Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Black Helicopters

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Black Helicopters by Caitlín R Kiernan.

Kiernan Black Helicopters

The “Author’s note for the definitive edition” appended to the paperback of Black Helicopters clarifies that it was written prior to the novel to which it has since been published as a sequel, Agents of Dreamland. Although the Signalman from Agents does make an appearance here, it is only in one chapter, composed after the main text and after Kiernan had decided to connect the stories. Immacolata Sexton does not appear. This book features shoggoths, rather than the mi-go of Agents, but it’s really the humans who are creepiest in both books.

Black Helicopters doesn’t actually feature helicopters very conspicuously, and the narrative is non-sequential and all over the map: jumping between 2001, 2012, 2035, 2114, 2152, and other dates more difficult to decipher. Its ludic theme is grounded in chess, more particularly, the chess of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, while scientific themes include chaos theory, quantum physics, and paleontology. This last topic is one of prior professional interest to Kiernan, who has worked in the field. In fact, she admits to a strong autobiographical streak in the paleontological characters, crediting them with her own scientific achievements (and getting paid back in their glamorous outre narratives).

I think I preferred the shorter and more focused Agents of Dreamland to Black Helicopters, but this book was still a pretty quick read and a lot of fun. It will be best enjoyed by those who can appreciate the author’s scientific and cultural allusions, and who like terse, cautious dialogue among mistrusting interlocutors. The appended “remix” of Chapter 9 supplies the English for a conversation that the body of the book presents only in French. Since the chapter is set in the future relative to most of the rest of the book, non-Francophone readers will appropriately read it only after coming to the end.

Since the “series” relationship of this book to its other seems to have been an organic happenstance rather than deliberate plan, I only hope that it has inspired Kiernan to work on further stories in the same continuum.

The Dark Labyrinth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell.

Durrell The Dark Labyrinth

Lawrence Durrell’s second novel The Dark Labyrinth was originally published as Cefalu in 1947. It’s not clear why he uses the name of the Sicilian village for his fictional locale in Crete. An appended author’s note quotes at length the passage from Henry Fanshawe Tozer’s Islands of the Aegean (1875) that he says inspired the book. My Dutton paperback copy touts itself as an “early novel by the author of Justine” rather than an independent interest.

The main concern of the novel is with a sightseeing party from an English cruise, who are lost after an accident in a subterranean labyrinth in Crete. They enjoy a surprisingly wide diversity of fates. There is a flavor of allegory about the book, and the carefully constructed characters include a poet, a shorthand typist, a painter, an evangelist, a spiritualist-occultist, and a married couple. There is also a side story concerning a gentleman veteran rehabilitating his mental health and doing a bit of espionage.

Once I got the rhythm of the book, it was a speedy read. Durrell does not at all belabor the mythological allusions; there is perhaps just one mention of Ariadne, although the Minotaur is an active presence in the form of an indeterminate menace in the labyrinth itself–one which resolves differently for different characters. The Dark Labyrinth is not a genre novel, yet the later chapters swing rather dramatically among such strange attractors as horror and mystical philosophy, without being subordinated to them.

The Gospel of Philip

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union by Jean-Yves Leloup, trans Joseph Rowe, and foreword by Jacob Needleman.

LeLoup Needleman The Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip is from the large and important Codex II of the Nag Hammadi Library, and it consists of mystical pronouncements having to do with salvation and the Christian sacraments, notably the nymphon (“bridal chamber”). This edition is one of a set of ancient Gnostic scriptures in double translation being issued by the Inner Traditions imprint; they are translated from the Coptic into French by Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves LeLoup, and in this case Englished by Joseph Rowe. I have previously read and appreciated Leloup’s treatment of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As in that case, the translated text is printed in parallel with a typeset version of the Coptic original. The sequence of the contents is different than I have seen in other editions of the Gospel of Philip, but it evidently follows the first translation by H.M. Schenke (1960). Leloup provides reference to the original codex pagination, and also supplies a division into 127 numbered logia (“sayings”) that may be original here.

Again, consistent with the presentation in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the English edition of Leloup’s Gospel of Philip features a foreword by American scholar of religions Jacob Needleman. While I had found Needleman’s contribution in the Mary volume to be a bit credulous and underwhelming, I found him more restrained and effective in his remarks leading into Philip.

In Leloup’s thirty-page interpretive introduction, he is at pains to present the Gospel of Philip as standing in a mutually illuminating dialogue with the gospels of the biblical canon, rather than a heretical deviation or more authentic alternative. His reading (followed by Needleman) is that the nymphon is a mystically enhanced approach to the conjugal act of human sex. To arrive at this perspective, Leloup draws on more recent kabbalistic materials, including Abulafian doctrines, as interpreted by Charles Mopsik. Leloup reads a number of logia as enjoining what I would characterize as magical eugenics.

This understanding is at variance with an interpretation of the Gospel of Philip I have previously encountered in the work of Kurt Rudolph, who took the nymphon to be the site of “the union of the gnostic with his ‘angel image’.” I think the translation provided by Leloup can equally support either reading. Furthermore, I think that both readings are likely to be of value to esoteric practitioners of my own neo-gnostic stripe.

The Wizard and the Witch

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism by John Sulak, foreword by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke.

Sulak Weschcke The Wizard and the Witch

The Wizard & the Witch is a dual biography of Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, constructed as an oral history. John C. Sulak interviewed over fifty different people in order to assemble the firsthand accounts that make up the body of the book. Although most were almost certainly interviewed separately, the editorial process has set them into dialogue with each other as Sulak works through chronological and topical segments of the book. With one conspicuous holdout, he was able to garner input from a great range of family members, lovers, and creative collaborators. Not all of the accounts are complimentary, but all have the ring of sincerity.

The earliest sections reach back into the childhoods of the two subjects, and the story is told up to 2009. It traces the religious vocations of the Zells and the vicissitudes of the Church of All Worlds of which Oberon was a founder, and with which they are identified. Although first developed as a science-fiction-inspired “grok flock,” CAW became a vanguard of public-facing neopaganism in the United States. Oberon later gained some notoriety for his cryptozoological efforts concerning unicorns and mermaids, and these are treated here also. Morning Glory Zell is commonly credited with coining the word polyamory, and the book provides ample detail on the Zells’ unconventional sexual ethics, their amorous involvements, and the developments of their various households.

I was a personal acquaintance of at least one person named in this book, and I can recall having attended a modest-sized pagan festival in central Texas where Morning Glory was present, so I understand myself to be two degrees of separation at most from the people in this book. Although I am a generation younger than the Zells, I found it easy to appreciate their life experiences by relating my own to some of the accounts given here. Certainly, many readers might consider this story to be an exotic one, but the motives, ideals, and foibles characteristic of the people involved are ones that I recognize, and in most instances, respect. The book is an enjoyable read, and even for those who may understand themselves to have less of a personal interest in the events and persons described, it vividly recounts a valuable perspective on the development of new religious expressions in twentieth-century America.

A Natural History of Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford.

Ford A Natural History of Hell

This book is an excellent collection of thirteen short stories by Jeffrey Ford. There is a lot of variety among the stories, with a few actually having to do with “hell” or “the devil.” A couple are science fiction. There are two in which Ford represents himself as a narrating character, so that they recount stories supposedly told to him. Most could be classed as supernatural horror, although none are exactly typical of the genre. All are memorable and worth reading.

Out of the thirteen, “The Angel Seems” was the one that most reminded me of Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, and it almost seemed as if it could have been placed in that unusual fantasy world. “Blood Drive” is a story about high school, set in the near future when first published in 2013, and now looking disturbingly prescient. There is a tale of fairies (“The Fairy Enterprise”), a ghost story (“The Thyme Fiend”), and a piece of sword and sorcery (“Spirits of Salt”). The longest story in the collection features Emily Dickinson as its protagonist.

The cover of the paperback edition boasts a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates in which she praises Ford as “beautifully disorienting.” His fantasy constantly raises epistemological questions, but in the most matter-of-fact ways. Although I had read a number of his short stories before (including one of these), this was the first time I’ve read a full volume of them, and the experience was very satisfying.

The Last Days of Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Strange: The Last Days of Magic by Jason Aaron, Chris Bachelo, & al.

Aaron Bachelo Doctor Strange The Last Days of Magic

This volume collects issues 6 through 10 of the recent Doctor Strange comic book, detailing the culmination of Strange’s battle against the Imperator and his Empirikul army, along with the standalone Doctor Strange: Last Days of Magic which belongs between issues 6 and 7. The latter in particular features a range of minor magic-powered superheroes. Jason Aaron’s writing plays up the pathos of the destruction of magic, but is sometimes quite funny. Chris Bachalo’s art is solid.

Zelda Stanton, the librarian whom Strange has taken on as an assistant, has several important roles to play in this plot arc. The flavor of the thing as a whole reminded me of the David Tennant Doctor Who episode “The Last of the Time Lords,” with Zelda in the Martha Jones role.

Tarot Tales

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tarot Tales edited by Rachel Pollack and Caitlin Matthews.

Pollack Matthews Tarot Tales

I was excited to discover this old mass-market paperback fantasy anthology in a secondhand bookshop, where it had been mistakenly (?) shelved with the occult books. It includes some of my very favorite English fantasy authors, including Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, and Robert Irwin. The third of these usually isn’t even classed as a genre fantasist, and an even more surprising author to see in the mix was Irwin’s fellow Orientalist scholar Peter Lamborn Wilson! Editors Caitlin Matthews and Rachel Pollack have solid credentials as Tarot savants and authors of fiction both, and each contributes a worthwhile story to the book.

All of the individual stories were commissioned for this volume, and I have not seen any of them published elsewhere. The editors’ stipulation was that Tarot should be used in the process of composing each tale. Despite the odd “Chapter One, “Chapter Two” in the story headings (but not the table of contents), there is no continuity of narrative, no shared characters, and no significantly overlapping settings among any of the stories. A few are science fiction, several are overt extensions or reinterpretations of ancient myth, and one or two are firmly in the horror genre. Moorcock’s contribution “Hanging the Fool” is a 20th-century installment of his Von Bek metatext with no supernatural elements at all, and with a nod to H. Rider Haggard. Two of the stories, “Rembrandts of Things Past” by Sheila Finch and “The Devil’s Picturebook” by R.J. Stewart, operate in a theological (as opposed to mythic) register, and I found them weaker for it.

On the whole, the tales in this volume are sophisticated and engaging. More than a few of the stories have Tarot diviners or experimenters as characters, and a handful have subsections named after trumps or other Tarot cards. In her introduction, Pollack cites Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies as precedent for the sort of work included here, but the presence of Tarot in these stories is more varied and often more subtle than in Calvino’s book. The collection was first published in England in 1989, and my copy is the subsequent US release. I don’t think it’s seen a printing in the 21st century, but it’s a solid collection that I will easily recommend to those who share my tastes in fiction.

Staying with the Trouble

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna J Haraway.

Haraway Staying with the Trouble

Donna Haraway makes a peculiar choice in coining “Chthulucene” for use in this book. The difference in spelling from H.P. Lovecraft’s notorious dreaming god is deliberate, and she insists that the etymology is from khthon-; but then why not “Chthonocene?” The fact is that she is deliberately evoking Cthulhu, who “shall soon rule where man rules now,” as the Necronomicon admonishes. But her sympathies, unlike those of (the conscious) Lovecraft are not with the “rulers” coded out as Anthropos or Capital or Plantation Owner, or any future value of that function. Her principal slogan for advancing a Chthulucene agenda is “Make kin, not babies,” and she proposes a “tentacular” program of what an Anthropocentric thinker might regard as species treason–not to mention its profound antagonism to Capital.

Haraway’s program of “staying with the trouble” is an imagining of futures that resists utopianism and dismal forecasting. It reminds me more than a little of the anti-capitalist bolo’bolo (by P.M., 1983–whatever happened to my paperback copy?), which was much more sanguine. The chief difference in gravity probably stems from Haraway’s attention to the damage already done to human and non-human biomes. The final chapter of the book is an SF narrative implementing these visions over the period 2025-2425. Throughout the various essays, Haraway construes SF multivalently as “speculative feminism,” “string figures,” “speculative fabulation,” “science fantasy,” and the more customary “science fiction,” and asserts it as part of her resources and method. Previous SF works that receive her special attention include Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (and others), Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

The species that participate in her Cthulhucene imaginings notably include pigeons, squid, orchids, coral, horses, and butterflies. And SF reflections even recruit the Ood from Doctor Who (the subverted Cthulhu again). Some of these are models to overcome the paradigm of organisms, in favor of holobionts. Others illustrate extant and/or possible relationships among “critters” (Haraway’s preferred term, embracing and exceeding all biotic kingdoms) including humans.

Staying with the Trouble is a chewy read, full of accounts of activist art and the results of late-breaking scientific inquiry (not capital-S “Science” Haraway hastens to add). The body text is about half of the total book, and many of the sixty pages of small-type end notes are worth investigating for their further discussion of sources and inspiration. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout. I made slow progress through it, but it was worth my effort, and although I read a borrowed copy, I would be willing to make space for it on my own shelves.

Blood in the Aether

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Strange: Blood in the Aether by Jason Aaron, &al.

Aaron Bachalo Fabela Doctor Strange Blood in the Aether

This collection of the contemporary Doctor Strange comic book covers issues 11-16, immediately following Strange’s costly defeat of the trans-dimensional anti-magic army of the Empirikul. His powers are at a complete ebb, and his accustomed sorceries are mostly inoperable. So this plot arc has a “greatest hits” of his old foes competing for the privilege of snuffing him while he’s down. Jason Aaron’s story makes Strange into a more dedicated pugilist that he has been in the past. There’s some amusing banter between Wong and Zelma. And the arc ends with a tease regarding difficulties to come.

I like that Strange now carries a sword, which is not for fighting, it seems. It is part of an occult magician’s kit, after all. Most of the compositions/pencils in this book are by Chris Bachalo, whose work is commendable, showing influence from the relatively recent work of Emma Rios, and making good as a successor to Dikto, Brunner, and Colan for bringing a coherent and engaging visual style to Marvel’s flagship occult superhero title. His re-imaginings of Nightmare and Dormammu are top notch. Issue 11 had art from Kevin Nowlan, and I was not so impressed there.

The most amusing issue of the arc is perhaps number 14: “A Gut Full of Hell,” in which Satana attempts to conscript Strange into her infernal enterprise. I was relieved to find out that Strange was still capable of astral projection, surprised that that his astral form was nekkid, and dismayed that someone felt the need to eclipse his butt with a black rectangle of modesty.

Sacred Mysteries

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sacred Mysteries: Sacramental Principles and Liturgical Practice by Dennis C Smolarski.

Smolarski Sacred Mysteries

Sacred Mysteries is a book about Roman Catholic liturgical reforms, ideals, and ambitions, written by a Jesuit university instructor in the mid-1990s. It reflects a particular historical window, just over one full generation after the first set of ceremonial changes that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. Author Dennis Smolarski chooses to use the word “mysteries” interchangeably with “sacraments,” and he calls the seven chief sacraments of Catholic tradition the “great mysteries,” affording each its own chapter. When he discusses this lexical choice in his preface, he cites the usage of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Catholic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963). He raises–to dismiss it–the notion of mystery as an intellectual puzzle, but he seems content with mystery as an arena of the unknown or the unknowable, replete with emotive power. He certainly does not reference the pagan mysteries of antiquity, and he also misses the important English sense of “craft mystery,” according to which a mystery is in fact a guild: an initiated social body of practical experts. The silence about these latter meanings leaves the book’s repeating title conceit somewhat unfulfilled, considering how apposite they are.

Smolarski’s opening chapters establish his method and perspective; then follow the chapters for the seven “great mysteries” and two more for sacramental services of funerals and blessings. The last chapter is dedicated to the topic of pitfalls and and “obfuscations.” Each chapter on a given sacrament is divided into two sections. The first section is on “principles” and summarizes the historical development of the sacrament, along with theological considerations. The second section is on “practice” and discusses Catholic liturgical implementation at the close of the twentieth century.

Some of the liturgical history is worthwhile, and it is written in an accessible form, although there are certainly other books that have that topic as a more central focus. The text mentions in passing, as if it could hardly be questioned, that the eucharist “finds its origin in the family meal” (65). Leaving aside the fact that any and all eating and drinking by humans will in some sense descend from the act of family nourishment, I found that statement profoundly ignorant of (or dishonest about) the genuine historical origins of eucharistic ceremonies.

At one point, discussing the impertinence of popular American wedding customs, this book on Christian worship approvingly offers a quotation on genealogical obscurity from Antichrist Friedrich Nietzsche (115)! But a quick check of the end note shows that it is actually citing Nietzsche’s Human All Too Human at secondhand from page 2 of Celebrating Marriage, edited by Paul Covino for Pastoral Press. I imagine Covino himself got it out of a book of assorted quotations and epigrams. But it still gave me quite a laugh.

I came to this book as an overheard recommendation by a member of the clergy in my own church, although we do not administer the Catholic sacraments as such. Implicitly, the idea was that the analogy to our sacraments (some of them identically named) was sufficiently close that ministers of the Thelemic Gnostic Catholic Church (EGC) could benefit from Smolarski’s analyses. After a thorough reading, I would tend to disagree. First, the book is (properly, by its own lights) oriented toward Christian theology which is profoundly irrelevant to the work of our Thelemic sacraments. Second, it tends to deprecate and deride the Tridentine Catholic forms that were abrogated by the Vatican II reforms. To the extent that Roman Catholic liturgy has provided precedents for EGC ritual, it is exactly those older forms with their “ambience of prayer, awe, and mystery” (67) on which we draw. Finally, it is preoccupied with a specific process of institutional and liturgical reform that does not obtain in EGC.

I concur with Smolarski that liturgy is not reducible to entertainment and should avoid treating a congregation as a passive audience (e.g. 177). Secure in his large and mature institution, he is never in danger of the sort of terminological errors that are all too common in EGC, where officers will apply the jargon of modern entertainment to church ceremony, calling the ritual a “script,” the rubric “stage directions,” or the vestments “costumes.” But he happens to hit on the one sore desideratum for liturgical discourse, a term for what stage performers call “blocking.” There is no traditional ecclesiastical jargon to denote the positioning and movement of the officers in the worship space. Smolarski suggests choreography, which I think has a lot to recommend it.

Sacred Mysteries is probably a helpful book for the audience for whom it was actually written: Roman Catholic ministers and worship organizers. Despite the ongoing change that it emphasizes, it may not even be obsolete twenty years after its first publication.