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Death Metal Music

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Natalie J Purcell, part of the Studies in Heavy Metal Music & Culture series.

Purcell Death Metal Music

It is not clear to me why I received this 2003 book as a reviewer copy in 2012, other than that I requested it when it was offered (May 2012). Is it possible that the author’s 2012 book from Routledge (Violence and the Pornographic Imaginary) occasioned some sort of rerelease or even reprint by McFarland? In any case, this book’s quite evident effort to be up-to-date is now nearly a decade stale, and the political conflicts that it seeks to address — centered on the PMRC and Congressional culture scolds of the turn-of-the-millennium — have receded well into the background today. 

Author Purcell was apparently quite young when she wrote this book, which collects and reflects on research that she undertook as a political science student at Seton Hall University. Unfortunately, one effect of her immaturity as a writer appears to have been an overextension of her vocabulary. This book badly needed a proofreader to set Purcell straight when she used devious for deviant, propound for propose, attained for obtained, reactionary for reactive, reputed for reputable, ascribe for subscribe, emasculated for masculinized, evasive for invasive, etc. She also has some dismaying errors of incidental fact, such as characterizing H.P. Lovecraft as a “nineteenth-century author” (40).

Despite some self-criticism regarding her survey methods and the limitations of her study population sample, there’s little methodological reflection here. The methods used are predominantly sociological, but Purcell prudently cautions the reader that the small sample size and ad hoc collection methods limit the generalizations that can be drawn from her own conclusions. Some awareness of latter-day anthropological observation techniques would have been useful to her in this project. What she is most concerned to establish, and for which her method is adequate, is valid doubt of existing generalizations offered by politicians and critics whose own study of the subculture was unquestionably less thorough. 

I appreciated the assortment of pictures in the book, showing musicians and fans. The extensive comparison of death metal with horror cinema in the final chapter was a useful and effective choice. But I would also have been interested in more substantial comparisons with other musical subcultures; Purcell offers only the briefest nods to rap and country music as possible comparanda. She claims believably to have exhausted existing literature on death metal only in the political science field. There were certainly relevant works of music criticism and cultural studies that she overlooked, such as Robert Walser’s Running with the Devil (1993).

Still, I found the read fairly enjoyable. In an epilogue “Personal Reflections on Death Metal,” Purcell opens herself to the charge of being an apologist for the subculture, by confessing her sympathy for it, developed during the course of her study, but germinally having inspired the research in the first place. I find such “reflexivity” in scholarship to be praiseworthy. And, quibbles aside, I tend to agree with her conclusions, from my own anecdotally-formed perspective.

Use of Weapons

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Use of Weapons [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 3 of The Culture series.

Banks Use of Weapons

The third novel of Ian Banks’ Culture concerns an agent Zalkawe recruited for chiefly military work by the Culture’s Special Circumstances operative Sma. He is not himself a Culture man, nor is he especially sympathetic at his best, and in some ways this book felt like a return to the form of the first book Consider Phlebas, with the viewpoint agent working for the Culture rather than against it. The chapter IV that described Zalkawe’s first integration into the Culture was the most straightforward of such passages in the books so far.

The chronological structure of Use of Weapons is curious and effective. It alternates two series of numbered chapters, one running forward in time and counting up (One, Two, Three …), the other running backward and counting down (XIII, XII, XI …). The earliest episode of the novel takes place at its midpoint in chapter VII during a set of flashbacks, but these are not given their full context until the end of the book. The most recent events are set into bracketing Prologue and Epilogue passages, along with a short postfactory chapter “States of War.”

This volume was for some reason longer than I had expected it to be, and although it read at a good pace, it took a lot of attention to complete. I’m looking forward to the change of tempo offered by the next in the series, State of the Art, which collects short stories in the Culture setting.

Pyramid Primer #1

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pyramid Primer #1 by Andrew Looney. This is no longer in print, and is related to a previous edition of the Looney Pyramids, but the contents can be found at Guide to Looney Pyramids on the Looney Labs site. Check out Pyramid Arcade (which was just, at the time of this post, recently reprinted and restocked) and other Looney Pyramid games.

Looney Labs Pyramid Primer 1

The #1 after Pyramid Primer indicates the Looney Labs aspiration to make this volume of Looney Pyramid game rules the first of a series in this glossy magazine format. It succeeds the earlier rules volume Playing with Pyramids, with surprisingly little overlap in content. (It does, however, entirely obsolete the intermediate 3House rules collection). Pyramid Primer uses the “IceSheet” format and rules style that has been developed in recent years to highlight the variety of games playable with Looney Pyramids (f.k.a. Icehouse pieces). 

Here is a point-by-point comparison of the contents with those of the out-of-print Playing with Pyramids: The first Primer has full sets of rules for thirteen different games, compared to twelve in PwP. Martian Chess, Ice Towers, Icehouse, and Homeworlds are holdovers from the earlier volume. The Tarot-based Gnostica (my very favorite Pyramid game) has been replaced with Zark City, a shorter (and still excellent) game that uses a standard playing-card deck. Volcano has given way to Caldera, a redevelopment that uses one more set of pyramids than its predecessor. Otherwise, the older games are rightfully discarded, with the key exceptions of Zendo (an elegant classic that could take up a 32-page Primer of its own with rules and strategy) and Pikemen. The Primer has a clean, efficient exposition of the rules for each game, but omits some of the strategic advice entertained in PwP.

The actual Looney Pyramids used to play these games are currently available in two game packages: IceDice and Treehouse. Treehouse (the smaller of the two) includes sufficient Pyramid supply for three of the games (although one of those, Martian Coasters, needs a custom modular gameboard to boot); IceDice is enough for four others; and with both sets it is possible to play ten of the thirteen. Looney Labs sells Pyramids in sets of fifteen to supplement the basic sets, to furnish the more demanding games such as Caldera, IceTowers, and Icehouse. 

The Primer succeeds in its ambition to offer a digest of quality Looney Pyramids game rules across a variety of highly replayable games. It is full of useful diagrams and comic-style art by Andy Looney. The Looney Pyramid community wiki has over four hundred different games represented, with thirty invented just this year. The idea of continuing the Primer to circulate the best of these is a laudable intention, and I wish Looney Labs great success with it.

Funeral in Berlin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Funeral in Berlin [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Len Deighton, book 3 of the Harry Palmer series.

Deighton Funeral in Berlin

Where Horse Under Water (the immediately prior “Secret File” by Deighton) had a crossword conceit, Funeral in Berlin is instead ornamented with chess tactics. I read it as a chaser to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it worked well that way, highlighting the distinctive styles of the two authors–not to mention the fact that Deighton’s book did in fact follow le Carré’s by about a year (i.e. 1963, 1964).

The anonymous narrating agent cracks wise with even more consistency than in the previous books. There are fifty-one short chapters, which tend to lengthen slightly towards the end. The extremely circumspect first-person prose is broken up with five chapters that use third-person passages to give the viewpoints of other key characters. There are also a set of six brief appendices furnishing overviews of relevant intelligence agencies and legal and technological contexts. These are helpful for readers enjoying the book more than a half century after it was written, but for some reason I was irked by the footnote method of referencing them during the story.

There were a couple of curious and welcome minor details during the closing chapters. Chapter 45 saw our man unwinding with a copy of J.F.C. Fuller’s Decisive Battles of the Western World. In chapter 49 he discussed with his superior Dawlish the organizational need “to take the social pressures off the homosexuals.”

The 2009 edition I read was equipped with a new author’s introduction regarding his “most successful book” by certain commercial measures. Deighton reflects there on his own experiences in East Germany and his disinterest in writing “serious literature.”

At the rate I’ve been reading these “Secret File” novels, I won’t finish them until 2035 or thereabouts, but they are all at the public library, and they read fast enough individually that I could mop up all of them next month. I certainly aim to continue at some pace or other.

Deighton Funeral in Berlin Penguin

The Beyond

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Beyond [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford, book 3 of The Well-Built-City Trilogy.

Ford the Beyond

“The Beyond exists on many planes and in many times,” says the plant-man (“foliate”) Vasthasha, speaking of the wilderness that exists beyond the realm and civilization, and sometimes, it seems, out of reality altogether. So too does The Beyond.

The third volume of Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy sends his protagonist Cley in a final bid for redemption into the Beyond. This vector is complemented by that of the demon Misrix, a native of the Beyond, who discovers and pursues his aspiration to become civilized, human, and humane. I’m floored by the profound wonderfulness of this adult fantasy saga, which doesn’t even seem to notice that it has discarded all of the threadbare conventions of its genre. Ford combines straightforward prose and a storyteller’s pacing with exotically proliferating images and ideas. The result is truly engaging fiction with characters and situations that encode true dilemmas of the human experience.

As the Green Star Rises

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews As the Green Star Rises [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Lin Carter, DAW cover and illo by Roy Krenkel, illo Michael Kaluta, part of the Green Star series.

Carter as the Green Star Rises

The fourth Green Star book was much like the third, continuing the plots begun in the sky city and the forest floor in the new environment of an inland sea and its jungle islands. It was perhaps a tad “spicier” than earlier arcs of the series, although largely through threat and peril, leaving it relatively tame compared to the larger sword-and-planet field. There is also an unwitting and highly ironic non-consummation of the love-quest central to the series. (Other reviewers have called that part of the story “contrived,” but in this sort of exoplanetary fantasy what isn’t?)

The most notable feature of the story was its blind narrator. The boy Karn had been blinded at the end of the previous volume, and while parts of the book held out some hope for recovery of his sight, he spent this entire segment unable to see. But despite the fast pace and surfeit of action, the story isn’t told as an immediate reportage. It instead recounts multiple threads of plot as companions and allies are separated and adventure in parallel. Karn is supposed to have learned later what had happened to his friends, but his telling interweaves the various developments along a synchronized timeline.

The illustrations in this book are collaborations between Roy Krenkel (whose pictures were in the previous one) and notable comics artist Michael Kaluta. None of them particularly thrilled me, though. Krenkel’s cover art is an adequate representation of the moment on page 60, when the women escape an island by means of a great hawk-steed. The rider is thus Arjala, while Niamh the Fair is hanging from the stirrup.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Anima [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by M John Harrison.

Harrison Anima

This volume is two novels under a single cover. They have similar scales and some thematic common ground, but no narrative coordination. The jacket copy calls them “love stories,” which is not completely off the mark, but probably fails to do justice to them. Publisher Gollancz has classed them as “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” which is again fair, but the subtlety of the fantasy (in the first) and the science fiction (in the second) is profound.

The first is The Course of the Heart. It has a vivid sense of place in its English settings, reminding me in some ways of a very adult version of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The novel impressed me with both its ability to be dreamy and icky by turns, and its verisimilitude in representing postmodern occultism. It’s not about occultism really, but it traces the troubled paths of three characters (one of whom is the narrator) in the decades following their initiation into “the Pleroma” by Yaxley, a loathsome magician who lives above the Atlantis bookshop in London. The closest comparison I could make for this book would be to the “Aegypt Cycle” of John Crowley, but boiled down from those practically Wagnerian proportions to a comparatively Beckettian economy, and with a distinctly different metaphysical verdict.

I found The Course of the Heart enjoyable and enigmatic enough for me to track down and read Harrison’s short story that it had elaborated: “The Great God Pan” (1988). Reflecting on the novel through the lens of Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1890) is certainly interesting. It places all three of the central characters in the position of Mary, the experimental subject who had her brain altered to expose her to the “real world” in Machen’s story. Harrison uses Gnostic language to figure this exposure as contact with the “Pleroma.” And he supplies each of them with different outcomes. But in an author’s note to “The Great God Pan” in the collection Things That Never Happen (2003), Harrison notes that the story owes more to Charles Williams than to Machen. And indeed, if John Banville were to write a Charles Williams novel, I would expect it to turn out pretty much just like The Course of the Heart, which tips its hat to Williams with a mention of War in Heaven on the final page.

As long as I’m making comparisons (still trying to take a measure of Harrison, who is a new author for me), I would note that the second novel, Signs of Life, reminded me of the work of Chuck Palahniuk — but less funny and consequently more disturbing. It partakes of typical Palahniuk tropes regarding vehicular speed and medical gore, along with laconic characters of inscrutable moral sense. I’m glad to have read this story, although I’m not sure I can quite say I enjoyed most of it, and there are certainly fewer people to whom I would recommend it than The Course of the Heart.

The Invention of Morel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Invention of Morel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Adolfo Bioy Casares, trans Ruth L C Simms, preface Jorge Luis Borges, introduction Suzanne Jill Levine, part of the New York Review Books Classics series.

Casares the Invention of Morel

Although this novel is very short, it feels increasingly slow and frustrating toward the midpoint. Rather than a fault, this mood shows its success at getting the reader to identify with its stranded fugitive speaker, who is significantly the aspiring author of two books other than the journal which forms the principal text of The Invention of Morel. The later part of the book involves a crucial anagnorisis and the working out of its consequences.

I was more than a little reminded of The Island of the Day Before, and I feel certain Eco must have read Morel. Although in his praise for it Borges called this book an “adventure story,” I am compelled to view it as a parable.

The moral of Morel: . . (hover over for spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The Psychology of Ritual

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Psychology of Ritual [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Murry Hope; there is also a newer edition [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher].

Hope the Psychology of Ritual

This book was an impulse buy for me. It was a cheap secondhand copy in decent condition, and I wasn’t familiar with the author. It didn’t look exploitative or too primerish, so I was intrigued.

The author is not a psychologist, but an occultist. In this book she repeatedly insists that she is a member of no particular sect or school, but according to Wikipedia (consulted 2012.11.05), she cofounded the Atlanteans Society (1957) and later the Institute of Transpersonal Sensitivity (1988). Based on the contents of the book, one can infer a vague Neopagan identity for her, incorporating a discriminating eclecticism. Without explicitly acknowledging the Thesophical Society, she draws on New Age doctrines about “cycles of evolution” that have distinctly Theosophical provenance. Other doctrines of popular esotericism that she promotes include a variety of alternative archaeologies (Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts, etc.) as well as New Age mystical interpretations of quantum physics.

In my attempts to grasp Hope’s context, I thought back to a another book I had read by an English occultist from about the same date: Adrian Savage’s Introduction to Chaos Magick. As I recollect, Savage anatomized the English occult scene into three factions: simpering anti-intellectual Witches, authoritarian toadying Ceremonialists, and daring experimental Chaos Magicians. Hope defines her position relative to the first two, both of which she praises, while seeming to identify a little more strongly with the neopagan witch than the ceremonial magician. And then in a sole hilarious mention, she refers to “chaos magic … as an excuse for hedonistic license. Legitimate mystical sciences are perverted in the name of experiment, and discipline has become a dirty word” (209).

The Psychology of Ritual is divided into three main sections plus a fat set of appendices. The first section provides history (often quite speculative or even obviously fallacious) and some general theory about the importance of ritual in general, or “the Rite,” as she terms it. She deliberately mixes magical and esoteric ceremonies with the rites of exoteric religious traditions in order to assert shared principles across a wide spectrum of ritual. A taxonomy of five ritual “codes” offered in the first chapter appears to be original in this work. Rather than psychology, the emphasis in the first section is more anthropological.

The second section starts with a unique chapter in which Hope goes into a variety of conventional 20th-century psychological theories, with emphasis on neurochemistry and the physiology of emotional states. The exposition is, let’s say, not authoritative. For example, Hope confuses melatonin and melanin. The next five chapters give contemporary occult rituals as case studies for the sort of “psychological” approach Hope applies, which usually has more to do with Jungian theory. (She refers to Jung as “the master” on p. 48, but most of her Jung citations are to the somewhat fictionalized memoir Memories, Dreams and Reflections.) For each of these five chapters, there are one or two full ritual texts among the appendices. Hope herself contributes a neo-Egyptian ceremony and a Celtic healing ritual, while others are from Ashcroft-Nowicki, the Farrars, Thorsson (Flowers), Schueler, and an anonymous Jesuit. She then finishes the section with a “Ritual World Tour” or ethnographic survey, a chapter on traditions of initiation, and a chapter on women’s rites.

In the third section she opines on the contemporary conditions for and uses of magical ritual. The section is wide-ranging, and often consists of passionate but unsupported assertions. Still, as much as she might buy into many of the flaky doctrines current in late 20th-century popular esotericism, I consistently got the impression that Hope had a genuinely broad base of personal experience in occultism, and that she is a basically considerate and practical lady.

The book assumes a fairly informed reader, but the tone is very much that of a lecture. Hope has some idiosyncratic diction beyond “the Rite” mentioned above. In particular, she pretty consistently uses “ever” for “always,” which is a little grandiose for my taste. Although this is more of an “intermediate” book than an introduction for the unlettered aspirant, it really didn’t have any new ideas for me. It was a mostly-pleasant read chiefly distinguished by its author’s voice.

Opus Dei

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, trans Adam Kotsko, part of the Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics series.

Agamben Opus Dei

This slim volume is reliant on the lines of thought explored previously by Agamben in The Sacrament of Language and The Kingdom and the Glory, although it might be approachable on its own by a generally well-read and determined reader. I found it slow going, requiring as much as five minutes per page.

The first chapter is on “Liturgy and Politics,” but mostly liturgy. It focuses on the emergence and development of a distinction between opus operans and opus operatum in sacramental activity. Only at the very end does Agamben remark that he considers this instrument for the “effectiveness of the cult” to be a “theological model … which has made a lasting mark on praxis in the Marxist tradition” (26).

The first part of Chapter 2 “From Mystery to Effect” should be read in dialogue with Drudgery Divine by Jonathan Z. Smith. It is somewhat amusing that Agamben should take the side of the (anti-pagan) Protestants in the relevant questions about Christian liturgical origins, while Smith assails it. “Effect” is concerned with the “transformation of being into operativity” that results from the “ontological-practical paradigm … of effectiveness” (63) which Agamben identifies with sacerdotal mystery.

The third chapter offers “A Genealogy of Office,” which begins to focus on the historically articulated nature of ministry as a duty and a function. This interesting study culminates in a declaration that “[T]he priesthood, of which the character is the cipher, is not a real predicate but a pure signature, which manifests only the constitutive excess of effectiveness over being” (87). (There is also an interesting mention of Varro’s three modalities agere, facere, and gerere, which seem to correspond to the offices of Cancellarius, Praemonstrator, and Imperator, respectively. 82)

“The Two Ontologies” of the fourth chapter are the philosophical-scientific and the religious-juridical. The former is characterized by the indicative mood and the latter by the imperative. Agamben illustrates various ways in which these two oppose one another and yet have become intertwined and reliant upon one another, with the tendency to privilege the religious-juridical under the cover of the philosophical-scientific reaching an acme in the 18th century. His account here makes solid sense out of Kant, and it almost re-interested me in Heidegger. The alignment of liturgy and ethics is witnessed through the concept of pious “devotion.” Agamben writes, “Theologians never lost awareness of the pagan origin of devotio, with which the commander consecrated his own life to the infernal gods in order to obtain victory in a battle” (103).

The very end of the book offers a discussion of the metaphysics of will, which arrives at remarks perfectly congruent with Beyond Good and Evil section 19, although Agamben never cites Nietzsche in the whole book. And then I was perplexed to read the final sentence, for which he never seemed to have supplied the motivation: “The problem of the coming philosophy is that of thinking an ontology beyond operativity and command and an ethics and a politics entirely liberated from the concepts of duty and will.” As usual, Agamben gives me useful insights and leaves me scratching my head.