Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Mystery of the Letters and The Tree of Life

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystery of the Letters and The Tree of Life: Interrelationships Among Symbols in the Aeon of the Child [Amazon, J D Holmes, Publisher] by Robert C Stein.

Stein The Mystery of the Letters and the Tree of Life

This book by Robert C. Stein is a recent development of the Hermetic Qabala in a Thelemic context, comprehending the study of several specific “Class A” documents of Aleister Crowley’s canon, i.e. scriptures “of which may be changed not so much as the style of a letter.” It is valuable but difficult. It will be bewilderingly useless to anyone who does not already have a qabalistic practice and orientation to magick, because it is narrowly focused on “interrelationships among symbols” with very little information about any empirical phenomena to which those symbols might refer.

A helpful comparandum in this case is the later work of Charles Stansfeld Jones (e.g. The Egyptian Revival), in which he posited and elaborated a “Reformed Order” of the paths on the Tree of Life, completely rearranging the traditional attributions. This effort met with justified derision from Aleister Crowley. Stein does not scrap the old correspondences; in fact he preserves them more rigorously than Crowley did when proposing the “heh-tzaddi switch” in The Book of Thoth. He does, however, advance the relevance of a “Quantum Tree” that complements and expands the received model, based on novel readings of the “Class A” literature. Like Jones, Stein works with the symbols themselves as reified, objective entities, seeking to define their correct arrangement in light of symbolic contexts only.

The first full chapter of the book consists primarily of an edition history of Liber AL vel Legis, and this chapter is perhaps the one which I could most easily recommend to a general, non-technical readership. The three most substantial chapters are each oriented around exegesis of a different Class A text: Liber Trigrammaton, Liber Legis, and Liber CCXXXI. I found the Liber Trigrammaton study very stimulating, and it is foundational for Stein’s concept of the Quantum Tree. Thelemites should be intrigued to know that his treatment of Liber Legis promises elucidation of the cryptographic elements in each of the three chapters: the “glyph” of I:57, the “riddle” of II:75-6, and the “key” of III:47. The chapter on Liber CCXXXI devotes some welcome attention to the actual verses of the book, along with larger and clearer reproductions of the sigils and discussions of their possible meaning. I was not always persuaded by the philological analyses of the names of the spirits, however.

Some appendices supply references and treat isolated problems in the context established by the book. One of these vividly illustrates Stein’s general method: a discussion of the first word of the third chapter of Liber Legis. Noting a manuscript irregularity, Stein suggests that “Abrahadabra” is inaccurate in this case, and that “Ahaahadabra” is a “closer transliteration” (although the ambiguous r/a character is clearly filled in a way that other letters a in the manuscript are not). From this observation he goes on to perform gematria and analysis towards a meaning for “Ahaahadabra” distinct from “Abrahadabra.”

In the end, The Mystery of the Letters does not give explanations that will make these documents and symbols important to anyone who does not already value them. But for those who do, it outlines some original and provocative readings and methods of analysis.

The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphlius reviews The Dark Rites of Cthulhu: Horrific Tales of Magic and Madness from 16 Modern Masters of Terror! [Bookshop, Amazon] edited by Brian M Sammons, illustrated by Neil Baker, with Glynn Owen Barrass, Edward M Erdelac, John Goodrich, Scott T Goudsward, T E Grau, C J Henderson, Tom Lynch, William Meikle, Christine Morgan, Robert M Price, Pete Rawlik, Josh Reynolds, Brian M Sammons, Sam Stone, Jeffrey Thomas, and Don Webb.

Sammons The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

A fairly slender volume containing sixteen stories of liturgical Yog-Sothothery, The Dark Rites of Cthulhu featured only four authors previously familiar to me, so I was grateful for the appended “About the Authors” info. The stories are reasonably solid throughout. Some do sort of stretch the category of ritual magic, such as one oriented around martial arts (“Of Circles and Rings” by Tom Lynch). A few are detective stories oriented around ritual murders. There is considerable variety of flavor within the “magic” field, encompassing voodoo, online cult recruitment, and stage magic, among others.

Most of these tales don’t bother with Arkham and Lovecraft country, though some do, and a few even go so far as to include or reference specific characters from Grandpa Cthulhu’s “ritual literature” (so-called by Michel Houellebecq). The Lovecraft stories that most conspicuously served as references in this assortment were “The Dunwich Horror” (of course) and “From Beyond.”

“The Dark Horse” by John Goodrich is set in a stars-were-right post-apocalyptic regime of human dispossession. Edward Erdelac’s story “Black Tallow” lost points from me initially by misspelling the name Aleister Crowley, but ultimately redeemed itself with a credible representation of pathological contemporary ceremonial magic, along with lovely Club Dumas bibliophile fan service.

I read this book slowly over several months, since there is no continuity from story to story. It’s a decent collection of new weird fiction built around specialized themes that are of particular to interest to me, and I was satisfied by it.

Epiphany of the Long Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Epiphany of the Long Sun: The Second Half of The Book of the Long Sun [Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe Epiphany of the Long Sun

The closing arc of the Long Sun series is this Epiphany, comprising Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. As in the prior New Sun series, our protagonist ascends to political sovereignty before arriving at apotheosis. A key difference, mentioned in my review of Litany of the Long Sun, is that he is not the narrator. The fictive authorship of these Long Sun books is in fact established in the final volume. That turn is handled artfully in a concluding “Defense,” and then cleverly undermined in a subsequent “Afterward” (sic).

Where the earlier part of the series seemed to bring the relations between bios and chems into relief, there was a significant emphasis in this one on speaking animal characters: the bird Oreb and the cat Tick. As I understand many readers to have done, I became a great fan of Oreb. Tick was mostly irritating.

Much of these last two books concerned the increasing intensity of political and military relations between the city-states of Viron and Trivigaunte. Their cultures and technologies are very distinct, and these supply a lot of fuel to the plot.

There was a good deal of positive development of the characters from the Chapter that supplied Viron with its religious officials. Both Incus and Remora–with their respective verbal idiosyncrasies–underwent a fair amount of rehabilitation in this second arc. An important Patera Jerboa was introduced, and there was new and interesting information about the Sybils Mint and Marble. A startling explanation was supplied very late for the enigmas surrounding the Prolocutor Patera Quetzal.

I disagree with some other readers who insist that the Long Sun tale of Patera Silk is subordinated to author Wolfe’s Catholic Christian agenda. While it’s undeniably true that Vironese religion draws on biblical materials and the history of both Catholic practices and the pagan religions with which Christianity has competed and participated in cultural exchange, I don’t think that the story of the Vironese “Exodus” is just a rehash of the Hebrew one with Silk as Moses. Silk’s personal patron deity the Outsider is certainly meant to reference the God of Christianity, but there’s little evidence that the Outsider will enjoy any ultimate success, and Silk seems to be significantly reconciled (an understatement?) with Pas in the final book. The “Prophet Auk” is perhaps even more in the position of Moses, but at the behest of Tartaros. The Triviguantis are shown as being culpably monotheistic with their exclusive reverence of Sphigx, which is an interesting turn.

For some reason, it wasn’t until I had finished reading the whole series that I realized the actual point of future-historical intersection with (or divergence from, rather) the New Sun books, which was signaled by the two-headed Pas, father of the gods of Viron and its Whorl.

It appears that the Short Sun books take up as pretty direct sequels to the Long Sun, and I will read them this year.

Red Pill, Blue Pill

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by David A Neiwert

Neiwart Red Pill, Blue Pill

Author Neiwert is an investigative reporter who has been working the beat of the rightward fringe of American politics for decades. This book published in 2020 saw all too clearly the “conspiracist” contribution to what eventuated in the Capitol violence of January 2021–not that there’s any reason to think that episode exhausted the impulse.

The subtitle is “How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us,” but most of the book is in fact dedicated to establishing that “Conspiracy Theories … Are Killing Us.” Not only have conspiracist worldview of fabulist paranoia. He also draws a line between the “old conspiracism” (epitomized by obsessive JFK assassination and UFO investigators) and the “new conspiracist” Infowars and Q-anon crowds. And he offers a digestible cultural history of conspiracist thinking in the US that goes back to the eighteenth century.

Only in the final chapter does the book provide any “How to Counteract” ideas and material, and these are of the difficult no-silver-bullet variety. Thanks to pandemic-driven isolation, outrage-mongering social media, and the bizarre twists of surveillance capitalism, we are all epistemologists now. This book is a sober overview of the biggest hazards in the increasingly difficult work of orienting society towards genuine events and shared goals, rather than paranoid hallucinations and cultural fracture.

The World of Charles Addams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The World of Charles Addams [Amazon, Abebooks] by Charles Addams, introduction by Wilfred Sheed.

Addams The World of Charles Addams

This large-format book collects three hundred of Charles Addams’ magazine cartoons, along with a couple dozen color cover illustrations, mostly from The New Yorker, and from his entire long career. Although Addams is best-known for the eponymous Family (Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, etc.), they appear in only a minority of these cartoons. If those are set to the side, what remains reminds me of nothing so much as the Gary Larson “Far Side” oeuvre. There are the same sort of surreal juxtapositions, agency given to animals, incongruous cultural encounters, and borderline misanthropy.

A repeated note here (which does not appear in Larson’s work) is that of uxoricide and mariticide, whether just accomplished, in progress, or merely fantasized. High culture is used to comic effect with visual allusions to Munch’s “The Scream” (261) and to the Laocoön Group (215), among others.

Perhaps my favorite in the book (158) shows a man in a barber’s chair viewing the receding cascade of opposing mirror images of his head, where the one five reflections deep has the face of a monster. Another choice cartoon shows men reclining around an opium den, with a sign on the wall that reads, “Occupancy by more than 31 persons is dangerous and unlawful” (51).

Although the earliest of these cartoons is almost ninety years old, they have aged quite well, and the whole book is a treat.

I’m with the Bears

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] edited by Mark Martin, introduction by Bill McKibben, with Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Kim Stanley Robinson, &al.

Martin Atwood Robinson Mitchell McKibben I'm with the Bears

This 2011 anthology is made up of short fiction concerned with climate change, extinction, and environmental collapse. Two contributions, the ones by Lydia Millett and Kim Stanley Robinson, are excerpts from previous novels, while two others by David Mitchell and Paolo Bacigalupi seem to have been advance work for novels they later completed and published (The Bone Clocks and The Water Knife, respectively).

Of the ten stories collected here, three are set in the present or recent past. These are concerned with the futility of protest-based activism against environmental depredation and with the unbalancing of the human mind in the face of non-human extinctions.

Another six stories are set in the relatively near future; 2040 is the specified date for two of the stories, and these seem to be the far boundary of the set. All of these depict varying types and stages of social collapse as a result of environmental exhaustion and climate change, in the (former) UK, US, and Italy. All are plausible, none are cheering, and easily the bleakest is “Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson.

The collection concludes with Margaret Atwood’s three-page “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” which doesn’t offer anything like hope. I was a little galled that this set of narrative fictions held out even less consolation than Roy Scranton’s book-length essay Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.

[Four Symbols]

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews [Four Symbols] [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Erik Davis, aka Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV in the 33 1/3 series.

Davis Four Symbols Led Zeppelin IV

Erik Davis’ book-length assessment of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album delivered nearly everything I had hoped it would, along with a few things that I feared it might. The writing is often very witty, and Davis shows a real appreciation for the popular and esoteric cultural matrices in which the object of his musings is embedded, as well as a relatively sympathetic take on the band, and a profound respect for this record as an artistic achievement, albeit as he writes, “a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, stuffed in a cock.” (7-8) 

The book spends an appropriately significant section on the material substance of the album as an artifact, discussed in connection with the emergence of the American post-industrial zeitgeist. The subsequent song-by-song review emphasizes the composition of the album as a whole: the fourth release of a band with four members, having four songs on each side. As a critical conceit, Davis introduces “Percy” (one of Robert Plant’s nicknames, as well as the questing grail knight Parsival) as the ongoing poetic speaker of the lyrics in all eight songs, enabling him to trace a unified arc of development through the various modes and moods of the album.

The “Percy”-based analysis isn’t always that persuasive, but Davis uses it as a framework to tease out technical effects as well as thematic elements both subtle and overt. For those of us who assimilated this album in our adolescence, much of the treat here is just coming back to it with a matured intellect and a sense of fresh inquiry. For instance, “The Battle of Evermore” is rather obviously a Tolkeinesque psychomachia, in a way that I could never have framed for myself in the days when I first evoked it from its vinyl talisman. (And you can get more of that sort of playfully-overwrought fusion of phonography and occultism on nearly every page of Davis’s book.)

Davis acknowledges a range of hostile criticism of Led Zeppelin, which he counters with varying degrees of zeal and success. He also cites some other sympathetic writers on the topic, who seem to be worth reading, along with the splendidly excessive occult research of paranoid born-again Christian–thanks to the demonic encounter he experienced at a Zeppelin show–Thomas W. Friend. 

The exploration of Zeppelin’s precedents and predecessors is not quite as meticulous as I might have wanted. Davis’s (absolutely necessary) citations of Aleister Crowley are often sloppy, and he errs on Crowley biography even when correcting the earlier falsehoods of other writers (34). He fails to call out the influence of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which contained both musical and magical germs of Led Zeppelin’s operations. And his citations of psychedelic philosopher Michael Hoffman’s “block consciousness” (122) would have been significantly complemented and enhanced with reference to Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence.

Still, this is a short and eminently digestible volume, which manages to hit all the right notes in creative harmony with its topic. If, like Davis, and like me, and like “millions of other people now living, you can probably reproduce a decent mock-up of [‘Stairway to Heaven’] from memory,” (108) then this book has a lot to offer you.

Hard Words

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hard Words, and Other Poems [Amazon, Abebooks] by Ursula K Le Guin

LeGuin Hard Words

The poems of Hard Words are grouped into five sections. The first of them, “Wordhoard,” is principally poems about writing poetry, which is a genre I’m not so drawn to; still she has a couple there that are pretty excellent. I have in mind particularly “The Mind is Still” and “More Useful Truths.” This first section also includes the title poem of the volume. 

The second section “The Dancing at Tillai” is named after the last of its poems, and gravitates around themes drawn from East Indian myths and cults. A couple of these, “Carmagnole of the Thirtieth of June” and “A Semi-Centenary Celebration” put me in mind of some of Ishmael Reed’s incantatory Hoodoo verse.

The pivotal group “Line Drawings” include a lot of dedications of individual poems, and all the poems of this section seem to be rooted in Le Guin’s personal history, to the extent that their sense sometimes seems a little opaque to this reader. But some of them, construed as observation of a natural scene or event, seem almost too bare.

“Walking in Cornwall” is a set of three poems about archaeological excursions in the English landscape. These are some of the longer poems of the book, and taken together they read like a set of dreamy journal entries from the author’s travels. 

The last section “Simple Hill” uses brevity, singsong patterns, and borderline paradoxes to set up a sense of wonder and profundity. All of its poems are short, except for the triptych “The Well of Baln,” which still shares the mood of the others, although fleshing it out from contemplative nursery rhyme to fairy tale.

All told, there is a lot of variety here. The poetry is not avant-gardist; it uses natural images, rhyme and meter, and other very conventional elements. But the use of these conventions here gives evidence of an active and original mind that delights in language–while knowing of its dangers.

Old Man’s Cave

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Old Man’s Cave [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 9 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone Old Man's Cave

Old Man’s Cave moves the story of the Bone series along at a galloping pace. Although I don’t see it noted here, one of the earlier collections I read showed this series grouped into trilogies, and there does seem to be a significant multi-volume conclusion in this sixth book. By its end, there has been a resolution of much of the central conflict, but there is an intimation of more to come. 

Smith’s art continues to be effective, and his storytelling engaging. There are hardly any new characters introduced in this sequence, but there are some major revelations about the ones established earlier in the series. The reader learns by stages exactly who the evil Lord of Locusts is, and why he is interested in Phoney Bone, not to mention surprising revelations about the Hooded One.

Many Dimensions

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Many Dimensions [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.

Williams Many Dimensions

Like Williams’ first novel War in Heaven, the main business of Many Dimensions is an extended scrimmage over a holy relic: in this case, the Stone of the Wise that was set in the crown of King Solomon. Continuity with the earlier book is provided in the person of a single character, the sadistically inquisitive Sir Giles Tumulty. Other key characters include English Chief Justice Lord Christopher Arglay, who seems to be a sort of secular adeptus major undergoing an initiation to adeptus exemptus in the course of the novel, and his personal secretary Chloe Burnett who meanwhile climbs the entire mystical ladder from neophyte to magister templi

Many of the chapter titles have a clever ambivalence. “The Refusal of Lord Arglay” could mean that Arglay is refused or refusing. Similarly, “The Discovery of Giles Tumulty” could mean that Tumulty is discovered or discovering.

Many Dimensions functions with some effectiveness as a parable regarding the magical will. The overt reflection on this topic is quasi-incidentally remarked in a quotation from 13th-century English jurist Henry of Bracton: Attribuat igitur rex legi, quod lex attribuit ei, videlicet dominationem et potestatem. Non est enim rex ubi dominatur voluntas et non lex. (214) Williams doubtless contemplated this maxim in a theological, rather than a magical sense, but the action of his novel is open to both. 

There is a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of Islam in this book, creating a contrast with the sort of moronic Islamophobia in which Williams’ friend C.S. Lewis trafficked in the form of his villainous Calormenes. Although Williams was the author of works of Christian theology, his fiction shows him to have a generous religious imagination, including a warmth toward conscientious skepticism. This latter is on full display in the character of Lord Arglay, who at one point describes the Christian Passion as “one of the myths of our race.”