Wheatley’s Catalogue of Ceremonies, Curses, and Cultural Myopia

Think of Dennis Wheatley, and you think of the Devil. That may not be wholly fair; of the dozens of trashy adventure and thriller novels Wheatley churned out over the course of his career, only a minority actually deal with the occult. In fact, that’s true even of his series about the Duke de Richleau, despite that series including the most famous of his Satanically-themed novels, The Devil Rides Out.

Nonetheless, whilst most of Wheatley’s output has largely been forgotten, his occult-themed stories are what his name is largely associated with. It probably helps that the Hammer adaptation of The Devil Rides Out is, for all its faults (most of which arise from it being too true to the original book), one of the more enduringly-fun Hammer releases. Another factor might be that Wheatley’s views on the occult were absolutely bizarre, tied in as they were with his hyper-conservative views, with the result that they stand out all the more.

Whilst often you can glean aspects of an author’s worldview from their fiction – sure, people say you should separate the writer from the material, but if someone consistently, over the course of their entire career, writes women like trash and shows no sign that they are using techniques like unreliable narrators or whatever which means we shouldn’t take the narration at face value, you can draw a few conclusions from that. In the case of Wheatley, however, we don’t need to speculate about his actual beliefs on the occult: late in his career he write The Devil and All His Works, a coffee-table book combining his views on the subject and on spirituality in general with a fantastic collection of photographs (including the standard mildly titillating nudity expected of books on witchcraft from the 1970s).

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Connecting the (Demonic) Dots

Toyne Newton’s 1987 The Demonic Connection isn’t quite a psychic questing book along the lines of those written by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman or Andrew Collins, but it’s regularly cited in Collins’ early work and has much the same atmosphere about it, largely because both The Demonic Collection and the various questing books have similar preoccupations with occult conspiracies at work in the English countryside.

The major difference in approach is that whilst the likes of Phillips or Collins’ questing books go into detail about the little adventures the authors and their colleagues have as they go using the powers of the mind to uncover various mysteries, Newton is much less interested in reporting methodology; with some exceptions, he just dumps the results of his research on the reader, which means it’s unclear to what extent psychic or other unconventional research methods figured into his work.

However, what The Demonic Connection lacks in adventure, it more than makes up for in the sheer scope of its theories. Another commonality it has with the psychic questing books is this tendency to take some local landmark in the English countryside, investigate its alleged mysteries, and thereby spin a yarn which puts that otherwise nondescript locale at the heart of a cosmic conflict.

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An Alien Aesthetic

As you might have gathered from some of my past articles on the subject, I’m more interested in UFOlogy as a cultural phenomenon than as anything objectively happening in our skies, and read UFO books more for entertainment than for information. There’s a certain joy to be had in delving into this rabbit hole without being too invested in the truth of anything you encounter, and I’m gratified to know I’m not alone in this, since much the same approach seems to be taken by Jack Womack, who over the years has obtained quite the collection of UFO books.

Womack offers us a guided tour through his library in the coffee table book …Flying Saucers Are Real!, which combines some brief writings on the subject from Womack with a range of delightful front covers, photographs, illustrations and textual extracts from the books under discussion. Womack convincingly argues that the UFO flap was essentially an evolution of the Shaver Mystery of prior years – a bizarre craze in which the claims of one Richard Shaver that he’d intercepted and decoded secret messages from fallen civilisations and evil BDSM robots from the Hollow Earth became unaccountably popular on a commercial level. Pioneering science fiction editor and shamless huckster Ray Palmer not only turned the Shaver Mystery from a lone man’s delusion into a minor pop cultural phenomenon; he was also instrumental in early publicity for Kenneth Arnold’s infamous 1947 sighting which kicked off the modern UFO meme – a meme whose evolution and mutation Womack traces across the rest of the book.

The bulk of the material here hails from the 1950s and 1960s, with a few exceptions – such as the cover of the 1989 edition of Space Aliens From the Pentagon by William Lyne and other such pieces with a particularly exciting aesthetic to them. This makes the volume a charming portal into an era when book covers were garish and gaudy, UFO photos were blurry and lampshade-ish, and contactees like the Unarius Institute’s Ruth “Uriel” Norman dressed fabulously and told us that space Aryans just wanted us to love each other. Whilst the book will offer little if you want to argue for the objective reality of UFOs and alien visitors, it offers a striking visual history of the way we talk about the subject.

Vallée of Mystery

Of all the big names in UFOlogy in the late 20th Century, Jacques Vallée might be the most interesting. A physicist and computer scientist by training, he believed that there was some form of physical reality behind UFOs, but was reluctant to jump to the conclusion that they were necessarily nuts-and-bolts spacecraft from other worlds. In the late 1960s, his classic Passport To Magonia aired his personal theory that if there was any truth to stories of extraterrestrial visitors at all, they seemed more consistent with visits from other dimensions than from distant space – and that the phenomenon had direct parallels with folkloric encounters with angels, fairies and similar.

1979’s Messengers of Deception came about after Vallée decided to turn his attention from the witnessed aerial phenomena themselves to the people who claim to have witnessed them – and, in particular, those who insist they have met the occupants of interplanetary craft. His initial reason for doing so was a hypothesis that UFOs are a real physical phenomenon which has psychological or neurological effects on witnesses, and so by looking to said witnesses it might be possible to find evidence of this.

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Communion or Concoction?

It has become an iconic alien abduction story. Horror author Whitley Strieber (whose early hits included Wolfen and The Hunger) and his family split their time between their apartment in New York City and their out-of-town holiday home… which in true horror style is an honest to goodness cabin in the woods. Surprise guests arrive in the form of little grey UFOnauts who take away Strieber in the middle of the night, mess with his head, and stimulate his prostate a bit with a fancy vibrator. Under hypnotic regression, Strieber remembers all this and comes to the conclusion that this has been happening all his life – that he, his father before him, and his son after him are a line of abductees, destined to be taught important spiritual information and lovingly pegged by a big-eyed ancient space goddess. At the end of the book, he sits down and thinks about triangles for a while.

Communion was, for a time, the book on alien abduction. During that brief cultural space when alien abductions were a red-hot subject, Communion ended up becoming such a widely-cited text on the subject – the book people waved around to try and persuade sceptical audiences of the reality of the phenomenon, and the book which many abductees claimed resonated so closely with them.

It’s rather odd that it has that status, considering how absolutely bizarre the book gets in some of its aspects, particularly towards the end. I can only assume that most readers got through the early descriptions of abduction experiences – undeniably creepy and haunting that they are – and perhaps a few of the hypnosis sections in the middle of the book before their attention wavered and they sort of gave up. Or possibly it’s the case that, as is very frequent in this field, people cherry-picked: they took the bits which supported their personal visions and theories about the abduction experience onboard as fact, whilst writing off bits which didn’t fit as Strieber filtering the information through his own worldview.

Strieber’s worldview is certainly eccentric; contrary to many of the claims people make about Communion, and the narrative he tries to frame, he is far from a rationalist, materialist sceptic at the start of the story. He claims to not have much interest in UFOlogy, but as we shall see, he has a deep interest in a number of esoteric subjects and philosophies – more than you’d really expect from a James Randi-style atheist materialist – and it is not only possible but likely that his whole abduction schtick is an exercise in working with these ideas.

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Shake Hands With Danger

Stephen Knight’s career was cut short by brain cancer in 1985, but he’ll forever be remembered for two books. The first is 1976’s Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution, in which he aired a unique theory that the Ripper murders were carried out not by a single individual but by a trio of assassins acting, they believed, in the best interest of the British Crown and of Freemasonry. The second is 1984’s The Brotherhood, an investigation into the level of undue influence exercised in particular professions and social institutions by Freemasonry and Freemasons.

Specifying “Freemasonry and Freemasons” is important to Knight’s thesis, because he is careful to draw a distinction between Freemasonry as an institution and Freemasons as the people who occupy that institution. The great majority of anti-Masonic literature over the years has concentrated on attacking the institution of Freemasonry itself, alleging that it is purposefully and deliberately designed as a sinister edifice of corruption.

To an extent, The Final Solution fell into this trap a little – giving credibility to the nonsense garbage conspiracy theories promulgated by Leo Taxil in the 19th Century, before he gave a speech exposing all of his anti-Masonic work as a hoax, a prank played on the (predominantly Catholic) anti-Masonic conspiracy theory underground which went further than Taxil ever expected, simply because the conspiracy theorists were so credulous that Taxil simply couldn’t dream up a claim so absurd that they wouldn’t swallow it. In fact, Knight went so far as to make the claim that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – a document which has been comprehensively debunked over and over again – was actually a credible internal document from the global conspiracy, just disguised a little so that all the crimes of the Freemasons would end up being blamed on the Jewish people if it got out.

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The Current, the Coil, and the Nurse

Once upon a time there was a group of performance artists called COUM, who transformed into a band called Throbbing Gristle, who crafted a thing called “industrial music” out of the toxic sludge of mid-1970s Britain’s malaise. Eventually, that band broke up, and two of its members – Genesis P-Orridge and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson – went on to form Psychic TV, a new band with an associated chaos magick occult movement called Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. Important contributors to both the first two Psychic TV albums (Force the Hand of Chance and Dreams Less Sweet) and the early propaganda and doctrines of TOPI included John Balance, a Throbbing Gristle fan who’d begun a relationship with Sleazy which would last the rest of his life, and David Tibet, an eccentric young man who was in the middle of a serious Aleister Crowley phase.

Meanwhile, gentle-natured music nerd and big time Krautrock fan Steven Stapleton had formed – and soon became the sole consistent member of – Nurse With Wound, whose surrealist experiments with sound tended to be lumped in with the “industrial” movement because Throbbing Gristle was the only thing which anyone felt able to compare it with.

Tensions arose within Psychic TV – with Sleazy, Balance, and Tibet all dropping out and establishing new projects. Sleazy and Balance would form the core of electronic industrial pioneers Coil; David Tibet would start producing nightmare soundscapes with a rotating cast of collaborators under the overall project name of Current 93. Befriending David Tibet, Stapleton soon became Current 93’s in-house producer, a position he’d hold more or less consistently for the next quarter of a century or so, and Stapleton, Tibet, Sleazy, and Balance would spend much of their future careers trading ideas with each other.

Eventually, all three projects would in their own way start expressing a strange and deeply non-traditional take on old-style pastoralism. David Tibet eventually reconfigured Current 93 as one of the most important exponents of what you could call “weird folk” of the latter 20th/early 21st Century, with musical partners such as Douglas Pearce from the controversial Death In June and, ultimately replacing Douglas, Current 93 superfan Michael Cashmore aiding him in producing some of the most delicately melancholy music ever produced. Coil would move to Weston-Super-Mare and start producing a more prog-oriented brand of “lunar music” as a counterpoint to the harsh “solar music” of their early career. Stapleton would move with his partner Diana Rogerson, who’d hit the industrial scene as part of the BDSM-themed performance art unit Fistfuck, to establish a family artistic commune in the west of Ireland, creating strange sculptures deep in the rural wilderness even as he continues to produce nightmare industrial soundscapes.

And through their various musical releases, the bands in question have produced a musical expression of rural and urban Englands which are very different from the sanitised take on the land that the authorities would have been comfortable with – what author David Keenan calls England’s Hidden Reverse.

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