The Black Art – Rollo Ahmed
Senate – 1994 (Originally published 1936)
In 1935, right after The Devil Rides Out was published, Dennis Wheatley’s publisher asked him to write a non fiction book about the occult. Wheatley claims he was too busy at the time (he did eventually publish one in 1971), but he recommended that his publisher get in touch with his yoga teacher, a peculiar character named Rollo Ahmed. Rollo Ahmed claimed to be an Egyptian expert on the occult, but he was actually from Guyana, and while he certainly knew a bit about the occult, much of this knowledge was probably acquired as a means to make his business seem more legitimate. Ahmed, you see, was a conman. He told stupid people he would counter black magic curses that had been put on them for money. He also told old women that spirits had instructed them to loan him a bunch of money. He was arrested and charged for doing this kind of thing on at least 3 occasions, and he served at least one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.
I bought a copy of Ahmed’s book on black magic more than 5 years ago. It cost me one Canadian cent. I started reading it at the beginning of May this year, but it was so boring that it took me 3 months to get through its 280 pages. I finished 30 other books in the same period, forcing myself to read a few pages of this trash when I was between novels. This book is the reason that this blog has seen so little non-fiction in 2020.
But did this book really suck, or have I just read too much of this kind of crap to get any enjoyment from it? Maybe it was a little bit of both.
This is supposed to be an overview of the history and practice of black magic. Ahmed did a good bit of research for this book, but he doesn’t provide any sources for most of what he is saying. This book might be of interest to individuals who are researching what people believed about black magic in the 1930s, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it as an accurate historical account.
There’s 21 chapters in here. Some are specific to time frames (pre-history, the dark ages, modernity…), some are specific to areas (India, China, Greece, Rome…), and some are specific to occult phenomena (werewolves and vampires, necromancy, alchemy…). There’s no organisational principle behind this structure, and the chapters themselves are often just lists of descriptions of practices that Ahmed either took from other texts or made up himself. I’ve come across a lot of these stories and descriptions in other books, and the stuff that was new to me wasn’t terribly interesting. Around the same time that I bought this book, I reviewed the similarly titled The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish. That book covered much of the same information that’s presented here, and Cavendish managed to cite his sources. I’m not saying that you should go out and read that one either, but it was probably better than this pile of garbage.
Similar title, cover and contents
Another obvious point of comparison here is Montague Summers’ work. Summers and Ahmed moved in the same circles, and they both were acquaintances of Dennis Wheatley and Aleister Crowley. Despite his apparent credulity, Summers’ books are the measuring stick against which all other 1930s occult histories should be compared. In the course of my research for this post, I discovered evidence that strongly suggests that Ahmed plagiarized Summers when he was writing The Black Arts.
For me, the most interesting part of this book was the chapter on the magic of Great Britain and Ireland. There is an account given of a vampire priest in Ireland that sparked my curiosity, perhaps because this is one of the only parts of the book where Ahmed cites his source. He claims that he read the story in the October 1925 edition of The Occult Review, an old occult periodical. I was intrigued by this and decided to consult the source material. It turns out that the October 1925 edition of The Occult Review contains no such story. R.S. Breene’s ‘An Irish Vampire‘ article was actually published a month later in the November edition. Big deal, anyone could make that mistake, even an expert. Well, it turns out that an expert did make that mistake. In his 1929 book, The Vampire in Europe, the Reverend Montague Summers quotes Breene’s article in full, but he mistakenly cites it as coming from the October edition of The Occult Review, 7 years before Rollo Ahmed makes the exact same mistake in his book. Coincidence? No way. It’s been a long time since I read any non-fiction by Summers, but I would be surprised if further research didn’t show more instances of Ahmed plagiarizing his work. (Here is a scan of the original story for anyone interested in the Irish priest turning into a vampire.)
Summers’ Vampire books were later retitled. I own both, but have only read the first one.
Dennis Wheatley knew both Summers and Ahmed, and there are multiple theories about characters from Wheatley’s books being based on these men. I have written several times about the Canon Copely Syle from To the Devil – A Daughter and how this character is clearly a mix of Summers and Crowley, but some people have pointed out that the evil Canon has a frightening Egyptian manservant who is probably based on Ahmed. If this is so, I reckon Wheatley understood the relative importance of both men to the annals of occult history.
“a manservant of a type that one would hardly have expected to find in an Essex village. He wore a red fez and was robed in a white burnoose. His skin was very dark, but only his thick lips suggested Negro blood; and C. B. put him down at once as an Egyptian.” – This description (presumably based on Ahmed) might seem a bit racist today, but by Wheatley’s standards it’s really not bad.
I want to include a quick note on my sources here so that I don’t seem like a hypocrite. The biographical details I’ve included are from Chris Josiffe’s articles on Rollo Ahmed in Fortean Times 316 and 317 (July and August 2014). The stuff about Ahmed’s influence on Wheatley’s characters are from this article on Wheatley’s site. All of my other sources are self evident.
I’ve been reading and reviewing books on the occult for a long time now, and my interest seems to have waned a bit recently. I believe that this is largely due to wasting my time reading so many awful piles of boring nonsense written by idiots. The Black Art wasn’t as bad as some of the shit I’ve read, but it contained little that I haven’t come across before. I ask you, my dear readers, can any of you recommend me occult/Fortean non-fiction books that are strange, interesting and preferably widely available? I’m happy to read about Black Masses and alien abductions, but I’d like a new slant on things. Maybe a Black Mass performed by aliens? Please leave a comment, tweet me or email me if you can think of anything that would fit on this site. (Remember, you can skim through my index page to see what has already been reviewed here.) Thanks!