Moon and Serpent Rising

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Top Shelf announced this one on Friday so I can break my silence about the book I’ve been working on since May 2021. The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic by Alan Moore and Steve Moore was first announced in February 2007. I’d created the cover design which was used for promotional purposes after which the project went into hibernation for several years. In 2014 Alan and Steve were back at work again, and were co-writing the final essay when Steve died suddenly in March of that year, whereupon the book retreated to limbo once more. Since 2007 my cover has been floating around the internet like the lid for an empty toybox, but the book really is finished at last, and will be published by Knockabout (UK) and Top Shelf (US) in October.

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In addition to the cover design I was also slated to be working on two of the book’s internal features: The Soul, a six-part illustrated serial set in the 1920s which evolved out of the occult-detective strip that Alan and I were planning circa 1999; also a series of twenty full-page illustrations for a feature titled Magical Landscapes. When Tony at Knockabout informed me at the beginning of 2021 that the book was being revived I made the audacious suggestion to him and to Alan that I could, if need be, design the whole thing as well as illustrate my own sections. Alan readily agreed, saying he trusted me implicitly, which was good to hear; his sole brief was that the book should be “beautiful and psychedelic”. One reason for his trust is that we’d already made excursions into the Moon & Serpent zone together. I designed three of the Moon & Serpent CDs in the 2000s, and made the video that accompanied the William Blake-themed reading/performance by Alan and co. at the Purcell Room, London, in 2001. Consequently, I’ve often felt like a floating member of the Moon & Serpent cabal.

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A couple of things are worth noting now that the book is about to enter the world. The first is that the contents are a little different to the press release from 2007 which announced a book of 320 pages, with 78 of those pages being brand new Tarot card designs. The authors subsequently realised that creating an entirely new Tarot deck is a huge task in itself, especially if, as was the intention, you wanted it to be as wide-ranging and authoritative as the Crowley/Harris Thoth deck. There is a chapter about the Tarot in the finished book but readers will now have to choose decks of their own. I can imagine disappointment being expressed about this, and about some of the other changes but the book as it now stands is actually bigger than the original proposal, with an additional 32 extra pages. The expansion is partly a result of my page design which put fancy borders on all of the text pages. I ended up doing a lot more work for the book than I expected, adding new pages here and there, creating a lot of extra graphics and illustrations, and breaking up the long final essay into sections which are illustrated throughout with small pictures.

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Eco calls on Cthulhu

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In which Umberto Eco nods fleetingly to the Cthulhu Mythos near the end of his second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. I’d show you more of the relevant passage (below) but it’s rather spoilerish if you haven’t read the book. This turned up during a re-reading, my first since the novel appeared in paperback in 1990. A reference like this doesn’t stand out as much as it might elsewhere, not when the text that precedes it is stuffed to the gills with esoterica. Several hundred pages of occult history made me forget that Eco had hauled Lovecraft into his compendious fabulation along with everything else.

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Ishmael Reed was responsible for returning me to Eco’s novel as a result of an earlier re-read of Mumbo Jumbo, Reed’s fictional account of voodoo, jazz, politics and many other things in the America of the 1920s. Eco was already in mind prior to this since I’d been working my way through his essays and lectures. (As I still am. He wrote a lot of the things.) Mumbo Jumbo‘s exploration of occult knowledge and occult conspiracy summoned vague memories of Foucault’s Pendulum, which made me realise that I didn’t remember very much at all about Eco’s novel even though both books share an interest in the tangled history of the Knights Templar. To the top of the pile it went.

It’s been interesting reading Eco’s novel again. For a start, it was funnier than I remembered, although this may be a result of my being much more familiar with the publishing business than I was in 1990. The story concerns a trio of men who work for a small publishing house in Milan, a division of which is devoted to the works of self-financing authors or “SFAs”. A vanity press in other words. A potential SFA turns up with a crank book rather similar to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, then abruptly disappears without collecting his manuscript. Curiosity, idleness and invention inspire the trio to improve upon the manuscript’s occult conspiracy in a manner that knits together just about every aspect of Western mysticism there is, and even some of the Eastern ones: Rosicrucianism, alchemy, the Kabbalah, Atlantis, the Illuminati, ley lines, the Hollow Earth, Stonehenge, etc, etc; it’s all in there. This is the thing they eventually call “the Plan”, a kind of Unified Field Theory of esoteric knowledge, and a contrivance whose fabrication is assisted by further SFA manuscripts arriving as candidates for a new line of “Hermetic” books. Problems arise for the publishers when their elaborate intellectual game ends up being taken for a serious revelation by a group of fanatical mystics. Eco’s novel demonstrates the pleasures of creative apophenia—the trio are continually challenging each other to fit a new piece of historical data into their scheme—while also acting as a warning that any halfway plausible Plan has the potential to be taken seriously by credulous cranks. As Lia, the novel’s voice of reason, says:

People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.

Eco explored this phenomenon more seriously in a later novel, The Prague Cemetery, which invents an author for the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Plan whose conspiratorial claims continue to fuel anti-Semitism the world over. The internet has only accelerated Plan-construction, and I imagine Eco would have been simultaneously fascinated and appalled by the feeble imaginings of that ex-football player with the lizard obsession, and the shambling, frothing Q-mob with their Very Important jpegs. (What is it the latter are always saying? “Trust the Plan”… And having mentioned Mr Icke, I just put his name into Google only to find that the latest extract from his Twitter feed has him talking about the Holy Grail. Welcome to the Crank Zone.)

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Going beyond the zero

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“But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children….”

Reader, I read it. It isn’t an admission of great achievement to announce that you’ve reached the last page of a novel after a handful of stalled attempts, but when it’s taken me 36 years to reach this point it feels worthy of note; and besides which, Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t an ordinary novel. Umberto Eco is partly responsible for my return to Pynchon. I’d just finished The Name of the Rose, a book I’d avoided for years even while reading (and enjoying) a couple of Eco’s other novels, and was wondering what to read next. Maybe it was time to try the Rocket book again? The thick white spine of the Picador edition—760 pages in 10pt type—would accuse me every time I spotted it on the shelf: “Still haven’t made it to page 100, have you?” For many people this happens with novels because a book is “difficult” (which I didn’t think it was), or boring (which it isn’t at all), or simply too long (page count doesn’t put me off). Back in 1985 I was looking for more heavyweight fare after reading Ulysses, something I’ve now done several times, so I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a novel which is misleadingly compared to Ulysses on its back cover. If anything the comparison was an enticing one. Pynchon at the time exerted a gravitational pull (so to speak) for being very mysterious, although this was a decade when most living authors, especially foreign ones, were mysterious to a greater degree than they are today, when so many have their own websites and social media profiles. Pynchon’s works were also referred to in interesting places, unlike his less mysterious contemporaries. I may be misremembering but I seem to recall a mention of the W.A.S.T.E. enigma from The Crying of Lot 49 in Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus!; if it is there then it’s no surprise that a writer so preoccupied with conspiracy and paranoia would find favour with the authors of the ultimate conspiracy novel. (And that’s not all. I’m surprised now by the amount of coincidental correspondence between Illuminatus! and Gravity’s Rainbow. Both novels were being written at the same time, the late 1960s, yet both refer to the Illuminati, the eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill, Nazi occultism, and the death of John Dillinger. Both novels also acknowledge the precedent of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, another remarkable conflation of conspiracy, secret history, and wild invention.)

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Pynchon had other connections to the kind of fiction I was already interested in. One of his early short stories, Entropy, had been published in New Worlds magazine in 1969, although editor Michael Moorcock later claimed to have avoided reading any of the novels until much later. And, Pynchon, like Shea & Wilson (and Moorcock…), made pop-culture waves. I think it was Laurie Anderson who put Gravity’s Rainbow in the centre of my radar when she released Mister Heartbreak, an album whose third song, Gravity’s Angel, refers to the novel and is dedicated to its author. As for the novel itself, in the mid-1980s this was still Pynchon’s major work, the one that fully established his reputation. Nothing new had appeared since its publication in 1973; Vineland, and the subsequent acceleration of the authorial production line, was six years away. The final lure was the refusal of the Picador edition to communicate very much of its contents: what was this thick volume actually about? The back cover is filled with praise but doesn’t tell you anything about the novel at all, while the cover illustration by Anita Kunz suggests a scenario connected with the Second World War but little else. (“This was one of the most complicated books I ever read,” says the artist, “and really hard to get the germ of the idea. Pynchon kept going off in tangents. I mixed up the art the same way the writer did and made an image that can be read in all directions.”) It’s only when you start reading the book that you find the connection between the novel’s dominant concerns—the development of the V-2 rockets used by the Nazis to bomb London, and the erotic compulsions of Tyrone Slothrop, an American lieutenant at large in war-ravaged Europe—subtly reflected in the illustration, much more subtly than the cover art on the edition that preceded this one.

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Weekend links 471

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Pink Floyd, Lee Michaels, Clear Light (1967) by Bonnie MacLean.

• Electronic musician Mort Garson has been subject to a revival of interest recently, with reissues of his works as Ataraxia (The Unexplained), and Lucifer (Black Mass). The latest reissue is Mother Earth’s Plantasia (1976), an album released under Garson’s own name, and one of several works of plant mysticism from the 1970s (see Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants, and Green by Steve Hillage).

• “It is striking how much of this work sounds like a missing link from the art world to the popular groups of the time, such as the Detroit techno pioneers Cybotron and the Japanese electro legends Yellow Magic Orchestra.” Geeta Dayal on the reconfigured Speak & Spell machinery of Paul DeMarinis.

The cost of free love and the designers who bore it: Madeleine Morley meets the women of psychedelic design.

For the transhumanist anarchist Wilson, the neurological relativism revealed by his own learning and personal deprogramming experiments called for a form of ‘guerrilla ontology’ that lampooned, rejected and transmitted much needed interference into the ‘reality tunnels’ that attempt to control much of contemporary society and individual behaviour. In the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, characters are repeatedly placed in positions of cognitive dissonance, where they are forced to reevaluate their own belief systems due to experiences that they are unable to accommodate.

Sean Kitching on the 40th anniversary of Robert Anton Wilson’s Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy

• They said books were dead, they were wrong: Adrian Shaughnessy on a decade of Unit Editions.

• Mixes of the week: Xianedelica by Jesús Bacalão, and Kosmische Mix By Tarotplane.

• Swinging 60s surrealist Penny Slinger: “Collectors thought I came with the art”.

• Cabaret Voltaire: Chance Versus Causality (Teaser).

Luc Sante on postcards of American violence.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Peter Whitehead Day.

Computerwelt (1981) by Kraftwerk | Speak And Spell (1984) by Christina Kubisch | Time Space Transmat (1985) by Model 500

Weekend links 423

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The Miracle (Genet’s Dream) (2001) by Delmas Howe.

• “Zachary Lipton, an assistant professor at the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, watched with frustration as this story transformed from ‘interesting-ish research’ to ‘sensationalized crap’.” Oscar Schwartz on how the media gets AI alarmingly wrong.

• The Aesthetics of Science Fiction: what does SF look like after cyberpunk? Very Brutalist if you ask Rick Liebling, although the first example shown in his piece—the Brunel University Lecture Centre—appears briefly as future architecture in A Clockwork Orange.

• At Expanding Mind: Erik Davis talks with philosopher and religious studies professor Dustin Atlas about ancient skepticism, Madhyamaka Buddhism, the taste of honey, Montaigne, Robert Anton Wilson, and the path of doubt.

• At Muddy Colors: Part 1 of their choices for best fantasy book covers of the year so far, a list which includes my cover for Moonshine by Jasmine Gower. Thanks!

• Soundtracking with Edith Bowman, episode 84: director Todd Haynes on the music of Wonderstruck, I’m Not There, Carol and Far From Heaven.

• Mixes of the week: FACT mix 663 by Space Afrika, Secret Thirteen Mix 262 by Mieko Suzuki, and Black Minimalism, a playlist by David Toop.

• Two minutes, eight barrels: drone and GoPro footage of surfer Koa Smith riding the waves of the Namibia shoreline.

• David Lynch’s Sacred Clay: Shehryar Fazli reviews Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna.

Charlotte Higgins on myths, monsters and the maze: how writers fell in love with the labyrinth.

• Monstrous Geometries in the Fiction of HP Lovecraft by Moritz Ingwersen.

Listen to the mournful wails of planets and moons.

• A Peel Session by Laika

Surf Ride (1956) by Art Pepper | Surf (1976) by Tim Blake | Surfside Sex (1982) by Patrick Cowley