The Weiser Book of Horror and the Occult: Hidden Magic, Occult Truths, and the Stories That Started It All
Edited and Introduced by Lon Milo DuQuette
San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2014
“What would your feelings be, seriously, if your cat or your dog began to talk to you, and to dispute with you in human accents? You would be overwhelmed with horror. I am sure of it. And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad.” — Arthur Machen, “The White People”
The venerable occult publisher (and formerly still more venerable bookshop) of S. Weiser now seems to have jumped on the True Detective bandwagon. Usually, this involves either republishing Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow, or bundling together a bunch of stories; all, including Chambers, being Public Domain (i.e., royalty free, and no pesky authors either), with some kind of editorial “augmentation” to justify purchase, ranging from more or less extensive introducing and annotation to just slapping a “as seen on TV” banner on the cover.
Weiser, I’m glad to report, has taken the high road with this anthology, giving good value to justify asking $15.62 (?) for paper ($9.99 for kindle). This stems, I think, from the initial choice of editor.
I confess editor DuGuette was almost unknown to me, despite having quite a set of magical chops on him:
DuQuette is the author of over sixteen books several of which focus on Aleister Crowley, and is one of the world’s foremost scholars and magickal experts on the legend. Since 1975 he has been on the governing board of the O.T.O.
As well as a sartorial style that seems equal parts Tom Wolfe and Leon Redbone. This anthology caught my eye since I had recently run into the editor’s name, as part of my investigations of the Old Weird America, occult division. Weiser had started up another Public Domain kindle scheme, titled, almost tooth-achingly, The Magical Antiquarian Curiosity Shoppe, A Weiser Books Collection, and comprising “A digital library of forgotten and fantastic stories of the occult.” This came to my attention because several volumes are republications of works by the dean of New Thought, William Walker Atkinson, some originally under one or another of his pseudonyms, such as Yogi Ramacharaka or Swami Panchadasi.
Each short kindle is a bit pricey at $2.99, but comes with a sweet little introduction where DuQuette narrates his youthful encounters with each such book. The publication of multiple small books, sometimes purporting to be a “series” or “encyclopedia,” is a fine marketing method of the New Thought movement and one I recommend myself to ideologues and metapoliticians, especially in the Age of Kindle. Potential converts can, with minimal investment of time and money, choose one or more entry points to the ideology, and have the positive reward of seeming to easily make progress through small, rather than Teutonically monumental, works.
On the other hand, I was a bit put off by their handling of, yes, The King in Yellow: four stories, each story given a separate publication, thus effectively nearly twelve dollars for a few pages from a book widely available at no cost.
Weiser and DuQuette redeem themselves and more with this publication, which is a real contribution to weird fiction theory, as well as an original anthology that will provide an excellent introduction to newcomers as well as a few surprises for old timers — the perfect anthology formula.
But DuQuette loses my confidence right away by launching into a vicious, admittedly hate-filled rant about Nebraska, where, as a seven year old California Boy the author was, as he says, “exiled.” Now, unlike many on the Right who might reflexively come to Nebraska’s defense, I’ve actually visited Nebraska, a found it right neighborly. That was many years ago — though still a good 30 years on from DuQuette’s unfortunate experiences — only for a few days, and to visit some old friends who had landed at state university in relatively urban Lincoln — video stores! — so my mileage may differ for a number of reasons. Still, it gets my hackles up.
Fortunately, DuQuette manages to pull up and pull out an interesting take on the origins of horror.
Horror takes its time, and to properly appreciate it you must also take your time. It has a pace, a slow, incessant rhythm-like your own heartbeat, or your own breath. After all, the great innovators of the art were writers of the Gilded Age who wrote for a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century audience. Nebraska in 1957 could just have easily been 1857, accompanied by the same soundtrack of bucolic silence; the same light searing through the same sun-stained yellow window shades; no hint of modern objective reality, no diversions of bustling civilization; no diversions of airplanes roaring overhead, no freeways in the distance, no sirens, no radio, no air-conditioner; only the white noise of a million cicadas and the hiss of my own blood running through my brain, the incessant swing of the pendulum of an ancient clock, the barking of a distant dog, the cawing of a crow, the almost imperceptible whisper of the delicate film of curtains as they billowed gently towards me like the gossamer negligee of a lovesick ghost.
Twenty-first century readers, spoiled by spectacular effects of the cinema, demand instant gratification from the written word — explosive shocks and gore-splattered attacks upon the senses. We no longer allow ourselves time to refine the rapture of terror. We wolf down the junk food snacks of violence and carnage when, with just a little patience, we could leisurely savour a rich and soul-satisfying banquet of elegant horror. We are missing so much.
I like very much this idea of the growth of what we might call horror-consciousness requiring the forced, or at least deliberate slowing down of awareness until the weight of noticed detail becomes suffocating, and, as Evola might say, one can only go under, or experience a rupture of levels.
Anywho, while academics like to blather about some critic’s anthology whose introduction “fundamentally altered our perception” of some genre, etc., we readers are interested in the contents itself. Here’s where it gets . . . weird.
Now, I’ve put this collection in the “As seen on True Detective” genre, although neither Weiser nor DuQuette say as much, because the pretense of such works is to display, for the reader’s edification and enjoyment, the “roots” of True Detective’s weirdness – what I like to call, after Greil Marcus, the Old, Weird America. And as you can see right up there in the subtitle, here we have “the stories that started it all.”
But we also have “hidden knowledge” and “occult truth”; what’s up with that? DuQuette appears to think that weird fiction – or, at least good weird fiction is rooted in more than just stillness and keen observation; it emerges from actual occult practice.
Thus, the authors selected here either were avowed, or suspected, members of magical societies, such as the Golden Dawn, or else made use of such occult knowledge in their tales.
To me, this seems like imposing an extra-literary, even, to an outsider like myself, rather arbitrary criterion for selection. Why not left-handed or red-haired? But I can also sorta see where he’s going with this – weird fiction is “rooted” not in any prior literary tradition, as the other KiY anthologies would have it, but in an occult tradition that is archeofuturistically available across time and space. Some kind of access to it makes some Nebraskans, like DuQuette, able to channel their boredom into fiction; the rest become serial killers.
And anyway, pragmatically, the results are pretty good, with some genuine discoveries and only a few misfires.
The surprises and misfires start right away, since DuQuette is so eager to unlock his word hoard about his Three Big Guys that he starts in on them even before the official introduction is over. They are not, as you might imagine, something like Chambers, Howard and of course Lovecraft, or some other paternity you’ve seen. It’s Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Chambers, and . . . Aleister Crowley.
Bulwer-Lytton (”It was a dark and stormy night . . .”) not only contributed tales of underground worlds and occult energy sources, but also was “reputed” to be a made man, occult-wise, or at least those who themselves claimed to be such could suss him out as “one of us.”
Chambers himself does show up, on the basis of his use of a later-identified actual book of occult lore as the basis for his infamous book that drives the reader mad, but not with anything from The King in Yellow itself. I’m not sure if this is a commendable effort to find something fresh to reprint or just an attempt to force readers to buy those other Weiser titles I mentioned just now — but since DuQuette admits his Chambers intro is just a reprint of what’s there, the e-reader can just find a free copy to download and miss nothing anyway.
As for Crowley, the story here is pretty good – you’ll never look at a bottle of Pepto-Bismol the same way again – but here DuQuette abandons all literary-critical pretenses and just identifies Crowley’s importance as being in fact nothing more than his supposed occult accomplishments (again, taking the form of reprinting large chunks from his previous books on Crowley).
A most unfortunate result of these extra-literary excursions is that the editor spends a whole page or so trying to absolve his Lordship of any retroactive guilt over the supposed National Socialist use of his “Vril” occult energy discovery, as part of their use of occult technology to engineer the Greatest Evil of All Time (you know what That is). As the layers of “occult” history kept piling on each other, I felt like I was being stringed by that crazy-haired guy on the “History” Channel.
Then, he devotes a couple more pages to praising Crowley, Secret Agent 666, for first, writing lying propaganda to get the US to enter World War I (calling Dick Cheney!) and then for using “occult” technology — such as the “V” for Victory sign — to defeat Hitler’s monstrous ambitions to take over the world.
What’s the word I want? Right, genug. Like a lot of these “hidden history” guys (I’m looking at you, Joseph P. Farrell!) the “alternative history” always seems to fit snuggly into the overall Mainstream Narrative: tikkun olam! Keep looking over there, not here. DuQuette, unlike even Winston Churchill himself, fails to notice that if America hadn’t entered WWI, there wouldn’t have been a National Socialist movement to fight in WWII, which fight actually did lead to the collapse of his “beloved” British Empire. Hmm, maybe that was the Great Beast’s plan?
As for the rest, we have some more traditional authors that meet the editors idiosyncratic requirements, such as Arthur Machen or Ambrose Bierce, represented by the usual stories (“The White People” and “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”) as well as by unfamiliar ones (Bram Stoker’s “A Dream of Red Hands” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth”).
A little bit of both: it’s good to see Ralph Adams Cram again. He’s often forgotten today, at least as a writer (the Cathedral of St. John in New York is a bit hard to overlook) and when he does pop up it tends to be for the Lovecraft-lauded “The Dead Valley.” Here, we have “No. 253 Rue M. Le Price” from his superbly creepy Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories, which, like the contemporaneous Chambers selection, “The Messenger,” fits into the “hauntology” that the editor adumbrates in his introduction, and which might have been a wiser (no pun!) principle of selection.
Unfortunately, DuQuette takes the occasion to deliver an irrelevant swipe at Cram, noting that while he has a feast day on the calendar of the Episcopal Church, Crowley founded his own religion. Well, better to rule in Hell and all that, I guess.
Speaking of Lovecraft, he surprisingly provides the weakest part of the anthology; perhaps the hardcore atheist and materialist is recoiling from being included here? First, although it’s good to see Frank Belknap Long again, why represent him by this little prose poem about visiting Poe’s house? Hauntology, again, but that’s not supposed to be the criterion. It does tie in with the Poe selection that precedes it (“Ligeia”), and, since it appeared in The United Amateur, it also links up with the Lovecraft piece, “The Alchemist,” that appeared in the same issue. But why this early, minor piece by Lovecraft, anyway? Obviously it, like Lovecraft, is included under the “retailing occult knowledge” criterion rather than, as the more fringe researchers insist, Lovecraft the perhaps unwitting dabbler in the occult, but why not a more substantial and influential work from Lovecraft’s vast body of “derived from hidden lore” tales, all of which is in public domain?
Every anthology needs at least one “why haven’t I heard of” author, and here we have Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, unknown to me but apparently a popular author of the turn of the last century and the first winner of the William Dean Howells Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1926. “Luella Miller” is a monologue that recounts, almost in real time, the growth of a vampiric urban legend that Thomas Ligotti might be proud of writing
I can’t really say I think much of DuQuette’s methodology, but it does, despite itself, result in a very interesting anthology. I can’t testify as to the supposed elegance of the print version, but the kindle is nicely laid out, with linked footnotes and no typos or odd formatting that I can find. Readers looking for a new, though more than a bit eccentric, angle on weird fiction will find much to interest them here.
1. To get up to speed before jumping on yourself, consult “True Detective & The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” by Christopher Pankhurst, here.
2. If anything, the Age of Kindle has made “cash-in” even more doable, with dozens of such “special editions” appearing, mostly with “introductions”: from Wikipedia, “annotations” consisting of birth/death dates, and “illustrations” consisting of random clip art.
3. “Review: The Weiser Book of Horror and the Occult,” November 7, 2014, by Lilith Dorsey, here.
4. The gradual acceptance, if not outright Americanization, of Yoga is a fascinating tale, told in Stephanie Syman’s The Subtle Body (New York: FSG, 2010) but more relevant to our subject is Robert Love’s The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America (New York: Viking, 2010) whose subject, Pierre Bernard (of Iowa) was, despite constant harassment by cops and tabloids (whence the sobriquet “The Great Oom”), the key figure. On Atkinson and his indefatigable publishing activity, see Philip Deslippe’s Introduction to The Kybalion: Definitive Edition, by “Three Initiates” (i.e., Atkinson), (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2014). The constant shifting between the old, hence valid because tried and true, and the new, hence valid through “science,” calls to mind Spengler’s contemporaneous notion of “second religiosity”: “This is not a time when [more genuine, more numinous forms of expression] are readily available; instead there is a return to earlier forms that have the appearance of greater authenticity. Hence the plethora of new age movements and the importing of exotic spiritualties. At the time of the second religiousness, the inner life of the culture has already reached full maturity so it cannot continue to develop in any meaningful sense. Therefore the only available forms of spiritual expression are those forms which were once vital but which now are moribund. Spengler calls materialism shallow and honest, mock-religion shallow and dishonest. But he goes on to say that the very fact that there is even a longing for pseudo-religions foreshadows a more genuine seeking towards the numinous.” “Toward a Right-Wing Hauntology: Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life” by Christopher Pankhurst, here. All this is epitomized in the branding of our native Neoplatonism as “New” Thought.
5. We rented Blood Simple, which not only might account for my pleasurable memories, but also suggest the more nuanced views of the Midwest found in the later Coen Brothers films; see the reviews published here by Trevor Lynch and Andrew Hamilton, here.
6. One can profitably contrast the similar attitude of the makers of Nebraska with, say, David Lynch’s The Straight Story; see Trevor Lynch’s review here.
7. For some reason, much as he admits — and even apologizes for hating — Nebraska in 1957, he never mentions the Charlie Starkweather killing spree. While day to day life must have been quite bucolic in Nebraska and rural Wisconsin, something must have been going on to produce the iconic Ed Gein and Charlie Starkweather atrocities. The latter alone inspired the films The Sadist (1963), Badlands (1973), Kalifornia (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Starkweather (2004), as well as Bruce Springsteen‘s 1982 song “Nebraska” and “Badlands.” For my take on The Sadist, see my review, “Arch Hall Jr., King of the 60s Psychos,” here.
8. I discuss these issues in the essays on Lovecraft, Evola and Heidegger reprinted in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).
9. I always thought that stuff was more of his ooga-booga self-promotional BS, but, as the guy says in Oliver Stone’s JFK, “there’s a lot of smoke, but some fire.” See Richard B. Spence, Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult (Port Townsend, Wash.: Feral House, 2008). For other perspectives on Crowley, see various article s published here on Counter-Currents, especially those of Kerry Bolton, Julius Evola and, especially relevant here, Juleigh Howard-Hobson, “Crowley the Poet: A Different Look at Aleister Crowley on this, the Occasion of his 136th Birthday.”
10. On the many accomplishments of Cram, see my “Ralph Adams Cram, Wild Boy of American Architecture,” here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola, op. cit. For more on “hauntology,” see Pankhurst, op. cit.
11. On Lovecraft’s amateur period, see my “The First Steampunk: H. P. Lovecraft’s The Conservative,” here.
12. See my discussion of W. H. Muller’s Polaria, or the Gift of the White Stone (Brotherhood of Life Books, 1997) in The Eldritch Evola, op. cit. I sold that book years ago, for a tidy profit, and looking it up just now on Amazon I find that the introduction is by . . . Lon Milo DuQuette! Magick! Shapeshifter! The same Amazon page gives as suggestions several of Kenneth Grant’s books of the same “Lovecraft the secret initiate” genre.