Deep Dive for Continuum: Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction Convention
Delivered Sunday 10th June 2018
From vampires to sorcery and beyond: Representing the occult in fiction
Most of us, if we have any idea of the occult at all, associate it with select clubs, mysterious rituals, secret knowledge, special powers, and evil. If that is what you think, you are not wrong, but it is a partial understanding, not the whole picture.
I’ve had a long association with the occult. I have a vivid imagination, which is a prerequisite, I’m super sensitive and I seem to be able to see into people and situations. All of which makes me a bit of a basket case when it comes to the rough and tumble of everyday living. I always feel the need for protection. My entry into the occult was through a healing pathway. I stumbled on astrology when I was 26 and I soon found I had an instant aptitude when it came to understanding the ancient system. I seemed to already know it, in the same way that a gifted musician will pick up the guitar and with hardly any guidance, know where to place the fingers on the fretboard. Although that’s where the comparison ends. I didn’t want my particular gift. I saw no future in it, and I didn’t want the label attached to my name. I wanted to be normal and lead an ordinary existence. Well, sort of. I spent a year in a coven in a Perth suburb, under the guidance of a Priestess who went by the name Raven. I’ve studied and practiced some of the medicine ways of the Native American shaman, I’ve studied and applied to my life the teachings of one variant of Theosophy – an ancient wisdom tradition – and I’ve read the Tarot, dabbled in Palmistry, Numerology and read the I Ching and the Runes. I follow no creed and the only system that still holds an interest is astrology, because it always seems to yield something new.
Through various strange turns of events by 2006 I ended up holding a PhD in the occult. After that, I turned to creative writing. Here, today, I’m putting the two together, and exploring representations of the occult in fiction.
First, I’ll define the terms, hopefully lifting the veil on what the occult is. I’ll dwell briefly on how the occult is represented in popular culture in general before moving on to representations of the occult in fiction, dwelling on a few case studies, old and new.
What is the occult?
The ‘occult’ is something of a catch-all term that refers to mystical, supernatural or magical powers, practices and phenomena, all of them beyond the ordinary and every day. That is more or less a dictionary definition. Straight away this definition highlights a major difficulty in discussing this topic – explaining the obscure with the even more obscure. I could stand here all day defining terms. I won’t.
The occult intersects with spirit worlds, with ghosts and ghostly happenings, but for the purposes of this talk, I’m setting the topic of ghosts to one side, except to say that people who see ghosts, or feel or hear them, are tuning into a metaphysical reality, and such experiences provide anecdotal evidence that such a reality exists.
Associated with the occult are paranormal abilities including: clairvoyance—the ability to see the future; clairaudience—the ability to hear the spirit world, (the realm of mediums); and telekinesis—the ability to move objects using the power of the mind.
Magical powers include: astral travel—the ability to leave the body and move through the inner emotional plane; scrying—using a crystal ball to see into the future; summoning elemental forces; casting spells or enchantments; and hexing, or the ability to place a curse on someone. Above all, magical powers involve exerting power over another’s mind, body and will. Such powers are generally accessed through rituals, which focus the mind and direct the will.
Occult practices include divination systems such as numerology, palmistry, tarot and of course astrology.
It isn’t possible to talk about the occult without referring to esotericism. ‘Esoteric’ refers to hidden or secret knowledge. This knowledge has its roots in an ancient wisdom tradition spanning all cultures around the world, involving a holistic, interconnected, hylozoic (all matter is living) worldview. Such wisdom was usurped by the dominant religions, especially Christianity, and part of the reason esotericism is secret is due to the persecution of its believers.
Esoteric knowledge is transmitted from master to disciple, who must undergo a series of initiations (elaborate rituals) which reveal more and more of the hidden mysteries of the ancient wisdom. Esoteric knowledge involves complex symbolic systems depicting how a hidden inner reality functions. The occultist, or esotericist, (for at the level of identity the terms appear synonymous), operates in symbolic meaning, and all occult rituals make use of symbols, such as the four directions (north, south, east and west), the four elements (earth, air, water, fire). Objects such as the sword and the chalice, for example, are laden with meaning and association.
Esoteric knowledge is founded on a belief in the law of correspondence. Put simply, ‘as above so below’. It is a way of knowing that makes or sees associations between this and that. An eclipse augurs the death of a king. But nothing is simple in esotericism, and correspondence is a highly elaborate and metaphoric way of knowing or viewing the interconnectedness of all reality.
Esotericism is generally associated with esoteric orders such as Alchemy, The Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Illuminati. These esoteric orders use various occult practices. They live and breathe the esoteric as an alternate reality. The key idea behind esotericism is the ability to concentrate power through thought for the purposes of transformation. It has a light side, oriented to healing and spirituality, and a dark side, focussed on personal gain and doing harm to others. As every magician knows, esotericism as knowledge also provides the traps, the blinds, the veils and the illusions—the tests along the initiatory path. Esotericism is a way of thinking, understanding, seeing and interpreting. It is a lived reality.
A potted history of the occult
Esotericism has always existed in the shadows, as sciences and religion’s hidden brother, the third pillar of power and wisdom. Religion, esotericism and science share the same beginnings as ancient philosophers struggled to understand the world. Early evidence of humans seeking meaning from the movement of the heavenly spheres dates back at least 25,000 years. About 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, philosophers began to record the movement of the planets they could see against the constellations.
As other philosophers sought to explain the universe, particularly for the western world in ancient Greece, a trinity of approaches emerged. Science headed in the direction of empirical fact and proof, religion in devotion of deities, and esotericism occupied a curious in between world that places the creative power of thought to effect transformation at its heart.
Existing in and operating from the shadows, the occult has always invoked both awe and fear in outsiders. We are afraid of that which we do not, or cannot understand. We are afraid and wisely so, of hidden forms of power. The shaman is the most powerful of tribal figures. The witch is both outcast and wise woman healer.
A shift of attitude occurred in the mid-1800s with the emergence and growth of Spiritualism, a Christian denomination that believes that spirts of the departed can be contacted through intermediaries, or mediums. Spiritualism became popular partly as a result of war as a form of solace for the grieving.
Theosophy was founded by Russian aristocrat and Spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, which sought to embrace eastern mysticism and splice it together with western forms of esotericism. Along with New Thought and a plethora of other currents, Theosophy catered for a groundswell of spiritual seekers in North America and Europe.
In the 1950s, the New Age movement began to take root and before long the occult, along with many forms of spirituality was firmly out of the closet. By the 1990s, the New Age was commodified, spiritual seeking became a pick and mix shopping basket style. Occult orders, paranormal abilities and magical practices are all prone to trivialisation, and while many seek some kind of truth or healing, most receive shallow and even false knowledge.
Today, because of trends in popular culture, in postmodernism and the New Age, the occult is more widely accepted and toyed with than perhaps ever before, although often in highly diluted forms. It’s still shrouded in dark mystery, and now also in glamour, the glamour of Hollywood, and all aspects of the occult are there for exploration at a mouse click. Deep knowing still requires a long and arduous inner journey, there’s no avoiding it, but we can at least value and not shy away from this third source of knowing and understanding the world with live in.
The occult in literature: past and present
Poetry has a long association with the occult since both deal in symbols. For novelists, incorporating the occult is usually less subtle, and less a synthesis of an aesthetic with the esoteric. The occult appears in structural ways, in character, setting, theme and plot.
The moment fiction took a turn towards Gothic, the occult made its debut. Horace Walpole is thought to be the first Gothic novelist, making use of the supernatural in The Castle of Otranto in 1764, followed by Ann Radcliffe who used the supernatural in her novels in the 1790s, including The Mysteries of Udulpho. The Gothic novel has romance at its heart and it is this combination of romance and the supernatural that inspired Bram Stoker, whose famous work, Dracula was published in 1897.
As motif, the occult in fiction serves to evoke fear in the mind of the reader and create mood, atmosphere, suspense. The occult gives the author the chance to give their characters extraordinary powers, present apparitions and all manner of fantastic entities, and inform plots. A whole cast of possible characters present themselves, everything from witches and warlocks and magicians, to vampires, werewolves and Zombies. Secret orders, the paranormal, there is so much there for the picking to inform setting, character, plot and motif. Little wonder the occult is a fiction staple, informing visionary fiction, gothic fiction, magical realism and fantasy and horror.
Speculative fiction by its very nature extends the boundaries of the ordinary and every day. The occult is the fantasy author’s playground and provides an enticing jumping off point for the horror author seeking to lead readers down dark alleys all the way to the very end. Whereas a fantasy novelist might explore illusion or craft worlds that include various forms of magic, horror delves into the shadow world where evil lurks.
The occultist author
The first two authors discussed here are both known esotericists.
Bram Stoker was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an esoteric order founded in the late nineteenth century and loosely based on Rosicrucianism and drawing on Tarot, astrology, alchemy and the Hermetic Kabbalah. I had no idea of Stoker’s affiliation when I read his classic novel, Dracula. I had no idea of the story save what everyone knows, and I never bothered to see the movie because horror in film scares me too much. So when I was about two thirds into reading Dracula I experienced something of a revelation, and I thought I saw Stoker’s intention and why his book is important.
Stoker took an ancient, eastern European legend that grew around Vlad the Impaler, Vlad IV of Wallachia (1430-1476), and invented his antagonist in Dracula. Stoker uses the occult to inform character, theme and plot. He uses various gothic motifs including the lonely castle, the vulnerable female victim, the romance narrative arc, the hero protagonist forced to pit his wits against evil, and on the level of entertainment, with all of the action, plot twists and suspense, the work is a masterpiece. However, what I saw was something else. I decided Stoker’s presentation of Dracula carried a deep message about the use and abuse of power and that was the real intention of his book.
Dracula’s Undead, I decided, are soulless egos, little more than predatory automatons willing to do the Master’s bidding. Dracula’s invasion of civilised London, his enactment of supernatural destruction, the creation of a mysterious entity that can only be slayed by the use of ritualistic, esoteric methods and not by science (ie normal weaponry), through all these elements Stoker is commenting both on the power of esoteric masters to enact evil and, as metaphor, on the way that all society comes under the spell of its political masters, and that we can all behave in an undead fashion. Stoker was an esotericist and my insight is an esoteric one. Others argue he was simply making a statement about the limitations of science, which was busy at the time of writing, vilifying all things mystical and occult.
Vampire as a symbol resonates powerfully in the collective psyche, speaking of our vulnerability as much as the seductive nature of evil. Since Stoker, the vampire trope has been used in every imaginable form, to entertain and make social commentary. Most notably is Anne Rice. Another interesting example that takes the vampire motif out of the horror genre is Elizabeth Kosova’s The Historian, an elaborate gothic tale with its emphasis on ancient evil and its power.
One author who made no bones about being an occultist was Violet May Firth, or Dion Fortune, a former Theosophist and member of the Golden Dawn, and a free thinker, which means she went her own way. She set out to depict her own version of esotericism in fiction and inform her readers of the occult through her novels. In The Sea Priestess, published in 1938, Fortune uses the occult to inform character, theme and plot. Fortune’s protagonist is Vivien Le Fay Morgan, a scarcely disguised version of the powerful enchantress of Arthurian legend, Morgan Le Fay – a version of the Celtic goddess and healer central to Wicca.
In Fortune’s novel, Vivien Le Fay Morgan is a reincarnation of The Sea Priestess, a mysterious Initiate from Atlantis, who came to ancient Britain to save the land from rising sea-levels, in a ceremony involving much human sacrifice. Protagonist Vivian Morgan is a powerful adept, an Archetypal woman with magical abilities, not least her power to enchant men as the narrator, middle-aged real estate agent Wilfred, discovers. As with her other titles, Fortune’s novel carries a strong message, that it is through invoking the Goddess and her extraordinary power that women can heal themselves and, in the process, their men.
The next two authors may or may not have been esoteric practitioners at one point or other, but they both have a deep knowledge of the occult. Both John Fowles, The Magus and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum explore the psychological basis of the occult and its dark side.
In John Fowles’ The Magus, the hidden magician in the story seeks to exert power over the protagonist just as Fowles exerts his own power over his readers who may, like me, spend the entire novel mystified. Fowles uses the occult as a theme and to inform plot and setting. Ultimately, The Magus carries a similar message to Stoker regarding the use and abuse of power, this time the focus is on the nature of illusion and the nature of initiation, aspects of esoteric practice. The story itself is not only one of intrigue, it is an induction or initiation into the mysteries, one of the central features of esoteric orders. Yet when protagonist Nicolas finally receives this initiation, his own status doesn’t change. He is not welcomed into an inner circle of adepts. Instead the revelation is one where he realises there exists on earth a privileged elite who for generations have held onto enormous wealth and power. The world in which we live and move and have our being is simply their stage. The controllers are that most renowned occult group The Illuminati. This is what the protagonist discovers but is it what Fowles would have us believe?
Umberto Eco places an emphasis on hidden forms of power in Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel brimming with esoteric references to the Jewish Kabbalah. Here’s the book blurb: “Bored with their work, three Milanese editors cook up “the Plan,” a hoax that connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. This produces a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled―a point located in Paris, France, at Foucault’s Pendulum. But in a fateful turn the joke becomes all too real, and when occult groups, including Satanists, get wind of the Plan, they go so far as to kill one of the editors in their quest to gain control of the earth.” Sounds enormously entertaining, but the work is dense and serious and despite the off-the-wall plot, it is intensely intellectual, and not at all a gripping page turner. Eco sets out to inform and the message in Foucault’s Pendulum seems to be a warning. Don’t mess around with things you know nothing about. The occult is not a joke and not something to be ridiculed, not least because occult orders take themselves very seriously indeed. Eco also highlights the susceptibility of believers in the occult, who since they are prepared to believe in various forms of otherworldly knowledge, knowledge lacking empirical proof, are vulnerable to believing lies and being tricked. Eco also highlights the cornerstone of the occult, the quest for a hidden objective truth. Whoever finds that truth will have absolute power.
Another novelist who engages with the occult, although perhaps in a veiled way, is Hermann Hesse. The Glass Bead Game features an intellectual elite walled off from society in the isolated community of Castalia. The story incorporates aspects of eastern and western philosophy and the plot revolves around a game (the Glass Bead Game) that requires expertise in all fields of science, art, music, literature, history to win. There is an entire subset of Castalia that is solely devoted to perfecting their skill at the game. The rules are vague and complex and as readers we are not really meant to know the specifics other than that the game is complicated, beautiful and incredibly challenging. To win the game is akin to achieving a state of perfection or bliss – seeing the interconnectivity of everything in life. The main character, Knecht dedicates himself to the game, goes through many trials of faith and ultimately wins and then goes on to become Magister Ludi. Again, it is the secrecy and the exclusivity of the occult that concerns Hesse, the idea of intellectual elitism and privileged knowledge, there for a select few.
The occult in fiction is used in many other ways. In her Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling uses the occult as a box of tricks, bestowing special powers on a raft of characters. Rowling does not set out to invite her readers to become occult practitioners, as Dion Fortune did, or inform her readers of the occult, criticise or otherwise warn us off getting involved as Stoker, Fowles, Eco and Hesse seem to want to do. Yet in Harry Potter, the dark side of the occult is ever present, as is its power to ward off evil and save the day. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent example of how authors play on popular perceptions of the occult. First and foremost, Rowling uses the occult to create mystique. She invites readers into her world as though she is opening a curtain on privileged knowledge, and as we read we feel special, part of a secret club, privy to secrets known only by a chosen few. It’s a delicious feeling and it cannot fail to inflate us. At the level of entertainment, it’s triumphant.
Most authors use the occult to invoke either wonder or fear, and to create intrigue and mystique. Such authors may have little knowledge of the occult and merely view it as a useful device, one that serves another purpose. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries falls into this category, as it appears evident, to me at least and judging by her own statements, that the author is not an astrologer. Eleanor Catton’s huge neo-Victorian novel The Luminaries is structured according to some astrological principles. Each of the main characters is aligned with a star sign or a planetary body. Each of the novel’s 12 parts – there are 12 signs of the zodiac – opens with an astrological chart, depicting various heavenly influences. Individual chapters have titles such as “Mercury in Capricorn” or “Saturn in Libra” – indications of the influences and relationships that will be featured. The astrological scheme also controls the novel’s chronology. Catton’s elaborate astrological scaffolding holds the narrative together and provides both plot and motif, and for that ingenuity Catton must be applauded. However, the author has used an occult system to serve her literary purposes. In doing so, she adds nothing to occult discourse by way of understanding or deepening the reader’s awareness of what the occult is, how it works and why it should not be dismissed out of hand as trivial hocus pocus, the very mandate Stoker gave himself when he wrote Dracula.
Turning to some contemporary Australian authors, I chatted with Australian horror author Alan Baxter when I was composing this talk. Baxter uses the occult as a motif to provide darkness to his writing.
He told me that a lot of his work looks at magic, and usually the negative consequences of messing with it! “I use occult practice a fair bit,’ he told me. ‘One novelette, for example, centres on a guy who gets mixed up with Lilith via a bad ouija board experience. I have other stories where I co-opt various occult practices to put temptation or danger in the path of characters and explore what happens. I use these things because I think dark fiction is unrivalled in exploring the human condition and in horror, we can follow the rabbit hole all the way down. These practices, while often not dark in origin, have become dark in the popular consciousness. The idea of “occult” is inherently bad these days, which is strange, but it’s fun for horror writing.” The novelette he refers to, “The Darkest Shade of Grey” can be found in his collection, Crow Shine.
The next author used to be a committed occultist and he draws on the occult in some fascinating ways. Award-winning horror author Andrew J McKiernan told me he spent the decade before he became a writer as a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis — a quasi-Masonic group based on the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley. During his time with the Order he studied extensively in the fields of Comparative Religion; Tarot; Astrology; Yoga; Qabalah; and other other forms of Western Ceremonial Magic. He left it all behind 2005, and considers himself an atheist with no belief in religion, magick or the supernatural.
A number of McKiernan’s stories make use of the occult as a weapon, especially as it relates to the modern age. His novelette, “Daivadana”, is set in Tajikistan during the war in Afghanistan. The story relates to Zoroastrianism and a rebirth of the war between Ahura Mazda and the Daevas (demons or old gods) that he deposed, a history juxtaposed with the incursion of the Western World into the region to depose the influence of Muslim extremism. Everything about this tale — character, plot, theme, setting — revolves around the occult history behind Zoroastrianism. His story “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” is a thematic counterpoint to ‘Daivadana’. It is set in Guantanamo Bay and involves an occult based interrogation of a suspected terrorist. It pits the modern Western Esoteric Tradition of the interrogator against a more ancient magic involving stories from the Qur’an and various Hadith. As with Daivadana, the story displays ways in which the occult could be used as a modernised weapon. His stories can be found in Last Year, When We Were Young.
An example from the fantasy/visionary fiction genre, highlights how authors approach the occult for the purposes of spiritual enlightenment and healing. Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale, Book One of her Tales of Tarya series, is a book I was privileged to review and I would compare to an Ursula le Guin.
Nightingale uses the occult to inform character, plot, theme and setting. The story involves a seventeen-year-old Mina searching for her beloved older brother who disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again. Mina has a special gift for storytelling. She joins a troupe and learns that the players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality.
Harlequin’s Riddle is a story of illusion and a study of the nature of imagination and creativity. Coupled with these themes are ideas of spirituality and healing, the very quality we access when we transcend ordinary reality in creative imaginative acts, is also a powerful source of beneficial transformation and healing. This, for Nightingale is Tarya. It is what esotericists call the ‘inner planes’, and it is here that the deeper essence of Harlequin’s Riddle is apparent. Entering Tarya involves altering your state of awareness, undergoing an out of body experience, and engaging in astral travel. Tarya is the realm of the shaman, the magus, the trickster, the psychopomp. Here is a small taste of Tarya.
“A subtle buzzing of hidden energy surrounded her. She looked down on distant mountains, and nearby trees, and people, many people, and each shape glimmered with light, layer upon layer of light, blurring outlines of real objects. There were intricate spiderwebs laid across the whole scene, gold threads wrapped around and over everything.”
It is this effort to depict in language an unseen metaphysical reality that is the necessary gift of the fantasy author. Nightingale’s visionary presentation of Tarya is an attempt to grasp an occult reality, to understand it, not to make use of it as a literary device.
I’m an occultist author too and the occult features in almost all of my novels. The plot in Asylum is driven by a palm reader’s prophecy, The Drago Tree is peppered with New Age dabblings, The Cabin Sessions opens with a Blood Moon harbinger, Clarissa’s Warning explores a haunted house and The Legacy of Old Gran Parks pivots on a supernatural curse.
I put the occult stage centre in A Perfect Square. This novel is based on my daughter, Elizabeth Blackthorn’s honours thesis in music. She was searching for an idea. I suggested she base a musical composition on the movements of the planets. I helped her track the movements of Jupiter through Pluto over a four-year period. We created a series of scrolls and she used them to inspire a narrative based on the various planetary interactions. Jupiter is expansion. Neptune is illusion or spiritual heights. Put the two together…and so on. She then used her narrative to inspire 45 minutes of Progressive Rock which she taught to her band and they recorded it. Meanwhile, I was busy having my own ideas.
We were both concerned with literal and metaphor ways of approaching the occult, something picked up on by leading scholar of Western Esotericism, Wouter Hanegraaff. I took this idea and created a mother, the eccentric synaesthete and artist Harriet Brassington-Smythe and daughter, pianist Ginny Smith, who are collaborating on an exhibition of music and art, nine paintings, nine songs. Harriet comes up with the idea of basing the exhibition on the cycles of the Moon. Here’s a taste:
“That ‘twelve’ signified completion was not in dispute. They both knew the symbology. Setting aside the Imams, Apostles and Tribes, of concern to each of them, mother and daughter in turn, were the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Yet all things ended at twelve and Harriet felt ill-disposed towards the containment the number implied. As if through it the cosmos had reached its limit of emanation and, duly sated, foreclosed on thirteen, a number doomed to exist forevermore as a mere twelve–plus–one.”
In A Perfect Square the occult dominates the plot—It’s a dark mystery, providing motive, cause, consequence and resolution. The occult is the main theme and also informs character and structure. The chapters follow Kandinsky’s famous essay, On Spirituality. My intention was to inform and invite the reader to ponder. No prior knowledge is needed, but for those who know a little, the story will be all the more entertaining. Because occultism intersects with conspiracy thinking, I include a sub-theme in a secondary narrative, one that involves another mother and her daughter.
Fiction and the occult meet in a variety of ways depending on the author’s intention. Sometimes the occult is used as a device to entertain. Sometimes it forms the subject matter. The occult can drive plot, and inform character and setting. The topic of the occult in fiction is vast. I hope I’ve demystified the terrain a little and provided some food for thought.