Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Devil’s Footsteps

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Footsteps: A Dr. Caspian Novel of Horror by John Burke.

Burke The Devil's Footsteps

When I picked up this mass-market paperback in a used book store, it looked like a cheesy contemporary occult thriller from the 1970s. I was mistaken, and the book amply exceeded my expectations for it. It is in fact a Victorian period piece featuring a stage magician who is a skeptical member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) along with an actually telepathic Welsh photographer. They meet in the rural village of Hexney, where the “Devil’s footprints” of the title are a parapsychological manifestation and there’s something sinister about the local traditions.

Although more contemporary in its pacing and voice, this book has distinct commonalities with Arthur Machen’s better work (e.g. “The Shining Pyramid”) and Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan. A cinematic comparandum might be the original Wicker Man. It most reminded me of the later and longer novel by Ramsey Campbell The Hungry Moon.

The magician Doctor Caspian also turns out to be something of a kabbalist, having had some mystical initiation in Prague, although the emphasis on seven sephiroth was a little peculiar. (The narrator names only five: Kether, Chokmah, Binah, Hod, and Yesod.) A couple of chapters near the middle of the book detail Caspian’s competition with and exposure of some mercenary Spiritualists in London; these events are mostly by way of character development, but they were a high point of the tale for me.

The photographer is a woman who has taken on her father’s intellectual pursuits, and she struck a note similar to that of the young Amelia Peabody in the mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. A significant arc of the book is the development of a romantic interest between the two protagonists. . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Some of the representations of metaphysical evil in this book show influence of yog-sothothery, but none of the telltale names of entities or tomes occur to subordinate it to that “mythos.” All in all, it was a solid little novel of weird horror.

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles by Dennis R MacDonald.

MacDonald Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? is a sequel to author Dennis MacDonald’s Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. MacDonald is a scholar of both New Testament Greek and classical literature, and he is in a surprisingly marginal position in advocating for recognition of the direct literary influence of the Greek classics in the Greek Christian scriptures. This second book allows him to extend his thesis considerably and to answer the critics of his earlier work. He generally classes his intellectual opposition as the proponents of “form criticism,” who want to attribute textual similarities to shared genres and “traditional” tropes, as opposed to what MacDonald represents as mimesis (imitation) and authorial craft.

MacDonald is on very firm ground in proposing mimesis as a key ingredient of ancient composition, since many classical texts do instruct writers in this process as well as demonstrate it. In this book, he focuses on four examples where he maintains that “Luke” (the author of Acts) drew on the Illiad for literary substance in tales about the apostles Peter, Paul, and Matthias. (The Illiad was easily the most popular model for literary emulation in antiquity.) Since these particular biblical stories have no corroboration in ancient historical documents, scholars have generally assigned “traditional” or “legendary” provenance to their accounts. MacDonald is able to demonstrate methodically, however, that they have identifiable literary sources in Homer and that mimesis accounts for details that are difficult to reconcile with the usual explanations of these texts.

MacDonald sets out six criteria to support mimetic authorship, and evaluates them in full for each of his cases. The third and fourth of these are the density and sequence of textual similarities, and these are illustrated throughout the book with parallel columns from the Illiad and the Acts of the Apostles. For those able to work with the original language, there is a 12-page appendix giving all of this matter in the original Greek. There are also some Latin texts, used to illustrate mimesis of Homer by other classical authors.

In his introduction, the author raises an important question: “If Homeric influence on the Gospels and Acts is so extensive and significant, why … in two centuries of critical scrutiny have modern scholars not recognized it?” (13) He gives a number of reasonable answers, invoking Thomas Kuhn’s notion of disciplinary paradigms and pointing to specializations of method in the field of New Testament studies. These could be usefully supplemented, though, with the arguments of Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which describe the processes by which a crypto-theological agenda has captured religious scholarship, particularly excluding the consideration of “pagan” sources for Christian beliefs and practices.

On the jacket copy of Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Mary Tolbert is quoted as saying that MacDonald’s earlier work “poses a profound challenge to current scholarship on the history of early Christianity and the historical Jesus.” In his conclusion to this volume, MacDonald declares that Luke “was by no means a credulous editor of tradition but a sophisticated author; it is we, his readers, who have been naïve” (146-7). For all we know, there was a historical Pinocchio, who in some way informed or inspired the work of Carlo Collodi–and thus all his later adapters and imitators. But it is not any underlying “facts” (however unverifiable) that make Pinocchio’s story compelling and relevant. MacDonald is absolutely right to turn the reader’s attention to the literary craft of the writers of scripture.

A Princess of Roumania

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park.

Park A Princess of Roumania

A Princess of Roumania is the opening of a multi-volume fantasy work by Paul Park. It is an ambitious portal fantasy, with a protagonist who is a teenage girl–in our world, anyway. It postulates a reality of which ours is a disposable alternative. It’s an interesting match for my recent viewing of the (commendable) first two seasons of the Amazon television series based on PKD’s Man in the High Castle. In the world where Roumania and Germany struggle for supremacy in Europe, sorcery is possible (though illicit) and mastodons roam a barely-settled North America. The means of transition from one world to the other is a book, with considerable metafictional implication (again, compare The Man in the High Castle).

The heroine Miranda is named after the author’s daughter, and the New England town where the story starts is a match for one in which the author has lived. I was alerted to these para-autobiographical elements by John Crowley’s essay on Park’s fantasy (included in the book Totalitopia), and it was this essay that led me to read the book in the first place. Miranda is reasonably sympathetic, but the strongest characterization in the book is for the villain (?) Baroness Ceaucescu. The omniscient narrator jumps around quite a lot, and the two main viewpoint threads are those for Miranda and the Baroness.

I liked this book very much, and while it would probably satisfy the YA fantasy market these days, it seemed like mature fare to me. It is, as I mentioned at the outset, only a beginning. Despite its considerable length, there is little resolution of the plot, although there are some deaths of principal characters and other crucial events. I expect to continue reading this work, borrowing the subsequent volumes from the public library in due course, while I hope to pass on my copy of the first one to a sympathetic reader.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D Ehrman.

Ehrman Forged

Bart D. Ehrman is an accomplished and eminent scholar of biblical criticism. He is one of those “liberal” thinkers who has been able to get past the fiction that Jesus was a god, but not the contrivance that he was a man. In Forged Ehrman treats the subject of authorial mendacity in early Christian literature, not excepting the New Testament canon. As he demonstrates, there are scores of ancient Christian texts whose authors willfully misrepresent their identities, and are thus forgeries. He does carefully distinguish such forgery from false or merely erroneous attributions, all of which have been lumped customarily into the category of “pseudepigraphal” writings.

Ehrman importantly addresses the widespread misconceptions that the ancient world somehow possessed a more benign view of literary forgery, falsification, and plagiarism. As he shows, there are ancient writings which remonstrate against these practices. Just like modern readers, those of antiquity expected authors to represent themselves accurately in their texts.

In the final chapter of the book, Ehrman even jumps forward to the modern period with three examples of Christian pseudepigrapha from the 19th century, to demonstrate that the behavior we see in writings from early Christianity isn’t alien to the sort of forgeries that have been created in later ages.

Forgery holds out as an “irony” the contrast between the stated ideal of Christianity in communicating divinely-ordained truth and the actual literary practices of the authors of Christian scripture. In his recurring discussions of motive, Ehrman tends to gloss over the obvious possibility that many, perhaps most, of these writers were in fact not sincere as they tampered with the facts in order to promote their preferred sects and doctrines.

While informed by extensive research and supplying references for further study, Forged is itself a popularizing rather than a scholarly book. It is a fast read and a valuable orientation to the realities of biblical authorship in the Christian world.

Mention My Name in Atlantis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mention My Name in Atlantis by John Jakes.

Jakes Mention My Name in Atlantis

Mention My Name in Atlantis is a short novel cast as a first-person narrative about the destruction of the ancient island city-state from the perspective of Hoptor the Vintner, an accomplished pander and blackmailer. It does not in any way take itself seriously. Although there is no supernatural magic in the book, its place is supplied by the super-science of visiting extra-terrestrial humanoids from the world of Zorop. The sword-and-sorcery genre is also invoked through the key supporting character of Conax the Chimerical, an evident spoof of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

As a fantasy, Mention My Name in Atlantis is certainly negligible. As a comedy, it won more wry smiles than actual laughs from me.

Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover.

Coover Briar Rose and Spanking the Maid

This book is made up of two shortish fictions by Robert Coover. Both are in the form of literary fugues, assemblages of repetitive scene elements and narrative motives centered on a pair of main characters. In Briar Rose, the two are the titular Sleeping Beauty (“Briar Rose” in the original märchen) and her prince–although the villainous crone also figures as a presence, and the whole thing is so suffused with the logic of dream that it’s tempting to dismiss everyone but the sleeper as mere dream-images. The production reminded me more than a little of Angela Carter’s reconstructed fairy tales.

Dreams also figure in Spanking the Maid, in which the nameless employer wakes from troubled rest each day to find fault with the maid and to register his disapproval on her backside. In their striving for perfection–she in her duties and he in his disciplining of her–they each have a further context of rank to which their minds stray: he dreams of his days as a student in school, being instructed by a teacher, and she muses theologically with snatches of hymns and prayers. Both are governed by “the manuals” in their strivings towards a seemingly pointless perfection. In his introduction to this edition, John Banville interprets Spanking the Maid as an allegory of the creative process and writing itself, but I’m not entirely persuaded by his reading.

I read this book in conditions sympathetic to its content: a dozen or so pages at a go, waking in the middle of the night at home for Briar Rose, and retiring or rising in hotel rooms during travel for Spanking the Maid. I can’t claim anything like an analytical appreciation for the texts, but I suspect there is still one to be had. There’s not really any story offered by either, just a sort of narrative vertigo with psychological flavoring.

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.