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Book Considerations for Your Esoteric Library

The best presents I got this year for Christmas were books. That might not be so loaded a statement since I think the best presents are always books, but I did get some especially fabulous ones this time around, including the book that is the result of the most notable publishing event in the esoteric 21st century so far: Carl Jung's long-awaited, The Red Book, reflections on which deserve its own column in the near future.

Another book I received is connected to one of the very first Medusa's Ladder columns I wrote almost exactly two years ago--A House on the Edge of Forever: Discovering and Documenting the Occult History Under our Feet—about the "lost" history and lack of local legends regarding the Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City.

If you find yourself with an Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card to redeem, or are unenthused about looking for a post-holiday birthday gift for someone, below you will find some ideas for books that are a lovely addition to any esoteric library.

I've included some fiction as well—because I know finding quality, intellectually engaging esoteric-oriented literature can be hit and miss. Don't get me wrong—I'm all for pulp, but how nice it is to find exceptional literary fiction with an esoteric theme.

Below are the books for your consideration and accompanying notes of greatly-varying length. I am aware that it may seem odd to promote books I have not yet read in their entirety, but I wanted to share these while in that still in that spirit of present-opening giddiness of new receipt and anticipation. Trust me when I say you won't go wrong with any of these books.


John Crowley's Aegypt Cycle Series: The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, Endless Things

My sister originally pointed me to John Crowley's novel, Little, Big, based on a synopsis she found on one of her friends' Facebook walls. Looking it up and reading reviews, I knew this is one author I was going to become quite familiar with.

I checked Little, Big out from the library, and never got a chance to begin it before it was due back. A couple weeks later at Barnes & Noble, I found Crowley's Aegypt Cycle series on the bookshelf, and showed it to my husband, telling him that even if I didn't know this writer, I would probably buy these books based solely on the promising covers, which were dark, magical.

I put them on my Amazon list, and got them all for Christmas. I've only begun reading the first book, but I know this is going to be the series I have been hoping for: something epic, a grimy, soapless opera, with an otherworldy-alternate history.

After I finished Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles years ago, I have always looked for something to catch me forever the way those books did, unspeakably tragic and internal on its micro and macro levels: from the way Lestat recalls his thirst and the barrel of apples on the first morning after his making; the details of each vampire's preferred vampire-y wardrobe, to the notion of what might really be like to be ancient, and of course, a paradoxically preposterous, magical, and convincing fictional universe. That's what I want.

Of course, there is seemingly an endless array of fictions out there that may provide such sustained passion-reading, and many of them have been recommended highly to me by their respective impassioned readers, but I remain unenthused: The Jim Butcher Dresden Files books, The Twilight Series, and on and on. I've no doubt they're good, but I want to be struck down. So far, The Aegpyt Cycle is more than promising.

According to each book's synopsis at the sci-fi book website World's Without End, Crowley's saga includes these elements: a writer-protagonist preparing a strange manuscript, a lost magical history of the world, hermeticism, a locked estate, astrology, John Dee, and Rosicrucians. What's more—the books are well written. What more could anyone want?

General Esoterica

Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria

Marina Warner is a British academic who has written extensively on mythology and cultural studies; years ago I devoured her brilliant and classic-to-be, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. I was intrigued to discover a newer book of hers entitled Phantasmagoria, and its subtitle sold it: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media.

Indeed, the book is divided into parts with titles: Wax, Air, Clouds, Light, Shadow, Mirror, Ghost, Ether, Ectoplasm, Film. Chapter titles include, Our Zombies, Our Selves, Disembodied Eyes: The Culture of Apocalypse, The Camera Steals the Show, and Anatomies and Heroes: Madame Tussaud's. So far, I have read only the Prologue and the introduction, entitled Logic of the Imaginary, and I can say that these snippets hold their own against many entire volumes I have read this past year.

Robert E. Cox's Creating the Soul Body: the Sacred Science of Immortality

I've been eyeing this book for months, after an obsession with the possibilities of immortality. When it comes to this loaded subject, the offerings are usually in two camps: woo-woo, saccharine, light-filled, or impenetrable, darkly androcentric, and arcane. This book promises to be something in between.

Nick Redfern's Contactees: A History of Alien-human Interaction

Nick Redfern's recent publication Contactees likely needs no endorsement from me, but I've read about ¾ of it, and I can say it's a very thoughtful and in-depth compilation of the contactee phenomena, and Redfern brings to the contactee narratives one of the most reasonable voices to some of the most troubling and marginalized aspects of the entire UFO mythos. Highly recommended.

Israel Regardie and the Philosopher's Stone: The Alchemical Arts Brought Down to Earth by Joseph C. Lisiewski, Ph.D

A couple of years ago, I wrote here about The Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City. I was fairly stunned to discover that the at-that-time world's most famous alchemical laboratory, with ties to Israel Regardie and perhaps other occult luminaries had been based dead-center of a city in which I had spent 19 years.

Defunct since 1984--six years before I ever stepped into Utah--but still, how could I have come across a mention of this so late into the game? Does the hardcore occult world function so outside the mundane one? How could there be no local legends or any oral notoriety associated with the PRS?

Take SUMMUM, the Salt Lake-based UFO cult and preeminent mummification center in the world. Is it because SUMMUM has the woo-woo factor, with its wacky UFO story, oft-documented media sagas regarding religious freedoms, etc.? Does the intention of the participants of an occult group (public vs. private) make all the difference?

If this is the case, and if it can be said that there may have been a moderate wish for privacy with the Paracelsus Research Academy—does this not fly in the face of the notion that public interest is actually fueled by such, as we find with secret societies? Has the reclusive and ‘hermetic' nature of the Alchemist been imbued into the existence of the PRS? Where are the legends?

A few days ago, I received an email from Mark Stavish, Director of Studies for the Institute of Hermetic Studies, pointing me to a just-published book for which he has provided an introduction, centered in The PRS, in which Dr. Joseph Lisiewski, a former PRS student recounts his relationship with Israel Regardie (fellow PRS student) and Frater Albertus (founder of the PRS,) both of legendary and highly regarded status within 20th century occult history circles.

I ordered the book immediately, of course; there is precious little public literature available about the PRS, and in reading the book, it seems it is not just my oversight; Lisiewski claims his is the first major publication to address the goings-on within the PRS. And goings-on, there were.

Although I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Salt Lake City history, modern laboratory alchemy, Israel Regardie, or general occult history, it comes with a bit of a warning. My pace was tempered at the outset, thankfully, by Stavish in his plucky introduction. Apparently there are, or may be, forthcoming differing viewpoints to the information Lisiewski relates in the book. Also, Lisiewski has an ego. He's even a bit cantankerous.

Lisiewski, in his "To the Reader" section, points out his disgruntlement with some of the slacker students who are now publishing books on alchemy, and that this may "raise the hackles" of some who are sensitive to this kind of thing. He states outright, "I am not sensitive."

Although I paused after reading these prefaces, I've found that for me, Lisiewski's personality and particular manners (which do come through, especially in the friendship-with-Regardie-and-Frater passages) do not complicate the reading. However, I also don't have investments to maintain in Regardie or Frater Albertus as sacred cows, but only because I have not read widely enough in that area to have a properly informed opinion on either figure.

Another note is that there is much practical alchemical information woven into the narrative, which some readers may find distracting. Also, whether intended or not, Lisiewski has fairly written a shadow story into his recounting of his experience in creating the legendary homunculus. It could stand on its own as the scariest short story in the world, given the right audience, and the right horror anthology.

I was so haunted by the telling of the creation and description of "miniature animals," created in the lab, and then I came to story of the homunculus, and I had to put the book aside temporarily. It's not a fabulous, uplifting story of love and light. It's not meant to be.

It's alchemy--the largely masculine diehard quest that involves vigilant, forceful separation, rejoining, changing, and in a sense, birthing—this last aspect I hadn't considered before reading about Lisiewski's homunculus. Although there might be gold at the end, it's likely not the way girls would go about it all.

I don't mean to discount or dismiss the involvement of women within the history of alchemy, or even touch on that aspect—rather, I'm grappling for an understanding of the feeling of alienation I feel when I approach the underbelly of alchemical dynamics.

It's vaguely akin to finding myself in a car mechanic shop, surrounded by men treating me kindly, and then I notice that calendar. I'm not afraid, or necessarily opposed to the calendar, or anything like that. There's just a very loaded and invisible barrier at hand.

I am particularly fascinated with alchemy, and it's only been in the last year or so that I've realized it may have to do with the profound gender dynamics involved, and with the alchemical quest to unite the male and female, it definitely fits.

So, with these above caveats, I highly recommend this book.

Contact Richelle Hawks

Visit Richelle's blog: Beamships Equal Love