It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to writing a post about Aleister Crowley. It’s hard to know what to believe about the man; some see him as a prophet, while many others see him as a charlatan. In this post I discuss three different portrayals of Crowley. The three accounts come from novels, but the authors of these novels actually knew Crowley in real life. Their accounts are therefore infinitely more reliable than the many biographies written by people who never met him. I’ll start off with Crowley’s own novel.
Moonchild – Aleister Crowley
Weiser – 1996
He may have been many things, but a good novelist, Aleister Crowley was not. This book is about a team of magicians who force a woman to undergo a ritual pregnancy to create a “moonchild” (Don’t ask what that is. I’ve read the book, and I don’t fucking know.). Another team of evil magicians, the Black Lodge, tries its best to stop this from happening. The premise is promising, but the plot reads as if it was made up as the book was being written; it starts off decently, but by the end it feels like Crowley has gotten bored with his own story and wants to be done with it as soon as possible. The ending is so unsatisfying that it makes the rest of the book feel like a waste of time. (Imagine getting halfway through Jaws and witnessing the characters giving up and saying “Fuck it. Let’s just move to Colorado where there’s no sharks.”) Also, the mix of fiction and mystical philosophy is tolerable at first, but unless you’re a fedora-wearing goth, it will get very boring very quickly.
All of the black magicians are based on people who Crowley disliked in real life. Edwin Arthwait is Arthur Edward Waite, the lean Protestant-Irishman named Gates is W.B. Yeats, and S.R.M.D is Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. (All of these lads were Crowley’s former Golden Dawn buddies.) Cyril Grey and Simon Iff are a Stephen Dedalus/Leopold Bloom tag-team version of Crowley himself. The fact that the author put two versions of himself into his book might give you an idea of his inflated sense of self-importance.
There were two parts of this book that I really liked. The first is when a lad called Balloch calls a lad called Akbar a “piece of dirt”. The second is a depiction of a grisly necromantic ritual. I won’t ruin it for you, but it involves a lot of animal blood and the corpse of William Butler Yeats. The book is actually worth reading for that particular scene alone.
This is a novel, but I’m sure that some of it was based on personal experiences. The characters representing Crowley are the good guys, and their magic is limited to a little astral projection here and there, but Crowley himself could well have been privy to depraved rituals similar to those of the Black Lodge. From what I understand about the man, he revelled in the air of mystery that surrounded him, and this book serves to propagate that air.
I bought this book ages ago, and I was fairly disappointed when I got around to reading it. The plot is shit, the characters are annoying, and ultimately it serves as little more than an ego wank. Overall, it provides the least interesting account of Crowley out of these three books.
The Magician – W. Somerset Maugham
Penguin – 1967
What a relief it was to read this book after slogging through Moonchild! This is a fast-paced, gothic thriller about an evil magician who does his best to fuck up the relationship between a young couple. He uses black magic to take control of the girl, and he forms despicable plans to use her in an unspeakable experiment. Maugham wrote this novel early in his career and later claimed to have completely forgotten about it. It’s not supposed to be his greatest work, but I fucking loved it. It’s genuinely exciting, it doesn’t shy away from violence, and it doesn’t get bogged down in tedious mysticism. The ending is fucking glorious too; I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who might read it, but holy shit, there are freaks in the attic!
So why am I including this book in this post? Well, the evil magician, one Oliver Haddo, is based on Aleister Crowley. In an introductory note, Maugham describes how he met Crowley in Paris and took an instant dislike to him. He claims that Crowley served as a model for Haddo, but that Haddo is not supposed to be a portrait of Crowley.
This is the back cover of my copy of The Magician. Note that the magician is mistakenly referred to as Richard Haddo instead of Oliver. Oh Drat!
So what’s Oliver Haddo like? Well, one point that is made perfectly clear is that he is a plus-sized gentleman. References to his girth are made whenever he appears; indeed, the subtext of this entire novel reads “Aleister Crowley is a fatty-fatty-boombalatty”. What I found more interesting though, were the similarities between Haddo and Crowley’s own depiction of himself in Moonchild. In both books he is described as having a peculiar glare and the ability to enter or exit a room without notice. He is also depicted as being a very difficult man to read; he seems in both books to have a very odd, yet intriguing manner about him. Maugham claims that he was simultaneously interested, amused and repulsed by Crowley in real life.
Haddo’s most sinister plan is to use the blood of a virgin to create homunculi (little goblin people that are made through magic). Could the real Crowley have been so fiendish? Well, homunculi are also discussed at length in Moonchild. Crowley there puts forth a theory of reincarnation in which souls compete for human bodies. Every incarnated soul will have three forces acting on it: the soul itself, heredity and its environment. Souls should therefore look for bodies whose heredity and environments come with as few restrictions as possible. (By their nature, homunculi have no heredity and would therefore be freer than other bodies.) The aim of the magicians in Moonchild is to magically induce a scenario where a powerful soul will be convinced to enter the body of their ritual baby. This baby was conceived in the normal way and so can only be considered a homunculus in a very loose sense of the word. Conversely, Haddo’s creations in The Magician are homunculi in the very literal sense of the world. The unholy, fabricated mutants are probably the most fantastic element of Maugham’s story, but the real Crowley clearly had come across the idea in his own practice. Is it possible that he attempted to create life out of nothing? I see no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have tried to do so; it’s not like the guy was renowned for his ethical integrity.
Anyways, so transparent was Maugham’s use of Crowley as a model for Haddo that Crowley actually wrote a review of The Magician for Vanity Fair. He even signed the article as Oliver Haddo. His main criticism was that Maugham had plagiarized much of the material in his book. (Note that one of the sources he recognized as plagiarized was a passage on the creation of homunculi from Franz Hartmann’s book about Paracelcus!) This would be a fair complaint if The Magician was an essay, but the plagiarism doesn’t make the novel any less entertaining. Also, I probably wouldn’t have discovered this wonderful novel if it weren’t for the plagiarism herein. Crowley’s response to the novel and his further comments on Maugham are quite interesting; he gets a little bitchy at him, but he’s never really nasty. From the little I know about the man, I reckon he gained enormous pleasure from the fact that somebody had written a book about him, regardless of the content.
To the Devil a Daughter – Dennis Wheatley
Arrow – 1966
I read this book a year and a half ago, and as I remember, it’s the story of an evil priest called Canon Copely-Syle who is trying to get control of a girl to use her in his attempt to create a homunculus. The girl in question is a quiet, well-behaved young woman during the day, but at night, a satanic influence causes her to become a brazen little jezebel. This is a Dennis Wheatley novel, and so the victim is obviously saved by a team of upper-class Brits who have both served in the military and somehow amassed a wide knowledge of the occult. It’s also full of the casual racism and weird demons appearing out clouds of smoke that I have learned to expect in a Wheatley novel. This is total trash, but it is the exact kind of trash that I adore. My goodreads review for this book simply reads; “I can’t say this is one of the best books that I have read, but I can certainly say it’s one of my favourites. A damn fine novel.” There is a film that was loosely based on it too. It’s not nearly as good as the film version of The Devil Rides Out, but it’s definitely worth a watch.
It’s interesting coming back to this book after having read The Magician. When I started reading The Magician, I kept thinking to myself that it was like a more stylish version of a Dennis Wheatley novel. Once I got a bit into it, I realized that it is pretty much exactly that. Wheatley draws heavily from The Magican for the plot of To the Devil a Daughter. He does it in a pretty cool way though. The girl in The Magician slowly goes from good to bad, but the girl in this one alternates between the two every 12 hours. And if Oliver Haddo is supposed to be an over-the-top version of Crowley, then Canon Copely-Syle is the same thing pushed 1 step further. There’s even a cool scene in this novel where the Canon discusses Crowley. He initially refers to him as a charlatan, but he is told a story that leads him to accept that Crowley had reached the magical degree of Ipsissimus.
I have another book about Crowley called Portable Darkness. I bought it because it was cheap and it features a foreword by Robert Anton Wilson. The foreword begins: “Everyone knows the sinister story of how Aleister Crowley and his son, MacAleister, went one dark night into a hotel room in Paris and howled within a magic triangle the nameless names that invoked the Devil. The results, we are told, were eldritch and abominable, as the late great H.P. Lovecraft would say. MacAleister was found dead of a heart attack.” (I have read other versions of this story in which the son’s head was either torn off or turned 180 degrees around by the demon.) Wilson notes that this story, which is accepted as true by many occultists, has its basis in the story told to the Canon in To The Devil A Daughter. Wilson therefore dismisses it as entirely fictional. Wheatley however, did not consider the story to be fictional at all. In his non-fiction work, The Devil And All His Works, he tells how he was quite fond of Crowley and how he would often have him over for dinner. This book was published 18 years after To The Devil A Daughter, and in it he also recounts the aforementioned story of the disastrous summoning ritual. Regardless of whether that story is true or not, you could say that it has been accepted into the official Crowley “Canon”. Hahaha, get it?
I have alluded to fact that I would not have discovered Maugham’s novel were it not for his plagiarism. It would be more accurate to say that I would not have discovered Maugham’s novel were it not for Wheatley’s plagiarism of Maugham’s plagiarism. There is a passage in Wheatley’s novel that discusses the succesful attempts of Count Von Küffstein and Abbé Geloni to create homunculi. Wheatley knew his stuff, and when I read this passage, I decided to try to find out whether it was based on anything or if it was directly from Wheatley’s imagination. When I looked up those names, I came across an almost identical passage from Maugham’s book. That passaged mentioned a mysterious text called Die Sphinx as a source. I looked that up, but I couldn’t find anything so I presumed that Maugham had made it up. I put The Magician on my to-read list and didn’t think much else of it. After I had read The Magician, I looked at Crowley’s review of it and noticed that the passage from Maugham’s book that mentions Count Von Küffstein and Die Sphinx was supposedly taken directly out of Franz Hartmann’s book on the Life of Paracelcus. Crowley also alludes to the improbability of Maugham having made his own translation of Die Sphinx, and that made me reconsider the existence of such a text. Well, I found a pdf copy of Hartmann’s book on the alchemist, and it mentions the publisher and other details of Die Sphinx. It is real afterall! It’s a bizarre masonic handbook by a guy named Emil Besetzny, and it contains an entire chapter on the lives of the Homunculi. After an intensive google search, I actually managed to track down a copy of the original work. Unfortunately, my German is extremely poor, and I can’t understand much of it at all. Here is a pdf copy of the chapter that deals with the homunculi. Anyone want to translate it?
Wheatley’s first hand account of the catastrophic experiments of Crowley suggest that he was willing to delve into the diabolical. Also, the fact that Crowley knew of Die Sphinx supports the idea that he might have tried to create his own homunculi. These facts, along with Maugham’s fictional accusations and his own willingness to discuss the topic, suggest that it is almost certain that Aleister Crowley attempted to create unhallowed bastard lifeforms. The only question remaining is whether or not he succeeded…
I gave it a go myself; these boys are coming along nicely!