disappointed to find something very different from what I had imagined. It does not consist of chapter-length excerpts from MacDonald, with commentary on their theological significance. Instead, it has little snippets, from a sentence to a few pages in length, organized according to topics of inspirational substance. Very little here is drawn from MacDonald’s fantasies, which, if we are to believe his critics, are his best and most essential work, and there is none of his poetry. In addition to passages from his novels, there are excerpts from sermons and correspondence. Mindful of my duty as a reviewer, I managed to read the whole book. But it took a while, and I had to resort to the method of making it a prop for excremeditation. It has been in my bathroom for about six months.

If you think that MacDonald must have something special going on to appeal to both Crowley and Lewis, you’re right. I did find enjoyment, one way or another, in most of the content of this book. My eyes glazed over a bit when trying to follow some of the long dialogue passages written in Scottish dialect (although the more impenetrable expressions are glossed in footnotes). The sections on Work, Education, Moralism, and Resurrection have some of the excerpts I liked best, along with the terrific sermon passage on page 84, which the editor has categorized as on “The Boundlessness of Love,” and which genuinely approaches the Thelemic gnosis.

The book concludes with two “appreciations” by writers who were fans of MacDonald: G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Like the body of the book, each of these is stitched together from multiple published sources. I was sympathetic to Chesterton’s praise for MacDonald’s work, emphasizing its poetic and mystical qualities. I found it amusing, however, to see the Catholic convert Chesterton attempt to recruit posthumously the lifelong Presbyterian MacDonald (with his further heretical universalism) to his own church (313-14). My low opinion of Lewis, alas, was merely confirmed by what I read here, although it helped me to prioritize The Princess and the Goblin for my next reading in MacDonald’s oeuvre, whenever I might get to that.

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq.

This treatment of the life and work of Grandpa Cthulhu was Michel Houellebecq’s first book, and in his preface he characterizes it retrospectively as his “first novel” (23). His summary of H.P. Lovecraft’s literary program can be assembled from the chapter headings in Part Two: “Attack the story like a radiant suicide; utter the great NO to life without weakness; then you will see a magnificent cathedral, and your senses, vectors of unutterable derangement, will map out an integral delirium that will be lost in the unnameable architecture of time.”

The emphases in this book are ultimately on Lovecraft’s anti-modernism and his racism as expressions of fundamental fear and hatred of life itself, and the fear and hatred as the preconditions for Lovecraft’s genuine artistic success. Houellebecq is not writing about success among critics or academics, which was even in 1988 only beginning to glimmer with respect to Lovecraft’s work, and HPL never saw anything like personal financial success or fame in his lifetime. The success at issue is among readers and writers of fiction, where Lovecraft’s “great texts,” the archetypal novellas of yog-sothothery of his final decade, loom as “ritual literature.”

Houellebecq clearly shares HPL’s pessimism, misanthropy, and hostility to realism. Those who in any way doubt Lovecraft’s enduring racism or its integral role in his fiction should read this assessment from a sympathetic writer. I think Houellebecq also makes a persuasive case as to how the person of “the old gentleman” fitted itself for cultic veneration. While the recent remodeling of the World Fantasy Award trophy (formerly a bust of HPL) was ideologically sound and pragmatic, Lovecraft’s own opposition to soundness and pragmatism was what made him a fantasist of the highest and most influential order.

In addition to Houellebecq’s entertaining and insightful essay, the book contains two of Lovecraft’s “great texts”: “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Whisperer in Darkness.” These are well chosen as essential nuclei of the “founding mythology” offered by the dreamer of Providence. The English edition of the book also sports “Lovecraft’s Pillow,” an introduction by Stephen King, whose personal debt to Lovecraft goes almost unremarked, while he defends escapist literature as such and praises Houellebecq’s handling of HPL. I recommend all parts of the book. [via]

The Bone Clocks

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

Is there any fiction that is completely devoid of the mechanisms of science fiction or fantasy? Perhaps not, but David Mitchell’s novels, while marketed as literary fiction and boasting jackets free of genre stigmata, are most assuredly invested in the principal devices and tropes of both science fiction (narratives set in projected futures) and fantasy (paranormal and occult powers). The Bone Clocks is divided into major sections distributed over the period from 1984 to 2043, with a series of interrelated first-person narrators, most of whom are about my age, as is Mitchell himself. The connecting plot of the novel is a “war in heaven” scenario featuring rival groups with praeterhuman powers, operating unseen in the midst of human society. I found it superior to similar stories such as Roger Zelazny’s Amber series or, say, the original Matrix movie, because of the far greater emphasis on and development of the mundane life of the characters, allowing the irruptions of the weird to genuinely shock.

As he did in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell includes a plot-line set in the literary industry, and involving animus between an author and a critic. A quote from the critic’s panning of the book Echo Must Die was surely one of the more backhandedly reflexive pieces of text I’ve read recently: “One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer writing a writer-character?” (294) While I don’t think that any of those three criticisms would be accurate for The Bone Clocks, they were almost certainly Mitchell’s three chief worries about the possible weaknesses of this long book. In fact, the prose is very accessible, and the different characters’ voices are distinct and engaging. The “fantasy sub-plot” is more of a “super-plot,” and seems to have a constructive relationship to the contemporary issues raised by the mundane events of the novel. And the Crispin Hershey writer-character allows for a level of intertextual creativity that I suspect I have only begun to appreciate, since I haven’t yet read most of Mitchell’s work. In fact, at least three of the narrating characters are writers, by the time the whole picture is put together.

The book has three of its six sections set in the future of its composition, one of them now largely in our past. “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet” begins in 2015, in a book published in 2014, and continues through 2020. “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the longest section, supplying the climax of the super-plot, and taking place in 2025, and the denouement “Sheep’s Head” is set in 2043. I found these projected settings fairly credible, if not optimistic. Well, the last of them actually bummed me out more than a little, but I don’t regret reading it, and I won’t condemn the “State of the World pretensions” that inform it.

LibraryThing includes The Bone Clocks as the second of three novels in a series called “Horologists.” Wikipedia, however, points out the continuities of character and setting to five other books by Mitchell, so that it sits in a larger web of connected texts, accounting for the majority of the author’s published books. I’m sure I’ll read more of these. [via]

Seven Chalices of the Lady

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seven Chalices of the Lady: A Rite of Devotion by al-Khidr.

The Thelemic meditation ceremony documented in this pamphlet was inspired by Red Tara Tantric practices, and this version annotates and modifies the one published a year earlier in A Rose Veiled in Black: Arcana and Art of Our Lady Babalon. It is the product of about four years of development at various bodies of O.T.O. in Texas.

I was privileged to participate in an enactment of the ceremony at the National O.T.O. Conference in Orlando, where roughly sixty attendees took part. While working in such a large group had its own virtues, I suspect that the meditation would be more rewarding in a more intimate setting, with fewer than a score of participants. I hope to be able to undertake such an operation before the end of 2017. [via]