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The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Problem of Susan and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, P Craig Russell, & al.

Gaiman Russell The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

The Problem of Susan collects four graphic adaptations of Neil Gaiman fantasy stories. The first two are illustrated by P. Craig Russell, who also did the scripting and layouts for the third. The title story–a sequel/critique for the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis–is the longest of the four, and it’s one I had read some years back. Russell’s adaptation is magnificent, with repeated visual motives and a really glorious concluding panel.

The second story “Locks” is a very short one built around Goldilocks and the Three Bears and again bringing adult reflection to bear on children’s literature. In the third tale “October in the Chair,” personified months of the year have assembled around a fire in the woods for what seems to be a recurring convocation in which they exchange stories. October’s contribution is the centerpiece, and it’s suitably autumnal and spooky. The final piece in the book is hardly a story at all, more of a short poem really, called “The Day the Saucers Came.” Paul Chadwick’s art for this one is entirely in full-page illustrations, just seven of them.

Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (aka The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin) [Amazon (Routledge), Amazon (Art/Books), Amazon (Dover), Bookshop (Dover), Bookshop (Art/Books), Bookshop (Routledge), Publisher (Dover), Publisher (Art/Books), Publisher (Routledge), Local Library] by Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin Routledge

Gauguin Gauguin's Intimate Journals Dover

Gauguin Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals Art/Books

Paul Gauguin’s second prose work was called by him Avant et Aprés, and saw its first publication posthumously as a bound facsimile of the manuscript in 1918. These so-called Intimate Journals are the English translation, first published in 1921 with a preface by Gauguin’s son Emil. It would be reasonable to suspect that the shorter Noa Noa, subtitled The Tahitian Journal, was an excerpt from this Intimate Journals work, but they are entirely distinct. Emil Gauguin writes that this later work better captured his father’s spirit than did the more heavily edited Noa Noa; I certainly found it a livelier and more entertaining read.

The English title doesn’t really do justice to the text, the last of which was written in the last year of Gauguin’s life, while he was living in the Marquesas. To call it digressive would suggest a central course that is missing from a work that is “not a book,” as Gauguin declares at the outset and repeats many times. “I could exist without writing this; but then, why should I not write it?–since I have no other aim than to amuse myself” (161). The book wanders through reminiscences and anecdotes, offers opinions, philosophizes, and cracks wise by turns. Gauguin recounts high points from his personal experiences with Vincent van Gogh, he vituperates against the Catholic Church, he discusses fencing and boxing, he gives vent to his animus against Denmark, he tells stories of his youth and family, he criticizes the colonial police of French Polynesia, and he praises the lost arts of the Marquesans.

The book includes drawings and sketches reproduced from the manuscript, along with a variety of black-and-white reproductions of Gauguin paintings from the holdings of various museums. Inserted by Gauguin into the flow of the text are various letters and articles: one from August Strindberg declining to contribute to an exhibit catalog for Gauguin (42-49), one by Achille Delaroche “Concerning the painter Paul Gauguin, from an aesthetic point of view” (49-55), and several letters by Gauguin himself to the colonial authorities.

“I believe that life has no meaning unless one lives it with a will, at least to the limit of one’s will. … No one is good; no one is evil; everyone is both, in the same way and in different ways. It would be needless to point this out if the unscrupulous were not always saying the opposite.” (240)

The Tindalos Asset

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Tindalos Asset [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Caitlín R Kiernan, book 3 of the Tinfoil Dossier series.

Kiernan The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset is the third and likely final slender novel in Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier series. It introduces a new central character, while pulling along several from the earlier books. This character Ellison Nicodemo is the “asset” of the title, a subordinate agent of the deep black intelligence directorate referred to as “Albany” in this series. Usage in this book shows that the “Dreamland” of the previous volume’s title does also denominate this same outfit. (I had noted its ambiguity there.)

I was startled that the title of the first chapter was a quote from Leah Hirsig–but Kiernan seems to have received it via its use as a song title by Coil: “Paint me as a dead soul.” In the appended author’s note, they list all the music that was integral to the composition of the story (168). It’s no secret that these books are built around neo-Lovecraftian yog-sothothery, and this one is as much as anything an updated and re-imagined “Call of Cthulhu,” with generous bits of “Dagon” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” is of course a significant source as well, and Kiernan ties its notions to the Manhattan Project, among other space-time problems.

Following the precedent in Black Helicopters, this book’s chapters are episodes presented under dates that are not in linear sequence, ranging from 1956 to 2151. The chronological core of the story is in January 2018, around the time it was written. This sort of time-loose montage effect has a self-similar relationship to the entire Tinfoil Dossier series, and I think the books could be read with enjoyment in any order. Indeed there seems to be some confusion among readers about the sequence of the first two books, since Black Helicopters, the one Kiernan calls “first,” was expanded and re-published as a series element after Agents of Dreamland.

Looking back on the series as a whole, its mixture of the weird horror Lovecraft canon with espionage and a certain measure of sympathy for the “monsters” is a common ground with other recent/current series: the Laundry Files of Charles Stross and the Innsmouth Legacy of Ruthanna Emrys. Kiernan’s more experimental style definitely makes these books distinctive, though. There really aren’t any of the comedic elements that Stross uses, and there’s more of a high-tragic sensibility despite the fact that the Tinfoil Dossier books are much shorter than their comparanda.

This work is rife with extra-textual and inter-textual allusions, which supply a lot of the enjoyment. Given its manageable size and convoluted presentation, I think there is a good chance I could return to it in the future for a profitable re-read.

Big Dark Hole

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Big Dark Hole: and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford.

Ford Big Dark Hole

Big Dark Hole is a collection of fantasy and horror stories by Jeffrey Ford. Comparing it to his previous collection A Natural History of Hell, I find that the Hole is more this-worldly in its choices, with only two stories (“The Inn of the Dreaming Dog” and “Sisyphus in Elysium”) set in realities that do not at least seem to be our world within the possible stretch of living memory.

In fact, there are a number of stories where the speaker is Jeffrey Ford, an aging writer of stories and teacher of writing, one who likes to spend the evenings at his Ohio farm house drinking wine on the porch with his wife Lynn. But these stories, which notably include “The Match,” “The Bookcase Expedition,” and “Five-Pointed Spell,” are not a bit less weird in the events they recount than the bizarre carnival story narrated by a man with two faces (“Hibbler’s Minions”) or the one in which a perennial dinner guest turns out to be no one’s friend or relation and perhaps not human at all (“Thanksgiving”).

There’s a bit of additional self-referentiality in “Five-Pointed Spell” where a Hex Doctor tells “Ford” that “In real life, the supernatural declines to explain” (186). This refusal is supposedly different than in fiction, where “it must” explain. Yet in most of Ford’s stories here, the characters grope for explanations, largely in vain, when confronted with horrors and wonders outside the scope of the mundane. If the reader is able to settle on a rationale, Ford’s touch is light enough that it will seem like a discovery.

These pieces are largely reprints from multi-author collections and periodicals, but I had not read any of them before. This book confirmed Ford as a favorite of mine among twenty-first century writers of weird fantasy.

Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Dion Fortune, edited by Gareth Knight.

Knight Fortune Dion Fortune's Rites of Isis and Pan

Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan is a slender book, but one with a lot of valuable content. As the title suggests, it is constructed around a pair of liturgical texts by the eminent early twentieth-century occultist Dion Fortune. These appear to have been her only forays into dramatic ritual for public audiences or untutored congregations, and they were produced by her at “the Belfry,” a converted church building in the Belgravia district of London. The full rituals are included, and framed by four chapters of editorial text from Gareth Knight, who provides a history of these rituals and delves into the manner in which they were epitomized in Fortune’s principal occult novels: The Winged Bull, The Goat-foot God, The Sea Priestess, and Moon Magic.

Fortune’s rituals with Knight’s study and commentary constitute roughly the first half of the book, and the second is a set of a half-dozen papers and addresses by Fortune that are relevant to her rites. Three of these were originally published as articles in The Inner Light Magazine, but a couple of them seem to be from previously unpublished records of the Society of the Inner Light that Fortune founded, and the very first appendix is the significant 1933 essay “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” that originally appeared in The Occult Review.

Although Knight avoids crediting Aleister Crowley with any influence on Fortune’s dramatic rites, “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” provides ample circumstantial confirmation that Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis were a significant model for her (at least as much as the 1899 “Rite of Isis” by Mathers cited by Knight, 8). In that article, Fortune classes herself with Crowley and Regardie as the “unholy trinity of revealers of the Mysteries” (86). She praises the contents of Crowley’s Equinox, which included his Rites of Eleusis, and even calls on Regardie to perform the editorial work by which he would later produce the digest Gems from The Equinox (91). She writes:

“To speak any word in mitigation of the general condemnation of Crowley is a thankless task, for panic-stricken people immediately conclude that one is in league with the devil. Nevertheless, Mr. Regardie has had the courage to do this, and I should like to add my voice to his. To make use of a man’s work without acknowledgement is no better than picking pockets.” (Ibid. That final sentence would become ironic a few years later, when Regardie would quote a full page of text from Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah in his own The Middle Pillar, attributing it only to “One very clever expositor.”)

Like Crowley in his Rites, Fortune drew poetic passages in her own from the work of Swinburne, specifically “The Last Oracle” (14). Her original contributions as a poet are decidedly less sure than those of the Beast. I suppose I winced physically when I encountered her end rhyme of “path” and “Daath” (74).

Other articles among the appendices supply Fortune’s own extensive analyses of the esoteric infrastructure of her fiction. “In an attempt to compromise between the symbolic and the rational modes of presentation I decided to avail myself of the form of fiction as being a mode of presentation which could approach the subconscious levels of the mind, which think in images, without losing touch with the conscious levels of the mind which think in words, thus making contact once again with those potent levels of the mind that have fallen into disuse in modern civilisation” (103). Her discussion of The Winged Bull in particular highlighted the magical potency of English places in ways that put me in mind of the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair (115-6).

Fortune’s dramatic rituals and her novels alike rely on sexual polarity as the chief engine of magic, and she has the lector of her Rite of Isis declare, “All the Gods are One God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (70). The God can evidently be summarized as Pan and the Goddess as Isis, with these two rituals (each of which features officers of both genders) sufficient for her purpose–which aims more at integration than analysis.

The Sorcerer and His Apprentice

The Sorcerer and His Apprentice: Unknown Hermetic Writings of S.L. MacGregor Mathers and J.W. Brodie-Innes [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by S L MacGregor Mathers and J W Brodie-Innes, edited and introduced by R A Gilbert, reviewed by Bkwyrm in the Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews archive.

Mathers Brodie-Innes Gilbert The Sorcerer and his Apprentice

Mr. Gilbert has taken a collection of short papers on various occult subjects by Mathers, and by Brodie-Innes, and has presented them as “An anthology of writings….on Tarot, Kabalah, Astrology, and Hermetism.” The introduction provided by Gilbert is all of three or four pages and imparts no information that anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with G.D. history wouldn’t know. Some of the essays are fascinating, and I’ve never seen them anywhere else. Of course, I don’t spend a lot of time tracking down Brodie-Innes books. Essays by Mathers include The Kabbalah, The Qliphoth of the Qabalah, The Azoth Lecture, and Twelve Signs and Twelve Tribes. Papers by Brodie-Innes include Some Psychic Memories, The Tarot Cards, Witchcraft, and The Hermetic System.

If you’re a Mathers fan, or a Brodie-Innes devotee, you’ll want to pick up this book. Serious students of the Golden Dawn system will probably also find many of these essays worthwhile. The Tarot essays, read together, make for a (I thought) rather nice, short tutorial on the Tarot in the Golden Dawn worldview.

This book is part of the “Roots of the Golden Dawn” series – and its inclusion in a series is probably why a book this uneven was published. None of the essays hung together into any kind of a cohesive structure, even taking into account that both authors were members of the Golden Dawn, and that Brodie-Innes was Mathers’ chosen successor. They bounce from topic to topic, belief system to belief system, with very little in common. As far as I can tell, the only reason they were put in a book together is because they are little-known essays by a set of famous and semi-famous magicians. There are other collections of essays that are much more rewarding reading. This is a collection that is probably only of interest only to someone actively studying material covered in the essays. It’s not something you can sit down and read through, like an “anthology.” These are bits and pieces of published and unpublished writings by two men, written at different times and for widely varying purposes, that have been collected into one place for no apparent reason.

The Sign and the Seal

The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant [Amazon, Abebooks, Bookshop, Local Library] by Graham Hancock, reviewed by Julianus in the Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews archive.

Hancock The Sign and the Seal

Much as I enjoy Hancock’s other books on ancient history, I still find this to be his best, not least because of the personal significance his quest assumed. To say that Hancock was searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant of the Israelites is a little inaccurate. Hancock started by learning that the Ethiopian Church claims to possess the Ark in the city of Axum and then trying to establish a) if they are right and b) how it could have gotten there. The first question remains unanswered since no one is allowed to examine the Ark, but the second question took Hancock all over the Middle East and Africa in a fascinating quest with all the unexpected twists you could wish for. It will come as no surprise that the Knights Templar and Freemasonry wind up playing a crucial role here, and I will assure the reader that they were certainly not tacked on to fullfil a conspiracy-hunter’s agenda. Over the course of the book Hancock builds an excellent circumstantial case for the Ethiopian claim and provides some remarkable insights into early Judaism, which was very different from its modern form. This is required reading for anyone interested in the subjects covered.

The Secret Life of a Satanist

The Secret Life of a Satanist: The Authorized Biography of Anton LaVey [Amazon, Abebooks, Bookshop, Local Library] by Blanche Barton, reviewed by Majere, Pr.ODF in the Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews archive.

Barton The Secret Life of a Satanist

This is the “authorised” biography of the late Anton LaVey, as penned by his Mistress and High Priestess of the Church of Satan, Blanche Barton. It covers most of his life in considerable detail up until the founding of his Church in 1966, then moves on to examine his philosophies and observations of the world around him. Initially, after the publication of this book, quite a few voices arose to challenge the authencity of it’s contents – among them “Rolling Stone” magazine. Especially held in doubt is LaVey’s alleged “fling” with pre-fame days Marilyn Monroe (no biographies of Monroe have ever mentioned such a relationship). So therefore (also considering the obvious bias of the biographer in purporting the contents are pure fact) it is suggested that the reader keep tongue jammed firmly in cheek. Having said that, it is of considerable interest to those who are keen to read more about LaVey’s observations and ideals; in this respect, he is – as usual – forthright in a no-bullshit manner. Basically, it has to be admitted that whether you like or loathe LaVey, he doesn’t pull punches as to what he is and what he stands for – whether you find such agreeable or not. Includes photos. Recommended primarily for fans only, or those who are simply curious.

The Secret Grimoire of Turiel

The Secret Grimoire of Turiel, Being a System of Ceremonial Magic of the Sixteenth Century [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Marius Malchus, reviewed by Randall Bowyer in the Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews archive.

Malchus The Secret Grimoire of Turiel

While visiting the Canary Islands in 1927, Mr. Malchus purchased from his tour guide an English translation of this grimoire (he was also offered the original Latin MS, dated 1518, but did not buy it). Later he recopied the grimoire and destroyed the original (for reasons which are apparently supposed to be clear to the reader) so that his personal copy was – he believed – the only English translation extant.

The grimoire is a short little thing, very Catholic, that combines elements of the Greater and Lesser Keys with the Olympic planetary spirits – nothing especially exciting. A couple of pages at the end are plagiarized from A.E. Waite.

This little book is of personal interest to me because I happen to know that Malchus’s copy of the grimoire is not the only extant English translation. The fact is that the 1518 Latin MS made its way from the Canary Islands to Papua, New Guinea, where my father purchased it in 1943 from a native girl, under rather mysterious circumstances. Years later, I discovered it among my father’s war memorabilia and prepared an English translation, after which, for reasons which should be clear to the reader, I destroyed the original sixteenth-century manuscript.

The Satanic Witch

The Satanic Witch [Amazon, Amazon (2nd Edition), Abebooks, Bookshop, Local Library] by Anton Szandor LaVey, introduction by Zeena LaVey, reviewed by Majere, Pr.ODF in the Bkwyrm’s Occult Book Reviews archive.

LaVey The Satanic Witch

The third volume of LaVey’s writings is aimed more directly at female readers, being a guide to his concept of Satanic seduction and “bitchcraft” techniques. As usual, it is written in his usual flamboyant style, and covers a broad range of subjects from make- up and fashion tips to methods of sexual manipulation through glamour (ie. “Lesser Magic”) . Also introduced is the “LaVey Personality Synthesizer”, used apparently to judge compatibility between the witch and her potential partners, and the volume also contains additional writings on magick – including methods to invoke familiars and send succubi to potential “victims”. Many have found some of LaVey’s suggestions in the book rather distasteful – the use of menstrual blood as a “perfume” being one regularly mentioned. And naturally, the material of the book is likely to offend many die-hard feminists and so-called “white witches”. Therefore, it is probably safe to say this book is only recommended for those with certain tastes – and if readers hold similar tastes to Anton LaVey himself, then no more need be said. Everyone else should look first before buying.