The Gentleman Downstairs by R. Smith

smithr-gentlemandownstairsThe full title of the book is The Gentleman Downstairs and Other Satanic Parables and Fables. It contains 67 stories, each one short enough to fit on a single page, each one illustrating an aspect of the philosophy of the Chruch of Satan. The book is meticulously annotated with references to literature written by the church’s founder, Anton LaVey, as well as his successors, Blanche Barton and Peter H. Gilmore. The references are explicit right down to the page numbers. LaVey’s book The Satanic Witch (which I feel is one of his best) is mysteriously omitted from the canon. A little disappointing, as it’s the sort of book that would lend itself to colourful illustration, given that it’s about women’s powers of seduction.

As a free-thinker, I have a significant rapport with satanic philosophy, so I delved into R. Smith’s book with great interest. Some of the parables are set in an apartment building, where an enigmatic character known as the Gentleman Downstairs lives on the bottom floor. Other parables were set further afield in space and time. While some stories were forgettable, others really stuck in the mind. I was surprised and delighted to encounter a story about a man who cycles to work every day regardless of the weather. Almost no one does that, but it just so happens that I do! I never thought of it as pertinent to Satanism before.

On the coldest day the man bicycled to work. He arrived at work shivering with frost on his beard. But like every daily ride, he felt more alive than if he hadn’t taken the bicycle. Coworkers regarded him with incredulity. They didn’t understand the transformation the ride brought about in the man.

The Gentleman Downstairs has been designed with an aesthetic in keeping with LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, so that it will look right at home on the bookshelf beside it. While great care has been taken with the presentation, inside and out, my only quibble is that an exceptionally small font size was chosen for the text, to ensure that no story would take more than one page. A little hard on the eyes, but it’s is a small quibble.

Parables were Jesus’ way of teaching his disciples important lessons about life through allegory. It’s a wonder nobody has thought of doing the same for Satanism until now. And intertaining and insightful read that I’m sure I will return to in the future. To sample some of the parables, visit the offical website: www.satanicparables.com.

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Letters from the Devil by Anton Szandor LaVey

laveyas-lettersfromthedevilAnton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, wrote five books over the course of his life, expounding his philosophy of essentially atheistic Satanism – where the mythical character Satan is used as a potent and meaningful symbol for individualism and rebellion against common religion. I’ve read and reviewed all of LaVey’s works on this blog, and I found parts of his philosophy very useful for my own life. I consider him something of a visionary, having a penetrating insight on what it means to be human. Sadly, he died in 1997, and I had to content myself with the knowledge that Satan Speaks! (an essay collection published posthumously, not long after his death) would be the last words of Anton LaVey.

Not quite! In the very early days of the Church of Satan (the late 1960s and early 1970s), LaVey wrote a weekly column for the newspaper The National Insider and later The Exploiter. It was called Letters from the Devil. The public was invited to write letters to the infamous Black Pope. The most interesting ones were published, accompanied by LaVey’s responses.

Despite the dubious reputations of these tabloid publications, it appears that LaVey took his job seriously. His responses have all the insight and wit of his books. Some of the letters are hilarious, often assuming LaVey to be a devil worshipper, or treating him like a genie in a bottle, able to dispense wishes. LaVey’s responses were equally funny, as he exposes the letter writers’ shortcomings to them. There are also more serious letters, genuinely asking for advice with a difficult life situation. LaVey gives respect where it is due and provides his unique perspective.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was surprised to see that it was roughly A4 in size. This is because the editor has chosen to reproduce scanned images of the original newspaper pages, rather than reformat the text to suit a typical paperback book. I like the authenticity of this approach. The only drawback is that A4 is smaller than the original newspapers, and the originals have had to be shrunk to fit. The text is extremely small. It didn’t irritate me too much, because I wasn’t intending to read for extended periods (I wanted to draw out the experience of having new Anton LaVey material), but I think some readers might find it annoying.

There are just under 70 articles in the volume. They are chronologically organised, but sadly there are gaps. Since most people throw newspapers out, I imagine this small collection took a lot of time and effort to compile. It’s nice to think that some more gems from the mind of Anton LaVey might still be waiting out there, stored away in someone’s attic. One small gripe: most of the pages in the volume feature the name and date of the newspaper, but some do not. This makes life slightly difficult for anyone wishing to track down missing issues on eBay.

My thanks to Kevin Slaughter (and Chris X, who collected the issues) for putting this volume together. It was a most welcome surprise.

Psyber Magick by Peter J. Carroll

carrollpj-psybermagickThis modern grimoire is written as a series of single-page chapters, each with an accompanying commentary page. Some chapters are so short that they consist of one paragraph and an illustration. There are only about 150 pages in total. But don’t be put off by the book’s brevity; it is more than made up for by a complete absence of hand-holding. The author goes straight to the point, without apology to any newcomers in magical thinking – and Chaos Magic in particular. In other words, this is not the book to read if it’s your first foray into the occult. You will likely be confused and disappointed. As for me, I was happy to be able to sink my intellectual teeth into something of substance without wading through reams of introductory material.

The author is skilled at communicating deep insights in a highly confined space, often with humour. The illustrations are not simply meaningless additions to the text; often a striking image can imprint an idea on the mind for more effectively than words. Sometimes Carroll would communicate something that I would instantly understand, while I could also see that it was something many others would find irrational. But while I often felt like an “insider”, it’s equally true that parts of this book baffled me. Maybe that means aspects of Carroll’s philosophy are weak, or maybe it means there’s something I’m not seeing yet. Hard to tell.

Carroll makes some striking cosmological claims, which he attempts to back up with equations pertaining to his own theory of three-dimensional time, i.e. time has three dimensions, just like space. I can’t quite wrap my head around what 3D time “looks” like. He comes very close to claiming that this theoretical framework gives him a theory of everything – the holy grail of science. Carroll does not believe that the universe originated with a singularity, nor will it end with one. The universe has always existed; it is finite but unbounded. In other words, it has no edge, in a similar sense to how one can travel around the world without ever reaching the “edge” of the world. Of course, the world has no edge, and we realised that once we transcended the flat-earth model. Similarly, our notions about an edge of the universe will be dispelled once we transcend the current view of the universe. Fascinating, mind-bending, unothodox stuff. True? Well, given my personal interest parapsychology, I’m not the sort of person who sides with a prevailing scientific orthodoxy on strength of numbers, but I do detect what appears to be a serious flaw in Carroll’s model. If the universe has no edge, but doubles back upon itself, why do we see blackness in space? Wouldn’t the light of all the stars reflect infinitely, causing us to see a fully lit night sky with no gaps. Imagine yourself standing in a dark featureless room that is mirrored on all sides, including the floor and ceiling, then you light a candle. All the darkness would be banished. Similarly, space would not be black if the universe has no edge. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it appears to me. Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time used a similar argument against the view that the universe extends infinitely in all directions.

The most memorable idea in the book, for me personally, was the notion of multiple selfs – not in the sense of everything being one consciousness, but the view that our personality is just role we play, an accumulation of habits that now come naturally. Given that personality is fluid and changeable, why settle for just one? Why not play many roles? To an extent, we all do this already. For example, there are probably some people you are willing to say cusswords in the presence of, and others you won’t. We tailor our personalities to suit our audiences. So why go for half measures? Why not really exploit this ability and create multiple selfs – a sort of consciously governed Dissociative Identity Disorder? Carroll has the quirk of constantly referring to himself as “ourselfs” throughout the book.

The beauty of Carroll’s writings is that they give the reader theoretical ideas to play with. They allow you to examine the universe (and oneself) in ways not often noticed. Unfortunately though, in comparison to Carroll’s first work, Liber Null & Psychonaut, I would not consider Psyber Magick essential reading. I’ve now read four Chaos Magic works, and the ground is definitely thinning at this point. I fear I may have mined Chaoist philosophy to the point where it has little more of substance to offer. Still, worth a look.

Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

huxleya-heavenandhellThis short book, which is little more than an essay, is a sequel to The Doors of Perception – a continuation of the theme of expanding consciousness via psychoactive drugs. I hardly know what to make of it, as I have never felt attracted to such experimentation, but I do find Huxley’s theories fascinating. He states that ordinary waking consciousness is heavily restricted, and there are higher states of consciousness that the brain generally excludes from awareness because they contribute nothing to the survival of the human organism. There is ordinary “mind” and “Mind-at-Large.”

Huxley maintains that the reason for the prevalence of visions in medieval Christianity, and the absence of visions in present day religion, is due to factors such as a restricted diet in winter causing vitamin deficiency, which triggers chemical changes in the brain facilitating visions of heaven and hell. The practice of deliberate fasting has the same effect. Chemical changes in the brain put us in touch with what Huxley calls “the antipodes of the mind.” He claims it is also possible to reach these visionary states more safely by using certain psychoactive drugs.

The book describes our fascination with gemstones and gold as a manifestion of our mind’s longing for the antipodes. When we decorate our churches with stained glass and shiny ornamentation, we are really attempting to evoke a sense of the otherworldly. This would have been clearer centuries ago, in a world that was not saturated with larger-than-life visuals via television and cinema. Going to church centuries ago would have evoked a sense of awe not possible today.

I can see what Huxley is getting at, but it’s all so foreign to my own experience. I have had what I believe to be a genuine mystical experience in the past, but it did not involve anything of a visual nature, and I simply can’t relate to this fascination with visions. In my opinion, the glory of creation is the very world in front of me, and I feel no urge to use psychoactive substances to mess with my appreciation of it. Do drugs really open us to higher perception, or do they merely distort perception? It’s a tough question, one I don’t have a solid answer for as yet. There are plenty of “spiritual” drug users out there who will tell you that their experience with drugs was life-changing, but if you ask them to elaborate on their spirituality, they’re often not very deep people at all.

Heaven and Hell, due to its shortness, is usually found packaged with The Doors of Perception as a single volume. Worth reading for its thought-provoking content.

Liber Kaos by Peter J. Carroll

carrollpj-liberkaosAnd so, my quest to understand magical theory continues with another volume on Chaos Magic. I gained a great deal of insight and clarity from Carroll’s prior book, Liber Null & Psychonaut. The present work under review, published five years later, has turned out to be not so valuable.

We begin with heady material on quantum theory from a magical perspective. The majority of this was beyond me, but what I could understand struck me as far too theoretical to place any real confidence in – the idea that magic, which has its roots in the transcendent, can be reduced to a few equations. I don’t buy it. Carroll also makes the startling claim that there was no singularity at the beginning of the universe. He states that no matter when you exist in time, the universe always gives the appearance of being fifteen billion years old. This claim is in stark opposition to what we appear to observe about the motions of galaxies, and what we know of gravitation. The problem, Carroll maintains, is that we are approaching the issue from a classical perspective. There may be something to what Carroll is saying, but I confess I am not up to the task of debating the ins and outs of quantum theory.

Next we have some material on aeonics. Carroll claims that all philosophical worldviews fit one of three basic paradigms: materialistic, magical, and transcendental. The ebb and flow of these paradigms throughout history is reduced to a line graph that shows a definite cyclic pattern, as the world moves through aeons called shamanic, religious, rationalist and pandemon – the latter being the one that is allegedly emerging. It’s all very interesting, but unconvincing. There was plenty of rationality going round in the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and there has been plenty of religion in the two and a half millennia since. There’s no doubt that Carroll has done a lot of homework, but his “psychohistory model” of aeonics appears fanciful at best. The decline and growth of our various worldviews is a product of consciousness, and consciousness will not be turned into a deterministic line graph that we have no control over. We are not automatic machines.

When Carroll turns to practical magic, that’s when the book takes a shift in a much more positive direction. He introduces a delightful phrase, “sleight of mind,” and explains it at length – as the key to effective magic. In my own experience with psionics, I can affirm that success requires a mind that is distracted from the task you wish to perform. You have to play a little mental trick with yourself to, for instance, accomplish a successful act of psychokinesis.

Terms like “psychic censor” and “sleight of mind” are useful in understanding the inner workings of magic, but a good portion of the book is also concerned with building new a system of magic, full of pointless new terms – as if the world needs yet another. Magic is divided into eight categories (seemingly for no other reason than the Chaos symbol has eight arrows). These are: octarine (pure magic), black (death magic), blue (wealth magic), green (love magic), yellow (ego magic), purple or silver (sex magic), orange (thinking magic), red (war magic). My question is: why? All these categories are arbitrary and artificial. It’s fine to break magic down like this for the purpose of talking about particular applications of magic in the practical sphere. But there is no benefit whatsoever to memorising this jargon as some kind of fundamentally meaningful system. Magic comes from that fuzzy non-dual transcendence from which everything springs. It isn’t truly eightfold in any sense outside of the author’s personal subjective preferences.

Evocation, divination, enchantment, invocation, illumination, sorcery, shamanic magic, ritual magic, astral magic, high magic. In my opinion, there’s a lot of pointless vocabulary being held up as important. And if that’s not enough, we have to contend with “sorcery invocation,” “shamanic enchantment,” “ritual evocation,” and a plethora of other allegedly meaningful combinations.

The book closes with some appendices that are mostly concerned with the administration of the organisation, the Illuminates of Thanateros (also known as The Pact). The material was of no value to me other than to reinforce the pointlessness of such semi-secretive groups.

I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, I have to report that I was able to extract only a few morsels of usable insight.

Condensed Chaos by Phil Hine

hinep-condensedchaosEver since I achieved some success in experimenting with psychokinesis a few years ago, I’ve been faced with the reaity of what may be called “magic,” and I’ve been highly motivated to learn what I can about it. This ongoing quest has been both mind-expanding and frustrating, as magical theories tend to be littered with all kinds of unprovable abstractions.

The Chaos Magic approach is somewhat unique in that it supports using beliefs as methods rather than relying upon them as objective truths. For instance, when attempting particular magical endeavours, it may be suitable to view the universe as having an astral plane populated by actual entities that can be compelled to do your bidding. This may not be true, but it could be a useful method of producing a desired effect. Another belief is that all minds are interconnected as a single Mind, allowing subtle communication and influence to occur between individuals. The truth behind appearances is a very slippery thing to get hold of. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” is the slogan of Chaoist. This is mirrored in our conventional science, too. The dualistic Newtonian view of the universe worked fine until, in the early 20th century, our experiments forced us to to develop a quantum theory that blew our assumptions about the nature of reality to bits. Nevertheless, the Newtonian perspective can still be employed successfully as a usable model of reality for the vast majority of our everyday experiences.

Hine has done a great deal more dabbling into ritual magic than I have, so I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of his approaches. I found the material on the creation of sigils fascinating. The book’s brevity is deceiving, as it is crammed with information, and requires slow, careful reading to digest. Something of a treasure trove. Much of the magical theory concerns the transformation of the self, and the information is often given with a dose of humour. I like Hine’s presentation of magic a lot. He comes across as a genuine person, rather than someone who projects himself as a grand poo-bah of the occult.

This is one of those weird books that is hard to review, because I’m not sure what I got out of it, but I know I got something important. It’s hard to crystallise that benefit as one single thing, because the structure of the book is diverse; I got a bit of this and bit of that. In particular, I gained a deeper rational appreciation that the world is magical, as opposed to viewing magic as something completely otherworldly. When I read a magical text, I’m not looking for a whole new belief system to swallow. I’m ploughing through information that is unusual and cryptic, looking for insights that will make me go “Ah-ha!” adding greater depth and rationality to my own personal take on magic. Condensed Chaos provided that. A worthy addition to any occultist’s library.

The Church of Satan by Blanche Barton

bartonb-churchofsatanThis book is quite hard to find, not for any particularly esoteric reason. I imagine there simply weren’t that many copies printed and no one has yet produced an ebook of the text. The publisher is Hell’s Kitchen Productions, which might be the Church of Satan’s own self-publishing imprint. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy on eBay for £20, but the lowest price among the current ten copies listed on Amazon’s used books is £60. Owning this book now completes my collection of official Church of Satan literature. The other works are five books written by Anton LaVey, a biography on LaVey by Blanche Barton, and one book by Peter H. Gilmore (LaVey’s successor).

Blanche Barton, the author of the work under review, was Anton LaVey’s live-in partner for the latter part of his life, and the mother of one of his children. LaVey was, of course, the founder of the Church of Satan. This slim volume of 170 pages provides a brief history of the Church, beginning with some short biographical notes on LaVey’s carnival and occult background, leading to his reasons for forming a new religion based on man’s carnal nature. The growth of the church is catalogued, from its beginnings as a Friday night get-together at LaVey’s home, where he would lecture on the occult, to the eventual implementation of a nationwide “grotto” system. One of the most unfortunate aspects of LaVey’s earlier life is some of the claims are provably legendary. I personally find it a bit insulting that Barton reiterates these legends for her readers, especially when her intended readership seems to be Church of Satan members, rather than the general public. Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set gets a few jibes, as Aquino was responsible for splitting the Church of Satan in 1975. LaVey and Aquino spin that event in different ways, and its hard to tell who is entirely honest about what went down. Aquino’s claim that the Church of Satan ended in 1975 would seem to be a tad pretentious.

There is much material in the book that I have encountered before, but also some interesting new material, such as clarifications on the practice of ritual magic. The timing of the book’s publication puts it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic, a period of unprecedendent public hysteric about occult crimes against children. The phenomenon is rationally and effectively debunked.

The real strength of the book is the huge amount of direct quotes from LaVey himself. These are not from other printed works and public interviews, but presumably from Barton’s own conversations with the man himself. The quotes are so voluminous that LaVey could really be considered a co-author.

If you’re already familiar with Satanism, this book will serve as a refresher on the fundamentals, with perhaps a few new insights. For those who are not familiar with the philosophy, this is definitely one of the better books to read initially. Shame it’s so obscure.