Beyond our Ken
‘Against the Light: A Nightside Narrative’ by Kenneth Grant (Starfire Publishing, 1997)
First published in KAOS 14, 2002
As fascinating and as ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic, each entirely disconnected from the morsel which preceded it. Sometimes it seems as if inferior ingredients have been included, from an unreliable source: the occult data and the correspondences that simply fail to check out when investigated, knowledge that appears to have been channelled rather than researched. Doubtful transmissions from the Mauve Zone.
Spicing this delirious broth, characteristically we come across bewildering yet urgent outbursts in which Grant repeatedly protests that the eleventh degree ritual of the OTO involves no homosexual practices, or jaw-dropping accounts of magic workings that defy all credibility, with live baboons dragged screeching into nothingness by extra-human forces, this delivered casually, almost as after-dinner anecdote. The onslaught of compulsive weirdness in Grant’s work is unrelenting, filled with jumpy fast-cuts that remind one less of text than television: H P Lovecraft’s House Party. Each chapter an emetic gush of curdling chthonic biles and juices served up steaming, a hot shrapnel of ideas, intense and indiscriminate. A shotgun full of snails and amethysts discharged point blank into the reader’s face.
The difficulty in assessing Kenneth Grant as writer is compounded by his stance as magus which, quite properly, insists upon the personal and the subjective, making it impossible to view his writings without reference to Grant himself, the atmosphere of his peculiar mind hung in a churning fogbank over every page. A mere fifteen, Grant blundered into the fluorescent vortex of Aleister Crowley via a copy of Magick in Theory and Practice discovered in a Charing Cross Road bookshop. Three years later, aged eighteen, Grant joined the army ‘with the expectation of being sent to India, where I had hopes of finding a guru’. Given that Grant’s enlistment took place at the height of World War II, this statement would seem to suggest a grasp upon conventional worldly reality that was at best precarious. Eighteen months after setting out on his unusual khaki path towards enlightenment, Grant suffered an unspecified ‘health breakdown’ and was discharged from the forces. During convalescence, he wrote to the Jermyn Street address listed in Crowley’s Book of Thoth, and subsequently entered into first a correspondence and then, later, full apprenticeship with the Great Beast.
Grant, at the time, was barely twenty, while the Master Therion was in his early seventies, a magus down to his last chants and just about to settle into premises at Netherwood in Hastings, Crowley’s terminal address. The details of the correspondence and relationship are to be found in Grant’s Remembering Aleister Crowley, an entrancing blend of fannish scrapbook and The Screwtape Letters, published by Skoob Books in 1991. The frequently exasperated tone of Crowley’s letters to his younger acolyte suggests a Thelemic Laurel and Hardy routine: Stan fails to magickally identify a channelled drawing of the entity called LAM. In retaliation, Olly knocks Stan’s bowler hat off and then treads on it. Stan scratches his head and weeps.
In spite of such one-sided spats between the hapless Grant and his impossibly demanding tutor, Crowley penned a memo during 1946 to the following effect: ‘Value of Grant: if I die or go to USA, there must be a trained man to take care of the English OTO.’ This memo is one of the building blocks supporting Grant’s succession to the leadership of what is now called the Typhonian OTO, a wilfully chthonic enterprise that seems devoted to exploring Magic’s darker countenance; its subterranean underbelly. Clearly, these psychic cave-diving expeditions have done much to generate the slightly creepy, claustrophobic aura that perfumes the reputation of both Grant and his organisation. It’s not so much that the Typhonian OTO has ‘something of the night’ about it, more that it gargles with the stuff, splashes it underneath both arms and down its underpants, a schoolboy gone berserk on brimstone aftershave.
Hardly surprising, then, that this relentlessly infernal posture should elicit comment, much of it adverse. As an example, occult writer Gerald Suster has described Grant and his circle as ‘wallowing in Qlipothic slime’, and while this might sound like a perfectly good Saturday night out to you or I, it seems to be intended as a criticism. Grant, it must be said, does not bend over backwards to contradict this impression. Each new published work contains a further mapping of his inner, magic landscape that exposes more of its bizarre nocturnal landmarks, its unutterable flora and fauna: mauve zones, ninth arches and tunnels of Set; leapers and Outer Gods and elementals in the form of monstrous aquatic owls. The ingress of alien information through the knowledge-gate of the eleventh Sephiroth. Mind parasites. Neural invaders. Great Cthulhu. An apparently deliberate blurring of the line between describing Separate Reality and writing Magic Fiction, if there ever really was a line to blur.
This brings us to Against the Light, ostensibly a novel rather than a book of writings about magic, issued in a limited hardback edition of a thousand by Starfire Publishing Ltd. From the word go the novel, if novel it be, adopts an unapologetically ambiguous position. Nowhere on its jacket or within do we find any notice that Against the Light is meant to be received as fiction. The only description of its content that we find is in the volume’s cryptic subtitle: A Nightside Narrative.
The text itself, of course, only confounds the matter further. From the opening dedication to Grant’s great-uncle, one Phineas Marsh Black, we are immersed within the question that has surely haunted every reader of Grant’s earlier writings: just how much of this is supposed to be… you know… real? The prologue talks of ‘Uncle Phin’ and Grant’s great-cousin Gregor, seemingly also a relative of Crowley’s and an actual person, his existence at least vouched for elsewhere in Grant’s oeuvre of avowed non-fiction. From here we trip lightly through a brief discussion of Clan Grant and an unusual family heirloom in the form of a forbidden book known as Grant’s Grimoire, this being a record of the quaint, longstanding family tradition of ‘traffic with entities not of this world’. The author helpfully informs us that ‘there exists to this day in the library of a Florentine family an Italian version, Il Grimoire Grantiano.’
Scarcely have we had time to absorb this stylish continental touch than we are introduced to yet another member of Clan Grant, this time an ancestor named Margaret Wyard who, the author gleefully informs us, is alleged to have claimed carnal knowledge of the Devil in a bestial form at UFO hotspot Rendlesham Forest during the sixteenth century. Just as we’re starting to appreciate how much fun Christmas family reunions at the Grant place must have been, we’re whisked away into the body of a narrative where the first person author and a scryer-for-hire named Margaret Leesing attempt to solve the interlocking mysteries of Margaret Wyard and the grimoire, leading them into the world of shrieking cosmic horror where Grant at least seems to feel most at home, most thoroughly relaxed.
Nothing about the style of Grant’s delivery throughout the book distinguishes Against the Light from the preceding non-fictional work. The author’s voice has the same worryingly straight-faced tone to which the readers have become accustomed, and instead of any novelistic structure we see Grant employ his usual device of sweeping a vast pile of fascinating information up into one place, then chopping it out arbitrarily into a semblance of individual chapters. Characters familiar from Grant’s previous work recur: Crowley himself, along with Austin Osman Spare, Yeld Paterson and Black Eagle, Spare’s famous spirit guide. The anecdotes describing ritual events and states are not intrinsically more unbelievable than those to be found in Grant’s earlier work, except that here they occupy more space. Presenting his account, the author does not seem less earnest or less anxious to convince than he seems in Nightside of Eden or Outside the Circles of Time.
Given the above, attempting to critique Against the Light by the same terms one would apply to, say, a current horror-fantasy novella would seem both redundant and unfair. Should we then treat the book as an expanded ritual journal, a straightforward piece of magical reportage, only differing from Grant’s previous work in its ratio of anecdote to ideology? Again, this presents difficulties, not least being that alongside all the genuine occult celebrities woven into Grant’s tale we also find clearly fictitious personages such as Helen Vaughn, half-human heroine of Arthur Machen’s work The Great God Pan, or Richard Pickman, the doomed artist spirited away by ghouls in H P Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model. Throw in Sin Sin Wa, an astral Chinaman who seems to be the model for Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, and one begins to grasp the full dimension of the problem.
Complicating matters is the nature of the narrative itself, with certain passages apparently intended to take place somewhere at least within the vague proximity of ordinary reality, while other parts plunge us into scryed scenes from history or else full-fledged shamanic visions. Furthermore, Grant seldom bothers to make the transition between one state and another absolutely clear and, indeed, seems to see the different planes of narrative as pretty interchangeable. We’re dragged, with the narrator, from the glittering hallucinatory bowels of a Lovecraftian underworld, through West End London and into the scrying bowl, often within a page. Adding to the disorienting nature of the tale is the narrator’s almost total lack of any recognisable emotional reaction to the Bosch-like apparitions he is constantly confronted by. The literary influence of Lovecraft, obviously a writer much admired by Grant, shows here in the flatness of human characterisation when compared to the vivid and chop-smacking depictions of the narrative’s squamous, trans-human horrors.
This lack of emotional response, if we are dealing with an actual account of Grant’s experiences rather than fantastic fiction, conveys an absence of affect that turns the landscape of the prose, merely hallucinatory before, into a genuinely psychopathic vista, both obsessive and unsettling. But are we dealing, here, with real experience? If so, real in what sense? Is this a standard horror yarn with an authoritative occult gloss? Is this the fleshed-out record of a ritual working, or a glimpse into the marvellous rubbish left by the collapse of an extraordinary mind? Just what in hell, exactly, are we looking at?
Obviously, the simplest course of action would be to conclude that Grant’s work represents no more than funny-coloured bedlam froth, a warning to the rest of us about what happens when you start believing outré things and hang round with Aleister Crowley. This, however, leads us back to our original dilemma: if Grant’s opus can be neatly summed up as merely incoherent ravings, why do most occultists that I know, myself included, have more or less everything that Grant has ever published resting on our shelves? Also, how shall we square a view of Grant as foaming lunatic with the same Kenneth Grant who has contributed so much of worth to the contemporary occult worldview? Without Grant to champion the then-all-but-forgotten works of his friend Austin Osman Spare, the artist would now be remembered as a minor fantasist who sometimes did the odd impressive nude (this was the view advanced in the dismissive, limp obituary notices that Spare’s contemporary critics heaped upon him). Without Grant’s insistence that the works of H P Lovecraft represented valid channels of magical information, much of the furniture and landscape of our modern magic systems, Chaos magic for example, would be utterly unrecognisable. A sasquatch at a vicarage tea-party, Grant is too big to dismiss, too weird to feel entirely comfortable about. What shall we make of Kenneth Grant?
The answer, if indeed there is an answer, might lie part-concealed within Against the Light’s seemingly cryptic subtitle, A Nightside Narrative. Is this a simple flourish, a mere gothic affectation, or could it be an attempt to provide a label that is both more accurate and more explanatory than plain unvarnished ‘fiction’?
Let us pause here to consider the essential nature of Grant’s contributions to the world of Magic. From his advocacy of the works of Spare and Lovecraft to this latest offering, it’s difficult not to perceive a man deeply in love with what Sax Rohmer christened the Romance of Sorcery. This is not to label Grant a fantasist in the pejorative sense: there’s a good case to be made for the position that fiction, romance and fantasy have always been the cornerstone of Magic theory. From the first cave-wall surrealism of Palæolithic shamans, through the visionary poetry of Blake and the vastly important, almost-free-associational synthesis of occult ideas constructed by Eliphas Levi, on to Crowley and Blavatsky, to the Lovecraft/Moorcock tropes of the Chaos magicians, what we see acknowledged is the staggering supernatural power of creative imagination.
Might not the entire of Magic be described as traffic between That Which Is and That Which Is Not; between fact and fiction? If we are to speak of Magic as ‘The Art’, should we not also speak of Art as Magic? Even Crowley tellingly and rather poignantly describes great artists as superior to great magicians. Crowley also points out the connection that exists between a grimoire and a grammar, between casting spells and spelling; goes so far as to admit, at one point, that the greater part of magical activity lies in simply writing about it. Clearly there is a reason why Hermes and Thoth, the Gods of Magic, should be simultaneously the Gods of Writing.
The magician conjures angels or else demons, out of nothingness into manifestation, while the novelist does likewise with her ideas and her characters. Again we have a commerce between the existent and the non-existent, something out of nothingness, the rabbit from an empty hat that is perhaps the very crux of magical endeavour.
The intensely beautiful and elegant schema described by the Qabala, which rests at the fulcrum of Western Occult Tradition, speaks of the ninth, lunar sphere of Yesod as the gate through which all energies from higher stations on the Tree of Life pour down into material form and manifest existence. Yesod, as the sphere of the unconscious mind, is thus the well from which both the magician and the artist draw. Though situated ‘higher’ than the earthly and material sphere of Malkuth on the Qabalistic diagram, Yesod at the same time represents the underworld of our subconscious and oneiric faculties, the eerie and chthonic realm of Hecate upon which Grant and his Typhonian OTO lavish their magical attention. These are the bone-strewn caves that rest beneath the deepest cellars of Jung’s mansion of the human soul, the dark pits where all dreams and magics spawn. All fictions and insanities born in the queer light of a buried moon: this is the Nightside.
We may read this as the metaphor upon which the subtitle of Against the Light depends. The Dayside can perhaps be seen as the consensual outer world of Apollonian thought, empiric reason and the waking mind; the sharp-edged sunlit world of Fact. The Nightside, judged by the same token, then becomes a personal and inner realm of Dionysiac non-sense, fantasy and dream; the shifting moonlit realm of Fiction. In between these two states lies a twilight, intermediary domain: a mauve zone, if you will. This is William Hope Hodgson’s borderland, a troubling grey area in our contract with Reality, the kingdom of the Half-Real, of the swine-things and the shoggoths and the leapers. A blurred spot between the actual and the imaginary. Sometimes things come through. Sometimes, things trade position with their own reflection. Real works of Magic are exposed as fictions. Works of fiction are revealed as Magic. Yelda Paterson winks knowingly at Helen Vaughn and Anna Sprengel. If a witch or sorcerer be of sufficient magnitude and power, the fact that he or she be also fictional should not prove any great impediment.
Viewed in this crepuscular light, the ambiguities that haunt Grant’s book can be resolved. This is not a work of fiction, nor is it authentic Magic documentary. Instead, it is both of those things, shaped by an understanding that the territory of the fantastic is of singular importance to the magus. The subterranean landscape of the Unreal yields a lush, fertile environment, pregnant with possibility, that will sustain both occultist and artist. New life forms erupting from corrosive and impossible conditions, clustering around the boiling mouths of deep sub-oceanic vents or fissures.
It need not be said that this terrain is also highly dangerous: always the risk of being swallowed by one’s own conjured illusions. In Pellucidar, the flora and the fauna can be snappish; unpredictable. Tunnels of Set collapse and leave the rescue party, if there is one, listening for voices from the rubble. Or they’ll find you dangling from the Ninth Arch, twisting slowly in the astral breeze, strangled by shadows. Dreamshot. Yellow Brick Road-kill.
Then again, it might be argued that no true, authentic magic insight is achievable without considerable risk. Kenneth Grant’s books, despite or possibly because of their forays into dementia, have more genuine occult power than works produced by more conventionally coherent authors, and are certainly a more engrossing read. The lack of any safety-rail about Grant’s prose is one of its most captivating features. Purple passages that sometimes shift into the ultra-violet. Trains of speculation in spectacular head-on collision. Thousands dead.
Semantic theory breaks down all communication into two components, noise and signal. Thoth the language god and his pet ape, the gibbering Cynocephalus, the monkey with the typewriter. Order and chaos. Paradoxically, the noise is capable of holding much more information than the signal: a page of Janet and John is more or less entirely signal and contains a minimum of information, while a page of Joyce’s Ulysses is almost wholly noise and therefore holds a massive quantity of coded data. So with Kenneth Grant, the constant flood of ideas that elude the reader’s comprehension and yet are suffused with a greater potential, with a greater potency of meaning than the notions of his more reliable, pedestrian contemporaries. Laudanum as compared with Alcopops.
Value of Grant: as paranormal pit-canary and as point-man, Kenneth Grant has been prepared to roll his sleeves up and plunge elbow deep in the ‘Qlipothic slime’ of his imagination, benefiting those of us who’d rather watch from a safe distance. In amongst the vast amount of tentacled and slithering bug-eyed junk he trawls up in his nets there have been pearls of an impressive size and lustre. It is hard to name another single living individual who has done more to shape contemporary western thinking with regard to Magic. If we should dismiss him and his work, on what grounds should we do so? That he’s dark? That he’s as mad as tits on a piranha? That he’s weird? As if the world of the occult was the last place one should expect to find darkness, insanity or weirdness. Rather, we should recognise Grant as a pioneer, if only by the arrows in his back; a fabulous arcane adventurer of an old school that’s long since disappeared, if indeed it was ever ‘really’ there; more a successor to John Silence, Simon Iff, Carnacki and the gang than a mere Crowley acolyte.
Against the Light is a rip-roaring arcane text, two-fisted occultism. Read as novel or as magic treatise, it will fail to satisfy, having neither the neat structure of fiction nor the compelling credibility of fact. Read as an incredible chimæric hybrid of the two, and thus a striking comment on the strange interrelationship between them, it could conversely be seen as a bold, decadent masterpiece, a communiqué from reason’s furthest reaches, and beyond. It’s to be hoped that the response of the occult book-buying public is sufficient to encourage Starfire Publishing to release any subsequent ‘Nightside Narratives’, granting us further access to Grant’s logbook as he presses on with his safari into nightmare. Magic’s Mr Kurtz seeking his Heart of Darkness. As a bulletin from that internal, fictive dark, Against the Light reminds us that the shadow holds its own form of illumination. Highly recommended for those with an interest in the point where the extremes of magic meet the furthest, most precarious edge of fantasy and fiction. This is Hardcore.