“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
The interesting thing about Aleister Crowley is that he really believed this. We don’t consider him a fiction writer (at least not primarily), but he went and did it for a while, because he could do whatever and whenever. So he wrote fiction, but only between 1908 and 1922, that’s merely fifteen years from his prolific and incredibly versatile mind. This was an era when he approached the literary world as a critic and writer, although at first quite reluctantly (“I had an instinctive feeling against prose; I had not appreciated its possibilities,” he wrote, later admitting that“the short story is one of the most delicate and powerful forms of expression”). He wasn’t only a writer, but he still made sure that his legacy includes a large collection of miscellaneous prose, now presented in a prestigious (and affordable) Wordsworth edition, titled The Drug and Other Stories.
In here, we can almost forget about his persona, despite the obvious fact that most of these stories are clearly written by an occultist ceremonial magician – but that’s not the point of this collection. His beliefs don’t interfere with his fiction, at least not in a way that it obscures his effort to present various stories, sometimes quite innocent, naive, humorous, other times obtusely esoteric, sure, and sometimes evocative and uncomfortable.
This collection is presented in the Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural series, and that’s why I was really interested in the volume, to find something that fits my interests in weird fiction. Not all the stories deal with the supernatural here, and not all of them are dark. However, if I had to chose the most terrifying tale I read last year, it would be The Testament of Magdalen Blair, found right in this collection.
There is a false sense of correlation between Aleister Crowley and H. P. Lovecraft in the weird fiction community, despite the fact that they have never met, nor have their works influenced each other’s – this tale, however, reminded me of that slow burning, quietly unfolding, unfathomable terror of Lovecraft’s stories. The story is about a woman who can sense changes in heat levels of objects, and with more scientific research she discovers that she can read minds, feel whatever an other person is feeling. This is a slow discovery, there’s a lot of academic talk, the tone is passive, it pays attention to realism to build towards something really horrible: at the end she “witnesses” the mind of her dying husband, and the story just goes on and on way beyond what would be a nightmarish twist or conclusion, the story starts painting hellish landscapes of existential dread, pleasure and pain, and it just made me squirm like no other story I read in recent years. It’s almost like a blend of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and a Clive Barker story (well, seventy years before Clive Barker ever published anything).
Other stories in this collection include The Drug, which is considered the first Western account of a psychedelic experience; The Strategem, a satirical tale which gained a favorable review from Joseph Conrad; The Murder in X. Street, a mystery with actual solvable puzzles (again I sense some influence from Poe); just to name a few. There is a lot more to explore, though: the tome collects 54 stories in total, on a little bit more than 600 pages. The stories I mentioned so far are quite straightforward literary attempts, however there are a lot of stories here that I can’t really grasp. These range from allegorical tales and pointless little sketches to incredibly dense occultist and mythical texts delving into the subconscious (here and there you can see a clear influence by Arthur Machen), some of which are clever and almost magical, but some of them are so out of this world, I think only Crowley could understand them.
But I like the fact that he was always trying something new, I could read this collection as if multiple authors wrote its contents, it would still make sense, it’s very rich in variety. I also appreciate how Crowley rigorously stayed true to himself, and didn’t shy away from depicting erotica (consider a nice little sapphic moment in The Vixen), gruesome details, rich imagery, he even included some poetry into the stories. Crowley wasn’t bound by literary conventions, he was willing to experiment, and that makes this collection really interesting. The stories presented here are all over the place, the writing is sometimes chaotic, but always full of curiosity and wit.
An introduction by William Breeze, a foreword by David Tibet and a 25-page Notes and Sources segment will help both average readers and scholars navigate in this messy but exciting oeuvre, suggesting more books to read (novels such as Moonchild and The Diary of a Drug Addict, or the Simon Iff detective stories) if this volume isn’t enough.
Reading this collection is almost like tackling a really long and tiresome journey to unknown, foreign lands – it takes a lot of time and effort, and it’s not always pleasant, but ultimately it will be rewarding and inspiring.