Tag Archives: james branch cabell

The High Place

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by James Branch Cabell.

Cabell The High Place

The High Place is Cabell’s most efficient and effective composition as a fantasy novel. It riffs on both the Sleeping Beauty and Faust legends, through the gallant dream of Florian de Puysange (who is, of course a descendent of Manuel the Redeemer, and thus entitled to be included in Cabell’s hyperwork Biography of Manuel). It uses its two seminal legends to put pagan and Christian religion into hilarious comparisons with each other, as well as a terrific culminating chapter (28. “Highly Ambiguous”) with a conversation between the Archangel Michael and Cabell’s Pan-Devil figure Janicot. Florian is conspicuously free of the ravages of moral conscience, a feature which distinguishes him slightly from the book’s second-most-entertaining character, the pagan-high-priest-cum-Christian-saint Hoprig.

Cabell’s arch sense of humor skewers the conventional mores of twentieth-century Americans quite well even when his stories are set in an imaginary France of the 18th century. This book is actually far more confrontational than the scandalous Jurgen in that respect. It’s an excellent choice for readers just trying Cabell for the first time, and it shouldn’t be missed by those who have already enjoyed his work.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Taboo A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir by James Branch Cabell

Cabell Taboo

Cabell’s novel Jurgen was the subject of an obscenity case brought in 1919 by Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, then headed by John H. Sumner. After two years of highly-publicized trial, the court found in favor of the defendants, Cabell and his publisher Robert M. McBride and Company. In 1921, McBride published a short work by Cabell in hardcover. This book Taboo: A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Saevius Nicanor was dedicated to Sumner, with the claim that the notoriety conferred by the prosecution had rescued Cabell’s commercial prospects as a writer. He called Sumner a “philanthropic sorcerer” whose “thaumaturgy” had not only generated public interest in Jurgen, but resurrected prospects for the author’s other books (11-13). The hilarious little story of Taboo is set in the country of Philistia where it is the height of indecency to speak of eating, and a writer is accused of the “very shameless mention of a sword and a spear and a staff,” culpable since “one has but to write ‘a fork’ here, in the place of each of these offensive weapons, and the reference to eating is plain” (26).

The sword and spear and staff were in reference to Chapter 22 of Jurgen, “As to a Veil They Broke,” which Cabell had in large measure lifted from the Gnostic Mass of Aleister Crowley, and Cabell also mentioned these weapons in his later “Judging of King Jurgen” episode, where the tumblebug Philistine prosecutor indicted Jurgen as “indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.”

The entirety of Taboo is an attack on hypocritical pearl-clutching regarding sex. Its satire is constructed around a conceit in which eating (a human activity no more essential than sex, if perhaps more frequent) receives the sort of conversational proscription that Cabell’s contemporaries sought to impose on sex. Still, an appreciative reader must admit that such constraints led Cabell to write some very entertaining prose. These are not limited to the absurdities of Taboo and the literature around Jurgen, and they include the clever and hilarious encounters with the cult of the Holy Nose of Lytreia and that of the shaggy goddess Koleos Koleros in Something About Eve.

Anthony Comstock figures in the tale as “St. Anthony Koprologos” and Sumner is himself “John the Scavanger.” The set-upon protagonist of Taboo is not Jurgen but the Cabell alter-ego Horvendile, whose writings are “suspected of encroachment upon gastronomy” (30). Throughout the text, the reader may profit further by converting references to eating back into references to sex, for another, more familiar-seeming, but still equally absurd story.

Even though it concludes with a lament for the persistence of moralistic censorship, Taboo was a very amusing victory lap for Cabell and McBride.

The White Robe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The White Robe: A Saint’s Summary by James Branch Cabell.

Cabell The White Robe

You could be forgiven for concluding from the subtitle (“A Saint’s Summary”) that James Branch Cabell’s novella The White Robe was a hagiography. For that, though, you should read the story of Saint Hoprig in the loosely-related novel The High Place. What you will find in The White Robe is an account of a seventeenth-century rogue whose career as a savage lycanthrope fits him for great success as a high ecclesiastic. Sorry about the spoiler, but I’ve left out the final twist, as well as several in the interim. As usual with Cabell, though, the fun is less the plot than the rhetorically elaborate but emotionally understated prose.

In ten very short chapters, this book is a good representative introduction to Cabell’s fantasy work. Unfortunately, it is pretty scarce in its beautiful 1928 first edition, which is in the Polyphilus typeface on handmade paper, with simulated medieval-style wood boards, and full-page illustrations by Robert E. Locher. [via]

Special Delivery

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Special Delivery: A Packet of Replies by Branch Cabell.

This late book by Cabell consists of a dozen unposted letters and ten posted ones. The ten are each brief and polite (if sometimes just detectably arch) replies to unsolicited mail received in the course of a career as a professional man of letters. And in each case, there follows a much longer corresponding unsent “draft” letter, in which Cabell declares his real sentiments regarding the matter raised, the sorts of correspondents who raise such matters, and tangent issues of various sorts. The opening and closing letters are addressed to the reader and to the writer himself, respectively.

If you’re up for witty slams against book collectors, professional reviewers, aspiring and mediocre writers, this volume offers them in abundance. It also touches on sexual mores, the creative process, magic, drugs, and religion (but I repeat myself). The letter I found most surprising was “About Loveliness Revised,” addressed to a former lover and given the honor of finishing the series.

“The reader is asked to believe that all the correspondents addressed in this book are imaginary persons. Should the reader not comply with this moderate and civil request, the author must decline to accept any responsibility for such stubbornness.”

The foregoing disclaimer is not only more urbane, but a good deal less categorical than the one typical in today’s works of fiction. What’s more, if we observe the addressees of “The Epistle Explicative” and “The Epistle Egoistic,” and complete the syllogism, we discover that we are requested to believe that both Branch Cabell and the readers of this book “are imaginary persons.” I think this consequence was the author’s intention, and not an oversight. [via]

The Devil’s Own Dear Son

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Own Dear Son by James Branch Cabell.

James Branch Cabell The Devils Own Dear Son

The Devil’s Own Dear Son was Cabell’s fiftieth book (by his own count), and, I think, his last novel. He wrote it as the third of his “It Happened in Florida” trilogy, and the book has a lot to say about “the tourist trade” in St. Augustine, based presumably on knowledge gathered by the then-septaugenarian Cabell as a “winter resident” of the “Nation’s Oldest City.”

Cabell remarks in an introduction that the early drafts of this novel were written in the first person narrative voice, in the words of Diego de Arredondo Dodd, the progeny referenced in the title. Possibly as a trace of that compositional feature, the published text has a recurrent idiomatic use of the grammatical second person, useful here to get the reader to identify with the perspective of the morally-dubious (though reputable and affable) Diego. This usage may also represent a lapse into the tone of Diego’s father, the keeper of the Bide-A-Way Tourist Home, whose shortcomings and wisdom form a central conundrum of the book. As he finally sums it up, “For everybody has dreams, Diego, just as everybody has measles. But we get over both of them by-and-by” (206).

Although this book finishes “It Happened in Florida,” it is not especially reliant on the preceding two volumes, merely alluding to their contents in a few places. It fact, it is equally (i.e. somewhat nominally) connected to the earlier Biography of Manuel, with a brief journey for Diego through Poictesme and Ecben (124) astride the silver stallion Kalki, whose name is not given, but who has aged into “an infirm and discredited animal” (118). This novel is very much the sort of ironical fantasy for which Cabell became known for writing in books like Jurgen and The High Place.

The subtitle “A Comedy of the Fatted Calf” alludes to the parable of the prodigal son, and it is an open question as to which of Diego’s fathers should be identified with the father in the parable. Should it indeed be the human stepfather Bartholomew Burton Dodd, who “held to the ways of his forefathers” and counseled Diego returned from long adventures beyond St. Augustine to embrace a comfortable mediocrity? Or should it be Diego’s infernal sire Red Samael, who welcomed him to a belatedly-realized supernatural birthright, and offered a fatted calf and then some, for nothing but the asking of it?

Obscure as it is, relative to the larger Cabell oeuvre, The Devil’s Own Dear Son is still hilarious, and this more mature venture into the sardonic world of Cabell’s magical stories shows that Kalki could still take readers for the ride they had come to look for in this author’s writing. [via]

The Revival of Magick and Other Essays

The Revival of Magick and Other Essays by Aleister Crowley, edited by Hymenaeus Beta, afterword by Samuel Aiwaz Jacobs, a 1998 paperback from New Falcon, the 2nd in the Oriflamme series, with cover design by John Bowie, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Aleister Crowley The Revival of Magick and Other Essays from New Falcon

This is the 2nd in the newer Oriflamme series, of which the first was Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword and Other Essays by Jack Parsons, and of which there has not yet been a 3rd. The original Oriflamme was an early newsletter from Theodor Reuss and Ordo Templi Orientis, a title which has appeared in various and varied usage since and is here used again for the newer series of books.

“This collection is concerned with Aleister Crowley as an essayist. This literary form gave full range to his wit, humor, knowledge, and command of English. Most of his essays are as fresh today as when they were first written, and some of his best are collected here, forming a curiously charming sampling of Crowley’s opinions and interests. His essay subjects are wide-ranging, including mysticism, magick, travel, humor, social satire, drugs, psychoanalysis, religious fundamentalism, ‘pop’ occultism, art, divination, mythology, and drama. Crowley preaches his new Law of Thelema in several passionate essays and epistlatory letters, explaining the religious philosophy of the new law given in 1904 e.v. by Liber AL vel Legis, The Book of the Law. Sometimes writing as Crowley the man, at other times as The Master Therion, Magus of the New Æon of Horus, the recipients range from a fellow writer (the American novelist James Branch Cabell). to an industrialist (Henry Ford), to his colleagues. Crowley makes doctrinal connections not made elsewhere, many of great relevance to the theology and social philosophy of Thelema, discussing François Rabelais and William Blake. he also discusses the practical application of his philosophy at that great experiment in Thelemic monasticism, the Abbey of Thelema in Sicily.

The intent of this collection is to introduce Crowley’s writing to a wider modern audience, and his essays have been annotated thoroughly, including notes on sources, a bibliography of works cited, and an index. The Oriflamme is a series of monographs on magick, mysticism and the history of ideas. This is the second number of a new series.” — back cover


The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

A Starr is Born

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Starr the Slayer: A Starr is Born by Daniel Way, Richard Corben and Jose Villarrubia:

Daniel Way, Richard Corben and Jose Villarrubia's Starr the Slayer: A Starr is Born from Marvel


This graphic novel collects the first four issues of Daniel Way’s 2009 reboot of Roy Thomas’s 1970 Conan knockoff Starr the Slayer. The 21st-century version is an “adult” fantasy title from Marvel Comics’ “Max” imprint. Richard Corben furnishes the art in his inimitable style. The story is very suited to Corben’s work; it is a profanity-riddled barbarian-boy-makes-good adventure, with the narration provided in rhyming doggerel throughout by a ludicrous minstrel. Complication is provided by a hack pulp writer “Len Carson” (Thomas’ creation), who is supposed to have invented the barbarian and his world, becoming enslaved by a fictional villain he created; thus the evil sorcerer Trull effectively has the demiurge as his thrall. This metaficitonal opus is sort of what you might get if a drunken 19-year-old D&D player tried to write James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest.

This slender volume is a fast read, full of disgusting violence, nudity, and general hilarity. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.