The Mothman Cometh

the mothman prophecies keelThe Mothman Prophecies – John Keel
Tor – 2002 (Originally published in 1975)

When I picked this book up, I expected it to be fairly similar to McCloy and Millet’s The Jersey Devil, a book describing how a strange cryptid briefly terrorized a small town; however, The Mothman Prophecies is more a descriptive synthesis of 4-5 paranormal beings and events, and it doesn’t contain a huge amount of information specifically about the Mothman apparition. The Mothman, you see, at least according to John Keel, is quite probably from another dimension, and its mothy form is likely only one of its possible manifestations.

The book describes several strange events:

  1. The Mothman appeared to several people in Point Pleasant, a small town in West Virginia.
  2. Several other people in this town saw UFOs.
  3. Strange men, dressed in black, showed up in Point Pleasant, asking strange questions to these witnesses.
  4. A few of these witnesses also received bizarre phone calls during which they would hear static, beeping, or a foreign man speaking quickly.

This stuff went on for a while, but when a bridge leading into the town collapsed, killing 48 people, the strange events seemed to stop happening.

The loss of 48 souls to a town that housed fewer than 6000 people would have been devastating, and one can sensibly attribute the cessation of paranormal activity in Point Pleasant after 1967 to its residents going into a period of mourning and spending less time looking for lights in the sky and weirdos in the streets. John Keel however, postulates that Mothman disappeared after the collapse of the bridge because his work as an ill omen was complete. Yes, Mothman has more in common with a guardian angel than he does with Bigfoot.

Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of strange lights seen in the sky. When I reviewed Whitley Strieber’s Transformation, I noted that he had given up the idea that aliens are extraterrestrial and that he now believes that “the visitors are likely trans-dimensional inhabitants of Earth”.  It is quite possible that Strieber got this idea directly from Keel. (Strieber was a member or at least attended the meetings of Keel’s New York Fortean Society.) Keel reckons that UFOs are manifestations of something that exists outside of the dimensions that constrain our reality. Whatever it is that is causing the UFO phenomenon is probably the same thing that made people believe in fairies and religious events. If you think about it, a Mothman, as imagined by Keel, is basically the same thing as a Banshee.

Strange lights in the sky and cryptids sightings are cool and all, but the really interesting parts of this book are the bits about the peculiar men who dress in black and spend their time pestering UFO witnesses. Keel wasn’t the first person to write about the Men in Black; that honour, along with the honour of being the first to write a book about Mothman, goes to Keel’s friend, Gray Barker. Originally, the MIB were assumed to be government agents trying to keep witnesses quiet about their UFO encounters, but by the time this book was published, Barker and Keel agreed that the MIB were themselves aliens. Their descriptions in this book are actually pretty cool. They’re always dark skinned (although Keel repeats several times that they’re not black), they have pointy faces and unsettling smiles, their clothes are ill fitting, they don’t understand what common household items are for, and they speak like characters from a Samuel Beckett play.

Overall, the book isn’t very convincing. I had been looking forward to reading it, and it took me quite a bit longer to get through than I had expected. Keel didn’t have enough material to write a more focused book, so he seems to have crammed in any old crap he could find. He starts to contradict himself in the latter half of the book, but he realizes that he’s doing so and attempts to make these contradictions part of his argument. (See the Paranoiacs Are Made, Not Born chapter.) The Men in Black have been so successful in their attempts to obfuscate the public’s understanding of what happened in Point Pleasant that Mothman researchers can’t really know what they know about the topic. I read a review somewhere that described the book as John Keel’s descent into paranoid madness, and if you were to accept all of its claims, I’m sure that reading this book would drive you quite mad.too.

I’m not calling John Keel a liar, but many of the links he propounds are rather tenuous, some of his descriptions are vague, and much of his reasoning is plain shoddy. He was also admittedly very selective with the material he chose to use for this book. I’m not complaining about this (I’m all for that kind of writing!); I mention it only in response to the claim that Keel was paranoid. This is sensational, speculative non-fiction filled with what-ifs; it’s use your imagination stuff. Keel wasn’t mad at all; like he rest of us, he just enjoyed a good conspiracy.

I was fairly disappointed with the cover of my copy of this book. It’s a shitty, ugly version that came out to coincide with the movie version of 2002. (Earlier editions have really cool covers.) I watched the movie there too. I’m still not sure what to think of it. It’s set in the 90s or early 2000s instead of the 60s, and it doesn’t strictly adhere to the events in the book. It also cuts out all of the MIB and UFO stuff, so it’s not quite as all over the place. It looks pretty good, and there’s definitely an atmosphere to it, but I can’t imagine it making much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book. It’s a little more cohesive without the MIB and flying saucers, but these omissions also render it a little dull, and while it’s not tough to sit through, there’s so little explanation given that you finish the film wondering why they bothered making it.

Well, that’s that. Another Fortean classic for the archives. Some of my long time followers may have noticed that I’ve upgraded this blog with a fancy .com address. My url is now https://nocturnalrevelries.com/. Any old links to the site should still work, but due to an irritating fuck-up, I managed to delete all post likes and cut my traffic in half. Still though, the blog must go on, and I have ordered some seriously atrocious sounding books for my summer reading. Expect to see posts about perverted werewolves, Lovecraftian magick, Satanic Nazis and rock’n’roll themed horror showing up here very soon.

The Mothman Cometh

Hail to the King!

Towards the end of last year, I wrote a long post about the work of Stephen King. I had read nothing but King for a few weeks prior to writing that, and so I decided to give him a break for a while. He has been showing up in the news recently due to his hilarious behaviour on twitter and for the record breaking new trailer for It, and so I decided to indulge myself with a smattering of his marvelous brand of trashy horror fiction.

it stephen kingIt – 1986

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time. I remember being thoroughly creeped out by the video box of the 1990 movie version when I was a kid but being a little disappointed when I actually got to sit down and watch It. With the new movie coming out in September, I decided that I had better read the book now so that I can act cool and knowledgeable to anyone who mentions it to me in the coming months.

In some ways, It is a brilliant novel. The characters are great, the scary bits are very scary, and the transitions between past and present are really well executed. I also have personal reasons for enjoying the story of a gang of losers getting into rock fights with bullies, building hideouts in the woods, and breaking into abandoned houses. I was a little older than the characters in the book when I went a very similar, although significantly less supernatural, set of adventures myself.

Several scenes in the book involve the kids breaking into an abandoned house only to meet It in different ghoulish forms. When I was 18, my friends and I broke into an abandoned house and went rummaging through the cellar. When we were down there, we saw a strange light glimmering on the wall by the stairs. This was rather frightening as it was well after dark, and that set of stairs was our only escape route. We grabbed what we could from the debris on the ground (a stick, a rope, a rusty grill…) and prepared to do battle with whatever it was that was coming down the stairs.

We waited in silence for several minutes, but nothing moved and the light eventually went away. Afterwards, as we sat on some chairs that we had fashioned from old breezeblocks, we came up with a story to explain the peculiar glare. It had been the ghost of the former resident of the house, an old woman who was none too pleased with our presence in her home. We wrote a song about it that began:

In the hoose (sic), the times we had.
Our antiques (sic) made the Granny mad.
Her toilet, it was brown and crappy;
in the bin, her vaginal nappy.

shitty toilet
Her toilet was indeed both brown and crappy.

Anyways, there are several genuinely creepy scenes and ideas in here, but It is a very long book, and in truth, it’s a little incohesive. By 1986, Stephen King was the most popular novelist in the world. He could have written complete rubbish, had it published and sold a million copies. I’m not saying that this is rubbish, but I reckon it could have done with a bit of editing. Some bits aren’t really unnecessary to the lengthy plot, and some crucial plot elements (It‘s origin, the Turtle, how some adults can see Pennywise) are given scant explanation. This doesn’t detract too much from the book however; when a novel’s opening scene depicts a clown dragging a small child into a sewer to eat him, one aught to adjust their expectations accordingly. Don’t question the plot’s coherence; just turn your brain off and enjoy the trashy horror goodness.

When reviewing an extremely popular work, I try not to repeat information or ideas that will be available from thousands of other blogs and websites, but I will say that the infamous sex scene towards the end of this novel was damn weird.

I tried to rewatch the old movie version right after finishing the novel, but it’s very long and aside from Tim Curry, the acting is awful. I lasted about 20 minutes before watching a best-bits compilation on youtube. I will definitely be going to see the new version when it comes out.

 

cycle of the werewolf stephen kingCycle of the Werewolf – 1983

This story is packaged as an illustrated novel, but in reality, it’s shorter than some of King’s short stories. It’s about a werewolf on the loose in a small town. There’s nothing in here that you wouldn’t expect from the title and cover of the book. It’s not an unpleasant read, but I don’t think anyone would say that this is King at his finest. I read it on my commute to work one day.

 

carrie stephen kingCarrie – 1974

 King’s first novel, Carrie, is also one of his best. I started it one morning last week and had finished it by that afternoon. Obviously, this is a very popular work, one that has spawned 3-4 movie versions, and I was familiar with the plot before reading it, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely.

This is nowhere near as ambitious as a novel like It, but I reckon Carrie is actually the better book. The reader quickly comes to understand Carrie’s plight and to lust for her revenge, but this book also encourages its readers to consider how they treat the Carries in their own lives. It’s a simple formula, but it’s entertaining and effective.

 

I love Stephen King, but I’ll probably leave him alone for another few months. He’ll doubtlessly appear on this blog again. Oh, and sorry for the recent lack of posts; there should be a few new ones popping up fairly soon.

Hail to the King!

Rover, Wanderer, Nomad, Vagabond

tarry thou till i come crolyTarry Thou till I Come or Salathiel, the Wandering Jew – George Croly
Funk and Wagnalls – 1902 (Originally Published in 1828)

A long time ago, I read Paul Murray’s article on the greatest Gothic novels ever written. At that stage I had already read most of the books on the list*, and out of the ones I had not yet read, there was only one that I had never heard of: Salathiel The Immortal by George Croly. Murray’s description of the book reads:
Now almost forgotten, the Reverend George Croly was a friend of the Stoker family. In Salathiel the Immortal (1829), there are similarities of predicament between Salathiel and Dracula (as well as with that of Melmoth the Wanderer). Salathiel led the mob which promoted the death of Jesus, in return for which he was condemned to the misery of the undead state. A reshaping of the Wandering Jew legend which underlies so much of the gothic genre, including Melmoth the Wanderer. Like Maturin, Croly was a Church of Ireland clergyman.”
I have emboldened all the parts of this description that convinced me that I would have to read this book. I looked it up to research further, but could not find a single review. Ohhh, the alluring mystique! I quickly ordered a copy online, and when it arrived, I was thouroughly impressed with the physical book. It was printed in 1901, includes several full page colour illustrations, and ends with a bunch of notes and critical essays. It’s about 700 pages of small text though, so it sat on the shelf for four years before I found the time to read it.

tarry thou frontispiece
So, the Wandering Jew is a legendary character who was supposedly doomed to immortality after insulting Christ during the events leading up to his death. In this version of the tale, he is Salathiel, a priest of the Temple who had been gravely insulted by Christ’s heresy against traditional Judaism. Salathiel is the man who led the crowd demanding the blood of Christ. The book begins right at the moment of his exultation. As Jesus is lead to the cross, Salathiel hears a voice whisper “Tarry thou till I come” and understands that this is the voice of God telling him that he is going to have to wait around on Earth until Jesus returns on judgement day.

Ok, so we’re off to a good start: a cursed priest doomed to walk the earth until the end of time. Now this tale was originally published in 1828, so you would imagine that its 500+ pages cover a time period of almost two millennia. However, the protagonist’s most striking feature, his ability to survive for thousands of years, barely comes into play in the events of the story. The book ends with the destruction of the Second Temple, roughly 35 years after Jesus was crucified. Yes, Salathiel shows impressive endurance and manages to escape from some very tricky situations, but aside from the book’s title, first chapter and final chapter, there is very little in here that suggests anything preternatural about the title character; by the end of the book, he might be as young as 60.

tarry thou sorcerorSalathiel meets a sorceror and spirit (That’s him in the back.)

This book includes virginal maidens, gloomy dungeons, heros, tyrants, curses, bandits, miraculous survivals, clergy, secret passageways, night journeys, and strange spectres: in short all the things that one might expect to find in a Gothic novel. But these elements are strewn (rather sparsely I will add) amoungst 500 pages of historical fiction about the siege of Jerusalem. Realistically, this is a fairly dry adventure novel about a warrior who has little fear of death. The main character has to rescue his family from captivity about 5 times, he escapes from captivity himself about 10 times, and finds himself doing battle (both physical and mental) with countless foes. He becomes stranded on a desert island, he briefly takes command of a pirate ship, he plans devastating attacks against the Roman forces, and he does it all for the love of his wife and children. There are a few spooky parts; he meets a ghost, a magician and some strange spirits, but these events only make up a few paragraphs in this tome. Referring to this book as a Gothic novel is a bit of a stretch.

Just some of the adventures on which our hero finds himself

So maybe it’s not Gothic, but is it any good? Well, it took me well over a month to finish it. I found the first 300 pages or so to be very, very boring. In fact, when I was reading it, I started wondering if this was not a precursor to the modernist novel. I wondered if Croly had deliberately avoided mentioning the legend of the wandering Jew and instead focused on extremely boring details. The horrendously wordy prose inflicts a sense of brutal tedium on his reader, and this technique gives that reader a sense of what life would be like for an individual who was doomed to live forever. Is this a stroke of absolute genius, or is it just poor writing? It’s hard to say.

The characterization is quite awful. Aside from their names, Salathiel’s associates are mostly interchangeable; they’re either completely good or completely bad. Also, some characters reappear after hundreds of pages of absence, and the reader is expected to remember exactly who they are. The biggest problem is with the title character though. Aside from a few hasty moments when he is contemplating his daughters being courted by a goy, Salathiel, the hero of this novel, is a very sensible, rational, empathetic individual. The idea that he was the man that led the mob against Christ (the proverbial ‘Jew that broke the camel’s back’) is very strange indeed. I would not be surprised to find out that Croly had written the novel and tacked on the few Wandering Jew parts afterwards because he realized that nobody would be interested if he didn’t lure them in with a familiar legend.

tarry thou jesus crolyLOL, keep walking, lil bitch!

Of course, the legend of the Wandering Jew is in itself quite bizarre. The idea is that Jesus put a curse on the lad for being mean to him. Let’s just recall that the fundamental belief of Christianity is that Jesus Christ died so that the sins of man could be forgiven. Isn’t it a bit odd then that he would personally inflict immense suffering on any individual for wronging him? Also, the nature of Salathiel’s trangression isn’t even that severe when you consider the context in which it occurred. He, a holy man, genuinely believed that Christ was a heretic trying to pervert his religion. Sure, it was a shitty thing to do to try to get him killed, but Salathiel seems genuinely remorseful afterwards. If Jesus had only cursed him with a bad dose of verrucas, Salathiel probably would have had to sit down for a while to contemplate his bad behaviour, and I reckon he’d quickly realize that he had been a bit harsh. He would have asked God for forgiveness, and if God had truly meant all the stuff that he had just had Jesus tell everyone, he’d have to forgive Salathiel immediately. As things currently stand, Salathiel is doomed to suffer regardless of how remorseful he is. Jesus is a hypocrite.

To today’s socially conscious reader, the title of this book might set off alarm bells. After all, the Nazis once made a propaganda film titled Der Ewige Jude (the German name for the Eternal/Wandering Jew). The legend of the Wandering Jew is doubtlessly anti-Semitic in its origins, but in fairness to Croly, I think it is safe to say that this book was not anti-Semitic by the standards of the time in which it was written; he’s definitely not attempting to demonize the Jews. He is however, more than happy to malign black people at every given opportunity. At one point he refers to Ethiopians as “Barbarians, with a tongue and physiognomy worthy only of their kindred baboons”.

In fairness, this book does pick up quite a bit towards the end, but overall, it’s really not that great. Tarry Thou till I Come will be a real treat for anyone with an interest in historical, religious fiction, but it’s likely to bore the pants off everyone else. If you want to go ahead and check it out, the text is available online at archive.org. Make sure that you read this version though, as some of the other versions online only contain the first two out of its three volumes.

melmoth wanderer penguinMelmoth the Wanderer – Charles Maturin
Penguin – 2012 (Originally published in 1820)

Like I said earlier on, I bought my copy of Salathiel quite a while ago. I had originally planned to make this a comparative post weighing Croly’s book against Charles Stuart Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a book that I had read long before hearing of Croly’s. Unfortunately, so much time has passed since reading Melmoth that I can’t remember it terribly well. I do recall it being similar to Salathiel in the following ways:

  • It is also excessively long.
  • It is also about a cursed immortal.
  • It was also written by a protestant clergyman from Dublin.

Unlike Salathiel however, Melmoth the Wanderer is very definitely a Gothic novel. Its title character is immortal due to his dealings with Satan, not Jesus Christ. I know that I enjoyed Melmoth, but I recall it getting a bit boring in places. Regardless, all book-goths are obliged to read this one. The cover of the edition of this book that I own is one of the reasons that I try not to buy modern reprints of old books. Luminous pink, turquoise and orange for the cover of one of the classics of Gothic literature? No fucking thank you Mr. Penguin!

 

*The following is the list of Paul Murray’s 10 favourite Gothic novels from the article that set me on the track of Salathiel.

  1. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  2. History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford
  3. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  4. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  6. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
  7. Salathiel the Immortal by George Croly
  8. Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer or Thomas Pecket Prest
  9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Dracula by Bram Stoker

Now that this post has been published, I have managed to review all of these books except Frankenstein. I’ll have to reread it and get it up here soon!

Rover, Wanderer, Nomad, Vagabond

The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin The Mage: the 100th post on Nocturnal Revelries

the book of sacred magic of abramelin the mageThe Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage – Abraham of Würzburg (Translated by S.L. MacGregor Mathers)
Dover – 1975

Wow, 100 posts! I don’t think I realized how much work I was going to put into reviewing dumb books when I started. This blog now contains more words than most of the books that have appeared on it. To celebrate this momentous achievement, I’m going to briefly review the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, a curious grimoire of angelic magic. I first heard of it in the BBC documentary about Aleister Crowley’s house by Loch Ness, and I remember soon thereafter watching a video of Robert Anton Wilson discussing how he had attempted to perform part of the Abramelin ritual while tripping on acid, but it wasn’t until I heard the name of the text being mentioned in Ghoulies, one of the finest motion pictures ever made, that I knew that I needed a copy for my library. This book of spells purports to have been written in 1458, but the oldest surviving copies date from 1608. Many grimoires claim to be far older than they really are as that makes them seem more mysterious, but if this text was written in 1608, you’d imagine that the author would have set it back more than 150 years. Regardless of its authenticity, this is a rather interesting read.

I don’t want to spend too much time going into the plot details as there are plenty of summaries of this book to be found online, but the idea here is that in 1458, an old man named Abraham wanted to give his younger son, Lamech, a present. He had already let his eldest son in on his knowledge of Kaballah, so he decided to initiate Lamech into the secrets of Sacred Magic instead. He himself had come across these secrets from a hermit named Abramelin. We never find out much about Abramelin, but his magical secrets had supposedly made their way to him from the lads in the Old Testament.

There are three books within this book. The first of which gives Abraham’s account of how he came by this magic, and the second book gives the instructions for a 6 or 18 month ritual that one must go through in order to use the spells that make up Book 3. The lengthy ritual puts the magician into contact with his guardian angel. (I use the masculine pronoun purposefully here; women aren’t really supposed to practice this magic.) The guardian angel then grants the magician the power to control demons. This makes for a weird form of whitened-black magic. The practitioner is commanding legions of evil spirits to do his bidding, but he is doing so under the guidance of a good spirit. The standard how-to-turn-invisible/tell-the-future/get-money spells are all here, but it is presumed that the magus will only utilize these abilities for the good of all humanity.  Abraham strongly advises that this system of magic never be used for evil purposes, but he nevertheless includes instructions on how to cast spells upon Men, to bewitch beasts, to cast spells upon the liver, heart, head and other parts of the body, to demolish buildings, to ruin possessions, to excite emnity in general, to excite quarrels and fights, and to cause a general war.

Each spell comes in the form of a magical square. These look a bit like wordsearches, and each one must be used in a certain way. You generally have to make a copy of the square, rub it on your bum or keep it in your hat for a few days and then plant it close to the thing you want to bewitch.

spell square abramelin
The Spell Square to “make work done in inaccessible places”

It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone being in the position to give up 6 months of their life to perform the ritual as described in Book 2. The ritual must also be performed in a very specific type of building, so unless you’re a millionaire, you’re probably not going to have the opportunity to get this done. Aleister Crowley tried in 1901, but he didn’t get to finish it. The fact that he didn’t finish the ritual meant that the demons he evoked were never banished and were left free to haunt the house where he had evoked them. (Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page bought the house in 1970, but it has since burned down.) The book is fairly clear that its instructions must be followed very carefully, and I doubt many people have had both the determination and the means to actually go through with it. A few of those who have claimed to complete the ritual have published the diaries that they kept throughout. I would imagine these accounts are very boring indeed.

The Mathers version of the Book of Abramelin, the text that I read, was translated from an incomplete, already translated version of the original text. The manuscript that Mathers translated is of a later date than the copies that have since been discovered, and it only contained 3 books while the earlier German versions contain 4. The missing book is about the Kaballah though, so I’m actually pretty relieved that I didn’t have to waste my time reading it. The other big differences between the texts are that Mathers got some of the ingredients for one of the potions wrong, his version of the ritual is 6 rather than 18 months long, and his versions of the magic squares are missing some letters.

Unlike many grimoires, the Book of Abramelin is actually a fairly entertaining read. The narrative of the first book reads like a novella, and the unique bad-angels-working-for-good-angels-working-for-the-magician-working-for-God concept makes the magical instruction fairly interesting too. George Dehn and Steven Guth put out a translation of one of the older manuscripts, but unless you were seriously considering performing the ritual herein described, I wouldn’t bother shelling out the extra money. The Mathers translation may not the most authentic version of this book of spells, but it still includes all of the bits I’d be interested in. That being said, if I ever come across a cheap copy of the newer translation, I’d probably take a look.

If you want a far more in depth look at Abramelin’s magic, check out this blog.

The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin The Mage: the 100th post on Nocturnal Revelries

To give the Devil his due

amelia wilson the devilThe Devil – Amelia Wilson
Barrons – 2002
I bought this book for 2 dollars from a thrift store years ago. I finally picked it off the shelf recently because it’s short and I needed a break from a very long, dry Gothic novel that I have been reading. It met my expectations but did not exceed them. The paper it’s printed on is nice, and there are lots of cool pictures, but it contains very little information that I haven’t come across before.

The first half of the book goes into the origin of Satan as a devil. It discusses Biblical pseudepigrapha, folklore and Zoroastrianism. I liked this part, and was pleased at the level of detail it went into. Wilson clearly does not like how Christians have turned Lucifer into the bad guy.

ride to the sabbathRide to the Sabbath!

Next up, there is a section on the witch trials. Nothing special. This is followed by a short and very disappointing chapter on Satan’s place in modern society. There’s a page or two on films featuring the Devil, and very cursory glance at how he has influenced modern music. The Church of Satan is mentioned, but the author doesn’t attempt to explain its philosophy. There is one reference that quite irritated me. It reads; “One figure who has stirred a lot of controversy, is Aleister Crowley, a renowned ceremonial magician and expert in the occult who wrote extensively on the subject. There is no hard evidence that Crowley was in fact a Satanist, although many people who do consider themselves Satanists have read his books.” That’s all the book has to say about Crowley. There is absolutely no explanation as to why Wilson thought it important to mention him, and the wording of her reference suggests that Crowley was a Satanist because many Satanists have read his books. By the same logic, drinking water and breathing air are also Satanic. If you want to read a decent book on Satan’s place in modern culture, check out Gavin Baddeley’s Lucifer Rising.

hell
Wow, this is the most boring post I’ve written in quite a while. In fairness to myself though, I wasn’t give much to work with. This book wasn’t absolutely awful, but there are plenty of far more insightful texts on the same topic. I’ll keep it only because I enjoy filling my bookshelves with books that mention the devil in their titles.
devil books

To give the Devil his due

Mr. Crowley, what went on in your head?

I’ve written about Aleister Crowley’s books before, but of the texts I reviewed, one was a novel and the other a translation. I thought it high time to look at some of Crowley’s mystical texts, the ones in which he propounds his deepest insights into magick, humanity and existence. To start, I decided to look at what is perhaps his best known work, the Book of the Law.

Just to get this out in the open right away: I’m not an expert on Crowley, and this is mostly an opinion piece. If you are a dedicated Thelemite and you feel frustrated/offended by anything in this post, please leave a comment and explain to me where I have erred. I would genuinely be interested in your insight.
liber al
The text of the Book of the Law or Liber AL vel Legis (hereafter to be referred to as AL) was supposedly revealed to Aleister Crowley by a guardian angel styled spirit named Aiwass in 1904. The work is rather short (about 20 pages), but it provides the foundation for the religion of Thelema. Much of Aleister Crowley’s subsequent literary output either references this text or serves as a commentary on it. While not an expert by any means, I’ve been mildly interested in Aleister Crowley for a few years, and I’ve had an idea of the importance of this book to his followers ever since I read about it after buying my first Fields of the Nephilim cd. I decided to buy a copy of AL a few years ago, but then I found out that the text was included in its entirety in Crowley’s Liber ABA, Book 4, Magick, a much larger and more expensive book that, for some reason I have since forgotten, I was determined to own. I thus decided that I would wait until I owned a copy of Book 4 before reading the Book of the Law. In the meantime, I found myself in possession of a book called Portable Darkness. This is a collection of assorted writings by Crowley that also includes the text of the Book of Law, but it doesn’t contain the infamous Comment section. I hate abridgments and so decided not to read AL until I owned the complete text. Eventually I found an affordable copy of Book 4, but when I opened it up and realized that it was largely about yoga, I felt desperately ashamed of myself and put it on the shelf to collect dust for few years.

I decided to read AL a few months ago, but I wanted to do a bit of research on it beforehand to ensure a decent level of understanding. I read essays about it in Portable Darkness and DisInformation’s Book of Lies and on countless websites. I listened to youtube clips of Robert Anton Wilson’s ramblings on Crowley, and I even read the wikipedia pages of the Egyptian deities that I knew were going to be alluded to in the Book of the Law. I felt fairly prepared by the time I opened the book.

Jesus Christ lads, what a pile of muck.

Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this garbage. I’ve long understood that Aleister Crowley was both full of shit and had his head up his arse, and I wasn’t really surprised that he had the audacity to present this hogwash as divine revelation, but I was a little taken aback by extent to which he has gotten away with it. I could break the text down and analyze it piece by piece, but it doesn’t merit doing that. With the amount of time and effort it would take to squeeze any form of meaningful interpretation out of this barrel of masturbatory vomit, a person could doubtlessly resolve several of their real life problems. Thelemites, I have deduced, are just religious hipsters. Their religion is far more obscure than yours; I mean, you’ve probably never even heard of it, and you almost definitely wouldn’t get it if you did. Other tortuous religious texts have the excuse that they were written thousands of years ago by individuals living in societies that were vastly different our own. The Book of the Law, on the other hand, was written by a smackhead British toff that wanted to make himself sound mysterious and smart so that he could get girls (and a few fellas) to sleep with him. If you’ve been thinking about reading this piece of trash, take my advice: spend that time updating your CV and applying for a new job instead.

do what thou wiltNow, if you are ever lucky enough to be in my apartment, you might notice the above sign. Why would a person who has such disdain for Crowley’s masterpiece place its credo above his front door? Well, the phrase ‘Do what thou wilt’ and the word ‘Thelema’ actually come from one of my favourite books, the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. In this long and lurid tale, the Abbey of Thélème is basically a monastery, led by the licentious Friar John (pictured above), where the only rule that the brothers must follow is ‘Do what thou wilt’. This phrase was later adopted as a motto for the Hellfire Clubs. Interestingly enough, it’s also word-for-word the advice given by Mephistopheles to Faustus after he has turned the good Doctor invisible inside the chambers of the pope in the 7th scene of Marlowe’s tragedy (A-text).

crowley book of lies
I also read The Book of Lies. This book is probably slightly more self indulgent than the Book of the Law, but it’s made a little more palatable by the fact that it comes across as being more aware of its own absurdity. (I’m not saying that Crowley wasn’t aware of how obnoxious the Book of the Law seems; he might well have written it just to wind people up.) The Book of Lies, or to give it its full title, The Book of Lies,Which is also Falsely Called BREAKS. The Wanderings or Falsifications of the One Thought of Frater Perdurabo, which Thought is itself Untrue. Liber CCCXXXIII [Book 333], is broken up into 91 little passages that can be read as poems, jokes, philosophical aphorisms, nuggets of advice, magickal instructions and/or riddles. Each passage comes with a commentary from Aleister that’s supposed to explain it. Most of this book is absolute rubbish, but there were a few bits that made me think.

The 80th passage starts off:

“The price of existence is eternal warfare.
Speaking as an Irishman, I prefer to say: The price
of eternal warfare is existence.
And melancholy as existence is, the price is well
worth paying.
Is there is a Government? then I’m agin it! To Hell
with the bloody English!”

A self-professed Irishman? Wasn’t he born and raised in England? Crowley’s attitude towards Ireland was a little strange. He once wrote a rather curious poem to Saint Patrick, requesting that the saint come back to again rid the country of snakes (an apt metaphor for the brits). Within the O.T.O. Crowley obtained the title of Supreme and Holy King of Ireland, Iona and all the Britains within the Sanctuary of the Gnosis, and two years later, in 1914, he went to New York and tried to convince people that he  was there to raise support for Irish independence. His attempts to do so included writing a declaration of independence for the Irish Republic. As with much of what he did, it is very hard to tell how sincere he was being, but he definitely seems to have been on the right side of the argument. The above chapter is a little cringey, but I like the idea of existence being the downside of chaos.
aleister crowley IRA
There’s another interesting bit in the commentary for chapter 46 where Aleister says,

“The lesson of the chapter is thus always to rise
hungry from a meal, always to violate one’s own nature.
Keep on acquiring a taste for what is naturally
repugnant; this is an unfailing source of pleasure”

There’s something wonderfully Sadean about this notion, and although seemingly paradoxical, it’s remarkably accurate. Humans get bored very easily, and we love doing what we shouldn’t. Hardcore pornography, death metal, super spicy food and ultraviolent films might seem rather unpleasant the first time they are encountered, but they all have the potential to become ‘unfailing sources of pleasure’. However, while I think that Crowley’s observation on the insatiability of human nature is interesting, I’m not sure that I agree with his advice. While our tendency may be to intensify our pleasures, I think it might be dangerous to make the intensification the goal. I’m not preaching humility here; I just reckon that there comes a point in most human endeavors where enough is enough.

There were a few other bits and pieces in here that made me think, but it probably wasn’t really worth reading the whole thing to find them. The most rewarding part of the book was probably when I finally got the Psalm 69 joke that Ministry used on their ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ album. I’ve listened to that record a thousand times, and I have often wondered what the ‘the way to succeed and the way to suck eggs’ line meant. After reading the commentary here, I felt a bit silly for not getting it sooner. I guess I just never thought that Al Jourgensen would be smart enough to use puns. Chapter 88 (Gold Bricks) is pretty funny too. I’ll leave you to find it for yourself.

There you have it. Aleister Crowley led a very interesting life, but his books are shit. His magical writings serve as little more than ‘how to be Harry Potter’ instruction manuals for grown-ups who want to play make-believe (or is it believe-make?) In fairness to Crowley, I don’t think either the Book of the Law or the Book of Lies are aimed at beginners, but if understanding these works is the what reading his other books will allow me to do, I’ll probably not be bothering.

Mr. Crowley, what went on in your head?

Die Faustbücher

faust demon 17It was long ago that I first noticed the big can of worms labelled ‘Faust’ on the shelf of literature,  and despite an occasional peek inside, I was never certain of the precise nature of its gooey contents. Recently, I felt compelled to make a more thorough investigation, but after determining to take down the curious container in order to examine its contents, it slipped off the shelf, smashed on my head, and covered me with its slime.

faust demon 13The (very cool) illustrations throughout this post are taken from Doktor Johannes Faust’s Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis (Dreifacher Höllenzwang, letztes Testament and Siegelkunst), the Faustian Grimoire.

The Faustian legend, the story of a man selling his soul to the devil for a few years of power and wisdom, has so many potential sources that it is quite impossible to say precisely where it came from. The character of Faust draws on several real individuals including Simon Magus, Agrippa of Nettesheim, Paracelsus and the actual Johann Georg Faust, a travelling German magician who lived in the 16th century. However, as fascinating a topic as this is, I don’t want to pretend that I have any novel ideas on the origin of the legend. My goal for this post is more to outline and examine some of the major strains of the rather complicated textual history of Faust. The Faustian legend has long been considered an appropriate topic for serious academic study, but despite, if not because of, the quantity of writing about this legend, it can be quite tricky to distinguish between the different types of books about Faust. I’m going to look specifically at Faustian chapbooks, the plays that immortalized the legend, and some Faustian grimoires.

faust demon 16

The first printed versions of the Faust story appeared in German chapbooks in the late 16th century. The very first and seemingly most popular of these Faustbuchs was titled Historia von D. Johann Fausten, dem weitbeschreyten Zauberer und Schartzkünstler or The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus. The first widely read edition of this text was published in 1587 in Frankfurt by Johann Spies, but a slightly different, shorter version exists in manuscript form. New editions of this Faustbuch almost always contained additions to the tale (usually appropriations of other folk tales), and as the Wolfenbüttel Manuscript dates from the same time as the Spies edition yet contains a more concise version of the tale, it is assumed to be closer to the original text. (We do not know the origin or author of the original text.) The Spies version was translated into English in 1592, and it was almost definitely this translation that introduced the story of Faust to Christopher Marlowe. (I got my info on the Wolfenbüttel Manuscript here.)

I read the online translation of the Wolfenbüttel Manuscript and the 1592, English translation of the Spies edition of the Faustbuch.  Both tell the standard story of Dr. Faustus. (I’m going to assume that my readers have some familiarity with the legend, but for those who need a reminder, it’s basically the tale of a smart lad who gets bored, sells his soul to the Devil for 24 years of servitude, spends the rest of his life either causing mischief or having theological debates with his Hellservant, and eventually comes to regret his decision just before he has his body torn apart and strewn in shite.) The Faustbuch gives more detail on some of the events that are only briefly alluded to in other more popular versions of the tale, including Faust’s trips to Hell and Outer-Space, but the sections in here that Goethe and Marlowe chose to omit completely are chapters in which Faust plays the role of a folk hero, uniting lovers or stealing wine from the wealthy to give to poor students. There was one part where he comes across four other magicians who are performing a party trick that involves them cutting off their heads and reattaching them. Faust gets jealous and interferes with their trick so that one of their heads becomes unattachable. It really reminded me that episode of the X-Files where the magician’s head fell off. The other memorable Faustian rarity included in here is an episode in which Faust temporarily curses a man’s penis with flaccidity to prevent him from making love to another fellow’s wife.

The manuscript version has only 44 chapters, while the Spies version has 63. These extra chapters tell of Faust seeking paradise from a mountaintop, explaining the nature of thunder, casting a spell on some drunks to keep their mouths open forever, showing the Duke of Anholt a big magical castle, getting Mephistopheles to summon him 7 beautiful women so that he can ride them, digging a tunnel to treasure guarded by a Hellish serpent, and a few other bits and pieces. Later editions of the Faustbuch doubtlessly contain more such additions, but I’m in no rush to seek them out.

And indeed many other chapbooks were printed about Faust, but they all seem to have been published in German and I haven’t been able to track down translations. Wikipedia mentions Das Wagnerbuch (1593), Das Widmann’sche Faustbuch (1599), Das Pfitzer’sche Faustbuch (1674), and Faustbuch des Christlich Meynenden (1725). I haven’t read any of these, but I presume that they are just slightly different tellings of the same story. Several of these texts, along with a bunch of Faustian grimoires, were assembled in a collection called Das Kloster by a guy called Johann Scheible between 1845 and 1849, but again, I don’t think this has ever been translated in its entirety.

marlowe faustThe Tragedy of Doctor Faustus: Norton Critical Edition – 2005
Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe’s play played a huge role in popularizing the legend amoungst English speaking audiences, and may still be the most popular version of the story. It was written between 1588 and 1593, but the earliest surviving text version of the play dates from 1604 (the so called A text). There’s also a longer version of the play, dating from 1616 (the B text). The B text spends more time making the Pope look like a dickhead, features slightly more on-stage devilry, goes into more detail on the Horny Knight subplot (not as interesting as you might think), and depicts a more gruesome end to Faustus. There’s also lots of small differences between the wording of the two texts. Both versions are considered canonical at this stage, and many printings of the play include the two of them.

Personally, I reckon the A text is probably the best place to start if you haven’t read anything else about Faust. (The additions in the B version are frivolous, and they upset the tone of the play in my opinion.) In the A text, Marlowe trims the folkish-fat from the Faustbuch, and while presenting an issue that demands contemplation, he doesn’t get bogged down in existentialism; as George Henry Lewis wrote, “The reader who opens ‘Faustus’ under the impression that he is about to see a philosophical problem treated philosophically, will have mistaken both the character of Marlowe’s genius and of Marlowe’s epoch.” This is the reduced nonsense version of the tale and genuinely one of my favourite pieces of literature. I beseech you to take the time to read it if you have not already done so.

Marlowe 2nd edition.jpgTitle page of 2nd edition of the B version of the text.

 I first encountered Marlowe’s Faust in a class on Renaissance literature when I was 20. I had a part-time job in a carpark at the time and I managed to read the two versions of the play over the course of my Sunday shift. It felt mighty good to get paid for reading a book (although the essay that I wrote about the play afterwards was absolutely rubbish). 10 years have passed, and as it so happens, I managed to reread the B text while in work today.  It still felt good.

The popularity of Marlowe’s Faust led to several other dramatic treatments of the play including William Mountfort’s The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, made into a farce (1697) and John Rich’s The Necromancer, or Harlequin Dr. Faustus (1723), but these were mere pantomimes. The texts are online, but I have spent the last month reading nothing but different versions of the story of Faust, so I’m not going to bother with them right now. The next important development in the story of the story of Faust comes in the 19th century when Goethe completes his version of the tale after working on it for almost 60 years.

faust demon 4It is quite certain that Goethe was familiar with at least some of the Faustian Grimoires that were kicking about Germany at the time. (Although this image almost definitely dates from after his death.)

While there are two versions of Marlowe’s rendition of the story of Faust, there are two parts to Goethe’s. (There are several early versions and drafts kicking about too, but unlike Marlowe’s, there is some certainty about which is the definitive version of Goethe’s play.) The first versions of Goethe’s Faust appeared in the early 1770s, but the first version of a distinct Part One was published in 1808. It was revised 2 decades later. The second part was published in 1832, a few months after Goethe’s death. He had only just finished it when he died.

faust part oneFaust: Part One – Penguin Classics Edition – Translated by Philip Wayne (1971)
Faust: First Part – Bantam World Drama – Translated by Peter Salm (1967)

Part One is a relatively straightforward version of the first part of the tale of Faust. The biggest difference here, and this doesn’t really come into play until Part Two, is that Goethe’s Faust doesn’t make a deal with the Devil; he makes a bet with him. Faust bets Mephistopheles that nothing the Devil can offer him will be able to provide him with any real sense of satisfaction. Goethe also introduces Gretchen, a corporeal love interest for the Doctor, and it is Faust’s betrayal of Gretchen that makes this play a tragedy.

Goethe’s Faust is considered by many to be the single finest accomplishment of German literature. The entire work is full of allusions to mythology, philosophy and 19th century German politics, and although Part One seems very straightforward in comparison to Part Two, it still contains some rather weird bits that are hard to make sense of. Believe me, I’ve had to read Midsummer Night’s Dream more times than I can count, so when I saw the section titled “Walpurgis Night’s Dream” I thought I’d breeze through it. Let’s just say that I was very wrong… Also, Goethe’s Faust is considered a Closet Drama (a play that is not actually meant to be performed), and while it looks like a play, it reads more like an epic poem. Because of its complicated poetic nature, any translation is bound to be infinitely inferior to the original. Thankfully, one of the versions of Part One that I own is a straightforward prose translation. I read this in conjunction with chapter summaries online to make sure that I was getting the most out of the work.

faust demon 5

I first read Part One a few years ago, but I went over it again for this post. Directly afterwards, I picked up the copy of Part Two that I had nabbed from a free books table at school last year. To my great disgust, the translator had attempted to put the whole thing in rhyming verse. I went to the library the next day and took out a few different translations. They all rhymed. It turns out that the rhyming scheme and meters used in Part Two are actually relevant to its plot; hence the lack of prose translations. I judged the 2009 Penguin translation by David Constantine to be the best one. It contains brief chapter summaries and decent notes. I also found these online chapter summaries and notes by Bruce McLennan to be extremely helpful in making sense of what was happening.

faust part twoFaust: Part Two – Penguin Classics Edition – Translated by Philip Wayne (1971)
Faust: Part II – Penguin Classics Edition – Translated by David Constantine (2005)
Faust I & II – Princeton – Translated by Stuart Atkins (1994)

Part Two of Goethe’s Faust steers well away from the traditional Faust story. Here, Faust falls so madly in love with the conjured phantom of Helen of Troy that he travels to the underworld of Ancient Greece so that he can be with her. He is accompanied by Mephistopheles and a Homunculus created by his friend Wagner. (I wondered if Goethe, a German Freemason might have encountered the mysterious Die Sphinx, but it was actually published 41 years after his death!) Things get a bit awkward because Mephistopheles is a Christian devil (I mean a Devil according to Christianity, not a Devil that goes to mass), and devils don’t have any jurisdiction in the Greek underworld. The three lads embark on separate journeys of self discovery and each encounter a bunch of different, often rather esoteric, characters from Greek mythology. This is fairly heavy going; I’m decently familiar with Greek mythology, but I would have been completely lost without the footnotes.

goethe and defoeI noticed that this shitty version of Faust Part Two has the exact same cover as another shitty book in my collection. (Image is Eugène Delacroix’s Mephistopheles Over Wittenberg, 1839)

mephistophiel
Goethe’s Mephistopheles (and his Homunculus) seem to be extensions of Faust’s personality rather than separate characters. (I’m sure there have been essays written comparing these three characters to Plato’s tripartite soul, Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego and probably even the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.) Goethe’s Faust isn’t a warning to the curious; it’s a deeply symbolic and philosophic exploration of virtue, evil and human nature. I’m sure the original German text is far more enjoyable, but Constantine’s translation is still a rewarding (if very challenging) read.

“These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.”
Marlowe’s Faustus – Act I, Scene I

Magical books play a role in all of the different versions of the Faust story that I have thus mentioned, and it was only a matter of time before followers of the legend began seeking/counterfeiting these diabolical grimoires. There are many grimoires attributed to Faust, but like everything else relating to this legend, they’re mostly in German. The most well known is probably Magia naturalis et innaturalis, oder dreifacher Höllenzwang, letztes Testament und Siegelkunst. Like the other Faustian grimoires, this work was supposedly written in the early 16th century, but the earliest edition dates from a few hundred years later. (This one was supposedly from 1505, but it was published in 1849.)

black raven
Magia naturalis et innaturalis features the above image of a black bird right at its beginning, and you might read online that this image has supposedly led to the book becoming known as The Black Raven. However, looking for a translation Faust’s Black Raven will almost certainly lead you to a pdf version of very short Faustian grimoire titled ‘Doctor Johannes Faust’s Magical Art and Miracle Book or The Black Raven or also called The Threefold Coercion of Hell’. I’ve seen a few other bloggers complain that this translation isn’t accurate and that it’s far too short. While I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation, I can say for certain that this is not supposed to be a translation of Magia naturalis et innaturalis. This short document is actually a translation of a grimoire called Dr. Johann Faustens Miracul-Kunst- und Wunder-Buch oder der schwarze Rabe auch der Dreifache Höllenzwang genannt that was included in Scheible’s Das Kloster (original text here).

original black raven.jpgThe Black Raven of Dr. Faust’s Wonderbook

Owen Davies, in his Grimoires: A History of Magical Texts, refers to what sounds like yet another text featuring the curious bird, and so it seems that that the Black Raven is actually a subgenre of Faustian grimoire rather than a specific text.

Magia naturalis et innaturalis has been translated, but these translations have been put out in small runs, and I haven’t found a copy online. I really doubt that the text lives up to the standard of its accompanying images anyway; it looks like a Kabbalistic nightmare. I did read through the translation of the shorter Black Raven, but reading it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as trying to figure out where it came from. People distinguish between Faustian grimoires and Solomonic grimoires, but this read like a shit version of the Grand Grimoire: Draw a circle on the floor, say a few spells, howiye Mephisto.

An assortment of Faustian Demons from Magia naturalis et innaturalis

Well that about covers what I wanted to say. Hopefully this post will help clear things up for anyone doing preliminary research on the texts of Faust legend. There are of course many more books on, about and supposedly by Faust, but I have limited this post to the Faustian Chapbooks or Faustbooks, the major dramatic representations, and the grimoires attributed to the learnéd doctor. Although the legend of Faust is distinctly satanic and deals with the occult, allusions to the legend and the Faustian theme are to be encountered infrequently by anyone with an interest in literature. I hope it will be a long time before I write another dedicated Faustpost, but you are quite sure to come across references to this legend in many of my future posts. To conclude then, I want to warn you that if you’re seriously considering making an infernal pact with the Prince of Hell but are worried about the consequences… don’t hesitate. Remember that Goethe’s Faust got away with it. Open a vein and sign up immediately. You’ll be fine.

Oh, and happy Easter!

Die Faustbücher