Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Snake the Crocodile and the Dog

This seventh volume of the adventures of Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson is very much a serial installment. It is hard to imagine enjoying it much without having read several of the earlier books, especially The Crocodile on the SandbankLion in the Valley, and The Last Camel Died at Noon. In fact, this text frequently deploys the advertising footnote: dropping the title of a previous novel into the bottom margin of the page in order to explicate an allusion to earlier adventures. The feature reminds me of nothing so much as 1960s and 70s Marvel comic books, with the continuity cross-references jammed into the corners of panels. The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog also continues author Peters’ metafictional jockeying of material from H. Rider Haggard. This time, she introduces Leo Vincey–a character whose name is lifted from the protagonist of Haggard’s She

The occasional line drawings introduced in The Last Camel Died at Noon do not persist in The Snake, but there are still several maps to help the reader understand the path of the expedition. The maps are clear, but it’s hard to refer to them, because they are inserted individually in the course of the text, and there is no table or index to note their locations. On a related issue, the “Editor’s Note” at the beginning refers quite inaccurately to a glossary appendix on “page 339,” evidently failing to account for the revised pagination of the paperback edition I read. 

I was a little worried by the addition of yet another dependent to the Emerson household at the end of the previous book, and I wondered how an exciting pace could be maintained in the face of such elaborate parental concerns. Peters thankfully managed to have the Emersons leave the children in England for the 1898 archaeological expedition to Egypt in The Snake, and the occasional letters from young Ramses provide excellent comic relief, as well as a clever supplementary plot-line. The relief is necessary, in my view, because of the circumstance of Radcliffe Emerson’s traumatic amnesia, which gives this story more tension and sadness than were typical of the earlier volumes. The resolution of the plot involves multiple “reveals,” the later of which certainly caught me off-guard. But there’s also an intimation of a significant plot point undetected by the narrating sleuth Amelia herself. I’m sure it will be fulfilled in later stories.

The Mystical Marriage

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystical Marriage: Symbol and Meaning of the Human Experience [Amazon] by Gerhard Wehr, translated by Jill Sutcliffe.

Wehr Sutcliffe The Mystical Marriage

The Mystical Marriage is mostly a historical survey of Western religious and esoteric traditions oriented toward marital symbolism and the Jungian notion of the conjunctio. As an introductory survey, it is suitably wide, but not at all deep. The material is important, but I managed to get through the first 70% of this book without learning anything at all. The chapter on “Conjugal Kabbalistic Mysteries” uses some Romanized Hebrew that is alien to any system of my acquaintance: the Crown is given as Keter’elyon and Wisdom as Halma. The subchapter on the “Myth of Androgyny” is appended to the Jacob Boehme chapter, and although it works through to the ideas of Rudolph Steiner in the twentieth century, it avoids the most interesting developments of the esoteric androgyne in the nineteenth (i.e. Levi’s Baphomet and Balzac’s Seraphita). 

Later sections of the book provided me with more benefit. The chapter on Novalis was likewise in a primer mode, but due to my relative ignorance of the subject matter I found it somewhat rewarding. In the eleventh chapter, Wehr discusses an interesting case study that should perhaps be grouped with Ida Craddock’s Heavenly Bridegrooms: a German housewife whose experiments in automatic writing led to a marital union with a disincarnate entity named Lot. The final chapter offers the little bit of practical information in the volume: dreams, fairy tales, and religious meditation are presented as “Paths to the Symbol of Coniunctio.” 

The whole study is quite Teutonocentric, emphasizing continuity from Meister Eckhart and the Theologia Deutsch through Luther, Boehme, and German Rosicrucianism to C.G. Jung and his disciples. Translator Jill Sutcliffe has done a fairly mediocre job. German grammatical idioms often persist, as for example in this (self-referential?) sentence: “It needs no special debate to know that this is incorrect.” (115) Wehr’s bibliography is retained with all titles in German, including items originally translated from English such as Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism. The reader may infer that Sutcliffe has not conformed the Underhill quotes to the English original, but has subjected them to double-translation.

I’m not unimpressed with Wehr’s range of sources and interests, and it may be that he has written more intensive studies which would benefit me. But taken as a whole, I would not recommend this book in its current translation. The “Irmengard Bardo” report of the eleventh chapter is the only reason that it will remain in my collection for the time being.

The Liar’s Tale

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeremy Campbell.

Campbell The Liar's Tale

Jeremy Campbell is a high-end journalist, and his Liar’s Tale is an excitingly scarce commodity: a popularizing history of epistemology! He organizes the narrative around the changing valuation of falsehood, necessarily describing in the process the corresponding shifts in the idea of truth. The treatment is very wide ranging, exploring such fields as evolutionary biology and aesthetics as they come into contact with the central topic. But most of the discussion is given over to the vertebral canon of Western philosophy. 

I did enjoy the book, although I think I differ with the author with respect to our positions and allegiances. My first warning was on page 72, where the author mentions in passing that Socrates “shuns relativism, the doctrine that tends to favor brute force.” Huh? That’s a pretty substantial conclusion to pack into a subordinate clause without any further support or explanation. I took note again when he quoted Alan Bullock to define Surrealism as a “cult” that developed “a scorn not only for reason but for humanity.” (266)

In his final chapter, Campbell cashes in the various chips he has accumulated in an otherwise even-handed account, in order to vilify the post-structuralists, deconstructionists and post-modernists of the intellectual left, as well as quantum theorists and other theoretical physicists; whom he sets in opposition to the virtue of “common sense.” Unsurprisingly, he makes much of the Sokal hoax, and he also quotes approvingly from rightist pundit Shelby Steele. Campbell–writing at the end of the 1990s–predictably lumps in Bill Clinton as a signal liar. Campbell says it is “common sense” that illicit blow-jobs disqualify political leaders, and the sustained public support for Clinton in the face of his impeachment was therefore a function of a popular appetite for lies. I wish that I could feel confident that Campbell would come out later even more strongly against the derision of the “reality-based community” expressed by a Bush aide (Karl Rove?) to Ron Suskind in 2004: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” Suskind’s source demonstrates that a doctrine of creative mendacity has at least as much resonance among the anti-intellectual right as it does among the intellectual left, and the real-world impact of the former is certainly more grievous: generating wars of aggression, fostering denial about global climate change, propagating economic malaise, and so forth.

Although I disagree with Campbell’s ideological perch, his high-altitude summary of philosophical history is still entertaining and largely accurate, and it would be a helpful orientation for someone with a beginning interest in the field of theories of knowledge and meaning. Still, the reader should not be taken in by the easygoing journalistic style, but should rather subject this book to the level of suspicion that its topic rightfully evokes.

The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Darrell Schweitzer, illustrated by Allen Koszowski.

Schweitzer The Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal

Brother Schweitzer here offers the only contemporary published tome of Elder Filking of which I am aware. It is a veritable thingsend to someone like me, who, though steeped in the lore and unmentionable fluids of Those Who Shall Return, has never had the pious pleasure of attending one of the blasphemous conventicles organized by the Reverend Robert Price under the aegis of the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. 

The quality of the lyrics is pretty high. My particular favorite is the “Hymn to Yog-Sothoth” to the tune Nun danket. (19) Alas, there are only ten hymns included, making it an inadequate resource for a regular congregation or choir. The madness undergirding our tenuous reality demands a more wide-ranging liturgical inventory. Given that all of the songs in this volume are of Brother Schweitzer’s own invention, however, it is a reasonable achievement. A more robust volume would draw on the exudations of a larger corps of scribes. 

A notable error arises in connection with the hymn “An Eldritch Horror Is Our God.” (15) While it does quite effectively expose the cosmic horror lying at the back of the German reformer’s famous song, it is missing a line at the conclusion of each full stanza. (The text gives two stanzas printed as four.) I propose a one-line refrain to conclude each: “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” Alternatively, the title itself “An Eldritch Horror Is Our God” scans adequately.

Allen Koszowski’s illustrations are also quite suitable.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ubik [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Philip K Dick.

Dick Ubik

Ubik is easily one of my favorite PKD novels: less lauded but more tightly composed than VALIS, it too makes pervasive but subtle use of Gnostic themes throughout. In his self-exegetical notes, Dick paired Ubik with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as stories grounded in the mechanism of the Eucharist. (In Three Stigmata the Eucharist is averse or malign–a sort of interplanetary Black Mass.) The initial science-fictional concept in Ubik is that of the “moratorium,” a medico-funerary facility that arrests brain deterioration in fresh corpses, so that the “dead” can be milked for small amounts of further interaction with their survivors; all of which opens up the question of the subjective experience of such “death,” not to mention all death, and perhaps life as well.

The characters are unusually clear, lacking the amorphousness that Dick’s psychological approach often inflicts on his protagonists, and this feature may well have been a function of his onetime development of this story as a prospective film treatment. In my dream universe, David Cronenberg has already directed a production of Ubik!

Eyes of the Storm

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Eyes of the Storm [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 3 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone Eyes of the Storm

This third collection of Bone comics is the first that I have read in its original black-and-white format. I read the two previous volumes in the colorized editions from the Scholastic GRAFIX imprint. While I respect author/artist Smith for realizing his vision in the independent black-and-white comics market, and at the hazard of offending purist afficianados, I have to say that the comic is more attractive, readable, and compelling with the high-quality colors of the later reprints. 

As far as the story goes, it takes a major turn in this segment: the “serious” fantasy plot about the political history of the valley, and the roles of Rose and Thorn in that history are revealed, along with more detail about their foes. None of these revelations should come as any great surprise to the attentive reader, though, and none of them are in any way contrary to fantasy conventions. All of this plot explication comes at a price, which is that of considerably less comedy. There is still a humorous parallel narrative about the Bone brothers’ return to the Barrel-Haven tavern, and the development of Fone Bone’s poetic talents continues amusingly on page 120. But on the whole, there is more action and intrigue, and less of the wry humor that was so characteristic of the earlier books.

The “Moby Bone” dream episode is supposed to be a highlight of this volume, and it certainly did its job well enough. But I thought it paled next to the more elaborate and involved dream sequences in Sim’s Cerebus

The final page advises readers that we have reached the “End of Part One.” Even though the plot proper seems still to be barely getting off the ground, this does seem like a reasonable point to pause.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Thirty-Nine Steps [Bookshop (Penguin), Amazon (Birlinn), Publisher (Penguin), Publisher (Birlinn)] by John Buchan.

Buchan The Thirty-Nine Steps

Far and away the most printed and read of John Buchan’s novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps was also made into three different films and a feature-length television adaptation, along with adaptations into other media. First published in 1915 while Buchan was working for the British War Propaganda Bureau, it is set in England and Scotland on the eve of World War I. The protagonist Richard Hannay is informed of an alleged international conspiracy, and then must flee both the conspirators and the police, since he has been framed in the murder of his informant.

Buchan classed the story as a “shocker” and it pioneered the use of tropes that have become staples of the “thriller” and “suspense” categories in entertainment, principally that of the fugitive hero. The telling is very fast-paced, over ten chapters that I think I read in a total of four or five sittings. It keeps its narrative tension right up to the final page, with a mere three sentences of denouement.

The book has hardly any women characters with proper names and none with repeat appearances. Hannay says, “A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower. … But what fellows like me don’t understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class world, the folks that live in villas and suburbs” (97). His capacities are tied into this sort of alternating social adaptability and dysphoria. I don’t doubt that many “comfortable, satisfied middle-class” readers have derived excitement over the last century from reading of Hannay’s mingling with both the elite and the impoverished in this story, and that those readers have largely been men.

The Great Cow Race

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: The Great Cow Race [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 2 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone The Great Cow Race

This second collection of Bone comics advances the overall plot with the same leisurely pace of the first volume. I think I’m very glad to be reading these as anthologies, rather than following them as a monthly comic. This volume has more and better slapstick than the first, and Fone Bone’s romantic affection for Thorn is elevated into a proper dilemma. For sheer comedy, the best moment is probably the unravelling of Phoney Bone’s scheme on page 73.

In “Lonesome Road” (the fifth chapter of this book, #11 of the original series?), a three-page dialoge between Rose and Lucius provides a very full synopsis of the state of the intrigue–from the human perspective. I can certainly see how such a review would have been important in the original serial, but it’s helpful even in the current format. There are four intersecting worlds here: the Boneville Bones in exile (Fone, Phoney, and Smiley), the humans (Thorn, Gran’ma Ben, Lucius, villagers and fairgoers), the animals (possums, Ted the bug), and the monsters (red dragon, rat creatures). 

In any event, this book solidifies the promise of the first volume and settles into what I’m now confident will be a series worth the continuing read.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tetrarch by Alex Comfort.

Comfort Tetrarch

Tetrarch is a very interesting novel deserving addition to my Gnostic Catholic “Section 2” reading list (“Other books, principally fiction, of a generally suggestive and helpful kind”). It is a slightly didactic through-the-magic-door fantasy, like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, but definitely for adults. Instead of hokey Christian allegory, it offers reifications of William Blake’s prophecies, Bohmian quantum mechanics, systems theory, transpersonal psychology, imaginary language, and encounters with historical personalities. The whole stew is pretty heady, and some prior familiarity with the prophetic works of Blake will help to avoid getting disoriented: the protagonists are supposed to be versed in them already, and the reader is given many allusions to them without further exposition. 

Author Alex Comfort is, of course, best known for his book The Joy of Sex, and there is plenty of sex happening in Tetrarch, where the customary greeting is, “Have you loved well?” Narrator Edward and his partner Rosanna are preposterously enlightened in their sexuality: quite free of jealousy and compassionate about others’ hang-ups. It’s not porn; there’s none of the sort of graphic detail that makes porn work, but the sexual vision–utopian and otherwise–is rather inspiring.

Thelemites may note the names Edward and Rosanna as corresponding closely to those of the scribe and seer of the Cairo Working. There is a lot of magick in this book, and learning among adepts is its principal preoccupation. It’s nothing like Hogwarts, though, with the exception of the university of the Foursquare City described in the second part of the book–an institution in which the protagonists do not enroll. The central adepts of the story are initiated by pareunogenesis, a process of attainment by sexual contagion.

The “Tetrarch” of the title is Edward’s steed in the visionary world, named after the champion Irish thoroughbred who beat all comers in 1913. Here, the Tetrarch is not a horse, however; it is rather a giant chalicotherium, from a family of ungulate mammals that prospered during the Eocene period. The exotic fauna of the Fourfold World are an interesting mix of the paleontological, the legendary, and the speculative. The Klars are a special treat: an idyllic race of Überbonobos

The endpapers feature an attractive map of the Fourfold World, and appendices provide information on Losian language and religion. The latter is in a tabular form that reminds me of the correspondences chart appended to Gunther’s Initiation in the Aeon of the Child. There is one evident error in the table, though: it needs initiated review before practical application! 

I stumbled on this book entirely by accident in a used book store, and my 1980 first-edition copy is pretty worn, but it is attractive: a hardcover with a marbled dustjacket, its cover illustration showing Edward and Rosana on the Tetrarch, in a style that reminds me of paintings by the Scottish surrealist Fergus Hall. Although long out of print, it appears to be easy enough to find used online for reasonable sums.

The Last Days of New Paris

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus review The Last Days of New Paris: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by China Miéville.

Miéville The Last Days of New Paris

In this short novel, Miéville alternates between 1941 Marseille and 1950 Paris in an alternate timeline. The earlier date sees American Thelemite Jack Parsons visiting France during the war, and the later one involves a thaumaturgical Surrealist resistance fighting against a goetically-augmented continuing Nazi occupation. The title of the book is taken from a book within the book: The Last Days of New Paris is a book being written (and photographed) within the story, to document the exotic and presumably evanescent 1950 Parisian environment. [ . . . (hover over to read this spoiler) . . . ]

Given its subject matter, I expected to either love or hate this book, and I was surprised to find myself lukewarm. I liked Miéville’s appreciation for Surrealist politics, the way that he brought Surrealist artworks into the story, and the metafictional/documentary twists. I didn’t find the narrative voice as engaging as the one in The City & the City, and Parsons wasn’t presented very believably. It definitely had its virtues, and short as it is, it’s still worth reading by anyone who finds the premise intriguing.