This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
“Psychic questing” was a short-lived fad, primarily originating in British New Age and paranormal circles. It largely ran its course in the 1980s and 1990s before largely dying down, largely as a result of the prime instigators behind the concept – Andrew Collins and Graham Phillips – largely moving on from it. Both of them shifted gear into pseudo-academic “alternative history”-type books in a Graham Hancock sort of vein; though apparently they occasionally refer to using psychic sources in their material (and Collins himself has made at least one return to the genre – Twenty-First Century Grail – even after primarily shifting into fringe archaeology), they no longer put it front and centre, and tend to play it down when dealing with audiences they know it won’t fly with.
The idea is simple: rather than just deploying psychic talents in a mediumistic manner, sat around a table interviewing any spirits who happen to float by, psychic questing involves going out and about – seeing where your intuition takes you, psychically attuning to the lay of the land (or the ley of the lines), and discovering what there is to discover out there. Psychic questing expeditions tended to involve a lot in the way of uncovering lost artifacts, unravelling the hidden histories of sacred sites, befriending benign spiritual presences and getting spooked by malign ones – in short, all the ingredients of a fun story.
Maybe the participants in the fad were all making shit up, but if they were, everyone seemed to be willing to be mutually taken in. The objective reality of what they were getting up to has, of course, severe question marks over it. (For one thing, as much as participants in the scene were convinced that they had moments of genuine spiritual and psychic danger, I’m not aware of any instance where a quest went wrong to an extent that this danger actually came to its full fruition.) Nonetheless, it’s a field of paranormal research where, even if it’s all nonsense, at least the participants are telling an interesting story that’s a bit different from the usual table-rapping seances or channellings of New Agey platitudes.
To my knowledge, the first authors whose psychic questing chronicles became published via a major publisher (as opposed to releasing their results in self-published pamphlets) were Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, who collaborated on two books that got published through Spearman and Grafton and paved the way for later offerings in the same microgenre.
The Green Stone
The Green Stone focuses on Parasearch, a paranormal investigation group operated by Graham Phillips and Andrew Collins. Having already completed some investigations (including a substantial part of the footwork for prominent British UFOlogist Jenny Randles’ Alien Contact) and started their own magazine (self-published from their own flat), they had begun to cultivate a range of psychic contacts across the country. Suddenly, beginning in 1979 they were bombarded with psychic messages from a higher power relayed via a wide range of their medium acquaintances such as Marion Sunderland and her daughter Gaynor – and via Graham himself, who displayed a previously unknown receptiveness to psychic messages.
Over the course of the investigation it transpires that Parasearch and its allies have been chosen for a very specific purpose: to be forged into a sort of modern day equivalent to the Order of Meonia, a secret society with roots in the days of pioneer of monotheism Pharaoh Akhenaten. The Order of Meonia were the guardians of the Meonia Stone, a hidden conduit for benign psychic energy brought to Britain by followers of Akhenaten that had been hidden away since the time of the Gunpowder Plot, but the Order went extinct some time in the 19th Century under assault from dark powers. Parasearch would be tasked in the coming years with recovering the Stone and restoring its true power – but there would be fearsome opposition in this quest, for foes of the Order had unleashed in ancient times a dark force that worked in opposition of the Stone and its guardians; this force, responsible for the destruction of the old Order, and its human pawns would stop at nothing to obtain the Stone before Parasearch did – or to thwart them once they had recovered it.
Phillips and Keatman act all bashful in their preliminary remarks, claiming that their main motivation in writing the book is to get an accurate account of events out there in response to incomplete newspaper reports that did not tell the whole story. If their intention was to desensationalise the story, however, they have a funny way of going about it, spinning a yarn of witchcraft covens, clashes of benign and malevolent magic, strange rituals, ancient mysteries, and wild paranormal phenomena.
This is exacerbated by the highly novelistic style the book is written in, with major sensational set-pieces punctuating the narrative and linked by phases of investigation, all culminating in a climactic confrontation that brings the story to a natural stopping point, all of this written from the perspective of some detached third person narrator despite Phillips and Keatman being figures in the narrative. The premise that they are simply recounting facts as best as they can remember allows Phillips and Keatman to take some shortcuts – some of the portions of the narrative are quite terse and dialogue is quite sparse, for instance – but these aren’t enough to shake the impression that these guys are penning a horror novel rather than a serious examination of the events in question.
To be fair, they do make the point that as witnesses and participants to these events they’re simply setting down an account of what they saw rather than providing an actual full-scale investigation of these matters. That said, I’m not sure I’d trust these guys with such an investigation in the first place. Helpfully for the plot but unhelpfully when it comes to establishing their credentials as serious investigators, the Parasearch crew have a marked tendency to simply take self-proclaimed psychics at their word. Typically, when given instructions to follow by one of their psychic friends they simply roll with it for the sake of seeing what happens, or of avoiding dangers which never actually manifest. (There’s at least one incident where they hustle out of a particular location at the urging of a psychic who alleges that they are in great danger, and because they did in fact leave we have no idea of what the danger was supposed to be.) At an extreme, the gang are happy to take on faith the existence of a cabal of evil witches in the service of the dark power the stone is meant to counter, despite having no solid evidence of the existence of such a group (to the point where they admit that they have never actually identified a single member of this group).
On top of that, although they claim to be open to the idea of other people investigating the goings-on reported here, to a large extent that isn’t really possible. Where Phillips and Keatman aren’t actively changing their information (for instance, changing the name of the evil Victorian wizard who was supposed to have been behind the destruction of the old Order in order to avoid catching flak from his living relatives), they are detailing events that can only really be investigated through witness statements at this point, so unless a witness comes out and confesses that it was all a big fake there’s not much in the way of usefully falsifiable hypotheses here (beyond the gibberish pseudohistorical backstory for the Stone, where Phillips and Keatman admit that there isn’t any actual evidence of an Egyptian presence in Britain when there would have needed to be for their theory to fly).
As well as being extremely hard to credit, the story seems to also reveal that the Parasearch team were, if we’re being brutally honest, really kind of hopelessly clueless when it came to the actual practicalities of performing research, especially when that research involves traipsing around on other people’s property. Attempts to carefully document the process of discovering their various clues seem to have been a bit slipshod, for instance, and on top of that if the story isn’t a hoax or a big load of mutually-reinforced playing pretend and they really did find the things they claimed to find, the end result is that they ended up swiping a bunch of old and interesting finds from places which didn’t belong to them. They did, in fact, get into a little trouble for this later on – in The Seventh Sword, Andrew Collins recounts how the Earl of Coventry got very annoyed when it came to his attention that a mysterious “Meonia sword” associated with the Green Stone got discovered on his property, since of course legally speaking if it genuinely had been discovered there, it belonged to the Earl, not someone trespassing on the Earl’s turf. This means that if Phillips, Keatman and pals are making it up, they’re liars and frauds (playing pretend is all very well when it’s just you and your friends but trying to sell the results to people as factual isn’t on), but if they are telling the truth they are trespassers and thieves.
Perhaps the entire story is the invention of Parasearch and friends. Perhaps it all comes down to a group of suggestible people mutually feeding off each others’ biases to come up with a story greater than any of them would have come up on their own. Perhaps it all came down to some sort of unspoken agreement to make-believe – something you could see as a sort of paranormal-themed LARP where the main rule is that nobody acknowledges that it’s all a big game, or an application of the good old “Yes, and…” rule from improvisational drama exercises to paranormal research. Either way, there’s a lot of ways to rationalise what is described here, particularly when the Parasearch team utterly fail to obtain supporting evidence for a single one of the more startling supernatural manifestations they supposedly witnessed – not a photo, not an audio recording, nothing except witness statements.
That said, if you approach this as a story it’s kind of fun. The prose style will win no awards, but the “this is a true story” stance both justifies it and invites a somewhat more immersive take on suspension of disbelief – a bit like House of Leaves would have turned out had the more outrageous features like the typographic games and the excessive footnotes and all of Johnny Truant’s stuff had been removed and it had been presented as a nonfiction book offered up in the film studies section. It even closes out with the promise of a sequel, for as Phillips and Keatman reassure us their questing exploits do not end here.
The Eye of Fire
This is the promised sequel, and it’s also the last book I am aware of by Phillips in this vein; as mentioned, in later books Phillips would switch up his emphasis towards a more “alternative history” style of writing (with the role of psychic questing and other “alternative” information sources in his research downplayed or simply not mentioned).
That pivot may, in part, have been an attempt to correct for the major flaw of The Eye of Fire, which is that it is so intent on regaling the reader with a series of spooky events and psychic action sequences that any pretence at rigorous research is more or less dispensed with. Granted, The Green Stone isn’t exactly a good role model for methodological rigour, but equally it at least occasionally pauses to breathe to give a bit more explanation of who the investigators are, why they are doing what they are doing, and what the historical (or pseudohistorical) facts are behind the various places they visit. Here, aside from a rather terse recap of the previous book, you don’t get anything like that: you are simply meant to remember who everyone is, a bare minimum of historical context is provided for the place visited (no more, say, than could be gleaned from a skim of an encyclopaedia entry), and nothing that happens as a result of the researches documented here really offer any deeper insights into the Order of Meonia, their Victorian-era enemies, their ancient forebears or their magical secrets. (It’s almost as though all of that stuff was made up, and the limit of the inventors’ creativity had been reached.)
In terms of the plot of this book – and make no mistake, this book’s narrative has been plotted out, paced and constructed like it’s a lukewarm Dennis Wheatley novel – is that it turns out that there was some other stone associated with the Order of Meonia aside from the Green Stone, called the Eye of Fire because “the Red Stone” would be samey and undramatic, which apparently is the real key to Meonia’s power, the Green Stone being more about passive protection than asserting active change in the world.
Anyway, various psychic messages tip our searchers off to the necessity to go find this thing, but in the process two things happen: firstly, the dark shade of John Laing, the sinister Victorian gentleman occultist responsible for the fall of Meonia, starts watching them in the hopes of being led to the Eye, and secondly in retrieving a bell which is an important clue on the trail the party awaken its Guardian, a thought-form summoned by Mary Heath, the last leader of the Order of Meonia. Due to the urgency with which Heath set about hiding the bell, she couldn’t give it very nuanced instructions, beyond going after anyone who came for the bell aside from the person Heath expected would swing by to collect it. Of course, she didn’t expect the bell to be hidden for a good century or so, so none of the party members are seen as authorised bell-collectors by the Guardian – and when they come away with the bell, the Guardian begins a psychic terror campaign that will culminate in the cursed party members’ destruction if the Eye is not found in time.
Once again, enough historical names are changed or suppressed – supposedly to respect the wishes of their families – that it is near-impossible to verify most of the book’s assertions about history, though with the book’s greater focus on spooky events in the modern day it doesn’t have so much time to make wild suppositions about history times anyway. A lot of the material here about the Guardian – what it is, howi it’s manifested, and how it’s “programmed” is very reminiscent of Chaos Magic, which I find to be a particularly interesting connection. Chaos Magic espouses a philosophy which doesn’t put a high premium on objective truth anyway, because its practitioners believe any particular set of beliefs and myths are effective for accomplishing magical ends if you believe in them hard enough. If you buy into that, it’d make sense to publish books about your invented mythology to try and generate more belief in it, and thereby make your own Chaos Magic workings all the more effective.
If that was indeed the goal, Phillips and Keatman fail at it. In particular, the narrative just isn’t believable, to the point where even if you read it as fiction. For instance, the gang only guess that Spooky Top Hat Guy is John Laing very late in the day, after Gaynor says it is, but in terms of malevolent Victorian gentlemen with an interest in the Eye the only name on the list is John’s, so you would expect some of the party to speculate that it might be him long before Gaynor says it is. This is only one of many instances where party members talk and act like characters in a novel who only realise stuff when the author decides it is dramatically appropriate for them to do so, not like actual people. He’s also a total red herring – he literally never does anything except watch from a distance and turn up as a vaguely man-shaped smudge on one of the photos provided in the book of the sites the party visit.
The basic problem the book has is that it over-escalates the psychic phenomena to the point where they are entirely too over-the-top, with the apparent summoning of an ancient Celtic warrior witch-queen who may have been a model for Guinevere perhaps being the book’s most notable shift directly into full-blown fantasyland. The escalation of peril is also a problem. The major issue it throws up is that if psychic questing puts you at risk of physical death, why haven’t any stories emerged from the psychic questing scene in which someone died at the hands of dark powers? Why have we never heard about a quest that was just botched, with the result that someone actually got killed or had their soul eaten? Sure, nobody would write a book about a psychic quest which ended in a boring failure to find anything of very much worth, but surely you would expect at least one narrative of truly cataclysmic failure to emerge if the forces being dabbled with were of this incredible potency?
The Eye of Fire would be less disappointing to read as a fictional story if the final outcome were not so anticlimactic. It concludes with the stone being away to spirits (in a final scene a tad reminiscent of conclusion of The Green Stone), and we don’t really learn anything new about the ancient secrets this whole questing business is supposed to be about uncovering. Overall, the plot reads almost exactly like you.would expect a sequel rushed out by authors who didn’t actually have enough ideas to fill out a followup novel to read.
If, on the other hand, you want to read this as nonfiction, Phillips and Keatman once again are openly confessing to outright criminal activity. Their antics this time include some honest-to-goodness property damage, bashing in walls in a derelict old house to get at a spooky bell – granted, the place is falling down, but they’re still on shaky legal ground there.
The fate of the Eye itself is slightly confused – the end of book reads like it was either taken away or had the power locked inside it taken away. Graham Phillips would later clarify that it had been destroyed – but the failure of the participants in the investigation to arrive at a clear idea of what happened to it would rear its head a couple of decades later. Marion Sunderland died in 2006 after some years of illness, and Gaynor and her partner, UFOlogist Andy Roberts, put up a number of crucial items from their psychic question period up for auction – including the Green Stone itself.
This caused a certain amount of animosity between Gaynor and Roberts on the one hand and Andrew Collins and Graham Phillips on the other, as Collins has documented on his website, and one suspects that the factions had been growing apart for a long time – which would go some way to explaining why Phillips went into his alternative history schtick and Collins ended up working with other mediums on other projects. One of the more jarring aspects of the auction was that originally the Eye of Fire itself had been listed among the items for sale, which Graham Phillips objected to because he’d already told the world that it had been destroyed.
A certain amount of backpedalling followed, but it feels like this is the sort of mistake which would only really be possible if Gaynor and Roberts had forgotten the agreed end of the Eye of Fire story, but believed themselves to be in possession of an item which was the Eye of Fire. It’s almost like it wasn’t destroyed at all, but merely concealed and put away until the next time a reddish stone was needed for a bit of improv.
All this must leave a bad taste in the mouth all round. Graham Phillips, as of the time of writing, doesn’t list The Eye of Fire on his website at all – as in I did a Google search on his entire web domain and there’s not a single reference to it, even though The Green Stone retains pride of place at the start of his bibliography on the same site. This whole psychic questing thing seems to have been a very exciting little bit of live-action roleplaying when it happened, but unlike real LARPs, there’s no fun to be had for participants in acknowledging the fictionality of it all when discussing things afterwards.
Perhaps most of all, the over-the-top nature of The Eye of Fire highlights one of the reasons why the psychic questing fad died out. After establishing the general sort of pattern that psychic questing expeditions would follow in The Green Stone, Phillips, Keatman, and the investigators around them couldn’t really escalate it much further without shattering the paper-thin pretence of credibility. Whilst mediums in a dark room can make all sorts of fun special effects happen to delight those willing to believe (or play along), it’s much harder to do that sort of thing outdoors. Most psychic questing endeavours ended up being very samey. Andrew Collins’ material on the subject helped keep things fresh a little longer, but beyond his major questing-related works (The Black Alchemist, The Seventh Sword and The Second Coming) and these two books by Phillips & Keatman, everything out there seems to be a bit of a rehash of the same general themes.
Ultimately, if like me you read this stuff for the sake of a good story, the genre just doesn’t have that wide a range of stories to tell – and until someone comes up with a new story to tell in the medium, it’s likely to remain moribund.