Ashé Journal, Vol 8, Issue 2, 244-250, Fall 2009.
Impossible Princess, Kevin Killian
Reviewed by Peter Dubé
Among the many virtues that lend Kevin Killian’s writing its unique dazzle one can’t help but take a special delight in the way in which it offers a correction to our times—an era in which, all-too-often, we don’t look at things closely enough, assume too much, and tell ourselves little fibs about how much we understand. Happily, none of that happens in Killian’s textual world; in his pages, characters don’t so much stumble into experience as embrace it, tear it apart, and ache for more and different kinds of it. His body of work, which includes (and hybridizes) fiction, poetry, the memoir and the essay, is marked by a playful rigor and an openness that takes nothing at face value. It wields an uncanny ability to be penetrating and generous at once. All these are qualities that have made him—deservedly—a cult figure among discerning readers everywhere.
The stories collected in Impossible Princess, his third volume of short fiction, are diverse in tone, richly textured and united by shared themes and concerns. They often play self-consciously with their status as writing or flirt with their intertextual relationships to other narratives. However, their main thrust lies in tracking the trajectories of desire in a world in which it is increasingly virtualized and détourned while being nonetheless omnipresent.
“Zoo Story” announces a number of these themes up front and with considerable wit. In its very first line the piece declares a relationship to classic horror cinema by stating that if the reader has ever seen the film Cat People he or she already knows the first half of the story before sliding into an elegant and unsettling account of sexual obsession with big cats. With a skilful touch Killian manages, in the five short pages of this tale, to pack in more atmosphere and chills than the motion picture he’s referencing.
The story “Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour” anatomizes an obsessional love affair with laser-beam insight. Moreover, it infuses the account with both humanity and humor by having its characters conversationally riff about icons from film, the art world and other cultural arenas (among them Anton LaVey.) The technique takes on particular strength when it uses such references as emotional placeholders in the protagonists’ life and relationship, as in the exchange in which insecurities around body image are shared using the actor Forrest Tucker as a filter for the discussion. Rarely has the intimacy and awkwardness of a new relationship been so delicately portrayed.
A very different relationship forms the subject of “Greensleeves.” It tackles the dynamics of an s/m affair and builds up the emotional and social stakes with teeth-clenching deliberation before reaching its uncomfortable climax. The story’s manipulation of the power play between the characters is artful and one fine scene leverages a protagonist’s branding of the other’s butt on a hot stove ring against an almost equally powerful emotional cruelty to great effect. The moment is both precisely observed and given enough interpretive room to resonate.
And it would be easy to go on enumerating more remarkable instances from the seven other stories in the book. But in every case it is the author’s ability to create a deft tug-of-war between ambiguity and psychological precision, between the use layers of reference and quotation to imply the churning mass of a culture and the limning of a character who is inescapably individual, and his ability to be melancholy, terrifying and hilarious all at once that makes the stories so memorable and so vital. Impossible Princess is filled with such strengths; it provides new delights for Killian’s fans, and an invaluable opportunity for readers who haven’t yet discovered his work to do so.
Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment, Timothy Wyllie and edited by Adam Parfrey
Though now receding into the hazy memory of the twentieth century cultural landscape, The Process Church of the Final Judgment was one of the most fascinating (and notorious) new religious movements to come out of the 1960s. Often characterized as part of the darker side of the hippy era, little inside information has been available. That is, until Feral House’s new publication Love, Sex, Fear, Death. At its height, hundreds of devotees, conspicuous in their black cloaks and swastika-like silver mandalas, swept the streets of London, New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, and Toronto, selling magazines and books with titles like “Fear” and “Humanity is the Devil.”
Celebrities like Marianne Faithful, James Coburn, and Mick Jagger participated in Process publications, and Funkadelic, in its Maggot Brain album, reprinted Process’ “Fear Issue.” Process’ “Death Issue” interviewed the freshly-imprisoned Charles Manson leading conspiracy theorists such as Ed Sanders (The Family) and Maury Terry (The Ultimate Evil) to link The Process Church to the notorious murder sprees conducted in Manson’s name. The Church’s theology and publications influenced modern experimental music groups such as Skinny Puppy and Psychick TV/Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth.
Love, Sex, Fear, Death tells the previously untold secret inside story of The Process Church, which later became into Foundation Faith of the Millennium, and most recently as the Utah-based animal sanctuary, Best Friends now featured in the reality TV show Dogtown.
The book was originally intended to be a collection of Process magazines collected and edited by Adam Parfrey and Genesis P-Orridge. As they began talking with former Process members the monograph project quickly became eclipsed by the fascinating inside story of the Church. The book includes a lengthy text by Timothy Wyllie, one of the earliest members of the Process and, later, Foundation Faith organizations; interviews with other former members; reproductions of Process magazines (many in color); never-before-seen photographs; and fascinating transcripts from holy books and legal actions. In addition to the Process materials, the book also includes a fascinating essay by Genesis P-Orridge and an introduction by Adam Parfrey.
I have long been intrigued by the imagery and mystery of the Process Church—their members’ appearance and their media aesthetic an irresistible contrast to the free-form psychedelia and proto-New Ageyness of the hippy era. This book is nothing less than a quantum leap in the availability of information on the Process Church. Wyllie, Parfrey and the folks at Feral House have produced a significant addition to the textual archive of 20th cult (and occult) history.
A Report from Winter, Wayne Courtois
Set in January 1998, when Maine is recovering from one of the worst ice storms in history. The author returns home to Portland into this unforgiving environment after a ten-year absence. His mother, Jennie, is dying of cancer and has lost the ability to communicate. Needing support, Wayne makes an SOS call to Ralph, his longtime partner. Ralph boards a plane from Kansas City for his first exposure to a Maine winter, and to Wayne’s family as well, including a feisty aunt and an emotionally distant brother.
In this moving memoir, the author’s return home to be with his dying mother provokes a thoughtful reflection on his childhood. His memories contrast his dysfunctional family with the nurturing relationship with his partner Ralph. Mr. Curtois’s writing is well crafted without being overly sentimental as he renders, often difficult, sketches of personal history.
A Report from Winter explores the universal questions of family at a critical nexus of past, present, and... future. As he watches his mother’s life come to a close, Courtois is drawn back to memories of his childhood against a contemporary backdrop of a once familiar city and family. When Ralph arrives from Kansas City, he provides a stabilizing counterpoint to the destabilizing emotions of painful transition and the scars of memories.
The Heretic’s Guide to Thelema, Gerald del Campo
The Heretic’s Guide combines two of del Campo’s earlier books with a previously unpublished third, Ethics of Thelema. In New Aeon Magick: Thelema Without Tears del Campo presents an everypersons’ introduction to the practice and philosophy of Thelema. Originally written as a text that he hoped one day would provide his children an explanation/introduction to their father’s practice, the work was first published in 1994. The book is intended as a first exposure to Thelemic philosophy.
The second book included is New Aeonic English Qabalah Revealed. This work on NAEQ was the real reason I was excited to see this anthology released. I had read the fascinating and (still) cutting edge text when Luxor released the first addition in 2001. The work outlines of a plausible Qabalistic (gematric) system drawn from and illuminating Thelema’s core text Liber AL vel Legis. Del Campo’s work on NAEQ should be in every Thelemite’s library whether one agrees with his conclusions or not. They are that important.
The last piece, newly minted, is the author’s thoughts and reflections on how his own ethics developed out of his practice and understanding of the philosophical groundings of Thelema. As the title implies, del Campo has been a controversial figure, especially following his departure from the “official” OTO. Ethics begins not as an answer to his critics but as a counterpoint presenting an alternative view. Pulling together his diverse ethical writings that originally appeared in the publication of The Order of the Thelemic Knights, the collection presents the author’s thoughts on a diverse range of topics framing an ethics developed out of his personal experience with Thelema.
Initiation in the Aeon of the Child: The Inward Journey, J. Daniel Gunther
J. Daniel Gunther has spent more than thirty years in the A∴A∴ Aleister Crowley’s teaching order. This work is an interesting contrast to del Campo’s reviewed above. Gunther presents a detailed introduction to Thelemic philosophy explicating its esoteric underpinnings. Initiation sits much more squarely in the tradition of occult treatises—all be it one written as an concise introductory text and not inscrutable grimoire. Drawing from Thelemic, Crowleyan and other sources, such as Jung and Masonry, Gunther presents a scholarly and insightful understanding of the Aeon inaugurated by Liber AL vel Legis. This is orthodox Thelema (with the capital T). And if anyone were to question it, the reader may turn to the backcover where a lengthy blurb from Hymaneus Beta (current Frater Superior of the OTO) gives the official stamp of approval on Gunther’s work. I enjoyed both this work and the above reviewed one by del Campo and would not make a judgement call between their approaches or recommend one over the other. The esotericism with which Initiation is framed may turn off some, while being pure gold to others. One thing is certain, Gunther knows his subject. His diverse references, sometimes arcane or technical, elucidate his subject, rather than obscuring it—a common pitfall that others in the field often fall victim to.
Gunther and del Campo’s books are simultaneously aimed at the same audience and dramatically different camps. Perhaps the best recommendation is to read both works and land somewhere in between.
Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, Brad Warner
I have enjoyed Brad Warner work since first reviewing Hardcore Zen for this journal. His latest book is no exception. In Zen Wrapped (book excerpt elsewhere in this issue) Warner continues to present his own thoughtful and personal experience with Zen Buddhism.
While living in Japan in the late nineties, Warner was ordained a Buddhist monk by iconoclastic Zen teacher Gudo Wafu Nsihijima. In 2004, he returned to America and began teaching Buddhism. In this new book, he uses his personal suffering during a year in which his mother and grandmother died, he lost his dream job, and his marriage dissolved, to dismantle the myth of the spiritual master, while demonstrating how the philosophy and practice of Zen provides a rational and realistic way to deal with the challenges and struggles of life.
This work is much more of a personal memoir than Warner’s two earlier titles. He spends much of the work discussing a particularly painful year in his life sprinkled with Zen anecdotes and references. This actually works well in presenting how Zen practice can intermingle and interpret life experience. As with his other books, Warner continues to do this with wit and no small amount of well placed self-deprication.