Gems of Criticism

Of all the incidents in Aleister Crowley’s extensive history of shit-stirring in the occult subculture of the early 20th Century, The Equinox is the one which left behind the most material for later generations to pick over. The Equinox was Crowley’s journal of esoteric philosophy and practice; with the motto of “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”, it had an initial run from 1909 to 1913, then returned briefly for a bumper issue in 1919 (the so-called “Blue Equinox”), and then for all intents and purposes that was that. (Such subsequent volumes as issued during Crowley’s lifetime were basically self-contained books on a single subject, rather than journals with articles on varied topics; in the case of books issued during World War II, this was a wheeze intended to take advantage of the fact that magazines were under different paper rationing restrictions from books.)

For its brief run, the original Equinox was supposed to be the teaching organ of the A∴A∴, a splinter group of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn founded by Crowley and some of his allies. Crowley’s eclectic approach to spirituality doesn’t quite hide the fact that, overall, the entire shebang is basically a sort of repackaged Theravada Buddhism, the magical goal of communication and union with one’s Holy Guardian Angel being part of the process of attaining the enlightenment of ego-death.

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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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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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Beastly Sincerity

In writing A Magick Life Martin Booth sets himself a challenge. Biographies of figures like Aleister Crowley can be difficult because he was one of those people who devote their lives to subjects which believers take extremely seriously, but which sceptics tend to simply find amusing and/or disturbing (depending on just how prudish their instincts are).

In the case of Crowley, the subject in question is occultism and ritual magic, including sex magic rituals. This is the sort of subject matter people tend not to have mild, moderate, wishy-washy opinions about. For occultists, Crowley is either a hugely important figure in terms of recent innovations in the subject (Thelemites follow his system to this day, yet more draw on it, and chaos magicians tend to see his work as a necessary precursor to the sort of postmodern take they utilise) or one of the worst disasters to ever befall the field. Those who do not lend credence to occultism still tend to pass judgement on it; “it’s creepy and culty and manipulative” say some, “it’s an amusing eccentricity” say others, “it’s the work of the Devil” say yet others, “it’s asinine self-aggrandising nonsense” say still others.

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Arthur Throws a Templar Tantrum

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.

Some incidents in history seem to attract more than their fair share of legends; for instance, whilst the Crusades in general constituted a massive and pervasive disruption in the histories of Europe and the Middle East alike, people seem to get especially fixated on the Knights Templar, a sect of Christian warrior-monks, and the so-called Assassins, the militant arm of the Nizari sect of Ismailis (the Ismailis themselves being a splinter sect of Shia Islam). The idea that these organisations concealed a secret doctrine that has been transmitted to subsequent secret societies is a godsend when it comes to speculative historical fantasy, or if you want to give your particular occult group a bit of extra gravitas, but it has resulted in the accretion of all sorts bits of questionable scholarship around the subject penned by authors at times more interested in pushing an ideology or promoting a legend than making a credible historical argument.

Take, as an example, The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Wasserman is a long-standing member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an initiatory society primarily associated with Aleister Crowley and his Thelemite religious teachings. Wasserman assures the reader that he is going to start off by laying out the facts about the historical background to the Crusades and the development of Islam, and the recorded facts about the Assassins and the Templars, before providing his more opinionated conclusions. However, right out of the gate he ends up promoting a range of personal opinions that became evident to me even though I’m no professional historian myself.

For instance, Wasserman isn’t even able to finish the first chapter without making his particular political stance extremely clear – namely, that he’s a NRA-supporting hardline libertarian prone to spouting hard-right Republican talking points. He talks about “Statism” in a way which fairly clearly indicates his libertarian political outlook (if the citation of Atlas Shrugged as a useful reference on political conspiracies in the bibliography wasn’t enough of a giveaway), and he openly buys into the CFR-Bilderberg-Trilateral Commission conspiracy theories of the John Birch era. (I swear, 700 years from now when those institutions are long dead we’ll have secret societies claiming descent from them). He also seems to be not keen on democracy either, basically equating it with mob rule and lynchings – a position regularly taken by libertarians who resent the ability of a majority-supported government to place restrictions on them.

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