Reading Genre: Hardboiled Fiction and Me

Long ago, when I was all hopped up on little sleep and theory readings, I tried to write a paper making the case that the most important genre marker of science fiction was not the nova that it introduces but the way it teaches the reader to read it as it goes. Now, I still sort of like that idea, but it’s too common in all texts to really work. I think my professor’s comment was something that boiled down to, “this is a very good paper, A, but the idea doesn’t make sense, don’t try to publish this.” Fair.

I’m telling you that because the way that a text shows you how to read it, and how to read the genre it is in, means a lot to me. And I think it’s important generally as well. I’ve written on genre a few times before, most recently in using genre theory to evaluate magic texts. But here, I want to talk about an experience I had with a novel and the general idea of reading using genre.

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Literature for Magicians: The Night Land

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson is one of the strangest things I have read, I believe. Anyone interested in dreamscapes, fantasy, post-apocalypse fiction, or weird fiction should give it a try. This essay is "for magicians" simply in that this novel will enrich the imagination powerfully, something any magician should do every so often.

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Secondary World part 2: Visiting Other Worlds of Magic

Last week, I talked about how Coleridge’s "suspension of disbelief" can be used to understand how more than one magical system can make sense, even if they’re mutually exclusive. In short, a work of art that is not convincingly "realistic" tugs on your heart by reminding you of "inward truths," and I compared that to how one might sympathize with Yggdrasil not because one believes the world hangs from the boughs of a tree, but because one believes trees are central to the survival of our ecosystem on Earth.

This week we’ll go even further. Tolkien’s famous essay "On Fairy-stories" developed an idea called the "secondary world" and we can conceive of magical systems as secondary worlds that we visit. If they’re coherent, we may keep coming back!

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The Secondary World of Magical Texts and Traditions

Recently, on the Hermetic House of Life server, we were engaged in a conversation about how exactly a magical text “makes sense.” A friend, Nicholas Chapel, said something I will quote below, but which sort of comes down to the idea that a text should have what he called a “holistic integrity” which can be present even if the text is fragmentary, but which is about whether it “holds up” so to speak.

This gave me Thoughts, as you might imagine. Magical worldviews are a little like maps of the world: they are, to some degree, arbitrary, and therefore they all differ from one another. But they are all representing the same thing: the world itself. And when you’re approaching a magical worldview for the first time, or approaching one outside your own tradition, you have to do so with certain techniques if you want to avoid everything from colonialism to just being kind of shitty to people. Now, normally we’d just call that “being polite” and move on, but I think it will be helpful to dig down into the way that “everything is true” even if two people can have diametrically opposed views of how something like magic works. I’m going to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge and J. R. R. Tolkien to discuss how that works.

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Genre Theory for Magicians: Genre and Magic

Theory for Magicians: Genre and Magical Practices 2

So last time, I discussed the general theory of genre from a literary perspective, with some additions from video game theory. The idea here, in the follow-up, is to explore how we can use genre theory to think about magical traditions.

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Theory for Magicians: Genre and Magical Practices

I was doing what you do: listening to a podcast episode to see if I should add the whole thing to my feed. The podcast was What Magic is This and the specific episode was with Nicholas Chapel and focused on The Kybalion. Now, I have no real horse in the race of whether The Kybalion is hermetic or not, but every expert in the field agrees it is not. But the conversation about that topic got me to think of something. Here’s how it went:  Chapel said that, while he certainly knows it’s not Hermetic, and can absolutely tell you why, it’s still a difficult task to do, because the field of Hermeticism is so big and wide open now. Historically, there have been a lot of innovations and changes in Hermeticism, and so it is perfectly reasonable to call Agrippa, the Golden Dawn, and the Corpus Hermeticum “Hermetic” even though in some ways none of them look anything like the others. The thing this made me think of is that magicians need to learn something about genre. So here we are, with an entry in my Literature for Magicians series sub-classed as Theory for Magicians: genre theory and the horizons of expectations.

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On Polyvalent Meaning and Magic

I’m here to tell you something you already know: symbols mean more than one thing. No, that’s not the whole post! Come back! In the practice of magic, mysticism, and the occult, a pattern is played out that is far broader than those admittedly broad fields. Humans have a tendency to think symbols are simpler than they are. So, for example, you might think the 7 of Pentacles means “be patient,” while your friend thinks it means “suffer.” And it means both! And we know that, really. But it gets lost in practice a lot of the time. So this post is specifically about importing theory and techniques from the formal study of symbols and art – my actual specialty, for once – into occult studies generally.

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Literature for Magicians: Descent into Hell

2021 saw me start to get into Charles Williams, a poet and prose writer who was friends with Yeats, worked in publishing, and was fascinated by magic and mysticism. Descent into Hell is his best-known novel, and well worth reading if you’re into magic and mysticism of any kind as well.

I briefly mentioned this book in my 2021 in Books post, but as I said there, I always intended to write more about it. It’s a really excellent book, and another great example of how fantasy can be weird as shit if it just, you know, exists before the generic markers hardened.

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2021 in Books

I read books last year! I thought I’d write up an easy breezy top picks post rummaging through them. If you want the Full List, you can always browse around my twitter thread. There likely won’t be any big lessons, and I don’t want to write traditional reviews, but we’ll see how this goes.

Fantasy

I’m separating this from science fiction, even though they’re the same thing, for ease of use. I read more fantasy novels than anything else, which is not a surprise. I’m going to set aside Lord of the Rings for now, so here’s my top five fantasy novels I read in 2021. They are not in any particular order.

Kingdoms of Elfin (Warner): collection of shorts about fairies written by a brilliant modernist author, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Remembers that fairies are not nice and is equally hilarious and tragic in turns.

Killing Commendatore (Murakami): Murakami being Murakami. He keeps getting better and better at this, even though there’s some truth to the criticism that he does the same thing over and over. This will remind you strongly of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I think I may have enjoyed it even more. An artist goes through a divorce and his friend sets him up in a house in the country to get back to painting. The house belonged to the friend’s dad, a famous artist from the WW2 generation who did traditional Japanese art after studying European art obsessively.

A Night in the Lonesome October (Zelazny): a cast of horror movie tropes, including the Wolfman, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, a witch, a druid, a Russian mystic, and a pair of Golden Dawn initiates come together in the month of October when the full moon will rise on the 31st to fight over control of a portal that can be opened, releasing Lovecraftian horrors on the world. Half fight to open it, half fight to close it. The narrator is a dog, who tracks the portal, makes deals with the other magicians’ familiars, and dodges the investigations of Sherlock Holmes. It’s so funny and good.

Descent into Hell (Williams): I’ll be writing on this in full soon, but read it as soon as you can. Occult-tinged Christian mysticism (Williams called his novels “metaphysical thrillers”). A young woman afraid of her doppelganger meets a poet who helps her come to realize the Christian ideal of transference, while the neighborhood historian falls deeper and deeper into his onanistic obsessions. “Sin” is walling oneself off while “virtue” is making connections.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (Carter): Angela Carter is best known for her collection of feminist fairy tales The Bloody Chamber, but this novel is also excellent. A representative from a city invaded by thoughts and desires is sent to track down the titular Doctor Hoffman, who is producing them. It’s a picaresque through a landscape that can be shaped by desire.

Lord of the Rings

I reread it again. You don’t need me to tell you about it. What was interesting this time is that I let myself read it normally, as opposed to the calendar reading I usually do. That let me take more time and notice a ton of details I’d forgotten or never registered, such as Faramir leading grace to the Valar in the wilds.

Science Fiction

The big thing in SF this year for me was rereading M. John Harrison’s novels Light and Nova Swing and finally reading the third book in the trilogy, Empty Space: A Haunting. They are wonderful, tragic, sad, funny books. I was apparently visibly upset at the end of the second novel, which I remember not actually liking very much when I first read it in undergrad. I suspect the additional years has made it easier for me to understand what it’s like for the people looking for meaning in a jumble of spaces all coexisting as their lives calcify. Read these books.

Religion

The biggest book I read all year wasn’t Lord of the Rings, it was Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis, the journal he kept while he tried to make sense of his religious experience. If you’re into PKD, science fiction, or religious studies, you’ve gotta read it. The edition edited by Jacskon and Franzen is good, and you pretty much have to ignore all the footnotes and nearly everything else the editors produced. They are consistently condescending and sneering about Dick’s religious experiences, and say, outright, that it’s only worth taking the Exegesis seriously because they take PKD seriously. But in that admission it’s clear they don’t take PKD seriously, because a person’s religious experiences are a part of them just as their political iconoclasm or their postmodern writing techniques are. No one suggests we ignore Blake’s religious writing or push it off into a corner because we want to seriously consider all his work, but not really that stuff. And Blake saw angels in treetops, so this is pretty comparable actually.

Apart from PKD I recommend Garden of Pomegranates by Israel Regardie for a good take on non-Jewish Kabbalah / Qabalah sourced out of the original Jewish texts as much as from other sources, and the Sefer Yetzirah, or I suppose really I’m recommending Hayman’s edition, since, I mean, if you want to read the Sefer Yetzirah you don’t need me telling you to.

Magic/Divination

I can’t recommend Daniel Foor’s Ancestral Medicine enough. It’s an excellent introductory guide to getting in touch with, and figuring out relationships with, one’s ancestors. It’s methodical, careful, delicate, and will work in any tradition or magical practice. Foor’s both a magical initiate and a practicing therapist, so he values the reader’s well being at all times.

Smith’s The Way of Fire and Ice  is a great introduction to Nordic inspired heathenry that not only avoids the volkisch fascism common in heathenry but actively fights against it. In fact, over a third of the book is how to protect spaces and organizations from infiltration by racist shitheads. The book does this thing that seems to be common in heathenry where it won’t talk much about magic, as though it can’t be learned from books (Solomonic practitioners probably have some words they’d like to say). But apart from that, it’s very good. The exercises are simple but useful; the guides to the gods and spirits are clear and don’t get irritating and breathless; and the section in organizing does seem like it would be a clear and useful basic outline for starting up and maintaining a group while keeping evil out.

Poetry

I specialize in prose fiction, so it’s always difficult for me to say why poetry is good. But I read a lot of good poetry this year, by Stevie Smith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ursula K. Le Guin, W. B. Yeats, and Charles Williams. The best general collection of poetry was Smith’s All the Poems, a beast that, I think, is the only posthumous collection of poetry I’ve read that didn’t irritate me as much as it enthralled me. They’re not all winners, we have to remind ourselves as we read some Library of America collection… except with Smith they were. That tends to be true when someone has a sense of humor, I find. Maybe not all the poems are incredible, life-changing works of genius, but if they’re a little funny then they’re at least always worth your time to read them.

For theurgists and magicians, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars is good, and like Williams’ novel above, probably coming up soon on the blog on its own.

Manga

I reread some of the yuri I picked up in 2020, and so once again I recommend Conditions of Paradise and its sequel as well as I Married a Woman to Shut My Parents Up. The best “new to me” manga I read was My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and Hakumei & Mikochi 1. Loneliness is the first part of a three part autobiographical sequence (so far at least), detailing the manga-ka’s struggles with depression, eating disorders, cultural homophobia, family relations, anxiety, living alone, and many other things that will make you laugh and then feel both seen and also deeply sad. A+ work! Hakumei & Mikochi is if David the Gnome was full of sumptuous drawings of cooking and woodlands. Two gnome like ladies meet inventors, take part in singing competitions, fix windmills alongside weasel overseers, and take the beetle public transit to and from town. For your mental health, read this book.

Assorted Odds and Ends

I read Transgender History by Stryker, which is an excellent introductory text, though focused primarily on the 20th century and on the US. It helped me accept some parts of my brain that were conflicting, in that it provides a useful and pragmatic definition of transness that focuses on what it actually means: “trans” means to move away from something, not toward something. So one is trans if one is moving away from the gender assigned at birth. It’s not required to be moving toward some other specific gender, especially not along the old-fashioned binary model, to be trans.

I also read Tale of Genji again, which really was even longer than Exegesis above. It’s so good, and weird, and redolent of its culture, time, and artistic temperament. I think there’s a shortened version by the same translator? Read that sometime.

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Literature for Magicians: The Novels of E. R. Eddison

As opposed to the previous entry in our series, Literature for Magicians, this post is more holistic and less pointedly pragmatic in nature. Less of a toolbox, this set of works is inspirational and philosophical. So: have you heard of E. R. Eddison?

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