In early fall of 1989 my friends Craig, Mick, and I tried to summon a demon—Astaroth, the crowned prince of Hell, if I’m remembering right—to the driveway of Craig’s suburban home. Months earlier I’d found a book on summoning spells hidden in a box in my attic, underneath a bunch of Lovecraft anthologies and old Hanukkah decorations.
We’d planned the evening a few days before: once Craig’s parents left for dinner at the country club, I’d draw a magic circle beneath the basketball pole, Mick was on candle duty, and Craig would read, in Latin, the requisite incantations. The translated Latin was a series of threats and commands, invoking Jesus Christ and various angels, along with reminders that the magic circle was impenetrable, that as long as we were within its boundaries Astaroth held no sway. That we were all good Jewish boys didn’t seem to matter—we held Jesus in high regard, the way Pistons fans must have felt about Michael Jordan; even though he wasn’t one of ours, you still had to respect the guy’s game. Read More
Borges, Xul Solar, and the occult.
This story is an excerpt from To the Country, a new iBook album by The Size Queens featuring fiction by Joy Williams, Rick Moody, and more.
Lot 51, “The Aleph” by Alejandro Xul Solar, oil, minerals and metals on canvas, 32″ x 44.25″, 1930.
Xul Solar first painted the Aleph in 1930, but years were to pass before he and his friend J. L. Borges were able to make full use of its divinatory properties, even though it was clear from the moment the work was finished that the quasi-reptilian figure filling the image’s First Door, known to the two as Platon, was able to move freely about the canvas according to his own purposes (his skin in motion acquiring bluish-silvery reflected tints that faded in repose.) Experiments demonstrated that the viewer’s affinity with Platon and certain other figures in the composition resulted in an increased ability to understand and speak foreign languages (“babelismo”); subsequently other correspondences were revealed. Borges, whose middle finger Platon learned to reach out and grasp in a papery but very tight clutch, drawing a little more blood each time, was to prove the image’s most successful interpreter. Such was the lure of the mental enhancement thereby produced that Borges never failed to offer his hand to the painting, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Solar’s attic chambers, whenever the opportunity arose. In time the author’s left middle fingernail split in two with a thick dark pointed scar in its center. And as his inward sight grew keener, Borges’s physical vision commenced to fail: another price he gladly paid.
Solar made three more attempts to depict the Aleph. The second of the four (1931–33, tempera on wood panel, 112.5 x 78 cm) proved to offer the richest “prepotencies” as the visions came to be called. Impulsively, Solar gave the painting to Borges at the end of a somewhat maudlin and vinous evening full of French poetry and games of panjedrez, all of which Borges lost, just before the sun rose on a fragrant Buenos Aires bower in November of 1936. Solar’s diaries and sketchbooks reveal a keen regret over having made this gift, but being a proud man as well as a kind one, he never asked for its return. Read More
I like to root for the underdog, so I’m always comforted to find Satanism in the news. There are, after all, some two billion Christians in the world, and only about a hundred thousand Satanists; if the eternal war between good and evil is a numbers game, then it would seem the good guys have this one in the bag. And yet Satanism persists—pure evil’s got moxie.
The latest coup from the dark arts is Charlie Charlie Challenge, a Ouija Board-ish pursuit in which players—who tend to be, let’s face it, kids and teens—cross two pencils over a piece of paper and attempt to summon a Mexican demon. According to no less reliable a source than the Daily Mail, four Colombian high school students were hospitalized for “hysteria” after playing the game, which set off an international pandemic of DIY voodoo: Read More
A master class in hailing Satan.
“The odor from those incense burners is unbearable … What do they burn that smells like that?”
“Asphalt from the street, leaves of henbane, datura, dried nightshade, and myrrh. These are perfumes delightful to Satan, our master.”
When J. K. Huysmans published Là-Bas (Down There) in 1891, it caused an immediate scandal in France. Huysmans serialized the novel in L’Écho de Paris, a newspaper; readers wrote in early and often to express their revulsion, threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the serialization was not halted posthaste. Not long afterward, when the book itself came out, it was banned from sale at railway kiosks, thus ensuring that it loomed all the larger in the public imagination. Controversy followed the book abroad, too—no one bothered to attempt an English translation for more than thirty years, and even then, the U.S. Society for the Suppression of Vice ruled that it was simply too immoral to see the light of day.
The outrage stemmed from the book’s frank depiction of Satanism—it culminates in a Black Mass, vividly described. Its protagonist, a novelist named Durtal, has pursued his interest in the occult to its logical conclusion, and he’s startled to learn that a thriving underworld persists in contemporary Paris. Huysmans conducted extensive research for the novel, basically embedding himself among a group of Satanists; he was disenchanted with ordinary life, and he wanted literature to present a thrilling alternative to quotidian reality. But he went too far. He grew so distressed by the darkness and evil in Là-Bas—and, perhaps, in his own soul; the novel’s subtitle is “A Journey into the Self”—that he came to regard it as a black book; he wrote a white book, En Route, to cancel its negative energy. (It’s sort of the same way that Prince, a century later, recorded Lovesexy to exorcize the demons of The Black Album.) Later in life, Huysmans converted to Catholicism. Read More
John Dee and the occult in California.
Working summers at a Northern California health food co-op brings you into a constellation of eccentrics. The one that stands out in my memory, at a remove of more than a decade, is the old man who dressed as a wizard. His was not some flimsy Halloween affectation—it was a lifestyle, with accessories to match: thick robes of purple velvet stitched with golden stars, a silvery beard, and a hefty wand topped with a crescent moon. In our sole interaction that summer, he entered the co-op around closing and cornered me as I struggled to replace a roll of receipt paper. Peering out from under his pointed hat, he hit me with an intense stare and asked, “You ever done DMT, kid?”
Dimethyltryptamine, you might recall, is a highly potent, short-acting psychedelic alkaloid. It’s the stuff in the bitter Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca, and it’s the reason people lick the backs of Mexican toads to get high. The question surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have. Wizards have been asking questions like this for about four hundred years now.
Merlin has long occupied point position in pop culture as our archetypal sorcerer. But John Dee of England, born in 1527, the astrologer to Queen Elizabeth and advisor to Sir Walter Raleigh, was the true founder of the wizardly iconography and mythos. A skilled mathematician, geographer, and inventor, Dee also delved into grimoires, kabbalah, alchemy, and Biblical prophecy. He believed he’d been chosen by God to receive a new divine revelation—angels were sending him a new set of Biblical texts from heaven. And he had a sidekick: Dee believed the ultimate conduit was not himself but his servant, a mysterious ex-con named Edward Kelley, who spoke with the angels through a glass orb that the two called a “shew-stone,” or crystal ball. Read More