Tag Archives: review

The Great Cow Race

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: The Great Cow Race [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 2 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone The Great Cow Race

This second collection of Bone comics advances the overall plot with the same leisurely pace of the first volume. I think I’m very glad to be reading these as anthologies, rather than following them as a monthly comic. This volume has more and better slapstick than the first, and Fone Bone’s romantic affection for Thorn is elevated into a proper dilemma. For sheer comedy, the best moment is probably the unravelling of Phoney Bone’s scheme on page 73.

In “Lonesome Road” (the fifth chapter of this book, #11 of the original series?), a three-page dialoge between Rose and Lucius provides a very full synopsis of the state of the intrigue–from the human perspective. I can certainly see how such a review would have been important in the original serial, but it’s helpful even in the current format. There are four intersecting worlds here: the Boneville Bones in exile (Fone, Phoney, and Smiley), the humans (Thorn, Gran’ma Ben, Lucius, villagers and fairgoers), the animals (possums, Ted the bug), and the monsters (red dragon, rat creatures). 

In any event, this book solidifies the promise of the first volume and settles into what I’m now confident will be a series worth the continuing read.

The Last Days of New Paris

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus review The Last Days of New Paris: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by China Miéville.

Miéville The Last Days of New Paris

In this short novel, Miéville alternates between 1941 Marseille and 1950 Paris in an alternate timeline. The earlier date sees American Thelemite Jack Parsons visiting France during the war, and the later one involves a thaumaturgical Surrealist resistance fighting against a goetically-augmented continuing Nazi occupation. The title of the book is taken from a book within the book: The Last Days of New Paris is a book being written (and photographed) within the story, to document the exotic and presumably evanescent 1950 Parisian environment. [ . . . (hover over to read this spoiler) . . . ]

Given its subject matter, I expected to either love or hate this book, and I was surprised to find myself lukewarm. I liked Miéville’s appreciation for Surrealist politics, the way that he brought Surrealist artworks into the story, and the metafictional/documentary twists. I didn’t find the narrative voice as engaging as the one in The City & the City, and Parsons wasn’t presented very believably. It definitely had its virtues, and short as it is, it’s still worth reading by anyone who finds the premise intriguing.

Almuric

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Almuric by Robert E Howard.

Howard Almuric

As the jacket copy on the lovely little Donald M. Grant edition of Almuric explains, Robert E. Howard took his only novel-length foray into the sword-and-planet subgenre at the urging of his literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline, who was a chief proponent of the form. Howard’s protagonist is rather different than the paradigm of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, though. Esau Cairn is not a gentleman warrior, just a murderous thug. The documentary foreword in the voice of the fictional Professor Hildebrand provides even less of a rationale for interplanetary travel than is usually present in a school of fiction that often demands heroic levels of suspension of disbelief.

Before Cairn can be built up into the barbarism of his adoptive society on the planet Almuric, he is first reduced to an entirely feral existence. In this condition he waxes philosophical, by the standards of an REH hero: “I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form of life is artificial and without realistic meaning” (38).

Other than the peculiar savagery of the protagonist, Almuric is highly conventional pulp-era sword-and-planet fare. Cairn ends up uniting two tribes of Guras (the hairy ape-men to whom he assimilates) against the citadel of the sadistic Yagas, devilish winged humanoids. He single-handedly defeats their secret weapon, a giant electrified slug. There is a happy ending of considerable predictability and triteness.

I’ve previously remarked the salience of ideas of gender in sword-and-planet literature. Almuric features extreme sexual dimorphism and rigid gender roles among the Guras. Cairn’s clean-shaven face causes the first Gura he encounters to ask “with unbearable scorn … ‘By Thak, are you a man or a woman?'” (21) This affront is grounds for a combat to the death.

I am an avid reader of both Robert E. Howard and sword and planet, so I was delighted to discover this book and felt compelled to read it. It didn’t take me very long. But it is neither one of Howard’s better efforts, nor an especially rewarding example of its sub-genre.

Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine [Amazon, Bookshop] by Max Heindel, introduction by Manly P Hall.

Heindel Hall Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine

According to the introduction by Manly P. Hall, Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine was the earliest of Max Heindel’s writings on mysticism, composed as a pair of lectures for the Theosophical Society in Los Angeles, and its posthumous publication in 1933 made it the last of his works to see print (11). Other than the useful data on the provenance of the text, Hall’s introduction presents both Heindel and Blavatsky as moral exemplars, and exhorts neo-Rosicrucians and Theosophists to regenerate and maintain the putative holiness of their legacies.

The introduction is followed by an unattributed twelve-page hagiography of Heindel, emphasizing the challenges of his ill-health, just as he stressed Blavatsky’s in his treatment of her. His final words are said to have been addressed to his wife: “I am all right dear” (29).

The first of the two lectures, here given as Chapters I-III, was on the history of the composition of The Secret Doctrine. Heindel admits to drawing freely on the relevant portions of Oclott’s Old Diary Leaves, and since I had read that material, there was little here that came as news to me. Heindel insists on HPB’s lack of material resources and native incapacity for literary production as evidence for her praeternatural inspiration, much as Mohammed is said to have been illiterate. He also compares her to Martin Luther as a “staunch and unflinching … reformer” (38).

The second lecture is two further chapters: one on the content of “Cosmogenesis,” the first volume of The Secret Doctrine, and the other on “Anthropogenesis,” the second. I will admit to having attempted study of the original work, and Heindel’s glosses seem accurate as far as they go. They do include substantial quotation from the “Stanzas of Dzyan,” which are the alleged archaic nucleus of HPB’s Doctrine. Evidently I lack the “perseverance and intuition” (57) which Heindel sets out as requirements for successful readers of The Secret Doctrine, because I have found it less illuminating than other conspicuous works of its author, such as Isis Unveiled and The Voice of the Silence. Taking Heindel’s summaries as given, I cannot see why these metaphysical yarns should incline their students to any particular forms of practice or purity of contemplation.

Appended to this short book are a few pages of “Aphorisms” by Heindel. These are in fact pithy quotations from larger works, and evidently not written as aphorisms. They are all, as far as I can tell, from Heindel’s later period of Christian neo-Rosicrucian teaching, and do not relate to the Theosophical material of the main text.

Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine is perhaps a useful curiosity for someone researching Heindel or his Rosicrucian Fellowship. As an occultist’s retrospective study of Blavatsky and the development of her teachings in The Secret Doctrine, it is inferior to the equally idiosyncratic but much later Book of Dzyan by Tim Maroney.

The Mystery of the Grail

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystery of the Grail: Initiation and Magic in the Quest for the Spirit [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Julius Evola.

Evola The Mystery of the Grail Initiation and Magic in the Quest for the Spirit

It is no surprise to find Julius Evola mounting an opposition to common readings of the medieval Grail legends as Christian sacramentalism and sentimental mysticism. He wrote The Mystery of the Grail after Revolt Against the Modern World, and drew on the earlier book for the framework of degenerative hierohistory that brands his larger Traditionalist project. With a few exceptions, the Grail book takes that context as given, only rarely explaining it, or referring the reader expressly to Evola’s other books for details.

The overall arc of the work is from the general to the particular. After a section on his aims and methods, there follows a set of chapters exploring “Principles and Prior Events,” in which he surveys background and context for the seminal Grail literature, along with principal mythemes which he associates with heroic initiation. The latter is the pattern that he then goes on to chart as fundamental to “The Cycle of the Grail” in its original forms and variants. In the fourth and final section, he discusses related “historical currents” (one might say “traditions,” if that word had not already been enlisted for a more specific duty in Evola’s work): Templarism, Albigensianism, the “Love’s Lieges,” Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism.

Translator Guido Stucco may have provided an accurate text, but it is not a lovely one. His rendering of Evola’s prose makes ponderous English. I can’t say whether that reflects the style of the original Italian. Especially in the early chapters of Part Three, I sometimes felt as if I were reading among the more stylistically impaired of Arthur Edward Waite’s writings. (I’m sure Evola wouldn’t welcome the comparison! Curiously, Waite’s most grueling prose is perhaps in his own book on The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail. I wonder if it reflects some sort of transmission of opacity from the primary materials.)

My reading of the book really took a turn at almost the exact midpoint. In the chapter on “The Test of Pride,” I began to get a much more vivid sense of how Evola saw the initiatory spirit animating the legends. This perception sharpened my interest, and I continued in this manner through the following chapters until “The Grail as a Ghibelline Mystery” which concludes Part Three. Here, he identifies the Grail cycle with an (unmanifested, for the most part) ideal of the Holy Roman Empire as a “movement toward an ecumenical ‘solar’ synthesis” (120), attempting to re-integrate the dissociated kingly and priestly aspects of authority. Part four is very rewarding, supplying many points of contact among various historical phenomena of esoteric interest, and constellating them around the Grail cycle as previously explored.

An appended bibliography would have been helpful. Evola often references prior scholarship in ways too fleeting to allow students or researchers to conveniently follow his trail. Although he sometimes supplies bibliographic references in footnotes, these are generally to the primary literature of the Grail legends and to his own works. An example where bibliographic citation is frustratingly absent: “This was the thesis endorsed by Rossetti and Aroux, taken up by Valli and to a degree by Ricolfi and, more recently, by Alessandrini, though with a heavy emphasis on the merely political dimension” (145).

The epilogue is really the final chapter of the book, covering the most significant organized modern receptions of the medieval and Renaissance “currents” that Evola treats in the fourth section. He has no ideological sympathy for these: Freemasonry and Theosophy he views as anti-traditional purveyors of pseudo-initiation. He supplies a useful review of the points of congruence that, he would say, serve as the means of subverting materials usurped from traditional initiation. But then he goes on to advert to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as a “satanic” conspiracy animating bourgeois societies and global Communism (172-3). Wagner also comes in for abuse on account of his “arbitrary, pseudomystical, and decadent” misrepresentation of the Grail cycle (174).

Evola concludes in a chilling and invidious manner that “the invisible and inviolable center, the king who must awake, and the avenging and restorating hero are not mere fancies of a dead and romantic past, but rather the truth of those who, today, alone may legitimately said to be alive” (175). The final ten words confirm my antagonism for Evola, since I hold in contrast that Every man and every woman is a star.

John Dies at the End

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews John Dies at the End [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by David Wong, part of the John Dies at the End series.

Wong John Dies at the End

The professedly unreliable narrator of John Dies at the End uses a lot of profanity. In the added apparatus for the 2020 reissue that I read, it is revealed that the “bad words” had been a source of consternation among the reading public. I don’t know–when limbs are getting ripped off, you accidentally get dosed with some unidentifiable tar-like street drug, and swarms of extradimensional bugs are making people explode, I think it’s fair for the interjections to go beyond “oh dear” and the modifiers well past “rather.”

There are a couple of direct invocations of Lovecraft, along with the sort of cosmic indifferentism (universally pervasive “apathy” as Wong would have it) that some critics attribute to Grandpa Cthulhu, but the pacing and resolutions of this story are more along Robert E. Howard lines: resilience in the face of bizarre menace, heroic dismemberment of foes, and the virtues of action over paralyzing reflection. But it’s not a pulp-retro tale at all. The setting is the 21st-century de-industrialized US Midwest with aimless 20-something protagonists thrown into a kind of post-punk Ghostbusters scenario.

Is it scary? Sort of, in the too-recognizable way that the narrator relates his epistemological uncertainty and self-loathing. Is it funny? I may not flatter myself to admit it, but I did laugh out loud at many points, whether because of the absurd events, the narrator’s deft turns of phrase, John’s dick jokes, or whatever it was. It’s buried pretty deep in the feces and wads of bloody meat, but there is even some genuine moral reflection that applies to all of us in our humanity-devouring circumstances of neoliberal overreach and ecocide.

So … recommended? I’m just not sure to whom. I own a copy of the sequel, and I might read it before the plague takes me down.

Wrath of N’kai

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Wrath of N’kai: An Arkham Horror Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Josh Reynolds, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Reynolds Wrath of N'kai Arkham Horror

Wrath of N’kai is the first of a new series of licensed novels from publisher Aconyte Books set in the Arkham Horror game milieu. Unlike the recent investigator novellas from the game publisher Fantasy Flight, this one is at full novel length. It also lacks an established player character from the game for its protagonist. Instead, it has international adventuress and “gentlewoman thief” Countess Alessandra Zorzi as the principal investigator of the story. She is assisted by plucky trans-man cabbie Pepper Kelly. Neither of these have appeared in the games as far as I know. But the setting is unmistakably the Arkham of the games: various player characters do appear, such as Harvey Walters, Preston Fairmont, Tommy Muldoon, and Daisy Walker. Organizations like the O’Bannion gang and the Silver Twilight Lodge are also important to the story, which takes place entirely within the city limits of Arkham, starting with Alessandra’s arrival by train.

Despite ample stigmata of the Arkham Files universe, the narrative continuity of this story has in one case been better conformed to the original pulp-era literature. The underearth kingdom of K’n-yan is here given as lying beneath Oklahoma as it does in “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop and H.P. Lovecraft. The game designers had transferred K’n-yan to Mexico in the adventure “Heart of the Elders” for the Forgotten Age cycle of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. The plot of Wrath of N’kai centers on a scrimmage for a mummy recovered from K’nyan by a Miskatonic University archaeological expedition.

Author Josh Reynolds is a veteran at writing fiction for game universes such as the various Warhammer worlds, and he has also written some occult adventure in his “Tales of the Royal Occultist” novels. His reading in the relevant literature is signaled by clever allusions like Alessandra’s mentor Nuth (lifted from a story by Lord Dunsany). Wrath of N’kai has a lively pace, and I often read multiple short chapters at a single sitting. It is definitely more pulp adventure than weird horror, despite the Lovecraftian praeternatural elements. The prose isn’t highly polished, but it is engaging. I enjoyed it, and I would be willing to read a sequel about Alessandra’s adventures beyond Arkham.

On the Sociology of Islam

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews On the Sociology of Islam by Ali Shari’ati, trans. Hamid Algar.

Shari'ati Algar On the Sociology of Islam

This collection of eight lectures and articles is offered as a representative glimpse of the work of Iranian intellectual Ali Shari’ati. A Western-educated Islamist, Shari’ati was enthusiastic about the prospects of revolutionary Iran, but never endeared himself to the resulting theocratic establishment. Throughout this volume the reader can observe Shari’ati’s efforts to regenerate Western academic disciplines on the basis of a profoundly Muslim perspective. These pieces are essentially philosophical discourse attempting to lay a groundwork for sociology, anthropology, and historiography framed by distinctively Islamic premises. 

Shari’ati construes his anthropology on the basis of a “bi-dimensionality” that struck me as having an unwonted affinity to the ancient mysteries. He emphasizes the coordination of opposed principles in the human constitution: “God and Satan, or spirit and clay” (89, c.f. 74, 93), like the Dionysian and Titanic components of the Orphic man. He also uses Eve as a symbol of love–rather than life in accordance with her name–and Satan as a figure of the intellect (95, 124). This latter choice seemed odd and muddled to me, considering that Shari’ati makes Satan the inherently anti-divine impulse in humanity, and yet the project represented in these writings is one of putting the intellect in service of a divine mandate.

His historical theory, which comprehends a political philosophy, is a sort of dialectical materialism distilled through the narrative of Cain and Abel, in which Cain represents the spirit of exploitation and alienation that arose at the beginning of agriculture and has mutated and developed ever since, while Abel is both the perspective of the Edenic communism of primitive hunters and herders, and the striving for a future condition in which the Umma reaches its destination as a classless society.

The sociology that he outlines transposes the Muslim distinction of tawhid and shirk from a religious criterion to a social one, valorizing the unity of society. Likewise, he elevates the hejirah from a historical episode to an interpretive principle, viewing migration and displacement as the critical factor in all social evolution. In his effort to identify the distinctive characteristics of Islam, he engages in some comparative theology, advancing a claim that the Quran alone among prophetic writings addresses itself to the entirety of the people rather than an elite. Shari’ati stresses the allegiance of Iran to the school of Ali, but laments the national ignorance of positive history regarding Shiite origins and early Iranian Islam, and he derides the Shia theory of the imamate (94). He is opposed to Sufism (68, 85), and his glosses of non-Muslim religions (mostly on page 79) are unimpressive. 

With a few exceptions, these selections show Shari’ati engaged in a highly coherent and impressive project of intellectual reframing. It is a short book, but a non-Muslim reader attempting to do justice to its contents will probably find it slow going.

Modern Ruins

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region by Shaun O’Boyle, introduction by Geoff Manaugh.

O'Boyle Manaugh Modern Ruins

Modern Ruins consists principally of four visual essays photographed by Shaun O’Boyle. The subjects throughout are buildings in Pennsylvania and New York that have been untenanted and untended for one or more human generations. 

The “Institutions” of the first essay are views of ruined mental hospitals and penitentiaries, which would seem to have a liberatory undertone, if it weren’t for the knowledge that these bygone institutions have been largely replaced with neglect on the one hand and more efficient facilities on the other. I was surprised at the amount of color among these photos.

The second essay “Steel” shows plants and foundries, mainly the Bethlehem Steel facility, a picture of which is also on the cover of the volume. I was struck by a certain organic quality to the images, as well as the sort of ecclesiastical spiring of the architecture. The Bethlehem Steel plant through O’Boyle’s lens looks to me like an H.R. Giger cathedral.

The “Coal” essay is as focused on the ruins of communities associated with the moribund Pennsylvania anthracite industry as it is on industrial structures themselves, but offers some images of the great “breakers” buildings that were used to process the coal. 

The final essay is “Arsenal,” treating Bannerman’s Island on the Hudson River. This site was the commercial and residential home of a premiere arms merchant in the early 20th century, and the architecture embraces a Scottish Gothic conceit, putting me in mind of Macbeth taking a summer holiday with his family. 

Each photo essay is prefaced by a text from a different contributor, offering historical backgrounds on the sites photographed. I read the volume in slavish obedience to the pagination, front to back; but especially after reading the interview with O’Boyle that concludes the book, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to read the historical texts after viewing the photos, so that the images could provide the sort of lure of the unknown and sense of mystery that the photographer claims to prize in his own effort to capture them. 

The book also includes an overall introduction by Geoff Manaugh, which reflects on the entire photographic genre of ruined modern architecture, and the nature and sources of its allure for 21st-century viewers. The entire package is relatively compact, with only about 120 pages all told, of which fewer than twenty are text, but it deserves to be taken in at a slow pace over multiple sittings.

The Populist’s Guide to 2020

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left are Rising by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti.

Ball Enjeti The Populist's Guide to 2020

The Populist’s Guide to 2020 is a digest of the texts of video monologues by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, the hosts of the YouTube-carried daily television show Rising. Despite the title, it actually collects pieces from 2019, with fresh retrospective introductions for each that were written on the eve of 2020. This book was published before the resolution of the Democratic presidential primary this year, so it holds out some hopes that have since been dashed. The fact that it predates both the novel coronavirus epidemic and the civil unrest first touched off by the death of George Floyd makes it seem like it was from a simpler time; yet its critiques of the political and media establishments still hold.

Ball identifies with the left and Enjeti with the right, but they both distance themselves from the elite neoliberalism and neoconservativism that often manifest as bipartisan consensus in US national politics. The book’s afterword contains a single-paragraph ideological program statement from each of them, and it might have been better to put these at the front of the book. A distinctive feature of their show is that they make their left-right split a matter of complementary perspectives rather than antagonistic ones. Both are interested in imagining political discourse that legitimately centers the interests of working-class Americans.

The book groups their individual monologues (what they call “radars” on the show) into four sections. “Core Rot” is a set of diagnoses of US political institutions and ideologies. “Media” discusses corruption and myopia in mass communications. “Identity” is mostly concerned with jockeying in the early phase of the Democratic Presidential primary. (To their credit, Ball and Enjeti had already pegged it as ultimately a race between Sanders and Biden, but their analyses of other candidacies and the establishment reactions to them are interesting.) “Theories of Change” looks for openings out of the customary patterns of US mis-governance.

All of the intro/monologue chapters are short and read quickly, while having some real meat to chew on. They are often interrupted with citations of text news articles that the hosts referenced in their presentations. This book is not materially elegant, and it has more than its share of typos–evidence that it was the product of “a Christmas break to assemble and edit,” for which the acknowledgements express thanks. It was clearly intended to be an ephemeral print spinoff of the continuing show. The Populist’s Guide sold very well on its release in February 2020, and while much has changed during the seven months since, it is still very much worth the remainder-level price that it now commands in online retail.