Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Future of Esoteric Publishing?

Image credit: pjmedia

In lieu of my usual book review I decided to open up a conversation with my readers about current trends and the future of esoteric publishing.

With 2013 drawing to a close, and a new year on the horizon, I began to wonder what possibilities the future may hold for esoteric publishing. Certainly we have seen a large increase in the number of independent esoteric publishers in recent years. I expect this trend to continue for a while for as much as the market will permit. However, what I'm most interested in is the form, format, and function that future publications may take. We live in a rapidly changing world where amazing new technologies are adopted quickly by society creating frequent paradigm shifts in how we digest information and how we communicate with one another.

With this in mind, how will new technology change esoteric publishing? E-books have certainly changed the landscape in ways both good and bad. Books are now available instantly, but at a cost, as book piracy has become a worrisome problem. Will digital media continue to expand and slowly overshadow the printed book? I see digital media becoming a stronger force in most time-sensitive (and relatively disposable) publications: newspapers, periodicals, mass-market paperbacks, etc. However, it may not take hold as much within esoteric publishing for the simple fact that many readers tend to see physical books as an iconic feature within esotericism. For some, books are simply a convenient vehicle for information (e-books being even more convenient); for others (myself included) they are a magical fetish, a residence of spirits, or an integral component of their practice.

One of the obvious benefits of digital books/documents is that one can store a massive amount of information on something as small as a flash drive. The website Sacred-Texts currently sells a flash drive containing 1700 esoteric books (books in public domain), stating, "Hold the world's wisdom in the palm of your hand!" It is really incredible when you think about it.

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Aesthetically there is a world difference between an ephemeral occult e-book and a gilded, goat-skin, grimoire. But what if there were a third option -- something in-between the two extremes? I see no reason why publishers cannot blend traditional bookbinding craftsmanship with a bit of ars technica.

Allow me to give you an example:

An old friend of mine recently brought a book to my attention. It is a hardback graphic novel titled, Shifter created by Skip Brittenham and Brian Haberlin and published by Anomaly Publishing. It is essentially an adventure involving characters shape-shifting into various animals. What really makes this book unique is that is utilizes modern technology in a rather novel way using what it calls "Ultimate Augmented Reality", or (UAR), an app one can download from the publisher's site. By using the app the reader is able to access additional information. The reader uses a smart phone and points it at "live" pages. This generates hidden 3D items (via augmented reality) that the reader can interact with by tapping/swiping their smart phone. Additional information and content is added periodically by the publisher extending the life the story by offering more possibilities for the reader. It sounds like something right out of William Gibson's Neuromancer, but it is today's reality.

Image credit: Anomaly Publishing

I believe technological features such as these offer tremendous potential for esoteric publishing. Consider the following possibilities:
  • An occult book with embedded/hidden digital content accessible via smart phone app, such as video footage of the author performing a ritual described in the book or demonstrating personal techniques.
  • A grimiore that has interactive tables and diagrams, or one that generates a virtual ritual space via augmented reality. 
  • An alchemical text allowing the reader to mix virtual chemicals safely as a chemical/spiritual model (no fulminate of mercury explosions for the Jack Parsons of our time!) or shop for labware directly through the book. 
  • A charm book that generates specific spells in real-time that are aligned to current conditions, such as appropriate planetary hours or specific calendar days; again, accessible via smart phone or something like Google Glass.
  • How about a book on Enochian magic that generates 3D elemental tablets and an audio pronunciation guide?  
Embedded content is a whole new way of hiding information in plain sight -- a long tradition in esotericism. Books could open up in ways previously unimaginable for those willing to look deep enough. I needn't remind anyone that the very word 'occult' means hidden. Thus, one could look at all this as a 21st century take on a very told tradition.

I should note that the possibilities described above should not be added as simple gimmicks or games, but rather used as serious tools intended to assist the reader. 

Granted, some of these ideas would require innovative software development. However, publishers/authors could still utilize modern technology by doing something as simple as including a printed QR code to take readers instantly to relevant internet links.
Image credit: Wikipedia

Technology aside, there are still other ways in which publishers and authors could creatively add layers of esoteric content to their works. For example, I have often wondered why it is that very few esoteric books experiment with layout and typesetting, that is, making the text itself a magical sigil of sorts. If one is interested in seeing a marvelous example of creative text I would suggest picking up a copy of Mark Z. Danielewski's novel, House of Leaves. The book has achieved cult status among fans. The book is a massive cypher, a modern classic of metafiction. Perceptive readers are still deciphering the text and finding new hidden content over 13 years after the book's publication. 

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An example of HOS's eccentric text layout. Photo credit: The Dreadful Cafe

Current trends:

Some of my readers may have noticed an increase in hand-made accouterments accompanying deluxe editions: elaborate slipcases & chemises, decorative wood boxes, hand-made divination tools -- even small bags of animal bones. A couple decades ago we began to see books including talismans hand-drawn by the author, like the ones accompanying many of Andrew Chumbley's first limited editions. Many of these were roughly the size of a large bookmark. Today this tradition continues, exhibiting a wide array of materials, impressive craftsmanship, and notable originality.

Xoasis Publications recently announced a limited edition (Death Edition) of The Box of Pandora by Sheila Undi that actually comes inside an ornately carved ebony box. The box also has a lock, and considering the title, one should expect nothing less. The 'Devotee Special Edition' of Black Magic Evocation of the Shem ha Mephorash by G. de Laval, published by Aeon Sophia Press, also comes inside an intricately carved, custom, wooden box, as did the deluxe edition of David Beth's Voudon Gnosis, published by Fulgur Ltd.. Ouroboros Press recently released 'THE URN' edition of Zoroaster's Telescope. Besides the beautiful vellum-bound book, each copy includes 122 hexagonal etched wood tiles used for a divination system detailed in the book. It is a very small edition -- only 9 sets were made.

The examples given above represent a wonderful marriage of the bookbinder and woodworker's respective arts. I suspect we will see more of this in coming years, though it is easy to see how this sort of thing could get a bit carried away. For example, I doubt I would buy a special edition of anything that came with a 2 foot statue, or a vial of the author's blood. In my opinion, books should come with items people actually want and that serve a purpose. My suggestion to publishers is to keep such items relative to the work. Furthermore, extra items should be practical and either serve as protective housing for the book or compliment it in some way, like a tool. 'THE URN' edition of Zoroaster's Telescope is perhaps the best example of the latter; the wood tiles are a key component of what the book is all about.

Some of you may also have noticed rapidly climbing prices of some deluxe and "super-deluxe" editions. I refer to the original sale price, not the aftermarket price, which is often absurdly inflated to the point of being ridiculous (check out eBay for a good laugh). Just a few years ago $300 was generally considered the top of the high end for most deluxe editions (still an outlandish sum for most readers). Things have changed. This is because some books are becoming even more lavish. Recently I have seen new publications listing a pre-order price over $700. I think this nears the ceiling of what most customers are willing to spend on a new book, even the most rabid collectors, though I could be proven wrong.

Without a doubt the bar has been raised. In coming years I foresee books bound in more exotic leathers/hides and also the revival of old bookbinding techniques, like gauffered edges (see photo below). We haven't quite reached the 'bound in human skin' point, but publishers are getting far more inventive and willing to push the boundaries of bookbinding.  I am not sure if this is a result of increased competition in the market or not. Amazing publications that generate a lot of 'buzz' will certainly make a publisher stand out. It could also be that publishers realize there is less risk involved when investing in very expensive editions now that deluxe editions (even super-deluxe editions) have a proven track record of selling out.

Example of gauffered edges. Imagine a book like the one shown above with magical insignia along the edges.
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Generally speaking my estimation for increasing prices is due to two common market traits:
  • Quality: Publishers have noticed that customers are willing to pay premium prices for high quality books, often made using hard-to-find and exotic materials (like python skin). A few recent books have been of startling quality and construction; last year's Esoteric Book of the Year winner, Devils and Spirits is a good example. Publishers are meeting the market demand and customers are getting what they pay for. 
  • Scarcity: Some books are priced very high, not because of their lavish construction, but simply because they are printed in extremely small editions and expected to sell out quickly. In such cases it is good practice to be a bit leery of high-priced small print-runs intended to create artificial scarcity. Ask yourself, Would the book be worth the price if there were thousands available? Reputable publishers sell books at a reasonable debut price regardless of how small the print run is. One can see a similar pricing model in the scotch whiskey market (I love using whiskey to illustrate a point). One cannot gauge the quality of scotch by the price alone. Some bottles are priced at astronomical prices due to extremely low supply. Thus, a rare $300 bottle of whiskey from a mothballed distillery may actually be of inferior quality when compared to a commonly available $50 bottle. It is priced high only because of its rarity. 
So, readers and collectors will have to decided what is most important to them: rarity, quality, content (at all costs?), or all of these. And as always, caveat emptor.

I invite my readers to share your thoughts and opinions about current trends in esoteric publishing, and also any ideas and prognostications about what the future may hold. What would you like to see?

In my next post will announce the 2013 awards for Esoteric Book of the Year.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year,
B. Balkan

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Book of Azazel: The Grimoire of the Damned by E. A. Koetting

Nephilim Press 2012. 184 Pages. Octavo. Black and White Illustrations. Text in black & red.

Available in two editions:

Limited edition: Cloth-bound hardcover. Limited to 666 copies. Sold out at publisher.

Special Reserve edition: Full leather. Limited to 77 copies. Sold out at publisher.

The Book of Azazel is a quick but fascinating read. In some ways it reminds me of earlier grimoires in that it includes first-hand accounts from the author, including ritual preparation, magical results, and his relationship with spirits. Rather than being a simple laundry list of spells or tables of correspondences, the author includes a great deal of objective analysis of his workings. I found this to be remarkably refreshing. It is fairly common for occult authors to mention their magical successes and failures, and leave it at that -- like some kind of score card. Less commonly do authors dig deeper and analyze the mechanics behind their results to get a bigger picture of what is actually going on.

Mr. Koetting keeps a very open mind when discussing his relationship with spirits, particularly the spirit Azazel. I have found it is often temping for practitioners to become somewhat narrow-sighted when developing a relationship with a particular spirit. Some allow the spirit to become such a monumental part of their life that they slowly become slavish worshipers or begin to form unhealthy and parasitic bonds. The author comes close to the latter, but wisely steps away from the precipice before it is too late. This is most likely due to the authors experience and his overall philosophy regarding magic. Mr. Koetting appears to be from the "All is mind" school of thought. I believe this is a healthy perspective, as it allows the practitioner a clear and objective view of how he/she is linked to the cosmos; ergo, what seems to be outside phenomena may actually be a representation of an inner process. In contrast, those who believe in literal & external angels and demons are thereby forced to react to them within a literal framework. This can be somewhat limiting and problematic, to say the least.

The author wisely chooses to keep the concept of what is "real" very ambiguous. Mr. Koetting states, "The demon is given form by the ritual of evocation, and such a form is dictated by processes running as an undercurrent in the human consciousness." He believes, "there is no difference between the imaginal and the real, or the spiritual and the physical."

The Book of Azazel is in many ways a memoir detailing Mr. Koetting's dealings with the spirit Azazel, in particular the pact he made with said spirit. Like most memoirs, it includes a fair amount of personal details about the author's life and experiences. He presents his communication with Azazel in a particularly novel way: Throughout the book Azazel's words are printed in red. This lends a bit of a dramatic flair that seems perfectly suited for the tone and format of this work. Mr. Koetting describes the communication as being received telepathically, an almost instant impression on his mind of what the spirit is saying. I have heard numerous magicians describe spirit communication in a very similar way. Often words and images are flashed upon the mind in a brilliant instant, sometimes before the question is even finished, as if the spirit exists independent of time (which is likely the case). Some of Azazel's remarks are lengthy, so I can only assume the author is paraphrasing the spirit at times, unless he has a remarkable memory.

The midsection of the book, "The Grimoire of Legions", includes a list of demons along with their respective sigils. These are the spirits who work under Azazel and are divided between three houses: Anatel, Retzael, and Malkash. One part of the book that stands out in particular is the author's comment regarding how earlier grimoires seem to reflect the class structure of the times. For example, various demons have titles like 'Duke', 'Prince' or 'Knight'. Obviously this is an artifact of the Medieval mind, a hierarchical system that would have been familiar to them. The author postulates that said titles may not be very accurate -- more of a quaint relic -- as many believe that spirits operate within a dimension (or psyche) completely unlike our physical world. Thus societal constructs and terms like 'Archduke' seem ridiculous to the modern mind when applied to the realm of spirit. One can see similar hierarchies in Enochian magic. A modern practitioner may want to consider looking at spirits as being more fractal in nature -- each minor spirit containing all the information of the whole -- rather than a literal chain of command. The author, understanding this and seeking clarification, asks Azazel, "Explain the Infernal Hierarchy to me." 

Azazel responds, "The Infernal Hierarchy is as follows: The Operator; and everything else in existence."

This is a very post-modern perspective. It follows one of the main tenets behind Quantum Physics, that the observer is the key to decoding the universe so that it may be experienced or understood either intuitively or physically.

In the latter part of the work the author includes a number of ritual for working with demons listed and methods for preparing one's body for working with spirits. The author includes a number of personal accounts where he describes trying a number of mind-body exercise techniques. Some worked well for him, others not. He concludes that Ashtanga Yoga was the best method for him to prepare his body for direct spirit contact. 

The final section includes a series of evocation techniques designed to make spirits visible. By "visible" the author means in the 'mind's eye' or through the assistance of thick incense and imaginal thinking. As many reading this will know, this is an age-old technique. The theory is that entities can use the smoke to enshroud their forms (or energy fields) making them slightly visible. Parapsychologists use a similar technique using Van de Graff generators to super-charge a room with ambient energy to theoretically provide energy for an apparition to manifest -- ghost fuel, one might say. 

The other theory is that forms are seen via the brain's imaginative power, a process called 'matrixing' -- basically interpreting recognizable shapes in clouds. Either way, it is a valuable method for tapping into one's subconscious, or Jung's idea of collective unconsciousness.

Now for the book itself:

In this review I will be commenting on the 'Special Reserve Edition'. This edition is the first deluxe edition published by Nephilim Press. While is it a relatively modest production, it is nevertheless an impressive start for the publishing house. Subsequent deluxe editions from Nephilim Press have been even more impressive, such as the Funerary Templar edition of Keys of Ocat by S. Connolly, which is beautifully bound and includes a bag of bones for divination.  

The Book of Azazel is bound in full black leather (bonded leather, I believe). The leather is very smooth, with only the faintest grain, lending a very sleek and contemporary presentation. It has no noticeable scent. The cover is appropriately blocked in gold with the symbol known as "The Goetic Circle of Pacts", aka, "The Circle of Demonic Pacts" from The Grand Grimoire. Unfortunately, the spine is left blank and without title or publishers mark, a feature I feel would have benefited the book greatly. When one has a number of books on their shelf with blank spines it becomes difficult to locate particular works. It should be noted that subsequent deluxe editions from Nephilim Press have included titles on their spines. Endpapers are solid black, as are the head/tail bands. The book includes a red ribbon bookmark. Pages are light cream colored (a nice shade that is easy on the eye) and of moderate weight. Type is clear and sharp, including the aforementioned red text. Stamped limitation number.

Now for the most interesting and unique part of this book...  

From the publisher:

"The internals of the Special Reserve Edition are the same as the Limited edition but there is also something extra. Information has been distributed throughout the pages of the book that is invisible to the human eye. It can be seen, but the owners of the book will have to figure out how to view it. This was done for two reasons. The information is hidden to prevent those who would try to use it without truly understanding its power from causing harm to themselves and, as this book is talismanic, to prevent the book itself from being corrupted by “things” that would seek to use its inherent power against the owner."

Indeed there is hidden information within this book. Read below to find out how it can be accessed. Or if you prefer to discover the book's secrets on your own stop reading here.

*spoiler alert*

Additional information has been cleverly added to The Book of Azazel through the use of invisible ink that can only be seen under a black light. Each copy has a dozen or so pages spaced throughout the book containing hand-drawn astrological symbols, Hebrew letters, and various sigils. Some appear to be planetary hours for evocation. Others I will leave to the reader to decipher their meaning. I should note that because of the ghostly nature of the ink, some symbols can be a little difficult to read.

Black light box (short and long wave)
I used a black light box (see above photo), but any black light should do the trick. My apologies for the poor quality of the low-light images.

In conclusion, The Book of Azazel is a striking example of a post-modern grimoire. It is my hope that elements of this book will serve as a model for other contemporary works of magic, particularly the willingness to experiment and attempt something that has never been done within occult publishing. The use of invisible ink is truly a wonderful idea. It continues a long tradition of hiding knowledge in plain sight. In the past, secret knowledge was protected via intentional blinds or coded within symbolic imagery. Today we have invisible ink to hide it from the eyes of the profane. I hope this book inspires other writers and publishers to push boundaries and experiment with what the 21st century has to offer.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

News update

Just a little news update:

De Occulta Philosophia has just published an interview with yours truly titled, "Reviewing the Modern Grimoire: Balkan's Arcane Bindings". The interviewer asks some really good questions, allowing me the opportunity to voice my opinions on a various aspects of contemporary occult publishing. The interview can be read at this link:

Reviewing the Modern Grimoire: Balkan's Arcane Bindings.


Manfred the Mandrake

After a prolonged dormancy, and just in time for Halloween, Manfred the mandrake has awakened from his slumber with a burst of new growth. Growing mandrakes can be extremely difficult, but for those willing to give it a try, I highly recommend contacting Harold Roth at Alchemy Works for purchasing seeds. 

C. J. S. Thompson's book, The Mystic Mandrake (1975) is well worth the read too.

Lastly, I will be spending the first part of November on a spiritual sojourn that will take me high up into the Rocky Mountains. Internet connection may be spotty at best. This may delay my next book review a little, though I hope to get it posted here soon.

Next book review:  The Book of Azazel: The Grimoire of the Damned by E. A. Koetting (Special Reserve edition), published by Nephilim Press.


B. Balkan

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Serpent Songs curated by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold

Scarlet Imprint 2013. 224 pages. Large octavo. Black-and-white photos and illustrations.

Available in three editions:

Bibliotheque Rouge digital edition: (available as an epub and mobi files).

Sylvan edition: Cloth-bound hardcover. Limited to 750 copies.

Serpentine edition: Full leather with slipcase. Limited to 64 copies. Sold out at publisher.

Serpent Songs is Scarlet Imprint's newest anthology of unique voices from the occult underground. I am continually amazed by how SC is able to locate practitioners of extremely obscure traditions. This alone is a notable feat, but to find practitioners who are both sane and proficient writers is a miraculous accomplishment. The anthology is curated by Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold (also a contributor). This book's theme is 'Traditional Witchcraft', however one happens to define the term.

The term 'Traditional Witchcraft' is regarded as a rather loaded term within certain circles. Argument often arises over what it really means, how accurate of a term it is, or if it is a useful descriptor at all. When this book was first announced I was afraid it would contain a series of ramblings and arguments over the definition of 'Trad Craft', or which group claims rightful ownership of the term. Thankfully neither was the case -- far from it. I should know by now to put more faith in SC's editorial acumen. Lesson learned.

Before I get into the full review, allow me to tell you an amusing story about my experience with some folks within "Trad Craft" and why it I was so apprehensive about the subject...  Some years ago, after reading inspiring works by Andrew Chumbley, Nigel Jackson, Daniel Schulke, Robert Cochrane, Michael Howard, Carlo Ginzburg, et al., I happened across a popular web forum dedicated to discussing 'Traditional Witchcraft'. However, unless one was a full-fledged member one had limited access. Without membership one could only read select threads and was unable to post or be part of discussions. I was curious to read what others' opinions were about so-called 'Traditional Witchcraft' and attempted to join the site. Only it wasn't that easy. I had to write an essay about what the term 'Traditional Witchcraft' meant to me. Fair enough. It figured it was their way to weed out teenagers and lunatics, and it might be a useful way to get some conversation going.

I actually enjoyed the exercise. What did 'Traditional Witchcraft' mean to me? After some deep consideration I wrote my thoughts out and submitted my summary. Unfortunately, (or not) my answer was not the 'correct' answer. My take on TW did not match theirs presumably. I was refused permission to join. This struck me as odd, as they specifically asked what 'Traditional Witchcraft' meant to me -- there should be no wrong answer to this. Maybe I didn't romanticize it enough. Maybe my avatar pic should have been spookier. Who knows. There's nothing wrong with having requirements, or even high standards, but one should always have room for new opinions to avoid the echo-chamber of 'group think'. In any case, it is the forum moderators' prerogative to decide who may join. I respect that. My interest in membership had withered. That single glimpse into their insular belief structure spoke volumes. I surmised I was dealing with yet another dogmatic group unwilling to have its beliefs questioned; a group with a high wall built to shelter fragile egos. 

So there you go. 

I should note that I have since encountered other groups that have far more acceptance of diverse ideas. For example, I recently requested permission to join a Facebook group about Traditional Witchcraft in the New World. I was allowed membership in less than a minute. Quite a contrast. Thanks again, Mr. Erwin.

Because of my past experiences I found the attitudes expressed in Serpent Songs to be a welcome breath of fresh air. The authors are lucid, erudite, sincere, and above all open-minded. The essays contain a rich diversity of regional European practices spanning from Norwegian Trolldom to Italian Stregoneria; from Basque folkways to Bogomilism in the Balkans. A few authors touch upon New World traditions such as Hoodoo and working with the spirits of indigenous animals.

  • Prelude: The Other Blood - Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
  • The Witch's Cross - Gemma Gary
  • The Spirit of True Blood - Shani Oates
  • Lezekoak - Arkaitz Urbeltz
  • A Gathering of Light and Shadows - Stuart Inman and Jane Sparkes
  • The Fall and Rise of an English Cunning One - Tony MacLeod
  • Stregoneria, A Roman Furnace - Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold
  • But the House of my Father will stand - Xabier Bakaikoa Urbeltz
  • Bucca and the Cornish Cult of Pellar - Steve Patterson
  • Exorcists, Conjurors and Cunning Men in Post-Reformation England- Richard Parkinson
  • The Liturgy of Taboo - Francis Ashwood
  • Trolldom - Johannes Gardback
  • Bogomilian and Byzantine influences on Traditional Craft - Radomir Ristic
  • But to assist the Soul's Interior Revolution, the art of Andrew Chumbley and aspects of Sabbatic Craft - Anne Morris
  • Passersby: Potential, Crossroads & Wayfaring on the Serpent's Road- Jesse Hathaway Diaz
  • The Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone - Sarah Lawless

For the sake of brevity, I will not comment on every contribution, but I will share some thoughts and observations on a few:

 Gemma Gary's essay, The Witch's Cross, offers terrific insight into Cornish witchcraft. Her writing style is both elegant and informative. She is able to clearly convey the essence of her tradition, both from a practical and spiritual standpoint, without getting bogged down with minutiae or becoming too abstract. Her essay also includes one of her black and white illustrations.

Shani Oates' essay, The Spirit of True Blood, is stunning. The wisdom she presents to the reader is literary gold. Oates avoids the term 'Traditional Witchcraft' and prefers the simplified "Traditional Craft", believing it to have less baggage and negative associations. Early on, she and her clan felt that defining their practice as 'witchcraft' (and themselves as witches) would be self-limiting. She understands that no tradition exists within a vacuum and is keenly aware of significant influences within her tradition which can be traced back to other Western Mysteries; namely, Hermeticism and Gnosticism.

In direct contrast to the Trad Witchcraft forum mentioned above, Oates states:

The Craft is the thread that thrives as an underground stream. Its fierce abnegation of dogma offers succor that generates a mystical path, of hermitage and evolution. Its source honours the pagan path, yet seeks the transcendent infusion that ignites those animisms. It presents to every seeker an objective goal that allows their subjective need for a devotional path to overwhelm and elevate them as journeymen upon a road shared by others of similar vision ... it denies no-one, yet accepts only those who grasp the thorn. It is in fact the magic of the soul, a spiritual alchemy masterfully borne in the crafting of matter.

I enjoyed Johannes Gardback's exploration of Trolldom tremendously. His dry humor had me laughing out loud. The essay guides the reader step-by-step though a ritual he performed on a couple to remove a hex. Gardback's straightforward and non-apologetic style was a welcome contrast to a couple other essays that struck me as rather turgid and needlessly ornamented with esoteric abstractions. Some people enjoy essays on magic that twist and contort into verbal witches' knots. As for me, I have to be in the right mood to appreciate heady linguistic entanglements. Needlessly abstruse phrasing is occasionally used to veil secrets, but more often than not it is just fancy wrapping paper covering an empty box.

But to assist the Soul's Interior Revolution, the art of Andrew Chumbley and aspects of Sabbatic Craft by Anne Morris was very enjoyable. It was perhaps one of Serpent Song's most scholarly inclusions. Mrs. Morris has an uncanny understanding of Chumbley's artistic vision, what she calls "a metaphor for the divine". This essay stood out, as it does not aim to describe a particular tradition or its history per se, but instead details the way in which a tradition became manifest through the dreams and artistic vision of one individual. It's a wonderful essay; however, it would have benefited greatly by the inclusion of one of Chumbley's drawings. His drawings are highly symbolic, abstract, and difficult to put into words -- some were even created via automatic drawing. Thus, a visual reference would have been useful for those unfamiliar with his work. But of course there is always Google 'image search'. Perhaps it was due to a copyright issue.

As a side note: I first encountered Chumbley's art back in '99 within the pages of ESOTERRA: The Journal of Extreme Culture, issue #8. Inside was a short story titled "The Nightmare Network" and an interview with the author titled, "Triangulating the Demon: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti", one of my favorite fiction authors. Please, do yourself a favor: read him. Five black-and-white drawings accompanied the Ligotti pieces which seemed extremely appropriate considering Ligotti's usual themes of otherworldliness, deformity, nightmarish landscapes. In fact, I assumed they had been commissioned specifically for the story and interview. When presented together, Ligotti and Chumbley have a way of amplifying their work's dark message, like a phantasmagoric duet, and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

But I digress...

Steven Patterson's essay, Bucca and the Cornish Cult of Pellar, will be of great interest to both the practitioner and folklorist. His research into Cornish myth and the etymology of the word/name 'Bucca' is incredibly fascinating. I am greatly anticipating Patterson's next work concerning the life and works of Cecil Williamson, founder of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, who Patterson describes as, "one of the great unsung heroes of the twilight world of folklore and witchcraft". It will be titled, Cecil Williamson's Book of Witchcraft: A Grimoire of the Museum of Witchcraft and published by Troy Books.

Now on to the book itself...

In this review I will be reviewing the deluxe 'Serpentine Edition'. Bound in full green leather (roughly the color of a Green Tree Python) with black and gold accents, the Serpentine Edition is bound to entrance its owners. It was probably tempting to give this book a snakeskin binding, considering the title and theme. Snakeskin has recently become a popular material in esoteric publishing, including a number of Trident Books titles, the deluxe edition of Veneficium by Daniel Schulke, Transmutation Press' reissue of Ophiolatreia, and the forthcoming deluxe editions of Altar of Sacrifice by Mark Alan Smith, and The Book of Sitra Achra by N.A-A.218. As luxurious as snakeskin is, I believe leather was a wise choice for this particular book considering the practices described therein are practical, humble, and rural. A snakeskin binding may have been a bit too grandiose in this instance. The publisher does not indicate what type of leather was used (calf? goat?), though it feels buttery soft and is more yielding to the touch than some of their other leather editions. The scent of the leather is subtle with a faint hint of grassy sweetness.

The cover is ornamented in a two-tone design blocked in black and gold. The central device is a stylized vesica with a coiled serpent-- or is it an eye?  Perhaps it is a germinating seed, or all of these. Corners sport decorative serpent patterns creating a design reminiscent of Art Nouveau. The spine is also blocked in black and gold with twin serpents and gilt title. Page edges are gilded. Included is a black ribbon bookmark with matching black head/tail bands.

The book opens to amazing custom marbled endpapers. The design gives the illusion of snakes weaving vertically up and down the page -- a really nice touch and a sign that the designer put a lot of thought into this edition's presentation. The paper is high quality, light cream, and heavy weight, a type that has become a Scarlet Imprint standard.  The text block has nice generous margins, but the font size is a tad small for my taste. I much prefer the size SC used in Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold's EXU. Having the type just a hair bigger seems to make a big difference. Like the cover, the text is printed in two colors, black & gold. Chapter headings are printed in gold, as are the decorative illuminated letters beginning each section. The Serpentine Edition comes with a slipcase covered in chartreuse cloth. It is lined with soft black felt to prevent wear to the cover design.

Serpent Songs is yet another powerful anthology by Scarlet Imprint that celebrates diversity in modern magic. SC's editors have developed and discerning eye for uncovering unique cultural and ethnic variances within specific subsets of larger traditions. Their anthologies are like magical photo albums documenting the hidden practices of our age. Each entry is a snapshot of a specific tradition, philosophy, or spiritual framework that gives us a sense of the past, a connection to the present, and a forecast of the future.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Sacrificial Universe by David Chaim Smith

Fulgur Ltd. 2012. 120 pages. Small folio. Black and white illustrations.

Available in two editions:

Standard edition:  Cloth-bound hardcover with dust-jacket. Limited to 800 copies.

Deluxe edition:  Quarter-bound leather hardcover with dust-jacket and slipcase.  Limited to 88 copies.  Sold out at publisher.

"The entire lower world was created in the likeness of the higher world. All that exists in the higher world appears like an image in this lower world; yet all this is but One." -- The Book of Zohar

Fulgur Ltd. has a unique (and crucial) role in the occult publishing industry. While most esoteric publishers focus primarily on beliefs, techniques, formulae, and philosophies of various traditions (from ancient and contemporary) -- essentially creating 'how to' books --  Fulgur Ltd. takes a far more abstract approach to the way it presents magical practice. To date, the publisher's primary focus is publishing works which explore and celebrate the esoteric in art (primarily visual art). They have published books featuring esoteric artists such as Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule, Barry William Hale, and of course, Austin Osman Spare. This approach has recently blossomed into a full esoteric art exhibition titled "I:MAGE" held last May in London.

In 2012, Fulgur Ltd. added David Chaim Smith to their talented lineup and published The Sacrificial Universe. It is an utterly fascinating book containing artwork reminiscent of symbolic alchemical illustrations. Smith's work also appears to pay homage to the celestial, and often cryptic, artwork of Dionysus Andreas Freher (1649-1728) which accompanies the mystical texts of Jakob Boehme. Each image is like a window into the inner mechanisms of the universe, revealing how all things are possibly interconnected.

The book contains 30 full-page plates, five folding triptychs, and a quadriptych. The artwork contained within The Sacrificial Universe is stunningly unique, yet I think it is fair to compare it to Smith's style a few artists in particular. It has biomorphic/biomechanic aspects reminiscent of H.R. Giger, the structure and spiritual depth of Dionysus Andreas Freher's works (as aforementioned), and has the textual elements and diagrammatical presentation and function of the "magical machines" of Paul Laffoley. One of the most curious and paradoxical aspects of Smith's art is that he uses physical matter: organs, Alchemist's flasks, roots, horns, and other amorphous and organic forms to illustrate highly spiritual non-material principles.

The Sacrificial Universe is not written for the beginner. The book presents a highly complex Kabbalistic philosophy (or an exceedingly simple one depending on one's understanding). Those with little understanding of Qabalah (however one chooses to spell it) may have difficulty following his logic and conclusions -- but that is part of the beauty of art; even with little understanding of Qabalah one may still be able to intuitively glean esoteric understanding by Smith's remarkable artwork. Various elements and form may resonate with some readers on an instinctual or unconscious level. That said, readers will benefit greatly by having a basic understanding of Hebrew, as nearly all of Smith's works incorporate Hebrew letters into their design and structure. Thus, each piece is essentially a coded cipher loaded with many potential layers of meaning.

The book is divided into three parts:

Part One
  1. The Birth of the Sacrificial Language
  2. The Heart of the Matter
  3. Sacred Geometry of the Serpent's Crown
  4. An Ocean of Copulating Reflections
  5. Mysteries of the Double Hexagram
  6. The Nine Keys
Part Two
  1. Penetration of the Dream Membrane
  2. The Magical Language of Biomorphism
  3. The All-Burning Prayer of Cognizance 
Part Three
  1. The Gnosimic Verses
  2. Three Seals
  3. Three Aspects of Gnosis in Six Manners of Investigation
  4. The Heart Adorned with the Serpent's Crown
  5. A Blazing Mirror of Itself
  6. Commentary on the Stages of Ideational Contemplation
  7. Funeral for the Empire of Witness

This is not 'New Age' Qabalism. Smith has stated that his primary influences are Medieval Qabalistic (Kabbalistic) sources such as The Book of Zohar, The Book of Contemplation, and The Fountain of Wisdom. This makes for some heavy reading. I'll be honest and admit that a few parts were a bit beyond my understanding. I do not fault the author; he does his best to explain highly complex concepts as best he can, rather, Smith helped me discover the gaps I have in my understanding of advanced Qabalistic thought. This is not a book to be hastily devoured. I suspect it will require a great deal of study, pondering, and revisiting from serious readers as the book slowly reveals its secrets over time.  Each image is worthy of hours of contemplation.

Fulgur Ltd. has built a solid reputation for printing very high-quality books; The Sacrificial Universe exemplifies their high standards. The Deluxe version of the book is quarter-bound in beautiful, dark gray, morocco with gray cloth boards. It includes a hand-written limitation number and is signed by the author. The title is blocked in red on the spine. The cover contains a Qabalistic device (also blocked in red -- one of Smith's diagrams) which stands out nicely against the dark gray background. The book includes custom endpapers and red head/tail bands. Artwork and text is printed on heavy paper with a matte finish. Page ends are finished in silver foil lending the book a lavish look. A sturdy slipcase in matching gray cloth is also provided.

Like the standard edition, the Deluxe edition comes with a dust-jacket which has a very interesting and unusual texture -- almost rubbery.  The cover sports one of Smith's illustrations. I have always found it perplexing why Fulgur includes dust jackets on their Deluxe and slip-cased books. Why cover up a beautifully bound leather book with a paper dust-jacket? A slip-case provides ample protection making a dust-jacket superfluous. Of course one can always remove the jacket, but most collectors prefer to keep their books 100% intact. Furthermore, dust-jackets can become easily worn or torn by sliding the book in and out of slipcases. In my opinion, clam-shell cases work much better for books with dust-jackets, as one lifts the book directly up and out rather than sliding and creating friction. To minimize wear, I have chosen to cover my dust-jacket with an archival jacket protector. I prefer Brodart's Just-A-Fold III jacket protectors. They are polyester, very durable, and are 100% acid free -- see photo directly below.

The Sacrificial Universe is a must-have for anyone who appreciates esoteric art regardless of one's path or area of study. Smith's art transcends cultural barriers through the use of sacred geometry, universal forms, and natural symbolism. His works are visual journeys that take the viewer on a kaleidoscopic and labyrinthine path of inner discovery and alchemical transformation. I am in awe of his talent and greatly look forward to his next book, The Blazing Dew of Stars, to be published soon by Fulgur Ltd.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Threshold: Black Magic and Shattered Geometry By Ryan Anschauung & the Temple of THEM

Fall of Man 2011.  207 pages total.  Duodecimo (Twelvemo).  Black and white illustrations by Namtaru Creations. Four volume set.

Available in a single edition:

Standard edition: Four softback booklets with black suede slipcase, limited to 338 copies.  As of this writing, the publisher has noted they are down to their last copies.

I do not normally review paperback editions, but this set had such a unique presentation that I felt it deserved a brief mention and review.  Threshold: Black Magic and Shattered Geometry is a four volume set containing commentary on various aspects of the darker side of post-modern magic.  The individual book titles are as follows:

  • TERATO  (60 pages)
  • HARUSPEX  (54 pages)
  • ENGRAM  (43 pages)
  • MALEFICIA  (50 pages)

One will immediately notice that the first letters of the titles create the word, "THEM", referring to the magical body "The Temple of THEM".  The first volume, TERATO establishes a baseline for the group's belief system, which appears to be a mixture of post-modern currents such as Satanism (the authors' own take on the term), Chaos-Magic, and psychological concepts of "Ego","Self", and the "Id".  The author presents a duelistic world view of two apposing forces, the "Magian" representing the status quo, control systems, and obfuscation, and the "Satanist", representing individuality, rebellion, and liberation.

The second volume, HARUSPEX, contains the authors' general philosophy, and some personal experiences,  It's heavy on opinion, including a few rants about  Man's laziness, reliance upon superstition, and the need for women to play a larger role in occultism. It also touches upon techniques for readers to govern and channel their emotions to work for them rather than against them.  Lastly, the booklet discusses elements of sigil magic, sympathetic magic, and visualizations.

The third volume, ENGRAM includes what The Temple of THEM consider the "Fundamentals of Magic".  It also contains a number of invocations, rituals and alchemical distillations of planetary intelligences.  It concludes with a inspired ritual for "Rain Magic*k" that is rather unique.  Of the four booklets, this one contains the most practical and instructive information for readers.

The fourth volume, MALEFICIA, deals primarily with sex magic, "Narrative Magick", and psychic vampirism.  It includes rituals on how to attract members of the opposite sex.  The section on psychic vampirism, includes a number of rituals for both protecting/shielding oneself and methods of energy exchange.  It ends with a Glossary of terms unique to The Temple of THEM.  This is a welcome addition, as magical groups tend to develop their own internal phrases and terminology that may not translate well outside the group.

The booklets themselves are made of simple red card stock with printing in black.  The pages are white with a satin texture.  Numerous illustrations by Namtaru Creations are found throughout all four volumes.  Booklets come with a black suede slipcase blind stamped with one of The Temple of THEM's symbols, a circle with four tendrils turning widdershins about vertical mark (perhaps an "I", or a Roman numeral 1).  I found that the slipcase was a bit too tight for the booklets.  The books fit exact with no wiggle room.  One has to uncomfortably force the fourth book in to make it fit.  This could be a problem with my particular slipcase and may not reflect other copies.  

Overall Threshold: Black Magic and Shattered Geometry is an interesting body of work.  At times it reads like a manifesto of the Temple of THEM's particular beliefs and magical outlook.  The authors' have strong opinions on a number of subjects.  Readers are unlikely to agree with all of them, but they will likely find some value in the discussion, and perhaps be struck by a few flashes of insight that they can apply to their own practice.  I'm going to assume that Ryan Anschauung is the primary author:  His writing is very clear and concise and not overburdened with black magic mumbo-jumbo, which plagues so many occult books these days.  His writing also reveals significant experience within a diverse range of occult topics.  I hope to see more from him.  Lastly, Fall of Man should be applauded for trying something new and publishing Threshold: Black Magic and Shattered Geometry in such an interesting (and affordable) format.  Also look for their newest release, Lemulgeton - Goetia and the Stellar Tradition by Leo Holmes.  Available in two affordable editions HERE