Taken for Granted? Kenneth Grant's occult fiction appreciated
On the eve of publication of a new novel Gamaliel, by the venerable Kenneth Grant it occurs to me that his other 'fictional' works are often overlooked, due to the immense shadow cast by his 'factual' output; the Typhonian Trilogies describing his magical world and experiences with all sorts of non-human entities, and other books about Austin Spare and Aleister Crowley. Mr Grant, now approaching 80 years old is, if not the last surviving magician to have worked with Crowley (and Spare), then surely the most significant; and his role as editor of many of the early republications of Crowley's work, and his vigorous promotion of Austin Spare served to keep those texts circulating; otherwise Aleister's work could now be a mostly-lost oddity, and Spare just another obscure dead artist.
Like his Trilogies , the fiction is generally published in limited editions; often a thousand copies at best; or in now out-of-print compilations, and yet despite limited availability, a huge number of occultists are aware of, and respect his work. These range from 'full-on' ritual magicians and Thelemites to the kind of fluffy crystal-healing new-agers who you'd think would be about as far removed (and still running) from Mr Grant's darker and slimier adventures as is possible to be. And yet..
It is not necessary to have read any of the Trilogies to appreciate the fiction, but a smattering of Typhonian knowledge would help, as although his fictional style is more accessible than his practical prose, there are still some technical and historical references that might be muddy to a complete outsider. Equally, there are hints at magical techniques herein that can be used by the practitioner who can unravel the method from the prose. However he certainly can write- and vividly, beautifully so in places: the imagery and command of language is supreme, and if nothing else (unlikely) the reader will come away with some new and eye-opening words; such as clinquency and olid (look 'em up). Fans of Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood will be well satisfied, but although these are obvious influences, Grant is in no way a formulaic, robotic copyist, he is considerably above that, and draws on much else besides, including life experience; which is where some of the fiction-fact problem rears a glowing tentacle.
Against the Light: A Nightside Narrative was published in 1996 and compounds the fact-fiction problem, as it is written in the first-person, describing the life of a 'Kenneth Grant' who mentions knowing Crowley and a host of other things which actually happened in real life, and a lot of things which may not have- however the story is so surreal, psychedelic, deliberately disjointed and of bizarrely mixed timelines, multiple selves and hyperspatial jumps of location that perhaps the only way it can be presented is as a novel. Indeed, the astral realms are so odd as to lend themselves ideally to such fantastic writings; anything can happen (and does), and the ending is a blinder. It would also make a cracking piece of experimental film, too. It's a cliché, but pertinent here: try to imagine the multiple perspectives given by a writer like James Joyce on the same event, and then imagine how he would have written if spiked with acid and introduced to ritual magic..
Snakewand and the Darker Strain are two tales in one book, appeared in 2000, and both stories are more Lovecraftian than the previous book, but deal with many of the same themes- there is a major role for African sorcery and Voodoo in all of the tales, and it is initially somewhat disturbing the way Mr Grant describes the native practitioners- some of the words, such as Negro, are now not so Politically Correct, but, unlike some of the accusations levelled at Lovecraft, Mr Grant is not a racist- he makes it obvious that he sees the African races as the root of a great deal of magic, and the appreciation of the technique is clear- his choice of words is perhaps just 'of his time'; the 1920s, when he was born. Not a major issue.
Some of his critics would argue that "ALL Grant's work are fiction" but that is perhaps an extreme view- he is possibly best viewed in some respects as a far, far, far more credible, and British, version of Carlos Castaneda; namely an apprentice who studied with a master (two masters, in this case), and the events described in his books are best viewed as a mixture of 'real', terrestrial events, astral experiences and pure spiritual allegory. It has been said that all books by Kenneth Grant are not so much 'about magic', as 'magical' in, and of themselves: the book jackets are superbly designed, almost talismanic, and the words draw you in, almost to a semi trance state, or a pathworking as you read. There are many worse ways to spend an afternoon than to enter these imaginal realms where you're never quite sure what's around the next blind corner. Or whatever angle that piece of strange geometry ahead actually is...
Coming soon to this site : an extended review of the Typhonian Trilogies and Mr Grant's other factual works.
Getting hold of the books:
In book reviews here, not that this is strictly a review, there is usually a convenient weblink provided for you to buy the things, however Mr Grant's books are often hard to find some time after publication. His publishers, Starfire firstname.lastname@example.org are a first stop for those still in print (they also irregularly produce the excellent magickal journal Starfire ). Failing that it's a matter of crash-testing the goodwill of friends who have the books, or searching the net's second-hand booksellers such as www.abe.com and then being prepared to shell out, often large sums. His half-novel length story, The Stellar Lode appears in the Skoob Esoterica Anthology for 1995, which is also out of print. He has also written occasional articles for journals, such as Man, Myth and Magic, and a couple of volumes of poetry, the latter being much sought-after . His brilliant mid-70s tome Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare is just reprinted, see www.fulgur.co.uk/ for details.
And a plug for my own publishing venture: I'm editor of an academic print journal, issue one of which has articles about Austin Spare, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon, both of which deal with Mr Grant to some extent; and there is a potential piece in Issue 2 (forthcoming, Spring 2004) about his position within the canon of supernatural fiction authors; see www.sasm.co.uk/index.html for how to buy Issue 1 and to sign up for news of when Issue 2 is out.