The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish

The cover illustration on my copy of this book features a spooky skull, dagger, black candle, pestel & mortal, all sitting on what is presumably an occult grimoire. Along with the title, The Black Arts, this is presumably meant to mislead the would-be magician with the promise of forbidden secrets, and to perhaps evoke outrage from the “moral” majority, which is always good for popularity. Neither the title nor the illustration factored into my reasons for reading. First, Richard Cavendish is a well respected name as a researcher, and secondly the book was first published in 1967. Students of the occult will know that the Church of Satan (the first above-ground Satanic organisation) was founded in 1966, by one Anton Szandor LaVey, who published The Satanic Bible in 1969. Since then, LaVey has been the defining voice of what constitutes modern Satanism. It was my hope that Cavendish’s book would, on the other hand, provide an insight into pre-LaVeyan Satanism, if there even was such a thing.

The first thing I noticed about The Black Arts was that there’s nothing very black about much of the content. Cavendish devotes chapters to explaining the magical theory of the universe, numerology, the Cabala (or Kabbalah), alchemy and astrology. Only the last quarter of the book is devoted to ritual magic and devil worship. Cavendish does not appear to put much credence in occult theories, judging by his occasional critical anecdotes. Most of the time, however, he is completely dispassionate, simply offering us the historical facts and allowing us to make of them what we will. This is the real strength of the book. Key occult figures like Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi, John Dee are mentioned frequently, but in a scattered fashion. I would have loved a more comprehensive outline of their lives. H.P. Blavatsky is notable by her complete absence.

Regarding medieval Satanism, it is impossible to separate truth from lies, as it was an unfortunate habit of the Christian Church to brand heretics with the label “Satanist” and to accuse them of strange practices. In fact, the term “Satanist” would seem to have originated with the Church, and there is no evidence of the word being used to denote an actual ideology before Anton LaVey actively embraced it. In medieval times, accusing Satanists of stealing unbaptised babies for ritual sacrifice is a pretty sure way of ensuring that mothers baptised their infants fast. Satanists were, at least to some extent, the boogeymen. Although the spread of “devil worship” was certainly not nearly as prevalent as the Church made out, there remains some evidence of witchcraft afoot – an inversion of Christianity, where the devil is worshipped in place of God. The extent of witchcraft, and its exact nature, are lost in the mists of time.

I got a great deal out of this book. Much of the occult is based on flimsy ideas that don’t hold water when examined rationally. If there can be said to be any power in the speaking of incantations during ritual, it is not in the words themselves, but in the magician who chooses to invest power in the words. In other words, the magic is inside you, not in dusty old grimoires. One interesting anecdote for modern Satanists is the term “Shemhamforash,” which is quoted in The Satanic Bible during ritual, without explanation for what it means. According to Cavendish, the word is a name of God, arrived at through a numerological calculation on the Bible passage Exodus 14:19-21 (where the Israelites cross the Red Sea). These three verses are said to be significant because each contains 72 letters (in the original Hebrew). Interesting how LaVey, who put no credence whatsoever in the Bible, would use something derived from the Bible in his own Satanic rituals. That should tell you something about magical lore; it is all unneccesary fluff, borrowed from elsewhere. Its effectiveness is only in the effect you choose to give it upon yourself.

Magicians wishing to find powerful secrets will no doubt be disappointed by this book. Those who value separating truth from error will appreciate it. I think this handy volume has allowed me to avoid a lot of future disappointments and dead ends in my own research. Well worth the time invested.

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Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham

This volume contains two novellas and four short stories. The first novella is the titular “Consider Her Ways,” concerning a woman who accidentally trades minds with another woman who lives in the future, a bizarre future in which there are no more men. The other novella is “Random Quest,” concerning a man who winds up in an alternate universe for a spell, falls in love with a woman from that universe, then later attempts to find the same woman in his own universe. I happened to catch a modern made-for-TV movie of this novella a couple of years ago, which, for me at least, failed to capture the spirit of the original.

The remaining four stories were, for the most part, weaker than the novellas, with the exception of “A Long Spoon,” in which a man editing a film accidentally evokes a demon. Strips of film just happened to be lying on the cutting-room floor in the vague shape of a pentacle, while a piece of film played backwards at a slower pace caused a “word of power” to be uttered from the speakers. This story trumps all others by simply being a lot more fun.

Overall I was disappointed with this volume. The stories were too domestic, dialogue-heavy and drama-scarce, making them somewhat of a chore at times. And the punchlines often failed to reward the monotonous build-up. John Wyndham has much, much better works in print.

The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor LaVey

I’ve been so reluctant to review this book, for no other reason than the fear of what some of my Christian friends will think of me. “Oh, Darryl, we knew this would happen. You rejected your faith in Christ; you’ve been busy learning how to move objects with your mind; it was only a matter of time before this happened.” Now just HOLD ON A MINUTE. Let’s make a few things clear. Firstly, The Satanic Bible is not some ancient occult text, as might be feared by uninformed Christians; it is merely a book written in the 1960s by one Anton LaVey who founded his own particular branch of Satanism called the Church of Satan. Secondly, it strikes me that if we want to be critical of something, we ought to first know something about what we’re criticising, by reading what it’s all about from the source itself, rather than blindly accepting the second-hand criticisms of our church leaders. Thirdly, my motivation in reading this book was not an interest in joining Satanism, but in helping myself to learn about whether Satanism really takes place at high levels of society and government, as the conspiracy theorists tell us.

The Satanic Bible was a surprising read, to say the least. Initially, the book is concerned with replacing the moral guidelines of conventional religion with alternative ones. Religion, says LaVey, has traditionally been based on abstinence, whereas Satanism is a religion of indulgence. He tells the story of how, as an organ player at a carnival in his youth, he would see men coming to the stripshows, then on Sunday morning at the church, these same men would get themselves right with God, only to return to the stripshow the following week, in a never-ending cycle of hypocrisy. According to Satanism, “man’s carnal nature will out,” therefore LaVey sought to invent a religion based on man’s carnal needs, rather than in futile opposition to them. Satanic morality presents some recognisable Christian principles, with slight modifications, such as “Do unto others as they do unto you”; “Kindness to those who deserve it, rather than love wasted on ingrates.” Some of the principles made a kind of sense to me; others I felt very uncomfortable with, such as “Death to the weakling, wealth to the strong.” At times, LaVey has a way with words – an ability to state his case succinctly, smashing through false, pretentious counter-arguments with amazing brevity – and often with a dash of humour. For instance, consider the importance the Christian Church places on confession of sin. Here’s what LaVey had to say:

When a Satanist commits a wrong, he realizes that it is natural to make a mistake – and if he is truly sorry about what he has done, he will learn from it and take care not to do the same thing again. If he is not honestly sorry about what he has done, and knows he will do the same thing over and over, he has no business confessing and asking forgiveness in the first place. But this is exactly what happens. People confess their sins so that they can clear their consciences and be free to go out and sin again, usually the same sin.

Perhaps the most surprising finding in The Satanic Bible is the assertion that LaVeyan Satanists do not worship Satan. To them, Satan is no more real as a being than the tooth fairy. Instead, the word Satan is used to personify what LaVey vaguely calls a dark force of nature. Satanic ritual is largely a form of “psychodrama” – another vague term not strictly defined, but which I understand refers to the use of ritual to stimulate emotion. And emotion is where the real power lies. This is where my ears really perked up, because this is by no means the first time I’ve heard the idea that emotion is the “fuel” in a magical working; I came across the same idea in my research of telekinesis. Others who talk about “the power of intention” are acknowledging the very same, for what is intention but fervent (i.e. emotionally charged) desire.

It is stated that, contrary to popular belief, Satanists do not sacrifice babies, other humans, or even animals; children and animals are viewed as the highest form of life. The “magic” behind such ritual sacrifices is not in the blood itself but in the harvesting of the adrenal and bio-electrical energy expended in the death throes of the sacrifice. This certainly sheds new light on the prevalence of sacrifice in the religions of the ancient world – Judaism (from which our Christianity emerged) no exception. Perhaps all those ancient cultures were not as dim-witted and primitive as we commonly believe. The Satanist, however, shuns sacrifice, knowing that there are easier ways to generate the necessary emotional energy, from oneself.

Learning a thing or two about the “science” of magic was fascinating to me, especially in relation to my ongoing interest in telekinesis. I learned telekinesis without any guidebook, purely by attempting it again and again, taking careful note of what worked and what didn’t. I came to the understanding that successful telekinesis depended on first creating a strong mental image of what I wanted to occur and pouring strong desire into that image; then clearing the mind of all thought and letting it happen. Imagine my alarm when I read the five principles of Satanic magic: (a) desire, (b) timing, (c) imagery, (d) direction, (e) the balancing factor. We can forget (b) and (e), because they relate only to magic performed on a person, e.g. what time are they are most susceptible to influence, and the necessity of being realistic in your expectations. But (a), (c) and (d) correspond nicely to my own telekinesis technique. Telekinesis works because you employ desire with (mental) imagery, then direction, which is the letting go. Perhaps those elements are rather obvious, but it strikes me that the same underlying “science” is behind both telekinesis and magical ritual. After all, visualing a “psi wheel” spinning and causing it to spin for real is not so different from sticking pins in a doll with someone’s photo attached to it and manifesting an actual curse in their life.

Does all of this make me want to quit my telekinesis experiments? No. Because after all, we use our imaginations and our desires all the time in life. It’s just that few of us ever realise that we are constantly attracting experiences to ourselves through those very desires. In fact, having this understanding only makes me aware that we might well be psychically attacking others without realising it, merely by brooding over unresolved hurts. In this sense, we are all magicians, whether we realise it or not. And what is magic? The most memorable statement in the book for me was (paraphrased) “Everything that is now considered science was once considered magic.”

Satanic magic, however, takes one giant step further, into even more mysterious territory, and this is where the original claim about Satan being merely a “dark force of nature,” rather than an actual entity, starts to fall apart for me. If Satanic ritual is merely psychodrama designed to stimulate emotion, why does The Satanic Bible state strict guidelines, such as the placing of the image of Baphomet (a goat-headed entity representing Satan) on a particular wall. Why the strict regulations about candles? The list goes on. Most telling of all are the “Enochian Keys.” These are strange passages were allegedly supernaturally communicated to Elizabethan occultist John Dee, written in a language called Enochian. Each Key serves a different purpose, and it is said to be dangerous to recite these things recklessly. It strikes me that if I am required to make certain sounds with my lips, then something is there to hear and interpret those sounds as words, certainly something more personal than a force of nature. And it is this, more than anything else, that urges me to be especially cautious about Satanism. For I would ask, “At what cost do I invoke help from beyond?”

I think this may be a dangerous book, particularly in the hands of the young and naive. It is capable of seducing you with a moral viewpoint that is more realistic, and at times more attractive, than that of traditional religion. My personal morality comes not from organised religion, but from my intuitive understanding that we are all one. So, the furtherance of my own ego (which Satanism champions) is tempered with the understanding that I am everyone, and whatever I do to another, I do to myself. If I did not have this understanding, Satanic morality may well have had more impact on me than it did: “If a man smite thee on one cheek, smash him on the other” is not a principle that resonates with me, although I can see why it might to some ears. Another danger I perceived: the view that there is no actual Satan could give one a false sense of security about ploughing ahead recklessly into Satanic magic. An impersonal force of nature doesn’t hold the same sense of threat as an mysterious unknown entity. The latter scenario seems far more likely to me than the former.

Finally, what of my original motivation for reading this book? Did it shed any light on whether Satanism (or a similar occult philosophy) takes place at high levels of government? Well, there was a brief anecdote about Benjamin Franklin’s involvement in the Hellfire Club secret society, and an assertion that all truly successful people are adherents of Satanic philosophy to one extent or another, whether knowingly or not. A poignant question occured to me: if true magical power exists on earth, where would it be – in the hands of a few obscure people, or in the hands of the rulers? Since magic is what would enable one to gain power, surely then it’s the magicians who would be the ones in power. It’s notable that the section of The Satanic Bible on magic is subtitled “Mastery of the Earth.” The Third Enochian Key is prefaced thus:

“The Third Enochian Key establishes the leadership of the earth upon the hands of those great Satanic magicians who throughout the successive ages have held dominion over the peoples of the world.”

Of course, to many readers, all of the above is purely theoretical, because believing in magic is like believing in Santa Claus, right? Well, to someone like me, who learned how to genuinely move matter with his mind, I’m afraid it’s drastically more believable. Who knows.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I’m really struggling to summarise Dune because the mythology created by Frank Herbert is so rich. In fact, I understand he spent about five years researching before writing this tome. Anyway, first a little background. The known universe is governed by a series of feudal houses, with an emperor reigning supreme over them. Central to the novel are House Atreides and its enemy House Harkonnen. As the story commences, the emporer gives control of the desert planet Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune) to House Atreides. The move from the water-rich world of Caladan to the dry wastes of Arrakis dramatically changes the life of young fifteen-year-old Paul Atreides. The native people of Arrakis, known as the Fremen, wonder if he is their long-awaited messiah, according to prophecy. The planet’s main commodity, a powerful substance called “spice melange,” which has many uses across the universe, begins to have a strange effect on Paul. He starts to see visions, and wonders if he could indeed be the messiah of the Fremen. Meanhile, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is plotting the downfall of House Atreides and the takeover of Dune, but he hasn’t counted on who Paul really is.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it’s a joy to read. I found myself taking my time with it because I didn’t want it to end. I loved being in this strange mythology. What’s clear is that the author isn’t making this up as he’s going. He has thought long and hard about the ecology, religion, culture, politics and technology of this world of his. It’s as breaktaking as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If there is one weak spot in the whole package, it’s in the very clear-cut roles of good guys and bad guys. House Harkonnen, and all its members, is thoroughly immoral, led by the Baron, who is an obese man with a liking for young boys. He is saved from being a two-dimensional villain by the depth of his cunning. The war between the Atreides and Harkonnens is a too-simple battle of good versus evil. This polarised viewpoint, in my humble opinion, isn’t a true reflection of wars in the real world and was the only disappointment in a work of brilliance.

If your introduction to Dune has been the 1980s David Lynch movie, I can tell you that the book is so much better. I decided to watch the director’s cut of the movie after reading the novel, and it felt like watching a summary. A visual feast, but a poor attempt at storytelling. The novel is a far bigger and more personal story. The more recent mini-series does a better job than the movie, and is a fairly faithful adaptation, but I don’t recommend watching it before reading the book, as the book is a superior experience.

So many novels are forgettable, but Dune stays with you like a memory. It’s not often that I have such good recall of events and character names. Frank Herbert wrote six Dune novels before he died. I’m looking forward to Dune Messiah.

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

James “Slippery Jim” diGriz is a master criminal living in a near-totalitarian future society. Using his own cunning, and with the help of disguises and gadgets, he outfoxes the lawmen and gets away with the loot … until now. We begin with a bank heist that goes wrong, putting diGriz in the hands of the police. It looks like it’s all over. But then Harold Inskipp, of the elite law enforcement agency the Special Corps, seeing the potential of diGriz, puts him in the agency’s employ. diGriz, who is in fact the hero of the story, changes his criminal ways (sort of) and starts working on the right side of the law. Soon, he ends up on the trail of another master criminal, one who is in the process of secretly building a battleship to wreak havoc across the galaxy. In summary, the story is sort of like James Bond in space. You have the gadgets, the battles, intrigue, betrayal, sensuality.

I had problems with this novel. First, I found myself not entirely warming to James diGriz. It wasn’t so much that he was a criminal. It was all the self-justification of his crimes. He won’t commit murder, but he will lie and steal his way through life, and see himself as quite a moral guy. He is a romanticised outlaw, and there’s just something false about him. Secondly (and this is purely a matter of what you’re looking for in a story), the aspects of the story involving technology and trickery and cunning just didn’t do it for me. There was a hollowness running through it that made me feel like quitting at a few points. Three quarters done, I kept reading purely to finish what I had started.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the closing chapters blew me away. Suddenly The Stainless Steel Rat became a story about people (which is exactly the kind of fiction I like). The cracks in diGriz’s armour were beginning to show. He was in serious danger of losing his way entirely, of partnering up with the very person he had set out to arrest – a power-mad violent sociopath, no less. Furthermore, the sociopath wasn’t allowed to become pure evil personified. Harry Harrison delved into the past, dredging up the things that shape a person into what he becomes, good or bad. Great stuff.

There are eleven Stainless Steel Rat books, of which this is the first. That total doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. It feels like the old scenario that we’ve seen countless times with TV shows. When the producers know they’re onto a good thing, they just keep churning out more and more to fill an audience demand, regardless of how little steam there is left in the original vision. Nevertheless, I might jump into the Stainless Steel Rat universe again sometime. This one was worth reading.

The Lotus Caves by John Christopher

When John Christopher wrote The Tripods trilogy in the 1960s, it was a turning point for the author. As one who had written only for adults in the the earlier part of his career, he now wrote almost exclusively for children. The Lotus Caves is the children’s novel that immediately followed The Tripods.

This is a moon adventure, something that perhaps has limited appeal today, but would have been really exciting in the year of publication, 1969, the same year as the first manned moon landing. From a 60s perspective, the novel envisions a fairly gritty possible future, with a mining colony established on the moon and entire families living within a huge domed structure called The Bubble. Lives are a little colourless in comparison to Earth. Commodities are always in limited supply, so lifestyles of conservation are encouraged, where every little thing is important – in stark contrast to the affluence that’s possible on Earth. An artificial lake with its own fish is provided, to make the families feel more at home. But for some of the young, the moon has always been their home. Born there, and destined to remain until their parents have finished their contracts, the young nevertheless long to visit the blue world they’ve only ever seen in books and videos.

Marty is one such teenager. Bored with life in The Bubble, he ends up getting into a bit of mischief with his new friend Steve. Discovering a passkey accidentally left in the ignition of a lunar crawler, the boys take hold of a rare opportunity to travel far and wide across the lunar landscape. Their first destination is First Station, the now abandoned predecessor to The Bubble, where they discover the diary of a colonist who went missing under mysterious circumstances, telling stories of a vision of a strange impossible flower on the moon. Marty and Steve go in search of the mystery. From that point on in, we leave mundane science fiction behind and grasp the reins of fantasy. For under the surface of the moon is a bizarre plant-like entity who welcomes the boys and never wants them to leave.

When I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but wonder if Christopher’s favourite theme of mind-manipulation would make an appearance, since I had already seen featured in The Tripods, The Guardians, The Prince in Waiting, and A Dusk of Demons. Yes, it’s here, too. Perhaps “social conditioning” is a better word to describe Christopher’s obsession. This time the conditioning comes not from a metal mesh embedded in the brain, but from an external force that obtains obedience by creating feelings of peace and happiness. It’s the human will versus the emotions in a battle for freedom.

A criticism purely on personal taste: I found the story a bit too wacky. I’m not a great fan of the fantasy genre, and The Lotus Caves ultimately abandoned its sci-fi beginnings in favour of something completely “out there.” That said, I found the novel to be an enjoyable worthwhile adventure.

Chocky by John Wyndham

John Wyndham was quite a proflic author, and Chocky is considered to be one of his major works, although it is less well-known than the likes of The Day of the Triffids. I suspect that most people presently seeking out the novel are doing so because of their memories of the ITV children’s television adaptation from the 1980s. My own nostalgia of that six-part drama has been prodding me for many years to read the original novel. Finally I have.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of the father of eleven-year-old Matthew Gore. We begin with Dad overhearing Matthew speaking to what appears to be an imaginary friend. It’s a little worrying that a boy so old should be indulging in such a fantasy, but what’s even more worrying is the bizarre subject matter of the conversation. Matthew is attempting to form answers to questions like “Why are there seven days in a week?” and “Why 31 days in a month?” Later, Matthew learns to count in binary, using the symbols Y and N for positive and negative. If he had read it in a book he would certainly be using 1 and 0. This imaginary friend also seems to have no concept of the time of day, insisting on quizzing Matthew at various hours of the day and night. When confronted by his parents, Matthew tells them about Chocky. Matthew’s father is uncertain about dismissing Matthew’s fantasy, so he calls in the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Landis. As a reader, I have a pet hate for the kind of stories where a child has something fantastic happen to him, and all the adults refuse to believe him, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. To my delight, Chocky does not go down this road. The adults realise that Chocky is objectively real. But who is this entity and what is his/her/its purpose? Is it friend or foe? The real threat, however, comes not from an alien presence, but from ordinary men willing to exploit a young boy in the pursuit of knowledge.

The book is very male-centred, which makes it a product of its time (the 1960s), but story also contains an environmental message so relevant to today’s ever-growing awareness that it makes you think the book was written in the present. It’s to John Wyndham’s credit that way back then he was so clued into how much we’re polluting the planet. Chocky is actually the very last book that Wyndham ever published, just one year before his death in 1969 (although the Wyndham Estate later published Web posthumously). I can think of no finer way to finish a life of writing than with the theme of Chocky.

The television series is also notable. I chased it up after reading the novel. It’s a very faithful adaptation, and according to an interview with series creator Anthony Read, the Wyndham Estate said that out of all the adaptations of Wyndham’s work, Chocky was the only one they were delighted with. The series spawned two sequels, Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. I enjoyed the former; it was the perfect sequel in many ways. But by the third series, the story is clearly losing its way, stretched to the point where it contradicts the original ending.

But this is a review of the novel, and it’s excellent. Wyndham on top form.