Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Devourer Below

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devourer Below [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, cover by John Coulthart, book 5 of the Arkham Horror series.

Llewelyn-Wells The Devourer Below

The Devourer Below is the fifth volume of Arkham Horror fiction to be issued under the Aconyte imprint. While the previous four have been novels, this one is a collection of short stories by various authors. I was thus expecting a wide assortment of tales, joined only by their early 20th-century Arkham, Massachusetts setting and the involvement of assorted investigator characters from the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games. I was in fact pleasantly surprised to find that these stories are far more interrelated than that.

Players of Arkham Horror: The Card Game may recognize “The Devourer Below” as the title of the third and final scenario of “The Night of the Zealot,” the campaign included with that game’s core set. All of the stories in this book relate to that starter campaign, featuring the servitors of the Great Old One Umôrdhoth. (Umôrdhoth is based on Mordiggian, from Clark Ashton Smith’s story “The Charnel God.”) Such servitors are largely a mix of ghouls and human cultists.

Specific enemy characters from the card game campaign figure in the stories, as do the important investigator allies Leo De Luca and Lita Chantler. Investigator protagonists include Tony Morgan, Carolyn Fern, Joe Diamond, Daisy Walker, Agnes Baker, Wendy Adams, and Finn Edwards. On the whole, I found the enemy-focused stories more satisfying than the investigator-centric ones, but I liked both and appreciated the variety.

As a suite of connected tales of yog-sothothery, The Devourer Below is just fine. As a supplement to the Arkham Horror games, it is good. As an amplification of the core set adventure cycle in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, it is very good.

This book appends a “tease” reprint of the opening chapter of Ari Marmell’s Arkham Horror novel Litany of Dreams, oddly included in the table of contents as if it were one of the stories written for this volume. It also sports the third Arkham Horror fiction cover art by John Coulthart. I like these highly detailed multi-panel covers a lot.

The Sources of Religious Insight

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sources of Religious Insight [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Josiah Royce.

Royce The Sources of Religious Insight

I found this 1912 book to be surprisingly worthwhile. It’s a set of lectures by Harvard academic Josiah Royce, with a scope situated somewhere between philosophy of religion and religious psychology. It is not theological or sectarian. When Royce observed that “It is useless to make some new sect whose creed shall be that there are to be no sects” (294), I could not help thinking with amusement that he was indicting the Plymouth Brethren, just such a sect, as well as their “non-denominational” successors among “Bible-believing” Christians.

Speaking during the later part of the Progressive Era, Royce refers to William James as “my dear friend” (27), and particularly in the book’s fourth section “The World and the Will” he is at some pains to explain how his views both accord with and differ with those attributed to philosophical Pragmatism. In an earlier section on “Individual Experience and Social Experience” he also details his particular understanding of James’ theory of religion, as well as providing a surprisingly generous and sympathetic gloss on Nietzsche’s “Titanism” (60 ff.).

Although Royce’s willingness to class Christianity and Buddhism as the “higher religions of mankind” (8) and his use of the search for human “salvation” as the touchstone of religion as such seem like stigma of a thinker with whom I would find few if any points of agreement, he develops his argument with a good deal of care and patience. In the culmination of his fifth lecture “The Religion of Loyalty,” he arrives at what I consider to be cardinal truth: “For our attention is now fixed, not on a condition to be called salvation, but on a rule for doing something in accordance with our own true will” (188). Before the lecture concludes, he progresses from this pivot to insisting that “your true cause is the spiritual unity of all the world of reasonable beings” (205, italics in original).

The final lecture is concerned with what Royce calls “The Invisible Church” which transcends all limited doctrines and specific cultures, although he gives no signal of having drawn on esoteric thinkers such as Eckartshausen and Lopukhin for his use of this phrase. Royce is sufficiently scrupulous in his avoidance of theological identification that it is impossible to tell if he originally took “Invisible Church” from the contexts in which it has been used as a gloss on Augustinian anti-Donatist notions supposed to be common to all Western Christianity, or if he was specially receptive to the Protestant usage which allowed for institutional legitimation via a supra-historical avoidance of Roman Catholicism. In any event, Royce uses it in neither sense, and he is explicit that he extends “membership” in the Invisible Church to those “loyal” to non-Christian religions, as well as to the “cynics and rebels” who attack “the narrowness of our nature, the chaos of our unspiritual passions, the barren formalism of our conventions” (285).

So, while there are any number of points where I feel my views to be in friction with those of Royce, I found his treatment on the whole to be both coherent and productive of useful reflection. I would recommend it to clergy, scholars of religion, and others willing to give serious thought to its questions.

Giraffes on Horseback Salad

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Giraffes on Horseback Salad: Salvador Dalí, the Marx Brothers, and the Strangest Movie Never Made [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Josh Frank, with Tim Heidecker, illo. Manuela Pertega.

Frank Heidecker Pertega Giraffes on Horseback Salad

As an admirer of both the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dalí (and who isn’t?) I was surprised that I had never heard of their abortive Hollywood film project Giraffes on Horseback Salad until finding this book, which resurrects and fulfills it in the form of a graphic novel. In the “unmade movies” department of my cultural awareness, it now has a roost next to the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which also involves Dalí, strangely enough.

Josh Frank is responsible for the research and reconstruction of the film from the preliminary script, studio pitch, and notes by Dalí, and he also supplies most of the front matter and end matter with notes on his process, history of the project, Dalí’s relevant biography, and related speculation. There is also a note from comedian Tim Heidecker, who helped to flesh out the reconstructed feature, and a short essay on “Dalí and Harpo” by Bill Marx, Harpo’s son.

The artist for the central graphic novel is Manuela Pertega. Her drawings are expressive and effective, and I was especially pleased by the large full-page panels and two-page spreads depicting irruptions of the surreal. Her ability to represent the Marx Brothers as comics characters unfortunately falls well short of the lofty standard set by Dave Sim in Cerebus, but is nevertheless a reasonable success. Happily, she is in no way constrained by cinematic feasibility of the 1930s. It would be a treat to see a short based on her visual imagination in one of the more extreme scenes, now that digital effects make nearly any concept realizable on the screen.

Dalí’s “film” tells the story of Jimmy, an expatriate Spanish aristocrat in the US, who is torn between the forces of mundane power and transformative dream, represented in the persons of his fiancée Linda and the mysterious Woman Surreal, respectively. It includes several musical numbers, designed after the American stage and cinematic tradition to be easily abstracted from their narrative context. Although there is no musical scoring in the book, the verses are hypothetically realized with never-written tunes by Cole Porter.

I enjoyed this book for its historical perspectives and creative efforts.

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Lin Carter.

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter

I read The Wizard of Lemuria in its “revised and expanded” second edition, in which author Lin Carter added back passages originally cut from his first published novel. He mentions in his foreword that although it was his first book published, it was his seventh novel written, and I dread to contemplate the six rejected ones! Although “expanded,” it is still a short book I was able to read in three or four sittings. The copy I have is falling apart at the spine, and I thought I should read it while the pages were still in their proper sequence.

This sword-and-sorcery yarn is an undemanding read with no original ideas detectable in it whatsoever. Protagonist Thongor is a Conan clone: a black-maned Northlander who “in the years of his wanderings and wars as a vagabond, hired assassin, thief, and now mercenary, … had learned every trick of swordplay with every type of weapon” (13). He is evidently destined for a throne as well. He mistrusts wizards, but finds himself allied to one for the central quest of the story, which involves a threat to the entire universe typical of superhero comic book conflict escalation. The setting is the ancient continent of Lemuria, with a prefaced map in Carter’s own hand that is nevertheless entirely unhelpful in illustrating the geography relevant to the adventures in the text.

Every chapter has an epigram from an imagined Lemurian text, and most of these are in verse. There is also some poetry integrated into the text, as Thongor is fond of “roar[ing] out the harsh staves of his Valkarthan war song” (75) as he does battle. These ditties are surprisingly tolerable.

The pacing and structure of the book owe more to Edgar Rice Burroughs than to Robert E. Howard. It is episodic with cliffhangers often featuring capture and/or unconsciousness as transitional devices. Thongor acquires a companion named Karm Karvus (cf. Tars Tarkas of Barsoom). Malevolent priesthoods supply multiple villains, although Carter terms these “druids.” At the end of the book, Thongor pledges himself to the political cause of the princess Sumia, who is herself smitten with him and not ambitious for worldly power.

The Jeff Jones cover art for this 1969 edition is better than the book’s contents, and does not actually depict a scene from the novel. There are evidently another five Thongor books, but on the evidence of this one I will not be seeking them out.

Tracts on Aquarian Masonry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tracts on Aquarian Masonry [Amazon, Lulu] by Marcelo Ramos Motta, edited by Dominick Bruno.

Motta Bruno Tracts on Ancient Masonry

The phrase “Aquarian Masonry” does not appear in the papers collected here, two of which are far longer than current usage of the term “tract” might suggest. My inference is that editor Dominick Bruno Jr. used “Aquarian Masonry” in the book’s title as a circumlocution for Society Ordo Templi Orientis, i.e. author Marcelo Motta’s idiosyncratic and unauthorized reconstruction of Aleister Crowley’s O.T.O. The three principal documents under this cover were all preliminary instructional materials for S.O.T.O., as the fourth–its 1980 manifesto–makes explicit. That manifesto also demonstrates how far Motta’s reworking of the O.T.O. system deviated from its plan in Crowley’s “Blue Equinox” of 1918 (a document conspicuously absent from the bibliography appended to this book) and his later papers and rituals.

The body of Tracts on Aquarian Masonry begins with “Letter to a Brazilian Mason,” dated 1963, but evidently twice revised and expanded, with the S.O.T.O. version of 1977 being the basis of the current text. The epistolary form of the document represents an unfulfilled plea to someone with influence in Brazilian Freemasonry, to avoid a rapprochement between that organization and the Roman Catholic Church. Accordingly, much of the letter is taken up with indictments of Roman Catholicism and an exposure of its origins. On the whole, I found myself sympathetic to its argument. While some its views on Atlantean “history” seemed a bit fanciful, its mythicist approach to Christianity is more coherent and creditable than some of the sources that it cites, and it is consistent with Crowley’s positions and the Thelemic reception of “true Christianity.” Motta does err in implying that Protestantism in any way ameliorates the ills of exoteric Christian tradition (42). The relative cultural and technological superiority of Protestant countries does not result from their Protestantism; the causation works in the other direction. Protestantism is a necessary adaptation to social advances so that the Great Sorcery can continue to afflict countries trying to escape its grasp.

Motta’s claim that the Masonic 33° initiate is the potential equivalent of a Minor Adept (5=6) in the A∴A∴ system (18) was one I had not seen before, but it aligns with Crowley’s remark that the fully realized O.T.O. IX° is comparable to “a very fine and balanced 6=5” (i.e. Major Adept). I was a little surprised at Motta’s carelessness in referencing the exchange from Crowley v Constable and Co. in which he explained his occult identity as “Little Sunshine,” but without mentioning the number 666 that makes the explanation intelligible (27).

The second Motta paper collected here is “Thelemic Political Morality.” It is a rather short essay with provocative reflections on law and government. Reading it in the US of 2021, it seems particularly timely because of this emphasized concern: “We should therefore repeal, with the greatest indignation, any attempt at presenting the history of our nation ‘expurgated’ of crimes, outrages, and false ambitions: we must demand that our children be allowed to learn the errors of their ancestors, and the motives behind these errors” (53-4).

The third of these papers is “On the Political Purposes,” formerly titled “Of the Political Aims of the O.T.O.” US readers may find some passages in this essay a little opaque, owing to Motta’s orientation to his own Brazilian context. For example, he refers repeatedly to the “festive left” (i.e. esquerda festiva). Still, that particular political coloration has a close counterpart in the “liberal” protest culture of the 21st-century US. I find Motta’s ultimate conclusions in this paper to be somewhat defective; he reckons with neither the cascading effects of industrialization on the physical environment nor the neoliberal exaltation of the hero CEO in the invidious ascent of the cartels. The essay is still an instructive example of the application of Thelemic principles to organizational and social thought. Of course, it in no way supplies authentic details to the political positions of today’s O.T.O. adepts.

Bruno claims to have improved the typography of the original documents in this print-on-demand edition, and since I have not seen the originals from which he was working, I’m willing to credit that it may be so. Still, the layout and production of this book are amateurish. The contents are however of great and continuing value to Thelemites and historians of Thelema.

The Drug and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Drug and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Aleister Crowley.

Crowley Breeze The Drug and Other Stories

The extremely wide assortment of tales in The Drug and Other Stories includes some with a double role as technical instruction in magick or significant mythopoeia for Thelemic culture. These include Liber XLV “The Wake World,” a qabalistic fairy-tale; Liber LXI, “Tien Tao,” a political and psychological parable; Liber LI, “Atlantis: The Lost Continent,” an antediluvian mystery, and Liber LIX, “Across the Gulf,” a tale of Ankh-f-n-Khonsu in ancient Egypt. Many of the stories with contemporary settings and conventional narrative style feature actual persons and anecdotes from Crowley’s life only superficially fictionalized.

Là-Bas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Là-Bas [Amazon, Bookshop, Gutenburg, Local Library] by Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Huysmans Là-Bas

When Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote Là-Bas (published in 1891), he was already notorious for his seminal novel of decadence Au Rebours. Là-Bas introduces Huysmans’ autobiographical protagonist Durtal as a medievalist antiquarian. In the course of his researches into the fifteenth-century diabolist Gilles de Rais, Durtal becomes aware of and then infiltrates a modern Satanist sect. This book was a literary success, and its sale was banned in French railway stations.

The arch-Satanist of the book, Canon Docre, was based by Huysmans on an actual clergyman from Bruges, while an opposed character, the mystic Doctor Johannes, was modeled on the heretic priest Joseph-Antoine Boullan. When Huysmans met him, Boullan had recently assumed the governance of a neo-Gnostic sect first organized by Eugene Vintras.

Huysmans had networked among the occultists of his day, including Gerard Encausse and his neo-Martinist set and others associated with the Kabbalistic Rose-Croix of Peladan. But he alienated himself from all of these when he unwittingly chose sides in an ongoing feud between Boullan and the neo-Rosicrucians, with the latter chiefly represented by Stanislas de Gauita and Oswald Wirth. Involving himself in this scene, Huysmans experienced a delicious paranoia that the novel communicates beautifully.

Boullan died in 1893 and Huysmans’ friend Jules Bois accused the Paris Rosicrucians of having magically assassinated him. So the conflict persisted.

Five years after the publication of Là-Bas Arthur Edward Waite wrote that Monsieur Huysmans “has given currency to the Question of Lucifer, has promoted it from obscurity to into prominence, and has made it the vogue of the moment.” That moment, of course, was the acme of the Palladist conspiracy theory of Leo Taxil, postulating an elite of satanic sex-fiends at the heart of global freemasonry.

A generation later, when Aleister Crowley issued a reading list for his students, he called Là-Bas “An account of the extravagances caused by the Sin-complex.” In addition, it is valuable to latter-day Thelemites for its sardonic humor, its intuitions about certain features of Eucharistic magick, and its veiled references to historical antecedents of the EGC rite.

Ravalette

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ravalette: The Rosicrucian’s Story [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Paschal Beverly Randolph.

Randolph Ravalette

Paschal Beverly Randolph was an esoteric organizer: the head of the Brotherhood of Eulis and first founder of modern American Rosicrucianism. Clearly presented in the style and format of a fictional novel, his Ravalette is nevertheless full of autobiographical detail. Randolph writes in the voice of an anonymous Editor, telling tales of himself in the third person as a mysterious Rosicrucian personage named Beverly, whose adventures are full of characters with multiple identities. He represents Spiritualists as deluded by elemental spirits posing falsely as spirits of the dead—a doctrine later endorsed by the Theosophical society and other nineteenth-century occultists.

The novel climaxes with a long-anticipated episode in which Beverly is made to undergo the “sacred slumber of Sialam Boaghiee,” a trance in which he utters assorted prophecies. This “sleep of Sialam” recurs in Randolph’s occult instructions, and seems to have been taken up from there by the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, along with mentions in Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. It is evidently the same “infinite sleep and lucid, the sleep of Shi-lo-am” in Aleister Crowley’s Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente.

Ravalette explicitly allows for the sort of Rosicrucian immortality described in Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni, but the novel is premised on an epic tale of reincarnation, where Beverly is redeeming and accomplishing the work of ages through a series of embodiments on the material plane. It is thus in the vanguard of a micro-genre of reincarnation romance that became popular In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Ravalette is also a seminal instance of fictionalized occult autobiography. Later examples that appear to be indebted to it include Maria Naglowska’s Sacred Rite of Magical Love and Franz Bardon’s Frabato the Magician.

Zanoni

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Zanoni [Amazon, Bookshop, Internet Archive, Local Library] by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Lytton Zanoni

Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni romanticized Rosicrucianism for 19th-century readers, and it became a staple of occultist bookshelves. It tells the story of a Rosicrucian adept in the 18th century whose use of the elixir of life has sustained him since the ancient Babylonian empire, and who ultimately sacrifices his magical immortality.

Zanoni refers to the adept’s Holy Guardian Angel or personal genius as “Adonai,” a usage later adopted by both Anna Kingsford and Aleister Crowley, among others. Golden Dawn founder MacGregor Mathers first became interested in the occult after reading Zanoni. He used “Zanoni” as a nickname; his wife and close friends called him “Zan” in conversation.

Zanoni also depicts an ordeal involving “The Guardian of the Threshold.” Madame Blavatsky would evolve this phrase into “the Dweller of the Threshold,” specifically citing Zanoni, and she affirmed the reality of the phenomenon, also referencing “Porphyry and other philosophers” regarding its nature. Blavatsky was so taken with the occult descriptions in Zanoni that the first volume of her Isis Unveiled quotes the novel for more than a full page. “Such,” she writes, “is the insufficient sketch of elemental beings void of divine spirit, given by one whom many with reason believed to know more than he was prepared to admit in the face of an incredulous public” (IU, I, 286).

Crowley later took up this thread in Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente, chapter IV, verse 34: “On the threshold stood the fulminant figure of Evil … .” In his commentary, he relates this figure explicitly to Zanoni’s exposition of “the Evil Persona, the Dweller on the Threshold, portrayed sensationally for the trade by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton.”

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Zanoni on occultists in the late 19th century, and the extent to which it was credited as an informed representation of magical adeptship.

The Life and Death of Conan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Barbarian, Book One: The Life and Death of Conan [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mahmud Asrar, Jason Aaron, & al., book 1 of the Conan the Barbarian (2019-) series.

Asrar Aaron Conan the Barbarian The Life and Death of Conan

This trade paperback collects the first six issues of the new iteration of the Conan the Barbarian title at Marvel Comics. Writer Jason Aaron and principal artist Mahmud Asrar appear to be accomplished creators within the contemporary Marvel operation, and they both do competent work here. I’m not really blown away the way that I was in the early numbers of the Dark Horse run back in 2003-4, but I did find these new comics to be quick and satisfying reading. It does seem like there’s an attempt to strike a balance between the tone of the original Marvel run and the Dark Horse title.

Aaron hits a few clinkers with his language, but on the whole his Conan seems more faithful to Howard’s original hero than most of the pastiche novel Conans have been (to say nothing of the movies). Each issue starts with the same Nemedian Chronicles quote (“… when the oceans drank Atlantis yada yada …”) and a full-continent Hyborian Age map highlighted to show the location of that number’s principal adventure.

This collection has stories set throughout Conan’s life, using as a framing device young Conan’s encounter with a malevolent witch who returns to kill him in sacrifice to her arch-demon benefactor many years later when Conan is king of Aquilonia. Whether she succeeds (as implied in the “Life and Death of” title of the book) is left unresolved at the end of the sixth issue.

Appended to the reprinted contents is a vast gallery of alternate cover art. For the first issue alone, there were at least a dozen covers. I really have to wonder if this now venerable publishing gimmick is really serving any purpose. Are readers foolish enough to buy multiple copies for the different covers? Well, I guess I represent the opposite extreme, since I waited for the trade collection and then borrowed it from the public library.