Tag Archives: General

Horror Films of the 1990s

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Horror Films of the 1990s [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by John Kenneth Muir

Muir Horror Films of the 1990s

I read this beefy volume after Clark and Senn’s similarly ambitious Sixties Shockers. While the 1960s were a transitional decade for horror movies, the 1990s were allegedly an ebb tide, in which horror was little-produced and hardly marketed as such. Muir does indeed cast a wide net, including such films as Jurassic Park (1993). “Interloper” and “police procedural” themes are among the elements that characterize the typical horror movies of the decade.

The central reviews section of the book is organized by year, and each year’s chapter begins with a timeline inventorying events of major cultural significance for that year. The critical emphasis is on the relationship of cinematic themes to then-current events. So much is this the case, that the reviews tend to omit comparisons to earlier films, except for the most overt sequels and remakes. For example, the review of Body Parts (1991) does not mention the seminal Hands of Orlac (1924, 1960) Nor does discussion of The Masque of the Red Death (DTV 1991) bring up Roger Corman’s magisterial 1964 version of the Poe tale. The stand-out exception is “Appendix D: Movie References in Scream,” which catalogs dozens of film allusions that occur in that 1996 post-modern meta-movie.

The reviews are fully equipped with star ratings and opinionated verdicts, which seemed awfully “accurate” to me, when I was in a position to compare my own views. I was especially pleased with the glowing review of The Ninth Gate (1999) — often the object of critical derision — Muir even placed it at number five in his “Ten Best” list for the decade.

That list is one of a number of clever and useful apparatus elements placed as appendices. “1990s Horror Conventions” provides an index of movies by common tropes, such as “Car Won’t Start,” “H.P. Lovecraft,” and “Vampires.” (The absence of my favorite “Girl on Altar” is sadly due to its general neglect in the movies themselves.) “The 1990s Horror Hall of Fame” is an inventory of notable performers. Having noted that theater horror features were at a disadvantage in the 1990s because of small-screen competition from The X-Files, Muir backs up his claim by tabulating about thirty matches of central plot elements between 1990s horror films and individual X-Files episodes as “Appendix E.” 

On the whole, this book accomplishes its goals capably and with a fair amount of style.

The Age of Reason

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Age of Reason [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Thomas Paine, ed Moncure Daniel Conway.

Paine Conway The Age of Reason

Thomas Paine was a leading public intellectual of the 18th-century American Revolution, with his pamphlets Common Sense and The American Crisis as chief texts of the “spirit of 1776.” He followed these publications with his Rights of Man to defend the French and American revolutionary efforts against reactionary political sentiment in England. His final major work The Age of Reason was written as an expatriate in France. The first and shorter part he composed under the shadow of imminent arrest and possible execution, without recourse to a copy of the Bible that it criticizes. The second part includes a more detailed evaluation of Christian scripture, on grounds of both its provenance and internal features.

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity” (189-90). Raised by Quakers, Paine was an exemplary Deist of his period and staunchly anti-Christian. His distaste for Christianity is entirely consistent with and often justified by his Deist piety, refusing to attribute to the godhead sentiments and behaviors offensive to human conscience.

Paine’s dismantling of claims that the Bible should be regarded as the “Word of God” remain effective today, performed entirely around the evident sense of the texts themselves, without recourse to the “higher criticism” already being developed in Paine’s time, which was to prove so damning to the historical pretenses of Bible reception. He does verge on source criticism at a couple of points in discussing the evident “Gentile” origins of certain component texts of the Bible, but simply refers to the judgments of Jewish authorities (Abenezra and Spinoza) and the texts’ inconsistency with ancient Hebrew culture and religious sentiment (124-5), rather than any putative source texts. Paine’s attacks on the moral features of the supposed heroes of the Bible have not lost any of their force or relevance.

While Aleister Crowley was later to take up as a rallying cry Paine’s maxim that “Mystery is the antagonist of truth” (76), I would not say the Beast intended it in just the same unsubtle sense as the venerable Revolutionary, although mystery’s envelopment of truth in Paine’s argument foreshadows Crowley’s incantation. Paine classes mystery with miracle and prophecy as the three invidious organs of revealed or “fabulous religion” (75, 80-2), which he opposes to the “true religion” grounded in scientific admiration for nature and individual conformity to reasoned ethics.

Miracle is faulty for “degrading the Almighty into the character of a show-man, playing tricks to amuse and make the people stare and wonder” (79). The enlightened man of reason (dare I say “magician”) will stare and wonder at unadorned reality, of course. As regards prophecy, Paine makes an important distinction between the archaic sense that he finds for the word in the Hebrew Bible, where it evidently means musical performance and/or poetry (35-7), and the “modern” sense in which “prophet” takes the place of “seer” indicating a claimant to divinely-guided psychic foreknowledge (81-2, 111 citing 1 Samuel 9:9). “Prophet” thus ultimately descends to a mere synonym for “liar,” particularly in such cases as Isaiah, whose prognostication was contradicted by the subsequent course of events (133-4).

A full chapter of the first part of The Age of Reason is dedicated to “The Effects of Christianism on Education,” sadly relevant to the US of the 21st century. The Christian institutions of education substitute indoctrination for learning, in order to profit by the resulting ignorance and cognitive dissonance. Today, we can see the further turn of the wheel in which Christians accuse sincere secular efforts to foster learning with the psychologically projected charge of “indoctrination,” since that is the only function they can see in schooling. Current attacks on public libraries and new laws to put schoolteachers in ideological straight-jackets manifest such perspectives in policy, although the recurring phenomenon is as old as the US nation-state, a polity distinctive for its historical adoption of anti-literacy laws.

My Dover paperback copy of The Age of Reason reproduces the 1896 Putnam’s edition by Moncure Daniel Conway, which reconciled the first-published French text with the later unauthorized English edition, noting the variances in footnotes. Conway also appended some correspondence by Paine regarding the work: one letter to “a friend” clarifying the book’s thesis, and another in response to his Revolutionary comrade Sam Adams. The latter clearly shows the Deist anti-Christian Paine to have a greater magnanimity of spirit than his Puritan interlocutor Adams.

The Gospel of Judas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Judas [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] eds Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard.

Kasser Meyer Wurst Gaudard The Gospel of Judas

This volume presents a full English translation of the surviving text of the Gospel of Judas from the Codex Tchacos, with evaluative and interpretive essays by several conspicuous modern scholars of Gnosticism, all of whom (except for Ehrman) were party to the edition presented. That word “surviving” is key, because, as Rodolphe Kasser details in his contribution, the Codex Tchacos was subjected to the most pernicious effects of antiquities speculators in the 20th century. Much of the text is now missing or illegible as a result of damage sustained in the last few decades. 

Like the Nag Hammadi Codices, to which it is clearly kin, the Codex Tchacos appears to consist of Coptic translations of Greek texts. The Gospel of Judas is the third of these, and represents an expression of Sethian Gnosticism. Gregor Wurst, in his useful essay making the case for identifying this text with the “Gospel of Judas” mentioned by the ancient heresiologist Iranaeus of Lyon, suggests that it is one of the earliest such texts available to us today. In fact, I think he sets a false limit on how early it could be. He writes that it could not have been written earlier than the canonical Acts of the Apostles (ca. 93 C.E.), because it refers to the event of Judas’ replacement among the twelve apostles. But surely this overlooks the possibility that Judas and Acts could share a narrative source — or even (though I doubt it) both be grounded in prior facts! The earliness of the Gospel of Judas and its likely translation from a Greek original are reasons to hold out hope that a more complete version may someday be recovered. 

Bart Ehrman’s essay is a primer of wide scope regarding the contents of the Gospel of Judas, which presumes a minimum of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. (One conspicuous feature of the text that Ehrman fails to note is its strident rejection of ritual sacramentalism.) The concluding essay by Meyer is more sophisticated, and helpfully draws comparisons with other literature of ancient Gnosticism, as well as Hellenized Judaism and Middle Platonism. All of the essays are very accessible, and the whole book can be read in just a few sittings. 

Even in its degraded present condition, the Gospel of Judas is treasure comparable to the most provocative of the Nag Hammadi texts, or to the Bruce Codex materials, preserving scripture that was valued by the Gnostics who were eventually suppressed by what became Christian orthodoxy. This book serves as a well-constructed introduction for popular audiences to the good news of the man who sacrificed Jesus. May they go and do likewise.

Masters of Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus review Masters of Atlantis [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Portis.

Portis Masters of Atlantis

In his fourth novel, Charles Portis offers the compound biography of a fictional 20th-century initiatory order that arrived in the US following World War I and experienced ups and downs at the hands of its various aspirants and adepts. The author clearly intends the reader to be amused by the eccentric partisans of the Gnomon Society, yet his tone is largely sympathetic. I originally read this book at the recommendation of the head of one of the world’s most venerable esoteric bodies, and Portis does indeed give a far more accurate picture of the ambitions and concerns of most of today’s Rosicrucians and occult Freemasons than any wide-eyed Dan-Brownishness can provide. Shelve it between Foucault’s Pendulum and the Stonecutters episode of The Simpsons.

Prophets of Dissent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy [Amazon, Bookshop, Project Gutenberg, Local Library] by Otto Heller.

Heller Prophets of Dissent

Otto Heller was a native of Bohemia who immigrated to the US in 1883. He had a lifelong career as an academic, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He wrote Prophets of Dissent during World War I, while he was Professor of Modern European Literature in Saint Louis. It collects four essays on “the foremost literary expositors of important modern tendencies” (vii). There is little or no mutual reference among the component essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, even when one mentions a figure treated by another; each will stand on its own for a reader. In each there is a good overview of the literary figure including both biographical details and bibliographic notes.

Of the four writers treated here, Maurice Maeterlinck is the one whom I have read the least and am most likely to read in the future. Heller’s treatment of Maeterlinck, whom he classes as a “mystic,” was encouraging in this regard. He also characterizes Maeterlinck as working within the “new romanticism” of his period (13). The features of Maeterlinck’s work that Heller observes to have been off-putting or even risible to early readers are all attractive to me: a preoccupation with transcendent realities expressed through subtle and enigmatic symbols.

Heller’s study of August Strindberg–whom I have read extensively, but long ago–glosses the notorious Swede as an “eccentric.” I think the observations here are incisive and accurate, if often dismaying. For example, “In Strindberg’s case, religious conversion is not an edifying, but on the contrary a morbid and saddening spectacle; it is equal to a declaration of complete spiritual bankruptcy” (100). The essay necessarily treats Strindberg’s eventual keynote of misogyny, his self-torment, and his apparent ideological fickleness, and gives him credit for “the extraordinary subjective animation of his work” (104).

Friedrich Nietzsche features as the “exalted” figure in Heller’s treatment. As a reader of Nietzsche, Heller would not have been dependent on other translators, and I assume the quotes and fragments that he presents in English are his own translations. These compare favorably with other translations on my shelf. For example, he quotes Also Sprach Zarathustra: “All great Love seeketh to create what it loveth. Myself I sacrifice into my love, and my neighbor as myself, thus runneth the speech of all creators” (128). Heller is of course at pains to dissociate Nietzsche’s intentions as an author from the Great War policies of his countrymen. He surveys the doctrinal leitmotifs of Neitzsche’s work and scores him as a powerful and admirable advocate of self-realization, if nearly useless as a reference for social reform.

The chapter on Leo Tolstoy the “revivalist” marks him as a spiritual successor to Jean Jacques Rousseau, and possessed of a similar “inconsistency between principles and conduct” (205). Heller rates Tolstoy highly as a social critic, while pointing out the unworkability of the author’s proposed solutions in light of actually existing society. (For myself, I see Tolstoy as a puissant modern agent of the Great Sorcery, and I find his moral aspirations somewhat noxious.)

Throughout the book Heller’s own prose is full of little gems. He was clearly a perceptive reader and skillful writer, confined to criticism and academic study through want of his own determining inspiration. This book (along with a separate study of Ibsen) seems to be his principal intellectual legacy, and it is a pleasant and informative read for those of us interested in its subject matter.

Slow Learner

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Slow Learner: Early Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon Slow Learner

This aptly-titled collection of short fiction is a superfluity that I keep on my shelf only for the satisfaction of approaching completeness in my Pynchon collection. While none of these stories are really terrible, it is clear that by the time he had written Vineland, Pynchon had already cannibalized his early shorts for everything of value, recycling the elements to much greater effect in his novels. I’d recommend it to scholars and sleuths contemplating the genealogy of Pynchon’s writing I guess, but for most readers I’d say the contents are better encountered in their later, consummated forms.

The Dream and the Underworld

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dream and the Underworld [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by James Hillman.

Hillman The Dream and the Underworld

Hillman’s slim volume is the best book I have read about the significance and experiential weight of dreams. He opposes the therapeutic and vulgar divinatory approaches that want to merely convert dreams into utilities of waking consciousness. While situating his study within the psychoanalytic tradition, he constructs his theory with extensive reference to classical notions of death and the underworld. 

Magicians reading carefully can also find a wealth of pointers about the “astral” and the full range of visionary experiences which access materials from an unconscious source–collective or individual. In fact, this book is one of the most valuable texts I have found for that purpose. 

An early monograph by Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld has a style that is more incisive and demanding than his later popular work like The Soul’s Code. He often uses untranslated Greek terms in order to orient the reader to what is likely to be at first an alien perspective on the underworld into which we all must descend. Although short, it requires genuine work to read, and it should repay the effort well.

No one, unless they were fanatics, would think of distributing religious tracts to the poor half starved ignorant portion of a large city. The human portion of their natures must be benefitted before any great results in moral improvements can be attained. Commence at the beginning.

Lydia Leavitt, Bohemian Society [Bookshop, Amazon]

Hermetic quote Leavitt Bohemian Society no one unless they were fanatics

The Best of OZ

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Best of OZ [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Stephen J King, & al.

King The Best of OZ

OZ was the regular organ of the Australian Grand Lodge of OTO from 2006 through 2018, with paper distribution left behind circa 2010 in favor of digital only. Although I did often read it, and always found something of value in the issues I did read, I am embarrassed to admit that I sometimes left much of it unread in my inbox, just as the Grand Secretary General intimates in his introduction to this volume. I was excited to get a copy of a handsome softcover book claiming to collect the “Best Of” OZ in a hardcopy format that I could subject to my thorough attentions.

The prohibitive majority of the content in this volume was written by Australian Grand Master Shiva X°, which is consistent with the original periodical that often contained long articles from the Austral Throne. The rationale for the sequence of the selections is not entirely clear to me; they are certainly not chronological. (And for that matter, the date of each article is given at its end, and I would have appreciated seeing these citations at the top of each piece and/or in the table of contents.)

Many of the pieces are concerned with organizational and institutional issues, highlighting the distinctive Australian approach to implementing the constitutional legacy of OTO and its component rites. While they are doubtless invaluable to all members of the Australian Grand Lodge, readers in other countries are most likely to find these pieces useful and engaging if they have already begun to serve in roles of national leadership such as those associated with the Second Triad. OTO-EGC clergy should certainly read the several articles regarding EGC organization and sacramental philosophy, in that they detail an approach distinct from the one in the US, with no less fidelity to the mysteries of the rite.

Two of the longest and most rewarding articles are set near the end of the book, under the byline of Stephen J. King. The first of these is “Apocalypsis 418,” an exploratory doctrinal piece which should be of tremendous value to any serious Thelemite. Its significance relates at least as much to A∴A∴ as it does to OTO, and it includes cross-references not only to the two volumes of Daniel Gunther’s Inward Journey, but to three different volumes by Shiva X° in preparation. In significant connection with this particular essay, I would suggest reading To Take Place by Jonathan Z. Smith as well as Henri Corbin’s “The Imago Templi in Confrontation with Secular Norms” (in Temple and Contemplation).

The second King article is “Temple Mount: The Oriental Templar Crusade for Verità.” This paper was clearly the result of a compositional process originally aimed at and emerging from the Academia Ordo Templi Orientis conference at Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland in 2017, although it doesn’t report what form it had been in at that earlier time, and it saw publication in the fiftieth and final issue of OZ in late 2018. It is concerned with Past Frater Superior Theodor Reuss’ efforts in Switzerland and their durable effects in the countercultural milieu of Ascona and later Esalen. While there is some measure of speculation involved in this study, there is also a wealth of positive historical detail to support it. The conclusions offered regarding the history of ideas make this paper valuable to Thelemites seeking to understand the logical (and possibly genetic) relationship of our doctrines to other intellectual and cultural streams with which they are in clear resonance, and not just to scholars of OTO history.

I recommend this book as a useful addition to the library of any chartered OTO body or individual initiate, as well as for students of Thelema generally.