Not As Sharp As Occam’s Razor

As previously documented here, The Black Alchemist was Andrew Collins’ self-published sleeper hit which kicked off a flurry of interest in psychic questing. His followup would actually get issued via Arrow, a mainstream publisher, and would be his magnum opus: whilst he had written accounts of psychic quests before and after, none would be as massive, wide-ranging, or take in such a broad picture of his questing career from its inception in 1979 to the book’s emergence in 1991. That book would be The Seventh Sword, perhaps the deepest dive you could take into psychic questing without getting up and actually dabbling in it yourself.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part constitutes Collins’ definitive account of the finding of the Green Stone and the associated Meonia Sword – as he’d previously recounted in his self-published pamphlet The Sword and the Stone, and as Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman detailed in The Green Stone. Far from redundant, this involves Collins going into the subject in substantially greater depth than any previous recounting of the story, and delving into subjects that Phillips and Keatman had only glancingly addressed.

The second part picks up a few years later and takes in a span of some six years; after Collins learns that the Meonia Sword was not a unique artifact, but part of a set of seven, bit by bit the other swords are uncovered. It turns out that the occultists who’d hidden them in past centuries had intended that they be used in a ritual known as the Form of the Lamb, to unfold at a location known as the Heart of the Rose, in order to herald the coming of the Messiah and other such high spiritual and utopian goals. Eventually six swords are discovered, leaving only the titular Seventh Sword – which, due to its association with the powers of darkness, was known as the Black Sword. The book concludes with Collins still searching for it and encouraging readers to help out in the quest.

Over both parts, Collins and his allies must tangle not only with the difficulties of searching out the artifacts but also believe that they are opposed by a grand occult conspiracy – one which the Black Alchemist and his Friends of Hecate were only a local franchise of. With an Illuminati-esque level of power (and the appropriate tangled Masonic heritage), this conspiracy is never too far away. Can Collins and his questers avoid being ground down by… the Wheel???

Now, don’t get excited – before you hop up and go chasing off to track down the Seventh Sword, you should be aware that it’s already been found. In fact, apparently it popped up really soon after the book came out: Collins and his associated performed the Form of the Lamb with the seven Meonia Swords for the first of seven annual observances in 1992, and since – as we shall see in a bit – access to at least one of them ended up becoming a rather fraught matter, I can’t see that being possible unless the last sword were found almost immediately after the publication of the book, if not prior to it.

As such, the existing version of the book is somewhat out of date. As of February 2015, Collins said he was planning to revise and reissue the book as two or three volumes with extensive updates and revisions, and including details on what happened when the swords came together. So, you never know, if he gets around to doing that I might end up reviewing this twice.

A revision process might be a good opportunity for Collins to tighten up his story, straighten up his act, and generally deal with the credibility problems the book has (above and beyond the basic underlying stench of bullshit which wafts around most psychic questing narratives). The fact is that here Collins more or less openly admits to massaging and altering his reporting of events, with the result that I suspect the story presented here comes across as more coherent and reasonable than it would if we actually had access to the raw psychic information that Collins is fleshing out here.

For instance, at points in the chapter notes Collins admits to amending the content of psychic messages and shifting the order of information being uncovered about to aid clarity. The latter also suggests that Collins is prioritising creating a compelling narrative over and above the needs of accurate reportage; the former, done in hindsight, is naturally going to make the messages sound more direct, coherent, and informative than they actually were.

It’s also apparent from some of the chapter notes that Collins either didn’t make or didn’t retain especially thorough notes of his investigations, with a number of incidents being reconstructed from memory – some of which happened up to twelve years prior to the book’s publication. I feel like this reflects poorly on Collins’s credentials as an investigator.

Sometimes his reasons for changing the details on an anecdote have nothing to do with the haziness of his recollection or the presentation of information in an a clear manner, however. There’s at least one point where he admits to changing up the details on an incident to protect himself and others from the legal consequences of poking about stealing stuff that they have no legal right to from other people’s land and buildings. That quickly becomes Collins’s go-to excuse for glossing over details – thus obfuscating the story and making it more difficult to substantiate or debunk his claims – and perhaps he had reason to be concerned about legal consequences befalling him and his colleagues.

In one specific instance he mentions how he’d been daft enough to send a copy of The Sword and the Stone – his first booklet on the Green Stone matter – to the Earl of Coventry, who owned the land where the first Meonia sword was found. The Earl’s legal representatives then came after Collins and demanded the return of the sword, lest he face prosecution for trespass, theft, and criminal damage. (In the process of retrieving the Meonia Sword, Collins and Phillips partially dismantled an old dry stone wall in the foundations of a bridge, with the stones they removed tossed into the river. Assuming that the sword came from there in the first place, my suspicion is that Phillips, or whichever confederate slipped the sword there, must have dropped it down a gap in the wall only for it to fall down further than expected, making the partial demolition job necessary.) To avoid these consequences, Collins and Phillips had to give up the original sword to the Earl, who proved understandably reluctant to lend it out to them in future, even if the Form of the Lamb depended on it.

This might seem like a bit of a reactionary point to kick back on – the rights of land-owners tends to run in parallel to the rights of the aristocracy. However, the fact is that Collins sees his activities as justified and clearly isn’t sorry he’s done any of this – he’s just sorry he allowed himself to get caught, and takes steps to avoid getting caught when recounting later incidents. The question it opens up is this: just how far is Collins willing to flout the law purely to chase up a psychic lead?

My worry here is less for the property rights of some toff and more for the physical integrity of the historical sites and structures that Collins and his pals seem to find nothing wrong in mucking about with. Credible researchers might be able to learn something from those places if untrained amateurs leave well enough alone, but if precious archaeological sites get damaged permanently by blundering psychic questers then we all lose out.

When Collins is not consciously incriminating himself in criminal activity, he’s inadvertently incriminating his colleagues when it comes to faking the psychic phenomena the questers encounter. For instance, Collins’ account of the discovery of the Green Stone raises the very real possibility of Graham Phillips actively having contrived it, most likely in collaboration with Marion and Gaynor Sunderland.

As Collins describes it, the party arrives at the Swan’s Neck – the bend in a river where they’ve sussed out the Green Stone was hidden by partisans loyal to Mary, Queen of Scots – to find that Phillips has been there ahead of them, there’s soil on his hands, he mentions having done a bit of digging in the vicinity and there’s signs that, indeed, there’s been digging going on. The party is unable to find the box with the Green Stone in it, and considers what to do next; Phillips insists that they have to go directly to the Sunderlands to talk to them about it, and firmly overrules a suggestion to go visit some other psychic (Penny) along the way. When they get to the Sunderlands, Phillips goes up to visit Gaynor in her bedroom, carrying an attache case; after some minutes Collins goes up to see what’s going on and finds Phillips showing off the casket with the Green Stone in it to Gaynor.

Collins interprets this as Phillips having gotten there ahead of the party, exhuming the Green Stone by himself before the rest of the group gets there in order to trick the sinister witches the party have convinced themselves are attempting to get it first, putting it in the attache case, and then taking it to the Sunderlands so that Gaynor can get a psychometric read on it; in this instance the fact that psychic Alan believes that the Stone is still in the vicinity is evidence of Alan being genuinely sensitive to such things, and Graham overruled the Penny visit because he knew that it would be a waste of everyone’s time, since he already had the stone.

However, this sequence of events suggests to me that the Sunderlands fabricated the casket and Green Stone themselves (or obtained perfectly ordinary antique tat), and Phillips was happily in on the scam. The fact that Phillips didn’t show the team the Green Stone immediately is explained by the fact that he didn’t have it at the Swan’s Neck at all, Alan’s psychic powers are bunk, and Phillips had just shown up a bit early, dug about a bit, and muddied up his hands to substantiate the idea that he’d just dug up something. Graham’s vehement insistence that the group not go to Penny might be explained by the fact that Penny wasn’t in on this bit of fakery, and therefore would have confused the matter by sending the searchers off in a different direction Phillips didn’t want them to go in – and also because it would raise the question later on of why Phillips didn’t get the Green Stone out once the party reached Penny’s place. Once the party got to the Sunderlands, Graham simply went up to Gaynor’s bedroom – where the casket and Stone were waiting for him to plop them into his attache case, ready for Andy (or whoever went up to check first from the party) to walk in on Graham and Gaynor marvelling at it.

Beyond instances like this where you can see a clear mechanism for how a hoax could have been perpetrated, Collins and his colleagues also show a tendency to credulously change up they assumptions on the say-so of whichever psychic happens to be telling the most interesting story at the time. There’s a bit where they discover that the first sword they find couldn’t have possibly been hidden at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, and that it was at the earliest a Victorian reproduction of a Tudor original. Rather than causing them to question the legitimacy of the sword, they come to the conclusion that some group in the Victorian era replaced the original at some point – and lo and behold, they start getting psychic messages confirming their new assumption. Why the earlier messages didn’t mention the switcheroo, we are not told, but I suspect it’s simply because the psychics in question either didn’t know about the swap or were in on the fakery but hoped it wouldn’t be spotted.

Thus, part 2 of the book includes much discussion of matters unfolding in the Victorian period… which Collins is now thinking about entirely stripping out of the revised version, because he now believes the original Meonia Sword really does date from the 1600s and the antiques expert who suggested it was Victorian got it wrong. Why didn’t any of the numerous psychics who gave information based on the Victorian connection pick up on this? The answer is probably “they aren’t actually psychic”, or if you want to be really generous “they aren’t psychic to the extent Collins would like to think they are”.

Perhaps the peak of the credulity exhibited comes from the group’s fretting and worry about the Wheel – an organisation they come up with all sorts of theories about but never, not once, not ever, actually encounter or interview a member of. The closest thing to a dramatic confrontation with the enemy that Collins can come up with which doesn’t involve stuff happening purely on the level of mental imagery (Collins would call that the astral plane, I’d call it the wonderful world of the imagination) involves a helicopter flying past the group at a moment that Graham happens to feel sick.

The subject of the Wheel teases out Collins and company’s tendency to indulge in an odd sort of occult sectarianism. This was a mild feature of The Black Alchemist, but is even more apparent here; witches and Thelemites, many of whom Graham and Andy had previously been friendly with, represent the opposition, whilst the goodies are represented by vaguely Spiritualist-y mediums and studious followers of Golden Dawn-derived occult systems. Of course, all of these categories of people pretty much believe in and do the exact same sort of stuff in their occult endeavours (especially witches of the Gardnerian tradition, which is basically Golden Dawn occultism with a Wicker Man aesthetic), but the lack of any real substantive difference in belief, doctrine, and practice has never done anything to slow down the fragmentation of more conventional religions. Why would the occult scene be any different? (It’s particularly rich to hear Marion Sunderland warn the lads about witchcraft, as though her own practices were really that distant from it.)

Still, as we’ve seen with the early works of David Icke, one of the comforting things a magical worldview offers is the sense that everything which happens has some occult connection to you, and therefore you are personally an individual of extreme importance to the world’s destiny. Collins himself indulges in this vice when he appears to seriously relate a ritual of worship directed to the Aten performed by Collins during a trip to Egypt to the (admittedly simultaneous) assassination of Anwar Sadat.

The Egypt trip was part of an attempt to chase up the origins of Meonia in refugees from Akhenaten’s monotheistic priesthood, and we learn in the book that back in the original Meonia quest Collins and Phillips had been working on a theory that psychics tend to have Egyptian, Roma, or Celtic ancestry somewhere in the mix, and that all this is related to a race of special psychic people who emerged in Egypt at some point in history; Collins would later try to develop this idea in his subsequent alternative archaeology books like From the Ashes of Angels, where he’d try to play down the role of psychic information in his work, and overall both Phillips and Collins seem to have spent much of their careers essentially trying to prove that some sort of race of superhumans had this dramatic role in prehistory which ties into all this stuff. The Seventh Sword, as such, ends up being a bit of a grand crossroads of Collins’ work since he seems to spend the book trying to tie all of his different investigative interests into each other in one grand mosaic.

The aftermath of the Egypt stuff, however, finds the book rather coming apart at the seams. Apparently, the original psychic questing team of Collins and Phillips decided to split up after that – Collins having become profoundly concerned by the Sadat assassination. Whether or not it was connected to his activities – of course it fucking wasn’t – it’d have surely been a terrifying thing to have happened during Collins’ visit; the way Collins talks about it here, it sounds like Phillips had a rather dismissive, blasé attitude to the situation, which can’t have helped very much.

The result of this is that Phillips, whilst generally in the loop, is a bit more of a distant presence in the second half of the book, and Collins ends up working more closely with other psychics (including Bernard of Black Alchemist fame) – and it’s interesting how once that happens, things start taking more divergent directions. You get the Victorian stuff. You get some business with a dragon and King Vortigern and the like. You get a spontaneously manifesting copy of the Eye of Fire (from The Eye of Fire), which might explain why later on people got confused as to the ultimate fate of that particular item (as described towards the end of my article on Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman’s books). And in particular, the idea of there being a whole bunch of Meonia swords doesn’t crop up until now.

Towards the end there’s even a celebrity guest appearance by Mark Ryan, who played Nasir in Robin of Sherwood. Apparently he also is an occasional psychic and helps them do a bit of questing, having heard about their activities after Collins contacted showrunner Richard Carpenter on the off chance that the two-parter story The Swords of Wayland was inspired by Meonia lore.

As a result of Collins working with a whole range of different individuals at around this time, the second part of the book ends up being a bit unfocused and rambling. Part of the reason it lacks focus is that it’s building to the discovery of the final sword, but that doesn’t actually happen here, but Collins also has this maddening tendency to narrate utterly mundane stuff as though it’s highly important, only for it to have no apparent further significance later on.

Some of this stuff may inadvertently reveal why Collins ends up having to change up his teams every few years. For instance, in Collins’ most recent psychic questing group, based around the highly visually imaginative Deborah, there’s a guy called David, and Collins describes how David phones up before their trip with Mark Ryan to say that he can’t come and is a bit surly and uncommunicative when asked to explain why. Not only does Collins report this conversation – entirely needless to communicate the fact that a particular individual wasn’t present on the trip – but he also reports Deborah’s griping about David and his own frustration.

It’s like he’s scolding David in the pages of the book as well as airing dirty laundry which Deborah might have preferred to keep quiet, and if Collins behaves like this towards people who are supposedly helping him to uncover the mysteries of the ages then frankly it’s a bit dickish. Then again, we know from Moorcock’s Elric stories that the Black Sword tends to be carried by dudes who keep hurting their friends, so maybe this is what made him destined to find the thing…

2 thoughts on “Not As Sharp As Occam’s Razor

  1. Please keep reviewing these books, I find them absolutely fascinating. The alt-history stuff sounds great.

    Reading this back to back with the recent wrasstlin’ book review, it occurs to me that this psychic questing thing is basically the fantasy version of professional wrestling, except only some of the participants are in on it and it involves wanton trespass and property damage. It definitely seems like Phillips was the one driving the story on this particular LARP; maybe being in a foreign country during a political upheaval sucked the fun out of it for him.

    But speaking of that, I wonder what the blatantly fraudulent party (/parties) get out of this? Obviously they know the adventure isn’t actually going to culminate in anything, and the longer they keep the ruse going the more likely that their questing companions are going to catch on. It all seems way too elaborate to just be trolling. Is there a chance that they’re having their own magical LARP that they do genuinely believe in, which for some reason involves spinning this false narrative for the others, or do you think they’re just total con artists?

    And from the perspective of Collins and the other true believers…instead of conjuring these fake occult organizations from thin air, why not join an actual occult or magical group? Like, there are genuine secret societies and underground groups of people into this stuff. No, they probably won’t whisk you off on an exciting adventure where You Are The Hero, but at least they’d be interacting with real people and real organizations that actually exist.

    I kind of get the feeling–particularly from the strange hostility to witchcraft–that Collins and his friends are the sort of people who are really fascinated by the world of the occult and non-mainstream spiritualities, but are also square enough that they find the idea of joining an initiatory society too taboo and frightening. So they just invent fake ones, where there’s no chance of getting involved with a friendly band of occultists who turn out to be serial killers or devil worshippers or something.

    (An alternative, much sadder possibility is that they tried to get in on the real stuff, but no one wanted them. I imagine a lot of these groups treat their practices as serious religious or spiritual observances and don’t take kindly to people who are going to hijack that for personal flights of fancy.)

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    1. It was Collins who visited Egypt during the Sadat assassination, not Phillips – though yeah, it’s notable that as soon as Collins gets some distance from Phillips the character of the messages he receives changes.

      The question of whether Collins is 100% a true believer who’s been absolutely conned on the one hand, and of whether he’s willingly allowed himself to be taken in on the other is an interesting one. He does seem to claim in this book to have seen some of the same sort of visions that Deborah saw on the Vortigern quest (though it’s a bit confusingly written with respect to who saw what), but I don’t know how much of that is the power of suggestion and how much is him willingly buying into what he’s being told.

      With respect to what the more conscious fakers are doing – as I alluded to in one of my previous articles, Chaos magic was the hot new thing in the occult community when they were kicking all of this off, and part of that involves embracing stuff which you know on some level is entirely fictional because you believe that it’s the emotional resonances and the like bound up in a symbol which are magically effective, not the narrative the symbol purports to convey. To a Chaos magician, it’s just as effective to evoke Superman as it is, say, Saturn, and probably more so these days given that Superman’s probably got more cultural resonance. So there’s that.

      There’s also the fact that all this kicked off as Collins and Phillips were struggling to get a paranormal magazine off the ground, and Phillips might have been undertaking a desperate bid to generate hot material for the magazine.

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