Tag Archives: review

The Dragonslayer

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: The Dragonslayer [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 4 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone The Dragonslayer

Phoney Bone is the primary actor in this segment of the Bone story, although for all his scheming, he is out of his depth, as usual. It is unclear until the end of the volume, whether he is accidentally helping the heroes, or unwittingly harming them. Thorn advances toward maturity and purposefulness, and not a minute too soon. On the whole, this stretch is somewhat tense and plot-heavy.

War in Heaven

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War in Heaven [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.

Williams War in Heaven

I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater TrumpsDescent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read. 

The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)

I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey. 

First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.

To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)

The Last Ritual

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Ritual [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by S A Sidor, cover by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Coulthart The Last Ritual

The Last Ritual is the second of a series of novels set in the Arkham Horror game milieu and published by Aconyte Books. Like the first, it features a protagonist who is not one of the stable of player character investigators from the games, along with important cameo appearances from established investigators–in this case, Preston Fairmont, Calvin Wright, and Norman Withers. The principal character of The Last Ritual is artist painter Alden Oakes, a scion of the French Hill Arkham elite.

This tale is set in the 1920s, and the prose offers no howling anachronisms, but the telling shows influences of more recent horror fiction. At the same time, the imposition of a frame story in which Oakes narrates his horrific experiences to a cub journalist put me in mind of 19th-century horror greats Poe and Bierce. Although Oakes starts his tale in France, the bulk of it revolves around a modest number of locations in Arkham, Massachusetts. The charismatic Surrealist Juan Hugo Balthazarr serves as a focus for enigmatic menace.

The mood and pacing of this novel is very different from its predecessor The Wrath of N’Kai. Where the earlier book had a real pulp adventure feel, despite its supernatural elements and shady settings, The Last Ritual is definitely weird horror through and through. Oakes is no hardened he-man, and his epistemological inadequacies lead to vacillating personal loyalties as well as profound fear and confusion. Author Sidor resists clarifying for the reader any number of the painter’s strange experiences, and the outcome of the story is not at all like the one in the other book.

Incidentally, you might think from seeing online images of the excellent cover art by John Coulthart that the cover is a shiny foil affair, but it is in fact a flat matte cover with clever art deco styling in suggestive hues. The building that dominates the cover is the Silver Gate Hotel, around which much of the story revolves.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and found it to be one of the best in the various Arkham Horror fiction series.

Mere Christianity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mere Christianity [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by C S Lewis.

Lewis Mere Christianity

Mere crap. 

A copy of this book was loaned to me by an Evangelical Free Church member who had come to visit my parents when the latter were shopping for a new congregation. The fellow was a Biblical inerrantist conspicuously lacking in social perception. Lewis’ book shows the author to be a comical bigot–certainly more intelligent, but not a whit wiser than the man who loaned it to me. I returned the book to its owner along with a long written critique, which I’d be happy to reproduce here, but I didn’t keep a copy. All this transpired many years ago. 

If you’re an intellectually underfed Christian looking for some blithe arguments to justify your existing biases, then this book is for you. Others may read it for a sad demonstration of the sort of rationales such people adopt.

A Circus of Hells

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Circus of Hells [Amazon] by Poul Anderson.

Anderson A Circus of Hells

I had read some of author Anderson’s fantasy novels before, but never his science fiction, and I note that A Circus of Hells is the second of a series of something like ten Terran Empire novels with the protagonist Dominic Flandry. I was motivated to pick it up by the jacket copy, which described an “infernal chess game on a forsaken moon” with pieces that were “strange, inhuman creatures…controlled by a deranged and brilliant computer brain.” I was hoping for a further spin on the living chess trope that is central to ERB’s Chessmen of Mars, and stems originally from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Unfortunately, the chess adventure was over by the end of the eighth chapter out of twenty. 

Far more important than the AI-driven robot chess game were the various intrigues with the human-rivalling Merseian race, and the exotic climate and native intelligences of the far-flung planet Talwin. The scenario and various emphases of the narrative reminded me of the SF role-playing game Traveller, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson’s Terran Empire books were inspirational for the game authors. 

While a lot of the astronomical information seemed pretty up-to-date for science fiction written circa 1970, and the xenobiological ideas were fairly inventive, the galactic imperial setting was much like many written twenty years earlier. I was especially disappointed to find Anderson assuming the survival of Roman Catholicism basically unchanged into humanity’s interstellar far future. The conventional Christian piety of the prostitute Djana was an element I found difficult to credit, and it was quite integral to her character and her role in the progress of the story. 

In any case, I found the book as a whole short and quick-moving, but insufficiently interesting for me to seek out any further volumes.

Dark Revelations

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark Revelations [Amazon, Publisher] by Amanda Downum, part of the Arkham Horror Files universe, and “includes four promo cards for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, featuring a new investigator—the writer, Gloria Goldberg.”

Downum Dark Revelations

Other than the 1920s Arkham setting and the conceit of a forbidden tome, Dark Revelations is relatively free of the tropes of Yog-Sothothery. It is an altogether more traditional sort of supernatural horror story. As well as disdaining Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, this tale is mostly at a remove from the the sort of pulp action tone that sometimes informs the literature for the Arkham Horror games. There are a number of features that brought this novella closer to the jauniste vein of The King in Yellow than to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. The main characters are creatives rather than academics or researchers, and there is a connection to medieval France.

The protagonist is author Gloria Goldberg, one of the investigator characters from the games this book was written to support. Gloria is a widow from New York who ventures to Arkham when called on to help with the literary estate of a recently deceased colleague. There are italicized passages throughout the book, and it can be difficult to tell from context whether these are passages that Gloria is reading, ones she is writing, or some other sorts of dreams or visions. As the story proceeds, it invites the reader to discard distinctions among these categories.

The book includes a set of about a dozen glossy color pages at the end, featuring news clippings, fragments of manuscripts, and pages from reference books relevant to the novella. This appendix section is a standard feature of this book series, and the contents in this case are entertaining enough, without any of the clinkers I’ve seen in the other novellas.

Dark Revelations comes with a set of cards debuting the Gloria Goldberg character for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. She is a flexible mystic-class investigator with a special ability that helps her to manipulate the encounter deck. Her alternate signature cards unique to this release are the ally Ruth Westmacott, a book illustrator whom Gloria befriends, and the treachery weakness Liber Omnium Finium.

The Kingdom and the Glory

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini.

Agamben Chiesa Mandarini The Kingdom and the Glory

The Kingdom and the Glory was issued a short while before The Sacrament of Language, but in the plan of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, the first book follows the second, and that is the sequence in which I read them. They are closely connected in theme, exploring points in which concepts cross or transcend the boundaries between the theological and the political. The Kingdom and the Glory is a much larger undertaking in both scope and scale.

The work of the book is a Foucauldian (i.e. neo-Nietzschean) genealogy of “glory” as an operator in the conceptual justification of “economy” and “government”–that is, in the theological and political registers, respectively. (The ancient theological sense of “economy” is distinct from its modern significance.) It touches on esoteric fields such as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Grail legendry. But it also traces its concerns through the vertebral canon of philosophy from Aristotle through Heidegger, as well as the entire span of Christian theology.

As The Sacrament of Language was trained on the performative language of the oath, so The Kingdom and the Glory in large measure revolves around the nature and function of acclamation. Section 8.19 in particular is a valuable inquiry into amen as “the acclamation par excellence” of Christian liturgy.

Some of the political consequences of the insights in this 2007 book seem to cast light on the fragility of the legislative function in putative democracies like that of Germany in the first part of the 20th century or the United States in the 21st. The sovereignty of the people is inadequately manifested by the legislature, which allows for the usurpation of its “kingdom” by the “government” of the executive, and the collapse of what Agamben calls in theology “the providential machine.”

My hat is off to translators Chiesa and Mandarini, not only for making Agamben intelligible in English, and for keeping track of the various linguistic registers among which he navigates, but for introducing me to two English words. In the course of reading this book, I learned tralatitious (152) and epenetic (246). Also, I forgive them for using mythologeme in lieu of mytheme (106).

Consistent with my prior reading of Agamben, I found this book difficult and rewarding.

The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Snake the Crocodile and the Dog

This seventh volume of the adventures of Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson is very much a serial installment. It is hard to imagine enjoying it much without having read several of the earlier books, especially The Crocodile on the SandbankLion in the Valley, and The Last Camel Died at Noon. In fact, this text frequently deploys the advertising footnote: dropping the title of a previous novel into the bottom margin of the page in order to explicate an allusion to earlier adventures. The feature reminds me of nothing so much as 1960s and 70s Marvel comic books, with the continuity cross-references jammed into the corners of panels. The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog also continues author Peters’ metafictional jockeying of material from H. Rider Haggard. This time, she introduces Leo Vincey–a character whose name is lifted from the protagonist of Haggard’s She

The occasional line drawings introduced in The Last Camel Died at Noon do not persist in The Snake, but there are still several maps to help the reader understand the path of the expedition. The maps are clear, but it’s hard to refer to them, because they are inserted individually in the course of the text, and there is no table or index to note their locations. On a related issue, the “Editor’s Note” at the beginning refers quite inaccurately to a glossary appendix on “page 339,” evidently failing to account for the revised pagination of the paperback edition I read. 

I was a little worried by the addition of yet another dependent to the Emerson household at the end of the previous book, and I wondered how an exciting pace could be maintained in the face of such elaborate parental concerns. Peters thankfully managed to have the Emersons leave the children in England for the 1898 archaeological expedition to Egypt in The Snake, and the occasional letters from young Ramses provide excellent comic relief, as well as a clever supplementary plot-line. The relief is necessary, in my view, because of the circumstance of Radcliffe Emerson’s traumatic amnesia, which gives this story more tension and sadness than were typical of the earlier volumes. The resolution of the plot involves multiple “reveals,” the later of which certainly caught me off-guard. But there’s also an intimation of a significant plot point undetected by the narrating sleuth Amelia herself. I’m sure it will be fulfilled in later stories.

The Mystical Marriage

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystical Marriage: Symbol and Meaning of the Human Experience [Amazon] by Gerhard Wehr, translated by Jill Sutcliffe.

Wehr Sutcliffe The Mystical Marriage

The Mystical Marriage is mostly a historical survey of Western religious and esoteric traditions oriented toward marital symbolism and the Jungian notion of the conjunctio. As an introductory survey, it is suitably wide, but not at all deep. The material is important, but I managed to get through the first 70% of this book without learning anything at all. The chapter on “Conjugal Kabbalistic Mysteries” uses some Romanized Hebrew that is alien to any system of my acquaintance: the Crown is given as Keter’elyon and Wisdom as Halma. The subchapter on the “Myth of Androgyny” is appended to the Jacob Boehme chapter, and although it works through to the ideas of Rudolph Steiner in the twentieth century, it avoids the most interesting developments of the esoteric androgyne in the nineteenth (i.e. Levi’s Baphomet and Balzac’s Seraphita). 

Later sections of the book provided me with more benefit. The chapter on Novalis was likewise in a primer mode, but due to my relative ignorance of the subject matter I found it somewhat rewarding. In the eleventh chapter, Wehr discusses an interesting case study that should perhaps be grouped with Ida Craddock’s Heavenly Bridegrooms: a German housewife whose experiments in automatic writing led to a marital union with a disincarnate entity named Lot. The final chapter offers the little bit of practical information in the volume: dreams, fairy tales, and religious meditation are presented as “Paths to the Symbol of Coniunctio.” 

The whole study is quite Teutonocentric, emphasizing continuity from Meister Eckhart and the Theologia Deutsch through Luther, Boehme, and German Rosicrucianism to C.G. Jung and his disciples. Translator Jill Sutcliffe has done a fairly mediocre job. German grammatical idioms often persist, as for example in this (self-referential?) sentence: “It needs no special debate to know that this is incorrect.” (115) Wehr’s bibliography is retained with all titles in German, including items originally translated from English such as Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. The reader may infer that Sutcliffe has not conformed the Underhill quotes to the English original, but has subjected them to double-translation.

I’m not unimpressed with Wehr’s range of sources and interests, and it may be that he has written more intensive studies which would benefit me. But taken as a whole, I would not recommend this book in its current translation. The “Irmengard Bardo” report of the eleventh chapter is the only reason that it will remain in my collection for the time being.

The Liar’s Tale

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeremy Campbell.

Campbell The Liar's Tale

Jeremy Campbell is a high-end journalist, and his Liar’s Tale is an excitingly scarce commodity: a popularizing history of epistemology! He organizes the narrative around the changing valuation of falsehood, necessarily describing in the process the corresponding shifts in the idea of truth. The treatment is very wide ranging, exploring such fields as evolutionary biology and aesthetics as they come into contact with the central topic. But most of the discussion is given over to the vertebral canon of Western philosophy. 

I did enjoy the book, although I think I differ with the author with respect to our positions and allegiances. My first warning was on page 72, where the author mentions in passing that Socrates “shuns relativism, the doctrine that tends to favor brute force.” Huh? That’s a pretty substantial conclusion to pack into a subordinate clause without any further support or explanation. I took note again when he quoted Alan Bullock to define Surrealism as a “cult” that developed “a scorn not only for reason but for humanity.” (266)

In his final chapter, Campbell cashes in the various chips he has accumulated in an otherwise even-handed account, in order to vilify the post-structuralists, deconstructionists and post-modernists of the intellectual left, as well as quantum theorists and other theoretical physicists; whom he sets in opposition to the virtue of “common sense.” Unsurprisingly, he makes much of the Sokal hoax, and he also quotes approvingly from rightist pundit Shelby Steele. Campbell–writing at the end of the 1990s–predictably lumps in Bill Clinton as a signal liar. Campbell says it is “common sense” that illicit blow-jobs disqualify political leaders, and the sustained public support for Clinton in the face of his impeachment was therefore a function of a popular appetite for lies. I wish that I could feel confident that Campbell would come out later even more strongly against the derision of the “reality-based community” expressed by a Bush aide (Karl Rove?) to Ron Suskind in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” Suskind’s source demonstrates that a doctrine of creative mendacity has at least as much resonance among the anti-intellectual right as it does among the intellectual left, and the real-world impact of the former is certainly more grievous: generating wars of aggression, fostering denial about global climate change, propagating economic malaise, and so forth.

Although I disagree with Campbell’s ideological perch, his high-altitude summary of philosophical history is still entertaining and largely accurate, and it would be a helpful orientation for someone with a beginning interest in the field of theories of knowledge and meaning. Still, the reader should not be taken in by the easygoing journalistic style, but should rather subject this book to the level of suspicion that its topic rightfully evokes.