Tag Archives: fiction

The Satanist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Satanist [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Dennis Wheatley, part of the Black Magic series.

Wheatley the Satanist

This novel is a sort of loose sequel — through the character of Colonel Verney — to the Wheatley book To the Devil a Daughter, which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen the Hammer film (and thought it markedly inferior to The Devil Rides Out). In fact, this was the first Wheatley I had read. Verney is perhaps the third most focal of the protagonists: the center of action oscillates between the earnest and ambitious aspiring government agent Barney Sullivan and the vengeful and comely young widow Mary Morden. 

I was somewhat surprised by the extent to which the Cold War context dominates the story. The Satanist of the title is not just a Satanist, he’s the Satanist at the pinnacle of a global cabal, and he aims to bring about the downfall of the Christian world by actualizing the mutually assured nuclear destruction of the NATO countries and the Soviet bloc. 

The book is prefaced with a caution to the reader, assuring that the author only learned about the (indisputable, he assures us) facts of modern occultism through his library study, and that actually to pursue any such thing in personal experience would lead to “dangers of a very real and concrete nature.” The London Satanic sect uses a little Theosophical circle as one of its recruiting venues. In the course of the tale, his Satanists espouse the Law of Thelema; though they don’t call it that, they repeatedly recite the Summary, “Do what thou wilt shall be the Whole of the Law” (Wheatley’s capitalization). Experimental music and modern art are classed as Satanic enterprises. Native American tribal religions worship “Our Lord Satan,” according to the Indians’ own claims. Wheatley also asserts through his most knowledgable and sympathetic characters that telepathy is scientifically proven!

The characters are vividly drawn, if sometimes reliant on stereotype, and Wheatley provides us with a great deal of their interior reflections, exhibiting a bourgeois morality which was perhaps Wheatley’s own, or at least that which he expected his popular readership would find sympathetic. One of the villains is described as being of gigantic stature, and yet having served with distinction as a US Air Force pilot, which seemed a bit unlikely. 

And so, unsurprisingly, the reward for me here was mostly limited to camp. There were, as I had hoped, a number of set pieces of diabolist ceremony, Mary Morden’s preliminary initiation being the best of them, and I could take a certain unironic pleasure in these. It wasn’t so unsatisfying that I wouldn’t perhaps pick up another of the author’s “occult thrillers,” but it was in fact a bit longer than I could justify based on the contents I did enjoy.

Angelmaker

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Angelmaker [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway Angelmaker

Harkaway’s second novel Angelmaker is a far better book than his first, despite showing a similar range of preoccupations. There are still martial arts training, a big showdown with a fearsome villain, strange conspiracies, and incomprehensible technology with basically metaphysical effects.

This story has for its hero Joshua Joseph Spork, a “clockworker” with a gangster heritage, and it concerns the immanentization of the eschaton by means of mechanical apiary. Although set in the early 21st century, the novel includes recollected episodes from throughout the 20th–largely thanks to a key alternate protagonist, superspy Edie Banister. The whole thing is told in a hectic Pynchonesque style that I greatly enjoyed.

A lot of the sensibility of this book has been taken up again in the later Jack Price novels by “Aidan Truhen,” and while the tale of Crazy Joe Spork is sometimes as funny as Jack Price, it also includes a little more serious reflection and attempts to deal with “deep” concerns.

“You love the sea, don’t you, Captain?”

“Yes, I love it! The sea is everything. It covers seven-tenths of the globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert where a man is never alone, for he can feel life quivering all about him. The sea is only a receptacle for all the prodigious, supernatural things that exist inside it; it is only movement and love; it is the living infinite, as one of your poets has said. And in fact, Professor, it contains the three kingdoms of nature — mineral, vegetable, and animal. This last is well represented by the four groups of zoophytes, by the three classes of articulata, by the five classes of mollusks, by three classes of vertebrates, mammals and reptiles, and those innumerable legions of fish, that infinite order of animals which includes more than thirteen thousand species, only one-tenth of which live in fresh water. The sea is a vast reservoir of nature. The world, so to speak, began with the sea, and who knows but that it will also end in the sea! There lies supreme tranquillity. The sea does not belong to tyrants.”

Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Verne Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea everything breath pure healthy immense desert man never alone feel life quivering prodigious supernatural movement love living infinite

The Player of Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Player of Games [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 2 of The Culture.

Banks the Player of Games

I read this second novel of the Culture hot on the heels of Consider Phlebas, and despite the shared setting of the interstellar civilization of the Culture itself and a few formal similarities, the feel of each book differs widely from the other. They are both structured around an ambivalently sympathetic central character with special abilities, and told by an obscured narrator, but the pacing of Consider Phlebas is faster for having shorter and more numerous chapters, along with more incidents of catastrophic violence. Of course, the protagonist of the first book is a declared enemy of the Culture, while The Player of Games is himself a Culture man.

The context of the first book was a rare war involving the Culture as a belligerent, but this one accounts for an alternative way in which neighboring hostile powers might be managed. The Empire which serves as this book’s foil for the Culture is constructed with a lot of telling detail, and the game-as-pervasive-practice-and-pattern is played out here in a way that goes far beyond its archetype in the John Carter pulp adventure The Chessmen of Mars. I was a little disappointed that the complete opacity of the Culture’s relationship to terrestrial humanity was not at all relieved in this book, but it is set some centuries after the previous one, and thus also further from us in time.

For the screen-oriented sf set, I’d recommend the Culture books to those who are more sympathetic to the “left” trajectory of Star Trek as opposed to the “right” approach of Star Wars. I think there’s actually good fodder for the screen in this series (although not in the absence of capable screenwriters!), and their merits are not so much in their “literary” form or substance as in the accustomed genre pillars of world-building, technological imagination, social commentary, and “ideas” generally.

I will read more of these, but I’ll take a pause until Use of Weapons falls into my hands, rather than vaulting over the sequence to the next one that I already own a copy of.

Consider Phlebas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Consider Phlebas [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 1 in The Culture series.

Banks Consider Phlebas

I had been intending for many years to read Iain M. Banks science fiction series The Culture, of which Consider Phlebas is the first volume. Because of this persistent aspiration, I collected several of the books before even beginning to read.

Considering how lauded The Culture is, I was surprised at the extent to which the book is pretty conventional space opera, but I certainly enjoyed it. The increasingly intelligent handling of interstellar travel in recent decades of sf seems to have left me with an allergy to FTL “jump drives,” although Banks does a little better than pure handwavium for the technology. The plotting and structure are not ordinary, and those who want straightforward adventure with triumphant endings might find this book unpalatable. The worldbuilding is ambitious, and it’s easy to see from just this one (of what I am assured is an extremely varied series) that there will be many interesting environments and large-scale events in these books.

Consider Phlebas is focused on a “short” half-century war between two interstellar powers, the Culture and the Idirans. The chief viewpoint character works as a spy for the Idirans, but there are “State of Play” chapters that offer the Culture perspective on events as well. A documentary conceit to provide greater narrative unity to the text is supplied in an epilogue. . . . . (Hover over to reveal spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The use of “A.D.” dating in the “historical” appendices is a curious choice. It does demonstrate that the Culture is older than modern terrestrial civilization, and that the events of the book are actually within our historical period although elsewhere in the galaxy. It does not establish what relationship, if any, the “humans” of the Culture have with Earth.

I expect to continue with The Player of Games fairly promptly.

Tigerman

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tigerman [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway Tigerman

Tigerman is decidedly less sfnal than other Harkaway novels I have read (The Gone-Away World and Gnomon), but it is in large measure an indulgence in costumed vigilantism with the superhero mythos firmly in its sights. In the third chapter, a twelve-year-old boy uses a rolled up copy of an Invisibles comic book to attack a bandit. And I think that Tigerman is to Aidan Truhen’s (i.e. Harkaway’s) later Jack Price books very much as Grant Morrison’s The Filth was to his earlier Invisibles work. It’s a matter of worrying at the same questions and catastrophes from two different perspectives: the criminal (The Invisibles; Jack Price) and the cop (The Filth; Tigerman).

“His perceptions of copperhood were formed by the dream of England, still. A copper was a bloke in a slightly silly hat who walked the beat, talked to shopkeepers about the price of fish, and sorted out young ruffians.” (59)

Protagonist–and eventual secret identity–Lester Ferris is an English infantry sergeant serving as brevet consul, the sole vestigial authority of the UK in the former colony of Mancreu, an island slated for eradication by the UN Security Council because of its contamination by chemical and biological hazards. Seen through a wide lens, there are many curious parallels here with The Wicker Man (1973), although this book lacks the movie’s happy ending. And of course the folk horror setting is changed for a 21st-century neocapitalist backdrop of ecocide and digital mediascapes.

Tigerman is a fast read in about twenty longish chapters, each digestible in a single sitting. It has a lot of strongly-drawn characters, none of them entirely realistic, and many quite over-the-top. There is a major twist that I was able to anticipate just a few pages ahead of its official reveal. I suspect that was by the author’s design–a pleasant experience for readers.

The Citadel of Forgotten Myths

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Citadel of Forgotten Myths [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Michael Moorcock, related to The Elric Saga series.

Moorcock the Citadel of Forgotten Myths

While promotional copy insists that this latest addition to Moorcock’s tales of the last Emperor of Melniboné “takes place between the first and second books of the Elric Saga,” that refers to their current packaging in the Saga Press edition. For those of us more familiar with the old mass market paperbacks and their omnibus collections, that makes it fall between “The Weird of the White Wolf” and “The Vanishing Tower.” Elric’s peregrinations with Moonglum in the Young Kingdoms are interrupted with a trip to “the underside of the world,” where the moody kinslayer traces the origins of the Melnibonéan race and their relationship to the dragons with whom their culture is in symbiosis.

The first half of the book consists of two novellas previously published under other titles. I had read “How Elric Pursued His Weird into the Far World” when it was called “Red Pearls” in the 2010 collection Swords & Dark Magic. I liked it then, but it was too long ago for me to assess how “substantially revised” (per the appended note) this new version is. The story here is interesting, but often told at a somewhat chilly level of abstraction. The second novella is “How Elric Discovered an Unpleasant Kinship,” published before revision as “Black Petals,” serialized in Weird Tales (2008-9) and collected in Elric: Swords and Roses. Despite owning the latter volume, I had never read this story. It felt very much like a return to form, with a mood that matched “The Stealer of Souls.”

The second half of The Citadel of Forgotten Myths is centered on the citadel of the title, the stronghold of Kirinmoir. This polity in the World Below compares to Elric’s own Imryrr as an age-old capital of his race. It is matriarchal, however, with an apiary-centered economy. The story starts with some adventuring, and it builds to a great military conflict driven by Melnibonéan grudges and the scheming of gods of Chaos.

Particularly in the final part, this book has many “Easter eggs” for longtime readers of Moorcock, and not merely of the crossover variety that tie this story into his multiversal hyperwork of the Eternal Champion, Cosmic Balance, and moonbeam roads. For example, he alludes to his own song lyric in mentioning “veterans of those dreadful psychic wars” (184) and to his recent autobio-fantasy in “a whispering swarm constantly reminding him of his own mortality” (185).

Some contemporary political sarcasm is evident in naming a throwaway character G’nilwab Sirob–an anagram of “Bawling Boris” (205). (I suspect that I failed to catch yet other references built into character names.) Moorcock also has deranged Chaos Queen Xiombarg extol herself as “Goddess made Great Again” (284), and Elric expresses his resentment that his countrymen wanted him to “make Melniboné great again” (314).

The inhuman Elric is veritably the apotheosis of the sword & sorcery murder hobo. As an inversion of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, the point that stands out in these particular tales is the ineluctable net of dependencies and obligations that bind Elric to his race, his cursed sword, and his patron demon. Where Conan prizes his freedom and independence, Elric seems unable even to conceive of such a condition. I don’t think this book would make an especially effective point of entry for the Elric stories, let alone the larger Eternal Champion quilt. Still, I enjoyed it, and it fueled my appetite for re-reading Moorcock’s prince of ruins.

Ambergris

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ambergris [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeff VanderMeer, a combined volume with City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch.

Vandermeer Ambergris

Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris is named for the fantasy city in which the three component volumes transpire, one that compares to the Well Built City of Jeffrey Ford and the Viriconium of M. John Harrison. This “New Weird” setting is introduced in a kaleidoscopic fashion through a collection of shorter pieces in City of Saints and Madmen, each written in a different documentary register. One of these, “The Strange Case of X” involves some transformations of veridicality reminiscent of the fantasizing technique in Paul Park’s Roumania and the John Crowley stories “Conversation Hearts” and “Anosognosia.”

There is a sort of talmudic textuality to the second book Shriek: An Afterword. Janice Shriek claims to be writing a biography of her brother Duncan, and she includes excerpts from his journals. But he has reviewed and annotated her MS, although she seems to think he is already dead. Another editorial layer is added at the end. The “Afterword” is (at least initially) supposed to be end-matter to Duncan Shriek’s “History of Ambergris” pamphlet that forms a portion of City of Saints and Madmen. In the course of the biography-cum-confession the reader is introduced to a tension between “Nativist” denial and the Shrieks’ acceptance of human contingency and the mysterious mycelial agenda.

The third book Finch is a sort of noir detective story with an espionage substructure and Cronenberg horror esthetics. It reminded me of Mieville’s The City and the City, and I also detected something shaped like the corpse of Fleming’s Casino Royale with psychedelic mushrooms sprouting all over it. It is divided into seven long chapters named for the days of the week over which the story takes place, and I serendipitously fell into the rhythm of reading them on the corresponding days of the last week of April.

This Farrar, Straus and Giroux omnibus reprint is a beautiful book, and it provides a long and satisfying read. I did take pauses between each of the three books within. I gather that some editions of Ambergris: City of Saints and Madmen under its own cover have additional content not included here, and I would be happy to spend time reading that at some point.

Ka

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by John Crowley, illo Melody Newcomb.

Crowley Ka

The protagonist of Ka is the corvid Dar Oakley, and the narrator is a nameless man to whom the bird has told his stories, a string of recollected Crow lives over the entirety of human history. The first part is set in prehistoric Europe and the second in the Middle Ages. Part three has two major arcs: one among Native Americans prior to colonization, and another during and after the US Civil War. The final part of the novel returns to the context of the narrator in “the Ruins of Ymr,” a near-future setting of social and ecological decay.

The pace throughout is slow and thoughtful, caught between the divergent perceptions and expressions of Person and Crow. There are multiple visionary episodes. As a whole, the book contemplates the incomprehension of memory and mortality, along with the value of story itself.

Celestis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Celestis [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Paul Park.

Park Celestis

I came to Paul Park’s Celestis after reading his more recent Roumania series. Although Roumania is portal fantasy and Celestis is exoplanetary science fiction, they share a great deal in style and content–and neither sits placidly within its genre.

Park has clearly worked out a terrestrial future for background to this book, but Celestis is the site of the tale, and Earth is far away. Readers get little exposure to it, except via fragmentary memories and remarks of the diplomat Simon, who is part of the most recent (and possibly last) cohort of terrestrial emigrants. There is a subjugated species of indigenous humanoids, and another native race acknowledged to be more intelligent than humans but now largely exterminated after generations of human settlement and conflict

Reviewers are generally quick to remark the political dimensions of this novel, but I think it is far more than a parable of colonialist decline. The religious features are conspicuous, with Christianity figuring notably in the cultivated mentality of the semi-protagonist Katharine, who is an assimilated aboriginal. (I suspect that her name is deliberately spelled to evoke “Cathar” i.e. Albigensian heresy.) The priest Martin Cohen (another allusive moniker) is a key character, if not exactly an admirable one. The differences in the native sensorium create an explicit multiplication of experiential worlds connected by symbols.

Despite its large themes, the book’s action takes place on a very personal level. There is a fair amount of sex and violence, all of it suitably disturbing and difficult. Almost every interaction is fraught with misunderstanding, much of it willful. I was less than twenty pages from the end, and I said to myself, “This can’t end well.” Indeed, while a screen adaptation might superficially present the final tableau as “happy,” any attentive reader should be left with a profound uneasiness. Questions of “fact” about events in the story may prove insoluble, not least because of irreconcilable perspectives, and the ending throws this feature into almost painful relief.