Columns > Published on April 26th, 2012

LURID: Aleister Crowley - Print The Legend!

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

If there’s one individual who straddles the line between lurid fact and fiction, it’s the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.  The foremost Shadow Trickster of the twentieth century, his influence spills across philosophy, law, religion, journalism, international politics and all kinds of creative writing.  His shaven headed, pointy eared, bulgy eyed, lugubrious visage has become a symbol for black magic and devil worship.  If you’ve read much horror fiction, or seen many horror movies, you’re bound to have encountered him in one shadowy form or another.  And, as with any other nebulous figure who keeps popping up in your life, it’s worth trying to figure out where he came from.

Sixty-five years after his death, there are myriad versions of Crowley still extant.  Posthumously, most public figures become the result of consensus, their after-death persona defined by broadly agreeing biographers.  Over time, an individual’s contribution to culture is distilled into a logline, a snappy summary sentence or two, so that he or she can be slotted neatly into their place in history. 

Not so with Crowley.

“Wrote the first homoerotic poetry of the twentieth century."  “Lifelong heroin addict.” “Cambridge Chess Blue.” "Talented mountaineer." “Responsible for the Ripper murders.” “The inspiration for Mein Kampf and Scientology.” “Founded a new religion.” “Introduced yoga into Western thought.” “Magus without peer.” “Conjured up Pan via sex magick.” "The Wickedest Man In The World.” “Appeared on the cover of Sergeant Pepper." “Grandfather of George W. Bush.” “Revered by those worldwide who still practice his rites today.” “Heavy metal anti-hero.”  Any or all or none of the above is true.  His legacy refuses to be confined to a single, convenient slot.

This is due in part to the man himself.  Crowley was a maelstrom of veiled truths, half-lies, deliberate disinformation, shifting perspectives and mea culpa confessions – the ultimate unreliable narrator.  He lived a life of constant invention and redefinition, although he stayed true to his core beliefs. He began life as a wealthy aristocrat, but had run through five inheritances by the time he hit his forties, and became dependent on his followers’ donations.  At the beginning of World War One he was a British patriot, then claimed to be an Irish sympathizer with the German cause, but, before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Versailles, tried to convince British intelligence that he had been pushing pro-Allied propaganda all along.  He was a misogynistic sexual sadist, described as physically repulsive and “slug-like”, but he fell passionately in love with a series of intelligent, fiery ‘Scarlet Women’ – who reciprocated his affections.  He was devoted to the metaphysical creation of a Magic Child, but he neglected his flesh-and-blood daughters.

It probably doesn’t need to be said: people either loved or hated him.  

As well as living a life most extraordinary (any one of his many biographies reads as an elaborate, globe-trotting adventure yarn) and leaving behind volumes of writings magickal, critical, and poetical, he triggered the imaginations of many other writers.  Some knew him personally: his aristocracy, his wealth, his cachet as a mountaineer, and his exotic traveler’s tales gained him entrée into some eminent circles in the years after he left Cambridge. Others are mythmakers writing decades after his death. He’s been woven into a range of fiction with varying degrees of affection and outrage.  Although he’s predominantly a sinister figure, Crowley’s appearances aren’t restricted to the horror genre: his presence in a story does guarantee a certain lurid frisson, nonetheless.

Crowley’s first star turn in a novel came in 1908, as Oliver Haddo in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician.  Maugham’s and Crowley’s paths had crossed earlier that decade, as fellow English expats in Paris, and Maugham used their encounters as the basis for his horror story about a repulsive but magnetic magician who seduces a socialite.  In the introduction to The Magician, Maugham remembers meeting the magician at Le Chat Blanc, an expat hangout on the Rue d’Odessa.

I took an immediate dislike to him, but he interested and amused me.  He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well.  In early youth, I was told, he was extremely handsome, but when I knew him he had put on weight and his hair was thinning.  He had fine eyes and a way, whether natural or acquired I do not know, of so focusing them that, when he looked at you, he seemed to look behind you… He was a fake, but not entirely a fake… He was a liar and unbecomingly boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the things he boasted of.”

Maugham readily admits that he hyperbolized the original, and Haddo’s entrance in The Magician is suitably over the top, posing in the doorway of the café until the assembled diners all turn to look.

He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity.  His paunch was of imposing dimensions.  His face was large and fleshy.  He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez’s portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile.”

Haddo greets one male acquaintance with a chirpy “Hail, brother wizard!” and sets about insulting other diners so that enough of them will vacate the table for him to seat his corpulent bulk.  This is his strategy from the start; wit and superficial charm barely concealing his self-serving villainy and bad temper.  After a disagreement with visiting doctor, Arthur Burdon (who calls him fat to his face), Haddo sets his sights on Arthur’s fiancée, Margaret, in revenge.  There’s never any doubt that pretty, vivacious Margaret would be anything but revolted by Haddo, were he unable to use his dark arts in the seduction.  He puts her under his spell, marries her, and whisks her off to his family estate in Staffordshire, Skene.  Once his thirst for revenge is satisfied, Haddo’s only use for his new bride is as an ingredient in his dastardly occult experiments. Despite her friends’ attempts to rescue her, Margaret is compelled to stay at Skene by her husband’s hypnotic wiles; she goes insane and dies.

Much of The Magician echoes the sad story of Rose Kelly, Crowley’s first wife.  She was the sister of his good friend and traveling companion, the painter Gerald Festus Kelly, who was outraged when Crowley disappeared with her one night. Kelly was the man who introduced Maugham to Crowley. Crowley took Rose to Boleskine, his Scottish country estate, where she bore him two daughters, and was his loyal ‘Scarlet Woman’ in magickal rituals.  Inevitably, it went sour.  Like Margaret, Rose cracked under the strain of being a magician’s wife, and was eventually committed to an asylum suffering from alcoholic dementia. 

Crowley feigned outrage at the publication of The Magician, and penned a Vanity Fair article (under the name ‘Oliver Haddo’, naturally) critiquing the novel and accusing Maugham of plagiarizing from other authors.  Maugham laughed off the controversy, and to a large extent, forgot about the book – years later he would dismiss it as something “I should have been ashamed to see… republished.”  Crowley didn’t forget, however, Maugham recalled:

Once, long afterwards, I received a telegram from him which ran as follows: ‘Please send twenty-five pounds at once.  Mother of God and I starving.  Aleister Crowley.’ I did not do so, and he lived on for many disgraceful years.”

Maugham went on to become the well-known author of novels (including Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, The Moon And Sixpence), stage and screenplays.  By rights, The Magician should have been consigned to his ‘juvenilia’ bin but the Haddo/Crowley connection means that interest in the story has never waned – a rare case of subject transcending execution, and a sign of Crowley’s enduring appeal, even in the form of a caricature.

For a long time, Crowley was notorious only in certain privileged circles – Cambridge alumni, the Belle Époque intelligentsia, members of the Golden Dawn and A∴A∴, fellow mountaineers and esoterica enthusiasts.  Had he existed a couple of centuries earlier, he could have propagated his philosophies behind the protective veil of upper class elitism, like Sir Francis Dashwood or the Marquis de Sade, without attracting too much scrutiny.  Unfortunately, in the age of the steam ship, Crowley’s family fortune wasn’t enough to sustain the expense of a Scottish manse, trips to India and Egypt, mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas, profligate ingestion of narcotics, and the campaign to turn his Book of the Law into a full-blown religion and quell his magickal rivals.  Instead of communing only with hand-picked initiates, safe within the borders of Boleskine, Crowley was forced to ‘go public’ in search of new recruits and funds.

In 1910 he organized a series of public performances of the Rites of Eleusis, a consciousness-raising theatrical, incorporating poetry, music, dance, magickal rituals, and, it was rumored, peyote-tinged refreshments.  Crowley was way ahead of his time, and The Rites have subsequently been recognized as a pioneering work in Symbolist theatre.  That was in the 1960s, however, and two years before the Titanic set sail, the show was not a critical success. 

By exposing his work to a wider audience, Crowley attracted the foaming opprobrium of the British tabloid press, various organs of which latched on to the aristocratic, free-thinking magician as a circulation-boosting figure of hate.  One sporting paper (aimed at the gambling classes), The Looking Glass, accused Crowley and his occult associates of (among very many other things) homosexuality, referring to “rumors of unmentionable immoralities which were carried on under their roof.” One of Crowley’s staunchest supporters, George Cecil Jones, a family man and analytical chemist, was provoked into suing The Looking Glass for defamation, or forever live with the slur.  Like the Wilde vs. Queensberry trial sixteen years previously, the case quickly became a cause célèbre, attracting all kinds of salacious publicity.  Jones lost his case.  Although Crowley appeared to enjoy the attention, many of his followers didn’t like the spotlight being focused on their association with him, and left the A∴A∴ rather than face any more investigation.

From 1911 onwards, Crowley had a target on his back.  At first, he tried to bend the stories about him to his quest for positive public recognition.  When he arrived in New York in 1914 his infamy rode ahead of him, thanks to an article in The World Magazine about the “evil bleating” and “blasphemous utterances” that occurred in a London Crowley-led ritual.  The magazine then profiled Crowley as “a man about whom men quarrel.  Intensely magnetic, he attracts people or repels them with equal violence.  His personality seems to breed rumors.  Everywhere they follow him.” 

This kind of coverage gained him initial introductions to some of the elite intellectual circles whose approbation and patronage he craved.  However, even those who professed to be bohemian or non-conformist found Crowley – no matter how entertaining he was as a party guest – too much to handle, especially when it came to his obsession with sexual magick.  Lawyer and patron of the arts, John Quinn, dismissed Crowley as a charlatan, worse still, boring and “only a third- or fourth-rate poet.”  His censure meant Crowley became a taste that it was not fashionable to acquire.  H.L. Mencken described him as “surrounded by a group of idiots who regarded him as inspired and almost, indeed a god.”  As a result, the Magus spent the war years in poverty, eking out a living writing controversial magazine articles that got him accused of treason back in England – more fuel to the tabloid ire.

Crowley is as much to blame as anyone for the negative press.  He was a man who aspired to talk to gods, not dumb down his message for  mass consumption. It was all too easy (and crowd-pleasing) to depict him as arrogant and insane. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened to Crowley if his aristocratic wealth hadn’t dried up.  He could have stayed out of public view and developed his belief system in secret, potentially bypassing the years of poverty, and vilification by those who saw him in terms of crude headlines rather than revolutionary thought.  In 1920 he did manage to gather the funds together to lease the Villa Santa Barbara in the Sicilian town of Cefalù, and set about establishing a community of disciples, and beginning various magickal Workings that would cement the Book Of The Law at the center of his holy writings.  If Crowley had been able to secure a steady source of funds, then the Abbey of Thelema might have been a long-term success.  Instead, it proved to be his ruin.

The Abbey was Crowley’s downfall on two counts.  Firstly, it was a money-pit, forcing Crowley to return to visibility in Paris and London in search of cash.  He continued to pursue writing as a revenue stream, and spent June of 1922 producing a novel, Drug Fiend, for an advance of £60 from publishers Collins.  This roman à clef was a blend of memoir (Crowley clearly bases the master magician in the story, King Lamus, on himself), promotional literature for Thelema, and a riposte to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920, which made the use of cocaine and morphine illegal.  Crowley was an addict, and habitually used drugs in his rituals with his followers.

On publication, the tabloids had a field day, particularly the Sunday Express which headlined its review “A Book For Burning”.  This was followed by a series of exposés about the sordid happenings at the Abbey: “Orgies in Sicily”, “Preying on the Debased”, “Black Record of Aleister Crowley”.  Crowley might have ridden this scandal out if he had buried himself away in Cefalù but there were more shocking revelations to come.

Guests who stayed at the Abbey were the second source of problems for Crowley.  This was the era of the Bright Young People, the post-war generation who just wanted to party.  Anything that seemed anti-Edwardian, anti-establishment, and represented a break with the social mores that had been blown apart on the battlefields of France seemed appealing.  Crowley’s doctrine of “Do what thou wilt” and “Love is the law”, attracted a Bohemian mix of movie stars, models, novelists, dancers, musicians and raw young Oxbridge graduates with a thirst for esoteric knowledge.  Raoul Loveday was the latter, a handsome 23 year old blond who arrived with his wife, model Betty May, in Cefalù in November 1922, and who would die at the Abbey less than three months later.

The legend says that Loveday died after drinking the blood of a cat killed in a ritual sacrifice by Crowley.  The more prosaic reality is that he drank contaminated spring water while out hiking with his wife, and died of enteritis. Heartbroken, blaming Crowley, Betty returned to London and gave an interview to the Sunday Express.  They decided to print the legend, launching another blistering attack on “the maelstrom of filth and obscenity” at the Abbey.  Other newspapers, on both sides of the Atlantic, followed suit, dubbing Crowley “The King of Depravity” and accusing him of devil worship, an erroneous label that has stuck ever since. John Bull even accused Crowley of cannibalism, a downright libel, but the magician could not afford to sue them.  Once Mussolini’s regime got hold of the story and expelled Crowley from Italy, the Abbey was over, and Crowley’s public persona was set in stone.

Crowley’s adventures continued across Europe and Africa, but in Britain and the USA he became the go-to boogeyman for popular fiction writers – many of whom had never met him in person, but had been enthralled by the newspaper reports.  Bowdlerized depictions of the Magus appear in the works of Anthony Powell, E.M. Butler, Warwick Deeping, H.R. Wakefield and Dion Fortune.  He even crops up in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast

One writer who did have actual encounters with Crowley to draw on was Dennis Wheatley. In The Devil Rides Out, Wheatley ripped the main biographical details of his Satanic magister, Mocata, from the headlines of 1923.  Mocata is described as  “a pot-bellied, bald-headed person of about sixty, with large protuberant fishy eyes, limp hands and a most unattractive lisp.  He reminded me of a large white slug.”  Philosophically, Mocata represents

an age-old evil, tireless and vigilant, cloaked from the masses by modern skepticism yet still a potent force stalking the dark ways of the night, conjured into new life by strange delvers into ancient secrets for their unhallowed ends.”

He leads the good guys on a merry dance across Europe until they corner him trying to create a homunculus (just like Oliver Haddo in The Magician) in an abandoned Greek Abbey. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Christopher Isherwood is a more affectionate in his portrait of the Magus, but is essentially riffing on the same chords in his short story, A Visit To Anselm Oakes. He also highlights the eyes as “bold, bright, dark… the reverse of hypnotic in the usual journalistic sense.”  Anselm/Crowley is a vaguely comic figure, proprietor of a drug den where the narrator goes for his first taste of kif.

Anselm…wore a dirty white terry cloth bathrobe.  On his head was a turban, with a jewel (almost certainly red glass) set in its front.  On his fingers were a number of big rings with entwined serpents and other emblems, zodiacal or cabalistic.  The trousers of a conventional suit were visible below the bathrobe.  On his feet were leather pointed Moroccan slippers.  The whole outfit suggested a sort of emergency compromise between everyday and ritual dress…”

After Anselm greets his visitors with a ponderous intonation (“The Will is the Law, and the Law is the Will”), the narrator is

suddenly tempted to challenge this mumbo jumbo and possibly bewilder him by replying with an authentic quotation from the Tantra; but that would have been spoilsport as well as bad manners.”

It seems Crowley wasn’t quite so fearsome if, like Isherwood, you’d shared an apartment with him in Berlin in the 1930s.

By the time Ian Fleming was dreaming up his first Bond villain, it was natural to look to Crowley for inspiration.  Fleming had been introduced to Crowley by Dennis Wheatley in the 1930s, and had recommended the magician for the job of debriefing Rudolph Hess, when he parachuted into Scotland in 1941.  British Intelligence rejected the suggestion.  Nonetheless Fleming was able to employ Crowley’s unique characteristics in his depiction of Le Chiffre, Bond’s adversary in Casino Royale.  The amply-proportioned SMERSH agent, who toots constantly on a Benzedrine inhaler, is described as desperately hard-up for cash, with “gross physical habits and predilections”, possessing dark brown eyes “with whites showing all round the iris.”  By the time he’s walloping Bond’s privates with a carpet beater it’s become clear the man is a sexual sadist who takes pleasure – signified by his “soft, fat smile” – in torture.  When the time comes, Le Chiffre meets an appropriately occult ending:

…suddenly Le Chiffre had grown another eye, a third eye on a level with the other two, right where the thick nose started to jut out below the forehead.  It was a small black eye, without eyelashes or eyebrows.  For a second the three eyes looked out across the room and then the whole face seemed to slip and go down on one knee.”

Casino Royale wasn’t published until six years after Crowley’s impecunious death, but it provides a fitting epitaph for the man who had always aspired to a career in international espionage.

Post-mortem, Crowley’s persona has been rehabilitated to a certain extent.  Once the broader acceptance of homosexuality, promiscuity, alternative religions, and esoteric thought stripped away the scandal from Crowley’s writing and adventures, people began to see that he was a visionary thinker, not always right, not always nice, but someone who was probing the boundaries of the human psyche in much the same way as his more respectable contemporaries, Freud and Jung.  Today, “Crowley-spotting” throughout popular culture is a rewarding hobby; he can be located in the lyrics of David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden. 

He’s also still functioning as a scapegoat.  He was one of the bête noirs in the trial of the West Memphis Three – Damien Echol’s awareness of who Crowley was became part of the evidence that “proved” the boy was a Satanic child-killer.  And just last year, Mark Beynon’s London’s Curse: Murder, Black Magic and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End theorized that Crowley, not an ancient Egyptian curse, was responsible for the chain of deaths among those involved in opening the Tutankhamun Tomb in 1923 – the very same day that Raoul Loveday died at the Abbey of Thelema.  In a slavering feature about the book, the Daily Mail labels Crowley an “arch-satanist”, trots out the story about the toxic cat’s blood, and prints the same iconic photograph of the magician in his O.T.O. regalia – just as the tabloids did eight decades earlier.  As ever, where Crowley is concerned, it's a case of "print the legend".

What’s your favorite Crowley encounter? The least expected place he’s popped up? And which of the Ripper, Hitler, Tutankhamen and Barbara Bush conspiracy stories do you think is the most plausible?

Image by 75agulhas

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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