Like other boys growing up in a small town from the Midwest, I was first introduced to Aleister Crowley via the enigmatic, devilish figure portrayed in Ozzy Osbourne's hit song, "Mr. Crowley." The lyrics, "Mr. Crowley, did you talk to the dead?" seduced me as a blossoming adolescent. Being raised in a Christian family, I spent many of my teenage years sneaking into the back of many a bookstore to peek at some of the occult tomes Crowley produced. By the time I was independent enough to get my own car and job, I buzzed straight to the nearest metaphysical book seller to purchase a copy of Crowley's classic Magick: In Theory and Practice with my first paycheck from flipping burgers. I was hooked!
But also, looking back, I barely understood what I was reading. And now, after decades of occult/metaphysical training under my belt, I can rightly say my then-fascination with Crowley was entirely over-rated.
Historically, Crowley is a mystery to me. The self-identified prophet of the new religion of Thelema, Crowley was arguably one of the more influential occult figures during the magical Renaissance of the early 20th Century. Dubbed "the wickedest man in the world" by the British media of his time, Crowley was a prolific writer, poet, mountain climber, and ceremonial magician. His life was controversial to say the least, full of drugs and debaucheries that have inspired many a rock n' roller over the years: among Ozzy's song, Crowley's likeness appears on the Beatles' St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, as well as numerous other references from Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. In essence, he seems to be generally categorized as the rocker of the occult scene.
Cover to the Beatles' St. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Crowley, top left, circled)
Yet, for all of the mythical decadence that pervades his legacy, Crowley contributed much to what he would call "occult science," especially via his book 777, which is one of the greatest Qabalistic correspondences ever created. He also coined the term "magick" (with a "k") in order to distinguish the tricks of a stage magician from the ceremonial practice of the Great Work. His The Book of Thoth and accompanying deck are among the greatest in Tarot's history. So, with all this, I have been interested in checking out his occult novel Moonchild for quite some time, and finally cleared my reading list schedule to have a sit down and give it a gander.
I am sad to say that I was severely disappointed. Here's why:
Written in 1917, Moonchild tells the tale of a magical war between two magickal orders: a "White Lodge" and a "Black Lodge." Guess which ones are the bad guys? The cause of the war has to do with Lisa la Giuffria and her unborn child, a "moonchild." A moonchild in Crowley's mythology is a baby conceived under magical auspices and ritual (moon phase, diet, etc.) that results in producing the perfect magical being. This concept fascinates me and I was looking forward to watching two occult groups duke it out with each other in the astral planes.
The positive aspect of the book was the magical sequences. Crowley's language is romantic and fanciful, but not too descriptive. You get the sense he knows what he is talking about from the ritual and spell work firsthand. Crowley is an accomplished poet so his writing style cannot go without some accolades.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book was tainted by the author's ego, which is as deep and wide as the very Abyss itself.
It is well known that the characters in Crowley's book not just represent, but exactly map to, real-life counterparts. This includes the main protagonist of the story, Cyril Grey, a white magician that acts as both lover and protector for Lisa la Giuffria. The main flaw of the character Cyril is that he has no flaw. Seeing that Cyril is basically Crowley's own interpretation of himself, any description of Cyril was like reading the equivalent of opening a refrigerator of stale milk: of all the characters he was the most intelligent, most clever, and most charming of them all. He was so perfect it was boring, and reading Crowley gloat about his own magical poetic prowess was downright embarrassing.
The Black Lodge never had a chance for any of their schemes to even remotely succeed, for Crowley always made sure Cyril Grey would outwit them at every turn. And the Black Lodge themselves were ridiculous. They were all flat, despicable beings that existed merely for Crowley to take pot-shots at real-life people he himself loathed, such as notable occultists W.B. Yeats, Arthur Edward Waite, and more. Descriptions of these magical baddies were less intriguing and believable than even my fourth grader making up a villain for one of his home-made comics. Their leader, Douglas (modeled after S.L. MacGregor Mathers, Crowley's real-life arch-nemesis), was the worst. Douglas was a raging alcoholic, without a shred of humanity, who even forced his own wife into prostitution just for the evil of it. Yes, really, for no other reason than that it was eevvviiiilllll! Remind you of anyone?
I understand this was written in 1917, but I have certainly read many other books from the turn of the century and often enjoy them. It was a common staple to use fiction as a means of teaching the occult arts back then, possibly as a way to shield against persecution. However, an excellent example of this type of literature is the work of Dion Fortune. Another adept who left the Golden Dawn to form her own magical order, Dion was a great priestess in the early 20th Century who is most notable for her magical support of Britain during World War II. If you are interested in fiction layered with occult themes that is well-written, as well as being chock-full of invaluable lessons, check out The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic for starters.
Unfortunately, Crowley's prose does not stand the test of time. Moonchild was, all-in-all, uninventive and dull. I am literally only 50 pages away from completing it, and I just can't do it. It was hard enough to trudge through the 200-some-odd pages of literary quicksand I already wasted precious hours of my life with. Compared to his more academic work in the occult, or to anything else published around that era, it is a weak example of occult literature. Moonchild, I imagine, is only favored by hardcore Thelemites and Crowley fans. It's a shame, because it could have been a cool story.
Even though some of the language and magical sequences were neat, overall the characters were bland and the plot was unimpressive. My final rating for this book is: