Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Problem of Susan and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Neil Gaiman, P Craig Russell, & al.

Gaiman Russell The Problem of Susan and Other Stories

The Problem of Susan collects four graphic adaptations of Neil Gaiman fantasy stories. The first two are illustrated by P. Craig Russell, who also did the scripting and layouts for the third. The title story–a sequel/critique for the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis–is the longest of the four, and it’s one I had read some years back. Russell’s adaptation is magnificent, with repeated visual motives and a really glorious concluding panel.

The second story “Locks” is a very short one built around Goldilocks and the Three Bears and again bringing adult reflection to bear on children’s literature. In the third tale “October in the Chair,” personified months of the year have assembled around a fire in the woods for what seems to be a recurring convocation in which they exchange stories. October’s contribution is the centerpiece, and it’s suitably autumnal and spooky. The final piece in the book is hardly a story at all, more of a short poem really, called “The Day the Saucers Came.” Paul Chadwick’s art for this one is entirely in full-page illustrations, just seven of them.

Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (aka The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin) [Amazon (Routledge), Amazon (Art/Books), Amazon (Dover), Bookshop (Dover), Bookshop (Art/Books), Bookshop (Routledge), Publisher (Dover), Publisher (Art/Books), Publisher (Routledge), Local Library] by Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin Routledge

Gauguin Gauguin's Intimate Journals Dover

Gauguin Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals Art/Books

Paul Gauguin’s second prose work was called by him Avant et Aprés, and saw its first publication posthumously as a bound facsimile of the manuscript in 1918. These so-called Intimate Journals are the English translation, first published in 1921 with a preface by Gauguin’s son Emil. It would be reasonable to suspect that the shorter Noa Noa, subtitled The Tahitian Journal, was an excerpt from this Intimate Journals work, but they are entirely distinct. Emil Gauguin writes that this later work better captured his father’s spirit than did the more heavily edited Noa Noa; I certainly found it a livelier and more entertaining read.

The English title doesn’t really do justice to the text, the last of which was written in the last year of Gauguin’s life, while he was living in the Marquesas. To call it digressive would suggest a central course that is missing from a work that is “not a book,” as Gauguin declares at the outset and repeats many times. “I could exist without writing this; but then, why should I not write it?–since I have no other aim than to amuse myself” (161). The book wanders through reminiscences and anecdotes, offers opinions, philosophizes, and cracks wise by turns. Gauguin recounts high points from his personal experiences with Vincent van Gogh, he vituperates against the Catholic Church, he discusses fencing and boxing, he gives vent to his animus against Denmark, he tells stories of his youth and family, he criticizes the colonial police of French Polynesia, and he praises the lost arts of the Marquesans.

The book includes drawings and sketches reproduced from the manuscript, along with a variety of black-and-white reproductions of Gauguin paintings from the holdings of various museums. Inserted by Gauguin into the flow of the text are various letters and articles: one from August Strindberg declining to contribute to an exhibit catalog for Gauguin (42-49), one by Achille Delaroche “Concerning the painter Paul Gauguin, from an aesthetic point of view” (49-55), and several letters by Gauguin himself to the colonial authorities.

“I believe that life has no meaning unless one lives it with a will, at least to the limit of one’s will. … No one is good; no one is evil; everyone is both, in the same way and in different ways. It would be needless to point this out if the unscrupulous were not always saying the opposite.” (240)

The Tindalos Asset

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Tindalos Asset [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Caitlín R Kiernan, book 3 of the Tinfoil Dossier series.

Kiernan The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset is the third and likely final slender novel in Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier series. It introduces a new central character, while pulling along several from the earlier books. This character Ellison Nicodemo is the “asset” of the title, a subordinate agent of the deep black intelligence directorate referred to as “Albany” in this series. Usage in this book shows that the “Dreamland” of the previous volume’s title does also denominate this same outfit. (I had noted its ambiguity there.)

I was startled that the title of the first chapter was a quote from Leah Hirsig–but Kiernan seems to have received it via its use as a song title by Coil: “Paint me as a dead soul.” In the appended author’s note, they list all the music that was integral to the composition of the story (168). It’s no secret that these books are built around neo-Lovecraftian yog-sothothery, and this one is as much as anything an updated and re-imagined “Call of Cthulhu,” with generous bits of “Dagon” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” is of course a significant source as well, and Kiernan ties its notions to the Manhattan Project, among other space-time problems.

Following the precedent in Black Helicopters, this book’s chapters are episodes presented under dates that are not in linear sequence, ranging from 1956 to 2151. The chronological core of the story is in January 2018, around the time it was written. This sort of time-loose montage effect has a self-similar relationship to the entire Tinfoil Dossier series, and I think the books could be read with enjoyment in any order. Indeed there seems to be some confusion among readers about the sequence of the first two books, since Black Helicopters, the one Kiernan calls “first,” was expanded and re-published as a series element after Agents of Dreamland.

Looking back on the series as a whole, its mixture of the weird horror Lovecraft canon with espionage and a certain measure of sympathy for the “monsters” is a common ground with other recent/current series: the Laundry Files of Charles Stross and the Innsmouth Legacy of Ruthanna Emrys. Kiernan’s more experimental style definitely makes these books distinctive, though. There really aren’t any of the comedic elements that Stross uses, and there’s more of a high-tragic sensibility despite the fact that the Tinfoil Dossier books are much shorter than their comparanda.

This work is rife with extra-textual and inter-textual allusions, which supply a lot of the enjoyment. Given its manageable size and convoluted presentation, I think there is a good chance I could return to it in the future for a profitable re-read.

Big Dark Hole

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Big Dark Hole: and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford.

Ford Big Dark Hole

Big Dark Hole is a collection of fantasy and horror stories by Jeffrey Ford. Comparing it to his previous collection A Natural History of Hell, I find that the Hole is more this-worldly in its choices, with only two stories (“The Inn of the Dreaming Dog” and “Sisyphus in Elysium”) set in realities that do not at least seem to be our world within the possible stretch of living memory.

In fact, there are a number of stories where the speaker is Jeffrey Ford, an aging writer of stories and teacher of writing, one who likes to spend the evenings at his Ohio farm house drinking wine on the porch with his wife Lynn. But these stories, which notably include “The Match,” “The Bookcase Expedition,” and “Five-Pointed Spell,” are not a bit less weird in the events they recount than the bizarre carnival story narrated by a man with two faces (“Hibbler’s Minions”) or the one in which a perennial dinner guest turns out to be no one’s friend or relation and perhaps not human at all (“Thanksgiving”).

There’s a bit of additional self-referentiality in “Five-Pointed Spell” where a Hex Doctor tells “Ford” that “In real life, the supernatural declines to explain” (186). This refusal is supposedly different than in fiction, where “it must” explain. Yet in most of Ford’s stories here, the characters grope for explanations, largely in vain, when confronted with horrors and wonders outside the scope of the mundane. If the reader is able to settle on a rationale, Ford’s touch is light enough that it will seem like a discovery.

These pieces are largely reprints from multi-author collections and periodicals, but I had not read any of them before. This book confirmed Ford as a favorite of mine among twenty-first century writers of weird fantasy.

Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Dion Fortune, edited by Gareth Knight.

Knight Fortune Dion Fortune's Rites of Isis and Pan

Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan is a slender book, but one with a lot of valuable content. As the title suggests, it is constructed around a pair of liturgical texts by the eminent early twentieth-century occultist Dion Fortune. These appear to have been her only forays into dramatic ritual for public audiences or untutored congregations, and they were produced by her at “the Belfry,” a converted church building in the Belgravia district of London. The full rituals are included, and framed by four chapters of editorial text from Gareth Knight, who provides a history of these rituals and delves into the manner in which they were epitomized in Fortune’s principal occult novels: The Winged Bull, The Goat-foot God, The Sea Priestess, and Moon Magic.

Fortune’s rituals with Knight’s study and commentary constitute roughly the first half of the book, and the second is a set of a half-dozen papers and addresses by Fortune that are relevant to her rites. Three of these were originally published as articles in The Inner Light Magazine, but a couple of them seem to be from previously unpublished records of the Society of the Inner Light that Fortune founded, and the very first appendix is the significant 1933 essay “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” that originally appeared in The Occult Review.

Although Knight avoids crediting Aleister Crowley with any influence on Fortune’s dramatic rites, “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” provides ample circumstantial confirmation that Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis were a significant model for her (at least as much as the 1899 “Rite of Isis” by Mathers cited by Knight, 8). In that article, Fortune classes herself with Crowley and Regardie as the “unholy trinity of revealers of the Mysteries” (86). She praises the contents of Crowley’s Equinox, which included his Rites of Eleusis, and even calls on Regardie to perform the editorial work by which he would later produce the digest Gems from The Equinox (91). She writes:

“To speak any word in mitigation of the general condemnation of Crowley is a thankless task, for panic-stricken people immediately conclude that one is in league with the devil. Nevertheless, Mr. Regardie has had the courage to do this, and I should like to add my voice to his. To make use of a man’s work without acknowledgement is no better than picking pockets.” (Ibid. That final sentence would become ironic a few years later, when Regardie would quote a full page of text from Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah in his own The Middle Pillar, attributing it only to “One very clever expositor.”)

Like Crowley in his Rites, Fortune drew poetic passages in her own from the work of Swinburne, specifically “The Last Oracle” (14). Her original contributions as a poet are decidedly less sure than those of the Beast. I suppose I winced physically when I encountered her end rhyme of “path” and “Daath” (74).

Other articles among the appendices supply Fortune’s own extensive analyses of the esoteric infrastructure of her fiction. “In an attempt to compromise between the symbolic and the rational modes of presentation I decided to avail myself of the form of fiction as being a mode of presentation which could approach the subconscious levels of the mind, which think in images, without losing touch with the conscious levels of the mind which think in words, thus making contact once again with those potent levels of the mind that have fallen into disuse in modern civilisation” (103). Her discussion of The Winged Bull in particular highlighted the magical potency of English places in ways that put me in mind of the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair (115-6).

Fortune’s dramatic rituals and her novels alike rely on sexual polarity as the chief engine of magic, and she has the lector of her Rite of Isis declare, “All the Gods are One God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (70). The God can evidently be summarized as Pan and the Goddess as Isis, with these two rituals (each of which features officers of both genders) sufficient for her purpose–which aims more at integration than analysis.

The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts [Amazon, Bookshop, Author] by Matthew M Bartlett, art by Alex Fienemann.

Bartlett Fienemann The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts

Barely a book–more of a print-on-demand chapbook–this little 31-page document is conspicuously labeled “VOLUME 1,” so it is reasonable to suspect that author Matthew M. Bartlett has more of this sort in preparation. The text consists of single-page biographical vignettes, each about a different witch. As the title indicates (and a brief foreword clarifies), these notably wicked folk are neither from the Arkham country of literature, nor the actual Eastern Massachusetts known for its witch persecutions. They are situated in the genuine geography of the western part of the state, in periods ranging from the seventeenth century to the present.

There isn’t so much about a “cult” per se; only in a minority of cases are the relationships among the witches made explicit, or details afforded about their joint enterprises. The narrative voice is a pious one, seeking to “shine God’s light” on the matters discussed in the book. The comic effect is heightened by a sober historical tone, even when describing very recent figures, or recounting “facts” to which no secular historian could be privy.

Illustrator Alex Fienemann’s contributions to this volume match Bartlett’s in scale. For each witch’s single page of biography, she has supplied a facing full-page illustration in black and white. With their creative borders, symmetrical compositions, and juxtaposed figures, these consistently occupy a stylistic zone somewhere between cartoon and tarot trump.

The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts is a light novelty recommended to occultists and readers of weird horror.

Start with Why

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Simon Sinek, book 1 of the Start with Why series.

Sinek Start with Why

There are no genuine new ideas in this managerial self-help screed. Rigorous adherence to advertising principles of repetition makes the book a chore to read, no matter how engaging some of the individual anecdotes might be. The main theses are more concisely expressed in the TED Talk version, where author Simon Sinek nevertheless comes off almost as a parody of a motivational speaker.

While Thelemic doctrine uses “Why” to indicate rationalization, Sinek wants to use it to mean purpose, aim, or will. Alas, often enough in his various case studies of corporate business CEO heroism, he accepts the self-serving rationalizations of such figures as their genuine aims. For example, he praises Bill Gates as embracing “a higher cause” summarized as “A PC in every home and on every desk” (194)–as if Gates were interested in empowering people with personal computers, as opposed to seeking 100% market share for MS-DOS and Windows by means of notorious anti-competitive strategies that distinguished Microsoft among its rivals. Siknek also adulates Sam Walton as a salt-of-the-earth type who “talked about building stores in rural communities so that the backbone of America’s workforce didn’t have to travel to the urban centers,” which is rich. Walmart’s willingness to set up shop in small towns, drain off the local economies, pull up stakes and move on is cast as a virtuous service to consumers.

Sinek’s “Golden Circle” is a model that he asserts is bolstered by neurobiological findings, but there’s little consequence to that justification, which is largely rhetorical. It does attempt to integrate the fact that effective decision-making is pre-verbal and non-rational. In light of models and nomenclature I prefer, I found his WHY-HOW-WHAT anatomy opaque and muddled. For my purposes, the three-part formula would be better expressed as Will-Work-Result (cf. CCXX I:44) . But I did think that the corresponding sequence of clarity-discipline-consistency was well formulated.

Near the end of the book, Sinek supplies a conversion account, in which he was saved by the power of “WHY,” brought through an entrepreneurial dark night of the soul to behold the power of the Golden Circle. This evangelical narrative helps to demonstrate his motive for identifying “WHY” with “belief,” which is again at odds with the ways in which I constellate these symbols or the ways in which I would seek to help others use them.

“If Will stops and cries Why, invoking Because, then Will stops & does nought. If Power asks why, then is Power weakness.” (CCXX II:30-31)

Nunquam

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nunquam [Amazon, Publisher] by Lawrence Durrell, book 2 of The Revolt of Aphrodite series.

Durrell Nunquam

Nunquam is the second half of a “novel in two parts,” of which Tunc is the first. There’s no point in planning to read only one of them, or of taking them out of sequence. All of the critical stage-setting and character development for Nunquam takes place in Tunc, and Tunc opens numerous plot-lines without even artfully suspending them before their resolutions in Nunquam. The Latin titles are taken from the phrase aut tunc, aut nunquam, which is to say: “either then or never.” (53) Neither part is terribly long, and I would recommend reading them in the combined edition titled The Revolt of Aphrodite.

Hardly any new characters are introduced in Nunquam. About a quarter of the way into this second volume, the narrator/protagonist Felix finally gets to meet in person the mysterious Julian Pahlevi, his elusive employer. The meeting is the occasion for a rather spectacular monologue on Julian’s part. (70 ff.) All the characters who do recur go through significant transformations, and this fact is a further point which demands that Tunc be read first. 

While carrying forward the contemporary setting of the first book (written in the late 1960s), Nunquam seems less modern, more grounded in archetypal narratives. Still, such grounding provides a basis for considering the cultural and psychological changes wrought in modernity. Nunquam has both explicit allusions to and thematic resonance with the Pygmalion and Faust stories, not to mention their prior modern synthesis in Frankenstein. The last invites as much contrast as comparison when it comes to the matter of sex and gender, which is not at all peripheral to The Revolt of Aphrodite.

Although Durrell wrote that in going from the first volume to the second he “tried to move from the preposterous to the sublime,” he does so by heightening the absurdities of his scenario. Durrell also described The Revolt of Aphrodite as an interpretation of the preface to Spengler’s Decline of the West. Having enjoyed the novel in both its parts, I’m now thoroughly tempted to follow up by reading its purported inspiration.

Antichrist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Bernard McGinn.

McGinn Antichrist

This accessible, well-documented history of the development of the story of Antichrist was surprisingly unexciting. Although a work would have to be much larger to treat exhaustively of the topic, McGinn’s is nearly as comprehensive as its scale permits. He proceeds at a steady pace from pre-Christian antiquity through the late twentieth century, and by the end, he proposes that he and the reader should be tired of the topic. (280)

Theologian McGinn dismisses mythicists like me as a “lunatic fringe” for being skeptical of the evidence for a “historical Jesus.” (34) But his fractious consensus of “New Testament scholars” is even less persuasive than the because-we-say-so of traditional clergy. And, although he is himself evidently a Christian (of the non-Fundamentalist sort, he is quite clear), he seems not to have faith in any sort of antichrist himself, nor to think that an incarnation of the Lie could be a constructive idea for modern believers. 

Writing in the early 1990s, the author may have anticipated a market for Antichrist related to the approach of the year 2000, but he certainly couldn’t have foreseen the Obama Antichrist rumor and ‘net meme that would arise later. Reading his account of the traditional ingredients of Antichrist legend, it is possible to see, for example, deep synergy between the Antichrist allegations and the charge of crypto-Islam aimed at the 44th US President. Another bizarre potential correlation is for born-again Christian George W. Bush to be the “Last Emperor” who is supposed to precede the reign of Antichrist. (The early medieval trope of the Last Emperor is typically absent from the Dispensationalist neo-Millenialism common to today’s Christianist chiliasts, though.) 

One significant element missing from McGinn’s treatment–in its modern phase at least–is the appearance of professed antichrists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jack Parsons. While it could be tempting to excuse such an oversight by disqualifying such figures as lying outside of the spectrum of Christian belief, the book does actually include treatments of Jewish and Muslim Antichrist parallels, as well as a discussion of Jung’s secular psychological theory of Antichrist. 

Overall, the book is useful for readers wanting to get a historical handle on the Antichrist concept and its evolution. McGinn claims that Antichrist belief has become marginal and unoriginal in modern times, but he admits that there’s no way to be sure of the extent to which it formerly penetrated popular consciousness. And I would add that not all our current elites are as erudite as Professor McGinn, so his admission that Fundamentalist Evangelicals are “a limited, if powerful, segment” of Christianity should give the socially-reflective reader pause regarding just how irrelevant the anticipation of Antichrist may be.

Ghost Circles

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Ghost Circles [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 7 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone: Ghost Circles

I suppose it is a sign of Jeff Smith’s skill at developing his fictional world and its characters that I have read each volume of Bone in fewer sittings than the last, even though their length and complexity remains consistent. 

The end of the previous volume Old Man’s Cave made it seem as if the heroes had had a major victory, but Ghost Circles begins with almost overwhelming setbacks, and of all the Bone collections so far this one is easily the darkest in mood. Even a few scenes with the usually comical Ted the Bug are quite grave.