AGAINST THE LIGHT
by KENNETH GRANT. Starfire Publishing Ltd., 1997. £15.99
a review by Michael Staley
This is the first of a projected series of novellas by Kenneth Grant from Starfire Publishing. As might be expected, it is a fascinating and entertaining story, and there is much more to it than that. The intention of this story is to put over some key ideas which are accepted more readily as fiction than as non-fiction; that way, the ideas slip past the "reality censor" and fertilize consciousness on the quiet. As Grant said in The Magical Revival:
Fiction, as a vehicle, has often been used by occultists ... Ideas not acceptable to the everyday mind, limited by prejudice and spoiled by a "bread-winning" education, can be made to slip past the censor, and by means of the novel, the poem, the short story be effectually planted in soil which would otherwise reject or destroy them.
Against the Light falls into three parts. The first is relatively straightforward narrative. In the course of reading an account of the history of witchcraft, the narrator discovers that a sixteenth century ancestor of his, Margaret Wyard, was executed for witchcraft. He goes on to relate what little he has learnt of her history - in particular, how she was initiated into the Craft, and what the charges against her were prior to her trial and execution. Being an occultist himself, he engages the help of a clairvoyant colleague, Margaret Leesing, in order to learn more. Through the visions of this clairvoyant, he is soon caught up in the rich tapestry of visions and synchronistic dreams which swirl around the serying globe. He discovers that the alien forces which initiated and then operated through Margaret Wyard are still active, and indeed growing stronger. In particular, there is a powerful grimoire which the narrator finds and then loses again, and which contains potent magical secrets that various occultists and magical groups are endeavouring to track down. He also discovers more of his great-uncle, Phineas Black, himself a powerful occultist, who is anxious to locate the grimoire, and who regards the narrator as the key to its retrieval. In the second and third parts of the story, the narrator and Uncle Phineas forge a tenuous and uneasy alliance whilst endeavouring to retrieve the grimoire, and they are drawn through a series of interconnected dreams, visions and memories. This sequence becomes very complex and intense at times, but the account is evocative, beautifully written, and wonderful sustenance for the imagination. There are now several competing groups and individuals hunting the grimoire, and the narrator comes finally to realise his pivotal rôle in the mystery.
The central theme of this story is memory. Early on, Phineas Black reads aloud a passage which sets the tone of the story:
I have proved beyond doubt that in the darkness of senescence lies hidden a key to the earlier life. In the ordinary mortal it is veiled in the imagery of childhood, but these images are masks. Beneath them lies a mystery which concerns not the past, but the future...Many of the sequences of dream and vision are related to the past of the narrator, who identifies himself as Kenneth Grant, and there is a wealth of fascinating autobiographical detail to be gleaned, as well as insights into the Workings of New Isis Lodge. The grimoire makes several brief appearances before being snatched away again, and its pages seem to be full of images and Spare-like sigils. Indeed, a 1955 pastel by Spare plays an important rôle in the narrative, encapsulating the secrets of accessing the alien forces which worked through Margaret Wyard and her subsequent avatars; this is the picture reproduced in Grant's Images & Oracles of Austin Osman Spare as 'Aerial Vampire', and it is one of Spare's most fascinating and enigmatic pictures. At the end of the story the narrator sees, in Margaret Leesing's scrying globe, the image of his late mother, descending the stairs to throw a long-forgotten childhood book of his into the dustbin. At first the narrator takes the book for the grimoire, but then realises that it is a book which he loved when a young child, its cover depicting the Sphinx of Gizeh; it is clearly the archetype, of which the grimoire is a subsequent flowering.
Thus at the end of the story we are returned to the sense of the passage quoted earlier by Phineas Black - that there is a vital key in childhood experience, something which is quintessential in later, adult life. The childhood book turns out to be the prototype of the grimoire, masked by childhood memory. Perception in the child is often clearer than in the adult, because the child does not censor his or her perception in the light of logic or habit. Thus as children we see faces and figures in the flowing grain of the oak wardrobe, and sense the comings and goings of ghosts, and all too often this sensitivity of perception is veiled in the adult.
Against the Light can be read and enjoyed on many levels. It is beautifully written and intensely evocative - fitting, in a story whose theme is the recovery of a key through the exploration of childhood memory. As an occult novel, it is entertaining and inspiring. There is also a deeper significance to the story, since it was written as a precursor to Grant's The Ninth Arch (the projected final volume in the author's monumental Typhonian Trilogies) and sets forth some of the themes which will occur in that book.
This is not the first novella by Kenneth Grant. Many will remember with pleasure The Stellar Lode, published several years ago in Skoob's Occult Anthology. Further novellas are planned for publication over the next few years, in a format uniform with Against the Light. It is something to be looked forward to immensely.
STARFIRE II;2, 1998
London WC1N 3XX
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