Tag Archives: review

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.

Night’s Sorceries

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Night’s Sorceries by Tanith Lee. And, hey, check out that typo in the book title on the cover image! On the same cover it appears correctly in the pull quote. Did that make it into the print run?! It’s even on the Penguin Random House page for the book, as I write this. And this book was published in 2017! Has no one noticed in the interim? Oh no!

Lee Night's Sorcereies(sic)

This last of Tanith Lee’s Tales of the Flat Earth books consists of seven distinct stories, set mostly in chronological parallel to the novel Delirium’s Mistress that preceded it. Thus it returns to the looser form of the earliest books of the series. The Lords of Darkness and their ladies make occasional cameos among the first five tales of this book, but there is no development of their larger biographies. Lee does expand her fantasy cosmography a little, notably with an adventure on the moon. Among these stories, the ones I found most enjoyable (and which would probably best stand on their own as examples of Lee’s work in this series) were “The Prodigal” and “Black as a Rose.”

Only with the final two stories does Lee take up and extend the ending of the story of Atmeh that she had reached at the conclusion of Delerium’s Mistress. Accordingly, in both form and content, this book feels like a relaxation and a winding down from the climactic antepenultimate volume of the series, but there is no slackening of quality. The human protagonists are a robust mix of types, and the story resolutions vary widely from happily-ever-afters to catastrophic demises. The prose is measured and beautiful, and the plots satisfyingly exercise deep tropes of traditional storytelling without becoming predictable.

The final story of the book is “The Magician’s Daughter,” and the first of its five chapters involved magical eugenics in a way that reminded me of Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild. Where these books generally seem to occupy a somewhat eroticized band of the Dunsanian part of the fantasy spectrum, this story added some of the the style and substance favored by Clark Ashton Smith. Witness the sentence: “None of the windows or doors would give save at the recitation of a particular vernacular rhomb” (240).

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who had enjoyed its predecessor volumes. Although composed of short stories and novellas with their own plot arcs, it relies on the prior mythopoeia of the other books, and I’m not sure it would serve so well as a starting point. It does bring the full series to an over-brimming richness of super-completion.

Against the Day

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Against the Day

On finishing my read of Against the Day, I believe I have read all of Thomas Pynchon’s published fiction–all his books, anyway: the novels and the Slow Learner collection. This one took two attempts: I halted the first circa 2007 at the midpoint of the novel, and I returned to read the whole thing this year. Straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, I think it is Pynchon’s longest book. It descends from a rarified world of “boys’ adventure” in airships, through anarchist struggle, family revenge, state espionage, sexual compulsion, academic intrigue, and mystical conspiracy, to meditations on light, number, and time.

It is strange that my first attempt at this book was while I was living in Chicago, and my second has been in Colorado. It begins in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and several characters travel from Chicago to Colorado–while Colorado is also the disseminating point for the Traverse family, whose various members trace many of the book’s persistent plot threads. Ultimately, the geography of the book is all-encompassing, featuring London, Venice, Vienna, Mexico, Shambahla, and the Hollow Earth, among other locations. It includes a typically Pynchonian cast of thousands, with names like Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and Bevis Moistleigh.

The title phrase appears several times in the text, each with a different contextually-driven meaning. In addition to these, I understood it to be an Englishing of contre jour: the technique of giving focus to a backlit subject in photography and painting. This notion relates to inventor-character Merle Rideout’s photographic career with its through-line intersecting both the early and late parts of the novel, and to the physics of light that is centered in many different passages, as well as the sense of opaque futurity in the lead up to the Great War and the subsequent totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

As always, Pynchon is very funny, littering the book with jokes to take the edge off of a palpable anger. Among the many digressive episodes, some exalt genre conventions from less “literary” species of fiction, such as the terrific weird horror passage recounted by the explorer Fleetwood Vibe (138-148). Sex is frequent enough in the early parts of the book, and somewhat surprisingly seems to increase in the later ones. Altered states of consciousness and metaphysical indeterminacy create ambiguities and introduce unreliability into the third-person omniscient narration.

Some quick notes regarding my “completed” and iterative consumption of Pynchon’s works (in no particular order): Having read Inherent Vice I saw the movie during its initial release, and I think Gravity’s Rainbow needs to inspire a grand piece of musical theater. V is at the top of my list of Pynchon to re-read. I have now read Mason & Dixon twice and Against the Day one-and-a-half times–they were each worth it.

Out From Boneville

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith.

Smith Out from Boneville

I was recently surprised to find Bone mentioned among a list of indispensable comics works in Neil Gaiman’s introduction to The Best of the Spirit. Remarking this fact to my Other Reader in a local comics shop, along with the circumstance that I had never read Bone and hadn’t ever had it personally recommended to me, multiple store personnel, overhearing, piped up that they followed the title themselves and recommended it strongly. So, now I’ve finished the collection of the first six issues from the early 1990s, and I did enjoy it. It was somewhat different from my expectations. 

Given its origins as a black-and-white underground comic, along with the art style and presentation of the covers, I was expecting something like the early issues of Dave Sim’s Cerebus (at that point a Conan parody featuring an aardvark), and in fact protagonist Fone Bone bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Cerebus as drawn in Sim’s later work. But as I read the Bone comics, I was most reminded of the work of Charles M. Schulz. It was as if the writer/artist of Peanuts at the height of his powers had decided to undertake a fantasy epic. The pacing of the dialogue, the facial expressiveness of the characters, the telescoping of major events into the gutter between two panels, all showed the sort of technique that I associate with Schulz’s best work. 

This first volume introduces a robust set of characters, and sets a dramatic tableau, but it does not complete a plot arc. I’m sure I’ll read at least one more collection.

Nietzsche and the Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Gods edited by Weaver Santaniello, foreword by John J Stuhr.

Santaniello Stuhr Nietzsche and the Gods

Nietzsche and the Gods is a pleasantly diverse assortment of eleven papers on religious themes in Nietzsche’s writing. Editor Santaniello has divided the papers according to religious tradition: Judaism, Hellenic paganism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Although all of these pieces are informed by considerable scholarship, some of them are rather dispassionate analyses, and others are out-and-out sermons for which Nietzsche is the exemplum (positive or negative), while most fall somewhere in between. All but three of the papers (the ones by Sallis, Parkes, and Tillich) are original with this volume.

The two papers in the Judaism section are quite different from one another. Tim Murphy offers an thorough and accessible examination of Nietzsche’s evaluations of Judaism. But the Wyschogrod and Hood paper examining Nietzsche’s influence on the mature work of Martin Buber is extremely recondite, to the point where I wondered if they weren’t “playing” the reader with their post-modern theological erudition.

Unsurprisingly, about half of the section on “The Greek Gods” is given over to discussion of The Birth of Tragedy. It is the primary object of study in John Sallis’ “Shining Apollo,” as well as half of the issue in Lawrence Hatab’s analysis of “Nietzschean Expressions of the Sacred.” But I found more value in Weaver Santaniello’s own “Socrates as the Ugliest Murderer of God,” one of the shortest papers in the collection. 

Both of the papers in the Buddhism section emphasize congruities between Nietzsche’s views and the scholars’ understandings of actual Buddhism, as distinguished from Nietzsche’s largely Schopenhauer-based ideas about Buddhism. From a Thelemic perspective, I was especially interested in the weight placed on horticultural metaphor in both Nietzsche’s writing and the Buddhist sources referenced by Robert Morrison. Graham Parkes’ comparative discussion is oriented to overcome not only Nietzsche’s misunderstandings of Buddhism, but also American preconceptions about Zen–which Parkes faults for being informed by the Soto tradition to the exclusion of the more Nietzschean Rinzai strain.

The most generally useful of the papers in the Christianity section is Thomas Brobjer’s study of Nietzsche’s evolving relationship with Christianity prior to his final overtly anti-Christian phase. Brobjer carefully combs published and unpublished writings, while deflecting Nietzsche’s later anti-Christian reconstructions of his earlier motives. I was rather disappointed in Jerry Clegg’s paper regarding “Nietzsche on Pistis versus Gnosis“; I found its wholesale collapse of Will to Power and Will to Truth into the respective terms of the pistis-gnosis dialectic to be insufficiently substantiated. Paul Tillich’s “Escape from God” was surprisingly palatable to me. I’m not sold on the closeness of the kinship between Luther and Nietzsche offered by Tillich, but his readings of Nietzsche are fair, and his evident aim in this piece is to use Nietzsche’s thoughts in the tempering and refinement of an existentialist theology over and against the “sin of religion.” 

There is only one paper in the final section on Islam, and I was fairly nonplussed by this piece on “The Consequences of Atheism” by pious Sufi Henry Bayman. While acknowledging Nietzsche’s genius, Bayman chiefly construes him as a culprit in what he sees as the apocalyptically disastrous faithlessness of modernity, as well as a Faustian demonstration of the atheist’s comeuppance. 

Overall, I found this book to offer a great amount of material for reflection, both in connection with the study of Nietzsche’s work, and in the general philosophy of the religious traditions at issue. The impressive variety of the contents should assure readers with corresponding interests that at least a couple of pieces will amount to highly informative reads.

Nietzsche

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche by Lou Salomé, translated and edited by Siegfried Mandel.

Salomé Mandel Nietzsche

This book is principally a 1988 translation of Lou Salome’s Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken (“Friedrich Nietzsche in His Works,” 1894). The original text is one of the earliest pieces of scholarship on Nietzsche, but is curiously hybridized with elements of memoir, since Salome was a personal student of Nietzsche’s during his late “formerly professor, and now a wandering fugitive” phase of work. This circumstance, amplified by Nietzsche’s affection for her (he proposed a marriage which she declined) entitles her to a certain privileged perspective on the ideas of a thinker whose paradoxical core involved a vigorous interplay of the objective and the idiosyncratic. “Unforgettable for me are those hours in which he first confided to me his secret, whose inevitable fulfillment and validation he anticipated with shudders.” (130)

Salome identifies “the conflict between the need for God and the compulsive need to deny God” as the cornerstone of Nietzsche’s struggle, which made him into a “sacrificial animal,” the remains of which were then “a dual figure–half-sick and suffering; half-saved, a laughing and superior human.” (89) In all of this, however, she surprisingly takes him to have missed his destiny rather than realized it. Writing of the break with Wagner and Nietzsche’s academic resignation, she remarks, “One cannot escape the feeling that the greatness reserved for him passed him by.” (56)

Translator Siegfried Mandel provides a lengthy introduction, focused on a late-20th-century appreciation of Nietzsche’s biography, both prior to and during his association with Salome. In particular, Mandel takes some pains to arrive at conclusions about Nietzsche’s sexual identity and experiences. Mandel also repudiates the allegations that Nietzsche was syphilitic, and works to dissociate the actual man from the rumors that helped to inspire Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. (xli)

The translation leaves out many of Salome’s original annotations, a considerable portion of which consisted solely of extensive quotes from Nietzsche’s published works. But Mandel also reinserts [in brackets] some omitted language in correspondence reproduced within Salome’s text. Mandel’s own endnotes are largely explanatory, and imply that he is addressing himself to a readership with little prior familiarity with Nietzsche. Indeed, as a basic introduction to Nietzsche’s thought, the book is serviceable, although its peculiar perspective and unique judgments also give it great interest to those who have already studied Nietzsche at length.