Tag Archives: review

The White Wolf

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Michael Moorcock’s Elric Vol 3: The White Wolf by Julien Blondel, Jean-Luc Cano, Julien Telo, and Robin Recht.

Moorcock Blondel Cano Recht Telo Elric The White Wolf

Elric: The White Wolf is the third of the 21st-century French comics adaptations of Michael Moorcock’s anti-heroic sword-and-sorcery saga. The first two came out within a year of each other–at least their English translations did, in 2014 and 2015. But there was a wait of more than three years between the second and the third. I had been deeply impressed by the first two, and I’m happy to report that the third measures up nicely.

This volume does lack a foreword (the first two had them from Moorcock and Alan Moore) and for some inexplicable reason, publisher Titan Comics changed the design of the hardcover spine, so that it is not uniform with the earlier volumes. I’m very glad that the publisher is keeping these in a large page-format, rather than attempting to reduce them to American comics-sized pages.

The art is still highly imaginative and effective, and the writing continues to reinvent the Elric story in ways that depart from Moorcock’s original telling while only intensifying its underlying spirit. For anyone familiar with the original books, this volume of the graphic series will deliver a real sucker punch of a surprise ending! I hope that whatever trouble delayed this third number has been resolved, and that the fourth will follow apace.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow.

Morrow Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Framed as an extended suicide note, the fictionalized memoir stylings of this James Morrow satire reminded me more than a little of the delightful novels of Lee Siegel. Topically, however, it was a fit with my recent read of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Lucky Strike, as science fictional reflections on human agency in the atrocity of the deployment of the atomic bomb.

The narrator of Shambling Towards Hiroshima is Syms Thorley, an emeritus monster actor of B-movie fame. While sometimes adverting to his 1980s circumstance in the wake of a fan convention at a Baltimore hotel, the book is mostly trained on his past involvement in a secret WWII military project intended to provoke Japanese military capitulation in the face of actual fire-breathing leviathans bred from iguanas.

The book is a quick read, with vivid, often hilarious episodes and an ultimately sobering message.

Moondust

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Moondust by Thomas Burnett Swann.

Swann Moondust

In Moondust, Thomas Burnett Swann chose to slot a novel fantasy into the biblical context of the sheltering of Joshua’s spies and the fall of Jericho (Joshua, chapters 2 and 6). It features a cryptid race, telepathic enslavement, an underground kingdom, and other standard tropes of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure yarn. “Moondust” is the true name of the harlot Rahab among her people, who are neither Hebrews nor Jerichites.

This is the second book I have read by Swann. The other was the later Cry Silver Bells, which had many points of similarity with Moondust in addition to being set in antiquity with fantastic creatures. Both books have an orphaned teen human protagonist, and a non-human female protagonist who is the love interest of the former. Each young man has an older sister who is a whore. In Moondust, a changeling/adoption scenario allows the sister-prostitute and the nymph to be collapsed into a single character, while the somewhat more sophisticated Cry Silver Bells distinguishes the two.

I gather that Swann’s work is now pretty thoroughly out of print, but I enjoyed this strange little book, and I expect to read him opportunistically in the future.

The Fan Club

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Fan Club by Irving Wallace.

Wallace The Fan Club

Irving Wallace’s novel The Fan Club was quite successful when it was published in 1974, spending nearly six months on the NYT best seller list and serving as the basis for a movie project that never got to the shooting stage. Like most popular novels of its period, it has since fallen into obscurity. It is a “thriller” about the abduction, rape, ransom, and rescue of a sex-symbol movie star. I read a portion of it in the 1980s and I came back to read the whole thing more than thirty years later.

Rather than a single psychopathic villain (cf. Straub’s Hellfire Club), the story offers a misfit team of perpetrators. This feature seems to be an indictment of masculine pack dynamics: the group is morally less than the sum of its parts, while operationally greater than them. This notion is bolstered by fact that the most practically capable and ethically depraved of the four culprits has a military background, having participated in atrocities as an American soldier in Viet Nam.

The four “fan club” malefactors are repeatedly identified by their roles, rather than proper names–first for purposes of concealment in the journal kept by their organizer, and then in the mental indexing performed by their captive victim. These roles–the Club President i.e. “Dreamer,” Accountant i.e. “Milquetoast,” Insurance Person i.e. “Salesman,” and Mechanic i.e. “Evil One”–seem to suggest an allegorical reading, where the diverse character types of the four could represent larger social functions, or even psychological components (e.g. self, super-ego, ego, and id).

Except for some passages from the notebooks of the Dreamer-instigator, the novel is told in an omniscient third-person voice, but using an assortment of characters for perspective orientation. For the most part, focus alternates between the fan club members on the one hand and their captive on the other, with all of the post-abduction rapes and assaults emphasizing her perspective. She does survive the ordeal, and it seems clear that she would not have done so without her own resourcefulness and personal agency.

By making his President/Dreamer character a writer, Wallace invites suspicion of an element of self-portraiture in this eventually declared anti-hero. This protagonist treats the predatory fan club as an “experiment” in the real-world manifestation of fantasy. Are we supposed to congratulate Wallace on having chosen to write a fiction rather than carrying out the sort of criminal acts about which he wrote? The decision here to leave the Dreamer at large and unrehabilitated may have been intended as a horror-style coda to signal the persistence of evil. But given the extent to which the entire novel might be construed as rape-as-entertainment, it does come off disturbingly as “no comeuppance!”–especially in today’s interpretive climate. While I do not myself insist on moral justice in fictional narrative, Emma Bovary this fellow is not.

In any case, I do think the book was more interesting than the only other Wallace novel I’ve read, the later Celestial Bed, which shares some of its preoccupations–even signaling them in the title, which featured as an invocation (with the same historical referent) in The Fan Club.

Other Minds

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Godfrey-Smith Other Minds

My public library had several copies of this recent book on the shelf, and the sexy title makes it easy to imagine why. Author Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor of philosophy and a scuba diver, and he draws on both of these backgrounds, as well as related research in ethology and evolutionary biology. The main question addressed by the book is the nature of octopus consciousness: Does it exist, and how does it resemble and differ from ours? As Godfrey-Smith points out, of all of the animals we know with complex active nervous systems, the octopus is perhaps the most genealogically alien from us. Yet by virtue of its aquatic character, it is closer to our shared origins of life and consciousness than we are.

A surprising and gratifying element of this book is the discussion of the evolutionary basis of senescence. It turns out that this topic is highly apposite, since hardly any of the big cephalopod species discussed in this book have an ordinary lifespan of more than two years. The result is a strange paradox for human investigators who think of elaborate brains and nervous systems as being concerned with experience and memory. An octopus doesn’t have time to acquire much of a life history.

Another apparent paradox has to do with the dramatic ability of the octopus (and even more so, its remote cousin the cuttlefish) to change its color. Although these creatures have camera-style eyes like humans do, they lack the optical equipment that allows vertebrates to visually distinguish color. The resolution to the enigma seems to have to do with the ways in which they may use their skin, rather than their eyes, to sense the colors in their environments.

The author’s notes to the main text are given as end notes, indexed by page number. They are not called out in the body text itself, although they would be read most usefully with the material that they annotate. They do contain source references, but are mostly explanation and useful digression for issues simplified in the main text. I scanned them quickly at the end of reading the book, and I was irritated that they weren’t footnotes, where I would have been sure to read with profit the ones most interesting to me. It’s ironic that at a time when digital typesetting makes footnotes easy to produce, book marketing evidently forbids them.

The final chapter of Other Minds is “Octopolis,” discussing an apparently unique para-social environment inhabited by octopuses off of eastern Australia, and this concludes with some environmentalist reflections on the perilous state of the oceans. Since this book was written in 2016, a second Australian octopus city (“Octlantis”) has been discovered, and the evidence of human destruction of the oceans has become more stark. In particular, marine ecosystems are being ravaged by heat waves and the accumulation of plastics at previously unsuspected depths.

The Yellow Book

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Yellow Book: The Divine Mother, Kundalini, and Spiritual Powers by Samael Aun Weor.

Aun Weor The Yellow Book

Columbian occultist Samael Aun Weor obviously did not have the French decadence or English fin de siècle quarterly The Yellow Book in mind while choosing the title El Libro Amarillo for this short book of esoteric instruction when he first issued it in the 1950s. He identifies yellow with Buddha and Christ and “the Mental World,” and explains:

“The science of the mind truly constitutes The Yellow Book. This is why this book is called The Yellow Book because the science of the mind is written here. In order to work with the science of the mind, the initiate should retire to bed at 10:00 p.m. daily.” (111)

I’m afraid that’s a pretty representative sample of his prose style as well. The 2011 English edition of this book was produced by Glorian Publishing, a non-profit dedicated to the English-language promotion of Weor’s work. No translator or editor is identified, although significant editorial impositions on the text are evident, even without direct comparison to the Spanish original.

Weor was a student of the neo-Rosicrucian Arnold Krumm-Heller, who was himself a recipient of O.T.O. high degrees from O.H.O. Theodor Reuss. Krumm-Heller was also a sympathetic associate of Reuss’ successor Aleister Crowley. The reader will not learn these facts from The Yellow Book, where the only authorities cited are Mahavatar Babaji and famous Theosophical mahatmas like Morya (91). Weor writes no less than four times in this volume, “Our motto is Thelema (willpower)” (11, 37, 57, 113), but the one explicit reference to Crowley is from a passage in the glossary written by the editor(s):

“Unfortunately the term ‘sexual magic’ has been grossly misinterpreted by mistaken persons such as Aleister Crowley, who advocated a host of degenerated practices, all of which belong solely to the lowest and most perverse mentality and lead only to the enslavement of the consciousness, the worship of lust and desire, and the decay of humanity.” (139)

The “Arcanum A.Z.F.” frequently invoked by Weor appears at first glance to be a close parallel to the Supreme Secret of the Sovereign Sanctuary in O.T.O. doctrine. Weor’s editor glosses it as “The practice of sexual transmutation as a couple (male-female), a technique known in Tantra and Alchemy” (118). If the secret is in any way similar, however, the understanding of that secret certainly differs greatly between Weor and Crowley. Weor construes “chastity” as sexual continence (cf. Little Essays Toward Truth), and he condemns orgasm generally. He further asserts, “seminal ejaculation is a crime; seminal ejaculation is brutal fornication” (31). (For counterpoint, Crowley writes, “There is nothing unclean or degrading in any manifestation soever of the sexual instinct, because, without exception, every act is an impulsively projected image of the Will of the individual who, whether man or woman, is a star,” in his commentary to CCXX I:52.)

Weor makes conspicuous use of the correlation of the sat chakras to the Apocalyptic seven churches of Asia. But he does not credit this concept to its earlier development in The Apocalypse Unsealed of Theosophist James M. Pryse. By contrast, Weor’s notions about crickets as an adjunct to visionary technique appear to be rather novel, despite his claim for their Mexican and Roman antiquity (chapter 13).

The Yellow Book culminates in a set of instructions regarding the hypergeometric thaumaturgy of “Jinn Science,” which Weor affirmatively distinguishes from “Gnostic ritual” (108). The practitioner is directed to aim at the physical ability to fly or levitate as a basic attainment in this discipline, and magical powers are attributed to the powdered eggshells of chickens. I would not recommend this little book as a resource for sincere aspirants, although it has a great number of intriguing features for readers tracing the twentieth-century evolution of occult movements.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein.

Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land uncut

This review is of the extended second edition (“Original Uncut”) of Heinlein’s seminal cultural satire Stranger in a Strange Land. Avoid it. It is inferior to the first edition, having been subjected to reversion of all of the author’s edits that had tightened up the original manuscript without losing any significant content. (In fact, a few items were added in that edit, and these are consequently missing from the longer edition.) The editorial apparatus of this posthumous reissue falsely suggests that integral content was removed from the manuscript for its first publication, in deference to public mores. The longer book is in fact a crass commercial ploy, intended to get readers of the author’s most popular work to buy it a second time, after it had already stayed in print continuously for thirty years.

Ashenden, or The British Agent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ashenden, or The British Agent by W Somerset Maugham.

Maugham Ashenden

I’m surprised that it took me so long to find my way to Ashenden or the British Agent, W. Somerset Maugham’s espionage tales rooted in his own experiences of the First World War. Having read it now, I can see its ideas, tropes, and styles revived in all of the key Cold War spy novels I’ve read, including those by Deighton and Fleming. Even Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is something of an expanded and reoriented take on the “Gustav” chapter in Ashenden. Curiously, this 1928 book set during the previous war foreshadows the Cold War by concluding with the English spy’s firsthand view of the October Revolution.

The protagonist Ashenden is somewhat modeled on the author, so he is a literary man recruited into the British intelligence service. He spends much of the book in neutral Switzerland, where he writes a play while supported by his spy work. Ashenden is valued by his organization as a judge of character more than a man of action. As a result, the book teems with diverse and carefully-drawn personalities. There is a good deal of humor, all of it very dry.

There is an acute awareness of the nature of intelligence work as being that of a cog in a machine, never seeing the ultimate origins or outcomes of one’s labors, and this sensibility has an impact on the structure and pacing of the book. The chapters are short and unnumbered. Each has a dramatic unity of its own, and they are in chronological sequence, but there is no sense of a grand plot arc embracing the book as a whole. Often, the question that a chapter seems to have been posing with increasing intensity throughout finally goes unanswered–for the reader, if not for Ashenden himself.

Othon & Honorata

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Metabarons : Volume 1: Othon & Honorata by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Juan Gimenez.

Jodorowsky Gimenez The Metabarons Othon Honorata

This American publication collects the first two bandes dessinées in a series of eight. A blank page joins the two originally separate volumes. Under this cover is the immediate pre-history and first generation of the Metabarons–the line of warriors whose descendant features in the Incal space operas of Jodorowsky and Moebius. The artist for The Metabarons is Juan Gimenez, whose work is quite capable, but lacks the luminosity of Moebius’ illustrations.

The story is framed as a recounting from one robot to another, as they serve in the “Metabunker” home of (presumably) the Metabaron of the later Incal period. These two are set as camp characters, irritating each other and exhibiting displays of exasperation, and they add no real value to the narrative proper.

The main plot and setting elements are, it saddens me to say, mighty unoriginal. While there have been cosmetic changes and some shuffling of tropes, almost every element of note here is derivative from Herbert’s Dune. For “epiphyte” read spice. For “Shabda-Oud” read Bene Gesserit. There are space-magical features of the type found in Dune, but actual mystical symbolism of the sort that Jodorowsky emphasized in The Incal is much less apparent here.

The original Metabaron Othon has a little family of indigenous slaves: Ikku-Tta and his two daughters. These have their noses painted black. In some panels, this makes them look like puppies, and in others skulls. I wonder if the ambivalence was deliberate.

It’s possible that the translators are at fault, but I suspect that Jodorowsky himself is to blame for the excessive indulgence in exclamation points! I don’t think there’s a plain period at the end of a sentence in the entire book! Although there are occasional ellipses …

Maybe this series picks up in later volumes, but I wasn’t thrilled with this one.

The Fate of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Strange: The Fate of Dreams by Devin Grayson.

Grayson Doctor Strange The Fate of Dreams

This original “prose” (i.e. not sequential-art) novel about Marvel occult superhero Doctor Strange was published in 2016, concurrently with the release of the MCU film featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Master of the Mystic Arts. In this book, Strange is already long established as the Sorcerer Supreme, and there is thankfully none of the “sling ring” gimmickry that was on display in the movie. The style of the book is very Marvel, with ample intertextual references, deep investment in the prior narrative continuity, and occasional wisecracking. There is sparing black-and-white illustration in this book, for which nine different artists are credited! I suspect that the art was simply repurposed from previous comics work.

The Fate of Dreams concerns itself with Strange’s efforts to address an enigmatic corruption affecting the realms of dream. He works in eventual concert with a dream-specialist neuroscientist, a young Inhuman (i.e. superpowered human-alien hybrid), and Strange’s erstwhile foe Nightmare, a sovereign of the dream realms. The characters are interesting and fairly well-developed relative to superhero genre standards, and the plot is quick-moving. Author Devin Grayson introduces some Nebraska backstory for Strange prior to his career in medicine, and this material was new to me despite extensive reading in old Strange Tales and Doctor Strange comics. I don’t know if the ideas are original here, though–she seems to be working hard to use as much comics material as she can.

I was pleasantly surprised when the plot resolution turned out to hinge on the Inhuman Jane Bailey taking the role of a messianic sacrifice to redeem the dream realms. Her function as a sort of Gnostic Sophia on these lines was amply foreshadowed with reference to the descent of Inanna, along with other related tropes. In this particular drama, Strange was awarded the part of an esoteric Judas!

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The Fate of Dreams is likely to engage and entertain fans of Doctor Strange comics. Those readers familiar only with the theatrical film will perhaps find it a bit inaccessible for its constant allusions to the larger Marvel metatext. Non-comics-fan occultists and students of the occult who are looking for a gratifying potboiler tale of magical heroism might perhaps be better served by Frank Lauria’s Owen Orient novels from the 1970s and 80s.