Introducing the Occult
by Colin Wilson and Colin Stanley (editor) / Axis Mundi Books
Colin Stanley, Wilson’s indefatigable bibliographer, has done us all a favour by gathering these wide-ranging and life-changing insights together all in one volume - David Moore, author of 'Evolutionary Metaphors: UFOs, New Existentialism and the Future Paradigm'
The late Colin Wilson wrote a staggering 180 introductions, forewords, prefaces and afterwords to other authors’ books. Soon after his now classic study The Occult appeared in 1971, he was constantly sought out by writers and publishers to endorse their work. He rarely refused. And, as this volume reveals, these were not hurriedly written paragraphs, relying largely on his name as an endorsement, but often significant and substantial essays.
Introducing the Occult brings together 17 of his best published introductions chosen by his bibliographer Colin Stanley. Within these covers you can read Colin Wilson on magic, witchcraft, exorcism, ghosts, poltergeists, the Loch Ness Monster, the afterlife, dowsing and much more.
Colin Wilson was born on June 26, 1931 in the East Midlands city of Leicester. He arrived in London on June 7, 1951, aged just 19. Whilst drifting in and out of several unrewarding jobs he was continually working and reworking the novel that was eventually published as Ritual in the Dark in 1960. He famously slept rough on Hampstead Heath to save money and worked on Ritual in the British Museum’s reading room during the day. On Christmas Day, 1954, however, he hit upon the idea for what became his first and, probably, most famous book The Outsider—a psycho-philosophical study of alienation in modern literature and thought. This was published on May 28th, 1956 to tremendous critical acclaim and indeed has never been out-of-print since. He then moved, with his girlfriend Joy, to Cornwall where he settled down for the next 55 years producing an awe-inspiring body of work: 181 books; 600 essays and articles for a variety of magazines and newspapers; 180 Introductions to other authors’ works; and over 350 book reviews.
Essentially an existentialist philosopher (his classic study Introduction to the New Existentialism, first published in 1966, has just been reprinted by the academic publisher Routledge) he has also written on crime, psychology, sex, the occult. literature, music, unexplained phenomena, history, pre-history, wine and over 20 novels in various genres. He died in December 2013, aged 82.
When Colin Wilson published The Occult in 1971, some fans and scholars of his work were surprised, others horrified. After completing his ‘Outsider Cycle’, creating his New Existentialism, and establishing himself as a serious writer and, indeed, a philosopher of some note, many thought this step into the rather contentious unknown was both mystifying and likely to be a disaster.
When he sought the advice of none other than the poet Robert Graves, asking him whether he should write a book on the subject, he was told very firmly that he should not.
But this was to be his first commissioned work and with a young family to support, a $4000 advance from his publishers was obviously too tempting and so he went ahead.
Up until then Wilson had always anticipated trends in literature and thought rather than being one for jumping onto bandwagons but in this case he was not altogether ahead of the game: the pioneers were Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier whose The Morning of the Magicians had been a bestseller in France for several years. His publishers clearly wanted Wilson to replicate its success in the English speaking world and he did not disappoint them: his monumental study went on to be a bestseller and an inspiration to many who read it. So although he lost some readers by taking this seemingly unexpected and bold move into the occult, he gained many, many more.
Indeed Wilson himself has always considered his ‘serious’ occult books—i.e. ‘The Occult Trilogy’—to be a logical extension of his ‘new existentialism’, providing evidence that man possesses latent powers which, if tapped and harnessed, could lead to hugely expanded consciousness and potentially even an evolutionary leap.
It is clear that those readers who were horrified at Wilson’s ‘desertion’ of the more ‘worthy’ subject of philosophy were, on the whole, mostly hardline sceptics and academics with minds already closed to anything that could not be quantified or measured. Their reaction was predictable.
But what of those who were surprised? Was a book by Wilson on the occult such an unexpected turn of events? In his Introduction to the 2003 Watkins edition of The Occult Wilson says that by the late 1960s, he had accumulated a library of “...five hundred or so volumes on magic and the supernatural” but did not consider the occult to be “...one of my major interests, like philosophy or science, or even music.” Well, surely, anyone who goes to the trouble of buying 500-or-so volumes on a particular subject must have more than a passing interest in it!
And readers of his early fiction, Adrift in Soho, The World of Violence, Man Without a Shadow, The Glass Cage and God of the Labyrinth, will have noticed plenty of interest in matters occult. Indeed, Man Without a Shadow features a larger than life character with a larger than life name: Caradoc Cunningham, based fairly and squarely on the Great Beast himself Aleister Crowley and anticipates the chapter on Crowley in The Occult by several years. Wilson then went on to write a short biography of Crowley. In a later novel, The Glass Cage, published in 1966, Damon Reade, a William Blake scholar, is approached by the police in the hope that he can help them catch the Thames Murderer, who leaves a quote from Blake beside each victim. Reade has a file of correspondence from Blake fans and decides to take a couple of the weirder letters to an old man in his village who has ‘strange powers’.
So although Wilson had tried to play down his interest in the subject, it is quite clear from his fiction, that he found the subject fascinating.
Despite the advice against it, writing The Occult turned out to be very advantageous to Wilson both critically and financially. For it was, by and large, received favourably by the critics. And the book spawned many ephemeral popular illustrated spin-offs and encouraged him to go on to write two more large books on the subject: Mysteries (1978) and Beyond the Occult (1988) which came to be known as his ‘Occult Trilogy’ and are now acknowledged classics in the field of the Occult Sciences. The three books amounted to a monumental 1600 pages
As a result of The Occult achieving bestseller status, he was constantly sought out by authors and publishers to endorse their work. He rarely refused. It is difficult to think of any author who has dedicated more time to the promotion of the work of his friends and colleagues. And these were not hurriedly written paragraphs, relying largely on his name as an endorsement, but often significant and substantial essays. So, with Introducing the Occult, his bibliographer Colin Stanley had the idea of gathering some of these together, for the first time, in one volume. Included in this book are essays he has written, over the years, for friends and acquaintances like Ted Holiday, David Conway, Michael Harrison, Anthony Roberts, Paul Broadhurst and David Foster. Subjects include magic, witchcraft, exorcism, ghosts, poltergeists, the Loch Ness monster, the afterlife, dowsing and much more. In the mid-1980s he was asked by Aquarian Press to suggest and introduce some classic works on the occult. He chose Catherine Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature and Sir William Barrett’s Death Bed Visions. These formed volumes 1 & 2 of the Colin Wilson Library of the Paranormal and his lengthy introductions to both books are reprinted in Introducing the Occult.
Introducing the Occult by Colin Wilson and Colin Stanley is available from Axis Mundi Books and from wherever books are sold.
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