Neville Spearman – 1975 (Valeri Briussov)
Dedalus – 2005 (Valery Bruisov)
I came across the title of this book when I was reading Colin Wilson’s The Occult two years ago, and from his description, I knew that I’d have to read it at some stage. I spent a while trying to track down a copy at a decent price, and when I found one, it spent a few months lying on the shelf before I got around to reading it. When I finally got around to it, I was met with an unpleasant surprise. Some of the pages were entirely blank. See the below video for details:
Like I said, I had ordered this a good while before picking it up to read, and so I didn’t feel it fair to demand a refund. I doubted that the bookseller had known about the defect, but I was having a slow day in work, and I decided to drop them an email to pass the time. Below is the message I sent.
When I wrote that email, I did not expect a response. Fortunately, I was wrong; they replied promptly:
Many’s the stupid email I have sent, but I have never been so satisfied with a response. Normally you get a feebly polite apology. I take my hat off to the individual who sent the above response to me. It makes me happy to think that there are companies out there that deal with customers as they should be dealt with. If you’re talking to a jackass, talk to them like they’re a jackass. (Although, note that the seller did very courteously offer to send me a replacement.) I was extremely satisfied with my dealings with this seller, and I encourage all of my readers to buy books from them whenever the opportunity arises.
Anyways, I soon thereafter bought a different copy of the book (the more recent Dedalus edition), and that version lay on my shelf for another year before I got around to it. While the Spearman edition has a foreword by Colin Wilson, the Dedalus version has an afterword by Gary Lachman. Surprisingly, the Dedalus version also omits a two page foreword by Bryusov himself that really should be part of the text. In it, Bryusov claims to be the editor of the tale and not the author so-to-speak. Otherwise, the text of the two books are identical copies of the same original printing. (There are identical imperfections on the same pages in both versions, one of which looks like a squished fly.) If I had to choose, I would buy the Spearman version, but I would make sure that it has all of the pages before buying! (My copy is missing pages 76, 77, 80, 81, 84, 85, 92, 93, and a few more.)
Two things before I start my actual review. First of all, the name of the author is spelled differently on my two copies of this book. It’s spelled Valery Bryusov most places online, so I’m going to use that spelling. Next, this post contains a few spoilers. If you are sure you want to read this one and you’re like me and like knowing as little as possible about a book before reading it, maybe you should read the book before you read the rest of this. (But make sure you do come back to finish reading this when you’re done. I discovered some cool stuff about this book that you’ll want to know!) If you’re not sure about whether or not you want to read this one yet, read away. The spoilers here won’t ruin the suspense of the novel.
So what’s the big deal here? Why did I bother with this book? Well, it’s a novel about magic, the witch-craze, repressed sexuality and perversion. What more could I possibly ask for? Set in 16th century Germany, it tells the story of a hard man called Rupprecht who’s making his way home after gallivanting around Mexico for a few years. He becomes enchanted by a girl who is staying in the same hotel as him, but he quickly notices that she’s carrying some serious baggage; she is possessed by demons and she practices black magic. As so often happens, this woman’s personality flaws make her seem all the more attractive, and Rupprecht decides to wander around with her for a while. She tells him that she’s searching for a former lover, and Rupprecht agrees to help her find him. Oh, and it also turns out that her old lover is either an angel or devil. (We’re never made entirely sure which side this ‘Fiery Angel’ is on.) At this point, Rupes’s compliance makes you start to wonder whether it was by natural or infernal means that he was so enchanted; shouldn’t he be taking this as his cue to tell Renata to fuck off?
Well, they wander around a while looking for the Fiery Angel, but Renata gets disheartened and decides that the only way to find him will be to ask the devil for help. Renata doesn’t want that kind of guilt on her conscience though, so she convinces Rupprecht that he should sell his soul so that she can find out where her boyfriend is. Rupprecht is a hard man and everything, but he clearly gets off on kinky sado-masochistic power struggles. The more he can debase himself for the sake of his lady, the stronger his mental ‘gasm shall be! He offers his soul to Satan and actually kisses the Dark Lord’s ringpiece in order to cuckold himself; what a creep!
There are several other twists and turns in their complicated relationship, but eventually Renata runs away on Rupprecht. After a bit of moping around by himself, he bumps into Faust and Mephistopheles and wanders around with them for a while. When he finally stumbles across Renata again, she has joined a nunnery, changed her name to sister Maria, and she’s gotten herself accused of witchcraft. (Typical, right?) She is of course guilty of witchery, but one gets the impression that the reasons she is being charged have less to do with her actions and more to do with the fact that nunneries are mad places full of mad people. The whole thing very quickly turns into a Devils of Loudun situation, and Renata is sentenced to death. Rupprecht tries to rescue her, but things don’t really go according to his plans.
That’s the basic plot of it, but there’s a tonne of cool bits that I’ve left out. Rupprecht attends a witches’ Sabbath, he spends time with Cornelius Agrippa and Johann Weyer, he performs ceremonial black magic and summons demons, and Renata and he have a tonne of kinky sex. (Ok, so we don’t get the juicy details, but judging by the way they act with eachother and the fact that Rupprecht claims that Renata wanted to do more than just regular inny-outty, we can assume that no door was left unopened!) One interesting feature of the text is the fact that although this is a novel about witchcraft and magic, it is also very much a piece of historical fiction. At no point in the book does anything happen that might not actually be explained in real life. Perhaps the most curious thing that occurs is that Renata knows Rupprecht’s name before he introduces himself, but I’m sure you can imagine 100 different ways that a person might find out the name of another guest at the same hotel as them.
Despite the fact that it is mentioned in neither Colin Wilson’s foreword in the Spearman edition nor Lachman’s afterword, it turns out that this book, particularly the last few chapters, is actually largely based on a true story. In 1749, a nun named Renata Maria Saengen von Massau was one of the last women in Germany to be executed for the crime of witchcraft. (She died in 1749, but The Fiery Angel is set over 200 years earlier; I don’t think any dates are specifically mentioned, but Cornelius Agrippa, who dies at the end of the book, actually died in 1535.) I found two different accounts of the real Renata’s life in my library. One is from Robbin’s Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. This is a rather sympathetic account that suggests that poor Sister Renata was a victim of mass hysteria. The other account of her life that I read was in Montague Summers‘ book, The Geography of Witchcraft. Monty was fully convinced that this woman was indeed a vile Satanist, and his account is even more fanciful than Bryusov’s.
Despite their different standpoints, Summers and Robbins both present the same basic story. Sister Renata had entered a nunnery when she was about 19 years old. She spent the last 15 of her 50 years in the nunnery as the subprioress. Everything was going fine in her life until a girl named Cecilia Pistorini started throwing fits in order to gain entry into the convent. Cecilia believed her hallucinations and spasms were messages from God, and she thought that this should allow her to skip through the novitiate stage of becoming a nun. Renata wasn’t convinced, and she suggested that the girl might have been putting it all on. Cecilia remembered this, and when she eventually became a nun, she convinced herself and others that Sister Renata was a witch. As she was dying, another senile old hag of a nun claimed that Renata had bewitched her, and this forced to the prioress of the convent to look into the matter. Word got out, and the idea that Renata was a witch caught on with other idiot nuns in the convent. They started imagining that they had been bewitched or possessed and a bunch of them started screaming things out during mass. The more attention they got from the local priests, the more horny they became and the more they acted up. This did not look good for poor Renata. She denied all of the allegations at first, but after twenty lashes with a consecrated rawhide bullwhip, she started to remember her sins.
In Renata’s confession, she claims to have given herself to Satan when she was only 8 years old. She spent her teenage years having sex with demons and learning the craft of Satanism, and then when she was old enough, she decided to join the convent with the sole purpose of bringing it down from the inside. (It’s a bit hard to understand how the other nuns didn’t notice anything for the first 49 years that she had been there.) She claims to have ridden to the Sabbath several times a week, to have made love to the Devil on countless occasions, and to have stolen consecrated hosts with the purpose of throwing them into the toilet. The way she stole the hosts was pretty cool. Before she would go to receive communion, she would cut slits in her flesh, and when the priest would give her the communion wafer, she would sneakily stick it into the communion-shaped holes that she had carved into her own body. She did this just so she could throw the body of christ into the crapper. What a legend!
There’s an interesting part in the Verbatim Reports from Sister Renata’s trials that might have been Bryusov’s source of inspiration for the character of Rupprecht.
“Q. Was she a witch?
Q. Where did she learn this and from whom?
A. A grenadier had taught her in Vienna, where she and the whole household had gone with her father during the Hungarian war.
Q. How did she meet this grenadier?
A. As happens in wartime. The grenadier had often given her bread when she was hungry, and finally he promised to teach her something.
Q. What then did this grenadier finally teach her?
A. He gave her a paper, on which all sorts of letters were written. On this paper she had to draw a circle and stand inside it. In addition, she had received a charm [Zetel] with various words on it; and if she could read these words, then she could make passers-by in the street lame and crippled.”
In The Fiery Angel, Rupprecht doesn’t meet Renata in Vienna, but he is a soldier that meets her in a time of need, and they do spend time together studying the black arts. I think it’s quite likely that Rupprecht originated as a re-imagining of the mysterious grenadier from the real Renata’s confessions.
In the book, Renata dies in Rupprecht’s arms, but the real Renata was not quite so lucky. Her judges decided to show her some leniency in her execution though, on account of the fact that she had been seduced by Satan at such a young age. She was shown the courtesy of having her head chopped off before being thrown into a barrel of burning tar. Apparently the executioner made such a clean cut that her head popped clean off her body with the first blow from his sword, and he was given a round of applause for his accuracy. Imagine a crowd of people cheering a man for decapitating a 69 year old woman.
All in all, this is a very interesting book. I found the first half dragged a little bit, but it really picks up later on. Bryusov knew his stuff when it came to witchcraft, and there are a few books mentioned in here that I am going to have to try to track down. In truth though, this book is more about the psychology of attraction than it is about black magic. Apparently the plot of the story is largely based on events from the author’s own life. He basically took the story of a love triangle that he had been involved in, chose characters from a famous witch trial to play the roles, and set the story 200 years before those people had actually lived. The result is actually deadly. I mean, as mad as it sounds, I think this book would be an enjoyable read for a person with no interest in witchcraft or demonology. For those of us who are interested in those topics, this is a must read. Five stars.