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Book Review: ‘Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History’ by Richard Smoley

NOTE: This is a longer version of a review that also appears at New York Journal of Books. The book itself was published just today.

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Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, by Richard Smoley. Tarcher/Penguin. Published February 7, 2013. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

There’s a handful of writers working today whose books about esoteric religious, spiritual, and philosophical subjects bridge the divide between the small niche audience devoted to such things in earnest and the wider popular audience that has a casual interest in them and occasionally reads occult conspiracy novels like The Da Vinci Code and spiritual self-help books like The Power of Now. Prominent representatives of this group include Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Patrick Harpur (Daimonic Reality), Victoria Nelson (Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural), Gary Lachman (Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality), and Mitch Horowitz (Occult America).

Richard Smoley also numbers among them, and with the publication of Supernatural, a book that looks to be aimed squarely at the readers inhabiting this middle ground, Mr. Smoley extends his appeal and his considerable expertise in these areas to a wider audience than he has previously reached. Over the past three decades he has built a stellar reputation as an authority on the alternative, esoteric, and occult streams of Western religion and philosophy. Trained in classics and philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, he rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s as a writer for, and eventually the editor of, the now-legendary magazine Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. He then turned to writing books, beginning with 1999’s Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (co-authored with Jay Kinney, publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis) and continuing with additional books on Nostradamus, Gnosticism, and esoteric Christianity, including, perhaps most prominently, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition.

In Supernatural, Mr. Smoley returns to the broad-based, encyclopedia-oriented approach of Hidden Wisdom by surveying a wide variety of trends and traditions in sixteen separate essays, most of them previously published elsewhere (the majority in New Dawn, the long-running, Australia-based magazine about esoterica and the paranormal). But he does so in a more personal and conversational tone that makes the book more accessible to all types of readers than some of his previous work has been. He has always written beautifully smooth and lucid prose, and has always presented complex, profound, and subtle ideas with striking ease, but here he adds to that elegance a casual, informal tone that generates a sense of simply hanging out with the author and listening to him talk extemporaneously from his insights, experiences, and vast store of knowledge. Read the rest of this entry

Book Review: Wiley-Blackwell’s ‘The Encyclopedia of the Gothic’

A couple of months ago I was invited to join the Reviewer Panel at the online New York Journal of Books. NYJB gives their official blessing and permission to reviewers who want to republish their reviews at their own sites, so that’s something you’ll start seeing here at The Teeming Brain in weeks and months to come. Books lined up for review by me include Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History by Richard Smoley, The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper, Age of Catastrophe: Disaster and Humanity in Modern Times by John David Ebert, and the forthcoming new edition of Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck.

My first assignment in this new capacity gave me the distinctly not-unpleasant task of reading and evaluating Wiley-Blackwell’s new encyclopedia of the Gothic genre that was published in January. My review of The Encyclopedia of the Gothic is now live at the NYJB site. For Teeming Brain readers, here’s an expanded version of it.

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The Encyclopedia of the Gothic, edited by William Hughes, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. Wiley-Blackwell. Published January 22, 2013. 1152 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

Increasingly since the 1990s, modern technological societies have been profoundly informed and transformed by a popular culture that is oriented toward the fantastic, often in its darker, Gothic guise. In America, for example, film critic David Denby notes (with extreme disapproval) that fantasy motifs, themes, and storylines are showing up in all kinds of cinematic genres where they were formerly absent or rare, and at such a rapid pace that “In time — a very short time — the fantastic, not the illusion of reality, may become the default mode of cinema.” (See “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?The New Republic, September 14, 2012.) A similar situation exists in the book publishing industry, where apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and horror-oriented themes have seeped through the category boundaries of science fiction and horror to infuse a growing swath of literature at large.

Nor is this fantastic metastasis limited to books and movies. In fact, it’s not even limited to art and entertainment as such. Victoria Nelson — to name just one insightful observer — argues in her books The Secret Life of Puppets and, most recently and pointedly, Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural that the fantastic, especially in the mode of the Gothic (or “Gothick,” as she styles it), forms a kind of American sub-zeitgeist that stands in direct counterpoint to the prevailing secular-materialist culture, and that this has now burst the bounds of entertainment proper and increasingly come to resemble a new kind of sleek, chic, and pointedly supernaturalist spirituality, thus giving us a glimpse of “what a post-Christian religion in America might look like.”

In the midst of such a situation, the publication of Wiley-Blackwell’s The Encyclopedia of the Gothic can only be described as “timely.” Describing itself as “comprehensive and wide-ranging,” and containing more than 200 original essays produced “by leading scholars writing on all aspects of the Gothic,” this two-volume reference work is intended to “provide comprehensive coverage of relevant authors, national traditions, critical developments, and notable texts that continue to define, shape, and inform the genre. . . . From American Gothic and angels to Wilde and witchcraft, The Encyclopedia of the Gothic is the definitive reference guide to all aspects of this strange and wondrous genre.” Read the rest of this entry