Alan Moore on Kenneth Grant

From ‘The Midian Mailer’, 1998

Beyond our Ken — A review by Alan Moore

Against the Light, A Nightside Narrative by Kenneth Grant (Starfire Publishing,
1997)

“This is a terrible defect in your outlook on life; you cannot be content with
the simplicity of reality and fact; you have to go off into a pipe-dream. ” –
Aleister Crowley, writing to Kenneth Grant, February 15th, 1945.

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 O.T.O 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 fog-bank 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 fanish 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 O.T.O.” This memo is one of the building blocks supporting
Grant’s succession to the leadership of what is now called the Typhonian O.T.O,
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 O.T.O 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 an 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 nonfiction. 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, long-standing 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 hot-spot 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 that 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 that 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 Boschlike 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 outre 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 world-view? 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 Palaeolithic 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
Maikuth 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 O.T.O 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 a fiction nor the compelling credibility of fact. Read as an
incredible chimaeric 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 communique 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 Skoob or Starfire 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.

Alan Moore 1998

Categories: Alan Moore | Tags: , | Leave a comment

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

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