Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Brotherhood of Satan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Brotherhood of Satan [Amazon, Amazon Video, Abebooks, Local Library] by L Q Jones.

Jones The Brotherhood of Satan

The Brotherhood of Satan is the novelization of a 1971 horror movie of no great critical note, and it certainly reads that way. While I haven’t seen the movie, I suspect that the book is very faithful to it, because it fails to offer any details that couldn’t be represented on film. (Author Jones was a member of the cast and assisted on the script.) The characters are cut-outs with little or no interiority. Despite that superficiality, some of the scenes are difficult to picture, particularly ones in the Satanists’ lair that involved passage “through” a fireplace. Supernatural occurrences get a gee-whiz treatment that makes them feel cheap. 

As far as the Satanic conspiracy goes, it has a lot of liturgical action, which is what attracted my attention to the film/book in the first place. But the liturgy is decidedly uninformed and clumsy, with addresses to “Ye who penetrates the future” (ouch!) and “Satanacus.” The choice of an “ansate cross” for the principal insignia of the cultists is somewhat spoiled by the fact that the book cover and movie stills show a figure that is not really a crux ansata. The “Satanic” rites involve an unseemly level of self-abasement among the worshippers, and a practically Christian sense of penitence. 

SPOILER: To its credit, the story ends with the triumph of the evil forces, with the hapless “protagonists” merely lulled into a grateful sense of having survived the episode, while their daughter has been spiritually possessed (presumably for life) by one of the creepy old cultists.

Unearthing Seeds of Fire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Frank Adams with Myles Horton.

Adams Horton Unearthing Seeds of Fire

Unearthing Seeds of Fire is a biography of Myles Horton and an account of the Highlander Folk School that he founded. Highlander is a critical part of the history of the labor and civil rights movements in the US, fostering (rather than engineering, as its detractors would claim) progressive social change and the organization of oppressed and marginalized elements in American society. Highlander’s statement of purpose — cited by the IRS as a violation of its nonprofit educational status — reads: “Our purpose is deliberately to use education for the realization of certain social and cultural values. We do not consider other education any less propaganda, because its teachers are ignorant of the fact that they are supporting an unethical status quo, than our approach which consciously seeks to bring about a more just social order.” (194)

Horton was clearly able to combine his notion about the “leavening” role of the intellectual in society with his democratic and egalitarian ideals in powerfully productive ways. His early anti-racism was cultivated in the YMCA, but it required the innovative setting of Highlander (inspired by the Danish folk school movement) for him to realize what modes of “education” would be effective in supporting social change. Ideas from Highlander according to author Frank Adams’s descriptions include: a) programmatic avoidance of paternalism, b) placing values before tactics or associations, c) the use of music to reinforce and promote cultural solidarity, and d) preferring personal and domestic styles to institutional ones. 

The evocative title of this book seems to allude to the ancient Gnosis and the Manichean idea of divine sparks imprisoned in human beings. (The original Gnostic doctrine is however anti-egalitarian, insisting that most “seeds” don’t sprout, and that humans can be divided into spiritual castes on that basis.) Adams never gives his source for the phrase “seeds of fire,” although he uses it once — in quotation marks — toward the end of the book. (214) In that instance, he is characterizing group problem-solving of the oppressed for themselves, contrasted with the uselessness of conventional educational media to empower others from above.

Adams wrote this volume while he was himself engaged with Highlander and attempting to learn its methods. It is full of startling anecdotes and information about the impressive level of involvement by Highlander with some of the most consequential social changes in 20th-century America.

Apocalypse of the Alien God

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Dylan M. Burns, part of the Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion series.

Burns Apocalypse of the Alien God

The “apocalypse” in the title of this book refers to both a genre of religious writings and to the more fundamental unveiling or revelation of the “alien God,” who is the Great Invisible Spirit of Sethian Gnosticism. Not only was this godhead metaphysically alien to the created world of matter, it was culturally alien to the Hellenistic society of intellectuals gathered around the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus in third-century Rome. The latter framing is the point of departure for this study of a specific school of ancient Gnosticism in its social context.

Author Dylan Burns perpetrates careful scholarship, and the early chapters offer a fairly slow start with orientation to the cultural factors involved in the historical scenario that he uses the final chapters to set forth. He avoids anachronistic conceptions of Christianity and Judaism. For example, he doesn’t see the unorthodox or even negligible jesuschristology (my ad hoc coinage) of the Sethians as a reason to distance them unnecessarily from the phenomena of early Christianity.

The theme of alienation is present in a sort of holographic manner in this study. Burns points out the religious trope of valorizing exile under the figures of the sojourn and the stranger as a peculiar attribute of Sethian Gnosticism that it held in common with many Christianities, some Judaisms, and virtually no Hellenism. Among the several sections of the book concerned to elucidate Sethian doctrines on the basis of the surviving writings, the one treating this theme was the most interesting to me not only for its socio-cultural implications, but for the disputable value of the actual religious ideas concerning the sojourn.

The study concludes that the floruit of Plotinus ultimately represented a “closure” of dialogue between Hellenic Platonism and the Gnosticisms rooted in Semitic scriptural traditions. This event is the second sense of the “Exile” in Burns’ subtitle, as the Sethians were exiled from the Roman Platonist milieu. Platonist dialectic withdrew from engaging Gnostic apocalyptic and vice versa. Still, he suggests that some forms of sympathy persisted, with the theurgy of Iamblichus as a notable possible instance.

Some attention to the possible practices at stake in Gnostic texts leads to helpful discussions of baptism, “angelification,” and the rite of the Five Seals (but not the Bridal Chamber, which seems not to have figured in Sethianism). I was interested in the implications of the designation of “Perfect Individuals” in the Protophanes Aeon of Sethian eschatology. “Perfect” is a conventional translation of a Greek term that can also mean “initiated,” and I inferred that the mode of transmitting knowledge through secret initiatory ceremony might have been another barrier between the Sethians and their Platonist peers.

On the whole, this book makes real demands on the attention of a serious reader, and it is not addressed to the idly curious. But it demonstrates that work in this field can advance beyond the wrangling over definitions and categories that has been a preoccupation of recent decades, and illuminate more of the historical realities regarding these ancient religious phenomena.

Welcome to Lovecraft

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphlius reviews Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, & al., introduction by Robert Crais, book 1 of the Locke & Key series.

Hill Rodriguez Locke and Key Welcome to Lovecraft

This volume collects the first six numbers of the horror comic Locke & Key, which came to me highly recommended, and lived up to its reputation. The writing is truly scary, and the art is gorgeous. The writer and artist have each done excellent work in developing the central characters, and the plot involves both supernatural horror and more “pedestrian” terror. Psycho-cinematic devices like flashbacks and imagined alternatives come across clearly. 

The story has some similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, but with a more complex backstory that can clearly support a longer narrative of evolving conflict. Rodriguez’s art reminds me a little of Rick Geary, but definitely has its own style: bold lines and dramatic perspective help to keep the reader following the action. And the colors by Jay Fotos manage to hit just the right notes, no small consideration in a horror comic.

Although this book is the first of several collections from a continuing title, it does contain a full plot arc, and it makes for an excellent read in its own right. I’m happy to pass along the recommendation that brought me to Welcome to Lovecraft.

The Mystics of Islam

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystics of Islam [Amazon, Abebooks, Open Access (PDF), Local Library] by Reynold A Nicholson.

Nicholson The Mystics of Islam

Author Reynold Alleyne Nicholson was an English Orientalist scholar most famed for his work on Jalaluddin Rumi, and this short overview of Sufism is full of his own translations of Rumi and other key Muslim mystics. First published in 1914, it still has value today for readers seeking a historical perspective on Sufism, and it has special appeal to those interested in what an educated Edwardian view of mystical Islam would comprise. While his respect for some Sufi sheiks (not least Rumi) is profound, he does turn up his nose at the antinomian tendencies of the tradition, and he is dubious about its contributions to positive history. In the latter connection, he remarks in a footnote that “most, if not all, mystical Traditions [i.e. hadith] ascribed to Mohammed were fostered on him by the Sufis, who represent themselves as the true interpreters of his esoteric teaching.” (53)

Among the wide sampling of quotations from sheiks and pirs, we can read that the statement “Within my vesture is naught but God” is attributable to Bayazid, just as Hallaj is supposed to have said “I am God.” (132, 150)

While he was older than Louis Massignon, Nicholson paid considerable respect to the younger scholar’s studies of Hallaj and his conclusions about the actual nature of the doctrines held and taught by that controversial figure. In fact, Massignon’s major work on Hallaj was not published until the decade after The Mystics of Islam.

Nicholson uses gnosis as a translation for ma’rifat, and he may have been one of the earliest modern Western scholars to focus attention on the genealogical connections of Sufi doctrines with the ancient Gnosis and Manicheanism. On the modern side, he repeatedly proposes “hypnosis” as a mechanism underlying Sufi ahwal (“states” of attainment), and suggests that the parapsychological approach of the SPR may be useful in the study of the miraculous phenomena attested among dervishes.

Despite the tendencies toward “comparative theology” (where Nicholson judges particular mystical doctrines as laudatory, dangerous, or deplorable) and its slightly dated language, this book is still a valuable primer on its subject, especially for those who approach it with an interest in the 20th-century scholarship on mystical and esoteric religion.

Horror Films of the 1990s

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Horror Films of the 1990s [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by John Kenneth Muir

Muir Horror Films of the 1990s

I read this beefy volume after Clark and Senn’s similarly ambitious Sixties Shockers. While the 1960s were a transitional decade for horror movies, the 1990s were allegedly an ebb tide, in which horror was little-produced and hardly marketed as such. Muir does indeed cast a wide net, including such films as Jurassic Park (1993). “Interloper” and “police procedural” themes are among the elements that characterize the typical horror movies of the decade.

The central reviews section of the book is organized by year, and each year’s chapter begins with a timeline inventorying events of major cultural significance for that year. The critical emphasis is on the relationship of cinematic themes to then-current events. So much is this the case, that the reviews tend to omit comparisons to earlier films, except for the most overt sequels and remakes. For example, the review of Body Parts (1991) does not mention the seminal Hands of Orlac (1924, 1960) Nor does discussion of The Masque of the Red Death (DTV 1991) bring up Roger Corman’s magisterial 1964 version of the Poe tale. The stand-out exception is “Appendix D: Movie References in Scream,” which catalogs dozens of film allusions that occur in that 1996 post-modern meta-movie.

The reviews are fully equipped with star ratings and opinionated verdicts, which seemed awfully “accurate” to me, when I was in a position to compare my own views. I was especially pleased with the glowing review of The Ninth Gate (1999) — often the object of critical derision — Muir even placed it at number five in his “Ten Best” list for the decade.

That list is one of a number of clever and useful apparatus elements placed as appendices. “1990s Horror Conventions” provides an index of movies by common tropes, such as “Car Won’t Start,” “H.P. Lovecraft,” and “Vampires.” (The absence of my favorite “Girl on Altar” is sadly due to its general neglect in the movies themselves.) “The 1990s Horror Hall of Fame” is an inventory of notable performers. Having noted that theater horror features were at a disadvantage in the 1990s because of small-screen competition from The X-Files, Muir backs up his claim by tabulating about thirty matches of central plot elements between 1990s horror films and individual X-Files episodes as “Appendix E.” 

On the whole, this book accomplishes its goals capably and with a fair amount of style.

Seven Footprints to Satan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seven Footprints to Satan [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Abraham Merritt, cover by Doug Rosa.

Merritt Seven Footprints to Satan

Abraham Merritt’s Seven Footprints to Satan was first serialized in 1927 and issued as a complete novel in 1928, but it’s been through a whole stack of paperback reprintings. It’s a pulpy action tale with no real theological pretenses, and it is entirely light reading. Seven Footprints has a cinematic feel, and was made into a movie in 1929. 

l took a perverse amusement in imagining the protagonist James Kirkham with the appearance of a young William Shatner. And in fact the pacing of the book and its contrived dilemmas are somewhat reminiscent of the original Star Trek and other TV adventure dramas of that vintage. Kirkham is a “famous explorer,” i.e. a sort of generic resourceful man of action. He is recruited — conscripted, rather — by an arch-criminal who styles himself as Satan. For most of the book, Kirkham tries to escape Satan’s domination, eventually determining to rescue others as well. There’s an obligatory romantic plot vector and some irksome orientalist racism. 

Although the author had a longstanding interest in the occult and amassed a considerable esoteric library, such studies are not evident in this book.

The Jennifer Morgue

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Jennifer Morgue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles Stross, book 2 of the Laundry Files series.

Stross The Jennifer Morgue

“The Laundry operations manual is notably short on advice for how to comport oneself when being held prisoner aboard a mad billionaire necromancer’s yacht, other than the usual stern admonition to keep receipts for all expenses incurred in the line of duty.” (167)

The Jennifer Morgue is one of Stross’ hacker-gique occult espionage books about Bob Howard, agent of Capital Laundry Services. (The initials of the organization are never written as such, so it took me until the middle of this second volume to get that BASIC joke!) Like its predecessor The Atrocity Archives, it is a terrific romp. Where Stross drew his literary spy inspiration from Len Deighton in the first book, this time around sees him looking to Ian Fleming and the Bond movies. Given the more “exoteric” — okay, crassly pop-cultural — status of the Bond material, Stross elects to make his nods to it more overt, metafictional even. Protagonist Bob is put in a position to exploit his memories of “the ritual Bond movie every Christmas afternoon on ITV since the age of two” (187), since he is fighting a supernatural opponent who is using the Bond plot formula as a magical mechanism. Stross manages to pack sardonic hilarity, genuinely stomach-churning horror, and sentimental uplift into this single novel. Oh, and weird sex. 

As with the first book, this one contains the titular novel, a bonus short story, and an essay reflecting on the espionage-adventure genre. The story “PIMPF” is a completely office-bound yarn, contrasting with the exotic travel and international entanglements of the novel, and it is funny in the nerdiest possible way. The essay didn’t seem as insightful as its counterpart in the first volume. Having chosen to place special attention on Bond villains, it seems to me that Stross erred terribly in neglecting to observe that Le Chiffre (from Casino Royale) was allegedly based on noted occultist Aleister Crowley, with whom Fleming was acquainted from their mutual employment by British intelligence services.

The Shadow Kingdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Kull, Volume 1: The Shadow Kingdom [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Arvid Nelson, Will Conrad, José Villarrubia, & al, foreword Mark Finn.

Nelson Conrad Villarrubia Howard Kull of Atlantis The Shadow Kingdom

Arvid Nelson returns to the original Robert E. Howard stories to build a 21st-century Kull comic that far outshines its 1970s Marvel predecessor. Certainly, Will Conrad’s art benefits from the improvements in comics production: full-process color and finer printing throughout, with compositions planned for glossy white pages instead of newsprint. But writer Nelson does an altogether better job of adapting the seminal REH piece “The Shadow Kingdom.” A few examples: Nelson adds an artful scene in the Room of Kings in the Tower of Splendor, both to provide background for the later appearance of King Eallal’s ghost, and to serve as a setting to articulate the “Kull … the fool!” mutterings which are here ambiguously attributable to Kull’s animated conscience (as in the REH original) or to lurking serpent priests. Also, where the Marvel writers chose to interpret the REH statement that Kull “had never known … the love of women” by simply avoiding any attention to Kull’s sexual consciousness, Nelson chooses the more sophisticated approach of representing the king in a frosty political marriage. Finally, this newer version returns to Kull’s companion Brule a critical pronouncement during the climactic confrontation with a mass of monsters disguised as the king’s councilors.

The distinctive facial scar that characterized the Marvel Kull is abandoned here, but several panels show Kull’s massively scarred back — no doubt a legacy of his widely-rumored time as a galley slave. The Pict warrior Brule really looks fierce in these comics, while he often looked somewhat silly in the old Marvel numbers. Likewise, Conrad captures the joviality of the Pictish ambassador Ka-nu much better than the Severins ever did. The Serpent Men are altogether more inhuman and menacing, and Valusia itself seems more monumental and ancient than it did in the rather medieval Marvel vision. There is plenty of gore, in keeping with the spirit of the REH original, and an appropriately dark tone pervades the stories. 

The new version of “The Shadow Kingdom” forms the central bulk of this volume, complemented by a warm-up “The Iron Fortress” and the epilogue “The Eye of Terror.” My only complaint about the adaptation was that the very last panel of “The Shadow Kingdom” proper (less than an eighth of the page at the lower right) was a mildly humorous undercutting of the heavy finish of this somber tale. Even so, it did “work” narratively in the larger plot frame that Nelson had constructed in order to expand on Howard’s original.

REH scholar Mark Finn provides a foreword here, as he does for the Dark Horse reprint of the early Marvel Kull stories. But where he focuses on the comics in the Marvel case, this essay is really trained on Howard and the genesis of the Kull character. Likewise, a concluding essay by Nelson reflects on the character and his relationship to the better-known and more “successful” Conan, explaining distinctions between them and his preference for the former.

Xombi

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Xombi [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by John Rozum, Fraser Irving, & al.

Rozum Irving Xombi

For a book that collects a comic starting with issue #1, this really gets going in media res. It’s full of exotic supporting characters who get defined on the fly. While the Xombi’s powers are the result of hyper-technological “nanites,” his friends and foes seem to be mostly supernaturally religious/occult in their origins and orientations. They seem to have some larger background, because they shared in an earlier series, but they are all sort of quirky and enigmatic anyway: the tone is closer to Bob Burden than Jack Kirby. Superpowered nuns and rabbis are funny, right? Although the original Xombi from the 1990s became involved with the larger DC superhero milieu, this reboot sequence (by the original writer) is more contained. The origin story is not rehashed, but rather dribbled out through incidental allusion.

I was motivated to pick this up to read because the art looked good: Frazer Irving provides expressive painted panels throughout, and there are a generous number of full-page tableaux. The six issues of the new series conclude a distinct plot arc “The Ninth Stronghold,” and the 2009 re-debut of Xombi in The Brave and the Bold 26 is appended to these. Scott Hampton’s art in the latter is looser and more expressionistic.