I no longer remember the circumstances that made discover the infamous figure of Aleister Crowley, but comic books most likely played a role introducing me to the great occultist. That’s inevitable when the two best comic book writers – Alan Moore and Grant Morrison – also happen to practice magick in a serious way. The history of magick, chaos magick, occultism, the Tarot, and the Kabala have a tendency to sneak into their best work. You can’t read From Hell, Promethea, Doom Patrol or The Invisibles without noticing them and the man who did much to champion them in the 20th century. Just a few months ago Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Century came to a conclusion, after taking direct inspiration from Crowley’s novel The Moonchild.
But Aleister Crowley really just pops up everywhere. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my favourite counter-culture writers, also loved his work and featured his writings prominently in Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology. Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa corresponded with him, drew Crowley’s horoscope for him, translated his poetry, and even helped Crowley fake a suicide (you can actually visit the spot in Portugal where they faked it). And then for some reason Crowley’s picture shows up on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album cover.
Aleister Crowley has been such a part of my life that I regret not knowing him better. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to buy Wordsworth Editions’ collection of short-stories, which publishes for the first time many of his short-stories. It’s a long book, containing almost 600 pages of stories. For someone who has been called the wickedest man in the world, Crowley is very funny, very witty, very sarcastic. I didn’t, of course, like every story. But then I don’t like every story Jorge Luis Borges has ever written, and he’s the greatest writer ever, so I shouldn’t expect Crowley not to produce a few duds.
What follows are a few words on some the stories:
The Drug is billed in the introduction as one of the first short-stories to portray a psychedelic drug trip. First doesn’t mean best, though, and it doesn’t do anything but have the narrator describe a series of colors and lights and forms and shapes in his drug trance.
Cancer? is a darkly funny short-story about a healthy man who lives obsessed with the fear of getting cancer. It’s a preoccupation that conditions every aspect of his life: the places he visits, the things he eats, his relationships. The story reaches its climax when the protagonist slashes his throat thinking this way he’s avoiding a worse fate.
The Soul-Hunter provides a glimpse into the mind of a deranged man. It’s told in fragmented diary entries written by a scientist who kidnaps and experiments on a man in search of the place where the soul is located in the body. It’s one of the darkest stories in the collection, the choice of diary gives the story a very impersonal, cold touch and it’s obvious the scientist’s sanity is slipping away as his disregard for the subject’s well-being increases. A very good example of how Crowley could turn out a good horror story if he wanted.
His Secret Sin made me smile throughout its little send-up of Victorian morals. A respectable father travels to France where he purchases a dirty picture, but, once back in England, he worries about people discovering it. He grows paranoid and his behaviour becomes stranger and stranger until an incident with his daughter causes him to accidentally reveal the truth, thus making him vulnerable to her blackmail.
The Woodcutter is about a city couple that one day visits the woods, where they meet a woodcutter who has lived and worked there for many years, the last of a family of woodcutters. His lonely life is devoted to woodcutting, but the man from city, who happens to be a philosopher, interrupts his simple life discuss philosophy with him. After the couple leaves the woodcutter kills a person because of the ideas the philosopher gave him. This was one of my favourites.
The Testament of Magdalen Blair is, in my opinion, an unsuccessful horror story about telepathy and how such a power can affect a marriage relationship. Crowley does a good job showing how reading peoples’ thoughts can be creepy and unpleasant, but ultimately the story failed to hold my interest.
The Stratagem, appreciated by Joseph Conrad of all people, is another one of my favourites. Another gem that showcases Crowley’s gift for humour. Imagine you’re riding alone on a train, you have a compartment just for yourself. Suddenly an ordinary-looking man walks in and sits down next to you. You don’t feel like having company, but what can you do? Now imagine this stranger starts talking to you. Oh God, is he really going to tell the story of his life? Politely you pretend to listen. You nod listlessly, and then he says he just escaped from prison. What? And you stare at him wondering if he just said what you think he said, and he continues to look normal. And suddenly you start worrying. Things get worse when he explains that he was in prison for mass murderer. Now you’re in a state of panic, you’re in the company of a deranged killer, a madman. And next he wants to placidly explain the ingenious stratagem that got him out of the prison, and you just want him to go away, but you continue to listen because you’re too afraid to run away. It’s hilarious, it’s creepy, it’s disturbing, and the ending is the most satisfyingly disappointing ending I’ve ever read. This one should be in anthologies of great short-stories.
Robbing Miss Horniman is about a woman who returns rich from South Africa and is rumoured to have diamonds in the house. And it’s about the unsuccessful attempts at robbing, and it’s also about a conman who wins her heart and relieves her of her fortune.
The Argument That Took The Wrong Turning is a short pamphlet, written as a story, that attacks the hypocrisy of puritan values and especially laws against alcohol prohibition.
Face is a ghost story without ghosts, in which a man, slighted in his honour, kills himself so that guilt destroys the people responsible for his loss of honour. Great magic, of course, is all about the power of suggestion, of subtly affecting the brain.
Atlantis is almost a novella about the history and collapse of the fabled Atlantis. Atlantis, incidentally, has more than a few passing similarities with Crowley’s England. Half high fantasy, half social satire, this one shows his imagination working overtime.
The Mysterious Malady is similar to The Soul-Hunter in formal terms: diary entries and a descent into madness, it follows a seemingly normal man who marries the love of his life but he starts sensing strange things about her, he thinks she’s betraying him and ends up killing her and several guests with poisoned food. In the end we discover that many of the things written in his diary were distortions by his deranged mind.
Black and Silver is another story poking fun at puritan values – the man was obviously traumatised by his Victorian upbringing – and follows the unsuccessful attempt of a woman to blackmail a man with dirty pictures, only to discover that this man no longer cares because his reputation was irrevocably tarnished in South Africa after perpetrating many foul deeds there. Poor lady, she tried to blackmail a character from a Victorian story but he ended up being one from a Conradian story. It’s like she’s in the wrong story with the wrong characters.
Felo de Se means, I discovered, ‘felon of himself’ in Latin and is an archaic legal term for suicide. It’s another darkly humorous story. A young man is about to jump off a bridge when a Master of the Law of Thalema arrives to have a chat with him. Now this latecomer has no intention of stopping the young man from plunging into the river; in fact he approves – do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law. No, the Master just wants to have the honour of talking with the young man before he kills himself. The Master gives him a very thorough lecture on why suicide is perfectly acceptable. After all the whole Western culture, with its Christian foundations, is based on suicide – from the ultimate suicide was performed by Jesus Christ, who was also God and so knew he was going to kill himself, to the partial suicide of his believers who reject the world of flesh and matter to serve the austere wishes of God. The ending is predictable, you know the young man won’t kill himself, how could he after being mesmerised by the personality of the Master? Instead he becomes his disciple and the two stroll away happy as larks. This is now one of my new favourite happy ending. It’s one of those stories that ends exactly the way you want it to end.
There are many more stories in the book, but I leave their discovery to others.