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The Rock and Roll Reich had spent a decade using the music as a tool of social control, taming the beleaguered English with free concerts; selling Ax’s Utopian manifesto with stirring anthems and spectacular futuristic tech. They had forged rock and roll idealism into a national religion, a passion that made hard times sweet, and it had worked.

During the week it was revealed that Alan Moore completist Pádraig Ó Méalóid had published an article by the Northampton Magus on his livejournal in two parts. In short a typically verbose and associative rant by Moore on all matters magic(k)al and the effect of populism thereon. It includes this typical pithy comparison of Aleister Crowley to contemporary goth culture –

Or there’s Alex Crowley, tiresomely attempting to persuade his school-chums to refer to him as Shelley’s Alastor, like some self-conscious Goth from Nottingham called Dave insisting that his vampire name is Armand.

The figure of ‘The Beast’, came to symbolize the democratization of the occult, with the previously upper class fascination offered by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and The Golden Dawn suddenly impacting on popular culture with the advent of the 1960’s. There is Crowley on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band cover. Then we have The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request album (not to mention Sympathy for the Devil).

It just so happens Gwyneth Jones’ sf series is concerned with a twenty-first century Britain gripped by a revival of 1960’s occultism/ rock and roll cult of personality. Except revolution for these radicals is not tokenistic phrases and a tattered Che Guevara bedroom wall poster, but an actual political movement that changes the face of Europe.

I did not realize this was actually the final book in a series of five novels concerned Jones’ ambitious vision of a future society wracked by war, global economic ruin and climate change. Concerning a ‘Triumvirate’, of rock gods – Ax, Sage and Fiorinda – who have survived years of revolution and war, only to now be facing surrender to an occupying Chinese army. Britain under their rule was transformed by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich, actualizing 1960’s utopian idealism and green values, as well as an entente cordiale with the British Islamic separatist movement. All of this despite the evil wrought by Fiorinda’s father Rufus O’Niall and his fascist movement, as well Sage’s defeat of the Pentagon’s plan to create a psychic weapon of immense power. Indeed it is only due to these incredible successes that the Chinese may have spared the lives of the Triumvirate.

If anything the conquerors of Britain want to make their own use of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich to win the hearts and minds of the shell-shocked English. The Celtic nations of Scotland and Ireland have managed to wrangle their own form of independence by accepting the Chinese. England shall be a test-case intended to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that domination by China is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. Meanwhile Ax attempts to be the statesman his career as a rock star somehow destined him to be and negotiate a peaceful future for the English. His followers are under house arrest, their every word is being recorded by spies and his boyfriend Sage will not agree to marry him. Plus Fiorinda is pregnant again. Charming the People’s Republic of China has become the biggest gig of his band’s career.

As this is the fifth book in a series there is a hell of a lot of exposition to get to grips with. Jones lays it out with aplomb, mostly thanks to the frankly endless stream of out and out crazy ideas. The title doubles as a Hendrix reference and a nod to Britain’s Viking cultural inheritance. Rufus O’Niall appears to have been a malevolent force to rival the Beast himself and the talk of a ‘Neurobomb’, and a pychic cold war seems like something out of The Invisibles.

This could all be so much 1960’s pretentious twaddle, but there is much of interest here.

Particularly the notion of rock stars in politics. One of the most recent examples is Bono’s cosying up to political elites in both Britain and America. I remember there were rumours at the Make Poverty History concert that the Irishman would perform on stage with the surviving Beatles and Tony Blair, rock star manqué. Michael Moorcock covered similar ground in King of the City.

Mad, sexy and very enjoyable. Great fun, need to read the rest now.

An overwhelming noise hit him, a bustling, howling sound, tumultuous in its overall effect. Listened to individually, however, the sounds were only whispers. Coarse and parched. Burnt voices.

One thing that I do not understand about Horror fiction is why it is often so overwritten. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was to my mind the best horror novel of that last decade – and yet! It certainly was not written in a simple or direct manner. What the genre needs is a George Orwell-type, capable of describing a sense of dread with uncomplicated language. James Herbert is not that writer. However, the premise of The Survivor initially seemed to be quite a simple one.

A 747 passenger jet crashes just outside the town of Eton. Out of the wreckage a single figure emerges, the co-pilot of the flight. Miraculously he is completely unhurt. In fact his clothing is neither torn, nor even singed. David Keller’s survival is seen as an example of freakish good fortune at first, although soon the public begins to view the man with suspicion. His claims of amnesia provide no insight into how three hundred lives were so tragically lost and his employers at the airline realize he is no good to them as a pilot. They give him an extended period of paid leave in lieu of laying him off for fear of negative publicity. Keller himself wonders if somehow he was responsible for the crash, if his negligence led to the deaths of all the passengers on board. The victims include his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his mentor Captain Rogan. Keller has flashes of Rogan shouting angrily at him on the days leading up to the crash. Might their falling out have led to the disaster?

Meanwhile the townsfolk of Eton are disturbed by a rapid increase in the number of accidental deaths surrounding the site of the crash. The body of a local shopkeeper is found by the river, seemingly having collapsed as a result of a heart attack. A married couple fall to their deaths from their bedroom window. A school boy is discovered dismembered on train tracks. Unbeknownst to the people of Eton a single malevolent force is behind all of these deaths, one that is growing stronger each day. Keller is contacted by a reluctant spiritualist who claims that the souls of the dead are calling on him to aid them, but warns that there is another force at work. A demonic presence that was already on board the flight, that refuses to accept death.

This is a very grim and gruesome little tale. On the one hand the vengeful spirits of the flight passengers stalking the townspeople of Eton provide ample opportunity for Herbert to describe burnt flesh and grasping, skeletal claws. On the other, we have the moral turpitude of almost every single character within the book. Everyone is either an adulterer, corrupt, mad, or in the unfortunate example of the school boy, too fat to live. Then there is the villain of the piece, a composite figure of Aleister Crowley and Oswald Mosley. Did Herbert read over an early draft of the novel and think to himself ‘well, sure, murdering ghosts who resemble burn victims are all well and good, but what this book really needs is undead satanic anti-semites!’

Also apparently Catholic priests have superpowers. Anglican clerics haven’t a hope though.

As a result I found myself struggling to care whether anyone lived, or not. There is an attempt to address some larger themes, such as this passage: Keller had wondered how assassins of this magnitude justified their actions – [..] Their own madness justified it for them. To them, the whole world was guilty.

Yet Herbert makes no effort to counter this idea. An old man, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to represent the notion that the only purpose in life is to survive for as long as possible.

Anyway, so I’m reading about the ghostly whispering, the apparitions of the dead, an immoral cast of characters, the plane crash survivor guided by some unseen purpose to defeat evil – and it hit me. This book is an awful lot like J.J. AbramsLost! Sure Eton is no desert island, but thematically the two stories are quite alike (both end inconclusively too). Maybe Herbert’s publishers should look into this.

Overall I found this book to be depressing and unsatisfying.

He snorted softly to himself. It wasn’t selling souls that got you into trouble, it was buying them. Next time he would have to make sure there was a return policy. He laughed, opened his eyes a little. The dead man, Craddock, sat in the passenger seat next to him. He smiled at Jude, showing crooked and stained teeth and his black tongue. He smelled of death, also of car exhaust. His eyes were hidden behind those odd, continuously moving black brush strokes

Brrr. Spooky.

I feel for Mr Joe Hill though, I really do, because every review of this book starts with the same phrase. I don’t see any reason to break the tradition – see Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

I will say this though, I reckon he’s a better writer.

Judas Coyne (everyone calls him Jude) is a fifty-something rockstar who came up with the era of heavy metal and is now a lion in winter decked out in black leather, enjoying his reward for a career of Satanic-ish heavy metal by sleeping with goth-girl groupies named after the states of the union. He also has a predilection for the trappings of the occult and weird stuff in general. Not that he believes in any of it, he’s just a compulsive collector. Preserved skulls of madmen who had been trepanned, signed confessions of a witch burned at the stake, Aleister Crowley’s chessboard. Stuff like that.

So when a ghost comes up for auction online he immediately slaps down a bid for a thousand dollars. Judas Coyne’s very own ghost. The media release alone would make it a purchase worth its weight in gold.

Then the sceptic who enjoys scaring middle America with satanic rock finds himself trapped in a house with the ghost of a dead hypnotist. And it dearly wants to hurt him for what he did to its stepdaughter, another in a long line of groupies used up and dumped by Judas over the years. His own house becomes a prison, the stereo system whispering death threats and television announcers predicting his suicide. In a panic Judas takes to the road, racing through the night as a dead man in a funeral suit and fedora hat follows close behind.

Heart-Shaped Box comes with ecstatic blurbs from Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. That got my attention. I open the book and there’s a quote from Alan Moore’s The Voice of FireHow may the dead have destinations? Ok, I was sold. It’s an impressive debut and Hill shows excellent promise. This is a simple ghost story, one that relies on that basic fear of death we all feel. No monsters or vampires jumping out from cornfields. Here the scares are delivered by spectres appearing at the end of a long, dark hallway, or Ouija boards suddenly jumping to life and dogs growling in fear at invisible presences. The haunt itself, Craddock, is a malevolent spirit, whose hypnotist powers add an extra dimension of fear, controlling the will of Coyne and those around him to harm themselves. Reminiscent of the demented preacher Kane from Poltergeist II, his relentless pursuit of the terrified former rock star turning a more or less traditional haunted house story into a spooky road trip across America.

As the title implies, this is a book written by a member of the post-Cobain generation. The media hysteria surrounding heavy metal, grunge and goth music is rejected with the simple truth that true horror often happens behind closed doors in family homes. The lyrics of bands tarred with the ‘satanic rock’ brush often expressed feelings of rage and self-loathing that attracted troubled teenage listeners without the means to speak out themselves. Judas Coyne is cynical about his music and the trappings of a rock star, but Hill establishes that he is just as much of a victim as some of the emotionally damaged young people who buy his records. Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Trent Reznor are name-checked in the novel, with Coyne’s association with them allowing the character to represent the era of their music.

This is a gripping debut, a frightening race into the black night. Read it with the light on.

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