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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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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Pickin’ Up Truth Vibrations, Part 1: In the Light of (Turquoise) Experience

There is today an active Gnostic sect. Few people can be said to be consciously enthusiastic members, but it is nonetheless a sect. It teaches a worldview which has evolved somewhat over the sect’s existence, but was from the beginning rooted in Gnosticism and has become increasingly reminiscent of Gnosticism with the passage of time, and in recent years has openly switched to some specifically Gnostic terminology to explain its ideas.

Its adherents wouldn’t necessarily think of it as a religious movement, and many of them actively follow other spiritual traditions in parallel to it – but if they have taken the teachings of this sect seriously, then that will inevitably affect their relationship with those other traditions and how they view them. Different levels of involvement exist, ranging from people who just read a few books or watch a few DVDs to more enthusiastic members who discuss the leader’s teachings enthusiastically on his website forums, or who attend massive, day-long lectures which the sect’s leader holds in major venues like Wembley Arena in order to endlessly restate, reiterate, and reinforce his essential points.

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Jonestown, White Night, and What Scientology Could Have Taught the People’s Temple

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.

If anything, Tim Reiterman was even closer to the events recounted in Raven than Bugliosi was in Helter Skelter. Whereas Bugliosi only arrived on the scene after the fact in Helter Skelter and can only directly attest to what went down in the trial, Tim Reiterman was part of the team of journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan’s doomed visit to Jonestown, and was wounded in the People’s Temple attack on the party (and the group of Temple defectors they were trying to get to safety) at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

Horrifying as it was, that attack was a mere foretaste of the carnage that Jim Jones was simultaneously planning in Jonestown, as he led his people in a carefully rehearsed process of murder and mass suicide that was, at least as Jones explained it, intended to act as the ultimate protest against a capitalist world that wouldn’t leave them be. There is room for debate in terms of how serious he was about this motive – his claims that “mercenaries”, the Guyanese army and other hired guns of capitalism were out to invade and destroy Jonestown were backed up by faked assassination attempts, just as earlier in his career his claims of healing powers were backed up by faked faith healings, so there is every chance that he didn’t really believe his own rhetoric captured on the infamous “Jonestown death tape” about how soldiers were going to swoop in and torture and kill all the town’s inhabitants.

What is not in doubt is Jones’ commitment to mass suicide as an exit strategy: as well as the famous “White Night” drills that prepared the inhabitants of Jonestown for self-destruction, Raven documents how Jones was running hoaxed suicide drills even when he was headquartered in the United States, years before Jones’s spiralling paranoia, increasing legal and journalistic scrutiny, and a string of defections from the People’s Temple prompted his retreat to his Guyana hideaway. Given the Temple’s vehemently (and often counter-productively) aggressive responses to even a hint of journalistic curiosity or law enforcement interest, an arguable case could be made that what Jones was really doing on that final White Night was fleeing the consequences of his actions, his pride rendering him unable to face either the criminal charges that would have inevitably followed the attack on the Ryan party or the exposure of his secrets that would follow.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 6: From Providence To Antarctica

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.

After the burst of fiction-writing which followed his return to Providence, Lovecraft would take the summer (and a good chunk of the spring) of 1927 off, though he was by no means idle. Stepping back into the world of amateur journalism, he offered up A Matter of Uniteds, his most even-handed account of the schism of 1912 and the two UAPAs that were born from it. His diplomatic stance and repudiation of inter-faction mud-slinging was a far cry from the more stalwartly defiant pose he’d adopted a decade earlier, but then again the circumstances of both UAPAs had greatly changed since then, with both factions suffering a crisis of low membership and limited output. (In fact, at the time of writing Lovecraft’s UAPA had basically collapsed.) Lovecraft candidly acknowledges that the Uniteds are in trouble, and urges a reconciliation to ensure the continued existence of an APA dedicated to prioritising actual writing over socialisation.

Not that Lovecraft had become a homebody again – quite the opposite. Whilst theoretically based once again in Providence, his unhappy experiences in New York and inability to visit England did not dissuade him from undertaking what travels he could, and for all that he claimed to be a hermit more interested in topography and architecture than people he certainly had plenty of friends that he spent much time visiting. Having already written a lot of accounts of his travels in letters to his aunts, in mid-1927 he began, with the brief The Trip of Theobald, to commence writing travelogues as standalone essays, opening up a new strand in his writing. Naturally, he would quickly mar this body of work with his racist rants; Vermont – A First Impression kicks off with an ugly tantrum about foreigners and dark-skinned people and industrialisation wrecking the southern portions of New England. (I mistyped that at first as Jew England and heard a distant howling from the general direction of Lovecraft’s grave.)

That said, it can’t be said to be a waste of time, even if the essay does mostly consist of gushing about how pretty Vermont is, if it helped Lovecraft get a feel for the local landscape he used so effectively in The Whisperer In Darkness. Some have bemoaned the amount of effort Lovecraft put into his travel writing, wishing he had produced more stories instead, but I am with Joshi on this one in thinking that Lovecraft’s travel writing was an important part of him assimilating and processing the impressions he had picked up on his journeys – and since those selfsame impressions ended up feeding into his stories, then writing about them was arguably a necessary part of the creative process that yielded them. The travel writing was doubtless useful to Lovecraft, but by goodness it makes at best utterly tedious and at worst infuriatingly narrow-minded reading, and out of all the volumes in the Collected Essays I would say the travel one is by far the least interesting.

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Miscavige Family Values

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.

People defecting from Scientology (and its precursor pseudoscience of Dianetics) and writing books critical of L. Ron Hubbard’s personal brand of bullshit have existed about as long as Dianetics and Scientology have. Dr Joseph Winter was a member of the first wave of people L. Ron Hubbard duped with his claims of a breakthrough in mental health: he was a founder member of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation, the first of a great many organisations established by Hubbard over the years (usually to replace previous ones which had collapsed, gone bankrupt, or slipped entirely out of his control), and was one of the first to join its Board of Directors. Hubbard wanted Winter to be prominently involved because, as a medical doctor, Winter gave the new therapy a vital veneer of credibility, and in fact Winter wrote the original introduction to Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (an introduction, naturally, long since excised by the Church of Scientology).

The year after Dianetics was published, Winter – having resigned from the Foundation – brought out A Doctor’s Report on Dianetics, in which he expressed doubts about a number of claims made by Dianetics, suggested that he still believed in some of its premises but they could really do with actual research, and slammed Hubbard’s authoritarian approach, dangerous willingness to give Dianetic credentials to anyone who wanted to become a practitioner, and complete refusal to do anything resembling proper scientific testing. The pattern Winter set has persisted over the years; although the Church claims a vast membership, the best estimates of those who’ve studied these things suggest that at any particular time there are only a few thousand practicing Scientologists in the Church, their numbers constantly sapped by people dropping out. A certain proportion of the people dropping out write books, or provide research material to journalists writing books, and bit by bit over the years a sizable genre of Scientology exposes has grown up.

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Dick On Dick

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.

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve loved Dick. Like many of my generation, my first exposure to Dick was through a film, which made me curious enough to seek to experience Dick first-hand for myself. Having sampled my first few Dicks, I was soon hooked; my Dick collection, though not complete (a lot of the lesser mainstream Dicks have yet to grace my shelves) is still expansive, and I would say that it features the best Dicks available to the public.

But here, thanks to the efforts of Pamela Jackson, Jonathan Lethem and a team of assistants, is a Dick which is a bit much for me to cope with. It is a monster Dick. In sheer girth it’s about seven or eight times larger than most Dicks, and three times larger even than most omnibus Dicks. As far as the actual experience of it goes, it’s a little bit of an ordeal; Dicks are known for being an acquired taste to begin with, but there is much about this one which is quite hard to swallow. As it goes through its repetitive motions, there’s no building to a satisfying thematic climax; you just slog on and on, taking more and more in until you have to take a break. Only those with a ravenous appetite for Dick should even think about taking this on; it speaks a lot for the editors’ love of Dick that they were able to derive this Dick from its source, which is apparently around ten times as long.

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