Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

From the Legend of Biel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews From the Legend of Biel by Mary Staton.

Staton From the Legend of Biel

I found my way to this 1974 sf novel by way of a commendation in the occultist memoir In the Center of the Fire. The Legend of Biel was author Mary Staton’s first book, used as the re-launch of publisher Ace’s Science Fiction Special series.

The story is framed as a sort of Clarke-style hard sf involving the investigation of mysterious architecture on an exoplanet MC6, with difficult mission constraints and conflicting motives among the explorers. While this setup intimates a “first contact” scenario, the book never actually presents any non-human intelligence other than the possibly posthuman “Thoacdien.” There are however multiple human civilizations brought into view: the terrestrial humans of the frame story, the utopian telepaths of the Thoacdien Federation, and the indigenous Higgite nation of Thoacdien V.

The protagonist of the frame story is UN scientist Howard Scott, but the “Biel” of the title is the central character of the nested narrative, and she is a mutant child of the Thoacdien polity. Especially toward the end of the book, small sections are offered in a first-person voice from Biel, and she is the only character to assume this level of focus. Her story eventuates in a somewhat unsatisfying “and then she woke up” gimmick, which fails to account for much of the third-person detail supplied. Still, as an allegory of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (per Jim Wasserman’s reading) the “Legend” is provocative.

Issues of “racial” difference (in the US sociopolitical sense) are raised explicitly in the frame story and implicitly in the legend. David Hobart, the black African member of the UN research team “had paid his dues and was grudgingly admitted to the human race” (19). On Thoacdien V the Federation mentor characters are black, while the savage Higgites are conspicuously white.

The evolutionary advances of the Federation society include the obsolescence of viviparity and the removal of dominance and submission from pedagogy. The resulting picture reminded me more than a little of earlier science fiction such as Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X. The rather abstracted scenery of Thoacdien V drafted itself in my imagination in the style of Jean “Moebius” Griaud. Throughout the book there is typography that helps to flag various registers of the narrative, but it results in some infelicities like long chapters entirely in italics and often indulges in expressionistic passages of what looks to be concrete poetry.

I did feel that the resolution of the Biel plot was a bit clumsy, but I received the closing bracket of the Howard Scott frame story more warmly. While I don’t know that I can echo Wasserman’s appraisal of the book as “excellent,” I don’t regret having taken his word that it was “worth reading.”

Samalio Pardulus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Samalio Pardulus by Otto Julius Bierbaum, illustrated by Alfred Kubin, translated by W C Bamberger.

Bierbaum Samalio Pardulus

Samalio Pardulus is named after its principal character, a creature of transcendent decadence and misanthropy in the mode of the earlier Des Essientes of Huysmans or the later Fantazius Mallare of Ben Hecht. Like Huysmans, author Bierbaum was involved in the Symbolist culture that detached itself from Romanticism and contributed to Expressionism, although in this little book the Gothic elements are quite palpable.

Samalio Pardulus was a painter in medieval Albania. Rather than documenting him from an omniscient third-person narrator as in À rebours or through the medium of his own written journals as in Fantazius Mallare, Bierbaum places two narrative frames between the reader and the character. First, there is a “staid philistine” Italian painter Messer Giacomo, imported to instruct Samalio, whose journals form the purported documentary basis of the story in the form of extensive quotations. Then there is the anonymous archivist who introduces and comments on Giacomo’s account. Through the course of the book, this archivist outside of the quotes retreats to invisibility, having left behind only a suitable readerly suspicion regarding Giacomo’s perceptiveness.

Samalio himself is ugly, talented, and blasphemous. He is concerned with making objects out of his imaginings, and to the extent that this work tends to horrify his pious teacher, his explanations of it become theological, deprecating a cosmic demiurge and exalting his own “godly pleasure in the grotesque” (14). Beyond his inchoate gnosticism and solipsism, Samalio defines himself with incestuous ambitions for his beautiful sister. These eventuate in a numinous domestic apocalypse. The interrelation of the principal characters–Samalio, his sister Maria Bianca, their father the Count, an unnamed watchman, and Messer Giacomo–eventually becomes so outre that it awoke in me suspicions of allegory.

This first English edition is illustrated with many full-page charcoal drawings by Alfred Kubin that appeared in the original 1911 German edition. Some of these depict Samalio’s paintings, but most are scenes from the novel.

Winter Tide

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys.

Emrys Winter Tide

This novel was written as a sequel-by-popular-demand to the justly-acclaimed novella “The Litany of Earth,” itself a narrative development from the Lovecraft story “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Of “The Litany of Earth,” I remarked, “In retrospect, this tale seems to me almost necessary somehow. I’ve read so very many (literally dozens of) stories elaborating on the events of ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth,’ and this is the first one that actually followed an Innsmouth native as a sympathetic survivor of the government raids and arrests. Emrys’ comparanda are not just the WWII interment of Japanese-Americans, but (in the revelations about Aphra’s mother and Charlie’s subsequent reference to Nuremburg) Nazi Versuchspersonen.” I was also impressed with the sensitivity regarding occult magic evident in the story, as well as the moral trajectory of its protagonist, especially against the backdrop of Lovecraft’s original.

Winter Tide did not give me the sense of textual destiny fulfilled that I found in its immediate predecessor. It is a full novel, first published in April 2017. While the observations about the oppressive propensities of the US government in “The Litany of Earth” had become even more topical, the author’s treatment of them seemed less nuanced. The book builds a cadre of outsiders under the nominal supervision of FBI agent Ron Spector and the actual leadership of Innsmouther Aphra Marsh, and the interactions in this ensemble are interesting, but the development of the subaltern theme is taken in so many directions that it starts to exude whiffs of tokenism and didacticism.

The occult elements are still treated capably on the whole, but the entire feel of the story seemed shifted markedly in the direction of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files books: the protagonist team working under the aegis of an intelligence agency, the mathematical rationales for magical phenomena, and the fears about authority, all on a carrier wave of neo-yog-sothothery. The mid-20th-century setting is different than Stross’ frighteningly-up-to-date 21st, and Stross’ sarcastic hilarity is replaced with lucid griefs and affections, but the books now feel to me like very close cousins to one another.

My favorite parts of Winter Tide, for both entertainment and philosophical value, were the ones relating to the actual Yithian that Aphra discovers among the Miskatonic faculty and who becomes a key participant in the central plot. I also enjoyed the in-person appearances of mature Deep Ones. Emrys manages to construct the narration so that the reader can appreciate Aphra’s reverent affection for her relatives as well as the horror that they would present to a naive observer. But these accounts of exotic beings palpably manifesting in the story cause it to leave behind some of the subtlety that I found so affecting in “The Litany of Earth.”

I already own a copy of the next volume of Aphra’s story, Deep Roots, and I expect to enjoy it eventually. I wonder if it will signal as great a change from Winter Tide as that one did from the prior novella. Certainly the pace of current events and the author’s evident woke sensitivity to them will have brought more forces to bear on its composition.

The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich.

Reich The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Wilhelm Reich wrote The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1930-33 and revised and expanded it in 1942. He thus began it in an effort to explain the rise to power of the Nazis and other fascist parties of the interwar period, and developed it with a view to the likely demise of these particular governments and concern about what would succeed them. He also discussed the development of the Soviet system towards authoritarianism and away from its original socialist ideals. When I first read the book in the 1980s, it was fascinating as a piece of firsthand history, but my 2019 reread found me and contemporary society back in the position faced by Reich: the perplexing ascendancy of authoritarian governments throughout the “developed” world.

Reich is not a fan of “great man theories”–how could he be, when confronted with the “failed house painter” at the helm of Nazism? (How can we be, with our failed casino operator?) Nor does he attribute causal primacy to ideology or party programs; “National Socialism” was even more incoherent than the neoliberal capitalism of the Republican party. For Reich, the blame rests squarely with the mass population and their “character structure,” formed and reproduced through conditioning in the patriarchal home, the superstitious church, and the exploitative workplace. Such people possess a pervasive fear of freedom which is channeled into authoritarian politics. All other things being equal, then, fascism could be expected to regrow after the defeat of the Axis powers:

“Viewed with respect to man’s character, ‘fascism’ is the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life. It is the mechanistic-mystical character of modern man that produces fascist parties, and not vice versa.” (xiii, ital. in original)

Reich has an idiosyncratic use of the word translated here as “mysticism.” He seems to treat it as a synonym for metaphysical and superstitious thought, and rather than being a neighbor or subset of religion, it serves as a superset embracing various irrationalisms. At some points, though, he expressly defines it as sexual abstinence (140 e.g.). When using it in a more conventional sense, he scare-quotes the term:

“… religion’s attitude toward sexuality underwent a change in patriarchal society. Originally, it was a religion of sexuality; later it became an anti-sexual religion. The ‘mysticism’ of the primitives who were members of a sexually affirmative society is partially direct orgastic experience and partially animistic interpretation of natural processes.” (138)
“When sexual feelings and religious feelings became separated from one another, that which is sexual was forced to become the bad, the infernal, the diabolical.” (148)

Reich’s program for escaping the abiding hazard of totalitarianism is thus not focused on politics but pathology, what he calls the “emotional plague” of sexual self-revulsion that expresses itself in imperial projects of enslavement and war. In his own time, he endorsed and supported a campaign for “sex hygiene” that would affirm and protect the sexuality of children, believing that only a generation raised in this fashion could instigate the real social changes needed to transcend the cycle of internalized and projected hatreds. He found opposition to this effort in all established social factions, of course.

“‘Away from the animal; away from sexuality!’ are the guiding principles of the formation of all human ideology. This is the case whether it is the communist form of proletarian class honor, the Christian form of man’s ‘spiritual and ethical nature,’ or the liberal form of ‘higher human values.’ All these ideas harp on the same monotonous tune: ‘We are not animals; it was we who discovered the machine–not the animal! And we don’t have genitals like the animals!‘” (339) When Reich wrote that “Race ideology is the pure biopathic expression of the character structure of the orgastically impotent man” (xiv), he was discussing the racist social theories that “can have meaning only to a numbskull” (78). But the same ideological germ can be seen in mass monoculture farming, antibiotic abuse, and other blunders of our teetering civilization.

Reich’s social ideal is one that he insists is already extant in the fabric of everyday life, even though in some respects it seems as utopian as the anticipated socialism of Fourier or communist future of Marx. What Reich calls “work democracy” is the “voluntary association and self-government” that he claims to have been prevalent “in pagan society” (238) and persistent in practical work at the scale of the individual shop. He refuses to reduce it to a political ideology or an economic theory, instead asserting that it is nothing other than the proper organic social expression of humanity through meaningful participation.

“More than anything else it is a matter of changing the nature of work so that it ceases to be an onerous duty and becomes a gratifying fulfillment of a need.” (286, i.e. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”)

Lords of Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lords of Atlantis by Wallace West.

West Lords of Atlantis

Lords of Atlantis supplies a science-fictionalized euhemerism to classical mythology, characterizing the Olympian gods as the final generation of the human elite in a prehistoric Atlantean empire established by colonists returning from Mars. The city of Atlantis is located in a dry Mediterranean basin isolated from the Atlantic by a dam at what would be the straits of Gibraltar. Their technology functions on the basis of broadcast power generated from radioactive “orichalcum” and transmitted from the “Tower of Bab El.” In the course of the novel, an uprising among the Atlantean vassal states leads to the doom of the empire and Atlantis itself.

The book offers a typical assortment of Edgar Rice Burroughs-style fantasy-adventure tropes, and the prose reads something like a superhero comic from the early 1960s (when it was indeed first published). The character interactions must have seemed “modern” to mid-twentieth-century readers, but now read as dated and provincial. Paleological megafauna feature in unpersuasive ways, as the Egyptians have pterodactyl cavalry, and saber-toothed tigers roam the Mediterranean wilderness.

Twenty-one numbered chapters and an unnumbered “L’Envoi” tempted me to consider whether the tarot trumps might have been used in some way to structure the story, and I concluded that they were not. Most chapters have epigraphs, about half of which are from Plato’s writings on Atlantis. These don’t really elevate the tone of the story or lend it any real sophistication, but they do make it seem as if the author was perhaps taking it a little more seriously than it deserved.

Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark: A Guide to Summoning Spirits, Divining the Future, and Invoking the Supernatural by Lucia Peters.

Peters Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark

Dangerous Games to Play in the Dark is a curious little artifact. It’s pretty in a way that one expects to be on offer at Hot Topic: a duodecimo-sized hardcover with black paper-coated boards, small black and red type, and red page edges. The “games” in the book are a variety of practices assuming or implying paranormal influences, but largely devoid of metaphysical assertions. Author Lucia Peters’ introduction situates these historically in a descent from 19th-century spiritualism through parlor games to “sleepover” activities. In the end-matter, she cites her sources, the majority of which are online. There is an undertone of anthropological folklore study to the preliminary descriptions of these practices, but the text is structured as rules for twenty-four games, with a uniform title page for each specifying its “Risk level,” “Objective,” “Additional Warnings,” and “Reward.” The diction throughout is cautionary and portentous, patently intended to spook the reader. The imperative mood predominates.

None of the “games” are competitive, beyond the basic I dare you sensibility built in to the social context of their transmission. Some must be played alone, some require collaboration, and some are flexible about the number of players. The best-known of them is given in full detail at the outset: “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board,” which Peters traces back to the 17th century. It is easy to imagine that this particular practice has been passed down among children from the Middle Ages onward, or even from antiquity. While the physical hazards of these games are usually quite limited, with candle-flame standing out as a common one, their “dangerous” character will tend to stem from the psychological (or psychic?) condition of the players.

The subtitle characterizes the book’s content with reference to various occult practices: “Summoning Spirits, Divining the Future, and Invoking the Supernatural.” But as I mentioned above, there’s really precious little metaphysical baggage involved. To the extent that these games might have whole-cloth applicability for occultists, they will likely appeal most to surrealists, practitioners of chaos magick, and other non- or anti-traditional schools. As post-modern society descends into epistemic closure, “the dark” that is the context for games like these looks temptingly like an operating system prompt allowing the experimenter to run routines outside of the quotidian program of reality. Those who manage to injure or frighten themselves with practices from this book might seek relief in the safeguards of more traditional occultism, or even the mind-closing sorcery of conventional religions.

The safest way to consume this book is as mere textual entertainment, simply imagining what it might be like for someone to play these games. Treated in this fashion, it is a fast read supplying access to the “weird, creepy things” for which Peters expresses affection. Left to sit unread on the shelf, it remains small and attractive.

Stations of the Tide

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick.

Swanwick Stations of the Tide

Features that seem to have put other readers off of Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide were all to the good for me. The protagonist is nameless throughout, an interplanetary “bureaucrat” who reminded me more than a little of Michael Cisco’s “divinity student,” in that he is a cog in an opaque hierarchical machine, and his transformation–eventually quite radical–is the real aim of the narrative. Comparisons I’ve read to the work of Gene Wolfe also seem fair, although I was more reminded of The Fifth Head of Cerberus than I was of Wolfe’s New Sun opus. Metafictional anchors include Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Stations of the Tide juxtaposes sorcery (pharmaceutical, ritual, and meditative), high technology, and espionage/crime trickery, with lots of ambivalence about which is responsible at any given moment for the difficulties being presented. A key element of the high tech is “surrogacy” by which humans achieve telepresence through androids intended to simulate them as well as to sense the remote environments. This mechanism–which seems almost inevitable given the availability of the constituent technologies–tends to undermine characters’ individuality in provocative ways throughout the book. Also important is the Puzzle Palace, a shared virtual environment where the bureaucrat’s Division of Technology Transfer maintains its functional offices for interplanetary operations.

The setting is the planet Miranda orbiting the star Prospero, where humans have been resident for centuries in a settler-colonist capacity. Miranda undergoes catastrophic flooding of major land masses on a recurrent long-year period, and the story takes place just as such a “winter” is imminent, with whole continents being evacuated in anticipation of it. Much of the indigenous life has the ability to adapt to such changes, transforming with the great “tide.”

This book is one that demands careful reading and active interpretation; it’s not genre junk-food. It does repay the effort in vivid images and rich ideas.

The Enticement of Cindy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Enticement of Cindy: A Heady Brew of Luscious Ladies and Delectable Indiscretions by John Colleton.

Colleton The Enticement of Cindy

This book marks the first time I’ve been able to read one of the fourteen Cloris & Amy books of John Colleton following on its immediate predecessor (The Delights of Anna, in this case). I was surprised to find that the narrator had changed! The other books I’ve read all had Bill Benton–actually absent and only occasionally mentioned here–as the narrator. This book is “written by” John Dellmore in the way that the others I’ve read have been by Bill. Other than a brief detour to New York City, it takes place entirely in Charleston, and it is centered on John’s relationship to his aunt Amy. John is back from Oxford and about to embark on an unpromising academic career, but he is drawn into the “charmed circle” of Amy, Cloris, and their lucrative and lubricious projects.

The story proceeds with the help of many embedded texts, primarily Amy’s diary, in which the reader is offered the frisson of seeing through John’s eyes Amy’s private accounts of her early encounters with him, as he both indulges his own curiosity and uses the content as material for a screenplay. The screenplay draft itself is another component. There is also a snippet from a Bill Benton book (one of the other Cloris & Amy novels?) and various pieces of media reportage. Colleton flaunts some esoteric erudition with throwaway references to the Hashishin and Jakob Boehme in rather surreal news reports (214, 218).

Colleton succeeds in giving John a different voice than Bill, and I think I preferred it on the whole. John is conscious of his own unfortunate tendency towards dry academicism and defeats it fairly well. This younger narrator is however no less preternaturally fortunate in winning the attentions and affections of the women in the story. The eponymous Cindy is a former competitive diver and Las Vegas dancer who is being groomed as a candidate for public office, but she doesn’t even get a mention until past the midpoint of the novel. As is typical for these books, a subplot (superplot?) makes hay out of moral hypocrisy in politics, and the ending is comedic with some incidental violence helping to tie up the loose ends. Published in 1981, it definitely reflects the US culture of its time on a variety of levels.

Isis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Isis by Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, translated by Brian Stableford.

de Villiers de L'Isle Adam Stableford Isis

The proto-decadent short novel Isis was the first published prose composition of Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and has only recently been translated to English by Brian Stableford. Although the author’s dedication claims that the title “is the collective formula of a series of philosophical novels” projected to be written, none further followed, and “Isis” clearly alludes to the principal character Marchesa Tullia Fabriana.

It is noteworthy the extent to which this nineteenth-century work (set in the late eighteenth) anticipates and rehearses the tropes of the eventual modern superhero formula. Tullia is preternaturally learned, mystically initiated, and a superlative swordswoman. She has a trusty assistant/protege (recruited from orphaned destitution) and a secretly splendid headquarters. She routinely journeys out at the dead of night to aid the afflicted and heal the sick, under the anonymizing cover of a mask and specially-designed armor.

Unlike later crime-fighting capes tales, this book seems mostly unconcerned with plot, or at least fails to advance one very far. Short as it is, it indulges in some fine architectural description, anatomies of altered states of consciousness, and philosophical digressions. The style is reasonably abstruse, and its matter should be welcomed by those readers willing to tackle and appreciate classics of occult fiction such as Zanoni and Seraphita.

In the traditional Rosicrucian grade system, Tullia seems to be a rather accomplished Exempt Adept, perhaps a Babe of the Abyss. Her advancement to the grade of Master of the Temple in these terms would then be bound up with her encounter of the main viewpoint character Count Strally, a promising young man of parts who seems ready to accept her guidance.

Burning Bright

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier Burning Bright

The historical novel Burning Bright is set in London 1792-3, and features the factual persons of William Blake and Philip Astley. It centers on a family from Dorsetshire transplanted to the (to them) alien urban setting. Although I’m no specialist in the period, I’ve taken away a favorable impression of author Chevalier’s research and verisimilitude. Her characters’ words seem authentic and her narration incorporates their speech and their world smoothly. The device of the country Kellaway family learning about city life is an effective method of developing the setting. The Kellaway paterfamilias has come to London to work for Astley’s circus, and the Kellaway children become acquainted with their neighbors in Lambeth at Hercules Buildings, the Blakes. The innocent Kellaways are also juxtaposed with an experienced London underclass family, the Butterfields.

I would tend to class this story as a “comedy” in an old-fashioned sense: its principal focus is on lower-class protagonists, and the plot eventuates in an upbeat manner–though there are certainly elements that could be taken as subversive of the genre. It’s not overflowing with wit or slapstick, although there are some surprising turns.

Chevalier has developed her characters with generous sympathy, except for a few plain villains. The book reads quickly, with largish chapters named after the months of the period, and numbered subchapters to define digestible episodes. I came to this novel hoping to get a more vivid, storybook sense of the lived context of William Blake, and I think it did its job well. From the title onward, there are many opportunities seized to artfully incorporate Blake’s own words into the substance of the novel. Chevalier also provides a bibliography and overview of her historical sources in a helpful appendix.