Whenever you see a cartoon of a sorcerer or a wizard, what is his main accessory? A book. Where do the wicked witches of fairy tales find the recipes for their magic potions? In books. How do Harry Potter and his classmates at Hogwarts Academy study spells and incantations? With books. What very old medium is reportedly dying out in our brave new digital age, perhaps taking our longstanding ideals of knowledge, secrecy, and mystery with it? The book.
The printed word underlies the western world’s fascination with specialized or taboo learning known only to an initiated few. While the rise of publishing was integral to the intellectual expansions of the Renaissance, books also facilitated the spread of alchemy, astrology, demonology, and other now discredited arts. From the Latin for “covered” or “hidden,” the Occult was an inevitable byproduct of a literate, print-based culture: the leading figures of the Nineteenth Century Occult revival, among them Eliphas Levi, J.K. Huysmans, and Aleister Crowley, were bibliophiles as much as anything else – men who treasured rare or forbidden volumes and the writings therein. Writers including the great English ghost story author M.R. James (1862-1936) and the celebrated H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) based many of their wonderfully creepy tales around arcane documents and cryptic manuscripts which ultimately revealed some monstrous truth. While the Industrial Revolution gained steam and Darwin, Marx, and Freud were disabusing society of its most cherished illusions, Occultists were stubbornly insisting that rationalism could never provide all the answers; they held on to the ancient wisdom they had discovered in their books.
Decades later, a second Occult revival arose in the 1960s and 70s, and again, books were at the centre of the movement. By then, of course, film, television, and sound recordings were there to augment the Occult’s popularity, and books themselves were mass-marketed products distributed cheaply everywhere. It was through books, however, that old superstitions and speculations regained their currency in the modern era. There were blockbuster novels including Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Tom Tyron’s The Other, Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, and the earliest publications of Stephen King. There were bestselling nonfiction titles like Chariots of the Gods, The Bermuda Triangle, Helter Skelter, The Amityville Horror, The Teachings of Don Juan, Sybil, Jane Roberts’ Seth series, and Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible. There were full-time writers on paranormal topics: D. Scott Rogo, Ivan Sanderson, John Keel, and Martin Ebon. Of course, much of the material was credulous nonsense riding the counterculture’s commercial wave. Some of the books – notably Chariots of the Gods, The Amityville Horror, and Sybil – have been exposed as deliberate or accidental frauds, and Anton LaVey and the Bermuda Triangle have been debunked as well. But there remains something ineffably haunting about the Occult boom, even at its trashiest. Being conveyed through books gave it a substance it would never have today.
Like all book stores, Occult shops have been in decline for years and many have already closed, yet I remember many happy hours browsing in Ottawa’s Sunnyside and Vancouver’s Banyen outlets, the emporiums redolent with the smell of exotic incense, their shelves crowded with works on witchcraft, divination, and alternate religions, on display alongside deluxe sets of Tarot cards, astrological calendars, and I-Ching stones. Still today, a hole-in-the-wall used book store can be a portal into a lost universe, where, stacked away in dimly lit corners, piles of yellowing paperbacks beckon the reader into strange dimensions where psychic phenomena, poltergeists, the Sasquatch, the Mothman, and Atlantis unquestionably exist. The back matter of my 1974 edition of The Exorcist has a mail-in coupon (a mail-in coupon!) headed OTHER WORLDS – OTHER REALITIES, selling $1.25 copies of Power Through Witchcraft, Gods From Outer Space, and Limbo of the Lost. They were all books. It was a great and terrible time to be alive. I wonder if wizards, sorcerers, and the Occult can still hold the same sway over our imaginations today as they did forty or four hundred years ago, when the beliefs they represent are no longer hidden in the shadowy recesses of the printed page, but exposed in the twenty-four-hour glare of the internet. I hope so; I fear not. Sic transit gloria Diabolus.
Hey, Banyen is still there, just so you know. They moved into a bigger space!
Right, I went in to their location in Kits when I visited Vancouver last summer. Cool place to wander around and smell the incense. Thanks for reading.