Tag Archives: Science Fiction & Fantasy

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.

Masters of Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus review Masters of Atlantis [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Portis.

Portis Masters of Atlantis

In his fourth novel, Charles Portis offers the compound biography of a fictional 20th-century initiatory order that arrived in the US following World War I and experienced ups and downs at the hands of its various aspirants and adepts. The author clearly intends the reader to be amused by the eccentric partisans of the Gnomon Society, yet his tone is largely sympathetic. I originally read this book at the recommendation of the head of one of the world’s most venerable esoteric bodies, and Portis does indeed give a far more accurate picture of the ambitions and concerns of most of today’s Rosicrucians and occult Freemasons than any wide-eyed Dan-Brownishness can provide. Shelve it between Foucault’s Pendulum and the Stonecutters episode of The Simpsons.

Len Deighton was not an author of spy thrillers but of horror, because all Cold War–era spy thrillers rely on the existential horror of nuclear annihilation to supply a frisson of terror that raises the stakes of the games their otherwise mundane characters play. And in contrast, H. P. Lovecraft was not an author of horror stories—or not entirely—for many of his preoccupations, from the obsessive collection of secret information to the infiltration and mapping of territories controlled by the alien, are at heart the obsessions of the thriller writer.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Stross The Atrocity Archives spy trillers existential horror nuclear annihilation frisson terror secret information mapping territories alien heart writer