Thursday, July 17, 2014

The evil Edwardian

One of the bits that most amused me in Diana Holman-Hunt's charming memoir of her Edwardian girlhood, My Grandmothers and I (1960)--about which I've written here and there over the past couple of weeks--was a passing mention by a friend of Holman-Hunt's bohemian grandmother of one of her neighbors. The young Diana relates it in conversation:
"Out of the window we saw a black dog. Mrs Swynnerton said it belonged to her neighbour--she called him Mr Creepy Crawley--she said the dog was possessed by an evil spirit and that this Mr Crawley was a black magician."
Though Holman-Hunt doesn't gloss the passage at all, the conclusion is obvious: Mrs. Swynnerton's neighbor was Aleister Crowley. And of course his more upright neighbors called him "Creepy Crawley"!



Any time I encounter Crowley in a book, I'm reminded of Anthony Powell's account of his mother's sole meeting with him, found in the first volume of his memoirs, Infants of the Spring. It happened when she was on her way to a lunch party on the outskirts of London:
At the station my mother noticed getting into one of the compartments a man whose appearance made her feel a sudden sense of extreme repulsion. At her destination, this man reappeared on the platform. She found herself almost praying that he would not be her fellow-guest at luncheon. Needless to say he was. It was the magician, Aleister Crowley--to use his own preferred style--The Beast 666. Asked what he talked about at lunch, my mother simply replied, "Horrors."
Which leads me to share my own Crowley story--not one of a meeting, of course, nor, to be perfectly honest, much of a story at all. But it amuses me and may do the same for you. My first encounter with Crowley was, of all places, in a Dynamite magazine article about Andy Gibb that I read when I was probably six or seven years old. Gibb, if I recall correctly, told of working a session at a Ouija board when planchette spelled out "ALEISTER CROWLEY." Gibb, not unreasonably within the deliberately unskeptical context, assumed that he was communing with the spirit of the long-dead black magician. I don't remember what Crowley said, or what lesson Gibb drew from it, but that name, and the fact that there had at one time existed a man who identified himself as an evil magician, stayed with me over the twenty or so years between that moment and my first encounter, in books, with the historical Crowley in his full Edwardian context.

Like I said, not much of a story, but I like to think that Powell, a fan of planchette, would have at least appreciated the tenacity of Crowley's spirit as it made its way, with impressive inappropriateness, into the pages of a children's fan magazine.

1 comment:

  1. There's actually another interesting, if tenuous, connection between Powell and Crowley. At one point during the writing of the MUSIC OF TIME sequence, Powell enlisted the help of Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley, the thriller/horror/historical novelist, admitted that he had no style whatsoever, but he could tell a good story, and his skill in plotting was very useful to his friend Powell (who wrote in his journals that DW was 'a relatively intelligent man who wrote more or less conscious drivel' although he also admitted that he was a fan, and used him as the inspiration for Valentine Beals, the writer of steamy historical novels in THE FISHER KING).

    Back in the 1930s, DW had written his most famous book THE DEVIL RIDES OUT. Before beginning, he had done his usual exhaustive research, and been introduced to a number of people involved in the Dark Arts. One of these was Aleister Crowley, who became the inspiration for the villain of the piece, the bald, overweight, slug-like Mocatta.

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