‘I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, one of sinuous spreading paths that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars’
What could possibly link P K Dick with a Vedic scholar and Gnostic heresies, with Jack Parsons and the OTO and Malcolm Lowry‘s novel ‘Under the Volcano’ and the Cabbalah?
British author Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ published in 1947 concerns a day in the life and death of a British expatriate in Mexico, which takes place during the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead, the celebration of which takes place over November 1st and 2nd. ‘Under the Volcano’ was published in 1947, but conceived following the author’s sojourn in Mexico during 1936-37 and Lowry sought publication of an earlier draft in 1940.
At the same time that I had been reading about Malcom Lowry, I had recently finished reading Anthony Boucher’s pulp detective novel ‘Rocket to the Morgue’ published in 1942, which curiously also takes place over the Halloween period as the action commences on Thursday October 30th and finishes on Saturday November 8th, which dates place the action in the year 1940. I doubt many novels are so specific about the dates during which the action takes place.
Actually my contemporaneous interest in these two novels was not entirely coincidental, as they are connected in more ways than the calendar dates of their action and the fact that they were conceived and written in the early days the Second World War. Both novels contain strong autobiographical elements and two of their characters, based on actual individuals – one from each novel – are connected by a third living person, the Thelemic magician Charles Stansfeld Jones.
Boucher’s book, the pulp thriller ‘Rocket to the Morgue’, is set amongst the early Southern Californian SF writing community of the 1940s, with pseudonymous characters taking part in the action representing real people from that community, such as Robert Heinlein. Amongst them is Hugo Chantrelle who is drawn from the real life personage of Jack Parsons the rocket scientist and occultist, well known to those interested in the history of Thelemic occultism, as he became the leader of the Los Angeles lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis under Aleister Crowley’s direction. The OTO lodge in Los Angeles was Agape Lodge 2 and Agape Lodge 1 was in Vancouver Canada, set up under the aegis of Charles Stansfeld Jones, again under Crowley’s direction, and Jones initiated one Wilfred T Smith who came down from Vancouver to set up Agape lodge No 2 in Los Angeles.
Malcolm Lowry was deported from Mexico in 1937 under mysterious circumstances, probably due to his alcohol driven misbehaviours, but according to his own account he was accused of being a spy. This is quite possible as Mexico was a hotbed of espionage leading up to and during the Second World War. Lowry arrived in Los Angeles in 1937 and stayed until he was obliged to move to Vancouver in 1938, due to a mixture of his erratic behaviour and nationality issues and he remained in Vancouver until 1945 rewriting ‘Under the Volcano’. I have found no record of Lowry having contact with the OTO in Los Angeles, but in 1941 Lowry had a supposedly chance meeting with Charles Stansfeld Jones, who was working in Vancouver as a census taker. Lowry and Jones became friends and Lowry a student of Cabbala under Jones’s tutelage. So Geoffrey Firmin the alcoholic ex-Consul of ’Under the Volcano’ as Lowry, and Hugo Chantrelle of ‘Rocket to the Morgue’ as Jack Parsons, are united by their association with Wilfred T Smith and Charles Stansfeld Jones the sometime heads of Agape Lodges No 1 and No 2.
Lowry incorporated Kabbalistic themes and references into his semi-autobiographical novel ’Under the Volcano’ which records the alcohol inspired descent into the Abyss of one Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul. Perle Epstein has written a book-length Cabbalistic exegesis of Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’. By all accounts both Jack Parsons and Charles Stansfeld Jones had their own descents into the Abyss as part of their occult endeavours. Lowry relates how a senior British officer, possibly Major-General John Frederick Charles Fuller, told him that Hitler’s determination to exterminate the Jews was to prevent their use of Cabbalistic magic against him.
As one might imagine there are more curiosities associated with this tale and Anthony Boucher, author the of ‘Rocket to the Morgue’, is a nom de plume of one William Anthony Parker White, a Science Fiction and pulp fiction writer and editor, hereafter mostly referred to as Boucher. Boucher with its sinister resonance of ‘butcher’ was just one of White’s pseudonyms, another being H H Holmes a very blackly humorous reference to a 19th century serial killer, as well as to the famous Sherlock Holmes of Boucher’s beloved Conan Doyle. In fact H H Holmes was itself a pseudonym of the killer Herman Webster Mudgett, under which name White also published.
White in the guise of Boucher was actually no mere pulp hack, but a highly educated man who obtained his Master’s Degree from University of California, Berkley, and thereby hangs another tale. Boucher’s novel ‘The Case of the Seven of Calvary’ features a central character called John Ashwin Ph. D. Professor of Sanskrit who is based on White’s own Sanskrit tutor Professor Arthur William Ryder. Ashwin’s name is a reference to the Ashvins, divinities of the ancient Hindu scripture the Rig Veda, whose title means ‘rider’, hence Boucher’s pun on his tutor’s surname Ryder with a first name of Ashwin. The Ashvins are the dispensers of heavenly medicaments and are closely associated with the Vedic elixir of immortality, Soma.
Returning to Lowry and the Consul’s descent into the Abyss in ‘Under the Volcano’, amongst the Consul’s occult library is the Rig Veda and in one moment of delirium he soliloquises on “the soma, Amrita, the nectar of the gods praised in one whole book of the Rig Veda – bhang, which was, perhaps, much the same thing as mescal itself”. Mescal liquor is the Mexican spirit, distilled from the Agave plant, which is the alcoholic Consul’s chosen tipple. Lowry observed to his publisher in a letter that he may well have confused mescal with the mescaline cactus Peyote. Stansfeld Jones was at least familiar with Peyote, if not an actual participant in Aleister Crowley’s Magickal experiments with Anhalonium, an extract of Peyote. It appears that Jones was involved with the Amalantrah working where a female pharmacist and Crowley’s chosen medium of that period, Roddie Minor, worked under the influence Anhalonium. Jack Parsons celebrated the power of Peyote in a fragment of poetry drafted in the spirit of ‘Under the Volcano’:
I height Don Quixote, I live on peyote,
Marihuana, morphine and cocaine,
I never no sadness, but only madness
That burns at the heart and the brain.
A short story of Boucher’s, ‘The Case of the Seven of Calvary’ (1937), contains as plot device a medieval Gnostic heresy supposedly surviving into the current era and associated with the still enduring Mandaeans, followers of John the Baptist. Lady Drower had only published her The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: their cults, customs, magic, legends, and folklore in 1937, from which I imagine Boucher drew his references. Boucher/White was by all accounts a committed Catholic, but clearly had esoteric interests. His Catholicism must have been pretty liberal judging some of the broad humour in his novels and a clearly liberal attitude to abortion expressed in ‘The Case of the Seven of Calvary’.
Boucher, who was fluent in several languages, made a number of translations, which included an early translation of a Jorges Borges story into English. Borge’s short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ was the first work of Borges to appear in English and has as its theme labyrinths and features an ancient Chinese novel conceived of as a labyrinth in which the characters perpetually live out their lives in countless permutations, sometimes as friends, sometimes as enemies . The translation by Anthony Boucher appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine of August 1948. Boucher, as a science fiction author and editor, was a mentor to Philip K Dick. Boucher’s story ‘The Seven of Calvary’ uses the device of an ancient heretical Gnostic group, enduring into modern times as a secret society, as an element in his detective story, so his relations with P K Dick are interesting as P K Dick is identified as introducing Gnostic streams of thought into contemporary science fiction, as well as being influenced by his experience of psychedelics.